Notes on the Occupation from the Mountaintop

I walked to the top of Grand View Park here in the Sunset district of San Francisco. I wanted to clear my head by ascending to the mountaintop, where place expands into space and time transforms into history. History, as we know it, has a beginning and an end. Civilizations, and the cosmopolitical habitats they enact, are always a temporary affair. Their spatial constructions of time into the civilizing myths of liberation from “nature,” “the gods,” or “barbarism,” however, are falsifications of time (see Jean Gebser‘s Ever-Present Origin). As scientific cosmology has tried to suggest, it turns out that time has no beginning or end. Time is creation itself. Time is Origin, in Gebser’s terms. Time is “a moving image of eternity,” in Plato’s terms.

From up there, thoughts were produced in me that conceptually crystalized the Occupy movement. I believe I can see more clearly now that it is a planetary movement that did not begin a month or two ago in New York City; it has been in the works in an occult form everywhere forever. Occupy camp activism is a form of occult amplification: the silenced, the unheard, and the invisible are being given a voice, made audible and visible. What had been privatized is being made public again.

Some complain that Occupy remains a leaderless and somewhat amorphous movement. I do not think it is so much amorphous as polymorphous; and it is precisely this protean and processual nature that defines its demand. Its demand cannot be listed like legislative proposals, since the movement is apolitical at heart (at least in the sense that contemporary “politics” survives in the market-subsumed polis of the global corporatocracy). Occupy rejects all political solutions as part of the problem, since they are made only within the context of techno-capitalist civilization. The economics of this civilizational system have been just as deficient as its politics, since the accumulation of money has now come to supersede the exchange of actual energy in importance. We have an economy designed for Empire and corporations, unfit for Earth and its creatures.

Occupy is rejecting this late industrial capitalist “system” from the ground up. The message the movement is trying to articulate is bound up with the question it is attempting to formulate. It goes something like this: “The civilization of old has failed; now, how are we to (re)make the cosmos?” Answering this question is the ultimate creative act, and amidst a world in decay, it requires the utmost courage.

I do not know to what extent my own cosmopolitical (even cosmotheanthropic) angle here could be readily extracted from polling a sample of Occupy supporters, but to my mind, it is cosmic change that is being demanded, rather than cosmetic re-legislation within the existing order. I phrase the question above as one of creative remaking because I believe our task to be at least partially religious in nature, in the sense of the Latin religare, “to bind.” Our task is profoundly artistic, but we cannot create ex nihilo and expect to flourish within the long established ethos of the Earth Community (see Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story). The ecological catastrophe brought forth by industrialism has already shown the dangers and limitations of any supposed “second nature” created atop the first. Kant suggested that “to know the world we must manufacture it”, thereby neglecting the extent to which, both culturally and biologically, we are creatures of the past, shaped and nourished by the words and worlds we inherit from our ancestors, human and -non.

The re-interpretation of tradition is just as important as the critique of tradition. Perhaps it is true, we needed a good dose of nihilism to fully realize the severity of our collective wrong turn, our civilizational sin. The military horrors and political failures of the 20th century, and the coming trauma of ecosystem collapse (due to the compound crisis of climate change and mass extinction), all continue to remind us of the persistence of chaos and injustice. But I think what would be more helpful at this point is a healthy dose of theology, though theology in the interests of re-establishing a humane cosmology. We need constructive philosophy (like Speculative Realism/Object-Oriented Ontology, Enactivism, and Process-Relationalism), but not just that. We need a renewed aesthethical orientation, a sense of the Good and of the Beautiful that corresponds with and even informs our understanding of the True. Metaphysics must be thoroughly soaked in aesthetics, but also in prophetics (i.e., something like the cosmo-ethical cries of the Jewish prophets).

Occupy is not just the protest of a dying kingship, it is also the prophecy of a living kinship to come. It is time to descend from the mountaintop, like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, to proclaim that Empire is dead, and that Earth is dying. We are responsible for their demise, but can also resurrect and re-imagine a new Heaven and a new Earth. As Amos prophesied, “The eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth (9:7)…[because] they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes…they…trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth (2:7). “But,” he continues, we are learning to “let justice roll down like the waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24).

The New Reformation: Whitehead on Christian Metaphysics

“…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.”

Causality in Whitehead’s Panentheism

Plasticbodies has posted another volley in the theism-nihilism discussion, this time drawing attention to causality.

He asks:

What does process theology give us that a (process) naturalism cannot? Or, put otherwise, how does one get from nature to divinity without begging the question?

I’ll paste my comments in response here:

I have written quite a bit about what you could call naturalistic process panentheism.

