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

by Lieve Orye

Le Grand Bain

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

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

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Book launch: a practice book of presence

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

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

The ‘latende modus’

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

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

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

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

Synchronized swimming

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

by Lieve Orye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Lieve Orye

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

Channeling a cry, Speaking into the heart of the Anthropocene

Photo by  Christus Rex .

Photo by Christus Rex.

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

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

Listening to birds in the Anthropocene

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

Creative Commons by Deanne Fortnam.

Creative Commons by Deanne Fortnam.

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

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

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

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

Anxious semiotics and ethical relating

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

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

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

photo by  James Brush

photo by James Brush

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

The song of birds, the song of fellow humans

 As Latour notes,

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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.

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

Love

 

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.

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.

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.