What is a Charitable Heart?

“What is a charitable heart? It is a heart which is burning with charity for the whole of creation, for men, for the birds, for the beasts, for the demons – for all creatures. He who has such a heart cannot see or call to mind a creature without his eyes becoming filled with tears by reason of the immense compassion which seizes his heart; a heart which is softened and can no longer bear to see or learn from others of any suffering, even the smallest pain, being inflicted upon a creature. This is why such a man never ceases to pray also for the animals.”

-St. Isaac the Syrian, cited in Vladimir Lossky’s, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church.

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P.T. Forsyth’s Plea for an ‘All Creatures’ Day’*

‘Now what day should we have for All Creatures’ Day? You will not find that in the almanack either. But what better day could we have than this selfsame Christmas Day? For was Jesus born among other children? Was He born into a nursery? Was there a crowd of other children all eager to see the new baby, and all clapping their hands when they did? Nothing of the kind. You know He was born in a stable, with a horse-trough for a cradle, with straw for a bed, and the cattle for company. There was the ass on which His mother rode, there were the asses of the other travellers who had got rooms in the inn; there were the cows belonging to the farm, and the fowls pecking in the straw; and there were the sheep—well, the sheep, of course, were in the fields, where the angels’ message came to the men who were taking care of them. The animals were nearer to the infant Jesus than any children were. And how often He spoke of the animals when He grew up; and He never spoke as if he despised them, but always as if He watched and loved them. And how very much the animals owe to Jesus! How much better the religion of Jesus has made people treat animals! The animals owe Jesus a great deal, if they but had a tongue to tell it. Yet they have tongues. I once saw a very old carving of the Nativity over a great church door. Now, I have seen several old pictures of the Nativity with the animals standing by or looking in with great interest at the stable window. But in this case they were still more interested; they were very affectionate to the baby, and their tongues expressed it. For it was two cows, and they had come up to the manger. You may know, perhaps, how curious cows are about clothes. They eat the cottage wash sometimes when it is hung out on the hedge. Well, among the swaddling clothes they found the baby; and they were so far from being disappointed that they felt quite loving, and they were licking it with their great rough tongues. I often think cows very kindly animals, but I never thought so more than then. Very likely the artist, with a kindly humour, wished to represent the homage of the creatures for the little Jesus. And he knew that they could not speak and praise with their tongues like men. So he made them worship in the only way their tongues could’.

– P. T. Forsyth, ‘Dumb Creatures and Christmas: A Little Sermon to Little Folk, 1903’ in Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P.T. Forsyth (ed. Jason A. Goroncy; Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013).

*Thanks go to Jason Goroncy at Per Crucem ad Lucem for this remarkable reflection of P.T. Forsyth’s.

On the Import of Christian Ontology for Animal Ethics

A good friend of mine once handed me a book written by Joseph Campbell, and asked me what I thought of the exerpt on the page she had dog-eared. The piece denigrated the Judeo-Christian conception of God as “other” than nature, in favor of a more pantheistic conception. Campbell’s criticism was based on the view that treating the divine as transcendent, as standing outside the immanent world, leads to a neglect of nature. I explained to my friend that he seemed to mistake Christian orthodoxy, with gnosticism, and asked why he ignored the immense value conferred on creation, not only when God pronounces it “very good” in Genesis 1, but also when God himself enters into it, taking on flesh, and radically identifying himself with his creatures?

The assumption that an immanentized God somehow inevitably will ensure the protection of nature because it makes nature itself divine is, I think, a mistake. As is more often the case, identifying nature with the divine, like any naive collapse of “is” into “ought”, simply serves to “deify” various forms of violence, hierarchy and oppression, as expressions of a divine will. In contrast to this, the Christian view, which not only emphasizes the transcendence and otherness of God, but also God’s abiding love and concern for his beautiful but fallen creation, can serve to keep open the gap between “is” and “ought”, cautioning us not to fashion our understanding of God’s will simply by looking to nature as it is, but to imagine nature redeemed by God, and restored to peace. The ontological distinction between Creator and creature, as Hans Urs von Balthasar has said, serves “to remind us that we are not Creator.” And finally, as David Clough reminds us,

“Once we confess God as creator of the universe, we acknowledge a single fundamental binary opposition, that between creator and creature, that relativizes all creaturely differences to points of detail. It is much easier to avoid anthropocentrism in the context of an account that recognizes a basic duty of giving honour and worship to a being beyond the human.”

