What could you say about the implications of forced migration induced by climate change in your discipline?
Well, to be perfectly honest, as I said I think that most English-speaking philosophy wouldn’t have a great deal to say about it, except perhaps at a very abstract level, when people may be speaking in terms of, you know, political theories, and their applications in the “real world”. On the other hand, there are more people in political philosophy in the last ten years in the UK who have started to suggest that some of the highly abstract moral theories and political theories of people like John Rawls, in his theory of justice, fail to engage with the real world. So, Bernard Williams who has died now but who wrote a number of late essays on the importance of politics and the importance of taking politics seriously in a real world context; and there is somebody at Cambridge called Raymond Geuss who has done a similar thing – in fact his book is called ‘real politics’. So perhaps there is some move, so I would say that in English speaking philosophy, there is not much, people don’t directly engage in it that much I think. On the other hand within continental philosophy, I think it’s clear, you know, I was mentioning in the class someone whose name is Michel Serres; you know this is somebody who, along with others, writes about contemporary events, so he was somebody who spoke a lot about austerity, the all austerity thing in France in particular – sorry in Spain. So from that point of view some people are more engaged, but I, to be perfectly honest don’t think philosophers really have said a great deal about either climate change or about what happens within forced migration as a result of it, which is a surprise to me. But that is because philosophy considers itself a highly abstract and a purely conceptual discipline.
On the other hand in theology, within this parts of philosophy of religion that touches on theology, there has been much more of an interest in recent times in moving away from, for example, question like the justification through faith, “should you believe in the existence of God”, to question about the nature of embodied faith. So, how is it that people experience the environment – including the built environment, architecture and so on – in terms of its intimation of the idea of sacred place, or sacred space? And some people have been moving in that direction in the English speaking world in the philosophy of religion, you know, with half an eye on theology, in the last ten or fifteen years. And one aspect of that has been an attempt to try to think about the notion of space, and the importance of space and place for human beings, and the idea – the possible idea – that we might start to look again at the word in such a way that we could think of sacred spaces as being important. So for example someone who teaches at the university of Leads, Mark Wynn – actually a friend of mine – he has written a book called “Faith and Place”; and that’s what precisely he is trying to look, he is trying to look at the way in which space become place, in which empty spaces become place through human habitation, and human memory, and so on… My sense is that that move could eventually have something to say about the importance of space for human beings and how there is something deeply tragic in the idea of forced migration. With respect to the question of climate change, I don’t think that a lot of English speaking philosophers have said a big deal of thing about it, which is probably some kind of institutional blindness to be honest, unfortunately – but I suppose you can use that, because you will find a lot of sociologist and anthropologist thinking very differently.
Among the other questions, which one did you wished to answer?
This is the one I was thinking of, the eastern doctrine of pantheism and the Abrahamic doctrine of monotheism… [if we take the ‘eastern doctrine’ of pantheism and the Abrahamic doctrine of monotheism and creation, which one do you think appears as the best as a basis to condemn on the one hand climate changes as such, and on the other hand its human consequences – as exemplified in the case of climate refugees?] That’s a very interesting question because one of the – in my view, and other people have argued this – one of the persistent problem in Western Christian culture has been, from a philosophical and theological point of view, has been – well, two things : one thing is that some people say that Christian culture is essentially responsible for an exploitive attitude toward nature, this going back at least to the book of Genesis in the idea of man as being dominant, as having dominion over the rest of creation – and including women, of course – and some see this as having given rise to an instrumentalist view of nature, the consequence of which is for a long time not particularly significant – until now, with mass populations. This seems to me arguable. One of the things that some theologians and philosophers of religion have done recently is to try to say that these original text have been misread, and that the central concept is not the concept of domination or dominion, but the notion of stewardship. And of course that’s a very different notion. If you have got on your hands the idea of stewardship, you have got the thought of taking care of the natural world in such a way to leave it to your children and grandchildren and so on… My own view is that it is a very late interpretation, which was not the interpretation which has held sway for many, many centuries. So, this might be movement within Christianity – I don’t know about Judaism, but within Christianity – toward, as it were, a re-sacralisation of the world. But that leads me to the second point, because that seems to me completely clear that there is no doubt that Christianity has never really conceived of the natural world as sacred. There are spaces, sacred spaces, and of course parts of the natural world can be seen as sacred – insofar as, you know, the holy shrines, the Virgin Mary appears to somebody and a fountain or a spring or a river or something – but not the idea that in and of itself the natural world is sacred. Several reasons are interesting for that: one is because of a deeply ambivalent view that Christianity has had of the natural world – and indeed of the material world in general, including the human body. On the one hand Christianity must affirm it because God creates the world and sees that it is good. So for us to see life as a gift and affirm it is without a doubt to affirm the body and the materiality of existence. On the other hand, there is a line, a very strong line in Christianity, in Christian thought, toward the effect that the natural world is a distraction from spiritual things – I mean you see that very much worked out in the philosophy and theology of St Augustine for example. From that point of view, the material world is to be rejected, because it is a distraction, a kind of a snare, a kind of trap.
