The Future of Systematic Theology

In a few weeks (September 20-22), I’ll be participating in a conference at the University of Fairfield. The conference will discuss the politics, traditions, and possibilities of theology’s future. My paper rather narrowly addresses these questions by focusing  on solidarity and subsidiarity: for whom and with whom does theology have a future? And, as you might have guessed, my answer to that question is not confined to a single hominid species.

In short, my argument is that solidarity and subsidiarity with poor and marginalized communities is always undermined by the exclusion of animality from theological consideration. I’m eagerly anticipating a weekend of conversation with friends and colleagues.

Human Dignity and Recursive Violence at CTSA

Over the weekend, I was in Pittsburgh for the annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America. The theme of the conference this year was “Another World is Possible: Violence, Resistance, and Transformation,” a timely and important central theme chosen by current CTSA President Maria Pilar Aquino.

I gave a paper in the Anthropology section working through some ideas around human dignity, violence, and the boundary between humanity and animality. My paper was titled, “The Recursive Violence of Human Dignity: Rethinking Creaturely Dignity as Vulnerability and Struggle.” In the time span between proposing the presentation and writing the paper, I shifted from vulnerability and struggle toward the concepts of shame and gentleness, which bear some relation in my mind.

I’ll be writing this up at greater length for an upcoming issue of the Journal of Religion and Societyso these ideas will see the light of day for a broader audience.

Inner Animalities at Ancient Jew Review

I wrote a short introduction to Inner Animalities for Ancient Jew Review and it’s now been posted! This essay focuses on the importance of my work on Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus for the book as a whole, on questions of methodology, and on interdisciplinary work at the intersection of animal studies and scholarship on Late Antique Christianity. I’m grateful for the opportunity to introduce my book to a broader audience and especially grateful for the editorial insight of Erin Galgay Walsh and Matthew Chalmers, who brought the piece along and improved it immensely.

Check the essay out here and look at all the other fascinating work at Ancient Jew Review while you’re there. Of special interest is the recent colloquium on Animals in Late Antiquity.

Carroll College Distinguished Scholar of the Year

I’m floored to have been nominated and selected by my colleagues at Carroll College as the 2019 Distinguished Scholar of the Year. Many of you know that this has been a real roller coaster of a year professionally. Throughout everything, though, the support and encouragement of faculty colleagues has been unflagging.  Receiving  recognition for my research, writing, and conference-work from people whom I’ve been leaning on all year is tremendously gratifying and I’m inspired to live up to the honor.

Inner Animalities Book Event at AUFS

I’ve recently been given the unspeakably wonderful gift of extended intellectual engagement with my writing in the form of a book event organized and hosted at An und für sich. I’ve collected links for all the posts in the event below.

Beatrice Marovich, “Inner Animalities: Book Event Introduction”

James K. Stanescu, “Can Animals Sin?” 

Elizabeth Pyne, “Ecological Pathways” 

Jay Emerson Johnson, “Eucharistic Animals and Hope for the Earth” 

Beatrice Marovich, “Proper Humanity and the Fantasy of the Subhuman” 

Jacob J. Erickson, “Ghost Species: The Haunting of Inner Animalities”

Anthony Paul Smith, “Closer, or the Pleasure of Being Eaten” 

My Final Response, Part I

My Final Response, Part II 

Inner Animalities: Theology and the End of the Human

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Posted at AUFS–please leave any comments there.

My book, Inner Animalities: Theology and the End of the Human, was released by Fordham University Press today (here it is at amazon). The excerpt that follows is from the introduction and describes the central theme of the book: the problem of human animality. The first half of the book holds critical readings of the problem of human animality in the texts of two fourth-century authors (Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus) and a host of contemporary theologians. The second half of the book holds constructive reworking of human animality in major theological themes such as the image of God, sin and redemption, and eschatological transformation.  

