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.

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