2016-06-30
Copyright 2002 Elizabeth Kadetsky. Reprinted with permission from Science & Spirit: Your guide to connecting science, religion, and life.

At the Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, California, solar panels fuel the ner tamid, the eternal light that symbolizes the divine in the Jewish tradition. The panels were installed with a little prodding from the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.

"On Hanukkah, we celebrate the miracle that a small amount of [oil] burned for eight days. We should take this as an example," says Sharon Bloome, the New York-based coalition's leader. The organization recently mounted a campaign to encourage synagogues to use solar panels, compact fluorescent light bulbs, and other energy-saving technologies.

Bloome's group is not alone in enlisting light to link the divine with an imperative to address our environmental crisis. Light-and how to fuel it-also resides at the heart of our energy crisis. When most of California endured rolling blackouts in the summer of 2001, the San Francisco-based Episcopal Power and Light kept churches illuminated by linking congregations in a power-buying aggregate. The alliance bypasses monopoly energy providers, seeks out clean sources of energy, and provides jobs to local workers.

Such campaigns are examples of recent efforts by religious groups to bring an environmental sensibility to their spiritual worldviews. A profusion of faith communities dedicated to spiritual approaches to environmental activism are becoming so visible a sector of the movement that mainstream environmentalism itself has become increasingly affected by religious and spiritual messages. The National Religious Partnership for the Environment, for instance, has enlisted the participation of five thousand clergy and lay members of Catholic, Jewish, Eastern Orthodox, and Evangelical and other Protestant communities as environmental leaders.

This stunning mobilization has sprung in part from a challenge from the scientific community, whose representatives sent out an urgent plea for the cooperation of religious leaders at the Moscow Global Forum meeting in 1990: "As scientists, many of us have had profound experiences of awe and reverence before the universe," wrote the participants, including astrophysicist Carl Sagan. They went on to "urgently appeal to the world religious community ... to preserve the environment of the earth." Religious groups have come to heed this resounding call with increasing boldness.

Valuing the Biosphere

Knowing the value of each living organism is central to preserving the earth's biodiversity, says Edward O. Wilson, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Harvard professor. In his most recent book, The Future of Life, Wilson details the treasures about to be lost forever, describing the environmental importance of even the smallest endangered species such as bacteria and fungi. The biosphere, he has said, has a "spiritual quality in that it represents a collectivity of life that is more complex than anything else we have observed in the universe."

For increasing numbers of religious communities, preserving and restoring that collectivity of life has led to pragmatic and consciousness-changing epiphanies, spurring environmental activism and challenging traditional Western religious worldviews. Religion may be breathing new life into environmentalism, but environmental thinking may yield the unintended side effect of reviving religion itself. "New scientific understandings of the cosmos may totally overturn earlier understandings of the divine," writes Bernard Zaleha of the Boise, Idaho-based Fund for Christian Ecology, in his paper, "Recovering Christian Pantheism as a Lost Gospel of Creation."

As a founder of Regeneration Project, which emphasizes the responsibility implicit in the Christian notion of being a steward of creation, Reverend Sally Bingham, environmental minister at the Episcopalian Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, helped organize the Power and Light campaign that promotes the use of cleaner sources of energy. And the winner of the 2001 Green Pilot Leadership Award-given by the San Francisco-based Center for Resource Solutions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Department of Energy-strives to practice what she preaches.

Religion gets radical

Bingham and twenty-two other religious activists were arrested in May 2001 at a protest in front of the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., speaking out against President George W. Bush's energy policy. Bingham says such activism is necessary, but deeply held environmental convictions can take on other forms.

The San Francisco-based Center for Ecosystem Survival (CES) has transformed parking meters into conservation meters at 112 zoos, aquariums, natural history museums, botanical gardens, conservatories, and nature centers in the United States, Mexico, England, and Canada. Instead of violation flags, hummingbirds pop up in meter windows, while an accompanying chart explains that a twenty-five cent contribution saves, for example, 90 square feet of rainforest. Since 1989, the project has raised $2.2 million to save tropical rainforests and coral reef ecosystems around the world.

The director of the meter program and CES, Norman Gershenz, describes the effort as an example of the Jewish notion of tikkun olam, or mending the world through social action. This kind of repair, he explains, takes form in his group's attempts to aid threatened tropical ecosystems such as the Pantanal rainforest in Brazil.

Acting more locally, the Massachusetts-based Religious Witness for the Earth recently focused on fuel-inefficient sport-utility vehicles. Last summer, the group gathered pastors and rabbis at an auto-dealer strip near Boston to rally around an SUV that had been suited for a wedding. The words "Just Married to the Pump" were emblazoned on the SUV's rear, while the window bore the slogan "SUV + GAS" encircled by a heart and empty gas cans clanged against the bumpers. The group followed up by placing iridescent orange mock violation tickets on the windshields of parked SUVs. "Violation," they read, "You are hereby cited for driving a gas-guzzling SUV."

