TODAY!: Of Miracles and Machines — Derrida and Religion

I should have thought to post this earlier, but if you in the NYC area today and looking for a good conversation, you should come by Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus for the following symposium on Derrida and Religion. The symposium is centered around a recently published book, Miracle and Machine by Michael Naas, who will be one of the speakers, along with Penelope Deutscher, Sarah Hammerschlag, and Martin Hägglund. There are, apparently, other things to do in New York City this afternoon, but this one will be hard to beat.

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Of Miracles and Machines

A Symposium on Derrida and Religion

Thursday March 22, 4:15–7:00 pm

12th Floor Lounge, Lowenstein Building ● Fordham University Lincoln Center Campus 60th and Columbus, New York City

To mark the publication of Michael Naas’s Miracle and Machine: Jacques Derrida and the Two Sources of Religion, Science, and the Media (Fordham UP, 2012), this symposium brings together four leading scholars from across the disciplines to debate Derrida’s continued relevance for religious thinking.

Speakers

Penelope Deutscher, Northwestern University ● Sarah Hammerschlag, Williams College

Martin Hägglund, Harvard University ● Michael Naas, DePaul University

Contact

Samir Haddad, sahaddad@fordham.edu

Sponsored by the Department of Philosophy, the Department of Theology, the Deans of the Arts and Sciences Council, and Fordham University Press.

This event is free and open to the public.

For More Information Miracle and Machine Jacques Derrida and the Two Sources of Religion, Science, and the Media Michael Naas

432 pages 978-0-8232-3998-6, paper, $30.00 $20.00 (Promo Code: Naas12)

To Order: http://www.fordhampress.com ● 800-451-7556

Sacred Topographies (or) Parks and Revelation

I would encourage you to distribute the following CFP far and wide, and put in a proposal yourself. This year’s conference promises to be an excellent event.

Photo by Angela Lau

Call for Papers :: 2012 Fordham Graduate Theology Conference

 “Places do not, of themselves, defile us, but the things done in the places (by which even the places themselves are defiled).” ~ Tertullian

“Places are fragmentary and inward-turning histories, pasts that others are not allowed to read, accumulated times that can be unfolded but like stories held in reserve, remaining in an enigmatic state, symbolizations encysted in the pain or pleasure of the body.” ~ Michel de Certeau

The Greek word for “place” – topos – carries with it all the ambiguities that modern theorists have come to see as embedded within the concept.  It is both the physical location and one’s orientation to it.  It is both the structural building and the office one holds within it.  And it can be both a reference to a particular part of the human body as well as an occasion or opportunity for that body to act.  Michel de Certeau distinguished the static, stable quality of a place (i.e. the sidewalk) from the malleable, productive, and performative quality of space (i.e. the pedestrian whose walking re-creates this “place” as her own “space”).  Put simply, topos represents the interplay between place and space.

The 2nd Annual Fordham Graduate Theology Conference seeks to investigate the ways in which religion both produces and has been produced by its understandings of space/place. The Theology Graduate Student Association at Fordham 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. Examples of topics within the scope of the theme include (but are by no means limited to):

Shifting topographies: i.e. What are the ways in which immigration, forced migration, multiculturalism, empire and globalization impact religion’s construction of/by its spatiality? How does human embodiment and its topographical setting inform and give meaning to one another?

Structural topographies: How has religion been influenced by and contributed to an understanding of “constructed” space?  (e.g. the relationship of art and architecture to ritual and religious practice/identity; the appropriation of non-religious – “secular” or “profane” – space for “sacred” use; the mutually determinative relationship between religion and geography, etc.)

Abstracts of 500 words or less should be sent via email to fordhamtgsa@gmail.com by Monday, May 21st.

The conference will be held on Saturday, October 20th at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus in Manhattan. Papers of 15-20 minutes will be given by graduate students. The keynote address will be given by Professor and Chair of the Religion Department at Barnard College, Dr. Elizabeth Castelli. Complete conference schedule, keynote address theme, and other information to follow. Questions may be directed to fordhamtgsa@gmail.com.

