Theology in the Capitalocene | Joerg Rieger

Theology in the Capitalocene

The following is an excerpt from Theology in the Capitalocene by Joerg Rieger. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.

The Intersections of Theology
In times of rising pressures and catastrophe, people yearn for alternatives. So does the planet. Protests are often a start, bubbling up from growing unease and discomfort with what is. But the success of protests depends on being able to make oneself heard and on political, economic, cultural, or religious power. And without the parallel production of political, economic, cultural, and religious alternatives, even protests tend to get stuck in the imagination of the dominant systems, often without knowing it. Rebellion is not revolution, nor does it always lead to transformation.

This book is dedicated to a closer look at what causes unease and discomfort in our time, leading to the growing destruction and death of people and the planet. Only when the causes are addressed in depth can real alternatives be developed, which is the goal of this text. But for alternatives to be real and measure up to the size of the challenge, all hands need to be on deck. This is the reason why I keep coming back to the touchy topic of solidarity—which is the biggest nightmare of the dominant systems—and why this work can only be done at the seemingly impossible intersections of everything. This is the location of theology in the Capitalocene—the geological age when the maximization of economic profit has made it to the center stage not only in the United States but all over the globe and dominates whatever other ages have been proclaimed, including the Anthropocene and what one scholar has called the “Chthulucene.” Theology in the Capitalocene starts with an account of the dominant powers in order to identify alternatives, and it needs to be both local and global and always international, incorporating the intersections of human and nonhuman developments.

For some time now, political and public theologies have gained currency. These developments are significant, as everything is ultimately political and public, even that which at first sight seems personal and private. The personal is political, as feminist thinkers have reminded us, and we should add that the political is also personal. At the same time, politics may well be playing sandbox games or rearranging the chairs on the Titanic without economic analysis, if it is true that we find ourselves not in the geological age of the Anthropocene, when humanity as a whole asserts its power over everything, but in the age of the Capitalocene, when the economic interests of a small and privileged group of humans rule both people and the planet. The study of theology and religion can be helpful here, since both politics and economics at times resemble religions that worship the status quo. In other words, there are connections among politics, economics, and religion that must be accounted for by theology in the Capitalocene. Theology can no longer limit itself to the religious, but neither can it limit itself to religion and politics without considering the economic flows of power in a global context.

The classic triad of gender, race, and class marks the place where all hands on deck are needed in theological efforts in the Capitalocene. Today, this triad must be broadened to include concerns along the lines of ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, and ecology. The horizon is determined not primarily by individual experiences and identities but by global structures of exploitation, extraction, and oppression. In order to produce real alternatives, all of these elements need to be made to work together in complex interactions—simply adding them up will not do, as multifaceted power is messy. Without solidarities that match this complexity and messiness, the best we can hope for is individual forms of inclusion into the dominant system and some recognition of diversity, which may be preferable to exclusion and forced homogeneity but will hardly lead to systemic change and liberation.

The good, and perhaps somewhat surprising, news is that places exist where all hands are already on deck, even if only by default—for instance, in places where the global 99 percent have to work for a living. This is why theology in the Capitalocene needs to engage questions of work and productive and reproductive labor (including their limits, lack, and liberation)—topics that theologians at present rarely address. Almost everything (including matters of identity and class) comes together in places of work, whether these places are formal, informal, or currently invisible. All hands are currently on deck, especially in those parts of the workforce branded as “essential” in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. And while the working class in the United States was never merely white men in blue overalls or hard hats, today this working class is among the most diverse and international in the world. Women; racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities; Indigenous people; and generations of immigrants all find themselves working together in efforts of production and reproduction. Unemployed, underemployed, casually employed, and no-longer-employed people are also part of this working class as well, as we shall see in chapter This diversity is increasingly reflected in the makeup of labor unions as well.3 Unfortunately, religious communities and even political endeavors often still lag behind, even though things are beginning to change there as well. And while places of work and labor are designed to employ diversity in the production and reproduction of the dominant status quo, they are also some of the most significant places for inspiration for resistance and the production of alternative power to emerge.
All “hands” are on deck, finally, also when it comes to the nonhuman environment, even though here the metaphor breaks down. Theology in the Capitalocene needs to take into account that collaboration is real in the incredible diversity of the nonhuman world and its productive dynamics, which humans are still discovering. This collaboration is under attack by capitalist exploitation and extraction, which is causing unprecedented loss of nonhuman agency and biodiversity and affects even those parts of the natural world that humans have not yet explored, like organisms in the depths of the oceans or the recesses of the human body. The most adventurous capitalists are already preparing for the exploitation of the cosmos and the extraction of its resources, beyond planet Earth, symbolic of the realities at the heart of the Capitalocene. But in the nonhuman world, too, resistance emerges, as we will see.

