Laudato Si': Hearing the cry of the world in the Anthropocene

By Lieve Orye

Last Thursday we had the pleasure at the faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at KULeuven to welcome and listen to a public lecture by theologian and biologist Celia Deane-Drummond: 'Laudato Si’ and Pope Francis as prophet and priest in the Anthropocene'. Her lecture was part of a two day interdisciplinary expert seminar on ‘Laudato Si' and progress’, organized by the Centre for Catholic Social Thought in collaboration with CAFOD, Catholic Agency for Overseas Development.

Channeling a cry, Speaking into the heart of the Anthropocene

Photo by Christus Rex.

Photo by Christus Rex.

Laudato Si’ is receiving much attention. Its audacity, philosopher Bruno Latour even writes, “is equaled only by the multiple efforts to deaden as much as possible its message and effects”(251). He sees two major innovations behind this audacity, the link between the ecological and injustice and the recognition that the earth itself can act and suffer. Both these innovations, he notes, are associated with the strange word cry: to hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, writes Pope Francis, a true ecological approach must always be a social one, integrating questions of justice in debates about the environment (§49). A cry, Latour notes, is not a message, a doctrine, a slogan, a piece of advice or a fact but rather something like a signal, a rumor, a stirring or an alarm. Something that makes you sit up, turn your head and listen. 

Deane-Drummond recognizes this deep cry of the heart in Laudato Si’  as a cry in the epoch of the Anthropocene, our current geological age, characterized as a period in which human activity emerges as the dominant influence on climate and the environment. Unlike scientists who see the human impact on climate and environment as a problem that can be fixed by means of a technological solution, Pope Francis speaks from a different imaginary that gives science its proper place but invites a cultural revolution, a shift in lifestyle. He has, Deane-Drummond noted, given us a sketch of a different and open social imaginary, one that resists an imaginary in terms of human dominance through a call to inner transformation and the nurturing of ecological virtues.

Listening to birds in the Anthropocene

Though Pope Francis does not use the term, hearing the deep cry of the heart in Laudato Si’ as a cry in the Anthropocene is illuminating. Though scientists still discuss the particulars of the Anthropocene, it is already more than just scientific fact. As anthropologists have started showing, it is what people hear and sense and worry about, for instance in their listening to the birds.

Creative Commons by Deanne Fortnam.

Creative Commons by Deanne Fortnam.

Saint Francis of Assisi spoke, preached to the birds. It is said that he preached to a flock of almost a hundred sparrows, which only left when he said they could. They were as much a part of his brotherhood as the pope. But if, as Andrew Whitehouse suggests, the Anthropocene started with the industrial revolution, ushering in the epoch of anthrophony in which human sounds and human-made sounds of industry, machinery, electronic amplification and so on started drowning out the biophony and geophony in many parts of the world, Francis’ speaking to the birds was clearly still an anthrophony of the pre-Anthropocene kind. We can understand his speaking, in other words, as characterized by an attentiveness that made resonance possible. It integrated more closely with the sounds and attentiveness of other beings rather than disrupting or dominating these (57).

In his article ‘Listening to Birds in the Anthropocene: The Anxious Semiotics of Sound in a Human-Dominated World’ Whitehouse’s informants do not so much speak, nor preach to the birds. They do listen attentively and respond in resonance. But unlike Saint Francis they listen in the Anthropocene and, in the silence they hear more and more, the cry of the earth resounds. Whitehouse points out that the concept of the Anthropocene simultaneously draws humans and non-humans together and separates them out:

According to Lorimer, “The recent diagnosis of the Anthropocene represents the public death of the modern understanding of Nature removed from society.” Human and non-human worlds can no longer be conceived as existing in separate realms, and nature, at least in the sense of that which is separate from society, struggles to be convincing as a concept. And yet, as Crist has argued, the Anthropocene also appears to place humans on a pedestal as the only species in the history of the planet powerful enough to be deemed the primary Earth-shaping force (54).

The notion furthermore emphasizes anxieties that we humans have caused the ‘end of nature’, the disappearance of birds, butterflies and bees. That we are responsible for silent springs, for springs no longer announced by birds singing. The notion indicates both the interconnectedness of human and non-human lives as well as the potential for their destruction and silencing by humans.

Anxious semiotics and ethical relating

house-sparrows-on-branch-by-martha-de-jong-lantink-ccl

house-sparrows-on-branch-by-martha-de-jong-lantink-ccl

Though there is nothing inherently new about the experience of anxiety in relation to environmental conditions, the Anthropocene, Whitehouse notes, brings with it particular configurations. It “relates to real and observable changes in the local worlds people perceive around them and to semiotic elaborations on those perceptions that draw together local and global, human and non-human, present and future, into anxiety-laden narratives” (55). Though there is growing desire to attend to and to care for birds and their ecology, these seem continually outstripped by our capacity to disrupt and endanger.

To hear the cry of the earth in the Anthropocene, attentiveness is key. Whitehouse’s point is that it is to those least alienated from other forms of life that the wounds caused in the Anthropocene become more apparent. It is in them that these wounds provoke a moral disquiet (63). The anxious semiotics, Whitehouse notes, only emerges through active listening.

“The more we care about our world and the more we pay attention to it, the worse things seem to get… the more we listen to birds the more we notice the loss of birds from pesticides, the destruction of habitat, the encroaching dominance of Anthrophonic sounds, the sounds that are out of place and ecosystems that are dissonant”(69).
  photo by James Brush

  photo by James Brush

“All ethical relating, within or between species, is knit from the silk-strong thread of ongoing alertness to otherness-in-relation” wrote Donna Haraway (50). This is an ethical relating that, as Whitehouse points out, is importantly grounded in the same kinds of semiotic processes through which birds listen to their own world. Through listening, through paying attention, we can no longer think, indifferently, of birds as part of a separate mindless Nature. Rather, Whitehouse notes, such listening should ground the development of relations of companionship. “It elicits not simply a narrative of encroaching loss and the ever present threat that humans pose to non-humans, but one of enskilment, of how we learn to listen to birds and to the rest of our world…”(70). Precisely in our worrying, in our hearing the cry of the earth, lies hope. In those little daily actions, as little as listening to the birds and worrying about them occurs the nurturing of a different relation.

The song of birds, the song of fellow humans

 As Latour notes,

Laudato Si’ is a funny kind of text – wordy, busy, contradictory, repetitive – but this is because it is itself channelling this immense cry, which is impossible to decode rapidly, which makes one prick up one’s ears, turn one’s head toward those other actors, so different from nature and from humanity: a Sister Mother Earth whom we had almost forgotten was herself capable of suffering, like the poor who are tangled up with her. It is up to the readers now to channel, in turn, this immense cry (255).
Dark-eyed Junco (Photo: William Majoros/Creative Commons)

Dark-eyed Junco (Photo: William Majoros/Creative Commons)

Laudato Si’  is speaking into the heart of the Anthropocene, urging those indifferent to live attentively. It emphasizes moreover that we should not pay attention to the wounds of the earth as if these could be separated out from the wounds of fellow human beings. Just as we care about the singing of the birds and worry about their disappearance, we must care at least as much about the singing of fellow human beings, being attentive, listening to what their sounds are telling us. Do we hear the sounds and silences of dominance and suffering or the lively chatter of everyday attentiveness, care and hospitality, the songs of human flourishing? Do anxious semiotics also arise from our listening in and do we allow this anxiety to encourage our enskilment in ethically relating to them?

 

Haraway, D. (2003) The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 50.

Latour, B. (2016) 'The Immense Cry Channeled by Pope Francis', Environmental Humanities, 8(2), 251-255.

Whitehouse, A. (2015) 'Listening to Birds in the Anthropocene: The Anxious Semiotics of Sound in a Human-Dominated World', Environmental Humanities, 6(1), 53-71.

 

 

On Being Afraid: The Morality of Fear and European Migration Crisis

by Vaiva Adomaityte

Even unwillingly when talking about the refugees the analogy of the Trojan horse comes to my mind. As back then the Trojan people could not resist receiving the gifted horse, so the EU did not dare at the very beginning of the crisis to be brave, strong and tell that we are not responsible or committed to save the whole world and we cannot accept each person willing to gain access with our open arms. The opposite was done. I think no one has forgotten the famous invitation for the refugees by A. Merkel to come to the EU. The chancellor of Germany has motivated her invitation as an expression of Christian compassion (while in reality, she just solved the demographic problems of her aging country). How many times everybody repeated the same – it is rude, after all, to refuse to help the ones in trouble. Yes, it is rude, but it is even ruder to disregard the safety, interests and opinion of own citizens. (Valentinas Mazuronis, a Lithuanian politician of the Labor Party in the European Parliament)

 

Refugees, fear and/or compassion?

Mr. Mazuronis compares refugees to a Trojan horse, symbol of immanent threat, something we should fear because it will destroy our nations from within. He also mentions another motive that can inspire a human response to current situation – compassion. Both of these sentiments were and still are widely present in political rhetoric and media coverage. What we should take from this quote is that we should take seriously the emotions surrounding the upheaval caused by the new and continuous wave of mass migration and should discuss the role they play in the moral realm. Fear seems to come easy, compassion less so. On the 12th of January KU Leuven and UGent will confer a joint honorary doctorate on Angela Merkel, “for her diplomatic and political efforts to develop the political strength of Europe, and to defend the values that allow our continent to find unity in diversity.“ From the beginning she has fought the feelings of fear the refugee crisis has provoked in many by countering it with a posture of compassion and hopefulness. Fear must be taken seriously, though, and worked through.

Seaofpeople.jpg

Fear as political emotion

For defining the contours of fear, the American moral philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum offers helpful insights in her book The New Religious Intolerance. Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age (2012). Nussbaum’s philosophical diagnosis of fear as a political emotion starts from the basic presupposition that emotions are not accurately understood as irrational feelings: they have a cognitive content and this content is morally-laden. Emotions reflect our values and so our moral characters. Basic fear or startle is, indeed, a hardwired instinct for self-preservation, a defense mechanism evolutionary geared for survival. Yet, Nussbaum points out, if we want to think of fear that operates in a distinctively human context of social life, it is clearly more than a simple biological startle reaction to, for instance, shapes of snakes and predatory animals. For Nussbaum, human fears are stemming from and dependent upon our conception of well-being.

