World Religions and Ecology
Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim
The environmental crisis is one that is well documented in its various interlocking manifestations of industrial pollution, resource depletion, and population explosion. The urgency of the problems are manifold, namely, the essential ingredients for human survival, especially water supplies and agricultural land, are being threatened across the planet by population and consumption pressures. With the collapse of fishing industries and with increasing soil erosion and farm land loss, serious questions are being raised about the ability of the human community to feed its own offspring. Moreover, the widespread destruction of species and the unrelenting loss of habitat continue to accelerate. Climate change threatens to undermine efforts to reverse these trends and to move toward a sustainable future for humans and nature.
Clearly religions need to be involved with the development of a more comprehensive worldview and ethics to ground movements toward sustainability. Whether from an anthropocentric or a biocentric perspective, more adequate environmental values need to be formulated and linked to areas of public policy. Scholars of religion as well as religious leaders, and laity can be key players in this articulation process. Moreover, there are calls from other concerned parties to participate in a broader alliance to halt the loss of species, topsoil, and natural resources as well as to mitigate the effects of climate change. This alliance of scholars, religious leaders, and activists is creating common ground for dialogue and creative partnership in envisioning and implementing long range, sustainable solutions to some of our most pressing environmental problems. This is critical because the attitudes and values that shape people’s concepts of nature come primarily from religious worldviews and ethical practices. The moral imperative and value systems of religions are indispensable in mobilizing the sensibilities of people toward preserving the environment for future generations.
One of the greatest challenges to contemporary religions, then, is how to respond to the environmental crisis which some believe has been perpetuated by the enormous inroads of materialism and secularization in contemporary societies, especially those societies arising in or influenced by the modern West. Others such as the medieval historian Lynn White have suggested that the emphasis in Judaism and Christianity on the transcendence of God above nature and the dominion of humans over nature has led to a devaluing of the natural world and a subsequent destruction of its resources for utilitarian ends. While the particulars of this argument have been vehemently debated, it is increasingly clear that the environmental crisis presents a serious challenge to the world’s religions. This is especially true because many of these religions have traditionally been concerned with the paths of personal salvation that frequently emphasize other worldly goals and reject this world as corrupting.
How to adapt religious teachings to this task of revaluing nature so as to prevent its destruction marks a significant new phase in religious thought. Indeed, as the historian of religions, Thomas Berry, has so aptly pointed out, what is necessary is a comprehensive reevaluation of human-Earth relations if the human is to continue as a viable species on an increasingly degraded planet. In addition to major economic and political changes, this will require adopting worldviews that differ from those which have captured the imagination of contemporary industrialized societies that view nature as a commodity to be exploited. How to utilize the insights of the world’s religions is a task of formidable urgency. Indeed, the formulation of a new ecological theology and environmental ethics is already emerging from within several of the world’s religions. Clearly each of the world’s religious traditions has something to contribute to these discussions.
Broader Ethical Context for Sustainability
The focus of ethics in the world’s religions has been largely human centered. Humane treatment of humans is often seen not only as an end in itself but also as a means to eternal reward. While some have critiqued this anthropocentric perspective of world religions as rather narrow in light of environmental degradation and the loss of species, it is nonetheless important to recall that this perspective has also helped to promote major movements for social justice and human rights.
While social justice is an ongoing and unfinished effort of engagement, the challenge for the religions is also to enlarge their ethical concerns to include the more than human world. Social justice and environmental integrity are now being seen as part of a continuum. For some decades environmental philosophers have been developing the field of environmental ethics that can now provide enormous resources for the world’s religions in considering how to expand their ethical focus. Emerging biocentric, zoocentric, and ecocentric ethics are attentive to life forms, animal species, and ecosystems within a planetary context. A new “systems ethics” of part and whole, local and global, will assist the religions in articulating a more comprehensive form of environmental ethics from within their traditions. This is a major part of the development of religions into a dialogue with the sustainability movement. Humans are seeking an ethics to respond not only to suicide and homicide but also biocide and ecocide.
Thus religions are gradually moving from exclusively anthropocentric ethics to ecocentric ethics and even to anthropocosmic ethics. The latter is a term used by Tu Weiming to describe the vibrant interaction of Heaven, Earth, and humans in a Confucian worldview.1 In this context, humans complete the natural and cosmic world and become participants in the dynamic transformative life processes. This idea can extend ethics to apply to the land-species-human-planet-universe continuum. This is a fruitful yet still emerging path toward a comprehensive ethics for sustainability. This path has various challenges, including within the religions themselves.
Problems and Promise
It must be recognized that the world’s religions, through intolerance and exclusive claims to truth, have often contributed to tensions between peoples, including wars or forced conversion. It is also the case that religions have often been at the forefront of reforms, such as in the labor movement, in immigration law, in justice for the poor and oppressed. The movements of non-violence for freedom in India and for integration in the United States were inspired by religious principles and lead by religious leaders.
