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Connecting Ecologies: A Report from Campion Hall

15 Dec 2017

Dr John Reader reflects on proceedings at the recent Connecting Ecologies conference in Oxford.

As reported by fellow Associate Research Fellow Tim Howles in an earlier blog, Campion Hall in Oxford has just held a conference on Connecting Ecologies, stimulated by Pope Francis’ Laudato Si. As befits an event with this title, the gathering and connecting enabled by this process were at the heart of the occasion. Welcome, hospitality, a willingness to share and debate from a range of perspectives all based on a common concern for the future of the planet and the possible contribution of religion to that end, were the key characteristics in evidence.

The opening key note addresses were given by Professor Kevin Irwin from the Catholic University of America and an advisor to Pope Francis on this publication and Andreas Carlgren, a former minister for the Environment of Sweden, who was heavily involved in the COP15 UN Climate Change Conference at Copenhagen, which took place in 2009. This set the scene for the subsequent short presentations and group discussions which formed the remainder of the conference. What became obvious over the four days is that there is a momentum building up within certain spheres of the Roman Catholic church based on the Pope’s document and beginning to permeate into wider networks and possible areas of influence. For those of us such as myself who have been involved both pastorally and academically over the last 30 years this is a hopeful and encouraging sign as the global reach of these networks will be vital for pressing this agenda at both a local and international level.

In addition to the content that was shared, which it would obviously be impossible to do justice to, let alone summarise, it is the fact of this event taking place which is of real significance, and there are clearly plans for further gatherings and publications which will flow from this. I will however attempt to articulate some of the key themes which I believe were highlighted.

The need for a new understanding of the relationship between humans and the “natural world”, one which acknowledges that we are always already fully part of that world and both an influence upon it but also impacted by it, so that there is an integral relationship, was a major agenda item. As such, humans need to develop a wider interpretation of what it means to be or become human, one which goes beyond a narrow view of reason or rationality but acknowledges the affective and embodied nature of our existence. Rather than the contested concept of stewardship which mistakenly presents humans as in control (or at least, this has been the case in some interpretations of the doctrine), we talked about care for creation. As one philosopher (Michel Serres) has argued, the opposite of religion is negligence or a failure to give proper attention to those things which are of value and significance.

Care is the antidote to that and something that religious traditions can bring to the debate through both practice and belief. Our drives and desires need to be redirected away from the pressures of consumerism which lead to the damaging appropriations of creation which are partly responsible for the state we are now in. Thus there was a growing critique of established economic structures and understandings based on capitalism in its current forms. We talked about time itself, and the ways in which we underestimate what has been called “the slow work of time” so essential for building relationships, not only with each other but with the world around us. Once again, a dimension that religious traditions have a deeper understanding of through constant practice and devotion, not to mention concepts of vocation and sacrifice which seem so alien to much of contemporary culture.

As with the conference itself, tackling the challenges of such threats as climate change requires a plurality of perspectives and voices, and this raises the question of the role of science in this process and how this relates to religion, always acknowledging that both are complex and nuanced. Inevitably there was discussion about what forms of spirituality would be appropriate in this “state of war” as Bruno Latour describes it in his “Facing Gaia”, and how and whether the disciplines or forms of life characteristic of some traditions might offer an important counter to the tendencies of selfish and thoughtless appropriation which are at the heart of human induced environmental problems. How much can actually be achieved by rules, regulations, governance, external agencies at the macro level, and how much needs to happen at the level of local community and indeed individual conversion to a different way of living? Do we live by grace or by law and what are the implications of this for a Christian engagement with the creation?

The above can do no more than scratch the surface of such a rich and varied series of insights and contributions to what was, or could be, a turning point in in Catholic commitment to and involvement in these issues. I hope that I have conveyed something of the hope and excitement generated by this event, but, of course, once that subsides, the real test will be what happens next, and that is down to the individuals present and what they take back to their respective groups and institutions.

More blogs on religion and public life…

Culture Wars and Happy Holidays
Greg Smith

Hope against Hope: A Necessary Madness?
Matthew Stemp

A Prayer called Paddington
Simon Reader

Connecting Ecologies: Agency, Faith and the Environment
Tim Howles

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