Presence, practice and relational anthropology: synchronized swimming and a book launch

by Lieve Orye

Le Grand Bain

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Utrecht. The night before. I went to see the movie ‘Le Grand Bain’. There I was, enjoying the movie on my own, plenty of room, surrounded by about 80 empty seats. No other soul around. A screenshot of a cinema room filled with people told me to put my phone on silence. The humour of it brought me in a good mood for the film that was announced as a feel good movie. It tells the story of an odd group of men, each with their own life story and struggles, brought and held together as a team by synchronized swimming. They are not taken seriously by anybody. Nevertheless, they find out about the European championship in male synchronized swimming and decide to participate. After undergoing a hilarious training program, and after a failed attempt to steal sets of bathing suits and bath robes, they manage to get to Sweden and, after a nerve wrecking competition, they win the championship.

Several times though, episodes are shown of the men talking, after training, in the changing room. There, they manage to be present to each other, and give each other space to open up and tell a bit more about their story, their recent troubles. One of them tells of his depression, another of his financial troubles, another of being bullied. Not all of them are able to open up, and sometimes they have to call each other to order. Nevertheless, the synchronized swimming practices and the challenges they meet along the way allow them to develop relationships in which trust and mutual support as well as the shapes and figures of their championship act become possible.

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Book launch: a practice book of presence

The next day, a new book Praktijkboek Presentie by Elly Beurskens, Marije Van Der Linde and Andries Baart was presented to a room filled to the brim with people and enthusiasm. Baart is well known for his work in care ethics and for his opus magnum Een Theorie van Presentie (2001). The theory of presence found its roots, inductively, in the work of street pastors in Utrecht. Baart is keen to emphasize that he did not invent the practice of presence. It was done and is done constantly by numerous professionals and volunteers who again and again make an effort to be there for and with the people they care for.

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The presence approach which describes and theorizes these practices is nevertheless radical, with far-reaching consequences. It breaks away from care as primarily a provision of solutions to problems. Away from care that focuses on the reformulation of what is going on in someone’s life into a rather orderly, well-defined problem, a theory-driven diagnosis and a solution in the shape of interventions that consist of the application of efficient, effective and competent procedures according to a previously determined plan. The street pastors in Utrecht worked in a very different way: they were there for others without directly focusing on problem solving. The focus was on the cultivation of caring relationships and it was only within these that content and form was given to care. Baart’s study of their practices resulted in a theoretical book, some 900 pages. Now, Praktijkboek Presentie is launched to make the theory more accessible, understandable and inviting to practitioners who wish to practice presence more reflectively.

The ‘latende modus’

As part of this book launch a mini-lecture was given on a key element in the practice and theory of presence: in Dutch, the ‘latende modus’. It refers to an non-interventionist mode of care characterised by patience, unconditional attentiveness and receptivity. It was contrasted with the dutch words ‘maken’ (or the ‘makende modus’) and ‘bemoeien’, characterised by an activism, by knowing what needs to be done on the basis of an intake, a diagnosis and a treatment plan and following that through. Not surprisingly, ‘laten’ and non-interventionism are words that easily trigger misunderstandings, especially when the far-reaching implications of the presence approach are not seen. One of Baart’s strategies to counter these misunderstandings is to explore the word’s field of meaning by drawing attention to other closely related words that indicate a much richer reality of non-interventionist being with the other. Words such as watching over someone, being witness to someone, making space for someone, accompanying someone and undergoing their situation already shatter the first impression of ‘doing nothing’.

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Baart’s reflections on the practices of presence signal much more than just an alternative to an interventionist approach. As he notes in his inaugural lecture at the NWU South-Africa in 2016, care and caring are to be seen as the most fundamental category of good, sustainable life together. Taking seriously the experiences and practices of presence by so many professionals and volunteers in their care for those who find themselves ill, marginalised and in trouble pushes one towards a fundamentally different understanding of what makes the world tick, of what it means to be human and of what it takes to live well together. It pushes away from an understanding that emphasizes intentionality, rationality and autonomy, towards a relational anthropology that emphasizes ‘being with’ and ‘knowing one another from inside the relationship’. I would say it pushes towards Tim Ingold’s relational anthropology that makes similar connections between care, presence and sustainable life together and that likewise emphasizes the primacy of attention over intention, the importance of ‘letting be’ and of knowing from within.

