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Nature in harmony with faith: The Globe’s monthly panel discusses spiritual perspectives on the environmentThe Globe and Mail

For many Canadians, being outdoors is proof of a higher being – if not a religious feeling, then the raw power of nature. A redwood, a giant prairie sky, a remote lake, a wild animal – any bit of natural wonder, solitude or grace is capable of it.

But in a country like ours, nature is provider as well as muse, and there will always be conflict over how to use the land and its bounty. Today, that conflict is strongest on environmental and political issues related to Alberta's petroleum industry – the extraction and movement of oil and other fossil fuels, which creates jobs but comes with no shortage of impact on the land, both real and potential – such as the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project. With that in mind, Faith Exchange panelists have convened to discuss what religion says about caring for the environment and other living creatures.

Guy Nicholson: Thanks for joining us, everyone. I'd especially like to welcome two special panelists – George Stanley, regional chief for Alberta First Nations, and April Churchill, vice-president of B.C.'s Haida Nation.

Panelists, does something in nature have a strong spiritual effect on you? If so, is it connected to your faith?

Sheema Khan: Welcome George and April! We are fortunate to have your perspectives on this most important issue.

At a personal level, yes, nature has an immensely spiritual effect. The sheer beauty, vastness, perfection and harmony stir emotions of awe, gratitude and humility. Nature is seen as a repository of the signs of God – pointing to an omnipotent, compassionate Creator. Nature is in harmony with faith, and can serve as a means to enhance one's faith. Human beings are regarded as stewards, sent for a short period of time, to live in harmony with the Earth. In Islam, we are allowed to enjoy the bounties of the Earth – in a balanced, responsible way that does not cause destruction and harm.

April Churchill: The Haida culture is based in our spiritual, mental and physical relationship to the land, waters and all life forces. The very core of our culture is our spiritual connections, which govern our use of the Creator's gifts.

Peter Stockland: Beauty will save the world, someone once said, and beauty is certainly a reinforcement of faith for me. The beauty of the natural world makes Creation specific, tangible, a physical reality to be encountered. At the same time, we have to be mindful that we're not in the Garden of Eden any more, Toto. We got kicked out a long time ago. So this world is where we must live by the sweat of our brows. We have to make use of it – prudently, of course, but unapologetically.

Once when I was in Jerusalem, I looked up at the sky and thought, standing there amid the modernity and the history and the archeology: "That is the same sky Jesus saw. Everything else has changed, but that is what He saw in His life, His ministry and in the hour of His death." So it is a sign of meaning and of faith, that is for sure.

Lorna Dueck: I'm writing from the heart of Toronto's concrete towers, sitting at my desk amid a pile of technology, and your question strikes in me a pinching acknowledgment of how difficult it is to suddenly switch gears and think about the transcendent in nature. I live in an economy produced world, and the change to a natural one needs to be distinctly deliberate for me. I do pull away to nature whenever I can, and the experience becomes surreal for me, drawing me into a quietude that becomes very spiritual to me. It's there that Psalm 46:10 –  "Be still and know that I am God" – comes much easier.

George Stanley: Speaking for aboriginal communities in Alberta, we are closely related to a lot of sacred land and animals, trees and plants we eat from. We do respect Mother Nature wholeheartedly.

We know that several first nations communities are into oil and gas. We do respect and consult our elders before any activity takes its course. We consult our elders on anything to do with land. Mother Nature gives us a very significant picture when there will be damage to her.

Howard Voss-Altman: We are constantly touched by God's creation, whether it's the small miracle of a spider's web or the majesty of Banff National Park and the Canadian Rockies. To experience nature is to recognize that we are an integral part of a complex and often incomprehensible world that touches us each day. Sadly, we are also in the process of destroying God's work, as greed and negligence threatens to overwhelm nature's delicate balance.

Peter Stockland: Well, this may surprise you, Rabbi Voss-Altman, but I disagree. I certainly agree about the majesty and spider's web miracles. But the destroying through greed and negligence part? Not so much. Strong arguments are made that the world is on a far better path today than it was during the past 100 years. I think the environmentalist industry has done a good job of frightening us into funding it so it can frighten us with more of its apocalyptic exaggerations.

