Expanding the Environmental Imagination

By Dan McKanan, author of Eco-Alchemy: Anthroposophy and the History and Future of Environmentalism

This guest post is part of our AARSBL blog series published in conjunction with the meetings of the American Academy of Religion & the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston Nov. 18-21. #AARSBL17


The time is ripe for environmentalists to expand our imaginations. By withdrawing from the Paris climate accord and threatening to exploit Bears Ears and other national monuments, President Trump has sent us a clear message. We must be the ones who will protect and heal the world that we love. When political leaders refuse to lead, cities, towns, neighborhoods, schools, and religious communities must step forward. Together, we can cultivate a truly ecological response to global warming, mass extinction, declining soil fertility, and the resulting devastation of poor communities. An ecological response eschews top-down and one-size-fits-all solutions. Instead, it builds a resilient network of organic farmers and university scientists, bankers and spiritual leaders, preschool teachers and practitioners of civil disobedience. Like the ferns and fungi, predators and herbivores of a forest ecology, each group has a special contribution to make.

As a Divinity School professor, I am fascinated by the ways spiritual traditions fill distinct ecological niches within the environmental movement. I am especially fascinated by anthroposophy, an offshoot of theosophy that has been interwoven with environmental activism for the past century. If you have ever purchased a share in a community supported farm, sipped a glass of biodynamic wine, or read Silent Spring, you have felt the influence of anthroposophy and its founder, Rudolf Steiner. Students of Steiner created the first system of organic certification, initiated the campaign to ban the spraying of DDT, invented community supported agriculture, and founded the world’s largest “green banks.” Increasingly, they work in symbiotic partnership with Buddhists, Sufis, seekers of the New Age, and even Roman Catholic religious orders. My new book, Eco-Alchemy, tells these stories and invites environmentalists of all stripes to learn from the distinct approach of anthroposophy.

I was inspired to write Eco-Alchemy not because I was personally committed to anthroposophy, but because it puzzled me. Anthroposophy is a small spiritual movement. It has unusual ideas about reincarnation, the evolution of humanity on multiple planets, and the presence of Christ in the soil. In developing the “biodynamic” approach to agriculture, Steiner blended experimental science with homeopathy, astrology, and alchemy. As I learned more, I realized that anthroposophy’s commitment to the alchemical principle of balance has great potential to stretch the imagination of environmentalism. Students of Steiner work creatively with the polarities of human and nature, matter and spirit, macrocosm and microcosm. This has allowed them to pair farming with care for persons with developmental disabilities, green banking with artistic creation, and scientific research with meditative practice. While many environmentalists assume that they must choose either modern science or antimodern magic, East or West, or the political left or right, anthroposophy challenges us to work creatively with both sides of each polarity. As one part of an ever-expanding movement, it invites us all to broaden our vision and escape ideological monocultures.


Dan McKanan is the Emerson Senior Lecturer at Harvard Divinity School and the author of several books on religion and social transformation, among them Touching the World: Christian Communities Transforming Society and Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition.


Cosmic Narratives, Ecology, and Religion

This guest post is part of our AARSBL blog series published in conjunction with the meetings of the American Academy of Religion & the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston Nov. 18-21. #AARSBL17

By Lisa H. Sideris, author of Consecrating Science: Wonder, Knowledge, and the Natural World


A lively discussion on Edge.org asks prominent thinkers to address the question, “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?” The answers provide a handy resource for anyone wanting to brush up on epigenetics or confirmation bias or case-based reasoning. The term that caught my eye is the “noosphere.” Its advocate is David Christian, the leading proponent of “Big History,” a science-based approach to history that melds the human and cosmic story into one grand narrative. Big History is exciting, TED-talk-ready stuff, and Christian obligingly narrates the whole shebang—14 billion years ago to the present—in under 20 minutes. It is presented as a modern origin story for all people, a vehicle for restoring meaning in the way that institutional religions did in the past.”

In resuscitating the noosphere, Christian claims it had a brief efflorescence “and then vanished.” It has not vanished, I assure you. You just need to know where to look.

