Where Evolution and Creation Went Hand in Hand: The Elisabeth Festival 2023

F. l. t. r. Bernhard Misof, Museum Koenig Bonn ; Manuel Hetzinger, Katholisches Bildungswerk Bonn; Martina Kampers Parish Councillor Bonn-South, Toni Bohnenberger, Katholisches Bildungswerk Bonn; the wolf exhibit from the Museum Koenig Bonn – the public’s favourite with the guests. © H. Weller/SCHAUFENSTER Bonn

 

The Elisabeth Festival in November not only attracted believers to St. Elisabeth Church in Bonn but also brought together around 1,500 participants at events in the Catholic Church, the Museum Koenig Bonn, and other venues. The event was a collaboration with the LIB, where discussions about nature and the impact of humans took place. The festival was led by Toni Bohnenberger, an educator at the Catholic Education Association, who also invited LIB Director General Bernhard Misof for discussions on stage. We spoke with both of them about this extraordinary collaboration:

How did the collaboration between the church, the Catholic Education Association, and the LIB come about?

Bernhard Misof:

It was quite simple: people came together, had a great idea, and said, “Let’s do it!” A few years ago, there was a concert where I met the cantor of St. Elisabeth’s Catholic Church in Bonn. This is where the idea originated to exchange ideas and approaches between social- and natural sciences. A year later, we came together again and brought in the Catholic Education Association. This is how the idea and implementation of the Elisabeth Festival came about. The main idea was that we are all confronted with a dramatic loss of biodiversity and increasingly deteriorating ecosystems. Also, with a change in society regarding our understanding of democracy and the interpretation of knowledge. In the initial discussions with the church and the Catholic Education Association, we discovered many overlaps where our institutes could initiate positive development. Regardless of what we believe or know, we all have a mission to collectively improve our livelihood.

Toni Bohnenberger:

The topics of biodiversity and human abuse of nature are issues that we have been dealing with in the church for many years. Even from the top level – the Pope – it came onto the agenda in 2015 with “Laudato si“. However, as is often the case with decisions at the highest level, a stone is initially set in motion, and it gains momentum over the years. The Elisabeth Festival was a suitable opportunity for us to make this topic public and bring it to the people. By bringing animals from the Museum Koenig Bonn, some even into the church, it offered a new perspective. Here, we could present divine creation and the very current and socially relevant issue – the continuous reduction of biodiversity – under one roof and introduce it to families. For me, it was very exciting to merge theological ideas with the scientific perspective of the LIB.

The words “Creation” and “Evolution” are mentioned in the program. Do these terms not contradict each other for you?

Bernhard Misof:

During my panel discussion with Dr Gregor Taxacher – a theologian at TU Dortmund – we realized that we could not explain the “creation of life” with evolution. We increasingly understand how all systems are interconnected and dependent on each other. However, where does life come from? Scientifically, this question has not been answered so far – at most, philosophically or, indeed, theologically. Each person must find an answer for himself or herself. In our discussion on the stage, we managed to talk about theological approaches without questioning our scientific findings. That was very important to me.

Toni Bohnenberger:

I am not a theologian, but I am a Christian and also a scientist. I am aware that there are individuals for whom both terms strictly exclude each other. I found a thesis very interesting, describing that both terms do not exclude each other but describe entirely different things. While we try to understand evolution with facts and science, how everything originated at a molecular level, Christian creation gives us a special responsibility. The belief that everything was created by a power and belongs together gives us all the responsibility to preserve this creation. Personally, as a Christian, it does not matter to me on which day what was created; everything makes sense, and I must not arbitrarily destroy this order. These ecological systems are so complex that we, as humans, can only cause harm with our interventions.

The theme of a panel discussion during the event was “Nature Experience and Planetary Responsibility.” What answers were found to the question “Is an awareness of nature-friendliness sufficient, or does it need laws to regulate actions?”

Bernhard Misof:

This topic seamlessly connects with the Berlin and Frankfurt Declarations. Appeals to the rationality and emotionality of people alone will achieve nothing. We need legislative regulations that help us implement measures, such as abandoning plastic or a law that penalizes marine pollution. However, we will not be able to dictate to people how much meat they should eat or how much attention they should pay to how their actions harm ecosystems. Until there are appropriate laws, we have no choice but to rely on common sense and the awareness of each individual. Therefore, it is our task to create negotiation spaces where we all critically question our own actions and provide solutions that can have a significant impact with relatively little effort. We also influence politics and aim to advance meaningful legislation for the protection of species and nature through our research. Everyone must ask themselves, “What is nature worth to us, and how should our environment look in the future?” Through public discussions, we try to raise awareness among the wider society and find consensus on the issue.

