Inner Animalities: Theology and the End of the Human

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Posted at AUFS–please leave any comments there.

My book, Inner Animalities: Theology and the End of the Human, was released by Fordham University Press today (here it is at amazon). The excerpt that follows is from the introduction and describes the central theme of the book: the problem of human animality. The first half of the book holds critical readings of the problem of human animality in the texts of two fourth-century authors (Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus) and a host of contemporary theologians. The second half of the book holds constructive reworking of human animality in major theological themes such as the image of God, sin and redemption, and eschatological transformation.  

The Problem of Human Animality

The mainstream of the Christian theological tradition has been committed to some version of a categorical distinction between human beings and all other animals. When that categorical distinction collides with two other thoughts—the undeniable commonality of human and nonhuman animal life, and the Christian commitment to the fundamental unity of the human being—this long-standing commitment to anthropological exceptionalism generates what I call the “problem of human animality.” Holding these three convictions together in the Christian theological tradition has produced a wide range of strategies to control and contain human animality, competing solutions to a common problem. The manifest commonality of human life with the lives of other animals in embodiment, nutrition, mortality, and reproduction is obvious enough, but a few more comments may elucidate the dogmatic Christian commitment to the fundamental unity and integrity of the human being as a creature.

Leaning on Greco-Roman philosophy, the Christian tradition is replete with anthropologies that divide up human beings into parts. There have been contentious arguments over the boundaries between human soul, spirit, body, concupiscence, reason, and passion, among others. Some of these parts have been more closely associated with animality than others. Nevertheless, for all their talk of parts, Christian theologians have generally affirmed the ultimate integrity of the human being. The human being whom God saves is the whole human being, no matter how many subdivisions have been conceptually generated. Theologians who have tried to sustain a fundamental division in the human person (so that, for example, the human body is a temporary provision and only the human soul spends eternity with God) have been strongly censured. Internal divisions within the human being function within Christian theology as heuristic devices or means of exhortation, rather than a fault line along which a human being could hypothetically be divided. Thus, although proper humanity and human animality can be distinguished within theological anthropology, most Christian theologians are committed—at least in principle—to holding them together in accounts of creation, redemption, and eschatological transformation.

Maintaining that human beings are categorically unique among God’s creatures in the face of this commitment to the integrity of the human being and the manifest commonality of human life with the lives of other animals requires careful conceptual navigation, particularly around human animality. Any theology which has generated a concept of humanity by means of contrast with nonhuman animals must tread lightly around questions of human animality so that the experiences of creaturely life that human beings share with other animals do not undermine anthropological exceptionalism. A theologically validated difference-in-kind between human beings and other animals is simple enough: despite the characteristics that human beings share with other creatures, God sets human beings apart in some way (an immortal or rational soul, for example) so that human beings can be neatly separated out from all the others. The conceptual boundary between humanity and animality within a human being, however, is never quite so tidy. To illustrate, if human beings are taken to be uniquely rational, then the irrational aspects of human life (particularly irrational urges or behaviors shared with other animals) seem to undermine anthropological exceptionalism and require some discursive strategy of explanation or management. These strategies render animality peripheral and inessential to human life so that the theologically underwritten uniqueness remains the most important thing about being human. Human animality is variously explained, ignored, sublimated, obscured, sacrificed, or negated in order to preserve humanity’s unique status before God and basic creaturely integrity. The problem of human animality is an abyss over which theological anthropology has been trained to leap. The leap has been made so many times that we often fail to recognize it. Human animality is the abjected remainder of the human being, the shadow of proper humanity’s ascent to the glory of God. Carefully tracking the movements of human animality within theological anthropology, in other words, reveals constitutive tensions and contradictions in theological discourse that otherwise remain invisible.

The intrahuman division between humanity and animality is, of course, laden with judgments of value. Humanity names a set of cherished and accepted behaviors, values, and traits; while animality names a corresponding set that is generally subject to discipline and restriction. In most accounts, God’s grace works to amplify the humanity of human beings and, simultaneously, to attenuate human animality. “Proper humanity” does not just designate one part of the human being; by expressing what is truly or authentically human, it also provides a normative ideal. “Animality,” then, designates the subordinate aspect of human life that must be modulated, controlled, or redirected in order to conform more fully to proper humanity. In the following chapters, I use the terms humanity and proper humanity to refer to this regulatory conception of authentic humanness. I use the term human beings to refer to the psychosomatic creatures whose lives are regulated and formed by humanity.

This book approaches the problem of human animality with two goals in mind. First, I seek to analyze and expose the ways in which dealing with the problem of human animality has left constitutive contradictions and tensions in the fabric of Christian theological anthropology. The maneuvers that sideline human animality are often hastily executed along the way to loftier ideas, so that animality returns in some unnamed way to play an unrecognized but essential role in a theologian’s account of humanity. Second, and more constructively, I want to demonstrate that anthropological exceptionalism is unnecessary for Christian theology. In other words, I want to resolve the problem of human animality, not with a newer and better strategy for subordinating and managing our common creatureliness, but by offering a theological account of human life centered the aspects of creaturely life that human beings share with nonhuman neighbors, that is, an account that abandons the categorical distinction between human beings and all other animals. In fact, at the very point where most theological anthropology disavows and subordinates animality, there is very often an opening toward a different path, a way to think differently about our common creatureliness. It is possible to start over, beginning again out of the irresolvable tensions that result from efforts to cut off humanity from animality in order to go a different route. In this way, the constructive work of the book grows out of the critical work that precedes it.

At the level of the trees, this book is about the relations between humanity and animality in Christian theology—what might be called the “textual ecology” of Christian theological anthropology. At the level of the forest, it is about ecology in a broader sense, a search for some adequate way to respond to the catastrophic degradation of the earth’s ecosystems. The question that gave rise to the project as a whole is this: What prevents Christianity from generating sustained and effective resistance to ecological degradation? The longer I mulled the question, the more deeply I became convinced that the answer lay in the deep narratives of theological anthropology, where narrow ideas about the image of God, sin and redemption, and the eschatological destiny of the redeemed generate and sustain forms of human self-understanding that separate and subordinate animality. Insofar as the conceptual relationship between proper humanity and human animality comes to structure concrete interactions between human beings and other animals (and, by proxy, nature/creation as a whole) the problem of human animality is a knot at the center of Christianity’s inadequate resistance to anthropogenic ecological degradation in its myriad forms (climate change, mass extinction, loss of biodiversity, pollution). Research into the problem of human animality not only promises a new line of analysis for theological anthropology, but also a novel approach to ecological theology.

 

2017 Books

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.

Fiction/Literature 

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.

Ancient/Medieval texts 

Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Lord’s Prayer, 30.

Gregory of Nyssa, Great Catechism, 100.

Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on Ecclesiastes, 60.

 

Book/Chapter Announcement: Divinanimality: Animal Theory, Creaturely Theology

Divinanimality Cover

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.

2014 Books

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.

Science:

E.O. Wilson, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth.

Fiction/Literature:

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.

Self-Help/Self-sabotage:

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.

The Bible and Posthumanism: Book/Chapter Announcement

Bible and Posthumanism Cover

Some readers may be interested in a recently published book—The Bible and Posthumanism, edited by Jennifer Koosed. The volume includes an essay of mine entitled “Gregory of Nyssa and Jacques Derrida on the Human-Animal Distinction in the Song of Songs.” I have yet to read through the whole book, but I am especially looking forward to essays from Denise Kimber Buell, Stephen Moore, and Benjamin Dunning. I’m particularly honored that my essay sits directly next to Ben Dunning’s insofar as his intellectual generosity and meticulously patient criticism have played an unparalleled role in my own thinking, writing, and research at Fordham.

Here’s an excerpt that provides a sense for the essay’s argument:

Thinking with Derrida, I argue that Gregory’s discourse on animality remains irresolvably conflicted. Although he labors toward it, Gregory’s theology cannot finally abide a categorical distinction between humanity and animality. The theological anthropology informing Gregory’s anagogical exegesis of the Song of Songs “short-circuits” so that human animality is necessary to reach the deepest meaning of Scripture and the summits of spiritual ascent, despite Gregory’s more explicit claims that spiritual transformation entails the transcendence of humanity beyond animality. Animality remains integral to Gregory’s reading of the Song of Songs, not simply because of the pervasive animal metaphors within the text under his consideration, but on account of his understanding of theological exegesis and the role of desire in spiritual progress.

2013 Reading

One of the few traditions here is to post the year’s reading—or, at least the books that I’ve read cover to cover. I always enjoy seeing what other people have been reading, so I figure that posting my list may—however minutely—increase the net amount of enjoyment in the universe. Despite intentions to the contrary, I’m not accomplishing much today, so adding a scrap of enjoyment to the universe seems like a decent use of time.

Explanations and caveats: I’ve put my favorite books of the year in bold face for each category. The categories, as previously, reflect my own idiosyncratic organization rather than the objective order of Being. Most, but not all, of the reading has been background for the dissertation, though I did much better this year than previous years about mixing fiction in with all the philosophy and theology. Of course, I’m eager to hear what other folks thought of the books here, as well as the books that should make my list for 2014.

