the World Council of Churches' "pilgrimage of justice and peace," and will end their journey at the Paris conference in December. Other groups of pilgrims are crossing Africa on foot and by bicycle in solidarity with victims of climate change present and future, with support from Archbishop Desmond Tutu and President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Under the banner of "climate justice" and in support of a legally binding and universal agreement, with the support of Pope Francis, Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew, and numerous Christian and ecumenical organizations, these pilgrims bring another dimension to the climate change movement.
But what exactly does the action of pilgrimage convey? Three thoughts come to my mind:
1) Through its traditional associations with penance, the pilgrimage acknowledges human responsibility and expresses remorse for the excesses that have brought us to this crisis. Americans, producing vastly more greenhouse emissions per capita than most of our fellow earth-dwellers, might particularly want to sign on to that aspect of the pilgrimage.
2) Continental in scope, these pilgrimages also suggest the vast climate migrations that will most likely become part of the tragedy of climate change, as densely populated regions become uninhabitable through inundation, drought, or other extremes of weather. As part of the growing discussion on adaptation and resilience, those of us in nations privileged by wealth or location might begin thinking how we can absorb millions of climate refugees in coming decades.
3) Finally, the act of pilgrimage--whether to Canterbury or Mecca, Jerusalem, Llasa or Santiago de Compostela--suggests a turning to some instance of a Higher Power or God. This thought becomes poignant for me when I read about the broad experience of grief felt by scientists who have researched and documented climate change for more than three decades, issued warnings and proposed interventions, only to see their work ignored and at times defamed. Knowing sooner and better than the rest of us what was and is at stake, their emotional response--depression, anger, futility--has in many cases been acute. Where else can they turn?
While the religious framework is often seen in opposition to the scientific, my own religious response to this potential for despair increasingly draws on the reality exposed by 20th century physics of an infinite and expanding universe. While our own future may seem dim, that reality offers the hope at least, even the probability, that somewhere in infinite space there are sentient creatures not so foolish as to destroy their only habitat. The encounter of modern physics with old-fashioned Anglican Christianity is captured in a wonderful hymn, written by Robert Bridges and set to music by Herbert Howells, whose final lines read
From His store
Newborn worlds rise and adore.
Or as Kafka put it: "There is plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope--but not for us."