Skip to main content
Everything Has a Sacred Quality
May 1, 2012

Heidi Hadsell, Ph.D., is President of Hartford Seminary and Professor of Social Ethics. She has a deep commitment to interfaith dialogue and engagement, believing that in today's religiously plural world, it is essential to understand and work with religions beyond one's own. She has published on a variety of subjects, including ecumenism, environmental ethics, religion in Brazil, and ethics in a religiously plural world. She is co-editor of "Changing the Way Seminaries Teach: Pedagogies for Interfaith Dialogue" and of "Beyond Idealism," which includes her article on "Ecumenical Social Ethics Now." The Matter&Beyond spoke with her about the intrinsic sacredness of existence.

M&B: Your area of study is social ethics. In what way your approach to environmental problems is different than an ecologist, environmental scientist, or a purely religious scholar?

Dr. Hadsell: As social ethicists, when we look at the question of the environment we look at other questions in the human social world. So for example questions of peace and conflict, questions of population, questions of rich and poor within countries, questions of rich nations and poor nations, north and south, east and west so forth. In every case the goal is also to get the science right, to get the data right. So if you're looking at issues of north and south for example what is the north what is the south what are the relationships we're talking about are those political relationships? Are those economic relationships? How are political relationships related to economic relationships and culture and language and history and so forth? And when we therefore turn our attention to the environment we're doing the same thing. We're asking "whose environment?" According to whom what aspects of the environment. We also look at how are the environmental questions are being raised today. We look at issues of global warming and our use of natural resources accelerated use of natural resources and so forth. The social ethicist will say how these environmental issues are related to other issues that we know something about? That is how are they related to political issues, to economic issues to historical cultural interactions and so forth?

While some environmentalists takes the environmental issue as an object in itself and see it from their own perspective, a social ethicist will say as we look at the environment how is that question embedded in all of these other questions? They want to know the data about the environment the scientific data about the use of the consumption of natural resources and the acceleration of global warming and who is using the most resources? They want to know all of those things but they drive that discussion also from the philosophical religious side of things and ask from a religious perspective from a Christian perspective from a Muslim perspective let's say, what is the human responsibility here? What does scripture tell us about the proper relationship between humans on the one hand nature on the other and God on the other? What is this relationship between these 3 things?

M&B: It seems like many different factors must be taken in to considerations.

Social ethics is really a composition of a number of things including sociology, political science studies of the social world, sometimes cultural anthropology as well as the more philosophical and religious area of ethics. And if you put those all together you have what is really called social ethics. People often work out of traditions, for example one can be an ethicist who's interested in the social world and political issues in the social world out of a Muslim perspective or out of a Christian perspective or out of a Hindu perspective and so forth. There are also a humanist perspective so there are various approaches and they can be grounded religiously or not. That is religious people using scripture and faith but also then drawing upon as I said political science, history, sociology, cultural anthropology. When you put that together then it really is what in the United States we call the discipline of social ethics.

M&B: What are the challenges in working in such a diverse multicultural setting?

Multicultural settings are challenging be cause the history of human relationship with the environment varies with the cultures and religions. Different cultures approach nature in different ways and have a history with nature that is specific and different from other cultures.

In the United States and in our school Hartford Seminary we have a lot of cultures interacting as well as religions interacting. So you get a wide spectrum of perspectives and a wide spectrum of experiences and each perspective and each experience may assume that its own perspective is the normative one because of course it comes out of their own experience. It's very important to think and to discuss these questions of the human relationship with nature across cultures and across religions to check the tendency for each perspective to blow its own perspective up and to call it common sense and to assume that its common to everyone.

M&B: Not only there are various religious and cultural settings but also geography seems to be an important factor when we approach to environmental problems.

In the United States for several decades there was an assumption that the environment is an issue that is of concern to white rich people. And that the rest of the American population or maybe the rest of the global population outside of north America and Europe for example don't have the luxury of thinking about environmental issues. Of course that's not true. The environmental issues such as global warming are going to affect most directly the very people who, once thought, shouldn't care about the environment because they have other things to worry about like getting food on the table and so forth.

