V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Science vs religion

Published in the Toronto Sun and Sun Media papers May, 2008.

It's a match made in eco-heaven.

Science blushes in her starched, white lab coat while Religion stands tall in his flowing black robe. They exchange vows, pledging to have and to hold each other in sickness and in health. And then they're pronounced "Mr. and Mrs. Ecotheology."

It's an unlikely coupling between two institutions that have traditionally been at odds with each other over life, death and everything in between. But what used to be considered a fringe movement among a marginalized tree-hugging clergy in the 1970s, has become a serious scholarly field of study, said Dennis O'Hara, a director at the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology at the University of Toronto.

Indeed, in 1991 U of T's St. Michael's College became the first university in North America to offer a doctoral degree in ecotheology. Since then, interest in the subject has grown so much that it's now taught at 25 colleges and universities in Canada alone.

Ecotheology is a branch of theology that explores the connection between God and His creation, O'Hara explains. "It's recognizing the sacredness of creation," he said. "We find God not only in the Scriptures, but in creation."

It's also a philosophy taught at the highest levels of Godliness. Last year, the Vatican hosted a climate change conference and called environmental abuse tantamount to sinning. Meanwhile, evangelical leaders in the U.S. teamed up with a coalition of scientists issuing Washington "an urgent call to action" and Southern Baptist leaders also called it a biblical duty to stop global warming.

At a time when church attendance is on the decline, especially among younger generations, the environment has been described as the new religion: a devotion to the safeguarding of the planet's resources which belongs to everyone, regardless of faith. It isn't an organized religion, but it fills a human need for the metaphysical, experts say.

"People want something bigger than themselves," said Mishka Lysack.

Lysack is a rare hybrid: He's a professor of social work at the University of Calgary, an ordained Anglican priest, and is also a co-chair of curriculum and research at the university's office of sustainability.

"But is it a religion per se?," he ponders aloud. "Is there a kinship? I would say yes, but for me personally, I don't see the split between the two."

God manifests himself in nature, Lysack said, and reveals himself through "ecstatic experiences," moments of the sublime when the beauty of a sunset, for example, can evoke spirituality.

O'Hara prefers to call the green movement a "reawakening" to part of a tradition that had long been forgotten.

Somewhere along the line, mankind adopted a human-centred view of the planet, he said, assuming dominion over everything.

"But if you read the Scripture, we realize that God has a great fondness for all of creation, and that we must live in way that allows everything to flourish."

Al Gore is often described as the modern-day prophet of revelations for An Inconvenient Truth. He's both vilified and deified, and has called it a "moral imperative" to fight global warming. Likewise, ecotheology calls planetary stewardship a Christian responsibility.

"Ultimately, the question of global warming is a moral question," Lysack said. "What is our priority? To serve our own needs, and to place at risk future generations?"

God communicates to mankind through nature, O'Hara adds, like the rainbow which symbolized God's covenant to Noah never to flood the world again.

"Destroying creation would be silencing the voice of God which is a preposterous thought."

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