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. 

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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. Continue reading “Ghost Species: The Haunting of Inner Animalities (Inner Animalities Book Event)”

Proper Humanity and the Fantasy of the Subhuman (Inner Animalities Book Event)

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Animal Studies is an interdisciplinary field. And this is one of the things that makes it interesting. But one thing I’ve always liked about its deployment in the fields of religion and theology is how this illuminates what Derrida referred to as the “divinanimal” dimensions of creaturely life. It is impossible to think carefully about animals in religion or theology without making note of the fact that there are enduring ambiguities between that which is divine or angelic on the one hand, and that which is animal on the other. It is easy, perhaps, for a primatologist like Frans de Waal (whose contact with religion is not his research, but his childhood encounters with Catholicism) to suggest that the cultural subjection of animal life is largely indebted to religious values and theological ideas. But as religious and theological thinkers such as Eric Meyer—who dig deep into the textual reservoirs of the ancient past—have made clear, the divine has also, often, taken on animal dimensions. This is true even for Christian thinkers, with their confessional allergies to animality. This other tendency has always been there, subdued or suffocated though it may now be. I don’t think this undermines the genealogical connections between the subjection of animal life and religious thought cultures. But it does complicate the story.

Theological discourses in Christianity have long (and evasively) intimated that animals are—in some way—”above us” (united with the divine, perhaps even more grace-filled or virtuous than the human). This is economically expressed, I think, in the figure of The Open that Rainer Maria Rilke evokes, in his eighth Duino Elegythat place where the animal and the eternal fuse, the divine blends with the animal. But in a western intellectual tradition, where animality has also served as the foil against which the sovereign figure of human life has attempted to constitute itself, animals have never—in any simple or outright sense—been figured as “above” us. Western thinkers have recognized that in the image of Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom there seems to be some virtue, or some messianic dimension, to animality. But strenuous efforts have been made to read these moments as nothing but allegories, arguing that they have never been about anything but properly human life all along (I lay these arguments out, elsewhere). Stripping the animal of the divine or angelic results, then, in a move that wants to place these divested animals somehow “below” us, in a reservoir that sometimes goes by the name of the subhuman. Continue reading “Proper Humanity and the Fantasy of the Subhuman (Inner Animalities Book Event)”

Eucharistic Animals and Hope for Earth (Inner Animalities Book Event)

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This post was written by Jay Emerson Johnson. Jay is a  Professor of Theology and Culture and Academic Director of the Ignite Institute  at the Pacific School of Religion. He is also a member of the core doctoral faculty at the Graduate Theological Union.

The grief I felt after the death of my beloved Australian shepherd dog Tyler, back in 2013, surprised me. Connecting that grief to the leather-sex sub-culture of “pup play” surprised me even more. The link between these emerged from an academic colleague’s suggestion that I might find animal studies an apt complement to queer theory for my constructive theological work.

I adopted Tyler from the local shelter when he was already nine years old. He lived another seven, happy years as my nearly constant companion at both work and play. When the time came to let him go after a period of ill health, I knew it would be difficult but not nearly as gut wrenching as it proved to be. The empty space he left behind prompted more introspection on a whole range of questions than I had expected, including a classic that I had not posed for a long time: do I have something called a “soul” but Tyler did not? More broadly, what exactly have Christian theologians meant by claiming for centuries that God made humanity in God’s own image when at nearly every turn the latest ethological research identifies yet another feature that can no longer belong to humans alone? Continue reading “Eucharistic Animals and Hope for Earth (Inner Animalities Book Event)”

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. Continue reading “Ecotheological Pathways (Inner Animalities Book Event)”

Can Animals Sin? (Inner Animalities Book Event)

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This response is from James K. Stanescu. He is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Mercer University and blogs at

The first half of Meyer’s book creates a theological archeology of human animality. I mean this very closely to the Agambenian understanding of archeology, in which we must interrogate that which is excluded in the human sciences so that we may actually understand that which has been traditionally included. As Agamben puts it, the point of philosophical archeology “is not properly a past but a moment of arising; however, access to such can only be obtained by returning back to the point where it was covered over and neutralized by tradition” (2009, 105).  As such, Meyer goes to the work of 4th century Christian theologians to trace the ways that animality has been excluded from theology, but also the stubborn fact of our shared animality always reasserting itself. Before I get too far into this engagement with Inner Animalities, I should note that I am not a theologian, or a religious studies scholar. Indeed, I am someone for who, to borrow a phrase from William James, belief in Christian metaphysics is not currently a live option. As such, while I found the archeological work of the first half fascinating, I have more to say about the second half of Meyer’s book. The second half is Meyer’s positive project, in which he seeks a “rethinking of traditional anthropological themes,” so that we can begin a “theological narrative [that] might revolve around human commonality with other animals.” (85) In particular, I am interested in the conception of sin that Meyer forwards. Continue reading “Can Animals Sin? (Inner Animalities Book Event)”

Inner Animalities: Book Event Introduction


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. Continue reading “Inner Animalities: Book Event Introduction”

The Self-Emptying Subject Book Event: Angels and Flies

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Beatrice Marovich is an assistant professor of theological studies at Hanover College. She works at the intersection of philosophy and theology and is currently working on a book called Creature Feeling: Political Theology and Animal Mortality.

Gilles Deleuze was no great proponent of theology. But he did recognize a kind of potency that was present, at least historically, in the concept of God. In a lecture on the early modern work of Spinoza, Deleuze posed that, prior to the 17th century, the figure of God gave philosophers a kind of creative freedom. This is not to say, of course, that these thinkers weren’t constrained in many ways by church authority. But, Deleuze suggests, philosophers were nevertheless able to work with these constraints in order to render them, instead, “a means of fantastic creation.” Working with the figure of God offered these thinkers a kind of conceptual opportunity—to think right alongside a figure that was, itself, entirely free of constraints. “With God,” Deleuze suggests, “everything is permitted.” Concepts, when pushed up against the figure of God, became free of the task of representation. Concepts could take on “lines, colors, movements” they would never have had “without this detour through God.” There was, Delezue suggests, a kind of joy in this intellectual labor.

For Deleuze, the creative joy of thinking with God was essentially a thing of the past. But in The Self-Emptying Subject: Kenosis and Immanence, Medieval to Modern Alex Dubilet seizes upon this old conceptual opportunity like it’s a live wire. Alex is not particularly interested in doing theology, at least not in the manner that contemporary academic theologians tend to self-consciously understand their intellectual labor. But Alex is invested in, as he puts it, “deactivating the battlefield of disciplinary polemics” that draws and re-draws the methodological boundary lines between religious and philosophical discourses over and over and over again. “Before we are philosophers or theologians, we are readers and thinkers,” Alex writes. And so, against these embittered polemics, Alex confounds the disciplinary boundaries between philosophy and theology, refusing to allow his project to be contained by either normatively religious or secular discursive limits. He takes some of his own detours through the figure of God. And he seems to find a contemplative but irreverent joy in this intellectual adventure. Yet he doesn’t stay on those roads, either. Instead he charts a winding footpath along the edges of philosophical and theological thought that is much more enticingly odd, and singular.

Continue reading “The Self-Emptying Subject Book Event: Angels and Flies”

God, Death & the Abortion of Time

Some of us are born with morbid imaginations. My mom tells a story about me, at the age of three: I wanted to know where we go when we die. The question consumed me, and she let me wonder. I apparently asked every adult I met and was unsatisfied with all of the answers I heard (heaven, six feet under; the great standards) Then she read me Oscar Wilde’s story “The Selfish Giant” which ends (spoiler alert) when the selfish giant is spirited away [by a christlike child] to the garden of paradise. “That’s it,” I told her. “That’s where we go. Paradise.” Perhaps all I needed was some vegetation: the vision of a garden. Or perhaps all I needed was a poetic term: something that felt like candy, or fresh fruit, on the tongue.

