Adam Robbert interviewed me over on The Side View Podcast. Check it out HERE.
We discussed speculative philosophy, panpsychism, politics, and more.
Adam Robbert interviewed me over on The Side View Podcast. Check it out HERE.
We discussed speculative philosophy, panpsychism, politics, and more.
“Today we cannot ignore that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach and should integrate justice in discussions on the environment to hear both the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.” -Pope Francis (n.49)
Pope Francis released his encyclical last week. The English translation is HERE.
I have only skimmed it thus far myself, but I am encouraged by the reviews I have read. Especially that by the liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, whose work connecting ecology and social justice is among the major spiritual inspirations behind the encyclical. The impact of this document on public policy remains to be seen, but the Pope explicitly intends it to speak to all Earth’s people, not just Catholics.
Conservative politicians are predictably beside themselves. Their common refrain seems to be to tell the Pope to stick to religion and stay out of politics. As I said in a post two weeks ago, perhaps these climate change denying politicians should stay out of science. But of course, part of what the ecological crisis is revealing to us is the way everything–from politics, to religion, to science–is connected. The Earth does not respect our artificial boundaries and all too human constructs. We’ve entered the Anthropocene, which means the old dichotomy between free human subjects and inert natural objects is entirely obsolete: If anything, it is humans who have become inert, unable to act to avoid the worst of the coming ecological catastrophe, while nature–or better, Gaia–is the new dominant actor on the scene, no longer content to remain the static background of human history. The Pope is rightly linking economics, morality, and ecology. There are other issues that need to be addressed, of course (i.e., SEX–more on that in a second), but under Francis’s leadership the Church is way ahead of state governments on this. Politicians need to catch up.
Other theistically-minded critics are upset by the fact that one of the Pope’s main advisers, Hans Schellnhuber, is a Gaia theorist. About Gaia theory, The Stream’s William Briggs sarcastically writes:
“This is what we might call ‘scientific pantheism,’ a kind that appeals to atheistic scientists. It is an updated version of the pagan belief that the universe itself is God, that the Earth is at least semi-divine—a real Brother Sun and Sister Water! Mother Earth is immanent in creation and not transcendent, like the Christian God.”
Ah yes, the dreaded paganism. It is strange to me that so many Christians seem to neglect the little detail of Christ’s incarnation. Trinitarian theology is not as clear on the issue of transcendence as Briggs makes it seem. And let’s be honest, if Christians continue to insist on the other-worldliness of their God, then their religion will wither away even faster than the ecosystems of this planet. A totally transcendent God is utterly irrelevant to human life on Earth. Who cares about a God unmoved and unaffected by human and earthly concerns? Only death-denying patriarchal authoritarians. This is not to say that some forms of transcendence do not carry liberatory potentials, but I would argue transcendence needs to be held in polar tension with immanence to remain relevant (e.g.,panentheism). The geologian Thomas Berry coined the term “incendence,” which beautifully captures the necessary polarity.
Briggs is also worried about what he views as Schellnhuber’s misanthropic statement that the carrying capacity of Earth is around 1 billion people. There is something important in this criticism, since many “environmentalists” who take a more or less “protectionist” approach seem to imply that humans are some kind of eco-disease who would do best to just withdraw from nature as much as possible, to let it do its wild thing without our unnatural interference. This sort of dualism only re-enforces the problem, in my opinion. Anthropologists have thoroughly deconstructed the idea of “wildnerness” by pointing out that indigenous populations have always been intimately involved in caring for their local ecologies. Restoration ecologists and permaculturists have also made it clear that humans can constructively participate in the flourishing of life on this planet, if only we shift our anthropocentric values so they are inclusive of the intrinsic values of all organisms and habitats.
Finally, Briggs dismisses Schellnhuber’s claim that educating women would help reduce population. The evidence on this question is so unambiguously on Schellnhuber’s side that I’m at a loss as to who Briggs thinks he is kidding. Then I realized he is associated with the Heartland Institute. So much for fidelity to the facts. Or perhaps he is himself Catholic, which would also explain his ideological resistance to sex education.
As I mentioned parenthetically above, the Church’s stance on sexuality remains highly problematic. By continuing to enforce patriarchal norms, the Church is perpetuating an injustice to women and LGBTQ+ communities. I can only hope that the Pope’s Earth-positive message will carry over in time to sex-positivity and gender equality, as well. The Pope is willing to listen to Gaian scientists about climate change and mass extinction but still looks to the Old Testament for his understanding of healthy human sexual relationships? Society’s views on sex continue to change faster than the LGBTQ (…) acronym can keep up. Pope Francis rightly critiques the “rampant individualism” and “self-centered culture of instant gratification” that dominates our postmodern world (Par. 162), and it is true that in such a context, the sacredness of sexuality is often ignored or debased. But for an institution still so mired in its own child sex abuse scandals to pretend to speak with such moral authority about the singular legitimacy of patriarchal marriage (=one god fearing husband, one man obeying wife) is embarrassing, to say the least. Instead of condemning so many people to hell, the Church could do a better job supporting anyone, queer or straight, for whom love is the guiding factor in the making of kin and the formation of families. And further, those who wish to express their love without increasing the human population should also be able to avoid the Church’s condemnation (and maybe even win their love), since it is ecologically obvious that we’ve reached and probably surpassed the carrying capacity of this planet. If the Pope is serious about rejecting humanity’s absolute dominion over the planet, he must come to understand this.
For an alternative perspective on the role of sex in society, check out primatologist Isabel Behncke’s short presentation about bonobo sexuality. The connections she draws between play and ritual resonate strongly with what I tried to articulate in the paper I delivered at the recent International Whitehead Conference on religion in human and cosmic evolution.
Again, moving toward an ecological civilization is going to take more than just a sustainable and green economy. It is going to take a massive transformation of every aspect of our modern human lives, including how we relate sexually. Conservatives are clearly terrified of such changes, but the power of their ideology pales in comparison to the power of evolutionary eros. We are primates and our behavior is evolving on every level, or at least needs to if we hope to adapt to a shifting environment.
One final word about the terrible shooting in Charleston that stole the headline from the Pope’s encyclical last week. Responding to racism must be part of any integral ecological movement.
The Civil War started, as much for economic, as for political, social, and moral reasons. The North was industrializing, while the South remained tied to slave labor and dependent upon the agricultural exports that their slaves produced (especially cotton). Black bodies chained to forced labor camps contributed massively to the US GDP for 60 years. Their enslaved bodies mediated between Whites and the raw material of the natural world. As machines began to take over this mediating role in the North, the economic justification for slavery began to evaporate. The embrace of industrial technology freed up the empathic capacity of Whites, allowing for a widespread awakening to the moral absurdity of slavery.
The ecological and moral consequences of industrialization are only now becoming clear. This is far more complex than I can articulate fully here, but there is clearly a connection between White alienation from the natural world, the need for mediation (whether by slaves, machines, or something else) to protect us from that world, and the ecological crisis. The Union won the war and ended black slavery only to enforce the enslavement of the regenerative processes of Earth. The new global machine overlords of techno-capitalism took the reins from the simple Southern slavers.
Healing from the residual racism still blighting our country’s collective psyche seems to me to be a far deeper issue than just being nicer to one another. There are deeper wounds at play here . . . .
Thoughts? The connections I’m drawing are obviously still in their larval phase. I am hoping we can start a dialogue to shed light more light on it all.
Next week, Pope Francis will release an encyclical on the role of Catholics in the ecological crisis. According to John Grimm (Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University), “Francis will likely bring together issues of social justice and economic inequity into relationship with our growing understanding of global climate change and environmental trauma.”
By drawing connections between ecology and social justice, the Pope will be offering an explicitly “integral” approach to ecology. “Integral ecology” is a perspective developed by Thomas Berry, Leonardo Boff, and more recently, by Sean Esbjorn-Hargens and Michael Zimmerman in their book by the same name.
Prof. Sean Kelly at CIIS has also been working to further flesh out the integral perspective on ecology. Sean, Adam Robbert, and Sam Mickey have a co-edited volume coming out soon with SUNY called The Varieties of Integral Ecology: Nature, Culture, and Knowledge in the Planetary Era that is sure to help move the conversation forward.
Of course, not everyone is excited about the Pope’s upcoming encyclical. Congressman and climate change denier James Inhofe (who, in a dark irony that speaks volumes about everything that is wrong with our dysfunctional government, is also the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee) has told the Pope to stay out of the climate change discussion. With all due respect, Mr. Inhofe (and you aren’t due much), I’d appreciate it if you would stop butting into the scientific consensus on this issue with your fossil fuel fueled opinions.
There are 1.2 billion Catholics on this planet. I think ecologizing our civilization will surely require re-interpreting and mobilizing the Christian religion on behalf of the Earth. The resources for doing so are there in the tradition, even if somewhat buried and in need of remembering. I wrote an essay on Christian ecosophy a few years go in an effort to do some of this work of anemnesis.
[Update 6/15] An Italian newspaper has published a leaked draft of the encyclical. According to The Guardian:
At the start of the draft essay, the pope wrote, the Earth “is protesting for the wrong that we are doing to her, because of the irresponsible use and abuse of the goods that God has placed on her. We have grown up thinking that we were her owners and dominators, authorised to loot her. The violence that exists in the human heart, wounded by sin, is also manifest in the symptoms of illness that we see in the Earth, the water, the air and in living things.”
He immediately makes clear, moreover, that unlike previous encyclicals, this one is directed to everyone, regardless of religion. “Faced with the global deterioration of the environment, I want to address every person who inhabits this planet,” the pope wrote. “In this encyclical, I especially propose to enter into discussion with everyone regarding our common home.”
There is also a new trailer:
Love, Death, and the Sub-Creative Imagination in J. R. R. Tolkien
by Matthew David Segall
In the year 1951, as recorded by the calendar of our world, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to a potential publisher of his Lord of the Rings trilogy to describe the origin of his fantasy story:
“In order of time, growth and composition, this stuff began with me. I do not remember a time when I was not building it…I have been at it since I could write” (xi).
The imaginal flowering of Tolkien’s mythopoeic world was never separate from his real life identity. It grew from the soil of his own soul, from out of the wounds of his own real life world. His very sense of himself as a developing personality within a devolving late industrial society was coëval with his feeling for the courses charted by his characters through the story. His soul’s biography and his archeology of Middle-Earth were as one.
Though Tolkien is clearly an example of what our traditions of criticism have called a literary genius—a man singularly awakened to the world-making power of his Imagination—we must nonetheless grapple with the apparently contradictory metaphysical implications of his fantasy works: Art is not the privilege of a few especially talented human geniuses, but the shared intuition or common sense running through each and every creature in the cosmos. It is not Tolkien’s imagination that created Middle-Earth, just as it is not any particular person’s imagination that has created our earth as it exists in the year 2014. It is the same Divine Cosmic Imagination that has created both, the one through Tolkien, the other through all of us together. A genius inspires every one of us from the dumbest to the most erudite in our thoughts, and in our hearts, and even in our very cells, the molecules organizing our cells, the protons and electrons whose dancing in currents of light grant motion to those molecules. The process of cosmic creation is the locus of primary genius. All of nature is inspired Art. The cosmic imagination has called the human into being. Human Art is nature’s way of becoming conscious of its own creative process.
