Review of John Reader (2017). Theology and New Materialism: Spaces of Faithful Dissent

Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan. 162 pp. ISBN 9783319545103 (Hardcover)

Materiality as Block or Conduit for Relationality?

Albert Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus(1991), reflects on the absurdity of existence. For him, absurdity refers to the sense of the loss of meaning in life and connection to the world. He describes the sense of the utter difference of the world as materiality being ‘dense’. This denseness is described as ‘sensing to what degree a stone is foreign and irreducible to us, with what intensity nature or landscape can negate us. At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman… The primitive hostility of the world rises up to face us across the millennia’ (14). For him this experience of the difference and indifference of the material of the world to human experience is the loss of relationality and thereby the loss of meaning to existence. Materiality is seen as at odds with the quest for human meaning and an inert object separated from the human subject.

Recent thought, however, has moved against this deadened view of materiality. Rather, the loose collective of thinkers referred to as ‘New Materialists’ have in various ways sought to highlight the interactive flux of materiality and the entanglement of humanity within the material rather than as separated from it. The movement has become widespread enough to have attracted the attention of several theologians who wish to reframe theological reflection for a more ecologically and politically engaged understanding of faithful life. Among the leading theological engagements along these lines is John Reader’s Theology and New Materialism: Spaces of Faithful Dissent (2017).

The book is perhaps best seen as an elaboration on the theological approach of ‘Relational Christian Realism’, or RCR, which was introduced in the earlier A Philosophy of Christian Materialism, co-authored by Reader (Baker, James, and Reader 2015). The more recent book seeks to further develop several classic doctrinal loci in light of RCR and contemporary philosophical discussions. These doctrinal themes include transcendence, human agency, the role and capacity of human reason, and the nature of Christian engagement with the political. All of these topics call forth a consideration of the role of materiality in an RCR approach to Christian theology, hence the connection to the New Materialists. For Reader, a central theme in addressing these concerns is the challenge of directly connecting the relational and apophatic aspects of theological thought.

Transcendence and Materialism

Following in the tradition of theological naturalism from figures such as Paul Tillich, Reader aims to move theological thought away from its tendency towards excessive focus on discussions of a reality beyond this one. His approach to realism calls for a focus on material existence in the world. He finds the New Materialist approach helpful in that it considers matter in a non-reductionist manner that allows a space to consider spiritual dimensions as well as forging connection to ecological concerns. The sense of the dynamic flux of the material typical of New Materialist thought is appealing for Reader’s project in its call to embrace a vibrant immanence. A high valuation on the plane of immanence is thus central to his vision of RCR:

As argued by RCR, an ontology of immanence removes the traditional concept of God as an external determining force with reference to which Christians can definitively shape and control their lives. An ontology of immanence moves instead towards a view of humans as thoroughly entangled with non-humans in a world where there is no hierarchy of beings and there may be no definitive human determination of what happens in the world. So, traditional doctrines of God, creation and indeed humanity itself are brought into question and in need of reconfiguration. (Reader 2017: 18)

Yet Reader also rightly recognizes the concept of transcendence as being a central feature of Christian thought, and so to lose a sense of transcendence altogether would be to lose too much of the insights and ethical impulse of the doctrinal tradition of Christianity. Therefore, he seeks ways of reclaiming the concept of transcendence for a realist worldview. He thus interrogates several contemporary philosophical theologians, especially Catherine Keller, John Caputo, and Richard Kearney, to engage their proposals for retaining and reviving a sense of the transcendent.

Reader frames transcendence as ‘going beyond’. However, he questions the need for seeing this ‘beyond’ as referring to location, such as being beyond this world; rather, he lifts up transcendence as a ‘beyond’ that lies within the plane of immanence. This approach lends itself to the apophatic gesture of Christian mysticism. The transcendent is the unspeakable ‘more’ of existence. Yet the challenge for the apophatic approach to transcendence is to avoid falling into an individualism that loses the dynamic relational interdependence of material existence that is central to a New Materialist view of immanence. He explains:

A shorthand way of explaining this is to say that RCR has focused upon the relational aspect of what can be learned from contemporary philosophy, but that the weaknesses of both this approach and that which draws upon NM around the issues of transcendence and indeed human subjectivity require more reference to the apophatic tradition within Christianity in order to draw out the faith element of the equation. (Reader 2017: 22)

