March 25, 2016

Interfaith panelists say environment is ‘an issue that affects all of us’

Rabbi Paula Winnig, left, executive director of the Jewish Bureau of Education in Indianapolis, and Rev. Dr. Matthew Myer Boulton, president of Christian Theological Seminary, listen as Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin addresses participants in the Interfaith Voices for the Earth: Our Common Home panel discussion on March 12 at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Rabbi Paula Winnig, left, executive director of the Jewish Bureau of Education in Indianapolis, and Rev. Dr. Matthew Myer Boulton, president of Christian Theological Seminary, listen as Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin addresses participants in the Interfaith Voices for the Earth: Our Common Home panel discussion on March 12 at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

Christianity, Islam and Judaism may have different theology and doctrines, but there is one tenet these and other faith traditions hold in common: care for creation.

This was made clear during the Interfaith Voices for the Earth: Our Common Home panel discussion on March 12 at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin served as one of the panelists.

He was joined by Rabbi Paula Winnig, executive director of the Jewish Bureau of Education in Indianapolis, and Hazem Bata, general secretary of the Islamic Society of North America, headquartered in Plainfield. Rev. Dr. Matthew Myer Boulton, president of Christian Theological Seminary, served as the moderator for the discussion.

Each spoke about their faith tradition’s teaching on the environment, then fielded questions from the audience.

(Related column: Responding to Pope Francis’ call to action to care for creation)

In explaining the role that care for the environment plays in Islam, Bata stated that the Quran—the sacred book of Islam—contains more than 700 “direct and indirect references to the care of the environment.

“God says he has created us as trustees for the Earth,” Bata continued. “That’s what it says in the Quran. There are rights and responsibilities that come with that. We have to preserve the Earth. It is our obligation.”

Bata shared a traditional Muslim story that embodies his faith’s approach to overconsumption. In the story, a man was using much water to clean up before one of the five times Muslims pray during the day.

“So the prophet [Mohammed] walked by and he said, ‘What are you doing? You are using so much water!’ And [the man] said, ‘Can there be excess in something so noble?’ The prophet said, ‘Yes. Just use what is enough and nothing more.’ ”

Rabbi Winnig spoke next, first mentioning how the Sabbath—Saturday, the day of rest and worship in the Jewish faith—demands rest for all of God’s creatures.

“That is the fundamental beginning of the Jewish environmental view, that everything has a reason of purpose and is a being of importance,” she said.

She pointed out that the Bible “actually has a blueprint in it for being a good farmer, for being a good steward and taking care of the Earth. If you follow most of the biblical guidelines for caring for trees, animals and land, you’re going to be pretty safe as a good steward of the Earth.”

One unique aspect of care for creation to the Jewish faith, said Rabbi Winnig, is the concept of kosher food.

“Kosher is translated as clean or unclean,” she explained. “But clean does not mean clean versus dirty. It means clean as in proper, suitable to eat. …

“The most famous of those [kosher laws] is the area of kosher slaughter of animals. It is a very different act to have someone who is carefully trained to look an animal in the eye, as they must do in order for the procedure to be kosher, understanding where that animal came from.”

She, too, shared a story from her faith tradition that addressed care for creation. It involved an old man planting a carob tree—a tree whose nutrient-rich fruit does not come to bear for 70 years.

“[A man] asked him, ‘Why are you bothering planting this tree? You’re not going to see its fruit.’ And the old man says, ‘As my ancestors planted for me, so I plant for the generations to come.’ May we all be planters for the generations to come,” she concluded.

During his address, rather than discuss Catholic social teaching on care for the creation in general, Archbishop Tobin identified four main contributions of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.”

First, he explained to the interfaith audience what an encyclical is, and how it is received “as an authentic teaching of our faith tradition.”

“Oftentimes, it is simply to those in the Catholic community,” Archbishop Tobin said. “This one he’s addressing to everybody, all people of good will … because we’re talking about an issue that affects all of us.”

The first of the four contributions of “Laudato Si’ that the archbishop identified is that “the spiritual perspective is now part of the discussion on the environment. … Up until now, I think it’s been framed mainly from political, scientific and economic language. … [The encyclical] invites others to at least listen to the religious point of view, particularly its understanding of creation as holy and a precious gift from God to be revered by all men and women.”

