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Is God Green? Talking Sustainability & Religion at Chestnut Hill College
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Is God Green? Talking Sustainability & Religion at Chestnut Hill College

Sister Miriam MacGillis & Sister Mary Elizabeth ClarkThis week Green Philly Blog is interviewing some of Philadelphia’s women sustainability leaders in honor of closing out March as International Women’s History Month. Some of the women are well-known in our city, and some are a little more under the radar. Today, we head over to Chestnut Hill College to talk with two religious women.

Growing up Catholic, I didn’t hear much about ‘sustainability’ or treasuring our Earth in Church lectures. But is God green? It was quite interesting to sit down with two sisters about their views on how sustainability and religion fit together. Sister Mary Elizabeth Clark was a GPB guest blogger, is Director of the Sisters of Saint Joseph Earth Center, and Special Assistant to the President of Chestnut Hill for Sustainability. Sister Miriam MacGillis is founder of Genesis farm, an organic earth literacy center in New Jersey.

GPB: When would you say sustainability ‘clicked’ with you?

Sister Miriam: I think it started to sink in around 1972, after the first World Conference on the Environment by the United Nations. After the first Earth Day, I really began to look at the systemic reasons of why the planet was in dire straights ecologically.

Looking at the big picture, these so-called developed nations weren’t only not sustainable, but destructive. If you look at earliest origin stories of nations, what did the ancient people tell the world? On the other hand, the scientific understanding of evolution and how the universe came into being opened a new understanding of the fragility of earth. That’s when it connected for me. Earth’s alive, it’s a living being itself. We’re just one of its species.

The understanding is different from Earth day, or cleaning up pollution or streams. But it’s not nearly enough if we don’t want to bring this whole thing down.

GPB: I agree, since the “Earth” and “environment’ are what we’re eating, drinking and breathing. Do you think the Church’s message aligns with sustainability? Do you think God is green?

Sister Mary Elizabeth Clark: I have been able to root presentations in Catholic teaching and bible’s care for creation. I believe that the spirit that animates creation (I would call ‘God‘, some people might not) is all in line with my faith. The teachings of the church, popes and bishops are very positive about the changes in evolution, although some people (in the Catholic Church) would not agree.

I think there’s something in our culture which feeds a narrow thinking about global warming and global climate change from a non-scientific perspective. That’s troubling to me, but Pope Francis might be a ‘green’ pope. Pope Benedict was also considered a green pope.

Sister Miriam: Building on that, I think all religions (not just Christian) originate out of a particular time in history where they certainly didn’t have insights that we have now. Their origin stories gave rise to their sacred scriptures, and the text became the guidebook for how to behave as humans. Yet most of them didn’t have an ecological aspect because 5000 years ago, it wasn’t an issue. Within all religions now, there’s a tendency for frightened people to say if we don’t go back to the original, literal interpretation of the scriptures, we’ll have problems of immorality. Those fundamentalists fear what we’re discovering through science is in conflict with the literal story – and they can’t honor evolution. Within our own tradition, we’ve had an intellectual pursuit of truth. Yet we should be able to handle the scientific opening and meanings of the scripture.

There can’t be a conflict between reason and faith.

GPB:  That’s interesting to me. Growing up Byzantine Catholic, I remember my interpretation of teachings were ‘Man is entitled to the Earth, animals and land‘, implicating the Earth is at our disposal. Is this something that you think the Church can get away from and swap for sustainability?

Sister Miriam: Part of the problem for the biblical world – whether Christian, Jewish or Islam – is that original garden story does create the problem. It sees a very literal image of creating the world in key pieces. After God made the world, God breathed the soul into humans alone. That’s what sets the separation. This is soulless matter, and this is spiritual. The literal interpretation of the scriptures perpetuates that. You can own property and do whatever you want as long as you’re just with how you do it. There’s no rights given to the natural world. It’s not God’s fault, people made the stories up. I sometimes think that Jews, Christians & Muslim explore and find the text to back up the plan. But that can’t compensate for the fundamental teaching – it’s not strong enough. The bible wasn’t written to provide the wisdom that we need now.

Sister Mary: I think the whole issue of male domination and patriarchy also contributes to the culture we deal with today as women. You can identify Earth as a female and how women are treated. That’s a comparison with the church and enlightened people who began to see things differently.

Earth Center at Chestnut Hill College
Earth Center at Chestnut Hill College

Green Philly Blog: That’s an interesting view, especially since women still striving for equality in the workplace, church and other places. Let’s discuss the building where we’re sitting: Tell me about the Earth Center at Chestnut Hill College.

