Religion and the Environment

Religion and the Environment: A Campaign to Raise Awareness of the Environment and Discover Common Ground in the Judeo-Christian and Buddhist Communities

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Garrison and the Environment

Last we were were given the opportunity to travel up the Hudson to the Garrison Institute in Garrison, New York. Diane was kind enough to accompany and help us set up the visit. For those of you who have never been to the institute, try to go. Right when you step off the train there is a breath taking view of the hudson, and the surrounding woods. It is quite the difference from city aesthetics and much more relaxing.

Patricia Ackerman met us at the train station and took us a mile up the road to a magnificent building that overlooks acres upon acres of land (noting that Barnard rests on 4 acres of land, this was a magnificent sight). My partner Jessie has described much of the visit, so I will attempt to discuss it in a different light.

Until two weeks ago, I was unaware of the importance that the Hudson plays in the Hudson River Valley. To me, it has always been that body of water that runs alongside of Morningside Park and seperates New Jersey from New York. I often look at it from my window, enjoy the way the water appears during a beautiful sunset, and never think twice about how vital it is to the environment that srrounds it. At the Garrison Institute, Patricia was explaining her passion about the conservation and need to preserve the Hudson. It was inspiring to see someone who is determined in everyway possible to alert the community about this issue. But, the way in which she is trying to appraoch the issue is that most interesting part. Patricia oversees The Hudson River Project: Caring for Creation and the Common Good. It is a project which incorporates the use of religious as a means of awareness towards the environment, and in this case the Hudson and water preservation.

In relation to our project, The Hudson River Project sevres as an example of religion being put to use to grab the attention of society about environmental issues. Because religion is such a major force in many idividuals lives, it only makes sense that by utilizing that aspect groups such as the Garrison Institute can focus in on more specific topics such as the Hudson River. They have made it a multi-religious issue which allows for more discussion, research and areas to work in to enhance the importance of this need. They are bringing in speakers, musicians, artisits, dancers, and other types of medium to attract different venues of people. Patricia said that too many people think of the Hudson as just a river that runs through New York. Instead, she believes that it is more of a bio-region that affects life to a greater degree.

I was in awe with all of the knowledge she presented us with and even more so by the building. Included are photographs of the Garrison Institute and the surrounding area.

take some time to look at the meditation hall. You will notice the large statue of Buddah in the center. There are 4 other curtained panels that surround it and they are currently trying to find statues representing other religions to fit those areas. You are asked to remove your shoes before entering the hall as a sign of repsect, and it is breath taking to see the large space when the sun trickles in from the windows. Also, the artwork that Jessie mentioned in her posting (the well) is also included. The other photographs are of the view from the Garrison Institute onto to Hudson, the building itself, artwork and tapestry inside of the bulding, and Myself, Diane, Jessie, and Patricia.

Jessie and I have also changed the name of our project from Greenfaith to Be-leaf. Greenfaith is actually an organization that sets out to unite peoples spiritual sides with nature, and their information and site will be very helpful for our project.

One exciting part of the visit was the discussion of our pamphlets. Patricia loved the idea and said that she could publish them for us for free. This is an amazing opportunity and we are very grateful for their assistance. Also, she would love both Jessie and I to come back to speak at some point this summer during a seminar about our project which is an incredible opportunity. It is nice to know that this project will extrend beyond the classroom walls.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Religion in Refuge

Throughout the semester my examination of religion and the environment has mostly looked at what Christian scriptures and church doctrine teaches us about religion. It was nice that this week's reading, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, by Terry Tempest Williams offered a glimpse of how an individual's personal religious beliefs can affect their connection with the environment. Her connection with the Utah landscape, and especially The Great Salt Lake, was influenced by a number of factors including her study of ornithology, her grandmother, Native American history and beliefs, and her Mormon upbringing.

Williams identifies her family as fifth generation Utah Mormons. Today the majority of Mormons do not live in Utah, they don't even live in the United States, but the LDS Church is still strongly tied to Utah. The church headquarters are located in Salt Lake City, but the connection goes much deeper than an administrative center. When Brigham Young and the settlers who had traveled from Missouri settled in Utah it was declared the Mormon Zion (for Church history see LDS webpage). Williams addresses the importance of history and genealogy for Utah Mormons. Throughout her story her detailed knowledge of her family history plays an important role in her understanding of her family's history with cancer, and it also connects her to the land as far back as 1850.

I do not think Williams' Mormon faith was the most important influence in her life, and she spoke of the Church in ways which were sometimes unflattering. However, I found her selective use of the Mormon story, and her ability to challenge aspects of LDS belief which she disagreed with really inspiring for our project. In my attempt to formulate what Christianity "says" about the environment I have been frustrated by the lack of direct references in the New Testament. Williams' narrative demonstrated that it's not necessarily so important what a religion "says" about an issue as how the religious beliefs are interpreted by individuals.

For instance, Williams' took great pleasure from the fact that Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of the LDS faith, was involved in magical practices before he found the golden plates which he translated into The Book of Mormon. These practices included astrology, the use of divining rods and seer stones. Joseph Smith's ties to occult practice are not celebrated by the church, and have frequently been used by critics to attack the LDS Faith. For Williams, however, it "renders [her] religion human." (195) Williams' explains that she grew up in a faith which believes in personal revelation. She then describes how her mother survived breast cancer when the doctors declared she only had a 20% chance. Shortly after her diagnosis one of the twelve apostles received a revelation that Diane Tempest would be well for many years and her name was entered among those to be healed in the Temple. The Williams family was instructed to join in prayer that Thursday at home where Terry "felt the presence of angels." (196-7) Williams' clearly disagrees with certain aspects of church doctrine, but Mormon spirituality plays an important role in her life.

When we visited Patty Ackerman at the Garrison Institute I asked her how she responds to people who say the Judeo-Christian worldview is responsible for the environmental crisis we now face. She responded, much to my surprise, that she agrees that historically the Judeo-Christian worldview has affected the environment negatively, but through efforts such as the Hudson River Project religious individuals are attempting to interpret and use their religion in a new way. I felt Williams' had a similar philosophy toward her Mormon faith and her Utah upbringing. She used it selectively to make connections with the land and help her cope with the illness in her family.

The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge is interwoven throughout her narrative. Initially it is threatened by the rising water levels in the Great Salt Lake and eventually it is submerged. In the book someone estimates that the marsh will take 10 years before it will be a viable habitat again, and 20 years for it to clear its system of salt. When I read that I was encouraged by how a natural system could repair itself, but I worried that without the birds would the area would not be adequately protected. I was very pleased to read on their website that by 2000 the refuge was providing habitat for over a million birds and last year an education center opened.

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Hudson River Project and our Garrison Institute visit

On Friday morning Pam, Diane, and I took the train to the Garrison Institute. Patricia Ackerman, a staff member at the Garrison, had generously offered to help us with our project (see previous post. The Institute is a nonsectarian organization that studies how the world's contemplative traditions can lead to social change. Currently they have four program areas: service & society, education, peace & reconcilliation, and the environment. Patricia, who is an Episcopal priest and activist, is the staff member in charge of the environmental programming.

The Institute's current environmental project is "The Hudson River Project: Caring for Creation and the Common Good". The project has three parts: (1) create a network among the religious communities along the river (during her work Patricia has identified 150 faith communities along the Hudson), (2) draft a statement of shared values, and (3) bring environmental education and projects into these faith communities. Currently the Institue is hosting monthly conversations which bring together faith leaders from a variety of communities to discuss how to protect the Hudson River Watershed. In addition to being interfaith the discussions are also interdisciplenary, bringing together scientists, activists, and theologians. The series began in September with a discussion on "Seeking Common Values" and the most recent conversation occurred last week and was on "Working with Nature." The next conversation, "The River Community and the Global Ecosystem: Promoting Public Understanding," is April 20th and I will attend. In addition to hearing the conversation which will feature speakers from The Nature Conservancy, GreenFaith, and Muslim Peace Fellowship, I will get a chance to present our project.

