God and the earth

The Nicholas Institute's inaugural Environmental Summit on Sept. 21 featured an impressive array of scientists and policy makers, and surprisingly, two of the speakers emphasized the importance of spirituality in creating solutions to our environmental problems. Russell Train, former Administrator of the EPA, pointed out the potential for mobilizing the Religious Right in support of an earth stewardship agenda. Paul Gorman, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE), gave a passionate testimony about the central role of "caring for creation" in the future of religious life.

The Hart-McInturff Environmental Survey presentation on the same day highlighted that while most people agreed the environment was of great importance, it was not a priority issue that influenced their voting activities or their willingness to make economic compromises. So, despite well-documented scientific research made available to the policy makers, the voters, to whom they are accountable, still make their personal decisions with their pocketbooks and their hearts. What will it take to make the environment a voting issue as important as abortion, gay rights or stem cell research?

One influential voting group mentioned at the Summit as feeling the direct impact of global warming are the hunters, a mostly conservative bunch, who have started to notice that the birds and game are not where they are used to finding them due to climate-based changes in migration patterns. Recently Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have caused many people to wonder whether the apparent increase in Category 4 and 5 storms may be related to an increase in ocean temperatures. An article by Webster in Science on Sept. 16 supports this claim by documenting a doubling in the number of these large storms when comparing 1970-1974 to 2000-2004.

In May 2004, the NRPE published a position statement, "Earth's Climate Embraces Us All: A Plea from Religion and Science for Action on Global Climate Change," signed by Nicholas School Dean William Schlesinger and 37 other scientists and religious leaders. Fittingly, one of the best explanations of global warming available for lay persons is published in Creation Care, the magazine of the Evangelical Environmental Network, one of the four organizations that co-founded the NRPE. "Climate Change: a Christian Challenge and Opportunity" by Sir John Houghton, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and an evangelical Christian, can be found by following the links at www.nrpe.org.

The magazine publisher notes in the same spring 2005 issue that "[W]e do creation-care for the children in keeping with the Lord's will. It doesn't matter what the creation-care activity is-from lessening environmental degradation in poor countries through reforestation, to reflecting on better farming practices, to helping evangelicals understand and overcome barriers to their willingness to do creation-care, to sounding the call on climate change-all of this can help contribute to a better life for our children and grandchildren, for the kids of today and tomorrow."

Imagine what would happen if the biggest voting issue in 2008 was not the Iraq war or any of the other political divides between the red and blue states. What if the election was a referendum on the neocons' war on the environment? From a spiritual point of view, the environment has the potential to be the issue that provides common ground for a variety of faith groups, as the other three members of the NRPE are the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, the United States Catholic Conference Environmental Justice Program and the National Council of Churches of Christ Eco-Justice Program.

In a Noosphere column in Jan. 1997, I suggested that the lack of a formal academic affiliation between the Nicholas School and the Divinity School was a significant oversight. Encouragingly, since 2002, Ted Purcell, Baptist Campus Minister, has been teaching a Nicholas School course, Spirituality and Ecology: Religious Perspectives on Environmental Ethics. Then, last year, there was a jointly-sponsored interdisciplinary lecture series co-presented by the two schools on Ethics and the Environment. One of the participants, Ellen Davis, professor of Biblical and practical theology, noted recently that the collaboration may provide the foundation for the eventual establishment of an endowed joint professorship. I'd say this idea's time has come.

Dr. Larry Burk, Trinity '77, is a physician in Durham. His column appears every other Wednesday.


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