Thinking with Latour and Bellah: Religion beyond Nature and Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raimon Panikkar on Cosmotheandrism

“I should like to present this cosmotheandric principle with the minimum of philosophical assumptions. And the minimum here is that reality shows this triple dimension of an empirical (or physical) element, a noetic (or psychical) factor and a metaphysical (or spiritual) ingredient. By the first I mean the matter-energy complex, the cosmos; by the second, the sui generis reflection on the first and on itself; and by the third, the inherent inexhaustibility of all things: the cosmic, the human, and the divine.”

The Cosmotheandric Experience (1993), p. 71-71

Over at Knowledge-Ecology, it seems that my attempt to carry forward the cosmotheandric vision first expressed by Panikkar is being reduced to its theological component. I need to further develop the anthropological and cosmological aspects of the trinity by unpacking, 1) the significance of religious practice in human evolution (reading Robert Bellah’s latest book is helping with that) and, 2) explaining why an ethical response to the ecological crisis implies entering into relationship with an ensouled universe. There is a 30-page essay here somewhere…

Towards a Cosmotheandric Re-orientation: Response to Knowledge-Ecology

Adam Robbert over at Knowledge-Ecology recently responded to After Nature’s (Leon Niemoczynski) post on anthrodecentrism in Object-Oriented Ontology. I’ve visited this topic several times lately, but I’d have to admit that I seem to have failed to fully develop my own position in regards to the place of the human in the universe.

What I have suggested thus far is that we make a distinction between the particular earthly species we call Homo sapiens and a universal anthropic evolutionary potential, or Anthropos, characterized by its archetypal intelligence and compassion. The Anthropos is not yet an actual being, but remains a possible being. Teilhard de Chardin calls this being the Omega toward which cosmic evolution inevitably tends. I am not always able to muster the same metaphysical optimism that Teilhard does, but I am unable to shake the sneaking suspicion that the continuity of human civilization ultimately depends upon each individual’s faith in the possibility of realizing the absolute wisdom and love of the Anthropos. Civilized life is predicated on the assumption that our species, at least at its scientific and spiritual best, represents a unique example of a universal anthropic tendency intrinsic to cosmogenesis. Without faith in this highest human potential, I believe we simply lose the will necessary to live together peacefully on earth. Without an anthropic orientation, in other words, our ethicality and zest for life (as Teilhard calls it) would shrivel and die within a generation or two. Indeed, I think European civilization is growing precariously close to the death of belief in the Anthropos, just as it has already killed God. Perhaps now, in our thoroughly disenchanted historical moment, all that is left to us as a “live option” (as William James would say) is the Cosmos; but even there, late industrial capitalism continues to man the helm of an economic system pushing the earth into ever-worsening mass extinction and global climate change.

Adam writes:

“[OOO] reveals that the human has not been traumatically ‘decentered’ by the triple revolutions of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud (feel free to add to this list your favorite ‘traumatic’ decentralists…). This decentering, we can now see, was actually only a traumatic event from a particularly eurocentric, dualist, and transcendentalist perspective. I think its time we stop whining about the poor european psyche’s ‘displacement’ and realize that immanence, ontological parity, and evolutionary cosmology actually center us within the context of things.”

I am all for immanence, ontological parity, and evolutionary cosmology; but I affirm the importance of these principles right alongside those of transcendence, ontological depth, and involutionary metaphysics. There are cross-cultural parallels in the philosophies of India and of various indigenous traditions for these three notions; they are not simply anomalies of a deranged European mentality (e.g., the Indian Vedas and the Mayan Popul Voh). The modern scientific “displacement” of humanity is unavoidable, but if our civilization is to survive the 21st century, I think we must also seek out and discover some sort of cosmotheandric re-orientation. Instead of understanding Cosmos, Theos, and Anthropos as ontologically dissociated and isolable substances as the ancients often did, and instead of annihilating each one-by-one as the moderns have, we must enact a weltanschauung wherein this trinity becomes complexly interpenetrating and dependently co-arising.

Adam goes on to suggest that OOO may be the first substance-based and anti-essentialist philosophy. I’m still not convinced of the linguistic utility or metaphysical validity of returning to a substance ontology. I remain committed to the process-relational paradigm. If we consider the main thrust of the scientific displacement of human beings from the center, most of its momentum seems to come from the discovery of the deep time of evolution and thus the developmental nature of the universe. As Teilhard conveys it, 19th and 20th century cosmology has made it clear that the Anthropos is not the static center of a hierarchically arranged Great Chain of Being, but the “axis and arrow” of a complexly organized creative process of unfolding. In other words, our species, as a result of a longing for the anthropic ideal, is near the leading edge of the cosmogenic rush toward deeper interiority. Everything actual possesses a degree of interiority (and so withdrawnness) precisely because it is a process of becoming (I’ve developed the reasons why here and here).

