Last Tuesday night’s panel discussion, Green Faith, drew over 100 people to discuss religiously inspired eco-consciousness and interfaith activism around environmental issues. A number of provocative questions were raised by both panelists and audience members throughout the two-hour event. Local media coverage provided a good summary of the themes covered for those unable to attend.
The evening started out with a short video clip and discussion by UW-Madison Associate Professor Anna M. Gade on the tradition of Muslims conserving natural resources in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation. Gade highlighted models for embracing inter-religious cooperation that draw on the Qur’an (e.g. 49:13), values that are highly influential in Indonesia’s religiously pluralistic society today. She also spoke of faith-inspired environmental practices that emphasize loving-kindness and compassion, and reminded the audience that both Muslim and non-Muslims across Southeast Asia have transmitted these philosophies since long before the advent of the “environmental movement” in North America.
Here on Earth and Inside Islam radio host Jean Feraca then asked each panelist why they emphasized environmental conservation in this life, when each faith tradition speaks to the importance of the afterlife. “What’s the point?” Feraca challenged.
Don Quintenz, a practicing Baha’i and environmental educator, emphasized that the Baha’i faith embraces all previous spiritual traditions, and that the messages of all prophets focus upon moderation, reflection, and compassion. Quintenz referenced the life of the Buddha as an example of how humans can embrace a worldly existence, even one that is often filled with states of suffering.
Huda Alkaff, a Muslim environmental activist and ecologist, emphasized the Day of Judgment and God’s consideration of each human act as motivation for her eco-activism. She also said that her decisions to pursue environmental justice in this life have been informed by ecology and its recognition of life’s interconnectedness. Alkaff sees God’s requiring humans to serve and protect and her own dedication to improving the lives and surroundings of humans, animals, and natural environments as connected to God’s final decision about her place in the afterlife.
Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman talked about how we are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and how we are obliged to protect life and dignity, important foundations of environmental orientations. Throughout the event, and similar to Alkaff, Zimmerman emphasized the social justice angle of eco-activism. She also highlighted the recent success of interfaith cooperation in stopping the Keystone Pipeline legislation from passing Congress. Zimmerman reminded audience members, both secular and religious, that the success of that civil disobedience required the combined efforts of religious leadership, congregational members, and secular environmental groups and individuals.
Pastor Tim Mackie emphasized his efforts to bring about a greater recognition of human connectivity through church sermons. Mackie spoke of his congregation’s projects aimed at poverty reduction as an example of eco-consciousness, and of his congregants’ love for Jesus that increases through activism. Similar to the other panelists, Mackie spoke of justice and human actions in the present world as directly related to one’s state in the afterlife.
Audience members also posed a number of insightful questions. One particularly interesting comment asked how one’s spiritual connection, which is inherently private, can inspire the public eco-consciousness and activism required to shift consumer habits and policies. Mackie described his sermons and his Christian faith related to social justice as a very intentional and public act. Although Mackie admitted that there is no way to be sure, he said that he hopes that attitudes in the pews translate outside of a church setting when people are making more public decisions and actions.
Another member of the audience spoke of the heavy weight he and others feel when reflecting upon the seemingly insurmountable degree of environmental degradation that we face as a planet. But he finished on a positive note and challenged the crowd to consider what we could live without or how we could each change our patterns of consumption. Feraca followed up on his comment by challenging audience members to reduce their carbon footprints.
Near the end of the program, Quintenz spoke of the current environmental crisis as a direct reflection of a spiritual crisis, alluding to greed, overconsumption, and a general lack of reflection and care for one’s surroundings. Supporting a previous comment from an audience member about humankind’s being at a crossroads, Quintenz emphasized a recent shift in American interest toward spiritual development. “The spiritual-based environmental programs that I run used to draw marginal interest. Now, a lot more people are showing up and becoming interested in the connection between spirituality and the environment.”
The Green Faith series is an ongoing discussion and collaboration among people inspired by faith and non-faith oriented efforts. If there is any one issue that affects us all, it is the environment. What do you think of the intersection of faith and environmental activism? Are the collective challenges we face insurmountable? Has there been a spiritual awakening as Quintenz alluded to, and if so, will it be enough to repair the damage that we’ve done?