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Chas S. Clifton
Paganism is based largely in an Enlightenment-era rejection of Christianity and Romantic-era ideas of the individual experience, emotion, and creativity, combined with a search for true ethnic culture in the lore and practices of the pre-Christian past and a rejection of universal transcendental religion, in favor of the local, the particular, the polytheistic, and the animist. Particularly in the United States, Pagans have challenged governmental accommodations for existing religions by demanding equal status in public spaces. Contemporary Pagan groups began forming in the 1930s, but the largest, Wicca, emerged in the United Kingdom in the early 1950s.
A “cosmic war” is an imagined battle between metaphysical forces—good and evil, right and wrong, order and chaos—that lies behind many cases of religion-related violence in the contemporary world. These transcendent spiritual images have been implanted onto the social and political scene, magnifying ordinary worldly conflict into sacred encounter. There is nothing specific to Christianity, Islam, or any other religion about this idea of cosmic war. Every religious tradition contains images of grand battles that have a divine valence to them. Hence every religion has some kind of mythic or legendary scenario of warfare that can be transported into contemporary conflict and elevate a social or political confrontation into cosmic war.
Mickey L. Mattox
Martin Luther was not an original contributor to the study of cosmology, and if one were to judge only by his explicit remarks on the matter, it would seem to have been of little interest to him. He was, however, every bit a man of his times, and as such he assumed what educated people of his times assumed, including in the matter of the nature and structure of reality. The world in which he came of age was informed by a compelling vision of the universe as a whole. Astronomical observation and mathematical calculation in the traditions of Aristotle and Ptolemy had long since combined with philosophical and religious speculation to render Luther’s world a coherent “cosmos” (Gk. kosmos, “order” or “world”), at the center of which reposed a stationary sphere, the earth. This world was surrounded at ever-increasing heights by the heavenly spheres, each of them thought to be wheeling in at tremendous rates of speed that increased as one moved up through their heights: first the moon, then the planets, the stars, and ultimately the prime mover. This long-traditional view of the cosmos rendered reality itself an arena of intense motion and beauty.
Taken in a broad scientific and aesthetic sense, cosmology provided not only an interpretation of the heavens but also an imaginative lens through which to experience and understand one’s self and one’s world. Though he quibbled over some of the details, Luther clearly viewed himself and his world through that very lens. During his university studies in Erfurt for the bachelor and master of arts degrees, he read cosmology as a subject covered in the integrated approach to learning set forth in a curriculum based on the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). In combination with other later medieval notions—such as the understanding of the human body and its four humors or the sublunar sphere and its four constituent elements (earth, water, air, fire)—cosmology became for Luther what it was for all his educated peers, that is, a world view. Thus, while Luther was not a cosmologist per se, the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmos provided a set of background beliefs that informed his theology and world view at every level. He also developed a distinctive understanding of the reality and exercise of power and authority, both on the earth and in the heavens.
Contingency is a term that occurs in philosophical discourse as well as in theology in a number of contexts and with a number of meanings. In its modern sense the English term contingency refers to events, processes, or properties that may occur, but are not certain to occur; or that have, but might not have, occurred, because they depend on factors beyond our knowledge or which themselves are contingent. Generally speaking, it refers to events, objects, and properties that could be otherwise, that do not have to be as they are, and that do not have to be at all, and for whose existence we cannot give a sufficient cause. Thus contingency covers a whole range of meanings, including “not necessary,” “by chance,” “random,” and “unpredictable.”
In the discourse on science, the debate pivots on questions of determinism vs. indeterminism in physics (especially in quantum physics and in systems theory), on the contingent character of the cosmos and its fundamental physical laws, and on the question of whether the development of evolution and the actual forms of life that result from it are merely coincidental in biology. Some have referred to the first form of contingency as nomological and to the second as local contingency (Robert J. Russell, “Contingency in Physics and Cosmology: A Critique of the Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg,” Zygon 23.1 ). The alternative is between physical determinism (all events necessarily follow from prior initial conditions, so that contingency only refers to a lack of knowledge) and indeterminism (some events are not determined by prior conditions, hence contingency is an ontological fact). In religion and theology, contingency often marks the fundamental difference between the Creator and creation. It is used in ontological and cosmological proofs of the existence of God in the sense that all created beings cannot account for their own existence, but—in their contingency—point to a Creator, who is not contingent, but the necessary ground of his or her own being. However, it is disputed whether such a conclusion is valid or itself contingent. Another divide is between those who argue for total divine predestination (God determines everything that happens; again contingency is only a human category regarding insufficient knowledge and insight) and those who argue that God leaves some things to chance or to being determined autonomously by created entities. A consequence of the latter view seems to be that God cannot have sufficient fore-knowledge with regard to the process of creation so that God’s omniscience and omnipotence seem in danger. On the other hand, the option of total predestination faces the problem that in its view the Creator seems to be responsible for everything, including all evil.
