What Gods and Monster’s Are We Making?

Beatrice Marovich

Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s Pantheologies: Gods, Worlds, Monsters is, on the simplest level, a book about a theological proposition. This theological proposition has long been attacked and maligned by thought traditions that have labeled themselves as western. But, because it takes on the labor of illuminating forms of divinity that this western metaphysical tradition has sought to deform, destroy, or eviscerate, Pantheologies also unsettles other discourses that have established themselves in the wake of this metaphysic.

One of the most intriguing arguments that Rubenstein makes in Pantheologies is that scholars who are interested in the charged nexus where religion and science meet should “turn the critical tables around.” Rather than ask what sort of God a scientific discovery might still allow a theist to believe in, we should ask instead “what sort of gods and monsters such scientific theories are producing.” Rather than a scientifically credible form of the divine, we might say that Pantheologies offers the opportunity to think about scientific objects themselves as sites of divinity produced or illuminated by research in the natural sciences. These might be, perhaps, little “created gods” (to borrow a phrase from Nicholas of Cusa) that emerge from the laboratory—a promiscuous blend of the divine and the non-divine.

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

As Rubenstein points out, in her book, pantheologies have often been read as “monstrous” by thinkers in the Christian tradition. Rubenstein does not eviscerate whatever it is that might be deemed monstrous, in her own reading of the pantheological. But she does suggest that pantheologies are monstrous specifically in the Foucauldian sense: a mixture of two realms, a mixture of the spiritual and the material, of good and evil, or a “transgression of classifications”. This is a monstrosity that is monstrous because it has upset and recoded the metaphysics of the classical God-World relation. And in this particular sense, Rubenstein calls us to look for the divine in the monstrous.

The call is not simply provocative. It is also political. Like the feminist philosopher Grace Jantzen, Rubenstein sees—in pantheologies—a kind of “liberating promise” that threatens to (at the very least) unsettle the “logic of mastery” that has dominated Christian metaphysical thought. Distinctions that have evolved out of this binary between creator and created reiterate the radically asymmetrical dynamics of power in the God-World relation, coding a new set of relations as derivatives. Out of the metaphysical supremacy of God over World emerges the supremacy of spirit over matter, male over female, light over dark, human over nonhuman, and good over evil. These dynamics are transported into social and political relations, marking groups of people in alliance with one category or another. The promise of the pantheological, as Rubenstein articulates it, is that its monstrosity demolishes these ontic distinctions so rigidly maintained by a metaphysical order that aligned itself with, and abetted, a colonial order.

The destruction of an absolute ontic distinction between good and evil is likely to be the cause of nausea for many Christian theologians. Moreover, without ontic distinctions, where is the line between the divine and the non-divine (what is God or not-God)? In a word, it’s rendered ambiguous or unclear. This is the ambiguity that Spinoza illuminated in the figure of God-or-nature. The risk that Christian critics of the pantheological seem always to return to is that it subsumes all things into the divine, as if letting divinity loose in the world is to subsume (as Rubenstein puts it) “all particular things into an exceptionless unity.” To put it another way, the charge is that to make God into nature is to make nature divine, which means that nothing that exists is anything else but a god. If gods are everywhere all the time, this line of thinking reasons, they might as well not exist.

Rubenstein, however, is critical of what she calls the “monist” tendency to call all things in the world divine—as if the world itself were simply a unified, universalizing, container that collapses all particularity into some generic divine oneness. Instead, Rubenstein explores the genealogy of a pluralistic pantheism. Against this monistic pantheism, a pluralistic pantheism poses that we should tarry with the particulars in all their contingency. What becomes divine, in this form of pantheism, is not a universal that gets expressed in infinite ways. Rather, it is a form of divinity that is composed by—created by—the infinite particularities, and is both contingent upon and subject to the infinite fluidities of their changing shapes and forms. This is a figure of divine multiplicity that expresses and inhabits all things precisely because it is composed by the infinite variety that is all things. This is a “God-drenched world”, says Rubenstein, that is also simultaneously full of senseless violence. But the theological challenge is not to explain how a responsible divine administrator could possibly allow for such suffering. The problem, instead, is to figure out which divine compositions to celebrate and give our gratitude to.

In her suggestion that scientific theories, themselves, produce (monstrous) divinities we might say that Rubenstein is also working to highlight forms of divinity that colonial religion (aided by its conceptual privileging of whiteness, and maleness) has effaced or eviscerated. Rubenstein’s pantheological frame of analysis has helped me to think differently about scientific objects that hover uncertainly between divinity and monstrosity. The immortal HeLa cell line, for instance, are a set of scientific objects whose virtual immortality is arguably both a healing power and yet also uncertainly monstrous.

The HeLa cell line was taken from the body of Henrietta Lacks in Baltimore, in 1951. Lacks was a young Black mother of five who, at the age of 31, visited doctors at Johns Hopkins in order to treat a malignant tumor on her cervix. She underwent radium treatments and a sample of the cancer cells from her body were sent (without her knowledge or consent) to a prominent white cancer researcher named George Gey. He believed that Henrietta’s cells were more powerful than any he’d seen—they doubled every 20-24 hours, while other cells simply died out. This was useful, from a research perspective, and Gey capitalized on the productivity of Henrietta’s cancer cells. Gey began to sell vials of the cells to other researchers. They were dubbed the HeLa cell line, and were described as the first “immortal” cell line used by medical researchers in labs across the world. The cells are not literally immortal. They can still expire. But they are not subject to the same internal mechanisms that limit the lives of other cells. They are not subject to senescence, or the aging process, so are virtually immortal. Henrietta died from the cancer driven by these cells at the age of 31, but the HeLa cells have lived on and have contributed to research and treatments that have cured millions of people through such technologies as the polio vaccine.

The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks was memorialized in a best-selling book by science writer Rebecca Skloot as well as an HBO film, starring Oprah Winfrey (in the role of Henrietta’s daughter Deborah). In these cultural objects that have memorialized Henrietta, it is clear that her cells maintain something of the divine. But it’s unclear just what sort of divinity these immortal HeLa cells might exhibit. This is a divinity that can also look, uncertainly, monstrous. The cells are cancer cells—the same cancer cells that killed Henrietta. And yet, as cells that lived in and with her these cells also seem to have composed something, with Henrietta. In her book, at one point, Skloot uses the term “goddess of death” to refer to the cell line. The HeLa cells can be death dealing. In the 1950s, for instance, a doctor—concerned about the risks these HeLa cells (already proliferating in labs across the world) illegally infected more than 600 people with the cells. Most of these people were prisoners. He was stripped of his medical license. But the people he infected with these cells also fell ill with cancer. Here, the HeLa cells, if they are divine, seem to have earned this status by virtue of a kind of divine violence—a power beyond life and death.

The ancestors of Henrietta, however, have witnessed the power of some other form of the divine within these cells. For people like Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, the HeLa cell line maintains a dimension that is more angelic than it is demonic (though, I concede, the line between these dimensions of spiritual life has always been quite fluid). Skloot was present the first time that Deborah Lacks stood in front of a vial of the HeLa cell line and Henrietta’s daughter is left—in a word—awestruck by this encounter. “They’re beautiful,” she tells Skloot, adding with reverence, that by seeing this encounter Skloot had, “just witnessed a miracle.” Vials of this cell line often sell for more than $100 each. And Henrietta’s five children grew up poor, in Baltimore, without health insurance. Deborah is standing before a scientific object that illuminates the exploitative structure of medical care in the US. Yet from Deborah’s angle of approach, these HeLa cells are not (or are not simply) a power of death. They also harbor the presence of her mother. “When the Lord chooses an angel to do his work,” Henrietta’s grandson tells Skloot, “you never know what they’re going to come back looking like.” Henrietta’s relatives indicate that the cells harbor within them a kind of ancestral continuity, as well as a kind of healing power—something miraculous, something angelic.

The HeLa cell line was produced by a system of medicalized white supremacy, where (often white, often male) physicians reaped the profits stolen from a Black woman whose own children lived without health insurance—without the pass key to the system that their mother’s power was used to sustain. The story of the HeLa cell line is rife with suffering and exploitation. And yet, Henrietta’s ancestors also see, in the HeLa cell ine, a source of awe, and wonder. Whatever form of divinity these cells might be composing and emitting is complex, and ambivalent. But it is clear, to her family at least, that there is a select dimension of these cells that is worthy of reverence.

To think pantheologically, Rubenstein suggests, might simply be to concede that the world itself is exploding with strange sites of divinity in the midst of everything else that is exploding, including horrific violence. A life lived with pantheological reverence might simply “profess a certain humility and awe” in relation to the world of matter, or to mark matter itself “as worthy of reverence” and capable of generating “a kind of gratified amazement”. This sort of reverence might also shape what we see under the microscope, or in a laboratory. What we see might not be a signal from a divine absolute, or the divine absolute in a humbled form. But we might, perhaps, be witness to contingent eruptions of divinity working—within matter—to shape our collective postures of awe and reverence. And perhaps these little eruptions, these fleeting “created gods”, can render us more attentive to those dimensions of divinity that the western metaphysical tradition has sought to destroy, deform, or eviscerate.

Beatrice Marovich is an assistant professor of theological studies at Hanover College. She works at the intersection of philosophy, theology, and the environmental humanities. Her current book project is Sister Death: Political Theology in an Age of Extinctions.