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 four 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.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Process Response To Tony Jones' 5 Questions

Tony Jones’ love of Jürgen Moltmann’s theology is absolutely contagious. His status as a ‘Moltmanniac’ strongly influenced my master’s thesis topic that I wrote at Claremont with Philip Clayton a couple of years ago, which was a comparison of Moltmann’s eco-theology with John Cobb’s. If it were not for Jones, I would not have fallen in love with Moltmann’s social Trinitarian theology. But perhaps to Tony’s disappointment, Moltmann then led me deep into the world of process theology. As any close reading of Moltmann’s God in Creation or the Spirit of Life will suggest, the later Moltmann is profoundly influenced by Whitehead (see my post on the topic here). I still love Moltmann, having read most of his work, but I’ve moved closer to the process theologies of Clayton, Cobb, Joseph Bracken, and Catherine Keller, my professor for my doctoral program at Drew.

Today, I would join Clayton in describing my own view as neo-process theology. I would not resist the label of process theologian for a minute, but I try to draw on a deeper well of philosophers and theologians than just Whitehead. With Bracken, I’ve learned to draw on Thomas Aquinas, Teilhard de Chardin, and Meister Eckhart; with Clayton (and Tripp Fuller), I’ve learned to draw on Wolfhart Pannenberg and a bit of Schelling; with Cobb, I’ve learned to draw on liberation-political theologies and to think interreligiously as a Christian; with Keller, I’ve learned to draw on poststructuralists like Derrida and Deleuze, feminists, postcolonialists, and the Christian apophatic tradition (especially Dionysius and Nicholas of Cusa). In my own studies this semester, I’ve been relating my process thinking to Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Hegel, and René Girard

I say all of this in response to some of Tony’s questions that he has posed to those of us in the process camp. Let me respond to them one by one:

1) Do we get nervous about being so deeply rooted in Whitehead? Not at all, but that’s because I think Tony perhaps isn’t aware of the depth of philosophical engagement that process philosophers have been involved in for the last sixty years or so. Process philosophy in the most general sense is of course older than Whitehead, who is the philosopher to provide the most systematic synthesis of this way of thinking. Process theism is deeply related to Plato, with his understanding of God as persuasive in power and creating the world out of unformed chaos rather than nothing. Meister Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa both arguably developed embryonic process-theistic relational ontologies – with Cusa even denying omnipotence. The process ontology of interrelated becoming events connects back to Heraclitus and resonates with much Buddhist and Taoist thought. The process cosmology was developed with the theories of Einstein in mind. We find analogies for process thinking in much of the American pragmatist tradition of Peirce, Dewey, and James as well as in poststructuralists like Gilles Deleuze and Judith Butler. On Deleuze, who is now reportedly the most influential poststructuralist philosopher in the English-speaking academic world today (in terms of research and dissertations being published), rivaling even Derrida’s dominance over previous decades, his entire cosmology (or “chaosmology”) is explicitly developed on the grounds of Whitehead’s magnum opus Process and Reality, which he called “one of the greatest books of modern philosophy.” Let me also mention that Whitehead is no small-time philosopher these days. Aside from a deep interest in his work amongst Chinese philosophers over recent decades, according to Catherine Keller, he is increasingly one of the most written-about philosophers in Europe today for dissertation topics. So Whitehead is hip, make no mistake. (; Having said all of this, I think I’ve made my case that process theologians have moved beyond any Whiteheadian orthodoxy. We’re a diverse bunch and draw on lots of different philosophers and theologies today. Keller is clearly one of the leaders of process thought today, and I have rarely known someone who is so intellectually diverse and cutting edge.

