Gregory of Nyssa on the Nearness of Heaven

I came across this passage in a letter of Gregory of Nyssa to a friend of his, and immediately wanted to share it:

“It does not seem to me that the Gospel is speaking of the firmament of heaven as some remote habitation of God when it advises us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, because the divine is equally present in all things, and, in like manner, it pervades all creation and it does not exist separated from being, but the divine nature touches each element of being with equal honor, encompassing all things within itself.”

If there is a heaven, it is to be seen in the dignity borne by each bit of being; not infinitely elsewhere, but breaking out from within the dishonor and decay with which we are more familiar.

Call for Papers :: Fordham Graduate Theology Conference

I’m helping to organize a regional graduate student conference that will take place at the end of April at the Lincoln Center campus of Fordham University, midtown Manhattan.

The call for papers is below; if you know of anyone who might be interested, please pass this along or print off a copy for yourself by clicking here: FGTC call for papers.


:: Call for Papers ::

Marginal Persons and the Margins of Personhood


Fordham Graduate Theology Conference

Saturday April 30th, 2011

Fordham University, Lincoln Center, NYC

Keynote Address: Virginia Burrus (Drew University)

The Theology Graduate Student Association at Fordham warmly invites submissions from graduate students in the disciplines comprising religious studies and theology. Students whose research is primarily textual/biblical, sociological, historical, philosophical, ethical, or constructive are all invited to submit and attend. Examples of topics within the scope of the theme include:

The dynamics of marginalization: the involvement of religion in economic, political, or colonial exploitation/liberation; religious hybridity or self-location at margins; boundaries drawn with religious rhetoric—past and present; the exclusion and erasure of people from the historical record; the value, function, and criteria of orthodoxies and heresies.

The notion of ‘personhood’ in religious contexts: the definition and significance of personhood as a category; the propriety of conceiving of God as personal; controversy over the “persons” of the Trinity; the relation of animals and angels to personhood; the unique rights of persons, and the politics of recognizing personal rights; religion as a “personal matter,” not a public concern; personhood as rhetoric or ontology.

Abstracts, no longer than 350 words, should be sent via email to by Monday, March 21st.

Presentations will be 15-20 minutes, with subsequent time for questions/discussion. The conference will conclude with a keynote address from Virginia Burrus. Professor Burrus is a scholar of late-ancient Christianity at Drew University. She is a former president of the North American Patristics Society and the author or editor of eight books, including Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints, and Other Abject Subjects and The Sex-Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography.

Complete conference schedule and further information will be available at the conference website (click here).  Questions may be directed to

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.

Jenson on the Origin of Trinity as Doctrine

Reading Jenson, I came across this bit and thought it a particularly helpful glimpse of the development of Trinitarian teaching. I’d tried to gesture toward something of this sort in comments on an earlier post.

“Typical of the titles is ‘Lord.’ Initially the disciples’ unproblematic form of address for their rabbi, it was naturally resumed after the Resurrection. But now their Lord was enthroned at the Father’s right hand and was the giver of the Spirit. In these circumstances, the address could not but resonate with the Bible’s use of ‘Lord’ for God himself—to whom is one speaking when one says ‘Lord’ to the heavens? This resonance is itself the doctrine. Only when Greek theology appears as interlocutor will or need it be asked what kind of ‘being’—divine, human, or mediating—the risen Jesus must have to be truly addressed as Lord.”

Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology: The Triune God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 92.

Avatar and Eco-Theology :: Body and Mind

Below are the substance of the comments I gave to kick off the conversation as a part of a panel with Monica Schaap Pierce and Elizabeth Johnson on Avatar and ecological theology:

Two rhetorical questions:

How many of the nearly 7 billion people in the world would you say don’t know that the earth is in ecological crisis for which humans are largely responsible—that is, don’t know about extinctions, pollution, and unprecedented major changes in the oceans, atmosphere, and soil?

[Not many]

How many, on the other hand, don’t care, or at least live as if they do not care?

[A considerably larger number!]

If it is true that many, many more people know about the ecological crisis than care enough to change, then the problem is not a matter of a lack of information—though new and better information always helps. The problem is much more a matter of the will and of a moral failure. And this failure is where Avatar and ecological theology meet—in pointing out that too many of us are living with our moral vision grounded in the wrong story. Both Avatar and ecological theology are concerned with the story we are living in—a story centered on consumption and self-fulfillment—and both are concerned with proposing an alternate story, a different way of living. Living in the frame of a different story leads to a different way of seeing the world, and a different way of seeing leads to a different way of acting.

Before we go deeper into Avatar using the thought-tools that theologians use to think about the Christian story, I want to take a look behind the story of Avatar.

