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.'"

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Panentheism & Providence In Elizabeth Johnson's Ask the Beasts

This is the short paper that I recently presented at AAR in San Antonio. It was for a panel in honor of the work of theologian Elizabeth Johnson, which was organized by Scott MacDougall and Tripp Fuller. The other panelists included: Catherine Keller (my doctoral advisor), Lisa Sowle Cahill, Cynthia Rigby, and Eric Daryl Meyer. I believe that there will soon be a podcast of the event made available on Homebrewed Christianity, but until then, I wanted to share my original, slightly longer paper (to which Johnson offered a thoughtful, engaging response that considered the distinct traditions of process theology and Thomism):

I am very grateful for the opportunity to participate on this panel in honor of Elizabeth Johnson’s inspiring career. Like many other students who have pursued theological education in recent decades, my first encounter with Johnson’s work was She Who Is. Reading it in one of my first theology courses was a transformative experience, as I was moved by her call to embrace female symbols of God in dialogue with the orthodox tradition. As Johnson put it, her strategy in She Who Is was to connect “feminist and classical wisdom” (8). Thus, she affirmed Ruether’s “critical principle of feminist theology…[that] whatever diminishes or denies the full humanity of women must be presumed not to reflect the divine” (30), and then unfolded a relational vision of God through biblical and Thomistic sources. By creatively entangling past to present, tradition to experience, Elizabeth Johnson has become a crucial theological guide for many today.

Already in She Who Is, Johnson was relating ecology to faith. But her theology of creation achieved perhaps its fullest expression with her recent Ask the Beasts. In this brilliant work of constructive theology, Johnson continues her strategy of demonstrating how classical sources are relevant to the present, but now in relation to science. Beginning with a close reading of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, she then reflects on its implications for Christian faith. With wisdom and insight, she considers many key issues within the religion-science dialogue, including: the relationship of humans to nonhumans; the realities of chance and purpose in nature; God’s presence and action in creation; the problem of suffering throughout evolution; and the environmental crisis. In the process of confronting such issues, Johnson once again uncovers surprisingly traditional resources for persons of faith through her meditations on scripture and theological texts. With its beautifully clear prose and carefully formulated arguments, Ask the Beasts is destined to become yet another classic.

Many of the concerns that Johnson considers throughout Ask the Beasts have also been important to my own research. But while Johnson draws “largely from the Catholic intellectual tradition” (xviii) – an admirable tradition, especially in her appropriation of it – it is not as much my own, despite my love for some apophatic thinkers. With a background more in Protestantism and process thought, I often find my differences with Thomists to be both challenging and fruitful to consider. As such, I want to ask a few closely related questions about Johnson’s proposals in Ask the Beasts, relating to her Thomistic arguments for panentheism as an ecological model of the God-world relationship: first, about the meaning of “panentheism”; second, about how Johnson might revise Aquinas’ theism; and lastly, about her noncoercive account of divine providence.

In chapter five, “The Dwelling Place of God”, Johnson considers the classical doctrine of omnipresence in order to emphasize divine immanence within creation. Against the Western dualism of spirit over matter that denied “the natural world’s intrinsic worth” (126), she shows how traditional sources, from scripture to the creeds, have emphasized God’s intimate presence in creation. Thus, the Creator is not dualistically separate, but immanently dwells in all things, “blessing” all with intrinsic worth (124). Philosophically, Johnson looks to Aquinas’ view of God as “being itself”, in which creation participates as in its gracious source. Thus, God and creation are connected, so “nature can never be thought to be godless,” she writes (144). According to Johnson, when Aquinas images God as “in all things” and “all things in God,” this entails an “interesting mutuality” between God and creation – which she suggests can be called “panentheism” (147).

Aquinas, the panentheist? Is he not, as many believed, the “premier representative of classical theism”? If panentheism simply indicates God’s all-encompassing presence in all things, which classical theists affirm, is it still a useful theological category? Although panentheism appeared in the works of 18th century German idealists, the process philosopher Charles Hartshorne popularized it in the 20th century as a way between Thomistic theism and Spinozan pantheism. For him, it not only holds together immanence and transcendence, but also means that God and the world mutually influence one another. On his reading, Thomistic theism does not permit God to be affected by the world because God, as “pure act” – the perfectly actualized One – lacks possibility for change, novelty, or movement.

