The Rhizome of Life

Tatsuo Miyajima, Life (rhizome) No.2, 2012

The following is a guest post from Matthew John Paul Tan. Matthew is a Lecturer in Theology and Philosophy at Campion College Australia. Currently he is a Visiting Professor in Catholic Studies and a Research Fellow at the Centre for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University in Chicago.

Matthew is also the editor of the theological blog “the Divine Wedgie” ( His book Justice, Unity & the Hidden Christ: The Theopolitics of the Social Justice Approach to Ecumenism in Vatican II will be published by Pickwick Publications in 2014.


The Rhizome of Life

This piece will reconcile what many Christians regard as two irreconcilable elements, a more integral Christian public life, and a situation of cultural, social and indeed moral pluralism. The work suggests ways in which the Deleuzian concept of the rhizome can contribute to resolving this seeming dichotomy, showing the plural nature of our confession and the Christocentrism that is necessary to fully live life in a pluralistic context.

Attempts to revive a more robust confessional Christianity in public life have hit many snags in recent years, and obstacles usually orbit around divisions over particular issues, allegiances to particular political parties or allegiances to particular forms of devotion and worship. In an age of hyperpluralism, one such division that has occurred is coming up with the proper Christian response to such a pluralism. Some Christians champion an outright rejection of anything smacking of pluralism and rallying around a properly Christian civilisation, in which only distinctly Christian practices, institutions and communities are allowed to publicly manifest themselves, while non-Christian counterparts are either expelled or suppressed. Such advocates often fetishise particular (mostly institutional) elements as the non-negotiables of distinctly Christian practice, deviation from which is equated to a less than sincerely Christian confession. Other Christians, seeing the risk of granting universal normativity to particular institutional arrangements, fully embrace pluralism as an end in itself, eschewing supposed pretensions to distinctiveness or holism. These advocates risk diluting Christian expression and are not averse to seeing it disappear into the array of cultural formations. What exponents of both these opinions might overlook is that in spite of their divisions, they are nonetheless united by a common assumption, which is that there is a single and stable category called Christianity, whose content is expressible in the same manner, regardless of cultural vocabulary, time and context. Both seem to ignore the witness of living ecclesial communities around the world, and the nuances that inhabit each and every one of them, even as they attempt to keep a distinct Christian witness alive. The question then arises: how to conceive of a lived Christian confession with a distinct identity when there is at the same time an absence of a stable Christian genera?

The answer to this turns on looking at the experience of lived life, what may be regarded as a “vitalist” approach, in the tradition of Gilles Deleuze. Gilles Deleuze directed his vitalist philosophy to the concept of identity as a lived reality. In A Thousand Plateaus, co-authored with Felix Guattari, Deleuze use two botanical categories to signify two different kinds of politics, a conservative arboreal or “tree-like” politics and a seemingly more radical rhizomic alternative, where networks of connections, with differing logics, directions and levels of complexity, become possible at any time within a whole array of points within the rhizome.[1] Building on this concept in other works, this Deleuzean line of argument, championed by political philosophers such as William Connolly, called for a movement away from the arboreal manner with which many liberal-democratic societies treat the challenge of plurality.  Under the appearance of affirming plurality, Deleuze suggested that liberal societies ensured harmony within this plurality by funneling all its constituents through a single criterion of belonging, in the same way that myriad nutrients brought from the array of roots of a tree eventually are funneled through a single trunk. The elements of such a criterion could include any number of imperatives, such as the liberal imperative to be reasonable, to respect the separation of Church and state, or to allow the maximum freedom of choice for fellow citizens.

The problem identified by this Deleuzian critique is that this process of capturing constituents into a single filtration system end up reducing each constituent to something less than its lived reality suggests. Indeed since there is always a “vitality of the self that exceeds all political orderings,” demands for a conformity to a particular institutional order may end up suppressing altogether a constituent’s ability to properly live out his or her own life.[2] Connolly goes further to expose as myth, the notion of a cohesive, unitary identity with the phrase “difference requires identity, and identity requires difference.”[3] For the identity of any constituent that is deemed a delineated whole is really the convergence of a whole array of other constituencies that at certain contingent moments come and coalesce together, and work in tension with one another as alter-identities.[4]

Moreover, the idea of communal identities living alongside alter-identities would also apply to at the level of the individual. Connolly asserts that we are not the enclosed, unitary individuals we presume ourselves to be. Rather, our individual make up is one of a constant being “other and mov[ing] towards the other,”[5] and in so doing we become constituted by an array of different constituencies as with every action, we pass through the flux of ever-changing cultural formations. Our identities are thus tapestries that are woven together by the flux of constituencies within a lived history. These identities can be given the affirmations they demand in a truly pluralistic context, a demand that is met not by the tree, but the rhizome.