Corporations are egregores (reflections on #Occupy protests)

Yesterday, I had to decide whether I’d go downtown to protest, or go to class. I ended up going to class. Why? I was confused, and honestly a bit deflated, by ontological questions. Where is Chase? Where is Goldman Sachs? Where is Bank of America? These entites are not located in downtown SF, nor even on Wall Street in NYC. Nonetheless, they are considered “persons” and have the same legal privilages that you and I have. Only, they don’t have to pay taxes for the income they earn in this country. Their personhood is no doubt a legal fiction, but if the financial crisis has taught us anything, it’s that fictions can still destroy the world. Alongside the material and ideological aspects that go into making up the massively distributed existence of a corporation, there is also an occult dimension. Corporations are “egregores,” a term referring to the collective mind that emerges as a result of some coordinated social activities, especially those associated with ideas and brands. Eliphas Levi associates it with the nephalim written of in the Torah.
These nephalim were depicted as giants with voracious appetites. They are mentioned just before the story of Noah’s Ark. Levi writes of them that they “crush us without pity because they are unaware of our existence.” Sounds familiar. And it speaks to the sense I had yesterday that shouting at the logos of tall buildings from the street is entirely ineffectual. Corporations don’t have ears to hear us.
How can we influence them, then? I think we need to counter the black magic of their fiat currency. I mused yesterday that, if the protests do balloon beyond all expectations such that the corporate execs watching on the 70th floor began to take notice, they would only have to push the emergency button installed in their board room causing the ATMs across the city to begin spewing money onto the streets. I imagine that this would send protesters into a frenzy. We’d drop our signs and run to collect the cash. This is, after all, exactly what the 99% are asking for, is it not? We want our money back! But if this were to happen, it is the corporations who would win again. So long as we all walk around with dollar bills printed by the privately owned and controlled Fed Bank, or with Visa, MasterCard, and AmEx logos in our pockets and purses, so long as we depend on the systems of signification the mega-banks have concocted for us to play their game of monopoly with, then we remain their prisoners, their wage-slaves. Shouting at logos is completely ineffectual. And so long as the FBI continues to arrest those who try to create alternative currencies, breaking free of this corrupt money system will remain difficult, if not impossible. But it is clear to me that there is definitely an occult dimension at work, which is not to say that invisible demons and dragons are waiting to eat us, but that the meaning-making capacity of our souls, as free members of democratic communities, has been infected and distorted beyond all recognition by the psychic power of corporate symbolism. Our biggest enemy is not just on Wall Street, it is inside each of us. We have been raised to be consumers. We do not know of another way to survive in the corporate environment. Our food and even our self-esteem are increasingly woven into corporate webs of semiosis. How can we fight back? By continuing to create and support culture free of commodification and branding. By working to free ourselves, body and soul, from the black magic shaping our lives. By continuing to fight to take our government back, broken as it may be, since it is only by organizing ourselves politically that we can mobilize our democratic power as the 99% against the magic monetary power of the 1%. This is going to be a long and difficult war of ideas, and there will be no visible victories for some time, I’m afraid to say. But the people will win eventually, I’m sure of that.

Soul and World: Fragments written upon reading “Thinking with Whitehead” by Isabelle Stengers

Stengers has succeeded in bringing Whitehead back to life.

Whitehead’s speculative cosmology succeeds, if it does, by avoiding bifurcations between disassociated categories. Instead of placing “subjective illusion” and “objective reality” in irremediable conflict with one another; instead of separating “man” and “nature,” “mind” and “matter,” or “God” and “the World” in order to explain one as determined by the other; instead of over- or under-mining the infinite diversity of creation with a form of reductionism, Whitehead seeks out a coherent metaphysical scheme wherein such differences are made to “presuppose each other so that in isolation they are meaningless” (Process and Reality, p. 3).

Ethics and Physics, or Religion and Science, need not be opposed modes of thought, where one battles the other for explanatory ultimacy. Is not the human activity of physics in some sense for the universe? Is not the scientific endeavor an effort of nature itself to rise up to the level of theory?, to explain and control its own creation?, to storm heaven and steal the vision and power of eternity for the betterment of the present?

“Mankind and the animals with analogous abilities are distinguished by their capacity for the introduction of novelty [in contrast to the givenness of the past]. This requires a conceptual power which can imagine, and a practical power which can effect. The role of sense experiences consists in the fact that they are manageable. The animals evolved and emphasized the superficial aspects of their connexity with nature, and thus obtained a manageable grip upon the world. The central organism which is the soul of a man is mainly concerned with the trivialities of human existence. It does not easily meditate upon the activities of fundamental bodily functions. Instead of fixing attention on the bodily digestion of vegetable food, it catches the gleam of the sunlight as it falls on the foliage. It nurtures poetry. Men are the children of the Universe, with foolish enterprises and irrational hopes. A tree sticks to its business of mere survival; and so does an oyster with some minor divergencies. In this way, the life aim at survival is modified into the human aim at survival for diversified worthwhile experience. The pitfall of philosophy is exclusive concentration on these manageable relations, to the neglect of the underlying necessities of nature,” Modes of Thought, p. 30.

