Brown is interested in “questions of sense of place, and the relationship between ideas about the natural world and apparent realities.”

FASS News, Humanities

Jason Brown approaches Humanities from a uniquely Holistic and ecological perspective

November 18, 2020

Jason Brown is an instructor and researcher jointly appointed to SFU’s Department of Humanities and the School of Resource and Environmental Studies which puts him in the unique position of teaching the arts and humanities from an ecological perspective.

Brown is interested in “questions of sense of place, and the relationship between ideas about the natural world and apparent realities.” 

His academic journey on the way to earning a PhD has traversed the fields of history, forestry, theology, anthropology, photography and ecology. 

In addition to addressing these themes in his teaching and research, Brown writes about them on his blog, Holyscapes and runs interactive online workshops that are open to the public. He is also writing an ecological memoir about growing up in southern California where Brown weaves his own memories and reflections into a series of essays in an “attempt to talk about the ways that the world and its creatures are challenging rigid Western categories of ‘Culture’ and ‘Nature’ with Orange County as a case study.” 

Brown says studying and teaching the arts and humanities has shown him “how to embrace and express beauty, love and even grief. Through studying the humanities we see how deeply connected we are to each other and the Earth that sustains us. To perform, write or make art is to participate in the broader creative impulses at the heart of life itself.” 

This fall, Brown is teaching several sections of HUM 130 “Introduction to Religious Studies” as well as REM 320 “Ethics and the Environment” for the School of Resources and Environmental Management. 

In the Spring 2021 semester, you’ll find Brown teaching HUM 330, “Sacred Groves: Trees and Forests in the Human Imagination”, a course that will include readings from well-known texts and/or authors like J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers, the Bible, and author C.S. Lewis as well as ecological texts as Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees; and Matthew Hall's Plants as Persons

Read more from Jason Brown in our interview below. 

Your research and teaching areas cover religion and ecology and you are cross-appointed with SFU’s Department of Humanities as well as the School of Resource and Environmental Studies. Can you tell us why you chose to enter these fields of study? 

I began thinking about academia in high school. Eventually thinking I would go into history. Then I became immersed in the arts, especially photography. I realized that photography was very anthropological and I became very interested in people’s stories as well as how we make meaning with space/place/landscape. 

So I ended up studying anthropology in undergraduate. For my anthropological field study in Guatemala I ended up researching the relationship between traditional forest tenure and state forest institutions. This led me to study forestry in grad school at Yale. But while I was in the library one time my university I noticed a series called World Religions and Ecology. 

Something really stirred in me toward this combination of lenses. So while doing my Master’s of Forestry, I enrolled in the join degree program with the divinity school focused on religion and ecology. So I was studying theology at the same time as forestry. This field, environmental humanities, or religion and ecology really inspired me. I was drawn to understanding how our ideas about nature are influenced by culture and religion in particular. And also how normative claims like ‘nature is sacred’ might affect ecological movements.

Religion done well is poetry about a mystery. Learning about the past is also an essential way of learning how not to repeat the instances of deep hurt and pain we inflict on each other in exchange for pleasure, power or wealth.

How would you say the arts and social sciences have helped you make meaning in your life? 

First I would say that I don’t just make meaning, as if it were a craft project. This feels too confined within my own head. Meaning is not just made. Meaning is discovered. Meaning is embraced. There has to be some transcendent aspect to meaning in our lives otherwise it becomes myopic, narcissistic and self-serving. 

Ultimately our lives are not just about ourselves. Our lives should also include dimensions of family, friends, community, and looking to serve marginalized and disadvantaged communities and the natural world. We find our identities in relation to others, and meaning and purpose are no different.

The meaning we weave out of the lives we are given should draw from the many strands of life that connect us to each other, to place and the world as a whole. The arts and social sciences have shown me how to embrace and express beauty, love and even grief. Through studying the humanities we see how deeply connected we are to each other and the Earth that sustains us. To perform, write or make art is to participate in the broader creative impulses at the heart of life itself. 

How do you convey this appreciation and openness to the humanities to your students? 

As much as I would love to preach the above as a sermon in each of my classes, I do not! But I would hope that my students absorb some sense of my own love for ideas, people, beauty and mystery at the heart of life. And that they sense through my deep admiration and love for students that my teaching is a labor of love, a prayer for their success in this life. I have met students who are so resilient and strong in the face of great suffering and stress. I have witnessed so much strength in the lives of my students and it continues to nourish my own sense of purpose and meaning. 

At the end of each semester, I send out an encouraging message to my students that acknowledges how difficult university can be, especially nearing finals. I remind them that each of them brings an irreplaceable intrinsic value into this world just by existing, That their value is not determined by their final marks, nor their degrees or their paychecks. As I get to know students over a semester, I am always humbled by their courage, strength and resilience in the face of life's struggles and pain. Each of them inspires me in a different way.

COVID-19 and the concurrent socio-political upheaval around the world has created a lot of uncertainty. As everyone keeps saying, these are “unprecedented times.” 

The humanities can help us to see these events in a large historical context. This has happened before and might happen again. It encourages us to see the ways that human values and culture can be quite resilient and compassionate in times of crisis. These times can help us to reflect more deeply on what is important in life. It can give us time to spend with family and explore works of literature, poetry and sacred texts in our traditions.

How has your research or teaching helped you weather this storm? Any particular skills or insights that academic life given you to see this through?

My abilities to weather this storm come from my religious training. Contemplative spiritual practices rooted in Centering Prayer have helped me to sit with uncertainty and to try to hold space for the suffering of the world. However, we are also dealing with multiple ecological crises. 

So these times are not merely of cultivating patience until we can return to normal. I think we have all felt something of an existential and even apocalyptic flavor to the current period of liminality. We are betwixt and between not only a public health crisis and also a world economic system that needs deep transformation in order to continue to sustain human life that does not strip the ecosystems of this planet of their ability to flourish with us. 

There is something of the archetype of death and resurrection happening in all of this to use the Christian idiom. In my study of the world’s religions, ethical systems and ecological philosophy, I am most inspired by those paradigms that embrace the light and dark sides of life, history and the human person. We need to more fully integrate those sides of ourselves.