Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Whitehead's Alternative

I just returned from a fantastic time at the Seizing an Alternative conference, which coincided with the 10th International Whitehead conference. I was grateful to be a part of this important event with so many amazing scholars. I'm posting a link to the paper that I presented on Friday, entitled "Whitehead's Alternative: The New Realism, Eco-Theology, and Planetary Politics."

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Whitehead, Eco-Theology, and Planetary Politics

(This is my current draft of the paper that I will be presenting at the Whitehead conference in Claremont, CA, in just a couple of weeks. I'll be in the track called "A New WAY for a New Day," with my friend Tripp Fuller, as well as Brian McLaren, who is one of our best, well-known popular theologians. I wanted to share the paper here on the blog. I certainly welcome feedback.)
"Why the deep hesitation to affirm that there is value in wilderness in itself?…The answer lies in part in the Christian centering of all intrinsic value in humanity. But it lies also in the philosophical denial of significant reality to things in themselves. The Christian tradition cannot transform itself by the extension of concern beyond human beings to fellow creatures without first overcoming the extreme anthropocentrism of its dominant philosophical positions." –John Cobb
I) Introduction

While Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy continues to influence many progressive Christians, thinkers in other traditions are increasingly drawn to it as well. This is revealed in a recent book, entitled Religions In the Making: Whitehead and the Wisdom Traditions of the World. It offers examples of Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Taoist appropriations of Whitehead’s philosophy, which often includes religious themes about God and mystical experience. But many of the contributors are also attracted to Whitehead’s ecological metaphysics, with its vision of a world of becoming filled with interrelated events. As Catherine Keller explains, Whitehead significantly influenced the development of “Environmental spirituality, or ecotheology,” which “are examples of emerging ways to reassociate theology with what matters.” Eco-theologians hope to “awaken our culture from the sense that the matter at hand is some dull opaque stuff, some lifeless and unfeeling substratum that we with our computer-like brains can manipulate however we please,” Keller writes.

What is perhaps more surprising than Whitehead’s broad, eco-religious appeal is his increasingly important influence on thinkers who do not identify with any of the “wisdom traditions.” Indeed, it has been suggested that we are now in the midst of a “Whiteheadian turn” in philosophy. This is remarkable, considering the fact that Whitehead was virtually ignored in most philosophy departments for decades. Why is it, then, that non-religious philosophers are suddenly attracted to Whitehead? By my lights, it is largely due to his ecological cosmology. A new generation of philosophers has realized that Whitehead offers a timely alternative to anthropocentric, mechanistic ways of thinking that have dominated Western philosophy for centuries, and that have also supported ecologically destructive, neoliberal policies. These non-religious thinkers thus deemphasize the religious elements of Whitehead’s thinking and highlight the ways in which he redirects our attention to the more than human: to the fragile and unruly nature of which we are a part, and upon which we depend for our well-being. As Whitehead wrote, “We find ourselves in a buzzing world amidst a democracy of fellow creatures.”

One of my goals for this paper is to further explain why and how Whitehead has been influencing some of the most exciting eco-philosophies over the last decade, including Speculative Realism and the New Materialism. What these movements have in common with Whitehead is four interrelated positions: (1) a commitment to complex forms of realism about the nonhuman; (2) a redistribution of intrinsic value from the human to our fellow creatures; (3) a rejection of modern, mechanistic views of nature; and (4) a critique of Kantian and post-Kantian anti-realisms. Even though these new realists often ignore process theology, I also want to show how their perspectives resonate with those of process theologians like John Cobb and David Ray Griffin. For decades, these two eco-theologians have been sounding the alarm about the climate crisis and calling for religious and secular persons to seize the alternative vision of Whitehead. Might this growing convergence between secular philosophies and pluralistic theologies offer support to political movements that resist the neoliberal ideology of unfettered markets that drives the devastation of our planet? I will conclude by suggesting this possibility.

II) Whitehead’s Cosmology and the New Realism

From the beginning of the modern period, Western philosophy became increasingly preoccupied with questions of “access,” epistemology, or how we know what we know. As Timothy Morton explains, these questions include: “How can I know that there are (or are not) real things? What gives me (or denies me) access to the real? What defines the possibility of access?” While such questions are not unimportant, the consequence of privileging epistemology in Western thinking has been that questions of “reality”, ontology, or what we know beyond the human were minimized – and in some cases, eliminated entirely. For Whitehead and an increasing number of philosophers today, this refusal to speculate beyond the human resulted in the dominance of dangerously anthropocentric and mechanistic worldviews in modernity.

By contrast, metaphysical questions about the nature of humans, nonhumans, and the gods were central for most Greek and medieval cosmologists, who affirmed the genuine reality of the nonhuman. As Michael Northcott points out, although pre-modern cosmologies were hierarchical and quite anthropocentric, they often viewed the earth as a living organism, rather than in the modern image of a mechanistic machine. The pre-modern idea of an organic cosmos was one in which humans were connected to everything within a “great chain of being.” There was no sharp divide between human culture and nonhuman nature. As such, unlike present-day climate denialists, most classical and medieval philosophers had little trouble believing that human activity influences nature – indeed, even the weather! But as Bruno Latour argues, to be modern just is to divide human culture and politics from nature. Consequently, modernity empowered humans to dominate nature: to reduce it to a collection of valueless data for scientific, political, and economic manipulation. As Northcott writes, modernity’s bifurcation between human culture and mechanistic nature “underlies…the development of a coal-fueled industrial culture, a cosmology in which land is conceived as empty space, unowned and disordered, until it is developed and reordered by humanity for the creation of wealth.”

