A mini-tribute to Sir John Houghton
I don’t intend this newsletter to start with something like an obituary on anything like a regular basis, even during this pandemic, and I understand that I noted the passing of Michael Sorkin due to COVID-19 just two weeks ago. But I want to note today the loss Sir John Houghton, one of the world’s leading atmospheric physicists and climate scientists, due to suspected complications from COVID-19. I recommend reading this Twitter thread by his granddaughter, Hannah Malcolm,, this piece at the Weather Channel, and the pieces posted at the John Ray Initiative, over which he presided. It would be presumptuous to think I have much to add to those sources and to the BBC’s piece, but I do want to share two brief stories of my own.
In 2002, when I was a Ph.D. student, I was invited to participate in “Climate Forum 2002,” to be held at the University of Oxford, and to present there some of findings of research on climate governance by the center with which I was then affiliated. The Forum was organized by the John Ray Initiative, the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). For various reasons, it is now widely regarded as one of the most important moments in the timeline of evangelical engagement with climate change. The Forum concluded with a call to action titled, “The Oxford Declaration on Global Warming”, which was the precursor to the 2006 Evangelical Climate Initiative.
As I said, I was invited to attend and to present climate governance research findings at the forum, and so I approached the director of those research projects for permission and and to discuss funding. I told him the conference would convene scholars, policy markers, and Christian leaders from around the world to craft a Christian and, in some ways, specifically evangelical, position on climate change. He laughed and said the forum itself wasn’t possible because Christians do not take climate change seriously, and he asked me what person would be in attendance who was both a serious scholar and a Christian. There were plenty of possible answers, but I gave one: Sir John Houghton, then chair of the IPCC’s Working Group I on the physical science basis for understanding climate change. Few positions could be of greater influence in discussions of climate science and governance. The director, who respected Sir John as a scholar and had himself contributed to other IPCC working group reports, was surprised to learn that Sir John was also a Christian. (It certainly isn’t that Sir John had been hiding his faith, but just that this director had not known of it.) In the end, I did not get the funding and approval to attend and share our research at the Forum, but it did seem like a moment of genuine cognitive dissonance for the director of the research projects on which I had been working – one that made it harder for him simply to dismiss Christians and Christianity as irrelevant to his world and work.
In my first year at Wheaton, the college’s Center for Applied Christian Ethics (CACE) chose climate change the theme for its annual slate of events. The calendar included a number of excellent speakers, but none so prominent as Sir John. He spent a few days with us on campus as part of a symposium on “Environment, Economics, and Equity.” He spoke in chapel, gave an evening lecture, and participated in a breakfast for local pastors, among other engagements. It was good to meet him, and I was even able to recount to him a version of the 2001-2002 story above. I’m sure he had heard many such stories, but I hope this one was another encouragement to him about his Christian witness as a serious scholar, eminent scientist, and public figure.
Among the events in which Sir John participated was a dinner with senior administrators, deans, and a few others. Though I was in my first year at Wheaton, I was included among the “few others,” not by virtue of role at the college, but by a combination of circumstances – I was one of the symposium speakers, the CACE director happened to be one of my undergraduate professors, and, with regard to certain responsibilities, I was standing in that year for a senior colleague who was on sabbatical and would certainly otherwise have been at the dinner.
At one point during the dinner conversation, everyone was discussing what evangelical theology would need if it were to improve at handling questions of sustainability and environmental justice. Sir John said, “I think we need to recover the sense that we can sin against the earth.” That was followed by a drawn-out pause before someone said, “I don’t know: That might lead Christians astray and lead non-Christians into some mother-earth religion.” I knew enough then to understand that first-year faculty sometimes don’t have much to say in a moment like that, but not enough to keep quiet at that moment: “I’m not sure about that. The Old Testament makes it clear that God’s people could fail by not giving the land its due, including a sabbath rest. It seems to me that motif of ‘the land’ isn’t something that’s just left behind or spiritualized in the New Covenant, but that it’s somehow globalized and applied to God’s New Covenant people.” We had a good conversation at the table that evening as we extended and deepened that discussion and Sir John shared his wisdom, and that continued into a dessert reception joined by more colleagues. That evening, Dr. Daniel Block (Old Testament, Wheaton College) and I began planning an edited volume, Keeping God’s Earth, to which Sir John was gracious enough to contribute.
Sir John was engaged in what some have described as a “dual apologetic.” That is, as a renowned atmospheric physicist, climate scientist, and public figure, his excellence in his calling lent credibility to his Christian faith, or at least forced some people to think twice about their caricatures of Christians and Christianity. He was ready to give a reason for his faith to those who didn’t share it. On the other hand, he was also able to push some Christians to think twice about aspects of their own faith and tradition and to consider new and different ways of exploring the relationship between God, faith, the scientific enterprise, and creation care. He was ready to give a reason for his commitments to creation-care and scientific engagement even to those Christians who didn’t share them. Sir John isn’t the only person with such a witness, such a dual-apologetic, but he was one our preeminent exemplars.
Five versions of “Basin Street Blues” in this order:
And if you made it through those five – and I hope you did – then you may just be ready for more Kid Koala:
I made this Dry-Rubbed London Broil with flank steak, and it was delicious. The kids say I need to make it again “before the pandemic ends.”
I haven’t finished Tornado God: American Religion and Violent Weather, but I did start it, and it’s terrific so far.
Wear your masks, friends.