Reflections on the Importance of Ecology in Seminary

5 June 2017

Rabbi Yonatan presents at the Intefaith Climate and Energy Conference in Jerusalem in 2016 on behalf of his organization and CC, The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

Rabbi Yonatan Neril reflects on the questions: How do you address environmental challenges in your community? and How do your values and/or beliefs inform your environmental commitments? 

I founded and direct  The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development (ICSD), which is a URI Cooperation Circle. My work, and that of ICSD, focuses on The Seminary Faith and Ecology Project, which encourages divinity and theological schools and seminaries to educate their students on the relationship between faith and ecology. In conjunction with this program, ICSD has published multiple reports about courses for seminarians on faith and ecology being offered by seminaries around the world. The Project promotes and enables the sharing of resources and course syllabi between seminaries. 

In the wake of Hurricanes Sandy and Irene, with rising sea-levels on the East Coast, the impact of ecological imbalance is hitting close to home. There is also increasing awareness of the injustice and inequity of pollution and waste. 

A key part of our work is co-organizing conferences for seminary deans, faculty, and others around faith and ecology. The conferences offer resources to prepare seminaries to address these ecological concerns from a faith perspective. In addition, the conferences help equip seminaries with the tools needed to prepare the next generation of religious leaders to effectively engage in Creation care and environmental justice. 

 ICSD has co-organized four conferences for seminary faculty and deans on ecologically-informed theological education: a Washington D.C. conference in March 2017, a New York City conference in 2016, a Jerusalem conference in 2015 and a Jerusalem conferencein 2014. ICSD is currently co-organizing additional conferences near Columbus, Ohio in October 2017 and in Atlanta, Georgia in March 2018. 

For example, seminary deans and faculty explored ways of integrating faith and ecology into their theology curricula at the Symposium on Ecologically Informed Theological Education held March 16, 2017 in Washington D.C. The Symposium was co-organized by the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, the Washington Theological Consortium, the Green Seminary Initiative (GSI), and Methodist Theological School in Ohio (MTSO), and hosted by The Catholic University of America's School of Theology and Religious Studies.

The event promoted the expansion of ecology and stewardship to become an integral component of curricula in  seminaries. The symposium offered tools to enable administrators and faculty members from theological schools, divinity schools, and seminaries to better educate students on religion and ecology. 

 In his keynote address on Pope Francis's encyclical Laudato Si' — On Care for Our Common Home, Monsignor Kevin Irwin, research professor, underlined the importance of broadly integrating ecological concerns into theological education, which "would lead to an ecological consciousness across theological specializations and fields.”

Other speakers included Dr. Timothy Van Meter, associate professor at MTSO and co-organizer of the Seminary Environmental Leadership Initiative; Dr. Elaine Nogueira-Godsey, assistant professor of theology, ecology and race at MTSO; and Dr. Laurel Kearns, GSI co-founder and associate professor of sociology and religion and environmental studies at Drew Theological School.

Seminary faculty and deans conducted workshops that explored a number of topics including ways that seminaries can encourage faculty to incorporate ecology teachings into existing courses in theology, the Bible, homiletics, ethics, and counseling, among others. The event drew 70 participants and speakers from more than 10 seminaries and six states in the Mid-Atlantic region. 

The symposium was part of the Seminary Environmental Leadership Initiative, which is funded through a grant from the Luce Fund for Theological Education, an initiative of the Henry Luce Foundation’s Theology Program. The symposium was also supported by the Julia Burke Foundation. 

In addition, the New York City Faith & Ecology Seminary Education Conference in December 2016 engaged seminary deans and faculty to explore ways of integrating faith and ecology into their theology curriculums so that emerging clergy can speak to the ecological crisis. The full-day event took place at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, and was co-organized by The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, the Center for Earth Ethics of Union Theological Seminary; the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue at Jewish Theological Seminary; and the Green Seminary Initiative.

This significant event to engage seminaries in the New York metro area on issues of faith and ecology had 75 participants and speakers. The Christian, Jewish, indigenous, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist participants came from over fifteen seminaries and ten other organizations in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

Yonatan invites us to watch the following video recording of a panel he spoke on in 2016 at Union Theological Seminary in New York City on the importance of incorporating ecology into theological education

Rabbi Yonatan Neril founded and directs the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development in Israel. He speaks internationally on religion and the environment, and co-organized five interfaith environmental conferences in Jerusalem in which religious leaders of several faiths spoke. A native of California, Yonatan completed an M.A. and B.A. from Stanford University with a focus on global environmental issues, and received rabbinical ordination in Israel.