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Thinking Nature and the Nature of Thinking


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Contents and AbstractsIntroduction: Thinking Nature.(and the Nature of Thinking) chapter abstract

Under the rubric of "thinking nature" the introduction lays out a Platonic symposium of Western religious thinkers on nature and creation. They all engage in the practice of "thinking nature," that is, they regard nature or creation as driving the structure of their thought. This allows for an encounter with nature in thought rather than facilitating the instrumentalization of it. The Irish author John the Scot Eriugena (810-877) and the North-American author Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) are at the heart of this symposium, as their eccentric status appears to give them more freedom vis-a-vis their own time and culture. From the connection between self-reflection and nature entailed by the concept of "thinking nature," the introduction contemplates the reversibility of nature and selfhood. In a next step, the introduction moves from "thinking nature" towards the development of an aspirational sense of "a thinking nature."

1Thinking Nature in Eriugena and Emerson chapter abstract

The first chapter develops the claim that there is another, more elusive and intractable sense of nature operative in Western religious thought. Eschewing both the pantheism and the panentheism label, the chapter argues that this elusive nature is worth studying on its own intractable terms. Rather than seeing nature in terms of eco-scientific guilt or of human deconstruction, which seem to be the current oppositional approaches, there is value to embracing nature's variegated identity before concluding to its victimhood. Through a close reading of Emerson and Eriugena in reverse chronological order whereby the more accessible thinker elucidate the more obscure one, the chapter reveals the benefits of "thinking nature" and begins the work of canon-building to make room for this approach.

2Panchristology and the Liturgical Cosmos of Maximus the Confessor chapter abstract

The second chapter focuses on the thought of the Byzantine thinker Maximus the Confessor. Following Hans Urs von Balthasar's portrayal of Maximus' cosmic liturgy, the chapter traces Maximus' liturgical cosmos and his free and dynamic sense of nature. Maximus' post-Chalcedonian Christology connects Christ's two natures (human and divine), and through it, heaven and earth. For Maximus, unlike for Origen, dynamic nature does not receive movement on account of the fall but at creation, to which movement is integral. Expanding his Christology further, Maximus develops a parallelism of nature and scripture, seeing them as Christ's two garments at the transfiguration. The chapter ends by detecting a flaw in Maximian nature. Since it is a sexless Christ that sets the tone for Maximus' cosmic Christology, his dynamic cosmos rests in the end on the overcoming-and thereby denying-of the gender division of Adam and Eve.

3Creation and the Hexaemeron in Augustine chapter abstract

Augustine is the Christian author most often associated with grace and with a sense of fallen, contaminated nature. This chapter takes a different view, shying away from homogenizing his thought under the rubric of original sin and opting instead for a more phenomenological approach, in which humanity struggles with disorientation and unease. The chapter takes issue with the view that the purpose of temporal life for Augustine is the ascetic suppression of one's natural desires for the purpose of recapturing paradisaical bliss or achieving heavenly bliss. Affirming the temporality of life in Augustine, the chapter notes that Augustine speaks about nature almost exclusively in the context of his treatment of the six days of creation in Genesis. Creation is narrated literally to emphasize that it takes place and is granted a natural existence in relative independence. Creation is thereby also empowered to tell its own story.

Postscript to Part One chapter abstract

Building on the Augustine chapter, the Postscript to Part One develops the idea that through its sign character the natural objects that constitute creation in Augustine can have a voice of their own and with it are able to perform the "eloquence of things." Transferring the Augustinian idea of the relative independence of created things as well as the notion of their having a voice to the world of Eriugena's Periphyseon, the Postscript develops the theory that Eriugena's concept of natura consists in conversation. The notion of nature as conversation helps to interpret the work's meandering philosophical and exegetical parts as deeply connected. As the Periphyseon progresses, the conversation that is natura becomes more forceful, meaning that natura is not determined by the Neoplatonic pair of procession and return but itself determines the unfolding of this Neoplatonic pair and, through it, the unfolding of the entire work.

