Sermon for January 22, 2023

I was asked to preach at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Helena, Montana this Sunday. Below you’ll find that sermon . The lectionary texts are Isaiah 9:1-4 and Matthew 4:12-23.

Here we are, a few weeks after Christmas, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. No longer a baby in the manger, four chapters later Jesus is a man, just baptized by John in the Jordan and tempted in the wilderness. […wipe tear] They grow up so fast! 

The words with which Jesus begins his ministry are at the very center of his good news: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” What does this mean? “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near…” The communal memory of Jesus contained in the Gospel of Matthew explains this message by putting it in the context of our reading from Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them a light has shined.” Good news! This coming-near kingdom is a light in the dark. This morning, I’d like to meditate together on this message — this luminous kingdom close-at-hand — especially in light of the end of our passage from Isaiah: “You have broken the rod of their oppressor…all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.” Where there is oppression and violence, the “great light” of the coming kingdom means liberation, peace, and renewed freedom. How and why do we “repent” before such a reality? How do we move from darkness and welcome the light? 

Continue reading “Sermon for January 22, 2023”

Inner Animalities at Union Theological Seminary

Hello all,

With immense gratitude to Dr. John Thatamanil for the invitation, I’d like to share a talk that I gave last week at Union Theological Seminary in New York (well, virtually in New York). The talk explains some of the theoretical skeleton that holds the book, Inner Animalities together. After a 25 minute monologue, John Thatamanil and I talk for a while about the theological claims and moves that the book works out.

Animals and Religion Sessions at the 2020 AAR Virtual Meeting

In this last year, I took on the responsibility of co-chairing the Animals and Religion group at the American Academy of Religion. Over the last decade I have benefitted greatly from the conversations and collegiality that I’ve found in this group and it’s an honor to have a role in organizing more of that. Co-Chair Barbara Ambros and I, along with the help of an excellent steering committee, have organized four of the panels below (and are helping to support and promote the book panel). I am posting these here so that I can point to all the Animals and Religion sessions in one place. If you’re an AAR-goer consider attending some of these virtual panels!

Buddhism and Animal Ethics :: Monday, November 30th, 4p–5:30p EST

Animal Ethics has recently emerged as a focus of philosophical and religious inquiry. Scholars have debated how much responsibility humans have for animals, how best to promote animal welfare, and what the precise difference between human and non-human animals actually is. Buddhism has ideas and perspectives that can contribute to all of these questions. This panel explores Buddhist perspectives on Animal Ethics in both historical and contemporary philosophical perspectives. On the historical side, some contributors examine how Buddhist thinkers have understood animals and animal ethics at specific times and places. On the philosophical side, other contributors will suggest ways in which Buddhist perspectives might respond to and influence contemporary philosophical debates over animality and Animal Ethics. Taken together, these papers reflect the diversity of Buddhist approaches to animal ethics, as well as some of the ways Buddhism might help shape ongoing debates over animals.

Presenters: Daniel Capper, Alka Arora, Rachel Pang, Jeffrey Nicolaisen, Guangshuo Yang, and Geoffrey Barstow (also presiding). 

Book Panel: Theological Ethics through a Multispecies Lens by Celia Deane-Drummond :: Wednesday, December 2nd, 11a–12:30p EST

This book panel has been organized by the International Society for Science and Religion (ISSR) with the support of the Animals and Religion Group. 

There are two driving questions informing Celia Deane-Drummond’s latest book, Theological Ethics Through a Multispecies Lens (2019). The first is where does human moral life come from? The author argues against the assumption that different virtues are bolted onto a vicious animality, red in tooth and claw. By weaving in evolutionary theories and debates on the early evolution of compassion, justice and wisdom, she aims to show a richer account of who we are as moral agents. The second driving question concerns human relationships with animals. Deane-Drummond argues that animal rights frameworks are limited and presses instead for a more complex community-based multispecies approach to the moral life as such. A more radical approach is a holistic multispecies framework for moral action that is deliberately engaged with evolutionary debates, ethological research and evolutionary psychology.

Panelists: Norman Wirzba, Christopher Southgate, Grace Kao, John Berkman, Celia Deane-Drummond (responding), and Christopher Carter (presiding). 

Animality Racialized: Rethinking the Pedagogies of Subjectivity :: Thursday, December 3rd, 1:45p–3:15p EST

This session continues conversations from the 2018 and 2019 annual meetings on the mutual implication of racial difference and species difference. This year’s session focuses more explicitly on links between animality and whiteness. The first paper explores ways to use comics to teach indigenous conceptions of animal personhood to non-indigenous students. The second paper analyzes animality as foundational to Christian articulations of whiteness, not only as a lens for racializing “others” but, as a way of conceiving and practicing whiteness itself. The third paper attends to the “hookworm crusades” of the early twentieth-century to show that the white-supremacist “color-line” was simultaneously a line drawn around proper Christian religion, and a line drawn by species-discourse around cleanliness and filth. These papers will be followed by a response and open conversation.

Presenters: David Aftandilian, Eric Daryl Meyer, Timothy Burnside, Jeania Ree Moore (responding), and Adrienne Krone (presiding). 

Roundtable on Critical Animal Studies and Jewish Studies: Intersections, Open Questions, New Directions :: Monday, December 7th, 11a-1p ESTCo-Sponsored with the Study of Judaism Unit

Critical Animal Studies and Jewish Studies are not the strangers to each other that they once were. The “question of the animal” has been raised for the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, medieval pietists, kabbalah, and modern Jewish literature, among other Jewish cultural phenomena. The aim of the roundtable on Critical Animal Studies and Jewish Studies is therefore less to bring the two fields into dialogue than to deepen the relationship by probing the gaps that remain. What questions have not yet been asked, texts not read, perspectives not aired? Which critical terms in animal studies (e.g., vulnerability, kinship, captivity) have not yet been adopted, what bodies of theory (e.g., affect, trans, crip) not yet taken up? The roundtable will thus address how to further the scholarship already in place. At the same time, participants will also consider how to reach scholars of Jewish Studies not yet fully engaged in critical animal studies who are working in areas in which animals and animality in fact play a central role. Roundtable participants will together think through the possibilities that could emerge were animals to be made more visible within Jewish culture.

Panelists: Jay Geller, Alex Weisberg, Beth Berkowitz, Mira Wasserman, Aaron Gross, Naama Harel, Ken Stone, Noam Pines, David Shyovitz, and Carol Adams (presiding) 

Ritualizing and Remembering Animal Death :: Wednesday, December 9th, 11a–1p EST

Business meeting in the last 30m. of the session

This panel explores the ritualization and remembering of animal death. The first paper investigates the commemoration of companion animals in religious communities across the U.S. that have employed discourses of creation and life to justify new practices while still re-affirming ontological differences between humans and other animals. The second paper draws connections between genocide denial and the obliviousness to human responsibility for ongoing mass extinction during the Anthropocene and utilizes notions of ‘disavowal’ and ‘haunting’ to illuminate the ideological stakes and the im/possibility of “redemption.” The third paper argues that the decimation of the once great Pte Oyate (Buffalo Nation) was a form of systematic oppression of both the Native Americans and the buffalo themselves, and should therefore be referred to as a form of genocide. We hope that the intersections of these papers will shed light the concrete implications of spiritual and religious practices for living animals.

Presenters: Barbara Ambros, Wendy Wiseman, and David Aftandilian (presiding). 

“The Recursive Violence of Anthropological Exceptionalism” Open Access Publication

The Journal of Religion and Society recently published a supplemental issue growing out of a conference held by the Kripke Center at Creighton University in February of 2019. The papers, conversations, and food (!) were excellent and I was very glad for the opportunity to reconnect with old friends and make new ones.

A revised version of my essay from that conference is now available and open-access. “The Recursive Violence of Anthropological Exceptionalism” [PDF link] reworks an argument and a set of ideas that I’ve put into publication previously in Modern Theology. In this version, the constructive portion of the essay shifts from an emphasis on vulnerability to an emphasis on shame and gentleness. As much as the essay is similar to its earlier iteration, I’m much happier with the constructive work here and think that the argument was worth getting right.

While you’re there, I also highly recommend the very timely essays by Anne Blankenship on “Just Immigration and the Social Gospel” and Erin Kidd on “Theology in the Wake of Survivor Testimony: Epistemic Injustice and Clergy Sex Abuse.”

AAR/SBL in San Diego

This coming weekend, I’ll be attending the AAR/SBL annual meeting in San Deigo—unburdened by any QR code surveillance apparatus.

Screen Shot 2019-11-19 at 11.47.42 AMI’ll be giving two talks this year. First, on Saturday evening from 5:30–7:00 (Convention Center, room 26B), I’ll be participating in a panel on Reiko Ohnuma’s book Unfortunate Destiny: Animals in the Indian Buddhist Imagination. The book is a fascinating analysis of animals in early Indian Buddhist texts and was, for me, a welcome chance to read outside my area of expertise. Among the other respondents will be Aaron Gross, whose work has been really formative for my thinking. The panel has been organized by the Animals and Religion Unit, where I serve as a member of the steering committee.


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Second, in the same 5:30–7:00 time slot on Sunday evening (in the Hilton Bayfront room 411A, Sapphire level), I’ll be participating in a session that Beatrice Marovich and I organized. The session is titled “The Powers of Gentleness and the Limits of the Human” and is organized around the work of the late French philosopher and psychoanalyst Anne Dufourmantelle in Power of Gentleness: Meditations on the Risk of Living. The panel brings together a collection of my favorite people—Jacob Erickson, Elizabeth Pyne, Beatrice Marovich, and myself, with Karen Bray presiding—and the papers in the panel look really excellent. The session is happening under the auspices of the Theology and Religious Reflection unit. My paper here is entitled “Gentleness, Carnivory, and the Violence of God.” It began when I encountered Dufourmantelle’s claim that the opposite of gentleness is not violence, but fraud and sentimentality. The paper brings together Dufourmantelle with Walter Benjamin’s categories of predatory violence and divine violence to make some exploratory connections.

Moran Faculty Colloquium

Tomorrow, I’ll be presenting a version of the research that I’ve done in the last few years on the ecological politics of dignity. I’ll be presenting at the Annette Moran Faculty Colloquium here at Carroll College. It’s an opportunity to share work with colleagues in a school where we have surprisingly few opportunities to talk through our research. Teaching takes up so much of our time and energy here, that it’s not often we have a chance to share the work that we’re doing for the wider world. I’m glad to have the opportunity to share my thoughts and curious to see how the argument plays out for a crowd of mostly non theology/religious studies folks.

I’ve titled my presentation “Dignity: Caught between Humanity and Animality”

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.