When you trek up a mountainside and pass over a ridge into a gorgeous vista of peaks bathed in the colors of sunset, and when later that night the stars spangle out over your tent and an alpine lake, reflecting back their own infinite mass, don’t the words that come to mind feel strangely religious? Awe. Wonder. Beauty. Surely this, if nothing else, reassures us that the chasm between science and religion is not as wide as it all-too-often feels.

We welcomed with delight Mary Evelyn Tucker’s comments on this subject as part of the Westar Institute’s Spring 2016 national meeting in Santa Rosa, California. Tucker is in a good position to speak on the subject of religion, climate change, the value of nature, and all that goes with these deeply intertwined fields of interest: she is the co-director with her husband John Grim of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University, where she teaches in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the Divinity School. She opened her talk at Westar with an overview of current ecological efforts and the key values driving those efforts in her presentation, “The Emerging Alliance of Religion and Ecology,” followed by a screening of her Emmy Award-winning documentary Journey of the Universe (2011).

Nature in Secular and Spiritual Systems

Tucker encouraged us to see that nature is valued in both spiritual and secular systems. While for the most part the ecological movement has been driven by people who love nature and don’t necessarily identify as religious, nevertheless religious communities are emerging now as crucial actors in the ecological movement.

The late arrival of religion, especially Western religions, to the ecology question is the unfortunate result of issues like fundamentalism, intolerance, and antipathy to science—part and parcel with the challenging struggles presented by modernity. This struggle isn’t limited to Western traditions but in Western traditions it has taken the particular form of a response to the critical question: “How are we going to re-examine our truth claims?”

This should be an all-too-familiar question to anyone who has been following the work of the Jesus Seminar and subsequent Seminars sponsored by the Westar Institute: in some sense, it was the question that got us started.

How do you cultivate yourself to be part of a larger society and contribute to society, not just for your own enlightenment but for the greater good?

Not all religious traditions have struggled with the inherent instability of truth, of course. When Tucker went to southern Japan to teach, she became fascinated with the values she found there, values that are rooted in non-exclusive religious systems. In taking up the study of Confucianism and Buddhism, she learned that these traditions, which are of immense textual complexity and still not well understood in the West, have a lot to offer us as we attempt to rethink our values in this ecological age. To cite just one example, the value for education in Japan (and across China and East Asia) derives largely from Confucianism: in Confucianism, education is a moral act. How do you cultivate yourself to be part of a larger society and contribute to society, not just for your own enlightenment but for the greater good?

That’s not to say these Asian and indigenous traditions ought to simply replace the great Western religious traditions. The transformation of all these traditions with good critical thought still needs to happen. We can do that—but where do we begin? Tucker suggested we might try re-examining the views of nature in the various religious traditions. What can we retrieve and reevaluate in the sacred texts, rituals, and practices of each tradition? She and her husband John Grim organized ten conferences on each of the major world traditions at Harvard from 1996-1998 to explore these types of questions. From this project, which resulted in 10 edited volumes from Harvard several common themes within world religions emerged, among them the following:

Daily and seasonal cycles

Agricultural rhythms

Biodiversity and bioregions

Cosmological connections

Through our religious language, we are weaving ourselves into the deeper patterns of nature and the cosmos. As poet Mary Oliver put it, “I’ve never missed a full moon.” We are part of these cycles. Mircea Eliade, the highly influential history of religions professor at the University of Chicago, also saw this. As he observed, rediscovering the depth of our religious symbols as derived from nature revives their power.

Photo credit: Journey of the Universe film project

From Independence to Interdependence

It is important to understand that many of us in the West live according to Enlightenment era values that prioritize the individual: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—or rather, as one attendee reminded us, Locke’s original trinity was not in pursuit of happiness but property! Missing, however, is a much needed respect for the interconnectedness of life. This is the gift of the ecological movement and the sciences: interdependence, relationality, flourishing. Mary Evelyn Tucker encouraged us to go beyond “sustainability” language, which suggests we’re remaining static—instead, let’s embrace the notion of “flourishing”! This means:

Life is the interdependence of species.

Liberty is relationality.

Happiness is living in a flourishing Earth community.

In our present moment, communities are transitioning from a Declaration of Independence to a Declaration of Interdependence. This can be seen in the Earth Charter (drafted from 1992–2000), the preamble of which reads as follows:

Humanity is part of a vast evolving universe
Earth, our home, is alive with a unique community of life.

