Alum Jason Brown: Ecological chaplain in an age of environmental grief

By Ray Waddle

The world is hurtling into a time of trial, an era of environmental grief and uncertainty that requires resolve and resilience, says Jason Brown ‘11 M.A.R., ‘11 M.F. To get through it, humanity will need activists, engineers, land managers, policymakers, therapists—and, he says, ecological chaplains, too.

“I want to accompany people on the civilizational dark night of the soul that we’re moving through,” he said in a recent YDS interview. “We must learn to fall in love with the world and save the things we can even as we mourn the losses that are surely coming. ‘Chaplain’ feels like the right word to work with.”

Brown was recently named ecological chaplain at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. It’s a new pilot program through the university’s Multifaith Center, with encouragement from the environmental faculty, and is one of the few such programs in North America. Brown also teaches religious studies and ecological courses in the Department of Humanities.

“A middle space is missing from contemporary discourse, a space between apathy and political outrage,” he said. “I believe we need to sit with places that are being transformed by climate change, seek the contemplative depths of our relationship with the world, learn spiritual practices, and do whatever we can with whoever we can to act, defend, and transform the planet.” (See his “Contemplating an Ecological Chaplaincy: A Soft Manifesto for Dark Times” for extended thoughts.)

Inventing a job to meet grave new conditions

Brown comes to this new position having probed the core of several Christian traditions without settling into the orthodoxies of any of them. He grew up as a Mormon in Southern California and graduated from Brigham Young University, but he soon moved away from a Latter-day Saints identity. He spent some years discerning about the monastic life and the priesthood, first with Catholicism and then Anglicanism. He eventually decided against those paths because of a lack of institutional attention to ecological ethics he found there.

In 2008, he came to Yale to study at the School of the Environment. He quickly discovered YDS as well and parlayed his studies into a joint M.A.R-Forestry degree. After graduation he worked summers in the U.S. Forest Service. He later earned a Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia in environmental humanities (dissertation topic: the ecological practices of Catholic monasteries, their sense of place and land management goals).

All along he felt a growing urge to seek a job, perhaps invent a job that didn’t exist yet: he envisioned an ecological chaplaincy—somewhere between activist and therapist—that could meet a spiritual need. He took inspiration from the work of author Joanna Macy, an advocate around deep ecology, justice issues, and spiritual renewal.

“Joanna Macy was the first person I heard of who was doing grief work for activists experiencing burnout,” Brown recalled. “That theme has moved from fine-tuning the activist so they can jump back into the fray to a much broader conversation about loss and uncertainty. Previously, we still thought we could win the battle against ecological devastation. Now it’s a matter of assessing the damage and finding a far less destructive path forward for civilization. I’m not one to figure that out. It seems like whenever we try to engineer society it doesn’t turn out so well. So that’s why I think the language of grief and hospice and compost and death and dying are useful. It’s a dark night of the soul because we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Exploring dimension of faith not typically discussed in denominational settings

In his new position Brown is eager to pursue various pragmatic ideas. One is a regular contemplative forest walk for groups of students to sharpen observational skills along the path as well as learn to respect periods of silence. Another is a student climate café for open sharing about the latest ecological trends or worries. He wants to deepen environmental literacy by enlisting art workshops, poetry, field journals, one-on-one mentorships, and contemplative retreats. He’d like to see an eventual expansion of the ecological chaplaincy field and perhaps be involved in devising certification programs for practitioners.

He works with at least three student demographics: religionists who want to explore ecological dimensions of faith that aren’t discussed in their denominational settings; students who feel on the margins of their faith institutions and want to talk about eco-faith and practice; and unaffiliated nones who want to imagine a “God-open” spirituality that invests great reverence for the natural world.

“But I don’t encourage students to go in a more self-centered, self-manifestation way, a spirituality that is myopic and individualistic. Capitalism in its more toxic tendencies tries to get us to believe the whole world is just for us, that we’re the center of attention. Christians get tricked into that. Everybody else does too. The real question is: what is the world asking of us? Philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett says find something more important that you are and dedicate your life to it. That’s good advice to either Christian or atheist.”

Brown himself remains in the Christian camp as an “apophatic, heterodox, contemplative catholic” who finds a powerful ecological theology in the Eucharist (and who tries to go to Latin Mass on Sundays). The apophatic emphasis—referring to the divine act of self-emptying on the cross—has great relevance to the climate crisis. It’s an invitation to empty our minds of divine images that are no longer helpful to life on earth, he said.

“I’m not allergic to God language by any means—some sense of the sacred and holy is essential to human purpose and life. But our language about the divine needs to be unpacked and emptied. The image of God as a divine king was a lovely metaphor that worked for many hundreds of years, but it’s time to empty it so that other poetries can sprout up. That’s how I define religion to my undergraduates: religion is poetry about a mystery. God language is fine as long as it isn’t carrying all the baggage that helped get us into these troubles in the first place: a form of command-and-control, male-dominant, anthropocentric social order.”

An urgent ecological theology should resonate with Christians more than it has up to now, Brown said. The central theme of Good Friday suffering, he believes, is good preparation for a sturdy spirituality the world needs now.

“Our death-phobic American culture, with its fantasy that we live in perpetuity and can consume our way to happiness, always wants to rush to the Resurrection and skip Good Friday. But we have to go through Good Friday to get there. I think Good Friday should be an entire liturgical season: the death and the waiting, a holy longing. We have some of that longing in Advent, but at the end of it is the birth of a beautiful baby. The holy longing at the tomb is a more appropriate image for this moment. We don’t know what resurrection looks like because we have to get through this excruciating crucifixion first.”

January 3, 2024