Symposium Introduction

Everything is about political theology. It always has been. But I think theologians and theorists alike are just now getting used to the idea. I mean, sure, it’s really uncomfortable. (Have you read Mark Lila?) Plus, the very idea of political theology is complicated and controversial because it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous for obvious reasons. For one, it’s powerful; the admission inherent in political theology, especially the work of thinking theologically and politically together, is that both theology and politics are far more effective when done together. They have the ability to move people toward shame and fear, towards anxiety and power, toward domination and control as the core modalities of their life, or towards vulnerability and openness, towards uncertainty and hope, towards dissent and instability. So yeah, everyone wants to do political theology now because you have to get those impressions.

Michael Hogue writes American Immanence from the core religious and theological belief that human persons need political theology to live well in the Anthropocene era. And he writes specifically about the Anthropocene era, since it is in this contextual lens that we find ourselves asking the only questions that matter: questions that narrow the horizon to the natural (keep in mind that for Hogue, to say that ‘nature is all’ is to also say that ‘nature is infinite’; the ‘narrowing’ of naturalism is rather expansive, to be sure) and that position human beings within nature, as belonging to it, responsible for it, reliant on it. To whom do we turn to answer the questions that emerge from Anthropocene? Of course, Hogue insists, we turn to “pragmatically naturalist, radically empirical, and process relational lineages of American immanence” (14). Now Michael Hogue is a full professor at Meadville Lombard Theological School, which means he’s really good at explaining complicated ideas, so if you’re worried because you aren’t sure who or what he means by pragmatic naturalism, radical empiricism, or process relational thought, don’t worry. He writes another 160 or so pages on all of that, and about 125 of them are good. Like, really good. So the book is definitely worth the price.

Hogue’s argument in American Immanence is straightforward: the Anthropocene paradox raises important questions, all of which are at the uncomfortable intersection of the political and the theological. Hogue sees this as an important opportunity to address what he calls the fourth major trial facing American life: the uncertain future of democracy. It is the philosophical and theological traditions of American immanence (the aforementioned threesome of pragmatic naturalism, radical empiricism, or process relational thought) that are best suited to address these questions, thus opening the door for fresh and creative ways of reimagining the future of democracy in the context of deep and abiding uncertainty. So that’s what the book promises to be about. And, boy, does it deliver.

The symposium on American Immanence is impressive. The four essays are by thoughtful, sincere, and insightful people. They ask hard and fun questions, and they get challenging and equally fun answers back from Hogue. That’s what Syndicate is all about.

Thurman Willison dives right in and takes Hogue on (in a critically appreciative way of course) on properly Whiteheadian distinctions between persons and worlds, feeling and knowing. He affirms much of what Hogue details in core sections of the book, but he wonders whether there’s still room in Hogue’s account to affirm “the exceptional quality of personal existence.”

Donald Crosby begins with a discussion of terms. Specifically, he wonders about the term “theology,” and whether it is only appropriate for theism and so too narrow for what Hogue, a leading religious naturalist, is doing when he’s evoking discourse on the sacred? Additionally, Crosby raises concerns about a few more terms, including the relationship between feeling and knowing. But his analysis of whatever is meant by ‘theology’ is where this essay shines.

Bob Mesle explores Hogue’s concept of relational power in some depth. He notes its social and political salience not only for the discussion about American immanence in the book but  also about the book’s thesis that the immanentist tradition is uniquely suited to shape our imaginations about whatever it is we think we are doing when we do politics. Mesle’s essay is beautiful and rich. It contains a lot for those readers who don’t know the primary sources as well as Hogue and his interlocutors.

From the opening pages, Hogue builds his argument on the basis of sharply delineated oppositions. There are many, and they are all diametrical and irresolvable. Shelley Dennis asks whether this way of framing the matter is all that necessary or helpful. She recasts the argument as one of contrast rather than opposition: “transformation of opposition into contrast calls us to be more faithful, whether we perceive ourselves to be theists, traditional or otherwise, or secular progressives working to reinvigorate democracy.”



American Immanence and the Person

In American Immanence, Michael Hogue draws upon the American philosophical traditions of pragmatic naturalism, radical empiricism, and process thought in order to provide a compelling alternative to the dominant ethos of human (and particularly American) exceptionalism currently ruling over our collective theopolitical imagination and preventing us from effectively responding to the major political, social, and ecological crises of our time. Hogue finds in these dissenting traditions of immanence key insights that can help to usher in what he calls a “bifocal theopolitics” of “resilient democracy” and “world-loyalty” (5–6). These insights include:

  1. The rejection of the idea that humans are ontologically distinct from nature and therefore entitled to omnipotent sovereignty over nature.
  2. An acknowledgment that we “experience the world” within a broader and deeper “world of experience” that is more-than-human and in which “agency and value are distributed through the whole of nature’s patterns, processes, and precarities rather than concentrated within or monopolized by a particular species, ethnoracial group, nation, political economy, or concept of God” (77).
  3. An ethics of inquiry that sees moral and aesthetic value as emergent, contextual, experimental, attained through risk, and aimed toward melioristic consequences rather than grounded in antecedent principles.
  4. An embrace that “nature is all there is and that it is in process,” which demands that we accept vulnerability, uncertainty, and contingency as existential conditions of our lives (79).
  5. The understanding that “we feel the world before we know it” and that our subjectivity is the effect of pre-cognitive experience rather than its cause (92).
  6. An orientation toward both the internal and external interrelatedness of all creation, which “ennobles shared and cooperative power and supports an ethics and politics that is collaborative, democratic, and ecological” (8).

Hogue’s hope is that these insights might help us to “see more clearly how the planetary and the local and the ultimate and the intimate are immanent with one another,” pushing us toward a more “empathic, emancipatory, and equitable” form of democracy as well as a more expansive loyalty to the concerns of a more-than-human world (156). Indeed, Hogue thinks that the most intimate transformations of human life are made possible only when we look beyond the human to the creative and aesthetic potential of the world (or nature) as such, aiming ultimately to harmonize and intensify our human experience with nature’s own evolving beauty.

This sentiment of increasing our own inner capacity for more resilient, democratic forms of life through the expansion of our loyalty to a broader cosmic horizon rings true to the ear. Certainly, the alternative of self-consciously limiting our moral and aesthetic purview to a preconceived set of human ideals and ambitions, fixed from the start, has dangerous implications for our ability to adapt to ecological crisis and catastrophe. But the question remains, just how expansive can world-loyalty be before it ceases to be loyalty to anything in particular? In other words, what does it mean to be loyal to “all-there-is,” even if we mean this in the immanent mode of conceiving “all-there-is” to be intimately and internally related to the most local and immediate concerns of finite human life? At what point do we have to provide some actual parameters around the kind of world toward which we seek to be loyal?

I suggest adding an extra word to what Hogue calls “world-loyalty,” calling it instead “personal-world-loyalty.” I suspect that no matter how sincere our intention, loyalty to the world as such, especially one that is “infinite and inexhaustible,” “without a center,” and without a discernible purpose (though it is inclusive of all purposes), is simply too abstract an enterprise to be worthy of what the term “loyalty” connotes (5). Genuine and sincere human loyalty can be directed only toward a specific kind of world, i.e., the kind that supports personal life. It is possible to say this without necessarily implicating oneself in ontological dualism or the undue privileging of human consciousness.

First of all, persons need not be necessarily human. A person is any being who is capable of even a minimal degree of purposive self-awareness and conscious agency. Humans are not the only persons in the world and our loyalty should always extend beyond the interests of our own species. Also, persons emerge, as Hogue argues, from nature’s processes and are always embedded within and related to a more-than-personal evolutionary context. Therefore, we can’t magically isolate persons as objects of our loyalty as if we could amputate them from the world in which they live and by which they are sustained. Finally, by “personal world,” I do not mean that nature is somehow grounded in or conditioned by some prior personal reality. I simply mean that our world is person-laden and that we live in the world exclusively as personal beings, uniquely related to other personal beings, and inescapably invested in maintaining the reality of personal life. Any notion of an impersonal world, beyond or after personal life, is not only inaccessible to us but is also a matter of total indifference.

The climate crisis is an extinction crisis. It shouldn’t be defined as a crisis for the planet per se, the world itself, or nature as such. It is rather, distinctively, a crisis for persons. Hogue understands this, which is why his theopolitics is bifocal, turning both inwardly to the world of persons and their common purposes, values, and interests as well as outwardly to the full scope of the universe in one mutually co-entailed step. But Hogue’s personalistic emphasis can be overshadowed at times by his naturalism. He revels in the unfolding aesthetic beauty of the world and the “emergent creativity of the cosmos” (180), highlighting pluralistic, manifold complexity as well as the “creatural and contingent vulnerability” (165–66) of persons within a centerless and infinitely entangled reality. He points out the relative and provisional nature of every “creatural center of value,” the basis of value in organic, metabolic processes, the cosmic ambiguity of value, and the prismatic character of value as “a portal through which others’ meanings and values, whether consciously held or not, can be seen, felt, and affirmed, or not” (144–46). This certainly helps to remind us that any value we have is precarious and should be open to revision and empathically attune to all other centers of values to which we are related. But then again, even the most immanent of ethical paradigms cannot escape the need to be centered upon a nonnegotiable commitment to sustaining personal life, not just for the sake of some ever-shifting cosmic aesthetic, but rather for the sake of the irreducible importance of persons themselves.

In other words, there are limits to our ability as persons to extend our empathy and our loyalty ever outward to the cosmos and to all potential centers of value. Any planetary ethos we can imagine must inevitably be a personal ethos. Indeed, it is a personal world, and not an impersonal one, that we are ultimately trying to save and to preserve. A world without persons is frankly an impersonal conjecture in which we have no stake.

Hogue does not contradict this claim. The largest emphasis of his book is how persons are to resiliently and democratically cope, in moral, spiritual, and political ways, with the uncertainty and ambiguity of rapidly shifting ecological conditions for the sake of their own survival and flourishing. He recognizes the urgent and objective importance of this task, and in this sense, his overall project is deeply personal. Though he relativizes the values distinct to personal life and places them without ontological preference into the cosmic swirl of all other values in the universe, he is right to say that “one can remain devoted to and morally oriented by objectively grounded meanings, purposes, and values even if they are contingent, relative, and contextual” (148).

Still, I am inclined to push for more emphasis on the genuine ontological distinctness of the value of persons. American Immanence reflects a broad tendency within immanental philosophies and theologies to decenter the phenomenon of the person by emphasizing the subpersonal, impersonal, or super-personal processes that underlie and surround personal life. There is a certain attraction within immanent modes of thought to thoroughly aestheticize the world and to emphasize the role of feeling, instinct, affect, impulse, harmonic resonance, creativity, and vital materiality in shaping what the world becomes. The world is imagined not so much as a world of persons, but a world, in Whitehead’s terms, of occasions, events, quantum interaction, atomic agency, experiential flow, and cosmic unfolding. While this helps to correct dangerous tendencies in our thinking to idolize human rationality and conscious will over the oceanic precognitive territory of life from which we emerge, it is important not to slip too far in the direction of de-personalizing our conception of the world. For in a very real sense, if the world ceases to be a world of persons, it ceases to be a world at all.

Most of what makes the world a world to us becomes so only in tandem with one very peculiar natural force: the person. Take away the person and one is left only with the barest abstraction of temporally related events with no hypothesized cosmic vision of how they are connected in time and space. Even though occasions and events would happen as they happen, nobody would be aware of it in any significant sense. Though values of a kind would continue to be achieved, purposes would continue to be pursued, and instinctive interests and metabolic needs would continue to be satisfied, nobody would have sufficient perspective of there being a world of which to speak or to which to be loyal.

While I agree with Hogue that, in a sense, we feel the world before we know it, I also think it is important to remind ourselves that persons are beings that continuously feel and know the world simultaneously in ways that can’t be easily partitioned. This unique combination of feeling and knowing the world is precisely what makes persons unlike any other center of value in the universe of which we are aware. Persons would cease to be persons if they devolved into sites of pure feeling, just as they would if they became stoic, disembodied arenas of pure thought. My point is that philosophies and theologies of immanence should guard against the temptation to deflate too much the importance of self-conscious rationality and purposiveness in persons.

I would go so far as to say that a world without rational, self-conscious, and purposive awareness would not be much of a world. I’m sure this exposes me to charges of ontological dualism and exceptionalism. But I cannot help but marvel at how truly exceptional it is to be able to personally experience the world as a cognitively aware, valuing, feeling, rational, and willing being. When this capacity for personal life disappears from the universe, the game, as we know it, is over. Whatever aesthetic wonder and value persists beyond that, presumably, will sorely lack the kind of witness that unveils the appearance of worlds and makes possible an appreciation for the boundless multiplicity and complexity of all value throughout the cosmos. It strikes me that persons, in this sense, play an ontologically distinct role in the universe that sets them apart from other centers of value. Without persons, it seems that reality, the universe, nature, and all planetary worlds, in many significant ways, would disappear from meaningful view.

To sum up, I think one can have a truly immanental approach to the world that acknowledges ontological relatedness, evolutionary process, emergent subjectivity, affective and empathic forms of knowing, non-human agency and value, etc., and still not shy away from affirming the exceptional quality of personal existence and the urgent demand to insure its survival. Hogue seems to agree with this in his own way, since he is careful throughout not to bifurcate broad cosmic appreciation from the intimate intensity of negotiating our personal existence within an ecological context of uncertainty, vulnerability, and precariousness.

With this existence, of course, comes great moral responsibility. Hogue is particularly attune to this, writing:

The alchemy of consciousness, empathy, and agency yields moral responsibility. This responsibility emerges out of our awareness that human life is inextricably interwoven with the rest of life, that other lives besides our own have purposes and values, that life as such seems to be rare in the Universe, and that we as a species have far more power than any other living thing to manipulate the conditions upon which life depends. By becoming a massive planetary force, we humans have also become nature’s custodians of value. . . . Though we are newborns on this far-flung planet, swirling aside the fathomless geometry of a Universe without edges, we have crossed a threshold that no other living thing on Earth has ever crossed. No living species other than our own has ever become a cause of the mass extinction of other living things. (150)

This strikes me as the core sentiment of American Immanence—that persons, with their unique alchemy, have passed such a moral threshold that their emergence from and dependence upon an unfathomable cosmic history and context has itself transformed into a custodianship. We are presented now with the threat that we may become the cause of not only the extinction of our own species but also the extinction of all persons and all life itself. If we are not careful, a Universe may live on, but life very well may not. We need an orientation that embraces this moral responsibility with appropriate seriousness and effectiveness, and as Hogue argues, we will miss the mark if we suppose ourselves to transcend the world. We can only be an immanent force for good or for ill within it, and this moral, spiritual, political, and very personal choice is the most urgent and pressing one of our lives.


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    Michael S. Hogue


    Reply to Willison

    In his review essay, Thurman Todd Willison offers what every author hopes for in a review—an appreciative critique. An appreciative critique is one that increases, expands, or enriches the meanings and possibilities of what it engages. It includes, as Willison’s review does, a clear summary of the author’s argument, a concise review of the main claims, a distillation of the point or purpose, and a trajectory of critique or questioning that opens new lines of inquiry. Appreciative critics understand that authors write books and articles because they believe that they have something worth saying—a perspective to contribute on a topic, a way of seeing things or finding or making meaning of things that they want to express. Appreciative critics also understand that what authors have to say emerges not only through independent reflection on their varied experiences of the world, but also through what they have learned by engaging others and participating in a larger conversation in a larger world of experience. Understanding all of this, appreciative critics contribute new layers of perspective into the larger conversation by weaving into their interpretations something that they have to say, which, as with the author’s perspective, does not emerge ex nihilo, but develops though the conversations they have been having.

