Re-storying and re-membering at the Christian Feminism Today Conference

Last week I had the opportunity to present a paper at the Christian Feminism Today conference in Indianapolis, IN. This was my first time at this gathering, which has been meeting every other year since the 1970s. I found the community welcoming and so supportive of a newbie to the group! The group included many wise and fun individuals, many of whom have spent their careers dealing with sexism and attempting to enact and embody an egalitarian paradigm in the church and the academy. Many of the people there have been wounded by the church, but refuse to give up, and instead have found this group and found the Spirit present there.

Glen & Fanny11232014_0000 (1)
My great-grandparents, Glen & Fanny (Nutting) Beebe

I personally shared on the topic of: “Christian Feminism for the 21st Century: a prophetic eco-praxis mash-up of tradition and culture that would cause my homesteader great-grandmother and earlier feminists to roll over in their graves.” I think I won the longest title award! I enjoyed sharing about my mom’s “Granny” and what I wish had been passed down through the generations of the knowledge and wisdom she held, and also my recognition that her homesteader lifestyle came at the cost of the livelihood and lives of those who had previously lived on the land. It also came at the cost of the ecosystems that were destroyed by tearing out sagebrush for monocropping and damming the river. I shared that we’re not going to make progress on feminist issues unless we work to make progress on ecological and racial issues at the same time, because they’re all connected to a culture of domination. I had previously written somewhat on this topic for Christian Feminism Today in the article entitled: “Scarcity vs. Abundance: Moving Beyond Dualism to ‘Enough.’

Other presenters included Austin Channing, Grace Ji-Sun Kim, and Diana Butler Bass. I loved having the chance to learn from and meet these excellent speakers and writers. Kristen Kobes Du Mez wrote up an excellent review of the conference, especially connecting the talks of these three women and myself, on her blog on Patheos: “History, Memory, and Relevance: Reflections on Christian Feminism Today.” Go there and read her thoughts!

Grace Ji-Sun Kim

I am honored to be included in such company, and I was grateful to the Spirit for giving me words that fit in with the themes also presented by these other speakers. It felt like we were definitely on the same wavelength. I reviewed Grace Ji-Sun Kim‘s book, Embracing the Other: The Transformative Spirit of Love, back in January, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know her virtually since then. She teaches at the other Quaker seminary, Earlham School of Religion, and her understanding of the Spirit shows a definite Quaker influence! Or, at least, her understanding of the Spirit fits right in in Quaker circles, and she’s listening to the same Spirit I know and connect with as a Friend.

Diana Butler Bass

Surprisingly (to me), Diana Butler Bass‘s talk was also heavily influenced by Quakers. She shared about her newest book, Grounded: Finding God in the World—A Spiritual Revolution. As she was doing research for that book, she learned about her Quaker ancestry. A Quaker myself, I was amazed by how much of an influence her Quaker heritage had on her self-identity, and how much it had impacted her upbringing even though she hadn’t previously known where that stream of her beliefs and being came from. I’m going to read Grounded soon and so I’ll return to this idea later, but I was really struck by the power of our tradition’s emphasis on contemplation and social justice action. We are a small denomination, but God’s Spirit has multiplied our efforts! Butler Bass reminded us that the Bible says a curse will last a few generations, but a blessing will last a thousand generations. May we as Friends continue to be a blessing!

Austin Channing

My own talk followed Austin Channing‘s prophetic message, and I appreciated how she spoke out of her context as an African American woman, both challenging and encouraging this mostly-white group of mostly-women to reach out to one another. She showed us the women in the pre-Exodus story: the midwives, the princess, Miriam, and the mother of Moses. They practiced civil disobedience at all levels of society. As Channing put it, Pharaoh was afraid of the men, but he miscalculated! She encouraged us to not let fear divide us, but to remember and tell the less presentable parts of our stories.

It’s my hope that my work to tell the story of Granny and my Quaker feminist ancestors did this idea justice, telling both the parts I’m proud of and the parts I’m not proud of, and attempting to live in a way that leads to justice for all the marginalized today.

