A New Emphasis on the Nature of Religion

Faith Systems’ Environmental Teachings Can Help Save the Earth, Scholars Say

By Bill Broadway

Washington Post

Saturday, October 24, 1998; Page C09

The Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions this week released results of a three-year analysis of the environmental teachings of 10 major religions to help combat what the center calls “a global ecological crisis.”

Center Director Lawrence Sullivan said religious perspectives on the relationship between people and the Earth have not been fully utilized by environmentalists and represent a potentially powerful voice in such efforts as reducing pollution and preserving the rain forests.

“Change won’t happen without religions because they are the touchstone of people’s deepest motivations,” said Sullivan, who spoke Tuesday at a news conference at the United Nations. “Religious life and the Earth’s economy are organically related.” Other speakers included Maurice Strong, senior adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan; Timothy Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation; and Adnan Amin, director of the North American office for the United Nations Environment Programme.

George Washington University Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr presented an Islamic view of the environment at a symposium after the news conference and participated Wednesday in a discussion moderated by journalist Bill Moyers.

The analysis project, a series of 10 meetings involving more than 1,000 scholars and environmental activists, was conceived and coordinated by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, professors of religion at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa.

It grew out of a 1996 symposium on Buddhism and ecology that Tucker and Grim organized with Sullivan. Subsequent conferences brought together scholars, religious leaders and environmental activists to examine the ecological traditions of Confucianism, Shinto, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Jainism and indigenous traditions, including American Indians.

The center also announced the establishment of the Forum on Religion and Ecology to continue this “largest ever interreligious dialogue on the environment,” the organizers said in a statement. The forum’s primary goal will be to influence public policy, develop school curriculums and contribute to scientific and social research on the environment.

The forum will be based at Harvard and co-sponsored by the Center for Respect of Life and Environment in Washington and Bucknell University’s religion department. More than 60 individuals and organizations, including the interfaith National Religious Partnership for the Environment, have said they will participate.

Several common themes emerged from the discussions of different faiths, Tucker and Grim said in a joint telephone interview: that humans, nature and a heaven/God are interdependent; that humans thrive not as isolated individuals but in relationships with others; that societies are sustained only if they use their resources wisely; and that ancient scriptures must be interpreted anew to address complex issues.

In Western religions, an ongoing controversy concerns the term in Genesis that God gave man “dominion” over the Earth, Grim said. Some continue a generations-old view that people can use the Earth’s resources, without restraint, to supply their needs. But the dominant view today, he said, is that humans are stewards rather than consumers, using only what they need and replenishing the resources when possible.

Tucker said religious views on ecology have practical and spiritual components. For example, “people are concerned about the life and health of their children,” and taking steps now to control air and water pollution will ensure the next generation of a longer and healthier life. This is as true of urban America as it is in Asia, where there has been “an appalling deterioration of the environment where two-thirds of the world’s people live.”

It also is wise to preserve the “aesthetic sources” of life, such as the seashores, mountains and lakes people visit “for the refreshment nature brings,” Tucker said. “There is something in nature that is spiritual and deeply beautiful.”

The center has published two books based on these conferences, “Buddhism and Ecology” and “Confucianism and Ecology,” and will follow with nine more – one for each of the other religions and a “synthesizing volume” on the 10-part series.


The Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions released summary papers on the potential contribution of 10 religions to environmental debates and public policy initiatives. Excerpts follow.


“Buddhist environmentalists assert that … awareness of the universality of suffering produces compassionate empathy for all forms of life, particularly for all sentient species. They interpet the … ethical injunction [of the Dhammapada, an anthology of sacred verse] not to do evil but to do good as a moral principle advocating the non-violent alleviation of suffering, an ideal embodied in the prayer of universal loving-kindness that concludes many Buddhist rituals: ‘May all beings be free from enmity; may all beings be free from injury; may all beings be free from suffering; may all beings be happy.’ “

Donald K. Swearer, Swarthmore College


“Confucian ethics in its most comprehensive form relies on a cosmological context of the entire triad of heaven, earth and humans. Human actions complete this triad and are undertaken in relation to the natural world and its seasonal patterns and cosmic changes… . Western traditions tend to underscore the importance of the individual, highlighting his/her rights and freedoms. The Confucian tradition stresses the importance of cooperative group effort so that individual concerns are sublimated to a larger sense of the common good.”

