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Exploring the Intersection of Cosmology, Ecology, and Ethics

December 13, 2012

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By Nick DiUlio
Princeton Environmental Institute
December 13, 2012

Environmental awareness comes in many forms. Often, it is shaped by an understanding of science or public policy, but it also can be informed by religion.  Rarely, however, do all three of these perspectives intersect at once—and that is the challenge two Yale University professors, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, have been addressing for the past three decades.

During this time, Tucker and Grim have been developing an approach to environmental studies that blends cosmology, ecology, and ethics into a new field of religion and ecology. Teaching at Yale since 2006, this husband and wife team has drawn students from a wide array of disciplines including the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the Divinity School, the Department of Religious Studies, and Yale College.  In the mid 1990s they organized a series of ten conferences on World Religions and Ecology at Harvard University and then founded the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology.

For the past four months, these collaborating professors have brought their talents to Princeton University as two of this year’s Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron Visiting Professors in the Environment and the Humanities.  This is a program at the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI) that recruits outstanding academic scholars to contribute to the Institute’s research and teaching programs.

“We greatly admire the way PEI is trying to bridge the gap between science and the humanities, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to bring the work we’ve been doing for almost 30 years now to Princeton,” said Grim.

Established in 2003, the Barron Visiting Professorship was designed to forge closer ties between the environmental sciences and the humanities and social sciences at Princeton. This is at the core of what professors Tucker and Grim do in bringing the world religions into dialogue with ecology and cosmology.

“Most environmental studies programs are primarily concerned with scientific and public policy solutions,” says Tucker. “We like to think that solutions need to be approached through human perspectives as well, appealing to the way people interact with their environments drawing on their cultural values.”

This fall, Tucker and Grim are teaching a course at Princeton called Religion, Ecology, and Cosmology, to illustrate how religion, spirituality, ethics and values can make important contributions—alongside science—to address complex ecological issues.

The course involves an exploration of selected world religions with regard to their contributions to contemporary environmental ethics. The course explores how such ethics will be developed differently in various parts of the world, especially Asia.  In particular, it investigates the symbolic and real expressions of these interconnections in many religious texts, ethics, and practices that arise from the relationships humans have with the natural world and the cosmos.

“Humanity’s relationship to the Earth is fascinating and paradoxical,” said Grim. “On the one hand, we see it with awe and wonder and beauty. On the other, we seem to be so historically destructive. And you see this interesting dynamic process play out in different ways through different cultures and religions.”

The course, said Tucker, is attended by a wide variety of students from various countries and from nine different majors, including anthropology, chemistry, East Asian studies, ecology and evolutionary biology, engineering, geosciences, mathematics, politics, and religion. The topics are broad and thus are enhanced by images. This is why the visiting professors are using their Emmy award-winning documentary, Journey of the Universe, and filmed interviews as instructional aides.

Journey of the Universe, which the two professors co-produced, is a dramatic and expansive film that narrates the epic of evolution and thereby reframes the human connection to the Earth community. Filmed on the Greek island of Samos, the birthplace of Pythagoras, Journey is hosted by evolutionary philosopher Brian Thomas Swimme, who co-wrote the film and accompanying book with Tucker.

“The subject of this course is incredibly vast and there’s just too much material to cover through lectures alone,” said Grim. “We use the film in an effort to identify some crucial moments in the story of our evolution and then ask the students: How would this story appear to a Confucian, or a Jew, or a Christian? The students’ reactions have been exceedingly interesting.”

For instance, Emma Kurz ’14 enrolled in the course as a chemistry major with little understanding of how religion and science could potentially intersect in the world of environmental studies. She found the course dramatically changed her perspective.

“While the concepts were often abstract, the teachings allowed a hard-science-based student like myself to make intellectual and personal connections to my own religious and ecological cosmology and come to a broader understanding about world religions and their various cosmologies and ecologies,” said Kurz.

Moreover, Kurz said Tucker and Grim’s film allowed her to understand the broader narrative at play all around her, and the ways in which religious understandings of the universe may be critical to solving today’s environmental quandaries.

“I am walking away from this class with a completely different outlook on life and the role that I play in the world around me,” said Kurz. “I realize that recognizing our deep interconnectedness as humans to each other, the Earth, and the universe itself is essential to addressing our current environmental crises.”

Sophomore anthropology major Divya Farias was so inspired by Tucker and Grim’s course that she and fellow classmate Damaris Miller’15 are currently working on designing a curriculum for young children to inspire in them the idea that the elements of life originate from stars and therefore we are all connected (a concept featured prominently in Journey of the Universe).

“The class has impacted me most profoundly in that it has given my life a cosmological context that I hadn't really explored before,” said Farias. “John and Mary Evelyn have woven scientific knowable truth with spiritually knowable meaning, which I can honestly say has revitalized my passion for people and nature and my hope for a better future.”

This, said Tucker, is exactly why she and her husband were enthusiastic to come to Princeton.

“It’s hard to sum up in a few sentences what we hope the students will take away from this course,” said Tucker. “But I know that they have opened themselves up to thinking in new and fresh ways. And what’s more, I think they have an appreciation for the ways in which the ancient and enduring values transmitted in the world religions can make a difference in shaping a future that’s not only sustainable but flourishing.”

Moreover, Tucker and Grim said they are equally pleased with the opportunities they have had to engage with several Princeton professors in both the sciences and the humanities.

“This has been a wonderful experience,” said Tucker. “We would like to stay even longer. The town is lovely. The University has been incredibly welcoming, And our talks with some of the University’s scientists is just the beginning of an ongoing dialogue about the broader intersection of science and religion, and the implications that has for our future. I hope we can both come back from time to time to continue these discussions.”

Exploring the Intersection of Cosmology, Ecology, and Ethics

December 13, 2012

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