“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Thinking with Latour and Bellah: Religion beyond Nature and Culture

I’m giving a brief presentation in a course on Christianity and Ecology with Prof. Jacob Sherman on Thursday. In what follows, I’ll try to sketch out what I’d like to say. I plan to briefly summarize the cosmotheandric potential of Robert N. Bellah’s recent tome, Religion and Human Evolution (2011). Bellah develops an account of the evolution of religion in the larger context of the evolution of the universe, earth, species in general, and humans in particular. His accounts of the unfolding of the universe and of pre-human life, though, are brief and perhaps inadequate. While interesting and even true, I’m not sure his uncovering of the mythoi woven into Chaisson’s and Dawkins’ scientific cosmologies is enough to provide readers with a deep sense of orientation in regard to the Fact of Cosmogenesis. Admirably, what he has succeeded in doing is disorienting us in regards to what we thought science was supposed to be telling we “moderns” about “nature.” Bellah, like Bruno Latour, shows how we have never been modern; that is, the West has never gone without myth and religion. As Hegel put it, “those moments which the spirit appears to have outgrown still belong to it in the depths of its present.” To the extent that we are aware of the presence of the past, we avoid being possessed by it. Nor has the West ever been in relation to a neutral and valueless “nature.” Nature is a modernist fiction, the product of capitalist economics and colonialist politics: both are forms of mythologically possessed culture (ideology) that seek to exploit the resources of whatever can be overpowered (lumber, oil, nature) or outsmarted (labor, soul, human nature).

Neither cosmological evolution nor the economics and politics of modernity are the focus of Bellah’s book. I’d say Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme’s The Universe Story (1993) is a good book to turn to for a sense of cosmic reorientation. Latour does a great job orienting us (we, the religious) in so-called modern times (or, we hope, non-modern). Bellah, on the other hand, articulates a non-modern, post-secular anthropology of religion up to and including the Axial period. Religion, for Bellah, has to do with those beliefs and practices related to non-ordinary experiences of the sacred. Of course, “the notion of non-ordinary reality, though widely held among a variety of peoples, might appear to be ruled out for modern consciousness” since moderns believe such realities to be “the mistaken beliefs of earlier cultures” (p. 1). I think this is where Bellah needs Latour’s critique of modernity in order to secure his definition of religion. Unless it can be shown that the moderns are mistaken about “nature” and about “culture,” then no defense of religious realities, or of the ontological import of non-ordinary experience, is possible.

Bellah is careful to point out that science, just as much as religion, is forced to invite us into non-ordinary realities in order to convey its truths. The world of daily life is not the world of bosons and quarks, nor that of incarnation and atonement. Art, too, opens a door into the beyond; a work is transcendent though never independent of its place and time of making. Some even say art, more than the tired orthodoxies of science and religion, is what civilization needs to renegotiate its catastrophic ecological situation. I’d suggest that these three cultural spheres (the differentiation of which Wilber calls the dignity of modernity) need to be re-integrated in a trans-disciplinary way (not pre-disciplinary), such that aesthetics, ethics, and epistemology (or art, religion, and science) are assembled into a single, complex cosmotheandric hypersphere.

Bellah moves us in this direction by rooting culture in play. Play opens us into a non-ordinary reality, allowing us to transcend the everyday world of work. The idea is not to transcend work entirely, but to recognize its relativity in regard to all the other experiential realties that are engaged in during a full 24-hour cycle of earth’s rotation (sleep, dreams, etc.), or the full span of our mortal lives (birth, near death, death, spiritual visions, etc.). A certain degree of work will always be necessary to survive, but the question remains what we are to survive for. If not play, then what? And what does it mean that play, and the creative efflorescence it provides, is at the existential core of our lives? I believe a connection can be made here to Imagination, to the way meaning is enacted, or imaginally bodied forth, rather than passively discovered in a pre-existing world (i.e., “nature”). There is no meaning here unless we are willing to play, to make present what is not here. Imagination is where immanence and transcendence meet and give birth to worlds worth living in. Religion, like science and art, is born out of our innate playfulness. Humans aren’t the only beings who play, but surely we have taken play more seriously than any being before us.

