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

by Lieve Orye

Le Grand Bain


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

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


Book launch: a practice book of presence

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


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

The ‘latende modus’

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


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

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

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

Synchronized swimming

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

by Lieve Orye

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Pepper, the robot - and theology

by Gábor Ambrus

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Edith Stein - A Modern Traditional

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

Edith Stein around 1920

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

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

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

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

Edith Stein, late 1941/early 1942

Edith Stein, late 1941/early 1942

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

Beyond the Doctrine of Man: Perspectives on Enfleshment

Joe Drexler-Dreis

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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?

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.

Temples of the Holy Spirit: Questioning Body-Soul Dualism

By Julia Meszaros

Is Christianity tied to a dualism of body and soul? A recent Anthropos seminar with ethnologist Maria Schnitter indicated that this question gets to the heart of a whole range of theological anthropological themes, including the status of the created world, the nature of sin, and the relation between self and other.

Bathing practices and salvation of the soul


According to Schnitter, who spoke on the differences between Christian, Muslim and pagan attitudes towards ritual bathing, the spread of Christianity among the Southern Slavs led to the gradual disappearance of their traditional bathing practices. As Schnitter argued, Christianity’s emphasis on the care of the soul and its call for the sacrifice of the body meant that Christians viewed the weekly bodily hygiene rituals of both pagans (or ancient Romans) and Muslims either as an idolatrous pleasure detracting from salvation or as indicative of a person’s spiritual impurity. Regular bathing, so the Christian authorities maintained in response to the prevailing Slavic customs, was acceptable only so long as it was required by the body itself; it was immaterial (if not damaging) to the salvation of the soul.

Whether rightly or wrongly, the separation, or even opposition, of body and soul that is at play in such arguments is often traced back to St Paul’s negative view of the flesh, or to the inheritance of a Greek dualism between body and soul (although it must be noted that Christianity has regularly condemned a strict anti-body stance, such as found in Gnosticism and Manicheanism). Such an opposition is often seen to be indicative of a wider-reaching binary logic that has fundamentally shaped the Western imagination and that is increasingly found to be incapable of adequately capturing reality. Traditional Christian practices geared towards the ‘salvation of souls’ or the ‘mortification of the flesh’ are thus being replaced by Eastern practices of yogic mindfulness and contemplation. The pursuit of ‘inner balance and centredness’, ‘self-acceptance’, and ‘groundedness’ is typically seen to represent a more holistic spirituality, which in turn helps underpin many of postmodernity’s most pressing concerns, such as the environmentalist movement, new perspectives on diet and health, or the development of pedagogical approaches more suited to integrating body, mind and soul. In short, Christianity’s association with a dualism between body and soul appears to be one of the reasons for the contemporary backlash against Christianity.


Yet despite these trends, it remains far from certain that the dechristianisation of society really provides new resources for the integration of body and soul. The contemporary concern to give greater importance to the body often takes on the form both of a fetish with the body, and of a heightened puritanism about the body: we are obsessed with the sexual body but afraid of the ageing, ugly, dying body. Thus, far from seeing a new willingness to engage in anything akin to the traditional communal bathing practices as were discussed in the seminar, we live in a society which accepts only the display of the ‘fit’ (and typically photo-shopped) body, and which is increasingly skeptical towards communal locker rooms (to name but one everyday example).

Christianity as resource for body-soul integration


These tensions and contradictions should give us pause. Did/does the Christian paradigm really entail a binary between body and soul and, in effect, devalue the body? The doctrine of the Incarnation and the sacraments would seem to suggest otherwise. As Schnitter moreover noted, Christian baptism is in many ways analogous to Muslim bathing practices. Here, too, an act of bodily washing has a spiritual effect and helps the soul onto the path of salvation.

How, then, can we articulate the difference between Christian and other perspectives on the relation between body and soul? It is true that Christianity does not consider the regular cleansing of the body relevant to the cleansing of the soul. In Christianity, the conditions for salvation have largely been internalised, such that baptism—though an efficacious and externally visible sign of an invisible grace—requires only a symbolic cleansing of the body, and that the internal purity effected by this ‘washing’ can only be tarnished by sin (as opposed to, say, natural bodily processes). It is the internal act of faith which is distinctive for salvation, such that bodily purity may coincide with spiritual impurity, and vice versa (cf. Jn 9).

At the same time, the suggestion that Christianity simply dismisses the body’s role in the salvific life seems inadequate. This is indicated, not only by Christian practices such as fasting, liturgical postures, etc. but also by the extent to which the Gospels view bodily healing as a sign of faith. The point here, however, is that the leper does not obtain salvation through bodily purification but obtains bodily health through his faith (Mt 8:1-4).


