As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, Alexander Hampton wonders if within this health crisis, there’s an opportunity to look at the world a little differently.
“In the context of this emergency, there's something bigger going on,” says Hampton. “In a moment of crisis, there’s also opportunity for transformative change. And the danger is that if we don't take that opportunity, we will just fall back to what we were doing before.”
So strong is his belief that positive change can occur, the assistant professor in the Department for the Study of Religion in the Faculty of Arts & Science has edited a book titled, Pandemic, Ecology and Theology: Perspectives on COVID-19.
With contributions from international scholars of religion, science and philosophy, the book offers ecological and theological perspectives on how the pandemic is more than simply a problem to manage our way out of. It’s also an opportunity to examine our broken relationship with the natural world and rediscover a sense of purpose and meaning.
After we had stocked up and gotten ourselves hunkered down, there was this moment of reflection. I think everybody, to some capacity, has recognized — whether they've embraced it or not — this has been a time to stop and think.
Hampton believes that though COVID-19 is undoubtedly a health emergency, the social isolation and all the restrictions have created a stillness and quietness that’s a perfect setting for rethinking our relationship with nature.
“After we had stocked up and gotten ourselves hunkered down, there was this moment of reflection,” he says. “I think everybody, to some capacity, has recognized — whether they've embraced it or not — this has been a time to stop and think.”
By doing so, he believes there’s been a realization of the presence of nature — particularly in urban areas — that's often overlooked. The pandemic has served as a reminder that we are very much part of the natural world.
“But there's also the sense that we can't just keep managing ourselves out of environmental crises on a crisis-to-crisis basis. Whether it's a pandemic or a wildfire or a drought, there's a need to address these crises on a much more substantive level,” says Hampton.
And it’s not only a matter of needing scientific knowledge or the technology to address it.
If you study religion from an academic standpoint, you're always looking at how people form world views, how civilizations and cultures have come to understand the world around them.
“We've known that we've had an environmental crisis for the past 50 years, if not the past 200 years,” he says. “We know what's going wrong and how to fix it. The problem in many ways is not a knowledge problem; it's how the knowledge we have can be effectively deployed — and that's what brings up these bigger questions.”
According to Hampton, in attempting to answer such questions, religion also plays a key role.
“If you study religion from an academic standpoint, you're always looking at how people form world views, how civilizations and cultures have come to understand the world around them,” he says.
“That's why we're making the argument that there’s a religious studies perspective to be brought to bear — because religions are the frameworks through which people interact with their world.”
The book’s contributors are scholars and writers that Hampton personally admires.
“One of benefits of the stillness was that I was able to reach out and contact these people,” says Hampton. “These are people I love to read.”
That includes Catherine Keller, a respected feminist theologian and a professor of constructive theology at Drew University's Graduate Division of Religion, and Lisa Sideris, a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University Bloomington.
“Lisa Sideris produced an amazing book on the relationship between contemporary scientific rhetoric and religion,” says Hampton.
“I was also super excited to get John Milbank, who's a huge name in British theology and the Irish philosopher Richard Kearney, a very influential public intellectual who works at the intersection of religion and nature.
“They all agree on one thing,” adds Hampton. “The environment needs to be addressed on this larger conceptual level. But they're all approaching it from very different perspectives.”
With such a group, Hampton intends to use this book in his classroom, thinking it will be perfect for his course Religion and Nature. He’s also confident it would appeal to fellow academics and scholars.
“It speaks to anybody interested in the relationship between religion and the environment,” he says. “People within and without traditions can find their way into it and explore some of these perspectives. I hope it’s something that engages the wider community.”
Register for the Book Launch:
A conversation about the transformative possibilities in the human and natural crisis of our time.
Register online for the virtual book launch of Pandemic, Ecology and Theology: Perspectives on COVID-19.
- Friday, November 27, 2020,1 - 2:30 p.m EST.
This event is hosted by the Department for the Study of Religion and the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology, St. Michael’s College.