After spending four days by himself in the Mojave desert without access to food, Stephen Blackmer FES ’83 DIV ’12 found his calling. The 49-year-old had spent his life working to conserve New England forests, but said that trip expanded his views on how to protect the environment. In 2007, two years after his return, Blackmer said he heard a voice in his head urging him to quit his job and ponder a new direction for his work.
Now a Yale Divinity School student set to graduate this spring, Blackmer has pursued study of what he calls “environmental theology” through which he has explored the connection between Christianity and the environmental movement. Blackmer already had a degree from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, but said he viewed Yale as the best place to combine religious studies with his previous work.
Yale is the only university in the country that offers joint master’s degrees in religion and ecology from both the University’s divinity and environment schools. Yale Divinity School professor Margaret Farley GRD ’70 ’73 and environment school professor Stephen Kellert GRD ’71 created the program in 2003, but when Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, who are married, arrived to teach at Yale in 2006, they gave the program “a new lease on life,” said former environment school Dean Gus Speth ’64 LAW ’69.
While Tucker estimated that seven students are currently pursuing the joint master’s degrees in religion and ecology at Yale, the growing program represents just one way the couple has worked to establish the interdisciplinary field as a course of study.
Religious worldviews and ethical attitudes vary across the globe, Tucker said, but because they all shape the relationship between humans and the Earth, they can serve as an impetus to solve environmental problems.
In 1973, a 22-year-old Tucker began teaching English literature and language at a women’s university in Okayama, Japan, where she said she further deepened her appreciation for nature while experiencing the beauty of Zen gardens and the Japanese countryside. But only on a 1974 visit to Saigon on her way back to the United States did she first feel compelled to bring religion into the discussion of environmental problems.
“The devastation of Agent Orange was evident across the countryside with its subsequent effect on people,” Tucker said. “It was almost too much to bear, but it was only the beginning.”
Over the past 35 years, she added, the consequences of technological modernization — such as increased car usage and engineering projects in Asia — have adversely affected the environment. One of the most important issues in the field of religion and ecology is determining how to balance economic development and environmental protection, she added.
Before working to pioneer the field of religion and ecology, though, Tucker returned to school to learn more about religions of the world. Tucker earned a master’s degree in the history of religions at Fordham University — where she met Grim, who was pursuing the same degree — followed by a Ph.D. in Confucianism and Asian religions at Columbia University.
After 20 years of studying and teaching world religions at universities across the country, the couple looked to unite religion and ecology on a large scale. They took a leave of absence from teaching jobs at Bucknell University to serve as senior research fellows at Harvard University’s Center for the Study of World Religions. There the two organized and raised funds for a conference series on world religions and ecology that began in 1996. In doing so, they laid the foundations for the joint field of religion and ecology.
fields of religion and ecology had slowly gained momentum in the late 1980s as a result of interreligous dialogue about the environmental crisis, said John Berthrong, associate professor of comparative theology at the Boston University School of Theology.
Berthrong said he first encountered the concept in the late 1980s, but said Tucker and Grim took the initiative to begin the interdisciplinary discussion.
“Dr. Tucker and Dr. Grim put the wheels under this idea that a number of us had been thinking, and they crystallized it,” Berthrong said.
Despite enthusiastic responses, finding initial support and funding for the Harvard conferences posed some challenges, Grim said. Berthrong attributed some of the initial skepticism to the perception many had of a disconnect between science and religion.
Grim said he and his wife had to persuade scholars, religious leaders and environmentalists of the field’s legitimacy because it had not formally existed before. Doing so, he said, entailed persuading scholars that old religious texts could be re-examined and reconstructed in order to apply ancient ideas to modern problems such as climate change and pollution.
The conference ultimately drew 800 people over three years, facilitating group discussions based on papers submitted by participants in fields ranging from humanistic and religious studies to the natural and social sciences.
Following these three conferences, in 1998, the couple founded the Forum on Religion and Ecology, an international interfaith project that hosts conferences for environmentalists and scholars of religion, Tucker said. By increasing dialogue, she added, they aim to bridge the gap between theory and practice. From the start of the Harvard conferences to 2004, attendees of the Harvard conferences contributed to a series of 10 volumes published by the Harvard Center for World Religions under the direction of Tucker and Grim. Those volumes, Tucker said, explore how various religious foundations can be applied to the idea of environmental stewardship and ethics.
While Harvard was the ideal host for the conferences due to the University’s focus on world religions, Tucker said, the couple returned to teach at Bucknell.
COMING TO YALE
In 2006, Yale invited Tucker and Grim to expand the interdisciplinary study of both religion and ecology, already institutionalized through a joint master’s program three years earlier, said Kellert, who helped start Yale’s joint master’s program. Due to the University’s leading programs in religion, theology, environmental studies and bioethics, Yale was the perfect place for the couple to continue their work, he added.
“Having really helped to create this field, we wanted to come to the only place that offered such a master’s program,” Tucker said, adding that the distinguishing factor between Yale and other universities is the equal role both graduate schools play in offering such a program.
Tucker said that the joint study of religion and ecology is still in its early stages, but interest in the program is increasing. The program is making an effort to raise money so the environment school and the divinity school can offer more scholarships for students, and last year the Porter Chair in Religion and Environmental Stewardship was awarded to Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, the Episcopal school within the Divinity School.
Rev. Stephanie Johnson DIV ’10 ’12, an Episcopal priest pursuing a second master’s degree at Yale in sacred theology, said she had not considered the possibility of combining her interests in religion and the environment until she arrived at Yale.
“I’d always been an environmental planner in my professional life and a devout Christian in another part of my life — I never thought that they would be related in a way,” she said.
Shortly after arriving at Yale, she said she heard conversations about faith and ecology. Initially, she said, she resisted such conversations because she thought she was called to be an Episcopal priest, but after attending a conference organized by Tucker and Grim, she said she realized she needed to re-envision her ministry. Now, Johnson said she is working with the New York City Bishop of the Episcopal Church to encourage members to participate in activities such as working in the church garden, in hopes that they will view the land as part of God’s creation.
Johnson and Blackmer said Grim and Tucker have been supportive of their work, and have served as sources of inspiration for them.
“They’re very interested in training and developing people who can carry this work on,” Blackmer said.
The Forum plans to host a summer symposium on religion and environmental stewardship this June, said Tara Trapani, the Forum’s administrative assistant. The Symposium, she added, will mark the first time scientists from the environment school and theologians from the divinity school will come together to discuss topics such as climate change, pollution, ecosystems and environmental justice. Tucker said she and her husband hope the symposium will become an annual event.