Theological Implications of Object-Oriented Philosophy

An increasing number of new books are engaging speculative realism and object-oriented ontology in terms of their implications for theology and philosophy of religion. A good anthology of approaches is The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion, edited by Clayton Crockett, B. Keith Putt, and Jeffrey W. Robbins. One of the chapters in that book (“The Persistence of the Trace,” by Steven Shakespeare) cites a short piece I wrote in March 2011, “Theological Implications of Object-Oriented Philosophy: Factishes, Imperatives, and Cthulhu.” It was originally posted on the esteemed blog, Knowledge Ecology.

It was a guest post, and it’s expiration date has passed, so it’s not up anymore. I’m posting it here. [NB: this was only an abstract.  For a more thorough account of theological (and ecological) implications of object-oriented ontology in relationship to process, poststructuralist, and ecofeminist theologies, read On the Verge of a Planetary Civilization].

Theological Implications of Object-Oriented Philosophy: Factishes, Imperatives, and Cthulhu

This paper explores the theological implications of Graham Harman’s philosophy.  The paper has four parts: 1) a brief overview of Harman’s philosophy; 2) an account of his postsecular adaptation of phenomenological, process, and occasionalist philosophies; 3) an extrapolation of three ways of figuring God(s) using Harman’s object-oriented philosophy; and 4) a consideration of some benefits of further developing object-oriented theology.

Graham Harman is a philosopher from the United States with roots in the continental philosophical tradition.  He is a founding member of two emerging schools of thought, speculative realism and object-oriented philosophy.  The term object-oriented philosophy was coined by Harman in 1999, and speculative realism emerged as a movement in 2007 at a conference in London that featured Harman along with the movement’s other founding members (Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, and Quentin Meillassoux).  Speculative realism is the newer and broader movement.  As speculative, it enacts a return of metaphysics to continental thought after centuries of post-Kantian prohibitions.  As realism, it affirms a reality that exists independent of any human access, thus critiquing “philosophies of access,” according to which humans cannot speak of a reality independent of thinking but can only access the correlation between thinking and being.

Harman’s philosophy is a kind of speculative realism that proposes a metaphysics of objects, attempting to account for the reality of things without reducing them to their constituent parts or a pre-individual continuum (“undermining) or to their appearances, effects, or relations (“overmining”).  Harman articulates this metaphysics by drawing on many philosophical sources, including specific attention to the following: 1) phenomenology, especially Heidegger (whose tool analysis indicates that all objects are withdrawn and not exhausted by theoretical or practical relations), and to a lesser extent Levinas, Merleau-Ponty, and Alphonso Lingis (“carnal phenomenologists” who articulate the elemental medium through which things interact), 2) process-relational philosophy, particularly Alfred North Whitehead and Bruno Latour, for whom human-world relations are not primary but are merely a special case of any relation, different only by degree, and 3) occasionalist philosophy, which asserts that objects do not touch each other directly but only through occasional causation (Harman’s “vicarious causation”).

Harman’s metaphysics precludes ontotheology, which explains all objects according to one exemplary object (God), and it also precludes secularism, such as any naturalism, materialism, or skepticism that would explain objects according to natural laws, material relations, mechanisms, or habits of the human mind.  With an openness to religious realities that is neither ontotheological nor secular, object-oriented philosophy could be called postsecular (although Harman does not use this term).  Harman’s postsecularity is evident in his integration of philosophies that carry heavy theological baggage, specifically the French and Islamic philosophies of occasionalism (in which God provides the occasions through which all causation happens), Whitehead’s philosophy (which has been foundational for the entire school of process theology), and phenomenological philosophies (which have expressed theological tendencies even before the debated “theological turn” in phenomenology).  In short, the lack of an ontotheological God in Harman’s philosophy does not preclude the reality of a different God or gods.  Indeed, object-oriented philosophy makes room for an object-oriented theology, wherein divinity can be articulated in at least three ways.

First, God is one object among others, analogous to a fetish or, more perhaps more appropriately, to what Latour refers to as “factish gods,” which have real autonomy and are not merely constructed (although Harman and Latour would define this autonomy differently).  Second, God is infinitely other, expressing imperatives not only to and from the faces of other humans (Levinas) but to and from all human and nonhuman objects.  Third, God is a withdrawn no-thingness that, according to Roland Faber, bears some resemblances to the God of process (Whitehead) and occasionalist (al-Ghazali) philosophies and, according to Harman, resembles Cthulhu—a colossal, terrifying, and indescribable extraterrestrial monster known as the sleeping God of H. P. Lovecraft’s “weird fiction.”  In sum, any deity is an object, and even objects that are not deities nonetheless express and receive imperatives of divine otherness, and such otherness is an apophatic mystery such that the reality of objects is unexpressed, “dormant,” infinitely withdrawn.

These ways of theorizing about God(s) point to some important contributions of object-oriented philosophy for theology.  Some of those contributions would align with many other figures in Continental thought, especially the critique of ontotheology and the affinity for theologies of radical alterity.  There are at least five other benefits of developing object-oriented theology.

First, Harman does not merely criticize ontotheology.  His philosophy provides a theory that supports constructive articulations of the ways in which factish gods emerge and are real objects of worship, prayer, contemplation, etc.  It accounts for the actual emergence of divinities and for their transformation through the forging of different relations with other objects (people, technologies, geographical areas, armies, etc.).

Second, object-oriented philosophy facilitates a democratization of divinity through its analysis of imperatives, which are expressed not only by a wholly Other God or by humans but by every object, whether human or nonhuman, natural or artificial.  This opens possibilities for pantheist and panentheist theologies, similar to some panpsychist theories with which Harman is somewhat sympathetic.

Third, this philosophy overcomes anthropocentric tendencies in theology, particularly insofar as human-divine relations do not have primacy but are only a special case of the relations with divinity that take place in any objects.  This could support eco-theologians who are developing non-anthropocentric environmental ethics, wherein the natural world is pervaded by intrinsic values distinct from human values.

Fourth, object-oriented philosophy promotes an ecumenical or integrative approach that puts multiple theological traditions into contact with one another.  Harman integrates insights from French and Islamic occasionalism, process philosophy, and phenomenology, while also expressing resonances polytheisms and animisms as well as the monotheisms of apophatic mysticism.  Future work with object-oriented theology will be even more integrative, including the aforementioned Western philosophies together with Eastern and indigenous philosophies.

Fifth, object-oriented philosophy integrates multiple theologies while maintaining a speculative openness to non-theological approaches to figuring the withdrawal of objects, embracing theological images as well as images from mythology, science fiction, everyday experience, and more.


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