Doing Theology on a Small Planet:
The Role of Religion in Addressing the Dilemma,
'Where Do We Go From Here?'

Timothy C. Weiskel
Environmental Ethics & Public Policy Program
Center for the Study of Values in Public Life

Christianity & Ecology Conference
Harvard Divinity School
Panel - "Public Policies for Sustainability" 18 April 1998

Copyright, ©1998, Timothy C. Weiskel, All Rights Reserved
Online Version:
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The Transreligious Reformation:
      In the context of escalating environmental decline religions around the world are being scrutinized for the practical and spiritual resources that they can provide to help people cope with the crises at hand. New interpretations of sacred texts and new paradigms of meaning are forwarded by religious scholars and spiritual leaders in all traditions. This phenomena is expressed in some areas in the form of resurgent religious fundamentalism; it emerges in others in the form of novel ecumenical efforts or renewed religious syncretisms; and in yet other traditions it is manifest in the reaffirmation of core religious beliefs. In effect, we are all witnesses to a transreligious reformation every bit as momentous and revolutionary as previous theological reformations in human history.

      In addition to questions of personal meaning and spiritual renewal, each religious tradition is now challenged to confront the public policy question, "Where do we go from here?" Different religions will necessarily have various responses to this question, reflecting on the one hand their understanding of the crisis at hand and on the other their particular traditions of bringing religious conviction to debate in the public square.

      It is important to understand in this context that the religious traditions themselves are on trial. They are being judged in the public mind in terms of how adequately they help us comprehend and respond to the crises at hand. Those that fail to provide meaningful answers are not so much rejected as they are simply left by the wayside as people seek out more convincing and compelling alternatives. The need to believe persists -- indeed it is stronger than ever in times of collective confusion -- but the substance of belief is rapidly changing. This is so simply because what is believable is being profoundly transformed. As we learn more about the intricacies of the natural world and the human role within it we cannot help but transform our notions of what is believable. For this reason, the noble effort on the part of some theologians constantly to update conventional categories of scholarship like "Christology," "soteriology," "eschatology," etc. strikes one as quaint and touching, but perhaps sadly beside the point. In this scholastic form, theology achieves only a conversation with itself and fails to meet the crying public need for public religious reflection and principled leadership in the crisis at hand.

      Theology should not be so divorced from environmental public policy. At its most essential, theology is best understood as the effort to construct a framework of meaning for belief. Whether we recognize it or not there is no denying it: we are all theologians. Each of us is engaged in our own struggle to discover or construct a framework of meaning within which to affirm our most cherished beliefs. We undertake this task with whatever symbols we can muster from our cultural background and religious upbringing. Every individual, every culture, every time assumes the burden of constructing its own functional theology. We may not be explicit about it; we may not be very good at it; but one thing remains clear: there is no escaping the task.

      For this reason, theological and public policy debates are never very far apart, especially when it comes to the environment. Each engages the other by necessity. Trying to survive in a sustainable manner on a finite planet requires humans to rethink their role in the created order. The nature of that created order is the substance of both ecological and theological understanding. Guiding human behavior so as to enable us to survive in that created order is the substance of public policy. Theology, public policy and the environment are inseparable. One cannot address any one of these elements without implicating the other two.

Beyond Guilt to Affirmation: The Search for "Voice"
      To illuminate the religious resources available, it is worth recalling that religion in general and the Judeo-Christian tradition in particular have been identified as the source of our environmental predicament rather than a solution to it. In 1967 Professor Lynn White, Jr. wrote an essay in Science which has since become famous for the way in which he indicted Western Christianity simultaneously for its irreducible anthropocentrism, its pre-occupation with history rather than nature as the theatre for God's revelation and its focus upon other-worldly -- rather than this-worldly -- reality. Many religious thinkers and particularly Christian religious scholars were offended by this indictment, and they took great pains to offer refutations or correctives (1). Indeed, it is perhaps not an exaggeration to suggest that most of the explicitly Christian writing on the environment over the last thirty years can be characterized as an extended defensive debate over whether or not White was right.

      In retrospect much of this debate seems like a silly diversion, but it has left its scars. Having been accused of being at the origin of the environmental crisis, Christian scholars went through several stages in their response to this stinging critique. In summary, the responses can be schematized in the following stages or phases which emerged not necessarily in chronological or progressive order over time. It might well be said that much religious scholarship is still mired in one or another of the stages enumerated here. In this sense, Christian theologians are still searching for an ecological "voice."

All of these phases or stages in the religious reaction to Lynn White's provocative paper can still be said to be alive and well. It is not strictly speaking true that we have gone through these stages and progressed as a whole to a collective understanding of the debate focused in environmental ethics. If this were so, we would have to conclude that religion basically had nothing to contribute to the emerging environmental crisis. We would do better, so the logic would run, to keep religion out of a discussion of environmental matters and focus instead on a more universally accessible environmental ethics.

