NAPS 2010

I received some good news in the last week. My proposal to the “Rhetoric of Heaven” section was accepted, so I’ll be presenting a paper at NAPS in Chicago this coming May. Here’s the abstract that I submitted:

Gregory of Nyssa’s Bodies: Human, Animal, and Celestial

Inhabiting the boundary between heaven and earth, the human body is the site of intense scrutiny in Gregory of Nyssa’s De hominis opificio. The task of understanding the human body necessitates concomitant inquiry into the nature of animal and celestial bodies in order to see more clearly the differences and similarities that constitute humanity’s liminal nature. My paper argues that Gregory is concerned with the “making of the human” not only in terms of an etiological reading of Genesis, but also that Gregory himself “makes the human” in relation to animals and angels, and that in the process Gregory has a strong theological investment in the conceptual construction of animal and celestial bodies.

In a close reading of De hominis opificio that draws on the research of Sarah Coakley and J. Warren Smith among others, my paper proceeds in four sections—the first considering the formal and functional implications of the divine image in human flesh (and its absence in the flesh of animals); the second examines the material difference that the image of God makes in human flesh, and the physio/logical construction of human flesh over against animal bodies. The third section inquires into the eschatology of human flesh and the double function of desire as both bestial and angelic. Paradoxically for Gregory, the very structure of desire that is shared with the animals constitutes the propulsive drive by which humans are drawn along the trajectory of spiritual ascent to join the celestial crowds in God’s praise (albeit animal desire in a sublimated form). Finally, the fourth section determines more precisely how Gregory’s theological investment in human uniqueness guides the contours of his construction of bestial and angelic bodies vis-à-vis the human in De hominis opificio.

20 Replies to “NAPS 2010”

  1. Congrats Eric, although I don’t know what NAPS is and googling the word “naps”, even in capital letters, did little to shed any light on the subject. I can only guess “North American ? Society”.

    At the risk of delving into a subject about which I know little, I’m posting a link to a talk by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware entitled: “The Eucharistic Sacrifice: Who Offers What to Whom?”. You need not listen to the whole lecture, however, he does have some good things to say about humans and animals during the 20-23 minute mark. They probably don’t bear on your paper but perhaps you will enjoy them given your general interest in the human/animal relation/distinction.

    1. Thanks for the link Tim. Yes, NAPS = North American Patristics Society. Their headquarters is actually in Denver; you might find some interesting resources if you dropped by sometime. I’ll listen to the lecture soon and send you some thoughts; maybe on the train tomorrow. It’s amazing how animals start popping up everywhere once you are tuned in!

      The topic of the lecture seems like it might be a really interesting Catholic/Orthodox point of conversation. Do Orthodox thinkers speak of the Eucharist as a sacrifice offered by the priest? My intuition is that they don’t (I read Schmemann’s book on the Eucharist a few years ago), but I’m not positive.

      1. Eric,
        no, they don’t. Christ is the main celebrant. However, the mystery lies precisely in His being the offerer and offering, and that we as His body participate in both these functions in a mysterious way. But yes, in short, Christ is the one who offers. One of my favorite lines in the Divine Liturgy is “offering You Your own from Your own”.

        I love Eastern theology. I don’t think the Western liturgy picks up on this quite as well but I am pretty sure the same sort of “clarification” is made by the priest at some point.

  2. So then, this difference in the Byzantine Rite is one that the Roman church is willing to let slide?

    I ask partly because it’s a point of contention for Lutheran/Catholic conversations, and a historic sticking point on which Luther himself had some nasty words. Of course in the Roman Mass, the priest (not the whole church) offers the sacrifice of the Eucharist “in the person of Christ,” but for Luther—and many protestants since, it’s taken as a work by which we (attempt to) please God.

    I don’t “feel” the Lutheran argument in a strong way, but I also don’t have a strong attraction to seeing the Eucharist as a sacrifice. Have you found that becoming a part of your own eucharistic piety in the last year?

  3. Eric,
    I’ll have to do a bit more research before responding at length. Given your questions, you may find the whole of Kallistos’s lecture helpful. I’m not sure that I would say that the Romans “let us slide”. And although they are the majority in the Catholic Church they certainly don’t (or shouldn’t) get a monopoly on Eucharisitc theology.

    As far as seeing the Eucharisitc as sacrifice, I’m pretty sure that during the Scholastic era it was seen almost solely in that way, hence Luther’s proper indignation, especially if it is seen as being offered only by the priest. I don’t want to assume that you don’t want anything to do with seeing the Eucharistic as sacrifice because, historical blunders or not, sacrifice is there. Of course, atonement theology is tied up in all of this as well. And wouldn’t you know that I find Eastern atonement theology much more palatable.

    I fear that I am rambling, perhaps in an unhelpful way.

    I haven’t found the notion of sacrifice becoming a big part of my Eucharistic piety. The two most humbling things to me about the way we receive in the Byzantine rite are:
    1. Baptized infants are given the Eucharistic on the very same Sunday that they are baptized. The logic is that, given the mysterious nature of what we are receiving, none of us can ever really reach an “age of understanding.”
    2. I love receiving the Eucharist where the bread and warmed wine are mingled in the same chalice, and receiving it from the gold spoon held by the priest. The reality of His broken body (forever eaten but never consumed) is so present and it is received as a completely gratuitous gift of grace.

    There are many days when I wish we would’ve become Orthodox. My heart is truly more in the East. But that is a whole ‘nother conversation.

    1. Yes, clearly the “let it slide” comment was poorly phrased. 🙂 And I’ve yet to find any of your rambles unhelpful, so feel free to keep them coming.

      No need to go off on a big research program either. I was just curious because I haven’t heard any emphasis on the Eucharist as sacrifice from EO theologians, and thought that it might be an interesting point of tension/conversation for you guys in the Byz. Catholic church.

      As I understand it, even the epiklesis in the Eastern liturgy—the raising of the elements—is a calling upon the Holy Spirit to consecrate the congregations meal as the eschatological feast, not moment at which the sacrifice of Golgotha is re-presented to God (as was certainly the case in Scholasticism, and remains the teaching of the RC catechism to this day).

      There are tones of Sacrifice present in the Eucharist, but I don’t think that they are strong enough to justify the RC position. Even where the NT is really explicit about Christ as high priest and sacrifice, i.e. Hebrews, parts of Revelation, it’s not necessarily in a Eucharistic context. In explaining the Eucharist I’m more inclined to talk about sharing in Christ’s broken body, being reconciled and unified in his death and resurrection as we are renewed in his person through the Spirit, without talk of a weekly enactment of the crucifixion on the altar.

  4. I’m listening/watching that talk by Kallistos Ware, lots of good stuff!

    I particularly like his sense that creation does venerate God and give God glory, that in its being creation honors God.

    He shows an awareness of how fluid the distinction between humans and animals might be.

    And I also quite like the notion that human beings are given the calling to sanctify creation and mediate its praises to God—that human beings, when they are most fully themselves are the mouthpiece of creation’s praise.

    The thing that worries me, and I’ve seen Zizioulas make the same move, is the notion that humanity sanctifies creation by re-fashioning it. When this is connected to the Eucharist, it goes with the notion that lifting creation up in our hands is a way of offering it up to God—humanity as a priesthood. Now, neither Zizioulas nor Ware (to my knowledge) would suggest that all human modification has a sanctifying effect on creation—clearly it does not. But neither of them do quite enough (from my perspective) to safeguard creation from human meddling. At least in our fallen creation, there are large swathes of creation that we should be trying to integrate ourselves with, rather than undertaking programs of “refashioning.” I do like the idea of human priesthood, but I think that it needs to take a more “hands-off” approach than we have been inclined to take so far.

    Those are some thoughts…

    1. Eric,
      you are right. The notion of sacrifice is not heavily emphasized, and when it is, it is indeed in contrast with an RC emphasis as these bits from the Divine Liturgy illustrate:

      “You have served as our High Priest, and as Lord of all, and have entrusted to us the celebration of this liturgical sacrifice without the shedding of blood.”

      “Lord, God Almighty, You alone are holy. You accept a sacrifice of praise from those who call upon You with their whole heart. Receive also the prayer of us sinners and let it reach Your holy altar. Enable us to bring before You gifts and spiritual sacrifices for our sins and for the transgressions of the people. Make us worthy to find grace in Your presence so that our sacrifice may be pleasing to You and that Your good and gracious Spirit may abide with us, with the gifts here presented, and with all Your people.”

      “Once again we offer to You this spiritual worship without the shedding of blood, and we ask, pray, and entreat You: send down Your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here presented.”

