Greens and God

[This article describes the ability to open the lessons of nature and find spiritual insight and growth as was true in historical Christianity]
  By Beth Wohlberg
  Boulder [Colorado] Camera Staff Writer
  Sunday, November 19, 2000

Angela Kantola finds it hard to explain two parts of her life that some people see as contradictory.

Kantola is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who relies on scientific evidence while working to recover endangered fish in northern Colorado. The Indian Hills resident is also a devout Christian.

"My biologist colleagues can't understand my spiritual life," she said. "My brothers and sisters can't understand my environmentalism.

"So now I just say, 'I'm a tree-hugging Jesus freak'."

Kantola is one of a growing number of people in Colorado and across the country who see a connection between their spiritual lives and their environmental activism.

"We are a part of the planet, but we've lost a connection with nature because we've lost connection with the Creator," she said.

In the last decade, faith-based environmental groups have surged closer to the limelight, illustrating that traditional religious institutions have not addressed one of the issues most important to their congregations the environment.

A decade ago, no one had heard of Christian environmental groups or Jewish tree-huggers because people considered religion and the environment separate.

"Churches concerned with ecology weren't around 15 years ago," said Fred Krueger with the Religious Campaign for Forest Conservation. "Now, we understand that what is economically profitable is not always right before God."

Some environmentalists believe traditional religions emphasize humans' domination of nature, and that needs to change before the environment will become a priority. But for the most part, environmental organizations appreciate the new voices speaking out for the health of the planet.

Wilderness teaching

Kantola belongs to a group called "Opening the Book of Nature," which helps Christians find a spiritual connection in natural areas, such as wilderness.

"I recognized that God wanted to speak to me through his creation," she said. "When people go into the wilderness, God does the teaching. That's where real change takes place. I think there is no question that we need a change on how we live on this planet."

On Wednesday, a group of religious people took to the trails around Boulder to learn about God in a wild setting.

Other groups, such as the Boulder-based Jews of the Earth, have stepped in and attracted environmentalists trying to regain their religious roots and Jews or Christians hoping to find a connection with the environment.

"Modern Judaism seems to be out of touch with environmentalism," said Daniel Ziskin, who founded Jews of the Earth and attended Wednesday's hike. "A lot of people think environmentalism and Judaism don't have anything in common."

People involved with faith-based organizations easily find what's in common. Many religious people feel compelled to protect what God created. They point to passages in scriptures that say humans are stewards of the land, and God asked humans to save every species.

Ziskin said that many people learned about environmental issues in school or from colleagues and friends, but then saw a discrepancy when they went to church or synagogue. For example, Ziskin said, people would see styrofoam cups used for religious ceremonies even though many people considered them a threat to the environment. Or religious leaders would not address environmental issues, even when they were giving sermons about passages that related to the environment.

"I hear from people all the time who tell me they were born Jewish but it doesn't mean anything to them anymore," Ziskin said. "They've forgotten where they come from. And these are really A-plus activists."

Ziskin has organized events around Jewish holidays and gathered people to participate in faith-based ecological skits. While he only has 100 people on his mailing list so far, he anticipates many more as people hear of the organization.

He started Jews of the Earth after moving from Washington, D.C., where he participated in the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL). As a member of that organization, Ziskin had a lot of luck helping synagogues think about the environment.

In one situation, the construction of a synagogue was polluting the Chesapeake Bay with sedimentation. By working with the Rabbi, the coalition was able to stop the flow of mud into the bay. But Ziskin notes that the results were much better and faster because the Rabbi was working with a Jewish organization, instead of a national environmental organization with no Jewish roots.

"The Jews, by believing they are the chosen people, feel like they have to set an example," Ziskin said. "We told them, 'This is a disgrace to the Jewish community.' They quickly fixed the problem."

Other religious groups are doing more than looking at their own organizations to make environmental change.

New alliances

"I think both religious groups and environmental groups have come to realize, look, here is another group with serious power that can be an ally," said Rabbi Robert Rubinowitz of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York. "There is now a bridge between faith-based and environmental organizations."

Two years ago, the Christian Environmental Council, an interdenominational coalition of Evangelical Christian leaders, released a resolution calling for the end of commercial logging on public lands.

Another coalition, the Religious Campaign for Forest Conservation, includes several different denominations, and has called for an end to logging of old growth forests.

"We are just waking up to the importance of caring for Creation," said Fred Krueger, campaign coordinator for the California-based coalition. "We are not the same as environmental groups, but there is a convergence based upon the common good.

"It's similar to the movement to abolish slavery," he said. "As long as the issue was discussed in economic terms, it didn't go anywhere, but when it hit the pulpits, it caught fire."

And environmental groups couldn't be happier.

"Increasingly, religious leaders from an array of faiths are weighing in on environmental issues," said Tom Weis with the National Forest Protection Alliance in Boulder. "They feel that stewardship of the land is a moral imperative."

When religious groups take a stand on environmental issues, it only makes the environmental group more powerful. Krueger said this is partly because "religious groups have often been associated with conservative groups."

Weis said it is simply because it adds another voice to the debate.

"A message from religious leaders carries a lot of political weight," Weis said. "This is a powerful new voice on environmental issues that has not weighed in before. We are seeing more and more religious leaders speaking out.

People are becoming increasingly alarmed about how quickly we're trashing the environment."

Paradigm shift

But some believe that a fundamentally different religious society is needed in order for real environmental change to occur. University of Colorado professor Lynn Ross-Bryant argues that traditional religions still tend to focus on humans' domination of nature.

"A paradigm shift needs to occur so we see ourselves in a different way in the environment," said Ross-Bryant, a religious studies professor. "That's not going to come with just scientific knowledge."

One of Ross-Bryant's students, Marda Kirn, agrees. "The Judao-Christian worldview separates people from the environment and the natural world," the 50-year-old master's candidate said. "Those religions really center on human beings and mankind having dominion over nature."

Many religious people agree that science and religion aren't contradictory. It just depends on how they're looked at.

"Science tells us how the world works," Krueger said. "Religion gives us a sense of priority. One provides data, and the other provides perspective on the data."

Ziskin agrees. "I've never found real conflicts as long as I keep separate that faith and science don't answer the same questions."

And, even if people do find conflicts between faith and science, the one thing they will agree on is the need for religious groups to help save the environment, Ziskin said.

"It's impossible to live without destroying," he said. "But hopefully the more lightly we live, the better off we are in the future and the slower we destroy."


Contact Beth Wohlberg at (303) 473-1364, or

November 19, 2000