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Seminaries Increasingly Linking Environment, Religion

Toward the end of his seminary studies, Gavin Van Horn began to connect his interest in religion with both his lifelong love of the out-of-doors and the impact of people he met and read whose compassion extended beyond human beings.
``I started to get interested in ways to look at faith from a more holistic point of view and a more ecological point of view, but also how faith informs how we view nature,” said Van Horn, a 28-year-old from Edmond, Okla., with a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary.
As one of the first students in a doctoral program launching this fall at the University of Florida, Van Horn wants to pursue questions like these: Is the world sacred? Is it to be protected and cared for? Does caring extend beyond human beings to the rocks, the soil and animals? Do religions encourage believers to incorporate into daily life such environmental concerns as what one eats, how many children one has, and how one uses the world's resources?
``I'm interested in studying different religions with an eye on what their influence is upon culture at large and upon individual adherents,” said Van Horn, who plans to teach on the university or college level.
Academic studies of the links between religion and the environment are a fairly recent but growing development. This fall in Gainesville, Fla., the University of Florida initiates what it believes will be the first Ph.D. program with a religion and nature track. Next spring, the first students in a new doctor of ministry program in spirituality and sustainability, co-sponsored by the United Theological Seminary in Ohio and Hendrix College in Arkansas, are expected to start graduating.
The University of Florida's religion faculty includes several experts on ecology and religion.
Bron Raymond Taylor is editor in chief for the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, which Continuum is to publish in 2004. His Religion and Nature Web site,, focuses on the study of religions, cultures and environments, especially radical environmentalism.
Richard Foltz specializes in environmental values, including in the Muslim faith, and edited ``Worldviews, Religion and the Environment: A Global Anthology” (Wadsworth Publishers, 2002). Vasudha Narayanan has expertise on Hinduism and nature. Latin American specialist Anna L. Peterson teaches and writes about environmental ethics.
Taylor traces discussion among religion scholars about the relationship between religion, environment and cultures largely to Lynn White's 1967 article in the Journal of Science, ``The Historic Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” White wrote that monotheistic religions, particularly Christianity, were culpable for the decline of ecosystem health around the world.
White's basic premise: Monotheistic religions devalued this world in their focus on getting to the next, so nature became of instrumental value for humans, rather than having intrinsic value. Around the time White's article appeared, Taylor said, the overlapping field of environmental ethics was emerging.
Taylor, whose Ph.D. is in social ethics, considers much of the ethical reflection in the last 35 years to be so idea-focused it risks not being tethered in the real world. The Florida program is aimed at ``helping students to think both social scientifically and to ask the ethical questions.”
While Ph.D. work tends to be more concentrated on academics, doctor of ministry studies are geared toward practical ministry.
The United-Hendrix spirituality and sustainability program expects students, or peers, to be employed in full-time ministry. The more than 150 peers are mostly local church pastors from New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Missouri, Arkansas and Michigan. Faculty mentors are Jane Ann Clark, a United Methodist minister in Newton Falls, Ohio; Jay McDaniel, a Hendrix religion professor and ecological theologian whose books include ``Of God and Pelicans” (John Knox, 1989); and Paul Knitter, a retired professor of theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati and theologian of interreligious dialogue.
Clark oversees a ``Sustainability, Spirituality and Wholistic World Views” focus group. Her students' projects include an upcoming monthlong visit to Tabre, Ghana, by the Rev. Dale Johnson of Keene, Va., and women in her African-American congregation to help village women find ways to sustain themselves economically that make sense ecologically.
The doctor of ministry program ``seeks to bring a connectedness between all of creation and God,” said Clark. ``And we understand creation to be an expression of God's body. And what we want to have happen is the more we can increase the bonds between humankind and creation, then the closer we will all become centered in God.”
She said it all comes down to connectedness, with God, nature and one another, which leads to understanding and peace.
(For information about the University of Florida's graduate programs in religion, contact (352) 392-1625 or visit For information about the Doctor of Ministry Program in Spirituality and Sustainability, contact (937) 278-5817, Ext. 116 or visit