Thursday, December 3, 2015

God, the All-Enfolder: Josiah Royce's Idealism

I've been reading the great American Idealist Josiah Royce (1855-1916) this week and enjoying it immensely. I've read a good amount of Hegel, the most important philosophical Idealist, but Royce offers a clarity that one does not find in the former. What interests me at the moment about Royce is his early argument for the Infinite Thought or Spirit as that which grounds the reality of error - and therefore truth and goodness. Royce then went on to argue that religion is not primarily about the individual, but about communal "loyalty", which becomes his defining theme and ultimate virtue: "Loyalty to loyalty," he wrote. While Royce's idealistic panentheism evolves over time - in ways that anticipate both Tillich and Whitehead, interestingly - I cannot resist sharing this quote from an early essay, "The Possibility of Error":

"Everything finite we can doubt, but not the Infinite. That eludes even skepticism. The world-builders, and the theodicies that were to justify them, we could well doubt. The apologetic devices wearied us. All the ontologies of the realistic schools were just pictures, that we could accept or reject as we chose by means of postulates. We tried to escape them all. We forsook all those gods; but here we have found something that abides...No power it is to be resisted, no plan-maker to be foiled by fallen angels, nothing finite, nothing striving, seeking, losing, altering, growing weary; the All-Enfolder it is, and we know its name. Not Heart, nor Love, though these also are in it and of it; Thought it is, and all things are for Thought, and in it we live and move."

Josiah Royce (right) with William James
In particular, I am intrigued to find Royce's theological metaphor of the "All-Enfolder", which resonates with Catherine Keller's recent work that synthesizes Cusa, Deleuze, and Whitehead to think of God in similar terms: the divine enfolding-unfolding, or the "Ultimate Entanglement."

One final quote that I'd like to share from Royce's later writings anticipates Whitehead's emphasis on the God who suffers, along with Moltmann's distinctly Christian image of the crucified God:

"But now, as it is, if we have the true insight of deeper idealism, we can turn from our chaos to him...the suffering God...who actually and in our flesh bears the sins of the world, and whose natural body is pierced by the capricious wounds that hateful fools inflict upon him - it is this thought, I say, that traditional Christianity has in its deep symbolism first taught the world, but that, in its fullness only an idealistic interpretation can really and rationally express...What in time is hopelessly lost, is attained for him in his eternity." (quoted in Cornel West Reader, 181-182)

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Altizer's Death of God Theology

It was in the spring of 1966 that radical death of God theology broke through the academic barrier and into the awareness of the general public in the United States. On the cover of what turned out to be its best-selling issue at the time, Time Magazine featured the controversial words, “Is God Dead?” The magazine article explored the challenges that modernity posed to faith and theology, including the rise of secularism and the natural sciences, which seemed to increasingly make God an unnecessary idea to make sense of the world. The leading death of God theologian, Thomas J.J. Altizer (b.1927) was also briefly mentioned in the article as proceeding to do theology without God. Altizer even received death threats in response to his theological claims, which are perhaps most clearly expressed in his 2002 book, The New Gospel of Christian Atheism (a revision of his 1966 manifesto, The Gospel of Christian Atheism). As Altizer explains in the book’s preface, his goal is to explicate the “most radical ‘dogmatic’ theology, one that attempts to discover the death of God as the very essence of the Christian faith, and to do so by unveiling a uniquely Christian crucifixion as apocalypse itself” (viii). But despite the negativity that drives Altizer’s project (a concept that is indeed crucial for him), he argues that the apocalyptic negation of the transcendent God makes “possible an ultimate affirmation and an ultimate joy” in life (x, my emphases). Perhaps more surprising is that Altizer’s work is not only joyful, but profoundly Christocentric – and arguably just as much as Barth’s theology. For in Altizer’s thinking, the Crucified Christ is indeed the very center of history and the absolute Incarnation of the Godhead.

The central philosophical sources for Altizer’s theology are undoubtedly Hegel and Nietzsche, followed by Heidegger and Kierkegaard. He often draws on the poetry of William Blake, Melville’s Moby Dick, and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Altizer also engages three of the most revolutionary Christian theologians: Augustine, Luther, and Barth. His radical theology is thus a critical synthesis of some of the most challenging thinkers in Western philosophy, literature, and theology. While this can make for difficult reading at times, if one can discern the basic narrative at the core of Altizer’s project – which is inspired by his radical interpretation of the bible – the essence of his death of God theology can be grasped.