“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.

Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia: book review, part 3

This is the third (of three) posts reviewing and thinking about the ideas found in Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia: Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest. If you missed the first two, the first post gave an overview of the book and the second post discussed the region we might call “Cascadia,” and whether or not there is a nature-based spirituality in the region. Several of the authors of Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia assert that this nature-based spirituality is a form of civil religion, so that is the idea I’m going to discuss today, along with a wrap-up of my thoughts on this book and where the scholarly Cascadian community might go from here in terms of further research.

Is nature-based spirituality a civil religion?

In my understanding of civil religion from the perspective of sociologist Robert Bellah, civil religion has to do with utilizing religious language and symbols in order to support a national origin myth/history—usually in the form of nationalism. For example, the idea of Manifest Destiny is an American form of civil religion. This American civil religion bases American conquest and the genocide of native peoples on the religious conviction that it is important for God’s “truth” of civilization and order to be spread throughout the world as gospel. Therefore, the actions of the European settlers, no matter how grisly, were justifiable based on the origin myth of bringing order and civilization to savages, using a particular biblical interpretation. Civil religion tends to celebrate the state, and uphold its policies using religious language and religious-style ceremonies.

In Cascadia, I am not certain that I see a civil religion of this kind that is different from the civil religion of the rest of the United States. Perhaps Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia contain a distinct culture based on proximity, but is it a civil religion?

Mark Silk derives his definition of civil religion from an Italian historian, Emilio Gentile, who says civil religion is:

the conceptual category that contains the forms of sacralization of a political system that guarantee a plurality of ideas, free competition in the exercise of power, and the ability of the governed to dismiss their governments through peaceful and constitutional methods. Civil religion therefore respects individual freedom, coexists with other ideologies, and does not impose obligatory and unconditional support for its commandments. (p. 110)

To me, this sounds basically like the definition of democracy, or at least the definition of pluralism. Silk finds that there is not a civil religion at play in Cascadia any more than anywhere else in the US or Canada, and by his definition I agree.

Sallie McFague, on the other hand, encourages what she calls a civil religion of Cascadia, following the editor of the book’s simple definition of Cascadia’s civil religion as “finding God by taking a walk in the forest.” She puts a comma between “super, natural,” following the British Columbia tourist logo, “super, natural British Columbia,” to indicate that Cascadians’ understanding of the supernatural has everything to do with the natural, and vice versa. McFague implies that the “religion” of the bioregion is a cultural focus on spiritual connection through the natural world, which seems to be true if we focus our understanding of “Cascadia” on the portion west of the Cascades, but is McFague’s idea truly a “civil religion”? What makes it civil, rather than simply a religion?

Implications & Suggestions for Further Research

If we limit the understanding of Cascadia down to its western section and take a closer look at the nature-leaning spirituality present in many portions of urban Cascadian society, this book effectively and helpfully categorizes different forms of “spiritual but not religious” Cascadians and the strengths and weaknesses of their perspectives. One author, Gail Wells, points out that the difference between Cascadia’s emphasis on a more natural faith and the rest of the United States’ civil religion is a focus on what’s “really real.” Wells says she is “going to argue that both nature-based spirituality and conventional religion have the potential to play an important, subversive role in what has actually been Cascadia’s dominant culture: the scientific-rational-secular-liberal culture of North America. That role is to offer an alternative way of thinking about what is real.”

This, in my opinion, is the opposite of a civil religion. Instead of a religion enforced by authoritarian dogmatism and nationalism, it is a religion that grows out of an encounter with the Earth and the supernatural Life-Force (a.k.a. God) that sustains it.

