Hi there! My name is Ethan Bodnaruk and I’m a Ph.D. Candidate in Ecological Engineering (“sustainable ecosystem design that integrates humans with nature for the benefit of both”) at SUNY-ESF in Syracuse, NY and a co-leader of the Religions for Peace North American Interfaith Youth Network (representing Mennonite Church USA).
I’m excited about the Teach-in, and am looking forward to sharing from the depths of our spiritual traditions and working together to care and advocate for the environment.
To kick off this blog, I’ll share a bit of my story, including my spiritual and scientific inspirations for environmental advocacy.
Just below the ceiling on my 4th grade classroom wall was a display showing a hierarchy of knowledge. The first level was rote memorization, while the highest was synthesis. At the time, I didn’t understand what synthesis was, but it must have planted a seed that has sprouted and grown since then. I crave synthesis in my life, needing to find wholeness and harmony between science and religion, knowledge and wisdom, action and contemplation.
After graduating college, where I had struggled to connect my studies in engineering to my religious inclinations and growing interest in contemplative Christianity, I took a year off to immerse myself in contemplative prayer and spirituality, living at a couple of Trappist monasteries in the US. The Trappists are an order of Christian monks and nuns known for monastic interreligious dialogue and reinvigorating the modern Christian contemplative tradition. (You may also know of Trappist beer!)
Next, I went to grad school in nuclear engineering, thinking that I would help rid the world of nuclear weapons and solve the nuclear waste problem. After graduating, I worked with the National Nuclear Security Administration to protect radioactive sources that could potentially be used in a “dirty bomb.” Although I loved my boss and co-workers, I felt like I was merely focusing on symptoms of terrorism and unrest instead of their root causes.
It was during this time that I read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and learned about composting through a hilarious and inspiring book about the composting of humanure.
I began to discover a passion for the environment and realize that spirituality could be a major part of it. I thought of the connectedness of all life and how the carbon, water, and nitrogen cycles are related to human health, pollution, environmental quality, and sustainability.
For many people, the topic of human waste is gross or even taboo. But I’ve been no stranger to taboo. At different times in my life I’ve directly experienced that some Christians view interfaith topics and Christian contemplation as dangerous taboos. Yet my faith and the example of Jesus continued to lead me forward.
Composting is a symbol of a cooperative or symbiotic relationship we can have with nature, where we can be stewards of nature and learn from it instead of dominating it while ignoring environmental damage. Making a compost pile creates a thriving ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, and little critters that happily process organic matter into rich fertilizer.
I love tending my compost pile, seeing it flourish, being amazed at the heat it produces, marveling at how the pile shrinks down in size as it composts, and using its results in my garden.
Microorganisms are the foundation of all life on earth, although they are largely unseen. They work behind the scenes, transforming decay back into life – a potent symbol of resurrection and the transformation that the divine spark in each of us can produce. Microorganisms teach me that there’s no life without death – that death (at least at an old age) is natural, good, not to be feared, and simply must be – regardless of whether or not there’s an afterlife.
These tiny creatures are also a reminder that God can use me for good in spite of my imperfections and weaknesses. Just like them, I don’t ultimately need recognition or approval in order to have worth or be an effective agent of change. This gives me comfort along with the fact that many leaders in the Bible were imperfect and at times lacked confidence or courage.
Composting and microorganisms also help us question our society’s concepts of waste and value. Christianity emphasizes that every person is infinitely valuable and loved. Jesus hung out with people who were normally treated as outcasts by his culture. I’m proud of my poop and it helps reinforce the fact that nothing and no one is without value, dignity, and an important role in the world.
Composting is about creating optimal conditions for microorganisms to thrive, and in the process, we humans benefit: materials that would otherwise be regarded as pollutants are instead transformed using minimal energy into the very fertilizers we need to grow food sustainably.
What would the world be like if we weren’t so eager to see things or people as useless and without value, if we really committed to creating optimal conditions that allow human beings – all human beings – to thrive, focusing on basic dignity, rights, respect, compassion, and getting to know people who at first seem so different from us?
These are big words and lofty ideals, and I don’t know how to implement or live up to them. But they inspire me, they keep me humble leaving room for God’s spirit to work in me, and they provide a vision and passion for my life. Without a vision, the people perish (Proverbs 29:18).