A conversation with Imam Jamal Rahman, Pastor Don Mackenzie, and Rabbi Ted Falcon
AS THIS ISSUE of Orion goes to press, the United States is preparing to reverse the commitments it made to fight climate change via the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. The move confirms what many have feared: that the willingness of this country to take federal action against climate change is vanishing, even as the carbon dioxide level of Earth’s atmosphere breaks new records. It’s difficult to remember an era in which America’s political institutions were as broken and the stakes were as high as they are now. Perhaps it’s time, then, to look for help elsewhere, to turn to a source of aid far older than our government: religion. If a changing climate poses an existential threat to life on Earth—and by the best accounts, it does—what might we learn from some of humanity’s oldest means of contemplating existence? Can religious life help us understand something new about our relationship with the natural world? Can it give us fresh insight into how, as individuals, we might navigate a moment in time that often feels bewildering and out of control?
Orion editor Scott Gast discusses these questions and others with Rabbi Ted Falcon, Pastor Don Mackenzie, and Imam Jamal Rahman—representatives of three of the world’s major religions—who are known collectively as the Interfaith Amigos. Since 2001, the three have authored several books, including Getting to the Heart of Interfaith and Religion Gone Astray, and have spoken to audiences around the world about the possibility and opportunities afforded by interfaith dialogue.
Scott Gast: I’d like to begin by asking each of you to describe, in general terms, the role of the natural world in the history and practice of your different faiths.
Rabbi Ted Falcon: I’ll begin, because Judaism began as the first of the Abrahamic traditions, and because Judaism is grounded in the cycles of the earth. All the major holidays, except the New Year and the Day of Atonement, are associated with harvest festivals. The three pilgrimage festivals—Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot—celebrated the spring harvest, the early summer harvest, and the fall harvest. Later, those festivals were linked to significant historical moments: to Exodus from Egypt, to the transmission of Torah at Mount Sinai, and to the booth-dwelling journey through the wilderness. Later still, additional spiritual elements were incorporated into each of these celebrations—but the celebrations are ultimately rooted in the movement of the seasons.
In Judaism, the process of the universe’s creation includes a Creator intimately associated with the existence of plants, animals, and people. In Genesis, there are three creation stories, and although the one that appears in the first chapter is the most linear and detailed, the others speak about the realm of nature being “prepared” for human beings, and how human beings are tasked to live within that realm and care for it. In the story of the sixth day of Creation, God creates human beings and says to them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth” [Genesis 1:28]. The word dominion is often taken to mean control, but it’s really about caretaking. The text also indicates that we were originally to be vegetarian: “And God said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed—to you it shall be for food’” [1:29].
A midrash, a rabbinic comment on biblical themes, says, “When God created the first human beings, he led them around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said, ‘Look at My works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake, I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.’” That midrash was repeated many centuries before our awareness of our responsibility for climate change and environmental degradation. It was just understood that the world is alive and needs to be treated as such. Jewish tradition often teaches that there is no separation between humans and nature—that all life comes from the same place, and that all life flows through the cycle of birth, flowering, decay, and death.
The most important Jewish holiday is the Shabbat, celebrating all of Creation on the seventh day of the week. Torah makes it clear that not only are we to keep the Shabbat—a day of rest from the striving, trying, and competing of the other days of the week, a day to experience the blessings of Creation—but the land, also, is to have Shabbat. Every seventh year, the land itself was to rest from the cycles of planting and harvest. The connection between person and planet is built into Jewish teaching and observance.
Pastor Don Mackenzie: Jesus would have shared the perspective that Rabbi Ted just described. He was, after all, a Jew and a rabbi, and he knew his tradition pretty well. Other parts of the Gospel suggest that Jesus had a deep reverence for the sacredness of all creation, and the oneness of all creation. That would include everything that’s living and maybe, simply, everything—stones, earth, water, fire, people. It would include abstractions, too, like forgiveness—central to the teachings of Judaism, and carried forward by Jesus—which we believe is connected to good stewardship of creation. Of course, Jesus never experienced climate change, or any of humanity’s modern inflictions upon the environment. But even in his time, good stewardship included good farming practices, care for animals, and an awareness of the seasons and how they affect us in inner and outer ways.