The Problem of Human Animality

The mainstream of the Christian theological tradition has been committed to some version of a categorical distinction between human beings and all other animals. When that categorical distinction collides with two other thoughts—the undeniable commonality of human and nonhuman animal life, and the Christian commitment to the fundamental unity of the human being—this long-standing commitment to anthropological exceptionalism generates what I call the “problem of human animality.” Holding these three convictions together in the Christian theological tradition has produced a wide range of strategies to control and contain human animality, competing solutions to a common problem. The manifest commonality of human life with the lives of other animals in embodiment, nutrition, mortality, and reproduction is obvious enough, but a few more comments may elucidate the dogmatic Christian commitment to the fundamental unity and integrity of the human being as a creature.

Leaning on Greco-Roman philosophy, the Christian tradition is replete with anthropologies that divide up human beings into parts. There have been contentious arguments over the boundaries between human soul, spirit, body, concupiscence, reason, and passion, among others. Some of these parts have been more closely associated with animality than others. Nevertheless, for all their talk of parts, Christian theologians have generally affirmed the ultimate integrity of the human being. The human being whom God saves is the whole human being, no matter how many subdivisions have been conceptually generated. Theologians who have tried to sustain a fundamental division in the human person (so that, for example, the human body is a temporary provision and only the human soul spends eternity with God) have been strongly censured. Internal divisions within the human being function within Christian theology as heuristic devices or means of exhortation, rather than a fault line along which a human being could hypothetically be divided. Thus, although proper humanity and human animality can be distinguished within theological anthropology, most Christian theologians are committed—at least in principle—to holding them together in accounts of creation, redemption, and eschatological transformation.

Maintaining that human beings are categorically unique among God’s creatures in the face of this commitment to the integrity of the human being and the manifest commonality of human life with the lives of other animals requires careful conceptual navigation, particularly around human animality. Any theology which has generated a concept of humanity by means of contrast with nonhuman animals must tread lightly around questions of human animality so that the experiences of creaturely life that human beings share with other animals do not undermine anthropological exceptionalism. A theologically validated difference-in-kind between human beings and other animals is simple enough: despite the characteristics that human beings share with other creatures, God sets human beings apart in some way (an immortal or rational soul, for example) so that human beings can be neatly separated out from all the others. The conceptual boundary between humanity and animality within a human being, however, is never quite so tidy. To illustrate, if human beings are taken to be uniquely rational, then the irrational aspects of human life (particularly irrational urges or behaviors shared with other animals) seem to undermine anthropological exceptionalism and require some discursive strategy of explanation or management. These strategies render animality peripheral and inessential to human life so that the theologically underwritten uniqueness remains the most important thing about being human. Human animality is variously explained, ignored, sublimated, obscured, sacrificed, or negated in order to preserve humanity’s unique status before God and basic creaturely integrity. The problem of human animality is an abyss over which theological anthropology has been trained to leap. The leap has been made so many times that we often fail to recognize it. Human animality is the abjected remainder of the human being, the shadow of proper humanity’s ascent to the glory of God. Carefully tracking the movements of human animality within theological anthropology, in other words, reveals constitutive tensions and contradictions in theological discourse that otherwise remain invisible.

The intrahuman division between humanity and animality is, of course, laden with judgments of value. Humanity names a set of cherished and accepted behaviors, values, and traits; while animality names a corresponding set that is generally subject to discipline and restriction. In most accounts, God’s grace works to amplify the humanity of human beings and, simultaneously, to attenuate human animality. “Proper humanity” does not just designate one part of the human being; by expressing what is truly or authentically human, it also provides a normative ideal. “Animality,” then, designates the subordinate aspect of human life that must be modulated, controlled, or redirected in order to conform more fully to proper humanity. In the following chapters, I use the terms humanity and proper humanity to refer to this regulatory conception of authentic humanness. I use the term human beings to refer to the psychosomatic creatures whose lives are regulated and formed by humanity.

This book approaches the problem of human animality with two goals in mind. First, I seek to analyze and expose the ways in which dealing with the problem of human animality has left constitutive contradictions and tensions in the fabric of Christian theological anthropology. The maneuvers that sideline human animality are often hastily executed along the way to loftier ideas, so that animality returns in some unnamed way to play an unrecognized but essential role in a theologian’s account of humanity. Second, and more constructively, I want to demonstrate that anthropological exceptionalism is unnecessary for Christian theology. In other words, I want to resolve the problem of human animality, not with a newer and better strategy for subordinating and managing our common creatureliness, but by offering a theological account of human life centered the aspects of creaturely life that human beings share with nonhuman neighbors, that is, an account that abandons the categorical distinction between human beings and all other animals. In fact, at the very point where most theological anthropology disavows and subordinates animality, there is very often an opening toward a different path, a way to think differently about our common creatureliness. It is possible to start over, beginning again out of the irresolvable tensions that result from efforts to cut off humanity from animality in order to go a different route. In this way, the constructive work of the book grows out of the critical work that precedes it.