Johnson affirms Aquinas’ God as “pure act of being,” rendered as the “infinite divine aliveness” (144). But she also views God as interactively related to the “open-ended” creation (180), even asserting that “God suffers” (203) with creatures. Does this not imply that there is potential for relational receptivity in God – that it is possible for God to be acted upon? Aquinas seems to deny this in the Summa when he wrote, “God is pure act without potentiality whatsoever” (1.3). Thus Niels Gregersen reflects a common view that since Aquinas’ theism of “pure act leaves no [possibilities] unrealized in divine experience,” God “cannot…be affected by…creatures.”

Without “domesticating” the mystery of infinity, what revisions (if any) are therefore necessary within Aquinas’ thinking in order to affirm the relational panentheism that Johnson suggests? Are there resources within the Thomistic tradition to do so, or might other traditions prove more helpful? Of course, Hartshorne and process theologians present certain possibilities, and Johnson has confessed to finding aspects of that tradition useful. But in keeping with her strategy of reclaiming classical sources, I wonder if an Aquinas-inspired panentheism could benefit from a Cusan supplement. She does not engage this 15th century Catholic cardinal, who wrote two centuries after Aquinas, but I want to briefly suggest that Nicholas of Cusa’s apophatic relationalism resonates with her panentheism.

Like Aquinas, Cusa employed panentheistic imagery of God in all things, and all things in God. But with his non-dualistic doctrine of “the coincidence of opposites” – following for him from the logic of divine infinity and simplicity – Cusa was led toward a more radically relational ontology. Realizing that this doctrine paradoxically implies the coincidence of activity and receptivity in God, he argued that God must be “moved with all that moves.” And since active creating must coincide with being receptively created – or the potential-to-be-created – God is both the “creating” and “creatable” creator.” Thus, while Cusa long agreed with Aquinas that no unrealized possibilities are in God, in his final work he claimed that God is best named “possibility itself”: the empowering source of potential for every actuality. Cusa thereby diverged from Aquinas by viewing divine possibility as prior to actuality, enabling him to affirm real and reciprocal relations between God and creatures – much like Johnson suggests.

The coincidence of opposites even leads Cusa to argue for a non-coercive account of divine providence, a position that Johnson also develops in Ask the Beasts. Since God’s loving mercy and creative power coincide in the divine infinity, Cusa argues that God does not force free creatures, but lovingly “urges” and “calls” them. Drawing on Thomistic sources, Johnson similarly claims that a “risk-taking God” of love “invites but never coerces” free creatures (158, my emphasis). This is crucial to her project of confronting the problem of suffering in evolution. As she writes, “98 per cent of all previously existing species have gone extinct,” so suffering and “death [are] intrinsic to the process of evolution” (184). But such tragedies are the “result of the world’s autonomous operation”, not “the direct divine will”, she writes (191). For her, God never directly intervenes in creation because God is voluntarily “self-limiting” (202).

(With Elizabeth Johnson, right before our panel)
Here, Johnson again diverges from Aquinas, who maintained that God sometimes overrides natural causes for certain miracles. But since Johnson also affirms miracles like Jesus’ bodily resurrection and the new creation (208-9), how would these be brought about if God “never coerces”? Are these not exceptional instances requiring God to un-self-limit? After all, a voluntarily self-limited God could intervene, since no metaphysical necessity prevents God’s un-self-limitation. Finally, does this position not ultimately call the goodness of God into question, who is apparently capable of preventing certain instances of extreme suffering – like the backup pelican chicks (185-6) – but neglects to do so?

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Radical Pluralism of William James

"Absolute unity still remains undiscovered. 'Ever not quite' must be the rationalistic philosopher's last confession concerning it. To the very last, there are the various 'points of view'...Something is still other, from your point of view, even though you be the greatest of philosophers...There may be in the whole universe no one point of view extant from which this would not be found to be the case. This is pluralism." (James, 1897)   
William James in Brazil, 1865
I recently had the exciting opportunity to read through most of the major works of William James (1842-1910) for one of my doctoral exams. Having studied Whitehead – and process thought more generally – for quite a few years now, I was already very sympathetic with the Jamesian project of “radical empiricism.” After all, Whitehead is clear about how much he was influenced by James, calling him "that adorable genius" and ranking him alongside Plato, Aristotle, and Leibniz as one of the four greatest Western philosophers. Additionally, Deleuze was also influenced by James, explicitly describing his thought as a "radical empiricism," and (echoing Whitehead) called him an "astounding genius" while lecturing in 1987.

But even though I had read a small amount of James' writings for myself in the past, I wasn't able to focus on them as much as I would have liked. Now, after fairly close readings of The Will To Believe (1897), The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), Pragmatism (1907), A Pluralistic Universe (1909), and Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912) – along with a few chapters from both The Meaning of Truth (1909) and Some Problems in Philosophy (1911) – I am more convinced than ever that, not only is James a complete joy to read, but he still matters for philosophy and theology. And, it turns out that I'm not alone in this: beyond the vibrant community of American pragmatist scholars, theorists like William Connolly, Isabelle Stengers, Brian Massumi, and Bruno Latour are four major contemporary thinkers who are deeply Jamesian in new and creative ways. So, for this post, I want to offer a short overview of the Jamesian philosophical project as a whole (a bit like I recently did for Cusa). This includes three interconnected components: radical empiricism, pragmatism, and pluralism. I'm going to focus on the first two below, but I'll include some points about his pragmatism as well.

Radical Empiricism

At the foundation of James’ philosophical project is what he calls “radical empiricism” – empiricist, because he largely accepts the basic position of empiricists like David Hume and John Locke that one can only gain knowledge of reality through direct human experience, and not merely through rationalist reflections of the mind apart from experience; and radical, largely because he insists on going beyond Humean-Lockean empiricism in claiming that human experience is much richer and deeper than whatever impressions are felt through the five senses alone. Thus, James believes that we directly - though often vaguely - experience relations of many kinds: of the body, of an external world, of memory (or the causality of the past), of the subconscious, the divine, and more.

In the introduction to The Meaning of Truth, James provides a succinct, three-fold explanation of what he means by radical empiricism:

First, it includes a “methodological postulate” that what is real must be experienced somewhere, and whatever is experienced must somewhere be real. This claim overlaps with what James means by "pragmatism," a philosophical method that aims to keep concepts, ideas, beliefs, and theories always tied to their experiential consequences. The pragmatist views beliefs as "rules for action," so every abstract difference must make a concrete difference somewhere. It also implies that there may be multiple complementary beliefs about reality if they "work"- in the broadest sense of "working." Furthermore, pragmatism also views truths as human constructions that are always in process, and not as existing in some timeless eternity for us to discover and represent. Truth - with a capital 'T' - does not exist for James. But unfortunately, pragmatism is often misunderstood to mean "whatever works for you is true." This is not at all what James claims. His pragmatism does indeed look at "fruits not roots," "consequences not a priori principles", and toward the "future rather than backward." It therefore views all beliefs/theories as forever hypothetical, never fully capable of grasping the flux of reality beyond perspectives. But it does not thereby result in relativism or subjectivism for James. Beliefs are "true" if they: 1) successfully provide certain "vital benefits" for living - e.g., as practical "short cuts" that help us better navigate the complexity of experience, by continuing to successfully predict future experiences, by making life more meaningful, by making us feel more at home in the universe, etc; and 2) they do not "clash" with previously accepted beliefs that are already held to provide other vital benefits for experience. While some seemingly useful beliefs that initially clash with already accepted bodies of beliefs may force one to revise the older beliefs, this might not always be possible or desirable. Thus, James rejects the all-powerful designer God (despite some claims for its ability to make life more meaningful) because it clashes with his other pragmatic beliefs about freedom, the reality of chance, the problems of good and evil, and modern science. Yet, one need not thereby accept atheism, James argues, since he believes that the divine is a fact in so many person's experiences (as detailed in the Varieties) and that theistic and pantheistic beliefs do produce beneficial effects for so many. James thus "tones down" both the omni-God of scholastic theism and the totalizing pantheism of idealists in favor of a finite, relationally limited, affective divinity (which may not be singular in number, he speculates). Thus, far from requiring scientific evidence or rationalistic proofs, James argues that individuals have the "right to believe" in the divine, to "risk" faith in the "public" realm, so long as they remain critically engaged and reflective, hypothetical, and "tolerant" of the plurality of both religious and secular ways. This is all I will say about James' pragmatism for now, but it is worth exploring further (see his lectures on Pragmatism).

Second, radical empiricism is also a “statement of fact," that relations (both internal/conjunctive and external/disjunctive) are as directly experienced – and therefore real – as the parts of experience. Relations are immensely complex, varying in degrees of intimacy. Thus, James argues that "nothing real is absolutely simple; everything is plurally related." Furthermore, everything is so deeply entangled with other things that "if you tear out one, its roots bring out more with them." Thus, there is no clear line between a "thing" and its "relations." I'll say more about this issue of the reality of relations in the section below. 

