“The Challenge of the Environmental Crisis”

Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School
Religions of the World and Ecology Series
Series Foreword

Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, Yale University

The Challenge of the Environmental Crisis

Ours is a period when the human community is in search of new and sustaining relationships to the earth amidst an environmental crisis that threatens the very existence of all life-forms on the planet. While the particular causes and solutions of this crisis are being debated by scientists, economists, and policymakers, the facts of widespread destruction are causing alarm in many quarters. Indeed, from some perspectives the future of human life itself appears threatened. As Daniel Maguire has succinctly observed, “If current trends continue, we will not.”1 Thomas Berry, the former director of the Riverdale Center for Religious Research, has also raised the stark question, “Is the human a viable species on an endangered planet?”

From resource depletion and species extinction to pollution overload and toxic surplus, the planet is struggling against unprecedented assaults. This is aggravated by population explosion, industrial growth, technological manipulation, and military proliferation heretofore unknown by the human community. From many accounts the basic elements which sustain life-sufficient water, clean air, and arable land are at risk. The challenges are formidable and well documented. The solutions, however, are more elusive and complex. Clearly, this crisis has economic, political, and social dimensions which require more detailed analysis than we can provide here. Suffice it to say, however, as did the Global 2000 Report: “… once such global environmental problems are in motion they are difficult to reverse. In fact few if any of the problems addressed in the Global 2000 Report are amenable to quick technological or policy fixes; rather, they are inextricably mixed with the world’s most perplexing social and economic problems.”2

Peter Raven, the director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, wrote in a paper titled, “We Are Killing Our World,” with a similar sense of urgency regarding the magnitude of the environmental crisis: “The world that provides our evolutionary and ecological context is in serious trouble, trouble of a kind that demands our urgent attention. By formulating adequate plans for dealing with these large-scale problems, we will be laying the foundation for peace and prosperity in the future; by ignoring them, drifting passively while attending to what may seem more urgent, personal priorities, we are courting disaster.”


Rethinking Worldviews and Ethics

For many people an environmental crisis of this complexity and scope is not only the result of certain economic, political, and social factors. It is also a moral and spiritual crisis which, in order to be addressed, will require broader philosophical and religious understandings of ourselves as creatures of nature, embedded in life cycles and dependent on ecosystems. Religions, thus, need to be re-examined in light of the current environmental crisis. This is because religions help to shape our attitudes toward nature in both conscious and unconscious ways. Religions provide basic interpretive stories of who we are, what nature is, where we have come from, and where we are going. This comprises a worldview of a society. Religions also suggest how we should treat other humans and how we should relate to nature. These values make up the ethical orientation of a society. Religions thus generate worldviews and ethics which underlie fundamental attitudes and values of different cultures and societies. As the historian Lynn White observed, “What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny—that is, by religion.”3

In trying to reorient ourselves in relation to the earth, it has become apparent that we have lost our appreciation for the intricate nature of matter and materiality. Our feeling of alienation in the modern period has extended beyond the human community and its patterns of material exchanges to our interaction with nature itself. Especially in technologically sophisticated urban societies, we have become removed from the recognition of our dependence on nature. We no longer know who we are as earthlings; we no longer see the earth as sacred.

Thomas Berry suggests that we have become autistic in our interactions with the natural world. In other words, we are unable to value the life and beauty of nature because we are locked in our own egocentric perspectives and shortsighted needs. He suggests that we need a new cosmology, cultural coding, and motivating energy to overcome this deprivation.4 He observes that the magnitude of destructive industrial processes is so great that we must initiate a radical rethinking of the myth of progress and of humanity’s role in the evolutionary process. Indeed, he speaks of evolution as a new story of the universe, namely, as a vast cosmological perspective that will resituate human meaning and direction in the context of four and a half billion years of earth history.5

For Berry and for many others an important component of the current environmental crisis is spiritual and ethical. It is here that the religions of the world may have a role to play in cooperation with other individuals, institutions, and initiatives that have been engaged with environmental issues for a considerable period of time. Despite their lateness in addressing the crisis, religions are beginning to respond in remarkably creative ways. They are not only rethinking their theologies but are also reorienting their sustainable practices and long-term environmental commitments. In so doing, the very nature of religion and of ethics is being challenged and changed. This is true because the reexamination of other worldviews created by religious beliefs and practices may be critical to our recovery of sufficiently comprehensive cosmologies, broad conceptual frameworks, and effective environmental ethics for the twenty-first century.