Many years later I was passed through the mills of deconstruction, postmodern thought, continental philosophy, feminist critique. Paradise became – to me – a power play: the gleaming veneer over transcendence, just another evisceration of finitude. Philosophers hate death, Simone de Beauvoir argued, because it carries a kind of placental stench. To think death, to really think death, is to take in the stink, the funk, of mortality. Philosophers prefer the clean purity of the immortal, the infinite. And women, said Beauvoir, are blamed for death because it’s birth that gave us death, in the first place. Beauvoir’s words always felt very true to me, and and there was feminist inspiration in the long sojourn I made into creaturely life. In creatureliness I wanted to embrace a kind of pure mortality; to make peace with the body’s limits, to illuminate its vulnerabilities, to be in its suffering. Contemporary theory is a rich vineyard to pull from, if this is what you thirst for. But, lately, I’ve grown weary of death.

This is the fifth semester in a row that I’ve been teaching a class on death. Right now I call it “Being Mortal.” In five terms, the syllabus has undergone a significant shift. Once it was heavy with texts that encourage a focus on raw mortality, with subtle critiques of immortality (both the biological and the supernatural varieties). But increasingly it becomes riddled with visions of the sweet hereafter, in various flavors. I once believed that the most difficult intellectual task would be to challenge students to question a pious valorization of the afterlife, and to rend a new form of openness to the limits of mortality. But this, I discovered, was actually the easiest thing to do. It was also, quite frankly, the most boring. It slowly began to dawn on me that my students believed, deeply, in mortal decay. But their speculative imaginations were, more often than not, deadened by it. At most, they would weakly (albeit dogmatically) offer the vision of a soul that would somehow outlast this decay. But our conversations about strange places like heaven and hell get their fictive impulses churning. Death can really be a dead end.

Tonstad’s book is not only a book about the trinity but is also, as the title promises, a book about the transformation of finitude. It is a vision that refuses to subordinate us to the reality of death. Unlike the philosophers who (as Beauvoir believed) hate death, Tonstad doesn’t deal with death misogynistically . Instead, death (like other elements of the book) is inspected using the diagnostic tools of queer theory and radical feminism. Continue reading “God, Death & the Abortion of Time”

Religion, Science, and the Multiplication of the Multiple in Worlds Without End

Perhaps because it strives to traffic in such grand and generic universals, the scholarly discourse commonly referred to as the “religion-science dialogue” has faced criticism for the fact that it has historically been a highly particular conversation—a table around which the stakeholders’ faces are white and male, and whose hearts are Christian. Unsurprisingly, and probably not unrelated, it is also a discourse that is seldom discussed here at AUFS. This is not to say, of course, that AUFS readers and bloggers are uninterested in scientific matters such as (I’m pulling from the “Categories” list on the left hand side bar here) animals, audio files, darwinism, Dawkins, ecology, or the sci-fi stylings of Star Trek. But the specialized academic conversation that is Religion and Science does not get much play here. This may be, perhaps, why Catherine Keller—in her opening post for this book event—reflects on how Mary Jane Rubenstein’s efforts in Worlds Without End are aimed at garnering interest in multiple worlds among those who don’t care about this specialists’ dialogue. Keller may be smart enough to realize that too much talk about this specialized disciplinary terrain could fall on ears that may not hear, here. But, in my contribution to this book event, I’d like to play it a bit dumb. As someone with a persistent tendency to resist disciplinary structures, I have spent inordinate amounts of time contemplating them from the fringes—always with a messianic expectation that, at some point, they will begin to change form. The shape of a discipline is highly synthetic and would be infinitely flexible if not for institutional power, and the consensus borne of tradition. Thus, the shape of a discipline matters a lot: it influences public knowledge and public funds, as well as the most intimate habits of thought and the practices these inspire. With this in mind, I’d like to reflect on Rubenstein’s genealogy of multiple worlds against the backdrop of this discipline, and open questions about what her work might also be doing to reconstitute it. I think this could make visible some labors of this text that might otherwise go unannounced. Continue reading “Religion, Science, and the Multiplication of the Multiple in Worlds Without End

Entanglement, Speculation & the Future of Relation – Cloud of the Impossible Event

During my last semester as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I took a poetry workshop with Thylias Moss. I’ve only had a few teachers whose classes I anticipated—typically in secret—in a I want to learn to think like her kind of way. Back then, I was super practical and wanted to be a poet (I hadn’t even begun to dream about theology, yet). Moss was one of those teachers. Her work was powerful, formally formidable, elegant, and ultimately inimitable. On one level, of course, I knew I was never going to think just like her. Race is inextricably a part of her poetry, illuminating a world of things that I only understood from a different orientation. But—though not unrelated to this—her poems are also (to use a category I wouldn’t necessarily defend) “nature” poems. Her poems have birds, and dogs—and not just as filler. They also have exposed optic nerves. There is a nature there, but its proximity is at turns amicable, benign, and damning. People are animals, which is a problem (for both people and animals), yet also something incandescent. Her poetry used language to world the world in a particular way: it did things that I knew (in theory) a poem was supposed to do, but often (in many poems) failed to. Her poems had their own optic nerves that made these strange and pulsing sub-visual connections between things that were apparently alien to one another. I didn’t have expectations about what the course would be like. But I admit that I was surprised to get to the campus bookstore and find a short stack of texts—for her class—on fractals.

Fractal art—in the form of digital graphics, or macro photography—wasn’t entirely new at the time. But I don’t think anyone besides Thylias Moss was fractalizing their poetry. Ultimately, for her, this was taking her further outside of that poetic tradition of the page—one that she existed in a degree of tension with—and into something else (like this, “The Glory Prelude”). Looking at some of her newer work, I get the sense that she’s been reading up on entanglement, the multiverse. But, back then, what she brought to us were fractals: those fragile, yet still powerful, highly abstract, yet deeply embedded, infinite patterns within things. She would have inhabited the stuffy tradition of poetry-on-the-page with a difference, with or without fractals. That’s how she worked as a poet. But the fractals helped. Injecting a discussion about them into our conversations about language, about the way we were each using language, changed the way I think and write. There was a kind of sci-fi adventurousness to it that made poetics both far stranger, and far more accessible, than it had been before. I still wrote poems about the same boring things: content pulled mostly from the small world I knew how to access. But I used language in a totally new way, I learned how to make fire from new materials.

When I chose to study with Catherine Keller, for the PhD, there may have been some residual expectations on my part—that I would find a similar kind of sci-fi adventurousness in the study of theology. I was drawn to the chaosmos in Face of the Deep, the way it made theology both more alien and yet also more accessible. In some ways those hopes for sci-fi weirdness were foiled. I was doing a PhD, after all. The bureaucratic patterns of academic life don’t take well to sci-fi. And Catherine’s work, too, resists sci-fi. The most prominent literary interlocutor in Cloud of the Impossible is, after all, Walt Whitman. Catherine has worked very hard to absorb scientific literature on entanglement, and I sense that sci-fi may be too unserious for her. Perhaps sci-fi (to use a figure Marika roused in her recent response) is a little too witchy. Theology is also, of course, risky in ways that poetry is not. The establishment has a long history of violence. Its relationship to power and politics are more structurally intimate. I mention Thylias Moss in this discussion of Catherine’s work, however, because I do think that, over time, I’ve come to see certain resonances between the way they do poiesis—the ways they world the world into language. Studying with each of them, I do feel like I’ve been encouraged to find those sub-material optic nerves, and to experiment with arranging them in new ways, to create differently organized filters through which to view the world. I think both of them have granted full reality to the relations between things—pliable, but difficult to render representationally—and taught me to work with this raw material. And I think, in each of their cases, using tools that are emerging in interdisciplinary conversation between the sciences and the humanities has helped to rupture the staid and stolid fields they work in. On a good day, this ruptured and ruffled sort of theology can almost be like the drag queen of the sciences. But only when it’s really put together. Something to aim for, at any rate. Continue reading “Entanglement, Speculation & the Future of Relation – Cloud of the Impossible Event”