a few words

Month: February, 2011

Animals as Religious Subjects: A Transdisciplinary Conference

I’ve been very much looking forward to the upcoming conference (taking place May 21-24 at St. Deiniol’s Library, Wales) on Animals as Religious Subjects. The conference is being organized by Celia Deane Drummond of Chester University. Her book, co-edited with David Clough, Creaturely Theology, is well worth reading if you are interested in the subject.

A few weeks ago, I received the good news that my paper proposal was accepted. The abstract that I submitted is below:

‘Marvel at the intelligence of unthinking creatures!’: Animal Subjectivity and Religious Perfection in Gregory of Nazianzus and Nemesius of Emesa

What generates the collective intuition (or instinct?) that humans are religious subjects while fellow creatures are not? Is it more than parochial hubris?

My paper examines the interplay of subjectivity and instinct in order to argue that, for Gregory of Nazianzus and Nemesius of Emesa the perfected mode of religious subjectivity is structurally identical to the instinctual “subjectivity” of animals (a subjectivity nevertheless disavowed), such that the subject approaching God becomes more ‘animal’ not less.

Answering the claim that bees and ants rationally arrange their societies for the benefit of each and all, Gregory and Nemesius quickly explain away this apparent rationality by externalizing the source of this animal behavior. Each argues that the creative Logos of God implants instincts for rational behavior within ‘irrational animals.’ God’s wisdom is on display, not the faculties of these creatures. Gregory and Nemesius thus inscribe the gap between human beings and other animals as the difference of discursive rationality and freedom: the human is free and reflective while other animals act on instinct. The instinctual behavior of animals appears rational because they are acting out the implanted rationality of God, not because they possess reason.

Interestingly, however, when each of these authors turns to describe the proper goal of human life (approaching God through disciplined contemplation)—a calling in which humans are supposedly most differentiated from other animals—they describe a mode of subjectivity indistinguishable from that of the beasts ‘left in the dust.’ The perfected human being has so ordered her life through contemplation and discipline that her whole being aligns with the Logos of God. With nary a second thought, the divine Logos pervades her disposition, desire, and behavior because any resistance from her personal, subjective logos has been abandoned. One might say that God’s Logos has become her own most native and natural instinct. Two questions follow: What difference remains between this perfected religious subjectivity and the instinctual subjectivity of other animals? If the difference is not categorical, what remains of that purportedly exclusive possession of humankind—a religious subjectivity with an independent rationality? Is it more than parochial hubris?

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Gregory of Nyssa on the Nearness of Heaven

I came across this passage in a letter of Gregory of Nyssa to a friend of his, and immediately wanted to share it:

“It does not seem to me that the Gospel is speaking of the firmament of heaven as some remote habitation of God when it advises us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, because the divine is equally present in all things, and, in like manner, it pervades all creation and it does not exist separated from being, but the divine nature touches each element of being with equal honor, encompassing all things within itself.”

If there is a heaven, it is to be seen in the dignity borne by each bit of being; not infinitely elsewhere, but breaking out from within the dishonor and decay with which we are more familiar.

Call for Papers :: Fordham Graduate Theology Conference

I’m helping to organize a regional graduate student conference that will take place at the end of April at the Lincoln Center campus of Fordham University, midtown Manhattan.

The call for papers is below; if you know of anyone who might be interested, please pass this along or print off a copy for yourself by clicking here: FGTC call for papers.

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:: Call for Papers ::

Marginal Persons and the Margins of Personhood

 

Fordham Graduate Theology Conference

Saturday April 30th, 2011

Fordham University, Lincoln Center, NYC

Keynote Address: Virginia Burrus (Drew University)

The Theology Graduate Student Association at Fordham warmly invites submissions from graduate students in the disciplines comprising religious studies and theology. Students whose research is primarily textual/biblical, sociological, historical, philosophical, ethical, or constructive are all invited to submit and attend. Examples of topics within the scope of the theme include:

The dynamics of marginalization: the involvement of religion in economic, political, or colonial exploitation/liberation; religious hybridity or self-location at margins; boundaries drawn with religious rhetoric—past and present; the exclusion and erasure of people from the historical record; the value, function, and criteria of orthodoxies and heresies.

The notion of ‘personhood’ in religious contexts: the definition and significance of personhood as a category; the propriety of conceiving of God as personal; controversy over the “persons” of the Trinity; the relation of animals and angels to personhood; the unique rights of persons, and the politics of recognizing personal rights; religion as a “personal matter,” not a public concern; personhood as rhetoric or ontology.

Abstracts, no longer than 350 words, should be sent via email to fordhamtgsa@gmail.com by Monday, March 21st.

Presentations will be 15-20 minutes, with subsequent time for questions/discussion. The conference will conclude with a keynote address from Virginia Burrus. Professor Burrus is a scholar of late-ancient Christianity at Drew University. She is a former president of the North American Patristics Society and the author or editor of eight books, including Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints, and Other Abject Subjects and The Sex-Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography.

Complete conference schedule and further information will be available at the conference website (click here).  Questions may be directed to fordhamtgsa@gmail.com.