The circle closes when it becomes clear that the exploitation and extraction of planetary resources parallel the exploitation and extraction of human labor. For good or for ill, human productive and reproductive labor and nonhuman reproductive labor are more closely related than many realize (Karl Marx, using the outdated binary language of his time, talked about nature as the mother and labor as the father of wealth; see chapter 1). And no life would exist without reproductive labor in the broadest sense—this is truly a matter of life and death, being and nonbeing, tied to the deepest theological themes as well as the cores of politics and economics. This is why, at the very core of the argument of this book, productive and reproductive labor will be discussed in terms of Paul Tillich’s notion of the “ultimate concern” and Friedrich Schleiermacher’s concept of “absolute dependence” in chapter 3.

What is still mostly unexplored is how the labor of nonhuman nature—all of it—is contributing to the alternatives and the transformation we are looking for. Theology in the Capitalocene needs to engage these matters, and some work is already being done on this topic (see chapter 2), although this book can only scratch the surface of this question.

In any case, what does not work—now or ever—is individualism. Contrary to common belief, individualism is an illusion that is simply not an option in a world that is as interconnected as ours. The myths of individualism and of individual solutions amount to cover-ups of existing relationships, and even protests of individualism often make things worse if they assume that individualism is a real option. To give some examples, the carbon-footprint calculators that many well-meaning people use were invented by British Petroleum (BP) to cover up its role in climate change, which is why the fossil fuel industry continues to promote them. Another example is the notion that hard work makes billionaires, as it covers up the fact that large fortunes can only be built with the help and on the back of others. Contrary to the fantasy of the American Dream, billionaires are not models of rugged individualism but the product of myriads of connections that are forged to work in their favor. The same could be said of collectives that appear to be acting like individuals, like tight-knit religious communities or certain identity groups: no one and no group is ever self-made, all are always shaped by larger relationships (for good and for ill), and no substantial transformation of anything can happen without acknowledging the fact that individualism is the myth of the powerful and privileged rather than the reality. As a result, any real solution, whether economic, political, or religious, will need to engage structural relationships at every level and take into account the flows of power.

The Work of Theology
For a long time, theology seemed most at home in the proverbial ivory towers of the academy, where its influence once used to be considerable. Whenever theology ventured outside of the academy, it often linked up with another set of ivory towers, symbolized by church steeples. There, too, it used to have some influence. As both the academy and the church made efforts to escape from their respective ivory towers—often by making common cause with business ventures, corporations, and politics—theology has tried to join, lagging behind in many cases. But rebellion against ivory towers is not revolution, even if it is directed against traditional Eurocentric (or Americentric) ideals. Nor does this kind of rebellion necessarily lead to transformation.

Contrary to common belief, none of these ivory towers ever existed in isolation in the first place. Actual and metaphoric academic and ecclesial ivory towers were built at great expense, meaning that they were at no time removed from economics and politics. Over time, the maintenance of these ivory towers requires substantial efforts; it seems that increased support is needed the older and more established they get. Questions like who funds and has an interest in maintaining these institutions and who pays for the salaries of construction workers, architects, and janitors, who build and maintain actual towers, and professors, pastors, and administrators, who maintain their metaphorical equivalents, provide some insights. Questions of funding and interest allow for a peek not only into political and economic dynamics but also into the intellectual and theological issues negotiated in academy and church.

