Job's mangomoment

Ruminations from the trenches of a seminar on Job while at work in pastoral care, by Lieve Orye

“I had my mangomoment a long, long time ago. For Him it was a small gesture, for me it made all the difference. Totally unexpected, He simply showed himself in a whirlwind and reminded me of who He was and who I was. That He had been there, had cared for me since before the day I was born. Even more, He said I had spoken well, while my friends who ended up denying my innocence were told to have spoken badly. Since then things have changed dramatically, I sat up out of the dirt and ashes, found life again, life abundantly.”

William Blake - The Lord Answering Job out of the Whirlwind'

William Blake - The Lord Answering Job out of the Whirlwind'

Job’s friends: from presence to adding insult to injury

These days Job would not end up on a heap of dirt. These days he would end up at the doctor’s. Clearly Job’s friends did not medicalize Job’s suffering. At first, they sat with him, seven days, silently, because they saw that his suffering was very great. As Stanley Hauerwas sees it,

“that they did so is truly an act of magnanimity, for most of us are willing to be with sufferers, especially those in such pain that we can hardly recognize them, only if we can “do something” to relieve their suffering or at least distract their attention. Not so with Job’s comforters. They sat on the ground with Job doing nothing more than being willing to be present in the face of his suffering” (Hauerwas 1988: 78).

William Blake - Job rebuked by his friends

William Blake - Job rebuked by his friends

But then, Job cries out his misery. As Bruno Latour points out, in his discussion of the deep cry of the earth in Laudato Si, a cry “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.”[1] His friends, however, don’t hear the cry in his cry. His cry is heard as a question mark to an understanding of the world they hold dear and their response is to apply a causal moral model to his misfortune. Their theory of retribution results in pointing fingers, blaming Job for his own suffering, adding insult to injury. They offer Job a logical God, one who takes an account book approach to sin and suffering. But Job’s experience is dramatically at odds with the dogma his friends urge on him and whereas they were present to him in their shared silence, willing to be with him, they now stand over against him in their speaking, unable to see how Job’s unwillingness to see things their way is not a matter of logic but of hurt.

From technical medicine to ‘mangomoments’

Causal moral explanations for suffering have now mostly made way for technical explanations. As Job’s friends we now might be more keen to medicalize his suffering. Uncomfortable with remaining present without doing something, Job would be taken to the emergency room to get his skin condition treated and further to the psychiatric ward for treatment of his depression, where he might be commended for not blaming himself for his situation. And if his friends would not take him, he might find his own way to the E.R. and the psychiatric ward.

“Patients and caregivers alike have increasingly medicalized suffering— understood it, that is, as a problem that medicine can successfully treat. Many view suffering as one more technical problem that medicine can solve.”(Fleischer 1999: 487)

When we suffer, or when we see others suffering, our first reponse is not to sit down and share the suffering in silence. We want things to be done. We want the doctor to apply a causal biological model that figures out what went wrong and how to put things right again so that we can be back on our way and the suffering becomes only the memory of a small detour on our journey of leading a happy life. We prefer suffering that takes the shape of a broken leg. Causes are clear, the solution is straight forward. But not all suffering – not even every broken leg - can be boxed into this square. And sufferers have indicated again and again that the cry in their cry isn’t heard. What they say is sifted through for information to be fed to the technical solution machine. And whereas those whose suffering gets alleviated, take the insult as a price to pay for their ticket out, those for whom a technical solution isn’t forthcoming experience the insult, the deafness to their cry, so much more.

Nevertheless, there are signs of a counter movement. ‘Patient centredness’ has become a key concept in health care. At a meeting of the Professional Association for Catholic Pastors in Belgium I heard Kris Vanhaecht tell the story of how a movement, called Mangomoment, was launched inspired by a striking television fragment.

Two months after waking up from coma in intensive care, Viviane described how hard it was lying in bed all the time, what the sound of the bedside alarms did to her, what the gray ceiling looked like, how she heard the voices of deceased family members and saw them standing next to her bed, and why she thought about euthanasia,… Her reflections were captured on a documentary by a journalist, Annemie Struyf, who stayed for two weeks as an observer at an intensive care unit, and who was clearly emotional as she was touched by Viviane’s story. Following a tense silence, the journalist asked: “Is there something I can do now for you, that would make you happy?”. Viviane’s answer was surprising … “a mango, I would really like to taste a mango again, that is what I really like”. At the last day of her observation, the journalist brought Viviane a mango. Viviane was touched and became emotional, expressing that she “will never ever forget this moment”.

This story encouraged Vanhaecht to study ‘mangomoments’ in search of care that ‘is just that little something more’. As someone researching and teaching quality of care and patient safety at the KU Leuven and as someone recognizing the importance of person centred care that sees the patient as ‘a human being with a history, with desires and fears,’ he coined this new term.

“A caregiver who, with a little gesture or an unexpected act of attentiveness, creates a moment of great value for a patient… that is a Mangomoment”[2]

Three minutes, seven days and a life-time

Mangomoments consist of those little things we do for a patient that make a memorable difference crucially because he or she feels strongly recognized as the person he or she is beyond the illness or the misery they are dealing with. Allowing someone to wear her glasses into the operation theater even though regulations are to take it off before, organising a visit of grandchildren or creating an experience of watching a movie together with a loved one, coke and popcorn included, for someone in an isolation room. These moments don’t seem to take the time Job’s friends took, sitting with him in silence for seven days. Rather these ‘mangomoments’ seem to be these unique moments in which something is done just at the right time, just in the right timbre, just right. Like an artist making one movement leaving a trace that changes the whole atmosphere of the painting.