Lastly, radical empiricism therefore includes a “generalized conclusion” that the diverse parts of
experience “hang together” by relations that are both real and immanent to experience, requiring no trans-empirical/transcendental support. That is, for James, the world forms a “concatenated”, “strung-along” or “pluralistic universe.” This is an image of the world that he suggests is more anarchical than authoritarian, more like a "federal republic" than a monarchy, and more like "philosophic protestantism" than hierarchical "papalism." So James strongly emphasizes the creative agency and value of every individual, opposes "bigness" in all its forms, says "Damn, all great Empires!" - but this do not lead him to an atomistic libertarianism and to merely opposing big governments while simultaneously supporting big corporations. In fact, James was an anti-imperialist who was deeply critical of American involvement in foreign countries (e.g., the Philippines), especially because he saw it as an effort to expand exploitative, greedy "big businesses" around the globe that lacked concern for the common good and the rights of workers. Thus James' pluralism balanced an emphasis on the individual with an equally strong emphasis on relations and communities. And this leads to the second key element of James’ project: pluralism.

James was very sympathetic with traditional empiricism – which, as he put it, rightly privileges parts before wholes, while rationalists do the opposite. But James was also writing at a time when absolute idealism was quite influential. He was good friends with the brilliant idealist philosopher Josiah Royce and also wrote several critical essays about Hegel. James ultimately positioned his metaphysical pluralism as a middle ground between rationalistic idealism and traditional empiricism. In other words, he claimed a kind of third-way between Kant and Hegel on the one hand, and Hume and Locke on the other. He argued that both groups were guilty of the same fallacy: "vicious intellectualism," which excludes from the reality of a thing what its definition does not explicitly include (essentially what Whitehead later called the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness"). Thus, James argued that the empiricists and rationalists of his day were vicious intellectualists because both excluded the reality of relations from the parts of experience by abstractly defining them as "individuals" or "substances" that exist apart from relations. This requires further explanation.

James criticizes the empiricists for viewing sense impressions as lacking all relations, and therefore in need of some sort of trans-empirical unifying principle or agency to redeem them from an incoherent, irrational chaos of discrete atoms (which mean virtually nothing in isolation). While empiricists like Hume argued that our experience of causal relations between discrete sense impressions are merely due to "habits" – thus leading him to philosophical skepticism – Kant later tried to provide a more rational solution with his transcendental idealism. For Kant, discrete sense impressions are given a coherent unity through the mind’s a priori categories, or the “transcendental ego of apperception.” In other words, trans-empirical concepts are logically necessary in order to relate the chaos of atomistic sense impressions - if we are to avoid skepticism and view reality as rational. Following Kant, Hegel’s absolute idealism is proposed as a superior way of enabling the relational synthesis of discrete sense impressions through the Absolute mind or spirit – which James playfully suggests is really not much more than the Kantian ego blown up like a big “soap bubble.” Either way, Kantians and Hegelians claimed that a trans-empirical entity, agent, or principle must be logically presupposed to redeem our chaos of experience.

James wasn’t convinced by any of these solutions. He pointed out that we virtually never have experiences that come only discretely, apart from relations. Rather, they come with their own partial connections, their own various types of conjunctive and disjunctive relations that give them a certain amount of coherence. Now, this doesn’t secure any sort of perfect knowledge about experience and reality. Far from it. As James writes, “Our science is a drop; our ignorance, a sea.” But even so, he convincingly argues that relations and things come together in experience – and that’s enough for the philosopher to work with. Furthermore, the very concepts that our mind employs to organize experience (e.g., space, time) are themselves derived from experience, rather than a priori principles.

As such, while the rationalistic idealists hoped to secure the unity of the world (and often, an absolutist conception of the divine) by appealing to transcendentally unifying concepts, James insists that the immanence of concrete experience is all that we need to attend to. And furthermore, when we do stick with the “thickness” of concrete experience, we discover that the universe is ultimately  pluralistic - that is, a perspectival "multiverse" rather than a purely irrational "nulliverse" or purely rational "universe". James thus embraces a “mosaic philosophy” without a transcendental mind or absolute spirit that could provide any sort of final unity to reality, and thereby secure a totally rational coherence. While James' pluralistic universe lacks a totalizing vertical unity, we do still get “some” unities – though often in very different respects that leave us profoundly uncertain and limited. Thus, Jamesian pluralism affirms a non-totalizing, “distributive” world of interrelated “eaches” without an “all-form.” His is a radically relational, perspectival pluralism that asks us to work with what we are given: a world that’s partly rational, partly irrational; partly connected, partly disconnected – or as James Joyce so memorably put it, a "chaosmos." Even a pluralistic sense of the divine is plausible in this pluriverse - not an absolute, unifying deity, to be sure, but an "immanent" divine, James suggests. A divine that is not omnipotent, but is essentially limited, and who perhaps suggestively offers life-giving possibilities to creatures. But again, since we have no final foundations for clear and certain knowledge, James argues that everything - and especially matters of ultimate concern - hangs on the word "maybe." James thus proposed what we might now call a "theology of maybe" more than a century before John Caputo's "theology of perhaps"!

