Edith Stein - A Modern Traditional

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

Edith Stein around 1920

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

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

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

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

Edith Stein, late 1941/early 1942

Edith Stein, late 1941/early 1942

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

A Composition of Compassion

By Sander Vloebergs

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

 

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

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

Laudato si and Gender

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

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

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

An Artistic-Theological Reflection

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

 

 

Beyond the Doctrine of Man: Perspectives on Enfleshment

Joe Drexler-Dreis

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

Nothing is more practical ...

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

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

 

The Anthropos team wishes you a blessed 2016!

 

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

Meditation Before the Closed Door of Mercy

Dr. Patrick Ryan Cooper

Locked Inside and Out

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

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

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

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

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

Recovering the Depths of Mercy

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[5] ibid, xvi.

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

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?

When Mother became Mary

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

Body and incarnation

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

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

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

Mother of mothers

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

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

                  

 

 

 

The Alphabet of Love in Wordle shape

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

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

The Tree of Life: lifeless human superiority or life embracing growth?

By Tom Uytterhoeven

Research is an intellectual adventure, or so they say. In this blog post I would like to report on a recent episode in my personal adventure, in which I lost the safety of a trusted assumption, and experienced the thrill of discovering new ideas, without yet knowing where these ideas will bring me.

One of the theological metaphors that inspired my research into the theological relevance of evolutionary studies of religion, is that of kinship. Philip Hefner uses this metaphor in his book The Human Factor (1993) to express the close relationship between humanity and the rest of the global ecological community, a relationship he believes religion could and should make us more aware of. Until recently I was convinced this metaphor remedied a problematic interpretation of another metaphor used to capture the essence of Darwinism: the Tree of Life. Now, I have my doubts.

From tree and human superiority...

It started as a sketch in a notebook, drawn around 1837. What gave the picture of a Tree of Life, when it appeared in the first edition of the Origin of Species, an enduring appeal is that by using only a few lines, Darwin seemed to capture the essence of his ideas. Following the tree from its roots to its top, one can see the tree’s branches and twigs as species, emerging and flourishing until they faced extinction, along the way giving birth to other species. Moreover, the Tree of Life shows us that all life forms on Earth are related. Despite their apparent diversity in appearance, they all share the same roots.

phylogenetictree

Although it is interesting to see, for instance, how others before Darwin developed ‘Tree of Life’ schemata to indicate the interconnectedness of life, and how it is related to the Great Chain of Being, I want to focus here on one feature of the 'Tree of Life' metaphor which limits its metaphorical power, or, rather, which allows the metaphor to guide our thinking into an anthropocentric trap: as all trees do, a Tree of Life grows. Growth is easily associated with going upwards, in the direction of the sunlight shining down on the branches and twigs of the tree. And this, in turn, implies that the higher branches are the newest, the freshest, the greenest, in sum, the best branches of the tree. This becomes apparent in quite a few later variants on Darwin’s original sketch, in which the human species is placed on top of the tree.

Even in modern models, the human species is still often placed in a special corner. These anthropocentric depictions of Darwin’s Tree of Life are remarkable, since there is no scientific basis to give humanity an exceptional status. For as we know, there is no goal, no direction to natural selection and there is no meaning in evolution other than the survival of life, in whatever form.

... to circle and kinship?

Some current models of the Tree of Life avoid this explicit anthropocentrism by turning the phylogenetic tree into a circle. Species are placed on the circle according to their genetic relationship to each other. The closer together two species are situated in the model, the more genetic material they share. This seems to steer us away from anthropocentric interpretations of evolutionary history and to help us recognize our shared ancestry with other species. A good example of the latter is Nancy Howell’s article 'The Importance of Being Chimp'. Howell emphasizes the close genetic relationship with primates and identifies five topics which she believes theological anthropology should focus on: (1) culture-nature dualism, (2) continuity and discontinuity between humanity and other species, (3) using humanity as a measure for evaluating animal abilities, (4) the definition of personhood, and (5) morality and sin.

