Human and religious limitations

Q: The catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a widening environmental, economic and political crisis. Is it … Continued

Q: The catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a widening environmental, economic and political crisis. Is it also a moral crisis? How does religion influence our use and abuse of the natural world? Does religion help or harm the environment?

The Gulf oil spill raises both moral and religious issues. It reveals both human limitations and our own very human inability to accept those limitations. Religion and religions have much to say about these issues and their specific relationship to global ecology. But what will inevitably happen is that the Gulf oil spill will become yet another touchstone for contemporary debates about religiously informed environmental sensibilities. In this sense, the oil spill will also reveal the limitations of our own ability to appreciate the complex and conflicted role of religion in our contemporary world.

I first began to think about the issue of religion and ecology when I studied at Banaras Hindu University as a undergraduate in 1985. Living in an Indian household as a member of the family, I learned quickly how much of the material I would normally discard would be shared or reused. When I would go to the local tea shop everything seemed to be biodegradable: the tea would be poured into an earthenware cup and snacks would come on a banana leaf. I could see this ecological sensibility also in the villages that I visited, especially as I learned how cow dung was used as an effective slow burning fuel for cooking. All of this seemed to confirm to the vision I had of Hinduism as a religion with a more refined sense of equilibrium between humans and their environment.

But like all first impressions, my naïve views of India and Hinduism changed as I grew more comfortable with my Indian family. I began to do things that my Indian brothers and friends did: on train trips, I would throw plastic containers and wrappings out the window and onto the tracks; at home, I would discarded my refuse in unoccupied public spaces. The mark of my adaptation to local custom was periodically bathing in the Ganges river. I soon found out that pollution of the Ganges was a major local issue. Many villagers believed that the Ganges essentially was like a fire that would consume everything that was poured into it. I learned that a professor from Banaras Hindu University, who was also a Hindu priest, had established a foundation whose major focus was to present a more ecologically sensitive vision of the Ganges’ sacred nature.

As far as India was concerned, religion both hurt and helped the environment–and that evaluation itself depended upon different construals of the religious tradition operative at the moment. To make matters more complicated, it was clear that I was seeing all my Indian family members and friends as living according to a particular Hindu script when the reality is that all human beings, myself included, draw upon our religious beliefs in various uneven and often unreflective ways.

It did not take me long to see more clearly similar conflicts and tensions in the Christian tradition. Competing notions of “dominance” and “stewardship” of the natural order have long contended in Christianity. While the idea of “stewardship” now seems to be more fully embraced by many Christian denominations, it is also clear that Christianity has certainly not stemmed the voracious appetite the Western world has for cheap energy and consumer goods. Indeed, this material expansiveness echoes in, or is echoed by, the evangelical expansiveness of various Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic Christianities.

In the way of the Gulf oil spill, there will inevitably be calls for a renewed emphasis upon correct understandings, Christian or otherwise, of the symbiotic relationship between human beings and their environment. While such exhortations may be all to the good, they risk becoming slogans that fail to understand how religion can both help and hurt the environment at the same time. Idealized or polemical portrayals of any religious tradition or its parts often prevent us from fully understanding our own complicity in the environmental evils that we criticize. In my own personal case, I can talk or write quite passionately about various ecologically sensitive religious visions. But, when it comes to my own personal behavior, I can say in all honesty that I am hardly environmentally mindful except under the watchful gaze of others. Perhaps the most useful religious insight comes in how all human action, however seemingly insignificant, has cosmic resonances. In this sense, the enormity of the Gulf oil spill is inevitably connected to the choices that all of us make as we carry on our everyday lives.

Mathew N. Schmalz
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