The Reverend Fred Small, former attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation and now pastor of the Littleton, Massachusetts, First Unitarian Universalist Church, says the demonstration proved much can be gained when faith leaders think in new ways, even taking inspiration from historic visionaries. Referring to Gandhi's khadi campaign, in which supporters spun the cotton they wore, Small reflects on the commitment: "Talk about wearing your heart on your sleeve."

Such demonstrations will likely grow common among religious environmentalists, who might feel an onus to risk confrontational tactics where others cannot. Faith leaders arrive on the scene with instant credibility and so have an easier time pulling stunts like the SUV protest. That makes faith leaders the unlikely heirs to a tradition in the environmental movement of quirky, confrontational activism-one that recalls images of Greenpeace's smokestack parachute jumps, high-speed motorboat protests, and banners hanging from Statue of Liberty. Many now see such action as alienating because of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The pressure to shy from direct action weighs on religious activists as well. Small later regretted the parking violations ruse, for instance; on re-examination he decided it was too aggressive. Such second thoughts encourage a deeper examination of the connections between environmental stewardship and spirituality.

Immanence and the East

Just as an embrace of science has led many religious people to broaden their religious worldviews, so too can an improved understanding of and communication with Eastern religious traditions.

Ann Grodzins Gold, professor of religion at Syracuse University in upstate New York, has conducted extensive fieldwork studying popular religious practice in modern India, particularly in the northern state of Rajasthan, which led to her book Fruitful Journeys: The Ways of Rajasthani Pilgrims. Gold describes a Hindu community in Rajasthan where the people believe that: "If you cut one branch, you cut my finger."

The immanence implicit in such thinking has inspired others to examine not only the Western culture of waste but also global degradation. David L. Haberman, professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Bloomington, has organized campaigns to clean the Yamuna River in India. He cites Hindu texts that posit pieces of nature to be the very body of God: "the oceans are his abdomen, the mountains are his bones, the rivers are his veins and arteries, and the trees are the hairs on his body."

But Haberman also has grappled with the apparent contradiction between Hinduism's integral view of nature and India's modern problem of pollution. The sacred Yamuna River runs through the city of Delhi, widely considered the second-most polluted city in the world. Haberman asks: "What happens to such a tradition in a world where nature is becoming increasingly polluted? How do these religious theologies influence our relationship with nature, particularly at this time in history when we rightfully fear that we might be moving ourselves out of existence by our current consumption habits?"

Shedding cultural residue

"The conjunction of religion and ecology brings out a whole new creative spiritual dimension of human understanding," says Mary Evelyn Tucker, professor of religious studies at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Tucker co-founded the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Harvard University, which has amassed and published ten volumes of essays that illustrate how indigenous traditions and the major world religions share such core ethical values as reverence, respect, restraint, redistribution, and responsibility.

The hope is that such shared values will lead to global environmental ethics.

"Why are we all refreshed by a beautiful sunset, by a visit to the ocean, by time in the mountains?" Tucker asks. "Nature speaks to the deep yearnings of the human for beauty and continuity and the regenerative processes of life. All the [religious] traditions have tapped into this. The renewal of the traditions will be a renewal of that deep sensibility that nature sustains not only physical life but spiritual life."

Similarly, a new divinity school program aims to develop ministers who integrate a respect for life and compassionate care into their ministry to others. Ecological theologian Jay McDaniel is the founder of the Doctor of Ministry program in spirituality and sustainability, a collaborative project offered by Methodist-affiliated United Theological Seminary at the University of Dayton, Ohio, and the Center for Spirituality and Sustainability. McDaniel explains the program will bring together "people of different religious traditions.who believe the central purpose of ministry is to care for the diverse community of life."

Today, prevalent eco-Christian belief holds that humanity's materialism and greed are the source of the environmental crisis. Even Pope John Paul II, in a homily celebrating the Jubilee of the Agricultural World on November 12, 2000, called for reconciliation between "the most refined technology" and the "simple language of nature."

In Living from the Center: Spirituality in an Age of Consumerism (Chalice Press, 2000), McDaniel describes the "Ten Healing Alternatives" to the temptations of consumerism, including: "The world is not a global marketplace, but rather a gorgeous planet, filled with many creatures, each of whom is loved by God on its own terms and for its own sake, and each of whom contains God within."

Nature itself, says McDaniel, is a holy icon. "It is not unlike a stained glass window, through which sacred light shines and inspires."

Such inspiration can help all of us rethink and our responsibility to all living things. "A new sense of our place in creation could make an essential contribution," Bingham says. "We need a change of heart, one that appreciates the needs of others above waste and greed." And we all bear this burden: "Every one of our behaviors makes a difference."

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