Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Desire for connection in the Anthropocene

As this semester winds ineluctibly down and next semester's courses are becoming visible on the horizon, it's curriculum planning season for next academic year, too. I'm thinking I might try to teach a course on Religion and the Anthropocene in Spring 2019. It's certainly something I'm thinking about, and should have something interesting to say about.

Not just in Spring 2019! I should have something to say now, since my article on philosophy of religion and the Anthropocene is due soon. No doubt "religion and' will be easier than "philosophy of religion" (though by the time I get through talking about religion I suppose it's always philosophy of religion!). What does the philosophy of religion have to contribute to discussions about the Anthropocene?

As you know, I've structured my essay around four works of Anthropocene theory, chosen not quite at random. (I've replaced the third one, though.) None of them engages, or solicits engagement from, religious studies; my task is to suggest that there's room for engagement, if not what such engagement would look like. 

So I start with Roy Scranton's Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, a grim account of a civilization already dead - a good illustration of the "paleolithic" perspective of the Anthropocene, where life is just a stage in production of fossils. Scranton's original essay, in the New York Times, was the first many had heard of the Anthropocene concept, and it also makes an interesting case for the humanities (and philosophy especially) as playing an indispensable "interruptive" role as we try to wean ourselves from the toxic patterns and expectations of the holocene world we have pushed over the edge - confronting ourselves with other ways of thinking, especially from the past, we can better resist the hive mind of humanity gone feral. This is part of what he means by "learning to die," and although he references Zen Buddhism a little, he doesn't think of religion as worth including in this canon of interruption. His lists of great books include classics of the world religions, but he's not interested in religious interpreters of those texts; religion is for him about the denial of death. Is it really? 

Next I turn to novelist and critic Amitav Ghosh's The Great Derangement, a reflection on what cultural resources there are for responding to, or even truly acknowledging, anthropogenic climate change. His main concern is literature, by which he means the modern novel, and he finds that the very structure of the modern novel makes it incapable of engaging discontinuities on the requisite scale. In order to tell a story, the novel needs to establish a stable setting in time and place, within which the protagonists can work out their story. He links this to the emergence of "gradualist" understandings of natural change and the reassuring stability of phenomena depicted by statistics. Religion doesn't enter the picture as an alternative to the novel; Ghosh names pre-modern genres like epic and miracle stories but doesn't call for their revival. (He also doesn't consider other genres, like poetry.) Religion crops up at the end, when he's found literature bankrupt and politics supine: we need a global movement already on the ground, and one concerned with limits - as religion is. He doesn't explain this enigmatic claim; I don't think religion is a live option for him. But it can be for us. If we can participate in interruptive humanities, we can also probe limits. But we also need to acknowledge how much of modern religious thought is part of the same matrix which nourished the modern novel.

After this comes sociologist of religion Bronislaw Szerszynski, who's published two brilliant essays this year, one mapping the "gods of the Anthropocene," the other imagining what might come after the "first Axial Age" views which empower the world-upsetting Anthropos of the Anthropocene. The former slyly synthesizes the often heady theorizing of continental thinkers wrestling with the Anthropocene, who confront human agency with other somehow agent-like forces working through or against us: Anthropos, Capital, the Earth, the Sun, Yahweh/Allah (in new ecological or apocalyptic guises), and the Cosmos. The latter imagines, among other things, how a new form of Tibetan Buddhism might arise to make sense of the relationship between the earth and a colonized Mars. Szerszynski's speculations seem to me just the kind of things we need, but his (many) interlocutors don't include philosophers of religion. Can we add anything, or even keep up? We don't engage much with the Anthropocene-specific articulations of monotheism, preferring the staid monotheisms of the modern period, but that might be a place to start. Engaging the era's other "gods" might be more difficult, though studying Marxism as a religion was once a thing. As for a second Axial Age, how exciting! Not that being intellectually excited by a possibility makes it real, let alone brings it to pass.

