Catherine Keller, author of From a Broken Web, was the keynote speaker at the opening session of the 2016 Sacred Texts and Human Contexts conference at Nazareth College, Rochester, New York. This year’s conference theme is “Nature and Environment in World Religions.”
Keller’s address was titled “Ecologies of Diversity: Beyond Religious and Human Exceptionalism.”
To help address the global environmental crisis, Keller believes religions must move beyond human exceptionalism — that is, religions have to get over the notion that humans are somehow more privileged than other organisms. Furthermore, she believes that we must also move beyond religious exceptionalism.
She said she assumed that those of us attending the conference are participants in a faith that is “planetary.” “By talking together, we hope to get and give some hope,” she said, “Hope for the planetary future.” She added: “Those hopes come encoded in our sacred texts.”
Keller went on to make three main points:
First, the unprecedented planetary emergency should not be treated as exceptional, she said. The current ecological crisis is driven both by politics that use emergency powers to prolong the crisis, and by various types of exceptionalism. Instead, she said the planetary emergency can be understood as “an emergence.”
Second, Keller believes “an alternative politics” is needed. “The key to this alternative is, I believe, what might be called ‘entangled difference’.” Her 2015 book Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement goes into more detail on “entanglement,” which she relates to the concept of quantum entanglement.
“Difference is not a separation, but a relation,” she pointed out. Thus, difference and entanglement can go hand in hand. “And so while difference may exclude or ignore” that from which it is different, there is still a relationship between the things that are different.
Third, Keller said, “If we can turn catastrophe into catalyst, the answer is hope.” In fact, she said that “catastrophe must become a catalyst” in order for positive action to happen.
After making these three main points, Keller drew on political theology to show how exceptionalism is a kind of “sovereignty” that is derived from centuries-old notions of Christian exceptionalism. “What is enabling climate catastrophe,” she said, “is another form of Christian exceptionalism: human exceptionalism.”
As an antidote to human exceptionalism, she proposes what she calls “creaturely interdependence.” Calling herself a “pluralist Christian,” that is, a Christian who is open to learning from other traditions (i.e., not a Christian exceptionalist), she then turned to several passages from the Qu’ran which reinterpret the Hebrew Bible and Christian scriptures with an environmental slant.
One such passage in the Qu’ran makes explicit that all beings pray to God, though they might not use words, in a kind of “cosmic atunement.” A passage like this does not undermine the special aspects of human beings, but “it beautifully undermine human exceptionalism,” she said.
“Christ is not then the supreme exception, but the supreme exemplar,” she said. That is, Christ is not a single ontologically exceptional incarnation.
Keller concluded with some thoughts about hope. “Without hope, then nothing: nihil, nihilism,” she said.
“What does hope hope for?” she continued. Hope points towards that which is new, the “novum.” Hope is not exceptionalism, and hope is not about trying to reach some supernatural heaven. Instead, it is a renewal of earth and heaven, where “heaven” means the sky.