Tarnas, Richard, & Kelly, Sean (Eds.). (2021). Psyche Unbound: Essays in Honor of Stanislav Grof. Foreword by Rick Doblin. Sante Fe, NM: Synergetic Press & the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. xxvi + 428 pp. ISBN: 9780998276526. Hardcover. $35. Reviewed by Matthew D. Segall.
It was 1973 when Dr. Stanislav Grof left what was then the last surviving clinical research program on psychedelics at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center in Baltimore. The moral panic of the “war on drugs” was in full swing, putting an end to decades of promising scientific work. Grof, undeterred, decided to leave behind his prestigious position at the center of the East Coast medical establishment to continue his research on the countercultural edges of the American continent as scholar-in-residence at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. Did he imagine at the time that half a century later he would live to see the so-called “psychedelic renaissance”?
The recent resurgence of medical research and increasing cultural openness to the healing potential of psychedelic states of consciousness owes much to Grof’s tireless commitment to advancing this work despite all the obstacles. The diverse essays collected in Psyche Unbound are a timely tribute to this grandfather of the psychedelic movement, as well as a reminder of the many fertile avenues of ongoing research that he has inspired. This collection illustrates how Grof’s contributions go far beyond just psychedelic research, as his cartography of the psyche dramatically expands our sense of what it means to be human, from sex, to birth, to death, and back again.
The editors are to be commended for gathering and organizing such a feast, of which only a few appetizers can be offered in the space of this review. Essays by early allies like Joseph Campbell, Huston Smith, Frances Vaughan, Ralph Metzner, and Fritjof Capra are sure to enlighten those yet unaware of Grof’s broader influence on other luminaries of the new paradigm. Detailed applications of Grof’s framework and methods to the study of sexual ecstasy (Wade), birthing rituals (Lahood), mood disorders (P. Grof and Fox), inner healing intelligence (Mithoefer), gender reconciliation (Keepin), end of life anxiety (Grob), and the death/rebirth mystery (Bache) offer readers a comprehensive survey of his wide-ranging impact on psychotherapeutic practice. Theoretical essays bring Grof’s vast cosmological explorations into dialogue with ancient traditions including archetypal astrology (Tarnas) and Samkhya (Purton), as well as important twentieth century figures like William James (Kelly), Carl Jung (Laszlo), Alfred North Whitehead (Buchanan), and John Paul Sartre (Riedlinger). The collection, having begun with celebrations of the perennialist perspective in essays by Campbell, Smith, and Vaughan, ends with a friendly challenge from the participatory approach to religious and spiritual experience articulated by Jorge Ferrer.
Psychotherapeutic practitioners, new paradigm researchers, and seasoned psychonauts alike will find much of value in this volume. As the next generation begins to carry forward the unfinished explorations pioneered by Grof, they may do so inspired by his vision of the universe as an indivisible web of interrelated events, each representing and reenacting “different aspects and patterns of one integral process of unimaginable complexity” (1985, p. 64). These essays celebrating Stan’s life and work will surely serve to strengthen the efforts of all those seeking to aid a troubled species sorely seeking its path toward wholeness.
Grof, Stanislav. (1985). Beyond the Brain: Birth, Death, and Transcendence in Psychotherapy. New York: State University of New York Press.
Richard Tarnas, Ph.D., is the founding director of the graduate program in Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is the author of the widely read The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (1991) and Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View (2006).
Sean Kelly, Ph.D, is professor of Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is the author of Coming Home: The Birth and Transformation of the Planetary Era (2010) and Becoming Gaia: On the Threshold of Planetary Initiation (2021).
Matthew D. Segall, Ph.D., is a process philosopher and assistant professor in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness Program at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is the author of Physics of the World-Soul: Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology (2021) and blogs regularly at footnotes2plato.com.
That tweet came after I listened to several episodes of the recent NYMag/Psymposia podcast series “Power Trip.” Having now finished the series and shared a mixed review, I wanted to collect further thoughts on the subject. The NYMag/Psymposia series focuses on the dangers of both underground and clinically regulated psychedelic psychotherapy. The basic criticisms being leveled by coproducers Lily Kay Ross and David Nickles at what we could call “the psychedelic movement” are important and worth amplifying. These chemicals put those who ingest them into states of heightened suggestibility and thus increased vulnerability. Given the potentials for extreme transference and projection, and the probable incompatibility of the traditional indigenous shamanic social role with (post)modern western culture, psychedelic guides/therapists have a special responsibility to empower those they work with by upholding clear agreements, sexual boundaries, and ethical standards. Knowing many people who work in this field, both above and below ground, I think it is fair to say that the majority of practitioners are working with tremendous integrity to make these healing experiences available to ailing people. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of evidence of loose boundaries and less than virtuous behavior. Despite my criticisms of the way it was all packaged and delivered (see this twitter thread), Ross and Nickles’ plea to slow down and listen to the stories of those who have been trampled in the rush to mainstream psychedelics is worth your attention.
Bracketing Buddha’s First Noble Truth, I’m privileged enough to have gotten to this point in my life without debilitating trauma or mental health struggles. As a result, my interest in psychedelics has been primarily political, philosophical, and spiritual, rather than psychotherapeutic. “Political” because since I was 18 and began to seriously research the Drug War and the psychedelic counterculture, it was immediately apparent to me that a society intent on repressing such powerful consciousness technologies must be profoundly unwell. As I discussed in this recent Psychedelics Today podcast, I worry about the corporate capture of these medicines. Consumer capitalism has swallowed everything it’s touched, including much of the counterculture. I used to think psychedelics were impervious to commodification, but now I am not so sure. On their own, these chemicals are simply “non-specific amplifiers,” as Stanislav Grof puts it. Our intentions shape their effects. We should not be so naive as to think they could not be used to further the aims of the military-industrial complex or for broader cultural control.
I appreciate the work the non-profit organization MAPS has been doing to advance psychedelic medicine. This despite the fact MAPS founder Rick Doblin has been criticized for taking money from Peter Thiel and Rebecca Mercer. I don’t like their politics, either, but I tend to agree with Doblin that those trying to undue the repression of these sacred substances should be willing to build bridges across political divides. I also think those of us critical of the capitalist world-order need to spend less time preaching to the choir about how evil corporations are and more time designing and building alternatives (e.g., social threefolding).
While I think medicalization may be one of the paths forward, I am skeptical of an allopathic medical model that treats isolated brains as though the human psyche could be understood or healed in a way decontextualized from its social and cosmological contexts. I do wonder if the religious or cognitive freedom approach might not bear more nourishing fruit (e.g., see this talk on the psychedelic eucharist and this paper on psychedelics and religious studies). These issues came up in my conversation with Earth and Fire, the founders of Erowid.org back in 2017.
