Usually a catastrophe has at least the capacity to shake folk into fast action and cooperation. This climate crisis approaches with a more treacherous temporality: it is too fast and too slow. Too fast to prevent irreversible destruction; too slow to make it a top priority even of those who do not deny it.
Just a few days after the release of the Encyclical I happened to be wandering in Glacier National Park. I was delighted finally to see these glaciers and enjoy perfect weather for the hike. The ancient icefields were nestled glistening in the Rockies, emanating a gorgeous foreverness. They sit there in their icy stillness, melting at rates that keep shocking the USGS team—scientists tuned to geological time—who measure them.1 Only by reading just afterward did I realize that they are simply doomed: the remaining 25 of the original 160 glaciers will be gone in two decades. Forever. The Himalayas, upon which depend not only tourist joy but the water and therefore food supply of much of India and China, has a bit more time, and so a bit more opportunity to be rescued.
The weird slowfast time of the planetary catastrophe—of fire and ice, of water and soil, of atmosphere and all who breathe—is not readable as “global warming” except by way of mind-melting abstractions like the annual global average temperature shift of less than a degree. And this subtle catastrophic pace only shows itself as “climate change” in and as the space of an entire planet. Nor does the space read as “ours” except when “we” are the species. But to be a species demands a sense of collectivity, even of universality, that cuts against the more vivid sense of human difference and disparity—for much of the right or of the left. So to parlay this crisis into the needed mass response seems much harder than other more than national crises, like, say, a World War. This maddeningly abstract slowfast planetarity demands of us a new sense of global public.
And this is why we need theology. There is perhaps no more comparably vivid, global vocabulary for thinking about—all times and places, all at once. For thinking, first of all, about us as creatures of an integral earth, for thinking about obligations that no national or local or group ethos can trump, for facing oncoming planetary catastrophe—apocalypse—and for proclaiming the chance, in the face of it, of a new earth.2 At least, there is outside of theology no more planetarily extended vocabulary that retains at the same time ancient currency, profound ancestral resonances, and ongoing symbolic force. That has a globally audiable moral voice. That therefore might just have the capacity, mainly through various still living and often traditional Christian communities, institutions, and cultures, to change enough minds and to impact enough choices.
For the most part, however, the conservative majority of churches remains untouched by or actively reactionary toward the emergent networks of ecologically-minded Christians. Ecotheological traditions have their own deep ancestry and planetary networks, but they remain fragile minorities, affiliated with feminist, liberation, process, and other dissident traditions, and are prone to drift discouraged or disenchanted from the exhausted oldline institutions that support or tolerate them. The asymmetrical schism runs right through some old denominations, most manifestly through Roman Catholicism. Theology in its various ecological and interreligious registers keeps trying but has not been equal to the challenge.
This is why we need the Pope.
The genius of Laudato Si’ will be studied—recycled, encycled—for generations (if we have them). More importantly, it will, it must, exceed the first news cycle to make its impact felt now, and the intensive interest of non-Catholics and lapsed Catholics in it, or I should say, the affirmative interest, displays its nonparochial reach. If I had to summarize its strength, I would say something like this: Pope Francis enfolds social justice and ecological viability into a document, simultaneously persuasive in its climate science and its socio-economic analysis, with biblical and creedal theology; therefore, his “integral ecology” can reach at once a global public, of any religion or lack thereof, while most specifically targeting the Christian, and particularly Catholic, constituency that is answerable to him. But what makes all this matter, now, is that Laudato Si’ answers to the slowfast time of climate catastrophe.
The Roman Catholic tradition changes through time at, well, glacial speed. And now its icy stability has been brought to bear—with the cadenced processional of statements from Papal precedent never distracting from the ecosocial momentum of the argument—upon the immediacy of the crisis. Often it plays upon the dual temporality: in one paragraph. For instance, it “shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution.” And yet: “Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.” And so there is the need at once for a contemplative slow-down and an urgent acceleration.
Otherwise our actions will be dispersed in fragmented virtuous efforts that do not collect the momentum, that do not produce the collective movement, “the bold cultural revolution,” which alone can make the difference. And without that revolutionary collectivity, the urgency is dissipated through the smooth functioning of “the alliance between the economy and technology,” which “ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. Consequently, the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy, and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented.” This is relentlessly nuanced rhetoric, exposing the ruses, the green-washing, the dismissive realisms that slow climate awareness down to its current international failure.
And so we must “slow down and look a different way” if we are to see it, and to see through the high-speed distractions that are slowing down the needed change.
