Non-Theology in the Pigsty (A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature Book Event)

As surprising as it may seem to those of us who consider ourselves, despite it all, theologians, Anthony Paul Smith comes in peace. ‘Ultimately’, he writes, ‘this non-philosophical and non-theological practice, with all its constitutive parts, declares peace to all – the philosophers, the theologians, and the ecologists’ (p62). What sort of peace does he offer? Not the colonial peace of the Radically Orthodox, for whom reconciliation is possible only on condition of the unconditional surrender of all things to Christ the king and theology his queen; nor the hippy peace of certain sorts of green thinking for which we join hands around the world to live in harmony with Nature; nor even (not quite, not exactly) the democratic peace of weak theology, in which we are all as wrong as each other and the real task to cultivate a multiculturalism within which the only thing which will not be tolerated is intolerance. Rather, this is the peace of ecology, a nature red in tooth and claw, the circle of life within which all things interact with one another, a peace which is a matter of indifference to the grass, joy for the lion, but not quite so much fun for the antelope.

The problem with theology, Anthony says, is its incorrigible bossiness. It can’t stop telling nature what it ought to be like, and insofar as it engages with scientific accounts of nature it does so only to demonstrate that they have failed to wash behind their ears, or to hold them up, squirming with embarrassment, as a shining example for everybody else. Theology knows that cleanliness is next to godliness, that good girls wouldn’t ever; theology will take over your country because the poor savages need somebodyto tell them what to do, and it will drag you up kicking and screaming into some semblance of a civilised human being, just as long as it doesn’t murder you first.

To theology’s plantation house, Anthony returns, the ruffian, the prodigal son. He doesn’t want to join the party, though, he doesn’t want to partake of the fatted calf. Instead, he wants us to come with him; so he he takes us by the hand, and he leads us out to the pigsty, and he invites us to sit down beside him in the mud, and he says: stop your incessant talking for a minute, won’t you? Look. Listen. There is life here and you know nothing about it.

The thing about nature is that it isn’t natural. Or, rather, the problem is that that everything is natural. The two-headed kitten is natural. The prize-winning carrot is natural. Virtue is natural, and vice is natural. Marriage is natural but so is promiscuity, so is divorce, so is polyamory, so is Grindr. Even Dolly Parton is natural. What we notice when we pay attention to the world, when we let ecology be our guide, is that there isn’t any one way that nature ought to be, there isn’t any stable state. The circle of life is always shifting around, always changing its location; sometimes it looks less like a circle and more like a line of flight; sometimes it is a Möbius strip. Aquinas thought that the reason we couldn’t find the garden of Eden was because it was hidden behind a mountain somewhere; what he didn’t realise is that it’s actually a city now.

Theology is worried that if it steps down from Pride Rock to play in the forest with the warthogs of ecology and the meerkats of philosophy, the hyenas will take over. What it doesn’t notice is that the other animals are perfectly capable of finding some new order between themselves; what it doesn’t notice is that the hyenas are voiced by black people: the Lion King is racist, you guys, and everything would likely be better if we stopped trying to eat everyone.

Instead of the Neoplatonic circle of life which is always, inevitably, a hierarchy, Anthony invites us to pay attention to the complex, ever-changing web of life. Hakuna matata: or, as he puts it, ‘the more joyful affects a person experiences and fosters the more ethical they become and the only way to increase joy is through useful encounters or between mutually joyful affects. The more we understand about the world the more we understand how our bodies are compatible with others’ (p206). This is not the bland hedonism of the teenage lion on a gap year, however: the ethics of non-theology begin not with Simba but with Pumba; not with orthodox theology’s petulant flouncing in the face of a challenge to the authority it considers rightfully its own but with the heretic expelled from the community which cannot bear the stench of his (natural) flesh. Non-theology begins in the pigsty. Only Pumba, you will remember, was able to view the stars apart from the narcissistic mythologising which can see in nature only affirmation of our divine right to rule. Only Pumba could see, like Anthony, the possibility of grace in the onset of gout. For non-theology, freedom is not delimited by the dark shadows at the edge of empire, the limits of our ability to conquer the world; it belongs instead in our kinship with others, the ties of friendship which extend beyond the limits of our own kind such that the lion may lie down with the meerkat, according to the Franciscan affirmation of the brother- and sisterhood of all things. For Anthony, the Lion King should have ended not with the restoration of kingly rule but as in the Ismaili epistle The Case of the Animals versus Man Before the King of the Jinn, which ‘details a protest made by the animals against humanity and their violence against them because of their belief “that the animals were their runaway and rebellious slaves”’ (p221). The Warthog Non-theologian ends with Simba on trial.

Simba’s fate would, we might infer, be like that of Cain, another child of privilege who, on finding his status as rightful heir challenged, responded by murdering a close relative, and was consequently condemned to up sticks and wander about the earth, forever homeless. Perhaps what God took issue with in Cain’s offering was not bloodlessness of his arable sacrifice but the fact that he had settled down, staked out the boundaries of a field and declared it to be ‘mine’. For the final thing to note about the non-theology of Ecologies of Thought is its itinerant nature. Non-theology is peripatetic, rootless, ‘exiled such that home itself is always something stranger than it seems.’ Non-theology is unstuck in time because time itself is unstuck; it is a nomad, wandering homeless through the earth because the earth itself is homeless, nomadic; nature is always wandering, waiting and groaning for the emergence of the messiah; and zhe, too, will be natural.

10 thoughts on “Non-Theology in the Pigsty (A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature Book Event)

  1. Woah. This is absolutely brilliant. Ive never read anyone who ‘gets’ APS’ work like you have here. Also, this is beautifully written. You really inspire me, Marika.

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