When it comes to the metaphysical implications of psychedelic experience, I’m grateful to have a chapter in an upcoming anthology put out by Bloomsbury titled Philosophy and Psychedelics: Frameworks for Exceptional Experience (forthcoming 2022). Here’s the original draft that had to be shortened substantially for inclusion in the anthology: “Alchemical Consciousness After Descartes: Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism as Psychedelic Realism“
Abstract: The study of consciousness is today’s most exciting philosophical frontier. Such an inquiry provides an obvious example of the relevance of psychedelic experience: what better way could there be for coming to terms with the intimate mystery our own consciousness than through the ingestion of psychedelic—literally, “mind-manifesting”—chemicals? In the chapter to follow, I offer a creative reading of Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, reinterpreting his famous Gedankenerfahrung (“thought-experiment”) as a sort of psychedelic trip through hell and heaven and back again. I next turn to Whitehead’s process-relational reimagining of modern Cartesian philosophy, detailing how his approach more adequately incorporates the psychedelic ground of consciousness. I argue that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism opens up the possibility of a psychedelic realism that would allow us to take the ontologically revelatory nature of these experiences seriously. My hope is that this comparative reading of Descartes and Whitehead opens up a road not taken by modern natural science and philosophy, one leading away from the self-alienation and cosmic disenchantment that have so plagued contemporary science and society. Self-integration and world re-enchantment are possible. Ingested responsibly and in service of philosophical inquiry, psychedelics may act as alchemical catalysts providing an especially powerful medicinal aid in service of this Great Work.
On the Edge of the Abyss
How to Wage War on War?
By Edgar Morin
March 9, 2022
Now in his 100th year, Edgar Morin is a leading French public intellectual. A radically transdisciplinary thinker, Morin is the author of more than fifty volumes on complexity theory, sociology, human nature, ecology, popular culture, politics, and more, including Thinking about Europe and The Nature of the USSR: Totalitarian Complex and New Empire.
Writing these lines, I am reminded of the anguish that gripped me during the Russian missile crisis in Cuba in 1962. I was hospitalized in New York and my friend Stanley Plastrick told me daily that New York was in danger of being annihilated by an atomic bomb. Then the compromise came in extremis and Khrushchev withdrew his missiles.
Today, once again I see us on the brink of an abyss, and in the absolute uncertainty of tomorrow.
The simple and the complex
Let us try to see clearly what is simple and at the same time complex. The simplicity lies in the fact that there is an aggressor and an aggressed, that the aggressor is a great power and the aggressed a peaceful nation. The complexity is that the Ukrainian problem is not only tragic and upsetting but has multiple intertwined implications and multiple unknowns.
Let us then try to imagine a possible peaceful solution that would not spell the peace of the graveyard for Ukraine.
Let us also recall that Ukraine was divided at the end of the 18th century by Poland (itself subsequently divided), the Russian Empire, and the Austrian Empire. It became independent during the wars following the revolution of 1917, but was defeated in 1920 and integrated into the Soviet Union. Its peasantry suffered cruelly from the kholkozification of agriculture and the great famine of 1931. For a while, Ukrainians had the illusion of being delivered by the Wehrmacht; in 1941, Bandera, an independence fighter who had become a collaborator, proclaimed a pseudo-independent republic under the German occupation. Ukrainians, however, actively participated in the resistance to Nazism.
It is during the decomposition of the USSR that Ukraine and Belarus gained independence in agreement with Russia, led by Yeltsin.
The situation of Ukraine worsened concomitantly with the worsening of relations between Russia and the United States.
Ukraine is not only a major geopolitical prey for Russia and America, it is also a major economic prey. It is the leading European reserve for uranium, the second for titanium, manganese, iron, and mercury. It has the largest area of arable land in Europe and 25% of the world’s black soil. It produces and exports barley, corn, and other agricultural products.
Following a democratic revolution, Ukraine came under increasing pressure from Russia and in 2014 aspired to join the European Union. Putin then annexed Crimea and fostered the uprising and autonomy of the Russian-speaking region of Donbas. It must be recognized that Crimea is a Russianified Tatar province but not Ukrainian and that keeping the Donbas in Ukraine would require a federal solution. Putin justified his action by proclaiming on March 18, 2014, “they lied to us repeatedly, they made decisions behind our backs, they presented us with a fait accompli. This happened with the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] to the east, as well as with the deployment of military infrastructure on our borders.”
In fact, an ongoing war in the Donbass had begun despite the Minsk agreements.
In an article published in Le Monde on May 3, 2014, I predicted the danger: “Unfortunately, as far as Europe is concerned, the impotence of the West is not only military in character. It is not only an impotence of will. It is an impotence of political thinking, and of thinking as a whole. It would be desirable that Hollande, Fabius, and Manuel Valls become aware of the merciless rise of the perils and propose the only coherent plan of peace, that of a federal Ukraine, a link between West and East. We are no longer in the time when we must seek the best, we are in the time when we must avoid the worst.”
Since 2014 the infernal feedback loop of East-West conflict has worsened and the worst has happened in March, 2022.
The fatal spiral
This conflict has been provoked both by Putin’s growing ambition to integrate the Slavic part of the Russian Empire into his domain, and by the concomitant enlargement of NATO around Russia. It is more broadly determined by the intensifying conflicts of interest between the two superpowers following the Bush-Putin entente of 2001.
There was the reconstitution of Russia as a military superpower, establishing its zones of influence in Syria and Africa, the bloody reintegration of Chechnya through two wars (1994-1996 and 1999-2001), the military intervention in Georgia (2008), and then the growing pressure on Ukraine. At the same time, without a UN mandate, the second war of invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003 was catastrophic for the entire Middle East, followed by internal wars at least until 2009, and the invasion of Libya in 2011. Finally, the United States was engaged in a war in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2021.
While in 1991 the American president had verbally promised Gorbachev that NATO would not be enlarged to include the former People’s Democracies, in 1999 NATO integrated Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, then the Baltic republics, followed by Romania, Slovenia, then Albania and Croatia in 2004, creating a de facto encirclement of Russia (with two gaps, Georgia and Ukraine).
This “objective” encirclement has reminded the Kremlin of the encirclement of the USSR by the capitalist countries between the two wars and the “containment” policy of the Cold War.
Hence, from a more subjective viewpoint, we see the development of an obsessive psychology in Putin and the hardening of his authoritarian regime.
Under the guise of war against Afghanistan, the USA has installed military bases in the former Soviet republics of the south, in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, while also in practice pursuing encirclement in Siberia.
We cannot hide either the role of growing opposition between two superpowers to extend or safeguard their areas of influence, or the role of encirclement by NATO.
A significant development is that, since the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States is now determined to avoid any distant war while the Ukrainian government aspires to be protected by the European Union and NATO.
