The Green Column #8

Can ‘Sustainability’ and ‘Faith’ Be Compatible?

August 04, 2009— Religious beliefs impact ecological thinking. All world religions are in the midst of debate over issues like climate change and the basic question of what God expects of humankind.

In 2007 UNESCO sponsored an international workshop among leaders of global faith-based organizations to explore multi-denominational strategies for education for sustainability. The faith-based traditions of Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Gandhian, Hindu, Jewish, Indigenous and Islamic were represented.

Opening remarks asked for recognition that “our time is ‘a new axial period’, calling for pluralism and planetary awareness. Our human and ecological predicament requires the cross-fertilization of all religious traditions. The humility to open up to the experience of other cultures and religions, to become intercultural and interreligious, is necessary for a viable human life on a sustainable planet.”

One participant more succinctly commented that “our calling today is like ‘learning to dance in an earthquake.’ This quaking will transform everything, including religions: We know what religious traditions were like three hundred years ago, but we don’t know how they will be after learning to dance in an earthquake.”

In a recent U.S. dissertation on ecotheology, Catherine Harmer proclaims that “Christianity has been, and is still often, accused of being a major contributory factor of the global ecological crisis. Although it generally advocates caring for creation, Christianity has frequently been rebuked for not always practicing what it preaches. In addition to Christianity’s supposed lack of positive action, some Christian doctrines are also perceived to be detrimental influences on humanity’s treatment of the planet.”

Harmer, however, believes that Christianity is not intrinsically averse to ecological issues and that positive actions are being taken within the Church to improve ecological circumstances.

The real question, Harmer quotes British environmentalist Jonathon Porritt as saying, is “not so much whether or not Christ would vote Green, but whether or not the Church would have him declared a heretic for so doing!”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the growing religious drive toward sustainability is divided along similar lines as general scientific thought on climate change issues, and often hinges on Third World poverty concerns.

A 2007 Wall Street Journal article titled, “Environmentalism Splits Evangelical Community,” observes: “The National Association of Evangelicals’ vice president for governmental affairs, Richard Cizik, has been a prominent supporter for ‘creation care.’ Nervous about associating themselves with scientists or big-government environmentalists, they broadly argue that Christians have a duty to nurture God’s creation, and to fight global warming due to the harm it would cause the poor. The green evangelicals, on the other hand, have come under attack from their peers for bad theology, bad science and distracting people from more pressing campaigns.”

The rift, emblematic of America’s national debate, manifests itself in two camps: The Interfaith Stewardship Alliance (ISE) and the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI). The ISE is an evangelical organization that questions the scientific consensus on global warming. In opposition, the ECI would compel us to recognize that human-induced climate change is a serious Christian issue requiring action now.

Over the past year I and a number of colleagues have been conducting Nebraska Sustainability Leadership Workshops (NSLW) across Nebraska. To date we have conducted 15 workshops, hosting community leaders from more than 40 communities. We have a clear sense that the national debate on sustainability is alive and dynamic in Nebraska.

While many Nebraskans are concerned that life as we have known it is changing, a smaller number believe that human actions are the primary cause of global environmental distress. There is, however, near consensus from the participants that environmental and ecological conditions on earth are changing, and that all life on the planet will be impacted. We believe, and they agree, that education, resilience, reaction, conservation, planning and leadership will be required from this generation forward if life, in its highest possible qualities, is our faith-based goal and destiny.

The NSLW sessions have verified that every community throughout the state must find and nurture its own distinctive form and frames of education for assuring sustainability for its community and its region. The format for this new search is a definition of sustainability indicators in five elements of our context of living on earth: environmental, socio-cultural, technologies, economic, and public policies.

The UNESCO conference identified a broader, spiritually based framework for the ecotheology approach to sustainability:

  1. Planetary awareness.
  2. Caring for future generations.
  3. Nurturing bioregional cultures and local knowledge.
  4. Expanding our ethical horizon.
  5. Celebrating life.

In appealing to the world’s religions, the interdenominational gathering framed the following: “We must make room. Embracing the pluralism that our age calls for implies that sustainability and environmental ethics must be place-based rather than universal: they should have diverse expressions according to the environmental context and the local culture, while keeping a strong sense of planetary awareness and kinship with other communities and other forms of life. We need formulations of ecojustice congenial to (and emerging from) every culture and religion.”

Lincoln has recently officially embraced sustainability goals for its Comprehensive Plan. Can we become such a place for sustainability and environmental ethics?

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