The Future of Ethics: Sustainability, Social Justice, and Religious Creativity (Georgetown University Press, 2013)

[1] In his own words, the aim of Willis Jenkins’ The Future of Ethics is to illustrate “how moral communities open ways of practical hope from the midst of overwhelming problems…” Using prophetic pragmatism, with a praxeological approach, he begins in the midst of human generated ecological problems and illustrates how existing projects within specific faith communities are creatively reinterpreting and re-imagining their faith inheritances to address issues of sustainability and social justice. Throughout the book, Jenkins seeks to convince the reader that when Christian ethics begins with a worldview and then proceeds to application, it seldom arrives at the desired result of actually addressing overwhelming problems. The practice of faith demands action now. Borrowing the emphasis on praxis from liberation theology, Christian ethics will learn and adapt as it reflects on actions.

[2] In the introduction, Jenkins defines “anthropocene” as “a new geological epoch characterized by pervasive human influence throughout earth’s systems” (1). Faced with problems of a scale never before seen, Christian ethics must find new ways of doing ethics. Steering ethics away from the cosmological temptation to dwell in ivory towers of foundational metaphors and symbols, he proposes “beginning from concrete problems and doing ethics with imperfect concepts and incompetent communities in anticipation that … responding to problems can fire the moral imagination, improve our concepts, and make communities more competent to meet their challenges” (4). After a short section explicating his brand of prophetic pragmatism (“cultural transformation through critical participation in reform processes” (9)), Jenkins ends with the perceptive question: what should we sustain and why?

[3] In Chapter One, Jenkins demonstrates prophetic pragmatism with respect to climate change. He explains how climate change creates a perfect moral storm and elucidates the benefits and flaws of multiple strategies. Finally, Jenkins suggests that Christian ethics begin by “looking for how theological projects sustain the meaning of their practices of faith by making them bear responsibility for problems that would overwhelm them”(58).

[4] Even though climate change poses an insurmountable challenge to Christian ethics, love must find a way to overcome even the perfect storm. Chapter Two, “Christian Ethics and Unprecedented Problems,” offers a “theological interpretation of cultural change” (59). Jenkins presents two ways of doing ethics, one beginning with a worldview, and the other joining in the context of the struggle. Recognizing its own incompetent and incomplete responses as sites of moral production, ethics can participate in ongoing strategies of response, learning, morphing, adapting as it matures. Throughout the book, two phrases came to mind, although they were not used: “God makes a way out of no way,” and “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Jenkins’ implementation of prophetic pragmatism is also reminiscent of process theology where the future is unknown and God and humanity work together to create it even in the face of unrepentant evil, with no assurance other than God is with us, for us, wooing toward the good.

[5] Chapter Three, “Global Ethics: Moral Pluralism and Planetary Problems,” demonstrates how a particularist and pragmatic ethic contributes to a pluralist arena of global ethics (105). Employing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and documents from the World Council of Churches, Jenkins argues against concepts of one moral world and for the importance of proximity of neighbor as next door and the hungry homeless we pass on the street. Ethics wears a specific face; it is not generic but particular. It crosses borders and boundaries, learns to listen and appreciate the other, and participates in particular religious projects in a pluralistic world without needing first to establish a universal worldview or shared foundations (142). This chapter is full of pithy original aphorisms. Here are a few: “Ethics happens by participation”; “moral imagination is cultivated through cultural practices”; “Love seeks proximity…”; “a global ethic must … transform us”; “a Christian ethic … should focus on cooperative moral learning before to tries to establish the beliefs that make it possible”; “The fundamental moral decision is whether or not we will be neighbors” (129, 117, 118, 130,).

[6] In Chapter Four, “Sustainability Science and the Ethics of Wicked Problems,” Jenkins argues that “a science-based, problem-focused ethic of sustainability…needs communities that can rethink inherited ways of life and invent new cultural possibilities” (149). To avoid complicity with wicked problems such as the results of colonial exploitation, “ethics may need the religious capacity to reconsider the basic story by which a culture lives” (166). Working from the opposite direction as the first three chapters, here Jenkins avers that cosmologies and worldviews may also function as tools to creatively solve problems (168). Ethics can connect problem solving with cultural change, for as communities use culture to solve problems in new ways, culture thus adapts and communities learn “new ways of life from the process of facing their most difficult problems” (172, 182).

