Contemplative Practice and Rigorous Study

Our online MA emphasizes an embodied, engaged approach in which contemplative practice and career exploration complement rigorous study. Our students are motivated by their deep concern for the state of Earth and their determination to find healing solutions for the future. Students earning an MA in Ecology, Spirituality and Religion will be at the forefront of an interdisciplinary field that has grown rapidly over the past decade. Graduates will be well prepared to engage environmental issues in multiple spheres, or to pursue doctoral-level study.

Our online program requires 36 units of coursework. The curriculum progression includes two introductory courses; coursework in religion, philosophy, spirituality, and ecological issues; a fieldwork practicum; electives; and a capstone experience.

Students will:

  • Develop familiarity with one (or more) religious tradition(s).
  • Gain facility with some approaches to the philosophy of religion.
  • Acquire thorough knowledge of at least one ecological issue.
  • Understand and navigate the epistemological challenges in studying religion and ecology together.
  • Integrate their insights from their coursework into a coherent final capstone experience.

Course offering vary from year to year. Below are sample outlines.

Course of Study: First Year

Theory and Method in the Integrative Study of Religion and Ecology (3 units)

Ecology in a Time of Planetary Crisis (3 units)

Religion course (3 units) Options may include:
• Christianity and Ecology
• Buddhism and Ecology

Philosophy course (3 units). Options may include:
• History of Western World Views
• Philosophy and Ecology
• Whitehead's Philosophy

Electives (6 units)

Course of Study: Second Year

Touch the Earth (3 units)

Practicum (3 units, 100 hours of service)

Religion course (3 units, same tradition as first year)

Ecology course (3 units). Options may include:
• Environmental Ethics
• Science, Ecology and Contested Knowledge(s)
• The Epic of the Universe
• Toward an Integral Ecological Consciousness

Feminism, Globalization, and Justice course (3 units). Options may include:
• Ecofeminist Philosophy and Activism
• The Eco-Social Vision

Electives (1-3 units)

Integrative Seminar (3 units)

Course Descriptions

Course offerings vary from year to year, depending on faculty availability. We offer this list as a sample of the possibilities.

Cosmological Powers (3 units) Brian Thomas Swimme
The universe uses a variety of processes, laws, and powers, such as the electromagnetic interaction, the second law of thermodynamics, and gravity. These are the fundamental activities of the universe that have given rise to all the complex beings throughout 14 billion years of evolution. The human being, from this perspective, is a new, holistic blending of these processes and powers. This course examines the way in which humanity can be understood as a "hominized" form of cosmological processes.

The Epic of the Universe (3 units) Brian Thomas Swimme
This course covers the central ideas and discoveries of the evolution of the universe. This empirically based narrative is a cosmological epic, an account of how things came to be and of how the human fits into the cosmos. The importance of a new, transcultural epic is difficult to overestimate: It is a story with relevance for peoples throughout the planet and it can serve as the basis for a single, multivalent human community. The focus here is on the early parts of the universe, the birth of the cosmos, the development of galaxies, and the origin and development of stars.

Hill of the Hawk I (1 unit) Elizabeth Allison and Heather Lanier
What does it mean to participate as conscious, responsible, ethical human beings in food production and consumption, individually and collectively? What is our responsibility, as citizens of Earth, to beings who give their lives for our nourishment? How do we ethically and philosophically understand the intimate relationships that we enter into when we consume food? This course does not suggest that there is a single correct answer, but that it behooves each of us, as citizens of Earth, to consider this question. Experiencing the land for a weekend at Hill of the Hawk Farm, an inspiring family farm in Big Sur, will allow us to participate in the agro-ecological rhythms of rural farm life during the harvest season. During the weekend, hands-on farm work and food preparation, instruction in Spacial Dynamics®, and reading and reflection on texts by leading thinkers on food and farming will allow us to consider, in practice and theory, our roles in the larger Bay/Delta bioregion as consumers, and, to a lesser and individual degree, producers, of food.

Science, Ecology and Contested Knowledge(s) (3 units) Elizabeth Allison
To understand the current ecological crisis, we need to investigate the ontological and epistemological foundations of our knowledge about the environment. The science of ecology, in its social and biophysical permutations, is a dominant way of understanding the natural environment. Examining the social construction of scientific and ecological knowledge will shed light on how we know and what we know about the natural environment.

In this course, we will critically examine the social construction of scientific and ecological knowledge, coming to see Western scientific knowledge as a particular cultural phenomenon. We will examine countervailing epistemological understandings, such as situated knowledge and traditional ecological knowledge, which challenge the idea of a dispassionate and omniscient scientific viewpoint. We will investigate the compatibility of religious and spiritual insights with ecological knowledge. Applying feminist and non-Western epistemologies to environmental issues, we will seek to generate alternative ways of understanding ecological crises, which may, in turn, generate healing alternatives.

Environmental Ethics (3 units) Elizabeth Allison
This course surveys ethical approaches to the natural environment, with particular focus on the American context. We will trace the ways that the natural environment has been theorized over time, and the ethical approaches that derive from various views of the natural environment. The goal of the course is for students to construct, articulate, and argue for their own theoretically rigorous environmental ethics.

Toward an Integral Ecological Consciousness (3 units) Elizabeth Allison
The scale of the global ecological crisis requires the development of new understandings of the human–Earth relationship. This course introduces transdisciplinary approaches that broaden and deepen the study of ecology. Following a review of the state of the Earth and human participation in planetary well-being, lectures and discussion engage such topics as deep ecology, social ecology and green politics, ecofeminism, environmental justice, political ecology, and the relation of ecology to religion and spirituality. Embodied practices guide students in cultivating a personal relationship with nonhuman beings and the living Earth.

Christianity and Ecology (3 units) Jacob Sherman
What is the relationship between Christianity and ecology? How have various aspects of Christian thought and theology contributed to the present ecological crisis? In what ways might Christian thought and practice help to heal our present crisis? By focusing both on the scriptural, theological, and spiritual background as well as on recent articles and monographs, this course seeks to provide students with an introduction to the way that Christian thinkers have responded to the current concern over the human relationship to the Creation in order to come to a fuller understanding of some of the spiritual, philosophical, social and economic forces which have shaped that relationship and to reimagine how the Christian wisdom tradition might contribute to answering the pressing ecological concerns of our time.

Touch the Earth: Practicum Seminar (3 units) Elizabeth Allison
Upon learning about the multiple and interlocking crises facing the Earth community, including mass extinction, global climate change, freshwater depletion, and forest destruction, many students ask, "But what can I do?" This course is dedicated to providing the tools and support to answer that question in the way that is most harmonious with your unique gifts. During the spring semester, students complete 100 hours of service at a community organization, and meet five times as a group to discuss their field work and their insights about the implementation of ecological theory and practice in the larger San Francisco Bay Area community.

Cosmology of Literature (3 units) Brian Thomas Swimme
Poets, novelists, and writers of epic literature are among our finest philosophers, for they present penetrating metaphysical principles within the dramatic and concrete actions of particular characters in context. This course is a journey through Earth's literary cosmologies, stretching from the earliest epics to the literature of the 21st century.

Buddhism and Ecology (3 units) Elizabeth Allison
What wisdom can a 2500 year old tradition offer in the context of contemporary environmental devastation? Does Buddhist compassion for all sentient beings lead to a harmonious environmental ethic? What emotional and spiritual resources does Buddhism offer to activists? Are Buddhism and activism mutually incoherent?

In the search more ecologically sustainable worldviews, some have suggested that Buddhism offers a positive alternative to destructive aspects of the Western worldview. Others claim that the association of Buddhism with ecology is based on strategic geopolitical positioning, or on facile assumptions about Asian traditions.

In this course, we will examine Buddhist perspectives on nature, along with Buddhist responses to Asian and global environmental issues. We begin with historical texts that frame the Buddhist perspective on nature. We examine Buddhist foundations for ecological thought, the role of Buddhism in the development of the American environmental movement, and challenges to reconciling Buddhist positions with modern science. Works by Buddhist leaders and scholars, including the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Sulak Sivaraksa, Joanna Macy, and Gary Snyder illuminate the role of modern Buddhism in environmental discourse.

Hinduism and Ecology (3 units) Jim Ryan
Indian tradition preserves cultural features that sometimes date back to the Neolithic. As a result, though India in modernity may often succumb to destructive views toward Earth that belong to industrialized modernity, it also preserves rich strands of culture and tradition with strong resonances of much earlier ecological views-views that emphasize human embedded-ness in nature and a holistic sense of existence in the cosmic and earthly context. This course will survey both folk and classical traditions, as well as elements of literature, art, and culture from 3600 BCE to the present, in order to show the presence of powerful ecological views at the core of Indian culture. These perspectives can be a rich resource for reimagining ecological understandings in the face of the world's modern ecological crisis.

Philosophy and Ecology: Towards a Green Metaphysics, Phenomenology, and Epistemology (3 units) Jacob Sherman
This course seeks to introduce and to deepen students' awareness of important work within the growing field of environmental philosophy. Although environmental philosophy is sometimes treated as if it were reducible to environmental ethics, the questions raised by the ecological crisis go beyond the merely ethical and prompt us to consider many of our deepest philosophical accounts and commitments. Throughout this course, students study the ways a diverse environmental philosophers have sought to employ and sometimes to revise metaphysical, phenomenological, and epistemological issues in the light of green concerns. The course begins by considering the historical background of the emergence of environmental philosophy, then moves on to consider the state of the field in recent decades. Works emerging from within analytic, continental, and process/pragmatist traditions are considered, as are key works from within the philosophical sides of both deep ecology and ecofeminism.

