Pantheism and The Anthropocene Era

Carol Wayne White

[dropcapI[/dropcap] recall reading Mark C. Taylor’s Erring/A Theology as a graduate student who had become existentially frustrated and intellectually bored with the tradition of theological discourse that Mary Jane Rubenstein targets in Pantheologies: Gods, Worlds, Monsters. I was quite taken with Taylor’s creative dismantling of the Western onto-theological edifice, and excited about the radical implications of his erring task. However, Taylor never seriously attended to the full materialist implications of his a/theology, as was often the case for many early theorists of theological deconstruction.

The ethical resonance and historicist implications that Taylor and other religious postmodernists elided was evident in the proliferation of liberation theologies (e.g., African American, Asian, feminist, Latinx, gay and lesbian [or what would later become queer theologies]) that also emerged around the same time. Sadly, however, many of these theologies advanced ethical and political critiques grounded in anthropomorphic theistic renderings, replete with concomitant anthropocentric cosmologies. Years later, as a religious naturalist, I remain suspicious of the influential Western metaphysical tradition, not at all persuaded that its variant conceptual frameworks can be resuscitated as a rich source for thinking ethically and materially, or for conceptualizing and responding to the complexity of life in the Anthropocene era.

Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Pantheologies: Gods, Worlds, Monsters. New York: Columbia University Press. 320 pp. $35.00

These sensibilities helped shape my deep appreciation for Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s Pantheologies, which I experience as a subversively delightful text.

I also imagine this sense of joy will be the case for many readers who are committed to addressing the social-ecological-ethical implications of our various discourses, and who are desirous of honoring the complexity of materiality in as expansive a sense as possible. With its focus on the liberating potential of pantheism, Rubenstein’s study widens the conceptual spaces opened by such iconic critical theorists as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Gayatri C. Spivak. In Pantheologies, Rubenstein’s deconstructive tracings disrupt unifying efforts aimed at suppressing the heterogenous, disorderly aspects and pluralities of meaning and perspectives endemic to material existence. Subjugated knowledges also come to light as Rubenstein skillfully exposes the production of Western onto-theological discourses, disclosing their modes of appropriation, exclusion, and domination. I also discern the inchoate rumblings associated with Spivak’s discourse of the “subaltern,” which attends to the theoretical complexities involved in naming sovereignty; this category makes us aware of how we assess sovereignty’s intimate connections to the control and exploitation of colonized subjectivities, as well as discern the effects of power relations on the forms of representations that purport to address colonialization.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Rubenstein’s Pantheologies for me, however, is her articulation of a “pantheological possibility.” This is her aspiration of presenting a transformed notion of pantheism, or a theory of divine immanence and multiplicity, that helps to dismantle the carefully erected structures of Western metaphysics. In imagining this possibility, Rubenstein places religious discourse at the center of contemporary debates and conversations where such categories as materiality, difference, and multiplicity are contested or affirmed in various ways (and on many levels) as fundamental, inextricable aspects of reality. (Here I am thinking of the social, ecological,  and ethical stakes involved in addressing such crises as climate change, rampant anti-immigration, border controlling tactics, and the rise of death in trans people of color, among others.) In Rubenstein’s appeal to this pantheological possibility, however, I also sense something even more radical.

I think Rubenstein’s pantheistic possibility reveals the futility (and violence) of theological totalizing efforts upon the messy, entangled, manyness that constitutes our lived experiences. Accordingly, I then wonder about the usefulness of the “divine” nomenclature in her pantheological possibility. Can its usage also escape the charges of operating as a formulaic, one-size-fits-all structural principle, as it does in the traditional theological discourse she wants to dismantle?  Before addressing these questions, I first touch on some aspects of Rubenstein’s impressive retrieval work that converges with ideas I advance as a religious naturalist. I then return to the question of the pantheological possibility, asking about the usefulness and pragmatic value of the divinity designation or theos language when considering an ethics of materiality.

As  an ingenious, impressive tour de force of intellectual history, Pantheologies addresses Rubenstein’s curiosity about the perennial disgust with pantheism and why it continues to be so repugnant. Rubenstein’s inquisitiveness piqued my own curiosity about the lack of serious attention afforded pantheism as a positive religious category. I also realized that I had never reflected much on pantheism myself, or how it had been received within intellectual history.

I thus championed her witty and erudite mapping of the “panic” over pantheism, which amounts to identifying a trajectory of theo-philosophic thinking that has been obsessed “with a fear of crossed boundaries, queer mixtures, and miscellaneous miscegenations.” As Rubenstein observes, pantheism’s complicated hybridity of divinity, femininity, darkness, materiality, animality, and sex is horrific to many because it “threatens the Western symbolic not just with a (m)other-womb, but with a wider and more complex range of queer monstrosities: with parts combined that ought to be kept separate and boundaries crossed that ought to be maintained.” The panic over pantheism that Rubenstein features can also be viewed as a fear of (and control over) our polyamorous desires — our capacity to love, value, and enact justice across differences and within an expansive continuum of relationality.

This diagnostic dimension of Rubenstein’s study is laudable and invaluable in and of itself. Her assessment of the anthropocentricism implicit in problematic theological cosmologies converges with religious naturalism’s confrontation of a colonizing legacy that depends on the dominant cultural fantasy of human exceptionalism, which anchors humans on one side of the Great Divide, away from all other species. This premise assumes that the human alone is not a spatial and temporal web of interspecies dependencies. Rubenstein’s study encourages us to join with Donna Haraway in appreciating humans’ intricate entanglement with other material processes. Moreover, Rubenstein’s work sheds further light on the wide-ranging social, political, and ecological consequences of Western theologies’ preference for symbolizing divinity and the sacred as unitary, sovereign, supernatural, and metaphysically rather than as diffused, vulnerable, natal, and immanent. (This particular problem accentuates why such contemporary movements as Black Lives Matter have been adamantly atheistic and pro-queer in orientation.) While considering a pantheistic possibility, or a theory of divine immanence and multiplicity, Rubenstein’s work confronts these failed projects of exceptionalism with the utmost rigor and brilliance scholars have come to expect of her work.

Following a piecemeal approach in the pursuit of a transformed pantheism that seeks to dismantles “the light privilege, misogyny, anthropocentricism, and indeed Western-ness of the energetically guarded ‘Western tradition,’” Rubenstein finds intimations of this transformed beast in a wide range of discourses.  This astute move underscores her commitment to pluralistic perspectives in constructing and justifying truth claims today. Rubenstein also examines some of the nuanced and thorny conceptual problems endemic to older pantheistic articulations or desires. For example, in assessing particular pantheistic formulations of the “nature” of nature (e.g., insights offered by Spinoza, Bruno, and William James, etc.), she discerns a repeated pattern: each figure provides glimpses of the pantheological possibility, only to close it out of some fear or another.  Yet important insights do emerge. James’ analysis aids Rubenstein when pluralizing and assessing the meanings of “monistic” references in earlier pantheisms in order to apply an ontological immanentism to her description of reality as the “vast, material multiplicity of ‘all things’.” Rubenstein also commends Spinoza and Bruno for their distinctive theological vocabularies that  conceive the materiality of all things as “relationally” constituted by an “infinite chain of components, interactions, and causes.” She goes as far as she can with each of their theoretical frameworks, carefully clarifying that the pantheistic possibility opening is foreclosed by each in light of their “commitments to the ultimacy of oneness-however-manifold- and to the universe as the necessary unfolding of some inner design.”

In keeping with her interdisciplinary aims, Rubenstein also appeals to Tim Ingold’s examination of the “new animism,” which posits animistic ontologies as plausible alternatives to the strictly Western ordering of things. Accordingly, for Ingold, animacy is best understood as “the dynamic, transformative potential of the entire field of relations within which beings of all kinds continually and reciprocally bring one another into existence.” These hybrid philosophies, Rubenstein contends, with some caution, help facilitate the collapse of an ardent Western metaphysics with their propensity to locate creativity wholly within the material world. In this section of Pantheologies, Rubenstein features some of the more interesting challenges that pantheistic imagery presents to the static, substance ontology of Western metaphysics. Elaborating on Ingold’s observation that the animic ontology entails processes of self-generation, she asserts: “Rather than unfolding what is already there, the ‘domain of entanglement’ in which we live, move, and have our being produces new and unanticipated movements – movements that reconfigure the field of growth and becoming itself.” Finally, Rubenstein also finds creative insights within such marginalized perspectives as the “Gaia hypothesis” when presenting the pantheistic possibility. As she writes: “And now as then, these ungodly and pseudoscientific philosophies continue to generate the pantheological possibility that what we call ‘God’ is nothing other than the material multiplicities of the sympoetic world itself.” It is this admission that leads me to my major question: Does Rubenstein’s pantheological possibility portend the end of  “theological” constructive aims?

As a religious naturalist, I wholeheartedly embrace Rubenstein’s thoroughgoing materialism.  It is both refreshing and exciting to see a religious study so devoted to honoring the material “all” in all of its expanded messy, entangled, relational, perspectival respects. As her section on Einstein and Bohr suggests, the natural sciences also provide important insights into the wondrous claim that the “all” is irreducibly perspectival. Moreover, I like the entangled messiness of the theoretical perspectives that lies at the heart of  Rubenstein’s appeal to an eclectic mixture of epistemic claims. Rubenstein seems to be suggesting that various frameworks are not making an identical argument, but rather that parallel processes of thinking about the truthfulness of a claim are operative in fields as distinct as religion, the new materialism, post-Newtonian physics, and specific animistic ontologies not included in Western theologies. All confirm, with different grammars, points of emphases, and epistemic commitments, what Rubenstein associates with the pantheological possibility: not only is the old ontic ordering that was paradigmatically set into place by Aristotelian science and philosophy unconvincing, it cannot hold any longer. With Rubenstein and a host of others, I gladly welcome its collapse.

Yet throughout my reading of her theoretically capacious text, I kept asking various questions of Rubenstein: Why appeal to divinity at all? Does this particular conceptual retrieval really help us in the Anthropocene era?  Why not allow the small, messy, entangled states of indeterminant things remain so without unifying (or structuring?) them with the language of divinity? Rubenstein anticipates some of my questions at particular points in her study when, for example, she asks: “If the vibrantly material, complexly emergent, indeterminate, and intra-constituted multiverse can be affirmed pantheologically as the creative source and end of all things, then why not just call this source and end “world(s)”? What difference does it make to call such worldings divine? As Rubenstein acknowledges, “Admittedly, it may make no difference at all.” Later, toward the end of her study, she also asserts: “Again, though, we might ask whether worlds and their immanent cosmogonists need to be encoded as divine in order to inspire such recognition, respect, and re-worldings. And clearly, the answer is clearly no. . .” In both cases, I agreed with Rubenstein’s assessment that the category of the divine or the theological nomenclature of theos was superfluous. I also assumed, noting the subtle shift in emphasis (from maybe to clearly no!), the matter to be resolved.

To my surprise, however, Rubenstein pivots towards several possible responses.

One is the value of aesthetic-affective language of awe, wonder, and amazement.  (It goes without saying that these are persistent religious categories associated with the lived experiences of people around the globe.) Another possible response is directed at addressing the ethical issues surrounding the religious category of the problem of evil.  But, is it really important anymore to evoke theos, or the category of divinity, to address issues of atheism and relativism, or, in response to Grace Jantzen’s concerns, to try and respond to concrete historical conditions of violent power?  It is precisely at this point that I remain puzzled, curious about Rubenstein’s continued interest in forging a pantheological framing when there are other plausible conceptual systems from which to draw insights. For example, Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet,  Donald Crosby’s The Thou of Nature, and Michael Hogue’s American Transcendence are recent works also attending to the same issues of materiality and human responsibility and agency in the absence of traditional theological entrapments.

Rubenstein does anticipate the skeptic’s response, inviting those who remain unconvinced to reject her pantheistic possibility, “or even better, to reconceive it altogether.” Admittedly, I still remain unpersuaded by the hypothetical pantheistic’s usage of divinity (whether in plural or singular form). In this, what I am really asking is whether a necessarily marginal (deconstructive) position can be transformed into a constructive one. I am not sure about the answers right now. What I do assert is that relationality itself can be explored as sufficient grounds for conceiving of aspirational ethical behaviors. In closing this essay, I explore a tentative, nascent theoretical option.

Rubenstein’s materialist rendering of the universe shares affinities Donald Crosby’s discussion of metaphysical perspectivism in Living With Ambiguity. This empirically-driven position contends that the world we inhabit has a plurality of entities, each with its own individuality and particularity of expression. Accordingly, everything that exists in the world has a distinctive perspective on everything else. As Crosby writes: “All the elemental particles, atoms, molecules, compounds, inorganic and organic entities and combinations of those entities, including human beings and their histories, cultures, and societies, and all of the actions, reactions, functions, qualities, and traits of these particular things and their relations are included. No two perspectives or systems of them are exactly alike.” Crosby’s notion that humans’ perspectives are included with, and inflected by the perspectives of other existents in the universe, I suggest, compels us to ask about the nature and distinctiveness of human agency among other forms. In other words, does not the multifaceted constitutive relationality that comprises the “all” provide its own justification for addressing ethics and the problem of evil?

As well, there is an increasing awareness among some new materialists that the world is deeply and richly structured even before humans arrive on the scene with their particular senses, ways of thinking, and discourses. In short, humans reside within an appreciable universe. In such a theoretical context, human valuing is part of a vital sphere of activity within the biosphere, understood as a single interconnected system of value and valuing.  As Philip Clayton, suggests, every organism, or every living thing is an agent composed of communities of living parts. In short, the life-world is agent-centered.

Is positing a distinct human perspective and mode of agency essentially making oneself susceptible to the charge of residual anthropocentricism? I am not fully sure. I am also not sure how to avoid that possible charge when describing humanity’s capacity to reflect on our structured relationality.  What I fully affirm for now is the richness of perspectival agencies. Rather than definitely and naively assume a monolithic view of agency, we might instead point to the functionary aims of different agents. For example, it is useful to feature human agency as possessive of a distinct valuing quality that other agential entities might not possess, or even advance with the same intensity. Given that humans are not at the center of this vibrant universe, highlighting functional differences does not confer ontological superiority. These brief reflections lead me to a final question that I think haunts my theoretical efforts and Rubenstein’s work on the pantheological possibility. When set within the context of the Anthropocene era, how do human existents invoke the concept of human agency in attempts to legitimate decisions and motivate actions in response to the problem of anthropogenic climate change and its myriad effects? How do we address  thorny questions about the challenging task of moving from the descriptive to the normative without re-producing dangerous forms of anthropocentrism.

Carol Wayne White is Presidential Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Bucknell University. Her books include Poststructuralism, Feminism, and Religion: Triangulating Positions, The Legacy of Anne Conway (1631-70): Reverberations from a Mystical Naturalism, and Black Lives and Sacred Humanity: Toward an African American Religious Naturalism, which won a Choice Award for Outstanding Academic Titles.