The final section features multi-species anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose, whose work with Australian Aboriginal peoples (and animals) yields at once penetrating accounts of life on the edge of extinction and a way of full-throatedly "saying yes" to life nonetheless, life understood as a complicated dance between species through times of "shimmer" and of "dullness." Rose is one of the founders of the ecological humanities in Australia (renamed environmental humanities here in the northern hemisphere), and one of the writers of that Manifesto I enthused about last week. She has characterized our time as one of "double death," one where death has lost its value as part of the cycle of life and death - as a part of life. She also contributes to the stirring northern hemispheric Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet a paean to the love between flying foxes and the coadapted trees whose flowers they "kiss" - and the hope that our death-dealing species might move away from being like those settler Australians who attack flying foxes as pests and more like the "flying fox carers" who are helping this embattled species survive by taking young and wounded members into their homes before returning them, healthy and strong, to the wild. Rose's work actually references philosophers of religion but is there more for us to add? Is there an analog to the work of the "fox carers" waiting for us to do?

Each of these sections, which essentially introduce discrete areas of the Anthropocene discussion, gestures toward things philosophers of religion might do some day. What about now? What about me? Welllll... I'm offering brief reflections on two things I've worked on. The first is on the problem of evil, which I argue will get short-circuited in the Anthropocene - the old distinction between anthropogenic "moral evil" and presumably non-anthropogenic "natural evil" is muddled now. But the growing sense that the relative stability of the Holocene was exceptional - along with a deepening sense of the wonders of symbiosis - might bring back the old complement, the problem of good. (This could refer to Ghosh's point about modern literature's taking the order of the world for granted.)

Second, and related, is the Book of Job, which will be seen differently in this, as it has in every, age. The equivocations of Job's friends will sound like the blandishments of those who close their eyes to climate change, surely. But Job's assertions of relative innocence may sound a little hollow, too, even as people less fortunate than he face Joban calamities with greater and greater frequencies. the Job-like 1% are implicated in the Anthropos of Anthropocene. God's response will sound different, too.

"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" (38:4) 

has a different ring when addressed to a "planetary agent," even if a very late and unwitting one. Or this:

“Or who shut in the sea with doors 
     when it burst out from the womb?—
when I made the clouds its garment, 
     and thick darkness its swaddling band, 
and prescribed bounds for it, 
     and set bars and doors, 
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, 
     and here shall your proud waves be stopped’? (38:8-11)

But God's speeches are mainly about animals, and may well come to sound like reminders that ecosystems are delicately calibrated, or were:

“Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? 
     Do you observe the calving of the deer?
Can you number the months that they fulfill, 
     and do you know the time when they give birth,
when they crouch to give birth to their offspring, 
     and are delivered of their young?
Their young ones become strong, they grow up in the open; 
    they go forth, and do not return to them. (39:1-4)

The heedless ostrich, who

... leaves its eggs to the earth, 
     and lets them be warmed on the ground,
forgetting that a foot may crush them, 
     and that a wild animal may trample them. 
It deals cruelly with its young, as if they were not its own;
    though its labor should be in vain, yet it has no fear;
because God has made it forget wisdom, 
    and given it no share in understanding" (39:17) 

might take on new significance, too.

I don't imagine many will take the restoration of Job's fortunes at the end at face value. While the hope for a magical return to order will surely grow stronger - the worldwide growth of Pentecostalism and prosperity religion suggests this is happening already - the reality of instability might lead to other interpretations. Perhaps the replacement of one set of children with another, so shocking to moderns, will again have a plausibility it once had when the loss of children was a more common experience.

But I want to end with Deborah Bird Rose, who finds in the Book of Job a human turning away from a God whose blustery claims to mastery have become anathema (if that's what God's doing). In Wild Dog Dreaming (2006) she amends the story in one, crucial way.

Job claims a kinship of suffering with the wider Earth, but perhaps there was also a more intimate connection. I imagine that when all Job’s animals were killed, his house dogs as well as his herd dogs died. But then, as now, there were stray dogs roaming the streets and back alleys, some of them abandoned, some simply adventurous. What if one of them found Job and settled in beside him, sharing his food and the warmth of his campfire? Being a dog, she would not be fussy about open sores and flaking skin, bad breath or loathsome odors. More than that, she would see him not as a sickly shell but as a full human. Looking into his eyes would she see that in spite of all the rejection by God and by man, there was still the desire for connection that he had kept alive within the loneliness of his grief?

Will our sense of connection to the rest of splendid entangled vulnerable life - and the ways it enfolds and sustains us - be what anchors new religious consciousness? Will philosophers of religion pay attention?

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