Christians may find this same realisation reflected also as a lived ecclesial reality in the ancient church, but with one distinct difference. Like the Deleuzian rhizome, the patristic writers from Origen to Maximus the Confessor to Augustine affirmed multiplicity as a fundamental reality in the make-up of what it means to be human. Unlike the Deleuzians, however, the patristic writers spoke of multiplicity not as a cause celebre, but as the unfortunate result of sin. The French Jesuit Henri de Lubac noted in his Catholicism that “the Fathers preferred to envisage the very constitution of the individuals considered as so many cores of natural opposition,”[6] in the same way as “Adam…originally one…has fallen and breaking up as it were, he has filled the whole earth with the pieces.”[7] In light of this, Christians should not be surprised at the multiplicitous nature of identity, for it is as stained by sin, and thus as multiple, as any era that came before it. The only difference is that postmodernity, unlike modernity, affirms such multiplicity as an ontological reality. However, it is also noteworthy that unlike postmodernity, the Fathers sought to redeem this multiplicity and restore a unity between God and creation lost by the first Adam.

Some may argue that an insistence of a Christian logocentrism (where unity is the goal) will regard rhizomic forms of life (where multiplicity is the cause celebre) as something to be ignored, if not eliminated. This would be true were it not for the Fathers’ drawing our attention to the mode of life that such logocentrism brings us. Writing in the tradition of the Fathers, St. Bonaventure saw the logos as the underpinning principle within each and every creature in the entire cosmos, for it is through the logos that each creature was made. The logos is not the singularity to be diluted by the multiplicity of creaturely forms. Rather, each life form is the mouthpiece through which the infinite plurality of ideas within the logos is expressed. The singularity which is logos is also diffused and constituted within plurality. And as Colossians reminds us, the Second Adam remains united even as it is expressed in each lifeform.[8]

Thus, the identity of the logos appears to assume rhizomic dimensions, but we must also consider the express nomenclature that the Fathers—and Bonaventure—chose to describe the logos, namely the “Tree of Life,” a reference to the wood of the cross on which the logos was nailed, and through which unity with God is restored.[9] The question arises: does this express patristic label negate the implicit rhizomic label championed by this piece? Not so, for the Second Adam does not abandon the multiplicity of the rhizomic in favour of the unity of the arboreal as the logos was made Man. Rather, the Second Adam is the true rhizome, which sees no contradiction with its arboreal opposite. Bonaventure repeatedly spoke of the logos as the centre through which seeming opposites come to coincide without their losing their characteristics as opposites. Bonaventure takes seriously the scriptural notion of Christ as both the beginning and end of all things.[10] In his writings on the Trinity, Bonaventure refers to the logos as the coincidence of both the generator (the Father) and the generated (Spirit). In a similar manner, the logos brings together the unity of the arboreal as well as multiplicity of the rhizome. Indeed, this is concretised in an interesting scriptural image of the logos found in John 15:5, where Christ regards himself as the “vine” to whom “the branches” are grafted. In this image we see at once the convergence of the tree and rhizome, for the vine forms a centre out of which myriad branches snake out and find their own direction and connections at various levels in the vineyard of life. In addition, the scriptural image suggests the possibilities of different constituencies – branches – can become united with the vine without either losing its vitality or freedom.

Outside the ostensible mysticism of Scripture and the Patristic writing, it is instructive to note how the concept of the logos as the coincidence of one and many is reflected in more concrete forms, such as the Church’s architectural and liturgical heritage. Denis McNamara noted in his How to Read Churches[11] that this apparently unitive symbol of a distinctly Christian confession is nonetheless the convergence of a “network of symbols” from the confessing community, the non-confessing cultures surrounding it and the differing times in which it is situated. A church does not make a unitive, unadulterated Christian architectural statement but, like the Pantheon, is an amalgam of Christian and pagan architectural inflections. Some are even an amalgam of amalgams, and as a single complex, like Barcelona’s Sagra Familia, incorporates different architectural correlates as its construction spans the centuries. Different constituencies come together to constitute the identity of the Church as a site of Christian assembly. In spite of the plurality of influence, they are nonetheless directed towards a common end, namely the worship of the one Lord.

This may strike one as an arboreal statement, but that is counter-balanced with the liturgical functions of the Church. For the architectural statement is the preface of a liturgical, Eucharistic statement. The Eucharist is a corrective to any pretensions to arboreality because the focal point of the liturgy is that same Lord, Jesus Christ. Indeed, the architectural endpoint is enfleshed in the Eucharistic Body of Christ. Nevertheless, this single body of the Eucharistic Christ is one that is multiplied in the fracture of the Eucharistic Bread and distributed among the faithful. Even as this multiplication of the Eucharist takes place, the many are not mere fragments of the one. Rather each fragment still the whole Eucharistic Body of the single Lord, and the Eucharistic vine thus coheres with each and every newly engrafted branch.[12] In so doing, the Eucharistic Lord redeems the notion of multiple cores of opposition, but itself forms a core that is at the same time in every locale, with no borders around which oppositions form. The logos as the true rhizome thus fulfils Alain of Lille’s notion of God as the “infinite sphere, whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

To conclude, the diversity of the multiple may be the fruit of sin, but that does not equate salvation with the elimination of multiplicity for some illusionary unity. Such unity is the work of Christ alone, and as the above has hopefully demonstrated, even Christ chose to achieve such a unity by working within the framework of multiplicity. The Deleuzean rhizome alerts us to the inevitability of multiplicity at work at both the communal and the individual. However, it is Christ as the vine that makes that multiplicity fruitful by simultaneously working the single source of fruitfulness – the fecund logos – into the fibres of every particularity that has been and ever will be.

