Climate Change, Plagues, and Political Conflict: The Era of the Early Christian Church

February 18, 2023

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The early Christian church emerged and dramatically spread even as Rome’s political dominion dramatically declined, weakened by mass-casualty pandemics, environmental calamities, political instability, and dehumanizing poverty. In this chaotic era, observes Roman historian Dr. Kyle Harper (University of Oklahoma), the church grew and “boasted of being a ‘new ethnos,’ a new nation” that adhered to Christian ethics and attracted people far and wide. What was it about the early church and its response to life-threatening challenges that drew people into its orbit? What does history suggest to us today, as we contend with similar challenges? For our third annual Geneva Forum at Upper House as we host Dr. Harper for an interdisciplinary lecture that interweaves the history of the Roman world, religion, disease, and the environment. His lecture will draw, in part, from his third book, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire (Princeton University Press, 2017), as well as his recent research into the history of pandemics, environmental crises, and humans as agents of ecological change.

About our speaker: Kyle Harper is the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty, Professor of Classics and Letters, Senior Advisor to the President, and Provost Emeritus at his  alma mater, the University of Oklahoma. He is also a Fractal Faculty Member of the Santa Fe Institute. He is a historian whose work tries to integrate the natural sciences into the study of the human past. His main research interests include the history of infectious disease and climate change and their impact on human societies. More broadly, he writes on the history of humans as agents of ecological change and asks how we can approach questions such as biodiversity, health, and environmental sustainability from a historical perspective. The author of four books, Dr. Harper’s book, Slavery in the Late Roman World (Cambridge University Press, 2011), was awarded the James Henry Breasted Prize. His second book,  From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality (Harvard University Press, 2013) received the Award for Excellence in Historical Studies from the American Academy of Religion. His third book,  The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire (Princeton University Press, 2017), has been translated into 12 languages. Harper’s fourth book,  Plagues upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History (Princeton University Press, 2021) is a global history of infectious disease spanning from human origins to COVID-19. It tells the story of humanity’s long and distinctive struggle with pathogenic microbes. It was the 2021 PROSE winner for best book in the history of science, technology, and medicine. Dr. Harper’s next book,  The Last Animal, is a history of humans and other animals, emphasizing the ways that other animals have been instrumental in our success, and the ways that our success is a danger to global biodiversity on par with the most catastrophic events in the history of the planet. Like two of his previous books, it will be published by Princeton University Press.

Celebrating the Spiritual History of UW-Madison—A Multimedia Event

March 1, 2023

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The spiritual history of UW-Madison is deeper, richer, and more complex than most people know. Have you ever wondered why there are so many churches located around the campus? Did you know that most of the early dorms had chapels? Have you noticed the religiously-themed plaques on buildings, or the statue in honor of Abraham in the Humanities’ building courtyard? The more you look, the more you see, and the more you might marvel. 

From the early president, John Bascom, to professors, administrators, and thousands of students, up to today, UW has been home to many whose faith influenced their lives and university work, and vice-versa.  

Through archival research and interviews, Upper House’s Director of University Engagement, Dan Hummel, has recovered religious facts and themes that thread through UW-Madison’s entire history. Undertaken as part of the Higher Pursuits Project, with funding from the John Templeton Foundation, Upper House sought to create original research and present it in ways accessible to the wide university community, telling the ongoing story of spiritual and religious expression at UW-Madison. In recovering this story—and sharing it through written, video-, and audio-recorded means—we aim to illuminate ways spiritual inquiry and practice have been vital to UW’s identity in the past and can continue to help the campus thrive in the future.  

Let the Art Speak—Regarding the Land

April 15, 2023

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About our speaker:

Joel Sheesley, Emeritus Professor of Art at Wheaton College, is a painter whose current work focuses on the landscape. In 2014-15, in conjunction with the Wheaton Park District, he painted exclusively on-site in Wheaton’s Lincoln Marsh Natural Area. Now he collaborates with The Conservation Foundation to raise awareness of the environmental importance of the Fox River and the Fox Valley. He is currently painting Fox River landscapes from West Dundee down to Ottawa, IL, where the Fox River joins the Illinois River. Sheesley has been a recipient of an Illinois Artist’s Fellowship, has exhibited his work in Chicago galleries, had a solo exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center, and is in numerous art collections. Sheesley is also the author of several books, including A Fox River Testimony (Conservation Foundation, 2018). He lives with his wife Joan in Wheaton, IL.

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About our Speaker:

Krissy Kludt writes about identity, the land, mystery, divine love, and the passage of time. Creator of Writing the Wild and Field Guides for the Way and author of A Good Way Through (2017), she guides retreats and workshops on writing, creativity, and spiritual practice. She works and plays in the East Bay outside of San Francisco, on the ancestral lands of the Ohlone and Miwok peoples, with her husband and two sons.

Through the ages, artists of all types have been captivated by the beauty of the natural world. Consider Albrecht Dürer, who painted a nature study titled Great Piece of Turf (1503) featuring sweet-meadow grass and dandelions; a masterpiece, it hangs in the Albertina Museum in Vienna. You will likely find contemporary sculptor Andy Goldsworthy’s work outside a museum. A creator of ephemeral installations that include stones, leaves, sticks, snow, ice, and other natural materials, he calls his artistic process a “collaboration with nature.” In outdoor ampitheaters and concert halls, American composer Aaron Copland’s music plays, capturing the vastness of the American landscape—wide open prairies, Appalachian meadows, bird song. And through the written word, Mary Oliver’s poetry conjures the “wonder and pain” of nature and heralds our need to notice, and identify with, the world around us. Her poem, Wild Geese (2004) is a wonderful example of this.

The land has been and remains the subject of innumerable creative works. Though it suffers drought, fire, floods, and abuse, the earth is ringed with beauty, both subtle and fierce. The land invites observation, wonder, and acknowledgment—by artists and lovers of art together. Viewers, listeners, dancers, and readers share a deep appreciation of the land’s textured character. And artists bear witness to the land and its multi-faceted nature. Together they will find themselves in good company at this year’s Let the Art Speak conference, where the land—as subject and muse—will be front and center

Our presenters were landscape painter Joel Sheesley and poet Krissy Kludt. Emily Wrocklage, Upper House Fellow and videographer, will facilitate a Liturgy for the Land. Art, poetry, lecture, conversation, and a participatory liturgy will infuse our time with meaning.

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