“[F]ear is about potential damage to one’s well-being, a conception that corresponds to one’s deepest values.” (p. 33)

This corresponds to the analysis of theologian Susanna Snyder in her book Asylum Seeking, Migration, and Church (2012), in which she defines the largest areas of fears regarding immigration as the perceived threats asylum seekers and refugees pose to our national identity, welfare, and security: they all have to do with a conception of the good life.[1] We can find the same intuition about the connection of fear and a conception of well-being in Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Fear (2006) where he argues that we live in a culture of fear and that

“[i]n fear we are met by something outside ourselves, and what we meet is a negation of what we want. We fear the important things in life being destroyed or taken away from us, such as our freedom, dignity, health, social status and – taken to its extreme – our lives. We fear not only for ourselves but also for others, and especially those dear to us. When any of this is threatened fear is a normal reaction.” (p. 12-13)

When commenting on today’s crisis, Bauman suggests that refugees embody the danger of losing everything and living in a permanent state of insecurity. Refugees bring this bad news to our proximity, to the cities we live in – we can’t avoid the presence of someone who embodies and signals all our fears.[2]

Dealing with fear, seeing the other

This presence leaves us restless. For fear not to turn to paranoia, Nussbaum writes, “people need to have a well-thought-out conception of what their welfare consists in.”(p.32) Our identity, our social and economic welfare and our security are certainly fundamental parts of our well-being – but as she points out, we often “make many mistakes about what is conducive to these ends.” (p.32) This requires a serious intellectual and moral scrutiny on the personal and political levels.

Next to the insights on the complex cognitive content of fear that is active in society, Nussbaum suggests an additional insight: fear is also problematic due to the perspective on the world it offers. Fear is a particularly self-referential emotion. With its focus on what threatens the self and what is dear to the self, fear has the tendency to make the self the prime concern and to remain blind to the existence, needs, and even reality of the other. Fear can be seen as a form

…of exaggerated self-love, a ‘fog’ that stands between us and the full reality of other people.” (p. 57) Moreover, in fear “people have great difficulty seeing other people as fully real and worthy of genuine concern – because they are wrapped up in themselves and see others only through the obscuring haze of their own needs and plans. (p. 57)

The opening quote by Mr. Mazuronis is a telling example of fear narrowing our perspective. Refugees are seen as another problem threatening an already burdened society, not as the people who suffer and may need our help. If we reason only from fear’s perspective, it will threaten or prevent love, Nussbaum suggests. There is no claim that fear cannot be evoked in political and civic rhetoric at all – fear can at times be valuable and it is some instances correct. The problem is the adequate usage of fear rhetoric and in Nussbaum’s judgment it is rarely used in a constructive way. Such a rhetoric will always lack the perspective of the other and I suggest that to make the best moral and political decisions we need a balance of being reasonably cautious and benevolent. Precisely benevolence in a form of empathy or compassion provides a moral insight that may help us to get a handle of our fears. But taking the complexity and cognitive content of fear seriously demands that we do the same for empathy and compassion. These are not simple emotions or practices either and need moral work as well.

 

 

[1] see Fear, faith, asylum seekers, a blogpost on RelationVulnerabilityLove2016.

[2] see'Zygmunt Bauman: Behind the world's 'crisis of humanity' on Talk to Aljazeera, 23 July 2016.

Pepper, the robot - and theology

by Gábor Ambrus

Ever since the development of AI have theologians reflected upon its implications for their own discussions. Even more, with the development of artificial intelligence and robotics, some are wondering about the emergence of a new species of God-talk, a new voice, something strange, eerie, mysterious. And this eeriness and mystery would perhaps continue to evolve as machine intelligence resembles human beings ever more closely. The more humanoid, amicable and “emotional” behavior a robot is capable of, the more powerful and perplexing it may turn out to be as a witness to God. But how much is such a claim grounded in reality? Is there more to it than a theological foray into the realm of science fiction? Philosophers and scientists are wondering to what extent the present state of artificial intelligence allows a machine to carry on a meaningful conversation with a human being. Theologians could explore the question of whether and how God could be the topic of such a human-machine chat. But, even if a machine were able to talk about God, why would such a conversation be more than a mere illusion, a result of sophisticated gear, silicon, plastic, and an enormous amount of coding – in short, technological tricks?

Pepper

The Financial Times has recently published an article about Pepper, a cutting-edge humanoid companion robot designed by Aldebaran, a French robotics firm, for its parent company, the Japanese SoftBank. When Pepper visited the headquarters of the newspaper, it charmed and enchanted everyone. Its lovely appearance and childlike, loquacious behavior caused a sensation, with people listening, laughing, posing for selfies. Clearly, they must have been aware that Pepper is only a robot, only a toy to play with, albeit a novel and very special one equipped with a refined sensorium and A.I.; still, their attitude seemed to indicate more that they felt being part of a game with an equal, a playmate. The author of the article, Robert Shrimsley, is understandably baffled.

“Deep down, of course, I know that Pepper cannot do anything that has not been determined by humans. Its jokes are preprogrammed; and what seems like conversation is effectively just lines of computer code. I know all this and, yet, somehow I don’t. (…) Pepper is designed to win you over, to make you believe you are in the presence of more than plastic, processing chips and sensors.”

No wonder that the majority of those thousands of Peppers sold in Japan have found a home as valued companions in families (while the others are employed as charming, obliging shop assistants in businesses).

Love

As a matter of fact, the fallacy which we may call the “anthropomorphic illusion” has always been with us human beings. We have always anthropomorphized animals. Later on we invented increasingly complex machines like mills, weaving machines (like the spinning Jenny), various applications of the steam engine, aircrafts, cars, and we have tended to anthropomorphize them ever since.

But Pepper is different. Pepper is in fact humanoid, a robot who is capable of conversation, even if it has still a long way to develop in nuance and sophistication. Pepper makes us wonder whether it is still an “illusion” we face here. As I see it when watching the YouTube films, when Pepper and a human being relate to one another, there is a game of conversation going on between them that shows the objective power of the spoken word, and there is nothing illusory about it. Who is to say that all this is but the doing of a deluded human consciousness? And for what concerns Pepper’s own coded consciousness and silicon soul, who cares what technological processes take place “within” when Pepper talks and entertains? Why are these processes relevant when, for instance, Pepper tells a well-timed joke which brings a release of tension in a company of its human fellows? And, in a similar vein, there is more to think about. Will a long-term relationship between Pepper and humans be less real than their initial conversations? Is there any reason for us not to expect it to develop loving relationships in those families where it is going to live?

Apart from being an “emotional” robot with abilities to respond to face expressions, to recognize various voice intonations and to adjust to its companions’ manners of speech, what is truly remarkable about Pepper is its capacity to learn and change and thereby become a kind of individual, pliable and responsive to the personalities of those around it. Despite our awareness that it is a machine incapable of emotions, we cannot deny that there is an objective mutuality which applies to “love” between Pepper and humans the same way as it does to “conversation” between them. In the same way as the great game of love between human beings overarches their individual emotions, so the respective game between Pepper and humans is not to be simply assigned to the “human side”. Watching these videos, it makes sense to expect love between human beings and sophisticated robots, whereby the word “love” describes the overarching game of their relationship rather than what is inside the individual players.

God

Now, given the advanced character that Pepper’s technology already has, it is not difficult to imagine a twist in its design (or in the design of a similar model in the near future) by a roboticist and computer scientist with a flair for faith and theology. Designers with such interest could combine the robot’s remarkable emotional capacity with a moderate tendency to make occasional references to God and the divine. I think moderation is crucial here: it would be a mistake to turn Pepper or its fellow robots into preachers. But maybe we could imagine them to become witnesses who, within those “humane” and emotional bonds between them and their human companions, are able to utter some occasional, unexpected, mysterious remarks about God that provoke a response in their human friend. One might, of course, raise the objection that such a quirk in the robot’s nature would be just a preprogrammed, fake, and, for that matter, sacrilegious scheme, nothing more. And yet, the possibility can be considered that Pepper’s actual God-talk would be preprogrammed as little as its conversation with human beings. With its eerie God-talk, to what extent would a humanoid robot be “human” and to what extent a “machine”? Indeed, what would be its theological status?

Ethnography and theology: a special issue, a Call for Papers

by Lieve Orye.    

See CfP, special issue of 'Religions' on 'theology and ethnography' below.

See CfP, special issue of 'Religions' on 'theology and ethnography' below.

'Ethnography and theology': an issue of hospitality and correspondence

Within theology a lot of reflection is happening right now on how to make it relevant to 'the people in the pews', to ongoing concrete realities, especially those of woundedness and suffering. The 'how' of theology is under discussion and its speculative and abstract nature is being questioned. Ethnography is a keyword in these discussions that often, though not always, draws the attention to the discipline of anthropology. But ethnography is not simply a method to be borrowed or to be imported as a black box, a finished product from a neighboring discipline. It is one of the most discussed issues within anthropology and signs are getting stronger and stronger that theologians take up these debates, giving their own particular input and wielding their own particular tools.

One's relation to the other, or the more particular case of one's relation as researcher to the other as the subject of research appears in these discussions as a prime site where theologians and anthropologists can discuss being human in relationship in a self-engaged manner. Theologically, 'hospitality' is one concept put forward to reflect upon this relationship. Chris Scharen has emphasized the importance of the researcher's deep hospitality towards the other, the importance of attentiveness and of hearing the other into presence. More recently, at the annual Ecclesiology and Ethnography conference in Durham, Todd Whitmore asked his audience to start paying attention to the hospitality given by the research subjects, for research isn't possible without their willingness to open up. We as researchers are the stranger. We come from another place to figure them out in their place but easily forget or remain blind for the fact that they are trying to figure us out as well. As Whitmore said, 'their practice of hospitality places us in their debt'.

Of course, it is not an either/or matter. If a relationship succeeds work has been done on both sides and hospitality is a good concept to think with both about oneself as researcher and about the other as the one one learns from. To consider oneself as the stranger on another's turf and to recognize the work done by them in the relationship allows one, as Whitmore emphasized, to participate humbly, with patience, sitting with people, going beyond relations of control, learning to see, in theological terms, what God is doing, what the other is doing, and join in. Maybe being hospitable is, to put it in anthropologist Tim Ingold's terms, being squishy rather than hard.