Far from criticizing her proposals, or similar ones, like Hefner's, that work with the same basic kinship metaphor, I nevertheless wonder whether this exchange of a tree reaching for the sky with a circle focusing on relations within allows us to take enough distance from the idea that the human species finds itself superior at the top of the tree, closest to the sun.

circlekinship2

Destabilizing suggestions from anthropology: from lifeless to life embracing growth

For me, this question presented itself while reading Beyond Nature and Culture, a book by Philippe Descola (2013). Descola identifies four different types of perceiving the relation between humanity and nature: analogical, animistic, totemistic, and naturalistic. It would take us too far to discuss each type in depth, but it suffices here to know that they result from different combinations of perceived continuity and discontinuity between humans and nature (plants, animals, inanimate nature). What, to me at least, is both most interesting and most disturbing - in the sense of challenging my own assumptions -, is the fact that Descola refers to these types as four different ontologies, and, even more, sees naturalism - the ontology we are accustomed to - as only a recent and geographically limited one.

Reading his analysis resulted in questioning the rigid border between ‘the natural’ and ‘the cultural’, and made me aware how this boundary is easily taken to represent a qualitative leap from the former to the latter that places the human species as the species with culture again at the top. The assumption of such a border and leap is a consequence of how particular ontological axioms restrict our view rather than a consequence of taking empirical facts into account. Reading Descola, I also started wondering whether Hefner’s kinship metaphor, which in turn builds on a non-anthropocentric interpretation of the Tree of Life metaphor (see the circular model above), might be sufficient to express the close intertwinement of humanity with nature - and vice versa. Maybe we need other metaphors to express what it means to be aware of the evolutionary history of the human species, including its membership of the global ecological community.

However, reading Tim Ingold's article 'On the Distinction between Evolution and History' I came across his concept of ‘growth’ that differs radically from the rather abstract understanding that informs our usual reading of the Darwinian Tree of life and even that of the circle models of kinship. He writes:

If human beings on the one hand, and plants and animals on the other, can be regarded alternately as components of each others’ environments, then we can no longer think of the former as inhabiting a social world of their own, over and above the world of nature in which the lives of all other living things are contained. Rather, both humans and the animals and plants on which they depend for a livelihood must be regarded as fellow participants in the same world. And the forms that all these creatures take are neither given in advance nor imposed from above, but emerge within the relational contexts of this mutual involvement. In short, human beings do not, in their productive activity, transform the world; instead they play their part, alongside beings of other kinds, in the world’s transformation of itself. It is to this process of self-transformation that I refer by the concept of growth.

When reading this, it appealed to me because of its parallels with the evolutionary concept of ecological niche construction, which also stresses the multiple feedback relations between all living and non-living elements of the ecological web. What seems still missing in the latter, is this perception of life as a process of self-transformation of the world, or as the growth of the world. 

It will take more research and (self-)reflection to discover the possibilities and limits of this concept of growth for theological anthropology. But it seems to suggest that, minimally, we learn to see the Tree of Life differently. Not as lines indicating an upward movement towards a top position but through a focus on that which grows in a growing world: the tree as a whole, alive in a living reality. Perhaps the following two pictures, the first an artistic interpretation of ‘the tree of life’, the other a Christian meditation on Easter, clarify somewhat what I think this could mean.                                

 

Disability, Vulnerability, the Caribbean: an [un]easy association?

By Adanna James

Thinking thought usually amounts to withdrawing into a dimensionless place in which the idea of thought alone persists. But thought in reality spaces itself out into the world. It informs the imaginary of peoples, their varied poetics which it then transforms, meaning, in them its risk becomes realized.[1]
AdannablogdisabilityCarribean.jpg