While in the past none of the religions of the world have had to face an environmental crisis such as we are now confronting, they remain key instruments in shaping attitudes toward nature. The unintended consequences of the modern industrial drive for unlimited economic growth and resource development have led us to an impasse regarding the survival of many life-forms and appropriate management of varied ecosystems. The religious traditions may indeed be critical in helping to reimagine the viable conditions and long-range strategies for fostering mutually enhancing human-earth relations.6 Indeed, as E. N. Anderson has documented with impressive detail, “All traditional societies that have succeeded in managing resources well, over time, have done it in part through religious or ritual representation of resource management.”7

It is in this context that a series of conferences and publications exploring the various religions of the world and their relation to ecology was initiated by the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University. Coordinated by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, the conferences involved some 800 scholars, graduate students, religious leaders, and environmental activists over a period of three years. The collaborative nature of the project is intentional. Such collaboration maximizes the opportunity for dialogical reflection on this issue of enormous complexity and accentuates the diversity of local manifestations of ecologically sustainable alternatives.

This series is intended to serve as initial exploration of the emerging field of religion and ecology while pointing toward areas for further research. We are not unaware of the difficulties of engaging in such a task, yet we have been encouraged by the enthusiastic response to the conferences within the academic community, by the larger interest they have generated beyond academia, and by the probing examinations gathered in the volumes. We trust that this series and these volumes will be useful not only for scholars of religion but also for those shaping seminary education and institutional religious practices, as well as for those involved in environmental public policy.

We see such conferences and publications as expanding the growing dialogue regarding the role of the world’s religions as moral forces in stemming the environmental crisis. While, clearly, there are major methodological issues involved in utilizing traditional philosophical and religious ideas for contemporary concerns, there are also compelling reasons to support such efforts, however modest they may be. The world’s religions in all their complexity and variety remain one of the principal resources for symbolic ideas, spiritual inspiration, and ethical principles. Indeed, despite their limitations, historically they have provided comprehensive cosmologies for interpretive direction, moral foundations for social cohesion, spiritual guidance for cultural expression, and ritual celebrations for meaningful life. In our search for more comprehensive ecological worldviews and more effective environmental ethics, it is inevitable that we will draw from the symbolic and conceptual resources of the religious traditions of the world. The effort to do this is not without precedent or problems, some of which will be signaled below. With this volume and with this series we hope the field of reflection and discussion regarding religion and ecology will begin to broaden, deepen, and complexify.


Qualifications and Goals

The Problems and Promise of Religions
These volumes, then, are built on the premise that the religions of the world may be instrumental in addressing the moral dilemmas created by the environmental crisis. At the same time we recognize the limitations of such efforts on the part of religions. We also acknowledge that the complexity of the problem requires interlocking approaches from such fields as science, economics, politics, health, and public policy. As the human community struggles to formulate different attitudes toward nature and to articulate broader conceptions of ethics embracing species and ecosystems, religions may thus be a necessary, though only contributing, part of this multidisciplinary approach.

