Mike Hulme is Professor of Human Geography in the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Pembroke College, where he is the Director of Studies for Geography. You may read more about Professor Hulme’s scholarship at http://www.mikehulme.org/.
One should always be careful about giving advice, whether, when, how, and what. This is especially the case if the advice is unsolicited. “Now, let me give you some advice” is generally an unpropitious opening to a conversation. But even when advice is invited, one should tread cautiously. In this instance, I was invited by the editor-in-chief of the Christian Scholar’s Review to write this essay, which gives me some sort of mandate for what follows. And, if you are reading this, it is not unreasonable of me to think that you are looking for advice. (The title rather gives it away). But if not, then please read no further; it may benefit neither you nor me.
Disciplined by Geography and a Disciple of Jesus
There were many influences that led me to the discipline of Geography, first at high school in the 1970s and then at university around 1980: parents who had lived for many years in West Africa; family holidays touring the UK and Europe; a high school teacher who was passionate about the discipline; and so on. As students of the academy, we become disciplined—inducted into—particular sets of assumptions, ways of thinking, practices, styles of investigation, analysis, and writing which characterize our subject. My three years studying for my bachelor’s degree and then a further three years for my doctorate disciplined me in particular modes of inquiry and study that characterized British geography in the later twentieth century.
But there is another sense in which I have been disciplined; that is, as a follower of Jesus Christ. I became convinced of the truth of Christianity early in my university experience as a geography student. There were many reasons—different lines of evidence—that together were persuasive for me, much as a scientist or a jury might reach a considered judgement when presented with an assortment of empirical evidence. Such considered judgements can be considered “beliefs” or statements of faith. Holding such convictions is a fundamental characteristic of being human. For example, a scientist’s belief that the universe behaves in reliable and repeatable ways is an expression of faith, much as a religious adherents’ belief in, say, the promises of God is a position of faith.
I therefore hold my faith in Jesus Christ to be “a reasonable belief.” It is grounded in the non-trivial historical evidence that 2,000 years ago, in Jerusalem, a person called Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, just as he had predicted. This belief gains strength from the testimony of billions of individual Christians, a few of whom are known personally to me and in whom I trust (and hence trust their testimony). It also draws upon my ineradicable sense that certain things I see, and hear about, in the world warrant being described using the non-arbitrary categories of “good” or “evil.” My faith also has a relative component to it: I have not discovered an explanation for the beauty, truth, and love I experience that is more convincing to me than that they exist in a world created—willed into being—by a God who personifies beauty, truth, and love in the person of Jesus Christ. As the Christian apologist C. S. Lewis put it, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.”1 There is a coherence and enlightenment to my experience of the world—with its many shades of darkness and light—when viewed through the person of Jesus. My reason and my imagination, ineluctable parts of my sense of being a conscious subject, are held together through this Christian worldview. Lewis again helpfully explains, “Reason is the natural organ of truth, but imagination the organ of meaning.”2 We will see later why this complementarity of reason and imagination is important for Christian Geographers in their study and interpretation of the world.
There is something else I need to say at this point, since it grounds some of what comes later.3 As a teenager, my father introduced me to a wide set of Christian biographies and ideas, critiques and commentaries, more than many 16-year-olds might have encountered. I thus read some of the great Christian apologists of my father’s generation, whether from the perspective of history of science (R. Hooykaas), English literature (Ruth Etchells), philosophy of science (Donald MacKay), philosophy and apologetics (C. S. Lewis), poverty and ethics (Ronald Sider), or contemporary culture (Frances Schaeffer). This introduction to an eclectic intellectual Christianity did two important things for me. The first was the license my father gave me to read, think, and question, rather than to accept blindly, the rather superficial and platitudinous theology I sometimes heard in church. These various authors were all prepared to tackle some of the most perplexing and controversial aspects of how the Christian faith related to contemporary secular knowledge. Being exposed to such writings at an impressionable age taught me that there are no questions that are too difficult with which a Christian can engage. The second thing this ad hoc Christian education taught me was that there were people and thinkers far greater than I who had wrestled with these questions, Christians who were no one’s intellectual debtors.
The integration of faith and scholarship is then, I believe, of prime importance for the Christian academic. To be a disciple is to be someone who accepts and assists in spreading the doctrines of a person or some school of thought. To truly be a disciple of Jesus Christ in the academy is to be someone who applies their faith to, and therefore tests it against, some of the most challenging questions about the world and the human experience being asked by one’s colleagues. Programs such as Developing a Christian Mind4 in Oxford, England, are of great value for Christian scholars—graduate students especially—as they tackle gaps that exist in the teaching of the church.
What is Geography?
