Religious studies course to focus on environmental crises

Dec. 6, 2012

by David Tenenbaum

A new "gateway" course in religious studies (RELS101, Religions in Global Perspective) will move beyond the traditional survey approach and give instructors leeway to choose a more timely and effective focus. The first edition, on religion and the environment, will be taught by Anna M. Gade, associate professor of religious studies and languages and cultures of Asia. Inside UW-Madison discussed the new course with Professor Gade.

Inside UW: Why did the Religious Studies Program decide to adopt a new approach?

Anna Gade: In recent conversation with faculty, we were excited to come up with a new introductory course that will explore how religious persons and communities address global challenges today. Depending on the instructor's interests, each course may have a different thematic focus, but it will always introduce substantive content about religious systems, and methods and approaches in the academic study of religion.

IUW: Why did you decide to lead off with environment?

AG: Environment is both timely, and all-encompassing, and I have wanted to teach such a course for many years. Until recently, however, I was not aware of enough material suitable to a 100-level course that would help students see how abstract questions of ethics, philosophy and interpretation of scripture connect to real life, globally. Now, scholars in religious studies all over the world have developed English-language material suitable to this type of course. The focus will mostly be Asian systems, and will represent Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and indigenous religions. Students will get one of the first introductions to religious studies in North America that focuses on the environment.

IUW: Your expertise is Islam. What example of Islamic practice or teaching will you include?

AG: During fieldwork in Indonesia, I have studied Islamic scholars who cast  the fundamental sources of Islam into new messages that respond to environmental change. For example, one leader of a religious school, or madrasa, retells a famous account of a caliph who went to heaven not just because of a lifetime of piety, but really because he saved a single bird, and thus cared for God's creation. This kind of preaching is becoming part of the global Islamic and human conversations about how religious people can be engaged with the wellbeing of the Earth.

IUW: Can you give other examples from Asia?

AG: In Thailand, some Buddhist monks have embodied a teaching about environmental care by ordaining trees as if the trees themselves were devotees of the Buddha. And we'll read a book that follows the Yamuna River from the Himalayan mountains through major industrial centers of the North Indian plateau. The river is understood to be a goddess by religious Hindus, so local efforts to further prevent and even reverse the pollution, degradation and stoppage of the river's flow are also religious responses.