Creation Waits

Speculative Realism, Existential Theology, and Apocalyptic Pedagogy

Month: August, 2015

Is Theism Compatible with OOO?

Not obviously.

The object-oriented ontological (OOO) perspective developed by Levi Bryant, which in many respects I find appealing, is explicitly anti-theistic, at least vis-à-vis traditional theism. By this I mean OOO is not merely agnostic on the issue of God but, rather, it allegedly entails that there can be no being (to use the phrasing of the Book of Common Prayer) “[to] whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” Moreover, the very spirit of OOO, as exemplified by its staunch anti-anthropocentrism, is presumably incompatible with (traditional) theism, which is subject to the Feuerbachian critique of being a disguised anthropology.

However, it seems to me that there might be a kind of object-oriented ontology and a kind of (non-traditional) theism which would be compatible. To even begin to constitute a unified and consistent theology, a speculative realist theology would have to affirm what John Caputo, following (in an ironic twist) St. Paul, has called “the weakness of God,” as well as Jürgen Moltmann’s related notion of “a suffering God.” (See this review article by Heltzel.)

I’ve just begun to explore Caputo’s weak theology of the event, and it has only been a few months since I’ve become interested in the possibility of a speculative realist theology. My research agenda for the coming months includes the following topics:

  • A critical examination of Levi Bryant’s anti-theistic arguments.
  • A careful reading of Caputo’s The Weakness of God, with special attention to how it might bear on Trinitarian thought (something which I have gathered has been underdeveloped).
  • Consideration of the anti-anthropocentrism of speculative realism, its rejection of correlationism, and whether a “weak theology” can meet the basic requirements of speculative realism.

Correlationism and Ideologies of Rupture

The perspective considered in the previous post—namely, that all things are ontologically independent while nevertheless enjoying standing within the communion of beings—suggests that human beings do not enjoy a privileged ontological status vis-à-vis other beings. Ian Bogost expresses this point by claiming that “humans are elements, but not the sole or even primary elements, of philosophical interest” (Bogost 2012). This perspective runs up against what I, inspired by Pope Francis, will refer to as ideologies of rupture (Francis 2015, sec. 66). Such ideologies neglect or reject the notion that human beings are enmeshed within the communion of beings, supposing instead that we are ontologically opposed to or other-than the other beings of the world.

To better appreciate the tension we need to notice that to say that the various things of the world—what Levi Bryant generically refers to as “objects”—exist independent of human beings is to deny, among other things, that objects are merely representations or intentional objects for us (Bryant 2011, p. 22). This stands in opposition to the sort of ontological thought that stems from the epistemological thesis that Quentin Meillassoux has termed “correlationism.” According to Meillassoux, correlationism is “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other” (Meillassoux 2010, p. 5). Correlationism thus denies “that it is possible to consider the realms of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one another” (Meillassoux 2010, p. 5). Rather, subjectivity and objectivity are inextricably defined in terms of one another; subjects are those beings to whom objects are present, and objects are those things of which subjects are aware. As Meillassoux explains,

Not only does it become necessary to insist that we never grasp an object “in itself,” in isolation from its relation to the subject, but it also becomes necessary to maintain that we can never grasp a subject that would not always-already be related to an object. (Meillassoux 2010, p. 5)

Correlationism thus conceives of the beings of the world from an anthropocentric perspective in which they are viewed as mere “vehicles for human contents, meanings, signs, or projections” (Bryant 2011, p. 22). We thus often collapse the nature of a thing—its being in the proper sense—with the uses to which it is put or, more generally, how it appears or relates to us. At the very least, this approach neglects the full reality of the beings of the world, focusing only on a unique set of relations in which those beings stand. Bryant puts the matter this way:

The problem with correlationism is not that it drew attention to the relationship between thought and being, humans and the world, but that in doing so it had a tendency to reduce other beings to what they are for us. Correlationism’s question always seems to be “what are things for us?”, “how do the beings of the world reflect us?” (Bryant 2014)

Worse yet, this perspective both expresses and reinforces a false vision of reality whereby human beings (society or culture) are viewed as radically distinct from and opposed to “nature.” Under this “two-world schema,” reality is divided into two distinct domains: the subject, culture, or society on the one hand and the object or nature on the other:

The domain of the subject and culture is treated as the world of freedom, meaning, signs, representations, language, power, and so on. The domain of nature is treated as being composed of matter governed by mechanistic causality. (Bryant 2011, p. 23)

This two-world schema should strike us as quite familiar. It receives expression in much of modern philosophy, including not only well-known dualistic theories like Descartes’s, but also Kant’s transcendental idealism and the so-called “materialist” perspectives which dominate Continental philosophical thought. It is also prevalent within much popular religious belief, where the materiality of the human person is often downplayed or even rejected.