So far, my favorite critical comment about the movie points to a deep irony: “Only in America is it possible to spend $400 million dollars producing and marketing a film that denounces the evils of capitalism and the neo-colonial political economy.” That is to say, that while Avatar’s story may open a few hearts and minds to our ecological crisis, in many ways the movie is also a symptom of the very disease it diagnoses. The $250 billion dollars people have spent to see the movie (and I’ve contributed twice in preparation for our conversation) indicate that a lot of people have driven to the mall and spent $12 to huddle together for three hours wearing cheap pairs of petroleum-based 3-D glasses assembled and shipped by people working long hours for little pay. Many of these viewers munched popcorn and sucked down soda made mostly from corn-products grown in endless square miles of mono-culture fields where other species have been driven out by the use of millions of gallons of petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, which subsequently drain off into the rivers and oceans. In short, both producing and consuming Avatar looks a lot like digging deeper into the very unobtanium mine we’re supposed to deplore. And the vast majority of us are willing to ignore that material backstory because we are all addicted to our way of life. Yes, every connotation of the word addiction is intended.

Ok. That was a little heavy. But our ability to entertain our minds with a story projected on a screen, all the while ignoring the material backstory of the whole scene is exactly what I want to focus on. The story of Avatar relies on a deep division, what theologians call a dualism, between mind and body; that is, it relies on the notion that minds and bodies are separable in some way.

When Jake Sully climbs into the pod and the link is forged between his broken human body and the Na’vi avatar body, his mind or soul (for this talk, I’m going to equate the two) leaves one body and travels to another. And the way we see the story, when Jake’s mind leaves one body and goes to another, he leaves one body and goes to another. But it is not just the space-traveling human beings who have this technology. The movie ends with Jake permanently moving out of one body and into the other by traveling “through the eye of Eywa” by means of the ritual and prayer of the whole Na’vi people on his behalf. Jake is thus born again, and he discards his broken, scarred, and polluted earthly body in order to take up residence in a pristine, ecologically sound Na’vi body. In this story, Jake’s mind can occupy either body, but it can only occupy one body, and therefore, somehow it is separable from both bodies.

I’m not going to spend my time criticizing Avatar for this mind-body dualism; not only is most religious criticism of movies unproductive, it also ends up sounding kind of whiney. Instead, I want to use Avatar as a mirror. The focus of my comments is to ask why the story of this dualism is the story that James Cameron wants to tell us, and why we find the story both compelling and plausible. I am more interested in why this story works for us, why we are convinced without even a second thought when we see this mind-body dualism. I think that the fact that Avatar works so well as a story for us reveals something about us, something about the way that we think about minds and bodies and the connection between them. Now, it’s time for two surprising suggestions:

1)     Avatar works for those of us who live in late-capitalist Western culture because we inhabit one of the most dualistic human cultures that has ever existed.

2)     Christian theology has the resources to address and overturn this dualistic thinking, even though it is partly responsible for it in the first place.

We like to think that we who are living today—especially we Americans—are realistic, well-educated about the way the “real world” works in contrast to the superstitious and unscientific people of history. Are we really less dualistic, however? We live in a world where the domain of the mind is (for better and for worse) is further and further divorced and abstracted from the domain of bodies. Two relevant examples:

1)     Today, while we may not worry about ghosts or spend time keeping evil spirits from bringing the plague, we live in fear concerning the movements of a different spirit, whether it is going up or down, where it is strong, where it is weak, whom it favors, whom it does not. We call this spirit “the Market,” and it is amazing how people will leap into action when they think that the Market is on the move. There are many people (and many Fordham grads) whose job it is to anticipate the movements of the market in order to decide about where millions of dollars should go—into Euros, Yen, Dollars, or Deutschmarks; into stocks or bonds. And when this money flies all over the globe, no one sees it, no one touches it, no one has a handle on it. Yet, the consequences of these decisions, of sending this invisible money to one place versus another, (consequences, by the way, that are never visible to the person making the decision) might be hundreds of people losing or finding jobs, thousands of acres of forest cleared for a new “development,” or millions of gallons of water used in the manufacturing process of another device or trinket. The point here, is that the material level (the level of bodies, dirt, water, and trees) and the mental level (the level of minds, souls, decisions, etc.) are almost entirely invisible to each other. They almost never meet directly. We have a really hard time thinking about the material level and the mental level at the same time. And because we don’t see the Market and the forest at the same time, we often end up sacrificing the forest to the market, which is why one theologian argues that “Economics supasses theology as a docetic [that is, a dualistic] science” (Rasmussen, 116).

