June 12, 2017 / Theology
Angela Parker rethinks the idea of “angry black women” through her reading of the biblical character Herodias.
October 26, 2017
And how have I used rivers, how have I used wars
to escape writing the worst thing of all—
not the crimes of others, not even our own death,
but the failure to want our freedom passionately enough
so that blighted elms, sick rivers, massacres would seem
mere emblems of that desecration of ourselves?
—Adrienne Rich, “Twenty-One Love Poems”
In a particularly affecting moment toward the beginning of his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis insists that it is not simply enough to understand environmental degradation. Instead, we must “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.”1 Francis’s call points to a difficult problem for those seeking to communicate the imminent threat that climate change poses to humanity and to global ecosystems: for many people, the degradation of the environment is not perceived as an imminent threat to their way of life. That Francis calls for a turn or transformation implies that there is currently a separation between “what is happening to the world” and “our own personal suffering,” as though these things were not integrally connected.
The theologian, philosopher, historian, activist, and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Vine Deloria Jr., offers a helpful starting point for thinking about the connections between human lives and the nonhuman world. Throughout his writings, Deloria argued that land has the power to “reorient and define” human communities, and he criticized the policies and ideologies that disrupted the connection between humans and the particular places in which they lived.2 Rather than seeing the world as constituted by atomized individuals, Deloria advocated that we see “the world, and all its possible experiences” as a “social reality, a fabric of life in which everything had the possibility of intimate knowing relationships.”3 Deloria does not offer a theory for how a relational understanding of the world operates, but he points to particular patterns of life that can expand the imaginative possibilities for how contemporary societies think about their connection to the land.
In God is Red, Deloria describes “tribal religions” as “complexes of attitudes, beliefs, and practices fine-tuned to harmonize with the lands on which people live.”4 As Daniel Wildcat points out, Deloria made a great effort to avoid the Western dichotomies of “primitive versus modern, spiritual versus physical, nature versus culture.”5 Rather than collapsing the attitudes, beliefs, and practices of tribal religions into merely human cultural constructs projected onto the natural world, Deloria’s work insists upon taking tribal accounts on their own terms. Therefore, to claim that tribal religions sought harmony with the nonhuman world is not the same thing as establishing criteria for the way that all parts of an ecosystem should relate to one another in some sort of ecological calculus. Tribal religions learn from the world not because it represents a source of data in need of interpretation but because in the world they “could see that a benign personal energy flowed through everything.”6 To understand your relationship to the nonhuman world as being personal entails, for Deloria, a different sort of moral reflection: “The personal nature of the universe demands that each and every entity in it seek and sustain personal relationships.”7 Like interhuman relationships, tribal relations with nonhuman entities were based upon patterns of mutual recognition.
Deloria demonstrates how mutual recognition between humanity and nature works in his discussion of the role and powers of medicine men. He explains that medicine men were sensitive to nonhuman entities and the ways such entities sought to be recognized by and to communicate with humans. Deloria recounts stories in which nonhuman creatures take part in the communication of the divine; animals offer humanity aid, rescue, or commentary regarding human activities; plants communicate their uses to people; stones and mountains bring good fortune, cure diseases, and summon buffalo. But these entities could also present dangers to human life when they were not properly recognized: failing to recognize the presence or communication of certain entities could result in drinking dangerous water, encountering treacherous weather, or failing to encounter herds of animals.8
Deloria insists that “the substance of the universe is relationships,” but this is not tantamount to claiming that humans understand the world as relational. Relationships between human and nonhuman entities, for Deloria, are not simply human projections. They are present even before humans are conscious of them. Understanding places as always already relational means that humans are invited to “become part of a preexisting set of relationships.” That is to say, from this orientation the aim is to become aware of the preexisting relationships within which humans are already essentially embedded. This mode of awareness is itself relational. Wildcat summarizes Deloria’s understanding of relationality as “power plus place equals personality.”9 This pithy statement does not point to a universal form of encounter with the world but instead calls for greater attention to particular locations. When you understand the powers that act upon you and the power you actualize through inhabiting a particular place, you relate to trees, birds, and mountains not as objects but as personalities.
