COVID, the Environment and Justice


On Sunday, January 10, 2021, I participated in a panel organized by the Interfaith Environmental Network of Houston. The other participants were Dr. Harish Chandra (Acharya, Arya Samaj Greater Houston), Rabbi Sarah Fort (Assistant Rabbi, Congregation Beth Yeshurun), Stephanie Thomas, PhD (Buddhist Chaplain), and Rev. Karen Tudor (Senior Associate Minister, Unity of Houston). Here are my remarks:

Thank you for the invitation to participate in this panel on “COVID, the Environment and Justice.” The juxtaposition of these three topics is wise. They are deeply interconnected. Indeed, the ongoing revelation of their interconnection has been the great truth that has been repeatedly unveiled during these last difficult months. It is a great truth that must be contrasted, and ultimately must prove more powerful than, what in recent days has been named the great lie: the steady stream of propaganda and misinformation peddled by people such as Texas Senator Ted Cruz that there is legitimate reason to doubt both the reality of the climate crisis and the validity of the recent presidential election.

In my time with you I want to focus my remarks on what in academic terms I might call Unitarian Universalist epistemology. I might rephrase this in plainer language as a theory of knowledge or even describe it as the Unitarian Universalist attempt to answer the questions: What is knowable? How can the knowable be known? And what are the limits to our knowledge?

This might appear as a rather abstract place to start a discussion of “COVID, the Environment and Justice.” And it might seem that statements about epistemology are better left to the rarified atmospheres of philosophy departments than placed within the context of an interfaith panel on the grave crises of the hour.

I raise issue of epistemology because competing truth claims are both at the center of religious traditions and the crises that the United States and the human community now find ourselves immersed in. In a pluralistic society where such a thing as an interfaith panel is possible, different religions put forth differing visions of what is true and what is not.

Unitarian Universalists claim that the knowledge can be gained, and the truth known, through two primary sources: direct experience and the application of reason. Unlike many other traditions, we reject the idea that revelation was given once and has been sealed for all time or that it is contained exclusively within a particular set of scriptures. Instead, we think that individual humans and humanity itself are constantly learning new things and forgetting old ones. Knowledge is not permanent or the exclusive property of one community or another. It is something that must be sought and taught and there many paths and many ways to uncover it.

Historically, this position inspired conservative and fundamentalist Christians to draw sharp distinctions between us and them. In sixteenth century Europe the people who became the early Unitarians read the Christian New Testament and discovered that it does not contain clear references to the doctrine of the Trinity. They had been taught to believe that the Trinity was what differentiated Christianity from Judaism and Islam. When they learned that Jesus does not describe himself as part of the Trinity anywhere within the canonical gospels they rejected the Trinity. In doing so, they adopted the view that the Christians, Jews, and Muslims worshipped the same God.

The path to that God lay through the application of reason to received doctrine. Pursuing this path they embraced science and began use it to try and understand the natural world. Unitarianism’s embrace of science meant that scientists like Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen, could pursue his scientific research and participate in a Unitarian congregation with the knowledge that his religious beliefs were not in fundamental conflict with his scientific understanding.

The perspective that science and religion need not be contradictory continues to animate Unitarian Universalism today. We believe that science is an essential tool to further our understanding of the world around us, of which we are a part, and our place within it.

In this time of plague and pestilence, we have taken a science based approach to both addressing the pandemic and climate crisis. The Unitarian Universalist Association has encouraged congregations to remain physically closed and move our programs online until it is safe to gather again without the possibility of spreading COVID. The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston has been meeting online since early March. I suspect that our embrace of science in these difficult times is one reason why despite the pandemic we have seen our online presence grow dramatically in the last months. I think that right now, when it is so clear to those who embrace a scientific understanding of the world that the climate crisis is existential, there are a lot people who are looking for communities where they can explore what it means to being religious without rejecting the findings of science.

This brings me back to the question of the great truth and the great lie. I brought up the subject of epistemology in this talk because it is at the very heart of the conflicts in the United States today. If religious communities are committed to the proposition of creating a more just society, building what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the beloved community, then they must decide whether they are going to embrace the truths revealed by science or the falsehoods peddled by figures such as Senator Cruz. It is only by recognizing the great truth that humanity is part and parcel of the natural world that we can address the climate crisis or respond in an effective way to the pandemic. Neither the pandemic nor the climate crisis will be prayed away. They can only be addressed through scientifically informed policy decisions and actions: the effective distribution of a vaccine, mask wearing, and physically distancing in the case of the pandemic and a rapid reduction in carbon consumption and a transition to a green economy in the case of the climate crisis.

The problem with disjunction between those who believe the great truth and the great lie is how shall we, or can we, bridge the gap between the two positions. What should we do if we cannot and what should our teachings as a religious community be if it is not possible to build such a bridge? These are questions I struggle with mightily. I hope we might have the opportunity to discuss them some during the question and answer session. Until then I thank you for your time and for the opportunity to be part of this panel.

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