Religions and Ecology at the Center

October 26, 2016
Sarah Pike and Frédérique Apffel-Marglin
Sarah Pike and Frédérique Apffel-Marglin at a conference reception. / Photo: Ian MacLellan

On October 14-16, 2016, the Center hosted Religion, Ecology, and Our Planetary Future, a major conference marking the twentieth anniversary of the Religions of the World and Ecology Conference series and subsequent book series, and moved forward the work of understanding and transforming the discourse of religions and ecology for the twenty-first century.

The conference brought together experts in the field of ecology and religion nationally and from abroad. Nearly 40 short papers were presented as starters for conversation on tradition-specific issues, questions examined broadly with reference to multiple traditions, and the audience for each session was over 100, thus near the capacity of the Divinity School’s largest space, the Sperry Room.

On Friday night at dinner, donors spoke movingly of their deep commitment to the field, and to this conference as a moment in its forward movement. On Saturday night, Mr. Steven Rockefeller spoke of his own decades-long work on the Earth Charter and myriad related initiatives to bring about real change in how leaders around the world think of and act upon environmental issues.

As the program (PDF) of the conference shows, the topics and papers were very diverse. Many adverted to questions and possibilities arising at the 1996-98 conferences, drawing on strengths specific to the large and small, global and local religions of the world. Yet, too, 20 years later, the speakers were working with a more acute awareness of how deeply interconnected religions are.

The environmental crisis is a crisis of the earth and all living beings on it, and leaves no room for solutions that are simply local or tradition-unique, even if local energies and tradition-specific commitments remain crucial. Speakers showed great sensitivity to urgent environmental themes and practical concerns touching all regions of the earth.

As I had occasion to admit a number of times during the conference, I am not expert in the issues raised. While I am familiar with some of the key resources on the environment of my own Catholic tradition, particularly Pope Francis’ Laudato Si, I have not studied them in depth, nor even focused on pertinent themes in the Hindu traditions I study as a scholar. You will find it interesting to read the comments offered at the start of the conference by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, leaders in 1996-98 and again the weekend.

For my part, I offer four reflections.

First, it was a privilege for the Center, but also a kind of duty, to bring together leading figures in the field of religion and ecology, and thereby help move forward this initiative that faces up to one of today’s most urgent global concerns. The issue of privilege came up during the conference, and the pitfalls of power and status; but as someone said, “If you have privilege, use it for good purposes.” So it is that the Center, at the Divinity School, at Harvard University, was in a good position to work to host a conference bringing together a key community of concerned scholars on one of the great issues of our time.

Second, as was clear to everyone present during the weekend, the work of cherishing, protecting, and restoring the earth and its myriad living beings is not simply scientific and technical work implemented with political support. This stewardship engages us in the many dimensions of our humanity.

The science is crucial, and the realities of politics and power require responsible and mature engagement, the virtues of the skilled negotiator, the good citizen and sometimes the bold prophet. But the deep truths and values of religious traditions, too, require more study and more learning on our part, if we are not sideline believers ready to play their full role in caring for our planet. Whatever we say and do must be corrected, nuanced, and deepened by the truths spoken in all the religious languages of the world, to which we must continue to listen. An environmentalism that would ignore or condescend to the billions of religious believers on earth is itself merely naïve.

Third, to work attentive to the energies and ideals of religious communities worldwide, we need to keep learning from those traditions. It is good, but not enough, to know that some religious people are concerned about the environment and are working to cherish and protect the earth. We must also be learning anew, over and again, from the great and small, old and new, traditions, of their core beliefs, their sacred practices, and their understandings of the divine, the human, and the cosmos.

Even traditions seemingly most familiar to most of us, such as the Christian, are often known by most of us only in small part and superficially; if we are truly to learn and change our ways of thinking and speaking and acting, we need to keep studying our traditions in their detail and teaching them to new generations. On the weekend, the Center and myself were learners; as we move forward, though, our mission to listen to and learn from the religions of the world remains imperative.

Finally, though, and while we ought not speak loosely of a new axial age, there was evidence on the weekend that a new era of global awareness is indeed emerging.

Conversations crisscrossed the globe, ideas and images and news from many different places enriching the conversation. Driven by the many dangers and crises facing us, of which the environment is among the foremost, urgent need is forcing us to admit our common needs and work toward a common good.

Though each of us has specific cultural and historical roots, we are alive, we are mammals, we are humans, all living on our one interrelated earth. And so it is good, too, for the Center, which for nearly 60 years has dedicated itself to the study of world religions, to be host for a gathering that integrated so many global perspectives. How this initiative might continue at the Center and the Divinity School is the topic for another day.

A variety of sponsors made this conference possible, including the V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation and the Germeshausen Foundation, which were sponsors of the original conferences; Mr. and Mrs. Martin and Wendy Kaplan; Yale University’s Forum on Religion and Ecology; and at Harvard, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. Funding allocated by both the Center for the Study of World Religions and Harvard Divinity School, marking its bicentennial year, were essential to making the conference possible. The Center staff, colleagues from the Divinity School, and the expert planning of Marie Schick, conference coordinator, all contributed wonderfully to making the conference so successful and such a watershed moment.

—Francis X. Clooney, S.J., director of the Center for the Study of World Religions