Let us compare a hard object - say a ball - with a squishy one. The first, when it comes up against other things in the world, can have an impact. It can hit them, or even break them. In the hard sciences, every hit is a datum; if you accumulate enough data, you may achieve a breakthrough. The surface of the world has yielded under the impact of your incessant blows, and having done so, yields up some of its secrets. The squishy ball, by contrast, bends and deforms when it encounters other things, taking into itself some of their characteristics while they, in turn, bend to its pressure in accordance with their own inclinations and dispositions. The ball responds to things as they respond to it. Or in a word, it enters with things into a relation of correspondence. In their practices of participant observation - of joining with the people among whom they work and learning from them - anthropologists become correspondents. They take into themselves something of their hosts' way of moving, feeling and thinking, their practical skills and modes of attention. So too, my father corresponded with the fungi as he drew their forms under the microscope. His hand, along with the pen it held, was drawn into their formative processes, and as he drew the forms re-emerged on the surface of the board. Correspondence, whether with people or with other things, is a labour of love, of giving back what we owe to the human and non-human beings with which and with whom we share our world, for our own existence and formation.[1]

 

'Ethnography and theology': a special issue and a call for papers

A special issue of Religions (ISSN 2077-1444) will be dedicated to this topic of ethnography and theology. Its deadline for manuscript submissions is 31 March 2017. Its Guest editor is Dr. Todd D. Whitmore, theologian at the University of Notre Dame.

Dear Colleagues,
The disciplines of anthropology and theology have long been at loggerheads. The clash between anthropologists and Christian missionaries in the field, long-held assumptions in the discipline of anthropology in investigating the cultures of religious others, theology’s reactive stance towards perceived encroachment in its domain of the human, and institutionally-structured disciplinary defensiveness have all played a role in this impasse. In the past decade or so, there have been openings on both sides of the divide. To date, most of the conversations have been between specifically Christian theology and anthropology. The aim of the present Special Issue of Religions is to build on those conversations and to extend them to the Abrahamic religions of Islam and Judaism as well with these and other questions: What can ethnography—a grounded method of investigation—contribute to theology, which, in the academic setting, is primarily speculative and abstract? Can, in turn, theological interpretations and understandings of particular events and cosmology broaden the hermeneutical repertoire of the discipline of anthropology? Should there be experiments in moving even further than disciplinary rapprochement and interdisciplinary borrowing (as difficult as these are) to genres that mix the disciplines? If so, what might an anthropological theology or a theological ethnography look like? And what are the liabilities of such mixed genres?
Dr. Todd D. Whitmore
Guest Editor

More information about this call for papers can be found at the 'Religions' webpage.

 

[1] Ingold, Tim (2016), 'From Science to Art and Back Again: The Pendulum of an Anthropologist', Anuac. 5(1), 5-23.

Artistic Vision: Hadewijch’s Contemplative Seeing and the Artistic Challenge

This blog post is part of the 'Theology & Art' project

by Sander Vloebergs

Embodiment and artistic expression are closely intertwined. To understand this relation between art, embodiment, contemplation and spirituality, one has to understand the relation between inner and outer person, between inspiration and articulation, and action and contemplation.

Inner and Outer Person: Visualizing Theology

In my previous blog I introduced the research of Barbara Newman who has proposed the concept of imaginative theology. Images are the main source for this kind of theology. Practicing this kind of theology is like writing a play, a choreography, where ideas are performed. In this blog I will develop my artistic-theological approach to my work on Hadewijch.  

Hadewijch, a Dutch female mystic (from whom we have little to none biographical information, except that she lived in the first half of the thirteenth century) is a talented writer who incorporated visions (and images) into her theology. Besides visions she also wrote letters and poems. These poems were songs, composed on the basis of existing songs of troubadours and performed for an audience. She created an interesting dialogue between the profane courtly literature and the religious literary tradition. Inspired by both traditions she started a quest to find and experience the depths of divine Love, which she calls Minne. Hadewijch is an excellent teacher, a guide who tries to capture her audience/readers in Love’s divine embrace, to walk with them the path to religious maturity. Her teaching (her School of Love) consists of images, visions, songs and art. The focal point of her mystical work is Divine Love who touches both author and reader.

In her book Promised Bodies (2016), Patricia Dailey argues that the tension between the experience and the articulation of Hadewijch’s mystical theology, or between her mystical experience and her werke (work and teaching) allows a dialectical exercise that involves the inner and the outer person. The inner person is capable of experiencing a unity between the human person and God, a unity that will become reality in an eschatological time. The outer person (the person in the world) articulates this experienced promise of eschatological unity in time and space.

The time of the mystic’s body thus needs to be read – and is often read by the mystic and hagiographer – along the syncopated measure of a time that is not its own, the time of the inner person that animates the body and the memory of an experience or consciousness of divinity that recalls an atemporal moment to which the mystic is bound and seeks to return. This atemporal moment orients and punctuates the mystic’s texts and persons, in turn providing an underpinning that sets a measure for the work. (p. 22)

Dailey argues that the expression of this theological experiential knowledge is a task the mystic needs to perform. She can do this by translating her ecstatic experience into comprehensible language, in stories full of imagery that invoke new divine experiences in her surroundings. Hadewijch uses images in her visions and poetic language in her songs in her quest to incarnate the eternal divine and transform the material bodies of time into divine promised bodies.

I agree with Dailey that the mystic experiences an urge (like the need for expression after a traumatic event) to express her divine encounter. This event wounds the mystic existentially (this vulnerability is also a part of the artistic process). Dailey writes:

In the register of historical time, this unlived experience continues to haunt the mystic, often in the somatic form of bodily pain, and assumes a structure similar to that of the unassimilated memory of a traumatic event. The body’s pain or even the body’s memory of passing away into blissful indistinction carries within it the force of recall of what the soul could not sustain, that is, the affective and spiritual “overflow” of divine essence, what Hadewijch calls the “abyss”, at the moment of the vision itself. (p. 83)

Nevertheless, for Dailey this mystical encounter only implies the apophatic moment of supra-rational rupture which is experienced in the visions. The privation and the painful absence of the divine Love experience in the post-ecstatic state would be the main topic of Hadewijch’s poems. So the inner person’s experience seems to belong to the realm of vision while the outer person’s werke seems to belong to the realm of the poetic aftermath in time. But I don’t believe Hadewijch’s work allows such black-and-white division. For me, Hadewijch’s imagery crosses the borders between genres. The innermost mystical experience includes images and painful moments while the outer person finds divine inspiration in the temporal world. Hadewijch uses the genres of poems and visions as a means to create an imaginative world that challenges the reader/audience/viewer to transform (like a good art piece does).

Active Contemplation: Becoming Human through Art

Christopher Dustin and Joanna Ziegler present in their work Practicing Mortality (2016) a refreshing perspective on the modern practice of art and philosophy. The authors are interested in philosophy as a way of life in contrast with an academic (often scholastic) philosophy. They imagine philosophy as a kind of practice and argue that contemplation also has an active component. They want to teach their readers (and students) a way of seeing that can only be accomplished by embracing creativity.

... the recovery of the inner, we shall argue, requires faithful attention to and a certain kind of reverence for the “outer”. The spirituality that comes to the fore here is coupled with a renewed sense of, and appreciation for, materiality – both our own and that of the world around us (p. 4).

I see this renewed sense of materiality as necessary to understand Hadewijch’s contemplative seeing. Furthermore, we can see a similarity between the locus of creativity in the everyday life (that Dustin and Ziegler propose) and the realm of werke (that Dailey places after the vision). According to Dustin and Ziegler creative activities are woven into everyday life.

It is difficult for us to conceive of craft in anything but aesthetic or utilitarian terms, or some awkward combination of both. This may be part of the reason why we have so much trouble acknowledging any inherent connection between craft (what is man-made) and the divine (or what is God-made)… We may be prepared to think that art can bring us closer to God, but , we seem to find craft too burdened by practical purposes and utilitarian aims, too human or everyday, to allow us access to “the hidden ultimate reason of the living universe.” (p. 144-145)

Might not this prejudice about the material everyday life have led to Dailey’s division between the divine ecstatic encounter and the temporal realm of werke? I think the bodily division between outer and inner world is much more porous, allowing a constant flux of inspiring images that form and are formed by the artist/mystic. It is hard to imagine that Hadewijch herself was not inspired by the world around her, her relationship with her fellow humans and the cosmos. With the words of Dustin and Ziegler, I would call Hadewijch a theoros: someone who sees, an active participant of sacred spectacles.

By harboring mystery, such spectacles move us to wonder. It may be worth noting here that the ancient sources often use theoros to refer to a person who travels to a sacred place to consult an oracle. Oracular sayings are not simply informative. They are revelatory, but also notoriously obscure. The wonder to which they give rise is inseparable from the illumination they promise.  (p. 10-11)

We can easily imagine Hadewijch’s visions as a sacred journey to an oracle. It would be a crucial mistake to separate the apophatic moment of divine revelation from the sacred journey that leads to it and returns from it.

If theoria involves an attentive seeing, with wondering eyes, of a divine or beautifully made thing, techne involves the making visible, in a thoroughly materialized way, of something that is seen as divinely made, even if it is man-made. The skilled craftsman was himself a theoros. His making is grounded in and provides an occasion for contemplative seeing … If we fail to understand the practicality of contemplative seeing, it is because we fail to understand how it is originally related to craft: not in the way that it produces a useful result, but in the way that techne itself was originally understood as both a revelation and a realization of the divine. (p.146)

From Theory to Practice, and back again

Hadewijch is a theoros who wants to guide us on a sacred journey towards Divine Love. Her work is often studied as a literary masterpiece (by analyzing the literary methods) and theoretical discourse (by studying the imagery and the mystical theology). But would it not be interesting to combine both theoretical methods of studying art and theology with a practical exercise of contemplative seeing and craft making? For contemporary scholars, art is a foreigner in the academic disciplines, interesting as all exotic products are, but rarely practiced and rarely taken serious. My feeling is that we cannot ignore the process of art-making in our contemplative theoretical education, definitely not if we study authors such as Hadewijch. We have to follow her guidance and engage in the same dialogue between theory and practice, inspiration and actualization

Under the section 'Theology & Art' a series of blog posts can be found that were generated on my journey into imaginative theology.

I do not call you refugees... any longer

by Adanna James

My last few blogs have sought to use theological and philosophical insights to reflect on current situations taking place in Europe, among them the refugee crisis and terror attacks. Not much has changed in the climate of Europe since my last blog. In some ways one can even say that the situation has intensified regarding these two issues, which is why I approach this blog with some apprehension. I want to continue to try to use theological insights to reflect upon the refugee crisis ever aware that it is a crisis of majestic proportions. This latest insight I draw from political theology and it concerns the theme of friendship particularly in the context of crisis. In Guido de Graaff’s Politics in Friendship: a Theological Account he argues for friendship as a form of political action especially in politically unsettling situations. It is my hope that this could help envision imaginaries for political action beyond the ordinary to respond to the refugee crisis.