I think you’ve uncovered the real issue underlying this “theism-nihilism tango” (as Tim Morton called it): causality. Atheistic naturalism (which we might also call “scientific materialism,” after Whitehead) almost always entails a denial of formal and final causes. I think it still holds on to a version of Aristotle’s material cause, even if “substance” is no longer an adequate concept in physics. The material cause has become the randomness of quantum fluctuation, which is at the root of some variations of the Big Bang theory. I remain unconvinced that this “reason” actually explains the “What” of this Universe, since randomness seems to me to be the exact opposite of a reason. Scientific materialism becomes nihilistic only if it overcomes the correlational dualism implicit in its perspective that otherwise allows it to maintain formal and final causality in humans while denying it to everything else. If the metaphysical first principles of atheistic naturalism are carried to their logical conclusions, the reality of ideas (formal causes) and of meanings (final causes) must be denied out right to humans and nature alike. I think something like this is what Ray Brassier is up to, since for him, the illusion of human freedom provides ideological support for the continuance of capitalist social relations. I have argued that mechanistic biology and scientific materialism generally, because of their implicit correlationism and “bifurcationism,” provide ideological support to capitalism (or at least fail to provide adequate and convincing critiques of it): On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Biology of Economics.

I think chapters 2-6 are most relevant to the discussion surrounding causality. I’ve drawn heavily on the work of biologist and cognitive neuroscientist Francisco Varela in these chapters, wherein I give a brief history of biology from Plato and Aristotle, through Kant, Darwin and Paley, and on to Monod, Mayr, and Dawkins. Here is an excerpt from the end of chapter 5:

“To speak of [autopoiesis] thus directly links the biological sphere with a teleological account of ontology. On a material, concrete level we can observe in the organism the flip side of mechanical causality, a final causality as the basic process of life itself—the establishment of an identity. But this happens not by revising physical laws for particle-interactions in special application to organisms, nor by imposing an extra-mechanical entelechy. It is rather the ‘subject-pole’ that is the organism in its autonomy, which changes linear causality by structuring matter in the process of self-realization to maintain itself as this very process” (p. 119, 2002).

Exploring this process of the formation of a “subject-pole” (or mental-pole) requires connecting Varela’s biology to Whitehead’s metaphysics, where an analysis of the general character of experience in terms of concrescence provides us with the conceptual platform necessary to understand how organisms don’t need to “transcend the neutrality of pure physics” (p. 118, Varela, 2002) because there never was a purely neutral physics to begin with.”

This last sentence (“…there never was a purely neutral physics to begin with…”) is where Whitehead’s God comes in. The Universe has the character it does “because” God values certain creative possibilities over others; but at the same time, only the actual Universe has value, which is to say that only finite actual occasions can decide what form Creativity takes in any given instance. God has a polarized, dynamic nature for Whitehead: his primordial nature has a deficit of actuality, and so is complemented by his consequent nature, which becomes with the Universe, is internal to the Universe, suffering with it in order to “save” it. God “saves” the world by allowing it to hold together as a whole despite the individual freedom of its many finite occasions to decide their own fate. This is why God is necessary based on Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme for cosmology to be possible. Without God, there is no Cosmos, only Chaos. And without the possibility of cosmology, there is no possibility of rationality. As Meillassoux makes so clear in “After Finitude,” without hypostasizing the correlation as thinkers like Hegel and Whitehead do, the principal of sufficient reason goes right out the window and Chaos reigns.

Platicbodies then responds:

It seems that for God to appear in a philosophical discussion nondogmatically, he/it must be needed to explain something that cannot be explained without him. It seems like you’re saying that the what of the world is inexplicable without God. You reject the notion that the Big Bang, or presumably some other aleatory event (the Epicurean swerve, for instance) can explain the emergence of the universe. Again, that seems like a matter of assertion: either we believe in the swerve (an uncaused cause) or we don’t.

Are you saying that atheistic naturalism entails the nonexistence of ideas and meanings?

To which I responded:

Whitehead’s God is not an explanation for anything, since actual occasions are their own reasons. I don’t think allowing randomness the possibility of “swerving” explains anything, either. It just begs the question. Where does the swerve come from, and how is it capable of producing so much beauty and coherence? In Whitehead’s scheme, “explanation” takes on a novel meaning, since “to explain” cannot mean for him the reduction of one kind of society of actual occasions to a more fundamental kind (his explanations must avoid over- or undermining objects, as Harman puts it).

I don’t think the “What” of the world (the material cause) is inexplicable without God. The material cause becomes Creativity in a process ontology, a cause to which even God remains subject. The “How,” or efficient cause, and the “Why,” or final cause, are inexplicable without God. God, as the primordial “How,” is the agent initiating the selective valuation of certain ideals, which then seek realization in finite actual occasions (through persuasion, rather than force). God as the consequent “Why” is the enjoyer of Beauty and Goodness resulting from the ongoing concrescence of the Universe. In other words, the end of Whitehead’s Universe is to increase the intensity of divine experience: God is less interested in judging good and evil, and far more interested in transforming conflict into aesthetically pleasing contrasts. The “Who” (which includes the “When” and the “Where”), or formal cause, is the subjective form of each actual entity, its individual decision regarding how to actualize the possibilities envisioned by God.