It is important to note that Altizer does not oppose Christian faith, but rather “manifest” Christianity (i.e., “Christendom”). He is a radical theologian for the sake of a “new Christianity” that challenges the “old Christianity” of orthodoxy. For Altizer, orthodoxy is profoundly reactionary, and even anti-Christian in its efforts to cling to a primordial ground. It is thus a denial of the apocalyptic origins of Christianity, the very opposite of the orthodox desire to return to a primordial ground: it is the forward-moving affirmation of the radically new in history, the “absolute novum” (26). Focusing on the crucifixion, Altizer claims it reveals “death [as] absolute in Christianity…only the ending or death of the old creation makes possible the new creation, and Paul knows that ending as occurring in the Crucifixion, a crucifixion thereby manifest as apocalypse itself. This is the very apocalypse that is renewed in a new Christianity…but now death is total as it never is in…ancient Christianity, a totality of death inaugurated by the very advent of the modern world, and one only consummated in our world” (30). Despite the Christocentric particularity of this death, it is only with the birth of the modern world that the death of God becomes truly universal. Indeed, secular modernity is to be understood as “a repetition or renewal of the Crucifixion [that] universalizes the Crucifixion” (31). This points to the Hegelian-Nietzschean narrative of Altizer’s theology: in the Incarnation, the transcendent Godhead absolutely empties Godself (kenosis) into the human Jesus, and literally dies in the Crucifixion (contra the orthodox belief that only the human nature of Jesus suffered and died). God thus becomes absolutely immanent Spirit in the world after the negation of abstract “heavenly transcendence” in the Crucifixion (45, 54).

While this is a certain kind of “atheism”, Altizer specifically argues for the death of every “given or manifest God” (52, my emphases). Having become absolutely immanent, the resurrected Spirit is now “truly all in all” and “identified with actuality itself,” Altizer writes (53). His Christian atheism is thus difficult to distinguish from pantheism. Indeed, Altizer claims that Spinoza’s pantheism becomes truly “comprehensive” with Hegel’s Absolute Spirit (54, 77-78). Thus in Altizer’s reading of Hegel, the concept of Resurrection is rendered “unrecognizable” for Christian orthodoxy (56), because it is inseparable from Crucifixion and now signifies “an absolutely transfigured God, a God who is pure and total immanence as opposed to pure and total transcendence” (57). This is the final “ending [of] every beyond” (61), of every primordial ground: an absolute “No” to the nihilistic powers of transcendence and an absolute “Yes” to embodied life (66).

Barth’s “Christomonism” also prepared the way for Altizer’s Christian atheism. Barth made “impossible any Neoplatonic understanding of the Godhead” because he banished “every understanding of God that is not an understanding of Christ” (82). And yet Altizer believes that Barth did not go far enough, because he still remained partly Neo-Platonic with ancient Christianity in his view of “Godhead itself as absolutely primordial…whose primordial movement is understood as the movement of eternal return, as manifest in the Trinity itself.” By contrast, Altizer claims that it was Hegel who thought the Trinity most purely in terms of absolute apocalypse rather than primordial ground: “a death of the Father releasing the totality of the crucifixion of the Son, and one wherein the Father passes wholly into the Son, but whose culmination is that resurrection that is the advent of the final age of the Spirit…an absolutely immanent Spirit” (83-85). Following Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity as the reversal of the “life-giving” gospel of Jesus – because its logic produces extreme guilt and impotent passivity in humanity, rather than freedom and empowerment – Altizer argues that the self-annihilation of God releases the liberating gospel of Jesus from oppressive and alienating theistic transcendence, which Altizer identifies as “Satan” (following Blake, 94-96).