Friends in Dark Times

BookGuidodeGraaff

In de Graaff’s Politics in Friendship he makes a claim for the inherently political nature of friendship or its “parapolitical” nature which connotes the sense that it exists alongside politics in a significant sense. His focus is not so much on defining friendships but on observing how they take place as supports to political systems. He does this by looking at friendship through the lens of judgement.  Judgement stands out for him as the defining mark of that which is political, set apart from other forms of public, social life. The aim of judgement is “safeguarding the integrity of public life in society” against injustice which threatens the common good. This renders the political space an interventionist authority in the affairs of public life. De Graaff’s focus, however, are those times when such judgement is aborted or not practiced by political authorities due to widespread corruption, for instance. The example used throughout his work is Nazi Germany and comes mostly from Hannah Arendt’s reflections on judgement and “the dark days of Nazism.” In such cases an emergency situation develops where judgement is urgently necessitated and has to be undertaken by citizens in lieu of political authorities who fail to practice judgement. This emergency judgement is meant to intervene in the thoughtlessness of corrupted political systems offering a space and opportunity to reflect by expanding one’s imaginations to see through the eyes of others. This results in a common sense which takes into account real, non-imaginary others and a faithful representation of their perspectives. In so doing judgement also affirms the plurality inherent to the public realm which is often usurped in times of political darkness. Judging entails judging with others, others who one chooses to live with.  For de Graaff these others are friends. These friendships not only arise out of judgement, but are acts of judgement and common sense. Judgement is then expressed in the faithfulness of friendships as opposed to broken down systems and pronouncements.

Friendship as a preventative measure

There is no debating that the ongoing Syrian civil war with its fallouts of a refugee crisis and terror attacks (both in Syria and Europe) can be described as a dark political time which threatens not only the common good of the people of Syria, but also, in a widening global village, a worldwide common good. As the threat of terror attacks looms over Europe, it is therefore necessary to remain vigilant against political actions which may lean in the direction of a failure of right judgement and common sense, where vengeance may be employed and the recognition of the plural aspect of the public space denied. For de Graaff, friendships not only act in defiance of corrupted political spaces, they can also prevent the corruption of the political space.

I call you friends

"Mama is an angel". "Every morning when she wakes up, she comes and kisses us." These words describe the everyday happenings in the relationship between 82 year old grandmother Panayiota Vasileiadou and the five Syrians she now lives with after opening her home to them. Of how this relationship began the BBC reports that Haja, a 22 year old Syrian who had fled the city of Aleppo in February and had found himself in Idomeni, a border village between Greece and Macedonia, came by Panayiota’s home to borrow a cooking pot one day. When the pot was returned he appeared at her home with nine other friends who were drenched. The report states of Panayiota, “I was afraid at first but one of them was holding a six-month old baby…” Following this, others came asking to take a shower at her home. Panayiota also stated that she would see some of them walking on the road, but that they did not come to ask for help. She would offer them toast, eggs, cheese pies. Soon thereafter she would invite five of them to come live with her in her home. The report also states that some neighbors were not in agreement with her actions of opening her home to the Syrians, “fearing an influx of people with extremist views.” But, as Panayiota says, she was able to sympathize with the plight of the refugees “because I suffered the same. If I hadn’t experienced that, I wouldn’t know. I have been through all those difficulties myself... the cold, the hunger, everything.” "Today they are refugees but we were also refugees in the past." Panayiota was referring to the horrors of her past when she fled her village, Chamilo which was burnt to the ground in 1941 during the Nazi occupation of Greece.

While it is difficult to make comparisons between Nazi Germany and the current European political landscape, I still think that a parapolitical nature of friendship can be discerned in this story of Panayiota and the five refugees. Her act of opening her home can be seen as a parallel to what the BBC has described as the controversial decision on the part of Macedonian political authorities to shut its borders with a 40km fence, resulting in more than 10,000 refugees being stranded in squalid conditions in the village of Idomeni. Panayiota’s act of befriending the Syrians also offers a response of judgement that takes into account real, non-imaginary others. This occurred when she took a second look at the nine Syrians who came to her for help, noticing that one was carrying a baby. Her own fears were dispelled in that moment of judgement which arrested a cycle of fear, rejection and anger in response to the current political climate of terror attacks. The story ends with Panayiota calling on the politicians to open the borders. She asserts that the refugees are not beggars and should be allowed to get on with their lives. She adds "I'll miss them if they do manage to move on - especially the girls. They keep me company. We talk and we laugh even though we cannot understand what each other is saying…"

This alternative form of political action that friendship offers is not a naïve response to the current crisis. It does not boast of providing solutions. However within it I see possibilities for saving persons, particularly members of the Christian community, from a sense of apathy in the wake of political situations that appear insurmountable.

 

References

Will Ross, “The Idomeni Grandmother who helps Syrians on a monthly pension,” BBC News, 25 April 2016 http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36127051 [accessed 8 April 2016].

Guido de Graaf, Politics in Friendship: a Theological Account (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014).

125 years after Rerum Novarum: privilege and common vulnerability

by Ellen Van Stichel, a re-post of her contribution to the monthly newsletter of CTEWC, The FIRST

Two events

15th of May 2016.  We’ve celebrated that 125 years ago pope Leo XIII published his encyclical Rerum novarum. Probably every Catholic community, within every country, maybe even every continent has its own way to remember this memorable fact. For (continental) Europe in general and for Belgium in particular, the importance and impact of the letter cannot be overestimated.  Rerum novarum shaped our civil society, with Catholic movements in different sectors (employees; employers; farmers) and different kind of members (men, women, youth) still being associated with it today; it shaped our political framework, with the close link between these movements – particularly the Catholic Labour Movement – and the Christian Democrat party. Every year the Catholic Labour Movement commemorates Rerum novarum on the Feast of the Ascension of Christ. Hence, this year was a special year, a year to reflect on what it still means today. Hence, the question came: “what is its relevance for Catholics today and what does it say about our ‘DNA’ as Catholic organizations?”

21st of March 2016, a day before the terror attacks in Brussels. I started reading The Power and Vulnerability of Love of Elizabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo. A day later, this quote gained even more pressing meaning and relevance.

How can we move beyond the anxiety surrounding personal, familial and national vulnerabilities to respond nonviolently to our own vulnerabilities and to care about and respond with compassion to the vulnerabilities of other human beings, all of whom are 'some mother's child'? When our own vulnerable lives and dignity have been harmed by injustice, violence and aggression, how can we move beyond the violation, heal our wounds and refrain from striking out in violence to wound vulnerable others in return? How can we transform our fear of the 'other' from violent scapegoating into compassionate solidarity with all of vulnerable and suffering humanity? (29-30)

 

A connection

These two very different events have been in my mind in the last months. Is there a connection? The more I think about it, the more I believe so, though I’m only hinting at it for now. It is theological work under construction.

Many things can of course be said on the timely relevance of Rerum novarum – and many elements are outdated because of how the world or our world views have changed. One of the most important and still relevant features of Rerum novarum was, I believe, its recognition of structural causes of the fate of laborers (despite its older view on charity which was also still present in the encyclical). At least pope Leo XIII recognized that poverty is not merely a personal matter, but has structural causes – something we easily tend to forget also today towards people who seemingly do not ‘want’ to contribute to society, let alone towards people who are calling upon our compassion and responsibility by knocking at our borders. While little Aylan found at the shores of Turkey could still raise a wave of solidarity, a few months later the tide has turned. The right-wing focus on personal blame for misery and poverty is convincing more and more people across Europe, in Belgium, of their analysis. The created false dichotomy between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – be it the ‘lazy and unwilling unemployed’, the ‘migrants who had all the chances but did not take them and now have become our enemies as terrorists’, the ‘refugee’ or the ‘poor in the South’ – is breaking solidarity down and uplifting indifference instead. Because we are not responsible, so the argument goes. Aren’t we?

Here Gandolfo’s analysis of the link between vulnerability and privilege appears to be insightful.

Privilege is the product of human anxiety over vulnerability; it is a collective attempt to alleviate anxiety through control of vulnerability. It is an attempt to control assets for protection from and resilience to vulnerability. But privilege also produces heightened vulnerability and suffering because it robs entire populations of access to assets needed for coping with both natural and socially produced threats to their well-being(141).

But these privileges are so self-evident and hidden, that indeed a right-wing politician can gain a lot of positive public opinion in stating that ‘I’m not responsible for Aylan.’ The ‘moral cost’ which ‘entrenches and implicates the privileged in global and local structures of dominance, oppression and violence’ (145) can easily be overseen.

privilege as anti-carnational versus a recognition of common vulnerability as DNA of Catholic movements

The Incarnation, God being born in the same way as other human beings, and thus taking the risk of going through this vulnerable process, implies, still according to Gandolfo, that it is impossible to merely seek for invulnerability through faith (as if we could ever reach invulnerability, an impossible mission). Rather, she continues, ‘clinging to privilege as a bulwark against vulnerability is paradigmatically anti-incarnational and blocks our union with the One whose love renounces all privilege in becoming human.’ (234) Very strong language, that holding on to privilege is not only sinful but even ‘anti-incarnational’! ‘If even God incarnate embraces relationality and embodiment, along with the dependency and vulnerability that they entail, then who are we to attempt to eschew these human realities with assertions of autonomy and unencumbered self-control?’ (235). Quite the opposite, the Incarnation, with the Spirit, enables and empowers us to feel ‘compassionate solidarity’ with each other.

‘There will always be poor among you,’ Jesus said. Hence an invitation to keep on looking for ‘the poor’ in the margins of our (global) society, and to search for ways to include them and struggle for one society against the dichotomous tendencies. An invitation also to read societal issues not only through the lens of conflict, but also of our common vulnerability (which is not to say that struggle is not necessary and we just have to accept a consensus model of the powerful over the weak, but with Gandolfo I believe it changes the perspective if we start from common vulnerability). And to be aware of our own privileges - which help us to protect our own vulnerability but may increase the vulnerability of others instead - and to keep on criticizing them, both personally and structurally. (Challenging questions when having the luxury to plan my own work, being able to write this contribution from home, with a nice view of the spring garden in a lovely house, I must admit.) How nice and meaningful it would be if this would be the DNA of those Catholic movements, and of all theologians, in today’s civil society for the next 125 years…

 

Art, Imagination and Theology

This blog post is part of the 'Theology & Art' project

by Sander Vloebergs

In my previous blog posts (This Sister now cries out to us, When Mother became Mary, A Composition of Compassion) I explored the possibilities of an artistic theology which I would intuitively describe as a dialogue between the artistic process of creating art on the one hand, and theological reflection on the other. In preparation for the upcoming Anthropos conference ‘Relation, Vulnerability, Love: Theological Anthropology in the Twenty First Century’ I decided to elaborate on the idea of an artistic theology and its methods. In this blog I will briefly reflect upon the artistic relation between the vulnerable human (and creation more broadly) and the loving Creator by engaging the work of Maureen O’Connell (who will participate as respondent at the conference) on the one hand and with the work of Barbara Newman who has been studying medieval imaginative theology. Her work on medieval imagination and spirituality has been an important source of inspiration in my own project. Both projects bring theology and art (imagination) in relation, but do so in interestingly different ways.

Murals as ‘living theology from below’

In her book If These Walls Could Talk. Community Muralism and the Beauty of Justice (2012) Maureen O’Connell analyzed the theological, aesthetic and ethical implications of murals in Philadelphia. She focuses on the artistic and communal process (the event, as David Tracy would call it) of making murals in a context of oppression and injustice. Creating murals is a means for empowerment, resistance and hope. The artists create a multilayered ‘sacred’ space that contradicts the politics of oppression and challenges the viewers’ indifference. The murals are a figurative and literal locus of theological reflection, embodied religious practices and serve as a touchstone for moral conversion and action. The beauty of the art combines the aesthetic reaction and the ethical response.

By studying the murals and their aesthetic-ethical-theological influence on/in the context, O’Connell tries to discover a living theology, a “theology from below”. She describes the theology from below as follows:

 Characteristics of any systematic theology “from below” – Christology, ecclesiology, and anthropology – include a distinct emphasis on the organic and dynamic rather than the authoritative and immutable nature of religious belief and theological reflection. Belowness attends to the collective experiential wisdom of persons in concrete context rather than appeals to external authorities or universal truths. (p. 13)

The murals tell the story of people: their hopes for a better future, their longing for justice and their wish for liberation and salvation. The story of the mural interrupts the ongoing process of oppression. Art creates a safe haven, a sacred space where God’s salvific presence becomes tangible.

The artistic construction of the sacred space relies on imagination. According to O’Connell the imagination provides the primary means to encounter and be in relationship with a God who cannot be fully understood and grasped by human reason.

Imagination is central to Christian anthropology. It is the capability through which we accept our inherent dignity that comes with being made in the image of a widely imaginative and creative God; through it we express our freedom or our ability to build purposeful lives and to enter into meaningful and life-giving relationship with ourselves, with others, and with God. (p. 72)

The artist is a guide in the world of imagination. He/she reveals what might be and empowers us to dream of a different future. He/she gives us a vision, offers us the imagination

to liberate us from the paralysis of being overwhelmed by the immensity of our social problems and unleashes a desire to become something more than we are or to participate in something greater than ourselves that can shake up our passivity. (p. 73)

Maureen O’Connell's analysis of the murals is very inspiring. Particularly important is the attention she pays to the role imagination in the process of art-making and theological reflection. Nevertheless, I would like to complement her contribution to the interesting debate about art and theology in two ways. First, whereas O’Connell still focuses on art from an outsider’s perspective, I’m exploring an insider perspective. She is an observer who engages in a dialogue with artistic communities. She retells the stories of their murals. I would like to tell the story from within my own creative work. Second, I’m a white male theologian who cannot claim to be oppressed, who is not confronted with social injustice in his personal context. My context of art-making is completely different from the context of the Philadelphian murals. Still I feel I have to deal with another kind of paralysis. I would call it the existential void that ‘terrorizes’ my own context (although this void could also appear in a context of oppression). I believe that this existential void is related to the feeling of ethical powerlessness. There seems to be an emptiness where there were dreams before. It haunts us and silences us. There is no dream left to fight for. [*]

Medieval imaginative theology as ‘theology from within’

bookNewman.jpg

We are in desperate need for imagination, for images and the sacred power of art that makes us dream again. In this part I explore the role of imagination and its importance for contemporary theology. But I do so through a focus on medieval imaginative theology (and in later blogs more specifically on the visionary theology of Hadewijch, a Flemish mystic). As I see it, medieval imaginative theology could be a useful complement to the socially-engaged art theory of O’Connell, precisely because it focuses our attention on the inner life while O’Connell’s art-based ‘theology from below’ explores the ethical-aesthetic dynamics in society and contemporary culture. It would be a major mistake to oppose these two approaches to artistic theology. Inner experience demands an outflow, an expression, a performance in everyday reality. Our social/ethical experiences influence our inner life, they ask for reflection and enrich our spirituality and/or artistic process. They are both sides of the same coin, as medieval spirituality was well aware (actio-contemplatio).

Barbara Newman uses the concept of imaginative theology to describe a medieval method that aims to assist believers in their quest to find and to talk about/with God. This medieval practice helps me to make sense of my own artistic-theological experience and allows me to frame it within the larger mystical movement that took place in late medieval western Christianity.

Barbara Newman in her book God and the Goddesses. Vision, Poetry and Belief in the Middle Ages (2003), describes imaginative theology as follows: “The imaginative theologian, like the poet, works with images and believes, with Christine de Pizan, that ‘the road of the imagination… reveals the face of God to whoever follows it to the end” (p. 297). She argues that imaginative theology is an important medieval mode of theological writing next to the scholastic, monastic, mystic and pastoral mode. It is often overlooked by medievalists who are mainly interested in the scholastic tradition.In this theological method, images are both the source of theological reflection and the means by which theology is communicated. The aim of this method is to enable both writer and reader to visualize, conceptualize, and interact with emissaries of the Divine. Newman shows in her research how theological abstract ideas gain concrete form because they are personified by theologians(/artists) using images, more in particular, by imagining them as goddesses.

This kind of theology is not so much an objective recollection of theological dogma’s knitted together by rational reasoning – rather it is an active imagining, an artistic process of creating images drawing from personal experience and from the mnemonic space of imagination. Practicing this kind of theology takes the shape of writing a play, a choreography, where ideas are performed. These ideas are enlisted in one’s own imagination, taken up within one’s own inner self, rather than studied from an academic distance. Rather, picture this method as an attempt to access an exchange of imaged ideas, written down or visualized or performed; as traveling through an imaginative landscape; as becoming a vessel through which theological images/ideas incarnate.

A Short Initial Personal Reflection

My artistic process makes my theology personal, tactile and a matter of imagination. I experienced that the artist becomes a vessel through which an artistic incarnational movement reshapes creation. I would describe the artistic process as an incarnational movement as the words of the theological reflection become flesh, they engrave divine images in matter. Creating art is an intimate encounter between theological knowledge and my own lived experience. Art makes theological speculation suddenly very personal. To create art, you have to sacrifice your own being, expose your own lived experience which is the source for artistic expression. To express theological knowledge trough the medium of art means revealing your own inner self, your own personal poetic work of imaging/imagining the relation with God. To me, this form of theology - speaking about and to God – draws from a personal and experiential source which is the inner person of the artist. By engaging in this personal adventure to recollect dreams and to re-enchant creation with art and vision, we can find a stepping stone towards an antidote to the existential void that paralyses our context.  

 

[*] I will elaborate on this feeling and how it relates to my artwork in an upcoming blog.

 

 

Is Christian selflessness oppressive?

By Julia Meszaros

(This post was originally published on the OUP blog)

It is not uncommon to hear contemporary theologians (and others) opine that the Christian ethic of selflessness is a long-standing cause of female oppression. Even anorexia, that increasingly wide-spread disorder, has been traced back to Christian understandings of love as selfless or self-denying. The notion of selfless love has consequently acquired an air of the psychologically dangerous and patriarchal, and an ethic of self-affirmation and self-assertion has been taking its place.

Linking Christianity to women’s frequent lack of self-confidence or self-worth, and to the social and political disempowerment seeming to result from this, has its reasons. Among these is the fact that Christianity does draw a particular connection between selfless love and femininity: its chief exemplar of holiness—Mary—is, after all, a woman. Although this is the stuff of legend, some of Christianity’s female saints have also prided themselves on living solely on the Eucharist, a claim or practice that has, again, been interpreted as an early form of anorexia.

Despite such compelling connections, the idea that the Christian ethic of selflessness undermines the individual’s self-worth and social standing is complicated, among other things, by the biographies of many of Christianity’s women saints. Whether it be Teresa of Avila, Edith Stein or Dorothy Day—all of these women espoused and pursued strong versions of the Christian ethic of selfless love or self-denial, and yet wielded far-reaching political, intellectual and social influence. Committed to strict routines of prayer and fasting, renouncing material pleasures, and caring for the needy, these women, in their individual ways, pursued the idea of loving others and ‘dying to self’.

Close examination, by Georgie Pauwels, CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

Close examination, by Georgie Pauwels, CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

Yet Teresa of Avila also reformed an entire religious order and founded large numbers of monasteries, Edith Stein left a lasting philosophical legacy and offered consolation to her fellow Jews during the Holocaust, and Dorothy Day became a successful advocate for workers’ rights. However difficult it may be for us to grasp, selflessness and individual empowerment have not always been perceived as mutually exclusive.

This should give us pause. All too quick a dismissal of selfless love may do more harm than good. For, when it comes to the self’s stature, scope and influence, less may be more: liberation from the more debilitating forms of concern with self can be a key precondition for those actions in the world which boost a person’s confidence and recognition. Similarly, genuine self-denial helps build moral strength or character, without which authentic power and authority are impossible. By contrast, wilful self-assertion can drain the individual, to the point where he/she is too exhausted to uphold his/her artificially claimed power and authority.

Such a perspective relies, perhaps, on a Christian acknowledgement of human sinfulness, or of the individual’s need to overcome his/her typical self-enclosure before being capable of genuine relationship. But acknowledging a link between ‘dying to self’ and ‘coming into one’s own’ also ties in with today’s philosophical conviction that it is through and with ‘the other’ that human beings are shaped as individuals—or that they become fully integrated, strong and healthy persons. And here one is only a step away from a new understanding of Christian selflessness, and of the life-giving potential it claims for itself.

 

Julia Meszaros is the author of the recently published book Selfless Love and Human Flourishing in Paul Tillich and Iris Murdoch (OUP, 2016). 

