Animals as Religious Subjects: A Transdisciplinary Conference

I’ve been very much looking forward to the upcoming conference (taking place May 21-24 at St. Deiniol’s Library, Wales) on Animals as Religious Subjects. The conference is being organized by Celia Deane Drummond of Chester University. Her book, co-edited with David Clough, Creaturely Theology, is well worth reading if you are interested in the subject.

A few weeks ago, I received the good news that my paper proposal was accepted. The abstract that I submitted is below:

‘Marvel at the intelligence of unthinking creatures!’: Animal Subjectivity and Religious Perfection in Gregory of Nazianzus and Nemesius of Emesa

What generates the collective intuition (or instinct?) that humans are religious subjects while fellow creatures are not? Is it more than parochial hubris?

My paper examines the interplay of subjectivity and instinct in order to argue that, for Gregory of Nazianzus and Nemesius of Emesa the perfected mode of religious subjectivity is structurally identical to the instinctual “subjectivity” of animals (a subjectivity nevertheless disavowed), such that the subject approaching God becomes more ‘animal’ not less.

Answering the claim that bees and ants rationally arrange their societies for the benefit of each and all, Gregory and Nemesius quickly explain away this apparent rationality by externalizing the source of this animal behavior. Each argues that the creative Logos of God implants instincts for rational behavior within ‘irrational animals.’ God’s wisdom is on display, not the faculties of these creatures. Gregory and Nemesius thus inscribe the gap between human beings and other animals as the difference of discursive rationality and freedom: the human is free and reflective while other animals act on instinct. The instinctual behavior of animals appears rational because they are acting out the implanted rationality of God, not because they possess reason.

Interestingly, however, when each of these authors turns to describe the proper goal of human life (approaching God through disciplined contemplation)—a calling in which humans are supposedly most differentiated from other animals—they describe a mode of subjectivity indistinguishable from that of the beasts ‘left in the dust.’ The perfected human being has so ordered her life through contemplation and discipline that her whole being aligns with the Logos of God. With nary a second thought, the divine Logos pervades her disposition, desire, and behavior because any resistance from her personal, subjective logos has been abandoned. One might say that God’s Logos has become her own most native and natural instinct. Two questions follow: What difference remains between this perfected religious subjectivity and the instinctual subjectivity of other animals? If the difference is not categorical, what remains of that purportedly exclusive possession of humankind—a religious subjectivity with an independent rationality? Is it more than parochial hubris?

The Hippopotamus

It just might be the case that T.S. Eliot beat me to my dissertation by about 90 years. Here is a poem published in 1920:

The Hippopotamus — T.S. Eliot

THE broad-backed hippopotamus
Rests on his belly in the mud;
Although he seems so firm to us
He is merely flesh and blood.

Flesh-and-blood is weak and frail,
Susceptible to nervous shock;
While the True Church can never fail
For it is based upon a rock.

The hippo’s feeble steps may err
In compassing material ends,
While the True Church need never stir
To gather in its dividends.

The ‘potamus can never reach
The mango on the mango-tree;
But fruits of pomegranate and peach
Refresh the Church from over sea.

At mating time the hippo’s voice
Betrays inflexions hoarse and odd,
But every week we hear rejoice
The Church, at being one with God.

The hippopotamus’s day
Is passed in sleep; at night he hunts;
God works in a mysterious way–
The Church can sleep and feed at once.

I saw the ‘potamus take wing
Ascending from the damp savannas,
And quiring angels round him sing
The praise of God, in loud hosannas.

Blood of the Lamb shall wash him clean
And him shall heavenly arms enfold,
Among the saints he shall be seen
Performing on a harp of gold.

He shall be washed as white as snow,
By all the martyr’d virgins kist,
While the True Church remains below
Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.


Eliot works out a fantastic reversal over the course of the poem. As Mary Midgley (whose book Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature led me to Eliot’s poem) points out, we have a tendency to think about animals in their actual behavior  and humans in their ideal behavior. Hippopotami are bloated, awkward, and fartsome, while human beings intone immaculate hallelujahs.

By the end of the poem, however, the rarified hubris of the pure Church has turned to an isolating fog. Building a community, or a spirituality on the principle of excluding the animal (whether one’s own human animality or the animal others whom we meet face to face) may also thwart God’s love, which bends to bodies as bloated and fartsome as our own.