2) As one who continues to learn from (and disagree with much of) Aquinas, I don’t agree with Bo’s comments about not needing him today – but then again, I’m not a practical theologian, so I’m not going to speak for him here. As a philosophical and constructive Christian theologian, I am absolutely committed to taking the tradition seriously. That’s why I have been trying to engage with people like Aquinas, Eckhart, Cusa, Dionysius, Barth, Tillich, and Moltmann. On the issue of respecting the past while being open to transforming it, I follow John Cobb’s distinction of secularism and secularizing that he outlines in his Spiritual Bankruptcy (see my post on that here). While secularism is a perspective that neglects the wisdom of the past in favor of almost exclusively standing on present knowledge, secularizing is a dynamic of respecting the past, committing to a particular tradition, and taking its accumulated wisdom seriously, but critically engaging it and being willing to transform it when finally deemed necessary. Cobb sees Plato, Aristotle, the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, and Paul as great secularizers. I think Cobb’s Christ in A Pluralistic Age, agree with its conclusions or not, exemplifies such respectful, secularizing engagement with the wisdom of our Christian tradition.

3) I certainly wouldn’t say that process theologians are the first to get the gospel right, no. I would say that the way we understand divine power as omni-potential and persuasive rather than omni-potent and coercive makes more sense to me of the picture we have of Jesus in the gospels. Classical theism generally denied that God has the power to act in a way that would contradict God’s nature, and process theists simply add to this that if God’s nature is truly primarily defined by love (as even Barth in fact states, 1 John 4:8 being one of the two abstract definitions of God in the entire Bible), then God does not have the power to unilaterally intervene. In that sense, God can be said to be omnipotent, but unilateral power contradicts God’s nature and it is thus impossible for God to act in that way. After the horrors of the 20th century, from Hiroshima to the Holocaust, process theism’s notion of power is extremely helpful for the problem of evil. While it does complicate the issue of resurrection and miracles, so central to Christian theology, it certainly does not exclude them. Unlike most forms of progressive theology, the process God literally, specifically acts in the world.

4) I believe process theology can strongly affirm God’s unique identity, contra what Tony has argued. This is the most misunderstood part of process theism, with both Moltmann and Tillich joining the ranks of theologians who believe that Whitehead’s God is dissolved into the cosmic process. I firmly believe that this is a tragic misunderstanding. First of all, Clayton and Bracken are what you would called “asymmetrical” process theologians who affirm creation out of nothing. This provides a clear image of a God who is ontologically distinct from creation, who is infinitely other. But what of those like myself who don’t affirm creation out of nothing? Moltmann in particular thinks this is the big problem with process not giving a place for the uniqueness of God, so he tries to maintain creation out of nothing. God is unique in that while God is always in creative relation to some world, God did not have to create this particular world. Our world is radically contingent upon the Divine Other who graciously chose to take the risk to lure this kind of world forth rather than one that could not produce conscious, complex beings like ourselves. God is also unique, in Marjorie Suchocki’s words, as “The Supremely Related One.” God is the most effective power in reality as the necessary ground of order and novelty and is omniscient of the entire past and present of creation. Furthermore, God’s primordial nature (which Whitehead almost always talks about when speaking of God) is God’s radically transcendent and eternal pole, the source of infinite possibilities for creaturely becoming, as opposed to the consequent nature, which is God’s immanently related temporal pole. And as Catherine Keller explains, following Nicholas of Cusa’s logic, rather than God’s difference being diminished in relation (which is always the concern for non-relational substance thinkers - even in Tillich, despite his intentions to be relational), process theologians believe that, once you get rid of substance metaphysics, difference heightens in relation. This insight is why process theology today has been so reenergized by the apophatic tradition.

5) I admit, many process theologians eagerly relativize the incarnation. No argument there. But others do not. Cobb believes Jesus is the center of history, the decisive revelation of God who saves us from sin through his life, death, and resurrection. Cobb’s atonement is a type of Christus Victor mixed with Abelard’s moral theory. He can say that Jesus, because his subjectivity, his ‘I’, was co-constituted by God by perfectly responding at every moment to God’s call or lure for his life, he is qualitatively, not just quantitatively different from other humans. Cobb thus even says Jesus is both God and human, quite literally, since in a process-relational rather than classical substance paradigm there is no problem with two things (God and Jesus) occupying the same space at the same time. That’s not a low Christology – it’s an attempt to take the creeds as seriously as possible in our contemporary world! The incarnation is literally true, unique, and universally important. Bracken is very similar, though a process social Trinitarian, and Clayton can say much the same of Jesus with what he admits is an adoptionist Christology in his book The Predicament of Belief. But Christ remains uniquely the incarnation of God for him, unlike any others, and saving through his work.