However, it is necessary to consider that Vladimir Putin feels more and more strongly that what is tolerated for the United States, especially military interference in sovereign countries, is condemned for Russia. He will not tolerate Ukraine’s move to the West. He knows that the United States would not intervene militarily if he invades Ukraine. He may be thinking of a quick invasion and he has already organized reserves in case of economic sanctions, which he underestimates in the long term, but maybe he thinks that everything will be settled in the short term. Without wanting to be psychological, I can imagine the evolution of this authoritarian personality, for whom Western democracies are decadent, who is increasingly hardening his military-police regime in Russia, who believed for a time in 2001, in mutual sympathy with Bush, that the United States would treat his great country with dignity. He tends to hide the fact that his wars in Chechnya, his interventions in Georgia and finally in Ukraine in 2014 have put America and Europe on alert.
Cautious and cunning at first, Putin became bold in 2014 and is now driven by a terrible rage.
It should also be recognized that, while Russian troops were concentrated on the border of Ukraine, Biden made a speech on March 1, 2022, intransigent in tone but where there is a small capital phrase—”we will not make war”—which, while legitimate, has upset the United States in the balance of power. And similarly, no people, no government in Europe has considered going to war over invaded Ukraine, despite the constant appeals of President Zelenski and Macron’s multiple attempts to negotiate with Putin.
The difficulty of waging war on war
The heroic resistance of President Zelenski, his government, and the Ukrainian people has undoubtedly surprised Putin as much as it has aroused our admiration. It even made Putin abandon the huge lie of denazification, speaking now instead of Ukrainian nationalists. It has undoubtedly helped to unify democratic and national Ukraine.
Similarly, Putin’s war is unifying Europe, in its disapproval and reaction, at least for a while. The West is trying to do everything short of outright war: this would be a generalized catastrophe that would plunge Ukraine, Europe, and America into a terrifying new world war. Hence the economic response of multiple and generalized sanctions (personally I deeply oppose sanctions against culture, music, theater, the arts); then the response is amplified by economic aid, then with military assistance to Ukraine, and the organization of reception of refugees. And then we have the formation of a legion of volunteers to fight in Ukraine. One of the features of the tragedy is that we can afford neither weakness nor strength and that we are forced to navigate between the two in an uncertain manner.
That said, it should be remembered that sanctions also hit those who carry them out. Thus Europe will risk a shortage of gas and other products.
The economic war could be effective in the long term but by then Ukraine will have been swallowed. It could have major effects in Russia, impoverish the population, arouse a strong opposition (accurate information is already coming through a thousand private channels in Russian cities), and strengthen or overthrow Putin’s authoritarian power.
Where is the borderline between economic warfare, assistance in arms, the intervention of volunteers, and the war itself?
The distant bombings, the ruins, the deaths, the exodus that hit Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan are on our doorstep.
At this point we have Putin’s repeated threat of an unstoppable weapon against those who would attack Russia: “you would all be vitrified”. Would he, in an excess of rage, be capable of taking action? In any case, the slippage towards a war that would exceed in horror the two previous world wars is not an impossibility.
As I write these lines, Kiev has not fallen.
Macron has made a new and valiant effort with Putin, without result.
Everything is uncertain, everything is dangerous.
The compromise solution acceptable to all would be a neutral and federal Ukraine, given its ethnic and religious diversity. It is currently unattainable.
A peaceful settlement of the war would allow for more general negotiations between Russia, the United States, and Europe. I don’t know if the Unity acquired during the crisis by the European Union will be maintained; there will be a new element: German rearmament, which will give Germany a hegemony that will not be only economic.
While waiting for a hypothetical solution, the permanent danger remains. How can we find the way between culpable weakness and irresponsible intervention?
In any case, we have very often seen that the consequences of interventions go against intentions and decisions, both in the East and in the West.
English Translation by Sean Kelly
PDF of this article:
Have a listen to my wide-ranging conversation with Breht on Whitehead, Marxist dialectics, and more.
Next Saturday, Feb. 19 I’ll be hearing from four respondents who will assess my recent book on Whiteheadian cosmology Physics of the World-Soul (SacraSage, 2021).
Tickets are available here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/ortline-tickets-219336089147
Rory Randall, An Open Theist Renewal Theology: God’s Love, The Spirit’s Power, and Human Freedom
– Panelists: Joshua Reichard, Steve Harper, Chris Baker, Monte Lee Rice
Sharon Baker Putt, A Nonviolent Theology of Love: Peacefully Confessing the Apostle’s Creed
– Panelists: Brian Felushko, Deanna Young, Travis Keller, Annie DeRolf
Matthew Korpman, Saying No to God: A Radical Approach to Reading the Bible Faithfully
– Panelists: Eric Seibert, Scott Spencer, Tammy Wiese
John Sanders, Embracing Prodigals: Overcoming Authoritative Religion by Embodying Jesus’ Nurturing Grace
– Panelists: Mark Umstot, Ryan Lambros Janna Gonwa, Michael Brennan
Andrew Davis, Mind, Value, and Cosmos: On the Relational Nature of Ultimacy
– Panelists: Andre Rabe, Austin Roberts, Sheri Kling, Fidel Arnecillo
Catherine Keller, Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy, and Other Last Chances
– Panelists: Dhawn Martin, Andrew Schwartz, Elaine Padilla, Jea Sophia Oh
Matthew Segall, Physics of the World-Soul: Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology
– Panelists: John Pohl, Tim Miller, Michael Epperson, Tim Eastman
Bruce Epperly, Walking with Francis of Assisi: From Privilege to Activism
– Panelists: Clemette Haskins, Steve Watson, Tim Reddish, Clarence White
John Cobb, Salvation: Jesus’s Mission and Ours
– Panelists: Tripp Fuller, Thomas Hermans-Webster, Donna Bowman, Shaleen Kendrick, Krista E. Hughes
Andrew Williams, Boundless Love: A Companion to Clark H. Pinnock’s Theology
– Panelists: Chris Fisher, Shawn Ryan, Linda Mercadante, Sharon Harvey
Let us first recall why Keller has chosen to “dreamread” John of Patmos’ Book of Revelation. As a process theologian, it is no surprise that she would be interested in a Biblical text. But her purpose is not merely to read John’s missive back into its 1st century CE historical context. Nor is her intent to read it as a literal prediction of a divinely determined future. Her aim, rather, is to unveil the eternal patterns of history that reverberate through John’s day into our own. Keller is dreamreading the “ancient future” of humanity, imperiled by imperial excesses and injustices then as now. She turns to Revelation as a polysemic source of dis-closure, that is, as a reminder that the future remains open-ended, its promise or peril awaiting our response to the signs of the times. Keller reads the book’s many internal contradictions as a call to liberate ourselves, through the work of shared mourning and collective uplift, from any sense of scripts already written so that we may arrive fully in the potent present, capable of facing what MLK, Jr. called the “fierce urgency of now.” The book she dreamreads remains relevant to our situation today because, with both oppressive and progressive effects, it has inspired martyrs, emperors, and enslaved alike to shape and reshape the course of civilization for millennia.