Complete conference schedule and program to follow. More information available at the conference website

What is the Good of Education?

The argument in the piece below is considerably overdrawn at points—not least inasmuch as it carries out an impressively erudite level of analysis and social criticism which must be due, at least in part, to some pretty extraordinary educators. Aside from biting the hand from which food once came, Harris raises important questions about what education does. Specifically, he called into question two paradigms in which I freely admit that I am fully immersed. The first—actually a point made by the book under Harris’ review (Class Dissmissed by John Marsh)—is that education is a socio-political force that works toward equality. The assumption runs thus: if you are fed up with structural injustices that play out along race, class, or gender lines, then funding and supporting education is one of the best ways to begin to level the playing field. The second—a point which belongs to Harris himself—is that education teaches the critical reasoning skills that prevents bullies and tyrants from perpetrating terrible acts. Again, I think that Harris overdraws his argument a bit—surely things would not have been better in the run up to our invasion of Iraq if fewer people in the States were well-educated, but his point stands that education mostly allowed the enlightened left to cry wolf while the war machine rolled right on by.

Marsh, who depicts himself as a veteran of left-wing politics, should know better than to put much stock in teaching students to be critical media consumers. Recognizing and exposing the Bush administration’s falsehoods — as brash and obvious as they were frequent — didn’t do the left much good: It didn’t avert or halt the Iraq or Afghanistan wars, it didn’t stop the tax cuts for the wealthy, and it hasn’t forced us to confront climate change. With more public access to information than ever before, fact-checking can be a cinch, and well-funded nonprofit organizations and popular television shows have devoted themselves to exposing public lies using primary-source documents. But the plutocracy is as bad as ever. In a time when, as Marsh admits, the facts about inequality won’t make a bit of difference on the policy front, how does reading Macbeth help students protect themselves against tyranny?

via School’s Out Forever – The New Inquiry.

I commend the whole piece as a goad for further thought and reflection—mine included.

Fordham Graduate Theology Conference

If you happen to be a person who will be anywhere in the vicinity of New York City on April the 30th, I’d like to encourage you to attend the conference that I’m helping to organize on behalf of the graduate students of Fordham’s Theology Department.

In addition to the information in the flier above (which I’ve pasted below for those who don’t want to squint at the tiny, tilted text) there is a website for the conference which has been recently updated with lots of information—including the conference program and paper titles.

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Continue reading “Fordham Graduate Theology Conference”

Call for Papers :: Fordham Graduate Theology Conference

I’m helping to organize a regional graduate student conference that will take place at the end of April at the Lincoln Center campus of Fordham University, midtown Manhattan.

The call for papers is below; if you know of anyone who might be interested, please pass this along or print off a copy for yourself by clicking here: FGTC call for papers.

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:: Call for Papers ::

Marginal Persons and the Margins of Personhood

 

Fordham Graduate Theology Conference

Saturday April 30th, 2011

Fordham University, Lincoln Center, NYC

Keynote Address: Virginia Burrus (Drew University)

The Theology Graduate Student Association at Fordham warmly invites submissions from graduate students in the disciplines comprising religious studies and theology. Students whose research is primarily textual/biblical, sociological, historical, philosophical, ethical, or constructive are all invited to submit and attend. Examples of topics within the scope of the theme include:

The dynamics of marginalization: the involvement of religion in economic, political, or colonial exploitation/liberation; religious hybridity or self-location at margins; boundaries drawn with religious rhetoric—past and present; the exclusion and erasure of people from the historical record; the value, function, and criteria of orthodoxies and heresies.

The notion of ‘personhood’ in religious contexts: the definition and significance of personhood as a category; the propriety of conceiving of God as personal; controversy over the “persons” of the Trinity; the relation of animals and angels to personhood; the unique rights of persons, and the politics of recognizing personal rights; religion as a “personal matter,” not a public concern; personhood as rhetoric or ontology.

