Sunday, September 14, 2014

The 10 Books that Have "Stayed With Me"

I can't resist participating in this recent Facebook meme, so here are ten books that have stayed with me over the years and have changed me in significant ways. One thing you'll notice is that there is a lack of fiction in my list. Unfortunately, while I read many works of classic literature in high school (quite a bit of Dickins, Tolkien, and Hemmingway, although my favorite was Moby Dick and I loved most of Chuck Palauniuk's novels), I have read very little fiction since. I hope to return to it in the future, but philosophy and theology have dominated my thinking for the last 20 years. The books are roughly in chronological order

1.     C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: My parents read this series to me when I was very young and, while I loved the story and characters, it was the theology that I was most struck by. Lewis' inclusivism and atonement theory pushed me to rethink my inherited conservative evangelicalism.
2.     Clark Pinnock, The Openness of God: My first serious theology book, which I encountered at 15. Pinnock's open theism rescued me from my view of God as a timeless, Unmoved Mover and prepared me for process theology in college. 
3.   Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: A classic text that gave me new language and concepts for sin, evil, and violence.
4.     Philip Clayton, Adventures in the Spirit: The reason I went to graduate school and became deeply interested in science, religion and process thought. Clayton continues to be a significant influence on my thinking
5.     Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation: This is Moltmann at his best, in my opinion, and through it I became interested in ecological and political theology.  
6.     John Cobb, A Christian Natural Theology: Convinced me to take process philosophy seriously and that Cobb belongs on the short list of all-time greatest Christian theologians.
7.   Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: The first genuinely difficult philosophical text that I ever read. But Whitehead made great sense to me, and still does. His relational cosmology and theopoetic divinity have profoundly shaped me.
8.     Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: Finally, a woman on my list! Johnson forever changed the way that I think and talk about God. I had encountered other feminist theology before, but this one clicked with me.
9.     John Caputo, The Weakness of God: Not my first introduction to Derrida and deconstruction, but this is where it all started to make a bit of sense to me. In many ways, Caputo is like a postmodern Paul Tillich, although he writes like nobody - playful, funny, insightful, and challenging.
10. Catherine Keller, Face of the Deep: This brilliant, deeply poetic text is the one that ultimately lured me to Drew for doctoral work with her. Keller's thinking weaves together so many of the important strands of theology that I was impacted by earlier on.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Faber's Critique of Caputo: Give Metaphysics Another Chance!

While reading through a few sections of Roland Faber's recently published book, The Divine Manifold, I came across an important section on pages 498-504. The section is titled "Gift and Theft" and is Faber's sympathetic but very serious critique of John Caputo's Derridean "theology of the event" (specifically as he articulates this in The Weakness of God). There is much to consider in these pages, but I wanted to share a few passages that I found provocative. For those who are unfamiliar with Faber, he is a professor of philosophy and theology at Claremont and has been a pioneer in bringing post-structuralism and Whiteheadian process thought together, along with developing a unique form of process theopoetics. He was also one of my professors during my masters program at CST. His brand new book (which checks in at almost 600 pages, including bibliography and index) has been praised by Clayton Crockett as "an extraordinary achievement" due to its impressive readings of Whitehead and Deleuze, while my current professor Robert Corrington even suggested to me that it just might be a new Process and Reality for the 21st century (perhaps).

Faber begins this section with a close reading of Caputo's Weakness and outlines its basic argument that "God" names an event, a "weak force," rather than an entity or Being. Caputo is, as is well-known, totally opposed to metaphysics and, as such, his theopoetics is "phenomenological, not metaphysical" (Weakness, 123). Although Faber notes that Caputo is "as close to my own possible without sharing background and philosophical leanings...his reading of the philosophical and theological traditions through the lens of a 'hermeneutical phenomenological reduction' hinders [him] from engaging Whitehead and Deleuze, which he accuses of that which must be avoided at all costs - metaphysics. Hence, his 'theology of the event' not only cut itself off from a certain connectivity that would help to justify many of its phenomenological claims, which in themselves often seem unwarranted, but from a hermeneutics of intermezzo that would allow its poetics to situate itself within an eco-chaosmos. Since Caputo identifies metaphysics with the forces that hinder the kingdom to come, his seemingly innocent phenomenological reduction has already lost, or a priori excluded, the feeling and thinking of a chaosmos and its eco-bodying relevent beyond our individual human phenomenological 'presence'...In its radical 'phenomenological reduction' of the 'name of God' into 'the structure of the event' and 'the world' into the 'forces that conspire to prevent the event' (13), this 'theology of the event' is in danger of involuntarily repeating a Manichaean forces us to choose between the event and things, God and the world, evil and the kingdom. Its 'hyper-event' of salvation replaces the world."(Manifold, 500-501).

