November 7, 2011
Sacred Air at the Festival of Faiths
— Martin E. Marty
Writers who deal with current topics are expected to "declare an interest," which on occasion—today is an occasion—I do. For many of the sixteen years since the Festival of Faiths has been celebrated in Louisville, Kentucky, I've been on the scene, and was again last weekend for this year's November 2-7 event. Christina Lee Brown served as Honorary Chair. Though mourning the recent death of her husband, Owsley Brown II, she showed that she can keep the Festival spirit despite that loss and in the face of some grim subject matter. Enough about that: have I declared enough interest?
This year an environmental topic attracted, since it dealt with a theme dear to us and to others who enjoy clear air and would like to be surrounded by it a bit longer. Since the event was "interfaithed," the theme was dressed up a bit as "Sacred Air: Breath of Life." But if "air" was the element being featured this year, the wide variety of programs during the week had participants keeping their feet on the ground. One signal of this was the presence of Bill McKibben, a notable environmentalist leader of our years, who inspires but is also ready to take on gritty political issues. He did so here in Louisville at a crowded service club meeting, a youth breakfast and workshop, and more. He seldom walks into a room where the audience is all in agreement with his approach to dangerous threats to the environment. Never mind, he seems to say, as he invokes spiritual, religious and theological references, which abound when one discusses Creation.
During McKibben's days at Louisville, the media were featuring national news by reference to Environmental Protection Agency reports that, despite hopes that things had been getting better, they were improving little; many indicators suggested they were worse. Despite overwhelming agreement by scientists in the field, every reference which suggests a need for reappraisal and reform gets countered by a small but well-financed phalanx of opponents who always find a lone scientist here or there—Denmark comes to mind as one of the few "there's"—who tells us that the bad news is simply part of a multi-year or multi-century "natural" warming of the globe, and, as we wait things out, in a few hundred or thousand years, some of us will survive.
The Festival of Faith participants are more moved by the understanding that the faiths commend a responsible approach to the environment as a major theme; not only Judaism and Christianity attend to the "doctrine of creation" as being prime among the focal teachings and beliefs. A few years ago some religious conservatives—Christians among them, whom most of us know best—backed off, put off by talk of "harmonic convergence" and "Gnosticism" by many. That is changing. Pursuing my interest at various sites and festivals and conferences, from Grand Rapids to Boise to Louisville—I stay home most of the time—I note that once shy or opposing evangelicals are now in the forefront. In an about face, some leaders changed, and they now lead the pro-environmental fronts which they used to shun. Groucho Marx must have influenced them: "Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?" Or, many at Louisville would say ". . . . or your own scriptures." The environmental movements are imperfect and may get many things wrong, but enough positive, sure, scientific, and spiritually profound themes get invoked that they provoke me to write columns which force "a declaration of author's interest." Next week I'll go back to being fair and balanced and objective about less controversial subjects.
The Festival of Faiths website is at www.festivaloffaiths.org.
Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.