Are these ‘mangomoment doings’ technical doings? I would think not. Though taking only a moment, I would answer the question of how long a mangomoment takes, in the same way a local artist answered the question how long it took to make a drawing of a life model.[3] “Seven minutes and fifty years,” she answered. The movements that made the drawing took seven minutes but her movements, their accurateness - just right - and their richness and subtlety, were the culmination of fifty years of attentive practice, allowing her to capture and express the soul of beings, happenings and places. A mangomoment, I would say, needs three specifications: it might for instance take three minutes, seven days and twenty five years. The little things done might only take three minutes, but the subtlety, the just-right-ness of what is done might be the culmination of both some days or weeks of attentive tending to this particular person and of years of attentive practice in care.

Life illustration by Irmine Remue of chamber orchestra Casco Phil, playing Schubert’s ‘Die Unvollednete”

Life illustration by Irmine Remue of chamber orchestra Casco Phil, playing Schubert’s ‘Die Unvollednete”

God, as well, would answer the question of how long his mangomoment with Job took in three specifications. The whirlwind only took a few minutes, but He had been there, had cared for Job since before the day he was born and has been practicing attention from before the beginning of time. And it is from within this attunement to the world and to Job in his suffering that He reproaches the friends ‘to darken counsel by words without knowledge’ (William Blake). Maybe, paying attention to ‘mangomoments’ in a healthcare dominated by technical thinking and streamlining to get technical doings to perfection, is getting these streams of attentiveness ‘on the floor’ back to the surface of our critically and caringly thinking through health care. It might allow us to get the soul back into it. It might even allow us to recognize again that sitting with someone in the midst of misery even when nothing can be done and mangomoments no longer seem to materialize, can still be a work of hope, shaped by minutes and days and years of attentively practicing the presence of God.

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

[2] Vanhaecht’s neologism became a movement in Flanders, involving plenty of health care and welfare organisations, research and a website where mango-moment stories can be shared . Recently a book was published using these stories to inspire and motivate people to contribute to a warmer health care, with more resilience and positivity. Previously a short article ‘In Search of Mangomoments’ was published in The Lancet. ‘Mangomoment’ has become a registered trademark of the Catholic University of Leuven, with its own fund to finance scientific research.

[3] - Remue, Irmine (2019), Un état d'âme. Edition in-house.

Hauerwas, S. (1988), Suffering Presence: Theological Reflections on Medicine, the Mentally Handicapped and the Church. Edinburgh: Clark.

Fleischer, T. (1999), ‘Suffering Reclaimed: Medicine According to Job,’ Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 42(4), 475-488.

#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: [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.

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)

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.


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.

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


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.



Will Ross, “The Idomeni Grandmother who helps Syrians on a monthly pension,” BBC News, 25 April 2016 [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). 

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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.


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. 


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:

Foot-washing at L'Arche, Chicago, 2015. Borrowed from:


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.

Nothing is more practical ...

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

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


The Anthropos team wishes you a blessed 2016!


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

Meditation Before the Closed Door of Mercy

Dr. Patrick Ryan Cooper

Locked Inside and Out

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

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

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

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

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

Recovering the Depths of Mercy

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[5] ibid, xvi.

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

Conference announcement: Relation, Vulnerability, Love 15 -17 September 2016

From the 15th till the 17th of September 2016 our research group Anthropos will organize a conference on the following theme:





Relation, vulnerability, and love are three concepts we consider important for a theological anthropology for the 21stcentury. Moreover, it is a trilogy we read in crescendo. That is, the primacy of relationality leads us to understand vulnerability as a universal human condition that is the condition of possibility for both suffering and flourishing. We take up the recent emphasis that vulnerability is not only to be understood as an exposure to suffering but also as an opening up in trust to relations with the other and with the world. Vulnerability is thus also understood as ex-posure, as leaving or being drawn out of one’s position(s) to open up toward the new. Love is the Christian notion that indicates the deepest reality of such relationality and vulnerability as well as its eschatological destiny.  We are especially keen to explore how the concept of love can deepen theological reflection on being human understood as being in relation, in vulnerability.

However, we are not only interested in the exploration and critical discussion of these three notions as a set of key concepts for theological anthropology’s speaking of what it means to be human, but also in their relevance as an indication for how theological anthropology is to be done. We aim to explore how these three concepts help us in doing theological anthropology as an endeavor both in dialogue with the human sciences and philosophy and as nourished through and tested in relation to the concrete socio-political, cultural and ecological challenges that urge us to question/re-imagine what it means to be human. 

Further information about keynote speakers, call for papers and practical matters will appear on the RelationVulnerabilityLove2016 blog in due time.


A bench is so much more than a piece of wood and metal. It is a meeting place, a hub of relations, where strangers meet,  where ongoing lives briefly mingle, where unexpected conversations unfold,  and where traces of one's presence are left behind. It is a place of decision, where to sit? Next to someone else and risk being spoken to or at just enough distance to be able to remain quietly in one's own private space?  For some it is a place of survival away from the cold of the ground when a bed and a home are no longer available, or a resting place when walking can only be done for short distances before the pain starts again. For others, it is a place of contemplation, of taking a moment to see the world go by, of observing others and wondering about what it means to be human. It can be a place where angels are met, it can be a place where new relationships start. In how many ways is it a place of love? Of God's love?

