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Religious Environmentalism Past and Present

By Elizabeth Wilkinson ’08 M.A.R.

Religious environmentalism did not arrive on the doorsteps of churches overnight as a neat, bundled package that just had to be unwrapped.  The movement has a history, and one of the panel presentations at the Feb. 28-March 2 Renewing Hope conference held at Yale Divinity School was devoted to that history and an assessment of where the movement is at present.

The panel, entitled “Reflections on the Past 20 Years of Religious Environmentalism:  Where are We Now?” offered participants an opportunity to reflect on their own perspectives and situations.

Panelists included Mary Evelyn Tucker of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, who has joint appointments at YDS and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies; Carla Pryne ’79 M.Div., an Episcopal priest and co-founder of Earth Ministry in Seattle; Stephanie Kaza, professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont; Calvin DeWitt, professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin; and Catherine Keller, eco-feminist theologian at Drew University.

John GrimJohn Grim of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, also with joint appointments at YDS and FES, moderated and opened the discussion by drawing attention to a major cultural shift that affects how we view the environment.  “Our democratic system is built on a utilitarian intellectual premise that people should be able to do what they want so long as it does not interfere with the rights or well-being of others...Now, we begin to realize that the desiring, inner self and the desiring, external world are deeply interrelated and that neither may be served when human desire is equated with the flourishing of life.”

Tucker described the emerging alliance of religion and ecology as both “field and force”— “A field coming into being within an academy that is trying to break down its silo disciplines and enter into conversation of shared concerns for a sustainable future.  It is also a force of empowerment on the ground and in religious institutions for religious leaders and laity alike. We recognize that we draw from each other - the field of religious ecology and the force of religious environmentalism. We cannot do this work alone but together new synergies will arise of reformation and renaissance.”

Carla Pryneshared her perspectives from parish ministry, pointing to what she said were the differences between the largely apologetic work of the 80s and 90s—where major changes were in individual reflection and lifestyle choices, as well as institutional actions like congregational greening—to the current movement toward faith-based advocacy.  People, she observed, were “drawn to a place where it was safe to talk about spirituality and ethics – safe to use words like faith, and hope and love, where they felt their small efforts for this river or that farm were a part of something.”  Now, Pryne added, rather than being held in suspicion by non-religious organizations, faith communities are viewed as welcome collaborative partners.

As an educator at the University of Vermont since 1990, Stephanie Kaza has seen movement away from the confining of environmental studies to science or policy into broader frameworks including concentrations such as “Environmental Thought and Culture,” which she helped create at the university.  Kaza identified three major areas of change—lifestyle change, local citizenship participation and ethical change—but added that fundamental change does not always come easily.  She noted, for example, that in her course “Unlearning Consumerism” many of her students are apt to simply replace products with green consumer choices, rather than address the underlying impulse to buy. Her own tradition of Buddhism, Kaza said, offers help in principles of non-harm, of being with suffering, and of “taking the deep view” in an ecumenical and contemplative way with a real emphasis on changing.

DeWitt spoke about the growing relationship between scientists and evangelicals, including recent cooperation around the drafting of a “call to action” on the environmental front issued at the National Press Club in February 2006. “If you get people from all these diverse groups to develop a new refreshing theology, God will bless it and you can make immense progress,” he noted.

Keller pointed to an increasing tendency for contemporary feminist theologians to emphasize the practical, the profoundly relational, to cross boundaries, and to “reread” the nature of the universe.  In many cases, she said, such impulses are turning feminist theologians into eco-feminist theologians.

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