Howard Voss-Altman: Peter, since we're not in the Garden of Eden any more (thank goodness), we have been given the unique gift of knowledge, a gift that enables us to see the consequences of our actions. Accordingly, we must use our God-given intelligence to use our resources not only prudently, but wisely. I'm afraid that when our polar ice caps start to melt (as they already have) and when the ozone layer is dangerously diminished, it will be much to late for apologies to our children and grandchildren. I believe our common faiths call for humility, something we are in short supply of at the moment.

Lorna Dueck: Rabbi, I must explore – why would you not want to be in a Garden of Eden any more? The perfect beginning for humanity … we've been taking it downhill ever since. I think shalom is going back there.

Howard Voss-Altman: Judaism (at least as I understand it) teaches that as a result of "the Fall," human beings acquired judgment, the ability to discern right from wrong, and most importantly, a purposeful existence through work. I would not wish to return to a prehuman existence of primarily gathering fruits and vegetables.

Peter Stockland: Humility, by its nature, is always in short supply. It must be the rarest of commodities. But the gift of knowledge leads us to understand balance, and the understanding of balance teaches us to avoid the Chicken Little effect. Sure, we've done awful things over the past 100 or 125 years. But the sky hasn't fallen. It isn't falling. And I doubt very much that it will fall on my grandchildren. (Assuming I ever have any.)

Guy Nicholson: "Assuming I ever have any" – Peter, have you been plotting strategy with my mother-in-law?

Peter Stockland: Maybe. We'll never tell.

Guy Nicholson: Peter raised a good point in his first reply. The conflict over the environment is in many ways a conflict about values and priorities. How might your faith's values guide you in prioritizing things like pipelines, jobs, communities, resources, animals, ecosystems, air quality and the like?

Sheema Khan: Our guiding principle is to do no harm. Where some harm is inevitable, then the harm must be minimized.

In the case of the oil sands, we must weigh harms and benefits. The benefits are primarily economic – this cannot, and should not, be underestimated. On the other hand, we must be cognizant of harm done to the environment, to the lifestyle of those who inhabit the land, and do everything to minimize it. Our priorities should be based on consultations with all stakeholders, in  a respectful, co-operative manner. The Conservative government's approach – for instance, calling those who oppose the Northern Gateway pipeline extremists – is counterproductive.

April Churchill: We well know the sweat of our brow. We follow our ancient harvest calendar to provide for self and community. Harvesting, preparing and preserving for the year takes a great deal of work and community effort from the spring through winter. On Haida Gwaii, our people are working intimately with all life forms: seaweeds, clams, cockles, all species of fish, sea cucumber, geoduck, mussels, octopus, to name a few of the ocean foods. The forest gifts include trees, medicines, berries and greens.

All is connected. We watch the bears, birds and tide feed the forest and lands. Everything depends on the well-being of the other. The inevitable oil spills will kill and poison the ocean and waterway that feeds the oceans and even the land and forests will suffer. We have lived through ice ages on Haida Gwaii. We know if we care for Haida Gwaii, she will care for us. We also know from millenniums of experience that, when we are not respectful of the Creator's gifts, there are grave consequences, as our oral histories and stories tell us.

George Stanley: I agree to a lot of the comments made so far. April said it right – we were gifted sacred lands as the first people of Turtle Island [North America] The Canadian government wanted to cut us off from our culture and spirituality – residential schools, disease, abuse, forced haircuts, forced language – but this failed because we were close with Mother Nature, to all the sacred things given to us by the Creator. Today, we are still holding on to that.

Lorna Dueck: My Christian faith teaches me that humankind has been given the Earth as a gift from God, a gift to be stewarded with great responsibility. It does mean that human societies are superior to the rest of nature, but not to the point of abusing them. The Earth and its products are a gift to comfort and nurture our lives, and it's our mandate to both care for and prosper from its bounty. But faith also helps me understand that sin has marred our existence with the Earth, that sin looks like any of the environmental problems that are plaguing the planet, so, as a Christian, my task is to navigate the path between "Develop at all costs" and "Don't touch anything because the Earth is sacred" with a keen sense of humility before God.

Guy Nicholson: Speaking of stewardship – overpopulation has been a significant factor in the tension between nature and economy. How significantly have religious beliefs contributed to this? In today's world, is there anything religion can realistically do to resolve this tension?