I think many atheists are able to continue contradicting themselves by preserving ideas and meanings as human realities. But if they follow their naturalistic reductionism through to its metaphysical requirements, ideas and meanings must be erased from both human beings and nature at large, reduced to some kind of “transcendental illusion,” as Bryant put it.

Plasticbodies responds:

I completely agree that the swerve begs the question. But assuming it is just as plausible as assuming that God got things started. Astrophysicists may have more evidence for their origin story. So if Whitehead’s God doesn’t explain anything, what’s the point of it? I mean, what makes it more than a superfluous postulate if it isn’t doing any metaphysical work? If you’re implying that only a God could create so much “beauty and coherence,” I’d suggest that a tiny swerve in a complex material system is sufficient to cause unimaginable variation (think of biological evolution, computer algorithms, digital art–check out this TED Talk by Stephen Wolfram

The idea of God as subject rings contradictory to the very concept of God, I think. The rest of what this God does–enjoys, creates, selects, persuades–remains anthropomorphic and, despite its radical presentation, subject to the same criticism leveled by Spinoza in the Ethics and the Theological-Political Treatise. Even if he is not a judge of good and evil, God seems to do a lot of things that cannot be apprehended (at least I can’t) by the human intellect. I’m simply saying that it’s a lot to subscribe to without any evidence in support of it. I’d rather admit to the reality of Aristotle’s four causes and leave it at that.

Are you claiming that atheists cannot find meaning in the world? If so, are you saying that it is metaphysically impossible or psychologically? Perhaps your saying that atheists *believe* there is meaning in their lives, but this meaning is an illusion or *merely* psychological. Which is it? This notion really needs to be spelled out more, as it’s hard to believe that an atheist cannot have ideas (if that’s what you mean). If an atheist cannot have ideas, then they cannot have the idea that God does not exist, in which case they cannot really be an atheist. Does this mean that there are no atheists?

Let me just add that when I say that there is no ‘evidence’ for this God, I’m not saying that since I don’t see him, he’s not there. I’m saying that if you want to get people on board with this God, you don’t drag him out into plain sight, you show why he is necessary for a coherent metaphysical view of the universe. But if he does not explain anything, then he seems to be superfluous.

To which I responded:

God didn’t “get things started”; it would be more accurate to say that God actively initiates each moment of an ongoing cosmogenesis. God is both “in the beginning” and “in the end,” but in a logical, rather than a temporal sense. From Whitehead’s perspective, creation didn’t happen 14 billion years ago. Creation is still happening. God participates in, but does not determine, the ongoing process of creation. The actual world is not yet finished, though in God’s consequent nature, each actual occasion finds objective immortality.

Whitehead’s God does do metaphysical work, but for Whitehead, this is the work of producing coherence and adequacy rather than “heroic feats of explaining away.”

Your argument that attributing such characteristics to God (he enjoys, he selects, he persuades, etc) is anthropomorphic is well taken; but it could also be argued that the attribution of these characteristics to humans alone is anthropocentric. Part of the project of secularizing God is breaking down the ontological gap between humans and divinity (this would seem to be the presupposition of any object-oriented theology).

I am saying that it is psychologically possible for atheists to have ideas and make meanings (this much is obvious), but that according to their own metaphysical commitments, such higher order phenomena are epiphenomenal at best, and given enough social criticism and neurophysiological research, should be replaced by causal language scrubbed clean of “folk psychology.”

Ontology and God: a further response to Levi Bryant

I posted the following as a comment to Bryant’s short response. Adam Robbert has a nice comment there, too.

There is no necessary relationship between OOO (or ontology generally) and theology or morality, but certainly every ontology has theological and moral implications. To the extent that OOO has something in common with Whitehead’s process ontology, the possible role of a panentheist God should remain an open question. In Whitehead’s system, according to Stengers, “God is not what explains: he is what is required, in terms of the conceptual scheme, by the cosmological perspective” (Thinking With Whitehead, p. 424). Perhaps OOO differs sufficiently from the Whiteheadian scheme to avoid this requirement. But I don’t think it is fair to dismiss “God” in ontological discussions just because many believers have a philosophically immature picture of God (and I do agree with your criticisms of such pictures, Levi). Whitehead’s God is first a construction meant to solve a philosophical problem, and only secondarily an object of religious feeling.

