“Political theology” is a term that can mean, or describe, many things. Here, I use it as a term to illuminate the erasure of God, gods, and other divine phenomena from modern frames of thought – an erasure that turned out to be a form of blurring, or a transformation. This gesture at erasure was also the endurance of divine (and quasi-divine) manifestations that were different in shape and form. Political theology “secularizes” if, by secularization, we mean not the total erasure or banishment of God, divinities, spirits, and other figures of religio-sacral cosmologies but instead the transformation of the conditions of their existence. In political theology, so understood, the figure of the animal functions as a prop for the transformation of Man. As God retreats and appears to be under conditions of erasure, Man (the human, as western philosophers characterized it for centuries) sought to demonstrate his proximity to this retreating divine, above and against the alleged subhumanity of the animal. Now, as we watch the illusion that was Man fall apart, we also see these more-than-human worlds that Man called “animal” disrupting and revealing the cracks and fractures in his own divine intentions.
“Animal” was not a term born to gesture at the sublime biodiversity of worlds beyond the human one, even if this is how many people use the term today. Instead, “animal” is a modern term that marked off what was living and animate (not a vegetable or a mineral) yet was not thought to be either human or divine. I illuminate this particular genealogy of “animal” not because I celebrate such use of the term, but rather for the purpose of contemplating how “animal” has functioned in political theology. “Animal” became a figure of thought that attempted to create an order of the subhuman: an order further from the divine than the human.
While “animal” is a word that derives from the ancient Latin anima (which can describe not only breath, or the life principle, but a form of spirit), it is not a term of ancient provenance. Rather, it is a modern term of use. We can see this, for instance, in the complete absence of the term “animal” from the King James Bible, first published in the early 17th century. In a contemporary translation of the biblical text, such as the New Revised Standard Version, “animal” appears in hundreds of passages. In the early modern period, there were simply other common English names for these hundreds of living beings we might now call animals.
Use of the term “animal” builds over the course of modernity with the rise in taxonomic thinking and its classificatory systems. As it happens, this was also the historical period in western theology and philosophy when thinkers were attempting to define and describe the human nature of Man—the development of theoretical humanism, or the rendering of human being into a form of ideology. Man was taxonomically identifying himself. Early modern humanists were not necessarily seeking to erase the figure of God and replace it with the human. But they did seem to intuit that the conditions of intellectual life were shifting in ways that would make God feel, increasingly, less omnipresent or available. As political theology responded to these changes—as God seemed further and further away—Man stepped into the warm glow where God once hovered and described himself as something very special that might (almost!) be on the verge of taking God’s place.
In the figure of Man—in being or becoming him—early modern humanists sensed the possibility of a kind of earthy and embodied redemption. As Desiderus Erasmus—that early modern theologian so often referenced as humanist—put it, “when I hear the word ‘man’, I run to him at once, as if to an animal specially created for me.” Man was a special sort of habit or suit to don, an animal so special it might be wrong to call him an animal at all. Reformation theologian Jean Calvin sought, in his commentary on the book of Genesis, to differentiate the immortal soul of Man (the part of Man that was likened to, or closest to, God) from the anima of animal life. The soul, or anima, or נֶפֶשׁ that God is said to infuse into the living beings of creation is simply, said Calvin, the “lower faculty of the soul” that gives the body “vigor and motion.” For Calvin this animal part of the soul, or low part of the soul, is decidedly not the part of the soul on which God “engraved his own image,” that part to which the immortality of Man “is annexed.” But Man should nevertheless remain humble about the fact that he is still lower than God, thinkers like Saint Ignatius of Loyola cautioned. In fact, Loyola argued, human hubris is itself an “animal-minded exaggeration of the importance of man.” This failure in humility is a craven and animalistic spiritual failure – it renders Man more like the animals and further from God. The point, for these early modern theologians, is not to say anything interesting or useful about the lifeworld of birds, or dragonflies, or horses (for instance). Instead, “animal” appears as a figure to help them say something about Man, and what sets him apart. The term “animal” is modern one, with anthropocentric origins.
Jacques Derrida, in The Animal That Therefore I Am called the modern term “animal” a “vast encampment.” The word itself is nothing more than “an appellation that men have instituted,” Derrida argued, “a name [men] have given themselves the right and authority to give to the living other.” This linguistic encampment, said Derrida, encloses “all the living things that man does not recognize as his fellows, his neighbors, or his brothers.” Giorgio Agamben has examined the modern exchanges between the figures of Man and animal, highlighting a form of mutual creation between these categories that prevents one from existing without the other. There is not simply Man on the one hand, and animal on the other. Rather, there are endless negotiations between the two figures (man-animals, or animal-men) that emerge from attempts to humanize what is animal, or to animalize what is human. What we are left with, Agamben has suggested, is neither Man nor animal but instead what he describes as an “anthropological machine” that builds the human.
What Agamben’s account does not highlight or explore is the role that race plays in this anthropological machine. Animalization, argues Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, is not opposed to humanization, but is precisely an expression of the “violence of humanization” as it creates and recreates a “racially hierarchized universal humanity.” Antipathy toward the figure of the animal, Jackson notes, has effectively been mobilized within western philosophical thought “to produce racial difference.” As Man sought to create an order of the subhuman—located further from God, on the level of the animal—he also sought to create racialized orders of the human that were closer to this subhumanity. In this conceptual structure, says Jackson, black people are not denied humanity, but instead their humanity is “burdened with the specter of abject animality.” Jackson’s own project illuminates not simply that “animal” is a modern term, developed to establish a place for Man within a racialized hierarchy; significantly, Jackson’s work also illuminates the ways in which black feminist thought disrupts and destabilizes this hierarchy. Jackson finds—in the work of writers and artists like Toni Morrison and Wangechi Mutu—what she describes as creative responses to “the animalization of black(ened) being” that not only reject the racialized hierarchy built by, and for, Man but that challenge the entire epistemic regime in which “the specter of animal life acquires its authority.”
