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.

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Notes on Face à Gaïa (Lecture 5)

Continuing my posts on Latour’s Face à Gaïa. Remember, these are nothing but notes: they don’t contain any of my own interpretation, so it’s really the case that they’re just a record of some of the themes and content of the book.

Lecture Five: Comment convoquer les différents peuples (de la nature)?

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Hobbes and Nature

The difference between the two images (Leviathan frontispiece, Nature cover):

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  1. The first proposes unity.
  2. The second proposes and enacts division; it is less clear how to act when faced by it.

Thus: ‘face au Léviathan, vous savez qui vous êtes et devant quelle autorité vous devez plier le genou; mais comment se comporter devant cet autre Cosmocolosse’.

The second image, corresponding to the Anthropocene, therefore marks a radical new situation in the world with which we must take account: ‘on peut douter que l’Anthropocène marque une époque géologique, mais pas qu’il désigne une transition qui oblige à tout reprendre’.

Religion in the Anthropocene

One of the things the Anthropocene (as represented by the Nature-image) shakes up is religion.

  • Where the Leviathan-image sought to situate religion in a clear and controlled way.
  • The Anthropocene has thrown it into doubt and unsettled it.

This is particularly the case for religions that claim some kind of global or all-encompassing authority: ‘la survenue de Gaïa oblige à douter de toutes les religions englobantes’.

Religion One

To be more precise, what is shaken up in the Anthropocene is the form of Religion One (as defined in the Gifford Lectures), that is, ‘l’étrange idée qui faisait de la Nature connue par la Science ce qui devait s’opposer à la Religion’. We might call this ‘natural religion’ in a specified sense to indicate this is religion under the aegis of the Modern Constitution (the ‘MC’), the Religion of the Moderns.

Religion One and land appropriation

Religion One, like all expressions of the MC, is always a function of a land appropriation:

C’est à toutes les cosmologies [in which religion is included as one] que la même question se pose: que veut dire, pour un peuple, de mesurer, représenter et composer la forme de la Terre à laquelle il se trouve attaché?

  • Religion One thus seeks to control, measure, represent, figure, etc that which is immanent and secular.
  • However, it does so from a position ‘above’ the immanent and secular, and thus is guilty of being transcendent and dogmatic.

An opportunity to corrode Religion One

The opportunity posed by the Anthropocene is to dissolve Religion One and to recast it instead as fully rational and veridicted: ‘c’est l’une des forces de Gaïa, cet acide si puissant, qu’elle corrode l’amalgame de toute religion naturelle’.

Religion Two and land appropriation

The recalibration of this debate will come via an act of remapping: ‘ce que je voudrais dessiner, c’est une carte grossière des territoires occupés par des peuples en lutte les uns contre les autres’. This would replace the artificial land appropriation given by Religion One above.

What is proposed, then, is a new spatial-temporal configuration of religion, which would be a land appropriation, or a *‘design’:

Pour esquisser un tel dessein, il nous faut apprendre à repérer, pour les collectifs jusque là mal assemblés par le format nature/ culture, comment ils pourraient s’entre définir, s’articuler l’un par l’autre, en procédant à des opérations que l’on pourrait dire de guerre ou de paix, autrement dit de diplomatie risqué.

Note from this quotation:

  • This procedure will entail operations of ‘war and peace’ (Schmitt).
  • This procedure will ultimately lead to ‘diplomacy’.

Five questions

If an institution (such as Religion Two) is to be mapped more appropriately, five questions will have to be posed, each of which concerns how the collective is to be composed:

  1. What is the supreme authority that collects it?
  2. What is the extent of the people gathered?
  3. What space do they occupy? (‘sur quel territoire se sentent-ils habités?’)
  4. What time do they believe they inhabit?
  5. What is the organizing principle (‘le principe d’organisation’) that distributes their agencies? = which is also called their ‘cosmogram’? This fifth question is the one that allows the value judgment (PRE) to arise.