Against this destructive modern image of nature, Whitehead’s cosmology is in a sense a return to pre-modern organic views, even as he moves beyond them towards a more democratic, non-anthropocentric perspective. In fact, Isabelle Stengers has argued that Whitehead’s entire project can be understood as one long critique of the modern “bifurcation of nature,” which for him is rooted in Kantian philosophy. Kant’s bifurcation between human knowers and nonhuman nature was motivated by his effort to preserve a space for human freedom and morality against a nature that was viewed as a valueless, deterministic machine within the Newtonian paradigm. He was convinced that we cannot actually know the nonhuman world as it truly is, for we can never get beyond our mental constructions of it. We can only know objects as they appear to us (“phenomena”) and not as they really are in themselves (“noumena”). Since what is real ultimately depends upon the structure of the human mind, Kant argued, it is impossible to attribute genuine reality – and therefore value – to nonhumans apart from human cognition of them. As such, Morton notes that “Speculating outside the human became a minor trend” after Kant’s philosophy. Nature was pushed off into the background by subsequent anti-realist philosophies, including much postmodernism that developed out of the linguistic turn.

Indeed, the Kantian reduction of philosophy to epistemology and bifurcation of nature have been crucial in the development of continental philosophy, down to the present day. As Steven Shaviro writes, “phenomenology, structuralism, and most subsequent schools of twentieth-century continental philosophy assume one version or another of the anti-realist, Kantian claim that ‘phenomena depend upon the mind to exist.’” As Shaviro and Morton argue, even Martin Heidegger affirmed a form of anti-realism, claiming that we cannot talk of the real existence of things apart from the human: “Only as long as Dasein is, ‘is there’ being,” he wrote. Thus, after Kant and Heidegger, many came to believe that philosophy is about linguistic and cultural analysis, not about making claims about the reality of nature. As Cobb summarizes Kantian and post-Kantian philosophies: “There is human experience and there is the world as we experience it. About the world as it is in itself, there is nothing to be said.”

However, recent speculative philosophers have attempted to develop methods that adventure beyond Kantian bifurcations and post-Kantian anti-realism. These “new realists” see Kant’s epistemological dualism as supporting anthropocentric habits of thought that have partially led to our current ecological crisis. Drawing on strands of continental and American philosophy, Speculative Realists like Morton, Shaviro, and Graham Harman and New Materialists like Karen Barad, Jane Bennett, and William Connolly present challenges to Kant’s bifurcation of nature. This is not without historical precedent. In fact, many of these new realists readily acknowledge their dependence on Whitehead’s much earlier critique of Kant’s bifurcation of nature, with its – as Whitehead put it – “degradation of the world into mere appearance.”

Like Whitehead, the new realists reject naïve realism and foundationalism, but they are critical of postmoderns who do not attempt to speculate beyond the human to account for the reality or materiality of the nonhuman. While strategies vary, all are committed to “a speculative wager on the possible returns from a renewed attention to reality itself,” Shaviro writes. By imagining new forms of “robust ontological realism” through “metaphysical speculation,” the hope of these new realists is to “regain the great outdoors,” according to Shaviro. With Whitehead, they seek to redistribute value and reality to the nonhuman, and to thereby overcome nature-culture dualisms that support environmentally destructive activities. As philosopher Crispin Sartwell notes, a major “motivation for the realist turn has been ecological: Climate change isn’t just in our heads or in our descriptions, but a real-world situation that requires real-world physical transformations.” The climate crisis thus seems to have sparked an ecological turn in some corners of philosophy – and it has been significantly aided by Whitehead. For process theologians like Cobb and Griffin, who have worked for so long to make the case for Whitehead’s ecological realism, this is undoubtedly good news.

III) Whiteheadian Eco-Theologies

In 1970, decades before the new realist turn, John Cobb began writing one of his most important books, Is It Too Late?: A Theology of Ecology. Few theologians were engaging theology from an ecological perspective at that time, so this was a pioneering work. Upon publication in 1972, it was the first single-authored, book-length environmental ethics text to deal with the ecological crisis. It developed out of Cobb’s awakening to the environmental crisis in 1969, which he now calls his “conversion” to the earth, because it forever changed the way that he understood his theological vocation. No longer could theology be done apart from concern for the earth. No longer could one write and speak about theology without accounting for the full reality of the nonhuman. While he was a Whiteheadian from the beginning of his career, Cobb did not take the ecological dimensions of Whitehead’s cosmology seriously until the 1970s. But with Is It Too Late?, with its ecological reading of Whitehead, Cobb proclaimed that everything must change: we need a “New Christianity” in solidarity with the Earth.

In the light of the new realism, Cobb’s eco-theology in Is It Too Late? now seems prophetic. Throughout the text, Cobb offered critiques of Kant’s bifurcation of nature: “In [Kant’s] thought, the [modern] movement toward a completely human-centered view of reality” is radicalized, Cobb argued. Like the new realists, Cobb also claimed that most philosophies after Kant were anthropocentric, placing almost all priority and value on the human side. As Cobb explains, “The conclusion of [my] survey of the major schools of modern philosophy is that none of them have attributed significant reality to things in themselves.” Thus for most modern philosophers, “love or concern for our fellow creatures would be viewed as mere sentimentality.” To this day, Cobb remains convinced that Whitehead is one of the few Western philosophers to present a viable alternative to anthropocentric views of nature. As he concludes,

Whitehead’s philosophy pictures for us a world filled with real events, each having its own intrinsic value. Especially those that are alive significantly share with us in feeling and activity. It is therein that the needed attitude of love, concern, and reverence for living things is adequately…grounded.

In addition to these philosophical issues, Cobb was also critical of his own Christian tradition that too often privileged humans at the expense of nonhumans. Against any use of Genesis to justify human domination of nature, Cobb writes that when God proclaimed the nonhuman creation “good,” this was “without reference to human beings. Its goodness is intrinsic. It shares with humanity the status of creaturehood…Thus when human beings are freed to govern the world, the world they govern is not thereby reduced to mere means to their end.” As such, much of Cobb’s work within eco-theology has centered on rethinking the human-nonhuman relationship. His strategy was to bring together Christian ecological thinkers, such as St. Francis of Assisi and Albert Schweitzer, with Whitehead’s cosmology, which envisions the universe as a “vast ecological system” of interrelated and valuable events.

David Ray Griffin has also argued in favor of Whitehead’s ecological perspective, particularly in relation to his concept of God. To be sure, Griffin’s eco-theology goes beyond what the largely secular new realists find helpful in Whitehead, but it is a valuable perspective for many religious persons. According to Griffin, Whitehead provides a crucial challenge to supernaturalistic forms of theism that often fuel climate denialism and inaction. Supernaturalism, as Griffin defines it, is the traditional theistic idea that an omnipotent deity who can do virtually anything “resides outside the world and intervenes periodically within the natural processes to perform miracles.” This is a common view amongst fundamentalist Christians and right-wing politicians, but it often produces what Griffin calls “omnipotence-based complacency.”

Griffin offers recent illustrations of how supernaturalism can support climate denialism and complacency. For example, Republican Senator Jim Inhofe has claimed that “God is still up there, and He promised to maintain the seasons.” Inhofe then criticized the “arrogance of people who think that we, human beings, would be able to change what [God] is doing in the climate.” And Rush Limbaugh similarly argued, “If you believe in God, then intellectually you cannot believe in manmade global warming,” because that would make humans rather than God omnipotent. Supernaturalism also grounds apocalyptic end-times theology, which studies have shown makes conservative Christians “less likely to support policies designed to curb global warming than…other Americans.” Finally, supernaturalism encourages conservatives to view extreme weather events as “acts of God,” rather than in connection to climate change, which is largely the consequence of the human burning of fossil fuels. As Griffin writes,

Vested interests in the status quo seize upon the belief that the world is in God’s hands to promote the complacent assumption that continuing to burn fossil fuels will not destroy civilization, because “God will not allow it.” History is, however, filled with examples of peoples who foolishly believed that they were under the mantle of divine protection.

Griffin does not exclude the possibility that other theologies can embrace climate morality, but he cautions against all supernaturalism. As an alternative, Griffin argues that Whitehead’s panentheism can “embrace climate morality without equivocation.” Whitehead rejected an interventionist, omnipotent deity who is beyond nature. His God acts persuasively rather than coercively by offering possibilities for each creature to actualize or to reject. Whether living or non-living, everything has some amount of agency to respond to the divine lure. God cannot therefore control outcomes in the world, but requires creaturely responses to bring about divine purposes. Consequently, the climate is not “in God’s hands,” extreme weather is never the direct result of divine action, and humans do indeed bear responsibility for the climate crisis. To avoid the ecological collapse of civilization, Griffin argues, God needs creaturely cooperation.

IV) Conclusion: Planetary Politics

To be sure, the new realists do not affirm any God – including Whitehead’s. But like Cobb and Griffin, they are more concerned to critique the dominant God of our time: The Market. In many cases, the actual referent of supernatural rhetoric from conservative religious, political, and corporate leaders is less a theistic God, and more often the invisible hand of the market. Echoing Cobb and Griffin’s political theologies, William Connolly argues that the market is the supposedly omnipotent object of worship for neoliberals who support: the deregulation of markets at the expense of the environment; infinite expansion and growth on a finite planet; the externalization of costs into the environment to maximize profits; corporate power and privileges at the expense of workers and the environment; selective state activism to maintain the neoliberal ideology of unregulated markets; and an inflated view of self-organizing market rationality.

Drawing on Whitehead’s cosmology, Connolly argues that impersonal markets are simply one kind of self-organizing process, which alters and is altered by other human and nonhuman processes of various kinds. Markets are fragile, not omnipotent. But neoliberalism, which presumes the bifurcation of nature, situates politics and economics in the ‘higher’ realm of human culture, above nonhuman nature. As Connolly explains, it thereby downplays “the self-organizing powers of multiple other systems highly relevant to the performance of economic markets and states.” Neoliberalism thus denies “the fragility of things” with its anthropocentric, utopian idea of self-adjusting markets that, if only we stay out of their way, will function rightly.

For Connolly, progressive movements that resist neoliberalism must therefore emphasize our radical interdependency on valuable, but fragile nonhuman processes. Especially in the face of climate denialists who resist the truth that culture and politics influence the environment, progressives must help unveil our ecological entanglements and the fragilities of late modern capitalism through critique and experimental politics. We cannot wait for a revolution, but must engage in diverse strategies of resistance and even reform. For in a world of fragile becomings, the future is not fully determined, so the consequences of our strategies are never entirely predictable. This open-endedness can thus be a source of hope. Finally, Connolly calls for the construction of eco-political movements that include religious and secular persons. As he writes,

[It is] imperative to negotiate new connections between nontheistic constituencies who care about the future of the Earth and numerous devotees of diverse religious traditions who fold positive spiritualties into their creedal practices. The new, multifaceted movement needed today, if it emerges, will take the shape of a vibrant pluralist assemblage… 

We need not therefore dissolve our differences to form such an eco-activist assemblage. But might we learn to foreground certain resonances between multiple constituencies for the sake of the planet – such as shared commitments to extending value to nonhuman processes, as Whitehead has taught us? I certainly hope so. The future of the Earth may depend on it.


Cobb, John B. Is It Too Late?: A Theology of Ecology. Denton, TX: Environmental Ethics Books, 1995.
———. Theological Reminiscences. Claremont, CA: Process Century Press, 2014.