Abstracts, no longer than 350 words, should be sent via email to fordhamtgsa@gmail.com by Monday, March 21st.

Presentations will be 15-20 minutes, with subsequent time for questions/discussion. The conference will conclude with a keynote address from Virginia Burrus. Professor Burrus is a scholar of late-ancient Christianity at Drew University. She is a former president of the North American Patristics Society and the author or editor of eight books, including Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints, and Other Abject Subjects and The Sex-Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography.

Complete conference schedule and further information will be available at the conference website (click here).  Questions may be directed to fordhamtgsa@gmail.com.

Conversion Narratives :: A Very Belated Update

Now that I’ve finished grading the final exams from my first course as a “real” professor (not the “actually paid” kind, but the “actually standing at the front of the classroom” kind), I’ve got a bit of time to talk about the conversion narratives assignment for which I requested help about six months ago (see the previous post).

First things first. The books that I settled on, after so much assistance from friends were:

o      Sara Miles, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (New York: Ballantine Books, 2007).

o      Augustine of Hippo, Confessions [Read books 1-10, skip 11-13] translated by Maria Boulding (New York: New City Press, 2001).

o      Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1997).

o      Shusako Endo, Silence, translated by William Johnston (New York: Taplinger, 1967).

o      Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha, translated by Susan Bernovsky (New York: Random House, 2008).

o      Simone Weil, Waiting for God, translated by Emma Crawford (New York: Harper Collins, 2001).

o      William L. Andrews, ed. Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986).

I was really pleased with the way that the whole project turned out. While some of the students had a hard time with their texts (predictably, those who were coming to Augustine for the first time), the vast majority of them brought some insightful analysis to the stories that they encountered. It was a lot of work to write prompts for each of the books that would lead the students into the sort of critical thinking I was hoping for, but that work seemed to have paid off in some really great papers.

The best part of the project, however, was the class discussion day. Regardless, it would have been hopeless to expect the students to have read anything else the day that their papers were due, but I wanted to give the students an opportunity to share the results of their hard work anyway. So I had the students sit down in groups with the others who had read the same text and share their own unique arguments; Is Simone Weil “religious” or “spiritual” in her intense devotion to Catholicism and simultaneous refusal of baptism? Does narrating your conversion through the metaphor of hunger and filling rather than pollution and cleansing  (as does Sara Miles), and participating in Communion prior to being baptized change the actual experience of being converted? The students had some productive disagreements here.

They then split up into groups with students who had read different texts, in order to summarize the plot of their story and reprise their own argument once again. At the end of this group work, having encountered a wildly diverse range of “conversions”, we were able to have a great conversation as a class about what takes place in a conversion, and more fundamentally, about the boundaries of what counts as  “religion” and “religious” and what it takes to cross those boundaries.

There are a number of things that I’ll change as I teach the course again this Spring, but this assignment will remain as a central element.

crowd-sourcing :: women’s conversion narratives

For the introductory theology course I’m teaching this fall, I’m not using any single text for the day-to-day readings because no text could be quite so impossibly broad as the range of issues I’m hoping to get into (from historical-criticism to liberation theology), and because I’d rather have the students read the nitty-gritty “real thing” on these issues  than some 30,000 foot overview. But, I think that it’s important to work through a whole book as well. So one of the assignments will have the students read a literary or biographical conversion narrative (somewhat broadly conceived) and write a fairly lengthy review essay on the questions raised.

The students will have the opportunity to choose between a range of texts, and I want there to be a pretty broad representation. At this point, here are the texts I have listed for them to choose from:

Augustine of Hippo, Confessions [books 1-10]

David James Duncan, The River Why

Shusako Endo, Silence

Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha,

Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light

Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X

I would like to add another text (and perhaps replace Duncan, though it’s a phenomenal book), one authored by a woman, because the list is a little dude-heavy at the moment. Being thoroughly embedded in an androcentric/patriarchal atmosphere, I have not been able to think of another good woman’s conversion narrative (preferably penned by a woman) that I’d like to include, and so I’m asking for help. Do you have any that come to mind?