This fivefold method will allow questions to be asked of religion that evade the Nature/ Culture schema.

Violence

To ask these questions is to arrange a collective on the ground. It is thus a land appropriation that seeks to displace the land appropriation previously in place. It is bound to entail jostling, repositioning, self-defence, etc against those who are trying to assimilate us to a different configuration:

La violence que doivent apprendre à regarder en face ceux qui prétendent assembler des peuples pour se défendre contre ceux qui prétendent détruire leur sol. Comment s’en étonner, puisque c’est bien dans une guerre des mondes que nous nous trouvons désormais engagés?

The (new) land appropriation will therefore follow the pattern: (A) violence first; (B) afterwards, a hope of diplomacy.

Neglect

At this point, Latour picks up Serres’ definition of religion as the antonym of ‘neglect’.[1]

  • Religion is understood as a broad definition of whatever it is we take care of/ build together/ assemble. In fact, religion occurs wherever there is composition: ‘en ce sens, on le comprend volontiers, il n’existe pas de collectif irréligieux’.
  • Religion will only be lacking, then, where neglect of this principle of composition exists.

Religion and diplomacy

In adapting its compositional role, religion represents something like a radar able to detect compositional processes in general (and where they may or may not be present in other collectives). Thus, to be religious is ‘devenir attentif au choc, au scandale, que peut représenter pour un collectif le manque de soin d’un autre collectif. Autrement dit, être religieux, c’est d’abord se rendre attentif à ce à quoi d’autres tiennent’.

To be religious is therefore to be the highest form of diplomat: ‘c’est donc, pour partie, apprendre à se comporter en diplomate’.

What renders religion so diplomatic? It is because it is able to be sensitive to the fivefold questions posed above.

Q1. Religion is sensitive to the fact of a supreme authority that collects

For Latour, religion is equipped to enquire and respect the Durkheimian observation that all collectives have a supreme authority of one sort or another, whether that be a God or something else, and that the most important thing is that we at least come to see what that is. Thus: ‘nous le savons depuis que l’anthropologie existe: pas de collectif sans un rituel au cours duquel on découvre que le seul moyen de se rassembler réellement comme groupe consiste à être convoqué par cette autorité et à l’invoquer en retour’.

This is what Latour means when he says there is no secular, because however ‘secular’ a collective claims to be, it is still operating under the aegis of a supreme authority of some sort. To put it another way, for Latour there has to be a ‘god’ function in any collective.[2] Cf. John Milbank in Theology and Social Theory.

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Q2. Religion is sensitive to the fact of a collective that sustains their supreme authority

The life of a collective is not secured only in a top-down way, however, but also by a reciprocal process of definition: people are assembled by a god; god is invoked by the people. This is a ‘mouvement d’aller-retour qui relie un peuple rassemblé par ses divinités à des divinités rassembleuses invoquées par leur peuple’. To put it another way: ‘pas de culte sans culture vivante; pas de culture sans culte vivant’.

Translation tables

A (religious) diplomat sensitive to Q1 and Q2 would be adapting a methodology akin to that of Assmann: it is to look underneath ‘names’ and towards ‘performances’: ‘tant que l’on s’en tient aux noms, on se bat sans cesse et en vain’.

The Mosaic division

Latour agrees with Assmann that the function of translation was systematically lost at a punctuated point of history: the Mosaic distinction.

With the MD, Latour seems to be agreeing that there was a particular moment in history (Moses) in which the possibility of being religious was lost and in which the phenomenon of Religion (using Assmann’s terms: ‘counter-religion’ or ‘secondary religion’) became a majority player on the stage.