Connolly, William E. The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013.

Griffin, David Ray. Unprecedented: Can Civilization Survive the CO2 Crisis?. Atlanta, GA: Clarity Press, 2015.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008.

Keller, Catherine. On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008.

Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis, MN: University Of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Northcott, Michael S. A Political Theology of Climate Change. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013.

Sartwell, Crispin. “Philosophy Returns to the Real World.” NYT - The Stone, April 13, 2015. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/04/13/philosophy-returns-to-the-real-world/.

Shaviro, Steven. The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism. Minneapolis, MN: University Of Minnesota Press, 2014.

Stengers, Isabelle. Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts. Translated by Michael Chase. Paperback edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality: An Essay In Cosmology. Corrected ed. Gifford Lectures: 1927-28. New York: Free Press, 1929.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Ecstatic Naturalism & Process Thought

I recently delivered a paper at the Fifth International Congress on Ecstatic Naturalism, entitled "Chaosmic Naturalisms: Exploring the Pantheist Philosophies of Roland Faber and Robert Corrington." In the paper, I attempt to address and negotiate certain tensions between Ecstatic Naturalism and Process Theology by entangling the works of two brilliant contemporary philosophers: Robert Corrington and Roland Faber. If you are interested in religious naturalism, metaphysics, process thought, pantheism, or speculative realism, I invite you to take a look at the paper here.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Theology as Creation

What would a theological method look like beyond representation (i.e., rational theology, the mirror of nature) and projection (i.e., radical theology, the mirror of human desires)? Is the only meaningful alternative some form of strong fideism - whether Barthian, post-liberal, or Radical Orthodox? What if we were to instead think of theology as creation? Such a constructivist method would be rooted in relational philosophies of becoming, which deny the individualistic metaphysical assumption of a stable world of beings or entities that can be re-presented with words or ideal concepts, more-or-less accurately. Theology as creation also resists the anthropocentric and reductionist notions that theology is nothing but human projections or fideistic presuppositions. A method of creation would thus potentially support a theology that is both polydox and yet distinctly Christian.

As a form of postmodern theology, this method attempts to move beyond an orderly rationalism, foundationalism, and anthropocentrism, but without collapsing into a chaotic relativism. As a form of non-representationalist realism, theology as creation is also rooted in a speculative cosmology that is radically ecological. Furthermore, it does not necessarily preclude a form of meaningful God-talk - although it will look wildly different from traditional theisms, with its insistence on immanence! To explicate this method of theology as creation, I would especially point to the philosophies of A.N. Whitehead, Gilles Deleuze, and Karen Barad, and also to the theologies of John Cobb, Roland Faber, and Catherine Keller.

An uncritically realist grounding of theology can be described as a method of representation. When making theological claims, the representational theologian assumes that there is a stable world ‘out there’ that is somehow present to us, which we can then re-present (or mirror) with concepts. This perspective assumes a correspondence theory of truth, in which the aim is to ‘correctly’ relate words and things. The ideal goal for the representational theologian is thus to achieve a unity of human opinion about the world, just as it truly is. The ongoing task is to logically evaluate concepts in relation to entities, and ultimately to arrive at one rationally justified and universal agreement about what really exists. Representation is therefore a process of discovering and classifying entities, of carving up the world into certain stable sections of being. The representational theologian wants to know ‘the facts’, to comprehend the absolute Truth about reality. If such an operation were possible, then some kind of traditional metaphysics and natural theology might indeed be justified. Traditional proofs for God's existence might be more plausible than they are currently seen to be by philosophers and theologians.

But it is well known that the philosopher Immanuel Kant strongly challenged such a naively realist approach to philosophy and theology. Many philosophers and theologians since his time have assumed he was more-or-less correct. Even so, in the process of virtually eliminating the possibility of natural theology and traditional metaphysics, Kant's subjective idealism produced yet another form of representational dualism with his bifurcation of nature into primary and secondary qualities. In response, Whitehead later proposed a persuasive alternative to Kant's dualism in the early 20th century, followed a few decades later by the similar work of Gilles Deleuze, and more recently by Karen Barad. For these great thinkers of becoming, philosophy is certainly not about representation. It is about the perspectival production of concepts. In other words, philosophy is not primarily about discovery, but about creation. Concepts do not simply carve up the world into distinct categories of being: by responding to particular problems, they enable new experiences and release possibilities. 

Crucially, theology as creation does not imply sheer relativism, for creation is never out of absolutely nothing. Even the writers of Genesis knew as much. There are always prior conditions that any act of creation must take account of – and in turn, every condition is thus a potential for new creative becomings. As Deleuze wrote, philosophical thought always starts “in the middle.” And theologically, Keller makes a similar point: creation is always out of a dynamic matrix of potentiality - the deep, or tehom!
So if we do in fact live in such a world of becoming, as Whitehead, Deleuze, and Barad claim, we should therefore say that theology is not about representation or discovery, but the adventurous creation of concepts. And as Barad points out, concepts “are not mere ideations but specific physical arrangements." In other words, theology is a thoroughly "material practice." If theologians were to take seriously the insights of Whitehead, Deleuze, and Barad, might we then move beyond a method of representation and towards a method of creation? This method aims to be an alternative to modern representational theologies, as well as to anti-metaphysical styles of postmodern thinking that never move beyond Kant’s anthropocentrism. By affirming a constructivist metaphysics, a post-foundationalist, post-rationalist method of creation is deeply ecological, as it speculates in order to "regain the great outdoors" (as the Speculative Realists like to say).

But how can we proceed to construct a recognizably Christian theology if one’s method is that of creation? How does a method of creation differ from the Feuerbachian view of theology as mere projection? Can it be rooted in the Christ-event in any meaningful sense? Does it have any room for a creative-responsive divine that exceeds and precedes our language for it? 

