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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


 God, Literature and Process Thought edited by Darren J. N. Middleton (Ashgate) This book explores and evaluates evolutionarily theism -- which asserts that God subject to change as humanity is subject to, change -- charting the way it surfaces as a theme in classic, modern, and postmodern forms of creative writing philosophical theology, and cultural theory. Probing texts by process thinkers such as Whitehead, Bergson, Teilhard, and Hartshorne, as well as the literary of figures such as Aeschylus, Byron, Goethe, Greene, Joyce, Kazantzak, Levertov, and Shakespeare, the twelve scholars in this volume reflect on God and the world, on reading and interpretation, and on being and becoming. The contributors emerge with fresh perspectives that promise to make a substantial contribution to the field of literature and religion today.

 Editor’s summary: Although it is true to say that the field of literature and theology is growing and becoming more sophisticated and articulate, it is equally correct to say that few scholars working in the particular area of process studies have explored the potentially fruitful exchange between process thought and creative writing. A routine search of the library at the Center for Process Studies in Claremont, California, reveals very little; in fact, only a handful of articles and book chapters exist. Having said this, the researcher who digs beneath the surface of literary art -- classic, modern and postmodern -- uncovers a treasure trove of items, a fecund series of resources for thinking theologically in a relational world. Consider the English novelist David Lodge. One of Lodge's most engaging characters, Bernard Walsh, is a self­proclaimed agnostic theologian, who has a professional interest in Paradise. But, having come to Hawaii to escort his reluctant father Jack to the deathbed of Jack's estranged sister, he does not, like his fellow tourists, hope for a heavenly holiday. Here is Bernard's opinion of, and challenge to, process theology, culled from Lodge's 1991 novel, Paradise News:

Bernard sat at his desk and took out his notes on a book about process theology he was reviewing for Eschatological Review. The God of process theology, he read, is the cosmic lover. `His transcendence is in His sheer faithfulness to Himself in love, in His inexhaustibility as lover, and in His capacity for endless adaptation to circumstances in which His love may be active.' Really? Who says? The theologian says. And who cares, apart from other theologians? Not the people choosing their holidays from the travel agent's brochures. Not the drivers of the car transporters. It often seemed to Bernard that the discourse of much modem radical theology was just as implausible and unfounded as the orthodoxy it had displaced, but nobody had noticed because nobody read it except those with a professional stake in its continuation. God, Literature and Process Thought outlines and promotes the novel view that there is much to be gained when those who value the insights of process thought `encounter' the many and varied writers of literature and literary theory, and vice versa, and it celebrates process poesis, a fresh way of reflecting theologically and philosophically that takes account of literary forms, and which promises to transform creatively the very structure of process thought today.
 In the last two decades, scholars have written some important books and a substantial number of essays on process thought and science, economics, spirituality, psychology, and theology, Christian as well as Jewish, but a book devoted to the alliance between process thought and literature has not been written or published. God, Literature and Process Thought seeks to correct this oversight. It does this by providing, in one volume, an instructive tool for studying a variety of process thinkers in conversation with numerous literary theorists and artists. Our book is divided into three parts. In Part I, four scholars reflect on the dynamic interplay that occurs when process thought and literary theory are brought together in a creative nexus of sorts. In Part II, seven writers attempt to serve as fair­minded arbiters of a lively exchange between various process thinkers (Whitehead, Bergson, Teilhard and Hartshorne) and numerous creative writers (Aeschylus, Blake, Byron, Coleridge, Goethe, Greene, Joyce, Kazantzakis, Levertov, Schelling and Shakespeare). Finally, in Part III, one writer with training in process theology offers her own poetic reflections on the processes of reality, thereby suggesting that our anthology is capable of embodying the very thing it celebrates: process poesis.

Andrew W. Hass opens the part devoted to process thought and literary theory with a view of reading based on a notion of process, a notion informed in particular by twentieth-century thinkers Wolfgang Iser, Whitehead and Martin Heidegger. According to Hass, Iser's reader-response approach, which demands a performative role from the reader, is emblematic of a shift from discovering what might be given behind a text, to creating meaning through interaction with the text. This shift finds philosophical support in Whitehead's ontological notion of a `production of novel togetherness' and in Heidegger's later notion of language which `grants an abode for the being', whereby reading now helps constitute the being of the reader. This theory of reading is then explored practically in a brief passage from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, in which, through textual extravagance, a theological understanding of `Other' emerges, allowing for a bearing witness both to the loss of hermeneutical innocence and to the new, ethical possibilities which the process of reading opens up before this Other.

