The following symposium first incarnated its relations during the American Academy of Religion’s 2015 Annual Meeting in Atlanta. What was then the Bible, Theology, and Postmodernity Group (now Sacred Texts, Theory, and Theological Construction) gathered to celebrate the recent release of Mayra Rivera’s Poetics of the Flesh with Duke University Press.
In three parts, Rivera’s book “elaborates a view of corporeality woven by its carnal relations to the world—spiritual, organic, social—describing the folds of body and flesh, flesh and world, body and word” (10). Working through ancient texts like Pauline letters, the Gospel of John, Tertullian, part 1 traces different Christian conceptualities such as body (soma, corpus) and flesh (sarx, caro) and the different configurations those concepts take in ancient texts. She traces two strands: (1) “somatic views” like that in Paul that “contrasts ‘spiritual bodies’ with ‘carnal bodies,’ treating flesh as a negative metaphysical principle” and (2) “carnal views,” “whereas the Gospel of John envisions salvation through the ‘flesh,’ rather than the ‘body’ . . . tend[ing] to emphasize metaphors of flesh, carnal exchanges, and transformation” (11). Each view carries challenge and potential.
In its second part, the book traces concepts and philosophical critiques of flesh as they emerge in the twentieth-century works of Maurice Merleau-Ponty imagining the “flesh of the world” as it entangles human and nonhuman materiality of bodies. Such conversations seem to be reinterpretations of the “carnal view.” Finally, in the third part, Rivera examines “ambivalent incarnations” or the “becoming flesh of social relations” (12). These becomings occur in the histories of colonial politics, racialization, gender, and other social-material ways the world comes to be.
In a luminous session inspired by Rivera’s work, panelists engaged in creative practices of “writing with” Rivera’s deft tracings of Christian poetics of bodies and flesh. Add into those hours Rivera’s own brilliant and gracious response, and you get an AAR session dreams are made of, poiesis itself. As a presider and cochair of that group, I couldn’t have been more in awe of colleagues and scholars engaging an audience with their critically collaborative best.
We could not, therefore, let the opportunity pass us by to share some of the fruits of that session, and what you’ll be reading are revised or extended conversations provoked and emergent from that first panel. Including Rivera’s own response, the five essays included here contribute to a quickly expanding scholarly reflection on Poetics.
Biblical scholar Tat-siong Benny Liew’s essay begins this symposium by locating Rivera’s work in a context of growing interdisciplinary theory on “corporeal existence, bodily vulnerability, and material matters.” Scholarship on what is being called the “new materialism” in and outside of religious studies enables Liew to examine the implications of Rivera’s work for complex issues of agency and subjectivity. Indeed, those questions of agency and subjectivity shift, form, and reform in complex forces of materiality and machinery, gender and race. What Liew ultimately finds in Rivera’s Poetics is “a dynamic process of relational negotiation, in which we are both acting and acted upon, both contributing and constrained.”
Theologian M. Shawn Copeland’s response considers that dynamic process in the textual flesh of the book itself—exploring poetics, structure, style, and theological practice or method. Copeland points out Rivera’s explorations of the complicated and sometimes problematic relationships of Christian concepts and the body. However, the constructive poetics or what Copeland calls the “critical contemplative dialectics” of bodies and flesh in Rivera’s work constitutes a kind of political aesthetics, “a way of living so that beauty and justice suffuse the world.” To do so transforms the stuff of ordinary life into possibilities of affirmation, glory, or divinity. Rivera’s book “stands out as an outstanding exercise in and of polydox theology, i.e., critical reflection on religious faith that becomes flesh in knowledge and love in the radical transformation of oppressive systems.”
The latter two responses think with Rivera’s work about radical transformations in concrete theological and social ethical contexts. In his poetic and provocative piece, Elias Ortega-Aponte, a social ethicist, turns to what he calls contemporary “neo-lynching spectacles,” where we are given “front row seats” to violence committed by white supremacy and can interact, debate, frame, and reframe these scenes in a variety of social media debates. Ortega-Aponte argues that “the poetic mobilization of language in Rivera’s book beckons each one of us to consider the processes and social formations that make possible our individual, but mutually constitutive, enfleshments.” And in that context, the recurring question of his piece asks “how does the disappearance of touch in the social world impact collective understanding of concern for others?” That is, with technology and virtual interaction reconfiguring the very touch of social relations, “How do racialized and gendered social ways of knowing and attitude shift under such conditions?” These conditions, Ortega-Aponte argues don’t allow for touch even as they allow for witness. Touching, proximity, flesh, and the hauntings of these social conditions offer political possibilities.
Finally, my own essay thinks with Rivera’s poetics from the perspective of a theologian gently writing within the vast and complex theo-ethical problem posed by anthropogenic global warming and climate change. Turning to Anthropocene and climate ethics, I ask how conceptions of flesh might impact perceptions, imaginations, practices, and possibilities of thinking of life in our new planetary context. Riffing on the nonhuman, the non-anthropocentric implications of Rivera’s work, I argue for a concept of “atmospheric flesh,” where the elemental flesh of our ecosocial relations entangles creaturely life and demands a kind of relational responsibility as well. Reflecting on recent theological constructions of the earth as the “body of God,” I argue that atmospheric flesh composes the flesh of the earth and the flesh of divinity. To construct an atmospheric poetics of the flesh attends to the creaturely bodies churned into fossil fuels by time as well as creatures practicing resistance and resilience in the wake of the burning of those fossil fuels.
The essays in this symposium reflect the rich interdisciplinarity of Rivera’s work—ranging from biblical imaginations to ethical considerations of gender, race, and ecology, to postcolonial theory, new materialism, and contemporary theological construction. Each of these essays carries a common address: how do we as scholars challenge conceptualities that disregard flesh, render bodies human and nonhuman disposable, or ignore the complexities of social materiality? Rivera’s book gestures toward the challenges and possibilities of addressing such questions with justice, poetic rhythm, and ethical carnality.