THE ENVIRONMENT OF FAITH – A missed opportunity?

Dr. Elin Kelsey speaks on Climate Based Hope at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops BC

On rare occasions I am lost for words. Those who have known me as a preacher, advocate or teacher may find this hard to believe, but from where I live on the cusp of celebrating one year of retirement I am occasionally tongue tied.

At a recent climate hope event I was asked on the spur of the moment for my thoughts on faith perspectives on the climate crisis. I thought to myself, “where do I start?” Instead I reflected back to the presenter and sat down. What a missed opportunity.

It seems so silly now, especially as I now embark on a major writing project to document the history of the Anglican Church of Canada’s historic advocacy (or lack thereof) and future directions in relation to what was once called the Stewardship of Creation or Sustainable Development, next dubbed Climate Change, then more pointedly the Climate Crisis, and now increasingly a Climate Emergency — the language has steadily evolved since my first grappling with these issues around 2001. The sense of urgency has increased; and in its best moments, my own Church and the ecumenical and multi-faith community in Canada have taken a front row seat, at the request of none other than Christian Figures (UNFCCC Secretary, now retired) in climate justice conversations.

Anglican leaders at a recent United Nations environment assembly in Kenya

She and others globally have invited over and over again the voice, the insights, the experience and influence of faith communities, especially those in the Global South. Globally many Anglicans occupy many important and influential positions in the climate conversation. Nationally the presence and effect is mixed – there have been so many missed opportunities. Even locally, religious faith is if not ignored, then forgotten. Environmentally and in other settings, I have found that a Christian, indeed an Anglican voice is anything but popular or desirable. I find I must weave my way into initiatives or presentations; invitations are few and far between. More au courante these days are Indigenous storytellers, Buddhist teachers or New Age animators. Here in BC the fastest group of faithful engagers are the Spiritual but not religious cohort.

Now as Richard Nixon once said: “Let me be perfectly clear.” I fully respect and welcome the input and leadership of Indigenous teachers and leader. Likewise Buddhist scholars and practitioners. A personal hero, Thomas Merton was well on his own D T Suzuki inspired Buddhist journey at the time of his tragic death in Bangkok in 1968. I have read and savoured his Asian journals and heard stories from some of his closest friends. His journey blended a wonderful inter-faith contemplation with a progressive though traditionally rooted and practised Roman Catholicism. My appeal is that the wisdom found in all faith traditions, variously understood, each with common and unique features and perspectives be welcomed, respectfully considered and celebrated.

For those curious to discover climate and justice in a Christian voice,  through our traditions of worship, reflection and politics look no further than Pope Francis. His encyclical Laudato Si’ is arguably the most influential and most discussed creation text for the present moment. Taking the name of Francis for his papacy, the Pope lives and breathes the spirit of the medieval St. Francis whose critique of Church structure and belief morphed into practices and traditions celebrating creation, helping us find our rightful place within it.

Evangelical Christians pay close and widespread attention to Catherine Hayhoe, a Canadian now living and working in West Texas, not exactly the friendliest place to climate justice critics, a place where money, power and fossil fuel extraction and transmission  continue to injure the planet aided and abetted by a short-sighted and fear-based economic motivation. She is arguably the most effective communicator on climate science today. Her advice is simple: Talk about these things with anyone who will listen.

On the Anglican side of the ledger I commend a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams who sees creation through the human, divine Christ. The incarnation doesn’t require a miracle; it reveals one that’s already there. During his primacy and afterward Archbishop Rowan has campaigned on social media and has placed his feet on the streets demanding economic and environmental reform throughout the UK and globally. In a more popular context Ruth Valerio’s fine volume Saying YES To Life is well summarized in these words:

Saying Yes to Life lifts our focus from natural, everyday concerns to issues that are having an impact on millions of lives around the world. As people made in the image of God, we are entrusted to look after what he has created: to share in God’s joy and ingenuity in making a difference for good. Ruth Valerio imaginatively draws on the Days of Creation (Genesis 1) as she relates themes of light, water, land, the seasons, other creatures, humankind, Sabbath rest and resurrection hope to matters of environmental, ethical and social concern.

In sum, all faiths and those who claim no faith deserve their place within and around the conversations, arguments, demands, responses, advocacy and actions which connect with the climate crisis. As the recent IPCC report says, there is time, but not much time, to avoid irreversible climate disaster. It is now well understood that another (sixth) extinction is coming; the question is when; another question is what can be done to mitigate its affects for the sakes of those who will follow our generation. We have a small window of opportunity to positively affect the future of everyone and everything — our powers are limited but they are significant. We have the opportunity to work together, right here and everywhere.

Does faith then offer something to conversation and action on environmental matters? Absolutely yes, provided we find the environment for such faithful conversation.

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