Reedwood Friends Scholar in Residence

Today marks my first day as scholar in residence at Reedwood Friends in Portland, OR. I’ll be offering a six-week series on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings on the topic “Quakers & Creation Care: ecotheology & action from a Quaker perspective.” I’m excited to begin tonight by sharing my story of how I came to be interested in environmental concerns, and hearing others’ stories of connecting with God in nature. We will also be choosing eco-challenges to work on throughout the six weeks through the Northwest Earth Institute. See below for other topics we will be learning about and discussing together throughout the series. All are welcome to attend!

 

Book reviews: Discerning Critical Hope; Listening to Teach

A couple book reviews I wrote went live last week on the Wabash Center for Teaching & Learning in Theology & Religion‘s Reflective Teaching site. One reviewed Discerning Critical Hope in Educational Practices (eds. Vivienne Bozalek, Brenda Leibowitz, Ronelle Carolissen, and Megan Boler), and the other reviewed Listening to Teach: Beyond Didactic Pedagogy (ed. Leonard J. Waks). Both were excellent books!

listening to teachI read Listening to Teach at just the right time. I had a bit of a difficult class spring term, because we were talking about some sensitive topics such as race, class, gender, etc. without a lot of support or background on the part of the students. (It was an interdisciplinary capstone class where I had minimal control of the curriculum, and no control of the speakers and textbook.) I attempted to implement some of the skills of listening that I read about in Listening to Teach right away. I always find it interesting, however, that it’s the students who are often more resistant to moving beyond a didactic pedagogy than the teachers. I struggled to create a space that was safe for all perspectives to be shared, while also did not allow racist or sexist comments to stand. This is such a difficult balance, since I don’t want the conversation to just be me “against” a racist student, but also, I don’t want other students (particularly students of color) to be put in the situation of defending a racially inclusive perspective. At any rate, I was encouraged by what I learned in this book. Read my full review for more about the book itself.

discerning critical hopeDiscerning Critical Hope was a gem, since I’m working on developing an ecotheology of critical hope. I loved the book and found it encouraging, challenging, and helpful in getting my mind around what others mean when they’re using the term “critical hope.” Since it was a volume with chapters by all different authors, I wish there was a bit more that had defined critical hope, or given some sort of criteria, but by listening to all the voices, it’s possible to get a sense of what they’re aiming toward. (They’re basing the idea mainly on Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Hope, so of course going back and reading that would also give the reader a better understanding.) But I feel like critical hope is a direction to aim for any religious educator, and it would be good if we could aim in this direction as pastors or leaders in faith-based organizations, too. I think we (Christians) often get too caught up in the idea of making everyone comfortable, having warm and fuzzy feelings, and we forget how to challenge people to critique what’s going on and also to have a sense of agency that they can do something about it. It seems to me that that’s what the church is for, and the religious academy is there to help faith leaders to lead their communities to and through these difficult challenges, while remaining fixed in a hope-filled narrative of grace, love, forgiveness, and reconciliation of all things through Christ. I hope that this becomes a theme that theologians begin connecting with, and specifically in the field of ecotheology.

The Wabash Center also has lots of other great resources for educators in theology and religion, such as syllabi, grants, thoughts on teaching, and lots of other book reviews. Check out the Reflective Teaching site to find other inspiring books, and read some great reviews, such as this recent one by my colleague, Laura Simmons, on a book about co-constructing knowledge in the classroom.

Stewards of the Vineyard

Last November, I had the opportunity to preach at my Friends meeting, North Valley Friends. I was asked to share about Query 19 in our Faith & Practice document, which has to do with being a Christian steward of God’s creation. A re-visioning of the Parable of the Tenants came to me then, and I thought I’d share it here, in case it’s inspiring to anyone else. (If you want to listen to a podcast of the whole sermon, it’s available here.)

Matthew 21:33-40 (NRSV): “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Usually we read this passage in the context of people misunderstanding who Jesus was, and not getting the fact that he’s the Messiah. Yes, but I think there’s another meaning going on here: God has set us up as stewards of the vineyard. I thought that was particularly fitting due to our location here in the Willamette Valley. So if we’re supposed to be stewards of this vineyard, if we’re tenants here, taking care of this place for the Creator, how do we do that? We want to, but how?

And those tenants seem pretty hopeless, right? They seem like they are the mean, spiteful, greedy kind of tenants who want everything for themselves.

What if we imagine the landowner giving the land to some new tenants? Imagine there’s a piece of property open out in the vineyards around Newberg. The previous tenants haven’t done a great job with it, but there’s a good infrastructure built up: gnarled old vines that need some TLC but are planted in good soil. A wine press, and maybe a rickety old house. A young couple has fallen in love with the Newberg area, and they are so excited about the prospect of making really great wine. They plan to do this by putting every ounce of love and care they can into growing and harvesting their grapes, and passionately practicing their craft in order to make an artisanal local organic wine, perhaps to be paired with their friends’ local goat cheese on bread from the Newberg Bakery. So this young couple is so excited to try to find a piece of land where they can practice their craft. They recognize they have no idea how to make wine besides what they’ve read in books, but they hope that they can learn, and they’re open to learning from others.

They meet with the landowner of the vineyard we’ve just heard about, the one where the previous tenants did not exactly care for it, and, in fact, murdered any of the landowner’s envoys, though there’s no way to prove it. At this meeting, the landowner sees this young couple and sees that they are passionate about treating this land well, and bringing forth the best fruit the land can support. The landowner also sees that this young couple is clueless—they have no real experience. They can see the wine that they want to produce so clearly they can almost taste it. They are ready to put in countless hours of labor and to do so with love. They are open to learning, and they’ve started reading. In fact, they’ve read everything this landowner has written on the subject of vineyards and winemaking, and they can quote much of it verbatim.

And so, the landowner makes a decision. He or she (whoever you’ve been imagining) decides to move back onto this piece of land, and invite this young couple to work the land alongside. Every day they work together, side by side. As the couple works, they listen to the landowner tell stories of that land, the vintages that have grown out of it in years past, the previous tenants, the faithful stewards who have worked it before. They listen as the landowner tells them about pruning a vine just here, caring for the soil, collecting and distributing water, dealing with pests, when is the exact time to harvest, and what to do to produce the wine. Sometimes when the landowner sees a particular situation, s/he invites the young couple to help come up with a creative solution, and they work together to make it happen. Sometimes, these ideas fail miserably.

The first few vintages of this couple’s wine are terrible, and sometimes they wonder why the landowner even lets them help at all. But at the same time, they are so grateful that they get to be part of the process, and they hold tenaciously to their dream, and step by step they see themselves becoming the skilled crafts-people they envisioned when they came to the land.

The seasons pass, and the young couple is not so young anymore. They have children, and teach them the ways of the landowner. They tell their children the stories and teach the craft. The children also learn firsthand from the landowner, and the landowner delights in hearing their ideas. And new stories are created as the family grows up, being nourished by and nourishing the land.

———

Now, I don’t know about you, but this second story gives me a lot more hope. And I challenge us this morning not to think of the tenants in the first story as the Jews, or evil corporations who are ruining our planet, but to think of the not-so-good tenants and the young couple in the second story as parts of ourselves. Because at least for me, I notice that there are days when I feel like the old tenants, and days when I feel like the new ones. And maybe these tenants aren’t so different. Maybe the old tenants were just the same as the new ones, just as clueless about how to grow grapes and make wine, but they made different choices about what to do in that situation. The old tenants, out of fear, locked down their land, struggled on their own to try to produce what they could from this land that wasn’t theirs, and refused to give even a drop to the landowner. But the new tenants, the young couple, face life with joy and passion. They are teachable. They are open to community. They have a vision and they work hard to make that vision a reality. When an obstacle pops up between them and their goal, they brainstorm and problem solve and tenaciously hold on to their vision until they can bring it to fruition.

GreenFaith retreat 2, day 2

Today at our GreenFaith retreat included a presentation and discussion with Erin Lothes Biviano, professor at the College of St. Elizabeth, about what motivates faith-based individuals and congregations to act on their environmental beliefs. This was fascinating and I want to read more of her work. We did read two of her articles: “Worldviews on Fire: Understanding the Inspiration for Congregational Environmentalism” (Cross Currents, December 2012), and “Come with Me Into the Fields: Inspiring Creation Ministry Among Faith Communities” (New Theology Review, March 2014).

I was inspired by her work methodologically, because she’s using social sciences methods (semi-structured focus groups) to measure behavior in faith-based communities, which is something I’ve been thinking about how to do. I’m excited to see that she does well-designed and -analyzed qualitative social sciences research, and she applies it in a way that is useful for those who are attempting to help lead faith communities.

I’m also excited to read about her work, which focuses on analyzing what seems to motivate faith communities toward pro-environmental behavior change. What she’s saying is somewhat different from what the field of conservation psychology says about how to motivate the average American (although there is quite a bit of overlap), so it would be interesting to look into this deeper and figure out if this means that communities of faith are motivated by something different from the general population, or if she’s identifying something different for other reasons.

In her Cross Currents article, she found that the motivating factors regarding whether or not a congregation is willing to engage in pro-environmental action include: level of scientific literacy, recognizing the interdependence of all things (including society, economy, ecology, and spirituality), a core community commitment to social justice, and the willingness to open themselves to an ever-widening understanding of God.