When Mother became Mary

As part of the series on Laudato Si, this blog is meant as a theological-artistic exploration of the themes of pregnancy and incarnation, themes that suit the time of the year, the advent period. For his drawing, Sander Vloebergs was inspired by the classical icons of Mary and child and the dynamic movement of Nature spiraling around the moment of incarnation. He was inspired by blogs previously written by Julia Meszaros and Patrick Ryan Cooper. This blog is a continuation of the line of thought that started with the previous blogpost on Laudato Si : This sister now cries out to us.

Body and incarnation

Mary, blessed above all women, Queen of the heavens. Sometimes we forget that the Holy Mother is a mother just like us: blessed with the gift of life, a woman between women. She is a created being, transformed by the Life that grows in her, never to be the same as before. She becomes the Image of what creation could be, Mother Nature pregnant of the divine, a material body of Love. More than a celestial appearance, she is a fleshly manifestation of endless love and devotion, an erotic human longing to be completed.

We seem to neglect the materiality of the gift of life when we watch the beautiful icons of Mother and Son. That is why I wanted to visualize the growing life inside Mary’s womb with this drawing. In my creative world the iconic Mary becomes first of all a mother; with a pregnant vulnerable body, spinning around the source of Life. We should not forget that pregnancy and deliverance are first of all bodily phenomena that have a deep existential significance. A child grows in a body. It is this radically transforming body that interrupts the human life, it demands a play of identity as the ‘I’ transforms into a ‘we’. In a way, the bodily creation of new life goes hand in hand with an encounter with death itself as the ego dies in order to resurrect as a mother. The beauty of the tree of life is intertwined with the fragility of human existence as revealed by the crucified body. While life is cherished in the womb, humans become vulnerable, capable of being wounded in a bodily and existential way. The gift of life is a gift of death, a chance to spiritual growth.

Julia Meszaros writes beautifully in her blog on the mysticism of natural childbirth about this spiritual journey. She writes: “ For natural childbirth can serve as a metaphor (and hence a training ground) for the spiritual life, as the great mystics of the Christian tradition have described it. The natural birth of a child ‘undoes’ us; it gives us a glimpse of the meaning of human suffering; and, by driving home to us our creatureliness, it places us before God”. In her blog she puts special emphasis on the pains of labor and the thin line between life and death as this pain makes us aware that our lives hang on a golden thread. The birth pains reveal the fragile nature of human existence and the presence of life in the most vulnerable bodies. Yet those bodies show the most potential to live an authentic human life: open to be wounded and touched by the divine.

Mother of mothers

So we come to the Mother of mothers, Mary who responded with unrestricted love to the presence of God. She accepted the transformative movement of Nature (the natural pregnancy) to harmonize with the wounding Love of God in a way that changed the course of history. Yet we can’t forget that she is a creature of matter, a human body, a Mother Nature in her brightest form. About the necessity of her humanity, Patrick Ryan Cooper writes: “Without the Theotokos, the Incarnate Word would have been merely "similar to us but would not have been perfectly consubstantial" and thus the "God-man would not be my brother". Mary gives Jesus his body and offers him the gift of death and suffering that is existentially intertwined with Life itself.

She is the example par excellence of how a spiritual erotic longing for the Love of God can transform the body and how the pregnant body can change the existence of men. Mary is both active in her seductive devotion and passive in the receiving of the divine. The active dynamics that seduce the God of Love are driven by the praying openness of all humans who carry in them the gift of life. Mary is part of this cosmic movement, she is its crown jewel. In her, the prayer of the earth gets answered, and she, first of all mankind, becomes a temple where creation and Creator can touch.  Mother Mary reveals what Mother Nature can become, what every human could become. She is the mother who became Mary, Queen of Heavens.





The Alphabet of Love in Wordle shape

With the Anthropos research group we will organize a conference on the theme "Love       in Vulnerability: Theological Anthropology in the 21st century", 14th till 17th of September 2016, Leuven.

As a first appetizer we have reshaped the Alphabet of Love that filled the pages of this blog a year ago, as an indication that both the content andthe shape of theological anthropology will be of importance.

Education as Re-imagination: Recovering a Communion of Love amidst secular fragmentation

By Jared Schumacher

This post is the first in a series that the Theological Anthropology Blog is hosting on the topic of love and education.  Portions of these posts were first delivered at an event organized by The Leuven Newman Society, titled “Faith and Reason at the University and Beyond: The Future of Catholic Intellectual Life.


In an oration titled “The Man of Letters in the Modern World”, the Catholic author and intellectual Allen Tate took up the very question of our panel more than a half-century ago and provided an answer that I believe is no less compelling today, despite the historical ditch that separates us from him.  I would like briefly to review that answer and explain why I find it of continued relevance today.

The Moral Obligation of the Man of Letters: Image and Standard

The question Tate sought to answer was articulated this way: “What should the man of letters be in our time?” Tate’s answer to the question is characteristically clear and straightforward.  The Man of Letters must do two things.  “He must do first what he has always done: he must recreate for his age the image of man, and he must propagate standards by which other men may test that image, and distinguish the false from the true.”  These two tasks, the recreation of truthful images and the propagation of standards of judgment, Tate says constitute the “the moral obligation of the literary man.”

