Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

New Alliances of Science and Spirit

Author: 
Gregory E. Sterling
Author: 
Sir Peter Crane

A young entrepreneur starts a non-profit to connect at-risk youngsters with questions of environmental health.

An Episcopal priest moves to Los Angeles to coordinate new community gardens across an urban diocese.

Thus do two Yale alums pursue different vocational paths – yet they have something specific in common. Both are graduates of a unique joint degree program, offered by the Yale Divinity School and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, as a response to the unprecedented challenges of the 21st century.

When the Divinity-Environmental Studies master’s degree was forged a decade ago, the moment was right. Evidence of climate change was mounting. Volatile crises of water, food, and land use were intensifying. The need for new collaboration between scientists and other communities was urgent. Impatient with silo thinking, students and faculty were seeking entrepreneurial ways to broaden the debate and connect spiritual and environmental arguments.

By now, the global challenges have only grown more acute. The problems we face – a warming planet, scarcity of fresh water, pollution of all kinds, and environmental fragility in the face of political conflict – are so complex and interwoven that one discipline, one approach, one vocabulary, cannot resolve them. In a pluralistic era, we need a larger view of global environmental health, one that weds precision and ethics, technology and morality. We hope to produce a new generation of interpreters, activists, healers of earth and spirit.

A generation ago, technical answers to the world’s great problems seemed to promise a future that would conquer hunger, disease, drought, and energy shortages. We’ve indeed witnessed dramatic breakthroughs – progress on poverty reduction, astounding digital access to data, revolutions in biomedicine, and expanded use of sources of alternative energy.

Many solutions demand technical approaches and always will. But consumerism with its underlying value system, coupled with social and demographic change, is an unyielding driver of deteriorating ecological health. The challenge is to find deeper perspectives on human values and morality.

As a nation and as an international community, we need to find ways to reach consensus and work together, without delay. Yet we live in a time of unprecedented divisions that threaten to stifle progress. The divides are real both domestically and globally. Debates are inflamed around values. In discussions about privatization of water we hear a clash of competing interests: market freedom versus public trust. Yet water is a fundamental human need and right. It must be managed for the benefit of all. How then do we talk about it together? Another conflict is the discord among nations about how to reduce greenhouse gases and ease the severities of climate change. The dialogue – often the haranguing – between G8 nations and emerging economies is a challenge of trust and self-scrutiny. It highlights the need for new perspectives on global citizenship.

Another conflict is the discord among nations about how to reduce greenhouse gases and ease the severities of climate change. The dialogue – often the haranguing – between G8 nations and emerging economies is a challenge of trust and self-scrutiny. It highlights the need for new perspectives on global citizenship.

 No matter how compelling the science is, it won’t persuade until it engages people at a deeper ethical level. For the majority of the global population, religious beliefs are instrumental in shaping impressions, passions, and responses to environmental management and emergency. Alongside the need for good data and sound policy there must be room for conversation about ethical and moral vision.

Spiritual education and environmental management are two orbits of human endeavor uniquely situated in the 21st century. They need each other as conversation partners. The world needs them to be.

The world’s great religions can provide grounding for moral lives, an ethic of stewardship and social justice, foundations of resilient civilization. But faith traditions don’t claim to provide the technical solutions to today’s problems of energy production, sustainable food systems, land use, water conservation, and ecological protection. The Yale Divinity and Environmental Studies dual degree invites students to find ways in which rigorous inquiry in environmental management and ethical analysis can enrich moral thinking and pragmatic solutions.

Universities exist to address the major problems of humanity and the world in which we live. Today one of those is nothing less than the future of the planet and our place in it. Answers will not come by working in isolation. We need more models of collaboration.

This is the rationale behind Yale’s dual Divinity- Environmental Studies degree. It proposes an argument – that two disciplines central to human life ought to be dialogue partners tasked to confront global problems and help secure a flourishing future. The planet’s inhabitants seek creative, life affirming ways to blend science and spirit, apply them to everyday solutions, and prepare the world their descendants will inherit.

We envision a fresh cadre of leaders with the dexterity to field new challenges and bring a sense of pragmatic hope and adventure to a vital enterprise.

Sir Peter Crane is the Carl W. Knobloch, Jr. Dean of the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Professor of Botany. Gregory E. Sterling is the Reverend Henry L. Slack Dean of Yale Divinity School & Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament.

Issue Title: 
At Risk: Our Food, Our Water, Ourselves
Issue Year: 
2014