At the level of the trees, this book is about the relations between humanity and animality in Christian theology—what might be called the “textual ecology” of Christian theological anthropology. At the level of the forest, it is about ecology in a broader sense, a search for some adequate way to respond to the catastrophic degradation of the earth’s ecosystems. The question that gave rise to the project as a whole is this: What prevents Christianity from generating sustained and effective resistance to ecological degradation? The longer I mulled the question, the more deeply I became convinced that the answer lay in the deep narratives of theological anthropology, where narrow ideas about the image of God, sin and redemption, and the eschatological destiny of the redeemed generate and sustain forms of human self-understanding that separate and subordinate animality. Insofar as the conceptual relationship between proper humanity and human animality comes to structure concrete interactions between human beings and other animals (and, by proxy, nature/creation as a whole) the problem of human animality is a knot at the center of Christianity’s inadequate resistance to anthropogenic ecological degradation in its myriad forms (climate change, mass extinction, loss of biodiversity, pollution). Research into the problem of human animality not only promises a new line of analysis for theological anthropology, but also a novel approach to ecological theology.

 

2017 Books

I find myself in a season of renewing old habits. Accordingly, as in years past, here are the books that I read cover-to-cover in 2017. For me, these lists are a confession of my finitude (I always feel that I should have read more and read these books earlier) and, simultaneously, a reminder that, despite all its apparent solitude, reading is always a social practice. The books that I found particularly illuminating or thought provoking are indicated by blue-colored text. Even though my “to-read” stack has grown beyond what I’m likely to work through in 2018, I’d be glad to hear about the books that caught your attention in the last year.

Theology / Religious Studies

Jay Emerson Johnson, Peculiar Faith: Queer Theology for Christian Witness, 236.

Adam Kotsko, The Prince of this World, 225.

Karmen MacKendrick, The Matter of Voice: Sensual Soundings, 205.

Ted A. Smith, Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics, 204.

Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, 240.

Daniel Capper, Learning Love from a Tiger: Religious Experiences with Nature, 305.

Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being, 186.

Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, 191.

Katie Walker Grimes, Fugitive Saints: Catholicism and the Politics of Slavery, 179.

John R. Sachs, The Christian Vision of Humanity, 112.

Ilia Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution and the Power of Love, 228.

Eric Hall, God: Everything You Ever Needed to Know about the Almighty, 185.

Vincent Lloyd and Andrew Prevot, eds., Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics, 210.

Philosophy / Critical Theory 

Matthew Calarco, Thinking through Animals: Identity, Difference, Indistinction, 82.

Gregoire Chamayou, Manhunts: A Philosophical History, 191.

Vinciane Despret, What Would Animals Say if We Asked the Right Questions, 249.

Mark Rowlands, The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death, and Happiness, 246.

Eric Santner, Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald, 219.

Cary Wolfe, Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame, 143.

Jamie Lorimer, Wildlife in the Anthropocene: Conservation after Nature, 284.

Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, 168.

Nicole Shukin, Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times, 306.

Marc Bekoff, Rewilding our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, 198.

Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, 365.

History / Historiography 

Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Trade, 270.

Biography / Memoir 

Dave Foreman, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, 229.

Fiction/Literature 

Brian Doyle, Mink River, 319.

Kevin Barry, There are Little Kingdoms, 154.

Brian Doyle, The Plover, 311.

Sherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist-Fight in Heaven, 242.

Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, 340.

Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things, 321.

Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, 505.

Brian Doyle, Martin Marten, 310.

Science / Science Writing

Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us, 250.

Ancient/Medieval texts 

Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Lord’s Prayer, 30.

Gregory of Nyssa, Great Catechism, 100.

Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on Ecclesiastes, 60.