Vulnerability as common human condition

Standing in front of others in a teaching capacity is always a big risk, and the risk is amplified when the content of knowledge being presented has not emerged from the context one finds oneself in at a given point in time. This was the case as I attempted to bring the insights gained from disability theologians mostly based in a European/North American setting to persons attending the 2015 School of Liturgy in Trinidad where I facilitated a workshop on including disabilities into parish life over the summer.[2] So, was it worth the ‘risk’ that Edouard Glissant refers to in the opening lines of this blog? Did these insights inform the imaginary of the people gathered before me, their varied poetics? Most of the insights shared came from Thomas Reynolds’ reflections in his Vulnerable Communion (2008) and his thesis that we share a common vulnerable human condition and so all share in the experience of disability.[3] Reynolds draws from Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals (2001)  where the link is made between being born instinct-deprived, in terms of our inability for immediately getting on in the world as compared with other intelligent animals, and as a result being necessarily dependent on others to a greater degree. Also highlighted were Reynolds’ views on the protective strategies developed by us as human beings to deny our vulnerability which lead to the exclusion of persons with disabilities. Participants were then asked to reflect on their own personal life situations of exclusion, which ranged from being made to feel unwelcome at parish events to being asked to leave a public venue without explanation, and to find comparisons between those experiences and that of persons with disabilities. Experiences of those with disabilities were shared by parents who were part of the workshop. One parent shared how she felt after a stranger physically pulled away from her son upon learning that he had autism. This portion of the workshop was also most mentioned during feedback sessions. Participants highlighted its revelatory effect, in making them aware of the deep impact their experiences of exclusion had had on them as well as causing them to see how much their own experiences had in common with those with disabilities. Our common vulnerable human condition seemed to have been acknowledged.

Caribbean vulnerability

However, something disturbed me on a profound level coming out of the workshop. I wondered how it was that persons coming from the Caribbean, a region that has been so formed and marked by the imprint of vulnerability from its origins in the genocide of indigenous populations, the atrocities of slavery, indentureship, colonization to present day vulnerabilities because of global economic crises, natural disasters etc. had reflected so little on their own personal experiences of vulnerability and disability. On an academic level there is no dearth to Caribbean reflection on vulnerability in the region. Guillermina De Ferrari in her Vulnerable States (2007) explores the tendency among Caribbean scholars to highlight vulnerability, particularly of the body.[4] In identifying this tendency, she turns to Edouard Glissant’s  categorisation of three phases of Caribbean literary production that each zoned in on vulnerability from a different perspective. The first phase, Acts of Delusion, produced texts meant to justify both land and body possession in the Antilles. This was done through landscaping and bodyscaping, presenting fantasized images of the land as empty, unknown and free from ownership and the natives and slaves as desirous of being possessed. The second category, Acts of Survival, represented the artistic production of slaves, meant to preserve identity and memory against Acts of Delusion. The third category, the Passion for Memory is where De Ferrari locates contemporary Caribbean scholarship. This phase is described by Glissant as both “compensatory and recuperative” of the vulnerability of loss, especially the loss of history. This is done through an artistic imagination that counters history and re-symbolises the deluded realities that marked the first phase of Caribbean literatures. Re-appropriation of metaphors of Acts of Delusion takes place; the land now becomes ‘unconquerable’.  Other terms like ‘resistance’ and ‘transcend[ing] limitation’ reveal the direction the re-symbolising process takes.

Resisting/Welcoming vulnerability?

As I encounter this last phase I am forced to admit of a difficulty in assimilating disability theology and Caribbean experience. Has this liberationist, emancipatory, passion for Memory turn in which most contemporary Caribbean authors find themselves made it difficult to speak of a vulnerable human condition of disability that is not to be transcended nor resisted but welcomed in order to discover the human togetherness that Henri Nouwen and some disability theologians speak of? Has the Caribbean experience revealed a different kind of vulnerability and suffering, one that can’t be “domesticated’ “integrated” or accepted as “an unavoidable part of our human condition”?[5] Reynolds battles with this idea of suffering as he uses Stanley Hauerwas to reflect on this issue, where Hauerwas affirms suffering as inevitable and states that we suffer the existence of others. Reynolds’ resolution lies in his thesis of the recognition of a mutual vulnerability in our relationships; this opens us up to love and causes us to attend to others’ specific needs. Is this a nut too hard to swallow given our actual vulnerable reality in the Caribbean? I think I’ve reached the first serious junction in my research. Ideas anyone?

 

[1] Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1997). Glissant is a poet/novelist from Martinique, a French dependent in the Caribbean and is one of the Caribbean’s leading postcolonial authors. He is most known for his Poétique de la Relation 1997 and le Discours Antillais 1997.

[2] The Trinidad School of Liturgy is held every year and gathers together representatives from parishes throughout the country including other islands for one week to be educated on aspects of Catholic liturgy.

[3] See Thomas Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008).

