Saturday, May 9, 2020

Willemien Otten's "Thinking Nature and the Nature of Thinking"

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.

Otten applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Thinking Nature and the Nature of Thinking: From Eriugena to Emerson, and reported the following:
Page 99 takes the reader to my chapter on Augustine. More than anyone else in Christianity Augustine stands accused of devaluing nature, seeing it as corrupt, a fall from paradise to which we can never return. I illustrate this common view through my critical analysis of a book on Augustine by Andrea Nightingale called Once out of Nature. Here is a passage from page 99:
As sketched above, Nightingale’s is a harsh indictment of Augustine’s take on natural life as a constrictive negative spiral of time, body, distended mind, and mortality. For Nightingale, God as acting, as presented in Genesis, may be the deeper source of Augustine’s thought, but this makes Augustine no less culpable for subjugating Western civilization to the yoke of this essentially negative Christian paradigm for earthly life…."
The next paragraph continues: “The question is whether Nightingale’s analysis is correct.”

The reader gets an indirect view of the book when opening it at page 99. The page criticizes the view that Augustine devalues nature before launching into my correction. But the correction is visible in my criticism, as I disagree that Augustine divorces nature from paradise or that paradise represents a state of transhumanism. As the chapter develops, I lay out paradise as a view of temporal nature that sees it with maximum clarity in all its beauty. That clarity is the privilege of God who created nature but it can also be grasped, in flashes rather than as a constant awareness, in our natural lives outside paradise.

I find in Augustine a respect for the independence of nature that accords with his wider respect for earthly life and human nature. Yet Augustine writes on nature only through biblical commentaries on Genesis, which marks a break with the speculative Eastern tradition of early Christianity. Building on that observation, I conclude that Eriugena —my medieval protagonist in the book alongside Emerson as my modern one— gives us the natural theology that Augustine never wrote, since he pushes his analysis beyond biblical interpretation. This assessment captures Eriugena’s practice of “thinking nature” much better than the traditional label pantheism does. In a similar move I analyze Emerson’s practice of "thinking nature" through comparisons with Schleiermacher and William James.
Learn more about Thinking Nature and the Nature of Thinking at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue