Panelists see environmentalism’s roots in major religions of world

The seeds for an environmentally conscious lifestyle are planted in the ancestry of the world's three major religions, according to panelists at an interfaith environmental presentation.

Representatives from Islam, Judaism and Christianity spoke at "Caring for the Environment is a Moral Faith Issue: People of Faith Working Toward a Just and Sustainable Future" in the Alumni Memorial Union Monday.

Religions should be connected to the environmental health of the world because religions are intimately linked to humans – the agent of most environmental degradation, according to Dave Steffenson, a Methodist minister and former college chaplain.

Islam treats the natural world with great respect because God created it, according to Zulfiqar Shah, a Muslim theologian.

"It is God only who has created heaven and Earth, the animals, the resources. He also created humans," Shah said.

Muslims view the role of man as that of a caretaker of God's family.

"The creatures are the family of God, they are related to him," Shah said.

Humans were given the role of vigilant protector because they were given the "special gift" of reason and intelligence, he said. This gift compels humankind to act in a way pleasing to God and all his creation.

"As humans, we are not allowed to kill human beings. In this same manner, people need to treat the works of God as family. Take what is needed, but do not destroy," Shah said.

A significant Jewish environmentalist movement has its foundation in the Torah. A passage in Deuteronomy in which an invading army is warned not to destroy fruit trees as they advance toward an enemy's city forms the basis for the movement known in English as "do not destroy."

This movement emphasizes efficiency and conservation at all costs, according to Jewish scholar Elisha Herb. It is up to humans to avoid "needless waste and wanton consumption," Herb said, and to make "intelligent use" of the planet's finite resources.

Like Judaism, Christianity's moorings to the environmental movement are found in ancient scripture. Steffenson, the Methodist minister and former college chaplain, said the Genesis accounts of creation establish the precedent of humans as stewards of the world, which he compared to "a gift" and "a garden."

"The world is a gift," Steffenson said. "Even if you're a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, you know you didn't create the world."

Steffenson also made the distinction that most "environmental" problems are actually those created by humans.

"The crisis in the environment is us," he said.

The panel was part of the Students for an Environmentally Active Campus' weeklong celebration of Earth Day, which is Friday. The campus group, the Wisconsin Interfaith Climate and Energy Campaign, the Islamic Society of Milwaukee and the Islamic Environmental Group of Wisconsin sponsored the panel.

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on April 19 2005.