Ghost Species: The Haunting of Inner Animalities (Inner Animalities Book Event)

This post was written by Jacob J. Erickson, who is an Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics at Trinity College Dublin. 

skeleton fish museum fish bones
Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

i. Theological Winterkill

In the title poem of his 2016 collection Winterkill, poet Todd Davis describes meandering through a liminal scene of April in Springtime.  Snow begins to melt; berries and mint begin to burst through in subtle natalities.  Summer is just around the corner, and a sense of hopeful optimism in lush forms ecological life begin to burst through.  It is Spring, after all, a time of new life.  Davis or Davis’ narrator walks and gathers and moves in a choreographed celebration of the season of birth.

And that’s where Davis performs his characteristic magic. The poem’s lines turn with a subtle and unexpected ecological reality: the melt of snow reveals death as much as birth.  Transformation in the season is simultaneously both.  He writes,

And in this I find the bones of animals who starved,

or were run down by coyotes or wild dogs leaping over

the deeper snow, who also felt hunger gnawing at their bones.[i]

Winterkill is what has been exposed and killed by cold, and usually refers to plants. But Davis extends the phrase’s meaning to the animal world, living and dead. Ecological loss enables ecological transformation.  The corpse of a doe comes into view, as does the flailing quills of a rotting porcupine.  The scene of lush spring is haunted by hunger and unseen history.

Davis leads us to stand somewhere in the ambiguous and real palimpsest. His imaginative landscape is one where the grammar of the deaths of these animals, the scribbled transformations of their bodies, and the cursive flows of flowering plants growing in and around them tell us a story of our own ecological context as, well, complicated.  The landscape is haunted both by birth and death and it’s hard to tell the difference in places.  Haunting challenges the odd linear stories humans like to tell about ecological life.  In other of Davis’ poems, a haunted glory meets life all around, and divinity shimmers through the creaturely, flourishing and winterkill bones, all.

There is a way in which Eric Daryl Meyer, too, is walking around and uncovering the more ominous winterkill that haunts theological anthropology.  Animality is “a stowaway who (alone and silently) keeps the engine running and the whole craft moving smoothly.  Animality is the scapegoat whose life outside the community—forgotten and abandoned—knits the life of the community together.”[ii]  In his brilliant Inner Animalities: Theology and the End of the Human, Meyer looks to the more delicate instabilities of the loci communes of theological anthropology and sees in those commons spaces “the bones of animals who starved,” spiritually, metaphorically, really, and physically.

Meyer does an immense scholarly feat here, for theological anthropology is a thrilling wintry mix itself. And he’s not afraid to sift through its contours and figures. The idiosyncrasies of Gregory of Nyssa, Robert Jenson, John Zizioulas, Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Paul Tillich, José Comblin, Arthur Peacocke, Kathryn Tanner, Stanley Grenz, Rosemary Radford Reuther, David Kelsey, Karl Rahner and Wolfhart Pannenberg all dance across the page.  Meyer’s text respectully manages to problematize their approaches, “demonstrating the incoherences and tensions that arise” when the anthropocentric assumption of humanity’s unique openness to God covers over, like snow, the vital reality of human animality.  The book is bold in naming that list just as there is a necessity to do so.

It’s easy to be grateful and stirred by a number of Meyer’s scholarly genealogies and engagements.  Like others in this book event, I’m lured on by the constructive openings and remembrances that Meyer envisions, and I’d like to offer gratitude for and think constructively with his work here as well.  In particular, I’m compelled by Meyer’s attention to the odd temporal, constructive mythological flows of sin, redemption and eschatological transformation.  I’d like to think with that temporality, especially with a doctrinal space that is omnipresent but flits at the edges of Meyer’s theo-logic.  That is, I want to hone in briefly on the haunting of the pneumatological, pneuma, or the Holy Spirit as an unexpected force of transformation in Meyer’s text.