Jacques Derrida, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Human-Animal Distinction in the Song of Songs

Just yesterday I received the welcome news that my submission to the Animals and Religion consultation at the 2010 AAR in Atlanta was accepted. I’ll be presenting the paper at a session entitled “Thinking Animals, Rethinking Theology: Abrahamic and Indigenous Traditions.” I’m very excited for the opportunity to present my thoughts and looking forward to the ensuing conversation. The proposal which was accepted is below:

Though it is an undeniably erotic text, Solomon’s Song of Songs is also undeniably strange. In large part, the text’s strangeness is attributable to its enthusiastically zoological imagery, which strikes contemporary readers as anything but erotic. The very metaphors praising the bodily beauty of a woman and a man and celebrating their union simultaneously release an abundance of flapping, leaping, grazing animals into the space between two naked human bodies. These animals—doves, deer, sheep, horses, goats—pervade the imagery of the Song to the extent that animal bodies are caught up in the erotic interaction of the two lovers and animal eyes seem to peek through every look of longing.

The fourth-century Christian bishop Gregory of Nyssa found this canonical text no less strange than we do on account of both its sexually explicit content and its disconcerting animal metaphors. Nevertheless, Gregory lauds the Song of Songs above every other text in Scripture for setting forth the profoundest wisdom for prayer and ascetic contemplation. Gregory’s reading depends upon a powerful sublating hermeneutic which transforms the Song’s erotic energy into the driving impulse for a spiritual ascent. His Commentary on the Song of Songs presents the fruit of an assiduous attention to the many figurative valences latent in every image and a careful effort to explain the manner in which the cumulative effect of this imagery elicits the reader’s desire for God. Remarkably, however, despite Gregory’s vigorous distaste for any carnal understanding of the Song—readily visible in oft-repeated warnings—the animals of the Song populate Gregory’s higher meaning no less pervasively than its literal level, and indeed take on an even greater theological role.

Reading Jacques Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I am alongside Gregory’s Commentary on the Song of Songs provides a critical lens through which to explore the human-animal distinction in Gregory’s theology. Derrida’s text traces an “immense disavowal” of the animal in the Western philosophical tradition wherein all the differences between animals are discarded in favor of a single catch-all category—“the animal.” Politically, the maneuver to sum up all animals in a single term underwrites a notion of human exceptionalism (“the human” over against “the animal”), and justifies regimes of maltreatment, modification, restrictive confinement, over-production, and slaughter. Derrida summons Descartes, Kant, Lacan, Heidegger, and Levinas as exemplary theoretical offenders.

There is no shortage of reasons to see Gregory’s allegorical treatment of animals in the Song of Songs as part and parcel of this same trajectory of disavowal—the impulse to spiritual sublation has rarely worked to the advantage of animals. Nevertheless, Gregory’s relationship to animals is more complex than would initially appear. I argue that although Gregory labors to disavow “the animal” (as a single bounded set) in his interpretation of the Song of Songs, particular animals continue to creep back into his text through gaps in the fence he erects, troubling the purity that Gregory is laboring toward. The re-entry of the animal into Gregory’s text, I argue, is inevitable and necessary, not simply because of the presence of animal metaphors within the text under his consideration, but more significantly, because of the ineradicable function of (animal) desire within Gregory’s understanding of theological exegesis and spiritual ascent. Thus, Gregory adopts the blurred lines between humans and animals in the text of the Song of Songs within his own spiritual exegesis because doing so sheds light on the contemplative path of the Christian in a way that would be impossible were his disavowal of the animal more thorough.

The first part of my paper examines the complex of shame, exposure, modesty, nakedness, and clothing (one of many lines along which the human-animal distinction is cut, and a theme central to Derrida’s text), querying the nakedness of the bride in the Song relative to the nakedness of the animals which mediate the description of her body. I ask whether the bride is naked as an animal, naked as an animal, or actually naked at all. Gregory’s squeamish allegorizing hastily weaves a cover for the bride’s nudity, but she is still exposed in and through the animal imagery that describes her contours.

