By David Gordon, associate editor
Some 20 people from widely varying religious backgrounds came together Saturday to discuss Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on spirituality, climate change and environmental degradation, “Laudato Si,”
The workshop at the Ecumenical Religious Center on the UW-Eau Claire campus drew participants from Chippewa Valley Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish and Quaker congregations as well as from Unity Christ Center and at least one person with a Buddhist connection.
Rev. Dean Simpson, the pastor at Grace Lutheran Church, led much of the four-hour discussion. He heads Eau Claire’s Eco-Spirituality Working Group, a co-sponsor of the event together with JONAH (Joining Our Neighbors, Advancing Hope). JONAH is a Chippewa Valley faith-based group focused on social justice issues.
Simpson noted that, although the encyclical notes the environmental and societal dangers of relying too heavily on technology, the Pope also makes clear that it isn’t going away and that we must learn to use it wisely.
“Technology has given us so much power (but) not necessarily wisdom,” Simpson said.
Handouts with 36 separate excerpts from the encyclical, and discussion questions about each group of passages, provided the basis for the discussions. The excerpts were grouped under such headings as “values (that) keep our ‘throw-away’ culture in place” and “Francis’ attitude toward technology.”
One section heading asked what the Pope meant by “ecological spirituality” and Simpson asked whether “morality (is) a part of (our) spirituality.” He and others also suggested that ecological concern should not be limited to a single Sunday in church each year.
A passage that Simpson placed “at the center of this document” concluded as follows:
“To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system.”
Accepting the Pope’s approach means that “we’re all in this together” and there is no way “to blame the ‘bad guys’” or find scapegoats, Simpson said. He added later that we “need to recognize ourselves in ‘the other,’” even in the dust to which everyone eventually returns, and that “we need to advocate for that, to witness for that.”
Simpson called for an “aesthetic spirituality” rather than the current “consumerist approach to life on this earth.” Unlike today’s pursuit of corporate profits, companies once had “a concern for taking care of their people,” he added.
“We’re educated on television about what’s available but no one educates us on where things come from,” or to question the idea that “the cheapest labor is the best,” he said. He and others in the group suggested the need for community conversation about how best to deal with the inter-related problems we’re facing.
Prof. James Boulter, director of the UW-EC Watershed Institute, questioned whether Saturday’s discussion was focusing on spirituality or on values.
“We have to start with shared values,” he said.
Jim Egan, a retired UW-EC Economics faculty member, said he was probably out of step with 80% of the people in the room. He agreed that the world is experiencing climate change but suggested that “you can’t presume it’s abuse of the environment that’s causing all of these things.”
Egan added that dealing with what’s happening is much more a public policy issue than what individuals can do.
Boulter responded that more than 95% of climate scientists’ studies agree that people’s interactions with the environment are a major cause of the changes. He added that the “focus on ‘us’” is a major contributing factor to a lack of urgency in the United States, compared to the rest of the world where the problems are more imminent and thus there is a broader acceptance of the need to do something.
Boulter stressed the need to “speak to people of shared values” in order to produce action, rather than dwelling on differences in belief systems. But he also suggested that the pocketbook is people’s primary motivator, so it’s necessary to “incentivize the actions that are good (and) we have to deincentivize the actions that are bad.”
Boulter also noted that he co-chairs the local chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that’s focused on working with legislators of both parties to develop national policies dealing with climate change, including some that are in step with conservative values. The organization is close to having a local chapter in every legislative district in the country, he said.
Pope Francis’ encyclical strongly criticized consumerism, irresponsible development and relentless exploitation of the environment. He also wrote that the climate crisis affects the world’s poorest people the most by dislocating them or ignoring how they are affected. His message called for an immediate global response that would require major changes in politics, world economic and individual lifestyles.
The Eco-Spirituality Working Group here has more than a dozen members, including several from JONAH. The working group’s goal is to promote awareness of issues such as climate change and environmental preservation through the lens of religious faith and spirituality.