In Chapter 5, Keller interprets John’s misogynistic vision of the luxuriously adorned “Whore of Babylon” astride a seven-headed, ten-horned scarlet beast as a metaphor (or “metaforce”) expressive of the unholy matrimony of imperial power and global economy. The beast is said to turn on the “Mother of Whores,” just as imperial superpowers have been known to contradict themselves by “devouring the very flesh, resources, [and] labor, [they] live from” (111). John details the commodities that the “merchants of the earth” of his day buy and sell along their Mediterranean sea routes. These include not only wine, pearls, silk, and spices, but “human bodies and souls” (Rev. 18:11-13). Keller reminds us that “Rome two thousand years ago operated the largest market in chattel slaves on the planet,” adding the disturbing facts that “civilization as we know it is based upon the labor of unthinkable numbers of slaves,” and, even today, long after the institution has been outlawed in most nations, tens of millions of mostly women and children remain in chains, with billions more stuck in what amounts to wage slavery (114).
Keller then turns to a critique, informed by Revelation, of our insatiable neoliberal/neo-imperial capitalist political economy. In our day, as in John’s, the power of unchecked consumerism does not simply fulfill desires, it produces them—or in terms of John’s pornographic metaforce, it “seduces”: “the graphic of the great whore signifies a commodification of self, body and soul, on the part of imperial subjectsnot just their objects” (117). In other words, the power of capitalism is not simply “out there,” imposed upon us as the will of an imperial army may be. The truly insidious thing about an economy of greed is how it infects our very selves, our sense of self-worth and well-being. The engine of our economy depends upon knowing no limits, on the feeling of lack, the constant need of more income, more land, more labor, more stuff. The political representatives elected to protect our democratic rights and assure social stability by checking the power of transnational corporations have failed to fulfill their duties. Under the neoliberal order which has held sway since the 1970s (when declining growth, growing inequality, and rising debt put an end to the post-war alliance between capital and democracy), the role of the state has been coopted, so that it now “[offers] political support, tax benefits, police and military backing for the economy, which in return rewards the politicians it rides” (121). Capital cannot help itself, it commodifies everything: land, labor, politicians, and like John’s Porn Queen, even itself, undermining its own conditions of continuance.
Building on the German economic sociologist Wolfgang Streek, Keller introduces the situation in present day Western democracies as a struggle between two constituencies, the “nation state people” and the “international market people” (122). Tensions are rising as inequality reaches levels not seen since ancient Rome (Keller cites studies showing that, within the US, the ratio between the richest 100 households and the bottom 90% is about 108,000 to 1, roughly equivalent to that between a senator and a slave at the height of the Roman empire). The rise of Trump and other demagogues around the world is symptomatic of income inequality and a growing rift between “nationalists” (who are mostly white and often rural) and “globalists” (often urban and somewhat more diverse). Rather than demonize the supporters of Trump (many of whom are evangelical Christians inspired by their own, albeit more spurious readings of Revelation), Keller acknowledges the ambiguities and contradictions of our times. Trump’s presidency was itself an outcome, and perhaps signals also the ending, of American neoliberalism (126). The anger that helped lift him into office stemmed from racist animosity but also the complete lack of concern shown by (neo)liberals for many working class people as the post-war industrial economy was dismantled and its jobs sent over seas. Keller admits that John’s visions are indeed suggestive of a great battle against the global elites who profit from such outsourcing. But the contradictions intensify, as Republicans blame wildfires in the Western US on environmentalists instead of climate change, while Democrats blame Trump’s election on Russian memes instead of acknowledging the impact of global trade on the lives of those Hillary Clinton dismissed as “deplorables.” Keller also warns against conflating jet-setting cosmopolitan neoliberalism with the radically intersectional cosmopolitics that resists with equal vigor both the “aspirational fascism” of nationalists and the insatiable extractivism of globalists (124).
In the end, Keller returns to the beginning, to the “dominion” clause in the Genesis creation narrative that has stirred so much debate among environmentalists and religious scholars. It is becoming increasingly clear to anyone paying attention that “the matter of the earth will not neatly reduce to the stuff of dollar signs…Matter Strikes Back” (130). In other words, all of humanity is beginning to experience the blowback from centuries of unchecked extraction and pollution. Witness “Gaia’s Revenge,” as James Lovelock put it. All of humanity suffers from this blowback, the conspicuously consuming and technologically insulated wealthy Western peoples as well as the Global South, where billions of people are eager for justice to be restored despite being first in line to face rising sea levels and changing climates.
The drive to dominate the Earth among the Biblical peoples has deep roots in a perhaps partial reading of the story of creation: “What a beastly irony: somehow human-godlikeness got taken as ‘go for it, godly world masters: use up the earth, waste its creatures” (131). Keller closes chapter five by offering a re-reading of the first book, reminding that Elohim creates not from nothing (creatio ex nihilo) but from “the deep” (creatio ex profundis). Further, God says that every creature, and creation itself, is good, indicating to Keller that we who are made in God’s image “are called to emulate that love of the material universe” (131). (For more on Keller’s theopoetic reading of Genesis, be sure to check out her book Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming).
In Chapter 6, Keller explores the “poetics of Hebrew hope” that shaped John’s 1st century religious context and that have continued to reverberate through the millennia. The earliest Christian communities suffered disappointment after their messiah was crucified by the empire they so despised. They waited for a second coming, but Keller points out that no such “coming again” is mentioned in the Bible. Rather, despite the persistence of imperial rule and the increasingly violent persecution of his followers, Christ is signaled as “present” (parousia) rather than still to come (135). Keller goes on to chronicle the uses and abuses of Revelation. In the 2nd century CE, the African theologian Tertullian, emboldened by John’s text, attempted to create some breathing room between politics and religion by calling upon Rome to protect religious freedom (144). Eventually, Emperor Constantine would answer this call, but only at the cost of the imperialization of Christianity. The anti-imperialist egalitarian community Jesus had inspired thus transformed into the official religion of Rome. Still, Tertullian’s call would ring true thousands of years later, inspiring the liberation of slaves in the Americas. In the 11th century CE, Pope Urban II’s holy crusades, inspired by the bloody battles of John’s visions, unified a war torn Europe against a common Muslim enemy. A century later, European Christendom would face internal dissensions again, as heterodox communities perceived the growing wealth of the Vatican through the lens of John’s Great Whore (149). The monk Joachim of Fiore declared the coming “Age of Spirit” when the Church hierarchy would be dissolved, all property would be held in common, and everyone would have direct access to the divine. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg, thus initiating the Protestant revolt against the excesses of the Catholic Church. Luther memed scenes from John’s Revelation by portraying the Pope as the Whore of Babylon. Included in his German translation of the Bible was a drawing of the Mother of Whores wearing the papal tiara (151). The Thirty Years War to follow was the bloodiest in European history.
Keller chronicles these events to make clear that “the history of collective resistance to oppression is no less an effect of the Apocalypse than is the oppression itself” (155). Indeed, Jewish messianism leaves its traces in all modern progressive movements on behalf of justice. Keller says that the progressive left must grieve the “totalitarian traumatisms” and “messianic disappointment” of 20th century state communism, turning elsewhere for its (more intersectional, more cosmopolitical and multispecies) political projects (158). While the right appears more unified, and thus more poised to take power, it is “precisely because of its pluralist and planetary proclivities [that] the progressive spectrum is more vulnerable than the right to contradictions between its ever-apocalyptic priorities” (161). She councils our “cosmically entangled, dangerously gifted, achingly diverse” species to take time for griefwork, to mourn all that has been and is being lost. And she warns us to remain ever vigilant against the temptation to allow the rage that arises in us to forego its righteousness by collapsing into a vengeful “we-good, you-bad” dichotomy. The split between good and evil people only fuels more cycles of revenge. If God is love (as the other John said in his gospel), and if justice is what love looks like in public (as Cornel West puts it), then only our love of each other (enemies included) and of all creation can hold open the possibility of a future worth living in. What kind of future will that be? In the final chapters of her book, Keller offers some possibilities…
“How could we call ‘rational’ an ideal of civilization guilty of a forecasting error so massive that it prevents parents from leaving a habitable world to their children?”
“The system is collapsing all around us just at the time when most people have lost the ability to imagine that anything else could exist.”
Servigne, Stevens, and Chapelle’s book focuses on the importance of imagining new stories, enacting more earthly spiritualities, and transforming industrial mentality into a more mature—and wiser—form of human consciousness, all in the midst of an accelerating collapse of civilization. The authors quote Roy Scranton, who affirms Socrates’ original statement (see Phaedo 67e) that “philosophy is learning to die,” adding that this means “we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age—for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene,” i.e., to learn to die not only as individuals, but as a civilization (193). Collapsophy is one way of framing and engaging with these literally epochal challenges.
The nature of the still dominant industrial mentality makes these needed re-imaginations especially difficult, since it has fostered both amnesia and anesthesia, that is, it has made us increasingly forgetful of our past and incapable of feeling or emotionally processing the present (201). Modern mechanistic ontology (with its attendant myth of progress, culture of consumerism, and technocratic solutionism) has structured the “invisible architecture” (113) of our social imaginary so as to prevent us from forging much needed mutual aid networks with other members of our own species, and especially with non-humans. Relentless repetition of the old story of human separation is leading many to double-down on attempts to take technological control of the Earth System/Gaia. Transhumanists, for example, forget that their immortality project is “irreversibly dependent on a socio-politico-technical system [that is] addicted to oil and rare earth [minerals]” (116). They know of no other possibilities than such “power-over” approaches, since the idea of “power-with” would not only imply a softening of the human/nature division, it would require a total reorganization of the hierarchical pyramid structure of our societies.
We are used to sharply distinguishing between fact and fiction, but an increasing number of authors are turning to the sci-fi genre in an urgent attempt to sensitize us to the consequences of our actions in the present, and to the narrowing possibilities of the future. The authors draw upon the work of Starhawk to warn of the risks of allowing the world-making potency of imagination to become depoliticized (116). She calls upon artists to interrupt the zombie-like repetition of the dominant narrative by mobilizing the subversive force of alternative stories. Ursula La Guin is also cited for her emphasis on the way living imaginaries ripe for collective adoption can only emerge from works of deep personal significance: “The further [the artist] goes into himself, the closer he comes to the other” (117).
The authors then turn to the emerging fields of ecopsychology and ecofeminism. They draw upon various scholars, including Carolyn Merchant and Sylvia Federici, to show how the degradation of nature and of women’s status in society has the same origin (133). Patriarchy, they argue, emerged with the Neolithic Revolution as men discovered their potential as farmers and as fathers (168). It was intensified with the Scientific Revolution, which arose contemporaneously with witch hunts across Europe and colonized North America. It is estimated that as many as 100,000 witches were executed. The analogies between the Baconian method of natural science and the violent interrogation of witches is hard to miss. Merchant (The Death of Nature, 1980) is famous for her argument that “Nature” was equated with a public woman that science must subdue and strip naked so as to unveil her secrets (169). Federici expands the links between the social and natural consequences of patriarchy by tracking the connections between colonial expansion and the rise of capitalism. To assert its world domination, capitalism first needed to disenchant nature (which included the extermination of witchcraft and peasant healing traditions), destroy the autonomy of village communities, and privatize the commons via enclosure (170).
The authors credit ecofeminism with highlighting the political importance of embodiment, aesthetics, emotion, imagination, and magic. They also point out the ways that men, too, suffer under patriarchy. They discuss the role of masculine and feminine archetypal polarities within each of us, calling for us all to cultivate gender identities in a more balanced way, both collectively and within ourselves (171-173). Rituals of reconciliation are recommended to further the healing process (176).
Joanna Macy’s “Work that Reconnects” is put forward as an avenue toward world view renewal (125). Macy offers several mythic images of our moment, which is both a “Great Unravelling” and a “Great Turning.” The authors celebrate her efforts to shift our social imaginary from its obsession with short-term economism by sensitizing us to the deep time of cosmogenesis. By transposing the history of life on Earth onto a calendar year, our place in the multibillion year process of evolution is made more apparent: If the planet is said to have formed on January 1st, then life appears in late February; in early April, photosynthesis is invented, which remains the primary process by which energy from the Sun is welcomed into the biosphere; metazoa do not emerge until late September; plants begin to inhabit land in late November; early December witnesses the rise of the reptiles, with mammals following a few weeks later; primates appear on Christmas Day; Homo sapiens do not show up until 1 minute before midnight on New Years Eve, with the Industrial Revolution occurring only within the final second of the cosmic year (154). Re-living our evolutionary journey in this way helps put the “little second of thermo-industrial civilization, this tiny period of disconnection and forgetfulness of who we are” into perspective (155). It also aids in our remembrance of how much gratitude we owe our ancestors, without whose struggles to survive and rituals of celebratory renewal we would not be here.
The authors lament the way “science, technology, and capitalism have taken the sacred out of everything” (138), but in another sense, modern techno-industrial civilization has given rise to surrogate “pseudo-sacreds”—that is, to various forms of “misenchantment” (link is to a dialogue between myself and Rick Tarnas on this issue). Whether its the latest iPhone update, juicy celebrity gossip, or Super Bowl Sunday, the religion of consumerism provides plenty of faux enchantments to distract us from the psychological, sociological, and ecological catastrophes transpiring just behind our screens. We are in dire need of genuine forms of communion with the sacred, as the authors make clear that it is not possible to approach the end of the world without spirituality (160). But what is the sacred? In addition to the gratitude for our ancestors already mentioned, the authors emphasize the importance of rituals and initiations that afford opportunities for communion with one another, and with that mysterious power which grants us our lives, and which reminds us of the meaning of our deaths. They quote the spiritual teacher Martín Prechtel: “True initiations will be impossible until the modern world surrenders to the grief of its origins” (196). Truly comprehending the sacred, according to Prechtel, requires accepting the darkness along with the light. The authors contrast this point of view to the insistent positivity of New Age spiritualities, which typically refuse to look at the shadow, and thus fall victim to what Buddhist teacher John Welwood has called “spiritual bypassing.”
Collapsophy is the cultivation of the wisdom needed to live with collapse. It is also the wisdom of learning to die. It includes reason and science, which are vital to ongoingness in any form, but also makes ample room for aesthetics, emotions, ethics, and spiritual intuitions. The authors bring their book to a close with the call for an “interspecies diplomacy” that would foster the development of a common language shared by as many as possible of the beings of our living planet (195).
Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens cover a lot of territory in this book. It is clear enough to anyone open to even consider reading it that climate change and other ecological catastrophes are already occurring and will only intensify. This book was published in French in 2015, well before the Covid-19 pandemic. While the origins of this virus are not yet known, it is widely understood that the effects of climate change and attendant habitat loss make “spillover events” more likely. So pandemics may be the new normal, with Covid-19 serving as a deadly but relatively merciful dress rehearsal (relatively merciful because the next novel virus that spills over into human circulation may have a much higher infection fatality rate). We have also learned from the explosion of conspiratorial thinking during the pandemic just how right Servigne and Stevens are to warn that collapse will not come with any homogenous vision of what is happening (153): “almost everything will be played out on the ground of the imaginary, of our representations of the world” (154). We are in the midst of a total information war with as many fronts as there are screens. Such a situation finds us in desperate need of shared understandings, of a common (even if multiply culturally inflected) story, since “stories give birth to collective identities,” and thus, foster awareness of our shared planetary destiny.
In addition to the threat of pandemics which we have all grown familiar with, Servigne and Stevens list other catastrophes that are likely to intensify: biodiversity loss, chemical spills, resource wars, droughts, wildfires, migrations, terror attacks, financial crises, and social unrest, to name a few. They raise the question of how we are to maintain belief in the urgency of our situation given that disasters are becoming so common. Jerry Brown, former governor of California, remarked back in 2018 that mega-wildfires are “the new abnormal.” The authors discuss the difficulties and moral hazards of assessing risk in the context of ever-evolving hypercomplex systems, like Gaia or the global economy. Often, an “inverse temporality” only allows catastrophes to be recognized as possible in retrospect. Also, complex systems are understood to be resilient only up to certain unknown thresholds, at which point they can suddenly collapse. In light of the uncertainties, they recommend that we switch from an “observe, analyze, command and control” approach to risk assessment to a “probe, act, sense, adjust” mode. The latter is a better alternative to just waiting for catastrophe to strike before taking action.
Despite the uncertainties, Servigne and Stevens discuss a few attempts to mathematically model collapse, including the “HANDY” (human and nature dynamics) model and the “World3” model. The HANDY model is unique in including economic inequality among its parameters. It factors in not only accumulated wealth but also its distribution through society. The model shows that societies with inequalities in wealth distribution will collapse even with low levels of overall consumption (112). Part of the reason is that “wealth buffers” in such societies allow elites to continue business as usual, thus locking in the very sociotechnical routines that eventually deplete the resource base, triggering collapse. The World3 model, originally developed by a group of systems scientists at MIT, has been around longer than HANDY. Based on the modeling of parameters including population, industrial production, agriculture, pollution, and resource use, it predicts the collapse of thermo-industrial civilization at some point in the 21st century. One of the designers of the model, Dennis Meadows, remarked in 2012 that “It is too late for sustainable development, you have to prepare for shocks and urgently build small resilient systems” (122).
At this point, the question of how to define collapse may have arisen. How would we recognize it if and when it actually occurred? Yves Cochet’s definition is cited, which states that collapse is “the process at the end of which basic needs can no longer be provided at reasonable cost to a majority of the population by services under legal supervision” (126). The authors also cite Dmitry Orlov, who studied the collapse of the Soviet Union. He lists five stages of collapse (133), including 1) financial collapse (future investments become impossible because faith in business as usual is lost), 2) commercial collapse (money itself becomes devalued or scarce, supply shortages, rationing, etc.), 3) political collapse (faith in functioning and legitimacy of government is lost, municipal services like water and trash collection begin to shut down, etc.), 4) social collapse (loss of faith in existing institutions and organizations, leading people to regress to clan and gang allegiances), and 5) cultural collapse (faith in the goodness of humanity is lost). As Cochet’s and Orlov’s accounts make clear, in many parts of the US and around the world, collapse is very much already upon us.
Despite the possibility of social and cultural collapse, Servigne and Stevens try to check the Hollywood movie driven fear that human beings become savage killers whenever catastrophes occur. The evidence suggests quite the opposite: “after catastrophe…most human beings behave in extraordinarily altruistic, calm, and composed ways” (150). Such behaviors challenge the founding myth of our liberal societies, that prior to the “social contract” that gave rise to states, humans existed as autonomous, greedy individuals ruthlessly competing in a “state of nature.” The truth is we are profoundly relational creatures, with the ability to fluidly shift identities between “I” and “We” as the moral circumstances require. Nonetheless, emergent networks of mutual aid rest upon a “fragile alchemy,” and without the restoration of basic needs like food and water, cooperative altruism may quickly shift into violent competition and selfish hoarding. There is an urgent need to rebuild vibrant local social fabrics and to create collective practices and aptitudes for living together (all things that modern consumer culture and individualism have methodically destroyed) (155).
I had a great conversation with Joe Moore of Psychedelics Today a couple months back, and the podcast was just released today. Have a listen.
In this episode, Joe interviews philosopher, author, and assistant professor in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco: Matthew D. Segall, Ph.D.
