Harry Vassallo | Sunday, 19 April 2009
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All wide awake

Hell was still in fashion when I was young. The Devil always had a leading role in sermons and figured prominently in children’s Bibles and catechism books. One preacher at my parish had a special reputation for passionate delivery of hellfire homilies. Young girls may have fainted from having fasted too long but nobody was ever known to fall asleep while Fr Borg held his congregation in thrall.
Then Vatican Council II changed all that and Fr Borg came under pressure to tone down his vehemence. He tried. He’d start slowly: “People often ask me why I always preach about hell and fire.” The congregation was curious too and waited for an answer.
When it came it was very simple: “Because hell is there, it exists,” and off he went again.
I think of Fr Borg when people ask me what drove me to stick for so long with so thankless a task as my own. He probably did not reply in full when asked just as I pull my punches with my questioners.
Even as people claim to admire commitment, passion and perseverance they seem to be saying that it is unjustified. Their personal concerns come first and they could never think of crusading about anything at all. With a dose less admiration it easily becomes a snide comment: “You must be nuts.”
My guess is that Fr Borg must have asked himself why his congregations did not march out of his church and preach to passersby. He was swept away by the urgency to save souls. If they listened and acquiesced, why did they not go about haranguing strangers too? Despite his passion and apparent impulsiveness I do not recall that he ever threw this in anybody’s face. Neither do I.
People are worried about school fees and the car payments, too worried about them to worry about climate change and a slow death from pollution. They agree that something should be done about it all by somebody but they are busy right now. Hell scared them but not enough why should a mention of climate change make them sit up and take notice?
Passionate preaching is probably gone for good. It’s not PC and it’s not cool. People do fall asleep these days. Counting the hours to death without passion must be a great cure for insomnia. This is the age of the cool calculators, never phased (or is it fazed) by anything and keen to show it. Perhaps it’s because everything is sensationalised and everyone is jaded. People with the brains of fleas find it smart to look down on those who warn them of looming threats to all their plans, to the civilisation they take for granted so very easily. There are also the exhibitionist sceptics and revisionists and the mercenary spoofers of scientific evidence. They had me worried for quite a while.
Then I heard a talkshow on Classic FM. As I chanced upon it, I had just missed an interview with Sir Nicholas Stern, currently the Cassandra of all Cassandras on climate change, warning with great authority and effect of the consequences of our placidity as much as of our carbon contribution to global disaster.
The programme host went on to broadcast a chance exchange he’d had with a London taxi driver. The cabby didn’t give much weight to all the talk of climate change and Green things seemed to irritate him no end. It was his chance to spew some bile about those blasted energy saving bulbs: “They don’t last eight years at all but keep popping off and don’t give off enough light.” I sympathised. Frequent switching on and off tends to shorten the lives of the wretched, expensive things.
“I had the whole house done up in energy-saving light bulbs,” the taxi driver claimed “and we’re very strict about recycling and waste separation.”
His passenger knew his stuff: “Why do you bother if you don’t really believe in all this green stuff and climate change?”
The cabby’s answer gave me more hope that anything I have heard in many years: “Well, somewhere in the back of my mind, I think they may be right.”
There, a working-class style sceptic concedes. Perhaps there is a slim chance that the worst can still be avoided. Perhaps Al Gore and Lord Stern have begun to tip the balance. Perhaps the long-awaited Greening of Britain since Tony Blair, against the stance of his chum in the White House, has had a wider effect than one might think.
The difference between the old hell fire sermons and the UN’s reports on climate change is that no faith is required to believe in climate change. Had it been a certainty, the world would be in chaos already. The global financial crisis would be a damp squib by comparison. It is a very high probability, inevitable in some degree but there remains a slim chance that the worst may be avoided still.
The fashion is clearly changing. Very soon it will no longer be cool to be a sceptic. The parallel between the afterlife and talk of the next generation is changing too. The mention of 2050 and the degree of climate change by the end of this century may have put hell and desertification in the same category: something grim, maybe, after we die. It is no longer so. Missing the carbon reduction targets set for 2015 in the UN reports may bring us to tipping points that can leave us, not the next generation, facing the furnace. Being a sceptic is going out of fashion and passion will be uncalled for when the evidence is there for all to see. Preaching time is over. There is no reason to fear that anyone will fall asleep from now on.

Harry Vassallo is acting editor of Illum


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