Unlike every other creature on Earth or above it, our human purpose is not pre-determined by our species. To be human is to lack any such purpose but that we create for ourselves. In a participatory universe such as ours, the only purpose given us by our Creator is to become like him, to become, as Tolkien referred to it, a “sub-creator.”
The subtending power of Imagination over human life is such that, lacking a positive desire for creation, a creative impulse, a sense of self-esteem in our ability to create, we quickly sink into the darkness of world-negating nihilism. Cosmic meaning is never prescribed; we are called instead to participate in its making. The purpose we have been given by our Maker is to participate in His making.
It isn’t that the lack of a creative desire to participate in life dissolves the illusions of Imagination, leaving behind nothing but bare biological survival and the blind and stupid churning of matter. It’s that, for better or worse, with or without such positivity, there is no escape from Imagination: it encompasses the whole of both life and death, body and soul, yay and nay. To be sub-creators is our doom. If we do not use our power of divine likeness to create beauty, we risk destroying it. We are not permitted to abstain, to be spectators on an already made reality. For there to be any reality at all, we must participate in its making, whether positively or negatively.
Reality is never purely what it is because it always comes mixed up with Images. Reality, it turns out, is not a finished unity, but a plurality of interwoven processes. Every supposedly simple and finished reality is but a ego-generated image, a mirage, an idol. What happens is that an ongoing creality is mistaken for a completed reality. This mistake leads not only to nihilism, but to resentment of the world’s becoming.
Resentment or enchantment: these are the two paths open to we earthly sub-creators. Both bring forth a certain shape of subjectivity: the former that of an embattled ego who has externalized blame upon an enemy in order to feel expiated for its own failure to faithfully participate; the latter that of an ego innocently open to the eucatastrophic surprises of a cosmic story still in the process of being told.
Tolkien’s Art invites us to step into our roles as cosmic artisans, just at that moment in world history when the stars have fallen and so much else seems headed for disaster.
Tolkien’s Art is not what it at first appears. More artisanal than artistic, the products of Tolkien’s sub-creation “arose in [his] mind as ‘given’ things.” Always,” writes Tolkien, “I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there,’ somewhere: not of ‘inventing’” (xii). Tolkien’s mode of creation is also a mode of discovery. This seeming contradiction is easier to grasp if we consider it alongside Tolkien’s belief that “myths are largely made of truth” (xv). The “wide-spread motives or elements” expressed in the world’s mythologies (known to Tolkien’s contemporary Carl Jung as “archetypes”) are such mythic truths. It is no surprise, then, that these archetypes were in some sense re-discovered by Tolkien in the course of his imaginal descent into Middle-Earth. We need not decide whether sub-creation is true creation, or simple discovery, since Imagination functions according to its own oscillatory logic allowing it to hover indeterminately between pairs of seeming opposites (creation/discovery, self/world, intellect/sensation, spirit/matter, and so forth). It is from this unruly oscillation that all of Imagination’s mysterious power derives.
Tolkien says of all his artwork that it is fundamentally concerned with the problem of the relation of Art (and Sub-creation) to Primary Reality (xiii). Primary Reality is the world of daily life, of biological struggle, and, eventually, of death. The sub-creator, in bringing forth a Secondary Reality (made not of mass in motion, but of story and myth, of image and emotion), expresses a desire which not only has no ordinary biological function, but which indeed usually finds itself in strife with these functions (xiii). Despite its spiritual motives, the sub-creative desire “is at once wedded to a passionate love of the real primary world, and hence filled with the sense of mortality, and yet unsatisfied by it” (xiii). Death, even if imaginary, is no less real for all that. We human sub-creators have, again, two paths open to us upon encountering it.
The first option is to resent death as a curse, and so to “rebel against the laws of the Creator” by employing various devices meant to mechanically stave off the inevitable. This is a fallen form of creativity in service of the denial of death, which cannot but lead to the desire for ever more Power. For Tolkien, this desire for Power can lead only to an obsession with “the Machine.” The Machine necessarily possesses its master (and so inverts the master-slave relationship). It represents a form of black magic that is concerned only to make the will quicker and more effective, a technological magic accomplished by external devices, rather than by the innate power of Imagination.
The second option is to accept death as a gift from God, to sub-create out of sheer love of this world without jealousy or possessiveness. This is easier if we follow Tolkien’s advice by looking at things “through Elvish minds” instead of the human ones we’re used to. The object of Elvish magic “is Art, not Power, sub-creation, not domination and tyrannous re-forming of creation” (xii). Though “it is not the legendary mode of talking,” Tolkien assures us that his “elves” are really nothing more than “an apprehension of a part of human nature” (xvi). No doubt it is the higher part; though of course, the Elves were the first to fall.
“There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall…at least not for human minds as we know them and have them.” (xv)
In the mythic mode of speaking, the Elves are said to be the Firstborn of Ilúvatar, humans their Followers. Taking the Elvish view on things gives we mere mortals the opportunity to raise our attention from the mud into which we have fallen to dwell again at least for a moment beneath the stars in the sky and to contemplate the heavenly mission their light was sent to earth to share with us.
“The doom of the Elves,” writes Tolkien,
“is to be immortal, to love the beauty of the world, to bring it to full flower with their gifts of delicacy and perfection, to last while it lasts, never leaving it even when ‘slain,’ but returning–and yet, when the Followers come, to teach them, and make way for them, to ‘fade’ as the Followers grow and absorb the life from which both proceed.” (xiv)
“The Doom (or Gift) of Men,” he continues,
“is mortality, freedom from the circles of the world. Since the point of view of the whole cycle is the Elvish, mortality is not explained mythically: it is a mystery of God which no more is known than that ‘what God has purposed for Men is hidden’: a grief and an envy to the immortal Elves.”
From the Elvish perspective, death is Ilúvatar’s Gift to humans. Elves envy humans because our love for the world is, at least potentially, so much more beautiful than theirs. Why? Because we mortals have the choice to love one another, and to love the world, despite death. Eucatastrophe, is the highest of the Arts, the most beautiful of all Nature’s works.
Only by incarnating into the physical world and passing through the finitude of death could God’s Love become truly infinite. This is the Creator’s great secret, kept even from the angels until (if I might risk an allegorical translation) the Christ Event. Until that “turning point in time,” the Drama had remained incomplete…“incomplete in each individual ‘god,’ and incomplete if all the knowledge of the pantheon were pooled…For the Creator had not revealed all.” (xiv)
Embracing death lovingly despite not being certain of its meaning requires a redemptive act of Imagination, a sort of faith, since for Imagination believing is seeing.
The same sort of imaginal faith is required to participate in the meaning of Tolkien’s cosmogony as depicted in The Silmarillion. Tolkien recounts the creation of the world through the musical call and response of Ilúvatar, the All-Father, the One, and his noetic offspring, the Ainur, or Holy Ones. Together, all the Ainur sang in accord with Ilúvatar’s theme:
“…a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.”
But then, Melkor, the Ainur with the greatest gifts of power and knowledge, began to
“interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.” (16)
Not only Elves and Humans, but even Angels are subject to the mythic law of the Fall. Like all evil, Melkor’s fallenness stems from the same root as goodness. He only began to sing out of tune with the other Ainur because he had gone off alone in an effort to fill in the emptiness of the Void where Ilúvatar’s song had not yet reached. His efforts made his heart grow hot with possessiveness. Alas, his will was lost to the lure of Ilúvatar’s music and he turned selfward, instead. Melkor’s rebellion caused heaven’s harmony to falter as many of the other Ainur began attuning with him instead of Ilúvatar. Soon, all about the throne of Ilúvatar “there was a raging storm, as of dark waters that made war upon one another in an endless wrath.” Ilúvatar contended with Melkor, not by negating his “loud and vain” improvisations, but by weaving even the most triumphant of Melkor’s dissonant notes back into the deeply solemn and for that reason immeasurably beautiful pattern of His cosmic melody.
“Mighty are the Ainur,” said Ilúvatar,
“and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar…And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.” (17)
The universe presents human beings with an opportunity to trust the creative process that has birthed them, to trust it even when its path seems dark and difficult, even when its products seem measly and powerless before the weight of the primary world of toil and death. We can embrace mortal sub-creation without resenting the task by realizing that death only appears to the fallen ego to be an enemy. For the ego redeemed by Imagination, death is revealed to be God’s greatest gift to Creation, a sacred secret entrusted not to gods but to humans, those made in His Image and after His likeness.
“The great policies of world history, ‘the wheels of the world,’” wrote Tolkien,
“are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak–owing to the secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom but One, that resides in the intrusions of the Children of God into the Drama.” (xvii)
*All citations from second edition of The Silmarillion ed. by Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).
Someone started a reddit thread about my post last week on the Ken Ham v. Bill Nye debate. The user hpyhpyjoyjoy brought to my attention that Nye has promoted Bill Gates’ philanthropic projects, in particular his Foundation’s effort to eradicate disease among poor people. Hpyhpyjoyjoy writes:
“Nye was shilling for Bill Gates in his Gates Foundation newsletter not too long ago. The ‘science’ contained therein intimated that infectious disease was a static slice of a pie chart to be whittled away by triumphal government-corporate agencies. A creationism of static bacterial and viral kinds, ironically.”
Below is another example of Nye in one of the Gates Foundation’s promotional videos attempting to “dispel poverty myths” about disease:
Let me be clear. In criticizing Nye’s form of “science education,” I don’t mean “we” ought to accept Ken Ham’s Biblical literalism, nor do I believe “we” can just ignore the suffering of children in Africa. But who is this “we”?
I can’t help but cringe when Nye defends his white man’s burden to use techno-science to solve all Africa’s problems. Its the old Enlightenment myth about Western science conquering the darkness of nature, rationalizing it, economizing it, making it cleaner and more efficient. Nye’s image of science hasn’t yet shaken off its colonialist presumptions. His scientific materialism functions as an apology for American imperialism and the global capitalist system it supports.
Ham’s creationism is no better. His fundamentalist brand of Christianity can only function in the context of consumer capitalism, where one buys into this or that personal belief system like one wears Nikes, Reeboks, or Adidas. The credal product Ham is selling is extremely attractive in today’s unstable and anxiety provoking marketplace. Unlike so many of the other belief systems or world views operating among various populations of postmodern society, Young Earth Creationism has the benefit of being the one and only such system that offers its adherents complete certainty due to the fact that it is unquestionably true (at least for those who buy into it). “The world was created by a transcendent God several thousand years ago; it was perfect until Man sinned; but as long as I believe in God and His revealed Word (literally interpreted), I will be saved.” All of life’s confusion explained, all its suffering assuaged, just like that.
Scientism is another popular belief system providing its adherents with certainty about the way the world really is. It may not save souls by assuring them safe passage to heaven; but by dissolving the very idea of the soul it allows its adherents to enact different fantasy, that of improved bodily comfort through endless technological progress (a sort of heaven on earth). Scientism should be distinguished from the method(s) of science and the always re-interpretable body of scientific knowledge this method leaves in its wake. Nye does not strike me as an especially dogmatic believer in Scientism (unlike, say, Dawkins or Krauss). He seems to conceive of science as a disciplined process of discovery whereby the more you know the more you know you don’t know. I am not opposed to this description of science, but I do think it is partial: it leaves out the constructive side of its endeavors. The enactive epistemology I’d want to defend implies that all our knowing dwells in the tensionality between discovery and creation. Science doesn’t simply mirror an objective nature more or less accurately. Science is always wed to technology, to certain ways of intervening upon the natural flux, of actively resisting its given resistances. The implications of this marriage include the fact that the scientific project can never be “value free,” and that certain kinds of techno-science, like that deployed in service of the values of global capitalism, can have dire social and ecological consequences. Nye is better than some others, but he falls prey to the myth of the Enlightenment when he characterizes techno-science as a “fight against myth.” Science is not a fight against myth; rather, it brings forth a new kind of myth. Eric Voegelin warns of the “serious consequences for the stability both of personality and society” that emerge with the Enlightenment belief that humans might be made free of myth. Voegelin continues (excerpted from Volume 16 of the Collected Works, Plato and Aristotle):
“The model of positive science destroys the understanding of the myth for the past as well as for the present. With regard to the myth of the past the symbols and dogmas that have grown historically will be misunderstood as concepts and verifiable propositions and will inevitably be found of doubtful value. The symbols of the myth are cut off, through this attitude, from their basis in the unconscious and are required to legitimate themselves as if they were propositions concerning objects. The myth is erroneously supposed to be meant ‘literally’ instead of symbolically, and consequently appears as naïve or superstitious. With regard to the myth of the present the result is equally destructive. The myth has a fundamental function in human existence and myths will be created no matter what anybody thinks about them. We cannot overcome the myth, we can only misunderstand it. With regard to the contemporary myth, of the eighteenth century and after, the positivist misunderstanding has the consequence that the mythical symbols are claimed to be what the symbols of the past are charged not to be, that is, ‘science’ or ‘theory.’ Such symbols as ‘reason,’ ‘mankind,’ ‘proletariat,’ ‘race,’ ‘communist society,’ ‘world-peace,’ and so forth, are supposed to be different in nature from pagan or Christian symbols because their mythical truth is covered and obscured by the superimposition of the additional myth of science. Since the myth does not cease to be myth because somebody believes it to be science, the telescoping of myth and science has a peculiar warping effect on the personality of the believers. As long as the movements of the unconscious are allowed to express themselves in myth in free recognition of their nature, the soul of man preserves its openness toward its cosmic ground. The terror of an infinitely overpowering, as well as the reassurance of an infinitely embracing, beyond as the matrix of separate, individual existence, endow the soul with its more-than-human dimension; and through the acceptance of the truth of this dimension (that is, through faith) the separateness of human existence can, in its turn, be recognized and tolerated in its finiteness and limitations…When the balance of openness and separateness is destroyed through the telescoping of myth and science, the forces of the unconscious will stream into the form, not of the myth, but of theory or science. The symbols of the myth become perverted into intramundane, illusionary objects, ‘given,’ as if they were empirical data, to the cognitive and active functions of man; at the same time the separate, individual existence suffers an illusionary inflation because it absorbs into its form the more-than-human dimension…The powers of man can create a society free from want and fear; the ideas of infinite perfectibility, of the superman, and of self-salvation make their appearance” (241-242).
Nye and Ham would seem to have more in common than the dichotomous framing of their debate suggests. Both misunderstand the mythic dimension of the human unconscious because of over-literalization. Further, the scientific materialism and religious creationism each defends are both complicit in capitalism’s assault on the earth community. Neither world view is sufficient to guide us through the current planetary crisis. Another way is possible. And at least here in America (and in other countries whose cultural unconscious, for better or worse, has been deeply shaped by the Bible), one of the most politically pragmatic ways forward may involve a radicalization of the Christian mythos (see, for example, my essay “Remembering Creation: Towards a Christian Ecosophy”).
Here is the audio of my presentation at the IWC last week in the philosophy of religion section:
Here is a PDF of the paper I read, titled “Worldly Religion in Whitehead and Deleuze: Steps Toward an Incarnational Philosophy”
Also, thanks to Leon over at afterxnature.blogspot.com for posting my presentation, as well.
Below I’ve written a paper using the ideas of Gilles Deleuze and Alfred North Whitehead to construct a secular divinity. For Deleuze, this is an especially serious act of buggery on my part. Deleuze of course approved of that method in his own projects, but I wonder if he would approve of the baby jesus child that I’m trying to make him have in this paper. I’m directing Deleuze’s demand that we philosophers think immanently by believing in the world toward an interpretation of the Christian religion and faith. This is exactly what Whitehead does in Adventures of Ideas where he looks to the martyr Jesus for the exemplification of something that the philosopher Plato first divined as an ideal. Plato made a world-historical intellectual discovery, as Whitehead puts it, or as Deleuze would say he created a concept that has continued to reverberate across the ages. Where traditional monotheistic theologists create a concept of divinity as a transcendent and omnipotent imposer of form and order and law upon an entirely separate derivative world, with Plato you have the idea of divine immanence in the world working through persuasion–through desire, eros, beauty, and love–to transform the world “slowly and in quietness,” as Whitehead puts it, rather than by hurling thunderbolts from heaven. Plato invented a new idea of God working within the world as love, which is a kind of power, but not the power of brute force. God is no longer a creator who shapes the whole thing from outside. Rather, God is involved in, caught up with the process of cosmogenesis and spatiotemporal becoming, such that the world is as necessary for the nature of God as God is for the nature of the World…
“Behold, I am making all things new.”
The purpose of this essay is to unpack Deleuze’s and Whitehead’s philosophical contributions to the task of re-thinking religion in an increasingly fenced in, post-everything world no longer certain of its own secularity.1 “The secularization of the concept of God’s functions in the world,” argued Whitehead in 1927, “is at least as urgent a requisite of thought as is the secularization of other elements in experience.”2 With a similar sense of urgency, Deleuze (and Guattari) argued in 1991 that, in an age when “we have so many reasons not to believe in the human world,” philosophy’s most pressing task is to “give birth to new modes of existence, closer to animals and rocks,” modes of existence which renew “[belief] in this world, in this life.”3 Deleuze’s emphasis on immanence as against transcendence, on this world as opposed to the next, should not be read as a blanket dismissal of spiritual practice. On the contrary, for Deleuze, the creative thinking demanded by philosophical inquiry invites infinite cosmic forces into the finite mind, making philosophy akin to an “initiatory…spiritual ordeal.”4 Philosophers are those who dare to welcome such dangerous forces, risking not only their academic reputations,5 but the habit-formed security of their egos. Philosophers do not simply reflect ideas, they allow ideas to enter into and transform them:
This is because one does not think without becoming something else, something that does not think–an animal, a molecule, a particle–and that comes back to thought and revives it.6
Deleuze calls for a radical break with all forms of commonsense–whether it be religious, artistic, philosophical, or scientific–through the intercession of concepts with personalities who are willing to continually confront the absolute horizon of the plane, and so who are able to fold the infinite movements of Nous and Physis back into one another “in such a way that the plane of immanence is ceaselessly being woven, like a gigantic shuttle.”7 Philosophy, unlikes dogmatic religions, does not paint the firmament on an umbrella, rather it “[tears] open the firmament and [plunges] into the chaos.”8 As we will see, however, philosophy’s role is to not only to descend into the underworld, but to return with the good news.
Whitehead, for his part, has Jamesian tendencies that would at first glance seem to ally his philosophical efforts to the pragmatic interests of commonsense. “The philosophy of organism,” he wrote, “is an attempt, with the minimum of critical adjustment, to return to the concepts of ‘the vulgar.’”9 Whitehead made this comment in the context of a skeptical attack on behalf of commonsense experience mounted against the mechanistic abstractions of Newton (who dismissed the mathematically-naïve sense-based opinions of “the vulgar”) and the transcendental abstractions of Kant (who opposed derivative sensory appearances to ultimate substantial reality). Whitehead was well aware of the danger of hyperbole.10 In this case, however, it seems he fell prey to the danger of understatement. The “critical adjustment” his cosmology requires of the opinions of modern people can hardly be described as “minimal.” By the time Whitehead has finished his adventure in cosmologizing, not only will God have become creaturely, but energy vectors will have been transformed into emotional currents and atoms will have been endowed with life. Further, the very substance of the soul, the continuity of personal identity, will have become but a precariously linked “route of presiding occasions…[wandering] from part to part of the brain,” always vulnerable to dislocations and interruptions which “in primitive times [were] interpreted as demoniac possession.”11 Rather than having been made in heaven by God and beginning life fully-formed and eternally the same, the soul comes to matter to us precisely because it is what is always at risk, “what might be captured, reduced to wandering, enslaved.”12 No longer given as one, already whole, the soul becomes a social value to be achieved, a swarming community of larval subjects needing to be repeatedly composed or concresced out of the chaosmic raw materials of life (i.e., intensive percepts and affects). “Being a soul” in Whitehead’s process ontology is deeply problematic, even dangerous, because one never simply is but must become-soul. “Losing one’s hold [going mad],” in the context of Whitehead’s psychology, “becomes…the paradigmatic disaster, or else…the precondition of any initiation or any spiritual transformation.”13 It would seem that neither the traditional theologian nor the classical physicist, much less the average modern business owner, government employee, or homemaker, could feel at home in such a strange Whiteheadian universe! Both Deleuze and Whitehead generated concepts rooted in non-ordinary problematics, which is to say that the solutions distilled by their concepts problematize naïve egoic subjectivity by acting as alchemical catalysts that alter not only the contents of conscious thoughts, but the unconscious imaginative background of thought itself, thereby repositioning thinking on some as yet undetected plane of immanence. They are hermetic thinkers whose philosophizing sought not rational explanation, but the instigation of worldly renewal and the intensification of the depth of aesthetic experience. It is important in this context to forge connections between their efforts to creatively transform commonsense experience and the wider projects of establishing coherent social values and just political institutions. Deleuze’s philosophy has been criticized for being “politically irrelevant” by Peter Hallward due to its perceived “otherworldliness.”14 Isabelle Stengers has also criticized Deleuze’s tendency to celebrate the adventures of solitary, heroic creators who fearlessly dive into chaos while at the same time downplaying the conditions provided by their habitat and their inevitable need for social recuperation upon returning to consensual reality:
…all creators have learned [what] makes them able to “dive” without being swallowed. A dive cannot be improvised, but demands equipment. Unlike those who may happen to “sink” into chaos, creators are those who know what they experience “matters,” and that they will be able to recount something of what has happened to them, that is to come back…even from the land of the dead.15