Recent literary theory takes its lead from the work of Jacques Derrida, the French poststructuralist thinker, and so, following Hass, Timothy Mooney addresses the resemblances between Whitehead and Derrida, focusing on the thorny question of essentialism. Derrida's work has often been understood in terms of transcendental philosophy, and Mooney acknowledges that this is indeed one of its aspects. Derrida's deconstruction of the essence­accident opposition, however, is also informed by ideas in evolutionary biology and systems-theory, this strand having been brought out in recent studies by Henry Staten and Christopher Johnson. Mooney argues that when we look at the later work of Whitehead it is possible to discern remarkable similarities between Whitehead and Derrida. After all, Whitehead's philosophy is also an evolutionary one, as Mooney shows, which rejects the idea of fixed and fully determined essences. A greater emphasis is certainly laid on order by Whitehead, especially in his accounts of eternal objects and God, but, from Mooney's perspective, these aspects of his thought are both carefully qualified and eminently open to revision.

 Revising and transforming process philosophy stands at the center of Santiago Sia's essay, which issues a clarion call to process thinkers: consider and comprehend the voice(s) of those who write stories, plays and poems, because they have mastered the art of concretizing their experience, something process thinkers often promise to do, but very often seem unable to accomplish. Contemporary process thought has of course emphasized the contributions of Whitehead and Hartshorne in providing an alternative conceptuality in understanding and articulating our experience of reality. These contributions, which have led to the formation of a metaphysical scheme, seem, at least to Sia, to be rooted both in a particular understanding of the role of reason and in the attempt to meet the challenge of the times. What is also called for, however, but relatively ignored by process thinkers, is the task of preserving `the concreteness of experience' rather than merely analyzing it. Thus Sia's essay argues that process thought, following its own methodology, can benefit from `listening to poets and literary writers'. Drawing on Whitehead's references to literature in his writing, Sia develops Whitehead's insight that `literature preserves the wisdom of the human race' and that `it is the storehouse of that crude evidence on which philosophy should base its discussion'. In developing this insight, Sia critiques Plato's criticisms of poetry and, from a process perspective, enters into a dialogue with contemporary European philosophers regarding the alliance between literature and philosophy. Rene P.H. Munnik is one such European philosopher, and his essay closes the first part of the present volume, relating Whitehead's concept of a dynamic world to theories about textual expression and interpretation. Offering Whiteheadian readings of concepts such as `effective history', `polysemia', `impossibility of reconstructive interpretation' and `understanding as a process of fusion of horizons' (Hans‑Georg Gadamer), Munnik argues that Whitehead's process cosmology is `hermeneutical' in the strict sense of the word.

Aliman Sears's process theological reflections on M.S. Sia's novel, The Fountain Arethuse, opens the second part of our anthology, and his work is the first of seven different essays addressing and assessing the relationship between particular process thinkers and specific creative writers. Set in the university town of Leuven in Belgium, The Fountain Arethuse deals with the concreteness of life and the challenges it offers. Among other concerns, the experience of pain and suffering occupies a prominent role in the narrative and, as Sears points out, the novel's main characters display various responses to their experience of suffering. In the eyes of a young literature instructor, for example, the death of a loved one results in enmity towards an allegedly uncaring God. Furthermore, a philosopher researching the problem of evil suffers anxiety over the connection between his intellectual work and suffering people in the world. Sears explores the underlying process theodicy in The Fountain Arethuse through an analysis of, and reflections on, its plot, its characters and its dialogues. Sears also shows the connections between process themes in this novel and the theodicy developed in the authors' other book, From Suffering to God, and he compares their position with other process theodices, particularly those developed by David Ray Griffin and Barry L. Whitney. Throughout his essay, Sears indicates how the authors of The Fountain Arethuse conceive the relationship between literary expression and philosophical reasoning, and he offers his own assessment of their approach to the problem of evil by discussing ways in which literature may expand philosophical reflection.

Barry L. Whitney's essay continues the theodicy theme, using ancient literature as a key to unlock the door to a new understanding of the problem of evil. In Whitney's view, the Greek myth of Prometheus, given its classic form by Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound, has been far more influential in western culture than has been recognized. The early church theologians were influenced by Hellenistic culture and so conceived the Christian God in terms of Greek thought, an imaginative blend of Aristotle's God and Zeus ‑ omnipotent, impassible, cruel and condemning. With the ushering in of the modern age after the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the Promethean myth, which pits Prometheus's rebellion in the name of freedom against a callous Zeus, gained new prominence, especially in the thought of major atheists.

The irony in contemporary atheism, and in the problem of suffering by which atheists challenge belief in God, is that the God defended by Christian theologians and rejected by atheists is not an adequate vision of the Christian God. For Whitney, process philosophers and theologians present a much more viable understanding of God, and thereby undercut the basis for modern atheism and dissolve the traditional formulation of the problem of evil.