During our visit with Patricia she provided us with a list of resources to aid in our research. A major component of our project is making three brochures (Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism) which summarize each faith's philosophy on environmental issues, provide relevant scriptural passages, list helpful websites and books, and suggest ways you can get involved. Patricia offered the help of their graphic designer in creating the brochures and the Garrison Institute will also cover printing costs. The brochures will then be available at their conversation series. Pam and I were both very excited about this development.

Finally the Museum of Art and Design is currently showing an exhibit called "Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art" and is holding an open house for regional environmental groups on Saturday April 8th from 11:00 am to 2:00 pm. The Garrison Institute was invited to participate and I will be going to represent the Institute at the open house.

The trip on Friday was a rewarding experience. It was a gorgeous day, and the Institute and the town of Garrison were both beautiful. Patricia provided us with tons of information which will be invaluable for our research and creating the pamphlets. Finally, having a discussion with someone whose job is to meld religion and the environment really brought our project to life and provided inspiration for the work ahead.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


Until now, I have never realized how much of Judaism is directly connected with nature. A lot (if not most) of the Old Testament deals with nature as a means of protection or ultimate destruction. Some philosophers believe that god's order of creation is a natural hierarchy. Plants and vegetation were created on the third day, animals on the fifth and man on the sixth. Thus, man is the a top of the ladder and the other creatures in the bottom rungs. But if you look closely at the stories in the old testament, it seems that nature is often more powerful than man and can dictate the direction of a situation. Examples are:

-Noah's ark and the flood that destroyed the world
-The tree of knowledge that serves as the force behind Adam and Eve's dismissal from Eden
-Moses's striking of the rock in the dessert that led to his denied access to Israel
-The red sea (while the waters were parted for the Israelites, the Egyptians later drowned when the walls closed on them)
-Korach (a rebel of the Israelites and Moses in the desert) and his followers were "swallowed" by the earth when it opened up (our guess is more like an earth quake)

But, nature also serves as a means that saves mankind and helps in situations at hand. Examples are:
-the reeds and Nile that carried/protected Moses when he was a child
-The covenant of the rainbow after the flood
-Joseph's dreams dealt with heaps of barley and the stars
-The cave that hid David hid in (and the story that spiders helped to spin a web in the entrance to give the illusion that no one had entered)
-when god appears before the Israelite or Moses, he has been a burning bush, pillar of smoke, or a pillar of fire

While there are more examples in the bible, this is just a taste of how important a role nature plays in the stories.

On another note, I have found many articles about Judaism and nature. Beyond he basic study of Judiasm and its texts comes the zohar which is the main text of kabbalah, a spiritual part of Judaism that many say you should not study until you are 40. While this area is far more complex, i will try to look into this source to gain a greater knowledge of the environments role in the spiritual aspect of Judaism.

I have found a few interesting websites. There is an organization called "Jews in the woods" that allows Jewish people to connect to their spiritual side by engaging in weekend long retreats in the woods. I am going to try to contact the facility to conduct an interview to gain more information in this area. their website is

This week I will be meeting with Rabbi Neil Gillman at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is one of the foremost authorities in Jewish philosophies and is studied around the world. After I meet with him, there will be more to report on this area. Also, Eliav Bock (a third year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary) has agreed to provide me with many materials relating to the environment and Judaism. He has worked at a Jewish Summer camp for over 7 years in the area of teva (meaning nature in Hebrew) and as a tripper (a leader for overnight trips in parks and crown land). Many of the trips he leads are centered around a Judaic aspect and he has agreed to share his sources with me for the project. To conclude, here are a few more sites that I have found containing information. Hopefully I will be joining Jessie and Diane in our travel to the Garrison Institute to learn about Buddhism. I am very excited and grateful for this opportunity and hope that it will enhance my understanding for our project.

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