4Nature as Dispositive Thought in Schleiermacher's Speeches on Religion chapter abstract

Moving into the modern era, this chapter deals with Schleiermacher's well-known Speeches on Religion to Its Cultured Despisers. It argues that Schleiermacher's initial impulse was to forge a close connection between the infinite and the cosmos, seeing religion as the intuiting of the infinite. Traces of Spinozism can be detected in Schleiermacher's cosmic position. As the Speeches develop, the infinite gradually becomes loose from any cosmic overtones, with the Fifth Speech making a turn towards positive religion and bringing a focus on Christianity. In the later Christian Faith Schleiermacher focuses on "the feeling of absolute dependence," by which he makes religion turn inward. At the heart of Christianity as a positive religion we find Christ's perfect God-consciousness. The thin bond by which the cosmos is tied to the divine is that of causality, by which Schleiermacher presents us with a view of nature that can be called excarnate.

5William James and the Science of Religious Selfhood chapter abstract

Charles Taylor chose William James' Varieties of Religious Experience as his starting position for thinking about religion in our secular age. This chapter connects Jamesian with Schleiermacherian experience as a way to show their respective differences with Emerson on the point of "thinking nature." The chapter analyzes James' view of religion as closely linked to selfhood by focusing on his discussion of accounts of conversion in Varieties. Whereas James seems uncritical in following these literary accounts, his aim is to preserve these records insofar as they reflect the "something" that happens in conversion. Using the poetic notion of the "unseeing self" from Thomas Hardy, the chapter demonstrates that James' converting self is simultaneously trusting and looking askance, since conversion cannot be directly witnessed. A similar attitude of being both trusting and looking askance is required of humanity as it tries to find its place in James' pluralist universe.

Conclusion: (Thinking Nature). and the Nature of Thinking chapter abstract

The book's conclusion discusses the dynamics of premodern and modern nature. The part on premodern nature revisits the Christology of Maximus the Confessor. Christ's overcoming of the gender division of Adam and Eve heals the first division of the universe but by doing so sees gendered humanity as second best. Eriugena's strategy to adopt Maximian Christology but incorporate it into the course of dynamic natura makes his position less vulnerable for gender criticism. The part on modern nature continues with an analysis of Schleiermacher's Christology as disconnected from creation, since Schleiermacher relegates the Old Testament to an inferior status. After commenting on Jonathan Edwards and William James regarding the role of experience in faith, the conclusion returns to the dynamics of Emersonian nature, concluding that nature is the incarnation of a thought. It is "thinking nature," therefore, that must carry nature and us onward and onward.

About the Author

Willemien Otten is Professor of the History of Christianity and Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where she serves as the Director of the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion.


"Only an accomplished scholar and philosopher in her own right could meet this challenge: pairing ancient and modern thinkers to address one of the most urgent issues of today. Does not nature amount to much more than what we have made of it? Does not nature think more than is thought? Willemien Otten not only ask these questions, she foresees the answer." -- Jean-Luc Marion, University of Paris
"In this original and significant study, Willemien Otten presents two major authors for the first time in a comparative perspective. Writing with erudition and elegance, she adds considerably to our understanding of both Eriugena and Emerson, and in doing so establishes herself as a serious religious thinker in her own right." -- Brian Stock
"This book seeks no less than to reorient theological thinking away from the stale alternatives of natural theology or special revelation and toward a dialogue of self, God, and nature. In Willemien Otten's rich, detailed, and inventive readings, she persuasively illustrates how to engage religiously with religious texts without having to disdain the blessings of secularity." -- James Wetzel
"Willemien Otten allows us a new recognition-a literal rethinking-of nature. Hers is a dynamic view of nature that calls on us and even on God to listen to it attentively, and that works with many contemporary materialisms while still challenging those insistently atheistic schools of thought. Its place in these conversations is genuinely important." -- Karmen MacKendrick

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