An Unexpected Wilderness

Christianity and the Natural World

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Colleen Mary Carpenter
College Theology Series
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , May
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This small book contains fifteen well-written essays, plus a substantial introduction, from the annual conference of the College Theology Society. The title refers to the “new” or “reclaimed” wilderness created by climate change: land reclaimed by rising ocean waters or made otherwise uninhabitable by human-generated environmental change. However, the title is somewhat misleading because only about half of the essays address climate change. In fact, the topics range from wilderness in the usual sense of natural regions removed from human control, to varied uses of the terms “wilderness” and “wildness” in theological discourse. The book provides a useful snapshot of innovative work at the intersection of environmental concerns and theology. As one might expect, given the largely Roman Catholic membership of the College Theology Society, the authors make numerous references to Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’. They are not, however, constrained by traditional Catholic approaches to environmental issues.

Both Catherine Keller’s plenary paper and J. Leavitt Pearl’s paper propose alternatives to what they see as Christianity’s traditional valuing of stability and order over chaos, creativity, and apocalypse. These are interesting contributions to the more radical side of ecological eschatology, especially given the typical suspicion of apocalyptic thinking among Christian environmentalists.

In “Resilience,” the second plenary paper, Agnes Brazal makes a constructive move from psychosocial and biological notions of resilience, to resilience as an environmental virtue for both individuals and communities. She draws on interviews with survivors of typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, describing resilience as “a constellation of virtues of fortitude (endurance and risk-taking), humility, creativity, sharing, solidarity, hope, and justice” (64). As Brazal points out, resilience will be even more important for human flourishing as the effects of climate change accumulate.

Nancy M. Rourke also addresses environmental virtues. She does so by incorporating the context of wildness (chaos) into an understanding of moral integrity. She argues that moral character must include responsiveness to one’s chaotic context—both moral and ecological.

Two authors have drawn on Delores Williams’s idea of survival in the wilderness: Bridget O’Brien explores survival as a source of hope in the midst of ecological crisis, while Jessica Coblentz uses survival as the basis of a theology of clinical depression.

Other authors focus on the dual Christian traditions of wandering and rootedness—we need “both pilgrims and monks” (104)—on the importance of sharing in the suffering of others, and on the interconnections manifested in grief for environmental losses. At the end of the volume, two essays reflect on particular places and the “wilderness” therein. Jessica Wrobleski looks at the experience of Appalachia, and Christine M. Fletcher analyzes the response of a Benedictine Abbey to local development pressures.

All of these essays are thought provoking, useful contributions to the ever-growing body of work in theology and environmental harm. One could wish that the book included more attention to nonwestern Christianity, wherein biblical interpretations might not reproduce the “dominion as domination” theme. Only Mary Doak and Thomas Hughson, in “Wilderness in Public Theology,” confront the pattern of wilderness preservation as colonial expansion. Also, there are strands in Western Christian orthodoxy that have served as counters to the domination tradition, which are not included here.

This small imbalance, however, is an inevitable result of the book’s origin in a particular conference, and does not detract from its value as a glimpse into the current work of scholars committed to reforming human behavior on the earth. It will be useful to scholars, teachers, and advanced undergraduates or graduates in the field.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Laura Yordy is Associate Professor of Philosophy & Religion at Bridgewater College in Bridgwater, Virginia.

Date of Review: 
August 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Colleen Mary Carpenter is Associate Professor of Theology and the Sister Mona Riley Endowed Chair of the Humanities at St. Catherine University in St. Paul. She is author of Redeeming the Story: Women, Suffering, and Christ.


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