[4] Guillermina De Ferrari, Vulnerable States: Bodies of Memory in Contemporary Fiction (Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 2007).

[5] Reynolds quotes here from theologian Stanley Hauerwas. See Vulnerable Communion,109-111.

 

 

 

This sister now cries out to us: a theological-artistic perspective on Laudato Si'

This blog is meant as a theological-artistic exploration of the encyclical's core theme. For his drawings, Sander Vloebergs was inspired by archetypical images of the earth/the Goddess. The interpretation of the art works are the fruit of a dialogue between Sander and Lieve Orye, who approached the pictures with a focus on theological epistemology.

by Sander Vloebergs in cooperation with Lieve Orye

This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters (Laudato si §2)

 

A Franciscan way of knowing, kinship and love

Click to see images in a lightbox

The first words we read in Laudato Si’ are words that help us to see what is around us – the ground we walk on, the air we breath - as kin – as brother, as sister, as mother. “[O]ur common home is like a sister with whom we share our lives and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us”(§1). But not only are they as kin to us. It is through all His creatures, brother sun and sister moon, through our sister Mother earth that He is praised. In Laudato Si' we are invited to go beyond the language of science, of mathematics or biology, beyond intellectual appreciation and economic calculus, to join Francis in song, learning again to recognize our unity with all creatures around us as sisters and brothers with whom we could and should kindle our bonds of affection. Through this recognition and through this bond we will hear again the call to care for all that exists. We should learn to see again with openness to awe and wonder, learn to speak again the language of fraternity and beauty, the language of kinship and connection (§11).

Sometimes the distinction is made between a Dominican way of knowing that thrives on abstract properties and designations, a knowing that that draws on first- and third-person avowals, and a Franciscan mode of knowledge that describes the world in terms of categories that require an acquaintance with certain stories and persons in order to understand. The latter is a kind of knowing that is not reducible to a knowledge that. It involves a kind of second-person knowing. It requires us not to remain at a distance but to get personally involved with that or those one seeks to know or to recognize the personal involvement that is unavoidably there. Though Pope Francis certainly does not dismiss the Dominican, more scientific, detached kind of knowledge about the world, he nevertheless stresses with his opening words the need to rekindle a Franciscan way of knowing made possible through love. Such knowledge seems particularly needed when suffering is involved, and when a knowledge is needed that does not become a form of domination. That Pope Francis considers the earth herself as one among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor, is therefore telling: Both the suffering of the earth and the suffering of the poor is a suffering that needs to be understood beyond abstract theory and distant analysis, through the listening to and telling of stories that allows us to learn how to be in relation to the main characters of the story. Through these stories second person experiences can be told in a way that the distinctively second-person character of the experiences is kept alive. Through these stories love can be nourished rooted in a reason that is constituted by the lover's relationship with the beloved. Christians tell and listen to the story of how God so loved the world that he sent his only son. But the story also tells us that we crucified him.

Stories and images to learn to see earth as suffering kin

We also need to tell the story of how we crucified our own Mother Earth. These sisters and brothers have been and continue to be wronged deeply. The images we now often get to see in documentaries or news programs are images of damage, of lack, of chaos. It is the image of a Mother Nature who bleeds. In those images, the risen Christ seems unbearably absent leaving us only the ugliness of the wounds, the filthy scars of a broken body. Without his deified flesh there is nothing glorious about this sight. We are slaughtering our own flesh without any chance of resurrection, sacrificing her for our own idols, killing her for our own utopia. The second paragraph of Laudato Si’ gets straight to the nub of the matter. Our relation has become one of carelessness, of negligence, of objectification and exploitation. We no longer hear the world, no longer read the pages of the book of Nature as a song of praise, and so do not hear the cry as the cry of a loved one, even when we realize, in economic terms, in scientific terms, or even in our own bodies that in being careless and exploitative towards our world we are careless and exploitative towards ourselves.  

