CNEWA Connections: Religions and the Environment

Earth Day is observed each year on 22 April. This Earth Day, I would like to reflect briefly on the evolving relationship between spirituality and the environment.

Spirituality covers a huge, complex and often extremely ancient field of phenomena that spans far beyond the bounds of traditional religion. On the other hand, the environment, as currently understood, is a fairly recent concept, especially in modern religious dialogue, even though it has been recognized among various spiritualties since their beginnings.

Very broadly speaking, religions and the world, that is, the environment, often interact in dynamic, evolving and even self-contradictory ways.

The Bible offers some interesting points. In the first account of creation, Genesis 1:1-2:3, God creates everything in a period of six “working days.” At the end of days 1, 4, 5 and 6 — and twice on the third day — God looks at what has been created and sees that it is “good.” At the very end of the narrative, “God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good” (Gen 1:31). The world and creation in this narrative are presented in a most positive way.

For the most part, with the exception of some psalms, the Hebrew Scriptures do not reflect at length on nature. As in most pre-scientific cultures, nature was looked on as mysterious, powerful, unpredictable and capricious, at times bringing blessings and other times destruction.

We find a related tension in the New Testament. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus does not flee or reject the world. He engages with the world. Not only is Jesus not a hermit, but his enemies also call him “a glutton” (φάγος) and “a drunkard” (οἰνοπότης) (Mt 11:19).

The situation in the Gospel of John is more complicated. If, on the one hand, the world hates the disciples, it is because it hated Jesus first; the disciples do not belong to the world (Jn 15:18-19). Yet John 3:16-17 says that “God so loved the world that he gave his only son,” so the world could be saved.

Throughout history, Christians have had, for many reasons, a complicated relationship with the world, very often rejecting it.

There were, of course, saints such as Francis of Assisi, who in the “Canticle of the Sun,” blesses and praises God for creation. The refrain in the Canticle — “Laudato si’ ”is also the title of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment. However, St. Francis stands out for his uniqueness in this outlook.

It is amazing how things have changed. The environment has become a religious concern starting in the 20th century. Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato si’,” written in dialogue with Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, is addressed not just to Catholics but to all people of good will.

Bartholomew, long known as the “Green Patriarch,” has made significant contributions to raising the awareness of Christians, both East and West, as to their religious obligation to avoid the sin of abusing the environment and being indifferent to the fate of the planet.

Many Jews are making a connection between the traditional observance of the Sabbath and environmental responsibility. It has been noted that pollution in Israel drops sharply on the Sabbath. This has encouraged young Jews to promote sabbaths for the environment.

In the past century, the environment has moved into the consciousness and conscience of major religious traditions in a significant way. On Earth Day, this new and increasing awareness is something to celebrate and promote.

Father Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D., is special assistant to the president of CNEWA-Pontifical Mission.

Recent Posts

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español