After 25 years leading the novel initiative they co-founded, the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology’s Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim will retire from teaching this spring, but the field of study they created continues to grow worldwide.
By Wayne D’Orio
On the precipice of retirement, it would be easy for Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, who are married, to rest on their laurels. After all, their individual careers have spanned more than half a century and have been studded with achievements, accolades, and awards. What’s more, the study of religion and ecology, the discipline they co-created, continues to proliferate around the globe.
But Tucker and Grim, who are senior lecturers and research scholars with appointments in the Yale School of the Environment, Yale Divinity School, and the Department of Religious Studies, say they are not slowing down and plan to continue to look for new ways to advance dialogue on religion and environmental stewardship in the future.
“We don’t see the word retirement as operative,” Tucker says. “We like to use ‘refirement.’”
Inspiring people to preserve, protect, and restore the Earth community, the Forum on Religion and Ecology takes an international, multi-faith approach to contributing to environmental solutions.
While the duo will stop teaching in the classroom at the end of the spring 2023 semester, they will remain an active and influential voice in the environmental and theological communities through their busy speaking schedule at international conferences and the six Coursera courses on religion and ecology they developed, which have already reached thousands of people. The forum’s encyclopedic website that informs academic and religious communities worldwide and its monthly e-newsletter, which has more than 8,000 subscribers, also will continue under the umbrella of the Yale Center for Environmental Justice at YSE.
Love letter to the world
But while Tucker and Grim are focused on the future, looking back can be a useful tool for getting perspective on the transformative work the two have accomplished. In the late 1990s, they organized a series of 10 conferences on World Religions and Ecology at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University and invited 800 scholars, religious leaders, and environmental specialists from around the world to study the intersection of religion and ecology in Western, Asian, and Indigenous religions.
Their motivation was to better understand how these traditions have shaped views of nature in different cultures.
It took three years to organize and hold the conferences, which broke new ground in the way they combined religion and ecology in an exploratory manner, Tucker and Grim note. To culminate their work, they published 10 books featuring the papers presented in each session.
“We poured our hearts into that work. Often the conferences started out as celebratory. However, at some point participants began to realize that even with all the positive examples being shared, there were still major problems ahead.
“That’s when the real work began,” Grim says.
That work caught the attention of Gus Speth, who was then dean of Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (the school was renamed the Yale School of the Environment in 2020). In 2006, Speth invited Tucker and Grim to Yale to teach in a newly created joint master’s degree program shared by the School of the Environment and the Yale Divinity School. While science and policy are necessary to solve environmental challenges, they are not sufficient on their own, Speth told them at them time. Values and ethics also are needed.
The Yale program was the first joint graduate program in religion and ecology in the United States. However, the Divinity School now offers a separate master’s degree in religion and ecology, and these programs have been joined by 14 graduate programs across the country, including three doctoral programs.
“It is a growing field of study in academia and a significant moral force in society,” Tucker says.
While both Tucker and Grim are historians of world religions, Tucker has concentrated on Asia and Grim’s field is Indigenous traditions. They studied with Thomas Berry, a Fordham professor, environmental advocate, and renowned cultural historian who directed the Riverdale Center of Religious Research.
After Berry challenged the pair to develop a “new narrative” about the Earth’s 14 billion year history and humans’ role in its evolution and future, Tucker and Grim created the hour-long “Journey of the Universe” documentary with cosmologist, Brian Swimme. The 2011 film, which won an Emmy, was shown for several years on PBS and is now available on Amazon Prime.
While all this work was acclaimed, Tucker says the day-to-day contact she and Grim had with students was “a lot of the juice of our life here at Yale.”
Justin Farrell, YSE professor of sociology and the new advisor for the Forum and for the joint program in religion and ecology, recalls how he found his first meeting with Tucker and Grim somewhat surprising. Fresh out of grad school, he quickly learned that they were interested in getting to know him as well as his ambitions. “They asked me who I was as a person and where I found meaning in my life. It threw me on my heels a little, but I really appreciated it. … They showed me that academia could be a compassionate place where people care about one another.”
Sam King, who earned a Master of Arts in Religion and Ecology with a certificate in Educational Leadership and Ministry from YDS in 2022, agrees with Farrell’s assessment of how the pair relate to students. “They teach in a way that bridges the head and the heart,” says King, a research associate for the Forum on Religion and Ecology and outreach coordinator for Journey of the Universe.
Anna Thurston, ’19 MEM/ MAR says she felt lucky to get a coveted spot in the pair’s courses, which were supposed to be capped at 30 students but frequently had twice that number because Tucker and Grim had a hard time saying no to students.
“They are the best when they are in the classroom; they make the field so accessible,” she notes.
Biweekly, we highlight three news and research stories about the work we’re doing at Yale School of the Environment.
Along with King, Thurston will oversee the Coursera courses on religion and ecology that Tucker and Grim have developed. Thurston called the classes “their love letter to the world.”
Some of Farrell’s work with the Forum will be ensuring other aspects of Tucker and Grim’s legacy aren’t lost and that the resources they developed will be available for future generations of students. “They built an entire field of study,” he says. “I’m excited to see where that goes.”
While admiring the pair’s work over decades, Farrell says he’s also impressed how the duo remained current by adapting their work for websites, filmmaking, and open-access online courses. “The ways they’ve innovated are impressive,” he notes.
Tucker and Grim both say they look forward to being a sounding board and collaborator with the many colleagues and students with whom they have worked over the years.
“What we’ll miss is the teaching in the classroom,” Tucker says. “But we’ll still meet with students who want to talk over their papers and projects. We get emails all the time from people around the world asking us to endorse their books and organizations. I like to think of this as being a midwife to the work of the next generation.”