Lily Dorstewitz

The walk “down the hill” on Prospect Street from the Divinity School — the highest geographical point on Yale’s campus — to the School of the Environment, has been described by students as representative of their experience of the unique relationship that exists between the two graduate schools. 

“I always felt like I was moving through a portal as I went up and down the street, because the social and intellectual environment is so different at the two schools,” said Elizabeth Allison, an early student of the religion and ecology joint degree program.

Allison explained that students get the “perennial” through spiritual and ethical exploration at the Divinity School and the “urgent” through the study of environmental degradation and injustice at the School of the Environment. Somewhere during that walk between classes, the students are equidistant from both schools, and many feel that it represents the broader intersection of their disciplines. As these students walk up and down the street, they embrace the scientific and the spiritual, surrounded by a world dense with meaning in both directions. 

Yale, like many universities throughout the world, offers a wide range of joint degree programs for its graduate students. Joint degree programs are characterized by enrollment in two concurrent graduate programs offered between graduate schools in pursuit of one degree. The Yale School of the Environment offers 11 joint degree programs which its joint degree website explains “are ideal for students interested in applying environmental management frameworks to particular research or professional contexts beyond the scope of YSE’s traditional offerings.” The Yale Divinity School also has seven joint degree programs. 

Most joint degrees offered at Yale and elsewhere are considered practical with respect to professional applicability. But there is one School of the Environment and Divinity School joint degree program which does not at first glance appear to be as practical as its counterparts: the joint degree in religion and ecology. Professors John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker, jointly appointed senior lecturers and research scholars at the School of the Environment have championed the necessity of the degree. Science and policy are necessary, they said, but not entirely sufficient, in addressing the environmental crises we face today. From their view, the incorporation of religious and ethical frameworks is crucial to understanding and appealing to the factors that motivate substantive change. Tucker and Grim have spent much of their careers expanding this field of interdisciplinary scholarship as the co-founders and directors of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, a forum that hosts conferences and publishes research from a range of religious and environmental scholarship which has been based at Yale since 2006.

Yale is one of the only universities in the country to offer a degree program of this kind and as such serves as the center for activism and scholarship rooted in the relationship between religion and ecology.

In addition to the joint degree program, which typically has an enrollment of five students per year, the cross listed courses offered between both the School of the Environment and the Divinity School are open to all students from any of Yale’s graduate schools as well as undergraduates from Yale College. 

 

A New Approach

The relationship between the Divinity School and the School of the Environment at Yale has been a formative experience for students because it exposes them to a new method of thinking about environmental issues that they carry with them throughout their education and professional career.

“The conjunction between the two schools has been really powerful in helping to galvanize interdisciplinary research and the ways in which environmental changes and harms are affecting communities and the religious responses of those communities,” said Sam King DIV ’22, a masters student in religion and ecology and a research associate at the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology.

Tucker and Grim have heavily emphasized interdisciplinarity in their role as jointly appointed professors and co-directors of the Forum on Religion and Ecology. This interdisciplinary network has created an environment where students feel more comfortable to explore new approaches to environmental issues.

“There was this sense of openness that, by virtue of me being in both programs at the same time, professors were more willing to let me explore the ideas that I wanted to,” said Anna Thurston DIV ENV ’19,  a former joint degree student and current research associate at the Forum on Religion and Ecology.

This freedom has also prompted students in the joint degree program to embrace nontraditional avenues of discussion and research to the environmental crises our planet faces today. In the scientific community, there is a widespread understanding of the managerial solutions for ecological problems — the technical decisions regarding things such as resource allocation, fossil fuel usage, forestry initiatives, etc. — but there is a lack of motivational components, such as religion or ethics, being incorporated into these same discussions, as Tucker has explained. The discipline of religion and ecology seeks to understand and utilize what motivates individuals towards implementing ecological solutions. The joint degree in religion and ecology combines a technical approach with a moral or faith-based approach so that students of the program have an understanding of both dimensions.  

