Romantic Industrial Pantheism

15 06 2012

There is a strong minor chord in contemporary religious thought that emphasizes the unity of the Earth and all its elements in an organic and spiritual system, a naturalistic pantheism or pantheistic naturalism. The increasing scientific evidence of the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate places fuels this, though the theology races well ahead of the science in positing that this system forms an organic unity rather than just a series of overlapping networks. I find this sort of holism problematic and want to think through it a little. This post is intended to clear some space, but little else. What I’m clearing space for…well, more to come on that, though I hope a reader can glimpse some of that through the other posts here.

This pantheism could be a simple matter of projecting the unity we tend to ascribe to ourselves out into the world, but that alone doesn’t explain the content of this contemporary theology. The Earth is here viewed as a sort of body akin to our own, with environments playing the part of our organs. There is talk about the rainforests as the lungs of the planet, of the hydrosphere as its circulatory system. The planet chokes, bleeds, is mutilated.

That notion of a body has deep roots in contemporary medical discourse and its mechanistic approach to the body as a series of working parts that can malfunction and be repaired. That perspective is, in turn, rooted in the growing emphasis on the machine in contemporary industrial society. In that regard, this theology refurbishes a metaphor embedded in European thought since the Enlightenment of a clockwork universe, carefully constructed to run in a certain way. It simply replaces a contemporary notion of biological mechanism for an earlier machinist one.

This refurbishing has several advantages over the old notion of mechanism. The kind of mechanisms we encounter in the body are much more flexible and adaptable than those of a watch mechanism. Damage to one part of the mechanism does not spell instant disaster for the whole mechanism, which often has redundancies and workarounds for dealing with damage. Over time, too, the body can self-correct, heal. Theologically, that switch makes it easier to conceive of the Earth having a spiritual dimension without necessarily having a creator external to it, too. The problems of evil and suffering are less intractable.

In the end, though, it is still a mechanistic conception of the world, albeit a sophisticated one dressed up in language that makes the mechanism seem less alien and deterministic. While appealing, it seems as intellectually problematic as the clockwork metaphor that preceded it. Theological applications of it only seem to aggravate these underlying problems.

The image of nature it promulgates relies on industrial notions of integration and expansion, minus all the hurly burly. Nature becomes a dreamy alternative to industrial life with all its structure but none of its mess or incompleteness. It feels to me like a fantasy projected outward from industrialism, rather than a genuine complement or alternative.

To the extent that we can separate the biological conception from the mechanical conception, this pantheistic naturalism still over-extends the biological model. The kinds of integration it tends to posit in the world do not reflect the messiness of biological life and its just-good-enough inefficiencies. It mistakes evidence of connection into evidence of integration. While you can’t have the integration without connection, connection is possible without integration.

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