Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Apocalyptic Cinema

I've been thinking about my love of movies while writing a paper on theology and the recent film Snowpiercer (one of my favorites of 2014). While my family regularly watched many of the great blockbuster movies like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and Indiana Jones, by the age of 15 or so, I fell in love with the "Art House" section of my local video rental store (R.I.P.). My cinematic world thus opened out beyond the action-packed movies that I was raised on and into an often grittier, challenging, more subtle, and...well, "artsy" style of film. Visiting the rental store rather often - sometimes multiple times a week - I discovered some of the great directors of the last few decades:
David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, The Coen Brothers, Gus Van Sant, Daren Aronofsky, Lars von Trier, Sam Mendes, Quentin Tarantino, Sofia Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson, Michel Gondry, Terrence Malick, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, and Wes Anderson.

While a few friends and family members enjoyed these kinds of films as well, I often found myself watching them alone. Unlike your average Hollywood action movie or romantic comedy (genres I do not completely dislike!), these art films were particularly attractive to me because of my thirst for meaning, provocation, beauty, and depth of experience. But despite their ability to engage me in all of these ways, they were also sometimes disturbing, frustrating, and exhausting - even depressing. Many of the above directors flirt with nihilism and most of them raise deeply uncomfortable questions about human (and divine) existence. Nevertheless, while I located myself within evangelicalism until my early 20s, art house cinema provided me with numerous challenges and inspirations beyond the boundaries of my sometimes suffocating church experiences. These experiences have made me very sympathetic to (though not quite convinced by) Mark Lewis Taylor's claim that art will be our salvation as religion fades, as well as my own professor Robert Corrington's argument that we should leave religion behind for aesthetics.

The arts have apocalyptic potential. They can dis-close novelty, surprising us, interrupting us with flashes of light and darkness, beauty and tragedy, love and death - and so many confusing spaces between. No, this kind of art does not appeal to everyone. Our culture of reality television, Justin Bieber pop, and global capitalist consumerism thrives on overstimulating distractions and quick fixes. It shapes bodies in ways that make many of us resistant to the kind of vulnerability, patience, and attention required for truly transformative art. Art won't solve the world's problems. No, it will not. But it does have the power to shift consciousness, to deconstruct certainties, and to release new possibilities in our lives.

As I look back on certain stand-out films for me over the last 15 years, I recognize that movies have indeed played a decisive role in the development of my philosophical and theological curiosities. Rarely do I write on theology without relating my work in some way to the movies that have shaped my imagination over the years. Here's just a small list of relatively recent movies that have particularly influenced my thinking, especially in terms of their ability to raise theological questions:
  1. No Country For Old Men (The Coen Bros)
  2. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
  3. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)
  4. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
  5. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)
  6. The Matrix (Wachowskis)
  7. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky)
  8. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry)
  9. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick)
  10. American Beauty (Sam Mendes)

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Theology and Ferguson (Roundup)

Listed below are five of the most interesting and provocative theological posts on Ferguson that I have come across. All are must-reads. Please add additional relevant posts in the comments:

  1. "Honor The Outrage: A Reflection on 1 Corinthians 6 and the Ferguson Grand Jury Decision" (Richard Beck at Experimental Theology). Key quote: "Unity is achieved in the church by rehabilitative honoring, caring and respecting, with the privileged and powerful giving greater honor and care--not balanced or equal honor and care but greater honor and care--to those who have lacked privilege, prestige, power or status. And whatever that might mean for White Christians today I think it means at least this much, that we honor the outrage."
  2. "Justice is Possible #Ferguson" (Anthony Smith at Theoblogy). Key quote: "...I can hear Derrida protesting by saying, 'Deconstruction is justice.' We can attain some relative racial justice if we could only deconstruct the entirety of the American system.  In the case of our criminal justice system the issue of mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipelines, communities being policed in a racially disproportionate manner mitigating vast chasms of cultural misunderstandings."
  3. "A Sad Night for America" (Jim Wallis at Sojourners). Key quote: "Whatever the facts might have revealed in the trial that will never happen, the time is long overdue to subject our criminal justice system to the requirements of racial justice. The racialization of that system and its policing behavior toward people of color is beyond dispute. The police force in Ferguson that is completely unrepresentative of the community and whose behavior has caused such deep alienation among the people they are supposed to serve and protect has become a parable. Ferguson has become a parable in America, for how black lives are less important in the ways our laws are enforced. Ferguson is not only in Ferguson."
  4. "'All Lives Matter'" (Adam Kotsko at An und fur sich). Key quote: "The black community in America is on the side of justice, objectively. They’ve seen what evil looks like on a systematic level by living in the machine we’ve built around them, and overwhelmingly, they reject it as a model. Hence at the time that the white community had produced the “best and brightest,” the architects of the Vietnam War, the black community produced Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. At the time of the Civil War, when even the most liberal whites were still racist and viewed the abolition of slavery as the end-all of justice, the black community produced Frederick Douglass, who could see beyond his own immediate struggle to advocate for women’s rights." 
  5. "Michael Brown's Death & the Prophetic Fire" (Cornel West & Peter Heltzel at NY Daily News). Key quote: "And so here is our Thanksgiving prayer — the plea to God and humanity from two prophetic Christians, one black and one white, one young and one old, confronted by our own complicity in a sinful system, but united by our common call to be just peacemakers: As we gather at tables, grieving the state of our nation, may we gain spiritual strength for the journey ahead, drawing on the deepest wells of wisdom from those on whose shoulders we stand and the various faith traditions that have fueled their freedom march and continue to energize ours."

Saturday, November 8, 2014

REVIEW: "The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism" by Steven Shaviro

Before jumping into my review of Steven Shaviro's new book, I want to provide a quick summary of the philosophers that he is engaging throughout the text.

One of the most interesting trends in recent philosophy is what is sometimes called Speculative Realism. The name comes from a conference in 2007 at the University of London that brought together four very different philosophers who nevertheless were united in their efforts to resurrect realist metaphysics: Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, Graham Harman, and Iain Hamilton Grant. Each of them hold quite different metaphysical positions, but all four critique what they name "philosophies of correlation." As a theologian and not a philosopher, I can't help but make a connection to my field here. Just as the Radical Orthodox movement identifies a key moment in the history of philosophy (for RO, this is Duns Scotus' univocity) that leads to its destructive decline, the Speculative Realists point back to Kant's apparently disastrous argument that the thing-in-itself is unknowable.

Meillassoux defines correlationism as "the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other." This created a tendency in philosophy to privilege epistemology (how we know) over ontology (what is known), which for SR is particularly evident in phenomenology and deconstruction, both of which at least "bracket" ontology - and in some cases reject ontology or metaphysics entirely. The four members of SR agree that post-Kantian philosophies of correlation are deeply anthropocentric because of their obsession with epistemology and their corresponding refusal to speculate about what is real. Particularly in our time of ecological crisis, they believe that it is time to push back against the extremism of the linguistic turn in philosophy, to resist the excesses of social constructivism, and to once again speculate about the "great outdoors" in order to give nonhuman nature its own genuine reality. Today, SR has continually expanded with a number of younger thinkers following in the wake of the original four philosophers.

While I'm not quite sure about the debate over correlationism (John Caputo has recently come out to partly defend it against what he believes is a serious misunderstanding by SR), as a Whiteheadian, I certainly appreciate the move toward speculative philosophy, critical realism, and anthrodecentric metaphysics. This is why Steven Shaviro's new book The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism, which puts the philosophy of Whitehead in conversation with SR, caught my attention. Perhaps some philosophers will have problems with certain aspects of this text, but I found it to be a very helpful overview of SR. Shaviro's work on Whitehead in his previous publications was interesting to me because he completely bypasses process theology and just works with a nonreligious, atheological reading of Whitehead (inspired by Isabelle Stenger's approach). While this is obviously not my own approach, I appreciate this move because it offers fresh insights into process thought from a more secular perspective.

