Xavier Magazine

Profile: Leon Chartrand

Master of Education, 1998; Master of Arts in theology, 2000
Executive Director, Jackson Hole, Wyo., Wildlife Foundation
Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Cincinnati

Bear Theology | Leon Chartrand is a bear biologist and a theologian. “A rare combination,” he admits. “But there is definitely a connection.” Chartrand’s mission is to convince people the lives of all beings can be better by taking a theological view of the world.

Transformation | Chartrand began thinking this way a dozen years ago. He was 27 years old and backpacking in Glacier National Park in Montana when he was startled to spot a grizzly bear. “It was life changing,” he says. “Things made sense to me. My place in the world. My sense of connectedness to the land. The sense that the world is much bigger than my ability to understand. It was a transformative moment.”

Fear and Fascination | Chartrand received a master’s degree in education in 1998 and a master’s degree in theology in 2000. He went on to get a doctoral degree in phenomenology and doctoral certificates in theology and ecology at the University of Toronto. He became a bear biologist and executive director of the Jackson Hole, Wyo., Wildlife Foundation. He also founded Bear Wise Wyoming, which promotes ways for people to live compatibly with bears and other wildlife. A key way, says Chartrand, is to think theologically. “To put it into a theological perspective, consider that we’ve long identified fear and fascination with the notion of The Holy. Interestingly, there’s a correlation between people being drawn toward bears because of fear and fascination.”

Bear Politics | Chartrand uses the term “bear politics” to explain that bears stir conflicting emotions in people, especially in areas like Jackson Hole, Wyo. “You’ve got people who are passionate about saving the grizzly bear from becoming extinct, and then you have ranchers trying to make a living on land where bears will sometimes kill their cows and threaten their livelihood.”

Age of Conflict | “I am primarily an eco-theologian,” he says. “My interest is trying to relate our ecological relations to the land with our theological relations to God. The two go hand in hand. The reason I focus on the bear is because it brings out the challenges of people sharing the same landscape with a grizzly bear.” Chartrand offers a history lesson “to understand why theology is needed” if people are going to be compatible with bears. He points out that “bears were once the monarchs of the landscape—what I would call the Age of the Bear God.” The arrival of humans brought about a second age that included “bear shamans” using bears as symbols. Today, he says, we’re in the Age of Conflict, “where people have a problem sharing the landscape with other beings that have the skill, but not the conscious ability, to compete with us.”

Mystery and Meaning | Chartrand says people have “stripped bears of their mystery, and so we’ve lost a lot of what we’ve been drawn to them for—their mystique.” He says such loss has broad implications of what it takes to live on the land and, for example, solve environmental problems. “We tend to think the answers are scientific and technological, and while that may in part be right, the primary answer has to be in our ability to preserve mystery, because that’s where meaning comes from,” he says. “Meaning is associated with mystery, so that’s why we need to have a much more theological view of the world. That takes a kind of theology that’s more rigorous than science and requires us to think in a
different way than we’ve ever done before.”

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