We must learn to commune again with all creation (§11), learn to burst out in song again. Though we need scientific analyses of what is going wrong, of what causes the rise in temperature and what will be its consequences, we must also take up again the telling of stories through word and image, through material creation and divine inspiration, in search of the prophetic voice of the Earth, calling out to us, reminding us of the prophesy of a Kingdom to come, of a new creation in which the groaning will cease. The three images of Mother Earth in this blog are an attempt to go beyond a dissecting language, beyond a language of problems and solutions, beyond a language that allows us to deny our involvement. These are images that search to show how the limits which are written in our bodies are repulsive to the exiles of Eden, to modern man. The crisis of limits that, as Jared Schumacher noted in his post, spilled into how we talk about and see and experience the world, has brought us from the Endlessness of Elohim to the Hollowness of Hades, believing it to be the ultimate freedom. The gift of mortality is transformed into the burden of suffering. As revenge, we chastise our Godesses, icons of Nature which wear the face of the inevitable Son.

 Trapped between antichrist and Imago Dei these images try to create an interplay between the dream of mankind and the dream of God. They are hybrid bodies raising up from the earth, touched by the divine, befouled by sin, bleeding for us. The ultimate choice is ours; to drink the life giving water or the poison of the serpent; to suffer from compassion or from hate; to enjoy the labor pains and the re-creation of the world or to torture the Earth for her blasphemy against the modern ideals.

In these images Mother Earth calls out to us, calls us, “not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it” (§19).

... to Ecclesiology and Ethnography: Durham, 2015

Lieve Orye

Under Saint Martha's gentle gaze

St. Martha  by Gianbettino Cignaroli (1706-1770)

St. Martha by Gianbettino Cignaroli (1706-1770)

My hope, expressed in the previous blog, to experience that what draws theologians to ethnography is precisely the same drive of reconnecting with the people in the pews and with the world in an ‘off the grid’ kind of way proved justified. The Ecclesiology and Ethnography conference was a vibrant gathering of about 55 scholars, all with an interest in exploring the possibility to enrich ecclesiology and theology through ethnography. As with the ‘Beyond Perception’ conference, this one as well was in many ways ‘off the grid’, giving participants the experience that the quality of a conference does not depend on the availability of name tags and paper versions of the program but on those who participate both within the official time slots as in the times between.

The venue this time was St. John’s College, in the vicinity of Durham Cathedral. It is itself a building that tells of different times and ‘on the spot’ adaptations to new times, not a building erected on an empty surface with conference purposes in mind. Rather, one could feel that the place had grown over time into what it is now. The non-linear lines and odd shapes of corridors, as well as the pictures of people on the wall made the hallway wanderer wonder about times gone by, yet still somehow present in the place. The experience in each of the session rooms was different as well. One room was rather big, full of light coming in, with a youthful modern feel; clearly a recent addition for which some of the garden must have been sacrificed. Another room, long and dark, teased those in it to suspect the disappearance of a wall and moved them to ‘make the space work somehow’ and to attempt through a reconfiguration of two long lines of tables and chairs to reweave the space into a texture more suitable for conversation and discussion. The third one had a yet totally different feel, as if one was being transported in time into the living room of a wealthy family of a century or so ago, with luxurious long curtains and a chandelier whose central sphere silently reflected all that was going on. A picture on the wall behind the speaker intrigued me, sometimes to the extent of taking my attention away of what was being said. A label underneath informed me that it was Saint Martha painted by Giambettino Cignaroli in the 18th century and a brief internet search afterwards clarified that it was Saint Martha of Antioch, a virgin martyr of the fourth century who miraculously tamed a dragon with an aspergillum or holy water sprinkler. According to the Golden Legend, it was “half beast and half fish, greater than an ox, longer than a horse, having teeth sharp as a sword, and horned on either side, head like a lion, tail like a serpent, that dwelt in a certain wood between Arles and Avignon. Holding a cross in her hand, Martha sprinkled the beast with holy water. Placing her sash around its neck, she led the tamed dragon through the village” (Wiki). In light of Ingold’s text ‘Dreaming of Dragons: On the Imagination of Real Life’ that was discussed at the ‘Sensibilities Beyond Science’ session at the previous conference, Saint Martha’s gentle overseeing of Ecclesiology and Ethnography sessions might be considered rather appropriate. As Ingold argues in that article, the rupture between imagination and reality must be healed, and my feeling is that such an aspiration informed many of the discussions within both the session rooms and hallways.  

Taking Theology & church ‘off grid’ through ethnography or rather the other way around?

