What makes us special?

In Meadville, PA, back in January, a wonderful group of students, community members,  congregational representatives, and faculty and staff met for an afternoon in the interfaith chapel at Allegheny College.  In the more formal part of the meeting (prior to some wonderful connecting, visiting, and eating — thanks, Meadville Earth Care volunteers!), Board President Sylvia Neely spoke briefly about PA IPL from a perspective she’d been thinking about recently.  Her words are worth sharing.

Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light is a state-wide chapter of a national organization called Interfaith Power & Light, established about 10 years ago by the Rev. Canon Sally Bingham, an Episcopal priest.  There are now 39 affiliates throughout the country with many thousands of congregations as members.  Interfaith Power & Light calls itself a “religious response to global warming” and encourages participation of all faith traditions in the work of education, advocacy, and responsible use of energy resources.  PA IPL especially focuses on helping congregations to become more energy efficient by providing low cost energy audits.  We help congregations to incorporate care of creation into the mission of their congregations by offering resources, programs, and events.  We recently released “Principles for Considering Marcellus Shale:  An Ethical Analysis.”  We have just completed a campaign to remind our Senators of the importance of maintaining the provisions and safeguards in the Clean Air Act.  We invite you to our annual meeting which will be held this year in Harrisburg in October.
                  I have been thinking about what it means to say that we are a religious response to climate change.  Lots of other groups are “green” groups that advocate reduction of greenhouse gases.  Lots of people are warning us that the evidence for the destructiveness of climate change is becoming more and more obvious, with droughts and floods and violent storms.  News stories stress the increasing costs of food and the worsening droughts That are already causing famines.  I could give you lots of statistics here on CO2 levels and temperature and the severity of storms, but I won’t.  Ethics tells us to watch out for those who are least able to care for themselves.  It tells us that we must think about the needs of future generations and not leave them bereft of all the benefits that we are enjoying (enjoying too much).  We know, if we are thoughtful people, that it cannot be right for a person in the US to use 6 times more energy than somebody in Kenya, while spewing gases into the air that will cause the Kenyan to be unable to feed his family because climate change is causing a drought in his area.  Surely it is not right for me to waste scarce resources for my own lazy convenience while making it impossible for somebody else to eke out even a bare subsistence living.
                  All of that we can conclude because we are caring people, aware of the world around us, and committed to living responsibly for the sake of the future.  But all this we could arrive at without religion.  Why do we in IPL say that what we are doing is different?  In part it is because religions have always stressed ethical living more than other groups.  In part it is because religion offers us a way to cut through the destructive language of economics, with its insistence on growth, greed, and accumulation for its own sake.  As religious people, we can see and say with conviction that the purpose of life is not to accumulate more stuff.  The spiritual life has value and one normally does not become more spiritual by going to the mall.
                  But I think a religious response to climate change is even more important because it forces us to re-examine who we are as human beings and what our purpose is on this earth.  I have been reading Wendell Berry’s book, What Matters?  Economicsfor a Renewed Commonwealth.  In it he makes a statement which, though perhaps obvious, I had not really thought of clearly.  He says that with industrialization came “a fundamental shift in the relation of humankind to the rest of creation.”  People began to think of themselves “not as a part or a member of Creation, but as outside and opposed to it. . . . [Nature] became the name for all of Creation thought to be below humanity, as well as, incidentally, against all once thought to be above humanity.”  We thought we could tame and harness nature for our own ends.  But Berry notes that nature did not sit quietly as we waged war against it.  “Nature fights back. . . . by living in opposition to nature, we can cause natural calamities of which we would otherwise be free.”
                  So other groups can talk about saving nature or protecting the whales, but that does not go far enough, I think, in seeing the significance of what we are doing.  We are not trying to protect nature.  We are trying to save creation from the sins of human beings who are destroying it.  And, when we say destroying creation, that includes ourselves because we are part of that creation.  This conception cuts through the false choices that the environmental movement is sometimes forced into:  jobs vs. nature (the classic choice of environmentalism).  From a religious point of view, we see that our choices are not about what is best for human beings, nor are they about what is best for nature (somebody once accused me of nature worship).  We are trying to do what is best for creation, God’s creation, not ours.  Edward Brown, in a wonderful book called Our Father’s World, urged us to think about God’s creation as a gift that he had given us.  If we love God, Brown said, then we naturally cherish his gift, just as we cherish a gift from others whom we love.  We would not trash a beautiful painting, for example, that a loved one had made for us with care and affection.  Why do we trash God’s creation then?  Brown pointed out that God made creation for his own purposes, not ours.  In a wonderful image he says that all creation (including us) is meant to glorify God.  All of creation is like a choir singing God’s praises and “We are the choirmasters.  The purpose of our leadership is to help the cosmic choir sing the heavenly song in the temple of creation.”
                  So a religious response to climate change does not end with saving energy, or protecting wildlife, or reducing our carbon footprint in the world.  It is the beginning of a new relationship with God.  We need to return to a proper relationship with God, one that glorifies God, respects his creation, lowers our own self-importance (and therefore our destructiveness), and frees us from the soul-destroying imperatives of a society that places consumption of material goods above all other values.  Until we do this, we will not find the peace and plenty that God promises us in the Psalms because we will be looking for it in the wrong places.  Psalm 85 tells us:
8  I will listen to what the lord God is saying,
For he is speaking peace to his faithful people
And to those who turn their hearts to him.
9  Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him,
That his glory may dwell in our land.
12  The Lord will indeed grant prosperity,
And our land will yield its increase.
But the land will yield its increase only if we listen to the lord God and turn our hearts to him.  So a religious response to climate change will set us on the right path to finding a way of life that will save us from climate change and will give us as well a more bountiful life because it will be in harmony with God’s intentions for us.  That is why Interfaith Power & Light is different from other organizations that fight climate change.  We understand that we cannot solve the problem we have created by continuing to do the same things that got us into this mess.  We need a true change of heart and a new relationship to God’s creation.
Sylvia Neely
President of the Board of Directors
Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light