“The concept of God is certainly one essential element in religious feeling. But the contrary is not true; the concept of religious feeling is not an essential element in the concept of God’s function in the Universe. In this respect religious literature has been sadly misleading to philosophic theory, partly by attraction and partly by repulsion” (Process and Reality, p. 207).

God’s function in the Universe may have very little to do with the way the majority of humanity has felt or believed that God relates to the Universe. The desire for personal immortality and for an all-powerful deity who insures that the good and the evil are properly sorted at the end of time is an example of our initial excess of subjectivity demanding something unreasonable. The function of Whitehead’s God is not to actively intervene in the course of natural events, but to gently influence the free decisions of actual occasions as an element in their prehension of the actual world. God allows actual entities to experience the relevance of eternal objects for their situation as temporal subjects. Without God, Reason would remain a floating abstraction, an ideal without reality; Whitehead argues that actual entities are the only reasons, and so God is that actual entity embodying Reason.

Also, keep in mind that God is not ultimate in Whitehead’s system. God is a creature of creativity like every other creature, though unique in that the poles of God’s concrescence are reversed (finite actual occasions move from a physical to a mental pole, while God begins with a conceptual envisagement of the definite possibilities for actuality before moving on to physically feel and integrate the resulting decisions made by actual occasions).

So in short, there are philosophical reasons to think God and there are sociological/psychological reasons to believe in God. There are plenty of bad ideas about God, and as you point out, Levi, plenty of bad beliefs about God that lead to unethical behaviors. But I remain convinced that religious feelings, in one form or another, are here to stay. Humanity, it seems to me, will always be a spiritual animal. The question then becomes how we are to bring religious feelings into harmony with the demands of rigorous philosophical reflection and with scientific facts. I think Whitehead comes very close to doing both.

The Logic of Life and the Life of Logic

I’ve just finished Eugene Thacker‘s After Life, wherein he surveys the positions of key pre-modern thinkers, including Aristotle, Plotinus, Pseudo-Dionysius, Eriugena, Duns Scotus, Aquinas, and Nicholas of Cusa. Despite the often illuminating nature of their thoughts, it seems that none of these men were able to articulate a workable account of life-in-itself, at least not one that could be grasped absent some initiatory encounter with the mystical. The first 4 chapters were a difficult but rewarding read, as Thacker leads the reader through the cognitive darkness of paradox and contradiction inherent to any attempt to think the Absolute as Life. In chapter 5 (“The Logic of Life”), things start to get really interesting…

Whether utilizing a theological or philosophical mode of reflection, it seems that all the thinkers Thacker surveys (with the possible exception of Deleuze’s Spinoza) were bound by a correlational logic: they attempted to think an ontology of life relative to the human being. Overcoming this correlation is easier said than done, since “Life,” as such, can only be approached by a living being capable of, or perhaps possessed by, self-conscious thinking. In other words, it would appear that the concept of Life is only meaningful given that there exists a rational creature capable of abstracting it from all the many given instances of individual living creatures, including me myself. Distinguishing the human animal from other forms of life is controversial, both philosophically and politically, but perhaps it is precisely in thinking life-in-itself, or at least in thinking the impossibility of such a thought, that the human distinguishes itself from other beings. It is not that the life of a dog is not, in some sense, meaningful for the dog; but can the dog pre-discursively form anything like the proposition “what is the meaning of life?” Not “what is the meaning of life for me,” mind you, but the meaning of life in general. The contemplation of the aporia of life-in-itself seems to be a specifically human predicament.

“The concept of life,” writes Thacker, “–and whether such a concept is possible–places philosophy in a hovering, wandering space between an ontotheology and an ontobiology” (p. 241).

The challenge, as Thacker lays it out, is to articulate a conception of Life that is neither reductively theological or biological. Philosophy is that restless wanderer charged with the task of navigating between these two extremes.

“The history of Western philosophy,” continues Thacker, “is this ongoing dilemma concerning the very possibility of ‘living thought'” (p. 242).

What is the relationship between life, on the one hand, and thought, on the other? The intentional structure of consciousness is such that thought always has an object; might not life-in-itself be the Object of all objects, that which, being “ambivalently positioned between self and world,” constitutes the very possibility of a “continuum [connecting] the ‘out there’ to the ‘in here'” (p. 247)? Life would then be, paradoxically, both the condition of the possibility of thought and the end toward which thinking strives.