Geography was first consolidated as a formal academic and university discipline in the latter decades of the nineteenth century in Europe and North America. It was part of the growing specialization and professionalization of the academy and was linked to the emergence of the social sciences. Today, the organizational position of geography in the academy varies from country to country; departments are placed variously in faculties of natural science, social science, or sometimes the humanities. This is because the discipline of geography, through its adoption of different epistemologies and methodologies, embraces all three of these meta-approaches to inquiry. Geographers can be at home in all three faculties.
Geographers—literally those who “write the Earth”—take a distinctive interest in the interactions and inter-relationships between people, places, ecosystems, and landscapes. Geographers are not so much interested in the micro and macro-worlds revealed through, respectively, microscopes and telescopes. We are neither microbiologists nor astronomers. But we are interested in the human scale. The object of geography is to understand the differentiated and multiple ways in which people in societies live with, and transform, their environments. Geographers are therefore different from sociologists (who study societies and social relations) or from Earth and environmental scientists (who study physical systems and dynamics). For geographers, it is the interactions between these systems and their interconnections across multiple scales that is the essence of their study.
The reach of the geographer’s imagination has grown in both space and time since the discipline was founded. The idea of “the global” has become more important to geographical analysis, not least through the idea of global (environmental) change. And geographers look back through human time to understand changing environmental and social dynamics, and forward to interrogate different imagined earthly futures. The contested nomenclature of the Anthropocene is one that provides fertile ground for Geographers to deconstruct.
How Should Christian Geographers “Write the Earth?”
What should Christian geographers make of some of the characteristics of the discipline of geography I summarize above? How does our disciplining as followers of Jesus interact with our disciplining as geographers? I would emphasize six distinctive outlooks:
1. Christian geographers are critical of “scientism,” the belief that science, and science alone, is the only reliable form of knowledge. But we are not anti-science. We recognize the practices of science are powerful for revealing how physical environmental systems work; yet as Christians we recognize the limits of scientific truth-seeking.
2. Christian geographers are humanists, meaning a commitment to rationality, human dignity, and moral realism. We recognize the worth of all people and value the unique qualities of the human. We are more than apes, but we are also less than gods. We are suspicious of secular humanism as an ideology.
3. Christian geographers hold respect for all beings beyond the human. We recognize the worth—and give space for the agency—of non-humans.
4. Christian geographers recognize the agency of humans in responding to and altering their environments. We are not environmental determinists; the future is open to be shaped through interactions between human and non-human agency.
5. Christian geographers recognize that individual behaviors are partly conditioned by social formations and cultural institutions. But we are not structuralists; again, the future is not pre-determined.
6. Christian geographers, when practicing their distinctive investigative style of in situ fieldwork, will commit to an ethical stance of treading lightly on the land and of being respectful to all one meets.
There is also a more specific perspective that Christian geographers should bring to their study of the Earth and its peoples or—to use a Latourian phrase—its Earthlings. This perspective concerns the two related issues of responsibility and accountability. For what are humans responsible? And to whom are humans accountable?
The mandate God gives to humanity is to develop the Earth, to do more than simply preserve it; thus, we are called to name the animals, to work the soil, to populate the land, to have (and here is a tricky word) “dominion” over the Earth. Many books have been written about the interpretation and meaning of “dominion,”5 and much argumentation continues about its significance.6 But however one reads the Scriptures on this point, at the heart of God’s intention is a duty and responsibility for humans to act as stewards, as those who act on God’s behalf. And this is a special humanly responsibility; it is one not given to beavers, buffalos, or blue whales. This should guide Christian geographers’ attitudes to studying and caring for the Earth. Rather than merely preserving Creation, humans are called on to deploy and to develop Earth’s resources, carefully and wisely, for the well-being of all Earthlings, human and non-human alike.
This responsibility under God draws attention to the guiding ethic of virtue. In recent years there has been a rediscovery—or at least a reapplication—in geographical thought and practice of the ancient Aristotelian, and then Christianized, idea of virtue. The eminent Christian humanistic Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan wrote that “The meek shall inherit the Earth.” And recent work by geographers—non-Christian and Christian alike—has drawn attention to the importance of applying the virtues of wisdom, peace, humility, justice, and hope when writing the Earth and seeking to act responsibly towards it. This, too, is something I have written about in respect of climate change.7
Accountability of Humans
The flipside of responsibility is accountability. Indeed, without some framework of accountability, the pursuit of responsible behavior risks becoming vacuous. Here, too, Christian geographers bring a unique perspective to their study and advocacy. Our stewarding responsibilities towards the Earth are to be conducted under the eye of an attentive, caring, and just God. We have a very clear sense of moral accountability for human actions which is grounded in our belief in a just but gracious God. This points towards an advocacy for social and environmental justice, whether for humans or non-humans. But Christian believers also are advocates and conduits of mercy and grace, two dispositions which at times may appear counter-cultural. Christian geographers therefore not only bring a strong sense of justice to our writing about the Earth, but as recipients of God’s forgiveness ourselves we are also called on to dispense mercy and grace to others. This may manifest in various ways in our work, not least through our conduct in the liberal academy itself with its eruptions of shaming and moral bullying.