Because radical empiricism says that reality is only known in experience, James concludes that "experience and reality come to the same thing." Thus, metaphysics for him just is the analysis of experience in all of its irreducible richness, endless complexity, and unpredictable novelty. He therefore names "pure experience" as his metaphysical ultimate category. Very much like Whitehead's ultimate of creativity or Deleuze's notion of pure immanence, pure experience is the name for what every "pulse" or "drop" of experience is an actualized instance of. It is not a transcendent substance or entity, but a "collective name" for the multiplicity of "things" that dynamically emerge in experience - which then "dip back" into the "quasi-chaos" of pure experience and dynamically reconstitute it, ad infinitum. James explicitly describes pure experience as a nondual "infinite sea" of virtual potential, prior to dualisms of subject/object, mind/matter, and human/nonhuman. Thus, James views it as implying a "pluralistic panpsychism" that sees mind/subjectivity/agency going all the way down in nature, as implicit "in germ" in even non-conscious, seemingly inert things. Whatever exists is thus a kind of panpsychic pattern of pure experience, and this would includes the gods - if indeed they exist. As such, James' radically pluralistic metaphysics of pure experience is ultimately a process philosophy - and he was very much influenced by Henri Bergson in coming to such conclusions. As he writes in A Pluralistic Universe, "What really exists is not things made but things in the making."

Some helpful secondary sources on James:

-Donald Crosby, The Philosophy of William James: Radical Empiricism and Radical Materialism
-William Connolly, "Pluralism and the Universe" (in Pluralism)
-Ruth Anna Putnam (ed), The Cambridge Companion to William James
-Henri Bergson, "On the Pragmatism of William James" (in The Creative Mind)

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Infinity, Cosmos, & Panentheism in Nicholas of Cusa

Here is a glimpse at the complex cosmological vision of Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), which I wrote after a full day of re-reading and outlining his magnum opus, On Learned Ignorance. Much more could be said about what follows, but I trust that readers will see this post for what it is: a mere snapshot rather than a fully adequate analysis of Cusa's thought as a whole. My hope is that it will intrigue some readers to investigate Cusa's work for themselves. 

Perhaps Cusa's most stunningly consequential claim in OLI is the following:
"The world has its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere, for its circumference and center is God, who is everywhere and nowhere." 
This provocative vision of a centerless, edgeless cosmos contradicts the Aristotelian/Thomistic/Neoplatonic hierarchical cosmos, the "Great Chain of Being" that dominated medieval thought, and which served to justify ecclesial hierarchy. Now, after Cusa, all is equally a perspectival center, and not merely the earth. Furthermore, the cosmos no longer has a spatio-temporal limit - contra medieval cosmologies, which imagined the stars to be the cosmic circumference. 

Thus for Cusa, nothing finite has metaphysical priority, for all are equally finite, or equidistant, in relation to the infinite. And since all things are their own perspectival centers - and because absolute equality is attributed only to God, the absolute Maximum and Minimum - all things are irreducibly different from each other: "two or more objects cannot be so similar and equal that they could not still be more similar ad infinitum." But each thing - human or nonhuman - is also an image of the infinite God, who communicates being and form to all "without envy," even as the creature can only receive it in a finite way. Thus, each thing is now seen by Cusa to be perfect in its own distinct way. He even calls every creature a "created god" or "finite infinity."

Cusa thus overturned the heterogeneous cosmos in which diverse elements become increasingly "noble" and "pure" as they ascend the ladder of being, replacing it with a homogenous cosmos of equally perspectival and uniquely valuable singularities. It seems to me that modern and postmodern science, philosophy, and theology have continued to validate (or echo) many of Cusa's related ideas in a number of ways:

First, Cusa's cosmology anticipates Copernicus by more than a century, who placed the sun rather than the earth at the cosmic center (i.e., heliocentrism replaces geocentrism). But Cusa went further, claiming that nothing is at the physical center of the cosmos, because God is omnicentric, and creation (as derived from God) images or imitates God "as much as possible." Thus, it too is (metaphysically) omnicentric - although, from another (physical) perspective, its center is "nowhere," since its center is God. 

Second, if there is no absolute cosmic center, there is no cosmic circumference, so the universe is spatio-temporally limitless, endlessly becoming, or "contractedly infinite." Creation thus reflects God, who is imagined by Cusa to be an infinite circle in which center and circumference coincide. An omnicentric cosmos is also "one" from a certain perspective (as enfolded in God), and "many" from another perspective (as unfolded from God). These insights anticipate contemporary theories of the multiverse and cosmic infinity - but again, Cusa's views are based primarily on theological speculations rather than empirical observations. (I'll also mention that, in some ways, it anticipates William James' lectures on "A Pluralistic Universe"). 

Third, since there is no absolute physical center, and since only God is absolute equality while we as perspectival creatures endlessly differ, there can be no absolute (non-perspectival) standard of measurement/comparison between things. Since human knowledge is based primarily on measurement/comparison of proportions, there are two profound consequences of this - one epistemological and the other cosmological: 

1) All knowledge about the physical universe is always necessarily "conjectural," since nothing can provide a non-perspectival standard of comparison between things, and no two finite things could ever be absolutely equal (again, only God is absolute equality).

2) All things must be in motion, since an immobile center at absolute rest is required to measure things in motion (furthermore, only God is absolute rest).

Consequence 1 anticipates post-Kantian philosophy's emphasis on the radical limits of knowing, which dominates nearly all Western thinking down to the present. Consequence 2 anticipates Einstein's special theory of relativity, which says that all rest and motion are entirely relative to the standpoint of the observer. 

Fourth, a centerless cosmos means that all religious claims are perspectival symbols or metaphors that are relative to creatures. They cannot capture God in Godself. Even the Trinitarian names are creaturely metaphors - which are necessary for communal worship, but more importantly, they must be negated to avoid idolatry. Cusa even goes so far as to say that we project ourselves on to God, so that if a lion were to imagine God, it would imagine God like a lion; just as we imagine God in human terms (e.g., Father, Son). Thus, a high degree of tolerance for different and contingent expressions of faith is necessary, and he recommends a dialogical approach to religious differences in order to maintain peace. As a cardinal of the Church, Cusa did not renounce a Christocentric orthodoxy in saying these things. Yet there is obviously something deeply subversive about his approach that enables a more flexible and humble style of religious belief.

Again, these conclusions are based purely on a speculative theology of "learned ignorance" that rigorously holds to the qualitative difference between the infinite and finite. Everything unfolds from that presupposition. Since human knowledge is based on comparing proportions between things - which is quantitative - the infinite cannot be known. And because the finite logically coincides with the infinite (lest the infinite be limited by something external), Cusa ultimately argues: 
"God, therefore, is the enfolding of all in the sense that all are in God, and God is the unfolding of all in the sense that God is in all."
Thus in God's infinity, all opposites are enfolded, including knowledge and ignorance. This is precisely why Cusa maintains that we can only gain some knowledge about reality by first maintaining that we are totally ignorant, by recognizing the profound limits of knowing - not just about God, but about creation as well. Amazingly, ignorance and knowledge coincide as Cusa unfolds a radically relational and perspectival cosmology.

Lastly, in the above quote, Cusa gives us one of the first significant expressions of panentheism in Western theology. His concept of God culminates with the metaphor of God as posse ipsum, or possibility itself. This marks a sharp break from scholastic theisms that privileged actuality over possibility, since the latter is conceived as a 'lack'. But a God of pure act and pure presence is highly deterministic, while a God who is infinite possibility - who 'possibilizes' - is open-ended and continually arrives out of the future. Thus, Cusa ends his speculative theology by claiming that this is the best metaphor for God: the presupposed 'can-do', the enabling divine potentiality for every actuality. Not unlike process theology that developed in the 20th century, Cusa sees each actual creature as 'contracting' the whole interrelated universe, including possibilities, to freely become what it is. Cusa's final panentheistic vision is therefore of a dynamic God who "may-be" (Kearney), not omnipotent, but "omni-potential"(Keller).

For further reading on Cusa (secondary sources), I recommend the following:
-Cloud of the Impossible, by Catherine Keller (chapter 3)
-The Individual and the Cosmos, by Ernst Cassirer (chapter 1)
-World's Without End, by Mary Jane Rubenstein (chapter 3)
-Introducing Nicholas of Cusa, edited by Belitto/Izbicki/Christianson