      I tend to think of sacrifice more in terms of Psalm 51, roughly paraphrased from the BOCP that I use for morning prayer, “The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart he will not despise.” This is of course the same type of sacrifice about which God is haranguing Israel throughout much of Isaiah. And this is precisely the sacrifice that Christ truly offered.

      As for the second half of your reply, I do think that your point is worth further exploration (perhaps in a blog post?). I know that Ware warns of our ability to refashion creation in a destructive way as well. I’ll have to listen to the talk again to see how he discusses our sanctification of creation in the act of refashioning as I didn’t completely pick up on it the first time. I wonder if he means it more in a sense of offering up the fruits of our labor, not that we have somehow made a grape better or more holy than it already was. In another talk he mentions how animals refashion creation as well – beavers make dams, birds make nests…or maybe it was in the same talk I sent you. Either way, I’ll give it another listen today. I listen to stuff like this all day at work – I’d go crazy otherwise;)

  5. One last comment – we should all be wary of any notion of sacrifice/atonement that somehow pits one member of the Trinity against another! It saddens me how prevalent this mistake is in pretty much every church I’ve attended and even among the Catholics with whom I work.

  6. Ok, one last, last comment. I think I come off a bit sounding like I believe in a moral example atonement theory. That is one facet but not the whole picture. It is precisely the “troubled spirit; the broken and contrite heart” of Christ that kept His crucifixion from being completely gratuitous. He exemplified that spirit and heart up to his very last breath. Anything less would’ve left us hearing His sacrifice on the cross as a loud cymbal or clanging gong.

    1. Tim,

      Thanks so much for all your comments, from first to last—particularly the bits from the liturgy! You probably know this first hand, but one of the documents of Vatican I (if not the RC catechism, I can’t remember where I came across it) also speaks of the Mass as a bloodless sacrifice. It was interesting to see that phrase come up a few times in the quotes you gave.

      Your warning about sacrifice and the Trinity is precisely what makes me a little nervous about the language of sacrifice in the first place. It takes a lot of ink to explain just whom the sacrifice is made to if you want to avoid pitting one person of the Three against another. A former professor of mine parodied that view in its crudest form by saying, “To show you just how much I love you, I’m going to beat the shit out of my Son over here while you watch!” Clearly, whatever you think is taking place in the crucifixion, that’s not the story line!

      It was indeed in the same talk that Ware mentioned the work of the beavers and birds. Perhaps I should put together a post on it, but briefly, my main worry is that creation is thought of as being “out there” in a morally/spiritually neutral way, waiting to be incorporated into some human project. Then, when the “standing reserve” of creation is brought into contact with human civilization in some way (which, realistically speaking most often involves being ground up, shoved aside, put into a pen, or otherwise instrumentalized) this contact is thought of as a sanctifying process that gives moral/spiritual meaning to a previously meaningless existence.

      I don’t think that Ware or Zizioulas is so naive to assert that all contact with human beings brings a moral/spiritual improvement to creation, but I’m not sure that the way they speak about human beings sanctifying creation through our work doesn’t set up some kind of ideological justification for otherwise questionable activity. We do, after all, still refer to plots of land where bulldozers have not yet tread as “unimproved lots.”

      I would like all of our activity to be scrutinized a little more closely before we assume that “refashioning” creation is in line with God’s purposes for the world.

      1. This isn’t Ware or Zizioulas, (they’re both generally more careful than this), but the sentiment that Paul Tillich expresses here is precisely what I’m worried about:

        “Man not only is completely self-centered; he also is completely individualized. And he is the one because he is the other. The species is dominant in all nonhuman beings, even in the most highly developed animals…The individuality of a nonhuman being gains significance if it is drawn into the processes of human life. But only then. Man is different.” (p. 175 of Systematic Theology)

        I just happened to come across this bit this evening…!

  7. Eric,
    I was mulling over the notion of sacrifice during my morning run and, because I don’t think that we can get rid of that language entirely, here are a few added thoughts:

    A sacrifice need not be coerced or separative in nature in order to be efficacious. For example, I make sacrifices of my own offering to Jess or Adilyn or a coworker without pitting myself against them in any way. It is pure gift, and maybe the language of gift needs to be brought up more when we speak of sacrifice. Not appeasement, but gift. In other words, a sacrifice must be kenotic.

    I certainly share your nervousness about the way sacrificial language is used. Remember, I spent a lot of time in Reformed circles. I can recall one too many sermons in which my pastor told us that “God the Father was about to deliver us the knockout punch, but Jesus stepped in and took the blow instead.”

