Introducing Theologies for Future Climates

| by Hannah Malcolm

At the end of last year, Catholic theologian Carmody Grey delivered the Hook Lecture at Leeds Minster on faith and climate change. I recommend the entire lecture – it is available online. One of her observations particularly stood out to me, and it is, I think, at the heart of theologising the futures we face: “If it is knowledge we lack, then it is knowledge not about the universe but about ourselves.” In asking what our futures should or should not be, the knowledge we lack will only be found with a redirected gaze, a searching assessment applied not to satellites but to human desires and imaginations. The irony is that as we pick up speed on our great technological project, remaking the world in our image, our knowledge of the world is increasingly knowledge about those human desires, if only we had the courage to see it. Floods, disease, fire, famine: the traditional gap between moral and natural evil has begun to collapse. 

We confront a shared story about human sin, and one which we can tell with punishingly accurate detail. It has never been easier to acquire knowledge about the many ways that humans have failed. And it has never been easier to map the ways that the most powerful humans glimpsed these failures before they arrived and pursued them anyway. But the challenge in communicating this shared story is that it does not lead to a shared future. Instead, the future splinters before us; the heart of this failure is an alienation which leads to increasingly disparate experiences.

You can see this disparity in our descriptions of nonhuman creation. I live in the UK, where the effects of climate change are not yet universally life-threatening, and wealthy landowners have spent centuries neutering and subduing every inch of this temperate island. In recent history the effect of this depletion is a romantic revival in our appreciation of nonhuman creation – absence makes the heart grow fonder. Other creatures do not threaten us, and so we eulogise that which we have destroyed.

Such a response is, I think, both understandable and appropriate (and it might save the diminishing wilds that remain to us). But it is by no means universal, and in fact it is unusual. In the majority elsewhere, there are many humans who have much more faithfully kept trust with other creatures and have found that trust broken through no fault of their own; previously reliable rainy seasons do not arrive, or instead their arrival brings death. These futures do not follow our neat rules of justice. They cannot be tamed or romanticised. And so despite their growing reality, many of us stubbornly resist their interruption into our present denial. We find that such searching self-knowledge is too burdensome for us. 

In The Great Derangement Amitav Ghosh describes this descriptive failure as a kind of collective cultural dishonesty. As extractive and finance capitalism continues to homogenise the cities and industrial centres of the world, so too its accompanying story of uniformity, predictability, and gradual progress has spread, rendering the realities of chaotic and violent futures unthinkable to more and more of us. Look, he says, at the colonial legacy of cities built on low-lying and precarious shores: Mumbai, New York, Hong Kong, Kolkata, Fukushima. The truth does not align with our desires, and so we have suppressed it. In essence, we do not want to look ourselves in the face. 

The task of theology is to tell the truth as best we can. It is to our shame that much of Christian theology has long neglected the kind of truthfulness which might have helped us see these futures and turn from them. But this failure does not now relieve us of this task. The offerings in this first issue of Theology and Society reflect attempts to start speaking truthfully about these different futures. Here, you will find explorations of the role of indigenous theological education amid climate and ecological trauma. You will find divergent descriptions of nature and the sacred from different religious traditions. And you will find a return to what we mean by hope, and whether we can be more honest when we evoke it. We are trying to tell this shared story of endings and losses, of the un/natural, of blame, of hope and hopelessness. And we are trying to tell it truthfully, which means we are trying to talk about the different futures we face, even while we take up the shared responsibility of knowing ourselves in the light of our creator God and being open to the gracious transformation offered, even now. 

Hannah Malcolm is a Ph.D. student at Durham University.