Humanity, Animality, Divinity: Notes on a theological formation

Recently a friend and I discussed how our theology developed over the years. We both shared a basic commitment to what could be called a ‘social justice’ approach to theology. It was interesting to see the differences in how we came to our theology but what surprised me was the unplanned manner in which I described my own formation. I had not reflected on my early formation for some time. It seemed that I had been holding my earlier theological commitments with a sort of unquestioned self-evidence, as I suspect most of our beliefs are formed. I did not draw on memories of how I was impacted by the Bible or some influential pastor or teacher (though these were part of the story). I was also not a kid with some early or innate sense of justice sticking up for the underdog on the playground (I passed most of my childhood years with indifference and even spent some time bullying). Rather, I was drawn to a single memory of my time volunteering with Mennonite Disaster Service after high school. We were stationed in Yuba City California, a couple of hours drive inland from San Francisco. Early in my time another guy my age started volunteering and we would plan various weekend trips. One weekend we decided to go to San Francisco. Through various twists and turns our naïveté of big cities (in an age before smart phones and wifi) led us into the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood (often referred to as the birthplace of hippies). This was easily the largest urban setting I had ever been in (downtown Winnipeg being the previous record holder). As we slowly navigated the busy and oftentimes bizarre streets I looked over and saw, just for a moment, the distinct image of a man squatting on the sidewalk in the midst of a bowel movement. I can’t remember thinking anything much at the time but the image imprinted itself. In Cruel Optimism cultural critic Lauren Berlant speaks about how changes happens in our life in a way that resonates with many of my experiences. She writes that change is “an impact lived on the body before anything is understood, and as such is simultaneously meaningful and ineloquent, engendering an atmosphere that [we] spend the rest of . . . [our] lives catching up to.” I suspect that for some of us much of our life can be summed up in the living out, the ‘catching up to’, a handful of experiences and images that have impacted us.

As I reflected on my commitment and theological orientation to justice it was, strangely enough, this image that made its impact, an experience I was still trying to catch up to. Somehow, deep in this urban centre that felt foreign and exotic I found entangled in the strange, something familiar. Though I can’t imagine I would have articulated it at the time this image brought me back to the farm I grew up on. We raised cattle among other animals. For much of the year these animals roamed our large property confined by a simple strand of lightly electrified wire. The fence kept these animals from the house and front yard where I could play safely but often I was in the back yard with these animals. I learned to relate to them acknowledging connections and limitations, similarities and differences. And among other differences they relieved themselves whenever and wherever they felt. They were at once exempt from culture but also confined and controlled by it.

And so there was something in this image of a man, a fellow human, performing an act that was foreign and yet familiar, something seemingly animalistic that resonated with me. I was, at least unconsciously, intrigued. What led to this man performing this act in this way? I remember latter that day needing to go the bathroom and realizing that while you may not have to pay directly to use a toilet you needed a base level appearance if not ability to be a consumer to be allowed entry into this civilized norm. That image impressed on me the reality of different zones and environments, the reality of different borders and boundaries in which humans lived which in turn affected how they behaved and were treated.

Since moving away from the farm I have spent almost all my adult life living in a downtown urban setting. I haven’t met too many other farm kids who have made this transition but the move has always felt natural to me. Earlier in life I would have articulated this as a straightforward commitment to the social gospel in which we are called to live among the poor and marginalized. I am beginning to wonder though if I simply found in urban centres the sort of boundaries, hierarchies, and differences that were familiar to me on the farm.

Most of us maintain some sort of qualitative distinction between humans and animals. Yet it does not take much scrutiny or close observation to notice that the relationship (or line) between humanity and animality is less clear than we might think (or perhaps like). It does not take long to uncover atrocious histories of racism that were explicit in establishing a hierarchy of humanity that transitioned directly into the animal. Somehow or other white male scientists considered themselves the highest species among all that roamed the earth. But you don’t need to look at these grand arcs of history to simply take note of zones, boundaries and hierarchies that lead to situations in which someone might defecate on the sidewalk. There are groups disproportionately fenced in (incarcerated) at higher rates. There are economic boundaries that keep groups from home owning in general or moving to ‘safer’ neighbourhoods. The front yard of the farm being the well-manicured and controlled suburb while the backyard left more unpredictable and untended, needed for profit but excluded from mutual recognition. We characterize these ‘backyards’ as more dangerous but are usually more accurately described as the grouping and confining of the vulnerable which inevitably becomes marked by the ‘uncivilized’ characteristics of unmanageable addictions or grinding poverty and the attending responses of despair. Such confined vulnerability draws predators in the forms of oppressive prostitution and general violence. Where I live in Winnipeg it is short walk across Portage Avenue from Wolseley to the West End. I once noticed the change in posters from lost cats or dogs in Wolseley to missing friends and family in the West End.

