Humanities Professors Find Inspiration from Religion to Deal with Climate Change

George Handley led a Humanities Center conversation with Willis Jenkins where professors discussed Jenkins’ book, The Future of Ethics: Sustainability, Social Justice and Religious Creativity, and the interwoven concepts of religion and the environment.

PROVO, Utah (December 7, 2015)—Climate change is a constant source of contention and debate in the political sphere, but some scholars have argued that it is more properly a moral and religious issue. Given the religious mission of BYU, members of the Environmental Humanities research group felt the need to explore this question – with a leading Christian ethicist.

Willis Jenkins, a professor of religious studies and environmental humanities at the University of Virginia, participated in a conversation led by George Handley with the Environmental Humanities research group and other humanities students and faculty.

The conversation started with a discussion of Jenkins’ book The Future of Ethics: Sustainability, Social Justice and Religious Creativity.

According to Handley, Jenkins’ book focuses on the problems that climate change presents to Christian ethics. Handley stated that this book challenges the assumption that in order to address climate change, we need to “get our story right” – that is, that we need to form persuasive narratives that tell humans about their place on the planet, which will then help them to shape their ethics in a way that fits the problem.

“It’s not clear how [climate change] takes shape in our narrative ethical, religious and political frameworks,” said Jenkins. Climate change, in other words, presents unprecedented problems for ethics.

Jenkins pointed out that in the United States, we expend a great deal of energy fighting battles of culture and narratives. In the case of climate change, this comes out as a debate over the human role on the planet as understood by different religious traditions and values. Because of these battles, we often neglect the logical actions that would help us solve the problem.

Jenkins went on to explain the frustrations of climate change.

“One of the most bedeviling features of climate change is that it is produced by the everyday structure of normal behavior, of people pursuing mostly innocent ends that through totally contingent and not entirely foreseeable conditions are caught up in patterns of human agency around the planet that in aggregate and cumulative ways lead to statistical risks that are very bad for future generations, especially the poor,” said Jenkins. “Yet future generations, especially the poor, have the least political ability to do something about them.”

Jenkins explained that in the face of such a complex issue, people have the tendency to either deny or oversimplify the problem because solving it would involve transforming the base values of society. He continued that the problem is exacerbated by misapplication of Christian ideals.

Christianity has thrived in an industrial society, and modern Christianity has helped cause the rift between humanity and the environment. Now, he asserted, the creation is simply a backdrop, which he claims is unhealthy for faith and for the environment.

Jenkins argued that even though Christianity has often resisted change in order to address climate change, it is also what gives us the power and motivation to change. Christian traditions sustain themselves by interpreting new contexts, so there is a strong incentive for Christianity to acknowledge climate change and to work to solve the problem.

“It would be weird if I entered into conversations with other people thinking that I had to first transform them, that they were not part of that – that my foundation was utterly secure even though I’m participating in a narrative in which I’m being completely transformed by a God who is transcendent,” said Jenkins.

He continued, “[This transcendence] makes possible the kind of irony that opens spaces for people sharing one planet coming from many worlds to inhabit together. In the kind of irony that faith in God makes possible, it’s not that you’re disavowing your beliefs, but rather you’re letting your faith open a space of possibility. When you do that, you can create forms of trust in which each party earns the right to critique one another, and then more transformative possibilities are opened.”

—Kayla Goodson (B.A. Communications and French studies ’17)

Kayla writes for the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a dual degree in French studies and journalism with a minor in international strategy and diplomacy.