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.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Theology as Creation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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