Randall J. Stephens
Throughout American history, religion and entertainment have influenced each other and have intersected in fascinating ways. Native American rituals and games entertained and inspired. Early white settlers like the Puritans, though defining their faith over and against profane pastimes, engaged in sport, play, and elaborate storytelling. Still, stark contrasts appeared in the 17th and 18th centuries when it came to how Catholics and Protestants in the New World thought of the theater, music, and performance. The evangelical surge in the 18th century brought with it a lively and riveting preaching style—represented by celebrity ministers like George Whitfield and Gilbert Tennent—that faced the ire of their more traditional foes for using “vulgar” methods to reach the masses. In the 19th century, African Americans, in slavery and freedom, expressed their faith in ways that combined religious systems, dancing, and music traditions from Africa and the Americas. Evangelical churches and prominent figures used entertainment to proselytize, illustrate the drama of salvation and damnation, and to enliven services. Temperance, anti-slavery, and other reformist groups employed music, novels, and theater to spread their earnest message. Pentecostals and other evangelicals took up new forms in the 20th century. They eagerly made use of radio, film, and later, television. The well-known evangelist Billy Graham was a skillful pioneer of new media. In the 20th century, Hollywood films drew on Jewish and Catholic themes, as Jewish and Catholic writers, directors, and actors put their stamp on the silver screen. Late 20th and early 21st century combinations of religion and entertainment included Muslim rap music, Christian rock, Jewish folk music, and much more. A great deal of this innovation coincided with the rise of the performance-driven megachurch and the proliferation of religious organizations that catered to athletes and drew on sports imagery and symbols for the cause. In the long sweep of American history, the devout have found new, elaborate ways to draw on popular culture and to entertain as well as enlighten the faithful.
Cybernetics is the study of systems of control and communication. While often used to refer to control systems in or by machines, such as computers, cybernetic theory can be applied to control and communication within a variety of areas, including human interaction and systems of production, distribution, or design, systems that may be comprised of humans, machines, or a combination of humans and machines. A cybernetic view of any system focuses on information and the flow of information, for that is what effects both control and communication. While cybernetics is a concept that can be used to describe any system through which information flows, today most human generated information flows through computers or computer controlled networks; thus in the popular mind, cybernetics is frequently used as a referent to anything pertaining to computer design, use, and human-computer interaction.
A cybernetic view of the human person finds each person’s identity in the information comprising our memories, feelings, emotions, and thoughts. Human beings are considered in this view to be biological machines, each of whose unique identity is found in the patterns stored in the neuronal structures of the brain. In such an anthropology, there is no soul. Each of us is merely a vast and ever-changing collection of information. However, there is the possibility of a form of immortality effected by uploading the human brain to a computer.
Cybernetics is, historically, closely associated with the field of artificial intelligence. Though experiencing initial successes in fields such as game playing or mathematics, producing a full, human-like intelligence has so far been limited by the difficult problems of giving a robot a body similar to ours, in order to experience the world as we do, and the necessity of emotion for true cognition and autonomous decision making. We have come closer to realizing the dreams of cybernetics by using the computer to mediate human-to-human relationships, especially through social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. This has implications for religion, in that the widespread dissemination of a variety of religious materials and discussions has led to increased contact with other religions, increased conversions, and an increase in fundamentalism.
Cybernetic theories can also be used to describe the origin of religion and the development of ethical systems. In general, a cybernetic view of the development of religion focuses on religion as an adaptive mechanism for the survival of groups as they evolve and change in an atmosphere of physical and social competition.