The critique is obviously rather complex and to get at the details of Faber's argument with Caputo, one would need to read more than what I've quoted above. But hopefully this provides a glimpse into an important discussion that I think is worth considering. I am inclined to agree with Faber as I continue to find Caputo's dismissal of all metaphysics to be a bit too quick. As Faber concludes, perhaps "Caputo would need to think the possibility of the impossible in terms of a metaphysics of multiplicity" (503) as in the thought of both Whitehead and Deleuze.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Deleuze & Process Thought

My summer so far has largely consisted of digging into (mostly) secondary sources on the French poststructuralist philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) - specifically those that address recent theological appropriations of his thought. As readers of this blog would likely expect, I'm particularly interested in relating him to Whiteheadian process thought. I've mentioned him before on the blog as a thinker who has revived interest in speculative philosophy/cosmology/metaphysics amongst certain postmodern thinkers. While post-Heideggerian philosophers like Derrida were convinced that all metaphysics are inescapably totalizing and essentializing ways of thinking, which thereby subordinate difference to a higher/transcendent unity, Deleuze called himself a "pure metaphysician" - albeit one who attempted to think difference without any underlying principle of absolute unity or ultimate foundation. So while the poststructuralist tradition of Derrida and Foucault rejected ontology because it supposedly always makes us think that what appears to us is the natural order of things (rather than contingent, constructed, an effect of difference, etc), a Deleuzian poststructuralism calls for an alternative ontology. As Todd May explains, although Deleuze agreed with Derrida and Foucault in their view that difference must not be repressed by ontological identification - as it so often has been in the history of philosophy - he did not agree "with their [anti-ontological] cure" to this perennial problem.

His metaphysics of difference are in a sense a radicalization of Spinoza, who Deleuze called "the Christ of philosophers" because he "revealed" (so to speak) a philosophy of immanence without transcendence more than any other Western philosopher. Yet Deleuze rejects Spinoza's reliance on substance metaphysics and develops a neo-Spinozan pluralistic monism. Spinoza's one absolute substance is dissolved by Deleuze into a pluralized "plane of immanence." He developed a complex metaphysical system that prioritizes difference over unity, becoming over being, and immanence over transcendence. Deleuze offers a truly experimental metaphysics, an "anti-systematic," "open-ended," "acentered," and radically "uncertain" system. He carefully developed his concepts with the goal of affirming this life over any "super-sensible" or transcendent world. In short, he argues that the plane of immanence is filled with innumerable virtual events, constantly coming in and going out of existence, that become actualized on the plane of organization. This is very much like the traditional philosophical distinction between nature naturing and nature natured (as in Robert Corrington's "ecstatic" or "aesthetic" naturalism).

The plane of immanence is like a "chaos" of seething potentialities moving at infinite speed - fully real while neither ideal nor actual. Virtual events on the plane of immanence are also called by Deleuze "pure singularities," "mad particles," "free intensities," and "nomadic singularities." These "molecular" potentialities become actualized into "molar aggregates" or layered "strata" on the plane of organization as what we experience as sensible matter and identities. So like anything else, we as humans are constituted by these dynamic and self-creative molecular events. In the Deleuzian nondual "chaosmology," there is no sharp line between mind and matter, nature and culture, human and non-human, or any other traditional ontological dualism. Identities are only "effects" of difference. Subjects are only relatively stable repetitions of differential relations. Nothing is static. Everything is in constant becoming. No transcendence, absolute presence, representations, hierarchies, dualisms, or clear identities. Everything is immanent, heterogeneous, dynamic processes of becoming, self-creative, and relationally constituted. This is Deleuze "in a nutshell" - if there is such a thing!