Latour reminds us not to stray too far from the cosmos in our search for the religion of humanity:

“a religion that has abandoned the cosmos has made itself irrelevant from the start…My contention is that religion could have been the best way to protect evolution against any kidnapping (any search for overarching [modern religious] meaning or [modern scientific] optimum), providing we expand a little further what we mean by the creativity of organisms” (p. 470, “Will non-humans be saved? An argument in ecotheology” (2009) in Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute).

When Latour speaks of the creativity of organisms, he references Alfred North Whitehead, for whom organisms make up the whole of the physical cosmos from hydrogen atoms and solar systems to wild flowers and primates. (In Whitehead’s fully worked out metaphysical system, organisms are understood to be societies composed of anorganic actual occasions intrarelated via the geometrical projection of an intensive hierarchy of eternal objects. Cosmologically, it is more helpful to speak of organisms.)

In accepting the philosophy of symbolic forms behind anthropologist Cliff Geertz’ study of religion, Bellah runs the risk of re-inscribing the all too modern dichotomy between symbolism and organism (another way of dividing “culture” and “nature”). This dichotomy is perhaps more pronounced in Ernst Cassirer’s work on culture (discussed here). Was the non-human world without meaning until humans, using symbolic language, successfully transformed pointless playfulness into full blown cultural practice? If Bellah is unwilling to remain open to the possibility of a pansemiotic, panexperiential cosmos, wherein energy itself is “eternal delight” disporting in time, then his approach fails finally to uphold the cosmotheandric potential I believe it nonetheless flirts with.




7 responses to “Thinking with Latour and Bellah: Religion beyond Nature and Culture”

  1. mary Avatar

    hey Matt……some thoughts on “play”…..especially semiotic play of organisms as actual occasions via eternal objects…if religio is the open play of the cosmos (Swimme)(work being effort after the colding of description into thermodynamics)…and the unbifurcated efforts of an organism are creativity, then to put the concept of “play” to work, so to speak, to give the unity of an organism “the job” of being counterpoint and remedial to its condition of bifurcation, is to unconsciously allow a continuance of the concept of an “ordinary/non-ordinary” polarization of an unintegrated reality…..the whole shortcoming of Bellah, as i see it, … and the qualitative distinction of Gebser’s vision of a unity and coherence within an organism. The converse view of vocation, (root in latin….voice) is simultaneous impression of the cosmos speaking creation through the actions of the organism as well as the ex-pression of the individual into the cosmos. This is the praxis of cosmogenesis in the art of one’s deeds, the ethical intention of thought, and the morphology of knowing. (embodied cognition)
    How then, if one lives such an actuality, is one to even fall back into the “ordinary/non-ordinary” perception of perception? Unity is unity…as Gebser says, it then becomes a matter of intensity. The orthodoxies become transparent to their own evolution within the atemporal, which has unified the ordinary with the non-ordinary.
    We don’t work to survive to play: the creativity of exstasis is playful work and workful play…the flow of creativity always proposes the imaginative event, which Steiner shows a new organ of perception is perfectly receptive to. This renders the formalities of religion and the sciences transparent to the core of creativity , the art, of which they are “upaya”, as vessels, contained within respective codifications of semioses.
    Bellah shows how work/play informed each other coherently within the metanarratives, all of which imaginatively propose, with varying inception , the cosmotheandric in enacted practice. I read Bellah through the organic of Goethe and from the efforts you shared regarding Schelling (Iain Hamilton Grant)….the Play of world Soul in the love of and gravitation through the Individual, hence, when the sacred is ordinary, what is its “non”?
    I had the great good fortune to happen upon the livestream of Tim Morton at CCA yesterday, in which he said, and I paraphrase, that a recognition of the mystery (of things) is a form of intimacy (in object oriented ontology). Bellah points to such a mystery, but it doesn’t seem to be within the scope of his book to launch intimately into a landscape where only the gifts of living Imagination can go.
    Thank you for sharing so much, Matt.

  2. Beatrix Murrell Avatar

    Years back it was my pleasure attending a workshop presented by Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, even better later reading their excellent book–the “Universe Story.” Then, a little later, I was present when the Catholic University of America applauded Thomas Berry for writing this book. That evening I went up to him, told him how much I was impressed by his ideas, how I chose my “second” vocation re Science and Spirituality partly because of his ideas. He was pleased and gave me the most beautiful smile. I’m glad that he was able to write–before his death–the “Great Work,” which is an environmental-ecological and moral masterpiece in my estimation.

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