This suggests that, more than undoing it, Christianity reverses the relationship between body and soul. Salvation begins with the soul, even though its effects may become manifest also in the body. Implied in this, I would contend, is both a more humble and a more elevated vision of the human body. For, while the body’s salvific powers are limited, even the physically tainted body can serve as a ‘temple’ of the Holy Spirit.

Divinization and the "Death" of "God"

By Jared Schumacher

The final keynote of the recent Theosis Conference held at KULeuven was delivered by two of the United Kingdom’s leading theological voices: George Pattison, Professor of Divinity at the University of Glasgow, and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.  In a certain sense, the two lectures were powerful compliments to each other, as each expressed the past and future relevance of ‘divinization’ in Christian thought.  While Williams focused more on the systematic and biblical aspects of the concept and how to renew it for application today (namely as an alternative way of affirming human personhood distinct from that of modernity’s overfixation on autonomy), Pattison manfully employed his efforts along a different, more historical-hermeneutical, track: attempting to understand our post-modern, post-secular context as one in which traditional Christian concepts, like incarnation and divinization, have undergone a radical – though recognizable – permutation and secular appropriation.  In this sense, Pattison delivered a petit-récit of the intellectual history of modernity as told through the myth of ‘man-God’. I would like to summarize briefly his conception and indicate what I take to be its import for theology done in a postmodern context. 

Genealogy of the ‘Myth’: Deicide as Secular Divinization

Pattison’s geneology of the myth of the man-God began in German idealism (and more broadly modern humanism), was inflected through Romanticism in the leading intellectual and literary figures of 19th century, and culminated in transhumanism at the end of the 20th and dawn of the 21st centuries.  It started with Kant and included “Fichte, Schelling, Schlegel, and Hegel and further radicalized in the Left Hegelians and post-Hegelians Strauss, Feuerbach, Stirner, Marx, and Engels….”, leading ultimately to Nietzsche, whose vision of the “death of God”  was its absolutization.  Despite the varying inflections, the central logic shared by this diverse array of thinkers is this: humankind must overcome itself to reach its final conclusion, and it can only do so by becoming God. This is the resolution of ‘history,’ the fulfilment of human desire.  The ‘man-God’ is thus the embedded teleology of the thinkers and prophecizers of modern history, and man-Godhood becomes the secular eschatological vision towards which the critical consciousness of modernity is compelled.  In this sense, ‘the man-God’ functions as a profane divinization, an inverted atonement in which, rather than God becoming man to save Man, Man becomes god – by killing the transcendent “god” – to save himself. 

Pattison labored to show that, despite a consistent thread of denial and rejection of the existence of God in the orthodox theological sense, whether in favor of no ‘god’ at all or a retro-pagan pantheism, this ideology nevertheless is driven by a kind of theo-logic, even if a heterodox one.  It has, as it were, aspects of truth, something profoundly true which even “orthodox” theology, sometimes wallowing in scholastic formulae, can forget: that man is destined to become something more than human; he is called to divine self-transcendence.  In the orthodox theological tradition, this was definitively formulated in Athanasius’ famous bon mot: “God became man that man might become God.”  And so while the man-God is a self-conscious denial of the Christian God, it nevertheless is an offshoot of the Christian theological tree. In a quote which gets to the heart of the matter, Pattison avers might plausibly be argued that the ideology of the Man-God set in motion by Idealism offered a rapidly secularizing society a means of carrying forward impulses from the theological tradition that had themselves been covered over, distorted or, quite simply, abandoned in the course of theological history. In a theological culture shaped by Reformation debates about justification and an emphatic doctrine of original sin, subsequently ‘liberalized’ by a massive refocusing on rational morality, the rise of Man-Godhood might be read, generously, as intimating a theological need for a larger vision of redemption.

Relevance #1: Hermeneutic of Charity and Suspicion

This “generous” reading or “hermeneutic of charity” was the central theological imperative of the lecture.  Pattison is keenly aware that there is a temptation to summarily dismiss the “death of God” theologies inspired by the man-God ideologies on account of their overt hostitility to the very subject of theology (God himself). He hopes to remind more traditional theologians that if the truth claims of Christianity cannot themselves be killed by any man, then even heterodox philosophy and theology can be engaged in productive ways. In the idiom of the Second Vatican Council, we might say that even the "death of God" can be read, in light of the Gospel, as a sign of the times.  In essence, Pattison sees man-Godhood as a deformed, but nevertheless sincere, hope for a better future, a sign of at least the need for human redemption, even if a confused one.  And while it would be dangerous to adopt a thoroughgoing hermeneutic of charity without balancing it with an equal hermeneutic of suspicion (which Pattison, in his lecture, clearly advocates in the voices of Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky),  he is right to insist that Christianity calls for a hermeneutic of charity, even when it confronts an ideology whose only good news is the “death” of “God”.   

