Religious Experience and New Materialism

Movement Matters

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Joerg Rieger, Edward Waggoner
Radical Theologies
  • New York, NY: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , November
     204 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This recent volume on Religious Experience and New Materialism, attests to the current cresting of the wave of New Materialist scholarship from the last twenty years or so. In the late 1990s, Rosi Braidotti and Manuel DeLanda, began, independently, to use the term “new materialism” or “neomaterialism” to denote new and original ways of approaching philosophies from earlier generations in materialist thought. This, in turn, began new pathways for up-and-coming scholarship to find inspiration from many different disciplines, including physics, neurobiology, religion, and many others. Two factors stand out prominently in ”new materialism” as opposed to the old variety: matter is no longer read as inert “stuff” but as ontologically significant, and religion is reincorporated into the material in substantial ways.

Religious Experience and new Materialism, edited by Joerg Rieger and Edward Waggoner, seeks to draw out the discussion of religion in particular for new materialist modes of thought. It is a fairly brief volume, at only 181 pages (including notes), covering six new materialist thinkers in five chapters (plus an introduction, response, and conclusion). However brief, these voices from the new materialisms cover much of the range of current scholarship that centralizes religion in new materialist thought.

If one is interested in who the new materialists are and what they are making “new” about materialism, then the introduction, written by Tamsin Jones, Assistant Professor of Religion at Trinity College, is worth the price of the book. Jones adeptly charts the work of the new materialism; she highlights the various voices from the book as well as relevant extant sources. And Jones provides an overview the relevant “old” material that the new materialists often utilize regarding religion.

The five chapters that follow, as well as the response and conclusion, deal with the question of what religion is for the new materialism. As Jones notes, although the new materialists take different approaches to religion they “all would agree that it involves, at least in large part, a rejection of interiority, ideality, and emphasis on transcendence…in favor of exteriority, materiality, and immanence,” and “further rejection of an anthropocentrism central to much modern religious and theological thought” (1). It is from this starting point that each of the thinkers takes their discussion on the place of religion in new materialism, given the necessary call to “movements” from the subtitle “Movement Matters.”

Kimerer LaMothe starts off the discussion utilizing the language and movements of dance techniques to explain her “ecokinetic approach to the study of religion” (25). She does not focus on the “truth” of a specific religion or practice, but seeks to understand what motivates people from that tradition to move, to participate with that religion, and with the world. She believes that studying religion in this way will help new materialists to “[shift] their attention from matter to movement—as the enabling source and medium of life” (26), which would help us to better live in the movements of the earth “as co-creators of the reality in which we live” (50).

Kevin Minister continues the theme of movement in rethinking what “conversion” means for the new materialists who study religion. He asks us to look beyond what conversion means for a particular religion to what it would mean to convert our thinking toward the earth and its inhabitants, to search religion in ways “that are responsive to the material, cultural, and political dimensions of conversion,” and more specifically to “forms of religious conversion that resist domination” (55).

In a more specific example of the rethinking of religious experience and the studies thereof, Clayton Crocket and John Reader put new materialism (NM) and Relational Christian Realism (RCR) together in a discussion regarding ecology. Crocket and Reader argue that the most significant correlation between NM and RCR are that both approach the human as a related part of the non-human world, having evolved from it, and that we subsequently alter the non-human by our presence.

Karen Bray, in the fourth chapter, asks us to “feel like shit” (105), arguing for solidarity with the outcast and oppressed of the world. She writes this in juxtaposition to Crocket and Robbins call to “become brain,” from their seminal work Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). Bray argues for solidarity with the oppressed through their religious expression, finding practices of the oppressed as ways of resistance to the oppressors that would largely go unnoticed without “becoming feces” as these people have been made to be.

In the final chapter, Joerg Rieger pushes the notion of movement for the new materialism. Working primarily from a Marxist notion of labor, Rieger sees religious experience as a profoundly material engagement that the new materialists must occupy more fully in order to act upon a post-capitalist society for the sustainability of human and non-human communities. He stresses that NM must now focus on labor, what it means to labor for a new immanent world, and how labor movements are needed for societal change at large.

The response by Jeffrey Robbins and the conclusion by Edward Waggoner both attempt to wrap up much of what is said by the main body of the work. Robbins pushes back, at least a little on every chapter, and clarifies some of what was written in the coauthored work with Clayton Crocket mentioned above. Waggoner gives us an excellent summation of what was said, and more importantly what, from his perspective, was missing from the book in the discussion of religious expression and new materialism.

This book stands as an important work in the new materialisms that both helps to elucidate some of its concepts regarding perspectives on religion, and reminds us that it must always be done with the earth as its subject (and all of its inhabitants). The difficulty that this book reveals for the new materialism is that it is at the point where specific engagements with religious identities and experiences are essential for it to move beyond the academic discourse of the philosophy of religion. If the new materialisms are to effect change beyond academia, it must become a movement of action towards the earth and for the inhabitants of the earth by occupying spaces of marginality and participating with religious movements of resistance. The call of Rieger and Waggoner to recognize and become the movement of the force of the world underlies the work of the all the authors and asks us to move outside of our comfort zones in our scholarship and our daily lives.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jay O. Potter is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Theology and Philosophy at the Claremont School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
January 18, 2018



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