Every year, for the past seven or eight years, Green Institute Science Fellow Tom Baugh, has been invited to give his presentation titled ‘The Greening of Religion and Theology.’ Tom has spoken at universities, churches, in public forums, and at spiritual retreats. Each year Tom looks at what has taken place over the preceding year in order to update his presentation. And, each year Tom finds himself in the ambivalent position of hope because of the great awakening to the roles and responsibilities of religion and theology in helping address the escalating environmental threats to life on Earth and despair because of the increasingly rapid escalation of those threats.

 

 

THE GREENING OF RELIGION AND THEOLOGY IN THE WEST

by

Tom Baugh

Green Institute Science Fellow

 

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 our 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 called Earthrise taken from the surface of the Moon, the publication of the disturbing book Silent Spring (Carson, 1962) in and the developing awareness of the impacts of human population increase and climate change, have all have worked to establish a perception that the planet faces environmental crisis of serious magnitude.

Other forces were also at work during that period. The dawning of the Age of Aquarius in the 1960’s and 1970’s and the influence of the so-called ‘new religions’ or even those referred to as ‘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 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 and, you will notice that this remains the same today with the major impacts from climate change projected to fall most heavily on the poor.

All of this, 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 Lynn White who, in his 1967 paper in the journal Science 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 in the West, as well as Orthodox Christianity now have formal statements linking their denomination to environmental or Earthcare issues. This is especially true for what are called the mainline Christian denominations and increasingly true for all except the most ultraconservative of those denominations and sects identified as evangelical Christian, and even with the ultraconservative, evangelical Christians there has been some movement.

The growing interest in the relationship between religion and ecology is nowhere more apparent than the recent efforts of Harvard University's Center for the Study of World Religions to codify these relationships. The project has produced nine books on the subject in what is called the ‘Religion and Ecology’ series including Christianity (2000), Hinduism (2000), Jainism (2002), Confucianism (1998), Shinto (), Daoism (2001), Buddhism (1997), Judaism (2002), Islam (2003), and Indigenous Traditions (2001). The academic response has not ended with books and is not limited to Harvard. Brilliant scholarship has been presented by a large and increasing number of other authors. Some schools now offer lower division course work and advanced degrees in an evolving field called ecotheology or ecological theology. Many schools honor a dissertation topic on the subject of religion and ecology. The American Academy of Religion’s biannual meetings have specific sections that deal with papers in ecological theology. These sessions are very 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 new journal Religion and Nature .

What paths have theologies and religions taken on these issues? How does this multi-denominational, cross-cultural communion of saints view the trinity of God, humanity, and other nature? Is there a pattern we can discern? If we loosely use the terms ultraconservative, conservatives, 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 is very suspect. Two other factors make it difficult for environmental issues to enter into Christian theologies of the far right. The first is the focus of these theologies on an immediately pending apocalypse at the end of which is predicted, the return of the Christian Son of God Jesus. You see if all of this 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 ultra-conservative Christians on political power. These folks are often associated with what scholars refer to as the ‘dominionist movement.” As one of their spokespeople, Pat Robertson, says their focus is on causing the United States to become a “Christian nation” that will build a ‘global Christian empire.” These predispositions then tend to block any attention to environmental concerns except as a cause to rally against.

Moving on from the Christian far right or ultraconservatives, to the conservatives, within the big Christian tent, that is those who are Evangelical Christians but not necessarily literalists or fundamentalists, or dominionists (Barron 1992 and Diamond 1995) (and do not believe that to be Christian once must be a member of the GOP), we move 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 they struggle with the nature of stewardship. What does it mean to be God’s steward? What relationship do we have to the other species of creation? What is it that we are asked by God to do in terms of Earth and all of her habitats and species? What would Jesus drive, asks the Christian evangelical Jim Ball? And, how does all of this fit in with the primary concern of Christianity, that concern being the salvation of the individual ‘soul?’

Moving on to the Mainline, the center of things, we find a great and wonderful stew of intellect and activity...Anglicans, numerous Catholics, Lutherans, Ortohodox, Christians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and many other denominations and sects. This great boil of thought includes theologians such as Jurgen Moltman (1985), ministers such as Paul Santmire (2000,1985), and an increasing number of academics including Max Oleslager (1994), Steven Bouma-Prediger (1995), Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim (2007). The ecofeminist project is represented by Sallie McFague (1993) and Rosemary Radford Ruether (1992), among others. It is here that we find 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 postmodern, post-denominational, and other theologies, sometimes referred to as ‘progressive,’ we can add cosmogenesis. From a theological sense, cosmogenesis view the universe and God as coevolving. Some form of evolutionary thought is at the root of all 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 evolve.

If this continuum has any validity, and I suspect it does (at least for conversational purposes), we move from a fixed cosmos and a fixed nature and a utilitarian response to other nature to a coevolving universe and nature and a co-responsibility with the deity for the care of nature. From Right to Left, we move from exclusiveness to inclusiveness. There is quite a span between the two poles of this continuum and I don’t think there has been another time in the history of the US republic when that span has been so obvious…not even during the famous Scopes ‘Monkey Trial.’

And this brings us to another issue, what does all of this mean in terms of issues such as environment and public policy? As anyone who has looked at the situation can tell, the idea of the separation of church and state implied for the US is most often misunderstood and is more myth than reality. If you have any doubt about this all one has to do is to look at the current relationship between Mr. Bush and what are often referred to as his ‘base,’ the ultra-right wing Christian movements. Although this situation has not always been as codependent on a national scale as it is today, it certainly has been so on a regional scale. So, to a greater or lesser degree, religion has always played a significant role in the US republic and it continues to do so. We can see all of this reflected in many ways in terms of how environmental issues are handled in the US republic.

