Stephen Scharper signs a copy of his latest book, For Earth’s Sake, after giving an hour-long lecture on the role of religious imagination in dealing with the environmental crisis. Photo by Evan Boudreau

The environmental movement has much to learn from religion

  • March 16, 2013

TORONTO - Curbing the effects of climate change and curing the environment will take religiously minded imagination, said author and professor Stephen Scharper.

Scharper believes that in the past environmentalists “were a little shy” about embracing religion but have come to see that “perhaps we got off on the wrong foot.”

“There is a realization that we need each other,” said Scharper, an environmental professor at the University of Toronto. “Now they’re reaching out to the church communities as a great hope for the future.”

Speaking at Toronto’s Paulist Ministry Centre on Feb. 26, Scharper noted three lessons that religion can offer the environmental movement.

First, religion is about reflection, and it is important to reflect on what we are doing to the planet and how that impacts climate change.

Second, Scharper said religion can aid the environmental movement by revealing the interconnected relationship between the Earth and creation.
Finally, environmentalists could benefit by looking at faithbased activities that address environmental concerns. He noted the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, KAIROS and various Jubilee movements as examples of religiously minded organizations.

“You have churches getting involved in social justice and environmental activism,” said Scharper. “The churches are marrying social justice issues, environmental issues and sacramental issues in a novel way and that’s a powerful combination.”

It’s not just the religious-minded and environmentally aware who are recognizing the power of this combination. Through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the government has issued two grants to U of T doctoral student Joanne Moyer who is studying the relationship between religion, ecology and geology.

“The fact that a secular government organization has funded a project like this twice now is, I think, part of a larger trend of people recognizing that . . . these really technical solutions that we’ve been looking for and assuming we need aren’t sufficient,” said Moyer. “There is growing recognition that we need, as a society, the religious imagination. Even though a lot of people aren’t religious any more in North America, we need what religion has (to offer) to help solve these problems.”

Moyer intends to spend the next two years researching North American faith-based organizations to see “how they are putting environmental work together with faith.” During PhD research at the University of Manitoba, which was funded by her first SSHRC grant, Moyer investigated what faithbased organizations were doing in Kenya in terms of the environment and development.

Religious groups haven’t always been on the side of the environmental movement, said Scharper. He says acknowledging this is essential to breaking down communications barriers between the religiously minded and environmentally concerned.

“Churches and religious groups per se are Johnny-come-latelies to the movement,” he said. “We’re building on the experience and courage of many non-religious people when we as religious people enter this conversation. A degree of humility is important when we enter the conversation.”

Scharper said Christianity holds some of the responsibility regarding the current environmental crisis. But just because Catholics, like many others, were part of the problem doesn’t mean they can’t be part of the solution.
“This is really one of the most important spiritual, ethical and religious crises we are facing — the environmental movement particularly with climate change. This is not just a question of politics and economics but a question of world views and this is where the religious imagination and the religious traditions can bring such important resources and energy to the environmental debate.”

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