Creation Waits

Coakley’s Gifford Lectures

“Sacrifice Regained: Evolution, Cooperation and God,” by Sarah Coakley


What grounds our duties to our fellow human beings?

I am currently teaching a course that is, on the face of it, about zombie films, but which is really about the philosophy of personal identity, gender theory, and social-political philosophy. We recently discussed the “persistence question” concerning personal identity, which is basically the question, “What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a person at one time to be identical to a person at a different time?” Partly as a consequence of thinking about the various accounts that have been developed, I hit on an idea, which I want to try to briefly articulate.

The basic idea is this: individual human beings are clearly not always persons: they begin life as non-persons and some of them die before becoming persons; moreover, some of those who become persons then go on to once again become non-persons. Conservative who like to say that science has proven that a unique person comes into being at the moment of conception are partially right but importantly wrong. What does, presumably, come into being at the moment of conception is a new member of our species, which may undergo various processes of growth, development and ultimately decay, ending in death (the disintegration of that being). But it is wrong to say that a new person comes into being at that moment. “Person” is a success term that can be legitimately used to describe some of the beings that come into being at the moment of conception, once they have certain cognitive and volitional capacities. But some of them will not achieve personhood, and some that do will then become non-persons even prior to their death. In other words, we are not essentially persons; we are essentially independent beings that can be made better or worse off, but not persons.

Now, let’s suppose that this is correct. Let’s also take it for granted that human persons (that is, human beings that are persons) have moral obligations with respect to the beings that come into existence at the moment of conception. Assuming all of this, we would have to deny that our obligations to those beings stem from their being persons. They might stem from those creatures being “potential persons,” but I am skeptical of this claim, mostly because a merely potential person is, in fact and by definition, a non-person, but also because I think that this term is applied on the basis of an epistemological and not a metaphysical insight. It seems to me that a being is called a potential person not principally in virtue of some metaphysical facts about them but because we are in a limited epistemic state: we have reasons to believe they may become persons. Ultimately, these judgments may be mistaken; some such creatures simply cannot become persons, owing to biological or chemical factors of which we are unaware. I prefer to say that we have moral obligations concerning them regardless of whether they ever become persons.

The question becomes, “How can we account for these moral obligations?” I’m still sketchy on the details, but I’m kicking around the idea that we can appeal to biocentrism. As I conceive of it and use the term, biocentrism is the view that all living beings have inherent value. 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 particular creature is, that it is, and that it can be made better or worse off. As such, biocentrism rejects that living beings have only instrumental value, and the recognition of a being’s inherent value gives rise to prima facie duties of beneficence and non-maleficence. (I don’t think it gives rise to a duty sans phrase, or an “all-things-considered” duty.)

I believe that human beings at various stages of development and decay (including fetuses and other human beings that lack the cognitive and volitional capacities required for personhood) are properly the subject of our moral concern. But this is a function of their inherent value, as beings which can be made better or worse off as the things they are, not owing to allegedly being proto-persons or deficient persons. To truly respect life would be to respect and care for beings even when they do not and cannot achieve personhood.

If I’m on the right track, I think I could make the case that widely held Christian ethical beliefs actually require that we be biocentrists in the sense that I have defined the view. That is, if we want to maintain our conclusions about the respect of life, we ought to recognize that they stem from moral duties that themselves attach to creatures simply in virtue of being. The other, more common option, which turns on the act/potency distinction strikes me as metaphysically suspect.

“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.

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.