Religion, ecology and our planetary future

Women hold children while sifting through plastic bottles at a recycling factory in Mohammadpur, Bangladesh, Oct. 26. (CNS photo/Abir Abdullah, EPA)

Women hold children while sifting through plastic bottles at a recycling factory in Mohammadpur, Bangladesh, Oct. 26. (CNS photo/Abir Abdullah, EPA)

Cambridge, Mass.—An interesting and important conference took place on Oct. 14-16 at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard, of which I am the director: "Religion, Ecology, and Our Planetary Future." The conference commemorated a series of important and ground-breaking conferences at Harvard from 1996-98, led by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, now at the School of Forestry at Yale University, and planners with me of this conference. It raised important questions about developments in the study of religions, and in environmental studies, and indeed in our ecological crisis, over the decades and as we look to the future. The two days brought together about 40 scholars from across the United States and internationally, with many additional experts in the audience of more than 100 at each session. You can find more information on the conference and its program, along with my report on it at our center website along with the opening remarks offered by Tucker and Grim.

Although the conference was not cast as a dialogue meeting and did not function as such, its agenda—pertaining to the whole of the earth and its diverse people—was, of course, attentive to multiple perspectives. The speakers, informed by their own scholarly work, frequently drew on the wisdom of multiple traditions and, though predominantly North American and Caucasian, belonged to multiple global and indigenous religious traditions. Action and concern for practical applications were at the fore, and thus, too, a concern for collaborative action. A deeper knowledge of traditions, which requires stopping and listening to them with patience and care, was not a primary feature of the conference.

The group was of course socially progressive. Great attention was paid to the damage of colonialism and unbridled domination of other cultures by Western Christians, with a recognition that colonial domination, forced rule and plunder hurt deeply the environment and economies of conquered nations, and also their religions and cultures. To heal the earth and do justice to nature requires justice toward and respect for those traditions and their living representatives, and thus also to back away from explicit efforts to convert the peoples of the world to Christianity.

In another context, such questions might be debated at length. But this was not a doctrinally attuned conference. It is helpful, rather, to reflect on the weekend as an instance of a certain kind of interreligious dialogue—one primarily of action and common concern. The 1991 Vatican document, "Dialogue and Proclamation" (itself drawing on a 1984 document) highlights four kinds of dialogue that are best distinguished, if we are not expect too much, or confuse kinds of dialogue: “a) The dialogue of life, where people strive to live in an open and neighbourly spirit, sharing their joys and sorrows, their human problems and preoccupations. b) The dialogue of action, in which Christians and others collaborate for the integral development and liberation of people. c) The dialogue of theological exchange, where specialists seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritages, and to appreciate each other's spiritual values. d) The dialogue of religious experience, where persons, rooted in their own religious traditions, share their spiritual riches, for instance with regard to prayer and contemplation, faith and ways of searching for God or the Absolute.”In turn, the Jesuit 34th General Congregation quoted Dialogue and Proclamation in “Mission and Interreligious Dialogue,” in order to assert that while dialogue is now part of the Jesuit ministry and mission worldwide, it is not just one activity undertaken in one way. "Religion, Ecology, and Our Planetary Future" was akin to a dialogue of action, and appropriately so, given that the light of the earth affects all of us. No religious community can exempt itself from responsibility for the earth, or imagine itself immune to the increasingly dangerous results of climate change. That we are human, alive, on earth, is what matters.

It struck me also how much very hard work and perseverance is required to try to change how we live and work and care for the earth and all who live on it. People need energy for the long run, even over generations. Participants were thus at every turn also gesturing toward a spirituality able to sustain the work of ecology; and for this, while some talked of spiritual resources deep in traditions, still others called for a return to intimacy with the natural world, including a rethinking of the human relationship to animals and to vegetable life. Insofar as we humans cut ourselves off from other animals and simpler forms of life, we set up the situation of a harmful “humanism” which permits us to plunder the earth, blessed by our own sense of privilege.

Hence it was not surprising that our conversations on were relatively light regarding the scripture and theology of various religions and the faith claims involved. A few speakers mentioned how faith motivates their work, and I sure that many others are deeply motivated by their faith. Some suggested that doctrines and dogmas and hierarchies had to be put aside, for the sake of spiritual cooperation undivided by religions. But here, even activists must be careful. Given that religious energies are obviously crucial to the environmental movement, and that religious communities are hardly likely to surrender their basic commitments for the sake of cooperation, it remains important that this kind of dialogue of and in action, energized by a kind of dialogue of religious experience, not be taken to rule out the dialogue of theological exchange. We are still in the early stages of true interreligious learning, and do well not to neglect the wealth of wisdom in our own tradition, or in the traditions around us.

As Pope Francis puts it in "Laudato Si'", dialogue reaching out in all directions is necessary, bringing scientists and activists and believers together in this common work:

Given the complexity of the ecological crisis and its multiple causes, we need to realize that the solutions will not emerge from just one way of interpreting and transforming reality. Respect must also be shown for the various cultural riches of different peoples, their art and poetry, their interior life and spirituality. If we are truly concerned to develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage we have done, no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out, and that includes religion and the language particular to it. The Catholic Church is open to dialogue with philosophical thought; this has enabled her to produce various syntheses between faith and reason. The development of the Church’s social teaching represents such a synthesis with regard to social issues; this teaching is called to be enriched by taking up new challenges.

The Christian community—and, of course, every other community—has much to add to the conversation, from its deep religious roots:

Furthermore, although this Encyclical welcomes dialogue with everyone so that together we can seek paths of liberation, I would like from the outset to show how faith convictions can offer Christians, and some other believers as well, ample motivation to care for nature and for the most vulnerable of their brothers and sisters. If the simple fact of being human moves people to care for the environment of which they are a part, Christians in their turn “realize that their responsibility within creation, and their duty towards nature and the Creator, are an essential part of their faith.” It is good for humanity and the world at large when we believers better recognize the ecological commitments which stem from our convictions. (nn. 63-64)

The videos of this conference will be available at our center website after a few weeks. Otherwise, we have no plan yet for a follow-up to "Religion, Ecology, and Our Planetary Future," though Tucker and Grim and their colleagues will surely continue their tireless efforts in every possible venue. Universities like Harvard and Yale and our many Catholic institutions are quite active already, but much more needs to be done, ranging from responsible investments, recycling and reduction of waste on campus and the cultivation of still more inclusive conversations that bring scientists and theologians, activists and theorists, all to the table—and then into the field of shared work in protecting and cherishing our planet earth.