Day 2: Thursday, June 1, 2006

Mark Wallace, Associate Professor of Religion

"Sacred Ground: Green Spirituality as Resource for Sustainable Living"


Mark Wallace, Associate Professor of Religion
Unlike what many fundamentalists may want to espouse, Mark claims in his opening that he does not believe religion is the major conflict over our time. Rather, Mark argues that economic and cultural forces underlie the religious conflict so prevalent in current discourse. The "politics of resentment" exercised by conflicting factions creates socioeconomic conflict that is covered by a veneer of religious differences. Conflict between the predominantly Christian U.S. and the predominantly Muslim Middle Eastern countries arises not from religious differences but from economic disparities and cultural conflict. Based on news headlines and popular opinion, it may seem that the primary security threat of our time is terrorism that stems from religious differences. But Mark argues that the largest security threat of our time is environmental degradation. Anthropogenic degradation of natural ecosystems, Mark thinks, results from a spiritual crisis. And here lies Mark's thesis: that a spiritual gap between humans and the rest of the "earth community" has led to the greatest security threat we face today and perhaps have ever faced.

Wallace urges society to envision a spiritual nature in all things.
Images of the Christian Trinity predominantly envision God as the Father or the Son, images that conjure up recognizable forms and concepts in our minds. But the Holy Spirit is a trickier thing to represent in an image. Perhaps the most common image is God as a bird, an earthly, animal form. Mark argues that perhaps reenvisioning God in the form of an animal could help us to reconcile the hardened differences between humanity and the biotic world. Showing images from some Native American spiritual traditions, Mark points out that the here, too, images of the Father and the Son contain between their two visages an eagle, the Spirit. In this Trinity image is captured a lineage through which God exists in an invisible, esoteric form as well as a material, human form -- and these two forms are bridged by the Spirit, the eagle, that bridges the gap between invisible and material. Images such as this one, Mark argues, are vital to developing a green spirituality and imagery.

Students built a Torii Gate, above, in the Shinto tradition last year as a project for Wallace's course, "Religion, the Environment, and Contemplative Practice."
The Crum Creek, which runs adjacent to the College campus and empties into the Delaware River, feeds land that houses many migratory bird species. In our backyard here is a life-giving river necessary for the ecological soundness of the areas. But it is a damaged habitat, polluted by industrial dumping, human land use change, and encroachment into forested systems. Mark described how some students in one of his classes designed a Torri Gate that they erected from found materials in the Crum Woods. With this structure they hoped to call attention to the inherent spirituality of the Crum Woods, to build a structure that could fit harmlessly into the landscape and reunite Crum-goers with the woods and the land.

The approach Mark espouses would require a reanalysis of our beliefs. We would have to move from a consumption-oriented lifestyle into meaning-driven lifestyle. We would have to envision a spiritual nature in all things, a sense of green animism that would reconnect each of us with all other life -- not just our human brethren -- surrounding us.

So what might our society look like if we were to reconcile our consumerist society with sustainable living? Can we create a secular spirituality that might be appealing to our society as a whole?

Colin Purrington, Associate Professor of Biology

"The Evolution Chapter in the Sordid Struggle Between Science and Religion"


Colin Purrington, Associate Professor of Biology
What is the relationship between science and religion? Do they exist, as Stephen Jay Gould has argued, that science and religion are indeed "non-overlapping magisteria"? Probably not, says Colin Purrington, calling on an observation of how religion and science really are in conflict in our society, regardless of whether they should be.

Colin highlighted how the rhetoric used to speak about evolution influences people's perception of it. Though people may agree that fossils are very old or that a lineage may change morphology over time, just spicing a conversation with terms like "evolution" or "natural selection" can easily turn someone’s opinion about what they may have previously agreed to. The question Colin says he is frequently asked, "Do you believe in evolution?" is bound to stir anti-evolution fervor by many people you may ask.

Purrington designed these stickers as part of his evolution outreach efforts.

Colin then trudged through the popular stories about the current conflicts between religion and evolution, showing results from recent polls, and talking about book labels used in Cobb County, Georgia, and mentioning the basis for the recent case in Dover, Pa.

Michael Marissen, Daniel Underhill Professor of Music

"Rethinking the Musical Classics: The Challenge of Anti-Judaism in Bach and Handel"


Michael Marissen, Daniel Underhill Professor of Music
Handel's Water Music and Bach's Brandenburg Concerto feature two extremely different uses of the horn; for both composers these are their first uses of the horn. In Handel's pieces, the horn is used to lead the rest of the orchestra. In Bach, however, the horns begin with a sound separate from the rest of the orchestra. In other words, the Handel piece allows the horn to guide the rets of the orchestra in its style, whereas the Bach piece forces the horn to assimilate into the traditional elegance of the rest of the orchestra. Marissen suggests that Handel is largely emotional, whereas Bach is largely intellectual.

I must say that I have absolutely no background in music history, but listening to even just the first half hour of Michael's talk has revealed the intense imagery embodied in music. He points out that many people argue that there is no meaning to Bach's music; however, Michael argued that the idea that Christ is a character of God -- an inverted copy like that of chartacters on a typewriter -- is embodied in an inversion of the note patterning in a liturgical piece used in almost every church service to embody and describe Christ in relation to God the Father. That is, the melodic pattern used to describe God the Father are inverted when the lyrics describe Christ the Son. This is but one example of the many ways Michael presents that the music is itself expressing deep theological ideas.

So, now that it's clear this music contains theological statements, how is Handel's Messiah anti-semitic?

Johann Sebastian Bach


To show that this idea isn't completely off the mark, Michael displayed an image (from an illustrated gospel from the early Middle Ages) that depicts Christ as pushing the blindfolded, green-robed (showing her connection to the earth), sinagoga (Judaism) with her displaced crown into the gaping jaws of hell, while simultaneously annointing the blue-robed eclesia (Christianity).

The theological anti-Judaism found in the Bible, Marissen argues, is exacerbated by Handel and Jennens' The Messiah. He presented a series of textual references that exemplify his argument that The Messiah is rife with anti-semitic sentiment; though individual cases may not be that much, taking all such instances together highlights this common theme. The beginning of the Hallelujah chorus itself is a wonderfully righteous text, Michael claims, but juxtaposed with the previous aria that condemns the Jews and charges Jesus to beat them with iron rods and dash them across the Earth out of their land, it is hard to argue against the existence of anti-Semitic sentiment in The Messiah.

Michael's lecture highlights a question I had yesterday about religion and conflict. So far, the lectures have talked about the conflict between rleiigon and some other force. Here, Michael argues for a religion-religion conflict that is a sort of metonymy for a British self-conception that they were the true, anointed Israelites. The manifestation of a nationalistic idea in the religion (and perhaps vice versa) harkens back to Mark's comments yesterday morning about the incorporation of religion into politics.

About This Site

Alumni College gives the members of the Swarthmore community an opportunity for continuing education and for experiencing the remarkable quality of the current faculty. This year, Adam Roddy '06 offers his thoughts about the current theme, the future of religion in an age of conflict.

Adam Roddy '06

Adam Roddy '06 graduated as an Honors biology major and religion minor from Chattanooga, Tenn., and pursued both subjects throughout his college career. Write to him at

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