The introduction to the book gives an excellent summary of SR, noting its similarities to the New Materialism and connections to the thought of Bruno Latour and Gilles Deleuze. The first chapter stages an interesting encounter between Whitehead and Levinas in order to show how the latter wrongly privileges ethics and transcendence over ontology, aesthetics, and immanence while Whitehead essentially does the opposite. Chapters 2 and 3 bring Whitehead into conversation with Graham Harman's Object-Oriented Ontology, partly in order to show how the latter can help us read Whitehead's work in a new way, but also to defend Whitehead's focus on relations and events over Harman's focus on objects as substances. Shaviro ultimately sees the two thinkers offering contrasting rather than totally contradictory ontologies while admitting he is still more persuaded by process thought than OOO.

Chapters 4 and 5 are fascinating explorations of panpsychism as a possible response to correlationism, thereby giving all things a degree of 'mind' in order to decenter the human. This is something I've written about before in my engagement with the New Materialism and was thrilled to see a parallel move in Shaviro's work. It was helpful to see that Harman and Grant are open to this move while Brassier and Meillassoux resist it by totally eliminating subjectivity, as opposed to redistributing it throughout nature with something like panpsychism. This also has the effect of making the latter two much more radically nihilistic in their thinking. Chapter 6 extends Shaviro's argument for panpsychism into a debate, primarily with Meillasoux in order to show he is not anti-correlationist enough in his eliminativist ontology. Chapter 7, the final part of the book, unpacks Shaviro's ultimate effort to develop a new strand of SR with Whitehead (and a bit of Deleuze, as well as Kant - perhaps surprisingly) that he calls "speculative aesthetics."

As a theologian who is always trying to engage cutting-edge philosophy, I'm grateful for this book's readable way in to the Speculative Realist discussion. I realize that there is much debate about SR as a "movement" and deep hostility between some of the original four SR philosophers, so I will remain cautious in my future engagements with these thinkers and whatever becomes of SR in the future. It is, however, encouraging to see a metaphysical turn in contemporary philosophy and to see philosophers that I appreciate, like Whitehead, Deleuze, Schelling, Latour, and Barad all being drawn into this ongoing conversation. Shaviro is not a professional philosopher, as he is always quick to point out, but is actually a cultural critic. As a side note, I was able to attend his book release at the New School in New York City last night and found him to be not just an impressive thinker and gifted speaker, but actually very humble, gracious and respectful of others. Even when the tense politics of SR came up, he avoided name-calling or speaking ill of anyone. Let's hope that kind of attitude can be a model for the future of this conversation amongst the new realists.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The 20 Most Important Thinkers for Contemporary Theology

I've been thinking about making a list of professional philosophers and theologians (past and present) who are particularly relevant today - those whose work seems to be especially significant in the early part of the 21st century. Which thinkers should we be paying particularly close attention to? Which thinkers are inspiring younger (western) theologians? Admittedly, I am absolutely not employing anything like a scientific approach to construct these lists - just my experience as a graduate student in philosophical theology, a theology blogger, and an editor for a journal of theology. So, for better or worse, here are my top 10 lists. Two qualifiers: first, I don't like all of these theologians and philosophers; and second, I am biased towards continental philosophy, so don't expect a fair representation from the analytic side of philosophy. Take it or leave it, but I think it's a more-or-less accurate reflection of the state of theological studies today. If you want to know what's important in Christian theology today, you need to engage the following:

Theologians:
  1. Jurgen Moltmann
  2. John Milbank
  3. James Cone
  4. Marcella Althaus-Reid
  5. Hans Urs von Balthasar
  6. Kathryn Tanner
  7. John Howard Yoder
  8. Catherine Keller
  9. Stanley Hauerwas
  10. Elizabeth Johnson
Philosophers: 
  1. Jacques Derrida
  2. Charles Taylor
  3. Soren Kierkegaard
  4. G.W.F. Hegel
  5. Ludwig Wittgenstein
  6. Alfred North Whitehead
  7. Gilles Deleuze
  8. Slavoj Zizek
  9. Homi K. Bhabha
  10. Judith Butler

Monday, October 27, 2014

REVIEW: "Organic Marxism" (Marx & Whitehead)


(Note: I am very grateful to the Center for Process Studies in Claremont, CA for sending me a review copy of this book. For more information, check out Philip Clayton's overview of the book's argument at Jesus, Jazz, and Buddhism).

