Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Process Response to Crockett & Robbins’ New Materialism

As part of the Homebrewed Christianity blog tour for Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism by Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey Robbins, it was suggested that I write a post in response to just one of the chapters. However, as I read the book I became more and more interested in the connection between the New Materialism and Process Theology. As such, I will be using this opportunity to engage various parts of the book from the perspective of one shaped by the process-Whiteheadian tradition. As a Claremont student, I learned from John Cobb, Marjorie Suchocki, Philip Clayton, Monica Coleman, and Roland Faber – not to mention my good friend Tripp Fuller, process evangelist extraordinaire! This fall I will be heading to Drew University to work with Catherine Keller for my PhD in Theological and Philosophical studies. Clearly my interests are tied to process theology, although I am very interested in exploring the connections between process and radical theologies. Keller and Faber have both done great work to do just this in various publications that bring together Whitehead with Badiou, Deleuze, Butler, Derrida, etc.

All of that goes to say that this new and exciting book from Robbins and Crockett resonates with my current academic interests even though they do not directly engage process theology. On the other hand, both of the authors are very influenced by Deleuze, who was himself influenced by Whitehead. Both Keller and Faber are poststructuralist process theologians working to re-energize the process tradition, largely by reading Whitehead through Deleuze. As such, I am curious to know more about how Crockett and Robbins respond to such a project as radical theologians – no doubt with great appreciation, but I’m sure they have some concerns as well. Is there room at the Radical Theology table for 'radical process theologies', especially in light of the fact that they claim in the book that Radical Theology (as with process theology) is not merely one school of thought but is made up of multiple streams of thought? The New Materialism certainly has some interesting points of connection to the process tradition that I would like to highlight in this post, and indeed, the authors admit that some forms of Radical Theology are informed by the process tradition (xvi). While there are differences between the two schools of thought to be sure, I’m more interested in the common ground between them and will concentrate on some of those in this post. I will not be able to go in depth here and must assume some familiarity with process thought, but I do hope that this provides a short overview of some points of contact I discovered between Crockett and Robbins’ proposals in this book and process theology in general.

First of all, this book reminded me of John Cobb’s prolific work in quite a few ways.  The ability to tackle such a wide variety of key issues with such intellectual intensity is something that Cobb shares with Crockett and Robbins.  With economist Herman Daly, Cobb has written extensively on developing alternative economics in response to the ecological crisis that is informed by a very particular (Whiteheadian) philosophical perspective. I fully expect that Cobb would also be very interested, perhaps even applauding the bold nuclear energy proposal made in chapter 7 of Crockett and Robbins’ book. With biologist Charles Birch, he has written a great deal about the need to rethink science in ways that are nonreductionist as far too much mainstream science tends to be – and of course, this is by way of Whitehead as well. He has collaborated with other philosophers and theologians to develop new ways to think about a truly democratic politics in confrontation with American imperialism and corporate capitalism. He also maintains a deep and respectful conversation with his close friend Thomas J. Altizer, the theological grandfather of the current resurgence of Radical Theology who essentially put Death of God theology on the map decades ago. In his own way, Cobb calls for a secularizing theology from his perspective as a process theologian that is primarily concerned with material existence in this world – a notion that certainly resonates with Radical Theology.  In fact, I believe that all of Cobb's work that I just listed would resonate to a great extent with Crockett and Robbins' New Materialism.

To get a little more specific, it seems to me that Cobb’s Whiteheadian-process metaphysics has a number of interesting connections to the New Materialist ontology developed in chapter 8 of Crockett and Robbins’ book, which is informed by Hegel and Deleuze. Like process theologians, their ontology is nondualistic (118), nonreductionist, pluralistic (though not atomistic), and emergentist (119). And like Whitehead, they see matter as “not really matter at all but matter-energy” (xx).  Cobb regularly explains process metaphysics in almost identical terms to illustrate Whitehead’s central notion of actual occasions, which are more like energy - thus moving away from more static notions of matter or substance. Crockett and Robbins again sound very much like Whitehead when they write, “…we can approach an understanding of being as an irreducible multiplicity that is nevertheless not atomist…Being is the becoming or evolution of space and time and takes the form of energy” (114). And again in the following similar quote: “…spacetime is nothing but an evolving system of relationships” (116). They also join Whiteheadians in their concern to bring philosophy into closer contact with the natural sciences (118) and by rejecting a sharp line between living and nonliving, organic and inorganic things (119). Finally, Crockett and Robbins agree with Whiteheadians in their perspective on thinking/minds/consciousness as “an emergent property” that cannot be subjected to either a traditional dualism or hardcore reductionism (132).  These are not insignificant points of connection between the New Materialism and Process Theology!

On religion, process thinkers like Cobb would have much to agree with Crockett and Robbins on as well. While taking the critique of religion by the masters of suspicion seriously, process thinkers can strongly agree with the authors when they assert that "with the New Materialism, religion might become a source of empowerment and political mobilization…the revolutionary potential is found not by ridding the world of religion but by thinking religion otherwise” (25-26).  Both groups of thinkers, radical and process, also agree that the significance of Jesus has much more to do with material existence in this world, standing in opposition to all exploitative systems such as neoliberal capitalism, than with another world after death. In other words, both are "secularizing theologies" (Cobb's idea explained in his book Spiritual Bankruptcy). Although Cobb is unapologetically committed to theism, unlike Radical Theology, it seems to me that his process framework addresses many of the concerns of materialist critiques of religion in general and theism in particular. For example, Crockett and Robbins write “we do not oppose religion, but we do oppose fanaticism and fundamentalism, including the fairy-tale expectations that a God or gods will rescue us from our predicament and punish the evildoers while rewarding the righteous” (xvi). Process theologians could not agree more with this statement as they do not affirm a form of theism that has room for an interventionist God or even a final eschatological cleanup of the mess we have made of the earth.  Responsibility thus falls back upon human beings rather than placed entirely upon a supernatural and omnipotent being.

I hope this post is useful to those who find both process and radical theologies of interest.  I will continue to explore the various points of contact between these two schools of thought (likely on this blog in the near future) which to me seem to be the most fruitful and interesting conversations going on in theology today.  While representatives of radical and process theology have started conversing more in recent years, I hope that we can deepen this discussion as some of the misunderstandings between them are dismantled and bridges are built.  Crockett and Robbins have done much to do just that by writing this great book.  I am very grateful for the opportunity to review this fascinating text and recommend it to all who find these issues interesting.

Click here for a list of other great bloggers on the HBC blog tour for this book!