Thacker’s book has reminded me of Evan Thompson‘s thesis, presented in Mind in Life, that the self-organizing dynamics at work in living beings are not just conceptually analogous, but structurally continuous with the self-conscious dynamics of mind. What remains unexplored is what this continuity between life and thought means for the nature of the universe itself. Can the being of the world-in-itself be understood independently of the thought of the world-for-us? Breaking the correlation would entail something like the nihilism of Ray Brassier, where “living thought” is deemed impossible, since truth is discovered only in the thought of thought’s own extinction. Perhaps a depth psychological approach can overcome this dichotomy between vitalism and nihilism, as from the soul’s perspective, life and death exist on a continuum. Of course, this only brings us back to the mysticism of pre-modernity. Not that this is necessarily a problem…

(as always) To be continued…

Factish God(s)

The following is my comment posted in response to a blog by Sam Mickey about the potential of an object-oriented theology.

Postsecularity might also be termed “the After Age.” Perhaps the “end of history” is the beginning of an integral phase of civilization, where the transparent permeability of eternity and time, spirit and matter, reason and myth, art and earth is (re)collected. If “postsecularity” is not simply the return to mythic consciousness and static cosmology, though, what does it mean to leave the presentist philosophy of secular humanism and/or scientific naturalism behind? We need new some new paths to explore. I’m definitely in agreement that Harman’s object-orientation is an experiment in ontology that should be conducted in theology as well.
A few thoughts…
Factish gods remind me of the occult concept of an “egregore“, a sort of collective-thought form that incorporates individuals into decision patterns larger than their separate perceptuo-conscious awarenesses. This would seem to have more to do with a straightforwardly fetishized God than a factish God. The implication for occultism seems to be that fetish Gods (i.e., idols) are psychosocial fabrications and not true divinities. It may be helpful, then, to mark the difference between God as fetish and God as factish. The former involves the projection of soul onto inanimate objects or social forces, the later grants God its own “submergent” properties, in Harman’s terms, since God retains the capacity to act independent of any human projections (meaning God exists independently of its effects upon even the unconscious human psyche). An egregore is a fetish because it doesn’t exceed the sum of its psychosocietal relations: no society of psyches, no egregore. On the other hand, the Sun, as an object with both sensual notes and real qualities, is a factish God, since it is granted a molten core, or a soul, of its own. It would go on being itself even if all the psyches on the earth were to die.

Religion: Tony Blair v. Christopher Hitchens

my rough transcription of some of what Blair and Hitchens had to say (not necessarily in order):

Tony Blair: “Fanaticism is not confined to the sphere of religious life… My belief in Jesus Christ is not about oppression and servitude, but about finding the best way to express the human spirit… Faith is not about certainty, it is in part a reflection of my awareness of my own ignorance. Though life’s processes can be explained by science, the meaning and purpose of life cannot be. In that space lies not certainty in the scientific sense, but a belief that is clear and insistent and I’d even say rational, that there is a higher power than human power, and that higher power causes us to lead better lives, lives in accordance with a will higher than our own, not as if we were imprisoned by that higher will, but on the contrary so we can discipline and use our own will so as to represent the best of our humanity.”

Christopher Hitchens: “Religion is a real danger to the survival civilization… I come before you as a materialist. If we give up religion, we  discover what we already know whether we are religious or not: we are somewhat imperfectly evolved primates on a very small planet in a very unimportant suburb of a solar system that is itself a negligible part of a very large, exploding cosmic phenomenon… The sense that there is something beyond the material, or not entirely consistent with it, is a very important matter. What you could call the numinous, transcendent, or ecstatic. I wouldn’t trust anyone in this hall who didn’t know what I mean…

Are you willing, for the sake of certain elements of the numinous, to say that you give your allegiance to a divine supernatural supervisor? Are you willing to admit that human beings can be the interpreter of this divine figure?”

I am not willing to give allegiance to, or even to believe in the existence of, a supernatural power capable of interrupting the causal course of the universe at a whim. I do think there is a God, but this God does not exist apart from the universe and so cannot reach in and alter its behavior from without. God works from within by persuasion, not from without by force. God is a living creature, just like human beings, though we are a microcosm. As for human beings being the interpreters of God, I think God exists in our heart and our breath, and so we are not so much God’s interpreters as God’s voices. God has no voice but ours.

Power and Presence in Theology

Another response to NRG’s questions for me on Pharyngula:

I have trouble conceiving of God as all-powerful because of the problem of evil and my experience of human freedom. I associated God’s omnipresence with “will” even though, for God, there is really nothing to “do.” From the “perspective” of eternity, God is already everywhere and everywhen at once. It is when omnipresence get’s stepped down into its human incarnation, that it becomes will or desire; unlike God, humans between birth and death have a particular embodied perspective on space-time, but volition is our means of approaching the infinite presence of God. To actually unite with God’s infinite presence, I believe one would have to die for the love of or in love with all other sentient beings. We only get one chance per lifetime to will the infinite in this way. It is not easy, I suspect, to remain fully present to others in such a way during one’s own death.

