One of the most promising cultural developments of the past few decades has been the spread of environmental concern to an increasingly diverse range of religious traditions and communities (Jenkins 2009). The growth of religious environmentalism in society at large is reflected within the academy by the recent blossoming of religion and ecology as a distinct sub-field of theology and religious studies (Gottlieb 2006: 16-17). Joined together and energized by an acute sense of social and environmental crisis, these parallel movements present a wealth of opportunities to catalyze new working relationships between diverse cultures, disciplines, scholars, and practitioners. However, despite what the name suggests, the field of religion and ecology pre-

sently exhibits little of the interdisciplinary spirit that animates self-described “religion and science” types of inquiry. Indeed, newcomers may be surprised to learn how little it has to do with the science of ecology, the branch of biology that deals with the relationships between organisms and their environments. This is not necessarily a case of false advertising, as the term “ecology” has taken on a bewildering variety of meanings since it gained currency in the 1960s and 1970s, and is now as likely to refer to a recycling program, a new kind of light bulb, or simply to “nature” in general, as to a particular branch of the life sciences (cf. Foltz 2003: xiv). Contributing to this semantic pluralism, a majority of those working in the field of religion and ecology use “ecology” as a synonym for environmental ethics, and focus their attention on religious cosmologies as resources for improved relations between humanity and the rest of nature (e.g. Tucker and Grim 1994: 12-13). Besides the neglect of science, what is salient in the dominant ethical orientation

of religion and ecology is the abstractness of its approach to human-Earth relations.

This approach is, of course, deeply congenial to academic culture, but it also has a venerable precedent in the writings of Aldo Leopold (1966), often regarded as the fons et origo of much of the environmentalist thinking of the past three-quarters of a century. Leopold’s fundamental contribution in this area was to take the metaphor of community, which ecologists had adopted as a model for relationships among associations of species (Odenbaugh 2006), seriously enough to consider its moral implications. The idea of community that Leopold brought to bear on questions of conserva-

tion and relationships with the environment was, however, seriously limited. Most of his observations about human relationships with nature were framed in abstract terms, such that, as in one well known story, even the killing of a wolf is an occasion for insights into predator-prey relations rather than the emotional and moral ambiguity we might expect to accompany such an experience. Making community a cornerstone of his “land ethic,” and stressing that, as in a human community, this entailed a “limitation on freedom of action” and “a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct” (1966: 238), Leopold had little to say about the more challenging psychological implications of these strictures, about the tensions inherent in relationships, or about the fact that community, from the time of Cain and Abel on, has always been a cockpit of rivalry, dissention, anxiety, resentment, and conflict of interest. In articulating his ideas about the relationship between humans and their environment in abstract terms of right and wrong, Leopold in effect rose above all this and laid the foundation for an environmentalism that has been reformist in character, promoting an idea of relationship based on a sentimental idea of community as fundamentally unproblematic – that is, emotionally unchallenging and morally unambiguous – apart from human error and transgression. Congenial to the intellectual habits of academic philosophers, and deeply resonant

with a culture imbued with the biblical idea that nature is inherently good apart from human interference, this idea has underlain a good deal of the environmental thinking of the past half century. The result is an environmentalism based not only on the dubious ideal of a universal community, but also on the expectation that it might be achieved without emotional expense. To the extent that it deals with human experience more comprehensively and in

more concrete terms than ecology or philosophy, religious studies is in a position to correct this habit of moralizing and top-down theorizing. But here again, the habit of focusing on abstract ideas, exemplified in Lynn White’s hugely influential indictment of Christian cosmology as the “root of our environmental crisis” (White 1967), has generally prevailed (Jenkins 2009). Religion and ecology has, in large part, been guided by the dual assumptions that religious traditions, as cosmologies or worldviews, are important to environmentalism primarily as moral frameworks and, consistent with this, that the idea of community implicit in Leopold’s thinking is the moral framework par excellence. Accordingly, leaders of the religion-and-ecology field see themselves as the intel-

lectual vanguard of a new movement that promotes a more inclusive and egalitarian Earth community, much as the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century promoted a more inclusive human community (e.g. Foltz 2003: 5-6; Tucker 2003: 9, 22-23; Kearns and Keller 2007: 12). The importance of this Earth community ideal

can hardly be overstated, as it guides and unites the most common themes of religion-and-ecology literature: the emphasis on holism and interconnectedness; the championing of eco-centrism over anthropocentrism; the preference for meta-ethical theories that affirm the intrinsic values of nature; and the idealization of ecosystems in their “natural” state – perceived as having the virtues of harmony, balance, diversity, and stability – as sources of moral inspiration. Insofar as these themes are united, there is reason to suspect that the religious cosmologies selected by religion-andecology scholars from diverse traditional sources are actually variants of a single communitarian cosmology, what one critic has dubbed the “religious environmentalist paradigm” (Kalland 2005). As the field of religion and ecology matures, however, a growing number of its

members are questioning this mainstream orientation and at least some of its premises. Most notably, Bron Taylor, a prominent historian of religious environmentalism and executive editor of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, complains of the narrow focus on religious traditions privileged as “world traditions” and, within those traditions, on historically dominant forms at the expense of new, hybrid, and marginal varieties of religious environmentalism. Taylor also argues for the need to balance the activist fervor of what he calls the “confessional/ ethical” approach with the critical distance and attention to practice characteristic of more “historical/social scientific” approaches (Taylor 2005: 1379). In response, the religious ethicist Willis Jenkins suggests that scholars can advocate for religious environmentalism with greater sensitivity to its budding diversity by allowing environmental problems and social practices to drive the reform of religious cosmologies rather than vice versa (Jenkins 2009). And, pointing to a more practice-based approach to environmental ethics, philosopher Jim Cheney and his colleagues have explored the idea of an etiquette-based approach in which ethical principles emerge from direct, respectful interaction with other species (Cheney and Weston 1999; Peterson 2001). Meanwhile, a few scholars have begun to call for closer attention to evolutionary

science and ecology (e.g. Sideris 2003, 2006; Lodge and Hamlin 2006; O’Brien 2007), and in particular to evidence from these sciences that the moral example presented by nature is ambiguous at best. In Environmental Ethics, Ecological Theology, and Natural Selection (2003), for example, Lisa H. Sideris exposes a widespread neglect of evolutionary science in the works of prominent Christian ecotheologians. Sideris argues that this neglect coincides with the promotion of “a model of nature as a harmonious, interconnected, and interdependent community” (Sideris 2003: 2), the very same communitarian ideal described above. However well intentioned, it seems that attachment to this ideal has reinforced “a persistent reluctance to accept the disequilibrium, moral ambiguity, and ineradicable suffering and death that natural selection entails” (ibid.: 5). Sideris’ critique raises the question of how the greening of religion might proceed

without the whitewashing of nature. Surely the attempt to forge healthier relationships with nature should not dispense with complexity for the sake of moral certainty. But then what kind of universal community can be modeled on a natural world in which an estimated 99.9 per cent of all species that have ever lived are now extinct?