2)     For a second example, isn’t the internet the perfect paradigm for our dualism? Here is an endless domain of the mind, a mental playground where very important things are always happening. Who is friending, de-friending, re-friending, or changing their relationship status now? What new snarky comment is appearing on someone’s blog? Do I have new email? I’m not claiming special righteousness here, not presuming to be a judge. What I do want to note, however, is how much the mental playground of the internet is totally abstracted from the material level that supports it. In order to sustain this perpetual phantasmagoria of the mind, a huge material investment is required, and that material investment remains largely invisible to us. The electricity to run these computers comes from coal mines, oil wells, huge hydro-electric dams, or nuclear power plants. The metal bits in your computer and in the telecommunications cables come from mines like the one in Avatar, and end up in huge toxic heaps. And most obviously, there are hours upon hours of time in which our bodies sit passively (at most, munching or fidgeting) while minds flit here and there through the ether. And while our minds are occupied flitting and flirting on facebook, another creature—the last of its species—breathes its final breath, another thousand gallons of industrial run-off pours out into a river, and what little ecological integrity remains stands vulnerable without political protection. Again, the level of the mind (the level at which we interact with the internet) and the level of the body (the material story behind the internet) are almost entirely separated, almost entirely invisible to each other.

And so, I would argue, that in our culture, the interests of bodies (using the term “bodies” very loosely here) are almost always subordinated to the pathologies of our minds. Our mind-body dualism is the reason that the mind-body dualism essential to the plot of Avatar doesn’t even make us bat an eye. It’s not odd to us because we live in it and we live it out every day. Avatar is our fantasy. But our dualism, the ability to hold minds and bodies apart, is proving fatally toxic to God’s creation.

My second suggestion is that Christian theology has the resources to respond to and overturn this dualism, despite a long history of emphasizing souls over bodies, and separating the spiritual from the material. Unfortunately, I can only give the briefest sketch of these resources. Take a theology course, or become a major to learn more.

Whenever the Bible talks about the place of final redemption—what Christians have come to call “heaven”—it uses very earthy pictures—feasts, parties, rivers, mountains, gardens. In fact, perhaps the clearest description is found in Revelation 21, in which “a new heaven and a new earth” is the place where perfect fellowship is finally restored. But this “new heaven and new earth,” quite clearly is not some perfect planet light-years away like Pandora. It is this very earth under our feet redeemed and changed, to be sure, but this very earth on which God intends to dwell with God’s beloved creatures. For this reason one theologian says, “heaven is great, but it’s not the end of the world!” (N.T. Wright).

Likewise, and closer to my central point, the very clearest picture of redemption is the resurrected body of Jesus—which Christians have always held dear as a promise of the resurrection of these bodies (redeemed and changed, to be sure), but these bodies. What I want you to notice, though, is that Jesus’ wounds aren’t gone. The resurrected body of Jesus is not the mind of Jesus in a new, blue, 9 foot tall, 115 pound supermodel’s dream. No, Jesus carries his wounds, body and mind together, into redemption; the body is made new, made whole, but not in such a way that the old scars are left behind, or forgotten.

And so, I suggest, that for Christian theologians, the way that we wound and scar the planet we live on matters profoundly. God may redeem these wounds, it is true, but we will continue to live in them, and live with them in the life that is eternal. Christian salvation, then, is not the end of the material story in the final triumph of the souls over bodies, but the final marriage in which the dualism between bodies and souls is overcome.

Avatar and Eco-theology

On Thursday of this week (the 25th) I’ll be sitting on a panel discussion of Avatar with Elizabeth Johnson and fellow graduate student Monica Schaap Pierce. We’ll be talking about the religious themes in the movie and about intersections with contemporary ecological theology.

I’m planning on drawing out the mind-body dualism that is essential to the plot of the film (i.e. Jake Sully, or Jake’s mind/soul, spends the entire movie traveling in between two different bodies). Rather than simply criticize the movie on this point—like shooting fish in a barrel, to use a decidedly un-ecological metaphor—I’m going to suggest that the fact that this plot works so well most of us don’t even bat an eye reveals more about us than about James Cameron. From day to day, we live in and live out a mind-body dualism at least as pronounced as the one depicted in the film. So, I’ll draw out some of the negative consequences of this dualism for creation, and suggest that Christian theology—while complicit in many ways as a source of this dualism—has the resources to respond to and overcome modes of thinking  that privilege minds/souls at the expense of bodies.

The event is intended to attract interest for undergraduate theology courses and to push those students considering a theology major over the brink. There will be free discussion after our comments and free pizza to nourish the hungry. I’m quite curious to see what direction the conversation will go. If you are on campus, consider dropping by Keating Hall, room 124 at 12 pm.

I’ll post the text of my comments after the event.