Category: Religion

Caring for the environment has a long Catholic lineage – hundreds of years before Pope Francis

Pope Francis has laid emphasis on protecting the environment, but he’s not the only pope to speak about caring for nature. AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

by Joanne M. Pierce (College of the Holy Cross)

Pope Francis led dozens of religious leaders Oct. 4, 2021 in issuing a plea to protect the environment, warning that “Future generations will never forgive us if we miss the opportunity to protect our common home.”

The appeal, which calls for net-zero emissions, was released after months of meetings leading up to the United Nations’ November climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

The pope has voiced support for green policies before, including his 2015 encyclical letter to the entire Catholic Church “On Care for Our Common Home.”

But Francis is not the first Catholic leader to emphasize care for the planet. In fact, every pope for the past half-century – except John Paul I, who died after just one month in office – has addressed environmental issues in their official publications.

As a scholar whose research focuses on the medieval Church, I see many of these concerns deeply rooted in the history of the Catholic tradition.

The early tradition

One of the basic beliefs of Christianity is that the material world was created directly by God, and thus fundamentally connected with God’s goodness.

This is clearly expressed in the creation narrative in the book of Genesis, part of the sacred scripture shared by Christians and Jews. As God completes each element of the world – day, night, land, sea, etc. – he sees that “it was good.” On the sixth day, when God creates human beings in God’s own image, they are given “dominion” or “rule” over everything that lives on the Earth.

Early Christians insisted that the beauty of creation reflected God’s glory. But as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, they had to defend this view of the basic goodness of creation when challenged by another religious viewpoint.

This movement – called Gnosticism, from the Greek word meaning “knowledge” – taught that the physical world was created not directly by God, but by a lesser spiritual being, out of malice or ignorance. At best, the material world was a worthless distraction; at worst, an evil snare for human souls. Gnostic teachers offered to teach their followers how to free their spirits from attachment to their physical bodies and the material world. In this way, after death they could return to the realm of spiritual reality and reunite with the divine.

Many theologians and bishops criticized this interpretation of their faith. Several wrote lengthy, detailed critiques of Gnostic teaching; at stake, they believed, was the salvation of souls.

The most prominent of these was St. Irenaeus of Lyons, who lived in the second century A.D. On Oct. 7, 2021, Francis announced that he would declare Irenaeus a “Doctor of the Church,” a title reserved for saints whose writings have had a profound impact on the life of the Church.

In Irenaeus’ treatise Against the Heresies, a passionate defense of the teaching of the scriptures and apostles, he states that creation itself reveals God and God’s glory; the only higher revelation is Jesus Christ himself.

At the beginning of the Middle Ages, however, Western Christianity was left with a lingering suspicion of “worldly things,” despite this early stress on the basic goodness of material creation.

An illumination depicts Hildegard of Bingen experiencing a spiritual vision while dictating to a scribe.
Hildegard of Bingen did it all: music, botany, medicine, drama and theology. Miniatur aus dem Rupertsberger Codex des Liber Scivias/Wikimedia Commons

The Benedictine tradition

By the third century, some Christians began to seek a life more fully focused on God by removing themselves from society to pray and work together in communal groups. This kind of monasticism swept across Western Europe during the medieval period.

The most influential of these monastic orders were the Benedictines, who balanced their lives between daily prayer services and work – which often involved agriculture and care of the surrounding environment. Each monk or nun pledged to remain at the same monastery for life, unless its abbot or abbess – the monk or nun in charge – ordered them to move to another. Because of this, Benedictines became known as “lovers of place.”

Today, one Benedictine saint has become especially connected with environmental concerns: St. Hildegard of Bingen, who died in A.D. 1179. This German abbess was one of the most accomplished women of the Middle Ages. An expert on herbal medicines and botany, she also wrote religious plays, composed liturgical chants and hymns, and authored theological works and poems based on her mystical experiences. She insisted that God loved the Earth as a husband loves a wife, and espoused a kind of “green” theology, called viriditas, condemning the harm that human activity could do to nature.

Hildegard has been acclaimed as an unofficial patron saint of environmentalists. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI declared her a “Doctor of the Church,” like Irenaeus.