Interestingly, for my own work on critical hope, she said that “hope was not a universally driving factor” (p. 509). However, she then gave a quote that focused on someone’s explanation that they weren’t optimistic, and in my own work (and the psychological literature) I’m differentiating between hope and optimism. Hope is much different from optimism. I think hope includes struggle, and the real possibility of failure, whereas optimism is just a vague wish or desire, and doesn’t require personal responsibility or work. What she describes is that people in faith communities are willing to take action steps regardless of their optimism about their goal being completed, and in my opinion, this is the definition of hope. We don’t know whether it will happen, but there’s a possibility of it, and we choose to hope against hope that our steps will lead us there, or at least closer. We refuse to give in or give up, and taking those steps are in fact our enacted hope.

IMG_20160524_220643
Eric Lind, Constitution Marsh director. I love how they have the watershed painted on the wall.

OK, enough about that, although of course I could talk about it for days, because it was fascinating! The next part made for better pictures, however.

In the afternoon, we went to Constitution Marsh Audubon Center & Sanctuary. It’s just up the road from the Garrison Institute on the Hudson River. Eric Lind, the center director, showed us around and told us some of the environmental history and ecology of the region. Constitution Marsh is about 50 miles from the ocean, but it’s still a tidal marsh with salt water coming in with the tide, creating an unique habitat that far inland. It’s a beautiful location! They have about 300 acres they’re conserving, providing habitat for many songbirds, butterflies, and other species.

IMG_20160524_152259089
A creek flowing into the Hudson River at Constitution Marsh

Although Lind doesn’t think of himself as a particularly religious person, he talked about the marsh as a confluence between the environment and ethics. One can see in this marsh the negative impact of humanity on the landscape: the pollution from a former battery factory across the river, the impact of the straight line of railroad cutting across in an area that’s used to mushy and undulating boundaries, the latter of which provide much better wildlife habitat, and the attempts to dredge the river and build up the marsh in order to farm that land. Add to that the fragmentation of habitat resulting in fewer birds and other species migrating and surviving in place over the years, and human beings have hIMG_20160524_151713869_HDRad a huge negative impact in that place.

But the river is so resilient that it’s able to flourish in that area now, given a bit of human positive attention. It is evident that Lind loves this place and its creatures, and he loves himself when he’s
there. He told us that he’s really selfish, because he just wants all these creIMG_20160524_154641119_HDRatures to flourish partially for his own enjoyment, and maybe that’s anthropocentric, but it’s also a recognition that he’s part of the whole picture. He’s not just saving these creatures because he should, out of obligation. He’s not saving them because they serve some utilitarian function. He’s creating space for them because he loves them, and he’s participating in that space with them.

He had us stand by the creek and just listen, and he told us that that’s the beginning of both inquiry and mystery. When he’s still and listens, he thinks of a lot of questions, and this is the scientific portIMG_20160524_160313389 (1)ion: he can go out and start learning answers. But there’s also the mystery, the part that draws him deeper and gives him peace, the part that makes him thoroughly human, to just listen, to be attentive, and to appreciate.

While walking in the rocky hills around the marsh and out on the boardwalk over the marsh, we heard numerous bird calls and saw red wing blackbirds, goldfinches, and some other birds I didn’t recognize, partially because I’m not from here, and partially because I’m pretty bird-illiterate. One of the other employees set up a telescope so we could see a bald eagle nest, and we watched IMG_20160524_220721an eagle chick for a while, then saw an adult eagle perched in a nearby tree. We also saw an eagle fly out over the marsh. Lind said New York had been down to one breeding pIMG_20160524_160900513air in the ’70s, but their population has rebounded since then, due to the care of a biologist who hand-raised eagle chicks from Alaska (without imprinting) and released them in New York.

The marsh was a beautiful place to go and listen and watch and be aware. Fletcher Harper, the GreenFaith director, asked at the end, “What would it be like if our congregations went out once a month and spent time at a marsh, or a similar place in your region?” I know that Wilderness Way in Portland, OR does this, spending time at a local conservation space every third Sunday of the month. It’s something I’d like to experiment with.

GreenFaith fellowship, retreat 2, day 1

GreenFaith logoI’m currently in Garrison, NY, serving as a GreenFaith fellow. This is our second of three retreats together, and this one is at a beautiful and simple former monastery called the Garrison Institute, about an hour and a half from New York City. GreenFaith is an organization that encourages and facilitates interfaith action on environmental care, and each year there is a cohort of fellows who are leaders from their faith communities, willing to learn more and implement ideas at the community level.

The first retreat was in November in Newark, NJ, and we learned about environmental justice and environmental racism. This retreat focuses on connections with the Divine in nature, as well as helpful ways to communicate about climate change and environmental concerns with people of faith. Our cohort has people from various Christian traditions, as well as Jews, a Muslim, a Ba’hai, and Buddhists. It’s fun to see people again, and it’s encouraging to hear about their work.

This evening, we shared what we’ve been up to since the last retreat. It was amazing to hear about all the different types of environmental activism, large and small, represented by this group of 20 or so people. Some are working on fossil fuel divestment and against natural gas fracking wells, others are implementing green options in their buildings and worship services. Some are partnering with local groups to hold polluters accountable. Others are working with kids to teach them about soil and the wonder of creation. Each person’s work is fascinating and inspiring.

Later we shared about a time we’ve encountered God or had a meaningful experience in nature. In many ways this was like a gathered Quaker meeting, each one who wanted to share offering their piece, and the Spirit present and evident. We all felt the communion of shared understanding and connection. We know internally what one another are speaking of. We recognize that of God in one another, as Quakers say. We rejoiced with one another’s moments of sublime encounter, mourned with one another’s moments of grief and loss, and connected with the expansive Mystery who speaks to us through creation of things that go beyond words. We felt the simultaneous ecstasy of these transcendent moments and deep sorrow at the degradation of this beautiful gift that we see around us, and in which we are complicit. We named despair, and in telling our stories we activated hope.

Garrison Institute, NY

Although this retreat center isn’t exactly a five-star hotel, it is quite nice in a monastic style, and it has a sauna! After a red-eye flight last night and a day in the airport, then driving, then sitting in meetings, I took the opportunity for some self-care and sat in the sauna to sweat for 15 minutes. Sweating out the toxins and breathing the purifying steamy air, I feel grateful.

“Climatologists, Theologians, & Prophets: Toward an Ecotheology of Critical Hope” published in Cross Currents

My article, “Climatologists, Theologians, & Prophets: Toward an Ecotheology of Critical Hope,” was published in the peer-reviewed journal Cross Currents and appeared online today. I am excited to share my work with interested readers. According to the copyright policy, I cannot post the PDF here, but I can send it to you if you request it, so feel free to contact me at cbock at georgefox dot edu and I will be happy to send it to you. I can also share the version that I submitted to them here, so I’ll copy that below. As a side note, I’m excited to be published in this journal, whose editorial board includes some of my heroes (or heroines, really), whose feminist biblical hermeneutic and early eco-theology inspired me to go to seminary: Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Rosemary Radford Ruether. So without further ado, here is the version of this article that I submitted to Cross Currents and that now appears with only slight modifications in the March 2016 issue, pp. 8-34.

 

Climatologists, Theologians, & Prophets: Toward an Ecotheology of Critical Hope
by Cherice Bock

As people of faith begin to recognize in larger numbers that our relationship with creation is one of the most important challenges facing us today, I find myself pondering what we have to offer the environmental movement. The Christian scriptures begin and end with stories of God and creation: the oft-mentioned creation stories of Genesis 1-2, and the eschatological reflections on the new heaven and earth, and the river and tree of life in Revelation 21-22.[1] In between are the stories of the people of faith, and how we interact with God in the midst of creation. These stories place us in the larger picture and give us metaphorical concepts of where we come from, where we are going, and who we are in relation to all that is created. Within this transcendent story, each of us comes from a particular context, a place and time, an individual journey of relational connection to God and to others attempting to follow God’s way. In this time and context, our stories are necessarily bound up with the ways that we treat one another and the rest of the natural world, but hope and purpose often feel elusive in religious and non-religious settings alike.

I am a Christian and a Quaker, with training in the social sciences, theology, and environmental studies, and working in the religious academy. As such, I often ask myself what theologians and others involved in the interpretation and praxis of the Christian faith can contribute to caring for the environment in a more holistic way. My particular denominational history includes the connection of spiritual contemplation with social justice activism: a prophetic role in the midst of difficult situations. The biblical prophets held together both critique of their present time and hope for the larger meaning and purposes of God, and I wonder if this is the path for ecotheologians in the twenty-first century. Tying all of these strands together, the idea of an ecotheology of critical hope formed in my mind. I suspect that ecotheologians must not simply critique, but we must be willing to enact hope in the midst of the despair that has paralyzed so many regarding issues of environmental import. This paper will show how I got to the idea of an ecotheology of critical hope, and what a lived ecotheology of critical hope could look like.

 

Theologians as Interpreters, Not Prophets?