Whitehead here suggests that philosophy, to the extent that it focuses narrowly on the logical necessities of thought alone, risks forgetting the physical conditions (“underlying necessities”) of these thoughts. Whitehead would agree with the materialist that the soul is inextricably bound up with nature, and is an inevitable consequence of the causal efficacy of the complex social organism through which it is actualized. But Whitehead would not agree that the soul is therefore explainable in reference to physical activity, in itself. In a complex organism, the physical activity of hydrogen atoms reflects the inherited values of a somatic environment distinguished from “nature” at large. Inside a living animal, atoms no longer behave in a way relevant to physicists, since they have become conditioned by a local ethos within which they play roles distinct from their activity in stars, galaxies, or laboratory experiments.

The ethical responsibilities of the soul and the physical necessities of nature are not in conflict with one another; rather, the soul’s desires exist by virtue of the universe’s lures. Ethics is not a consequence of Physics, if the physical be conceived abstractly as though made up of vacuous actualities devoid of experience and self-enjoyment. But Ethics may be conceived as conditioned and so implied by Physics if the physical is imagined concretely as a creative rush of subjectivities seeking more beautiful, more virtuous intensity of experience. The Good Life, for Whitehead, is not simply to survive, but to thrive.

Teilhard de Chardin, who never tired of contemplating the physics of the soul, here expresses his intuitions about the soul’s relation to digestion:

“The highest speculation and the most burning love are coupled with, and must be paid for by, an expenditure of physical energy, as we know too well. Sometimes we need bread; sometimes wine, sometimes the infusion of a chemical element or hormone; sometimes the stimulus of a color; sometimes the magic of sound passing through our ears as a vibration and emerging in our brain in the form of an inspiration. There is no doubt that material energy and spiritual energy hold together and are prolonged by something. Ultimately, somehow or other there must be only a single energy at play in the world. And the first idea that comes to mind is to see the “soul” as a center of transmutation, where through all the avenues of nature the power of bodies converges in order to become interiorized and sublimated in beauty and truth,” The Human Phenomenon, p. 29-30.

I believe Whitehead’s category of the ultimate, Creativity, provides the “something,” and the process of concresence the “somehow or other,” that Teilhard leaves unpronounced. Teilhard was a scientist (at least in this book), and left such speculative statements to the metaphysician. Whitehead was compelled to unmask the general character of the energy at play in the world, and at the end of his imaginative leap into speculative cosmology, he discovered not the transcendent ground of some theory of everything, but a more noble and enjoyable way of envisaging actuality.

Why did Whitehead find it so important to avoid the bifurcation of nature in his speculative scheme? Why was he so careful to avoid creating modes of thought that re-inscribe a dissociation between our experience of subject and object, psyche and cosmos? It seems he was simply seeking coherence, since it is only when life is able to “hold together” despite the continual threat of contradiction and extinction that it becomes beautiful and good. Living actuality is not a given, but an achievement won at the cost of alternatives, and maintained at the cost of the robbery of other actualities of their life. In our contemporary context, where an ecological crisis conditions our every move, enacting modes of thought that hold the Living Earth together are becoming of more than just aesthetic or ethical value. The living existence of our species (and many others) depends upon our coming to think the Living Earth in a more durable and resilient way, since in thinking it we live in it, with it, and upon it.

Scientific Materialism and Consumer Capitalism think and produce nature hastily, with little care for its non-human achievements of community (i.e., its ethical activity). These modes of thought exaggerate a basic truth while forgetting an essential exception: they engage nature as valueless and determined, except for the human, who is free to know and control its processes. Such materialist modes must become imaginative enough to conceive of freedom and matter, the human knower and the thing known, in a more coherent way.

Whitehead provides a template for such a new mode of thought, but its actualization requires a miracle. The propositional feelings buried in his written words must be resurrected and brought into novel contrast with the spirit of the present. His logos must be given life.

G. K. Chesterton on the Human Stranger

Gilbert Keith Chesterton, (b. 29 May 1874 – d....
Image via Wikipedia

“The simplest truth about man is that he is a very strange being; almost in the sense of being a stranger on the earth. In all sobriety, he has much more of the external appearance of one bringing alien habits from another land than of a mere growth of this one. He has an unfair advantage and an unfair disadvantage. He cannot sleep in his own skin; he cannot trust his own instincts. He is at once a creator moving miraculous hands and fingers and a kind of cripple. He is wrapped in artificial bandages called clothes; he is propped on artificial crutches called furniture. His mind has the same doubtful liberties and the same wild limitations. Alone among the animals, he is shaken with the beautiful madness called laughter; as if he had caught sight of some secret in the very shape of the universe hidden from the universe itself. Alone among the animals he feels the need of averting his thought from the root realities of his own bodily being; of hiding them as in the presence of some higher possibility which creates the mystery of shame. Whether we praise these things as natural to man or abuse them as artificial in nature, they remain in the same sense unique.” –

G. K. Chesterton, p. 168, “The Everlasting Man,” in The Collected Works (1986)