Religion, Science, and the Multiplication of the Multiple in Worlds Without End

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.

23 thoughts on “Religion, Science, and the Multiplication of the Multiple in Worlds Without End

  1. Wonderful essay, Beatrice. You may not remember I met you at Catherine Keller’s 13th TTC @ Drew a year and a half ago. While I appreciate immensely the conversation generated from the humanities side of the debate I sense a few problematic deficiencies. One, humanities scholars seem to be a disadvantage by not being well versed in a holistic overview manner advanced mathematics, physics and biologies subject matter. This leads to my second observation that unfortunately without these there is little for practitioners in the sciences to take seriously from humanities scholars. Which lead to my third point that scientific practitioners are desperately seeking cross-domain connectivity but they shoot themselves in the foot by not engaging or acquiring specialized humanities prerequisite subject matter in order to be of interest to humanities scholars.

    You see the problem, don’t you? There needs to be more cross-disciplinary translation between the great divide. Trust needs to be developed and then leveraged into genuine exchanges. This seem seriously lacking as well.

    I would recommend some recent books to broaden the conversation. There is an important collaboration that would benefit both the sciences and the humanities by Lee Smolin and Roberto Mangabeira Unger, ‘The Singular Universe and The Reality of Time.’ I’d also highly recommend Alexander Unzicker and Sheila Jones’ ‘Bankrupting Physics: How Today’s Top Scientists Are Gambling Away Their Credibility.’ Lastly, I read very little from the humanities scholars of the work of E. O. Wilson, biologist. His latest book is very important. In it he pleads for creditable consiliences and connectivity between young scientists and the humanities discipline and also makes a strong case for humanities scholars to augment their expertise with mathematics, physics and biologies subject matter. The book is ‘Letters to a Young Scientist’ which is really letters from his older self to his younger self he wished he received. I can’t recommend this one highly enough. Nonpractioners get an insider’s view of the scientist’s trade and a scientist opens himself up to new perspectives desperately called for from humanities scholars. Thank you for taking the time to read this and for writing your insightful essay.

  2. Does Rubenstein’s book meet your requirements for adequately addressing science? Because if it doesn’t, then I’m afraid the task is simply impossible — or else scientists are basically being elitist dicks.

  3. Let me make this perfectly clear. Of course it does. I love M-J’s work and this book in particular. I love what you did with it.

    But I have to be perfectly honest here. That is because I can translate between math/scientific disciplines, and theological/philosophic/poetic disciplines. The real question is would anyone in the math and sciences disciplines read ‘Worlds Without End’? The sad truth is no. Because of the Sokal Affair.

    Calling names won’t change a damn thing. It will hold in place the Kuhnian Impasse. I’m looking for genuine crossings of the divide. I am well versed in calculus and use it in my work. I am well versed in physics, nuclear, quantum, special/general relativity. I am well versed in biologies disciplines. I am also well versed in theology/philosophy, Keller, Caputo, Crockett, Derrida and Deleuze. I can appreciate the connectivities across the Great Divorce. This is very rare though. I am not accorded any recognition by either side for this. It is of no consequence to either. That is the problem. It must become of consequence. Both side are calling out for it. I’m sure the calls are authentic, but, I’m not so sure either knows what is called for, nor is ready for what may come. You of all people can appreciate this?

  4. I’m increasingly convinced that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to think meaningfully about modern physics without a fairly sophisticated mathematical background.

  5. I don’t doubt that it’s impossible to do physics without that background. But there are degrees of understanding, surely. I do think that it’s a cultural and institutional problem, not intrinsic to the subject matter. You don’t hear people saying that you can possibly think meaningfully about sociology without knowing a huge amount of statistics, for instance. It’s the prestige of science that allows it to present itself as an esoteric discipline available only to initiates.

  6. Hey Kev, I do recall meeting you at the TTC… this was the colloquium on religion and science, with Karen Barad (as well as MJ Rubenstein) in attendance, no? I would agree with what you’re saying, here, about the difficulty (perhaps near impossibility) of airing ideas across disciplines. And, certainly, the humanities are at a disadvantage in the sense that there are few reasons for contemporary physicists, or biologists, to steep themselves in theoretical work in either religion or theology. But I don’t think the solution (or the only solution, perhaps I should say) is trying to find a way to convince those in the sciences to read texts in this field.

