Religion, ecology putting mutual suspicions aside


A few years ago a piece I'd written on the evolutionary adaptations of underwater bay grasses came back from review with this comment: "What makes you assume everyone who reads this believes in evolution?"

The reviewer was an environmentalist I knew and respected, but my immediate reaction was shock: All this time I never knew he was one of those . . . creationists!

Later, I wondered how often he must have felt a bit alienated around me and other environmentalists who sometimes

unthinkingly mocked religious belief, and who just assumed that anyone who cared for the things we did must subscribe to evolutionary theory.

As never before, religion and environmentalism in America are entering a fertile period of mutual examination, redefinition, questioning -- a welcome search for common ground that is long overdue.

"The ecological crisis is a moral crisis too," Pope John Paul II now says.

It is time, says the Rev. Billy Graham, "for Christians to take the lead" in restoring the planet.

At this year's world environment conference in Rio de Janeiro, a two-day forum called "Searching for a New Heaven and a New Earth" drew representatives from 72 churches in 54 countries. And, in the United States, dozens of eco-Christian organizations have sprung up.

"The more deeply I search for the roots of the global environmental crisis," writes Vice President-elect Al Gore Jr., "the more I am convinced that it is an outer manifestation of an inner crisis that is, for lack of a better word, spiritual. . . ."

It is high time we acknowledged the spiritual aspects of caring for our environment. Scientific facts alone will never suffice. Regulation and technology cannot be the only means for protecting nature. Ecology, the science of how life is linked together, has considerable overlap with religion, in that both provide a means of making order from the universe, of fitting our own existence into a larger, more meaningful context.

The similarity can lead to problems. There is a rising fear and loathing, particularly among conservative Christians and fundamentalists, that "Earth-centered" environmentalism is the new paganism, an attempt to subvert Christian values.

And such fears are played for all they are worth by exploiters of natural resources -- logging, mining, energy and development interests -- who would paint the environmental movement as one that puts people last.

Of course, religion has taken a bashing from some environmentalists for going to the extreme in putting people first.

This line of attack springs from a scathing and durable essay written in 1967 by historian Lynn White, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis." He argued that Western, Judeo-Christian religions so preach humankind's superiority and "dominion [as in rTC Genesis]" over the rest of the world as to create an arrogant view of the Earth as a grocery store, stocked just for us.

It was to counter those charges that Campus Crusade for Christ and other religious groups recently held a seminar at Salisbury State University.

"It's not so much that we have felt persecuted by the environmental movement as just afraid to get involved in it," said Brent Wilhelm, one of the organizers.

"God is great, God is green; the Bible can be read as an environmentally friendly document," said one speaker, Richard Pyle, a newscaster and former seminarian from Philadelphia.

Mr. Pyle cited numerous scriptures directing humans to act responsibly toward the Earth and its creatures -- to defend, save and not dominate the natural world.

Another speaker, Ben Fusaro, a mathematics professor, took the story of Noah's ark as "a lesson to preserve bio-diversity on the planet. Noah could certainly have taken aboard more humans if he dumped a couple elephants, but he didn't."

It seems clear that if any Christian wants to be environmentally responsible, there is nothing in the Bible to thwart it, and a great deal to support it.

Lawrence Adams, of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Religion and Democracy, rejected the idea of nature, or "one-ness with the Earth" as a substitute for a deity.

One need not arrogantly set man up as "better than other creatures, or the only creature that does this or that" to recognize our uniqueness, he argued. He said the solutions to our environmental crisis lie in developing ethics rather than

rejecting the human-centeredness of Western re


To an extent, I have to agree with Mr. Adams and Mr. Pyle. It is painfully obvious, looking at Japan, India and other countries whose Eastern religions are supposedly more compatible with nature, that Western-Christian nations don't hold the franchise on planetary wreckage.

Japan, for example, is a world leader in overfishing and air pollution -- the only nation on Earth that has come close to wiping out the horseshoe crab, a species that has survived continuously for more than 300 million years.

What I found troubling at the Salisbury conference was what I always have found most difficult about organized religions -- their tendency to see their teachings as the only way to truth and salvation.

At its worst, this has led to holy wars. More recently, as at the Republican National Convention, the religious right appeared to exclude large portions of America from having family values.

Similarly, some environmentalists take an extreme position; they use Lynn White's essay to deny Christianity its rightful place in Earth-keeping.

At any rate, the essay is still good reading, a provocative starting point for anyone interested in the fascinating and burgeoning confluence of environment and religion.

But theological debate isn't going to help those underwater bay grasses nearly as much as clear water.

I suspect that if the Earth must wait to be saved through a uniform set of beliefs, it will wait a long time.

In that spirit, here are two closing thoughts:

From the Kentucky farmer and essayist Wendell Berry: "The ecological teaching of the Bible is inescapable. God made the world, he thinks the world is good. He loves it. He has never relinquished title to it. And he has never revoked the conditions that oblige us to take excellent care of it."

And from John Muir, the early environmentalist who, while hiking his beloved Sierras, wrote of "drinking Sequoia wine, Sequoia blood," and wished he "could preach the green-brown woods to all the juiceless world . . . crying repent, for the Kingdom of Sequoia is at hand!"

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