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 na├»ve 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.

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