So these issues are complex and I think in recent years the environmental movement has become more able to think across cultures and across specific social classes for example and nations to think about the environment in more subtle ways. In the United States one of the things we've started talking about already 10 years ago is for example the issue of environmental racism. That is African Americans in the United States and inner cities of the United States may think of the environment as being something that people in the suburbs who are worried about who want to protect their trees or their streams or you know the kind of natural environment that they have and the reason that they've moved out into the suburbs in the first place. Whereas there are many environmental issues going on right in the inner cities which is often the place where the dirtiest processing plants are located. Many environmental issues are very close to home to a variety of cultures and a variety of income groups. The environment is far too important for global humanity to leave it up to one group as an issue for that particular group. It has to be an issue that is on the agenda for all of us from our own perspectives because we all get hit with these environmental issues. They're moral issues for all of us and we need to have that conversation across these groups.

M&B: You said that the environmental problems hits the communities who depends on nature first. On the other hand the ones who are doing the pollution actually do not depend on nature so much. Do you think this adds another layer of responsibility or accountability to the problem?

I think it's very true that the people around the world who are already vulnerable often already poor and often already living very close to nature. I think about people in the Pacific Islands for example. They are the people who are most immediately affected by changes in the environment as we see with the studies about the rising sea level in relationship to global warming. Many the people who will be most immediately affected are people who live as fishermen for example in villages who can't protect themselves and can't protect their villages and their livelihoods from the effects of global warming.

So yes, it's very much the case that the people who are already vulnerable are the people who are poor and don't have a lot of political participation or representation. The people who don't have a lot of control over their lives are the people who will be most immediately affected by global warming. The people who live in big cities and lives removed from nature in the sense that they don't know where their food comes from it's shipped in from wherever all around the globe. They live in heated buildings and air conditioned buildings and they drive cars and so forth. They may not understand the complexity of the environmental issues and they may think themselves to be less vulnerable to questions like global warming.

I think one of the challenges of social ethics pertaining to the environment is to get the people in the cities who feel separate from nature and from the processes of nature to understand the direct although sometimes hidden links they have with the natural world and how their lifestyle and their consumption of resources effects the natural world and how the depletion of nature will in turn affect them and their lifestyles and even in big cities.

M&B: In what way religious traditions or ethical approaches could motivate them to take a new look at the nature?

I think that the sense of the sacred is a very important concept for the environmental movement. I think that as religious people the worldview of religious people is that everything that is given by God is endowed with a kind of sacred quality. So that all of the resources given by God should be approached with a sense of respect and honor the same kind of sense of respect and honor that we give towards sort of classically sacred moments or objects. It's very much the case that many people in the environmental movement even if they are secular people, they have an experience with nature, an intuition of something bigger, grander and outside of human control and domination.

Many people, even if they're secular, they sense in nature a kind of sacredness and it brings them that sense that they have even if they can't talk about it in religious terms or don't choose to talk about it in religious terms. I've met a number of people for whom direct experience with nature has brought them back into religious exploration in religious traditions because they've sensed a presence of the sacred in nature. And it takes them into an exploration in their own traditions or new traditions for them. It's very clear that nature and the sacred are in many ways connected.

Unfortunately there is also a sense in which the leveling of the human perception and imagination in an extremely secular spirit so that the only measure is the human. To think that there are no measurements, no dimensions outside of the human is an impoverishment of human imagination and leads to a disregard for the intrinsic value of nature. Nature is not simply a reflection of what it does for me or how I can use it but that the things of nature are intrinsically in and of themselves valuable.

M&B: Do you think interfaith dialog is an important step to solve environmental problems?

I do think that when we think about religious plurality there are varieties of ways to structure conversations across different religious groups. And some people really want to spend their time talking about religious doctrine. That's what they like to do and they really want to spend their time talking about religious doctrine and I think that's a wonderful occupation, its time very well spent, and those people ought to spend their time doing that.

There's other people who want to work together inter religiously not so much on the issues directly of religious doctrine, but on other issues. They want to problem solve together and they want to attack together across religions questions that are facing all of us. And it is for those kinds of people that the environmental issues are good possibilities for bringing people together across religious traditions to work together on environmental challenges. That is how Hindus or Buddhists or Christians or Muslims or Jews, each formed by and carrying with them their religious values can come to a common table and think together about environmental challenges and work together on those environmental challenges.

And I think that's a very interesting way to work and it is a way that in some ways will go farther than either political conversations – specifically political conversations – or specifically doctrinal conversations; this is a different way of working together and I think it can be very positive.