Sunday, November 25, 2007

Many Faiths, One Purpose

Many Faiths, One Purpose

By France Yoli Maya Yeh Joseph Copywright 2006

The world of today is a myriad of cultures and traditions that is no longer staying within individual boundary lines. Just a few hundred years ago, prior to the colonization of the world by the West, the world was a much smaller place. In urban centers cultures mixed more and learned of the one another whereas in rural settings, life and tradition continued on nearly uninterrupted. Our world today is a burgeoning global community where lines demarcate countries and governances, but the peoples and their traditions have expanded and relocated to all parts of the Earth.

As a result of global expansion, we are no longer isolated within traditional frameworks. Despite being born into a specific culture or tradition, the different religions and faiths of the world are now open information for all. It may be that in the neighborhood one lives, there are families of different faiths and cultural backgrounds. Living in a democratic land, we all make decisions together and what faith systems we belong to contribute to our ways of thinking, and problem solving.

As our complexities grow in the global community, so does the academic and experiential interest in analyzing and creating new systems and methodologies in order for communication and interaction to occur. A need has arisen to figure out how to dialogue, how to interact, and how to problem solve together. It requires research in psychological, sociological, anthropological, philosophical, and theological realms, and this is starting right now.

Interreligious Dialogue is both and area of experiential activity and a research topic in theological study. In its experiential framework is consist of techniques, resources, and engagement of the ‘other’. As an academic area of study it is the reflection on the encounter of the ‘other’ and the analysis of the self-other construct of the mind. In this way, Interreligious Dialogue is a structure and methodology of process of self-reflection, experienced in the encounter with the ‘other’.

As all cultures and traditions are meeting each other today, we need some guidelines and practices in order to move toward healthy interaction and encounter. Scholars like Judith Berling in Other Religious Worlds, and Paul Knitter in Theologies of Religions, have described methodologies they have used for Interreligious education, and dialogue. In these two books, both speak from a Christian perspective and to mainly Christian audiences. They both suggest core structural values that are present in Interreligious Dialogue.

The start of the learning process is engaging difference. This is an act of listening and opening up one’s self to the unknown. In listening to all who have gathered together a common ground is created. This also starts to paint a picture of things that are similar and things that are different amongst the traditions. Another important aspect of the learning process is responding from one’s own location. Participants in dialogue are sharing the traditions they know and practice. Part of the trepidation in engaging the ‘other’ is that one is ignorant of their tradition.

A third element is conversation. After learning more about one another, initial communication lines are growing and expanding into a two way flowing conversation. As terms and concepts get defined, so does the cross-reference and cross-definition. One may find striking similarities in beliefs, practices and core values. This leads to an important aspect of the dialogue process that is living out what is learned. The developing of relationships deepens one’s understanding of another’s faith and traditions and a deeper understanding of one’s own tradition. From the conversation outside the home, the same analysis and reflection will come into the faith community and into the home. No longer is the ‘other’ an unknown object and fear-inducing. The ‘other’ has become more aligned with the self.

The last element is perhaps one of the most important. It is the aspect of internalizing the learning process. After the encounter with the ‘other’, the self reflects on the object of observation. When one chooses to see difference, difference is seen. When one wants to see sameness, that too can be observed. Through the engagement, conversation and then self-reflection, the initial cycle of engagement-change is completed. The unknown object that was feared, because it was unknown, is no longer feared or hated because of the transformation that came as a result of the outer engagement and inner self-reflection.

The evolution of growth that has emerged from the arena of Interreligious Dialogue should not be left alone to be just an exercise in dialogue. The heart of the activity is in the creation of a common ground of communication and action. That bond between individuals and communities now needs to be applied in ways of social action and social justice. Of the many pressing issues effecting our global community today, one of the most prominent is the desperate state of the earth’s ecology and environment. We are many cultures, traditions, and faiths, but our human habits of consumption have put our current and future generations in a real danger of environmental failure as a result of global warming, pollution, waste, and consumption of natural resources.

Interreligious Dialogue is a tool for change. By finding our universal commonality on core issues, this presents the world community with a chance to rally from within our communities in order to face core issues of the survival of our traditions and faith into the future. This paper will explore the concepts of green philosophy and concepts of earth stewardship in Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. By illustrating the commonality of concepts amongst these three major faiths of the world, a way of creating a common ground in order to evoke necessary change on the Earth is explained.

Christianity and the Family of Earth

Understanding that there are many Christianities in the world, both the Old and New Testaments are incredible sources for a Christian community to reference on what has been taught from the beginning of man playing his part as a responsible member of the family of earth. The inherent good nature of the earth is described in Isa 6:3 :

The earth is very good. Neither demonic nor divine, neither meaningless nor sufficient unto itself, it received its meaning and value from God. It is filled with God’s glory and permeated by God’s grace.

