Asheville Bioneers discuss religion and sustainability

(image by Caryn Hanna)

“Religion and sustainability — now there’s an oxymoron,” joked Rev. Steve Runholdt of Warren Wilson Presbyterian Church, one of three clergy who sat on the Nov. 19 panel “Religion & Sustainability: Views from the Bridge.” The presentation was part of the third annual “Taste of Bioneers” Conference held at the Lenoir-Rhyne Center for Graduate Studies of Asheville.

One’s initial reaction, as Runholdt notes, is that religion and sustainability are like oil and water — they don’t mix.

So what’s the relationship? To Many, religion is too concerned with transcendence to concern itself with sustainability and sustainability is too scientific to concern itself with religion.

Runholdt acknowledged that, historically, his own religious tradition has a bad record of dealing with the environment and sustainability, often stemming from what he described as an interpretation of a verse in Genesis that exhorts humans to exercise dominion over other life. However, he emphasized, things are dramatically changing.

“Communities of faith are one of the most immediate, primed resources who are passionate about this out there, [and] denominations of all kinds are issuing formal statements on climate change—formal statements on the need to practice better environmental stewardship,” said Runholdt, “Denominations are devoting offices specifically to creation care. Parish organizations are springing up all over the place: Interfaith Power and Light, Green Faith, Blessed Earth, Evangelical Environmental Network, and right here in WNC (which I’m very closely aligned with), the Creation Care Alliance,” he continued.

Runholdt’s presentation during the November panel discussion was a collaborative effort between Lenoir-Rhyne University and Asheville Green Drinks. In addition to Runholdt, the panel included clergy Rabbi Justin Goldstein of Congregation Beth Israel and High Priestess Byron Ballard of Mother Grove Goddess Temple. The discussion was opened and moderated by Dr. Adam Powell of Lenoir-Rhyne’s Masters in Religious Studies program.

Each panelist contributed unique insights, giving the audience multiple perspectives and evidence that the pairing of religion and sustainability is anything but an oxymoron — but emphasized that religious leaders must play an integral role in creating a sustainable world.

Independent of any theological, dogmatic or even liturgical tenets and habits, Runholdt said, religious communities are primed and ready to take a key role. They are a passionate contingent of the population that he sees as potentially indispensable to accomplishing what needs to be done for a sustainable future, he explained.

And he’s right: Historically, religious communities have played a massive role in facilitating social and political change. Why?

For Dr. Powell, looking at religion from a psychological and sociological standpoint offers a wealth of insight into how religion can and does influence societal change. He pointed to the ancient Greek scientist Archimedes, who said, “ Give me a place to stand and I can move the world.” In other words, Powell elaborated, religious belief can be viewed as an “Archimedean Point,”and religious communities as one of the best equipped to transform this world. “[Their] transcendent position—or orientation to the world— by virtue of its location outside of that world, allows for great change within that world,” he said, “And for nearly a century, various social scientists have recognized that religious belief is one of the most salient of those Archimedean points.”

Even if you take a look at the world today — whether for good or ill — who are generally the most outspoken and passionate activists? Often, they’re the ones who are inspired by their perceived relationship to the divine, an other-worldly calling, a will to make on earth what they hold so dear to their souls about an ideal society, a righteous society, a just society, or what have you, he said. Powell pointed to the deep-seated emotion found in religious adherents as second to none in determining socio-cultural change.

But we all know that such passion is not always pretty, and thus for many, the word “religion” itself is tarnished — hence the oft heard adage in progressive communities like Asheville: “I’m spiritual, not religious.”

Plenty of people want to distance themselves from religion with the idea that religion is shallow and spirituality is deep, religion is divisive, spirituality tolerant. Rabbi Goldstein, however, had a different perspective. “Overcoming crises is built into what we call ‘religion,’” he said. “The fascinating thing about the word ‘religion’ is that is comes from the same Latin root [as] ‘ligament.’”

Indeed, when traced to its Latin etymology, religion means to “re-attach” or to “re-bind” — either to rebind people to each other, or rebind people to the divine.

“We talk about sustainability as though it only relates to the environment,” said Goldstein, “The reality is that every one of us as an individual needs to live personally sustainable lives. Not only economically sustainable, but emotionally sustainable, spiritually sustainable — pick whatever ‘ly’ you want to put before the word ‘sustainable.’”

Goldstein explained that even independent of sociological roles, even independent of faith or spiritual benefit, ancient religious traditions offer practical wisdom on how to live — and that we would be remiss in overlooking that wealth.

“As much as the growing trend in America is to step away from religion, things don’t survive for [three millenia] because they are useless,” he said.

In light of religion’s etymology, Goldstein did acknowledge its double-edged nature: “Religion can serve two different purposes: either it holds things together — which on the surface is what the word is supposed to infer — or it can hold you back.”

Like religion, American culture is a double-edged sword: It’s great at innovation and iconoclasm. But it also can break just for the sake of breaking, change for the sake of changing, whether or not it actually serves an intrinsic purpose or benefit. As Dr. Powell and the panelists illustrated about religion, it provides people and communities a platform, a context, and a story in which to exercise their imaginations for ideal living, and wisdom for forging sustainable relationships.

“What’s going to save us is figuring out that there is no ‘other,’” said Ballard, “That time of ‘othering’ cultures and people is past. We can no longer afford this luxury to say ‘You’re not a part of me.’ I don’t have the luxury. None of us have the luxury of that kind ANYMORE. Find your allies. Stand at their back, let them stand at yours,” she urged.

For Ballard, a Pagan, the Earth in itself is a culmination of divinity. In fact, she sees earth religions as the most ancient religion, from which all other religious traditions owe their roots. Caring for the earth and living in balance with nature is the very explicit purpose of her practice —making its connection to sustainability rather obvious.

During her speech, Ballard vacillated between playful retrospection of humanity’s precarious situation on Earth today, and grave exhortation to snap into a reality she described as “tower times.”

“Whether or not the planet will choose to reject us is yet to be seen,” she said, “I believe we are living in what we call ‘Tower Times,’ based on the tarot card The Tower. And I think we are privileged to be here in this time when huge overpowering systems that have been in place for thousands of years are finally crumbling — like on the tarot card. We are seeing it in government, we are seeing it in religion, we are seeing it in the university system, the medical system…and what this means for us is that we get to create circles on the ground.”

For Ballard, re-learning what many call ‘primitive skills’ — basically the skills needed to survive in small communities without reliance on an industrial complex — is becoming more common. We are getting back to a sensuous relationship with nature and each other, and that this movement is inherently religious and spiritual, she said.

Religion — an opiate of the masses? Dubious. Religion and sustainability — still an oxymoron? From the academic realm to the clerical, there is a lot of attention being devoted to religion’s role in sustainability, and only time will tell how ancient traditions hold up to very modern challenges unimaginable to the ancient world.

“A Rabbi, a Pagan, and a Presbyterian walk into a bar …” joked Runholdt. The audience laughed, and he left the joke hanging. “But seriously,” he said, think about it: “A Rabbi. A Pagan. And a Presbyterian are up here, speaking on sustainability. That. Is. Cool.

The Taste of Bioneers conference is an annual event. Click here for more information on the Bioneers program, or visit the Lenoir-Rhyne Center of Graduate Studies for Asheville website to learn about upcoming events.

To read highlights from the third evening in the series, click here for Erik Peake’s story about the “Scaling Solutions for Social Change” presentation.




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About Jordan Foltz
Exploring the subtle and esoteric aspects of what drives and inspires people to take action— including religion, spirituality, ethics, and aesthetics.

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