Maybe Ecclesiology/Theology and Ethnography projects can be understood as an attempt to take theology ‘off the grid’, away from the cocooning spaces where the world is kept safely outside and is only let back in in shapes and forms that are domesticated; away from spaces where the body can be kept quiet as if in hibernation, protecting it from interfering noise and concerns that 'distract' so that the mind, apparently capable of existing on its own, can reflect on what it thinks to be the really real behind the real that everyone else experiences; away from places where imagination and reality have been ruptured, where theories and understandings easily remain idealist, at an hygienic distance from everyday life. Ecclesiology, the complaint is, has remained too much at a distance from concrete life in the churches and in the world outside and this distance must be bridged - theology must be ex-posed, pushed out into the world. Discussions revealed, however, that a key difficulty might be to avoid simply jumping off one grid onto another, selling theology short in the process. Luckily, qualitative research, action research, data and statistics, empirical observations and fieldwork descriptions did not silence the discussion of how ethnography can be theological.

Moreover, concerns about the future - about the future of churches but also, maybe even more about the future of our common world - lie behind these pleas and discussions. The mix of these concerns for the future, for the theological and for the world brings forth interesting reflections. The refusal to sell theology short seemed to work against taking up a distancing, objectifying relationship to the people one works with. Concern for the future, for this world furthermore directs the attention towards both signs of and possibilities for change and transformation. One argument that I think should receive further attention is being developed by Derrick Watson. He sees practical theology entangled in a distortion, even an elision of poiesis through a specific understanding of and emphasis on praxis. To me, Watson’s understanding of poiesis seems to imply a rather ‘off the grid’ being in the world that seeks a ‘changing of the world’ through tactile attentiveness to what is locally ‘to hand’, collaborating with the materials and beings of the world. Change here occurs within life as an ongoing, forward going process in which imagination and reality are continuously interwoven and the future is grown rather than made. The understanding of praxis he critiques, on the other hand, seems rather more an ‘on the grid’ understanding where the future seems a matter of shaping people through the repetition of practices with some internal telos, while reality, in Watson's example the garden, is cleaned out to leave only the residue of ‘spiritual life’, as it is found in the statements of people about their gardening. The concrete ongoing processes of mutual responsiveness within an ongoing world have fallen through the cracks again, imagination and reality torn apart again.

At the conference concerns about both the immunization against change as well as the too quick ‘catering kind of change’ in churches could be heard. Maybe, though, we should start to think about how to get churches, the people in the pews, more ‘off the grid’ as well, or as William Greenwood noted in his talk, about ‘how to open them and us up through companionship to opportunities’. This might involve a rethinking of praxis such that poeisis can flourish again. It might mean to help churches and Christians develop a non-negligent relation to ‘what is to hand’, learning through the Gospel and liturgy, to see, to wait and to respond to the call that can be heard in the ‘here and now ’ gathering of people, other beings and materials. My feeling is that this might first of all necessitate thinking through theology’s own being too much ‘on the grid’ participating in the rupture of imagination and reality. Maybe this might be our beast to tame. Under the gentle gaze of Saint Martha participants in the Ecclesiology and Ethnography conference were clearly wrestling with it.

From anthropology and theology... : "Beyond Perception", Aberdeen 2015

Lieve Orye

sensibilities beyond science and Growing the future

I’m in between two conferences, one last week in Aberdeen in Anthropology, the next one next week in Durham organized by the Ecclesiology and Ethnography network. And ‘ethnography’ is the common denominator, or the bridging word that allows for conversations between anthropology and theology to pick up a notch.

There was a vibrant atmosphere last week at the Scottish Rural College in Aberdeen. Feeling as if walking into a big farm, participants found behind some huge blue doors an old lecture hall hidden, with seats of cast iron and red velvet cushioning telling of former glory. In front a sturdy wooden table and chairs, backed on one side by an old piano, on the other side a small tractor. Coffee and tea breaks were next door (through a yellow door as huge as the entrance door) in a smaller hall in between instruments and ploughs. Not the very well provided fancy conference hall that creates an atmosphere of expertise and importance, that makes you feel that proper suit and dress are required. Not the hall sealed off properly from the outside world as if to keep it from disturbing the important, weighty sharing around of the latest data and theories. Instead, it was an agricultural place a bit outside the city, a place good to talk about being human and human becoming, about going beyond the culture/nature divide, about human-animal relations, about sensibilities beyond science and about growing the future.

