A Conversation with Paul Gorman—Land&People

“I am the son of an Irish Catholic father and a Russian Jewish mother who lives on the grounds of an Episcopal cathedral and has a great love of the dharma,” Paul Gorman has said. This ecumenical background has well prepared Gorman for his present position as executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, an interfaith coalition working to create a religious response to environmental problems. Organized in 1992, the partnership includes the U.S. Catholic Conference, the National Council of Churches of Christ, the Coalition for the Environment and Jewish Life, and the Evangelical Environmental Network. In a long career in public life, Gorman has worked as a congressional staffer, as speechwriter and press secretary for Senator Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign, as a public radio host, and as an author and college teacher. Land & People interviewed Gorman at the partnership’s secretarial office at the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City.

Q: A growing movement within the religious community is affirming the sacredness of nature and creation. Could you talk about when this movement started and why?

A: Some would say it started with Genesis–at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition. But in our time, there were always a prophetic few who immediately saw the environmental crisis as an inescapably religious challenge. More recently, people in the pews started asking, “What do our traditions have to say here? What are our teachings? What do we do?” An intriguing spark came from the scientific community. In 1991 an Open Letter to the Religious Community was released by thirty-two Nobel laureates and other eminent scientists, affirming that the environmental crisis had to be understood in its religious as well as its scientific dimension.

Q: You have helped bring diverse religious and scientific thinkers together around environmental issues. Has that presented a challenge?

A: It’s had some yeasty moments. Early on we organized a very high-level gathering of scientists and religious leaders. I got a call from Stephen J. Gould, the Harvard professor of zoology and geology, who said, “Look, I can work with just about anybody about saving the environment except somebody who tells me that the universe is only 5,428 years old, because I’ve got some rocks on my desk that suggest otherwise.” I said, “Thank you, Stephen, I’ll keep that in mind.” Twenty minutes later I got a phone call from a prominent Southern Baptist who said, “You refer to global warming taking place at a pace unprecedented in millennia. A good number of our folks question that the universe is that old.” And I say, “Okay, I’ll keep that in mind.” And when we met with the Senate majority and minority leaders, I sat the two of them–scientist and Southern Baptist–next to each other, which raised some senatorial eyebrows. The final communique of the meeting read, “We do not have to agree on how and why the world was created in order to work together to preserve it.”

Q: What do we mean when we say that the environmental crisis is also a spiritual or religious crisis?

A: Is there any more fundamentally religious and moral question than, “Who are we and why are we here?” The issue before all of us now is what is the fundamental role of the human in the greater web of life? Beyond this issue of human place and purpose, the environmental crisis draws up such fundamental religious concerns as the necessity for greater reverence and humility; the experience of grief and the source of hope; and the nature of service to God’s love and law. The word “environmentalism” seems hopelessly inadequate to describe what people universally are engaging here. The heart is being touched at the very deepest level. We are being confronted with our radical alienation from all of life. And its consequences. At the same time, it has taken the organized religious community a long time to engage with environmental issues.It’s been slow for a variety of reasons. Our long-standing priorities have been with human well-being and social justice. With such commitment and limited resources, it’s hard, say, to cut back on a hunger program in order to start up an effort to preserve wetlands. We’re learning about their connection, of course. Some in organized religion have also been suspicious of the environmental movement as secular liberalism in a green cloak: pagan, culturally elite, less concerned with people than with wilderness. A prominent bishop once remarked, “How come I never see any people on those environmental calendars?” All this can be worked with. But there is also an awareness that a serious faith response to an issue of this scale is a deep, complex challenge. This isn’t just another issue. This is a matter of what it truly must mean, here and now and hereafter, to be religious. It takes time, and it ought to.

Q: Would you talk about the blessing of the animals that happens in this church on Saint Francis Day and how that relates to the spiritual dimensions of the environmental crisis?

A: It’s one of the most evocative images of what our work is all about. In 1985 we wanted to fashion a liturgy that would somehow have us all more fully behold and be grateful for God’s creation. So why not invite more of it in? At the end of the service, the two-ton bronze doors of the cathedral swing open, and down the nave, the length of two football fields, comes a great procession: elephant, camel, llama, eagle, all kinds of beasts, but also a flask of ten trillion algae and a meteorite. And thousands of people are there with pets on their laps, parrots on their shoulders, little kids with their hamsters.

Before the very first service, we wondered about the reaction: flashbulbs, stampede, applause? But the place went silent and more than a few people wept. What were those tears? Recollection of Eden? Prodigal species reconciles with the rest of life? When I saw the bronze doors open that first time, I suddenly wondered, “Who closed them in the first place?” How have we locked life out, locked ourselves in?

Q: What brought you to this work? Were there experiences that pointed you toward it?

A: The brief answer is: God brought me to this work. A vocation. It also seemed natural.

And there were experiences. In the summer of my daughter’s fifth year, we were living beside a glacial moraine creek on New York’s Shawangunk Ridge. There was this chute in the creek, shaped like a womb, in which Juliet swam for the first time. And as I watched, it looked as if she had somehow been born in that creek, as we are all born of this earth. The next day I received an invitation to go to Assisi to help celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the World Wildlife Fund. And only two months later, we presented that first Saint Francis Day celebration. So you could say Francis brought me to this work. God, the creek, my daughter, and Saint Francis.