Segall discusses the relationship between consciousness and neuroscience: how science is helpful, but ultimately amounts to just one of many different tools towards describing consciousness (not truly understanding it), and how science, philosophy, and religion need to focus on their specialties but also work together towards better defining the human experience. And he talks about the importance of philosophy in trying to make sense of non-ordinary states of consciousness.
As this is a very back-and-forth, philosophically-based conversation, they talk about a lot more: William James, David Ray Griffin’s concept of “hardcore common sense presuppositions,” Richard Dawkins, scientism, positivism, how we’re slowly thinning the line between technology and humanity, Timothy Leary and whether or not anyone really “dropped out,” German idealism, how capitalism co-opts everything, John Cobb, Alfred North Whitehead, Universal Basic Income, the death denial in capitalist life, and how to use the relationship between the internet and capitalism to improve society.
“The thing about capitalism is that it lives inside each of us at the level of our desires and our drives because we’ve been shaped by it. So we can’t pretend like it’s this big, bad monster out there that other people believe in. The problem with capitalism is that it’s not just a worldview you decide to believe in or not; it is the very structure, again, of your desires and your sense of identity. It’s inside of you.”
“They say cannabis causes problems with motivation. Well yea, once you see through the value structure of our society, you lose motivation to participate because it’s no longer appetizing to you to engage in the rat race.”
“Fifty years later, after Leary was saying ‘Turn on, tune in, and drop out’, a lot of people thought that they followed his instructions, but again, capitalism co-opted the whole hippie movement, and by the 90s, they were selling Che Guevera t-shirts at the shopping mall and Apple was using the Beatles to sell computers.”
“The way that liberals tend to think about these questions [is that] they get really mad at Facebook for being biased in what ads they allow and not censoring certain things and selling ads to Russians and stuff. …A publicly traded corporation has one purpose: to maximize shareholder profits. And that’s the business model for Facebook, and so they’ll take money from anyone who wants to sell ads. They’re a private company. They’re not a public utility that has anywhere in its corporate charter as part of its mission: ‘improving civil society’ or ‘helping America maintain its democracy.’ Why would we expect a private corporation to do that? There’s no incentive in capitalism for that. And yet we get mad and blame Mark Zuckerberg. Why aren’t we blaming capitalism? That’s where the source code for this problem is.”
“Psychedelics aren’t necessarily going to wake us up, but I think that’s why we need philosophy. These substances and these experiences need to be contained within a meaningful story and a meaningful theory of reality so that we can make sense of what we’re experiencing and integrate it, and not only come out of those experiences with a profound sense of what’s wrong with our society, but with at least a good idea for what we’d like instead.”
Is the flow of time a “stubbornly persistent illusion,” a mere psychological mirage, as Albert Einstein held? Or is it the very essence of all psychical life and material things alike, as Henri Bergson argued? Might there be an equally scientific rendering of relativity that does not force us to deny our lived experience, as Alfred North Whitehead preferred? Whose time is it? Join us for this drunk history lesson about the epochal clash between these three geniuses to find out.
*Errata: At 30:29, I misspoke: Einstein’s train thought experiment is, of course, in reference to the special, not the general theory of relativity. But Einstein first articulates it in a text meant for the general public that summarizes both theories. At 34:08, I misspoke again: Of course, since 2014, Russia has claimed Crimea as its own.
Seb and I discussed the history and contemporary status of the natural sciences and their relationship to philosophy and metaphysics.
Just finished this live stream with Jeremy Johnson and Ryan Nakade. We discussed what to call the events earlier this week (“sedition,” “domestic terrorism”?), and the ways that eco-social reality has now merged with the electronic media environment.
MICHAEL S. HOGUE, American Immanence: Democracy for An Uncertain World. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018: 238 pages. [Reviewed by: MATTHEW D. SEGALL, Philosophy and Religion Department, California Institute of Integral Studies, 1453 Mission Street, San Francisco, California, 94103, USA. <email@example.com>.]
Michael Hogue has written a timely theopolitical intervention drawing from (and contributing to) the American stream of philosophy in service of democratic and spiritual renewal. By the time American Immanence was published in 2018, humanity’s longest running national experiment in democracy was already embroiled in what Hogue (following Robert Bellah) calls “its fourth major trial” (2). Each of the last four centuries has seen the United States thrown into an epochal crisis of identity and destiny that tests and transforms our bonds as a people. The great trial of the eighteenth century was formative: the Revolutionary War. The nineteenth century crisis, the Civil War, was seeded by the moral contradictions implicit in the first: American colonists won political freedom from the British Crown on the basis of Enlightenment values only to turn around and build a society that not only tolerated native genocide and African enslavement but actively engaged in them as a matter of official state policy. The twentieth century brought the rise of America’s nuclear powered global military empire in the wake of the world wars as well as the civil rights crisis of the 1960s, which finally gave legal and political substance to the nominal freedom won in the prior century. As America stumbles into the third decade of the twenty-first century, its citizens continue struggling to responsibly inherit the unresolved collective traumas of their history. The fourth national trial is also challenging us to develop a new consciousness of our shared future vulnerabilities. All the old moral contradictions are still making the news. But something wickedly novel has emerged that recontextualizes everything.
Hogue’s book takes a step beyond current partisan divides by reminding us of the emergent planetary context of our shared political life. Whether first marked by the appearance of symbolic consciousness, agriculture and cities, colonization, industrialization, nuclear energy, or the microchip, there can be no doubt that we now live in the Anthropocene, a geological epoch dominated by human modes of production and their unintended climatic blowback. The wave of reactionary nationalism that carried Trump into office is but the latest symptom of a more all-encompassing spiritual and ecological emergency.
For Hogue, the Anthropocene brings an end to the era of human exceptionalism, as all who had been externalized (poor and marginalized people, as well as the climate, the soil, the rainforests, etc.) are now rushing back to reclaim their agency. Gaia (or the Earth System, if you prefer) is not passive before the industrial projects of global capital. The reasons and desires shaping our political and economic lives are inescapably entangled with and thus limited by the flow of energy around the Earth, such that there are thermodynamic conditions of human freedom. Humans are evolved and evolving mammals who make useful tools that remake us in turn. Our moral ideals and social order did not arise ex nihilo from Zeus’ forehead. The history of human cultural evolution cannot be told in abstraction from its energy extraction regimes (foraging, farming, fossil fuels, etc.) (70). Concomitant with the increased awareness of the material and biotic conditions making human consciousness possible, fissures in the ideological matrix of modern liberal secularism are widening. While some may feel suffocated by the deluge of dire factors weighing upon the human future[i], Hogue seeks to fill the postliberal, postsecular gaps in the social imaginary with new theopolitical possibilities (10).
