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Gütersloh, 31/03/2010

Wanted: A Public Theology Dedicated to Sustainable Development

Hands holding a bible.

Regardless of specific religion or faith, religious attitudes can help drive sustainable development. That was the conclusion reached by religious experts and representatives of the world’s five main religions who attended a conference organized by the World Future Council and the Bertelsmann Stiftung in Hamburg in March.  

The participants called for a reactivation of sustainable, religion-based values, behaviors and lifestyles. Pressure on the major religions is increasing, they agreed, to come together and proactively engage in public discourse on issues pertaining to individual wellbeing and social progress. “Even a cursory look at the traditions and rituals of the world’s main religions shows that the global community’s current path to development is fundamentally at odds with basic religious principles,” said Christopher Gregory Weeramanthry, Sri Lankan peace activist, human rights expert and former vice-president of the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

“We are living in an era of great waste and, at the same time, great poverty. Yet the attitude of ‘more and more’ is one clearly disavowed by the world’s religions,” he said, citing a study of the five major global faiths. “All of the major religions agree that excessive consumption and a desire for purely material prosperity run counter to the basic principles and values that provide for a successful, well-lived life, since such values derive from a peaceful engagement with one’s fellow human beings and a concern for nature that also considers the needs of future generations.”  

Gary Gardner, senior researcher at the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, therefore sees the globe’s religions as playing an important role in the creation of a culture of sustainability. “Sustainable development implies that we no longer systematically violate the boundaries of what the earth and our societies can bear,” he said. “Yet it’s difficult to make these boundaries clear to people, which is where the world religions can play a critical role, since they have always advanced the idea of boundaries as the key to a successful life.”  

Prof. Heinrich Bedford-Strohm of the University of Bamberg thus called for a theology that is more open to the world. “The representatives of the main religions would be well advised to avoid processes that are only concerned with clarifying things within their own faith and to engage to a greater extent in secular discourse,” he said. There are many reasons why people would be open to a “public theology.” For example, according to Weeramantry the world religions are not at odds in the areas that define quality of life and are largely in agreement on what progress should look like. According to Dr. Stefan Huber of the University of Bochum, moreover, the Religion Monitor, a worldwide survey of religious attitudes carried out by the Bertelsmann Stiftung, clearly shows that a majority of the global community can be addressed through the major religions. “Even in secular Western Europe, 75 percent of the population is open to ideas of sustainable development that derive from religious beliefs and can be motivated to act based on their faith,” he said. “In less developed countries that is true of almost 99 percent of the population.” In addition, representatives of post-secular belief in western societies are increasingly finding common ground with representatives of post-religious discourse in developing countries, said Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, Malaysia’s internationally recognized reformer and Islamic specialist, who also serves as president of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST).

For Dr. Shanta Premarwardhana, director of Interreligious Dialogue at the World Council of Churches, it is now time for the world’s major religions to reinterpret their various religious sources. “They have to be examined for what they have to say about socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable development in a highly networked, interdependent world,” he said. 

Dr. Wolfgang Schüssel, former Austrian chancellor and member of the Bertelsmann Stiftung Board of Trustees, feels that the debate can provide society with much needed new momentum. “The financial and economic crisis has initiated a global debate about how we grow,” he said. “Infinite growth in our finite world is simply no longer feasible over the long run. We must be the generation to make the shift to qualitative growth and to strike a new balance among the interests of the business community, the public, the environment and coming generations an effort in which representatives of the world’s major religions and the religious faithful will have a key role to play.” 

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