This combined approach does not, however, represent a rejection of the necessary and scientifically supported solutions to environmental issues; rather, it represents a willingness to explore what can motivate people towards these solutions. 

“There has been a realization among these students that we need more than just kind of managerial or bureaucratic responses to the crisis,” said Willie Jennings, an associate professor of systematic theology and africana studies at the Divinity School. “We really need to be thinking very deeply about its underlying philosophical and theological problems.”

The students of this program are encouraged to make it their own through the coursework, research, and fieldwork that they partake in while enrolled, said Thurston. As Grim explained, “This is a new field and people have to invent themselves. They almost have to invent the positions that they are going to fulfill with this degree.” The joint degree program often attracts people who have a strong vision of how they might take up this interdisciplinary work in their own fields — whether as a priest, a forester or an academic, there are unmistakable benefits to the unique education that this joint degree program provides.

 

The History of Religion and Ecology at Yale

While Grim and Tucker acknowledge their role in progressing the interdisciplinary movement, they see Thomas Berry, a professor they studied under at Fordham University and a longtime mentor, as being foundational to the work they are doing today. Grim and Tucker, who are married, met as students of Berry and have continued his work in various directions. In addition to several other projects, they have co-authored a biography of his life and produced an Emmy award winning film called “Journey of the Universe” which is inspired by Berry’s essay, “The New Story.” 

However, the formal relationship between religion and ecology began at Harvard University. Grim and Tucker organized a series of 10 conferences on world religions and ecology hosted by the Center for the Study of World Religions at the Harvard Divinity School between 1996 and 1998. The conferences, which had over 800 collaborators including leading scholars, theologians, religious leaders and environmental specialists from around the world, produced 10 volumes of articles written for the conferences. These articles would go on to serve as the foundation of a new field of study in religion.

“If we had done the conferences but not published the books, religion and ecology would not have been as well seeded,” said Tucker. “It really gave people the chance to get a feeling for what religion and ecology is all about.”

While Harvard was working to develop an environmental studies program, Tucker and Grim sought a university with a strong environmental foundation that could provide more comprehensive support to the ecological dimension of their work. At this time former Dean of the Yale School of the Environment — then called the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies — James Gustave Speth, had invited Grim and Tucker to Yale to establish a more formal relationship between religion and ecology at the University. With its century-long history of environmental study and a receptive faculty and administration, the School of the Environment was an ideal candidate.

Speth recognized the value in their work, saying “Their reception at YSE was a natural [one] it seemed to me, given the imperative of a new consciousness in addressing the environment,” and brought Grim and Tucker to the University in 2005. With the help of faculty members Margaret Farley of the Divinity School and Steve Kellert of the School of the Environment, who also went on to play mentorship roles for students of the program, the joint degree program in religion and ecology was established. As Attridge explained, Tucker and Grim’s joint appointments, along with cross-listing courses between the schools and offering the join-degree program, helped formalize the Divinity’s School’s long-held tradition of combining the theoretical and the practical.

“Given both their backgrounds — Mary Evelyn in Eastern religions and John in native American religions — it made an awful lot of sense,” Attridge said about Grim and Tucker’s joint appointments. “That proved to be a very fruitful relationship and has stimulated a lot of student interest at the Divinity School regarding issues of environmental ethics and the like.” 

The Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology was also established in 2006 with the arrival of Tucker and Grim. It has since played an active role in promoting the study of religion and ecology in academic and religious communities. The forum has hosted several conferences since it was founded at Yale, generating a wide range of scholarship in the growing field of religion and ecology. The forum has published as well as publicized numerous books and research articles, compiling a comprehensive body of work for the field of religion and ecology that can be found on their website. Students of the joint degree program also work closely with Tucker and Grim through the Forum on Religion and Ecology as research associates. The forum has always been at the academic center of the religion and ecology movement, but Tucker and Grim have undertaken an effort to make their work more accessible through a series of  massive open online courses titled, “Religion and Ecology: Restoring the Earth Community.” On the coursera platform, Tucker and Grim have 13 courses covering a wide range of world religions and their Journey of the Universe project, with over 30,000 students.

