International Conference and Poetry Festival
Post Graduate Department of English, Berhampur University, Odisha
In Collaboration with the
Indian English Writers, Editors and Critics (GIEWEC) on
Environment and Culture in the Anthropocene
Dec. 1 & 2, 2019
This paper on Religion and Ecology is very much related to the conference Theme: ‘Environment and Culture in the Anthropocene’. The Bible says that God created human beings in his likeness and resemblance and entrusted them the stewardship of the creation. Anthropologists claim that human beings first inhabited Africa and then, through migration, populated all continents over thousands of years in pre-history. This paper on Religion and Ecology, however, deals with the contemporary times.
As defined in Oxford Dictionary & Thesaurus, religion means a “belief in super human controlling power especially in personal God or gods”. Similarly, ecology means “study of relations of organisms to one another and their surroundings.” Likewise, Anthropocene, as noted in the concept paper, indicates a “new geological epoch human on earth find themselves [in]” and that today it has become “an umbrella term for human induced climate crisis involving nature and culture.”
Human beings created in God’s own image are the stewards of the entire creation. Hence comes the importance of Anthropocene. Google Dictionary defines Anthropocene as, “the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment”. Some scientists say that human activity has been the dominant influence on environment and climate from the beginning of the industrial revolution.
Human beings and creation are composed of five basic elements of earth, water, fire, air, and space. The right proportion of the five elements in a human body makes the person healthy and robust. Such a person is considered hale and hearty. The same is also true of the environment. For instance, the German Zoologist Ernst Haeckel says, “The balance of the whole creation is maintained by right combination of all its components.”
Some 300 years ago, the environment was also “hale and hearty” in its own way. However, human beings began to interfere with the environment on a big scale from the beginning of industrial revolution that began in England and spread around the whole world. Consequently, human interference with the environment increased to the detriment of Mother Earth. More specifically, India also increasingly became industrialized after the independence thereby unbalancing its atmosphere.
Nature protects the earth with the cover of what is called “ozone air”. Ozone protects the earth as a shield against the ultraviolet and infrared rays of the sun. Ozone’s protection of the earth is like a greenhouse effect.
Dr Jose Mathew Vayalil, S.J. expertly discusses the greenhouse effect in his book THE GREEN MODEL OF THE CHURCH. Vayalil notes that “The Greenhouse effect was discovered by Joseph Fourier, a French Physicist in 1824. He theorized in 1927 that the earth’s atmosphere acts like the glass of a plant breeder’s hot house. In a greenhouse the incoming UV radiation easily passes through the glass walls of the greenhouse and is absorbed by the plants and hard surfaces inside. Weaker infrared (IR) radiation inside the green house has difficulty passing through the glass walls and is trapped inside thus warming the green house.”(1)
Scientists, like ecologists and environmentalists, have been warning the dangers of affecting the ozone cover. During the last few decades, many world leaders have also raised a serious concern over the depletion of the ozone cover and have searched for solutions. Today the whole world has become aware of the environmental problems because everyone experiences climate change, tsunamis, earth quakes, droughts, floods, and other natural disasters.
Religion has played, and continues to play, a significant role in human lives. The Homo sapiens must have started worshipping Nature or certain powers of nature long ago. Acknowledged or not, the Creator God has been leading human beings to, what Paleontologist, Philosopher-Theologian Pierre Teilhard Chardin (1881-1955) calls, “Omega Point”. The Jesuit priest Chardin coined the term ‘Omega Point’ to assert that everything in the universe is destined to reach its final point, the divine destiny, Jesus Christ. “The Omega Point is a spiritual belief that everything is fated to spiral towards a final point of divine unification”. (2) The Bible also says that everything was created through Jesus Christ.
Further, Chardin argued that Omega Point resembles the Christian ‘Logos’, namely, Christ who draws all people and things to himself. Whether we agree with Teilhard Chardin’s theory or not, it helps us to look at the Creation with respect and love. Respecting and loving the creation can lead us to refrain from misusing and polluting the earth. All the same, the rampant environmental destruction proves that the human beings have failed to love and respect Mother Earth in the Anthropocene.
In a message to the World Day of Peace on January 1, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI said, “If you want cultivate Peace, protect the Creation”. Today the world has become aware that, instead of protecting the creation, selfish human beings are destroying the environment and creation out of greed.
Pope Francis in his Encyclical letter LAUDATO SI’, published in 2015, reminds us that the destruction of environment is an extremely serious matter. Pope Francis writes, “The destruction of the human environment is extremely serious, not only because God has entrusted the world to us men and women, but because human life itself is a gift, which must be defended from various terms of debasement. Every effort to protect and improve our world entails profound changes in life styles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern the society.”(3)
In a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the creation story in the Bible (see Genesis, chapters 1 & 2), human beings were considered the master of the whole creation. For, the Bible says, “They will have power over the fish, the birds, and all animals, domestic and wild” (Genesis 1: 26). But now the biblical scholars interpret human beings’ power over creation as stewardship over the creation. So the Ecologist Theologian Dr. Vayalil Jose Mathew, SJ says, “The status of the Homo sapiens is brought down from the pinnacle of creation to an ordinary member of the earth community.”(4) In his book The Green Model of the Church, Vayalil quotes the American professor in biology Barry Commoner, who proposed Four Laws of Ecology. One of Commoner’s lasting legacies is his four laws of ecology. They are the following:
- “Everything is connected to everything else. There is one ecosphere for all living organisms and what effects one, affects all.