The pope is calling for a new sense of planetary consciousness, dependent upon his radical ecumenism—that is, his call to all human beings, in their endless diversities. It is not a matter of reducing the difference, which means ultimately indifference. It is about gathering differences into alliance. He puts it precisely: “We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family. There are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalization of indifference.”
Of course when a Pope calls down the metaphor of the family, we feminists run for the exits. Not without reason, as I will consider later. But in this millennium I have found that I must keep my own feminism—with its fast reactions—from sidelining the other major issues, particularly of global economics and its ethnic implications, that can now only be addressed in the context of climate change. Yes, then, to think ourselves as a species within the evolutionary tree of life means something very like recognizing our family resemblances. This is not a declaration that we are all “one,” nor that we might now embrace each other in a great family reunification. The family of our species remains not only endlessly variegated in its differences but fundamentally dysfunctional in its legacy of collective abuse, exploitation, patriarchy, racism, classism, etc. And no less, therefore, a family: but all the more disturbingly so. Yes, sinfully. There is no exit from our “common home.”
El Papa Francisco is calling for an immense reflective process in which we may think together in new ways and with multiple metaphors about this very togetherness. “Just as the different aspects of the planet—physical, chemical, and biological—are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network, which we will never fully explore and understand. A good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings. It follows that the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality.”
He has with brilliant precision implicated the method of a fragmentation of knowledge in the breaking apart of planetary life. The newness of the answer requires a slowfast thinking—not new at all for process thinkers, Whiteheadian or Teilhardian, for ecofeminists, or for followers of Saint Francis—of radical material interdependence, gathered into the “integral ecology.” Attention to the “cry of the poor and the cry of the earth” will prevent the vaporization of the vision into a merely abstract connectivity. And attention to its edges of unknowability—“which we will never fully explore and understand”—is not only a matter of rigorous scientific openness but of a mystical nonknowing. “We believe in the dimension of ‘not-knowing,’” wrote Ivone Gebara years ago, “that makes us humble and at the same time more combative in order to gain respect for differences and the possibility of building an interdependent society.”3 Ecofeminism would be a pale thing without this Roman Catholic sister.
Speaking of sisters, I am struck by the parallelism of the Pope’s call to slow down and think the connectivity of the common home with another voice of ecological prophecy. In her crucial new text This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein writes that “any attempt to rise to the climate challenge will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much larger . . . process of rebuilding and reinventing the very idea of the collective, the communal, the commons, the civil, and the civic after so many decades of attack and neglect.”4 She is an activist tuned to the “bad timing” of the slow surface and the alarming speed of climate change. And in her sense of urgency she remains clear that activism will fail without a shift of “worldview.” For capitalism in its global development has depended upon the defeat of the idea of the common. And the academic left, sadly, has colluded whenever it pits the notion of “difference” against the collective or “particularity” against the communal. What is needed is the recuperation of the collective as the dwelling place of difference. Interdependence means neither dependence nor independence but a complex family of divergent particulars.
Klein places her hope neither in a sovereign state nor in greener techno-economies, but in the new movement she calls Blockadia—unprecedented alliances forming recently of indigenous groups, local farmers, eco-activists, citizen groups. (It has been especially active in the Pacific Northwest and Australia in blocking the shipment of coal.) And she makes no references to religious movements against capitalism, like liberation theology, or to eco-theological alliances. Her voice is purely secular.5 So I find extraordinary the fact that her sense of hope in the face of inevitable climate disaster and mounting capitalist depredation anticipates the key papal move precisely. This can be briefly demonstrated: “The double jeopardy of social injustice and global warming should not discourage us. Climate change, with its rising flood waters—“could become a galvanizing force for humanity, leaving us all not just safer from extreme weather, but with societies that are safer and fairer in all kinds of other ways as well . . . It is a matter of collectively using “the crisis to leap somewhere that seems, frankly, better than where we are right now.”6 In other words—in the face of the one-two punch of capitalism and climate, the catastrophe itself can be the catalyst.
And hear the parallel answer of the Pope: “The same mindset which stands in the way of making radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming also stands in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty.” The economic enemy of the common home is unambiguous. It was interesting to watch powerful Catholic Republicans reacting to the encyclical, like Rick Santorum and Jeb Bush, who normally love church hierarchy, scramble to restrict papal authority to private faith, stripped of political and of scientific meaning. Just like secular humanism does.