      I do not believe, however, that religious traditions can be dispensed with quite so easily. Nor should they be. After all, they do have powerful foundational beliefs to contribute in the effort to mobilize people to act responsibly in the ecosystem. In effect, I think theology on this small planet must turn now to devote itself to yet an important new phase of religious thinking. We need badly to go beyond our religious particularisms to forge a:

Yet the question remains:
What specifically religious resources are available to help us proceed in our struggle for meaning and sustainability in our ecosystem?
      The answer is three-fold. First, there are what we can call transreligious principles. These common elements or principles are now becoming widely acknowledged and publicly articulated as a basis for an emerging sense of our global citizenship as creatures in the created order. Secondly -- on an operational level -- there are practical precepts of public policy design that religious leaders and thinkers can articulate as a means of moving human society toward sustainability. And third, there are concrete steps for action that religious institutions and organizations can undertake to slow down and reverse local, national and global environmental decline, and more positively, move humanity toward a sustainable future. Much more needs to be done in each domain, but a brief review of the resources available on each of these levels may be helpful in addressing the question: Where do we go from here?

Transreligious Principles:
      Across virtually all religious traditions there is a remarkable regularity in the form of several basic principles. These transreligious principles deserve to be stated and publicly reaffirmed by all religious traditions. They can serve as the basis for a newly emergent environmental ethic. With stiking parallels religions from around the world express:

Not all of these principles are present in equal measure in all religions. This is not surprising. Each religious tradition represents a flowering of understanding in particular historical circumstance, and its expression is condition by its cultural setting and historicity. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, these principles serve broadly to cultivate a transreligious sensibility that seeks to specify an environmental ethic for sustainability. Perhaps the most important point is that in all traditions these elements point to an obligation to move beyond questions of personal meaning and private piety toward effective collective action, and this requires deliberate reflection on public policy. Properly employed, these transreligious principles can be mobilized in public debate to make powerful and persuasive ethical arguments to reverse the human degradation of the ecosystem.

From Private Piety to Public Policy:
      What are some of the precepts for designing public policy that one might derive from these transreligious affirmations? These will be disputed, but it seems to me there are several that deserve attention. Some of these precepts -- while embraced within the broad principles enumerated above -- are supplemented with further insights from ecology of sustainable systems.

      In effect, the goal of sustainability poses a stringent new criteria upon all public policy designs. It provides us with a powerful new means for ranking value and ordering ethical choices. Taking sustainability seriously in this manner would radically transform every aspect of public policy currently pursued in this country and throughout much of the industrial world. In particular, the goal of sustainability would mean that fiscal, spending and regulatory policies of government would need to be redirected to encourage conservation, discourage wastage, increase efficiency and improve equity in the distribution and use of both materials and energy.

      The precepts of public policy can be stated simply. They provide rough and ready rules of thumb for determining what constitutes "good" public policy on environmental matters. At all levels of citizen participation eco-fundamentalists should act so as to assure that the powers of taxation, public spending, government regulation and litigation are deployed to promote sustainability. This can be put in the form of a litany, for those who are comfortable with liturgical form.

The Apostles's Creed
for Ecologically Sustainable
Public Policy

     Members of the community of the faithful should always and everywhere seek to tax, spend, regulate and litigate so as to: and
(The "politics of shame" is not dead. Indeed, it may be the only remaining tool available for effective public participation).

      Christian theologians have long asserted that the imperative of self-less love (agape) is at the core of all authentic Christian theology and experience. To "do" theology on a small planet is to learn to love. To love is to care; to care is to act effectively on behalf of what one has come to love. These precepts of public policy or rules-of-thumb can go a long way to instruct theologians, religious thinkers, church leaders and faithful laymen in how to approach public policy debates to act effectively on behalf of creation. They can provide both a directional beacon and some helpful guide posts to answer the question: "Where do we go from here?"

Institutional Resources for Action:
      Once the imperative for effective public policy on the environment becomes apparent to individuals this imperative needs to be effectively communicated to communities, the nation and world as a whole. In this regard religious institutions can begin to offer very powerful additional resources for effectve collective action on the environment. With the emergence of new information and communications technologies, religious institutions across the country and around the world now possess the potential power to transform the transreligious reformation in our midst into a powerful social force for restructuring human/Earth relations.

      By the end of the year, for example, it will no doubt be possible to obtain high-speed computer access to the World Wide Web for less than $500. This aspect of the consumer electronics revolution will make it possible for many individuals and virtually every church cellar, every Yeshiva, and every Sunday School to link itself with the people and events that are driving the transreligious reformation all around the world. There is much "noise" in these communications, but here again a properly instructed and motivated religious leadership can provide invaluable guidance to "the flock" as young and old begin to explore the common human experience -- the common future prospect -- of life on planet earth. Consider for example, the following news item:

