Creation Waits

Speculative Realism, Existential Theology, and Apocalyptic Pedagogy

Category: Integral Ecology

Integral Ecology Without Nature

A few weeks ago, I attended an ecumenical prayer service and panel discussion concerning Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment. The service included prayers for “nature,” and involved specifically praying for various natural habitats or ecosystems, such as savannahs, desserts, and so forth. Notably absent from the prayers was any mention of human habitats, such as urban neighborhoods, industrial parks, farming communities, slums, or suburbs. This is reflective of the fact that we conceive of nature as something distinct from ourselves. At best, we think of nature as a context, which we then modify. At worst, we think of it as something outside of and other than our habitats.

One of my chief criticisms of Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ is that, despite calling into question the culture-nature dichotomy, it succumbs to it. Despite reaffirming our creatureliness, its message is couched in the language of a human/nature rupture. Consider, for instance, the following passage:

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)

This passage is ordered toward a legitimate point. Francis is encouraging us to give up the subject-object dichotomy, which leads us to think of things purely in terms of their use-value. Here, he is acknowledging that we have always used that which is non-human in pursuing our human interests. But he suggests that our contemporary technocratic paradigm blind us to the realities of non-human beings and their unique worth and dignity.

And yet nature is framed as something in which we intervene, thereby suggesting that we (or our interventions) are unnatural or non-natural. This stands in conflict with the overarching theme of the encyclical, which is that “we are not disconnected  from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion” (Francis 2015, sec. 220). As Timothy Morton has written on his blog, Ecology Without Nature, “When you realize that everything is interconnected, you can’t hold on to a concept of a single, solid, present-at-hand thing ‘over there’ called Nature.”

Francis’s “integral ecology” seems intended to be an ecology which overcomes the culture-nature dichotomy; the very term suggests this. But he has not presented this integral ecology consistently and thoroughly. He has, true to his word, only begun to sketch out the alternative. We ought to carry this project along, asking what it would be to affirm a Christian integral ecology without nature. Morton and others have much to teach us in this regard.

Works Cited

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

Morton, Timothy. n.d. “About.” Ecology Without Nature.

Zombies as Paradigmatic Contemporary Monsters

Last week, Levi Bryant posted an interesting reflection on his blog, Larval Subjects, titled, “Ages of Monsters: Of Gods and Monsters.” He proposes that we can identify at least three ages of monsters, beginning with the classical age, moving into the modern age, and culminating in the contemporary age. The classical age monster is the interstitial aberration: the being which falls between our categories, thus constituting the perversion of the natural order, as we understand it. The modern monster is man himself, and the contemporary monster is that being spawned of human ingenuity but having a life of its own.

The contemporary monster, our monster, is perhaps culture that has become natural or material.  With the modern monster, reason, culture, is still cerebral, a matter of thought.  It culminates in acts, but acts that are conceived in thought. With the modern monster, we are the ones doing it (as Kant said, we’re calling the shots). With the contemporary monster, by contrast, thought and reason become natural or material. The contemporary monster is the golem. With the contemporary monster thought, reason, and culture achieve what Hegel called “objective spirit”. In Hegel objective spirit consists of the objectivization of thought through labor. Our thought is given material form, objective form, through forming the world about us through, for example, the building of architecture and infrastructure. However, objective spirit becomes monstrous insofar as it takes on a life of its own. (Bryant 2015)

Reading this, I found myself reflecting on a course I’m teaching, which is about zombie films. The zombie is often said to be the paradigmatic contemporary monster, owing to its colonial origins and its appropriation by those wishing to engage in commentary on advanced corporate capitalism. Bryant’s framework provides another means by which we can affirm the same conclusion. The zombie horde is composed of beings that were once us; they are our creation (in many zombie tales, the plague is of human origin), and the horde is our future; moreover, the horde has a “life” of its own, albeit one which resists classification according to our living/dead binary. More damning is the realization that the zombie horde, though devoid of higher ordered consciousness and rational reflection, achieves a level of spontaneous organization and efficiency that rivals the political communities of their living counterparts. The zombie form of “life” is one of pure and spontaneous labor: they reproduce their “society” by obeying their only desire (to eat brains/flesh), thereby killing humans and creating more zombies.

In his essay, “Undead is the New Green: Zombies and Political Ecology,” Greg Pollock (2011) argues that the threat of zombies in zombie tales and how zombie apocalypses affect human society can be used as a model for thinking about how the ecological crisis threatens us. He’s not suggesting that zombies represent the ecological crisis, but rather that the fictional portrayals of zombie apocalypses end up having certain similarities to our present ecological crisis.

Like the ecological crisis, a zombie apocalypse is unusual as far as apocalypses go, since it isn’t a sudden end of time. Traditionally, apocalypses have been described as a sudden and destructive event that brings time to an end. But most fictional zombie apocalypses are portrayed as events that unfold over time and do not bring about extinction but rather a radical change in context. Society doesn’t survive as it was; rather, human beings are forced to develop new forms of life suitable to their new circumstances, their relative lack of resources, and the persistent threat posed by the zombie horde. In some films, human beings are portrayed as survivalists, foraging among the wreckage of the old society. In others, they form new and different and smaller political communities in which they isolate themselves from the zombies, adopting a more communal form of life. The point is that the apocalypse happens in time and brings about a change, but not extinction.

The most horrifying predictions concerning the ecological crisis are similar. The future that seems like an ever increasing possibility is one in which life as we know it will undergo such drastic change that it will be true to say that everything is different, and although there will be massive disruption and destruction, the human species will persist. Of all the creatures of earth, we are the most capable of surviving an ecological crisis. But this isn’t to suggest that everything would be sunshine and roses. If climate change accelerates, and brings with it increasingly destructive weather events, changes in global temperatures and growing seasons, etc., millions and millions of people will suffer. And as the pope has written, the poor, who constitute the vast majority of the world’s population, will probably suffer the most.

This is apocalypse, but it is apocalypse of a particular sort: it is the destructive upheaval of our form of life, but not the end of life itself. Just as the survivors of a zombie apocalypse could have a new future after the reality of the zombie menace has been normalized, so, too, could human beings find a new life following massive ecological change.

Pollock argues that the possibility of this new life is premised on the zombie plague survivors readjusting their conception of life. The reality of zombies forces them to give up their living/dead dichotomy, and fashion a new life for themselves in the brave new world where the barrier between life and death has been blurred and the distinction invalidated. Focusing on Max Brooks’s World War Z, Pollock writes,

The appeal to think more carefully and caringly about the ecological blowback of our actions is strong within World War Z, but it is important to recognize how it transforms our concepts of ecology and politics. Zombies are not symbols for environmental “other” that it will be our political task to pacify or patronize. Rather, zombies fundamentally overturn the dialectic of a politics of suffrage, and it is this lesson for political ecology that we stand to learn from them. There environment is not “out there” any more than zombies are: both are fully continuous with the embodied human. (Pollock 2011, p. 181)

The zombie is a peculiarly contemporary monster in Bryant’s sense insofar as it is “the meme that has created a body of its own, that no longer requires us to exist and that develops aims of its own” (Bryant 2015). But thinking about how humans might respond to the zombie monster provides a means by which we can begin to think about how we might respond when confronted with climate change, another uniquely contemporary monster (as Bryant himself describes it). Pollock argues that within World War Z, humanity is depicted “as an ecological being that survives the end of the political” (Pollock, p. 181). He goes on to write,

World War Z arrives at something like political ecology without nature that Latour advocates. “Nature” dies when the first zombie crawls from its grave, and in the aftermath of that temporal confusion the lines of politics and ecology can and must be redrawn for a plausible narrative of human survival. (Pollock 2011, p. 181)

The monstrous, whether fictional or real, always speaks to us as we are, but it forces us also to think what we might become. After spawning a monster like global climate change, our very idea of political ecology needs to be revised.

Works Cited

Bryant, Levi, 2015. “Ages of Monsters: Of Gods and Monsters.” Larval Subjects. November 19.

Pollock, Greg, 2011. “Undead Is the New Green: Zombies and Political Ecology.” In Moreman and Rushton (ed.), Zombies Are Us: Essays on the Humanity of the Walking Dead. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. 169-182.

“No Ecology without Anthropology”

I continue to reflect on Pope Francis’s claim, “There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology.”

On the one hand, this seems like the exact opposite view of those involved in the “speculative turn.” The speculative realists engaged in object-oriented ontology encourage us to move beyond correlationism, the thesis that we cannot interrogate being except by considering the human person: the being for whom being is a question.

On the other hand, there is a sense in which Byrant, in The Democracy of Objects, begins his object-oriented ontology with an anthropology. Before advancing his own version of speculative realism (that is, before presenting his ontology of objects), he argues that we must understand that human subjects are themselves objects. In so doing, he is explicitly jettisoning a false anthropology.