Toni Bohnenberger:

Let me expand the framework first: we are dealing with a systemic question here. There are countries where the government can make decisions for the entire people through authority. We live – and we are very proud of it – in a country where everyone can make independent decisions – in a democracy. This only works through dialogue and dialogue requires tolerance. In addition, tolerance, in turn, requires that I know and understand the situation and am willing to accept something new. Laws also need to be accepted by people, and we need an understanding of how necessary they are. Renouncing consumption is initially a restriction for us humans and therefore requires a general awareness of how necessary these laws are. Otherwise, people will simply vote for a party that rejects these values and supposedly wants to implement better things. With this festival, we want to stimulate dialogue on these issues. With the church or the museum, we create spaces of tranquility in the city where people can reflect and get inspiration to question their own actions.

Have you noticed any counter-currents, and how did you deal with them?

Toni Bohnenberger:

During the festival, no one dared to publicly take a counter position. However, it happens that we also confront people in the church who, for example, advocate for meat consumption. Unfortunately, I often realize that there is no real interest in a dialogue on the other side. Most of these people are looking for a platform for their own theses without really wanting to engage in an exchange. Nevertheless, we will continue to offer dialogue and continue to educate.

Bernhard Misof:

At the event “Das GRÜNE Sofa“, (=The GREEN sofa) there was a lot of approval and curiosity about understanding the topic better. On the sofa, 13-year-old Eric Belz spoke with Mr. Stahl, the president of the Alexander Koenig Society, representing the 60+ generation. There was a very interesting exchange between the two because the young one naturally wanted to know why no one had really thought about biodiversity back then. In this conversation, we could see very well how much society is already in transition.

What insights were gained from the discussion?

Bernhard Misof:

First, Mr. Stahl reported that since the 1950s, the focus of the party programs of that time was always an atmosphere of departure: go further, faster, better. In doing so, people lost sight of what the constant pursuit of maximizing nature does. Then, the younger generation poses the legitimate question: “How could you?” However, I think we just have to accept the past and focus on the present or the future – which we can still actively shape. It was clear to everyone in the conversation, that something urgently needs to happen and that a change in thinking must occur. The younger generation now needs support from all of us to literally turn the rudder again. Because even Eric, the young participant in the discussion, had to admit, that the topics biodiversity and nature conservation are not really discussed among his peers in school. Therefore, he demanded that it be brought to the heads of classmates much more strongly by the school and the teaching staff.

Toni Bohnenberger:

The discussion afterwards made me thoughtful. Because here, from the audience, there was a call to Eric to rebel even more and take an even clearer position. In doing so, I find it important to say that we should not now shift the entire responsibility for our situation and the solution to the problems of the younger generation. Due to their young age, they are often not ready for this responsibility, and care must be taken not to overwhelm them. The responsibility lies ultimately with all of us as long as we live on this earth – even if younger people now grow up with a different awareness.

“The GREEN Sofa” – Generations meet: with Helmut Stahl (on the left), 76 years, President Alexander-Koenig-Gesellschaft and Eric Belz (on the right) 13 years, pupil. © LIB, K. Meusemann

 

“Nature as a Guest with Friends?” was formulated as the theme of the festival in question. Why was that?

Toni Bohnenberger:

It is a general questioning of our position: Is nature a guest with friends? According to the current state – I would say – the answer is “no.” I am connected to nature and close to it, but I have a car, a house, and unfortunately, I heat with oil. I think nature probably would not want to be friends with me. However, it is extremely difficult, even for me, to do without these things. Most people would say that they like nature and, for example, enjoy going for a walk. However, when we look at our ecological footprint, it often turns out that we are not close friends with nature. For this reason, we should all ask ourselves: Are we a friend of nature, or do we want to become one? In addition: What can we do to treat our good friend better?

Does the Catholic Church have a special position for the LIB, or could there be future collaborations with other religious communities?

Bernhard Misof:

We do not want to show with this that we are closer to the Catholic Church than to other religious communities. In Bonn, it is simply a way to reach more and different people and inspire them for our topics. My concern is that there is respect for biodiversity. Then it does not matter whether it is a Christian, Jewish, or Muslim faith community.

What strategy does the Archdiocese of Cologne have to engage in biodiversity preservation beyond the Elisabeth Festival?

Toni Bohnenberger:

We have formed a group that deals with making our premises more sustainable. Church gardens are also to be replanted to make them more attractive to animals. Ecumenically, for example, a flower strip was created in Bonn-Beuel to support biodiversity in the city. Unfortunately, the church community is getting smaller. Therefore, we strive to also deal with current topics that are highly relevant to our society. We want to motivate our community to work and pull together. As a church, we have always managed to motivate people to get involved and have partly centuries-old strategies to inspire people for issues.

The jackdaw Coloeus monedula from the Museum Koenig Bonn was also a guest at St Elisabeth’s Church in the parish of Bonn-Süd. © LIB, K. Meusemann

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