My research on cosmic narratives like Big History and its (overtly) religious counterpart, the Universe Story, has led me down the noosphere rabbit hole. The noosphere designates a planetary sphere of mind, a thinking layer of the planet, that evolves and unfolds much like the biosphere (animate matter) or the geosphere (inanimate matter). It originated with the Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky (1863–1945) and the French Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), among others.

A version of the noosphere concept is alive and well in scholarship on religion and ecology today, and in contemporary discourse about the Anthropocene. Some see the noosphere as a precursor concept to the Anthropocene because both signal a geological stage in which humans have become the dominant—and directing—force on Earth systems. In the words of Julian Huxley, “Whether he likes it or not [man] is responsible for the whole future evolution of our planet.”

So, how do we like it? I, for one, am uneasy. Others, not so much. Christian sees scientists’ recent announcement that the Anthropocene began in the mid-twentieth century as vindication of Vernadsky’s ideas. Why that date? Many researchers mark the detonation of the first atomic bomb in 1945 as the official start of the Anthropocene epoch. Of course, this is hardly an auspicious beginning to our career as planetary managers! Nevertheless, this was the moment, Christian argues, when “the sphere of mind joined the pantheon of planet-shaping spheres [namely] cosmos, earth and life.”

Pantheon. Mind you, we are talking about a geological epoch that began with world-destroying weapons and is proceeding apace with catastrophic climate change.

I worry that cosmic perspectives on human planetary dominance may frame it as a natural, even inevitable, evolutionary stage. My concerns were not allayed when researchers proposed recently that the Anthropocene seems a “predictable planetary transition” from the standpoint of astrobiology. Elsewhere that study’s lead author opines that our environmental crises are “simply another thing the Earth has done in its long history.” Better yet: the Anthropocene marks our “coming of age as a true planetary species.”

Such observations are both unscientific and irresponsible. If asked what scientific concept ought to be relegated to the dustbin of history, I would vote for the noosphere.


Lisa H. Sideris is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University, where her research focuses on religion, science, and environmentalism. She is the author of Environmental Ethics, Ecological Theology, and Natural Selection.


Spirituality, Morality, and Eco-Activism

By Sarah M. Pike, author of For the Wild: Ritual and Commitment in Radical Eco-Activism

This guest post is part of our AARSBL blog series published in conjunction with the meetings of the American Academy of Religion & the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston Nov. 18-21. #AARSBL17


For the Wild came about because I wanted to understand the lives and motivations behind “ecoterrorist” stereotypes that were current in the news media during the 1990s. During interviews I discovered that memories and emotions may play an important role in shaping activists’ commitments. Love for other-than-human species, compassion for their suffering, anger about the impact of contemporary human lifestyles on the lives of nonhumans, grief over the degradation of ecosystems and the suffering of other animals: these emotions are expressed through and emerge out of what I describe in the book as protest rites.

My book is also concerned with fundamental questions about human identity construction in relation to others, human and nonhuman, expressed through and at the same time created by ritualized actions. I argue that these activists are the radical wing of a broader cultural shift in understanding humans’ place in a multispecies world and a planet in peril. Their actions express trends in contemporary American spiritual expression and moral duties to the nonhuman at the turn of the millennium. Their beliefs and practices reflect a way of being in the world that decenters the human and calls for rethinking our appropriate place in the world. Their stories further our understanding of how younger Americans, in particular, situate the needs of human beings within a world of other species that they see themselves as closely related to and responsible for. The following excerpt is from the introduction:

In July 2000, federal agents raided an environmental action camp in Mt. Hood National Forest that was established to protect old-growth forests and their inhabitants, including endangered species, from logging. High above the forest floor, activists had constructed a platform made of rope and plywood where several of them swung from hammocks. Seventeen-year-old Emma Murphy-Ellis held off law enforcement teams for almost eight hours by placing a noose around her neck and threatening to hang herself if they came too close. Murphy-Ellis, going by her forest name Usnea, explained her motivation in the following way: “I state without fear—but with the hope of rallying our collective courage—that I support radical actions. I support tools like industrial sabotage, monkey-wrenching machinery and strategic arson. The Earth’s situation is dire. If other methods are not enough, we must not allow concerns about property rights to stop us from protecting the land, sea and air.” Murphy-Ellis speaks for most radical activists who are ready to put their bodies on the line to defend trees or animals, other lives that they value as much as their own.

