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Book Preview – A Theology Of The New Materialism (John Reader)

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Theology and New Materialism: Spaces of Faithful Dissent.  John Reader.  Basingstoke UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.  ISBN-10: 3319545108.  162 pages.  Hardcover, e-book.

Two years ago Christopher Baker, Thomas James and I published A Philosophy of Christian Materialism, in which we drew upon the philosophies of Deleuze, Latour and Badiou in order to establish an approach we call Relational Christian Realism (RCR).

I subsequently co-wrote a chapter with Clayton Crockett in Religious Experience and New Materialism in which we brought together ideas from RCR and New Materialism (NM) in the context of environmental issues. Other chapters in this book drew attention to certain weaknesses or areas for further development in recent theological appropriations of NM.

Notable among these were concerns about transcendence and a possible over-emphasis upon immanence, the extent to which human agency is undervalued by NM, and then whether or not this general approach had any purchase upon political engagement.

This new book is a direct response to these concerns and addresses them by incorporating concepts from RCR into the wider debate. It also proposes a new conceptuality which will enable theology and religious practice to respond more appropriately to environmental concerns which is the real game changer in this field.

One of the influential texts related to this but which works in the area of a scientific engagement with NM drawing upon Whitehead and process thought is Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible.  Keller has kindly provided an endorsement suggesting that she would willingly sign up to RCR. Both books now propose that what lies at the heart of this project is the attempt to hold together the apophatic and the relational.

Key aspects of the RCR approach are as follows. First there is a link back to the theological realism of Reinhold Niebuhr and the philosophical theology of Paul Tillich, although this goes well beyond both with its concern for the non-human, and is therefore able to engage with environmental issues. It raises the question of whether there is any definitive purpose or telos for creation as the human is entangled with the unknown and unpredictable futures of nature as a whole.

It builds on a flat or immanent ontology as does NM. It draws on insights and ideas from other disciplines and traditions and therefore eschews any theological imperialism. It assumes that all public debate always already contain values which need to be made explicit and articulated – Latour’s matters of concern rather than matters of fact. Like Latour it aims to reassemble slowly and carefully rather than resorting to grand statements or judgements. It emphasizes the rhizomatic nature of material religious practices so religious practice is more significant than belief or doctrine.

Attention is given to the assemblages or machines in which the human is already entangled and implicated (including relationship with the non-human). Finally political action takes place in the interstices or spaces and operates at a micro and macro level. From NM it builds upon ideas derived from Deleuze such as the plane of immanence and his focus on difference and repetition rather than substance. Hence there is discussion of the notions of process, change, movement, fluidity, energy and transformation, complexity, becoming, interconnectivity, indeterminacy as developed by DeLanda, Bryant, Bennett, Bogost, Meillassoux and Braidotti.

To offer a flavor of the main arguments in the book it is useful to summarize the central chapters. Chapter two addresses the challenge of redefining transcendence. This begins by referring back to Deleuze’s ontology of difference and emphasis upon immanence as a starting point for RCR’s counterbalance to NM. RCR uses object oriented o,ontology and the notion of small transcendences (Harman) and an understanding of God as virtual. It then examines the tension between the Apophatic and the Relational as described by Keller and Kearney (whose anatheism is a stronger link to the tradition).

Latour talks about local transcendences and religion as the immediate and close to hand rather than distant and remote. Caputo proposes a God who “insists” and is not an agent as such but to be encountered in the event. He draws upon Derrida’s messianic and sees transcendence as being another way of configuring the plane of immanence: a modality of the world.

Do either Latour or Caputo provide a basis for motivation though? Returning to Keller who builds more upon process theology and Whitehead, can there be a direct path from the apophatic to the ethical? God as “Wholly Other” could as easily be beyond relation as accessible to relation. RCR instead draws upon God as virtual and the “beyond in the midst” as described by Bonhoeffer. The chapter concludes with a return to Kearney and his use of chora as womb as well as cave, or chamber/space/receptacle, with stronger link to the tradition and notions of hospitality and the mediating entanglements that might balance crowd (relational) and cloud (apophatic).