[1]      Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 6–7.

[2]     Bonnie Honig, Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), 39

[3]     William E. Connolly, Identity/Difference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press 1991), 211

[4]    William E. Connoly, The Ethos of Pluralization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1995), xvi. See also Seyla Benhabib, The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 5.

        Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 110.

[6]     Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man (San Francisco: Ignatius 1988), 34

[7]     Augustine of Hippo, In Psalm 95 n 15. Cited in de Lubac, Catholicism, 34. Emphasis added.

[8]    “He is before all things and in Him all things hold together”. Colossians 1:17

[9]     de Lubac, Catholicism, 35

[10]   Revelation 22:13

[11]   Denis R. McNamara, How to Read Churches: A Crash Course in Ecclesiastical Architecture. New York: Rizzoli 2011.

[12]  John Zizioulas, “Eucharist and Catholicity,” in Being as Communionn: Studies in Personhood and the Church (NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 14.

Matthew Tan :
  • Nate Bostian

    If you were to expand this into a larger format, I think there are other Biblical routes you could take to make the same point. First would obviously be to go with the Body of Christ concept of the organic unity of the Church in 1Co 12 and Rom 12. I know these passages feel over used. But consider the idea that the Christ life can be expressed through a body with members as diverse as bones and soft tissues, neurons and ligaments, mouths and anuses, eyes and ears– the fact that other life forms such as bacteria in the intestines– all joined in a symphony of self-gift for the good of the whole. That is at least as rhizomatic of a unity as anything you propose.

    You could also draw on the fact that plurality and diversity was the Divine SOLUTION to sin in the Tower of Babel narrative, and presupposed in the Abrahamic call of Gen 12. Many nations, many tongues, fruitfulness and multiplicity, all seem to be God’s desire for the human situation, rather than monolithic culture. This is witnessed at the birth of the Church’s mission in Acts 2. When Pentecost comes, the core Message– the Logos– is expressed through a chaotic diversity of languages, given by a diverse crowd of 120 male and female disciples, to an even more diverse crowd from all over the known world.

    In addition, you could pick up on the whole resurrection “the seed you sow is not the same as the plant that appears” language of 1Co 15. Indeed, just look at the myriad ways the risen Christ appears to the disciples in the Gospels, in Acts, in Revelation. The risen Christ himself, while holding a core identity which is the same as the self of Jesus of Nazareth, nevertheless appears in vastly different forms depending on who he is appearing to and why.

    In short, I think your rhizome meditation only taps the surface of the unity-in-pluralism that is implicit in the New Testament materials.

    • The Divine Wedgie

      Dear Nate,

      Many thanks for your thoughts on this. The biblical insights are indeed incredibly useful for contemplation on this matter. Diversity/plurality is the avenue by which salvation comes to pass. I guess my focus here was trying to explain exactly how that plurality is by no means antithetical to unity, and the Patristic heritage is very good in doing just that with reference to Christ as the logos. So I’m trying to do several things at once in this essay, affirm the goodness of plurality (as opposed to pluralism), make the Christian takes on plurality speak to postmodernity and anchor it in the ancient and medieval Christian tradition.

      Still, I will take on board your biblical insights in any expansion of this paper. Thank you for your time in reading this and for your feedback. Have a happy and blessed Christmas.

      • Nate Bostian

        Thanks for the reply! Just to clarify: I don’t think anything was deficient in your presentation, and you hit on some themes in Deluze that I have thought could be helpful in understanding life in Christ. It’s just that your essay got my wheels turning to think: Where else in our Biblical inheritance could we find parallel themes of plurality and unity?

        I particularly would like to re-read the idea that plurality is somehow a result of the fall, or a result of sin. In the traditional read, unity is more primal and “good”, and plurality represents a loss or diminution of that primal unity.

        I don’t want to switch the order and put plurality in the primal spot, and then make unity “the bad guy” either. Rather, I would want to posit unity-in-plurality as our primal state, and that both “monolithic unity” and “chaotic pluralism” both represent a sinful exaggeration of the original balance.

        If I had time to elaborate that, I would root this intuition in the Triune Nature of God as the Source in which Unity and Plurality take root, as a perchoresis of Communion of Self-Gift shared eternally by Three “Others” in Love.

        Anyway, have an awesome Advent and a merry Christmas.