Joan Burstyn moderated a panel on the teachings of several faith groups about caring for the environment: Rhea Jezer (Jewish perspective), Mary MacDonald (Roman Catholic perspective), Sue Savion (Unitarian Universalist perspective) and Cher Holt-Fortin (Baha’i perspective).

Joan explained that each panel member would begin by answering two questions and then the audience would be welcome to pose questions or comments:

  1. What are the teachings of your faith group about caring for the environment?
  2. Do you think your faith group has any blind spots when it comes to caring for the environment? If so, what are they?

Rhea began by stating that all of nature has value (inanimate, plants, animals, humans). The Bible and commentaries instruct us how to treat our natural environment. The current extreme weather patterns are direct results as foretold by the scriptures of what will happen when we misuse ecology. A handout was provided with appropriate readings from Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Ecclesiastes, Rabbah and Exodus. She also pointed out that Israel is one of only two countries that entered the 21st Century with a net gain in the number of trees.

Mary spoke of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change (see https://catholicclimatecovenant.org/) and its four principles – Prudence, Concern for the Poor (social justice and earth justice go together), the Common Good (interdependence and responsibility towards each other – embrace moderation) and Solidarity (we are all on this planet together and must work together). Concerning blind spots, she spoke about outmoded reproductive policy that is out of sync with the life of the planet (birth control) and the undemocratic treatment of women in the church.

Sue began by saying “Let us respect the web of life that makes us one.” Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part is the seventh of the Seven Unitarian-Universalist Principles. The Unitarian Universalist Association is committed to environmental justice and has a Green Sanctuary program that encompasses the worship celebration, religious education, environmental justice and sustainable living. It emphasizes living in harmony with the rhythms of nature. A blind spot could be the way we get bogged down in long Green Sanctuary meetings and discussions while missing a beautiful sunny day outside, and getting depressed over the huge problems of the earth. 

Cher stated that Baha’i has four major ideas: elimination of all prejudice, equality of men and women, respect for both science and religion and the elimination of the vast difference between wealth and poverty which all reflects back to the health of the natural world around us. The materialistic modern civilization has translated to great material excesses that are stressing the planet. We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us. If there is a blind spot it would be that the Baha’i faith is too idealistic.

During the comment period we discussed how other belief systems; Islam, Buddhism, Native American beliefs, Hindu and Pagan to name a few, all stress living in harmony with nature.

The next questions were addressed with the order of the panel speakers reversed:

3) When you talk about caring for the environment, how do you approach the topic?

4) In your opinion, what are the most pressing environmental issues facing us, today?

Cher focused on the equality of men and women, stressing the importance on educating girls because they will be the mothers who will teach the next generation. We need a New Grand Narrative that includes the whole world (see https://bahai-library.com/kluge_grand_narratives_writings). One of the most pressing issues is that we need awareness and awareness is spread through art: literature, visual arts and music. 

Sue spoke about worship and celebration in earth centered spirituality. She agreed with Cher about art as a means to bring awareness of ecological issues. She gave several examples from Unitarian Universalist hymns that demonstrate appreciation of the earth. Local teens were in Haiti with with husband of WTB member Judy Antoine working on sustainable improvements to the lives of Haitians hit by the hurricane a few years ago. In Syracuse, May Memorial plans Earth Day services and regularly has nature-related gallery displays of poetry, paintings and photos. Its religious education is intergenerational and involves stories and plays on stewardship of the earth and local issues such as hydrofracking. The sustainable living impact focus examines congregational practices such as energy use, landscaping, waste management, food preparation and consumption and water use. Sue had handouts for those who might be interested in getting involved in the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (www.CitizensClimateLobby.org).

Mary referred to the Religion and Ecology Course she teaches at LeMoyne College. It is a challenge to come across as encouraging and not judgmental (to overcome defensiveness). The most pressing issue today is changing hearts and minds; we must build awareness and be open to learn from others.

Rhea referred to the upcoming Ninth Annual Symposium on Energy in the 21st Century – Planning for a Net Zero Energy Footprint (www.energy21symposium.org). 

The discussion that followed included many throughout the room and went beyond faith groups and ecology to include comments on good and not so good practices in various countries worldwide. We leave WTB programs such as these with so much to contemplate.