A fresco depicts St. Francis preaching to a group of birds under a tree, while another monk looks on.
St. Francis, patron saint of animals and ecology, famously preached to the birds. Giotto di Bondone/Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi/Wikimedia Commons

The Franciscan tradition

St. Francis of Assisi, son of an Italian cloth merchant, has over the centuries become renowned for his love of the natural world. After time as a soldier and prisoner of war, Francis underwent a spiritual conversion. Rejecting his father’s wealth, he chose to live a life of radical poverty and public preaching until his death in A.D. 1226. Early on, male members of his new mendicant movement, the Franciscians, took religious vows but traveled from town to town with no fixed residence, begging for food and lodging.

One of Francis’ few documents is a poem, the Canticle of the Sun, which lyrically expressed his belief in the kinship between human beings and the rest of the natural world. Even the Sun and the Moon are addressed as “brother” and “sister.” And as he lay dying, it is said that he asked to be laid on the bare Earth.

Legends about his preaching and miracles circulated widely, and some involved his concern for animals, treating them with the same dignity as human beings. One story holds that he preached to birds and convinced a vicious wolf to live in peace with nearby townspeople.

In 1979, Pope John Paul II named St. Francis the patron saint of ecology because he “revered nature as a wonderful gift of God.” And in 2015, Pope Francis used the first words of the Canticle of the Sun, Laudatio si’, to open his encyclical on the environment and serve as its official title.

Although often overshadowed by the notion that the material world is only a passing distraction, reverence for a creation deeply loved by God has also been an important part of Catholic tradition. Contemporary teaching on the environment is only its most recent expression.

Joanne M. Pierce, Professor Emerita of Religious Studies, College of the Holy Cross

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Catholic environmental movement adopts new name in push to inspire action

Read the full story from the Catholic News Service.

The Global Catholic Climate Movement is now known as the Laudato Si’ Movement.

Movement leaders explained during a livestreamed program July 29 that the change better reflects the work of the six-year-old worldwide network and its connection to prayerful action on environmental protection and climate change.

For some evangelical Christians, climate action is a God-given mandate

Read the full story at Grist.

Does the Bible say to “subdue” the earth, or to care for creation?

Lack of burial space is changing age-old funeral practices, and in Japan ‘tree burials’ are gaining in popularity

Many of the tombs in Japan are elaborately decorated. Nearby visitors can buy flowers, buckets. brooms and other gardening tools to tidy up the graves. John S Lander/LightRocket via Getty Images

by Natasha Mikles (Texas State University)

As the global population continues to grow, space for putting the dead to rest is at a premium. In the U.S., some of the biggest cities are already short on burial land, and so are many other nations around the world.

At the same time, many nations are transforming funerary rituals, changing the way cemeteries operate and even destroying historic cemeteries to reclaim land for the living. In Singapore, for example, the government has forcibly demolished family tombs in favor of columbariums, structures that can hold the urns of the cremated. Grave spaces in the city-state can be used only for a term of 15 years, after which the remains are cremated and the space is used for another burial.

In Hong Kong, gravesites are among the most expensive real estate per square foot and the government has enlisted pop stars and other celebrities to promote cremation over physical burial.

As a scholar who studies Buddhist funerary rituals and narratives about the afterlife, what interests me are the innovative responses in some Buddhist majority nations and the tensions that result as environmental needs clash with religious beliefs.

Practice of tree burial

As early as the 1970s, public officials in Japan were concerned about a lack of adequate burial space in urban areas. They offered a variety of novel solutions, from cemeteries in distant resort towns where families could organize a vacation around a visit for traditional graveside rituals, to chartered bus trips to rural areas to bury loved ones. Beginning in 1990, the Grave-Free Promotion Society, a volunteer social organization, publicly advocated for the scattering of human ashes.

Since 1999, the Shōunji temple in northern Japan has attempted to offer a more innovative solution to this crisis through Jumokusō, or “tree burials.” In these burials, families place cremated remains in the ground and a tree is planted over the ashes to mark the gravesite.

The Shōunji parent temple opened a smaller temple site known as Chishōin in an area where there was already a small woodland. Here, in a small park, free from the large, stone markers of traditional Japanese grave sites, Buddhist priests perform annual rituals for the deceased. Families are also still able to visit loved ones and perform their own religious rituals at the site – unlike the scattering of cremated remains promoted by the Grave-Free Promotion Society, which leaves the family without the specific ritual space required for traditional Confucian and Buddhist rituals.

