A Challenge to Religions

By Sr. Anne Lonergan, R.C.
September 1994

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For many years, ecological groups and the scientific community have existed separately from the religious faiths, even when an individual was a member of both spheres. The believing scientist was not expected to bring anything from religion into the lab or observatory, nor was science expected to have anything to do with worship.

Historically, this is quite u4derstandable in terms of the great conflicts of 19th century science and religion. Later generations may look back on these conflicts as male sibling rivalries, since scientific and religious leadership in the western world has been firmly rooted in the power of white male elites. There was no room in the conversation for the visions of blacks, women, the poor, the Third World, indigenous peoples, farmers, or peasants in either the dominant science or the dominant Christian religions of Europe and North America.

This exclusion of other visions, other voices, began to be broken by a number of liberation movements of the past fifty years, notably the civil rights movement in the United States, the rise of feminism, the liberation theologies of Latin America, and the obvious immigration of many other groups to Europe and North America. Added to this, one must include the continued disparity between the imposition of western 'development' models on other cultures and the continuous destruction of these cultures and their ways of living with the earth.

Second Parliament of Religions

Both the inclusion of other voices in serious religious dialogue and the change in the science/ religion question were fundamental to an important recent event: the Second Parliament of Religions in Chicago from August 28 to September 5, 1993.

This Parliament was on the 100th anniversary of the first one. All reports emphasize the sheer diversity of the religious presence among the 6000 plus participants. Many traditions not present 100 years ago included Sikhs, indigenous traditions, Zoroastrians, goddess religions and many, many more.

To understand the depth of the change, one commentator, Andrew Vidich, mentions: "At the time of the first Parliament, neither Judaism nor Catholicism were considered mainstream religions in America." Although, in 1993, several groups refused to come because of the presence of others, the Roman Catholic church participated strongly, and included a Vatican representative, Archbishop Francesco Gioia, and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago.

New-Found Interest

But where is this new-found interest in the science/religious dialogue coming from? The first direct appeal to the major religious communities came from the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) in 1986, which convened a number of faith leaders at Assisi. The rationale from WWF was that the religious energies of human beings must be activated if the enormous ecological challenge is to be faced.

Next, in 1992, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued the "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity". In it, they stated:

    "We understand that what is regarded as sacred is more likely to be treated with care and respect. Our planetary home should be so regarded. Efforts to safeguard and cherish the environment need to be infused with a vision of the sacred. (Hence) we scientists ... urgently appeal to the world religious community to commit, in word and deed, and as boldly as is required, to preserve the environment of the Earth."

These two powerful appeals, first, from a major environmental movement, then from the scientific establishment itself, are a clear recognition that the situation of the earth is demanding a level of cooperation and dialogue which is unprecedented.

In addition to such appeals, both Pope John Paul II and the World Council of Churches have spoken to their constituencies of this crisis, as have various other faith leaders, and of course the native peoples have been most forceful in declaring, "Mother Earth is dying." But what I want to highlight in this article are two specific challenges arising from the immense gathering in Chicago.

Both of these initiatives were about approaching the ecological crisis, and both were appeals to the religions of the world to take far more radical measures in confronting the driving forces leading to global devastation.

The first challenge came in the Parliament of Religions' initial declaration, "Towards a Global Ethic". I quote some random passages:

    • "We must utilize economic and political power for service to humanity instead of misusing it in ruthless battles for domination.
    • "We must develop a spirit of compassion with those who suffer, with special care for the children, the aged, the poor, the disabled, the refugees, and the lonely...
    • "We must value a sense of moderation and modesty instead of an unquenchable greed for money, prestige, and consumption...
    • "We must cultivate truthfulness in all our relationships instead of dishonesty, dissembling and opportunism."

The second challenge calling for a response to the ecological crisis from religions came from Gerald Barney, who gave a plenary address that was considered by commentators to be the most powerful presentation of the entire Parliament. Barney is a fusion energy physicist who also directed the U.S. government's "Global 2000 Report to the President". He is founder and director of the Millennium Institute, which is directing its attention to the significance of the 21st century. Barney, together with his daughter, Kristen, and Jane Blewett of the Earth Community Center prepared, specifically for the Parliament, a book entitled "Global 2000 Revisited: What Shall We Do? The Critical Issues of the 21st Century". This volume offers a succinct summary of the critical issues facing the planet. The second part of the book looks at "The Role of Faith Traditions". Barney himself bridges the scientific-religious gap (he is Lutheran) and his insights are rooted in Christianity.