This single image in San Francisco rippled through me and my experience on the farm. What did it mean when the relations between human and animal, the setting of boundaries and of differing values and behaviours bleeds into human forms? Or more accurately the starkness of this image shook my senses into an emerging awareness of the hierarchies and divisions that already exist in life, among humans and between species. It was this image and the environment it engendered that more than anything provided a framework, an intelligibility for the message of justice in the Bible to be felt and heard. Increasingly, my sense is that if our notion of faith and justice come simply from ‘following the Bible’ then we will remain (as we mostly already are) too easily mired in the endless debates of interpretation, for truly there are some unjust and unhelpful expressions to follow in the Bible. The Bible alone has never been enough for discipleship (for those who might still be offended by this I might add that the Bible itself acknowledges this).

What if, rather, we spent time attending to the otherness, the differences and relations of humanity and of animality and then allowed what we saw and experienced to become entangled in the otherness, the differences and relations of God (in the songs, prayers, words, and silences of worship). This paying attention to the images and impacts that changed us can help develop another way of doing theology, doing discipleship in which accountability does not rest simply in the interpretation of a text nor some notion of natural theology (for what is natural theology but what we humans want to see in nature). This form of attention allows us to consider the fullness of life in the environments and hierarchies that are produced in the relations of humanity, animality and divinity. I am not looking to shift or erase the lines between the human, animal and divine only to ask that we might pay more attention to the type of differences, hierarchies, and often violences that can be produced in the way these lines are drawn or followed. I am not convinced that such sustained attention will produce a clear or consistent systematic theology but it may be a fruitful source of discipleship. What are some of the images and impacts in your life that you need to return to, images that return (perhaps surprisingly) when you reflect on key areas of your faith and life? For me, at any rate, this image keeps open the question of what it means to follow Jesus who we call human and divine and to whom we sing worthy is the lamb? This image keeps my eyes searching for the boundaries and the hierarchies we experience. While I have expressed some of the real challenges and restrictions placed on people in my neighbourhood part of my love for my neighbourhood is precisely the possibility of freedom from insidious demands of maintaining a proper ‘front yard’. It is from the backyard that we might witness and experience the prophecy of Malachi in finding freedom and go leaping like calves from the stall.

For further reading
Stephen D. Moore, ed. Divinanimality: Animal Theory, Creaturely Theology, 2014.
Anthony Paul Smith, A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature: Ecologies of Thought, 2013.


Narrating church success

Amid the chronic expressions of church (and Christian) decline there remain a few narratives of church success in urban North American settings. There are new Canadian congregations in which an established faith from another country/context is transplanted here transferring an existing vitality. Then there remains the suburban evangelical mega church model which skews either towards a charismatic spirituality and/or conservative family values (these sometimes have ‘satellites’ in the downtown area). These narratives of success tend to remain in keeping with the larger socio-economic forces whether it is the value of social cohesion and coherence of new immigrants, the capitalist aspirations of infinite accumulation in health and wealth charismatic spirituality, or the reassuring stability of the nuclear family in evangelical mega churches.

I would like to explore a third narrative of urban church success, namely those churches emphasizing the use of ‘higher-church’ liturgy and a more straightforward commitment to theological orthodoxy. While I don’t find this article particularly well researched, a recent response to Serene Jones’ denial of a ‘literal’ resurrection attempts to demonstrate how Jones’s liberalism is now passing and another generation is rising up who embrace an orthodox theology without retreating from present issues. This article is characteristic the common claims of orthodox forms of liturgy and theology that are revitalizing the church. I would like to explore this narrative of success through my experience at and reflection on St. Margaret’s Anglican Church here in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Before continuing I should add that by ‘success’ I simply refer to congregational/parish settings that reflects vitality in terms of broad demographic engagement, ministries offered, and profile in the larger community.