There is much to admire in Altizer’s radical theology, although I found myself struggling with his frequent use of words like “absolute,” “total”, “complete”, “purely”, “ultimate”, “comprehensive”, “wholly”, “final”, etc. To be sure, this totalizing style flows out of his Hegelian-apocalyptic thinking. But I do not share his confidence that history has “absolutely” moved toward secularism, or that modernity “finally” killed God. Not only are such teleological metanarratives difficult to maintain from a postmodern perspective, but religion is also a more complex phenomenon than Altizer acknowledges. Furthermore, the concepts of transcendence and immanence remain unclear in his work. I wonder: in what sense is God now immanent in the world? Why would the death of the transcendent God lead to pan/atheistic immanence rather than a finite God of some sort (as in William James or Henry Nelson Weiman)? Is it really the case that God must totally die for the sake of human liberation? Or is the problem less that God is transcendent (in some sense) than that God is often uncritically viewed as an all-determining, moralistic, and exclusively male despot? This continues to be the response to Altizer’s work from many process and feminist theologians, who are otherwise sympathetic with much of his thinking. As Catherine Keller has suggested, perhaps “God is not dead, but becoming.” With this in mind, perhaps "radical theology" - broadly defined - need not depend on the absolute death of God.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Reflecting on Karl Rahner's Theology

In the 20th century, Karl Rahner (1904-1984) was for Roman Catholic theology what Karl Barth was for Protestant theology, and some have even placed him in line with the greatest theologians, such as Aquinas and Schleiermacher (see Roger Olson, The Journey of Modern Theology, 550). His work continues to be discussed throughout the Catholic world, beyond the context of Europe and North America. For example, during my visit to El Salvador in early 2015, a number of Catholic activists who I spoke to referenced Rahner (alongside liberation theologians like Sobrino and Gutierrez, of course) as crucial to their own Christian thinking. Indeed, both Catholics and Protestants are often impressed by Rahner’s efforts to strike a balance between traditional Catholic dogma and modernism (i.e., post-Enlightenment philosophies, biblical criticism, history of religions, the natural sciences, etc.). Like Paul Tillich, Rahner was therefore a mediating theologian who recognized the “pluralism” and “fragmentation” of theology in modernity, while nevertheless arguing for a robust conception of Christian existence (FCF, 7). As such, Rahner hoped to give “an intellectually honest justification of Christian faith” (FCF, xii), and claimed that theology succeeds only when it makes “contact with the total secular self-understanding which man has in a particular epoch” (FCF, 7-8). As these quotes indicate, Rahner and Tillich share strikingly similar theological positions. This is due in part to their common philosophical sources, namely the works of Martin Heidegger and German idealists, which infuse their theologies with certain existentialist and mystical sensibilities (FCF, 24).

Perhaps Rahner’s most well known position is that persons of other religious traditions can be considered “anonymous Christians”, and thus ultimately included within salvation through Christ. He is also frequently quoted for his embrace of Christian mysticism: “In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all.” Rahner’s inclusivism and mysticism point to one of the defining characteristics of his theology: a core concern to overcome any sharp dualism between God and creation. Rahner thus offered an intriguing doctrine of God in Foundations of Christian Faith that aimed to balance revelation and reason, transcendence and immanence. This did not result in a loss of God’s radical otherness. On the contrary, although Rahner viewed God as the “innermost center of our existence” (FCF, 12), he also spoke of God as absolute “mystery” and “abyss” (FCF, 2-3, 42).

Like most Catholic theologians, Rahner affirmed a certain kind of natural theology: that God can be partially known outside of special revelation: “theology itself implies a philosophical anthropology which enables [the] message of grace to be accepted” (25). For Rahner, there is indeed an essential “point of contact” between God and the creature. He thus disagreed with Barth’s “too narrowly Christological approach,” and advocated a transcendental theological method that begins with an analysis of human existence. This existential analysis ultimately demonstrated for Rahner that all humans have an “unthematic” knowledge of divinity as the absolute mystery of existence (FCF, 13, 18, 21). This is not an “objectifying” knowledge of God, and it is insufficient without the explicitly “thematic knowledge” of God derived from religious activity (FCF, 53). But thematic knowledge (i.e., revelation) requires an unthematic ground in order to be received, Rahner believed. He even claimed that this existential argument for the existence of God is “the one proof” that is legitimate, while all other “reflexive” arguments for God (whether cosmological, moral, etc.) only serve as necessary pointers to or clarifications of God as existential ground (71).