Stengers’ contrasts Deleuze’s celebration of unhinged creativity with Whitehead’s tremendous respect for history and continual emphasis upon the importance of acquiring new habits in a way that is sensitive to the habitat they depend upon. “Each task of creation,” writes Whitehead, “is a social effort, employing the whole universe.”16 While Hallward’s claim may or may not be justified, Stengers’ modest Whiteheadian corrective to Deleuze’s penchant for skinny dipping in the Acheron allows us to receive much insight and inspiration from the latter without forgetting the perhaps more pertinent imperative of the former regarding the worldly responsibility of the philosopher:
…[to] seek the evidence for that conception of the universe which is the justification for the ideals characterizing the civilized phases of human society.17
When it comes to the influence of the mainline religious traditions of the West upon philosophy, both Whitehead and Deleuze lob devastating rebukes. Whitehead’s ire is almost always directed at the “idolatrous” habit of conceiving of God along the lines of an all-powerful imperial ruler or distant unmoved mover.18 “Religion,” writes Whitehead, “has emerged into human experience mixed with the crudest fancies of barbaric imagination.”19 Deleuze also mocks the idea of a “great despot” or “imperial State in the sky or on earth” typical of monotheistic commonsense.20 While this particular habit of religious thought is deemed dispensable, Whitehead is unwilling to jettison religious values outright, despite calls by the modern-minded to found civilization instead upon the abstractions of mechanistic science:
Unfortunately for this smug endeavor to view the universe as the incarnation of the commonplace, the impact of aesthetic, religious, and moral notions is inescapable. They are the disrupting and the energizing forces of civilization.21
In particular, Whitehead points to the “Galilean origin of Christianity” as an example of a non-despotic religious persona: Christ. Christ “neither rules, nor is unmoved,” but “dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love.”22 Deleuze also singles out Christian philosophy, both for praise and for disparagement. Those pre-modern Christian philosophers (like Cusa, Eckhart, and Bruno) who were bold enough to challenge church authority and risk their lives by injecting at least a dose of immanence into Physis and Nous still refused in the end to “compromise the transcendence of a God to which immanence must be attributed only secondarily.”23 Later modern Christian philosophers (like Pascal and Kierkegaard), though they were still men of faith, created concepts that recharged, rather than diminished, immanence. They were
concerned no longer with the transcendent existence of God but only with the infinite immanent possibilities brought by the one who believes that God exists.24
Deleuze suggests that, in the modern period, belief replaced knowledge as the dominant image of thought.25 The “will to truth” that had guided philosophy for so long lost its viability, as with the new technical power of modernity came also a crippling epistemic skepticism, an inability to grasp truth outright. No longer could the productivity of thought be “guaranteed in advance by the inherent connection between the good and the true”; rather, Deleuze believed that philosophical thought in the modern period required “trespass and violence,” treating the thinker of thought not as a trustworthy friend, but as an enemy.26 Truth is now to be inferred at best, tracked with suspicion but without certainty. The new plane of belief is not simply destructive or crippling, however: it is also the condition for the possibility of new forms of mental and physical experience. As with the Christian thinkers of immanence, Deleuze emphasized the “unforeseeable directions of thought and practice” that belief makes possible, directions to be judged not based on the object of a belief, but on a belief’s effect.27 A related feature of modern philosophy for Deleuze results from thought’s encounter and struggle with the unrepresentable natural forces underlying perceptual and affective experience, forces which paradoxically “must but cannot be thought.”28 Given modern thought’s confrontation with the infinite forces of the universe, its concepts can no longer be understood to represent a stable reality or to mirror a harmonious nature; rather, “what matters…in an idea is…the range of experimental possibility it opens onto.”29
Whitehead shares with Deleuze a sense for the importance of experimental thinking. In the context of religious experimentation, asking whether or not God really exists becomes irrelevant. What becomes important is the sort of thoughts and practices that belief in God makes possible for the believer, and for the society to which the believer belongs. “The power of God,” writes Whitehead, “is the worship He inspires.”30 “The fact of the religious vision,” he continues,
and its history of persistent expansion, is our one ground for optimism. Apart from it, human life is a flash of occasional enjoyments lighting up a mass of pain and misery, a bagatelle of transient experience.31
The “religious vision,” as Whitehead understands it, “gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension,” providing life with “something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.”32 The vision, though aesthetically and emotionally ultimate, cannot be monopolized by the limited doctrines of any religion in particular. It can be said, however, that the rising or falling tide of each religious tradition through the ages depends upon the ability of its concepts, symbols, rituals, myths, architecture, and personae (etc.) to inspire worship in such a way that the intuition of God is called forth naturally from spiritual recesses deeper than can be rationally understood.33 The psychology of modern civilization, from Whitehead’s point of view, has little patience for the traditional image of God as an omnipotent dictator. In this respect, such images are “fatal,” since “religion collapses unless its main positions command immediacy of assent.”34
More often than any religious image per say, Deleuze’s target is the illusion of transcendence as such, which results whenever we “[interpret immanence] as immanent to Something.”35 The illusion of transcendence resonates with 3 other illusions, or “thought mirages”: 1) universality, which results when the immanent planomenon is conceived as immanent “to” a concept, 2) eternity, which results when we forget that concepts must be created and are not waiting in the sky for thinkers to discover, and 3) discursiveness, which results when concepts are reduced to logical propositions.36 These illusions become a thick fog obscuring the plane of immanence, condemning the philosophical and religious thinker alike to continually grasp after immanence as though it might be made immanent “to” something, whether it be “the great Object of contemplation [the neo-Platonic One], the Subject of reflection [the Kantian transcendental subject], or the Other subject of communication [the Husserlian intersubjective transcendental].”37 The plane of immanence cannot itself be thought, since it provides the very condition for thought.38 Whenever a thinker believes he has thought the plane, we can be sure he has only contemplated, reflected, or communicated an idol.
The pure immanence of the philosophical planomenon can be likened to the friend, i.e., Wisdom, She who provides the condition for the possibility of philosophy.39 The friend is the paradigmatic “conceptual persona” of philosophy. Conceptual personae, according to Deleuze, have a “somewhat mysterious…hazy existence halfway between concept and preconceptual plane, passing from one to the other.”40 In the case of the friend, it must be asked what it could mean to become friendly if the friend had not once been, and could not become again, a stranger. On the philosophical planomenon, the friend and the stranger, the thought and its thinker, never engage in discussion with one another. Discussion is useless to philosophy, since all a discussion implies is that concepts have been mistaken for propositions, as if they could be deliberately expressed in sentence form (the illusion of discursiveness).41 Once the discursive mirage has captured a thinker, thought can only circle about itself in dialectical pursuit of a shallow truth extracted from the agonism of opinion.42 The more interesting dialectics end in aporia (Plato’s aporietic dialogues and Kant’s table of antinomies); or even more interestingly, they swallow up opposed opinions into the absolute as necessary moments in the historical unfolding of the eternal concept (Hegel). But there can be no dialectic that resolves itself in absolute identity–this would mean the end of philosophy (which is why Hegel claimed no longer to be a philosopher, but to have become wise). Both the friend and the stranger are necessary illusions for philosophy: philosophy, in other words, “requires this division of thought between [friend and stranger].” The philosophical creator of concepts must remain divided against himself at the same time that he befriends the image of thought projected in the division. The progress of philosophy depends upon a philosopher’s willingness to dwell within (without becoming immanent “to”) continual crises of agonism and reconciliation, meeting therein a proliferation of strange friends and friendly strangers. Deleuze writes:
It is as if the struggle against chaos does not take place without an affinity with the enemy, because another struggle develops and takes on more importance–the struggle against opinion, which claims to protect us from chaos itself.43
To dwell in crisis is no easy task. But this is the task required of a modern thinker, especially a Christian philosopher who has accepted the risks of thinking God’s immanence. To secularize the concept of God, as Whitehead and Deleuze demand, is to uncover “thought’s relationship with the earth,”44 to dig up what has been buried beneath the foggy illusions of transcendence estranging humanity from its home. To think with the earth is still a creative act; but it is also a matter of recovery, or resurrection, and of uncovering, or apocalypse.45
Christian philosophy’s paradigmatic conceptual persona is Christ, “the Word” who “became flesh and dwelt among us.”46 At first blush, He may seem, like other personae, to possess a less than incarnate, hazy existence somewhere between the immanence of the plane (matter/earth) and the transcendence of the concept (spirit/heaven). As John said, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it”47:––Traditional theology has all too often emphasized Christ’s transcendence, making Him more spirit than human (and making humanity more sinful than blessed).
Despite His initially ghostly outline, Christ’s ideality cannot be understood to be in any way abstract: He is rather an (the?) intercessor, the seed of a peculiarly Christian mode of thinking. “A particular conceptual persona,” writes Deleuze, “who perhaps did not exist before us, thinks in us.”48 Of Christ it is said that He both was in the beginning before us and will be in the end after us. His omnipresence lays out a uniquely immanent image of thought based on incarnation. The Christian plane of immanence demands a creation of concepts whose central problematic, or spiritual ordeal, is death, and whose solution, should it be realized, is an earthly form of resurrection. The Christian planomenon is unique because it is founded upon the birth, death, and resurrection of God on earth, which is to say it depends upon the possibility of the becoming-immanent of transcendence itself. Only then can the Christian thinker become inhabited by living thinking. “My old self,” writes Paul,
has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.49
Like the philosophical friend, Christ’s teachings can appear strange. “I tell you,” He said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”50 How can an earthly human being–normatively tied to family, friend, race, and nation–possibly live up to such an impossible, indeed infinite, demand? It is a demand that does violence to opinion and breaks with all commonsense. Nonetheless, this demand provides the peculiarly Christian problematic, an ordeal whose resolution requires becoming-incarnate, and thereby participating in bringing about an as yet unrealized providential plan(e), “on earth, as it is in heaven.”51 This is the strangeness of the “Galilean origin” of Christianity mentioned by Whitehead, where the transcendent power of divine coercion is replaced by the immanent love of divine persuasion. While Whitehead did not believe it possible, or even desirable, to construct a doctrinal unity out of the world’s diversity of religions, he did believe
that it is possible, amid these differences, to reach a general agreement as to those elements, in intimate human experience and general history, which we select to exemplify that ultimate theme of the divine immanence, as a completion required by our cosmological outlook.52
In other words, while humanity will certainly continue to disagree as to the particular qualitative aspects of religious facts and their proper moral interpretations, some coordination of these facts along a single plane of immanence may at least be attempted. Whitehead’s cosmological candidate for the ultimate religious theme is Divine Eros. His philosophical intervention into traditional theology aimed to transform the transcendent God of “coercive forces wielding the thunder” into the creaturely God of persuasion, “which slowly and in quietness [operates] by love.” 53 Given humanity’s recently seized god-like powers of technology, sustaining our planetary civilization would seem to depend upon the realization of such a secular “earth ethos.” Our civilization is in dire need of a world-renewing metaphysical consensus regarding the divine nature. If we are unable to believe in the divinity of the world, our collective behavior runs the risk destroying that world. The spirit of religion, though it is from time to time “explained away, distorted, and buried,” has never once entirely left us, according to Whitehead, “since the travel of mankind towards civilization.”54 Whenever religion takes flight from worldly concerns, it is the sure sign of a world nearing its end.
