Unrelentingly ominous but essential – Catholic Herald

In the year of 1259, after a run of bad weather in Italy, harvests failed and famine spread across the peninsula. Thousands of religious fanatics known as Flagellants took to the highways and byways, leading processions through towns and cities, whipping themselves into frenzies of self-harm. The movement was sparked by a letter reputedly sent from heaven via an angel. It contained a dire warning – that widespread neglect of the Sabbath had infuriated the Lord. In consequence, the world was being punished with a series of natural calamities, prompting food shortages, plague, war, and death. Indeed, the end of the world was in view, unless the faithful shaped up and got back to church.

Unrelentingly ominous but essential – Catholic Herald

Unfortunately, despite the Flagellants’ savage penances, the weather continued atrocious, and got worse year by year. The blame now shifted from us to them. Repentance degenerated into paranoia, spawning conspiracy theories, scape-goating, stigmatisation. England expelled its Jews in 1290 in a spate of blood libels; in the German lands there were anti-Semitic pogroms and massacres. Way into the 14th century, culprits included groups and individuals charged with deliberately poisoning land, water and cattle; spreading disease and blights. The Knights Templar were accused of Satanism; lepers were especially targeted as were the mentally ill; witch hunts proliferated. The arrival of the Black Death mid-century proved the final shock: between a third and a half of the population of Europe perished. 

The long era of historic deep freeze, the Little Ice Age, usually dated by historians from the 14th century through to the mid-19th, was caused neither by carbon footprint, nor by missing Mass, nor by the Jews or witchcraft. The real culprit was natural periodic climate change: in particular El Niňo (literally the child, named after the baby Jesus since it arises in December), the band of warm ocean water that develops in the equatorial Pacific. At the same time, fluctuations in the atmosphere, known as the North Atlantic Oscillation, were playing havoc; there were cumulative effects of volcanic eruptions; and according to meteorological historians there were probably declining amounts of solar radiation. In the appalling winter of 1407-1408, Europe’s rivers froze, including the lower Danube. Icebergs floated down the English Channel. 

Ranging over two millennia of world and climate history, Professor Philip Jenkins’s new book, Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith: How Changes in Climate Drive Religious Upheaval, tells how periods of major change in the weather, leading to natural disasters, have affected human populations, physically, socially and spiritually. A key feature of the link between climate catastrophes and religion is a sense of justification on the part of the righteous; and retribution for the guilty. Biblical language, as Jenkins notes, routinely resonates through the commentaries on climatic phenomena. Consider the Four Horsemen of the book of Revelation. “Famine, plague, death, and war,” he writes, “all rode closely together, and were shaped by climatic forces.” From the Biblical story of Noah and the flood to dystopian novels and movies of our own day, cataclysm narratives are linked with varieties of blame-gaming. When the accusers subscribe to a touchy, angry, vengeful God: watch out! 

Philip Jenkins, a professor of history at Baylor University in Texas, is author of some 20 books on the history and sociology of religion. Jenkins is not one to follow media trends. In a key study, Paedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis (1996), he tackled the phenomenon of clerical sexual abuse, attempting to inject a measure of balance: “Research of cases over the past 20 years,” he wrote, “indicates no evidence whatever that Catholic or other celibate clergy are any more likely to be involved in misconduct or abuse than clergy of any other denomination – or indeed, than non-clergy.”

In the case of natural disasters and climate change, he offers by inference a similar note of caution. Jenkins is emphatically no climate change denier; but the scores of historic climatic disasters he brings to our notice are salutary reminders that not every cold snap or heatwave is a result of our carbon footprint. Yet he warns us of likely social reactions to severe climate change in the future. We can expect, he asserts, the rise and proliferation of enthusiastic, indeed violent, religious movements. 

As a teenager, he tells us, he was an addict of disaster scenarios in fiction, especially JG Ballard’s novel The Drowned World (1962). Coping with the prospect of future drastic climate change, he declares, finds corresponding parallels with our “inner space”: a circumstance that has fired the imagination of many writers of fiction. In the process of conjuring up catastrophic scenarios, “the future of post-calamity faith,” he writes, “has been imagined in very different guises, both favourable and negative.” He cites stories peopled with new congregations of monks, “rebuilding civilization after the collapse”, acting as “lantern-bearers through a new dark age”. Others portray “irrational sects” that may be “violently puritanical, judgmental, and oppressive, something like the real-life Islamic State”. Some, he hazards, might be “homicidal, even cannibalistic”.  

Jenkins, however, is an historian, not a novelist. As we attempt to envisage futures of drastic climatic change, he counsels, “we know how past societies have responded to extreme climate-related crises, which on occasion seemed so severe as to threaten obliteration … We can trace the range of likely options that those religious forms may take, and understand the conditions – economic, political, technological – that determine when one historical path is taken rather than another.”

Jenkins does not deliver an explicitly pessimistic conclusion. Yet his subtext is unrelentingly ominous. He identifies a variety of religious manifestations: “some political and theocratic, some revivalist and enthusiastic, others millenarian and subversive.” Movements arising from such origins have lasted for decades, he comments, to settle and become a feature of the religious landscape; at times the movements have provoked revolutions, persecutions, and long-term conflicts. 

In the context of what he calls “new visions”, Jenkins acknowledges that climate anxiety has already inspired some religions to discover, or even rediscover, “eco-theology”. His reference to Francis and Laudato si’, (2015) in which the Pope appeals for a deeper sense of creation’s interconnectedness, is somewhat abbreviated, even niggardly. A fairer gloss might credit Francis with extending Catholic moral concerns to include care of the environment in hope of preventing the coming tipping-points. Francis surely deserves our endorsement and support for his pleas to protect the ecology of the vast regions of the Amazon and its peoples. 

Albeit that Professor Jenkins raises more questions than he can possibly answer, this riveting, in places terrifying, book adds an essential dimension to the climate change debate. It signals, moreover, a new perspective on the history of religion itself, by revealing the complex and surprising ways religious groups have risen and fallen, transformed and decayed, threatened and consoled, in reaction to historic climate disasters. Yet the book may not please every climate-change campaigner. The irony of Jenkins’s book lies in the comparisons that might be drawn between some of the self-righteous, scape-goating eco-warriors of our own day, and the castigating inquisitional fanaticism of medieval zealots. 

John Cornwell is Director of the Science & Human Dimension Project at Jesus College Cambridge; his most recent book is Church, Interrupted: Havoc and Hope in Tender Revolt of Pope Francis (Prism Chronicle). 

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