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Interview: Timothy Howles, director of research, Laudato Si’ Research Institute

29 April 2022

‘My proudest achievements are supporting voices who are rarely heard in the academy’

I’ve certainly been on a bit of a journey, beginning with a degree in English literature, graduate studies in French philosophy and international politics, then a doctorate in theology.

I’m beginning to see how all that comes together,
exploring the politics of climate change and the values embedded in ways we think and decide about this issue. These don’t just apply to people from religious communities, but to scientists, too.

The Laudato Si’ Research Institute was set up to analyse the contemporary socio-ecological crisis.
It’s a Jesuit initiative, based at Campion Hall, within Oxford University. The Pro-Vice-Chancellor recently commented on how our work’s absolutely in tune with the university’s strategy to promote research that seeks to change the world for the better.

The name comes from Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ encyclical,
urging that we must heed both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. Our work in theology, philosophy, and ethics, development studies, anthropology, and economics has grounding in Jesuit tradition, which is committed to working with all people to ensure the flourishing of our common home.

We lead research projects,
publish articles and books, offer seminars, lectures, and conferences, and support evidence-based policy-making. We also have a practical decarbonisation project supporting Catholic dioceses. This is integral ecology-multidimensional thinking about these complex challenges. Catholic social tradition provides a long perspective that can give us confidence and orientation, but it’s also flexible and agile enough to respond to our contemporary situation.

We live in a highly interconnected world.
Climate change and biodiversity loss are linked to human poverty, inequality, and land distribution. If we’re to make progress on any of these, we’ll also need to understand values that drive change at individual, societal, and governmental levels.

I’ve also been involved in environmental and social-justice initiatives in my local Anglican parish,
and in the wider Church of England over recent years. I’m also Junior Research Fellow at Campion Hall, allowing me to develop my own research and writing.

An atmospheric scientist in London was feeling deflated by the lack of understanding of his data,
and said: “I sometimes wish to go up to the roof to shout to the people below in apocalyptic tones: ‘Don’t you see where all this is pointing?’” I asked why he’d chosen the theological word “apocalyptic”. For some religious communities, the idea of the end coming soon isn’t unwelcome.

There are resources in “apocalypse”
— biblical apocalypse has a dimension of hope — if we reclaim the original concepts behind it. How can we talk of a crisis in a way that engenders hope? Religion’s one of the few domains that suggest we won’t be overwhelmed.

Even secular people sometimes believe in end-of-history ideas.
I grew up with capitalist ideas that we’re moving towards increased liberal democracy, increasing prosperity. Climate change breaks through that: you watch David Attenborough and almost cannot bear it. Christians believe that there will be an end to history, but God controls it, and that gives a certain energy to the present. In 2 Thessalonians, there’s a sense that the present matters for Paul because Jesus is coming. Christians were called to be the most engaged and useful citizens precisely because their hope wasn’t invested in the here and now, and didn’t collapse psychologically.

Birth-strikers’ refusing to have children out of despair or altruism is a highly worrying phenomenon,
if viewing people as units of consumption. They are the right questions to be asking, and it’s important to think about the planetary boundaries in which we have to live; but Catholic social teaching is useful here in its commitment to life and carrying on.

[Dr James] Lovelock’s Gaia theory interests me.
In the late 1960s, fossil-fuel corporations liked the idea that the earth could regulate its own health through homeostatic mechanisms; but we’ve got to balance our flourishing within the boundaries that the planet imposes upon us.

A couple of years ago, Professor Chris Whitty stood up in a press conference
and was asked whether we might expect a vaccine to help us deal with this public-health crisis. “Don’t worry,” he said: “science will come up with the solution.” Perhaps he was right — time will tell — but, with climate change, there can be an unspoken sense that someone, somewhere, will come up with the magic solution so we can go on as we are. That forecloses the hard decisions — the ecological conversion, as the encyclical puts it, by individuals, families, and social groups — that’ll be needed if we’re really to address the challenges ahead.

Theology has language of radical change — conversion, even.
Even if we don’t import the theology, we can speak into a culture where the concept of change can seem alien and unlikely.

A key part of our research is to incorporate the wisdom of other religious traditions and marginalised voices.
My proudest achievements here are supporting voices who are rarely heard in the academy. This autumn, we’re hosting seminars with a Jesuit working in indigenous communities of north-east India to preserve and revive endangered languages. Endangered languages provide an index for wider issues of cultural, political, and economic marginalisation of some of the world’s most vulnerable populations, and cast new light on established Western academic orthodoxies.

I’m focusing now on research exploring attitudes to new technologies in South America.
Through developments in so-called “gene-drive” techniques, American scientists can alter the behaviour of harmful insect species that damage crops and human health — but, to their surprise, many of these populations are wary of these techniques. They understand the benefits, but in the Catholic-majority countries of South America, they fear playing God, and have other slippery-slope-type arguments. Without presupposing the ethics, we’re seeking to understand this. It’s exactly what we can do as an academic institute that also understands people’s faith and ethics.

I grew up in Birmingham — I’m a big West Bromwich Albion fan
— but we’ve lived in Oxford for many years. Carrying out church ministry has given me a chance to be involved in local projects, and to see things through beyond the initial point of enthusiasm and into a sustainable way of operating. I really enjoy seeing things last, especially when they transition from being a church project to something truly owned by the community.

My wife Sarah’s a urologist in the Oxford hospitals,
and we have two primary-school-age children.

My first encounter with Christianity was in my mid-teens
when I stumbled into a nearby youth group. I was totally convicted by the claims of Jesus, and excited by the new way of life on offer.

One crucial lesson for me has been understanding how my faith can critique patterns of modern life we assume are normal.
Globalisation, the consumer economy, social media — there’s so much that Christians can celebrate. But I believe we’re also called to “diagonalise” these things, seeing how scripture both affirms not one thing or the other, but shows alternative ways of living as modern people in the modern world — most of all with overwhelming environment challenges.

I’ve had this vague and hopeful sense that there’s still time for me to make it as a professional footballer.
Seeing there are now Premier League first-team players born in 2008 has somewhat put paid to that idea.

I love to hear the children playing contentedly,
but I’d also choose the noise of a football crowd. Not the frenzy after a goal, but the low murmur between plays, when, even though there’s nothing yet to cheer for, expectation is at its height.

The younger generations who are able to envisage and engage in needed radical change give me hope.
The most dynamic energy at the Glasgow summit last year came from civil-society groups rather than official negotiators.

I used to pray I’d be more heavenly minded.
I still do, but now I also pray that I’ll be more down-to-earth than ever. I’m slowly realising that the more I do the former, the more I will be the latter.

I’d love to be locked in a church with J. A. Baker.
The Peregrine’s long been my companion, teaching me not only to enjoy nature, but to think about it in an entirely different way. Whether Baker could stand being locked in a church with me and not out in his beloved Essex countryside is another question.

The Revd Dr Timothy Howles was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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