Modern Man: The Fragmented Self

The oration itself should be read as Tate’s own enactment of this moral obligation, as Tate both paints a verbal portrait of modern man and also communicates the standards necessary to judge that portrait, its beauties and its failings.  To the first task, Tate’s picture of humanity casts modern man as the inheritor of a divided anthropology descending primordially from Adam but more proximally from Descartes.  According to Tate, “[w]hen René Descartes isolated thought from man’s total being he isolated him from nature, including his own nature; and he divided man against himself.”  Thinking of human nature as essentially at war with itself––either in creating split personalities within one man or characterizing human society in toto as akin to a Hobbesian Leviathan in which man in a state of nature seeks to devour man–– creates what Tate calls an internal “psychic crisis”, which has political and social consequences. It is this crisis, this divided essence and consciousness descending from a conflicted vision of what man is, that is the hallmark of modernity on Tate’s reading.  Tate argues that at the political level, this anthropological vision can only “imitate[] Descartes' mechanized [understanding of] nature” and thus can only see human community as finally “a machine to be run efficiently”.  The improvement of man thus becomes synonymous with the management of a social machine. Tate rightly criticizes this modern, mechanical vision of society as Manichean in as much as it believes that society cannot finally be redeemed, only managed through greater technological and cultural ‘development’. 

Tate sees at the heart of this managerial strategy of the social machine the implicit logic of secularism, “the society that substitutes means for ends.” Modern man becomes that being trapped in what Charles Taylor has more recently called “the immanent frame”: his reason is only permitted free range in the end-less realm of technological development but dogmatically forbidden access to other transcendent ways of seeing the world.  Tate calls this “the dehumanized society of secularism”, “in which nobody [can] participate[] with his full humanity.”  He articulates what we might otherwise call the fragmented anthropology of modernity.

Politics Beyond Pragmatism and Resignation

In the face of this social condition, the circumspect man is seemingly offered two alternatives: to become what Tate calls “a politician”, a man of action, whose activity and political life become focused on the acquisition of greater means irrespective of final ends, or, alternatively, the man of letters but in a negative sense, what we today would call an ivory tower academic. The former adopts a political pragmatism, the latter a political resignation. Both are given over to the vision of society as an irredeemable machine. Tate sees clearly what this kind of social vision does to those who seek, against all odds, to retain some semblance of faith; they become Jansenist: “…disciples of Pascal, the merits of whose Redeemer were privately available but could not affect the operation of the power-state.”  They are pressured into privatizing their otherwise public life of faith, becoming slaves of compromise.

This is the fractured image of the man of Tate’s age, and I would argue that, to a great degree, it remains the man of our own.  “What should the man of letters be in our time?” Tate asks.  Notice that this is not the same as the fundamental question of ethics, Tolstoy’s and Lenin’s question, “What then shall we do?”  The important difference here is that the former question assumes concrete ends towards which to strive, the existence of an ideal or metaphysical image of man to become, while the later remains locked in the immanent frame, a call to activity without end, end-less activity.  Tate’s belief in the moral obligation of literary men stems from this metaphysical assumption that humanity can become something more than a well-oiled machine; it can become a communion in which the freedom of the love which is God abides. 

Communion of Love as Standard of Judgment

The standards of judgment that Tate says are the second part of the moral obligation of literary men arise from this difference.  His is not the political pragmatism of democratic or socialist stripe; his is not the mono-vision of a realm of immanently framed means; his is the ethos of a communion of love, his the sight which sees the old and compromised things passing away and the freedom of the children of God continually in advance.  Tate links these two ways of seeing to two linguistic communities, whose understandings of communication operate in different social imaginaries.  The one uses communication, the other participates in communion.  The one “communicates by means of sound over either wire or air”, the other “communicate[s] through love.”  Seeing love in this way––as the medium of reality, as the ontological grounding of all life and the sharing of that life––changes what we think it is possible to become as men and women in our postmodern age. 

Tate would let us know that it falls to the faithful to re-stir the social imagination to a form of sight which sees the possibility of love at all times, in all things; for as Tate concludes, “[t]he end of social man is communion in time through love, which is beyond time.” Modern fragmentation and its postmodern fetishization discourage such a unified social vision.  That is why we must use the letters we have garnered from that Society beyond time to tell the story of these sacred things in time through love, which is to say again what W.H. Auden perspicaciously declared, “We must love one another or die.”

Oscar Romero’s Faith: A Persistent Challenge for Theologians (A blog at the occasion of his beatification, San Salvador, May 23rd, 2015)

Liberation theologians have acknowledged their debt to Monseñor Oscar Romero, and particularly with respect to the seriousness with which he took his Christian faith. Ignacio Ellacuría, a Jesuit theologian working in El Salvador who was murdered in 1989, mentions three specific things he learned from the way Romero lived out his Christian faith: (i) how to “historicize” the gospel (ii) the need for the oppressed to become the “guiding center” of praxis, and (iii) the need for “Christian transcendence.” These three commitments Ellacuría learned from Romero—historicization, the oppressed as guiding center, and Christian transcendence—are all present in Romero’s understanding of incarnation, which he put forth in his address in Leuven shortly before he was killed. Whereas Romero presented incarnation as a call for the church in this speech, Ellacuría subsequently indicates how this call challenges the theologian. This challenge remains important today.

Romero took Christian faith claims seriously by historicizing them: “to flesh out those beautiful declarations from the standpoint of my own situation,” as Romero declared in Leuven. He understood incarnation as an existential situation of being affected by the world of the poor, as a movement of taking “the world of the poor upon ourselves.” Romero discovered a concrete reality that had always existed yet by which he did not initially allow himself to be confronted. Through the process of historicization, he allowed this historical situation to define faith realities. Ellacuría describes Romero as “fully realizing” his ecclesial function in this movement into the world of the poor. With Ellacuría, I see Romero to challenge theologians to more fully realize what it means to do theology through this process of historicization. This requires using (theological) concepts that emerge out of the concrete encounters with realities of oppression and struggles for liberation—that is, it requires thinking divinity from the materiality of reality.