People of faith throughout history have often played the role of prophet, calling their cultures to more ethical treatment of one another, but it is not people of faith who are most often leading the prophetic call in the instance of climate change. In fact, there is striking similarity between the prophetic and apocalyptic language in the Bible and the rhetoric of climatologists, economists, and even politicians.[2] Therefore, when I read Forrest Clingerman’s article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion last summer, “Theologians as Interpreters—Not Prophets—in a Changing Climate,” I found much that resonated with me, including his jibe at theologians: we are “a pretty helpless bunch” when it comes to fixing environmental problems.[3] We are not the ones with the technical knowledge to solve the engineering problems that are happening as a result of climate change, or the ones who can create scientific models to help us anticipate the coming changes, or the ones to formulate holistic mitigation plans. We are good thinkers and we can be helpful advocates, and perhaps we can help shift our constituents’ worldviews, but we are not the ones who can solve the climate change problems we face as a global community if all we are doing is theological theorizing.

Clingerman suggests that the role of theologians in the climate change conversation is to be mediators and interpreters of climate change, and in many ways this makes good sense. Given the generally-accepted definition of theology as “faith seeking understanding,” to seek to understand the issues of ultimacy surrounding climate change and interpret these issues in light of faith traditions and in language understandable to the general public is an important role.[4] It is important for theologians to help sort out the “social frames of meaning” our cultures give to the climate debate.[5] This may well be the role of the theologian in issues of climate change, I thought to myself.

And yet, something felt like it was missing. If Clingerman is right, and “the theologian is not a lone prophetic voice crying against the dangers of climate change,” but instead “the theologian is…a researcher in the midst of a dialogue, reflecting on an interdisciplinary enterprise through its particular methods and outlooks,” who are the actors in this system? It is not the climatologists, who Clingerman shows to be prophets of doom but without the agency to move us away from the dreaded apocalyptic outcome. If this is so, who actually carries out the changes required to heal our planet from environmental degradation? To quote Karl Marx’s critique, “The philosophers” (and, we might add, the theologians) “have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”[6] Who will change the world if climatologists and theologians are simply presenting and interpreting data?

 

Role of the Ecotheologian: A Hermeneutic of Prophetic Hope

What I realized was missing was a full account of the prophetic role. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the prophet is not only an apocalyptic doom-sayer, but also a hope-giver.[7] Though the traditional theologian of the last several centuries, like the traditional scientist, has felt the need to be “objective,” stating theory and expecting others to live it out, the issue of climate change has brought many in both fields out into the civic realm with passionate and alarmist cries of warning.[8] These cries, however, have more often than not engendered fear and inertia in the attitudes of the public, or communicated a sense of inevitability of the apocalyptic conclusion.

It is hope, however, which gives people courage to act faithfully, even in the face of oppression and suffering. The biblical prophet encourages the community of faith to move forward into a hoped-for future world by enabling them to make meaning of the situation. He or she does this by engaging people’s imaginations so they can zoom out from present existence to a bigger picture that transcends their suffering, as we do when we invoke the inclusio of the creation motif at the beginning and end of the Christian Bible mentioned at the beginning of this paper.[9]

Clingerman moves in the direction of this conversation when he states, “theological reflection is well equipped to uncover narratives that advance our critical powers and offer us hope.” He identifies the importance of the location “between hope and fear,” which I see as the location of the biblical prophet.[10] It is curious that the role of theologian as we think of it is not really present in the Christian Bible.[11] There are priests to keep the rituals going, there are scribes to write and re-write the sacred texts, and there are prophets to help the community imagine itself into its present and future context. In the modern American church, are theologians simply the scribes, recording and reiterating long ago histories of God’s interaction with creation? In my view, the role of theologian is the same as the role of the biblical prophet: interpreting in light of current events, leading with one’s life and actions, and holding together hope and fear, critique and meaning-making.

Based on Jürgen Moltmann’s idea that hermeneutic is not “a simple matter of understanding but is itself performative, an action which is directed toward the transformation of the world,”[12] I posit that if the role of the theologian within the context of climate change is in fact interpretation, it is this expanded version of interpretation: a hermeneutic of transformative practice. It is an interpretation that, through critiquing the world as it is and invoking a vision for the world as it can be, transforms our everyday choices into struggles that have meaning. This critical hope grounds the community in a broader view of history, allowing them to move forward in hope, acknowledging fear but not becoming paralyzed by it.

To be transformative, a critique must, however, be embodied: enacted. It speaks against the current system, and has the audacity to not just envision but to also move toward liberation of the entire community of creation. If one accepts this version of the theologian’s expanded hermeneutical role, then the theologian becomes indistinguishable from the prophet, expounding and enacting critical hope and, in our particular context, an important focus is ecotheology.

 

Why Critical Hope?

The term “critical hope” is based on Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Hope, in which he updates his famous Pedagogy of the Oppressed with a more specific focus on hope.[13] Critical hope is defined as “an action-oriented response to contemporary despair,”[14] and is discussed in extant literature in the fields of higher education classrooms,[15] psychological settings,[16] and participatory action research in community organizations,[17] but this concept has thus far not been explored in depth in the theological or environmental literature.[18]

While I do not plan to expound a full ecotheology of critical hope here, what I hope is to show the need for theologians and climatologists to move from a space of critical alienation to one of critical hope, and for many pastors and people of faith to move from a space of uncritical hopefulness into critical hope. To do this, I will first describe what hope is and does, and how the meaning-making process of actively hoping alongside suffering and struggle can serve as a catalyst in the agential process of moving toward a hoped-for world. Then I will explain four categories of individuals within the framework of critical/uncritical and hopeful/alienated. Finally, I will show how, through an ecotheology of critical hope, theologians can participate in a continual, communal, interpretive dialectic between hope and suffering, facing fear by making meaning together through shared experience and stories of struggle and promise.

 

Critical Hope

Based on Paulo Freire’s liberation pedagogy, critical hope is an area pedagogy scholars and practitioners are defining in order to give hope to those working to break the cycle of oppression pinpointed by Freire.[19] His liberation pedagogy explains the struggle between oppressor and oppressed, the fact that we all are bound up in this struggle and dehumanized by it, and that most of us play both roles at different points in our lives and relationships. To break this cycle requires risking acts of love, seeing one another as human beings, and becoming conscious of the parts played by ourselves and others in this system of oppression, a process he calls “conscientization.”[20] Since Freire “avoided separating pedagogy from theology or philosophy,” his work has influenced or can be read alongside a variety of disciplines, including theology—and arguably is in itself a kind of contextual theology for educators, or at least a “pedagogical spirituality.”[21]

For theologians, many of whom are also educators, Freire’s liberation pedagogy provides helpful and convicting food for thought regarding the process of theological education. The system of domination that the church and theological educators often help to perpetuate is expressed in what Freire calls the “banking model of education,” where an expert bestows information on students (or parishioners), a transaction rather than a process where critical consciousness occurs. Though this domination system is in direct opposition to the freedom and liberation offered by God in the biblical witness, its oppressive structures infiltrate our church polity and relationships so that the church is always in need of renewal.

For ecotheologians, Freire’s framework is doubly helpful, since the anthropogenic problems facing our planet are present because of the fear-based system of domination and control Freire describes. Just as portions of humanity have enforced hierarchies of domination and control on one another in the form of class, race, gender, and nationality, we have also attempted to dominate and control the natural world. The social struggle Freire defined has the same roots as the ecological crisis.

Therefore, for those of us situated within theological education, getting at the root of the problems in both education and our actions toward the environment requires a critical look at our own complicity in the socio-political structures of our time. But, as I have shown above, critiquing is not enough, because critique alone leaves us feeling stuck and despairing, without a sense of agency to be able to solve the problems, leading to a pervasive hopelessness and meaninglessness. As Freire puts it:

Hope is an ontological need. Hopelessness is but hope that has lost its bearings, and become a distortion of that ontological need. When it becomes a program, hopelessness paralyzes us, immobilizes us. We succumb to fatalism, and then it becomes impossible to muster the strength we absolutely need for a fierce struggle that will re-create the world. I am hopeful, not out of mere stubbornness, but out of an existential, concrete imperative.[22]

In other words, theology or climatology that stays within the walls of an academy based on the banking model becomes immobilizing and fatalistic. Critical hope provides an alternative: a “tension between fatalism and utopianism…[that] is partially resolved in action.”[23] In order for the information on climate change to meet our own and our world’s needs, it must be enacted, and the name for this action is critical hope.