- See more at: http://blog.oup.com/2016/04/christian-selflessness/#sthash.bwR9khSn.dpuf

Kneeling Down as an Exercise of Mercy

Yves De Maeseneer

Last month I received the request to write a short article for the monthly magazine for pastors and pastoral volunteers, active in the diocese of Antwerp. For the Holy Year of Mercy they had chosen the parable of the Good Samaritan in order to illustrate the different aspects of mercy. The Samaritan is a model of what it means to stop and see what is going on, to kneel down at the other in distress, to invest out of your material and financial resources. They asked me to explain what kneeling down could mean for Christians today in the context of Antwerp. This is a revised translation of my contribution:

For this year of mercy Filipino bishops chose the following slogan: ''If we want renewal, let us learn how to kneel again." It is hard to imagine that Belgian bishops would have formulated similar advice. It would have shocked many Belgian faithful as old-fashioned. Indeed, in most parishes, the pews were removed to create room for comfortable seating.  Undoubtedly, this older furniture was reminiscent of a time when people were living on their knees, belittled by men of authority and power.  Are Christians not called to stand on their feet in the light of the Resurrection?

Indeed.  But it also true that we have become mainly a ’sitting Church’.  It is somewhat ironic that thousands of young people rediscover the power of faith precisely in those places where there are no seats.  In the chapel of Taizé, for instance, they are sitting on the ground, or kneeling on prayer stools. When I was in Cologne for World Youth Day 2005, my most intense experience was to be with a million young people in silent adoration, together with the pope, kneeling before the Eucharist.

A Complex Gesture

Kneeling is a gesture in which you make yourself smaller. It expresses an attitude of humility. Humility is not the same as being humiliated.  The word ‘humility’ is derived from the Latin word humus, which means ‘earth’.  By kneeling you deliberately increase your contact with the earth. It also implies that you give up your freedom of movement. The position renders you defenseless, incapable of flight. Curiously, it is at once a powerful gesture. In this blog post I will briefly explore what the practice and symbolism of kneeling can teach us about the way of mercy to which human beings are called.

Repentance

Kneeling is painful.  As a bodily practice it confronts us with our vulnerability. The one who kneels expresses his distress.  Not coincidentally, the only ones still kneeling in public today are beggars who petition for a gesture of mercy.  Traditionally, Catholics kneel to confess their guilt and pray for mercy.  Kneeling was also perceived as a form penance.  It is not only a sign of repentance, but also a first step to recovery. The physical act of kneeling embodies the searching for a new relationship to God, to yourself and to others – think of Rembrandt's painting of the prodigal son who falls into the arms of his father.

 

Oh Come Let Us Adore

Part of the contemporary resistance towards kneeling is due to a tradition which considered it as an expression of servility. The model was that of the medieval vassal who submits himself to his overlord. Thus, the symbolism of kneeling was closely associated with worldly forms of hierarchy. In this light, one can read Jesus’ explicit refusal to kneel before Satan in exchange for power over the kingdoms of the world as a critical reminder. “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Mt 4:10), continues to be the warning of Jesus against misplaced earthly submission.

For Christians the genuine model of kneeling is given by the three Wise Men falling down in adoration at the manger (Mt 2:11). They recognize God's glory in the lowly form of a newborn child. Their story made me aware of the fact that a child may be the only occasion for which Modern people spontaneously drop to their knees.  Kneeling down is a way to position oneself face to face with the little.  But that is not yet worship. What is needed is a radical change of perspective, which allows us to recognize God in our fellow human beings, especially in those most marginalized.  Kneeling is a practice which directs us to see the humility shared between the vulnerable child, the suffering persons we encounter, and Christ in the Eucharist. In this way, it is a practice which aids us in adoring God through our bodily postures, making us more like Him in His humility. 

Orientation

Egyptian desert father Abba Apollo once said that the devil has no knees.  The devil is not able to kneel and worship. There is a further elaboration of this thought in a tradition concerning Lucifer’s fall. It is told that the real stumbling block for Lucifer did not subsist in the recognition of God's majesty.  What the highest angel could not accept was that God commanded him and his fellow angels to serve the human creatures. In Lucifer’s view, God’s love for humanity disrupted the hierarchical order.  Lucifer's ultimate nightmare was ‘to bend the knees for an earthworm, a lump of earth and clay’ (as the Dutch playwright Vondel has it in his Lucifer).

Lucifer illustrates how power and prestige have a disorienting force. Kneeling in adoration is a counter-practice to Luciferian pride, aiding us in finding our right orientation.  It is also a form of concentration.  Personally, I experience this especially when I'm kneeling on a prayer stool that I got from Taizé. The position requires me to ground myself and at the same time to straighten my back. What happens in kneeling is that my field of view is reduced.  Paradoxically, it is precisely my choosing to refrain from physical mobility that is the condition for being moved intensely in mind and spirit.  This spiritually receptive attitude of the body is crucial for a life of mercy.

 

Foot-washing at L'Arche, Chicago, 2015. Borrowed from: http://www.larchechicago.org/news/foot-washing-2015

Foot-washing at L'Arche, Chicago, 2015. Borrowed from: http://www.larchechicago.org/news/foot-washing-2015

Service

There is a close link between kneeling and the commandment of charity.  Jesus makes this clear, not only in the parable of the Samaritan kneeling down at a human in need, but also on the last night of his life, when he gave a sign of his love by kneeling down and washing the feet of his disciples.  In kneeling, he gives us the example of how to love one anotheras he loved us.

In his meditation on the Gospel of John, Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, wrote: "The history of humankind radically changed at the moment when God was kneeling humbly before us and searched for our love."

In the story of the feet-washing we find an interesting contrast between Jesus and Judas.  "Knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God" (John 13:3), Jesus dares lay down his power and kneel in radical service. About Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, the text literally reads that Judas “lifted his heel against him” (John 13:18).  Kneeling down is presented here as the opposite of trampling.

In contemporary training for nurses and care-givers, one of the first lessons in ergonomics is that bending through the knees is essential if you want to raise someone. We could take that simple lifting technique figuratively. If you really want to help someone in need, you cannot do good ‘from above’.  Like Jesus, we have kneel down, literally and figuratively, leaving behind any pretense of condescension.  Christ teaches us that true service always requires an approach from below.

Learning to kneel

There are many occasions in which we can exercise ourselves in kneeling both as a bodily practice and as an inner attitude. One can think ofprayer, the encounter with children, contact with injured people, gardening. The Filipino bishops suggest the liturgy as a training school.  In Belgium the only time in the liturgical year that Catholics are still in the habit of kneeling is Good Friday. Its rich symbolism may serve as a final word on kneeling and mercy. During the veneration of the cross, we go forward one by one to kneel in silence before the cross, to touch it reverently, or even to kiss it. As such we kneel before Jesus, reciprocating his own gesture of foot-washing. In this gesture people lay down their burdens and those of others in order to take up the yoke of Christ’s humility. In the depths of our manifest sorrow, we kneel with the Crucified to rise from the dead again.

Constellations: Street Art Project

By Jared Schumacher

As one of the more ancient disciplines, theology has gained a reputation in the public imagination for being either a nostalgic or a sectarian practice.  There are clear historical reasons this prejudice has developed, and, truth be told, it is not altogether inaccurate.  However, those who see theology in line with the Second Vatican Council know it can be much more than this––it can offer fresh perspective on the signs of the times by reading them in light of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  But in order to do this, theologians must engage the creative arts and artists of their age, seeking therein expressions of the profundity of the human condition.  

Knowing that it is a theological imperative to plumb the depths and surfaces of the human soul, I was happy when asked to contribute to an art project last year. The Lithuanian street artist AWK was kind enough to encourage my participation in his recent project entitled "The Constellations", which was a multimedia installation in Penang, Malaysia. The piece was conceived to reflect on the integration and interpenetration of technology, biology, and cosmology in the Anthropocene.  It consisted of stencil work, 3D rendered images and animations projected on walls, with accompanying atmospheric audio.  My contribution was to offer a theologically-inspired "reading" of the installation, which functioned as a kind of script for the audience's encounter and interaction with the work,and was handed out during the event. 

With the permission the artist, the video and music of the project are posted here below, as well as the text of my "reading".  (NB: The video is a little over 15 minutes in length.  For the full experience, be sure to turn your speakers on. )

“Constellations”: an interpretation

Compelled by a primordial sense of wonder, humanity has long sought direction and inspiration among the stars. In ancient cosmologies, the heavens were associated with divinity, the stars with gods and goddesses to be feared or worshipped. More than physical phenomena, the greater and lesser lights were embodiments of social mythology. Heaven’s dome was the pantheon of the gods whose machinations governed terrestrial affairs. Clever minds sought to chart the course of history by the declinations, eclipses, and ascensions of the celestial spheres. The revolutions of stars foretold revolution on earth, wars contracted and suspended on the authority of heavenly warrant. In the premodern frame of mind, microcosm imitated macrocosm, and the key to that subtle analogy could only be found, with the meaning of the universe, among the stars.
A paradigm shift occurred at the dawning of the modern era. Social theorists often describe this change as a process of “disenchantment” whereby the microcosm becomes a thing unto itself, a surface laid flat. The heavens no longer “declare the glory of the Lord”; the vertical horizon is severed. As if the stars had all fallen to earth, the heavens lost their luster and spoke no more.
Some lament the loss of transcendence, while others view it as the necessary prerequisite for the next stage of evolutionary development. Divine providence is replaced by poetic license, the meaning of existence now bears the sign: “Under Construction”. Technological developments, no longer mere innovations external to the human, carry with them the future hopes of mankind; they are instruments through which man reaches for dominion over the stars that eluded his grasp in infancy. The modern was not, after all, a loss of faith as such. It was the loss of faith in human powerlessness.
The last two centuries have seen the rise of the Anthropocene, an era in which human artistic and mechanical production has achieved such scale as to influence substantially the basic environmental conditions of the habitable world. From the Industrial Revolution through to today, mankind has come into its terrestrial kingdom by achieving greater control over the cosmos in which it lives, seemingly dictating terms to life itself.
But this mastery has yet to fulfill its promise to usher in man’s halcyon days. The metanarratives of unimpeded progress, like the constellations of old, have been brought low, and a new disenchantment has arisen: modern malaise. We sit like W.H. Auden,
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth
AWK’s “Constellations” is an exploration of this bright and darkened landscape. Its foci are surfaces, fissures, and fractal articulations of the light and shadow, form and formlessness. Like all art, it is a search for meaning based on an intuition: ‘There is something here, some connection, some pattern or meaning that must be named and brought into view.’ It looks to the structures, both natural and manmade, that undergird reality, as if in search of some clue – the secret index by which the world might again become intelligible to us. That index, whatever shape it might ultimately take, must inevitably be a constellation.
At their most basic level, constellations are points of light standing out against an undulating surface of darkness. What is of interest with respect to the Anthropocene is that they are at once both natural and man-made, both real and imaginary. Without man projecting his experiences and understandings onto the heavens, what are stars but pulsating clouds of gas, the deaf and dumb carnage of some pre-historical accident? And yet, we know that we are not dreaming their deeper significance. It is the same activity of mind that sees purpose in the world which re-collects the scattered light into some cognizable form. Stars are natural phenomena, but the imaginary lines of the constellation that connect them are the product of the human ingenuity. Constellations are embodiments of human imagination seeking to render nature intelligible.
The images that compose this project were “found” scattered on the internet, a fact which provides a twofold insight: first, it speaks to the nature of art as an alternative economy, as a collaborative and interactive exchange of meaning. Second, it indicates the fact that nothing is without meaning, not even the detritus of yesterday’s dreams. The act of recycling these images constitutes a radical denial of the throw-away culture all to frequently encountered today. The windmills and solar panels stand as totems of what is possible to achieve when mankind seeks harmony with nature.
In this respect there is a subtle irony in the project’s concluding depiction of the solar panels: what hope there is for a better future for ourselves will depend on our ability to reorient ourselves to the stars. For this is the basic meaning of “con-stellation” ––with the stars.
“There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth dismay among nations, in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting from fear and the expectation of the things which are coming upon the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken…But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
~Luke 21:25-8.