Whitehead traces the gradual realization of the concept of divine immanence through a “threefold revelation” stretching approximately twelve hundred years: 1) it begins in Athens with a intellectual innovation by Plato, 2) then passes into Jerusalem where the person of Jesus Christ exemplified the apocalyptic (ἀποκάλυψις- to “un-cover”) power of Plato’s concept, 3) and finally it culminates in a metaphysical interpretation of these events generated during the formative period of Christian theology.55
Whitehead regularly praises Plato’s depth of intuition. Just as often, he admits Plato’s failure to achieve a coherent overall statement of his conceptual scheme: “the greatest metaphysician, the poorest systematic thinker.”56 It is for one concept in particular, though, that Whitehead was lead to crown Plato “the wisest of men”: the idea that
the divine persuasion [Eros] is the foundation of the order of the world, but that it could only produce such a measure of harmony as amid brute forces [Chaos] it was possible to accomplish.57
It was this idea, conceived in principle by Plato, that the person of Jesus Christ was to reveal in actual deed. Though the historical records of His life are scattered and inconsistent, “there can be no doubt,” writes Whitehead, “as to what elements…have evoked a response from all that is best in human nature”:
The Mother, the Child, and the bare manger: the lowly man, homeless and self-forgetful, with his message of peace, love, and sympathy: the suffering, the agony, the tender words as life ebbed, the final despair: and the whole with the authority of supreme victory.58
Finally, it was the early Church fathers who made the first sustained effort to grope towards a coherent account of God’s persuasive agency in the world.59 The major fruit of their labor was the doctrine of the trinity (the mutual immanence of the theos-anthropos-cosmos multiplicity); more specifically, their most important contribution was the direct statement of the divine immanence in the world in the third person of the trinity. Unfortunately, despite this theological statement, the Church fathers failed to attain adequate metaphysical generality because they still exempted an infinite God from the categories applicable to the finite actual occasions involved in the becoming of the spatiotemporal world.60 Like Plato in many of his written dialogues, they were unable to disavow the notion of a derivative physical world poorly imitating the Ideas eternally realized in the mind of a disincarnate God.
Deleuze’s work has been read as an attempt to “overturn” Plato.61 In any attempt to “overturn” Plato it should be remembered that little more is required than continuing to “turn over” Plato–as in continuing to turn over the pages of his dialogues to be reminded that, like Whitman, he is large and contains multitudes.62 As Emerson put it:
the acutest searcher, the lovingest disciple could never tell what Platonism was; indeed admirable texts can be quoted on both sides of every great question, from him.63
Plato was equal parts poet and philosopher. He wrote dialogues, always leaving the doctrines for his characters. His meaning is never on the surface, even when it comes from the face of Socrates. Reading him, like reading the metaphysical experiments of Whitehead or Deleuze, is an infinite interpretive activity. For Whitehead, the entire history of European philosophy can be safely characterized as “a series of footnotes to Plato.”64 This despite the fact that Plato himself tells us in a letter to Dion that “no man of intelligence will venture to express his philosophical views in language.” “[Setting] down [one’s views] in written characters” is especially denounced.65 Written words lay in their parchment graves, still, silent, and dead. The reader’s questions and disputations receive no reply. On the testimony of Aristotle, Plotinus, and Proclus, we know that Plato’s unwritten secret teaching had something to do with the way that
ideas themselves were composed of matter, hyle, or in other words of an indefinite multiplicity, duas aoristos, which has as its elements the great and the small, and as its form, unity, to hen.66
If this is indeed the secret teaching, then how strangely inverted is the traditional European reading of Plato! Deleuze’s reading destroys the Platonic two-world theory of perfect ideas poorly copied by sensory images, but he is allured by Plato’s alternative conception of the idea of pure Difference. Where Aristotle reduces difference to that derived from the commonsense comparison of similars, understanding Plato requires risking the sanity of one’s mind in pursuit of the dark, difficult, and dangerous idea of Difference in itself. For Plato, individuals are not constituted by their substantial forms, or by their special determinations of a genus, as they are for Aristotle; nor is knowledge of individuals constituted by generalizations from a series. Rather, Plato’s is an ontology of singularity, where knowing an individual (be it ideal or actual) requires directly intuiting its uniquely authentic line of descent, rather than representing, identifying, or abstracting its general form. As Ramey puts it, “Knowledge is not a matter of generalization but of participation.” He continues:
The claim to participation is not simply the claim to be identified as a member of a class or token of a type. It is a claim to have passed a test or to have a basis for one’s claim. The difference between the just and the unjust, pretenders to justice and authentic stewards of justice, is not a difference between any two, but an internal and constitutive difference. It is the difference an ‘immediate fact’ of participation makes…It is the selection of an icon from within a prodigious field of idols, false images.67
The difference is initiatory, “acquired by each person on their own account.”68 That is, it has to do with undertaking the descent into the chaos of the underworld and returning to tell the tale. Philosophy without initiation would quickly turn stale and become abstract. Without stories to perform on infinite plane(s) stretching beyond the relative horizons of commonsense experience, a philosopher’s concepts cannot catch fire, nor acquire the persuasive life of personality. Once the journey into the darkness of pure Difference has been undertaken, in the difficult idea one has partaken are discovered signs of its ingression into the light of physical appearance: like a flower blooming, the idea incarnates out of earthly soil. “What man of sense,” writes Plato of his pedagogy of the concept,
would plant seeds in an artificial garden, to bring forth fruit or flowers in eight days, and not in deeper and more fitting soil?69
After the Christian-Platonic initiation, the world is transfigured into a problematic network of occult icons whose meaning can only be uncovered intuitively by the mental magic of talismanic thinking. Ideas are traced into appearances as signs, moments of discontinuity in extensive physical time-space out of which the intensive oddity of self-reference emerges.70 These recursive oddities unfold themselves into the physical plane, erupting as problematic forces requiring of the flesh-hewn mind not new representations of a supposedly extra-bodily world, but self-immolation through constant death and resurrection. Thinking is an ecstatic, violent act, always killing the neurons which support it, “making the brain a set of little deaths that puts constant death within us.”71
Deleuze’s Plato creates concepts not only iconically, but ironically, in that he never claims to represent an idea as true, but only to participate in an idea as “a way of problematizing, a manner of posing questions.”72 Deleuze pushes his Platonism as far away from any two-world caricature as possible by positing, according to Ramey,
the genesis of mind in direct encounters with imperceptible forces of perception, moments when the subtle and elusive patterns of difference and repetition animating life force the mind to interpret and even to create.73
Whitehead’s and Deleuze’s immanental reading of Christianity, along with their reading of Plato’s participatory doctrines of Persuasion and Difference, provides a world-renewing medicinal brew sorely needed in the contemporary world. Deleuze writes of the “medicinal thought” of a people to come who, according Ramey,
would, at an eschatological limit, have passed beyond the segmentation of knowledge in art, science, and philosophy in some as-yet-unrealized integral life of knowledge, such as that long dreamt of in the esoteric tradition of mathesis universalis.74
For Deleuze, mathesis is “a thinking of incarnation and individuality,”75 a form of symbolic knowing that allows for the discovery (and creation) of life’s (and death’s) deepest secrets. Knowledge of life’s individuating tendency, its power to repeatedly differ from itself, reveals how “the whole [can symbolize] itself in each individual.”76 Initiation into such knowledge would not only empower individual decision and action, but could rejuvenate the social and political life of civilization. We await the people to come who will be capable of completing creation through the incarnation of this Christogenic “body without organs.”77 “If you want to make a new start in religion,” writes Whitehead, “you must be content to wait a thousand years.”78
1 Perhaps even post-apocalyptic. See Sam Mickey’s attempt to “compost” the territorialized “postal discourses” of disintegral thought in his dissertation, Philosophy for a Planetary Civilization: On the Verge of Integral Ecology, (2012), 321cf [http://search.proquest.com/docview/1017705422?accountid=25260 (accessed 12/17/2012)].
2 Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: The Free Press, 1929/1978), 207.
3 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy? (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 74.
4 Joshua Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal (London: Duke University Press, 2012), 2.
5 See Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 6: There exists a “general academic-philosophical prejudice against the threatening proximity of intuitive, mystical, or even simply more emotional modes of mind to the cold calculations of pure reason…”
6 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 42.
7 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 38, 89, 177.
8 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 202.
9 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 72.
10 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 7: “The chief error in philosophy is overstatement.”
11 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 107-109.
12 Isabelle Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 443.
13 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 443.
14 Peter Hallward, Out of this World: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Creation (London: Verso Books, 2006); quoted in Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 226n9.
15 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 272.
16 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 275.
17 Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: The Free Press, 1938/1968), 105.
18 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 343.
19 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925/1960), 192. The contemplative conception of God as unmoved mover is obviously not as crude; what it lacks is the emotional and moral intensity required to engender religious vision.
20 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 43.
21 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 19.
22 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 343.
23 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 45.
24 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 74.
25 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 53.
26 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, transl. Paul Patton(London: Continuum, 1994/2004), 139.
27 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 13.
28 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 16.
29 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 16-17.
30 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 192.
31 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 193.
32 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 191-192.
33 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 133.
34 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 191.
35 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 45.
36 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 49-50.
37 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 51.
38 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 37.
39 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 3.
40 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 61.
41 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 22, 28.
42 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 79.
43 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 203.
44 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 69.
45 These Christological concepts can be read in parallel to Deleuze and Guattari’s geophilosophical concepts of “reterritorialization” and “deterritorialization” (What Is Philosophy?, 69-70).
46 John 1:14.
47 John 1:5.
48 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 69.
49 Galations 2:20.
50 Matthew 5:44.
51 Matthew 6:10.
52 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1933/1961), 161.
53 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 166; Process and Reality, 343.
54 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 172.
55 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 166.
56 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 166.
57 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 160.
58 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 167.
59 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 167-169.
60 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 169.
61 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, Ch. 4: “The Overturning of Platonism,” 112cf.
62 See Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” section 51.
63 Journal entry, Oct. 1845.
64 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 39.
65 Ironically, of course, as Plato was himself a prolific author.
66 Iain Hamilton Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (London: Continuum, 2006), 56n8.
67 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 118.
68 Deleuze, “Mathesis, Science, and Philosophy,” foreword to Johann Malfatti de Montereggio, Mathesis, Or Studies on the Anarchy and Hierarchy of Knowledge (Paris: Editions Du Griffon D’Or, 1946), 147.
69 Phaedrus, 276c-277a.
70 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 21-22.
71 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 216; Curiously, Christian esotericist Rudolf Steiner says almost the same thing: “The chief characteristic of ordinary thinking is that each single act of thinking injures the nervous system, and above all, the brain; it destroys something in the brain. Every thought means that a minute process of destruction takes place in the cells of the brain. For this reason sleep is necessary for us, in order that this process of destruction may be made good; during sleep we restore what during the day was destroyed in our nervous system by thinking. What we are consciously aware of in an ordinary thought is in reality the process of destruction that is taking place in our nervous system” (Lecture: 1st May, 1913; http://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/OccSciOccDev/19130501p01.html [accessed 12/16/2012]).
72 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 121.
73 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 125.
74 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 89.
75 Deleuze, “Mathesis, Science, and Philosophy,” 143.
76 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 98.
77 Deleuze, The Logic of Sense (London: Continuum, 1990/2004), 102; see also Ramey’s discussion of Cusa’s anthropocosmic Christology (The Hermetic Deleuze, 236n29).
78 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 172.
Deleuze, Gilles. “Mathesis, Science, and Philosophy,” foreword to Johann Malfatti de Montereggio, Mathesis, Or Studies on the Anarchy and Hierarchy of Knowledge (Paris: Editions Du Griffon D’Or, 1946).
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. What is Philosophy? (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).
Deleuze, Gilles Difference and Repetition, transl. Paul Patton (London: Continuum, 1994/2004).