Sister Mary Elizabeth Clark: The Earth Center has grown from Chestnut Hill’s vision statement, as one of the four main values is care for creation. Out of a lot of work with social justice, I evolved in terms of where to go with ministry, the universe of justice and rights. The Earth Center is here because (Sister Carol Vale created) a staff in-service day on sustainability. The building itself is made completely from recycled materials and incorporates sustainability practices, with geothermal heating, rain-gathering columns & storm water gardens.  As I was working on the committee, Sister Vale appointed me to Special Assistant to the President for sustainability at Chestnut Hill College. We happened to get a grant from the stimulus package in 2010, we had $100,000 purely for sustainability – used for the environmental justice dept, the earth center & the first conference.

GPB: What do you think your biggest goals are moving forward?

Sister Mary: Our mission is here to deepen our commitment to sustainability on campus. We also do retreat days, women’s weekends, presentations and more, inside the community and out. We do whatever we can to get a little bit of the word out.

Sister Miriam: I want to say that Sister Mary is a great communicator, networking with the community – whether farmers, educators, or other – and not limited to my denomination. It’s important that we stress that. We can’t just talk to each other, but the planet is one. We’re all in this together.

Sister Mary: We want that outreach at the college as well. We want to bring the community into Chestnut Hill college.

GPB: How does this fit in with the farm?

Sister Miriam: Genesis farm is a 33-year-old, earth literacy, organic farm that has a CSA for 300 households. This 140 acre farm was given to us and meant to connect good-willed people into the Earth. Nothing we did there was ever seen as religious, so we had to find a different value base or language. The universe has always had a spiritual aspect, but we try to find those areas of unity and language. Regardless if it is renewable energy or farming, people want to make a difference.

GPB: What’s one thing that people can do that would help change?

Sister Mary: I wish people would realize how much difference they do make, as an individual. It matters. Everyone’s contribution – whether recycling, compositing, changing patterns all matters. And I see that happening gradually.

Sister Miriam: I wish that 8 billion of us humans all had the opportunity to realize we’re the form of earth in a human, and each human is the Earth. It would be powerful enough to transform some of the crazy stuff we do – because we don’t realize it.

Readers, do you have any reflections on religion and sustainability? Do you think God is green? 

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Julie Hancher
Julie Hancher is Editor-in-Chief of Green Philly, sharing her expertise of all things sustainable in the city of brotherly love. She enjoys long walks in the park with local beer and greening her travels, cooking & cat, Sir Floofus Drake. View all posts by Julie Hancher

4 thoughts on “Is God Green? Talking Sustainability & Religion at Chestnut Hill College

  1. Great insight. Thank you Sister Mary Elizabeth and Sister Miriam! This line (and many others) resonated with me “Earth’s alive, it’s a living being itself. We’re just one of its species.”

  2. So much of this interview struck a chord with me, particularly the comparison between “Mother Earth” and how women are treated, essentially pointing to male domination as a reason there is so much disregard for the importance of the Earth’s resources. Everything the sisters had to say is much more cerebral and connected to what I believe now than anything I ever heard growing up Catholic, as Julie felt, too.

  3. From a Jewish perspective, our religion is very much tied to the Earth. This is why I felt it was important for my sons’ bar to be green. Becoming a Jewish adult carries responsibilities which includes taking care of the Earth. (PS wrote a book on greening bar and bat mitzvahs. Just trying to get it published.)

    I believe most religions are tied to the Earth but it isn’t stressed in religious teaching. I like Julie and Gretchen didn’t learn the connection until later on in life.

  4. Thanks Beth! That same line (and the female/earth comparison) definitely were intriguing to me.

    Gretchen, I agree. Hopefully that’s the way the ‘church’ is going rather than being stuck in the past (and what it sounds like how we both grew up.)

    Anna, thanks for your perspective! Good luck on getting your book published. I think what Gretchen and I may have meant is that “our” churches growing up didn’t emphasize the connection, but instead the ‘humans are superior’ perspectives. Obviously religions are very complex and have many aspects (including ‘sustainability’), but religions are often where people set the standards for morality. If “Churches” don’t emphasize sustainability/the importance of caring for ‘earth’, many people can potentially miss out on the message. I think Sister Meriam discussing how religions revert back to ‘old’ text is where it rang a bell – religions need to teach what’s important Now, not what the scriptures began weighing emphasis on.

    Great comments all around! 🙂 Thank you all.

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