Religion and Ecology

I eye the calamari that I’ve dumped on my plate, but when I point my fork toward my lunch, I can’t bring myself to actually eat it. The fried rings seem to spiral and squirm as though frozen in time — or batter, to be more precise. “It looks like it’s been alive…” I blurt out.

“That’s because it was,” Ben, one of my lunchtime companions, points out. The calamari still plaguing me, I can’t help but ask Ben, a vegetarian, why four years ago he decided to stop eating the chicken, pork, and beef that are staples of my diet.

“I realized I couldn’t kill an animal, you know?” Ben says. “So why should I eat it? I can pick an apple from a tree or dig a potato out from the earth…but I couldn’t kill a cow.”

Moral principles, like those guiding Ben’s vegetarianism, serve as the backbone that unifies the study of religion and ecology for Mary Evelyn Tucker. Tucker is the co-director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale, along with her husband, and fellow professor, John Grim. With appointments at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the Divinity School, and the Department of Religious Studies, she explains that for her, “coming to Yale is part of a larger journey into the conjunction of religion and ecology.”

This journey began some 35 years ago, when Tucker taught at a university in Japan. “There I fell in love with Asia’s varied cultural traditions and art — Zen gardens and flower arrangements — along with the spectacular beauty of the countryside and the mountains,” she says. “I sank into another kind of appreciation for nature, wild and cultivated.” Inspired by the ancient city of Kyoto and the agricultural cycles of rice growing, Tucker came to the realization that “religion and nature interconnect. I mean why else are Thanksgiving ceremonies in the fall, when a harvest is ready? Why is Christmas at the time of the solstice or why is Easter at the time of the equinox?” Her travels throughout Asia over the last three decades have led her to concerns about how pollution and environmental degradation have grown rapidly with industrialization and urbanization.

35 years later, the Forum that Tucker and Grim have assembled is working to explore the historical relationship between ecology and religion through research, teaching, lectures, and multimedia. The largest multi-religious project of its kind, the Forum at Yale was founded through a series of 10 conferences at Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions from 1996 to 1998. Historians of religion, theologians, and environmentalists in attendance were trying to say that — in addition to scientific, policy, and economic concerns — we need to uphold cultural values sensitive to diversity and the long history of how religions have shaped our use of nature. Tucker and Grim also edited the 10 volumes published by Harvard University Press that summarize the conference’s principal tenets.

The Forum’s mission has several outlets: conferences, publications, and a new film titled “Journey of the Universe,” which, from a narrative perspective, explores the potential of scientific discoveries to reveal the complexity of nature and human existence. An article titled “The New Story” by historian of religion Thomas Berry inspired the film. Berry observed how humans try to reconcile the difference between the creation stories of the world’s religions and the scientific story of the origins of the universe. For the last seven years, Tucker and evolutionary philosopher Brian Swimme — who wrote a book with Berry called The Universe Story — set out to produce the film, exploring the confluence and tension between scientific discoveries and humanistic insights about the nature of the universe. The film, accompanied by a book published by Yale Press and a DVD educational course, will be released to the general public in June 2011. The premiere of the film will take place here at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies on March 25 and 26. (For more information and the trailer see www.journeyoftheunivere.org.)

I will need those few months to grapple with the idea of vegetarianism as it relates to basic rights and ethics, which lie at the heart of Tucker’s Forum. At the very least I’ll be keeping her goals in mind the next time I scoop food onto my plate in a dining hall.

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