Welcome to the second installment of our Green Guest Series, a feature in which eco experts and green gods and goddesses from a variety of fields have the opportunity to share their wisdom and practical advice with Eco to the People readers.
This week we are pleased to welcome Leo Brunnick, CEO of Patheos.com. Leo shares with us his thoughts on what various religions teach us about conservation.
When you think about how religion approaches the environment, what image is conjured? If it’s a “What would Jesus do?” picture of Christ feeding animals and loving all of creation, you might be surprised to learn how complex this issue really is within various traditions.
For example: Some experts have argued that religious teachings actually helped shape the human-nature relationship that has given us all these environmental problems. The Bible, for instance, exhorts man to seek dominion over the world and its various creatures. In American history that is best illustrated by the belief in Manifest Destiny, which drove 19th-century Americans to expand the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific, conquering the wild environment and its native inhabitants.
But don’t some religious teachings constrain humankind’s impulses to consume and destroy?
Rabbi Daniel Fink argues that “God seems to recognize that people will frequently choose to misinterpret their stewardship as license to plunder the natural world. Therefore, immediately after forming humanity, God established an essential constraint on our destructive tendencies, the Sabbath. This is the crown of creation, a day on which all forms of work are forbidden.
With environmental awareness at an all-time high, it’s natural that religions are revisiting the environment and reexamining its role with humankind. And it’s not as simple as answering the “What would Jesus Do?” question.
As Yale University scholars Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim note, “many of these religions have traditionally been concerned with the paths of personal salvation that frequently emphasize other worldly goals and reject this world as corrupting.”
If this world is temporary and corrupting, why would we need to preserve it for future generations? After all, don’t many Christians regard the Armageddon—when the Earth ends and the faithful are taken up to heaven—with anticipation, rather than with dread and fear?
But there is a common theme through most world religions that humanity must carefully steward the Earth because it was made by God, and is sacred as a result.
University of Colorado Professor of Islamic Studies Frederick Denny writes that the earth is mentioned 453 times in the Qur’an, even more than the sky or heavens (320 times). And Muslims believe that the earth is pure: they’re allowed to use clean dust to cleanse themselves before prayer if clean water is unavailable.
The notion of social justice—especially justice for the poor—has always been a key driver of Christian belief. To many Christians this translates into today’s issue of defending the rights of the global poor who, most experts believe, will be disproportionately affected by climate change.
And how about the Mormons? Some have interpreted the lack of an official position on the environment as evidence that the Mormon Church doesn’t support the environment. That’s not so, says BYU Professor George B. Handley, who argues that responsible enjoyment of the environment is a theme that runs throughout the faith’s teachings.
The theme of creation stewardship has always been woven throughout the sacred texts of most faiths. Now that it’s increasingly on the minds of our culture, you can expect people of many different backgrounds and beliefs to seek guidance from their faith.
Leo Brunnick is the CEO of Patheos.com.
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