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Climate, Catastrophe and Faith: How Changes in Climate Drive Religious Upheaval

Climate, Catastrophe and Faith: How Changes in Climate Drive Religious Upheaval

Madeleine Pennington reviews Philip Jenkins’ survey of the historical relationship between climatic and religious changes. 19/01/2022

Few moments in recent history should convince us of our continued embeddedness in the natural world more clearly than the present day.

Most obviously, we are living through a period of collective climate reckoning, as we come to terms with the sobering impact of human activity on finely tuned ecosystems. This is especially pertinent in the wake of COP26: while making significant progress on a range of environmental policy issues, and holding our political leaders to an accelerated ratchet mechanism of annual re–evaluations, the Glasgow Pact will not itself keep global warming to the critical 1.5°C limit so desperately needed.

At the same time, we remain locked in a continued and global struggle to bring COVID–19 under control, reminding us of the limits of modern medicine (and perhaps statecraft), the fragility of human life, and the disturbing consequences of human overreach into natural habitats.

And recent disruptions to our supply chains (the prospect of turkey shortages at Christmas and an ongoing HGV driver crisis to name just a few) remind us that, despite living in a globalised and predominantly urbanised society, we are still inexorably dependent on a complex web of interrelationships and dependencies when it comes to our place in the food chain.

Our globalised economy may have left us feeling more secure than ever, but the necessities of life are in fact vulnerable to a far wider range of variables than they ever were – and underlying all these crises is a fractured relationship with the planet we call home.

Seen through this lens, Climate, Catastrophe and Faith – Philip Jenkins’ thought–provoking, careful, and ambitious survey of the historical relationship between climatic and religious changes, published in April 2021 – is certainly timely.

Stretching from the Middle Ages to the present day, Jenkins’ study considers how shifts in climate and weather cycles have impacted the religious landscape throughout human history. The number of pertinent historical case studies included should not distract us from the unprecedented nature of our own situation; Jenkins makes clear that contemporary climate change is historically unique in its cause and likely impact. Nonetheless, combinations of El Niño, solar, and volcanic activity have ensured people in many other historical eras have found themselves at the mercy of the natural world for extended periods of time.  

How did they react?

Jenkins begins with a positive example: the High Middle Ages, and especially the “Golden Age” of Medieval Warm Period which culminated around the twelfth to thirteenth centuries. This was a long stretch of warmer weather conditions which led to thriving agriculture and, therefore, encouraged a period of economic prosperity, higher populations, and urban growth. In turn, the book suggests that these forces have been neglected as contributing factors to increased creativity and philanthropy, university learning, and architectural and theological innovation. Many of the most well–known religious orders originated in this period, including the Cistercians, Carthusians and Templars, and the century after 1150 alone gave rise to Notre Dame in Paris, Canterbury Cathedral, York Minster and Westminster Abbey to name but a few. This was also a time of religious codification in Europe – most obviously at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, where many of the most well–known Christian doctrines were defined, including transubstantiation and papal primacy.

Nonetheless, the Medieval Warm Period eventually gave way to the Little Ice Age, and the majority of Jenkins’ work is focused on bitter struggles against far more hostile surroundings. The main chapters of the study pivot around especially harsh periods in the fourteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; Jenkins chiefly stresses the way in which climate instability drove religious paranoia and persecution, flaring up in years that suffered particularly awful conditions. Perhaps the most striking examples in this respect are the Great Famine of the early fourteenth century (accompanied by the disturbing escalation in religious intolerance and persecution compared to earlier times) and the particularly brutal cold era of the later sixteenth century (which coincided with the peak of European witch–hunts).

The basic link between hostile natural cycles and an unforgiving religious landscape is convincing, and offers a crucial reminder that human societies are highly receptive to material conditions. Of course, our forebears knew that. It is we who forget, and Jenkins’ study should therefore be understood primarily as a work of historical corrective. The strength of the connection is perhaps even less surprising when we consider that “with few exceptions, premodern societies accepted broadly providential worldviews, based on the idea that worldly affairs are controlled by the divine and that human conduct induces God or gods to show their pleasure or displeasure” (p. 13). Simply put: if God is not happy with us, who can we blame?

