Critical Approaches to Faith and Environment

The 9 a.m. session on Tuesday, May 24, of the Sacred Texts Human Contexts conference, titled “Critical Approaches to Faith and Environment I,” included presentations by John Fadden, adjunct professor at St. John Fisher College, and Shalahudin Kafrawi, professor at Hobart and William Smith College.

In “The Apocalypse of John: Friend and/or Foe of the Environment?” Fadden gave an analysis of the book of Revelation. As a Biblical scholar, he said that we have to be careful about using a two thousand year old text to discuss contemporary issues. John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, was writing for a first century C.E. audience in the Roman Empire; he was not writing for a twenty-first century audience, and did not specifically address global climate change or other ecological concerns.

“He’s also not really concerned with the end of the world in the way we have perhaps come to associate with the apocalypse,” said Fadden, “especially what we have come to call dispensationalism,” a contemporary interpretive framework that inspired the Left Behind series of books. “That’s not really his interest,” said Fadden, and “as Biblical scholars, we have to be sympathetic to the first century audience.”

However, the intended audience of the Bible is often forgotten. For example, in 2005, during George W. Bush’s presidency, some observers believed that Bush was influenced by an apocalyptic attitude, and those observers believed this attitude had an impact on Bush’s environmental policies. Some of these observers went to far as to wish that Revelation had not been included in the Bible. But Fadden says you can’t really blame a first century text for George W. Bush’s environmental policies. “The problem is not the text so much as how you might interpret it,” he said.

Thus Fadden is interested in seeing if there is an alternative, “eco-friendly way of reading the text.”

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Environmental ethics panel

Presenters at the Environmental Ethics session of the Sacred Texts Human Contexts conference at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, May 25, were Lyndsey Graves, recent graduate of Boston University School of Theology; Michael Malley, student at Methodist Theological School in Ohio; and Etin Anwar, professor at Hobart and William Smith College.

I was particularly interested to hear Graves’s presentation, “Liberal vs. Literal?: Opportunities for Environmentally Ethical Pentecostal Interpretations of Genesis 1:26-28.” Pentecostalism is arguably the fastest growing religious group in the world, and as such could be a valuable interfaith ally in addressing the current global environmental crises.

Graves chose to address Gen. 1:26-28 because it has been such an influential text, with its injunction to “subdue” and have “dominion” over the earth. While this text has often been interpreted as giving humankind license to exploit other organisms and non-living things, eco-theologians have re-interpreted the text as calling on humans to be responsible stewards of the earth. Graves said that today, some Pentecostals are now “creatively coming up with ways to reinterpret Genesis 1:26-28.”

“I am focusing on the words ‘dominion’ and ‘subdue’,” Graves said. She pointed out that liberal Christians can say that this passage is not particularly important to them, or they can re-interpret the text to call for stewardship, “which I do not think is really justified in the Hebrew.”

But Pentecostals do not really have these options. Pentecostals assert the “inerrancy of the word of God, and because of this they do not aim to evaluate the Bible, but “to understand it and submit” to the will of God.

Graves reviewed the work of several relevant theologians who have provided readings of the text that might prove useful to Pentecostals.

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Dahwoodi Bohra mosque

Recently, a new mosque opened in Palo Alto, which is affiliated with a specific group of Shia Muslims known as Dahwoodi Bohra. I’ve been looking into Dahwoodi Bohra, and have found that it challenges some of my notions of Islam.

Dahwoodi Bohra is a branch of Isma’ili Islam, along with the better-known Druze; and Isma’ili is a branch of Shi’a Islam. Isma’ilism has Seven Pillars, instead of the more familiar Five Pillars of Islam. The Isma’ili consider the Shahadah — “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet” — to be the grounding statement of all Seven Pillars, and therefore not a pillar in itself. The Seven Pillars of the Isma’ili include the familiar Salat (prayer), Zakat (charity), Sawm (fasting), and Hajj (pilgrimage). The three additional pillars are Jihad (struggle), Walayah (guardianship of the faith), and Taharah (purity). Although I usually think of Muslims performing Salat, prayer, five times a day, the Dahwoodi Bohra pray three times a day, since they perform some of the prayers at the same time.

The Dahwoodi Bohra have characteristic clothing which they may wear at religious ceremonies. The men wear a white tunic and coat, with a hat known as a topi (on Youtube, I found instructions on how to properly starch a topi here). Women typically wear head scarves, but rather than the subdued fabric I usually see Muslim women wearing, Dahwoodi Bohra headscarves tend towards the bright and spangly.

In common with other Shi’a Muslims, a major ritual is the Mourning of Muharram, which is observed in the first Islamic month; this observance is generally not performed by Sunnis. And there is much more to learn about the Dahwoodi Bohra: they have their own language; the largest number live in Gujarat, India, and Karachi, Pakistan; the women sometimes perform genital mutilation of girls, yet the men may be unaware of this; etc.

Yet learning even this little bit about the Dahwoodi Bohra has shown me the extent to which I have assumed that Sunni Muslims are normative. I should know better: every religious tradition I have started investigating has proved to be far more diverse than my original assumptions allowed for.

 

And here are some links to news stories on the local Dahwoodi Bohra mosque: here, here, and here. There’s not much about the congregation on Salatomatic, but for reference, their listing is here. Finally, the “official” Dahwoodi Bohra Youtube channel, which appears to be mostly audio files, is here.

List of faith communities near Palo Alto

I’ve been compiling a list of religious organizations mostly in Silicon Valley, from San Jose to San Francisco. The middle school class of our congregation visits other faith communities, and this list is designed to be used as a resource to help the class find places to visit.

Even though I was familiar with the work of Harvard’s Pluralism Project, even though I expected a wide diversity of religious traditions, I was still astonished at the religious diversity I found: there are hundreds of faith communities, ranging from Anabaptists to Zoroastrians, within an hour’s drive of our congregation.

Most of the research I did was online. It proved difficult to research some faith communities online, as quite a few do not have Web sites, or they have Web sites that are so outdated you don’t trust them. Yelp proved to an excellent source of information about many faith communities, especially when there were recent reviews (search for “Religious organizations” in a given locale). Youtube also proved a good source of information in a few cases; sometimes faith communities have inadequate Web sites but their members may post videos that provide useful information. One or two congregations had Facebook pages that provided the most recent information.

This list also relies on some real-world research. Our middle school class has visited some of these congregations, as noted on the list below. I also relied a lot on word-of-mouth information — people telling me about some faith community that they knew about, or had friends in, or belonged to.

Perhaps the most difficult part of making this list was figuring out a reasonable way to organize it. I started with the eight major world religions identified in Stephen Prothero’s book God Is Not One; added Zoroastrian, Sikh, Baha’i, and Jain to the list; then finished off with a list of New Religious Movements organized according to the categories in the book New Religious Movements, ed. Christopher Partridge. That takes care of the major divisions. It was more difficult to know how to categorize sub-groups within Christianity and Islam. Christianity is arguably the most diverse of the major world religions, and I did the best I could based on various scholarly reference works. Islam was also challenging to categorize, and I finally decided to use the categories from the Salatomatic Web site.

If you live in Silicon Valley, I’d love it if you looked over the list — then let me know if you see any errors or obvious omissions.

And now: the list! Continue reading “List of faith communities near Palo Alto”