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Bridging Faith and Earth

January 24, 2015

By Carl Teichrib (www.forcingchange.org)hands-65342_640

Preamble: Today’s Christian community is rife with green social and political messages, eco-theology, and interfaith action on the environment. Examples abound, such as the G8 World Religious Summit of 2010, a major interfaith meeting with strong representation from across the Protestant/evangelical spectrum, working in cooperation with world religions to push global green governance and a form of eco-spirituality.

Another example is the commissioned Mennonite Central Committee report, Earth Trek: Celebrating and Sustaining God’s Creation. In it we discover a combination of questionable theology, pantheistic-based messages, troubling political and social activism, mystical meditations and texts on the sacredness of Earth, the promotion of family planning through the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (part of the global abortion industry), favorable connections to The Earth Charter Foundation and Friends of the Earth – and at the end of the book we find this suggestion; “this week, make an offering to the earth, in the form of a prayer or some other gift.” (bold in original)

In Canada, the United Church sings “O Beautiful Gaia” – a song to the Greek goddess of Earth – as found in their More Voices hymnal. Across North America congregations hold Earth Day services, hear sermons on global warming, and engage in environmental campaigns. Example after example could be given. It’s like we’re facing a tsunami of green.

So when and where did Christendom find itself intersecting with radical green thinking and eco-based interfaithism? In this essay we explore the early history that set the stage for today’s eco-faith movement. It’s a sobering examination.

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Global political and religious transformation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Neither does Christian intermingling with the forces of such change happen by chance. Therefore, in order to understand today’s eco-Christian context, we need to traipse into the not-so-distant past.

The intersection of representative Christianity and the modern environmental movement can be traced to the first Earth Day in 1970. In The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology we read,

   “Earth Day that year was an important event for Americans in general, but especially for the churches. It not only raised awareness of the ecological crisis, but many of its promoters levelled blame for the mistreatment of nature at the Christian churches…

The criticism stung. Christians have always tended to assume that Christianity is on the side of the good. Clearly the massive degradation of the natural world was not good.”[i]

Already facing the negative reaction that accompanied Lynn White Jr.’s famous 1967 essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” a controversial piece that fingered Christianity as the primary cause of environmental degradation, church bodies found themselves scrambling to demonstrate ecological sensitivity. Christianity was at fault, came the message from noted academia, a now-vocal youth counterculture, and from the key Earth Day text handed out to school and university students across the United States and Canada – The Environmental Handbook. Christianity, therefore, needed to clean up its act and become part of the solution.

Although theological interest in ecology preceded this event,[ii] the first Earth Day was an important turning point. Leigh Eric Schmidt, writing for The Harvard Theological Review, provided a glimpse of the Christian response,

“The first Earth Day in 1970 provided an occasion within the churches for expressing concerns over the environmental crisis. Religious involvement in this ecological awakening was substantial. Both the president and the general secretary of the National Council of Churches endorsed Earth Day in mailings to church leaders in March 1970; they also encouraged the observance of an Environmental Sabbath…”[iii]

Today the “message of green” is firmly embedded within countless individual congregations. Indeed, it is difficult to find a church that don’t place some emphasis on environmental advocacy. This, however, was not the case during the 1970s.

Instead of local pulpits sermonizing on the environment, a present reality in much of the Western world, arguments for ecological “social change” was predominately restricted to upper-level settings; denominational governing bodies, seminaries, and ecclesiastical associations. It was in these circles where debate took place regarding Christian eco-responsibility, the “limits to growth,” land and resource usage, “wealth redistribution,” global interdependence, family planning and overpopulation, the role of government, and the ethics of capitalism. “Eco-justice” became a theme for deliberation and application. Such conversations were taking place within the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, the Canadian Council of Churches, the Church of the Brethren, Disciples of Christ, Evangelical Lutheran Church, the American Baptist Church and even the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church in America and Canada, and the Episcopal Church.[iv]

In the United States, the Episcopal denomination found itself on the cutting edge of spiritually-charged ecology. Although ridiculed by some within the broader Anglican Communion, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine – New York City’s Anglican flagship – was creating history by unabashedly blending mysticism, pantheism, and deep green with Episcopal traditions. Enter, James Park Morton.

