Faculty Profile: Catherine Keller
When did you start at Drew and where were you before that?
I started at Drew way back in the last millennium! Zooming in, I arrived at Drew in 1986. Before that I had taught for three years Xavier University, a Jesuit school in Cincinnati (as the first Protestant, although not the first feminist, in their Religion Department).
The Theological School in which you find yourself today is not the same Theological School that you entered in 1986. How has the Theo School in general, and its Ph.D. program in particular, changed in the interim?
The Theological School in my—oh dear!—nearly 30 years here has always been itself, and always been evolving. I’ve never had a yearning to move, because Drew is itself always on the move. And if you take the biblical prophetic and wisdom impulses seriously, the direction of the move has been salutary. The most evident—really visible!—changes have been in the creation of a rich and evolving diversity of faculty and student body. We are not alone in this, but ahead and strong in our avowal of a more democratically vibrant multiplicity, a gender-sexuality-race-culture multiplicity. Fortunately, we have always known that no calculative inclusiveness will assure the sort of just and visionary community we hope to foster—among ourselves, our churches, our worlds. And we have not been naive as to the complexities, contradictions, and intersections an exemplary multiplicity demands. At this moment, in particular, it is challenging to internalize “Black lives matter” in a way that really matters—to the world, and not just to our own sense of faculty virtue or harmony. And we can only do this with integrity if we realize how race is implicated in all our other burning issues; and how all of them now come entangled in the looming catastrophe of climate change.
So let me also mention that Drew has during this time also begun to come into its own as a leader in ecological work in theology and religion more generally. We are ahead of most seminaries in this awareness, but—I hope—yet able to do much more. The pernicious effects of unregulated global capitalism on the poor of the planet and on the planet itself require our serious attention now. This does not trump other issues but, as Naomi Klein puts it, “intensifies them.” Churches across a wide spectrum of theologies, from evangelical to unitarian, are readying themselves to become leaders locally, nationally, and internationally. The Muslim world has just issued a climate statement, following upon this summer’s great papal encyclical. I am eager to see Drew exercise a new level of influence among religious and academic populations.
As to the particular role of the GDR in advancing a religiously cogent and politically effectual sense of our human and nonhuman interdependence: the work of all our areas and of our students former and present gives testimony. There is in the doctoral programs here—if you compare us to others—a stunning level of creativity mingled with social responsibility, of experimental thinking that attends at once to the rigors of a discipline and to the possibilities that conventional specialization in the Western university has normally suppressed. There is also, I think, a quite distinctive level of attention to the unique voices of our students that, in our better moments, gives us great satisfaction. In our grumpier, overworked moments, we can still take pride in the work of the GDR and its antecedent programs, running back over half a century. And the continuity bears more reflection than we normally give it: the great hermeneutics seminars of Drew in the 1960s expressed the cutting edge of theological and, indeed, philosophical thought in the United States then, and in some ways the world. Such notions as “theopoetics” were invented here. Conversations between leading Barthians and leading death-of-God theologians were normal. Perhaps it is not so much a continuity, though, as a spiral, in which we occasionally dip back—more or less consciously—into the sophic and the prophetic currents that carry us along.
What, for you, have been some of the most rewarding aspects of mentoring doctoral students?
Of course it is a great privilege to be able to mentor the junior scholars who are our doctoral students. Without them I could never have done my thinking and my writing. They have long been, actually and symbolically, the main audience for my major books.
What have been your favorite doctoral seminars to teach?
I rarely teach the same doctoral seminar twice. But I have loved teaching seminars mingling theory—poststructuralist and process—with theological themes, such as the ecology of creation, or the saying and the unsaying of God.
What is your main research project at present?
As I recently finished a major project, Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement (Columbia University Press, 2015), I have been content to defer another really major one until, and unless, one insists itself upon me. In the meantime I have been lecturing quite a bit on climate change vis-à-vis our entangled diversity and in relation to political theology; perhaps a small book will emerge from these on my research leave this coming spring. And I’m trying to put together a book of my essays (of recent years) tentatively titled Intercarnations: On the Possibility of Theology. And perhaps another book of my Whiteheadian essays.
What additional resources does the GDR currently need to enable our students to thrive in our programs and be optimally prepared for obtaining rewarding careers afterwards?
Well, of course, first of all we need decent financial support for them. And very practically, we need to keep working with them—something we are already actively doing—at the level of professional strategies, practices, and self-descriptions. In our area, for example, Theological and Philosophical Studies in Religion (our recently emended name, which makes the point I am about to make), we need to get cannier about preparing our students for the situation of likely fewer teaching options in theological schools; and for competing successfully—which many of them are already doing—for positions in Religion Departments (with their often anti-theological animus.)