Inner Animalities: Theology and the End of the Human

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My book, Inner Animalities: Theology and the End of the Human, was released by Fordham University Press today (here it is at amazon). The excerpt that follows is from the introduction and describes the central theme of the book: the problem of human animality. The first half of the book holds critical readings of the problem of human animality in the texts of two fourth-century authors (Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus) and a host of contemporary theologians. The second half of the book holds constructive reworking of human animality in major theological themes such as the image of God, sin and redemption, and eschatological transformation.  

The Problem of Human Animality

The mainstream of the Christian theological tradition has been committed to some version of a categorical distinction between human beings and all other animals. When that categorical distinction collides with two other thoughts—the undeniable commonality of human and nonhuman animal life, and the Christian commitment to the fundamental unity of the human being—this long-standing commitment to anthropological exceptionalism generates what I call the “problem of human animality.” Holding these three convictions together in the Christian theological tradition has produced a wide range of strategies to control and contain human animality, competing solutions to a common problem. The manifest commonality of human life with the lives of other animals in embodiment, nutrition, mortality, and reproduction is obvious enough, but a few more comments may elucidate the dogmatic Christian commitment to the fundamental unity and integrity of the human being as a creature. Continue reading “Inner Animalities: Theology and the End of the Human”

The Politics of Redemption: The Social Logic of Salvation (Chapters 3-5)

The three chapters I’ll be dealing with plot out a series of alternative conceptions of atonement, i.e. not those most influential in the later theological tradition. Firstly, Adam gives some overview of some modern treatments – the theologies of Boersma, Weaver, and Aulén. Secondly, he turns to Irenaeus, whom he admits sets out a view that is far from mainstream (76), in spite of the orthodoxy of its author. Thirdly, he describes the development in Gregory of Nyssa. I will be giving summaries and comments on these chapters one by one, in case readers are still catching up with the pace of the reading!Chapter 3 is all about modern accounts that draw on some of the same sources treated in this book. As the first two authors are both reliant on the third, I will limit my comments largely to this latter, namely Aulén, the Swedish professor who wrote the standard work for atonement theory. Aulén worked at Lund, and his work is usually associated with that of Anders Nygren (who wrote Eros and Agape). Both were hardnosed Lutheran scolars of patristic theology, and both applied their work to contemporary systematic questions, which is unusual for Nordic Lutheranism. Continue reading The Politics of Redemption: The Social Logic of Salvation (Chapters 3-5)”

Liberation Theology, Satan, and Reconciliation

A couple of months ago I read Douglas’ The Black Christ. This works reviews the history of slave religion and the development of black liberation theology. In the last chapter, Douglas sketches her proposal for a womanist Christology. Something I found interesting in her work was her review of three major black liberation theologians: Albert Cleage, James Cone, and J. D. Roberts.

All three men have different views of theology and reconciliation. However, I only want to discuss the divide that separates Cone from Roberts. Continue reading “Liberation Theology, Satan, and Reconciliation”

Patristic PDFs: A love story

Those of us who do work on the patristic writers have the dubious privilege of easy access to the Ante-Nicene Fathers/Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers translations online from multiple sources. I decided to take advantage of this by creating my own online anthology for my “Classical Christian Thought” course, a task that proved to be much more labor-intensive than I thought but that I hope will have the benefits of providing students with full texts (rather than the incredibly small excerpts one usually finds) and with common page numbers to aid discussion. I also tinkered somewhat with the formatting and antiquated language, but didn’t get as far with that as anticipated. In most cases, I included a link to my source for the text; sometimes I copied and pasted the footnotes, and sometimes I left the footnotes as hyperlinks that you can follow to the original website if desired.

In any case, in the interest of helping my colleagues in every possible way, I have posted the PDFs below. Of particular interest might be my selections from Against Heresies, which cuts the length to about a third and makes the text usable for class — and since I have somehow managed to read the text all the way through twice, compile detailed notes, and write a dissertation chapter on it, hopefully you will find me to be a trustworthy excerpter.

Continue reading “Patristic PDFs: A love story”

Nature, grace, and anachronism

In the literature on Anselm, I’ve noticed what seems to me to be a real anxiety to make sure that Anselm isn’t “really” trying to get all the way to the necessity of the Incarnation by “pure reason.” The reason this explanation is necessary in the first place is that Anselm certainly appears to be doing that and doesn’t seem to view the attempt as problematic on a methodological level. In doing so, he is following in a proud tradition — for instance, Gregory of Nyssa’s “Great Catechism” is able to get to the Trinity and even to the creation and fall by means of something like the common sense of the Hellenistic world, though he recognizes that the Incarnation is going to be difficult to swallow. His general principle is to use Scripture for those who respect Scripture, and reason for those who accept only reason. Convincing the former is thought to be easier (though the historical record doesn’t seem to bear that out), but there isn’t a sharp division between the two that I can see.

I think that the reason for the anxiety about Anselm’s approach is that people are reading it in terms of Aquinas’s nature/grace distinction — i.e., reason can get you to a certain point (where Aristotle winds up), and then you need revelation, which is not contrary to reason but whose contents couldn’t be predicted using reason alone. The Trinity, for example, is firmly on the “revealed” side of this distinction, yet Gregory and Anselm both appear not to be worried about the fact that their reasoned argument has gone way over the line.

The reason for their lack of concern is probably that that line wasn’t a big concern of theirs, and we don’t need to read them anachronistically as though they knew about the nature/grace problem and were really concerned not to be doing something like “natural theology” because that would be somehow impious. Instead, maybe we should read them as doing what they’re actually doing — that is, assuming that the world described in Christian revelation is actually this very world where we are. If that is the case, then of course reason should be able to recognize the inner necessity of God’s actions in the world, because God is after all acting in this very same world where our reason finds its home.

I have a bunch of things that I want to say here but can’t fully support yet. For instance, I object to Aquinas’s two-tiered system first of all because it’s so inelegant. Another thing: maybe Barth’s polemic against “natural theology” should’ve gone further and also rejected the kind of “revealed theology” that’s defined in opposition to “natural theology.” Etc. I’m aware that there are all kinds of nuances that I’m not capturing here — sorry about that.

Beyond the Apophatic

Martin Laird, in his recent study Gregory of Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith: Union, Knowledge, and Divine Presence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), coins the word “logophasis” to describe what happens after an apophatic mystical experience: “as a fruit of apophatic union with the Word (logos), the Word expresses (phasis) itself through the deeds and discourse of the one whom the Word indwells” (155). Here’s a longer quote:

Logophasis is a manifestation of the Word in deeds and discourse that follows directly upon an apophatic experience of union with or indwelling of the Word. It is precisely this logophatic dimension of Gregory’s apophaticism that has not received sufficient scholarly acknowledgment. For if what we have seen of the role of faith is true, then there is no apophaticism in Gregory of Nyssa which supercedes or is unaccompanied by logophaticism. (172)

One of the metaphors that Gregory uses in his commentary on Song of Songs is the fragrance of Christ, and he talks about this specifically in connection with Paul (whose experience in the third heaven was obviously a locus classicus of mysticism):

The fragrance of Christ inhaled by Paul is not simply about indwelling union. Through inhaling the Word present in the fragrance, Paul himself becomes fragrant, a fragrant transmission of the Word in the Church. Intimate and abiding as the indwelling presence of the Word is, it has at the same time a universal destination through Paul. (159)

This notion of logophasis may well save mysticism for me — much of what I’ve read in that genre strikes me as hugely self-indulgent, but it appears that here in one of the first attempts at a Christian mysticism, there is at least an attempt to get beyond the God-soul dyad.