In addition, the emerging dialogue on religion and ecology also acknowledges that in seeking long-term environmental sustainability, there is clearly a disjunction between contemporary problems regarding the environment and traditional religions as resources. The religious traditions are not equipped to supply specific guidance in dealing with complex issues such as climate change, desertification, or deforestation. At the same time one recognizes that certain orientations and values from the world’s religions may not only be useful but even indispensable for a more comprehensive cosmological orientation and environmental ethics.
The disjunction of traditional religious resources and modern environmental problems in their varied cultural contexts needs to be highlighted so that new conjunctions can be identified. Scholars of religion and ecology acknowledge that religious scriptures and commentaries were written in an earlier age with a different audience in mind. Similarly, many of the myths and rituals of the world’s religions were developed in earlier historical contexts, frequently agricultural, while the art and symbols were created within worldviews very different from our own. Likewise, the ethics and morality of the world’s religions respond primarily to anthropocentric perspectives regarding the importance of human-human relations, and the soteriology and spirituality are formulated in relation to theological perspectives of enhancing divine-human relations.
Despite these historical and cultural contingencies, there are particular religious attitudes and practices as well as common ethical values that can be identified for broadening and deepening environmental perspectives. Thus we affirm the actual and potential contribution of religious ideas for informing and inspiring ecological theology, environmental ethics, and grassroots activism. Religions are now reclaiming and reconstructing these powerful religious attitudes, practices, and values toward re-conceiving mutually enhancing human-Earth relations. Careful methodological reflection is needed in considering how to bring forward in coherent and convincing ways the resources of religious traditions in response to particular aspects of our current environmental crisis. It entails a self-reflexive yet creative approach to retrieving and reclaiming texts and traditions, reevaluating and re-examining what will be most efficacious, and thus restoring and reconstructing religious traditions in a creative postmodern world. All of this involves a major effort to evoke the power and potential of religious traditions to function even more effectively as sources of spiritual inspiration, moral transformation, and sustainable communities in the midst of the environmental challenges faced by the Earth community.
That is because world religions are being recognized in their great variety as more than simply a belief in a transcendent deity or a means to an afterlife. Rather, religions are seen as providing a broad orientation to the cosmos and human roles in it. Attitudes toward nature thus have been significantly, although not exclusively, shaped by religious views for millennia in cultures around the globe.
In this context, then, religions can be understood in their largest sense as a means whereby humans, recognizing the limitations of phenomenal reality, undertake specific practices to effect self-transformation and community cohesion within a cosmological context. Religions thus refer to those cosmological stories, symbol systems, ritual practices, ethical norms, historical processes, and institutional structures that transmit a view of the human as embedded in a world of meaning and responsibility, transformation and celebration. Religions connect humans with a divine presence or numinous force. They bond human communities and they assist in forging intimate relations with the broader Earth community. In summary, religions link humans to the larger matrix of indeterminacy and mystery from which life arises, unfolds, and flourishes.
Certain distinctions need to be made here between the particularized expressions of religion identified with institutional or denominational forms of religion and those broader worldviews that animate such expressions. By worldviews we mean those ways of knowing, embedded in symbols and stories, which find lived expressions, consciously and unconsciously in the life of particular cultures. In this sense, worldviews arise from and are formed by human interactions with natural systems or ecologies. Consequently, one of the principal concerns of religions in many communities is to describe in story form the emergence of the local geography as a realm of the sacred. Worldview generates rituals and ethics, ways of acting, which guide human behavior in personal, communal, and ecological exchanges. The exploration of worldviews as they are both constructed and lived by religious communities is critical because it is here that we discover formative attitudes regarding nature, habitat, and our place in the world. In the contemporary period to resituate human-Earth relations in a more balanced mode will require both a reevaluation of sustainable worldviews and a formulation of viable environmental ethics.
A culture's worldviews are contained in religious cosmologies and expressed through rituals and symbols. Religious cosmologies describe the experience of origination and change in relation to the natural world. Religious rituals and symbols arise out of cosmologies and are grounded in the dynamics of nature. They provide rich resources for encouraging spiritual and ethical transformation in human life. This is true for example in Buddhism, which sees change in nature and the cosmos as a potential source of suffering for the human. Confucianism and Daoism, on the other hand, affirm nature's changes as the source of the Dao. In addition, the death-rebirth cycle of nature serves as an inspiring mirror for human life, especially in the Western monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All religions translate natural cycles into rich tapestries of interpretive meanings that encourage humans to move beyond tragedy, suffering, and despair. Human struggles expressed in religious symbolism find their way into a culture's art, music, and literature. By linking human life and patterns of nature, religions have provided a meaningful orientation to life's continuity as well as to human diminishment and death. In addition, religions have helped to celebrate the gifts of nature such as air, water, and food that sustain life.
