Stegner Center’s 18th Annual Symposium Highlights Ties between Religion, Faith and Environment

Lincoln_Davies_p7pc6bOn April 12 – 13, 2013, scientists, activists, lawyers, and scholars assembled at the Wallace Stegner Center’s Eighteenth Annual Symposium to examine the often-unexamined ties between religion, faith, and the environment. In choosing this topic, the Stegner Center sought to foster discussion on the varying perspectives faith provides on land use, biodiversity, the pragmatics and ethics of religious and environmental activism, and the relationship between law, religion, and the environment. Although the symposium has focused in past years on particular environmental and natural resources concerns (including alternative energy and wildlife conservation), this year’s event asked presenters and audience alike to take a step back and turn a critical but hopeful gaze to a vast body of thought that, for most Americans, underlies their attitudes and beliefs—and transforms attitude and belief into policy.

Lincoln Davies, a symposium organizer and associate professor at the College of Law, explained, “There are so many people of faith across the world, it’s essential that ecological thought be conveyed in terms of morals and not just science.” Religious institutions may be uniquely suited to shift momentum on environmental activism, due to their ability to organize and mobilize their communities to act based on principles. “Every religion I can think of teaches that we must care for the planet, so it’s a lost opportunity if environmentalists and people of faith are not working together. They may prefer different labels, but in reality, both groups are often the same,” Davies said.

Indeed, most presenters spoke of the need to critically examine religious doctrine and religious culture, while also reawakening awareness of traditional teachings that support environmental protection. In the experience of Tri Robinson, pastor of the Vineyard Boise Church, environmentalism was once eschewed by his congregation because of its early adoption by liberal advocates: as a youth, he felt that “no one could profess a care for environmentalism without someone saying you cared more for polar bears than babies.”

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Dr. George Handley, Professor of Humanities, Classics, and Comparative Literature at Brigham Young University, made a similar point: While warning against the “fanatical uniformity” that can occur when church leadership uses doctrine to enact policy, when it comes to scripture that speaks of honoring and preserving the environment, Handley noted that “the [LDS] church would help us all if these teaching were more clearly and more unambiguously and more repeatedly taught … in the absence of such frequency, what has happened is that indifference and hostility have been allowed to flourish, bolstered by what I call folk theology—which is essentially looking at LDS doctrine through the lens of political ideology.”

Vasudha Narayanan, Director of the Center for the Study of Hindu Traditions at the University of Florida, provided a non-Judeo-Christian perspective on how religious action can fall short of religious teachings. Narayanan spoke of the contradictions of the Ganges: despite support for environmentalism in traditional Hindu texts, the very sacredness of the Ganges river in Hindu tradition imparts the popular idea that the river will never defiled by any merely earthly waste  . . . including the tannery effluent and human remains that now pollute its waters. Narayanan concluded that “philosophical Hinduism” can be quite different from Hindu practice.

Sally Bingham, an Episcopal priest and Canon for the Environment in the Diocese of California (as well as the founder and president of The Regeneration Project, an organization devoted to helping “people of faith recognize and fulfill their responsibility for the stewardship of creation.”) brought the focus around to action: “The bad news first: the climate is changing. The good news: so are people of faith.” Bingham sought to erase demarcations between religious and secular environmentalists, stating “I’m not a scientist: I spoke with many of them, and I believe them, and I believe that they are our modern prophets.” She continued, “Religion will not have a prayer without the science,” citing religious leaders’ need to embrace the science of climate change, accept the real danger of severe consequences, and mobilize their congregants to make a difference.

However, should people of faith take up the call to arms, the nature of that action—and the effect it will have on legislation—remains to be seen. “On the specifics of caring for the earth, different faith traditions will inevitably vary, just as the countless strains of environmentalism differ in their answers to any given question. That’s inevitable. What matters, I believe, is that the overall path is in the right direction,” noted Davies.

That direction will likely not only focus on the environmental crisis itself, but on longstanding social crises as well. Indigenous populations, whose peoples are placing few burdens on the planet, or third-world workers, who find industrial pollution has been out-sourced along with manufacturing jobs, have few resources to preserve or protect their way of life when the ravages of climate change are unleashed. “The people who contribute the least to the problem suffer the most. It’s a justice issue no less important than the abolition of slavery or the Civil Rights Movement,” declared Bingham. Elizabeth Kronk, associate professor of Law at the University of Kansas, presented an example of environmental activism paired with golden-rule social justice in the case of Kivalina, Alaska, a small Inupiat town located on a barrier island being inundated by rising sea levels—the town brought a suit against Exxon-Mobile, among others, in 2008, for the company’s contribution to the greenhouse gasses causing climate change.

Even in areas where property laws have long governed human interaction with the land, ideas of community may change the tone of conversations about land use and abuse. “We have a tradition of strong property laws, in the United States, that provide protection for individual property owners. What we’ve seen in recent years, is at least a recognition that along with those rights come broader responsibilities to the larger community,” stated Stegner Center Director Robert Keiter.

While reflecting that the law has been slow to recognize those broader responsibilities, Keiter, like many at the Symposium, nevertheless expressed optimism that the input and passion of diverse faith communities may provide an irrefutable moral argument to a wider culture still collectively loath to take decisive action: “History teaches us that political decisions are made on a variety of different grounds, some of which are science-based, some of which are predicated upon morality and religious views, beliefs, and values. That’s not to say that legislators should be legislating in terms of any one particular religion’s beliefs, but to the extent that religious beliefs reflect moral values and principles, I think it’s appropriate to think that legislators and policy-makers would take those into account as they begin to frame responses to some of our environmental challenges,” Keiter said.

During his Saturday keynote, John Copeland Nagle, the John N. Matthews Chair at the Notre Dame School of Law, examined how the Christian value of humility might prove to be a useful guiding principle in enacting environmental laws. “The typical way of making laws in the U.S. is illustrated by the Endangered Species Act, it’s a law which is comprehensive . . . it’s permanent . . . and it is uniform. I would suggest that humility in the environmental lawmaking context might mean something else,” noted Nagle, noting that effective environmental legislation may take an approach that applies incremental, temporary laws that would be adjusted with changing circumstances or adapted to specific local situations, always with the idea that law will need to be flexible to reflect changing circumstances.

Many of those long-dedicated to combating climate change have hoped to see environmentalism gain broader support in the cultural discourse, and for those frightened by the devastating changes environmental destruction may bring, a willingness to adjust to changing circumstances can only be welcome. As Bingham concluded during the symposium, “Climate change scares many of us, but faith provides hope.”