Academic Exchange Quarterly      Fall    2006    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  10, Issue  3

To cite, use print source rather than  this on-line version which  may not  reflect print copy format requirements  or   text lay-out and pagination.


Environmental Arts in a Theological Context


Connie Lasher, St. Joseph’s College of Maine


Connie Lasher, Ph.D. is  Associate Professor of Theology, St. Joseph’s College of Maine, Director of the John Paul II Center for Theology and Environmental Studies.  



Catholic higher education today recognizes and seeks to respond to the environmental mandate expressed in the document “On Catholic Universities.”  This article describes an approach to teaching theology environmentally through the incorporation of environmental arts and literature in courses whose design emphasizes experiential learning and interdisciplinarity. 



Catholic higher education’s environmental mandate

Over the course of twenty six years, during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, a kind of environmental mandate emerged within Roman Catholicism, in continuity with the larger context of the world religions and their collective response to the ecological crisis [1].  Today the recently published Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching reflects this in its inclusion of environmental concern among the major social issues presented in its analysis [2].  In 1991, the document Ex Corde Ecclesiae (On Catholic Universities) reflected the consistent emphasis of John Paul II’s teachings on the environment:  the protection of nature and awareness of the international ecological situation were conspicuously to be included among the research activities of the Catholic university in its service to society.  The present article describes one example of the manner in which this environmental mandate has been received and implemented, specifically with regard to the development of pedagogical strategies for teaching undergraduate courses in theology ‘environmentally’.


Ex Corde Ecclesiae, in its opening paragraphs, describes the service a Catholic university seeks to render to culture in terms of a “universal humanism” derived from and centered upon the dignity of the human person [3].  “Nothing human is foreign to us” expresses the earliest orientation of the Church’s apostolic fathers, and its embrace of the integrity of culture in the service of human flourishing continues to resonate into the present age.  Christian humanism, as the “driving theme” of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate [4], committed him to dialogue and fellowship with all persons of goodwill, a dialogue and fellowship which explicitly embraced the cause of contemporary environmentalism as “a great cultural movement” [5].  In its description of the character of research, “On Catholic Universities” lists “the search for an integration of knowledge [and] a dialogue between faith and reason,” in addition to ethical concern, and an understanding of theology which places it as a discipline at the service of all other disciplines in the universal human quest for meaning [6].  Teaching, according to the document, should  reflect its close connection with research.  While respecting the legitimate autonomy of each discipline, the document stresses the importance today of “interdisciplinary studies” which, “assisted by a careful study of philosophy and theology, enables students to acquire an organic vision of reality and to develop a continuing desire for intellectual progress” [7].  While some might see this as a prescription for ‘teaching environmental studies theologically’, the dialogical and humanistic hermeneutic of John Paul II would provide equally for its inverse, namely, ‘teaching theology environmentally’.  It is this proposition that the following paragraphs describe, in accordance with the theme of the present journal issue.


An environmental approach to teaching theology

Three undergraduate courses, taught in the academic years 2004-05 and 2005-06, form the basis of this essay.  It happens that each of these is a theology course that explicitly examines the question of the human relationship to non-human nature; however, I intentionally incorporate this basic environmental approach in every theology course that I teach, irregardless of its specific topical focus.  While there are many facets of pedagogical strategy worthy of exploration, in this article I want to focus on two components, each of which is incorporated into the variety of course formats that follow.  The first component is that of experiential education as pedagogical approach, the second, the use of the environmental arts in the teaching of theology.


The three theology courses consist of the following:  One is a basic theological examination of the human-nature relation based upon principles distilled from the teaching and legacy of John Paul II.  Intended to meet the undergraduate upper level core curriculum theology requirement, this class takes place in the traditional classroom, semestrial context.   Another course steps out of the classroom setting and into an expedition-based format, utilizing a May semester interim of three to four weeks.  The class combines two undergraduate core curriculum courses which normally are taught separately on a semestrial basis:  “Ecology and the Environmental Challenge” seeks to develop basic ecological literacy toward the goal of responsible environmental decision-making in citizenship, and it is required for all undergraduate students.  “Theology of the Environment” encompasses the same course previously described, but taught in the expedition-based format.  The environmental science course and the theology course are taught in a manner which coordinates specific themes and integrates the separate disciplinary treatments of the issue.  In this case, “field studies” is a term which applies equally to the environmental science component and the theology course, the former utilizing the expedition itinerary (forest and alpine ecology, limnology, island marine ecosystems) as a living laboratory in which the theoretical and empirical are experienced together; the latter likewise examines the conceptual in a concrete, experiential context.  A third, upper level theology course takes place in an outdoor, experiential setting, spending the three week May semester on an island in Penobscot Bay, Maine.  This theology course examines the human-nature relation, again taking the legacy of John Paul II as its basic hermeneutic; however, it is designed at an advanced level, intended for upper class theology majors, interdisciplinary theology, environmental studies, or environmental ethics majors and minors, and occasionally master’s degree students. 


