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.

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