Interfaith Conference Engages Young Faith Leaders on Climate ChangeClimate change a “spiritual, moral, and ethical crisis”
By Rebekah Ramlow
A January conference on climate change hosted at Duke University brought young faith leaders together to learn from Duke faculty and others, look to their own faith traditions for guidance and hope, and share strategies for responding to the climate crisis.
Highlighting Duke’s role as a unique place of intersection in both climate education and spiritual formation, the event brought together faculty from Duke Divinity School and the Sanford School of Public Policy, with educational sessions on climate change, economics, environmental law, and faith. Attendees included young faith leaders from 20 countries, representing Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish faith traditions, and countries including Ghana, Burkina Faso, India, Bangladesh, Colombia, Philippines, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, the United States, and the Netherlands. Participants included elected representatives, faith leaders, eco-activists, climate entrepreneurs, sustainability experts, researchers, and policy advocates.
The “Faith for Our Planet” conference, developed in partnership with Faith for Our Planet, was led at Duke by Dr. Abdullah Antepli, who holds dual appointments as associate professor of the practice of interfaith relations at Duke Divinity School and associate professor of the practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy. Antepli said he felt called to lead such an event because he fears that faith communities are not stepping up to respond to climate change in a way that coincides with the rich moral philosophies that they claim to represent.
“Some of my nightmares include discussing this single most important and pressing issue only as a scientific and technological problem whereas it is more of a spiritual, moral, and ethical crisis than anything else,” he said.
Antepli recruited Duke Divinity’s Norman Wirzba, Gilbert T. Rowe Distinguished Professor of Christian Theology, to help him lead the conference due to his passion for fighting the climate crisis and engaging students through strategies that cross departments and disciplines at Duke. Said Wirzba, “We know that religious leaders around the world play vital convening and mobilizing roles in their communities. They will be called upon to be beacons of goodness and hope in what will often be very desperate and despairing circumstances. What can be more important than to offer them tools to address climate change in their home communities?”
“Some of my nightmares include discussing this single most important and pressing issue only as a scientific and technological problem whereas it is more of a spiritual, moral, and ethical crisis than anything else.”
— Dr. Abdullah Antepli
“Complicated and Multilayered Causes”
During the week-long conference, sessions also included training on advocacy, communicating to climate skeptics, incorporating climate narratives in religious sermons, systems thinking, and community trust-building. Many sessions drew on the cross-disciplinary expertise of Duke faculty, including a session on climate migration titled “Climate Change, Economy, and Faith,” by Dr. Sarah Bermeo, associate professor of political science at the Sanford School of Public Policy.
“Internal climate migrants are rapidly becoming the face of climate change,” she said, with increasing news coverage of climate migration issues. From a public policy and economic perspective, this is one of the issues that all countries, regions, and people are going to grapple with soon, said Bermeo. For this audience of faith leaders, caring for these displaced people, seeking to better understand their struggles, and inspiring their congregations to take action are top of mind, she said.
Bermeo said that the climate migrants’ struggles are more complicated than it may seem. Most of them don’t want to leave their homes and if they must, they prefer to stay within their own country, but it’s often not possible. “Many people think of big storm events like hurricanes or heat waves when they think about climate migration,” she said, “but what’s also going on are slow onset reasons for people to migrate.” From farms becoming less capable of producing food to rising water levels impact on fishing, these slow-onset events are much more difficult to pin down and much less covered by the media.
Dr. Antepli said, “For a global problem like climate change, no one community or region has the capacity to accurately diagnose the complicated and multilayered causes of this existential crisis. We, as humanity, created this mess and threat together, and if we will ever clean up, we all have to work together.”
“Crisis for Many Academic Disciplines”
For the Duke faculty leading the conference, looking at these issues from an interdisciplinary lens was crucial. Dr. Wirzba said too many people think climate change is a scientific problem that can be solved with engineering solutions. Although both are important, said Wirzba, climate change is really a crisis of culture. “It is a condemnation of the values that have inspired and propelled the dominant economies of our world. These values were not philosophical abstractions but were realized in political systems, economic policies, built environments, educational and aesthetic commitments, and spiritual priorities,” Wirzba said.
Climate change is “everything change,” said Wirzba quoting Margaret Atwood. “It is crucial that the many academic disciplines at a place like Duke come together to understand how we have come to this moment, and how we might address it,” he said, “Health care providers, lawyers, farmers, ministers, community organizers, and artists (and many more) will all have to play an important role in creating a just and, dare we hope, beautiful future.”
Dr. Antepli said, “Climate change is a global phenomenon that knows no national or religious borders. No one will be exempt from its harsh realities. We have much to learn from each other, and much to offer.” At the conference, he said he was encouraged by how young people of goodwill, from different creeds and backgrounds, came together to do the good work that climate change demands of us.
“Retelling Stories from a Place of Climate Catastrophe”
From Duke Divinity School, Assistant Professor of Homiletics Dr. Jerusha Neal led a session titled, “Training the Ear: Speaking to Congregations about Climate Change,” opening with a discussion about how attendees come from different traditions with different texts, services, and leaders.
Dr. Neal said, “As faith leaders, there’s a way in which we can retell the stories of our faith traditions from a place of climate catastrophe,” and she had the students walk through a sermon on Isaiah given by Dr. Ellen Davis, Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at the Divinity School, which engages the audience in the climate crisis through scripture by beginning with the scriptural text and history before ever talking about climate.
In retelling a faith story in light of the climate catastrophe, Davis focuses in on God’s judgment, noting that God cares about how we treat the earth and each other. She addresses the judgment before addressing the hope.
“Hope Founded on the Exercise of Love”
One challenge when talking about climate change is to reframe hope, Dr. Neal said. “How is it that you talk about hope in a crisis of this scale, without letting that hope be false but also not just have it lead to despair and giving up?” she asked. Both of those can lead to apathy and disengagement with audiences, rather than fueling action, she said.
Addressing hope appropriately for each faith context was important at the conference. Antepli said, “Each faith tradition empowers its members differently in an attempt to prevent them from becoming victims of despair and hopelessness in the face of large-scale tragedies like climate change. It is way overdue to put these teachings and faith strategies in conversation with each other to see if we can create a climate of hope meaningfully and substantially together.”
Still, the conference leaders did not want to characterize hope as something that erases the troubles of this world. Said Wirzba, “Hope is not meant to take us outside this world or make us bystanders within it. Rather, hope is founded on the exercise of love within us so that we do the good work now that will aid in the construction of a better future.”
The Faith for Our Planet conference was sponsored by and produced in partnership with Faith for Our Planet, an organization that provides religious leaders and communities tangible solutions on making a global impact in the fight against climate change.