An Environmental Agenda for the World’s Faith

The New York Times

Religion Journal


Saturday, October 24, 1998; Page C09

The American Museum of Natural History might seem an unlikely place for a conference dealing with religious traditions. But the intersection of faith and science was the focus of a gathering there last Wednesday called ”Religion and Ecology: Discovering the Common Ground.” When Mary Evelyn Tucker, one of the event’s prime movers, took the podium, she set forth a couple of direct questions to link the two.

Speaking of the ethical traditions of the world’s major religions, Ms. Tucker, an associate professor of religion at Bucknell University, asked, ”Can the power of their texts, symbols, rituals and teachings be brought to bear on the global environmental crisis? Could this viewpoint expand our vision so that we might finally begin to reverse the destruction of our planet?”

For the past two years, Ms. Tucker and her husband, John Grim, who also teaches in Bucknell’s religion department, have been focusing on these questions. They have been aided by a growing body of scholars representing the world’s major faiths, as well as a few interested scientists and public policy experts.

With help from Harvard University’s Center for the Study of World Religions, the couple arranged separate academic conferences on the environmental perspectives of 10 different traditions: Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Taoism, Shinto and indigenous, or tribal, religions. Last week’s meeting served as a kind of summing-up of those conferences.

Certainly, many religious believers have long been involved in trying to rally public awareness of the degradation of the natural environment, whether it be dirty air and water, the destruction of forests or other problems. Their concerns have often found their way into statements and resolutions issued by religious organizations, which have urged their followers toward faithful ”stewardship” of natural resources.

For example, the United Methodist Church’s book of rules and principles, the Book of Discipline, contains a detailed section on the environment. ”Water, air, soil, minerals, energy resources, plants, animal life and space are to be valued and conserved because they are God’s creation and not solely because they are useful to human beings,” the book states.

Still, the conferences arranged by Ms. Tucker and Mr. Grim have sought to go another step, at least on an intellectual level, by exploring how ideas within all the major faiths could further conservation of the natural world. The concluding event this week ran for two days, beginning with a report on the conferences at United Nations headquarters, during which leaders of the effort announced plans for a scholarly network, the Forum on Religion and Ecology, to keep the discussions going.

”The project is primarily intellectual,” Mr. Grim said. But, he added, ”We hope to network with organizations that are in the pews, in the mosques, in the synagogues.” The event drew several scholars and others with an interest in the environment, including Maurice Strong, an adviser to the Secretary General of the United Nations who organized the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro; Tu Weiming, a professor of Chinese history and philosophy at Harvard; Lawrence Sullivan, director of the Harvard center; and Timothy E. Wirth, a former Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, who is president of the United Nations Foundation. Mr. Weiming, who is also the director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute, quoted an African proverb: ”The earth is not ours, it is a treasure we hold in trust for future generations.”

Among the scientists on the program at the Natural History Museum was Niles Eldredge, a paleontologist who is chief curator of the museum’s newly opened Hall of Biodiversity. In an interview, Dr. Eldredge said that while he was thoroughly opposed to ”watering down” school curriculums to appease conservative anti-evolutionists, he was also ”sick of the supposed war between science and religion.” Dr. Eldredge said he thought religious groups ought to be involved in the movement for environmental protection, in part because ”there’s an ecological component to all concepts of God.”

Ms. Tucker and Mr. Grim said plans are under way for two more conferences at Harvard next year – one on what religions have to say about animals, the other on religion and evolution. Looking ahead, Mr. Grim said he hoped conferences could be arranged in other cities at which religious scholars and leaders could consider regional environmental issues. Ms. Tucker said she saw these efforts providing the basis for an academic specialty in religious and ecological studies. ”We are trying to create a field of study that can blossom and flourish,” she said.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times