    I think that Adam’s point – that this is a cultural and institutional problem – is important. The disinventment in the humanities, in institutions of higher education, is – I think – a bigger problem than whether or not research scientists are reading theology. If engineering, chemistry, biology, or neuroscience majors are introduced to ideas in religion, theology, or philosophy as undergrads AND given the opportunity to reflect on how these materials do/don’t relate to the material they’re learning in their major, it seems to me that these researchers will likely become scholars who are better attuned to connections between disciplines (and might even read theology or philosophy on their down time). But many students in the sciences today are not required to take courses in these fields.

    Additionally, much teaching in these fields (religion, theology, philosophy) is not interested in helping students to see these connections, to fields in the sciences. I understand why this is: there’s more than enough material to cover, just discussing religion, theology, or philosophy. Why should it be necessary to do even more work than the insane amount of work it already takes to develop a course? Why should a specialist in theology, religion, or philosophy have to become a dual specialist in some scientific field, when the [typically] higher paid professors in the sciences aren’t expected to do the same? And, often, students who DO take classes in religion or theology don’t want to see their professor try to attempt a conversation about – say – physics. Because most of us (I’m including myself here) would end up sounding more like high school students than professors. I will never be able to wax eloquent about physics like I can about theology.

    But this is precisely why I think the shifts in the discussion around “religion and science” – that I’m arguing (above) are presently going on – is important / a good thing. Or, why the way that Mary Jane’s work is contributing to a reconfiguration of the discussion about religion and science is helpful. There are, inevitably, some students who are primarily interested in how they can find a way of thinking about God that will allow them to both believe in God AND know everything that they know about contemporary science. And there are people producing this sort of theological scholarship for students like that, and this often requires becoming well-versed in some scientific discourse in order to ensure that the theological argument is credible within this framework. But there are other students who are primarily interested in learning more about how theology and religion (in multiple traditions) have shaped the way we think about aspects of contemporary life that are often presented as self-contained and non-religious (like technology, science, the health of our human bodies, the cosmos, the environmental context, etc…) And for some students it’s mind-blowing to learn how much science itself has shaped the way we use the term “religion.” I’m encouraged to see scholarship that moves in this direction and addresses the way that science and religion are related on numerous levels, because I think it highlights the entanglement of these fields of knowledge. Among other things, I’m hopeful that this might help (if only subtly) to shift the institutional contexts wherein fields in the humanities, such as religion, are finding themselves always in the absurd position of trying to justify their need for institutional resources.

  7. Agreed. I resonate with you and Adam. The more I think about it the more I’m disappointed with Sokal. While the humanities side has had its say on the Sokal Affair the maths/sciences side stuck their fingers in the ears and been further alienated from pursuing genuine dialog. This superimposes for physicists in particular upon 1920’s titanic disputation between Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson. Like you I am seeking genuine healing and reestablishment of connectivity. It’s vitally crucial.

  8. I don’t know if the “Humanities” deserved Sokal or not, but a single hoax cannot undo all intellectual good will across the disciplines. Forgive me if I wax a bit sentimental here, but there was a time when psychoanalysis was a branch of medicine, which, in the past, was also considered a science. I’ve been practicing medicine for nearly 30 years now, and I am unsure if that is the case any longer. I am unsure how many Alan Sokals would agree that I, too, am a scientist.

    I know Kevin Mequet only through his contribution to _Religion, Politics and the Earth_, and as far as I can tell, his is an authentic voice that bridges the sciences and what we still might call the humanities. But even Mequet’s eloquence is insufficient to transgress the territoriality that makes the Sokals of the world thumb their collective noses at ‘humanites types.’ Clearly, though, Mequet has transgressed the territories themselves.

    Sadly, I would have not read Kevin’s work had I not first read Tad Delay’s comments on R,P&E on his blog (I had reviewed Tad’s _God is Unconscious_ earlier this year and tracked back to his blog from my own). Serendipity counts, I suppose.

