JESSICA HETHERINGTON, Ecotheologian

Religious Diversity in the Earth Community

This past Monday, Hindus in India and around the world celebrated Diwali (or Divali), the “Festival of Lights.” One of the most widely celebrated festivals within Hinduism, it symbolizes the victory of light over darkness and good over evil. Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world, with more than a billion followers. It is also quite possibly the oldest living religion in the world today.

Learning about Diwali

At my daughter’s public school, educators are intentional about introducing the students to a wide range of religious and cultural traditions. Last week, she came home with a beautiful art piece that she created at school earlier this week. She is in Grade 1, and she coloured, cut out, then glued to the paper plate a mandala (see the picture below), added some rhinestones, and the cord for hanging. (I’m a wee bit proud of her colouring and scissor skills!). I asked her what it was about, and she explained, “It is for Diwali.” In the time leading up to this festival, she and her classmates were learning about this tradition, as one of many that our neighbours celebrate, here in Ottawa and around the world.

I was thrilled to discover what my daughter is learning, and was encouraged to pull out books that I have on various world religions, in order to learn a bit more about this ancient faith.

Religious Diversity is Ecological Diversity

It is important to me that I learn, and my children learn, about the diversity of religious traditions for the sake of increasing understanding and compassion among people, and working for a world in which all are free to practice their beliefs without fear of harassment or harm. It is also important to me because religious diversity is a part of the Earth community. Religious diversity is ecological diversity, too.

How is this so? We are used to thinking about the natural world, and about ecological diversity, as referring to the non-human world: plants and animals, ecosystems and bioregions. But all that exists on the planet, all that which makes us most human, is part of ecology, too, part of the Earth community. That this is true goes back a long, long way…

The Beginning of the Universe

When the universe began in an explosion of elements 13.8 billion years ago, bringing time and space into existence, it flared forth[1] with all of the elements that would create the expanding universe. These elements would eventually form the planets, including Earth, and be the building blocks for life on Earth. Everything that has existed within the universe, and exists now, can be traced back to that initial beginning so very long ago.

Earth Community

What that means is that all of who we are, as human beings, flared forth in its primal elements long before we came into existence. All that we are as a species, as animals within the Earth community, has evolved from those early elements. Through evolution, the evolving of flora and fauna within the ecological systems of the planet itself, human beings came into existence. We emerged as an interconnected and interdependent part of the natural world. Because such interconnection and interdependence are defining characteristics of the natural world all over, I and others refer to the planet as an Earth community.  

Self-Reflexive Consciousness

All of who we are, of course, includes not only physical matter, but all that was required for us to develop human consciousness, a self-reflexive consciousness that, scientists believe, is unique in its full expression within humans.[2] Out of that human consciousness came our ability to discover fire and agriculture; develop languages and mathematics; build cities, social structures, and educational systems; create art and music. All of that evolved from the primal elements that came into being with the birth of the universe. All of that evolved from within the Earth community, from whence humans developed, beginning approximately 4 million years ago.  

Indeed, science has shown that without the vast diversity of life on Earth, in both its beautiful and tragic aspects, humans would never have developed as fully as we did. Our brains – and our hearts – developed ever more complex pathways as our human ancestors lived in an interdependent and interconnected Earth community. It is, truly, quite incredible!

Coming Back to Diwali

Coming back to Diwali, that so many of our human neighbours celebrated earlier this week, how do our religious traditions fit within this reality? How does Hinduism, as well as Islam and Taoism, Confucianism and Judaism, Christianity and Indigenous spiritualities, fit within the 13.8 billion year universe, within the Earth community itself?

Just as with art and music, language and math, architecture and social systems, religious diversity also emerged out of those initial elements from the Big Bang or ‘flaring forth’. The diversity of religious traditions, both today and those long in the past that have since gone extinct, emerged from the human brains and hearts that were formed on this planet, within the Earth community. These religious traditions are the ways in which human communities have made sense of the religious impulses that they felt as a response to the world around them.

What is the Religious Impulse?

The religious impulse, whether a person is formally ‘religious’ or not, is actually an intrinsic part of being human. The religious impulse is that which causes us to look at the world around us and ask such fundamental questions as, “Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? What is the meaning of all this?” The religious impulse is what emerges when we experience awe and wonder in response to things in the world around us, such as a magnificent sunset, the ability for plants to grow back every year, and the birth of babies. The religious impulse is what emerges when we create rituals to mark the seasons, birth and death, and other life events along the way. (By the way, humans are not the only animals who do this). The religious impulse is at the root of how we decide to live in community with certain rules and customs, ethics and taboos. The religious impulse is the way that we respond, as human beings, to the great Mystery that we experience in the world.

I am not suggesting that everyone is capital “R” religious, or should be. Nor am I suggesting that there is any one religion that a person ‘should’ be, or a ‘right’ or ‘true’ faith to follow. Ecological educator David Orr explains the religious impulse way: “The religious impulse in us works like water flowing up from an artesian spring that will come to the surface in one place or another. Our choice is not whether we are religious or not as atheists would have it, but whether the object of our worship is authentic or not.”

Harmful Interpretations of Religion

This is also not to ignore the fact that, in our various forms of religious expression, some  interpretations of who we are and how we are to act in the world have been outright harmful to specific groups of people, such as women, people in the LGBQTI2S+ community, or those who practice different religions. Such distortions do not mean that the religious impulse is inherently wrong or oppressive; it simply points to the reality of conflict, oppression, fear, and hate that exists in every aspect of humanity.

Religious Diversity is Part of the Earth Community

Without ignoring this complex reality, I want to recognize that the religious impulse that is fundamental to being human has led to a remarkable diversity of religious expression throughout time, and within our world today. I want to recognize that this diversity is, indeed, a part of the Earth community itself. When I learn more about faiths different from my own, such as Hinduism and the festival of Diwali, then I am learning more about the Earth community of which I am a part. For that, I am so grateful.

**In Ontario, November is Hindu Heritage Month. I encourage you to go online, or reach out to Hindu communities where you live, to learn more about your neighbours. And for those who celebrated on Monday, Happy Diwali!


[1] Cosmologist Brian Swimme and cultural historian Thomas Berry prefer the term ‘flaring forth’ to the ‘Big Bang’ in their study of universe history in their book, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Ear: A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992).

[2] This is not to say that other animals do not have consciousness; what distinguishes humans is our self-reflexive consciousness, which gives us to ability to reflect upon ourselves and the universe itself. For more on this, see Swimme and Berry, The Universe Story.

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