The Criminal Politics of Wilderness

“In a world truly left to itself, that is, unviolated, as we say, or at least very little penetrated or marked by humans, there would obviously be no need to reserve spheres for animals that could protect their overlapping territories. To evoke such a world is to evoke something that was the unwritten rule, the instantaneous adjustment for millennia; it is to evoke a form that has given way only during the last few centuries in Europe and during recent decades in the rest of the world. But the movement seems irreversible, so much so that one cannot help sensing, while traversing those reserves, that one is facing the vestiges of a world about to disappear.

The possibility that there will be no more wild animals, or that they will exist only confined or subjugated, is taking shape before our eyes day by day. Reactions to the threat of the avian flu that recently spread throughout the world, for example, all conformed to a model in which wildness itself was accused and singled out: peaceful domestic fowl threatened by hordes of uncontrollable migrators. This will become the accepted schema—even though intensive breeding and all the modes of confinement (the word speaks for itself), far from sparing animals effectively, have been, on the contrary, the direct origin of the most serious epidemics ever known. Between the thousands and thousands of carcasses burned during the years of mad cow disease and the common graves of birds in the new century, what is taking shape is the psychological preparation of humanity for the necessity of total control, a world in which wild animals will be no more than tolerated and in which they too will be, in a way ‘in human hands,’ in allotted spaces that will be more and more restricted or instrumentalized. . . . It came back and it comes back, it goes around in a loop, discourse is unhinged, this had to happen: our sisters and brothers by blood have kept silence forever. What would the world be without them? The sky without birds, the oceans and rivers without fish, the earth without tigers or wolves, ice floes melted with humans below and nothing but humans fighting over water sources. It is even possible to want that? In relation to this tendency, which seems ineluctable, every animal is a beginning, an engagement, a point of animation and intensity, a resistance. Any politics that takes no account of this (which is to say virtually all politics) is a criminal politics.”

Bailly, Jean-Christophe. The Animal Side. Translated by Catherine Porter. New York: Fordham University Press, 2011.

Wildernesses, wildlife reserves, and protected lands of all sorts are critically important; and we need desperately to strengthen and expand the protections that we have put in place. But these isolated wild spaces are also symptomatic of a collective bad conscience. They give us places to “escape,” and get “back to nature” for a few days. It’s hard at times, though, to wonder if this kind of adventuring amounts to more than a petty nostalgia. After all, it would seem from both our political rhetoric and the voracity of our economic systems that these are little more than isolated Exceptions that allow us to tolerate our own Rule of appropriation, expansion, consumption, and the commodification of “resources.” Ecologically speaking then, our politics (by which I mean the network of our power relations to others of all stripes) is a criminal politics, and we’ve found perverse ways of assuaging our consciences.

Zizek :: what humans will never know

Here is Slavoj Zizek’s answer to the question: What will human beings never know?

Do you find his answer at all plausible, or does he obscure and deny knowledge that we ought to have confidence in (gaining)? Do you think that the creation he describes might still be called good? Does such a vision of creation undercut or inspire wonder, awe, and reverence?

I see a connection in Zizek’s thought here with the conviction of Augustine and other early Christian authors that the being of creation is essentially derivative and incomplete, and all the more so when any creature turns away from God. Things are most real when they exist according to the manner in which God fully delights in their existence. The slippage and gaps (what Zizek here calls “blurriness”) that we experience in reality can be attributed to our own fallen psychology (a divide between our minds and creation “as God intended”), but might also at a deeper level be attributed to the derivative being of creation itself.

At any rate, I’m more and more interested these days in the points of incomprehensibility in creation—not at all in the rather facile sense that these unexplainable bits are stumbling blocks to science and proofs of God’s existence or activity—but in the sense that fractures and incompleteness seem to be an inexorable part of human life, and even Spirit-filled redeemed life. Paying attention to the points at which orders and systems break down or turn absurd is perhaps the best way to understand what is “normal” within those systems and orders.

If I were to sketch out this thought trajectory, it might run something like this: We search in vain for the site of total satisfaction, total fulness, totally saturated presence. There is a hole in creation that pierces the very core of human subjectivity. We could call it a God-shaped hole, if God had a shape, or if this fundamental lack pointed in a straightforward manner to God—but at minimum, its not obvious to everyone that it does point to God (or which god, for that matter). The interminable “blurriness” of creation, of our own selves, of each other, and most of all of God, persists even amidst the conviction that God has broken into history. Christian faith is actually nourished by this hole insofar as it is an inexhaustible source of desire; hope stretches out into this abyss on the conviction that God has been intensively present in Jesus, and will again be extensively present through the work of the Spirit already in-process. So, in some quiet manner, God accompanies creatures in and through a creation that remains incomplete—that very incompleteness the cause of a desire that stretches out and clings to grace where it is (made) capable of recognizing it.

h/t: Verso

image and likeness in Saint Basil and the ecology of the soul

It is commonplace among early Christian writers to distinguish between the image of God and the likeness of God in humanity (rooted in Genesis 1:27), though the distinction made theologically significant in various ways. While his younger brother Gregory rejects the distinction, Basil of Caesarea employs it with some regularity. This passage caught my eye today:

“Now, he has made us with the power to become like God, he let us be artisans of the likeness to God, so that the reward for the work would be ours. Thus we would not be like images made by a painter, lying inertly, lest our likeness should bring praise to another. For when you see an image exactly shaped like the prototype, you do not praise the image, but you marvel at the painter. Accordingly, so that the marvel may become mine and not another’s, he has left it to be to become according to the likeness of God. For I have that which is according to the image in being a rational being, but I become according to the likeness in becoming Christian.” [1]

In what precedes this excerpt, Basil has been quite clear that human beings exist according to the image of God as a function of their rationality—primarily expressed in ruling over the animals. As Basil continues, it becomes evident that to craft one’s life according to the likeness of God is to adopt the Pauline clothing metaphor and “put on” Christ as a garment.

At this point I wonder if there is some tension between the image and likeness, wherein the likeness of God (paradigmatically visible in the life of Jesus) actually begins to shape and determine the image (practical reason in its ruling function) in such a way as to introduce a kenotic humility and attitude of service into its exercise. This reading is at odds with Basil, but perhaps not so much as to contradict his broader intentions.

Reading this way recognizes a certain tension between the archetypical Image of God in Christ (who in the course of Basil’s homily primarily appears as the almighty Pantocrator) and the likeness of God which human beings are to “put on” perfecting their own kindness, charity, and virtue in emulation of Jesus. Secretly, and against the grain, I see the life of Jesus breaking into Basil’s text at this point, opening up fissures in his thoroughly confident notion of the power of reason (Logos in the Greek, of course) through which trickles of living water pour.

This kind of “crafting” would also temper the spirituality which Basil enjoins upon his hearers. Basil moves very quickly from the rule that human beings exercise over the animals to the analogous rule that human beings are to exercise over their own irrational passions and vices. Both animals and passions are subdued by reason. Most of Basil’s examples of reason exercising dominion over animals, however, are instances where human beings kill, cage, or domesticate by force. As a model for spiritual discipline (not to mention as a model for relating to animals generally), this is perhaps somewhat lacking. Attempting to eradicate one’s passions and vices by clubbing, spearing, and caging them is often an exercise in repression—one that ends in futility and frustration. The Pantocrator model of spirituality presumes unrealistic control on the part of a the subject by presuming that passions can actually be bludgeoned into submission.

Better, perhaps, is the spirituality whereby the passions are tamed by giving them a distance, recognizing their power but neither capitulating to them nor seeking to slaughter them on the spot. The sort of charity that Jesus showed to sinners in caring for their immediate needs without condoning their sin or joining in it provides a better model for confronting the disreputable elements within my own character.

[1] Basil of Caesarea, On the Human Condition, trans. Nonna Verna Harrison (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2005), 44.

a false negative in Luther’s 95 theses

Preparing to lecture on Luther’s 95 theses to a hapless bunch of sophomores, I found several of the theses more impenetrable than I’d remembered. My suspicion that it might have something to do with the translation I was reading out of was confirmed pretty quickly when I dug up the German text. Number 89 is particularly awful; does this sound like Luther?:

“What the pope seeks by indulgences is not money, but rather the salvation of souls; why then does he not suspend the letters and indulgences formerly conceded, and still as efficacious as ever?”