Imam Jamal Rahman: Muslims rely heavily on verses from the Holy Qur’an, and several times the holy book says, “There are signs of God in nature.” In fact, there are more than seven hundred verses in the Qur’an which concern themselves with nature. Several chapters start with the names of animals or natural phenomena. And in some chapters God takes a mysterious oath, which invokes nature: “By the fig and the olive,” “By the Dawn.” Spiritual teachers in Islam take this to mean that nature is a holy, sacred manuscript, and if we honor and respect her, we can learn how to live. For example, the Qur’an asks, “What is a good word?” Well, a good word, it says, is “like a tree, with roots going deep into the earth, with branches going out into the sky, and yielding fruit by permission of its Sustainer.” And how shall we do the essential work of inner transformation? Little by little, says the Qur’an, much like the movement of the sun in the sky. There is a verse about personal transformation that some Muslims know by heart: “By the rosy glow of sunset, and the night and its progression, and the moon as it grows into fullness, surely you shall also travel stage by stage.”
The Qur’an also says, “Oh, human being”—doesn’t matter what your religion—“you are God’s representative on Earth.” And it emphasizes, “You are there not to sow corruption on Earth, but to enjoin the good and forbid the evil.” There is a remarkable verse that puts human beings into their proper place in the cosmos: “The creation of the heavens and the earth,” it says, “is a greater matter than the creation of man, but man understands not.” So, we have to be caretakers; it’s a spiritual obligation. As the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said, “The earth is like your mother. Honor her. Protect her.”
Scott: The faith traditions that we’re talking about took root in a particular part of the world, and in a particular landscape—a desert. Do you think that that landscape played a role in the early development of these belief systems? In the desert, there’s a starkness, a division between land and sky that pulls the mind in interesting directions—it seems natural that one would begin to wonder about the connection between the physical and the ethereal.
Ted: I think the desert is an environment that welcomes spiritual awakening. It’s quiet; it has few distractions; it’s conducive to meditation and contemplation. In 1985, I led a trip that began in Egypt, and then we went across the Sinai in four-wheel-drive vehicles. We stopped often in that high desert—a place where such significant spiritual events took place—and I asked people to walk out and find a place among the rock formations where they could be silent and meditate. After an hour, we reconvened and shared our experiences. Nobody saw a burning bush or had a voice tell them “I AM as I AM,” but each of us felt the special energies of that setting. We experienced something of what we imagine Moses did, when he spent days alone in that place and became available for his moment of awakening.
In Christianity, in the early Catholic tradition, the Desert Fathers were profoundly touched by that kind of environment. The same thing exists in Islam. Deserts are conducive to spiritual experience. There are other special settings, like lakes, oceans, and rivers, but what they have in common is that they are relatively free of distractions; they force our consciousness to quiet down and touch something deeper than the racings of the everyday mind.
Don: In the Gospel of Luke, it says that Jesus spent forty days in the desert wilderness prior to his public ministry. My feeling is that those forty days represent most of his life before the age of roughly thirty, when he started to preach and teach and heal. And the fact that he did this in the wilderness is no surprise. It’s a place where, as Brother Ted said, there are few distractions. It’s easier to become centered and stay that way. I think Jesus must have spent a lot of time in wilderness. Having had that experience, he was able to put his ego in a place where he could exist for others and resist the ordinary temptations that would get in the way of his mission.
We three, together, have been to the Middle East twice, and we have thought of Jerusalem, especially, as a “thin place”—a place where the barrier between this life and the world of the spirit is thin. I think it’s not simply a coincidence that the teachings of the Torah arose in that landscape; that Jesus arose in that landscape; and that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, arose in that landscape.
Jamal: Prophet Muhammad received revelations in the thinness of the desert and the mountains. In the quietude, you might say—in the womb of silence. That’s why I love a saying by Islamic teachers, “Silence is the language of God. Everything else is a poor translation.” The desert and its spaciousness evokes a sense of vastness, which connects us to the infinitude and mystery of God.