Theory and Method in the Integrative Study of Religion and Ecology (3 units) Elizabeth Allison and Jacob Sherman
Scholarship that crosses disciplinary boundaries requires a unique set of tool and strategies. This course is devoted to exploring theoretical and methodological lenses that allow rigorous, imaginative, and sympathetic engagement with interlocutors from the diverse fields represented in the Ecology, Spirituality, and Religion program. Following a historical and critical introduction to the field of religion and ecology, we investigate a range of methodological approaches, and conclude with the application of these approaches to specific ecological case studies.

Ecology in a Time of Planetary Crisis (3 units) Elizabeth Allison
Ecology is the study of oikos, Greek for "household" or "home". What does it mean, existentially, to find that our home, Earth, is under threat as a result of human actions? This course provides a broad overview of the human imbrication in planetary systems. Beginning with an exploration of the patterns and processes identified by ecological science, such as emergence, chaos, competition, cooperation, and self-organization, we broaden into an examination of critical planetary issues, including climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, fresh water depletion, agriculture, fisheries collapse, and globalization. Framings of ecological issues are placed in dialogue with religious and spiritual views, allowing students to discuss the complex interconnected ways that worldviews, biophysical science, institutions, ethics and justice have shaped the current state of Earth.

Master's Integrative Seminar (3 units) Elizabeth Allison
This course helps students discover and consolidate what they have learned during their studies. As a student, you will re-cover both the content of the knowledge you have gained and you process of knowing, that is, the sources of your epistemology. You will develop your unique perspective and your ability to build metaphors bridging various realms of knowledge. Practicing metacognition, or knowing what you know, will help you prepare for life after graduation. You will reflect upon your work and create several culminating projects designed to help you summarize, integrate, and refine your knowledge and experience. As process and product of this work, you will: write several short papers; give several short presentations in class; write a final paper that synthesizes the various strands of your research and development; and, on the last day of the course, give a final presentation to an assembly of faculty, students, and invited guests.

Biography and Karma (3 units) Robert McDermott
This course will join the study of karma to the biographies and autobiographies of individuals who were influential in the 20th century and whose lives reveal an ideal blend of thinking, writing, spiritual striving, and activism. The class will attempt to find critical destiny moments in the lives of each individual studied. The final paper will be a 30-page spiritual–intellectual autobiography.

Spirit and Nature (3 units) Sean Kelly and Robert McDermott
This course explores the application to nature of an anthroposophical worldview and practice. It is situated within the broadly Romantic tradition and esoteric research advanced by Goethe and Emerson in the 19th century and by Rudolf Steiner and his followers in the 20th century. It includes a study of the Aristotle–Aquinas–Steiner tradition, Steiner's spiritual ecology, Pogacnik's esoteric Gaia research, Zoeteman's Gaiasophy, and Steiner's directions for biodynamic farming. The course will include a visit to one or more biodynamic farms and one or more guest classes by biodynamic gardeners or farmers.

Next of Kin: Perspectives on Animal Ethics and Biodiversity (3 units)
Both ancient spiritual wisdom and contemporary scientific findings refute Descartes' assertion that nonhuman animals are automatons devoid of consciousness or feeling. Nonetheless, the view that animals are machines undergirds many of our modern practices, such as factory farming and animal experimentation. Beyond practices that impose harm on particular animals, human misapprehension of interconnection has allowed the reduction of the richness and diversity of nonhuman life.

Biodiversity loss has been identified as a scientific problem of great urgency. Further, nonhuman and human life are inextricably interdependent. Interdependence includes the profound influence of diverse life on human systems of thought-including aesthetics, symbolism, communication, and spirituality. How can we expand our philosophical frameworks to encompass the interrelationships among humans, animals and the biosphere? How can we extend frameworks of justice to include nonhuman beings? What is the relationship between sexism, racism and speciesism? How can we better align our spiritual, philosophical and ecological wisdom with our actual practices toward other species?

Nature and Eros (2 units) Brian Swimme
This course is an engagement in holistic education. During the industrial era, education was understood primarily as the transfer of knowledge and information from teacher to student. The widely assumed worldview of the industrial era regarded nature as something out there, something inferior to the human, something that humans learned about in their classrooms. But in the new evolutionary cosmology, nature is understood as both our primary matrix and our primary teacher. Nature is the source of existence and is an ongoing wellspring of wisdom for what it means to be human. This six-day intensive retreat employs conceptual, emotional, experiential, and intuitive learning processes in order to embrace nature as the multidimensional matrix not only of our bodies, minds and souls, but of our civilization as well.


Applicants must meet the general admissions requirements of CIIS. Prospective students should be committed to examining ecological issues from a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives, and to an appreciation of diverse perspectives. Applicants from a variety of backgrounds will be considered, but applicants should possesses a demonstrated interest in the subject matter. Further, applicants must have strong writing, analytical, and critical thinking skills. The application requires a bachelor's degree from an accredited school; an autobiographical statement; a statement of goals (ideally several pages); and a writing sample.

Questions About Admissions or Our Program?

Admissions Counselor: Richard Wormstall

Program Coordinator

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