Anderson: Religions must unite to act as environmental stewards

Matthew Anderson, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, spoke on the topic of water — what water we come from, our uses for water, and the life giving and life taking that water presents us with — Monday afternoon in the Hall of Philosophy. Photo by Lauren Rock.

Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

Who will tackle climate change? Who will lead the charge toward water conservation? Who is responsible? And who is capable?

Matthew Anderson, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, believes the responsibility falls to the religious.

During Monday’s 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy, Anderson discussed the Week Four interfaith theme “Water: Life Force/Life Source” with a lecture titled “Wholly Holy Water — The Fundamental and Sacred Nature of Water.”

The National Religious Partnership for the Environment is a multi-faith organization that works to protect and conserve the environment. Its partners are four different religious groups: the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Churches of Christ, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, and the Evangelical Environmental Network. They work together to advance biblical understanding and the religious responsibility for environmental stewardship.

“I think you’ve seen these communities come together around a set of shared concerns, a set of shared values and a set of shared programs — and I’d say visions and goals for the future around God’s creation, around environmental stewardship,” Anderson said.

The organization instructs people on theological study, scholarship and the environment. It also spreads awareness about and advocates issues related to endangered species, toxins in the home and environment, climate and energy, and environmental justice.

The organization often focuses on water conservation, but it has never championed water conservation as its priority. Though during Monday’s lecture, Anderson discussed the reasons why water is so important to humans as spiritual beings.

Water has many dualities, Anderson said. It is a life giver but also a life taker. We see it as the source of life and well-being, but in times of flood, it can be incredibly destructive and life-threatening. Water is abundant, and it is scarce. We have a grateful relationship with water, and we take it for granted. When we are thirsty, we appreciate and give thanks for water, but everyday we take it for granted as we go through the banal activities of our everyday lives, Anderson said.

“It is both a sign of love, and mercy and life,” he said. “It is also used, and we understand it to be a symbol of and a tool in cases of judgment and righteousness and punishment.”

Human beings share an intimate physiological relationship with water — 83 percent of our blood is water, Anderson said.

Many illustrations of water’s spiritual potency are strewn throughout the Bible and other religious texts. The story of the flood prominent in the Judeo-Christian tradition has roots in many other world religions’ stories, Anderson said. The diluvian epic posits the idea of a grieving God, upset by the way God’s creations treated God and the other creations, Anderson said.

“And then there is Amos 5:24, righteousness, justice, rolling rivers, oceans, power, justice, judgment, punishment, mercy, love and grace — all of these are part of our relationship with water,” he said.

Anderson said he believes one of the most important dualities related to water is that it is both holy and mundane. People use water to feed lawns, wash dogs and cars, shave and do other basic tasks, but at the same time, it is used for some of the most sacred acts, including ablutions, mikvehs and baptisms, Anderson said.

Baptism is one of the most holy and sacred sacraments in a Christian’s life.

“What is this gift through baptism: life and death. Death in this life, and rebirth in new life,” he said.

I think what we need to do is to steep ourselves in our own religious waters, go deep into our own religious traditions around water, go deep into our own relationships, our own understandings, powerful, unique, beautiful each in their own way.

—Matthew Anderson
Executive director,
National Religious Partnership

In Washington, D.C., there are two rivers: the beautiful Potomac, and the Anacostia, a dirty, polluted river. In one of his first sermons, Anderson showed the audience a jar of the water taken from the Anacostia. He asked the crowd if they would let themselves be baptized with that murky water.

“I stood up in front of them and said ‘I would not be baptized in this water,’” he said. “It is so important to me to affirm my baptism and yet, if you asked me to do it with this water, I would seriously have to consider saying no.”

Baptism is a reminder of how important something as earthly and temporal as water is to spirituality and holy life, Anderson said.

“Our relationship to this element, I think, calls into question, or should ask us — should draw us into questions and conversation about how we’re treating this life force, this life source,“ he said.

Another water challenge is drought. A recent report published in Time magazine said that a large part of the U.S. is in moderate to exceptional drought.

This year, Minnesota, Anderson’s home state, experienced its own ebb and flow of water scarcity. In May, 96 percent of the state was in drought; in June, 4 percent was in drought; and by the middle of July, 50 percent of the state is in drought, Anderson said.

“We have got to reexamine our fundamental relationships with creation and with water,” he said.

The challenges the world faces around water include problems of access, quality, material contamination and pollution with toxins and poisons, Anderson said. Those challenges can be solved and tackled with practical and technological means and initiatives. Though the practical and technical means are available, the challenge also requires a human fortitude and an emotional and intellectual drive and incentive, Anderson said.

That is why religion plays such an integral role. Anderson said he does not believe the world will achieve equity and sustainability with water or water quality unless world religions unite and make a stand.

“I think what we need to do is to steep ourselves in our own religious waters, go deep into our own religious traditions around water, go deep into our own relationships, our own understandings, powerful, unique, beautiful each in their own way, “ Anderson said.

Religion may be the only thing on the planet capable of inspiring humanity to embrace matters of environmental stewardship. It can do that through interfaith cooperation. Anderson said interfaith coordination and commitment is essential for solving the water problem. He said he believes religion may need a challenge like that to force religion to rise up and be the best it can be.

“It’s in the face of these types of challenges, these social challenges, that at least in this country, often, religion has risen and helped humanity be the better version of itself,” Anderson said.

The relationship of religious people is rooted in their relationship with creation. In his lecture, Anderson cited an interpretation of Genesis by Walter Brueggemann, a theologian and scholar. In his book, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Brueggemann wrote, “the creator and the creation have to do with each other decisively. And neither can be understood apart from the other.”

Given the text of Genesis, Brueggemann argues there are two main points delivered related to the nature of the creation’s relationship with God. The first is that “the creator has purpose and will for the creation,” and the second is that “the creation, which exists only because of and for the sake of the creator’s purpose, has freedom to respond to the creator in various ways.”

As God’s creations, we must respect and take care of all God’s creations to show our love for God, our creator, Anderson said.

“For those of us who are religiously convicted as individuals and communities, we are required — I think there’s a mounting obligation upon us to examine this relationship that we have not just with water but with God, and through our understanding of our own relationship with God, have that inform how we approach water,” Anderson said.

The fundamental fact people must understand is that in the world created by the creator, there is enough water — it must be used and shared properly. People must make sufficiency a virtue, Anderson said.

“We as religious people, probably more so than anybody else in the world, are maybe the last bastion of folks that can make things like restraint, and discipline, and on occasion, sacrifice, noble and worthwhile and rewarding in and of themselves,” Anderson said.

The people who will lead the fight make the changes that push the world toward water equity, and conservation will be the people in power today, not the leaders of tomorrow, Anderson said. It will be the people living today who have homes, and jobs and voting power, with children and grandchildren, Anderson said.

“It is all of us maybe on behalf of your kids, your grandkids, the great-great-grandchildren you may never see, may never know — it is on behalf of them that those of us with power must get started getting these relationships right, and then I think maybe they’ll finish the work for us.”