 

Hope as a Process

It is important to further explore the meaning of the word “hope.” Often confused with the more passive experiences of wishing, desiring, or optimism, hope refers to something deeper: a choice, a practice, an orientation toward the future while grounded in stories from one’s personal and communal past, giving meanings to actions in the present that impact the future. Though one may feel various levels of hopefulness depending on the day, hope itself is not an emotion. It is a process of facing one’s fears with courage and within a network of social support and meaning-making. Hope is both the object hoped for and the feeling one gets as one works to get there.[24] We can only hope for things that are possible. Otherwise we are either wishing (if the outcome is impossible) or we are certain (if the outcome is inevitable).[25]

Psychological research over recent decades provides a helpful framework for understanding hope. According to hope theorist C. R. Snyder, hope is based on our belief in our ability to reach a goal. We base our understanding of our ability on our past history, perception of our own skill level (self-efficacy), and the amount of motivation or agency we think we have. We decide how much value we place on that goal, and whether or not we see a pathway that could get us there. So the important pieces are: seeing a realistic goal, our perceptions of our history, imagining pathways, and believing ourselves to have agency. Hope, in Snyder’s view, is the cognitive process of moving through these actions toward one’s goal.[26]

Also important, finds Snyder, is one’s response to failure, which can come in the form of an obstacle or a feeling of loss of hope. He and other psychologists distinguish between hope and optimism in the way one deals with failure or mistakes. Optimists tend to distance themselves from failure so it does not negatively impact their identity. Those who hope are willing to admit mistakes and failures, and incorporate these into their identity as opportunities for learning and growth. They see these as minor pitfalls on the way to a larger goal.[27]

Though this psychological framework is helpful, one still wonders: what can motivate us to make that step of courage and vulnerability? Excepting the most talented and successful individuals, most of us would probably find our agential reserves tapped fairly quickly if our own past and future were all that was involved in the process of hope, and indeed this seems to be what has happened to many working on issues surrounding climate change. This form of hope, limited to our own lifetimes and achievements, is inadequate to the task of sustained mobilization and transformation that is required to combat climate change. Even in the case of those exceptionally talented and successful individuals just mentioned, we probably all recognize the sense of disappointment and dissatisfaction individuals sometimes feel upon achieving a personal goal such as a job promotion or an acquisition of a particular possession. The goal may have been achieved, but this is not equal to a sense of hope. Missing is the interpretation of the goal completion as having meaning.

What is needed is a hope that is deeper than desire, broader than the individual, and that contains the transformative power to change suffering, injustice, evil, and apathy into meaning. This is the interpretive role that theologians can play, if we are willing to fuse hope and fear, and even suffering, into the courage to live out both sides of the prophetic role of active hope.

 

Grounding in Faith Tradition

In the biblical books, especially those of prophecy and wisdom, one finds two major types of hope: 1) the relatively easy hope of Proverbs, which is the hope for living faithfully within one’s own lifetime and providing a safe and livable future for one’s children, and 2) a long-term hope of participating in the community of promise. While the former requires some sacrifice, including living righteously rather than receiving all the comforts one sees others receiving, the latter kind of hope requires a much broader story in which to make sense of one’s life. If one lived during the time of the Israelites’ exile from the Promised Land, for example, one would endure exile with the knowledge of a deeper meaning, with the hope of God’s promise of faithfulness to the community. If one lives, as we do, in the time after Jesus, one can hope in the story of suffering, redemption, and liberation God enacted through him, and participate in that story, making meaning of one’s life through the lens of that past, present, and future hope.

Communities of faith have a deep resource of hope in our shared stories, and the infusion of meaning that comes with passing these stories from generation to generation. Not only do we have our own personal stories on which to base our hope, but we also have a vast repository of stories of ancestors and spiritual forebears.

 

Meaning

Holding the tension between acknowledging what is wrong in the world and continuing to hope is what Moltmann called the “dialectic of reconciliation,” similar to the dialectic of “conscientization” delineated by Freire.[28] Arguably, it is our ability to hope that makes us human, and equally as human is the experience of suffering.[29] Juxtaposing these two seemingly paradoxical experiences and intentionally creating meaning from the combination forms the heart of our humanity, as is evidenced by the theology of hope and psychology of meaning that emerged out of World War II.[30] As Moltmann put it, “The theology of hope was born in a prisoner of war camp.”[31] The process of hope is not easy or comfortable, but it is essential—that is, it is bound up in the essence of what it means to be human.

Viktor Frankl continued to do what was right even when he had very little agency as he lived through World War II concentration camps, and this ability to choose to live with a sense of meaning sustained his hope. He could not control his fate, but he could continue to serve his fellows by volunteering to care for typhus patients, for example, and by refusing to attempt escape when it meant leaving a patient for whom he represented a last shred of hope. He expressed feeling a sense of rightness within himself when he made these choices that aimed toward a broader goal than his own life, a deeper meaning. It pointed toward his participation in humanity. He came to see unavoidable suffering as an aspect of an individual’s unique work in the world, and discussed the courage it took to face suffering with hope: that is, with the willingness to still find meaning.[32]

Moltmann shares about his experience after the war, that he and his fellow seminarians would not have accepted a “liberal, bourgeois theology,” but they needed a full Christian theology that could handle the suffering and liberation of Jesus.[33] Though perhaps one generally imagines suffering and hope at opposite ends of a spectrum of experiences, Moltmann’s need for a theology of suffering brought him to a theology of hope.

 

Relationship Between Suffering and Hope

I would venture to guess that most of us today who fancy ourselves ecotheologians have not experienced anything close to the physical and emotional suffering of Europe during World War II, and so we may wonder if we can yet experience hope fully. Frankl gives us a helpful metaphor. He likens suffering to a gas that is released in a jar. If there is a small amount of this gas, it will still become distributed throughout the jar, though in a smaller concentration than it might if more gas were placed in the jar.[34] So it is with suffering. Though we may not have experienced the degree of suffering of those who went through concentration camps, we have experienced suffering and know its ability to impact our full selves. These authors, along with Freire and others, note that it is not the amount of suffering we endure that matters. What matters is our consciousness of it, and what we do with it.[35] We all experience suffering. Those who emerged from World War II with hope had learned to transform those experiences through facing reality and making meaning. This meaning is hope’s catalyst.

 

Importance of Community

One other point needs to be brought forward regarding hope before I move into an explanation of an ecotheology of critical hope, and that is the importance of relationships and community in finding and maintaining hope. In addition to hope and suffering, our need for relationships and community is an important aspect of what it means to be human.[36] Psychological studies show that involvement in communities may be essential to the act of hoping. Zimmerman found that individuals can learn hopefulness, and that this happens mainly within the context of community organizations. He found that participation in these communities helped individuals develop psychological empowerment or self-efficacy outside the therapeutic setting. In addition to helping people develop skills, communities also encourage collective motivation that provides agency toward a shared goal.[37] Although his study did not go so far as to interpret the reasons for an increase in psychological empowerment, my interpretation is that communal, successful goal completion provides a repository of stories from which individuals can draw sustaining power as they attempt a new goal. Individuals joining such a community have not experienced the previous successes, but can still draw on their agential power as they hear stories from their peers.

Philosopher Victoria McGeer talks about the concept of “peer scaffolding” as an important step in human development leading to hopeful individuals. As infants and children, we need “parental scaffolding”: we need our parents or other adults to set tasks for us that are just beyond our reach so that we can learn new skills and understand ourselves as individuals who can accomplish difficult tasks. As adults, it is important to learn to be a “self-scaffolder,” to be able to motivate oneself toward a goal and in so doing to build up one’s self-esteem and self-efficacy, but this is not enough.[38] Of vital importance is peer scaffolding, or relationships where we encourage one other to stay motivated, make meaning together through sharing our stories, and become a community that celebrates successes and urges us to try again in the face of failure.[39] We need the support of others in order to continue to hope: we need an interdependent network of care. Peer scaffolding works because we recognize others as agents in their own right, with meaningful hopes and goals, and in so doing we care for those others. When we care for others, they are better able to respond in kind. We open up an expansive space where they, too, can respond to the world more expansively.[40] Through acting as an agent who encourages others to hope, we learn our agential power, and this gives meaning to our own life and offers purpose and efficacy to our own actions.

 

Christens, et al. (2013) Study on Critical Hope

Building on the necessity of strong communities and peer relationships that motivate one another toward hope, the framework of critical hope helps elucidate the role of the theologian, prophet, and others in understanding how to move from critique into hope-filled action. A study by Christens et al. identified four types of civic engagement in the United States based on individuals’ perceptions of their ability to effect change (self-efficacy) and their knowledge and understanding of the sources of social issues (degree of critique of social systems): critical but alienated, uncritical but hopeful, uncritical and alienated, and critical and hopeful (see Table 1).[41]

While both “hopeful” groups had stronger community connections and both “critical” groups had better overall mental health, the combination of “critical” and “hopeful” generated the highest social capital, in addition to the benefits of mental health and community participation. Those who were critical and alienated did not have strong connections to community groups, but both Christens, et al. and Zimmerman showed that as people became involved in such groups, they were able to move toward the “critical and hopeful” category.[42] These types of communities are “settings that promote critical reflection on action, but do so in the context of enduring relationships, social support, shared meaning and sense of community.”[43]

Developing groups that are able to be critical of current systems (where appropriate) as well as have the self-efficacy and social capital to effect change is an important aspect of a democratic society. That over half of the people in the study expressed feelings of alienation, of not having an impact on the way society works, while only 7.5% were able to critique the social order while simultaneously feeling enough empowerment to be hopeful about their ability to change the situation, shows a crisis of hope in American democracy, and American life in general. As Christens, et al. conclude, it is important, therefore, to involve more individuals in the kind of community organizations that foster both social critique and hopefulness about one’s level of agency.[44] The church and other religious organizations are well situated to enact this form of community.