If you’re like me and have ever wondered what a “process Marxism” would look like, the recently published Organic Marxism: An Alternative to Capitalism and Ecological Catastrophe by Philip Clayton and Justin Heinzekehr is an exciting vision of such a possibility. It is in fact the first serious attempt to fold process philosophy, in both Whiteheadian and Chinese forms, into Marxism. The result is what the authors call “Organic Marxism”, a constructive postmodernism for our time of environmental crisis that offers theoretical and practical possibilities for a new ecological civilization.

Organic Marxism is published by Process Century Press in preparation for the 10th Whitehead International Conference in June 2015, which is called “Seeking an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization.” I plan to participate in the conference, and encourage everyone who can to do so as well. It will bring together some of the most important figures in the environmental movement, including Bill McKibben and Vandana Shiva, along with many of the most significant process thinkers, including John Cobb, Catherine Keller, Joseph Bracken, Bruce Epperly, William Connoly, Monica Coleman, Roland Faber, Marjorie Suchocki, Jay McDaniel, and Philip Clayton, along with younger process thinkers like Tripp Fuller, Brianne Donaldson, and Justin Heinzekehr. And perhaps not surprisingly, after co-writing Organic Marxism, Clayton will be leading a discussion on Marx and Whitehead.

Having previously published 22 books and dozens of articles, Clayton’s important work in philosophical theology and the science and religion dialogue is by now familiar to many. He is a professor at Claremont School of Theology where Justin Heinzekehr, his former student and now co-author, is also a doctoral candidate in religion. Because their work is primarily in theology and religion, this book on ecological economics and politics might seem a bit surprising. And yet both of them work within the school of process thought, which is an amazingly diverse tradition that branches out into virtually every area of academic research. In many ways, Organic Marxism takes its lead from the work of the great process theologian John B. Cobb Jr., who writes the forward to this book. After starting his career as a Christian philosophical theologian, he shifted by the early 1970s into a focus on a variety of other topics, including economics, biology, ethics, politics and ecology. Writing one of the first book-length philosophical texts on the ecological crisis, Cobb later went on to write a massive work on ecological economics with the economist Herman Daly, which serves as the major inspiration for Clayton and Heinzekehr’s economic proposals in Organic Marxism.

At the core of the book is the conviction that “Global capitalism has created the greatest ecological and humanitarian catastrophe in the history of human civilization” (4). Throughout Organic Marxism, Clayton and Heinzekehr make a series of powerful and convincing arguments to show that this is in fact the case and that the best solution is Organic Marxism, which affirms “hybrid [economic] systems that combine profit-making activities with regulations that are designed to prevent corruption, environmental abuse, and the inordinate acquisition of wealth by a small number of citizens” (236). By reinterpreting Marx against the dominant Western conceptions of him, they argue that “socialist systems can retain an appropriate place for entrepreneurial activities…suitably constrained market forces can benefit the public good” and lay the foundation for a new ecological way of living (47).

They therefore resist a view of Marxism that would totally eliminate any place for market forces, competition, and private ownership (7). For them, the continuing relevance of Marx has less to do with his efforts to prove a strict dialectical materialism and more to do with his “work as a social theorist, a historian of economics, and a student of the class struggle” (60). They also reject the classical Marxist notion that ideas, philosophy, and religion are impotent and merely “epiphenomenal,” without any liberating power. In an organic perspective (as understood within process thought), postmodern science and philosophy challenge this kind of crass reductionism with a more open-ended, relational, pluralistic, contextual, and ecological style of Marxism.

As such, Clayton and Heinzekehr are highly sensitive to the common views of Marx as deterministic, anthropocentric, anti-religious, reductionistic, totalizing, and utopian. And yet they argue for the ongoing relevance of Marx beyond these modernist limitations and stereotypes of his thought, importantly drawing on recent interpretations of his mature thought (e.g., Jeremy Bellamy Foster) that stress Marx’s implicit environmental concerns. They also consider some recent attempts to resurrect Marxism in the work of Jacques Derrida, Slavoj Zizek, and David Harvey. Although they recognize the value of each of these important critical and deconstructive thinkers, they ultimately conclude that each of them “shy away from addressing the practical issues that policymakers face” (94).

As such, by calling organic Marxism a kind of constructive postmodernism, they affirm the need to offer concrete policy proposals that will be useful, not just for Leftist academics, but especially for “policymakers, government leaders, and lay people” (ix). This commitment leads Clayton and Heinzekehr to conclude the book with a series of practical ideas and specific policy guidelines on issues ranging from agriculture and manufacturing to banking, all with the aim of creating an ecological civilization. The perspective of Organic Marxism is ultimately a concrete commitment to the common good within an ecological framework that does not shy away from issues of class, race, or gender. It is a postmodern and critical appropriation of Marx's revolutionary thought that is truly unique, although the authors note that it has some important connections, not only to Cobb's work, but also to The New Materialism (Jane Bennett, Diana Coole, Clayton Crockett, Jeff Robbins, et al) and Environmental Marxism (Bellamy Foster).

Despite the intensely philosophical discussion throughout the text, Organic Marxism is a surprisingly accessible read that efficiently covers a lot of ground in economic and political theory. Readers will gain a valuable perspective on the history of capitalism, Marxism, process thought, and contemporary science. This is clearly the first book of its kind, and I'm thrilled to finally have a book that weaves together Whitehead and Marx. I believe that Clayton and Heinzekehr’s eco-socialist “manifesto of society for the common good” (ix) is a provocative, original, and exciting proposal that deserves a wide reading and deep discussion.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Consulting Rocks: Bruno Latour's Radical (Biblical) Hermeneutics

What happens to hermeneutics when it gets radicalized by making the claim that humans are not in a privileged position of interpretation, but rather that interpretation is ubiquitous throughout nature? If everything is an interpreting agent that negotiates alliances, connections, assemblages and networks with other interpreting agents? These two passages are taken from a discussion of the French sociologist of science (who also happens to be a Deleuzean-Whiteheadian) Bruno Latour, who argues that everything that exists, human and nonhuman, is an interpreter. To argue for the truthfulness of an interpretation would therefore depend on the hard work of building alliances with other interpreting agents, persuading them to construct a true interpretation with you - or in more pragmatist language, to form a consensus between humans and nonhumans. It is taken from Adam Miller's excellent "Speculative Grace: Bruno Latour and Object-Oriented Ontology":

"Ontologizing hermeneutics by radically extending its scope clearly does not commit Latour to an 'anything goes' attitude about possible interpretations of texts. Stiff limits are placed on possible interpretations by the fact that he has so drastically increased the number of parties involved. The bar for an interpretation is much higher when you must not only persuade other humans to go along with your reading, but legions of nonhumans as well. Further, nonhumans tend to stabilize the whole affair because, in general, they are markedly less gullible." (110)

"Say you want to offer a brilliant reading of Genesis that requires the Earth to be just six thousand years old. Latour has no objection to this. You are welcome to try. But it is not enough to convince a subset of humans to go along with your reading. Nonhumans must be convinced too. The opinion of a fossil matters. Carbon-14 gets a say. DNA has a voice. Glacial ice can't be discounted. If 4.5 billions years worth of rocks and weather and radioactive decay disagree, then your reading is seriously hamstrung. The irony of a 'literal' reading that discounts the opinion of actual stones and actual letters is that it flirts with nihilism. A reading of Genesis doesn't fail to be objectively true if it fails to flawlessly repeat. It fails to be objectively true when it no longer bothers to take both words and rocks seriously as objects with independent histories, trajectories, weaknesses, and frictions of their own." (111)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Heidegger and Whitehead

Inspired by my reading of John Cobb's 1957 comparison of Heidegger and Whitehead, I wrote a paper on their philosophies in relation to postmodern theology. What would a more Heideggerian reading of Whitehead look like? Should progressive and radical theologies take another look at Whitehead? I think that anyone interested in contemporary philosophical theology will find this interesting as I ultimately try to relate process thought to continental philosophy of religion, John Caputo, and Richard Kearney.

Read the paper here.