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  • Intercarnations: Exercises in Theological Possibility by Catherine Keller
Intercarnations: Exercises in Theological Possibility. Catherine Keller. New York: Fordham University Press, 2017. 256 pp. $30 paperback.

Though Catherine Keller frequently publishes essays, and many of her book chapters have had their beginnings in journal articles, most of the material she is known for has been delivered in the form of tightly organized, if somewhat chaophilic, monographs. What makes Keller's latest offering, Intercarnations, distinctive is that it is a collection of recent stand-alone pieces, some of which carry her ideas and her deterritorializing style into new territories. There is no tight organization here, only resonances across various interventions and themes. Nor does Keller suggest a preferred order for reading. Like the rhizomatic entanglement suggested by her title, the text is a series and not an order.

A recurring theme of the book is, as the title also suggests, a re-reading of the idea of incarnation—not to "recuperate" a classical Christian dogma but to "redistribute" it (1). That is, Keller seeks to free the idea of incarnation from a single instantiation that is enshrined in an allegedly nonnegotiable tradition. A divine that is "all in all," she reasons, must be "pan-incarnate," present in a "promiscuous" and indiscriminate way in and through the bodies of all creatures. Echoing earlier radical theologies, Keller links this pan-incarnation to the death of God, but she argues that it suggests a reality that is more interesting than the end of religions of transcendence. Instead, pan-incarnation offers the prospect of a reincorporation of religion within a much more complicated (post-) secularity—a more vital entanglement with a more variegated world. Instead of a death of God, that is, pan-incarnation produces a new kind of divine liveliness as the divine is distributed away from towering exceptions and into the multiple.

Throughout, Intercarnations develops explicitly political articulations of Keller's work, moving well past the frequent jabs directed at religious and political fundamentalisms one finds in much of her writing. This especially is true of "Toward a Political Theology of the Earth," which seeks to translate her stress on multiplicity and entanglement into an urgent political practice in the face of globalization, neoliberal capitalism, and environmental destruction. The argument begins with a reference to Bruno Latour's Gifford Lectures, where he invokes and redeploys the concept of the earth as Gaia. Latour prefers Gaia to the concept of nature, because the latter carries with it the idea of a domain that is rigorously separate from humanity, and that completely lacks agency. Keller draws on Latour's notion of the earth as agent that actively participates in political struggle, asking whether the earth, then, can have enemies. Here she engages Carl Schmitt, but finally refuses his "friend-enemy" conception of the [End Page 82] political in the name of an open-ended, democratic politics in which alliances are possible (and required) across a broad range of experience and interest, including even partnership with the earth itself. Not surprisingly, she turns, in the end, to Whitehead (and to interpreters William Connolly and Paulina Ochoa Espejo) to suggest that what we need is a concept of the "people as process," so that we may envision the kind of participatory and open-ended politics required for survival in the face of global climate change (190).

Keller develops further political implications of her relational ontology with "The Queer Multiplicity of Becoming." Here, Keller is at her deconstructive best, offering withering critiques of the notion of the sovereign exception as it is embodied in the idea of an utterly transcendent God, an exceptional empire, an imperial Christianity, an exempt humanity, a privileged male gender, a heteronormative sexuality—and, most interestingly, perhaps, an eschatological "chrononormativity" that tries to territorialize all time in terms of a "straight" line from past to future. The alternative, she argues, is a "queer space-time" that does not seek to constrain and conquer by encompassing all in a master narrative, but which rather allows multiple times to become entangled with each other, undermining the would-be dominance of any. This queer temporarily, she suggests, is one component of a cosmic democracy that is lured though not controlled by an unfinished God. Once again, the politics that emerges is one that is anti-imperialist, participatory, and democratic.

Limitations of space prohibit treating the rest of Keller's essays separately, but they may be loosely grouped into two series: one addressing postcolonialism and the other returning to feminist theology. One essay in the former series deserves special attention. "The Cosmopolitan Body of Christ" develops six theses for an alter-cosmopolitanism (my word) that resists the white-washing, colonizing, androcentric "universalism" of modern capitalist globalization. The importance of this essay in rounding out Keller's series of political interventions is that it deploys a critique of anthropocentrism in the service of a liberative global ethic. A universal ethic that respects diversity, she argues, must come to terms of the material conditions of our existence, including our circumscribed place in a fragile ecology that we ignore at our peril. Interestingly, Keller praises Marx for his claim that "man lives from nature, i.e., nature is his body, and he must remain in a continuous process with it if he is not to die" (168), but she then suggests that Marxism is unable to develop the full implications of this insight because of its attachment to Newtonian physics. Keller argues that, to radicalize Marx's point in a way that does justice to the entanglement of humanity with its environment, we need a more dynamic conception of bodies. A Whiteheadian physics, we learn, provides the grounding for a more adequate account of materiality—one that fully appreciates the entanglement of bodies [End Page 83] and destinies but also the inherent value of each "becoming" in what we habitually (and inadequately) describe as "nature" and "history."

Each of the essays included in the volume (and not just the three I have focused on) is a delight to read, and together they amount to an important addition to Keller's work. Her attempt to develop a politics of relation and multiplicity is especially important, and the critique of imperial theology that it generates is needed as much today as ever. However, readers of Keller will observe that her arguments throughout the essays follow a familiar itinerary: toward inclusion and diversity as the fundamental reality with which we have to do and as the apogee of a contemporary social hope. The result is the expected liberal politics that, at its worst, short-circuits antagonism and conflict in favor of participation and mutuality. Readers who are looking for a radical politics to go with Keller's radical, anti-imperialist theology will not find it here.

One wonders what it would be like, for example, to take Latour's insights in a different direction, away from what Graham Harman has called Latour's "overmining" of objects, or seeing them as exemplifications of something "deeper" such as "process"? That is, what would a political theology of the earth look like if one were to insist that the earth is an object among other objects and not an encompassing whole (a "Gaia")? What if we think of the earth as a "one" amid an uncountable multitude sharing the same space—a whole that is not "more than its parts" (to cite an old cliché that is consonant with relational ontologies) but rather less? Such a deflationary view renders an earth that might well be in a position of antagonism toward capitalist overproduction and commodification—and indeed toward the human species. A political theology of the earth that construes the earth as agent might then be able to think the earth as judge, or as nemesis. Since her first major book, Keller has sought to show that human brokenness (traditionally, sin) is a result of embracing myths of separation and exclusion, and in the present volume she admits that the result of anthropocentrism is "anthropocide" (171). But missing is the agency of the earth, the force of materiality that reacts back against our ceaseless overproduction and consumption. She writes that we need to forsake mistaken notions of being saved "from" the cosmos and to embrace the aim of being saved "with" it, as part of a wider "genesis collective" (173). But there are rifts in the collective, and being saved might also require doing some damning. The earth, I would add, is already poised to do some of that.

Keller's political instincts are liberative, but her metaphysical relationism, by "promiscuously" including all in a nexus of mutual influence, risks underestimating the ferocity with which the ruling classes struggle to maintain their supremacy, and therefore it may misjudge the requirements of an emancipatory politics. At the level of theology, the problem might be described as the [End Page 84] difficulty of getting rid of a theism of the exception within the framework of a relational ontology. The problem is that the whole as such can function as the exception, and so the very thing that might create liberation—life-and-death struggle—is ruled out, or drowned out by the overwhelming force of normative relationality: we're all in this together, after all.

But, what if we're not?

Thomas A. James
Union Presbyterian Seminary

Additional Information

ISSN
2156-4795
Print ISSN
0194-3448
Pages
82-85
Launched on MUSE
2019-06-06
Open Access
No
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