Opening Comments: Religion, Ecology and Our Planetary Future

October 26, 2016
Robert Neville, Christopher Ives, James Miller, Mary Evelyn Tucker
Speakers Robert Neville, Christopher Ives, James Miller, and Mary Evelyn Tucker / Photo: Ian MacLellan

The following opening overview comments were delivered by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, both of Yale University, on October 14, 2016, at the Religion, Ecology, and Our Planetary Future Conference, held at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. You can read a recap of the conference here.

Setting the Context

We are living in one of the most challenging periods in history—a time when various groups are fiercely claiming particular ethnic, cultural, religious, and national identities—and when conflict is evident in every part of the world. This conflict is being expressed between individuals and nation states, but also between humans and the Earth itself. The assault on the Earth is almost without limits. And many feel this will be our ultimate downfall unless we can avert major ecological breakdown and discover a new role for humans as caretakers of Earth not simply takers of its resources.

This is one of the roles of the field of religion and ecology in this new anthropocene period, as humans become a planetary force.

The promises of modernity have been endless—economic comfort, leisure time, participatory government, and individual freedoms. But these promises appear unattainable for many, as the inequities of some societies, such as the US, become more evident. Moreover, the militarism we have spawned is leading to a destructive arms race around the world, even larger than in the cold war. There is thus a looming sense of uncertainty about the future. We are in need of enduring visions of reality that are healing and sustaining - for the human spirit and for the spirit of the Earth as well. This is where religious and spiritual perspectives have a role to play.

The upheaval that we are experiencing has an uneasy feel to it because there are so few viable ways forward that seem to have authenticity and depth. Our political and economic institutions are failing us. We need not elaborate that here. Our academic institutions with their siloed approach to knowledge seem inadequate to the task of transformation. There is much talk about the need for interdisciplinary courses, but the specialized training and reward systems of academia don’t lend themselves to this approach.

This is why bringing together religion and ecology has been such a challenge—beginning here at Harvard, but in many other contexts as well—both academic and non academic. It is also why being able to celebrate 20 years of this field with you here is remarkable. We are grateful to all who have contributed to the emergence of this new field against opposition, skepticism, or indifference. And we look forward to creating new paths  forward with you.

Here this weekend we have an opportunity to reexamine the traditions of the worlds’ cultures as we seek fresh sources of wisdom for our time. For example, revivals of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism are underway in China along with government attempts to control this growth. A question for us is, can we can assist—Chinese and non-Chinese alike—in encouraging the modern transformation of these traditions for environmental concerns. This is true of all the world’s philosophical and religious traditions.

We are inheriting the wisdom traditions of Asia and the west, as well as those of indigenous peoples in the Americas, the Pacific region, and Africa. These traditions are being reconstructed in the fire of change that is so great as to require each of the world’s wisdom traditions to enter new phases in responding to social and ecological challenges. The question is how can their various particularities be brought forward along with the search for common grounds for the larger Earth community.

Beyond our differences is the call of the Earth itself to a shared future for coming generations. And this will require the efforts of all of us—scholars and activists, spiritual seekers and cultural reformers, religious and non-religious alike. The times too will demand standing up to power and greed, as in the example of the Standing Rock Lakota encamped on the high plains of North Dakota to protect their water, land, and sacred sites. Engaged scholarship is aligned with such transformative change.

Clearly, all the traditions in their modern transformations have special gifts to offer our ecological discussions at this moment in history. We acknowledge (as we did twenty years ago) that they have their problems and their promise. Religions are often otherworldly oriented or doctrinaire and intolerant. They are not THE answer, but one part of the solutions being offered. And their sheer size would indicate that they cannot be ignored. There are more than a billion Muslims, a billion Hindus, a billion Confucians, and two billion Christians. Indeed, the United Nations Environment Programme speaks of religions as the largest Non-Governmental Organizations on the planet and is open to working with religious communities, as we have been doing with them since 1987.

Moreover, we recognize (as we did two decades ago) that broader spiritualities are part of this discussion, not simply institutional forms of religion or the texts or dogmas of traditions; but also the lived practices of people around the world, which are deeply woven into daily life. We recognize elite culture and folk culture can seem quite different and yet they co-exist and mutually shape one another. And finally we acknowledge the syncretic and intertwined nature of these traditions – hybridity abounds in Africa, Latin America, South Asia, and especially in East Asia where the three traditions of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism were often labeled as one.

Science, Education, Economics, and Policy (SEEP) –

These are key dialogue partners who were part of the original conferences and continue to be partners today.

Science – New collaboration with scientists – Encyclical – ESA

Education – Courses being taught on issues that didn’t exist 20 years ago such as Religion and Animals, Food, Climate, Environmental Humanities

Economics – New Economics and Next System of Gus Speth and others

Policy – Sustainability Studies; Global Governance; Ecojustice

Academic Field and Engaged Force of Religion and Ecology

I) Field of Religion and Ecology in Academia

1) Religious studies is a relatively new field arising in public and private universities in the US in the 1950s. In this secular context religious studies moved beyond its denominational origins in theology.

