Ecological Ecumenicism, Forever Ethical?

After the material turn, it should come as no surprise that scholars are taking a wide aperture approach to religious studies. Actor Network Theory (ANT) and various strains of New Materialism help in formulating horizontal connections between all sorts of objects that speak back to religious people. The strictly discursive approach to religion as dogma is critiqued for neglecting to account for physical bodies, selves and others, that produce ethical orientations. The network approach will lead—should lead—to a global reckoning of how religions are involved in the governance of the physical world. Or according to Whitney Bauman, a planetary account of all that religions have ruined in the name of upholding a strict adherence to traditional ontologies. He recently sat down with George Ioannides to discuss the ideas animating his new book, Religion and Ecology: Developing a Planetary Ethic.

Bauman suggests that a planetary approach to “various modes of becoming” may help religious studies scholars move further away from an austere dogmatic favoring of (arbitrary) religious essences over accidents, and allow for a more authentic engagement with what it means to be religious itself. This means a bringing-together of humans, their various artificial technologies, natural environments, and all non-human members of those lifeworlds that are usually dealt short shrift from religious attitudes that focus on that which lies beyond the physical world.

Drawing on Gayatri Spivak, Bauman embraces the “planetary” over the “globalized” view of ethical habitus. The latter, he claims, tends to reflect what a hegemonic first world dictates through ideology and material practice as an exclusive mode of existing. The planetary approach instead maintains “difference” as a universal commonality and a point of departure from which we can begin to think and discuss a sort of ethical management that accounts for all planetary members.

Clearly Bauman is building on other discussions about an ontological as opposed to an epistemological approach to ethics. This has been advanced in Jean-Luc Nancy’s Being Singular Plural (2000), Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s Strange Wonder (2010), and Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter (2010)— titles that have been popping up recently at the AAR—along with most of Bruno Latour’s work.

Bauman mobilizes this matter-oriented critical theory to argue for a religiously informed approach to ameliorate the malignant environmental effects arising from an exclusively human-centric ethical outlook.

In the environmental debate, I would go so far as to argue that Bauman is himself arguing religiously. What I mean is that an overtly eschatological vision of planetary over-consumption, ecological mismanagement, and inevitable population devastation occasions this ethical reorientation in the first place. In Bauman’s view, exclusively-human modes of existence neglect the wellbeing of non-humans. However, he does not entertain the idea that nonhuman planetary members that have the benefit of rapid evolution may benefit in currently unforeseen ways from our “damage” to the earth’s ecosystem. Therefore, while claiming to remedy the excesses of anthropocentric thinking, Bauman’s eschatology remains overtly anthropocentric. Perhaps that has more to do with political expediency and the affective attunements of most moderns who only change their behavior in the short term when they are the ones suffering in the long term.

But if we accept his basic premise, that we should resist a monolithic global outlook that necessarily privileges one cultural interpretation of human need over all others—how do we arrive at the conversation in the first place, together, in order to identify what levels of environmental devastation are acceptable and what are tolerated externalities created in the name of development? I’m writing from a very sooty Hyderabad, where this is very much an open question. The presentist concerns that motivate certain countries like India to invest in technology at the expense of clean air should also be understood in tandem with other practices that routinely and willingly except certain human lives as collateral for the function and hygienic maintenance of other segments of society. We may demand action from institutions like religions to offer greater care for subaltern planetary members, but we’re still not at all on the same page about human membership and what it means to value humans as selves to begin with.

For this reason, I want to like Bauman’s project, but I do so from a strictly first-world vantage as I remain skeptical of thought projects that claim to be universal in their application, especially those based on human reason.

I do agree with most of Bauman’s political sentiments, especially for retooling human ethical calculus within the fragile ecological matrix at a much deeper level. Yet, introducing ecological orientations and philosophies from ‘eastern’ religions such as Daoism and Buddhism packaged through New Materialist philosophies will not have significant effects on the planetary debate. After all, these ideas have been around for a while and have not supplanted our ingrained ontological moorings with something greener on a wide scale.

I believe Bauman could offer more direct comments about how to engage with monotheist traditions that are responsible for much ecological and human devastation. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, have established pernicious onto-theologies at various historical junctions that have bred violence against other humans in the name of constructing pious communities: post-revolutionary Iranian discrimination of religious minorities like Baha’is; Manifest Destiny of the 19th Century that shattered remaining American communities; and unending militant settler-colonialism in occupied Palestine are just a few examples that come to mind. How do these hierarchical societal manifestations of religious sentiment reform and “expand the locus of ethical and moral concerns beyond tribe and nation to all humanity?” These religions, as institutions, would not necessarily start caring more about the planet if they resolved their issues with non-member humans. We have the convenience of being environmentalists and conservationists while maintaining racist and authoritarian exclusivity, after all.

As a fellow Arkansan using ANT and New Materialist theory in my work, I instead reduce the aperture of my studies on early-modern Persianate Islam to focus on much more localized religious experience. The writings of Iranian physicians, occultists, and naturalists are replete with discourse about animals, plants, gemstones, auspicious astral formations, diseases of the eye, and tales of monsters that force me to bracket off their other dogmatic statements about man’s superiority among God’s creations. Not only do non-humans continually instruct human observers, but early-modern ethical comportment in the world demands caution and deep reflection on the various corporeal and spiritual intrusions that humans constantly experience. The authors I study were not rigidly bounded selves. They were not objective. Their ontological standing above animals and below angels (although this point is contested) was, at best, aspirational and had to do more with an ethical proscription rather than a scientific or cosmological fact.

This is the grey area that we find ourselves in when drawing on very immanent phenomenological experience that has immediate ethical implications and making the grand leap outward to implicate the world at large. I don’t mean to universalize the claims made from my examination of a 17th century manuscript archive in Hyderabad. The tools of New Materialism and ANT work to help describe counter-hegemonic ethical orientations, but I am not sure they can proscribe solutions to the problems of very real, specific, and contingent human selves.


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