Consortium of:

Religion and Ecology: Dispatches from Indonesia

  August 23rd 2021

Photo by: Jan KopÅ™iva in

Education, research, and community service are the threefold missions of higher education (Tri Dharma Perguruan Tinggi). The Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies continues to strive to implement these three things. In realizing one of these tasks, namely research and publication, ICRS has just published and launched a book entitled Varieties of Religion and Ecology: Dispatches from Indonesia. This book is as part of a cooperation between ICRS, CRCS, The Netherlands-Indonesia Consortium for Muslim-Christian Relations (NICMR), and Radboud University, Nijmegen. This book contains five chapters, and five of them are part of the CRCS alumni thesis research.

Chapter One, titled “Progressive Muslim Environmentalism: The Eco-Theology and Ethics of the Nahdliyyin Front for Sovereignty over Natural Resources (FNKSDA)”, was written by Ali Ilham Almujaddidy (CRCS 2016). Chapter Two, titled “Reclaiming the Sacred: The Theological and Environmental Arguments in the Debates over the Benoa Bay Reclamation Project”, was written by Daud Sihombing (CRCS 2014). Chapter Three, titled “From Destroying to Rehabilitating the Forest: Understanding a Change of Attitude toward Nature”, was written by Prof. Emanuel Gerrit Singgih and his research team from Duta Wacana Christian University. Chapter Four, “The Rocks and Trees are our Grandparents: The Eruption of Mount Sinabung and the Religious Narratives of the Karo People in Sumatra”, was written by Jekonia Tarigan (CRCS 2016). Ribka Ninaris Barus (CRCS 2014), wrote Chapter Five, “Adat Ecology: The Practice of Sasi on Haruku Island, Maluku, Indonesia”. Subandri Simbolon (CRCS 2012) wrote Chapter Six, “The Indigenous Religion of the Toba Batak People: An Ecological Perspective”. Chapter Seven, tntitled “Rain Harvesting as Counter-Hegemonic Project: The Rise of Ecological Religiosity in the Banyu Bening Community, Indonesia”, was written by Dr. Maharani Hapsari (Department of International Relations, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, UGM). Chapter Eight was written by Prof.Frans Wijsen (Radboud University, Nijmegen), Haryani Saptaningtyas (UNS) and is titled “Cleanliness is Part of Faith: Religious Values in Water Management in West-Java, Indonesia”. And the last chapter, entitled  “Religion and Ecology in Indonesia After Covid-19”, was written by Prof. Michael S. Northcott (ICRS, UGM). Dr. Zainal Abidin Bagir, Prof. Frans Wijsen and Prof. Michael S. Northcott served as editors.

At the time of the book’s launching, several parties were given the opportunity to give their remarks and comments. On behalf of Universitas Gadjah Mada, Dr. Ika Dewi Ana, Vice Rector for Research and Community Service, and Dr. Hilda Ismail, Vice Dean the of Graduate School, gave opening remarks. Both of them proudly welcomed the launching of the book and are optimistic that the studies on the relations between humans and nature, especially in religion and ecology, will continue to be developed by ICRS and CRCS. Dr. Ika Dewi Ana argued that each civilization has its own perspective or system of thinking about religion and ecology. This book offers important in sights dealing with indigenous perspectives on religion and ecology across Indonesia and this will be a valuable resource for future generations. Furthermore, according to Ana, religion and ecology are very important for UGM because they enable people to understand science in a more comprehensive context. Moreover, knowledge about religion and ecology is an important subject of study because it may connect people with the essence of life and with God. Ana even argued that from six thousand six hundred and sixty-six verses in the Qur'an, there are 763 verses that are related to science and nature, known as the Qauliyah verses which are equivalent with the Kauniyah verses that are scattered in the universe, in the nano, micro, and macro cosmos. This is to show that it is very important to educate future generations with humanity and integrity, religion and ecology will be crucial to honing spiritual acumen, intelligence, patience, perseverance, and submission or tawadu as a prerequisite to conserve human dignity. Finally, Ana and Ismail stated that the book’s publishing reveals the cooperative efforts between UGM (ICRS and CRCS), the Netherland-Indonesia Consortium for Muslim and Christian Relations, and Radboud University of Nijmegen, a cooperation which they hope will continue.

Prof. Frans Wijsen, representing the editors of this book, argued that there are not many books about religion and ecology, at least from religious studies point of view. According to Wijsen,  religious studies came in late into this field.  Looking at the literature, there is very little written about religion and ecology from the perspective of religious studies. One work which stands out is a study about pesticides by Rachel Carson in the late 1950s in her beautiful book Silent Spring. There is also a book from Syed Hossein Nasr, which is more from a philosophical background, as well as an article from Lynn White about the historical root of the ecological crisis from a historical perspective. From a Christian theological perspective, there was John B. Cobb. However, from a religious studies perspective, there are only late additions.

