Inner Animalities: Book Event Introduction

InnerAnimalitiesCover

Today begins our book event on Eric Meyer’s Inner Animalities: Theology and the End of the Human (New York: Fordham University Press, 2018). Over the next several weeks we will hear responses to Eric’s book from scholars who work in the environmental humanities and animal studies, both within and outside of religious studies and theology: James Stanescu, Elizabeth Pyne, Jay Johnson, Jacob Erickson, and Anthony Paul Smith.

Eric Meyer is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Carroll College, in Helena, Montana. Academically his research and teaching explore the spaces where religious and theological thought traditions intersect with animal studies and the environmental humanities. Outside of academia Eric is an environmental advocate who’s worked in outdoor recreation and wilderness education for more than a decade. Inner Animalities explores the intersections between human and animal forms of life, within human beings. It is a book about, more than anything else, our human animality and (as Eric puts it) “what happens to the parts of ourselves that we hold in common with other creatures” when  “we obsessively differentiate ourselves from them.” (2) What happens, Eric suggests, is that we effectively tear ourselves apart and break ourselves down. For centuries, theology has been generating this break-down on our behalf. But, Eric argues, this has never been necessary to sustain a robust spirituality. In fact, it has probably been inimical to it. He dives back into the Christian theological tradition, to prove this claim.

Inner Animalities poses a challenge to the anthropological exceptionalism that has shaped and structured Christian theology for centuries. The book does so, however, without turning against theology. At least not entirely. Rather, it enters into a series of theo-logics (ancient and contemporary) in order to turn them inside out, revealing the conditions for divine grace within animal life, even when the theologian’s initial intent was to claim that animality is merely the absence of such possibility. Eric’s theologics reveal that even when human animality is despoiled or subordinated, it remains a condition for manifestation of the divine, nevertheless. Indeed, Inner Animalities suggests that without animality those divine pulses within the fabric of life might be lost, entirely.

Eric argues, however, that this problematic legacy of exceptionalism is not simply a concern for Christians (let alone Christian theologians). Rather, this human exceptionalism has been part and parcel of a political theology that was adapted from Greco-Roman philosophy, amplified through theological and scriptural reasoning, and passed into European colonial exceptionalism as well as the secularized exceptionalisms of Enlightenment humanism. “Christian theological anthropology,” argues Eric, “remains the historical foundation beneath the secularized anthropologies of humanism, liberalism, and global capitalism.” (6) Understanding theological anthropology, then, is part of the task of comprehending and diagnosing the violence that humanism, liberalism, and global capitalism have been doing to our environment.

Discussions of animals and animality are often parochialized as a kind of accessory concern that is somehow ancillary to harder hitting global political issues. This is even true within the sub-field of the environmental humanities, where numerous thinkers in religious studies, philosophy, and other fields have staged debates over the distinctions between animal ethics and environmental ethics. To simplify, for those unfamiliar with these debates, such tensions oscillate around the conflict between the individualized nature of concern in animal advocacy (which appears to seek the well-being of singularized and particular bodies) and the holistic nature of environmental advocacy politics. Eric acknowledges that such debates exist. But he does not seek to resolve these tensions. He argues that this book is, in a sense, concerned with issues of cosmology that are prior to these debates, in the first place. His argument makes the wager that a reflection on our human animality can get us to “a hinge point” where the concerns of both environmental activism and animal advocacy can be addressed. (7) Our human animality is, then, a matter of singular subjective concern as well as a concern about networked relational webs that function holistically. In this way, Inner Animalities resists parochialization.

Eric also acknowledges that the term “animal” is, itself, a conceptual problem. “Every time it is uttered, the term animal is a false promise that all the differences among nonhuman creatures can be neatly contained so that human beings can rise above them all,” he writes (8). The term animal erases the distinction between a fruit fly and a zebra. But this erasure also provides the conditions in which I can lift myself, as human, up into a plane of existence where neither such creatures can join me. With that said, however, Eric offers a defense of his own use of the terms animals and animality in his book. While he seeks to trouble the categorical distinctions that create an irresolvable fracture between humans and animals, he does make strategic use of the terms. He does not, he writes, “endorse” the categorical distinction between human and animal. Rather, with the term human animality he hopes instead to repeat these terms “with a difference that undoes their power.” He offers the metaphor of a window and a frame. The term animal, he says has long served as a window that we look through in order to understand ourselves as human. “We know who we are by reference to those creatures that we are not (however inaccurate our ideas about them may be).” He wants, however, “to look in through the window at the human” who is making use of incoherent categories. “What is there is no wall, only a window frame?” he poses (9).

If the term animal is problematic, so is the term human. Throughout the book Eric uses the term humanity to speak about a cultural “set of cherished and accepted behaviors, values, and traits.” On the other hand, he uses the term animality to name “a corresponding set that is generally subject to discipline and restriction.” Humanity, in other words, names what has been positively assessed and idealized in western thought while animality names the figure that has served as its subordinate. For Eric, the most disciplinary form of humanity appears in what he names proper humanity. This term names the ultimate “normative ideal”—the ideal of “authentic humanness.” There is, then, a decidedly negative dimension to the figure of humanity, and proper humanity, in Inner Animalities. But it would be a mistake to read this as an antihumanist text. Eric saves the term human beings to refer to what he calls “those psychosomatic creatures whose lives are governed and formed by humanity.” (4) And for these human beings, Eric reserves a particular form of compassion. It is, perhaps, for the human beings that this book was written—as a way of affirming their animating animal dimensions in all its rich complexity.