Features of the MD include:

  • From that time on, we became non-attentive/ neglectful of that to which other collectives hold, thereby indicating that our own belief system was not being progressively composed in the common world (but rather that it was held to as a fundamental belief): ‘l’ancien sens du mot religion n’est plus compréhensible: bien au contraire, négliger ce à quoi les autres tiennent, telle est la nouvelle injonction’.
  • From that time on, the idea that we should be prepared to defend our own fundamental belief in the common world (by means of translation tables, for example) induces horror: ‘À partir de ce point de rupture dans l’histoire, on va pouvoir repérer l’irruption de la religion par les réactions d’horreur devant le relativisme modéré qu’autorisaient les tables de noms de dieux, et par la multiplication des gestes iconoclasts’.

Contemporary secularity as ‘religious’

  • The Mosaic Distinction (and the Religion of the Moderns that it sets in motion) seems to be a far cry from (what appears to be) our contemporary society, which is highly pluralistic and apparently tolerant.
  • And yet the dynamic that lies behind the Mosaic Distinction is everywhere apparent in our contemporary society, in the way it ‘invokes’ the ‘god’ Nature.
  • This is in spite of the fact that our contemporary society may well assume that it is secular, and perhaps even irreligious: ‘il ne suffisait pas pour être irréligieux de se croire irréligieux’.

True religion (which for Latour = REL, composition, secular) is rare in the contemporary world, then, because there is always a metaphysical over-determination waiting in ambush around every corner: ‘il y a toujours une déité en embuscade qui exige de n’être rendue commensurable avec aucune autre’.

Contemporary secularity, then, in spite of its pluralistic claims, refuses to enter into composition and thus acts as the worst kind of fundamentalist religion of the past. In fact, contemporary secularity has really just replaced the God of former times for the God as given by Nature: ‘du vrai Dieu fulminant contre toutes les idoles, on est passé à la vraie Nature fulminant contre tous les faux dieux’.

The Moderns are religious

Thus it can be said that the Moderns are the most religious people of all, by dint of the fact that they will have some concept of ‘truth’ that preys on the metaphysical status of a ‘supreme authority’:

Quoiqu’on pense des Modernes, aussi incroyants qu’ils s’estiment, aussi délivrés de toute divinité qu’ils s’imaginent, ils sont bien les héritiers directs de cette ‘division mosaïque’ puisqu’ils continuent à lier autorité suprême et vérité, à cette nuance près que la division passe désormais entre, d’un côté, croire en une religion quelconque et, de l’autre connaître la vérité de la nature.

Whatever one thinks of the Moderns, as unbelieving as they consider themselves to be, as free of all gods as they imagine themselves to be, they are all the same the direct inheritors of the ‘Mosaic Division’, insofar as they continue to associate truth with a supreme authority, if we nuance the division by understanding it nowadays as passing, on the one hand, between belief in some religion and, on the other hand, knowledge of the truth of nature. (my loose translation)

And this is the case however vehemently ‘secular’ the Modern in question might conceive himself as being, and indeed however anti-monotheistic he might conceive himself as being: ‘même ceux qui vomissent les religions monothéistes, leur ont emprunté cette façon si particulière de vomir l’idolâtrie’.

Nature is revealed as ‘Religion One’ by dint of translation tables

  • The cry of indignation quickly rises: Nature is not a ‘god’ that is invoked like Jesus or Buddha; it is simply how things are.
  • But be patient, and apply the category of ‘Nature’ to the translation exercise outlined above.
  • This will soon show that Nature ‘n’est pas un domaine mais un concept’.

Cenosotone as deity

Thus follows the thought-exercise around the collective: ‘ce-dont-nous-sommes-tous-nés’, the equivalent of OWWABB in the Giffords. Here, cenosotone can be taken as the ‘deity’ that convokes a people. The question is, what kind of deity is this?

Cenosotone is of course the deity: Nature One.

There follows lengthy descriptions of the contrast between theory (what the Moderns think cenosotone is) and practice (how cenosotone actually functions):

  1. Externality.
  2. Universality (in the sense that all agents obey its law).
  3. Inanimate (in the sense that individual agents don’t have their own wills).
  4. Indiscutable (in the sense that it presents itself as a closed matter of fact, not as a matter of concern).