Deleuze, Gilles. The Logic of Sense (London: Continuum, 1990/2004).
Grant, Iain Hamilton. Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (London: Continuum, 2006).
Hallward, Peter. Out of this World: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Creation (London: Verso Books, 2006).
Ramey, Joshua. The Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal (London: Duke University Press, 2012).
Stengers, Isabelle. Thinking With Whitehead (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011). Whitehead, A. N. Science and the Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925/1960).
Whitehead, A. N. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: The Free Press, 1929/1978).
Whitehead, A. N. Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1933/1961).
Whitehead, A. N. Modes of Thought (New York: The Free Press, 1938/1968).
I’ve just been made aware of this very new book on Deleuze and the Hermetic tradition. As the commenter who brought it to my attention already guessed, it couldn’t be more relevant to my current project. Hermeticism has long been an interest of mine; I’ve even described myself as a Christian Hermeticist in the past. The combination isn’t a new one but has its roots (aside from possible Christian influences on the original authors of the ~2nd century Corpus Hermeticum) in the Renaissance, beginning perhaps with Marsilio Ficino. Though I’ve tried, I can’t seem to shake the Christ archetype out of my psyche. To be honest, I’m often embarrassed by this, since much of what passes for Christianity these days (and for that matter, much of history) I find detestable. The hermetic side of the combo comes from my need for a worldly or cosmic religion, and a sense of the magic of nature. As for Deleuze, I’ve never read him directly. Several friends and colleagues have shared their impressions of his thought with me, and he certainly comes up a lot in Iain Hamilton Grant’s work on Schelling and Isabelle Stengers’ work on Whitehead. I will be reading his text Bergsonism in a course on process thought this fall, and most likely, I’ll read Ramey’s hermetic interpretation even sooner. Here is an excerpt from the introduction of The Hermetic Deleuze:
In the face of contemporary ambivalence over the validity and significance of esoteric, let alone “occult,” apprehensions of nature and mind, the political risk of this reading should be immediately apparent. Reading Deleuze as hermetic in any sense may force a departure from received presuppositions—modern, secular, or merely academic—about what rightfully counts as thought. I take that risk in part because I am convinced that the marginalization of hermetic traditions, and the suspicion and contempt in which they are still held by much of contemporary thought, constitutes a symptomatic repression of the complexity of both the history of modern philosophy and the stakes of contemporary culture, which is, from the internet to the cinema, completely obsessed with magic and with the occult. However, I can of course only speak for my own convictions that this spiritual material can and must be addressed, at least here, through the modest step of taking Deleuze’s spiritual debts to the hermetic tradition seriously. I do this by arguing for three interlinked claims: that Deleuze’s systematic thought is not fully comprehensible without situating it within the hermetic tradition; that Deleuze’s writings make a subtle yet distinctive contribution to contemporary hermetic knowledge and practice; and that the experimental stakes of modern and contemporary philosophy, as Deleuze conceived them, call for a revision and extension of the perennial hermetic project: the proliferation, differentiation, and nonidentical repetition of cosmic processes of regeneration and renewal. What is at stake for Deleuze in thought—and at stake in this book—is ultimately a political issue. Indicating the contours of a renewed spirituality of thought and a new vision of the mutual intercalation of material and spiritual forces is part of an attempt to fulfill the task of philosophy in late capitalism, a task Deleuze himself characterized as the renewal of “belief in the world.” My particular extension of this task, by pushing Deleuze further in the direction of his own hermeticism, is motivated by the conviction that to challenge the all-pervasive magic of that confluence of desire and power Isabelle Stengers once described as the great “capitalist sorcery,” requires an exceedingly sober attempt to countenance the aspects of social and natural reality thus far confined to the gnomic dictates of inchoate spiritual gurus on the one hand, and to the black arts of the industrial-entertainment complex on the other. Thinking more stridently through the spiritual dimensions of Deleuze’s work may enable us to forge new alternatives to the sinister perversions of belief in capital times, as well as to usher in a more concrete and complex sense of how to engender new relations between knowledge, power, and the spiritual forces of desire.
[Update]: I just read this review on Amazon by someone named Robert Richards (I
don’t think it is Robert J. Richards, author of The Romantic Conception of Life, but maybe? Another Update:: I found out who Bobby Richards is):
I read philosophy to shock vasanas. In India, vasanas are conditioned habits of mind, conditioned frames of reference and dispositions. For 20 years Deleuze has been my favorite explosive. To qualify, he’s been my favorite explosive imported from Europe. Tibetan explosives like Dzogchen and Tantra, or South American explosives like shamanic practices have also been effective. I have problematized my life as one of self-experimentation: one in which the spiritual, affective, imaginal, vital, physical and cognitive modes are all explored, re-imagined and re-invented.
Eight years ago I naively approached two of the heavyweights in the Deleuzian academic industry. I asked them what Deleuze thought about radical spiritual, or radical transmutational practices. Their reception to my question could not have been colder. I realized that I had encountered a self-annointed hierarchy of post-hierarchical post-whatevers, ones who had territorialized their Deleuze for their own hyper-chic secularizations. Annoyed, but not deterred, I continued to use Deleuze as private dynamite.
When I first read Joshua Ramey’s brilliant critique of Peter Hallward’s misfire of a book (Out of This World: Deleuze…), I sensed and knew that here was someone on the same track that I was on. Ramey felt like a brilliant shaft of sunlight cutting into the labyrinthian coal mines of Deleuzian secondary scholarship. Googling more about Ramey, I learned that he was working on a book. Hermetic Deleuze is the book.
This book contains the latent Deleuze I’ve been sensing within his philosophy, but did not have the rigor or imagination to incarnate. If you’re one of those rare spirits that feels the call to a new, untried and unprecedented way of becoming a New Man or New Woman, then this is mandatory reading. This is the Deleuze for the esoteric spiritual quest, for realizing Nietzsche’s highest and most brilliant visions, the Deleuze for Sri Aurobindo’s evolutionary futures, for Sloterdijk’s yearnings, Gebser’s Integral, de Chardin’s Omega, Wilber’s Third Tier, and becoming-Kosmos. This book gives me hard evidence that superlative intelligence and spirituality are not only finding each other, but that they deliciously enjoy copulating.
Quetin Meillassoux is an important philosopher, according to Graham Harman,
“not from the fact that he is plausibly right about so many things, but because his philosophy offers such a treasury of bold statements ripe for being radicalized or reversed. He is a rich target for many still-unborn intellectual heirs, and this is what gives him the chance to be an important figure.”
Leon Niemoczynski (After Nature) has recently posted about the theistic implications of Meillassoux’s work. He asks why so many Speculative Realist have ignored the religious aspects of his anti-correlationism. Adam at An und fur such pointed out Meillassoux’s ontology of radical contingency, taken to its extreme in The Divine Inexistence, leads to a reformed Christian incarnationalist scheme, where human value is derived, not from a past act of incarnation, but from our hope for future resurrection.
In an earlier post on this issue, I suggest that Meillassoux “dismisses fideism to re-affirm its object through the apotheosis of reason.” Philosophies of the Absolute cannot avoid inquiry into divinity. Whether explicitly atheistic, like Ray Brassier’s eliminativism or or Levi Bryant’s materialism (Larval Subjects), or explicitly theistic like Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, metaphysical systems cannot simply ignore the presence of divinity in the universe. They either have to explain away spiritual experience by reducing it to religious indoctrination, and explain away the persistance of religion by reducing it to biopolitical, psychological, and/or ideological factors, or they have to discover God in cosmogenesis. If a scheme of thought choses the prior reductive route, it would no longer seem to be in pursuit of a comprehensive picture of reality, but merely of a subsection of it. It would no longer be properly metaphysical, in other words, since it has prejudicially disqualified the miraculous in favor of the mundane. Metaphysics is the (perhaps endless) pursuit of a systematic discourse concerning both the limits (immanent, finite aspects) and the freedom (transcendent, infinite aspect) of the Absolute. Immanence and transcendence are not properly thought of as opposites; rather, transcendence is the superlative of immanence. The infinite is not opposed to the finite, but contains and indeed implies it.
Meillassoux’s conceptual recourse to the contingency of facticity in After Finitude leads him eventually into the ethical issues surrounding the contingency of the Act of creation itself in The Inexistent Divine. If everything is absolutely contingent, then this world-creating Act, too, was gratuitous. Creatio ex nihilo: creation for no reason whatsoever. For this very reason, everything remains possible, even for our seemingly irredeemable world. Our world. Despite the anthrodecentric gesture of his’ After Finitude, Meillassoux seems to affirm in Inexistent that man “is born to be [nature’s] ultimate end,” as Kant supposed. “Such an end, however” Kant goes on to warn, “must not be thought in nature” (CoJ). Such an end seems to imply the divine’s entrance into the world, or at least its earthly birth within the incarnate human soul.
In a recently posted essay on Christian Ecosophy, I referred repeatedly to angels. Though they are as prevalent in today’s popular imagination as they ever were in the past, the secular intelligentsia tend to dismiss them as relics of our pre-scientific childhood. I think it is important that lines of communication be opened between secular materialists and esoteric spiritualists (for lack of a better term), and by mentioning angels I don’t mean to alienate those with an otherly enchanted worldview. However, the outright dismissal of the intelligence behind the powers that assist in the creation, maintenance, and renewal of our universe is an unjustified form of chronological snobbery. Modern cosmology prefers to speak the precise language of mathematics, but what is to prevent us from understanding the equations of physics as abstract representations of the otherwise supersensible activity of spiritual beings? What, in other words, is to prevent us from linking that which is intelligible in the universe to that which is itself intelligent?
Modern science, influenced by Cartesian dualism, tends to restrict intelligence to the human soul alone, denying its operation in the surrounding cosmos, which is thought of as merely intelligible (because designed by a transcendent God; or, in secularized form of Cartesianism, because constructed according to transcendent Laws) and not itself intelligent.
Angels are divine instruments of creation, the supersensible organs of God at play in and as the manifest world. Jewish traditions dating back to Philo and later elaborated in Kabbalah, and Neo-Platonic traditions dating back to Pseudo-Dionysius, suggest that angels are organized hierarchically according to a series of emanations. Building on this tradition, the 20th century philosopher and occultist Rudolf Steiner suggested that the angelic hierarchies consist of 3 levels with 3 beings each, and a final, incomplete level consisting of two beings. All of the levels ultimately come forth out of the unifying Trinity. Steiner says that one can begin to understand these beings by analogy to the human I’s relationship to the limbs of the body. When all goes well, the I is able to direct the body to carry out its will by accomplishing activity in the world. The I cannot work without the body, just as God cannot work without the hierarchies.
The first hierarchy consists of the Seraphim/Spirits of Love, the Cherubim/Spirits of Harmony, and the Thrones/Spirits of Will. Steiner describes how space, time, and matter (originally a subtler form of light) are brought forth by these especially powerful beings (see Occult Science). The second hierarchy consists of the Dominions/Spirits of Wisdom, the Mights/Spirits of Movement, and the Powers/Spirits of Form. These beings awaken the material substance generated by the first hierarchy, allowing it to take on living form and organization. Yahweh and the Elohim, the central gods of the Old Testament, are said by Steiner to be Powers. Yahweh’s placement in the second hierarchy reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s remark that “the only thing wrong with Yahweh is that he thinks he’s God.” The third hierarchy consists of Archai/Spirits of Time, Archangels/Spirits of Fire, and Angels/Sons of Life. These are the celestial beings closest to the souls of earthly humanity. The Archai influence the character of whole historical ages (i.e., the Zeitgeist). The Archangels form the various folk-souls/nations that comprise the diverse human species (not the same as race, since people of different races can belong to the same folk-soul). Angels shepherd individual human lives, aiding our conscience in its quest toward things divine. The fourth and final level of the hierarchies is composed of the Spirit of Freedom and the Spirit of Love, both of which await their full realization by human beings on earth.
This way of thinking about the universe and humanity requires stretching the imagination beyond its predominantly materialistic habits of thought. It would be inappropriate to simply take Steiner’s (and others’) declarations as true without having perceived their meaning for oneself. Christianity, for Steiner, is not a path rooted in belief, but in knowledge. His epistemology (see Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path) emerged after a careful study of Goethe’s method of natural science and rests upon the cultivation of normally dormant organs of perception. These higher organs of perception, namely Imagination, Inspiration, and Intuition, allow the knower to participate in realities deeper than ordinary sensory perception of the surfaces of physical objects. No groundbreaking scientific discovery has been made without the assistance of such supersensible faculties. When we engage the world according to Steiner’s spiritual scientific method, we do so in search of divine messengers.
Professor Anton will probably respond to my response, as is his kind habit. I’ll post it here when he does.
(Be sure to visit the YouTube link so you can read the comment threads beneath my video. The dialogue is getting rather interesting…)
Last night I had the privilage of attending a lecture by Brian Swimme and Bonnie and Kashka Wills on the thought of Howard Thurman. Brian is a mathematical cosmologist who teaches at CIIS here in San Francisco. Bonnie is a Restorative Justice Facilitator in Oakland. Her brother Kashka is a former literature professor turned poet. They focused both on the ethical and cosmological dimensions of Thurman’s work, which I will attempt to summarize below.
Though he was a Christian pastor, Thurman was critical of Christianity because of the extent to which it had strayed from the religion of Jesus. Jesus’ religion might be summed up in one word: Love. Thurman saw Love as the source of cosmic kinship–a stern yet kind intelligence that functions to maintain the Life of the universe. He thought American Christianity in general had become narrowly focused on personalistic, as opposed to cosmic love. Love lacks a cosmological dimension when it fails to deal honestly with the adversaries of hatred, fear, and deception. Rather than resorting to sentimentalism in regard to these matters (“be a good person!”), Thurman plunged right into the deeper nature of hatred. While acknowledging that vengefulness can bring one down to the level of their enemy, Thurman also recognized the great power that sometimes comes from meeting adversity. He thought hatred may sometimes be necessary to overcome the sense of worthlessness instilled in the oppressed by their oppressors. It produces one with the surplus energy needed to speak truth to power despite fears of breaking long established taboos of racism, sexism, etc. In the end, however, if hatred cannot be released, it dries up the creativity of life as we become unable to focus on anything but our enemies.
Bonnie emphasized the importance of a cosmological dimension in Christianity, since without it, we dwell to heavily on the personal and familiar and forget the extent to which we are creatures of the earth, embedded in a much larger, and stranger, community of life. Thurman’s cosmological orientation (“the earth beneath my feet is the great womb out of which my body comes”) places him way ahead of his time (he was born in 1899). He felt quite deeply the increasing rootlessness of industrial life and blamed the increasing prevalence of mental illness on our species’ increasing alienation from nature.
It is his emphasis on the cosmic extent of Love that draws me to Thurman most. His is undoubtedly a cosmopolitical vision. I’m fascinated by the possibility that Love may eventually overtake power as the most prevalent shaping influence of human society.
“…if you want to make a new start in religion, you must be content to wait a thousand years.” -Alfred North Whitehead
I’ve been thinking through my recent posts on the philosophical import of religious experience, and in light of some of the concerns brought up by Jason Hills, I wanted to further unpack the nature of the spiritual integration I’m trying to pull off. I think Jason’s worries concerning syncretism and equivocation are well-founded, and I appreciate being given the opportunity to articulate further how an evolutionary panentheism might allow “post-secular” philosophy to converse meaningfully with more traditional forms of religious sense-making. Following thinkers like Jean Gebser and Rudolf Steiner, my approach is not, at least in theory, an attempt to meld the content of different religious visions into some amorphous conception of “God,” but rather to give an account of the history of religious experience in terms of an evolution of consciousness. I’ve written a bit about what such a scheme entails (HERE and HERE), but I’ll admit much work remains ahead of me if I hope to adequately disentangle an integral account of the evolution of consciousness from a syncretic melding of religions.
In this post, I will consult chapter 10 of Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas, “The New Reformation,” wherein he focuses on the evolving relationship between metaphysics and religion in Western history. He concentrates upon “three culminating phases”: 1) an intellectual discovery by Plato, 2) the exemplification of this discovery in the life of Christ, and 3) the metaphysical interpretation of these events generated in the formative period of Christian theology.
Before discussing the nature of these phases, Whitehead comments on the “steady decay” of Protestant Christianity in the modern age: “its dogmas no longer dominate, its divisions no longer interest, its institutions no longer direct the patterns of life” (p. 160). I think it is important to point out in this context that the forces of secularization that were pushing Christianity out of public life while Whitehead was writing [~1930] simultaneously functioned to further interiorize religious belief. What had been public became increasingly individual, especially in 1960s America, as exported Asian traditions began to influence a spiritually-orphaned youth, leading to wholly novel forms of mostly unaffiliated religious practice. So rather than considering religiosity and secularity to be opposed forms of socialization, I think it makes more sense to recognize the interactive role of each in our still developing “post-secular/post-religious” situation.
While Whitehead recognized the decline of traditional religions in Europe and America during the first half of the 20th century, he also pointed to the non-violent uprisings in India orchestrated by Gandhi as evidence that the religious spirit “still holds its old power, even more than its old power, over the minds and the consciences of men” (p. 161). Had he lived to see the civil rights movements of the 60s inspired by MLK, I think Whitehead would have felt a further assurance of this spirit’s continued effectiveness in America, as well.
Whitehead, here as elsewhere, asks us to be attentive to a contrast: religion is decaying even as it survives in new and more powerful forms. Instead of erecting a false dichotomy, where religion is pegged as a superstitious and regressive force preventing the spread of rationality and science, Whitehead asks us to look again at the history of our civilization.
“Must ‘religion,'” he asks,
“always be a synonym for ‘hatred’? The great social ideal for religion is that it should be the common basis for the unity of civilization… The religious spirit is always in process of being explained away, distorted, buried. Yet, since the travel of mankind towards civilization, it is always there” (p. 172).
Whitehead’s thesis is that a “New Reformation” is underway across every continent, but that its success depends upon the integration of conflicting beliefs into some general spiritual scheme. I quote him at length:
“I do not hold it to be possible, or even desirable, that identity of detailed belief can be attained. But it is possible that amid diversities of belief, arising from differences of stress exhibited in metaphysical insight and from differences of sympathetic intuition respecting historical events,–that it is possible, amid these differences, to reach a general agreement as to those elements, in intimate human experience and general history, which we select to exemplify that ultimate theme of the divine immanence, as a completion required by our cosmological outlook. In other words, we may agree as to the qualitative aspects of religious facts, and as to their general way of coordination in metaphysical theory, while disagreeing in various explanatory formulations” (p. 161).
Absent such a coordination of humanity’s varied spiritual expressions, I am not at all optimistic regarding the future of our civilization. Capitalism and war have already bound the planet together into an ever-tightening knot, yet we still lack the “Earth ethos” that will surely be necessary to sustain a planetary civilization into the 21st century and beyond. Given this increasingly precarious situation, my position is rather straightforward: only a widespread renewal of humanity’s religious spirit, reformed in light of contemporary ecological and cultural conditions, can save us now.
In this context, philosophy’s most urgent role is to midwife the birth of this new planetary spirit. But short of a fragile and superficial syncretic patchwork of different traditions, how is the varied religious experience of humanity to be given metaphysical expression? Whitehead’s approach may be criticized by atheists as inheriting too much from his Christian background, except for the fact that his cosmology, upon his own admission, “seems to approximate more to some strains of Indian, or Chinese, thought, than to Western Asiatic, or European, thought” (Process and Reality, p. 11). From my perspective, Whitehead’s thoroughly historical approach rightly emphasizes the progression, or evolution, of religious consciousness, which, through “the effort of Reason,” has been trained so as to “safeguard against the wild emotions of superstition” (p. 162).
Levi Bryant has argued (also HERE and HERE) that, while individual religious experiences obviously do occur, the content of many of these experiences (e.g., God) is probably illusory in light of the explanatory reductions made possible by the social and natural sciences. In appealing to the history of religious experience, Whitehead does not mean to suggest that we should avoid discrimination of the evidence. He employs two grounds of criticism, aesthetic and logical, which are to be “welded together in the final judgment of reason as to the comparison of historical periods, one with the other” (p. 164). He dismisses the idea that the requisite evidence for the content of religious experience can be derived from “direct introspection conducted in one epoch by a few clear-sighted individuals” (ibid.). Rather, when Whitehead considers the history of religion from a philosophical perspective, he does so as an “appeal to summits of attainment beyond any immediate clarity in our own individual existence” (p. 162). In other words, he sees in the historical development of our civilization an accumulation of spiritual wisdom, based not in the fleeting dreams of isolated individuals, but in the enduring “actions, thoughts, emotions, and institutions, which great persons and great occasions [have] made effective” (p. 165).
“Each age deposits its message as to the secret character of the nature of things. Civilizations can only be understood by those who are civilized. And they have this property, that the appropriation of them in the understanding unveils truths concerning our own natures. It has been said that the great dramatic tragedies in their representations before audiences act as a purification of the passions. In the same way, the great periods of history act as an enlightenment. They reveal ourselves to ourselves” (p. 164).
Returning now to the “threefold revelation” singled out by Whitehead at the outset of this essay, I’d like to spend a moment examining the unique role I believe is still to be played by Christianity–that strange and unsteady amalgam of Hebrew prophecy and Greek philosophy–in our planetizing civilization. Whitehead, like Steiner, Gebser, Teilhard de Chardin, Carl Jung, and Owen Barfield (all 20th century thinkers who have significantly influenced my own thinking), believes, both for reasons of historical honesty and popular effectiveness, that “the leaders of religious thought should today concentrate upon the Christian tradition.” Each of the above mentioned men had no shortage of respect for the profound wisdom generated by other traditions, but nonetheless, saw in the archetypal motifs of Christianity an embodiment of “the greatest advances in the expression of moral and intellectual intuitions [marking] the growth of recent civilization” (p. 166).
The incarnation of Christ is, according to Christianity, the supreme moment in religious history. The Christ event revealed the true nature of God and of God’s agency in the world. Though the historical record is fragmentary and inconsistent, Whitehead argues that “there can be no doubt as to what elements in the record have evoked a response from all that is best in human nature”:
“The Mother, the Child, and the bare manger: the lowly man, homeless and self-forgetful, with his message of peace, love, and sympathy: the suffering, the agony, the tender words as life ebbed, the final despair: and the whole with the authority of supreme victory” (p. 167).