I should remind you that I am playing here, that I have indeed stepped outside the strictures of scripture and am making this up as I go along, so to speak. Am I just feeling that these nice ideas should be true, or am I willing that they be so out of the power of my own imagination? I think I do feel and will that they are so. But I think this. My thinking is not separate from my feelings and my will. This is the mystery of the Trinity: three persons/functions, one God/Self. I do not think the intellect could know anything at all without volition (will) and judgment (feeling) involved in the act as well.

Does the reality of a soul, or of a soul not confined to the body but extended into the world, mean that “God did it?” No, as I said above, I don’t think the idea of God does any epistemic work when dealing with natural phenomena (the soul is “natural” in that it is part of the manifest world, part of the actual phenomena constituting our psychological experience as people). All that it means is that “matter” is not the ultimate explanatory principle.

I was raised with a foot in both Judaism and Christianity, and became an atheist around 11 or 12 when I first read Stephen Hawking’sA Brief History of Time.” I believed until about 17 that “science would win,” as Hawking has since suggested. I saw Western religious institutions as dogmatic and oppressive, and their scriptures (which I’d yet to read much of) as deluded and in flat contradiction to the facts of science (or the claims of scientists, a distinction I wasn’t yet able to make). But then I took a psychology class in 11th grade and read the ideas of Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, and Alan Watts, among others. I realized that something intrinsic to human nature inextricably lures us toward the sacred and would continue to do so despite the success of the scientific method. I begin to study philosophy more closely in college, and realized soon after that the “facts” of scientific materialism didn’t necessarily hold up after sustained reflection on the history of science (Kuhn). I came to see also that there existed a rich diversity of thriving philosophical attitudes concerning the ultimate nature of things–in short, I came to recognize that materialism was not the only conclusion to which one could be lead based upon the last 400 years of natural science.

“God” is an idea I play with, an idea I admit I cannot know fully, or even know how I know what little I may know about it. But everything I experience points me toward this “strange attractor” called God (or Hegel’s Absolute, or Plato’s idea of the Good, or Teilhard’s Omega).

When I first watched the following clip from an interview with Jung, I was intrigued by the expression on his face after being asked if he believed in God… “difficult to answer…” Something like the feeling he must be experiencing behind that smirking face guides my intuitions about the divine:

Intimations of an Integral God: A lecture at CIIS

Slide 1: Prior to coming to CIIS, while studying philosophy as an undergraduate, I always had the sense of being somewhat smothered. As my studies continued, and my understanding matured, I realized why. I was being trained to think in the shadow of Immanuel Kant. [Show Crit. of Pure Reason- You’ve all read this, right?] For Kant, questions about God, and about God’s relationship to humanity and the cosmos, while certainly of the utmost importance, are nonetheless beyond the philosopher’s ability to know. But if my two years at PCC have taught me anything, it’s that such an artificial division between the human heart-mind and divine wisdom is unnecessary. I want to speak, as a philosopher, about the place of God and religion in the nascent social imaginary we call the Ecozoic era. Ecology has rightly become the rallying cry of our increasingly illumined planetary consciousness, but I don’t think this necessarily means that theology—or better, theosophy—can be retired. The word “theology” seems to imply some sort of over-masculinized attempt to intellectualize the divine. “Theosophy” suits my purposes better, suggesting patiently listening for, rather than logically hunting down the meaning of the divine. It does seem clear that traditional religion (Latin: religare), a bond to the dogmas of the past (i.e., fallen state of nature), may no longer serve our radically unprecedented situation. But in the “Ever Present Origin, Jean Gebser speaks of what he calls ‘praeligion’,” –the further flowering of religion out of its deficient mental mode of belief, so as to allow a “genuine irruption of the other side into this side, the presence of the beyond in the here and now, of death in life, of the transcendent in the immanent, of the divine in the human” (EPO, p. 529). Praeligion in this sense may make real what for religion remains abstract and ideal. I’d like to speak on behalf of this possibility.

 

Slide 2: I want to pause here for a moment to acknowledge some pressing questions: Whether it be called religion or praeligion, it’s really just another spin on the same old Judeo-Christian mythos, right? What is the use of reviving theology when it seems that our real problems are ecological? And isn’t our scientific understanding of the evolving cosmos enough to inspire us? I must admit that I am going to speak the language of a particular book, The Bible. But I also think it is a mistake to artificially separate the world’s major religious traditions. There really does seem to be a perennial wisdom informing the esoteric teachings of each, even if this wisdom reveals itself differently according to the needs of particular times and particular places. All human beings have spiritual aspirations, which means that an understanding of time and evolution are not enough to satisfy the infinite longing of our souls. I think psychic wholeness requires that we also have some sense of eternity and of involution. All the world’s spiritual traditions seem to me to be in agreement about this.