Wijsen also noted that ICRS and CRCS have focused for quite a long time on many issues in religious studies, such as harmony in diversity, counterradicalism and terrorism, but by the publication of this book the perspective of harmony with the earth is now taken into account with a more cosmos-centric view. This is one of the reasons that the publication of this book is important as it offers a religious studies perspective on religion and ecology. In this book, all the authors demonstrate the complexity and varieties of this issue, because religion is a multi-dimensional reality. The book does not start from a common theory or framework. In that sense the chapters are varied with an ethnographic approach for many of the chapters. Even though many of the authors are from a background of theology, they captured empirical data resulting in an interesting and relevant volume showing the variety of expressions of religion and ecology. The ecological challenges addressed in clude all areas of nature, mountains, forests, rainfall, rivers, lakes, and oceans. Finally, according to Wijsen, what makes this book really interesting is the variety in terms of religion. This book not only sees the challenge of the ecological issue from the perspective of Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and indigenous religions but this book also tries to look at the issues of hybridity or how different religious perspectives interacts with each other, even secular worldviews that interact with the religious understandings and how they compete, collaborate, and combine in our everyday practices to overcome the ecological crisis or challenge.

Prof. Michael Northcott, one of the editors, also mentioned that this book is a series of case studies, every chapter brings out the current form of development in Indonesia and its consequences for the people on the ground. In CRCS, when Northcott teaches about religion and ecology, every student has a story of a local ecological perspective emanating from their own home. Therefore, this book is a record of the ongoing crisis between the multi-religious cultures of Indonesia and the powerful narrative of technological and economic dominion. This book shows that religion does provide a very important focus for Indonesian people across the archipelago to mobilize forms of resistance to the dominant capitalist, technological, industrial approach to the environment which is of course the origin of the ecological crisis. Northcott argues that it is wrong to say that the origin is Christian, except in as much as we have to acknowledge that it was Christianity, particularly in its Western Latin form which birthed the idea of matter as purely matter available for human use and from there we have the scientific revolution and industrial revolution in which scientific ideas were applied en masse to the making of artifacts. For Northcott, the book is a book of hopeful stories which show how religion has responded to ecological crises and continues to do so creatively and positively.

The fourth speaker was Dr. Dewi Chandraningrum. As a discussant of this book, she emphasized the timely publication of this book during this pandemic when there is a growing realization that religion, spirituality, ethics, and values can make a contribution in collaboration with science and policy to address complex ecological issues. Furthermore, Chandraningrum also emphasized that this book introduces the new and emerging field of religion and ecology and traces its development over the last several decades in Indonesia. The studies in this book explore human relations to the natural world as differentiated in religious and cultural traditions. In particular, it investigates a symbolic and live expression of this interconnection in diverse religious texts, ethics, and practices. In addition, it draws on the scientific fields of ecology for an understanding of the dynamic processes of the earth’s ecosystems and explores parallel developments and human health relations defined as religious ecology. Similarly, it identifies narratives that orient humans to religious cosmology. For many years, science, engineering, law, and the economy were considered indispensable for understanding and resolving the environmental problem. However, today there is abundant knowledge from this discipline about environmental issues but still not sufficient will to engage in needed long-term solutions for change.

According to Chandraningrum this book exemplifies the contribution of religion while acknowledging both the problems and promises of religion. Millenia ago over-irrigation may have destroyed the fertility of much of Babylonia, a native American may have extinguished several species of megafaunal before they developed their nature honoring spiritual tradition, but humans simply did not have the power to transform the climate, initiate mass extinction, or threaten the ozone layer. Above all, earlier ecological problems were local, confined to a region, a community, even an empire. Today the plight is global, there is simply no escape from it on this planet. The goal of the book as a whole is to make available in one place a comprehensive, organized, and high-quality research on religion and ecology. It will be of use to scholars and intellectuals who are unacquainted with the subject. For instance, to the scholar knowledgeable about Christianity and Ecology, this book provides an introduction to other religious perspectives on ecology. The book is suitable to a broad audience, from the reasonably educated non-academic environmentalist to the religious professional who is interested in this vital connection and to the undergraduate and graduate student researching religion and ecology.

Finally, Chandraningrum quoted the introduction of the book that was written by Dr. Zainal Abidin Bagir who wrote, “Religion is related to the environmental crisis in several ways, first as seen in the earliest analysis of the relation between the Muslim and Christian world where some form of religion or its rejection was identified as among the causes of the environmental crisis. So, first, religion is the cause. Second, partly as a consequence of the first, religion is expected to contribute to the solution of the problem. Religion may contribute in ways that are different from how science, technology, and policy engagement with the environment.” Chandraningrum firmly believes that religions’ response to the environmental crisis, as well as to the social forces of industrialization, globalization, militarization, consummation which give rise to the crisis, will be the single most important factor in determining whether religion will be a vital part of the human future. From this book, we learn that the challenge exists and that there is every reason to expect that if humanity can somehow learn to live without destroying other species and poisoning itself, religion will be one of the forces teaching us how to do it and encouraging us to do so.