With this dazzling work of intellectual history, Christopher White provides a significant contribution to the seemingly endless task of undermining the secularization hypothesis. Turning his eye to the turn-of-the-century enlivening of the dead, mechanistic universe of Newtonian physics, White attunes his readers to the metaphysical hypotheses and spiritual disciplines conditioned by the very techno-science that keeps allegedly doing away with “religion.” As White explains it, “apparently secular scientific discourses have become sources for new enchanted worldviews of uncanny invisible forces and transcendent cosmic layers and spaces” (8).
Of these “transcendent cosmic layers,” one in particular receives sustained attention in this study—namely, the idea of “higher, invisible dimensions” that over the course of the 20th century captured the imagination of mathematicians, artists, architects, televangelists, science fiction authors, and playground designers alike (2-3). These cultural producers, White argues, have become far more significant generators of enchanted worldviews and practices than traditional theologians, offering Europe and America “a more natural type of supernatural” than the old anthropomorphic monarch—one “that could be both reasonable and spiritual, both in nature and beyond it at the same time” (181, 192).
In eminently readable prose augmented by carefully chosen, often arresting images, White gathers together a crew of under-celebrated interlocutors—influential figures who tend to receive very little attention in contemporary studies of science and religion—from British mathematician Charles Howard Hinton, to modern artists Claude Bragdon and Max Weber, to the omnipresent William James, and to para-Christian fantasy writers Charles MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkein, and Madeleine L’Engel. Insofar as this throng is tangled by means of a shared obsession with the fourth dimension, Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland serves as a touchstone for the whole project (with Plato’s cave a noisy ancestral spirit): an allegorical effort to train our imagination upon an invisible realm of unity and truth that lies, in Tennyson’s words, “nearer than hands and feet,” yet ineluctably beyond us. As such, the fourth dimension becomes a scientifically viable locus of gods, spirits, and energies—in some cases, a convenient receptacle for otherwise outdated theologemes like divinity and immortality, and in others, a means of reconfiguring them altogether.
These reconfigurations, in turn, produce reimaginations of the social order. For the most part, White focuses on his interlocutors’ attempts at troubling gender norms and the heterosexual nuclear family, offering nuanced readings of the limitations, blindnesses, and genuine possibilities inherent to their projects. More excitingly, White turns his attention briefly to W. E. B. Du Bois’s effort to render his “double consciousness” four-dimensionally. African Americans, Du Bois suggests in an unfinished short story, are positioned in a kind of constitutive exclusion akin to transcendence: blackness in America amounts to the capacity to see the whole violent grid of social relations at once. In sum, modern science begins to look along White’s narration like a L’Engelian tesseract: an intertextual rendition of Hinton’s hypercube, opening beyond itself to transfigured visions of this world and glimpses of others.
It is perhaps the inevitable fate of a project as multi-faceted as this one to lose its argument from time to time in its flurry of brilliant reportage. The book does provide periodic reminders of its central claim, but these are more restatements than they are systematic developments. I found myself wishing the book had complicated the relationship it draws between Western science and religion by means of an explicit treatment of the Orientalist imaginaries (Brahmanism, Buddhism, djinns, The Light of Asia, theosophy) that so often mediate their “reconciliation.”
Considering how much ground the book covers, it is certainly unfair to find oneself wanting a more sustained treatment of Einstein’s four-dimensional spacetime, or of the string and multiverse theories that have recently intensified the higher-dimensional craze among physicists and mathematicians (179, 295). One can only be grateful that White has provided such a compelling and, again, under-attended prequel to these contemporary generators of a “more scientific” mytho-metaphysics. Indeed, Other Worlds functions as a kind of hypercube, allowing us to see the inner workings of an otherwise opaque sociocultural history. At its clearest, this vision exposes the separations between science and religion, knowledge and culture, and artists, mystics, and engineers to be the illusory products of life in three dimensions.
Mary-Jane Rubenstein is Professor of Religion; Feminist, Gender, and Sexual Studies; and Science in Society at Wesleyan University.
Date Of Review:
June 12, 2018
Christopher G. White is Professor of Religion at Vassar College.
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