Interfaith work is moving beyond dialogue and entering ... the climate scene?
‘While we have beautiful differences, there’s a lot of things we share about how we want the world.’
Interfaith leaders are embodying the phrase “action speaks louder than words” — and it could make all the difference in the world. Literally.
Around the globe, interfaith-climate organizations are uniting to combat climate change. The Rev. Fletcher Harper, an Episcopalian minister and the executive director of the interfaith climate organization GreenFaith, told the Deseret News, “The sad reality is that people don’t change just because you ask nicely. You have to push.”
Interfaith work has been a growing movement since the early 1900s — just after World War I — but has really taken off as a popular movement in the late 1990s and early 2000s as organizations have multiplied across the world in a larger effort to cross the divides between religions and social problems like discrimination.
The early stages included talking about divisions; now focus is on putting those dialogues to use and working together to solve problems for the common good.
Many religions believe that the Earth is sacred, created by a divine being. In the 2022 world, a torrent of high temperatures is causing floods from melting ice caps and communities globally face power outages and crop-killing droughts, putting the Earth and its inhabitants in jeopardy.
Protecting Mother Nature is a force powerful enough to bring those of all different faith backgrounds together to combat climate change. Since no small group is capable of making the change happen, they’re teaming up.
Madison Daniels, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance’s faith community organizer, meets with congregations across the state. He said it doesn’t matter how small the community is, “as long as (they) have a voice” to speak out.
Activists like Daniels believe that uniting different faiths will change the world.
Ellie Thompson, Utah Valley University’s interfaith engagement coordinator, uses the example of the Iberian Peninsula to tell her story of joining interfaith efforts and offer insight into what having a common cause looks like.
Under Islamic rule, the golden age for the Iberian Peninsula — now modern-day Spain and Portugal — ushered in mathematical, philosophical and literary advancements. It was there that the Bible was first translated, a mixture of Christians and Jews were counselors to the king and a general sense of connectedness thrived within the broader community of different faiths.
The Great Mosque of Córdoba doubled as the capital building during that time, until Christians waged war and rededicated it as a Christian cathedral. But today, both Christians and Muslims make pilgrimages there.
Even though that isn’t taught alongside the Dark Ages of Europe in history class, Thompson said the Iberian Peninsula’s history is why she chose to engage with the interfaith community.
“It was a beautiful example of interfaith work,” she said, noting it shows that it’s not only possible for faiths to work together for a common goal, but that their efforts can flourish.
An interfaith seed is planted
When Thompson visited the once-capital of the Iberian Peninsula as she worked on her degree in 2012, she became angry. She saw security guards stopping Muslims and Jews from kneeling and praying.
“I was very upset, it was such a dishonor to the history of the place and what it stood for,” she said.
It inspired her to launch her own interfaith dialogue group when she returned to the U.S.
Stories like Thompson’s are familiar all over the world. People are joining organizations to create change on a larger scale.
“More and more people recognize that climate change is a really serious threat,” said the Rev. Harper. “They are often immobilized by that threat because it feels too big to take on or they’re afraid that if they do something it will result in an uncomfortable lifestyle change or they just don’t know what to do.”
An organization makes it possible for them to act together.
“We believe that history changes when people get together to push,” said the Rev. Harper.
The first organization of the interfaith movement, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, focused on connecting faiths and reconciling differences. It was created in 1914 by a Christian sect, largely to connect groups and start the conversation through dialogue groups like the one Thompson started. But the Rev. Harper, of GreenFaith, believes the power of interfaith collaboration today is action, not just talk.
“My biggest concern with the interfaith world is that way too often it’s stuck on the level of dialogue,” said the Rev. Harper. He noted that people of faith historically have joined public protests and been social activists — sometimes courageously — during major social movements like the Civil Rights Movement.
For example, the Fellowship of Reconciliation gathered together in Switzerland to stop a war.
Activism — in any form — takes a lot of effort and what he calls “the interfaith movement for climate justice” isn’t different.
“(Activism) causes people to act in a manner that is not natural for most people; which is to be public, somewhat confrontational and to have the courage to stand up shoulder to shoulder with other like-minded individuals against governments or corporations or social forces that are far more powerful than any individual or small rag-tag group of individuals,” said the Rev. Harper.
The environmental issue of climate change is a common value for many different types of world views. In the interfaith world, “world view” is used “to be as inclusive as possible.” Thompson said that it includes “any religious, spiritual or secular identity or anything along that spectrum.”
Organizations like GreenFaith work with both believers and nonbelievers on the goal of stopping climate change.
“While there’s a lot that exists to divide us (and) we all see the world from very different vantage points, it doesn’t matter,” said Daniels. “I think the Earth is the common ground that we can all meet each other on and form quite a bit of unity.”
The Earth as a shared goal
For many religions, nature and the Earth are sacred.
The Rev. Harper told Deseret News that in Genesis, the Bible talks about the divinity of the Earth and that mankind is meant to tend to it. For him and for others who believe that God created the world, the Earth comes directly from God’s hands and is special, warranting its protection.
“A reconnection to the planet, and a regrounding of our human experience, is really the secret sauce missing from our religious, civic and emotional experiences,” said Daniels, who was raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
This viewpoint of the importance of the Earth follows the same lines through many Christian denominations and other religions, too. It’s true, as well, for many who don’t identify with any particular faith.
For example, atheism does not hold the same belief in a divine creator. The religious landscape study by Pew Research Center found that among atheists who condone strict laws to protect the environment, 97% didn’t believe in heaven, making here and now on Earth very important.
Atheists and agnostics have joined efforts on the climate front.
“While we have beautiful differences, there’s a lot of things we share about how we want the world,” said the Rev. Harper.
These “beautiful differences” are what in fact, make the world keep turning.
In the work called “Earth’s Future” which focused on the climate crisis of a melting Arctic region, many different types of engineers and scientists were needed to make the project successful.
“Societal grand challenges — such as those posed by the changing Arctic — require broad, yet systematic approaches that integrate diverse knowledge and perspectives while being highly collaborative,” the article said.
Diverse perspectives and expertise are essential to combating climate change, allowing unique ideas and talents to contribute to a larger whole — a common cause.
Thompson said that “building respect for differing identities and [creating] relationships across those identities [while] working for the common good together” is what her school and every organization wanting a pluralistic world is working toward. Daniels agrees.
“I think the Earth is the common ground that we can all meet each other on and form quite a bit of unity,” said Daniels.
With Earth as the common ground among both believers and nonbelievers, a diverse multifaith movement has been born.
SUWA and GreenFaith teach skills to combat climate change to all different kinds of people, whether congregations, students or elsewhere in the world.
While teaching climate conservation courses, Madison described himself as “on the border” of many faith communities because of his interaction with those in different faiths.
He said his favorite place to teach is not in a church, synagogue or mosque, but outside in the wilderness of southern Utah.
“I really think disconnection is the main problem of human existence. Disconnection from ourselves, from each other, from our bodies and from the earth,” he said.
Outside is where his passion for the land rings louder against the open sky. And the potential for a unified world seems close.