There are no pure bodies: The monotheistic spiritual naturalism of Anne Conway, part 4

[… continued from last post]

White, Carol Wayne, The Legacy of Anne Conway (1631 – 1679) : Reverberations from a Mystical Naturalism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008).  There is no nice way to say it: this is a bad book!  White, like Duran and Nye, brings a strongly feminist point of view to Conway’s work.  But unlike Duran and Nye, who both use feminist theory in an integrative and clarifying way vis-à-vis Conway, White’s use of it is disintegrative and obscuring.  There seems to be no attempt here to understand in their full dimensionality Anne Conway, religion, mysticism, Quakerism, or naturalism.  All of them exist, it would seem, only to serve and forward White’s feminist agenda which is virulently anti-Western and antiscience.  All of them are brought in, it would appear, only insofar as they fit White’s version of ecofeminism that can be characterized, briefly, as Rosemary Radford Ruether’s minus her theism.  And the sides of Conway, religion, et al. that don’t quite fit the agenda?  They are ignored or glossed over.  At first, I was inclined to think that this book was just poorly written.  That, in fact, is true but after reading it fully once, and then rereading significant portions of it again, I am inclined to be less charitable.  The front cover of the paperback version of it (that I have) is suggestively green.  There is a blurry image of leaves on it.  The prominently displayed subtitle has the enticing but rather nebulous catchphrase “mystical naturalism” in it, along with the evocative word “reverberations.”  The verbiage on the back cover sprinkles in all the right keywords – religion, mysticism, Quakerism, and naturalism – and it is only in hindsight, and by reading between the lines, that one can detect something other than what is being openly peddled on the front and back covers of this book.  The phrase on the back cover, “equality within the natural order,” and the characterization of religious naturalism as that “which entail[s] an aesthetic ethical mandate seeking the increase of goodness in the world,” turn out to be more telling than they appear upon first inspection.

Now that I have probably thoroughly disabused you of the idea that White’s book is worth reading, I have to acknowledge that there are degrees of badness, and that not all parts of it are equally bad.  In fact it is the overall trajectory of the book that runs steeply downhill, i.e. the less bad parts occur early on.  For example, although White’s treatment of seventeenth-century Quakerism is one-sided, in that it overemphasizes Quaker defiance of social conventions, this part of the book (in the second chapter) is useful and interesting.  I also think some of the juxtapositions (sadly, they are often little more than this) that White invokes with Conway and certain later thinkers are potentially insightful, e.g. Goethe, Bergson, and Whitehead, even if some are not, e.g. Wieman and Ruether.  But, in the end, White’s feminist agenda obtrudes and overwhelms the germ of a good idea that this book potentially had.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sixth and final chapter of the book, which is truly execrable.  It is here that the gloves finally come off.  It is here that White’s bombastic rhetoric becomes, at times, embarrassing:

Distinct in its exaltation of demanding nature’s liberation, my religious naturalism functions within the postmodern landscape to help recover the representations and articulations of alternate voices in philosophical, political, scientific, and poetic exchanges because the question of what can be said, when, and by whom, is of crucial significance.  I thus propose a critical religious naturalism, or a certain sustained set of religious reflections on humans as natural organisms – in other words, I propose to conceive humans as evolution that has become aware of itself.  (p. 108) . . .

These ideas emerging from the scientific sphere are not so much prescriptive as they are suggestive in helping me propose an artful construction of humans as value-laden, social organisms in constant search of meaning (cognition), enamored of value (beauty), and instilled with a sense of purpose (telos).  The human species, in my estimation, entails a modality of existence within a sphere of values in which transformation occurs.  In short, I propose a view of humanity as pulsating organisms full of possibilities, desirous of novelty, and aimed toward transformation – all qualities associated with human valuation.  (p. 115) . . .

Those of us interested in advancing the concept of vital love as a human ideal (or an ennobling value, if you will) must take note of the plurality of perspectives that help to shape humans as valuing, social organisms.  As I conceive it, this construction of humanity has a pivotal role to play in liberating and transforming all of nature, a task that is reminiscent of the symbolic power of Ruether’s ecojustice discourse.  I encourage religious humanists and our allies and friends – indeed, all who would listen – to continue creating and participating in various fields of feminist inquiry and activism, and to see without hesitation the interconnectedness of such issues as peace, labor, women’s health care, antinuclear activity, the environment, and animal liberation.  (p. 116) . . .