It is becoming increasingly evident that abundant scientific knowledge of the crisis is available and numerous political and economic statements have been formulated that reflect this concern. Yet we seem to lack the political, economic, and scientific leadership to make necessary changes. Moreover, what is still lacking is the religious commitment, moral imagination, and ethical engagement to transform the environmental crisis from an issue on paper to one of effective policy, from rhetoric in print to realism in action. Why, nearly fifty years after Fairfield Osborne’s warning in Our Plundered Planet and more than thirty years since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, are we still wondering, is it too late?8

It is important to ask where the religions have been on these issues and why they themselves have been so late in their involvement. Have issues of personal salvation superseded all others? Have divine-human relations been primary? Have anthropocentric ethics been all-consuming? Has the material world of nature been devalued by religion? Does the search for otherworldly rewards override commitment to this world? Did the religions simply surrender their natural theologies and concerns with exploring purpose in nature to positivistic scientific cosmologies? In beginning to address these questions, we still have not exhausted all the reasons for religions’ lack of attention to the environmental crisis. The reasons may not be readily apparent, but clearly they require further exploration and explanation.

In discussing the involvement of religions in this issue, it is also appropriate to acknowledge the dark side of religion in both its institutional expressions and dogmatic forms. In addition to their oversight with regard to the environment, religions have been the source of enormous manipulation of power in fostering wars, in ignoring racial and social injustice, and in promoting unequal gender relations, to name only a few abuses. One does not want to underplay this shadow side or to claim too much for religions’ potential for ethical persuasiveness. The problems are too vast and complex for unqualified optimism. Yet there is a growing consensus that religions may now have a significant role to play, just as in the past they have sustained individuals and cultures in the face of internal and external threats.

A final caveat is the inevitable gap that arises between theories and practices in religions. As has been noted, even societies with religious traditions which appear sympathetic to the environment have in the past often misused resources. While it is clear that religions may have some disjunction between the ideal and the real, this should not lessen our endeavor to identify resources from within the world’s religions for a more ecologically sound cosmology and environmentally supportive ethics. This disjunction of theory and practice is present within all philosophies and religions and is frequently the source of disillusionment, skepticism, and cynicism. A more realistic observation might be made, however, that this disjunction should not automatically invalidate the complex worldviews and rich cosmologies embedded in traditional religions. Rather, it is our task to explore these conceptual resources so as to broaden and expand our own perspectives in challenging and fruitful ways.

In summary, we recognize that religions have elements which are both prophetic and transformative as well as conservative and constraining. These elements are continually in tension, a condition which creates the great variety of thought and interpretation within religious traditions. To recognize these various tensions and limits, however, is not to lessen the urgency of the overall goals of this project. Rather, it is to circumscribe our efforts with healthy skepticism, cautious optimism, and modest ambitions. It is to suggest that this is a beginning in a new field of study which will affect both religion and ecology. On the one hand, this process of reflection will inevitably change how religions conceive of their own roles, missions, and identities, for such reflections demand a new sense of the sacred as not divorced from the earth itself. On the other hand, environmental studies can recognize that religions have helped to shape attitudes toward nature. Thus, as religions themselves evolve they may be indispensable in fostering a more expansive appreciation for the complexity and beauty of the natural world. At the same time as religions foster awe and reverence for nature, they may provide the transforming energies for ethical practices to protect endangered ecosystems, threatened species, and diminishing resources.

Methodological Concerns
It is important to acknowledge that there are, inevitably, challenging methodological issues involved in such a project as we are undertaking in this emerging field of religion and ecology.9 Some of the key interpretive challenges we face in this project concern issues of time, place, space, and positionality. With regard to time, it is necessary to recognize the vast historical complexity of each religious tradition, which cannot be easily condensed in these conferences or volumes. With respect to place, we need to signal the diverse cultural contexts in which these religions have developed. With regard to space, we recognize the varied frameworks of institutions and traditions in which these religions unfold. Finally, with respect to positionality, we acknowledge our own historical situatedness at the end of the twentieth century with distinctive contemporary concerns.

Not only is each religious tradition historically complex and culturally diverse, but its beliefs, scriptures, and institutions have themselves been subject to vast commentaries and revisions over time. Thus, we recognize the radical diversity that exists within and among religious traditions which cannot be encompassed in any single volume. We acknowledge also that distortions may arise as we examine earlier historical traditions in light of contemporary issues.