    I’m still musing over the human/animal thing. I love what Ware said: “Creation praises God just by being what He created it to be” or something along those lines. I definitely agree with you that our “refashioning” needs far more scrutiny. Just the other day I was reading Psalm ?? and I came across a line that made me lament the word “dominion” being used at all in Genesis. How much damage has been done because of that little word! I’ll have to go back and look up the Psalm because I can’t recall it right now. It wasn’t so much along the lines of stewardship as it was gift. Hopefully I can find it.

  8. Thanks for the Tillich quote. It helped me to understand a little better what you are warning against. I kind of want to reverse the notion. Would it not be better to say that our love of and care for creation has a sanctifying effect on us, not on creation itself?

    In a somewhat related vein, Rowan Williams gave a wonderful message during the Copenhagen talks in which he emphasized the idea that, in addressing ecological issues, we must act out of love rather than fear. It was a much needed corrective because so much of what we hear these days is framed in a “Things are so bad that if we don’t do something soon…” manner that is hardly conducive to a true change of heart.

    1. That’s exactly right—both Williams notion of love as a better impetus than fear, and your idea of reversing the idea that nature is sanctified by being incorporated (consumed!) in human activity. Your idea got me excited.

      What do you think of this:

      In defacing the image of God and falling from unbroken fellowship with God, human beings have married themselves to the un-natural, even to the anti-natural. That is to say, human beings abstract themselves out of the ecosystemic dynamics that support all the life in God’s creation. In some sense, human beings have become sub-natural. I don’t mean that some romantic return to a primitive state would necessarily improve the situation—i.e. that civilization=fallenness—but that we’ve lost our sense for the basic relationships that constitute human beings as human beings in all our various places.

      Redemption is the story of being re-integrated into these relationships. God’s grace restores God’s image in human beings, fostering a love and care that redounds through all human relations. A human being is sanctified in learning an expansive love for neighbors that is concerned with the well-being of our fellow travelers on the planet, as well as with our fellow humans.

      Creation, then, is sanctified not so much because we change it according to our own designs (civilization, etc), but because we are changed in coming to know, honor, marvel at, and protect the unique contours of the lives of other creatures. In shaping our lives with theirs, in, with, and under the guidance of God, we are sanctified.

      Of course, this wouldn’t necessarily preclude some kinds of violence. Created relationships are often bloody, so protecting some creatures (i.e. children, endangered species) sometimes means fending other creatures off (i.e. wolves, invasive species) in a way that is appropriate. But an self-consciously ecosystemic approach is quite different from the approach of consumptive appropriation.

      The other misunderstanding I can see lurking here would be that I’m talking about nature as some kind of all sufficient totality here, nor even an ideal state of original perfection. That’s not at all what I mean. Nature as such is still bound up with finitude and death; God’s grace is necessary for it’s persistence, and much more for its renewal. But human beings as sub-natural stand doubly in need of God’s grace. Not only do we need the grace that would draw us into fellowship with God, but we need the grace that would get us back up to the ground floor of nature as well.

      I’m rambling. Thanks for setting this off with your suggestion. I’m sure I’ll keep kicking this around.

  9. Eric,
    sorry I don’t have more to offer at this point although I very much enjoyed the exchange. I look forward to seeing what you develop.

    On a related note, I still haven’t come back across that Psalm yet, but I know I’m bound to as my rule of prayer takes me through the entire Psalter each month. I have been paying a bit more attention to lines about creation and animals lately and the perspectives are many and varied.

    On an unrelated note, my rule of prayer and time invested in the Psalms has caused me to experience violent discomfort every time I see an isolated Psalter being sold or handed out for free. Why? Because the cover usually contains an image reminiscent of some bastardized version of a Thomas Kincaide painting or an extremely airbrushed sunset.

    1. Anything that can be described as “bastardized Thomas Kincade” is in dire shape indeed!

      Likewise, I enjoyed the back-and-forth quite a bit. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

  10. Eric,
    I’ve reread what you wrote and really like where you’re going. I especially like this paragraph:

    “Creation, then, is sanctified not so much because we change it according to our own designs (civilization, etc), but because we are changed in coming to know, honor, marvel at, and protect the unique contours of the lives of other creatures. In shaping our lives with theirs, in, with, and under the guidance of God, we are sanctified.”

    I am in total agreement with you there.

