The Climate Change Challenge for Faith Groups

The Climate Change Challenge for Faith Groups

For several hundred years faith groups have been deeply involved in efforts to improve the lot of disadvantaged peoples. They have been leaders in ending slavery and racial disintegration, ensuring womens’ rights,  caring for the sick, reforming child welfare laws, implementing prison reform, supporting unions, to name but a few. But up until recently, with the encyclical Laudato Si, there has been profound silence in dealing with climate change the most serious issue facint civilization.  Why?

That is the question this talk to a Unitarian fellowship deals with.  It suggests that traditional faith groups and/ or the wide variety of personal spiritual beliefs have, for the most part, been unable to adapt to the new context that climate change is creating.  It focuses on the Unitarian Church’s 7the principle:  “Respect of the interdependent web of all life of which we are a part.” It suggests ways of adapting this principle to the new context.  Its ability  to do so and that of all faith groups and spiritual traditions to reinterprets their traditional roles will determine their future.



Mike Bell  

Comox Valley Unitarian Fellowship

At The Comox United Church 

November 15, 2015


Good Afternoon.  Thanks you for the invitation to reflect today on  “THE CLIMATE CHANGE CHALLENGE FOR FAITH GROUPS.  Several months ago our minister, Meg Roberts, asked me to give a talk this Sunday.  I’ve been spending a lot of time this past year studying and giving talks on The Anthropocene Age and Climate change so naturally I wanted to give a talk today on climate change. But then I learned recently that I was supposed to talk today on the theme for the month which is “Wholeness”.  What to Do?”

I was reminded of a similar problem facing a young priest preparing his Sunday sermon in the season of Advent close to Christmas.   He decided to give his sermon on St. Joseph, the husband of Mary.  But then the Bishop decided that all sermons on this particular Sunday were to be on confession.  Apparently the bishop was worried that not enough people were going to confession.  So the young priest had a problem. What to do? So he started his Sunday sermon this way.

“Good morning.  This morning I’m going to talk to you about confession.  As you know, when you go to confession you go into a confessional box.  And, as you also know, confessional boxes are made out of wood.  And of course, if you think about it, confessional boxes are built by carpenters…which reminds me of another carpenter.  His name was Joseph.”

So this afternoon I’m going to talk to you about Wholeness. And when I think of wholeness in a Unitarian context I think of our 7the Principle. “Respect of the interdependent web of all life of which we are a part.” There is nothing more “whole” than that.  And I’m going to suggest to you that Climate Change is forcing us to rethink our understanding of the 7th principles because of the profound changes that have taken place since that principle was introduced in 1985.  In a word, we are living in a different world—a climate change world

So how am I doing so far?

Here’s the road map.

First, I’m going to talk about how climate change is creating a new context for life on Earth. It is changing everything. And within this new context we must redefine our relationship with Earth.  This talk is all about a new relationship with Earth, or as our indigenous people call it, “The Land.”

Second I’ll discuss how this new context is forcing faith groups to rethink the nature of their mission.   Here I’ll focus on our need to redefine our understanding of our 7th Principle.

Third, I’ll focus on what this new relationship with Earth looks like and suggest how we can create this new relationship. Here I’ll borrow from some of my experiences in the Arctic.

The New Context:  The Impact of a Changing Environment.

Climate change is not just a local problem or a national problem.  It is a civilization problem.  It is changing all life on Earth as we know it. It is changing our environment which in turn is changing our economies, our governance systems, our social systems, our cultures, our ways of life.  We could spend hours detailing all the changes that are taking place but to no useful purpose.  You just have to read your daily newspaper or turn on the television news to see what is happening.

Scientists tell us we are in a new age—the Anthropocene that began in the industrial revolution, in the 1800s.  (The Term “Anthropocene” means the “new man-made age).  Its dominant characteristic is climate change. Earth in its history has gone through many changes and always rebounded. But scientists tell us we are shutting down Earth’s life support systems and this time Earth is not bouncing back.  There are constant references to the coming of a Sixth Great Extinction—the most significant extinction on Earth since the time of the dinosaurs, 66 million years ago.

What we need to know is how deal with this situation.  The area I’d like to focus on is the inner journey—the journey of spirit and spirituality.

One of the things that all of Earth’s religions and faith groups have in common is that they were established in the preceding era-the Holocene Era.  It began with the receding ice fields around 11,700 years ago. It was a time of great stability.  We saw the development of great civilizations, farming, cultures, economies and so forth.

