Sunday, February 14, 2016

Future imperfect

Weekend after next I'll be in Boston, rejoining a conversation whose start I was at. It's a symposium on "The Future of the Philosophy of Religion," and I can't - can't! - believe that it started eight years ago. Makes sense, I guess, when I consider that I was just coming off my leave in Australia, and processing it by thinking about human history on a scale of thousands, even tens of thousands of years. There've been other meetings in the meantime, one which I was too busy to contribute to, another during the year I was in China. What's the state of the conversation, I wonder?

The first one was an occasion for me to reassess my relationship to "philosophy of religion," something I was surprised and pleased to find all the then participants felt similarly ambivalent about. But I have not in the meantime spent more time in philosophy of religion precincts, or even built out my relationship with the other participants. And the year in China reminded me of all my worries about philosophers' approaches to religion - even as, when push comes to shove in an interdisciplinary conversation, I still identify myself as someone "trained as a philosopher of religion."

So what will I talk about in the twenty minutes allotted me for presenting some ideas? I've sent the title "Learning how to do philosophy of religion in the anthropocene," a reference the others may, or may, not catch. "Learning how to die in the anthropocene" was the name of a post by Roy Scranton on the New York Times philosophy blog "The Stone" in late 2013 (I think I remember reading that it was its most-forwarded or most-commented), which has since become a book. (Writing this now I see that it might also seem to refer back to the title of my presentation at the last meeting, "The philosophy of religion is dead; long live the philosophy of religion!" I didn't intend that. I think.)

Scranton's piece didn't blow me away, but the questions it shares with other thinkers of the "anthropocene" are some I'm glad to have a chance to reflect on. My colleague Ken Wark has written a book of Theory for the Anthropocene, and his prolific posts for Public Seminar have helped me discover other interesting interventions, including a remarkable talk Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing gave at Barnard three months ago. And speaking of remarkable talks, our own India China Institute just hosted a conversation between Amitav Ghosh and Prasenjit Duara on "Global Warming and the Rise of Asia"; Ghosh's talk, an overview of a forthcoming book to be called "The Great Derangement," was epic. (It starts 13 minutes in here.)

"Anthropocene" is one of the names proposed for the era in which human beings have become a planetary force - in which our shenanigans affect not only our species but all other species. The main shenanigan is the release of the energy and carbon from the ancient aeons of life we know as fossil fuels. There are other names and theories, and there are good reasons to keep some of the implications of "anthropocene" at bay, but evidently irreversible anthropogenic "climate change" demands a rethinking of most of what we think we know about what it means to be human.

This is a huge sprawly question, of course, and an invitation to grandiosity. Ghosh's oracular eloquence on Friday made pessimism almost glamorous. One oft-quoted passages in Scranton reads:

The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.

Part of the challenge is how to talk about a human agency that is not the agency of any human individual, group or culture (though most have a smaller carbon footprint than a few). Historian Dipesh Chakrabarty pointed out a few years ago that articulating climate change on the planetery scale upends all the usual commitments and sensitivities of history (except perhaps the history of capital). Presenting climate change as having irrevocably affected the agency of every present and future human individual, group or culture is a way of saying this which still sounds like human agency.

So, what about the philosophy of religion? What can we (there, I said it!) add? A cloudy species-wide act which despoiled the future of all humans - and all of nature - sounds a lot like Augustinian understandings of original sin. So what? Augustinian tropes might be spot-on this time but Augustine could have no concept of irreversible climate change: the whole point of original sin is that it is reversible, if not by us. Human beings have ruined nature, but it will be restored. How does a Christian think about deep time, and irreversibility?

Asian traditions seem better at it, but perhaps not good enough. The Dao balances all things. The Book of Changes has a limited number of combinations. Indian conceptions of time are much longer but still cyclical. Scranton's a kind of Zen Buddhist, and thinks this is a tradition which is all about learning how to die - and how to continue to act in a world one knows is "already dead." Can indigenous traditions, many of them mortally wounded by the encounter with the colonial capitalist modernity, tell us something? If so, what? What do we do with it? That might be the profoundest challenge of the anthropocene theorists.

Philosophy of religion to the rescue, to the lifeboats? Stay tuned!

No comments: