Mary Evelyn Tucker: the flourishing of people and planet

October 1, 2014
By Ray Waddle
Yale University - Notes from the Quad

For decades Mary Evelyn Tucker has been trying to draw the world’s religions into engagement with the moral dimensions of ecological issues. She has also been birthing with others a story of science and religion for the future of a flourishing Earth community – both people and planet.

Our current ecological challenges are such that they require the insights of the world’s religions to awaken moral passion and concern, she says. And these voices are needed now.

 “If we as people of faith really care about suffering, then our institutions and seminaries need to become more global in their thinking, with a better understanding of the challenges ahead,” says Tucker, who, with her husband, John Grim, is co-director of the Forum for Religion and Ecology at Yale. They are also senior lecturers and research scholars at Yale.

“We have profound spiritual resources that can hold people together in the midst of future suffering—the immense challenge of environmental refugees, rising seas, more Katrinas and Sandys,” she said. “The moment has arrived for an emerging Earth community, a deep-time perspective that evokes beauty and awe along with compassion and responsibility for our shared planetary future. It’s now in our hands.”

Tucker is immersed in far-flung projects on different fronts to enlist the moral commitment of the religions east and west. She is trying to create an academic field in religion and ecology along with a popular force for change.

• The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale bridges this field and force with research, education, and outreach. Tucker and Grim are involved with the Forum in a broad spectrum of publications, teaching, and conferences. Some 10,000 people receive the Forum’s monthly e-newsletter. Sign up at

• They teach together in the joint religion and ecology M.A. program with Yale Divinity School and the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (F&ES). They recently launched the program’s first online courses. During the spring semester, they will offer the introductory course and East Asian Religions and Ecology online. For info see

• A new book by Tucker and Grim, Religion and Ecology (Island Press, 2014), is being used in these courses. It explores the relationship of the environment to the history of religions—Native American traditions, Christian denominations, Hinduism, and Confucianism, their promotion of sustainability and sometimes their resistance.

• Tucker is a specialist in Asian religions and Grim in Native American traditions. They have appointments in the Divinity School, the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and the Department of Religious Studies.

• Tucker is also a co-author of the Emmy award-winning “Journey of the Universe” PBS film (available on Netflix) and companion book (published by Yale University Press), which crafts a narrative about the origins of the universe and the prospect of an emerging Earth community. She and Grim were the executive producers of the film.

• Tucker was on the drafting committee of the Earth Charter, an international declaration that promotes a sustainable, interdependent future through the global efforts of businesses, governments, civil society, educators, and religious communities. See for more on all these activities.

Over a 40-year career as scholar and advocate, Tucker has sometimes despaired at the reluctance of religious institutions to participate in environmental movements. Lately, though, she is seeing encouraging signs of religious interaction on the issues of environmental ruin and risk.  She hopes it’s not too late.

“We’re in a decisive moment,” she says. “On the one hand, religion has lagged behind, not seeing the connection between social justice and environmental degradation, its effect on people and all species. But there’s evidence of new openings. I see change emerging. It’s essential to have the contributions of religions to the long-term flourishing of the Earth community.”

She cited the Sept. 21 People’s Climate March in New York City, which attracted more than 300,000 people. She listed a growing number of theologians and scholars who are retrieving and reevaluating teachings of religious traditions on the subject of Earth care and ethics.

She pointed to the upcoming encyclical on the environment by Pope Francis, who will likely release it next spring. The science-based Ecological Society of America is taking the unusual step of planning a dialogue next summer around the encyclical’s meaning and impact.

“We’ve seen a huge leap in environmental awareness in the last 20 years,” she says. “At this point, this is the most religious interaction I’ve seen in 40 years.”

Tucker’s search for synergies between religion and ecology can be traced back to encounters with distant cultures and visionary mentors as a young scholar. She grew up Roman Catholic in New York, with early exposure to social justice concerns. In the 1960s, she was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam war and racial segregation.

By the early 70s, though, she became disillusioned with the slow progress of peace and civil rights.  So she packed up and moved to Japan to teach in a women’s college. Exposure to Buddhism and Confucianism across East Asia awakened new possibilities for academic study and ethical vision.

Two years later, in 1974, she returned to the U.S. to try and understand her experience through studying Asian religions at Fordham. There, she fatefully met two people, historian of religions Thomas Berry and Ph.D. student John Grim.

Berry (1914-2009), an inspired teacher and visionary thinker, introduced students to the world’s diverse religious traditions with a “profound empathetic feel for the pulse of their spiritual dynamics,” Tucker and Grim have written.

Berry was also in search of a buoyant new story of civilization, one that could weave the findings of evolutionary science and the revelations of religion for a sustainable future. He wrote in “The New Story” in 1978: “The basic mood of the future might well be one of confidence in the continuing revelation that takes place in and through the Earth. If the dynamics of the Universe from the beginning shaped the course of the heavens, lighted the sun, and formed the Earth, if this same dynamism brought forth the continents and the seas and atmosphere, if it awakened life in the primordial cell and then brought into being the unnumbered variety of living beings, and finally brought us into being and guided us safely through the turbulent centuries, there is reason to believe that this same guiding process is precisely what has awakened in us our present understanding of ourselves and our relation to this stupendous process.”

Berry’s vision resonated deeply with Tucker—as it did with John Grim. They were eventually married by Berry and became closely associated with his work endeavoring to move it forward in a time of planetary crisis, especially by editing his books.

Tucker completed her PhD at Columbia with Berry’s close colleague, Ted de Bary, a leading scholar of Confucianism. Then the couple taught at Bucknell from 1989-2007, undertaking initiatives elsewhere as well—notably at Harvard, where, in the mid-90s, they organized a series of 10 conferences on world religions and ecology at the Center for the Study of World Religions. Tucker and Grim are series editors for the 10 volumes from the conferences, distributed by Harvard University Press.

At Yale since 2006, Tucker is eager to talk about the YDS-FES joint M.A. degree, a program that symbolizes the pressing need for 21st century collaboration.

“This is the only program in the world that brings together two schools of excellence in these areas, attracting students who are both committed to the study of religious traditions and deeply interested in environmental problems and solutions,” she says.

Her work recently took her to China, where she spoke at an international ecology conference. Amid much environmental devastation in the wake of China’s dramatic economic boom, there’s greater attention in China now to finding sustainable solutions and looking to spiritual traditions for guidance.

“Why here? Why now?” Tucker writes in the upcoming Fall 2014 issue of Reflections, the YDS theological journal.

“The pressing answer is that pervasive pollution across China is putting the entire nation at risk. In the last decade some Chinese have begun to reflect on the need to create not just a technologically sophisticated society but an ‘ecological civilization.’ A revival of China’s religious traditions is underway—Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, all of which have significance for environmental awareness.”

So signs exist of a religious awakening to the ecological urgency of the moment and its importance for the fate of future generations. Religions can also leaven a new story of the universe in ways that other disciplines cannot, she says. Indeed, that is the intention of the conference at YDS November 7-9 titled “Living Cosmology: Christian Responses to Journey of the Universe.” For more information on the conference, visit

The time is now for ministers, laypeople, and their institutions to join the storytelling. “We can bring insights as no other group can—a moral passion for long-term change, the power to move with a shared sensibility from ego to eco.”