Village Voices: Jennifer Herdt

Jennifer Herdt is Gilbert L. Stark Professor of Christian Ethics at Yale Divinity School. She joined the YDS faculty in 2013 and served as academic dean from 2013 to 2021. Thanks to her interest in moral formation spanning multiple historical eras, Herdt helped to spearhead the 2016 launch of a Master of Arts in Religion degree path in religion and ecology; her class “Animal Ethics” was one of the concentration’s initial course offerings. Just before her Tuesday afternoon office hours in late January 2023, Herdt talked about the Living Village as an emblem and teaching tool of ecotheology.

How does the Living Village relate to your experience as a scholar and teacher, as well as an ambassador of Yale Divinity School? 

It’s an incredible opportunity to do something that comes from the core of what we are. The Living Village is an expression of ecotheological commitment and of other fundamental aspects of Christian theology, which can help correct some misunderstandings of the way Christianity relates to the environment. We really are still correcting the view that Christianity is all about the dominance of human beings over the natural world.

I have heard in passing of this move from the anthropocentric to the theocentric. How do you describe this transition in more detail to lay company like myself? 

According to a theocentric view, the reality that humans encounter is understood as creation and everything that we touch and see and feel are also creatures—we have this fundamental commonality. We’re telling a richer story, which overturns the view that dominion is about human control and exploitation of creatures and the natural world.

How do you square this with diction like “rule over” and “subdue” in Genesis 1:26-28?

The biblical text is really saying that dominion is about being God’s representative—about being the caretaker of a garden that God has created. We are creatures who can be reflectively aware of what’s going on, and there now is a sense that we’ve made a mess of things. We therefore have a special responsibility to address the caretaker function, to care for the garden as God’s beloved creation.

Is your interpretation a purely contemporary reading, or does it have historical precedent?

The anthropocentric reading of dominion is really an early modern understanding of the Genesis text. It coincided with new ideas about human power that started to emerge in the Renaissance. We can point to Descartes—this dualistic picture that animals are mere machines, and that we’re different from animals because we have souls—as a dramatic departure from the Hebrew Bible as well as from the Aristotelian notion that any living thing has a soul. The early modern perspective took this whole notion of dominion in a very different direction from the biblical understanding, seeing human beings as in control of nature and able to engineer reality without limits.

When did theologians’ dialogue begin to reintroduce the concept of deep relatedness among all creatures?

I can point to a very specific event, which was the publication of Lynn White’s 1967 essay “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” He basically launched the charge that Christianity is responsible for our ecological crisis. While there are certain strands of Christian thought and practice in which ecological consciousness was never eradicated, we really see ecotheology developing in response to that essay.

Did White’s essay turn your personal or academic journey toward ecotheology, or does your interest in the field have different roots?  

The natural world was always very important to me. Family vacations were devoted to camping and hiking and being in nature. My parents subscribed to National Geographic’s World for me, and I lived and breathed that magazine. I also remember a Coca-Cola advertisement that made a deep impression on me—a cartoon of the Earth covered in litter. These memories go back as far as I can reach, but I will add that one of my exams as a doctoral student was focused on environmental ethics.

Increasingly, architectural success is a measure of process—of multiple and diverse constituents’ access to that process, and of those stakeholders’ ability to weigh in on its direction—as much as product. The Living Building Challenge exemplifies this trend because it codifies community engagement.

Yes, the design process for the Living Village was very thoughtfully designed with multiple opportunities for all stakeholders to be heard and to articulate ideas and questions, and that feedback got integrated into the process. Of course, it is frustrating to everybody when dreams must be pared back in light of financial realities, although that reconciliation is also part of the process.

Is the Living Village a kind of culmination of the ecotheology movement thus far?

A building where people live and eat and build communal connections is so important to being the change we want to see in the world. Our donors understand that message. And while meeting the Living Building Challenge is so much harder to achieve for a residential building than for a 9-to-5 facility, our planet is under threat 24/7. Our whole lives need to change for it.

How do you imagine the Living Village resonating across the Yale campus?

On a basic level, the hope is for the broader Yale community to look up the hill and take an interest in what’s going on at YDS. Related to that is a kind of pressure that could be exerted on other building projects at the university to aim higher than LEED Platinum certification.

There’s a similar multiplier effect to mention, which concerns students. We’d ideally like to have students not just occupying the space, but leading visitors through the facility and getting involved in some of the mechanics of the Living Village. More broadly, students who come through YDS will be involved after graduation in communities that are building and renovating facilities to make them more green. The Living Village will be a point of reference for our graduates as they lead those communities.

Students who come through YDS will be involved after graduation in communities that are building and renovating facilities to make them more green. The Living Village will be a point of reference for our graduates as they lead those communities.

I think we are fortunate in our starting point. The Sterling Divinity Quadrangle is much more approachable than the neo-Gothic buildings one finds downtown, in terms of scale and style, and the new building harmonizes with it. We also have a track record of welcoming the community into our midst. Soon, we will be able to highlight the Living Village as a resource for community learning about living in harmony with our human and more-than-human neighbors.

What about those YDS graduates who do not necessarily lead a flock?

It used to be that 50 percent of our students enrolled in M.A.R. programs and 50 percent in M.Div. programs, and that M.A.R. students were aspiring academics and those in the M.Div, were aspiring pastors. But it’s long been the case that a minority of M.Div. students—maybe a third of that half—are interested in becoming ordained in a denomination so they can be a pastor of a church and have a flock in a traditional sense. The others are doing a wonderful array of different things. They’re doing chaplaincy maybe in a school or prison, or they might be working on the publishing side. A number of shifts are taking place, too, as more and more students are choosing the M.A.R. degree programs.

It becomes pretty hard to characterize “the” career path. Some YDS graduates will become teachers, some will become writers of scholarship or policy, and there is a high percentage of YDS students who are deeply rooted in the arts. You can just imagine the rich ways in which experiences of the Living Village and of ecological thinking will be woven into what they’re doing and the impact they’re having. YDS is a timeout, when students can ask the biggest questions and be reflective in the most encompassing way.

How does the YDS curriculum amplify the knowledge and message of the Living Village?

I’ve carried with me for many years the commitment to a curriculum that contextualizes the Living Village, so that the building isn’t just a standalone gesture. This is a special responsibility for ethics faculty. For example, I just taught a new course in the fall regarding creature agency and the contestation of the human. It was very interdisciplinary, and really focused on non-human animal agency and our reckoning with the fact that the human has been defined in ways that denigrate the marginally human. It was one of the most enjoyable teaching experiences that I’ve had here. And it was thrilling to see the energy that students were bringing to it. They wanted to take apart the concepts of animality and humanity, and analyze how destructive those concepts have been.

Let’s circle back to an earlier point about community engagement and think about the Living Village’s impact on the residents of New Haven. The architectural identity of a place can project cloistering and privilege, legacy and stability, human progress and enfranchisement, and more—sometimes all at once. Recognizing that residential facilities have to preserve users’ privacy, do you foresee the Living Village inviting neighbors to be curious about environmental stewardship?