Humans are a part of nature but with a special role on behalf of the whole. We receive a dignity and responsibility that distinguishes us from the rest of creation, not as dominators and rulers but a stewards and caretakers. Genesis is a most often quoted section from the bible where God explained what man’s role on the Earth is to be:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle and over all the earth and over every creping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.” (Gen. 1:26-29)

This passage has been interpreted sometimes in a sense that the earth is here to provide for man and that man needs to give nothing back to the earth. To interpret in this way is simply illogical. Even though God gave seeds to man, he must still till the soil, plant the seeds, water, weed, care, and at last harvest. If the land is not prepared to rest for the winter then no plant may be grown the following year. Man still must put in the work, the co-creative work in order for the seed gifts of God to nourish the numbers with which man is graced to multiply.

In the same way, man is here on earth not simply to reap the many benefits of the earth, but to be the caretaker of these resources so that no more is taken than is needed, and these resources will be insured for the future. The main point here is that the wonder that is God’s creation must be cared for and guarded or it may one day no longer be in the hands of humans.

St. Francis of Assisi is a celebrated saint for his embrace and love of nature. It is important to reference these role models within religious faiths who exemplify ways of living and thinking of earth stewardship. St. Francis’ best known work, “Canticle of the Sun”, is an amazing expression of the Christian wonder and worship of God’s creation:

Most High, omnipotent, good Lord

All praise, glory, honor, and blessing are yours.

To you alone, Most High, do they belong,

And no many is worthy to pronounce your name.

Be praised, my Lord, with all your creatures,

Especially Sir Brother Sun,

Who brings the day, and you give light to us through him.

How handsome he is, how radiant, with great splendor!

Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Moon and the Stars.

In heaven you have formed them, bright, and precious, and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Wind,

And for Air, for Cloud, and Clear, and all weather,

By which you give your creatures nourishment.

Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Water,

She is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Fire,

By whom you light up the night.

How handsome he is, how happy, how powerful and strong!

Be praised, my Lord, for our Sister, Mother Earth.

Who nourishes and governs us,

And produces various fruits with many-colored flowers and herbs.

Praise and bless the Lord,

And give thanks and serve him with great humility.[1]

St. Francis is acknowledging the divine cosmic nature in inanimate objects of Nature. Through his poetic words one learns of the joy found in connecting with God through nature. St. Francis sees God in all things in creation, including humans. What the passages in Genesis tell is that man’s unique position is not for his greater personal good, but for the good of all beings of the earth. Man’s special endowments of mental and intellectual faculty and decision making exist not for man to dominate one another or dominate the co-inhabitants of the earth, but rather to have the necessary to skills to preserve the earth, and adapt to its changing needs.

Islam, Environmental Ethics, and Fiqh

Islam is considered a comprehensive way of life whose teachings cover, directly or indirectly, every possible human relationship with the environment. The teachings are primarily found in the Qur’an and the Sunnah. The relationships fall into the realm of Fiqh, or jurisprudence, because the idea of earth stewardship and a green philosophy is an act of faith which comes in line with the essential role of humans on the earth; to worship the one and only God.

It is a myth that environmental issues and green philosophy is something alien in the Islamic world-view. The total system of law, ethics, and jurisprudence in Islam is all-encompassing. There is no division made between these three structures of how to live life on the earth. The legal and ethical reasons for protecting the environment explain man’s role as a caretaker and vicegerent in God’s creation.

“Behold, your Lord said to the angels: “I will create a vicegerent on earth.” They said: “Will place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood? While we do celebrate Your praises and glorify Your holy (name)?” He said: “I know what you know not”” Qur’an, 2:30

As a trustee of the earth, human beings are not supposed to cause undue harm or corruption of the creation. Responsible living is when one is accountable for one’s actions, as mentioned in the Qur’an and Sunnah. God has taught man the right and just way to live and to create communities to support the children of the future.

“It is He who has made you (His) vicegerents, inheritors of the earth: He has raised you in ranks, some above others: that He may try you in the gifts He has given you: for your Lord is quick in punishment: yet He is indeed Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.” Qur’an 6:165.

In Islam, it is illustrated in the Qur’an that the totality of nature are entities in continuous praise of their creator. The sun, moon, stars, and animals are all under the protectorate of God’s creation and thus the role of man as an earth steward is an inbuilt aspect of Islamic ethics.

“The seven heavens extol His limitless glory, and the earth, and all that they contain; and there is not a single thing but extols His limitless glory and praise; but you (O Men) fail to grasp the manner of their glorifying Him!” Qur’an 17:44

All the laws of nature are made by the Creator and are based on the concept of absolute continuity. Man too is subject to the laws of nature although in our modern age this may have been largely forgotten.

