Plants, Minerals, Philosophers, and Bacteria: What I Was Thinking

Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s Response to the Marginalia Forum on Pantheologies


 doubled over with laughter when I read Karmen MacKendrick’s confession that the words “science and religion” provoke in her “an immediate urge to be elsewhere.” Yes, I thought; anywhere else: under the conference table, out in the hallway, at a sales convention for medical tubing. . . . anywhere other than here, with “science and religion.”

Although Karmen surely has her own reasons to want to flee, my own frustration with most “conversations” between “science and religion” is that they presume a fundamental conflict between them. As innumerable seat-mates told me when I used to fly on airplanes, science is objective while religion is subjective; science is universal while religion is perspectival; and science concerns truth while religion concerns belief, which is usually false. If these are our presumptions, then a “conversation” between “science and religion” will take one of the following forms (as Karmen races for the door):

  • the theists and atheists duke it out, with the former accusing the latter of sinfulness and the latter accusing the former of stupidity;
  • an embattled practitioner of both science and religion suggests parceling out terrain to the warring parties. Science gets truth; religion gets ethics. Science gets the physical world; religion gets the spiritual world (which may or may not exist).
  • a plucky theologian summarizes recent scientific discoveries in order to proclaim that God made those scientific processes. Therefore, he concludes, religion is “not incompatible” with, say, evolution or the big bang or the multiverse.

As Lisa Sideris suggests, Pantheologies does not conform to these standard models of scholarship on science and religion. Her essay asks what the relationship between these terms is, if it’s neither 1) conflict nor 2) territorial division nor 3) reconciliation. In response, I’d like to propose that the relationship is something like data and analytic framework. In this book, the sciences produce objects for the academic study of religion. Science as material for religious studies; religion operating where we least expect it.

What I’m trying to say is that, from being atheistic, antireligious, or insulated in some Gouldian “magisterium,” the contemporary sciences are generating the stuff of religion. This stuff includes mythic characters (heroes, gods, and monsters), normative assumptions, ritual practices, ethical prescriptions, and social orderings. And with remarkable regularity, such “religious” elements in the sciences amount neither to atheism nor to theism, but to something like pantheism.


he initial aim of Pantheologies was threefold: to identify burgeoning pantheisms within the natural and social sciences, to catalogue them, and to identify thereby the constructive “religious” work going on in contemporary “science.” The problem was, I needed a decent definition of “pantheism” before I could argue it was at work in nonlinear microbiologies, plant and animal sciences, quantum cosmologies, and so on. And very early into the process of seeking such a definition, I realized there simply isn’t one. Rather, as Clayton Crockett explains, “pantheism functions as a limit concept.” What he means is that, throughout its few-hundred-year history, “pantheism” has been little more than a polemical term, marking the hard edge of respectable thinking—the cliff off which we can’t possibly dive. With very few exceptions, no one wants to be a pantheist.

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

Set as it now was beyond the limits of respectable thought, the project rearranged itself into two parts: the first diagnostic and the second constructive. The diagnostic part explains the generalized panic over pantheism as a fear of queer mixtures—especially of race, gender, and species. Briefly stated, if what “God” means is the material universe, then all those interrelated privileges of light, masculinity, disembodiment, rationality, and singularity collapse into their dialectical opposites. Suddenly, “God” is nothing other than the innumerable, embodied agents that make and unmake worlds.

The second part of the book asks, if it is a truth universally acknowledged that pantheism ruins Western metaphysics, might pantheism actually help destructure this notoriously oppressive tradition? And if so, what might such a liberatory pantheism look like when, as Catherine Keller attests, the only thing most folks know about pantheism is “that it’s Wrong”? How might we cobble together and mobilize a position that’s never been sufficiently respectable to become a school?

Here I follow the lead of William James, more or less the only modern Western philosopher before Grace Jantzen to conceptualize pantheism without dismissing it, running from it, or ridiculing it. For James, pantheism comes in two major flavors: monism and pluralism. For the monist, the universe is one immense, interrelated unity; whereas for the pluralist, things remain many in their interrelation. As Donna Haraway has more recently expressed this position (without mentioning James or pantheism), “nothing is connected to everything; everything is connected to something.”

Of course, James is a pragmatist, so he knows he can’t say which of these positions is true—if it even makes sense to speak that way. But he does think that there are more and less helpful stories to tell, and that monism is not a particularly helpful story. In order to assert the oneness of all things, monism has to ignore or trivialize everything that makes things different from one another. In order to proclaim the world’s Fundamental Unity, we have to locate that unity in some invisible, immaterial “essence.” In this way, monism leaves us in what Jenna Supp-Montgomerie sketches as a kind of cosmological mirror-stage: the world seems too fragmented to measure up to the resplendent unity of God, whose wholeness and beneficence we defend at the expense of “the wonder of the world.”


luralism, on the other hand, affirms the interrelation of all things with many other things, without gathering them into a whole. And because it doesn’t need to assert an ultimate unity, pluralism neither demonizes differences nor denies their reality. Rather, pluralism affirms what Beatrice Marovich calls the “bit of a mess” we live in as the real world, the sacred world, even sacrality itself.

Clayton affirms pluralism as preferable to monism because it “accords more adequately” with contemporary science and philosophy. That is true, but not because contemporary science and philosophy have some privileged access to truth (a truth pluralism then shares by being in agreement with the sciences). If pluralistic pantheism looks, for example, like the ontology of quantum mechanics, it is not because pluralistic pantheism is empirically more correct than monistic pantheism. Rather, it is because the many branches of quantum mechanics—alongside nonlinear biologies, chaos and complexity theories, new materialisms, actor network theories, and animist and perspectival indigenous cosmologies—are themselves producing pluralistic pantheisms.

Of course, as Carol Wayne White reminds us, these manifold frameworks are not all saying the same thing. Their pluralistic pantheisms remain plural. But there is an affinity among them; as Carol explains, they all agree that “the old ontic ordering … cannot hold any longer.” “The old ontic ordering”: that is, the hierarchy of being that arranges all beings in purported ranks of importance, intelligence, or complexity. In this “Great Chain of Being,” rocks sit inertly at the bottom; vegetables, animals, and “primitives” hold the middle; and Euro-descended humans stand on top, reflecting the image of their anthropomorphic creator.

For the pantheologies that contest this ontic ordering, the real creators, saviors, and destroyers—the ones that matter—are things like bacteria, mushrooms, and transgenic mice. Things like those haphazard quantum events that either make or don’t make universes. And although these studies tend to call our attention to the divine operations of units or organisms, they also reveal the language of “organism” to be too singular, too unified. As Beatrice shows in her brilliant analysis of the HeLa cell line, these cells are both Henrietta Lacks and not-Henrietta-Lacks. Their curative-murderous capacities are not inherent in the cells “themselves”; rather, they are mediated by surgical implements, biomedical protocol, glass, plastic, liquid nitrogen, the scientific exploitation of Black and brown bodies, poverty, a broken healthcare system, soteriological surrogacy, and yes, capital. In this dazzling pantheological deployment, Beatrice demonstrates the operation of racialized ontologies at every scale of that old ontic order. In the process, she asks us to attend to the healings, signs, and wonders a poor Black mom has generated in her sickness, her death, and her immortal life.

At this point, the reader may detect with Lisa that there is something normative going on in Pantheologies. Despite my best efforts to hover above the fray and resist truth-claims, I am not just calling attention to the mytho-theologies emerging from the natural sciences; I’m suggesting they might help us make decisions, even halfway decent lives. In response to Lisa’s raised eyebrows, I will therefore confess that there is something prescriptive going on here. At the end of the day (and maybe throughout the whole book), I am, indeed, saying that I like these pantheological stories. I’m even saying we should see what it looks like to live and write into them. That having been said, I still want to resist calling them “true”—at least in any objective or universal sense. In response to William Robert, I think this is the reason the book tumbles into literature, specifically fiction written by Black women, in its last chapter. Literature operates beyond the categories of truth and falsehood, and thereby points us to possibilities the world-as-it-is can’t imagine. And such reimaginings tend to be most productively accomplished by the people who’ve been most exploited by the monotheistic and post-monotheistic Great Chain of Being. Black and Indigenous authors tend to see most clearly what’s wrong with the order of things and to envision new and recovered ways of ordering things otherwise.

