Worldly Wonder: Religions Enter an Ecological Phase

Article excerpt

Over the past century, science has begun to weave together the story of a historical cosmos that emerged some 12 billion years ago. The magnitude of this universe story is beginning to dawn on us, as we awaken to a new realization of its vastness and complexity. At the same time, we are becoming conscious of the growing environmental crisis and of the rapid destruction of species and habitat. Just as we become conscious that the Earth took more than four billion years to bring forth this abundance of life, it is dawning on us how quickly we are foreshortening its future.

We need, then, to step back to assimilate what might be called "our cosmological context." As Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme suggest in their book The Universe Story, we are recognizing our participation in this great narrative and our responsibility for enhancing its future flourishing. If science gives us an understanding of the origins and unfolding of the universe, the story of cosmology gives us a sense of our place in the universe. And if we are so radically affecting the Earth by extinguishing other life forms and destroying our own nest, what does this imply about our religious sensibilities or our sense of the sacred? As science is revealing to us the particular intricacy of the web of life, we realize we are unraveling it. As we begin to glimpse how deeply embedded we are in complex ecosystems and dependent on other life forms, we see we are destroying the very basis of our continuity as a species. As the size and scale of the environmental crisis is more widely grasped, we are seeing our own connection to this destruction.

The world's religions are also being called to contribute to a new understanding of the universe story. The challenge for religions is both to rediscover and reinvent our role as citizens of the universe. This requires addressing such cosmological questions as where we have come from and where we are going.

If humans destroy this awesome matrix of mystery, where will we find sources of inspiration pointing us toward the unfathomable vastness of the sacred? Will religions assume a disengaged pose as species go extinct, forests are exterminated, soil, air and water are polluted beyond restoration, and human health and well being deteriorate? Or will they emerge from their own concerns to see that the survival of life on Earth is also at stake?

The environmental crisis calls the religions of the world to respond by finding their voice within the global community. As they identify their resources for deeper ecological awakening--scriptural, symbolic, ritual and ethical--they will be transforming the deep wellsprings of their traditions.

The transformation activates the human imagination toward a celebration of the awe and wonder of life--its emergence in the primal fireball, its unfolding in the universe story, and its flourishing in Earth's evolution. We begin to find our niche. We realize we are not only part of humankind but of Earthkind; we are not simply human beings but universe beings.


We need to underscore the dark side of religious traditions as well as their lateness in awakening to the environmental crisis. In addition, we should note the ever-present gap between ideal principles and real practices as well as the inevitable disjunction between modern environmental problems and traditional religious resources. For all of these reasons, religions are necessary but not sufficient for solutions to environmental problems. Thus they need to be in dialogue with other religions and other disciplines in focusing on environmental issues.

Religions certainly have their dark side. The human energy poured into religious traditions can be unleashed in both violent and compassionate ways as has been demonstrated throughout history. While the causes of conflict and war are frequently economic, political and environmental, the religious dimensions need to be understood as well. …