Theology and the End of the Human
- ISBN: 9780823280155
- Published By: Fordham University Press
- Published: July 2018
The overwhelming evidence for the current environmental catastrophe ought to make us reconceptualize the world as we know it, with its complex, interconnected web of life. All those caught in this crisis, humans and animals, as well as the land, rivers, and air we breathe, deeply and irrevocably suffer the consequences of human exploitative behavior; this reality calls us to rethink the very categories of separateness. The concept of “otherness” needs to be reevaluated, especially when that otherness is identified with a substantial section of the sentient population—that is, animals.
In his book Inner Animalities: Theology and the End of the Human, Eric Daryl Meyer takes on this call by building up a carefully crafted case for collapsing the division between human beings and animals. His investigation takes the shape of both a historical reflection and a critical approach to systematic theology. The book is thus structured around two main sections: “Critical and Historical Animalities” and “Constructive Animalities.”
The first part, “Critical and Historical Animalities,” is centered around two 4th-century theologians, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa. The analysis of these two Church Fathers as landmarks in the emerging Christian church’s thinking about animalities occupies the first two chapters. Gregory of Nazianzus is analyzed through the Johannine concept of the logos (mainly with reference to the Orations), thus overemphasizing the “rational” part of human beings, and creating a hierarchy of beings. This overemphasis on the human “uniqueness” also has an impact on the dissociation between mind and matters of the flesh and creates an “anthropological exceptionalism” (35). Gregory of Nyssa’s anthropological contribution is teased out of his commentary on the Song of Songs, a text well-known for its abundance of animal images, and in dialogue with Jacque Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am. In this again, priority is given to “spirituality” over “animality.”
The third chapter, “The Problem of Human Animality in Contemporary Theological Anthropology,” presents the author’s thesis that most contemporary works of systematic theology continue to affirm a radical distinction between animals and humans, despite the contemporary emphasis on creation. In fact he identifies the concept of “openness to God” as “consensus” (59), and discusses it through a quick survey of theologians: Robert Jenson, John Zizioulas, Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Paul Tillich, Jose Comblin, Arthur Peacocke, Kathryn Tanner, Stanley Grenz, Rosmary Radford Ruether, David Kelsey, Karl Rahner, and Wolfhart Pannenberg. The anthropological underpinnings, while affirming the importance of social relationship as constitutive of our commonality with non-human animals, continues to emphasize self-consciousness “as a spiritual ability to divine communication” (84).
The second section, “Constructive Animalities” proposes a new theological anthropology based on narrowing the gap between the animality of humans and that of animals, a “theological anthropology centered upon human animality” (85). The following three chapters develop this idea around three themes: identity, redemption and eschatology.
In chapter 4, “Animality and Identity: Human Nature and the Image of God,” the author’s dialogue partners are Giorgio Agamben, Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari. The works of each of these philosophers act as starting points, to be taken further in order to go through the “threshold” of theological discourse that limits our understanding of animalities. The classic biblical idea of the imago dei (the image of God; Genesis 1:26) is examined. Although recent interpretations—in the Earth Bible commentaries, for instance—tend to be more nuanced, there is a long and toxic interpretation of this verse as one of dominion and human control over creation.
The author’s choice of a counter-example in Daniel 4 is pleasing, highlighting the multivocality of biblical texts although there are many more which could have been chosen—for example, Job 12:7, Job 38, or Psalms 104. “Turning to the (Animal) Subject” explores aspects of feminism and trinitarian theology which help us to be aware of the voice of the other, as well as the relational aspect of creature-ness. These trajectories help us to retrieve the voices of a wide range of animals with regards to humans. Examples of how might we be “thinking with animals” (116) are particularly helpful in deconstructing the human-centered point of view.
Chapter 5, “Animality in Sin and Redemption” draws an analogy between sin and animality. Again, the author critically engages with the consequences of such an identification and draws on the works of Agamben, Althusser, and Butler to show that instead the redemption of human beings recreates “an endless animality in which human beings live in the breath of God” (145). This idea indeed is expressed in Psalm 150: “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord” (NRSV). The final chapter, “Animality in Eschatological Transformation,” asks the question: “What would resurrected animality be like?” The author takes the examples of digestion and sexuality to reinscribe animality in the “eschatological ecology” (172).
The book’s plea that we need to deconstruct the categories “human” and “animal” in order to focus on our commonality as sentient beings needs to be taken seriously. By introducing false (and forced) philosophical and theological categories, we have contributed to much of the ecological crisis. Further, an awareness, and a reevaluation of the pervading anthropomorphic vocabulary used when speaking or writing about non-human animals is crucial to changing attitudes. The radicality of the theology expressed in Inner Animalities should be neither underplayed nor ignored. Indeed, it needs to be integrated within the current Western, Christian theological discourse and extended to other disciplines. I highly recommend this book to students and teachers alike, as a tool to be pondered, and acted upon.
Ann Jeffers is a Research Fellow at Rohempton University, London.Ann JeffersDate Of Review:April 25, 2020