The Bible and Posthumanism: Book/Chapter Announcement

Bible and Posthumanism Cover

Some readers may be interested in a recently published book—The Bible and Posthumanism, edited by Jennifer Koosed. The volume includes an essay of mine entitled “Gregory of Nyssa and Jacques Derrida on the Human-Animal Distinction in the Song of Songs.” I have yet to read through the whole book, but I am especially looking forward to essays from Denise Kimber Buell, Stephen Moore, and Benjamin Dunning. I’m particularly honored that my essay sits directly next to Ben Dunning’s insofar as his intellectual generosity and meticulously patient criticism have played an unparalleled role in my own thinking, writing, and research at Fordham.

Here’s an excerpt that provides a sense for the essay’s argument:

Thinking with Derrida, I argue that Gregory’s discourse on animality remains irresolvably conflicted. Although he labors toward it, Gregory’s theology cannot finally abide a categorical distinction between humanity and animality. The theological anthropology informing Gregory’s anagogical exegesis of the Song of Songs “short-circuits” so that human animality is necessary to reach the deepest meaning of Scripture and the summits of spiritual ascent, despite Gregory’s more explicit claims that spiritual transformation entails the transcendence of humanity beyond animality. Animality remains integral to Gregory’s reading of the Song of Songs, not simply because of the pervasive animal metaphors within the text under his consideration, but on account of his understanding of theological exegesis and the role of desire in spiritual progress.

New Book: Genesis and Christian Theology

I was very excited to find a contributor’s copy of Genesis and Christian Theology in my mailbox yesterday. The book has, at long last, been released by Eerdmans and is available for voracious and inquisitive readers everywhere.

Among a host of other fine essays, the volume includes my piece, “Gregory of Nyssa on Language, Naming God’s Creatures, and the Desire of the Discursive Animal.” Here’s an excerpt/summary:

In this paper I take Gregory’s emphasis on Genesis 2:19-20 as a starting point for examining the way in which Gregory’s account of language [in Contra Eunomium] structures his theological anthropology, particularly insofar as language is implicated in Gregory’s articulation of the differences and similarities between humans, animals, and God. I contend that while Gregory explicitly uses language to distance/differentiate the human from the animal and to connect/ compare humanity to God, Gregory’s careful attention to the limits of language sets up a basic structural parallel between human and animal life focused on the orienting and compelling power of desire. In light of this parallel, both God’s image and God’s redemption of humanity can be seen as events that stand open to the animal rather than points of differentiation and exclusion.

Many thanks to Nathan MacDonald, Mark Elliot, and Grant Macaskill for all of their editorial work, and to Eerdman’s for publishing the volume!

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.

Jacques Derrida, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Human-Animal Distinction in the Song of Songs

Just yesterday I received the welcome news that my submission to the Animals and Religion consultation at the 2010 AAR in Atlanta was accepted. I’ll be presenting the paper at a session entitled “Thinking Animals, Rethinking Theology: Abrahamic and Indigenous Traditions.” I’m very excited for the opportunity to present my thoughts and looking forward to the ensuing conversation. The proposal which was accepted is below:

Though it is an undeniably erotic text, Solomon’s Song of Songs is also undeniably strange. In large part, the text’s strangeness is attributable to its enthusiastically zoological imagery, which strikes contemporary readers as anything but erotic. The very metaphors praising the bodily beauty of a woman and a man and celebrating their union simultaneously release an abundance of flapping, leaping, grazing animals into the space between two naked human bodies. These animals—doves, deer, sheep, horses, goats—pervade the imagery of the Song to the extent that animal bodies are caught up in the erotic interaction of the two lovers and animal eyes seem to peek through every look of longing.

The fourth-century Christian bishop Gregory of Nyssa found this canonical text no less strange than we do on account of both its sexually explicit content and its disconcerting animal metaphors. Nevertheless, Gregory lauds the Song of Songs above every other text in Scripture for setting forth the profoundest wisdom for prayer and ascetic contemplation. Gregory’s reading depends upon a powerful sublating hermeneutic which transforms the Song’s erotic energy into the driving impulse for a spiritual ascent. His Commentary on the Song of Songs presents the fruit of an assiduous attention to the many figurative valences latent in every image and a careful effort to explain the manner in which the cumulative effect of this imagery elicits the reader’s desire for God. Remarkably, however, despite Gregory’s vigorous distaste for any carnal understanding of the Song—readily visible in oft-repeated warnings—the animals of the Song populate Gregory’s higher meaning no less pervasively than its literal level, and indeed take on an even greater theological role.

Reading Jacques Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I am alongside Gregory’s Commentary on the Song of Songs provides a critical lens through which to explore the human-animal distinction in Gregory’s theology. Derrida’s text traces an “immense disavowal” of the animal in the Western philosophical tradition wherein all the differences between animals are discarded in favor of a single catch-all category—“the animal.” Politically, the maneuver to sum up all animals in a single term underwrites a notion of human exceptionalism (“the human” over against “the animal”), and justifies regimes of maltreatment, modification, restrictive confinement, over-production, and slaughter. Derrida summons Descartes, Kant, Lacan, Heidegger, and Levinas as exemplary theoretical offenders.

