Ecology and Religion: An Overview
Ecology and Religion: An Overview
ECOLOGY AND RELIGION: AN OVERVIEW
Religion and ecology is an emerging area of study, research, and engagement that embraces multiple disciplines, including environmental studies, geography, history, anthropology, sociology, and politics. This article will survey the field of study and some of the broader movements of religion and ecology. The field of study responds to both historical and contemporary quests for understanding the interrelationships of humans, Earth, cosmos, and the sacred. This field involves explorations of such topics as the creative and destructive dynamics of nature, divine presence and purpose in nature and the cosmos, the ways in which environments have shaped and been shaped by human culture, the symbolic expression of nature in myth and rituals, and the understanding of ecology as displayed in traditional practices of agriculture, commerce, fishing, or hunting. In short, it explores the complex and varied systems of human-Earth relations as expressed in religious traditions.
Religions are often thought to concentrate primarily on divine-human relations that aim at personal salvation or liberation from earthly travails. They also emphasize the importance of social and ethical relations between humans. The intersection of religion and ecology opens up for further investigation the broad interactions of humans as individuals and as communities with the natural world and the universe at large. It underscores the many ways that humans locate themselves by means of religious cosmologies within a universe of meaning and mystery. It explores the varieties of human flourishing in relation to nature, whether those interactions reflect reciprocity or respect, domination or manipulation, celebration or submission. It suggests as well that human interaction with the sacred often occurs in and through nature and the larger cosmos.
Religions have acknowledged that simultaneously with ongoing seasonal and geological changes there is a wholeness and a holiness in the earth. This evolving cycle of life and death is, in part, what has engaged religious systems seeking to integrate their intricate symbolic and ritual structures with life processes. Life, death, and rebirth in the natural world are frequently symbolized in religious traditions. This alignment of the passage of human life with natural systems constitutes a profound dynamic of religious energy expressed in cosmological myths, symbols, and rituals. Along with this alignment, religions have developed injunctions against overuse of land and species found in numerous scriptures. This interweaving of cosmological religious thought and environmental ethics is explored in the study of religion and ecology.
As an emerging field, religion and ecology is still defining its scope and limitations. The field embraces both descriptive and historical studies as well as prescriptive and constructive theologies. Most scholars in the field do not presume that environmentally friendly scriptural passages imply environmentally sensitive practices. Moreover, scholars acknowledge the vastly different historical contexts in which religious traditions evolve by comparison to current environmental problems. Nonetheless, some scholars of the world's religions have suggested that there are both concepts and practices from these traditions that can be integrated into discussions of environmental policy and ethics. For example, the Islamic concepts in the Qurʾān regarding tawḥīd (unity of creation), mizan (balance), and amānah (trust or stewardship) reflect values that have been interpreted in relation to the natural world. Furthermore, Islamic practices such as hima (protected sanctuaries) and ḥaram (sacred precincts) represent ancient customs whose contemporary environmental implications are currently being explored. It is the premise of many scholars of religion and ecology that the religions offer intellectual energy, symbolic power, moral persuasion, institutional structures, and a commitment to social and economic justice that may contribute to the transformation of attitudes, values and practices for a sustainable future. Yet scholars also recognize the challenges of historical complexities, the inevitable gaps between ideas and practices, and the extremes of idealizing or dismissing particular religions. Academics have written of the dangers of idealizing the "noble savage" or "noble oriental" in this regard. Correctives to such idealizations can be found in environmental history, which is itself a newly emerging field. These historical studies will help to shed light on actual environmental practices of various cultures, influenced in part by their religious traditions.
Diversity and Dialogue of Religions
The world's religions are inherently distinctive in their expressions, and these differences are especially significant in regard to the study of religion and ecology. Several types of religious diversity can be identified. First, there is historical and cultural diversity within and among religious traditions as expressed over time in varied social contexts. For example, Buddhism arose in India, spread to Southeast Asia and north across the Silk Road through Central Asia to China, and to Korea, Japan, and the West. This geographical expansion is paralleled by strikingly different cultural expressions of Buddhist thought and practice.
Second, there is dialogic and syncretic diversity within and among religious traditions. This does not override the historical and cultural diversity but instead adds another level of complexity. Dialogue and interaction between traditions engenders the sedimentation and synthesis of religious traditions into one another. This often results in new forms of religious expression that can be described as syncretic, the commingling of religions, or hybrid—the fusion of religions into new expressions. Such creative expressions occurred when indigenous peoples in the Americas adapted Christianity into local settings. In East Asia there is an ongoing dialogue between and among Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism that has resulted in various kinds of syncretism.
Third, there is cosmological and ecological diversity within and among religions. Religious traditions develop unique narratives, symbols, and rituals to express their relationships with the cosmos and with local landscapes. In Daoism the body is an energetic network of breathings-in and breathings-out that expresses a basic dialogical pattern of the cosmos. Through this process individuals open themselves to the inner meditative landscape that represents a path of organic unity with the cosmos.
Ecological diversity is evident in the varied environmental contexts and bioregions where religions have developed over time. For example, Jerusalem is the center of a larger sacred bioregion where three religious traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have both shaped and been shaped by the environment. However, the formation and expression of symbols, rituals, laws and community life within these religions in relation to urban, piedmont, hill country, and desert settings that constitute "Jerusalem" are historically quite different. These complex interactions illustrate that religions throughout history have interacted in myriad ways with their natural settings.
In the field of religion and ecology, religions may be broadly understood as a means whereby humans, recognizing the limitations of phenomenal reality, undertake specific practices to effect self-transformation and community cohesion within a cosmological context. Religions are vehicles for cosmological stories, symbol systems, ritual practices, ethical norms, historical processes, and institutional structures that transmit a view of the human as embedded in a world of meaning and responsibility, transformation and celebration. Religions connect humans with a divine or numinous presence, with the human community, and with the broader Earth community. They link humans to the larger matrix of mystery in which life arises, unfolds, and flourishes.
