Toward an Ecological Civilization: Whitehead and Ecological Democracy

I’ll be giving a couple of presentations at the upcoming conference, Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization, which is taking place early June in Claremont, California. It’s a massive assemblage of a few different conferences: the 10th International Whitehead Conference, the 9th International Forum on Ecological Civilization, the Inaugural Pando Populus Conference, the Pilgrim Place Centennial Celebration, and the Process & Faith Summer Institute.

I’m on a panel with some of my closest coconspirators discussing cosmopolitics and the Journey of the Universe project. I’ll have more to say about that later. I’m also happy to be part of a track focusing on Alfred North Whitehead’s contributions to the philosophy of religion. Here’s the abstract for the paper I’ll deliver for that track:

A Place for Ecological Democracy in Whitehead’s Philosophy of Religious Entanglements

In recent years, many scholars and activists have become increasingly engaged in efforts to understand the role of religion in the emergence of an ecologically oriented civilization.  Whiteheadian contributions to the philosophy of religion provide effective means for taking up that task—criticizing otherworldly and anthropocentric tendencies in religion and reconstructing more ecologically conscious and conscientious functions of religion.  By articulating religious phenomena as they are becoming or “in the making,” Whitehead and other process thinkers clarify the relational entanglement of aspects of religion that are often considered to be mutually exclusive opposites, such as transcendence/immanence, eternal/temporal, or God/world.  That clarification of religious entanglements highlights the positive potential of religion to express “world-loyalty” and thus support harmonious relations between humans and the community of life on Earth.  This paper presents a Whiteheadian philosophy of religious entanglements through an account of Whitehead’s recovery of Plato’s concept of the receptacle (hypodoche), that is, the place (chora) in which God and the world interpenetrate.  Following an account of Whitehead’s critical reconstruction of the receptacle, I consider how Whitehead’s philosophy of religion supports an ecological democracy, which facilitates harmonious human-Earth relations.

Whitehead finds the account of the receptacle in Plato’s Timaeus to be helpful in elucidating the understanding of space-time in twentieth-century physics, yet he also criticizes the emanationism and dualism in Plato’s account.  By reconstructing Plato’s receptacle, Whitehead posits a “community of locus,” that is, a network or “place” of internally interconnected entities.  Along these lines, Whitehead extends his analysis to Leibniz, criticizing the interconnectedness that Leibniz’s God externally imposes on monads, and replacing it with the interconnectedness that internally relates monads to one another and to God in a community of locus.  By situating God and the world in the dynamics of the receptacle, Whitehead undoes the omnipotence of God, so that the world is not subject to a transcendent monarchy but functions more like an ecological democracy, or in Whitehead’s terms, “a democracy of fellow creatures.”  In such a democracy, no religion can claim the high ground of otherworldly transcendence, which is to say, no religion can escape the vicissitudes of place or bypass the participation of fellow creatures.  Situated in the community of locus, religions are enjoined to participate democratically in the world.  This entails multiple figures of entanglement, including interfaith cooperation (including orthodox and heterodox perspectives) as well as dialogue between religion and science.  Furthermore, entangled in a democracy of creatures, religions are enjoined to facilitate harmonious relations at an ecological scale, which includes not only human-human or human-divine relations but also the full panoply of human-Earth relations.  Noting that Whitehead’s writing is not explicit about all of the environmental and social challenges facing ecological civilization, I conclude by considering how Catherine Keller’s theopoetics of becoming extends Whitehead’s concept of the receptacle to a more comprehensive and inclusive vision of ecological civilization, which overcomes the logic of domination that underlies contemporary problems of rapacious consumption, environmental destruction, and social injustice (e.g., racism, sexism, poverty, and neocolonialism).

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