While YDS is interdenominational, with approximately 45 denominations represented among faculty and students, historically students have gone on to positions as clergy and lay officials, as well as educators and scholars, with mainline Protestant traditions. (The affiliated Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, an Episcopal seminary, prepares students for ordination into the ministry.) According to Dean Harry Attridge, “environmentalism is part of being good stewards of the Creation.” Linking and exploring that religious outlook in conjunction with F&ES’ policy and science approach are ways, he explains, for the religious community to “play a positive role in facing global environmental challenges. We prepare religious leaders to think about ethical questions. These are major questions for our time.”
F&ES Dean Peter Crane said, “For a huge segment of the global population, religion is fundamental to the way they view the world. It doesn’t matter how good policy and science are unless you engage the people. We should be thinking deeply about ethics, and that includes the religious dimension.”
Christopher Glenn Sawyer has been among those spearheading Yale’s efforts to add a religious dimension to environmental studies and education. He received a master of divinity degree in 1975, and after graduating from Yale he obtained a law degree at Duke University. He went on to develop a thriving corporate and real estate law practice with the Atlanta firm of Alston & Bird, where he is now a partner. He kept close ties with Yale, and has either chaired or co-chaired the YDS Board of Advisors since 2003.
Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-director with John Grim of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale, said the joint program at Yale is unique and indispensable for the future of environmental studies and the environmental movement. “Both Steve and Chris represent a growing awareness of the need for an ethical and spiritual approach to environmental issues. Their contributions will continue to be critical,” she said. Grim added: “Students will continue to try and integrate their ecological studies with the moral challenges we are facing. It is a great privilege to be engaged in this exploration with them.”
An avid outdoorsman, Sawyer developed an interest in environmental issues in the early 1990s. “I was like many people my age, enjoying the environment but not aware of how much it was at risk,” he said. Through his real estate law practice, he recognized Atlanta’s growing need to manage the sprawling development overtaking its surrounding countryside. “I decided I wanted to get involved in public service that wasn’t just legally oriented,” he said.
Sawyer soon had his hand in some of the most significant conservation efforts in the country. From 1995 to 2003 he was board chair of the Trust for Public Land. Under his leadership, the trust acquired approximately $2 billion in land for parks and nearly doubled the number of its city offices, to 38.He also was founding chair of the Nature Conservancy’s National Real Estate Advisory Board and founded and headed the Chattahoochee River Coordinating Committee, which has raised more than $150 million for the acquisition of 70 miles of Chattahoochee River frontage for parks. He is also a member of the F&ES Leadership Council.
Sawyer likened conservation to the fight for civil rights, calling it a “moral imperative.” Sawyer said most people affiliated with religious organizations support environmentalism and land conservation, and he thinks there’s a huge resource for environmental activism going untapped. He’d like to see clerical and lay leaders acquire education in complex environmental challenges, such as climate change, to help guide and mobilize their organizations and followers. He said Yale is the right place to begin forging a “natural union” between religious communities and environmental science and policy.
He thinks environmental scientists need the church’s “moral authority” to turn their findings into action. “I want to get the religious community more connected to the scientific community to leverage 90 million to 100 million (church-affiliated) people in the United States to support and work for environmental causes.”
Bringing two distinct cultures of faith and science together, however, requires that the two academically distinct, if closely situated, professional schools learn to speak each other’s language. Sawyer convened joint meetings of the F&ES Leadership Council and the YDS Board of Advisors, and those gatherings eventually coalesced around the creation of the joint-degree program.
Sawyer believes that the leaders emerging from this program will “accelerate the movement of centers of faith into environmentalism.” Blackmer shares that belief in the power of religion. “The bottom line is this: It is not only failed or outdated policies, technologies and economies that are the problem. We are. By allowing myself to be transformed, I can bring further transformation into the world. And if that kind of change can spread, there is hope even in the face of the worst violence and destruction.”