I have friends who don’t believe in God. One in particular, I remember, came and talked to me some years ago and said, very quietly, “I don’t believe in God, but when I went to see the Grand Canyon, in America, something shifted in me.” I think he was touched by that sense of vastness that we’re talking about, that incredible spaciousness. There’s a verse in the Qur’an that says, “We have created the Earth as a carpet, so that you might walk, therein, on spacious paths.” The desert reminds us that our work, as spiritual people, is to create inner spaciousness and walk on paths of outer spaciousness.
Scott: The word vastness of course works in the way that we’re using it now, but I think it also makes sense in the context of a changing climate, which is a phenomenon that anyone with a stake in the future must think about. Like the Grand Canyon, climate change has a kind of vastness to it—it’s far bigger than any single person or society. As such, I sometimes wonder whether it requires a response that isn’t merely practical or political, but also, somehow, spiritual. Do you agree, and how are each of your faiths engaging with the subject of climate change?
Ted: Many synagogues are aware of how they can model care for the environment, which includes an awareness of climate change. There are several Jewish environmental groups, one of which is the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, which has been operating for many years, even before the dire predictions about climate change. That work stems from a spiritual foundation.
But we agree with your inference that spiritual life provides a kind of energetic source and support for sustained outward action that mere ethics and rules can’t. And it does so by internalizing the reality of the situation, by locating its origin within ourselves. As a result, we can see that climate change is not a problem of humans versus the natural world—we’re a part of all of it. A spiritual consciousness helps separations lift, so that we no longer act toward each other according to rules, however ethical they might be, but out of the abiding awareness that each and every being—including all animal and plant life—is an expression of a divine presence, the sacredness of a shared life.
Don: The same is true for Christianity, at least in my tradition. Care for creation, with a few exceptions, is a place where most Christian groups intersect. My denomination, the United Church of Christ, has an Office of Environmental Concerns; the church I served in Seattle had a Sacred Earth Committee; and the church where I’m now a member, in Minneapolis, has something similar and has a commitment to renewable energy. I think a lot of this has roots in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in the 1960s, which woke many of us to the fact that care for the natural world had taken on a new urgency, whether we’re Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, or Buddhists.
Jamal: Much of this is true for Muslims also. But I’m not only a Muslim, I’m from Bangladesh. And Bangladesh is really at the forefront of climate change—we’re a test case, in that how Bangladesh fares with climate change is how the world will fare. So I feel the urgency around this very strongly.
But there’s a point that all three of us often make, which is summarized, I find, in a beautiful statement by Gus Speth, who was once an environmental advisor to Jimmy Carter’s White House. “I used to think that the top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change,” he said. “I thought that with thirty years of good science we could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.” He’s exactly right—this is a spiritual issue. We have to deal with it in those terms. We have to dig deep into what our religions are really saying and then live accordingly. That means doing the spiritual practices that help us become complete human beings. It means transforming our egos and opening our hearts so that we can do authentic service to God’s creation. Without inner work there will be no outer change.
Scott: Each of you has articulated something about the way religion can intersect with our obligation to care for the natural world. But while a spiritual foundation for that work feels important, religious life, in the West at least, is playing a shrinking role in many people’s lives—yet I think there’s a growing sense of disconnection, aimlessness, and despair in our culture. Do you see a relationship between these trends, and if so, what do you make of them?
Ted: I think what we’re seeing today is a failure of religious institutions, not necessarily the failure of religion itself. I think many people have an interest in spirituality but are not being nourished by their institutions. People can feel a sense of loneliness even though they might officially be part of a church, synagogue, or mosque.
Don: I would add that there’s a widespread and growing distrust of institutions in general. Religion is one. Government and family are others. Part of that has to do with how, with television and the internet, we are more keenly aware of the failings of institutions. But I think this gives us an opportunity to become more competent spiritual beings, competent enough that, when we drift from our purposes, we can pull ourselves back.