 

The Theologians’ Choice

It is here that the would-be ecotheologian must make a choice: presuming that s/he sees the reality of the environmental problems facing our planet today and holds a vision of a better world, will the theologian seek only to understand the situation in light of faith and beliefs, or will the theologian risk practicing hope as a true prophet, interpreting the data into transformative practice, and building community and solidarity through an ecotheology of critical hope? Are we willing to take the step that goes beyond fear of the future, beyond denouncing fossil fuel companies, beyond despairing that we have no ability to effect change, beyond feeling that our personal choices cannot make a difference, and stand against the system that currently enslaves us as both oppressor and oppressed? If we are ready to make that leap into an ecotheology that fuses the two sides of the prophetic role of critique and hope, how do we begin?

 

The Categories of Christens, et al. Applied to Climate Change and Ecotheology

To unpack the Christens, et al. study in light of this discussion, I suggest that climatologists are mainly in the “critical and alienated” category (see Table 2). They are critical of the situation facing the planet, but as the years have gone by with more and more people sounding the alarm and the world continuing to go in the same direction toward ever-worsening anthropogenic climate change, they do not have a high degree of hope that they can impact the system. They fear that the world will not change and will run out of time if they ever do decide to change, so they utilize the prophetic motif of apocalyptic warning. They can imagine the world for which they hope and long, but they despair of reaching it. In some ways this is good news: they are still, in a sense, hoping. Despair shows the presence of an underlying hope, the “hope that has lost its bearings” mentioned by Freire above.[45] Apathy indicates a loss of hope, but fear and despair show that one is still hoping.[46] To be sure, it is a dormant hope without a sense of self-efficacy, agency, or a pathway to reach one’s goal. When theologians follow this line of thinking, they end up in the same place of despair as their climatologist colleagues. Virtue ethicists often fall into this category, emphasizing personal virtue but not necessarily translating this into a social critique that looks at root causes of social problems. Virtue ethics attempts to address the symptoms of poverty, climate change, and so forth, but has a difficult time catalyzing this into meaningful action in solidarity with others.

The feeling of being “uncritical and alienated” is what drives the domination system described by Freire. These individuals focus on personal rights from a Hedonistic and Egoistic perspective, with little or no awareness of how this affects others around them. They do not particularly want to change the social system, except perhaps to reduce it as far as possible so that individuals are free to make their own choices. Although these people feel alienated in terms of making changes to the system as a whole, they seem to have a fairly high degree of agency for making changes within their own lives, for getting the things that they want and need for themselves.

Unfortunately, for this reason, many of us feel forced to act in this way, too—hence the “tragedy of the commons,” where everyone anxiously grabs for as many resources as possible since otherwise someone else will get them and we fear we will not have enough.[47] This perspective is the fuel for an individualist rather than a collectivist perspective, and many of us participate in this system not because we want to or believe in it, but because without a strong social network to trust to collectively provide for the needs of all in the group, we see no other choice than fending for ourselves.

The “uncritical but hopeful” group is characterized by altruistic people who really do want what is best for the whole, but are generally satisfied with the way things are. These may be pastors or priests within religious settings, individuals who want to offer comfort and support and who do not see theology or prophecy as their calling. Many people of faith fall into this category as well. They are regular church-goers, responsible members of society, and though they may have to work hard, they are making it, and they think others can work hard and make it, too. These individuals often have a vague vision of a Utopia, but passively anticipate its appearance in their lives (or after death). They believe in equal rights, that each person should be treated the same way. This is the justice as fairness approach of Rawlsian justice, without attention to historical disparity that still influences the ability for “equal opportunity” to be meted out equally.[48] They believe everyone will have an equal voice in a democratic system, and therefore they are hopeful about their own ability to impact the system. They are probably right that they could impact the system if they so chose, because they have the education and the means to do so, but they do not have major critiques of the social system because they are part of the group that is benefitting from that system. It is this group of people about whom Marx said that religion is the opiate of the people.

In the United States, many Christians fit this “uncritical and hopeful” description, and practice something more like a civil religion than anything resembling what Jesus taught. The current system provides comfort and justification for their belief that hard work is rewarded, and they see no need to reflect on the centuries of racial and other kinds of power imbalances placing them in a situation of privilege. Regarding climate change, if they believe it, they believe it will be solved by a vague idea of technical fixes and human ingenuity. “We have always solved our problems in the past, right?” the thinking goes. “Someone will solve this one, too.” Others disbelieve climate change because the increasingly shrill messaging of its proponents is much less reassuring than the calm explanations of fossil fuel companies, who make their lives more comfortable and who explain away climatologists’ claims with information that certainly looks like authentic science.[49]

The final group is “critical and hopeful.” These individuals are able to realistically see and critique the world’s social systems, and to remain hopeful that their actions will make a difference, even if that difference is simply struggling for something meaningful rather than living a life of meaningless complacency or despair. The studies by Zimmerman and Christens et al. show that these individuals are generally supported by strong social networks through their involvement in community organizations. Although they may not come from politically powerful demographic categories, critical hopers can mobilize and make a big difference, such as the famous examples of the Civil Rights Movement and Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance movement for Indian independence. These individuals are motivated by being part of something greater than themselves, and through involvement in community organizations, they are able to gain skills and self-confidence, leading to self-efficacy, which provides further fuel for their hope. Critical hopers are generally thinking in a broad time scale, such as the image used by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”[50]

Within theological frameworks, liberation theology fits into this category. It strives to enact a praxis-oriented faithfulness based on critical hope. Placing themselves within a larger story, everyday actions and struggles gain deeper meaning and significance, and hope derives from experiential knowledge of an intimate God at work within struggle and suffering, as well as transcending the present moment with view to a larger goal.[51]

 

Shifting Categories

The bad news, for those of us who want to live in and encourage the idea of critical hope, is that Christens, et al. showed that only 7.5% of their study population expressed the characteristics of critical hopefulness.[52] The good news is that the categories are not static. Psychological studies show that individuals can learn how to practice hope and engage meaning in their lives, often through involvement in community organizations.[53] Unfortunately, faith communities can operate from an “uncritical and hopeful” perspective, fostering a civil religion that sanctions the actions of the state rather than critiquing them and making governmental policies more just. And scholars in the religious academy tend to operate within the “critical but alienated” category, seeing the changes that need to occur and calling them out but not feeling the agency to change the system. Faith communities and theologians yet hold unique potential for cultivation of critical hope. They are part of already-established community organizations, and their constituents generally espouse either hope or social critique.

Those in the “uncritical and hopeful” category may move toward social critique if their situation begins to become uncomfortable. They may begin to question the certainty with which they hold their low level of social critique. For those who grew up in the middle class but see their children struggling to find jobs that will pay their bills, they can see with their own eyes that hard work does not necessarily end in social rewards of a living wage. For those who have a natural gas fracking facility built near their home, the environmental impact becomes painfully obvious. These individuals can be fairly easily mobilized to work on a particular issue once the issue comes to their attention. They have some power in the socio-political system, so they are already somewhat hopeful (or at least optimistic). If they see the problem, they may work on it. For example, many in the middle class American church have become aware of the problem of human sex trafficking in the United States, and have mobilized to work against this problem in the last decade.

The difficulty is sustaining this group’s interest for long enough to ensure that a problem is fully worked out. Once they no longer see it, it is easy to go back to comfortable passivity. Another danger is that these individuals can move to the “alienated” category if they are not able to see the effects of their actions. At this point, they can choose the “critical and alienated” category if they have become sufficiently conscious of the social problems facing the world, or they may give up and ignore social critiques, becoming apathetic and letting go of hope for change.

Those who are critical but alienated can also be moved into a critical, hopeful perspective if they begin to perceive themselves as having self-efficacy: if their actions begin to have meaning and purpose, and/or if they see some forward progress in moving toward their goal. For example, many seem to be gaining cautious hope after the Paris climate talks in December 2015, COP21. Since the presence of despair shows that a spark of hope still exists in this group, igniting hope in these individuals can occur through encouraging participation in relationships and communities of critical hope. Encouraging individuals to see themselves within the context of a broader story with a depth of meaning can give these individuals a sense of agency they do not feel when focused only on their personal stories of success and failure. The combination of a sense of meaning that fits into a larger story, plus the synergistically agential power of involvement in community organizations, can provide activate hope in those who are despairing.

The group that is neither critical nor hopeful is more difficult. Since they exhibit apathy, they no longer have a desire for hope that can easily be catalyzed. It is possible that if enough people get on board with a critical and hopeful perspective and begin making changes, those within the uncritical and alienated group may begin to take note, and may change their perspective. They may move into the “critical” category, becoming aware of social problems and why they are important. At the very least, enacting critical hope can disarm the power of the uncritical and alienated group. If their power lies in the fear that there will not be enough to go around, that there is someone who will always grab for a larger piece of the pie, the best way to combat this is not by taking one’s own large piece of pie, but by sharing what one has so that others do not have to fear not having enough. As more individuals authentically care for one another, the need for acting in an uncritical and alienated way disappears, and more people can realistically choose the option of critical hope. And it is encouraging to note that this group comprises only 20% of the people studied, so if the other groups are catalyzed in the direction of critical hope, this group becomes only a small, fearful voice.

This may sound unrealistic and Utopian, and perhaps it is. But there is good evidence that those living within strong networks of communities who hold critical hope are psychologically healthier, have better overall life satisfaction, and even exhibit better physical health.[54] Those with critical hope recognize that there will always be suffering; it is an unavoidable part of the human condition. But through the process of making meaning from suffering together and choosing to practice hope, strong communities form that can effect positive change in the world.