For the Wild is a study of radical environmental and animal rights activism in late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century America. I set out to explore how teenagers like Murphy-Ellis become committed to forests and animals as worthy of protection and personal sacrifice. I wanted to find out how nature becomes sacred to them, how animals, trees, and mountains come to be what is important and worth sacrificing for. This work is about the paths young activists find themselves following, in tree-sits and road blockades to protect old-growth forests and endangered bird species, or breaking into fur farms at night to release hundreds of mink from cages. These young people join loosely organized, leaderless groups like Earth First! and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), coming to protests from contexts as different as significant childhood experiences in nature and the hardcore punk rock music scene. Various other experiences also spark their commitments, such as viewing a documentary about baby seal hunts or witnessing a grove of woods they loved being turned into a parking lot. What their paths to activism have in common is the growing recognition of a world shared with other, equally valuable beings, and a determined certainty that they have a duty to these others.


Sarah M. Pike is Professor of Comparative Religion at California State University, Chico, and, in addition to For the Wild: Ritual and Commitment in Radical Eco-Activism, is the author of Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community and New Age and Neopagan Religions in America.


Must-Read Issues for the 2017 AAR & SBL Annual Meetings

This week, the joint meetings of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) are convening in Boston, MA from November 18-21. Whether or not you are attending #AARSBL17, we invite you read the following free sample issues from two of our journals in these disciplines, Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions and Studies in Late Antiquity

Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions
Special Issue: New Religions in Eastern Europe
Vol. 20, No. 3

READ THE FULL ISSUE

Introduction: New Religions in Eastern Europe: New Forms, Recent Developments
Milda Ališauskienė
Baltic Paganis

Baltic Paganism in Lithuanian Neoshamanic Communities: Neoshamanic Interpretations of a Local Indo-European Religious Tradition
Eglė Aleknaitė

A Catholic Pyramid? Locating the Pyramid of Merkinė within the Religious Landscape of Lithuania
Milda Ališauskienė

Survival Strategies of New Religions in a Secular Consumer Society: A Case Study from Estonia
Ringo Ringvee

“What if it is actually true?” Vissarion’s Followers from Eastern Europe and their Path to the Last Testament Church Community in Siberia
Joanna Urbańczyk

Hit Gyülekezete: A Sectarian State Megachurch in Hungary
Holly Folk


Studies in Late Antiquity
Vol. 1, No. 1

READ THE FULL ISSUE

Why Does the World Need a New Journal on Late Antiquity?
The Editor and Associate Editors

Community Matters
Elizabeth DePalma Digeser

Late Antiquity and World History: Challenging Conventional Narratives and Analyses
Chengpang Lee, Ling Han

How Perilous was it to Write Political History in Late Antiquity?
Anthony Kaldellis

From a Classical to a Christian City: Civic Evergetism and Charity in Fifth Century Rome
Michele Salzman


We Live in a Culture of Commentary

This guest post is published in conjunction with the annual meetings of the Middle Eastern Studies Association in Washington, DC and the American Academy of Religion in Boston, MA, both taking place November 18-21. #MESA2017DC &  #AARSBL17


By Joel Blecher, author of Said the Prophet of God: Hadith Commentary across a Millennium

In many ways, we live in the age of commentary. It seems like every cough, sneeze, and throat clearing is swiftly rendered into text, algorithmically circulated across social media, and subject to endless comments from every perspective. A pundit on every phone, a guru in every garage, and an interpreter on every internet browser.