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.

Tom Baugh
Hidden Springs

THE AUTHOR

In addition to 30 years experience in science information, natural resource management, and conservation biology with two federal agencies and one university, Tom Baugh is also a multidisciplinary professional with graduate education and degrees in biology/ecology and religion/theology. In addition to being Science Fellow with the Green Institute, Tom is a member of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, the Society for Conservation Biology, the Forum on Religion and Ecology and the Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture. In addition, Tom is a member of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) where he serves on the Species Survival Commission and the Commission on Ecosystem Management. Tom’s publications include an entry in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature.

 


REFERENCES

Barron, B. 1992. Heaven on Earth? The social & political agendas of Dominion theology. Grand Rapids, MI. Zondervan.

Bernard, R. 2004. Shinto and ecology: Practice and orientations to nature. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.

Bouma-Prediger, S. 1995. American Academy of Religion, Scholars Press. Atlanta, GA.

Carson, R. 1962. Silent Spring. Boston, MA. Houghton Mifflin.

Chapple, C.K. 2002. Jainism and ecology: Nonviolence in the Web of Life. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.

Chapple, C.K. and M.E. Tucker. 2000. Hinduism and ecology: The intersection of earth, sky, and water. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.

Diamond, S. 1995. Roads to dominion: Right-wing movements and political power in the United States. New York. Guilford Press.

Foltz, R.C., F.M. Denny, and A. Baharuddin, eds. 2003. Island and ecology: A bestowed trust. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.

Girardot, N.J., J. Miller, and Liu Xiaogan. 2001. Daoism and ecology: Ways within a cosmic landscape. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.

Grim, J., ed. 2001. Indigenous traditions and ecology: The interbeing of cosmology and community. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.

Hessel, D.T. and R.R. Ruether. 2000. Christianity and ecology: Seeking the well-being of earth and humans. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.

McFague, S. 1993. The body of God: An ecological theology. Minneapolis, MN. Augsburg Fortress.

Moltmann, J. 1985. God in Creation: A new theology of creation and the spirit of God. San Francisco, CA. Harper and Row.

Oelschlaeger, M. 1994. Caring for Creation: An ecumenical approach to the environmental crisis. New Haven, CN. Yale University Press.

Ruether, R.R. 1992. Gaia and God. San Francisco CA. Harper Collins.

Santmire, H.P. 2000. Nature reborn: The ecological and cosmic promise of Christian theology. Minneapolis, MN. Fortress Press.

Santmire, H.P. 1985. The travail of Nature: The ambiguous ecological promise of Christian theology. Minneapolis, MN. Fortress Press.

Tirosh-Samuelson, H. 2002. Judaism and ecology: Created world and revealed word. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.

Tucker, M.E. and J. Grimm. 2007. The greening of the world’s religions. The Chronicle Review 53(23):B9.

Tucker, M.E. and J. Berthong. 1998. Confucianism and ecology: The interrelation of heaven, earth, and humans. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.

Tucker, M.E. and D. R. Williams. 1997. Buddhism and ecology: The interconnection of dharma and deeds. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.

White, L. 1967. Science The historical roots of our ecologic crisis. Science 1255:1203-7.

Wilson, E.O. 2006. The Creation: An appeal to save life on earth. New York.

W.W. Norton.

Published May, 2007

In
addition to 30 years experience in science information, natural
resource management, and conservation biology with two federal agencies
and one university, Tom Baugh is also a multidisciplinary professional
with graduate education and degrees in biology/ecology and
religion/theology. In addition to being Science Fellow with the Green
Institute, Tom is a member of the American Institute of Biological
Sciences, the Society for Conservation Biology, the Forum on Religion
and Ecology and the Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and
Culture. In addition, Tom is a member of the World Conservation Union
(IUCN) where he serves on the Species Survival Commission and the
Commission on Ecosystem Management. Tom’s publications include an entry
in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature.

Please cite this manuscript as follows: Baugh, T. 2007. The greening of religion and theology in the West. The Green Institute. http://s26231.gridserver.com/?q=node/11



[1] For example, the far right of the Christian movement under the influence and control of people like James Dobson of Focus on the Family, was recently rebuffed by the National Association of Evangelicals. The NAE feels that being involved in the campaign to get global warming under control is a valid effort for the Christian evangelical churches.

 

[2] see http://environment.harvard.edu/religion/publications/books/index.html

[3] See www.religionandnature.com

[4] Some
years back…during the Regan administration, I was working on endangered
species issues for a federal agency at the time when James Watts was
Secretary of the Interior. Secretary Watts
believed that the end of times was near and could see no reason, beyond
the fact that the Congress had made it law, to give much attention to
protecting species.

[5] In
his recent book ‘The Creation’ (2006) biologist E.O. Wilson reaches out
to the conservative side of Christianity asking them for help in
reversing species loss and environmental degradation
.

[7] If you have any doubt about the close relationship of church and state, you should have been with me on Friday April 6. I
attempted to call the office of the North Carolina Attorney General and
got a recorded message telling me the office was closed for the
‘holiday.’ It didn’t sink in, so later in the day I tried to deliver our recycling to the local landfill. It was closed. Finally, it did sink in. Friday
April 6 was the observance of the Christian ‘Good Friday’ event…a
religious day of observance of only one of the religions in America…but with much of government closed.

 

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