Friday, November 10, 2017


I'm still dithering over this essay I'm writing on philosophy of religion and the Anthropocene. The premise for the essay is clear. The growing literature on the Anthropocene shows little to no awareness of or interest in religion, its study or its philosophy, and religious studies, by and large, has returned the favor. It's early days, of course. Anthropocene is a contested category (even among stratigraphers) and much work of religious studies scholars that now seems relevant to the Anthropocene uses instead the language of climate change.

(So what makes Anthropocene discussion different from climate change? Anthropocene theorists take as established what is merely a grim possibility in earlier discussions - that human beings are "planetary agents," whose actions over time (especially recent time) have decisively and irreparably altered the conditions of life on earth. As Dipesh Chakrabarty put it (before the ascent of the Anthropocene language), the distinction between natural history and human history has been destabilized for good. Meanwhile the natural historical pretensions of the category of Anthropocene - that future geologists would find traces of our species in the geological record - invite a different perspective on human doing and being. Such future geologists, if any there are, will likely not be human; even if they are, assuming their perspective means seeing ourselves as fossils.)

My challenge is that I can't just point to conversations that aren't happening. I need to suggest conversations that could or should happen. And since the volume for which I'm writing is about the future of the philosophy of religion, I have to speculate a little about what the fruits of such conversations might be.

The way I'm structuring the essay (for now) is like this. After an introductory reflection on the retrospective character of philosophy of religion - we work on religious ideas that have already arisen, even where we are being constructive - I suggest the risks of futurology are unavoidable. The future is here already, at the same time an uncanny expression of a past which has taken on a new aspect, too, as we see it as a cause of our present dissonance. As for the futures earlier thinkers assumed would be "conformable to the present" (as Hume said), they're over. That was the Holocene, this is now. All bets are off.

The main part of the essay is an engagement with four theorists of the Anthropocene, selected somewhat capriciously if not of course randomly. (None is a straw man, all make compelling arguments.) One is a philosopher, one a novelist, one a Marxist cultural theorist, one an anthropologist. What I do in each case is note that although religion is largely absent from their arguments, there are openings. The philosopher thinks of great religious texts as among the heritage of humanity, useful for interrupting the ideologies of the age, even as he disdains religion (except perhaps Zen Buddhism) as an irresponsible flight from death. The novelist thinks religion better positioned than literature or politics to address the challenges of human limits in a world no longer continuous, though he himself doesn't go there (he's appreciative in ways he can't quite fathom of Laudato Si'). The cultural theorist praises the world-imagining work of science fiction, and of religious thinking about "totality," as necessary tools even as we have to recognize much of our theory as obsolete "carbon humanities." And the anthropologist, finally, turns to indigenous Australian ways of living with and beyond "cascades of extinction," and not just human ways (as we if we could be human on our own). Openings for religious studies, perhaps, though caveats also for the holocenic imagination of most of our work.

So far so good, I guess. But to get some meat on the bones of this argument, I need to do some actual speculation myself, so I finish the essay with some reflections on the future of the problem of evil - and of the Book of Job. What will become of evil as the natural/moral evil distinction ceases to ring true? Will the "free will defense" experience a revival, even as our agency confronts us more as a ghostly spectre than a potentiality? Will a "weak" God who suffers with us as we despoil ourselves and our worlds become a companion in the trenches? Will folks rather become millennarian, or - as is happening already - denialist about the situation, and will philosophers of religion dignify these views with analysis? Will God appear one of, and kin with, other companion species?

Come Job, will anyone take the restoration of Job's family and goods at the end seriously? (Anthropocene means, at the very least, that it's no longer plausible that "everything works out in the end.") Will the equivocations of Job's friends be read as images of climate change denial? Will Behemoth and Leviathan rear their heads once more? Will God ask Job "where were you when people upset the natural balance?" even as Job wonders why God allows such thoughtlessness? Will the satan become important in a new way?

I'm thinking of ending with the anthropologist - it's Deborah Bird Rose, author of Dingo makes us human - who amends the Book of Job to observe that, even as Job is abandoned by all his human relations, it doesn't ring true that he should be abandoned by dogs. Dog aren't like that. Her image of Job comforted by his dogs might make a memorable ending...

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