Relating to space in this way alters more than one’s cognitive patterns of life. Deloria insists that tribal ways of relating to the world shape human “emotional experience,” that “lands somehow . . . give us a feeling of being within something larger and more powerful than ourselves.” To say that lands can be holy places also means that in them you can encounter “a manifestation of a person spirit of immense and unmeasured power, a real spirit of place with which our species must have communion thereafter.” Thus, in particular places you not only encounter particular forms of flora, fauna, and topography but also dynamic relationships that communicate something beyond their interrelated actors. Tribal peoples’ “emotional attachment to land” is more capacious than the kind of subjective emotional or psychic attachments that people usually express toward place. For Deloria, such an attachment refuses to separate one’s physical presence and unity with a particular place from one’s experience and memory of that place.10 This means that to be placed within a particular land—with all its plants, animals, land, and weather patterns—is as integral to one’s identity as the social fabric of the tribe itself.
For Deloria, this reciprocal relationship, in which a place partially constitutes human life and humans participate in the life of the place, requires humans to recognize that “the relationships are always ethical.”11 Deloria’s understanding of the ethical is based on the idea of maturity: “Maturity, in the American Indian context, is the ability to reflect on the ordinary things of life and discover both their real meaning and the proper way to understand them when they appear in our lives.”12 Maturity refuses to separate knowing and acting: it refers both to actions and the ability to reflect upon actions. Maturity is an “attentiveness” to the world that does not simply know plants, animals, and land as entities to which one relates but also knows how to act with care and respect toward such entities.
The import of Deloria’s account of American Indian relational identity and ethics is perhaps best illustrated by his analysis of why non-tribal ways of knowing the world have abandoned this sort of relationality. Deloria suggests two related causes for the shift. First, non-Indians’ lives are rootless. They are rarely buried in their birthplaces, and they feel no responsibility to the dozens of places they may live in during their lifetimes. This wandering makes community impossible, and the lack of community prevents the personhood of land from being recognized.13 The second cause for the loss of relationality is that temporality replaces spatiality as the ground of self-understanding. Peoples untethered from particular places “review the movement of their ancestors across the continent as a steady progression of basically good events and experiences, thereby placing history—time—in the best possible light.”14 Whereas space is always understood in its particularity, time is considered to be universal, to be transferable from one place to another. Deloria does not altogether jettison a concept of time, but he seeks to keep temporality grounded in spatiality, thus helping to avoid the abstracted sense of time so often deployed by quantifications of labor or movements of political power around the globe.
The shift from spatial to temporal ways of knowing transforms human self-understanding. If Deloria’s spatial concept of maturity requires knowing how one should relate to a particular place, the shift to a universal conception of time no longer requires acknowledging the intersecting relationships that constitute particular places in order to understand oneself: “Spatial thinking requires that ethical systems be related directly to the physical world and real human situations, not abstract principles.”15 Whereas temporal thinking attends to universal principles, mature spatial thinking requires continual attentiveness to place, as learning to fully relate to the land exceeds any individual lifespan. Deloria relates that Luther Standing Bear, an Oglala Lakota chief, “once remarked that a people had to be born, reborn, and reborn again on a piece of land before beginning to come to grips with its rhythms.”16
Deloria does not see spatial thinking as belonging principally to American Indians or indigenous peoples. He gestures to the way that certain peoples in the US American context understood that the land had become, in some way, a part of their identity.17 Deloria does, however, see the combination of non-Indian itinerancy and temporal mindset as having exacerbated the difficulty of thinking spatially again. He understands this to be particularly the case for theologies that emphasize an otherworldly afterlife, but his challenge to think spatially remains difficult even for Christian theologies that attempt to give some account of humanity’s relationship to the nonhuman world. This is not only the case for the form of such a relationship (e.g., dominion, fraternity, stewardship) but also with regard to the ways that human nature is conceived of as distinct from yet dependent upon the rest of creation.
Disrupting the common conception of the self-determined and autonomous individual, Deloria offers an alternative way of thinking about human relationships to particular places and to the world. If knowing and acting in the world spatially is to enter into a particular matrix of preexisting relations that give shape to one’s life, then understanding human subjectivity and agency is never a solitary endeavor. Although Deloria’s writing tends to portray the loss of relationship to place as a declension narrative (and who could blame him?), he holds out hope that the destruction of land caused by human ethical failures can be transformed: “The lands of the planet call to humankind for redemption. But it is a redemption of sanity, not a supernatural reclamation project at the end of history. The planet itself calls to other living species for relief.”18 Can a Christian theological anthropology make room for the type of relationality between humans and particular places of which Deloria writes? It is to this question that I now turn.
