Weve Done it Again From the Garden of Eden to the Tower of Babel

I have long been interested in religion as it is wrestled with, expressed, and practiced not only by elite thinkers and writers, but by everyday people— like you and me—dealing with the messiness of encountering religion and spirituality in our daily lives and not always knowing what to do with it. While doing doctoral work at Harvard University, I became increasingly interested in the study of lived religion in American history.1 It was there that I also brought my longstanding interest in eco-theology into a new context. At Harvard, and later at Middlebury College, I began teaching and writing about how people bring together their religious identities and their environmental concerns. These interests have blossomed into a full-fledged study of the burgeoning (and interfaith) environmentalism of religious organizations, clergy, and laypeople.

Through doing this work, I have become utterly convinced that there is room in the maze to which I earlier referred—the maze of meaning making—for spiritual language (and spiritual practice) in the face of global climate change. Indeed, for us not to succumb to complete despair in the face of this challenge, there must be room for spiritual language and practice. Moreover, it is the diversity of religious opinions and practices that will give us the tools we need to face the crisis of values that is at the heart of the global climate crisis.

Religious environmentalism is a kind of religious pluralism, and it is the unexpected interreligious cooperation, as much as the environmentalism, that has particularly interested the media and, more importantly, has the greatest potential for creating social change. Countless times in my research I have seen clergy and laypeople set aside differences of belief and practice and agree not to talk about abortion or gay marriage so that they can roll up their sleeves and get to work on protecting our collective future. We do not have to agree theologically on all matters, to agree that global climate change is—in addition to being a scientific, technological, and political challenge—a challenge of the greatest moral urgency. It is the spiritual challenge of our times, a challenge of apocalyptic proportions.

Some of us identify as religious, some as spiritual, but not religious. Many of us feel connected to the spiritual traditions of our ancestors on one day and deeply cynical about religion in general on the next. Yet one need not be religious in any formal sense to find hope in the slowly emerging eco-religious voices that are singing, praying, and speaking out in synagogues, temples, churches, full moon circles, and mosques around the country. Even those who are confirmed atheists and secular humanists can take heart in what is emerging right now. The new intra- and inter-faith work on global climate change is doing precisely what some have called for (see chapter 4): it is moving beyond science, technological tinkering, and policy strategizing alone. It is reaching deep into our hearts to ask, What are the values we hold most dear?

Asking deep questions of ourselves, taking these questions seriously, and transforming them into action is what the new grassroots work on climate change is all about, and it can have fascinating and lasting effects within religious contexts. For instance, if Jesus is at the center of our spiritual lives and we guide our lives by asking, What would Jesus do?" we must also ask, What would Jesus drive? It may sound like a clever one-liner to some, but the question—circulated by e-mail, ad campaigns, and bumper stickers—has been taken very seriously in Christian, and especially evangelical, communities. Jesus would probably walk, take the bus, or at least carpool with a Toyota Prius, some speculate. That very speculation has led to serious grassroots action.

Most prominently, a November 2002 Detroit-based protest of the automotive industry made it into the headlines in part because the interreli-gious story was irresistible. During that protest, nuns drove rabbis around in hybrid cars, and Jews, Catholics, and evangelical Christians together visited automobile companies and dropped interfaith calls for new emissions standards on the desks of corporate executives. For these Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, global climate change was not a matter of "environ-mentalism" in the old sense; indeed, many of them would hesitate to identify themselves as environmentalists. When asked to consider what it means to be an American Christian or Jew at this moment in history, however, they responded by attending to one of the most urgent moral problems of our time.