The second part focuses on the distinguishing human “proper” of reason and speech (logos for Gregory). While Gregory differentiates humans from animals (the alogoi) on the basis of their capacity for reason, in the economy of Gregory’s theological exegesis and in his account of spiritual ascent, reason is actually secondary to the faculty of desire that pervades human and animal life alike. The text of the Song of Songs functions anagogically (that is, one layer of its meaning leads the reader toward God) precisely because it incites a propulsive desire within the reader that motivates and focuses her contemplation. Likewise, on the path of spiritual ascent, the Christian’s ever-increasing desire for God carries him beyond any comprehension of reason or language. Thus, for Gregory, (animal) desire finally outstrips discursive rationality in its theological importance, calling into the question the purity of his initial distinction between the human and the animal.

The third part takes up an ethical/political question from Derrida’s text: What happens to the fraternity among brothers (or alternately, relations in human society) when an animal enters the room? I argue that the presence of animals in the text of the Song is what launches Gregory’s theological interpretation in the first place (because the literal reading remains woefully inadequate). Paradoxically, it is the pervasiveness of animal imagery within this erotic poem that opens the text up for an allegorical reading that excises the “animal” content of straightforward sexuality. Thus, on Gregory’s reading, the bride and bridegroom loosen their sexually passionate embrace, and instead are bound up in the intimacies of prayer, forgiveness, and spiritual transformation. The presence of the animal in the text marks an excess that allows for the attempted erasure of the “animal” in the human. Finally, however, insofar as Gregory’s disavowal is incomplete, his gesture imaginatively endues animals with spiritual agency—the dove with her longing eye and the deer leaping across the hills in pursuit of the divine.

In the end, Gregory cannot banish animals from his interpretation of the Song while at the same time sublating the generative power of its metaphors. Gregory succeeds only in folding the animal into the human; redeeming the animal by directing its energy. Equally, the obverse is true, that the human has been folded into the animal whose drives are powerful and determinative. At any rate, what remains are spiritual animals—with equal stress falling on both words. Over the course of Gregory’s Commentary on the Song of Songs the “proper” traits of humans and animals (nakedness, shame, clothing, reason, language, passion, desire) lose the precision whereby they mark a hermetic and exclusive distinction between animals and “the human.” The animals creep in the backdoor of Gregory’s commentary, undermining his disavowal by showing themselves to be integral to the highest human good that he can conceive.

On Footnoting the Holocaust :: Poor Taste

I was reading two books yesterday (not at the same time, though that would be a nice skill to develop). In a striking bit of serendipity, the one book denounced the other. I suppose that this is the reader’s version of the “small-world” encounter in which a total stranger turns out to know all your best friends.

At any rate, it was the tone of the denunciation that caught my attention as being particularly tacky. Robert Jenson, in a footnote, warns about Marcionism as a particularly dangerous form of idolatry, and then adduces the Nazi regime as a particularly virulent example of this idolatry. So far so good. He then appends one more sentence suggesting that the “apostasy” of those who speak of God/ess (which is, of course, primarily Rosemary Radford Ruether—whose Sexism and God-Talk I’d just finished) is no less serious, and presupposes no less thorough a rejection of Israel’s scriptures than that of the Third Reich.

Unfortunately, even if someone wants to make the argument that Ruether has traveled beyond the bounds of orthodoxy in speaking of God/ess, it’s unhelpful to ascribe a rejection of the Hebrew scriptures to someone whose writings are quite full of appreciative references  to those scriptures. Further, when making mention of the holocaust in a footnote, it ought to be universally agreeable that one ought to avoid mentioning contemporary colleagues as guilty of the same theological errors. Even polemic theology ought to strive for a charitable measure of accuracy; this is slander, not dialogue.

