• Dan Robinson

Science and Spirituality - a Gift to Each Other

For some, science and spirituality are on opposing sides, each viewing the other with suspicion, but for Rev. Jon Magnuson, the connection between the two is important and mutually beneficial. Each brings needed gifts to the other.

Magnuson lives in Marquette, MI, the community he and his family moved to when he was just 10 years old and where, as he puts it, he was “born spiritually.” Reflecting on that time, he said it felt like, “Hey, I was born to be here. This is where I fit.”

Lake Superior from the shore of Michigan's Upper Peninsula


As an adult, Magnuson moved away from Marquette and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for many years, serving in the Peace Corps and working as a community organizer, counselor, teacher, and pastor. In 1995 he moved back to Marquette and started the Cedar Tree Institute. The Institute focuses its work and programs on three areas: mental health, religion, and the environment. “Some people here only know me as a tree planter. We’ve planted 25,000 trees since 1995,” Magnuson said. “Other people only know me as a counselor. And some people only know me as a campus pastor, as a teacher at the university, possibly as a worship leader in my local congregation for years. My heart is when they all come together.”


For many years, Magnuson served as the religious community’s representative on the Lake Superior Binational Forum, a diverse group of stakeholders dedicated to protecting Lake Superior. For him, the Forum was one example of where science and spirituality, the environment and religion, came together, and where one benefited the other.

Magnuson sees three gifts that the spiritual dimension brings to science and the environmental movement:

1. A different sense of time – Referencing Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero, a martyr for the poor in El Salvador, Magnuson said, “We’re part of a vision of which we will not see the ending,” adding, “The religious community at its best brings the long vision. So, how this practically unfolds is, people who are faith-based or have a spiritual community, we know how to play. We can rest. We can say ‘no,’ we’re going to eat together now. We’re going to sing together now.” Or, as Magnuson put it, “There’s an urgency but not a desperateness.”

2. Rituals – Within the spiritual community, “people can join together with symbols, whether it be fire, water, song, poetry, prayer, silence and tap into a well of resources, psychological, spiritual resources, that actually are a kind of nurture, a food for sustenance to keep you working in the important work of environmental stewardship.” Within the Christian tradition, he mentioned some examples of rituals as the use of water in baptism, as well as some church communities blessing seeds, animals and the harvest.

3. A respect for individuals over ideology – He noted that many people, including religious leaders, are frustrated that churches are slow to make big changes. But he said that’s the case because there’s a respect for the individual and for differing opinions. “You can disagree now, but you need to respect the person who has a different point of view. You do not name call, you do not vilify, you do not demonize... You hold firm but you respect the individual.”

One example of this respect, Magnuson said, was the Cedar Tree Institute Clean Sweep in 2004, when 250 communities from ten different faith traditions took part in a collection of toxic waste and pollutants from area households. The people who participated, Magnuson said, were “Republicans, Democrats, radicals, because they were members of these (communities), and there was a trust basis that connected us, not an ideological basis.”

On the flip side, science and the environmental movement have an important gift to give religious communities. “The beautiful thing about the environmental movement is that it is a gift to the religious communities,” Magnuson said, working to “open us and involve us into a deeper, wider understanding of the sacred.”

Magnuson sees the Cedar Tree Institute’s job as modeling that inclusivity by “bringing together these different faith traditions around these environmental initiatives. Whereas before they would sit down and have dinner together and say niceties to each other but it was all obligatory. They would talk about ideology or where they disagreed about things or agree, but there was no action, there was no interfaith movement.” Now, he said, “They come together because Mother Earth is bringing us together and that’s a gift, a beautiful gift.”

“The environmental movement is actually a spiritual movement,” Magnuson said. “At its deepest core, it’s a revisioning of the planet.” The religious community needs the information, hard data, study, and conclusions of the scientific community. But he also thinks science needs the spiritual, for without that perspective, it falls short and fails to inspire. “In the faith community, at our best, we like to ask the deeper question, which is, ‘What is a good life? And how much is enough?’ In a consumer society like we have, how much is enough?”

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