What is the topic of your research for The Enhancing Life Project?
My research for the Enhancing Life Project develops a theory of "resilient democracy” out of a “dissenting” tradition in American political theology, in contrast to what I refer to as the “redeemer symbolic” that orients the dominant tradition of American exceptionalism. The dominant tradition is a familiar story rooted in the Puritan religious imagination and the idea of the "city upon a hill", but it migrates through nationalist and neoliberal phases. It is exceptionalist, externalizing, and extractive. I argue that the election of Donald Trump is a crisis in this tradition that is opening space in which to reimage a dissenting alternative and to energize a more “resilient democracy.”
Is there anything particular, in current events or public discourse, that's caught your attention recently, in relation to your project?
Absolutely. The book I’ve written for ELP, "American Immanence: Democracy for an Uncertain World" (Columbia, spring 2018), is very much a response to what's going on in the world right now. I engage three basic areas of contemporary problems: planetary, national, and grassroots.
I define the planetary problem through an analysis of the entangled social, economic, and ecological dimensions of “climate wickedness.” I show how climate wickedness emerges out of varieties of exceptionalism (e.g. species, racial, national), extractive practices, and the habit of externalizing costs onto the poorest and the most vulnerable. The Anthropocene signifies the comprehensive planetary conditions brought about by these dynamics. I define the Anthropocene as a paradox. In making the Earth homo imago, we have an opportunity to rediscover ourselves as terra bestiae. For wherever we look into the Earth System, we see our species self-image reflected back. On the one hand, we (and some of us much more than others) have done possibly irreparable harm to the planet. On the other hand, the conceptual collapse of the ontological difference between nature and humanity makes it possible to understand our human moral and even spiritual relation to nature in new ways.
While the US is of course not solely responsible for climate wickedness, I argue that the redeemer symbolic and the tradition of American exceptionalism illustrate assumptions about the human moral relation to nature, and to the future of life, that are drivers of the planetary problem. So I'm connecting the national history of American exceptionalism to contemporary planetary and political dynamics.
Resilient democracy is the constructive part of the project, and it's also very much a present-and-future-focused theory of democracy. It's rooted in an alternative set of philosophical and theological resources I refer to as the “American immanental tradition,” which includes aspects of American pragmatism, process philosophy, radical empiricism, and new work in systems theory and theories of democracy. But “resilient democracy” is not just a theory: it’s also naming the new progressive grassroots energies that are coalescing in response to the mutually amplifying problems of social, economic, and climate injustice.
In which specific ways do you think that your project might inform either public policy or public discourse, or how people conceptualize their place as citizens within a democracy?
I don't envision it having a policy impact, but I do hope that it has resonance at the level of public discourse in a couple of different ways. One: The political theology that provides the context for resilient democracy is distinctively American, in the sense that it's rooted in American philosophical and theological traditions, but it's what I would call post-Christian, even post-theistic. It's a way of being politically and religiously attuned in a world that is post-secular. If secularization was the idea that modernity would bring about the end of religion, then the post-secular moment is about the transformation of religion through modernity. The result of this is a blowing-open of the idea of what it means to be religious in the West. And so we see all kinds of spiritual and religious experimentation in this post-secular moment: this is something that's really well analyzed by Charles Taylor in his book "A Secular Age."
In terms of American public discourse, the idea is that a theopolitics of "American Immanence" provides a way for folks to articulate the theological frame of their politics in new ways, in genuinely but not traditionally religious terms. So that's one of the ways that I hope my project will have an impact on contemporary American political and religious discourse.
In practical terms, I think “resilient democracy” not only names emergent democratic movements and communities, but that it also provides a set of principles for developing and designing democratic communities in ways that are more socially just and ecologically attuned. I articulate these principles around the concepts of emancipation, empathy, and equity. Resilient democracy prioritizes diverse, relational, diffused power over sovereign, unitary, managerial power.
An example of this is the work that the 350 Movement is doing, in the sense that there are integrative ideals that organize that movement: the ideals of mitigating the worst effects of climate crisis, addressing the justice dimensions of climate issues, and shaping a turn toward a more equitable, renewable energy paradigm. These ideals are not monopolized by any particular institutional actor, but are diversely animated by the 350 activists around the world. This is an expression of the concept of resilient democracy in the sense that a democratic community that's going to be resilient needs to be organized around ideals and purposes that cross social, economic, and ecological realities. Structurally, resilient democratic communities need to diverse, dispersed, but also networked in particular ways. This allows them not only to survive significant change, but to learn and grow through change.