Perhaps because it strives to traffic in such grand and generic universals, the scholarly discourse commonly referred to as the “religion-science dialogue” has faced criticism for the fact that it has historically been a highly particular conversation—a table around which the stakeholders’ faces are white and male, and whose hearts are Christian. Unsurprisingly, and probably not unrelated, it is also a discourse that is seldom discussed here at AUFS. This is not to say, of course, that AUFS readers and bloggers are uninterested in scientific matters such as (I’m pulling from the “Categories” list on the left hand side bar here) animals, audio files, darwinism, Dawkins, ecology, or the sci-fi stylings of Star Trek. But the specialized academic conversation that is Religion and Science does not get much play here. This may be, perhaps, why Catherine Keller—in her opening post for this book event—reflects on how Mary Jane Rubenstein’s efforts in Worlds Without End are aimed at garnering interest in multiple worlds among those who don’t care about this specialists’ dialogue. Keller may be smart enough to realize that too much talk about this specialized disciplinary terrain could fall on ears that may not hear, here. But, in my contribution to this book event, I’d like to play it a bit dumb. As someone with a persistent tendency to resist disciplinary structures, I have spent inordinate amounts of time contemplating them from the fringes—always with a messianic expectation that, at some point, they will begin to change form. The shape of a discipline is highly synthetic and would be infinitely flexible if not for institutional power, and the consensus borne of tradition. Thus, the shape of a discipline matters a lot: it influences public knowledge and public funds, as well as the most intimate habits of thought and the practices these inspire. With this in mind, I’d like to reflect on Rubenstein’s genealogy of multiple worlds against the backdrop of this discipline, and open questions about what her work might also be doing to reconstitute it. I think this could make visible some labors of this text that might otherwise go unannounced.
Names often associated with the field of religion and science are largely those such as Ian Barbour or John Polkinghorne. The field’s history, even its rather recent history, has been shaped and formed by a group of largely white, male, and Christian scholars. This is naturally a legacy that newer scholars in the field struggle against. But there is a generation of scholarship emerging that pushes the conversation in other directions: into Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu thought traditions, deeper into conversations about ecology and animal cognition, even into the politics of life extension and transhumanism. In his introduction to the recently published Science & Religion: One Planet, Many Possibilities (Routledge 2014), Whitney Bauman—while acknowledging that the religion and science dialogue is slowly becoming less western, and less Christian—argues that there are still a number of critical “lacunae” in the field. These lacunae are related to content. But they’re also related to ethical, epistemological, and ontological issues. First, Bauman argues that the field has been too limiting in its consideration of reason, looking for it always in either Christianity or modern western science, rather than acknowledging the more multiple situation of rationalities. Second, the field has failed to acknowledge the ways in which religion and science are “co-constituted”, rather than having formed as isolated islands. Third, the field seems unable to account for, or address, “hybrid religious identities” or “post-religious identities”. All of these are related to the fourth lacuna, which is the field’s failure to embrace multi-perspectivalism (1). The volume was designed to counteract these latent tendencies of the discipline, and to address these lacunae. Contributors historicize the field of religion and science and pull it in new directions, bringing it into conversation with discourses on the secular, unbelief, animal studies, Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, shamanism, magic, and technological ritualism. There is, it seems to me, a kind of multiplication going on in the field right now: filling up the thin and fragile shell of a disciplinary structure that has historically been rigid and narrow with new content, a different set of thinkers and questions, and live intersections other disciplines in both the sciences and the humanities. Indeed, it seems that the field may be starting to catch up with interdisciplinary research in science and technology studies that has already been shaping other disciplines in the humanities for years. The extent to which the field has also begun to engage decolonial and critical race perspectives is less apparent—perhaps a fifth lacuna.
Worlds Without End is a project that also counteracts and addresses some of these lacunae in religion and science—though perhaps not overtly. This is not a book that proclaims to be taking on the discipline, though Rubenstein does conclude with an extended reflection on the relation between religion and science. But the fact that there is resonance between the directions that Rubenstein is moving in this text, and the directions that Bauman suggests the field might move, does indicate that Worlds Without End can fortify research, and research questions, that are multiplying within, and expanding, the field itself.