Kathryn Tanner distinguishes her account of theological anthropology from those that index the uniqueness of the human creature to cultivate “reason, free will, or the ability to rule over others as God does.”19 Tanner, instead, offers a christocentric account of what it means for humanity to be created in the image of God, an account that shifts the image from being an inherent human trait or characteristic to a relational understanding of humanity’s being united with the Word incarnate. Given this relational understanding of how humanity images God, Tanner’s account of the human qua human moves away from understanding the human as “some set of well defined and neatly bounded characteristics” by showing that “what is of theological interest . . . is its lack of given definition, malleability through outside influences, unbounded character, and general openness to radical transformation.”20
Tanner insists that theological anthropology cannot begin with human nature or human attributes but rather with the way that humanity’s creation in the image of God (Gen. 1:27 and 5:1) points to our dependence upon God: “Creatures would receive from God what is beyond themselves—the divine image itself—and be considered the image of God themselves primarily for that reason.” The image of God, then, never becomes a possession intrinsic to humanity but always remains alien to human nature. Our imaging of God comes through our “drawing near to the divine image,” namely Christ, in order to “become one with it.” Indeed, Christ’s imaging of God is distinct because “Christ’s humanity has the divine image for its own through the Word’s assuming or uniting that humanity to itself in becoming incarnate in him.”21
Tanner grounds her account of human nature in the human telos of imaging Christ through the power of the Spirit.22 This places any talk of humanity’s characteristics within a broader framework. Humans do not exist for their own sake; as creatures, humans are created by and for God.23 This reality must be the starting point for understanding humanity, lest one think of the human creature as sufficient in itself: “Humans would be the image of God . . . by living off God, so to speak, by drawing their very life, that is from the divine image to which they cling, in something like the way an unborn baby lives off the life of its mother, living in, with, and through her very life.”24 With a participatory understanding of the imago Dei, Tanner then turns to the very conditions that “allow humans both to receive the divine image, and to be transformed thereby in imitation of it.”25 She claims that humanity is expansively open, not only mutable but also “susceptible to radical transformation,” and not self-sufficient but “taking in things from outside themselves.”26
Humanity’s expansive openness is what “allows for the presence of God within it.” As discussed above, humanity is made by and for God, but Tanner does not suggest that our creaturely existence is to be reduced to being merely tools for God’s use. Rather God “want[s] to be with us.” God “want[s] to give something to us. Our lives are for nothing in the sense that we are here simply to be the recipient of God’s good gifts.”27 For humanity to receive the gift of God that is inclusion in the divine life, human capacities must be able to grow and mature—given that God is inexhaustible, humanity must be undetermined enough for it to image the infinite divine life. This is why human mutability, far from being a detriment, is critical for the possibility of “radical transformation.”28 Joined with the second person of the Trinity in the Holy Spirit, humans are changed by the divine image, “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18 NRSV). If human nature were unchangeable, such a transformation would not be possible, or perhaps better, such a transformation would entail becoming something other than what we are, something other than human.
For humans to be expansively open and mutable to the point of “radical transformation” means that human nature is not “self-sufficient.” Instead, humans “become themselves . . . by actually taking in things from outside themselves.” Tanner sees this as not only being true in the biological sense, wherein humans need physical sustenance to live, but also theologically significant because “humans require God for their nourishment.”29 Notably, Tanner points out that humanity’s “social and natural” dependence upon their environment shapes them in a potentially unique manner among creatures:
In the case of other living things, what they take in is formed according to their own pre-established natures. . . . The plant remains what it is, becoming merely a bigger and better version of itself, where there was genuine nourishment for the plant’s good. In the human case, to the contrary, the inputs have a much greater effect on the way its nature is played out; to an unusual degree, human nature takes shape in conformity with what helps it grow.30
Tanner’s suggestion that external inputs have a greater effect on humans than on other creatures seems potentially problematic in light of evolutionary biology. Tanner is obviously focusing on the individual within a species when she suggests that plants merely become bigger and better versions of the same plant, but, over long periods of time, external factors do cause species to become not only bigger and better versions of themselves but eventually new species.31 Whether or not being shaped by external inputs is uniquely human, failing to attend to the particular conditions of a human life will make it impossible to understand the shape and needs of that life. To say that a human being’s particular natural and social environment is necessary for understanding a particular life should be understood analogously to the way that humanity’s dependence upon the triune life is necessary for understanding the shape of humanity as such. Understanding a particular human life without its particular environment is akin to understanding the human qua human apart from its relation to God. The particulars matter.
