Theology and New Materialism

If you are in or near Oxford next week and are interested in philosophies of “new materialism” and how they might relate to contemporary theology, do come to this event:

Theology and New Materialism, 14.00, Trinity College, Danson Room

The event will centre on the publication of a very important new book by John Reader. An expert panel, featuring Beverley Clack, James Hanvey and Tim Howles (!) will discuss the themes and arguments of the book, which include not only issues of human agency and transcendence, but also the search for a New Enlightenment and practical issues of politics, aesthetics and technology. There will likely be a healthy dose of Latour from at least one of the panellists!

Following the panel presentation, a wider debate will follow in which all are invited to participate. Drinks afterwards.

But do sign up here for free. Thanks.



Religion as a Regime of Truth (part 2 of 2)

What is it that ensures the objective existence of a reality that you believe in, whether it be God, the Virgin Mary, a Saint, or whatever? Does it not follow a trajectory, does it not perform a movement? Is this not the basis of its rationality?

So religion as a mode of existence is a mediated phenomenon.

But there is also a second aspect to consider. This is Latour’s claim that mediation ‘ensures the objective existence of a reality that you believe in’. In other words, for Latour, the idea of religion as a materially and historically embedded phenomenon, with its own specific felicity conditions, in no way implies the compromise of its status as objective and real. Hence, his repeated insistence that religion as a mode of existence constitutes a ‘regime of truth’. This countermands the charge of relativism that has been occasionally leveled against him. Martin Holbraad, for example, interprets Latour as seeking to ‘lift the lid on the false dominion of religion as representational discourse’:

Latour’s game is to show that, if you look closely and carefully enough, all that seems like rupture is in fact continuous, so that even terms that seem like digital negations of each other (either man or God, word or world) are really ontological transformations of one another, related on a monistic plane by what French philosophers sometimes call ‘difference’. (Holbraad, 2004, ‘Response to Bruno Latour’s Thou Shall not Freeze-Frame’, p.4).

Holbraad’s critique is mistaken. Latour does not collapse religion into relativism. His claim is quite the opposite. For him, it is precisely because it is grounded in the immanent procedures of ontological pluralism that religion is able to claim for itself the status of rationality. Latour makes this clear in his spiritual autobiography Rejoicing—a book of which he claims without irony that ‘c’est pour moi le livre le plus scientifique que j’ai écrit’ (my trans. ‘for me, it is the most scientific book that I have written’, in Latour, 2008, ‘Pour une Ethnographie des Modernes’, p.7)—where he asserts that ‘the things I’m talking about are not irrational but require all our reason, the sole and only reason we have to survive with’. (Latour, 2012, Rejoicing, p.68). Comparable statements are found elsewhere. Of course, Latour is not absent-mindedly re-inscribing into religious discourse the version of apodictic certainty that is sacred to Modernity. That would be to replicate an epistemology that Latour has already deconstructed as artificial and hegemonic. Rather, what is in view here is a definition of religion as that which is characterised by a universal value, a value that is nevertheless secured by the movements of actors within the space and time of this world. ‘Value’ is a technical term within the Inquiry. It refers to that which is generic, regulative and stable about a mode of existence, that is, everything that qualifies it as a ‘regime of truth’. Latour’s objective is to identify the value that is specific to religion as a mode of existence. It is on this basis that he will ultimately argue for the re-instatement of religion as a public institution, as something ‘capable of producing unity and agreement’ in the world (Rejoicing, p.61).

I began with an apparently incidental statement uttered by Latour in our personal interview. ‘What is it that ensures the objective existence of a reality that you believe in, whether it be God, the Virgin Mary, a Saint, or whatever? Does it not follow a trajectory, does it not perform a movement? Is this not the basis of its rationality?’ I propose that the originality and provocation of Latour’s work is found right there. Latour describes religion as arising via a local and contingent agency configuration, such that it is dependent on specific felicity conditions. And yet what arises nevertheless constitutes general and universal truth. The combination of these two requires no clever dialectic. Latour’s claim is simply that the value of religion arises through the mechanism of the actors who produce it in the space and time of this world. To put it in his own words, ‘religion is a full-blown mediation, a form of life, with its own form of judgment, its own canon, its own empirical world, its own taste and skills; and yet also where truth and falsity, faithfulness and infidelity are carefully detected, measured, proved, demonstrated, elicited’ (Latour, 1996, ‘How to be Iconophilic about Art, Science and Religion’, p.429).

Religion as Mediated (Part 1 of 2)

What is it that ensures the objective existence of a reality that you believe in, whether it be God, the Virgin Mary, a Saint, or whatever? Does it not follow a trajectory, does it not perform a movement? Is this not the basis of its rationality?

The first aspect to consider is Latour’s claim that religion is mediated. To be more precise, religion is a materially and historically embedded phenomenon. What does this mean?

