NEW YORK — As environmental issues captured the world's attention in 1990, religious groups brought their theological insights to the cause by focusing on the responsibility to preserve and protect God's creation.
In doing so, religious bodies continued their move away from classic views of creation that set humankind and nature against one another by stressing the biblical call for humans to have "dominion" over nature.
Pope John Paul II opened the year with a message for the Jan. 1 World Day of Prayer for Peace in which he equated ecological destruction with contempt for humanity. The Pope linked disregard for nature and plundering of resources with a decline in the quality of life and said that decline leads to a "sense of precariousness and insecurity" that creates "a seedbed for collective selfishness, disregard for others and dishonesty."
Later in January, religious and scientific leaders from around the world gathered in Moscow and issued a statement calling for joint commitment toward "preserving and cherishing the earth" and a plan of action to forge a "fundamental change in attitudes and practices that have pushed our world to a perilous brink."
Among the religious traditions represented were Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jainist, Jewish, Shintoist, Sikh and indigenous faiths.
William Reilly, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, spoke frequently of the need to articulate a new "spiritual vision" of conservation and stewardship.
Addressing a group of Catholic leaders in Washington in January, Reilly urged them to articulate a "clear ethical foundation" for efforts to protect the environment. And in May, at a Washington gathering on "Caring for Creation," he said, "We must go beyond compulsion, laws and incentives. We must engage the heart, which is not reached by appeals to law or science."
Delegates to a World Council of Churches gathering in Seoul, South Korea, March 5-13 linked issues of justice and peace with preservation of creation. Although the gathering failed to adopt the theological section of a World Council document called "Between the Flood and the Rainbow," officials of the ecumenical organization said the document had fulfilled one of its major purposes--to inspire theological discussion about major threats to life on Earth.
The religious community was involved at the grass-roots level in observing Earth Day 1990 on April 22, as demonstrated by requests from more than 2,000 congregations for a "religious resource packet" provided by the North American Conference on Religion and Ecology.
Diane E. Sherwood, communications director for the conference in Washington, said that in contrast to Earth Day 1970, environmentalists in 1990 were "very aware of the importance of getting the churches involved" and had come to recognize that "without religion, those people concerned about the environment will not turn into a majority."
The Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility reported in April that activists in the religious community were increasingly devoting more attention to the environment, filing a record 38 shareholder resolutions on environmental issues.
Center Director Tim Smith predicted that the environment will be the leading social concern of the 1990s, noting what he called an "unprecedented concern about the future of the planet."
In June, Presbyterians meeting at the denomination's General Assembly declared "restoring creation as a central concern of the church, to be incorporated into its life and mission at every level."
The Presbyterians adopted a major paper entitled "Restoring Creation for Ecology and Justice" which called for creation of a new General Assembly office and program on environmental justice and stewardship and inclusion of eco-justice perspectives throughout the church's mission and ministry units.
Mainline denominations were not the only church bodies to join the cause in 1990. The Seventh-day Adventist Church adopted a statement on care of the Earth at its World Conference held in July in Indianapolis. "The environmental crisis is not simply economic and political. It is also moral and spiritual, for it impinges on our relationship to our creator as stewards of his creation," the statement said.
The Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren, one of the nation's historic "peace" churches, approved a discussion paper in July that said, "As Christians, we can reform our theology and contribute to society a new appreciation for the sacredness of all creation. Individually and collectively, we can change the way we live so that instead of destroying the earth we can help it to thrive, today and for future generations. . . . As a church, are we ready to commit ourselves to this challenge?"