Sheema Khan: I would say that the tension between nature and economy is of our own doing – due to greed and avarice. We have enough resources for everyone. However, economic policies often look to the bottom line first, and the welfare of humanity second. Why are large farm operations content with destroying food (due to "market dictates") rather than sharing it with those less fortunate? Why must pharmaceutical companies be "forced" to provide much-needed medicine to the poorest?

Peter Stockland: Overpopulation is a Malthusian myth, long debunked. The world's population will crest and begin to decline in the next decade. That decline, far more than hysteria over rising sea levels, is what should concern us. If religious faiths should be doing anything, they should be continuing to raise the alarm about the anti-human agenda behind the perpetuation of overpopulation scaremongering.

Lorna Dueck: "Overpopulation" is a gift that has reconnected us to responsibility for the environment. People are not a disposable or renewable resource. We stand distinct in sacredness, each of us carry the image of God, and if we refer to the human race as "overpopulated," I think we are off-kilter spiritually. As the world's population grows, we are moulded into stronger ways to extend love, sacrifice and creativity for the benefit of all.

Howard Voss-Altman: Where is the scientific evidence that the world's population will begin to decline in the next decade? Indeed, respected demographers have demonstrated – based on actual research – that the world's population is expected to be over seven billion in the coming years. These people will expect a standard of living – the ability to consume precious resources (water, minerals, air) – that the Earth will be unable to provide. Once again, we will have to do a lot of explaining to our descendants.

Guy Nicholson: Lorna and Peter, I can't agree with you – of course people are not disposable, but that doesn't mean that there aren't negative consequences to perpetual growth in the world's population. I guess "over" depends on your own perspective, but mine is that a levelling or even decline in the world's population would be a positive environmental development.

Peter Stockland: A positive environmental development for whom, Guy? My strong belief is that no one really believes there are too many people in the world. What they believe is that there are too many "other" people in the world.  But if we love our neighbours as ourselves, as the ethical monotheisms insist we do, then we cannot logically call for the abolition of others without calling for the abolition of ourselves. And no one should ever believe in abolishing themselves.

Guy Nicholson: It would be a positive development for everyone who's here now, paying for water we used to find in abundance, fighting over how best to use the world's dwindling wilderness, choking in pollution our ecosystem struggles to absorb. Who wants to abolish humanity? I'd like to see it sustained.

Lorna Dueck: What I think you've put your finger on is the great need we have in our faith communities to do more practical action into the environment, economy and community. We need to challenge ourselves in actual deeds, so demand on our limited supply is put into an awareness for community and environment. That means radical new ways of doing shared transportation and consumption habits. For instance, I could imagine notes in the weekly church bulletin (which would be electronic only, not on paper) about unplugging, turning equipment off, and recycling. We can do much more to address the human demand for disposable energy supply.

Peter Stockland: This, Guy, is why you need to listen to your mother-in-law. Seriously, these are technical issues that can be solved over time by opposable-digited bright lights like us. What will prohibit any solution is giving in to the mentality that humanity is the source of the problem. If we believe that only "those who are here now" are entitled to enjoy God's creation, we head off the demographic cliff. All God's children gotta live!

Sheema Khan: I still stand by my earlier statement. It's not the quantity of people; it's our behaviour toward each other, and the environment, that needs to change. Lowering the numbers is not really going to change much, if we don't stop behaving in such wasteful, often disingenuous ways.

Guy Nicholson: Is there a conflict, especially in monotheistic religions, between worshipping nature and worshipping a god?

Lorna Dueck: Yes, absolutely. I worship the Creator – not God's creation, God's evolutionary process or God's majestic galaxies. But all of those are triggers to a sense of reverence and awe that leads to the worship of God.

Peter Stockland: There is no conflict in Christianity. We don't worship nature. Pagans and pantheists worship nature, which they are perfectly entitled to do in a free country. We don't. We worship one God.

Sheema Khan: Great question. We have in the Koran the story of the Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him), who, as a child, saw the beauty of the stars one evening. He was so inspired by the grandeur that he exclaimed he would worship them – revere them, bow in humility etc. However, when the stars set, he realized he could not worship an entity that seemed transient. He then saw the moon, which was even more wondrous than the stars, and vowed to worship the moon. But it, too, set. He then saw the sun, which was even more glorious than the stars or the moon, and vowed to worship the sun. It then set, too. He then realized that his longing for worship would be fulfilled by the One who created the stars, the moon and the sun and ordered their movements.

