Willis JENKINS. The Future of Ethics. Sustainability, Social Justice, and Religious Creativity. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013. pp. 325. $34.95 pb. ISBN: 978-1-6261-6017-0. Reviewed by Grégoire CATTA SJ, School of Theology and Ministry, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA 02167.
Willis Jenkins’ The Future of Ethics offers a brilliant reflection about the challenges environmental problems pose to Christian ethics. Its main argument is that the traditional understanding of the work of Christian social ethics as putting Christian worldviews into practice is no longer sufficient. Rather we should adopt a more pragmatic approach by critically participating in reform projects which respond to those overwhelming problems and by recognizing the faith at work in them. This marks a noticeable evolution from Jenkins’ first book, Ecologies of Grace: Environmental Ethics and Christian Theology (Oxford, 2008) in which he masterfully articulated the ecological dimensions of Christian theology. As he explains in the preface, his ongoing research on concrete problems, which appears in the numerous examples he uses, prompted the evolution. This capacity for expressing a thought in progress and evolving it is certainly not the least strength of this book.
Chapter one offers an initial presentation of the complexity of the practical challenges posed by climate change. This vexing issue raises doubts about the capacity of Christian traditions to respond adequately. Chapter two sets forth the limits of a cosmological strategy which would start by articulating revised worldviews and then attempt to convince people to act. Rather Jenkins favors what he coins a strategy of theocentric pragmatism which starts from within the problems and the way they are addressed by communities of faith. Practical action becomes the locus for interpretative production. The struggle to invent practical responses to the problem can and should be understood as proper theological discourse.
Continuing the presentation of this renewed global ethics “from below,” chapter three defends it as a reflection on shared projects and as arising from boundary-crossing social practices. Here the notion of sustainability appears as a bridge-building concept. It cannot work as a universal norm or a shared worldview but it facilitates a pluralist deliberation over responses to planetary problems. Chapter four addresses the limits of pragmatism and reasserts the role of religious imagination and cosmological questions, by critically engaging the school of environmental pragmatism and the emergence of sustainability science.
The last three chapters test the limits of the pragmatic experiment in three different sets of problems. Chapter five looks at the ecological mediation of political violence in response to chemical contamination. Practices of justice, especially human rights and racial justice, are shifting because environmental projects deploy such practices to meet new problems. Cosmological approaches have missed ecological flows of racism but liberation ethics seems also to need the cosmological imagination. Chapter six considers trajectories of human and biological impoverishment within the dominance of a capitalist economy and attempts to overcome the tension between social justice and environmental ethics. Avoiding the strategy of grand critique it shows how practices of faith might work ‘oddly’ in reshaping desire in three areas: population growth, consumer society, and development. Chapter seven closes the book on an even greater challenge: the intergenerational challenge or how to pursue a pragmatic ethics in the absence of meaningful reform projects. Liturgy is offered as a possible resource.
Along the way Jenkins exposes several concrete situations like the contamination of neighborhoods by chemical waste in Love Canal and Warren County or biodiversity in the Chesapeake Bay. He works from the responses they inspired and thus practices the ethics for which he advocates. He engages in discussion with a large variety of authors not only in contemporary environmental ethics but at a more fundamental level as well. The interest of the book lies in this capacity to address particular issues in this field in a way that questions more broadly the discipline of ethics itself. What is the sustainability of religious ethics facing problems overwhelmingly complex and loaded with uncertainty in a world ever more morally pluralist? Jenkins does not give all the answers but his modestly pragmatic turn is highly stimulating.