The unjustified vitriol was particularly disappointing to me because on any given page, I’m much more likely to find myself in agreement with Jenson than Ruether (gender issues excepted). I’ve also seen Jenson handle similar slander with dignity and good-humor, so I had hopes that he was less likely to dish it out.

Avatar and Eco-Theology :: Body and Mind

Below are the substance of the comments I gave to kick off the conversation as a part of a panel with Monica Schaap Pierce and Elizabeth Johnson on Avatar and ecological theology:

Two rhetorical questions:

How many of the nearly 7 billion people in the world would you say don’t know that the earth is in ecological crisis for which humans are largely responsible—that is, don’t know about extinctions, pollution, and unprecedented major changes in the oceans, atmosphere, and soil?

[Not many]

How many, on the other hand, don’t care, or at least live as if they do not care?

[A considerably larger number!]

If it is true that many, many more people know about the ecological crisis than care enough to change, then the problem is not a matter of a lack of information—though new and better information always helps. The problem is much more a matter of the will and of a moral failure. And this failure is where Avatar and ecological theology meet—in pointing out that too many of us are living with our moral vision grounded in the wrong story. Both Avatar and ecological theology are concerned with the story we are living in—a story centered on consumption and self-fulfillment—and both are concerned with proposing an alternate story, a different way of living. Living in the frame of a different story leads to a different way of seeing the world, and a different way of seeing leads to a different way of acting.

Before we go deeper into Avatar using the thought-tools that theologians use to think about the Christian story, I want to take a look behind the story of Avatar.

So far, my favorite critical comment about the movie points to a deep irony: “Only in America is it possible to spend $400 million dollars producing and marketing a film that denounces the evils of capitalism and the neo-colonial political economy.” That is to say, that while Avatar’s story may open a few hearts and minds to our ecological crisis, in many ways the movie is also a symptom of the very disease it diagnoses. The $250 billion dollars people have spent to see the movie (and I’ve contributed twice in preparation for our conversation) indicate that a lot of people have driven to the mall and spent $12 to huddle together for three hours wearing cheap pairs of petroleum-based 3-D glasses assembled and shipped by people working long hours for little pay. Many of these viewers munched popcorn and sucked down soda made mostly from corn-products grown in endless square miles of mono-culture fields where other species have been driven out by the use of millions of gallons of petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, which subsequently drain off into the rivers and oceans. In short, both producing and consuming Avatar looks a lot like digging deeper into the very unobtanium mine we’re supposed to deplore. And the vast majority of us are willing to ignore that material backstory because we are all addicted to our way of life. Yes, every connotation of the word addiction is intended.

Ok. That was a little heavy. But our ability to entertain our minds with a story projected on a screen, all the while ignoring the material backstory of the whole scene is exactly what I want to focus on. The story of Avatar relies on a deep division, what theologians call a dualism, between mind and body; that is, it relies on the notion that minds and bodies are separable in some way.

When Jake Sully climbs into the pod and the link is forged between his broken human body and the Na’vi avatar body, his mind or soul (for this talk, I’m going to equate the two) leaves one body and travels to another. And the way we see the story, when Jake’s mind leaves one body and goes to another, he leaves one body and goes to another. But it is not just the space-traveling human beings who have this technology. The movie ends with Jake permanently moving out of one body and into the other by traveling “through the eye of Eywa” by means of the ritual and prayer of the whole Na’vi people on his behalf. Jake is thus born again, and he discards his broken, scarred, and polluted earthly body in order to take up residence in a pristine, ecologically sound Na’vi body. In this story, Jake’s mind can occupy either body, but it can only occupy one body, and therefore, somehow it is separable from both bodies.

I’m not going to spend my time criticizing Avatar for this mind-body dualism; not only is most religious criticism of movies unproductive, it also ends up sounding kind of whiney. Instead, I want to use Avatar as a mirror. The focus of my comments is to ask why the story of this dualism is the story that James Cameron wants to tell us, and why we find the story both compelling and plausible. I am more interested in why this story works for us, why we are convinced without even a second thought when we see this mind-body dualism. I think that the fact that Avatar works so well as a story for us reveals something about us, something about the way that we think about minds and bodies and the connection between them. Now, it’s time for two surprising suggestions:

1)     Avatar works for those of us who live in late-capitalist Western culture because we inhabit one of the most dualistic human cultures that has ever existed.