If you know Whitehead's philosophy of organism, you're probably sensing a lot of parallel concepts here. In fact, I agree with commentators like Catherine Keller, Roland Faber, Steven Shaviro, and Luke Higgins that the metaphysics of Deleuze and Whitehead are extremely close. This is not entirely surprising since Deleuze believed that Whitehead's Process and Reality was one of the greatest works of philosophy in the 20th century. But where do they disconnect? I'm still working on this question (I plan to work through Deleuze's primary sources more thoroughly this fall), but here are my initial observations:

1) Deleuze explicitly rejects Whitehead's affirmation of the radically new: although virtual events appear to be similar to Whitehead's eternal objects or "pure potentiality", Roland Faber argues that the virtual is more like Whitehead's "real potentiality." This is defined as the self-transcendence of the beginingless past, the energized creative potentialities of Whitehead's "extensive continuum" that give rise to the "pluriverse." Both Keller and Faber also connect Whitehead's "creativity" to Deleuze's plane of immanence and virtual potentialities. While Whitehead affirmed a type of novelty beyond the accomplishments of immanent creative processes - the absolute futures of the world - Deleuze only affirmed a type of novelty that was always emerging in large part out of and through actual processes. Whitehead affirms this as "real potentiality", but goes further with his "pure potentiality" - which are grounded in God. This takes us to the second difference...

2) Deleuze implicitly rejects Whitehead's panentheistic God in favor of something more like a pluralistic pantheism: while Whitehead tends to be interpreted as a type of panentheist, it is difficult to read Deleuze along these lines. Like Spinoza, Deleuze is more adequately interpreted as a kind of pantheist. When he is appropriated in a theological way by thinkers like Clayton Crockett, Luke Higgins, and Kristien Justaert, "God" is interpreted in close relation to the Deleuzian plane of immanence: the infinite creative forces or unconsciously differentiating multiplicities that the world "expresses." Yet for Whitehead, "God" names the advent of a more radical novelty (the primordial nature), as well as the relationality of all differences (the consequent nature). God is therefore an "actual entity" in Whitehead's thinking as the "ground of [radical] novelty." 

For more on this topic, check out these five good resources:

Deleuze and Theology, by Christopher Ben Simpson
Theology after Deleuze, by Kristien Justaert
Process and Difference, edited by Catherine Keller and Anne Daniell 
God as Poet of the World, by Roland Faber
Without Criteria by Steven Shaviro

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Four Theologically Transformational Texts

After finishing my first year of coursework as a PhD student at Drew, I've been reflecting on some of the books that have especially challenged and transformed my theology. There are, of course, so many that I could list, but I've narrowed it down to just a few for this post. To be clear, while these are all excellent texts, I am not saying that they are necessarily my favorites. In fact, some of these would not make such a list. Rather, these are four texts that have radically shifted my philosophical theology:

A Christian Natural Theology (1965), by John B. Cobb, Jr: During the summer of 2011, I enrolled in a course on process theology that was taught by Marjorie Suchocki, one of Cobb's former students and a brilliant process theologian herself. This was one of the the required texts for her class. While I had previously read a few books on process theology, this one changed everything for me, leading me to write my MA thesis on Cobb and process theology and ultimately to apply to Drew to study process theology with Catherine Keller (also one of Cobb's former students). It was this text by Cobb that more-or-less launched process theology in the 1960's. Cobb was convinced that process thought provided a superior alternative to the most respectable theological options at the time, including Altizer's death of God theology, Barth's neo-orthodoxy, and Tillich's existentialism. He therefore also believed that the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead was superior to Hegel, Kant, and Heidegger. This book, which is a clear and detailed theological analysis of Whitehead's philosophy, convinced me that Cobb is right. I've been a process thinker - and a huge fan of Cobb - ever since.  