Ellacuría describes Romero’s conversion in his mission to be the result of how he historicized the Gospel; his conversion did not come out of primarily theoretical considerations. In this sense, the oppressed prompt and guide Christian theological concepts and historical praxis. In Leuven, Romero insisted that the world of the poor—and by this I understand him to refer not only to the objective reality of the world of the poor but also to the ways the oppressed have made sense of their reality—teach the church what Christian love, liberation, and hope in fact entail. In Romero’s claims about the church, I find a challenge to the theologian to allow for radical receptivity in theological discourse from the oppressed, and even more, to allow theological discourse to be shaped by the perspectives and concerns of those oppressed by social structures, and by their struggles for liberation.

For me, articulating the need for an understanding of transcendence akin to Romero’s is the trickiest dimension of Romero’s thought that Ellacuría pulls out because of recent critiques of transcendence within theology that I think make valid points (e.g., those from Catherine Keller, Mayra Rivera, and Laurel Schneider). Yet, the claim Romero makes for Christian transcendence in his Leuven address, which refers to the priority of the Christian faith and a transcendent God, issues a necessary caution to such theologies. Romero describes his understanding of incarnation as relying on the priority of the Christian faith and a transcendent God, but a Christian faith and a God whose transcendence are only revealed in history, and particularly in historical processes of the oppressed initiating their liberation. Incarnation for Romero is not, at least in the first instance, universal; it is “preferential and partial.” It is only from the perspective of the world of the poor that “the church will become a church for everybody.” Romero’s understanding of transcendence doesn’t imply a positivistic understanding of revelation that stands apart from the world; there is a necessary receptivity in the Christian faith and in divinity. This receptivity is not receptivity in the abstract sense, a receptivity as such, but a particular form of receptivity: receptivity from the world of the poor. Romero maintains the transcendence of the church by basing its praxis in its faith in a God who self-revealed as for the oppressed, even as he urges that transcendence be given meaning by the marginalized. Romero ends his address with this interplay: “From the perspective of the transcendence of the gospel, I believe we can determine what the life of the poor truly is. And I also believe that by putting ourselves alongside the poor and trying to bring life to them we shall come to know the eternal truth of the gospel.” The gospel, in other words, is given priority, yet the content of the gospel is only worked out within historical, material encounters—that is, through the process of historicization.

The three dimensions Ellacuría finds so crucial in Romero’s work—historicization, the oppressed as guiding center, and Christian transcendence—indicate the radical nature of Romero’s understanding of incarnation. Romero took his Christian faith seriously by holding to an ultimate orientation within reality shaped by the revelational claim of divinity incarnated in the world of the oppressed. This faith claim based on revelation calls for a receptivity in revelation itself from the perspective of the world of the poor. It places a demand on the (liberation) theologian to hold to an ultimate orientation not necessarily discernible through philosophical reflection, and also entails a rejection of naïve claims of “real” liberation and “true” personhood proclaimed from a dogmatic position not adequately touched by reality, and particularly the reality of the periphery. While the way that Romero understood and named the world of the poor has to be renewed, his call for incarnation that he articulated in Leuven remains as a challenge to the theologian. 

Migrants: From individual indifference to communal and divine compassion

by Adanna James

Five ways to kill a Migrant: 1) Indifference

Drowning skins, eyes stark open with the stare of death, hands grasping, mouths open crying, hungry, traumatised, dying, dead. Human beings wrapped in white sheets, or unwrapped, in coffins.


I adapt the title from Edwin Brock’s poem, Five Ways to Kill A Man, as I attempt to bring some theological reflection to bear upon recent coverage of the migrant crisis in European and Asian territories. Whether as victims of human trafficking or desperately fleeing terrors from a homeland, a myriad of images has been flashing across our screens these past few months. Over three thousand deaths have been recorded across the Mediterranean last year. The toll continues. Yet I don’t think I’m being presumptuous in stating that for all the atrocities we’ve seen and heard about this issue, we remain largely unaffected.

And that’s what I choose to write about; our indifference. I turn to Catholic pastors Henri Nouwen, Donald Mc Neill and Douglas Morrison’s 2010 re-printed Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life for some more insight into this phenomenon of indifference in the wake of tragic, human suffering. Originally published in 1982 from the pastors’ own discontent ‘with the individualism and spiritual dryness of [their] academic lives,’ they highlight how a bombardment of such images in the media as described in the opening lines of this blog actually works against the showing of compassion, since they cause persons to come face to face with their own powerlessness in the face of dreadful, human suffering. Such “confrontation with human pain often creates anger instead of care, irritation instead of sympathy and even fury instead of compassion.” In addition to our powerlessness the absolute depravity of the human being presented on our screens removes all sense of identification with that individual as a human being. “Some of the lowest human drives are brought into the open by  a confrontation with miserable-looking people…this was the case in the Nazi, Vietnamese, and Chilean concentration camps, where torture and cruelty seemed easier the worse the prisoners looked.” Thirdly, the neutrality of it all, where these images take up forty to fifty seconds of a newscast in which Sepp Blatter is re-elected President of FIFA, AC Milan wins the Champions League, transportation strikes take place in Belgium and a new technological gadget is birthed result in a forced response on our part to tune out the ‘bad news’, in order to go to bed and have a good night’s rest without losing one’s sanity. Is it any wonder then that we remain unmoved by these images?

