Virginia Burrus

senior fellow
EURIAS cohort 2015/2016
discipline History
Bishop W. Earl Ledden Professor of Religion, Syracuse University, Department of Religion

Research project

Ancient Eco-poetics


Anthropocentrism, dualism, and a theology of dominion have laid the blame for ecological crisis at Christianity’s door. The critiques are not altogether groundless, but they are too simple.  Indeed, I suggest that late ancient Christians may speak to our moment, if only because their challenges were similar. Then as now, globalization, displacement, and contact between cultures demanded the search for new modes and models of coexistence. Transcendence was thus not merely the conceptual byproduct of worldwide Roman domination. It was also an attempt to think unity, commonality, and interconnection together with multiplicity, difference, and conflict. The doctrine of creation was not merely the expression of the rule of God over humans and humans over everything else. It was also an attempt to affirm the value of all beings, however seemingly small or insignificant, disgusting or noxious. Asceticism was not merely the reflection of the denigration of bodies. It was also an attempt to subvert a culture of greed, opulence, and economic inequity. Contemplation was not merely a flight from the gritty ambivalence of materiality. It was also an attempt to discover in materiality glimmers of a wondrously interconnected cosmos, glimpsed in the openings beyond, between, or across bodies. 


This project is crucially interdisciplinary, engaging the fields of ecotheology and religion and ecology, as well as more specialized works of historical theology. However, my most important interdisciplinary interlocutors are neither theologians nor religionists. They are, rather, literary critics, philosophers, and others who are currently converging around the new theorizations of animality, affect, and materiality. 


The introduction focuses primarily on these interdisciplinary conversations.  Four chapters follow. The first attends to the figure of khora, traced through the writings of Plato, Origen, Plotinus, Augustine and beyond. Khora exposes the mysterious and uncanny character of materiality - transience, elusiveness, indeterminacy, and the ambivalent emotions these arouse - offering what one might call an apophatic or negative cosmology. The second chapter centers on the hexameral commentaries of Basil, Ambrose, and Augustine, exploring how readings of the “six days” produce a litany of creatures, of which humans are but a small fraction, sharing the last day with the other land animals.  The third chapter focuses on Lives of Saints, which render the human other—angelic, demonic, animalistic, vegetative, even mineral.  They also transform landscapes—not least the landscape of literary pastoral—and revise models of sustainable living, including diet.  The fourth chapter turns to prayer and contemplation, with attention to sensation and affect, transformations of time and space, and constructions and deconstructions of hierarchies. 



Virginia Burrus is the Bishop W. Earl Ledden Professor of Religion at the Department of Religion of Syracuse University, and prior to that she taught in Drew University's Theological School and Graduate Division of Religion. She holds a M.A. and a Ph.D in history of Christianity from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Her main research interests are: gender, sexuality, and the body; martyrdom and asceticism; ancient novels and hagiography; constructions of orthodoxy and heresy; histories of theology and historical theologies.

Selected publications


The Life of Saint Helia: Critical Edition, Translation, Introduction, and Commentary, with

M. Conti, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014.


‘Gender, Eros, and Pedagogy: Macrina’s Pious Household’, in B. Leyerle & R. Darling Young (eds), Ascetic Culture. Essays in Honor of Philip Rousseau, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, 2013, pp. 167-181.

‘Augustine, Rosenzweig, and the Possibility of Experiencing Miracle’, in C. Good, M. Asensi & G. Stallings, Material Spirit, Fordham University Press, New York, 2013, pp. 94-110.


‘Nothing is Not One: Revisiting the ex nihilo’, Modern Theology, vol. 29, no. 2, 2013, pp. 33-48.


‘’Honor the Fathers’: Exegesis and Authority in the Life of Saint Helia’, in H.U. Wiedemann (ed.),

Asceticism and Exegesis in Early Christianity: The Reception of New Testament Texts in Ancient Ascetic Discourses, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen, 2013, pp. 445-457.


‘Seducing Theology’, Theology and Sexuality, vol. 18, no. 2, 2012, pp. 118-121.


Seducing Augustine: Bodies, Desires, Confessions, with M. Jordan & K. MacKendrick Fordham University Press, New York, 2010.


Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints, and Other Abject Subjects. Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2008.



senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2018/2019
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline History
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2012/2013
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline Religious Studies
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2014/2015
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline Art History
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2013/2014
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline History