Gods, World, Monsters

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Mary-Jane Rubenstein
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , November
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In a conflict-driven context of renewed interest in religious studies and decolonialist critiques of its theological forebears, Mary-Jane Rubenstein ironically tackles the field’s most cutting-edge issues with an exercise in constructive theology: How might one reimagine divinity so that it may perform an ethically positive function? Her query resulted in Pantheologies: Gods, Worlds, Monsters, a speculative deification of the world reimagined as a perspectival, hybrid, and intra-connected system, which purports to disrupt the Western metaphysical foundations of dominant structures of power.

In an initial genealogical survey of pantheism—the belief that all (pan) is God (theos)—Rubenstein finds that the term actually lacks any positivist definition, having predominantly been a polemical, and often injurious, label. Humorously citing many a comically outraged historical critic of the idea, the author proceeds to show that, whether attributed to Giordano Bruno, Baruch Spinoza, or Meister Eckhart, pantheism has overwhelmingly been denounced throughout the ages as a monstrous incoherence. Yet in this very monstrosity is where Rubenstein locates pantheism's ethical potential, as this abnormal hybridity is precisely what promises to demolish "the raced and gendered ontic distinctions that Western metaphysics (with some crucial exceptions) insists on drawing between activity and passivity, spirit and matter, and animacy and inanimacy—distinctions that are rooted theologically in the Greco-Roman Abrahamic distinction between creator and created, or God and world" (xx). Considering that these distinctions are what conceptually allows monotheism's God-like White Man to indifferently exploit resources, women, racialized others, and nonhumans alike, with Pantheologies, Rubenstein attempts to prescriptively define a pantheism that might participate in the "creative destruction of such structures" of power (xxi).

In the hybrid image of the monstrous, yet wondrous, semi-goat, semi-human Pan, Rubenstein manages an intellectual tour de force in bringing a mixture of ancient Greek and premodern European philosophers and theologists, of the earliest natural and social scientists and the most cutting-edge anthropologists, earth system theorists, and quantum physicists together in a conversation about pantheism that is as intellectually challenging as it is entertaining. Taking the excommunicated Spinoza's notion of "God, or Nature" (Deus sive natura) as the starting point for her discussion (2), Rubenstein proceeds to examine each term of this equation throughout its evolution in Western intellectual history. She nevertheless precludes the reader from seriously rigidifying the complex philosophical and scientific conceptions of matter (hyle), world (cosmos), and God (theos) by interspersing ludic musings on the Greek god Pan between each of these chapters. Thus, in what Donna Haraway might call an exercise in speculative fabulation, Rubenstein's aim is not to seriously call "for a post-monotheistic retrieval of the cult of Pan" (189), but rather to challenge readers to consider the possibility of an earthly iteration of divinity, and what its practical implications would be.  

With looming ecological crises announcing the end of the world as we know it, Rubenstein's Pantheologies proposes to "re-world in the midst of a planetary unworlding" (130); this re-worlding challenges the anthropocentric cosmology that has placed the Euro-descended Man at the top of a Great Chain of Being. If Christian theologians and modern scientists alike have equally decried the pantheistic incoherence of equating God with the world and the animistic absurdity of animated matter, Rubenstein argues, it is because modern secular cosmogonies are the direct inheritors of monotheism's portrayal of the world as an inanimate automaton designed by an extra-cosmic God.

However, with recent scientific theories such as the Lovelock-Margulis Gaia hypothesis, which shows the world to be an interactive system of autopoietic (or, Haraway would say, sympoietic) organisms, Albert Einstein's spatiotemporal relativity, and Niels Bohr's quantum complementarity, new ontologies have emerged that make light of an entangled, and inherently perspectival, world. From the perspective of Gaia's life-sustaining bacteria, or of Bohr's intra-acting quantum particles, for instance, vital agency may be relocated within the minutest elements, which traditionally held the lowest ontic positions. To take one step further and call such agents divine, explains Rubenstein, is simply "to ascribe to them the creative-destructive capacity of cosmogenesis" (182); and though this may not be a necessary move, it is one that may have important ethical and affective implications for humans' relation to the non-human world.

Drawing as much from these scientific revolutions as from recent anthropological theories of new materialism and new animism, as well as ecofeminist and antiracist methodologies, Rubenstein acknowledges the inherent hybridity of her proposed alternative cosmology, which we could liken to new animism in being "born out of encounters of Euro-American and native conceptual regimes" (97). Her argument nevertheless primarily builds upon intellectual developments within what is historically construed as the West, in what may be characterized as a subversive attempt to decolonize both cosmology and theology from within. Ironically, she notes, with the new earth system sciences and quantum physics, science might have in fact "finally caught up with what it [indigenous philosophies] has known all along" (122). Moreover, her "increasingly queer reading of Spinoza" (51) and other Western protopantheists  seem to suggest that such disciplines of modern science might also finally be validating and perhaps even exalting the theological intuitions of some of the most controversial protagonists of Western intellectual history. Thus, Rubenstein's imaginative recounting of the West's scientific, theological, and philosophical past slyly serves to shed light on its oblique pantheism, which it retrieves from under obscuring controversies and reshapes into a conceptual challenge to the ideologies underpinning the most pressing ethical issues of the day.

Pantheologies should be of interest to religious studies scholars, philosophers, scientists, and theologically curious political activists alike, by virtue of its broad intellectual scope, engaging rhetoric, and urgent ethical reflection. Specialists of any of these fields might perhaps fault the author at times with disciplinary dilettantism, coursing as she does through such a vast array of sources, references, and positions in a relatively short volume, and all through the lens of a subversive pantheistic countercurrent. Nevertheless, Rubenstein's light and humorous tone does not hamper the technical complexity of her reflection, and the result is a performative embodiment of the very pantheologies she proposes: a queer mixture in which divinity "show[s] up in unforeseen crossings and alliances" (190).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Oriane Lavolé is a doctoral candidate in religious studies at Stanford University.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mary-Jane Rubenstein is Professor of Religion; Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies; and Science in Society at Wesleyan University. She is the author of Strange Wonder: The Closure of Metaphysics and the Opening of Awe (Columbia, 2009) and Worlds Without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse (Columbia, 2014) and the coeditor of Entangled Worlds: Religion, Science, and New Materialisms (with Catherine Keller, 2017).


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