Douglas E. Cowan
Invented in 1989 and popularly accessible since the mid-1990s, the World Wide Web has always hosted a wide variety of religious content, ranging from early text-based discussion forums to live-stream video, and from rudimentary online communities to cross-platform social media activism. Known colloquially as “religion in cyberspace,” these computer-mediated, faith-based environments raise important questions in terms of how religious discourse is enacted and religious ritual performed. More than that, they challenge whether the notion of physical place will remain paramount in religious life, or if it can be displaced as believers and adherents shift aspects of their activity to electronically mediated communication space. Although initial enthusiasm for the Internet and its presumed potential led some scholars to predict large-scale uploading of religious life, there are a number of reasons to conclude that offline religious practice will continue to be important in the lives of believers despite any online activity they may pursue. That said, there are also significant ways in which online religious activity has encouraged adherents to reimagine the nature of sacred space, to envision new ways of understanding religious practice, and to enact new forms of religious community.
Judson B. Murray
Daoist mysticism is a subfield in academic areas of study including comparative mysticism, Chinese religions, and Daoist studies. Methodologies employed in it often adopt and adapt different definitions, categories, and theories formulated in contemporary Western scholarship on the subject of “mysticism” for the purpose of analyzing Daoist thinkers, texts, practices, and traditions throughout the religion’s history. Important topics examined in scholarly works on Daoist mysticism include, first, Daoist views of the human self, both as it exists in its problematic state of degeneracy—physically, intellectually, emotionally, and morally—and in the natural and optimal condition it can and should embody. A point of emphasis regarding the latter condition is the self’s experience or consciousness of, conformity to, and unity with that which is of ultimate significance for Daoists: the “Way” (Dao/Tao). Daoist mystics, by understanding themselves to be microcosmic embodiments of the world and its processes, grasp that they are inherent constituents of the Dao and are unified with the totality of existence that it encompasses. Second, there is an array of Daoist self-cultivation techniques that are combined into training regimens aimed at cultivating and actualizing this awareness. Methods range from practices relating to the optimal setting and lifestyle to adopt for training, proper preparation and maintenance of the body, qi/ch’i cultivation, ethical observances, visualizations, and other meditative techniques. Third, successful training in them achieves the mystical aims, experiences, and transformations that practitioners seek, including physical vigor to aid the body’s functioning and longevity, moral integrity, profound visions, true and omniscient insight, correct and effective conduct, self-divinization, and immortality. Fourth, the scholarship also identifies both notable continuities and intriguing innovations in comparing ancient Daoist mystical ideas, practices, and goals to later expressions and elaborations of them.
Studying Daoist mysticism has also reciprocally contributed to Western scholarly inquiries into theories of mysticism and comparative mysticism, not only in providing a wealth of material that is relevant to these fields, but also in offering both additional perspectives on debated issues and new trajectories for future research. For example, recent scholarship has contributed to the debate between, on the one hand, Essentialist and Decontextualist theorists and, on the other, Contextualists concerning the subject of mystical experience. Scholars of Daoist mysticism have also underscored the distinctiveness of the content and the literary form of its mystical writings, as well as the vital role the practitioner’s body plays in its theories and practices, and how these defining features distinguish Daoist mysticism from some of the world’s other mystical traditions.
Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus played somewhat significant roles in each other’s lives. Their early relationship is not free from a sense of the serious differences that divided them, but it largely reflected their common commitment to the biblical humanist ideas of “back to the sources” and effective rhetoric. Erasmus’ need to demarcate his positions from those of the heretic and outlaw after 1521 strengthened his resolve to demonstrate publicly at least one important difference between them, resulting in his Diatribe (1524), which provoked a debate with Luther over the freedom or bondage of the will, which Luther treated in his De servo arbitrio (On Bound Choice, 1525) and commentary on Ecclesiastes (1526/1532).
Russell E. Richey
A voluntary religious community and ecclesial creation of modernity, the denomination emerged alongside of and along with the political party, the free press, and free enterprise. By 1702 it acquired its modern religious meaning with the establishment of the “body of the Dissenting Ministers of the Three Denominations in and about the City of London.” The 17th-century experiences with religious conflict, revolution, and regicide had led England in its Glorious Revolution to reestablish the Church of England but pass the Act of Toleration. Thus began a century of identifying denominations, of experimentation in Britain and the colonies with (Protestant) religious pluralism, of defining prerogatives and limitations (for the Dissenters or Nonconformists—Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Quakers), of political jockeying between Whigs and Tories, and of exchanges of ideas through magazines, newspapers, and coffeehouses. So denominationalism emerged and defined itself in the Age of Enlightenment, John Locke voicing ideals and proposing policies that would be tested in the American colonies and gradually become normative in the new nation. Where existent beyond the United States and Britain, governments and social customs have provided some measure of religious freedom, permitted denominational pluralism, and controlled for conflict and repression.
