I had the opportunity (and pleasure), recently, to give a talk and attend a two and a half day workshop, in upstate New York, at a seminar sponsored by the board of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE). NRPE’s mission statement reads: “The Partnership is integrating care for God’s creation throughout religious life: theology, worship, social teaching, education, congregational life and public policy initiative. We seek to provide inspiration, moral vision, commitment to social justice for all efforts to protect the natural world and human well being within it." NRPE brings together an inter-faith group (most of them officers or staff on national boards more than local parishioners) from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; the National Council of Churches; The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life; The Evangelical Environmental Network. From this last group, Jim Ball was present. He is the evangelical who coined that catchy question (with its dig at SUV’s): “ What would Jesus drive?”
NRPE is entering a new phase in its life, so the seminar was, in part, about stock-taking for the future. A key question being pressed was: “How authentically religious is our being green?”. NRPE wants to avoid just being some veneer, “ the Sierra Club or the World Wildlife Fund at prayer." It is also aware that it can be used by more secular environmental groups, intent, at times, to “rent or co-opt a constituency." Especially when religious people engage in public policy campaigns ( e.g., for climate change) in the secular arena there is a potent temptation, often, to sound just like the secular NGOs.
One typical move of NRPE is to insist on closely joining care for creation with care for the poor—not something always characteristic in more secular movements. NRPE also wants (against some new age spirituality people or so-called ‘ deep ecologists’) to insist that we worship the creator not creation. John Carr, from the United States Catholic Conference, asked about NRPE’s mission: Are we distinctively and comprehensively religious ? The evangelical leader Richard Cizek even wondered, if the organization might usefully change its name to recognize its distinctively religious thrust. Instead of the more neutral name, environment, might it not call itself a Partnership for Creation Care?
In his stellar and provocative presentation, Carr insisted that, besides clarity on the distinctive and comprehensive religious character of NRPE, the organization needs to awaken awareness, by consisting lifting up the distinctively moral dimension of environmental issues. We awaken awareness not just by the things we say but what we do. Carr also wants to stress that NRPE direct its work not just to public opinion leaders but to the churches’ constituency. In a memorable phrase, he called for a religiously motivated green movement which was “ church-wide and parish deep.” Finally, as an inter-faith group, Carr opted for a strategy of “walking together separately,” not just seeking a lowest common denominator. Symbols of the sacramentality of the universe might forcefully appeal to Catholics; a green Sabbath to Jews; "What would Jesus do?" to evangelicals. The same strategy of “ walking together separately” should govern coalitions with more secular environmental groups.
What became clear to me, however, hob-knobbing with these sincere and good religious bureaucrats, is that a religious green movement is nowhere near being parish-deep. Few could recall explicit homilies or liturgies centered on creation-care in their local parishes. To be sure, there have been impressive statements about why we should exercise stewardship and creation care from popes ( Benedict XVI’s ‘World Day of Peace’ statement in 2008 is especially exemplary), the Green Patriarch, Bartholemew and by other church bodies. But does it really permeate or reach down to the religious sensibilities and actions at the local level?
It is not that we totally lack liturgical and spiritual resources to build on. Nor would it be fair to say that no local parishes have provided useful models. Two web sites, the National Council of Churches’ eco-justice web site and another helpful web site called Web of Creation are replete with examples of creation centered hymns, sample sermons and a full list of bible verses which address a religious sensibility and the environment. Some congregations have exploited their surrounding green space to plant organic community gardens. Some parishes in the Stockton, California Catholic diocese sponsor Sundays which encourage parishioners to bike or walk to church. Other congregations sponsor wilderness trips or a communal restoration of nature trails.
Still, one feels that at the level of liturgy and local parish life, being green religiously has not yet taken any deep root. I would personally recommend three excellent book resources for local pastors or liturgical committees: Sam Hamilton-Poore’s book, Earth Gospel: A Guide to Prayer for God’s Creation (Upper Room, 2009); the excellent bible resource Green Bible Devotional: A Book of Daily Readings (Harper, 2009); and Episcopal canon Sally Bingham’s recent book, Love God, Heal Earth: 21 Leading Religious Voices Speak Out on Our Sacred Duty to Protect the Environment (St. Lynn’s Press, 2009). While at the parish level, it may be good to have "green teams" who work on action, I would privilege, initially, theological, liturgical, spiritual and worship resources to help congregants hear a voice that is truly comprehensively and distinctively religious. Focusing on climate change laws (good as that is) might not be the first place to start.
Essentially, it seems to me, we need to hear, in parish settings, the kinds of words Wendell Berry speaks in his essay, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation”:
If we read the bible, we will discover that we humans do not own the world or any part of it… We will discover that God made not only the parts of Creation that we humans understand and approve of, but all of it. We will discover that God found the world, as he made it, to be good; that he made it for his pleasure and that he continues to love it and find it worthy, despite its reduction and corruption by us… We will discover that, for these reasons our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility: it is the most horrid blasphemy. It is flinging God’s gifts into his face, as of no worth beyond that assigned to them by our destruction of them. In Dante, “ Despising Nature and her Gifts” was a violence against God… We have the right to use the gifts of nature, but not to ruin or waste them. We have the right to use what we need, but no more.
Berry states: “We are holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy.” It follows that “ the sense of the holiness of life is not compatible with an exploitive economy." If we regard the works of the Creation as God’s revelation of Himself, notes Berry, then “Holiness is everywhere in Creation: it is as common as raindrops and leaves and blades of grass." This is a signal way to be green religiously, without succumbing to being merely the Sierra Club at prayer.