In 1972, Morton became Dean of the Cathedral and surrounded himself with mystical and planetary thinkers such a Thomas Berry and William Irwin Thompson. Soon he met environmentalist and humanist philosopher René Dubos[v] of “think global, act local” fame. As Morton noted in a 1990 interview with In Context, “He [Dubos] was the one who really turned me upside down… I went through some very serious reconceptualizing of man’s relation to the Earth as it had been spelled out in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”[vi]

Morton, already involved in William Thompson’s Lindisfarne Association and the promotion of its New Age vision, worked hard to turn his church into a “Green Cathedral” – a “high place” in sync with planetary thought. Describing a Lent church service, Morton explained,

“I would say, ‘Let’s talk about the suffering of the Earth, the passion of water. Let’s talk about Jesus in Earth – God incarnate in the flesh of the Earth, the flesh of water, the flesh of the elements of creation and how that creation is suffering – the passion of the creation.’ And that was very effective.”[vii]

In 1979 the Cathedral held its first solar service, a “Sun Day Celebration.” That same year the Cathedral also hosted an environmental fair and a book signing for the release of James Lovelock’s now-famous work, Gaia. “We had the book party here at the cathedral,” Morton reflected in his interview, “and his first public exposition of the Gaia Hypothesis was from our pulpit.”[viii]

During Morton’s years as Dean his Cathedral did become a repository of planetary thought, providing physical space for the Gaia Institute, Lindisfarne’s educational programs, and temporarily housing the universalistic Temple of Understanding. The Cathedral also witnessed – and continues to engage in – a host of “progressive” activities, including interfaith worship services, “Gaia masses” (the first one took place in 1981), lectures on green spirituality, and it has been a rallying point for eco-politics. In 1985 the Cathedral held its first annual “Blessing of the Animals.”

So much was happening at Morton’s Cathedral that by 1994, former Special Assistant to President Reagan, Doug Bandow, wrote the following; “At times one wonders whether the formally Christian Cathedral retains an interest in Christian worship.”[ix]

“…the Cathedral has included Buddhist meditations, African chants, and other non-Christian worship practices in its services. Moreover, Morton has placed a live blue crab and other animals in an Earth Shrine in the church’s nave as ‘a symbol of ecotheology.’ He [said]… that the blessing of animals ‘is the profoundest kind of religious experience we can have’.”[x]

By then other Episcopal churches were starting to come around to Morton’s thinking. Bandow writes how one Anglican minster remarked; “…we are now beginning to see that Morton was a pioneer with the courage to challenge orthodoxy that was largely outdated.”[xi]

The decade of 1970s, however, are important to note for another faith factor. As denominations and leading congregations started to explore environmental themes, an informal yet important eco-theological courtship was taking place with other religions.

Spiritual Summits

   Interfaith encounters have long been a springboard for visions of action, communicating the desire for a harmonized and universalized existence. This was certainly the aspiration of the first great inter-religious event of the modernist era; Chicago’s 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions. Here, representatives from Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Theosophy, Judaism, Shintoism and Taoism interacted with spokesmen from Christianity, the dominant attending religion. From start to close, the Parliament called for the “Brotherhood of Religions” – the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man – the oneness of faiths within a united humanity; “The goal before is Paradise. Eden is to rise.”[xii]

Although the history of interfaithism is grounded in the first Chicago Parliament, with later advances through the World Congress of Faiths and Vatican II, it was the Temple of Understanding – birthed during the 1960s – that paved the way for connecting ecology and interfaith activity. By working together, the religions of the world could apply the principle of interdependence. The purpose of the Temple, according to its own literature, was to “achieve universal recognition of the underlying Oneness of the Family of Man.”[xiii]

Paradise could be restored if religions would put aside differences and bring collective power to bear on world issues. A “Spiritual United Nations,” aiding the political United Nations, could “endeavor to build a better human society.”[xiv]

The Temple of Understanding was the vision of Judith (Juliet) Hollister, a housewife in Greenwich, Connecticut, who, while enjoying peanut butter sandwiches with a friend, came up with the idea of housing the religions of the world in one location – a place for understanding and commonality. This thought turned into a meeting with the Assistant-Secretary of the Ford Foundation, William Nims, who encouraged Hollister to flesh out the idea. Soon after a surprise opportunity arose through an encounter with Eleanor Roosevelt’s cousin over a dinner party; Would she be willing to discuss this idea with the First Lady?