And yet, our commentarial culture, when viewed historically, is remarkably constrained. Terse, even. We even have a phrase for it: “hot takes,” instant reactions that would seem to tap into humanity’s stream of consciousness in a hundred and forty characters or less. Two-hundred and eighty if you’re lucky.

I have spent the last seven years studying a very different culture of commentary—commentary on Muhammad’s sayings or practices, called hadith. While similar to our contemporary commentarial culture in many respects—a key hub of social and intellectual life—hadith commentaries were multi-volume works of art, monuments to knowledge that required deep learning and decades of training and continuous revision. Commentators dedicated their lives to commenting on a collection of hadith—often passing away before they could complete their work—and meticulously crafted their texts to speak not only to their present, but across long periods of time. These commentaries were built for a kind of time travel—their authors bundled up into quires of paper and ink all of the knowledge they could find in the hopes that readers on the other side of the globe and centuries into the distant future might find some benefit in them. While many perished, the greatest ones actually succeeded, and are still read assiduously today.

I first discovered my interest in hadith commentary when I was invited to attend a live commentary session in Damascus, Syria in 2009. The commentator had spent seven years explaining a single hadith collection, and was only a third of the way through explaining the entire work. Attended by hundreds of students from across the globe, the commentator drew on a rich tradition of commentaries from classical Andalusia, medieval Egypt, and modern India to illuminate the meaning of the hadith for his present audiences. Emulating the practices of his predecessors, he read each hadith aloud, and used each word or phrase to digress on almost every aspect of the human experience. But when I returned to Princeton later that year to begin my doctoral research, I found that virtually nothing had been published on this complex and multi-layered tradition. I could not even find an entry dedicated to the subject in the Encyclopedia of Islam.

After a little digging into the sources, it became clear just how important and exciting this understudied field was. A quick search yielded hundreds of hadith commentaries produced over a thousand years, and each one told a unique story. A hadith commentary sparked public furors in 11th-century Andalusia. In Egypt in the 14th and 15th centuries, live hadith commentary sessions were the stage for spectacular and sometimes destructive rivalries among Muslim chief justices, while the sultans and emirs in attendance doled out gifts, jobs, and even tax breaks. The tradition found new life in British India in the age of print and mass literacy, and Urdu and English commentators emerged to address the political challenges of colonialism but also to solve intellectual problems that, they claimed, their pre-modern predecessors had missed.

Said the Prophet of God tells the story of this living tradition across a millennium, and I hope it will be clear why it deserves more than a “hot take.” As a central hub of Islamic social and intellectual life, the story of how Muslims interpreted and reinterpreted hadith has been a missing piece in the academy’s patchwork understanding of Islam and Islamic history. But this tradition is too vast for a single book or a single scholar to undertake. My hope is that this book spurs on future students and scholars to begin to mine this vast literature. In that spirit, Said the Prophet of God does not pretend to offer the last word on the subject, but rather an introduction to further debate, questions, and commentary.


Joel Blecher is Assistant Professor of History at George Washington University. His writings have appeared in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Oriens, and the Atlantic

Said the Prophet of God explores the rich social and intellectual life of hadith commentary and offers new avenues for the study of religion, history, anthropology, and law.

 

 


Sacrifices, Flesh, and Blood

This guest post is part of our AARSBL blog series published in conjunction with the meetings of the American Academy of Religion & the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston Nov. 18-21. #AARSBL17


By Mira Balberg, author of Blood for Thought: The Reinvention of Sacrifice in Early Rabbinic Literature

Evenings are still rather chilly in Jerusalem during the month of April. The priests, standing on a raised platform, were all shivering in their thin white linen clothes, especially after they had to remove their shoes and socks and purify their feet in water. Several hundreds of people were watching as the priests struggled to light a fire on the altar and to get a wooden spit to pierce through the sacrificial lamb. This somewhat clunky ritual event, titled “Practice Passover Sacrifice,” took place on April 18, 2017.

