In his 1990 World Day of Peace Message, Pope John Paul II positively observed how around the world “a new ecological awareness is beginning to emerge which, rather than being downplayed, ought to be encouraged to develop into concrete programs and initiatives.” In his view, the various environmental crises are at root a moral problem, so that, “An education in ecological responsibility is urgent: responsibility for oneself, for others, and for the earth….” Such an education requires, moreover, “a genuine conversion in ways of thought and behavior,” a task that churches and religious bodies must undertake, along with governments, non-governmental organizations, families, and individual members of society. Pope Benedict XVI in his World Day of Peace Message for 2010, “If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation,” believes that his predecessor’s “appeal is all the more pressing today, in the face of signs of a growing crisis which it would be irresponsible not to take seriously.” He, too, thinks that “Christians have their own contribution to make.” Indeed, under the “green pope’s” watch, the Vatican recently installed 2700 solar panels on the roof of the 10,000 seat Pope Paul VI Auditorium and is considering other buildings for similar installations. Even his home near Regensburg, Germany, has had solar panels installed.
The greening of Catholicism is surprising and, for the most part, welcome news to many people, including Catholics in the pews as well as environmentalists in the field. Not only have the two most recent popes spoken out on care for creation, so too have regional and national bishops conferences, Catholic theologians, and women religious such as the network of nuns known as the Sisters of Earth. In A Greener Faith, Roger S. Gottlieb explains the theology behind such recent developments in Catholicism (he does not treat Benedict, however, because the book must have been finished before the current pope had done any of the aforementioned things), and he offers vivid examples of how this greening is being put into action on the ground. He does so, moreover, not only for the Catholic Church but also for other Christian communities and other religions. Gottlieb is a professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and author or editor of several other books on religion and the environment. With A Greener Faith he appears to be writing with a wider audience in mind, consisting of both religious persons and environmentalists, in an effort to help them to continue forging an alliance. On the one hand, the book seeks to aid those believers who care for the environment but do not know how this is integral to their faith; on the other hand, it aims to better inform and reassure those environmentalists who have concerns about the role of religion in the public square.
A Greener Faith consists of an introduction and eight chapters, followed by extensive endnotes and an index. Gottlieb argues throughout the book that “religion is now a leading voice telling us to respect the earth, love our nonhuman as well as our human neighbors, and think deeply about our social policies and economic priorities” (9). In the introduction, he highlights the various ways that “the environmental crisis…requires that we rethink our most important beliefs about who we are and how we ought to live” (4). These are moral and also religious concerns. Accordingly, Gottlieb believes that, although in the past it was partly to blame, now “religion has profound contributions to make to our collective response to the environmental crisis” (7). Religion can help us to examine our lives honestly, to admit the error of our ways, to nurture virtues such as humility, to have a vision about what truly is ultimate, and to be moved to “do our part” since “we need not be paralyzed by the scope of what lies before us” (12).
The first chapter examines how religions have aided and abetted the destruction of the environment in the past and thereby contributed to the current environmental crisis. However, the chapter also offers numerous examples, gleaning from many different religious and cultural thinkers and traditions (Catholicism, Protestantism, Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and others), to demonstrate that religion is now prepared to “marshal all its resources to respond to the crisis” (21). The Bible, for example, contains material teaching us to care for creation, and key persons historically—such as St. Francis and John Calvin—“can be extremely valuable for the attempt to root contemporary ecology in elements of traditional Christianity” (27). Moreover, theologians and religious leaders today who go beyond recovery and take the tradition in new directions are also considered. In Gottlieb’s view, a new ecotheology is being forged that offers a social critique of the way things are, making it “the contemporary heir to the fusion of religion, social action, and moral teaching found in the work of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Latin American liberation theologians” (49).
The second chapter is directed more to “those devout secularists who believe religion should stay out of politics” (57). Here he argues that religious groups have the same rights to enter into the public sphere as other groups, and he stresses the importance that religions can play with regards to environmental views. Not all religion is fundamentalist, and both the abolition movement and the civil rights movement demonstrate that religion can be democratic. Nor is all religion opposed to reason, and religion can help counter reductionist views of the natural world.
The third and fourth chapters provide further evidence of how religions of all kinds are actively influencing environmentalism today. Chapter three focuses on institutional commitments to environmentalism with attention to individual religious leaders (e.g., Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Dalai Lama) and key groups (e.g., the World Council of Churches). Likewise, chapter four concentrates on personal and communal examples of religious environmentalism in action from around the world—spanning from the Association of Zimbabwean Traditional Ecologists in Masvingo Province, Zimbabwe, to the Sisters of Earth in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
In the fifth chapter, Gottlieb argues that environmentalism is more than just another political movement, but has a “religious” or “spiritual” dimension as well (148). Environmentalists are not as secular as they may believe, and “environmentalism comprises experiences, beliefs, and actions that make it the near kin, if not the sibling, of much of religious life” (148). Even “tree huggers” have feelings of awe, regard nature as “sacred,” and have their rituals. Returning to religious environmentalism in chapter six, Gottlieb examines how religious rituals can incorporate ecotheology into worship and thereby into life. With examples of rituals and prayers, old and new, from many different faiths, he demonstrates that nature can have an importance in one’s religious life, opening up possibilities for future developments. The seventh chapter contains five in-depth interviews with five different individuals who are actively expressing a religious environmentalism. The “Five Faces” include Evangelical Christian Cal DeWitt, Jewish Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Unitarian Universalist Rev. Fred Small, Lutheran (ELCA) Tena Willemsma, and Native American Charon Asetoyer.
In the concluding eighth chapter, Gottlieb identifies three threats towards environmentalism (consumerism, fundamentalism, and globalization), and he argues that it is in politics where environmentalism can ultimately make the changes that he believes need to happen. Gottlieb tries to be realistic about the world, and yet at the same time very hopeful that as people continue to learn more about the environment these changes will come—especially as religious environmentalism continues to gain traction among adherents, to get a hearing in the public square, and to ally itself with other environmental groups, all of which he regards as key components of “ecological democracy” (216). Hope is the right word with which to end, because it is not the same thing as optimism. Hope is a virtue to have and embody even during dark times. As Gottlieb notes, “if our democratic discussions are to work, participants must possess…some basic capabilities,” including the ability “to offer reasons in support of their position when others disagree,…to comprehend policy proposals, have some sense of the effects of their actions on others, and grasp the idea of the ‘public good’” (239). In this time of red-blue political polarization and media “sound bites” in the U.S., which have perhaps infested religious life here more than what Gottlieb seems to consider (even with his attention to the threat of fundamentalism in this final chapter), it is tempting to say pessimistically that the sort of democratic skill sets he calls for are all too lacking. Nevertheless, let there be hope, for Gottlieb persuasively has offered multiple reasons and examples for it, even if these might (we hope not) still be the exceptions rather than the rule.
A Greener Faith will best serve adult education programs and interested general readers to introduce them to current developments in religious environmentalism. Given its breadth rather than depth, it is less useful as a college or university textbook, though it could be used as an initial anchor text to be supplemented by more in-depth readings.