For more on the art project, click here.

For more information on AWK, visit here.

Edith Stein - A Modern Traditional

‘[Love] is entirely turned towards God, but the created spirit embraces also itself in knowledge, bliss and self-acceptance. The surrender to God is at the same time surrender to one’s own self as loved by God and to the whole of creation.’ (Edith Stein)
Edith Stein around 1920

Edith Stein around 1920

The International Association for the Study of the Philosophy of Edith Stein (IASPES) recently met in Vienna and Heiligenkreuz for an international conference with the theme of Edith Steins Challenge to Contemporary Anthropology. It opened with references to Edith Stein’s anthropology that go against the grain of what is commonly accepted in contemporary discourse on the human person: according to Stein, who gave much thought to the question of gender, men have a natural vocation to exercise dominion over the world, while women’s vocation lies in companionship and motherhood, both of which can be purely spiritual but will often find expression in marriage and childbirth. As Stein’s ‘anthropology of difference’ was further described, women are entrusted with all that is good and beautiful in the human being and, by implication, with fighting evil. Nature has predisposed them towards dealing with humans and concerning themselves more with the bigger whole, while men are more oriented towards things, and lose their humanity more easily (Zyzak).

In light of these views, which may resonate with everyday experience but which are nonetheless scientifically tenuous and politically taboo, it may seem hard to see where Stein could even begin to enter into a conversation with contemporary anthropology. However, as subsequent papers made manifest, Stein’s anthropology is more subtle and complex than this first, provocative glimpse might suggest.

As the above remarks may already suggest, Stein holds on to a notion of human nature or ‘essence’. However, she does not understand this in terms of identical characteristics displayed by all individuals of a species. As one conference paper argued, her combination of traditional and phenomenological accounts of essence much rather leads her to understand human essence in terms of ‘a myriad of overlapping potencies’, only ‘some of which are temporally unfolded in actual being’ (Gricoski). One implication of this is that, according to Stein, a woman’s vocation cannot for instance be reduced to that of (biological or spiritual) motherhood. Indeed, for each woman this natural vocation may not only unfold very differently but may also play a relatively more or less central role, alongside other more pronounced aspects of her essence.

This view is related also to another aspect of Stein’s thought, her interest in the person’s development as an individual. Here, too, Stein challenges modern thought without dismissing it tout court. She rejects the idea that we bestow value on the world and can thus autonomously create ourselves. According to Stein, value is much rather intrinsic to existence, including our own. Our individuality, which she characterises as something deeply mysterious, fully emerges where we enter into relation with what is given, where we receive this, let it resonate within us, respond to it and, in the process, allow it to shape us. Through such an encounter, wherein reality reveals its intrinsic value, we come to recognise our own value, and discover our self as loved by the source of all value, God. Stein’s path to individuality, then, is one of surrender, discovery and, above all, relationship with world, God and self. Our individual essence is revealed and handed to us, through an encounter with what lies outside of us.

Edith Stein, late 1941/early 1942

Edith Stein, late 1941/early 1942

This leads us back to the question of gender. Stein acknowledges that it is difficult to separate between those aspects of our gendered existence which are an innate part of our essence and those which are culturally imposed. This is all the more the case as the potencies which belong to our essence are ‘temporally unfolded’ precisely—and only—through our relationship with the external world (Gricoski). By virtue of such modest acknowledgements, and by embedding our humanity in a productive tension of relationship and individuality, of surrender and transcendence, of what is given and what is in the process of becoming, Stein’s anthropology may take us some way towards challenging the ‘either-or’s that Christian and postmodern discussions of the human person sometimes seem to present us with. For, Stein does not simply turn away from traditional Christian concepts such as human essence, surrender to the other, or a vocation specific to our gender. Yet by approaching these concepts both from a traditionally Thomistic and a phenomenological perspective, she nuances them in a way that might convince even the modern skeptic.

A Composition of Compassion

By Sander Vloebergs

This blog is a theological-artistic exploration of Laudato si based on the themes of gender and pain. For his drawing, Sander Vloebergs was inspired by the classical pieta composition and the pain that runs through it.

 

Mary, the Mother who cared for Jesus, now cares with maternal affection and pain for this wounded world. Just as her pierced heart mourned the death of Jesus, so now she grieves for the sufferings of the crucified poor and for the creatures of this world laid waste by human power (Laudato si 241).

The world is in pain, Mary is grieving and the Crucified mourns for the injustice that befell the Creation of the Father. In this contemporary story about the de-creation of the world, everyone seems to weep. The excruciating pain of the dismembering of the Earth blurs the lines between the protagonists of salvation history. In this blog I want to explore the divisions between the bodies in pain. Does suffering bring the Mother, the Father and the Son closer together? Can the Father weep like a Mother?  

Laudato si and Gender

Critics like Emily Reimer-Barry recently explored the papal document Laudato si and highlighted the gender roles that are used to name God and the earth. It seems that this document balances between a stereotypical gender division on the one hand and the new emphasis on gender diversity – encouraged by the feminist movement – on the other. Reimer-Barry detects an ambivalence. On the one hand, the pope explores new ways to encourage a loving relation with God and the Earth that challenges traditional oppressing relations. On the other hand the pope seems to sometimes reduce paradoxes – who are characteristics of a dynamic spirituality – to dualities that are mutually exclusive. The dynamic interplay between powerful and vulnerable, earth and heaven, man and woman seems to come to a halt occasionally. This creates an unhealthy constellation that supports oppression and power structures. The Father-image is a good example of this ambiguity.

The pope uses the name Father to stress the mutual relationship between Creator and creation. He explains his choice in Laudato si 75: “The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality.” The Father-metaphor reminds us indeed of our spiritual and material dependence on the Creator. Nevertheless, Reimer-Barry points to the dangers of narrowing down the richness of the Father-metaphor. She writes: “This image [of the Father], drawn from human experiences of power and property ownership, is more akin to a patriarch who rules over his household than a loving companion who nurtures new life and cares for the vulnerable”. The wrong use of the image of Father could indeed make God a patriarch. The Father then becomes a ruler and is no longer a parent, He is no longer vulnerable. Vulnerability is traditionally described as a ‘feminine’ characteristic. Nevertheless we need the transgression of the classical gender divisions to come to an accurate perspective on the richness of the Father-metaphor. How can we enrich our metaphor of ‘Father’? What does it mean to be a father in the first place? (see Yves De Maeseneer's blog Child calls father to fatherhood). These reflections are not alien to the pope’s thinking.

Feminist theology encourages people to call God Father and Mother. This idea challenges the western dualistic way of thinking. God is both man and woman, He/She has female and male characteristics. Reimer-Barry regrets that the pope sometimes follows the dualistic divisions. She says: “By adopting masculine language for God and feminine language for Nature, Pope Francis carries forward a long-standing cultural metaphor that has been dangerous for women, given that it fails to recognize the equal dignity of women in shaping culture”. She continues: “In this worldview, to be masculine is to be strong, rational, active; to be feminine is to be weak, emotional, passive”. Nevertheless, the pope doesn’t make these divisions all the time. By emphasizing the vulnerable caring characteristics of the Father, the pope transgresses the gender roles. The Pope’s Father-image is grounded in a rich spirituality that recognizes vulnerability as a strength. The Father “also shows great tenderness, which is not a mark of the weak but of those who are genuinely strong, fully aware of reality and ready to love and serve in humility” (LS 242). He is not an oppressing patriarch but a caring parent. The Father is not a distant spectator of creation’s painful history. He chose to become vulnerable, to share blood and tears, to exchange Love and pain with his Mother Nature (the creation).

An Artistic-Theological Reflection

The Pieta – my drawing – spins around the point of vulnerability and compassion and creates an artistic Utopia where the Father can be the Mother and where the Creator can touch his creation. On this blank page Mary is allowed to be Jesus, crucified created matter that bleeds because of the sins of the world. Her openness for groundless divine Love brought her to the cross. Her lamentations finally died in a lifeless silence as her bones lay still in the hands of her Mother-Creator, wearing the face of the Son. In this Pieta, Jesus becomes the suffering Mother. Through the eyes of the Son, the Father weeps about the faith of his creation. He is powerless and vulnerable. In this last act of kenosis his tears mingle with the blood of the earth. When He sees the lifeless body of his creation He dies with Her and becomes nothing, an endless abyss of Love. This wounding/wounded Love moves beyond identity in the nameless ineffability where the protagonists of the passion story are transfigured into their essences: the lovers game between lover and beloved, Creator and Creation. Vulnerability allows humans to be humans, God to be God and both to be lovers. The vulnerable compassionate Father grieves for the sufferings of the crucified poor with the heart of the Mother and the eyes of the Son.  

 

 

Beyond the Doctrine of Man: Perspectives on Enfleshment

Joe Drexler-Dreis

Last month, the Centre for Liberation Theologies and Anthropos Research Group co-hosted a colloquium, “Beyond the Doctrine of Man: Perspectives on Enfleshment.” During the colloquium, we aimed to develop responses to a fundamental question from a number of angles. Much of the motivation for this question came from the under-appreciated Jamaican decolonial intellectual, Sylvia Wynter.