To care for others, we must allow them into our presence so that we, in turn, can be present to them. In an important sense, we must let them be, so that they can speak to us. However, letting be, in this sense is not easily reconciled with understanding, let alone with explanation. Understanding and explanation belong to that other mode of attention, as check-up. In this mode, we attend to things and persons so that we can account for them. Once accounted for, they can be ticked off, removed from our list, and dispatched to that repository of the ‘already known’ or ‘well understood’ the contents of which no longer demand anything of us… (Ingold 2016:20-21)

If Baart is interested in further enriching his vocabulary to speak about being human and to strenghten his diagnosis of what is wrong with approaches that emphasize objective expert knowledge, intention and intervention, Ingold’s relational anthropological work is a gold mine. (1)

Synchronized swimming

Life is not lived intentionally but first and foremost attentionally with others, writes Ingold. Though this odd group of men shared an interest in synchronized swimming and took up the plan to participate at the European championship, the movie shows them much more as a relational ‘community of attention’, - of people trying to feel their way forward in the company of one another -, than a ‘community of interest’, - a sum of individuals who purposefully, efficiently and competently work towards a goal agreed upon at the beginning. It is the growing and ongoing relationships between the men that make it possible for certain plans to arise, for a journey to be undertaken, for dreams to become accomplished.

In synchronized swimming marks are given for the intricateness and sharpness of the shapes made by the moving bodies of the team. The movie shows how these shapes, made by this odd group of men to the thrilling surprise of everyone, arise through much practice involving the training of a synchronised attention to each other in the water. But the story is much more than this. Learning to align their bodies in the water they find new space to live attentionally with and care relationally for each other and others, and flourish. As Baart notes, “attentiveness makes people flourish, it makes them do well.” And so they did!

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(1) On the relevance of Tim Ingold’s relational anthropology for theological anthropology, see the conclusion of our Louvain Studies special issue on ‘Relation, Vulnerability, Love’

Baart, A. (2001), Een Theorie van Presentie. Boom Lemma Uitgevers.

Beurskens, E.; Van Der Linde, M; Baart, A. (2019) Praktijkboek Presentie, Coutinho.

Ingold, T. (2016), ‘On Human Correspondence,’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 23, 9-27.



Louvain Studies special issue on ‘relation, vulnerability, love’

by Lieve Orye

Several treads of thought woven at the Anthropos conference in 2016 have been rewoven into paper and digital format. A Louvain Studies issue (41(3), 2018) has been published recently with contributions of several keynote speakers and respondents. You can find a table of contents and links to further information at the ‘Special Issue Louvain Studies 2018’ page on the conference archives website.

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As editors, Yves de Maeseneer and I feel that this special issue has become a well-woven cloth, a colorful tapistry of thought and reflection on the what and how of theological anthropology in the 21st century. We particularly would like to draw attention to the last article in this issue, ‘Weaving Theological Anthropology into Life. Editorial Conclusions in Correspondence with Tim Ingold’. In this last contribution, we weave together five key themes that have been raised in the different contributions of this issue, and we do so in conversation with the work of anthropologist Tim Ingold. This weaving together confirms the terms ‘relation’, ‘vulnerability’ and ‘love’ as key for theological anthropology in the twenty-first century.

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A first theme is theological anthropology’s conversation with the discipline of anthropology. The first section addresses Michael Banner’s call for a more thorough anthropological turn for theological anthropology. Following a line of connection starting from anthropologist Joel Robbins, who has inspired Banner in taking this turn, towards Ingold, we argue that the latter’s understanding of anthropology as ‘philosophy with the people in’ turns him into a much more interesting conversation partner for a theological anthropology that wishes to pay attention to the work of being human and being moral ‘on the ground’.

The second section finds a similar opening for conversations between theology and anthropology in relation to evolutionary perspectives. Here we make the connection with anthropologist Agustín Fuentes’ work in order to open up such a space. Fuentes does important work, as both Jan-Olav Henriksen and Markus Mühling appreciate. But, we argue here again – in line with Mühling’s contribution – that Ingold’s reflections in conversations with evolutionary theorizing take us onto a fundamentally different path towards a fully relational theological anthropology.

