Speculative Reason and Public Theology

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Speculative Reason and Public Theology: Explorations. “Things have to be gathered again” (Latour) Can the world exist without us (or without our knowledge of it)? Can we exist without the world? Two brutal questions, the answers to which will shape our understanding of the relatedness – or gathering – of human and non-human life and indeed our ethical (and religious) responses to practical issues that we face. For instance, when notions such as the efficient markets hypothesis and homo economicu
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  Speculative Reason and Public Theology: Explorations.“Things have to be gathered again” (Latour) Can the world exist without us (or without our knowledge of it)? Can weexist without the world? Two brutal questions, the answers to which willshape our understanding of the relatedness – or gathering – of human andnon-human life and indeed our ethical (and religious) responses to practical issues that we face. For instance, when notions such as theefficient markets hypothesis and homo economicus as a rational utilitymaximizing individual, shape economic and political responses to theglobal financial crisis, some of us would want to argue that these areinadequate and reductionist interpretations of “the gatherings” of humanand non-human and that what is needed is a new language to better describe “the way things are”. My instinct is that some of the newlanguage flowing from the work of Speculative Realists and their alliesmight just provide a more adequate “gathering” of those “things”.So where does Public Theology currently stand in this debate?One could argue that UK Public Theology has followed 5 main routesover the last 25 years: ã That influenced by Liberation Theology until it fell out of fashion ã The Roman Catholic Natural Law and Common Good tradition ã Christian Realism as represented by the Manchester tradition of Ronald Preston, John Atherton, and recently Chris Baker, ElaineGraham and John Reader  ã Radical Orthodoxy of John Milbank, Graham Ward and other offshoots, sometimes related to the Christian communitarianism of Hauerwas, Bretherton and Wells. ã A more consistent postmodern approach taking on board thelinguistic turn drawing on philosophers such as Richard RortyIt is Radical Orthodoxy that has become the mainstream in terms of strictly academic coverage and also has an influence beyond academiawith an obvious appeal for Rowan Williams amongst others. Despite itsclaims for a new theological imperialism (theology as queen of thesciences etc) it has drawn heavily on philosophy, if only to argue againstit and employ it for internal theological ends. Recent engagements have been with the work of Zizek and Badiou ( “Theology and the Political:The New Debate” edited by Davis, Milbank and Zizek; “Paul’s NewMoment” by Milbank, Zizek and Davis). One possible critique of this position is that it is a form of non-realism (see Cupitt on his former pupils 1  in an article in Modern Believing, 1989). (See also for a critique of Zizek and his recent interest in Christianity “Zizek and Politics” by Sharpe andBoucher).Christian Realism (in Manchester/Chester mode) by contrast has tendedto be more pragmatic, empirically based, drawing rather on sociology,economics, feminism and cultural studies and has ignored the philosophical dimension until recently (“Entering the New TheologicalSpace” eds Baker and Reader begins to open up this territory, also“Christianity and the New Social Order”, Atherton, Baker and Reader,SPCK forthcoming 2011)There is now, however, a new and developing movement within philosophy known as Speculative Realism (SR), identified with the worksof Meillasoux, Brassier,Hamilton- Grant and Harman, each in their different ways rejecting the “correlationism” between the human andnon-human which has dominated Continental philosophy and which haslent itself to theological appropriations. (see “The Speculative Turn:Continental Materialism and Realism” eds Bryant, Srnicek and Harman,re.press downloadable as an open access text, notably Chapter 1 whichintroduces the development and key ideas of SR)A group of Philosophers of Religion have responded to this byexamining the possible impact of SR upon philosophy of religion. (see“After the Postsecular and the Postmodern” eds Anthony Paul Smith andDaniel Whistler, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010). We now intendto explore the further territory of how SR might contribute to a new anddeeper self-understanding of Public Theology, with the ambition of securing an alternative philosophical base for a Christian Realism that presents a different approach from Radical Orthodoxy.Possible areas to be explored are: ã Whether a realist philosophy coheres with the realism of publictheology ã How a greater respect for the autonomy of non-theologicaldisciplines contributes to a more effective public engagement with political and economic issues ã Whether the thinkers now emerging such as