|The Opening the Book of Nature program has many applications.
Below is the original proposal back in 2001 to articulate the spiritual values of wilderness. Not only was this first attempt hugely successful, it launched a series of new initiatives to expand religious appreciation for nature and wilderness. As the implications of this program continue to expand, we should see deeper levels of appreciation of intact and untrammeled creation.
Articulating the Spiritual Values of Wilderness
The purpose of this exploration is to articulate the spiritual values of wilderness. This will cultivate a distinctly religious understanding of wilderness values. As an understanding of the spiritual value of wilderness awakens, many new individuals will see the importance of preserving wild lands. This will lead to new vigor and action for wilderness protection.
The primary goal of this 'exploration' is to produce a joint national declaration about wilderness and its many values by religious and environmental groups working together. This declaration will be unique in that it will identify the many spiritual benefits of wilderness in a manner that has not previously been systematically articulated.
A series of consequences and opportunities flow from this primary goal: Education about wilderness in schools, religious organizations, and civic groups concerned with environmental policy takes on new depth and reason. Society become aware of a worldview that emphasizes divinity in all things. A vision of the land as containing a sacred dimension emerges. Contemporary Jews and Christians are reminded of their historic views in which divinity dwells in all things. Respect for wild places is cultivated. Preservation and protection of wilderness is encouraged. New coalitions for wilderness can form. An additional theme emerges through which to engage the new Bush Administration on issues of wilderness.
Many organizations can help with this event. Three levels of association are proposed:
Three planning partners would assume administrative responsibility for the process:
(1) The Wilderness Society (TWS), Washington, DC;
(2) The Zahniser Institute for Envir. Studies (ZIES), Greenville College, Greenville, IL;
(3) The Opening of the Book of Nature (OBN) program of the Religious Campaign
for Forest Conservation (RCFC), Santa Rosa, California
Many groups can aid in cosponsoring this event. These organizations will support the process, lend their name to the effort, and help promote the exploration and the final national declaration. Already the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), San Francisco Bay Area chapter, and the Christian Caring for Creation (CCC) network in Los Angeles have indicated interest in participating as cosponsors. Many more will join.
Two exploratory events, one on the East Coast and the other on the West Coast, will articulate a series of small group advisory statements on the spiritual values of wilderness.
For a detailed explanation of the Advisory Statements, see Appendix A.
The two sets of advisory statements will be integrated through the work of a declaration team which will synthesize the best of the advisory statements into a fianl declaration on wilderness. This will be ratified at a gathering of the planning partner representatives, augmented by theologians, environmental leaders and interested organizational heads. A jointly sponsored national declaration on wilderness and its spiritual values will result.
Trained facilitators in discerning spiritual lessons from the land will assist at each event. These individuals are already trained and functioning as 'Opening the Book of Nature' program leaders. A Leadership Training Seminar (March 30-April 1, 2001) will focus their attention on this event and prepare them for this exploration. The OBN program of the RCFC will handle this task.
A preparatory Handbook on the Judeo-Christian tradition and wilderness will be prepared for all participants. TWS, ZIES and OBN will all collaborate in assembling this text.
At each event, TWS will begin the program with an introductory presentation on wilderness; it will present its understanding of wilderness and start a discussion about wilderness values.
Tentative Event Locations
Leadership Training: Dubose Conference Center, Monteagle, Tennessee
Southern exploration: Wilderness Cathedral, Huntsville, Texas
East Coast exploration: Lutherrock Conference Center, Newlands, North Carolina
Lutherrock is located on the edge of the Cherokee National Forest
in northwestern North Carolina near the Virginia border.
Northern exploration: Porcupine Wilderness, Upper Peninsula, Michigan
West Coast exploration: Group Campground, Patrick's Point State Park, Trinidad, California
Our event would be located in Redwood National Park and Prairie
Creek Redwoods State Park, Orick, California.
Final drafting event: Sigurd Olsen Environmental Institute, Ashland, Wisconsin.