“Art thou not aware that before God prostrate themselves all (things and beings) that are in the heavens and all that are on earth—the sun, and the moon, and the stars, and the mountains, and the trees, and the beasts? And any human beings (submit to God consciously), whereas many (others, having defiled Him,) will inevitably have to suffer (in the life to come), and he whom God shall scorn (on Resurrection Day) will have none who could bestow honor on him: for, verily, God does what He wills.” Qurr’an 22:18

Islamic environmental ethics acknowledges man’s role as a steward on the earth and a protector of God’s creation. It also acknowledges that every creature is worthy of respect and protection. The system of check and balance is in place, and man will be held accountable for his actions. Thus, green philosophy or the principle of living in harmony on the earth is an intrinsic part of fiqh and ethics in Islam.

Buddhism: The Eight-Fold Path and The Five Elemental States

Buddhist ecology, like Christianity and Islam has concepts of green philosophy and earth stewardship built into it intrinsic structure. The general framework of ecology and application of the laws of the ecosystem in our life are directly connected to the Noble Eight-Fold Path. The Eight-Fold Path is the ethical structure that one follows in order to keep their way along the middle of the path and not into any extremes.

The Eight-Fold Path is a way measured with every step in perfection.[2] The first step is perfection of observation.[3] This leads to the second step which is perfection of commitment.[4] This is the perfection of deciding the goal, of fixing the target. A fixed target leads to the third step, perfection of expression or perfection of communication.[5] The forth step is perfection of action[6] through which righteous systems are achieved.

This leads to the fifth step of perfection of life and livelihood[7]. This is where the perfection of action allows one to act in the world in balance avoiding the reactions. Thus, your duty and responsibility is turned to your recreation with total job-satisfaction. So, life becomes joyous, enjoying a proper livelihood. This brings the practitioner into the sixth step of perfection of diligence[8]. The steadfastness gained through the practice of perfect diligence will bring one to the seventh step, perfection of memory[9], the perfection of retaining the chronological teachings out of experiences. This leads to the final stage of the discipline, which is perfection of transcendence (Nirvana) in life (Samsara).[10]

No matter what the school of thought within the Buddhist umbrella, the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path is the basic philosophical structure of all schools of Buddhist thought. We must honor the framework of the Eight-Fold Path in order to live out the laws of the ecosystem in our daily lives. This is a basic requirement to achieve perfection of life and livelihood. At this fifth stage along the path is where the inner work of observation, commitment, communication brings one into the task of balancing the actions.

It is vital to balance the actions so that one is not accumulating the weight of negative actions. The law of cause and effect (karma) is and all-encompassing law for all inhabitants of the earth. Karma is a law for humans, but it is also a basic law of the universe. It is in the early stages of the Eight-Fold Path that the karmic implications of one’s actions are observed. If one is ignorant of the repercussions of their actions, they will still be held accountable by the law of cause and effect. Buddhist ecology rests much of its reasoning on this law.

Perfection of life and livelihood occurs when one has found a balance of their actions with the fluctuations of the mind. For the Buddhist, the work of ecological balance will not just be an outer concept, but will reside equally inwardly. Through perfection of diligence the inner and outer ecology is working towards balance. This basic science of Buddhist ecology always gives a parallel ecosystem of the inner and outer, i.e. of the subject and object. These two aspects of nature correspond to the ecosystem through a common law called The Five Elemental States (Pancaskanda).

The first is solidity, said to be earth in nature and the physical body in the human. The second is liquidity, which is water in the gross nature and the neurological flow in a human. The third is energy, which is considered to be the fire element in the outer nature and in man it is the mind. The forth is the gaseous elemental state, which is the air in the outer atmosphere, and intellect in the inner atmosphere. The fifth is the elemental state of ether, known as sky in the outer nature and in the humans it is the space and time.

The one who attains Buddhahood goes beyond cosmic space and time, and is not affected by any inter-physical magnetic field. Such a one merges one’s consciousness into the Void consciousness, which is inherent in everybody in the neutral-state-realization. This is what is called transcendence. It is from the transcendence that one has a bird’s eye view to this universe. In this state one knows what to do, where to do it, and how it can be done rightly in accordance with Nature.

Buddhist ecology is basically a balance of the inner and outer nature. The outer nature, we cannot balance because we are part of it, but we can misbalance it, and the outer nature is directly connected to the inner natural desires. In-between the inner and outer nature goes the law of karma. The inner nature must be guided through the Eight-Fold Path then the inner wisdom will be fit to work out in the outer Nature. In doing this, the right things happen in the right place and the right time.

A Common Ground

Christianity, Islam and Buddhism all present comprehensive ways of understanding a green philosophy of living in harmony with the earth and all its inhabitants, and important ethics of earth stewardship that evoke a sense of responsibility and accountability for human’s action and the protection of all of creation’s members. Each of these faith outlines the fact that there are natural laws that our existence on this earth are governed by, and that the consequence of breaking of these laws will ultimately be suffered by the human offender, a just due for the value of one’s actions.

Christianity and Islam, both monotheistic faiths, ascribe the cause of creation to God and that human’s actions will be held accountable with Him. For Buddhism, a non-theistic faith, the accountability rests with the self, and the results of the law of cause and effect (karma) will be suffered in future births. Christianity and Islam reference the teachings of ecology and environmental awareness from references to their holy texts, the Bible and the Qur’an and also to great saints and scholars who have demonstrated the way to be an earth steward. Buddhism, though not without text, has a basic framework of ethics in the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path, and adheres to universal laws such as the law of karma and the law of the five elemental states in order to explain what, how and why is Buddhist ecology.

There may be differences amongst the analysis of how Christianity, Islam and Buddhism all reference their sources to find out what green philosophy and earth stewardship are according to their own traditions. But, the truth that stands out from comparison is that the human beings of the earth have been endowed with an enormous responsibility to utilize their gifts to create a harmonious world of balance and understanding. The entire creation is interrelated and interdependent and all peoples of all faiths and traditions share in the responsibility and accountability in the task of maintaining that balance.

In our world today, this teaching is not being honored. We are in a desperate environmental crisis that can be overviewed in eight areas of acute concern. Global climate/atmospheric change, toxic wastes, loss of lands, loss of species, loss of wilderness, devastation of indigenous peoples, human patterns and quantities of consumption, and genetic engineering. When the human beings of earth were entrusted the guardianship of Mother Earth, the earth was not in danger, devastation, and destruction. The earth was a self-reliant system of growth and death, existing in balance. It is only human mismanagement that has brought us to the breaking point today.

There is a need to build a better world, both for the people of today and for the children of the future. Interreligious Dialogue is a methodological activity that can break down barriers of ignorance and misunderstanding and open people up to the ways that we create concepts of ‘self’ and ‘other than self’. From thoughts based on wrong understandings, we go so far as to dominate, colonize and kill other human beings. In order to stop the cycles of violence on earth and all its inhabitants, we need to work towards a resurrection of earth stewardship principles. The ecological state of the world is a moral one, and our moral and ethics are shaped, most often times, by our religious and philosophical experiences. The time is now and the way to work towards global balance is there, but it will take a commitment on everyone’s part to let go of differences and live in our commonality here on our one earth.


  1. Invoking the Spirit. Gary Gardner. Worldwatch Paper 164: December 2002.
  2. This Sacred Earth. Rodger S. Gottlieb. Routledge, New York: 1996.
  3. Introducing Theologies of Religions. Paul F. Knitter. Orbis Books, New York: 2004.
  4. What The Buddha Taught. Walpola Rahula. Gordon Fraiser, London: 1978.
  5. Understanding Other Religious Worlds. Judith A. Berling. Orbis Books, New York: 2004.
  6. Lecture, Buddhist Ecology. Kulavadhuta Satpurananda. Gangtok, Sikkim, India November 2001.
  7. In Search of Tantra: Vajrayana. Kulavadhuta Satpurananda. Beracah Printing, Sikkim, India: 2005.
  8. “Towards an Islamic Jurisprudence of the Environment”. Pro Mustafa Abu-Sway.

[1] This Sacred Earth, 121.

[2] In the Buddhist Aghori Nath lineage samma. Skt is translated as ‘Perfection’, not ‘Right’.

[3] In the Buddhist Aghori Nath lineage samma ditthi is translated as Perfection of Observation, not Right Understanding

[4] In the Buddhist Aghori Nath lineage samma sankappa is translated as Perfection of Commitment, not Right Thought

[5] In the Buddhist Aghori Nath lineage samma vaca is translated as Perfection of Commitment, not Right Speech

[6] In the Buddhist Aghori Nath lineage samma kammanta is translated as Perfection of Action, not Right Action

[7] In the Buddhist Aghori Nath lineage samma ajiva is translated as Perfection of Life and Livelihood, not Right Livelihood.

[8] In the Buddhist Aghori Nath lineage samma vayama is translated as Perfection of Diligence, not Right Effort

[9] In the Buddhist Aghori Nath lineage samma sati is translated as Perfection of Memory, not Right Mindfulness

[10] In the Buddhist Aghori Nath lineage samma Samadhi is translated as Perfection of Transcendence, not Right Concentration

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