Believing in sustainability — An interreligious approach to the environment

For several years, the ecological crisis has gone beyond the boundaries of scientific debate to become a political question of primary importance, which involves states and supranational institutions and calls into question the conscience of citizens. But to motivate people and societies to opt for sustainability policies, we must also make use of their cultural resources, of which religious faith is a fundamental part. What are the ideas that religions can share to support an ecological culture?

The debate on climate change and sustainable development, precisely because of the global nature of the issues addressed, has involved international actors, such as states and supranational organisations. In this context, religions have not yet found space as interlocutors in the official offices. At first sight, this exclusion seems to depend on the strictly technical nature of the debates. However, there is an interest in involving religious representatives for at least two kinds of reasons: the moral implications of the issues on the table and the fact that the majority of the world population organises their lives on the basis of a religious worldview. In other words, religions are meaning-makers and can help motivate people to make choices of justice. Their public relevance is therefore based on the great symbolic and motivational heritage of which they are carriers.

The legacy of a controversy begun in 1967 by Lynn White, in an article of great resonance, in which the Princeton historian identified the cultural roots of the environmental crisis in the biblical vision of the relationship between human beings and nature weighs on the relationship between religions and ecology, which he accused of anthropocentrism (cf. White 1967). However, in the last thirty years, the reflection carried out by development studies has also stimulated interest in the positive contribution of religions. The studies have shown both the complex relationship still existing between politics and religion, and the fact that religions are global players with a strong local roots, capable of significantly influencing society (cf. Deneulin and Rakodi 2011).

In this article we will try to focus on the reasons that justify the religious contribution to the debate on sustainability. These are aspects that coincide, in a transversal way, with the structural dimensions of the spiritual experience and that allow us to lay the foundations of an interreligious environmental ethos.

Interfaith keys for the care of our common home

In this section we will highlight ten dimensions, common to the various spiritual traditions, which allow us to structure a common interpretation between religions of the relationship with the environment. It deals with the prophetic, ascetic, penitential, apocalyptic, sacramental, soteriological, mystical, communal, sapiential and eschatological dimension of the relationship between human being and nature.

