Bringing Religion and Ecology Together

By Andrew R. H. Thompson

This year’s annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) highlighted the manifold intersections between religious belief and environmental concern. The scholarly organization released the results of an extensive survey documenting religious attitudes toward climate change and environmental issues. AAR President Laurie Zoloth, in her presidential address, urged members to plan a sabbatical year, forgoing a future conference, with its exorbitant carbon footprint, and instead focusing on local actions.

The AAR’s focus is only the most recent and notable example of the rapidly expanding significance of the field of religion and ecology, which explores the ways religious traditions and their adherents relate to the non-human world. While creation stories and nature spirituality have always been a part of religious belief, the current interest finds its urgency in the numerous environmental crises facing contemporary society. Since 1967, when historian Lynn White argued that the Judeo-Christian tradition bore significant responsibility for current crises, religious thinkers in all traditions have tried to clarify religion’s relationship to the natural world.

As the AAR annual meeting illustrated, this inquiry has found resonance in all aspects of religious studies, from Biblical studies to sociology of religion and from history to studies of race and ethnicity. Beyond this, however, religion and ecology is a truly interdisciplinary field, as everyone from biologists to scholars of environmental policy recognizes the profound influence religious beliefs can have on attitudes toward nature.

Even more importantly, religious communities, schools, advocacy groups, and nonprofits are taking note of this influence as well. As churches look for ways to minister to the environmental needs of their surrounding communities and environmental groups begin to take seriously the religious values of their constituencies, religion and ecology is increasingly becoming an important part of mainstream conversation and action around the environment. Organizations like GreenFaith and Interfaith Power and Light are mobilizing religious communities’ responses to climate change and other environmental issues. Even traditions typically thought to be resistant to scientific discourse and environmental concerns are turning to environmental ministries. Meanwhile, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as part of its “Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion,” recently awarded grants to ten seminaries intended in part to prepare future ministers for to respond to environmental challenges.

As an Episcopal seminary with access to a distinguished interdisciplinary environmental studies program, an active Center for Religion and the Environment that spans the University curriculum, and a 13,000-acre domain rich with lakes, forests, and 50 miles of trails, The School of Theology offers an unparalleled opportunity to study the intersections of religion and ecology. Our M.A. concentration in religion and the environment prepares students to work with churches and dioceses, schools, environmental nonprofits, and advocacy groups like GreenFaith to confront the urgent social and environmental crises facing our society. Students in other degree programs can take advantage of courses in environmental ethics, nature spirituality, and Biblical approaches to ecology, as well as the opportunities for independent research afforded by the University’s great ecological wealth. And through The Beecken Center and Education for Ministry, The School of Theology will continue to offer similar programs for lay leaders throughout the Church.

Climate change, ecosystem degradation, mass extinctions, and environmental injustice, among numerous other problems, desperately call for a response from religious communities. With its unique ecological and academic setting, The School of Theology is poised to be a leader in training lay and ordained ministers capable of shaping that response.

For information about the Easter semester course on Climate Ethics, click here.

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