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.
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?