Ferment in the world of religion and faith

Posted May 11th, 2015 in Blog, Featured 1 Comment »

Every aspect of the human world is being impacted by the ecological crises emerging in our time, and certainly religion is no exception, or how it is that human culture finds meaning to wrap around the story of life and death on this planet Earth.

Our headlong crash into the ecological truth of our existence has challenged a lot of old religious understandings, ways in which humans have perceived meaning, purpose, and place on this planet. Dualisms that put the human over and above the “mere” physical reality of earthiness, of body and dirt, are breaking down as we realize that we are all made of that earthy stuff and, if we destroy that, contaminate it, use it up, kill it, well, we are also destroyed, contaminated, used up, and killed.

Photo: Margaret Swedish

Photo: Margaret Swedish

Creation stories over millennia have grounded the human in the stuff of the Earth, and our sad attempt in recent centuries to put mind over matter, as if we could develop one without so much concern for the other, has taught us by the result how wrong that is, what a huge error we have committed.

So in recent years, it has been heartening to see so much of the religious world, rooted as it has been in this error, finally entering a bit more boldly into the reality of the ecological crises, even as those crises challenge some of their basic assumptions about God and Creation. As many religious leaders begin to come to terms now with the frightening nature and scale of our predicament, some are trying to find adequate voice to rouse people out of a “way of seeing” that has us locked into assumptions and presumptions about how to live, about how we think we are entitled to live, how we define human aspirations and acceptable standards of living in ways that are literally destroying us.

Many religious leaders are making the leap now away from mere “green” consumerism to an understanding that it is consumerism itself, it is the predominant “economic” mode of being, that is leading us to the abyss. That is an understanding that requires a great leap because it takes us far beyond the tiny band-aids that cannot begin to patch over and heal wounds of such magnitude. All the home energy audits and clean energy cars and recycling and backyard gardening in the world cannot stop the course we’re on.

But these things can teach us a lot (including how to live differently). They teach us about how interconnected our global economy is with the ecosystems of the planet, along with the sobering realization that, no matter how hard we try in our personal lives, in our individual churches and faith communities, what is driving this is something much bigger. It is the industrial growth culture itself, an economic model based on private profit that generates wealth for corporations, their shareholders, and financial institutions that service them, and which profit comes by way of using up the Earth’s “resources” to make and sell stuff to this world of human consumers.

In this kind of model, we cannot ever accept what is. What keeps the world going “forward” (to the abyss) is the constant making up of new things to produce and sell, new conveniences, new technologies, new “needs” never needed before on which satisfaction we quickly become “dependent,” constant innovation and competition to get the resources to make the stuff to be the first and the best to bring those new products to market.

That’s what’s killing the planet, as much as anything else I can think of. Instead of sharing what is available to us within the planet’s limits in a way that can support this growing population, we insist that the market must function to create ever new stuff out of a rapidly dwindling base of “resources,” from water to arable land to forests to energy and on and on. We are running out of what is needed for life to continue, for ecosystems to thrive, and, even knowing this, we still think the overarching economic mode of being is somehow a more eternal truth than the truth of the planet’s own living reality.

coexist-bumper-sticker-04In the world of religion, where old paradigms are breaking down in the face of all we are learning and the crisis we are facing (which is our teacher now about the planet), how faith leaders engage, how they talk about this, the degree of their willingness to part with “truth” that no longer describes the reality of our lives, and to open to the search for ways to conceive meaning in these troubled times – this will make a real difference in how we get through this. If religion tries to fit our terrifying predicaments into fundamentalisms birthed in another age not at all like this one, it will fail us. If it tries to merely accommodate our new reality, or fit into its traditional orthodoxies what has essentially challenged or blown them out of the water, then it will add to the stresses already fracturing the human community as that community finds itself increasingly unsteady, uprooted, anxious, and afraid. It will divide and make more enemies among the human community, which, as we know, is the very last thing we need right now.

Religion can thrive on fear, as we know. But what we need from religious leaders right now is some real courage to face full-on the reality of our human predicament in ways that bring us together, break down the walls between religions and cultures, and help us find a common language as we face the terrifying ecological challenges that are already re-shaping our very existence.

And we need leaders from various faith traditions to be bold enough to challenge the predominant economic culture that is the real source of the crisis. As we know from way too much experience now, we see how even religion, spiritual practices, and gurus can be made into commodities that support the predominant economic paradigm, items to be consumed, to make us feel better about ourselves as our ways of life collapse the planet all around us.

Religion can be a terrible weapon of social and cultural control, of excuses for changing nothing, or for keeping people complacent and somnolent.

So it matters that out of these traditions some voices are emerging – with urgency – to challenge the economic culture that is ruining the planet and our human chances for survival, not in spite of, but from out of, those traditions. We also know from recent history just how powerful a source of liberation and radical social transformation some of these traditions can be when they return to their true sources.

"Pope Francis at Vargihna" by Tânia Rêgo/ABr - Agência Brasil.

“Pope Francis at Vargihna” by Tânia Rêgo/ABr – Agência Brasil.

As one example, the world awaits the coming encyclical on human ecology from Pope Francis, which will be released most likely next month. While it is always dangerous to anticipate content, there are plenty of hints about the nature of the challenge he is going to pose to the world, and especially to the Catholic world. One of them comes from one of his top advisers, Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. In the address at the link just below, Cardinal Turkson summarizes the core principles of the “integral ecology” on which the pope is focused.

‘Integral ecology and the horizon of hope:  concern for the poor and for creation in the ministry of Pope Francis’

The other link I want to include is from David R. Loy, a well-known Buddhist writer and teacher in the Sanbo Zen tradition.

Awakening in the Age of Climate Change

His is a much-needed voice in American Buddhism, joining people like Joanna Macy, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Susan Murphy, who challenge us out of spiritual complacency and invite us to deep engagement with the ecological reality of the planet.

Religion and faith, the search for meaning and purpose – these things are in ferment now, unstable, in upheaval as humans enter a period of ecological crisis like nothing we have ever lived through before. How we shape our way through this will be influenced by what we believe. It’s a good time to ponder those belief systems to see if they describe our reality adequately, if they are truthful about it, and whether or not they offer us the kind of signposts and vision to help us get through this crisis time to something else, something better, ways of life that come to terms with who we really are in the greater scheme of things.logo tiny without words

Some influential religious leaders are prepared to engage, and we need to engage with them and with the communities they touch. This is not a one way conversation, but an invitation to deep dialogue as we humans search again for meaning in a wholly new context in a time of crisis and tremendous transition. Who we are on the other end of the crisis, and IF we are, will be determined by how we engage the transition.

Margaret Swedish

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One Response

  1. Margaret Swedish

    In the NY Times today, and relevant to this post:

    “Big Drop in Share of Americans Calling Themselves Christian”


    Those upheavals are ocean waves washing over old safe shores, remaking everything.