Saturday, September 16, 2023

Faith and the Green Movement

 A talk to the first Havant Green Festival - 16th Sept 2023

Thank you for this opportunity to address your Festival.  It’s real privilege.  I’m especially aware that not everyone here would call themselves a person of faith.  But in the next few minutes, I’d like to make the case for a stronger connection between the Green movement, and the world of faith in general.

You will know, I’m sure, that there are hundreds of creation myths, from religions all around the world.  All the ancient civilizations had them.  The idea that Creation was an event of some description seems to be hard-wired into human beings.  Perhaps that’s because we each have our own beginning, and we can’t cope with the idea of anything else not having some kind of beginning.  We also, instinctively, want to know where we came from, and why we are here.  It is part of our endless search for meaning.

The word ‘religion’ comes from the same root as the children’s toy, Lego – it’s the Latin word ‘legio’, which means, ‘to choose, to collect, to connect’.  It was from that word that the Romans created their legions – collections of individuals, chosen to be connected together by a common cause (to fight for Rome).  Religion, then, means to ‘re-connect’, in spiritual terms it means any activity which re-connects us to the sense of the Divine within all humans.  Religion is about that endless search of all humanity for meaningful origin stories for creation, and discovering meaning for our own short lives within creation.

The world of science has been a challenge to religious thinking, since the Renaissance.  That’s a great pity, as far as I am concerned, since theology was once considered ‘the queen of the sciences’ – precisely because good theology has always used the scientific method of hypothesis, test, repeat, to deepen human understanding of that which is beyond our limited gaze.  For those with an open mind, science still has many unanswered questions, to which religion can sometimes provide helpful answers.

The obvious big unanswered questions remain the ones about origin and meaning.  Science teaches us, for example, about the Big Bang.  But it can’t tell us anything meaningful about what happened before the Big Bang.  Science can only hypothesise.  Was it, for example,  just a latest big bang in an eternity of an ever expanding and contracting Universe?  We’ll never know for sure. Did the trillions of stars and incalculable matter of the Universe really emerge from a tiny point in space, no bigger than a pencil dot?  Again, science can only hypothesize.  What about meaning?  We are hard-wired to search for it, but science has no answer to the question, except to hypothesize that we are the Universe observing itself, through our reasoning brains.  There are many other areas we could explore.  What is dark matter?  Are there multiple dimensions?  Could one of them be ‘heaven’? 

My point, though, is to say that it is tempting to assume that science has replaced religion, over the essential human questions of origin and meaning.  But, in reality, science really knows very little about those vital questions.  And so, I would argue, it is unwise to jettison the wisdom of the millennia of religious truth-seeking, in favour of the new kid on the block, of science. 

A more troubling aspect of science, is that it is frequently highjacked by greedy men, for their own purposes.  That is true of religion, of course, too.  But whilst the greedy men who highjack religion have done so mainly to feather their own nests, the high-jacking of science and technology is that it has global consequences.  Science has given us mass transportation, and the food to feed billions who are multiplying as a result of scientific advances in medicine.  But it is science that has also given us the ability to fill the air with pollutants, to carve up the earth for minerals, to lay waste to the forests, and to pollute our rivers, and to fill the world with plastic gadgets and gizmos.  All these things have happened because some human beings have had the will and the wit to use the advances of science to sell ‘meaning’ to the rest of us.

But the ‘queen of sciences’, theology, offers us a different lens of meaning, which might yet hold some of the answers to the global problems we are facing.  The religious myths of the world provide us with a moral framework in which to operate the tools of science.  At their heart, all religions have some common moral commands – which offer meaning, and teach restraint.  For example, you’ll have heard of the ‘Golden Rule’ – that great teaching common to all the major religions of the world, and most of the minor ones as well.  It goes like this:  ‘Do unto others as you would be done unto’.  Jesus, the Buddha, the Prophet Mohammed and many more have taught this rule. 

If (if only!) that rule were commonly taught, and commonly held, we might begin to imagine and entirely different world.  Shareholders of water companies might not permit sewerage to be pumped into our seas, because that’s not what they would want for themselves in their own seas – on whatever tropical island they reside.  Forests might no longer be cut down by shareholders who live happily in beautiful countryside, because they would think about how they would feel if someone cut down their local forests.   Native lands might no longer be excavated for minerals, because the owners of the mines would think about how they would feel if the land beneath their luxury villa was dug out from under them.

Another common theme among religions is the call to live lightly upon the earth.  These are captured in teachings of the great religious thinkers, like:

Christianity:  “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and vermin destroy, and thieves break in and steal”

Buddhism:  “The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”

Hinduism:  “The earth, the air, the fire, the water, they are all made of the same elements as our body.  So why do we continue to harm them?  We must learn to live in harmony with nature”

Judaism:  “Who is rich?  Those who are satisfied with what they have”  and “Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil”

Islam:  “The world is beautiful and verdant, and verily God has made you his stewards in it, and he see how you acquit yourselves”

Taoism:  Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.

I hope you are grasping my central point here.  Science has given us amazing tools to improve the nasty, short and brutish life that most of us spend on earth.  But scientific progress devoid of meaning has led us to the brink of extinction as a species.  I would argue that only religion, in its broadest sense, can offer us a framework for stepping back from that brink, by reminding us of what our ancestors knew instinctively.  They knew that the earth, of which they were stewards, had rhythms and limits – and they learned to live in harmony with them.  Religion gave them a meaningful framework, and adequate myths, for living equitably with other humans, and with the planet, their home.  Whether their creation myth was of Mother Earth, or of a Creation by a god, religion offered them a way of seeing themselves in relationship to creation…not masters and exploiters of it, but stewards of it.

As a ‘religionist’ with a Judeo-Christian background, I can think of no more powerful myth than the story of Creation, as told in the Book of Genesis.  In one of the great Creation myths of the Bible (and there are at least three!) God builds a garden. It’s a delightful place full of all manner of animal and plant life.  Into the garden he places human beings, and he commands them to ‘take care of the garden’. 

Perhaps, I suggest, that one phrase, ‘take care of the garden’ could become a new rallying cry for the Green movement.  It has religious roots, which are deep enough for anyone with the time and inclination to explore.  It contains a sense of command, and of urgency, that our world needs to hear.  It implies the wise use of technology, and it implies purpose.  It presumes that the garden, if taken care of, will abide for ever.  Yes, my friends, let’s ‘take care of the garden’ – and teach the world to do the same.


I remember two of the questions that were asked after this talk.

Q. Do you think God will solve the climate catastrophe?

A:  It depends on what kind of god you have in mind in your question.  If you picture God as some kind of Santa Claus in the sky, rewarding his children or punishing them depending on whether they are naughty or nice, then No.  But if you see God as the creative and loving source of every positive human action, inspiring and leading us to become all that we can be…then yes, I could see God helping us to save ourselves, if we listen to the still small voice within.

Q.  Why should we trust religion when all they do is fight each other and exploit others?

A.  I always say ‘judge a religion by the teaching of its founder, not by the idiots who pretend to follow the teachings, but pervert them to their own ends.  Every organization, political party, even football clubs attract people who are on their own power-trip.  But that doesn’t negate the essential core of what each organization, including religions, are teaching.


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