Somehow the translator managed to slip the negation (in bold print) into a sentence where it is totally lacking in German, rendering the English sentence pretty much incomprehensible—at least historically. Here’s the German:

“Wieso sucht der Papst durch den Ablaß das Heil der Seelen mehr als das Geld; warum hebt er früher gewährte Briefe und Ablässe jetzt auf, die doch ebenso wirksam sind?”

Some of the other errors are equally egregious, and this is a fairly standard collection of Luther’s writings (Martin Luther: A Selection of His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger). How does this happen? And why is a translation this bad still being anthologized?

faith is a ghost that haunts: Zizek and Barth

“One becomes a full member of a community not simply by identifying with its explicit symbolic tradition, but only when one also assumes the spectral dimension that sustains this tradition, the undead ghosts that haunt the living, the secret history of traumatic fantasies transmitted ‘between the lines,’ through the lacks and distortions of the explicit symbolic tradition.” [1]

“‘[Luther:] Only when that which is believed on is hidden, can it provide an opportunity for faith. And moreover, those things are most deeply hidden which most clearly contradict the obvious experience of the senses. Therefore, when God makes alive, He kills; when He justifies, He imposes guilt; when He leads us to heaven, He thrusts us down into hell.’ [Barth] The Gospel of salvation can only be believed in; it is a matter for faith only. It demands choice. This is its seriousness. To him that is not sufficiently mature to accept a contradiction and to rest in it, it becomes a scandal–to him that is unable to escape the necessity of contradiction, it becomes a matter for faith. Faith is awe in the presence of the divine incognito; it is the love of God that is aware of the qualitative distinction between God and man and God and the world.” [2]

 Zizek and Barth (quoting Luther) resonate here in emphasizing the anti-humanist element of faith that cannot be fully exorcised. 

I like that contradiction is inescapable for Barth—faith is not a matter of resolving the contradictions of searching and longing for God in the world, but of moving forward through the scandal in awe. I like that Zizek understands that rolling the comforting words of the tradition around in one’s mouth is still superficial. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is also the God of Job. 

Living in (and living out) the Christian tradition is not always uplifting, inspiring, and empowering. The faith that always smiles remains suspect. Has it ingested the contradictions, the fears, the doubts, the pain that are as integral to the transmission of the tradition as its hope, its joy, and its light?

This isn’t to valorize suffering and darkness as honorable, good, or even useful—it’s just to recognize that the Christian tradition has its ghosts and that all along the way the journey of faith is accompanied by these ghosts—even where they are supressed. 


[1] Slavoj Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: the Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 128.

[2] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn Hoskyns (London: Oxford UP, 1933), 39.

Theologians from the Abyss :: Symeon the New Theologian


Um...roar...I come to over-analyze your ontology!
Um...roar...I come to over-analyze your ontology!

“[Humanity] was made in the image of God and deemed worthy of angelic and immortal life, but if he was rightly deprived of that angelic state as well as of eternal life and condemned to death, corruption, and the curse, all because he transgressed that one commandment of God, then what will happen to those of [Adam’s] race who meddle in theology while they still bear the image of dust and have never been purified? You are trying to meddle in the teachings about God and divine things, but you have never been taught yourself. Tell me, have you first come up from hell to appear on earth? How did you manage this? Through what steps and stages did you make the ascent? Who helped you, and what manner of creature were they? You came to the surface stinking and rotten with corruption, no more than a corpse in the thrall of death.” 


I’m pretty sure that I’ve heard some of my friends in Biblical studies say something similar about those who “meddle in theology.” Pretty run of the mill polemic, actually… 


Symeon the New Theologian, Symeon the New Theologian: The Practical and Theological Chapters and The Three Theological Discourses, trans. Paul McGuckin, (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1982), 120.

your mouth and creation’s praise :: Leontius of Cyprus

Some wisdom from the 7th century: 

Through heaven and earth and sea, through wood and stone, through relics and Church buildings and the Cross, through angels and people, through all creation visible and invisible, I offer veneration and honor to the Creator and Master and Maker of all things, and to him alone. For the creation does not venerate the Maker directly and by itself, but it is through me that the heavens declare the glory of God, through me the moon worships God, through me the stars glorify him, through me the water and showers of rain, the dew and all creation, venerate God and give him glory.