Relevance #2:  preparatio evangelii post evangelium

Pattison called his lecture an exercise in preparatio evangelii post evangelium, and rightly so, because if Pattison is correct, then not only is the myth of the man-God a substructure at the core of modern thought, but modernity itself should be seen as having an embedded anthropo-theology. By this I mean a post-evangel programmatic account of ultimate human fulfillment that gives human society a meaning and purpose once belief in a transcendent God has been rendered culturally implausible.  And insofar as this account takes the functional place of the older theological ordering of society (i.e. by establishing and coordinating a system of social meanings, a hierarchy of values, to human life and conduct), it adopts the forms and manners of theology not merely accidentally (because these are the cultural signs available to it) but also necessarily (because what it communicates is in part theologically true).  God has willed that man should become God.  Even when man stops believing in God, his unbelief is not strong enough to overcome his vocation to self-overcoming.  And even when this self-overcoming becomes thoroughly immanentized – or in classical language, becomes diabolical – at no point is the living God’s grace completely without resources for redemption. Or as Pattison puts the matter, there will always be apologetic “points of contact” between Christian truth and even the all-too-human conception of being human.   For Christians remember the death of God as but one moment in the Everlasting Life of Jesus Christ. 




The option for the poor

By Joe Drexler-Dreis

The Centre for Liberation Theologies offered a course this year on the option for the poor. We questioned how the concept of the option for the poor can formulate a theological response to a contemporary context shaped by hierarchies based on economic, social, and political power. At the conclusion of the course, I can see three inter-related points that we developed.

First, there is a need to develop a method that can elucidate the historicity of the Christian understanding of salvation. This implies a need for both structural analyses and ways to understand everyday realities. These ways of analyzing historical reality impact the understanding of God. This question of social analysis or mediations for theology has received renewed interest over the last decade by theologians such as Ivan Petrella and Ada-María Isasi-Díaz.

This already leads me to the second point: social analyses, and the social practices these imply, have theological implications. There is a functional relationship between inductive and deductive ways of thinking when engaging the option for the poor as a discourse about God. The option for the poor is a fundamentally theo-centric option. God’s self-revelation in Jesus of Nazareth, as among and for the oppressed, is fundamental to who God is. This represents a deductive principle, yet this deductive principle demands a parallel inductive principle. In turning to “the poor” in our immediate situations, we can better understand who God is.

This brings me to the third point, on which I’d like to dwell a bit. If “the poor” is a fundamental theological category, as the previous two points indicate, how we understand the poor is crucial to a theological understanding of reality. Many descriptions of “the poor” describe poverty in terms of a lack or deprivation. In many important ways, poverty is a lack, and it’s important to acknowledge this: poverty cannot be defined without reference to the concrete lack of material resources. But in my contributions to the course, I put forward the thesis that the option for the poor disallows this notion of a lack to extend to the epistemological level: the oppressed do not lack the capacity to make sense of reality in an adequate way. If the actions by and relationships among the materially poor are seen as outside rationality, or as not making a legitimate claim towards universality, then the option for the poor, as the ground of a Christian theological discourse on the divine, is sacrificed. In other words: the option for the poor demands that the epistemologies and cosmologies that emerge from the materially poor have the capacity to make sense of the divine reality.

This is where decolonial theory can be helpful to theology. Walter Mignolo, one of the preeminent decolonial theorists, is critical of liberation theologies:

While there is a history of theology obviously linked to imperial designs and interests, the papacy being an obvious example, there are theologies of liberation in South America, North America, and Africa, as well as a Jewish theology of liberation. My claim is that, as in the disputes between (neo)liberalism and (neo)Marxism, both sides of the coin belong to the same bank: the disputes are entrenched within the same rules of the game, where the contenders defend different positions but do not question the terms of the conversation.”[1]

Even though (neo)Marxism represents a leftist critique of (neo)liberalism, both are Euro-centered discourses: both develop in reference to European realities and in dialogue with an (almost) exclusively European intellectual tradition. Analogously, for Mignolo, liberation theologies, like traditional theologies, develop in reference to European intellectual traditions despite their leftist (although not exclusively Marxist) tendencies. (Although, and this is what he misses, not in reference to European realities.)

To do liberation theology from the decolonial perspective that Mignolo is pushing for would require seeing the role of Christianity within Western expansion from the perspective of the experience of colonization. It requires thinking out of the memory of the exploitation that allowed for Western modernity (i.e., colonization and the slave trade), and the hope for the obliteration of these exploitative processes. This means engaging thought systems that emerge from the sites of exploitation by Western modernity, not merely as claims for justice that need to be recuperated within the Western tradition, but as intellectual claims.

Such a perspective is in contrast to a perspective of (Western) modernity, which assumes the normativity of the hegemonic epistemological position articulated within Western Europe. For Mignolo, what characterizes modernity is its Euro-centrism. Theologies that critique Western modernity by finding a better European tradition thus remain, for Mignolo, in a perspective of modernity. Within theology, we see this in a return to pre-modern sources (i.e., radical orthodoxy) or a postmodern turn in order to offer an internal critique of modernity. These two turns are both attempts to maintain the centrality of European discourse. Even as turns away from Europe—to the way the victims of Western modernity have responded to its oppressive features—would make more sense, both these trajectories cling to a need to maintain the epistemic normativity of the Western tradition.

