Philosophy of religion is not the most obvious discipline to consider through the perspective of the academic contribution to the engagement with the challenge of climate migration. But that is what makes it interesting; are its considerations of the nature of the human person in the universe able to have any impact on the practical world in which the human person evolves, here in the context of climate refugees? Is it able to speak of this real world, to raise awareness over that particular issue? To find out, I interrogated Christopher Hamilton from the department of theology and religious studies.
To the first question on the implications of forced migration induced by climate change in his discipline, he quickly answered that “most English-speaking philosophy wouldn’t have a great deal to say about it” since “philosophy considers itself a highly abstract and a purely conceptual discipline”. But he does not think that this is an inherent problem of philosophy and he does call for a change: “the discipline needs to open itself to ordinary, concrete, practical realities in a way that, I think, is lamentably missing, actually, in the discipline.” I think that this observation is clearly not solely his own; he himself evokes Bernard Williams and Raymond Geuss. But in a way more closely linked to our subject, Steve Vanderheiden who is a specialist of justice theories in relation to climate change, shows awareness of the inability of justice theories to speak of climate change justice: “scholars of justice theory often refuse to apply their principles to concrete social or political issues; instead, they develop those principles in abstraction from contemporary value conflicts or policy debates, preferring to remain silent on how justice might inform controversial political decisions” and in particular in the problem of international injustice that is climate change. First victims of such kind of injustice are of course, forced environmental migrants – and according to both Hamilton and Vanderheiden, philosophy is unable just to see the ethical nature of the challenge they face.
Nonetheless, there seems to be some hope for philosophy according to Hamilton. One of the points he raises is that the most theological part of philosophy (“these parts of philosophy of religion that touches on theology”) there has been a move toward questioning the nature of embodied faith. One of the author he evokes is Mark Wynn and his book Faith and Place. Indeed, in Faith and Place, Wynn insist on the fundamentally embodied nature of religious experience and epistemology, as the divine is met in a particular space, sacred and profane. Place becomes inhabited as human beings are given to associate it with narratives that offers them meaning. What is interesting here is that for Wynn this not only the case for strictly religious meanings but also for other, perhaps less evident forms of meanings such as friendships – Wynn spends chapter 2 on the relation of friendship and spaces through a particular case study. This emphasis on space, faith as enacted, in contrast with the more traditional insistence on faith as knowledge. This provides I think, a very good argument to raise awareness on the deeply tragic nature of the destruction of the lived environment lying at the heart of the problem of forced climate migration; if immediate needs like food and health can be resolved through migration, the deterioration of the environment itself forbids access to the system of meanings embodied in the deteriorated spaces.
Furthermore, I think this type of emphasis on space and materiality rather than discourse in theological philosophy can provide an answer to numerous of the deep paradigmatic issues within Western though that put too much distinction between human and non-human causality (such as those evoked by Hamilton in philosophy the traditional distinction between moral and natural evil and in theology the deeply ambivalent Christian view of the material world). This problem of the intricacy of human and non-human causes (see Paramjit S. Jaswal and Stellina Jolly, 2013), which is deeply problematic to assess responsibilities and find long-term solutions to the climate forced migration challenge, way well be rooted in that. Recovering a conception of the human being as thoroughly material, living in a given, local space can be achieved, at least partially, by philosophy of religion which can therefore help both philosophy and theology to rethink the human being in his environment – beyond Wynn, I would think of movements such as Radical Orthodoxy with a similar insistence on mediations, on embodied faith, on the material and local character of belief. But of course this remains highly speculative and we can’t hope for a change within the Western paradigm on the short and middle-term – from the speculations of philosophy of religion to the concrete human climatic refugee there is a long way.