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.

 

 


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.


3 Must-Read Journals at #SBLAAR16

To celebrate the 2016 joint meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, commencing in San Antonio, TX from November 19-22, we’re offering free access to special content from our religion and ancient history journals. For those attending #sblaar16 in person, don’t forget to visit UC Press at booth #710 to see our wide selection of books and journals in religious studies!


Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions

Screen Shot 2016-11-17 at 3.18.30 PMMulti-discilpnary and international in scope, Nova Religio is a premier source of scholarship on alternative and emergent religions, religous groups, and religious movements. The journal is pleased offer a free sample issue that includes original research, literature reviews, and conference updates.

#sblaar16 attendees: Don’t miss a special reception hosted by the New Religious Movements Group and Nova Religio on Saturday, November 19, 7:00-9:00pm (Marriott Rivercenter, Conference Room 11, Level 3).

 

 

Religion & American Culture

Screen Shot 2016-11-17 at 3.17.52 PMReligion & American Culture is devoted to promoting the ongoing scholarly discussion of the nature, terms, and dynamics of religion in America. Understanding religious and social dynamics in American life has never been so important, especially in light of the 2016 presidential election. To contribute to undertsandings of a particular facet of American history and contemporary life—immigration—RAC offers free access to a virtual issue on Religion & Immigration in America

#sblaar16 attendees: The editors of RAC invite you join them at reception on Sunday, November 20, 8:00-10:00pm (Hyatt Regency-Rio Grande East, Ballroom Level).

 

Studies in Late Antiquity – Launching in February 2017!

unnamedStudies in Late Antiquity is the latest online, quarterly journal from UC Press launching in February 2017. The journal will publish scholarship on a wide range of topics pertaining to the world of Late Antiquity (150 – 750 CE), and a defining focus of the journal will be fostering multi- and interdisciplinary research that emphasizes the interconnectedness of the Mediterranean with other parts of the late ancient world.

Read Q&A’s with SLA‘s strong team of editors (and keep your eye out for them at the conference!):

Elizabeth DePalma Digeser, Editor, UC Santa Barbara
Emily Albu, Associate Editor, UC Davis
Ra’anan Boustan, Associate Editor, UC Los Angeles
Susanna Elm, Associate Editor, UC Berkeley
Michele Salzman, Associate Editor, UC Riverside
Edward Watts, Associate Editor, UC San Diego
Ryan Abrecht, Book Reviews Editor, University of San Diego


Evan Berry Awarded the AAR-Luce Fellowship

We are pleased to announce that the American Academy of Religion has awarded Evan Berry, author of Devoted to Nature, with the first AAR-Luce Fellowship in Religion and International Affairs.

 
 

Dr. Berry was selected through a rigorous peer-review process by a diverse panel of senior scholars of religion. This fellowship will fund Dr. Berry’s work at the Office of Religion and Global Affairs as a Franklin Fellow at the US Department of State.

“The AAR‑Luce Fellows Program aims to facilitate lines of communication so that scholarship and critical, analytical perspectives are more readily accessible to policymakers attempting to address issues in parts of the world where the role of religion may be unclear,” said AAR Executive Director Jack Fitzmier. “We want scholars to have the opportunity to affect policy and learn how foreign policy is developed.”

Read more about the AAR-Luce Fellowship at AAR’s website. We give our congratulations to Evan Berry for this honor!


Join UC Press at the AAR/SBL Annual Joint Meeting

University of California Press is exhibiting at to the 2014 American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature Annual Joint Meeting. The meeting convenes November 22-25 in San Diego.

Please visit us at booths 640 and 642 in the San Diego Convention Center to purchase our latest publications and take advantage of the following offers:

  • 30% off conference discount + free worldwide shipping
  • Request exam copy requests for course adoption for your upcoming classes
  • Win $100 worth of books! Sign up for our monthly eNews in the booth for a chance to win

Our latest titles address topics in fields ranging from ancient religion, Christianity, Jewish studies, and Islam, to modern movements and world religious issues.

Please see our conference program ad and attendee tote bag flier for our latest releases. Acquisitions and marketing staff will be available for your publishing questions.

Stay tuned to our blog and social media channels as eight of our authors with recent and forthcoming titles on a range of topics share the motivations and stories behind their research. We hope these personal glimpses into their scholarship will inspire a broad community of readers. Find a new post every M/W/F between now and November 21st.

Use tag #AARSBL on Twitter and Facebook to follow current meeting news.