Of course, these functions are contradicted by practice: ‘les attributs sur lesquels insistent ses adeptes révèlent également que la Nature est à l’intérieur, qu’elle est multiple, qu’elle accepte de se trouver aux prises avec des êtres animés et fortement controversés, qu’elle a une histoire confuse et que son extension est aussi limitée que variable’.

In summary, cenosotone is a ‘deity’ that should be understood as compositional (cheiropoeite), but which is all to often taken as non-compositional (acheiropoeite): ‘tout se passe comme si ces gens devaient faire tourner leur cosmologie autour de deux foyers en même temps: l’une où tout est extérieur, où rien n’est fait par l’homme; l’autre où tout est intérieur et fait par l’homme’.

It is clear why the people of cenostone are so unstable (as Latour would say in WNM, they are unstable between theory and practice): ‘on comprend pourquoi ce peuple divisé contre lui-même est tellement inquiet, tellement instable’.

Cenosotone and space-time

Importantly, when cenosotone is entered into a translation table under the ‘deity’ column, the collective that results is revealed as being spatially-temporally awry:

  • To be convoked by the deity cenostone means that one does not defend a spatial territory, that is, that one’s feet are literally not implanted in this ground (thus, that this person has become airily transcendent): *it indicates ‘la plus étrange façon d’être et de ne pas être de ce monde. Ils refusent d’être un peuple et d’être limité à un territoire. Ils sont à la fois partout et nulle part, absents et présents, envahissants et d’une négligence ahurissante’.
  • To be convoked by the deity cenostone means that one does not occupy a temporal moment, that is, that one’s feet are literally not situated in a particular historical moment (thus, that this person has become airily non-temporal): *one has become ‘universel, et l’époque où il se situe de tous les temps’.

The convocation of the deity cenosotone does not ground one in space-time, then: ‘ce peuple est décidemment inassignable, d’autant qu’il est aussi impossible à situer dans le temps que dans l’espace. À quelle époque appartient-il? À aucune, puisqu’il est indifférent à l’histoire et qu’il accède à des vérités universelles qui existeraient de toute éternité’.

  • The people of cenosotone do have an account of their own historicity, however, but it is one that is grounded in revolution and rupture: ‘en même temps, bien sûr, ce peuple a une histoire et il se reconnaît comme l’héritier d’une rupture radicale, arrivée récemment, et qui lui a permis d’échapper à un passé archaïque, obscur et confus, pour entrer dans une époque plus lumineuse qui permet de distinguer radicalement le passé du présent et du futur radieux : quelque chose comme une Révolution scientifique’.
  • When the people of cenosotone encounter how history really is, its twists and turns, they simply don’t know what to do with it: ‘ce peuple sans histoire a bel et bien une histoire dont il ne sait pas quoi faire et qu’il considère comme quelque chose d’aussi honteux que d’appartenir à un sol’.

We should not be surprised at their groundlessness, which is due to the impossibility of them understanding their own composition: ‘comment s’étonner qu’il se sente incapable d’occuper la Terre en sachant où il se trouve et ce qu’il peut y faire, alors même qu’il prétend la saisir ‘dans sa globalité’’.

Cenosotone in the time of the Anthropocene

The significance of the Anthropocene is that it disrupts the assumptions made by those convoked by cenosotone and serves as a means of re-uniting the artificial division made between theory and practice:

Et l’on ne s’étonnera pas qu’il prenne si mal aussi bien l’irruption de Gaïa que l’hypothèse de l’Anthropocène qui l’obligeraient à s’ancrer, à se situer, à expliciter enfin ce qu’il veut, ce qu’il est, à désigner enfin quels sont ses amis et ses ennemis.

Note that Gaia (as given in the Anthropocene hypothesis) is that which challenges the Moderns to enter themselves into a translation table and to define themselves according to a Schmittian politics.

