Ecotheological Pathways (Inner Animalities Book Event)

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This response is from Elizabeth Pyne, who is currently an instructor at Fordham University’s London Centre. Her research engages various intersections between theology, feminist and queer theory, and the environmental humanities. 

The beastly desire that animates creaturely communion with the divine; the spirituality of animal instinct – open, sensuous, intelligent; the gaze of animal eyes that cuts through human pretensions to sovereignty; the incarnation of the Logos as an invitation into the “endless animality” of redeemed life; the all- and never-consuming energetic economy of a messianic banquet, a feast of flesh as well as milk and honey, and a festival of intimate exchange. These are a few of the captivating figures of creaturely life that emerge at the end of the human. In the pages of Inner Animalities one encounters a perspicacious and compelling case as to why this end must be – for the sake of all creatures – and an imaginatively rich vision of what it could be. Although I’ve not had occasion to see Eric on form as a wilderness guide, over the past few years I’ve had the privilege of learning from his navigation skills as a fellow traveler in the realm of Christian theological anthropology and creaturely politics. This book is exemplary of what those abilities make possible.

Inner Animalities leads readers through sites of interest in the historical, biblical, philosophical, and systematic theological terrain where human animality has consistently been disavowed, but might yet be reclaimed and reimagined. It’s not a straight shot. For as we read at the outset, “We suppose that we are the animals who are supposed to be something other than animals” (1). The problem of human animality, as Eric presents it, inheres in this dynamic of disavowal and dependence. While the Christian tradition has regularly denigrated, repressed, and strained against human beings’ fundamental commonality with other creatures, it has been unwilling to sever that bond; any temptation to do so has been held in abeyance by fundamental claims regarding the goodness of creation, including corporeality, and the universal scope of salvation. A simple neglect or denial of human animality would in some respects pose an easier problem. As it is, the pathfinding task at issue here is not to start afresh and cut another trail, as if history and constitutive ideology could be sidestepped; nor is it merely to retrace a winding historical route to retrieve what’s been discarded along the way. Eric rightly insists on the genealogical component of his exploration of human self-understanding in the West and equally on its knotted complexity: the human-animal distinction is bound up in a “feedback loop” of perception and understanding (1-2), such that we cannot navigate without it. Notably, he is convinced of its theological character, even in modernity; the signage marking human exceptionalism may have been secularized, but for the nonhuman animals (and less-than-human humans) who suffer the wasteful cruelty and accelerating destruction of enlightened capitalism, it’s clear that dominant human self-definition carries on tramping down the same well-trod track.

The burden of Eric’s project is, to be sure, to envision some alternative pathways in the overdetermined terrain of Christian anthropological narrative. In themselves these are illuminating and immensely creative. The particular examples Eric chooses are also instructive as guidance in what I take to be the book’s primary goal, namely, the cultivation and exercise of a form of sustained attention necessary to making our own way – our own ways – within the problem of human animality by means of its contradictions. The distinction between human and animal is ever present, but on the move, a “mobile boundary” that in one way or another marks a categorical difference, yet always remains somehow accountable to a relation. Crucially, this distinction is inscribed externally between human and (the) animal, and internally between what Eric calls proper humanity and human animality. He is especially adept at scrutinizing how these cut cross and layer one another, how they weave and deceive, most especially when it comes to accounts of human beings’ graced transformation: over and again, theologians render divine contact with humanity in a language of uniqueness, yet however much they attenuate creaturely commonality, they do not sunder it. As Eric is careful to note, “Whenever Christian theology approaches human animality, the discourse seems compelled to speak in several directions all at once” (58). The requisite practice of attention entails listening for the strange communication that comes from dissonance in conceptual strategies for explaining and regulating human likeness to and difference from (other) animals. It includes reformed modes of seeing self and other: the book trains our eyes away from rarified spiritual heights to the swarm of animal lives, itself a kind of precipice when viewed from the perspective of identitary security; likewise a powerful section asks readers to look into the eyes of various animals and then with their gaze onto the perversely violent conceits of anthropological exceptionalism. So, too, this attention embraces a faculty of feeling: where “the anthropological machine” short-circuits or is jammed, Eric invites us to sense the current of uncontained creaturely life.

In recounting these facets I find myself newly appreciative of a performative quality in the text, which tracks with some of the transformations it recounts – from a researcher whose sense of personal relations shifts on the basis of her experience of baboon pedagogy in Kenya (114-5) to Eric’s fascinating interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s more dramatic “becoming animal” in Daniel 4 (98-103). This work at the interface of critical thought and sensory experience is part of Inner Animalities’ valuable guidance. While it cannot substitute for such experiences, the text summons the interval between distanciation and recognition in the process of becoming animal and the life that already awaits therein (100). Eric ably elucidates the spiritual density of a conception of human identity that departs from the differentiating sovereign impulse of the imago Dei to instead inhabit a creaturely world of neighbors and kin – without romanticizing these relations. As a critical-constructive project in theology – the union of which aspects he both explains and brilliantly demonstrates – such transformations are key.