The decolonial perspective that Mignolo finds lacking in liberation theology isn’t only an issue of diversifying knowledge, or adding race or gender analysis (although it is also this). Fundamentally, a decolonial perspective is significant because it suspends the de facto authority of Western thought systems over all other ways of making sense of the world and human relationships. Within this suspension, decolonial theorists turn towards the ways those outside the benefits of Western modernity have made sense of the world. This is crucial for the option for the poor. The option for the poor implies doing theology—that is, thinking the divine reality—from a decolonial perspective. Because of who Christians hold God to reveal Godself to be (deductive principle), Christian theology requires thinking within trans-modern epistemologies (inductive principle).


[1] Walter D. Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity, 92.

The Immaculate Conception as a School of Devotion

By Patrick Ryan Cooper


During the Church's penitential season of Advent, an appropriate image that emphasizes this time of preparation and waiting is that of an expectant mother. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, the increased signs of apocalyptic tumultuousness are likened to the birth pangs of a women beginning in labor—where the difference between birth and death become terrifyingly intimate.(Mt 24, 8) And appropriately so, as the sign of birth pangs, in both pre-labor and the beginnings of active labor indeed confirms the coming of that which is both imminently anticipated, while nevertheless preserving a sense of irruption and adventious uncertainty in the coming of new life. For my wife and I, the connection between birth pangs, upheaval and the eschatological promise of new life attested to in this text is a powerful reminder of the night when my wife's hour had come as she entered into active labor to receive the birth of our first child. This hour similarly coincided with this very same Gospel text from St. Matthew as the daily reading. Fortunately, however, its dim warnings of anguish and woe for pregnant women and nursing mothers (Mt 24, 19) would eventually give way to a more ecstatic release, for while the anguish, tumult and confusion was great, these things were so quickly forgotten (Jn 16, 21) as the mother's sufferings were unburdened by her gratitude in peacefully turning towards the son; and the son, still weary and limpid, turned towards and beheld his mother in loving astonishment for having remained with him until the end.


His astonishment recalls that we are peculiarly gifted with a unique, receptive capacity for life, one which is widened and made spacious, giving a sense of depth and joyous wonder that comes upon the heels of suffering—a receptivity, which singularly recalls this initial exchange of gazes—when beholding our mother.

To gaze so, with astonished perplexity, I would argue, is singularly adequate when contemplating the person of Mary, who the Church recognizes in this season of Advent to be found immaculate, "without spot or blemish before him, at peace". (2Pt 3, 13-14) For the paradox of her sufferings is nearly as ungraspable as the mystery that she herself is. And in view of the Cross, in which her faithfulness continuously endures and our redemption radiates, this salvific fulfillment stretches us back to the very beginnings of what the Church celebrates on this Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Namely, that Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin—having been the public faith of the Church since the promulgation of the papal Bull Ineffabilis Deus by Pius IX in 1854.

Fundamentally, the Immaculate Conception can be said to signal the excessive wonder of creation itself and the integral integrity by which it radiates. In Mary, the Church professes the restoration and sanctification of our human nature, undimmed by sin and towards an original creaturely goodness and suffused with grace by way of her receptive fiat—"Be it done to me according to your Word." With and in Mary, Mother of "The One whom the heavens cannot contain, yet you held in your womb"[1]—we learn of the original width and depth of our human dignity, untainted by sin and division, and our relational autonomy seen specifically in terms of an active receptivity: that becoming more uniquely particular rightly hinges upon our creaturely receptivity in terms of capax dei, which simultaneously unfolds how we are to ask the question of being as a welcoming of life. In the two Annunciation narratives in the Lucan Gospel for example, it was Zachariah, who elevated himself as the primary reference by asking the Angel the epistemological question, "How can I know this for sure?" (Lk 1, 18-20) and was thus silenced. While in Mary, as a school of devotion, in whom we cross the porous borders of philosophy and theology, we increasingly learn how to ask and dialogue over the question of being and its relationality—"How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?" (Lk 1, 34)—in a wholly authentic, creaturely manner, and thereby actively to respond to the fecundity of grace and its abundant givenness. Just as "spirituality is rooted in ontology" the late Stratford Caldecott writes, so too the "secret design of all creaturely being, revealed in Jesus through Mary, is love."[2] While analogically and in view of the Immaculate Conception, the creaturliness of being is most clearly seen in Mary's receptive fecundity, whereby:

Mary appeared pure in her origin not only by the influence of the divine principle, but also by that of the human. She appeared pure, down to the foundations of her being, and even down to the matter from which she was formed; in other words, down to the root, yes to the very seed, from which she sprang.[3]

