Environment Professor Treads Carefully in the Religious Arena
BOSTON — When Calvin DeWitt, a professor of environmental science, spoke out at a televised 1996 Washington press conference in defense of the Endangered Species Act, it was natural for him to quote scripture.
"I gave the biblical view on it and told them the Endangered Species Act was our Noah's Ark - and that Congress and special interests were trying to sink it," he says.
But he was worried. He expected his peers back at the University of Wisconsin at Madison to say: "'You've passed the bounds of what it means to be a university professor and a scientist.' Instead, I got congratulatory notes."
Those accolades notwithstanding, Professor DeWitt, who some call an "environmental theologian," treads lightly if persistently into the religious arena in his classroom. Unlike chemistry and biology that are governed by content, he says, environmental sciences - biodiversity, population, pollution - are value- or policy-driven, or both. "If we study science by itself, we can't determine what ought to be," he says. "That's where religion and other values institutions enter. What I do is take many religious teachings on caring for creation - Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim - that support an ecological world view."
He says his theories about tending and caring for the environment derive in part from Genesis 2:15, which speaks of Adam's charge to tend the garden of Eden and "keep it." He doesn't teach the verse directly - unless students ask. Instead, what emerge in his "Principles of Environment" class are themes like earth-keeping, fruitfulness, and sabbath (letting ecological systems rest from time to time).
"One of our big problems in this area is that we're nervous about separation of church and state," he says. "When I have a student with Jewish or Christian background, I let them follow through in a special project. But if a student is an atheist ... I let them explore how their beliefs contribute. ... [Students] know I'm not trying to get them to believe as I do," he says. "But I am trying to get them to think."