Creation Waits

Speculative Realism, Existential Theology, and Apocalyptic Pedagogy

Category: Uncategorized

Perichoretic Oikeiosis

What Augustine says concerning God—namely, that “the Father is not God without the Son, nor the Son God without the Father” (On the Trinity, Book VI, Ch. 2)—can be said about two aspects (for lack of a better term) of all real beings: that is, the virtual and the manifest. These ontological terms, like the theological terms ‘Father’ and ‘Son’, are relational terms. The virtual qua virtual can be understood only in relation to the manifest, for to speak of the virtual is to speak of that which has the power to give rise to a manifestation. And the manifest is that which processes from the virtual. Putting a spin on Maximus the Confessor (see Ambiguum 26 in Edward Jeanneau, ed., Amnigua ad Iohannem, 153), we can say: the name ‘virtual’ is neither a name of essence nor a name of energy. It is a name of one of the constitutive relationships in the perichoretic unity that is a real being; ‘manifest’ names the other.

To speak of the substance of a being is to speak about the virtual. This accounts for the identity of substance, notwithstanding the plurality of manifestations and diverse relationships into which a being can enter. As Levi Bryant has argued, we cannot speak of “the manifestation” of a thing in an absolute and unqualified sense; rather, all manifestations are local manifestations (The Democracy of Objects, 2011, p. 69). Hence, the manifest, which is often taken as the most real, is ontologically dependent on the virtual. For this reason, substance is ontologically prior to the manifest. However, for real material beings, there is an interplay, a perichoresis, between the virtual and the manifest, and it cannot be any other way. ‘Perichoresis’ denotes the process through which a being that is, in one sense, withdrawn from and other-than any of its actualizations or local manifestations nevertheless “others” itself through relation, thereby becoming manifest.

But this interplay can proceed in various ways. When the interplay preserves the virtual and the manifest as a perichoretic unity—when the dance, so to speak, continues to play itself out in a mutually affirming manner—the being achieves a kind of oikeiosis, an “at-homeness”, or form of dwelling, that is normative. How else, indeed, could we meaningfully frame a normative judgment concerning a thing, except by reference to what allegedly constitutes a productive and preserving interplay between the virtual and the manifest of a being?

This is not to be understood as permitting the application of normative judgments to all things. We must recognize that for some beings there is no possibility that the interplay between the virtual and the manifest can be raised as a matter of concern, or as a legitimate question. For beings such as us, however, it is a question; the form of interplay between what is virtual and what is manifest is always open to question.

The use of the word ‘aspect’ in the first paragraph, above, isn’t quite right, as I’ve indicated in an earlier post. The problems associated with this term lead me to want to appropriate and employ another concept from Trinitarian theology—viz., the concept of person, as it is used with regard to the Father and the Son. Of course, ‘person’ is a term of art in theology (and hence, an equivocal term from a broader perspective), which is widely misunderstood outside of  theological contexts. Using it here would only cause confusion. (Though perhaps a more detailed explication of the perichoretic ontology that I have in mind could serve as a useful occasion to rehabilitate the theological term in philosophical circles.) I’ve kicked around various possible alternatives (including ‘differentiator’), but I keep returning to a fundamental question: is it even appropriate to use a universal term to cover both the virtual and manifest? I recognize that ‘aspect’ has the wrong connotation, and every other possibility that I consider seems similarly inadequate. Perhaps, when dealing with speculative matters of fundamental ontology, this is par for the course.

I suggest above that a being can fail to achieve oikeiosis, which is in keeping with the original Stoic use of the term that inspired me to appropriate it. I’ll need to consider carefully whether this is coherent. Certainly, I want to maintain that all things dwell; to the extent that they are, they dwell in some way. If oikeiosis is a form of dwelling, all of this is coherent, but it is incoherent if ‘oikeiosis’ is simply a nominalized form of ‘dwell’.

Perichoresis as a Useful Concept for OOO

In Christian Trinitarian theology, the term perichoresis is used to denote the relationships between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit while avoiding the traditional heresies of modalism (viz., that these are three modes or aspects of the Godhead) and tritheism (viz., that each are distinct gods). The doctrine of perichoresis avoids these heresies by affirming the “mutual indwelling” of the three persons (An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church).

In his examination of the concept, Oliver D. Crisp argues that perichoresis should be understood as follows:

The persons of the Trinity share all their properties in a common divine essence apart from those properties that serve to individuate one of the persons of the Trinity, or express a relation between only two persons of the Trinity. (“Problems with Perichoresis,” Tyndale Bulletin 56.1, 2005, p. 139.)

I am entertaining the idea that the concept of perichoresis could be usefully appropriated to address the actuality of beings (objects) in general. Let me briefly explain.