Continue reading “Narrating church success”

Making a theological statement

I have never really liked theology. It would be easy and boring to associate this sentiment with some self-aggrandizing notion of how my beliefs are so original and idiosyncratic that they cannot be contained in existing theological discourses. But this was the case even when I was primed for theology, when I was seeking theology, when I just loved Jesus and wanted to be smart too.

Perhaps it was simply the case that I was exposed to bad theology early and never recovered. Going to a small evangelical bible college I still have images of the brick that is Millard Erickson’s systematic theology. From what little I remember it was basically an exhaustive attempt at creating a logical system of proof texting the Bible in relation to God. It seemed that unconsciously I sensed that theology tried to make of the Bible something other than what it already was. I always enjoyed the Bible, or at least from my early formative periods of faith. The Bible was just something that my faith led me to be immersed in. In the Bible there was more than I could possibly understand.

Evangelical apologetics were equally inscrutable. Why would ‘God’ be subsumed to reason or logic, wouldn’t that make logic or reason God? I mean, I understood what people were trying to do in apologetics but it never made sense, that is, I couldn’t actually do it. I remember taking an apologetics class and for my class presentation the only thing I could come up with as ‘proof’ was how interesting it was that over millennia a community gave what seemed like unbroken testimony to something.

My aversion to theology only continued and it was not really for lack of exposure. I toured through various ancient and modern theologians with some holding more and some less interest. My only really sustained engagement was with Rowan Williams. Williams was the first theologian for whom theology seemed non-reductive, that is, he seemed to let his theology roam as wide as his faith. This may not be advisable as an academic discipline but it was invigorating at the time. This period also aligned with my time worshipping in an Anglican church. It felt as though perhaps I found an intellectual and spiritual home. But at that time I also began reading works by Philip Goodchild and Daniel C Barber. Significant to their work was a critique of the function of transcendence within Christianity (and so also modernity) and its attendant schools of thought. The critique that I drew from them was how evoking transcendence (that is the existence of another plane of reality inaccessible by direct contact from this plane) was almost always a power play, always a matter of who was mediator, priest, of the pathway between realms. To be on the side of transcendence was to be an unassailable authority (perhaps benevolent perhaps not). Goodchild unpacked this in terms of the difference between imagination and attention. Put most simply imagination projects beliefs onto the world while attention allows for the possibility of mutual transformation engaging the world. Confessional statements of faith could not be protected when one is committed to paying attention. This was the undoing of my Anglican tour of faith. Anglican theology (and its attendant liturgy) was on trend at that time for intellectuals and artists of faith, Anglican theology (and its attendant liturgy) offering a drama of life in which creation is taken up into its vision of life. Everywhere I turned from then on all I could see were acts of imaginative projection (which ultimately is just another term for supremacy). I am not saying I have rid myself of Christian supremacism but Anglican theology was ruined for me.

In the last ten years I have come across theology that has moved and shaped me; James Cone, Delores Williams, and Marcella Althaus-Reid are a few that come to mind. What these theologians modelled for me was the type of attention that facilitated a sense of relay with life, or living. This attention privileges suffering as a reality which is excluded or rejected from dominant discourses and imaginations. Suffering is the site which can have no meaning. This resistance to discourse, which is perhaps also resistance to the world comes close to my definition of holiness drawn from the Israelite tradition of anti-idolatry, leaving nothing at the center worship. Here attention is drawn to that which is not figured, not of this world but also not transcendent; not a meaning maker from another realm.

God and God’s holiness is that which moves otherwise than the figuring of the world. This is of course not a consistent theme in the Bible. To impose consistency would already be to adopt an intelligible discourse of the world and ascribe holiness to it. The Bible does, however, offer a surprising multitude of clashing discourses, meditations on sheol and darkness, rigorous demands of holiness, and calls to value what is not. This swarm hardly makes for theology in any standard use of the term.

In the place of theology I consider my intellectual practice one of study. Study is necessary unfinished, necessarily attentive and formative. There are of course many forms and types of study but the holding of faith and intellect draws me time and again to absurdities, dreams, traumas, and the unbearable for these places necessarily clear so much of the world from it that the possibility of holiness seems somehow inevitable if one is able to learn how to sustain attention, for these things so easily cast us off or cast us down or elicit rationalizations and denials. It is from here that my understanding or worship and even church appear. It is in the gathering of those at such sites of attention that the practices of faith sustain our attention and await something that we might call resurrection.