Twenty years, ago, Sally Bingham went to her local bishop and announced that she wanted to be ordained so that she could become the world’s first priest for the environment.
She was received with some skepticism. Undeterred, she embarked on almost a decade of study and became an Episcopalian minister in 1998. She went on to found Interfaith Power and Light (what a great name for an organization). Today IPL has some 2000 affiliated congregations in 26 states of the US.
In her recent book “Love God, Heal the Earth”, Bingham has brought together 21 leading voices speaking out about the about the religious duty to protect the environment. All are doers in the field, not just thinkers. Some are inspirational leaders. There a couple each of Muslims, Buddhists and Jews, and 15 Christians of all stripes and persuasions.
The tone of the essays is personal, often confessional. Each tells of a personal journey towards placing creation at the center of his or her faith and activism.
Some tell of mystical experiences in nature, others of a progression from a passion for feminism or civil rights to environmentalism.
Among the most interesting are the accounts of Richard Cizik and Joel Hunter, leaders of the Evangelical Climate Initiative for whom accepting the reality of anthropogenic climate change and the urgency of doing something about it was a struggle, and ultimately, a conversion.
Their stories vividly document the suspicion of science, of government and the mainstream media in the evangelical movement.
They show just how counter-cultural acceptance of climate change was within their churches. (This is what makes the Evangelical response to global warming politically very significant. It removes climate change from the leftish pigeon hole in which it was in danger of becoming stuck and elevates it to the status of an ethical issue that transcends party lines.)
One of the common themes of all the essays is that, as Bingham puts it,
The contributors all in different ways trace the transformation that begins with spiritual stirrings of love and reverence for God’s world and eventuates in action.
As Pastor Clare Butterfield writes:
“What we are trying to do is not to change light bulbs. We are trying to change people – with the assumption that they will then be the kind of people who will change their own light bulbs.”
This heart-light bulb nexus touches on the unique and necessary contribution that religions can make in the struggle to avert climate change. Environmentalists are realizing that knowing what we must do may not be enough. We also need to find the moral passion to do it and the strength to overcome inner obstacles.
In the words of Gus Speth, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and the Environment, quoted in the book by Richard Cizik:
“Thirty years ago, I thought that with enough good science, we would be able to solve the environmental crisis. I was wrong. I used to think the greatest problems threatening the planet were species extinction, pollution and climate change. I was wrong there too. I now believe that the greatest problems are pride, apathy and greed.”
“Love God, Heal the World” is an impressive and sometimes moving collection of testimonies from leaders of the environmental religious movement. It sheds light on the actions and the souls of people who are not only bringing new life and hope to environmentalism, but are also rethinking their religious faith and traditions in the light of the challenges environmentalism levels.
To be sure, the authors present their views in engagingly broad strokes that raise a lot of questions. As many of the writers acknowledge, the world’s religions have arrived late to this issue.
As the book shows, they are catching up fast.
‘Love God, Heal the Earth’ Rev Sally Bingham, (Ed.) St. Lynn’s Press,US 2009
Rabbi Julian Sinclair is a scholar, Jewish educator, and an economist. He holds a BA from Oxford University in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard University and rabbinic ordination. He has been an economic analyst for the UK government, and Jewish Chaplain and Instructor in the Divinity School, Cambridge University.
Currently based in Jerusalem with his family, Julian is the author of “Let’s Schmooze: Jewish Words Today.” and co-founder of www.Jewishclimateinitiative.org.