Latour, Materiality, and Theology

Instructors: Jonathan Tran, Religion; Alan Jacobs, Honors Program

Location: Memorial Drawing Room, 2:00pm-4:45pm Tuesdays

The Class Narrative in Brief

Bruno Latour is a French social theorist whose work has been influential in many disciplines, from sociology and political philosophy to the philosophy of science, and beyond. In recent years he has written about religion and religious language, but the work of his that may have the greatest potential for shaping theology is his work on materiality. Latour strives to understand what materiality is, and how we think about it, in his philosophy of science and his (very close related) account of modernity. So we need to read some of that work in order to lay the groundwork for a theological reflection on the material.

Theological reflection on materiality will naturally and inevitably link up with some pre-existing theological categories. After having read Latour on materiality, how might we reconsider the theology of sacrament and iconography? How do older works on sacramentality and iconography look different in light of Latourian materiality? How might they help us to critique Latourian materiality?

Furthermore, how does re-thinking "things" affect the theology of the body? Is a human body a thing? Does violence reduce human bodies to things? Can color or sex change the kind of thing that a given body is? (Consider this sobering claim by Ta-Nehisi Coates: "Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body -- it is heritage.")

Finally, we should consider the work of novelists and poets who have been in their art pursuing deeply theological reflections on the meaning of things:

Also: as background reading we will look at some of the work that's already being done to integrate Latour's thinking with theology, e.g. Adam Miller's recent Speculative Grace. And we will provide resources for further exploration of the "nonhuman turn" in speculative thought, including, for instance, Lambros Malafouris's How Things Shape the Mind and Eduardo Kohn's How Forests Think.


Precis: By Noon the Monday prior to respective sessions, submit to us (vis-a-vis an email attachment to and a single-spaced page precis reflecting on the session's assigned readings. Your precis should:

  1. Summarize (without overmuch quoting) what you take to be the reading's primary argument/theme;
  2. Articulate whether or not, and why or why not, you take the argument to be persuasive/salutary for your own thinking; and
  3. Connect that reading to our course's ongoing conversation. (Precis may be formatted however you'd like--e.g., a single integrated precis, three numbered points, etc.)

Each precis will be graded for the following three elements:

  1. Comprehension (how well you understand the argument/theme of the reading);
  2. Argument Cogency (how well you make your argument about the reading); and
  3. Course Reflection (how well you connect the respective reading to the course as a whole).

Each student is responsible for ten precis by the end of the semester. Cumulative precis grade will count 40% of your total grade.

Paper: By the end of the term, submit to us a persuasive/salutary 8-10 page single-spaced paper that displays comprehension of, cogency toward, and reflection over course material. Your paper will count 60% of your total grade.


Most classes will begin with Tran and Jacobs hashing out various aspects of the readings and then opening up discussion with students and student precis. Conversation will be pitched at graduate student level but undergraduates should feel free to jump in.

1.12 Introduction to course

1.19 Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, Chapters 1 and 2

1.26 We Have Never Been Modern, Chapters 3 and 5

2.2 Latour, "When Things Strike Back"

2.9 Steven Shaviro, "Consequences of Panpsychism"; Ian Bogost, "The Aesthetics of Philosophical Carpentry" (in Grusin, The Nonhuman Turn)

2.16 Rebekah Sheldon, "Form / Matter / Chora: Object-Oriented Ontology and Feminist New Materialism"; Jane Bennett, "Systems and Things: On Vital Materialism and Object-Oriented Philosophy" (in Grusin)

2.18 Baylor ISR "Image, Idol, Christ" Symposium

2.23 Lossky and Ouskensky, The Meaning of Icons(pp. 7-55)

3.1 Lossky and Ouskensky, The Meaning of Icons ("Explanation of the Main Types of Icons" - each student engages 10)

3.8 Spring Break

3.15 Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom, Chapters 1-3

3.22 Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom, Chapters 4-5; Coates, "Letter to My Son"

3.29 Weil, "The Iliad, or the Poem of Force"; Hart, "The Anti-Theology of the Body"

4.5 Robinson, Gilead (complete)

4.12 Further discussion of Gilead

4.19 Auden, "Horae Canonicae" (complete)

4.26 Conclusion to course

5.6 Term paper due