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 criticalanimal.com.

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

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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”