 

Slide 3: There’s no doubt in my mind, though, that theology, or theosophy, cannot continue to remain relevant if it neglects the significance of time and evolution—of earth. As Teilhard writes, “It used to appear that only two attitudes were possible for humanity: either loving heaven or loving earth. With a new view of space-time, a third road opens up: to make our way to heaven through the earth” (Christianity and Evolution). Natural science has learned quite a bit in the last few hundred years about the natural history of our planet. This is an “earth-clock” representing this history. If we imagine that the 4.6 billion years of our earth’s existence were condensed into an hour, the first prokaryotic cells would have emerged within less than 10 minutes! Life was no mistake; clearly, the earth was never a mere rock, but was potentially living from the very first moment it began folding upon itself in space-time. This, along with our knowledge of the common origin of all life, and of all of space-time!, is a testament to the interconnectedness and creativity assumed to be absent from nature by earlier scientific paradigms.

 

Slide 4: I don’t think the recognition of this already existing creativity makes talk of Alpha and Omega superfluous. In fact, I think it makes these theological concepts more relevant than ever, because modern science is suggesting that the universe is a cosmogenesis, that it had a beginning, and that it is developing irreversibly toward some end. The question is, what kind of end? Teilhard wrote often of how the unitary perspectives offered by 20th century physics and biology have provided a decisive new impetus to our sense of the universe. “The surge of modern pantheisms is a result of this,” he says. “But this impetus” he continues, “will only end by plunging us back into supermatter if it does not lead to Someone” (The Human Phenomenon, p. 190). Pantheism is undoubtedly a beautiful affirmation of the enchanted wholeness of the universe, but I, like Teilhard, find it difficult to breathe in a universe without any hint of divine transcendence.

When I look at Western history with an eye for the evolution of consciousness, I see a movement from pre-modern mythic Theism (universe created by an entirely transcendent divine Person), through modern Deism, to post-modern Pantheism/atheism (which I lump together because both understand the universe in an entirely immanent and impersonal way). I think the next step in this dialectic is toward an Integral Panentheism, where the universe is experienced as an ongoing process toward personalization, an anthropocosmogenesis. Teilhard articulates the subtle but important difference between pantheism and panentheism in the following way: “…if the reflective centers of the world are really ‘one with God,’ this state is not obtained by identification (God becoming all [as in pantheism]), but by the differentiating and communicating action of love (God all in all)” (The Human Phenomenon, p. 223). God is not just One, but also Many; not just transcendent, but living within the heart of each and every being.

 

Slide 5: I think this dialectic from theism, to atheism/pantheism, to panentheism shows us that, if history has any significance, it is that, as Owen Barfield says, “in the course of it, the relation between creature and Creator is being changed” (Saving the Appearances, p. 160). Perhaps the God of our planetary age is no longer a hidden eye in the sky, uninvolved in earthly life, but in the course of the evolution of consciousness, beginning to take up far more intimate residence within and among us upon the earth itself.  As Teilhard writes, “Religion… represents the long disclosure of God’s being through the collective experience of the whole of humanity” (Human Energy, p. 47).

 

Slide 6: I’d like to draw attention to three reasons why a panentheist God remains relevant even in our increasingly secular world. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that God, as an idea, has important social functions and so should not be dispensed with. I’m not making a prescriptive argument. I’m suggesting that human beings will inevitably remain religious creatures for these reasons: 1) to foster human community, 2) to provide intimacy with the cosmos, 3) to provide an evolutionary telos for consciousness.

 

Slide 7: Hegel seems to me to have been on to something in suggesting that divinity and humanity find their unity in the consciousness of community (part B, philosophy of religion). But the importance of God for community, and of community for God, was made apparent to me not at first by Hegel, but by the Jewish theologian Martin Buber. In the final lines of the afterward to his book “I and Thou,” Buber writes: “The existence of mutuality between God and [humanity] cannot be proved anymore than the existence of God. Anyone who dares nevertheless to speak of it bears witness and invokes the witness of those whom he addresses” (p. 182). Buber attempts in this book to articulate the twofold attitude human beings can take toward the world and each other: 1) “I-It” relation, wherein an aloof subject experiences the others as object, as a means to its ends; 2) “I-Thou/You” relation, wherein one relates to other persons as the presence of God, encountering others as a revelation of the eternal You, of the universal person in the unique.

 

Slide 8: Emmanuel Levinas, who was heavily influenced by Buber, finds God in the infinite responsibility that takes the ego hostage in any authentic face-to-face encounter with another. He writes: “The free [human being] is dedicated to [her] fellow; no one can save [herself] without others. The inside-out domain of the soul does not close from inside” (Humanism of the Other, p. 66). The soul is infinite, and so it seems it cannot find wholeness without relating to divinity, which for Levinas is the holiness of others. This notion of a soul unable to close from the inside also reminds me of Teilhard de Chardin’s question as to why “we are not more sensitive to the presence of something on the move at the heart of us that is greater than ourselves?” (The Human Phenomenon, p. 120).