 

ii. Ghost Species

The story of what gets called the “Fall” in Christian theology carries an undeniable field of force for ecological imagination.  Meyer points us towards the connections between animality and sin, in particular.  He names and cautions against the associations of animality as a descent into sinful brutishness, wildness, and ravenous, irrational, or devouring.  That façade of animality is complex, political and oppressive in the histories of the intermingling of Christian thought, Anthropocentrism, and the violent logics of white supremacy.  One only has to note the words of James Cone that, “The logic that led to slavery and segregation in the Americas, colonization and apartheid in Africa, and the rule of white supremacy throughout the world is the same one that leads to the exploitation of animals and the ravaging of nature.”[iii]  Logics of animality and humanity fall complicit in a host of interlocking systemic oppressions, racisms, sexisms, and heterosexisms.  Meyer knows this, remarking that, “The metaphorical traffic between animality and sinfulness runs on so many different pathways that it cannot be exhaustively traced out, much less contained…”[iv] Affects, social inequalities, and ecological devastations litter these pathways and their histories cloud the future.

What Inner Animalities risks is that sin language, made topsy turvy, might have something to say to our contemporary crisis of animality.  In this he’s following scholars like Anne Primavesi or Carol Newsom (though interestingly he does not name them), who rewrite the “Fall” of the Yahwist creation myth into a scene of eco-potential.[v]  Meyer offers what he calls an “imaginative reversal in the theological polarity of the pervasive value hierarchy in which true humanity rises above animality.”[vi]  Instead of sin being a loss of humanity, or, more aptly, a fall into animality, this reading reverses the logics in such a way that what emerges in the fall is a context of the various layers of a kind of anthropocentrism, human uniqueness or  human exceptionalism.  Every marked curse of the Fall narrative—childbirth, toil, etc.—for Meyer is a mark of the tragic removal of humanity from its own animality.  He succinctly notes, “Fallenness, then, is participation in a pervasive ideological construction; it is the unavoidable performance of humanity in sovereign differentiation from animality.”[vii]

Ideological constructions and contexts like these precede ourselves beyond our own lives and making.  They form intergenerational patterns of confusion, obfuscation, assumption, bewilderment, and, yes, violence.  We participate in them, knowing and unknowing, assuming, in this case, that human uniqueness is something divine, when our animal flesh and relational connections might be more foundational to that divinity than we could have ever expected.  Interrupting that logic is difficult, of course.  Mourning the losses that overwhelm in ways that jumble our past, present and future is even more difficult.  Our imaginative landscapes are filled with ghosts.  We see spectres in the oddly-shaped mirrors of doctrinal loci.  We run through the haunted houses of ecclesial traditions.

Recently, I’ve been thinking with, as exemplary of this fallen liminality and jumbled temporality, what biologists and environmental humanists call “ghost species.”  Ghost species, by one definition, are those species whose populations have dwindled so much that there are only a few of the particular animals left.  They live their lives and deaths before humans, most often at the hands of humans, bearing witness to a species that once was and no longer will be.  Certain rhinos, for instance, might serve as an example.  The particular flesh of these animal bodies, still living, haunt the present as a reminder of the past and as a lament of the future.  Another definition links “ghost species” to those species humans haven’t identified or have only heard rumors of, but not really bore witness to in the messiness of planetary life.

I can’t help but be haunted by the flesh of these creatures anymore; perhaps we’re really living in what Paul Kingsnorth writing in the west of Ireland recently called the “Horrorcene.” We’re looking for here, Kingsnorth says, “Something that encompasses our own complicity and the global state of emergency. A horrorcene ethic.” [viii]  Mingled in terror, mourning, and urgency, I can’t help but think of these animals as Meyer reflects on our temporal “caughtness,” our complicity in webs of participation and the real time effects of these anthropogenic losses.  They point us towards the winterkill of our theological and doctrinal inheritances, in that jumble of past, present and future. These species themselves generally and these animals particularly are caught in the webs of human sinfulness.  Meyer’s account here genuinely names the immense losses and desire to haunt us with different animal possibilities even as loss cascades.