The denomination, then, is a voluntary religious community. As voluntary, it needs legally established or de facto toleration and religious freedom. In such an environment and as a voluntary or elective religious community, the denomination creates and sustains its membership. Adherents join, belong, bring in family (children), move to another of the same, or perhaps quit. Thus, the denomination needs “space” to exist (alongside or outside of any religious establishment if such persists). As voluntary, a denomination should and often does recognize the authenticity of other religions/churches even as it claims its own. It often does not concede that authenticity indiscriminately or fully.
As religious, the voluntary community construes itself and claims to be a legitimate and self-sufficient, proper Christian church, Jewish denomination, or other world faith. The denomination functions with a sense of itself as located within time; knows its own boundaries, origins, history, and drama; and acknowledges awareness of its relation to its own longer religious tradition. Claiming its rightful place within the religious realm of the society, the denomination differs from movement, sect, and other “cause” impulses. As a community, the denomination is an organized religious movement. With its own, often distinctive polity, it intends its self-perpetuation, expects supportive efforts from leaders and people, labors to attract and retain members, funds its operations, aligns itself politically and socially with kindred movements, and determines how best to face various American publics. As such, the denomination provides its members self-designation, identity, agenda, calendar, place in American politics, societal locale, historical narrative, internal ordering, and religious affiliation. To some observers, the denomination is taboo or curse.
Their public outreach and self-understandings have led denominations to function in different ways in the American environment (as have political parties, the press, and commerce). Successively, denominations have served as affinity groups, missionary societies, confessional bodies, corporate organizations, campaign causes, and electronic communities. In these several forms and with the above characterization, the denomination differentiates itself from reform impulses that may take similar structural form but construe themselves as belonging within a religion; from an established church, which does not regard itself as voluntary or as sharing societal space with other legitimate religious bodies; and from the sect, which, though also voluntary, does not locate itself easily in time or recognize boundaries or tolerate other bodies or concede their authenticity.
J. Cheryl Exum
In the Hebrew Bible human sexual desire is, for the most part, constructed as male and as dangerous. In the patriarchal economy of ancient Israel, in which women were subordinated to men and younger men to older men, desire poses a potential threat to the preservation of male status, privilege, and hierarchy, upon which the patriarchal system is based. It is viewed warily as an overwhelming urge that, unchecked, can cause a man to lose control and act in ways that might jeopardize his position in the patriarchal hierarchy and, if some texts are to be taken seriously (Proverbs, the story of Samson), even his life. Thus legal texts seek to regulate and control sexual behavior and thereby channel sexual desire in permissible directions; Proverbs responds to the threat that uncontrolled desire poses by offering the young man a patriarchally sanctioned object of desire, personified Wisdom, and narrative texts, such as the stories of Samson and Delilah and David and Bathsheba, provide object lessons in the dangerous consequences of desire. There are few places in the Hebrew Bible where one person is said to love (’ahab) another in an amorous or carnal sense, and in all these cases only one of the pair is said to love. This does not mean that love was not thought of as reciprocated in biblical times, but only that reciprocal love was not a concern of biblical writers, with the exception of the poet of the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is the only text in the Hebrew Bible in which sex, desire, love, and romance can all be found. This short book, the Bible’s only love poem, gives its readers an unprecedented insight into what it is like to be in love from both points of view, a woman’s and a man’s.