    Willison’s appreciative critique of my book brings together several larger conversations, or traditions of thought, in some generative ways. The issue at hand is the metaphysical, ethical, and hermeneutic significance of the category of person, and the tradition of personalism with which Willison has been in conversation for some time. Willison identifies the deep motivating concern in my book—not the only concern, but the context for the others, as an existential and ethical concern. Although this concern preceded my work as a scholar and educator, it took shape through my earlier work on the Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas.1 I articulate this concern in chapter 4 of my book (150), but Willison expresses it well at the end of his essay when he writes, “This strikes me as the core sentiment of American Immanence—that persons, with their unique alchemy [of consciousness, empathy, and agency], have passed such a moral threshold that their emergence from and dependence upon an unfathomable cosmic history and context has itself transformed into a custodianship.” We have become morally responsible, as a species (although, as I write in my book, not all of us to the same degree), for the future of planetary life, which is to say, we have become responsible for that upon which we depend. This is the moral threshold, and paradox, that defines the Anthropocene.

    Now, Willison’s argument is that, if this is so, then the category of person deserves more stature in my project. As he observes, my constructive argument is organized around the co-inherence of the planetary and the personal, which is why I refer to my political theology as binocular. But my critical argument can be summarized as a critique of all forms of exceptionalism—ontological, species, racial, theological, and otherwise. Willison’s question, as I understand it, is whether my critique of all forms of exceptionalism, and my appeal to a process-relational metaphysics, undercuts, or is at the very least insufficient to, the motivating ethical (and political) concerns of my project. His sense is that this is so, and that the category of person and the tradition of personalism (which he doesn’t explicitly identify in his essay) could help me out of what he sees as a bind.

    As I interpret it, Willison’s rationale for this has to do with the scope and nature of moral empathy, which he expresses negatively when he writes, “there are limits to our ability as persons to extend our empathy and our loyalty ever outward to the cosmos and to all potential centers of value,” and positively when he writes, “even the most immanent of ethical paradigms cannot escape the need to be centered upon a nonnegotiable commitment to sustaining personal life.” In sum, “Any planetary ethos we can imagine must inevitably be a personal ethos. Indeed, it is a personal world, and not an impersonal one, that we are ultimately trying to save and to preserve.”

    As I said, Willison’s critique is appreciative; it generatively provokes me to further reflection and development of my project. I will conclude by identifying the questions I am left with, for ongoing conversation with Willison and others. First, I do not think that it is only or ultimately a personal world that concerns me. Although I am intimately concerned with a personal world, I would argue that this entails that I (and we) should also be concerned, even ultimately, with the sub-, supra-, and trans-personal precarities, processes, and patterns of nature naturing upon which all personal worlds depend. Second, like Willison, I am very interested in such things as moral empathy, and the moral imagination, and the phenomenology of moral motivation. I am less sure than Willison seems to be that moral empathy is intrinsically interpersonal. Rather, I continue to wonder whether the problem is that we (especially those of us influenced by Western philosophical traditions) haven’t sufficiently developed our moral imaginations to be attuned empathically to sub-, supra-, and trans-personal (or impersonal) centers and matrices of value. Third, while Willison is clear that the category persons is not monopolized by human persons, I am unclear whether consciousness or sentience is a necessary element of persons, as he conceives of them. If being a center of experience is personally sufficient, then experiential entities like Whitehead’s “actual occasions” could fit into the category; but if consciousness is the criterion, then even many forms of his personally ordered societies would seem not to meet the mark—for Whitehead, after all, conscious experience is but the tip of the experience iceberg. And if consciousness is a prerequisite of persons, then the category of persons would seem to drastically reduce the ontological inventory of things that matter, both intimately and ultimately. In other words, while persons and some lineage of personalism may help to address problems of moral motivation and empathy, it is just not entirely clear to me how much (by way of exception) personalism would entail giving up metaphysically and theologically. In other words, can personalism allow us to eat our (ethical) cake and have it (our immanental theology) at the same time? I look forward to continuing the conversation . . .

    1. See Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), and Michael S. Hogue, The Tangled Bank: Towards an Ecotheological Ethics of Responsible Participation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2008).

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      Thurman Todd Willison


      Persons and Ontological Inventory

      I am very grateful that Michael Hogue, in his reply, has identified my response to American Immanence as an “appreciative critique.” This is how I hoped my response would be received, and I in turn feel like my line of questioning to Hogue has been appreciatively incorporated into the conversation that American Immanence is meant to provoke. Hogue has done a thorough and eloquent job of naming just what my response intends to add to and to amplify for this discourse, so allow me to move beyond a restatement of what is already mentioned above and directly address one specific question that Hogue asks of me in his reply. Do I make “consciousness or sentience” a “necessary element” or “prerequisite” of persons, thus “drastically” reducing “the ontological inventory of things that matter, both intimately and ultimately”? I do agree that this point requires further elaboration on my part. As Hogue mentions, my choice to concentrate on this category of the person in my response to his work stems from my current research into a theo-political tradition called Personalism, which had a marked and notable prevalence in both European and American theological discourse during the interwar and post-war periods of the early to mid-20th century. I will spare our Syndicate readers an exhaustive summary of the history and ideas of this increasingly obscure tradition of thought. But I will say that one common feature of all the varieties of personalism during this era was their emphasis on wholes rather than on parts. Personalism is an unwieldy and varied category, since, as Samuel Moyn argues, it “sprung up in motley and mostly disconnected and unrelated versions in several branches of modern thought in the nineteenth century.” (Samuel Moyn, Christian Human Rights, 68) This is why Emmanuel Mounier spoke of a “plurality of personalisms” and our need to “respect their diverse procedures.” (Emmanuel Mounier, Personalism) But I would argue that despite this underlying diversity, most if not all personalisms held that persons are persons not by virtue of some distinct set of traits or characteristics (i.e. consciousness, sentience, etc.) shared within a privileged species. Rather, persons are persons by virtue of their unique relation to a whole. This emphasis has certainly informed my own thinking on this question. In other words, I dont think persons are persons because of some ontologically unique or exceptional set of traits or characteristics that unite all persons and exclude all non-persons from relevance and significance. Rather, I think persons are persons by virtue of the fact that they have, belong to, and participate in a “world.” The word “world” connotes for us not sheer existence as such, or a pure metaphysical happening or occurring, but rather a certain type of context that relates directly to the affairs of personal life. Indeed, as I have already written above, I do not see a point to calling “all-there-is” a “world” apart from the the personal affairs and concerns that lead us to hypothesize a cosmically related context (aka “world”), amenable to personal purposes, in the first place. The etymological meaning of “world” is actually “age of man,” and while I reject that strictly anthropocentric and androcentric definition, I do ask, “who else but persons can hypothesize, or even need to hypothesize, a world?” This strikes me as a question of profound importance when trying to imagine, as Hogue does, what “world-loyalty” should look like. Perhaps the most succinct answer I can give to Hogue’s question about the prerequisites of persons is this: Persons are not persons by virtue of consciousness or sentience. However, in order for persons to exist, a world (or worlds) must exist that includes consciousness and sentience. When consciousness and sentience disappear from the universe entirely, so will the “world,” and conversely/symbiotically, so will persons. I hope that this forum is an opportunity to put forth this idea/argument that I am working out in a fairly incomplete and muddled fashion, because I am indeed still working this out in my own mind. I would be curious to see if this helps clear up Hogue’s question to me about this in a helpful, provocative, and constructive manner. Since American Immanence asks us to view ourselves as both custodians of and participants in this world, I think it is relevant to pursue this line of inquiry concerning how persons can or cannot exist without worlds, and how worlds can or cannot exist without persons.

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      Michael S. Hogue


      Personalism, Panexperientialism, and New Animism

      I am grateful to Thurman Willison for clarifying the variety of personalism that he thinks my project could benefit from.