This short reflection on ivory towers matches Antonio Gramsci’s notion of “traditional intellectuals.” These intellectuals mistakenly assumed that they were doing their academic work in autonomous and independent fashion—as if in ivory towers—and categorically ignored questions of how their work might be related to economics, politics, and power. By ignoring these questions, the academic work of traditional intellectuals unintentionally supported the economic and political power structures of their time and propped up the dominant status quo. While Gramsci was talking about the intellectuals of his time, including Roman Catholic theologians and clergy, it seems that something like this has been going on ever since aloof intellectuals first emerged in universities and the church, and it continues today.

Aware of these problems, theology in the Capitalocene can benefit from taking a leaf from Gramsci’s notion of the organic intellectual, which he developed in contrast to his critique of traditional intellectuals. At first sight, it may look like what is now called contextual theology has embraced the ethos of Gramsci’s notion of organic intellectuals, but important aspects of the conversation are often still missing. Even though contextual theologies remedy the neglect of context that marked the work of Gramsci’s traditional intellectuals, they are often developed as if they addressed matters of special interest. This is reflected, for instance, in certain debates about cultural appropriation, which are conducted as if context were a matter of ownership so that male theologians should not present the insights of female theologians, white theologians should not present the insights of Black theologians, and so on. To be sure, cultural appropriation can be problematic and part of a colonizing mindset when presenting the insights of others without awareness of existing relationships (traditional and way-too-narrow definitions of male and female as well as Black and white, for instance, are never independent of each other) and when differentials of power are ignored. But thinking about contexts along the lines of property ownership can prevent cross-fertilization, constructive engagement, and transformation.

For Gramsci, the concept of the organic intellectual was based on a recognition of hegemony and class and on the need for taking sides with the many—a rather diverse group in his native Italy—rather than the few. Building on this insight, organic theologians deal with matters of context not primarily in terms of the uniqueness of individual contexts but in terms of a hegemonic relationship of contexts, permeated by the flow of power. For organic theologians, the question of context, therefore, is not about “lifting up” specific minority contexts (for instance, with the intent of including them into the dominant system), nor is it about volunteering their time “for any enterprise (even the most bizarre) which is vaguely subversive.”

Rather, the question of context is about locating hegemony and power differentials with an eye toward liberation. Organic theologians engage context with an awareness of where the conflicts are and where they themselves are located in relation to the dominant powers, realizing that they are rarely benefiting as much from these powers as they are led to believe. This is why class analysis is so crucial, in conjunction with analyses of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, nationality, and so on. Based on this analysis, organic theologians take sides and operate in solidarity because they know that power differentials are never random but tend to work in concert to serve the exploitation of the many by the few. Organic theologians know that the various power differentials can only be overcome when the many pull together in order to counter the efforts of the few who rule supreme, and they are not afraid to ask questions about the location of the divine in all of this.

To be sure, organic theologians today may find themselves in even more complex situations than the organic intellectuals of Gramsci’s time, and solidarity has become a more complex challenge as well. As a result, solidarity along the lines of the hegemony of class needs to be informed and shaped by solidarity along the lines of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, nationality, and so on. Nevertheless, Gramsci’s original sense that class in its broadest and most diverse sense—including the so-called subaltern11—is part of what guides organic intellectuals is still informative today because neoliberal capitalism never rests and benefits disproportionally from interlocking oppressions on a global scale. This approach is especially relevant for theologians working in the Abrahamic faiths, whose most ancient traditions identify a God who changes the course of history by taking the sides of and standing in solidarity with exploited Hebrew slaves in Egypt (presented in the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and the working majorities of Palestine, the Middle East, and ultimately the whole world. Although this is a complex history with many ups and downs, it is a history of alternative powers at work and of transformation.

No doubt, the various ethnic, racial, gendered, sexual, tribal, and national identities of these working majorities were always part of their struggles for liberation, but no struggle can ever be limited to matters of identity alone. The Hebrew slaves, for instance, were both Hebrew and slaves, and gender was part of the struggle as well from the very beginning (recall the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah, Moses’s sister Miriam, Pharaoh’s nameless daughter who adopts Moses in the Jewish and Christian traditions, and Pharaoh’s wife, Asiya, who in the traditions of Islam saves Moses and accepts his faith). Ultimately, organic intellectuals in the Capitalocene need to ask the question “What are we up against?” and provide answers that take into account the flow of money and capital, which translates not only into economic power but also into political, cultural, and religious power, examining where alternatives are emerging in order to join the struggle there. In the process, identities are shaped and reshaped in touch with divine identities that may be open ended, as already the earliest Abrahamic traditions would find out (Exod 3:14), but stand united in resisting oppression and overcoming exploitation everywhere (Exod 3:15–17).