So… an apt quote from Bernard Steigler and then the list:

“Stupidity is never foreign to knowledge; knowledge can itself become stupidity par excellence, so to speak. And this is so because knowledge, and in particular theoretical knowledge as passage to the act of reason—or more broadly noesis—only occurs intermittently to a noetic soul which constantly regresses, and which, as such, is like Sisyphus, perpetually ascending the slope of its own stupidity.”

Theology:

Adam Kotsko, The Politics of Redemption

Jose Comblin, Retrieving the Human: A Christian Anthropology

Stanley Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei

Jeannine Hill Fletcher, Motherhood as Metaphor: Engendering Interreligious Dialogue

Elizabeth A. Johnson, Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit

J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, Alone in the World?: Human Uniqueness in Science and Theology

Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology

Catherine Keller, From a Broken Web: Separation, Sexism, and Self

Peter Scott, Anti-Human Theology: Nature, Technology, and the Post-natural

Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil

Catherine Keller, The Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming

Karen Kilby, Karl Rahner: Theology and Philosophy

James Cone, God of the Oppressed

Catherine Keller, Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World

Celia Deane-Drummond, Rebecca Artinian-Kaiser, and David Clough, eds., Animals as Religious Subjects: Transdisciplinary Perspectives

Vine Deloria Jr., God is Red: A Native View of Religion

Emmanuel Falque, The Metamorphosis of Finitude: An Essay on Birth and Resurrection

Anthony Paul Smith, A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature: Ecologies of Thought

Lisa H. Sideris, Environmental Ethics, Ecological Theology, and Natural Selection

 

Philosophy:

Jacques Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign II

Aaron Gross and Anne Vallely, Animals and the Human Imagination: A Companion to Animal Studies

Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx

Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory

Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues

John Dupre, Humans and Other Animals

Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: the Ecological Crisis of Reason

Judith Butler, Frames of War

William Jordan III, The Sunflower Forest: Ecological Restoration and the New Communion with Nature

Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature

 

History/Historiography:

W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folks

 

Biography/Memoir:

Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Dorothy Day, From Union Square to Rome

 

Science:

Reg Morrison, The Spirit in the Gene: Humanity’s Proud Illusion and the Laws of Nature

Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce, Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals

 

Fiction/Literature:

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, 1079.

David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, 343.

David Foster Wallace, Oblivion, 329.

Teju Cole, Open City, 259.

Ed Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, 337.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 527.

Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard, 338.

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, 106.

James Baldwin, Go Tell it on the Mountain, 226.

 

Self-Help/Self-sabotage:

Stan Hieronymous, For the Love of Hops: A Practical Guide to Aroma, Bitterness, and the Culture of Hops, 319.

 

Poetry:

Kelly Davio, Burn This House, 82.

Animals as Religious Subjects :: Book/Chapter Announcement

This news will be old in the timeframe of social media, but still fresh in the timeframe of books. A little more than a month ago, T&T Clark released an edited volume entitled Animals as Religious Subjects: Transdisciplinary Perspectives. The essays collected within were (by and large) presented at a conference by the same title that took place in the summer of 2011 near the University of Chester. The book was edited by Celia Deanne-Drummond, Rebecca Artinian Kaiser, and David Clough, to whom I am very grateful.

My gratitude is due because of the inclusion of an essay of mine entitled “‘Marvel at the Intelligence of Unthinking Creatures'”: Contemplative Animals in Gregory of Nazianzus and Evagrius of Pontus.” The quote in the title is from Gregory’s 28th Oration, and the essay examines this “unthinking intelligence” of animals, which Gregory and other late-antique authors often attribute to an externalized rationality, an infusion of the divine Logos. With Giorgio Agamben’s “anthropological machine” providing the framework for analysis, my essay argues that what Gregory and Evagrius (among others) describe as the goal of (human) contemplation–the very height of human spirituality–cannot be so easily differentiated from this externalized animal rationality.

There are many other excellent essays in the volume. Essays particularly helpful for my own interests were Tim Ingold’s chapter on “Walking with Dragons”; Aaron Gross’s chapter on “The Study of Religion after the Animal”; and Ingvild Sælid Gilhus’s chapter “From Sacrifices to Symbols: Animals in Late Antiquity and Early Christianity.” Additionally, David Clough has an excellent essay on the theological uses of classification schemes, and Charles Camosy, a Fordham professor with whom I have worked here and there, has an essay engaging with Peter Singer, putting forth a Roman Catholic argument that personhood cannot be categorically denied to non-human animals.

The book is prohibitively expensive for most people, but those with the ability to order books at their library will likely find the volume to be helpful.