The College Theology Society holds its Sixty-First Annual Convention from Thursday evening, May 28 through Sunday morning, May 31, 2015, at the University of Portland in Oregon.
The theme is An Unexpected Wilderness: Seeking God on a Changing Planet. Colleen Carpenter (Saint Catherine University, MN) is the chair of the convention and the editor for the annual volume.
Since 1967, when historian Lynn White, Jr. laid the blame for the burgeoning environmental crisis at the feet of Christians and their understanding of human dominion over nature, interest in the relationship between religion and the fate of the planet has taken off. As environmental problems have multiplied and deepened—we didn’t know, for example, about anthropogenic climate change in 1967—theologians have begun to explore questions related to how we ought to treat the world around us; how we are spiritually connected to the world around us; and how the (religious) stories we tell about the land, the water, and the air we breathe affect not only our behavior towards the Earth but our understanding of the holy.
The idea of wilderness has been important to the modern environmental movement: “saving” wild places has often garnered more interest than using “civilized” places in a wise and sustainable way. From John Muir’s conviction that “tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people” can be saved by going to the mountains and the forests, to Edward Abbey’s claim that wilderness is “a necessity of the human spirit,” the idea that we as human beings need places that are free of human beings is one that many people accept without question. Novelist/essayist Marilynne Robinson has, however, questioned this romanticized understanding of wilderness, arguing that “the idea of an untouched Arcadia is one we can no longer afford.”
Wilderness as an idea also holds deep resonance for Christians, who not only remember the forty years the Israelites spent in the wilderness after leaving Egypt, but who also remember Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, and Jesus’ frequent retreats from active ministry to spend time praying “in a lonely place.” Wilderness can be the place where we meet God; the place where we are tested; the place where we are neither enslaved nor yet quite free.
In exploring the relationship between Christianity and the natural world today, we would like to focus on the idea of wilderness—and more specifically, the idea of finding ourselves unexpectedly in a wilderness that we did not deliberately seek out. As the planet changes around us—due to our own actions, yet not easily traceable to any one person’s decisions or acts—the world we thought we knew is becoming unfamiliar, even dangerous. Insects that were once regularly killed by the cold of winter are surviving the now-warmer winters, and vast stretches of forest in the mountain west have been devastated as a result. Hurricanes are larger; droughts are more frequent; storms more unpredictable and more destructive. The wilderness we have created is not the saving wilderness imagined by Muir and others, nor is it necessarily the quiet place to which we can retreat to seek God. What, then, are we to make of wilderness today?
It is also important to note that as the planet changes, places that once were thought of as reliably “conquered” by human beings are being reclaimed by the wild, and also that we have made the deliberate choice to degrade and destroy places inhabited by people who are not valued by those in power. Thus wilderness and civilization are tangling together in ways that make it difficult tosort out which is which. Inhabited islands are slowly returning to the sea; garbage pits and toxic waste dumps are both wild and urban; cities and even entire countries become newly wild and hostile to human life under the onslaught of hurricanes, typhoons, and earthquakes (think of the East Coast, post-Sandy). Moreover, these post-storm/post-disaster “wildernesses” disproportionately affect the poor: as Leonardo Boff has argued, the cry of the oppressed is deeply connected to today’s cry of the Earth. James Cone, too, has argued that we need to “deepen our conversation [about ecology] by linking the earth’s crisis with the crisis in the human family.”
Finally, a theological discussion of wilderness would be incomplete without a corresponding exploration of the garden. Just like the wilderness, the garden—that is, the wilderness tamed, at the service of humanity, with deep associations and resonances to biblical stories and themes—is becoming more and more complicated and problematic. Modern agriculture is deeply implicated in the degradation of rivers, lakes, and oceans; soil erosion has become an urgent problem; and the fact that pollutants in the soil are taken up into the food we grow has meant that even backyard gardening can be unexpectedly hazardous. The new agrarian movement has been responding to these issues; moreover, agrarian and essayist Wendell Berry connects agrarianism to our understanding of and engagement with wilderness. Both the garden and the wilderness are places that have been associated not only with the divine but with the deepest truths about humanity—exploring these richly intersecting ideas in the context of today’s particular challenges should make for an exciting conference!
The Call for Papers is available here. Proposals should be 250-500 words in length and include one’s current institutional affiliation and position. Proposals should be submitted to the appropriate conveners no later than Monday, December 15, 2014. Scholars will be notified of the status of their proposals by January 15, 2015. Scholars who are invited to present their work at a national convention of the College Theology Society must be current members of the CTS no later than April 1, 2015 in order to appear in the program. No person may submit more than one proposal for consideration and nor will submissions to multiple sections be considered. These policies will be strictly enforced.
The program for the annual meeting with housing and transportation information will be posted on the CTS Website in early Spring 2015. The National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion will once again be joining us this year.
Further questions about our 2015 Annual Convention at the University of Portland can be directed to Dave Gentry-Akin, Executive Director of National Conventions, at firstname.lastname@example.org.