In our age of ecological crisis, what insights—if any—can we expect to find by looking to our past? Perhaps, suggests Virginia Burrus, early Christianity might yield usable insights. Turning aside from the familiar specter of Christianity's human-centered theology of dominion, Burrus directs our attention to aspects of ancient Christian thought and practice that remain strange and alien. Drawn to excess and transgression, in search of transformation, early Christians creatively reimagined the universe and the human, cultivating relationships with a wide range of other beings—animal, vegetable, and mineral; angelic and demonic; divine and earthly; large and small.
In Ancient Christian Ecopoetics, Burrus facilitates a provocative encounter between early Christian theology and contemporary ecological thought. In the first section, she explores how the mysterious figure of khora, drawn from Plato's Timaeus, haunts Christian and Jewish accounts of a creation envisioned as varyingly monstrous, unstable, and unknowable. In the second section, she explores how hagiographical literature queers notions of nature and places the very category of the human into question, in part by foregrounding the saint's animality, in part by writing the saint into the landscape. The third section considers material objects, as small as portable relics and icons, as large as church and monastery complexes. Ancient Christians considered all of these animate beings, simultaneously powerful and vulnerable, protective and in need of protection, lovable and loving. Viewed through the shifting lenses of an ancient ecopoetics, Burrus demonstrates how humans both loomed large and shrank to invisibility, absorbed in the rapture of a strange and animate ecology.
I. BEGINNING AGAIN WITH KHORA: TRACES OF A DARK COSMOLOGY Prelude: Anticipations of an Eco-Chorology Dreaming Khora: Plato's Timaeus Interlude: Fragments of an Eco-Chorology Khroric Legacies: Readers of Timaeus and Genesis Interlude: Beginning Again with Scripture In/Conclusion: Khora, God, Materiality Postlude: Beginnings, Again
II. QUEERING CREATION: HAGIOGRAPHY WITHOUT HUMANS Prelude: Ecocriticism as Queer Theory Before Hagiography, Autozoography: The Life of Plotinus Queerly Ecological: The Lives of Antony, Paul, and Mary of Egypt Interlude: Desertification Holy Disfigurations: The Life of Syncletica Saint as Posthuman Assemblage: The Life of Simeon the Stylite Interlude: Performance Art In/Conclusion: Saints and Other Queer Creatures Postlude: A Tough Love
III. Things and Practices: Arts of Coexistence Prelude: Theorizing Things Things: Relics and Icons in an Animate World Things: Architecture, Landscape, Cosmos : Fragments of a Material Theology of Things Things: Rhetoric and Performativity in Basil's Hexaemeron Desiring Things: Contemplation, Creation, and God in Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius : Words and Things /Conclusion: Things, Practices, Piety : The Things That Matter Epilogue: Worm Stories Notes Bibliography Index Acknowledgments
Virginia Burrus is the Bishop W. Earl Ledden Professor of Religion at Syracuse University. She is author of Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints, and Other Abject Subjects and The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography, both available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.
"[E]rudite and evocative . . . Ancient Christian Ecopoetics is a crucial contribution to the cultural history of materiality in late antiquity . . . Put simply: this is the kind of study that cultural historians of late antiquity interested in the material turn need to be undertaking. The recent spate of publications on late antiquity's environmental history, many of which attract popular attention because of their dramatic claims to explain Rome's "decline and fall" as a response to climate change and pandemic disease, collectively fail to consider a critical question that Burrus probes in this book: how did late Romans experience and relate to their physical worlds? While purposely narrow in scope, Ancient Christian Ecopoetics presents us with one possible set of answers as well as a framework for pursuing further research."—Church History
"An erudite study of the theology of holy things in the late ancient Christianity . . . [T]his book is a fascinating and welcome contribution to the field of late antique Christianity . . . indispensable for scholars of asceticism in the late Christianity."—Reading Religion
"A brilliant and original book. In its reach, in its synthetic analysis, in its fluid, dynamic thought, Virginia Burrus creates something conceptually and imaginatively audacious. No one has attempted such a project before, not like this and not with such sophistication."—Douglas Christie, Loyola Marymount University
Awarded the Borsch-Rast Book Prize, granted by the Graduate Theological Union