When we look back at the leaders of the world’s major faiths—the Buddha, Abraham and Moses, Confucius, Jesus Christ and St. Paul, Mohammed and many others—they all lived in the same geological context, the Holocene.  When the leaders got up in the morning and went outside they saw the same world they saw the night before. Sure there were floods and droughts and plagues—but Earth always seem to renew itself. .

But today, when you and I get up in the morning we may think we are seeing the same world that we saw the night before but we are not.  Whether we notice it or not the world is radically changing.  We are shutting down Earth Life-support systems.  We are threatening our own existence and, the existence of all life on Earth as we have known it.  We look up and see our Comox glacier rapidly disappearing but don’t understand the full implications.

(In Mathew 6:28 Jesus says, “And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these.”   I suspect that when the early Christians recalled these words they never would have thought that a time would come when there might not be any lilies in the field.)

The real question, then, is’’ what to do?

World Religions and the 7th Principle.

In recent centuries, whenever there was a societal crisis, particularly a crisis in terms of social justice, many people turned to their churches for guidance.  The faith groups were leaders in the fight against slavery, racial discrimination, sexual discrimination, prison reform, health care and hospitals, the fight for jobs and labour unions, care for the poor.  We now know that climate change is having a disastrous effect on people, especially the poor. There may be some religious groups that have stressed this point. But to my knowledge, it is only recently with Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, that a religious leader has connected the dots between climate change and devastating poverty.

In 1985 Unitarians introduced the  7th Principle –Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.  I don’t know what they were thinking in the context of their times.  But if you will permit me some liberties I’d like to imagine how they saw and interpreted the principle in the world of their times.

First, though Unitarians thirty-five years ago recognized changes in their world, they probably saw the world as basically stable. They would have a hard time recognizing the scope of what scientists are now telling us—that Earth is not stable because climate change is changing everything. In a word, we now live in a very different world.  As Richard Rohr put it, “We are not in an era of change.  We are in a change of Era.”

Second, they probably thought of an inter-dependent web of life as a stable, permanent source of life.  Today we have come to realize that our human arrogance and dominance is destroying the permanency of this relationship.  Our relationship to the web of life is disintegrating because the web of life is disintegrating.

Third, I think many Unitarians probably felt a moral obligation to be stewards of Earth.  I’m not sure they recognized that the living Earth has been stewarding us since time immemorial. We are earthlings who have come from Earth and will return to Earth.  Though stewardship has been very beneficial, it is not adequate for our present situation.

In this new context we recognize that Earth is living.  We do not do things for Earth, we do them with Earth.  To use an analogy, a doctor who is treating a disease does not really heal the patient or give life.  The body heals itself. The doctor takes steps to block of destroy the disease that inhibits the body’s ability to heal itself.  We are working with Earth to heal it and ourselves because we cannot have healthy people on a sick planet.

Fourth and finally, for Unitarians thirty-five years ago I suspect that concern for Earth was competing with other more urgent and obvious concerns—for the poor, for those facing discrimination, for social justice, and so forth.  Perhaps they did not see the link to climate change that Pope Francis outlined. I wonder if they would have seen and grasped the ironic and stark reality that the Poet Robert Haas outlined so concisely.

“We are the only protectors, and we are the thing that needs to be protected, and we are what it needs to be protected from.”

To conclude, the new context provides an opportunity to deepen our understanding of the 7th principle.  It provides us with a whole new understanding of an inner spirituality and our role as individuals, as members of a community, and as Earth citizens.

So What Does An Earth Spirituality Look Like?   

I have no profound theological insights.  But I have recognized an earth spirituality in people I’ve met or worked with, especially in the Arctic.

When I first arrived on Baffin Island in 1980 to work in social services I wanted to know more about the Inuit culture.  I approached an elder and he told me a story.

On a nice summer day a woman tourist was walking around a small Baffin community. She was interested in soapstone carvings.  After a while she came across a carver sitting on the front steps of his house working on a carving. On the steps around him were a number of beautiful carvings—an eagle, a narwhale, a muskox, a wolf, a mother and child.   She watched him for a few minutes and finally said to him, “What are you working on?” He said, “A polar bear.”  She watched again and said, “How do you put such strength and fierceness into the bear? He looked up at her, paused for a moment and said, “I don’t put it into the bear.  It is already there in the stone. I just carve away everything that doesn’t look like a bear.”