26 Feb. 1998
Gore Lauds Continued Progress in Connecting ...
      WASHINGTON, Feb. 26 /U.S. Newswire/ - Vice President Gore today applauded the progress America's schools are making in connecting to the Internet but urged increased efforts to ensure that all schools have equal access to the "information superhighway," and expressed concern that most classrooms still are not online.
      Citing new data released today from the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Gore said: "We have made progress in reaching our goal of connecting all of the nation's schools and classrooms to the Internet by the year 2000. Nearly 80 percent of all K-12 schools are connected, but poor and rural schools are lagging behind. We have to do all we can to help them be a part of the nation's success, too."
      According to the issue brief, Internet Access in Public Schools, the percentage of schools with Internet access has more than doubled, from 36 percent in 1994 to 78 percent in 1997.
      However, schools with 50 percent or more minority students, and schools with 71 percent or more poor students, lagged behind other schools. In addition, smaller schools were less likely to be connected.
      In addition to Internet access at the school-building level, the survey collected information on the percentage of instructional rooms, including classrooms, computer or other labs, school libraries, and media centers that had Internet access. Overall, 27 percent of all instructional rooms had Internet access. Although this percentage has grown annually since 1994 when only 3 percent of instructional rooms were on the Internet, Gore reiterated that there are still too many schools and millions of students lacking tools to access the information age.
      "It appears that we're well on our way to putting every school and classroom on the information superhighway by the new millennium," said Gore, who spoke before a U.S. Department of Commerce national conference titled Connecting All Americans for the 21st Century: Telecommunications Links in Low Income and Rural Communities. "But we have to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to access the vast, new resources of cyberspace via the Internet and other telecommunications. That's why the E-rate is a good idea and a timely one. The E-rate will help ensure equal access for all to the Internet."
      The E-rate is a $2.25 billion annual fund created as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to ensure that all eligible schools and libraries in the U.S. have affordable access to modern telecommunications and information services.
      "Since it opened its E-rate website Jan. 30, the FCC has received nearly 19,000 applications from urban, suburban, and rural schools and libraries in every state and territory to receive discounts for telecommunications services," said U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. "The E-rate will prove to be an important tool for helping those from poor and rural communities gain access to the wealth of information and services from the information superhighway. It will enable almost three-fourths of all schools to get at least a 50 percent discount on a wide range of telecommunications."
      The report further showed that large schools of 1,000 and high schools were most likely to be connected. In addition, Internet access increased most notably in the southeast and central regions of the U.S. from 1996 to 1997.
      The survey was sent to a nationally representative sample of more than 900 public elementary and secondary schools in fall 1997. Data were collected on the prevalence of Internet access, the types of Internet capabilities schools make available, use of advanced telecommunications by schools and teachers, and sources of support for advanced telecommunications in schools.
      The findings are a follow-up to similar surveys conducted in 1996, 1995 and 1994. The new report found:
      -- Internet access increased in the southeast and central regions, where it rose from 62 percent in 1996 to 84 percent in 1997 and 66 percent in 1996 to 79 percent in 1997, respectively;
      -- Overall, the percentage of instructional rooms with access to the Internet has increased from three percent in 1994 to eight percent in 1995, to 14 percent in 1996, and 27 percent in 1997....
      The challenge is clearly before us as theologians, religious thinkers and religious leaders. With some thought and planning it would be possible to provide a vast, growing and inquiring public with a whole new range of religious resources that could equip it to think clearly and act effectively on matters of grave environmental concern. There is incredible potential here, but there is also a danger of missing our last best chance at human survival. The task is enormous, and the tools for undertaking it must be mobilized. The Environmental Ethics & Public Policy Program of the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at Harvard Divinity School is committed to facilitating research and collaboration on these issues by examining the ethical values embedded in public policy choices related to the environment. Through its ongoing support for the Harvard Seminar on Environmental Values, its presentation of the Occasional Papers Series and the dissemination of the Subject Bibliographies in Environmental Ethics, the program provides a rich resource and important research platform for religious communities, church groups, civic organizations, businesses, foundations, government and non-government organizations -- indeed all groups and individuals who are committed to examining the religious and ethical dimensions of public policy on the environment.

      If we fail to extend and expand this effort to match the curiosity, imagination and spiritual hunger of the forthcoming generation, we will have missed our last, best chance at survival. This new generation is posing religious questions about the meaning of its existence on this small planet. If Christian theology is to have anything meaningful to contribute to the environmental crisis at hand it must learn to minister to the religious curiosity and profoundly spiritual needs of this forthcoming generation. The institutional resources are already largely in place, and with imagination they can be deployed. What is required now is for us to muster the courage to forge a new theology for a small planet. Its declaration of faith must begin with the simple affirmation:

We did not create the world. We cannot control it. We must not destroy it.

This is now and will no doubt remain our only ultimate justification for doing theology on a small planet.

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1 ) See, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," Science, Vol. 155. pp. 1203-1207 (10 March 1967). For a list of some of the articles and books discussing what became known as the "Lynn White Thesis" see: The Environmental Crisis and Western Civilization: The Lynn White Controversy, by Timothy C. Weiskel. Subject Bibliographies in Environmental Ethics, Vol. 1, No. 1. [Last updated: Feb. 19, 1997]. [Return to Text]

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