First of all, while I push further than him, I partially side with John Caputo, who argues that theology cannot be totally reduced to projection; it also involves projectiles. According to Caputo, such projectiles or events come from the outside, taking us by genuine surprise and reconfiguring our horizons of expectations. To some extent, events thus precede human invention. Secondly, we can also take a note from Jürgen Moltmann, who argues that all theological claims are like "parables," which do not resemble divine reality in terms of analogy, but are constructed to evoke hope for God's coming future of justice. And finally, I also find significant John Cobb's claim that Christians participate in a particular ontological "field of force" that was initiated by Jesus' life and death. Through memory, attention, and activism, Christians can freely participate in and be shaped by this Christic field of force. In a more Deleuzian sense, we could say that Christians are those who intentionally repeat (always with a difference!) the power of the Christ-event or field of force. This need not imply an imperialistic view of Christianity. It might contribute to what Philip Clayton helpfully calls "Christian minimalism." So consider the possibility that the Christ-event produced a particular plane of immanence that remains uniquely relevant to followers of Jesus. Christian theology, in the constructivist sense that I am suggesting, would therefore become the endless creation of concepts upon a Christic plane, which is dynamically reiterated by Christian communities.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Pannenberg's Challenge To Barth: Theology After Rationalism & Subjectivism

Wolfhart Pannenbeg (1928-2014)
It is well known that the late German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg was a sympathetic critic of Karl Barth. While studying with Barth at Basel, Pannenberg became increasingly dissatisfied with the former’s sweeping critique of all natural theology and thus set out in a different direction than his teacher. While Pannenberg would ultimately reject the kind of natural theology that is supposedly grounded in “pure reason,” he still believed that we require the “critical function” of philosophical theology to place “minimal conditions for talk about God that wants to be taken seriously as such” (Systematic Theology I, 107). But his various theological (and political) divergences from Barth were not well received, as Pannenberg noted: “I learned…that Barth did not like criticism from his students.” Even so, his theology remained in Barth’s debt to a great extent, particularly in his view that all knowledge of God depends upon God’s self-revelation: “God can be known only if he gives himself to be known” (STI, 189). However, despite this conviction, Pannenberg swerved from what he viewed as Barth’s “faith subjectivism,” moving instead in a seemingly more rationalist direction (STI, 48). 

For Pannenberg, the truth of Christian faith must be established in theology, rather than simply presupposed through an act of faith: “…dogmatics may not presuppose the divine truth…[but] has to present, test, and if possible confirm the claim. It must treat it, however, as an open question and not decide in advance” (STI 50). Pannenberg believed that Barth presupposed too much (despite his dialectical method), and therefore protected the truth of faith from genuine, open-ended debate. While Barth believed that the truth of Christian faith is grounded in the “self-evidence” of the Word of God, he could not avoid claiming that it also involves a human “risk of faith” to affirm the genuine reality of the Word: “In the Church Dogmatics, he said expressly that dogmatics ‘demands Christian faith’ and is itself an ‘act of faith’ (STI, 44). 

As Pannenberg explains, Barth tried to avoid basing his theology on human experience by claiming that the reality of the Word precedes human faith. He thereby saw himself as ensuring that God, rather than the human, is prioritized. But Pannenberg did not buy this move, at least as Barth had presented it. The only way that God can maintain priority over human faith, according to Barth’s own methodology, is “by way of the concept of an act of faith,” Pannenberg points out. But at this point – and despite Barth’s intentions – it is no longer clear that God is unambiguously prioritized over the human. Thus Pannenberg poses a question at the beginning of his Systematics that sends him off in his own direction: “If one wants to insist with Barth on the priority of God over the act of faith, is it not necessary, perhaps, to abandon the assumption that the reality of God is a presupposition for dogmatics from the very outset?” (STI, 45). 

Like Jürgen Moltmann, Pannenberg’s post-Barthian theological method was inspired by the biblical scholar Gerhard von Rad, who persuasively argued that the God of the Old Testament was revealed indirectly through God’s acts in history, rather than through theophanies of a more direct nature (Revelation as History, 125). Thus revelatory events are, for Pannenberg, thoroughly public and “humanly visible,” rather than private, subjective, communal or exclusive in any sense: “In the Old Testament…it is [God’s] acts in history that were the events through which Jaweh proved his deity to all peoples, not just to Israel” (RH, 135-136). As such, revelation in history “is demonstrated before all eyes for the benefit of all people” (RH, 150). Pannenberg claims that if Christianity is to avoid Gnosticism, this position is crucial. Revelation is not a “knowledge of secrets” mysteriously given by God to the few, but appears “in the language of facts” for all to see and understand (RH, 136, 137). Why all persons do not see or understand the truth of these historical events is a paradox that Pannenberg continually struggled with. 

Pannenberg’s claim that revelation appears in the medium of public facts implies that it is open to rational and historical investigations – quite unlike the positions of Barth and Bultmann. As such, understanding and believing the historical events of God’s revelation in history do not necessarily require presuppositions or leaps of faith. For example, in Jesus: God and Man, Pannenberg argued that the resurrection of Jesus is an event of public history that can be reasonably verified (although one that eschatologically points beyond itself). There is no need to add any kind of supernatural knowing beyond one’s innate rational capacities to discern such events: “The special aspect is the event itself, not the attitude with which one confronts the event. A person does not bring faith with him to the event…Rather, it is through an open appropriation of these events that true faith is sparked” (RH, 137). While Pannenberg does not believe that all Christians must engage in such debates in order to have genuine faith in Christ (this is where preaching and the life of the church are crucial), he believes that a major part of the work of church theologians is to continually show that the Christ event can be “taken to be reasonably and reliably true” (RH, 138). To make Christian truth-claims independent of public facts in history – through fideistic leaps of faith or supernaturalism – is to “cheapen” what God has done in history for all to see, Pannenberg argues (RH, 137). 