    The Jesus Radicals conference was full of anti-civilization folk. To me, they were very difficult to understand. There is a small movement towards something called “Christian Primitivism” or “Feral Faith” that I don’t quite get. It seems to borrow other philosophies and baptize them as some kind of Christian norm. Besides, I couldn’t get past one speaker who said he wanted to “unplug from the grid” completely yet used a laptop in his presentation and has a podcast and an internet webcast as well. Only one other speaker actually went so far as to turn off all the lights and light a couple of candles. It was refreshing. But I am digressing…this is fodder for another conversation.

    I came across this paragraph in my Lenten Triodion – the prayer book which I am using during Pre-Lent and the Great Fast. The preface was written by Kallistos Ware and I think these words both represent and clarify the Orthodox perspective of which you are a bit wary:

    “Those who fast, so far from repudiating material things, are on the contrary assisting in their redemption. They are fulfilling the vocation assigned to the ‘sons of God’ by St. Paul: ‘The created universe waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God…the creation will be set free from its bondage and decay and will obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail until now.’ By means of our Lenten abstinence, we seek with God’s help to exercise this calling as priests of the creation, restoring all things to their primal splendour. Ascetic self-discipline, then, signifies a rejection of the world, only in so far as it is corrupted by the fall; of the body only in so far as it is dominated by the sinful passions.”

    He glosses vs. 20 in the passage from Romans. I’m not sure why. Anyway, I think the rub comes when he speaks of humans as priests of creation, yes? I think this is an area deserving more attention, and the entire talk he gave on “Who Offers What to Whom” may be instructive. I’m still with you that our refashioning is not sanctifying, but I think there may be a nuance about the priestly role that needs more exploration and explanation. And what exactly is meant by “restoring all things to their primal splendour?” Is this some kind of ecological theosis? How do we participate in this if, as Psalm 19 proclaims, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows forth His handiwork.”

    Well, I’m sure I’ve said too much and not enough, so I’d best be heading off to work.


    1. Thank you, Tim, for more good thoughts and wonderful quotes!

      I think that the notion of humans as the priests of creation is a good one, when it avoids the “refashioning” motif that often seems to enter when human priesthood in creation is tied directly to the eucharist. Especially if “priest” is understood along the lines of “minister” (i.e. “servant”), then there are lines of thought that I’d hope to see developed, some of them including a eucharistic connection as well.

      Instead of speaking about human beings “lifting up” creation (drawing on the moment of epiclesis in the liturgy), one way to develop the priesthood of humanity in connection with the notion of sanctification that we put forward above would be more along the lines of Psalm 19 (which you quoted above). That is, the heavens declare the glory of God, but when a psalmist takes note of this “declaration” and puts it into words, something new is added to the heavens’ praises. The heavens may declare all on their own, but something is added when the heavens’ praise becomes the impetus for the psalmist’s own worship as well.

      The priesthood of humanity might be less about influencing and changing creation “for the better,” and more about attuning our spirits to the “peculiar” praises that God’s creatures offer to God inarticulately so that we can articulate them in creative ways. It’s not even so much that these creatures stand in need of our language to praise, or that without our words, their praise of the creator somehow falls flat or falls short. Rather, our expression of the praises of creation represents an unnecessary transposition (but all the richer for being gratuitous) into a different key, an effort which is a gift, a sacrifice of humble praise offered to God. To use language that usually applies to the church, perhaps in the cosmos, human beings have (at least potentially) the charism of poetry, liturgy, literature, and music, for precisely the reason that we might offer such a service.

      The process of becoming deeply enough aware of one’s ecosystemic context to develop a capacity for expressing the praise of one’s creaturely “neighbors” would likewise be a process of sanctification. The practice of such a priesthood would sanctify the priests by restoring relationships of concern, wonder, and respect where relationships of indifference or unwitting exploitation seem to predominate at present.

      This trajectory would make the eucharistic connection less about the refashioning of creation into some new form that is offered to God, and more about offering to God words of thanksgiving. The priest might be ever attentive to new “gifts” of God in creation; creatures or aspects of creaturely life that had previously remained “hidden” never yet been expressed in praise. I suspect that this more figurative meaning is what Zizioulas and Ware have in mind when they speak of “lifting up” creation, but it’s confused by the language of refashioning.

      Please don’t feel that you have to respond here if nothing is pressing in your mind. I’m quite grateful for the conversation and that you continue to spark thoughts on my end.

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