To emphasize this methodological efficacy is also to affirm Inner Animalities’ argument that the problem of human animality is pervasive in Christian theological anthropology but not essential to it (e.g., 5, 84). I’m partial to this claim insofar as it stakes out a delicate position in relation to theological sources and their ambivalent ethical-political implications. Most directly in the book’s introduction and conclusion, Eric endeavors to account for theological anthropology’s deleterious role in ecological degradation and the potential to wrest from it a less violent sense of humanity. His task tracks with that of ecotheology in regard to the observation that “[t]he human animal distinction is foundational to the opposition between culture and nature; the two distinctions map more or less directly on to one another (humanity/culture stands over against animality/nature)… And this conceptual separation of human culture from all other earthly life is arguably the central problem to which the environmental movement responds” (6). But he maintains that placing the problem of animality in the foreground, especially with sustained attention to its simultaneously external and internal cuts, represents a novel approach (2, 6, 181n7). I’d like to trace out a couple lines of reflection and queries that follow from thinking through this claim, with a particular interest in the difference it makes when the two distinctions named here map more or less directly on to one another.

The first is a rather intramural observation about theological sources. Given the argument’s ecotheological horizon, it’s curious to me that explicitly “eco” theologians feature only intermittently among the book’s contemporary interlocutors. In that vein, I was caught short by the assessment that “theological reflection upon the relational constitution of the human being has been almost entirely limited to interhuman relations… Despite a theological turn toward social and political formation of human subjects, there has yet to be an ecological turn that would treat material interspecies interactions as constitutive of human subjectivity before God” (96). I suppose I tend to perceive the recent proliferation of work attesting humanity’s relationship ecological belonging as a more substantial movement. Maybe that’s a matter of finding what I’m looking for. Or maybe the difference is a function of Inner Animalities’ overall theological timeline – on the order of millennia rather than decades. I surmise that the selection could have something to do with tone and approach: what Eric is up to vis-à-vis the Christian theological tradition is, as noted above, more complicated than a retrieval of salutary aspects too long overlooked, which often characterizes (at least confessional) ecotheological projects. Addressing the multifaceted problem of human animality entails intentionally catachrestic engagement with certain biblical texts and doctrines (Eric’s take on the prologue to John’s gospel is a stellar example), rather than arguing for their true meaning (though this is not to the exclusion of readings that claim a bit more as to the plain or in any event plausible sense of a text or teaching).

More pertinent perhaps is the role of definitional constraints – often self-imposed – attaching to theological loci or subdisciplines (or whatever they are): whereas theological anthropology has the human squarely in its sights, isn’t ecological theology supposed to decenter the human? Here I’m very much in agreement with Eric that the only way out is through: a turn to nature in a general sense can pay lip service to the conceptual contradictions knotted in to ideas of human identity, while effectively sweeping them under the rug. His focus on human animality emphasizes the depth of the deconstructive and reconstructive work required to contest anthropological exceptionalism. Its precise contribution comes to light when he does briefly address some ecotheological attempts to affirm humanity’s creaturely belonging in concrete ways, specifically those that refer to a shared evolutionary past. The crux of his argument is that these accounts often serve to reinforce the human animal distinction insofar as they don’t treat ecological interdependence as a matter of primary concern, but only as a kind of staging ground for the main events in divine-human interaction; in other words, human relations with nonhuman animals are recognized in terms of common embodiment, but this doesn’t impinge on notions of “human identity, subjectivity, agency,  and morality,” where so much more is at stake (96-7).

On this point I’ve talked myself into and out of agreement when thinking through my canon of ecotheological anthropologies – does the connective tissue linking humans to animals (and bonding human animality) fray, when pressed by the action of sin and grace, by theology’s narration of humanity’s most sacred joys and obligations? I’m inclined to think it probably does, more regularly than it appears to, and even in accounts of human being that make frequent appeal to the web of life and the community of creation. Though I also would propose that one significant reason for the creeping return of a categorical distinction is an effort to make sense of the subject responsible for outsize anthropogenic effects on creatures and climate (i.e., as a question of spiritual-material agency and intersubjective identity that exceeds mere embodiment). Here the ethical arc of the problem of human animality, it seems to me, doubles back on itself through the category of nature. To embed human identity fully in animality/nature is to lose the leverage for challenges to human exploitation of nature – so the worry goes. Even if this framing represents a misguided interpretation of ecosystems and creaturely politics, it does seem to signal that a shift in the discursive terrain has occurred (at least in academic circles): the point of departure is not affirmation of culture’s ascendancy over nature, but rather, in what has become an ecotheological cliché, “everything is connected.” Eric’s critique of the pervasiveness of the human animal distinction suggests that it would be worthwhile to search it out and weigh it up in this realm, where positive recourse to nature and all creation looms large. So maybe this is just to express a wish, as is so often the case, that a good book could have been longer, such that the close analysis of figures like Rahner and Pannenberg could extend to recent thinkers who go some distance with a claim that ecological interdependence is a matter of primary concern. In what ways do such thinkers (a group I’ve admittedly postulated here in generalities) reshape the problem of human animality – understood as a multifaceted dynamic of disavowal and dependence – even as they replay it?