A second theme is woven through these first two sections. Being human is a practice, notes Banner. Or, as Brian Brock indicates with the help of Barth, we exist in our acting. In Ingold’s relational anthropology ‘to human’ is a verb; being human is a never-ending task. In these understandings, a perspective that sees knowing-in-being as primary is indicated. We argue with Ingold that Henriksen’s emphasis on what is specifically human is important to keep, though within a framework that goes beyond a human-animal and a culture-biology divide by prioritizing movement and life in a forward-going approach.

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The third and fourth themes, addressed in the third and fourth sections, must be seen, with Ingold, as two sides of the same coin. The third theme involves a weaving together of Ingold’s primacy of knowing-in-being with Banner’s and Brock’s existing-in-believing. This further opens up a discussion of enskilment, of tradition and way-formation, and of imagination and vision in a relational, participative perspective.

The fourth theme, however, clarifies with the help of Elizabeth Gandolfo and Paul Fiddes that such knowing-in-being fundamentally involves exposure and existential risk in a ‘wild’ world. Vulnerability surfaces as a key notion here. We follow Ingold in taking a step beyond James Gibson’s ecological psychology which was key in Mühling’s contribution, towards an understanding of the world, not as a given, but always on its way to being given.

The fifth theme brings us to theology’s areas of concern in the conversation with anthropology. Theology ‘from a wound’ points to the dark side of wildness and vulnerability, and to the need to discern when and how to embrace or to resist vulnerability. Importantly, such discernment and resistance happen through existing-in-believing: precisely a believing and acting that discovers through participation that love is the deepest reality.

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As organizers of the Anthropos conference 2016 and as editors of this Louvain Studies issue, we hope that several of the threads of thought and reflection developed and woven together at the conference, in the conference blog and in the journal issue will find further life, growing into further thoughts, comingling with other lines, taking up other forms and shapes. But even more, we hope that these threads of thought might find ways to correspond and comingle with lines of life, nurturing these towards a more sustainable world. Our hope is that theological anthropology in the 21st century will be a discipline with a critical agenda, in line with Joel Robbins’ characterization of theology and anthropology as critical disciplines nourished by O/otherness, and that, in line with Tim Ingold’s characterization of anthropology, it becomes shaped by a method of hope.

Christina

By Sander Vloebergs

The interface between academic discourse and artistic imagination

In this series of blog posts I will propose an ongoing project about art and mysticism (religious experience and theology). I study mystical source texts from an insider perspective trying to bring them into relation with the artistic process. This reflection will be performed in an artistic and academic way. This current project, called Christina, is the next step in my search for similarities between the process of art making and the mystical experience, which started with a dialogue between the Visions of the mystic Hadewijch and my own experience as a theologian and artist.

Holy Women

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The current project Christina, named after the Flemish medieval saint Christina Mirabilis of Sint-Truiden focuses on the holy lives (Vitae) of the Mulieres Religiosae, the religious women (nuns, beguines and lay women) who lived in the thirteenth-century Archdiocese of Liège. These mystical women challenged the minds of artists and theologians alike, in the past but also in the present day. Touched by the divine, these women expressed their experiences using dance, song and poetry. Visions and art were the means of communicating divine inspiration.

A Network of Women

These local saints received international praise and appreciation by contemporaries like Francis of Assisi. The thirteenth century was a great era for women in the Church, because these women were often authority figures and leaders of communities. Even today, these Belgian women receive scholarly attention from all around the world. Nevertheless, this attention is almost exclusively academic. The Vitae are not very known in the artistic world, to use an understatement.

An Artistic Interdisciplinary Network

This academic art project proposes a collaboration between different artists from different disciplines using academic language to communicate ideas, to explore these unknown sources (the Vitae), to reflect on the artistic process and finally, to evaluate the end product (an artistic dance video and a network of other related art pieces). These reflections will be posted in the upcoming blogs. I believe this academic research will enrich the artistic network which – for a long time – was hostile towards religion.

The Lens of the Artist

This project aims to offer a creative perspective on the process of mystical divine inspiration by comparing this phenomenon to the artistic process and by reading the sources through the lens of the artist. I believe this artistic interpretation of the sources will enrich academic research in the fields of both literature and theology. The artist reads the text through his medium (be it paint, video, or the body) and will discover new insights, which are hidden from the academic who is trained to approach texts from an academic distance (although these spiritual texts invite us to engage in its dynamics). This project wants to offer a dialogue between theology, mysticism, and diverse art forms in order to grasp the full reality of the female mystical experience, as described in the texts.

