Inner Animalities at Union Theological Seminary

Hello all,

With immense gratitude to Dr. John Thatamanil for the invitation, I’d like to share a talk that I gave last week at Union Theological Seminary in New York (well, virtually in New York). The talk explains some of the theoretical skeleton that holds the book, Inner Animalities together. After a 25 minute monologue, John Thatamanil and I talk for a while about the theological claims and moves that the book works out.

“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.”

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.

 

The Salted Meats of the Earth

Among those in antiquity who argued that animals exist for the sake of human beings, it was a commonplace to say that animals (usually pigs, though Philo mentions fish) do indeed possess souls—what we would call vitality, or the spark of life. For these philosophers and theologians, though, ensouled-ness does not really count in the animals’ favor. The purpose of animal-souls, they say, is  that a soul is so much more effective than salt at preserving meat for human consumption.

It seems to me that this trope is generally written with a wink, as a bit of a joke. It is however, a theory for which our society has perfected the practice. In our intensive agricultural operations, life is simply the best way of producing, reproducing, and preserving meat for human consumption. Our regard for the creatures who live among us is flattened such that they are no more than walking meat.

I’m more interested in the conceptual tricks by which we are able to think this way, and feed our society on these premises, than I am in moralizing or in pushing a vegetarian agenda. I imagine that very few people who look a fellow-creature in the eye actually “see” animated meat looking back at them—even (and perhaps especially) if they intend to kill and eat the creature whose gaze they are returning. And yet, our agricultural system is organized as if the “salty-soul” theory were a common-sense reality, a simple fact of nature.