A year before the world shut down, I brought my “Pantheologies” students to a rural Benedictine abbey, where cloistered nuns in habit work the land with tractors, garden gloves, and back-hoes while gathering seven times a day to sing the offices in Gregorian antiphony. After a few hours pulling tomato plants and putting the asparagus to bed for the winter, the students asked the sisters every metaphysical question they could cram into the short time we had together. “They keep talking about the agency of matter!” they marveled in the van on the way home. “They keep saying the incarnation dignifies all of creation! They’re so close to being pantheists!” But then came the disappointment: “They’re so close to being pantheists, but then they’ve got this all-male, disembodied Trinity that wrecks the whole thing.” And before I could think too hard, I found myself saying, “Okay, but surely pantheists can have friends?” What I meant was, there are all sorts of ontologies—even absolutist and non-perspectival and theistic ontologies—whose ethical, affective, laborious expressions resonate with the pantheologies I’m offering for our consideration. Those of us who love this world and try to care for it don’t have to agree. We don’t have to unite. We just have to resonate.

This is my ultimate answer to Catherine Keller’s impassioned nudgings toward panentheism and Carol’s hilariously opposite nudgings toward atheism. Ultimately, I don’t think it matters whether one “smudges” God and world with Catherine or deletes God entirely with Carol. Insofar as both positions find an affective-ethical solidarity with pluralist pantheisms, any of them can do the work of worlding our worlds more respectfully. Penultimately, however, I do think there are some compelling differences among panentheism, atheist naturalism, and what I’m calling “pantheologies.”

On the question of panentheism, I think Catherine is right to say that the reciprocal inherence of God and world makes the position virtually indistinguishable from plural-material pantheisms. My only hesitation is that when many panentheisms go to talk about God’s “primordial” nature—which is to say, God as distinct from the world—they risk reduplicating those classic divine attributes that de-animated the world in the first place. Attributes like eternity, singularity, disembodiment, cognitive anthropomorphism, and most stickily, goodness. As Jenna reminds us, pantheological perspectivism “refuses an orienting appeal to a prefigured benevolence” because it abandons the humanocentrism that puts human interests above the interests of plants, animals, minerals, bacteria, and (yes) viruses.

In a stunning antiphon with Catherine, Carol is worried that Pantheologies retains too much theos, rather than too little. Carol affirms its endeavor to “disrupt unifying efforts.” She likes the insurrection of subjugated knowledges, multiplicity, materiality, and perspectivism. But along with Lisa, Carol questions the book’s movement from deconstruction to prescription, or in her words, “from the descriptive to the normative.” As provisionally sketched and minimalist as I try to keep pantheology’s multiform, multimodal cosmodivinity, Carol asks, “why appeal to divinity at all? . . . Why not allow the small, messy, entangled states of indeterminate things to remain so without unifying them with the language of divinity?”

It’s here that I get nervous. Because if god-language is necessarily unifying, if divinity makes all things either numerically or essentially One—then yes, I’d need pantheologically to let it go. What I’ve counted on throughout the “god” chapter is that it’s possible to recode divinity as irreducibly plural—that is, just as multiform, multimodal, and perspectival as the worlds that express it. But there I go, resorting to an “it,” a singular pronoun for a strenuously pluralized god(s). Goddesses. Goddexes.

Assuming I’ve fallen short of such multiplicity, I suppose the question becomes whether such a recoding is possible in principle—at least for those of us who speak Greek- and Latin-derived languages. I stay with the question not because I think God-language is ethically necessary, but because I am compelled by Grace Jantzen’s plea not to cede “God” to the terms of classical theism. God, Jantzen ventures, is the most valuable concept we have. So why not recode the concept, rather than leave it to the patriarchs? For Jantzen, pantheism is far more radical than atheism because it breaks and reshapes the concept in question. It is more radical to say that divinity means mutuality, sympoiesis, and microscopic becomings than to say that “God” means a disembodied, omnipotent, male superhuman…who just happens not to exist.

Of course, as William Robert recognizes, “Pantheologies isn’t trying to convert anybody.” Rather, it’s on the lookout for what Clayton identifies as “the multiple gods that we cannot escape.” It seeks not disciples but affective sympathizers and ethical symbionts, any of whom might accept or reject the label of pantheist—pluralist or otherwise. In the face of what Beatrice calls “little divine eruptions,” the question isn’t “what school do you belong to,” or even “what do you believe,” but, as Jenna asks us, “what … will you contribute to all this divinity?”

Mary-Jane Rubenstein teaches religion and science studies at Wesleyan University. She has written books on wonder, the multiverse, pantheism, and the new space race.