Animality and the Word of God :: John 1:1-4

I have been dwelling for quite some time at the boundary between humans and animals, thinking through the way that this boundary is imagined and presented, and especially thinking through the way that this boundary is infused with theological significance or drawn in theological terms.

This afternoon I was reading through Derrida’s final seminar (now published as The Beast and the Sovereign) and in the 12th session of that seminar came a discussion of the first chapters of both Genesis and the Gospel of John. Of course, both of these texts are heavily freighted so far as the relationships among God, humans, and other animals are concerned. Derrida’s circuitous thinking inspired a (theologically loaded) translation of John 1:1-4 that I’d like to try out (significant elements italicized).

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν. ὃ γέγονεν ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν, καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων· καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν.

“In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. This word was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through this word, and apart from this word not one thing came to be. That which came to be by this word was animality, and this animality was the light of humanity. The light appeared in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Now, clearly this is pushing the usual semantic range of ζωὴ, at least as we are accustomed to hearing it. Still, I think that this translation has some merit.

Etymologically, ζωὴ [life] is the animating force of the ζωόν [living being, animal]. ζωὴ is emphatically not something that is exclusive property of human beings, but is the animating force in which both humans and animals are alive. Classically, when someone comes to define just what it is that an ἀνθρωπος [human] is, being human is described as being some kind or another of ζωόν [animal] (for two famous examples, ζωόν πολιτικόν [the political animal], ζωόν λογον εχων [the animal having speech/reason/discourse]. ζωὴ, then, is a necessary element of being human, but can’t belong to humanity alone.

Furthermore, John is most certainly quoting and riffing on Genesis here. The λόγος [word] is clearly the speech of Elohim, at which all creation emerges (not just the human mode of being).

All that to say, to imagine that the life of which John speaks here is something that belongs only to human beings precisely as human beings (e.g. a “spiritual” life that has nothing to do with animals) is a stunning bit of prejudice. The life which is the light of humanity is not a life that excludes, or comes in distinction from the life which is the life of animals. In order to reinforce this point, we might remember the oft-made point that the λόγος becomes σὰρξ [flesh] in order to dwell among us, not (literally, at least) ἀνθρωπος [human].

If this line of reading is viable, then one of the first things that we need to theologically reconfigure is the significance of God’s λόγος, and of God’s being as λόγος.

Traditionally, in both Greek philosophy and much of the Christian tradition, among creatures λόγος  has been an exclusive property of humanity, and a direct connection with God which excludes all other creatures. The human is rational, articulate, speaking, discursive [all valid translations] whereas other creatures are not. This is so much the case, that one can name the class of living beings which are not humans (every non-human living being that falls under the label “animal”) simply by saying “ὁι ἀλογοι” [those who lack λόγος].

Now, if the divine λόγος can be thought as animating creatures other that humans as Genesis and John perhaps suggest, then using λόγος as the boundary that divides humanity from all other creatures is a stunning bit of hubristic appropriation. To claim λόγος as something that belongs to us and to us alone is to cut ourselves off from the rest of creation, and perhaps, from God’s presence to the rest of creation.

I can’t and won’t argue it out here in full (beyond what I’ve already tried to indicate in John’s text), but I’m laboring to work out a theological thesis. Namely, that it is the concern to foster and defend an exclusively human λόγος (our own rationality, our own speech, our own mode of thought) which actually cuts us off from the divine λόγος which is present in animals (and everything that has come to be). The “rationality” which we imagine as the dividing line between “us” humans and “them” animals is also the pathology that cuts us off from God’s activity in and for creation. Our autonomous λόγος is not the opposite of, but is precisely the expression of our παθος. In (my [per]version of) John’s terms, the darkness that cannot and will not overcome the light is the autonomous human λόγος that cannot and will not eradicate the ζωὴ [life, both animal and human] which is God’s work.

Salvation, then, would be imagined not as a process whereby one’s animality (desire, lust, embodiment, etc.) is overcome and abandoned in an approach to God (who is perceived the opposite of all of these things), but rather as a forsaking of the autonomous human λόγος (which can only end in death) for the life-giving λόγος of God. Perhaps the λόγος of God saves human beings by integrating them more deeply into the life [ζωὴ] which is the life of all creation. Perhaps becoming a child of God (John 1.12) entails becoming more animal rather than less.

8 Replies to “Animality and the Word of God :: John 1:1-4”

  1. I’ve already spent too much time on this today, but it would be fruitful to carry out this line of interpretation alongside Lacan’s assertion that the human subject is always the “prey of language.”

