What is Creaturely Theology?

First, just a “thanks” to aufs for hosting the livestream of our divinanimality conference at Drew this past weekend. While the event is still fresh, I also thought I might pose a couple of questions that began to gestate over the course of this four day conference. My ears are selectively attentive. So whatever I report will (naturally) be told a bit slant. But, nonetheless, I’m interested in broad questions, about how religious studies and theology might infect/intersect with the ever-expanding storehouse of scholarship in animal studies.

Of course there were theological questions, calling attention to the sticky relations between creatures, creators, creations. But I think one of the most fruitful conversations—one that kept coming up over the course of the weekend—was the ontological distinction between the “animal” and the “creaturely.” While the conference intended to foreground the challenges that animals and divinities pose to humanist orthodoxies, many pointed to the “creaturely” as a plane of engagement that seems to do something different. I’ve actually given a lot of thought to this question (and have a forthcoming piece about it, in the volume resulting from the “Metaphysics & Things” conference at the Claremont Graduate University last December). But it was interesting to hear this conversation broadening. Kate Rigby suggested that the creaturely is a more “democratic” conceptual space—inclusive of both humans and animals, as well as plants, monsters. Perhaps even machines. This space isn’t unlike that given to “actors” in Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory, Alfred North Whitehead’s “actual entities” or even OOO’s objects. But, of course, the creaturely has a theological genealogy. Which makes it easier to explore this concept in the field of religious ideas. In spite of the generic, egalitarian potential of the creaturely, however,  Catherine Keller noted that the animal is a figure that’s visiting our world of ideas with particular intensity right now, and that this is worth further thought and attention.

There was also an open (and sometimes tense) question over the course of the weekend about the “boundary lines”. Species fences. What was it that speakers were trying to do with the “line” that’s said to exist between humans and animals? Were they attempting bring light to the abyssal and multiple differences, as Derrida claimed he was trying to do in The Animal That Therefore I Am (2008)? Or was there an effort to blur distinctions and draw attention to our human animality? There was a hunger from those in attendance to see these questions unfold in closer relation to (for example) critical race theory, given the many violent historical collaborations between racism and animalization. In other words, that perhaps the fences between species shouldn’t be opened very wide unless we’re also prepared to do critical analyses of power relations.

We spent a good deal of time, additionally, talking about animals and the apocalyptic—the various ways in which these biblical narratives often seem to amplify and underscore (with extravagant animal imagery) the creaturely anxieties of our mortal fragility. Animals seem to have (historically) made us think the death of not only of the individual body, but the mortal fragility of the entire “creation.” They are something like terrestrial cousins who testify to a nagging intellectual intuition—that what we call animate is only tenuously, contingently so.

But animals also seem to be functioning, especially today, in a contrary manner, too. That the human is (without question) an animal seems to be a fact with the power to comfort. Especially now, when it’s so clear that the human world we’ve created has changed our entire planet for the worst. We’ve been incredibly bad housekeepers. Do animals seem, somehow, better at this? Or do they figure as the promise of a world that’s less divided? Philosophy has become newly excited about realism. So the almost utopian potency of animal figures raises questions for me. On the one hand: does the animacy behind all of this animality become an idealist liability? On the other: aren’t small utopian pulses of hope also necessary things (alternative energy sources) in our “real” or actual world?

At any rate, I’d be interested to hear further thoughts on all of these thoughts from aufs readers. Or other questions that might be coming up for you, at the nexus of religion/theology and animal studies. What can we talk about, in departments of religion or theology, that might not come up elsewhere?

10 thoughts on “What is Creaturely Theology?

  1. On subject: Happy Feast Day of St. Francis. I just got home from blessing a whole bunch of animals.

    I immediately recall Mary Daly, whose philosophical worldview, especially her later work, apocalyptically called forth the creaturely–even those whose memories are only known through Spelling and re-search, such as Daly’s “Brontie.” Nature, when Wild, judges humanity, and will return and restore human biophilic community.

  2. I’d be interested in hearing if and how the relationship between animality and Christology was handled, especially as most of the Christological dogmas and symbols were developed in contexts with a pretty heavy and strict distinction between the human and the animal.

  3. parts of the conference are video archived here: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/drew-ttc. a podcast of the saturday/sunday portion of the conference (which was a kind of round table discussion) will be available shortly…

    @ken: both terra rowe and erika murphy gave papers that looked at the animality of christ, and what this might have to do with soteriology.

    and, chris, i’m glad to hear you’ve spent your day blessing animals. mary daly would definitely be pleased.

