Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Becoming of Theology in the Anthropocene

"The Anthropocene represents a new phase in the history of both humankind and of the Earth, when natural forces and human forces became intertwined, so that the fate of one determines the fate of the other." (Jan Zalasiewicz)

From the beginning, the vast majority of humans seem to have experienced themselves to be in relation to gods and non-physical forces. And perhaps the anthropos is not the only animal to do so, some scholars now suggest. But as a disciplined mode of thinking about the divine or ultimate reality, theology was invented only in the late Holocene. During that epoch, the rapid growth and development of human civilizations greatly depended on the earth’s basically stable climate. In the context of our planet’s 4.6 billion years of existence, this 10,000-year period of relative stability was comparatively brief, but it was crucial for the rise of philosophical-theological reflection and systematization over the last few millennia. Particularly for Western minds, this geological stability also eventually permitted the view that nature changes only very gradually, and in modernity, that it is entirely determined by mechanistic laws. This perspective profoundly influenced modern philosophy and theology, which has thus frequently presumed a rigid distinction between human subjectivity and culture on the one side, and the material world of inert facts and mechanical objects on the other.

Along with this anthropocentric bifurcation, moderns developed another, closely related binary: a religious or spiritual realm that is sharply separated from that which is secular. As Brent Nongbri explains, the premodern Latin duality of religiosus/saecularis merely distinguished monastic from “worldly” clergy. By contrast, the modern Western religion/secular construct sharply separates certain human activities which are private, apolitical, and rooted in a purely spiritual faith from those which are public, appropriately political, and grounded in natural reason (Before Religion, 6). Ultimately, then, to be fully modern just is to carve up reality in terms of such binaries: culture/nature, human/nonhuman, subject/object, religion/secular, spirit/matter, and so on. These binaries are almost always construed hierarchically in support of various power dynamics, and they also tend to obscure the mutual relevance of politics, religion, and theology with the earth.

As both Charles Taylor and Michael Northcott argue, the late medieval fracturing of the analogical cosmos importantly enabled modernity’s interrelated dualisms. Since that time, nature was no longer generally envisioned as holistically integrated within a Great Chain of Being, or as obviously grounded in a divine source. As Taylor suggests, the premodern cosmos thereby became the modern universe. As a result of this widening metaphysical chasm between creation and Creator, mystery and agency were progressively expelled from the natural world, and more or less exclusively relocated in the divine will and/or human realm. Nature thereby gained a new level of autonomy and transparency for human analysis. In principle, it could then be objectively known, mathematized, and manipulated by a mechanistic, atomistic science. In turn, this radically secularized and reductionist view of nature or matter influenced a parallel secularization and fragmentation of society. Consequently, an unfettered capitalist economy could ruthlessly exploit an objectified nature; the liberal nation-state could claim a secular form of sovereignty apart from the authorization of any deity; and “religion” could be invented by Western scholars, only to isolate it within a private, irrational, apolitical realm. All of this is enfolded in Taylor’s argument that an "immanent frame" inevitably shapes our modern Western social imaginary, which is characterized by scientific naturalism, hyper-individualism, mechanistic materialism, political and economic liberalism, instrumental reason, and so on.

With the recent birth of the Anthropocene, however, this modern imaginary seems to be coming undone. The arrival of our new epoch has revealed the geological agency of humans, while also massively amplifying the agency of the earth that increasingly intervenes in societies. As a neo-catastrophist concept, it further suggests that nature is not always slowly changing in a linear fashion. Moreover, as rooted in the current earth science that conceptualizes our planet as a complex, self-organizing, and largely unpredictable system, it undermines the modern science that has been based on mechanistic materialism. As such, the Anthropocene effectively blurs “hegemonic nature/culture bifurcations,” as William Connolly argues, which in turn destabilizes modernity’s other interlocking binaries: “secular/sacred divisions, life/nonlife dichotomies, center/periphery relations, and science/faith struggles historically inscribed in Euro-American life are rattled by the advent of the Anthropocene” (FP, 3). In fact, something like this perspective is increasingly shared among scholars of the new epoch, from Earth system scientists and stratigraphers to political ecologists, environmental historians, and post-humanists.

Already in 2009, the postcolonial theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty argued that the Anthropocene challenges the very foundations of modernity: “Humans have become geological agents very recently in human history. In that sense…the distinction between human and natural histories…has begun to collapse” (‘Climate of History’, 207). Strongly influenced by Chakrabarty’s work, the novelist Amitav Ghosh notes that we are today “beginning to recognize something we had turned away from…the presence and proximity of nonhuman interlocutors” (The Great Derangement, 30). Modern anthropocentrism, reductionism, and idealism are perhaps even giving way to a “new materialism” that takes “the earth as subject,” as Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey Robbins suggest (RPE, xx). Relatedly, Bruno Latour has proposed a conceptual shift from modern “Nature” to nonmodern “Gaia,” which redistributes providence, creativity, and agency among a plurality of earthlings.

With some exceptions – as in recent writings by Michael Northcott and Celia Deane-Drummond – constructive theologians have yet to deeply engage Anthropocene scholarship (although I suspect that such work will very soon emerge). Yet with its destabilization of multiple modern binaries and redistribution of agency, creativity, mystery, transcendence, and power to nonhuman forces, the new epoch arguably has radical implications for theology. Whereas Northcott and Deane-Drummond critically retrieve orthodox Christian theologies, my sense is that more radical approaches are needed. How might one think theologically in a time that is dominated by human activities, and in which nonhuman agents are rapidly emerging from the background and into the foreground? Might this multiplication of agential powers imply the need to rethink certain conceptions of divine power and secular sovereignty? Can theology resist the dualistic and reductionist modes of thought that have helped to lead us into the Anthropocene? And rather than being reduced to political irrelevance, might a “post-secular” theology – or religious traditions more broadly – actually play a crucial role in attempts to pursue what John Cobb and others call an “ecological civilization”?

Sunday, November 5, 2017

"The Sea Was No More": Tehomic Theology In the Anthropocene

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. (Revelation 21:1) 

The science of the Anthropocene is clear on this point: by ending the Holocene through a variety of ecologically destabilizing activities, modern humans have irreversibly altered Earth history. To be sure, early moderns did not fully grasp the enormous consequences of their extractivist practices and worldviews. Even so, it was widely understood since the late 18th century that modern industrialism was dangerously transforming the environment in many ways. This fact leads historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz to provocatively argue that the birth of the Anthropocene epoch is largely the result of intentional human actions since the Industrial Revolution. We might therefore follow Bill McKibben’s suggestion to re-name our planet “Eaarth,” since we have effectively replaced the old Earth of the Holocene.

In biblical language, the human species has thus created (through destruction) “a new earth,” in a perversely mimetic enactment of John of Patmos’ apocalyptic vision. While we are therefore an undeniably powerful animal, we hardly deserve the honorific title of the “god-species,” as Mark Lynas has claimed. Or,if we must now be deified, we are gods facing our own possible extinction in the coming centuries. The modern notion of ‘the death of God’ thus takes on new significance in this potentially post-Human epoch, for our Anthropocenic creation has not involved the healing or renewal of the earth. Precisely the opposite. Because we have radically destabilized the planetary boundary conditions (e.g. climate, greenhouse gases) that permitted the flourishing of life in a relatively stable climate, we must now reckon with the “intrusion of Gaia,” as Isabelle Stengers says. Indeed, Gaia calls into question any deification of the anthropos, for it signifies a “forgotten form of transcendence: a transcendence deprived of the noble qualities that would allow it to be invoked as an arbiter, guarantor, or resource; a ticklish assemblage of forces that are indifferent to our reasons and projects.” (In Catastrophic Times, 47)

While the parallel between these biblical and ecological narratives may at first seem only slight – since John’s apocalyptic new earth appears as good, while the Anthropocenic new earth appears as threat – a closer examination of the two reveals a common logic: both depend on dominological dualisms of androcentric mastery and unilateral power. Just as John envisioned God unilaterally bringing about a new creation of all things, so has the modern anthropos mimicked this masculinizing power of creation through its terraforming activities. In both cases, creativity takes the form of a top-down “making” that is not (also) a co-creative “letting be.” As is well-documented by environmental scholars, our attempts to control and dominate a supposedly passive and feminized nature began most dramatically with the Baconian paradigm of modern science, but it continues in an aggressive fashion with today’s geoengineers and extractive capitalists. At least some of us thereby tend to see ourselves – very much like the God of classical theism – as "earth masters."

To further support his hope for a unilateral act of re-creation, John adds that “the sea” will be annihilated. What to make of this? It is not to be interpreted literally, as if the eschatological creation would be without large bodies of water, but rather in the context of a certain biblical controversy that stretches back to the Genesis symbol of the watery depths – the tehom that preceded the created cosmos. In Genesis, divinity does not create ex nihilo, but rather from a primal chaos that conditions divine power. For other biblical writers like John, along with later theologians who constructed the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, this watery limitation on divine power was unacceptable. Thus, as Catherine Keller has shown, the biblical tradition itself “hosts two radically distinct attitudes toward the tehom” (Face of the Deep, 25). We therefore find in the book of Psalms, for example, two competing views of the chaos: one that is tehomophobic, which demonizes the watery symbolism to reinforce a logic of mastery, and another, more playful tehomophilic perspective, implying a relational theology of divine-creaturely co-creativity. For Keller, tehom signifies the matrix of possibilities for cosmic becoming and relational creativity. Thus, “the earth is agent” of creation, she argues, not merely a passive recipient of human or divine actions. (FD, 195) Like Stengers suggests, the Earth has a kind of transcendence that resists total control, as a complex assemblage of what Bruno Latour calls "little transcendences."