- “Everything must go somewhere. There is no “waste” in nature and there is no “away” to which things can be thrown.
- “Nature knows best. Humankind has fashioned technology to improve upon nature, but such change in natural system is, says Commoner, ‘likely to be detrimental to that system.’
- “There is no such thing as a free lunch. Everything comes from something. There’s no such thing as spontaneous existence.
“His philosophy influenced many to use ecology as a political agenda.”(5)
Dr Commoner, also a professor in George Washington University, St Louis, USA, was a prominent figure on environmental issues in the 1960s-1990s. TIME magazine featured him on its cover in February 2, 1970 describing him as both an environmental ecologist and an activist. In an online article written by Simon Butler, entitled ‘Barry Commoner: Scientist, activist radical ecologist’, the writer describes Dr Commoner as “the greatest environmentalist of the 20th century”.
Dr Commoner’s contribution in creating awareness about ecological and environmental destruction is outstanding to say the least. Let me quote again from Butler’s article, dated October 4, 2012. A week after Commoner’s death, Butler writes:
Over several decades, he also took part in many grassroots environmental campaigns. His research into the health impacts of atmospheric nuclear testing is credited with leading to the 1963 international treaty that banned it. He repeatedly spoke out for the most common victims of industrial pollution: poor, Black and working class communities.
But he combined this activity with a radical argument about the root cause of ecological crisis, which he said was a system of production based on private profit instead of ecological and human need. Commoner said in his 1971 book The Closing Circle: ‘We are in an environmental crisis because the means by which we use the ecosphere to produce wealth are destructive of the ecosphere itself. The present system of production is self-destructive; the present course of human civilization is suicidal.(6)
I am sure most ecological scientists and concerned religious leaders will agree with Barry Commoner’s view that “the present system of production is self-destructive; the present course of human civilization is suicidal.”
This same view is upheld in an important document which Thomson Gale has quoted in his research paper on “Ecology and Religion: An Overview” published in Encyclopedia of Religion. Gale writes that the document “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” was produced by the union of concerned scientists in 1992 and was signed by more 2000 scientists, including over 200 Nobel laureates. The document says,
Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course.… Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.(7)
The echoes of this view are also heard in a very recent document on environment and ecology in Pope Francis’ encyclical letter LAUDATO SI’ On Care For Our Common Home. This official document of Pope Francis published on 24 May 2015 is, according to me, his most comprehensive teaching on environment and ecology from humanistic/religious point of view. In the encyclical, Pope Francis challenges every person to get involved in the care of mother earth and change one’s lifestyle to protect and preserve the environment for the coming generations. Urging that “We require a new and universal solidarity”, Pope Francis declares that the destruction of environment is a moral issue, which concerns everyone”.(8)
Pope Francis says that universal solidarity is called for because “everything in the world is connected”. We are connected with all creation in the ecological web of life. Christians beyond the Christian Religion believe in the biblical expression of “the Kingdom of God”, where everyone shares in human nature as brothers and sisters of the one human family of God – the Father of all. Are we aware of the biblical concept of three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with neighbour and with the earth. As LAUDATO SI’ points out, we need to recognize that “Each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us.”(9)
As mentioned in my review article on LAUDATO SI’ in WRITERS EDITORS CRITICS, “Pope Francis decries an excessive anthropocentrism as it stands ‘in the way of shared understanding and of any effort to strengthen social bonds’. So he says, ‘When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected’.”(10)
Over the years, many international meetings and seminars have been held on the dangers of ecology and environment as well as decision and resolutions have been taken, but the latter’s implementation has lacked force and political will. In this context again, Pope Francis’ words in LAUDATO SI’ are significant: “Enforceable international agreements are needed since local authorities are not always capable of effective intervention.”(11) Will the world community pay heed to Pope Francis?
