Going Green? Faith Communities are Making Green Choices, With Theological Implications
February 17, 2009
It is nearly impossible to open a magazine or a newspaper, watch TV, or surf the Net without finding at least one mention of sustainability. There are many reasons to be green: you can reduce your carbon footprint, save money at the gas pump, spare a tree, preserve an endangered species. All of these are good reasons, but these and many more are reactionary. All are attempts to mend the mess we’ve made of the planet.
The impetus for sustainability in communities of faith is not reactionary. For many faith communities around the world, the green impulse is a direct expression of their embrace of God’s creation. The decision to be green is simply not a matter of choice for many, but rather, an integral part of their religious beliefs. Pope John Paul II posited that our environmental crisis is also a spiritual crisis: two sides of the same coin, recognition that we are stewards of this creation and that sustainability is a form of praise.
Renewal, a documentary produced by Marty Ostrow and Terry Kay Rockefeller, tells the story of religious communities all across the U.S. that are supporting sustainability by living their faith. A Christian congregation in New Jersey discovers that by working with GreenFaith, an environmental coalition, for very little cost, they can install a photovoltaic system on the roof of their church to generate their own electricity. This same congregation spent an afternoon sorting through a week’s worth of trash to understand how better to recycle, and how, by making sustainable choices, to reduce their waste footprint.
In Illinois, a Muslim organization, Taqwa, works with local farmers to create a market for organically grown vegetables, meat, and poultry. Taqwa supplies mosques and Muslim communities with food raised in accordance with religious guidelines on the humane treatment of animals. This food is also nutritionally superior.
A community of Buddhists in San Francisco, Green Sangha (which means community in Sanskrit) strives to save trees by promoting the use of recycled paper. One of their projects is to convince magazines to use it (less than 1 percent of the nation’s 18,000 magazines do). Members of the group meditate together to hone their interactions with those they wish to persuade through non-confrontational techniques.
Perhaps one of the most far-reaching efforts to help congregations to be green is Interfaith Power and Light. IPL is active in 20 states across the U.S. and helps congregations reduce their use of nonrenewable fuels and increase the use of renewable energy sources. A segment of Renewal profiles this national and shows how it works to lobby Congress for reforms that promote energy conservation to lessen pollution and address climate change.
The most surprising profile in the film is of a wide-ranging group of Evangelical Christians who are now working together in Kentucky and West Virginia to stop mountain top removal, which literally takes off the heads of Appalachian Mountains to extract coal for power plants. The result is nothing less than the rape of the land, devastation of the mountains, erosion, and the pollution of rivers and streams. Though Evangelicals may be among the last to engage in the environmental debate, many now see the connections between faith and environmentalism.
These stories demonstrate that communities of faith are theologically inclined to see the actions of human beings as being either detrimental to our island home of Earth, or stewards of a planet created by God for our use and care, to be passed on to future generations. Many faith communities are now connecting theology, ecology, and architecture by building places of worship that reflect their stewardship role.
There are scriptural precedents as well for communities of faith choosing to practice a green theology. Ellen Davis, a Biblical scholar at Duke University Divinity School, has written about the connection between the sacred places we building within the larger context of God’s creation. Davis notes in an article that appeared in Faith & Form that the Bible offers detailed descriptions of only two construction projects, both of which are for worship: the portable Tabernacle erected during the years of wandering in the wilderness and Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. Davis posits that if these Old Testament writers were interested in the creation of sacred space, “beyond all other forms of material or cultural production,” it is because “they understood that a place for worship is not like other things that people design and create. In a very real way, a sanctuary has a kind of creative capacity of its own. Specifically, it has the capacity to shape the people who spend time there, to form us as believers.” (1) The sanctuary itself, notes Davis, “deepens religious experience and insight. The physical space we inhabit as worshippers may itself contribute to our awareness of new possibilities for living in the presence and to the glory of God.” (2)
Drawing from the works of religious philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Davis notes that “sacred art depends upon sacred science.” (3) What does this mean for us? Davis observes that, “when religious architecture is actually practiced as a sacred art, it elevates our hearts and minds toward God and at the same time roots us in the created order. Through stone, brick, wood, glass, and space, religious architecture articulates a holy knowledge of the world that is, properly speaking, ecological.” (4)
In a future article, we’ll take a look at the buildings of several congregations who have chosen to live their faith by building green.
1. Ellen Davis, “Wise and Holy Work,” Faith & Form, Volume 38, Number 3, 2005, p. 6.
4. Ibid., p. 7.
Photo credit: Marty Ostrow
Michael J. Crosbie, Ph.D., AIA is Editor of Faith & Form Magazine and Chair of the Department of Architecture at the University of Hartford in Connecticut, USA.