Indeed I would consider the encyclical a rare reason for real hope: not just the hope that it proclaims for a cultural revolution, but the hope generated by the fact that this voice—with more moral authority than any other single voice on the planet—is channeling the double cry of the double jeopardy of the poor and of the earth. And so it amplifies the double possibility of a systemic alternative. This hope is not the same as optimism. The pope’s own hope is not optimistic: “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth.” As Bruno Latour, facing global warming, paraphrases Dante at the gates of hell: “Abandon hype all ye who enter here.”7
Does hope itself then double or does it divide when one considers the radical difference of its sources? A set of movements is forging new alliances for the sake of climate justice, from the bottom up. And on the other, simultaneously, there resounds the voice from the very top, from the top of the top—with angelic fanfare—right down to the misery and filth of the planet. But certainly top-down. And to most ears, theist or atheist, the gesture of a power from above that may descend, or condescend, to help us is just what one would expect from theology, Catholic or otherwise. In this context I can only whisper in such ears that process and feminist theologies have for half a century worked, often in tandem with biblical exegesis, to deconstruct from the deep within of faith itself the divinization of top-down power, its hierarchy, its patriarchy . . .
Oh dear. There is no way around a certain papal patriarchalism, is there. And it does run all the way up to its paternalist Heaven. At a certain point well into the encyclical, one encounters paragraph 75:
A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshipping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot. The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality.
This is that omnipotent Creator whom process theology has from His [sic] origins recognized as incoherent in the face of creaturely suffering. Why not the call, the lure of God, that sin ignores and betrays—rather than a coercive force that will surely step in and save the planet for us if it is in His Plan? This incoherence may only get compounded by the idealization of the patriarchy of ownership: God the Father as proprietor of the world. Of course, these properties are being lifted up, as they not infrequently are by well-meaning theologians, to take down the human delusions of grandeur, the arrogance and greed that funds every oppression and also drives climate change. Paragraph 75 reads to me as something added not just to reassure but to mobilize a constituency, perhaps the crucial constituency of this document, that is not yet on board with the earth and the poor—but might yet swing. It does make me wince, though, having read 74 paragraphs in almost uninterrupted companionability with el Papa.
This must be noted, then, before our feminism turns us icy: that paragraph is the worst of the theo-patriarchalism of the document, and it is itself embedded in a capacious eco-theological reflection that is astute in its biblical interpretation. It has taken on the problem of the Gen 1 “dominion” passage, beloved of every anti-environmentalist and climate denialist organization. He locates it within his larger theological analysis of the triune sin against our “three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself.”
The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15).
Here is an invaluable move, one that I missed despite having written a book focused mainly on Genesis 1! I always argue that in this text touting the divine delight in every creature (“God saw that it was good,” over and over) there is no way that you can read the “have dominion” as “have your way with it—use, use up, demean, ignore, destroy, and exterminate the species.” Dominion does not mean domination but responsibility. Not to mention that the culminating reward of the dominion is Gen 1:29f: you get to be vegans, like all the others who breathe! But Francis splendidly couples and several times repeats the linkage of “have dominion” with “till it and keep it” from Gen. 2, and clarifies that “keeping” “means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving.” He persists (at much greater length than the patriarchal paragraph is afforded) to lay out numerous ecological mandates of the biblical text.
Therefore, I certainly intend to teach this text to the very students to whom I am—at the same time—introducing the alternative metaphors of a God whose power is not classically omnipotent but lovingly omnipotential, requiring us to actualize it responsibly and creatively. A God Jesus addressed—a novelty then—as “Father,” a radicalization of intimate relation, whom we now for the same reason refer to as Love, Mother, Father-Mother, Poet of the Universe, Friend, the Enfolding, or just—mysterious Infinity beyond names and beyond knowing. The endless nameability and unnameability of the divine is as sister Elizabeth Johnson made dauntlessly clear key to the work of feminist theology.8 And it allows me to include citations of many ancient texts and some recent ones that use paternal language.
No, complicity. Indeed, a very protest/ant feminist complicity with this pope whose mission has defined itself as one great protest on behalf of the poor and the earth. Great, and not infallible. And in this case I admit to recognizing that even the bit of the encyclical I disagree with is needed: if he omitted it, or indeed if he spoke (in the tongues of angels) the language I long to hear, beyond paternity, possession, omnipotence, beyond the constrictions of women’s choices and callings, his encyclical would not have a chance of making the difference it might just make, not just preaching to the eco-choir, but to traditionally Roman Catholic populations.
We must not wait to agree on all our namings, not even on all our burning issues. There isn’t time. At stake is the future of livable life for us all. The whole dysfunctional family. And in the meantime the most vulnerable among us, often women, will be thrown by droughts and meltings and fires, collapsing coastlines and islands, agricultures and cultures, into rapidly intensifying jeopardy. Might we then all consider joining—in our acute differences—this com-plicity: folding-together in collective mindfulness of the complications of our wondrously fragile and complex earth system? It isn’t a matter of putting off our issues of gender and sex and race and ability, let alone class, but of colluding in the spirit of the grassroots movements and their dynamic entanglements. Then we can keep talking, arguing, contesting particular priorities—amidst difference there are always shifting deferrals—without delaying commitment to earth-keeping. As Klein puts it, “the environmental crisis—if conceived sufficiently broadly—neither trumps nor distracts from our pressing political and economic causes: it supercharges each one of them with existential urgency.”9
Under planetary pressure, and with a little help from the Pope, we just may form an alliance in the name of the universe and its source. In their complication they extend endlessly beyond our comprehension—but they give us timely clues. And in the fastslow temporalities of this encyclical, appealing to old texts and to possible futures, the movement down from above forms a vortex with the movements interlinking us and all our social contexts from below. Catastrophe, etymologically, comes from kata-strophe, a “turning down.” Might we let the catastrophe we face turn us down, not in a great terminal meltdown, but in a turning down to earth? Where we already are, earthlings dwelling in the context of all our contexts. Then catastrophe becomes catalyst for the cultural revolution we need.
Early in the encyclical, after just two paragraphs, the human gets a magisterial clue as to our widest context. It comes with a single italicized sentence: “Nothing in this world is indifferent to us.” This is neither traditional Catholic teaching nor natural science. It sounds more like process thought or the new materialism, with a vibrant materiality composed of responsive interdependencies that entangle any observer and anything observed. But not indifferent?
Really, what do the glaciers as they melt care for us, or indeed the ancient strata of the stony earth upon which they reside? Right, they don’t care, they don’t have conscious concern. And neither do most of us, for almost all the rest of us, most of the time. We are too vastly limited to care for the rest, except—on principle. And in faith. But this need not render us indifferent to any.
In particular moments the vibrant interplay of our differences shines through—a stranger’s grin, an owl’s glare, a glacier’s sparkle. And then we recognize difference as the precise opposite of indifference. Difference does not separate but relates. If indifference occludes difference itself—it is because the world is wrought of entangled differences. And these differences matter—in their interdependencies across every stratum of geology, chemistry, biology. Indifference is the opposite of difference. It conveys a world of separables and exploitables and expendables, blind and wasteful of the ways, willy nilly, we recycle each other endlessly. But there is no room for “the globalization of indifference” in this house of many mansions, this complex homeostatic system, Gaia, sister-mother, our body of bodies, this momentously encycled earth-home.
Christopher White, The Melting World: A Journey Across America’s VanishingGlaciers. (New York: St. Martin’s Press), 2013.↩
Catherine Keller, Apocalypse Now and Then: a Feminist Guide to the End of the World (Boston: Beacon), 1996; cf my update of apocalyptic theopolitics in God and Power: Counter-Apocalyptic Journeys (Minneapolis: Augsburg-Fortress), 2005.↩
Ivone Gebara, Out of the Depths: Women’s Experience of Evil and Salvation (Minneapolis: Augsburg-Fortress, 2002), 132. For an exploration of the tradition of mystical unsaying (the apophatic or “negative theology”) with reference to ecopolitics, see my Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement (New York: Columbia U. Press) 2015.↩
Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014) 460.↩
See Naomi Klein’s response to the Encyclical, New Yorker July 11, 2015, which concludes: “The most powerful example of this capacity for change may well be Pope Francis’s Vatican. And it is a model not for the Church alone. Because if one of the oldest and most tradition-bound institutions in the world can change its teachings and practices as radically, and as rapidly, as Francis is attempting, then surely all kinds of newer and more elastic institutions can change as well.
And if that happens—if transformation is as contagious as it seems to be here—well, we might just stand a chance of tackling climate change.”↩
Klein, This Changes, 7.↩
Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Six lectures on the political theology of nature. Being the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion, Edinburgh, 18th-28th of February 2013.https://docs.google.com/file/d/0BxeTjgod3jSSSXZHTU9Yb3FlYms/edit↩
Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Discourse (Crossroads: 2002).↩