 

iii. Hauntings of Holy Ghosts

Inner Animalities offers then, a powerful sense of disruption—the double haunting of animal loss with the disruptive haunting of our inner animalities.  In sin, human animality becomes a ghost species of sorts – present and haunting, yet often feeling absent, forgotten or fading in the wake of sovereignty. What Meyer’s sense of human animality accomplishes, however, is that occasionally sovereignty is haunted like Scrooge in the middle of the night: in cross-species connections of empathy, in moments of the human rendered humble, or in moments when our animal bodies and emotions reconnect.

Meyer finds that disruption of sin in an incarnational solidarity.  Christ stands in solidarity with “all flesh” by dismantling humanity like a divine monkey-wrench gang.  This time, it’s an “inside job” leading to “eternal life.”  Through John’s Christ, Meyer sees redemption as an “endless animality (zōē aiōnios) in which human beings live in the breath of God” (my emphasis).[ix]

There’s a pneumatological possibility that finally begins to seep under the door here in ways it’s been subdued, a ghost of itself even.  The Spirit flickers up in various places throughout the book, but it really isn’t until the final (and best, in my opinion) chapter, that the oft-forgotten ghost species of the Holy Spirit in Christian theology begins to work its re-animation of human animality.  He doesn’t center the focus on pneumatology here, but Meyer’s understanding of the eschatological transformation of animals carries a pneumatological undercurrent I want to call forth more seductively and ask him to develop further as disruptive potential in all areas of theological anthropology, not just eschatology.

Boldly, again, Meyer takes on the language of predation and sexuality in eschatological consummation, offering up the possibility that both matter intimately in the eschaton.  He writes, “whatever the eschaton entails, God’s grace transforms and welcomes animals and animality into the divine life rather than leaving them on the abandoned shore of history.”[x]  Glorious, renewed relationships that honor both predators and prey and rich celebrations of animal sexuality as “ultimate concern” in the divine life is the vision Meyer offers.  Others have taken up those themes here.

Yet this transfiguring is the epiphanic witness of the Spirit, often called the Holy Ghost, instigating a heavenly vision of animality.  “The Spirit who groans with creatures in their current suffering does not abandon this commitment of solidarity at the eschaton, but exults, as companion and midwife, in animating the richest diversity of creaturely life as it fills the new heavens and the new earth.”[xi]  It’s this glimpse of instigative imagination, where Spirit enlivens, groans with ghosts, transfigures, reconnects, and reminds of solidarity.  But what exactly is the Ghost helping to bear forth in that solidarity?

As Mayra Rivera writes in her recovery of a hauntology of the Holy Ghost, “Animating ghosts to dance in the faults of history, or of ontology, the Holy Ghost incites those still alive to become witnesses.”[xii]  The groaning of the Spirit, giver of life, instigates the bearing of witness in a complex eschatological present—a present that lets oneself be haunted by the mingling of loss, life, and future possibility.  What if we were to conjure that Spirit, that Ghost as a constant return and renewal to our human animality?  In the history of Christian iconography, doves, rabbits, and living creatures of all sorts serve as the Spirit.  Could it be that perhaps the pneumatological breath of life, the nephesh desire breathing in each creature of this animated world is, at its base level, a perpetual witness to and reminder of our animality?  That witness is already, oddly, old in biblical ways.

My hunch is what we might get is what Willie James Jennings calls in his commentary on Acts, “the revolution of the intimate.”[xiii]  Such a revolution instigated by the Spirit serves to disrupt “nationalistic fantasy” of isolation, sovereignty or, in our case, the fantasy of human exceptionalism.  Pentecost transforms into a time when the chirps, howls, growls, and other sonic communications of our animal life haunt us with the intimacy of our own animal voice.

If it beckons us forward in eschatological consummation, the Spirit also calls us to the work of animal memory, to create rituals that remember the extinct, dying, and those animal bodies dying to thrive.  Perhaps that Ghost reminds us of the liminal places in our world now where species invisible to human imagination collapse without mourning.  Perhaps that Ghost meets us in the actual flesh of our animal kin, calling out to each other, bearing witness to the ongoing fallenness and possibility of human animality in ways we can never fully enflesh, groans humans could never bear witness to.  Perhaps, in that intimate space, we are awkwardly ever learning how to reconnect to our own animality.  We are learning how to honor the animal creatureliness of others, how undeservedly so amidst all these clouds of ash.

