a few words

Month: January, 2011

The Hippopotamus

It just might be the case that T.S. Eliot beat me to my dissertation by about 90 years. Here is a poem published in 1920:

The Hippopotamus — T.S. Eliot

THE broad-backed hippopotamus
Rests on his belly in the mud;
Although he seems so firm to us
He is merely flesh and blood.

Flesh-and-blood is weak and frail,
Susceptible to nervous shock;
While the True Church can never fail
For it is based upon a rock.

The hippo’s feeble steps may err
In compassing material ends,
While the True Church need never stir
To gather in its dividends.

The ‘potamus can never reach
The mango on the mango-tree;
But fruits of pomegranate and peach
Refresh the Church from over sea.

At mating time the hippo’s voice
Betrays inflexions hoarse and odd,
But every week we hear rejoice
The Church, at being one with God.

The hippopotamus’s day
Is passed in sleep; at night he hunts;
God works in a mysterious way–
The Church can sleep and feed at once.

I saw the ‘potamus take wing
Ascending from the damp savannas,
And quiring angels round him sing
The praise of God, in loud hosannas.

Blood of the Lamb shall wash him clean
And him shall heavenly arms enfold,
Among the saints he shall be seen
Performing on a harp of gold.

He shall be washed as white as snow,
By all the martyr’d virgins kist,
While the True Church remains below
Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.


Eliot works out a fantastic reversal over the course of the poem. As Mary Midgley (whose book Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature led me to Eliot’s poem) points out, we have a tendency to think about animals in their actual behavior  and humans in their ideal behavior. Hippopotami are bloated, awkward, and fartsome, while human beings intone immaculate hallelujahs.

By the end of the poem, however, the rarified hubris of the pure Church has turned to an isolating fog. Building a community, or a spirituality on the principle of excluding the animal (whether one’s own human animality or the animal others whom we meet face to face) may also thwart God’s love, which bends to bodies as bloated and fartsome as our own.


Animality and the Word of God :: John 1:1-4

I have been dwelling for quite some time at the boundary between humans and animals, thinking through the way that this boundary is imagined and presented, and especially thinking through the way that this boundary is infused with theological significance or drawn in theological terms.

This afternoon I was reading through Derrida’s final seminar (now published as The Beast and the Sovereign) and in the 12th session of that seminar came a discussion of the first chapters of both Genesis and the Gospel of John. Of course, both of these texts are heavily freighted so far as the relationships among God, humans, and other animals are concerned. Derrida’s circuitous thinking inspired a (theologically loaded) translation of John 1:1-4 that I’d like to try out (significant elements italicized).

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν. ὃ γέγονεν ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν, καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων· καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν.

“In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. This word was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through this word, and apart from this word not one thing came to be. That which came to be by this word was animality, and this animality was the light of humanity. The light appeared in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Now, clearly this is pushing the usual semantic range of ζωὴ, at least as we are accustomed to hearing it. Still, I think that this translation has some merit.

Etymologically, ζωὴ [life] is the animating force of the ζωόν [living being, animal]. ζωὴ is emphatically not something that is exclusive property of human beings, but is the animating force in which both humans and animals are alive. Classically, when someone comes to define just what it is that an ἀνθρωπος [human] is, being human is described as being some kind or another of ζωόν [animal] (for two famous examples, ζωόν πολιτικόν [the political animal], ζωόν λογον εχων [the animal having speech/reason/discourse]. ζωὴ, then, is a necessary element of being human, but can’t belong to humanity alone.

Furthermore, John is most certainly quoting and riffing on Genesis here. The λόγος [word] is clearly the speech of Elohim, at which all creation emerges (not just the human mode of being).

All that to say, to imagine that the life of which John speaks here is something that belongs only to human beings precisely as human beings (e.g. a “spiritual” life that has nothing to do with animals) is a stunning bit of prejudice. The life which is the light of humanity is not a life that excludes, or comes in distinction from the life which is the life of animals. In order to reinforce this point, we might remember the oft-made point that the λόγος becomes σὰρξ [flesh] in order to dwell among us, not (literally, at least) ἀνθρωπος [human].

If this line of reading is viable, then one of the first things that we need to theologically reconfigure is the significance of God’s λόγος, and of God’s being as λόγος.

Traditionally, in both Greek philosophy and much of the Christian tradition, among creatures λόγος  has been an exclusive property of humanity, and a direct connection with God which excludes all other creatures. The human is rational, articulate, speaking, discursive [all valid translations] whereas other creatures are not. This is so much the case, that one can name the class of living beings which are not humans (every non-human living being that falls under the label “animal”) simply by saying “ὁι ἀλογοι” [those who lack λόγος].

Now, if the divine λόγος can be thought as animating creatures other that humans as Genesis and John perhaps suggest, then using λόγος as the boundary that divides humanity from all other creatures is a stunning bit of hubristic appropriation. To claim λόγος as something that belongs to us and to us alone is to cut ourselves off from the rest of creation, and perhaps, from God’s presence to the rest of creation.

