Hope in the Age of Climate Change

Creation Care This Side of the Resurrection

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Chris Doran
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , April
     2017.
     258 pages.
     $31.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781498297028.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

At the outset of Hope in the Age of Climate Change, Chris Doran asks his readers to seriously consider three presuppositions: that climate change is, in fact, occurring; that this environmental problem is as much moral and theological as it is scientific; and that the practical problems posed by climate change are causing a crisis of hope. He insists that even though Christianity has the biblical and theological resources to address a seemingly hopeless situation, what is needed for Christians is a “change in our social behavior” that can (only?) be brought about through “a new theological imaginary” (13). Inspiring such a reinvigoration of the Christian theological imagination is the task of Doran’s book. The effort to help Christians imagine what it might mean to approach climate change with Christian hopefulness sees Doran draw on a wide variety of ecologically-minded biblical scholars and academic theologians, however, he does note that one of his goals is to present “a reformed theological imaginary” (14). 

Accordingly, the book begins with a pair of chapters that follow the reformed theological loci of God the Creator (chapter 1) and God the Redeemer (chapter 2). These chapters serve the dual purpose of offering a biblical grounding for environmental care based on God’s free creation, care for, and redemption of the cosmos, and showing the potential significance of these beliefs for issues like environmental justice, food justice, and climate change refugees. Doran builds on his assertion that a proper Christian understanding of creation and redemption should lead Christians to take responsibility for the environment and brings these convictions to bear on subjects such as theological anthropology (chapters 4-5), economics (chapters 6-7), and food (chapters 8-9). These chapters serve to not only educate Doran’s readers on how biblical scholars, theologians, and ethicists have responded to these subjects, but also to ask the reader to reflect critically on how a Christian might respond to these pressing crises with hope. Given that, for Doran, a hope made possible by the resurrection of Christ is the characteristic that differentiates a Christian response to climate change, it seems appropriate to critically assess the shape of this hope that has been put forward in Hope in the Age of Climate Change.

Doran worries that, for the typical Christian, the resurrection does not motivate nearly enough of Christian reflection and action. Doran insists that recognizing the significance of the resurrection will help Christians understand that material existence is not to be escaped from, and that neither death nor injustice can escape God’s redemption. The resurrection, for Doran, is the sign that God is in control, but then the question arises: how does resurrection hope relate to human action? Like so many reformed theologians before him—who try to balance the sovereignty of God on the one hand and the meaningfulness of human agency on the other—Doran writes of hope’s paradoxical nature: “it is when we can no longer trust in what we can control and therefore trust solely in God’s ability to deliver that we become hopeful” (57). For Doran, this trust does not lead to inaction or quietism, but precisely the opposite: “[t]o hope in God, then, is to spur one into a type of activity that not only critiques the present, but also simultaneously strives toward accomplishing that which does not seem possible” (62). So the resurrection makes it possible for Christians to work for the care and healing of creation, even when they do not fully know or understand how to deal with the colossal problems they face.

It is when Doran turns to his final two chapters, which call on the church to become a “beacon of hope,” that the distinctiveness of resurrection hope becomes less clear. Doran asks Christians to be involved in politics, to enact justice in the present by standing in solidarity with the victims of what eco-critic Rob Nixon calls “slow violence” (199), and to support the scientific community’s efforts to name and call for a response to climate change. Doran also suggests that Christians need to call climate change denial a sin, and to change their relationship to technological utopianism. These recommendations would seem to help Christians get caught up to where many climate change scholars, activists, and policymakers are. Doran also makes a more specific confessional proposal, that Christians should learn to relate to the world through sacramental contemplation—a practice in which one seeks to better understand creation’s ability to communicate divine grace. Even this suggestion would only serve to put the contemporary Christian into the worldview of John Calvin (a theologian conspicuously absent from a self-styled reformed project) who once wrote: “the skillful ordering of the universe is for us a sort of mirror in which we can contemplate God, who is otherwise invisible” (Institutes, 1.5.1).

Bringing Christians up to speed with the movement to address climate change, and helping them recover long-ignored theological resources for relating to the nonhuman world, are surely worthy endeavors, but has Doran’s emphasis on Christian hope brought something new to the conversation? Doran describes his hopefulness as a belief that “God will provide novel possibilities for a different future if we are only willing to listen to the call of divine grace and trust in God rather than ourselves” (222). It might be suggested that Doran is gesturing toward what Jonathan Lear calls “radical hope,” but in a specifically Christian idiom. For Lear, radical hope “anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it” (Radical Hope, Harvard University Press, 2006). If Doran and Lear are speaking of hope in similar ways, then it would be clarifying to know how (or if) Doran thinks resurrection hope might be able to converse with the radical hopes of non-Christians working to address climate change. Perhaps this possibility Doran purposefully leaves to his readers to discover. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Blair Wilner is Adjunct Faculty in the Department of Bible, Religion, and Theology at Eastern Mennonite University.

Date of Review: 
April 17, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Chris Doran is associate professor of religion at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. His research and teaching have been on a variety of areas related to the interaction between theology and science. His current work focuses on developing theological responses to climate change and its effects on human and nonhuman creatures as well as the rest of creation.

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