Religion in the Anthropocene

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Editor(s): 
Celia Deane-Drummond, Sigurd Bergmann
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , March
     2017.
     362 pages.
     $42.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781498291910.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The incredibly rich and complex project of gathering scholars from various disciplines within the humanities to discuss religion in the Anthropocene is one that must be commended. While the word “Anthropocene” was created as a geological concept, it is undeniable that it has been shaping and provoking scholarship since it was popularized in 2000 (19). Reactions to the environmental crisis faced by humankind and solutions offered to deal with it, accept it and discuss it have been exploding on the academic stage, and this book provides an excellent survey of what religious studies, social science, history, philosophy, and environmental studies have contributed to the debate.

With an impressive list of eighteen contributors covering the subject, Religion in the Anthropocene can hardly be commented on or summarized as a whole. While each contribution is undeniably pertinent and well written, the sum of their discourse leaves the reader with a feeling of dizziness not so different from the one felt after a good conference. Yet it is the plurality of voices and the remarkable amount of knowledge displayed in this book that can really offer any interested reader a valuable insight into environmental studies in the humanities.

There is a certain redundancy in the fact that most contributors (twelve of the eighteen) felt the need to explain what the term “Anthropocene” means and where it came from. However, this repetition is in itself a clue to understanding the complexity of the issue, because all these definitions are different. This common desire to define a specialized vocabulary is not, it would seem, as vibrant when it comes to the “religion” aspect of the book. While most authors felt the need to explain what “Anthropocene” means and how they approach it, few of them attempted to define what “religion” means. The foreword by Henirich Bedford-Strohm could have set the tone early on, with “religion” understood as being the responsibility of churches and institutions: “Churches and other religious communities not only have a hermeneutical task, they also have a political task in society” (xiv). This idea, as valuable as it is, cannot allow for a real understanding of the relationship between religion and Anthropocene in a Western world as diverse and as religiously fluid as ours. Fortunately, the authors’ contributions show that a richer discussion is possible, with ideas coming from the arts (Sigurd Bergman), great philosophical thinkers such as René Girard (Petra Steinmar-Pösel), and Jacques Derrida (Stefan Skrimshire), or nature studies (Maria Antonaccio).

There is a certain discomfort in the fact that a book with a title so inclusive would focus on Western realities. The acknowledgments explain that this volume “is the fruit of a substantial number of the contributions to the fourth biennial European Forum for the Study of Religion and Environment” and that authors came “mostly, though not exclusively, from Europe.” (xv); therefore the content of the book can only reflect the reality of this context. The issue here is not merely the quality of the contributions, all excellent, or the value of such a book, but rather the inherent contradiction it displays: many authors note how the Anthropocene as a concept is anthropocentrist, and suggest that it is, in fact, the result of a Western way of life which leaves the poorest populations of the world struggling with the effects or a lifestyle they will never be able to afford. How ironic is it that in a book trying to understand the relationship between religion and the Anthropocene, “religion” is reduced to churches, and the environmental crisis is mostly European and American.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Geneviève Pigeon is professor of religious studies at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

Date of Review: 
November 16, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Celia Deane-Drummond is professor of theology and director of the Center for Theology, Science and Human Flourishing at the University of Notre Dame. Her recent books include The Wisdom of the Liminal (2014), Technofutures, Nature, and the Sacred(coeditor, 2015) and Ecology in Jurgen Moltmann's Theology.

Sigurd Bergmann is professor of religious studies in the department of philosophy and religious studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway. His recent books include Religion, Space, and the Environment (2014) and Technofutures, Nature, and the Sacred.

Markus Vogt is professor of Christian Social Ethics at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany. His recent books include Prinzip Nachhaltigkeit(3rd ed. 2013) Wo steht die Umweltethik? (coeditor 2013), and Die Welt des Anthropozan.

Comments

Sigurd Bergmann

Religion in the Anthropocene – a comment on Geneviève Pigeon’s review

It is very much appreciated that the reviewer takes the theme and challenge of this book seriously and is well aware of “the plurality of voices” and “complexity” evidenced both in our book in particular and in the present debate .

Nevertheless one must wonder why the reviewer laments that only a few authors “define what ‘religion’ means.” Many chapters offer a diversity of operative concepts and understandings of both “religion” and “faith.” A whole section is dealing with different “theological trajectories,” and Bergmann’s chapter in the section marked "Setting the Stage” explicitly explores how religion is “at work within climatic change,” including eight different theoretical concepts regarding how to approach religious issues in contemporary and future research. One must wonder if the reviewer really has read the whole rich work (a pioneering first contribution to the debate from religious studies and Christian theology) by postulating that “‘religion’ is reduced to churches.” This is clearly a mistaken reading; while some authors in the section marked theological trajectories are indeed Christian theologians, many work from social science or religious studies perspectives. Girard, for example, is an anthropologist, and much of the chapter by Deane-Drummond is focused on environmental philosophy, and Eaton’s chapter is a radical re-reading of Christology that would be unrecognized in standard ecclesial contexts. The chapter on ethical issues includes Vogt’s commentary on human ecology, but that discussion is much broader than a simple ecclesial reference to Pope John Paul II. We believe that dividing the theological discussion from that in religious studies is a mistake, and have taken steps to avoid that in the diversity of views represented.  What we do not do in this book is focus on inter-religious dialogue for the reasons we lay out clearly in the introduction. There is room, of course, for an expansion of this work more deeply into other religious traditions, and we concede that point. But to claim this is "reduced to churches" does not acknowledge the broad academic discourse with other fields including environmental humanities, politics, history and so on. If we had attempted the kind of breadth indicated as desirable then a risk of superficiality looms large.

Furthermore she feels “certain discomfort in the fact that a book with a title so inclusive would focus on Western realities.” The narrative about the Anthropocene, which several authors in our book are explicitly investigating, is in fact a product of Western science, and it should not be a surprise that many of the debates about the human age are at present taking place in the Western hemisphere. To accuse our work regarding the environmental crisis as “mostly European and American” is unfortunately not doing any justice to a work that highlights ethical problems with species extinction, technology’s impact on modern life, transnational diplomacy in the context of criticizing the dominant anthropocene narrative for its fatal lack of power, history and ethics – from a standpoint of religious faith.

We can only hope that readers will receive the same “feeling of dizziness” as the reviewer with regard to the rapidly broadening discourse. Such a feeling and its subsequent reflection might produce valuable antidotes against the triumphalist anthropocentric version of the narrative about the age of humans.

Sigurd Bergmann, Celia E. Deane-Drummond and Markus Vogt

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