I’ve recently been given the unspeakably wonderful gift of extended intellectual engagement with my writing in the form of a book event organized and hosted at An und für sich. I’ve collected links for all the posts in the event below.
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.
This piece is cross posted over at AUFS; please comment there (rather than here) if you feel compelled to do so.
As Willie James Jennings’ title would suggest, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race is a book situated at the interface between theology and history. My work hovers around the same intersection, so I came to Jennings’ book with strong interests both in the content of the argument and the method of its movements. Jennings has given us a very rich book, one that uncovers the historical and theological reasons that the stratified logics of race and colonialism have overrun—one should almost say without exception— the purported unity of Christian communion. Jennings’ text works to uncover the theological operations that underwrite the history of the last half-millennium—in which racial difference has functioned as justification for conversion by violent coercion and enslavement, and in which white Christians have regarded social, economic, and political parity for Christians of color as unthinkable, unnatural, and unnecessary. The logic of race is so deeply enmeshed in Western subject-formation that it has overpowered the political implications of theological and sacramental affirmations—e.g. that Christians share the same baptism and eat at the same table. In other words, Jennings asks: Why does whiteness trump Jesus’ body?
Jennings’ book works out a complex and multifaceted historical answer to this question—a question that white theology has repressed with hasty acknowledgments of the generalized horrors of the past. Jennings’ book has been rightly recognized as a significant contribution to academic theology (the book won the 2015 Louisville Grawemeyer award in Religion) and has been discussed widely. Jennings’ readings of the theological formation of racial discourse in early modern and colonial authors are nuanced, careful, and illuminating. Alongside my deep appreciation for Jennings’ critical work on early modern texts and figures, however, I find myself stuck on a few questions regarding his main theological argument. In particular, I wonder if Jennings’ theological utilization of the concept of supersessionism has obscured the specifics of its history, such that Jennings inadvertently fails to escape the trajectory of Christian supersessionism even as he correctly diagnoses it as a lynchpin of Western racialized anthropology. Continue reading “The Ineradicable Supersessionism of the Christian Imagination”
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.
You think it horrible that lust and rage
Should dance attendance upon my old age;
They were not such a plague when I was young;
What else have I to spur me into song?
Old man Yeats knew what was true. If you have no anger at this world, anger at its willful stupidities, its grim indifference, its real sins: its murdering hordes, its smug myths, exploitive habits, its catastrophic wastes, the smile on its hyena hungry face, its jackal tastes, then you belong to it, and you are one of its apes — though animals should not be so disgraced as to be put in any simile with man.
Old age ought to know. Death will soon enough come to its rescue. Till the knowing ends, all that was wasted and wronged in youth — through ignorance, haste, competition, bad belief — all that was bored by middle age into one long snooze, has borne its juiceless fruit, and is now known for what it is: nothing has been righted here. Yet if desire can be kept from contamination, if it can be aimed, as one’s fingertip, at the root’s place, if it is not harnessed to the horses of dismal domination, but is allowed to be itself and realize life, then the flutter of an eyelash on a cheek will assume its proper importance; Wall Street may crash and the gods of money smelted back into the sordid earths they came from; yet, unfazed, our heads will rest at least on one another, a fall sun will shine on the sheets, your nipple shall enter my ear like a bee seeking in a bloom a place to sleep; life shall run through us both renewed; we shall feel longing, lust for one another; we shall share rage for the world.
– William H. Gass, “Lust”
Brad posted this fragment of Yeats and the passage from Gass, noting that commentary could only swindle away the full effect. He’s right. But the paragraphs overwhelmed me enough that I wanted to share them; and wanting to share them, it seemed that I ought to do more than merely ride the coattails of Brad’s extensive reading. So with some reluctance, I’ll risk commentary.
Several of Bonhoeffer’s early sermons—given to a congregation in Barcelona—contain an unmistakeable debt to Nietzsche. Bonhoeffer shares Nietzsche’s distaste for the world-denying character of religion and calls his congregation (as perhaps only a young and somewhat naive pastor could) to a life of faith that resonates with Nietzsche’s unconditional affirmation of life. While he moved away from the rather titanic, muscular language of those early sermons, he remained convinced that faith, and therefore theology, must always enmesh a person within the concrete realities of life—the sites of rage and lust and desire.
I bring up Bonhoeffer only because of the collision of two thoughts which emerged while I read the passage above. First, that Gass traces out Nietzsche’s affirmation of life in tenacious, wounded, and haunting words; and second, that theology worth its salt ought to come from an attitude akin to this one. Bonhoeffer’s affinity for Nietzsche is based, I think, on something like that second thought. Theologians should not hide in rosy constructions of the world’s goodness, but should think and write with gritty soil between their fingers and on their pages, obstacles that prevent the pen from tracing lines too smooth.
The point of this post is not to suggest my similarity to Bonhoeffer. Rather, even though I stand by my gut-sense that faith and faith’s thinking are best done in the mud, I want to try to articulate some new-found second-thoughts about it, questions or qualifications.
First, to say that, “Theology ought to be like this!” is to set out a yardstick for “genuine” theology. It is to set up a high bar of “authenticity.” While such affirmations generally ring with a sincere ambition that theological thinking ought to reckon with the world in ways that it currently does not, they very quickly turn into bludgeons that measure the inauthenticity of others. Authenticity is an easy claim to stake, and perhaps for that reason it tends to generate more defense than creativity. I’m not wholly against measurements or bludgeons—not even theological measurements and bludgeons—but I’ve come to recognize that “authenticity” only generates vague and capricious criteria.
Second, saying “Theology ought to be like this!” can amount to a dismissive effort to capture the power of a critique without really reckoning with its barbs. Too quickly assuming that “genuine” theology rises in anger against “willful stupidities, grim indifference, real sins, murdering hordes, smug myths, exploitive habits, and catastrophic wastes” ignores theology’s own historical complicity with all of the above. It too easily turns theology into an airtight ideology where every criticism is colonized, and that seems to me like a fundamental betrayal. Perhaps loyalty to theology in the face of powerful sentiments like Gass’s (or the more direct criticism of Nietzsche) does not simply add a transcendant amplifier to those sentiments (e.g. “This is the voice of faith!” or “God shares such a rage!”), but abides with them in a self-critical sobriety—a reception much quieter than Bonhoeffer’s early sermons and more like his risky, tentative prison letters, where so much seems unhinged.
“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.
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?