Over the past several days I’ve gone from the cool wetness of Alaska’s southeast coast to the high dryness of north-central New Mexico. The first was pure holiday, accompanied by loved ones (including those who generously funded it) and featuring glaciers, salmon, a black bear (devouring one of the salmon), a ride on one of the most scenic train routes in the world, and the ambiguous eco-ethics of spending a week on a cruise ship (but I decided not to look such a gift horse too closely in the mouth). The second has been a kind of work vacation involving a week of conversations on the topic of science, nature, and religion, generously funded, hosted (and wined and dined — there’s even a book about their culinary tradition) by the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe.
The SAR has been funding anthropological research, hosting seminars and residencies, publishing books, and working alongside Native American artists to collect and preserve art and material culture for over a hundred years now. Its campus, a former artist’s colony called El Delirio and cheekily referred to as an “anthropologists’ resort,” is just outside downtown Santa Fe, which, at 7000 feet, is a deceptively uncitylike state capital; buildings are restricted to three stories and a limited range of variations on deep-cream-colored adobe (or adobe-style) architecture. The late summer days here heat up, albeit sweatlessly, but the mornings, evenings, and nights swell up invitingly into the big starry sky, with sweet summer smells of lush semi-desert vegetation (pinyon pine and juniper, cottonwood, fruit trees, yucca, Russian olive blossoms, cholla cactus), layers of soft cricket chirpings, and the occasional coyote chorus or quite (but communicative) prairie dog (see above) scurrying around in the grasses. The city is greener than I remember it from a brief visit in 1994, and it seems to be dealing with its water issues reasonably well (water being the limiting factor in these parts). It feels good to be in the southwest again (having visited this part of the country only briefly a few times since my fieldwork in Arizona in the mid-1990s).
My colleagues at the seminar are an interdisciplinarily brilliant bunch of scholars and activists whose work in various parts of the world is characterized by some emergence of interesting interlacings between religion, conservation, science, and politics. Among the minority of non-anthropologists, I’ve been particularly heartened to learn about Anne Hallum’s Guatemalan work with the Alliance for International Reforestation (AIR) and about the remarkable work of Marthinus Daneel in Zimbabwe, where he succeeded in building an effective coalition between Zimbabwe’s independent African churches and representatives of the traditional nature-based oracular religion on the common task of regreening the denuded countryside following the war for Zimbabwean independence. Daneel’s stories working with the traditional religionists, whose backing was instrumental to the independence movement (a backing that has been lost over the years of Mugabe’s squandered authority), are spellbinding, and the example of what’s essentially a Pagan-Christian collaboration for ecological renewal a most inspiring one.
Other contributions, including Joel Robbins’ fascinating (if somewhat sobering) account of Evangelical “spiritual warfare” and Pentecostalist New Guinean tribesmen, and other case studies from Latin America, Japan, and elsewhere by Catherine Tucker, Scott Schnell, Andrew Mathews, Colleen Lyons, Andrea Ballestero, and Kristin Norget, add up to shape a complex picture of hybrid relations between religion and science, religion and politics, religion and religion (Catholic-indigenous, Evangelical-indigenous, Buddhist-indigenous, and other syncretisms), and various global-local intertwinings. My contribution has been to inject a Latourian-Stengersian-Connollian sensibility of seeing these hybrids not as exceptions to the rules by which science, religion, and politics have each carved out their separate domains and competencies, but as the rules themselves; and to see them as active co-articulations of people and material relations mixed, connected, and proposed into being — as “cosmopolitical” propositions (in Latour’s and Stengers’ sense of the word) being worked on, negotiated, and struggled over in various ways.
Science, in this perspective, need not be the only player that speaks for the natural world, and religion not the only power authorized to speak on behalf of morality (nor is religion ever singular, with indigenous and institutional players vying for the ability to speak, pray, and act). Environmentalism, meanwhile, also need not continue its careful shuttling between science and politics while steering clear of morality. The future, I’ve been arguing alongside colleagues, lies less in that kind of traditional delineation of roles and competencies than in a willingness to enter into spaces of uncertainty in which novel articulations, making possible novel alliances, can arise. While such an approach sounds vague, each paper and case study prepared for this seminar in some way or other suggests ways in which such spaces emerge and connections and alliances grow, faltering here and there perhaps but (if so) then resituating, and ultimately becoming things rather different from what might have been planned or anticipated. Environmentalists, I argue, should not only think strategically about how to get religious communities (or anyone else) to do their (pre-determined) bidding for them; sometimes the strategic urge ought to be dropped altogether to make novel emergences possible.
The seminar’s convergences come, one might say, in the wake of a “before and after” — the “after” being after the major religions (even down, now, to large parts of evangelical Christianity) began to take up the environment as a cause; after environmentalists and NGOs, from the World Wide Fund for Nature to E. O. Wilson, began looking to religious folks to help them make a case for “creation care”; and after scholars and intellectuals, from Derrida and Charles Taylor and Zizek to all of those assembled in massive tomes by Latour and Hent de Vries, began to take their “religious turn.” There’s something happening here, one might suspect, no?. . . A book will eventually come out of the seminar, and I expect it will add a useful contribution — more grounded and culturally and geographically contextualized than a lot of the writing on these topics — to the growing discourse at the intersections of science, nature, and religion.
Many thanks to Catherine Tucker for inviting me to be a discussant at the seminar and for leading it so skillfully, to the other seminar coparticipants, conversations with each of whom has enriched and excited me, and to James Brooks and Leslie Shipman and others at the SAR for making the week possible and extremely enjoyable.