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.


Screen Shot 2019-11-19 at 11.48.48 AM

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.

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.

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.

The Limits of the Thinkable :: Coming Tomorrow!

Late notice here, but if you’re anywhere near New York City tomorrow, Fordham will be hosting its annual Graduate Theology conference. The conference title is “The Limits of the Thinkable: Religious Experience and the Apophatic Impulse between Antiquity and Modernity.” There is a full schedule posted here. The conference will run from 10am to 6pm in Tognino Hall, (the second floor of Duane Library, above the Theology Department). Catherine Keller will be speaking at 5:00, and all are welcome to attend. Folks from the conference will also be headed out to a pub in the neighborhood after the conference to continue the conversation. Hope to see you there!

Call for Papers: 2014 Fordham Theology Conference — The Limits of the Thinkable

The Theology Graduate Student Association at Fordham is organizing its third conference, centered on the theme of religious experience and apophaticism at the limits of thought. The theme is meant to encompass both historical inquiry and constructive work mysticism, apophaticism, ecstatic revelry, theophany, and records of experiences that remain at the edges of “proper” forms of knowing. The conference will take place on Saturday, February 8th at Fordham’s Rose Hill Campus.  

Catherine Keller will be delivering a keynote address at the end of the conference on the logic of the infinite in Nicolas of Cusa. Previous conferences have brought together a rich collection of papers, and presenters have come from all over the Northeast (from as far as Toronto and Ohio). 

If your interests lie in the area, I would encourage you to submit an abstract. Your proposal should be roughly 300 words, and should be sent to by January 17th. Notifications will be sent by January 28th. We can provide housing (staying with grad students) for some of the presenters to help defray the cost of attendance.

The full, official text of the CFP is below:

The Limits of the Thinkable: Religious Experience and the Apophatic Impulse Between Antiquity and Modernity (with a keynote address by Dr. Catherine Keller)

2014 Fordham Graduate Theology Conference: Call for Papers

“The concept of limit-situation is a familiar one in the existentialist philosophy and theology of the very recent
past. Fundamentally, the concept refers to those human situations wherein a human being ineluctably finds manifest a certain ultimate limit or horizon to his or her existence… either those ‘boundary’ situations of guilt, anxiety, sickness, and the recognition of death as one’s own destiny, or those situations called ‘ecstatic experiences’- intense joy, love, reassurance, creation… Such experiences… seem to demand reflection upon the existential boundaries of our present everyday experience.”

—David Tracy, Blessed Rage for Order

“For any ‘modernity’ to be worthy of one day taking its place as ‘antiquity,’ it is necessary for the mysterious beauty which human life accidentally puts into it to be distilled from it… By modernity, I mean the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, which makes up one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immutable.”

—Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life

For contemporary scholars of religion, David Tracy’s description of limit-situations as the “stuff” of theological reflection provides a helpful lens through which to consider religious experience. And yet, while one might easily suppose that such “ecstatic” and “boundary” experiences name timeless or perennial aspects of human life, Tracy himself is quick to note that the limit situation is itself a distinctively “modern” discursive phenomenon, having its roots in existentialist philosophy, and entering the mainstream of theological discourse only in the last several generations.

Today both historians of religion as well as constructive theologians are faced with the task of deciding how far religious experiences and limit situations can be meaningfully discussed as separate from their contextual origins in time, language, and culture. As Baudelaire suggests, such a disentangling of what is “eternal and immutable” from the “accidents” of the present-day constitutes a daunting task. And indeed, as each successive generation’s “modernity” seeks to distinguish itself even further from the “pre-modern” preceding it, entanglements between limit-experiences and the new discourses that attend to them can only grow in complexity.

The 3rd Annual Fordham Graduate Theology Conference seeks to examine the relationship between such limit- experiences and their historical and discursive contexts. The Theology Graduate Association warmly invites submissions from graduate students in the disciplines comprising religious studies and theology (and cognate fields). Students whose research is primarily textual/biblical, sociological, historical, philosophical, ethical, or constructive are all invited to submit and attend. Submissions are especially welcomed which: explore the relationship between “religious experience” and “religious history”; situate apophatic and negative theological texts/traditions within their broader historical, social, and discursive contexts (including proposals dealing with modern and contemporary constructive apophatic/negative theologies); explore the ways in which religious communities make use of shared “limit-situation” religious experiences, e.g., as in mystical traditions, Pietism, Pentecostalism, etc.; consider diachrony and synchrony in the construction of theological concepts such as history, memory, affect, and identity; and address the “limits” of religious language generally. Papers addressing related themes beyond these suggestions are welcomed as well.

Abstracts (of roughly 300 words) proposing 20 minute presentations should be sent via email
to The deadline for submissions is Friday, January 17th, 2014. Notifications regarding submissions will be given by Monday, January 27th.

The conference will be held on Saturday, February 8th at Fordham’s Rose Hill Campus. A keynote address by Dr. Catherine Keller (Professor of Constructive Theology in the Graduate Division of Religion at Drew University) will consider the curiously “modern” logic of the infinite in Nicolas of Cusa. Complete conference schedule and program to follow. Limited New York City lodging for graduate student presenters is available. Please direct any questions to

“Maybe we are doing it wrong?”: On Diversity in the Theological Academy

Readers interested in the theological academy should go to Brandy Daniels’ latest piece at  AUFS. Brandy is responding to a post by Tony Baker, following up on some questions at a meeting tangential to the AAR last weekend. I was not at the Theology Studio meeting, but I’ve seen the same white-male dynamic enough to be familiar with what went on.

I want to append one comment to my recommendation of Brandy’s post, which looks to be the beginning of a longer series. After reading Tony’s post. I really wish that, for once, the response to a question about the overwhelming predominance of white men in certain kinds of conversations would be something along the lines of, “Hmmm… Maybe we’re doing this wrong?”

Instead, the most common response  is something of the sort that Tony has written in which the discourse continues on as usual (with a touch more sensitivity mixed in). There seems to be an operating assumption that if the discourses are just a little more open to participation from women and folks of color, eventually the non white-male people will “catch up” and want to join in. There is rarely, if ever, serious reflection about how the structure of the discourse itself, and that of the institutions, organizations, and histories that make up the discipline of systematic theology as it stands have—to put it nicely—“privilege problems” that run all the way to the core.

I am a theologian; I’m a part of the game too, and I’m not giving up on the questions and concerns that drive theological inquiry. But responses like the one Tony has offered remind me all too much of MLK’s claim with regard to civil rights that the real impediment to change wasn’t the fire-breathing racists of the KKK, but the sensitive, well meaning, sympathetic white moderates who were “on the right side” but just wanted to think things through on their own terms a little longer.

Sacred Topographies: or, Parks and Revelation

The second rendition of the Fordham Graduate Theology Conference will take place on October 20th, from 9:30AM – 6:00PM at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus (60th and Columbus). Dr. Elizabeth Castelli of Barnard/Columbia will be giving a keynote address at 5 PM. Fellow student John Penniman has done a fantastic job pulling this year’s conference together.

If you are in the area and interested, I would encourage you to come for all or part of the proceedings. The program is available here, and promises a wide range of interesting papers/panels. Here is the conferences official site.

On Mark Regnerus and Research about Same-sex Child Rearing

I am on the fringes of a few circles in which there has been some flapping about “thought policing,” “witch hunts,” and “inquisitions” over the case of a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Mark Regnerus is being investigated by his university over questions of scientific integrity following an article he published that included data showing that adult children of same-sex couples have more emotional issues than children raised by heteronormatively “standard” couples.

I’m not really writing here about my stake in issues of academic freedom, or about the best way to characterize the investigation, and any comment I might make about the scientific integrity of the data would be speaking way, way outside my expertise. Rather, I’m writing about some of the assumptions that seem to underlie both sides of the conversation, assumptions that I noticed myself conspicuously not-sharing from the moment I read about the story.

Perhaps it shows just how long it’s been since I drank the critical-theory humanities kool-aid, but my first response upon reading about the whole thing was to wonder why people are so cranked up over this data in the first place. Both the de-bunkers and the defenders seem to share the premise that data of this kind (if not this data) could really show us whether same-sex couples ought to be raising children or not. Science will peel back the veil on nature and we’ll (finally) see for certain what sort of familial arrangement is most conducive to healthy children. That’s a falsely constrained and reductive view of “nature” and the “natural.”

The results of the study at hand just don’t seem all that surprising to me, given that our broader cultural context contains a lot of adamant voices insisting that same-sex couples raising children are not only statistically rare, but morally aberrant. Why should we expect kids to grow up without some maladjustment to society at large when, minimally—assuming that they aren’t bullied or otherwise excluded—their default awareness of the “way the world is” includes the knowledge that a significant segment of mainstream culture believes that their home and the love shared by their family is verboten? Or, on the other side, why should we be surprised when a study shows that growing up in a stable home with two parents grow up to be better adjusted than kids raised in less-stable single parent homes—irrespective of the orientation of the parents?

If it feels as if I’m being dismissive about the discipline of sociology generally, that’s not at all my intention. On some level it’s the nature of our cynical politics that wherever science touches down in issues such as this, it functions (for either side) largely as a political bludgeon, something concrete to lob at one’s ideological opponents. I get that. I think that the point of my frustration with the heat in this conversation is directed at: a) people’s expressions of surprise and anger that data like this should exist; and b) people’s convictions (whether stated or not) that data of this sort is not only a measurement of how things are, but is capable of telling us what we should do, how we ought to arrange our society. There seems to me to be a measure of pretense in the former, and a measure of backwards thinking in the latter.

On Stolen Laptops and the Banal Perils of Graduate School

There are greater tragedies in the world than this, obviously; losing one’s laptop and parts of one’s dissertation are the worst thing that can happen to a graduate student, but I’ve been joking to people that being a graduate student is already one of the worst things that can happen to a person, so the glass is half-empty either way. There’s a certain amount of truth to that: this experience has forced me to think about ways I can interface with the world not through a computer screen, and that’s important; I’m going to make this experience into something healthy, a way to re-focus my intellectual energies. But it’s also kind of a bitter joke. Being a graduate student is much more stressful and anxious than people often realize. The psychic and physical toll you pay is significant there are those costs again!, and the end when you face the seemingly non-existent employment prospects can be rough. I tell people starting out that they should expect to fuck up their backs, to maybe need or go on some kind of anti-anxiety medication, and to spend their twenties intimately aware of the price of peanut butter. Your ability to be a graduate student for the next 7-10 years will be totally contingent on finding new strategies to keep yourself healthy.

via A Breather —

One of my favorite blogger-commentator-mandolin playing-manic-superheroes is drastically re-focusing his life after getting his computer stolen in the midst of writing his dissertation. But his explanation for his hiatus gives an excellent picture of the sorts of scars and troubles that one can expect from “the life of the mind”—at least the part where the mind is in grad school. My strategy (if one can call it that) of late has been more or less resignation. There are lots of kinds of “work” in the world, and I’ve chosen a good path with its own unique challenges. Graduate school—and academia more generally—has changed me in many ways, and many of them not for the better. But it’s good work, I’m at least reasonably proficient at it, and anything else I could do would likely only carry a different set of scars and neuroses. There is a kind of existential tyranny that can be overcome by thinking about a “job” rather than a “career.”

Postscript: If you’ve appreciated Aaron’s writings, you can pitch in to buy him a new laptop.