This lends itself well to an approach that can welcome religion into the ecology conversation rather than assuming religion as an antagonist or part of the problem. Religious ecology, Tucker suggests, is “the symbolic understanding of ecological interdependence.” Think of kosher laws, the Eucharist, and so on. What are we saying when we participate in such rituals? If we use polluted water and genetically modified grains to prepare the Eucharist, what does that mean? Our lives depend on our understanding that we have emerged from biological processes and patterns. We’re emerging out of a 14-billion year unfolding process, and we share a profound interconnection with other species in the whole world.

In such a context, what is empathy? What is love? What is compassion? As one attendee put it, “Most of us are on our way to somewhere else. People who are here with more awareness of their body and their place, are more likely to care for both.” Tucker observed in response that one related problem, especially in Western traditions, is rooted in some religious communities’ focus on otherworldliness and the quest for salvation elsewhere.

Both ecologists and religious practitioners are discovering more comprehensive voices in relation to the value of the Earth – its ecosystems and its species. Ecology as a discipline began with a sense of holism and dynamism, and in this religion may find common ground. By valuing nature in a more aesthetic, spiritual and holistic way, we reach a crucial point of connection that can perhaps overcome the otherworldly focus that has so dominated religious discourse in the West. This brings together eco-justice concerns for both people and planet. As Thomas Berry said to liberation theologian Leonardo Boff and others many years ago, you can’t heal humans if you’re ignoring a diseased Earth.

The Catholic Pope and the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch have used a simple human connection—friendship!—to overcome thousands of years of unwillingness to work together on this. The Green Patriarch, Bartholomew, has spoken out about our destruction of the environment as “ecological sin” and “crimes against creation”. Other key people mentioned were Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori from the Episcopal Church, and Joel Hunter from the Evangelical community. As many of us already know, the Dalai Lama has been speaking on environmental issues for the past thirty years. Now there is also the Tibetan 17th Karmapa, who has the fifty-five monasteries under his influence working on climate change issues, training monks to help people with local issues. In China, an “ecological culture” is emerging, drawing upon Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, which is now built into the constitution and even appears in speeches of Chinese leaders. Among the values emerging from this new ecological culture drawing on Chinese religious traditions are:

Interdependence of cosmos, Earth, and human

Micro-macro relations of humans and nature

Seasonal and agricultural cycles

Harmonizing with nature

Cultivating nature

Part of the challenge here is that we depend fully on the Earth no matter what religious tradition we have inherited: “The scriptures of the Earth are looking to us for understanding,” Tucker explained. “How do we understand the ecosystems that keep us alive, and keep our children alive?” As she said to a group of Texas oil men, “Only consider what would drilling in the Arctic be like? It would be like tearing pages from the Bible!” These are scriptures of nature, scriptures of the human heart. Our creativity needs to pour itself out in response at this critical moment.

How can we recover mutually enhancing human-Earth relations? Clearly, the majority of people are involved in religious communities, and that is a force of enormous proportions that is needed to make a difference. How can we collectively participate in this? Tucker recommended that we try thinking of a dynamic like this:

FIELD (Education) ↔ FORCE (Society)

On the one hand, we need knowledge to help us understand what we’re up against and also to actually prepare ourselves to live in the future of human-Earth flourishing that we are hoping to create. On the other hand, we need to take concrete action to make changes. This comes about on a deeper level than we sometimes realize. Many problems in North Africa and the Middle East are about the survival of a people in the context of drought—not a matter of terrorism!—and the refugees from this largely ecological crisis are overflowing into Europe.

Photo credit: Journey of the Universe film project

Impact of the Papal Encyclical

Have you read the papal encyclical on care of the Earth, the Laudato Si’ or “care for our common home”? If you haven’t yet, Tucker urged us all to read it and consider its significance (HTML version | PDF version). Laudato Si’ has done something incredibly important for the issue of the environment: it has placed the moral heart of it on a world stage with such language as this:

This sister [Earth] now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the Earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the Earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

Nothing in this world is indifferent to us.

This is by no means the only religious response to the environment and climate change in recent years, but it is a highly public act by a very well respected pope that has already shown a ripple effect. That is because there are more than one billion Catholics and another billion Christians in the world. Among other watershed moments, the COP 21 Conference in Paris in December 2015 was deeply influenced by the moral call of the encyclical. In addition, the presence of indigenous peoples was powerfully felt in Paris and in the Climate March in New York in 2014. The involvement of indigenous peoples worldwide is driven by a simple and wonderful thing: they are seeing their cosmology reflected in the ecology movement. The values at the heart of many indigenous religious perspectives are deeply tied to ecology and resonant with it. In a way, as one attendee said, the West that once colonized the world now needs to allow its hearts and minds to be colonized by those it once oppressed. We need it for our own survival as a global human community.

