By Jim Harding
I’ve been asked to an inter-faith gathering in December to speak on faith, hope and environmental activism. This is a tall order, yet I know that many people are struggling with hopelessness and loss of faith. How can people “keep going” when they see all the things that are happening around the world?
I’d like to share some thoughts with you. And I’d like to know what you think.
I am a member of our local Kairos, a loose inter-faith group that works under the umbrella of mainstream churches, from Protestant to Catholic to Quaker. In recent years the national network has deepened its work to include environmental as well as social justice. Kairos has concentrated on energy and water campaigns because the dominant fossil fuel system and resulting climate change is the greatest threat to ecological sustainability. Also, environmental and human health depends upon successfully protecting watersheds everywhere.
When I query what needs the Kairos group meets for its members I end up with four things: a place for study, action, fellowship and support. Study goes hand in hand with a commitment to action. Our understanding of what we are doing and why we are doing it comes from inquiring conversations; it is not prescribed. We are not “true believers” following an orthodoxy that is passed down through a patriarchy.
This open-endedness is one of the strengths, though some might prefer a more clear-cut credo. But by definition an inter-faith group has to work from common ground and not divide people on the basis of conditioned opinion. Building respectful relationships and engaging in the larger worlds, not excluding people because of political or religious correctness is what matters most.
Meanwhile we start with some underlying affinities, such as you can’t be a witness to ongoing environmental degradation or human oppression and not take some sort of action. Such “bearing witness” is sometimes associated with Christianity, but there is some version of this in other faith traditions. Intention also matters, but this is often downplayed among faith communities that equate faith with strict belief. A commitment to honestly evaluate and learn from the outcomes of actions also matters.
While our national campaigns can have a global reach, we try to keep our local activism grounded in shared realities. Foremost is our shared natural and historical context. We live near the Qu’Appelle Valley with its rich western Canadian history including around Treaty Four.
It’s not possible to develop a campaign on watershed protection without intimately knowing our watershed. We need to know about treaty water rights in the region. We have to know about the multiple demands put on the watershed from industry, agriculture and recreation. We need solid knowledge about what is required for the watershed to maintain a vibrant biodiversity that serves the needs of all creatures that depend on it.
Our activism has to build respectful relations with indigenous and settler communities. It has to look factually and when possible scientifically at demands for and impacts upon water. And we can’t see water, or the “fish and game” that also depend on the water, as objects for our satisfaction. We seek to better understand how we are all interconnected within the web of life. We seek to better understand all the elements – air, earth and fire as well as water, and how these operate to maintain everything from habitats, to eco-systems to the global biosphere. We are active students of creation and better understanding our interconnectedness gives us more grounded faith.
We reject reducing water or any life form that depends on water into a market commodity, as if short-term utility is all that matters. We reject the notion that humans have a god-given or property right to extract, produce and consume, with no eye on the implications for future generations. This includes impacts on non-human life forms. We see access to clean water as a human right. We also see water as a sacred element that binds life together. Water binds us together.
These approaches open up big questions about “religion”, “science”, “economy” and “politics”. But our Kairos group doesn’t necessary enter into this bigger discussion, though this sometimes happens. We are happy to stay focused on the “issue” or “campaign” at hand and to learn and build solidarity as we go along. There is faith that if we focus on our common work, we will find our way. Faith is therefore at the core of our common action. We are a community based on faith, and this faith is continually reaffirmed through building relationships and support. It is not based on a static creed. It’s interesting that “faith” gets used in both ways, yet they mean very different things.
I took a long walk up the coulee the other morning. The air was brisk and the sky clear as the brilliant sun came over the eastern hills. Though it was late October, a few florescent yellow leaves still clung to the poplar branches.
I didn’t intent this walk to become a meditation on faith, hope and environmental action, it just happened. The first realization that came as I walked up the coulee trail was that all activism is made possible by building community. Being committed to nurture community is a foundation for faith in action. If we try to separate ourselves from others then our awareness of environmental degradation can more easily turn in on itself. Then fear and all the emotions that morph from this, such as anger, resent, even hatred, and certainly more hopelessness, can more easily take root.
This process of community-building is not as simple as it may first seem, for “community” is not static. We aren’t either in or out of community. The sense of community ebbs and flows. And it is very easy to get off course. In existing society this process easily ends up being over-mediated by consumerism. Our society is always reinforcing relations of production, consumption, and in this corporate-dominated time, of financial gain. This can distract from our common spiritual development.
Our society builds upon images of youthful gregariousness and the proliferation of “wants”, where it is easy to lose sight of “needs”. Wants can trump the hierarchy of needs. These wants can then become identity “needs” which can work against the pursuit of justice and sustainability. In a predominantly consumer age, awareness of the importance of “faith” can even be completely lost.
It’s tempting to question whether people caught up in the consumer society are on “the right path”, but this can easily deteriorate into righteous judgment. And moralism isn’t a very effective way to build trust or community. And yet we know that in spite of all the goods and services available to those with financial means, we live in a time of heightened anxiety. Hand in hand with the spread of consumer markets there’s been a spread of cynicism and even nihilism. Anxiety-related psychiatric diagnoses are on the rise and narcissism is becoming normalized. There’s not a basic faith that the future is secure, which likely contributes to compulsive hedonism.
Proliferating communications technology might engender some “faith” if used in a discerning way. But it can also bring more images and information about suffering, violence and environmental degradation into our awareness and also into our dream worlds. This can have an unhealthy effect, especially if we experience this in isolation from community. Obviously we can’t turn away from what is happening. Yet it is a huge stretch that all the hand-held devices and “seeing” ever more information and images from somewhere else necessarily generates the understanding or groundedness required to take positive action..
We have to go to a deeper level of what we mean by faith.
I used to teach developmental psychology and was amazed at how study after study indicated that something like “basic security” came from experiencing mutually affirming relationships in early childhood. In other words, what we call “faith” can have a developmental foundation. Faith built solely on belief, even if ramped up to being rigid belief, won’t compensate for a basic lack of such developmental faith. That’s not to say that people with little such faith can’t benefit from being in a faith-building community. They can. But if that faith community simply builds on basic developmental insecurity by layering on more belief, especially if ramped up to being rigid belief, then the underlying lack of faith will probably persist. Shored up faith and hopelessness can go hand-in-hand.
This opens up many questions about religion, science and faith, which I’ll leave till next time, when I will continue with my walk up the coulee.