Drawing upon what he calls the American immanental tradition (particularly William James, John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead, and their more recent interpreters), Hogue reimagines the social and political role of theology in more pragmatic and world-loyal terms, shifting away from traditionally religious obsessions with the afterlife and more recent “death of God” theologies to focus instead on “natal concern for the complex creativity immanent within the world and emergent through nature” (14). Defining the political as the domain of ongoing, open-ended negotiations of power and value in the context of common life (15), Hogue sets to work in chapter 1 demystifying the “redeemer symbolic” that has functioned throughout American history to legitimize certain theopolitical conceptions of power and value rooted in a dual logic of exception and extraction. This moral logic is typified by the elevation of a savior (human, divine, or both) to a special ontological status exempt from the normal conditions, contingencies, and constraints of creaturely coexistence and authorized to extract value and externalize cost in service of the redemption of a chosen people (29). Hogue traces the destructive effects of this symbolic constellation through its colonial, national, imperial, and neoliberal phases. While historians may prefer thicker descriptions of the events described, Hogue’s sketch suits his insurrectionist purposes. He begins by using the political theory of Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt to elucidate the anti-democratic decision-making and environmental racism of former Michigan governor Rick Synder, which precipitated a still ongoing humanitarian crisis in the impoverished, mostly Black city of Flint. The tragedy in Flint provides a synecdoche for the longer historical arc of American exceptionalism, from America’s Biblically coded ex nihilo creation story (31) to Trump’s election as the “apotheosis of [neoliberalism],” such that “capitalism has become a sacred crusade, [with] the market as the model of all other social relations” (50).
Chapter 2 unpacks the wicked entanglements characterizing the Anthropocene, detailing the intimate but until recently unacknowledged bonds between humans and the Earth. Among the most striking entanglements is that European colonization of the Americas may have left a mark on the atmospheric record: after disease ravaged and displaced indigenous populations were no longer able to manage the forests, a precipitous reforestation of the Western hemisphere concentrated enough CO2 to at least contribute to the emergence of a mini-ice age in Europe (57). Hogue favors interpretations of the Anthropocene that identify it as primarily a colonial phenomenon driven by industrial growth capitalism. Hogue amplifies scholars like Eileen Crist (61), Jason W. Moore (62), and Dipesh Chakrabarty (64) who challenge the name chosen by geologists to mark this epochal transformation. Moore’s proposal of “Capitalocene” better captures the historical reality (and is no more infelicitous than the current misnomer) (63).
Chapters 3 and 4 are the theoretical heart of the book. Hogue brilliantly reconstructs viable concepts of power and value in the context of Dewey’s pragmatic naturalism, James’ radical empiricism, and Whitehead’s process-relational philosophy. These chapters warrant deep engagement from process-oriented thinkers. I only have space to critically address one issue: Hogue’s treatment of God as both concept and symbol. While he champions Whitehead’s aesthetic and “grassroots” (97) approach to metaphysics as “a blueprint for deep social change” (99), Hogue questions whether Whitehead’s process theology obeys its stated embargo on ontological exceptionalism. While Whitehead demotes God to the status of a creature of Creativity like all others, God’s creatureliness retains a special status in the universe as the most ultimate (in its primordial role as valuer of eternal possibilities) and most intimate (in its consequent role as fellow sufferer and tragic poet). For Hogue, Whitehead’s insistence upon a God who is “constantly concrescing, never satisfied, and nonperishing” (111) raises the suspicion that he may be smuggling ontotheological contraband. But rather than offering a sustained rebuttal of the “metaphysical necessity” of Whitehead’s God concept or divine function, Hogue focuses instead on the “pragmatic religious sufficiency” of such a God symbol (112), determining that contemporary political theologians are better off inheriting “Whitehead without God” in service of “a fuller, more vital, religiously world-loyal appreciation for the creative process of reality” (113).
While pragmatic considerations of the individual and social function of religious symbolism are essential, I do not think we can so neatly divide metaphysics from social praxis. There is some risk in overapplying Deweyan instrumentalism in search of a “useful” image of God that we end up reinstituting the very anthropocentrism Hogue means to overcome. Hogue nowhere mentions the essential role of Whitehead’s divine function in granting relevant novelty to finite occasions of experience, which might otherwise be overwhelmed by the onrush of unfiltered infinite Creativity. It is not clear that Whitehead’s scheme of prehending and concrescing actual entities remains coherent if “the primordial created fact”[ii]has been excised (or misunderstood as a “metaphysical necessity”). While the contingency of cosmic and earthly evolution cannot be denied, it is just as evident that the course of nature’s creative unfurling displays a tendency toward organized complexity. Where does this tendency to self-organization originate? Surely not in human symbol systems, which are rather an expression of it. Hogue suggests the creative advance can be sustained merely by the combinatory effects of finite occasions of experience, without any need for God or eternal objects. He goes on to argue that “the potential for novelty [would then be] ontologically distributed through the cosmos rather than concentrated within God’s primordial aspect” (111); but on my reading, Whitehead’s divine function is already radically distributed in the form of an “initial Eros” providing “the mirror which discloses to every creature its own greatness.”[iii] It is also not clear how reference can still be made to “potential” (and in particular, relevant potentials) in a universe composed only of actual entities and sealed off from the ingression of eternal objects and divine lures.
Nor am I convinced that Hogue’s pragmatic emphasis on natality in the face of death adequately addresses the practical and existential concerns of the growing masses of people suffering through the current multiform planetary catastrophe. While it is true that some sects of Christianity verge on the status of death cults for their overemphasis on crucifixion, sin, and the need for otherworldly redemption, our religious imaginaries would be equally diminished by an exclusive focus on natality without regard for the moral import of death and the afterlife (or our images of it). Our religions must integrally address the miraculous facts of birth and death in their symbolic formations lest the encompassing divine mystery of human life be obscured. It is not clear to me that, on pragmatic grounds, belief in some kind of afterlife necessarily diminishes world-loyalty. A belief in reincarnation, for instance, can be construed as superlatively loyal.
In the closing chapter, Hogue turns to Grace Lee Boggs in an effort to inspire a theopolitics of lasting annunciatory revolution in place of more short-lived denunciatory rebellions (153). Hogue’s book makes an important contribution to the task of disrupting and demystifying the dominant symbolic complexes that have shaped our collective emotions and habits for centuries. Whitehead warned almost a century ago that “societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows”[iv] (quoted by Hogue, 98). Hogue has deftly heeded this warning by showing how reverence and revisioning can coexist.
[i] A team of Israeli scientists recently calculated that the total “anthropogenic mass” (overall material output of human activities) has now reached or exceeded the total living biomass of Earth at approximately 1.1 teratonnes. See Elhacham, E., Ben-Uri, L., Grozovski, J. et al. Global human-made mass exceeds all living biomass. Nature (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-3010-5
[ii] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31.
[iii] Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 139.
[iv] Whitehead, Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect, 88.