However, I suspect that the reticence that various people continue to hold towards Mary—especially her being "immaculate"—is largely grounded upon a rather specious Mariology that would regard the 'purity' of her mediating relationship as somehow lifting her up as distant and impossibly unapproachable—as an artificial, reified "between" Christ and humanity so as to keep them at a distance. Herein, the "supreme principle of Mariology" and in a similar fashion, that of "Christianity and Christology" is that the "mother of God defines the Incarnation, for the part of men."[4] 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".[5] A doceticism, which distinctly opens onto a fundamental loss of solidarity within the economic order, leaving unanswered the call, ""Who are My mother and My brothers?" (Mk. 3, 33) Rather, since the God-man is fully human through His mother, Mary is likewise a mother with regard to all humanity in their deified lives. For Mary teaches us how to receive and respond to being's excessive giftedness, precisely by way of not further magnifying herself, yet is magnified by the one in whose hospitality she gives Him himself as man. "[W]ithout the Blessed Virgin, the God-man would not encircle men in themselves; they would not be made, in Him, full sharers in the divine nature, in grace, in divinization."[6]

[1] Antiphon from the Christmas Octave, Solemnity of the Mother of God

[2] Cf. 'Stratford Caldecott, Mariology" in (eds.) Nicholas J. Healy Jr. and D.C. Schindler Being Holy in the World: Theology and Culture in the Thought of David L. Schindler (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011) 292.

[3] Cf. Matthias Scheeben, Mariology, vol. II, (trans) T.L.M.J. Geukers (London: Herder Book Co., 1947) 81.

[4]  Cf. Emile Mersch, Theology of the Mystical Body (trans.) Cyril Vollert (London: Herder Book Co. 1951) 172.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

Body Matters – A Workshop on Christianity and the Body

By Julia Meszaros

A few weeks ago, I—like other members of the Anthropos research group—had the privilege of participating in a workshop led by the dance artist and scholar of religion Carol Webster. Focusing on the theme of Body Matters: Somatic Conversations on Christianity, Love, and Justice, Webster took us on a theoretical and practical exploration of the human body’s role in Christian life and thought. Webster began with a short lecture on how St Paul, in her eyes, negotiated the emergent Christian identity in recourse to bodily images, such as that of Christ’s body being eaten (at the Eucharist) and that of the prostitute (as the antithesis of a member of Christ). With this, so Webster argued, Paul gave the body the ambiguous role of both unifying Christians and forever ‘othering’ those who do not fit the Christian understanding of social and moral norms.

Carol Webster image.jpg

Instead of choosing the conventional route of embarking on an intellectual discussion of these bold claims, Webster then let us probe Christianity’s relationship with the body more practically, performatively and experientially. She asked each participant to physically enact (with movement and sound) how he or she presently felt. Our bodily self-expressions were then ‘shared’ in various ways: we were for instance asked to re-enact as well as physically connect each other’s movements and sounds (by having everyone enact their movements together and while touching one another), and to reflect on how we experienced these—at times uneasy and physically challenging—encounters.

Webster continually related these exercises to the relationship between our own identity and our relations with others. How and to what extent, so Webster asked, can we truly remain ourselves while being just and loving towards others—and vice versa. Her thought-provoking underlying hypothesis was that, unless we become conscious of their bodily dimension, both our self-identity and our relations with others are compromised.

While our various experiments did confront us with the fact that our human lives have a profoundly bodily dimension, Webster’s final—and impressive—exercise nonetheless made me doubt quite how central our body is both to our self-identity and our capacity to love. In this exercise, our group was asked to crowd together, such that we occupied the smallest possible amount of space in the room. Finding ourselves in one sweaty and uncomfortable pile, we were asked to reflect on whether we still felt capable of upholding our identity and of loving one another. To contrast this experience, we were then invited to spread out over the room with as great a distance from one another as possible.

As I experienced it, the first case of a crowded space certainly posed a challenge to my self-identity and capacity for love but did not seem to undo this. Love quickly became imperative for survival and took on the concrete meaning of solidarity, interdependence and mutual acceptance. My ability to find a positive bodily identity was nullified to the point that my bodily senses shut down, yet I managed to inhabit an internal place that still felt like ‘me’. My identity, it seemed, had become more spiritual than bodily but nonetheless felt authentic.

In the second case of physical alienation from others, by contrast, bodily self-expression and –identification may have been possible in theory, yet my spirit felt suffocated to the point of incapacitating me as a whole (i.e., also bodily). My physical alienation from others seemed to imply that I could neither be myself nor love others (or myself)—indeed that I was stifled and petrified at the very core of my being.

