Big Ecumenical Gathering Marks Multi-Faith Presence at Paris Climate Talks

Last night was a full on hope session, with good wine, at the American Cathedral in Paris.

About 300 relatively humble big wigs— those of us with the travel budget sufficient to make it to Paris—attended the celebration of Multi-Faith Presence at COP 21 and Reception. We have a tilt towards the Niebuhrian, which means, theologically, that we understand doing some bad, like flying, can result in some good. Most of the people in the room were good at jet lag if bad at carbon emissions.

GreenFaith, the OurVoices campaign, the World Council of Churches, Islamic Relief Worldwide, the Bhumi Project (Hindu), Plum Village (Buddhist), the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, ACT Alliance, the Lutheran World Federation, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Global Catholic Climate Movement, the Franciscan Action Network, and others gathered to build ourselves up for what is looking – at this moment – like a fairly good agreement. 1.5% will be the goal and the devil will be in the details about enforcement. The French leadership has been very strong.

At last night’s gathering, the Pilgrims who had walked from Rome to Paris as a witness showed up and led us in song. The Lutheran World Federation was almost as popular as the Pilgrims, based on their decision to only send people under 30 as their delegation. I was trying to figure out if they wanted to scare them to death or prepare them to say what one man from the World Council said. “This is my ninth COP and I am just getting started.”

The gathered leaders know we have the spiritual responsibility to articulate the good. We also know, with Reinhold Niebuhr and Hillary Clinton, that “we dare not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” That is in fact Hillary Clinton’s favorite statement of morality—and she could be right, at least as far as the 1.5% goal is concerned. We no longer have doubts about the importance of religious involvement in politics and have even convinced some of our constituencies that religion has a role in public debate. But we do remain inarticulate at the level of the holy, the sacred, the driver.

Pragmatism is also the American religion that ecumenists share. We have learned how to stay engaged in the political process without having an impact on it. Yet.

The secular activists are much less pragmatic. They gathered Tuesday to plan an action at the Louvre, regarding its receipt of fossil-fuel-fueled donations. I went to their planning meeting Tuesday for the Wednesday action. They spent 45 minutes imitating Occupy’s open style of meeting, with once again the white men doing more talking than the white women. The question was whether the gorgeous umbrellas with messages on them should be delivered en masse or individually, given that the press probably won’t let anyone anywhere near the Louvre.

“What if we can’t get in?”

“Well, let’s find out where another museum is that takes fossil fuel contributions and put up our umbrellas there.”

If the secular, youthful activists are befuddled and the religious leaders are wannabe effective, who or what is effective?

From my well protected vantage point, working for a congregation that dares the utopian ineffectively and artistically regularly, I like to aim for the high road. God is pissed. When She finds out what is going on down here, She is going to flip. She may already know and may already have flipped. I don’t say that as a doomsayer so much as a higher pragmatist. We aren’t getting very far yet – even with early good signs on the horizon about this conference – and we need to talk about what is good and holy, louder and more.

From there we negotiate with the Hillary Clintons, the Louvre and French police, with smiles on our faces.

To find more articulate religious voices, those who hope beyond hope, you have to dig a little. Even the Pope is not speaking directly to the UN conference, keeping his comments targeted and delivered from Rome. He dares big theological words about the poor and the planet. He lives beyond the Niebuhrian. There is nothing naive about that position—it is actually holy, to protect the people and the planet in one breath.

Notably Ven. Bikkhu Bodi [interviewed here on RD] has written a remarkably sane piece addressing all the issues I just mentioned. He calls his thoughtful piece, “Climate Change as a Moral Call to Social Transformation.”

In place of the dominant worldview, which reduces every sphere of human activity to utilitarian value, we need a paradigm that affirms the intrinsic value of every person and the inviolability of the natural world. Such a paradigm would help us appreciate the diversity of life forms, restore to us a sense of awe for the beauty of the earth, and inspire reverence for the inconceivable majesty of the cosmos. Most challenging, it would affirm the dignity of the human person and thus repudiate the pernicious utilitarian mindset that reduces people to the role of mere workers and consumers.

Ecumenists would inspire more hope if we used religious language more and policy language less.