Mary Evelyn Tucker, Bucknell University


“At present, the only significant green spaces in crowded Japanese urban centers are the groves that surround Shinto shrines. Even the simple preservation of those shrine groves is a difficult task to achieve given the onslaught of pollution as well as pressures to make spatial concessions to further urban growth. The Shinto community is aware of the importance of its special position as guarantor of groves of urban and outlying greenery, and of the crucial challenges of translating tradition into modern relevance, so as to put belief into environmental practice.”

Rosemarie Bernard, Harvard University


“Hinduism and Jainism offer unique resources for the creation of an earth ethics. The variegated theologies of Hinduism suggest that the earth can be seen as a manifestation of the goddess (Devi) and that she must be treated with respect; that the five elements [earth, water, fire, air and space] hold great power; that simple living might serve as a model for the development of sustainable economies; that the concept of Dharma can be reinterpreted from an earth-friendly perspective. The biocosmology of Jainism [the perception that even inanimate objects are ‘alive’] presents a worldview that stresses the interrelatedness of life forms.”

Christopher Key Chappel, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles


“The term ‘indigenous’ is a generalized reference to the thousands of small-scale societies who have distinct languages, kinship systems, mythologies, ancestral memories and homelands. These different societies comprise over 200 million people throughout the planet today [e.g., the Lakota Indians, the Yekuana of Venezuela]… . Central to indigenous traditions is an awareness of the integral and whole relationship of symbolical and material life. Ritual practices and the cosmological ideas which undergird society cannot be separated out as an institutionalized religion from the daily round of subsistence practices.”

John Grim, Bucknell University


“The endeavor to formulate a systematic environmental ethic is quite new to Judaism. For most of Jewish history, our sacred texts – from Hebrew Scriptures to Talmud to medieval philosophical, legal and mystical literature – have dealt with ecological issues incidentally, as they arose. Ecology was not a discrete area of inquiry; it was, instead, an integral part of the weave of relationships between God, humanity in general (and Israel in particular) and the rest of the natural world.”

Rabbi Daniel B. Fink, Boise, Idaho


“An ‘Ecological Reformation’ is now on the agenda of Christian theology and ethics. It intersects, rather than competes, with human rights struggles for racial, gender and economic justice. [Its] need arises from the fundamental failures of Christian and other religious traditions: (1) to adapt to the limiting conditions of life; (2) to recognize the intricate and interdependent relationships involving humankind with the rest of nature; and (3) to respond with benevolence and justice to ‘the theological and biological fact of human kinship with all other creatures.”

Dieter T. Hessel, Program on Ecology, Justice & Faith, Princeton, N.J.


“The earth is mentioned some 453 times in the Qur’an, whereas sky and the heavens are mentioned only about 320 times. Islam does understand the earth to be subservient to humankind, but it should not be administered and exploited irresponsibly. There is a strong sense of goodness and purity of the earth… . Muslims envision heaven as a beautiful garden which the Qur’an describes in many places. If life on earth is preparation for eternal life in heaven, then the loving care of the natural environment would seem to be appropriate training for the afterlife in the company of God and the angels in an environment that is perfectly balanced, peaceful and verdant.”

Frederick Mathewson Denny, University of Colorado at Boulder


“Daoism proposes a comprehensive and radical restructuring of the way in which we conceive our relationship to nature and our cosmic environment… . In such an understanding nature is not something outside of us to be dealt with after the fashion of a mechanic repairing a car, but is both a mental attitude to be carefully cultivated and the true condition of one’s body that contains the infinite dimensions of cosmic reality within itself.”

James Miller, Boston University

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