Theologians, Scientists Meet on 'Green Ethics'

The two communities join forces to change attitudes on environmental protection

A prayer and three verses of the hymn ''All Creatures of Our God and King'' is not the typical opening for a meeting cosponsored by the nation's largest science organizations.

Yet the opening and the meeting itself, held here this past weekend, typify a growing effort by scientific and religious communities to join forces to head off what many see as looming environmental catastrophes - from global warming to destruction of habitats and extinction of species.

Organized by the Boston Theological Institute (BTI), a consortium of nine local seminaries and theological schools, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the conference brought together natural and social scientists, economists, environmental activists, ministers, and religious educators from around the United States.

The immediate aim was to lay the groundwork for teaching science-based environment courses at local seminaries, says the Rev. Barbara Mason-Smith, director of the Center for Faith and Science Exchange in Newton, Mass.

The need, conference organizers say, is to bring about a change in public attitudes about consumption and underpin that change with sound science.

With public opinion polls showing strong support for environmental protection, it might seem as if preaching on morality and the environment is preaching to the choir. But ''there's a huge gap between saying and doing,'' says Jane Lubchenko, a professor of marine biology at Oregon State University, who takes over as president of AAAS in February.

Richard Lovelace, professor of church history at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, cites Vice President Al Gore's observation that what is politically possible falls far short of what is needed to reverse environmental degradation.

But, Mr. Lovelace says, it is useful to recall the clergy's role in changing 19th-century England's views on slavery. The arguments against the change included the impossibility of abolishing slavery without inflicting economic disaster and social disorder on the empire. Yet over a few years and with coordinated effort, the religious community was able to change attitudes so that abolition became possible. This is what's needed, he says, to change attitudes on consumption patterns and their environmental impact.

''The religious community is one of the few intact communities of moral discourse in this country,'' says Audrey Chapman, a pastor in the United Church of Christ. ''Much of the work the religious community has done to date has tended to look at theological issues, such as love and caring for creation. We now need to develop religious-based ethics that are far more specific, such as the ethics of population and consumption. But these must be scientifically grounded.''

The effort to forge stronger links between science and religious communities comes as many denominations are increasing their environmental focus. In 1994, the US Catholic Conference, the National Council of Churches, the Consultation on the Environment and Jewish Life, and the Evangelical Environmental Network formed the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. Last year, the group mailed 53,000 information packets tailored to each group's religious teachings. The Southern Baptist Convention also emphasizes environmental stewardship.

Last September, the Greek Orthodox Church convened an international conference on science, religion and environment, and afterwards expanded its definition of sin to include sins against nature, such as forcing species into extinction or degrading the atmosphere.

The connections between environmental issues, liberal politics, New Age thinking, or even pagan rites, however, remain a concern to many. The Southern Baptist Convention's Christian Life Commission, for example, pointed out in its stewardship effort that the emphasis must remain on worshipping God, not rocks or trees.

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