Christina – Project

The first women, the first text we will explore is the famous or notorious Christina Mirabilis, (the Astonishing), or just simply Christiana of Sint-Truiden (1150-1224). This mythical figure blurs the lines between reality and fiction. Trapped between heaven and earth, this saint danced across the Flemish landscape and sung with her extraordinary heavenly voice. This saintly artist was believed to be capable of flying, a hybrid creature stuck between heaven and earth. Based on her holy life, the dance starts, a dance without music. This dance will be shared with other artists, who will respond with their own interpretation using their own artistic medium. This will be supported by a process of academic reflection. At a later stage, the three artists will collaborate and finalize the artistic process with a dance video – a video that will be the point of reference for other artists (from other disciplines) to submit their work and create a dialogue between the different arts internally and between the arts and (mystical) theology.

The first of a series of artistic dance videos, inspired by the holy lives of saintly women of the medieval Low Countries. Music: Peter Deboi Video: Cristiano Ferri Choreography : Sander Vloebergs

#prayforbrussels: Theology in Times of Terror

By Yves De Maeseneer

On this day of remembrance (two years after the terrorist attacks in Brussels, 22 March 2016), I would like to share some theological thoughts:

“When my country was shocked by the terrorist attacks in Brussels, March 22, 2016, I was reading Andrew Prevot’s book Thinking Prayer: Theology and Spirituality amid the Crises of Modernity (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015). As had been the case at similar events in Paris, people were expressing their solidarity using the hashtag #prayforbrussels. This hashtag was shared by young people who do not define themselves as belonging to any religion. As a Belgian theologian I was surprised by seeing “prayer” as the first gut reaction to horror in a highly secularized context. Prevot gave me words to flesh out the questionable nature of this hashtag. What is the kind of subject that shares this hashtag? What kind of solidarity is expressed here? Where is the prayer for the thousands of innocent victims in Syria, Iraq, and other regions? And is the lack of concern about the violence that is daily reality for so many people living outside of the Western comfort zone, not at the very root of insecurity which all of a sudden emerged in our streets?

I do not want to belittle the authentic longing for peace and the impressive gulf of self-giving solidarity. Catastrophes awaken the deep desire for the common good which is slumbering in our individualist consumer culture. Many people sensed the need for spiritual resources to resist the fear and despair in the face of crisis. The impulse #prayforbrussels was translated into spontaneous vigils and interreligious prayer services. There was even a praiseworthy attempt to widen the circle of solidarity by launching the hashtag #prayforourworld. A secularist tabloid headlined “The Whole World Is Praying for Us Today,” quoting the tweet, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other” (Mother Teresa).

In hindsight I have to admit there has been little reflection to think through what the event of March 22 reveals about the world we live in. Soon the Belgian media and public sphere were again the space of polarization between communities. The latest controversy was about the alleged “Islamization of Catholic schools”—in response to theologian Lieven Boeve’s suggestion to consider sharing prayer rooms among Christians and Muslims at school.

Becoming Black

I found Prevot expressing many intuitions which resonated with my own often implicit theological convictions. The only moment I felt reluctance to follow his call was when he defended James Cone’s demand that white theologians become black. Is becoming black not simply impossible for a white theologian? The very question betrays a profound asymmetry in my own theological institution. In Leuven, where we have a Centre for Liberation Theologies, we are hosting many students from the Global South. To be honest, my colleagues and I are teaching them most of the time white theologies. And it works. Our students are able to learn these theologies and appropriate them as fruitful resources for developing their own theology. Why am I not prepared to go for the reverse learning experience? We take for granted that white theology is significant for black students, but are not even considering the mirror idea that white theology as much needs black theology.

A genuine practice of mutual listening would include a reversal of roles in which, for instance, as Prevot suggests, the black doxological tradition is respected “not merely as a guest but also as a host” (322). This would involve not only a change of attitude from the European partners in the theological process, but also from our guests. Our non-European students are stimulated to learn and speak for their own people and culture, as if the ideal would consist of creating a range of particular theologies—black theology for blacks, Dalit theology for Indian Dalits, feminist theology for women, . . . Our well-intended encouragement blindly obeys the logics of representation, typical for contemporary identity politics. The net result might be the fostering of ghetto theologies and theological ghettoes. Prevot’s book is a great example of a different, boundary-breaking theology.

