Conceptions of God and nature have long been locked in an intimate embrace. While Spinoza may have scandalized his early modern contemporaries with his equivocation of God and Nature, ideas about the divine and the natural had already been entangled in an opaque and complicated relationship for centuries. In orthodox Christian thought, God may be the supernatural producer of nature—sovereign over it. But this does little to distance God from nature. Rather, this has made it difficult to understand nature apart from God. Even if the figure of God recedes, leaving nature ostensibly on her own, she tends to quickly adopt God’s characteristics—becoming providential, wondrous, capricious, or loving.
What would nature really look like, outside of God’s shadow? What might nature do for us (or with us) if God got out of her way? What the world needs now, argues theorist Bruno Latour, is a secular figure for nature. That is to say, a figure for nature that implies no eternal cause or creator, a figure that has no “spiritual foundation” whatsoever, and so belongs “wholly to this world” rather than the next one. A nature, then, without any gods.
Intriguingly, Latour believes that we can find this secular figure in the Gaia theory—the idea, propounded by the 20th century inventor James Lovelock, that the planet is a kind of superorganism. For those who know anything about the history of this figure, the claim that Gaia is a secular composition might initially sound odd. The name Gaia, after all, comes from Hesiod’s theogony—a poem that casts Gaia as a divine figure central to the origins of the gods. But Gaia theory, according to Latour, marks a shift in the fate of Gaia. The theory, he suggests, is a secularization of Gaia—it extricates her from the realm of the gods and places her here on earth, as Earth. Crucially, Latour argues that Lovelock never meant to divinize the planet by naming it Gaia. Rather, Lovelock’s sense of Gaia was “worldly” (and so, it would seem, secular) all along.
One could make the argument that husking the traces of divinity from a figure does not necessarily render it properly secular. One could even raise questions about Latour’s understanding of secularity (which, in his view, consists of the absence of both “external cause” and “spiritual foundation”). But I do not intend, here, to contest Latour’s claim that Lovelock effectively secularized the figure of Gaia. Rather, I want to suggest that, regardless of whether Gaia is understood to be a religious or a secular figure, whether she is understood to be divine or stripped of divinity, there is still a kind of political theology that operates in her conceptual deployment. In effect, I am making two claims: one is about Gaia, and the other is about political theology. What I want to suggest is that a political theology might be theistic or anti-theistic. Either way, political theology is a conceptual apparatus that is composed in conversation with (or, at the very least, in contempt of) some form of transcendence. The conversation thus staged is meant to provoke some sort of response—affective, pietistic, intellectual, procedural. In this sense, political theology is a kind of intellectual habit (or habitation) that remains attuned—in however irreverent a manner—to some structural feature of a theological cosmology. The figure of Gaia, then, is a figure of political theology, secular and worldly though she may be.
Latour concedes that thinking with the figure of Gaia might be a fundamentally bad idea. As a theorist in the field of science studies—and so, frequently in contact with scholars who take scientific knowledge very seriously—Latour admits that he has been constantly warned not to use the term Gaia, nor to “admit out loud” that he has any interest in Lovelock whatsoever. There is, he suggests, a curse on the word Gaia itself that seems always to draw her back in to the realms of pseudo-science.
Latour, however, has long been intrigued by those places where modern discourse performs what Alfred North Whitehead called a “bifurcation of nature”—where attempts are made to re-draw the modernist distinction between nature and culture. Latour finds such clean distinctions illegitimate and sees the figure of Gaia as an exemplary site where this bifurcation fails; she is a figure of nature who not only carries cultural baggage, but simply cannot live without these items in her coffers. She is a figure for nature who cannot exist without her cultural associations. She challenges modernist understandings of nature because she cannot be contained by the binary distinction (nature/culture). Her associations with divine cosmologies, such as Hesiod’s, are simply that—cultural associations. They might make scientists uncomfortable, because these associations appear to be beyond the natural. But Latour does not believe these cultural associations render her unsecular. So, Latour insists, more of us must be willing to think with Gaia as a secular figure for nature, one who—as an autopoeitic superorganism without order or hierarchy—can offer us an immanent vision of the Earth “from here below”.
Gaia, in Latour’s account, is not a thing, not the planet itself. Instead, she is a network of relations with no eternal Governor to order them. The need to think with Gaia, however, is not merely to have the intellectual pleasure of seizing upon a secular figure for nature. Rather, it has become a dire necessity because of the global state of environmental catastrophe. Gaia is intruding on the world that humans have made, and we need to be ready for what is to come. Global environmental crisis, climate change; these are alternate names for the intrusion of Gaia. She has reached a kind of limit, and we are watching her push back.
Latour’s work on Gaia has been influenced by Belgian philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers. Indeed, it was Stengers who first pointed to the “intrusion of Gaia” in the first place. In the midst of this “waking nightmare” that is the world that predatory capitalism has made for us (and that so many of us have made with it), Gaia names the power that upsets and destabilizes this world.
Stengers understands the intrusion of Gaia to be ambivalent—it is neither a disaster nor a salvation. It is simply a fact. The ambivalence of the intrusion of Gaia is key for both Stengers and Latour because it is precisely this ambivalence that keeps Gaia “worldly”, as Latour puts it. Gaia is not a benevolent Mother Earth, who calls for a cult of worshippers to gather round her. She offers us no form of emancipation or salvation. Although Stengers suggests that Gaia is “ticklish” (she has the capacity to react to provocation) she does not listen to us or respond to our pleas and prayers. To live under the threat of Gaia’s intrusion is not to find a sense of belonging to the world itself, as if we have found in Gaia our true and universal mother. Gaia is entirely indifferent to human existence. This renders Gaia unlike the figure who appears in the work of ecotheologians such as Ann Primavesi. Indeed, it would seem that it is precisely because Latour understands Gaia to be so unworthy of worship or gratitude that he finds her so deeply secular and non-divine.
While Latour argues that there is no spiritual foundation to Gaia, Stengers does describe Gaia as a “spiritual type”, of sorts. She is not a benevolent spiritual type. But she unmakes the worlds built by predatory capitalism, which Stengers names a “maleficent” spiritual type—one that “captures, segments and redefines always more and more dimensions of what makes up our reality, our lives, our practices.” Gaia is a kind of power that corresponds, with brutality, with this maleficence that has provoked her. In essence, for Stengers, Gaia and capitalism are two forms of transcendence (though not, we can assume, the only forms of transcendence). Capitalism’s transcendence is not merely indifferent to us, it is “radically irresponsible” and “incapable of answering for anything” (53). It seems to have enabled us, for at least some time, to seize for ourselves a right that, Stengers argues, “would have frightened all the people who knew how to honor divinities such as Gaia”—the right “not to pay attention” (59). Although Stengers does not claim that Gaia demands our worship, she does seem to intimate that those who once worshipped her were at least pragmatic enough to respect her. Forms of transcendence such as Gaia once commanded respect. No longer—at least, not for those of us living somewhat comfortably in the world that capitalism has built. Stengers does not argue that Gaia has spiritual foundations, or demands our piety. But she does seem to suggest that we might do well to understand what sort of spiritual type we are dealing with, as Gaia intrudes.
Stengers argues that if we are to live through the intrusion of Gaia without collapsing into barbarism, we have to learn to struggle against capitalism’s transcendence, and its stranglehold. But it makes no sense to struggle against Gaia’s transcendence. Rather, it is a matter of learning to compose with it. This is not to wait for Gaia to do something for us but, instead, to be provoked by the intrusion of Gaia to re-learn the art of paying attention (62). To pay attention is not to pray to Gaia, to worship her, to ask her what she wants from us and to do it. Rather, it is to be provoked—in our attention to her—toward new modes of thinking and acting.
There is, I suggest, a kind of political theology at work in this practice of simply paying attention to (and being provoked by) the transcendence that is Gaia. It generates a form of intellectual habitation that remains attuned to the strange shapes drawn in the clouds by some form of transcendence. Again, Stengers does not intimate that Gaia should be thought of as a divinity, that she should be worshipped, or that we should look to her for any form of salvation. And yet, in Gaia’s transcendence are the traces of her ancient divinity. More to the point, the transcendence of Gaia has political effects as well as the capacity to motivate forms of political action. Stengers predicts that one day we (those who have inherited the world that the so-called Enlightenment has prepared for us, perhaps) will experience shame at the way we dismissed a whole host of practices as “superstition”. Among these practices she includes augury, divination, Tarot readers, and cowrie shell diviners. Although she does not add it to her list, implicated in it is the practice of paying a kind of respectful attention to ambivalent forms of transcendence, with the power to make and unmake the worlds we build and inhabit. There will come a day, Stengers argues, when we will know how to “respect their efficacy”—the way that these practices “transform the relationship of those who practice them to their knowledges”, the way that these practices render us “capable of an attention to the world and its scarcely perceptive signs”. “On that day,” she writes, “we will also have learned just how arrogant and careless we have been in regarding ourselves as not needing such artifices” (149). In the act of paying attention to Gaia there is a kind of artifice—postural relics of respect, and fearful awareness. This is not fear of the Lord, not exactly. But perhaps it can generate a form of responsive wisdom, nevertheless.