Latour is not making a soft claim here about the praxiological forms in which religion is manifest in the world, of the sort that might be amenable to analysis by sociology or anthropology of religion, or of the sort that might be categorisable within a ‘world religions’ paradigm. Rather, what is in view here is the highly idiosyncratic claim that there is no essence of religion that is prior to or detachable from its mediation by material and historical actors in the space and time of this world. As he puts it: ‘religion—again in the tradition which is mine—does not speak of things, but from things’ (Latour, 2005, ‘Thou Shallt Not Freeze-Frame’, p.28). Hence, for Latour, religion is not a ‘substance’, that is, it does not consist of a content that can be brought to bear upon the world, ‘as if there existed some universal domain, topic, or problem called religion that could allow one to compare divinities, rituals, and beliefs from Papua New Guinea to Mecca, from Easter Island to Vatican City’ (ibid, p.28). To think in these terms would be to posit religion as a Durkheimian ‘social fact’ that exists independently of the ‘social’ performances of actors in the world. It would contravene his definition of rationality as given by ontological pluralism. And it would render religion vulnerable to annexation by Modernity.

Instead of religion as a ‘substance’, Latour proposes a definition of religion as ‘subsistence’. He advances this word as a means of describing how religion is instituted and sustained by the movements of actors within the space and time of this world, in such a way that it makes no movement of deferral to transcendence: ‘there is nothing beneath, nothing behind or above; no transcendence’, as he puts it (Latour, 2013, Inquiry, p.102). What Latour’s work facilitates, then, is a flattening of the epistemological categories of Modernity that have previously circumscribed an understanding of what religion is and must be, and the opening-out of an entirely new, wholly immanent scenography by which religion can be analysed as a mediated phenomenon.

This definition of religion shifts attention away from the ontological status of the actors themselves. What is of interest to Latour is not whether a particular actor is ‘religious’ or not. ‘Sacred’ or ‘profane’, ‘visible’ or ‘invisible’, ‘material’ or ‘immaterial’, even ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’—ontological categories such as these are all prescribed before the actors who are tagged in this way are allowed to perform. These ontological categories can now be redeemed. Latour is agnostic as to the type of actors that might mediate religion. Sometimes, he refers to them generically as ‘the beings of religion’. At other times, he refers to them as ‘angels’—although it must be borne in mind that his use of this word draws upon a particular heritage it has accrued within recent Continental philosophy, especially in the work of Michel Serres, who adopted it is a trope to describe the priority of circulating reference and mobility (‘angels’) over the postulate of a singular, transcendent being (‘God’). The only question to be asked is whether that actor does indeed mediate the value that is proper to religion when it enters into trials with other actors. ‘Even God has no special privilege’, writes Latour, ‘and is not located in addition to or beyond other beings’ (Latour, Inquiry, p.315). When an actor does function as a mediator in this way, the ‘felicity condition’ of religion is activated.

Review: ‘A Philosophy of Christian Materialism’

Readers of this month’s edition of the journal Modern Theology can look at my extended review of this excellent book:

A Philosophy of Christian Materialism: Entangled Fidelities and the Public Good, Christopher R. Baker, Thomas A. James and John Reader

Do drop me an Email if you need a copy.

This book will be a vital resource for those considering theology in light of the various Continental philosophies of materialism and the Real, including the work of Badiou, Meillassoux, Deleuze and Latour, as well as Harman and the programme of speculative realism. For the book listing see here. For a sample of the book itself see here.

Here’s my first paragraph as a sample:

This co-authored book engages with and appropriates a new strand of thought within contemporary Continental philosophy, namely, the re-emergence of the Real as an ontological and material category. Its provocative ambition is to recalibrate, or perhaps even reformulate, Christian systematic theology in the wake of this philosophical development, so as to equip it to engage ‘in new and hyper-connective ways with the public sphere’ (p.2). The programme that ensues is called ‘relational Christian realism’ (henceforth ‘RCR’). Thus, whilst the book will certainly be of interest to sociologists analysing in an empirical mode the ways in which religion is embedded in human relationality, it ultimately requests (and deserves) to be considered as a programme located within and measured according to the categories of Christian systematic theology.


Latour as a Reader of Emile Durkheim

I have posted bits of this before, but if you’re interested here’s a short essay on Latour’s reading of Emile Durkheim’s 1912 text in social theory, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. 

Latour as a Reader of Emile Durkheim

Latour is a great reader of other texts, a fact that is sometimes neglected. Durkheim has always served in his corpus as a negative exemplar: Latour always contrasts his understanding of the ‘social’ with the Durkheimian idea of the ‘social fact’ as a value or norm which is general over the whole of a given society and independent of its individual manifestations. Here, we find him critiquing, but also re-appropriating, Durkheimian sociology of religion in relation to his own concept of ‘religion as a mode of existence’. The Dieu-Société gives way to ‘the beings of REL’. Latour’s original review (in French) can be found here.

