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Interview: Tim Gorringe Professor of Theology and Religion, Exeter University

30 August 2013

'If nothing happens, there will be colossal famine'

Most days involve study, teaching, and some work on the smallholding. As a Christian, and a member of the Iona community, I try to account for my use of time, my use of money, and my use of carbon, in a responsible way.

My first wife died of cancer in 2004, and I remarried after four years. Between us we have five children who are all independent now - though a lot of their stuff is here.

We have 15 acres, and we keep Jacob sheep, bees, and chickens, and we grow vegetables and fruit.

Since 1998, I've taught systematic theology and medieval and Reformation theology: Anselm to Pascal; and then lots of optional modules in applied stuff, mainly about the built environment, planning, how we ought to build houses.

My interest in farming arose out of that other work. I've met all kinds of interesting people. I take my students to towns, cities, and villages, and we walk about, talk to planners, find a church, café, or pub, and reflect on what we've seen.

I also teach courses on art: Western secular art, from 1500 to the present. These are ways of training students to think about God outside the usual framework of scripture and the tradition.

In art, a still life is a profound commentary on the world, recognised as such from the beginning: a doctrine of creation. The same for portraits, landscapes, abstracts. An enormous amount can be learnt from artists.

I retire at Christmas; but I've got lots more writing to do. And I might teach a module on food, faith, and farming. . . I probably won't stop teaching straight away.

My wife and I are actively seeking for people who might be interested in farming together and worshipping together - separate places to live, but who will work together, pray together. It will have to have a library. We're members of the UK branch of Via Campesina, and involved in Colin Tudge's campaign for an enlightened agriculture (Interview, 19 July). We believe that the world will not be fed by more mechanisation, or by GM, but by good husbandry.

I'm also involved in the Transition Town movement. It's a social movement with more than 300 groups across the UK, now spread throughout the rest of the world. It seeks to get citizens together to find ways of responding to peak oil, and climate-change. This involves working on different patterns of democracy, economics, transport, house-building, food growing - the lot.

The earth is my favourite place.

I taught in India for seven years. People in this country have a Jewel in the Crown view of India, but the reality is a lot of poverty and a great deal of oppression, one way and another. How does one understand that?

The Tamil Nadu Seminary was very committed to liberation theology, and I had several colleagues who were Marxists. I was a committed Socialist, but they gave me the impetus to start reading Marx intensively.

I've been very influenced by Alan Ecclestone and Karl Barth. To the extent I have an academic speciality, it would be Barth. Bas Wielenga was part of the group of theologians I met in India who encouraged me to read Marx, and Ton Veerkamp is a Dutch biblical scholar who lives in Berlin, part of a group of left-wing Barthians. He runs a wonderful website, Texte und Kontexte, which is illuminating in studies of scripture.

As Christians, we have to understand the world in which we live, and we need tools of social, political, and economic analysis not provided by scripture or traditions. Aquinas turned to Aristotle to understand the world, and we turn to all kinds of tools, which happen to include Marx.

The world system is capitalist; so attempts like Marx's are important. But things have moved on. He was trying to analyse industrial capital, and now we have financial capital. Still, the effort he made was extraordinary, and it's marked all world thinking to this day.

I've just finished a book by a German genius, Karl-Heinz Brodbeck, Die Herrschaft des Geldes - alas, untranslated as yet. I talk to clergy quite a lot, running CME days and so on, and I'm often asked about economics and money. One uses thinkers like Brodbeck to help understand what's going on.

The key problem today is climate-change, and the indicators are extremely alarming. The Economics Foundation said in 2008 that we had 100 months to take action to avoid runaway climate-change. In five years we've done absolutely nothing.

George Osborne's latest Budget statement is committed to growth: more roads, another runway, HS2 - all things that drive climate change - and he's not an exception. It looks as if there's no political will to do anything. It's very worrying.

Climate change is an issue primarily of idolatry, in that it is driven by an economic system which has no telos but more of the same, and no concept of "enough". I'm one of the theological consultants of Operation Noah, whose Ash Wednesday Declaration was signed by Rowan Williams and the heads of all the British Churches last year. It's a call to Christians to recognise the urgency, and act; but the Church is always part of society, and ours is a hedonist society.

Eli Wiesel says the problem with human beings is indifference. I think it is just that the outcome to most people is inconceivable. I was talking to a group of social workers the other day, who were desperately asking how we can get jobs for people. I quite understand that their horizon is economic growth at any price. Others are doing very nicely, thank you, with two foreign holidays a year.

But if nothing happens, there will be colossal famine, and appalling suffering and death, because the food supply will dry up. It can't be addressed by GM and that kind of nonsense - it depends on adequate rainfall and good husbandry.

I don't expect to be remembered except by my children.

I read the Bible as a whole.

I listen to Bach most days. I suppose the piece I most often listen to is the Double Violin Concerto, in the recording by Andrew Manze and Rachel Podger.

What makes me angry? The last news broadcast.

I'm happiest when I'm watching good Shakespeare.

If I was locked in a church, I'd choose to be with my Captain of Bells (I'm a bell-ringer). He'd find a way out.

Professor Gorringe was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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