      If “person” defines those entities or phenomena in the world that have some “unique relation to a whole”, and that “have, participate in, and belong to a world,” as he broadly defines it (by way of Emmanuel Mounier), then the ontology of “person” is little different from the Whiteheadian ontology. For Whitehead, the “actual occasion” (or “actual entity”) is a “drop of experience” that emerges in and through a wider world of experience. What is ontologically basic is the processual coming to be and perishing of packets or nodes of experience; these packets are not discrete self-subsisting subjects undergoing experience, but instead come to be through selective relation to other occasions of experience.

      These occasions, then, are experiences of the world in a larger world of experience—parts in relation to a whole, a whole that can be described as a world (an ordering cosmos). These occasions of experience are inherently relational. They combine and integrate in diverse ways, exhibit varying degrees of complexity, and constitute the inventory of things and phenomena that exist.

      Thus, the Whiteheadian cosmology is sometimes referred to as panexperiential—it is comprised of experiential parts that “participate” in larger worlds of experience. These worlds of experience are not the “whole world” considered as a metaphysical unity but are “proximate” or “relative” worlds. Insofar as the emergent occasion affectively registers (prehends) and selectively integrates (concrescence) aspects of these proximate worlds, the occasion “has, participates in, and belongs to” a world. In this sense, there is significant overlap between Willison’s personalism and my account of Whitehead’s panexperientialism.

      Later, however, Willison says that although persons need not be conscious or sentient, there must be a world or worlds that include(s) consciousness AND sentience for there to be persons. I do not think that this holds in the case of Whitehead’s actual occasions. The existence of Whitehead’s actual occasions is not contingent on the existence of consciousness somewhere in the larger world of experience. Perhaps one could say that the existence of actual occasions is an emergent result of a world that includes awareness, and so awareness in the world is a necessary condition for the existence of actual occasions. But in this case, the awareness is not only elsewhere in the world of experience but also pervades the occasion’s own experience of the world. This is not conscious awareness, at least not at the most basic level, but it is felt and aesthetic awareness—a felt relation between parts and larger wholes. This could be described as an ontology of semiotic awareness—the most fundamental units of reality are occasions of experience that interpret their worlds affectively and aesthetically. But semiotic awareness is not the same as intentional consciousness.

      So, where do things stand? On the one hand, persons are not persons, according to Willison, by virtue of an exceptional characteristic, such as consciousness. Rather, persons are persons by virtue of a unique relation to a whole, a whole that can be described as a world. This concept of persons resonates with Whitehead’s occasions of experience. On the other hand, Willison claims that for persons to exist there must be consciousness somewhere in the larger world, elsewise there is no “world” for persons to relate to. On my understanding of Whitehead, this need not be the case—instead of consciousness, we could probably say the Whiteheadian cosmology is pervaded by awareness, of which consciousness is but the tip of the iceberg.

      Now, what difference does this difference make? To me, it is first a difference that makes an ontological difference, in that it offers a more expansive ontological inventory, and in a world that is in process, a world in which our conscious human awareness brings us into significant but nonetheless marginal acquaintance, a more expansive inventory seems appropriate. The second difference is moral and political—to make consciousness in the world a necessary condition of persons in the world (even if “persons” includes other-than-human persons), is to make the world of persons (including other-than-human persons) contingent on human persons; which is just another way of centering human exceptionalism.

      Again, I’m grateful to Willison for his thoughtful engagement of my book, and I look forward to ongoing discussion of these issues. I am currently doing some reading in the area of new animism, which features a world of “other than human” persons, and, thanks to Willison, I will add the traditions of Anglo-European personalism to my research agenda. Perhaps what is needed is a paper that explores the differences and resonances among personalism, panexperientialism and new animism.



Comments on American Immanence

To be immanent is to be in the thick of things. It is not to be beyond, outside of, or independent of something but to be deeply involved in and dependent on that something. Michael Hogue is a champion of immanentalism in his book American Immanence: Democracy for an Uncertain World. His central thesis is that humans are immanent within nature and that nature encompasses everything that is real and existent. Nature is the totality of orders, in Justus Buchler’s sense of that term, but is not itself an order. There is no outside of nature with which nature could be contrasted, and nature has no fixed boundaries or center. It encompasses but is not contained. Nature is also always to be seen as in process, and not as static and unchanging.

What Hogue calls the Anthropocene paradox turns on the realization that humans are immanent in nature, not outside of it, that they are natural animals emergent from the womb of nature, and that they are not in their essential character purely spiritual, non-material, heaven-bound creatures. Humans are not to be viewed as specially created by God in his image as the apex and raison d’etre of nature, and thus entitled to preside over and recklessly exploit nature for fulfillment of their own desires and purposes. They are integral, interdependent parts of nature and not in any way separate from it.

The paradox is that, by trying to live in accordance with these separatist, non-immanental ideas over the ages and up to the present, we humans have brought the earth to the precipice of a severe and ever more endangering ecological crisis, even to the point of threatening earth’s entire biosphere. In this clumsy, uncomprehending way, according to Hogue, we humans have unwittingly exposed the utter falsity of these ideas, and we have made painfully evident the urgent need for a thoroughly immanentalist view of humans in relation to the other creatures and natural systems of earth. The immanentalist vision casts all bifurcations and dualisms into radical doubt. The dualisms include those of humans and nature, mind and body, fact and value, culture and nature, individual and group, earth and heaven, and God and the world. I would add to this list the untenable dualism of feeling and knowing, about which I shall have more to say later.

What does all of this have to do with democracy? The radically evolutionary, emergentist, and processive character Hogue rightly attributes to nature also applies, he contends, to democracy as a political ideal. Just as nature is never fixed or final but always changing, developing, and surpassing itself, so also should political systems be always aspiring toward the ideal of democracy but never making the mistake of claiming to have attained that ideal. In other words, there is no single existent political system that does or ever could—for finite and fallible beings such as we humans are—attain the perfection of this ideal.

Any viable democratic form of government is vulnerable to fundamental criticism and change and must be resilient enough to accept its vulnerability and constant need for forward- looking criticism and reform. The vulnerability of political systems reflects the vulnerability of embodied life in the world, and, as for all organisms, there must be the resiliency of adaptations to change and an aspirational commitment to ongoing life itself that are essential not only to thriving but also to surviving. What is true for other species in this regard is equally true for the human species and its political institutions.

Political immanentalism, for Hogue as for John Dewey, eschews the idea of ever completely closing the gap between the beckoning ideal of democracy and the achievements of an existing political system. This is not a dualism of achievement and ideal. Both are required in the very nature of striving toward worthy ideals, ones worthy enough to resist the possibility of their ever being perfectly attained. The forever unattainable but always tantalizingly luring ideal of democracy that Hogue proclaims guards against complacency and against affirmation on the part of any existing political system—and in particular the system of government of the United States—to be an exceptionalist, inimitable, final realization of the ideal form of democracy and in that way a shining, unrefracted light to all of the other nations of the world.

Hogue labels this presumptuous claim “the redeemer symbolic” and warns against it throughout his book. He also associates this claim with an endlessly extracting, relentlessly externalizing logic that has given support to policies and actions that have brought us to the present ecological crisis. This crisis calls out for humbling, repentant, and thoroughgoing alterations of worldview, attitude, and practice. Hogue weaves all of the ideas so far mentioned into a text that exhibits extremely important and intricately connected themes. I congratulate him for a singularly insightful and timely achievement.

As is the case with all well-conceived and well-written books—and Michael Hogue’s is certainly that—there are questions that this book may raise in the minds of its readers. I have three such questions to raise here. The first one is about the suitability of the term theology that he employs throughout to label the enterprise of his book. The second one relates to the way he conceives the role of feeling and its relation to knowledge. And the third one addresses his key usage of the term relative in some places, a usage which I think may tend to breed confusion.