 

Toward an Ecotheology of Critical Hope

The important difference between critical alienation and critical hope is an epistemic one: from orthodoxy (right belief) to orthopraxy (right action).[55] In other words, the movement is from a theology that only talks to one that also acts. It is living by the Spirit of the law, rather than the letter of the law: living out love relationally through our actions, rather than legalistically holding ont “orthodox” beliefs simply because those are the words that have been passed down to us. Utilizing orthopraxy, we see the theological task as knowing God through lived experience rather than simply understanding things about God. We learn to identify right living relationally, in immanent context, and with an epistemology that is intensely personal as well as universally connecting.

Here is where the idea of critical hope and the importance of enacting both sides of the prophetic role come into play regarding environmental concerns. If theologians simply engage in orthodox beliefs and interpret scientifically orthodox information about climate change but go about living our ordinary lives, considering our job finished, whose job is it to enact the changes necessary to mitigate climate change, to engage in orthopraxy? Housed safely within the academy, how do we know about the human experiences of suffering that our lifestyle engenders? Writing at a desk, when do we experience the wonder of creation and the intense groaning of a degraded landscape?

The much-quoted ecotheology passage, Romans 8:18-25 (NRSV), is illustrative here:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

In this passage it is clear that the world is not as it should be: there is a critique. Things need to change. Suffering and hope are juxtaposed here, as in Moltmann and Frankl. We are suffering from a system that causes us anxiety and fear, but we also have hope because we can envision the world as it should be. The whole creation participates, groaning in this lament, simultaneously critiquing, suffering, and hoping. The words translated “waits with eager longing” have a meaning of continuous, active, expectant hoping. The word for “waiting,” απεκδεχομαι, is in the middle mood, meaning it is a reflexive action in which the creation is acting and receiving the benefit of the action. When we participate in creation’s groaning and longing, we receive the benefit of this action. Our act of hoping engenders hope. By participating in the process with the whole of creation, by becoming conscious of our place in this process, we can receive the benefits of this eager longing and hoping.

Theologians and other people of faith are situated in an ideal location for enacting this ecotheology of critical hope. The key is forming communities capable of critical hope, and so, even for many theologians and people of faith, forming a community or finding one that is already showing signs of critical hope is an important first step. As ecotheologian Jennifer Butler put it, “Discomfort with isolation became my catalyst. I realized the only antidote to my growing sense of displacement was replacing alienation with rootedness.”[56] She intuitively realized that she needed the agency that comes with participating in a critically hopeful community, rooted in her faith tradition. Combining hope theory with liberation pedagogy and political theology, in this next section I will show how communities of faith can interpret the warnings of climatologists into actions of critical hope that can transform our planet in a positive direction.

 

Praxis: combining hope theory, critical hope, and theology into reflexive action

Bozalek, et al. calls the process of enacting critical hope “goal-directed social praxis.”[57] Within the context of our larger hope of participating in creation in a way that allows creation to be “set free from its bondage to decay” in order that it may “obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Ro 8:21), it is important to set smaller, realistic goals that embody steps in the direction of our overall hope. Therefore, the first step for theologians who would like to interpret climatological information into action is to decide on a preliminary, feasible goal. If one does not already have a community with whom to journey in this process, developing or joining such a community could be an important first goal.

Inherent in this goal-formation process is a critique: we must recognize a problem that is occurring that we may be able to address with our actions. In order to do this, we engage critical thinking, and we also must be willing to be personally transformed. For academics, this might look like letting go of the banking model of education and being willing to allow others to be or become experts. Part of this process may evoke a sense of personal conviction about one’s role in the unjust system that has brought about this situation, leading to confession and repentance.

In order not to become stuck in the critical and alienated category, here we must practice the full action of repentance, including actively turning around and going in another direction to orient fully toward the hoped-for world. Since theologians and climatologists are often professors within an academic setting that very much abides by the culture of domination, this is another reason that academics can feel stuck and despairing. Their very livelihood and ability to continue doing the research that contributes to our understanding of climate change is contingent on upholding a system of domination, and yet that system is the same one which is causing anthropogenic climate change. True repentance may be extremely costly, and takes great courage.

It can be helpful to engage our imaginations, to imagine the world as it would look in thirty years, and then to work backwards from there.[58] This helps us create at least one possible pathway from our present state to where we want to be. We are enacting “‘lived’ critical pedagogy and curiosity about what is possible.”[59] As McGeer puts it, “human agency is about imaginatively exploring our own powers, as much as it is about using them.”[60]

To find the agency to take this step, we can reflect on our personal history: are there ways we have already been engaging in pro-environmental behavior that can encourage us to continue in that direction? Are there stories from our larger community of faith or from our sacred scriptures that provide a solid foundation from which our chosen action can flow? By engaging our personal and communal histories, we make meaning of the action we plan to perform. Therefore, even if it is difficult or uncomfortable, even if we feel afraid, the meaning with which our stories infuse the action propels us forward with courageous hope.

Thus, agency for hope comes through transcending time. Our reflection on our faith tradition’s past is meaningful “only if hope in the future takes root in the present.”[61] Through this action of stepping outside of time, we are able to see a broader vision of the meanings of our actions, living fully in the present in light of this eschatological perspective. To enter into this space, prayer, meditation, and time spent in nature are all ways that conservation psychologists are finding that individuals gain agency to do environmental work.[62] Faith communities have long found power and courage in these practices, and prayer, meditation, and time in nature should not be forgotten or neglected as spiritual practices and catalysts for action.

Finally, it is important to notice what we have accomplished. After we attempt each step, we can give our communities and ourselves time to celebrate the action and make meaning of it. If it was not as successful as hoped, transforming that disappointment into a learning opportunity can yet catalyze the next step. Acknowledging the good work that has occurred and making it part of the collective identity of the group can add another story to the repertoire of meaning-filled agency that can provide support for taking the next step. Enacting this recursive process of reflection and critique leading to action within a community can provide a space where critical thinking is developed and valued, and individuals learn new skills that engender a sense of self-efficacy, enabling them to realistically attempt ever more ambitious goals within the context of a communal support network.

 

Hope for (eco)theology?

Theologians are faced with an epistemic choice when it comes to our interpretive role: do we choose an theology of orthodoxy, where we are paralyzed in critical alienation by the system in which we are both privileged and oppressed? Or do we choose an prophetic theology of orthopraxy, recognizing that knowledge comes from the both-and of reflection and action, the already and the not yet, poverty and community, immanence and transcendence, self-efficacy and radical interconnectedness?[63] Can we fuse futility and utopia into a meaningful, embodied hope for this day?[64]

Making this courageous choice, we propel ourselves into a messy, uncertain world in which we may not be as comfortable as we used to be, but neither must we feel paralyzed in existential despair. Instead, our lives will be filled with purpose, relationships, community, and hope. Our actions will be multiplied as we trust one another and open up a space for others to not have to fear being crushed by a system of domination and oppression. Participating in the act of critical hope, we receive the benefit of that action, living out the most human of all emotions, and in the process becoming most fully ourselves within an ever-renewing context of interwoven creation.

 

Endnotes:

[1] This inclusio came to my attention in a series of excellent talks given by Barbara Rossing at Wake Forest School of Divinity’s Food, Faith, & Religious Leadership Institute in June 2015.

[2] Bajaj, Vikas, “Climate Prophet In Hot Water,” New York Times 161.55728 (2012): 12.

Begley, Sharon, “The Evolution of an Eco-Prophet,” Newsweek 154.19 (2009): 34–39.

Clynes, Tom, “The Prophet of Melt,” Popular Science 271.2 (2007): 52–106.

Doran, Chris, “Environmental Curses and Blessings through the Eyes of the Biblical Prophets,” Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture & Ecology 15.3 (2011): 291–304.

Frese, Stephen J., “Aldo Leopold: An American Prophet,” History Teacher 37.1 (2003): 99–118.

Hoggett, Paul, “Climate Change and the Apocalyptic Imagination,” Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society 16.3 (2011): 261–75.

Kool, Richard, “Limits to Growth, Environmental Science and the Nature of Modern Prophecy.” Ecological Economics 85 (2013): 1–5.

Moo, Jonathan, “Climate Change and the Apocalyptic Imagination: Science, Faith, and Ecological Responsibility,” Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science 50.4 (2015): 937–48.

Paterson, James, “Tim Flannery: Climate Prophet,” Institute of Public Affairs Review 63.2 (2011): 6.

Shteir, Seth, “Desert Prophets.” National Parks 84.1 (2010): 7–7.

Stephens, Bret, “Climate Prophets and Profiteers,” Wall Street Journal, Eastern Edition 263.39 (February 18, 2014): A11.

Vitello, Paul, “Jane Holtz Kay, a Prophet Of Climate Change, Dies at 74,” New York Times (November 21, 2012).

[3] Clingerman, Forrest, “Theologians as Interpreters—Not Prophets—in a Changing Climate,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 83.2 (2015): 337.

[4] Migliore, Daniel L., Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2004).

[5] Clingerman, 2015: 340.