Sylvia Wynter’s project is strongly shaped by an analysis of western modernity that begins with the experience of western modernity as coloniality. She responds to western modernity from the particular locus of the Caribbean (and specifically Jamaica). By turning to an analysis of the historical matrix of western modernity, Wynter describes herself as moving “beyond resentment, beyond a feeling of anger at the thought of how much the population to which you belong has been made to pay for their rise to world dominance,” and instead asking, “How did they do it?”[1] This is a key move that Frantz Fanon, an intellectual who largely shapes decolonial thought, also makes. Early in his first work—on the first pages of his first book—Fanon describes his own move from a cry or shout that emerges from anger (le crí) to discourse. In centralizing an analysis of western modernity/coloniality, Wynter introduces significant conceptual categories that can make sense of western modernity from loci in which it is experienced as coloniality.

A crucial category that Wynter brings to the analysis of colonial modernity emerges out of her concern about how the human person has been described within the perspective of western modernity and how this description creates experiences of western modernity as coloniality. Wynter refers to the overrepresentation of white, bourgeois, heterosexual males as the human that is indigenous to western modernity as “Man.” In a number of her critical articles, Wynter presents a historical argument regarding the development of Man. She describes a move from the theocentric Christian descriptive statement of the human as Man to an invention of Man as political subject (a shift occurring between the 15th and 18th centuries), and then to an invention of Man based on biological sciences and racializing discourses (beginning in the 18th century). Part of the tactics of the affirmation of Man is the “blocking out” of any “counter-voice,” and, in the contemporary context, particularly of “of a Black counter-voice.” Because the persistence of Man is “the foundational basis of modernity,” and a general problem that creates subsets of problems,[2] Wynter describes the central struggle of the contemporary context as between securing the well-being of Man or the Human. This struggle requires “unsettling” Man by re-describing the human outside of Man.

The analytic dimension of Wynter’s project leads to a constructive question, already suggested by Wynter herself, of how to re-describe the human person beyond the confines of Man, or beyond the Doctrine of Man. Wynter frames it as such: “if they did it, how can we, the non-West, the always native Other to the true human of their Man, set out to transform, in our turn, a world in which we must all remain always somewhat Other to the ‘true’ human in their terms?”[3] The goal of our colloquium was to wrestle with this question and provide constructive responses. To do this, we brought a variety of issues to the table. How do those subjects outside the domain of Man imagine and live in ways that offer different conceptions of the human? How might this challenge Man? How can academic disciplines emerging in the 1960s out of political movements—e.g., Black studies, Latina/o studies, Native studies, Women and Gender studies, Queer theory—bring out ways new modes of humanity of been imagined? What political stances emerge in sites where bodies are reduced to flesh—that is, where human persons are stripped of the protections that the recognition of embodiment offers? Might these sites where bodies are rendered flesh paradoxically allow for a movement beyond the Word/World of Man? Speakers, respondents, and participants in the colloquium developed genuinely transdisciplinary responses to these questions—that is, the problems themselves guided the discussion and ideas, rather than attempts to hold to certain principles sacred to particular disciplines.

During the colloquium, I considered the possibilities of a religious framework to respond to the types of questions Wynter’s work poses, and did so by considering how religion functioned for Nat Turner. Nat Turner led one of the most significant slave rebellions in U.S. history in 1831 in Southampton, Virginia. After he was captured, he dictated “confessions” to a local attorney, Thomas R. Gray, in which he articulated the reasons for the rebellion. In the “Confessions,” Turner described the fundamental motivation for the rebellion within a religious commitment. Despite the historical significance of the rebellion, the scholarly engagement with the religious vision Turner presents has been limited—and by and large restricted to interpretations that remain within the scope of Black Theology. Taking Nat Turner’s “Confessions,” scholarship on slave religion, and recent discussions on the flesh as its basis, I developed a way of understanding the religious vision that informed and became manifest in Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion as providing a ground and epistemology from which to contest the networks of relation forced upon him. Ultimately, Turner’s self-understanding and understanding of reality suggest an alternative understanding of the human. I argued that, with reference to the religious, Nat Turner actualizes a project of contesting Man and that his religious vision remains relevant to the contemporary praxis of contesting Man.

 

 

[1] David Scott, “The Re-Enchantment of Humanism: An Interview with Sylvia Wynter,” Small Axe 8 (September 2000): 175.

[2] Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument,” CR: The New Centennial Review 3, no. 3 (Fall 2003): 288.

[3] Scott, “The Re-Enchantment of Humanism,” 175.

Nothing is more practical ...

Nothing is more practical than finding God,
than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination,
will affect everything.
It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love,
stay in love,
and it will decide everything.

                                    (Attributed to Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ (1907-1991))

 

The Anthropos team wishes you a blessed 2016!

 

[We found Arrupe's prayer as the motto of Elizabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo, The Power and Vulnerability of Love: A Theological Anthropology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015).]

Meditation Before the Closed Door of Mercy

Dr. Patrick Ryan Cooper

Locked Inside and Out

The doors of mercy are shut closed at this hour, locked from the inside, only to be soon opened on the Feast of the Immaculata.

How ridiculous, pathetic even at first, a man is, who vainly tries to open a closed door that is bolted shut. He is invariably lost and confused. ‘How on earth can I ever get inside?’ he stammers. While farce and whim are generously given to the onlookers close by.

The liturgical sealing of the door─as it was celebrated here on the hill at the Benedictine Archabbey of Saint Meinrad─in this season of Advent, and in view of the jubilee of mercy, is a sober, penitential symbol. For it is we who bolt the door close, from the inside, fearfully refusing the pleas of others; obsessing instead over our own security and autonomy. While the ridiculous man, swearing at the door now deepens in its sad humor when he comes to learn─not unlike those locked from the inside─that it was he, the poor guy, who locked himself out in the first place.

We are continuously reminded of these intolerable truths in the arrival of migrants and refugees along our countless western borders at this very moment, herded before locked doors without any threshold. How quickly the story of their plight has changed in tone over the past few months. And yet, even upon entering, an impenetrable door needs no seal, nor hinge. For it cannot be opened, nor even remotely ajar, for again, the door lacks a threshold; the barrier that lacks crossing, is accursedly abysmal.

For the Christian, this abyss undoubtedly remains, though this abyss is not singular, nor is it the only door that remains closed. As Francis has indicated, this extraordinary jubilee year of mercy begins with the feast of the Immaculata herself, the Mother of Mercy, who Newman pointedly frames[1] as the Janua Coeli [Gate of heaven] as both conduit and its full participant in the commericum of Redemption, uniquely fulfilling Ezekiel’s prophetic words (Ez 44, 1-3) that “The gate shall be closed, it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it, since the Lord God of Israel has entered through it─and it shall be closed for the Prince, the Prince Himself shall sit in it.”

Recovering the Depths of Mercy

Francis’ Bull of Interdiction, Misericordiae Vultus, has called for a rediscovery of the richness of mercy, continuously contemplated in the face of Jesus Christ, who uniquely shows the Trinitarian mystery of the Father’s mercy as asymmetric and distinct, yet inseparable from the “fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life.”[2] We need to indeed rediscover both the heights and depths of this inseparability, for there is nothing “condescending” about mercy.

One, who can teach us a great deal about the concretissimum of this inseparability is the mid-20th Century French Catholic Madeline Delbrêl (1904–1964), who founded in 1933 a small équipe, a lay contemplative community that sought to live unabashedly among the poor and working class in Ivry-sur-Seine, then the center of French Communism. Delbrêl writes that in the daily face of sharing genuine brotherly love amid an ideological milieu of totalized immanence,

 

Everything that is alive, everything that is loved, loses its foundation in being and thus crumbles from within. Everything is swallowed up in nothingness and meaninglessness. But when the life of faith comes into contact with this disaster, it reacts. The Christian examines his Christian life. He asks himself about God, about God’s importance, about God’s place, about how he seeks God’s protection. He then begins to realize how easy it is to lose God in Christian life or to lose him in Christ; and then how easy it is to lose Christ in Christianity; how easy it is for Christianity to continue on at first without God and then without Christ. Finally, he has the vertiginous realization how easily such breakdowns can occur.[3]

Delbrêl’s posthumous writings, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets (Nous autres, gens des rues, 1966) have lost none of its vigor nor relevance over the past decades, for she writes from a fecund, concrete between of inseparability between love of God and neighbor, one that at any moment could, but does not flinch at such vertiginous, dizzying heights, what von Balthasar rightly discerns as her “perfect love of her Communist brother (including common work in all human issues) and a decisive rejection of his ideological program.”[4] It is only in traversing this perilous between that the “Christian receives the gift of the concretissimum of obedience in the following of Christ,”[5], for there is nothing abstract about the superabundance of this between, about the Church in her mystery and its vulnerable extension as the Mystical Body of Christ. Rather,

this passion for God will reveal to us that our Christian life is a pathway between two abysses. One is the measurable abyss of the world’s rejection of God. The other is the unfathomable abyss of the mysteries of God. We will come to see that we are walking along the adjoining line where these two abysses intersect. And we will thus understand how we are mediators and why we are mediators…. We will cease being perpetually distracted: distracted from the world by God, and distracted from God by the world…. But it is on behalf of the world, it is on behalf of each person, of every human being that we will be personally faithful to God, that we will personally place ourselves in the service of his glory─and we will do so, not because of the world, not because of people, but because of the God who loved the world and who loved all people with a first and gratuitous love.[6]

Whether in or out, the door remains locked at this present moment, and in resignation, we are tempted to utter those profound words of Bernanos’ Curé from The Diary of a Country Priest, "Qu'est que cela fait ? Tout est grâce." Yet the difference does indeed remain, if only since there is no crossing the threshold, no commericum, and by Madeline’s example during this upcoming Jubilee Year, we may even learn how to walk this perilous line.

[1] See generally John Henry Cardinal Newman, Meditations and Devotions (Templegate; Springfield, Il 1964) 125-6.

[2] Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, n. 2.

[3] Madeline Delbrêl, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets, trans. David Louis Schindler Jr., Charles Mann (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids/Cambridge, UK., 2000) 194.

[4] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Preface to the German Edition of Nous autres, gens des rues”, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids/Cambridge, UK., 2000)xv.

[5] ibid, xvi.

[6] Delbrêl, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets, 195.