 

Slide 9: An integral God would not only foster community, but would deepen the intimacy of our relationship to the cosmos. Teilhard’s love of matter goes a long way in this direction, but I think the German shoemaker turned mystic Jakob Boehme’s vision of the relationship between God and creation may have even more to say to us. The physicist Basarab Nicolescu distills the essence of Boehme’s cosmology of divine self-manifestation as “a threefold structure leading to a sevenfold self-organization of reality” (Science, Meaning, and Evolution, p. 90).

 

Slide 10: Boehme’s God is not Aristotle’s perfect unmoved mover, but dynamic and self-revelatory by nature. Boehme wrote many books attempting to describe his revelatory vision of a God who cannot but overflow into creation. God in-itself, traditionally “God the Father,” is the mysterious abyss or ground of pre-creation, and consists of the restless agitation of three principles—darkness, light, and fire (or sour, sweet, and bitter). The light wants to expand and radiate, to become manifest, but the dark wants to remain hidden and self-contained. As a result of this self-contradiction, God ignites into flames, burning in what Boehme calls a “wheel of anguish.” The friction of the three restless principles generates heat, which is the first of God’s manifest qualities but the 4th in the sevenfold self-organization of reality. This heat ignites a flash, transforming it into the force of love in search of itself, the 5th principle. Love finds itself through the reverberation of sound or tone, language or the Word, the 6th principle, which then becomes flesh, reaching fulfillment as body—God incarnate—completing the sevenfold series.

 

For Boehme, the cosmos is the body of God. He refers to stars as the “fountain veins of God.” It is as if he is saying that stars are a visible example of this sevenfold creator-creativity in action. But this series is active in every being.

 

Cosmogenesis is, for Boehme, the divine’s attempt to find wholeness, and the human being participates in this attempt, our faith (or our opening to the imaginal dimension of reality) acting as the food that nourishes God. Boehme’s cosmology places a heavy responsibility upon humanity, as the completion of the sevenfold cycle depends upon our active cooperation. With the failure to consciously participate, according to Nicolescu, “the entire universe of the creation would disappear into chaos” (p. 89).

 

Slide 11: Owen Barfield’s insightful ‘study in idolatry,’ the subtitle of his book about the evolution of consciousness called “Saving the Appearances,” provides another way to deepen the intimacy of the relationship between human beings and the universe. For Barfield, the entire history of the world consists in the changing relationship between consciousness and phenomena, between spirit and matter. Long ago, human beings participated unconsciously in a spiritually imbued cosmos; but in time, with the gift of speech, the ability to name phenomena, came also the awareness of self. Original participation with the cosmic process was canceled, and human beings began increasingly to perceive only their own collective representations/mythic images of the cosmos, which itself receded into the background. Following the scientific revolution, these collective representations became “false idols”—the universe conceived of as matter in motion without the need of being participated by any percipient. This further isolated human consciousness from a deterministic nature. As the 19th century approached its end, the universe began increasingly to seem like a collection of dead objects lacking all interiority.

 

Barfield points to the possibility of “final participation,” wherein we come to recognize that our consciousness actively participates in the holotropic movement of space-time itself. In other words, we realize that we stand in what Barfield calls a “directionally creator relation” to the cosmos—that each of us are co-participants in the divine imagination that continually brings forth the phenomenal world. Final participation, according to Barfield, requires the reversal of our normal direction of consciousness; original participation fired the heart from a source outside itself; images enlivened the heart. But for final participation, the heart must be fired from within by our own spark of divinity…it is for the heart to enliven the images (p. 172).

 

Slide 12: As Teilhard describes it so eloquently, lacking the metanoia required for final participation, “we are continually inclined to isolate ourselves from the things and events surrounding us as though we were looking at them from the outside… as spectators rather than elements of what is happening…We are not being tossed about and drawn along in the vital current merely by the material surface of our being. But like a subtle fluid, space-time, having drowned our bodies, penetrates our soul…until the soul soon no longer knows how to distinguish space-time from its own thoughts” (p. 153).

 

Slide 13: We see, then, that we are not mere spectators of an already created universe. The telos of consciousness evolution is towards the activation of our latent powers of imaginal cognition, so that we might participate with God in the ongoing revelation of the universe.

 

Boehme: “For thou needest not ask, Where is God? Hearken, thou blind human; thou livest in God, and God is in thee; and if thou livest holily, then therein thou thyself art God. For wheresoever thou lookest, there, is God” (Aurora, p. 172).