In a time of environmental crisis and intense political polarization, how can we move toward a more ecologically just and democratic society? Michael S. Hogue, Professor of Theology at Meadville Lombard Theological School, is confronting these challenges by developing a political theology through a dissenting tradition that emphasizes pluralism and collaboration over sovereign power. His project draws on the ideas of American religious naturalism, emphasizing human connection to nature, as well as innovations in contemporary democratic theory and practice, to produce a theology that can enhance life in an age of ecological and cultural emergency.
Read a blog post by Michael S. Hogue about democracy, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and enhancing life here.
What was the spark for the research you’re pursuing for the Enhancing Life Project? Are these new questions, or an extension of past research, or both?
I’ve always had an interest in religious ethics and the environment and how religious ideas, traditions, and values shape the way we think about the natural environment. I grew up in northern Michigan and witnessed conflicts between friends and family about how we should value nature. There was an agricultural perspective—the town where I grew up had always been an agricultural center, especially in the fruit industry—but also a recreational perspective, because there were lots of skiers and boaters and bikers who valued nature through outdoor activity. And then there was the aesthetic perspective, because the landscape is very beautiful, and as I grew up and the fruit industry began to decline, more affluent folks from lower Michigan began to move into our area and buy up land because of that aesthetic value. These ways of valuing nature often conflicted—it was hard for them to coexist. So these were issues that I was observing and thinking about from a young age, especially from a philosophical or theological perspective since my dad was a minister, and that led to an interest in religious ethics and the environment.
That interest led eventually to this current project, where I’m developing a political theology that’s appropriate to life in the post-human age, in the aftermath of certainty. What I mean is that although “the Anthropocene” has been proposed as a name to mark the beginning of a new human age for the earth, it also marks the ending of certain ideas about the human. The human species has taken on a kind of geophysical agency. We’re seeing the end of the idea of the human as set apart from nature and in that sense it’s a post-human age, to the extent that the human in most of the Western philosophical and religious traditions has been defined in opposition to the natural and the animal. And then on top of that, the problems that we’re facing morally and politically point beyond the idea of certainty. They are so complex and so globalized that they refuse singular solutions, and our traditional methods are falling short. So we need a political theology that takes both of these conditions seriously, and that’s what I’m trying to do.
How are you responding to these conditions?
I’m drawing on an American tradition of immanence, in which the human was never separate from nature—movements like pragmatism and naturalism. Those traditions aren’t adequate to the present, but they provide resources, conceptual and imaginative, for developing a more contemporary constructive political theology. Political theology has often been thought about in terms of sovereignty: nations and kings. I’m focusing on vulnerability and solidarity instead. It’s a kind of dissenting tradition, one that’s pluralistic and collaborative and coalitional rather than exceptionalist and decisionist and exclusionary.
Some examples of this political theology taking shape in the world can be found in the commons movement, among people advocating for net neutrality, and in places where people are creating alternative currencies and using them to build up a counter-economy. It’s dispersed and decentralized, but it’s there.
What does “enhancing life” mean for you? In what way will your project contribute to the enhancement of life?
We can’t think about the question of enhancing life without considering how we live in and value the natural world. The brilliance of this Project is that people are coming at that question from so many different angles, and what I’m bringing to the Project is an ecological concern, using what I’ve described as a post-human point of entry into the conversation. And that doesn’t mean anti-human: I’m talking about the end of the idea of the human as separate. To bring in this question around the post-human is really to touch on a lot of issues: ecological and economic, social and cultural, philosophical and theological. It’s a multi-dimensional point of entry.
How do public debates -- whether it’s political, cultural, etc -- shape your work? What are you hoping to offer those debates?
I’m interested in larger public issues around the questions of religious and spiritual innovation in a post-secular age, and the rise of the “nones,” people who don’t affiliate with a religious tradition. I want to explore an immanental religious option, meaning that there is nothing outside nature. The idea here is that nature cannot be named any more exhaustively than God can be named. And we can’t look beyond nature and history for any kind of supernatural source of value. We have to look into our own experience and into nature and history for that. I believe that this is a legitimate religious option that has a tradition, but it’s never had an established social or institutional framework. And it’s being articulated today in new ways with new resources, which is exciting.
You don’t spend all of your time doing research and teaching! What’s your favorite place to travel, or the next place you’d like to go?
Ireland and Scotland. I did spend a little bit of time in Scotland doing lectures a few years back, and I would love to go back with my wife and experience Scotland—and especially the Highlands—with her.