Journal: Climate, Disaster and Faith, Philip Jenkins, Oxford
Climate change is used to explain a lot these days, perhaps excessively, so it’s tempting to be wary of Philip Jenkins’ connection to religious movements. But, in fact, it makes a lot of sense, because of course religion operates in a larger sociological and ecological context. Historians have noted the effect of climate on civilizations, so it is not surprising that religion is one of them and, moreover, celestial phenomena, mystifying until more recent times, have always been linked to who is up there. Rugged weather, natural disasters and noticeable long-term climate changes have always demanded an explanation. Jenkins writes more prosaically that the environmental context doesn’t explain everything, but it’s nothing either.
Times of change can set the four horsemen free – death, pestilence, famine, war. Shortages can cause political conflict, in turn provoking more apocalyptic and confrontational versions of religion. There is a link between the Leaner Times and the Jewish pogroms in Europe. The Reformation, Jenkins argues, was aided by the fact that Rome was distracted by pestilence and famine due to crop failures throughout Christendom in the early 1500s. Jenkins also argues that the theocratic regime in Geneva under Calvin may s ‘explain in part by the tensions due to an unstable climate.
New religions are born out of cracks in societies weakened by the effects of climate change, as happened, Jenkins suggests, with the rise of Islam. In third-century Rome, Christianity developed in part because Christians “visibly” helped victims of plagues caused by unstable conditions.
The hardships brought about by climate change can be seen as judgmental, prompting prophetic warnings and revivals, as we see in the Old Testament. The ninth-century Mayans increased their offerings to their underworld gods during a prolonged period of drought. The message from the pulpits was that the vicious winters in northeastern North America in the 1740s were a punishment for ingratitude in more prosperous times.
In contrast, the 1300s, when Europe experienced milder conditions and good harvests, was a time of church building and innovation in the arts and theology. Even the Cistercians, who disapproved of the wealth of the world, could not help but enrich themselves. Japan simultaneously experienced a warmer and more stable climate, and Buddhism and new artistic expressions flourished.
Religions can be spread, as they have been particularly to the Americas, by migrants fleeing hardship at home. But they can find in new centers, where religions compete with each other, conflicts when the climate turns against them. In the 1740s in New York City, a series of fires resulting, ironically, from consistently cold winters, were blamed on (minority) Catholics. That same cold, Jenkins argues, made hearts more receptive to the fire of revivals under Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley.
A study like Jenkins’ is of course partly influenced by current worries about what lies ahead at the climax. In Africa right now there are struggles between Islam and Christianity where there is increasing desertification and water shortages. More positively, there has also been an explosion of analysis on how theology might inform our ecological due diligence, an indication that the climate is currently changing the direction of our biblical interpretation.
Nick Mattiske blogs at coburgreviewofbooks.wordpress.com and is the illustrator for Thoughts That Feel So Big.