“Environment” or “Creation”? It Depends

Anna Thurston ’19 M.A.R., ’19 M.E.M.

On a sweltering morning last summer, I found myself at a weekly staff meeting of an urban land trust. We convened around a conference table in a windowless room, shivering as arctic air blasted throughout the building. After reporting on the city’s nature preserves and community gardens, we turned to an upcoming event on climate change. In the middle of our brainstorming session, the question was raised: “How we can get religious communities on board with climate change? Anna, you’re at the Divinity School, right?”

My summer internship was tied to the forestry side of the joint degree program – YDS and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies – so I usually brought ideas on land management or ecosystem science. This was the first time I drew upon the divinity side. Without forethought, the words shot out of my mouth: “Easy! Just replace ‘environment’ with ‘creation’ and that should do it.”

My response was met with blank stares and questions about the meaning of creation.

For me, incredulity at the intersection of religion and environment is not unusual. This is the point of getting two such master’s degrees at the same time. Before coming to Yale, I had visions of poring over books in its many libraries and pursuing a quiet life of research on the environmental ethics of world religions. What a dream! Over these past two and a half years, however, those types of moments are rare. Instead, I’m called on to be the theologian in environmental spaces, and the environmentalist in religious ones. This plays out in the ways my divinity and forestry classmates discreetly approach me:

  •  “I’m in the military, so you know who my boss is, right? So it goes against my job description to believe in global warming. But I was living on an island this summer and saw the sea level rise before my eyes. I can’t deny what I see. What do you recommend I do?”
  • “Hey Anna, can you help me here? That speaker seemed to say that animals and plants are equal to people, and that goes fundamentally against my theology.”
  •  “You know, I’ve always felt a spiritual connection to nature, but I’m not necessarily religious. Do you study anything about that?”
  •  “Wait, you’re a divinity student? What does that mean? What do you study? I guess I can tell you that I’m religious, but I don’t really talk about it here.”

Though my answers vary depending on the situation, without fail the conversations that follow include me clarifying and explaining terminology. The use of language, of specific word choice, carries an immense power in the ways we understand each other. The value of vocabulary – of choosing words carefully, whether it be environment or creation – is at the core of my lived research as a joint degree student. Many words or phrases are synonymous, yet people tend to interpret phrases differently depending on their background.

While I officially study how the environment intersects with religious worldviews, I socially experience how people react when religion (or ecology) enters a conversation – with FES classmates who admit religious belief or YDS students who confess environmental uncertainty. I don’t have the remedy to get everyone on the same page, but I’m practicing how to help people get there. So, if you’re the lone eco-conscious individual in your religious community, or if you’re the only religiously conscious member of a team doing environmental work, here are some tips that have helped me:

When talking to religious people about the environment:

  1. Anywhere you’d say environment, swap it out for the word creation.
  2. Instead of saying natural resource use or land stewardship, say creation care or caring for creation.
  3. Start using these words and phrases interchangeably. “Taking care of the environment, or creation, is crucial for future generations.”

When talking to environmental people about religion:

  1. Anywhere you’d say religion, swap it out for the word worldview. (This emphasizes spiritual ways of thinking within and beyond religious institutions.)
  2. Instead of saying sacraments or liturgy, say practices or rituals.
  3. Start using these words and phrases interchangeably. “Many opinions on caring for the earth are influenced by religions, or worldviews.”

These adjustments might seem insignificant, but even small changes in our vocabulary incite powerful change. One of my siblings has resorted to telling people I go to Hogwarts; where else could “forestry” and “divinity” exist in the same sentence, if not in fiction? I’ll tell you where: My joint degree not only exists but is necessary in a world where “belief ” and “climate change” play out daily in national headlines. Whether I use the words environment or creation, however, depends on which hat I decide to wear.

Born in Sandy, Utah, Anna Thurston will graduate with a Yale joint degree in religion and ecology in May 2019. She plans to pursue a vocation at the intersection of religion, environmental science, and the arts.