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.”

Thurman Todd Willison


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.


  • Michael S. Hogue

    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).

    • Thurman Todd Willison

      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.

Donald Crosby


May 21, 2019, 1:00 am

C. Robert Mesle


May 28, 2019, 1:00 am

Shelley Dennis


June 4, 2019, 1:00 am