Nature is seen in this light as a revelatory context for orienting humans to abiding religious questions regarding the cosmological origins of the universe, the meaning of the emergence of life, and the responsible role of humans in these life processes. Religions thus situate humans in relation to both the natural and human worlds with regard to meaning and responsibility. This may be a limiting or liberating experience. For example, religious ideas regarding nature may have deep associations with social beliefs and practices that are seen as unchanging ideals authorizing hegemonic ideologies. At the same time, religions may become a means for experiencing a sustaining creative force in the natural and human worlds and beyond. For some traditions this is a creator deity, for others it is a numinous presence in nature, and for others it is the source of flourishing life.
This experience of a creative force gives rise to a human desire to enter into transformative processes that link self, society, and cosmos. The term anthropocosmic refers to the linkage in which the microcosm of the individual is connected to the larger human community and to the macrocosm of the universe itself. The anthropocosmic impulse is for relationality, intimacy, and communion with this numinous reality. Individual and communal transformations are expressed through rituals and ceremonies that celebrate natural seasonal cycles as well as various cultural rites of passage. Religions link humanity to the rhythms of nature through the use of symbols and rituals that help to establish moral relationships and patterns for social exchange.
The term ecology, as it is used here, locates the human within the horizon of emergent, interdependent life rather than seeing humanity as the vanguard of evolution, the exclusive fabricator of technology, or a species apart from nature. The term is also used here—rather than the term environment, which can suggest something apart from humans—to indicate the dynamic interaction of humans with nature. Scientific ecology is used to indicate the empirical and experimental study of the relations between living and nonliving organisms within their ecosystems. While drawing on the scientific understanding of interrelationships in nature, the term religious ecology is used here to point toward a cultural awareness of kinship with and dependence on nature for the continuity of all life. Religious ecology provides a basis for exploring diverse cultural responses to the varied Earth processes. In addition, the study of religious ecology gives insight into how particular environments have influenced the development of cultures. Therefore, one can distinguish religious ecology from scientific ecology, just as one can distinguish religious cosmology from scientific cosmology.
This awareness of the interdependence of life in religious ecology finds expression in the religious traditions as a sacred reality that is often recognized as a creative manifestation, a pervasive sustaining presence, a vital power in the natural world, or an emptiness (śūnyatā ) leading to the realization of interbeing. For many religions, the natural world is understood as a source of teaching, guidance, visionary inspiration, revelation, or power. At the same time, nature is also a source of food, clothing, and shelter. Thus, religions have developed intricate systems of exchange and thanksgiving in relation to human dependence on animals and plants, on forests and fields, and on rivers and oceans. These encompass symbolic and ritual exchanges which frequently embody ecological knowledge of ecosystems, agricultural processes, or hunting practices.
The study of religion and ecology explores the many ways in which religious communities articulate relationships with their local landscapes and bioregions. Religious ecology gives insight into how people and cultures create complex symbolic systems from their perceived relationships with the world, as well as practical means of sustaining and implementing these relations. In other words, these symbolic systems are frequently embodied in hunting, agricultural, and ceremonial practices that reflect respect for the mystery of life, along with ritual exchanges for appropriate interactions with nature, especially as a source of nourishment for body and spirit.
Historical Background in the West
While movements of religion and ecology can be found worldwide, the field of religion and ecology is largely situated in academic settings in the West. With the growing critique of the unintended ecological and social consequences of globalization, a period of intense self-reflection has emerged in the West. The causes of environmental destruction have sometimes been traced to particular views of nature in Western philosophy and religion. Some of the varied and intertwined conceptualizations of cosmology, nature, and religion that have arisen in Western thought are explored here. Significant conceptualizations have also emerged, for example, in South Asian thought regarding rita (cosmological order) and deva (natural forces); in East Asian explorations of dao (the Way) and qi (material force); in Buddhist reflections on pratityasamutpada (dependent origination); and in Indigenous lifeways regarding relationality to spirits in nature. However, other articles explore the multiple contributions of South Asian, East Asian, and Indigenous traditions, as well as the Abrahamic traditions.
The first formulation of an incipient environmental philosophy in the West is often attributed to the Airs, Waters, and Places of Hippocrates. This work describes the close formative influences of environment on peoples and their cultures. Concepts regarding the environment were actively explored in Hellenistic thought under the category of oikumene, or community of the inhabited world. These philosophical developments went beyond, but also complemented, ancient ideas of personification of natural forces in the classical religions of the Mediterranean region. Various Indo-European and Semitic myths of creation posited a universe of correspondences between material realities, cosmic bodies, and deities that mapped out personal identity, social stability, and cosmic hierarchies. Pagan worship in the Mediterranean world ritualized ancient ideas that brought self, society, and cosmos into meaningful relation, and the Hellenistic philosophers reformulated many of these ideas. Among Stoic thinkers the linkage between cosmology and ethics gave rise to a sense of cosmopolitan citizenship as a way for humans to participate in the divine order. One of the most significant and longest lasting concepts for describing the gradations of the natural and human worlds was that of a hierarchical view of life often imaged as a chain or ladder. Such a great chain of being effectively brought together Platonic and Aristotelian worldviews and provided the grounds for elevating humans above nature.
Cosmological concepts also commanded significant attention within the Abrahamic traditions derived from the attribution of creation to a monotheistic God. Both Rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity drew on the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Gen. 1:26–28; Jb. 26:8–13; and Ps. 65:5, 11–13) and Greek Platonic thought (e.g., Timaeus and Paul's epistles) to articulate ideas of design and order in nature as reflecting the power of the Divine Creator. The land ethic in the Hebrew tradition and the value of wilderness as places of encounter with the divine also passed into Christianity. Similarly, in Israel symbolic clusters were associated with shepherding in the hill country and agricultural productivity in the piedmont region. Such clusters were linked with the idea of a cosmic center in Jerusalem with which one could map the entire known world. Mapping the local and mapping the universe, or cosmography, often overlapped in cultures. These distinctive cosmological concepts coalesced around the Jewish and Christian notions of God's divine plan for creation. This is evident in the hexaemeron literature of the early Church Fathers describing the six days of creation, as well as in the writings of Philo, Origen, and Augustine.
