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Conference at Yale Divinity School brings together religion, the environment, and hope

By Gustav Spohn*
Director of Communications and Publications

What’s it all about—this "religious environmentalism?"

For any of the approximately 300 participants at a recently completed conference on the topic at Yale Divinity School, one thing was abundantly clear:  Increasingly, this is a question that people of faith are attending to, not only from a theological perspective but from a hands-on, activist standpoint as well.

OrganizersAlongside sermons devoted to the salvation of the soul, there are now sermons about salvation of the planet. Theologians write articles with titles like "Caring for the Earth:  Why Environmentalism Needs Theology."  Reusable mugs are popular in place of paper cups at post-worship coffee hours as a measure of conservation.  A local interfaith council might rally its membership to press for legislation aimed at protecting environmentally sensitive areas.

If the Feb. 28-March 2 conference is any gauge, "religious environmentalism" has not only taken root but is blossoming and on the verge of becoming a mature plant.

The four-day gathering was booked well in advance, and the mood of the conference—even amid dire reports of widespread environmental degradation—was palpably one of hope and celebration, reflecting the conference theme, Renewing Hope: Pathways of Religious Environmentalism.

People from diverse walks of life, from near and far, came to partake. Read their stories here.

John Helmstadter, an M.Div. candidate at YDS, said,  "My faith on a personal level has been connected to creation but not always in a deep theological way.  Being around so many thinkers, scholars and activists who live and breathe eco-justice has been an opportunity to find articulation for existing beliefs, and their push and pull, not just an affirmation."

Chris Freimuth is a farmer from Poughkeepsie, NY, and he came to explore his view that ecology and theology are inextricably intertwined.  "When I’m acting as a farmer, looking at corn grow, it is a spiritual process to me," he said.  "And when I’m at chapel singing to God, it’s really about my relationship to the environment.  When I tell people I’m interested in both theology and ecology, I’m shocked that they are shocked.  I don’t see any disconnect."

Read about the Rev. Charles Morris: Grassroots activist

Water, words and ritual

ChapelMuch of the energy of the conference was crystallized in the closing interfaith eco-service in-the-round, organized and led by students from the Divinity School, the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and Yale College—and featuring music by special guest Paul Winter, the five-time Grammy award winner who describes his "Earth music" as "a vital celebration of the creatures and cultures of the whole earth."

A centerpiece of the service was a liturgical dance by Kathleen Turner, who will graduate from YDS with an M.Div. degree in May, that preceded a "ritual mingling of water and words" featuring the Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Jewish traditions.

As Turner danced, she gently placed five pitchers of water on a table in the center of Marquand Chapel, alongside six lit candles and a large pewter bowl. After each of the students representing the five faith traditions recited words of praise for creation, they poured water from the pitchers into the bowl, symbolically melding their words into a single voice.

Worshipers were invited to write messages on paper "leaves of gratitude and hope" that had been distributed, then bring them to the table to be displayed. Among the offerings:

"God created earth before he created humans.  A before B."

"I hope that people find resources of strength in the earth and their faith to inspire others to care for our planet and all beings."

WaskowThe interdisciplinary conference, organized by the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale, aimed at exploring the opportunities—as well as the obstacles to—religiously engaged environmentalism.  Joint sponsors included the Divinity School; the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies; the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale; the Food, Farming, and Faith Program of the Humane Society of the United States; the Yale University Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics; the Yale Department of Religious Studies; the Yale University Environmental Studies Program; and the Office of the Provost at Yale.

Hope and the emerging alliance of religion and ecology

Mary Evelyn Tucker, one of the primary organizers of the conference who has joint faculty appointments at both the Divinity and Forestry schools, spoke in her opening remarks of "a sense of renewed hope regarding the emerging alliance of religion and ecology," noting, "We recognize that we draw from each other—the field of religious ecology and the force of religious environmentalism. We cannot do this work alone but together new synergies will arise of reformation and renaissance."

Over the course of the course of the conference, participants:

  • Heard lectures by theologian Sallie McFague of the Vancouver School of Theology and Gus Speth, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Read stories about lectures here: Sallie McFague and Gus Speth.
  • Viewed two films on the environment, Renewal: America’s Emerging Religious Environmental Movement; and Where Heaven Meets Earth: Faith and Environment in the Chesapeake Bay. Cick here for panel session on the Renewal film.
  • Heard a sermon by the winner of the National Council of Churches’ eco-justice sermon contest
  • Saw the new CD-ROM Ocean Psalms that uses music, meditative texts and background images to open the world of maritime mystery as a way of deepening the life of the spirit
  • Participated in breakout groups on topics like Indigenous Traditions, Ecojustice, Food and Farming, Energy and Climate Change, Ecofeminism.
  • Heard panel presentations on the subjects:  The Green Seminary Initiative Click here to read the story; Reflections on the Past 20 Years of Religious Environmentalism Click here for story; Theory and Practice: Ideas in Action Click here for story; Next Steps: Ways Forward.

In their lectures, both McFague and Speth argued the need to reconceptualize the way humans think of themselves in relation to the earth—the kind of task for which the religious community is uniquely equipped—as essential to striking a suitable balance between humanity and nature.

Said McFague, "It is not simply an issue of management; rather, it demands a paradigm shift in who we think we are... Religions provide the cosmologies, the worldviews, that orient us in the world and our role in it... If this is a primary role for religion, then religion is obviously central to addressing the environmental crisis epitomized in climate change."

Speth struck a similar chord in his lecture, declaring, "Many of our deepest thinkers... have concluded that the changes needed to sustain human communities and to sustain natural communities can only be achieved through the rise of a new consciousness... In the past, leadership for environmental change has usually come from scientists... We need the preachers and the philosophers and the psychologists and the poets."

He added, "I’m especially hopeful for the preachers... No other group of institutions can wield the particular moral authority of the religions."

An "intergenerational handshake"

Immediately after the concluding worship service was the last of the panels, on the subject Next Steps: Ways Forward, featuring young people, including Rachel Holmes, a joint Divinity/Forestry student.

Riley and HolmesSpeaking to the older generation of environmentalists present, Holmes said, "I want to leave all of you knowing that we are committed to making you proud and to continuing your great work... Thank you for having faith in us, because we definitely have faith in you."

After the panel presentation, Tucker praised the younger generation of religious environmentalists and made reference to an  "intergenerational handshake" that will help energize religious environmentalism.  "We have to share in our generation our despair and our hope, and that’s the intergenerational handshake.  That’s what it is about....We are truly in this together."

On a macro level, the backdrop for conferences such as this are burgeoning initiatives, among myriad others, such as the "Green Nuns" in North America; the work of Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew focused on care of the oceans; the National Religious Partnership for the Environment in the U.S.; and a tree planting project in Indonesia that draws on the Islamic principle of maintaining balance in nature.

The conference at YDS was yet another manifestation of the growing interest at Yale in the religion-environment convergence and the increasing synergies between the Divinity School and the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. In just the past few years, Mary Evelyn Tucker and her husband, environmental scholar John Grim, have been given joint appointments at Divinity, Forestry, and elsewhere at Yale, bolstering connections between the two schools.  Another new bridging influence is Willis Jenkins, a young scholar with a specialty in environmental ethics who is in his second full year at Yale where he, too, has appointments at both schools.

Also contributing to this article were Leslie Ann Brown ’10 M.Div., Michael O’Loughlin ’09 M.A.R., and Elizabeth Wilkinson ’o8 M.A.R.

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