As uncertainty shrouds our planet’s future. A resurgence of religious thought and action is underway. As part of our Voices for Nature series, JAKE LLOYD explores how three faith-based organisations are reimagining or rediscovering ways for earth’s four billion Jewish, Christian and Muslim people to repair their relationship with nature
In the Biblical account of creation, God makes the universe and everything in it with the joy and abandon of a child with a paint set. He separates light from dark. He flings stars into space. He gives form to plants and animals.
Finally, He makes humans. But unlike everything that comes before, humans are accorded the special – if ambiguous – status of being made in God’s image.
The story unfolds from here, and as it does we see human defiance and destruction place a growing distance between us and nature.
Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden for doing the one thing they’re told not to. Cain murders his brother Abel, and flees further from the garden.
God vows to start afresh with a cataclysmic flood. But then even this, Noah’s descendent Abraham comes to the very brink of plunging a knife through the chest of his only offspring.
A human penchant for destruction continues.
Fast forward from this most anthropocentric of creation stories, to the dawn of the Anthropocene. Now, among the Jews, Christians and Muslims of the ‘Abrahamic faiths’, questions of man’s place in God’s creation gather a new urgency.
Perhaps it’s just as well then that these faiths specialise not only in stories of struggle and failure, but in ideas of hope and redemption too.
Below are three such ideas, that three environmental groups have put at the centre of their work, as they go about the task of repairing man’s relationship with nature.
Tikkun Olam – Judaism
Debate and argument are a central part of Jewish religious expression. They have even been called “a Jewish national sport”. And so the precise meaning of an expression as nebulous as Tikkun Olam – or ‘world repair’ – is up for grabs to whoever argues most convincingly.
In this spirit, throughout its history Tikkun Olam has been claimed as a guiding principle of social policy, an endorsement of volunteerism, a decree to oppose idolatry, and an invitation to participate in a mystical good-versus-evil battle.
More recently, however, the USA’s Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) argues that it is a divine instruction to respond to climate change.
Rabbi Daniel Swartz from COEJL said: “Olam can mean eternity as well as world, so this is a reminder that we have to find solutions that are sustainable across generations, not just ones that work for the present at the expense of the future”.
With this in mind, COEJL and its member organisations work from the bottom up – reacquainting Jews with nature through outdoor education programmes around the world – whilst also targeting Jewish public policy, with its energy programmes attracting the endorsement of figures like Al Gore.
Gospel – Christianity
In the Middle Ages, the Catholic friar Francis of Assisi gained a reputation for talking to animals. In one story, he preached to birds when men would not listen. In another, he pleaded with a wolf to stop terrorising a neighbourhood. He also conversed with a squirrel about the sacraments.
Assisi saw nature as polluted by the sin of humanity, and so also in need of redemption. As patron saint of animals and ecology, he’s been a popular figure in the church ever since.
Nevertheless, the gospel is ordinarily marketed as ‘good news’ for people and their souls, rather than the planet and its future. But this might be changing.
“The gospel is about relationships”, Andy Atkins, the chief executive of A Rocha UK says. “With God, with others, with ourselves and with the environment that sustains us”. Former head of Friends of the Earth, Atkins describes A Rocha as “a home for Christians who make the connection between their faith and the environment, supporting them to influence others.”
Two years ago they launched an ‘Eco Church’ scheme to recognise churches that put the environment at the heart of their mission: from installing solar panels, to preaching on environmental stewardship, and involvement in local conservation.
There are now nearly 900 such churches in the UK, and A Rocha aims for 4,000 by 2025. Look carefully and you might spot one of their recycled wooden plaques adorning an Eco Church near you. They also have two nature reserves in the south of England.
Hima – Islam
Before the arrival of Islam in the seventh century AD, the harsh desert of the Arabian peninsula was home to nomadic tribes who frequently came into conflict. A Hima – meaning ‘protected area’ – became a place of respite for everyone.
Conflict was forbidden in these areas, and scarce natural resources were carefully and collectively managed for the good of all. With the arrival of Islam – which accorded a particular respect to animals – a Hima became a place of refuge for wildlife too. Some Himas were even designated as retirement homes for elderly camels.
And though the concept of a Hima was forgotten during the course of the twentieth century, it is now on its way back, thanks to the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon (SPNL).
Assad Serhal founded SPNL in order to protect the many migrating birds that rest in his native Lebanon. But when he re-discovered Hima, he found a way to bring communities together from across the country’s ethnic and religious groups, to engage in responsible land management, and take pride in their region’s biodiversity.
He has since been invited to work with other countries to establish Himas across the Middle East and Mediterranean.
Jake Lloyd is a communications consultant, and communications coordinator at Arukah Network. He helped his local church to join the Eco Church scheme mentioned above, and participates in a community energy project.