Maxwell E. Johnson
Contrary to the assumptions often held by previous scholars, contemporary liturgical scholarship is coming increasingly to realize and emphasize that Christian worship was diverse even in its biblical and apostolic origins, multi- rather than monolinear in its development, and closely related to the several cultural, linguistic, geographical, and theological expressions and orientations of distinct churches throughout the early centuries of Christianity. Apart from some rather broad (but significant) commonalities discerned throughout various churches in antiquity, the traditions of worship during the first three centuries of the common era were rather diverse in content and interpretation, depending upon where individual practices are to be located. Indeed, already in this era, together with the diversity of Christologies, ecclesiologies, and, undoubtedly, liturgical practices encountered in the New Testament itself, the early history of the “tradition” of Christian worship is, simultaneously, the early history of the developing liturgical traditions of several differing Christian communities and language groups: Armenian, Syrian, Greek, Coptic, and Latin, We should not, then, expect to find only one so-called “apostolic” liturgical tradition, practice or theology surviving in this period before the Council of Nicea (325
Charles P. Arand
Martin Luther’s insistence on the proper distinction between law and gospel in theology marks one of his most important contributions to the Reformation movement and subsequent Protestant theology. In particular, it played the critical role in Luther’s “breakthrough” by which he came to his understanding of God’s righteousness and his justification of the sinner. The distinction between law and gospel served at least two key functions in his thought. First, it kept the story of Christ focused on the benefits to people achieved by his death and resurrection. In this way, it magnified Christ’s work in accomplishing a person’s justification. As a corollary, it provided consolation to Christians struggling with the burden of their sins. Second, the distinction of law and gospel served as a hermeneutical tool for pastors not only to interpret the scriptures in line with their purpose, but also to apply the scriptures in a pastoral way to the lives of their people in order to comfort them and to strengthen their faith. Luther’s distinction of law and gospel raised questions for his followers regarding the law and whether or not it had any positive role to play within the Christian life.
Luther’s distinction between law and gospel is closely related to several other distinctions in his theology. First, it bears a number of similarities with Luther’s distinction of the two kinds of righteousness. But whereas the latter focuses on a description of anthropology, law and gospel focuses on the works of God by which he brings about two kinds of righteousness in the life of a person. Second, law and gospel is also related to Luther’s distinction of the two realms. But whereas the latter focuses on how God rules with his left hand for the well-being of creation and with his right hand for the well-being of the church, law and gospel deal with the two works of God by which he brings about his goals for creation and the church. In the centuries since, scholars have debated aspects of Luther’s distinction, particularly as it impinged on the understanding of the third use of the law.
Michelle C. Wang
The oasis city of Dunhuang lies at the eastern end of the southern Silk Routes, in Gansu Province in northwestern China. In the 2nd century BCE, Dunhuang was established by the Chinese Han dynasty as a center for military operations and trade. Over time, Dunhuang became an important hub for multicultural trade as well as for the transmission of commodities, ideas, and religions. The status of Dunhuang as an important regional center for Buddhism is demonstrated by a wealth of paintings and manuscripts that provide crucial insights into the unfolding of religious praxis and developments in visual culture over many centuries.
A few centuries after the establishment of Dunhuang as a military garrison, the construction of cave shrines in the area began. Four major groups of cave shrines were constructed in the Dunhuang region: the Mogao, Yulin, and Western Thousand Buddhas caves, and the Five Temples site. The most well-studied of these are the Mogao 莫高, or “peerless,” cave shrines, which are located 25 kilometers southeast of Dunhuang at the eastern edge of Mount Mingsha 鳴沙山 (Mountain of the Singing Sands). From the 4th to the 14th centuries, 492 man-made caves were carved from the sandstone cliffs, stretching 1,680 meters from south to north. They were painted with over 45,000 square meters of mural paintings and installed with more than 2,000 painted clay sculptures. To the north, 248 additional caves were carved. Mostly unadorned, the northern caves served as habitation chambers for monks.
In addition to the mural paintings and inscriptions in the Mogao caves, more than 50,000 manuscripts and portable paintings were discovered in 1900 by the caretaker and Daoist priest Wang Yuanlu 王圓籙 from one cave, numbered Mogao cave 17, popularly though perhaps problematically known as the “library cave.” These objects were dispersed in the early 20th century to library and museum collections, the most prominent of which are the Stein collection in the British Museum, British Library, the National Museum of India, and the Pelliot collection in the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet and Bibliothèque Nationale de France. For this reason, the study of Dunhuang art and material culture encompasses both objects held in museum and library collections worldwide as well as mural paintings and sculptures located in situ in the cave shrines. Bringing these two bodies of material into conversation with one another enables a nuanced understanding of Dunhuang as a religious and artistic center, focusing in particular on the Mogao caves.
