Ten Faith Responses

1. Study, both scientific and religious texts

Rabbi Ishmael says, “Whoever learns in order to teach will be given the opportunity to learn and to teach. But whoever learns in order to practise will be given the opportunity both to learn and teach, and to observe and practise.” (Mishnah: Pirke Avot 4: 6)

If we are not aware of the enormity of the climate crisis occurring around us, then we will never be moved sufficiently to respond to it. Certainly, we will never be able to convince others of that urgency. Moreover, by studying our own faith traditions, we are able to give a theological grounding to our actions, which not only relieves us from potential cynical accusations of jumping on the bandwagon, but also synchronises our actions with the rest of our lives.

Learning about our own faith’s views on the environment, as well as the views of other faiths, helps us to search for what is at the core of our being…it helps us search for what our soul really wants. It connects us with the learned generations that have gone before us, and it brings a sense of Divinity into our actions.

2. Wonder at and praise God's creation

Some religions have the tradition of saying blessings before and after performing actions, or before and after witnessing things. The expression of praise is the purest form of joy for the soul, but it is difficult for many of us to get beyond our own inhibitions in order to let those praises pour forth.

If you find it difficult to express praise, just say out loud what you appreciate. You may find it easy just out loud to say “thank you.” Don’t analyse it, just do it. Prayer is meant to inspire us, and if we hold it back with societal boundaries, we limit and control it.

While some traditions prefer vocal wonder and praise at God’s creation, others prefer silent reflection. Meditation is a way of finding calm in our lives, of stepping outside the normal, everyday rush. Finding time to stop, perhaps in a field or garden, can be a very powerful way to reconnect to the Earth.

3. Revive or create relevant rituals

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that “all worship and ritual are essentially attempts to remove our callousness to the mystery of our own existence and pursuits. Sacred deeds are designed to make living compatible with our sense of the ineffable.”

The rediscovery of ancient rituals relating to our Earth, or the creation of new rituals, is essential if we are to ever look beyond the world as a tool for our own selfish purposes. Now only do rituals bind together families and communities, but they inspire us to act, they connect us to our ancestors, and they speak publicly of our core beliefs in ways that transcend words. Rituals bring the ineffable into our lives, they mark sacred times, sacred spaces and sacred objects.

4. Appreciate our place in the web of life

The medieval philosopher-physician Moses Maimonides wrote that “it should not be believed that all beings exist for the sake of the existence of humanity. On the contrary, all the other beings too have been intended for their own sakes and not for the sake of anything else."

Every year we learn more about our planet, and come to realise how little we know about it. New species are being discovered all the time (although unfortunately not nearly at the same rate as others are being declared extinct). Our early assumptions about the supremacy of homo sapiens is now thoroughly in question given that our actions may cause the deaths of a billion people, and may push humanity to the brink of extinction.

Appreciating that we are one strand of an intricate web is profoundly important so that we come to understand that all life is connected, and that by allowing, or even perpetuating, the removal of more and more strands, eventually the entire web may unravel.

5. Find the triggers that motivate action

Many people who act positively towards the environment can remember what it was that tipped them over towards that way of life. Everyone has a trigger, and it is incumbent on all of us to ascertain where ours might be. Is it in reading the account of Lonesome George, the last of his species on the planet? Is it seeing an image of a seagull strangled to death by a plastic bag? Is it witnessing the almost continual news reports of climate-related disasters that are now becoming more and more frequent?

6. Think and act on behalf of future generations

Faith traditions bring one of the most important thought-patterns to environmentalism – the pattern of thinking in terms of generations. Because our faith traditions are hundreds or even thousands of years old, we can view a longer perspective on all matters. This means that we bring a sense of awareness of the future generations to whom we are connected to the table.

As the Chief Seattle of the Suquamish Tribe said, “Teach your children what we have taught ours, that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children."

7. Realise that one person can make a difference

Most of our faith traditions have an eponymous ancestor or leader about whom we share stories. It is in that story-telling that we come to learn that one individual can make a difference to the entire world. It is so easy to get caught up in the secular mindset that we are part of a consumerist machine, but faith traditions teach the opposite – every human being is special, sacred, and everyone can make a difference.

8. Don't give up

We now know that we cannot stop negative climate change, but we can at least minimise it. All too often we see individuals devolving responsibility by saying that in fifty years there will exist the technology to abate disaster, but this is a dangerous gamble to hand down to the next generation.

Think of a story from your own faith tradition in which someone battled against the odds and overcame them. One of the reasons that we share this story is to help us face adversity and to empower us when times are hard, as we now know they are.

By embracing the successes that you and others have already achieved, and by learning from narratives in your own faith tradition and in others, you should find the strength to continue, even when others may say it is hopeless.

9. Lead by example, whether as an individual or as a community

Mahatma Gandhi said it well: "We must be the change we wish to see in the world."... Gandhi, we are told, was approached one day by a woman who was deeply concerned that her son ate too much sugar. “I am worried about his health,” she said. “He respects you very much. Would you be willing to tell him about its harmful effects and suggest he stop eating it?” After reflecting on this request, Gandhi told the woman that he would do as she requested, but asked that she bring her son back in two weeks, no sooner. In two weeks, when the boy and his mother returned, Gandhi spoke with him and suggested that he stop eating sugar. When the boy complied with Gandhi’s suggestion, his mother thanked Gandhi extravagantly – but asked him why he had insisted on the two-week interval. “Because,” he replied, “I needed the two weeks to stop eating sugar myself.”

There are many cynical people in the world, and if we stand up in our religious and local communities and ask people to make lifestyle changes without having made them ourselves, then we are rightly open to accusations of hypocrisy. We will cause damage by trying to do good. So the change has to come in us first, before we spread the message to others.

10. Find strength in community

Religious communities exist to support each other, and also to help foster individual and communal growth. It is much easier for individuals of faith to act in the context of a community with a shared goal than it is to act alone. Find out if your local faith community has an environmental policy. If it does, help the community reach its targets. If it doesn’t, help work with the community to create those targets.