For those who will be reading along, but have not yet acquired a copy of the book, what follows is a brief sketch or outline of the book’s structure:

The book itself is divided into two parts. In the first part of the book, “Critical and Historical Animalities”, Eric turns to theological history in order to both diagnose the problematic dimensions of anthropological exceptionalism and to find forms of resistance to the subordination demanded by proper humanity. He places his historical attention, largely, on fourth-century theologians primarily because of the fact that this was “a uniquely influential period of Christian thought.” (10)

Chapter One, “Gregory of Naziansus: Animality and Ascent” examines two orations from the fourth century bishop and theologian Gregory of Nazianzus. Eric explores the way that Gregory creates a strong association between human animality and limitedness—it becomes a site of mutability and mortality, throwing it into contrast with the divine. Gregory reserves what he believes are the most divine facets of existence—the rational contemplative dimensions of the intellect—for the human. And yet, as Eric argues, Gregory’s orations also suggest that rational contemplation is impossible, in the first place, without animal mutuability. More than that, rational contemplation as Gregory describes it is functionally indistinguishable from the subjectivity of what Gregory calls “simple animals” whose behavior is allegedly determined by instinct. In other words, human animality may be derided by Gregory, but it is fundamental and central to what he considers godly.

Chapter Two, “Gregory of Nyssa: Reading Animality and Desire”, reflects on the patristic theologian’s homily on the Song of Songs, which is loaded with animal imagery. Eric notes, with irony, that the animalization of the Songs is one of the factors that has lead to its allegorization (and so, often, the disembodiment of the text’s eros). But Eric also notes that Gregory’s animal reading of the Songs serves as a kind of “false” or “vicious” reading of the text, offering a distraction from what is alleged to be a spiritually attuned reading. And yet for this theologian—as was the case for Gregory of Naziansus—despite all the claims that humanity should be set apart from animality, this homily indicates that “traits and features associated with animality turn out to be constitutive of human perfection.” (55) So it is that when it is cut off from its animality, Gregory seems to suggest that “humanity becomes aesthetically out of tune, insular, ashamed, and unresponsive to the analogical grace of divine beauty.” (57)

Chapter Three, “The Problem of Human Animality in Contemporary Theology” takes a sharp turn away from the late-ancient world of thought, toward the modern one. Here, Eric offers a survey of a wide range of contemporary theologians—from Paul Tillich and Karl Barth to Rosemary Radford Ruether and Kathryn Tanner. In each case, Eric argues, “contemporary theologians continue to disavow human animality in order to shore up human uniqueness, while nevertheless relying upon human animality within their account of human transformation.” (59) Eric argues for a consistent pattern, in contemporary theologies, that seems to find the point of greatest human uniqueness in a kind of constitutive “openness to God.” And yet, of course, what opens is itself something unfolding on the plane of our human animality.

The second part of the book, “Constructive Animalities” opens onto Eric’s own constructive, speculative, work. Each of the chapters in this section is devoted to one of the “three major narrative moments” in Christian thought: creation, sin and redemption, and eschatological transformation. These central narrative moments are places where, Eric argues, animality has historically been disavowed. But he reads these as three opening points, or perhaps hinge points, where it is now possible to expose the inner workings of these theologics and to rearticulate the role that animality plays within it. Chapter Four, “Animality and Identity: Human Nature and the Image of God” reflects on the way that theological tradition has placed humanity as the sovereign exception that contrasts with animality. Eric, instead, seeks a relational approach that places the human within the complex politics of creaturely life. He offers a fascinating reading of the figure of Nebuchadnezzar, in the Book of Daniel, to offer a glimpse at a figure who falls from a state of sovereign differentiation into a network of creaturely interrelations and finds divine grace in this transformation.

Chapter Five, “Animality in Sin Redemption” offers a re-reading of Genesis 2-3 and John 1. In the narrative of Genesis, Eric finds a note of lament for the categorical separation that emerges in the disastrous origin tale of mortality. And in the figuration of the Logos, in John, Eric finds not the revelation of humanity’s transcendence above other animals, but instead a conceptual structure that might be functioning to deconstruct humanity from within for the sake of the whole creation. In a bold constructive twist at the end of this chapter, Eric turns the relationship between sin and animality around. Sin, for Eric, becomes “the constitutive disavowal of animality” that forms our humanity, as we know it. And redemption becomes “a deep transformation that returns human beings to the animality” within them that has been disavowed. (13)

Chapter Six, “Animality in Eschatological Transformation” is the final chapter and so—suitably!—verges into the resurrection of the dead. Eric notes that while Christian theology has long affirmed the importance of the body itself in resurrection, this has been a body divested of its physiological (animal) functions—namely digestion and sexual expression. Rather than exclude these from the eschatological imagination, Eric places them right at the center of his accounts of eschatological communion. “Where human animality is no longer excluded from the life of the new heavens and the new earth, all the other creatures come to play constitutive roles in the Spirit’s perfection of creation,” he argues. And so through eschatological figures such as the resurrected body, or the messianic banquet, we should be prepared to see communion with God in the context of ecological relationships where divine love plays out in creaturely diversity—far beyond the restricted economy of proper humanity.

One thought on “Inner Animalities: Book Event Introduction

  1. Thank you, Beatrice, for kicking off the conversation with such a generous summary of the book and my goals for it. It’s a remarkably rich experience to have my hopes and intentions in the book perceived and restated with such accuracy and insight. I feel heard and understood. And if the book does even half of what you’ve attributed to it here, then I’ll count it a great success. I look forward to the conversation to come.

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