2)     Christian theology has the resources to address and overturn this dualistic thinking, even though it is partly responsible for it in the first place.

We like to think that we who are living today—especially we Americans—are realistic, well-educated about the way the “real world” works in contrast to the superstitious and unscientific people of history. Are we really less dualistic, however? We live in a world where the domain of the mind is (for better and for worse) is further and further divorced and abstracted from the domain of bodies. Two relevant examples:

1)     Today, while we may not worry about ghosts or spend time keeping evil spirits from bringing the plague, we live in fear concerning the movements of a different spirit, whether it is going up or down, where it is strong, where it is weak, whom it favors, whom it does not. We call this spirit “the Market,” and it is amazing how people will leap into action when they think that the Market is on the move. There are many people (and many Fordham grads) whose job it is to anticipate the movements of the market in order to decide about where millions of dollars should go—into Euros, Yen, Dollars, or Deutschmarks; into stocks or bonds. And when this money flies all over the globe, no one sees it, no one touches it, no one has a handle on it. Yet, the consequences of these decisions, of sending this invisible money to one place versus another, (consequences, by the way, that are never visible to the person making the decision) might be hundreds of people losing or finding jobs, thousands of acres of forest cleared for a new “development,” or millions of gallons of water used in the manufacturing process of another device or trinket. The point here, is that the material level (the level of bodies, dirt, water, and trees) and the mental level (the level of minds, souls, decisions, etc.) are almost entirely invisible to each other. They almost never meet directly. We have a really hard time thinking about the material level and the mental level at the same time. And because we don’t see the Market and the forest at the same time, we often end up sacrificing the forest to the market, which is why one theologian argues that “Economics supasses theology as a docetic [that is, a dualistic] science” (Rasmussen, 116).

2)     For a second example, isn’t the internet the perfect paradigm for our dualism? Here is an endless domain of the mind, a mental playground where very important things are always happening. Who is friending, de-friending, re-friending, or changing their relationship status now? What new snarky comment is appearing on someone’s blog? Do I have new email? I’m not claiming special righteousness here, not presuming to be a judge. What I do want to note, however, is how much the mental playground of the internet is totally abstracted from the material level that supports it. In order to sustain this perpetual phantasmagoria of the mind, a huge material investment is required, and that material investment remains largely invisible to us. The electricity to run these computers comes from coal mines, oil wells, huge hydro-electric dams, or nuclear power plants. The metal bits in your computer and in the telecommunications cables come from mines like the one in Avatar, and end up in huge toxic heaps. And most obviously, there are hours upon hours of time in which our bodies sit passively (at most, munching or fidgeting) while minds flit here and there through the ether. And while our minds are occupied flitting and flirting on facebook, another creature—the last of its species—breathes its final breath, another thousand gallons of industrial run-off pours out into a river, and what little ecological integrity remains stands vulnerable without political protection. Again, the level of the mind (the level at which we interact with the internet) and the level of the body (the material story behind the internet) are almost entirely separated, almost entirely invisible to each other.

And so, I would argue, that in our culture, the interests of bodies (using the term “bodies” very loosely here) are almost always subordinated to the pathologies of our minds. Our mind-body dualism is the reason that the mind-body dualism essential to the plot of Avatar doesn’t even make us bat an eye. It’s not odd to us because we live in it and we live it out every day. Avatar is our fantasy. But our dualism, the ability to hold minds and bodies apart, is proving fatally toxic to God’s creation.

My second suggestion is that Christian theology has the resources to respond to and overturn this dualism, despite a long history of emphasizing souls over bodies, and separating the spiritual from the material. Unfortunately, I can only give the briefest sketch of these resources. Take a theology course, or become a major to learn more.