Scott: Can you say more about what you mean?
Don: I think our current sense of loneliness exists in a place between yesterday and tomorrow. Yesterday, we could be an emanation of some institution and feel pretty confident that, so long as we were part of that institution, we would be okay. But the world of tomorrow can be different: we can evolve, if that’s the right word, into beings that are better able, through spiritual practice, to be mindful of how well the ego and the other spiritual institutions to which we belong are fulfilling their purposes. And when they’re not fulfilling their purposes, we can be able to call ourselves back.
Ted: What’s important is not the institutions themselves, but the sense of community they sustain. Humans need community. We are among those who think that spiritual practices provide a context for community, whether or not those practices are part of an institution or even any specific tradition. In some ways, the estrangement felt by people might be a reflection of an estrangement occurring in the natural world—plants and animals are estranged by changes in climate and the loss of resources they used to be able to count on. I think our loneliness is one of the ways we can experience what nature itself is feeling.
Scott: I want to talk a bit about that relationship between inner life and outer life that Jamal referenced earlier and to pull it into the context of activism around environmental issues, especially climate change. We’re always hearing messages about the outward, public things we’re called to do: march in Washington, call a congressperson, organize our neighbors. But we hear less about how, as individuals, we might develop the inner capacity to take outward action.
Jamal: You spoke earlier, Scott, about despair. Given the situation, it almost seems we are at a point of no return. All these situations of drought, famine, pollution—we can see them as harbingers of doomsday. However, if we want to be spiritual, we have to, as the wonderful Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says, use these difficult situations to awaken us. The way he puts it, “Let these be bells of mindfulness,” an opportunity to be motivated to right action. Yes, we have to make outer changes—change our lifestyles, our patterns of production and consumption. But the real change is within. That can mean coming to an understanding—a spiritual understanding, a higher understanding—that true happiness has to do with cultivating compassion and participating in the joy of relationships. It has to do with living a simple life.
Any endeavor we make in the outer world is fueled by another endeavor we make in our inner world. We feed our bodies—we eat, we study, we earn a living. But what are we doing to feed our souls? Our souls provide us with moral courage, creativity, vision, and hope.
Ted: Our third book, Finding Peace Through Spiritual Practice, has a section focused on the environment—and not in terms of actions to take, because there are plenty of people who know more about that than we do. We focus instead on the kind of spiritual grounding that can support outward action. We believe that any spirituality that doesn’t express itself through compassionate action toward others and toward our environment is not an authentic spirituality. One of the ways we know someone is serious about spirituality has to do with the degree to which they act with kindness; the degree to which they’re able to connect and to love; the degree to which they’re able to appreciate the wonder and beauty of the world in which we live.
This can be cultivated through specific practices. In the eighteenth century, one of the great Hasidic masters, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslov, would send his people into forests. “Walk into the forest and talk to God,” he would tell them. And he was teaching them to talk to God out loud. Well, if you’re walking in the forest and talking out loud, who are you talking to? To God, yes. But God in the form of the trees in whose presence you’re walking. A connection of that sort is so vital in terms of building our capacity for outward action. Those of us who walk with our faces in our phones might do well to find forests to walk in, or to dig a little bit in a garden. Those are spiritual practices.
Don: I think people need to feel coherence between their inner and outer world. There is a lot of incoherence in modern life, and some of that has to do with how estranged we might feel from the workings of nature. That estrangement, I think, grates on people at some deep and important level. And so we do things—sometimes constructive, sometimes destructive—to try to find coherence. My grandfather, when he was feeling incoherent—that wasn’t the word he used, but it’s what it amounted to—would say, “If I could just walk across a newly ploughed field in my bare feet, and feel the dirt coming up between my toes, I’d know where I was.” Whether he knew it or not, he was describing a spiritual practice.
Ted: I’d add that, like fields and gardens, trees are important anchors of spiritual practice across traditions. The tree image exists in meditations in each of our faiths: experiencing the tree internally, experiencing the tree externally, leaning against a tree, feeling the solidity of the tree. We would be lost without our trees. Spiritual practices like these enable us to engage our challenges without lapsing into hopelessness, overwhelm, and despair. We need a source of strength that’s more profound than logic and cognition.