Thomson Gale in his article “Ecology And Religion: An Overview” writes about an Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s contribution to Islamic community in creating awareness of environmental crisis. Gale writes, “Nasr has been the leading spokesperson in the Islamic community for drawing attention to the seriousness of the environmental crisis as well as the need for a revival of the cosmological basis of religions where humans are seen as a microcosm of the macrocosm of the universe”(12). In the same paper, Gale also refers to “The Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (IFEES), based in England, that has from its beginnings in 1984 established itself as a leader in environmental conservation and activism in Islamic settings.”(13)
Gale’s certain other observations remain crucial even in our context. For instance, he writes:
The responses of religions to the global environmental crisis were slow at first but they have been steadily growing since the latter part of the twentieth century. Several years after the first United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, in Stockholm in 1972, some of the Christian churches began to address the growing environmental and social challenges. At the fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Nairobi in 1975, there was a call to establish the conditions for a ‘just, participatory, and sustainable [global] society.’ In 1979 a follow-up WCC conference was held at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on ‘Faith, Science, and the Future.’ This conference issued a call for a new biblical interpretation of nature and of human dominion. Moreover, there was recognition of the critical need to create the conditions for ecologically sustainable societies for a viable planetary future. The 1983 Vancouver Assembly of the WCC revised the theme of the Nairobi conference to include ‘Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation.’ The 1991 WCC Canberra conference expanded on these ideas with the theme of the ‘Holy Spirit Renewing the Whole of Creation.’ After Canberra, the WCC theme for mission in society became ‘Theology of Life.’ This has brought theological reflection to bear on environmental destruction and social inequities resulting from economic globalization. In 1992, at the time of the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the WCC facilitated a gathering of Christian leaders that issued a ‘Letter to the Churches,’ calling for attention to pressing eco-justice concerns facing the planet. Principles of eco-justice that have had growing support in the last decade include: solidarity with other people and all creatures, ecological sustainability, sufficiency as a standard of distributive justice, and socially just participation in decisions for the common good.(14)
Some years ago, I attended the Annual Day function at Mount Carmel High School in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. The girls put up a variety of programmes about environmental crisis and the means to protect the environment. However, the most impressive feature of the event for me was an oath taken by all students at the end of the programme. It said, “We take an oath today that we will always take care and protect our continent. We will not do harm in any way in words or deeds nor we put environment in danger. We will altogether care for our mother earth. Thus we will enjoy here a healthy long life of prosperity.”(15)
Finally, I conclude with a quotation from the message of Pope Francis on the 5th World Day of Prayer for Care of Creation 1 September 2019.
In effect, we have forgotten who we are: creatures made in the image of God (cf. Gen 1:27) and called to dwell as brothers and sisters in a common home. We were created not to be tyrants, but to be at the heart of a network of life made up of millions of species lovingly joined together for us by our Creator. Now is the time to rediscover our vocation as children of God, brothers and sisters, and stewards of creation. Now is the time to repent, to be converted and to return to our roots. We are beloved creatures of God, who in his goodness calls us to love life and live it in communion with the rest of creation….
“This too is a season for undertaking prophetic actions. Many young people all over the world are making their voices heard and calling for courageous decisions. They feel let down by too many unfulfilled promises, by commitments made and then ignored for selfish interests or out of expediency. The young remind us that the earth is not a possession to be squandered, but an inheritance to be handed down. They remind us that hope for tomorrow is not a noble sentiment, but a task calling for concrete actions here and now. We owe them real answers, not empty words, actions not illusions.(16)
Pope Francis’ words succinctly express the gist of my paper and encourage us to prepare for decisive action to protect the Mother Earth for a better tomorrow.
- Vayalil, Dr Jose Mathew, SJ. The Green Model of the Church. Christian World Imprints, Christian Publishing & Books from India, New Delhi, 2018. P. 21 Print.
- July 19, 2019. Google.com/search?rlz=1C1CHBD_enIN811IN811&q=en.m.wikipedia/wiki/Omega+Point.&spell=1&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjaiOmcvonlAhVvIbcAHWAOAzsQBQgtKAA&biw=1366&bih=657.
- Francis, Pope. LAUDATO SI’ ON CARE FOR OUR COMMON HOME, Carmel International Publishing House, Trivandrum, India, 2015, p.10 Print.
- Vayalil, Dr Jose Mathew, SJ, The Green Model of the Church, Christian World Impressions, Christian publishing & books from India, New Delhi 110 015, 2018. Print.
- Vayalil, The Green Model of the Church. Ibid, pp. 85-86 Print.
- Butler, Simon, Barry Commoner: Scientist, Activist, Radical Ecologist. September 24, 2019 https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/barry-commoner-scientist-activist-radical-ecologist
- Gale, Thomson, Ecology And Religion: An Overview, Encyclopedia of Religion 2005 Web. September 20, 2019. https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ecology-and-religion-overview
- Francis, Pope. LAUDATO SI’, Carmel International Publishing House, Trivandrum, Kerala, India, 2015. (No.14). Print.
- Francis, Pope. Ibid. (Nos. 16, 84) Print.
- Paul, Fr Varghese, SJ. Pope Francis’ Magna Carta: Encyclical LAUDATO SI’ ON CARE FOR OUR COMMON HOME. WRITERS EDITORS CRITICS, Volume 5, No 2, September 2015. p.104 Print
- Francis, Pope. LAUDATO SI’. Ibid (No. 173) Print.
- Gale, Thomson, “Ecology And Religion: An Overview” in Encyclopedia of Religion, Web. September 15, 2019 https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ecology-and-religion-overview
- Gale, Thomson, Ibid.
- downloaded on September 20, 2019) https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ecology-and-religion-overview
- Paul, Varghese, SJ’s Gujarati book ‘Pariyavanni Samipe’, Rannade Publication, Ahmedabad, 2017, p.93. Print.
- Francis, Pope. Message for World Day of Peace. September 25, 2019 https://zenit.org/articles/pope-francis-message-for-world-day-of-prayer-for-care-of-creation/
Changed on: 01-02-2020
Next Change: 16-02-2020
© Fr Varghese Paul, SJ – 2020