  1. Prophetic dimension. The denunciation of social injustice linked to the processes of exploitation of nature was the gateway to the ecological debate for the great religious traditions (see Tucker 2003). In the case of biblical religions, this denunciation has an assonance with the prophetic tradition: just as the prophets of Israel exposed the lies and injustices in the social relations of their time, today this denunciation becomes current on a large scale, extending over time to the generations future and in space to that ‘distant neighbour’ that suffers the consequences of the indiscriminate use of resources. The changes that took place during the twentieth century, with the awareness of global threats, such as weapons of mass destruction, have extended the moral community to the whole of humanity. Our concepts of justice, duty and responsibility have changed: it is no longer possible to apply these categories, without taking into account the distant consequences, in time and space, of our choices. The prophetic denunciation therefore takes on a global dimension, indicating “the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet” (Laudato si’ № 16). The intersection between the social question and the ecological question is a strong point of the statements of the religious authorities. It is an approach that derives from the experience of accompanying marginal communities and which, on the other hand, corresponds to the central insights of political ecology. Religious traditions propose an exercise of ‘double listening’ — of the Earth and the poor, of the present and of the past, of the local context and global dynamics, of external signs and interior inspirations — which integrates technical analyses. This interdisciplinary approach today provides the structure of the prophetic denunciation that animates the encyclical Laudato si’ and other similar religious declarations. [1]
  2. Ascetic dimension. All spiritual traditions include practices of voluntary simplicity, such as fasting, aimed at purifying the relationship with God and with one’s neighbour. They acquire, in the current context, a new importance, in the light of the overexploitation of the planet’s resources. It is precisely in the contestation of consumerism and the “throwaway culture” that religions can make one of the most original contributions, calling the faithful to a sober lifestyle. The tendency to accumulate and consume without limits, typical of the richest societies, is not only scandalous in itself, in the face of the persistence of large swathes of misery, but it is also the cultural vector of environmental degradation. On the other hand, religious traditions have always seen the essentiality of life as a structural element of the spiritual experience. A particularly strong choice comes from the Hindu community, which comes to propose the renunciation of meat consumption as a means of combating global warming. [2] However, it is also necessary to avoid a purely ecological exploitation of practices that are aimed at freeing the believer from his disordered impulses and facilitating his relationship with others and with God. Therefore Pope Francis proposes the model of St. Francis of Assisi , for which ‘poverty and austerity […] were not only an external asceticism, but something more radical: a renunciation of making reality a mere object of use and domination’ (LS, № 11) . Ultimately, the main motivation that sustains asceticism is, for the believer, the spiritual search, which implies the fact of opposing the commodification of all areas of life and the instrumental use of relationships with others and with nature.
  3. Penitential dimension. Biblical prophets preached repentance and conversion of the heart to change behaviour. Without doubt, this invitation is not exclusive to monotheistic religions. Other traditions, in fact, have developed penitential practices to redeem the sins committed against others and against God. Can we include nature in the list of victims of human sin? The encyclical Laudato si’ offers an answer, articulating sin in the rupture of the three fundamental relationships: with one’s neighbour, with God and with the environment; relationships that have deteriorated ‘not only outside, but also within us’ (№ 66). The ecological crisis shows the full extent of the scope of sin, which involves those who are far away, those who have not yet been born, as in the case of future generations, and all living creation. It was the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I who used, for the first time, this harsh language when speaking of environmental degradation: “that human beings destroy biological diversity in divine creation; that deteriorate the integrity of the Earth and contribute to climate change, stripping the planet of its forests and destroying wetlands; that pollute the water, the soil, the air. All these are sins” (His All Holiness Bartholomew I Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. 1997). As the sense of sin widens, penitential practices must also be renewed, in order to develop in the faithful the sensitivity to feel involved in the suffering of other creatures.
  4. Apocalyptic dimension. Environmental movements have often evoked future scenarios of destruction: a communication strategy that has been criticised by many as ineffective. These narrative forms cross a genre widespread in all religious traditions: the apocalyptic. An example is the Letter of the Rabbis on the climate crisis of 2015, which warns: “in chapter 26 of Leviticus, the Torah warns us that if we prevent the Earth from resting ‘it will rest’ however, to our detriment, with drought, famine and exile that turns everyone into refugees.” It is interesting to note that the Jewish and Christian apocalyptic tales do not intend to convey pessimism or resignation, but above all point to the possibility of a transformed life, in the importance of giving a new value and a new meaning to existence. Buddhist and Hindu traditions also warn of the ‘karmic’ consequences of our actions, helping the believer to become aware of the consequences of his choices. In summary, apocalyptic narratives can help broaden the moral imagination and perceive the values ​​at stake.
  5. Sacramental dimension. The aptitude to grasp the signs of the divine presence in the material world distinguishes numerous religious traditions, including the Catholic one, which sees in the sacrament a visible sign of grace. A sacralisation of nature is thus made possible, which does not expire in pantheism, but grasps in the created world a mediation of supernatural life. Pope Francis expresses himself in this line: ‘the world is something more than a problem to be solved, it is a joyful mystery that we contemplate in joy and praise’ (LS, № 12). Destroying nature means eliminating this mediation of the mystery of God.
  6. Soteriological dimension. From its origins, the environmental movement has attributed a therapeutic function to the relationship with nature: wild or poorly man-made spaces have become new pilgrimage sites, where the urban population can find rest and restore their psycho-physical balance. Industrial society, which has left the struggle for survival behind it, has begun to perceive nature no longer as a threat but as a resource of meaning. This aesthetic and therapeutic function translates, in secular terms, that dimension that religious traditions call ‘salvific’: the ability to rebuild relationships — with God, with others — interrupted by sin, healing man’s inner disorder and restoring the right balances. However, the risk that nature ends up being seen only as an aesthetic resource for the human being is not excluded. This would re-propose a dualist and anthropocentric scheme. The Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change (2015) proposes a more balanced vision: ‘we must wake up and become aware that the Earth is our mother and our home, therefore we cannot cut the umbilical cord that unites us to her. When the Earth gets sick, we get sick, because we are part of it.’ The social dimension of environmental problems has not always been duly emphasised in environmental issues (see Northcott 2015). On this point, however, resides an aspect of great importance for religious traditions, which is the community character of salvation. Faced with individualistic tendencies, religions affirm that salvation is a collective task that leads to a relational vision of society, in which the believer lives as a member of a “sublime brotherhood with all creation” (LS, № 221).
