My Catholic-Christian Eco-feminism

July 6, 2020 at 3:17 pm | Posted in Catholicism, Christian theology,, ecological theology, Environment, feminism | 3 Comments
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The following is the English version of an article, published in German in January, 2020, in the Swiss feminist journal, FAMA. It subsequently appeared in the publication of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference, EqualwRites, and a longer version was distributed as a resource paper by the Global-Justice Overcoming Poverty Network of the International Grail.

 

I became involved in Christian environmentalism almost by accident when I joined the Grail, the international Catholic laywomen’s movement, in 1965, my senior year in high school. The Grail had come to the US in 1941 and began working almost immediately with the Catholic Rural Life Conference, a precursor to the Back to the Land movement. I began spending summers on the Grail’s 365-acre organic farm in southwest Ohio and eventually lived for four years as part of the community there. Older members were reading Teilhard de Chardin’s reflections on the Noosphere, and Thomas Berry, the geologian-author of the Universe Story, led discussions of his work with us. At one point I was even in charge of the chickens, though I found them hard to reason with.

I was always an urban type at heart, however, so I returned to New York in 1983 and undertook graduate studies in religion, focusing primarily on gender and literary theory. Then, in 2001, as a professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, I had occasion, again almost by chance, to participate in a week-long program on the world water crisis led by Maude Barlow, the Canadian water activist. Barlow said something to the effect that a billion people didn’t have access to clean water at that time, three billion wouldn’t by 2050, and with the way things were going, by the end of the century, there wouldn’t be any clean water at all

Barlow scared the daylights out of me. I began teaching courses on Christian ethics and the world water crisis to seminary students and organizing them to gather signatures on a petition to ban plastic water bottles. One Good Friday I preached a sermon on Jesus’ words “I thirst” in a Seven Last Words of Christ service at the biggest black Baptist church in Oakland, proclaiming that the world’s thirsty were expressing themselves in the words of Jesus.

By the time we returned home to New York City in 2008, and I accepted a research appointment at the multi-racial New York Theological Seminary, I had concluded that climate change and the world water crisis were virtually the same. I began working with the Grail’s national and international climate action groups and publishing articles and reviews about climate change and the wider environmental crisis.

Also, because of my appointment at a majority African American seminary, I became particularly concerned about environmental racism, the way that climate change and other environmental degradation does vastly more harm to people in the Global South, and to communities of color here in the US, than to white Europeans and Americans. With my husband, who is also a seminary professor, I have co-taught several courses on environmental racism and preaching, to prepare students to address the climate crisis in their churches. Many of these students were astounded to learn of the racial dimensions of the climate crisis because they had previously experienced the environmental movement as comprised of privileged white people who love polar bears and wilderness. The works of Robert Bullard, the founder of the U.S. environmental justice movement, and Peggy Shepherd, the head of We Act for Environmental Justice here in Harlem, have been extremely important in these efforts.

I have also been strongly influenced in recent years by research on the deep relationship between capitalism and climate change, as elaborated in Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital, for example, as well as in the works of Ian Angus, Jason Moore and Nancy Fraser.  But I am inclined to agree with the distinguished Bengali writer, Amitav Ghosh, who argues, at the end of The Great Derangement, his study of the cultural factors underpinning climate change, that the world religions have the greatest potential to change global attitudes and actions regarding the climate emergency. This is so, he suggests, because they are already organized, and in some cases, speak with a centralized voice.

The primary example, for Ghosh and for me, of religion’s global impact on the climate emergency is, of course, Pope Francis’s 2015 environmental encyclical, Laudato Si’. Now let me be clear here: as a Catholic feminist for forty-five years, I have spent much of my life criticizing the monarchical governance structure of the Catholic Church. Imagine my astonishment when I was invited to speak about a papal encyclical in several different socialist settings!!  I am beginning to think that a centralized religious organization with a globally recognized leader isn’t, in some circumstances, entirely bad.

My writing, teaching and activism have also been strongly influenced by the works of two eco-feminist theologians, the Catholic feminist, Elizabeth Johnson, and the Protestant process theologian, Catherine Keller. Johnson is perhaps best known for her 1992 work She Who is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. In that book, Johnson argues that God/Spirit-Sophia is mediated through the entire natural world, not only through human history. Then, in her 2007 book, Quest for the Living God, Johnson dares to assert that God suffers, because God’s Spirit dwells all throughout a suffering creation.