Barney speaks first of his own experience that causes him to ask the question whether any faith is 'sustainable'. He says, "Specifically, I do not believe my own faith, Christianity, is a sustainable faith -at least not as it is generally understood and practiced." (p. 67) He argues that the Bible is no longer a secure guide to the future in this matter, in spite of some scattered texts. "On the whole the Bible seems to me focused on human-human and human-God relations, not on human-Earth or even Earth-God relationships." (p. 69) Then Barney indicates what he feels are "new revelations" that tell him "The God I know is still speaking." (p. 69) Thus Barney uses a specifically Christian category of "revelation" in a powerful new way. These revelations are:

"First, it has been revealed that among the most destructive forces on Earth today is hatred between the followers of different faith traditions." (p. 70) In his exposition of this, Barney includes a horrifying account by a Muslim woman in Bosnia, in which rape, murder and torture are inflicted on her family by previously peaceful neighbours.

    "And this story has many other applications. Change the faith names to Hindu, Buddhist, Jew, Indigenous Peoples ... and this same story would apply in India, Sri Lanka, Ireland, Nigeria, Senegal, Iraq, Israel, Sudan, Algeria. What faith is now not involved in acts of hatred and violence in one or more of the 48 religious and ethnic wars now in progress? What a revelation we have of the destructive hatred between followers of different faith traditions!" (p. 73)

Barney's second revelation "comes from a meditation on Earth that has been continuing for about 1500 years. This meditation we usually call 'science.'" It reveals to us the journey of the universe, and the specific bonding of everything to everything else, including humans, in a way that makes us all "distant cousins."

"A third revelation derives in part from the second: we know now that the characterizations of man and woman, male and female, in the origin stories and traditions of many faiths are factually wrong and socially destructive." (p. 73)

And finally, Barney's fourth revelation is that we, as a species, now have a major responsibility for the future of the Earth itself, a responsibility for which no religious tradition has prepared us (since it was not an issue at the time of founding).

    "To my knowledge, no faith tradition has provided moral precepts to guide inter-species behavior, to decide which species should cease to exist, to understand which new species should be created through genetic engineering ...and to judge the alternative futures humans are considering for the Earth.” (p. 74)

Barney ended his address by pointing out that "these are fundamentally spiritual questions."

At the conclusion of Dr. Barney's remarks, Rabbi Herman Scaalman, a president of the Parliament and co-chair of the Jewish Host Committee, spoke for most if not all participants:

"Now we all know why we have come. We have heard from the soul of a man for whom all the earth is home. Now we have been challenged as I have never heard anyone challenge me, and I daresay I'm speaking for each one of us here."

The voice of Gerald Barney, scientist and believing Christian, spoke across the old divide, using his science to explore the profound crisis facing the earth, and using his faith to consider that God is speaking to us in these "signs of the times," to use a phrase from Vatican II. All the voices at the Parliament were a heartening symbol of the dream of human unity, not in a way that obliterates differences, but allows them to be respected. The voices of the human global community were there, as well as at the Alternate Summit in Rio the year before.

Would that these events are a foretaste of a much more inclusive community, even as the terrible conflicts of the late 20th century and the hegemony of a global capitalistic society destroy humans and the earth. But Barney's hope is undiminished:

    "Changing course will require an immense amount of energy. Not the energy that comes from coal, gas, oil, or even nuclear fuel, but rather spiritual and emotional energy, enough to change the thinking and lives of more than 5 billion people. “(p. 80)

This is the challenge before all the religions; can Roman Catholics be in the forefront of changing course? Is our God speaking to us through the suffering Earth? Anne Lonergan works at Holy Cross Centre, Port Burwell, ON, NOJ 1TO. The centre is dedicated to the preservation, stewardship and respect for God's beautiful creation--our planet Earth. Facilities offered for conferences, retreats and sabbaticals (Phone: 519-874-4502).


The following is taken from a pastoral letter issued March 3 by Newfoundland church leaders who participate in the Inter-Church Coalition for Fishing Communities:

Dear Sisters and Brothers…

    Stewardship of God's creation is a major theme running through the Scriptures. The earth and all it contains-air, water, land, minerals, fish, wildlife are seen as God's gifts. We are called to look after/care for the earth for present and future generations. This is what Stewardship means.
    The fishery crisis reveals that the checks and balances of democratic political institutions, and the free market, are failing not only Newfoundland but the human family.
    When the Inter-Church Coalition began last year, the first question posed by the media and others was: "What do you think you can contribute to this enormous crisis?
    After one year we no longer hear this question. Those with whom we are working and many others recognize that the church has a place and a responsibility where the lives of people are involved. The Church must ask the moral and ethical questions that need to be asked; and place before people the spiritual dimensions of life's issues and, in the end, give light and hope.

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