Compassion is communal and divine

But our sense of powerlessness and our lack of compassion points to a fundamental flaw according to the pastors. We tend to see compassion as an individual character trait, when really compassion is something essentially communal. Its communal nature removes the sense of powerlessness an individual feels when faced with the woes of the world. A community has to mediate between our helplessness and the actual reality of suffering that we are faced with. Naturally, being Christian, they put forward the Christian community as that mediating force, and this is worthy of more reflection before simply bypassing it as personal religious sensibility.

For starters, the authors not only view compassion as communal, for them it is also divine. Divine compassion is “the compassion of the one who keeps going to the most forgotten corners of the world, and who cannot rest as long as there are still human beings with tears in their eyes.” Understanding God as God in Christ, the suffering servant, also lies at the heart of understanding compassion as divine. Reflecting on the Greek splangchnizomai used in the Scriptures to speak of Christ’s being moved with compassion, the pastors show how splangchna, the entrails of the body, signifies something ‘deep and mysterious’ about divine compassion. It’s not superficial.

The Christian community makes this divine compassion present in the here and now when it constitutes solidarity, servanthood and obedience, three core components of the divine compassion identified by the pastors as expressed in Christ through the Scriptures. Solidarity refers to the way we live life together. This living together is expressed through letting go of individual anxieties and making a space for everyone to be. Compassion automatically takes place where this kind of living occurs. Secondly, servanthood colours the kind of response given to suffering others. It is patterned on Christ’s self-emptying. Different needs can be serviced by the different gifts each has. Thirdly, obedience gives the community its Christian specificity. Through prayer and meditation persons are forced to let go of the idea of compassion as a personal hobby, which is not sustainable.

Even as they explicitly advocate the Christian community as the mediator between individual concern and human suffering, their concept of Christian community demands a broadening of understanding. Not restricted to religious life, or persons sharing a home, it is meant to include networks of support and encouragement that make up a person’s life. They cited Thomas Merton’s acuity of what was taking place in the world despite not being informed through the media. Through letters he received and responded to wherein persons wrote deeply about their lives, including Christians, non-Christians and atheists, a community of compassion was enabled. Merton deeply entered others’ lives and was encouraged by others.

As such the authors suggest identifying where community of this type is already taking place in and around us. Aren’t we involved in networks of support and encouragement (be it from family or friends)? Haven’t we come into contact with personal suffering in a tangible way? If so, then we can already begin using the ideals of the Christian community to mediate compassion. As a student in Belgium the migrant crisis has come home to me personally through encounters with classmates from Syria, Nigeria and Palestine all of whom have had firsthand experience with terror attacks in one form or another and have fled home in the hope of something better. We spoke. I listened, asked questions, and apologised for my lack of ignorance. The BBC news was no longer for me about nameless faces. I cried as I watched these stories. I prayed, I spoke to others about their situations and begged their prayers. Ordinarily this may come across as some form of trite self-glorification, but really, it signalled for me a move from emotional numbness over the horrors of the realities underlying today’s migration crisis to feeling something, deep in my entrails, a small step in the direction toward compassion.

Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, Douglas Morrison, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, New York: Doubleday, 1982.

Photograph source: see here


Templeton prize awarded to Jean Vanier: From Politics to Love, L'Arche and belonging

Lieve Orye

We live in a society that makes work of joining up while forgetting the work in joining with.


In March, good news spread around the different l’Arche communities in the world. Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, has been awarded the Templeton Prize.  It will be formally presented to him at a public ceremony at the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London on Monday, May 18. L’Arche communities are important for showing concretely “the central role of vulnerable people in the creation of a more just, inclusive and humane society”, as the Templeton Foundation website phrases it. Quite often one can find the l’Arche community mentioned in discussions of theological ethics and in theology and disability discussions. Michael Banner, for instance, in Ethics of Everday Life (2014) mentions these communities as an example of ‘alternative kinning’ and notes that ethnography of such a community would help us understand the possibilities of a countercultural form of non-biogenetic kinship (58). Banner also sees them as communities that embody a regard for the suffering other. The one who suffers is not to be a passive recipient of care but is recognized as an active giver whose gifts one must learn to receive (102-3). Here as well Banner insists that it would be necessary to subject L’Arche to the critical ethnographic gaze, to study carefully and closely how it provides a new social topography, a counterpractice to ambivalent humanitarianism (104).  Some key issues are given here: countercultural ‘alternative kinning’ and a plea for ethnography, or rather, a plea for ‘learning from and thinking with’ the concrete l’Arche communities.

Alternative kinning: beyond rights, towards love

‘Alternative kinning’ seems to me a topic high on the agenda in theology and disability and even in theology and ethnography discussions, though it is not often put in these terms. In a previous blogpost Mary McClintock Fulkerson’s reflections on disability and inclusion and/or pluralism were briefly discussed. She as well emphasizes the importance of studying how these take shape in practice and, based on her own participant observation in a multiracial church that also welcomes people from group homes, she sees how practices of inclusion and pluralism still leave the other easily marginalized. She suggests the addition of a new category: “’receiving from the other’ as a crucial element of  real (ecclesial) welcome”. John Swinton (2012), who nominated Jean Vanier for the Templeton prize, says something very similar when he makes a plea to exchange the language of inclusion for that of belonging, or maybe better, to embed the first in the second. “To belong”, he notes, “you need to be missed”(183). The language of disability categorizes and allows the categorizer to stay with and hide safely behind that language and its distancing position; the language of disability and inclusion describes thinly allowing the describer to keep control of the relationship and avoid the call that can be heard as well as the weight of responsibility that can be felt in the thickness of reality. Such language only gives thin terms that lead only to thin inclusion. The step forward, for Swinton, lies again in ethnography, more particularly in Clifford Geertz’s often mentioned distinction between thin and thick description. Where thin description gives only the bare bones of a phenomenon, thick description strives to see the whole of a thing (180). Thin descriptions allow the describer and the reader to keep reality sanitized, removing the real call, the real involvement, the real guilt, but also the real gift, the real encounter. Swinton’s call for a thick description expresses the wish to really see and to belong with the other, realizing that one’s own belonging cannot be full belonging if others are merely included.

