I met a man in Bethlehem who has dedicated his life to compassion, justice, enlightenment and hope. He respects God and tradition and loves the poorest and the weakest among human beings. And he refuses to go to Church.

Published in Guest Columns

Below me the Bridgettine Sisters are chanting the office and it echoes through their guest house built into the hillside entirely out of stone, steel and tile. Outside the muezzin calls Muslims to prayer through giant loudspeakers.

TORONTO - The difference between right and wrong could be the difference between life and extinction as Earth’s climate continues to spiral out of control, a Yale University professor of forestry and religious studies told a Toronto audience Nov. 9.

Mary Evelyn Tucker is the director of Yale’s Forum on Religion and Ecology and was a frequent collaborator with the late Passionist father of ecotheology Fr. Thomas Berry. Speaking on “Future Generations and the Ethics of Climate Change” at the invitation of the University of St. Michael’s College’s Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology, Tucker made the case for an alliance between the worlds of religion and science.

While science is more comfortable with descriptive than prescriptive words about nature and cautious scientists have been reluctant to tell politicians what to do, religion has only very recently begun to address the environmental crisis and ecotheology is still rarely spoken of in seminaries. However, the state of the world’s natural systems demands the best thinking of both religion and science, said Tucker.

“We have to say continually that religion is necessary but not sufficient. We have to develop partners in science, in law, in policy,” she said.

“We need humility. We don’t have all the answers because we were late in coming to this.”

Even if there has been a widening gap between science and religion in the modern era, the world now needs the “deep spiritual resources” of world religions that have dedicated millennia to thinking about right, wrong and the common good. Religion has the ability to teach humanity to value nature as the source of life, rather than a collection of resources to be fed into the gross domestic product of nations, she said.

“We have to see environmental degradation as an ethical issue,” she said. “Until now degradation has been seen as the inevitable cost of economic growth.”

The beginnings of an ethics that addresses climate change would be a serious look at distributive justice, according to Tucker. There are already winners and losers around the globe as sea levels rise, droughts devastate farm land and more violent storms create climate refugees from New Jersey to Bangladesh. But distributive justice should also mean extending the reach of human rights to future generations who will have to live in the environment this generation leaves them.

While an ethic of rights might set minimum standards, drawing lines which must not be crossed, a true environmental ethic would concern itself with much more than the minimum. As nature always seeks flourishing, so should our ethics.

Our ethics should be based on a clear-eyed view of human beings as a “small but indispensable part of a 14-billion-year evolution,” she said. “We need an ethic that is culturally aware but also universally compelling.”

Published in Canada: Toronto-GTA

TORONTO - Faith is a difficult subject to bring up with our children, our own flesh and blood. How many of us would endure earnest talk of faith from friends? A combination of courage and psychopathology is necessary before most Christians can talk about faith with strangers. So, what chance does interfaith dialogue really have?

Brian Brown is not so easily dissuaded. The United Church minister and prolific author is convinced all we need is the right starting point.

“The most basic approach is to go to each others’ Scriptures,” he told The Catholic Register. “If we’re to understand what each other aspires to be, the place to begin is each others’ Scriptures.”

That’s the premise behind Three Testaments: Torah, Gospel and Quran. Brown has assembled Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars to introduce modern, readable translations of the three texts. The scholars explain how the holy books of each community are used and understood within the faith they represent.

In the 21st century the three Abrahamic faiths do not occupy separate patches of the globe, or even separate social spheres. The three major faiths of the West rub shoulders daily, and we have the wars to prove it. For Brown, getting past the dialogue of caricatures, suspicion, fear and resentment is a matter of life and death.

“It’s an antidote to the burning of the Quran,” he said.

It’s not just terror attacks in far off capitals, or sick minds blowing up cars and shooting up theatres, that has Brown concerned. Ordinary Christians, Muslims and Jews have all been touched by the toxic stew of interfaith ranting, slander and innuendo.

“I had a person tell me they were a little afraid to go to the hospital in Niagara Falls because most of the doctors are Muslim. These are good, sensible Christian people who are influenced by those bomb makers and now need to hear from the Scripture authorities,” he said. “Eighty per cent of Christians — and I’m guessing 80 per cent of Muslims and Jews — are so negatively impacted by the bombers and bloggers that good, proper-thinking Christian people getting e-mails that are cockeyed develop strange notions about their Muslim neighbours or their Jewish neighbours.”

David Bruce, a United Church minister for 25 years who is now the lay Catholic director of The Good Neighbours’ Club for homeless men in Toronto, introduces the Gospel in Three Testaments. With doctorates from California’s Fuller Theological Seminary and Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College, Bruce believes the Three Testaments approach works because it’s based on solid scholarship and aimed at ordinary, intelligent readers.

“Anybody who picks up a National Geographic and enjoys the articles should be able to enjoy Three Testaments,” he said.

It’s also successful because the book isn’t trying to cram three different religions into a single test tube of kind and fluffy thoughts.

“There’s an increasingly large proportion of Western Christianity that says there really isn’t any difference in the world religions if you boil it all down,” said Bruce. “We’re not saying that. We’re saying that there are real differences but that doesn’t mean we can’t stand side by side and listen to one another.”

The book is meant to be read by people of faith. It’s not an outsider’s sociological analysis of religion as a curious phenomenon among certain classes of people.

“All of this is written by believers to believers of other faiths,” said Bruce.

As such it’s the antidote to common distortions that hijack religion, said Brown.

“Scriptures are abused and can be made to say things. This project is a joint project of Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars to run counter to that, to say, ‘Let the Scriptures speak for themselves.’ ”

The book is as much a cause as it is literature. Brown wants it read in seminaries and on university campuses. The book launch will take place in seven cities, beginning at Ground Zero in New York. New York launch events include a Sept. 9 interfaith rally in St. Peter’s Church next door to Ground Zero. In Washington Sept. 10-12 during the thick of the presidential campaign the Three Testaments launch at the Canadian Embassy will feature ambassadors, religious leaders and Amir Hussain, editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion who wrote the foreword to Three Testaments. In Dallas-Fort Worth Sept. 12-13 the book will be presented to the George W. Bush Presidential Library. In Los Angeles Sept. 14-15 the launch brings together Christians, Jews and Muslims for Temple Beth Am’s Shabbat service. The Jesuit University of San Fransisco host the Abrahamic faiths for an event Sept. 16-18. Kazi Publications, the most important Muslim publisher in America, hosts the Chicago launch Sept. 19-20. Toronto gets its turn Sept. 23-30 at the Royal Ontario Museum.

The book also has something to say to people who dismiss religious thinking or think religious people incapable of solving religious conflict, said Bruce.

“There is a stereotype out there that anybody who is actually committed to one of the three great Western faiths has somehow parked at least a section of their brains — they’ve put it in neutral. That’s just not the case,” he said. “In fact, the best scholarship in all three religions is by those who actually practise the faith.... It’s important for the three Abrahamic religions to hear each other on their own terms. When you bring them so close together in a single volume, they don’t really have any choice.”

Published in Canada: Toronto-GTA