Within Levi Bryant’s version of object-oriented ontology, objects are described as “split” between their local manifestations and their virtual proper being. (Here “virtual” is directly derived from the Latin virtus, with its connotations of potency and power.) This allows us to distinguish between those powers which are properly constitutive of an object—i.e., the capacities it has owing to its constitution—and the products of those capacities or powers, which are always manifested locally, in some specific way, as a result of being in relation with other things. The constitutive powers of a being are the “operations” which that being is capable of performing, even if it fails 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 it relate and tend to interact, giving rise to an irreducible existent. For example, the virtual proper being of a specific 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 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 is the precondition for understanding the virtues proper to its being, for it is owing to its internal structure that a being has the capacities that it has. In exercising some, but not others, of the powers of which it is capable, an existent object manifests itself in various specific ways. (Levi Bryant, Onto-Cartography, pp. 40–41 and 75.)

As I understand it, the actuality of an object is a function of the dynamic mediation between these two distinct ontological dimensions (for lack of a better term; see below): (1) internal material structure and (2) external relations. Put slightly differently, an understanding of the actuality of a particular being needs to encompass both its virtual proper being and its various local manifestations. Here, we want to avoid two analogies from theology; viz., modalism and dualism. We should neither claim that the virtual proper being or various local manifestations are mere modes of a being, nor that a being is a composite of two types of beings (the virtual and the manifest).

What I am considering is that the relation between the virtual and the manifest is something like a perichoresis, since this suggests dynamic circulation (perí) and going forth (khōréō). It is, I suppose, the connoted dynamism which I find most attractive about this term. I’ve heard it said that “perichoresis” could be understood as a Greek term for “dance.” I like that: the actuality of a being is the dance or interplay between the virtual and the manifest. Both the virtual and the manifest are real, yet neither alone accounts for the actuality of an object.Only in the dance do we locate the actuality of an object.

As in theology, this term may be useful as a means of avoiding certain locutions which would otherwise be inconsistent with the ontology in which we are working. If we’re being consistent, it seems to me that we don’t want to say that the virtual and the manifest are two parts, aspects, or even dimensions of an object. “Dimension” is arguably the least inconsistent turn of phrase, but even that borrowed term fails to connote the dynamism that the ontology demands.

Furthermore, the term allows us to think of the layers of perichoretic relations that exist between things. I’ve been focusing on the relation between the virtual and manifest of a single object, but we must remember that, according to this version of OOO, all objects are assemblages of objects. Hence, objects, which are themselves constituted perichoretically, enter into perichoretic relation with other objects.

This point reminds me of a passage from John Caputo’s The Weakness of God, in which he states (as an interpretation of a point from Peter Damain’s theology), “a body is less an extended mass ruled by laws of gravity and displacement than a field of happenings in which one event can overtake another” (The Weakness of God, p. 204).

On “Nature” and “Society”

​In his encyclical Laudato Si’ Francis proposes an “integral ecology,” which conceives of our relationships to God, nature, and each other as equally fundamental, thereby affirming that the human and the natural are inescapably integrated. 

I suspect that this approach is too intimately wedded to our existing, technocratically inflected ways of speaking and thinking. In particular, I worry that it makes use of a faulty society-nature dichotomy, since it seems to assume that society and nature are two different things.

If, indeed, Francis’s integral ecology is premised on such a supposition, the objects that it integrates are chimeras. Outside of our imagination, there is no thing that is “Nature” or is “Society.” There are, I grant, non-artificial beings (i.e., beings not produced by human artifice), and there are societies and individuals, but there is not some monolithic thing outside of our minds that is Nature or is Society. If by “integral ecology,” we mean an ecological framework in which Nature and Society are to be integrated, we are operating at the level of fantasy. 

I propose that we treat “Nature” and “Society” in a way that is analogous to how Bruno Latour treats the term “Science.” He argues, persuasively, that there is no such thing as Science. When we use that term as if it denotes an entity, we speak sloppily. There are, to be sure, scientists, scientific hypotheses, scientific theories, scientific practices, and so forth. But there is no such thing as Science. In like manner, there are societies, social practices, etc., and there are humans and non-humans (just as there are squirrels and non-squirrels), but we speak sloppily when we speak of Society and Nature as denoting two distinct, massively large entities in relation.

Particular—nay, singular—beings or objects are the things that are integrated, that are in relation with each other, even as they remain withdrawn from those relations. And various objects can be (are!) parts of other objects. But the objects of the world do not give rise to or constitute two massive objects—Nature and Society—that may be (or may fail to be) integrated.

Weak v. Strong Power

I recently attended the College Theology Society Annual Convention, which was held at Rockhurst University. The theme was Liturgy + Power, and the topic of weak power was raised in a number of sessions, as well as Susan Ross’s plenary address. Ever since beginning John Caputo’s The Weakness of God, I’ve been thinking about the distinction between weak and strong power, so the conference was very illuminating.

At the request of a friend, I put together the following reflections concerning the difference.

I think of weak power as the sort of power manifested when one makes a gratuitous gift or sacrifice of one’s self, thereby investing responsibility in and demonstrating trust in the other in a surprising and powerful way. It is essentially self-giving and sacrificial, and I think it is most authentically manifest when one has no hope that some strong force will intercede to rectify the situation. For example, imagine a horrific situation in which a gunman is threatening the lives of others and where they have no hope of overpowering him. If the victims would offer themselves up to the shooter (e.g., present themselves en masse to be shot), that would be an example of weak power. It might not be efficacious weak power—the shooter might not experience the affective response we desire—but it has the potential to be efficacious in a qualitatively different way (a weak way) than an aggressive response.

One of the problematic risks associated with believing that God is a strong force rather than a weak force—i.e., believing God is the omnipotent deity that doles out justice or avenges injustice through a show of overwhelming aggressive force—is that it undermines the ability of believers to manifest authentic weak power. If they believe that God will avenge injustice through a show of awesome aggressive force, their seemingly meek displays of power become forms of vicarious strong power.

One of the reasons I believe that God’s power is weak power is that I believe weak power is the only form of power that has (as a virtue proper to its very nature) the potential to authentically raise awareness of sin and lead to the way of being that we associate with redemption and salvation. Aggressive or strong power brings about submission; it over-powers, but it does not essentially challenge the underlying sinfulness that precipitates an act of aggression and domination. (I should note that I am aware that strong power can, as a matter of fact, precipitate genuine awareness of sin, redemption, and salvation—as when one, after being beaten into submission, hears and receives the good news—but it’s not a virtue proper to strong power per se to do so.)

Weak power has the potential to tap into what I believe is an innate ability on our part to recognize agapic self-gift as the presence of God. Strong power has no such essential ability to do so; if and when it does precipitate a proper love of others, it is always accidental.

The danger of preaching weak power, as Susan Ross alluded to in her address, is that such preaching can further forms of domination. For example, it would be inappropriate, to say the least, to wax poetic about weak power in the face of police brutality—even though it has a legitimate place in such discussions. As she also noted, part of the way to respond to this problem is to recognize and insist that weak power is not a substitute for the reform of institutions. The creation of just laws and the proper administration of those laws are also important. (For what it’s worth, I grant that aggression or the threat of aggression does have the virtue of bringing about obedience to law. That’s a function of the fact that obedience to law is a matter of action, or bodily comportment, not immediately spiritual rectitude.)

Forthcoming publication

I just received word that an essay I composed about the nature of facts and opinions, as well as the erroneous way in which they are commonly thought to stand in a dichotomous relationship, will be published in the August/September issue of Philosophy Now, an international bimonthly magazine. Look for it on newsstands and in bookstores in the coming months.

Is “To Dwell” a Success Term?

Last month, a colleague and I delivered back-to-back papers at our institution’s annual symposium. He happened to address Heidegger’s use of the term “to dwell,” and I happened to address Levi Bryant’s use of the same term. It became apparent that whereas I (following Bryant) conceive of dwelling as a term that describes the way in which all beings exist, my colleague (following Heidegger) interprets it as a success term: to dwell is to achieve a particular way of being.

The discussion highlighted the extent to which I need to further familiarize myself with Heidegger, but it will be awhile before I have the opportunity to do so. In the meantime, I’ve been reflecting on the tension between our perspectives.

The obvious benefit of interpreting dwelling as a success term is that it straightforwardly serves as a kind of moral telos—that is, something to aim at. But I wonder whether my interpretation of it as ontologically descriptive, rather than prescriptive, can also be put to moral use?

It happens that I recently finished teaching a course pertaining to ancient Stoicism, and as I’ve puzzled over this question, I hit on an analogy from the Stoics. They held that all things have a logos, which accounts for each thing being what it is. Human beings, for example, are matter with a human logos and an oak tree is matter with an oak logos. But all things also are part of greater wholes, which themselves have logoi of their own, which impinge on the being of the things that constitute the whole. The universe, the “one that contains the many,” is itself structured according to the supreme Logos, which Seneca refers to as “Creative Reason” (Letter 65) and the existence of various particular things unfolds in accordance with this Logos. The relevant point is that this doesn’t prevent the Stoics from having a robust ethic: although we never really fail to live in accordance with the Logos (Creative Reason), we can do so more or less consciously and in ways that contribute or fail to contribute to the achievement of oikeiosis—a sense of “being at home” with other beings, and especially other human beings.

Perhaps what I’ve been struggling with is the distinction between conceiving of dwelling as the inescapable “always already” aspect of our being, on the one hand, and the conception of it as something analogous to oikeiosis, on the other hand. Perhaps an object-oriented ontology could benefit from rehabilitating this Stoic notion.