But do these convictions about the importance of historical criticism and rational argument mean that Pannenberg is ultimately a theological rationalist? Some commentators have read him this way, but this view is certainly debatable. While Pannenberg did affirm the reality and necessity of reason in theology, he also firmly denied that it provides a genuine foundation. His post-foundationalist, post-rationalist method arguably cuts both ways: between a fideistic anti-rationalism and a rationalistic foundationalism (for a defense of this reading of Pannenberg, see Shults, The Postfoundationalist Task of Theology). In order to see how this is the case, I want to note a few key principles or convictions that Pannenberg incorporated into his theology, all of which keep it open-ended and hypothetical. 

1) All theological claims are provisional until the eschaton. Although for somewhat different reasons, Pannenberg acknowledged that he is in basic agreement with Barth on this point. The provisional nature of theology follows from Pannenberg’s understanding of the biblical narrative, in which God is fully and directly revealed only at the end of history. All revelation in history is indirect; thus, all theological claims are constantly debatable (RH, 131-133). 

2) Not only are Christian truth-claims provisional until the eschaton, they are also fallible in the present. It is hard to see how Barth could claim the same, with his self-authenticating Word. However much he denied human appropriation of the mysterious Word, Barth nevertheless insulates it from genuine debate, thus making it infallible - at least until the eschaton (which will either confirm or, in the case of its non-occurrence, obviously disconfirm Christian hope). But for Pannenberg, this is a crypto-foundationalism that cheapens faith. He argued that Christianity may in fact turn out to be false at any moment – and another religion or worldview true – if it cannot continue to show that it is both reasonably plausible and capable of illuminating human experience. As Pannenberg writes, “All talk about God must validate itself by being able to make the world of experience a proof of its power” (STI, 106). We must therefore continually ask, “Does God prove in actual experience to be the power he is claimed to be?” (STI, 160). 

3) Pannenberg argued that a rational demonstration of faith (as plausible and illuminating) is never simply a “human interpretive achievement.” It is also, “if only provisionally, God’s own self-demonstration of his deity” to humanity in the medium of experience in history (STI, 170). This follows from his understanding of history as revelation.

4) Pannenberg insisted that rational and historical arguments “from below” are only methodologically prioritized. Their purpose is to provide both critical analyses and intelligible presentations of Jesus as the Son of God. However, when he made this argument late in his career (in Systematic Theology II), he conceded that faith does require a minimal presupposition in the truth of the Christ-event – that is, he affirmed the necessity of theology “from above.” Even though theology from below is necessary to provide a provisional demonstration of the truth of faith within one’s context, and also to “differentiate critically between the essential content of Christological dogma and secondary features or distortions,” theologians can only proceed in this way by first “presupposing…that this procedure leads to the conclusion” that Jesus is the Son of God. As such, rational and historical arguments “from below” and confessional presuppositions “from above” are “complementary,” Pannenberg argued (STII, 288-289). And while Pannenberg thought it extremely unlikely, the critical and corrective functions of theology from below could, in principle, undermine and eventually overturn the confessional presuppositions of theology from above. Again, if theology cannot in any way genuinely demonstrate that Christian truth-claims are powerfully illuminating of human experience and reasonably plausible, the Christian must consider the possibility that her worldview is finally flawed or even illusory. 

5) Pannenberg eventually clarified his argument from Revelation as History that human reason does not require anything beyond itself to see the truth of God's self-revelation in history. This clarification develops out of the paradox of why all humans have reason, and yet only certain persons are able to see the truth of revelation in history. Reason is not "pure," but ambiguous and fragile. Certain cultural prejudices can blind individuals from discerning the truth of faith. To address these problems, Pannenberg suggested that there might be a need for “a kind of illumination” through the Holy Spirit, which can enable one’s reason to discern the truth of a divine event in history. But the Spirit “adds nothing substantive to the content of this event,” Pannenberg argues. To a certain extent, this brings him closer to Barth, since both agreed that revelation is not easily read off of the pages of history apart from divine grace. But Pannenberg rejected Barth’s view that the Spirit must continually come from the outside to make revelatory events become true. For Pannenberg, the Spirit is already within revelatory events in history. Revelation is therefore open to the public through rational argumentation and historical analysis – not just for Christians through faith. As such, through the Spirit’s illumination, Pannenberg claimed that human reason might be enabled to function more adequately, and thereby to discern the truth of Jesus Christ in history (Basic Questions 2, 40-42; Grenz, Reason for Hope, 54-55). 

Moltmann with Pannenberg
It seems to me that Pannenberg importantly challenged Barth’s method in a way that cannot be dismissed on the grounds that it is an outdated rationalism. Like so many theologians throughout Christian history, Pannenberg brilliantly attempted to balance reason and faith by exploring a way between naïve rationalism and irresponsible fideism. It is an extremely delicate balance, to be sure, and one might legitimately ask if he was finally able to consistently maintain such a position. But in general, I find his approach to be instructive and useful for my own theological work, even if I cannot follow him in every way. I find his defence of God's omnipotence deeply unsatisfying, for example. But perhaps more problematic was his resistance to all feminist theologies, his notorious heterosexism, and his lack of serious engagement with liberation theologies. It is thus not surprising that Pannenberg became increasingly conservative in his political views (as Moltmann has recently noted with horror, his old friend Pannenberg thought that Ronald Reagan was the greatest president in US history!). 

