This is an end-of-the-year report (in two parts) on my participation in some interfaith activities this past fall. Brief commentaries about these events were previously published on EarthSpirit’s Facebook page, and a version of this report appears in the latest issue (#119) of Circle Magazine. I’d like to thank all the members and friends of EarthSpirit, whose generous donations to our community support our participation in events such as the ones I describe here.
Two important and related events were held in New York City over the weekend of the autumnal equinox, 19-21 September: the People’s Climate March, a 3-mile long demonstration through the streets of Manhattan as a call for awareness and action regarding environmental deterioration; and the Religions for the Earth Conference, held at Union Theological Seminary to bring together some 200 leaders from diverse spiritual traditions, to discuss how teachings of the various religions can address the climate change crisis. I attended both events, which were timed to coincide with the Climate Summit scheduled to take place a few days later at the United Nations, at the behest of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The Religions for the Earth Conference was organized by the Union Forum, a platform within Union Theological Seminary which promotes dialogue about religion and social ethics in order to bring about positive civic engagement. In her message of welcome to the conference participants, Karenna Gore, director of the Union Forum, had this to say about the purpose of the event:
“Spiritual and religious leaders have a place in this conversation precisely because it is their vocation to call for sacrifice and reverence to something larger than oneself. Religious leadership is at its best when challenging the status quo, including the powerful, wealthy institutions and individuals who will resist being moved. Our religions are organized differently, but each has the potential for exponential effect throughout our interconnected world. Those of you gathering at Union this weekend hold extraordinary strength within you and also the kindness and love to bring out the best in each other.”
I attended Religions for the Earth representing the three main organizations with which I am affiliated: my community, EarthSpirit; the Parliament of the World’s Religions, which was one of the co-sponsors of the conference; and the European Congress of Ethnic Religions, of which I am president. The Parliament’s delegation also included our Chair, Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, our Executive Director, Dr. Mary Nelson, and several other trustees, among them Phyllis Curott, the other pagan who serves with me on the Parliament’s Board.
Most of the presentations at the conference took the form of panel discussions, in which participants from several different religious traditions addressed topics such as “Climate Change, Gender & Human Rights”; “Integrating the Earth into Worship, Liturgy and Devotion”; “Environmental Racism and Climate Justice Initiatives”; “Engaging Ecological Despair and Grief”; and “Race, Class & Hemisphere: Regional Identity and Climate”, among others.
I was asked to be one of the members of a panel entitled “What Moves Us: Values, Narratives & the Climate Crisis – the Indigenous Traditions”, moderated by Tonya Gonnella Frichner of the Onondaga Nation, and founder of the American Indian
Law Alliance. The other panelists were François Paulette of the Dene people from northwest Canada, Mindahi Bastida-Muñoz of the pueblo Otomí from México, and Chief Arvol Looking Horse of the Lakota Nation. My role on the panel was to represent the indigenous European traditions. I had met most of the other panelists at previous interreligious events, so I was very glad to be in their company once again.
One of the most important points made by everyone in our panel was that the environmental crisis has grown out of a prevailing sense in Western culture that we are separate from the Earth, which fosters in people the entitled delusion that we can treat the natural world any way we want to. In my own remarks, I pointed out that, in Western culture, this sense of separation has specifically been fostered and transmitted by the dominant religion. The notion that Nature is fundamentally base, and eventually destined to be replaced by an otherworldly paradise (or its opposite) has been a deeply-ingrained Christian paradigm for many centuries. The same is true for the notion of a divinely-appointed human
supremacy over all other beings of the Earth: the human arrogance and greed, and the objectification and devaluing of Nature that are such predictable corollaries of that notion, lie at the very core of the environmental disasters we are now facing.
Our discussion also underscored the fact that, for many decades, indigenous peoples have been issuing warnings about growing changes which are affecting climate and, therefore, everything that exists upon the Earth; but Westerners have not listened, because they are in the habit of dismissing anything which indigenous people might say.
This point was likewise made, in eloquent fashion, by the Onondaga faithkeeper Oren Lyons during one of the plenary sessions. Chief Lyons told about a meeting he once had with an Inuit elder from Greenland, who informed him that “the ice is melting in the North” – trickles of water had begun to appear on the surface of the glaciers some years before, and those trickles had now grown into permanent rivers. Throughout the rest of his speech, Chief Lyons ended every new paragraph by repeating the warning that “the ice is melting in the North”; the more he said those words, the more that he powerfully drove home the sense of urgency, and even of inevitability, surrounding climate change. Some people in the audience were visibly flinching. As he was about to finish, Chief Lyons revealed an alarming detail he had been saving for the very end. That speech we had just heard, he told us, was not new; it was, in fact, the exact same speech he had delivered at the United Nations fourteen years before. But no one had listened then, he admonished us, and it had taken the U.N. almost a decade and a half to finally organize a Climate Summit.
Because participation in the conference was by invitation only, and limited to just a couple of hundred attendees, it fostered a sense of intimacy which I have rarely found at other interfaith events, and provided the opportunity for rich, in-depth dialogue. I think that many of the conversations and initiatives that emerged from Religions for the Earth will prove to be very fruitful over the next several years. The conference ended with a deeply meaningful multifaith service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, with former Vice-President Al Gore as one of the main speakers.