Tikkun Magazine, January/February 2005
The Emerging Alliance of Religion and Ecology
By Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim
The strong and vocal presence of the religious Right, with its emphasis on family values and sexual politics, and the virtual absence of any discussion of the environment in the recent U.S. elections, causes one to wonder how much importance religions place on the environment as a moral and spiritual issue. The reports keep pouring in that we are altering the climate and toxifying the air, water, and soil so that the health of humans and other species is at risk. The explosion of population in the twentieth century from 2 to 6 billion people and the subsequent devouring of resources are on a collision course. Furthermore, scientists are documenting that we are living in the midst of a sixth extinction period, with over 10,000 species lost each year, more than any time since the dinosaurs went extinct. Have the religious communities within the United States become so absorbed in their own survival and in the internecine wars surrounding family values that they are unaware of the magnitude of this destruction?
Those who are both religious and environmentally conscious might begin to wonder whether humans are indeed a viable, sustainable species. As the Greek Orthodox theologian John of Pergamon has written, this is not simply about creating a stewardship ethic where we are "managing" the Earth. Rather, this crisis challenges us to reformulate the way we understand our very nature as humans. Also, if we are willing to stand by and merely witness the withering of the Earth, haven't our religious sensibilities become deadened or at best severely attenuated?
This raises several questions: Why have religions been so late in responding to environmental issues? What are the obstacles to their full participation? Has concern for personal salvation or redemption out of this world become an obstacle to caring for Creation? Why has apocalyptic thinking come to interpret ecological collapse as a manifestation of the end time?
We need not deny the limits or the dark side of religion, but religions, as ancient shapers of culture, can make invaluable contributions to rethinking our current impasse. Religions have developed ethics for homicide, suicide, and genocide; now their challenge is to encompass biocide and ecocide. Moreover, the environment could be one of the most compelling concerns for robust inter-religious dialogue. The common ground is the Earth itself, along with a shared belief in the sacredness of life. We have an enormous opportunity to cooperate and embrace life-giving not life-destroying human-Earth relations.
Scientists and policymakers are also recognizing the importance of religious and cultural values when discussing the environment. The series of articles that follow in future issues will document some of the significant thinking and embodied action that marks a transition of religions into their ecological phase, taking place in North America and around the world. The monotheistic traditions of the West are finding their voices regarding the environment. They are joined by Hinduism and Jainism of South Asia. Confucianism and Daoism of East Asia, and Buddhism in both Asia and the West. Indigenous traditions of Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas are likewise contributing their ancient wisdoms to the emerging discussions. All of these traditions are moving forward to find the language, symbols, and rituals for encouraging protection of bioregions and species. Religions are generating the energy needed for restoring the Earth through practices such as tree planting, coral reef preservation, and river clean up. In addition, they are beginning to bridge the gap between those concerned with social and economic justice and those working for a sustainable environment. Future articles will include reflections on Buddhism, Hinduism, Daoism, Indigenous Traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam from authors involved in the Harvardbased Forum on Religion and Ecology. (For further reading see Tucker's Worldly Wonder: Religions Enter Their Ecological Phase (Open court, 2003) and Tucker and Grim, Worldviews and Ecology (Orbis, 2001), and www.environment.harvard.edu/religion.)
Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, professors of religion at Bucknell University, are the coordinators of the Forum on Religion and Ecology based at Harvard. The Forum has organized conferences, published books, created an international web site, and identified over 100 religiously inspired grassroots environmental projects around the world.
Grim, John, and Mary Evelyn Tucker. 2005. The emerging alliance of religion and ecology. Tikkun 20(1):26.