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Ecology and Religion

Ecology and Religion

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From the Psalms in the Bible to the sacred rivers in Hinduism, the natural world has been integral to the world’s religions. John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker contend that today’s growing environmental challenges make the relationship ever more vital.

This primer explores the history of religious traditions and the environment, illustrating how religious teachings and practices both promoted and at times subverted sustainability. Subsequent chapters examine the emergence of religious ecology, as views of nature changed in religious traditions and the ecological sciences. Yet the authors argue that religion and ecology are not the province of institutions or disciplines alone. They describe four fundamental aspects of religious life: orienting, grounding, nurturing, and transforming. Readers then see how these phenomena are experienced in a Native American religion, Orthodox Christianity, Confucianism, and Hinduism.

Ultimately, Grim and Tucker argue that the engagement of religious communities is necessary if humanity is to sustain itself and the planet. Students of environmental ethics, theology and ecology, world religions, and environmental studies will receive a solid grounding in the burgeoning field of religious ecology.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781597267083
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 01/02/2014
Series: Foundations of Contemporary Environmental Studies Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 280
Sales rank: 465,514
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker are Senior Lecturers and Research Scholars at Yale University. They are founders of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale and series editors of Religions of the World and Ecology from the Harvard Center for the Study of World Religions. They won an Emmy for their film Journey of the Universe with Brian Swimme.

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Ecology and Religion

By John Grim, Mary Evelyn Tucker


Copyright © 2014 John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-708-3


Problems and Promise of Religions: Limiting and Liberating

Contrasting Characteristics of Religions

What might be the contribution of religions to the long-term flourishing of the Earth community? If Earth's life support systems are critically endangered, as the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment Report suggests; if climate change is diminishing the prospect of a sustainable future, as the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change observes; and if species are going extinct, as the Convention on Biodiversity notes, should not religions be engaged? How might religions contribute to our present search for creating mutually enhancing human–Earth relations? What of their problems and their promise matter in an era when humans have so radically changed the face of the planet that geologists call our period the anthropocene?

It is important to ask at the outset where the religions have been on environmental issues and why they have been so late to participate in solutions to ecological challenges. Have issues of personal salvation superseded all others? Have divine–human relations been primary? Have anthropocentric ethics been all-consuming? Has the material world of nature been devalued by religion? Does the search for otherworldly rewards override commitment to this world? Did the religions simply surrender their natural theologies and concerns with exploring purpose in nature to positivistic scientific cosmologies? In beginning to address these questions, we still have not exhausted all the reasons for religions' lack of attention to the environmental crisis. Although the reasons may not be readily apparent, they clearly require further exploration and explanation. It may well be the case that the combined power of science, technology, economic growth, and modernization has overshadowed traditional connections to nature in the world religions.

Examples from the past and present make clear that religions have both conservative and progressive dimensions; that is, they can be both limiting and liberating. They can be dogmatic, intolerant, hierarchical, and patriarchal. Or they can demonstrate liberating and progressive elements through compassion, justice, and inclusivity. They can be oriented to both otherworldly and this–worldly concerns—escaping into pursuit of the afterlife or affirming life on Earth. They can be politically engaged or intentionally disengaged, illustrating the complex and contested nature of religion itself. They may invoke a higher spiritual power while still wielding immense political influence. Religious leaders may preach simple living while their institutions have significant material wealth. The nature of religion is complex and often ambiguous, especially in its institutional forms. Moreover, human failings have often led to disillusionment with religions. It is abundantly evident that religious leaders and followers have not always lived up to their highest aspirations.

However, in examining the varied characteristics of religions as liberating and limiting, both historically and at present, one observes that these characteristics are often more dynamically interwoven than rigidly separate. For example, being bound by tradition, religions have been the source of dogmatism and rigidity. They may favor orthodox interpretations of beliefs and practices. On the other hand, they can show flexibility and transformation over time, as with the Reformation in the sixteenth century that gave rise to Protestantism or with Vatican Council II that occasioned deep institutional changes in the Roman Catholic Church. The ambivalence of religions toward modernity has led to both the resistance and the embrace of change. Such resistance has contributed to the rise of contemporary fundamentalism in many parts of the world. Thus, some religious practitioners reject changing social and sexual values. However, openness to change has caused some traditions to advocate justice for the poor and oppressed, as in the work of Catholic Relief Services, World Vision, Buddhist Tzu Chi, and Green Crescent.

Many adherents of religions have become embroiled in intolerant and exclusive claims to truth. Sometimes this has given rise to violence or religious wars, as in the Crusades from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries and the Thirty Years' War in Europe (1618–1648). At the same time, religious traditions have taught peace, love, and forgiveness, even though imperfectly realized. The New York–based organizations Religions for Peace and the Temple of Understanding have been committed for more than 40 years to promoting peace through religious cooperation and dialogue. The particularist claims to truth in the Abrahamic traditions have contributed to conflicts between Jews, Christians, and Muslims historically and at present. Although intolerance is not absent in East Asia, exclusive truth claims are rare because interaction and syncretism between religions are so common. For example, in Ming China (1368–1644) the phrase "the three traditions are one" was used to describe the mutually enhancing syncretism of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. This idea extends into the contemporary period across East Asia. In modern Japan one comes of age with a Shinto ritual, practices Confucian ethics in the family and society throughout one's life, and is buried with a Buddhist funeral.