In addition to humanity’s expansive openness, radical transformability, and dependence upon the environment, Tanner adds one more layer to her anthropology: free will. Free will enhances what she calls “the plastic, shape-shifting character of human nature” by preventing the self from being collapsed into the “complex totality of the environment.” That humans are open, transformable, and dependent does not negate the fact that they—to some extent—have the ability to move toward their desires; humans may use the “passions of their animal natures . . . as instruments of either virtue or vice.”32 The free will to use the passions to move toward virtue or vice is, however, in need of being liberated from enslavement to sin through Christ’s saving life, death, and resurrection, but the capacity itself could not exist without humanity’s openness, transformability, and dependency upon external influences. Free will does not cause humans to be any less shaped by their environment, but rather it binds the environment to the human even in the midst of human transformation.33
Tanner’s account of human nature’s plasticity and dependency points to the importance of being able to properly recognize and respond to what Deloria calls the “preexisting set of relationships” that make up the world.34 Tanner offers a christocentric account of how human nature comes to reflect the image of God, but the drawing near to Christ does not occur apart from the particular places in which people find themselves. Tanner herself points out that “a Christian way of life cannot speak easily to persons of every time and place if it is simply identified with the view from one time and place.”35 While it is inappropriate to suggest that Deloria and Tanner have similar anthropological accounts, it is possible to see how Deloria’s picture of knowing and relating to space (i.e., flora, fauna, and land) augments Tanner’s emphasis on humanity’s being shaped by its environment.
If you do not know how to relate to the place in which you live, you will not understand the countless ways your life is dependent upon that place. Likewise, Tanner’s anthropology helps to show how Deloria’s spatial epistemology and ethics is not only compatible but vital for Christian theological anthropology. Brought together, Deloria and Tanner help to show how human identity is bound up with relationality—both human relationships with the world and with God. To understand oneself as being shaped by others does not negate the self but instead decenters the individual from asserting epistemic or ethical primacy. To be human is to understand oneself as already shaped by others (be they the divine other, other humans, or nonhuman creatures) in ways that are impossible to fully narrate. Deloria’s picture of relating to the nonhuman world and Tanner’s insistence that we are shaped by our environments demonstrate how limited we are in understanding ourselves. Given our incomprehensibility to ourselves, how can we take responsibility for ourselves and therefore for our relationship with others?
In Giving an Account of Oneself, Judith Butler questions how we can be responsible for ourselves given “the opacity of the subject” that results from recognizing ourselves to be “relational being[s] . . . whose early and primary relations are not always available to conscious knowledge.” Rather than seeing this limitation as dismantling responsibility, Butler suggests that this epistemic limitation must become “the basis” for responsibility; responsibility is not to be understood as surmounting the incomprehensible self but as its acceptance. In her discussion of responsibility, Butler moves through a discussion of Jean Laplanche, Emmanuel Levinas, Theodor Adorno, and Michel Foucault. With Levinas, Butler learns that because the self is not inaugurated by its own actions but by the actions of others on its behalf, responsibility is not the product of one’s having freedom from others but is instead the response to having been acted upon in such a way that elicits a response: “I am not primarily responsible by virtue of my actions, but by the virtue of the relation to the Other that is established at the level of my primary and irreversible susceptibility, my passivity prior to any possibility of action or choice.”36
Butler takes Foucault to be suggesting something similar when he, upon being asked to given an account of himself in an interview, “reveals that he does not know all the reasons that operated on him.”37 Foucault, however, does not resign himself to merely being the unknowable product of his history. He insists that reflexivity is possible but not apart from the rationalities and power structures that shape the self. The attempt to understand oneself and represent oneself to others entails working through “regimes of intelligibility” but these regimes exact a cost.38 To use the tools of a particular rationality or conceptual framework requires coming to grips with the limits of those power structures.