Animality and the Word of God :: John 1:1-4

I have been dwelling for quite some time at the boundary between humans and animals, thinking through the way that this boundary is imagined and presented, and especially thinking through the way that this boundary is infused with theological significance or drawn in theological terms.

This afternoon I was reading through Derrida’s final seminar (now published as The Beast and the Sovereign) and in the 12th session of that seminar came a discussion of the first chapters of both Genesis and the Gospel of John. Of course, both of these texts are heavily freighted so far as the relationships among God, humans, and other animals are concerned. Derrida’s circuitous thinking inspired a (theologically loaded) translation of John 1:1-4 that I’d like to try out (significant elements italicized).

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν. ὃ γέγονεν ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν, καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων· καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν.

“In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. This word was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through this word, and apart from this word not one thing came to be. That which came to be by this word was animality, and this animality was the light of humanity. The light appeared in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Now, clearly this is pushing the usual semantic range of ζωὴ, at least as we are accustomed to hearing it. Still, I think that this translation has some merit.

Etymologically, ζωὴ [life] is the animating force of the ζωόν [living being, animal]. ζωὴ is emphatically not something that is exclusive property of human beings, but is the animating force in which both humans and animals are alive. Classically, when someone comes to define just what it is that an ἀνθρωπος [human] is, being human is described as being some kind or another of ζωόν [animal] (for two famous examples, ζωόν πολιτικόν [the political animal], ζωόν λογον εχων [the animal having speech/reason/discourse]. ζωὴ, then, is a necessary element of being human, but can’t belong to humanity alone.

Furthermore, John is most certainly quoting and riffing on Genesis here. The λόγος [word] is clearly the speech of Elohim, at which all creation emerges (not just the human mode of being).

All that to say, to imagine that the life of which John speaks here is something that belongs only to human beings precisely as human beings (e.g. a “spiritual” life that has nothing to do with animals) is a stunning bit of prejudice. The life which is the light of humanity is not a life that excludes, or comes in distinction from the life which is the life of animals. In order to reinforce this point, we might remember the oft-made point that the λόγος becomes σὰρξ [flesh] in order to dwell among us, not (literally, at least) ἀνθρωπος [human].

If this line of reading is viable, then one of the first things that we need to theologically reconfigure is the significance of God’s λόγος, and of God’s being as λόγος.

Traditionally, in both Greek philosophy and much of the Christian tradition, among creatures λόγος  has been an exclusive property of humanity, and a direct connection with God which excludes all other creatures. The human is rational, articulate, speaking, discursive [all valid translations] whereas other creatures are not. This is so much the case, that one can name the class of living beings which are not humans (every non-human living being that falls under the label “animal”) simply by saying “ὁι ἀλογοι” [those who lack λόγος].

Now, if the divine λόγος can be thought as animating creatures other that humans as Genesis and John perhaps suggest, then using λόγος as the boundary that divides humanity from all other creatures is a stunning bit of hubristic appropriation. To claim λόγος as something that belongs to us and to us alone is to cut ourselves off from the rest of creation, and perhaps, from God’s presence to the rest of creation.

I can’t and won’t argue it out here in full (beyond what I’ve already tried to indicate in John’s text), but I’m laboring to work out a theological thesis. Namely, that it is the concern to foster and defend an exclusively human λόγος (our own rationality, our own speech, our own mode of thought) which actually cuts us off from the divine λόγος which is present in animals (and everything that has come to be). The “rationality” which we imagine as the dividing line between “us” humans and “them” animals is also the pathology that cuts us off from God’s activity in and for creation. Our autonomous λόγος is not the opposite of, but is precisely the expression of our παθος. In (my [per]version of) John’s terms, the darkness that cannot and will not overcome the light is the autonomous human λόγος that cannot and will not eradicate the ζωὴ [life, both animal and human] which is God’s work.

