Religion and Environment: Panel Discussion at Bond Hall

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

“That’s my vision of ecological spirituality. It begins with wonder and awe of the magic of the natural world,” said Professor Mark Wallace at the Spirituality and Environmental Justice Panel held last Thursday.

The panel, which was sponsored by Swarthmore Interfaith, was held in Bond Hall and consisted of Will Lawrence ’13, Amit Schwalb ’17, and Jeremy Seitz-Brown ’18. Professor Mark Wallace, who specializes in Religion, Philosophy, and Ecology at Swarthmore, moderated the discussion.

Wallace began the discussion by playing a clip of a wood thrush song. “It’s a tiny brown bird with a white breast and cinnamon colored speckles across. It lives in this area,” said Wallace. The wood thrush comes to Pennsylvania in May through August, near Wallace’s house. “It’s now February. This is my religion. I hope to hear the wood thrush again soon.”

Schwalb talked about how both his work with environmental justice and within his faith community sustain him spiritually. “My faith is something that governs the way I relate myself, the way I relate to God, and the way I relate to the people around me. My organizing is connected to that. These are different spheres in which I’m living out my values,” said Schwalb.

Lawrence, who co-founded the divestment campaign at Swarthmore in 2010, discussed how he dealt with doubts he had experienced during his senior year at Swarthmore as a student working towards environmental justice. “I had this moment where I realized that even in the wildest vision of success for the climate justice movement, we were not going to save the world in the way that I imagined,” said Lawrence.

This insight led him to briefly put a pause on his environmental work, forcing him to begin intense contemplative thought. After reading the book The Prophetic Imagination, Lawrence found that he identified strongly with the book’s criticism of the “end-of-history” mentality that governs public discourse. “We just have to understand that this is the basic message of the climate change movement:  it deeply challenges the idea that things are always getting better, that this is the end of history,” said Lawrence.

Seitz-Brown talked about his religious background, and how it connected him to his involvement with Mountain Justice. As a pastor’s son, religion had been a constant presence in his life, although during his teenage years he briefly identified himself as agnostic. After attending a leadership camp held in the Pennsylvania wilderness, Seitz-Brown used the opportunity for contemplative prayer to recognize that religion was a way of giving meaning to the world. “Nature is very connected to my religious thoughts and my political action,” said Seitz-Brown.

The panel then discussed the ways in which their faith sustains them on a day-to-day basis. Wallace talked about the way that Swarthmore overemphasizes a “head culture” at the expense of spirituality. Schwalb outlined part of a prayer that has stuck with him, which he repeats to himself at various times of the day. Seitz-Brown talked about contemplative prayer, and also highlighted the way he tries to continually keep awareness of the beauty of his surroundings on campus.

The discussion also covered the intersections between faith and science. Wallace addressed the misconception that scientific ideas threaten religious beliefs, instead of them complementing each other. Schwalb talked about the way his faith informed his interest in science. “I think science can be deeply spiritual. I love science class because I’m sitting there like ‘Wow, look at the beautiful things that exist and that God has made’,” said Schwalb.

Schwalb also told the story of how he eventually figured out why he wanted to continue doing environmental work, after having a brief existential crisis. “There is something that is keeping me invested, knowing that climate change is happening and knowing there is so much devastation going on around us. We all must have some sort of appreciation for something we want to preserve,” said Schwalb.

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