Sam van Schaik
Dzogchen, often translated as “the great perfection,” is a tradition of meditation practice and poetic literary expression in Tibetan Buddhism. Though its origins lie in Indic Buddhism, Dzogchen developed a distinct form of practice and literary expression only in Tibet. In general, Dzogchen texts evoke and discuss a state of awareness present in all living beings that transcends dualities and conceptual elaboration.
Common terms for this state of awareness are “mind itself” (sems nyid) and “awareness” (rig pa). Dzogchen literature often states that in the presence of this awareness, religious practice oriented toward enlightenment is dualistic and, therefore, not only unnecessary, but also obstructive. Nevertheless, Dzogchen is usually integrated with other forms of Buddhist practice.
The Dzogchen tradition encompasses a variety of literature and practice; the most common way of categorizing this is a division into three classes, the mind series, the space series, and the instruction series. The mind series contains most of the early Dzogchen literature, and more recent material in the same style. The space series enjoyed only limited popularity, and little is known of it today. The instruction series, by contrast, increased in popularity from its appearance in the 11th century and in time supplanted the mind series and the space series, ultimately becoming the predominant form of Dzogchen.
The practice of Dzogchen requires an authorized teacher and the ritual transmission of key texts, as well as an “introduction” to the nature of the mind given by the teacher to the student. The main scriptural sources of Dzogchen practice are texts held to be translations collected in semicanonical compendia, treatises by Tibetan scholars, and revealed texts known as terma, usually said to have been concealed in the 8th century by the tantric master Padmasambhava.
Dzogchen is a living tradition, taught within all of the main Tibetan Buddhist schools, though it remains closely associated with the Nyingma school. Within the latter, Dzogchen is considered to be the most advanced of Buddhist meditation practices, placed at the top of a ninefold categorization of Buddhist practice, the “nine vehicles.” Known in this context as atiyoga, “the utmost yoga,” it is the highest of the three “inner yogas,” the other two being mahāyoga and anuyoga. Dzogchen is also at the pinnacle of the teachings of Tibet’s Bonpo religion, which shares much of its doctrine with the Nyingma school and has in recent years been formally identified as one of the Buddhist schools of Tibet.
Paul F. Bradshaw
The forms of Christian worship changed and developed considerably during the first four centuries of its existence, not least from a distinctive local or regional diversity to an increasing standardization of practice throughout the ancient world. One of the major factors influencing these changes was the eventual adoption of the New Testament as the Christian scripture, and another was the emergence of the church into public life early in the 4th century. Rites of initiation chiefly involving baptism in water marked the entry of new converts into the community of believers. The central observance was the Eucharist, celebrated every Sunday from at least the end of the 1st century. This was supplemented by services of the word on certain days of the week and by regular times of prayer each day undertaken by individuals or small groups of believers. Annual festal celebrations, the majority of which were associated with the anniversaries of martyrs and others who had died, also increased in number as time passed.
Christians understood the worship that they offered through Jesus Christ to be the spiritual fulfillment of the sacrificial cult of the Old Testament. Although at first insisting that they were not a religion like others around them—indeed, they were regarded as atheists by their contemporaries—they ultimately came to adopt the language, images, and terminology of standard religious discourse once their persecution had ceased and the Church had emerged as a cultus publicus in the 4th century. This also coincided with a shift from an understanding of worship as an essentially corporate action presided over by its appointed ministers to one where those ministers were seen as carrying out its liturgy on behalf of the people.
Rebecca Kneale Gould and Laurel Kearns
Any discussion of ecology, environment, and religion in America rightly begins with the American landscape itself. It also properly begins with a reflection on the terms and metaphors that have been used to describe it. Although the term ecology was not coined until the mid-19th century, it is a preferred starting term in the sense that it denotes integrated natural systems within which humans are just one species among many. The word environment, however, is a particularly fitting term for any 21st-century discussion of religion and nature in America, for it frequently implies the conceptual separation of humans from the biophysical world, a separation often driven by economic interests and technological hubris whose consequences are strongly reverberating in the environmental injustices and climate change impacts we are facing today.