Salvation, then, would be imagined not as a process whereby one’s animality (desire, lust, embodiment, etc.) is overcome and abandoned in an approach to God (who is perceived the opposite of all of these things), but rather as a forsaking of the autonomous human λόγος (which can only end in death) for the life-giving λόγος of God. Perhaps the λόγος of God saves human beings by integrating them more deeply into the life [ζωὴ] which is the life of all creation. Perhaps becoming a child of God (John 1.12) entails becoming more animal rather than less.

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.

NAPS 2010

I received some good news in the last week. My proposal to the “Rhetoric of Heaven” section was accepted, so I’ll be presenting a paper at NAPS in Chicago this coming May. Here’s the abstract that I submitted:

Gregory of Nyssa’s Bodies: Human, Animal, and Celestial

Inhabiting the boundary between heaven and earth, the human body is the site of intense scrutiny in Gregory of Nyssa’s De hominis opificio. The task of understanding the human body necessitates concomitant inquiry into the nature of animal and celestial bodies in order to see more clearly the differences and similarities that constitute humanity’s liminal nature. My paper argues that Gregory is concerned with the “making of the human” not only in terms of an etiological reading of Genesis, but also that Gregory himself “makes the human” in relation to animals and angels, and that in the process Gregory has a strong theological investment in the conceptual construction of animal and celestial bodies.

In a close reading of De hominis opificio that draws on the research of Sarah Coakley and J. Warren Smith among others, my paper proceeds in four sections—the first considering the formal and functional implications of the divine image in human flesh (and its absence in the flesh of animals); the second examines the material difference that the image of God makes in human flesh, and the physio/logical construction of human flesh over against animal bodies. The third section inquires into the eschatology of human flesh and the double function of desire as both bestial and angelic. Paradoxically for Gregory, the very structure of desire that is shared with the animals constitutes the propulsive drive by which humans are drawn along the trajectory of spiritual ascent to join the celestial crowds in God’s praise (albeit animal desire in a sublimated form). Finally, the fourth section determines more precisely how Gregory’s theological investment in human uniqueness guides the contours of his construction of bestial and angelic bodies vis-à-vis the human in De hominis opificio.

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

Here’s the introduction from one of my term papers (my favorite of the semester) to let you in on what I’ve been mulling over lately:

Among several theses advanced over the course of his text, The Animal that Therefore I Am, Derrida argues that the history of writing can be divided into two classes: writers who have seen and been seen by an animal, and those who have never been addressed in this way.[1] “Being seen” signifies a recognition of the impenetrable difference of the animal without, on the basis of that difference dismissing the gaze of an animal as an other with no claim. Suffice it to say, he does not find the latter class to be an expansive tradition. “For thinking concerning the animal, if there is such a thing, derives from poetry. There you have a thesis: it is what philosophy has, essentially, had to deprive itself of. It is the difference between philosophical knowledge and poetic thinking.”[2] The poetic imagination, in contrast to the philosopher’s, has from time to time had the courage to stand in the gaze of the animal and to write as one who is seen. The “immense disavowal” of the animals’ gaze on the part of the philosophic tradition has enabled philosophers of all stripes to lump all animals together in a single undifferentiated term, “animal,” washing over tremendous differences for the sake of a convenient category for non-human creatures.[3] The presumption that Derrida calls into question is that the difference between humans and animals is such that a single, clean line can be drawn, leaving “the animal” on one side (in all the multiplied differences among animals) and “the human” on the other. Of course, this clean distinction between “the human” and “the animal” has borne profound conceptual and political ramifications—enabling the construction of notions of utter human uniqueness and justifying instrumental regimes of domestication, production, experimentation, exploitation, and habitat encroachment which subject animals, often ruthlessly, to larger human projects.[4]

The Christian theological tradition has played no small part in constructing the human-animal distinction as we know it and has brought a substantial ideological investment—particularly in the notion that human beings are uniquely created in the image of God—to the task of differentiating human beings from “the animal” in a thoroughgoing manner.[5] There is no shortage of examples of theologians participating in the “immense disavowal” that Derrida imputes to the philosophic tradition.[6] Nevertheless, there are perhaps resources (resources which may have remained hidden from Derrida’s sight) within the theological tradition for the subversion (or deconstruction) of this powerful (main)stream of thought at the foundation of Western cultural and political edifices. Continue reading “Gregory of Nyssa, Jacques Derrida, the Song of Songs, and the Human-Animal Distinction”