Several different organizations that strive to build a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and to establish a sacrificial cult therein have been working together to produce and promote “Practice Passover Sacrifice” events for over ten years. These events have become increasingly mainstream in Israeli religious-Zionist circles in the last couple of years, and are now endorsed by leading rabbinic figures as well as by political and municipal authorities. The events are framed as “practice sacrifice” since Jews are not allowed to perform actual sacrifices anywhere except for the Temple Mount, a space so contested and explosive that it is currently off limits for any form of Jewish worship. The organizers, however, encourage Jews descended from priestly families to learn and master the procedure, so that once government permission is given a sacrificial cult can be restored on a moment’s notice.

The Temple lobbyists are usually viewed through a political lens, as extreme right-wingers whose main goal is to secure Jewish/Israeli control over all of Jerusalem. What is often overlooked, however, is the centrality of animal sacrifice in their religious vision, almost 2000 years after Jewish sacrifice ceased to be practiced. This emphasis on animal sacrifice is not esoteric or arcane: it is a manifestation of what supporters of these organizations view as the only authentic, original, and scripturally-committed way of being Jewish.

Indeed, like members of most other ancient Mediterranean religions, ancient Jews equated piety, worship of God, and communal identity with rituals involving the slaughter and burning of sheep, bulls, and rams accompanied by libations of oil and wine. The common story, however, is that once the Jerusalem temple was burned in 70 C.E., Jews had to figure out a new way of being Jewish, which could no longer be connected to the Temple and to the sacrificial cult. The rabbis of late antiquity are the heroes of that story: they are often thought to have positioned the study of texts as the most important dimension of Jewish life, and to have instituted prayer and charity as viable and even superior substitutes for the sacrifice.

Judaism today, whose texts and practices rely heavily on the rabbinic corpora of late antiquity, is accordingly understood as stemming from the efforts of the rabbis of the first centuries C.E. to turn Judaism from a sacrificial religion into a book religion. These efforts were ostensibly so successful that today, most Jews in the world never associate Jewish life or faith with animal sacrifice, and they are often surprised (if not mortified) that there are still Jews out there who think that sacrifice is something to value and hope for. But the truth is that throughout centuries of Jewish thought and practice, sacrifice never truly went away: it remained a ghost of the past, a “repressed” that keeps returning, and a possibility that is always on the horizon, even if only to be dismissed and abhorred. In my book Blood for Thought I argue that sacrifice was never substituted by the rabbis, but rather reinvented. A process of sacrificial reinvention, both fascinating and troubling, is happening again in our own times.


Mira Balberg is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Northwestern University. Her first book, Purity, Body, and Self in Early Rabbinic Literature, examines how ancient Near Eastern ideas and practices of bodily purity were reconfigured by Palestinian rabbis of the 2nd and 3rd centuries through the influence of Greek and Roman medical and philosophical doctrines. Her new book, Blood for Thought: The Reinvention of Sacrifice in Early Rabbinic Literature engages with the process known as “the end of sacrifice,” the rapid decline and ultimately demise of sacrificial modes of worship in the Mediterranean region in the first half of the first Millennium C.E.


Heretics and Ethnographic Investigation in Late Antiquity

This guest post is part of our AARSBL blog series published in conjunction with the meetings of the American Academy of Religion & the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston Nov. 18-21. This post originally appeared on the blog in August 2016 and is reposted in advance of the author’s review panel Saturday, Nov. 18. Program details below. #AARSBL17


By Todd S. Berzon, author of Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity

We are always organizing knowledge. We are always aggregating data in order to arrive at a clearer, more coherent, and more systematic understanding of the world around us. But what happens when there is simply too much information to be collected? What happens when efforts to organize vast amounts of material fall short or fail completely? What happens when the knowledge we meticulously collect simply overwhelms the system or model designed to make sense of it? What are the epistemological implications and challenges that emerge in the production of ethnography—the process of writing about the customs and habits of peoples and communities? Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity investigates these questions within the context of late antique Christianity (ca. 150–500 C.E.). It provides an analysis of the ways in which early Christian authors not only produced ethnography (literally “wrote people”) but they also how they openly negotiated the very possibility and desire of undertaking such a task. Focusing on late antique heresiological literature (orthodox catalogues about heretics), I outline the techniques Christian writers used to collect, organize, and polemicize ethnographic knowledge about their Christian world. I show how the rituals, doctrinal beliefs, customs, and historical origins of the heretics functioned to map and delimit not only the composition of the Christian world but also the world at large. It is the epistemological challenges produced by such classificatory efforts that I explore throughout the book.