Furthermore, my feminist consciousness argues that if we wish to avoid the ever-present dangers of modernism’s illusions, we must write in various perspectives, modalities, and voices that have been pushed to the rear, so that we can enact critical standpoints by which to judge the present truths of the ‘naturalized’ world, particularly when they pretend to be the whole and only truth.  (p. 117)

It turns out that White’s “takedown” of Euro-Western modernity is total – a summary judgment for the plaintiffs, i.e. for all the victims of Euro-Western colonialism, racism, sexism, scientism and, yes, even humanism.  In one breath, she approvingly cites these words by Frantz Fanon (whose writings have been considered foundational for anticolonial liberation movements since the 1950s):

Let us waste no time in sterile litanies and nauseating mimicry.  Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their streets, in all corners of the globe.  For centuries they have stifled almost the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called spiritual experience.  Look at them swaying between atomic and spiritual disintegration.  . . .  That same Europe where they were never done talking of Man, and where they never stopped proclaiming that they were only anxious for the welfare of Man: today we know what sufferings humanity has paid for every one of their triumphs of the mind.  . . .  Come then, comrades, the European game has finally ended, we must find something different.  (p. 102)

And then in the next breath (literally), White writes:

In the twentieth-first [sic] century, various humanists are also hoping to find something different as we continue challenging impoverished and detrimental constructions of gender and racial differences produced by a modern scientific project enabled by Enlightenment instrumentalism.  I also consider this an opportune moment to pause and consider the full heuristic value of Conway’s work for religious humanists today.  During her time, Conway challenged the dominance of the commonly accepted epistemological sources of scientific reasoning and the consequent methods used to achieve it.  She boldly associated crucial values with created nature in her cosmological constructions, incorporating various forms of knowledge that were not readily accepted by the cultural elites and composers of truth of her era.

Conway’s conceptual audacity invigorates religious naturalists seeking to apply philosophical and religious reflection to natural phenomenon [sic], who are not content to let others simply describe its mechanics or operations.  Her work on nature encourages some of us to engage in “world-formation,” namely, to envision and to help implement new forms of relationality among all natural processes that bring about new inhabited worlds of hope and transformation.  In other words, as I see it, Conway’s historic example evokes a fundamental truth of religious valuing, that is, a tenacious refusal of humans to reduce our various actions to mere determinist forces and mechanistic explanations of cause/effect.  During the early modern period, Conway’s philosophy of vitalism attributed intrinsic value to all that exists, and it featured a vision of humanity’s unique place/role/activity in a complex network of changing processes.  (ibid.)

Besides the bone-jarring juxtaposition, in terms of personalities, of the fiery, anticolonial militant with the quiet, genteel viscountess (“Revolutionary Annie,” spiritual godmother to ecofeminists everywhere?), there is the small problem that Conway was, by virtue of her high station and superior intellect, if not by virtue of her sex, herself one of the “cultural elites and composers of truth of her era” that White derides (history’s subsequent neglect of the ideas propounded at Ragley Hall – Conway’s manorial residence, and a mecca for thinkers in her orbit – is another thing).  Also, the sharp distinction White draws here between Conway and the mechanical philosophers is too extreme.  Thus, although White solidly pegs Conway as a mystical thinker in the tradition of Renaissance Naturalism, in more or less total opposition to Cartesian mechanical philosophy, David Byrne’s view of the matter seems much closer to the mark:

Conway is a mechanical philosopher who sought to augment mechanism with spiritual and active principles.  She accepted the mechanical philosophy, yet rejected the Cartesian notion that matter is dead and passive, replacing it with a vitalism descended from the Naturalists, but she also rejected aspects of Naturalism, specifically that God is directly present in his creation.

Like Newton, her mechanical philosophy defies any convenient classification.  Conway attempted to make the mechanical philosophy more amenable to theology by placing herself in the middle of, on one hand, the Renaissance Naturalist tradition, and on the other hand, the physics of Descartes.  From her perspective, each of these positions had strengths and flaws.  Conway adhered to some basic assumptions of both Naturalism and mechanism, but she modified the details of both movements to ensure conformity to Christianity.  (Anne Conway : An Intellectual Portrait of a Seventeenth Century Viscountess, p. 81)

One of White’s favorite words is “unmasked.”  Everywhere one looks, it seems, there are apparently well-intentioned people who have either been deluded, or who have deluded themselves:

Wieman’s naturalistic framework, on the other hand, demonstrates that what was once viewed as unitary is actually constituted by a plurality; certainties are seen as ambiguities; and univocal simplicities are unmasked as complexities.  (p. 94) . . .

Their works illustrate that, depending on who is speaking, the self-congratulatory proclamations of humanism can be quickly unmasked as fraudulent claims and violent acts of genocide.  (p. 102) . . .

These analyses have unmasked the naïve notion of progress through reason, arguing that rationality has been construed as a male principle, and an undue emphasis placed on it has relegated women and other groups to secondary positions throughout the history of Western civilization.  (p. 104) . . .

With other nonreligious ecofeminists, Ruether has further unmasked the mechanistic constructions of scientific discourse, arguing that solutions to global problems will not be found if contemporary citizens ignore the interconnectedness of all life – humans, and the creatures and plants with whom humans share the earth.  (p. 106)

The grimly strident, antirational tone of White’s voice seems to me very far from Conway’s quietly compassionate, yet altogether rational, voice, and all but cries out for its own unmasking.

My “annotated” Conway bibliography ends here.  I’m sorry to have to end it with such a negative review but, alphabetically, it just worked out this way.

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This entry was posted in Animal theology, Conway, Anne, Philosophy (uncategorized), Scandinavian creation theology, Science, History of. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to There are no pure bodies: The monotheistic spiritual naturalism of Anne Conway, part 4

  1. Pingback: There are no pure bodies: The monotheistic spiritual naturalism of Anne Conway, part 3 | Extravagant Creation

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