By David Gordon, associate editor
Planning for community-wide interfaith discussions of Pope Francis’ 2015 Encyclical on environmental degradation and climate change is high on the agenda of a local working group whose goal is to promote awareness of these topics through the lens of religious faith and spirituality.
That priority crystalized during the group’s meeting earlier this month at Grace Lutheran Church. Rev. Dean Simpson, the church’s pastor, heads the group.
Mike Huggins, a working group member, urged that those discussions bring together as many religious perspectives as possible. He mentioned specifically the inclusion of members of the local Muslim community as well as Buddhist and Ba’hai perspectives, and added that University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire concerns about the environment should also be represented.
Simpson commented very favorably on Pope Francis’ year-old encyclical and noted that members of three local churches – Grace Lutheran, St. John’s Lutheran and Unity Christ Center – held a three-session discussion of the 184-page document shortly after it was issued. The encyclical “really packs a wallop for folks” who read it, he said in a July interview with the Chippewa Valley Post.
In the encyclical, Pope Francis strongly criticized consumerism, irresponsible development and relentless exploitation of the environment. He blamed the reckless pursuit of profits, too much faith in technology, political shortsightedness – and apathy – for the existing danger and called for an immediate global response that would require major changes in politics, world economics and individual lifestyles.
He said the crisis is affecting the world’s poorest people the most by dislocating them or ignoring the impact on them. That point in particular resonated with members of the working group, who said the Pope’s concern with poverty in connection with climate change was a factor that would help in getting religious organizations involved in the local discussion.
Religious institutions need to take the lead in focusing the public’s attention on ecology and the need to save the earth’s environment while that’s still possible, Simpson said in the July interview.
“For me, ecological means the interconnectedness of everything,” Simpson explained then. But he cautioned that “éco-spirituality” is more than just climate change.
He said he takes a spiritual approach to the issue of climate change, but he defines “spiritual” to encompass whatever “system of meaning” people have developed for the lives they live.
“Spirituality is tied to your view of what’s real, what you ultimately think is real,” he said. “Spirituality is needed to support the ecological movement.”
“What kind of spirituality have we had that allowed for the fouling of the environment,” he asked at this month’s working group meeting.
Simpson told the group that David Weiss, a St. Paul resident who served as a visiting scholar at five Lenten services at Grace last spring, will return to Eau Claire this fall for a series of three lectures on “Spirituality and Climate Change.” Weiss defines himself as a “public theologian,” which he defines as including the ability to speak to ordinary people about issues that frequently are discussed only in multi-syllable words.
His interest, he told the CVPost, lies in shaping the community’s understanding of such complex issues as climate change using a theological lens. (See http://cvpost.org/?s=David+Weiss).
Weiss will speak at the Owen Park bandshell on Sunday morning, Sept. 11; on Sunday evening, Oct. 9 at the Ecumenical Religious Center on the UW-Eau Claire campus; and on Sunday evening, Oct. 30 at Grace Lutheran Church, to begin a year-long observance of the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation. Simpson said he would like to see the Oct. 30 event become the start of a “Reformation year” focused on the environment.
The working group’s membership now includes several people who have merged into it from an environmental task force originally set up by JONAH (Joining Our Neighbors, Advancing Hope), a local faith-based organization concerned with social justice.
In July, Simpson said this group’s goals should include encouraging widespread discussion of environmental issues and getting different community groups together “for effective action” without duplicating efforts.
“Who better than the religious institutions to focus on that,” he asked. “We need everyone. We can’t be divided.”
The next meeting of the working group is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 22 at Grace Lutheran Church, 202 W. Grand Ave. in Eau Claire. Members of the public are welcome to attend.