The following week, with architectural drawings in hand for a house of global faiths, the visit became a reality. Upon seeing the design Mr.s Roosevelt exclaimed, “This is very beautiful – a sort of spiritual United Nations. My dear, how can I help you with your dream?”[xv]

Armed with letters of introduction from Roosevelt, Hollister traveled around the globe meeting with religious and political leaders to see if support could be raised. The results were encouraging, including positive responses from UN Secretary-General U Thant and Henry Luce of Time-Life fame, and although the physical Temple was never constructed the organization was rapidly gaining influence. By 1968 the Temple hosted its first interfaith “Spiritual Summit” in Calcutta, thereby demonstrating that religions could cooperate with the totality of humanity in mind.

“What we have to recover is our original unity,” mystic Thomas Merton emphasized in his closing speech.[xvi]

Summit II took place in Geneva and brought together leaders from a multitude of religious persuasions. Dr. Eugene Blake, General Security of the World Council of Churches, was a participant. Other delegates were attached to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Non-Christians and the Church of England’s Council on Foreign Relations. The topic: Practical Measures for World Peace, with a sub-theme that broached the question of ecology – “The Population Problem.”

Summits III and IV, held at the Harvard Divinity School and Cornell University, explored issues of secularism and culture, and the building of a “World Community.” But it was at Summit V where interfaithism and deep-green intersected in a meaningful way.

Hosted by and housed in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, the Temple of Understanding’s fifth Spiritual Summit was extra special. From October 19-24, 1975, Summit V started with a “colorful and dramatic procession of about 200 religious dignitaries from all over the world.”[xvii] Then, over the week, four working panels tackled “The Unity of the Human Community,” “Ecology and the Spiritual Environment,” “Creating the Future Community,” and “Women, Religion and World Community.”

Margret Mead, the famous cultural anthropologist, gave the opening address and connected the protection of the atmosphere with our common human unity. Later, former astronaut Edgar Mitchell and other delegates debated the role of technology in relation to ecology and evolution. Marcus Braybrooke, President of the World Congress of Faiths and a member of the Temple of Understanding International Committee, recalls the acknowledgement that religious groups “needed to develop experts for advisory positions in practical matters of state and on political decisions.”[xviii]

But the best was saved for last. On Friday, October 24, Summit V closed by holding a gathering at the United Nations, thus forming a united voice of world faiths. This was an historic event as it was the first time in UN history that a combined religious delegation addressed the world political body. Meeting in the Dag Hammarskjold Auditorium, this extraordinary session started with a meditation by Sri Chinmoy, Director of the UN Meditation Group. After some introductory speeches, UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim gave a briefing on the future of the United Nations. Toward the close of the UN-religions meeting, Jean Houston presented a Joint Statement calling for the UN to “consider the creation of an agency which will bring the much needed resources and inspirations of the spiritual traditions to the solution of world problems.”[xix]

The Joint Statement also announced that “the great religions and spiritual movements of our time stand ready to unite around their common spiritual and moral vision.”[xx] Human rights, the environment, and world peace were each noted as parts of a new morality and ethics.

In closing, Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast gave a blessing that recognized the sacredness of the UN as “a symbol of human concord, a symbol of the truth that this poor, mistreated earth belongs to all of us together.” The monk continued with a challenge. “As we stand, then like plants standing on a good plot of ground, let us sink our roots deep into our hidden unity…”[xxi]

One last Spiritual Summit took place before the Temple of Understanding transitioned with the times. Summit VI, held jointly in Morton’s Cathedral and the Church Centre across from the United Nations, took place in October 1984. This gathering of spiritual leaders, claiming to represent “over one-half of the Earth’s population,” met to consider and support a document drafted by Robert Muller, then UN Assistant Secretary-General. Muller read his draft text, a Declaration of Oneness for the Human Family, to the Summit delegates. This Declaration promoted the “convergence of world religions towards a Global Spirituality,” “social justice,” and the need for World Religions “to bear upon the solution of world problems.” Interdependence in the “total order of things” was pressed home: “The Evolutionary task of human life and society to move through the eternal stream of time towards interdependence, communion, and an ever expanding realization of Divinity.”[xxii]

The Temple of Understanding recognized the ecological importance of Summit VI; that it helped to “develop this awareness of the earth as a living being; just as the trees and plants have a consciousness, so does the earth.”

