How Far Can Christianity And Buddhism Aid Each Other In Challenging The Environmental Crisis?

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The environmental crisis has been the topic of conversation for many in the past decade. With pollution, deforestation and climate change being in the top three issues that need addressing, the world has started to take action. However, here rises an issue for religion with the following question being asked: what is religion's role in the environmental crisis? It is my belief that it is important for there to be a certain element of inter-religious dialogue in order for respective religions to learn from others how the issue can be addressed suitably.

Robert Gotlieb argues that the following issues have been exposed for religious people in the face of the crisis: 1)Religion is a gift from God and one which we should only use temporarily, 2) Specific religious traditions are bought into doubt such as Jews sanctifying wine as it contains what Gotlieb describes to be 'poisonous pesticide residues', 3) All religions share the belief that they have some sort of knowledge from God on how one should act and that a problem arises when someone of the younger generation asks their elder 'how have you let this happen?, 4) Finally, religions must ask themselves why they have been blind to this issue for so long (Gotlieb 2010). In this essay I will endeavor to explore how both Buddhism and Christianity deal with the crisis and their response to the issues that Gotlieb has raised. I will predominantly be focusing on interreligious dialogue as I do not believe that I would be going too far in saying that at times, the environmental crisis has united religions. I will be drawing on the works of a number of academics to influence my writing.

I will first start by looking at how Christianity has dealt with the crisis over time. Much of the discussion surrounding Christianity and its involvement with the environment is rooted in overcoming the dualistic human-nature relationship that has been so present in the religion. Lynn White Jr in his essay 'The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis' argues that 'In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit' and before man began to cut down trees and mine into the earth this spirit was sacred and was 'in charge of that particular situation'. White argues that in Christianity, the Church 'substituted' animism with the cult of saints. However, he takes issue with this in that a Saint is still a human being, they can create shrines and worship nature, but they are not actually in nature. White does go on to say that 'Christianity is a complex faith, and its consequences differ in differing contexts.' though largely his view is that mankind have ignored the spiritual side of nature and that humanizing it is not sufficient. White also argues, and I would agree, that our treatment of nature in the modern day is born out of Christian attitudes towards nature, the notion that we are superior (White Jr. 1967). It is my view that the creation narrative of Genesis has swayed us this way. A man whom might agree with White’s stance is John Chryssvigis. According to Andes Milan, the orthodox theologian contends that “that the whole created world has intrinsic value and that salvation encompasses all created matter”. Chryssavgis is a believer that as God saves humankind, he too will save nature and animals. Chryssavgis is a believer in iconography and that “The icon has the role of articulating the faith in the heavenly kingdom and its activity in the earthly realm”.

White has been known to take a negative stance when it comes to the reading of Genesis 1.26-28 and places the blame on humankind. Whereas, Michael S. Northcott argues that “Christianity is usually associated with an instrumentalist doctrine of creation which is opposed to this primal world view” (Northcott 1996, 166) and that this instrumentalist approach is seen in the Genesis 1.26-28. It says of mankind the following: 'let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.', it is to me therefore, no surprise that the Christian attitude towards nature and animals is that humankind have “dominion” or authority over them. The Christian might respond by saying that dominion does not necessarily mean authority and that God would want us to treat his world with respect whilst there still existing a certain hierarchy of being. For example, Michael S. Northcott provides us with a different interpretation of what “dominion” might mean in this context. He argues that “dominion has frequently been misinterpreted as meaning domination and possession” (Northcott 1996, 180) but that the Hebrew translation of dominion is steward or subdue. Hence, we should understand these verses as an appreciation of the earth that we should be caring for rather than dominate. The Christian idea of stewardship has been utilised often when looking at responses the creation narrative. It is the notion that all human beings are made the same and in God’s image and looking after nature and animals is part of that. The Dioese of Derby website describes stewardship as us being “on a journey and, as we come closer to God, we respond by living our discipleship in response to all that God has given us.” (Diocese of Derby n.d.). John Houghton believes that “we also need to repent for our abject failure as stewards in not caring for the Earth or for our neighbours who suffer from lack of basic resources or from environment degradation” (Houghton 2006, 317). I would argue that if Christianity succeeds in redefining the creation narrative that has been so heavily criticised by the likes of White then there may be an argument that Christian’s attitudes might alter as a result.

