Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Connecting Ecologies: Agency, Faith and the Environment

30 Nov 2017

Our new Associate Research Fellow Tim Howles considers the Christian response to environmental change, and an exciting forthcoming conference.

Pinned up on the notice-board of a church I once attended was a laminated sheet of A4 paper. Its dog-eared edges indicated that it had been there for many months, perhaps even years. The graphic design skills were rudimentary, reflecting a certain amateurism of approach: clip-art images of trees and animals were everywhere, and the whole thing was set on a lurid green background. Its title read: 10 Things Christians can do to Help the Environment. Following that was an itemised list of action points, all of them very sensible and useful. Presumably at a later date, however, some well-meaning person had noticed that something was missing. For stuck on the bottom of the notice was a post-it note containing the following Bible verse:

Say to those with fearful hearts: “be strong, fear not! For see, your God will come and save you”. (Isaiah 35:4)

That notice, with its brief addendum, has remained in my mind ever since. The list of action points on its own seemed a little banal and platitudinous in the context of a church notice-board. And yet the Bible verse, with its strong deferral to providence and its anticipation of the irruptive agency of a transcendent being, seemed to jar with the call-to-action being made in the notice itself. Somehow, these two calls were not well integrated.

So what is the relationship between human agency and the Christian faith when it comes to the environment? It’s a question among the many issues addressed in the recent William Temple Foundation Annual Lecture by Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley, who spoke passionately about the need to put the living world at the heart of what we do.

With that question in mind also, I’m very glad to be involved with a series events based at Campion Hall in Oxford next month. We will be bringing together specialists from different academic and professional backgrounds with the aim of stimulating dialogue and reflection about an integrated response to environmental change. The inspiration behind this interdisciplinary approach is the vision promoted by the recent papal encyclical Laudato Si, where Pope Francis emphasises that ecological challenges can only be addressed through an appreciation of the interrelatedness of different spheres of life, whether economic and societal systems, scientific developments, or spiritual expression.

The main symposium section of Connecting Ecologies will consist of a group of invited specialists, of which the Foundation’s own Dr John Reader is one: do keep your eye out for updates from us in light of the sessions we attend. Our focus will not so much be an analysis of ecological stress, but rather an attempt to map out positive responses to it, including consideration of the conceptual, political, social, scientific and theological resources that would be required to bring it about.

But there will be a number of public events as well. One of them in particular aims to model the integrated approach we are taking throughout the week: on Thursday 7th December there will be an event in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, featuring newly-commissioned musical compositions, readings from Laudato Si, and poetry recitals from G. M. Hopkins and others. It promises to be an opportunity for us all to hear different voices on this theme, religious and secular, with the idea of stimulating reflection, all in the wonderful setting of the cathedral itself: quite an integration! If you are in the area, you would be most welcome to attend (the event is free, but please register for a ticket as described below).

We will be posting reflections on Connecting Ecologies here in the weeks ahead.

  • For more information on Connecting Ecologies, see here.
  • To register for the recital for free, see here.

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