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In the late antique world defined by remarkable religious and political change, heresiology illustrates the simultaneous attraction and repulsion of discovery and exploration. But just as Christians wrote their movement into the history of the world as the organizing principle of human difference through models of heretical growth and diffusion, they also codified a deep ambivalence about the literary or representative capacity of heresiological ethnography. I argue that heretics were highly unstable theoretical scaffolding through which Christian authors sought to make sense of the diverse and diversifying world around them. Knowledge about the heretics was necessary to assert orthodox theological dominance, but it was also highly dangerous. Heretical knowledge not only contaminated the ethnographer, but it also confused and in some sense overpowered the compiler because such knowledge was seemingly without limit. There was simply no end to the process of collecting knowledge about the heretics.

Indeed, Christian ethnography reveals not totalizing aspirations of authority—a projected ideology of total epistemological mastery—but a far less secure knowledge about the heretics specifically and the world generally: writing and knowing were endeavors fraught with conceptual fears and uncertainties. In fact, Christian authors explicitly contemplated the danger of investigating the natural and supernatural worlds. It is not simply that they struggle to classify the world around them, but that they openly discuss their failures to do just that. The heresiologists explicitly pondered the epistemological limits of ethnographic investigation, the representative capacity of language, and the unmanageability of ethnographic knowledge in texts. They know that there are limitations to what they can know about the heretics and that their efforts to produce a literary model to contain them is and always will be incomplete.

Discovery, travel, and expansion were not singularly triumphant endeavors, but rather highly perilous and disruptive efforts. The discoveries of new peoples (heretics, nations, islands, etc.) cemented intellectual unease and ethnographic fear. Precisely because the heresiologists gave ethnography into a distinctly theological texture, Classifying Christians points toward the enduring and potent legacy of Christianity in shaping the discourse of centuries of ethnographic investigation. By investigating the role ethnography played in mapping the theological landscape of the late antique world, my aim has been to refine discussions of emergent Christian discourses about heresy and human difference more broadly.


Todd S. Berzon is Assistant Professor of Religion at Bowdoin College.

Join author Todd Berzon at SBL for a review panel of Classifying Christians
SBL Religious World of Late Antiquity Section
Saturday, Nov. 18
9:00 AM–11:30 AM
Hilton Boston Back Bay – Maverick A


Heading to AAR & SBL? Save 40% on These Religion Titles

If you’re headed to the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion & the Society of Biblical Literature this week in Boston (Nov. 18-21), be sure to visit UC Press at booth #2800 for a 40% discount on our religion titles. During the conference, follow along on our blog as we share guest posts from our authors, and share on social media with #AARSBL17.

Want to get a headstart on the conference? Take 40% off today on these new and notable titles, a selection of just some of the books you’ll find at the conference. Get your promo code here.

Take Note of the Following Panels:

The FBI and Religion Scholars: Reflecting on the Past 25 Years—What Lessons Might Be Drawn?
Friday, November 17, 1:00-4:00PM
Sperry Room, Harvard Divinity School
Ahead of the AAR / SBL conference, join co-editor of The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security before and after 9/11 Steven Weitzman as he discusses liberty in the age of terror along with David T. Resch, Assistant FBI Director and head of the FBI Academy

Review Panel of Todd Berzon, Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity
Saturday November, 18, 9:00 AM–11:30 AM
Maverick A (Second Level) – Hilton Boston Back Bay (HBB)

Religion and Popular Culture in America: A Critical Analysis
Saturday November, 18, 4:00 PM–6:30 PM
Sheraton Boston-Back Bay C (Second Level)

Browse more UC Press Religion titles.