Returning to John’s vision, we are told that the new creation will be accomplished by God’s top-down replacement of the “first earth” and the unruly “sea” with the orderly architecture of a heavenly city: "And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God..." (Rev 21:2). Thus, “an urban architecture supersedes the organic topologies of earth and sea” in John's apocalypse, Keller writes (Apocalypse Now and Then, 80). John’s vision is therefore frustratingly ambiguous: fiercely anti-imperial, yet not always implying what Larry Rasmussen calls an “earth-honoring” perspective. While challenging the earthly imperial powers that be, John also hopes for the final negation of earthly potentiality to make way for a forced imposition of the Divine Plan.

But as Keller argues, this apocalyptic annihilation of the “sea” strongly exemplifies the tehomophobic tradition, with its denial of shared power and mutual immanence between divinity and creatures for the sake of a purely transcendent Order (ANT, 80; FD, xvii). The agency of the Earth is thereby denied - its little transcendences negated. As much for John as for today's geoengineers and extractive capitalists, a final mastery of the sea/she and earth/Gaia is the final goal. Yet the cost of such visions of conquering the chaosmic potentialities of the earth is life itself – for what, after all, is life without the tehomic capacity to become? (ANT, 18) Rather than “staying with the trouble” (Donna Haraway), humanity has too often resented the ambiguities of materiality. So we seek to tame it, to control it. But such resentment-fueled, dominological narratives support a vision of earthly mastery – whether by the agency of God or Man – that presses toward the negation of life. Consequently, we are now facing the irruption of Gaia in the Anthropocene, which ultimately challenges our modern schemes of domination.

As such, it seems to me that such visions are increasingly difficult to defend today – even if that does not stop so many in power from dogmatically upholding them anyways. According to Earth System scientists, our planet must be understood as a complex system, organism, or entity that is self-organizing and partially unpredictable. It therefore cannot be totally mastered. Gaia is not a purely passive and mechanical object, but a lively, agential force, or a vast assemblage of self-creative and interrelated forces. To envision the planet in such terms – as autopoietic or “sympoietic” (Haraway) – suggests the need to exercise “greater modesty in relation to nonhuman beings and forces,” as William Connolly writes (Facing the Planetary, 12). For it is impossible to fully know how Gaia will act and respond to anthropogenic forcings. And yet today, we stubbornly continue our dangerous path of planetary destabilization, often driven by a toxic blend of ancient and modern dominologies – as exemplified by the emergence of an anti-democratic “geopower” (Bonneuil/Fressoz).

While not completely rejecting the political potential of John’s vision, it seems crucial to retrieve a prophetic eschatology of “earthy shalom” as a counter-apocalyptic alternative to the apocalyptic negation of tehomic becoming (ANT, 81). Such a hopeful vision of planetary justice would not resist “finitude, but only premature death,” Keller suggests (ANT, 81). But reimagining endings implies that one must reimagine beginnings as well, so alternative accounts of creation are also needed. As Keller wonders: “Might those who do not hope for a final, omnipotent intervention, hope for a ‘new creation’ modeled not on a dry ex nihilo but on a fluid process that will ‘make all things new’?” (FD, 21). If so, we would need to learn to live with the ineliminable uncertainties, agential powers, and little transcendences of the Earth system – to learn to live in symbiotic relation with self-organizing nonhuman processes of multiple kinds.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Best of 2016: Music, Movie, Books

Better late than never, right? Every year I post top ten lists of the movies, music, and books that I loved during the year. These lists sometimes do not get posted until we are already a month - or even a few months - into the new year, and they aren't meant to be exhaustive. In other words, they only cover what I was personally able to watch, hear, and read. So, these are the movies, albums, and books that I loved in 2016. Perhaps something on the list will lure you to check it out:


  1. Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins
  2. Arrival, directed by Dennis Villeneuve
  3. Captain Fantastic, directed by Matt Ross
  4. 13th, directed by Ava DuVernay
  5. Florence Foster Jenkins, directed by Stephen Frears
  6. I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck
  7. Last Days in the Desert, directed by Rodrigo Garcia
  8. Other People, directed by Chris Kelly
  9. Paterson, directed by Jim Jarmusch 
  10. Little Men, directed by Ira Sachs
Honorable Mentions: Hail, Caesar!, Silence, Eye In the Sky, Rogue One, Manchester By the Sea, Hidden Figures, Green Room, Requiem for an American Dream, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Swiss Army Man, Where to Invade Next, Before the Flood, Imperium, The Lobster, Midnight Special, Jungle Book, All the Way, Zootopia, The Man Who Knew Infinity.