Perhaps it is the bioregion’s beauty and abundance that allows Cascadians to perceive the interconnectedness of life and to look for the sacred outside the walls of political and religious institutions. The native people of the area also felt this way, and another chapter gave insight in this direction. Authored by First Nations member Eli Bliss Enns, the chapter is called, “A Geo-Indigenous World View from the Far West Coast of Cascadia.” Enns defines various terms in his indigenous language, such as, “Wii-cosh-naas: Honoring our mutual source of creation: Everything that exists is born from a common creative source.” He also speaks of the value of each person’s contribution to a discussion, and “owning” the land through protecting it and using its resources wisely, recognizing that we are all indigenous animals and other beings. This seems like the “elusive utopia” referred to in the title of the book, a vision present in our most historic and imaginative, liberative myths and sacred stories, from Native American to ancient Hebrew, and a vision new and freshly reborn for such a time and place as this.

I can get behind this vision and desire, but to truly connect this form of nature-based spirituality to the geography of the area in question would require much more focused research. Further study needs to be done to see if this is legitimately different from other urban areas, and to find out if the whole area of Cascadia fits the description of “spiritual but not religious,” or only the individuals west of the Cascades. Also, research would need to occur regarding whether engaging in outdoor recreation across Cascadia’s girth can correctly be termed “spirituality.”

In short, although there are a number of pieces to this puzzle pointing toward a nature-based spirituality in parts of Cascadia, much more research would need to be done to make the correlation clear, and to determine whether or not “Cascadia” is a useful regional term to describe the area where that culture is present. Perhaps that culture is no more present here than anywhere else, but we Cascadians are simply lucky enough to live in a place where these super, natural spaces have not yet been completely destroyed. If nature is the “second book” where we come to know God (alongside the Bible—though, arguably, nature came first, but this is a different topic—the point is that many theologians across time and now see nature as a second way, besides the written books, to understand and know something of God, especially since so many of Jesus’ parables are based on nature metaphors), living in Cascadia can give us access to that book in more extravagantly beautiful ways than are perhaps still available in other regions.

Ecotheology of Critical Hope Poster on to Antioch University New England’s Student Research Symposium

I enjoyed last week’s Spirit of Sustainable Agriculture Conference at Harvard Divinity School! I got to present my poster and talk to interested conference-goers about my research, gaining valuable feedback and connections.

My poster is moving on to a second life at next week’s Antioch University New England 15th Annual Student Research Symposium on April 16, 2016. Click the link to read about everyone else’s amazing student research projects. A plethora of great work is happening in the masters and doctoral environmental studies programs at AUNE! I feel honored to be part of this wide-ranging conversation and collaboration of efforts to create a healthier world for ourselves and future generations.

Ecotheology of Critical Hope at Harvard Divinity’s Spirit of Sustainable Agriculture Conference

On Thursday, I’ll be in Boston for Harvard Divinity School‘s Spirit of Sustainable Agriculture Conference, and I’ll be sharing a poster presentation based on my work to develop an ecotheology of critical hope. I’m looking forward to chatting with people about this concept and finding out whether or not it connects with their experiences. Below is my poster, which gives you an overview of the way I’m currently conceptualizing this ecotheology of critical hope. I’m also looking forward to going to the great sessions throughout the day on Thursday, then I’ll be heading up to New Hampshire for my PhD weekend classes at Antioch University New England on Friday and Saturday. There are also great sessions on Friday, though I’ll unfortunately miss them. We can’t do everything in life, right? But I’m excited that this conference lines up with my PhD weekend so I can attend part of it, make connections, share about my research, and learn about the great work that others are doing.

CBock_Critical Hope Poster

“Jeong” in ecotheology

414gqwwwvql-_sy344_bo1204203200_My review of Grace Ji-Sun Kim‘s book, Embracing the Other: The Transformative Spirit of Love, went live Monday on Christian Feminism Today. She writes well and covers a broad range of topics of interest to Christian theologians, but you’ll have to go to the review to find out more! For that review I focused more on the book’s contribution to the feminist theology conversation, but I also wanted to comment on its usefulness for ecotheology.