[6] Karl Marx in Meeks, M. Douglas, Origins of the Theology of Hope (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974): 136; and Gutiérrez, Gustavo, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, translated by Caridad Inda and John Eagleson, revised edition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988): 123.

[7] Brueggemann, Walter, The Prophetic Imagination, second edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001).

[8] Lesen, Amy E., ed., Scientists, Experts, and Civic Engagement: Walking a Fine Line (New Orleans, LA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2015).

[9] Macy & Johnstone (2012) liken this to a newspaper photograph. Viewed under a magnifying glass, each dot is visible but meaningless. Seen in aggregate, the picture emerges, which could not exist without the multitude of tiny points and their relation to one another.

Macy, Joanna, and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012).

Brueggemann, Walter, The Prophetic Imagination, second edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001).

[10] Clingerman, 2015: 346.

[11] One might point to the apostle Paul as a theologian, but his life did not look very much like the lives of today’s theologians. He did not sit in an academy pondering theological concepts. He planted churches and wrote about his theological convictions based on his personal experiences of a Living Christ, and his topics were often deeply related to the contextual issues facing the people to whom he wrote. These were specific and experiential instructions for a particular community set in a particular place and time. As such, they often speak to us in other places and times, and there is deep universal wisdom due to the contextuality of his messages. But this form of theology looks much different from that practiced by many theologians today, intending to be universal and in so doing, having a difficult time connecting with reality in any time and place.

[12] Meeks, 1974: 140.

[13] Freire, Paulo, Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Kindle edition (London ; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 1992, 2014).

———, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos, 30th anniversary edition (New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2000).

[14] Bozalek, Vivienne, Brenda Leibowitz, Ronelle Carolissen, and Megan Boler, Discerning Critical Hope in Educational Practices (New York, NY: Routledge, 2014).

[15] Ainley, Patrick, and Joyce E. Canaan, “Critical Hope in English Higher Education Today, Constraints and Possibilities in Two New Universities,” Teaching in Higher Education 10, 4 (October 1, 2005): 435–46.

Canaan, Joyce, “Developing a Pedagogy of Critical Hope,” LATISS: Learning and Teaching in the Social Sciences 2.3 (2005): 159–74.

Danvers, Emily, “Discerning Critical Hope in Educational Practices,” Higher Education Research & Development 33.6 (2014): 1239–41.

[16] Christens, Brian D., Jessica J. Collura, and Faizan Tahir, “Critical Hopefulness: A Person-Centered Analysis of the Intersection of Cognitive and Emotional Empowerment,” American Journal of Community Psychology 52.1–2 (2013): 170–84.

[17] Cahill, Caitlin, David Alberto Quijada Cerecer, and Matt Bradley, “‘Dreaming of . . . ’: Reflections on Participatory Action Research as a Feminist Praxis of Critical Hope,” Affilia 25.4 (2010): 406–16.

Miller, Peter M., Tanya Brown, and Rodney Hopson, “Centering Love, Hope, and Trust in the Community: Transformative Urban Leadership Informed by Paulo Freire,” Urban Education 46.5 (2011): 1078–99.

[18] With the exception of one recent study in religious education which does a good job of outlining the field of globoalized religious education but does not really get to anything about critical hope (Kim, 2015), and one dissertation about a pedagogy of critical hope in a composition classroom that attempts to elucidate the connections between Freire’s liberation pedagogy and liberation theology (Kuhne, 1998). To be sure, many in the religious academy have written about justice and the environment, or the environment and hope. But valid critiques inveigh that current suggestions from these fields display unrealistic governmental policy changes, and that such policies cannot be adequately just for all people and for all time. Concerns leveled at ecotheologies of hope are their Utopian nature and their simplistic optimism. I share these concerns and hope to address them here.

Kim, Hyun-Sook, “Seeking Critical Hope in a Global Age: Religious Education in a Global Perspective,” Religious Education 110.3 (2015): 311–28.

Kuhne, Michael Collins, “A Community Pedagogy of Critical Hope: Paulo Freire, Liberation Pedagogy and Liberation Theology,” Ph.D., University of Minnesota, 1998.

[19] Freire, 1992, 2014; Freire, 1970, 2000.

[20] Freire, 1970, 2000: 32.

[21] Kuhne, 1998: 95, 96.

[22] Freire, 1992, 2014: loc. 84-85.

[23] Sutton, Paul, “A Paradoxical Academic Identity: Fate, Utopia and Critical Hope,” Teaching in Higher Education 20.1(2015): 43.

[24] Meeks, 1974.

[25] Martin, Adrienne M., How We Hope: A Moral Psychology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013); Snyder, C.R., Handbook of Hope: Theory, Measures, and Applications, EBook Academic Collection (San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2000).

[26] Snyder, C.R., Handbook of Hope: Theory, Measures, and Applications, EBook Academic Collection (San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2000).

[27] Ibid., 2000.

[28] Moltmann, Jürgen, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology, translated by James W. Leitch, fifth edition (New York, NY: SCM Press Ltd., 1965).

Freire, 1970, 2000.

[29] McGeer, Victoria, “The Art of Good Hope,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 592.1 (2004): 100–127.

Meeks, 1974.

[30] Moltmann, 1965.

Frankl, Viktor E., Man’s Search for Meaning, translated by Simon Vance (OverDrive, Inc. and Blackstone Audiobooks, 1995).

If there were more time and space, I would also draw in the postmodern philosophy of Emanuel Levinas:

Levinas, Emmanuel, Entre Nous: Thinking of the Other. European Perspectives: A Series in Social Thought and Cultural Criticism (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2000).

[31] Moltmann, Jürgen, “Forward,” in Origins of the Theology of Hope (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1974): xi.

[32] Frankl, 1995.

[33] Moltmann, “Forward,” 1974: xi.

[34] Frankl, 1995.

[35] Frankl, 1995; Freire, 1970, 2000; McGeer, 2004; Meeks, 1974; Moltmann, 1965.

[36] McGeer, 2004.

[37] Zimmerman, Marc A., “Toward a Theory of Learned Hopefulness: A Structural Model Analysis of Participation and Empowerment,” Journal of Research in Personality 24.1 (1990): 71–86.

[38] McGeer, 2004: 108.

[39] Ibid., 123.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Christens, Brian D., Jessica J. Collura, and Faizan Tahir, “Critical Hopefulness: A Person-Centered Analysis of the Intersection of Cognitive and Emotional Empowerment,” American Journal of Community Psychology 52.1–2 (2013): 170–84.

[42] Christens, et al., 2013; Zimmerman, 1990.

[43] Christens, et al., 2013: 181.

[44] Christens, et al., 2013.

[45] Freire, 1992, 2014: loc. 84-85.

[46] Gravlee, G. Scott, “Aristotle on Hope,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 38.4 (2000): 461-477.

[47] Hardin, Garrett, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science, New Series, 162.3859 (1968): 1243–48.

[48] Kim, 2015.

Ahn, Ilsup, “From Colonizing Contract to Decolonizing Covenant: The Case for Ecological Justice in Maquiladoras and a New Covenantal Approach to Christian Environmental Ethics,” Cross Currents 65.1 (2015): 30–56.

[49] E.g., The Heartland Institute, www.heartland.org.

[50] King, Jr., Martin Luther, “Out of the Long Night,” The Church of the Brethren Gospel Messenger (1958):3-4, 14-15.

King puts the phrase in quotes, but does not cite the source.

[51] Gutiérrez, 1988.

[52] Christens, et al., 2013.

[53] Snyder, 2000.

Bartholomew, Theodore T., Michael J. Scheel, and Brian P. Cole, “Development and Validation of the Hope for Change through Counseling Scale,” The Counseling Psychologist 43.5 (2015): 671–702.

Cheavens, Jennifer S., “From Here to Where You Want to Be: Building the Bridges with Hope Therapy in a Case of Major Depression,” in Happiness, Healing, Enhancement: Your Casebook Collection for Applying Positive Psychology in Therapy, edited by George W. Burns (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons Inc, 2010): 51-63.

Cheavens, Jennifer S., David B. Feldman, Amber Gum, Scott T. Michael, and C. R. Snyder, “Hope Therapy in a Community Sample: A Pilot Investigation,” Social Indicators Research, Subjective Well-Being in Mental Health and Human Development Research Worldwide, 77.1 (2006): 61–78.

Hodkinson, Marylyn, “Observation of Some Key Resources of the Noös in Online Logotherapy,” International Forum for Logotherapy 38.1 (2015): 30–33.

Holland, Dennis W., “A Call for Using Logotherapeutic Principles for Healing Historical Trauma with Native Americans,” International Forum for Logotherapy 38.1 (2015): 14–19.

Lopez, Shane J., R. Keith Floyd, John C. Ulven, and C. R. Snyder, “Hope Therapy: Helping Clients Build a House of Hope,” in Handbook of Hope: Theory, Measures, and Applications, edited by C. R. Snyder (San Diego, CA, US: Academic Press, 2000): 123–50.

Rogina, Julius M., “Noogenic Activation in the Clinical Practice of Logo Therapy and Existential Analysis (LTEA) to Facilitate Meaningful Change,” International Forum for Logotherapy 38.1 (2015): 1–7.

