Does religion have a role to play in addressing the current climate crisis?
Department for the Study of Religion assistant professor Alexander J.B. Hampton believes it does — so much so, he’s helped create a comprehensive guide to the relationship between Christianity and the environment that offers a different way of thinking about the natural world.
“Often when we have conversations around the environment, we bring our scientific and technological know-how to bear on the problem,” says Hampton. “But the broader issue is: what's the intellectual or civilizational framework in which we deploy science and technology? Because it's that same framework that has brought us to where we are now.
“So we need to ask much bigger questions. If we're going to deal with the environmental crisis, that's where humanities-based approaches are needed. Because the humanities in this case are not of lesser value — they're necessary for understanding the way we use our scientific and technical knowledge.”
The book is a collection of essays from 18 international scholars from disciplines such as religious studies, history, theology, classics, literature and other fields with each offering insights into the role of religion in forming our collective global concept of nature.
The book was born out of Hampton’s need for a resource for his popular class, Religion and Nature.
“The questions that I structure that class around are: ‘How did we get to where we are now? How did we get to a point where, as a civilization, we seem so deeply alienated from a world we’re part of, and are almost incapable of living in harmony with nature?’
“I was looking for a textbook to help me answer that question, but I wasn't able to find something that really did the trick, so that's how this book came about.”
Divided into three sections, the book’s first section, “Concepts” explores theories such as naturalism and supernaturalism and examines nature from sacred and secular perspectives.
“The foundations of our scientific way of looking at the world and extractive ways of looking at the world are found in the complex history of Christianity,” says Hampton.
The fascinating thing is that the story isn't black and white. The story of our relationship to nature is tangled and complex, and the way we see nature now has been very much determined by developments that happened within religion.
“The fascinating thing is that the story isn't black and white. The story of our relationship to nature is tangled and complex, and the way we see nature now has been very much determined by developments that happened within religion. And embedded within that source are some of our problematic views of nature, but also possibly some of the ways of reversing that problematic view.”
The second section, “Histories,” scans the human-nature relationship through time such as the Greek and Roman periods, the Middle Ages, the Romantic period and others.
“We have lived in much greater harmony with our natural environment at different times in history,” says Hampton. “But the way we conceptualize our relationship with nature has fundamentally changed — from one where we saw it as something as sacred to one where we view it in a much more material way; as a resource to be exploited rather than a creation to be contemplated.”
Hampton believes looking at those periods where nature was revered can inspire new thinking about what our relationship to nature could be.
“That's key to bringing us to the point where we can change our relationship with nature in a substantive and fundamental way. Otherwise, we’re trapped in repeating the same errors over and over.”
The third section, “Engagements” offers a group of essays that constructively apply religious theories to contemporary environmental issues. For this section, Hampton contributed an essay on nature and aesthetics.
“Aesthetics has a special capacity to communicate our deeply felt connections to nature, to create a language that expresses that kinship,” says Hampton, whether it’s through music, poetry, painting or even architecture. “How can that long tradition be deployed as a way for reconceptualizing our relationship with nature today?”
A creative act is in many ways analogous to nature's own creativity. It produces something. And it has a quality of bringing us back to participating in nature because we become creators along with nature.
He also compares making art to nature’s growth and regeneration, finding similarities with the act of creating something inherently beautiful.
“A creative act is in many ways analogous to nature's own creativity,” he says. “It produces something. And it has a quality of bringing us back to participating in nature because we become creators along with nature.”
While the current climate crisis is undoubtedly daunting, Hampton believes change is still possible, and he’s especially encouraged by the enthusiasm and attitudes of the students in his Religion and Nature course.
“Over half of the students are from the sciences or outside the humanities,” he says. “Having all of these students points to a positive development. There's a recognition for a wider intellectual engagement, that we need more than one subject to deal with this problem.
“So they're coming to classes like mine looking for that broader reconsideration of the human-nature relationship. And so if there is hope to be found, I think it’s in the curiosity that students exhibit.”
Hampton is also hopeful this Cambridge Companion sparks further conversations among students, scholars and others — conversations that are being led by the devastating climate events happening around us.
“In the past, a lot of people thought that nature was something that could speak to us. That fell away when we alone became the determiners of nature’s meaning and value.
“What's interesting about the environmental crisis is that nature is talking to us now, and increasingly with a louder voice. So we're returning to that conversation, whether we like it or not, that will force us to rethink that relationship.”