Along with the sense of divine order in creation, another biblical and Qurʾanic theme is God's loving care for creation. This is manifest in the imagery of the Song of Songs in the Hebrew scriptures, the parables of Jesus in the New Testament, and those passages in the Qurʾān evoking ihsan, love, care, and beauty. Individuals who embodied this quest for devotional love of the divine through the natural world include Qabbalistic and Hasidic teachers in Judaism like Baʿal Shem Tov, Christian figures like Bernard of Clairvaux and Francis of Assisi, and Jalāluddīn Rūmī among the many Ṣūfī masters of Islam. While this devotional exuberance inspired many in these traditions, the scholastic thinkers sought to circumscribe this experiential enthusiasm with more rational views of God, humans, and creation.
Scholastic thought in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam reflects the influence of the classical ideas of a divinely ordained beginning, an order to creation, the godlike form of creatures, and of nature as a work, like a product, resulting from an applied technique. God as manifest in His works became identified with views of the Divine as Artisan who contained within Himself the Divine Forms as articulated by Plato. Many Western thinkers depicted nature as similar to a scriptural book that revealed the mysteries and the mind of the Creator. However, like humans who suffered from the sin of the original fall, nature aged and experienced decay. It might be said that in all the Abrahamic traditions there is an ambivalence regarding nature. On the one hand, in Christianity nature is seen as good, as at the Nicene Council, and yet fallen, as in the writings of Augustine and Calvin. On the other hand, in different expressions in Judaism and Islam nature is at once God's handiwork as well as a potential place of chaos requiring transcendence.
Nature was worthy of admiration by humans only if that wonder and esteem was associated with the love of God. It is in this context that Ibn Sīnā, Ibn Rushd, Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas and other scholastic thinkers of the medieval period reinvigorated the direct investigation of nature based on Aristotle's notion that form is embedded in the world of matter. For example, in the Summa contra gentiles, Thomas Aquinas affirmed a diversity of created forms as coming closest to manifesting the divine. He wrote that, "The presence of multiplicity and variety among created things was therefore necessary that a perfect likeness to God be found in them according to their manner of being." (Bk. 1, chap. 45, para. 2) Despite this cosmological orientation within Christianity, as Roman Catholicism became dominant in Europe, it nonetheless suppressed indigenous nature-based religions and frequently leveled sacred groves and built churches on sacred sites. Thus, while such a devotional figure as Bernard of Clairvaux experienced a deep mystical union with the divine he also sought to tame the wild growth of the Clairvaux valley in France as an expression of that devotion.
The sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation did not significantly alter fundamental ambivalences within Christianity toward the natural world. Rather, with John Calvin and Martin Luther it deepened a sense of the fallen character of nature, emphasizing a need to control the wild and chaotic dimensions of the world. Thus, as Protestantism spread to the Americas it subtly engendered a fear of both new lands and new peoples as manifestations of the wild and chaotic. This resulted in a justification for the extraction of resources and the exploitation of peoples and animals as irrational, dark, chthonic entities. Such an objectifying worldview where the divine rested more fully in a transcendent realm accorded with emerging scientific perspectives evident in scientists such as Francis Bacon who advocated the torture of a feminine nature to make her reveal secrets.
By early modern times the discoveries of the Americas caused major revisions of Western cosmology and introduced a range of new ideas that refuted the presumed flatness, as well as the aging and senescence, of the Earth. Explorers noted the limits of the Earth's productivity, while increasingly observing a balance and harmony in nature evident both in the web of life and its potential loss in environmental destruction. By the seventeenth century in the West, philosophers such as Barukh Spinoza and natural theologians such as George Burnet, John Woodward, and John Ray, emphasized the order of the universe, nature's inherent design, its interrelationships, productivity, and capacity for positive manipulation and control. Enlightenment thought in the eighteenth century helped to shift conventional Western cosmology even further from a theological perspective focused on a personal Creator actively involved in creation to a predominantly scientific view of the universe as operating under machine-like principles.
As a result of the scientific revolution and Enlightenment thought, some theologians gradually muted their ideas about final cause and purpose in the universe itself. They broadly accepted the notion of Deism that God created nature with inherent mechanistic relationships that carried the whole cosmos forward. The presence of God's revelation in creation began to diminish for some Western religious thinkers. Thus, the revelatory character of nature was replaced by a linear unfolding of divine creation that connected God's care for creation and the ancient design arguments with the Deist notion of a clockwork universe. Deism and mechanism opened the way for the further objectification of nature.
The Romantic movement of nineteenth-century Europe, in reaction to the rational, objectifying emphases of the Enlightenment, brought a resurgence of the understanding of nature as vital, dynamic, and, for some, revelatory of the mind of God. Drawing on the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, such as The Reveries of a Solitary Walker, Romantic writers like Johann Fichte, Johann Herder, Friedrich Schelling, and Johann Goethe returned to the direct experience of nature as a way toward unity or harmony with the sacred in nature. This type of personal revelatory experience of nature was troubling to the orthodox teachers of the Abrahamic traditions because it fostered a religious path in nature apart from the authorized scriptures. The Romantic contemplation of nature later influenced the American transcendentalists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, as well as such early environmentalists as John Muir and John Burroughs.
By the twentieth century, religious traditions in the West had largely relegated cosmology and the understanding of Earth's geological development and biological diversity to the domain of Earth science and life science. Salvation history became identified with a Western anthropocentric view of salvation focused exclusively on the human existentialist condition apart from the world of nature. The focus on the individual that characterized both Protestant Reformation views of personal salvation and Enlightenment views of political liberties resulted in a highly anthropocentric view of the human as above nature. While Darwinism resituated Western anthropocentrism in an evolutionary worldview, an abiding tension surfaced in fundamentalist Christianity with its emphasis on the uniqueness of God's creation and the knowledge of reality and revelation localized in the Bible and not in nature.