While many families electing for tree burials do not explicitly identify as Buddhist or associate with a Buddhist temple, the practice reflects Japanese Buddhism’s larger interest in environmental responsibility. Perhaps influenced by Shinto beliefs about gods living in the natural world, Japanese Buddhism has historically been unique among Buddhist traditions for its focus on the environmental world.

Whereas the earliest Indian Buddhist thought framed plants as nonsentient and, therefore, outside of the cycle of reincarnation, Japanese Buddhism frames flora as a living component of the cycle of reincarnation and, therefore, necessary to protect.

As a result, Japanese Buddhist institutions today often frame the challenge of humanity’s impact on the environment as a specifically religious concern. The head of the Shōunji temple has described tree burials as part of a uniquely Buddhist commitment to preserving the natural environment.

Social transformations

The idea of tree burials has proven so popular in Japan that other temples and public cemeteries have mimicked the model, some providing burial spaces under individual trees and others spaces in a columbarium that surrounds a single tree.

Scholar Sébastian Penmellen Boret writes in his 2016 book that these tree burials reflect larger transformations in Japanese society. After World War II, Buddhism’s influence on Japanese society declined as hundreds of new religious movements flourished. Additionally, an increasing trend toward urbanization undermined the ties that had traditionally existed between families and the local temples, which housed and cared for their ancestral gravesites.

Tree burials also cost significantly less than traditional funerary practices, which is an important consideration for many Japanese people struggling to support multiple generations. The birth rate in Japan is one of the lowest in the world, so children often struggle without siblings to support ailing and deceased parents and grandparents.

A cemetery at the Kiyomizu-dera Buddhist temple in eastern Kyoto, in Japan.
Traditionally, ties existed between families and the local temples, which housed and cared for their ancestral gravesites. Yuri Smityuk\TASS via Getty Image

Concern over traditional ceremonies

This move has not been without controversy. Religious and cultural communities across East Asia maintain that a physical space is necessary to visit the deceased for various afterlife rituals. Confucian traditions maintain that it is the responsibility of the child to care for their deceased parents, grandparents and other ancestors through ritual offerings of food and other items.

During the festival of Obon, typically held in the middle of August, Japanese Buddhists will visit family graves and make food and drink offerings for their ancestors, as they believe the deceased visit the human world during this period. These offerings for ancestors are repeated biannually at the spring and fall equinoxes, called “ohigan.”

Additionally, some Buddhist temples have expressed concern that tree burials are irrevocably undermining their social and economic ties to local communities. Since the institution of the Danka system in the 17th-century, Japanese Buddhist temples have traditionally held a monopoly on ancestral burial sites. They performed a variety of gravesite services for families to ensure their loved one has a good rebirth in return for annual donations.

American funeral traditions

Tree burials still remain a minority practice in Japan, but there is evidence they are quickly growing in popularity. Japanese tree burials, however, mirror trends happening in burial practices in the United States.

Whereas in the past, grave slots were thought of as being in perpetuity, now most cemeteries offer burial leases for a maximum period of 100 years, with shorter leases both common and encouraged. As represented by the pioneering work of mortician Caitlin Doughty and others, consumers are turning an increasingly doubtful eye to the accouterments of the traditional American funeral, including the public viewing of an embalmed body, a casket communicative of social status and a large stone marking one’s grave.

Part of this undoubtedly reflects sociological data indicating the decline of traditional religious institutions and a rise at the same time in alternative spiritualities. However, above all, such efforts toward new forms of burial represent the fundamental versatility of religious rituals and spiritual practices as they transform to address emerging environmental and social factors.

Natasha Mikles, Lecturer in Philosophy, Texas State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

SEJ Webinar: Missing Stories — Uncovering Environment-Climate-Religion Connections

Watch the webinar recording.

When it comes to covering climate change and environmental crisis, journalists are missing a major hook: religion, faith and spirituality. Journalists on nearly every beat, along with every government department under the Biden Administration, are realizing that climate change is now too big a story to be siloed under “environment.” But as the conversation shifts, one major realm of human existence sits on the sidelines: how religion and spirituality shape the relationship between humans and their environment.

From environmental justice activism in communities of color to environmental humanities programs at Ivy League institutions, this link is being made, but rarely is this cross-fertilization well represented by media. The Religion & Environment Story Project (RESP) is launching to help journalists find these missing stories and tell them well — by opening applications for a new fellowship and by funding story grants through SEJ’s Fund for Environmental Journalism.

Moderator

Speakers

  • Amanda Baugh, Author, “God and the Green Divide: Religious Environmentalism in Black and White” and Associate Professor of Religious Studies, California State University, Northridge. LinkedIn.
  • Sumanth Prabhaker, Editor, Orion Magazine; Advisory Board Member, Religion & Environment Story Project (RESP). LinkedIn.
  • Sigal Samuel, Staff Writer, Vox. @SigalSamuel

Green Sabbath Project

The mission of the Green Sabbath Project is to spark a mass movement of observance of a weekly day of rest — shabbat, sabbath, a green sabbath or a weekly earth day — on which impact on the environment is minimized as much as possible. As taken up by individuals and communities, it may or may not be connected to organized religion or God.

Their website features readings, crowd-sourced liturgy, graphics for advocacy campaigns, suggestions for sabbath activities, a global calendar featuring local (green) sabbath get-togethers, and links to related campaigns and organizations. The materials and events cover religious, spiritual, pantheistic, agnostic, and materialist approaches

‘God intended it as a disposable planet’: meet the US pastor preaching climate change denial

Reverend John MacArthur. Wikimedia

by Paul Braterman (University of Glasgow)

Every so often you come across a piece of writing so extraordinary that you cannot help but share it. One such piece is a sermon on global warming by American pastor John MacArthur. Full of beautifully constructed rhetorical flourishes, it is forcefully delivered by an experienced and impassioned preacher to a large and appreciative audience.

For me, as a man of science, it is the most complete compilation of unsound arguments, factual errors and misleading analogies as I have seen in discussions of this subject. But it’s important because climate change is a big election issue this November in the US, where there is a growing movement of evangelical Christians who deny its existence, while Joe Biden promises a “clean air revolution”.

The minister of the COVID-denying, law-defying Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California – which has encouraged worshippers to congregate as normal despite state COVID-19 restrictions – MacArthur is an impressive figure whose Study Bible has sold almost 2 million copies.

He regards the infallibility of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, as essential to his faith, and his sermon about global warming can only be understood in that context. MacArthur’s rejection of the science is shared by other major US ministries and organisations such as Answers in Genesis, Creation Ministries International and the Discovery Institute. https://www.youtube.com/embed/ZTlYl8E_B14?wmode=transparent&start=0

In this sermon, MacArthur paraphrases “a scientist at Cal Tech” (except not a scientist at all, but the novelist Michael Crichton, best known for Jurassic Park), as saying in a lecture:

Consensus science is the first refuge of scoundrels … invoked only in situations where there is a political, social, financial agenda but no scientific support.

The reverend has the most serious reasons possible for rejecting the scientific consensus concerning the age of the Earth, the origins of humankind, the history and prehistory of the ancient near East and the peopling of continents: it is totally incompatible with the Genesis account of creation, Adam and Eve, the flood and the dispersion of peoples from the Tower of Babel.

Error, denial and misunderstanding

As for global warming itself, the reverend channels standard climate change denial, but all his arguments are unsound and have been convincingly refuted to the satisfaction of an overwhelming consensus of climate scientists (see in-depth discussion at Skeptical Science). He understates the amount of global warming, incorrectly describes the full record as dating back only 30 years, and cites the Little Ice Age as evidence that the changes currently taking place are natural. There’s more:

Here’s the key, friends, this is the real deal. Legitimate science recognises a close correlation between sunspots and climate change … The sun is the source of temperature changes because of its infrared variations. … There is absolutely no evidence that CO₂ contributes to warming. On the contrary the opposite is true. Warming produces CO₂ … It’s the other way round.

Here we have a collection of half-truths and misunderstandings, typical of denialists claiming to represent “legitimate science”. As the graph below shows, the 11-year sunspot cycle is a minor deviation, and the temperature increase since 1980 has occurred despite the fact that over that period the amount of solar energy falling on Earth has gone down slightly. Incidentally, this solar energy input is concentrated mainly in the visible, not the infrared, region of the spectrum, and it is the roughly balancing heat outflow from the Earth that is in the infrared.