Ultimately, I believe that if one takes Pannenberg's method with absolute seriousness, it is probably not possible to maintain his clear sense of theological orthodoxy or the absolute truth of Christian faith. In my view, philosophical and historical arguments “from below” pose much more radical challenges to Pannenberg’s complementary presuppositional theology “from above." Both John Cobb and Philip Clayton are, in their own distinct ways, Christian theologians who have been able to think both with and yet beyond Pannenberg's theological (and political) conservatism. If faith must continually demonstrate its illuminating power and plausibility, then in my opinion, deeper revisions of Christian theology are required today. The cost may indeed be too great for some to follow Pannenberg's method all the way. A return to some form of Christian subectivism or fideism - through Barthian, Radical Orthodox, and post-liberal theologies - will always be very tempting. But I think that Panennberg was right: such strategies will only cheapen faith. Greater courage and methodological rigor are required.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Moltmann and Natural Theology

(Here's a theological reflection that diverges from my normal posts on process thought. I've been diving back into post-Barthian theologies this year.)

Every contemporary theologian must somehow respond to Karl Barth’s radically Christocentric critique of natural theology. His famous “No!” to even Emil Brunner’s minimalist form of natural theology simply cannot be pushed aside. However, while the tradition of natural theology has been reevaluated many times over, it has never ultimately died out after Barth. Indeed, the questions that tend to draw out the kinds of reflection that natural theology attempts to respond to have remained – and in some ways increased – for many thoughtful Christians today: What is the place of experience and reason in theology today, especially in the light of liberationist, feminist, black, and queer theologies? How can Christians maintain any common ground with the natural sciences as well as other religions without some form of natural theology? What is the relationship between divine action and history, or divine revelation and biblical criticism?

Because these kinds of questions continue to haunt persons of faith, natural theology has maintained a place of importance for at least some Christians – perhaps especially in Roman Catholic theology, however much its Thomism was chastened by neo-orthodoxy and existentialism. But there were also a number of Protestant theologians who followed in Barth’s wake who attempted to reformulate natural theology in response to his critique. In the United States, one significant theologian to do this was John B. Cobb, Jr. in his Christian Natural Theology. He introduces that text by announcing that he hopes to respond adequately to Barth’s critique of natural theology by realizing Brunner’s attempt to explicate a genuinely Christian natural theology. Cobb aspired to develop a more relativized natural theology that was not based on a naïve assumption of neutral reason and universal experience, but rather on the particular assumptions and experiences of Christians. In Germany, Wolfhart Pannenberg similarly attempted to negotiate a viable natural theology that did not compromise the centrality of the Christian commitment to revelation. For him, natural theology cannot ground faith, although it does serve an important “critical function.” Like Cobb, he attempted to seriously engage the natural and social sciences, history of religions, biblical scholarship, and Western philosophy in order to show a reasonable – although not quite rationalist – approach to Christian faith that avoided what he saw as the irresponsible (and even un-Christian) subjectivism or fideism in Barth’s theological method.

Besides Pannenberg, one additional German theologian who famously attempted to respond to Barth’s critique of natural theology was Jürgen Moltmann. But his method was ultimately much closer to Barth’s own. In fact, perhaps especially in his earlier work, it often seems as though Moltmann was attempting to show that Barth’s critique of natural theology was not radical enough! He was convinced that Barth’s doctrine of revelation was not sufficiently Christocentric because it was based on a theophany of the present rather than on God’s revelatory promises for the future (Theology of Hope, 44). And precisely because revelation is essentially eschatological for Moltmann, he argues that traditional natural theology must be rejected on the grounds that it is little more than human reflection on the present state of things: “…the form in which Christian theology speaks of Christ cannot be the form of the Greek logos or of doctrinal statements based on experience, but only the form of statements of hope and of promises for the future” (TH, 3).

Moltmann then goes on to argue that the “godlessness” of every present stands in total contradiction to God’s promised future: “Hope’s statements of promise…must stand in contradiction to the reality which can at present be experienced…they do not seek to illuminate the reality which exists, but the reality which is coming…present and future, experience and hope, stand in contradiction to each other…” (TH, 3-4). The apparent consequence of this eschatological logic is that natural theology is unable to offer any independent grounds for Christian faith – which is, again, essentially eschatological. Indeed, Moltmann claims that even God must be eschatologically interpreted, with “future as his essential nature” (TH, 2, 15). As such, corresponding to the dialectic of the cross and resurrection of Christ – which stand in absolute contradiction – rationalist natural theology ultimately contradicts rather than corresponds in any way to God’s promises for creation’s future. For Moltmann, the central problem with this kind of natural theology is that it is ultimately idolatrous: it ends in the self-deification of the human knower. The faithful Christian must therefore look first to God’s revelatory promises in history, as narrated in scripture, rather than on reason or experience.

But is this the end of the story for Moltmann? In fact, he does not entirely reject natural theology because he believes that it serves an important function for Christian faith. In his view, revelation can only ever be expressed in “relation to, and critical comparison with, man’s [sic] experience of the world.” The implication is that we cannot simply dismiss the tradition of natural theology, but instead we must properly locate it in relation to revealed theology. Without some kind of natural theology, Moltmann argues that “theology withdraws into a ghetto.” He therefore seeks to show how natural theology can be maintained “between the two extreme possibilities of ghetto and assimilation” (TH, 76). But for Moltmann, natural theology can only ever be expressed “in the light of revelation.” A truly Christian (and therefore eschatological) natural theology will thus not provide foundations or proofs for faith but instead present itself as a series of provisional “anticipations” or “parables” that attempt to faithfully witness to God’s coming future. So even as Moltmann rejects the idea that any form of human reason or experience could ground faith, in the end he does believe that it is necessary to develop some kind of natural theology. As he explains, natural theology must function as “an anticipation of the promised future in history as a result of obedient thinking. Hence it always remains historic, provisional, variable, and open” (TH, 77).