  7. Mystical dimension. It is not easy to define what mysticism is. It is easier to investigate the writings and lives of mystics to sketch out the features of a type of spiritual experience, which is not the exclusive prerogative of a select few, but a real possibility for each person. This is the path that Pope Francis follows, when he indicates some figures of saints, especially of the Franciscan and Benedictine tradition, who embodied the model of a life reconciled with God, with humanity and with creation: Francis of Assisi, Bonaventure, Benedict of Nursia, etc. Even in the biographies of the great religious figures of history we often discover the role played by nature in their spiritual experiences, such as the enlightenment of the Buddha under a fig tree, or the lonely cave in which, according to Islamic tradition, Muhammad received the revelation of the Koran. In many cases, the mystical experience reveals, on the one hand, the harmony between the Creator and creation and, on the other, the way in which the world dominates humanity; thus the limited character of our existence is manifested, with the need to accept an ethical code (the Torah or the Koran) or a process of personal transformation (the eightfold Buddhist path). These intuitions — the awareness of interdependence and finitude, the discovery of a moral law, the need for a journey — are vital in a Promethean culture marked by the exaltation of individual autonomy and contempt for what is fragile. Above all, the spiritual sense of interconnection between living beings echoes the contemporary ecological discourse, which finds one of its pillars in the interrelation between organisms. The task of disseminating and assimilating the results of scientific research on sustainability requires ecological literacy; however, it also requires a profound spirituality, which supports socio-political commitment. The various dualisms introduced by modernity — between spirituality and work, science and religion, res extensa and res cogitans, etc., — have hindered the emergence of holistic visions of reality, as well as the dialogue between scientific knowledge and spirituality. The monastic tradition, which harmonises active life and contemplation, is then back to topicality. The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh proposed a synthesis, outlining the traits of a conscious, compassionate and committed way of life. By making the Buddhist monastic tradition dialogue with today’s environmental challenges, he proposes some ‘practices for a conscious life,’ which can help to live in a more balanced and respectful of nature (Nhat Hanh 2008).
  8. Community dimension. The centrality recognized in this dimension is another contribution of religions to the ecological debate. Today’s culture attaches great importance to individual choices to transform reality, less to the sense of coordinated action of a community. There are good reasons for valuing the community as a unit of analysis and practical action. First of all, a practical reason: to direct the effort of the individual, often disoriented by the complexity of the choices at stake. But there is also a spiritual reason: to interpret one’s life in relation to others; in this sense, the concrete community also mediates a vaster sense of belonging: ‘created by the same Father, we all beings of the universe are united by invisible bonds and form a sort of universal family’ (LS, № 89). It is a new way of seeing the world. Finally, feeling part of a network of relationships that goes beyond the limits of time and space and also the boundaries of species, helps to root an ethos of responsibility in the person. It is also a pedagogical challenge: perceiving oneself as part of a ‘universal fraternity’ (№ 228) is a moral and spiritual attitude that asks to be cultivated. In the social doctrine of the Church this sense of belonging flows into the care of the common good, that is, the set of conditions that allow a dignified life to flourish. Today this concept must be understood on a planetary scale. When Pope Francis says that ‘the climate is a common good’ (№ 23) he signals the fact that natural balances are a condition of possibility for any other human good.
  9. Wisdom dimension. The Greeks distinguished different forms of knowledge: τέχνη tékhnē (technical knowledge), φρόνησῐςphrónēsis (practical wisdom), ἐπιστήμη epistēmē (science or knowledge) and σοφία sophía (wisdom). Articulating these dimensions of knowledge is fundamental in an era characterised by academic fragmentation and information saturation that often result in the difficulty of establishing an effective social dialogue. The need emerges to reconstruct collective narratives capable of motivating people: in this, religions can make a contribution. Throughout history, they have offered world-views capable of creating social cohesion around a code of ethics and political institutions. Today it is clear that they cannot perform this function in the same way. However, a dialogue between science and religions is possible and desirable, leading to a global vision of a sapiential type, in which the scientific description of reality is compatible with religious interpretation.
  10. Eschatological dimension. One of the main criticisms that the ecological movement has addressed to biblical religions is the excessive trust of the latter in an unearthly salvation, which would be at the expense of commitment in the present world. This accusation is not entirely without foundation: there will always be the temptation of a religious ‘flight’ that removes responsibility for the believer with respect to his civil duties. It is no coincidence that some evangelical churches and other fundamentalist groups of other religions have skeptical or denial positions on environmental problems. For this reason Pope Francis said: ‘while we wait, we unite to take care of this house that has been entrusted to us, knowing that what is good in it will be taken on in the feast of heaven’ (LS, № 244). This ‘expectation’ characterises the condition of the believer, in the tension between future hope and the present task. According to the saying of the Jesuits, it is a question of living and working as if everything depended on us, knowing that everything depends on God. Hope is, for most religions, a constitutive element of faith. To support it, it is useful to rehabilitate the potential of religious rites, to ‘dramatise’ love for the poor and respect for creation. Indeed, the liturgy lives a double dimension: it symbolically tends towards the future through the signs of the present. It can ‘unmask the perverse logic that promises the future by consuming the present. An act that silences the poor and destroys other creatures, in the name of future growth, is a false sacrifice’ (Jenkins 2013, 47-48). The authentic hope that comes from faith does not distance us from the present: it seeks instead to encounter new paths of salvation.