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In stark contrast to Christianity’s approach, Buddhism takes a different stance in that the self cannot be separated from nature. Padmasiri De Silva argues that “human traits such as acquisitiveness, excessive possessiveness…are reciprocally linked to the belief in ego” (Silva 1998, 38) and that this leads humans to think that they are masters of the environment when in fact everything is interconnected. This ideology is influenced by the classic Buddhist notion of pratityasamutpada: all things are interconnected and depend on one another. This is quite different to the approaches of White and Chryssavgis whom believe that the earth is for us to use as the superior race. Perhaps Christianity would benefit from being less egotistical and taking on Buddhism’s notion that the world is one and that there is always an element of interconnectedness in all of our acts. However, it is not only Christians whom have been accused of being egotistical. It follows that both Buddhists and Christians have taken part in letting go of their egos, though this has meant two different things for both religions. Rosemary Radford Ruther in conversation with Rita M. Gross states that “the Buddhist focus on letting go of the ego is more a recognition, on a deeply insightful level, of one’s own contingency and interconnection with all things”. Whereas the Christian idea of letting go focuses more on self-deprecation (Gross and Reuther 2001, 150-153). I am more convinced by the approach of Buddhism here as I believe seeing ourselves as closely connected to all living things is more persuasive than the Christian view of us being a soul separate from the body. The Christian outlook, to me, seems rather rigid. Although it is a western religion surviving in a largely secular society, I would contend that Buddhism’s attitudes towards social issues are more malleable in the sense that not viewing ourselves as the superior race means that we would care more for the environment. However, Gotlieb has challenged this in saying that Buddhism argues practices allowing pollution are much less rooted in their own culture rather than a Western one. Conversely, Gotlieb has said that a problem arises here. While a religion such as Buddhism lacks Christianity’s human-nature dualism, it also lacks social criticism meaning that there is an element of social passivity. This would make them contributors to the inactive witness of the environmental crisis. (Gotlieb 2010). Although I am sympathetic to what Gotlieb is arguing here, I disagree with him. Through my research, I have found that a common criticism of Buddhism from the West is that of their social passivity. I think we must be careful when making such sweeping statements. John B. Cobb argues that “the point is not that Buddhist cultures fail to do a good job of socialization. They have well-developed structures of society with clear understanding of socially desirable behaviour patterns.” (John B. Cobb 1998, 132). It is true that Buddhists lack the critical element of socialization, but it is fair to say that even Christians are divided over whether self-criticism is central to faith.

I believe that ‘engaged Buddhism’ might also challenge Gotlieb’s argument. Buddhists taking influence from the West and arguably the Christian perspective and begin to become actively involved in dealing with social crises. This is seen in footage of a Nepalese Buddhist leader His Eminence the 10th Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche I see that this is not the case. Rinpoche argues that there is a “strong linkage between the environmental issue and the Buddhist theory”. He discusses the notion of karma, the idea that what you do negatively or positively comes back to you. He believes that the environmental crisis is the fault of human beings through misuse or excessive use of resources, arguing that it is important for Buddhist practitioners to respect the environment. Locally he has encouraged changes such as cleaning the Parping area of litter, planting 1000 trees at the Tibetan camp in Pokhara and introducing compost pit for kitchen waste which is then used to help trees and flowers grow. (Rinpoche 2013). This may be perceived as. The Christian might consider what Rinpoche has achieved to too localised and question how much change this is actually enforcing. However, the Buddhist might respond by saying that everything is interconnected and the changes that they are making locally might have a knock-on effect elsewhere. Therefore, although I agree with Gotlieb’s criticism of Buddhism’s social passivity I would argue that this has begun to change and that this is an instance in which perhaps Buddhism has benefitted from a dialogue with Christianity as they have begun to take action. However, the Christian might argue whether or not the Buddhist viewpoint tells us which elements of the environment we should be prioritizing. Is simply saying that everything is interconnected substantial?

In recent times, numerous Christian environmental ethics have been put forward. For example, Peter Scott whom is concerned with environmental-political philosophy has been critical of type of interpretation which he calls “symbolic hermeneutic”. He believes that this approach ignores the material and that we should be taking a political-ideological approach to interpretation. He believes that we should be starting with a clear picture of the constraints in which humankind can exercise their freedom. He argues that to do this we must understand all of the political, social and economic aspects. (Scott 2003, 26) Henceforth, as the hypothetical moral and political implications of the environmental crisis has been more heavily discussed in Christianity, Cobb believes that Buddhists might benefit from a conversation with Christians. He argues that what Buddhism is “lacking is trans-social norm by virtue of which society is judged” (John B. Cobb 1998, 133). As mentioned earlier, this is the approach that Gotlieb takes. Christianity’s largest criticism of Buddhism is that it simply lacks the social criticism that they do.

The notion of interrelatedness in Buddhism is more radical than that of Christianity. There is, however, a Christian notion of interrelatedness in the Trinity that could be argued to be transferrable to nature. Sigurd Bergmann contends that a re-reading of the Trinity can enable us to interpret nature in a different way. He argues that the interrelatedness of the three persons in the doctrine of the Trinity might be an example for us when it comes to nature, he says that this “notion helps us understand how the ontologies of Creator and creation can converge.” (Bergmann 2005, 282). It is therefore my view that an opening for a dialogue between Buddhists and Christians might arise here. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity has been compared by scholars to the Buddhists notion of shunyata, translated as emptiness or voidness. Michael Von Bruck contends the following, “According to Christianity and, if my analysis of shunyata is valid…the deepest, final experience does not point towards a motionless substance, but toward creative participation.”. Moreover, Bruck states that the Trinity is similar to the notion of shunyata in that the divine or ultimate is both beyond and in our experiences. (Bruck 1990, 66) Bruck has faced criticism for this comparison but it is my belief that this is an important starting point for inter-religions dialogue.

“It is as if engaging in shared social action provides people with “new ears” to hear each other, or antennas by which they can hear things in other worldviews that they could never have heard before. By working together, struggling together, being frustrated together, maybe even going to jail together, they start to feel differently toward each other” (Knitter 2013). I believe that Knitter sums up what I am trying to argue in this essay perfectly. It may not be that Christianity and Buddhism necessarily have the same motives when it comes to the challenge of the environment, but I would argue that they have the same aim and therefore there is an opportunity for some form of dialogue here. There is an overlapping consensus and so both sides would, in my opinion, benefit from dialogue. I would contend that both Christianity would benefit from some form of dialogue. Christianity may benefit from Buddhism in terms of understanding nature and Buddhism may benefit from Christianity in terms of learning more about environmental ethics.

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