Johnson expands this vision of the God who suffers in her 2014 book, Ask the Beats: Darwin and the God of Love, inwhich she delineates the relationship between Darwin’s Origin of Species and the Nicene Creed. Since all species suffer in the process of evolution, the logic of incarnation extends divine solidarity from the cross to all creation.  This God whose love continuously sustains and empowers the origin of species is a suffering God who is in solidarity with all creatures dying through endless millennia of evolution from the extinction of species to every sparrow that falls to the ground.

The fissures that underpin the climate crisis are a primary concern for Catherine Keller, too. While Johnson connects God and creation through the cross, Keller draws on process philosophy/theology as well as Paul’s letters to delineate in place of a transcendent sovereign who wills human dominion and radical antagonism, a persuasive God, enfolded within all creation. But while earlier process theology stresses an overall oneness of God with the universe, Keller draws on the Christian mystical tradition to invoke an apophatic God, a silent cosmic creator, in whom we are all one. Since human beings are enfolded with the rest of creation in this divine mystery, we are called to a loving agonism—struggle—with one another toward the emergence of a new, messianic possibility.

Keller’s theology draws on a re-envisioning of evolution, and in particular, the work of the revolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, in which species evolve through collaboration rather than competitive “survival of the fittest.”  Such a science-based reconfiguration of hierarchical theology demands from us all a recognition of the deep intersectionalism between the human and extra-human elements of creation. In some respects, this shift to a new science moves Christian ecofeminism even beyond Elizabeth Johnson’s interweaving of Darwin and the suffering God of love and has profound implications for contemporary politics as well as the planet and the Christian tradition.  Keller’s latest book, Political Theology of the Earth, does a remarkable job of exploring these implications.

What has perhaps influenced my thinking more than anything else is Keller’s insertion of the silence of God into the heart of the cosmos.  A number of Catholic feminist and liberation theologians, including Ivone Gebara and Elizabeth Johnson. have drawn on the apophatic, mystical tradition to connect this God of unknowing to the relatedness at the heart of reality. Keller goes on to envision a messianic contraction, an utter transformation emerging from the heart of this divine silence in which the entire cosmos is enfolded. For me, this vision of God has replaced the transcendent God at the heart of the theology in which I was educated and which far too often underpins Christian attitudes toward the current planetary crisis.

Thanks to Johnson, Keller, and others, it is this vision of a compassionate and persuasive God in whose transformative silence all creation is enfolded that will, I trust, energize my eco-feminist writing, teaching and activism in the months and years to come.

 

Marian Ronan, “Theologian’s Work Connects God, Women and Creation.” The National Catholic Reporter, April 22-May 5 2016, 1a. https://marianronan.wordpress.com/2016/04/22/the-ecofeminist-theology-of-elizabeth-johnson-a-review/

Marian Ronan, review of Catherine Keller’s Political Theology of the Earth.  The National Catholic Reporter, September 6-19, 2019, 28.  https://www.ncronline.org/news/environment/theologian-catherine-keller-sees-path-apocalypse-transformation

 

Political Theology of the Earth

September 11, 2019 at 10:58 am | Posted in Christian theology,, Climate Change, Environment | 1 Comment
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The following is my review of Catherine Keller’s Political Theology of the Earth,, which appears in the September 6-19 issue of The National Catholic Reporter.

POLITICAL THEOLOGY OF THE EARTH: OUR PLANETARY EMERGENCY AND THE STRUGGLE FOR A NEW PUBLIC
By Catherine Keller
248 pages; Columbia University Press
$27.00

You don’t need me to tell you that we are currently facing an overwhelming array of crises around the world. Political strongmen — dictators — coming to power. Millions of refugees fleeing war and climate catastrophe. A vast array of species facing extinction. And seemingly endless religious conflicts — not to mention the plummeting of membership in institutional religion, at least in the West.

These crises seem so dire that many use the word “apocalypse” to characterize them.

