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.
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.
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.
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.
Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Lord’s Prayer, 30.
Gregory of Nyssa, Great Catechism, 100.
Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on Ecclesiastes, 60.
My father passed away during the night of Sunday, October 22nd. I know that I am very fortunate to have had–for all his flaws and struggles–a truly wonderful father. During the last year of his life, my father was the recipient of a heart transplant, effectively healing a degenerative heart condition that he had lived with for twenty years. That heart transplant gave him the chance to return to activities that he had loved and excelled at in his younger years—he once won a marathon with a time of 2hrs. 37m.—and push himself again. The last day of his life, he ran a half-marathon, placed 3rd in his age bracket, had dinner with his brother and my mother, and watched the World Series game. It was, in every respect, the perfect last day for my father. I would like to share the eulogy that I wrote for my dad. The text is below, along with a video of the service. The eulogy begins at 29:40.
Every life stretches across minutes, days, and years. Every life—my dad’s no less—ends too soon. We want more time together. But in addition to its measure in length, time has moods, it has a feel, it has variable atmospheres and climates. One day’s time differs from the next, and your mode of moving with time differs from mine. So even as I ache for more time, I want to share a few words about the intensity, the trajectory, the weight of my dad’s ﬂight through time and how it has shaped my own.
My dad never let his timeline go slack. He was always pushing further, running faster, making a bigger difference for others. From the viewpoint of the stars, he spun 24,734 circles on this earth, on his way through 67-and-a-half loops around the sun, but he pulled that line as tight as he could. His restlessly determined mood or mode of movement in time marked everything that he did. He lived hard enough that he wore out two hearts, at least two hearts.
Dad approached risk face-on and clear-eyed, without hesitation. His last day is only a perfect parable of so much that went before. Were there risks to running 3rd in his age bracket in a half-marathon, ten months out from a heart transplant? Sure. But if your new heart will pump in its cage, if your legs will regain some of their former strength, if you can train again to ﬂoat over pavement, then how can you say no? How could you say no to ﬂying, to learning Greek and Spanish, to starting a new career in your sixties, becoming a pastor and a prison chaplain? How could you say no to a heart transplant? Dad could be gracious and empathetic with others, but he always pushed himself—in physical endeavors, in moral character, in generosity—he held himself to a higher standard.
As I’ve thought about my dad over the years, and more intensely in the last week, I think that his orientation to time and to risk are among the ways that he inﬂuenced me most deeply. He would want to make this occasion count, to make these moments as thick, as rich, as impactful as possible. He would want to share some message. I cannot speak for him, but I can tell you what I’ve learned from him and ask you to carry it forward. As he said often enough to my brothers and I, “Let this be a lesson to you.”
Death is not the worst thing. Death is not the enemy. It never was and it isn’t now. Dad outran the smallness of fear with a clear-eyed resolve to pull his time tight. Death is only an end, and perhaps not even a dead end. There are cramped, stingy, self-enclosed, bigoted, and fearful ways of living that make too much of death. It is a mistake, even if a very common one, to give life over to death too soon by assuming that your fate is established, that your character cannot change, that you have nothing more to offer those around you, that your fellow-travelers are too different to be neighbors. Death is not the worst thing because, for all its terrible power, it can never un-live the life that has been lived, it can never un-love the love that has been shared, it can never claw back the adventures that make us who we are, it can never rub out the lines etched across time’s surface.
I am a professional theologian—whatever that is—and some people assume that I am supposed to know things, to have answers. Mostly, I try to help people ask better questions. “Where do we go when we die?” is not, I think, a particularly helpful question. But here is what I know. Mark Paul Meyer is enfolded in the life of God. His hunger, his love, his ferocious hope, his relentless determination—they’re all too big for death to swallow. An echo of eternity among us, he lived his time with an intensity that could never be contained in his days. Death is not the worst thing, it is only an end. We, together here today, are testimony to that truth. And so, as our Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers say, “Memory eternal, memory eternal, memory eternal.”
This piece is cross posted over at AUFS; please comment there (rather than here) if you feel compelled to do so.
As Willie James Jennings’ title would suggest, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race is a book situated at the interface between theology and history. My work hovers around the same intersection, so I came to Jennings’ book with strong interests both in the content of the argument and the method of its movements. Jennings has given us a very rich book, one that uncovers the historical and theological reasons that the stratified logics of race and colonialism have overrun—one should almost say without exception— the purported unity of Christian communion. Jennings’ text works to uncover the theological operations that underwrite the history of the last half-millennium—in which racial difference has functioned as justification for conversion by violent coercion and enslavement, and in which white Christians have regarded social, economic, and political parity for Christians of color as unthinkable, unnatural, and unnecessary. The logic of race is so deeply enmeshed in Western subject-formation that it has overpowered the political implications of theological and sacramental affirmations—e.g. that Christians share the same baptism and eat at the same table. In other words, Jennings asks: Why does whiteness trump Jesus’ body?
Jennings’ book works out a complex and multifaceted historical answer to this question—a question that white theology has repressed with hasty acknowledgments of the generalized horrors of the past. Jennings’ book has been rightly recognized as a significant contribution to academic theology (the book won the 2015 Louisville Grawemeyer award in Religion) and has been discussed widely. Jennings’ readings of the theological formation of racial discourse in early modern and colonial authors are nuanced, careful, and illuminating. Alongside my deep appreciation for Jennings’ critical work on early modern texts and figures, however, I find myself stuck on a few questions regarding his main theological argument. In particular, I wonder if Jennings’ theological utilization of the concept of supersessionism has obscured the specifics of its history, such that Jennings inadvertently fails to escape the trajectory of Christian supersessionism even as he correctly diagnoses it as a lynchpin of Western racialized anthropology. Continue reading “The Ineradicable Supersessionism of the Christian Imagination”
The book has been out for a few months now, but I’ve yet to make an announcement here. Divinanimality: Animal Theory, Creaturely Theology came out of Drew University’s Transdisciplinary Theology Conference. The handsome book was edited by Stephen Moore (of Drew University) and features a range of essays. Personal highlights for me were the chapters written by Denise Kimber Buell, Beatrice Marovich, and Stephen Moore. I am honored to have a chapter in the volume: “The Logos of God and the End of Humanity: Giorgio Agamben and the Gospel of John on Animality as Light and Life.” Working from the prologue to John’s gospel, my chapter argues for an understanding of the incarnation that undermines anthropological exceptionalism rather than supporting it. In other words, I am working to refute the notion—heard commonly enough in Christian circles—that human beings are the most important creatures on earth because God became human. I engage briefly with Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus along the way. I also venture a more synthetic reading of Derrida and Agamben on “the animal question” than is normal in critical animal theory circles.
One of the benefits of posting this announcement a bit late is that I can link to a blog post by Adam Roberts on my essay. His summary is accurate and his critical questions are on target, so far as I am concerned. I have a response posted in the comments. He has a few other posts on the volume, which can be found here.
One wouldn’t know it from the amount of activity here on this rather neglected corner of the internet, but 2014 was a very tumultuous year for me—as it was for many people across the U.S. My personal ups and downs pale in comparison to the events surrounding the murders of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Renisha McBride, Darien Hunt, and others, and the rightful anger that followed these callous displays of the latent white supremacist millieu of American life. To my mind, these are among the most significant events of 2014 in the U.S., and it feels a bit trite even to mention them here in passing. But silence is rarely the better path, so I would rather place 2014’s anger and mourning at the surface once more.
Personally, 2014 brought news of a child in January and the birth of a daughter in September. It brought me to the completion of my dissertation and to my graduation from Fordham with a Ph.D. in Theology in May. It brought a move from the Bronx to Denver in June, followed by a second move (within Denver) when our apartment massively flooded in November. Days after our flood, I was in San Diego for interviews at the AAR/SBL. I have mixed feelings about 2014 and, all in all, I’m glad it’s over. In many ways I’m still recovering. Take that as explanation for posting a 2014 retrospective two weeks into 2015.
One of the few traditions I’ve kept up here is to post my reading for the year. These are the books that I read cover to cover. I’ve put in boldface the books which I found the most insightful, most moving, or most useful for my work. The classification scheme is my own and is (like all taxonomies) somewhat arbitrary. Of course, I welcome comments on these books or books that other folks found particularly rich in 2014.
Theology / Religious Studies:
Gerard Loughlin (ed.), Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body.
Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable.
Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering.
Benjamin Dunning, Christ Without Adam: Subjectivity and Sexual Difference in the Philosophers’ Paul.
Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love.
Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk.
Daniel L. Pals, Eight Theories of Religion.
Stephen Moore, Divinanimality: Animal Theory, Creaturely Theology.
Philosophy / Critical Theory:
Catherine Malabou, Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity.
Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory.
Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism.
Souleymane Bachir Diagne, African Art as Philosophy: Senghor, Bergson, and the Idea of Negritude.
Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception.
Giorgio Agamben, The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath.
Mary Midgley, Animals and Why they Matter.
Andrew Norris (ed.), Politics, Metaphysics, and Death: Essays on Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer.
Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive.
Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth.
George Yancy, Look a White!: Philosophical Essays on Whiteness.
James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son.
Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America.
History / Historiography:
Virginia Burrus, Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints, and other Abject Subjects. Theodore W. Jennings, Plato or Paul: The Origins of Western Homophobia.
Biography / Memoir:
Rob Delaney, Wife, Sister, Mother, Falcon, Yardstick, Turban, Cabbage.
E.O. Wilson, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth.
Thomas Pynchon, Vineland.
Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge.
James Baldwin, Another Country.
Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice.
Don DeLillo, White Noise.
Penny Simkin, The Birth Partner.
Making public one’s reading list as an academic feels, to me at least, vaguely shameful. There is a open record here for people to see all the things that I haven’t read (and should have). That’s one of the reasons that I’ve kept up the practice—to stare down my own sense of myself as a fraud, my own looming imposter syndrome. In the vein of shameful confessions, I’ll add to my explicit shame. I made a concerted effort (or, what I thought was a concerted effort) to read more books by women and people of color this year, to sit with a broader range of perspectives and do my own thinking with that multiplicity of voices ringing in my ears. It was a valuable endeavor and one that I mean to continue in 2015. Nevertheless, a significant majority of the books that I read this year (20 of 32) were written by white men. On the other hand, 7 of 32 were written by women and 7 of 32 were written by people of color. If I had to guess, I’d venture that those proportions are not enormously out of line with the demographics of the American academic scene. Still, at the end of the year, I’m embarrassed that my concerted effort is not better reflected in the demographics of the authors above. Nevertheless, the voices of Yancy, Hartman, Fanon, and others are still ringing disproportionately in my ears.