Nonetheless, environmental ethics philosopher J. Baird Callicott has suggested that scholars and others “mine the conceptual resources” of the religious traditions as a means of creating a more inclusive global environmental ethics.10As Callicott himself notes, however, the notion of “mining” is problematic, for it conjures up images of exploitation which may cause apprehension among certain religious communities, especially those of indigenous peoples. Moreover, we cannot simply expect to borrow or adopt ideas and place them from one tradition directly into another. Even efforts to formulate global environmental ethics need to be sensitive to cultural particularity and diversity. We do not aim at creating a simple bricolage or bland fusion of perspectives. Rather, these conferences and volumes are an attempt to display before us a multiperspectival cross section of the symbolic richness regarding attitudes toward nature within the world’s religious traditions. To do so will help to reveal certain commonalities among traditions, as well as limitations within traditions, as they begin to converge around this challenge presented by the environmental crisis.

We need to identify our concerns, then, as embedded in the constraints of our own perspectival limits at the same time as we seek common ground. In describing various attitudes toward nature historically, we are aiming at critical understanding of the complexity, contexts, and frameworks in which these religions articulate such views. In addition, we are striving for empathetic appreciation for the traditions without idealizing their ecological potential or ignoring their environmental oversights. Finally, we are aiming at the creative revisioning of mutually enhancing human-earth relations. This revisioning may be assisted by highlighting the multi-perspectival attitudes toward nature which these traditions disclose. The prismatic effect of examining such attitudes and relationships may provide some necessary clarification and symbolic resources for reimagining our own situation and shared concerns at the end of the twentieth century. It will also be sharpened by identifying the multilayered symbol systems in world religions which have traditionally oriented humans in establishing relational resonances between the microcosm of the self and the macrocosm of the social and natural orders. In short, religious traditions may help to supply both creative resources of symbols, rituals, and texts as well as inspiring visions for reimagining ourselves as part of, not apart from, the natural world.

The methodological issues outlined above were implied in the overall goals of the conferences, which were described as follows:

  1. To identify and evaluate the distinctive ecological attitudes, values, and practices of diverse religious traditions, making clear their links to intellectual, political, and other resources associated with these distinctive traditions.
  2. To describe and analyze the commonalities that exist within and among religious traditions with respect to ecology.
  3. To identify the minimum common ground on which to base constructive understanding, motivating discussion, and concerted action in diverse locations across the globe; and to highlight the specific religious resources that comprise such fertile ecological ground: within scripture, ritual, myth, symbol, cosmology, sacrament, and so on.
  4. To articulate in clear and moving terms a desirable mode of human presence with the earth; in short, to highlight means of respecting and valuing nature, to note what has already been actualized, and to indicate how best to achieve what is desirable beyond these examples.
  5. To outline the most significant areas, with regard to religion and ecology, in need of further study; to enumerate questions of highest priority within those areas and propose possible approaches to use in addressing them.

In this series, then, we do not intend to obliterate difference or ignore diversity. The aim is to celebrate plurality by raising to conscious awareness multiple perspectives regarding nature and human-earth relations as articulated in the religions of the world. The spectrum of cosmologies, myths, symbols, and rituals within the religious traditions will be instructive in resituating us within the rhythms and limits of nature.

We are not looking for a unified worldview or a single global ethic. We are, however, deeply sympathetic with the efforts toward formulating a global ethic made by individuals, such as the theologian Hans Kung or the environmental philosopher J. Baird Callicott, and groups, such as Global Education Associates and United Religions. A minimum content of environmental ethics needs to be seriously considered. We are, then, keenly interested in the contribution this series might make to discussions of environmental policy in national and international arenas. Important intersections may be made with work in the field of development ethics.11 In addition, the findings of the conferences have bearing on the ethical formulation of the Earth Charter that is to be presented to the United Nations for adoption within the next few years. Thus, we are seeking both the grounds for common concern and the constructive conceptual basis for rethinking our current situation of estrangement from the earth. In so doing we will be able to reconceive a means of creating the basis not just for sustainable development, but also for sustainable life on the planet.

