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Religion in the Wild (Literally) Explores Relation Between Nature and Religion

The first lecture of Professor Brent Rodriguez-Plate’s new course, Religion in the Wild, took place far from its home base in Root Hall.

Religion in the Wild is an integrated Adirondack Adventure trip—one made by first-year students and Orientation Leaders––and semester-long religious studies course that headed out into the Adirondacks the week prior to orientation for its important first lesson.

After a raucous jitney ride and an exhausting day hike through a better-than- expected cool and rain-free climate, Religion in the Wild’s 10 student explorers settled into their first night on the trail. While the adventurers affixed headlamps to water bottles and sought refuge in sleeping bags, Plate prepared his first lesson. He set the stage for the coming adventure by reading aloud the late Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and encouraged drifting to sleep.

The nature-embracing lifestyle didn't end there. As the class settled in to its home  on the Hill, students found the course was anything but ordinary book-learning.  The mornings of Religion in the Wild include briskly walking across campus in pensive silence, limbering up to yoga and Greek dances in the Chapel, and journaling any reflections that flit across the mind while watching trees in the Glen sway during a breezy fall morning. All of which depends on what the rotating student in charge of morning activities has in mind.

In describing the crucial interdependence of religion and the wild, Plate’s favorite analogy is the old Reese’s Peanut Butter commercial where a man gets peanut butter in his chocolate and discovers how perfectly the two mix. Religion and the Wild, “both have to do with the body,” he explains.

His life-long studies in religious studies and philosophy led him to conclude that religious figures, like Mohammed, Buddha and Jesus, have central tenets of belief rooted in the bodily experience of the wild.

David Munger ’16, an Orientation Leader for the Adirondack Adventure portion of the trip, concurs with Plate’s conclusion, saying, “Since learning more about religions, and reading authors like Edward Abbey, Krakauer and Thoreau, the relationship between the wilderness and religion and religious experiences has become very apparent to me.”

Voyaging into the wilderness before delving into “ancient texts” holds particular relevance for Plate, as starting with the experience of the wild is to him “starting from the bottom up.” Religion cannot be truly understood without first experiencing the wild and how the body feels and is altered while travelling through it, he claims.

Shannon Boley ’17 adds, “My readings are not an abstract concept, which could have been very possible if I hadn’t experienced the wild itself.” The only way to go about true understanding of religious tradition is to get out of the classroom and into the wild. Only then can students make real, lasting sense of natural and religious writing.

Rodriguez-Plate’s course has students dissecting the journeys of fellow adventurers as told by Jon Krakauer, Cheryl Strayed, Annie Dillard, to name a few. Essays have analyzed the extent to which these travellers’ tales present sympathetic, spiritually motivated, and truth-seeking pilgrims. Students are asked to apply concepts of pilgrimage and rites of passage to these adventurers’ excursions to understand their journeys in the context of ancient traditional religious or secular journeys, both being closely allied to the instinctually rooted appeal of the wild.

This dialogue is immensely deepened by the common experience of hiking through the Adirondack Mountains during the Adirondack Adventure and select weekends over the course of the semester. As Orientation Leader Mackenzie Leavenworth ’15 explains, “The hikes have not only been essential in the bonding of the classmates, but also in giving us tangible things to use in class discussions.”

Munger agrees, adding that the close connection between the classroom and wilderness experience gives “a very personal experience to consider, in a region close to school, and in a state of mind that forces one to reflect on and observe their experience more closely.”

But even these hikes aren’t enough wild for Professor Rodriguez-Plate and his students.

Boley embarked on a backpacking trip over Fall Break, something she says she “would not have done before this class.” For her, the course’s connection to real wilderness experiences “catapulted me into this new, nature-embracing lifestyle.”

For all the grandiosity of epic landscapes and foundational religious thought, Religion in the Wild ultimately keeps the lesson simple. Professor Plate stresses that simply admiring nature and following your thoughts wherever they may take you is perhaps more important than studious devotion to a religious text.

Students of the course should be prepared to “go out to the Glen and stare at things for a while,” Plate concludes.

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