For Butler, responsibility entails recognizing how you are formed from your beginning by being acted upon (Levinas) and how any attempt to understand and communicate yourself requires coming up against the epistemic and linguistic limits that one does not choose for oneself (Foucault). There is a sense in which this feels like a trap. If the self is always already acted upon and if even the possibilities for action are hedged in, as it were, by social location, how can one act responsibly at all? Butler suggests that her account of agency is not deterministic but that the possibility of “new modes of subjectivity” is not contingent upon the work of someone with “especially creative capacities.” Instead, new modes of subjectivity become possible “when the limiting conditions by which we are made prove to be malleable and replicable, when a certain self is risked in its intelligibility and recognizability in a bid to expose and account for the inhuman ways in which ‘the human’ continues to be done and undone.” To act responsibly entails risk because taking responsibility for oneself requires not only acknowledging the forces that act upon and shape the self but also naming their limitations and deficiencies. To name and point out the limits of the forces that shape the self is not to return to a picture of the autonomous self, freed from external influence and constraint. Responsibility does not free oneself from relations to others and to power structures but requires that one accept the way that lives are mutually implicated in each other: “To be undone by another is a primary necessity, an anguish to be sure, but also a chance—to be addressed, claimed, bound to what is not me, but also to be moved, to be prompted to act, to address myself elsewhere, and so to vacate the self-sufficient ‘I’ as a kind of possession.”39
Butler’s account of responsibility is suggestive for how it is possible to take responsibility for oneself in light of Deloria’s spatial relationality and Tanner’s explanation of humanity’s dependence upon the environment. If Deloria is correct in saying that land has the power to “reorient and define” human lives, then taking responsibility for ourselves requires acknowledging the way our particular place shapes us and is shaped by us. This will entail understanding not only our own limitations and needs but also those of the plants, animals, and land upon which our lives depend. Like Tanner, Butler’s account of responsibility is built upon recognizing that we are not fully comprehensible to ourselves. Human life is incomprehensible because it is enmeshed in a myriad of connections with other creatures and because its drawing near to Christ—the divine image—causes human life to resemble the incomprehensibility of the divine. Although Butler does not name the possibility of one’s life being shaped by God, she does emphasize that our inability to fully narrate our lives does not undermine accountability or responsibility. Acknowledging that our lives are bound up with the lives of others in ways we cannot fully understand will not make us irresponsible; it makes us human.
I began this essay with Pope Francis’s plea for people to turn the pain of the world into their own pain. Through engaging with Deloria, Tanner, and Butler, I have suggested a way of understanding human life that can make sense of the way that the suffering of the world due to environmental degradation is always already one’s own suffering. Humans need to understand themselves as being shaped by the nonhuman world and only through attending to our particular locations is it possible to begin to understand ourselves and the relationships that form us, including our relationship with God. My effort in this essay to expand human relational identity to include not only other humans and God but also the nonhuman creation is not simply an attempt to include more “actants” in the process of forming human subjectivity and agency.40 Just recognizing that our lives are formed by where we live, what we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink (to name but a few daily interactions) is not, however, enough to make us take responsibility for ourselves and therefore for our relationships.
I suspect that for many of us the idea that our self is shaped by other persons, places, and things is anxiety producing; it makes the self a stranger to itself. To relate to our particular place in the world—understanding only in part the way it shapes and is shaped by us—would mean that neither the world nor the self can be thought of as being our possessions. In a way analogous to humanity’s bearing the divine image only by way of participation, we cannot possess all of the ways our lives depend upon our particular place in the world. We can only receive our lives as a gift. To accept the conditions of our existence as gift does not mean settling for the status quo. Given the brokenness of our relations with other humans, the broader environment, and ourselves, to accept ourselves and our places as gifts necessarily entails holding out hope. Tanner writes, “God formed humans out of the dust of the earth so that when formed in the image of God humans might show that the earth too can be made over in God’s image.”41 To take responsibility for ourselves—and so for our place—is to live into the vision that the current brokenness of our relational selves and our places does not indicate their abandonment but points toward their necessary and promised healing.
Blair Wilner is an MA student in religious studies at the University of Virginia. His research examines the (dis)connections between conceptions of the human body and conceptions of nature in modern political and theological thought.