Ironically perhaps, the attempt to explore myself as body thus seemed to reveal the primacy of myself as embodied (!) spirit. This is not to say that the bodily dimension does not matter to our ability to be ourselves and love others. Far from it—my physical or bodily situation obviously had a deep impact on my sense of self and love insofar as I experienced physical isolation, in particular, as profoundly hazardous. Yet it was striking to me that I experienced my ability to be and to love as relatively divorced from my capacity for bodily self-expression. Indeed, even where any such freedom was taken away, that is, where our bodies were so close that we could not even more them, self-identity and love still seemed possible—possible on a spiritual plane.

Reading Together: Retrieving a Theological Sense of Being Human

As the last key note speaker of the conference Re-Imagining Human, David Jasper (Theology and Religious Studies, University of Glasgow), founding editor of the journal Literature and Theology, concluded:

‘For me the study of literature and theology is the most serious thing I have ever been engaged in. It has been a task of retrieving a theological sense of being human, but before one can even begin to do that one must begin by retrieving a sense of being human at all, without which we are nothing. Before we can recover any sense of God (whatever that might mean or in whatever language), we must elect to engage in a constant mutual release in forgiveness of one another in order to remain free. My old friend Bob Detweiler, may he rest in peace, … a man who knew suffering, once described this release as best found in what he called religious reading, which
“might be one that finds a group of persons engaged in gestures of friendship with each other across the erotic space of the text that draws them out of their privacy and its stress on meaning and power.”
And it is in this space that we might begin to find the consolations of religion speaking again. Detweiler suggested we recover two German terms once used by Meister Eckhart but taken up also by Heidegger: Gelassenheit and Geselligkeit. Gelassenheit: “a condition of acceptance that is neither nihilistic nor fatalistic but the ability – and it may be a gift – to move gracefully through life’s fortunes and accidents, or to wait out its calamities.” Geselligkeit: sociability, or togetherness.
            Reading together texts which resist all attempts to simplify and manipulate we may learn again to live through a religious tradition into a form of theological humanism which has recently been outlined by David Klemm and William Schweiker in which it is neither God’s will nor human flourishing that alone offer any sufficient measure for human life. Yet brought together they offer guidance in the human responsibility for integrity of life.  I am not sure that we have succeeded very far in persuading anyone in either church or academy of the profound importance of what we have tried to do. But, in our various ways, we must keep trying. I return sometimes to the end of the book of Job and try to place myself in Job’s position:
“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42: 5b – 6)
The point of God’s great outburst is not that there is no meaning, or even that meaning is a human category, but that it is beyond our reach, only to be accepted. The end of Job, as Muriel Spark well understood in her novel The Only Problem, is neither a frame nor a finished form but a story that holds its secrets and hides its causal links, a story not to be accepted simply nor refused, but which prompts endless questions to God and to ourselves. If it pains it also restores, and it enables us to move on, to craft our own story from memory, in Kierkegaard’s phrase in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, it keeps “the wound of the negative open.”'

[Extensive quote with the permission of the author.]

Jasper’s lecture Retrieving a Theological Sense of Being Human was delivered at Re-Imagining Human, the 17th Conference for the International Society for Religion, Literature and Culture, hosted by  Anthropos Research Group, Faculties of Theology and Arts, KU Leuven, 18-20 September 2014.

The Ultimate Symbol of a Productivistic Anthropology? On Bio-cremation

Ellen Van Stichel

Last week a plea for bio-cremation was launched in the Belgian press: this implies that, after death, the human corpse is dissolved in ‘alkaline liquid’ so that the ecological ‘costs’ of dying are reduced to zero. It took a while before the idea sunk in, but now critical voices are being raised on blogs and newspapers. “Do I now also have to die in an ecological manner?”, one journalist poignantly asked. 

I won’t try to dismiss the environmental crisis we face and the ecological challenges it brings. As a ‘conscious consumer’ I buy organic food mostly from the local farmer, stop every now and then at the Oxfam store and look for ways to reconstruct our house in an ecological way. So you won’t hear me saying that nothing is wrong with our environment. But extending that eco-logic to the ultimate act one can do for one’s predecessors intuitively seems problematic.

As a theologian, I believe that the proposal for bio-cremation could be countered by focusing on the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body. Whether understood in a rather literal or in a symbolic way, this article of faith points to the importance of the material body in a Christian understanding. However, as an ethicist these systematic theological discussions are not my field of expertise.