At the same time, Jenkins is clear that we must avoid simple formulae for the relationship between climatic and religious trends. “Scholars rightly resist the temptation to reduce religion to simple material terms, and environmental determinism has a long and sometimes controversial history. But if the material basis to social and cultural change is not everything, neither is it nothing” (p. 4). It is an important caution. After all, having drawn a link between theological innovation (including doctrinal codification) and favourable climatic conditions in the Medieval period, it is then surely difficult to argue that the increased concern for doctrinal purity in the Little Ice Age was caused by harsher conditions alone, without the acknowledgement of other factors at play. (Indeed, doesn’t doctrinal codification itself make doctrinal purity easier to chase?)

The picture is further complicated by a range of factors which picked up pace in the early modern period, all of which loosened the connections between climate and faith: the increased sophistication of states themselves; Enlightenment suspicion of supernatural explanations for weather and climatic events; increased urbanisation; new technology.

Simply, as people became less reliant (and less aware of their reliance) on the land, the power of climate change to affect our spiritual outlook has diminished. Most of us today have “no inkling of whether the previous year’s harvests [have] been spectacularly good or atrociously bad” (p. 171) – to which end, if you have never considered the relationship between your home refrigerator and your religious sensibility, this book is the place to start.

Nonetheless, Jenkins strikes an ominous note against this learned sense of security: as we are now coming to realise in real time, the general assumption that the natural world cannot touch modern, developed societies is a flawed one (pp. 173–4).

Finally, therefore, we arrive at the present. How might the global religious landscape be affected by contemporary global warming?

Many of the implications Jenkins predicts still originate in poorer global regions. From a Western perspective, the impact of human migration (as millions of people are forced to leave their homes as a result of global warming) will reconfigure not only the geopolitical landscape, but the demographics of countries less affected by – or better able to protect themselves from – the changing climate itself. Jenkins also predicts the rise of religious violence and extremism in key countries that are likely to experience political destabilisation as a result of climate pressures.

These may seem somewhat narrowly–drawn predictions in light of the far wider reassessment of modern values that the climate crisis may demand, though in fairness, as a historian, Jenkins is naturally clear that any significance of his work for the modern day must flow from that historical concern rather than driving it (pp. 200–201).

Still, readers will undoubtedly have their appetites whetted to consider not only the straightforward sociological impact of climate upheaval, but also the deeper existential questions raised. Above all, what will the climate crisis really mean for our collective spiritual psyche, especially in the comparatively non–religious developed world? Previous Theos polling in May–June 2020 found that nearly 1 in 5 respondents had “[felt] a deep connection with nature/the earth” during the early pandemic – a higher proportion than had prayed, meditated, sought out a holy place, read a holy book, or learned more about religion and spirituality in general. We are also living in an age of booming nature writing, the proliferation of new spiritualities, and a reawakening of climate concern among the established faith groups. The current crisis is not one we can hide away or outsource, and it is not a problem only for farming communities, but for all of us.

In that sense, Climate, Catastrophe and Faith raises as many questions as it does answers for anyone with an interest in religious futures. Then again, perhaps it is for the rest of us to answer them.

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Image:  Frans Vandewalle/flickr

Madeleine Pennington

Madeleine Pennington

Madeleine is Head of Research at Theos. She holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Oxford, and previously worked as a research scholar at a retreat and education centre in Philadelphia. She is the author of ‘The Christian Quaker: George Keith and the Keithian Controversy’ (Brill: 2019), ‘Quakers, Christ and the Enlightenment’ (OUP, 2021), ‘The Church and Social Cohesion: Connecting Communities and Serving People’ (Theos, 2020), and ‘Cohesive Societies: Faith and Belief’ (British Academy, 2020). Outside of Theos, she sits on the Quaker Committee for Christian and Interfaith Relations.

Watch, listen to or read more from Madeleine Pennington

Posted 19 January 2022

Climate change, History, Review


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