Where can we go from here?

Religious communities can contribute resilience and inspiration like no other community can. Hope is what religious traditions have offered throughout history, and hope is what we can offer. As one attendee put it:

What are we to do as responsible people of faith and scholars and students? … People place sites that are dangerous or toxic in the poorest parts of this country. Christians are often associated with pacifism—“we need to forgive”—but in reality we have a revolutionary concept, too, that needs to be brought out in a responsible manner. We’re seeds and little pilgrims who go back to wherever we go and can become the leaders in those communities.

An important step taken by Tucker along with cosmologist Brian Thomas Swimme, with an outpouring of support from numerous friends and partners, was to narrate the story of the universe in a way that brought religion and science together. At the heart of the Journey of the Universe project is the belief that a “Great Story” (knowledge/inspiration) leads to “Great Work” (action/perspiration). As Thomas Berry noted epics have changed whole civilizations—and we need one now more than ever! His essay “The New Story” (1978) was an inspiration for the Journey film, book, and conversations. Journey of the Universe

This, of course, is the first attempt to tell the new evolutionary story in film form. There were other inspirations for this ten year project. Alexander von Humboldt (d. 1859) was one of the most famous scientists of his era, an inspiration to Darwin to travel and study, and he cared deeply about evolution. In his book Kosmos, he says, “I have the extravagant idea of describing in one and the same work the whole material world—all that we know today of celestial bodies and of life upon the Earth…” He wanted to tell a coherent story of the universe.

Photo credit: Journey of the Universe film project

Other scientists have followed in his footsteps, people like Carl Sagan (Cosmos), E. O. Wilson (Epic of Evolution), Neil DeGrasse Tyson (Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey), Eric Chaisson (Cosmic Evolution), and the historian, David Christian (Big History). These are people who appreciate that the humanities are needed in order to help the human community recalibrate their priorities, and yet over and over again many such individuals have underestimated or oversimplified the role religion might play in this project. In spite of some genuine efforts at dialogue, other tellings of the universe often suffer from reductionistic thinking. Moreover, some scientists are instrumentalists, saying we need the religious communities to be involved because they are such big players in the world. Scientists who want to be taken seriously by other scientists tend to avoid religion. Reductionist science tends to trump everything in these attempts to retell the story.

The film that emerged in response, the Journey of the Universe, powerfully conveys that life and consciousness were the inevitable result of the ordering principles that were present at the Big Bang 14 billion years ago. This isn’t an overly simplistic or idealistic portrait. Our awareness of deep time has led to…

awareness of evolution – beauty

awareness of extinction – destruction

This reality can be overwhelming for us. How do we hold these two dynamics together going forward? How do we avoid collapsing under the burden of the “sixth extinction”? Geologists have defined the current age as the “Anthropocene”: the age of human-induced planetary change. Yet even as we’re dealing with the direct fear of extinction not only for ourselves, but for all life on this planet, we’re also awakening to new intimacy with the universe and the Earth community, a transition to full awareness of what it means that “we are stardust.” What is true well-being, true fecundity, in such a world? Who are we sharing this Earth with?

Journey of the Universe attempts not to falsely step outside the religious part of the conversation. By broadening participation in the whole, we return to awe that evokes action. This is where religion and science meet. Tucker proposes we revise the role of humans to embrace this all-important orientation that we are:

Citizens of the universe

Members of the Earth community

Kin to all other species

In short, we belong here. This is our new and ancient realization, and it is what must guide us into the future at this critical juncture.

Thank you for reading this report on the Westar Institute Spring 2016 national meeting, which took place in Santa Rosa, California. To see all meeting-related reports, visit the Spring 2016 program page.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

2 replies
  1. Gene Stecher says:

    A simply outstanding essay on Truth, in both detail and breadth, Cassandra. The presenter sounds like a person of incredible personal qualities. Deity comes down to, I think, what one considers ultimate. Consistent with the interpretations made in the essay, I consider the universe to be more relational than rational, deity being the impulse behind all fulfilled relationships – human and environmental. Whatever ruins relationships frustrates that ultimate goal and blinds us to the absoluteness of the impulse behind it. Hearing about the persons you’ve described gives me some hope!

    • Cassandra says:

      She was so inspiring, Gene. I’m sure you would have enjoyed hearing her! I lived in Japan for a while, so I also enjoyed that Mary Evelyn Tucker was able to draw upon Asian traditions on a deeper level than I normally hear.

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