As scientist Brian Swimme has suggested, we are currently making macrophase changes to the life systems of the planet with microphase wisdom. Clearly, we need to expand and deepen the wisdom base for human intervention with nature and other humans. This is particularly true as issues of genetic alteration of natural processes are already available and in use. If religions have traditionally concentrated on divine-human and human-human relations, the challenge is that they now explore more fully divine-human-earth relations. Without such further exploration, adequate environmental ethics may not emerge in a comprehensive context.


Resources: Environmental Ethics Found in the World’s Religions

For many people, when challenges such as the environmental crisis are raised in relation to religion in the contemporary world, there frequently arises a sense of loss or a nostalgia for earlier, seemingly less complicated eras when the constant questioning of religious beliefs and practices was not so apparent. This is, no doubt, something of a reified reading of history. There is, however, a decidedly anxious tone to the questioning and soul-searching that appears to haunt many contemporary religious groups as they seek to find their particular role in the midst of rapid technological change and dominant secular values.

One of the greatest remaining challenges to contemporary religions is how to respond to the environmental crisis, a crisis that many believe has been perpetuated because of the enormous inroads made by unrestrained materialism, secularization, and industrialization in contemporary societies, especially in societies arising in or influenced by the modern West. Indeed, some suggest that the very division of religion from secular life may be a major cause of the crisis.

Others, such as the medieval historian Lynn White, have cited religion’s negative role in the crisis. White has 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.12 While the particulars of this argument have been vehemently debated, it is increasingly clear that the environmental crisis and its perpetuation due to industrialization, secularization, and ethical indifference present a serious challenge to the world’s religions. This is especially true because many of these religions have traditionally been concerned with the path of personal salvation, which frequently emphasized otherworldly goals and rejected this world as corrupting. Thus, as we have noted, 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 Thomas Berry has so aptly pointed out, if the human is to continue as a viable species on an increasingly degraded planet, what is necessary is a comprehensive reevaluation of human-earth relations. This will require, in addition to major economic and political changes, examining worldviews and ethics among the world’s religions that differ from those that have captured the imagination of contemporary industrialized societies that regard nature primarily as a commodity to be utilized. It should be noted that when we are searching for effective resources for formulating environmental ethics, each of the religious traditions have both positive and negative features.

For the most part, the worldviews associated with the Western Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have created a dominantly human-focused morality. Because these worldviews are largely anthropocentric, nature is viewed as being of secondary importance. This is reinforced by a strong sense of the transcendence of God above nature. On the other hand, there are rich resources for rethinking views of nature in the covenantal tradition of the Hebrew Bible, in sacramental theology, in incarnational Christology, and in the vice-regency (khalifa Allah) concept of the Qur’an. The covenantal tradition draws on the legal agreements of biblical thought which are extended to all of creation. Sacramental theology in Christianity underscores the sacred dimension of material reality, especially for ritual purposes.13 Incarnational Christology proposes that because God became flesh in the person of Christ, the entire natural order can be viewed as sacred. The concept of humans as vice-regents of Allah on earth suggests that humans have particular privileges, responsibilities, and obligations to creation.14

In Hinduism, although there is a significant emphasis on performing one’s dharma, or duty, in the world, there is also a strong pull toward moksha, or liberation, from the world of suffering, or samsara. To heal this kind of suffering and alienation through spiritual discipline and meditation, one turns away from the world (prakrti) to a timeless world of spirit (purusa). Yet at the same time there are numerous traditions in Hinduism which affirm particular rivers, mountains, or forests as sacred. Moreover, in the concept of lila, the creative play of the gods, Hindu theology engages the world as a creative manifestation of the divine. This same tension between withdrawal from the world and affirmation of it is present in Buddhism. Certain Theravada schools of Buddhism emphasize withdrawing in meditation from the transient world of suffering (samsara) to seek release in nirvana. On the other hand, later Mahayana schools of Buddhism, such as Hua-yen, underscore the remarkable interconnection of reality in such images as the jeweled net of Indra, where each jewel reflects all the others in the universe. Likewise, the Zen gardens in East Asia express the fullness of the Buddha-nature (tathagatagarbha) in the natural world. In recent years, socially engaged Buddhism has been active in protecting the environment in both Asia and the United States.