In particular, to center the subject, I’ve added to engage the issue – I mean the question was about how can this or these doctrines be a basis to condemn climate changes and in particular its human consequences – as it is exemplified in the case of climate refugees.
Yes of course! I’ll just add one other thing: one other aspect of this attitude of Christianity toward the natural world, and the natural world generally has been a suspicion, in the history of this all thing, this tradition of theology, some theologian have thought of god as beautiful, picking up really on platonic ideas of, you know, the Form of Beauty. Again, there has been a lot of suspicions toward the idea of the beauty of the world, again in seeing it as a kind of distraction from God. So the whole material world – in my view Christianity is schizophrenic: on the one hand it affirms and on the other it denies the material world. One the one hand it affirms beauty and on the other it denies it. Well the, the question in terms of the consequences – my view is that most philosophy – there has been some philosophy, so for example there is a distinction that some philosophers have made between shallow and deep ecology. Very roughly speaking that distinction has partly to do with the fact that shallow ecology says that the material world matters and that the preservation of the animals, and the plants, and the environment matters for our purposes, for our human purposes. So then in terms of climate change and migration of people – forced migration – that view immediately offers the thought that climate change is bad, that we should be doing something about it, we should be engaging with it – from the point of view that it is bad for us. Then there is the notion of so-called ‘deep ecology’, which is the idea that the natural world has value in and of itself, so irrespective of human beings, irrespective of whether it harms us, or indeed irrespective of whether it harms animals living in the forests, for example. The forest has a value in and of itself, and we should live it intact. And so from these two perspectives (the second one being much more controversial, many people don’t believe that, thinks that this notion of deep ecology works), both of them could only imply that we should take absolutely seriously the consequences of climate change, at least in terms of human beings and possibly in terms of the rest of the planet. There are some very right wing evangelical American Christians who think that climate change is a reality and it is a good thing, because it is going to bring the Kingdom of God closer more quickly, and… you can quote me, I think they are mad! But you see that shows also that there is a real problematic within these things about how Christianity conceptualizes its relation to the world.
Ok, so maybe a last question: there is in the whole issue of forced migration, an issue which is the intricacy of the causes, in that the is both human and non-human agencies that are difficult to distinguish, because of course climate change as such is both – there is a natural element but it is caused by humans, so all of this is very complicated. Do you think that philosophy, or theology, can have an impact in distinguishing, and especially in bringing people in front of their responsibilities?
Well, I think it can, if it stops doing a particular thing; the very, very traditional distinction within philosophy, philosophy of religion and theology between natural evil and moral evil. And as I’m sure you’re aware, this distinction is essentially the distinction you are saying is not clear – and I agree with you, it’s not clear. But the central thought is, you know, if I aggress somebody out of my own free-will it is moral evil, if there is a tornado which destroys my house that’s natural evil. But of course it seems to me that if that distinction was ever very helpful, it is not very helpful now, precisely for the reason that you gave: you know, if through agriculture we turn an area into a desert, and that means things can’t grow and it has of course an effect on the climate, it’s not just the climate or just us who are engaged in that. I think one of the thing that is very, very important, is that the discipline needs to reconceptualise human beings as part of the material world, and as responsible for it and with it, and that it works through us – instead of, and this is a big problem that Christianity has, thinking of us as the sort of pinnacle of creation, as the consequence of that is a difficulty in seeing our fellowship with other animals and the material world generally. Philosophy itself hasn’t really a great deal to say about this because it operates within these very strong distinctions between different types of evil, but again some people more recently have been wondering whether or not it is at all plausible, and have been seeking to undermine it. A very good thinker from my point of view is actually Simone Weil, because Simone Weil does valorise enormously the natural world, talking of its beauty. She does, in fact in a very mystical way, she says that we can see Christ’s face in the natural world (I’m not sure anyone quite know what that means…). The other important thing is that she emphasises again and again in her writings the way human beings are material through and through and are one with the material world. She seems to have a lot of very interesting and helpful things to say in philosophy, and from a philosophical – partly Christian – point of view, about the necessity of reconceptualising ourselves: but that’s what is needed, there is no doubt about it in my mind that philosophy needs to reconceptualise many of the distinctions that it makes.
So, as a final thought, what would be your first step, the most immediate thing we should, we ought to do to face this issue?
You mean, as philosophers and theologians…?
Hum… Probably give up philosophy and theology and go work for a NGO, actually! Which is something that I wanted to do on many occasions but I’m too late in my career to do it unfortunately… Well yes, but seriously, I have a friend who is a philosopher, who is at the green party, and campaigns for them and, supports environmental charities, and wants to be a green MP. Frankly I think that that’s what philosophers need to do; it’s so easy just to theorize about problem without actually going and doing anything, and that person is very admirable from that point of view. But I’m not sure – you know the discipline needs to open itself to ordinary, concrete, practical realities in a way that, I think, is lamentably missing, actually, in the discipline.
So I’m afraid in a way it is a slightly negative, sceptical point of view, but…
… I think it is very interesting. So thank you very much!