Interfaith Earth Day — At the intersection of theology and ecology

Terra Rowe (Hillary Harvey Photography)

“Whether you are a religious person on not, it’s crucial to have an understanding of religion and how these belief systems are shaping the way our representatives and senators are voting,” said Terra Rowe, a scholar of ecotheology and Visiting Lecturer of Religion and Philosophy at Marist College. “Despite the damage Christianity has done in our treatment of the environment, there are many voices in the Bible, a vast amount of resources within the tradition to go to. Sometimes a change in context calls for a change in the kinds of resources we emphasize.”

Rowe, a Lutheran, will join practitioners of three other faith traditions — Sufi Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist — in an Earth Day Observance 5:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 20 at Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper. Sponsored by the Woodstock Interfaith Council, the panel discussion will address spiritual approaches to stewardship of the environment, followed by an outdoor ceremony in view of the mountain and a community dinner prepared by monastery staff.

Panelists will include Robert Micha’el Esformes of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, Juliet Rabia Gentile of the Dergah al-Farah Sufi lodge, and Jan Tarlin from Karma Triyana Dhamachakra Monastery. I have been asked to moderate the discussion.


Rowe, whose work involves the intersection of Christianity and ecology, speaks about the concept of grace as a gift freely given by God and how that expectation shapes our treatment of the Earth. In her book Toward a Better Worldliness: Economy, Ecology and the Protestant Tradition, just out from Fortress Press, she explores our understanding of grace as part of the history of Protestantism and its relationship with capitalism.

“Our basic understanding of what a gift is has changed in the modern period,” explained Rowe. “It’s moved from an idealized version of exchange to a free gift, with no expectation for us to pay anything back. Most people understand grace that way, but there are persuasive arguments saying that this understanding led to the modern commodification of things, individualism, and an absolute separation of public and private realms.”

The study of religion, said Rowe, allows us to identify these values and see how they contribute to exploitation of the earth and indifference to climate change. Many people respond to such insights by moving away from religion, but she feels that “from a strategic point of view, that’s not going to work in our culture today. We need to be able to speak the language of people immersed in a religious system and demonstrate how their own views may be inconsistent with the beliefs they are espousing.”

As an alternative to the concept of grace as a free gift, she points to a Biblical text from Colossians. “Paul talks about salvation being not just an individual thing. He says what God wants is salvation of the entire cosmos. How can we trash the world when it’s clear from those texts that even the non-human part of creation is essential to God and part of God’s plan for saving and redeeming the world?” For Luther any act of service done for humanity was an act of service for God, not given in return for grace but rather paying the gift forward, “continuing to spread that gift to nature and to humanity.”

Rowe is the granddaughter of a Lutheran pastor. “My family came from Germany,” she said. “We’ve probably been Lutheran since Luther. It’s a tradition I feel has chosen me, and I’m choosing to take responsibility for it as well. When it comes to environmental concerns, we need to critically examine our own tradition and its role in contributing to those problems before we claim to have answers.”

In the current political climate, where the EPA is being stripped of its powers, such issues are more pressing than ever. At the Earth Day event, Rowe and the other presenters will speak on what our various spiritual traditions say about our relationship to the earth and how those traditions can inspire us to take action on environmental issues.

Woodstock Interfaith Council presents an Earth Day Observance with panel discussion, ceremony, and community dinner, on Thursday, April 20, 5:30-7:30 p.m., at Zen Mountain Monastery, 871 Plank Road, Mount Tremper. Admission is free of charge.