This inquiry into the relationship between religion, nature, ecology, and environment necessarily includes the use of all three of these terms, all of which are contested—as is religion—and require nuance and attention to context when they are deployed. Throughout this article, all three of these terms are used somewhat interchangeably, but with attention to the shades of meaning that differentiate them, as well as to the religious, cultural, and political contexts that shape who uses what kind of language and to what purpose.
We understand the history of “religion and ecology/environment” in America as having two dominant strands: (1) a broad, spiritual reverence for nature as inherently sacred, and (2) 20th-century forms of religiously based environmental action and concern. The first, the story of spiritual reverence for nature, has its roots in colonial worldviews, garnered broad enthusiasm in the mid-19th century and continues to flourish today in 21st-century nature writing and in environmental organizations and activism at all levels. The second dominant strand in the history of “religion and the environment” in America is that of environmental concern that is explicitly and unapologetically religiously based. It is this second strand that is the focus of this article. Nevertheless, the broader historical context of the varied, contested meanings of nature in America—including the notion of nature itself as the source of the sacred—is ever present in how religious environmentalism is articulated and negotiated. The many forms of religious environmentalism that have developed since the 1960s are as diverse, complex, varied, and nuanced as religious America itself. In its more liberal Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish forms, religious environmentalism is often grounded in the social justice concerns and activism of earlier periods, particularly in the civil rights movements of the late 1960s and 1970s and in various Social Gospel campaigns from the early 20th century through the 1940s. Much religious environmentalist activism whether at the congregational, denominational, or national level is clearly rooted in earlier, religiously grounded social reform movements, but extends the conceptual reach of these reforms to include both the health of nature itself and the many ways in which environmental degradation directly impacts human health and well-being, often disproportionally along race, class, and gender lines.
More conservative Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, however, have also become increasingly engaged with environmental threats, both in terms of their own history of attention to social justice and in terms of seeing the natural world as God’s creation and, as such, requiring the care and respect of humans who are created “in the image of God.” Using the language of stewardship and “creation care” and emphasizing the necessity of humility in relationship to God and God’s creations, many religious conservatives who may resist the term “environmentalist” have become actively involved in environmental advocacy with particular attention to the growing climate crisis. Their work has included collaborating with religiously liberal groups in direct lobbying for policy changes, a development that has surprised those who assume that environmental advocacy is only a concern of political and religious liberals.
As more recent immigrants have established themselves in the United States, new voices of religious environmentalism have emerged. These include the perspectives of Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Sikh citizens who have brought their own perspectives on environmental concerns to the fore, often developing ideas of nature and forms of environmental activism that are both grounded in their landscapes and cultures of origin and reimagined in an American context. Meanwhile, environmental activism and organizing has continued to emerge from indigenous tribes for whom the sacredness of nature has always been central to their spiritual identities. In many cases, this activism has been directed toward protecting endangered species (who are understood to be kin), combating climate change and resisting petroleum industries that are ravaging sacred lands.
When viewed in historical perspective, religious environmentalism both reflects and sheds new light on the larger story of religion(s) in America of which it is a part. Religious environmentalism continues to wrestle with the legacies of the assumptions about nature that colonial settlers brought with them, even while trying to overcome those legacies. In addition, while religious environmentalism is most obviously a religious response to threats to the natural world, clearly concern for nature is always deeply intertwined with concern for human flourishing. The task of much religious environmentalism is often to clarify the extent to which human welfare and the welfare of nature are profoundly linked. Religious environmentalism, then, is necessarily shaped by larger questions about what kind of nature is being valued, in what ways, for what reasons, and by whom. Such questions are invariably tied to larger issues of identity and cultural power, especially—but certainly not exclusively—in terms of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and religion. Finally, to the extent that American religion has been challenged, revitalized, and transformed by the long history of immigration and the ever-shifting effects of religious pluralism, so too has American religious environmentalism been shaped by the worldviews of newly arrived Americans. The tensions and negotiations inherent in the ways that religious environmentalism is expressed, therefore, often echo the broader tensions and negotiations of American religious identity that are familiar to historians of American religion. Attention to these tensions and negotiations is central to the narrative developed here.