Although most religions have been hierarchical and patriarchal, in the last century they have been increasingly responsive to demands for equity, fairness, and justice. Much more still needs to be done for full inclusivity with regard to issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation. This is especially the case with religious teachings in certain traditions regarding women's roles and reproductive health. However, the expansion of human and civil rights has been an achievement of the last one hundred years, spurred by both secular and religious concepts of justice. Religions have been able to effect change as they participated in this expansion. Now the challenge is to extend this sense of responsibility and inclusivity not only to other humans but also to nature itself.

Religions are often seen as having otherworldly preoccupations, namely concern with salvation in heaven or in an afterlife. Using this logic, some would argue that exploitative treatment of the world is insignificant. These religious practitioners even suggest that degrading the environment hastens the end of Earth and the return of a transcendent paradise. Other religious groups have actively denied the critical nature of environmental problems or rejected the science of climate change.

However, most religions value this world and have rituals that weave humans into the rhythm of natural cycles. This is a dimension of what we would describe as religious ecology. The incarnational and sacramental dimensions of various religions illustrate this-worldly emphases and concerns. That is, Christianity centers on a belief of divine entry into material reality both in the historical person of Jesus and in the Cosmic Christ embedded in the universe. Hinduism has a similar understanding with the idea of avatar in figures such as Krishna, an incarnation of the supreme deity, Vishnu. Confucianism and Daoism in East Asia have a strong affirmation of this world, for example in the metaphysics and practices of ch'i (qi), or life force. Ch'i is cultivated in the body movements of t'ai chi (taiji) and chigong (qigong) and in the healing practices of traditional Chinese medicine. Most religious traditions have developed sacramental sensibilities in which material reality mediates the sacred. This is evident in the use of water for baptism and oil for anointing the sick. Moreover, offering food and flowers and lighting incense and candles are widespread sacramental practices in the world religions. Such affirmation of material reality is a critical component of our valuing nature.

The role of religion in relation to political power is complicated and highly contested. Religions have often been invoked for destructive or grandiose political ends. During World War II, the Japanese government used Shinto to legitimize their nationalist ideology and the sacrifice of kamikaze pilots. Similarly, after years of severe persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church, Stalin called on ecclesiastical authorities to support the "Great Patriotic War" against Germany. Religions themselves have wielded political power for less than noble ends and often with violent results. This is evident historically in religious wars and with various fundamentalisms present in the world today. The role of politically conservative Christians has been especially pronounced. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is influential in India, as is the Likud Party in Israel.

Yet we can also invoke the powerful examples of nonviolent change, as with Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), who was influenced by the Sermon on the Mount. Tolstoy understood the Christian imperative to live more simply as a call to a personal asceticism, particularly for the affluent. In addition, Tolstoy's pacifism and nonviolence were inspired by a desire for peace as he understood the Gospels. In this quest, his influence extended to Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) (figure 1.1) and Martin Luther King (1929–1968). Gandhi also drew on the Bhagavad Gita in Hinduism, on ahimsa in Jainism, and on the Christian Gospels for his understanding of nonviolence. Similarly, Martin Luther King studied Gandhi, as well as the Christian tradition, in developing his own form of nonviolence. Both Gandhi and King were able to effect political and social change with the spiritual power of their convictions and with the example of their own lives when confronted with violence, hate, and derision. Demonstrations of nonviolent protests were evident in 2011 with the "Arab Spring" and the "Occupy" movement, which highlighted alienation caused by lack of political voice and striking social and economic inequities around the world. Both of these movements manifest the fluid and hybrid character of nonviolent action.

Moreover, there is an emerging movement of religious communities who are participating in transformative social change based on principles of environmental justice. For example, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice published the first statement on environmental justice in 1987, called Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States. The Sierra Club has documented many of these efforts in a report called Environmental Justice and Community Partners. They are trying to assist in the creation of new attitudes and practices for the flourishing of the Earth community. This is the challenge to which world religions can make a constructive contribution along with environmentalists and secular humanists working toward a sustainable future.

Many people outside the institutional religions share moral values and spiritual attitudes toward the environment. This includes a broad range of environmentalists, nature writers, artists, musicians, secular humanists, and others. Such values and attitudes are more common than has been previously recognized. Indeed, E. O. Wilson and Stephen Kellert claim that biophilia, or affiliation with the natural world and its biodiversity, is intrinsic to humans.