This tension can also be seen as the divide between strands of Continental philosophy: a Levinasian emphasis on difference (corresponding to the apophatic) and a Deleuzian sense of radical immanence (the relational). Reader finds all of the theological voices he engages as recognizing the difficulty of directly relating the apophatic and the relational, but he ultimately finds their attempts at bridging the gap to fall short. He alternately proposes employing a modified sense of Deleuze’s concept of ‘the virtual’ to speak of God:

So, God is a power or powers that are somehow hidden within the actual, along the same plane of immanence with them but not among them as one actuality among others… A particular trajectory is proposed in this first exposition of RCR, whereby the divine virtual is experienced in and through the life of Christ, although not exclusively so and without any guarantees of final success. (Reader 2017: 21)

I am generally congenial to Reader’s aims and have no objection to drawing on this sense of the virtual to speak of God. It seems to me to be a natural development from the Schelling tradition of God as ground and unground, which can be traced through Tillich into contemporary theologies.

The tension between relationality and apophasis comes into even sharper focus as Reader turns to aesthetics. He traces the ways that after the ‘death of God’ aesthetics has been explored as means of seeking a transcendence that does not leave the plain of immanence, noting the increased popularity of turning to the aesthetic experience as a means of encountering the apophatic transcendence. He sees such discussions in light of Kant’s distinction between the Sublime and the Beautiful:

[The Sublime] is as if by going beyond what reason itself can appreciate and accommodate, we become clearer about reason’s own operation and limitations, thus it is still involved if only in a negative sense. The Beautiful, by contrast, is that which can be openly discussed and shared with others by reference to concepts which are part of the normal functioning of our reasoning. (Reader 2017: 103)

Yet Reader also takes seriously the concerns that such a move to aesthetics effectively eliminates the category of the religious and falls under the sway of commerce, thus blunting the political force of the transcendent. While giving nuanced attention to these concerns, they ultimately cannot be merely argued away. Rather, he finds the Sublime and the Beautiful, art and politics, faith and politics, and the apophatic and relational to be inherent tensions that cannot be resolved but rather must be held in paradoxical tension. Such an act of holding paradoxical tension itself reflects the dynamics of faith commitment.

A perhaps helpful addition to Reader’s discussion here would be Emily Brady’s (2013) sense of the sublime as that which shatters the calming effect of beauty, opening the ground and abyss of vibrant, living infinity. The Sublime in this sense comes unbidden, shaking open an isolated sense of self to an engaged relationality. Such an aesthetic sensibility has a spiritual dimension that philosopher Robert Corrington terms variously ‘ecstatic naturalism’ or ‘aesthetic naturalism’ (Corrington 2013).

Human Agency and the Political

While discussions of relationality, apophasis, and aesthetics may seem overly abstracted and anti-material, Reader’s aim is a theology that entails political engagement. He continually points to the need for an understanding of the religious that entails positive contributions to society and condemns the violent strains of religious thought. At the same time, he resists being pinned to a specific political plan, instead insisting on an open-endedness. The path from the apophatic and the relational to the political goes through discussions of human agency and human reason. It is in these discussions that his engagement with New Materialist thought particularly comes to the fore. The vibrant relationality of NM brings into question the capacity of the human to act with any real sense of agency. Reader wants theology to hold to some sense of agency in order to be able to speak meaningfully about faith.

The focus on collective and interdependent action from New Materialist constructions such as Jane Bennett’s vibrant matter and Manuel DeLanda’s use of the image of assemblages calls into question the capacity of individual decision-making and indeed the concept of the autonomous individual itself. Highlighting the interplay of complex interactions helpfully decenters the individual. At the same time, Reader is concerned that such focus on the web of interactions can lead to a loss of ethical imperative; he thus calls for considering human autonomy anew, although in a limited form. He sees this autonomy being expressed through the appeal to apophatic transcendence, holding, ‘[t]he apophatic and the relational are both required in order to motivate the human agent into effective action, albeit as part of the particular assemblages, machines, or collectives in which one happens to be entangled’ (64). Without some form of transcendence, in other words, Reader sees no impetus or ability to work towards ideals of justice; relationality without any sense of greater purpose too easily falls from ardent striving for care of the other into a weak resignation.

Beyond the issue of the ethical/political, theology must also deal with the question of what it means to have faith and how that faith shapes action. Reader’s concern is not to allow the concept of faith to fall into ‘mere belief’, a trajectory he identifies stemming from Kant to Quentin Meillassoux. Such a sense of intellectual assent in the non-rational excludes faithful engagement with the material. Reader insists on compatibility of faith and reason, locating faith in the space of negotiating the tension between the apophatic and the relational. He suggests, ‘[r]eason, at least in some forms, requires an element of faith, and the attempts to communicate faith, in some forms, require reference to reason as encountered in human communication’ (81). This tension between reason and faith leads him to reconsiderations of human reason and whether the Enlightenment is a project that can be reclaimed. He engages thinkers like Bernard Stiegler, who sees contemporary formulations of reason as having been reduced to its instrumental aspect. Stiegler highlights that the possibility remains that knowledge as critical thought can occur; thus, it has duel possibilities as helpful or harmful.