Moreover, Bryant’s project is surely motivated by humane concerns. It is largely, if not precisely, because of the terrible consequences suffered by humanity and other animals, which flow from our blindness to the being of non-human things, that he seeks to articulate a robust account of being as such which is free from the reigning anthropocentrism.

So can there be an ecology without an anthropology? Not for us. We find ourselves under the spell of ideologies of rupture and, especially, a subject-object dichotomy which blinds us to diversity of being and our place within it. Hence, to see the things of the world right, we need to first set our understanding of ourselves right.

Is Francis’s Integral Ecology Incompatible with Biocentrism?

As I’ve already explained, in Laudato Si’, Pope Francis (2015) rejects anthropocentric ideologies of rupture, which allow us to think of ourselves as radically other-than the creatures of the world and of our social systems as disconnected from other “natural” systems. What I failed to mention is that he also rejects biocentrism:

There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology. When the human person is considered as simply one being among others, the product of chance or physical determinism, then “our overall sense of responsibility wanes.” A misguided anthropocentrism need not necessarily yield to “biocentrism,” for that would entail adding yet another imbalance, failing to solve present problems and adding new ones. Human beings cannot be expected to feel responsibility for the world unless, at the same time, their unique capacities of knowledge, will, freedom and responsibility are recognized and valued. (Sec. 118)

The gist of this passage is clear: human beings are uniquely moral creatures, and his integral ecology shouldn’t be understood as denying this. Nevertheless, the way that biocentrism figures into the discussion seems puzzling to me, since I had assumed, prior to getting to this section, that Francis was presenting a kind of biocentricism.

Biocentrism is the thesis that all life has inherent value. Francis seems to assume that if we accept this, we must accept that we do not have “unique capacities of knowledge, will, freedom and responsibility.” This strikes me as a non sequitur. I conceive of biocentricism as expanding our sphere of moral concern rather than diminishing our understanding of our own value or being. I would certainly agree that if biocentrism entailed the denial of our own unique moral capacities and responsibilities, then it would be a faulty view. But it isn’t clear to me that it does.

To begin to see why, let me note that I assume that to say a being has inherent value is to say that its value is a function of its being; that is, it is owing to what that creature is and that it is. Such a claim denies that the value of a being is bestowed upon it by some other creature. There is no real tension between the biocentrist affirmation of the inherent value of all living beings and the recognition of our uniquely human moral capacities and responsibilities, for inherent value is superadded, so to speak, to whatever a being is. Within a Christian framework, this superaddition is a function of the fact that all beings, in virtue of being what they are, participate in a creation that is a communion, which has as its head, Christ. And for those of us who possesses moral capacities and responsibilities, those capacities and responsibilities are aspects of our being, which determine how we participate in this vast, universal communion. But the present point is that other beings very different from us also possesses inherent value, though owing to appropriately different bases. I interpret biocentrism as the view that a particular human being is valuable qua particular human being, a pelican is valuable qua pelican, a bee or bee colony qua bee or bee colony, and so forth. (Could it be that only certain animals are valuable qua individuals, while others are valuable qua the collectives of which they are a part? That is a provocative question worth further exploration.)

We might wonder, what is the practical consequence of claiming that all things are inherently valuable? Does it entail or require that no creature can be used by another? That seems like an absurd and life-denying conclusion. Perhaps something like that intuition drives Francis’s rejection of biocentricism. If that were the case, this would constitute only a rejection of biocentricism in a nominal sense. I say this because it seems to me that biocentrism requires an adjustment first and foremost to our ontological assumptions, with adjustments to practical reasoning following in a secondary sense. While it surely follows that we cannot use other beings in all the ways we are accustomed to, it seems perfectly in keeping with an acknowledgement of other beings’ inherent value that we, like them, must use some of them as food, and that our interests will come into conflict with theirs.

The sort of ontological adjustment that biocentrism requires is a recognition and appreciation of the ways in which the beings of the world dwell in communion with one another, as well as a recognition of the inescapable limits imposed upon our understanding of creation; although we can recognize that we live in communion, as creatures within it we cannot impose detailed, totalizing narratives upon it. Like everything else, we can only attend to the “local.” In other words, we can recognize and acknowledge that we uniquely dwell alongside other beings who themselves uniquely dwell within a beautifully diverse creation, even if we cannot fully understand or comprehend the whole in its totality.

…all of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect. Here I would reiterate that “God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement.” (Sec. 89, quoting his own Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.)

Levi Bryant (2014) offers an analogous, albeit a secular, account of this reorientation. He argues that human subjects are themselves objects, ontologically on par with all other things. Far from leading us to abandon ourselves within the “democracy of objects,” this serves to refocus our attention on our unique mode of dwelling and reawaken us to the reality of which we are a part in such a way that we recognize that this “world” evades our attempts to impose upon it a totalizing unity. We may speculate about being, but we are not outside, we do not stand over and above the “world,” such that we can ever legitimately say that we now understand “it” and can, therefore, rightly assume the position of masters over it.

And yet, this “it” that we recognize is beyond our comprehension is nevertheless our home (our “common home,” to use Francis’s phrase). How can we at once reaffirm our place within the world or creation while simultaneously heeding the lesson that we cannot legitimately impose a totalizing narrative upon it?

In her book, Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene, Joanna Zylinska writes,

“The world” does not really name any kind of objective external reality. Rather […] this term should be understood as first and foremost referring to a temporary mental organization, undertaken by a spatially embedded and embodied human, of the various processes of which she is part. (p. 77)

I think this is largely correct. The critical intellectual move is to attend to the embodiedness of our thought, recognizing that we each find ourselves in a locality while also recognizing that other beings dwell within various other localities and that these localities are interconnected in ways that will always surprise us and disrupt our conceptions of the whole. This allows us to suspend our desire to dominate and understand the whole without leading us to reject its reality.

Of course, I suppose this is a sort of totalizing narrative of its own, but it leads us into a reflexive aporia which is totally unlike the false confidence encouraged by the technocratic ideology.

Works Cited

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

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

Zylinska, Joanna (2014). Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene. Open Humanities Press.

Panel Discussion Contributions

On Thursday, September 10, I participated in a panel discussion at Loras College, which had the aim of introducing students to Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’. I was asked to briefly summarize my interpretation of the encyclical and indicate what I took to be the most important take-away points. I’m pasting below my prepared remarks.

Francis’s first task in the encyclical is, in his words, to make us “painfully aware” of what is happening to our world and how the ecological crisis threatens the integrity of the earth’s natural systems and our brothers and sisters (sec. 19).

However, Francis doesn’t simply reiterate the consensus view of the scientific community that anthropogenic climate change is threatening ecological equilibrium. As I interpret it, his project has at least these three basic elements, though they are not presented in this order: First, he provides a diagnosis of the underlying disease (“dis-ease”) which has given rise to our environmental crisis (see Chapter 3). Second, he shows how the Christian faith requires that we rehabilitate our relationship with the earth and he argues that it demands that we respond to the ecological crisis in a particular sort of way (see Chapter 2). Finally, he seeks to engender a form of dialogue which is aimed at curing the underlying dis-ease that is wreaking havoc on our common home (see sec. 121, 143, 146, and Chapter 5).

I’d like to briefly unpack each of these three points, beginning with his diagnosis of the underlying disease. First let me state what he doesn’t say. Some commentators have interpreted Francis as arguing that the root of the ecological crisis is a failure to believe in God. This isn’t quite right, since many of the people who have contributed to the present ecological crisis have been and are believers of one variety or another. Francis does claim that Christians and others have not adequately appreciated the gospel of creation as it is presented in the Bible (Chapter 2), but our rupture with the earth and our fellow creatures, like our rupture with God, is a condition in which believers and non-believers are implicated.

Indeed, if we had to isolate in a more precise manner one overarching and important cause of the ecological crisis, it would be one that clearly influences believers and non-believers alike: and this is what Francis labels the “technocratic paradigm.” The technocratic paradigm is the worldview or ideology which sustains and perpetuates a socio-economic system that encourages blind and directionless economic growth at the expense of the environment and both human and non-human populations. This system requires and encourages a constant acceleration and intensification of the extraction of natural resources, the production and consumption of goods, and the disposal of waste (see sec. 18). The problem is that neither we, as individuals, nor our social structures, nor the earth’s natural systems are well-equipped to handle this constant acceleration (sec. 18). In short, our existing practices are neither socially, economically, nor environmentally sustainable: they cannot be sustained over the long term without causing significant and perhaps irreparable harm.

Moreover, the technocratic paradigm encourages us to buy into and live our lives in service to technology and capital (sec. 109). Francis argues that these impersonal and inhuman creations of ours have become our masters (sec. 107), whereas we ought to be masters over them, employing them in the service of the common good. He very clearly states that technology and capital have an internal logic of their own (sec. 108), and, when left unchecked, they impose their own ends on our political, economic, and social activities.