The East Asian traditions of Confucianism and Taoism remain, in certain ways, some of the most life-affirming in the spectrum of world religions.15 The seamless interconnection between the divine, human, and natural worlds that characterizes these traditions has been described as an anthropocosmic worldview.16 There is no emphasis on radical transcendence as there is in the Western traditions. Rather, there is a cosmology of a continuity of creation stressing the dynamic movements of nature through seasons and agricultural cycles. This organic cosmology is grounded in the philosophy of ch’i (material force), which provides a basis for appreciating the profound interconnection of matter and spirit. The aim of personal cultivation in both Confucianism and Taoism is to be in harmony with nature and with other humans while being attentive to the movements of the Tao (Way). It should be noted, however, that this positive worldview has not prevented environmental degradation (e.g., deforestation) in parts of East Asia in both the premodern and modern periods.

In a similar vein, indigenous peoples, while having ecological cosmologies have, in some instances, caused damage to local environments through such practices as slash-and-burn agriculture. Nonetheless, most indigenous peoples have environmental ethics embedded in their worldviews. This is evident in the complex reciprocal obligations surrounding life-taking and resource-gathering which mark a community’s relations with the local bioregion. The religious views at the basis of indigenous lifeways involve respect for the sources of food, clothing, and shelter that nature provides. Gratitude to the creator and to the spiritual forces in creation is at the heart of most indigenous traditions. The ritual calendars of many indigenous peoples are carefully coordinated with seasonal events such as the sound of returning birds, the blooming of certain plants, the movements of the sun, and the changes of the moon.

The difficulty at present is that for the most part we have developed in the world’s religions certain ethical prohibitions regarding homicide and restraints concerning genocide and suicide, but none for biocide or geocide. We are clearly in need of exploring such comprehensive cosmological perspectives and communitarian environmental ethics as the most compelling context for motivating change regarding the destruction of the natural world.


Responses of Religions to the Environmental Crisis

How to chart possible paths toward mutually enhancing human-earth relations remains, one of the greatest challenges to the world’s religions. It is with some encouragement, however, that we note the growing calls for the world’s religions to participate in these efforts 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. For example, in 1990 the Joint Appeal in Religion and Science was released highlighting the urgency of collaboration around the issue of the destruction of the environment. In 1992 the Union of Concerned Scientists issued the statement “Warning to Humanity,” signed by more than 1,000 scientists from 70 countries, including 105 Nobel laureates, regarding the gravity of the environmental crisis. They specifically cited the need for a new ethic toward the earth.

Numerous national and international conferences have also been held on this subject and collaborative efforts have been established. Environmental groups such as World Wildlife Fund, have sponsored interreligious meetings such as the one in Assisi in 1986. The Center for Respect of Life and Environment of the Humane Society of the United States has also held a series of conferences in Assisi on Spirituality and Sustainability and has helped to organize one at the World Bank. The United Nations Environmental Programme in North America has established an Environmental Sabbath, each year distributing thousands of packets of materials for use in congregations throughout North America. Similarly, the National Religious Partnership on the Environment at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City has promoted dialogue, distributed materials, and created a remarkable alliance of the various Jewish and Christian denominations in the United States around the issue of the environment. The Parliament of World Religions held in 1993 in Chicago and attended by some 8,000 people from all over the globe issued a statement of Global Ethics of Cooperation of Religions on Human and Environmental Issues. International meetings on the environment have been organized. One example of these, the Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders held in Oxford in 1988, Moscow in 1990, Rio in 1992, and Kyoto in 1993, included world religious leaders, such as the Dalai Lama, and diplomats and heads of state, such as Mikhail Gorbachev. Indeed, Gorbachev hosted the Moscow conference and attended the Kyoto conference to set up a Green Cross International for environmental emergencies.

