April 22 will be Earth Day. According to an unsubstantiated tradition, Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron of ecologists, was born on that date in 1181 or 1182. Regardless of the veracity of this claim, it is an indisputable fact that Saint Francis remains for us today an important symbol of the link between religion and our natural environment.
What may be less evident is that Saint Francis is also a symbol of inter-religious encounter and that contemporary ecology is a promising topic for dialogue that cuts across the frontiers of ancient religions in our time.
We live in a dangerous age, with sectarian violence threatening global peace and dampening the desire for a rapprochement between the world’s diverse cultures. Polarization, stiffening of dogma and fear has replaced the universalizing ideals that marked social trends almost a generation ago already.
Persons of faith must respond by becoming instruments of hope through recognition of the imperative for fraternal living that exists within all spiritual traditions, and the link that can be found within each religion between its core teachings and concern for creation. If this were to happen, a powerful coalition of believers could reverse the trend of degradation in our inner and outer world.
The United Nation’s Earth Charter that was developed in 1992 as well as its embrace by the Parliament of World Religions seven years later remind us that these two realms are intrinsically interdependent. Religion’s demand for reverence as a testament of the sacred quality of “the cosmological and evolutionary story of life’s emergence,” as one author puts it, represents a sturdy foundation for respectful treatment of the natural world. “Awe and wonder become expressed through the shared experience of reverence.”
Globalization is manifested is some positive developments. The possibility of seeing ourselves as part of a global family has never been more evident. We have come to enjoy the convenience of access to the folklore and foods of people around the world. Meanwhile, with stealth precision, new forms of exploitation, camouflaged by mindless consumerism, have spoiled the fruits of international cooperation.
There is no greater hope than for people of faith to reach into their respective traditions to discover the wealth of scripture that deals with creation; and then to change their own private habits of consumption; and then to mobilize others within their particular tradition; and then to dialogue with similarly minded people of other traditions; and finally to advocate persistently, intelligently and passionately for fundamental and concerted changes in public policy.
Such a global ethic, motivated by necessity and moral reflection, might even renew the faith of humanity in the relevance of religious practice.