In his encyclical on the environment, Francis can be understood as exploring the practical implications of this perspective as it manifests itself in our ordinary lives. Although we do not consciously articulate our ontological commitments, he argues that we nevertheless can be understood as operating within a subject-object dichotomy that gives rise to a “one-dimensional paradigm” in which the things of the world—objects or beings—are seen as “formless” and “completely open to manipulation” by subjects (Francis 2015, sec. 106). In other words, we largely assume that the various (non-human) things of the world lay before us ready and willing to be used as we see fit, and little or no thought is given to their independent existence or their place in the vast communion of being. Like Bryant, Francis recognizes that this paradigm “reduce[s] other beings to what they are for us” (Bryant 2014), and he sees it as a uniquely modern paradigm:

Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. (Francis 2015, sec. 106)

The alternative to this one-dimensional, anthropocentric paradigm is a way of thinking and being in which we recognize that human beings (subjects) are among the beings of the world (objects) rather than ontologically other-than them. As Bryant conceives it, any adequate alternative perspective “transforms the subject into one object among many others, undermining its privileged, central, or foundational place within philosophy and ontology. Subjects are objects among objects, rather than constant points of reference related to all other objects” (Bryant 2011, p. 22). We may put a theistic gloss on this by saying that an adequate alternative perspective would recognize our co-creatureliness with all other things. It is arguably with such co-creatureliness in mind that Francis argues, “The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us.” For him this is because “all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things” (Francis 2015, sec. 83). Bryant and most other object-oriented philosophers do not accept this Christian eschatological vision; however, I hope to eventually argue (in later posts) that this is not an insurmountable point of disagreement which would preclude the dialogue I’m seeking to engender.

Works Cited

Bogost, Ian (2012). “Synopsis of Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing.” Blog. Ian Bogost.

Bryant, Levi (2014). “Correlationism.” Blog. Larval Subjects, October 28, 2014.

——— (2011). The Democracy of Objects. Open Humanities Press.

Francis (2015). Laudato Si’. Encyclical Letter on Care for Our Common Home.

Meillassoux, Quentin (2010). After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Bloomsbury Academic.

Reality as Communion of Beings

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis claims, “we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion” (Francis 2015, sec. 220). Like all things, we stand in complex relations with the other beings of the world. While this may seem like a poetically worded platitude, Levi Bryant has argued that the “ontology of everyday life” (OEL)—that is, the theory of being which we implicitly adopt and within which we normally operate—serves to conceal the complex networks within which beings exist. More precisely, Bryant argues that the OEL turns on something analogous to Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism: just as commodities come to be thought of as mere objects, independent of the vast networks that produce them, under the OEL every being is thought of as “discrete and divorced from the dynamic relational networks or ecologies that sustain them” (Bryant 2015, p. 47). He illustrates this point by noting that our default way of thinking is to assume that emissions are benign, having no impact on the ecologies within which things dwell, or that the things that we consume and throw away more or less disappear, having no impact on other beings (Ibid., pp. 54 and 56-57). Operating within different philosophical frameworks and using different terminology, both Francis and Bryant call on us to recognize that this is an erroneous way of thinking. Whereas Francis calls upon us to recognize that all things stand in communion, Bryant speaks of a “democracy of objects” (see Bryant 2011).

In a later post, I will explore the differences between these ways of speaking, for they are not simply terminological differences. For the time being, let’s simply pay attention to the points of commonality: to affirm that reality is a communion, fellowship, or democracy of beings is, at the very least, to reject the aforementioned ontology of everyday life, which is blind (and which blinds us) to the networks of relations within which things exist. It is also to reject the less common supposition that beings are nothing more than their relations. Authentic communion between human beings does not undermine, let alone reject, the individual existence of the people who are brought into relation. (Indeed, Christian thought affirms that it is in communion that individual human beings find their fulfillment.) In a like manner, the more expansive ontological fellowship considered here does not undermine or reject the individual existence of particular beings. Rather, it affirms that the various things which exist enjoy a certain amount of ontological autonomy, or independence, while nevertheless affirming that each being is situated within a dynamic network of relations.

We have then, two interrelated theses which are central to Bryant’s non-theistic object-oriented ontology and which I think could be brought into relationship with Pope Francis’s theistic integral ecology: (1) all (worldly) things stand in communion, but nevertheless (2) all (worldy) things are ontologically independent from one another. Francis clearly adopts (1), and I think he should adopt (2).