Deconstruction in a Nutshell (1997), by John Caputo: Just as Cobb's book provides the perfect introduction to Whitehead, Caputo provides the ideal entrance into the philosophy of Jacques Derrida with this text. Because of my experiences in the emergent church movement, I was exposed to Derridean deconstruction in the early 2000's - although that certainly doesn't mean I understood it! To be sure, I have struggled to overcome the unfortunately common stereotypes of deconstruction as a relativistic, nihilistic, anti-religious, and apolitical philosophy that reduces everything to mere language. John Caputo came to the rescue with this excellent book, which succeeds in clearly - and vigorously - arguing against these common misinterpretations of Derrida. Caputo persuasively argues that Derrida has always been deeply concerned with meta-linguistic matters of ethics, politics, and faith. Although his theological books on deconstruction are also excellent - including What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, On Religion, The Weakness of God, and The Insistence of God - this text is certainly the best way to get a sense of what Derrida is up to. He covers key topics like the khora, differance, the gift, the messianic, justice, religion without religion, democracy, etc. 

Process and Difference (2002), ed. Catherine Keller & Anne Daniell: Even though theologians like Cobb carved out a viable path for process theology, what is a person of faith to do if they affirm both process theology and deconstruction - or 20th century continental philosophy (Heidegger, Levinas, Deleuze, etc.) more generally? This is not an easy question to answer since Derrida is critical of any form of metaphysics while, on the other hand, Whiteheadians tend to be highly suspicious of philosophers and theologians who do not put their metaphysical cards on the table (because everyone's hiding them somewhere!). While Whiteheadians like David Ray Griffin have argued that process thought is a more radical and constructive "postmodern" philosophy, the contributors to this brilliant volume of essays argue in another "de/constructive" direction. For post-structuralist Whiteheadians like Catherine Keller and Roland Faber, Whiteheadian process thought is highly resonant with the likes of Derrida and Deleuze with their mutual emphases on becoming, difference, and relationality, as well as their shared critiques of representationalism, essentialism, naive realism, and foundationalism. Keller's two essays are classics, both of which I find myself frequently referencing in conversations and papers to connect Whitehead to thinkers like Derrida, Deleuze, and Donna Haraway. Faber's chapter, while dense, argues for a non-ontotheological, non-logocentric interpretation of Whitehead's God. Joseph Bracken's essay is a brilliant comparison of Whitehead's creativity and Derrida's differance. And Arran Garre's essay that argues for Schelling as the common link between Whitehead and continental philosophy is absolutely stunning and persuasive. 

The Predicament of Belief (2011), by Philip Clayton & Steven Knapp: After finishing my BA in religious studies in 2010, I attended Claremont School of Theology to study for my MA in theology and philosophy of religion, largely because I wanted to work with Philip Clayton. His inspiring work was actually the reason that I switched from a focus on biblical studies to philosophical theology. I am convinced that nobody has a grasp on the contemporary science and religion dialogue like Clayton does. After studying in Germany with Wolfhart Pannenberg, one of the great post-Barthian theologians of the 20th century, Clayton (arguably) went on to become the leading theologian of science of our time. In this book, co-authored with his friend Steven Knapp, he succinctly explains his theological method and conclusions as a progressive Christian thinker. His respect for contemporary science, religious pluralism, historical criticism, and deep awareness of the problem of evil has powerfully influenced my own thinking. Fusing a neo-Whiteheadian emergentist cosmology with a distinctly Christian panentheism, Clayton's progressive theology ultimately cuts both ways: against both radical liberals and traditional conservatives.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Karen Barad and Process Thought

Karen Barad is a feminist physicist-philosopher at UC Santa Cruz who has written an immensely important text called Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007). For anyone who knows Whitehead's philosophy of organism, Barad's relational ontology that she develops in response to the mysteries of quantum physics will be familiar. Like Whitehead did in his time, Barad is interacting with the physicist Neils Bohr and the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics. However, while Whitehead's primary philosophical conversation partners were William James, Spinoza, and Leibniz, Barad engages post-structuralists like Judith Butler and Michel Foucault.

Very much like Whitehead's "actual occasions," Barad argues that the basic constituents of the world are "intra-active phenomena" or "relational atoms." In other words, they agree that everything is agential in some sense, so nature is not divided in two. This ontology also implies a view of nature as interconnected or "entangled." As such, nature is not composed of preexisting entities or individuals but is fully relational and always in becoming. Anything that endures (i.e., sensible matter) only arises out of various relational processes in repetition. There are therefore no substances or essences, which Whitehead identified as examples of "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness" and Barad calls "the metaphysics of individualism." There are only relatively stable patterns of repeating processes, which we might call "habits" (Whitehead) or "sedimentations" (Barad) of nature.