The result: “[A] new way of looking at the relationship between faith traditions and ecology began to develop.”

Conclusion

   During the mid-to-late 1980s, a series of groundbreaking events transpired that would embed Christendom within a burgeoning planetary eco-political and spiritual system. These events included the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders, both of which leveraged Christian influence to promote a fundamentally socialist and pagan idea of planetary oneness and world management.

Another event of importance was the 1986 creation of the Interfaith Partnership for the Environment, a group formed under the umbrella of the United Nations Environment Programme. The purpose of the IPE was straightforward: “to inform North American congregations about the serious environmental problems facing life on Earth.”[xxiii] To that end, the IPE launched the North American Environmental Sabbath project with board members from the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and the Episcopal Church. The board was also made up of delegates from other religions, including Islam, the Bahai faith, Tibetan Buddhism, and Judaism. And James Park Morton of “Green Cathedral” fame was also part of the group.

In 1989, Noel Brown, then chairman of UNEP and head of the Environmental Sabbath Planning Committee, met with the Los Angeles Interfaith Council. His remarks were telling.

“Now we need to work more closely with the religious and spiritual community. We need to create an ecumenical movement – I call it an ‘eco-menical’ movement – in the service of the Earth. It’s time for us to think again, and to think anew… One of the new metaphors that I am eager to produce and promote is that of a covenant – a new covenant with the Earth. You in the religious communities can help us do that… That is the challenge facing all of us, and that is the challenge to which I ask you to work with us as allies. We can create a new order, and if we are to survive, indeed we must.”[xxiv]

Only a few months later the IPE Environmental Sabbath worship kit was ready and distributed to 25,000 congregations across the United States. Only One Earth invited the religious faithful to organize interfaith groups around environmental issues, write letters urging denominational leaders to take action, and suggested sermon ideas for pastors who wished to inject “green” into corporate worship. One idea was to “invite guest speakers or ‘representatives’ from other species, i.e. plants and animals.”[xxv] By the year 2000, over 130,000 environmental projects could be traced back to the work of the IPE and its Environmental Sabbath.[xxvi]

Today, in 2015, we can bear witness to the inroads made by earlier interfaith partnerships and green alliances. And while the Spiritual Summits of the 1970s and 1980s, and the IPE Environmental Sabbath, have quietly faded into obscurity, much of Christendom has been taken with the cause. But as noted in the beginning of this article, our current intermingling with the politics and spirituality of “green” didn’t arise by chance or emerge from a vacuum. Instead, the ripples created by Christian leaders diving into the waters of “global green” decades past have spread far and wide, rising and growing into waves that now wash over ever community and impact every Christian. ■

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[i] Paul Santmire and John B. Cobb Jr., “The World of Nature According to the Protestant Tradition,” The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology (Oxford University Press, 2006), pp.132-133.

[ii] Two examples: 1) See Joseph Sittler’s “Called to Unity” speech given at the Third Assembly of the World Council of Churches, November 21, 1961, in New Delhi, India. It should be noted that Sittler, a Lutheran theologian who called for a “theology for the earth,” and a handful of other professors and philosophers, were exploring Christian-religious-ecological ideas in the late 1940s and 1950s. 2) By the mid-1960s an association was formed under the umbrella of the National Council of Churches. Known as the Faith-Man-Nature Group, this body of theologians, philosophers and scientists convened annual meetings and published reports such as, Christians and the Good Earth, A New Ethic for a New Earth, and Religious Reconstruction for the Environmental Future (this report was funded by the US Department of Education).