The journey to this more universal theology goes not by the road of transcendental introspection. Just like the hashtag #prayforourworld might remain an abstract cry, breathing an illusory universalism, Prevot holds that the only access to a truly universal prayer is by becoming black.

Here to “become black” means nothing other than to enter into the spirituality of oppressed black people, to pray and struggle with them for their freedom, to welcome their beauty as an indispensable element of Christian doxology, and—as a matter of sheer consistency—to abolish every form of “white” domination, including overt acts of violence and the more hidden dimensions of privilege and harm that are expressed “through marriage, schools, neighborhood, power, etc.” (Prevot, 321)

It is about accepting “to enter into the ‘wounded words’ (Chrétien) of the black community” (322–23), and to “share deeply in the passions, sorrows, and resilient hope of [my] black brothers and sisters” (323), to participate in their lament and praise. In a Western European context the radical conversion this involves could be provoked by the mere suggestion to substitute for a moment “black” by “Muslim.” There might be a way in which, to become a European Christian in the current crisis of violence and counter-violence, is to become Muslim in a sense analogical to Cone’s “becoming black.”

For a further reflection of my own experience of the (im)possibility experience of becoming black and my need to be prayed for, see my blogpost on Syndicate Theology:

https://syndicate.network/symposia/theology/thinking-prayer/ [Click on the title of my post at the right side of the page. The text above is a fragment from a blogpost I originally posted at Syndicate Theology.]

Postscript about realism and hope:

In the months after the terrorist attack in Brussels, several victims spoke out a message of hope and trust, but at the same time political parties fueled the polarization against Muslims. I wondered whether my interpretation of Prevot’s theology into a call to “share deeply in the passions, sorrows, and resilient hope of our Muslim brothers and sisters” was any more than a naïve wish. However, in the days before Christmas 2016, a local church in Molenbeek, a Brussels quarter where some of the terrorists had grown up, organized an interreligious Vigil. At that evening Mohamed Al Bachiri, a Muslim widower of a victim of the attacks, spoke words of profound humanism, answering the terror with a ‘Jihad of Love’. His ‘wounded words’ touched the heart of our Belgian population. A version of the same testimony at the national television (see the clip above) went viral and had more than 3 million views in a few days.

Before the Flood: A Christmas Meditation

Yves De Maeseneer

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On the First Day of the Second Week of the Spiritual Exercises Saint Ignatius invites us to contemplate the mystery of the incarnation by imagining what it is like to look down at the world from God’s viewpoint. I was struck by the analogy between this exercise and the experience of astronaut Piers Sellers when he first saw our planet from outside. In one of the last months of his life, he gave a moving testimony in Before the Flood (2016). In this National Geographic documentary Leonardo di Caprio took as his point of departure a meditation upon Hieronymous Bosch’ Garden of Earthly Delights to discuss climate change. Imagining the disaster of an ecological hell and the call for change, di Caprio talks with major political and economic players, Pope Francis, voices from the Global South (Sunita Nairan and Farwiza Farhan) and scientists like Sellers:

“When you go up there and see it with your own eye, how thin the world's atmosphere is, tiny little onion skin around the earth. That's all the oxygen that we breathe, that's the CO2, everything we burn goes into it. It's an astonishingly fragile film. I knew intellectually how the earth's system works, because that's what I've been doing for 20 years. To see how the atmosphere and the ocean, all the elements in the system work together. So I understood it intellectually. But it's like being an ant trying to understand what an elephant looks like by crawling all over the elephant. But when you're up there in orbit, and you can see 1200 miles in any direction. It's kind of a revelation. Seeing all the cities at night, millions of people all working away, doing something. Come around the day side of the world, seeing the natural systems. The hurricanes, huge, great big wheels, over the oceans. Saw the Amazon River go between my feet. Just beautiful, all the way out to the sea. And there was the sun coming up over the Amazon, the whole forest waking up, and doing what it does every day. Breathing in and breathing out. So at the end of all that I became immensely fond, more fond of the planet. Which I never thought about when I actually just live on the surface. I'm also kind of fond of the people on there, too. It's like being taken away from your family and coming back. And I wish it all well. Just before Christmas I got told I got pancreatic cancer. … So that's really motivated me to think about what's important to do, and what can I contribute in the time I have left.”