In Moltmann’s later work, this commitment to a revised form of natural theology only deepened – if somewhat ambiguously. In Experiences in Theology, he argues that natural theology is necessary because Christian theology is ultimately a “public theology.” As such, theology must not confine itself “within the closed Christian circle” (ET, 69). He also claims that Barth’s later doctrine of lights is really not so different from the “Christian ‘natural theology’” that he is affirming (ET, 77). But perhaps more than Barth, Moltmann wants to maintain a tension in his method through “a dialectical play of reciprocal knowing – analogia entis in analogia fidei…” (ET, 78). Even as he continues to align with Barth, he believes that Christians living in “multi-faith societies and in a globalized world” must work to “find some common ground where they can present their differences, because otherwise there is no way of presenting them at all” (ET, 82). In his view, the common ground upon which religious and secular truth claims must prove themselves is both “the universe” and “life.” Without a shared commitment to “common life” on our planet, Moltmann worries that humanity and the earth will not survive our escalating 21st century challenges. As I see it, the open question for Moltmann’s post-Barthian method is this: is he able to maintain a dialectical tension between revealed and natural theology, or does he ultimately give up his Barthian commitment to prioritize revelation with this belief in the common ground of life? My Barthian friends think he's gone liberal here, but I'm not so sure - although frankly, I wouldn't think that's such a bad thing.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Best of 2014: Movies, Music, Books

For a number of years, I have shared my favorite movies, music and books on the blog. While the list is certainly not exhaustive, it represents my favorites of what I was able to see, listen to, and read in 2014. I'll offer a few scattered thoughts about some of my top picks in each category.

Movies: What a strange year for movies. I felt like there weren't very many quality releases until the last half of the year, but a few were just under my radar. While I haven't yet seen Selma, I'm pretty confident in my picks for now, based on what I've been able to see. Calvary is my film of the year. I watched it recently on a plane ride back to California from New Jersey and found it deeply moving. Forget the recent flurry of Bible-based movies like Noah, Exodus, and Son of God - this is the most Jesus'y film I've seen in a long time. It deals powerfully with themes like forgiveness and nonviolence, while the writing, acting, and cinematography are absolutely stunning. As for Snowpiercer, I thought it was a deeply theological film that presents a forceful critique of both classical theism and capitalism. Interstellar has been lodged in my mind since I saw it last week with its amazing imagery, stunning use of current cosmological theories, and excellent performances. Nightcrawler has much to say about the violence of our 21st century reality-media machine while the hilarious but thoughtful Obvious Child portrays one of the most important female characters in cinema in years.
  1. Calvary, directed by John Michael McDonagh
  2. Whiplash, Damien Chazelle
  3. Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan
  4. Nightcrawler, directed by Dan Gilroy
  5. The Obvious Child, directed by Gillian Robespierre
  6. Grand Budapest Hotel, directed by Wes Anderson
  7. Birdman, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
  8. Gone Girl, directed by David Fincher
  9. Snowpiercer, directed by Joon-ho Bong
  10. Willow Creek, directed by Bobcat Goldthwait
Honorable mentions: Blue Ruin, The Skeleton Twins, The Normal Heart, Theory of Everything, Lucky Them, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Frank, The Immigrant, A Most Wanted Man, The Double, Under the Skin, Edge of Tomorrow, Enemy.

Music: I am so pleasantly surprised to discover The War on Drugs. It is my album of the year. Driving rock that reminds me of Bruce Springsteen and Dire Straits, but with the swirling atmospherics of Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno. Spectacular. And if you know me, you know that I'm a massive U2 fan, so I can't help but place their latest album high on my year-end list. A nearly perfect late-career album, even if it is not quite at the same level as Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby. Ryan Adams' latest album is one of his best - not a bad song on it. And how surprised I was to love Simpson's brilliant country album (which has almost nothing to do with contemporary Nashville country-pop, thankfully). A fine year for music, indeed. I hope this list helps you discover something fresh for your music library.
  1. The War on Drugs, Lost In A Dream
  2. U2, Songs of Innocence
  3. Ryan Adams, Ryan Adams
  4. Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
  5. Damien Rice, My Favorite Faded Fantasy
  6. Beck, Morning Phase
  7. Luluc, Passerby
  8. Asgeir, In the Silence
  9. You+Me, Rose Avenue
  10. FKA twigs, LP1  
Books: Like last year, I don't pretend to lack a serious bias in this list. How could I resist? A number of my professors, both past and present, are listed below - but the truth is, I have had the privilege of studying with some of the most amazing theologians working today. Plus, most of these books engage process philosophy in different ways, which happens to be my primary interest (as readers of this blog are well aware). Keller's Cloud of the Impossible offers a compelling reading of the apophatic and mystical traditions, weaving contemporary science, continental philosophy, and relational philosophies into a provocative new postmodern theology that will create discussions for years to come. Cobb's theological autobiography is a wonderful introduction to his work. Faber's Divine Manifold is a deeply complex but impressive synthesis of Deleuze and Whitehead (hopefully a paperback version is in the works soon!). As for Organic Marxism and Universe of Things, check out my recent blog reviews of these fantastic new releases for 2014.

  1. Cloud of the Impossible by Catherine Keller
  2. Theological Reminiscences by John Cobb
  3. The Divine Manifold by Roland Faber
  4. Organic Marxism by Philip Clayton and Justin Heinzekehr
  5. Universe of Things by Steven Shaviro
  6. Worlds Without End by Mary-Jane Rubenstein
  7. Ask the Beasts by Elizabeth Johnson
  8. Iconoclastic Theology by F. LeRon Shults
  9. Way To Water by L. Callid Keefe-Perry
  10. Panentheism and Scientific Naturalism by David Ray Griffin