Worshipping nature, in and of itself, is worship of creation. Instead, we are encouraged to worship the Creator, and respect the creation.

George Stanley: The aboriginal people of this Turtle Island, we pray to the Creator, today we still are so connected to Mother Nature, and the animals the Creator has provided for us. We practise medicine, but we still rely on natural herbs. Our herbal medicines are still real and we take those seriously because that is what heals us today. Aboriginal people fast with their ceremonies for a number of reasons – they believe the connection to the Creator's gifts are a way forward for us.

I believe that maintaining our spirituality is the only way forward for our people of this Turtle Island. And I believe that, as we understand and are on the same page, we could answer the questions with our spirit and intent. I am observing that many activities in Alberta are also showing that we need to monitor Mother Nature and its gifts. Just recently, the highest court in Canada recognized our hunting rights. And I believe we want to preserve as much of the species as possible.

Sheema Khan: April and George, how can Canadians help aboriginal peoples preserve their way of life, with respect to the proposed pipelines?

George Stanley: My first advice is to recognize and understand that the first peoples of Turtle Island have wisdom to offer. We did not surrender with treaties the land, water, animals, plants and berries we live off. And yet today, we are not allowed to touch those. We cannot hunt or drink waters, let alone take our medicines in our medicine patches. And I believe the Canadian government is wrongfully doing this purposely. Our elders have come and gone, but what they have given us to pass on from generation to generation is very sacred. And that is why today we still exist.

April Churchill: The difficulty is that everyone's lives are so full, it is difficult to think about matters that don't seem to directly affect one's self. Bad things happen when good people do nothing, yet the good people of Canada live in a world of stress and trying to deal with one's own life and problems. Media coverage has left the general population believing that first nations are "radical" and "adversarial" people. Canada has changed its language from "in the interest of Canadians"  to "in the interest of national security." We are not an adversarial people. We work closely with the province of British Columbia to manage the lands of Haida Gwaii – just the other day, there was an announcement by the province and the Haida Nation jointly making a determination for the annual allowable cut in Haida Gwaii's forest. See to see that we work with others.

In some media, people who oppose the Northern Gateway project have been characterized as being against jobs, while those who support it are for jobs. We are not against jobs or development; in fact, we have just established a corporation that makes respectful use of Haida Gwaii and her gifts in shellfish farming, timber harvest, renewable energy and eco-tourism. But all of this depends on healthy ecosystems. One spill from an oil tanker could destroy that. The economic burden of the Indian Act and deliberate removal of the Haida and other aboriginal people from Canada's economy has resulted in terrible social and health problems that all taxpayers are burdened with. Just as we are returning to our rightful place in the economy and regaining our ability to lead productive lives, we find ourselves playing defence yet again.

Everyone has influence on at least 200 people. People who do not live on the coast have no idea what this project will do to us or understand why all of B.C., including all the communities of Haida Gwaii, oppose this project. Social media work to send short messages. We really believe that our position is for the well-being of Canada and her people and, in fact, all of the Earth and its people. Our principles of sustainability, balance, care and respect are needed now more than they have ever been. We have a story of the hummingbird who was caught in a forest fire. While all the others were escaping, the little hummingbird kept flying in and out of the fire, dropping a small droplet of water each time. When asked what he was doing, he said, "I am doing what I can." That is all that each of us can do. One drop – one letter – one e-mail – one prayer – we just all need to do what we can.

Peter Stockland: That is so well and beautifully said, April. Thank you so much. I am going to try to use the hummingbird test from now on.

Sheema Khan: It has been very enlightening. I would recommend that we have, in the future, at least one spiritual perspective from the aboriginal community. They are a vital part of our nation, our history and our future. We need to hear their voices on all issues – not just the environment.

April Churchill: The Haida are part of the aboriginal community in Canada. But, remember, we are individual nations of people and none of us can speak on behalf of all aboriginal people – only to that which we know.

There is enough for everyone, and I believe that all of our spiritual understandings include taking care of each other and that the poor are given for our well-being and are our responsibility. Thank you for including me in the conversation.

Guy Nicholson: Thank you all for joining us for this discussion.