One additional similarity that I will note between Whitehead and Barad is that they each affirm a type of realism. Neither of them are talking about a naive realism, which is the position that we directly experience the world as a collection of external objects in an unmediated way. And they equally reject representationalist realism, which is the dualistic view that we can stand back from the world as an external collection of individual objects and indirectly re-present them to our mind. Instead, Whitehead and Barad affirm relational realism (not their term, but an accurate one nevertheless). This position affirms a real world that is irreducible to our social constructions, and also affirms that scientific theories can provide reliable access to the ontology of the world. But it rejects the basis of representationalism - the notion that there are external and unitary objects that we, as internal subjects, can perceive more-or-less accurately.

What relational realism affirms is that humans, like anything else in a panagential world, are always in becoming and relationally constituted. The traditional realist divides between external world and internal knowing, nature and culture, nonhuman and human, matter and mind, dead matter and lively matter do not hold in this view. Instead, our knowing directly participates in and influences the world - even as the world reciprocally influences our knowing. Knowing is thus a creative event of intra-acting material processes. Knowing, theorizing, or experimenting never take place from the outside in some sort of neutral space but always from within, as material practices. There is therefore no such thing as purely "objective knowledge" because - as quantum physics teaches us - objects only emerge as a result of particular intra-actions. Knowing is always involved in particular intra-actions as much as any other type of activity, human or otherwise. As such, we are responsible for our knowledge claims and cannot separate ethics from epistemology or ontology. Barad thus coins the term "ethico-onto-epistemology."

While post-structuralists are usually identified as anti-realists, Barad goes out of her way to argue for an extremely critical kind of realism that she calls "agential realism." Whitehead calls his similar perspective a "pluralistic" and "provisional" realism. I find this connection between process thought and Barad's new materialist ontology to be encouraging and exciting, especially since Barad never interacts with Whitehead's thought in her work.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Whitehead's God: Between Radical & Confessional Theologies

As a process theologian, I often find myself in the position of needing to explain or even defend the God that Whitehead affirms.  I have these conversations with fellow academics and intellectual types who just can't see how some of us can still call ourselves theists after the 'death of God,' as well as fellow Christians who struggle to see how one could reconcile process panentheism with the God of the Bible.  While the former group tends to be extremely critical of any hint of transcendence (whether in reference to God or otherwise), the latter group gets uneasy with the process theologian's special emphasis on God's immanence.  For the former, transcendence is more-or-less relativized - if not entirely eliminated - by immanence.  For the latter, it is usually the other way around: God is infinitely transcendent and created everything out of nothing.

For those who care to go into this kind of discussion, the core theological question up for debate is this: how immanent and/or transcendent is Whitehead's God?

I'm certainly not going to try to answer this with any sense of finality (although I've discussed my approach in other posts).  What I primarily want to do here is to point out the difficulty of this issue when we have, broadly speaking, two types of theologians reading Whitehead in different ways today: those who resonate with Radical Theology and those who are committed to Confessional Theology.  This is exciting to me, even as it brings new challenges to process theology.  I'm not claiming that there is a full-blown contradiction between these two approaches, and perhaps there's a way to bring these two approaches closer together.  Even so, they are starting out with different assumptions and concerns that certainly shape their contrasting readings of Whitehead's theism.

At the risk of oversimplifiction, there's a sense in which Radicals tend to read Whitehead primarily through a poststructuralist lens (Derrida, Deleuze, Butler) while Confessionals read him primarily through the lens of tradition and scripture.  This makes for a rather striking difference between the two.

One could always follow the "Whitehead without God" approach (Bob Mesle, Donald Sherburne). One can also see Whitehead's God as nothing more than a cosmic function - and therefore wholly "secularized" - that is necessary for a coherent process worldview but totally uninspiring for spirituality or religion (Steven Shaviro's reading in his "Without Criteria").  Personally, I think there are serious problems with these interpretations (that's for another post) and they remain minority reports within the process community.  Having said that, let's consider two streams of process theology, what I'm calling the Radical and Confessional paths.