Rather I would like to focus on the productivistic anthropology which underlies and gives rise to the proposal for bio-cremation. Bio-cremation would in essence allow us to “recycle” coffins, an efficiency argument which adds to the productivistic rationality of our consumerist, even if consumer conscious culture, as opposed to the ‘wasteful’ symbolic tradition in Belgium of annually decking the graves with flowers on All Saint’s day, in the dark and cold of autumn. Bio-cremation is the ultimate symbol of an anthropology focusing on utility, prolonging the economic paradigm and cultural mentality in which only those are valorized who are productive for society, who contribute to it by working hard and––it seems–– who leave no trace of having lived; It confirms the message we already give to our elderly and ill fellow citizens that they are a burden, an obstacle because of their non-contribution; it seems to portray them as ‘waste’ for society. And reducing the corpses of the dead to nothing by dissolving them in liquid, and thus treating them as ‘waste’ because of the ecological cost – thus weighing costs and benefits – seems to materially extend this symbolic message we already give to them in life. As the cultural historian Nadia Sels puts it: “Is death not the final annulment of the accountancy and balance between costs and benefits which we keep so carefully during our life?” (Flemish News paper De Standaard, 14 October 2014). However ambiguous the words “to dust you will return”, they do at least offer a small ‘consolation’. But, bio-cremation’s message that ‘your dust will pollute even the dust is cruel’, as she rightly points out. Moreover, what happens with the remaining residue is also morally problematic.  When dissolved, only 3 % of the corpse will remain as a white powder, the rest having been dissolved into a water solution. This water solution, which now contains the remains of the body, is treated as ‘waste’ and is sent ‘down the drain’ quite literally.  This is a problem for Christians, who view the body, even when dead, as something to be cherished.

The practice of bio-cremation may also make the practice of mourning more difficult. Though proposed in the Belgian context, but already used in Canada and potentially Florida in the near future,  bio-cremation is likely to become a global phenomenon, especially considering the global scope of the ecological crisis.  But I remain concerned about its vision of the body as disposable waste, and its implicit practice of hiding the body so that those of us who are left are able to adequately mourn.    

On a different but related note, at Fara, a pregnancy counseling centre where I work, we meet women and men who struggle with their longing for legal but especially emotional recognition of their stillborn children.  Is biocremation not in stark contrast with the call for an earlier legal recognition of stillborn fetuses, from 24 to 20 weeks, that would allow parents to give their baby an appropriate name and funeral instead of treating them as ‘medical waste’? This call for a new law so as to allow for the registration of these children was even taken up by the new Belgian government in its state of the union address released earlier this week! Couples whose baby was less than 24 weeks tell us how important it is for them have an opportunity to mourn, to go to a plain field close to the hospital, the so-called ‘star field’ as it is called at the local university hospital, where they can leave a symbol of their loss (a bear, a cross, etc.) - even if they do not have any material remains. Some of them tell us they would prefer to have the remains buried somewhere. There is even a trend of people who make a piece of jewelry out of these remains, if the baby was ‘old’ enough to be legally recognized. Maybe gruesome for some, but nevertheless clearly a sign of the need to mourn, and mourn materially.

Often such parents are left to mourn in solitude, either because no one knows about their loss or minimalize it ‘because they have not yet really seen, felt it, known it alive’? At Fara we hold a desire to abolish this taboo and to give these women and couples the space they need to mourn. Would bio-cremation, when applied as a general practice, not also result in a lot of ‘hidden mourning’?  Does it not confirm the thought that long term mourning is inappropriate, and might even be labeled as a mental disorder (as the discussion continues in the aftermath of the publication of the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders… (DSM-5, 2013))? Is it thus not a new step in denying death a place in life, of pushing it to the margins of our life and thoughts, because we don’t know how to handle it? Biocreation – in extremis – might send the message to the dying that the only thing their life leaves us with is ‘waste’.

At stake is the symbolic meaning we give to the physical corpse after death, which is reflected in how we deal with it. And if we just unconsciously accept this practice of bio-cremation, this practice will force a symbolic meaning upon us, one with which we might not condone. 

Re-Imagining Human: Quis est homo qui non fleret?

Descent van der Weyden.jpg

At this year’s conference of the International Society for Religion, Literature and Culture, Re-Imagining Human, Sigrid Weigel (Center for Literary and Cultural Research, TU Berlin) presented a pre-view of her forthcoming book, in which she will develop an iconographic genealogy of the notion of ‘compassion’. In an intriguing journey through her collection of images of mourning people in ancient Greece, in the Christian tradition and in contemporary mass media she showed remarkable similarities, in particular at the level of gestures, on the one hand and differences on the other (e.g., tears only appear in Renaissance paintings).

In Weigel’s perspective, the question what it means to be human ultimately comes down to a verse from the traditional hymn Stabat mater. When beholding the miseries of Christ’s mother, the medieval author asks us: Quis est homo qui non fleret? (‘Who is the human being who would not weep?’). The human being is that being who can and should ‘weep-with’, be com-passionate, co-suffer.

Weigel’s lecture COMpassio. Pathos Formula of Mourning and the Shaping of a Cultural Habitus was delivered at Re-Imagining Human, the 17th Conference for the International Society for Religion, Literature and Culture, hosted by  Anthropos Research Group, Faculties of Theology and Arts, KU Leuven, 18-20 September 2014.