Thus Rahner paradoxically concluded that “holy mystery” is that which is “most self-evident,” because it is the presupposed ground for human knowledge of anything. Without this mysterious ground that gives everything existence, human comprehension of the world would be impossible: “Man is a transcendent being insofar as all of his knowledge and all of his conscious activity is grounded in a pre-apprehension of ‘being’ as such...” (33). But with Heidegger, Rahner maintained that this pre-thematic awareness of the ground of existence is always indirect and “never captured by metaphysical reflection.” It can be approached “if at all, in mystical experience and perhaps in the experience of final loneliness in the face of death.” (35). Thus in God’s radical immanence as the ground of existence, God remains simultaneously transcendent to the creature (58).

But why must this ground be named “God”? Part of Rahner’s surprisingly simple answer is that “God” is that enduring historical name for the uniting ground of reality, which humans necessarily wonder about as finite beings. In other words, “God” provides the most reasonable answer to the ontological question: “why is there something rather than nothing?” While Rahner thus identified God with Being-itself – as “holy mystery” – he admitted that one might call the ground of being “a thousand other names,” apart from thematic knowledge of God in Christ (60). This point raised some questions for me at this crucial moment in Rahner’s argument: why is it necessary to view the world as grounded in an original “unity” of Being at all, as Rahner claimed? Why not a differential abyss (Derrida), an unconscious ocean of virtual singularities (Deleuze), or a process of becoming without origin or final goal (Whitehead)? Why must existence be grounded in an original cosmic purpose, as Rahner claimed, rather than ungrounded in sheer chance? Can Rahner truly justify his Christian appropriation of Heidegger’s nontheistic ontology while yet transforming it into a kind of panentheism (this is always a problem for Heidggerian theologians – e.g., John Macquarrie)? I simply do not see how any existential analysis of humans “proves” that either God or unity grounds all of reality.

Although Rahner claimed to have avoided ontotheology by denying explicit conceptual knowledge of Being-itself (much like Tillich), he nevertheless attributed to it – without any apparent justification – a quasi-teleological function of unity (FCF, 64). How is this not thematic/conceptual knowledge of Being/God? This logocentric assumption that the world’s finite multiplicities are ultimately grounded in and derived from an original unity remains highly contestable, to say the least. I actually found this same rationalistic assumption in Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology I, in which he appropriates Rahner’s notion of an unthematic knowledge of God as uniting ground of being. Perhaps this is the enduring legacy of Hegel’s rationalism in so much European theology: that unity must be primordial, while difference is derivative. But in my view, this rationalistic-monotheistic assumption can only be defended (if at all) on the “grounds” of special revelation – and thus on a groundless risk of faith. Even so, I am not convinced that theology necessarily collapses into either total fideism or chaotic relativism when it departs from Rahner by more thoroughly resisting ontotheological temptations.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Loving the Manifold (REVIEW: The Divine Manifold, by Roland Faber)

For the last nine months or so, I have been reading Roland Faber's The Divine Manifold. When I first noticed that it was being released last summer, I thought that I would never get around to reading this nearly 600 page text - or at least not anytime soon. But then my advisor at Drew encouraged me to spend some time with the book and review it for a theology journal. Having just finished the text, my project next week will be to write the review and submit it for publication. This is not the first time that I have reviewed books written by former professors (Faber was my professor at Claremont), but this task is uniquely challenging. Faber is a deeply complex, intimidatingly brilliant thinker. He knows the process theo-philosophical tradition just as well as he knows poststructuralism, which is quite rare. And he is not just a theo-philosopher, but also a true mystic. This makes for challenging (but rewarding) reading, indeed. In this post, I just want to offer a relatively brief overview of the book and some comments about a few of its highlights. I will eventually post a more in-depth review when I get around to it.

The first thing to note is that this text constantly swings between rigorous philosophical engagements with virtually every major continental/poststructuralist/postmodern theorist (Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Zizek, Butler, Vattimo, Bataille, Badiou, etc) and mystical-poetic statements and reflections (inspired by Eckhart, Cusa, Bruno, and Buddhism) that one must take in very slowly to comprehend. As such, there is a kind of rhythm within this text that can take some time to get used to - not to mention all of the neologisms and novel concepts that can be quite difficult to grasp at first. These include: polyphilia, theoplicity, chaosmetics, transpantheism, transunification, in/difference, plurivocity, ecotheosis, substractive affirmation, polypoetics, divine diffusion, perikhora, in/finite interpretation, subtractive affirmation, and so on. For some readers, this style might be initially irritating, but I do think that it is worth the effort. The concepts and arguments demand one's time and consideration. 