How else are deep questions about values expressing themselves in religious communities? If the practice of Shabbat (or Sunday Sabbath) is at the center of our spiritual lives, we might ask, What can Shabbat—a day of rest and no labor—mean today? Perhaps today, more than ever, Sabbath observance stresses being. Some aspects of work might not get done for those who take one day a week for contemplation and gratitude, but the practice itself recharges the body, mind, and soul. It rejects consumption and overwork (both of which contribute to environmental degradation) and asks us to pay attention to the uniqueness of creation and all its creatures. Today, the practice of Shabbat is being reinterpreted by various forward-thinking rabbis as the ultimate spiritual, environmental practice, the one day a week when we exercise no effect on or control over nature. (The emphasis on Shabbat as a form of resistance to the most negative consequences of modernity—unchecked consumption, a rushed pace of life, emphasis on work over life—began with the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Today, others have led the way in understanding Shabbat as an environmental practice, a time once a week when nature is appreciated, but not transformed, by humans.) In addition, the question of how to define what is kosher has led to the rise of an "eco-kosher" movement, a movement that takes old dietary prohibitions into a new era and asks whether it is moral, in our time, to eat genetically modified food, to buy products that are nonlocal or nonorganic, or even to drive SUVs. The idea of eco-kosher both draws on and contributes to organic, slow food, and "localvore" movements, but it grounds these ideas in an ancient tradition that has always understood eating to be a sacred act that must support the principles of the flourishing of life and the establishment of justice. When Jewish New Yorkers refuse to buy food from California that has a large "carbon price tag" attached, they are acting against climate change, while also understanding themselves to be participating in new forms of an ancient religious tradition, a tradition that tells them, "Justice, justice shall you pursue."

Religious orientations—whether we accept them as our own or simply choose to learn from them—are essential because they exhibit compassion for humanity while maintaining a sense of the big picture in which the more-than-human world is also cared for and recognized. Our varied traditions teach us that we humans are not the center of the universe, even if—in the twentieth century especially—we had been acting as if we were.

They teach us that unchecked power and human hubris can lead to dire consequences (as originally narrated in the story of the expulsion from Eden). Today, through our greed, through our hunger for as many "apples" (televisions, cars, air conditioners) as we can consume, we are kicking ourselves out of the earthly Eden into which we were born. Our childhood Edens were imperfect worlds, to be sure, but they were more healthy and sustainable than what we have at present.

What I am talking about here are matters of interpretation, matters of framing, ways of knowing, understanding, and communicating to others that all the writers of this book see as crucial to building a sustainable future or to having any future at all. To face the climate crisis in all its force, we have to go beyond scientific understanding (the crucial starting point) or activist mobilization (the essential next steps). We have to meet the climate crisis where it meets us: in the guts, in the heart, in the soul.

The climate crisis is a crisis of science, of politics, and of culture. At its deepest, however, it is a moral crisis, a crisis of psyche and spirit. In our moments of honesty with ourselves and with the world—what I call the two o'clock in the morning moments—we ask ourselves, How is it that we have let our hubris go this far? That we have begun to control our own weather? That we have taken the fate of the planet into our own hands? That we are creating conditions in the United States that will wreck the lives of our cousins in the Pacific Islands and in the Arctic? It is the Tower of Babel revisited. We have stretched beyond our human limits, and now we are beginning to feel the consequences, be they flood, fire, or both.

For as long as I can remember, I have been deeply interested in questions of meaning. For an equally long time, I have turned to the natural world, sometimes to answer those questions, more often to quiet them down. The woods and mountains and urban garden plots that I hold dear have always been a hedge against those crises of the spirit that we all, at times, experience. Lately, I have wondered what happens when the very places we have always gone to for spiritual solace or spiritual guidance become degraded or disappear. The climate crisis is a spiritual crisis in this sense, too. It not only threatens the resources on which humanity depends for food, shelter, and a livelihood; it also threatens our sacred lands, our sources of spiritual renewal, our touchstones of childhood memory.

Getting Started With Solar

Getting Started With Solar

Do we really want the one thing that gives us its resources unconditionally to suffer even more than it is suffering now? Nature, is a part of our being from the earliest human days. We respect Nature and it gives us its bounty, but in the recent past greedy money hungry corporations have made us all so destructive, so wasteful.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment