Contemporary dilemmas personalism and naturalism

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In the previous chapter I argued that the political-ideological interpretation of nature requires a theological conceptuality to promote a direct inquiry into the theology of nature, humanity and God. The origin, methodological status and key words of this conceptuality are the subject of the final sections of this chapter. What dilemmas will such a direct inquiry encounter, however.?

Difficulties in the interpretation of nature emerge in two general tendencies. Both theological and non-theological disciplines are caught up in a discussion on the duality of the concept of nature: should humanity be understood as part of nature or as other than nature? We can grasp the difficulty if we reflect on one of the root meanings of phusis: 'to dwell'.3 What is the meaning of this reference to habitation.? The sense could be that of the wider context in which humanity lives, that humanity indwells nature. Or the reference might be to how humanity transforms its dwelling in order to make it habitable. Or, to put the matter differently, does nature as habitat signify that which is inclusive of humanity or that which is other than humanity.

Here etymology shades into politics: for each tendency values the 'upper' part of the duality more highly than the 'lower'. For example, if humanity is understood as other than nature, then humanity is valued more highly with the consequent objectification and instrumentalisation of nature. The hierarchy also has certain epicycles: for instance, if humanity is defined in terms of the capacity to reason, such a capacity may be ascribed unequally between the sexes. The male is then understood to be more rational than the female; hence the female is 'closer' to nature. Thus the duality has a specific politics, natural and sexual. If, by contrast, nature holds the upper place, then humanity is itself'denatured': for the specific profile of un/natural humanity is lost through its relocation in natural processes. Some interpretations in sociobiology-evolutionary psychology are good examples of this tendency. Again, we see that the duality has a specific politics, here social.

What forms does the duality take? If we follow Val Plumwood's analysis,4 yet also incorporating certain modifications, we may note in theological perspective two tendencies: I shall call them personalism and naturalism. The first stresses humanity as other than nature, the second the place of humanity in nature. The tendency of personalism seeks ways of showing the difference of humanity from nature. Within such a tendency, two strategies are detectable: the claim of the discontinuity of humanity from nature and the claim that nature has no proper autonomy. Thus nature is either different from humanity or serves humanity.

Differences between these two strategies can be detected. The first strategy of personalism - discontinuity between humanity and nature -has the form either of the mere acknowledgement of natural conditions of life (nature as the stage of the human drama in the theatrum mundi) or

3. C. S Lewis, Studies in Words (Cambridge University Press, 2nd edn 1967), pp. 34-5. Lewis traces the meanings of the word 'nature' with reference to the Latin, natura, the Greek phusis and the Anglo-Saxon, hind.

4. Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, pp. 41-68.

their radical exclusion (certain forms of post-structuralist theory take this option, on epistemological grounds).

The second strategy in personalism seeks to deny the self-sufficiency or autonomy of nature. Nature may be thought to lack an essential quality (say, volition, rationality5 or developed consciousness); it thereby needs to be 'completed' by humanity. Bill McKibben has proposed a new variant of this approach: because nature is no longer independent of humanity, it thereby lacks reality. Or nature may be primarily defined teleologically (see, for example, the work of theologian Thomas Sieger Derr or philosopher Reiner Grundmann) as that which is available for human use.6

With this stress on instrumentalisation often comes the claim that nonhuman nature is homogenous and thus all ofnature can be treated in the same way. An Hegelian recently made precisely this point to me: all nonhuman nature is available, as lacking 'rationality', to humanity. In that all of nature shares in that lack, no pertinent (moral, ontological) distinctions can be made between the suffering ofthe higher and lower animals. Post-structuralist emphases on nature as 'flux' fit here also: nature 'is' a single quality, flux, to which no permanent significance - ontological, moral - can be ascribed. Indeed, at the epistemological level, it may be claimed that nature cannot be known. Nature thus becomes an issue and problem 'within' culture.

The tendency of naturalism reverses the priorities of personalism. Here the continuity between humanity and non-human nature is affirmed.7 Indeed, humanity is understood as part of nature. As Luco van den Brom argues, on this view 'Humanity is thus subordinated to nature' and 'our place in the world is [understood as] monistic in the sense that it underscores the unity and overall balance of our world and our participation in it'.8 Van den Brom dubs this the 'monistic model'. At its severest, a hard naturalism is proposed which insists that humanity must be in some sort of conformity with the laws' of nature which may take a neo-Stoic (as in deep ecology or Gaia, for example) form. In a series offurther

5. Cf. Marti Kheel, 'From Healing Drugs to Deadly Drugs', in Plant (ed.), Healing the Wounds, pp. 96-111 (p. 105).

6. For the references, see McKibben, The End of Nature; Derr, Ecology and Human Need; Reiner Grundmann, Marxism andEcology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).

7. See the accounts of hard and soft naturalism in Holmes Rolston III, Science and Religion: A Critical Survey (New York: Random House, 1987), ch. 6. The most sustained attempt known to me to develop a religious reading of hard naturalism is Willem B. Drees, Religion, Science and Naturalism (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

8. Luco van den Brom, 'The Art of a Theo-ecological Interpretation', Nederlands Theologisch Tijdschrift 51:4 (1997), 298-313 (304).

differentiations, nature lacks nothing, has value in its own right and enjoys a diversity to which humanity makes little contribution (again, as in the Gaia hypothesis).9 Nature is sufficient, valued and diverse simply in its being. Furthermore, some theologians and philosophers propose a dynamic naturalism in which a 'resurrection of nature' is anticipated. In this view, nature is in bondage either to futility or to the oppressive effects of capitalism. With the resurrection of nature comes the resurrection of humanity with hopes for a new science and technology.10 For all these views, humanity then becomes a problem 'within' nature.

The strength of naturalism is that it seeks to overcome the dualisms created by personalism. Against the denial of non-human nature, humanity's dependence on non-human nature is affirmed. Against the exclusion of nature from theoretical and practical consideration, the continuity of humanity with nature is maintained. Against the suggestion that nature is incorporated to human needs on the grounds that in itself it suffers from a lack, nature is to be understood as having its own story and identity. Against its instrumentalisation, non-human nature is a centre of needs, value and striving on its own account. Last, against the homogenisation of nature, its complexity and diversity must be affirmed.

The difficulty with this sort of approach, as Plumwood is quick to point out, is that the end result can be the affirmation of what was previously denied: the dualism is merely reversed. Hence personalism gives way to different sorts of naturalism.11

What is excluded from this critique is the concept of God which in turn means that the basic dualistic patterns cannot be addressed fully. As I have argued, the modern separation of humanity and nature is coterminous with the domestication of transcendence and the displacement of God from the world. Yet Christian theology too often remains caught in

9. For the references, see Bill Devall and George Sessions, Deep Ecology:Living as if Nature Mattered (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1985); James Lovelock, Gaia:ALookatLifeon Earth (Oxford University Press, 1987).

10. For a critique, see my 'The Resurrection of Nature? Problems in the Theology of Nature', Theology in Green, 4:2 (1994), 23-35.

11. In the interests of comprehensiveness, two further moves may be reported. One approach takes the form of trying to raise the lower side of the dualism to the upper side. In debates on ecology this takes the form of the affirmation of technological fixes, the promise of consumer goods for all: for, if the dualism has supported the unequal appropriation of 'nature's goods', then the resolution must be to spread goods more widely which in turn means greater reproduction. A different strategy, associated with postmodernism, dissolves all identities, those of humanity and non-human nature alike. The displacement of the modern subject does not yield an immutable natural order. Instead, it reminds us that all identities are constructed.

precisely the same dualism being outlined here. For Christianity - as we saw in the previous chapter - has tended to stress the otherness of God to humanity or has presented revelation as the contrast of creation, thereby turning human-nature relations into a matter of indifference. Although such views are correct in their maintenance ofthe transcendence, mystery and otherness of God, these are easily deconstructed into a stress on the continuity of humanity and nature, the value and subjectivity of nature, the personification of nature as Mother and the 'natural' identity of humanity in nature. However, the result is unfortunate: the affirmation of nature at the expense of the displacement of God.