Snyder, C. R., “Hope and Depression: A Light in the Darkness,” Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology 23.3 (2004): 347–51.

———, “Hope Theory: Rainbows in the Mind,” Psychological Inquiry 13.4 (2002): 249–75.

———, “Teaching: The Lessons of Hope,” Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology 24.1 (2005): 72–84.

Weis, Robert, “You Want Me to Fix It? Using Evidence-Based Interventions to Instill Hope in Parents and Children,” in Happiness, Healing, Enhancement: Your Casebook Collection for Applying Positive Psychology in Therapy, edited by George W. Burns and George W. Burns (Hoboken, NJ, US: John Wiley & Sons Inc, 2010): 64–75.

[54] Clayton, Susan D., and Gene Myers, Conservation Psychology: Understanding and Promoting Human Care for Nature (Chichister, UK & Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015).

[55] Woodley, Randy, Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision, Prophetic Christianity Series (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2012).

[56] Brunner, Daniel L., Jennifer L. Butler, and A. J. Swoboda, 2014, Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology: Foundations in Scripture, Theology, History, and Praxis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic).

[57] Bozalek, Vivienne, Brenda Leibowitz, Ronelle Carolissen, and Megan Boler, Discerning Critical Hope in Educational Practices (New York, NY: Routledge, 2014): 14.

[58] A helpful format for this is Morison’s “Imaging a Fossil-free Future: Visioning Workshops for a Brave and a New World,” based on Elise Boulding’s nuclear-free workshops. See also Macy & Johnstone, 2012, 163-184.

Morison, Mary Lee, “Imaging a Fossil Free Future: Visioning Workshops For a Brave and a New World,” Earth & Peace Education International: Values for a Sustainable Earth & a Global Peace, July 2013. http://www.globalepe.org/article_print.php?aid=43.

[59] Bozalek, 2014: 2.

[60] McGeer, 2004.

[61] Gutiérrez, Gustavo, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, translated by Caridad Inda and John Eagleson, revised edition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988): 125.

[62] Clayton and Myers, 2015.

[63] Woodley, 2012.

[64] Kamminga (2008) criticizes prophetic discourse because it focuses too much on either a sense of futility or a sense of Utopianism, but I think that if we combine both of these with realistic hope and working toward a sense of meaning rather than a specific Utopian future, we fuse the two sides of the prophetic trope into a powerful agential force.

Kamminga, Menno R., “The Ethics of Climate Politics: Four Modes of Moral Discourse,” Environmental Politics 17.4 (August 2008): 673–92.

“Hope” in the Christian Testament

After spending some time explaining the words for and concepts surrounding “hope” in the Hebrew Scriptures, in the ancient Greek story of Pandora, and in Aristotle, I’m now ready to share with you what I found out when I did a study of the word we translate “hope” in the Christian Testament. This is the same word, elpis, ἐλπίς (noun), or elpizo, ἐλπίζω (verb), used by Aristotle and used for the goddess Elpis in the Pandora tale, but the Christ-followers who wrote the texts that have become the Christian Testament used the word in a somewhat different way. Part of this is probably due to the fact that these Jewish authors were used to the meaning of elpis in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint (LXX).

To recap, in Hebrew there is a word for hope within this lifetime (qwh or tiqwah), and a word that refers to a larger form of positive expectation and waiting, usually on God (yhl or tohelet). Both of these forms of hope refer to positive expectations for the future, and are often translated elpis in the LXX.

In classical Greek literature, however, elpis is an expectation for the future, but it can be in a positive or a negative direction. In the Pandora story, it is unclear whether or not Elpis should be considered the goddess of hope or of foreboding, or both. Aristotle distinguishes between elpis (expectation for the future) and euelpis (expectation for a good future). In order to have euelpis, one must move through fear in the direction of courage in order to continue to have hope that there will be a good outcome.

With all of these influences on their conception of elpis, the authors of the Christian Testament (mainly Paul) used elpis in a way similar to the LXX, though they seem to mean something similar to Aristotle’s euelpis. Sometimes in the LXX, words are translated into Greek to mean “hope,” while sometimes they are translated with the Greek word for “trust,” indicating that trust and hope are quite intertwined. Greek doesn’t have a real sense of a hopeful longing, or a hope based on trust and expectation of deliverance, so the authors used the closest term they can find, which apparently is elpis. (They must not have read Aristotle.) In the LXX and the intertestamental Jewish literature, there’s a pretty well-developed understanding of hope that goes beyond the individual, hope in God’s promises for the community, but by the time Jesus comes along, this is mainly expressed in the form of Messianic expectation, but much of this is based on a works righteousness: that the Messiah will come when the community practices the Law correctly.

Interestingly, Philo, a Jewish philosopher writing at about the same time as the original writings of the books in the Christian Testament, apparently had read Aristotle (not surprisingly), and when he writes about the Jewish understanding of hope, he specifies that he’s talking about euelpis. He talks about hope as a form of remembrance: remembering God’s good works in the past helps us have hope for the future. This goes along well with what psychologists have found regarding the need to have stories from our past on which we can base our realistic assessment of whether we should hope for a particular future outcome.

Christian Testament hope is based on the Hebrew understanding of the fullness of hope. It includes the characteristics of being fixed on God and looking forward to the future with patient waiting and trust. Faith and hope are tied together in the paradoxical certainty of what we cannot see (“faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see,” Heb. 11:1), because we cannot be certain about anything in the flesh, but we can hope in God even though we have to completely trust and have no control. Differently from the Hebrew Scriptures, Christians have a new sense of certainty in their hope, based on the salvific act of the cross and resurrection, and this forms the basis of their faith and hope.

There is not much mention of the term elpis used in this way in the Christian Testament outside of Paul’s writings, however, so I find that really interesting. Perhaps the other authors are using the term “good news” (ευανγγελιον) to mean what we think of when we say “hope.” Or perhaps, since there’s not a good Greek word for hope (and Jesus likely wasn’t speaking in Greek anyway), they’re using other words to attempt to get across the same concept, while Paul was familiar enough with the LXX to know that those authors had co-opted the word elpis to mean this communal, almost-eschatological hope. Or maybe, since the first generation(s) of Jesus’ followers expected him to come back at any moment, they didn’t need a word for long-term hope.

Perhaps, 2000 years later, we are more similar to the Jewish community, waiting in expectant hope, and trying to figure out what that looks like without getting caught up in works righteousness, apocalyptic conspiracy theories, or specific actions that we think will make Jesus come back (e.g., getting the Holy Land back under Jewish control because we think that will make Jesus return). Maybe at this point, the most useful understanding of hope from the Bible is the Hebrew word yachal or tohelet, the idea of the communal expectations for a positive future, trusting in God’s promises and based on the history of the word of God in the community across time. This is not a naive hope that assumes that everything will go well for the people of God; in fact, often this concept is brought up in the Hebrew Scriptures when things are not going well, and people are calling out to God (lamenting), reminding God of God’s promises and trying to figure out how to keep trusting through suffering and loss.

In our current time and place, with so many big problems facing us, from environmental degradation to socio-economic injustice to wars, famines, and refugees, what hope do we have of anything different? Can we speak of this hope with conviction after seeing the last century’s hopes of a “war to end all wars” dashed into radioactive particles?

I don’t think we can optimistically wish for a better world, but perhaps we can lament with our community, as the ancient Hebrews did. Perhaps we can groan with the whole community of creation. I think this is the type of hope that Paul is trying to get across in the oft-quoted ecotheology passage of Romans 8:18-25 (NRSV):

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

In this passage it is clear that the world is not as it should be: there is a critique. Things need to change. Suffering and hope are juxtaposed. We are suffering, but we also have hope because we can envision the world as it should be. The whole creation participates, groaning in this lament, simultaneously critiquing suffering and hoping.

The terms translated “waits with eager longing” here have a meaning of continuous, active, expectant hoping. The word for “waiting,” απεκδεχομαι or apekdechomai, is in the middle mood, meaning it is a reflexive action in which the creation is acting and receiving the benefit of the action. In some way, the hope of creation is part of the act of “obtain[ing] the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” When we participate in creation’s groaning and longing, we receive the benefit of this. Our act of hoping engenders hope, and it perhaps implies that it is only by participating in the process with the whole of creation that we can receive the benefits of this eager longing and hoping. (Note: these thoughts on Romans 8:18-25 will appear in more or less the same form in my forthcoming article in Cross Currents, “Climatologists, Theologians, & Prophets: Toward an Ecotheology of Critical Hope.”)

It is this type of critical hope that I feel drawn to explore in my academic work right now, not simply studying it from an objective researcher’s gaze, but actively participating in bringing that hope about. I trust that by participating in the groaning lament, by recognizing and feeling the suffering, and by continuing to act in hopeful ways, I also get to participate in the “glory about to be revealed to us.”

References, in addition to those listed in the linked posts:

Christens, Brian D., Jessica J. Collura, and Faizan Tahir, 2013, “Critical Hopefulness: A Person-Centered Analysis of the Intersection of Cognitive and Emotional Empowerment,” American Journal of Community Psychology 52(1–2): 170–84.

Kittel, Gerhard, ed. “ελπιϛ, ελπιζω; απ-, προελπιζο.” In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, eighth printing, Δ—Η:517–35. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978.