A Leadership Training Seminar for program facilitators will take place on the weekend of March 30-April 1, 2001 in Monteagle, Tennessee.
A 'Participant Handbook' on wilderness is ready. All three partners have provided input for the contents.
The first 'exploration' to develop advisory statements would take place in North Carolina during the week of May 16-20, 2001.
The second 'exploration' to develop a second parallel set of advisory statements will take place at Patrick's Point State Park and Redwood National Park from June 6-10, 2001.
A document committee will be established upon approval of this plan. It will integrate the advisory statements into a draft national declaration on wilderness. This committee should involve some of the same individuals who help in the preparation of the Participant Handbook. The work of this committee would begin in June, 2001 with a product ready by August, 2001.
The final event, perhaps at the Sigurd Olson Institute in Wisconsin, will ratify a draft national declaration in late September or October, 2001.
Event Agenda and Structure
Each event will accommodate between roughly sixty and one hundred participants. Participants will either camp out (preferred) or use nearby public accommodations.
Wednesday, staff arrive for last minute program review and reorientation. Participants arrive at any time to set up camp. The program begins after dinner on Wednesday with introductions and opening prayers.
Thursday, we begin in the morning with a walking presentation on the intricacy and the values of wilderness. In the afternoon we divide into small groups. Participants form into either affinity groups (some religious groups may prefer to stay together) and/or groups formed by random selection. These will each begin to explore how to discern the spiritual lessons of wilderness. This part of the programa will be conducted by trained OBN program facilitators. Each group will contain between ten and twenty participants.
Friday, the individual sections begin to shape their reflections on wilderness into affirmations on which all members of the group agree.
Saturday, the groups continue to work on their written statements. These should be concluded by that evening.
Sunday, at a plenary session each section reports its perception and statement to the entire group. Individual participants may also submit their personal insights for the record and express what they have gained from the process. Departure by midday.
Each exploratory event will produce a collection of declarations plus a narrative report which details the overall experience of the group. This written record of the exploration will be called the 'advisory statement.' Additional individual statements may be appended to the written record for that event.
The advisory statements from the East, South, North and West explorations will be integrated into one national declaration on wilderness at a gathering in the central U.S. designed to winnow the best out of these two separate sets of statements. The product is a national declaration on the spiritual values of wilderness.
This will be announced to the nation at a press conference at an appropriate time and location, to be determined. This introduces a new series of reasons for caring for our remaining wild lands.
Distribution and Educational Follow up
Promotion of this new national declaration divides into at least two phases. Further refinements of this plan will emerge through discussions and through assumption of responsibility from our partners and cosponsors.
Phase One: Introducing the Spiritual Dimension to Wilderness
The finished declaration provides a teaching on wilderness and its spiritual values. Each partner will have a sector of society to which it will focus its dissemination of the declaration.
The Wilderness Society might promote the declaration in the envirnomental community and wherever else it deems appropriate. It might reach out to the national media with this information. This is subject to discussion.
The Zahniser Institute will promote the declaration across academia. It might also produce a Book of Proceedings on the program process and incorporate relevant articles on a religious perspective on wilderness.
The Religious Campaign for Forest Conservation will promote the declaration to denominational offices and to government leaders. It may also offer follow-up explorations of the spiritual value of wilderness to such groups as desire it.
Other program associates will also join in promoting the new national declaration. COEJL might circulate this to Jewish synagogues. Christians Caring for Creation might circulate it to Evangelical Christian churches and related organizations. Other cosponsors will accept additional sectors of religion or society for circulation.
Phase Two: Enlarging Respect for Wildlands
As churches, synagogues and other institutions teach respect for God's handiwork in creation, a louder call for wilderness protection emerges. Along with this call, a deeper level of respect for wild places and the environment will follow.
Generally, the partners will join with many other supporting groups to produce a broad range of educational materials to advocate for the preservation, protection and restoration of wilderness. At the same time a new doorway opens to teach respect for the natural world. This teaching of respect can become a tool for teaching and discerning a way of life that integrates human society into the ecosystem of Earth based upon generic spiritual principles at the heart of all religious traditions.