Jamal: The Qur’an tells us that nature is a profoundly holy manuscript and Sufi teachers emphasize that we learn the deepest truths by meditating on natural phenomena. To understand how there can be unity in diversity, observe that the branches of a tree sway differently in the wind but are connected at the roots. To understand generosity, notice that the tree does not consume its own fruits but yields to our needs repeatedly, giving to rich and poor alike. To remember our capacity for growth, witness an acorn that develops into a mighty oak.
Unless we take these lessons seriously—unless we do the work to become more developed human beings—we will not possess the insight, vision, moral courage, and purity of mind and heart necessary to take care of our environment and work for social justice. Without this inner work, our outward action might falter, no matter how righteous the cause. In fighting injustice, we ourselves might become unjust; in fighting extremism, we ourselves might become extreme.
Spiritual practices tame the ego and open the heart. The needs of the untamed ego for wealth and power are insatiable. If we were presented with two valleys of gold, we would yearn for a third. But Sufi teachers tell us that by prostrating to God in daily body prayers, we “liberate ourselves from a thousand prostrations to our ego.” Little by little, then, we transform our ego from a commanding master into a personal assistant. By cultivating the divine qualities of compassion, truth, and patience, we polish the heart so that it reflects the face of Allah. Thus we are able to move beyond tribal and selfish interest and toward serving the common good. Our loyalty must be to something higher than our egos—let’s call it God.
Scott: That last statement feels like one that would be true in each of your faiths.
Jamal: Yes, and it applies also to people of no faith. In all traditions, we practice silence. When we work hard in the outer world, we’re like fish, thrashing and quivering on a beach. From time to time, we need to dive into oceans of silence to become nourished and rejuvenated. As Brother Ted and Brother Don often say, there is no such thing as a Jewish silence, or a Muslim silence, or a Christian silence—it’s all silence. And all of us can practice that, including atheists and agnostics and secular humanists.
Scott: We spoke earlier about how religious life is playing a smaller role in many people’s lives and how, at the same time, many of us feel a sense of aimlessness. I’ve felt for a long time that, if there’s any silver lining to a changing climate, it’s that the existential questions it raises provide us with an aim—they ask us to step up and wrestle with ideas that are, in some deep way, spiritual. Do you feel the same way?
Jamal: Climate change motivates us to practice what is at the heart of every religion. First, to become more developed human beings—this involves transforming the ego and opening up the heart. Second, to be of service to God’s creation. And third, to realize that we are all interconnected. As the Qur’an says, “Every so where you turn is the face of Allah.”
Don: I’d add that I think spiritual practices are by definition experiences that point to hope. They themselves can be deeply hopeful experiences. And hope is what many of us need today.
Ted: We’re living at a time when much of the world is in turmoil. One of the challenges we face is the incredible disruption of life caused by environmental crises. It’s a time of great anxiety, caused not only by the degradation of the climate but also by the culture of polarization in this country and in the world. It all impacts us as trauma—we’re being traumatized. Many therapists these days recognize that healing from trauma is easier if one can work from a spiritual foundation. Just as meditation is seen as an important component of modern psychotherapy, spiritual practice—and spiritual community—helps us deal with the changes that are going on around us. Unless we maintain our spiritual health, the clarity of our thinking, and the openness of our hearts, we aren’t going to be any good to the rest of the living world. We need to take care of ourselves and we need to take care of each other. We believe that spiritual practice is a foundation that can help us do that.
This article was made possible through the support of the Kalliopeia Foundation.
Jamal Rahman is a cofounder of and Muslim Sufi minister at Interfaith Community Sanctuary. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Seattle University.
Don Mackenzie is a minister in the United Church of Christ. He is a graduate of Macalester College and Princeton Theological Seminary and holds a PhD from New York University.
Ted Falcon is a Reform rabbi with a doctorate in professional psychology. His books include Judaism for Dummies and A Journey of Awakening.