    Thicker skin and careful writing might be an antidote to the the territoriality that squelches dialogue. There are indeed people in science and in humanities who talk to each other: this is a time honored tradition. We do need to take care that when we transform hard science into a trope (e.g., Keller’s use of the ‘quantum trope’ in _Cloud of the Impossible_) we do not appear to be attempting to pass ourselves off as scientists. I think Beatrice’s remarks above, which endorse Adam’s disenchantment with the institutional character of unhelpful territoriality, are sobering indeed. And I, for one, am giving up the quantum trope despite Keller’s compelling use of it and my own affection for it. The entanglements among the natural world, science and the humanities is clear enough, as is Mequet’s statement of fact: life itself is the conversion of energy.

  9. I think it’s also relevant to note how different Rubenstein’s approach to science is from the typical approach of scientists to other disciplines — there we see amateurish “debunking” of theology and philosophy by scientists hitting the best-seller lists, and the defense against accusations of inaccuracy is that the fields they’re attacking aren’t genuine forms of knowledge in the first place. I understand that I’m firmly entrenched on a certain side of this divide, but it seems like an asymmetrical one on every level (including access to institutional resources, as Beatrice points out).

  10. After doing more research on Kevin Mequet’s work, I seriously doubt he provides much of a way forward for the “religion and science” dialogue. We have enough trouble gaining a hearing without being associated with total crank theories.

  11. Now that was intelligent and thoughtful, Adam. First, it is not a theory; it’s an hypothesis. Second, it is correctly represented by my collaborators and I as a creative speculative exercise in the realm of of theoretical physics based upon Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann’s Theory of the Fermi Interaction, geomagnetism, constructive paramagnetism in a self-organized matrix, and the widely accepted principles of fissionable decay change interactions involving U238.

    I’m sorry I misunderstood you’d be interested in a genuine exchange of ideas. I see that is clearly not the case.

  12. Pure mathematician and long time fan of this blog here. I’m certainly not alone in my field in being rather ashamed of how we reacted to the whole Sokal thing. One immature albeit successful act of trolling was apparently sufficient for us to (quite gleefully) write off an entire field as “posturing” or w/v. The fact that it happened nearly 20 years ago and we’re mostly still engaged in an idiotic self-congratulatory circle-jerk about it is pretty embarrassing to me. I feel like we quite fundamentally betrayed the academy by aligning ourselves with ideological bullshit anti-intellectual received wisdom. Anyway I don’t have anything substantial to contribute to this discussion, sorry!

  13. Adam, even if Crockett and Robbins erred in collaborating with Mequet in their _Religion, Politics and the Earth_, and even if the particulars of Mequet’s contribution are problematic, as Mark Lewis Taylor’s review of the book suggests (Taylor misidentifies Mequet as a physicist), it’s the very fact of the dialogue that is welcome, not necessarily the merits of a theory or hypothesis that might or might not take flight. Was it wise to ‘slam the door’ on dialogue? That approach seems inconsistent with not only the spirit of AUFS but with the magnanimity of the voice that wrote _The Politics of Redemption_.

    I was disappointed to find such an exchange here. Perhaps it’s safer if one remains a lurker here.

  14. Mequet came along and lectured Beatrice on her own area of expertise (known in contemporary parlance as “mansplaining”), then continued to make comments that basically amounted to rehearsing his vast knowledge of multiple fields. His tone was “nice,” but substantively he was arrogant and disruptive. Once I realized that he was also a total crackpot — and reflected with deep embarrassment on the significance of the fact that a purported “manifesto” for the field of continental philosophy of religion devoted significant space to his “hypothesis” — the die was cast.

    The spirit of AUFS is not to be nice and happy with everyone who comes along. We have never embraced unlimited free speech for its own sake, ever. And if any lurker is afraid to come out of hiding because of this exchange, I think their fear is misplaced — Mequet is a uniquely problematic figure.

  15. My inclination is to respect your informed critique in this matter; I was thinking more in terms of hospitality, and you are thinking in terms of a Sokal redux (but without the credentials). Fair enough.

    Any chance that a AUFS book event might consider a work by Marion, perhaps his _Negative Certainties_ due soon?

  16. I mean there’s a website called Syndicate Theology (now with a philosophy section) that will likely do a book event on Marion, if they haven’t already. David seems to be referring to my response to Mequet.

  17. No, these book events seem like gargantuan undertakings to me, and I would love to participate more meaningfully in one of them, but my reading list hasn’t caught up with AUFS’s. Thanks for the link to Syndicate Theology, and the other clarifications.

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