Professor Lisa Sideris and IU Religious Studies congratulate
In a recent offering of my undergraduate course on “Religion, Ethics, and the Environment” I gave students a fieldwork assignment to get them thinking about environmental issues beyond the walls of the classroom. Student were provided a few options to choose from, but I also encouraged them to pitch a fieldwork idea to me, if they preferred. Almost no one took me up on this, except James. The project he proposed, and his subsequent work with me on a senior thesis, illustrate what a perceptive interdisciplinary thinker he is. As an avid climber, who has led outdoor adventures in the American West and elsewhere, James proposed a fieldwork project aimed at surveying other climbers regarding their spiritual experiences in outdoor recreation. In his write-up of the project, James eloquently described the experience of climbing as one in which “the usual responsibilities of life—finances, work projects, relationships—are replaced by a dauntingly all-consuming responsibility for the self. The process is intoxicatingly awesome, emphasis on the awe.” James and I discovered our mutual fascination with the experience of awe and wonder as a response (a feeling? mental state? virtue?) emanating from the intersection of science, religion, and nature.
I was delighted when James proposed a senior thesis on the topic of awe and wonder in relation to nature spirituality and environmentalism. James combines training in social science research methods, and knowledge of psychology, with a love of nature writing, and years of outdoor experience. In our regular meetings to discuss his wide-ranging set of readings, it became apparent to me that James is driven to undertake work that he believes can be useful in the real world. He wants scholarship to matter. Perhaps cultivating a sense of wonder could be the key to drawing people into deeper concern and action for the sake of the planet. When he encountered work suggesting that wonder and awe may be highly ambiguous states that do not, unerringly, steer humans into the arms of nature—and that might even produce dispositions or forms of knowledge contrary to valuing nature--James took this in stride. His openness to scholarship that (in his own words) leads to “complicating the virtuousness of wonder” is indicative of his impressive ability to tolerate ambiguity, to attend to perspectives that do not ratify his preexisting hopes or expectations. During spring break, when IU moved classes online and sent students away from campus, James was working and recreating in Utah—one of his beloved outdoor spots. He eventually made his way back to Bloomington, but, sadly, we were not able to resume face-to-face discussions. (There’s something particularly disheartening about discussing wonder for nature via Zoom interface!) While I’m saddened that we could not conclude our discussions in a technologically unmediated fashion, I will remember my conversations with James as one of the highlights of my teaching career. I know he’ll continue to make a difference in the world.
– Professor Lisa Sideris