Environmentalism: from sacred texts to the real world

Revised version, 15 April 2016

Introduction and Methodology

Since at least the 1970s and the birth of the modern environmental movement, theologians and scholars of religion have paid a good deal of attention to how religion can support environmentalism and environmental justice. An important part of this scholarly attention has been directed at interpreting sacred texts and narratives to support environmentalism and environmental justice. (1) Both I, and the local faith community I serve, sometimes use this scholarly work to help inform and shape our response to the environmental crisis.

As much as I appreciate the scholarly work that has been done on this topic, I find a gap between this scholarly work and the work we do in our local congregation. Most people in our congregation have little time for reading sacred texts, let alone reading scholarly works. Our lives are filled with family and personal matters—raising children, going to school or working at jobs or coping with unemployment, caring for aging parents or declining spouses, etc. Many of us are also active in social justice work—our congregation is particularly concerned with homelessness and affordable housing, peacemaking, and managing the global environmental crisis, but we also are fighting racism, working to end modern slavery, dealing with the immigration problem, etc. As a minister of religious education, I myself have little time to read scholarly work, given the demands of teaching children’s classes, advising youth groups, managing volunteers, administering programs, fundraising, counseling people in crisis, etc.

Teaching, managing, administering, and counseling; caring, coping, working, and handling family responsibilities—these leave little time for reading or study. From one point of view, these mundane human relationships crowd out the divine. From another point of view, this is where the divine thrives, growing in the midst of mundane relationships. The poet Marge Piercy, in a poem we sometimes read in our worship services, says:

Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: Make love that is loving.
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in,
a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us
interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs. (2)

We could try to clear a straight path through the thickets and brambles of ordinary life, to cut through the thickets that lie between sacred text and our lives. I have attempted to do just this in conducting religious education classes for children and teens: to try to develop straight-line connections between sacred texts and young people’s lives. But trying to make direct connections in religious education has never worked as well as “tangling and interweaving and taking more in.” With that in mind, I decided to document the existing “rabbit runs and burrows and lairs” of our congregation’s religious education program, with its interconnections spreading like tangled rhizomes of plants—to document how a real-world congregation resists “an artificial unity” and instead celebrates “the messiness of becoming.” (3)

Those of us who do documentary work don’t really fit into the scholarly world. Documentarians tend to use language that is “too subjective” for scholarly articles; we tend to write in the first person singular, not in the scholarly passive voice. (4) We are writers, and also photographers and filmmakers, attempting “to ascertain what is, what can be noted, recorded, pictured,” and we try to figure out “how to elicit the interest of others, and how to provide a context, so that an incident, for instance, is connected to the conditions that informed and prompted its occurrence.” (5) Documentary work may seem wordy, non-linear, and overly passionate; documentarians have been accused of avoiding firm conclusions. But documentarians prefer to work this way in order to preserve the tangled messiness of what they have witnessed.

In documenting religious education programs in my congregation, I have protected the privacy of those whom I document, except where I asked for permission to quote someone directly. I have changed names and personal details, and sometimes combined identities to provide additional privacy.

On to part two.




(1) One notable example: Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, series ed., Religions of the World and Ecology Series (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998-2004). Our congregation has the complete ten volume series in our library, though it appears to be little used.

(2) Marge Piercy, “The Seven of Pentacles,” Circles on the Water: Selected Poems (New York: Knopf, 1982), 128.

(3) Michael Mikulak, “The Rhizomatics of Domination: From Darwin to Biotechnology,” Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge 15: Deleuze and Guattarri’s Ecophilosophy (2007): 17, accessed April 1, 2016 http://www.rhizomes.net/issue15/mikulak.html.

(4) Robert Coles, Doing Documentary Work (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 28-30.

(5) Ibid., 20.

(6) Footnote 6 was moved to the main body of the text.