Q: Tell me about the your role in the National Religious Partnership for the Environment Network. What sorts of things has this coalition done?

A: My role is to serve the faith groups that compose the coalition in all the ways, alone and in concert, they seek to care for God’s creation. But also to be in deep dialogue with “secular environmentalists,” and more universally still, to play some tiny part in the transformation of civilization itself. Before anything else, we have had to find and refresh our theological wellsprings. Then to integrate scientific and ecological insight. Based on this, our various denominations sent out materials to over one hundred and fifty congregations: how to preach care for creation, teach it, what scripture to cite, psalms and hymns. Liturgies remain what they have always been, but with a fresh sense of creation. The prayers of the people, for example–usually for people in tribulation–can now include oppressed habitats and other species, as well as all of us. And our work, of course, also extends to community initiatives, and to public policy education and advocacy.

Q: Could you talk about some of the results from this work, how religious people and institutions are addressing environmental concerns?

A: Many exciting and often unexpected things are happening. I’ve been recently struck by the efforts of Catholic bishops in the Pacific Northwest to prepare a pastoral letter on the Columbia River. Pastoral letters can often seem to start with abstract theology; here it is habitat, the river itself, which sets the framework. The river’s history, health, illness; the role it plays in the life of the creatures that inhabit it, live alongside it, draw life and livelihood. And the result is a published and widely distributed religious and moral inquiry into place–a document that points to the common good of all life there.

In another unusual expression, evangelical Christians made a major–some have said a critical–contribution to preventing rollback of the Endangered Species Act by the 104th Congress. Here were people for whom scripture is normative, looking to Genesis for perspective on public policy. Eventually that took them to Speaker Newt Gingrich and other conservative Republicans. They said: “We’re with you on other major issues–abortion, school prayer, family values–but you’ve got it wrong about endangered species, because we’ve got a book here that tells us that God has established a covenant with all living creatures.”

People enjoy hearing about the “redwood rabbis” in the Headwaters Forest in California, working to protect that old growth. So with Catholics in rivers, evangelicals in wetlands, and Jews in forests, it’s getting pretty interesting. Black ministers are traveling to Cancer Alley in Louisiana to dramatize the connection between pollution and racism. The Ecumenical Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church recently proclaimed pollution to be a sin–a powerful teaching. And while Islamic, Buddhist, Native American, and other traditions are not structurally in the partnership, there’s increasing interaction.

Q: How does the partnership relate to mainline environmental groups. Do we share the same goals?

A: We’ve kept a certain distance from the environmental movement. We are not the environmental movement at prayer. We are not religious troops for the embattled Green Party. We are the community of faith across a broad spectrum acting out a distinctively religious and moral response to the crisis of creation wrought by human hands. Forty percent of Americans go to church or synagogue weekly–and religious observance provides a different locus in which to engage the environmental issues that parishioners may hear about during political campaigns or in mailings from environmental organizations. The religious community is becoming an unexpected new voice at a moment when the environmental movement needs new allies. But this is not about a new lobby. This is about religious life itself.

Q: As you know, TPL’s mission is to bring land to people. What do you see as the relationship between conservation, environmental issues, and human well-being?

A: In biblical ecology, the fate and behavior of the land and the people and God are totally interactive. People transgress law, the land rebels; the people are faithful, the harvest is plentiful. In this vision, the land entrusted to the people is not some passive platform for human melodrama. It is alive as God’s creation, and morally active and consequential. I think this is a powerful concept for conservationists. It weds conservation, sustainability, and justice. And it engages people more intimately with nature. A tree doesn’t self-consciously declare its sanctity. We are here to see and say that. We are the faithful instruments by which God’s whole creation consciously proclaims its sanctity.

Q: Do you ever get discouraged? How is it possible to maintain hope in the face of such challenging environmental problems?

A: It’s hard, knowing what we now know. But religious vision is radically hopeful because it can embrace both despair and redemption. And it’s also important that there is joy and puckishness in this work because it is about life itself, and the renewal and vitalization of religious imagination, and spirituality and moral resolve. Hope comes from the conviction that God’s creation is good and is endowed with love. The resources that flow from that conviction are full of power beyond our conventional thinking. That is what it means to have and hold faith: to know that you are somehow more than you think you are. Hope in the face of environmental crisis also comes from instances when people passionate with religious and spiritual fervor found strength to overcome odds comparable to those we face. Somebody once got up and said, “The divine right of kings has to go,” which was equally unimaginable in its day. Somebody first preached that slavery must end, that children could not be exploited as labor, and so on. Faith is a source of courage as well as hope. Reverence, joy, hope, courage: these are universal human resources that religious life, at its best, both births and nourishes. And seemingly insuperable challenges are met and overcome. That’s what we’re about in this work. For everyone.

Land & People, Fall, 1998
Susan Ives is managing editor of Land & People.