Thinking Nature
and the
Nature of Thinking

A Review
Frank A. Mills

March 1, 2023
'Thinking Nature' Cover

From Eriugena to Emerson

Willemein Otten

Thinking Nature and the Nature of Thinking: From Eriugena to Emerson, Willemein Otten, Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA), March 17, 2020, 295 pages with notes, including an extensive bibliography, index and the appendix, “Cultural Memories in the Present,” a biography. ISBN: 978-1-5036-1167-2

If I were to name a form of Christianity that I am most drawn to, it would be Christian Platonism, in particular, Neoplatonism. Yet, saying this presents a bit of a quandary, as some of the ideas advanced in other forms of Christianity have their appeal. I think what appeals to me about Neoplatonism is the idea that the One (God) is located in human experience, as well as fully filling the finite world. This stands in stark contrast to a Christianity that places the human as the center of existence and of God’s salvific work. Of particular appeal is the idea advanced by Proclus (as opposed to Plotinus) that nature is not sinful. An idea that influenced Eriugena.

Christian Platonism embraces my mystical bent with its tension between the dialectic and a mystical epistemology. Admittedly, as much as Christian Neoplatonism appeals to me, it doesn’t have all the answers for our post-modern culture. Antiquity with all of its appeal, is still antiquity. However, I do believe it offers us a “jumping off” point for developing a world view that embraces post-modernity with a reimagined Christianity.

And it is this that draws me to Eriugena who himself was a transition point between Neoplatonism and what was yet to come, even though in his day (as well as among some today) his ideas were considered pagan and thus, heresy.

In Thinking Nature and the Nature of Thinking, Willemein Otten presents us with a Eriugena who is orthodox, removing the taint of both pantheism and panentheism.

Admittedly, I wanted to read Otten’s work because of my interest in Eriugena, and I was curious how she brought Emerson into the picture, who is not all that unlike Eriugena. He was a constant optimist who believed in the divine sufficiency of the individual. I am glad I read the work. There is much to digest in the pages. Otten aptly demonstrates how not only Eriugena, but also Emerson, contribute to that “jumping off point” for a re-imagined Christianity. A re-imagined Christianity that remains solidly Christian while embracing nature, and all that nature is.

The jumping off point rests in the Incarnation and both thinking nature, and the very nature of our thinking. Yes, there’s a play on words in the title, a word play that Otten skillfully uses to layout her thesis: Nature is much deeper than what we have made of it, especially much more than we Christians have traditionally made it out to be.

To my detriment, I began Thinking Nature and the Nature of Thinking as a reviewer, looking at presentation and examining argument. Fortunately, by the time I got past the Introduction, my perspective changed. I realized that Otten was opening up a new whole new way to think about nature (and nature thinking) and the very nature of our thinking. Much has been written about Eriugena, and even Emerson, but little of it plumbs the depth of their thinking as does Otten.

“Thinking nature” and “the nature of thinking” are integral aspects of nature. Nature directs our thinking about nature, as Otten puts it, because thinking is natural, that is, nature. This way of reasoning positions nature as God’s coworker. Nature is not a victim of the fall, of sin, but an ally in the common quest for our re-attunement with the divine. “Re-tuned” to God, not redeemed from God’s wrath brought about by sin. Nature (which we are part of) and self are in a perpetual dance of re-attunement. This challenges the old stewardship model that pits Christian orthodoxy against the idea that any thinking of God being in nature is pantheistic. However, it does not change or diminish the central place of the Incarnation of the Logos as panentheism has a tendency to do.

Viewing nature, not as the victim, but rather as a coworker with God presents us with an alternative way to address climate change, especially if we remember that humanity is part and parcel of nature. For Eriugena, nature is inseparable from either the divine or from humanity. Nature is dynamic and relational, while simultaneously set toward the divine. For Emerson, nature is incarnate thought. Christ is the “providential” man who is needed to reaffirm our humanity, our nature. The two, as Otten puts it, dance together.

With the dance of nature and self a perpetual one the ultimate result of ‘thinking nature’ on the nature of thinking … is not a cramped visioning of the world … but something closer to the opposite: the convergence of nature with thought or, better, the release of nature into free thought that carries us onward and onward …. The divine circulation never rests nor lingers. Nature is the incarnation of a thought that turns to a thought again.

‘The world is mind precipitated, and the volatile essence is forever escaping into the state of free thought
(Emerson, The Collected Works, 3:113)’(p. 217).

It’s hard for a one who is in academia to read a book in a way that is not academic. And while certainly an academic work (footnotes abound), to read the book academically misses the fine nuances of Otten’s thinking. The better to read Thinking Nature and the Nature of Thinking, I think, is to read it as a conversation between John Scotus Eriugena and Ralph Waldo Emerson, with a few interlocutors – past and present (Augustine, Maximus the Confessor, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and William James) – along the way. Reading it this way, I found myself thinking, sometimes out loud, “Wait, what about this? Oh, I get it, but ….” I became part of the conversation moderated by Otten. I can’t think of a higher praise to give an author.

Utilizing the thesis of Thinking Nature and the Nature of Thinking, I believe, paves the way for not only a new natural theology, but a re-imagined Christianity.

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.

© Frank A. Mills, 1997-2024

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