[7] Early on Jenkins tells the reader that his approach was transformed by the fact that he became a father in the writing of this book. Therefore Chapter Five’s haunting title, “Toxic Wombs and the Ecology of Justice,” holds special significance. Personally, I found this chapter riveting. People of color, the poor, children and those yet in the womb are the most vulnerable and also most highly politicized people/creatures on earth. It is much more likely that these groups will be exposed to the damaging effects of toxins than wealthy adult Caucasians ever will be. A simple listing of the topic titles gives a glimpse of the contents of the chapter: “Ecology is Political; Mothers for Justice; Environmental Racism; Religion and Environmental Liberation; Mother Earth Rights; and The Changing Ecology of Justice.” From the Love Canal to the dumping of PCBs in Warren County South Carolina, social power, minority communities and cosmological imagination come together to struggle against environmental injustice. Using religious and cultural inheritances of womanist, liberation and indigenous theologies in creative ways results in moral learning and provides vital resources for addressing environmental injustice (222-223).

[8] “Impoverishment and the Economy of Desire,” as Chapter Six is titled, explores human destitution and biodiversity loss, two problems of poverty (233). Jenkins further develops these within the categories of reproduction, consumption and development, each being an economy of desire that can be transformed toward the good: “Reproductive desire needs liberation… Consumer desire needs discipline… [With regard to] development, we need economies that satisfy desires for real wealth” (272).

[9] Willis Jenkins, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, is also an Episcopalian, which may be the basis for his liturgical approach in the last chapter, “Intergenerational Risk and the Future of Love.” He recovers from the ancient church the liturgical act of receiving the poor in worship as receiving the body of Christ, a definite preferential option for the poor, shifting feeding the hungry from the category of charity to that of sacrament. However, Jenkins was unable to find any liturgical resources which incorporate nonhuman creatures into a service of worship on a regular basis, aside from what he referred to as the awkward inclusions in Earth Day and St. Francis Day celebrations. Both Wild Goose Publications from the Iona Community and the United Church of Christ have many liturgies inclusive of nonhuman creatures and nature, and a quick Google search produced many more.

[10] In the section titled “Intergenerational Memberships” I kept waiting for him to refer to the communion of saints with respect to sustainability and social justice. He finally cites Michael Northcott, who only speaks of a connection from past to present. Is it not a small theological step to include future generations in the communion of saints? The same time disjuncture occurs when he refers to loving neighbor, especially when loving neighbor pleads today for resources stashed away for a tomorrow far in the future. But again, is it not theologically possible to include future generations as neighbors in time, thus giving more scriptural and theological support for the present to make provision for the future?

[11] Jenkins’ writing style is clear, forthright, sometimes poetic and, at times even funny. Many a sentence or fragment of a sentence stands out aphoristically: “…globalization is neocolonial domination..”; “The tactics of faith take shape in a willingness to be poor in a world of false wealth”; “The sustainable economy…plants many hedges against our ignorance, and puts more faith in regenerative soil than in depletable oil” (37, 271, 270). Of interest is the fact that Jenkins cites many feminists and womanists. Furthermore, there are ample resources in the notes for further reading.

[12] Jenkins’s book is a beautifully written, thought provoking call to the church to “do ethics” from below, within projects that address insurmountable issues in order to “learn how to make our concepts do new things.” For “moral consciousness shifts as agents use their own inheritances and collaborate with others… to create possibilities of moral action in the face of overwhelming problems” (43). I highly recommend The Future of Ethics to any pastor, adult Christian Ed director, seminary student, or professor of ethics. It would be a challenging but terrific book for an adult Sunday School class, or serious book study group, especially during Lent, as it’s seven chapters fit nicely with the season.

Dale Ann Gray

Dale Ann Gray is a Ph.D. Candidate in Systematic Theology at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and is ordained in the United Church of Christ.