Thesis (1), that reality is a communion of beings, draws our attention to the fact that no (worldly) being is the ground of all others. Rather, the various things of the world, including ourselves, all equally and more or less autonomously exist while also standing in various relations. Thesis (2), the ontological independence of beings, suggests that we cannot reduce the being of a genuine existent—be it a spiny toad, a fellow human being, a social entity, a molecule, an astronomical body, or so on—to its relations with other beings. But we must proceed carefully here; far from advocating that each thing is completely withdrawn from all of its relations, Bryant’s object-oriented ontology explicitly calls upon us to recognize that independently existing beings nevertheless interact with other beings, with the result that how a particular being is actually manifest will be a local matter, contingent on its relations. I believe that Francis’s integral ecology is implicitly committed to the same.

(NB: Bryant develops the notion of “local manifestations” by arguing that, with respect to any being, we can distinguish between those powers which are constitutive of its being—what he calls its “virtual proper being”—and the products of those powers, which are its local manifestations or qualities. The constitutive powers of a being are the “operations” which that being is capable of performing, even if they fail to exercise them, and these powers are a function of that being’s internal structure—i.e., the way in which the objects or entities that compose a being relate, giving rise to an irreducible existent. For example, the virtual proper being of a human being, which is itself an irreducible being, is a function of the organization of the various beings that compose it, including all of its organs, cells, colonies of microflora, and so on. The organization of these constitutive beings is what gives rise to the various powers that the human person has, including the powers of locomotion, digestion, imagination, logical reasoning, and so on. To consider a being as an “assemblage” of other beings with unique powers is to consider its being in the proper sense. Of course, in exercising the powers of which it is capable and in relating to other beings, an existent manifests itself in various ways. See Bryant 2014, pp. 40–41 and 75.)

It is worth pointing out that the thesis that reality is a communion of being has been given expression by various writers in ways that seem to contradict each other, but which are ultimately compatible. For example, the title to Bryant’s book, The Democracy of Objects (2011), and one of his central theses—namely, that human subjects are themselves objects—seems to call forth the exact opposite view as that promoted by the late Catholic thinker, Fr. Thomas Berry, who argued that we must “realize that the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects” (Berry 2010, p. 17; emphasis added). Despite the superficial terminological disagreement, both Bryant and Berry, as well as Francis, can be understood as arguing that we must move beyond an anthropocentric view in which things are defined in terms of their use-value to human beings and made susceptible to human domination. Mary Evelyn Tucker has described Berry’s project as an attempt to foster “a new understanding of reciprocity, reverence, and respect for the vast diversity of flora and fauna that graces our planet” (Tucker 2006, p. 646). This would be an apt description of Bryant’s project, with the addition that he calls upon us to recognize the reciprocity that exists between an even greater diversity of beings, including those which are inanimate and non-living. Roads, power lines, volcanoes, and meteorites impinge upon the flora and fauna of our planet just as surely as human beings, beavers, and oak trees. To conceive of reality as a communion of being is to acknowledge and take seriously that reality is truly a plethora of beings, and any particular being enters into relations with a vast number of other beings and impinges itself upon them in various ways (Bryant 2014, p. 5).

Works Cited

Berry, Thomas (2010). Evening Thoughts. Counterpoint.

Bryant, Levi (2011). The Democracy of Objects. Open Humanities Press.

——— (2014). Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media. Edinburgh University Press.

——— (2015). “For an Apocalyptic Pedagogy.” Chiasma: A Site for Thought 2, no. 2 (2015): 46–60.

Francis (2015). Laudato Si’. Encyclical Letter on Care for Our Common Home. Vatican Web site, 2015.

Tucker, Mary Evelyn (2006). “A Communion of Subjects and a Multiplicity of Intelligences.” In A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics, edited by Paul Waldau and Kimberley Christine Patton, EBook. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Criticisms of Reno’s reading of Laudato Si’

In “The Weakness of Laudato Si’,” R.R. Reno claims that the second chapter of Pope Francis’s recent encyclical “makes a strong claim that the failure to acknowledge God is the root cause of the ecological crisis and our captivity to the technocratic mentality” (Reno 2015). This interpretation is, on the face of it, implausible. Many of the people who have contributed to the present ecological crisis and the development of the modern technocratic mentality have been and are believers of one variety or another. Moreover, this interpretation stands in opposition to Francis’s stated view that the ecological crisis has “multiple causes” (Francis 2015, sec. 63). Indeed, he explicitly rejects the tendency to oversimplify this crisis by looking for some single, easily identifiable cause: “Given the complexity of the ecological crisis and its multiple causes, we need to realize that the solutions will not emerge from just one way of interpreting and transforming reality” (Francis 2015, sec. 63). It is in this context that Francis calls on us his audience to be receptive to the insights and unique contributions of religion: “If we are truly concerned to develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage we have done, no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out, and that includes religion and the language particular to it” (Francis 2015, sec. 63). But this cuts the other way as well. “[S]cience and religion,” he writes, “with their distinctive approaches to understanding reality, can enter into dialogue fruitful for both” (Francis 2015, sec. 62; emphasis added).

Rather than arguing that, as Reno puts it, “the failure to acknowledge God is the root cause of the ecological crisis” (Reno 2015), Francis states that the aim of Chapter Two is “to show how faith convictions can offer Christians, and some other believers as well, ample motivation to care for nature and for the most vulnerable of their brothers and sisters” (Francis 2015, sec. 64). Francis acknowledges that people of faith have neither universally nor adequately recognized the implications of creation theology as they bear on our response to the ecological crisis. It is, presumably, with that in mind that he writes, “It is good for humanity and the world at large when we believers better recognize the ecological commitments which stem from our convictions” (Francis 2015, sec. 64).

To be sure, Francis does go on to articulate the Christian conviction that human life flourishes when we are in proper relation with God. However, his summary of the biblical account of creation is intended to enrich and expand our understanding of the “fundamental relationships” upon which human life depends:

The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor, and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. (Francis 2015, sec. 66)

Reno’s mischaracterization of Francis’s project in Chapter Two is significant precisely because it ignores the central teaching that is being presented. The trite reduction of the ecological crisis to a problem of godlessness overlooks Francis repeated attempts to highlight that Christians themselves are implicated in promoting a false interpretation of the Bible, a false conception of the world, and a false anthropology.

Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute dominion over other creatures. (Francis 2015, sec. 67)

In our time, the Church does not simply state that other creatures are completely subordinated to the good of human beings, as if they have no worth in themselves and can be treated as we wish. (Francis 2015, sec. 69)

None of this is to suggest that Francis would deny that failure to acknowledge God is an important dimension of the present crisis. That would be absurd. Rather, the suggestion here is that we must take him seriously when he claims that each of the three fundamental relationships that he is concerned with—relation with God, relation with neighbor, relation with the earth itself—are genuinely fundamental. This is why he can claim,

A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshiping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place the God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot. The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality. (Francis 2015, sec. 75)

Works Cited

Francis (2015). Laudato Si’. Encyclical Letter on Care for Our Common Home.

Reno, R.R. (2015). “The Weakness of Laudato Si.” First Things. Accessed July 1, 2015.

An Object-Oriented Integral Ecology?

Many things have to change, but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone. This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life. A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal.

—Pope Francis, Laudato Si’ (sec. 202)

Where apocalypse is the contemporary horizon of thought, the task becomes one of thinking […] the material reality of dwelling, for what is needed is a subjectivity attentive to how we are situated in the ecology of the world. The thought of dwelling, in its turn, is an ontological thinking. And with this ontological thinking we must conceive of a pedagogy, a practice that would cultivate forms of subjectivity attentive to the veiled being of dwelling.”

—Levi Bryant, “For an Apocalyptic Pedagogy” (p. 47)

Pope Francis describes his encyclical, Laudato Si’, as an urgent appeal directed to “the whole human family” about the ecological crisis that threatens the earth, “our common home” (Francis 2015, sec. 13 and 14). Specifically, he argues that we have a moral imperative to bring about a change of subjectivity; we must replace the reigning “technocratic paradigm” by developing different ways of conceiving of ourselves and the world of which we are a part. Moreover, he explicitly aims to encourage dialogue not only among the faithful, but all people, as we seek to articulate what this new form of subjectivity would amount to. Significantly, such dialogue is a multifaceted exchange in which all parties can seek to grow and modify their perspective. Hence, he writes, “science and religion, with their distinctive approaches to understanding reality, can enter into an intense dialogue fruitful for both” (Francis 2015, sec. 62).

It is in keeping with this spirit of a mutually revelatory exchange of ideas that I want to bring the “integral ecology” developed in Laudato Si’ into dialogue with the object-oriented ontological perspective developed in recent years by Levi Bryant and others. My desire to bring these two perspectives into conversation reveals that I believe that each offers unique insights worthy of synthesis. However, this project will face certain challenges, for they are radically at odds with one another on the question of God’s existence. Whereas Francis is obviously operating within a Catholic onto-theological framework, Bryant explicitly rejects onto-theology and goes so far as to claim that there cannot be a being (God) to whom all things are present and known (Bryant 2014, pp. 115-116). Nevertheless, there are many points of similarity between the two views, and I believe that thoughtful dialogue between the two perspectives may be a productive means of developing a version of what Bryant has called an “apocalyptic pedagogy.” Such a pedagogy would be ordered toward the goal of bringing about the “change in humanity,” suggested by Francis, which is required if we are to tackle the root causes of the ecological disasters that seem to be on the horizon.

More to come!

Works Cited

Bryant, Levi (2014). Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media. Edinburgh University Press, 2014.

——— (2015). “For an Apocalyptic Pedagogy.” Chiasma: A Site for Thought 2 (2): 46–60.

Francis (2015). Laudato Si’. Encyclical Letter on Care for Our Common Home.