Next, he noted how the encyclical emphasizes that the poor are far more affected by climate change than those of other classes.

“One of my favorite analogies for today’s discrepancy is the jet plane,” Archbishop Tobin said. “There are people on the plane who live very well in the smaller part of the front of the plane. But that living well is predicated on the misery of us in cattle class.”

He used a real-life example to demonstrate how climate change negatively affects the poor by pointing to the Philippines, where people “suffer such a natural disaster from a very unnatural cause, the cause being the deforestation of the country.

“Where did those trees disappear? A lot of them went to first-world countries for their lumber industries.”

In his third point, Archbishop Tobin said that the encyclical confirmed the place of the environment in Catholic social teaching, a teaching informed by both Catholic theology and scientific findings.

“Against those who argue that a papal encyclical on the environment has no real authority—and these are Catholics who are arguing that—Pope Francis states that this encyclical is now added to the body of the Church’s social teaching. Again, an encyclical has a certain weight, and that’s why people were fighting against its authority.”

The final contribution of “Laudato Si’ that the archbishop identified was that it is not just for Catholics.

“A global dialogue is needed because there are no uniform recipes,” Archbishop Tobin said. “What works in one region may not in another. Catholics must act in solidarity with others,” including “politicians, economists and more.”

When the panel was asked by a member of the audience to identify steps that can be taken to address environmental issues, Bata was the first to respond.

“In America, we live in a consumer-driven society,” he said. “We need to change how we think as a country. We have to apply it first individually in our own lives … then start applying it on a larger scale. … We have to start passing laws on this issue. This is where interfaith coalitions can do a lot.”

Rabbi Winnig agreed, noting that “the problem is the will. … It’s a readjustment of our thinking of what’s enough and what is just.”

Along those lines, one practical step Archbishop Tobin identified is fasting.

“We need to say ‘no’ to this notion that we never have enough,” he said. “All of our traditions have the tradition of fasting. … Maybe we want to fast from overconsumption, or at least ask ourselves, ‘How much do I really need to live a human life?’ ”

Archbishop Tobin also encouraged individuals and faith communities to go to the website of Hoosier Interfaith Power & Light (H-IPL)—a co-sponsor of the event along with the Sisters of St. Francis in Oldenburg—to find out how they can implement best “green” practices.

According to its website www.hoosieripl.org, H-IPL works with all faith communities to educate on means and resources to promote care for creation, offers tools and programs on how to conserve and monitor energy in homes and church buildings, and advocates at the state and local level for environmentally sustainable policies and actions.

“H-IPL was wanting to find a forum where we could bring together people of various faith traditions, where we could interact to try to find clarity for those things we have in common, and to identify the uniqueness of each faith tradition so that we might gain information and insight from those [traditions],” said Larry Kleiman, H-IPL executive director and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. “Pope Francis’ encyclical was a motivating force. That [encyclical] said this is the right time to try to make this [interfaith discussion] happen.”

The idea for the event was presented to Kleiman by members of the Creation Care Ministry at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Indianapolis. One of the members is Diane Liptick, who is an associate of the Sisters of St. Francis of Oldenburg and a member of the order’s Ecology Committee. Through her involvement, the sisters were led to co-sponsor the event.

“Care of the environment is heavily connected to our faith,” said Liptick. “It’s just part of our calling as God-loving people. The idea that we can just continue to overconsume and live with polluted water and air and still have quality of life is just outrageous.”

She found the interfaith panel discussion to be “enriching—people seemed to come out feeling uplifted and very inspired.

“I think we planted seeds, and I think there will be more work in the ecumenical community in the area of ecology.”

Archbishop Tobin agreed, as evidenced by the closing comments of his address to the interfaith audience.

“We’re invited to seize this moment to go forward boldly in hope and confidence that the spirit of God has filled the universe with possibilities,” he said. “Therefore, from the very heart of things, something new can always emerge.”
 

(For information on how H-IPL can help your congregation address best environmental practices, log on to www.hoosieripl.org. For more information on caring for the creation, log on to www.archindy.org/creationcare.)

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