The conference is a treasure cave for scholars of religion and environment. This interdisciplinary field, which has grown rapidly in the 2000s, consists of scholars from various countries. AAR/SBL brings the people and the topics together in an unique fashion.
In this blog, I offer some highlights from my own experience. I attended and gave papers both at AAR and SBL in this San Antonio meeting. Key topics include Laudato Si, ecological hermeneutics, eco-reformation, and climate change.
Laudato Si (later: LS), the influential encyclical by Pope Francis (2015), has raised discussion on ecotheology on many fields. This year in the conference there was more papers which dealt with LS than one could possibly attend to. On Saturday morning, I attended a high-quality session on Pauline texts and Ecological Hermeneutics. The session included also a qualified overview (by Michael Patrick Barber) of recent papal teaching on ecotheology, with special emphasis on the use of Paul's theology in that.
On Saturday afternoon, LS was in the main role in a quite peculiar AAR session about the relation of Asian cosmologies and Roman Catholic theology. For me the most interesting of these fascinating papers was Daniel Scheid's presentation on cosmic belonging in Hindu and Catholic theologies of creation. The Hindu concept of "lila", play, was nicely linked with the intrinsic value of all creatures. Play manifests an attitude and a style of living which has meaning in itself and not only in relation to outcomes. In my comment in the public discussion I mentioned the possibility to link Hugo Rahner's and Jürgen Moltmann's work on theology of play with these ideas.
If LS has generated movement towards richer ecotheological reflection especially in the Roman Catholic world, many Lutherans are pushing towards a similar goal with an emphasis on the need of an "eco-reformation". In 2017, the 500th anniversary of reformation is celebrated. The proponents of eco-reformation see that a major need in today's world is reforming the human-nature-relationship to more sustainable ways. The campaign has been spearheaded by North American Lutherans (and supported by the Lutheran World Federation). Two fine new books related to the subject were on sale at the conference: the straight-out-of-the print Eco-Reformation (edited by Dahill and Martin-Schramm) and Transforming Luther: The Planetary Promise of Luther's Theology by Vítor Westhelle (2016).
I gave my AAR presentation at the very session which discussed eco-reformation and Lutheran eco-justice theologies. Twenty minutes was just enough to give an overview on the historical development of these lines of thought. I greatly enjoyed the high-quality discussion in this session by Martin Luther and Global Lutheran Traditions group.
Of the best sessions that I have ever experienced in these conferences was chaired by Prof. Laurel Kearns on the topic of climate change, religion and etnography. The fascinating papers proved that the subject is both hightly interesting and complex. Many factors have to be taken into account - for example as regards the "end-times apathy hypothesis" among evangelicals, which was Robyn Veldman's topic. Many of my personal research interests, such as the role of spiritual experiences in environmental education, were touched by Jeremy Kidwell's wide-reaching paper.
Ecological hermeneutics, the study of Biblical texts with an eye and an emphasis for nature, has grown to a wide movement. I attended many interesting papers dealing both with Old and New Testament. For example, early this year was published a new commentary on Letter to Romans from these perspectives (Sigve Tonstad). My own SBL paper dealt again with history, this time about the ways in which early twentieth-century ecotheologians used biblical texts. It was nice to experience being "a Finnishman in San Antonio" and a systematic theologian at an SBL session.
Two intertwining major issues gave this year's conference a special atmosphere: events related to the recent American elections and climate change. Elections and some very troubling developments, such as the numerous reported cases of sexual harassment of women from minorities by white racists in educational facilities after the election result, were an elementary theme in the plenary sessions.
Many speakers manifested feelings of despair and resignation, also in relation to climate change. It is evident that we live in dangerous and tragic times. However, I stand with the major theme of my current research, the need to integrate hope and tragedy. I raised this point in many sessions and interesting discussions followed. It is clear that more work is needed to differentiate between too-easy optimism and a more radical hope. Hopefully (sic) these themes will be discussed more in the next conference in Boston in 2017.