Since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) held in Rio in 1992, there have been concerted efforts intended to lead toward the adoption of an Earth Charter by the year 2000. This Earth Charter initiative is under way with the leadership of the Earth Council and Green Cross International, with support from the government of the Netherlands. Maurice Strong, Mikhail Gorbachev, Steven Rockefeller, and other members of the Earth Charter Project have been instrumental in this process. At the March 1997 Rio+5 Conference a benchmark draft of the Earth Charter was issued. The time is thus propitious for further investigation of the potential contributions of particular religions toward mitigating the environmental crisis, especially by developing more comprehensive environmental ethics for the earth community.


Expanding the Dialogue of Religion and Ecology

More than two decades ago Thomas Berry anticipated such an exploration when he called for “creating a new consciousness of the multi-form religious traditions of humankind” as a means toward renewal of the human spirit in addressing the urgent problems of contemporary society.17 Tu Weiming has written of the need to go “Beyond the Enlightenment Mentality” in exploring the spiritual resources of the global community to meet the challenge of the ecological crisis.18 While this exploration has also been the intention of both the conferences and these volumes, other significant efforts have preceded our current endeavor.19 Our discussion here highlights only the last decade.

In 1986 Eugene Hargrove edited a volume titled, Religion and Environmental Crisis.20 In 1991 Charlene Spretnak explored this topic in her book, States of Grace: The Recovery of Meaning in the Post-Modern Age.21 Her subtitle states her constructivist project clearly: “Reclaiming the Core Teachings and Practices of the Great Wisdom Traditions for the Well-Being of the Earth Community.” In 1992 Steven Rockefeller and John Elder edited a book based on a conference at Middlebury College titled, Spirit and Nature: Why the Environment Is a Religious Issue.22 In the same year Peter Marshall published, Nature’s Web: Rethinking Our Place on Earth,23 drawing on the resources of the world’s traditions. An edited volume titled, Worldviews and Ecology, compiled in 1993, contains articles reflecting on views of nature from the world’s religions and from contemporary philosophies, such as process thought and deep ecology.24 In this same vein, in 1994, J. Baird Callicott published Earth’s Insights which examines the intellectual resources of the world’s religions for a more comprehensive global environmental ethics.25 This expands on his 1989 volumes, Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought and In Defense of the Land Ethic.26 In 1995 David Kinsley issued a book titled, Ecology and Religion: Ecological Spirituality in a Cross- Cultural Perspective,27 which draws on traditional religions and contemporary movements, such as deep ecology and ecospirituality. Seyyed Hossein Nasr wrote his comprehensive study, Religion and the Order of Nature, in 1996.28 Several volumes of religious responses to a particular topic or theme have also been published. For example, J. Ronald Engel and Joan Gibb Engel compiled a monograph in 1990 titled, Ethics of Environment and Development: Global Challenge, International Response29 and in 1995 Harold Coward edited the volume, Population, Consumption, and the Environment: Religious and Secular Responses.30 Roger Gottlieb edited a useful source book, This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment.31 Single volumes on the world’s religions and ecology were published by the Worldwide Fund for Nature.32

The series Religions of the World and Ecology is thus intended to expand the discussion already under way in certain circles and to invite further collaboration on a topic of common concern—the fate of the earth as a religious responsibility. To broaden and deepen the reflective basis for mutual collaboration was an underlying aim of the conferences themselves. While some might see this as a diversion from pressing scientific or policy issues, it was with a sense of humility and yet conviction that we entered into the arena of reflection and debate on this issue. In the field of the study of world religions, we have seen this as a timely challenge for scholars of religion to respond as engaged intellectuals with deepening creative reflection. We hope that these volumes will be simply a beginning of further study of conceptual and symbolic resources, methodological concerns, and practical directions for meeting this environmental crisis.




