Animals as Religious Subjects: A Transdisciplinary Conference

by Eric Daryl Meyer

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?