Finances and Program Budget
Each partner is responsible for its own expenses and budget. Generally this is a low budget program from which a high return for wilderness appreciation can be expected.
The Zahniser Institute for Environmental Studies anticipates expenses of $55,000 for the entire process.
RCFC expenses are projected at roughly $21,000 for the entire process.
Protocol for Interfaith Cooperation
As a foundation for cooperative action across religious traditions, several rules are proposed. These help provide for an orderly exploration and ensure that it proceeds with integrity and that it brings deeper levels of understanding to all participants.
1. Each participant agrees to respect the beliefs of others from different traditions
2. Each participant fulfills the requires of his or her own church, synagogue or tradition without
worry about how it is understood by those from other traditions.
3. Participants seek spiritual experience in the present and emphasize this in their discussions rather than suppositions divorced from experience.
4. Participants do not criticize other participant's in the way in which they may interpret their experiences or faith tradition.
5. Participants focus upon discerning the spiritual lessons and values of wilderness.
6. Participants refrain from arguments or contention. In any relationship who is right and who is wrong means next to nothing in achieving right rapport.
7. Participants seek to discern the good and the helpful in each person's comments. There is a requirement to avoid negative responses to statements with which one does not agree.
8. Participants do not interrupt others. Each person moderates statements so that they are not longer than two minutes.
These principles of group interaction provide the basis for the small group's ability to function across religious and suppositional lines and emerge successful in articulating wilderness values.
Perspective: 'History on the Horizon'
We are doing a new thing. As the spiritual values of wilderness are articulated, we have the potential to bring new supporters of wilderness into efforts to protect and save what is left of undeveloped places.
Environmental groups will benefit by having additional reasons for protecting wilderness.
Religious groups will benefit as their theological understanding of creation will expand and provide a more complete grasp of their responsibility for creation.
The New Republican Administration will benefit from a new perspective on wilderness coming out of one of its major support bases.
All people will benefit from a deeper appreciation of the earth.
The national consequences of this integrated campaign focus first on wilderness, but they also extend beyond wilderness. Some further implications include the following considerations:
Respect for natural systems spreads.
New organizations and sectors of society may become wilderness supporters.
The therapeutic value of wildlands can be popularized as a counter-point to the fast-paced technological orientation of society.
Methods for discerning the spiritual values of natural areas can be popularized.
Support for greater degrees of preservation of unspoiled places on other continents and in other countries can emerge.
Religion remembers the broader context of its message: the whole creation
Environmental safeguards become more acceptable to the nation.
The new Bush Administration learns about the importance of the environment and especially wilderness to religious organizations.
New support emerges to identify and create new wilderness areas for the nation
The Religious Challenge
Throughout the history of Judaism and Christianity there has been an intuition that wilderness holds special lessons. Wilderness is often the context for special connection to God and the locus of profound insights or revelation. The Israelites were in the wilderness for forty years before reaching the Promised Land. Moses went to the top of a mountain to commune with God. The prophets were in the wilderness, not the town square.
In the Christian era, John the Baptist began in the wilderness. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness, not forty days in the temple. The first monks went to the desert wilderness to better practice their faith. The saints often speak of the lessons of wilderness.
Despite this legacy, the spiritual values of wilderness are poorly articulated by modern religion. Christians and Jews alike share a poverty and paucity of perception about wilderness. A consequence is that members of synagogues and churches alike are untaught about the role wilderness has exercised in shaping both their faith and the attitudes of the Western world.
The inspired poets have intuited this great reservoir of unarticulated value. Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Emerson, Tennyson, Longfellow and many others all write of great blessings hidden in wilderness. Yet that blessing has been elusive to modern society.