On the one side are those who read Whitehead's God in ways that strongly emphasize immanence - a kind of Radical theology, perhaps, usually with the help of Deleuze's poststructuralist philosophy of immanence.  Few process thinkers go so far as to deny God's transcendence entirely (although see Kristien Justaert's process pantheism in "Theology after Deleuze"), but the concept as more commonly understood is very much relativized by a more immanent God.  This is rapidly becoming an influential way of reading Whitehead (I can confirm this based on my experiences at both Drew and Claremont where most students of Whitehead tend to lean this way).  My former professor Roland Faber, signaling a stronger shift towards immanence with his Deleuzean reading of Whitehead, argues for "trans-pantheism" as opposed to the more standard reading of Whitehead's panentheism.  He digs deep into the Cusan paradox of God as "Not-Other" and places a stronger theological emphasis on Whitehead's immanent creativity.  He interprets the later Whitehead as seeming inclined "to replace any remaining connotations of God's transcendence with a totally immanent divine creativity" (Process & Difference, 216).  As with John Caputo's radical theology, Faber will also say that God does not exist but insists as the interrupting event of the new.  For Faber's radical process theology, God is always "In/difference": the insistence on difference and relationality of all differences.  For the Radical approach, questions of Christian doctrine (Christology, Trinity, Revelation) tend to be secondary (at best) to the political and ethical implications of theology.  The thinking here is that an immanent theology is better equipped for this-worldly activism based on democratic practices, over against difference-denying oppressive forms of hierarchy that are rooted in transcendence.

On the other side are those who read Whitehead's God in ways that try to maintain more traditional theological intuitions of transcendence.  I see this as a kind of Confessional trajectory for Whiteheadians that has been much more common for Christian process theology over the last fifty years.  Confessional process theologians are not necessarily Orthodox in their beliefs, but they tend to have a stronger concern than the Radical process theologians to maintain ties to the Christian tradition and to more thoroughly align their theology to the Bible.  John Cobb is an obvious example here, especially evident in his rather high Christology in which he intentionally remains close to the creedal confession that Jesus was "fully God and fully man." By reading Whitehead's God as a balance of immanence with transcendence, he can affirm that God is the most powerful reality in existence, that our existence is radically contingent upon God as our Creator, and that we depend upon God's grace.  Attempting to do justice to key themes of the Bible and Christian piety, Cobb will claim that because God is always working for the good in the world and truly loves her creation, God can genuinely reveal herself in particular ways, our prayers can be answered, people might even sometimes be healed through God's action in the world, and that death ultimately does not have the last word.  Unlike Radical process theology, Confessional process theologians unequivocally affirm God's existence as a real being (e.g., David Ray Griffin's cumulative argument in his Reenchantment Without Supernaturalism).  A neo-Whiteheadian approach, as in Joseph Bracken's theology, pushes even closer to traditional commitments and asserts a stronger ("asymmetrical") sense of transcendence than even Cobb.  Like Thomas Aquinas did with Aristotle and Augustine did with neo-Platonism, Bracken will use Whitehead as a general philosophical framework for special revelation in scripture and tradition, allowing the latter more authoritative sources to revise the former when necessary.  The doctrinal results for him are an orthodox view of the Trinity, creatio ex nihilo, and bodily resurrection.

Some of us might cringe at the Radical approach, others at a Confessional approach.  To Confessionals, the Radical approach might sound even more esoteric and complicated than Whitehead himself and irrelevant for practical or spiritual life outside of the academy.  To Radicals, the Confessional approach might sound outdated and naïve at best, or imperialistic and oppressive at worst.  Or some of us might instead be able to see the two as constrasting rather than contradicting and perhaps look for a way to learn from both, even if we share the more basic assumptions of one or the other.  If the Radical approach is helping to keep Whitehead relevant to postmodern intellectuals, religious skeptics, and academics - perhaps even effecting a "Whiteheadian revolution" or a "return to Whitehead" in contemporary philosophy and science - the Confessional approach tends to have much more traction for pastors and laypersons.  This distinction seems to me to exemplify the challenge of identifying the task of theology today: is it important to do theology primarily for the sake of the life of the confessing church, or can we (should we) move on and do theology primarily because of its continuing politically subversive and ethical power for society?  This is not a question just for those of us in the process community, but rather for any theologian who finds herself in this predicament, between the Radical and the Confessional. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Theology & the New Materialisms

