Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Religious Environmentalism

New book out about it, mentioned in this survey.

Feeling Green
Whose religious environmentalism?
by Andy Crouch

Early in my college career, the distinguished literary critic Wayne Booth paid a visit to a class in which I had managed to wangle a seat. The text of the week was Booth's Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, an attempt to rescue reasoned discourse from the clutches of corrosive modern skepticism. Asked a question about a point on one particular page, Booth borrowed the teaching assistant's copy to check the exact wording. He looked up in surprise, a slight smile on his face, and said, "I see that the owner of this book has written in the margin, 'Bullshit.' "

As the graduate student in question turned bright red and the rest of us laughed out loud, I noticed that Booth seemed strangely satisfied. Someone was paying attention, even if they didn't exactly respond with "the rhetoric of assent."

I can only hope that Roger Gottlieb is half as indulgent as the late Dr. Booth should he ever come across my copy of his book A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet's Future. While I believe the marginalia are free of scatology, they do betray a fair amount of frustration. There are few causes in which I would more hope a writer to succeed, and there are few books that strike me as more likely to injure the cause, at least among one pivotal constituency: the evangelical Christians who, if books like Gottlieb's can be kept from doing too much damage, may yet become the decisive constituency for environmental stewardship in the 21st century.

Gottlieb, a professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and frequent contributor to Tikkun magazine, is the very model of a postmodern progressive thinker. He leans "to the left side of just about any spectrum one could think of" but professes eagerness to engage those well to his right. He is frequently self-deprecating, generous to his likely opponents, and, it would seem, kindly disposed to folk of any flock who might join the environmental cause.

The phenomenon that Gottlieb documents—the flourishing of religiously motivated environmentalism in the past two decades—is both real and supremely important. Gottlieb ably surveys the development of Catholic teaching from Rerum Novarum's silence on environmental issues to John Paul II's ecologically astute questioning of unbridled technology in Redemptor Hominis. He briefly covers the Evangelical Environmental Network's "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign and its Evangelical Climate Initiative (of which I was a founding member). He interviews Buddhist monks in Thailand who are "ordaining trees" to the Buddhist priesthood in order to signal the worth of nature, documents a Jewish movement to redefine kosher in light of "the deep well-springs of Jewish wisdom about protecting the earth," and reports on Unitarians, Episcopalians, Wiccans, Sufis, and Calvinists who have engaged in various sorts of environmental activism. He approvingly quotes Bill McKibben: "Only our religious institutions, among the mainstream organizations of Western, Asian, and indigenous societies, can say with real conviction, and with any chance of an audience, that there is some point to life beyond accumulation."