Sunday, April 15, 2012

Transitions Part II

(Continued from the preceding post.)

What paths have theologies and religions taken on these issues?  How does this multidimensional, cross-cultural communion of saints view the trinity of God, humanity, and other nature?  Is there pattern we can discern?  If we loosely use the terms ultraconservatives, conservative, mainline, and progressives, we can see a pattern of religious and theological response within Christianity that goes something like this.  On the ultraconservative side, where there is any sensitivity to these issues, there is a slow but growing awareness of an Earth care responsibility based on a view that places God at the top of the heap, humanity at the top of what are referred to as the 'created orders,' and everything else being created by God for human use. Also, these theologies frequently view the cosmos as being fixed in time and space.  That really doesn't leave much room for the evolution of anything, and evolution is the unifying principle of the biological sciences, thus, making claims coming from those sciences very suspect. Two other factors make it difficult for environmental issues to enter into Christian theologies of the  Christian Right.  The first is the focus of many of these theologies on an immediately pending apocalypse at the end of which is predicted , the return of Jesus, the Christian Son of God. You see, if the perousia is just around the corner, why worry about warming temperatures, melting ice, and the extinction of species.  A second factor is the focus of the ultraconservative Christians on political power.  On the far Christian Right, the Dominionist movement, according to their leadership, is dedicated to insuring that the US becomes a Christian nation that will be the primary building block in a Global Christian empire.  These predisposition to apocalypse and the development of a theocratic Christian nation in the United States block any attention to environmental concerns, except as a cause to rally against.

Moving on from the Christian far right or ultraconservatives, to the conservative, within the big Christian tent, that is those who are Evangelical Christian but not necessarily literalists or fundamentalists, or dominionists, (and who do not believe that to be Christian one must be a member of the US Republican Party) we encounter a shift in thinking toward a stewardship in which humanity is charged by God with the responsibility of caring for the Creation. We are, according to these perspectives, God's stewards on Earth.  But these folks struggle with the nature of that stewardship.  What does it mean to be God's steward? What relationship do we have to the other species of the Creation? What is it that we are asked by God to do in terms of Earth and all of her habitats and inhabitants? What does Jesus drive asks the Christian evangelical Jim Ball? And, how does all of this fit in with the primary concern of Christianity, that being the salvation of the individual soul?
How about at the center of things, with the Mainline churches? Here we find  a great and wonderful stew of intellect and activity with Anglicans, Catholics, Lutherans, Orthodox, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and many other denominations and sects.  It is here, at the center, if you will, that we find the theological concept that God is, somehow, fully expressed in the smallest particle of the universe, the smallest quanta of energy, and the least significant of the natural processes.
If we take one more step and look at what are referred to as postdenominational, and similar theologies, sometimes referred to as 'progressive,' we can add cosmogenesis to the broadening paradigms. From a theological sense, cosmogenesis views the universe and God as coevolving. Some form of evolutionary thought is at the root of cosmogenic theologies. On this end of the spectrum we see humanity opening itself up to the rest of creation, embracing it as being integral with humanity. Here, we encounter the use of concepts such as 'oneness' and 'unity' to relate humanity to the fullness of creation. In these theologies, even God may be viewed as evolving.
We could take the same journey that we just have with Christianity and visit the entire communion of green saints and, if we did, we would find essentially the same things happening whether it is Hindu, Baha'i, Islam, or any of the other religious faiths of the human project. The important point is that religion and theology are greening and will continue to do so. I would suggest that religious focus on the environment is an irreversible theme of theological inquiry and religious life.
In the current age we spend a lot of time looking out at the stars and wondering if we are alone in the universe. May I suggest that we are not alone. We share Earth with millions of other species. We are not alone and we have never been alone. We just act that way, and I think that the time for change has long come.

(For a referenced version of these thoughts please go to, look down the left side of the page and click on Interdisciplinary Initiative.)

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Transitions Part I

In the early 2000’s I was appointed a Fellow with the Green Institute ( During that time I studied, analyzed, and wrote about the increasingly intense activity at the intersection of religion, theology, and environment.  Around the same time, I was instrumental in forming the Religion and Conservation Biology Working Group within the Society for Conservation Biology( I am President Emeritus of this organization and an active member.
 NASA Photo
Over the past several decades we have experienced a growing ecological awareness, nationally and internationally, on a number of cultural levels, in many different sectors of society, and in a number of other societies and cultures. Along with this awareness has come an increased anxiety about the ways in which humans impact Earth and its resources and the results of these impacts on human well-being and the well-being of Earth.

The first views of an apparently very fragile Earth from space, those incredible pictures call Earthrise taken from the surface of the Moon, the publication of the disturbing book Silent Spring (Carson 1962) and the developing awareness of the impacts of human population increase and climate change, have all worked to establish a perception that the planet faces environment crisis of serious magnitudes.

Other forces were also at work at that time.  The dawning of the Age of Aquarius in the 1960's and 1970's and the influence of the so-called 'new religions' or 'New Age' religions had an increasing role in informing the religious communities in the West of possible links between religion and environment. The evolution of the science of ecology, the development of the interdisciplinary field of conservation biology, and the growing sophistication of the environmental sciences as well as the focus on the plight of an increasing number of species had much to do with raising general and religious consciousness. Anthropological studies contributed to the knowledge that humanity had always been fairly hard on the environment it occupied, often with disastrous results. Sociological studies and a lot of direct observation made it obvious to even the most skeptical that bad environmental choices and practices often fall most heavily on the poor and dispossessed.

All of this activity, and much more, converged to inform and energize the mainline Christian denominations in the West and, increasingly, religions world-wide, at least those that were not already energized. It was, therefore, inevitable that religion and theology would be drawn into growing environmental concerns. The question was, "If we are on the edge of environmental crisis what role, if any, did theology and religion play in the crisis and what role or roles might theology  and religion assume in helping to resolve the crisis?

There were those who placed the blame for environmental degradation directly at the door of religion and theology. The most famous of these accusers was historian Lynne White who, in his 1967 paper The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis, (Science, Vol 155:3767, pp 1203–1207) laid the blame squarely at the foot of Western religion, at the door of Christianity.

Regardless of the seat of blame, theology and religion responded. Some responded more than others and some are still in the process of figuring out if they should respond and, if so, how?  Many denominations and sects if the West, as well as Orthodox Christianity, developed formal statements linking their denomination to environmental and Earth care issues.  This is increasingly true for all except the most ultraconservative of those denominations and sects.

The growing interest in the relationship between religion and ecology is nowhere more apparent than the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology and the earlier efforts of Harvard University's Center for the Study of World Religions to codify these relationships.  The Harvard project has produced a number of books on this subject in what is called the 'Religion and Ecology' series. The academic response has not ended with books and is not limited to Yale or Harvard.  Brilliant scholarship has been presented by a growing number of other scholars.  Some schools now offer lower division course work and advanced degrees in the evolving field of ecotheology. The American Academy of Religion's biannual meetings have specific sections that offer papers in ecological theology and praxis. These session are well attended and present a rich offering of thought linking religion and ecological and environmental issues, across the span of the religions of the world.  The academic effort continues with the recent formation of International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture and its journal Religion and Nature. Professional societies such as the Society for Conservation Biology, have established working groups to address the relationships between conservation and religion.

(Continued in the next post.)