In short, religions have been significant catalysts for humans in coping with change and transcending suffering while at the same time grounding humans in nature's rhythms and Earth's abundance. The creative tensions between humans seeking to transcend this world and yearning to be embedded in this world are part of the dynamics of world religions. Christianity, for example, holds the promise of salvation in the next life as well as celebration of the incarnation of Christ as a human in the world. Similarly, Hinduism holds up a goal of moksha, of liberation from the world of samsara while also highlighting the ideal of Krishna acting in the world.
This realization of creative tensions leads to a more balanced understanding of the possibilities and limitations of religions regarding environmental concerns. Many religions retain other worldly orientations toward personal salvation outside this world; at the same time they can and have fostered commitments to social justice, peace and ecological integrity in the world. A key component that has been missing in much environmental discourse is how to identify and tap into the cosmologies, symbols, rituals, and ethics that inspire changes of attitudes and actions for creating a sustainable future within this world. Historically, religions have contributed to social change in areas such as the abolitionist and civil rights movements. There are new alliances emerging now that are joining social justice with environmental justice.
In alignment with these "ecojustice" concerns, religions can encourage values and ethics of reverence, respect, restraint, redistribution, responsibility, and renewal for formulating a broader environmental ethics that includes humans, ecosystems, and other species. With the help of religions humans are now advocating for a reverence for the Earth and its long evolutionary unfolding, respect for the myriad species who share the planet with us, restraint in the use of natural resources on which all life depends, equitable distribution of wealth, recognition of responsibility of humans for the continuity of life into future generations, and renewal of the energies for the great work of building a sustainable Earth community. These are the virtues for sustainability, which the world’s religions can contribute.
The Call and the Response
It is, thus, with some encouragement that we note the growing call for the world’s religions to participate in these changes toward a more sustainable planetary future. There have been various appeals from environmental groups and from scientists and parliamentarians for religious leaders to respond to the environmental crisis. In addition, there has been a striking growth in monographs and journal articles in the area of religion and ecology. Several national and international meetings have also been held on this subject. For example, environmental groups such as World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have sponsored interreligious meetings, such as the one in Assisi in 1986. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in North America has established an annual Environmental Sabbath and distributes thousands of packets of materials for uses in congregations throughout the United States and Canada. The Parliament of World Religions, held in Chicago in 1993 and attended by some 8,000 people from all over the globe, issued a Global Ethics of Cooperation of Religions on Human and Environmental Issues statement. The subsequent Parliaments held in Capetown and Barcelona had the environment as a major theme. The Parliament planned for December 2009 in Melbourne also has a major focus on the role of religions in contributing to a sustainable future.
International meetings on the environment such as the Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders have been held in Oxford (1988), Moscow (1990), Rio (1992), and Kyoto (1993). These included religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama as well as diplomats and heads of state such as Mikhail Gorbachev, who hosted the Moscow conference and attended the Kyoto conference to set up an International Green Cross for environmental emergencies. Moreover, the Tehran Seminar on Environment, Culture, and Religion was held in Iran in June 2001 and one on “Environment, Peace and the Dialogue of Civilizations and Cultures” was organized in May 2005. Both of these were sponsored by the Iranian government with the support of the United Nations Environment Programme. Gorbachev has held several Earth Dialogues on “Globalization: Is Ethics the Missing Link?” held in Lyon, France in 2002, in Barcelona, Spain in 2004, and in Brisbane, Australia in 2006. The International Union for the Conservation organized the first panel on “Spirituality and Conservation” at the World Conservation Congress in Barcelona in 2009.
Since 1995 the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has convened symposia on “Religion, Science, and the Environment” focused on water issues in Europe, the Amazon, and the Arctic. Similarly, the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) based in England has been convening conferences and activating religious communities. In the United States, the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRP) has organized the Jewish and Christian communities on this issue. The time is thus propitious for encouraging the contributions of particular religions to solving the ecological crisis, especially by developing a more comprehensive environmental ethics to ground movements focused on sustainability.
Conclusion: The Need for Interdisciplinary Dialogue
Clearly religions have a central role in the formulation of worldviews that orient us to the natural world and the articulation of ethics that guide human behavior. The size and complexity of the problems we face require collaborative efforts both among the religions and in dialogue with other key domains of human endeavor. Religions, thus, need to be in conversation with sectors—science, economics, education, and public policy—that have addressed environmental issues. Environmental changes will be motivated by these disciplines in very specific ways: namely, economic incentives will be central to adequate distribution of resources, scientific analysis will be critical to understanding nature’s economy, educational awareness will be indispensable to creating modes of sustainable life, public policy recommendations will be invaluable in shaping national and international priorities, and moral and spiritual values will be crucial for the transformations required for life in an ecological age.
Thomas Berry has observed that assisting humans by degrading the natural world cannot lead to a sustainable community. The only sustainable community is one that fits the human economy into the ever-renewing economy of the planet. The human system, in its every aspect, is a subsystem of the Earth system, whether we are speaking of economics or physical well being or rules of law. In essence, human flourishing and planetary prosperity are intimately linked.