Let me thicken this with two pieces of anthropological material to show how the issue of thin and thick description relates to the issue of inclusion versus belonging.

Clifford Geertz’ Thick description and participant observation

At the start of his Balinese fieldwork Clifford Geertz found himself and his wife ignored by the villagers who seemed to be looking through them as if they were not there. He tells in his writings how they felt “as ephemeral and insubstantial as a cloud or a gust of wind” (Lee & Ingold 2006:67). But when, during a police raid on a cockfight they had come to watch, they turned and ran with the rest of the crowd, the situation changed abruptly. Rather than remaining privileged anthropological visitors who simply could have identified themselves to the police, they had accompanied the villagers in their flight. Afterwards, their fieldwork opened out successfully, Geertz noted. Jo Lee and Tim Ingold see this as follows: “With the run, it seems, the anthropologists suddenly came down to earth, were able to make their bodily presence felt, and could thenceforth participate with the villagers in the ebb and flow of everyday life” (idem). Running with the villagers meant that Geertz’s movements and those of the people he was with were grounded in shared circumstances. Walking with them allowed him to get to know them and learn from them.

Or to put it another way, we cannot simply walk into other people’s worlds, and expect thereby to participate with them. To participate is not to walk into but to walk with – where ‘with’ implies not a face-to-face confrontation, but heading the same way, sharing the same vistas, and perhaps retreating from the same threats behind (Idem).

Such participation as joining with is what makes the vast difference between thick and thin description, not the detailedness, nor the articulatedness of it. That such thick description is a challenge becomes clear when in going back home, the ethnographer often soon forgets in his writing up and in his theorizing the walking with and being together or reduces this to a mere means that allowed for the construction of ‘knowledge about the other’.

Alternative kinning as belonging, as joining with

Such forgetting or reduction also lies behind the language of inclusion. I would say with Ingold, - who in The Life of Lines (2015) discusses the vast difference between seeing the world and being human in terms of an assembled, joined up collection of blobs and seeing the world and human becoming primarily in terms of ongoing lines that join and correspond and carry on – that the language of inclusion involves a joining up of people, attempts an assembling of people and things in terms of their interests and needs, whereas the language of belonging involves a recognition that people join together, walk with each other, receive each other as gift. With Swinton and Ingold, we can say that when lives are joined, not joined up, one will be missed. For Vanier, it is the power of loving one another and the sharing of gifts that overcome difference and exclusion. Swinton adds that you belong when your gifts are longed for and that “such longing is not discovered through politics or argument, but only through the gesticulations of God’s love towards human beings as they are embodied within the lives of those who have come to know and love God and who long for the love of God to become the pivot point for the redemption of the world” (183-184).

To understand properly what L’Arche as an example of ‘alternative kinning’ is about, we first have to learn to see the world, human becoming and participant observation not in terms of joining up, intersubjectivity, interaction and inclusion but in terms of joining with, or as Ingold calls it, ‘corresponding’. Within this ongoing world, through participant observation, we might then learn from and with L’Arche communities how in their Christian going on God is present. For Swinton, there is a difference between a thin, self-centered love and a spiritual love that signals the Kingdom through small gestures – gestures, I would say, that again and again invite and take up the invitation to join lives, for the duration of a moment, for the duration of a joint activity, with the promise to be willing to see what comes next in growing together. As Christians, we are called to look away from ourselves and to look to Jesus to find ourselves. For Swinton, such a way of looking at one another through Jesus offers us a thick description of what it means to sit with the marginalized, to befriend the stranger, to offer hospitality to those radically different from one’s self. These words tell us of a thick reality in which the principle of joining up, the principle of likeness, is exchanged for the principle of joining in grace.


Banner, M. (2014) Ethics of Everyday Life. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Ingold, T. (2015) The Life of Lines. Routledge: London.

Lee, J. and Ingold, T. (2006) “Fieldwork on Foot: Perceiving, Routing, Socializing,” in Locating the Field. Coleman, S. and Collins, P. (eds.), Berg: Oxford, pp. 67-86.

Swinton, J. (2012) “From Inclusion to Belonging: A Practical Theology of Community, Disability and Humanness,” Journal of Religion, Disability and Health, 16(2), 172-190.

The photograph was taken in Montreal, 2009. Sans Oublier le Sourire is a French Canadian organization that promotes participation and belonging for its members.

Living together with difference through keeping the future open

By Lieve Orye

As the previous post indicated, the Anthropos research group had the pleasure of having Prof. Schnitter from the University of Plovdiv, Bulgaria and Prof. Adam Seligman from Boston University with us for a few days. Both are involved in CEDAR, Communities Engaging With Difference And Religion. Within CEDAR people from very different backgrounds and communities are brought together during two intensive weeks to learn to ‘live together with difference’. Two elements are crucial in its philosophy and pedagogy: first, differences are important and not to be denied, privatized or aestheticized. Second, to open up a future wherein living with difference becomes not only possible but mutually enriching, the importance of ritual and of creating concrete shared experiences is emphasized. Ritual is seen as a place where people commit to each other, to the world, and to the future in ways that circumvent the need for consensus. The demand for sincerity and sharing a set of meanings and beliefs is seen to be counter-productive. In other words, to live together with difference does not consist in finding ‘common ground’ on an abstract level, in some shared fundamental theory or worldview, but ‘on the ground’, in our daily bodily going on with each other.