A third strategy is required: neither the uncritical affirmation nor the dissolution of the difference of humanity, but rather the reconstruction of the identity of humanity as un/natural. For the denial and exclusion of nature in personalism, as we have seen, undercuts the reality of nature, whereas resistance by naturalism to the incorporation, instrumentalisation and homogenisation of nature denies the differences between the human and the non-human. So the theological reconstruction has to be dialectical: to affirm continuities against the first and affirm difference against the second. In doing this, Christian theology makes a renewed contribution to the criticism and reconstruction of the overarching modern story of the pre-eminence of humanity over nature. (Indeed, it maybe that the reconstruction of the relation between humanity and nature requires not a story or narrative but instead a renewed 'economics' founded in the act of the creator God.) Van den Brom's summary judgment is right: a theological perspective proposes that 'the human being is not the whole of creation but a part of the larger system of creation' while yet understanding 'the human agent as a responsible being occupying a special place in the whole of creation'.12

The core theological issue here is the action of God: in what ways is God interacting with humanity-nature towards their liberation and interrelation? The concept of the common realm ofGod, nature and humanity has been formulated to address this issue. For we should note that the tendencies reported above - which stress either the manipulable otherness of nature or the place of humanity in nature - raise an important theological difficulty. Where you place the stress - either naturalism or per-sonalism - has severe consequences for the doctrine of God. As Gordon

12. Van den Brom, 'The Art of a Theo-ecological Interpretation', 310.

Kaufman has pointed out, once nature (including humanity) is regarded as the action of the creating and conserving God, a problem emerges. On the one hand, the Christian God is described in terms of a moral person-alism. On the other hand, the realm of nature is not easily explicated in terms of moral personalism.13 That is, modern views of nature tend towards naturalism. Furthermore, in modern ecological thinking, nature is interpreted as without telos. Nature appears to name a process not best described in terms of'dimensions of purpose, value and meaning'.14 Hence there is a tension between a moral and volitional description ofGod and a processive, naturalistic description of nature.15 It is not sufficient, then, to argue that the theological problem is the separation or disaggregation of humanity from nature and the world from God. We must also attend to the descriptive discourses ofpersonalism and naturalism as these are applied to God and the world.

Of especial importance in this discussion is which of the descriptions is to be applied to humanity. For Kaufman claims that, in the history of Christianity, personalistic description has been applied to God and humanity. Thereby a tendency emerges in which humanity is understood as other than nature. God and humanity have moral, volitional capacities (albeit they have these differently) that nature does not share. Thus nature is that which is operated upon by God and humanity. There remains, of course, a crucial ontological distinction between humanity and God. Yet a secondary distinction emerges: between humanity and 'nature'. 'Nature is not conceived primarily as man's proper home and the very source and sustenance of his being', Kaufman concludes, 'but rather as the context ofand material for teleological activity by the (nonnatural) wills working upon and in it'.16

I agree with Gordon Kaufman that the reductionism detected here -of'nature' having its end in humanity - must be opposed. Yet I fear that Kaufman is proposing a reductionism in the other direction: humanity

13. Hence the far-reaching reconstruction of God in pantheism proves largely indigestible to Christianity: the construal of nature as infinite turns upon a naturalistic metaphysics. Even the important distinction between natura naturans and natura naturata cannot rescue pantheism from its naturalism. On this view, the continued popularity of deism - on the grounds of its capacity to operate within moral personalism - is at least comprehensible.

14. Thomas, Man and the Natural World, p. 170.

15. Even here, matters are not simple: it is of great importance to the naturalism under discussion from which 'level' of nature the naturalistic terms are derived: biology privileges categories of life and vitality; physics privileges connection, energy and entropy.

16. Kaufman, 'A Problem for Theology', 353.

as having its end in nature. Hence, I shall be arguing for, and developing a conceptuality which supports, the claim of the commonality, yet distinction, of humanity and nature. For reference to God does not, I shall argue, draw humanity into a metaphysics based on categories (cognitive, volitional, moral) derived from the description of the interhuman sphere which has, in turn, the unhappy effect of separating humanity from nature.

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