Reactions to Laudato Si': Laudato Si and the Art of Unknowing

Reactions to Laudato Si'

“[T]he Pope is arguing that in light of this context we all need to practice “failure”: or that which disrupts the “business as usual” notion of progress as solely economic and technological. I’m not suggesting this Pope is queer-friendly (or even feminist-friendly), but I am suggesting that the deeply Catholic understandings of the “common good” and “social teachings” are, in the face of the productionist paradigm, queer.” — Whitney Bauman

This week, rather than focusing on one featured book, we will be posting reactions to Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, commonly referred to as Laudato Si’, from scholars in a variety of fields: scientists H. H. Shugart and James Lawrence Powell, economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, and religion scholar Whitney Bauman. In today’s post, Whitney Bauman does a close reading of the Encyclical and comes to some surprising conclusions about the Pope’s message.

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Laudato Si and the Art of Unknowing
By Whitney A. Bauman

There is much to be commended in the Pope’s recent Encyclical on “the environment.” He clearly did his doctrinal, historical and philosophical homework on issues of human-earth relations. There is much one would expect to find in the document: such as the use of St. Francis in the title, couching of creation-care in terms of “the common good” and the prominence of catholic social teaching. There are also some surprises—such as his knowledge of the history of the environmental movement and his use of Integral Ecology which understands nature and culture as already and always together. At times it reads like a traditional Papal document while at others it reads more like something that Bruno Latour or leaders of the New Materialism might have written. In this brief piece, I want to focus on two points that I find most poignant in the Encyclical: the critique of modern technological society and the call for a more robust dialogue between religion and science. Both of these points participate in what Judith/Jack Halberstam calls “The Queer Art of Failure” or what Catherine Keller might call “the Art of Unknowing.”

In The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam writes: “Under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world” (Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure). The creativity of abject identities, of those who have failed to live up to the norms of hetero-normative, anthropocentric capitalism, is indeed the source of creativity for seeking a different planetary future. In other words, failing is precisely what we need in this day and age if we are to find our way forward through the problems brought about by globalization and climate weirding. Pope Francis identifies this problem as well in his critique of modernity found in the Encyclical. He writes (and here I quote at length):

§107. It can be said that many problems of today’s world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society. The effects of imposing this model on reality as a whole, human and social, are seen in the deterioration of the environment, but this is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life. We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.

What the Pope is critiquing then is the current “productionist paradigm” which is being exported through western dominated globalization (Paul B. Thompson, The Spirit of the Soul). The current measure for individual success and for the “development” of other countries is literally leading to a world in which many of our lives are so sped up and removed from eco-social consequences that we are outstripping the carrying capacity of the planet (Teresa Brennan, Globalization and Its Terrors: Daily Life in the West). Some prefer to name this the anthropocene but I’d rather call it the fossil-fueled capitalocene (I discuss at length my reasons for this in the article: Whitney Bauman, “Climate Weirding and Queering Nature: Getting Beyond the Anthropocene” in “Religion and Ecology in the Anthropocene,” Religions, 6 (2015): 742-754). On the one hand, not all humans are equally guilty but on the other human begins do not hold all agency for solving the worlds problems. The world, after all, is not dead matter—as the Pope readily argues in his encyclical.

In a word, the Pope is arguing that in light of this context we all need to practice “failure”: or that which disrupts the “business as usual” notion of progress as solely economic and technological. I’m not suggesting this Pope is queer-friendly (or even feminist-friendly), but I am suggesting that the deeply Catholic understandings of the “common good” and “social teachings” are, in the face of the productionist paradigm, queer. To further add to this failure, he then argues for a type of unknowing, or epistemic humility in the relationship between religion and science.

Again, he writes:

§199. It cannot be maintained that empirical science provides a complete explanation of life, the interplay of all creatures and the whole of reality. This would be to breach the limits imposed by its own methodology. If we reason only within the confines of the latter, little room would be left for aesthetic sensibility, poetry, or even reason’s ability to grasp the ultimate meaning and purpose of things.

The suggestion that values and religious ideas ought to be taken as serious as science may make some climate scientists and fundamental atheists of the Dawkins stripe cringe. But this statement stands firm when one considers that we have had the science and technology to deal with ecological problems for years, yet these problems just keep getting worse. The position the Pope argues for in the Encyclical exemplified in the above passage is one that depends heavily on the apophatic and negative traditions within theology in at least two ways.

First, he is doing much in this Encyclical to undo the seemingly solid and separate terrains of scientific and religious ways of knowing. Many have argued that a large portion of the blame for our eco-crises lies at the feet of religions which promote forms of human exceptionalism, if not domination (This is the infamous “Lynn White” Argument: “The historical roots of our ecological crisis” in Science 155:3767 (1967):1203–1207). While this is partially true, it does not mean that science and technology do not suffer from the same pitfalls. They were, after all, reared in the monotheistic cultures that they want to claim complete separation from. The notion of a single good creation easily morphs into the notion of a nature based upon universal natural laws; the notion of humans as having dominion over or being “special” easily morphs into the idea that all non-human life can be manipulated via science and technology; and the notion that we will be saved from the cycles of predator/prey, life/death, morphs easily into the idea that science and technologies will save us and help us to forget we too are creatures. In the end, science and religion may have different methods for approaching the world and one may produce more persuasive results (here and now), but they are both human adventures and they are historically always already tied to one another.

Second, and related, he is asking for epistemic humility in current dialogues between multiple parties as we search for possibilities for future becoming. There is no extant form of human thinking that was created during a time in which we are dealing with global climate change and the “acceleration” caused by globalization (Brennan, Globalization and Its Terrors). To claim that we might be able to know the answers means that we are projecting the past onto the future. Rather than participate in this form of colonizing, we might enter into a space of unknowning, which allows for multiple voices to be heard, and thus unthinkable possibilities for future becoming to emerge. I’ll end here with a quote from Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible, “the unspoken and the unknown tilt from the hierarchical verticality of the Neoplatonic being beyond being, toward the horizon of our collective convulsions.” May “Laudato Si” be yet another in a long call for us to convulse together.

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