April 21, 2005
On Common Ground
Earth Day, April 22, offers an occasion for those of us who work at the intersection of theological ethics and environmentalism to reflect on our vocation. I find that today I remain perplexed by some of the same issues that brought me into this field in the first place.
On the one hand, I am perplexed by the many Christians I meet and read about who care little about the state of our planet -- God's "very good" creation. Though many of the social policies of our current administration are significantly shaped by religious interests, the policies on the natural environment seem to disregard the biblically grounded imperative to honor the earth as the Lord's.
Consider, for example, recent congressional activity regarding the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. By a mere two votes, the Senate has approved drilling for oil in the "American Serengeti." Admittedly, energy policy is complex, but I think this is a clear case of treating the symptoms of a problem rather than its causes. To be sure, our economy depends on oil. But should we remain as dependent on a nonrenewable resource as we are currently? I don't think so. And while our dependence on oil is indisputably a factor in our geopolitical calculations, mining a pristine wilderness is far from the best way to address this dependence. I find the continuing lack of protest by Christian churches on this issue confounding.
On the other hand, the environmental activists and scholars I know and meet bewilder me with their own astonishment that a Christian ethicist thinks his tradition has something significant to offer the causes of environmentalism. Granted, the chasm between the potential and actual historical offerings of the Christian tradition to environmental issues is partly to blame for this. And yet I remain baffled at environmentalists' astonishment regarding my conviction that the self-defining core of Christianity -- the belief that God has become incarnate in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth -- offers radical support for commitment to the goodness of nature. For Christians, the Christ brings together Creator and created, supernatural and natural -- an emphatic affirmation of nature's value.
Having noted these personally confounding issues, I want to stress that the most important challenge in relating religious beliefs and environmental concerns is that of articulating and practicing a way of life that can ameliorate the multifarious dimensions of environmental degradation. The world's various religious communities have a crucial role to play in this task.
Our contemporary environmental crises are global in scale, and demand concerted, wide-ranging response. There is much that individuals can do on this front, but more effective action and policy require global partnerships. Such alliances are, of course, difficult to forge, and the convening of global summits on the environment and the creation of international protocols by nation-states have, sadly, proven utterly ineffective. But religions are global phenomena, often comprising adherents from many nations and regions. Thus the kind of partnerships that effective environmental action needs already exist.
Failures on the part of the international community present the world's religions with the opportunity -- indeed the responsibility -- to demonstrate the potential effectiveness of "faith-based initiatives." Individual churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples should take up the work of greening their physical plants. And as we all know, here in the U.S. and elsewhere, religious communities can generate enormous political influence when they determine to do so.
While there is great diversity within and among the various religious traditions of our world, religious worldviews provide the kind of comprehensive moral visions upon which responsible environmental ethics depends -- for the environmental crisis cannot adequately be addressed piecemeal. In a time when there has been so much talk about the moral, political, and cultural fragmentation of our world, issues of common concern need to be identified and embraced. Religious people should examine their consciences and consider ways in which their traditions might catalyze the creative visions and responsible actions owed to the future of human and natural life on this planet. We who are religious, as well as the secular environmentalist community, need to awaken to the possibilities of this joint venture.
Earth Day is an occasion to ponder these considerations, a day for all of us to be more conscious of the value and fragility of our natural habitation, and more mindful of our responsibilities to it. Whether we understand the earth as the Lord's, as a holiday playground, or as a great storehouse of scientific or economic resources, all of us share the earth as the sustaining field of our existence. Among religions, and between the religious and non-religious, there is no more common ground than that of the earth.
Michael Hogue is a Ph.D. candidate in Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.