Graph showing global temperature change between 1980 and 2015
NASA, Author provided

MacArthur offers a false dichotomy between saying that CO₂ warms the oceans, and warmer oceans release more CO₂. Unfortunately, both these statements are true. There is a positive feedback loop: human-released CO₂ is the primary driver, but its effect is amplified by the fact that yet more CO₂ is then released from non-human sources. Regarding CO₂ itself, MacArthur seems to be even more confused:

By the way, plants produce CO₂. What man produces is marginal … Industry doesn’t affect CO₂ in the environment or atmosphere.

Plants do produce CO₂ but they absorb more than they emit. However, when it comes to humans, their activity may cause only a small imbalance each year between CO₂ emission and natural uptake, but this imbalance is cumulative. CO₂ levels are now 50% above pre-industrial, and subtle atomic differences clearly show that fossil fuel is the source. But according to MacArthur, “There is no scientific reason to believe that ice caps are melting”. https://www.youtube.com/embed/O9uunW_DBZE?wmode=transparent&start=0

Despite the Arctic Monitoring and Assement Programme’s video on this subject, the reverend does not think that the evidence for ice-cap melting is scientific, and that other factors are at play:

This is all political [and] financial agendas, class warfare, class envy … By the way, US$100 billion has been spent to make a case for global warming … driven by the socialist mentality … even some of the feminist mentality that resents male success.

All is now clear. Talk of global warming is part of a politically motivated conspiracy. But US$100 billion? That’s 600 years’ worth of all federal climate research spending. Clearly, those pesky socialists and feminists are formidable fundraisers. However, none of this matters because environmentalism is fundamentally misplaced. As MacArthur puts it, citing Revelation and the integrity of scripture:

God intended us to use this planet, to fill this planet for the benefit of man. Never was it intended to be a permanent planet. It is a disposable planet. Christians ought to know that.

And that is a statement that would leave anybody who cares about this world speechless.

Paul Braterman, Hon. Research Fellow; Professor Emeritus in Chemistry, University of Glasgow

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development (ICSD) makes the connection between religion and ecology and mobilizes faith communities to act. ICSD works on a global basis, with current engagement in Africa, the Middle East, North America, and Europe.

Their focus for 2020 is on the The Seminary Faith and Ecology Project, which engages divinity schools, seminaries, and schools of theology and encourages them to educate their students on the relationship between religion and ecology and work to upgrade the capacity of emerging clergy to speak to ecological issues. They have produced several reports as a result of the project, including:

The project has also developed a searchable syllabus collection for courses related to the link between ecology and faith and on ecology in the Bible, Theology, and Ethics.

Powered By Faith, Religious Groups Emerge As A Conduit For A Just Solar Boom

Read the full story from NPR.

Minnesota winters are long, brutal and gray. Minneapolis resident Keith Dent has endured 38 of them. But over the last several years, he’s experienced what he calls a “reintroduction to the sun.”

In 2017, Dent helped install, and later subscribed to a massive community solar garden mounted atop Shiloh Temple — a majority black church in north Minneapolis. Today, the 630-panel array provides Shiloh itself, the nearby Masjid An-Nur Mosque and 29 local households with green energy.

The Shiloh project is among hundreds of community solar gardens cropping up nationwide working to solve an obstacle many face when trying to go green: the cost of installing rooftop panels, which for a typical household, runs north of $10,000. The project is also among a growing cluster of initiatives affiliated with faith-based institutions seeking to advance their missions of justice by bringing renewable energy to low income communities.

Webinar: Tools to Guide Congregations and Communities Through the Energy Transition

Tue, Oct 15, 2019 12:15 PM – 1:45 PM CDT
Register here

This webinar will introduce The Sustainability Education and Energy Knowledge-sharing (SEEK) Project, an action research project of the Spirituality and Sustainability Initiative at ASU, and demonstrate the EPA’s ENERGY STAR® for Congregations program.

Both programs are designed for congregations, but can be used by any community seeking a framework and tools to help accelerate their energy transitions. SEEK uses a novel model for leveraging existing assets and in-kind resources from multi-sectoral partners (universities, congregations, commercial energy professionals, federal programs and local leaders) The EPA’s ENERGY STAR® for Congregations program has assets that also can be used across communities. Its free online tools, training and technical services are designed to support energy and water stewardship in worship facilities but apply to any facility.

Webinar participants view methods to measure their individual and collective impacts on energy usage, migration to renewable energy products and services, greenhouse gas emissions, energy expenditures, and reinvestment of cost savings into social service.

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