Although Embracing the Other does not purport to be ecotheology, Kim does work regarding care for the environment. She’ll be leading a workshop at Earlham School of Religion‘s spirituality gathering April 27, 2016, “Justice Lives in Relationship: The Poetry & Practice of Eco-Spirituality,” regarding COP21, stewardship, and climate justice. (This looks like a great event! If you’re near Richmond, IN, sign up and then tell me how it goes!) In Embracing the Other, Kim does not address ecotheology directly, but she does write about the importance of a sense of interconnectedness in theology. She focuses on pneumatology due to the Spirit’s inability to be pinned down or boxed up, themes of import in ecotheology, especially in the work of ecofeminist theologians such as Sallie McFague (who, in fact, Kim refers to in her discussion of the Spirit, pp. 129-130).

41y-asoj9zl-_sx320_bo1204203200_Kim introduced me to the work of W. Anne Joh, postcolonial feminist Korean American theologian, who speaks of the Korean terms han and jeong to describe the ideas of unjust suffering and sticky love, respectively. First of all, I appreciate how Kim explains the historical precedent for utilizing terms and concepts already present in another language as Christian theology begins to interact with that culture and its language. She shows how this can expand our understanding of theological concepts and our knowledge of God, which of course cannot fit into one language or metaphor. I have yet to read Joh’s book, Heart of the Cross: A Postcolonial Christology, but it looks like she goes into depth on han and jeong as pertains to the crucifixion, soteriology, and Christology. I’ll need to learn more about these concepts from her work, though Kim gave a great overview of her thought.

Second, these terms could open up a helpful conceptual framework for ecotheology, which I don’t think has been done yet. In my recent work, I’ve been struggling to explain the concept of hope and the transformation that occurs through our meaning-making without reducing suffering to a pious asceticism or glorification of poverty, and I suspect that the concept of han may provide some in-roads. Even more useful is the term jeong, which Kim describes as a sticky love that recognizes the interconnectedness between people. This kind of love refuses to become an enemy of a loved one, even when that loved one is also in some ways an oppressor. In liberation theology, I think this kind of love is something that could really help the conversation, since it’s difficult to become conscientized to one’s role as oppressed and then to figure out how to love the oppressor anyway. It can feel dehumanizing, even though the whole goal is re-humanizing the “other” and ourselves. But how do we have this kind of love? Jeong is something many of us feel, I believe, when we love our spouses, kids, parents, and others despite their faults. It’s a choice we make to love the person even while holding strong boundaries about what we will allow as acceptable behavior towards ourselves. It’s a love that refuses to give up on someone, that keeps trying to love, even in the midst of pain and suffering. Jeong can keep marriages together, if both commit to it, or I can imagine that it would also open the space for divorce when one will not commit to jeong but repeatedly oversteps boundaries of safety and care to the point where one partner must leave in order to show true love.

In ecotheology, I see jeong as a helpful concept because it is the glue that holds everything together. Kim talks about jeong as the work of the Spirit, connecting us to one another, providing the life-force, and the “passion” part of compassion. It is grace and boundary-keeping both. It provides an interconnection so deep we cannot escape it, and a framework for a network of caring relationships with all creation, not just with people. That’s where I see it really helping in the conversation about Christians’ care for the Earth. Jeong allows us to be creatures-in-relation, to hold our place squarely in the midst of the interconnected web. Within conversations about the environment, it is difficult to value human life and at the same time to value the environment. Within a Western worldview where we think of “nature” as “everything on Earth that isn’t human,” we have a hard time conceiving of pristine nature that includes us. (For more on this, see Larry Rasmussen’s Earth Community, Earth Ethics, and William Cronon’s essay “The trouble with wilderness: or, getting back to the wrong nature” in Global Environmental History: An Introductory Reader.)

