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”?

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