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Willis Jenkins: Environmental Ethics from the Ground Up

By Mindy Roll '07

For many academics, interest in a particular subject grows out of days sitting in crowded lecture halls and nights spent in musty libraries.  But for Willis Jenkins, the newly appointed assistant professor of social ethics at Yale Divinity School, it was not quite that way.

Jenkins' interest in environmental ethics grew out of deeply personal experiences-like watching his family lose the Virginia farm on which he had been raised. His interests started to take shape professionally when he began working with the Anglican Church of Uganda in theological education and sustainable development.

Willis Jenkins

During his time in Uganda , where he taught at a rural campus of Uganda Christian University , Jenkins became interested in exploring the social dimensions of the African churches, including how their preaching addressed the social changes around them. He quickly noticed a recurring theme, especially among the evangelical Anglican churches—one that corresponded with his own interests. “Environmental issues were right at the heart of a lot of their concerns,” he recalled in an interview.

Jenkins, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia , will teach courses in 2006-07 in environmental ethics, global ethics, and neighborhood ethics, along with a course in the fall on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr.

His graduate work centered on questions that emerged from his experiences in Africa , specifically, gaps that can separate a tradition's theology from the practical concerns of its people. Jenkins asks, “How do church communities address new kinds of ethical issues that their theological traditions never had in mind but now need to address?”

Jenkins explored this and other questions in his dissertation, “Ecologies of Grace: New Roots for Christian Environmental Ethics in Three Christian Traditions.” There, Jenkins asserts that the key to understanding these approaches is to explore how specific traditions interpret grace.

“Evangelical Protestants, for example, tend to be more comfortable with the language of stewardship and with human responsibility,” Jenkins explained. “But this is not the same language used by the Eastern Orthodox, who will more likely talk about the creative communion that humans have with all of creation.”

For Jenkins, the differing approaches have to do with “broad ways of understanding grace.” Traditions that understand grace in terms of sanctification, he explained, tend to be drawn toward eco-justice approaches in ways that other traditions find difficult. Consequently, Jenkins employs a pluralistic approach to the study of environmental theology.

In his Bonhoeffer and King fall course, Jenkins will lead the class in an inquiry into the two men's respective theologies, at the same time “interpreting their theologies as we read their lives against one another.” Recognizing that both figures developed as they responded to changing and worsening political situations, the course will explore the evolution of their theologies over the course of their lives.

Jenkins is also teaching a fall seminar course on global ethics, which address problems of cross-cultural development and how churches address these issues. In the spring, Jenkins will offer a class on environmental ethics and another course in neighborhood ethics, which will explore the question of Christian responsibility within neighborhoods. Of the latter class, Jenkins hopes to examine some of the issues facing New Haven —a city, he points out, “with considerable economic, geographic, and ethnic diversity.”

Beyond the academy, Jenkins has extensive experience with the Episcopal Church, having ministered in a variety of capacities for the past decade. Recognizing the need for discernment opportunities for young adults, Jenkins helped found the Young Adult Servant Corps, which incorporates vocational discernment into inter-cultural service, upon his return from overseas ministry.

Jenkins served on the Episcopal Church's Standing Commission on World Mission (2000-06) and has published articles in the Journal of Religion, Environmental Ethics , Anglican Theological Review , Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion, and the Journal of Lutheran Ethics . His reflections and reviews have appeared in The Witness and Christian Century.

He is married to Rebekah Menning, whose background is in social work. Most recently, she worked as manager of the Project on Lived Theology. They live in New Haven .


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