Humanistic hermeneutics and the sense of wonder

While the theology courses described above require the student to read widely across the disciplines of environmental history, philosophy, and in the case of the combination course, environmental science, it is the environmental literature and arts component which marks the locus of my pedagogical approach to the environmental mandate of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, even as it deepens and broadens outcomes of experiential learning. 


The challenge to anyone stepping out ‘beyond the classroom’ and into an outdoor, experiential context lies not in the need to contrive an ‘experience’ of nature for students, but rather in the question of facilitating learning in the midst of a direct, intense, de facto experience of the natural world.  If there is a common language to be discovered, a humanistic hermeneutics to be employed, then both Catholic theology and non-Catholic sources point to one irreducible, irreplaceable point of contact:  the sense of wonder evoked in the presence of, the experience of, the beauty, mystery, and power of nature.  I will not marshall any empirical ‘evidence’ to support this claim; I will, however, say simply that in twenty five years of teaching in an outdoor, experiential context, I have yet to encounter one student, of any age, who has not expressed, at some point and in some way, that sense of wonder. 


When it comes to the experience of beauty, mystery, and awe before the grandeur of nature, we in the American context have a wealth of tradition upon which to draw, voices to whom we may turn as companions, interpreters, and indeed teachers.  The contemporary genre of nature writing, the American tradition of literary naturalists, and painters and poets whose work reflects this aspect of the human encounter with nature, represent an ongoing ‘conversation’ which finds its source in the sense of wonder and the universal human quest for meaning before the mystery of existence.  Now, there is nothing new or original in using the environmental arts and literature as sources to enhance and deepen the encounter with the natural world—that, in some sense, represents the ‘vocation’ of the poet, the writer, the painter:  not only to bring to creative expression the experience which inspires, but also, to a greater or lesser extent, to present that experience to another who receives and is in some sense enabled to perceive.  The artist is an original purveyor and interpreter of the sense of wonder. 


In turning toward the literary naturalists and environmental arts as a ‘source’ in teaching theology environmentally, what I find most meaningful in a post-Christian, postmodern context lies not simply in the content component, but crucially, in the process, the manner or way in which the learning occurs.  Throughout the progression of the three courses outlined above, I incorporate as many contributions from the environmental arts as can possibly be accommodated.  Thus, the following three examples are representative, but by no means exhaustive.  Furthermore, when in 1989 Pope John Paul II delivered his first major statement on the ecological question, he framed the response in terms of the need for ecological “conversion,” of human attitudes destructive of the environment, and in terms of the importance of an “education in ecological responsibility” [7].  As a poet, playwright, avid outdoorsman and lover of nature, this pope comprehended the ‘tutorial’ offered to us all by the artist [8].  Following on his own humanistic hermeneutic, I present the following examples.


“Conversion” implies a change of heart, a radical break from previous attitudes and perceptions and, correspondingly, a different manner of acting.  When it comes to the tutorial offered for “ecological conversion,” I find the witness of the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver, and the renown painter William Thon, to be unsurpassed in their contribution to my efforts to teach theology environmentally.  For conversion is premised upon a new way of seeing:  perceiving things differently, perceiving more deeply.  And that, I would argue, is precisely the business of the poet and the painter.


In “The Summer Day [9],” Mary Oliver offers a tutorial in seeing, and in so doing, gives expression to the sense of wonder, the sheer goodness of existence, the mystery of finitude, and questions of meaning elicited in the encounter with the ‘familiar otherness’ of non-human nature:

        I don’t know exactly what a prayer is./ I do know how to pay attention, how to fall

        down/ into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,/ how to be idle and blessed,   

        how to stroll through the fields,/ which is what I have been doing all day./ Tell me,

        what else should I have done?/ Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon?/ Tell me,

        what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?

An eisegesis which presumes to find theological ‘content’ here is precisely the opposite of a humanistic hermeneutic.  Rather, what is given here is an invitation to an experience accessible to every person, in their integrity as person.  I have yet to encounter a college student who, so far as the poem is concerned, didn’t ‘get it’.  And in so doing, that student can look around and find for themselves another grasshopper, a shell or stone or lichen, and attempt to dwell with those questions posed. 


“First Snow” [10] is another favorite among my students:

        The snow/ began here/ this morning and all day/ continued, its white/

        rhetoric everywhere/ calling us back to why, how,/ whence such beauty and what/

        the meaning; such/ an oracular fever! flowing/ past windows, an energy it seemed/

        would never ebb, never settle/ less than lovely! and only now,/ deep into night,/

        it has finally ended./ The silence/ is immense,/ and the heavens still hold/ a million

        candles [. . .]  and though the questions/ that have assailed us all day/ remain—not

        a single/ answer has been found—/ walking out now/ into the silence and the light/

        under the trees,/ and through the fields,/ feels like one.

Even when teaching theology environmentally in a traditional classroom format, a poem like this can carry a student out of their dorm room on a winter’s night and, under the stars, perhaps beneath the aurora borealis (an experience our rural Maine campus regularly offers), the common language of beauty, mystery, and meaning beckons. 