2) Religious studies had its beginnings in a multidisciplinary approach (history, sociology, anthropology). Yet it has had a shared appreciation of religion as an integral dimension of cultures. In its early investigations religious studies explored various experiences of the sacred.

3) Acknowledging the Durkheimian attention to the separation of the sacred and the profane, these studies began to move into world religions and comparative religions. Such cultural studies opened up new language and new approaches to the study of religion.

4) Almost simultaneously interreligious dialogue began to explore practical and conceptual issues regarding the encounter of religious traditions, historically and at present.

5) It is in this context that religion and ecology initially emerged, motivated by the insights from environmental science and policy from the 1970s.

6) Gordon Kaufmann and Richard Niehbur at HDS, Joseph Sittler and John Cobb at Chicago, Paul Santmire, Rosemary Ruether, Sally McFague and others were leaders in these early years in developing this field of religion and ecology

7) In this context, then, and from these thinkers, religion and ecology has emerged from the understanding of ecology as both a science and a metaphor of deep interdependence of genetic, biological, geological, and cosmological interrelationships. In this sense, the question of the origin of religion receded and the dynamic character of lived religion has come to the fore.

8) John’s studies in indigenous traditions, for example, have made us pointedly aware of a term such as ‘lifeway’, which is used to describe the interrelatedness of existence as a seamless sacred circle.

9) As a field, then, religion and ecology has a variety of global expressions, but it focuses on the dynamic and differentiated encounters with nature as a generative matrix that we are now unraveling at our own peril.

Contemporary expressions of the field of religion and ecology-

Publications: Two new major handbooks this year

Routledge Handbook on Religion and Ecology – edited by Willis Jenkins, ME Tucker & John Grim

Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Religion and Ecology – edited by John Hart

Adding to the valuable handbooks published by Roger Gottlieb and the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature edited by Bron Taylor

Organizations are Growing:

International Society for Nature, Culture and Religion is now directed by Sara Pike (earlier directed by Bron Taylor)

European Forum for the Study of Religion and the Environment is led by Sigurd Bergman, Forest Clingerman and Celia Dean Drummond

Consortium for the Study of Religion, Ethics, and Society was founded by Lisa Sideris at Indiana University

Six New Jobs:

UC Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Carleton College, St Olaf’s College, Dartmouth, University of North Texas

II) Force of Religion and Ecology in Society

Religion as more than institutions

We know this well from John’s work with indigenous peoples in North America and other parts of the world. Les Sponsel has done valuable work in Spiritual Ecology and Bron Taylor has contributed to formulating Nature and Culture discussions. As in the original conference series we have already suggested that lived practices and “lifeways” shape people’s daily life and seasonal rituals all around the world

Religious Leaders have emerged

Buddhist – Tibetan, Dalai Lama, 17th Karmapa; Confucian scholars such as Tu Weiming have been influential. From the evangelical community the climate scientist, Katharine Heyhoe, has activated evangelical religious leaders to speak out. From the Native American community there are many examples, including in North Dakota the water protection of the Standing Rock Lakota.

Religious Organizations growing in the US

Interfaith Power and Light is in nearly every state. These organizations have been very active - Green Faith in New Jersey, Faith in Place in Chicago, Earth Ministry in Seattle, Interreligious Ecojustice Network – Hartford Ct

Documents and Statements

There are now statements from all the world’s religions on the moral dimensions of environment issues (especially climate change) that did not exist 20 years ago. There was a strong presence at the People’s Climate March in September 2014 and at the COP conference in Paris in December 2015.

Papal Encyclical Laudato Si

This is surely one of the most notable examples of the movement of religion and ecology coming into full visibility. Addressed to all peoples on the planet, it is already influencing the world’s two billion Christians. In the encyclical Pope Francis highlights an integral ecology that brings together moral concerns for both humans and the Earth.

In this context Francis suggests that ecology, economics, and equity are intertwined. Healthy ecosystems depend on a just economy that fosters equity. Endangering ecosystems with an exploitative economic system is causing immense human suffering and inequity. In particular, the poor and most vulnerable are threatened by climate change, although they are not the major cause of the climate problem. The Pope acknowledges the need for believers and non-believers alike to help renew the vitality of Earth’s ecosystems and expand systemic efforts for equity. He provides a cosmological and ecological context for this ecojustice agenda. For the last 20 years we have been advisors along with Leonardo Boff and Sean McDonagh to a series from Orbis Books on Ecology and Justice. A key book in that series is Leonardo’s Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, which is a central theme in the encyclical.

Thus with this encyclical, with many other new publications and growing organizations, with 6 new positions in religion and ecology this year, we can say, with thanks to all of you and thousands of others that the field and force of religion and ecology has indeed emerged over the last two decades. We look forward to seeing even more robust growth in the decades ahead. In so doing, we humans may find our way forward in rejoining the larger community of life.