Last Saturday I gave a speech at an Interfaith Climate Change Conference in Brighton. Here’s what I said: Seven years ago, when I was just about to be ordained as an interfaith minister, my group was asked if there were any important issues that hadn’t been tackled during our two years training; I put my hand up… and said that I was surprised that after such an inspired education programme the issue of climate change and environmental responsibility hadn’t been confronted. The response was underwhelming. Three of my fellow students responded – one who I know to be environmentally committed (and a close friend) muttered “Oh dear”… another said: “I know you’re Green, but all this environmental stuff isn’t related to faith issues, it’s just political, and it’s not important,” and the third one took me to one side and said “there, there, we all get these bees in our bonnet, it isn’t a real issue, this is something you just feel about personally today, but it’ll all blow over in a few years time, and you’ll be thinking about something else quite different in the future.” His lovely peaceful, placating approach really got him places. He’s on the Board of trustees now. Right now I would like to tell him… “no, you’re wrong mate…the situation is worse, and I’m still thinking about it”.
What I didn’t realise at the time was that what happened to me is a sort of microcosmic ‘take’ on the malaise in the world’s faiths, at present, and I say at present, because I think and I truly hope, that change is in the air. The faith leaders have talked about the environmental issue (I think Rowan Williams spoke at the Copenhagen conference, and there are a few active environmental groups) but it all looks a bit half-hearted at the moment. The real commitment is simply not there at the moment. The environmental crisis is (in my view) a life and death issue and also a spiritual issue… the one and the other in a sense being the same.
So why are people of faith seemingly not responding to the issue of climate change as we might expect? Just about every faith adheres to the principle that one should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself, and this ‘Golden Rule’ has existed in religious thought from Confucianism to the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths, and beyond. Theoretically If one does believe in the ‘Golden Rule” one would respect ones brothers and sisters across the world, and not want to see them exposed to poisons in their food, or noxious gasses, or the environmental hazards, or death from famine, or lack of water… and one would adopt a very scrupulous lifestyle that would honour others as oneself… but of course we don’t. We can be as spiritual minded as we like, but in reality our Western lifestyle with its oversized carbon footprint is extremely difficult to get round.
I think the problem with most of the mainstream religions today is that they are deeply involved in ‘being’ – just as my fellow graduates of the interfaith foundation just wanted to ‘be’ interfaith ministers – to the exclusion of everything else. This ‘being’ is a defensive position because so many of established religions justifiably feel under attack today, they are now in survival mode, with declining Church attendances it may be difficult to think about climate change and environmental catastrophe as anything other than a minor news item, in the same way as my colleagues at the Interfaith Seminary viewed it.
The list of causes that are undermining the main religions and their leaders we all know… it begins with increased transparency which has had a devastating effect on Catholicism, and to a lesser degree the Anglican church and its senior ministers; also capitalism which in a sense is a religion with materialism at its heart, and this in turn has turned shopping malls into the new cathedrals. Yet another threat to established religion is military intervention by our government and their allies which has undermined the Western worlds’ relations with Islamic peoples, and disillusioned a good many people; then there are such issues as outmoded attitudes to the LGBT community and also the ordination of women as bishops (now resolved… and about time too) and so forth. But beyond the problems of declining church attendances, and the survival generally of established religions… we are now witnessing a massive interest in spiritual activities – yoga and meditation groups, and a host of mind, body and spirit organisations, books and classes on spirit and self-help that show that although people are turning away from the religious patterns of their forbears, they are discovering spiritual awareness for themselves… and dare I say it… this spiritual awareness goes hand in hand with environmental awareness.
So why should religious groups take up the cause of climate change? I believe that the very nature of connecting to the environment at the deepest level is a faith issue. Nobody knows this better than indigenous faith groups living in the wild corners of the planet that have profound spiritual connections to trees, flowers, plants and elements. These connections are real, they teach us everything from how to look after ourselves, to how to heal ourselves. Connecting with nature also offers us a moral code, which goes very deep indeed; it’s something we may well have to relearn.
So why should faith groups take up the cause of climate change? Because the real connections with nature still remain in the territory of faith, the ecstasy of Carmelite nuns is not 100 miles from the inspiration you and I get from looking at a great sunset, or certain types of eastern (yogic or trantric) meditation. These are spiritual experiences, and it is appropriate that when encountering spiritual experiences that we should learn from the experts, the people of faith.
Interfaith ministers face all sorts of choices when they go out into the world, and we all have different speciality acts. Among my personal passions are the environment, of course, and also meditation using visualization and altered states, where one explores the beauty and power of the inner human landscape. This connection with the inner landscape strengthens ones relationship with the outer landscape, and ones relationship with the world. In addition to this… I have also spent over 20 years studying death, having read about it and written about it and run workshops on it for a number of years. Death is a subject (one might say) that is very close to my heart. In the course of reading about death, I find myself studying the enormous body of work currently looking into death through the eyes of those people who have come close to death… which points us in a very unexpected direction with regard to care for the planet. Near death experiences (or NDEs as they are called) are innately spiritual experiences encountered at the moment when one has died or is about to die. Such personal events have been described and recorded for hundreds of years, but only now, with better systems for communication and machinery for monitoring and resuscitating people are we aware of the significance of the data we are gaining from people who die, and are revived. The most remarkable thing is that those that return from death acquire very particular concepts and views that they have never held before. Cynics may attribute such changes to all sorts of physical things, but by the time one has worked ones way through the brilliant research of Kubler Ross, Moody, Sartori, Pim Van Lommel, Peter Fenwick and others, I personally don’t find it easy to argue sensibly with cynics, any more than I find it easy to argue sensibly with climate change deniers. People return from near death with both physical and mental changes; they are able to understand things that they didn’t comprehend before… they no longer have any fear of death, and despite having had a profound spiritual experience, most, continue to retain their spiritual views – be they atheist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist. Lots of people return from death to become much more altruistic than they had been before, but most significantly… they say something very pertinent to this conference today … and I quote Dr Penny Sartori:
“Following an NDE, many people become more concerned with ecological issues, and the conservation of the planet becomes very important to them.”
It is evident to me, that care of this world, as many indigenous peoples have always believed, is a spiritual issue… and this is going to become increasingly evident, as we discover that our materialist western life-style has too high a price to pay, as we endanger our own lives, our children and life generally on our planet.
This is our world. It is the only one we have. Many faiths believe that we have more than one life, they believe that we reincarnate, and there are good indications that nearly all the major faiths have held this view at some time or another (even Christianity). Whether we believe we have one or many lives or not, whether we believe that death is the end, one thing is certain: this is the only world we have, and as members of the human race, it is imperative that we accept the sacred nature of this world, in all its beauty, diversity and mystery. For this reason I ask you, whatever your faith, to honour and care for our planet, and above all… to encourage those around you to do the same. Thank you.