The problem with the term theology is that it runs jarringly against the grain of the enterprise Hogue lays out in his book. This term is too narrow or provincial in its focus to do justice to non-theistic religions such as Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, Daoism, or Theravada Buddhism, and it does not even properly designate the forms of religious naturalism that have no theistic content. Hogue himself is a professed religious naturalist, and he nowhere in this book explicitly associates religious naturalism with theism. Hogue tells us explicitly that theology “is not limited to critical reflection on the symbol ‘God’” (15). If this is true, why retain the term theology, which connotes precisely that focus? We need a more inclusive and less misleading term for the kind of enterprise with which Hogue is involved in his book. I suggest the term hierology, which combines the Greek terms hieros, meaning “sacred” and the term logos, meaning “word, reason,” and, by extension, “reflection” or “inquiry.” Hierology is already in use as a term referring to study of the religious lore and literature of a people, but I think it can also be put to use as referring to the task of developing and defending evocative, descriptive, and normative themes regarding sacred matters of all kinds, including but not restricted to those that may centrally involve the concept of God. In similar fashion, we could speak of the hieropolitical in place of Hogue’s too narrow term theopolitical.

These two terms have much wider scope and are much more generic than the term theology. And they are better suited to the general definition Hogue offers for theology, namely, “the pragmatic formation, critique, and reconstruction of the symbols, practices, ideals, and institutions that format life-orienting religious meanings, purposes, and desires” (15). This definition makes no mention of the Greek word for God (theos), and it is not restricted in etymology or scope to theistic religions. Its focus is on the sacred or holy—and thus the life-orienting and religious—wherever and however that may be conceived by the religions of the world.

The second question I raise concerns Hogue’s treatment of feeling in its relation to knowing. He contends at many places in his book that “we feel the world before we know it” (79, 92, 116, etc.). He connects this claim with Alfred North Whitehead’s analysis of the actual entity (102), where causal efficacy precedes (non-temporally) presentational immediacy, or where physical feeling is (non-temporally) supplemented by and integrated with conceptual feeling and conceptual valuation. Knowing as well as valuing result from the interrelations of physical and conceptual feelings in Whitehead’s system, and not merely from the latter in contrast with the former.

Hogue’s way of stating the natures and relations of feeling and knowing sets up a dichotomy of feeling and knowing which conflicts with his persistent rejection of all dualisms. It also has the effect of rejecting the idea of feeling as a profoundly significant mode of knowing in its own right. And in disconnecting feeling from knowing, it misinterprets Whitehead’s notion of the actual entity as an irreducible unit of time that is itself devoid of temporal process. According to Whitehead, knowing results from integration of the physical feeling of causal efficacy with the conceptual feeling of the entity’s concrescence in which it takes account of eternal objects or pure possibilities. Knowing is not confined to the second or to subsequent integrative phases of the entity’s development but requires all of its phases. And of course conscious knowing also requires a personally ordered society of such entities.

Moreover, the fine arts as modes of knowing give a central role to feeling, as do the basic images, myths, stories, rituals, and other kinds of religious symbolism. Feeling and discursive reasoning are different, but both are ways of knowing. Knowing is not confined to the latter. This seems to me to be the proper way of viewing their respective natures and relations. And it avoids the suggestion of an untenable dualism where feeling and knowing are separated from one another and where feeling is not recognized as itself a way of knowing and as deeply involved in at least most ways of knowing. The Logical Positivists famously separated feeling from knowing. I do not think that this is Hogue’s intent.

The third basic question raised in my mind by Hogue’s fine book is what I regard as his too careless and misleading use in some contexts of the term relative. By relative he means two things, as is shown on pages 146 and 147. He means “partial” and “relational.” He contrasts partial truths and values with absolute ones and rightly insists that all putative claims to truth and value are partial at best, never absolute or complete. And he insists further that the values pertaining to human beings are intricately related to the valuative possibilities and attainments of the other beings of the earth. Relative in his use of this term is thus intended to mean partial or non-absolute, as well to require for adequate comprehension of its significance recognition of the necessary relations of human outlooks, stances or perspectives to the values and integrities of the nonhuman realms of life and existence on the earth. Both of these meanings are of course extremely important.

What is the problem, then? The problem is that the term relative—when applied to claims to truth and value—usually signifies: not objectively real and not based on reliable reason or evidence but arbitrarily stipulated and believed. This, surely, is not Hogue’s intent in his use of the term relative, and I suggest that partial (true or valuable to a significant extent but never absolutely so) and relational (dependent for its truth and value on its relations to other fields of truth and value) are less misleading terms. I stumbled needlessly over Hogue’s use of the term relative in these two contexts, and it was because of the usual meaning of this term as applying to epistemological relativism or an “anything goes” interpretation of truth and value.

These three questions or issues I raise here are minor, compared with the breadth and depth of originality and discernment contained in Hogue’s book. I have learned a great deal from reading it, and especially from its subtle interweaving of topics that are usually treated separately. Most importantly, I see how a proper understanding of immanental religious naturalism, urgent earth-wide ecological concerns, and viable democratic governance requires seeing how intricately and necessarily these topics are connected with one another. Hogue enables us to see the three of them together in triocular (or three-dimensional) fashion rather than in separate and wholly inadequate monocular ways.

  • Avatar

    Michael S. Hogue


    Reply to Crosby

    It is deeply gratifying to read this response from Donald Crosby, from whom I’ve learned so much over the years. Crosby is an esteemed philosopher of religion, an excellent teacher, and a gifted writer and communicator. I have always admired the precision of his analyses and the subtlety of his constructive arguments. I would like to begin by thanking him for the clarity of his summary of the arc of my argument and its main claims. Crosby knows the philosophical and theological lineages of the American immanental tradition as thoroughly as anyone, and this is reflected in his response essay.

    For instance, he rightly questions the way I articulate a central epistemic claim that runs through the American immanental tradition, which I summarize with the phrase that “we feel the world before we know it.” I use this phrase in numerous places to convey the cognitive role of feeling and emotion in radical empiricism. For Whitehead, feeling is ontologically intrinsic, a primordial vector of the creativity that runs through the universe and through which things come to be. It is also of utmost epistemic significance, as also for James and, to some extent, for Dewey. The significance of feeling, ontologically and epistemically, is part of what distinguishes radical empiricism from other epistemological options. The cognitive significance of feeling, which is often epistemically deflated, is what I was trying to express with the phrase that we “feel the world before we know it.”

    And yet, Crosby is right to observe that this phrase, as it stands, reinforces the very dualism that I, not to mention the thinkers I interpret, am trying to avoid. And this is not just any dualism! It is the dualism at the root of what Whitehead refers to as the “bifurcation of nature,” which gives rise to the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” and, thereby, to what Dewey describes as the larger “nest of dualisms” that pervades so much of the Western philosophical tradition. So, Crosby is quite right to point out the contradiction! It would have been more accurate for me to say that we feel the world before we reason about it, or, that we feel the world as we know it, and we know the world as we feel it. I thank Crosby for pointing out the infelicity of my phrasing and helping me to clarify what I meant to be saying.

    Crosby is also concerned with the way I use the word “relative” when applied, as he says, to “claims of truth and value.” He points to a section in chapter 4 where I am advancing some of the core claims of an immanental theology. In one place in this section, I write that an “immanental theology,” as I construe it, “affirms simultaneously that meanings and values are relative rather than absolute, and yet that they are also objective rather than subjective” (146). Note here that I am referring to “meanings and values,” not truth claims. With respect to truth claims, I certainly do not mean by “relative” that anything goes. I mean what Crosby thinks I mean, which is that knowledge claims are inescapably partial, in both senses of this term—incomplete and biased. This doesn’t entail that all claims to truth are arbitrary opinions or equally warranted and justified, which is what most people have in mind when they think of relativism—which is why “partial” is a better term to express this point. But in the passages in question, I am referring to “meanings and values” not “truth and value.” I am thinking of meanings and values as species-particular and environmentally contextual interpretive judgments which, precisely due to their particularity and contextuality, are objectively grounded. This is a complicated argument to make, and it may be that using different terms to advance the argument could clarify it. I will certainly keep Crosby’s concerns in mind moving forward.

