The Earth as a Gift: An Interview with Laurel Kearns

By Gabriel Ertsgaard

GE: You’re a full professor at Drew Theological School and an expert on religious environmentalism. What set you on the path toward the work you do now?

LK: I was raised on Sanibel Island in Florida, and because some of the early conservation movement folks had been on the island, I was raised very environmentally aware. That meant I had a deep appreciation for nature. In graduate school, I was interested in the role of religion in social movements. I heard about a group in Washington, D.C. that lobbied on environmental issues for denominations like the Methodists and the United Church of Christ. That got my dissertation rolling.

When I went on the job market, I didn’t think I wanted to teach at a theology school. I was teaching in a women’s college and quite liked undergraduates. But the Drew opening was a really good job, and a position of much more impact, you might say. Someone once said to me, “What you teach on Wednesday could get preached on Sunday.” So I was not only able to tell the stories of the amazing religious people I was meeting through my research, but could also make a dent in shaping ministers in the Christian churches. That was 26 years ago, and I was definitely wrong to think I didn’t want to teach at a seminary. I’ve loved it.

GE: During your time at Drew, you’ve also done advisory work with religious environmental groups. Could you tell us a bit about that experience?

LK: I’ve worked with the organization that’s now called GreenFaith. As the GreenFaith mission statement puts it, their task is “building a worldwide, multi-faith climate and environmental movement.” When it started, it was called Partners for Environmental Quality—not a really catchy name for a religious organization! I worked with them even before I arrived at Drew in 1994. I don’t play as strong a role with them anymore, but I still touch base.

Then I helped co-found the Green Seminary Initiative. Some of us realized that when visionary figures in environmental theology like Sallie McFague, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Larry Rasmussen retired, their theological schools didn’t necessarily keep the focus on ecology. It was person-specific and not institutional. We realized that we needed to do something to make ecology an institutional investment. 

There had been an earlier program called Theological Education to Meet the Environmental Challenge (TEMEC), and out of that David Rhodes had kept a lot of materials for schools: like, if you want to green your operations, worship resources, etc. We wanted to up the game a bit by providing recognition to schools. Then a faculty member could go to their administration and say, “Look, we’re being recognized for being a green seminary. This is what else we should do.” Out of that came a request from schools for a certification program and guidance. We got a major grant from the Luce Foundation and recruited ten schools. Another organization, the Seminary Stewardship Alliance, tackled evangelical schools.

With that Luce Grant we also held six major regional conferences so that faculty could form networks. Each one had a focus on climate change, and we brought in scientists and religious leaders, scholars to talk about it. The last conference was in 2019. The point every time was to make sure it was interfaith, as we need to work together. We also included grassroots organizations there as well, particularly local environmental justice groups.

GE: What are some of the key ideas that drive religious environmentalism and religious responses to climate change?

LK: One of the key things is that the same language doesn’t work across all faith groups. In the United States, a lot of the early work came out of Christianity and then allied with Judaism, so they used the word “justice” a lot. That doesn’t necessarily translate into Hinduism in the same way. None of these were originally “green” religions. They came about in a time when we didn’t have to think about things like species going extinct and an incredible human impact that irreversibly changes things. What is clear, though, is that every religious tradition sees the Earth as a gift. Our food, our air, our water, the things that sustain us, we realize are given to us without our doing anything. So that sense of gratitude and gift is really strong in traditions. 

And yet it had been lost in so many of them, particularly Judaism and Christianity, with the influence of a more “dominion” perspective. We forgot the gift part, and took to seeing the Earth as here to do with as we wanted. This perspective is connected to the climate denial movement, and it is sad how well-funded the religious anti-environmental movement is. I’m working with a PhD student right now in Brazil; he tells me that in the last five years or so, evangelical climate denial has infiltrated a lot of Brazil. There’s the same thing in Australia. The US-based climate denial movement and its religious arms have gone international.

GE: Given those challenges, can religious environmentalism still have a positive impact?

LK: Oh, absolutely. All of the work I do recognizes that the most vulnerable are the most impacted by climate change. Every religious tradition has a core concern for women and children, for the poor, immigrants and refugees, so that unites a lot of the work. Religious traditions have been part of the climate change Conference of Parties (COP) process at the UN. GreenFaith, for example, has been at every one of those organizing major faiths. Now there is a turn toward recognizing attacks on indigenous peoples and their lands, and how those societies serve as a model for what it means to live in balance with the land.

What’s harder sometimes is that the traditions have varying ways of seeing the value of animals. Every tradition has its animal tales about how they too can sometimes communicate with or be aware of the sacred, but that really varies. If the first big wave of religious environmentalism was recovering the value of nature, recently it’s been a lot more focused on animals. There’s greater attention now to the treatment of animals that are eaten and finding vegetarian traditions within different religious traditions. And then, of course, we are reckoning with the whole impact of meat animals on climate. 

Responding to climate change has some really difficult ethical issues. We wrestle with the questions of what is enough, of what is just, and of what it looks like to respect the goodness of creation. Religious traditions are about making moral decisions; they equip us to think about the climate crisis and talk about it.


Gabriel Ertsgaard is the Interviews Editor for The Peace Chronicle. He earned his Doctor of Letters from Drew University with a dissertation on environmental themes in a medieval legend. He previously taught university English courses in the United States and China. His criticism, poetry, and fairy tales have appeared in various print and digital publications.

Laurel Kearns is Professor of Sociology and Religion and Environmental Studies at Drew Theological School and the Graduate Division of Religion of Drew University. She received her PhD from the Institute of Liberal Arts at Emory University. In addition to EcoSpirit: Religions and Philosophies for the Earth, co-edited with Catherine Keller, she has contributed chapters to volumes such as The Oxford Handbook on Climate Change and Society, The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Religion and Social Justice, and the Bloomsbury Handbook of Religion and Nature: The Elements. Her research is focused on religious involvement in ecological issues and movements, with particular interests in environmental justice, climate change, and food. In addition to helping found the Green Seminary Initiative, she has served on the board of GreenFaith and chaired the Religion and Ecology Steering Committee of the American Academy of Religion.