Some years later I was talking about land claims to a Dene leader in Fort Simpson on the MacKenzie River. They saw that their land might be taken away and they had to claim it and manage it before resource companies gobbled it up and started extracting minerals.  We were talking about managing the land and he said to me, “Mike, this idea of us managing the land is hard for us to grasp.  In our culture, we don’t manage the land.  The land manages us. That is how we’ve survived.”

I had a friend, an Oblate priest who had worked with the Tlicho people for many years. He was deeply loved and respected.  I told him I had a sense that many of the Tlicho seemed to have two different forms of spirituality, one in the town attending mass and the other on the land in their hunting camps. He smiled and said, “You’re right. As a young priest I use to travel by dogteam between their camps.  At times I might see a person, an axe in hand, kneeling with head bowed in front of a tree. I’d never say anything.”

Finally, more recently, I saw a young man—one of the native coastal guardians-being interviewed on television.  He and his and fellow band members were protecting the Great Bear Rain Forest, famous for its white spirit bears.  The interviewer asked him why he was doing this kind of work.  I thought he might say something about land claims or aboriginal rights or just about having a job.  But he said, “We are doing this because we have made a promise to the land and the bears.”

These are similar to many stories coming from Indigenous peoples around the world.  And in all cases they reflect a very personal relationship with the land.  All indigenous peoples in the North once lived a nomadic existence.  Unlike most of us non-aboriginal folks who end up identifying a community with a particular geographic location, the indigenous peoples think of community in terms of a relationship.  One of their traditional definitions of community is, “An intimate relationship with all living things, both animate and inanimate.”(The seeming paradox between living things that are inanimate is undoubtedly for the benefit of non-aboriginal folks who do not realize that the land and everything in it is living.)

The stories remind us that an Earth spirituality is not something new.  It is rediscovering an internal awareness that is quite ancient—back to shamanic times long before there were any organized religions.  We find it is even in our ancient Judaic-Christian traditions.

(An aside. As you might be aware, the Bible has been written by many authors.  It is not surprising then that there would be two versions of the creation myth in Genesis, the first book of the Bible.  In the first chapter Adam and Eve are created and Adam is given dominion over the garden and the commission to name the animals. This first story has guided western thinking for centuries.  But in the second chapter we read a different myth that has been neglected.  “Yahweh God shaped man from the soil of the earth, and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and man became a living being. (Gn 2:7) The word “human” comes from the Latin “humus” which means ”earth.” It establishes a different relationship. We are earthlings.)

The Journey to an Earth Spirituality. 

Finally, how do we come to an Earth Spiritualty?  Here again, I think of wholeness. Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, long an advocate of environmental action, once reflected on why we don’t follow what the science is telling us.  Describing an Earth Spirituality he said,

“It is a long journey from head to heart.  And it is an even longer journey from heart to hands.”

In short, an Earth Spirituality is a combination of a new consciousness, an internal creative awareness and a commitment to become involved.

Head—New Consciousness.  

It is hard to determine how a new consciousness comes about.  Sometimes it comes without our even thinking about it as it does for so many indigenous peoples.  It is just part of what they were taught as children about their relationship with Earth.  For other non-aboriginal folks this new consciousness may have begun as children when their parents took them camping or worked with them in the garden.

One day my wife Arlene was working in our front yard.  A mother with a child in a stroller and a three year old daughter walking alongside were passing by in the street.  Suddenly a flock of returning trumpeter swans were passing low over their heads, loudly honking a greeting. The little girl looked up and yelled “Hello Trumpeter Swans.”

Sometimes the new consciousness arises from study and thinking about the world around us.  Skaay was a blind, crippled storyteller of the Haida village of Ttanuu.  He could neither read nor write but his legends are an essential part of Haida culture. Here is as segment from one of his stories, Raven Travelling.

“Then, when he had flown a while longer

Something brightened toward the north.

It caught his eye, they say.

And then he flew right up against it.

He pushed his mind through

And pulled his body after.”

There are others who see the consciousness emerge out of experience.  Erich Fromm the psychiatrist once noted: “People never think their way into new ways of acting. They act their way into new ways of thinking.”  And Lao Tzu put it even more succinctly: “If you know, but do not do, you do not know.”

 From Head to Heart.  

The heart or soul is the place of transitions—the place where the new consciousness is converted to commitment.   We may be enjoying life, travelling down a familiar road when his new consciousness suddenly interrupts the smooth flow of our life.  As the saying goes, “Reality is what happens when we are making other plans.” It often appears at the worst times.  We may be struggling with all kinds of other problems and then this new consciousness intrudes and starts making demands.  We don’t get knocked off a horse like St. Paul on the road to Damascus.  He had it easy.  His conversion only lasted a couple of days.  This dark night of chaos and confusion we experience could last for days, months or even years.