DeLanda, Latour, provide helpful tools for social analysis ã What can be learnt from SR and its engagement with Philosophy of Religion about the nature of the Postsecular  2  The suggestion, is that trying to work out what the implications for anethical system of Spec Realism might be, may provide a bridge or connection to Public Theology. So here are some initial thoughts drawingtogether key ideas gleaned from some of the Spec Realists and related philosophers……. ã From Ray Brassier’s “Nihil Unbound”, where he argues thatMeillassoux’s use of ancestrality to undermine the correlationismof recent Post-Kantian philosophy is not adequate, he talks aboutthe concept of extinction as supplementing this and presenting theview that “senselessness and purposelessness represent a gain inintelligibility” (P238). The objective reality (the real) is that thewhole cosmos will cease to exist and that it is this which shouldconvince us that a philosophy which insists on viewing the non-human through its correlation with the human is mistaken. Toargue this he goes through the work of Badiou, Meillassoux,Deleuze, Nietzsche, Levinas, Freud etc. If one were to take this asa starting point for ethics where would it lead us? ã To turn to Meillassoux himself in “After Finitude”, we encounter the argument that the strong correlationism that refuses to think theabsolute has allowed religion back into the philosophical frame bydenying reason any role in evaluating faith positions. An obviousconclusion from this is that reason does need to be granted a role, both when it comes to ethics and indeed religion. This would be anargument against the position of Radical Orthodoxy and in favour of the sort of approach I tried to work out using Habermas andDerrida in “Blurred Encounters” et al. ã Drawing then on Graham Harman’s work on an object-oriented philosophy in “Towards Speculative Realism”, one can further establish the argument for an independent external reality unrelatedin any intrinsic way to human consciousness and take the position Isuggested was one possibility in “The Dark Side of PublicTheology” on the WTF website, that there is no relationship and noencounter between humans or between humans and the non-human. Hence the independent reality of both objects, other humans, and indeed other (non-theological) disciplines has to berespected. This again would be against the arguments of RadicalOrthodoxy who insist on subsuming everything under a theological banner. ã Taking this further and using Harman’s work on Bruno Latour which argues that Latour is one of the most important realists, onecan develop this argument for the autonomy of the non-human andfor other disciplines and examine Harman’s own categorisation of  3  different philosophies as either “radical”, “conservative” or in“polarity”, the latter being his version of Spec Realism, in whichabsolute gaps/dualities are respected but also described accordingto human relationships – another type of “blurred encounter” or gathering then. ã Hence what is required is an ethics based on realism rather thannon-realism in its various forms AND that eschews the forms of communitarianism (Christian and otherwise) that posit a final purpose or grand narrative of human community or developmentcharacteristic of Radical Orthodoxy. Public Theology, basing itself upon such an ethical approach must be of the realist variety,respect the autonomy of other groups and disciplines whilstdrawing upon them when appropriate, avoid setting up arbitraryvision and goals, and acknowledge its limitations using reason inthe deployment of what is best from its own traditions. Some “gatherings” suggested by Bruno Latour According to Speculative Realist philosopher Graham Harman (Prince of  Networks: Latour and Metaphysics, re.press 2009), Latour is the closestfigure to what he calls an “object-oriented hero” (P156). By this he meansthat Latour is a believer in the reality and the independent existence of the plurality of concrete objects. Given that the central problem of metaphysics (according to Harman), is the interplay of objects andrelations (P159), then Latour sheds more light on both of these than anyother contemporary thinker. This, in itself, is justification for takingLatour’s work as a prime example of a new form of realist philosophy,and one which raises important questions for the related concerns of ethics and the critique of current practices in other disciplines.Latour on Matters of Fact and Matters of ConcernIn a paper published at the end of 2004, Latour sets out his own particular understanding of critical inquiry. His basic argument is thatthe nature of critique itself has become divorced from its srcinal pathand intention and that we are now being encouraged to fight the wrongenemies. The problem is that we try to get away from facts whereasthe real aim should be to get closer to them.What I am going to argue is that the critical mind, if it is to renewitself and be relevant again, is to be found in the cultivation of a 4
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