Willa Swenson-Lengyel on a Theology of Hope and Climate Change

| Dr. Willa Swenson-Lengyel is Catherine of Siena Postdoctoral Fellow in the Ethics Program at Villanova University, where she has taught on “Ethics in the Anthropocene” and related topics. Willa is currently a research fellow with the Collaborative Inquiries in Christian Theological Anthropology project. She works as an environmental ethicist on questions about hope, pessimism, moral psychology, and theology as they relate to our human encounter with the climate crisis. Her writing has been published in The Christian Century, the Journal of Religious Ethics, and other venues. Willa and I (Evan Kuehn) recently had the chance to talk about her important work, and the transcript of our discussion follows. 

Willa: Thank you so much, Evan, for this opportunity to reflect on my work for Theology & Society. I want to start just by saying that I love the way the editors are framing this first issue—theologies for the future climate. So often discussions around climate change and theology are constrained to ethical questions of mitigation and prevention, with too little attention given to what theological questions emerge in light of the fact of a changing climate. I myself am sometimes too constrained by the prevention framing—not that it isn’t important, it is absolutely crucial—but I always want to be asking this question with the simultaneous recognition that the conditions of human (and non-human) living are themselves drastically changing given the unavoidable climactic changes that past and current emissions have committed us to. Organizing the issue in this way reminds me to frame my work on hope both as committed to addressing the question: how is hope and/or hopelessness bound up in climate action or inaction? and as committed to addressing the concern: for what and how may we hope in a world of current and impending environmental devastation? We are living into an increasingly unknown and altered future and our theological reflections should address the existential impact those changes have on people, along with the ethical questions about how to minimize impacts and harm. So, thank you for this framing and this opportunity.

Evan: And thank you for having this conversation, which I think is an important one. I’d like to begin by clarifying the context of your work. You are an ethicist writing about something that is often considered a “theological virtue.” Before we get into hope itself, can you say a bit about how you situate yourself methodologically? Do you do religious ethics? Or ethics in conversation with theology? Or something else? 

Willa: This is such a helpful question to start with, Evan. Hope is usually approached theologically as a virtue and/or as an eschatological orientation, where the discussion then focuses contentfully on Christian hopes and on the identity and agency of Christian hopers. These are really important and biblically-grounded discussions to have, but my work is motivated by questions about moral psychology more generally. My most basic practical research question is: what causes persistent and knowing climate inaction and inattention, when people—particularly powerful and privileged people (those who could act, but do not!)—have so many moral and practical reasons to act? This kind of more general moral psychological question is simply not addressed by theological investigations that focus solely on questions of hope as a virtue or as eschatologically oriented. Rather, as I mentioned just a bit ago, I want to think about hope’s role in agency generally and to use theological symbols and resources to help us to investigate these anthropological queries.

Perhaps a way of putting it is that I like to think of my work as a bit of a wager. I, like others (sociologists, psychologists, ethicists, philosophers…), want to better understand the moral psychology of human persons. My wager is that Christian traditions and symbols have resources that can in fact help us (both within and outside the Christian faith) to better understand people, their moral limitations and possibilities, and what enables and inhibits successful moral action. So, I take myself to be working out of the Christian tradition, but in a way that speaks to questions and, hopefully, audiences that extend beyond those committed to Christianity’s truth claims.

Evan: You distinguish your approach to hope from Christian theologies of hope that are eschatologically oriented. Jürgen Moltmann, for instance, wrote that “Christianity is eschatology, is hope,” but you point out that this ignores important non-eschatological aspects of hope. Within the scope of the climate crisis, what ethical options do we tend to overlook by leaning so heavily on eschatological (or even apocalyptic) terms? 

Willa: I would say that my approach isn’t anti-eschatological; it simply is suggesting that we investigate hope through additional lenses, namely, through the lens of theological anthropology, as part of humans’ created (and fallen!) structures. Much of the reasoning for that shift is to address questions of moral psychology that I don’t believe eschatological reflection can help us with.

That said, I would say one thing about eschatological thought in Christian theology and ethics, regarding why I shy away from the common elision between Christian hope and eschaton. I persistently worry that there just isn’t a lot that we can actually say about the eschaton—it seems a place in theological reflection where silence, or at least dramatic humility, is appropriate. Our access to knowledge of what it would mean to have ‘creation fulfilled’ and how that relates to our current realities seems slim indeed. Contrastingly, I know a lot about this world and what justice and peace and love require here (or at least, in what ways they are being violated) and I know what conditions I hope to ameliorate. It seems to me to be a worthwhile endeavor to examine, reflect on, and pursue these worldly hopes, regardless of what a person imagines, does or does not hope for, regarding the eschaton. Perhaps a way of putting it is through Mary Oliver’s words, in her poem, “On thy wondrous works I will meditate (Psalm 145)”. She writes, “I would be good—oh, I would be upright and good…To what purpose?/ Hope of heaven? Not that. But to enter the other kingdom: grace, and imagination,/and the multiple sympathies…”. Some will simply tell me that is an eschatological statement, but that certainly isn’t what most, including Moltmann, mean when they are discussing creation’s fulfillment and the coming Christ. It is far more this-worldly and resolutely brackets questions of ultimate fulfillment for questions of how to be good here, now. I would say something similar seems worthwhile of hope, particularly in a time of climate crisis.

Evan: One thing I’ve found noteworthy about your work is that you leave the question of hope as a virtue relatively open. That is, you don’t examine hope with the prior assumption that it is an unalloyed good. Why do you think it is important to scrutinize this assumption? 

Willa: In my experience, both popularly and in Christian circles, hope is often uncritically valorized as the more mature stance (over optimism or despair, for instance) or the more psychologically healthy way of engaging the world around one. But, of course, hope has a far more ambiguous history, helpfully crystallized for us so long ago in Hesiod’s Works and Days in the myth of Pandora—is the hope she is left with, still trapped in her jar, a curse for humans or is it the consolation? It is not clear. It simply seems to me that ambivalence needs to be interrogated, grappled with, acknowledged, rather than ignored or treated as if it is somehow ‘less mature’ or ‘less healthy’ to view hope with suspicion. When we look at the empirical data, along with philosophical and literary works, people don’t uniformly experience hope as an ‘unalloyed good’. That is data that matters for truthful, responsive theological reflection.

Evan: As I try to learn from public engagements with climate experts, I’m often struck by a typical way that these conversations end. When climate scientists are interviewed, they are often asked “Are you hopeful?” I don’t want to ask you that question because it just seems so odd to me, but because it’s odd, I am curious to hear what you think about it, as a question. What sort of theological work is a question like this doing? Is it an appropriate question to ask? 

Willa: This is such an interesting question—what theological work is the question doing? It does seem to be asking for a word of grace, which I think could be asked and interpreted in at least two ways. First, it could be seen, within the interview structure as a part of a kind of law-gospel narrative, where the interviewer is asking for some good news, once the climate scientist has laid down the bleak law of climate predictions. But, it could also (or perhaps simultaneously!) be seen—as so often the gospel itself degenerates into—as a plea for easy exculpation, to leave the listeners in a ‘psychologically healthy’ space upon leaving the interview (aka not concerned by the climate crisis): if the expert still has hope, then certainly, it’s all going to be okay!

Perhaps the first may be appropriate at times, but the latter seems to be deeply problematic, and usually what the question deteriorates into. One thing I would say is that, regardless of intent, the generic question of hopefulness is probably too general—the rub is in the details. What do they hope for? How do they hope? What grounds the hope? How do they relate those hopes to their actions on a daily basis? Often, it seems that the question is asked in lieu of a question about actions to take at both an individual and collective level, which is itself a telling and problematic tendency!

Evan: The experience of hope, and sometimes its absence, is probably a universal one, with both theological and non-theological points of reference. What would people who are not theologians or ethicists find interesting or enlightening about your work on hope? 

Willa: As I mentioned earlier, my hope is always that my work can speak to audiences beyond those committed to the Christian faith. One thing I noticed pretty early on in my engagement with empirical and popular literature on hope is a strong bifurcation in assessments of hope—those with Stoic (and other) leanings tend to define and see hope as a pacifying problem, those with Christian (and other) leanings tend to define and see hope as a motivational champion. There are not a lot of accounts out there currently that help people think through how hope might be a more ambivalent phenomenon, simultaneously something powerful, necessary, and good, and yet, in actual practice, far more complex. My hope is that using the symbols of ‘created and fallen’ to capture and frame hope’s ambivalent roles in human living may help people to understand and explain their own, and others’, existences. My hope is that this may be useful to folks, whether or not they accept any larger truth claims about Christianity—symbols can have independent lives and use, beyond their theological roots (here I always think of the fact that Dike is the goddess of justice and yet she is used today as a symbol of the ideal of democratic judicial processes, divorced from her theological origins).

Evan: What are your own hopes for your research on hope? What sort of impact should it have on theology and broader audiences?

Willa: This is a hard question for all academics, and particularly so, I think, for theologians and theological ethicists. Many of us have practical ambitions—we, like Marx, want to change the world, and not simply to understand it—but our tools for doing so are often indirect and our audiences are usually small. Most generally, I would say, my hope would be that in some small way I can contribute to the conversation that shifts the parameters of the possible. This work has to be done in the classroom as well as through research, and I think that new venues for public theological and ethical engagement—whether they be online platforms like Theology & Society or podcasts or films or otherwise—are crucial to developing larger public conversations and audiences.

Evan: Your work has already made an important contribution to how we think about our relationship to the future climate, and I’m glad that you’ve been able to share it with our readers. Many of them will be interested in learning more from you in the future. Can you share a bit about what you are doing right now? 

Willa: Right now I’m developing a project on the shape and nature of the justified moral life in response to climate change. I’m interested in the way in which perceptions of people’s own complicity in climate change, alongside the scope of the moral demand, can lead to inaction and passivity, even as people may have significant knowledge of climate change and their own contributions to it.  For instance, Kari Marie Norgaard, a sociologist out at University of Oregon who works on climate inaction, reports on a student, who remarked, “I feel like that guilt can be really overwhelming… It’s like we can maybe cut down on this or that, but you’re still going to eco-hell or whatever.” I am fascinated by this sense of inevitable complicity and moral failure, and the religious register in which that is being conveyed. My thought is that perhaps attention to the concept of justification and grace, as both crucial to enabling the moral life, may be useful to attend to and address this sense of inevitable failure and passivity! One thing that has always struck me about Christian ethical reflection is that the ethical life begins in failure rather than in mastery. How might that change how we talk about climate ethics and what enables successful climate response?

Thank you, again, Evan and the other editors of Theology & Society, for this opportunity to reflect on my work! This has been a lot of fun!

Willa Swenson-Lengyel is a postdoctoral fellow at Villanova University.

Contributing editor Evan Kuehn is an assistant professor at North Park University.