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“You know, the facts are crystal clear. The ice is melting, the earth is warming, the sea level is rising. Those are facts. Rather than feeling, oh my God it's hopeless, say, okay, this is the problem. Let's be realistic. Let's find a way out of it. And there are ways out of it. If we stopped burning fossil fuel right now, the planet would still keep warming for a little while before cooling off again. … So there really is a possibility to repair. I'm basically an optimistic kind of person. I have faith in people. I really do have faith in people. And I think that once people come out of the fog of confusion or an issue, or initial uncertainty on an issue, and realistically appreciate it at some level, the threat, and they're informed of what the best action is to deal with it, they got on and did it. And what seemed like almost impossible to deal with, became possible.” (Italics mine.)

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PS: In the academic year 2017-2018, our blog will take a sabbatical rest, anticipating new horizons for Anthropos. We highly recommend that you have a look at the archive of our 2016 conference blog: Relation, Vulnerability, Love: Theological anthropology in the 21st Century, which offers an explorative multimedia view of what Anthropos has been about in its first six years of existence (est. 2010), introducing key players in contemporary theological anthropology.

In the Image of Love: Key Sources for Theological Anthropology

Julia Meszaros and Yves De Maeseneer

What does it mean to be created ‘in the image of Love’? This question will sound surprisingly unfamiliar to most theologians. Love lies at the very heart of the Christian faith: the Scriptures proclaim God as Love (1 John 4:8), and command love of God and one’s neighbor above all else (Mk 12:30-31). And yet there is little theological precedent for developing a direct link between the doctrine of the imago dei and the crucial identification of God as Love. Recent publications in the growing field of theological anthropology place little emphasis on the intrinsic connection between love and the human person. Love’s relative unimportance in the field of theological anthropology contrasts with the current rediscovery of the theme of love within both philosophy and theology at large.

Anthropos is proud to present a special issue, which hopes to fill this gap by bringing this general retrieval of the theme of love to bear on theological perspectives on the human person. We proposed the phrase ‘in the image of Love’ as an invitation to examine the relation between theological anthropology and love throughout the history of Christian thought. Each essay in our volume approaches the theme of love and the human person by retrieving and creatively engaging with the thought of a key voice from within the Christian tradition (theologians, philosophers, spiritual writers from different denominational backgrounds). Our contributors pay close attention to the tensions, shifts, and conflicts at stake in a given author’s thought on love and the human person. The volume thus has a genealogical dimension, delving into often forgotten layers beneath our current, late modern view of the human/love. It thereby assists future theological anthropological discussions in the much-needed task of both integrating the crucial theme of love and formulating more historically grounded perspectives. This special issue also reveals the ways in which theologians have attempted to respond to the challenge posed by the modern subject while retaining the idea that the human creature is called by Love and called to Love, and provides an alternative to Nygren’s opposition of agape and eros.

In the Image of Love: Key Voices for Theological Anthropology. Edited by Julia Meszaros & Yves De Maeseneer, published as special issue in International Journal of Philosophy and Theology 78 (2017) 1-2. DOI: 10.1080/21692327.2016.1246198

TABLE OF CONTENTS 1. In the Image of Love: Key Voices for Theological Anthropology (Julia Meszaros & Yves De Maeseneer)

2. Loving God in and through the self: Trinitarian love in St. Augustine (Matthew Drever)

3. ‘A power that deifies the human and humanizes God’: the psychodynamics of love and hypostatic deification according to Maximos the Confessor (Luis Josué Salés & Aristotle Papanikolaou)

4. The reciprocity of spiritual love in William of Saint-Thierry and Hadewijch (John Arblaster & Paul Verdeyen)

5. Martin Luther and Cajetan: divinity (Antti Raunio)

6. Selfless love: Pur Amour in Fénelon and Malebranche (Marc De Kesel)

7. A paradigm of permeability: Franz von Baader on love (Joris Geldhof)

8. Søren Kierkegaard and the romantics: passion (Pia Søltoft)

9. Fyodor Dostoevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche: power/weakness (Ekaterina Poljakova)

10. ‘I look at him and he looks at me’: Stein’s phenomenological analysis of love (Claudia Mariéle Wulf)

11. The unity of reciprocal love: the charism of Chiara Lubich and the theology of Klaus Hemmerle (Piero Coda)

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 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 earth 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.

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…

 

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 of 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.