If you’re struggling with the link above, I’ve also loaded it onto my academia page.


Latour and Voegelin’s Political Religion, part 2

See the previous post here.

For Voegelin, all human experience, including the ‘sacred symbols’ through which that experience is mediated for any given generation, is structured as an ‘ordering-towards’. For most political collectives in history, this has taken the form of ordering-towards a transcendent being. The profile of such societies has thus been hierarchical, with their internal relations of power—whether social, cultural, racial or economic—being taken as emanating from a transcendent source and cascading downwards. Human societies have thus functioned according to the principle of ‘the divinization of the worldly order of dominion’ (The Political Religions, p.44). For Voegelin, the nature of the supreme being is less significant than the basic fact of the orientation towards transcendence; hence, the mystery cults of the Greek world and the corpus mysticum of Christianity are equivalent symbols in this regard.


Voegelin’s argument, however, is that in the modern period this ordering-towards transcendence has found itself re-conditioned as an ‘inner-worldly’ phenomenon, with the consequence that internal relations of power, aping what they have replaced, now take the form of a hierarchy emanating from a non-transcendent being—one whose surrogate authority can easily be usurped by a human individual, party or credo. ‘There is no longer any sacral permeation from the highest source’, Voegelin writes, and in its place the immanent political order ‘[…] has itself become an original sacral substance’ (The Political Religions, p.59). This transposition is the essence of what he calls ‘political religion’. It is instantiated above all in the form of the modern state, which imports from religion ‘the world-transcendent God as the ultimate condition and origin of its own existence’(The Political Religions, p.28). For Voegelin, then, contemporary political collectives derive their authority from ‘a realm of religious order’: their existence and persistence can only be understood by ‘taking into account the religious forces inherent in its society and the symbols through which these are expressed’ (The Political Religions, p.31).

In his 1938 work, Voegelin employs his concept of political religion primarily for a diagnosis of the fascist mass movements that were contemporary to that time, the common feature of which consists in the ability of their political leaderships to leverage religio-ecstatic obligations over the people in the guise of a ‘unio mystica’ between the two. Elsewhere he extends his diagnosis to ideological regimes of different kinds, including Marxist ones. However, the concept is highly consonant with Latour’s description of the ‘crossed-out God’ as an instrument of political sovereignty, for at least two reasons.

The first reason derives from an analysis of the genealogy of political religions. For Voegelin, these regimes emerge following shifts in the definition of what constitutes the rational, shifts that are associated in turn with the development of the modern scientific method. Wherever science promises an understanding of the world in positivistic terms, that is, ‘as an inventory of existential facts about all stages and as knowledge of its essential and causal contexts’ (The Political Religions, pp.59–60), then the ordering principle of human existence is shifted away from symbols of transcendent religiosity and towards an inner-worldly, immanent definition: ‘the methods of science as the sole forms to study the contents of the world’ become ‘the sole generally obligatory basis of man’s attitude towards the world’(The Political Religions, p.60). It is no surprise, then, that Voegelin identifies the seventeenth-century – and Hobbes in particular – as a turning point in this regard, since this was the period in which the modern scientific method become the ruling paradigm for man’s understanding of the world and his relation to it. Voegelin understands this moment as representing a lapse and a misdirection in the trajectory of human existence: from this point onwards, politics becomes vulnerable to annexation by those declaring themselves to be gate-keepers of the scientific method and thus guardians of the (putative) apodictic certainty that method promises to supply to those who wield it. Through its appropriation of ‘scientism’, then, political religion declares itself to be sole mediator of access to the ‘realissimum’. For Voegelin, the genealogy of political religions thus turns on a shift in the definition of what constitutes the rational: first, political religion forecloses the space of the polis in which rational meaning might be defined through collective human experience, and then, second, it establishes itself as demiurgic fashioner of an order that alone constitutes the real and that, as a consequence, is sacrosanct. As Voegelin puts it:

It [political religion] disregards the rules for examining experiences reasonably, it refuses rational discourse; and the spirit that adopts this assertion will change from being a discussion partner to being an adherent of another order. (The Political Religions, p.29)

In short, for Voegelin, political religion maintains its hegemony over the polis to the extent that it is able to appropriate a discourse of rationality for its own ends. This is precisely what Latour understands is taking place in Religion according to Modernity (not, religion as a mode of existence). In both cases this is a quasi-religious gesture, since it consists of the instrumentalization of transcendent authority claims and their subsequent imposition over the collective space of the polis.

