xbn .

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.

“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.


Selected Bibliography

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.

Survivance

Native survivance, in [Gerald] Vizenor’s parlance, is a combination of the words “survival” and “resistance,” and it “creates a sense of presence.” According to him, “The suffix -ance designates a condition, a nature, or a quality that is more than a mere description of survival.”

Relationality

Where relationality is most productive in critical projects is where it transcends its projects of critique and explores the possibilities—ethical, political, and theological—of its account of subjectivity and community.

Martyrdom

Facing the violence of contemporary terror, many intellectuals have spoken in our present times about a return of political theology and religion in its violent forms. Attention to the concept of martyrdom has reappeared due to an increasing interest in religious conflicts.

Autopoiesis

In autopoiesis, there is no separation between what we do and the particular way in which the world appears to us.

Sovereignty

Where state sovereignty as theology would have subjected groups accept their condition with its attending violence and suffering, the micro sovereignty I propose here – not merely as a futuristic idea, but more as a reflection on how subjected groups have dealt with subjection – invites us not to accept that violence and suffering, but to find creative ways out of it through the cracks of Empire.

Abolition

Abolition is a process of imagining alternatives to the settler colonial, carceral present; it requires modes of kinship and care to replace prisons and policing.

Gratuitous Violence

Signifying a critical homology between the fields of Black studies and political theology, gratuitous violence is an important keyword for interrogating how religio-political concepts can afford unique insights into issues of slavery, race, and the human which continue to inform our world today.  

Techno-Orientalism

Asian American literary criticism’s analysis of contemporary orientalisms centered around the figuration of Asian subjectivities reminds political theologians that unconscious (white) fear and fascination with the Orient still guides political and theoretical engagement with the Asian “other.”

Thing

Thing as concept can be helpful to elucidate the specific yet ambiguous interaction of the religious and the political. Using recent thingly theoretical work within these two spheres, with an emphasis on body and shape, I will suggest ways through which thing (and things and thingness) both clarifies and challenges that interaction.

Diaspora

Diaspora might be a problem for political progressives for the very reason that it is so alluring. Diaspora promises both freedom and connection: freedom from national borders or the essentialisms of race and language, connection between people who affirm shared memory and heritage.
But heritage is never really free.

Blackness

If there is one thing that can be said about blackness, it is this: blackness is unruly.

Black Reason

Black reason is propelled by a fantastic imaginary, a changeling animus that aggregates and transmogrifies the desires and fears of whiteness.

Racial Capitalism

The historical and theoretical relationships between race and capitalism are internally contested and in need of further exploration from theologians and scholars of religion.

Eugenics

Sometimes referred to as “population control,” other times “better breeding,” eugenics has been seen as a religious solution to social ills, and sometimes a new religion unto itself.

Humanism

Gilroy’s “planetary humanism” contributes to political theology by offering more than a critique: in his work, humanism is a starting point, a concept to guide multicultural political projects today.

Risk

Official responses to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have encouraged us to understand risk in individual terms. They’re wrong: risk is all about interdependence.

Food Sovereignty

Food sovereignty represents a refusal of a globally commodified food system in favor of systems and institutions that support self-sufficient communities.

Doxa

Doxa is a term used in sociology to contend with belief and orthodoxy without reducing either to behavior or cognition. It explores disposition and embodied belief—the gut sense of the world which is acquired through practice rather than discourse.

Settler Colonialism

I propose Decolonial Settler Theology as a contextual political theology that is uniquely the task of the settler, who must face their own complicity in narratives of ongoing colonization and aim at their undoing.

Police

In an era during which police institutions and ideology are so fundamental to our cultural common-sense, how can theologians and critical theorists challenge this form of power?

Taboo

This essay takes taboo as a critical term to trace the history of our modern present and as a conceptual companion with which to think through the complex entanglement of the ethical, the theological, and the political.

Affect

What is still nascent… is an explicit conversation between political theology and critical theories of affect, particularly in a way that might contribute to constructive projects. The sort of political theology that might emerge from such collaboration would consider how affective regimes intersect with theological constructions or religious performances.

Kinship

While kinship has traditionally held a vibrant conceptual life in anthropological inquiry, more recent studies on kinship as a form of spiritual relationality have opened up a new space of interdisciplinary exploration for political theology.

Command/Commandment

The modern state form itself is inextricable from the commandement, not just as an emblem for sovereignty in Schmitt’s sense, but also because the exemplary political form of modernity, the nation-state, has racist and exclusionary tendencies that can be understood as political-theological transfers of monotheistic principles.

Mourning

That structural violence is always also relational, proximate, and personal is, perhaps, one of the core insights that the concept of mourning brings to the fore for political theology.

Personhood

The conversation about nature’s personhood and rights is always political, often legal, and sometimes theological. Most importantly, it is a localized conversation about the boundaries of a given community – who is part of the community and who isn’t.

Sympathy

For political theology, we might find ourselves compelled by practices that seek to connect us with our ecologies, our communities, and our relations with ourselves – in ways that are more about humility and provisionality than finding cures or solutions.

Queer

Queer, I think, should remain different, differing, dissonant, and plural. It shouldn’t contract or calcify into anything singular or solid.

Care

If theorizations of care are to more directly address the current “crisis of care,” we need not only to prioritize the kinds of embodied, particularized care that care ethics has highlighted in the past, but to explore a wider range of caring relationships and their diverse structures.

Matter

A preliminary question for political theology is how to understand the meaning and significance of matter. The response to this question shapes how a political theology does or doesn’t engage political economy and theological tradition.

Money

The triangulation of money, sovereignty, and divinity is a good point of entry to study the mutual constitution of theological and political concepts and the questions about ultimate value and social form that they raise.

Refusal

Refusal is a strong current resisting the structure of settler colonialism. It crashes, churns, and erodes the death-dealing dams of settler knowing. Its path turns away from the settler’s gaze.

Seva

Seva lends itself to easy appropriation across political and religious contexts, while also furnishing mutually intelligible tropes of service, welfare, and social betterment.

Abstraction

Political theology intimately understands that given reality teems with forms of life that remain opaque to us.

Flesh

Spillers, Cheng, and Halberstam provide us with tools to approach the histories of violence, economics, relationships, desires, and contestation that infuse our experiences with flesh in its multiplicity. Flesh is never neutral.

Indigeneity

It is not always possible (or advisable) to separate the “political” from the “religious” or “cultural” in Indigenous contexts. Indeed, all of these are concepts developed by outsiders to describe Indigenous life. Instead, Indigeneity invites scholars of political theology and related fields to consider the relationships between these threads of cultural life.

Animal

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.

Temporality I: History

William Apess, like Walter Benjamin a century later, sought to shift the paradigms of society with history and theology as orienting poles for colonial critique. Anticipating Benjamin, Apess looked to those who had been wrecked by the advance of colonialism as the grounding site for historical and political theological inquiry.

Temporality II: Futurity

Both Benjamin and Apess discern that historical narratives are imbricated with notions of futurity, that is, which bodies and polities are allowed to inhabit and thrive within the temporality in which the “not yet” and the “always already” co-constitute each other.

Natality

In this short essay, written from my perspective as a Jewish feminist, I draw together a plurality of engagements with natality to engender new conversations in political theology.

Coming

Critical Race Theory

CRT is a framework or an approach to understanding the way racism is foundational to systems of judicial, political, social, cultural, religious, and theological power.

Coming

Demonology

“[S]ituating demonology more fully in its religious and theological contexts furnishes resources that not only nuance understandings of movements for whom demonization is central, but also recontextualize discussions of core political theological concepts, including sovereignty, power, economy, subjectivity, and freedom.”

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