What kind of a composition does Cenosotone create?

To be convoked under the name of Cenosotone is to be torn between the list of traits given above:

  • son statut d’extraterritorialité l’empêche de définir son territoire
  • son universalité lui interdit de comprendre les relations qu’il doit établir
  • sa quête d’objectivité le paralyse devant les controverses dont il ne sait plus sortir
  • sa prétention à embrasser tout le monde le laisse déconcerté devant le petit nombre de ceux qui lui appartiennent vraiment
  • quand à son histoire, il ne sait jamais s’il doit sortir du temps présent par une nouvelle révolution ou sortir de l’idée même de révolution radicale

In other words, Cenosotone is not a collective entity at all; it is one that has been imposed undiplomatically: ‘il n’accepte jamais de se présenter comme un collectif, justement, et surtout comme un collectif au milieu des autres en précisant son mode de collecte, son cosmogramme’.

Religion One

Nature One, cenosotone, is matched by an equivalent deity: Religion One. This is the deity of ‘Dieu ordonnateur’. And the people this deity convokes are: ‘le peuple qui se déclare Enfants du Grand Dessein ou encore Peuple de la Création’.

Comparisons of Religion One and Nature One

General observations:

  • In general, Religion One is just as non-compositional as Nature One: ‘on fait appel à une autre autorité suprême qui n’est pas si différente de la première colonne du tableau ci-dessus’.
  • It shares three features in particular: its truth is given as exterior, universal and incontestable.
  • Just as the people of Nature One are rigorously selected according to what they believe and housed in a particular institution (Science), so the people convoked by this deity are ‘selected’ (‘ils sont recrutés par une procédure explicite — une forme de conversion’) and housed in a particular institution (Church).

Two more interesting comparisons:

  • Both propose a temporal ‘rupture’ in their own pasts. This is the moment in which the ‘deity’ intervenes from outside of this world: […] ces deux peuples partagent cette idée qu’une rupture radicale a eu lieu dans un passé plus ou moins proche. Rupture qui les a propulsé dans une histoire totalement nouvelle que les uns l’appellent celle de la Lumière, les autres, au pluriel, celle des Lumières. L’important, c’est qu’ils se situent tous les deux dans le temps qui succède à une rupture radicale—Révélation ou Révolution.
  • Neither therefore have a rationality that comes from this world: ‘quant à l’appartenance au sol, elle leur manque à tous deux également, le premier parce qu’il est de toutes façons hors sol, le second parce qu’il appartient à un autre monde, celui, apparemment, du sens et des buts, d’un grand Dessein, d’une Providence vers laquelle ils aspirent à se télécharger.

Difference between Religion One and Nature One

The key difference, and what causes the Science vs Religion conflict, is that Religion One results in the over-animation, rather than the de-animation (cause-and-effect), of its agents: ‘elle a en effet les mêmes caractères, à ceci près qu’elle s’obstine à suranimer ce que l’autre s’obstine à désanimer’.

This difference is exhibited in design-type arguments (eg. the intricacy of the human eye). For one, the intricacy signals nothing more than a creator God; to the other, the intricacy signals nothing more than evolutionary contingency. For one, there is a Watchmaker, for the other, a Blind Watchmaker. Both, however, are reductionist, in that in both there is ‘une perte de puissance d’agir, de narration, d’histoire, de géohistoire qui transforme Gaïa en un Système autorégulé’.

Thus, those who explain the intricacy of the eye by means of evolutionary contingency are positing a MP every bit as much as those who explain it be means of a creator God: ‘ce qu’il y a de particulièrement déconcertant pour ceux qui, comme moi, estiment ceux qui chantent la gloire de Dieu aussi bien que ceux qui célèbrent l’objectivité des sciences, c’est que le deuxième récit, en gommant toutes les surprises que l’on trouve à foison dès que l’on suit l’histoire de la structure de l’œil, s’efforce d’être aussi pauvre que le précédent’.