  4. …i’m thinking more about daly now. the more utopian angles on animal figures and faces definitely have roots in ecofeminist theological work, especially.

  5. Hello Beatrice, Interesting post. Personally I’m against the ‘blurring of distinctions’ you mention as one option, because the result is just…a blur. The are gradations all through nature, significant differences, and to erase them is ultimately not the solution to our current crisis. Indeed ontological or moral levelling is arguably just as much artifice, a human intellectual fashion, as was the Great Chain of Being. More productive routes to including nonhumans might be by working through philosophical traditions other than the realist or materialist, e.g. by extending the Enlightenment notion of ‘sympathy’. Not without problems, but any such move will be. In any case we need to remember that it won’t be simply a reformed mind (paradoxically an idealist – in the bad sense – assumption of contemporary realists) that stops ecological breakdown, it will be halting the deepest imperative of capital which treats nature as mere resource and its degradations as an ‘externality’.

  6. Ken,
    I’d second the recommendation of Terra and Erika’s papers. For what it’s worth, my paper also tried to pull off a theological re-reading of the prologue to John’s gospel by way of Agamben’s Homo Sacer and The Open. It seems to me that its possible to work with Logos theology so that the doctrine of the incarnation is not the celestial seal of approval on human exceptionalism relative to all the other animals, but a deconstruction of humanity from the inside instead. The incarnation might be understood, in Barthian terms, as the singling out of humanity precisely in order to judge and overthrow it (rather than rubberstamp human brilliance). Agamben’s anthropological machine was a helpful approach to John’s prologue for me inasmuch as John describes the Logos of God as being a light and a life which human beings refuse and misrecognize, even though this life “illumines everyone who has come into the world.” It was not too big a leap from there to argue that human logos (discourse/reason/speech) stands in opposition to divine Logos, which is in the end, on the side of “bare life” or animality.

    That’s a really, really quick and dirty version of the argument, but I was trying to work with animality and Christology, despite the theological momentum that would make that difficult. I’m happy to email a copy of the paper if you’d like.

  7. Thanks for the more specific recommendations.

    your paper sounds interesting and rather imaginative, especially as I think you have identified a doctrinal area with a great deal of ‘theological momentum’ for distinctions between the divine, the human, and the animal that we might find harmful or less than helpful. My worry from your very brief presentation of the argument (and I am very much looking forward to reading your paper), which I am genuinely and generally sympathetic towards, is that the difficulties and promises Christology might bring to thinking the animal are shuffled around rather than solved. So instead of humanity’s intellect or intellectual powers being ‘Cur Deus Homo,’ now it’s humanity’s voluntas, albeit a corrupted one at that. But, of course, I should wait to read the actual thing!

    I think you’re right about Barth’s impulses concerning the effects of the incarnation of the Logos upon ‘human nature,’ but as he runs just about everything through his doctrine of election, he is left with either agnosticism about the animal (we simply don’t know about the animals and their place within the economy) or with subordinating animals within the election of Christ-community-individual (the animals have their telos graciously included within the telos of humanity), and he essentially combines both, if I remember those passages correctly offhand. Still, I think your appropriation of his intuitions and mixing him with Agamben sounds most welcome.

  8. Hi Ken,

    Sorry to be so slow to respond here!

    I will be curious to hear your take on the paper when you get a chance to read it, and especially to hear if you think that the argument runs blithely into any of the pitfalls that you have quite astutely pointed out here. If anything, I think that the argument comes closer to the danger you point to in the second paragraph, inasmuch as I’m trying to think human-animal politics and human politics within the same frame.

    But, I’m not really keen on any hierarchy of election, and I don’t want to subordinate the political relations between human beings and all our proximate neighbors to the politics of election and redemption (so that, as you say, animals are “graciously included”). Rather, I’m wondering if this ordering might be reversed, so that election/redemption is the means by which human beings are able to recognize our self-appointed position in the politics of the planet for what it is, and in that recognition forego the claim that human games are somehow categorically different than interactions between other species. The idea that “nature” doesn’t have an outside (i.e. even a subway tunnel is a site where “nature” is happening) is not innovative in the least, but Christian theology has some built-in resistance to the idea.

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