Living Earth

Ecology and Religion

by John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker

CoverIsland Press, January 2014

Ecology and Religion is a foundational text for environmental studies and religious ecology. It is a distillation of Grim and Tucker’s 20-year effort to create religion and ecology as an academic field of study. They take us through the development of religious ecology showing how our understandings of nature have shifted over time in various religions, and in western philosophical traditions and the environmental sciences. They trace views of nature through various phases of our western cultural transformation, highlighting competing views of human-nature relationships and divine-nature relationships (e.g., humans and divinity as part of or apart from nature). Chapters on Orthodox Christianity, Confucianism, Indigenous traditions, and Hinduism show how religious ecologies are present in story, ritual and action.

The book is also a journey through the experiences that shaped Grim and Tucker’s understanding of the field. This journey began with their work with their teachers, especially Thomas Berry, and continued with their studies of Indigenous (Grim) and East Asian (Tucker) religions. The book draws on the resources developed during the three-year conference series at Harvard on World Religions and Ecology, as well as from their work abroad, including in China and in India, as well as with the Green Patriarch, with Indigenous peoples, with the Earth Charter, and with the Journey of the Universe film.

This introductory text is also a guide to cultivating the sensibilities, ethics and practices necessary for creating mutually enhancing human-Earth relationships as a broadly interreligious effort in collaboration with ecological and cosmological sciences. Most people identify themselves as religious and/or spiritual, and for many, their faiths call them to live in ways that respect and care for all life (present and future) and to focus on being more, not having more, after their basic needs are met. Unless our religious communities weigh in on caring for the natural world, our ecosystems that nurture us and all life will be greatly diminished.

Grim and Tucker argue that religions are entering their ecological phase and that religions should play a critical role in advancing a strong framework for sustainable development based on the convergence of these religious ecologies. Indeed, many religious communities already are contributing examples of compassionate and sustainable living.

Grim and Tucker define religious ecologies as “ways of orienting humans to the universe, grounding them in the community of nature and humans, nurturing them in Earth’s fecund processes, and transforming them into their deeper cosmological selves,” opening us toward “the creative force in the cosmos.” Religious ecologies provide ritual structures and ways of living that connect us to the community of life. Participants in the Harvard conferences identified seven key values for human-Earth flourishing that are shared by the world religions: reverence, respect, restraint, reciprocity, redistribution, responsibility and renewal. These values are foundational to religious ecologies.

The chapters on Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism and Indigenous traditions give rich examples of the religious ecologies of these diverse traditions, emphasizing respect for others, social harmony and interconnectedness with nature and Earth within their varied world views. However, as Grim and Tucker point out, religions also have their problematic dimensions, including intolerance, dogmatism and fundamentalism. And certainly contemporary Christian, Chinese, Indian and Indigenous societies are far from practicing mutually enhancing human-Earth relationships.

Nonetheless, Grim and Tucker challenge us to retrieve, reevaluate and reconstruct our religious understandings of human-nature relationships in light of our traditions’ historical contributions to ecojustice and in dialogue with scientific understandings of our cosmological and ecological contexts. As a result of such a process, we would:

  1. Recognize where our religious traditions and organizations have promoted violence, injustice and unsustainability
  2. Commit to deepening our sense of empathy and interconnection with all our brothers and sisters and the whole community of life on Earth
  3. Demonstrate sustainable living in our religious and spiritual communities
  4. Educate ourselves to work effectively in development policy arenas, understanding the critical changes that need to happen in our economic and governance structures to create a flourishing future for all.

Grim and Tucker explore emerging global ethics and the need for new stories or narratives to evoke changed attitudes and values concerning nature. They suggest that a global ethics, especially the Earth Charter, can help guide our globalizing world out of the mechanism, materialism, reductionism and utilitarianism of modernity. As Bill Rees observes (Great Transition Initiative), “We are literally addicted to the myth of progress and infinite growth and, in the thrall of this myth, we deny all contrary data and ignore any argument that we are on a collision course with biophysical reality.”

Tucker’s work on shaping the Earth Charter was essential in the extensive global consultation to establish a shared ethical framework to guide sustainable development. The Earth Charter’s 16 main principles and 61 supporting principles provide a strong definition of sustainable development. The Preamble of the Earth Charter states that we “stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history… Fundamental changes are needed in our values, institutions and ways of living. We must realize that when basic needs have been met, human development is primarily about being more, not having more.”

The Preamble also states that “we are part of a vast evolving universe.” Grim and Tucker’s efforts with Brian Swimme to produce and distribute the Journey of the Universe film reflect this sensibility of our profound role in evolutionary processes. The Journey film, book and conversations contribute much to the grounding and orientation needed for building cultural narratives that reorient our sense of who we are and the purpose of the journeys we are on, so that we can live in ways that all can live.

Ecology and Religion concludes with the challenge to create ‘ecological cultures’ by awakening fresh sensibilities regarding nature and by reorienting our institutions, particularly economics, to strengthen mutually enhancing human-Earth relationships. Grim and Tucker’s exploration of religious ecologies and how they orient, ground, nurture and transform our capacities to care for people and our planet challenge us to cultivate our capacities to:

  1. Engage deeply and effectively in contemplative and transformative practices that awaken and orient us toward the creative force or radiant source informing the universe and our cosmological selves
  2. Experience our interconnectedness and interdependence with the whole living world embracing diverse cultures of people and animals, agriculture and wilderness, the cycles of life and the seasons, as well as the unfolding cosmos
  3. Feel and act from compassionate concern for others, doing no harm, and reaching out to assist all beings
  4. Live in ways so that all can live, consuming no more than one’s fair share of Earth’s bounty and choosing products and services (e.g., food, energy, transportation, housing) that are ecologically sound, socially just and economically viable (e.g, local, fair trade, organic, humane, carbon- and pollution- neutral)
  5. Act to shift social policies and institutional structures to better care for the whole community of life and future generations, creating alternatives to GDP, internalizing social and environmental costs in pricing goods and services, eliminating perverse subsidies, and creating ethical assessment and trusteeship structures at all governmental levels to better care for future generations and the whole community of life

The world’s religions can play a role in the ethical articulation of a path toward a flourishing future, where humans are not dominating nature but rather recognize their profound dependence on the larger community of life. Large-scale and long-term perspectives will be needed to envision sustainable ecosystems that have developed over billions of years, sustainable living for humans at present, and a sustainable future for all life. Ecology and Religion will be vital in assisting us in the critical task of creating mutually enhancing human-Earth relationships.