Yet as constructive theologian Catherine Keller explains in her galvanizing new book, Political Theology of the Earth, apocalypse doesn’t mean what many think it means: the coming of the end times. This is not to say that Keller dismisses the crises that face us. She agrees that we are right to be apprehensive.

But drawing on studies of the Pauline epistles, Keller shows that the passage in 1 Corinthians (7:29) believed to mean “the end times” is more accurately translated “the time that remains,” or “the time is contracted.” This, then, is not chronos, regimented linear time, but kairos, “the time in which something can be done.” And for Keller, this something is “messianic contraction.”

Drawing on this understanding of the time that remains as a kairotic unfolding, Keller weaves together the three arenas of seeming apocalypse — the political, the Earth and religion — into a new schema of possible transformation.

She begins by linking the current political crisis to the modern theory of the state, rooted in the notion of the sovereign leader, whose power is justified by the state of emergency or exception. Except that the state of exception is becoming increasingly permanent. And as Nazi Catholic political scientist Carl Schmitt explained decades ago, this modern concept of the sovereign state is, at bottom, secularized theology. The omnipotent God becomes the omnipotent lawgiver. And this exceptional leader unites us against the exceptional enemy — Jews, blacks, Muslims, immigrants, gays, etc.

In place of the antagonism of enmity embedded in the sovereign political framework, Keller discerns a loving agonism, or struggle, at the heart of the messianic contraction that is our cosmic political reality. This means not war but painful, loving struggle across differences to bring forth a more common, democratic good.

Regarding the crises of the Earth, Keller traces links between the secular theological notion of the omnipotent sovereign and the dominion theology of creation used to justify the exploitation of the planet.

Keller’s political theology moves instead toward a recognition of the deep intersectionalism between all the human and nonhuman elements of creation. Failure to acknowledge and enact this deep interdependence places Earth and all its species on a planetary suicide trajectory. The incorporation of the science of matter itself renders Keller’s political reconfiguration of the Earth all the more compelling.

Keller replaces the disaster of divine sovereign omnipotence with a theology that acknowledges the divine unknowing at the heart of the cosmos. Such a theology is forced to acknowledge its own failures, its propagation of a hierarchical cosmos, even as it embraces the messianic emergence of possibility from the heart of struggle and despair.

Drawing on Pauline descriptions of God as the “all in all,” Keller portrays a God who is persuasive, not domineering, immanent in the world even as the world is immanent in her/him/it. Sin, then, is our failure to embrace this enfoldment of all in all, to love our neighbor as ourselves.

 

Catherine Keller, author of "Political Theology of the Earth" (catherineekeller.com)

Catherine Keller, author of “Political Theology of the Earth” (catherineekeller.com)
Yet even as we fail in this enfoldment, the messianic contraction, the Christ who died for us, offers new possibilities for hope. Central to this theological vision is not only contemplative encounter with the silence of God at the heart of this cosmos, but our joining together in art and political action to transform it.

 

Keller’s political theology of the Earth is a development — an unfolding, we might say — of process theology. Traditional theologians tend to declare such theology heretical; I believe the doctrinal committee of the U.S. bishops’ conference condemned St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s theology in 2011 because her argument that God suffered sounded to them like process theology — never mind the Christian teaching that the human being who suffered on the cross is, in fact, God.

Yet before such theologians are too quick to declare heresy, it is important to remember that Keller enfolds the Christian mystical tradition into her version of process theology. Such an inclusion of apophatic, or negative, theology into Keller’s contemporary political theology may well be more an instance of the development of doctrine than a heresy. And given the dire effects of the Christian teaching of an omnipotent, transcendent God who accords dominion to some of his creatures over all the rest, isn’t it past time to enfold the presence of a persuasive, compassionate God into the time we have remaining?

Keller’s political theology of the Earth is breathtaking in the scope of the resources it draws upon and the depths of its analysis. Some may find this a disadvantage. I myself read the book slowly, several times, so as to absorb all its originality and nuance.

Another approach is to consider Political Theology of the Earth a work of what Keller herself calls “theopoetics,” a becoming of something new — a dive into the profound linguistic-material entanglements that are our apocalyptic reality. A bit like the first time you read the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, or James Joyce’s Ulysses. Just read it, and when you fail, enfold yourself into the cosmic process and read it again. That’s certainly what I’m going to do.

 

 

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