But, while Whitehead admits that the singular beauty and moral example of Christ’s life “forms the driving power of the religion,” he also points to the importance of an intellectual discovery made several centuries prior:
“Can there be any doubt that the power of Christianity lies in its revelation in act, of that which Plato divined in theory?” (p. 167).
Whitehead credits Plato with “one of the greatest intellectual discoveries in the history of religion,” that being the enunciation (in the Sophist and the Timaeus) of the doctrine of Grace: that divine persuasion, rather than coercion, is the foundation of the order of the world. Unfortunately, Plato, more a visionary than a systematic philosopher, failed to coordinate this doctrine with the rest of his cosmology. Aside from a few glimpses of a more participatory possibility, when Plato is asked to schematize the relationship between God and God’s Ideas to the world, he depicts the latter as a derivative and second-rate imitation of the former. Ideas were brought into relation with the physical world only through the supernatural power of divine will. This is unacceptable from a metaphysical perspective, wherein the relationship between God and the world must be grounded in the necessity of their natures, rather than the accidents of will.
Whitehead suggests that the formative phase of Christian theology was principally concerned with the struggle to overcome Platonism. He credits early theologians for partially overcoming the Platonic dualism by “deciding for some sort of direct immanence of God in the World,” however differently it was worked out in detail (p. 169). They failed to fully generalize the metaphysical implications of the doctrine of divine immanence, however, since “the nature of God was exempted from all the categories which applied to individual things in the temporal world” (ibid.). The final verdict of Christian theology was that God is necessary for the world’s existence, but the world itself was deemed entirely contingent, a free creation of divine will. It remains the task of philosophy to correct the arbitrary gap hewn by traditional theology between God and the world. As it stands at present, God’s nature remains largely obscure, since, “it is only by drawing the long bow of mysticism that evidences for his existence can be collected from our temporal world” (ibid.).
“The task of [a properly philosophical] Theology,” writes Whitehead,
“is to show how the world is founded on something beyond mere transient fact, and how it issues in something beyond the perishing of occasions. The temporal world is the stage of finite accomplishment. We ask of Theology to express that element in perishing lives which is undying by reason of its expression of perfections proper to our finite natures. In this way we shall understand how life includes a mode of satisfaction deeper than joy or sorrow” (p. 172).
For a better sense of how I think Christianity is relevant to Speculative Realism generally, see my essay “Towards a Christolgical Realism: Thinking the Correlation with Teilhard and Barfield.”
The discussion continues over on Levi Bryant’s blog.
Bryant agrees with me that Whitehead’s conception of God does not fall prey to many of the ethical and epistemological criticisms he levels against traditional theism. But he fails to understand the problem that Whitehead’s God is purported to have solved.
Whitehead’s style of philosophizing has much to do with his understanding of history. From his perspective, the history of religious experience is a fact about the Cosmos that must be taken up and integrated by speculative philosophy. I don’t think Bryant would necessarily disagree with this, but he might add that the way this fact is to be integrated by philosophy is through some sort of sociological or neurological reduction (i.e., the content of religious experiences is entirely culturally or cranially constructed).
Whitehead integrates the fact of humanity’s religious inheritance (which is both experiential and scriptural–and these two sources are inextricably bound up in my opinion) in a different way. He abides by what Bruno Latour has since come to call the principle of irreduction: a phenomenon can sometimes be translated into a related phenomenon, but never explained by reference to anything other than its own internal reasons. Instead of reducing the content of religious experience to something merely cultural or merely neural that must be rejected wholesale as superstition, Whitehead accepts the cultural habits he has inherited as the “imaginative background” constituting the condition for the possibility of his own speculative flights into conceptual novelty. He sees no other choice but to think with the historical milieu in which he is embedded, even if this thinking leads eventually to a creative revisioning of his culture’s fundamental assumptions. As Latour and Stengers later articulated, Whitehead’s cosmology is not separable from his politics. Nor is his ontology separable from his sociology. Human experience is to be understood based upon the same criteria of explanation and existence as the experience of any other organism. If the vast majority of the earth’s human inhabitants currently find the concept of God meaningful in some ultimate sense, this is a cosmic fact Whitehead cannot afford to dismiss.
Bryant and other atheists may not find this at all compelling. That a majority of humanity holds certain beliefs about God is no evidence whatsoever as to the validity of those beliefs. Whitehead, however, is a pragmatist; for him, the truth of an idea is not a matter of correspondence to some pre-given reality; or at least if truth is correspondence, it is not very interesting to him. What matters to Whitehead is how our conceptual propositions create novel contrasts in our interpretation of experience in order to further the Universe’s adventure of ideas. In a Universe that relates to itself sensually (i.e., via prehensions), interesting lies are often more effective–more productive of value–than boring or obvious truths (at least if adventure is our goal).
It all comes down to how we construe the relationship between philosophy and religion. Hegel argued that the content of each was the same. Whitehead agrees. The role of philosophy is always to be the critic of abstractions, whether they be scientific or religious in origin. Scientific abstractions tend to be derived from empirico-mathematical (i.e., theoretical) cognitions, while religious abstractions tend to be derived from ethico-scriptural (i.e., practical) emotions. Philosophy’s role is to bring our thinking and our feeling into constructive harmony: the abstractions employed by science and religion are systematized by philosophy so as to presuppose one another such that in isolation they are meaningless.
It is perhaps a mistake to use the descriptor “Christianity,” since this will only invite the knee-jerk dismissal of what I am about to say; but nonetheless, I think the archetypal meaning of the Christ event is highly relevant in any discussion of the relationship between religion and philosophy. The history of Christian theology represents a sort of unhappy compromise between Hebraic eschatology and Greek cosmology. We should not underestimate the profound transformation that the God of the Old Testament had to go through in order to become the God of the Gospels. I think Christianity, whose central figure is purported to have accomplished the complete synthesis of spirit and matter, eternity and time, myth and history, creator and creation, etc., still has a significant role to play in the unfolding of our civilization. In fact, I think (like Rudolf Steiner and Teilhard de Chardin) that we’ve only just begun to feel the cosmohistorical repercussions of the Christ event.
ConferenceReport (or Fred in the meat-world) likes to take his visuoaudiences on a walk through metaphors of mind. In this video, he draws on the work of the cognitive scientists George Lakoff, Thomas Nagel, Antonio Damasio, Thomas Metzinger, and William James, among others.
I’m most interested in what Fred has to say about the relationship between consciousness and the physical body. He provides helpful summations of the ideas of the neuroscientist Damasio (consciousness is “the feeling of what happens”), the philosopher Nagel (consciousness is “what it is,–or is like,–to be a thing”), and the neuroethicist Metzinger (consciousness is “nothing but a self-model, or phenomenal self”). In the end, it seems that Fred is most in agreement with Metzinger, since his approach best validates the scientific materialism each axiomatically assumes. Consciousness, for Fred, is rooted in and entirely explainable through a “carrier frequency of somatic-physiological operations…produced by the constant ticking away of our bodies.” But, he adds, this physiological being is not just a moving body, it is also an emoting somebody.
He then opens up an inquiry into William James’ phenomenology of emotion, describing it as an embodied approach to self-inquiry and the investigation of our own moods that recognized the goings on of physiology as constitutive of these same moods. I would want to flesh out what a Jamesian approach to consciousness might look like a bit more, since I think his paradoxically spiritual/psychological interests and pragmatic/realist orientation place his philosophy of consciousness in stark contrast to Metzinger’s reductionistic nihilism. In an interview with Susan Blackmore in Conversations on Consciousness (Oxford, 2006), she asks Metzinger what the scientific study of consciousness has done to his everyday life. He begins his response by talking about the fragility of our identities and the dignity they carry, since a clot in our cerebral tissue could dissolve them at any moment). His explanation for consciousness in terms of a neural illusion is self-classified as a “hard theoretical” issue, understood only by affluent secular Western scientists and philosophers; “hard” issues (like facing up to the implications of modern genetics and neuroscience–and, Metzinger adds, to the transformative effect of psychedelic technologies) are contrasted with”soft” issues, which those initiated into the “scientific image of man” only have to continue to bother themselves with because the “undeveloped world,” which makes up the vast majority of Earth’s population, continues to believe in a “metaphysical image of man.” I think there are better ways of thinking about the diversity of social imaginaries among human beings alive today than dividing them into “Scientific materialism” v. “anything else.” James’ A Pluralistic Universe might be a good place to start.
Metzinger goes on to offer us the sobering news of scientific materialism:
There is a new image of man emerging out of genetics and neuroscience, one which will basically contradict all other images of man that we have had in the Western tradition. It is strictly unmetaphysical; it is absolutely incompatible with the Christian image of man; and it may force us to confront our mortality in a much more direct way than we have ever before in our history. It may close the door on certain hopes people have had, not only scientists and philosophers but all of us, such as that maybe somehow consciousness could exist without the brain after death. People will still want to believe something like that. But just as people will actually still think that the sun revolves around the earth — people whom you basically laugh at and don’t take seriously any more. So there’s a reductive anthropology that may come to us, and it may come faster than we are prepared for it; it may come as an emotionally sobering experience to many people particularly in developing countries, who make up 80% of human beings, and still have a metaphysical image of man, haven’t ever heard anything about neuroscience, don’t want to hear anything about neural correlates of consciousness, want to keep on living in their metaphysical world-view as they have for centuries.
I actually don’t think the coming trauma of materialism is in any way incompatible with Christianity, at least not the images at work within the Christian unconscious. As I see it, the confrontation with death–and the challenge to love (or to be ethical) despite having become aware of the mortality of the physical body and the illusory (or sinful) nature of the ego–is the very heart of the Christian imaginary. The crucifixion comes before the resurrection, since, as the story goes, one must first die in the flesh in order to be born again in spirit. Scientific materialism has more in common with the the historical evolution of Christian consciousness than it often lets on (I explored this connection in a section of this essay called the “logic of extinction”).
Getting back to Fred’s video, he ends by suggesting that consciousness, or the feeling of self, is best understood, not as belonging to an immortal soul irreducible to the components of the visible universe, but as a metaphor, or “way of speaking that differentiates our internal state” from the external physical world that is conditioning it. “Consciousness,” he says, is rooted in a more fundamental process of biological differentiation that takes place “on the surface of our skin.” It is the result of a complex network of neuronal sensorimotor loops whose inputs are our bodily senses. This sort of an account of consciousness may be embodied, but it lacks a sense of world-embeddedness. Consciousness is not only physiologically realized, it is sociologically constructed and cosmically extended. It cannot be simply located anywhere, but must, finally, be rooted in the soul of the world. I feel with my skin, but my skin is full of pores! The world itself bleeds into me when I feel it, mixing with my felt sense of being.
Consciousness is no mere metaphorical division in Being, though it may only be articulable by talking animals: consciousness is the principle at work in every self-differentiating being in possession (or possessed by) the Word. A conscious being is a micro-creator, or microcosm, who recapitulates in finite form the Mind and Power of a transcendent Being, incarnating the Infinite in the space and time of living and dying.
Alan Watts can always say it better: