Divine Fragmentation

Jenna Supp-Montgomerie

In her iconic “Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway urges us to imagine a way of being that neither reinforces the dualisms that have undergirded a plethora of oppressions nor to be seduced by unity: “To be One is to be autonomous, to be powerful, to be God; but to be One is to be an illusion, and so to be involved in a dialectic of apocalypse with the other. Yet to be other is to be multiple, without clear boundary, frayed, insubstantial. One is too few, but two are too many.” By what complicated math could we find a way to be so fundamentally partial? What if the solution lies not in the fractional space between one and two but in claiming multiplicity with gusto?

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

Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s meticulous mapping of the systematic, emphatic denigration of pantheism—that God and nature might just be identical—happily upturns all sorts of fundamental binaries: God and nature, creator and created, subject and object, male and female, active humans and passive matter, religion and science. In fact, the book is filled with the surprising (and surprisingly plentiful) confessions of scientists who undergird their adamant empiricism with statements of faith. The consummate example is, perhaps, Einstein’s appeal to conviction over demonstration in a letter he wrote about his protracted debate with Niels Bohr: “Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing.”

Despite prevalent claims that the rise of science has rendered religion irrelevant, despite the now-commonsensical notion that science and religion are separate realms (a notion shared even by those who disagree as to which source for truth claims should prevail), religion and science share a long and intimate history. Firmly rooted in this rhizomatic tangle, Rubenstein dares to ask, “what sort of gods and monsters scientific theories are producing, and what sorts of ethical values and social formations they reflect and reinforce.” It is, after all, only two sentences later in the very same letter that Einstein famously declares, “I, at any rate, am convinced that He is not playing at dice.” Appropriately, if not a little impishly, Rubenstein’s robust discussion of the conflict between the theory of relativity and the theory of quantum mechanics forms the bulk of her chapter on God. Take that, religion vs. science.

Let me join the hubbub and offer my own confession: a fervent idealist committed to making the world better, I began my seminary studies in New York City on September 9, 2001. My optimism was, shall we say, short-lived. It wasn’t just the timing, it was also the theology. The persistent commitment to God’s perfect wholeness jarred with the failure and fracture that seemed to make up the world. And yet the Christian solution of abasing this glorious chaos as separate from and well below the coherence of God also seemed to miss, in a devastating way, the wonder of the world. There are certainly ruptures that need healing—September 2001 made that abundantly clear—but there are also ruptures that constitute us, for better or worse. Why are theologies, old and new, so allergic to the contingent, the disconnected, the multiple?

According to Rubenstein, it is not the fracture per se but the threat it makes to a God of the omnis, whose all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present immateriality depends entirely on a divine ontological unity. In the case of pantheism’s identification of God with the fragility, diversity, and messy materiality of the world, the rumbling theological anxiety around contingency and multiplicity becomes full-blown panic. Hence, the central question of her study: “Whence stems the horror religiosus that not only excommunicates Spinoza, but in the hands of Christian hierarchs condemns John Scotus Eriugena, executes the followers of Almaric of Bena, burns Giordano Bruno at the stake, incinerates Marguerite Porete, suspects even Jonathan Edwards of heresy, and would have obliterated Meister Eckhart if he hadn’t died first? What is the matter with pantheism?”

As it turns out, the matter with pantheism is matter itself. How does one reconcile a God who has been so resplendently transcendent with a material world that is such a mess? For some, pantheism’s attempt to do so is atheism in disguise: if God is the messy, material, precarious, self-sufficient world, then this is no recognizable God, or certainly not a God worth having. For others, pantheism invokes the oddly opposite problem. The identification of the world with God means that there is nothing other than God, and thus pantheism is not atheistic but acosmic—the world is eliminated as a mere illusion or accident to the divine reality.

For Rubenstein, the rejoinder to these critiques lies in a fundamental ambiguity in the pan of pantheism: it can mean a unity of all (the all-one) or it can refer to all things in all their multiplicity. The first is what D.H. Lawrence once dismissed as an “awful pudding of One identity.” God and the world are equated into a homogenous unity; difference itself is the baby tossed out with the bathwater of binaries. The all-one saves us from dualisms by offering us unity, and this is really no salvation at all, as Haraway avers.

Rubenstein is not tempted by wholeness. Her scrupulous care with centuries of objections to pantheism undergirds her rather radical solution of a rigorous elaboration of the second version of pan as all things. She takes up partial, diverse, and diversely sourced pantheisms to articulate a pluralist pantheism (hence the title, Pantheologies): the affirmation that “all things participate—to greater or lesser intensity and to all manner of competing, collaborative, and disjunctive ends—in multiple, ongoing processes of cosmic makings and unravelings.” This “most threatening, and therefore most promising,” pluralist pantheism offers a cosmos saturated with divinity that can still differentiate between a teacup and a goat, between a gesture of love and an act of war.

Pluralist pantheologies are also able to address the ethical challenge posed by the divinity of a world that is, as we so unbearably know, filled with violence, suffering, degradation, and, likely, the slow agonizing death of the world itself. Pantheism’s essential multiplicity refuses an orienting appeal to a prefigured benevolence. That is, pluralist pantheism does not pretend that simply because the unfolding, dynamic cosmos is divine, it is good. Thus, the pantheist takes up the problem of evil not as a philosophical one (“why does God let bad things happen to good people?”) but as a pragmatic one: “what in any given situation contributes to the flourishing of creatures, what destroys it, and how best to intervene?” And this pantheism of contingency and partiality also thus recognizes that our actions, divine though they might be, will never be perfect. Our most fervent ethical activity will be broken, deficient, and incomplete.

It is a bitter pill, and not just for theology. Wholeness is seductive. It is the siren song that we—as individuals or as a social body—can be coherent, connected, unblemished by fracture. Self-help and pop-psychology authors, political leaders and activists, and various Buddhists, Christians, and yogis proclaim this alluring common ground: wholeness is healthy.

This makes me very suspicious.

Wholeness is so often offered as a promise, that with just a little more awareness or acceptance or compassion or information, the very fissures that riddle us as people or groups of people can be recuperated into some singular thing that transcends the divides or sutures them up. Maybe I have just been unlucky in love on occasion (alongside my terrible luck in seminary), but it seems to me that some break-ups are good. Separation can be beneficial. Disconnecting offers its own pleasures. But more important, spending our time filling in all the gaps, repairing failures, and recuperating fractures fundamentally denies how generative and creative such ruptures can be.

I should also confess that I broke up with Christianity while in seminary. I ran rather desperately to religious studies, a field anxious about any appearance of confessional thought. And then (perhaps propelled by the momentum of my retreat) became interested in technology, a topic surely safe from creeds and gods and rituals. You can see where this is headed.

What could be more safely shielded from religious imagination than the ultra-secular technicity of communication networks? These infrastructures are readily hailed as the pinnacle achievement of global technological development, which in various renderings do all sorts of good without any god in sight. In 1997, an MCI ad for the internet proclaimed it a space that would have no race, no genders, no age, and no infirmity. Utopian imaginaries of communication networks have proliferated since: they would end poverty, abolish distance, make global commerce universally accessible, and fuel democratic revolutions around the world. They would connect us.

As it turns out, these visions for networks as new forms of perfect global unity are quite old. Roughly 160 years ago, when the first transatlantic telegraph cable was laid, public discourse rang with celebrations of a communicating, unifying world that would, yes, abolish distance and end wars. But in these earlier utopian celebrations of networks, imaginaries of unity emerge from a religious root. In 1858, President Buchanan declared in a telegram sent on the cable that the Atlantic Telegraph would be “an instrument destined by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty, and law throughout the world” through which “the nations of Christendom [would] spontaneously unite.” Protestant missionaries helped market Morse’s telegraph machine around the world, public figures hailed the telegraph as a blessing from heaven, and religious communities lauded the telegraph as the salvation of humanity.