1 He goes on to say, “And that is qualitatively and epochally true. If religion does not speak to [this], it is an obsolete distraction.” Daniel Maguire, The Moral Core of Judaism and Christianity: Reclaiming the Revolution (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1993) 13.
Return to text


2 Gerald Barney, Global 2000 Report to the President of the United States (Washington, D.C.: Supt. of Docs. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1980–1981) 40.
Return to text

3 Lynn White, Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155 (March 1967): 1204.
Return to text

4 Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988).
Return to text

5 Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992).
Return to text

6 At the same time we recognize the limits to such a project, especially because ideas and action, theory and practice, do not always occur in conjunction.
Return to text

7 E. N. Anderson, Ecologies of the Heart: Emotion, Belief, and the Environment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) 166. He qualifies this statement by saying, “The key point is not religion per se, but the use of emotionally powerful symbols to sell particular moral codes and management systems” (p. 166). He notes, however, in various case studies, how ecological wisdom is embedded in myths, symbols, and cosmologies of traditional societies.
Return to text

8 Is It Too Late? is also the title of a book by John Cobb, first published in 1972 by Bruce and reissued in 1995 by Environmental Ethics Books.
Return to text

9 Because we cannot identify here all of the methodological issues that need to be addressed, we invite further discussion by other engaged scholars.
Return to text

10 See J. Baird Callicott, Earth’s Insights: A Survey of Ecological Ethics from the Mediterranean Basin to the Australian Outback (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1994).
Return to text

11 See Martha C. Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, eds., The Quality of Life, WIDER Studies in Development Economics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).
Return to text

12 White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” 1203–1207.
Return to text

13 Process theology, creation-centered spirituality, and ecotheology have done much to promote these kinds of holistic perspectives within Christianity.
Return to text

14 These are resources already being explored by theologians and biblical scholars.
Return to text

15 While this is true theoretically, it should be noted that, like all ideologies, these traditions have at times been used for purposes of political power and social control. Moreover, they have not been able to prevent certain kinds of environmental destruction, such as deforestation in China.
Return to text

16 The term “anthropocosmic” has been used by Tu Weiming in Centrality and Commonality (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1989).
Return to text

17 Thomas Berry, “Religious Studies and the Global Human Community,” unpublished manuscript.
Return to text

18 Tu Weiming, “Beyond the Enlightenment Mentality,” in Worldviews and Ecology, eds. Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1993; reissued, Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1994).
Return to text

19 This history has been described more fully by Roderick Nash in his chapter entitled, “The Greening of Religion,” in The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics (Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989).
Return to text

20 Eugene Hargrove, ed., Religion and Environmental Crisis (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1986).
Return to text

21 Charlene Spretnak, States of Grace: The Recovery of Meaning in the Post-Modern Age (San Francisco, Calif.: Harper San Francisco, 1991).
Return to text

22 Steven Rockefeller and John Elder, eds., Spirit and Nature: Why the Environment Is a Religious Issue (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992).
Return to text

23 Peter Marshall, Nature’s Web: Rethinking Our Place on Earth(Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1992).
Return to text

24 Tucker and Grim, eds. Worldviews and Ecology.
Return to text

25 Callicott, Earth’s Insights.
Return to text

26 Both are State University of New York Press publications.
Return to text

27 David Kinsley, Ecology and Religion: Ecological Spirituality in a Cross-Cultural Perspective (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1995).
Return to text

28 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Religion and the Order of Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).
Return to text

29 J. Ronald Engel and Joan Gibb Engel, eds. Ethics of Environment and Development: Global Challenge, International Response (Tucson, Ariz.: University of Arizona Press, 1990).
Return to text

30 Harold Coward, ed., Population, Consumption, and the Environment: Religious and Secular Responses (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1995).
Return to text

31 Roger S. Gottlieb, ed. This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment (New York: Routledge, 1996).
Return to text

32 These include volumes on Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Return to text


Copyright © 1997 Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School.
Reprinted with permission.