Is it moral to "like" Facebook?

Jared Schumacher

The virtues of Facebook are manifest to those who frequent the social media behemoth: it allows the almost instantaneous "sharing" of information with those to whom we wish to be connected, de-limiting the ways in which information is communicated and the social pot is stirred.  This is to say that Facebook’s virtue is that it closes the distance gap by enabling immediate connection.

 But its limits as a medium are increasing becoming obvious the more it has been appropriated.  For the past decade or so, detractors have been lining up to criticize the vacuity of a virtual social bond and the way it detrimentally affects an individual user's real-life sense of self and his or her perceived community. Witness the Catfish phenomenon as a critical case in point.  But these criticisms often focus somewhat narrowly on the virtuality of relationship, its abstraction from concrete human embodiment.  Because humans are embodied beings – so the argument goes – they require concrete interaction.  And Facebook cannot de-limit this human need virtually.  

A recent article adds another, more unique, critical voice to the chorus.  In a piece for Wired magazine, Mat Honan summarizes the results of his comical-because-tragic experiment to "like" everything on his Facebook feed.  

The premise was simple:  Honan clicked the “like” button for everything that was posted on his Facebook wall.  Some of this content was posted by friends, and – because Facebook's business model is dependent upon ‘suggested content', which really means advertisements placed within one's wall as if from friends – some of it by Facebook itself.   As Honan explains:  

See, Facebook uses algorithms to decide what shows up in your feed. It isn’t just a parade of sequential updates from your friends and the things you’ve expressed an interest in. In 2014 the News Feed is a highly-curated presentation, delivered to you by a complicated formula based on the actions you take on the site, and across the web. I wanted to see how my Facebook experience would change if I constantly rewarded the robots making these decisions for me, if I continually said, “good job, robot, I like this.”

The results of the experiment were fascinating.  As he details, "[a]fter checking in and liking a bunch of stuff over the course of an hour, there were no human beings in my feed anymore. It became about brands and messaging, rather than humans with messages." The robots used his encouragement in the form of "liking" to create a marketing echo chamber, and a radicalizing one at that.  As his friends on the political right and left posted things that he then "liked", his feed was funneled to aggregation sites like Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, which continued to feed him ad nauseam with similar polarizing stories, products, and pages, all for him "to like", but little of which he actually did.

The cascade effect this experiment had on others is also worthy of note.  Facebook frequently posts liking activity on friends' feeds.  So, when Honan went on his liking rampage, his friends were involuntarily drawn in to his experiment.  Their feeds became colonized by his activity, limiting their exposure to articles and content they might actually otherwise have "liked." 

After two days of liking activity, and some time for reflection, Honan concludes his experiment with this piece of epigrammatic analysis:  "By liking everything, I turned Facebook into a place where there was nothing I liked. To be honest, I really didn’t like it. I didn’t like what I had done."  Indiscriminate liking had the ironic effect of radicalizing while banalizing everything.

Despite this unhappy ending, the experiment did help to expose one of the most obvious and yet under-recognized facts of human interaction on the web.  There seems a broad but naive assumption that, because "the internet" is a medium, it itself is unmediated.  But this is categorically untrue.  In ways we are only beginning to understand, the media we use to interrelate, however virtually, are themselves mediated by those who provide the services in the first place.  Facebook's algorithm and its extreme use in the experiment expose the prejudices of those who designed it.  Facebook exists to make money for its (now) public investors, and those investors profit from the radicalization of news and products and the filtering of information to sites which are themselves heavily monetized.  It seems that for us humans, there is no unmediated reality, virtual or otherwise.  Even if ‘the virtual’ de-limits our capacity to interact at a distance, it does so precisely by delimiting in other ways.  Which means that, while it may indeed close the distance gap, Facebook also functions as a social filter, creating different gaps in its place.  We tell Facebook who our friends are and what we “like” or don’t like , giving us the appearance of control over the information that we allow to inform us;  in actuality, Facebook controls our social network through a process of selection, limiting our exposure to information in ways that are not altogether clear. 

To some extent, there is nothing perfidious in all of this.  There is simply too much information in the world, even when filtered through our “friends”, for us to digest in any meaningful way at a given moment.  We need filters.  However, the concealment of this selective process, the veiling of the algorithm and its predilections for proprietary reasons, molds our perception of reality far more than we are aware. When this concealment is allied with the economic self-interest Facebook possesses as a publically traded company, its tendency to represent reality in its own best financial interests is compounded. 

Only by becoming aware of what exactly is happening when we like Facebook, can the morality of its use be adequately judged.  Only when we are first clear about what we like about and on Facebook, can we use it responsibly.  Otherwise, Facebook will take our liking behavior as a tacit affirmation that its robots are constructing a (view of) reality that we actually like.  And because (virtual) reality is deeply interconnected, what we "like" affects, and sometimes afflicts, those we truly care about.