Political Theology of the Earth

Our Planetary Emergency and the Struggle for a New Public

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Catherine Keller
Insurrections: Critical Studies in Religion, Politics and Culture
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , October
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Reading the news is an increasingly grim task. Information on the scale of the climate catastrophe is complemented by reports of international reluctance to do anything to slow its arrival. School shooters and mosque shooters join other perpetrators of mass violence in circulating online messages of racial resentment and misogyny. These messages all too often echo the pronouncements of world leaders who have embraced the rightward drift of politics. The news is bleak.

Catherine Keller’s latest book asks how one might hope, organize, and act in such a moment. In formulating her answer, or her investigation of the work of answering, she alternates between an analysis of our current crisis and a consideration of the theological resources that might inform a response. In this regard, Political Theology of the Earth applies her earlier work to political theology. Those familiar with Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World (Beacon Press, 1996), The Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming (Routledge, 2003), and Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement (Columbia, 2014) will thus find the argument richer, though Keller offers concise summaries for those new to her work combination of apophaticism and process theology.

In bringing these theological resources to political and ecological crises, Keller rejects “both the chilling optimism of any technofix and . . . the surrender to all the too-lates” (168). These two options are both answers and Keller prefers to ask more questions. “Optimism and pessimism both know the outcome” (59), while hope is rooted in possibility. Yet the author also acknowledges that people living through crises must act without assurances. Her theology aims to help us “take risks that matter” (160). This point is the central contribution of the volume—how does one hope, organize, and act knowing that these are risky activities? Mistakes may be made and judgments may turn out to be wrong, but what must be refused are the dual errors of assuming that one possesses the answers or refusing to act because one does not.

The first chapter focuses on the crisis of politics. Beginning with familiar themes from Carl Schmitt, Keller identifies with the desire for “amity, not enmity” while also arguing that acting in an age of increasingly open hatred (most significantly in the form of the Far Right) requires acknowledging that there might be enemies (24). After all, loving your enemies means that there is an identifiable enemy to love. Schmitt famously declared that political ideas emerge through the secularization of theology. Keller argues that the problem with Schmitt, and other forms of antagonistic politics, is that they have secularized the wrong theology. Rather than “divine sovereignty transferring” to “the ruler, the nation, or the people” (50), Keller’s theology offers a “kairotic discourse of the presenting possible” (66). This political theology is not about “the exception” or “the enemy,” but attends to our entangled differences. Antagonism gives way to an amorous agonism, something more complicated than a simplistic binary opposition (39).

This political crisis is unfolding in the midst of an ecological one, whether we call it the Anthropocene or something else. We—a we that is much more than human—are all locatable within the same “planetary oikos of our ecosociality” (72). In the second chapter, Keller critiques anthropocentrism and in the process shows how this anthro- is raced and gendered. In response, Keller develops an “ancient-new materialism” that is “composed of mattering bodies—animals, animate forces, ecosocial animacies” (77). In her reading, Aristotle’s famous phrase “political animals” (80) takes on new meaning.

In these discussions of politics and the earth, Keller gestures toward a theology that is made more explicit in the third chapter. This theology is neither one of immanence nor transcendence, but “transcendere” (115). Her panentheistic image of God rejects the God of classical theism in favor of a God of becoming. If political theology has tended to secularize the wrong theology, then secularizing a different God may provide new political possibilities. Panentheism argues for distinctions without separation (143) and this vision of the divine becomes the basis for recognizing an entangled materiality in which hope is placed not in the sovereign, but in multiple emerging novelties.

Understanding this entangled materiality and the identities it shapes requires a wide range of theoretical resources. In addition to recent theological work on race, ecology, and politics, Keller draws on queer theory (Lee Edelman and José Esteban Muñoz), theorizations of Blackness (Stefano Harney and Fred Moten), and explorations of materialism and science (Karen Barad, William Connolly, Donna Haraway, Timothy Morton, and Anna Tsing). The challenge of the contemporary moment is the increasing realization that racial, gendered, ecological, economic, and political issues cannot be addressed in isolation from the others.

Her reading of these sources is unapologetically theological, but Keller’s is a “seculareligious” (174) political theology. There are no claims that only Christianity can provide the answer to political impasses or impending environmental catastrophe. This book does not aim to convert (157). Rather, Keller argues that there is a way of thinking with the resources of Christianity that allows one to hope. But while there is no effort to exculpate Christianity, or religion more generally, there is also no explicit consideration of how Christianity has contributed to the present crisis. Where this contribution is discussed, it is always in the form of confronting a counterfeit. Imperialism, for example, “poses” as Christian truth (55-6) and is parodic of real Christianity (152). Christendom comes in for plenty of criticism, but Christianity escapes mainly unscathed. The question is whether this distinction can be so easily made.

The answer to this question will determine the role of Christian theology, even a secularized one, in helping think through the contemporary crises. Keller, however, might well respond that looking for answers is where we go wrong. The task is “[u]nknowing better now” (157) and hoping that the unknown and unknowable dimensions of our entangled earth might still afford unforeseen possibilities.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Tommy Lynch is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy of Religion at the University of Chichester, England.

Date of Review: 
December 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Catherine Keller is Professor of Constructive Theology at the Theological School of Drew University.


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