    The last concern of Crosby’s I would like to address is his concern with my use of the term “theology.” Why refer to the immanental religious framework I present as a theological framework? After all, the term “theology” invokes and is historically and etymologically linked up with the idea of God, and my immanental frame doesn’t include in its ontological inventory supernatural beings or discarnate intentional agents, whether spirits, gods, or God. As I define it in my introduction, theology need not have God as its object—instead, it refers to the “formation, critique, and reconstruction of the symbols, practices, ideals, and institutions that format life-orienting religious meanings, purposes, and desires” (15). Crosby questions the applicability of theology as a term to describe the breadth of my definition, and therefore finds it to be misleading. But my experience with this way of defining theology is the reverse—many students and church-going folks find it to be a clarifying and even liberating way to identify what they are doing when they are thinking critically and imaginatively with their religious traditions. I would argue that my definition of theology describes what folks are doing when they do theology, whether they realize it or not, and that it is worthwhile to continue to use this term, with this definition, in order to help more people to realize what it is that they are doing. I am very grateful to Donald Crosby for his attentive and appreciatively critical response to my book.

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      Donald Crosby


      Subtle Influences of Key Terms

      I enjoy dialoguing with Michael Hogue. He and I have much in common in our respective worldviews. In continuing the dialogue begun in this symposium, I want to devote further attention to the term theology and the various uses he makes of it in his thought-provoking book. I do so in order to explain why I think that this is no small issue of terminological preferences but an issue that has many subtle and far-reaching consequences.

      I propose the term hierology, meaning “study of the sacred or holy” as a substitute for the term theology for several reasons. One is that it makes little sense to apply the latter term to an outlook such as religious naturalism that often makes no use of the term God (Greek: theos) but gives its entire attention instead to the sacredness of nature.

      A second reason is that we need a term that can encompass all of the religions of the world, and not just the theistic ones. Would it make sense to speak of Christianity as a form of Buddha-ology or Dao-ology? Such uses would only create confusion, and mention of them can serve to remind us of the confusion created by too broad and inaccurate use of the term theology.

      The third reason is that we in the West still tend strongly and unthinkingly to assume that being religious means believing in and being committed to monotheism, and that atheism or denial of the existence and religious role of God is equivalent to being non-religious or even anti-religious. But religious outlooks such as Theravada Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, Confucianism, and at least some forms of religious naturalism are not focused on a Western conception of God, and particularly not on a supernatural personal deity. Western theists are a-Buddhists, and Theravada Buddhists are a-theists. The complement of any set is what lies outside the set.

      If we want a term that refers to religion in general and just Western religion in particular, then theology is hardly the best term to use. Religious naturalism of the non-theistic sort can be called physology (Greek: phusis, meaning “nature” + logos, meaning “study of” or “reasoning about” the religious ultimacy of nature) rather than being labeled as a form of theology. (Religionology would be an awkward term because it combines a Latin root with a Greek one.) Thus both physology and theology can be seen as subsets of the generic term hierology, as can each of the above-mentioned non-Western and non-theistic religious traditions.

      Hogue appeals to a kind of prudential (or pragmatic) consideration in his continuing use of the term theology. He asserts that people in our Western culture are familiar with the term as designating study of religion in general and that as long as it is defined in a more inclusive fashion it will be less jarring and create less confusion than would the introduction of a more generic term. But re-defining a carrot as a turnip does not make it such.

      My critical response (and this is my fourth reason) to this prudential argument is also prudential. Continuing use of the term theology as encompassing religious thought in general, especially in professional books intended for a wide audience, reinforces a kind of glaring Western provincialism that needs to be given up for the sake of awakening us in the West to the reality of a global world with many different religious traditions that have given enlightenment and succor to millions of non-Western peoples for countless centuries. We in the West are currently experiencing ever-increasing interaction with proponents of non-theistic religions, and we need a more inclusive term than theology that gives due recognition to this fact.

      It is especially important for students of religion in an academic setting to have a term that is not tied by implication and use to only one form of religious faith. If Hogue does not find my suggested term hierology to be useful or acceptable, then I urge him to search for a better, more inclusive one than theology.

      More hangs on a word, subliminally as well as explicitly, than we sometimes realize. Our thoughts and attitudes are shaped to a significant extent by the languages with which we speak and write, and by tacit assumptions built into these languages. Language is not static but is in frequent need of judicious change with changing circumstances and times. I know that Hogue is well aware of the truth of these commonplace observations. I suggest that he re-think his defense of the use of the term theology in their light.

      Donald A. Crosby



Relational Power for a Relational World

Michael S. Hogue’s excellent book shows us how American history has been disastrously shaped by a non-relational vision of power, value, and reality. We humans are intrinsic parts of a relational natural world. Nothing in nature, including human beings, exists apart from our relationships. The more we deny our relationality and try to live in isolation from our natural and human societies the more we impoverish ourselves and destroy our world.

Hogue rightly sees that the ideology of American exceptionalism is rooted in “the dominant tradition’s idolization of omnipotence [which] sanctifies sovereignty and legitimates monopolistic power” (8).

Clearly then, a central task must be to offer a relational vision of power coherent with a relational vision of our world. Appropriately, Hogue promises that “coordinated by the creativity of relational power rather than the ideality of unitary and oppositional power,” the American immanental worldview “offers an inclusive and pluralistic alternative to exclusive and monopolistic political theologies” (6). It is an exciting promise, yet he barely mentions “relational power” again. Later he urges that “we need more than ever to rethink our concepts of power, value, and common life in an ecological context that takes seriously the internal relatedness of human and more-than-human life in an ecological context” (121). Yet, he does not consistently undertake the reenvisioning of power despite many suggestive references to ideas like the “power of vulnerability” and “the vulnerability of powaer” (169).

As my contribution to this symposium I propose to explain and develop Bernard Loomer’s concepts of unilateral and relational power and to show how they enrich Hogue’s important vision.

Plato argued that “the definition of being is simply power.”1 Power, he said, means the ability to affect and/or to be affected by others. Plato understood that there is a unity to our visions of power, value, and reality. He held that whatever is perfectly powerful is ultimately real and supremely valuable, as illustrated in his Form of the Good. But Plato shared the Greek assumption that what is best has the ability to affect others without being affected by them, as is clearly illustrated in Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover and Plato’s doctrine of the eternally unchangeable forms.

Bernard Loomer called this “unilateral power.” In its ideal form it is the ability to affect without being affected. “More specifically, unilateral power is the capacity to influence, guide, adjust, manipulate, shape, control, or transform the human or natural environment in order to advance one’s own purposes. And this kind of power is essentially one-directional in its working. . . . Unilateral power is “non-mutual.”2 Of course, we know that in a fully relational world perfect unilateral power is impossible. But when we look for nearly pure cases of it, we find ugly examples like slavery, tyranny, torture, rape, and child abuse.

Western Christian theologians have struggled to merge the dynamic, active, loving God of the Bible with the Greek vision of timeless unchanging perfection. The results have led directly to the problems Hogue identifies so compellingly. A God of absolute unilateral power must control absolutely everything and be affected by absolutely nothing. Descartes translated this into his substance metaphysics in which the world is composed of “substances” which “need no other thing in order to exist,”3 and thus endure unchanged through change of accidental relationships. In either case, relationships are purely external, having no effect on the inherent character of any substance, whether God, an atom, or your mind. Hence Loomer reminds us that “this conception of power is grounded on a non-communal or non-relational understanding of the self. In this view, the self lives in a society, but the society does not live in the self as part of the self’s inner being” (Loomer 17).

Whitehead, like the Buddha and the American Pragmatists, understood that reality is a fully relational process in which nature is the all-inclusive category. Nothing actual exists apart from its relations. All relationships are ultimately internal, and our efforts to deny our internal relatedness to others ultimately impoverishes all involved.

