They numbered 150 in all—Catholics and Protestants, Muslims and Jews, Buddhists and yogis—spiritual leaders from the Central Coast gathered at the Monterey Bay Aquarium to discuss marine conservation with area scientists. They represented 15,000 people of diverse faiths. And on Tuesday, Feb. 20 they made history as the first religious group in the United States to organize around oceans protection.
“For the first time ever the interfaith community is gathered with ocean scientists to build some bridges,” said Rev. Deborah Streeter, founder of Carmel-based Upwellings Environmental Ministry and a member of the sanctuary’s advisory council. “We’re here to work on helping heal the ocean, for it needs our help desperately.
“About 70 percent of our oxygen comes from plankton. If it’s spirit that unites us, then surely our breath comes from the ocean.”
Participants left with ideas about how to introduce the idea of marine conservation to their congregations through activities like holding worship at the beach or making a “pilgrimage” to the Aquarium. They even got copies of a Packard Foundation-funded television commercial showing people from all walks of life thanking the ocean for dinner, for their jobs, for medical advances.
But as much as anything, the daylong retreat was an opportunity for scientists and religious leaders to discuss the big concepts, like how science and religion interact.
“To me, where there’s overlap has to do with this word called ethics,” said Rev. Deborah Johnson of Inner Light Ministries in Soquel. “And ethics is this place where we look at the moral value of what’s right and what’s wrong.
“When you look at a lot of the threat to the ocean, it has come from our consumerism. We in the church have a responsibility to challenge some of the underlying assumptions that have been driving some of the technologies we’ve been using and some of our consumerist tendencies.”
A key theme stemmed from a concept introduced for Christians in the first chapter of Genesis, in which God gives man “dominion over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
“Dominion” is a troubling concept, said Rev. David Grishaw-Jones of the First Congregational Church in Santa Cruz.
“We’re here today to try to learn our way out of that one and learn this new sense, to learn what it means to be stewards and partners and do what’s good for the living whole,” Grishaw-Jones said. “Dominion has hopefully evolved to a sense of stewardship.”
The Living Ocean Initiative wasn’t just for the religious community. It also represented a boon to the two-dozen scientists and administrators from the Aquarium, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and marine research institutes from around the bay who attended, eager to reach across a longstanding divide. Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard cast the retreat in pragmatic terms, describing it as a chance to “basically build a constituency for conservation of the oceans.”
Indeed, religious groups are an important sector of US public life. According to the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of Americans say religion plays a “very important” role in their lives—about double the number who say so in Europe. Even though actual church attendance hovers around 20 percent, that speaks volumes about who Americans listen to when deciding who to vote for and how to live.
Since the 1980s, the religious right in the US has focused its considerable influence on a conservative social and environmental agenda, marginalizing progressive and even moderate faith groups. But slowly religious communities and environmentalists are finding common ground.
Two years ago the National Association of Evangelicals made headlines when it declared that global warming is an urgent threat and a Christian issue because the Bible requires humans to be stewards of the earth. And just last month, following a retreat paid for by an anonymous donor, evangelicals and scientists issued a joint call for action on enviromental crises, declaring that “every sector of our nation’s leadership—religious, scientific, business, political and educational—must act now…before it is too late.”
The Living Ocean Initiative will not be coming to Topeka, Kan. anytime soon. Many of the 50 or so congregations represented at Tuesday’s inauguration were the usual suspects—progressive spiritual organizations with a strong community presence in Monterey or Santa Cruz.
And yet keynote speaker Carl Safina, president of the Blue Ocean Institute and author of Voyage of the Turtle: In Pursuit of the Earth’s Last Dinosaur, aptly pointed to the promise in this new understanding between faith and science.
“Fans of Jesus and Darwin have been glaring at each other from across a wide chasm,” he said, “and yet, they tested the waters, found it shallow enough to wade through and are now building a bridge.”
|THE WEEKLY TALLY||6,000||
The number of wine glasses that will be used at the 21st Annual Masters of Food & Wine at Highlands Inn in Carmel this weekend. (Meanwhile, roughly 850 different food products will also be used.) Source: Masters of Food & Wine.