Chapter three focusses upon the issue of human agency, and the central question of what it means to become human. A criticism of NM is that it moves too far away from the significance and role of the human, however both NM and RCR aim to add to rather than subtracting from understandings of the human.

Philosophers engaged in this discussion include Braidotti on the posthuman and Bennett’s “vibrant matter” as arguing for distributive agency. Bryant talks about “machines” rather than assemblages, as “subjects” don’t have to be human but can be institutions, corporations, states or even technology. Bogost’s alien phenomenology and “what is it to be a thing” are considered. He suggests that we all equally exist but we don’t all exist equally.

I argue that DeLanda’s assemblages and network theory along with Bryant seem more balanced as a view of human agency. RCR then uses Latour, talking about human – non-human relationships and Badiou on what it means to be a faithful subject as one already engaged in activity, so these are the preferred RCR responses to the general issue of human agency.

Chapter four examines the issue of a new Enlightenment. Three central issues are those of autonomy, reason and progress. RCR offers the contributions of distributive agency, plastic autonomy and the need to carry out detailed mapping. By examining Malabou on plasticity and her links back to Derrida and Girard, but drawing on Watkin’s critique of Malabou, it suggests that Watkin’s use of Ricoeur’s notion of narrative selfhood and memory can be used to supplement Malabou’s concept of plastic autonomy.

So is Enlightenment deferred, distorted or discredited? It then discusses Bernard Stiegler on reason and unreason, and his aims to retrieve the Enlightenment using Deleuze and Simondon. Reason becomes rationalization and instrumental as individuation is distorted by consumer and commercial forces.

As the future is contingent and open what is the role of religion(s)? Sacks provides evidence of violence against religions but blames this on a failed Enlightenment in which secular nationalism and individualism have stepped into the gap. Using the sociology of religion and recent work of Juergensmeyer and colleagues,

I suggest instead that religion is pharmakon (both remedy and poison) responding to questions of globalization, security, accountability and identity. Religion both exacerbates and calms but which and under what conditions?  There is a need for proper empirical examination and reassembling. Juergensmeyer concludes with the notion of a nameless deity for global civil religion – how does this relate to RCR?

The following two chapters focus more upon the political implications of bringing together RCR and NM with chapter five looking at aesthetics after the death of God and referring back to notions of the Beautiful and the Sublime and concluding with a discussion of Stiegler’s use of the division between otium and negotium as a parallel with the tension between the apophatic and the relational. Faith does not lead directly to any specific political programme any more than do aesthetic ideas or commitments.

Chapter six develops Stiegler’s contribution further on the key contemporary subject of technology offering practical examples of both positive and negative impacts. So many young people are now digitally tethered. Big companies use algorithms to manipulate our purchasing habits. Then there is the example of how high frequency traders manipulate the technology to their own financial advantage.

Stiegler argues that technology has always been part of the development of the human, but in control societies (Deleuze) human attention is captured in such a way as to short-circuit human care and trust. We respond too quickly. Time itself becomes the key issue as argued by Yuk Hui in his attempt to establish an ontology of the digital using Heidegger and Simondon.

There is already a symbiosis between the human and the digital and the digital runs ahead of the human and shapes our responses from the future. Is a digital chora a possibility? All of the above focus on the relational rather than the apophatic, so can one needs to argue that spaces are about time as well as location.

The final chapter examines whether any of these ideas are to be encountered in contemporary religious practice. It concludes that there are constant tensions, for instance when those of faith cross boundaries to work together,  as others of faith respond by sharpening those boundaries. Climate Change is a contemporary form of apocalyptic.

A weakness of both RCR and NM may be that neither offer a comfortable definitive vision of the future, but we have to live with uncertainty and contingency.

John Reader is an Associate Research Fellow with the William Temple Foundation, University of Chester, UK, and Honorary Senior Lecturer with the University of Worcester, UK. 

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