The funny thing is that these promises of global and national wholeness effervesced in a context of global, national, and technological failure. The mid-nineteenth century was riddled with colonial conflict, bloody battles over slavery and the bloodiness of slavery itself, and telegraph wires that broke, melted, or failed. In fact, by 1861 only 3,000 of the 11,364 miles of cable that had been laid were working. In other words, 74% of the first cabled network was broken. As it turns out, network society then and now is constituted as much by connection as it is by political, social, emotional, geographical, and technological disconnection.

Our world is made by means of fragmentation, not despite it. Our fracture is divine. To claim this is to eschew the tantalizing potential of finding our true unity, our healing in wholeness. This is a bit like running at the similarly partial Hogwarts’ Platform 9 ¾ (I’m really hoping the divinity of all things will also apply to this reference): it takes some courage, is likely to bruise, requires magic, and opens up a world we have barely imagined.

Such is Pantheologies. Rubenstein runs at the wall full-tilt and breaks through. The book offers three particular delights. First, it is a thoroughly invitational reading of the currents of dismissal that have rendered pantheism unthinkable and of those boundary-breaking rebels who have thought it anyway (and were often quite literally broken or burned or excluded in response). Unrestrained by disciplinary boundaries, Rubenstein takes the willing reader patiently through wide-ranging genealogies that attend to (and make surprisingly readable) aboriginal Australian cosmogony, Aristotle, Niels Bohr, Giordano Bruno, Octavia Butler, Viveiros de Castro’s Native American ethics, Vine Deloria, Albert Einstein, Ralph Waldo Emerson, G. W. F. Hegel, William James, Immanuel Kant, James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis (who both, although differently, elaborated the Gaia Hypothesis), Isaac Newton, and the quintessential pantheistic heretic, Baruch Spinoza. In Rubenstein’s hands, the so-called Western Canon erupts with veins of churning rebellious insistence that nature is divine and divinity is found not above creation but as the continuous creative activity of which we are part.

Second, the unearthing of pantheologies, which rides roughshod over attempts to protect divinity as immaterial, to bolster the structures of power that have constituted the “West,” and to render matter merely mechanical, offers a long-overdue and gleeful smashing of the buttresses of the Father God’s well-protected domain. This is the academic version of the big dance-in-the-grain-mill finale from Footloose, and it feels just as welcome, as freeing, as outrageously joyful.

And third, Rubenstein is courageously constructive. For all of its dismantling of hierarchies, the book is at its heart an effort at building. And this is perhaps the aspect that most thoroughly refuses the dualisms that have enabled untold forms of oppression but also have constituted the very academic disciplines that she draws on. It is also the aspect that made crystal clear my own residual desire to keep some binaries: surely religious studies cannot also be, well, religious. Buts as Rubenstein persuasively elaborates, one cannot hope to undo some dualisms while keeping a foundational binary logic in place. Even the most thorough-going queer, feminist, anti-racist cosmologies fall prey to dangerous constraints on difference when the possibility of divinity is flatly denied. For even though they may reject the Big Man in the Sky, they accept the central term that “mantheism” (as Rubenstein pithily names it) sets out: that the world is separate from whatever God there may be. And so Rubenstein’s thoroughly religious-studies text offers, radically, the real possibility of pantheologies.

Her unflinching refusal of this fundamental disciplinary dualism thus claims a critically important politics. And it also offers something more—the pragmatic ethics and affective dimensions missing from cosmologies stripped of God. It is not comfortable, not a promise of perfection, not shy about chaos and its creativity, but this daring affirmation that all this—this teacup, this goat, this love, this war, this telegraph, this internet, this fragmentation—is the unfolding of God gives to the reader (especially of academic books) the rarest of gifts: wonder. And the most important call: what now will you contribute to all this divinity?

Jenna Supp-Montgomerie is an assistant professor jointly appointed in the departments of Religious Studies and Communication Studies at the University of Iowa. Her research examines the relationships of religion, media infrastructures, and public life.