Interreligious dialogue and ecological crisis

In the last fifty years, religious traditions have entered a relatively new area, that of sustainability, engaging in fruitful dialogue with civil society. A dialogue, we underline, with a strongly ecumenical and interreligious trait. Without having foreseen it, the ecological question has allowed one of the greatest public exercises of theology in recent history. Therefore, we conclude this reflection by affirming that the great spiritual traditions will not only be decisive in addressing the complexity of socio-environmental objectives, but these challenges will also condition the spiritual evolution of humanity: “the response of religion to the environmental crisis […] is the most important factor in determining whether religion will be a vital part of humanity’s future or whether it will sink into growing irrelevance ”(Gottlieb 2006, 18).

A more extensive version of the article was published with the title “Creer En La Sostenibilidad — Las Religiones Ante El Reto Medioambiental”, in Cristianisme i Justícia, 212 by Fr. Jaime Tatay Nieto S.J., (2019). [] Translation and adaptation by Fr. Ugo-Maria Ginex ESB, Holy Celtic Church International. The Hermit of Saint Bruno St. Mary’s Hermitage Nr. Canterbury Kent.


  1. On 17 and 18 August 2015, a meeting of about 60 representatives of the Islamic world from 20 countries was held in Istanbul. The meeting concluded with the publication of an Islamic declaration on climate change (cf. Howard 2015). []
  2. ‘On a personal level, we can reduce this state of suffering by changing our lifestyles […]. Adopting a vegetarian diet is one of the most incisive acts a person can choose to reduce the environmental impact’ (Bhumi Devi Ki Jai! A Hindu Declaration on Climate Change, November 23, 2015). []


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