October 1, 2007
Fundamentals of Environmental Stewardship
— Martin E. Marty
"Every living and healthy religion has a marked idiosyncrasy. Its power consists in its special and surprising message and in the bias which that revelation gives to life." George Santayana follows up that sentence with lines that bear on global awareness of the environmental tumult. Then: "The vistas it opens and the mysteries it propounds are another world to live in, and another world to live in…is what we mean by having a religion." Those "worlds" now meet in the arena of ecological awareness and advocacy.
"A shivering Buddhist monk" is pictured in The Economist of September 22nd, chatting with the Lutheran bishop of Greenland, who helped host a gathering of scientists, ecologists, and religious leaders. I don't know what the bishop was saying. The Lutheran tradition connects divine creation and preservation; it also calls for human participation, though Luther himself believed the world would end very soon—a belief that added urgency to, but did not cancel, the call for humans to be stewards of creation and the environment.
The presence of the Buddhist in the picture is what led The Economist to observe under the headline Religion and Ecology: Faith Upon the Earth: "In many parts of the world, religious groups and environmental scientists are teaming up—albeit sometimes reluctantly." The story describes a Hindu fundamentalist commenting on a chain of sandy shoals separating India and Sri Lanka. India 's congress, for good reasons, wants to dredge the Falk Strait for a shipping canal. Here comes a strange coalition: Ecologists, who foresee doom since the dredging may lead to the death of 177 species found only there, link up with the Hindu fundamentalists and welcome their clout. And why do the latter care? Because they have one of Santayana's idiosyncratic, strange, surprising, special stories: According to The Ramayana, the Hindu god Ram had the bridge built by monkeys so he could cross and rescue his wife Sita from a Sri Lankan demon.
Trace the story from the Falk Strait through Greenland to Texas. Andrew Higgins, in a page one lead in the September 28th Wall Street Journal, reports that there is resistance to the ever-increasing evangelical support for care of the environment as God's creation, a gift which demands response in human stewardship. In Texas, green issues still struggle for a hearing among "believers infused with 'end times' theology, the conviction that the world will inevitably come to a cataclysmic end and that nothing can or should be done to delay this." Santayana would say that such believers represent attachment to "another world to live in," which might be just as well, since they are endangering this one. The paper quotes a Bellmead (near Waco) pastor: "Our concern is not to spend hours and hours on how to keep the globe from warming; that is the end of hope…we [are to] storm the gates of Hell and keep the enemy on the run by the grace of God."
Such Baptist fundamentalism here matches Hindu fundamentalism: it's idiosyncratic, surprising, and special. Mention it among most new evangelical environmentalists and they will reply that such talk is not at all representative of evangelicalism. Many would say, for God's sake and earth's, "Let's hope."
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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