I embarked on my journey toward a PhD in environmental studies in the summer of 2014. With a background in psychology and theology, this academic trajectory perhaps does not look like a straight line, but to me it makes perfect sense. I grew up hearing stories of Quaker ministers who stood up courageously for the social justice causes of their day, based in love of God and neighbor, and I wondered what they would do if they lived in my time. While I care about many issues, I felt drawn to working on something in which I am directly complicit. Rather than going to another country to intervene in their conflicts, I recognized that my own culture and way of life contributes to plenty of problems, and I can focus on my own shortcomings rather than trying to take the proverbial speck out of my neighbor’s eye. The way we treat our planet came into ever-increasing focus in my own life as my area of passion, as well as the area that needs our most immediate attention in this particular historic time. It represents the place where my greatest passion and the world’s greatest need intersect, to paraphrase Frederick Beuchner (Wishful Thinking). My goal is two-fold: to live in a way that speaks to what it means to be a human being following the Creator in the world today, which I believe must include a sense of integration into the network of creation in a way that is sustainable and just, and to participate in a dynamic community of faith that inspires courage and meaning for lived praxis of God’s love.
Therefore, my questions regarding my PhD work go something like this: What do theologians and people of faith have to offer to the environmental conversation? And what can theologians and people of faith learn from those working on environmental issues?
A piece of the puzzle came to me last summer: hope. Those involved in the environmental movement often have a difficult time hoping that their environmental actions can make a difference. Those in faith communities tend to express hope in something, albeit often something ethereal or other-wordly. But the more I got thinking about the concept of hope, the more it seemed like an important place to focus my research and writing. Our culture expresses a marked lack of hope, in my experience.
Question upon question came to my mind, including the following:
- What is hope? Is it a feeling, a choice, a trajectory, a character trait?
- Where does it come from?
- What is the difference between hope and optimism?
- Is hope something people have or don’t have, or something that can be learned?
- What is the role of community in hope?
- Is hope possible in a situation of suffering?
- Is hope rational?
- What happens when we hope and the thing we’re hoping for doesn’t come to pass?
- Is it better to hope, or not to hope and not to feel let down?
- What is a stronger motivator: hope, fear, or some other characteristic or emotion?
- In the environmental movement, what would hope look like and how could we encourage people to hope?
- If we are able to encourage more people to hope about our future, environmentally speaking, what might be the outcomes?
Last semester, I took two courses: Conservation Psychology and Ecotheology & Environmental Ethics. Through these courses I studied, among other things, the psychology of hope and meaning, theology of hope, political and liberation theology, and liberation pedagogy, in which field I learned about critical hope. I will share my journey of working through these concepts and thinking through what my dissertation will look like here, as well as sharing thoughts and insights about my attempts to enact my environmental concerns in ways consistent with my faith.