–David Clough, “The Problem with Human Equality: Towards a Non-Exclusive Account of the Moral Value of Creatures in the Company of Martha Nussbaum”

Thus, far from being inferior to a pantheistic – or even secular – ontology, the basic and most fundamental distinction in Christian ontology, that between creator and creature, God and creation, actually provides a crucial reminder that the relative differences that may exist between species, pale in comparison to what we have in common: namely that we are fellow creatures, finite and dependent beings, who, to echo the words of St. John Chrysostom, are “of the same Source”.

Clare Palmer’s “Relational Approach” to Animal Theology

Clare Palmer takes up Andrew Linzey’s case for the “theos-rights” of God’s creatures in her essay “Animals in Christian Ethics: Developing a Relational Approach”. Palmer’s discussion begins with the general feminist critiques of other rights-based approaches to animal ethics. She focuses on the utilitarian philosophy of Peter Singer and on the deontological approach of Tom Regan. She draws out the relevant similarities between Linzey’s theological account and theirs, illustrating how the arguments raised by feminist ethicists against both Singer and Regan apply equally as well to Linzey. Linzey’s case, she argues, is problematic on two fronts. First, she takes issue with his theory of rights, and second with his analysis of power relations. Like all “rights-based” ethics, Linzey’s argument from the theos-rights of animals tends to overlook important differences (e.g., between individuals, species, contexts, etc.), as well as the particular relationships that individuals have to one another, as ethically insignificant. Moreover, his univocal characterization of “power”, considered as a singular, monolithic concept overlooks what Michel Foucault referred to as the “micro-physics” of power. Instead, Palmer suggests a “Christian relational ethic of care” for animals; one that makes these concerns central to the discussion of our moral relations to animals.

Palmer’s concerns succeed in bringing to light a number of important considerations that rights-based approaches often seem to overlook or downplay. Her emphasis on the particularities of specific relationships, a concern that she picks up from feminist critics as much as from Christian theology, also offers an important way to deal with some of the more troubling dilemmas that have been posed by critics of animal rights. Nevertheless, her rejection of rights-based theories is too strong, and her claim that rights-based theorists are incapable of taking important contextual differences into account is in particular premature. Perhaps a compelling case could be made for an integrative approach; one that draws on the strengths of rights-theory as well as a more “relational” ethic of care.

Andrew Linzey on “Theology as if Animals Mattered”

In the essay “Theology as if Animals Mattered” Andrew Linzey, who’s work represents the single most extensive theological engagement with animal welfare to date, confronts some of the challenges that the issue of animal welfare poses for Christians in particular. Christian theology, he argues, has been slow to address the growing concern for animal welfare, often marginalizing the plight of animals as a non-issue. As the case for the moral significance of animal welfare gains an increasingly strong basis in philosophical reason, for Christians the issue of the moral status of animals remains “at a stage somewhat similar to the feminist issue forty years ago” (p.10). Linzey here has in mind a time when many Christians were vehemently opposed to equal rights for women. Linzey laments the anthropocentricity in much of Christian ethics, seeing it as a myopia so deeply ingrained in our thought today that many now find it difficult to think of animals as existing for any other purpose than as resources for human utility. Linzey takes particular issue with two facile assumptions about how animals must be understood in Christian theology: First, he addresses the idea that the bible lends support to human supremacy, and second, with the idea that it endorses the view that animals are made for human use. Citing a number of biblical passages, he shows that the assumption of human supremacy can only be considered faithful to the biblical story in a “highly qualified way”, and that the second claim, that animals are made for human use, is unequivocally unbiblical. Linzey suggests that to the degree that Christians seek to be sound in their theology they should strive to supplant their anthropocentric conception of animals (indeed of the cosmos!) with a theocentric one.