In that animal spirit, I might borrow words from poet Amy Munson and call, relentlessly,

 

for the missing, ghosts for my ghosts. Necromantic

descants pacing my tongue until the harrowed clouds

relent and scrabble ash back to flesh.[xiv]

 

 

[i] Todd Davis, Winterkill. East Lansing, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2016: 47.

[ii] Eric Daryl Meyer, Inner Animalities: Theology and the End of the Human. New York: Fordham University Press, 2018: 37.

[iii] James Cone, “Whose Earth is it Anyways?” Sojourners, 2007.  https://sojo.net/magazine/july-2007/whose-earth-it-anyway See also Daniel Spencer’s argument that the logics of exclusion and disgust towards LGBT peoples intermingle with the logic of animality.  Queers simultaneously give themselves over to their natural “animal passions” too much and, paradoxically, do not give into the humanness of their nature not enough.  Oppressive logics name queers as being “too natural” and “not natural enough.” See Gay and Gaia: Ethics, Ecology, and the Erotic. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 1996.

[iv] Meyer, 118 – 119.

[v] See Anne Primavesi, From Apocalypse to Genesis: Ecology, Ecofeminism and Christianity. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1991; Carol Newsom, “Common Ground: An Ecological Reading of Genesis 2-3” in The Earth Story in Genesis. Ed. Norman C. Habel and Shirley Wurst” Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000: 60-72. I’m more inclined to read this story as an emergence story, and wonder if that emergence is also structured by human exceptionalism, but Meyer’s work here does brilliant theological construction.

[vi] Meyer, 119

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Paul Kingsnorth, “Life Versus the Machine” Orion Magazine. Winter, 2018. https://orionmagazine.org/article/life-versus-the-machine/

[ix] Meyer, 145.

[x] Ibid., 151.

[xi] Ibid., 160.

[xii] Mayra Rivera, “Ghostly Encounters: Spirits, Memory, and the Holy Ghost” in Planetary Loves: Spivak, Postcoloniality, and Theology. Ed. Stephen D. Moore and Mayra Rivera. New York: Fordham University Press, 2011: 134 – 135.  See also the work of Avery Gordon and Jacques Derrida on hauntologies. Shelly Rambo’s scholarship haunts here as well.

[xiii]Willie James Jennings, Acts. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017: 27.

[xiv] Amy Munson, “Via Decumana,” Yes Thorn. North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2016: 58-59.

 

2 thoughts on “Ghost Species: The Haunting of Inner Animalities (Inner Animalities Book Event)

  1. One of those “ghost species” gave birth this week in Dublin zoo. So R.T.E tells us in a “feel good insert” to round up another Brexit day of confusion and stupidity. In the only photo available (mother and child” are in “seclusion” it seems, secreted from prying eyes in what looks like concrete bunker) she hugs her offspring to her breast like a jokey pun on a Christian icon.

    Soon the joke will be on us, another ghost species.

    Meanwhile there is always “feel good “ for the great unwashed and afterwards some reality, compliments of another moronic hour of t.v trash.

    For the more discerning, “feel good” comes in more sophisticated forms, that “grace” in which we find ourselves able to insert the concept transcendence into animality, another nail into the most certainly not divine but merely living flesh.

  2. Thank you, Jake, for the reflection here—and especially for all the poetry.

    I confess that the reason that I didn’t cite Primavesi or Newsom is that I have yet to read them. I cant remember exactly where I picked up the notion of an inverted “Fall,” but every time I mention it, people tell me about another thinker who went down that path before me. Primavesi, especially, has been on my “to read” list for a while now, but I haven’t yet sat down with her work.

    The work you’re doing here with the connections between the Spirit, ghost species, and haunting is beautiful and heartbreaking. It reminds me of a powerful conference presentation (at NAPS last year) in which C.M. Chin gave a talk accompanied by a collection of photographs of “the last of its kind” animals—pictures of the last known survivor of a species. Looking into the eyes of such a creature, even in a photograph, is gutwrenching.

    I’ll say more in my final response later this week, but thank you for these thoughts!

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