Religion, Politics and the Earth: The New Materialism, by Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey W. Robbins, October 2012. Palgrave Macmillan, 206 pages, ISBN 978-1-137-26892-1. RRP £17.50 (paperback)
Who would enjoy reading this book? That is what I wondered as I laboured through it. It would have to be someone at home with an academic form of discourse and familiar with the vocabulary of certain scientific disciplines, sociology and contemporary philosophy. Yet this book will perhaps be most appreciated by the reader with an intuitive cast of mind, able to recognise the force of an argument in its imaginative suggestiveness.
The theme of the book is encapsulated in the phrase ‘the New Materialism’. Material reality and the spiritual are seen as one. That sounds like the philosophy of Idealism. But this is about ‘taking the earth as subject’. It is not to be treated as the object of our experience – or exploitation. Rather we are to participate in and facilitate the material ‘coming to self-awareness through thought’. All this is explained in the introduction to the book, which I began to enjoy as an evocative poem can be enjoyed – not necessarily understanding every line, but moved by it and made to sense yet deeper intuitions. The New Materialism is about energy transformation, we are told, energy which cannot be reduced to matter because it resonates with spirit and life. But the platform for these flights of philosophical speculation is a plain acknowledgement of the global crisis: ‘Western capitalism is based upon assumptions of indefinite if not infinite growth, but the natural resources of the planet are finite’. The ecological crisis is seen as focussed in global warming, the energy crisis in the urgency to develop the use of renewable sources, and the financial, each of which are interrelated. It is from the facing of these facts that the vision emerges as: ‘a new way of being in and of the earth’.
Chapters dealing with digital culture, religion, politics, art, ethics, energy and logic make up the substance of the book. I would have to admit finding them dense and often elusive. The most curious one is that which pops up offering a radical proposal for nuclear energy, scientifically pragmatic but all the more difficult for the uninstructed to evaluate.
Yet the book strikes a fundamental note of hard reality: ‘if we want our civilization to live on earth a little longer we will have to recognise our coexistence with and in earth’. What I found most encouraging was the underlying theology. I was unconvinced that only a radical theology ‘unbound from its tie to one particular event, which is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth’ … ‘can dare to think … a New Materialism of Earth’. But to relinquish ‘God’ in our learning to think like and with the earth, surely draws upon the profound orthodoxy of apophatic theology (God is what we cannot think) and panentheism (all things exist within the divine)? So I warmed to the invitation for ‘readers to use their theological imaginations’, even though so much of the book irritated me as it left me behind!
Andrew Norman CJN