Asking Deeper Questions?
There is no need for us as Christian geographers to parade our faith in everything we say or write about the world we study. Our faith, our standing in front of God and the Earth, should be evident in all we do. But Christians, perhaps more than many, should be willing and able to ask penetrating questions about the telos—the purpose or objective—of the Earth and of humanity. These are ultimate “why” questions, the answers to which are integral to anyone embarking upon schemes of environmental management or social improvement at whatever scale. In my own work, I have asked these “why” questions in relation to climate change.8
The question, “What is the telos of humanity, or the telos of the Earth?” begets many possible answers. The evolutionary biologist might well answer that there is no telos; there is no sense in even asking this question about inherent purpose or fulfilment. Evolution has no ultimate goal. Others might answer “survival,” which seems implicitly to be the view of many secularists concerned about environmental degradation, eroding planetary function and extinction. Beyond mere survival, perhaps the telos of humanity is to cherish the natural world and to deliver social justice. For others still, the telos of Earth might be cast in terms of some post-human destination, using human ingenuity to improve or enhance the human species.
To all of these answers we should ask, “Why?” On what grounds do our colleagues hold these convictions and with which publics are they shared? If, as some secularists argue, the universe is pitiless to the dignity of humanity or to the plight of the Earth, why should we humans care? It is not enough for the environmental ethics of Christian geographers to be shaped merely by survival. We should keep in mind the larger story of which we understand ourselves to be a part. We are Imago dei, image bearers of God. And the Earth of which we are part is, in turn, an integral part of God’s creation. We have a role to play in bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth, which includes recovering the wholeness or integrity—the redemption—of all Creation. We offer a Christianized version of “integral ecology.”9
This vision of redemption has a four-fold goal of reconciliation: between God and humanity; between human and non-human; between person and person; and between the person and their own psyche. This is a holistic vision of a well-ordered world, a much grander telos than mere survival for Earthlings. For the Christian geographer, their study and advocacy should be rooted in a Christian ethic. Not all Christians will agree exactly how this manifests itself in each situation, but I have offered some pointers. Our ultimate justification for caring for the Earth we write must be grounded in the revelation and teaching of Jesus Christ.
A Final Word
Maybe you are reading this essay as a geographer but are not a Christian. Perhaps you are curious about what advice a Christian geographer might be offered. What are you to make of it? You may conclude that Christian geographers have no special voice in the discipline. In one sense this is of course true. All geographers bring their own cultural priors—their cosmologies, beliefs, values, and commitments that make each of us unique—to their study of the world of peoples and places, of societies and environments. The disciplining of geography works on and through these different imaginaries, Christian as much as non-Christian.
But I come back to my question about telos. As geographers we are not just interested in the Earth we write; we are concerned about it too. And for a profound reason: because God is concerned. So, upon what foundation do you build your concern for the Earth and its peoples? I believe that there are limits to scientific knowledge and to secular humanism for providing the ‘moral energy’ needed for effective Earthly study and advocacy. The Christian story offers a framework for understanding the Earth and the role of humans within it. It is a story which offers more than mere survival as its end and which is inspirational and capacious enough to accommodate the object and purpose of a geographer’s work.
Cite this article
- C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1980), 92.
- C. S. Lewis, “Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare,” in Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 265.
I have written more extensively about my personal and professional journey of faith else-where. See Mike Hulme, “A Belief in Climate,” in Real Scientists, Real Faith, ed. R. J. Berry (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2009), 85-98.
- See https://dcmoxford.org/who-we-are.
- The root Hebrew meaning of this word is somewhat ambiguous, whether yarad (‘to lower oneself’) or radah (‘to rule over’).
- See Lynn White, Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155 (1967): 1203-1207 and Willis Jenkins, “After Lynn White: Religious Ethics and Environmental Problems,” Journal of Religious Ethics 37.2 (2009): 283-309.
- Mike Hulme, “Climate Change and Virtue: An Apologetic,” Humanities 3.3 (2014): 299-312. Also Nathan Oxley, “Unsettling the Apocalypse: Uncertainty in Spirituality and Religion, The Politics of Uncertainty: Challenges of Transformation, eds. Ian Scoones and Andy Stirling (London: Taylor and Francis Group, 2020).
- Hulme, “Climate Change and Virtue: An Apologetic,” 309; Mike Hulme, “One Earth, Many Futures, No Destination,” One Earth 2.4 (2020): 309-311. I would contend that the ultimate goal of addressing climate change and its attendant risks is not simply to limit warming to no more than 2°C; there is more at stake than this.
- See, for example, Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo and Veerabhadran Ramanathan, “Pursuit of Integral Ecology,” Science 352 (2016): 747.