Both, therefore, have problems with emergence.

Emergence

Neither Nature One nor Religion One have an account of agency that will enable the Moderns to handle the temporal connotations of the phenomenon of emergence:

  • By positing a metaphysical principle of determination, and thus a model of cause-and-effect, they presuppose that the future is entirely contained in the presenting situation. There is thus a ‘net gain’ of zero in any actantial situation: ‘en termes de rôles actantiels—horribles mots pour une si belle chose—le résultat net est zéro puisque la quantité d’animation n’a pas augmenté d’un iota.
  • Thus, nothing new happens, and there is literally no history: ‘tout est dans la cause, rien dans l’effet. Autrement dit, littéralement, rien ne se passe. Le passage du temps ne fait rien au monde. Il n’y a pas d’histoire.

Emergence as Creation

Latour uses the term ‘creation’ (without connotation of the ‘Creator’ or ‘creationism’ of Religion One) in order to describe the model of agency that can handle emergence:

  • Cause-and-effect is not sufficient to explain emergence: ‘la création—qui est l’inverse du créationnisme—suppose que le rapport cause-conséquence soit modifié de telle sorte que la conséquence déborde quelque peu sur la cause’.
  • Emergence-as-creation therefore describes time as moving from the future to the present: ‘ce qui revient à dire que le temps coule de l’avenir vers le présent, et non pas du passé vers le présent. Ou, pour le dire encore autrement, que les conséquences, d’une certaine façon, ‘choisissent’ toujours quelles seront leurs causes’.

Science vs Religion

The debate between ‘materialists’ and ‘spiritualists’ is thereby revealed to be in error:

Et pourtant que de salive on a dépensé pour distinguer
’spiritualistes’ et ‘matérialistes’! Au bout de quelque temps, on ne comprend plus où est la dispute : un dessin et un Ingénieur contre un dessein et un Créateur, quel beau combat en effet, bien digne qu’on s’étripe.

There is no need to continue to fight, nor to reconcile them in their current forms, because neither of them have a correct understanding of the nature of the agency that determines them: ‘on comprend pourquoi il ne sert à rien d’accuser la Science d’être un substitut de religion, ni de chercher dans une religion naturelle ce qui pourrait convaincre les incroyants de l’existence de la Providence. On ne peut ni opposer, ni réconcilier les visions scientifiques et religieuses du monde’.

Instead, it would be better to redefine both nature and religion from scratch: ‘il vaut mieux tenter de faire tout le contraire et de dissoudre l’amalgame entre les deux’.

Natural religions

Religion One should not be known as ‘natural religion’, then. Both Religion One and Nature One are ‘natural religions’:

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Radical Rupture

The diagramme above shows the Moderns (Nature One, Religion One) living in a particular époque: this is given by a rupture radicale:

  • This rupture radicale in the past determines the cause-and-effect progress of the future. Another way of saying this is: the Moderns believe ‘le monde a une fin’, but only in the sense that this fin will be the inevitable outcome of their own progress: ‘les buts qu’il poursuit seraient définitivement atteints’.
  • For Religion One, this rupture radicale might be understood in a variety of ways, for example: ‘être ‘sauvés’, être ‘enfants d’un Dieu qui prend soin de nous’, être ‘le peuple choisi par Dieu’,
’avoir été créé’, ‘se trouver dans la Présence’’ .

Religion One thus exhibits an eschatological tension: ‘les temps sont accomplis, mais qu’ils durent’.

References

[1]   Serres, (1992), Le Contrat Naturel, p.81.

[2]   Cf. Latour’s comments in the sixth Gifford, where he attempts to define what diplomatic value his diagnosis has brought about: he has sought to provide ‘a diplomatic reach wide enough to engage in parleys with potential allies; and, who are summoned by an entity—a divinity, a God, a set of gods, a god function—through specific rituals that would make such a people conscious of their existence’ (Gifford Lectures, p.124).