Many critics have cited Western anthropocentrism in both its philosophical and religious expressions as an obstacle to a more comprehensive environmental ethics. They suggest that this anthropocentrism, in combination with the objectification of nature fostered by the scientific method of observation, has resulted in the economic exploitation of nature and consumption of its resources with little sense of restraint or limits.
Significant critiques of Western anthropocentrism and the objectification of nature are found in the work of Lynn White and Arne Naess, among others. The provocative essay of Lynn White titled "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis" (1967) challenged many theologians and biblical scholars to explore the relationship of religion to the environmental crisis. White argued that the technological impact of humans on the planet's ecology has been largely deleterious. This is in part due to the influence of Christianity as a highly anthropocentric religion emphasizing a transcendent God removed from nature. These notions, White felt, contributed significantly to the desacralization of nature and, thus, to the ability to exploit nature without awareness of the consequences. White recommended alternative forms of Christianity, especially the comprehensive compassion for life of Francis of Assisi, whom White proposed as a patron saint for ecologists.
The Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess has also articulated an influential corrective to these positions of anthropocentrism and the objectification of nature. In Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered (1985), Bill Devall and George Sessions introduced Naess' concept of "deep ecology," which emphasizes the intrinsic ethical value of the natural world. They drew on Advaita Vedānta thought in Hinduism to emphasize human "self-realization" that recognized the larger dependence of humans on the entire community of life. This position also relied on the natural philosophy of Barukh Spinoza that highlights the unity of the divine in the natural world. Deep ecology has promoted a biocentric equality and the radical interdependence of species as values needed for protection of species diversity—both biological and cultural.
Such complex perspectives on nature in Western thought come into relief when considering anthropocentric responses to the first image of the Earth from the moon in 1969. One response can be characterized as a feeling of liberation similar to an ancient, classical Greek view of freedom from the constraints of the human condition that had been bound by the natural world. A second response follows from an appreciation of the beauty of the blue-green planet akin to a Romantic perspective that seeks to know this beauty more deeply through experience and contemplation. A third response reflects a thoroughly modern hubris derived from human technological accomplishments that sees the future of the Earth as a controlled, dominated, and managed sphere. The world's religious traditions themselves are influenced by these views. Yet, they continue to generate diverse responses by imaging the Earth from the standpoints of different cosmologies.
The Study of Religion and Ecology in North America
The field of religion and ecology arises from two disciplines that came more fully into the North American academy after the Second World War, namely, the study of religion and the science of ecology. Religious studies surfaced in the postwar era as an academic field focused on an analysis of religious experiences, myths, rituals, symbols, texts, and institutions. Distancing itself from creedal positions, religious studies developed as a distinctive area from theology that emphasizes particular denominational interpretations of religious life. The earlier emergence of the history of religions and comparative religions was an important spur to religious studies. This had taken place in nineteenth-century Europe under the leadership of such scholars as F. Max Müller, who helped translate the Sacred Books of the East, and James Legge, who translated the Chinese Classics. Moreover, the appearance of the phenomenology of religion, the anthropology of religion, and the sociology of religion also prepared the grounds for a broader understanding of religion. A growing awareness of cultural diversity and the postwar affluence of the 1950s were accompanied by significant legal cases that made possible the establishment of departments of religion in higher education in North America. Previously, the study of religion had been largely confined to seminaries and schools of theology; now religion could be studied in the academy. Both undergraduate and graduate departments of religion thus emerged in the North American context.
The German biologist Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology in 1866 as a combination of the Greek words oikos (house) and logos (science). The academic discipline in North America can be dated from the founding of the Ecological Society of America in 1915. As a field of study in higher education and as a movement for conservation it has come more fully into its own in the postwar period. The founding of the Nature Conservancy, which was established from the Ecological Society of America, occurred in 1951. This documents the concern and motivation of professional ecologists to preserve natural landscapes. A number of subdisciplines within ecology have emerged. For example, evolutionary ecology developed from a merger of ecology and evolution in the 1960s. The conservation biology subdiscipline developed with its own society in the late 1970s with the express goal of applying ecological principles to conservation issues. Other emerging subdisciplines include restoration ecology and landscape ecology.
Drawing on the natural sciences of biology and chemistry, and the social sciences of economics and politics, ecology has become the basis for interdisciplinary departments of environmental studies that have developed in higher education since the 1980s. In the 1990s the humanities began to participate in environmental studies with the emergence of environmental literature and history as well as environmental ethics, religion, and philosophy. Religious studies have contributed to environmental studies from such varied perspectives as the study of world religions and ecology, ecotheology and ecofeminism, social and environmental ethics, nature religions and alternative environmental movements, and cultural and ritual studies.
The fields of ecology and environmental studies have developed in relation to emerging environmental concerns that spanned the twentienth century. These included the challenging experiences of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, dire predictions regarding growth in human population, glimpses of the limits of production and consumption, and awareness of the loss of species and ecosystems. This inspired an incipient conservation movement that gained attention with the publication of two key books. Fairfield Osborn's Our Plundered Planet (1948) described the devastation already facing many ecosystems. His major concerns focused on species loss and the cascading effects of human population growth. A year later, Aldo Leopold's classic text A Sand County Almanac (1949) called for a new land ethic. A forester with the U.S. Forest Service, Leopold described the land ethic as expanding the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or, collectively, the land. The extension of ethics to the larger environment was, for Leopold, both an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity.
Walter Lowdermilk, a forester with the Soil Conservation Service, anticipated a similar conservation ethic after extensive travel and study of the effects of human civilization on soils. He wrote an essay in Jerusalem in 1940 in which he observed that each nation needed to appeal to national awareness for stewardship of soil and land for future generations. He called this the principle of an Eleventh Commandment. Scientists and others began to explore degradation of land due to industrial-technological processes and the dangers to biological life caused by new chemical compounds. With the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which documented the effects of DDT on bird life, the environmental movement was born.
Approaches within the Study of Religion and Ecology
While the field of religion and ecology arose in Western academic and philosophical contexts, it cannot be dissociated from the changing ideas and practices of the world's religious and cultural traditions, as well as from pressing environmental concerns, both global and local. Scholars in the field may draw on social-scientific studies of how a culture mediates between human populations and ecosystems while also relying on historical, textual, and interpretive studies from the humanities. Various creative approaches have emerged in the study of religion and ecology analyzing the ways in which cultures conceptualize, classify, and value their natural environments. Historical approaches have refuted older studies in this field that tended to fix a culture's ecological insights as synchronic patterns that never changed. Now, the mutual impacts of cultures and environments are more clearly understood as having changed and shaped one another through time. Moreover, postmodern approaches have affected many contemporary researchers in religion and ecology, attuning them to questions about the ways in which human individuals and groups construct systems of meaning and power concerning nature, society, and the environment. Studies of place-based conservation and biodiversity are being integrated with an understanding of religious ecology and sacred place. The mutual relevance of land, life, value, and sustainability are all included in the network of inquiry identified with the intersection of religion and ecology.
While a variety of methodologies are being used in the study of religion and ecology, three interpretive approaches challenge both scholars and the religious traditions themselves: retrieval, reevaluation, and reconstruction. Retrieval tends to be descriptive, while reevaluation and reconstruction tend to be prescriptive. Retrieval refers to the investigation of scriptural, commentarial, legal, and other literate and narrative sources in particular religions for evidence of traditional teachings regarding human-Earth relations. This requires that oral-narrative and historical and textual studies uncover the theoretical resources already present within the tradition. In addition, the method of retrieval examines ethics and rituals present in the tradition in order to discover how the tradition actualized these teachings in practices. Retrieval may be complemented by studies in the environmental history of cultures or geographical areas.
Interpretive reevaluation occurs when a tradition's teachings are evaluated with regard to their relevance to contemporary circumstances. In what ways can the ideas, teachings, or ethics present in these traditions be adopted by contemporary scholars, theologians, or practitioners who wish to help shape more ecologically sensitive attitudes and sustainable practices. Reevaluation also questions ideas that may lead to inappropriate environmental practices. For example, are certain religious tendencies reflective of other-worldly or world-denying orientations that are not helpful in relation to pressing ecological issues? It asks as well whether the material world of nature has been devalued by a particular religion, or whether exclusively human-centered ethics are adequate to address environmental problems.
Finally, reconstruction suggests ways that religious traditions might also adopt its teachings to current circumstances in new and creative ways. This may result in a new synthesis or in a creative adaptation of traditional ideas and practices into modern modes of expression. This is one of the most challenging aspects of the emerging field of religion and ecology and requires discrimination in the transformative adaptation of traditional ideas in relation to contemporary circumstances. Yet there are precedents for this in the ways religions have reshaped themselves over time, as is evident in theology and ethics.
Religious Thinkers Address Environmental Problems
Religious and moral reflections on environmental problems emerged from several Christian theologians in the second half of the twentieth century. One of the first to raise a voice of concern was Joseph Sittler, a Lutheran theologian at the University of Chicago. Writing in the 1950s, he decried the repudiation of Earth by Christians as a distorted reading of the biblical promise as exclusively oriented towards humans. Urging a larger cosmological vision, Sittler called for Christianity to recover a cosmic redemption of all creatures and of creation as a whole. Sittler's influence in the World Council of Churches led to the founding in 1963 of a Faith-Man-Nature group. For some ten years this group brought together leading theologians, such as Paul Albrecht, John Cobb, Philip Hefner, and Paul Santmire, to explore Christian understandings of appropriate human interactions with the environment.
Foremost among those thinkers who have urged Christianity to reconsider its relationship to the environment is the process theologian John Cobb. In the mid-1960s Cobb published A Christian Natural Theology, which reflected a traditional Christian understanding of "natural theology" as theology done within the bounds of reason apart from any reference to the natural world. Cobb's work later moved outside the framework of Kantian philosophy to find a basis in the process thought of Alfred North Whitehead for valuing the natural world and appropriate human interaction within it. Encouraged by the early work of the theologian Joseph Sittler and the biologist Charles Birch, and spurred by his son Clifford's concern for environmental degradation, in 1972 Cobb wrote Is It Too Late? A Theology of Ecology. Over the years Cobb has critiqued the harmful effects of growth-oriented economies on the community of life, especially in his work with the economist Herman Daly (For the Common Good ). He and Daly challenged conventional economics, seeing it as engineered to promote development despite the environmental and social costs.
In 1972 Gordon Kaufman also published a seminal article, "A Problem for Theology: The Concept of Nature." Here, and in his later work, In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (1993), he raised challenging questions about the anthropocentric model of God as developed in Christianity and the relationship of traditional models of God to creation. Kaufman critiqued the nature and names of the monotheistic, transcendent God that tends to distance humans from the sense of the sacred as residing in the natural world. He urged a new bio-historical understanding of humans as embedded in complex processes of "serendipitous creativity" in nature, and thus co-creators with the unfolding Earth processes.
The feminist theologian Sallie McFague has developed some of these ideas further, calling for new images of God as not simply a distant and transcendent father but also as friend and lover. Rosemary Radford Ruether draws on the Gaia hypothesis and ecofeminism for the development of a broader ecotheology. Both of these feminist theologians are indebted to the earlier historical work of Carolyn Merchant (The Death of Nature ), which portrays the use and abuse of nature as comparable to patriarchal domination of women and the disintegration of older organic views of nature in which the sacred was experienced as immanent. Along with ecofeminism there has been an important alignment of social justice and environmental concerns among religious thinkers in both the developed and developing countries. The significance of this movement is that it creates new religious syntheses linking awareness of environmental degradation with insights from economic, political, and social analysis. The liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff, highlights this conjunction, as has the feminist theologian Ivone Gebara. Similarly, the emerging theologies and practices identified with eco-justice and environmental racism within Judaism and Christianity has been fostered by such writers as Roger Gottlieb and Dieter Hessel.