What is the New Materialism?  And what does it have to do with theology? These are some of the questions that I'm continuing to explore this semester. If you read this blog, you might remember my engagement with Crockett and Robbins' Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism in which I pointed out how similar their paradigm is to John Cobb's process theology.  In that post, I mentioned that I hoped to continue engaging the New Materialism from a theological perspective.  I recently read The New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, Politics, edited by Diana Coole and Samantha Frost to continue my interaction with this new way of thinking about materiality.  I picked three of my favorite chapters that I very briefly summarize below just to give you the gist of their general approach - and if you know process theology, you will notice the parallels.

In Jane Bennett’s “A Vitalist Stopover on the Way to a New Materialism,” she concentrates on the vitalist philosophy of Hans Dreisch.  His vitalism affirms rightly life as irreducible to matter and that a life-principle (entelechy) animates matter, which is otherwise inert. But she criticizes Dreisch for not going far enough by still viewing matter as inert stuff rather than being intrinsically lively. 

In Diana Coole’s “The Inertia of Matter and the Generativity of Flesh,” she concentrates on Merleau-Ponty’s efforts to develop an ontology that is attuned to our embodiment within rather than external to nature. Rejecting dualism, he developed something like a “new materialism” that recognizes the auto-productive, non-mechanistic nature of matter. Coole points out that Merleau-Ponty’s immanent ontology avoids charges of anthropocentrism by seeing continuity between humans and nonhumans. For him, nature, life, and mind are not separate categories of being but are manifestations of diverse folds in being, or “potencies with different powers of organization.”

William Connolly’s “Materialities of Experience” also explores the way that Merleau-Ponty assists us in thinking about new materialisms. Like Coole, he argues that Merleau-Ponty developed an immanent ontology without teleology, divinity, or mechanism. He is critical of any perspective that “overstates the autonomy of intellectual life [or]… the self-sufficiency of reason…”

Each of these New Materialists argue for an immanent ontology but reject the assumptions of scientific materialism that matter is inert stuff in motion. Instead, matter is to be conceived as lively and self-organizing. Consciousness can therefore be understood to emerge out of matter and always be enmeshed within it. There is therefore continuity between human and nonhuman nature, which has clear ethical implications. A lively matter is not merely a means to human ends, but has its own reality in and for itself. It is not, therefore, fully calculable by the power and light of scientific reason but is far more elusive and complex. Lastly, they are all very much nontheistic in their approach. There is no need for God in these new materialisms, it would seem (obviously not including the "God" of Radical Theology, of course - Caputo, for example).  Words like “mysticism” were used in a pejorative sense – although, Connolly sees a place for a kind of positive nontheistic spirituality in his new materialism.

Now, apart from the typically nontheistic approach of New Materialists, their ontology is very much aligned with Whitehead - although he's hardly ever mentioned in this text.  In particular, Whitehead's Science and the Modern World is a close analogue for the New Materialist critique of reductionist forms of materialism.  While Whitehead criticizes "materialism" in that text, clearly he has in mind a reductionist, mechanistic form of materialism that the New Materialists equally reject.  His proposal for a "philosophy of organism" is an alternative to both mechanistic materialism and absolute idealism.  Connolly has more recently come out as a nontheistic Whiteheadian, so it looks like there are some exciting conversations in store for those of us in the process camp as a major new form of theory begins to recognize the significance of Whitehead's thought.  For those of us who are theists in general and Christians in particular, I believe the New Materialism offers an important way of thinking about the world that can possibly open up new paths for theology.  Think of the way that Ernst Bloch's materialist philosophy of hope influenced Moltmann and others over the last fifty years - I think the New Materialism offers a similar conversation partner for contemporary theologians.  If you're interested in this conversation, there will be a conference at my school, Drew University, on the subject next month with Crockett, Robbins, Bennett, Catherine Keller, Karen Barad (a brilliant and important feminist-physicist who I will be posting about in the near future!), Philip Clayton, and others.  Check out Entangled Worlds: Science, Religion, Materiality.