Transitions Part I

In the early 2000’s I was appointed a Fellow with the Green Institute ( During that time I studied, analyzed, and wrote about the increasingly intense activity at the intersection of religion, theology, and environment.  Around the same time, I was instrumental in forming the Religion and Conservation Biology Working Group within the Society for Conservation Biology( I am President Emeritus of this organization and an active member.
 NASA Photo
Over the past several decades we have experienced a growing ecological awareness, nationally and internationally, on a number of cultural levels, in many different sectors of society, and in a number of other societies and cultures. Along with this awareness has come an increased anxiety about the ways in which humans impact Earth and its resources and the results of these impacts on human well-being and the well-being of Earth.

The first views of an apparently very fragile Earth from space, those incredible pictures call Earthrise taken from the surface of the Moon, the publication of the disturbing book Silent Spring (Carson 1962) and the developing awareness of the impacts of human population increase and climate change, have all worked to establish a perception that the planet faces environment crisis of serious magnitudes.

Other forces were also at work at that time.  The dawning of the Age of Aquarius in the 1960's and 1970's and the influence of the so-called 'new religions' or 'New Age' religions had an increasing role in informing the religious communities in the West of possible links between religion and environment. The evolution of the science of ecology, the development of the interdisciplinary field of conservation biology, and the growing sophistication of the environmental sciences as well as the focus on the plight of an increasing number of species had much to do with raising general and religious consciousness. Anthropological studies contributed to the knowledge that humanity had always been fairly hard on the environment it occupied, often with disastrous results. Sociological studies and a lot of direct observation made it obvious to even the most skeptical that bad environmental choices and practices often fall most heavily on the poor and dispossessed.

All of this activity, and much more, converged to inform and energize the mainline Christian denominations in the West and, increasingly, religions world-wide, at least those that were not already energized. It was, therefore, inevitable that religion and theology would be drawn into growing environmental concerns. The question was, "If we are on the edge of environmental crisis what role, if any, did theology and religion play in the crisis and what role or roles might theology  and religion assume in helping to resolve the crisis?

There were those who placed the blame for environmental degradation directly at the door of religion and theology. The most famous of these accusers was historian Lynne White who, in his 1967 paper The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis, (Science, Vol 155:3767, pp 1203–1207) laid the blame squarely at the foot of Western religion, at the door of Christianity.

Regardless of the seat of blame, theology and religion responded. Some responded more than others and some are still in the process of figuring out if they should respond and, if so, how?  Many denominations and sects if the West, as well as Orthodox Christianity, developed formal statements linking their denomination to environmental and Earth care issues.  This is increasingly true for all except the most ultraconservative of those denominations and sects.

The growing interest in the relationship between religion and ecology is nowhere more apparent than the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology and the earlier efforts of Harvard University's Center for the Study of World Religions to codify these relationships.  The Harvard project has produced a number of books on this subject in what is called the 'Religion and Ecology' series. The academic response has not ended with books and is not limited to Yale or Harvard.  Brilliant scholarship has been presented by a growing number of other scholars.  Some schools now offer lower division course work and advanced degrees in the evolving field of ecotheology. The American Academy of Religion's biannual meetings have specific sections that offer papers in ecological theology and praxis. These session are well attended and present a rich offering of thought linking religion and ecological and environmental issues, across the span of the religions of the world.  The academic effort continues with the recent formation of International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture and its journal Religion and Nature. Professional societies such as the Society for Conservation Biology, have established working groups to address the relationships between conservation and religion.

(Continued in the next post.)


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