I hope this helps the conversation about process theology that's been going on lately.  Thanks to Tony for engaging it so seriously!  

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Things I Loved In 2013: Music, Films, & Books

Top 10 Albums of 2013:

1) City and Colour - The Hurry and the Harm: This is my personal favorite this year for a lot of reasons.  First of all, my fiance introduced me to City & Colour and then I took her to see him in concert this year in Central Park (which was wonderful - oh, and it's where I proposed to her too!).  Anyways, the album itself is beautiful acoustic folk-rock with a tinge of dreamy americana.  Dallas Greene's voice is something to behold and his songwriting, as always, is in absolute top form here. 

2) Typhoon - White Lighter:  I almost missed this release but was fortunate enough to have a friend recommend it to me a few months ago.  It is the new music discovery that I am most excited about from this year.  Aspects of this Portland, Oregon band remind me of Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, and Bright Eyes.  Well-worth your time and money.

3) The National - Trouble Will Find Me: This band just keeps getting better - and darker - with each new release.  If you have never given the National a listen, this is a great place to start.  This album is haunting, beautiful, and thoughtful from beginning to end.

4) Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience Vol. 1: What? You're surprised to see me include a solo album from the former Mouseketeer and N'Sync member?  Yeah, me too, but I offer no apology here. This is easily one of the most enjoyable and impressive art-pop records I have ever listened to, channeling Prince, Michael Jackson, and Stevie Wonder.  One could easily use the album to teach a history of pop music from the last few decades.  Keep 'em coming, JT.

5) Local Natives - Hummingbird: What do you get when you fuse some of the best elements of the Fleet Foxes, Arcade Fire, and My Morning Jacket? This brilliant album, which is nevertheless all their own sound.  This is definitely a band worth watching and an album that merits repeated listens.  I have a feeling that Local Natives are just getting started.  

6) Sigur Ros - Kveikur: Having had the opportunity to see the album performed live earlier this summer (my third live experience with the band), I can't ignore this one for my list.  It's more aggressive and darker than recent records by the band, but still just as gorgeous as ever.  Few bands move me the way that Sigur Ros does with their ethereal walls of sound and angelic vocals.

7) Kacey Musgraves - Same Trailer Different Park: I know, this seems like an odd choice.  But trust me - it's fantastic contemporary country music that should also appeal to listeners like me who normally prefer alt-country, folk, and Americana.  The musicianship is solid and the songwriting catchy as hell - and edgier than your average Nashville country-pop song.  Musgraves was the soundtrack of my cross-country drive from California to New Jersey in August. 

8) John Mayer - Paradise Valley: This was also a road trip album for me in August, and as a long time Mayer fan, I have to say that this one works well.  I doubt he will ever do something as brilliant as Continuum, but this comes close from another angle, blending folk, blues, pop, and country styles with his signature guitar playing and singing.

 9) Kanye West - Yeezus: I've never enjoyed hip-hop very much, but Kanye's work has always fascinated me.  A genius producer, talented rapper, and a wildly egotistical person, this album is easily his best.  It is to hip-hop what Radiohead's Kid A was to rock over a decade ago, deconstructing the predictable, the cliches, and reinventing the genre itself.

10) Daft Punk - Random Access Memory: Not only have I included country, pop, and hip-hop in this year's best of list...I've included a disco/funk influenced electronic dance album!  But seriously, here's another stroke of genius in music this year from a band that rarely has a misstep. 

Honorable Mentions: Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City, James Blake - Overgrown, Phoenix - Bankrupt!, Arcade Fire - Reflektor, Civil Wars - Civil Wars

Top 5 Films of 2013:

1) 12 Years a Slave: Easily my favorite film of 2013.  I haven't cried in a film as I did in this one in years - and even then, I can count on one hand how many times this has happened to me ever.  The acting is astounding, the cinematography is stunning, and the story itself is simultaneously horrifying and deeply, profoundly moving.