 

Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, Pioneers of Interdisciplinary Thinking within the School of the Environment and the Divinity School

Both current and former students, faculty colleagues and deans of the School of the Environment and the Divinity School applaud Grim and Tucker for their dedication to engaging with the natural world, their students and their scholarship. The effect that this engagement has had is tangible in the enthusiasm of their students and admiration of their colleagues. Tucker and Grim have facilitated an environment for their students where they are welcome to experiment and encouraged to draw on personal experience, teaching the substantive material of religion and ecology to their students, but also showing them that there are different ways to think about and discuss the natural world and their place within it. 

“Mary Evelyn and John are really at the core of the intersection between the two schools. There is a lot of community around them as professors and mentors alike,” said Jordan Boudreau ’19, an architectural designer and environmental educator who took many of Tucker and Grim’s classes as an undergraduate. “[Tucker and Grim] were the two most important professors in my college career and I think they have also been really meaningful to a lot of other people.”

Jennings agreed with Boudreau on the positive impact of Grim and Tucker on students and faculty alike at Yale. “They are a real treasure here at Yale and a real force in the global conversation about this relationship between religion and ecology,” he said.

Samuel King, a research associate at the Forum on Religion and Ecology and a third-year master’s student in religion and ecology, is in accordance with Jennings: “Professors Grim and Tucker have been absolutely transformative in being bridge builders between the School of the Environment and the Divinity School, and more profoundly, between ways of knowing — between a more quantitative, reductionistic bottle of science and a more holistic view of religious communities and the values of religions and cultures throughout the world.”

“They are part of the bedrock of the broader field of religion and ecology beyond Yale. There is tremendous respect for the foundation that they have laid for these interdisciplinary dialogues on the whole, not just for religion and ecology,” said Rachel Holmes, the first student of the joint degree program and an urban forestry strategist for North America at the Nature Conservancy. “They were doing it before it was the cool thing to do, before everyone was clamoring for interdisciplinary scientists.” 

 

The Student Experience

The experience of students at the intersection of the School of the Environment and the Divinity School is intellectually diverse, providing them with a space especially conducive to powerful conversation amongst one another and the formulation of a new way of looking at the world. Students gain an exposure to the world religions and their ways of understanding the environment through the curriculum of the joint degree program and the Forum on Religion and Ecology.

“I think it helped me and the other students destabilize or question the relationship that our modern capitalist world has with the natural world,” Boudreau said about the joint degree program. “The Western capitalist world has a very exploitative and extractive relationship with nature that is made to feel natural. I learned through those courses that there has been such a plurality of ways that people have understood their relationship with the natural world and with local ecosystems.”  

In many ways, joint degree program students are encouraged to bring their relationship with their faith, their past experiences, as well as their personal interests to the table for discussion with their peers. While students enrolled in the dual degree program tend to lean towards one end of the religion and ecology spectrum, the program allows them to incorporate their interests and expand their views in both directions.

“In my cohort of those of us who were pursuing dual degrees, we all came at it from very different perspectives,” Thurston said. “Some came with a more religious perspective — I had a classmate who was getting ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church who wanted to be able to speak on environmental justice issues. I was going in with a more environmental humanities perspective. But you can really see how it could attract different people based on their end goals.”

Student organizations such as FERNS — Faith, Environment, Religion, Nature, Spirituality — or the Graduate Conference in Religion and Ecology at Yale — GCRE — an annual interdisciplinary graduate conference organized by graduate students of the two schools, are further examples of how students might incorporate their various interests outside of the classroom.

With an understanding of both the technical and motivational solutions to the environmental issues we face today, the students of the joint degree program bring a unique perspective to the ways in which we interact with the environment and one another. While students of the program often have vastly different interests, they are equipped to serve the environment in a way that few other students in the world are.   

GAVIN GUERRETTE
Gavin Guerrette covers faculty scholarship & breakthroughs. He is a freshman in Branford College majoring in Humanities.