In response to Whitehead’s vision of reality as a relational process, and Wieman’s vision of creative interchange, or creative transformation,4 Loomer developed the appropriate vision of “relational power” as “the capacity both to influence others and to be influence by others” (Loomer 20). With an eye to Whitehead and to the four sub-events of Wieman’s creative transformation, I have further developed Loomer’s concept of relational power.5

Relational power may be thought of in three aspects or stages. First, it is “active openness” (Loomer 21) to relationships with the world. Second, it is self-creativity, the ability to make yourself out of what you have received. For human beings this may include skills like critical thinking and reflective self-awareness. Third, relational power involves the ability to return to the first stage, as Wieman proposed, with an expanded and deepened capacity for active openness. In Wieman’s language, we might say that relational power is the strength to engage in creative transformation. Loomer said it “is the capacity to sustain a mutually internal relationship” (Loomer 23; emphasis mine).

Unilateral power demands a pretense that our relationships are merely external. But Loomer rightly argues that “the world of the individual who can be influenced by another without losing his or her identity or freedom is larger than the world of the individual who fears being influenced. The former can include ranges and depths of complexity and contrast to a degree that is not possible for the latter. The stature of the individual who can let another exist in his or her own creative freedom is larger than the size of the individual who insists that others must conform to his own purposes and understandings” (Loomer 20).

Consider how these two visions of power as unilateral and relational can help us understand Hogue’s critique and creative vision. Unilateral power cannot tolerate internal relations. People driven by this image of power must make every effort to resist the constraints or intrusions of other centers of power. Hogue illustrates this well in the leading Nazi jurist, Carl Schmitt, whose vision of sovereignty was “exceptionalist, oppositional, and decisionist. In other words, it is the antithesis of participatory pluralist, and procedural democracy.” Schmitt wrote: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception” (23). If you cannot make yourself, or your nation, an exception to the rules, then you are constrained by the values and will of others. Hence, unilateral power is exceptionalist by nature.

Houge offers an American example of Schmitt’s vision of exceptionalism in the disastrous lead poisoning in the Flint, Michigan, water supply. It arose from a law signed by Governor Snyder allowing him to appoint an “emergency manager . . . to override democratically elected municipal officials” (25). When citizens passed a referendum to overturn the law, Governor Snyder signed a law which dramatically expanded the unilateral powers of the emergency manager, even allowing him to “‘strip local officials of their duties and of their pay,’ and to ‘sell off assets of a local government or school district’” (25). The new law “brazenly included an amendment that immunized the law from citizen repeal through the referendum process” (25). What an astonishing effort to perfect unilateral power to control everything and resist any influence from those affected by the decisions of the governor or emergency manager.

Hogue foreshadows his subsequent discussion of how the American “Redeemer Symbolic” justifies “extraction and externalization” (29) by noting that the General Motors plant which had contributed to the contamination of the Flint water supply in the first place simply stopped using the polluted water “because it was corroding their pistons” (25). They extracted the original value of the water while then externalizing the cost of the pollution to the residents of Flint, a chilling example of the power to affect without being affected.

People seeking absolute unilateral power, however, must do more than simply defeat competing powers. They must not acknowledge them at all. In Christian theology the vision of divine unilateral omnipotence led inevitably to the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Hogue demonstrates, how, with astonishing bravado, advocates of American exceptionalism have claimed a similar creation ex nihilo for America. “Thomas Paine wrote that ‘the case and circumstance of America present themselves as in the beginning of the world . . . as if we lived in the beginning of time’” (31). John Locke wrote that “in the beginning all the world was America” (31). Such a unilateral, ex nihilo, view of American exceptionalism denies that competing powers and values need even be considered. It is not only other human values, but the values of all of nature, that American exceptionalism seeks to deny. These two exclusions have worked together with tragic consequences.

Hogue offers an agonizing examination of the role such theopolitics and our imagined separation from nature have played in the genocide of Native Americans and the subsequent devastation of the environment and climate. Of course, Americans are not the only people to exert unilateral power to extract value and externalize costs. But America, with its history of theopolitics seeking to be the Imago Dei of unilateral omnipotence, is the leader in bringing about the devastation of the Anthropocene Epoch.

As a religious naturalist Hogue also rightly critiques the way in which our devotion to unilateral power (though he does not call it by name) is expressed in the way we imagine that we, like the classical Christian God, are completely separate from nature as well as other nations. The hunger for unilateral power in the “Redeemer Symbolic” requires “a denial of its embeddedness in the contingencies of nature and history, a denial of its entanglement with other stories and other worlds, and, most importantly, a denial of its founding violence” (29). Especially in addressing the disaster of the Anthropocene Epoch, Hogue points to the terrible damage done by our imagined separation from nature. If we convince ourselves we are externally related to nature, so that it has no connection to us other than as a resource for us to extract, we feel free to destroy it for our own purposes. Consequently, Hogue writes that “I am primarily interested in . . . an end to the idea of the human as separate from nature and the beginning of a new human age for the earth” (11–12).

Seeking hope, Hogue calls for “an ontology of internal rather than external relatedness” (19), for which he turns to the American pragmatic and process relational thinkers. Pragmatists like James and Dewey, and process-relational philosophers like Whitehead, Wieman, and Loomer, form a dissenting tradition in American thought, which Hogue calls the American Immanental Philosophies (118). These figures offer us a clear vision of thoroughgoing naturalism in which nature is what there is, all that there is, along with the insistence that nature is enough. They see us as fully part of nature, and affirm that nature is a web of relationships in process. Nothing actual exists apart from its felt relationships. Building on William James and Dewey, Whitehead offered a radically innovative vision of the deepest nature of nature as a web of experienced relationships. Improving on Plato, he offered a process-relational vision of power, further developed by Wieman and Loomer.

The concept of relational power helps us see more clearly how the American Immanental tradition addresses the full range of concerns Hogue so powerfully demonstrates. Unilateral power works to externalize or simply deny internal relationships in ways which effectively undercut democracy and concern for the global climate. Hogue rightly sees that Whitehead’s “distributed view of creative agency and value directly challenges the exceptionalist logic of sovereign and unitary power” (79). In stark contrast to unilateral power, relational power is expressed in developing richer, more complex relationships, which incorporate a greater range of contrasting values and visions by bringing more voices and values into consideration.

Loomer pointed out that even when people driven by unilateral power feel a desire to work for the good of the other, it “has the limitations of a preconceived good,” expressing the values of those with the power. In contrast, “under the relational conception of power, what is truly for the good of any one or all of the relational partners . . . is an emergent from deeply mutual relationships” (Loomer 21). “The greatest possible good cannot emerge under conditions of control. The aim is to provide those conditions of the giving and receiving of influences such that there is the enlargement of the freedom of all the members to both give and receive” (Loomer 26).

As Hogue explains, for Dewey, “the community of inquiry relevant to a particular problem included all those affected by the problem and with a stake in its resolution” (87–88). Following Whitehead and Dewey, Hogue rightly argues that “a commitment to a democratic episteme is among the more significant aspects of pragmatic naturalism in that it will carry forward into the constructive work ahead. If one of the aims of a theopolitics for the Anthropocene is to be more fully attuned to the complex interdependencies of a world of more than human experience, then it is important that it be inclusive of as wide an array of experiences of the world as possible” (90–91).

In the naturalistic vision Hogue offers us, which includes not only poor and oppressed human beings, but also what Hogue calls the “more-than human” (118–19) creatures of nature, radical relational power is needed for new visions of democracy where all those with a stake in life are listened to in some way. Hogue points us toward a world shaped by the relational power of radical compassion, including compassion for all of nature, as suggested by the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita.

Those who burn with the bliss and suffer the sorrow

Of every creature within their hearts,

Making their own, each joy and each sorrow.

