Overview of World Religions and Ecology
Particular religious attitudes and practices as well as common ethical values can be identified for broadening and deepening environmental perspectives. Thus we affirm the actual and potential contribution of religious ideas for informing and inspiring ecological theology, environmental ethics, and grassroots activism. Religions are now reclaiming and reconstructing these powerful religious attitudes, practices, and values toward re-conceiving mutually enhancing human-Earth relations.
World religions are being recognized in their great variety as more than simply a belief in a transcendent deity or a means to an afterlife. Rather, religions are seen as providing a broad orientation to the cosmos and human roles in it. Attitudes toward nature thus have been significantly, although not exclusively, shaped by religious views for millennia in cultures around the globe.
A culture's worldviews are contained in religious cosmologies and expressed through rituals and symbols. Religious cosmologies describe the experience of origination and change in relation to the natural world. Religious rituals and symbols arise out of cosmologies and are grounded in the dynamics of nature. They provide rich resources for encouraging spiritual and ethical transformation in human life.
This is true for example in Buddhism, which sees change in nature and the cosmos as a potential source of suffering for the human. Confucianism and Daoism, on the other hand, affirm nature's changes as the source of the Dao. In addition, the death-rebirth cycle of nature serves as an inspiring mirror for human life, especially in the Western monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
All religions translate natural cycles into rich tapestries of interpretive meanings that encourage humans to move beyond tragedy, suffering, and despair. Human struggles expressed in religious symbolism find their way into a culture's art, music, and literature. By linking human life and patterns of nature, religions have provided a meaningful orientation to life's continuity as well as to human diminishment and death. In addition, religions have helped to celebrate the gifts of nature such as air, water, and food that sustain life.
In short, religions have been significant catalysts for humans in coping with change and transcending suffering while at the same time grounding humans in nature's rhythms and Earth's abundance. The creative tensions between humans seeking to transcend this world and yearning to be embedded in this world are part of the dynamics of world religions. Christianity, for example, holds the promise of salvation in the next life as well as celebration of the incarnation of Christ as a human in the world. Similarly, Hinduism holds up a goal of moksha, of liberation from the world of samsara while also highlighting the ideal of Krishna acting in the world.
This realization of creative tensions leads to a more balanced understanding of the possibilities and limitations of religions regarding environmental concerns. Many religions retain other worldly orientations toward personal salvation outside this world; at the same time they can and have fostered commitments to social justice, peace, and ecological integrity in the world.
The Call and the Response.
It is, thus, with some encouragement that we note the growing call for the world's religions to participate in these changes toward a more sustainable planetary future. There have been various appeals from environmental groups and from scientists and parliamentarians for religious leaders to respond to the environmental crisis. In addition, there has been a striking growth in monographs and journal articles in the area of religion and ecology.