College Theology Society hits grand slam in Portland

“An Unexpected Wilderness: Seeking God on a Changing Planet” brings together faith, reason, and friendship at the CTS 61st annual meeting

Dozens of academics from diverse disciplines, institutions, and nations have been meeting since Thursday to explore themes of the unexpected wilderness in our lives, cultures, nations, and journeys of faith—and much, much more, some of which you’ll be hearing about in future posts.

The event is the 61st annual meeting of the College Theology Society (CTS), held this year in the stunning campus of the University of Portland, Oregon, which has consistently been named one of the top green campuses in America. The theme of wilderness was in part meant to acknowledge the recent juggernaut of ecological conversations in the Church. It also allowed participants to share insights on how people of faith can be present in, learn from, and better tend a world that, by accident or design, changes.

With the gathering taking place as anticipation (and turbulence) builds around the reception of Pope Francis’s impending eco-encyclical, formal conversations taking place in Franz Hall or the informal ones at the superb lunches in the Bauccio Commons cafeteria repeatedly returned to what Francis might say—or what he should say or has said, and what all this means for the Church and the world.

One thing everyone seemed to agree on is that the meeting's timing, like the weather here in Portland these past few days, couldn't have been better.

"The faith community is increasingly aware that theology has a critical role to play in addressing issues like climate change," said Dan DiLeo, PhD student in theological ethics at Boston College and a presenter at the event. "This conference is an example of that awareness, and the work of these scholars enriches the pastoral work of ministries like the Catholic Climate Covenant," where DiLeo serves as Project Manager.

Given the uncertainly today of how the eco-encyclical will impact the status quo, the CTS was somewhat prophetic when it announced the wilderness theme last year.

Papers covered topics from American religious sisters in the Wild West to an agrarian reading of the New Testament, to the place of Ignatian Spirituality in modern eco-issues, to the role of engineers in shaping human existence.

“In exploring the relationship between Christianity and the natural world today,” CTS explained, “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. … What, then, are we to make of wilderness today?”

Participants responded with gusto.

Papers covered topics from American religious sisters in the American West to an agrarian reading of the New Testament, to the place of Ignatian Spirituality in modern eco-issues, to the role of engineers in shaping human existence. And at an afternoon plenary session by guest speaker Brent Olson (“Independent Scholar and Fry Cook") we heard a few powerful lessons that one can learn in the wilds around the world—or when capturing fireflies, or from living with a two-legged cat named Gloria found freezing to death one January on a road in Minnesota.

Earlier on Friday, theologians behind the influential blog Daily Theology offered a few laughs and sound insights about what made them enter the wilderness of the internet and offer their blog on theology for the everyday person. (If you haven't checked out their blog, you should.)

One paper that caught my attention was from independent scholar Damian Costello. His experiences among the Navajo people, blended with his Catholic faith and the love of the land, made for an especially moving talk about what it means to come from a place—to know that place, its smells, seasons, and light, and have the place mold who you are. Awesome stuff.

I’ve asked Damian and a number of other presenters to share their papers and thoughts with Catholic Ecology. So stay tuned for upcoming posts as they get in touch. And I’ll be posting my paper soon enough.

With all this from CTS and the release of the eco-encyclical in the coming weeks, June will be a busy month on these pages. To keep from missing anything, make sure you sign up for the automatic emails of recent posts. (Signing up is easy on the right-hand column of the blog.)

And so as I sign off for now from the University of Portland, as always, stay tuned for more—much, much more.

Image: CTS

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.