• Dan Robinson

Responsibility, Science & Spirituality, Grief & Hope, and Interfaith Work: an Emerging Spirituality

This is the second in a series of pieces drawn from a recent on-line presentation for St. Philip Lutheran Church in Trenton, MI titled “Healing Waters: Growing Into a Spirituality of the Great Lakes.” The first piece dealt with the core themes of water, place, relationships, and environmental justice.


Over the course of interviewing 20 different people for the Great Lakes Spirituality Project, certain themes have emerged that play what I call a “supporting role” in a spirituality of the Great Lakes. These themes are a Sense of Responsibility, Science and Spirituality, Grief and Hope, and Interfaith Work. Let’s take a look at these four themes.

Manitowoc, WI (photo by Dan Robinson)


A Sense of Responsibility


Everyone I talked with shared the idea that we are responsible to do something, to make a real difference in caring for the Earth and the Great Lakes Basin. It’s our job. For example, Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Temple Beth El in Madison, WI, talked about the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam.


Tikkun Olam, according to Rabbi Biatch, means “the repair of the imperfect world. We believe that when God created the world, whenever that was, that the world needed improvement. That's why we all – humanity, the animal kingdom, nature – all have to work together in order to bring about more perfection. We have as maybe a sort of a general mission to create a pathway to repair the world.”



Huda Alkaff, founder and Director of Wisconsin Green Muslims, wrote about how Islam calls people to responsibility no matter the circumstances. “At the time of darkness of environmental and climate injustices to the most vulnerable, current and future generations at home and around the world,” she said, “it is important for us to do everything we can. Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) is reported to have said: If doomsday is about to take place while anyone of you has a tree sapling in your hand, which you can cultivate, then cultivate it for you will be rewarded."


Science and Spirituality


There’s a LOT of science going on in the Great Lakes. We know a lot about what’s happening and what we need to do to understand and fix things. We have a lot to learn still, but science is at the heart of how we care for the Great Lakes Basin.

Rev. Jon Magnuson, a Christian minister in Michigan’s U.P. and exec. director of the Cedar Tree Institute, talked about the partnership between spirituality and science, and how spirituality brings gifts to science, like a different sense of time, rituals, and respecting the individual over ideology. Science in turn brings a gift to spirituality, he said, which can “open us and involve us into a deeper, wider understanding of the sacred.”


Dr. Dan Weber, a scientist and a devout Jew, talked about how science and spirituality fit into his own life and work. “Life is very complex, right? And so by sorting out these complexities, we see all these various kinds of interrelationships. Well, religion talks about that. It talks about it from a different perspective, not from the mechanics of these relationships, but how do we as people build relationships, not only with ourselves, but of course with nature as well,” Weber said. “I can put these things together and find that I don't see a contradiction between science and religion, but rather an amplification of each by being involved with both.”


Grief and Hope


Working to heal our environment and the Great Lakes can be challenging, filled with grief and hope, and both have their place.

In her soon-to-be-published book, Meander, Dr. Margaret Wooster, former head of Great Lakes United, writes that “anger and sorrow are almost guaranteed” for anyone who becomes attached to a natural place they’re trying to protect. She was specifically referring to her work to protect the Oxbow, a place along the Buffalo River in western New York state.

“I could even get kind of weepy over this,” Wooster said. “Thirteen years I've been at it with the Oxbow and ‘For what?’ you might say, because I don't think I've made much of a dent in the Oxbow itself. But it's made a huge dent in me. I just love to be there.”

Hope is also part of the picture. Dr. Nancy Langston, a professor of environmental history at Michigan Tech University and an atheist, shared her spirituality, which includes both hope in the short and the long run. In the long run, she cited the tenacity of life and its ability to thrive on Earth over the course of millions of years, even through mass extinctions.


In the short run, Dr. Langston referred to the work of others today. “There are still massive numbers of people really trying to go above and beyond their jobs. I mean, they do their jobs, but they also really, really love the Lakes and the species that inhabit this amazing Great Lakes ecosystem. So, that’s hopeful. People still care.”

Indeed, what each of us does to protect and heal the Great Lakes Basin in turn gives hope to those around us.


Interfaith Work


Caring for the environment in general, and the Great Lakes Basin in particular, is something around which people gather, a concern shared by those who claim a spirituality and those who don’t, and by people of various spiritual paths.

Dr. Weber served on the board of Wisconsin Interfaith Power and Light, a group dedicated to combatting climate change. About his time on the board Dr. Weber said, “One of the things that has truly impressed me is that, here we have people coming from all different kinds of religious backgrounds. We walk different paths. We have different rituals. We look at the world very differently sometimes... But we all end up in the same place. And how we get there is very different. We have different assumptions as to how does the world work. And what do we mean by what's divine? What do we mean by what's ritually important? But when it comes to morality, and when it comes to, ‘How do you apply that morality to life and to the environment?’ we all end up in the same place.”


Next week’s column will examine the “Prophetic Circle” and how these core and secondary themes of an emerging Great Lakes Spirituality help move us through the Circle and towards healing the Basin.

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