I will admit to finding this portion of the book the least engaging for me. There are two levels to this response. On one level, I have enough of a traditional Lutheran streak to my thought to shy away from discussions of faith that imply it involves imitative rather than response, leading to a lessened concern about issues of human agency. I stand much more closely with Tillich’s definition of faith as the state of being grasped. That is, I do not understand faith as an intellectual decision that arises from human autonomy, but rather as a response to the forces of interrelatedness that decenters illusions of autonomy. Such an understanding of faith need not be supernatural, as it harkens to the effect of the Sublime. This is not a rejection of reason or a reduction of faith to ‘mere belief’. Rather, it frames faith as a complex response to the matrix of possibility within the web of relationality that cannot be considered autonomously. Such a framing inherently calls for a limited but notable understanding of human agency, just as Reader attempts to articulate.

The other concern is that the reclamation of the Enlightenment is done entirely within a framework of Western philosophical debate. Insofar as that goes, the themes are useful. As a theological work, however, it is overly limited. While Reader recognizes that the intensity of the secular/religious divide is a particularly European phenomenon, he misses the opportunity to draw from other frameworks of thought, instead relying on internal European discussions for addressing the divide between faith and reason. An intellectual strength of the Christian theological tradition is that while the European intellectual tradition has always been an important part of it, Christianity has always been a multi-cultural movement that draws on a variety of intellectual systems. Various streams of global Christian theology that employ non-Western frameworks of thought could have contributed greatly to a theological consideration of the continuing value of the Enlightenment for Christian thought, as well as highlighting its limitations.

Theology, New Materialism, and the Digital

Perhaps of particular interest for postdigital thought is Reader’s engagement with Yuk Hui’s understanding of the existence of digital objects. Hui argues that in the digital, there is no space dimension, but only relation. Digital technologies can analyse data that reveal hidden relationships. In so doing, it becomes possible to project possible futures into the present, thus re-orienting a sense of time into a dynamic opening of possibility. For Reader, this sense of digital objects opens new questions of the apophatic as well as of human agency within assemblages that include the digital. Some form of apophasis that can point to transcendence becomes necessary to avoid a digital determinism and speaks to an irrupting depth within the spaceless relationality of digital embeddedness. Such a sense is necessary in order to imagine alternative potential futures. Imagination of this sort, meanwhile, is necessary in order to have the capacity to envision beyond the status quo towards a political vision of justice.

From the religious perspective, the apophatic entangled within the digitally embedded relationality can be rendered in faith terms, Reader suggests. The image of the ‘Kingdom of God’ represents the simultaneously present and non-present split of the actual and virtual potentiality in each moment. I would suggest that this postdigital refiguring of such a key Christian metaphor is Reader’s most effective moment of tying together the themes he aims to address in the book and a significantly helpful addition to all contemporary theological discourse.

Connection Beyond Absurdity

In sum, Reader’s book is a dense read (though not in sense Camus offered!), but one rich in reflection on the tensions between the reality of intensely relational existence and the ecstatic expression of excess that together speak to the religious impulse entangled in material existence. The enduring theme of the relational and the apophatic is a helpful exploration into how these components function for both an ecologically aware and politically engaged theology and also within reflections based in Continental philosophy. It helps to move conversation beyond viewing the materiality of existence as absurdity that represents an obstruction to connection and meaning. Rather, it is a profusion of connection that produces unfathomable meaning.

At the same time, I would not recommend using Theology and New Materialism as a starting point for engaging RCR or the ways that contemporary theologians are engaging New Materialism. I would suggest starting with A Philosophy of Christian Materialism(Baker et al. 2015) and Keller and Rubenstein’s Entangled Worlds(2017) to give greater context first, then using Theology and New Materialism(Reader 2017) to move into greater depth. Within that greater depth, however, Reader has provided a helpful mapping of philosophical engagements that can guide further development of dialogue between theology and New Materialism.


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Correspondence to Eric Trozzo.

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Trozzo, E. Review of John Reader (2017). Theology and New Materialism: Spaces of Faithful Dissent. Postdigit Sci Educ (2020).

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