There is no shortage of reasons to see Gregory’s allegorical treatment of animals in the Song of Songs as part and parcel of this same trajectory of disavowal—the impulse to spiritual sublation has rarely worked to the advantage of animals. Nevertheless, Gregory’s relationship to animals is more complex than would initially appear. I argue that although Gregory labors to disavow “the animal” (as a single bounded set) in his interpretation of the Song of Songs, particular animals continue to creep back into his text through gaps in the fence he erects, troubling the purity that Gregory is laboring toward. The re-entry of the animal into Gregory’s text, I argue, is inevitable and necessary, not simply because of the presence of animal metaphors within the text under his consideration, but more significantly, because of the ineradicable function of (animal) desire within Gregory’s understanding of theological exegesis and spiritual ascent. Thus, Gregory adopts the blurred lines between humans and animals in the text of the Song of Songs within his own spiritual exegesis because doing so sheds light on the contemplative path of the Christian in a way that would be impossible were his disavowal of the animal more thorough.

The first part of my paper examines the complex of shame, exposure, modesty, nakedness, and clothing (one of many lines along which the human-animal distinction is cut, and a theme central to Derrida’s text), querying the nakedness of the bride in the Song relative to the nakedness of the animals which mediate the description of her body. I ask whether the bride is naked as an animal, naked as an animal, or actually naked at all. Gregory’s squeamish allegorizing hastily weaves a cover for the bride’s nudity, but she is still exposed in and through the animal imagery that describes her contours.

The second part focuses on the distinguishing human “proper” of reason and speech (logos for Gregory). While Gregory differentiates humans from animals (the alogoi) on the basis of their capacity for reason, in the economy of Gregory’s theological exegesis and in his account of spiritual ascent, reason is actually secondary to the faculty of desire that pervades human and animal life alike. The text of the Song of Songs functions anagogically (that is, one layer of its meaning leads the reader toward God) precisely because it incites a propulsive desire within the reader that motivates and focuses her contemplation. Likewise, on the path of spiritual ascent, the Christian’s ever-increasing desire for God carries him beyond any comprehension of reason or language. Thus, for Gregory, (animal) desire finally outstrips discursive rationality in its theological importance, calling into the question the purity of his initial distinction between the human and the animal.

The third part takes up an ethical/political question from Derrida’s text: What happens to the fraternity among brothers (or alternately, relations in human society) when an animal enters the room? I argue that the presence of animals in the text of the Song is what launches Gregory’s theological interpretation in the first place (because the literal reading remains woefully inadequate). Paradoxically, it is the pervasiveness of animal imagery within this erotic poem that opens the text up for an allegorical reading that excises the “animal” content of straightforward sexuality. Thus, on Gregory’s reading, the bride and bridegroom loosen their sexually passionate embrace, and instead are bound up in the intimacies of prayer, forgiveness, and spiritual transformation. The presence of the animal in the text marks an excess that allows for the attempted erasure of the “animal” in the human. Finally, however, insofar as Gregory’s disavowal is incomplete, his gesture imaginatively endues animals with spiritual agency—the dove with her longing eye and the deer leaping across the hills in pursuit of the divine.

In the end, Gregory cannot banish animals from his interpretation of the Song while at the same time sublating the generative power of its metaphors. Gregory succeeds only in folding the animal into the human; redeeming the animal by directing its energy. Equally, the obverse is true, that the human has been folded into the animal whose drives are powerful and determinative. At any rate, what remains are spiritual animals—with equal stress falling on both words. Over the course of Gregory’s Commentary on the Song of Songs the “proper” traits of humans and animals (nakedness, shame, clothing, reason, language, passion, desire) lose the precision whereby they mark a hermetic and exclusive distinction between animals and “the human.” The animals creep in the backdoor of Gregory’s commentary, undermining his disavowal by showing themselves to be integral to the highest human good that he can conceive.

NAPS 2010

I received some good news in the last week. My proposal to the “Rhetoric of Heaven” section was accepted, so I’ll be presenting a paper at NAPS in Chicago this coming May. Here’s the abstract that I submitted:

Gregory of Nyssa’s Bodies: Human, Animal, and Celestial

Inhabiting the boundary between heaven and earth, the human body is the site of intense scrutiny in Gregory of Nyssa’s De hominis opificio. The task of understanding the human body necessitates concomitant inquiry into the nature of animal and celestial bodies in order to see more clearly the differences and similarities that constitute humanity’s liminal nature. My paper argues that Gregory is concerned with the “making of the human” not only in terms of an etiological reading of Genesis, but also that Gregory himself “makes the human” in relation to animals and angels, and that in the process Gregory has a strong theological investment in the conceptual construction of animal and celestial bodies.

