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The Environment

The Environment

Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson will discuss how various traditions view the environment.

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[MUSIC PLAYING] In other lessons, we've looked at the force of nature and the power it has to stir in us great things, a deep curiosity, fear, a sense of wonder, an impulse to know and understand something beyond ourselves.

Well, this existential, experiential perception of otherness has always been present in one form or another along our human journey. And the relationships and experiences of nature have taken different forms as long as humans have been on the planet, with our cultures, religions, languages, and sciences.

In some of the major religions of the world, attitudes toward nature and the environment have many things in common. There are parallels with regard to humankind as an agent and steward, as a caretaker of nature and the natural world.

Many religions have creation stories that impart mankind with a unique potential and capacity for seeing the union between creator and created and the many responsibilities that might go along with that knowledge and that wisdom.

The otherness and the unity of opposites, you might say, has therefore been prominent in the study halls and the forest trails of our religious life on the planet. And at different times in history, the homework of knowing exactly how to respond to nature, how to live in the environment responsibly, how to make sense of it as an other and simultaneously as an intrinsic part of us, well, this has been a real task.

And with the birth of modern science, these questions have been stirred up even more. The Earth was turned on its head in the mid-16th century. It was thrust out of its comfort zone as the center of the universe. And the sun was recognized as the focal point for the planetary solar system. And while many ancient traditions may have understood this, it wasn't known by modern science until then.

Christianity and the other religions that followed the lead of the revolution in science had to reassess the role of humankind and the Earth adrift now in an even more unfathomable universe. In many cases, religion therefore became more of an anchor and, of course, science.

In the Hebrew and Christian Bible in the first book of Genesis, there is a recounting of God's creation of the universe, the universe, Earth, all the creatures, man. In Genesis 1-28 it says, "And God blessed them. And God said unto them, be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it. And have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that moveth upon the Earth."

So as we noted earlier, there has historically been tension over the issue of what and how to conduct ourselves in relation to this planet Earth, how to be and behave. And "behave" actually comes from an old English word meaning "behabben," to contain.

So this Bible passage has been interpreted in different ways. The notion of dominion, for example, is sometimes taken to be a very anthropocentric or human-centered attitude. And some environmentalists, therefore, see an incompatibility between their efforts and the words of the Bible.

However, there are many Christian organizations that are very much involved in environmentalism, conservation, and in education on the subject. In the Koran, as you saw on one of the first slides, there's a deep respect and understanding of the environment and the Earth as a sacred life, as a reflection of truth. And if attentive and responsive to its needs, it's understood in Islam that humans are able to gain great recompense.

So recompense. It's not saying it's going to be easy, this struggle with duty, dominion, responsibility, and understanding the relation to nature, the created, and divinity, creator. That's a hefty assignment. So can we just plant a tree and call it good? Well, maybe a Bodhi tree.

So let's take a look at Buddhism. According to Buddhism, the suffering that seems inevitable along this journey does have a remedy, however. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, found this way of enlightened being in the world after traveling the roads of two extremes, self-mortification, self-denial, or extreme asceticism, and self-indulgence and pleasure.

This path is known as the Middle Way. And the teaching of Buddhism, like other traditions, cautions that too much human-centered activity can have negative impacts on the cosmic order of which the Earth is a vital part. Buddhism speaks to the importance of allowing the earth's voice in the course of creation, man, society, and the environment. The Middle Way, balance, mutual respect, order.

And looking at Hinduism now for a moment, its ancient art of medicine and healing called Ayurveda also emphasizes this principle of balance. The tradition refers to the property or the primal motive force and intelligence in the universe behind the universe. Mahatma Gandhi offered great inspiration in this direction, having seen the force and the power of colonization and industrialization and their effects on the natural and human worlds.

There have been many prophets who voiced the truth about this delicate relationship between humankind and the environment, Muhammad in Islam, many consider Gandhi a prophet, many mystics from the Middle Ages, and maybe even some modern-day environmentalists.

So in summary, the line of wonder for the environment as well as the line of concern and responsible action stretches back farther than we can know. What we do know is that something is out of balance and that the wisdom of our world religions might help to understand our otherness, our otherness in nature, our unity with nature, our duty, our place, our home. Take care.


Notes on "The Environment"



De Chatel, Francesca. “Environmentalism and Islam.” Parabola 32.3 (2007): 62-6. Print.

The Holy Bible. New York: Oxford UP, 1769. Print. Authorized King James Vers.; King James Bible  Online, 2008;

Image Credits:

Music by Handel; "Concerto for Organ and Orchestra Op 7 no1," Creative Commons,






Terms to Know
Creation Story

Narratives taken to be true by a particular culture which explain various ideas on how the world came into being.

Dharmic Ethics

A set of ethical/moral teachings based upon cause and effect found in Hindu and Buddhist teachings.


A twentieth century Hindu political and religious leader who pioneered the ideas of satyagraha, or "soul force," and ahimsa, or "total nonviolence," in his struggle to liberate people in India from British colonial rule.


The sacred or holy text for Muslims.

Middle Way

The path recommended by Buddha to achieve peace and liberation, or Nirvana.