[Editor’s Note: This essay resides within Anna Gade’s “Landscapes of Prayer: Islam, the Environment, and Java,” a portal into the study of prayer.]
Pope Francis’ historic encyclical on the environment has the potential to bring new religious voices to conversations about the environment in the United States, and it could significantly change landscapes of prayer when it comes to religion and environment in the United States. Examining the differing types of religious responses to ecological conditions indicates the complex array of religious reconfigurations emerging in the Anthropocene era. In Landscapes of Prayer, Anna Gade documents ways that environmental changes in the Anthropocene have contributed to changing prayer practices among Muslims in Indonesia. Picking up on her final point, that environmental prayers are globalized performances related to “pluralistic religious norms of environmentalism,” I’d like to shift geographical focus as I consider related trends at Faith in Place, an interfaith environmental organization in Chicago.
To date, interfaith environmentalism in the United States has primarily attracted liberal Protestants and others who maintain theologically progressive outlooks. This coalition has shaped the “pluralistic norms of environmentalism” in particular ways. The main difference I see between Gade’s interlocutors and my own concerns the relationship between emerging environmental religious practices and traditional religious forms. Among Muslims in Indonesia, Gade observes that environmental prayers preserve religious and ritual structures while introducing a new dedication or intent. Even at the expressly environmental eco-pesantren, environmental purposes were not made explicit. At Faith in Place, an interfaith environmental coalition where 81% of the supporters were Protestant, participants appeared much more comfortable with environmental religious innovations, embracing events such as “bike to worship” Sundays and solar panel dedication ceremonies as innovative ways to bring environmental awareness to the center of religious life. Faith in Place’s executive director sought to redefine the boundaries of traditional prayer even more, as she often insisted that switching to energy-efficient light bulbs can be an “act of worship, an act of love and faith.”
Conserving energy and other “environmental” activities in this register became the prayer. According to this outlook, the earth is God’s creation, and acts undertaken to respect it are acts undertaken to praise God. Traditional forms of devotion recede in importance because environmental activities themselves are acts of faith.
These differences between the contours of environmental religious practice or devotion relate to a range of understandings of the intentions and purposes for undertaking such acts. Gade indicates that her informants’ environmental religious expressions reflected expectations of instrumentalism, so that those praying for rain did so with the expectation that God would respond. Faith in Place participants generally did not hold expectations of instrumentalism in their environmental prayers because their theological outlooks rejected belief in an interventionist God. As the organization’s Unitarian Universalist executive director explained it, prayer is a way of conforming oneself to the will of God. Prayer was understood at Faith in Place to involve work on the self much more than work on the world.
While it is not particularly surprising that my liberal Protestant interlocutors did not hold expectations of instrumentalism in their environmental prayers, it is surprising that they did not hold such expectations of instrumentalism in their environmental actions, either. Rather than praying to God for specific environmental outcomes such as relief from drought, Faith in Place participants sought to achieve particular outcomes through human actions and believed that environmental policy was the primary locus for real change: citing the enormity of the environmental crisis, they tended not to believe that individual acts would make any measurable difference. Yet they insisted that maintaining an eco-friendly lifestyle was still important as a matter of “personal integrity.” As one intern put it, making the effort to recycle was important even if her refuse ended up in a landfill, because making such efforts “helps me sleep at night.”
Similar to their symbolic understandings of prayer, Faith in Place participants saw engagement in eco-friendly practices (e.g. recycling and conserving energy) as primarily symbolic activity that contributed to making better selves. In that sense, their understandings related to an explanation of eco-dikhr by H.M. Nasruddin, who described the practices as a mode of self-cultivation. But, whereas the eco-dikhr was intended to cultivate a better self that could not harm the environment, Faith in Place participants saw eco-friendly behaviors as ways of creating a better self.
While Indonesian Muslims and Faith in Place participants differed in their expectations of instrumentalism related to environmental prayers, they shared an understanding of instrumentalism in another register related to environmental religious devotion: religious vitality. Gade notes that certain aspects of environmental religious observance might actually have the effect of revitalizing religious practices that are on the decline, like the increased popularity (but altered understandings) of labuhan devotions after the eruption of Mt. Merapi. Some Faith in Place participants explicitly sought a similar revitalization of religious life when they initiated environmental programming, hoping that their demonstrated concern for the environmental crisis would bring vitality to dying churches and add new, younger members to their declining ranks. Sarah McFarland Taylor considers the same phenomenon in Green Sisters, when she suggests that ecological activism among Catholic sisters might attract new vocations to their orders. Whether ecological devotions preserve traditional religious forms or create new ones, contemporary practitioners seem to understand ecological religious adaptations, and by extension the ecological conditions that shaped them, as contributing to revitalized religious life.
I began this reflection by commenting that Faith in Place’s religious environmental devotions shaped the “pluralistic religious norms of environmentalism” in particular ways, and will end with an explicit example. Gade notes that expectations of rationalism have silenced traditional forms of “nature” prayer in the case of labuhan devotions, and in the case of recast traditional devotions, expressly environmental references are pushed off to realm of interior, private belief. Rationalist expectations at Faith in Place enabled environmental activities themselves to be rendered acts of faith, but also precluded the possibility of some faith acts as traditionally understood. In January 2014, the Catholic bishops of California asked people of all faiths to pray for relief from the drought. While Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and Mormons have responded to the call, such a practice would not be welcomed at Faith in Place because it would not accord with liberal Protestant expectations of rationalism. At Faith in Place, environmental actions could be religious acts, but religious acts as traditionally understood were not considered to have any efficacy in terms of the environment.