In response to the growing environmental and social crises facing the planet, and aware of the need for new modes of human-Earth relations, Thomas Berry drew on his studies of world religions and cultures to formulate a framework for rethinking cosmology. Beginning in the 1970s, Berry developed the cosmological thought of the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955) to present a radical revisioning of the scientific discoveries of universe emergence as the new cosmological story of our times. After many years of studying world religions and cultures, he published late in his career a sequence of books that elaborated this idea: The Dream of the Earth (1988), The Universe Story (with Brian Swimme, 1992), and The Great Work (1999). Berry understood the central roles of cosmologies in the world's religions as activating community identity, relationship with local bioregions, and communion with the Earth and universe itself. The challenge of contemporary societies, for Berry, is to realize and implement the transformative energies of the new cosmological story to effect a radical revisioning of human-Earth relations. From a cosmological perspective, this entails the transformation of individual and community in ways that foster the flourishing of the whole community of life.
The Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr, while studying science at Harvard University in the 1960s, sensed the limited metaphysics of science and the loss of the transcendental unity he observed among the religions. He has been the leading spokesperson in the Islamic community for drawing attention to the seriousness of the environmental crisis as well as the need for a revival of the cosmological basis of religions where humans are seen as a microcosm of the macrocosm of the universe.
Studies in Anthropology, Cultural Studies, and Geography
Among the cultural theorists who investigated the connection of culture and the environment was the anthropologist Julian Steward, who proposed the study of cultural ecology. His studies of the Shoshone peoples of North America posited relations between the environment and the economic and technological aspects of society. While his work did not address religion directly, it marked a turning point in bringing together social, cultural, and environmental studies.
The Swedish historian of religions Åke Hultkrantz also studied the Shoshone and extended this research in cultural ecology to religion. Hultkrantz sought to understand the creative roles of environmental adaptation by evaluating its direct influences on technological, economic, and material culture, as well as the environment's indirect influences on social formations in specific cultures. Hultkrantz's article "Ecology" in the 1987 Encyclopedia of Religion was the only entry on this topic. He distinguished cultural ecology and geography of religions as the two major sources for modern studies of ecology of religion. Championing Steward's cultural-ecological approach, Hultkrantz stressed study of the impact of environment on religion, both directly through material culture and indirectly through social structures. Hultkrantz revealed how indigenous cultures have a "primary integration" in which religious complexes are ecologically adapted to basic traits of sustenance and technology. Cultures, such as those identified with Christianity and the so-called higher religions, adapted religion to their social structures. These Hultkrantz termed cultures of "secondary integration." Through research, he felt, religio-ecological types could be identified that would assess the interplay between environment and religion, especially among indigenous cultures.
Other anthropologists have contributed to the exploration of the relationships of ecosystems to symbol systems, rituals, and cultural life that have had significant implications for the study of religion and ecology. In Pigs for the Ancestors (1969), Roy Rapport's seminal study of liturgical cycles among the Maring of New Guinea, Rapport suggested that ritual among indigenous peoples functions as a conventional means for maintaining order between social groups and their environments. More than simply proximity to natural environments, then, indigenous peoples have coded into their ritual life a developed wisdom for sustaining their social life in specific environments.
The anthropologist Keith Basso drew attention to the significance of place-names among indigenous peoples, especially the Western Apache of North America. Basso reemphasized the importance of local knowledge about traditional places as connected to a broad array of ideas and values in indigenous communities, such as cosmology, identity, advocacy, and wisdom. In Wisdom Sits in Places (1996) Basso investigated disciplinary rituals and meditational practices in which the Apache "drink from places" so as to "work on the mind." In doing so, he developed an anthropological approach to the study of religion and ecology based on place.
Within medical anthropology, various approaches have developed that describe the interactions of ecological systems and religious beliefs. For example, George Foster and Barbara Anderson, in their work Medical Anthropology (1978), analyzed religions as functional sociocultural systems that adapt to different environments and thus bring new ethnomedical strategies into being. Arthur Kleinman, in Patients and Healers in the Context of Culture (1980), was among the first medical anthropologists to explore the complex relationships of environment, culture, and religious beliefs as impacting healing. Byron Good, in Medicine, Rationality and Experience (1994), challenged the instrumental rationality prevalent in biomedicine as well as functionalist approaches to religion, which he felt were insufficient interpretive tools for understanding the dynamic relationships of environment, religion, and healing. Like Kleinman, Good called for more attention to narratives about ecology, illness, and beliefs that reveal the voices of humane and socially committed individuals and communities.
Early social-science contributions to the study of religion and ecology emerged from the field of geography. In The Geography of Religions (1967), David Soper outlined a range of topics, modes of investigation, and examples of interactions between religious systems and landscapes. The geography of religion explores religions as material, social, and cultural expressions that evolved in relation to environments. Religions are thus viewed as molding environmental space in such diverse ways as ritualization of ecology, spatial and organizational structures, political processes and interactions with other religions. Investigation of these spatial and ecological characteristics of religions has steadily influenced the study of religion.
The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has explored ways in which individuals' affective ties with the environment result from their being simultaneously biological organisms, social beings, and unique individuals with perceptions, attitudes, and values. For Tuan, the neologism topophilia describes this coupling of sentiment with multiple connections to place evident in human cultures. Thus, the images that emerge in religions, for example, are not directly shaped by the environment; rather, environments stimulate sensory commitments giving rise to emotions and ideals expressed in religion. In this context, the multiplicity of religious symbols are secondary manifestations of the deeper ecological connections described as topophilia.
This emphasis on symbols, imagination, and ecology was taken up by Richard Peet and Michael Watts in Liberation Ecologies: Environment, Development, and Social Movements (1996). Peet and Watts used Marxist dialectics to investigate the roles of religions in fostering "ecological imaginaries" within the overall contradictory character of the relations between humans and the Earth. Ecological imaginaries are the deep networks of affective association between bioregions and humans that surface in human imagination as symbols and concepts motivating individuals and communities to action. Ecological imaginaries bring political awareness to political ecology. Moreover, these affective and imaginative connections to ecology create the possibility for deeper liberation from the grip of seemingly intractable social and market forces.
Drawing on the social sciences and humanities, the two-volume Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (2005), edited by Jeffrey Kaplan and Bron Taylor, continues the investigation of religion and ecology by exploring diverse nature-influenced religions as well as traditions that consider nature as sacred. These volumes are a major resource for study of the intersections of society, religion, and environment. Kaplan and Taylor not only attempt encyclopedic coverage of the historic roles of environments in the formation and development of religions, but they also address contemporary challenges to the religions raised by environmental crises.
Movements of Religion and Ecology: Calls and Responses
Many organizations and individuals have called for the participation of religious communities in alleviating the environmental crisis and reorienting humans to show respect, restraint, and responsibility toward the Earth community. Several key documents contain this call. One is the statement of scientists titled "Preserving and Cherishing the Earth: An Appeal for Joint Commitment in Science and Religion," which was signed at the Global Forum meeting in Moscow in January 1990. It suggests that the human community is committing "crimes against creation" and notes that: "Problems of such magnitude, and solutions demanding so broad a perspective must be recognized from the outset as having a religious as well as a scientific dimension." It also acknowledges that:
The environmental crisis requires radical changes not only in public policy, but in individual behavior. The historical record makes clear that religious teaching, example, and leadership are powerfully able to influence personal conduct and commitment. As scientists, many of us have had profound experiences of awe and reverence before the universe. We understand that what is regarded as sacred is more likely to be treated with care and respect. Our planetary home should be so regarded. Efforts to safeguard and cherish the environment need to be infused with a vision of the sacred. (http://www.environment.Harvard.edu)
A second key document, "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity," was produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 1992 and was signed by more than 2,000 scientists, including more than 200 Nobel laureates. This document also suggests that the planet is facing a severe environmental crisis:
Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course.… Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about. (http://www.environment.Harvard.edu)
The document calls for the cooperation of natural and social scientists, business and industrial leaders, and religious leaders, as well as the world's citizens. It concludes with a call for environmentally sensitive attitudes and behaviors which religious communities can help to articulate:
A new ethic is required—a new attitude towards discharging our responsibilities for caring for ourselves and for the Earth. We must recognize the Earth's limited capacity to provide for us. We must recognize its fragility. We must no longer allow it to be ravaged. This ethic must motivate a great movement, convincing reluctant leaders and reluctant governments and reluctant peoples themselves to effect the needed changes.
Although the responses of the religions to the global environmental crisis were slow at first, they have been steadily growing since the latter part of the twentieth century. Several years after the first United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, in Stockholm in 1972, some of the Christian churches began to address the growing environmental and social challenges. At the fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Nairobi in 1975, there was a call to establish the conditions for a "just, participatory, and sustainable [global] society." In 1979 a follow-up WCC conference was held at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on "Faith, Science, and the Future." This conference issued a call for a new biblical interpretation of nature and of human dominion. Moreover, there was recognition of the critical need to create the conditions for ecologically sustainable societies for a viable planetary future. The 1983 Vancouver Assembly of the WCC revised the theme of the Nairobi conference to include "Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation." The 1991 WCC Canberra conference expanded on these ideas with the theme of the "Holy Spirit Renewing the Whole of Creation." After Canberra, the WCC theme for mission in society became "Theology of Life." This has brought theological reflection to bear on environmental destruction and social inequities resulting from economic globalization. In 1992, at the time of the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the WCC facilitated a gathering of Christian leaders that issued a "Letter to the Churches," calling for attention to pressing eco-justice concerns facing the planet. Principles of eco-justice that have had growing support in the last decade include: solidarity with other people and all creatures, ecological sustainability, sufficiency as a standard of distributive justice, and socially just participation in decisions for the common good.
In addition to major conferences held by the Christian churches, various interreligious meetings have occurred and movements have emerged that have shown significant levels of commitment toward alleviating the environmental crisis. Some of these include the interreligious gatherings on the environment in Assisi in 1984 under the sponsorship of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and under the auspices of the Vatican in 1986. Moreover, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) established an Interfaith Partnership for the Environment (IPE) that has distributed thousands of packets of materials for use in local congregations and religious communities since 1985.
The Parliament of World Religions—held in Chicago in 1993, in Cape Town, South Africa in 1999, and in Barcelona in 2004—has issued statements on global ethics embracing human rights and environmental issues. The Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders held international meetings in Oxford in 1988, Moscow in 1990, Rio in 1992, and Kyoto in 1993 that had the environment as a major focus. Since 1995 a critical Alliance of Religion and Conservation (ARC) has been active in England, and the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE) has organized Jewish and Christian groups on this issue in the United States. A member group of NRPE, the Coalition on Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) has helped to mobilize the American Jewish communities regarding environmental issues, especially global warming. The Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (IFEES), based in England, has from its beginnings in 1984 established itself as a leader in environmental conservation and activism in Islamic settings. Religious groups have also contributed to the drafting of the Earth Charter. The World Bank has developed a World Faiths Development Dialogue on poverty and development issues with a select group of international religious leaders.