Unfortunately, we have internalized this technocratic paradigm (it has become our worldview) and it colors our values, desires, fears, anxieties, how we conceive of things, and–I would argue—our spiritual lives (sec. 110; cf. sec. 111).

In opposition to the reigning order, Francis suggests that political and economic structures have to be repositioned to facilitate the good work of civil society, by which he means the various social groups and collectives that are organized in pursuit of the common good (see sec. 38 and 166). He suggests that neither the state nor free markets, by themselves, can be trusted to offer us deliverance from the ecological crisis (sec. 109).

It is with these sobering thoughts in mind that he appeals for us to start a dialogue about how to shape our future (Chapter 5). This is meant to be a multifaceted exchange between not only scientists and religious leaders, but all people of good will. As he notes, many of the efforts to establish concrete solutions to the problems we face have been suffered, on the one hand because there are powerful people with political and economic interests in maintaining the status quo (see sec. 52, 54, 56, and 107), and on the other hand because there is a worrisome lack of interest on the part of ordinary people (sec. 14).

Now, in light of all this, there are three tightly connected take-away points, or really, calls to action, that I would identify as being uniquely important for this audience (students and faculty here at Loras). They are as follows:

(1) The first is destructive: We need to engage in an intense, interdisciplinary, inter-religious critical examination and deconstruction of the reigning technocratic paradigm.

(2) The second is about recognizing and seeing things differently: We need to awaken our understanding of our co-creatureliness. I believe this requires learning to think in terms of systems and networks. We need to not only recognize that all things (including ourselves) are enmeshed in the vast communion of being, but we need to see how this interconnectedness bears on all of our significant relationships and complicates our ethical decision making. (See sec. 139.)

(3) The third is constructive: We need to imagine alternatives to the technocratic paradigm and develop new and different ways of engaging in economic production, using the earth’s resources, and disposing of or reusing waste. These new practices must be oriented toward greater asceticism, justice, and authentic sustainability.

Of course, all of this will be both intellectually and existentially challenging. Most of you probably came to college with the intention of receiving training that would make you well-suited to take up a post in our technocracy in one way or another. And we faculty take this to be part of our job. We want you to be successful, responsible contributors to society. But together we need to think carefully about what this means. Are we sending you forth in service of the status quo, or will you be conscientious, engaged citizens who can face the worrisome realities with which we are confronted while challenging and seeking to create alternatives to the technocratic paradigm?

Work Cited

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

Francis and Bryant on Anthropocentrism

In the Introduction to The Democracy of Objects, Levi Bryant calls for a decentering of the human in our ontological thought. He suggests that the reigning ontological anthropocentrism, which is premised on a strict distinction between the subject on the one hand, which is the source of meaning and signification, and the object on the other, which waits upon meaning to be conferred to it, is both philosophically indefensible and practically disastrous.

In Laudato Si’ (esp. sec 115ff.), Pope Francis shares this unfavorable view of anthropocentrism, and he even explicitly rejects the subject-object dichotomy as part and parcel of the technocratic paradigm. However, whereas Bryant has been accused of neglecting the human (a charge that doesn’t hold up, in my opinion, and one which he has rightly rejected), Francis seeks to reinvigorate an appreciation for human dignity.

We can look to Francis for insights about how best to characterize the move that Bryant has referred to as the decentering of the human. While Bryant’s language is not, in the final analysis wrong, it can lead one astray insofar as it seems to suggest an anti-humanist perspective. Francis suggests an alternative way of framing the move: namely, as an expansion of our sphere of concern and awareness. Worded this way, we are encouraged to consider where such an expansion starts from, for an expansion needs a center. This is not to undermine Bryant’s overarching concern: ontologically speaking we do need to decenter the subject: the reigning anthropocentrism is untenable and philosophically suspect. But Francis, unlike Bryant, strikes the right chord, a metaphor I use quite deliberately, for it is a dyad of sorts, composed of two distinct “notes.” The first is an ontological note which calls us to reject the subject-object dichotomy and ontological anthropocentrism. The second is an ethical one which calls us to affirm the ethical dignity of all people and recognize their creatureliness. The source of harmony which unites these two notes, which allows us to strike them at once without creating a jarring tension, is the affirmation that, as creatures, we are enmeshed in the vast networks and systems that constitute creation.

Works Cited

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

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

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.