Alumnus and professor Christopher Doran (‘98, MDiv ’02) is on a mission to make his university a leader in sustainability
The ocean waters were as bright and clear below the surface as the cloudless skies were above. It was the perfect setting in which to experience a moment of profound clarity. And as Chris Doran explored the coral terrain 60 feet below the surface of the Maldives’ famously clear waters, he understood that big changes are happening here on God’s planet. Yet it seemed to him that most of the people in relationship with God aren’t talking about what is happening to His–and our–earth.
“No one was talking about environmental issues at all. Particularly conservative, Bible-believing folks like myself,” says Doran, who is an associate professor of religion at Seaver College. “The Maldives will likely be underwater by the time I’m old. We don’t realize that we’re part of a bigger story.”
Doran’s moment of clarity in the waters of the Indian Ocean came at the very beginning of his 2015 sabbatical from Seaver just as he was beginning to write his latest book, Hope in the Age of Climate Change: Creation Care This Side of the Resurrection (Cascade Books, April 2017). The book is the result of years of research into what Doran calls the “rapidly changing structure of the planet,” and how Christians can respond to these issues in ways that honor and care for God’s creation.
He knows it can be overwhelming to hear unpleasant predictions, such as conservative estimates that point to approximately 200 million people being displaced by the year 2100 because of rising oceans. So he balances this unimaginable scope by discussing how Christians can provide hope to a world weighed down with speculative despair.
The key, he says, is to think beyond the walls of their Sunday morning sanctuary and take the communal, inclusive spirit of the Lord’s Supper out into the world by feeding the hungry and housing the homeless, for example—both of which will become vital as populations are displaced by climate change.
“Sitting at a table honoring God with the bread and the wine, there are certain ‘table manners’ that you learn, such as inclusion of other people and equality of the people around the table,” explains Doran. “Why are those things we practice only on Sundays? They should be things we practice all the time.”
Convincing his fellow Christians to acknowledge and talk about the problems is half the battle, however, as Doran so startlingly realized underwater in the Maldives. His book explores the idea of creation care as an act of humility, mirroring the greatest example in the history of Christianity. “Jesus humbled himself to come to earth and become a servant,” he points out.
He continues, “We human beings are interesting creatures. We seem to want it both ways: that we’re the greatest things that God has ever created—but we’re not so great that we can’t screw things up. What the scripture says is very interesting. God lets humans suffer for their sins. He lets things play out in such a way that we actually have to endure the consequences of our actions. That’s not something that we often want to take seriously.”
Doran is hoping to change that in three distinct ways: with his book, which offers practical advice for anyone looking to make a difference; with his work at Pepperdine, which will include the founding of the Institute on Sustainability, now in its earliest stages of fundraising; and with giving to his alma mater with his wife and fellow alumnus, Amy Doran (’98).
He and Amy met as students at Seaver, where she majored in accounting. He majored in biology before going on to get his master of divinity from Pepperdine in 2002 and a PhD in systematic and philosophical theology from the Graduate Theological Union in 2007. They founded and ran a scholarship program for more than a decade in honor of a friend who passed away from ovarian cancer; the Faith and Education Scholarship Fund distributed more than $200,000 to partially and fully fund the college education of 13 students. But the couple felt called to do more to specifically help their alma mater, having heard that only about eight percent of alumni give back to Pepperdine.
“Pepperdine has been involved in interesting sustainability programs focused on water conservation and recycling, but it’s not what we’re known for. Amy and I wanted to help on the academic end to start something that might help Pepperdine to be known for that work, eventually,” says Chris.
With a $100,000 gift to establish the Chris and Amy Doran Endowed Fund in 2015, the couple made a substantial commitment to the growth of sustainability and creation care initiatives at the University. The significant gift will specifically help to sustain the annual Climate Calling conference—cohosted by the University and its neighbors, including the Malibu Public Library—which brings some of the most sought-after Christian experts in the fields of environmentalism and climate change to the University.
Chris also helped found a minor degree program at Seaver two years ago and recently had his proposal for the Institute for Sustainability approved by the administration, pending funds. Plans for the institute include bringing more top scholars in the field to teach students, more classes on sustainability, international program opportunities, and a scholarship to help students that plan to study for careers in sustainability.
Ultimately, Doran believes Pepperdine has the potential to be uniquely situated at the forefront of sustainability in academia—a prospect and challenge he finds exciting.
“Many sustainability programs don’t have the ability to think about these issues morally, ethically, and theologically like we do at Pepperdine,” Doran reflects.
“I’d really like my alma mater to become known as the West Coast leader for sustainability research and practice.”