Faith & Ecology: A Primer for Practitioners and Pundits

Perspective for Prospectives
by Dave Grace -- November 17th, 2014

Now that mid-terms at the Nicholas School have concluded, I will offer some thoughts on the dual-degree program with the Divinity School. I’m aware that it is not the most popular choice of degrees in combination. However, the two schools are individually two of the larger schools on campus. Though I’m the only student currently enrolled as a dual-degree student, a few others have completed degrees in both schools in the recent past. Many more are interested in the respective subjects of study offered by these schools but complete their coursework from within their school of choice. This makes sense.

Accordingly, I want to emphasize that the combination of these programs only makes sense for a select group, such as people who identify as Christian and who are pursuing environmental vocations. A religion department would host a different avenue for connecting other faith traditions with environmental management. However, for those who find themselves directed toward faith and ecology from a Christian standpoint, I do recommend merging the degree programs of these two schools. The emergent property, the sum greater than parts aspect, of this dual-degree program in terms of faith and ecology turns up in its combination of the why and the how from two distinct but complementary perspectives. The Nicholas School is filling the gap at the intersection between the best environmental science and the worst environmental problems, in order to ‘forge a sustainable future’. The Divinity School also meets a gap: that between academic study of theology and the practice of ministry, in order to enliven the church of the 21st century. The obvious connection between these two schools seems to be something my denomination refers to as ‘environmental ministry’. Following definitions between the two missions, the outcome of this dual-degree program should be faith leaders who are trained to forge a sustainable future from within faith communities or from the standpoint of faith. This training allows one to deepen their foundation within their faith community while maintaining a perspective of the outsider looking in.

So what is environmental ministry and what good is it? Well much like the rest of the discourse on sustainability, it is hard to define and its meanings are contested. What is truly sustainable requires subjective as well as objective verification. There is also a debate in terminology. Does sustainability attempt to defy entropy, and as such lose meaning? Perhaps resilience is more precise, as— in terms of ecology— a healthy system can relatively quickly recover to its prior state from less-than-catastrophic disturbances. Both terms are semantically interesting for now.

It is in discussions such as these where philosophical and religious dimensions propagate themselves in the environment and show their overarching relevance to environmental management. The way we think about our environmental future is intimately tied to how we think. Consider Alfred North Whitehead’s epistemology where knowing is so intimately tied to a community of being; however, it is also intensely focused on experience from the standpoint of the observer. There is a striking connection between this line of thinking, particularly in Whitehead’s doctrine of the soul, and conceptualizations of sustainability—where some constant is suggested in stark opposition to change. The term resilience seems to locate its subject even further within a shared center, as the essential dynamic of this system is suggested to persist beyond its sacrificial component parts. In the case of resilience, the level at which integrity is maintained in the system is the community and the community is the basis of the perspective. Sustainability too focuses on community maintenance but suggests some essential constancy of the whole system. This constancy indeed has philosophical ramifications, clearly providing a link with doctrines of the soul— even with those not as scientifically constructed or nuanced as Whitehead’s. This is just a brief illustration of the fully embedded relationship between the approaches of the respective disciplines of ‘faith and ecology’.

The brief conclusion is this:

How we think about the environment is connected to how we think.
How we speak about the environment can be problematic if conflicting with how others think.
Given the above, we can speak in a way which agrees with some* others thinking.

It seems that messaging about the environment has the greatest capacity to cohere with the largest audience- as air, water, land are shared by all of Earth’s inhabitants. However, this might not be the case, since knowing is more closely affiliated with the experience of the knower than the direct environment— even though the latter almost completely directs the former. This supports the idea that conservation groups should not attempt to make the environment do the work of messaging by itself. This is the reason for the asterisk above: the environment will appeal to different groups differently and decisions should be made to attend to a specifically selected audience. This dual-degree prepares one to speak within Christian faith communities and, from this standpoint, faith communities generally where interfaith collaborations are possible. This conclusion—that conservation messaging should be framed for the community it is directed toward— was practiced in this Friday’s communicating science symposium in the emphasis of sharing stories of conservation by highlighting personal experience.

More to the point, here are some experiences I’ve had in this program that should offer perspective for prospective students:

This summer (after completing my first year at Divinity School and prior to my first year at the Nicholas School) I was serving a field education placement in Saluda, NC. I was paired with Rev. Rob Parsons who is highly active in the community, both in terms of bringing congregation members outside to experience the beautiful mountainous environment as well as bringing in the community for events such as a weekly free meal. In this context, among many other things, I was able to study with the pastor, witness my niece’s baptism, preach two sermons, and engage in a partnership between the church and the Saluda Community Land Trust. In the land trust work, I helped imagine a meditative trail, resulting in a hemlock deck and bench which overlooked a waterfall and is to be used for reflection.

This is a strength that the dual-degree offers to environmental problems: a better integration of sustainability that comes with not just recognizing environmental problems as social problems as well as economic problems— the insight of sustainability with the triple bottom line – but reimagining social and economic life by means of the church’s storehouse of resources in a way which is accountable to ecological realities. These ecological realities are always interpreted and thus evoke theologies and are diagnosable by critical perspectives within the social sciences.

Life at the Nicholas School includes a lot of opportunities. It can be overwhelming. For instance, this week included the following: Monday, NY Times foreign correspondent, Ethan Bronner, gives lecture on Israel & Palestine; Tuesday, Bass Connections presentation on autism and human development. Wednesday, owner of a local, local-burger restaurant (Bull City Burger and Brewery) presented in a seminar class on sustainable food systems (which I am taking); Thursday, EO Wilson Center hosts film screening of “Field Biologist” with discussion with the director; Friday, symposium on communicating science. Every week includes a laundry list of activities which are all more stimulating intellectually than two months’ worth of non-university life.

Classes also happen. They are pretty good, too.

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