Them I hold the highest.6

Their every action is wed

To the welfare of other creatures.7

  1. The Dialogues of Plato, trans. Benjamin Jowett (New York: Random House, 1937), 2:255.

  2. Bernard Loomer, “Two Conceptions of Power,” Criterio (Winter 1976) 14. A publication of the University of Chicago Divinity School. It is the text of a lecture given by Loomer in the fall of 1975 at the Divinity School, as inauguration of the D. R. Sharpe Lectureship on Social Ethics. Hogue cites a slightly different version of this, “Two Kinds of Power,” which appeared later in Process Studies 6.1 (Spring 1976) 15–32.

  3. Rene Descartes, Philosophical Works of Descartes, trans. Haldane and Ross (1955), 1:239, emphasis mine.

  4. Henry Nelson Wieman, The Source of Human Good (Carbondale: SIU Press, 1946). The four subevents of creative interchange are “emergenings, integratings expandings, and deepenings,” of our appreciation of the world around us (68).

  5. In addition to my book in Hogue’s bibliography, I developed the idea of relational power in C. Robert Mesle, “Relational Power, Personhood, and Community,” in Organizational Routines: How They Are Created, Maintained, and Change, Papers from the Sixth International Symposium on Process Organization Studies (Oxford University Press, 2016). For reflections on how the idea of relational power shapes the process-relational vision of God, see my book Process Theology: A Basic Introduction (St. Louis: Chalice, 1993), and “Infinite Relational Power and Love: An Introduction to Process Relational Theology,” which I was invited to write for Element: The Mormon Journal of Philosophy & Religion 6.1 (Spring 2015), a special issue introducing Mormon scholars to process relational theology.

  6. Bhagavad-Gita: The Song of God, trans. Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, introduction by Aldous Huxley (Vedanta Society of Southern California, 1944, 1972), 67.

    I have edited this for inclusive language. Bob Mesle.

  7. Gita 61.

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    Michael S. Hogue


    Reply to Mesle

    I want to thank Robert Mesle for his instructive response to my book. I have taught Mesle’s books on process theology and philosophy in my classes on numerous occasions. He is an excellent interpreter of the process tradition and has a knack for explaining it in succinctly relatable terms. In this short essay, he leads readers through an explanation of Bernard Loomer’s ideas about relational and unilateral power, showing how they “enrich” my project. Loomer’s work has deeply informed my own and I interpret his theological vision in some detail in chapter 5. But Mesle’s essay is focused on Loomer’s concepts of relational and unilateral power, which he developed in an essay that Mesle and I both cite (in different formats), “Two Conceptions of Power.” Mesle opens his response with the observation that although I mention “relational power” in my introduction, I do not mention it again, and although my book is organized around the claim that we need to rethink our concepts of power, value, and common life, Mesle says I do not sufficiently undertake a “revisioning of power.”

    While it is always possible to do and say more (or better), a concern with the difference between relational and unilateral power, and the theological and philosophical systems that support them, and their ecological, social, and political effects, pervades my book—even if I do not always reference Loomer’s specific terms or tie everything back to Loomer. For instance, the burden of my critical work, especially in chapter 1, is to deconstruct the theological roots and political, ecological, and ethical consequences of what I refer to as unitary and oppositional power, which is very much what Loomer had in mind in his critique of “unilateral power.” And the whole of my constructive work, which begins in chapters 3 and 4 and is the focus of chapter 5, is committed to developing the ethical and political implications of an immanental theology that is deeply relational and conceives of power (and being) as not only being about causing change, but about being changed. Although I develop this way of thinking about power (and being) through the concept of vulnerability, with reference to systems ecology and Judith Butler (as well as Dewey and Whitehead), this way of understanding power is very much what Loomer had in mind in his account of “relational power.”

    Relational understandings of being, value, and power not only help us better to understand the complexity of nature and human experience, but they are very much needed in our time. The relevance and importance of these concerns in our present political circumstances could not be clearer. For instance, as I write, President Donald Trump has just declared a state of national emergency in order to build a wall on the southern border of the United States. This declaration perfectly embodies what is at stake—existentially, morally, and politically—in the differences between unilateral and relational power. By most accounts, at least those based on facts and made by experts on the subject, there is no national security emergency, and even if there was, a wall would not help us to address it.1 Among other things, the total number of illegal border crossing apprehensions is lower now than it has been in forty years; most illegal drug smuggling crosses through legal ports of entry, not areas that would be protected by a wall; and even the Cato Institute, a conservative libertarian think tank, has shown that crime rates are lower among undocumented immigrants than documented citizens.2 The real national security emergency is Trump’s disregard for the constitutional separation of powers, his disdain for democratic norms, and the Republican Party’s leaders’ obeisance to Trump and their unwillingness to put democracy and the national good over party.

    Trump’s declaration of a national emergency, despite the facts, is a perfect illustration of unilateral power. Unilateral power cannot be shared, there is only so much to go around. According to this scarcity concept of power, the power that others have is power I do not have, unless I can get it from them. A unilateral conception of power leads one to engage the world through a competitive and transactional framework, or what Trump refers to as “deals.” This is the reason I describe this concept of power as “unitary and oppositional.” If power is finite and cannot be shared, and if the power that others have is power that I do not have (unless or until I can get it from them), then all decisions and actions are reduced to transactions in which some will win, and some will lose. The more one “wins,” the more power one has, and the more power one has, the more leverage one gains to shape conditions favorable to continued winning. All of this is fundamental to Trump’s way of thinking and being in the world, and although he doesn’t realize it, it has a deep philosophical and theological background to it.

    How does this all play out in the case of Trump’s wall national emergency? For Trump and his supporters, undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers represent a threat to their own power—“they” are “takers” who don’t belong; when “they” are here, they “take” power from “us” (through jobs, services, education, medical care, etc.). The wall is a way to keep “them” out and to protect “our” power. Even if one agreed with these xenophobic ideas, the wall wouldn’t be an effective means for addressing them. But Trump is a showman who leverages the efficacy of appearances and seems intuitively to understand the importance of rhetoric, symbol, and gesture. Thus, he has calculated that if he can’t secure funding for the wall though ordinary budgetary and legislative means, he can “win” politically by circumventing the Constitution to declare a (nonexistent) national emergency. The declaration reinforces his pugilistic image, idolized by his base, as one who fights against democrats, experts, and immigrants of color, and fights for “patriots” and “Americans.”

    Trump’s declaration is also a textbook illustration of Carl Schmitt’s understandings of sovereignty and the political. For Schmitt, as I discuss in my book, a sovereign is one who has the power to decide on (and in) a state of exception. In other words, sovereign power is twofold: it is the power of authority to declare when a state of conditions is such (for example, a “national emergency”) that it justifies the circumvention of law (that is, an exception); and it is the power of capacity (means and resources) to enact whatever is necessary to resolve the emergency (whether fabricated or real). Trump’s declaration is a pure expression of this definition of sovereign power. It also illustrates Schmitt’s concept of the political, which, he argues, is not organized around principles of justice, but around a friend/enemy distinction. Schmitt’s concept of the political is pre-moral in the sense that the distinction is not about good and bad, or right or wrong, but about gaining and maintaining power. This is reflected in Trump’s brazen calculation that whether the wall gets built or not, declaring an emergency and facing the inevitable court challenges will help him to shape his 2020 election messaging.

    All of this is to say that Loomer’s unilateral concept of power, and its theopolitical expression, is very much at play in our world today. What it would look like to communally embody an alternative mode of power (and being, valuing, and knowing) is what my book seeks to describe in its constructive chapters. Mesle’s response helps me to see that I have erred in not sufficiently acknowledging the influence of Loomer in this work.

    1. Among many others, see Miriam Valverde, “Fact-Checking Donald Trump’s False and Misleading Claims about Immigration, the Border Wall,”, January 24, 2019,; Ellen Nakashima, “Former Senior National Security Advisors to Issue Declaration on National Emergency,” Washington Post, February 25, 2019,

    2. Alex Nowrasteh, “Immigration and Crime—What the Research Says,” Cato at Liberty Blog, July 14, 2015,