Rethreading the Web: Catherine Keller and the Theology of Entangled Difference: A Report from the Hickey Center’s Annual Sacred Texts and Human Contexts Conference at Nazareth College by George Payne

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You’ve known George for his wide-ranging, always interesting and informative subjects: on Martin Luther King, his photo montage of Rochester, interfaith dialogue, urban poverty, the plans to make the Lower Falls a National Heritage Site, a critical response to a the PBS documentary “Peace Officer,” and Black Lives Matter.

Today George reports on Sacred Texts and Human Contexts: A Symposium on Nature and Environment in World Religions. The May 23 – 25th Symposium was presented by Nazareth College’s Hickey Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue and Hobart & William Smith Colleges’ Department of Religious Studies.

May 24, 2016

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Dr. Catherine Keller outside the Shults Center, Nazareth College, 5/25/16 [Photo: David Kramer]

On a picture perfect day on Nazareth College’s picture perfect campus, nearly 100 scholars and community members came together to commence a three day conference on the intersection between religious texts and environmental issues. During the dinner portion, keynote speaker and brilliant constructive theologian Catherine Keller, explored the concept of exceptionalism from a synoptic viewpoint which included political analysis, linguistic deconstruction, metaphysical wonderment, eco-feminist critique, biological and physical evidence, theological creativity, and religious insight. To adequately summarize everything that Dr. Keller said in this brief reflection would be impossible. She is that type of original thinker who speaks faster and with more ingenuity than most people can possibly keep up with. In nearly every one of her sentences Keller reconstructs old paradigms while suggesting new approaches that would be career pursuits for other academicians. That said, without getting too involved in the specifics of her multi-textured and trans- disciplinary presentation, I want to simply outline what I took to be her three main points.

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Keller’s first point is that we all live in a universe which is entangled in vastly intricate differences. The ecology of creation ensures that there is tremendous complexity and difference infused throughout the kin-dom of beings. Although these differences lead to conflicts, they also create possibilities for relational interactions which foster vital human experiences that we all value. Without relational awareness of others and the world “out there,” there would be no spontaneous action, genuine inventiveness, non-simulated learning, sensations of adventure and surprise, cognitive reflection, ideas of personhood, and so much more.

Furthermore, what the universe provides is an inescapable emergence of new possibilities all of the time. The choice has always been to accept and acclimate to this reality or to resist and resent it. What we see happening when we resist and resent our intrinsic gift for mutual awareness and relational knowledge is what Keller refers to as a “broken web.” For instance, the persecution of animals is a unique reflection of people who have been dehumanized and persecuted themselves. The state of our environment in general is primarily a reflection of the state in which our minds produce ideas, images, and instructions that are systemically dysfunctional, historically traumatized and scientifically confused. Out of these mental productions come all of our models of self-hood, concepts of the other, and whatever name we give to God. Speaking with fierce candidness and immense probity, Keller contended that what is happening to our biosphere (and our sole home in the galaxy), is a by-product of a collective consciousness nearing the brink of unmitigated psychological turmoil. We are rapidly heading towards the cliff of species wide collapse.

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Photo provided by George

The second point that I heard Dr. Keller make is that the political reality of our world is also a mirror reflection of our mental schema. The mind forms political needs and pursues individual desires which impact the social and physical environments in which one must express those needs and actualize those desires. In particular, Keller made one point that I found to be especially pungent. When we move away from the relational model of social cooperation towards the hyper-exceptional model of Neo-Liberal Capitalism, we wind up with a lustful and prideful version of Christianity that openly endorses racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia and justified warfare. What we end up with is a polluted version of Christianity which has propelled Donald Trump to his current position of influence and power over the Republican party.

According to Keller, both Christian exceptionalism in particular and human exceptionalism in general are by-products of a mindset which is essentially blind to the spiritual and biological processes of Life itself. Folded together we are a complicated, resilient, diverse, inter-creaturely unified organism which sustains itself and thrives on beautifully unpredictable moments of solidarity, prayer and love. Separate from this enfolded community we are lowly castaways in a long, slow catastrophe of personal, interpersonal and environmental alienation.

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The third and final point I heard Keller make is perhaps less ontological and abstract. There is an inescapable emergency happening in the world. We all sense it. The changing seasons, rising oceans, drought stricken farms, over fished lakes and rivers, and clear cut forests are no longer possible to merely write off as necessary evils of industry and progress. There is a worldwide species depletion that has not happened on this scale in millions of years. We are in crisis.

In response to this crisis, Keller asks a simple yet profound question: What can emerge out of this emergency? How can we activate the deep earthiness of religious conviction to summon that voice of prophecy and apocalyptic power that is so desperately needed today? As Keller astutely reminded her audience, the Book of Revelation is not a prediction of God’s moral wrath on a sinful humankind but a political and ecological manifesto written by a rebellious and loving resistance movement-one clamoring for the people to wake up and take back their rightful place as stewards of God’s creation.keller # 3

The time has come for people of conscience to rally together in a unified, interrelated, synthesized effort that goes far beyond theological discourse and religious studies. As conference organizer and interfaith visionary Dr. Muhammad Shafiq said in his opening remarks, “there is a new civil rights movement that is moving towards the hopeful action of Interfaith collaboration.” However, in order to move in this direction we must condemn the untruth that we are sovereign beings who can control and violate other beings without consequence. We must condemn the untruth that we are somehow exceptional incarnations who have no planetary responsibilities other than to consume and be happy. And we must condemn the untruth that we are separate from creation, distant from God, and even divided from ourselves. In order for our human differences to be entangled in the right way, it means that we must become cosmically attuned to the complex, ever changing, ever enfolding, terribly beautiful web of all existence.

panentheism.jpg keller # 4As Keller explained it in terms of metaphysics, the gap between God and humans is nonexistent. Either there is no God or God is everything. There is no real distinction between God and what God creates or experiences. In Keller’s words, “God has no circumference.” Since the gap between us and God is nonexistent, we can infer that the gap between humankind and nature is also nonexistent. As we know humanness can not be conceived without the categories of perception we call time and space. Nor can one picture a human without air, water, nourishment, the laws of physics, or the most primal forms of social communication. This sovereign, non-dependent, non-relational, totally separate being does not exist.

This urgent insight punctuates the essential question that Keller came back to at the end of her probing address. How do we hope for a better planetary future?

We begin by hoping in hope. In other words, we begin by believing in our own goodness and trusting in our own inherent worth. From this plane of self acceptance we can look out beyond the horizon of our own ego and see how everything is good. This is one way to interpret the creation narrative in Genesis. Everything that God made is good. The complete and total democratization of God’s creatures lies within the elemental veracity that all is good. As Keller concluded, “the unity of peace that is the ecology of spirit” can only happen once we accept our innate goodness and then see how this goodness reflects the goodness of creation.

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