`Sticky evil' clings to Shakespeare's Macbeth, according to William Desmond, and his essay explores the meaning of this phrase using categories of process. Sticky evil refers to evil's indelible character. It is represented in the image of Lady Macbeth trying to wash Duncan's blood from her hands: `Out damned spot, out I say!' And she cannot wash off the blood; it is sticky, not only in a physical sense, but in a metaphysical sense. The evil congeals. In Desmond's eyes, Macbeth is redolent with this sticky evil, this thickness of darkness itself. What sense of process is here at work? In answering this question, Desmond speaks of 'the karma of equivocity'. His view is that process is itself equivocal, not univocal, and always ambiguous between good and evil. Evil is no mere deprivation, but is parasitical on this equivocal process. In short, Macbeth is the play of equivocal process: nothing is, but what is not.

Desmond argues for a karma in this equivocal process. There is a doom in the process which is set in motion by the equivocal mixing of human powers and powers other than human. Can this karma of the equivocal be called a fate? How is the relation of human powers and this doom reflected in the stickiness of evil? Do we have philosophical categories to handle sticky evil and the karma of the equivocal process?

Is process philosophy adequate? For Desmond, these questions, particularly the last one, come together to form one overall question: can a philosophy primarily interested in categories that help determine explanation illuminate what seems to exceed all univocal determination?

Like the essays offered by most of the other contributors in this second part, Darien J.N. Middleton's work connects the problem of suffering to the problem of God. However, unlike the other essayists, he introduces the provocative notion that evil lurks within the heart of deity. Using Graham Greene's novel The Honorary Consul, he gives an account of Greene's interest in Teilhard de Chardin's Catholic process thought, and especially Teilhard's belief that there is a continual evolution within Godself. Middleton focuses on Greene's main protagonist, Father Rivas, and his belief that God possesses a `day-time face' and a `night-time face'. According to Father Rivas, God requires our assistance in order to evolve from God's 'night-side' to God's `day‑side'. Significantly, Teilhard speaks of God or Christ evolving towards absolute light and goodness, and that God needs us to advance the evolutionary process. Through an examination of Greene's original typescripts of The Honorary Consul, Middleton shows that Greene's process vision is expressed in a literary and poetic form; through fiction, that is, Greene can be seen to foster a process spirituality of creativity, where all women and men co-create the world with God.

A strikingly similar process spirituality of creativity lies at the center of Nikos Kazantzakis's literary oeuvre, and Daniel A. Dombrowski's essay attempts to show how and why this is so. He begins by tracing the life and writings of this impressive Greek poet, essayist and novelist, paying particular attention to the influence of the process philosopher Henri Bergson on his concept of God. The `Cry of God' serves as a call forward to new possibilities, some of which may strike us as terrifying. Some key process concepts in Kazantzakis are treated in this essay, including transubstantiation (metousiosis or metabole), the `new middle ages', as well as Kazantzakis's dipolar theism and his mysticism, and Dombrowski ends with a consideration of Kazantzakis's method and of his views regarding panexperientialism and death.

While Lewis Owens refers to the work of Henri Bergson and Nikos Kazantzakis in his own essay, his primary focus is Jacob Boehme and the Romantic roots of process thought. For Owens, the core tenets of process thought ‑ terms such as creativity, becoming, process and time ‑ had their genesis in the notion of a selfmanifesting deity espoused by the mystic Jacob Boehme, who is justifiably seen by Hartshorne as the founder of dipolar theology. Owens shows how Boehme's thought greatly influenced the later thought of the Romantic Schelling as well as the religious philosophy of Bergson and Berdayaev, all of whom are seen by Hartshorne as members of the distinguished family of process philosophers. Furthermore, Boehme's influence also affects the Romantic verse of Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge, which suggests that such poetic literature remains a most authentic channel for expressing the dynamism of process thought.

Poetry stands out as the mainstay of Bobby Caudle Rogers's essay, which uses Henri Bergson's evolutionary vitalism as a lens through which to view Denise Levertov's verse. Like all lyric poetry, the lines in Levertov's later poems seek to raise themselves from the page in a struggle towards transcendence. And according to Rogers, this struggle becomes unselfconsciously theological by the time of her 1994 book, Oblique Prayers. Her imagery is famously small and mundane, like that of her most significant poetic forebear, the High Modernist William Carlos Williams. `God's in the dust,' she writes, `I not sifted//out from confusion'. Hers is a poetry of moments, a poetry of the small, luminous surprise. From Rogers's perspective, Bergson's notions of time, past and change form a useful means to approach Levertov's world of continuous utterance and refinement, her beatitudes of dust. Rogers's essay ends the second of our three parts, and it serves as important prolegomenon to our third part, which features Christina K. Hutchins's original poem about becoming, an example of versifying relationality, because this final component of our anthology also uses Levertov as a source for thinking as well as for writing.

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