Religion and Environmental Stewardship Symposium: “Roll up our sleeves, there’s work to be done.”

June 28, 2012
By Steve Blackmer
Yale University Notes from the Quad

Editor's note:  Steve Blackmer is a May graduate of Yale Divinity School who also holds a degree from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Blackmer graduated from FES in 1983, then spent 30 years in forest conservation and rural community development from his home in New Hampshire before returning to Yale to earn a degree from YDS. The Summer Symposium was the opening event for Summer Study 2012, which featured a series of five-day courses over a two-week period, June 11-15 and 18-22.

With a ritual laying down of his necktie at the podium, John Grim set the tone for the Summer Symposium on Religion and Environmental Stewardship 2012 as he told the crowd of nearly 150 gathered in Marquand Chapel, "May this ritual action be a sign that we are rolling up our sleeves and getting to work."

Grim was one of the organizers of the symposium along with his wife Mary Evelyn Tucker. They are senior lecturers and senior research scholars with joint appointment at YDS and the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (FES). The three-day symposium held June 5-7 was designed to bring together YDS and FES around critical environmental issues of climate change, toxicity, and biodiversity loss. The symposium brought together seminary faculty, students, lay leaders, and clergy from around the country to learn about current science, theology, ethics, and practices regarding the expanding global challenge to ecological well being.

In his opening comments, Willis Jenkins, the Margaret A. Farley Assistant Professor of Social Ethics, invoked the namesake of his position to remind the gathering both to address the really big questions facing the Earth and at the same time to stay focused on the practical questions that everyday people have to deal with – a timely yet challenging reminder of the difficulty of responding individually to issues of global scale and complexity.

The symposium was established with support of the H. Boone and Violet M. Porter Chair in Religion and Environmental Stewardship Fund and co-sponsored by FES, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, and the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale. Reflecting on behalf of the Porter family, the Rev. Nicholas Porter  '86 B.A. '94 M.Div., a BDS graduate, noted that if the central question of science is how the universe works and the central question of theology is why it exists at all, a key issue for the symposium was to explore how science can make for better theology and how theology can make for better science.

The eminent ethicist Larry Rasmussen, professor emeritus at Union Theological Seminary, laid out the challenge bluntly: "We live on a diminished planet," he said, "facing an unprecedented rate and scale of change to the ecosystems that support all life. Industrialized modernity fueled by oil, gas, and coal has driven global devastation." Rasmussen noted that we live in a new ecological reality, not that in which human civilization developed, and that "old wineskins" are not adequate to hold this new wine. Quoting Luke 5:39, Rasmussen reminded the gathering, "No one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, 'The old is good.'" But human beings are making new ecological wine and we need new wineskins to contain it. One that Rasmussen cited is the so-called New Cosmology—the story shared by all humanity of how the universe, including all matter, all life, and all human societies, has emerged from the great flaring-forth of the Big Bang through processes of "cosmogenesis."

Mary Evelyn Tucker, introduced a screening of the new film, Journey of the Universe, which tells this story in vivid imagery. The film, in Rasmussen's words, reminds viewers that creation as a whole has long been at the center of human ethical and metaphysical attitudes- except in our modern worldview—and that an adequate response will require an utter transformation of how we view the world and inhabit the Earth. New wineskins to hold new wine. The film, a 10 year project of Tucker and Grim along with evolutionary philosopher Brian Swimme, was inspired by the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry. It has been shown on PBS and won an Emmy award for best documentary in June.

Rich and provocative as were these and other presentations by luminaries in the still-young field of religion and environmental stewardship, the energetic high point of the symposium was the panel of presentations by the current generation of YDS & FES joint degree students. Matt Riley '08 M.A.R. captured the energy of the student presentations at the end of a long, packed day of talks: "When we began, I saw quite a few tired faces out there, but with each presenter the audience grew more and more attentive and engaged. By the end, the room was reenergized and inspired. Bravo!" Joint Forestry student Troy Savage '13 M.Div., who raced back and forth between the symposium and his clinical pastoral education training in Hartford, added that when he walked into Marquand at 5:30 in the afternoon, "The faces—in fact the entire room—was animated!"

This energy continued through the third day with a compelling presentation on preaching Creation by Tom Troeger, noted preacher, hymnist, and the J. Edward and Ruth Cox Lantz Professor of Christian Communication at YDS. Preach to the "landscape of the heart," Troeger declared, "to reach the core of meaning, passion, and visionary power that religion has tapped into across the centuries."

It is this power that scholars of religion and environmental stewardship have sought to unleash on behalf of all Creation since the academic field's emergence about 15 years ago.  We must, as Troeger preached, remember that all life is a gift from God. Nothing short of this recollection is capable of stirring the human heart to take up the task of renewing Earth through Christ. Roll up our sleeves, indeed! There is work to be done – and YDS is training people to do it.

For more information about the Symposium, including the text of papers presented and a review by Matt Riley '08 M.A.R., click here.