Human Faith and Nature's Place in Belief and the Faithful's Actions

In poll after poll, the United States' population (the human one that is) repeatedly asserts its religious convictions. According to Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life data, about 83% of Americans affiliate with some religion. 80% of Americans report being Christian. Religious life in America seems so important that former Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney gave a speech on religion in 2007. Faith matters.

But what is the content of that belief? How does it inform their actions and choices? Does what people believe about the divine and their relationship to it matter when it comes to how they treat nature? Can faith inspire sustainability? Can it do the opposite?

We hope that Sylvia Neely (Associate Professor of History - Penn State) can help us answer these and other questions about faith. She and others are starting a Penn State chapter of Interfaith Power and Light. The organization recognizes that global warming constitutes a civilization challenging situation. They write:
Global warming is one of the biggest threats facing humanity today. The very existence of life — life that religious people are called to protect — is jeopardized by our continued dependency on fossil fuels for energy. Every mainstream religion has a mandate to care for creation. We were given natural resources to sustain us, but we were also given the responsibility to act as good stewards and preserve life for future generations.
How is this panning out? What are their challenges? How can sustainability come to the forefront for more of the faithful? Can it?

Consider the challenge posed by the Southern Baptist Convention in particular and the Baptist denomination in general. In 2008 Jonathan Merritt, a 25-year-old student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., garnered media attention by releasing "A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change." It was signed by 46 leading SBC representatives. It stated, "Human beings have a responsibility to care for creation and acknowledge their participation in environmental decline." That decline includes climate change. Merritt wrote,
Though the claims of science are neither infallible nor unanimous, they are substantial and cannot be dismissed out of hand on either scientific or theological grounds. Therefore, in the face of intense concern and guided by the biblical principle of creation stewardship, we resolve to engage this issue without any further lingering over the basic reality of the problem or our responsibility to address it. Humans must be proactive and take responsibility for our contributions to climate change—however great or small.
The notion of stewardship, in part, comes from Genesis 2:15, which states "The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it." For Merritt, and Interfaith and Power and Light, this care means addressing the degradation that humans have induced on nature.

But the SBC wrote in 2007 that they were skeptical of climate change, advising that members
"proceed cautiously in the human-induced global warming debate in light of conflicting scientific research." This statement came despite the overwhelming consensus view among relevant scientists that industrial humans have induced climate change. This naturally followed:
RESOLVED, That we consider proposals to regulate CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions based on a maximum acceptable global temperature goal to be very dangerous, since attempts to meet the goal could lead to a succession of mandates of deeper cuts in emissions, which may have no appreciable effect if humans are not the principal cause of global warming, and could lead to major economic hardships on a worldwide scale;
To our knowledge, the SBC has not officially changed its position and joined Merritt's call.
Given that Southern Baptists account for nearly 7% of America's believers, this tension has consequences. (Image taken from Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.) Though we should doubt that all Southern Baptists are united under a monolithic views of nature, stewardship, climate change, or environmental ethics, the flock has been charged with following its shepherds. We have good reason to believe that the climate skepticism of leaders represents broader views. But is that tension a reason to hope for sustainability in America's big religion?

Can Interfaith Power and Light help? Given that they have successfully worked with churches across the nation to embrace renewable energy initiatives, reduce carbon emissions, and develop sustainability and environmental education initiatives, we might think they can.

Join us with Sylvia Neely this Friday, September 17th from 4-5 pm to find some answers. Call 865-9577 to voice your views.

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