The 2013 London Chess Classic, including Gawain Jones (fifth from left) and Jonathan Rowson (eighth from left). Photo by John Saunders.
Back to Saturday’s conference. I was especially looking forward to hearing Jonathan Rowson, because I had seen him so often over the past couple of decades. As fellow grandmasters and former British chess champions, he and our son Gawain have known and played against and alongside one another for many years. I didn’t know anything about his life outside chess, and so when I first read the programme I wondered whether it was another chap of the same name. But no, Grandmaster Jonathan Rowson and Jonathan Rowson, Director of the Social Brain Centre of the RSA are one and the same.
His work is excitingly multi-disciplinary – ‘trans-disciplinary’ as it’s described – in a way that’s been unusual for the past century or so. Spirituality, psychology, sociology, economics and biology all inform one another in the work of the Social Brain Centre, creating really imaginative yet grounded ways to approach contemporary issue and dilemmas.
And there is no greater dilemma or more urgent issue than climate change. As Jonathan pointed out, even when the science is utterly credible, the fact of climate change stays incredible for us; a challenge so vast that our rational responses bump up against their limitations and we remain impotent. To find anything like appropriate resources, we need to dig deep into our roots, and it may be that spirituality, as much than science, can give us a felt sense of the problem we face.
One of the unexpected links between Jonathan’s talk and that of Molly Scott-Cato, which I wrote about on Saturday evening, was the issue of death. One of the symptoms Molly identified as part of the Max Weber’s ‘disenchantment of the world’ is a failure to encompass the idea of death. If, as participants in a growth-obsessed society, we only exist to produce and to consume, then the idea of dying, of no longer being either a consumer or a producer, becomes literally unimaginable.
Jonathan’s insight was related, drawing a parallel between our ambiguous attitude towards our individual deaths and towards the communal, global self-destruction that is climate change. Just as we both know and choose not to know that we will die, so we are both aware and wilfully ignorant of the existence and escalation of climate change.
Jonathan described himself as ‘not really Green or Christian, but close enough to both’ and his insights, as a ‘proto-Christian’ were invigorating and challenging. He pointed out that climate change is not just an environmental problem, but about economics and power, and suggested some of the ways in which Christian approaches and concepts might help us to ‘get real’ in how we think, speak and work. Some of what follows is Jonathan’s own phrasing, some my interpretation and response.
I have already mentioned the parallels between our simultaneous awareness and denial of death and of climate change, and Jonathan sees the Christian centrality of Easter, that ‘very grown-up story’, as a source of strength and hope. We already have, at the heart of our tradition, an understanding of suffering and humiliation, and a pattern and promise for how they can be transformed and overcome.
The sacramental narrative of baptism speaks of being thrown into a chaotic, destabilized world and finding order and meaning, while that of the eucharist tells us of the centrality of the tangible, of our bodies, and of how the body can be a tool for liberation. Climate change is fundamentally an attack on our collective body, and we cannot overcome or contain it without acknowledging the vulnerability and resilience which we share.
Prayer, in its sustained attention, holding the gaze of the contemplated with care and patience, is a model for the way we need to consider climate change, deeply and seriously, without turning away to facile distractions and simplistic non-solutions.
And the concept of sin, so often what makes the Christian faith appear unsympathetic and anachronistic, makes bitter sense in a world broken by human action and inaction. Francis Spufford’s definition of sin as ‘the human propensity to fuck things up’ describes precisely the unbelievable stupidity of our wreckage of our own planet, our being out of kilter with our own nature and the brokenness, depth and darkness of the world we find ourselves in.
But the Christian faith tells us that sin is not the final word, that there is hope of overcoming the darkness, and that hope is love. Not the watery sentimental kind co-opted by romance, but the ‘fierce loves’, the maternal, the fraternal (embodied in the figure of Sam in The Lord of the Rings) the loves that will struggle and work and weep and struggle again for those who need them.
We have the power and the duty to speak boldly and strongly – Jonathan sees the divestment movement as a particular source of optimism, and exactly what Christians should be doing. Every tradition needs to find its own ‘beating heart’ to face the climate challenge. For Christians, perhaps the cross leads the way, in its juxtaposition of community and transcendence. Now we need, honestly, humbly and courageously, to take up that cross.