More concern for the "common good" and less individual "willfulness" may help human beings become more at one with the natural world in which they exist, said the Rt. Rev. Carolyn Tanner Irish, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, during the University of Utah's 1997 Sterling M. McMurrin Lecture on Religion Wednesday.
"Religious life has been isolated from influencing the agencies of decision and change in our culture. But we all dwell in one household and it is good for us to meet and talk with one another, for we are in terrible disarray. Our mother earth, though forgiving, cannot be endlessly so," Bishop Irish said during her lecture titled "Religion and Nature: Perspectives, Reflections, and Invitations."Speaking "more from faith" than about faith, Bishop Irish used personal experiences and insights to discuss the relationship between religion and nature.
"Religion is inseparably interwoven with nature," she said. "I would not claim that human beings are by nature religious. But we are by nature spiritual creatures. Our spiritual nature, our capacity for physical transcendence, gives us freedom."
Humans, though an integral part of nature, have the capability to stand outside of nature, evaluate it and, to an extent, control it, Bishop Irish said. But that capacity also allows humans with a "certain kind of adolescent willfulness" that at times may translate into "my will be done" at-ti-tudes.
"We need direction in our human direction," Bishop Irish said. "We are far more given to acting in our bits and pieces of knowledge than our vast ignorance."
Also, "religion often suggests institutions and belief systems which often divide us," she said.
While for some religion is a way to integrate their experience of the natural world, for others it is a way to deny its reality or transcend its impermanence.
"In the natural world we also experience tremendous awe, joy and thanksgiving. All of this is the stuff of which religion is made," Bishop Irish said.
Unfortunately, it is only in recent years that Western society has become concerned with the damage humans can do to Earth's ecological balance. Ecology really is the study of processes and relationships within Earth's household, she said.
"Until recently I did not think of (ecology) as a religion . . . but of course it is. It may be very close to what Jesus meant when he spoke of the Kingdom of God." As such, "our ecological suffering is not the suffering of any one group, nor the burden of one people or nation. The nature of our household concerns all of us," Bishop Irish said.
Ecological balance is connected to economy, or the rules and norms of management of Earth's household, she said. Civilized nations could learn from aboriginal cultures and traditions that for centuries have valued the "all-encompassing natural phenomena" of the cosmos, which is in "constant movement but returning constantly to harmony."
In order to heal from this alienation to nature, humans need more simplicity and less control of the world that surrounds them.
"Power can be exercised as dominion and control, but authority is more like responsible influence than control," Bishop Irish said. "Perhaps we could use less sophistication as a step to our own healing. Our linear ways of thinking tend to blind us."
Unfortunately, in Western society religion has become so politically protected that religious people have become isolated, she said.
Nevertheless, "it is possible for us to listen to one another . . . and have a common voice and influence. I can only hope that education and, to some extent, religion will lead us to live in a more faithful way of living in this household," she said.