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The Greening of Religion: does it matter?

November 3, 2011

I spent last Saturday at a conference called “Climate Change – Cultural Change.” It was investigating the way people’s beliefs impact on the way they treat the earth, and seemed to be inspired by the realisation that in order to really deal with the eocological crisis we also have to deal with the way we think; specifically, with the things we like to believe in. There were a lot of Christians there, but also some influential thinkers like Debbie Bird Rose (anthropologist now working on endangered species), David Tacey (Jungian and social commentator on the nature of Australian conceptions of the sacred) and Kate Rigby (ecocritic and erstwhile PhD supervisor of your blogger). After the day’s events, the question that was ringing in my ears (beneath the perpetual din of tinnitus from too many loud gigs, natch) was: does it matter if conventional religions like Christianity become more “green”? Really, the thing that is costing us the earth is over-consumption, isn’t it? Aside from religious people being part of a general trend of treating the earth with more respect (and preferably love), what does it really matter how they conceive of their God and of nature?

I think such questions are important, but not as much as i think the way modern societies use fossil fuels and consume everything in sight are important. I gave a presentation on the dominant mode of production and consumption and the way that it seems to be changing in response to the ecological crisis. From my research, the best philosophical development going on in mainstream, secular society is what i would generally term “enlightened self-interest.” This means that, because we recognise that the survival of ourselves and our loved ones (and maybe a few cute animals like bears and stuff) requires a planet, we will begin to look after it better. I see a major problem with this limited idea, because it seems to perpetuate the same old problem that humanity has suffered from since the agricultural revolution … we humans sit outside of the rest of nature and treat it in the way that suits us best. We remain alienated from any concept of kinship with the other creatures or with the land itself; stuck inside our cities and buildings and cars playing the “humans are the only thing that really matter” game.

Even when we ostensibly aim to improve our relations with nature, we do it as if from the outside, and i think this represents a cycle of alienating distance from the animating force of life, of nature within and without. The keynote speaker, Norm Habel, gave a presentation that included not only evolution but the science of ecology in his religious vision of better relations with the earth. While i thought his revisions of the way Biblical scripture could be reinterpreted were pointless outside of the Church (there’s those doubts that i left the day with), i loved the open-minded way he thought about the beauty of creation and the mysteries of life. For Norm, as no doubt for many participants, we humans are a special part of a much bigger story. Secular society needs some of this action: a new story, where we are powerful yet limited beings in an incredible universe, which we should be treating with reverence because we can, because we are conscious of it, not just because it is good for us and our children, and certainly not just for whatever we can get out of it.

I have admitted before to being an animist. My personal experiences of life lead me to believe that the universe lives in a way we don’t understand and we are surrounded by other types of intelligence that we find it difficult to converse with. As a lover of science and as a mystic, i am wondering how the new myth i think we need is going to shape up. Is there some Gaia hypothesis or Deep Ecology on the horizon for the Cities of Light? I’m not sure. But there is something more than “enlightened self-interest,” that is for sure. And – for me at least – there’s no going back to conventional religious thinking. Which leaves us with … evolution and ecology. Because whether we define ourselves as religious or not, we do operate in a framework of belief, a moral code, an aesthetic attitude. Let’s make it beautiful, cooperative, creative and mysterious.

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