For the past couple of years I’ve been teaching a first year introductory module called “Joining the Conversation”. The module exists to introduce students to key themes and concepts in Christian theology (hopefully in a way that engages both our philosophy and our theology students), to a key Christian thinker – St Augustine – and to a key set of study skills relating to reading texts, critically engaging with them, and writing essays. The module is organised around the theme of suffering, and the question of whether suffering is “What Matters Most”. Here’s the module descriptor I use:
April 18 and 19, 2019
569 Spadina AveThe Graduate Student Association at the University of Toronto’s Department for the Study of Religion invites you to a graduate symposium that explores the significance and relevance of forms of theoretical negativity for the study of religion. All sessions are free and open to the public.
This post was written by Jacob J. Erickson, who is an Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics at Trinity College Dublin.
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)”
[Each week, Sarah Jaffe — a new Star Trek fan who came to the franchise through Discovery — and Adam Kotsko — a long-time obsessive who has spent way too much time thinking about Star Trek — have been chatting about their impressions of the newest episode. Since we fell behind again, this post covers “Perpetual Infinity” and “Through the Valley of Shadows.” A full archive can be found here.]
SJ: I was afraid they were gonna kill Tyler and then I was going to have to go on strike from the show
I guess. I have watched the last one and I have thoughts.
(largely that the solution makes no sense, wtf)
Violence was present in my home. This does not make me special since violence is present in every home. I am even tempted to ask, don’t you know? There is no such thing as home. Only dead trees and minerals ripped from the ground and legally binding paperwork. Home is a name to cover that violence. But violence is not in itself a moral or ethical category. In naming home as violence I am not saying that home is bad or evil, though I am certainly also not claiming that violence simply is and that we should embrace it either, that violence is simply something “good”. In reading Eric’s Inner Animalities: Theology and the End of the Human I was drawn to thinking about violence, to asking what it is. I was drawn to wondering about the violence of my childhood, to the violence of eating, the violence of sex, and the violence that is here now and that is to come.
So much of the violence of home seems to take place around the dinner table. One must of course give the usual preamble here: a certain home, a certain family, even a certain dinner, to say nothing about the table. But at least anecdotally I can think of how often the tensions of home, the underlying violence, often manifests at the dinner table. Allow me some biography here, since to write about life is perhaps to write about the one that we have lived. So I can think of my step-father here, whose job as a cop was always tied to violence, and who demanded that there always be meat at dinner.
Continue reading “Closer, or the Pleasure of Being Eaten (Inner Animalities Book Event)”
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 Elegy—that 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)”
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)”