 2) Captain Phillips: With fairly high expectations due to the leading role by Tom Hanks, I have never been more surprised by how much I loved a film.  The last 15 minutes of this fantastically entertaining film involves some of the most impressive acting I have ever seen in my life.  Hanks is a genius, something I already firmly believed, but this film confirmed it yet again.

3) The Butler: I greatly appreciated the historical approach of this film, tracing the experience of a White House butler that is based on a true story.  The film raises provocative questions about race and power and includes an excellent cast of actors playing different presidents.

4) The Great Gatsby: First of all, I loved the soundtrack.  In fact, I haven't enjoyed a film's musical component this much in a very long time.  Second, DeCaprio is in top form here, cementing him as one of my favorite actors.  But this moving, romantic, and tragic story, while transformed quite a bit for the big screen from the classic book, is one that won't leave your mind for a long time after the film is over. 

5) The Way, Way Back: What a surprise this was!  Steve Carrell is extremely effective in this coming of age story - although every member of the cast are basically perfect for their roles.  Very reminiscent of the related film Little Miss Sunshine, definitely make some time for this quirky drama-comedy.

Honorable Mentions: Inside Llewyn Davis, MudGravity, About Time, Hunger Games 2, World War Z

Top 5 Reads of 2013:

1) The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps by John Caputo (2013): Let me be clear - as a former Philip Clayton student at Claremont, I'm a process theologian who likes metaphysics. Yet as a Catherine Keller student at Drew University, I'm somewhere in-between Clayton's scientific approach to theism and Caputo's deconstructive theology of the event.  So while I prefer a theo-poetics that does not replace theo-logy (or ontology), I also love John Caputo's brand of radical theology that remains purely phenomenological in approach, particularly because I have always appreciated its resonance with process thought in a variety of ways.  Plus, few theologians or philosophers write as well as Caputo does.  So while I'm more Cobbian than Caputan, this new text from one of the so-called "3 JCs" is a must-read.  Check out Homebrewed Christianity's recent blog tour on the book for more.

2) Spirit, Qi, & the Multitude by Hyo-Dong Lee (2013): Full disclosure - Lee is one of my professors at Drew.  But his recent publication is so dense and intellectually impressive that I couldn't resist placing it high on the list.  Fusing Neo-Confucian and Taoist thought with Western thinkers like Deleuze, Hegel, Keller, Whitehead, Hardt, and Negri, this text of comparative theology will probably require multiple readings to be absorbed by most readers.  

3) Anatheism: Returning to God After God by Richard Kearney (2009): I read this book in the fall for a class at the beginning of my first semester at Drew. While a few years old at this point, it represents an important perspective in continental philosophical theology that has much in common with Caputo.  Reading interreligiously as a philosopher, his notion of God as Stranger is extremely provocative and helpful for me.

4) Theopoetic Folds: Philosophizing Multifariousness ed. by Roland Faber & Jeremy Fackenthal (2013): Faber was a professor of mine at Claremont while Fackenthal was a PhD student friend of mine during my master's program.  Both were helpful in my thinking about process theology, and this text is a great publication that includes fantastic essays that focus particularly on the process form of theopoetics.  Aside from the editors, the contributors include Caputo, John Thatamanil, Catherine Keller, etc.

5) Religion, Politics, & the Earth: The New Materialism by Clayton Crockett & Jeff Robbins (2012): One of the most buzzed about books over the last year or so, definitely check this one out since it's now available in a more affordable paperback version.  Robins and Crockett are doing great work in the field of radical theology and this is a great place to start if you're interested in that conversation. 

Honorable Mentions: Divine Multiplicity: Trinities, Diversities, & The Nature of Relation ed. by Chris Boesel, The Idolatry of God by Peter Rollins, Dualities: A Theology of Difference by Michelle Voss Roberts, What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Rob Bell, Religions in the Making: Whitehead and the Wisdom Traditions of the World ed. by John Cobb