  1. Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
  2. Bon Iver, 22, A Million
  3. Daughter, Not to Disappear
  4. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
  5. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor's Guide to Earth
  6. James Blake, The Colour in Anything
  7. ANOHNI, Hopelessness
  8. The 1975, I like it when you sleep...
  9. Frank Ocean, Blonde
  10. Jack Garratt, Phase


  1. Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power by Donovan Shaefer
  2. Common Goods: Economy, Ecology, and Political Theology by Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre, Catherine Keller, Elias Ortega-Aponte (eds) 
  3. The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean Baptiste-Fressoz 
  4. The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
  5. Democracy In Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
  6. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli
  7. Jesus' Abba by John B. Cobb, Jr.
  8. An Insurrectionist Manifesto: Four New Gospels for a Radical Politics by Ward Blanton, Clayton Crockett, Jeffrey Robbins, and Noelle Vahanian.
  9. A Hindu Theology of Liberation by Anantanand Rambachan
  10. Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scranton
Older books that I loved in 2016: Why I Am Not A Secularist by William Connolly; A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey; The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere by Judith Butler, Charles Taylor, Jurgen Habermas, Cornel West, et al; Ramanuja and Schleiermacher by Jon Paul Sydnor; The Analogical Turn by Johannes Hoff; Zen and Western Thought by Masao Abe; The Advaita Worldview by Anantanand Rambachan; How (Not) To Be Secular by James K.A. Smith; The Philosophy of William James by Donald Crosby; Radical Democracy and Political Theology by Jeffrey Robbins; The Individual and the Cosmos by Ernst Cassirer; The Myth of Religious Violence by William Cavanaugh; Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

Monday, April 10, 2017

Hope & the Death of God in Father John Misty

I'm always grateful for thoughtful, beautifully produced music like Father John Misty often creates. I've even been able to see him (i.e. Josh Tillman) perform live, which was an amazing experience. There is much to love about his new album, "Pure Comedy", even as most of the lyrics envision a kind of imminent secular apocalypse - intensified by Trumpism, but not only that - and with hardly any evidence of hope. Exemplifying what Charles Taylor insightfully called "the malaise of modernity", the album is pervaded by a sense of loss, frustration, and tragedy, framed in large part by Tillman's experience of the death of god/s and dissatisfaction with liberal humanism. It's pretty bleak, even as it captivates. Or as this critical review in the Atlantic put it, "Pure Comedy often plays like a tedious brochure for nihilism, rescued only by a few flirtations with grace."

Now, I affirm the need to honestly confront the real possibility of humanity's own self-destruction, but one should also take care to avoid confusing optimism with hope. The former doesn't appear to be warranted; the latter seems essential. Perhaps Tillman gets this point, but the overall 'feel' of his new record suggests otherwise (and I'm not alone in this interpretation, as indicated by quite a few album reviews).

To be sure, it can be tempting to give into despair today, as when one considers the immense challenges of climate change, racial injustice, growing economic inequality, and so on. Our world is indeed in trouble, facing many complicated crises. But resigning oneself to a state of radical despair in the present clearly offers little or no help in fueling movements for change, inspiring needed acts of resistance, and imagining real alternatives for a better planetary future. It is to effectively give up on creating any genuine progress - a truly terrifying option, indeed.

So, while I value the art of provocateurs like Tillman (in part because it is relatively rare for music today to demand such existential reflections), here's a suggestion: whatever the source, however variously constructed/discovered - religious or secular, theistic or humanistic, orthodox or heterodox, etc - it seems to me vital to stubbornly insist on the continued cultivation of a sensibility infused with hope, somehow, even in the face of immense challenges, which may or may not progress toward justice. Here I'm reminded of a bit of wisdom from Cornel West that I discovered last November, at a very timely moment:

"Hope has nothing to do with optimism. I am in no way optimistic about America, nor am I optimistic about the plight of the human species on this globe. There is simply not enough evidence that allows me to infer that things are simply going to get better... We can be 'prisoners of hope' even as we call optimism into question. To be a part of the democratic tradition is to be a prisoner of hope. And you cannot be a prisoner of hope without engaging in a form of struggle in the present moment that keeps the best of the past alive. To engage in that struggle means that one is always willing to acknowledge that there is no triumph around the corner, but that you persist because you believe it is right and just and moral. As T.S. Eliot said, 'Ours is in the trying. The rest is not our business.' We are not going to save each other, ourselves, America, or the world. But we certainly can leave it a little bit better. As my grandmother used to say, 'If the Kingdom of god is within you, then everywhere you go, you ought to leave a little Heaven behind.'"