In my view, Faber's reading of Whitehead - and the process tradition more generally - is often startlingly novel, largely because he does so through a poststructuralist (mostly Deleuzian) lens. In fact, a majority of this text involves his negotiation between Whitehead and Deleuze. He appears to have mastered both of these difficult thinkers, citing frequently from most of their publications, and offering close comparisons of their interrelated conceptual creations. Faber also challenges those Deleuzians who think that Deleuze superseded Whitehead in certain ways (e.g., by dispensing with the latter's deity and eternal objects - both of which Faber defends, largely on Deleuzian grounds), but he also challenges process thinkers to take Whitehead's post-rational, anti-foundational constructivism more seriously than they have in the past. He differentiates his process theopoetics from process theology at the very beginning of the book, not by dismissing the latter, of course, but by respectfully showing where he parts company with most of that tradition. The two process thinkers that he has the most in common with - and cites most frequently - is Bernard Loomer (the great process empiricist) and Catherine Keller (who has pioneered the process-poststructuralist conversation alongside Faber). 

While there is so much ground covered in the book - comparative theology, hermeneutics, cosmology, religious pluralism, politics, ethics, gender, and sexuality - what particularly stands out is Faber's unique reading/defense of Whitehead's divine "poet of the world" - here rendered as the "divine manifold." His interpretation of this controversial concept in Whitehead's philosophy is extremely subtle. He does not offer arguments for the existence of God. In fact, his argument for Whitehead's divine manifold resonates very strongly with radical theologians like John Caputo, who argues for God's "insistence" rather than "existence." Indeed, Faber concludes the book with a long discussion and sympathetic critique of Caputo's post-theism. But Faber reads Whitehead's God along similar lines (especially emphasizing Whitehead's early idea of God as "principle of concretion"): as the impossible event of love, or the pure love of multiplicity (polyphilia), which affirms and insists in, on, and as multiplicity.

In the epilogue, Faber quotes constructive theologian Laurel Schneider to define love as "letting go (of the One)." As such, Faber argues that God's loving "agency" is that which releases the world's multiplicities to themselves by destabilizing unities and imperial hierarchies of all kinds. God does not "create" the world (in any traditional sense), but rather "saves" it from the violence of the One by insisting on divergences and passing through them (readers of Deleuze and Whitehead will notice the embedded synthesis of their claims here). But this multiple divine does not in any simple sense "exist" (as entity, object, substance, subject) but "in-sists" (as "superject", "event", pure Idea of multiplicity, etc). It is not "ultimate," or "ground of being" either, for there is no single, all-encompassing ultimate in this chaosmos (so this is not panentheism!). Rather, there is a multipliticity of ultimates in mutual (groundless) suspension. And with his key concept of in/difference, Faber means to blur any clear distinction between the divine manifold and the world: they are always already folded together, so neither simply identical nor different. At different points in the text, Faber even labels his process theopoetic approach in ways that resonates with radical theology: post-theism, a/theism, post-theological, etc. But if this is radical theology, it is a new strand, in my view. Here is Faber's concluding paragraph, which nicely illustrates his radical "transpantheistic" approach:

"The Divine Manifold is only 'present' as it touches or releases the entirely living things. Without any preservation, but abundant in intensities of mutual perception, the 'divine game' of love 'neither rules nor is it unmoved.' It 'does not look to the future' nor the past 'for it finds its own reward in the immediate present'. It insists in impermanent events. As they reverberate in its diffusion, they become singularities of love. Shining in their disappearance, they save its universal relevance for another and the lost ones." (507)

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.

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. 

NOTE: this paper is no longer available online because it has been turned into a chapter in a forthcoming book to be published by Lexington Books in late 2017, entitled Nature's Transcendence and Immanence, edited by Marilynn Lawrence and Jea Sophia Oh.

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.