- Faith in God and Environmental Engagement
In her book Natural Saints: How People of Faith Are Working to Save God's Earth Mallory McDuff quotes a member of the religious environmental group Georgia Interfaith Power and Light as saying that:
the science of climate change and the environmental crisis is the wakeup call. But faith in God provides the hope that gets us out of bed to do something about it. Faith gives us the hope, joy, and possibility of triumph to "let not our hearts be troubled" but to move forward with action. And ultimately, this hope is what the religious community can offer that the secular environmental groups have not been able to provide.1
At the end of her book McDuff revisits much the same theme, writing that "[the] God thing has the power to convert our individual, radical acts of faith into a collective force, which is necessary to confront the environmental degradation we face."2 McDuff's view is that faith in God can engender and sustain environmental engagement, or "[moving] forward with action," as she puts it, and her book is focused on impressive practical steps to deal with the environmental crisis that some people of faith are taking. But it is no part of her project to probe systematically how and why faith in God might have this effect. And this is what I wish to probe. How might faith in God encourage and inspire environmental engagement? How might faith exhibit itself in this context?
My strong impression is that there are people who need inspiration and encouragement in this regard. I think in particular of people who have a good grasp of current environmental developments such as the global loss of biodiversity, large-scale destruction of habitat, and numerous other aspects of the developing planetary emergency. They recognize that it is unfortunate and even dreadful and tragic that human beings are wiping out other forms of life [End Page 57] on a large scale, especially when it appears we could do otherwise. But they do not feel they can do much about the situation. They lack confidence that they would be able to make any progress even if they were to make an effort. They recognize the problems but they feel they are not in a position to contribute to solving them, that any effort they might make would be futile and not amount to anything. They would be contributing to a lost cause. They may also see such unfortunate developments as what is to be expected in an unpredictable and dangerous world.
Might faith help to provide an antidote to such pessimism and its immobilizing effects? Might it help some people to overcome a sense of powerlessness and to be less demoralized? Might it be a source of encouragement or inspiration? Might it be helpful when it comes to getting people of faith out of bed to do something about the environmental crisis, or to getting them out of bed earlier and with more vigor, propelling them in the direction of environmental engagement? Might there be, for example, ways of thinking that some people need if they are to remain hopeful even if that need is not apparent to many who have it?
In Laudato Si' Pope Francis contends that a commitment to protecting the world "cannot be sustained by doctrine alone, without a spirituality capable of inspiring us, without 'an interior impulse which encourages, motivates, nourishes and gives meaning to our individual and communal activity.'"3 I do not presume to explain in this essay exactly what Pope Francis has in mind but I probe an area of inquiry that is at least relevant to understanding his meaning.
II Environmentally Relevant Teachings
Before we go any further, I want to clarify my area of inquiry. My main concern in this essay is not with what may reasonably be classified as the environmentally relevant teachings of the religious traditions. On the other hand, this matter of environmentally relevant teachings provides a thread that will run throughout this essay. So I devote a few paragraphs to it here at the outset, mainly to clarify my main focus...