In a close reading of De hominis opificio that draws on the research of Sarah Coakley and J. Warren Smith among others, my paper proceeds in four sections—the first considering the formal and functional implications of the divine image in human flesh (and its absence in the flesh of animals); the second examines the material difference that the image of God makes in human flesh, and the physio/logical construction of human flesh over against animal bodies. The third section inquires into the eschatology of human flesh and the double function of desire as both bestial and angelic. Paradoxically for Gregory, the very structure of desire that is shared with the animals constitutes the propulsive drive by which humans are drawn along the trajectory of spiritual ascent to join the celestial crowds in God’s praise (albeit animal desire in a sublimated form). Finally, the fourth section determines more precisely how Gregory’s theological investment in human uniqueness guides the contours of his construction of bestial and angelic bodies vis-à-vis the human in De hominis opificio.

Gregory of Nyssa, Jacques Derrida, the Song of Songs, and the Human-Animal Distinction

Here’s the introduction from one of my term papers (my favorite of the semester) to let you in on what I’ve been mulling over lately:

Among several theses advanced over the course of his text, The Animal that Therefore I Am, Derrida argues that the history of writing can be divided into two classes: writers who have seen and been seen by an animal, and those who have never been addressed in this way.[1] “Being seen” signifies a recognition of the impenetrable difference of the animal without, on the basis of that difference dismissing the gaze of an animal as an other with no claim. Suffice it to say, he does not find the latter class to be an expansive tradition. “For thinking concerning the animal, if there is such a thing, derives from poetry. There you have a thesis: it is what philosophy has, essentially, had to deprive itself of. It is the difference between philosophical knowledge and poetic thinking.”[2] The poetic imagination, in contrast to the philosopher’s, has from time to time had the courage to stand in the gaze of the animal and to write as one who is seen. The “immense disavowal” of the animals’ gaze on the part of the philosophic tradition has enabled philosophers of all stripes to lump all animals together in a single undifferentiated term, “animal,” washing over tremendous differences for the sake of a convenient category for non-human creatures.[3] The presumption that Derrida calls into question is that the difference between humans and animals is such that a single, clean line can be drawn, leaving “the animal” on one side (in all the multiplied differences among animals) and “the human” on the other. Of course, this clean distinction between “the human” and “the animal” has borne profound conceptual and political ramifications—enabling the construction of notions of utter human uniqueness and justifying instrumental regimes of domestication, production, experimentation, exploitation, and habitat encroachment which subject animals, often ruthlessly, to larger human projects.[4]

The Christian theological tradition has played no small part in constructing the human-animal distinction as we know it and has brought a substantial ideological investment—particularly in the notion that human beings are uniquely created in the image of God—to the task of differentiating human beings from “the animal” in a thoroughgoing manner.[5] There is no shortage of examples of theologians participating in the “immense disavowal” that Derrida imputes to the philosophic tradition.[6] Nevertheless, there are perhaps resources (resources which may have remained hidden from Derrida’s sight) within the theological tradition for the subversion (or deconstruction) of this powerful (main)stream of thought at the foundation of Western cultural and political edifices. Continue reading “Gregory of Nyssa, Jacques Derrida, the Song of Songs, and the Human-Animal Distinction”

Gary Anderson :: Genesis of Perfection (Review)

The Paradise narrative of Genesis 2-4 haunts its readers with a host of lacunae that call for return after return to the text in order to venture out on various explanatory bridges. The story of Adam and Eve proceeds at a breathless pace, offering bare details of dialogue and action without developing a full and complete background. The movements of the text are sudden and superficial in a way that hints at an oceanic depth of backstory. These abyssal lacunae are all the more hauntingly urgent for readers because this narrative purports to account for humanity’s origins and provide a “place” for human beings in the web of cosmic relations. Perhaps for that reason, the spare and enigmatic compositional lines of this text have been a womb bearing an astounding variety of interpretations and explanations, the richness of which are an unparalleled gift. Gary Anderson’s Genesis of Perfection [1] attempts to takes stock of a number of these structural lacunae in the text of Genesis 2-3 and introduce a few of the myriad interpretive efforts that have inscribed fuller understandings of the universe into the lines of the Genesis narrative. In order delimit his sources to a manageable horde, Anderson focuses on readings of Genesis from within the traditions of Rabbinic Judaism and the mainstream of Christian orthodoxy.

The contemporary genesis of Anderson’s text is his sense that the divorce in the last few centuries between the history of composition (undertaken in historical-critical precision) and the history of reception (for which the origin of the text is often of little interest) belies an impoverishing narrowness (xvi-xvii). Continue reading “Gary Anderson :: Genesis of Perfection (Review)”

on gender and God :: Gregory of Nyssa

“No one can adequately grasp the terms pertaining to God. For example, mother is mentioned in place of ‘father’ (Song 3:11). Both terms mean the same, because the divine is neither male nor female (for how could such a thing be contemplated in the divinity, when it does not remain intact permanently for us human beings either? But we all shall become one in Christ, we will be divested of the signs of this distinction together with the whole of the old man). Therefore, every name found [in Scripture] is equally able to indicate the ineffable nature, since the meaning of the undefiled nature is contaminated by neither female nor male….Hence the Song says that a crown is placed upon the bridegroom by his mother. Since the nuptials and bride are one, one mother places the crown upon the bridegroom’s head.”

Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Song of Songs, Homily 7.