But Voegelin’s work is useful for a second reason also: its description of the effect of political religion upon its subjects. For Voegelin, the potential for the individualization and personalization of the human subject, including one’s ability to act freely, is progressively lost under regimes of political religion. The argument is easy to trace: if, as we have seen, the claim of political religion is to represent ‘the only true reality, from which a stream of reality is allowed to flow back to the people’, then it follows that its subjects will be invited to do nothing more than ‘blend into a suprapersonal realissimum’ (The Political Religions, p.15) As Voegelin puts it, faced with the reality of the modern state, the requirement leveraged upon individuals is ‘to sink down into the impersonal nothingness of their instrumentality’. His focus in the 1938 text is on the ‘technical’ means by which this integration takes place: this of course was indicative of the highly technologized propaganda machine that was being developed at that time under the aegis of National Socialism. But Voegelin’s analysis is consonant with Latour’s depiction of the human subject under the regime of Modernity. For in the same way, the ‘crossed-out God’ enables the Modern regime to instrumentalize its human subjects, not as free actors able to engage in trials with other actors, but in the guise of ‘poor wretches’ who are ‘dominated’ from above (An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, p.421) – a hegemonic politics.

In his most recent work, Latour has explicitly taken up some of the concepts and terminology of Voegelin’s political theory in order to describe the quasi-religious procedure by which the transcendent is immanentized within the Modern regime as an instrument of political sovereignty. His point is to draw attention to this procedure as the imposition of a transcendent meta-logic, resulting in a form of religion that has lost touch with its own rational definition, which he thinks instead must always be a function of an immanent, processual, contingent and dynamic logistics.

Tout le paradoxe de la modernisation, c’est qu’elle a perdu de vue, chaque fois davantage, tout contact avec le mondain, la matérialité: elle ne voit plus dans ce bas monde que l’autre monde simplement immanentisé’ (Latour, Face a Gaia, 2015).

My translation, ‘the whole paradox of modernization is that it has lost sight, more and more every time, of contact with the mundane, with the material: it no longer sees in the here-below anything other than another world that has been merely immanentized’.

The Religion that is promoted by the Moderns thus lends itself to be wielded as a tool of instrumentalization and hegemony. For Latour, this is precisely what is instantiated in the form of the ‘crossed-out God’.

Voegelin’s concept of ‘political religion’ is thus much more useful for an analysis of religion within Modernity than, for example, Carl Schmitt’s concept of ‘political theology’. From the later, Latour would do better to focus on ‘political romanticism’.


Si scires donum dei

Latour prefaces the Inquiry with the Latin epigraph ‘si scires donum dei’: ‘if you knew the gift of God’

Taken from John 4:10, these words are found in the context of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well. Having previously asked her to give him something to drink, Jesus proceeds to say to her: ‘if only you knew the gift of God (εἰ ᾔδεις τὴν δωρεὰν τοῦ Θεοῦ), and who it is that is saying to you, ‘give me a drink’ (δός μοι πεῖν), you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water (ἔδωκεν ἄν σοι ὕδωρ ζῶν)’.

This verse serves by way of tangential commentary on Latour’s presentation of religion as a mode of existence, for at least three reasons.

First, it contrasts two registers of meaning: the woman understands the request literally, in terms of the water provided by the well; what Christ is offering, however, is ‘living water’—whatever this is, it must have an entirely different signification from the literal. This prepares the ground for Latour’s presentation of religion as a mode of rationality that is distinct from the informational [DC] and the referential [REF]. (There is a delicious irony here, though: current evidence suggests that the site of Jacob’s well itself was recognised and honoured by Christians from an early date as a pilgrimage site, thus re-integrating referential modes of connection that were not intended by the original text, for which cf. Finegan, The Archeology of the New Testament: The Life of Jesus and the Beginning of the Early Church, p.36-42).

Second, it introduces the idea of kinesis and motility. The Old Testament and inter-testamental literature envisages that the broken cisterns of Israelite religion (Jeremiah 2:13) will be unblocked by the divine gift of a ‘living water’ that will quicken the people to spiritual life again (Zechariah 14:8; Ezekiel 47:9; 1 Enoch 48:1, 49:1). Augustine explicitly associates the latter with movement and flow, in contrast to the stagnation of the former: ‘water is designated as ‘living’ when it is taken as it flows: this is the kind of water that was in that fountain’ (Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, in NPNF 1, 7:102).This fits with Latour’s definition of religion as a ‘logistical’ process whose rationality is given by the operational ‘flows’ of plural ontological actors.

Third, the verse in its context (the conversation of Jesus with a Samaritan woman) draws attention to the transgression of established gender, social, political, ethnic and religious boundaries in favour of a new community of understanding. As Latour points out time and time again, [REL] is not given in the mode of fundamentalist diktat, but in the mode of first subject-formation, and second community-formation. For the latter, he borrows the imagery of Pentecost from Michel Serres. The encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well is therefore a ‘diplomatic’ encounter, to use his own terminology, insofar as religion is ‘activated’ between two people at that site, then pushed forward into larger group membership (for which, see John 4:39).