The painter William Thon (1906-2000) holds a special place in these courses, located as they are in the heart of Thon’s own chosen home and subject-matter: the Maine landscape and coast.  His paintings mirror and interpret the very place in which the students are resident, both during expedition-based, intensive experiences of the natural world, and again, for the classroom context, the rural location of our campus.  Thon, like all the great masters, takes the immediate and the familiar and renders it strange, numinous, and new.

        William Thon led a life so completely at one and at peace with his artistic mission

        that we must understand him as a philosopher as well as a visual poet.  His

        engagement with a world of wind and water and changing seasons became a search

        for the very essence of nature’s vital force. . . . Thon’s 62-year career as a painter led

        him to some surprising discoveries, culminating in the visionary works of his old

        age.  Dwelling in near-blindness, he achieved a wondrous sense of light and space,

        a revelation in ink and paint for us to share and see [11].

In 1991, at the age of 85, Thon was diagnosed with macular degeneration and declared legally blind.  He continued to paint, exhibit, and perhaps most marvelous of all, to teach painting workshops.  When students watch a video of Thon at the end of his life, demonstrating technique to his students, bringing images to paper and canvas out of his own virtual blindness, the question of learning to see is taken well beyond what we all think we know.  Again, the artist plumbs the depths of the metaphysical, and in so doing,  sails the breadth of the horizon of our common humanity. 


The call to an “education in ecological responsibility” is no where more eloquently served than in an exploration of the life and legacy of Rachel Carson.  Carson’s love for the Maine coast quite literally brings the lessons she offers ‘home’ to my students.  Not only does this literary naturalist offer the content of natural history interpretation, she also is the voice par excellence in defense of the sense of wonder [12].  Her concern especially that the sense of wonder not be extinguished in children’s development represents but one point of contact when teaching theology environmentally:  Pope John Paul II’s frequent admonition to Catholic families to teach children to “love nature,” and his own impassioned witness of the importance of sharing the experience of nature with children and young people, are indeed theological; but they are as well offered to all persons of goodwill.  Nowhere does the integrity of that goodwill shine forth more intensely than in the life of Rachel Carson, scientist, educator, and poet. 


Seeing together as pedagogical approach

The environmental mandate expressed in Ex Corde Ecclesiae is fulfilled when the environmental arts are used as a means to explore and express the theological meaning of John Paul II’s humanistic legacy.  The dialogue with culture(s), which a Catholic university is called to serve, becomes not something that students must query in abstraction, but rather something concretely begun, a conversation in which they have already gained some measure of experience.  The integration of knowledge and interdisciplinarity which philosophy and theology serve are achieved when the environmental arts are encountered in an explicitly experiential course design.  Fragmentation of learning and compartmentalization of disciplines are, arguably, products of persistent, systemic abstraction.  Experiential learning and interdisciplinarity return us to that which is realisimus, and the “really real” is always compelling.    And, not to be overlooked when teaching theology environmentally, this integration and interdisciplinarity “enriches theology, offering it a better understanding of the world today, and making theological research more relevant to current needs” [13].  The explicitly theological content which comprises the central subject matter of these courses is neither attenuated nor abbreviated, but indeed comprehended in its classically Catholic form, that is to say, on the basis of the humanum—without which (to paraphrase Cardinal Newman’s quip) theology and the Church would look ‘rather silly’.  It has been my experience that students recognize this, and the theological enterprise emerges with greater credibility. 


In 1988 John Paul II addressed educators in the sciences, the arts, and journalism, stating:

        An alliance of all those who seek goodness is extremely urgent.  Humanity and the

        world are at stake and they are endangered as never before.  Protect the world, the

        beautiful endangered world [14].

In the case of teaching theology environmentally, such an alliance is precisely what the poet and artist achieve.  In discerning the contribution to be made by the world’s religious traditions to the global response to the ecological crisis, what more can we hope for than an alliance born of learning together, seeing together?  I submit that such an alliance is enough, and it is everything.





[1]  National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Renewing the Earth:  An Invitation to Reflection and Action on the Environment in Light of Catholic Social Teaching (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1991).  Pope John Paul II, The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility, World Day of Peace Message, December 8, 1989, Origins 19 (1989): 465-68.

[2]  Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 2005).

[3]  John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities, 1990.

[4]  George Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography of John Paul II (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), 386.

[5]  John Paul II, “Prayer, Work and Nature Must Be Harmonized,” L’Osservatore Romano, no.48, July 1993, 1-2.

[6]  Ex Corde Ecclesiae, no.15.

[7]  no. 20.

[8]  The Ecological Crisis, 467.

[9]  Letter to Artists, April 4, 1999.

[10]  Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 94.

[11]  New and Selected Poems, 150-51.

[12]  Susan C. Larsen, Ph.D., The Poetry Within: The Life and Work of William Thon (Portland, ME: Portland Museum of Art, 2002), 11.

[13]  Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder (New York: HarperCollins, 1998).

[14]  Ex Corde Ecclesiae, no.19.

[15] Salzburg, Germany 1988.