Religious leaders and laypersons have spoken out for protection of the environment. The Dalai Lama has made numerous statements on the importance of environmental protection and has proposed that Tibet should be designated a zone of special ecological integrity. Rabbi Ishmar Schorsch of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York has frequently drawn attention to the critical state of the environment. Bob Edgar, president of the National Council of Churches, has led campaigns on environmental issues such as global warming and clean air. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew has sponsored several seminars to highlight environmental degradation in the Aegean, the Black, the Adriatic, and the Baltic Seas, as well as the Danube River. He has strongly critiqued human negligence and destruction of the environment by calling it "ecological sin." From the Islamic perspective, Seyyed Hossein Nasr has written and spoken widely on the sacred nature of the environment for more than two decades. In the Christian world, along with the efforts cited earlier of the Protestant community in the WCC, the Catholic Church, has issued several important pastoral letters since around 1990. Pope John Paul wrote a message for the World Day of Peace, January 1, 1990, titled "The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility." He has also spoken of the need for ecological conversion, namely a deep turning to the needs of the larger community of life. In 1988 the Catholic Bishops of the Philippines issued an environmental letter titled "What Is Happening to Our Beautiful Land" and two years later the U. S. Catholic Bishops Conference published a statement called "Renewing the Earth." In 2000 the Boston Bishops wrote a pastoral letter titled, "And God Saw That It Was Good," and in February 2001 the Bishops of the Pacific Northwest published a document called, "The Columbia Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good."
In October 2003 the Canadian bishops also published a letter on the environment. In August 2000 a gathering of more than one thousand religious leaders took place at the United Nations during the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, where discussion of the environment was a major theme. The UN secretary general, Kofi Anan, who addressed the summit, has called for a new ethic of global stewardship, recognizing the urgent situation posed by current unsustainable trends.
Religions of the World and Ecology Project
It was in light of these various initiatives and in response to the call of scientists that a three-year international conference series, titled, "Religions of the World and Ecology," took place at Harvard University. From 1996 to 1998 over eight hundred scholars gathered to examine the varied ways in which human-Earth relations have been conceived in the world's religious traditions. The intention of the series was to assist in establishing a new field of study within religious studies that would link to the interdisciplinary field of environmental studies and have implications for public policy on environmental issues. The series of ten conferences examined the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Shintō, and Indigenous religions. Held at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School, the conferences were organized by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim in collaboration with a team of area specialists. The series brought together international scholars of the world's religions, as well as scientists, environmentalists, and grassroots leaders. The papers from these conferences were published in ten volumes by the Center for the Study of World Religions and distributed by Harvard University Press. Recognizing that religions are key shapers of people's worldviews and formulators of their most cherished values, this broad research project uncovered a vast wealth of attitudes toward nature sanctioned by religious traditions. In addition, the project identified over one hundred examples of religiously inspired environmental practices and projects in various parts of the world ranging from reforestation in India and Africa to preservation of herbal knowledge in South America, from the protection of coral reefs in the Pacific regions to the conservation of wildlife in the Middle East.
Three culminating conferences were held at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the United Nations, and at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. These conferences brought representatives of the world's religions into conversation with one another as well as into dialogue with key scientists, economists, educators, and policymakers in the environmental field. It was at the United Nations press conference that an ongoing Harvard Forum on Religion and Ecology was announced to continue the research, education, and outreach begun at these earlier conferences. The forum has mounted an international website to assist the field of religion and ecology with introductory papers and annotated bibliographies on the major world religions as well as on science, economy, and policy issues (http://environment.harvard.edu/religion).
Several qualifications regarding the intersection of religion and ecology were identified by scholars in the Harvard research project. First, many suggest that no one religious tradition has a privileged ecological perspective. Rather, scholars frequently indicate that multiple perspectives are the most helpful in identifying the contributions of the world's religions to environmental problems. This field is thus conceived as an interreligious project. Second, it is assumed by many that while religions are necessary partners in this process, they are not sufficient without the indispensable contributions of science, economics, education, and policy to the varied challenges of current environmental problems. Therefore, this field can be regarded as an interdisciplinary effort in which religions have an important role. Third, it is acknowledged that there is frequently a disjunction between principles and practices, so that ecologically sensitive ideas in religions are not always evident in environmental practices in particular civilizations. Many civilizations have overused their environment, with or without religious sanction. Finally, there is an acknowledgment that religions have all too frequently contributed to tensions and conflict among ethnic groups, both historically and at present. Dogmatic rigidity, inflexible truth claims, and misuse of institutional and communal power by religions have often led to disruptive consequences in various parts of the globe.
Nonetheless, it is acknowledged that while religions have been preservers of traditional ways, they have also been provocateurs of social change. In other words, they can be both limiting and liberating in their outlooks and affects. In the twentieth century, for example, religious leaders and theologians helped to give birth to progressive movements such as civil rights for minorities, social justice for the poor, and liberation for women. In the 1990s, religious groups were instrumental in launching a movement called Jubilee 2000, advocating debt reduction for poor nations. In the early years of the twenty-first century, the National Council of Churches in the United States organized a campaign calling for attention to global warming and its deleterious consequences for human and biological communities.
As key repositories of enduring civilizational values, and as indispensable motivators in moral transformation, it can be said that religions have a role to play in shaping a sustainable future for the planet. This is especially true because attitudes toward nature have been consciously and unconsciously conditioned by religious and cultural worldviews. Lynn White observed this in the 1960s, when he noted, "What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny—that is, by religion" (White, 1967). Recognition of the diverse roles of religions in shaping ecological worldviews, both historically and at present, has led to calls for their further involvement in addressing environmental issues.
A significant example of this occurred in autumn of 2003 in China. Pang Yue, director of the National Environmental Protection Bureau, gave an important speech in which he called for the creation of an environmental culture drawing on traditional values based in Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. He said, "The inner spirit of traditional Chinese culture echoes environmental culture that the world is currently emphasizing. Traditional Chinese culture pursues harmony between human beings and nature…and as human beings we have the responsibility to maintain and protect our environment." These remarks are striking in their departure from the materialist Marxist ideology of the last fifty years in China, as well as China's current emphasis on development, seemingly at any environmental cost. This call for recovery of traditional values is being echoed in many parts of the world as environmental issues become ever more pressing.
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Mary Evelyn Tucker (2005)
John A. Grim (2005)