Perhaps the most obvious lacuna that Worlds Without End responds to is what Bauman argues is the field’s failure to account for multi-perspectivalism. Multiple worlds are the subject of this genealogy that digs into both religion and science, but Rubenstein’s book is, itself, an exercise in perspective. Her writing folds the reader backward and forward in time: into ancient cosmologies and then back into modern mindsets. We are escorted through countless debates. Any desire to find a discourse to rest, for comfort or convenience, goes unsatisfied. Greater mental fitness is required, as the text is not simply about multiple worlds, but seems to create them as well. The text multiplies these multiple worlds. In the end, the reader can finally sit back a bit as Rubenstein tunes into “the faint but unmistakeable signals” of what has been animating the excursion all along: the quest for an ontology that is not plural without being singular, one that “entangles the one and the many” wherein truth remains “provisional, multiple, and perspectival.” (236) Indeed, this is a conversation that seeks—in its careful genealogies of religion and science—not only to create the conditions for the multiperspectival, but to recover them as well.
Another obvious lacuna that Worlds Without End addresses is what Bauman calls the “co-constitution” of religion and science. Rubenstein is illuminating (and her work resonates clearly with that of Catherine Keller here) the entanglements of religion and science, in this text. In this relation of entanglement, we hear the echos of Judith Butler, as religion and science are “undone” by one another (52). They also give shape to one another. Religion, as it shapes itself to respond to the intellectual prestige of scientific research, attempts to shroud itself in an objective reason. Scientists, as they attempt to push back against religion, find themselves awash in things hoped for, but not seen. Through contestation, intellectual envy, mutual suspicion, or unwitting repetition these spheres of knowledge are created with and against one another. A slight shift in one sphere of knowledge means a little spooky action at a distance in the other. Through their entanglement—in this case, over the matter of multiple worlds—the shape of religion and the shape of science is co-constituted. Through this co-constitution, and the illumination of the entanglement of religion and science, perhaps Worlds Without End also responds (at least in some way) to the third lacuna: hybrid or post-religious identities. This is not, to be sure, a theory that will fill the same sort of intellectual and spiritual vacuums that (say) The Singularity might. But staging this sort of entanglement between religious and scientific forms of knowledge might speak to those who seek spirit in science, or vice versa.
One of the lacunae that Worlds Without End seems not to tousle with is the first that Bauman lists: the quest for multiple forms of rationality, outside the western tradition. As Marika Rose has noted, in her response to this book, this is not a text that engages with philosophy outside of the western tradition. So there are discursive limits set, from the outset, that keep the conversation oscillating around thinkers and ideas from the western Christian context and the science that develops in its wake. On the other hand, it might be added, Rubenstein does not make reason itself as central as discourses on religion and science have historically done. In her essay “Feminism, Religion, Science” (in The Routledge Companion to Religion and Science, 2012), Jeanine Thweatt-Bates discusses the development of discourse on religion and science in the wake of what she calls the “feminization” of religion—the modern privatization of religion, the association of religion with the irrational. Defending religion’s claims to reason, and disarticulating its association with the irrational, becomes a primary motive behind the apologetics of the religion-science dialogue. Rubenstein, for her part, is critical of the fixation on reason that she finds—even (perhaps especially) among theologians. Against this fixation, in her concluding chapter, she brings in the voice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer—a thinker, I likely need not note, not often central to conversations on religion and science. Rubenstein works to make space, in the cosmic scene she begins to unfold, for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—rather than the God of the philosophers, alone. Less than invoke his presence, she simply suggests that—in the wake of all this science, this theory—his total disappearance is not necessarily a given.
This is not an apologetic for the bearded patriarch but instead, I think, related to the second to last thought in the front matter of the book. In concluding, Rubenstein muses that, perhaps, if cosmology—whether it be religious or scientific—could account for the sort of plurisingularity that she’s working to bring to life in the text then theology might also begin to ask “more interesting and more pressing questions than whether the universe has been ‘designed’ by an anthropomorphic, exracosmic deity.” (236) The final line, of course, is a provocation: “So let us begin again…” And I don’t think the provocation is merely rhetorical. Rubenstein may not be doing extensive theological labor here, but I do think that she’s working to clear a new set of footpaths—to open new terrain for inquiry. And perhaps, when it comes to the disciplinary site of contestation that’s emerged in conversations about religion and science, this is where she’s doing the most to reconstitute it: provoking us to start again, at the beginning(s). But differently. Provoking us to think about the other possible worlds of discourse that have already been growing and developing, as we’ve long been convinced that only one discourse, or one conversation, has been playing out.