What Jackson describes as the racialized violence of humanization was also on display in the work of 19th-century anthropologists like Edward Burnett Tylor, who developed the term “animism” to describe a form of religion that, he argued, was more primitive (closer to the social forms of animal life) than the “civilized” religion of the western social context he understood to be his own. This animist form of thinking was “primitive,” Tylor suggested, because it reinforced a belief in souls and spirits within the natural world – not only within humans, but within other animals as well. As the anthropologist Graham Harvey has noted, Tylor believed that religion itself—in its entirety—evolved out of, and continued to perpetuate, this fundamental animist mistake. But it was nevertheless the case that from Tylor’s own colonialist vantage point, it was within indigenous cosmologies and social systems that this animism (the primitive origins of religion) was most clearly on display. For many of the people who adopted Tylor’s evolutionary view of religious life, the term “animism” became what Harvey refers to as a “colonialist slur.” It was a method of, in essence, subhumanizing indigenous forms of religious life in an attempt to render them closer to the baseness, the lowness of the anima bound to animal life. Tylor was not, in any overt way, doing theology. On the contrary, as an anthropologist he sought to distance himself from it – to do science. Nevertheless, we can see the political theology of animal life at work in this creation of a racialized colonial hierarchy that (while critiquing religion) nevertheless placed western forms of it above the lowness of the anima and closer to the idealized ranks of the humans (if not the gods).
Thinkers like Harvey, on the other hand, have argued for a critical revision of the term. Animism, writes Harvey, offers an opportunity to bring indigenous forms of knowledge into intellectual (especially academic) spaces where they have historically been either marginalized or excluded. Animism, for Harvey, should not be characterized in the manner or style of Tylor (and those who were influenced by him) but instead by those who understand animists to be “people who recognize that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others.” In animism, those who the modern west has historically named “animals” (or plants, and so on) are considered in their personhood. A perspective like this creates a rather profound disruption of categories and classifications that were foundational for the development of western modernity. It offers, that is to say, a profound disruption of the political theology of animals – the view that sought to create an order of the subhuman, or a pool of non-persons, who were thought to be far from the divine.
As theologians like Mark Wallace have demonstrated, this can also profoundly shift the way that we think about biblical and theological history itself. Influenced by this new animism, Wallace suggests that Christianity itself has obscured or hidden its own animist dimensions. Wallace argues—for instance—that God clearly appears in animal form in biblical texts. This is most notably the case in the gospels, where the spirit of God appears—during the baptism of Jesus—in the form of a bird. In Wallace’s analysis, not only do animals resist and disrupt this political theology of animals that would use the very figure of animal life to create an order of the subhuman. More, the divine itself is animal. There is, then, a kind of redemptive dimension to animal life.
As much as I find arguments like Wallace’s compelling and provocative, I would nevertheless argue that is it is important to exercise great caution as the figures of animality and divinity approximate one another. The term “animal” has a history that is haunted by the role it has played within political theology. As the spiritual esteem of Man increased over the course of modernity, while God seemed to be on the retreat, the figure of the animal became a prop against which Man built a figure of the subhuman to lift himself up. As a counterpoint to this dehumanizing political theology, animals, animalities, and animisms are powerfully disruptive. They can point to the ways in which this figure of the subhuman was—from the very beginning—a categorical error and a political lie. And yet, for whatever complex collusions and resonances they might have with divine figures, animals and animalities are not replacement deities for that God-become-human who once held out the promise of universal salvation and redemption. If we were to ask animals to redeem us, would this also be a way of asking anyone who has ever faced subhumanizing tensions to forgive us of our sins? And this, in a world where attempted subhumanizations are continual and ongoing? This would not offer, in my view, what Jackson calls for: a disruption of the epistemic regime in which this old hierarchy gained its authority. Rather, to seek redemption in animality merely replaces one figure in this hierarchy with another. Understanding how to avoid the demand that animals (or anyone who has ever faced animalizations) save us from ourselves, or from Man, demands an understanding of the political theological uses of animal life.
Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal (Stanford University Press, 2003)
A philosophical reflection on the complex form of mutual dependence that has always existed between the figure of man and the figure of the animal. Agamben describes the use of what he calls an anthropological machine to produce them each, as well as the perceived tensions between them.
Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World (NYU Press, 2020)
A critique of the relationship between blackness and animality in American and European forms of thought. Jackson argues that humanization, and the figure of the human, does not save blackness from animalization, but that humanization itself creates this co-implication of blackness and animality, in the creation of the figure of the human.
Mark I. Wallace, When God Was a Bird: Christianity, Animism, and the Re-enchantment of the World (Fordham University Press, 2018)
A theological reflection on the animist dimensions of Christianity. While acknowledging that these animist dimensions have, historically, been muted or shrouded, Wallace is intent to illuminate them reflecting—especially—on the ways in which God shows up (biblically) as a bird.