  2. Eric,
    Thanks for the post.
    I’m curious to know a couple of things:
    1. What do you personally make of the words “creature” and “creatureliness”.
    2. What do others in this field of study make of these words? Are they used frequently?
    3. How would your argument be changed (if at all) by use of these words?

    Is there a difference/similarity in the denial of our animality as you use the term and our denial of creatureliness?

    I’m sorry this isn’t a more engaging interaction with your thoughts, but I would really love to hear what you have to say about this.

    1. Hi there Tim,

      Thanks for your questions. I think that the category of creature is a helpful one here, and it does relativize any attempt to create an absolute difference between humans and animals (after all, we’re all creatures).

      For what it’s worth there is a recent collection of essays, Creaturely Theology, that tries to use that category for some milage in the interests of animals. Likewise, some of the contributors bring up “flesh” as another theological category which might bridge gaps. I’ve got a review of the book coming out later this year, but I can send you a draft if you’d like.

      My sense is that thinking in terms of creatureliness is an important positive step in constructive work. If we can understand ourselves as having some intrinsic solidarity with our fellow creatures, that’s all to the good.

      However, the notion that humans and animals are fundamentally different sorts of creatures seems to me to be entrenched deeply enough in the structures of our thinking, politics, ethics, and economics, that I think it’s important to focus critical analysis on those terms directly. If there are genuine problems with the theological investment in thinking about humans as categorically distinct from other animals, then simply lauding the benefits of thinking with the category “creature” could amount to an effort to paper over deeper problems.

  3. I like it.

    However, being currently mid-way through Bruce McCormack’s lectures on christology and atonement, I’m struck again by how breathtaking it is that the Logos became anthropos, and not, say, a donkey or a bacterium. McCormack is arguing (unsurprisingly) for a version of Barthian take on the eternal humanity of God, that the incarnation is essential to/constitutive of the divine being.

    This would seem to set anthropocentrism on the highest possible theological ground. And yet I’ve been drawn to Barth’s christology since I first came across it about five years ago. Only yesterday did it strike me just how stunningly anthropocentric it is.


    1. Hi Byron,

      Glad to hear from you!

      Well, I’d start by saying (as I mentioned in the post itself) that at least in John’s prologue, logos becomes sarx and not, literally, anthropos. That often feels like a cheap point to me (after all, everybody knows what kind of sarx the logos became, namely sarx anthropou, but I don’t think that it’s insignificant.

      And even though it’s something of a tired argument (at least, I’ve seen it fairly regularly), it’s not really going beyond the scope of the Pauline (and quasi-Pauline) statements about the cosmic significance of Jesus’ life and death (e.g. Romans 8, Colossians 1; not to mention the OT roots of these meditations in Wisdom lit.) to suggest that the significance of the incarnation cannot be limited to human beings—just as it has (over the course of the history of theological reflection) not been limited to Semites, the under 30-crowd, the “Western world”, or males.

      In other words, if the Incarnation represents “anthropocentrism on the highest possible theological grounds,” then (one could argue) there is also high theological justification for androcentrism, Eurocentrism, etc. etc.

      Again, I don’t think that the scope of this argument really pushes beyond the frame of the logos-as-sarx or the ta panta reconciled to God through Jesus’ blood on the cross.

      But as I noted, others have already pushed those arguments forward with some success. I’m trying here (I think) to push one step further and ask about the sort of life (zoe) that Jesus brings to the world that doesn’t recognize him. At least within the confines of John’s prologue, it’s possible to argue that the life which Jesus brings (yes, as anthropos) is zoological! In other words the sort of salvation that salvation is does not separate out the human from the animals, but unites them even more deeply.

      The argument could be pushed forward after the manner of some feminist readings of Jesus’ life where Jesus resists patriarchy from within, working at the beginnings of a new order within the frame of an old one.

      In that case, perhaps God became human (or, ala McCormack, is human) because humanity poses the biggest threat to the planet, and needs (more desperately than any other species!) to be turned to God’s way. The Incarnation then, (in very Barthian terms!) would be as much a ‘NO!’ as an affirmation of our humanity.

      Rambling a bit at this point, but all that to say that I’m resisting any sort of necessary anthropocentrism, especially of a sort that is underwritten theologically.

      1. Excellent- resisting anthropocentrism is a project I can endorse. And your suggestion that the incarnation could be seen as much as a divine Nein (the Barthian God speaks Deutsch of course) as an underwriting of some kind of endorsement of human centrality is very insightful. I’ve been intending to put this question to McCormack at some stage, but have been waiting for the right opportunity and words to arise.

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