In summary, we need to acknowledge the problems and the promise of religions as their perspectives and values are integrated into the academic field of environmental studies and the public force of environmentalism. Within academia it is becoming clear that cultural, ethical, and religious worldviews must be included in the study of environmental issues. This is because historically religions have had ecological dimensions in the ways they ground human communities in the rhythms of nature. This is what we are calling religious ecology. An understanding of the roles of religious ecologies is resurfacing with some intensity in an era when religions were thought to be diminishing with the rise of secularization.

The Persistence of Religions

This brief overview of the problems and promise of religion brings us to a consideration of its persistence in the modern period despite the apparent secularization of Western societies. After World War II, secular humanism grew in Western Europe along with the philosophies of existentialism, postmodernism, and deconstruction. Religions were perceived to be ideological, outdated, ineffective, or oppressive. In short, many came to feel that the deleterious aspects of religions had surpassed their achievements. Moreover, there was a widespread assumption among some European and American academics that religions would wither away as modernity brought the benefits of intellectual enlightenment, economic growth, and technological progress. Rationality would replace religion; God was proclaimed to be dead. In this view, sociologists of religion predicted both rejection of religions in secular societies and adaptation by the religions themselves to secularization. This was influenced by Max Weber (1864–1920), who recognized the disenchantment of the modern world through loss of the mythic dimensions of religions.

However, contrary to this thesis regarding the promise of secularization, interest in religion has not declined. For example, the prohibition of religion under Communist regimes did not lead to its demise as many had predicted. Rather, it has flourished in Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1989 and in China since religious freedom was established in 1981. Moreover, fundamentalisms around the world (Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Hindu) are stronger than ever in the face of the challenges of modernity. The search for exclusive claims to truth is a response to the relativism of secular values.

The 1979 Iranian revolution signaled for many a turning point regarding the role of Islam in politics and society. With the overthrow of the secular political leader, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and the return to Iran of the religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, an Islamic Republic was established under shari'a law.

In the Christian West some of the groundwork for this resurgence of religion as neo–orthodoxy was laid in part by Protestant theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968). He rejected both Renaissance humanism and the Enlightenment's rational understanding of scriptures and institutional religion. Barth reaffirmed the transcendence of God and the exclusive truth of Christianity. He regarded its biblical scriptures as the primary source of revelation. Thus, other sources of revelation, such as nature, were ignored.

Religion in its various forms, then, has proven to be persistent and forceful despite the increasingly rapid spread of modernization and industrialization around the world. Noted contemporary philosophers such as Jürgen Habermas and Charles Taylor are exploring the implications of this phenomenon. Taylor has acknowledged that the modern secular age is not simply an era of unbelievers. Instead, our contemporary period offers a pluralism of options, which are steadily widening. This results in the emergence of hybrid and fluid identities so that the secular and the religious are not exclusive categories but often mutually interpenetrating.

In recent years, in his lectures and writing Habermas has stated emphatically that philosophy cannot afford to ignore religion. He cites the limitations of the Enlightenment in its singular reliance on reason. The result in the modern period, he observes, is that practical reason is experiencing its own deficiencies in adequately responding to "a modernization threatening to spin out of control." His suggestion is that "enlightened reason unavoidably loses its grip on the images [symbols], preserved by religion, of the moral whole—of the Kingdom of God on earth—as collectively binding ideals." He further notes that such reason "no longer has sufficient strength to awaken, and to keep awake, in the minds of secular subjects, an awareness of the violations of solidarity throughout the world, an awareness of what is missing, of what cries out to heaven."


Excerpted from Ecology and Religion by John Grim, Mary Evelyn Tucker. Copyright © 2014 John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Our Journey into Religion and Ecology

Chapter 1. Problems and Promise of Religions: Limiting and Liberating
Chapter 2. The Nature of Religion: Orienting, Grounding, Nurturing, Transforming
Chapter 3. Religious Ecology and Views of Nature in the West
Chapter 4. Ecology, Conservation, and Ethics
Chapter 5. Emergence of the Field of Religion and Ecology
Chapter 6. Christianity as Orienting to the Cosmos
Chapter 7. Confucianism as Grounding in Community
Chapter 8. Indigenous Traditions and the Nurturing Powers of Nature
Chapter 9. Hinduism and the Transforming Effect of Devotion
Chapter 10. Building on Interreligious Dialogue: Toward a Global Ethics

Epilogue: The Challenge Ahead: Creating Ecological CulturesQuestions for Discussion
Appendix A: Common Declaration on Environmental Ethics of Pope John Paul II and theEcumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople
Appendix B: Influence of Traditional Chinese Wisdom of Eco Care on Westerners by Vice-Minister Pan Yue, 2011
Appendix C: Selections from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of IndigenousPeoples, 2007
Appendix D: Yamuna River Declaration, 2011
Appendix E: Earth Charter, 2000
Appendix F: Save the Fraser Declaration
Appendix G: Online Resources for Religious Ecology

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