I am circling around the idea that the novelty of Inner Animalities lies in part in the specific capacity of human animality – unlike nature in crucial ways – to expose and disrupt schemes of dominance, especially the construction of “proper humanity” as that which opposes, regulates, or transcends human beings’ common life with other creatures. While the book is oriented primarily to redressing the subordination of animality/nature to humanity/culture in the interest of ecological well-being (as quoted above), other configurations of these terms are not foreign to it; at a number of points the text indicates the crossover operation of “nature” or the “natural” on the upper level of this categorical boundary. Eric’s main philosophical interlocutors (Derrida, Agamben, Butler) are certainly intent on exposing the function of nature as a regulatory concept that facilitates the ideological construction of humanity, which de-animalizes human beings and dehumanizes some human beings (see ch. 5). The critical-constructive work around human animality is therefore intent to denaturalize the human animal distinction: this distinction is exposed as a cultural production. Yet when Eric writes, “the ideological division of humanity from animality is always partial and conflicted, since it operates through the creation of a zone of indistinction that simultaneously includes and excludes animality in humanity” (124), one confronts the way in which a concept of nature allows for, smooths over, and perhaps recuperates these contradictions. Nature naturalizes difference and, when convenient, refers to it under the sign of the same. I’m making a pretty prosaic point about nature as a political construction. On the one hand, this construction is present and visible in this text (e.g., 121), but on the other, it recedes somewhat when the priority of the human animal distinction is asserted (6, as above). I don’t think we get out of the bind by referring to the subordination of a material versus conceptual nature, since it’s precisely the traffic between them – or rather, the fiction of their separation – that is at issue.

So, having suggested how distinctly helpful the concept of animality is in ecotheological discussion, I’m also coming back around to a hesitation. If it is not so clearly foundational to the nature-culture distinction as it is woven unevenly through it, then suspicion of appeals to nature might flag up similar concerns with respect to animality. When affirming commonality – here human commonality with animals – the rub is of course “how?” “with what salient differences?” and so on. I confess to what may be an undue level of concern about an available discourse of animal likeness in the age of the modern synthesis, one that is doing some serious and not always salutary work, especially with respect to human sexuality: from the pop evolutionary psychology of human mating to Andrew Sullivan’s comments about male instinct and #MeToo to Jordan Peterson’s lobsters. Maybe it’s as simple as calling out shoddy science and refusing airtime, where possible, to ideas as stupid as they are dangerous. And to be clear, so much of what Inner Animalities proposes can offer a rejoinder to these manipulations: by resisting reductive accounts of animal behavior; by diversifying the single boundary of the animal toward relations with a multiplicity of unique species and with individual animals as well; by seeking to create conditions in which human self-understanding might be shaped by actual encounters with animals in everyday interactions, in flawed but necessary speculation about what their gazes reveal. Nevertheless, I wonder whether the already nuanced formulation of the problem of human animality would benefit from some further structural gesture to these faux celebrations of inner animality, especially where they might find theological hearing. Does the dynamic of disavowal and dependence stretch to fit? or is some third term needed both to describe the specific incoherence evident in this manner of animal appeal and to counteract its ill effects more directly?


One thought on “Ecotheological Pathways (Inner Animalities Book Event)

  1. Beth!!! Thank you for such a wonderful and challenging response to the book. You’re pulling out a number of questions about the moves I’m trying to make in the book that I don’t think I’ve confronted quite this directly. Or, I think you’re putting arguments to vague feelings of discomfort that I’ve had around certain passages of my own writing and thinking. I’m going to save my response to your last set of questions around the alignment of animality and nature for the longer post I’ll write at the end of the event. That’s largely because I need to think about these connections more.

    For now, I want to say how grateful I am that you brought out the “performative” impulse in the text. For a variety of reasons, I’m predisposed to avoid writing in a directly practical or ethical way. But you’re exactly right that I really do want readers to feel a compulsion to encounter living neighbors differently by breaking out of the set of assumptions that constrain our relations within predictably exploitative patterns. That’s something that, practically speaking, I’m also really trying to learn how to do as well (by no means am I speaking from the position of expertise). Thank you for pulling out an aspect of the project that I could not have articulated.

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