ECOLOGY AND FAITH: An Essay by Father Rick Sherman
In our April 2005 issue of the LYNX, we invited members and readers to submit a 500-1000 word essay focusing on the death, revitalization, vision, hope, or hopelessness of environmentalism/ conservation. “What to do now? How? Why? If you can focus on the Uintas, great; if not, great!”
I read with interest Art Roscoe and Nancy Nightingale’s essay on Greening Spirituality. Interestingly the August edition of the LYNX arrived on the same day as an article sent by a Catholic priest friend entitled, “Caring for the Earth: Why Environmentalists Need Theology.” The article from Commonweal magazine (July 15, 2005) was written by Catholic theologian Luke Timothy Johnson and it begins with the following lines: “The impending environmental crisis is, like all important realities, a theological problem. It is my contention that if we get the theology right, clean air and clean rivers will follow, and the lion may even lie down with the lamb. But much theological work needs to be done.”
In their essay, Roscoe and Nightingale cite the need for “language which puts the stewardship effort in spiritual terms.” They continue that “the immediate task for environmentalists is to become comfortable with religion, with spirituality and the language of each.”
The good news is that the language is already here and has been for quite awhile. The not-so-good news is that environmentalists and religious people seem very reluctant to investigate it too closely. Both groups resist for the same reasons, I think: Real theological thinking requires us to constantly expand our perspectives as well as our emotional and interpersonal repertoires. This requires both deep personal introspection (examination of conscience) and real community building among genuinely diverse peoples—the two greatest human terrors.
As a religious person, an environmentalist and a strong wilderness advocate, I am truly amazed (read, heart-broken) at how minimal is the intersection of ecology and religion, at least at the grassroots level. To me it has never been anything but a natural and essential fit. But as a Catholic priest and a member of the largest, most diverse group of “organized” people in the history of the world, I can attest to the difficulty of community building. It is much more involved than “celebrating” diversity by going to a periodic ethnic food festival. It’s easier to withdraw into a self-righteous protectionism, but as Roscoe and Nightingale state, “(A protectionist perspective) contracts us (and) makes us less than the beings we are meant to be.”
The central theological theme of Catholicism is to build up the Kingdom of God by becoming one body, one spirit in Christ with all of God’s children. That easily expands to all of God’s creatures/creation. Building up the Kingdom is essentially rediscovering the Divine order and harmony of creation and aligning ourselves to God’s plan or God’s ‘flow’ as it were. One of the surest signs that we are not following the Plan is that we have pushed the natural world beyond its natural carrying capacity. The pervasive use of anti-anxiety and anti-depressant drugs (among many other over- and under-the-counter drugs) indicates that we are pushing ourselves, too, beyond our emotional and spiritual carrying capacities. Part of the Plan is that humans are to restore the world to the Divine order with the help of Divine grace. We do this when we willingly subordinate our will to God’s will and God’s plan. The more we divest of our human will (and all the accompanying distortion) and replace it with God’s will, the more we realize the natural flow and harmony of God’s plan. We realize that the major impediments to harmony of all kinds are Pride, Greed, Anger, Envy, Lust, Gluttony and Sloth (the Seven Deadly Sins).
From a Catholic perspective, we need the Divine grace that comes most powerfully through the sacraments to overcome these Deadly sins. Sacrament is about transformation at the deepest level of soul. Human intellect and volition have always proved inadequate for changing hearts and behavior. Even among the non-religious who cringe at the word “sin,” most people would probably readily agree that the phenomena of Greed, Envy, and Gluttony (to mention the most obvious sins) drastically contribute to environmental devastation.
I have made several recent attempts to combine the thought and ‘forces’ of religion and ecology (see for example the June 2003 issue of LYNX.) That perhaps is a topic for another essay. For now I would just like to enthusiastically affirm the authors’ initiative and HUPC for providing a forum. My personal perspective is that on the grassroots level, progress on this issue will more quickly and more likely come from environmentalists moving (back) into the religious realm. I’m not completely sure why that is, but I do know that the official churches and traditions have developed the language and moral premise for caring for God’s creation. I would strongly encourage any environmentalists who have religious leanings to investigate what their tradition teaches on care for the Earth and approach their pastor or faith leaders with official church positions and a willingness to do some community awareness and organization activities. (Tone here is extremely important).
In the Catholic tradition, the official positions of the Church are articulated through the writings of the pope and the bishops. The local parish priests cannot easily ignore these issues if parishioners are willing and able to pursue them. Competence in doing so is also important. A quick and comprehensive reference for Catholics would be http://conservation.catholic.org. Theologically and spiritually the Catholic Church is well poised to enter this dialogue; we just need the articulate people to do it. (I hope to suggest other references to enhance this dialogue in the book section of the LYNX as space allows).
This can be an exciting time. I believe that religion needs this shot in the arm as much as environmentalism. I will continue to pray for this developing movement.
Fr. Rick Sherman