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UW Religion Today Column for Week of May 2-8: Thinking of God on Earth Day
April 28, 2010 — "Religion Today" is contributed by the University of Wyoming's Religious Studies Program to examine and to promote discussion of religious issues.
By Guest Columnist, Reverend Dr. Sally Palmer
The Iceland volcanic plumes startled travelers, air control officials and media watchers alike as they experienced first hand the plight of human vulnerability. The violence of nature has repeatedly usurped the headlines and reminded us, through the hard lessons of disaster, that there is a matrix of forces beyond human control. All of us, but most importantly the victims, need to understand why tsunamis, hurricanes, droughts, and volcanic activity so easily hold sway?
This year, perhaps because of the Iceland volcano, there have been many debates around "Earth Day." These debates hinge on two great questions: "Is climate change real?" and "Is it caused by factors which are under human control?"
The responses to these questions predominantly arose in the media. For example, the editors of US News and World Report looked at Earth Day as an opportunity to feature their lead article "A Smoking Gun or Just Hot air-The Changing Debate Over Global Warming." National Geographic, on the other hand, examined "victims" of past disasters and offered visual documentation of significant global change: The melting glaciers, the loss of species and diminished fresh water supplies around the world. Last year's summit in Copenhagen, despite its lack of ultimate success, turned the observance of climate change into a media debate that altered the significance of the persistent work of science.
The world's religions have long understood the relationship between humans and nature. The theocentric ("god centered") religions began in societies intimately concerned with farming and agriculture and thus regularly experienced their vital dependence on the forces of nature. In the concept of "stewardship," Christians, Muslims, and Jews have for centuries taught their followers to care for God's creation. This conviction was elegantly stated in a 1986 set of documents called "The Assisi Declarations," in which representatives of eight world religions laid out how their own religion saw the vital links between humans and the natural world. The statements focused on two essential reasons: It is necessary for survival and it honors the work of the Creator.
In religious terms, the documents put forward a succinct statement concerning the necessity of stewardship of the Earth for human survival, namely, "The land is not 'ours' but belongs to the One who made it." In short, humans are "stewards," people left in charge for the purpose of taking care of something.
As Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg says it for Judaism: "Now, when the whole world is in peril, when the environment is in danger of being poisoned, and various species, both plant and animal are becoming extinct, it is our Jewish responsibility to put the defense of the whole of nature at the very center of our concern. Man was given dominion over nature, but he was commanded to behave toward the rest of creation with justice and compassion. Man lives, always, in tension between his power and the limits set by conscience."
The second common denominator of theocentric religions focuses on honoring the Creator. Christians, Muslims and Jews acknowledge that there is One Who "called the worlds into being." Humans can reshape things very cleverly, but they cannot make life. These global religions affirm that there are boundaries and ethics established by the Creator of the natural order itself, of which humans are just a part.
Last week's observances of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day were subsumed under the cloud of controversy. Perhaps natural disasters point to a more persistent need for collective efforts to assume a greater responsibility and responsiveness to those life-sustaining patterns that are still in human hands.
Reverend Dr. Sally Palmer is a lecturer in the UW Religious Studies Program.