Whenever the Bible talks about the place of final redemption—what Christians have come to call “heaven”—it uses very earthy pictures—feasts, parties, rivers, mountains, gardens. In fact, perhaps the clearest description is found in Revelation 21, in which “a new heaven and a new earth” is the place where perfect fellowship is finally restored. But this “new heaven and new earth,” quite clearly is not some perfect planet light-years away like Pandora. It is this very earth under our feet redeemed and changed, to be sure, but this very earth on which God intends to dwell with God’s beloved creatures. For this reason one theologian says, “heaven is great, but it’s not the end of the world!” (N.T. Wright).

Likewise, and closer to my central point, the very clearest picture of redemption is the resurrected body of Jesus—which Christians have always held dear as a promise of the resurrection of these bodies (redeemed and changed, to be sure), but these bodies. What I want you to notice, though, is that Jesus’ wounds aren’t gone. The resurrected body of Jesus is not the mind of Jesus in a new, blue, 9 foot tall, 115 pound supermodel’s dream. No, Jesus carries his wounds, body and mind together, into redemption; the body is made new, made whole, but not in such a way that the old scars are left behind, or forgotten.

And so, I suggest, that for Christian theologians, the way that we wound and scar the planet we live on matters profoundly. God may redeem these wounds, it is true, but we will continue to live in them, and live with them in the life that is eternal. Christian salvation, then, is not the end of the material story in the final triumph of the souls over bodies, but the final marriage in which the dualism between bodies and souls is overcome.

Avatar and Eco-theology

On Thursday of this week (the 25th) I’ll be sitting on a panel discussion of Avatar with Elizabeth Johnson and fellow graduate student Monica Schaap Pierce. We’ll be talking about the religious themes in the movie and about intersections with contemporary ecological theology.

I’m planning on drawing out the mind-body dualism that is essential to the plot of the film (i.e. Jake Sully, or Jake’s mind/soul, spends the entire movie traveling in between two different bodies). Rather than simply criticize the movie on this point—like shooting fish in a barrel, to use a decidedly un-ecological metaphor—I’m going to suggest that the fact that this plot works so well most of us don’t even bat an eye reveals more about us than about James Cameron. From day to day, we live in and live out a mind-body dualism at least as pronounced as the one depicted in the film. So, I’ll draw out some of the negative consequences of this dualism for creation, and suggest that Christian theology—while complicit in many ways as a source of this dualism—has the resources to respond to and overcome modes of thinking  that privilege minds/souls at the expense of bodies.

The event is intended to attract interest for undergraduate theology courses and to push those students considering a theology major over the brink. There will be free discussion after our comments and free pizza to nourish the hungry. I’m quite curious to see what direction the conversation will go. If you are on campus, consider dropping by Keating Hall, room 124 at 12 pm.

I’ll post the text of my comments after the event.

reading groups in the sanctorum communio :: Grenz on Tillich

A few years ago, Stan Grenz passed away, and for reasons which remain unknown to me large portions of his theological and philosophical library was put up for sale in the Regent College library. Most of his books were sold for a dollar or two; I remember picking up his copy of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind for 75¢. I picked up as many of these volumes as I could, partly because of my respect for Grenz, partly because he had a damn fine theological library.

This week, reading Grenz’s copy of Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology (a first edition hard-cover from 1951), I was treated to the joy of reading along with Grenz. I never had the chance to meet him in person, but I think I’ve gotten to know him a little bit by reading Tillich in his footsteps.

His underlining is sparse but very even-handed (he almost certainly used a straightedge), and his marginal notes are even more rare. He captures the key passages with a marginal bracket around the text, and seems to be, so far as I can tell, a very careful reader.  Strikingly, he never once expressed disagreement with Tillich through his notation, though there were plenty of passages that Grenz surely found objectionable. Of course I found myself spending a little extra time mulling over passages which he emphasized, looking for some meaning that I’d missed on my first pass.

He never intended it, but he found another way to guide my reading—a unexpected legacy for which I’m the grateful heir.