Nothing less is the task of theology in the Capitalocene if it is to transcend the dominant status quo as well as cheap grace (Dietrich Bonhoeffer) and what we might call cheap sin—theological concepts of sin and destruction that are not substantial enough so that engaging them does not lead to liberation. The organic work of movement and community organizing that is linked to all of this is no longer just the work of activists but one of the most genuine expressions of the faith of religious communities and therefore key to the work of theology in the Capitalocene.

Praise for Theology in the Capitalocene

“This book offers a needed political and public theology to counter the ecological devastation we urgently face. Yet, Rieger reminds us that with-out an intersectional analysis of ecological issues, we are lost. Rethinking the work of theology for the planet’s sustainability and flourishing is this book’s great achievement.”
Keri Day, Princeton Theological Seminar

“Joerg Rieger has long and persuasively brought theology to bear upon the power of class. Now he binds his challenge to global capitalism with the full-bodied complexity of gender, sex, and race. And most importantly, he embeds this transnational intersectionalism in the precarious vibrancy of the earth. What can be more important—for all of us working earthlings—than his eco-social theology of deep solidarity?”
Catherine Keller, George T. Cobb Professor of Constructive Theology, Drew University Theological School

“Rieger provides trenchant analysis of the stark power differentials inherent in neoliberal capitalism that enable a few to maximize profit at terrible expense to the many and to Earth’s ecosystems. In response he calls for a ‘deep solidarity’ based on the labor and collective agency of working-class people. Of t ous value are his insistence that privilege does not always equal power, his locating the roots of climate change in the structures of capitalism as a way of life, and his honest inquiry into the roles of theology in either maintaining or undermining oppressive power. This text deftly weaves stark critique together with pragmatic and visionary possibility.”
Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, professor of theological and social ethics, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary of California Lutheran University, and Church Divinity School of the Pacific; director, PLTS Center for Climate Justice and Faith; core doctoral faculty, Graduate Theological Union

“Theology in the Capitalocene is an extraordinary proposal for deep solidarities beyond reductionism. Drawing from a true diversity of voices from disenfranchised communities, Joerg Rieger superbly connects the study of economics, religion, and ecology, effectively unmasking and breaking universalized ideological hegemonies. By doing so he opens novel paths for confronting both capitalist catastrophes and capitalist narratives of catastrophes in the twenty-first century. This is a must-read for anyone interested in political theologies, liberation practices, radical social movements, race and religion, and the most current social and political theories.”
Santiago Slabodsky, the Robert and Florence Kaufman Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies, and associate professor of religion, Hofstra University

“This book is a powerful and persuasive theology of catastrophe and solidarity that yields a genuine and mature hope in the face of a commodified globe and racialized capitalism. Joerg Rieger is keeping alive a great prophetic tradition!”
Cornel West, Union Theological Seminary

“Rieger offers a generative exploration of deep solidarity that ‘deploys diversity rather than uniformity’ and ‘brings together the many to stand up for themselves.’ Consistently dissatisfied with simplistic framings, he centers labor and class relationships, their significance for Christian theology, and how they matter for rethinking intersectionally about planetary thriving.”
Traci C. West, author of Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality: Africana Lessons on Racism, Religion, and Ending Gender Violence

About the Author

Joerg Rieger

Joerg Rieger is distinguished professor of theology, Cal Turner Chancellor’s Chair of Wesleyan Studies, and director of the Wendland-Cook Program in Religion and Justice at Vanderbilt University. His books include Jesus vs. Caesar: For People Tired of Serving the Wrong God (2018), No Religion but Social Religion: Liberating Wesleyan Theology (2018), Unified We Are a Force: How Faith and Labor Can Overcome America’s Inequalities (2016), and No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics, and the Future (2009).

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