[iii] Leigh Eric Schmidt, “From Arbor Day to the Environmental Sabbath: Nature, Liturgy, and American Protestantism,” The Harvard Theological Review, Volume 84, Number 31, July 1991, pp.317-318.

[iv] Consider a few examples. The American Baptist Church 1977 Policy Statement on Energy, which reads in part, “No country can live for itself. We must cooperate with each other. Cooperation by definition connotes interdependence, a recognition by all of us that we share global responsibility for the stewardship of resources and justice for humanity.” The Southern Baptist Convention 1974 Resolution on Stewardship of God’s Creation, “…we urge Congress and concerned governmental agencies to take aggressive action to conserve our diminishing resources.” The Canadian Council of Churches 1973 report, Whose Man? Whose Resources?, “…a strong argument can be made for community ownership of all land…” At the 1975 gathering of the World Council of Churches, biologist Charles Birch explained, “A prior requirement of any global society is that it be so organized that human life and other living creatures on which human life depends can be sustained indefinitely within the limits of the Earth. A second requirement is that it be sustained at a quality that makes possible fulfillment of human life for all people. A society so organized to achieve both these ends we can call a sustainable global society… with a new sort of science and technology governed by a new sort of economics and politics.” (quoted by Dieter t. Hellel, “Eco-Justice Ethics: A Brief Overview,” The World’s Religions: A Contemporary Reader, published by Fortress Press, 2011, pp.184-185).

[v] Rene Dubos was a noted microbiologist who spent the bulk of his professional career at the Rockefeller Institute and Rockefeller University. He wrote numerous books and his So Human An Animal (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968) received the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction. Only One Earth (W.W. Norton, 1972), co-authored with Barbara Ward, suggested a “planetary order” and “planetary interdependence,” closing with the call for “an ultimate loyalty to our single, beautiful, and vulnerable planet Earth” (p.220, second last paragraph).

[vi] Alan AtKisson interviews James Parks Morton, “The Green Cathedral,” In Context: A Quarterly of Human Sustainable Culture, Winter 1990. This article can now be read online at http://www.context.org/iclib/ic24/morton (Accessed January 28, 2014).

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Doug Bandow, The Politics of Envy: Statism as Theology (Transaction Publishers, 1994), p.55.

[x] Ibid., p.55.

[xi] Ibid., p.55.

[xii] Speech of Emil Gustav Hirsch, “Elements of Universal Religion,” The Dawn of Religious Pluralism: Voices from the World’s Parliament of Religions (Open Court, 1993), p.224.

[xiii] The Temple of Understanding (1982 Temple brochure), introductory page.

[xiv] Ibid., p.3.

[xv] Marcus Braybrooke, Pilgrimage of Hope: One Hundred Years of Global Interfaith Dialogue (SCM Press, 1992), p.94.

[xvi] The Temple of Understanding (1982 Temple brochure), p.11.

[xvii] Ibid., p.11.

[xviii] Braybrooke, Pilgrimage of Hope, p.101.

[xix] Ibid., p.102.

[xx] Ibid., p.107.

[xxi] Ibid., p.107.

[xxii] Temple of Understanding website; http://www.templeofunderstanding.org/wwa_Faith_Ecology.html. Note: this site has now changed. The quoted text comes from the July 25, 2009 screenshot.

[xxiii] Interfaith Partnership for the Environment, UNEP, at http://www.unep.org/newyork/interfaithpartnershipfortheenvironment/tabid/56210/default.aspx (Accessed March 5, 2014).

[xxiv] Noel J. Brown, “We Appeal to You,” remarks made to the Los Angeles Interfaith Council, November 2, 1989. This speech can be found at http://www.context.org/ICLIB/IC24/Brown.htm.

[xxv] See, Only One Earth (UNEP, 1990), note that no page numbers exist in the document. The idea of species representation is found on the second page of “Suggestions for the Celebration.”

[xxvi] Letter by John J. Kirk, co-founder of the IPE, as reprinted in Only One Earth: A Book of Reflection for Action (UNEP/Interfaith Partnership for the Environment, 2000), p.5. This version of Only One Earth was a remake of the 1990 edition.

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