Leslie E. Sponsel
Interest in the degradation of the “natural” environment, and the scientific, academic, and activist responses including ecology have developed in Western societies largely since the 1950s. Western ecology is a subfield of the biological sciences, and more broadly it is related to the environmental sciences, environmental studies, and environmentalism. These have all generated accumulating evidence about the ongoing ecocrises at the local, regional, and global levels, and this in turn requires remedial actions. Ecocrises are increasingly becoming an existential threat to the human species and the planet, especially the reality of global climate change.
Secular approaches are absolutely indispensable and have made progress but have also proven insufficient to turn things around for the better. Spirituality pursued as an integral part of religion and also independently from it may help. Spirituality refers to mystical phenomena that include profoundly moving emotional experiences that can generate vision, meaning, purpose, and direction for an individual’s life in pursuit of the sacred. Spirituality appears to predate any religion, in the sense of formalized social institutions with a system of prescribed sacred texts, specialists, beliefs, values, and practices. Furthermore, while in recent decades affiliation with religion declined, in contrast interest in spirituality increased. Surveys indicate that individuals range from religious and spiritual, religious but not spiritual, spiritual but not religious, to neither religious nor spiritual. Ecology and spirituality are interrelated in various ways and degrees: spiritual ecology has grown exponentially since the 1990s, although it has deep roots. It is a vast, complex, diverse, and dynamic arena of intellectual and practical activities at the interfaces of religions and spiritualities with ecologies, environments, and environmentalisms. Spiritual ecology may help contribute to the reduction or resolution of many ecocrises.
Starting in the late 1960s, a small number of Muslim scholars turned their attention to how the Islamic scriptures and intellectual tradition might help Muslims understand and respond to climate change and environmental crisis. In building this Islamic approach to ecology, these scholars undertook close analysis of the Qur’an, the Sunnah (the collected traditions of the Prophet Muhammad), centuries of Islamic law, and the writings of Sufi mystics and scholars in order to construct Islamic environmental theologies and law. This Islamic ecology remained on the margins of mainstream Islamic discourse for decades, but the participation of Muslims in environmental movements is growing and with it, the need for an Islamic ecology. In developing environmental theologies, Muslim scholars focus upon the relationship of God to the natural world, positing that as God’s creation, the natural world is a sign through which humanity can experience God. Although the natural world is “made useful” to humanity, humans do not have absolute dominion over creation. Rather, humanity is Khalifah—God’s representative or steward on earth. The development of Islamic environmental law from within the shari’ah tradition is arguably just as—if not more—important as articulating an Islamic environmental theology. Some Muslim environmentalists argue for the revival of Islamic land management institutions and look to the many regulations regarding agriculture and water management found in shari’ah as avenues for implementing Islamic environmental law.
The relationship between Egypt and ancient Israel and Judah was far more complex than is often recognized. Egypt figures prominently in their national myths of origin as a way station for the patriarchs and as the “house of slaves” and starting point of the Exodus. Although no Exodus event can be confirmed from extrabiblical sources, its significance in the Bible suggests an historical kernel. The diverse existing traditions about Egypt in the texts of the Pentateuch and other early biblical writings, combined and written down at a later date, seem to reflect different experiences on the part of the groups that coalesced into Israel
By the time of the monarchy, there is more direct evidence for Egyptian influence on Israelite culture, particularly in administrative affairs. It is also clear that Egyptian religion was practiced in the Levant at this time and would have been known in Israel and Judah.
By the time of the divided monarchy, the historical picture comes into better focus. Relations between Egypt, Israel, and Judah were quite variable. Although Egypt’s New Kingdom empire in the Levant had ended, the region continued to be a useful trading outlet, and the pharaohs were not above raiding to assert their power. However, there are numerous examples of fugitives from the Levant finding refuge from their enemies in Egypt. In the interest of maintaining a buffer zone against the northern empires that encroached, Egypt and Kush gave military aid to Israel and Judah at times, through both direct action and supplies.
The prophets had not forgotten Egypt’s role as an oppressor and frequently condemned it, as well as the tendency of Israelite and Judahite rulers to seek its help. But at times the prophets also envisioned peace with Egypt.
There are a number of specific Egyptian texts that supply mutually illuminating points of comparison with biblical texts, including wisdom instructions, prayers, hymns, creation accounts, and autobiographies. These are indications of the extensive, ongoing, cultural interactions between Egypt and the cultures that produced the Old Testament.