Beyond Perception’ refers to Tim Ingold’s 2000 book The Perception of the Environment, and to the path breaking work done within the Anthropology department in the 15 years since and picked up by so many others in all corners of the world. The range of topics was breathtaking: biology, mathematics, architecture, archaeology, environmental issues, craftsmanship and practices, dance and drawing, education and theology. In one plenary session, ‘Sensibilities beyond Science’, Tim Ingold’s article ‘Dreaming of Dragons’ was picked up, a must read for theologians who reflect on the relation between theology and anthropology or on the relation between religion and science. The session indicated an opening of space for conversation between anthropology, anthropology of religion, anthropology of Islam, the booming anthropology of Christianity on the one hand and Islamic and Christian traditions and theology on the other hand, thus going beyond Joel Robbins’ understanding of the relation as one of awkwardness and mutual mockery and as one of competition in the attempt to be the resources for renewal and transformation in our world (Robbins 2006, 2013, see also Simon Coleman’s ‘Anthropological Apologetics’ 2010). One of the most interesting ideas in Ingold's text is the exchange of the religion versus science debate as grounded in a disconnection of knowing and being with the question "whether our ways of knowing and imagining are enshrined within an existential commitment to the world in which we find ourselves" or not, thus opposing religion, as recognizing these commitments as well as the relation between knowing and being, to negligence, an attitude of using or owning the world without properly listening to it and without recognizing one's owings, one's debts (Ingold 2013:746).

There was a kind of urgency in the air, as well as a feeling of experimenting, of the incipient, even though the event celebrated the past 15 years of anthropology in Aberdeen. A concern that surfaced again and again was the need for anthropology to engage and find ways to have its voice heard in the important discussions of our times, in the conversations about our world’s future. It is these same concerns, or at least strong overlapping concerns, that I feel are present as well in the ‘theology and ethnography’ discussions. In both fields work can be found that, inspired by the form of otherness that nourishes the discipline, is quite critical of the current lopsided ways in which being human and human becoming are often framed and of the just as lopsided ways in which knowledge, learning and research and their relation to the world's future are understood both by university and government.  

On the grid/off the grid

One paper, interesting for everyone to think with, was a paper on the difference between living ‘on the grid’ or ‘off the grid’ in Canada. That is, the difference between having electricity and water supplied by the grid on the one hand and on the other hand having to figure out with the materials at hand and in direct relation to one’s surroundings and the weather how to provide energy and water, while weaving one’s own goals and desires in constant direct relation to what could be made available. In a way, this ‘on the grid’/ ‘off the grid’ mapped out on, on the one hand, having a conference downtown in a fully equipped conference room that keeps the outside from barging in, and on the other hand, the option taken by the ‘Beyond Perception’ team that worked hard to bring about an ecology-minded dynamic conference in a venue that was, though of course not completely, kind of ‘off the grid’ conference-wise. The outside, the wind, the cold weather was never completely shut out. Rather than having all the necessities standard provided in an uncluttered space, keeping things predictable and efficient as well as all the efforts and materials to make things happen rather hidden, unnoticed, the team had to work hard with what was available, making the best of the opportunity. The presenter of this keynote paper, Phillip Vannini, made the distinction between ‘on the grid’ as the occupation of places that allow to ignore the outside as we do living in our warm houses supplied by electricity and water, and to ignore where energy comes from, counting on their constant availability – a relation of negligence to the outside, one could say – and ‘off the grid’ ‘opportunism’, referring to the etymological meaning of ‘ob-portus’, from the Latin Ob-, meaning 'towards,' and portu(m), meaning 'port,' where sailors had to wait for the right conditions to sail into.

