The Environmental Crisis Finds Religion


Philosophical Foundations for the Practices of Ecology . Reiners, W. A., and J. A. Lockwood . 2009 . Cambridge University Press , Cambridge , U.K. $45 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-521-13303-6 .
An Ethics of Biodiversity. Christianity, Ecology, and the Variety of Life . O’Brien, K. J. 2010 . Georgetown University Press , Washington , D.C. 208 pp. $26.95 (paperback). ISBN 978-1-58901-645-3 .
Dark Green Religion. Nature, Spirituality and the Planetary Future . Taylor, B. 2010 . University of California Press , Berkeley , CA . 360 pp. $24.95 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-520-26100-6 .
Natural Saints. How People of Faith are Working to Save God's Earth . McDuff, M. 2010 . Oxford University Press , Oxford , U.K. 240 pp. $26 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-19-537957-0 .

Modern environmental theology began with the notion of human responsibility for nature (i.e., humans have dominion over but are mandated to care for Earth) and has expanded to include moral teachings about wealth and poverty, justice and oppression, and temperance and greed. Concepts of interconnectedness and the web of life have matured and taken root. Theologians, clergy, religious leaders, and the staff of religious organizations have begun to examine the underlying causes of environmental problems and are publishing their thoughts for lay and scholarly readers.

In an effort to describe and define an emerging spirituality that is not relegated to established religious institutions, Bron Taylor takes on the modern spiritual age in Dark Green Religion. He examines ecology from a spiritual perspective. He discusses briefly the views of established religions on ecology. His primary focus, which draws on the life and works of environmental leaders such as John Muir and Jane Goodall, is on the spectrum of environmental spirituality not embraced by usually mainstream religion. He emphasizes parareligion, religion that is beyond the scope of religious institutions, and how various spiritualities view humankind's relationship with nature.

Taylor provides a sound footing in some of the nontraditional, and some would say fringe, ecospiritual views. Although touted as a guide to the evolution of “green religion” in North America, the author focuses primarily on the late 1900s, ignoring religious activities and religions that focused on nature for centuries.

In contrast to Taylor's Dark Green Religion, Mallory McDuff's Natural Saints examines how traditional mainstream religions are incorporating environmental concerns into their worship, education, and advocacy. McDuff visited various religious communities to explore how they are implementing Earth's stewardship. She does so by sharing the narratives of those she encountered, and by reflecting on her own life and work. She highlights key ministries such as creating sacred spaces, promoting justice, educating youth, and bearing witness. Her travels, with daughters in tow, take her to locations including farm fields in Florida, a church-based farmer's market in Milwaukee, and a church in the heart of New Orleans that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Her book is filled with stories of struggle and triumph. She presents hopeful religious responses to the environmental crisis. Through the weaving together of social-justice concerns, such as race, poverty, and hunger, with ecological concerns, McDuff presents a realistic view of how the religious community can embrace both social and ecological matters.

In the Ethics of Biodiversity, Kevin J. O’Brien turns to the issue of conservation and faith. He examines the topic from a strictly Christian perspective and uses his own faith tradition as an example. He contends Christian teachings and scripture uphold nature as a sacrament and show that God is present in the natural world. He believes humans need nature to be able to connect with and understand God. He presents the life of St. Francis and the story of Noah as examples of the Christian ethical response to the loss of biological diversity and discusses the formation of the moral teachings of Christianity in regards to Creation. In an examination of the Old Testament, O’Brien presents a view of dominion that is thought provoking and enlightening in which he argues that humankind needs to live more sustainably—not just for the sake of preserving biological diversity but because of the inherent connection of humans to God's Creation.

In Philosophical Foundations for the Practices of Ecology, William Reiners and Jeffrey Lockwood present the study of ecology from a philosophical rather than a religious viewpoint. Although the presentation lacks spiritual passion and religious conviction, it will be an interesting read for those who study ecology because it provides a philosophical framework from within which to investigate nature.

Each of the 4 books examines humankind's role and place in the world from a spiritual or religious point of view and recognizes the importance of not restricting topics such as biological diversity, ecology, and the environment to the realm of science. Each author encourages readers to embrace a more holistic view of conservation issues and reminds us of our place in and responsibility to the world.