But jeong gives us a place to fit within the interconnected ecosystem of creation, “stuck” to the rest of creation through a relationship of love, care, and life-essence itself. Jeong allows us to acknowledge our vulnerable position within this network: we need the health of the whole ecosystem in order to survive and thrive ourselves. And this vulnerability allows us to live within the space of solidarity with all of creation: its people and its animals, its plants and its networks of ecosystem services. In our role as conscious stewards of this network, we can choose to live within the flow of the Spirit’s jeong-connectedness, or we can choose to increase han, the unjust suffering under which the whole creation groans. When we try to control “nature,” similarly to what happens when we attempt to control the Spirit and tell it through whom it has our permission to speak and move, we end up squeezing all the life out of the context we’re attempting to control. Through the open-handed vulnerability that is the sticky love of jeong, we live into the flow of the Spirit’s work in the world. We become part of the God-created ecosystems, finding our place through care rather than control. We find that we can most be ourselves when we allow others to be wholly other, and wholly, inexplicably, unaccountably, graciously, and intimately loved with a tenacity that refuses to be broken or manipulated. It allows for reconciliation so that we do not have to be against those who live in ways with which we disagree, but we can be conscious of the han in which we are all bound up, and love them with the sticky love of jeong, the Spirit’s interconnecting and transformative, passionate power.

References

Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness: or, getting back to the wrong nature.” In Global Environmental History: An Introductory Reader, edited by J.R. McNeill and Alan Roe. New York, NY: Routledge, 2013.
Joh, Wonhee Anne. Heart of the Cross: A Postcolonial Christology. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.
Kim, Grace Ji-Sun. Embracing the Other: The Transformative Spirit of Love. Prophetic Christianity Series. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015.
Rasmussen, Larry L. Earth Community, Earth Ethics. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997.

Hope

I embarked on my journey toward a PhD in environmental studies in the summer of 2014. With a background in psychology and theology, this academic trajectory perhaps does not look like a straight line, but to me it makes perfect sense. I grew up hearing stories of Quaker ministers who stood up courageously for the social justice causes of their day, based in love of God and neighbor, and I wondered what they would do if they lived in my time. While I care about many issues, I felt drawn to working on something in which I am directly complicit. Rather than going to another country to intervene in their conflicts, I recognized that my own culture and way of life contributes to plenty of problems, and I can focus on my own shortcomings rather than trying to take the proverbial speck out of my neighbor’s eye. The way we treat our planet came into ever-increasing focus in my own life as my area of passion, as well as the area that needs our most immediate attention in this particular historic time. It represents the place where my greatest passion and the world’s greatest need intersect, to paraphrase Frederick Beuchner (Wishful Thinking). My goal is two-fold: to live in a way that speaks to what it means to be a human being following the Creator in the world today, which I believe must include a sense of integration into the network of creation in a way that is sustainable and just, and to participate in a dynamic community of faith that inspires courage and meaning for lived praxis of God’s love.

Therefore, my questions regarding my PhD work go something like this: What do theologians and people of faith have to offer to the environmental conversation? And what can theologians and people of faith learn from those working on environmental issues?

A piece of the puzzle came to me last summer: hope. Those involved in the environmental movement often have a difficult time hoping that their environmental actions can make a difference. Those in faith communities tend to express hope in something, albeit often something ethereal or other-wordly. But the more I got thinking about the concept of hope, the more it seemed like an important place to focus my research and writing. Our culture expresses a marked lack of hope, in my experience.

Question upon question came to my mind, including the following:

  • What is hope? Is it a feeling, a choice, a trajectory, a character trait?
  • Where does it come from?
  • What is the difference between hope and optimism?
  • Is hope something people have or don’t have, or something that can be learned?
  • What is the role of community in hope?
  • Is hope possible in a situation of suffering?
  • Is hope rational?
  • What happens when we hope and the thing we’re hoping for doesn’t come to pass?
  • Is it better to hope, or not to hope and not to feel let down?
  • What is a stronger motivator: hope, fear, or some other characteristic or emotion?
  • In the environmental movement, what would hope look like and how could we encourage people to hope?
  • If we are able to encourage more people to hope about our future, environmentally speaking, what might be the outcomes?

Last semester, I took two courses: Conservation Psychology and Ecotheology & Environmental Ethics. Through these courses I studied, among other things, the psychology of hope and meaning, theology of hope, political and liberation theology, and liberation pedagogy, in which field I learned about critical hope. I will share my journey of working through these concepts and thinking through what my dissertation will look like here, as well as sharing thoughts and insights about my attempts to enact my environmental concerns in ways consistent with my faith.