I can’t and won’t argue it out here in full (beyond what I’ve already tried to indicate in John’s text), but I’m laboring to work out a theological thesis. Namely, that it is the concern to foster and defend an exclusively human λόγος (our own rationality, our own speech, our own mode of thought) which actually cuts us off from the divine λόγος which is present in animals (and everything that has come to be). The “rationality” which we imagine as the dividing line between “us” humans and “them” animals is also the pathology that cuts us off from God’s activity in and for creation. Our autonomous λόγος is not the opposite of, but is precisely the expression of our παθος. In (my [per]version of) John’s terms, the darkness that cannot and will not overcome the light is the autonomous human λόγος that cannot and will not eradicate the ζωὴ [life, both animal and human] which is God’s work.

Salvation, then, would be imagined not as a process whereby one’s animality (desire, lust, embodiment, etc.) is overcome and abandoned in an approach to God (who is perceived the opposite of all of these things), but rather as a forsaking of the autonomous human λόγος (which can only end in death) for the life-giving λόγος of God. Perhaps the λόγος of God saves human beings by integrating them more deeply into the life [ζωὴ] which is the life of all creation. Perhaps becoming a child of God (John 1.12) entails becoming more animal rather than less.

2010 Pages Turned :: A Year of Books

Here is a list of the books that I read cover-to-cover in 2010. I did not include articles or books which I read only in part. They are grouped loosely according to categories which, like all categories, are fluid and disputable. Within each category, I’ve put the texts that I found most illuminating, inspiring, or intriguing in bold-face print. In some categories, I’ve also indicated the text that I found least appealing (for any number of reasons) by putting the title in brown print.

I would enjoy conversing about any of these books if anyone has thoughts or opinions to share.



James Keating and Thomas Joseph White, eds., Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering, 357.

Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology I, 300.

Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, 223.

David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism, 467.

James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 254.

Sallie McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology, 274.

Ernst Troeltsch, The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions, 174.

Arthur D. Yunker, Toward a Theology of Pipesmoking, 73.

Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation, 225.

Adolf von Harnack, What is Christianity?, 301.

Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology, 285.

Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology I: The Triune God, 245.

Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 252.

Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel, 280.

Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology II: The Words of God, 380.

Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, 470.

Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, 197.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.1: The Doctrine of the Word of God, 503.

Graham Ward, Barth, Derrida and the Language of Theology, 258.

Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, 287.

Wolfhart Pannenberg, Anthropology in Theological Perspective, 552.

Karl Barth, The Humanity of God, 96.

Paul F. Knitter, One Earth Many Religions: Multifaith Dialogue and Global Responsibility, 218.

Marjorie Hewitt Suchoki, The Fall to Violence: Original Sin in Relational Theology, 168.

Rosemary Radford Ruether, Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing, 310.

Alastair McFadyen, Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust, and the Christian Doctrine of Sin, 255.

Jean Daniélou, Philon D’Alexandrie, 214.

Anna-Stina Ellverson, The Dual Nature of Man: A Study in the Theological Anthropology of Gregory of Nazianzus, 113.

Thomas H. Tobin, The Creation of Man: Philo and the History of Interpretation, 197.

Simone Weil, Waiting for God, 151.

Celia Deane Drummond and David Clough, eds., Creaturely Theology, 294.



Slavoj Zizek, The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology, 499.

Georgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal, 102.

Kelly Oliver, Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human, 364.

Catherine Osborne, Dumb Beasts and Dead Philosophers: Humanity and the Humane in Ancient Philosophy and Literature, 262.


Religious Studies:

John Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path, 335.


Ancient/Medieval texts:

Nemesius of Emessa, On the Nature of Man, 273.

Gregory of Nazianzus, Festal Orations [1, 38, 39, 40, 41, 45], 195.

Augustine, Confessions, 347.

Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Man: Theological Poetry, 176.

Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ [Orations 27-31 and Letters 101, 102], 175.

Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory Nazianzus [Orations 8, 14, 20, 26, 38, 39, 42, 44, and asst’d poems/letters], 273.

Evagrius of Pontus, Evagrius of Pontus, trans. Robert Sinkewicz [Includes: Foundations of the Monastic Life; To Eulogios; On the Vices Opposed to Virtues; On the Eight Thoughts; The Monk: a Treatise on the Practical Life; To Monks; To Virgins; On thoughts; Chapters on Prayer; Reflections; Exhortations; Thirty Three Ordered Chapters; Maxims], 369.

Evagrius of Pontus, Antirrhetikos, trans. David Brakke, 190.

Evagrius of Pontus, Evagrius Ponticus, trans. A.M. Cassiday [Includes: On the Faith; Great Letter; Letters 7,8,19,20; Foundations; On Thoughts; A Word about Prayer; Scholia on Job; Scholia on Ecclesiastes; On the ‘Our Father’; Scholia on Luke; To the Virgins; Excerpts; Aphorisms; Definitions; On Prayer], 250.

Origen, De Principiis/ Peri Archon, 342.

Philo of Alexandria, De Mundis Opificio, 60.

Philo of Alexandria, De Gigantibus, 10.


Biblical Studies:

Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ, 154.

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, 357.



Larry Rasmussen, Earth Community, Earth Ethics, 364.

Wesley Smith, A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement, 310.



Sara Miles, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, 285.

Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness, 286.



Chaim Potok, The Chosen, 272.

Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev, 369.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, 90.

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, 242.

Toni Morrison, Beloved, 277.

C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 382.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, 458.

Shusaku Endo, Silence, 201.

Danielle Ganek, Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him, 275.

Charles Johnson, Oxherding Tale, 176.


Self-Help (Self-defeat?):

Marty Nachel, Home Brewing for Dummies, 391.