The challenge of this exploration goes beyond the basic religious doctrines of creation. It beckons toward a more nuanced statement of human responsibility to nurture, protect and preservate wild areas. An articulation of the values of wilderness will understand the special role of places; the reason and role for holy locations; the influence of rivers, mountains, forests and deserts on how we experience and discern the spirit creation; and the opportunity to learn spiritual lessons from wilderness. It will see the special value of wilderness for a fast-paced, technologically-intensive society. It will understand wilderness as therapy for the mind captive to political, philosophical and economic assumptions.
Before us lies at once an opportunity for the extension of religious vision, for the furtherance of environmental sensitivity, and for the birth of a religious-ecological vision of the land which will give support to the historic call for a land ethic.
'One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.'
- William Wordsworth
"Believe one who knows:
You will find something greater in woods
than in books. Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from masters."
- St. Bernard of Clairvaux
'Wherever I turn my eyes, around on Earth, or to the heavens, I see You in the field of stars; I see You in the yield of the land, in every breath and sound, a blade of grass, a simple flower, an echo of Your holy Name.'
- Rabbi ibn Ezra, Great Torah commentator
The Advisory Statements:
Each of the two regional evens will produce an Advisory statement. The Advisory Statement will be composed of three items:
a. A narration of the local exploration process and events and the process which led to its statement.
b. The small group statements (there will probably be between four and seven of these at each exploration). The primary requirement on each small group is that all participants come to agreement about text so that what is developed represents the unified, collective sense of all the members in that group.
In this regard we should offer an option for 'affinity groups.' This means 'those of a feather can flock together.' Distinct Catholic, Jewish, Evangelical, Orthodox and other small group sections are all possible IF there is sufficient participation to justify a separate group. Otherwise participants will be randomly divided into groups.
c. Minority perceptions, comments which individuals wish to append to the statement, or any other considerations of note which ought to be included. A sample Advisory statement is available upon request.
One person suggested including the non-Western faiths. Generally concern for the broad spectrum of different world religions is mostly academic. The large majority of America is Christian and Jewish. The Muslim population (2%) is mostly urban and disconnected from wilderness issues which means that this group is not yet a priority. Any other religious group amounts to less than 1% of the U.S. population.
The value of this declaration lies in its potential to touch and bring in new supporters of wilderness. If religion supports wilderness protection, many legislators will become champions of wild areas. Because well over 75% of Americans identify with either Judaism or Christianity, this group has to be our emphasis. The demographics don't justify reaching out strongly to these other areas. Besides the difficulties of recruiting in these groups would make the program far more complex and challenging. Once we are beyond a Christian or Jewish religious framework, the suppositions become harder to integrate into a cohesive statement and as that happens, then the effectiveness of whole venture is actually weakened, not strengthened.
In other words, political correctness on religion does not translate into political and social impact for wilderness.
The Final National Declaration:
The final statement should blend the best and most salient of the two Advisory statements. There are probably three versions of this finished 'Declaration on the Spiritual Values of Wilderness.'
First, a full comprehensive statement with a distinct Jewish rationale and a distinct Christian rationale should be prepared. A number of sections with rationale are probable. This text will be based upon the findings of the regional groups plus insights submitted from the final declaration team. A final section will list conclusions or recommended actions.
The conclusions, I suspect, will be quite similar.
Once a draft national declaration is approved, the process requires a further series of steps. It next stands the test of reflection from a variety of theologians, environmental leaders, academic authorities and others qualified to assess the statement. Then it proceeds through a series of distributions to leaders for endorsement. This serves as an authentication of the declaration and ensures it is a bona fide statement of religious value. Only after this has been done to the satisfaction of all participants should the document be considered finalized.
Second, once the full text is finalized, an executive summary can be produced. This allows for a quick statement of the key insights and conclusions. This offers broad access to the insights of the explorations on one page. It is easy to produce this summary once the full text is available.
Third, a larger volume which includes the full statement but which provides supporting information as well. This could be a book of proceedings, or a text on the spiritual values of wilderness, or some combination.
Significantly, no text yet exists which blends the insights of Christianity and Judaism with the task of identifying the religious implications of wilderness. It would certainly sell briskly to church and synagogues, to camps, to parachurch groups, etc., and this would help provide some income for the process.