This distinction is useful to think with in many contexts (and I wonder what it would teach us for instance in the current situation of receiving refugees in Europe), especially because we, academicians, anthropologists as well as theologians, but also as citizens, find ourselves in relation to a lot of things ‘on the grid’, attached to networks of circulation that make certain things constantly available and certain demands and expectations rather unquestioned, turning us blind to the outside, missing out opportunities to expose ourselves to the world that speaks in its own time. As disciplines nourished by an otherness, theologians and anthropologists but also educationalists who recognize the child's otherness and all kinds of other scientists who have discovered the world is to be listened to on her terms the 'on the grid' requirements often feel like a straight jacket. I wonder if the distinction maps on the distinction between the university as institution and the university as movement that educational philosophers Jan Masschelein and Simon Maarten make (2013). Whereas there is a rich university history as “the history of the victors, of those who manage to tame the disruptive or suspending movement of public thinking… [t]he history of the university as movement is yet to be told”(2013:108). I see the ‘Beyond Perception’ conference at the Scottish Rural College as part of that history of the university as movement. It was a group of people, not gathered around a production aim or under some defined rule, but around some “things”, that, to say it with Ingold’s words, were faced not with the back already turned to it because of goals and attention elsewhere, but listened to, through the work of all these anthropologists and other scientists present there, becoming attentive to them in order to grow a better future (see Ingold & Hallam 2014). This was done, in the shadows of Aberdeen University’s institutional and managerial thinking ‘on the grid’ deciding that according to some numbers and ratios provided by the grid the department of anthropology was a third too big. Theology knows how this feels, and I hope to experience next week that what draws theologians to ethnography is precisely this same drive of reconnecting with the world, and with the people in the pews, in an ‘off the grid’ way. A blog post on the Ecclesiology and Ethnography conference is planned, have a read in about 10 days.

Coleman, S. (2010), 'An Anthropological Apologetics,' South Atlantic Quarterly, 109(4), 791-810.

Ingold, T. (2000), The Perception of the Environment. Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London & New York: Routledge.

Ingold, T. (2013), ‘Dreaming of Dragons: on the Imagination of Real Life,’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 19, 734-752.

Ingold, T. & Hallam, E. (2014), ‘Making and Growing: An Introduction,’ in Making and Growing: Anthropological Studies of Organisms and Artefacts. Burlington: Ashgate.

Masschelein, J. & Simons, M. (2013), 'The Politics of the University: Movements of (de-)Identification and the Invention of Public Pedagogic Forms,' Education and the Political, 107-119.

Robbins, J. (2006), 'Anthropology and Theology: An Awkward Relationship?' Anthropological Quarterly, 79(2), 285-294.

Robbins, J. (2013), 'Afterword: Let's Keep it Awkward: Anthropology, Theology, and Otherness,' The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 24(3), 329-337.

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

By Jared Schumacher

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

 

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

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

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

Modern Man: The Fragmented Self

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

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

Politics Beyond Pragmatism and Resignation

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

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

Communion of Love as Standard of Judgment

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

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

Laudato Si': a Series of Reflections

The Theological Anthropology Blog is hosting a special series of initial reflections on the latest Papal encyclical, Laudato Si', taking up the challenge of integrating this magisterial document into theological thinking on a variety of topics, from a variety of perspectives.  These posts are meant to create discussion about how best to realize the Pope's vision of making this world our shared home.

A Composition of Compassion

by Sander Vloebergs, Jan 20, 2016

sander3_01.png

 

This sister now cries out to us: a theological-artistic perspective on Laudato Si'

by Sander Vloebergs in cooperation with Lieve Orye, Oct 7, 2015

 

handvlinder.jpg

Evolution and Theological Anthropology in Laudato Si'    

by Matthew Shadle (Theology and Religious Studies, Marymount University), guest contributor, Jul 7, 2015

 

The Crisis of Limits: The Theo-political Environment   

by Jared Schumacher, Jul 6, 2015

 

 

A strong and moving word that encourages us to act together   

by Jacques Haers, guest contributor, Jul 1, 2015

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

Migrants: From individual indifference to communal and divine compassion

by Adanna James

Five ways to kill a Migrant: 1) Indifference

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

bootvluchtelingen

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

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

Compassion is communal and divine

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph source: see here

 

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

Lieve Orye

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

Sansoublierlesourire

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

Alternative kinning: beyond rights, towards love

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

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

Clifford Geertz’ Thick description and participant observation

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

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

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

Alternative kinning as belonging, as joining with

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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