Here, paying attention again to Rachel Muers’ Living for the Future (2008), I first want to suggest that more is needed than de-emphasizing beliefs and emphasizing ritual. The question rather is whether beliefs and practices hinder or nurture ‘living together with difference’. Muers shows how this depends on how we bring ‘the future’, and especially the question of how we ‘live for the future’ into the picture of daily bodily going on. Second, I nevertheless support wholeheartedly the shift in attention from shared worldview to our daily bodily going on with each other that Seligman advocates. But here as well, ‘living for the future’ demands a particular way of tending to our social fabric, to the radically ordinary.

Community, difference and future

How are communities, difference and the future interrelated?

“Responsibility to future generations involves forms of self-definition that do not rely on setting one’s own group over against those ‘outside’… If the future of the community itself is treated as a gift, rather than as a product or as threatening ‘fate’, we would expect this to be reflected in the capacity to deal with difference in the present, neither by bringing it under control nor by externalizing it as a threat” (Muers 2008:79-80, 88).

I think a crucial point is made here: our thinking about and living with difference is strongly related to how we think about and live for the future and how the past is allowed to give life to our present and future – or to suffocate the life of that present and future. Both Seligman and Muers, each in their distinctive way, make clear that both to live ‘for the future’ and ‘with difference’ have to do with our daily tending to the social fabric in which we live. Furthermore, it involves a tending to the radically ordinary precisely not in the shape of securing in advance one’s relations to the other while simultaneously trying to control the future. For Christians this means, as Muers points out, that as a community we are to live a kind of life whose future does not depend on its capacity to secure its own duration. To ‘treat our own continued existence, at the expense of others or of the wider environment, as a paramount good’ is misdirected Molech worship that nourishes unsustainable forms of sociality and deathly patterns of existence. Any attempt to frantically construct a road map for the future to be followed by all in order to gain control over it, involves precisely a way of tending to the present that gives rise to suffocating ways of being and suffocating environments. 

Tending the radically ordinary

“Choose life… so that you and your descendants may live” (Deut. 30.19). The quality of the present is important for the future, but in a non-instrumental way. One way to concretize this is by emphasizing intransitive verbs: In commenting on Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians Muers writes

[W]hat brings people together appears to be their participation in a non-instrumental work – a work that takes time, an ongoing labour and toil. …[T]his work has no obviously specifiable purpose external to itself; although it points towards a future (hope in our Lord Jesus Christ) it does not bring that future about. It is simply love’s labour, both labour on the basis of love and labour that makes love real… the relationship to future generations is worked out through time, rather than being given in advance... it is to exist ethically in a way that allows the future to happen” (Muers 2008:40-41).

To greet the other, to share meals, to labour and toil together is “to live out of a future that is given rather than seized” (Muers 2008:76). Anthropologist Tim Ingold seems to confirm this when he emphasizes the importance of intransitive verbs in ‘life embracing’ relational anthropology. Intransitive verbs, such as ‘to hope,’ ‘to grow,’ ‘to dwell,’ are all verbs that express a carrying on, that express the immersion and participation of beings in the currents of the lifeworld. Key here is that such carrying on immersed in the currents of the lifeworld no longer allows for an easy opposition of world and other. Really knowing the other cannot take the shape of othering, a holding at arm’s length to get a good look to see in which category someone fits, but takes the shape of togethering, of an aligning and an attuning to them. For Christians, this involves an opening up of one’s own future to the gift of the other and allowing oneself to be God’s gift in their life.

That such opening up is not simply a mental or spiritual exercise but also wholly a bodily one becomes clear when Ingold with his colleague Jo Vergunst point out a major difference between being face-to-face with someone, which can take the shape of an interview, a doctor’s appointment or a poker game, and going on a walk together. In the first situation, you can see the other in the eye, but you can also see what happens behind the other’s back and use that to your own advantage. It is more confrontational, less companionable. A shared point of view is not so easy to come by. In the second situation, you share a common movement and horizon, you go on together. As they note,

Crucially, walking side by side means that participants share virtually the same visual field. We could say that I see what you see as we go along together. In that sense I am with you in my movements, and probably in my thoughts as well. We can talk within and around our shared vista and the other things we are doing along the line of the walk. Participants take it in turns to carry the conversation on, and when not actually speaking one is nevertheless listening, participating silently in the ongoing flow (Ingold & Lee 2006:80).

‘To walk’ is mostly used as an intransitive verb. ‘To walk together’, it seems to me, might be a good movement and a good metaphor with which to think and live ‘together with difference’. This is clearly demonstrated by Sebastien de Fooz who was present at the workshop on CEDAR and who started the Jorsala project that organizes walks-in-diversity.


Muers, Rachel (2008) Living for the Future. Theological Ethics for Coming Generations, London: T&T Clark.

Ingold, Tim; Lee, J. (2006) 'Fieldwork on Foot: Perceiving, Routing, Socializing.' in Locating the Field: Space, Place and Context in Anthropology. Coleman, Simon & Collins, Peter (eds.), Oxford: Berg.

To those interested in this line of thought, I recommend listening to Tim Ingold's 2014 Huxley Memorial Lecture 'On Human Corresponding'.

Pictures are taken from a soda can thrown into Den burn.