A theologian friend who graduated from Yale, and who has a special interest in religion and the environment, passed on to me the note he sent to his father, a Yale Divinity School grad, about the program in Religion and Ecology at their alma mater. Here’s the note:
I found the article about the Yale program in religion and ecology heartbreaking. Did you read it? The man’s claim to fame is studying Native American traditions. He has been adopted into the Crow tribe and participates in their rituals. He also thinks “chi” energy links all creatures, and that “dharma” points towards responsibility towards all life. That’s so groovy! So somewhere in New Haven, there is an idealistic 24 year old getting his MDiv at Yale Divinity School and taking classes in religion and ecology, learning all about Crow rituals and the dialogue between Chinese medicine and Buddhist ethics. I bet the class campfire is a lot of fun.
Two or three years down the line, our hypothetical YDS student will be a youth minister at some mainline congregation. Will his YDS education have equipped him to pass along the glories of mainline Protestantism to the next generation? Will our YDS graduate mentor youth into young adults confident of their Christian heritage, equipped to engage the questions of modernity from the solid foundation of western civilization? Jesus wept.
What sort of cultural malaise leads a flagship mainline institution to hire a joker like this guy to teach religion and ecology? Have they completely given up on the church’s future? Meanwhile, at the Yale School of Management, the grown ups studying for MBAs are learning property theory, based on Hobbes and Locke, learning how to theorize about oil wells and leases in ways favorable to corporations. Somewhere out there, there is a way to subvert Hobbes and Lockean property theory and actually save the earth, but that would require studying Aristotle and Augustine to get beneath modern property theory.
Crow rituals and dharma eco-mysticism are not going to pass along the faith nor win the legal debate against the corporations. But the guy who could teach Aristotle and Augustine at Yale isn’t going to get hired, because he’s also probably against gay marriage. If H. Richard Niebuhr, Uncle Ken and Roland Bainton are caring about YDS today from a heavenly perch, then I suspect they are weeping too.
Actually I think there are some interesting metaphysical approaches towards nature from the Eastern traditions, and I am sure my Yale-trained theologian friend would agree. Dismissing Native American and Eastern traditions is not what he’s getting at here.
Here is his point: My friend is actually on the political left, and as you can tell from his note, leaving aside the question of passing on the Christian faith to Protestant Christian congregations — YDS is a Christian divinity school in the Mainline Protestant tradition — would like to see graduates of YDS who are interested in ecology understand how to think about it from within the Western spiritual tradition — this, in part so they can form minds to lead effectively the opposition to exploitative corporations and the politicians who support them.
Instead, when it comes to thinking about God and Nature, my friend fears his and his father’s alma mater — one of the most important universities in the West — will produce marginal figures who won’t make a difference outside of rarefied liberal circles.
Is he right about this? Thoughts?
UPDATE: I retitled this post after a wonderful comment by the reader AnonymousDr. Well said, sir.
UPDATE: A reader says no, the Yalie is quite wrong about this:
A really cheap shot you’ve amplified here, Rod. John Grim is a wonderful, decent, insightful, kind man, who was my official faculty mentor when I was a new professor. The insulting description of him is as unfair as would be any similar epithets insults against you for focusing on the Catholic Dante as an Orthodox Christian writer. Again, to be clear, such an approach would be totally wrong and miss the point of your work, which I much admire. But it’s just silly to be complaining about mainline liberal Protestantism and Yale as being too secular or having wandered too far from mainline Protestantism; Buckley’s 1950s book is dog bites man news today, and really was then, as well. After all, mainline Protestantism is in many ways the main perpetrator of secularism’s long upward trajectory in the U.S.. As for Native American traditional spirituality, it involves traditional communities with certain shared concerns with other traditional communities around the world, including Orthodox Christian ones. Yes, their traditions are not Orthodox and not Christian (although sometimes as in Alaska they are closely engaged with Orthodoxy in some communities, and in other regions with Catholicism). But as the Tadodaho or spiritual leader of the Iroquois put it at a meeting that I attended, the main obstacle to environmental sustainability in the U.S. is “the separation of church and state”–the lack of a shared spiritual tradition to heal our secular materialistic approach to objectifying Nature. Much of that secular materialistic approach arguably evolved from “natural law” as developed in Western Christianity before morphing into secular scientism etc. Few mainline Protestant leaders I think could offer such a relevant critique, and a return to some Ur-point of pure mainline Protestantism wouldn’t help address the basic issues of the West even if it were possible. John Grim, by the way, has worked closely with the Ecumenical Patriarch on environmental-related projects, which doesn’t make him Orthodox, but he has always been very supportive of my Orthodox faith in the face of secularist academic hostility.