Often to survive the chaos we develop some kind of supportive routine—prayer, meditation, reflection.  We might seek refuge in our gardens, in music, in painting or Tai Chi, or in walks. (I like the Celtic concept of making pilgrimages to what they call “thin places”—places in nature where a sort of thin veil separates the human from the divine and the divine flashes through).

As we struggle with this new consciousness we begin to seek some support from a community of like-minded people who can appreciate and share our new consciousness. When this happens, often through discussion, a strong sense of community may emerge.  We don’t have to go through this struggle alone.  And as we look at the world around us there seems to be a calling to do something, anything to make a difference.

All of this often occurs when we seem to be faced with the limitations of age, family concerns and commitments, problems with jobs or limited financial capabilities, concerns for aging parents or children, sickness and health problems.  The inner voice that is calling us to do something is also telling us to realize our limitations so as not to go off the deep end.  Just because the world seems crazy doesn’t mean that we you have to be crazy, too.

From Heart to Hands

The scope of climate change is so immense that knowing what to do is often difficult to determine.  We have to stop harmful activities that are occurring in our communities, province and country.  But to do this, and do it with others, we have to continually hold out hope.  We have to stop becoming “doomers” and start becoming “doers.”

A man who knew something about hope in a time of change was St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in Africa. As he was writing and trying to hold things together, the barbarians were at the gate of the city signaling the end of the 500 year existence of the Roman Empire.  Here is what he said about hope.

“Hope has two beautiful daughters, Anger and Courage.   Anger at the way things are, and courage to make sure they do not remain as they are.”

As I reflect on his words in the context of climate change I find myself thinking of my first real job—working for the Lutheran Church as a community organizer in Milwaukee’s East side counter culture community.  It was a crazy hippie community fueled by hope and belief in change. And it helped create change.  It challenged the establishment over rights for gays, for women, for the justice system, and, in particular the government and the war in Vietnam.

I think as we face the Anthropocene and climate change we might think of ourselves as creating a counter culture.” We are fighting against the abuse of the planet, particularly by large corporations often supported by governments.  (Currently New York State is investigating Exxon.  Apparently, since the 1970s Exxon scientists have been telling the corporation about the damage caused by carbon in the atmosphere.  But the corporation has ignored them.  It has spent millions of dollars to support climate- denying organizations and government lobbyists to oppose any activities that would support the findings of its own scientists and inhibit its business.)

Will we succeed in our efforts? Will we win? It is the wrong question for we tend to lose more battles than we win.  This is not about winning.  It is about doing the right thing

Today things look more hopeful than they have looked for a long time.  With a new federal government and its decision to rename the Department of the Environment the Department of the Environment and Climate Change; with Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Laudato Si; with the upcoming ten day conference in Paris on climate change; the great talk on Climate change that the Unitarian Minister, Christine Boyle, Naomi Klein’s sister-in-law gave at the B.C. Unitarian Fall Gathering; with the rising up of ordinary folks all over the world to work on climate change—well things are looking up.

I’m working with a couple of people to start a small group focusing on Climate change.  We call ourselves the Comox Valley Keepers.  We are trying to raise awareness and support positive alternatives for change in the valley. The resources about climate change on the internet are unlimited.

I’ve been very impressed by a short, and very readable document published in September by Naomi Klein, David Suzuki and about forty Canadian leaders in various walks of life.  It is called The Leap Manifesto.  I submitted it to our board and suggested that they adopt it and then try and organize other churches to do the same thing. I hope they agree.

 In Conclusion  

It has been a long journey:  from a carpenter named Joseph to climate change and the challenge it presents to faith groups; to a suggestion that we refine our thinking about our 7th Principle and adapt it to the climate change age; to borrowing from Inuit and Dene cultures that give us a picture of what an inner spirituality for the Anthropocene looks like; To the journey from head to heart to hands–to wholeness.

I leave you with two thoughts that seem timely in our situation. The first are words from a band—the Eagles–and their famous song-“The Hotel California.”

You can check out any time, but you can never leave.”

We will have this Anthropocene challenge for generations to come—longer if we decide to try and check out and ignore the challenge facing us.  .

And a second thought.   It is particularly relevant for me (and perhaps for some of you) as I’m just a couple of weeks away from my 77th birthday.  When Frodo was having a difficult time Gandalf said to him…

“Frodo, the only decision we have to make is what to do with the time that is given to us”

Thank You.

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