In “The Way of All Flesh: Rethinking the Imago Dei” theologian David S. Cunningham examines the question of what can and cannot be said from a specifically theological perspective about the distinction commonly made between humans and other animals. His focus is on the way in which the Christian doctrine of the imago Dei has traditionally been interpreted as applying to humans and humans alone as created in “the image and likeness of God”, and how this interpretation has historically been taken to suggest that the most significant dividing line within the created order is that which lies between human beings and everything else. Practically speaking, these assumptions can be seen as legitimating the virtually unlimited human exploitation of nonhuman animals and the natural world that has led to both modern day factory farming, and global climate change. Noting that the biblical and theological support for these assumptions are “tenuous at best”, Cunningham suggests instead that “a more theologically appropriate way of distinguishing among creatures may be discovered through an investigation into the word flesh.” (p101). This shift would then serve to emphasize the creaturliness of human beings and thus to refocus theology’s attention from that which sets human beings apart from the rest of creation, and on to the strong continuity that exists between humans and nonhuman animals.
Cunningham’s argument proceeds in three parts. In the first, he questions whether the distinction between humans and animals often presupposed in theological accounts has been justified on specifically theological grounds, or whether it stems instead from too heavy a reliance on atheological – even anti-theological – sources. He cites David Clough’s suggestion that Christianity’s sharp distinction between humans and animals owes primarily to it’s traditional reliance on Aristotelian assumptions about the natural order. For Aristotle, and the theological tradition following him, the capacity for language and rational thought is an exclusively human faculty. Many Christian theologians have insisted on identifying such capacities as constitutive of humanity’s status as imago Dei. But, as Cunningham notes, advancement in our scientific understanding of nonhuman animals has significantly brought into question these old Aristotelian assumptions that would restrict rationality and language-use to the human sphere alone. Ultimately, an Aristotelian framework is no longer a viable scientific basis for making such sharp distinctions between human and nonhuman animals. The point however is not that Christians are now required to construct a new theology based on new science (as it has been said, “the theology that marries the science of today will be the widow of tomorrow”). Rather, Cunningham’s point is that “if Christian theology continues to maintain this distinction, it must do so with specifically theological arguments – rather than relying on a scientific distinction that has long since fallen out of favor.” (103).
In the second section then, Cunningham turns to consider the role that the doctrine of the imago Dei has played in maintaining this human-animal distinction. As he says, the belief that human beings alone are created in the image of God, coupled with the claim that they are given “dominion” over other creatures “is probably the most significant theological justification for claiming a significant distinction between human beings and other creatures” (p106). Cunningham notes, first, that Genesis does not deny outright that other animals (or even inanimate elements of creation) “image” God in certain ways, and that indeed, there is some precedent for thinking with Bruce Marshall that, “[God the Father] is the unoriginate source of all things, and even the humblest creature is like him in some respect”, even if Christ alone is the perfect image and likeness of the Father. Secondly, he considers the highly contested nature of the imago Dei’s interpretation, citing Calvin’s statement that “Interpreters do not agree concerning the meaning of these words” as definitive. Finally, he considers the fluid meaning of the word “image”, noting that this concept “does not lend itself to a simple ‘either/or’ test”. In other words, the word “image” is not a univocal predicate meaning the same thing in every instance. Not only can images be more or less perfect representations of the thing imaged, but they can also represent different aspects of the same thing. Furthermore, just as a single subject might be rendered in a plurality of artistic media – a painting, a clay sculpture, a poem, a photograph, a theatrical enactment, etc. – so too can different images “image” in different ways. Thus, Cunningham concludes:
Because the language of image names neither an absolute condition nor a linear spectrum of degrees, it makes little sense to think of the language of the imago Dei in these ways. It is [not] an absolute condition (in which human beings are created in the image of God and everything else is not)…the birds are like God in their ease of movement; the bees are like God in their simultaneous unity and multiplicity; the penguins in their constancy; the rocks in their steadfastness…” (113).
Noting that this apparent “grand levelling of the creation” may seem to render all the species and elements within the created order an indistinguishable homogeneity, Cunningham suggests that some account is required in order to make intelligible the idea of a God who is apparently more intimately and actively involved with humans, and (to a slightly lesser extent) with animals, than he is with the inanimate elements of creation. Thus he turns, in the final section, to the Biblical category of “flesh” as the most plausible basis for drawing significant distinctions within the sphere of created being. He offers five compelling theological reasons in favor of “moving away from a central focus on humanity as the image of God, and developing a broader field of vision in which human beings take their place within the larger context of all flesh.” (114). The first consideration is the sheer abundance of biblical reference; the word “flesh” (basar in Hebrew, sarx in Greek) appears 321 times throughout both the Old and New Testaments, a fact that would suggest this category merits more theological attention than it has typically received. Second, is the fact that “some of the most significant language in the biblical text concerning God’s continuing relationship to the world refers not just to human beings, but to ‘all flesh’.” (115). This, of course, would include the numerous covenants that God makes with humans and animals alike (e.g., Gen 9:8-17).
The most important considerations Cunningham discusses, however, are those that have to do with Christology. “Flesh” is central to the doctrine of the incarnation. In contrast to the tendency to narrowly focus on the “humanity of Christ”, both the Bible and the Nicene Creed, understand the incarnation primarily in terms of Christ’s being made “flesh” – something that human beings share in common with many of God’s creatures. That the incarnation is better understood in these broader terms is further underscored by the Bible’s insistence that the fall affects not just humans, but all creatures in some way. For, following Gregory of Nyssa, “What God has not assumed, He has not healed”. As Cunningham notes, “regardless of how one might account for the matter of moral culpability” and “While we might want to leave aside the question of the degree to which other animals participate in the fall, and whether they’re fallen in the same sense as humanity”, according to the biblical narrative and the theological tradition following it, “All flesh is in need of healing” (pp116, 117).
While it may well be that Cunningham understates the significance of the Bible’s explicit application of imago Dei exclusively to human beings, I do think he is right to draw our attention away from the tendency to create sharp distinctions between humans and other animals, and to draw our focus to the much more significant category of all flesh. Furthermore, it’s not all that clear to me whether Cunningham’s strategy of minimizing the “human exceptionalism” traditionally tied to the imago Dei is preferable to the kind of “benevolent human exceptionalism” offered by most contemporary readings of Genesis. Most Old Testament scholars, for instance, insist that the imago Dei should be understood in terms of a task, or function that humans have to care for God’s creation, rather than as a “gold star” signifying God’s preferential option for homo sapiens. I suppose Cunningham’s argument has the advantage of avoiding the paternalism inherent in the other view. But it seems to me that some account must be given of the distinctive responsibilities that the human species has toward one another, as well as toward those outside our species, and Cunningham’s “leveling down” approach on it’s own cannot deliver this. That being said, Cunningham’s case for rethinking the traditional divisions between “humans” and “animals” in light of our common flesh, is theologically compelling in it’s own right. And all the more so when read alongside Denis Edward’s chapter on nonhuman animals in relation to an Athanasian theology of the incarnation, and Eric Daryl Meyer’s essay (in Animals as Religious Subjects) entitled “Marvel at the Intelligence of Unthinking Creatures: Contemplative Animals in Gregory of Nazianzus and Evagrius of Pontus” (both of which I hope to discuss soon).
Cunningham, David S. “The Way of All Flesh: Rethinking the Imago Dei” in Deane-Drummond, Celia E. and David Clough (Eds) Creaturely Theology: God, Humans and Other Animals. SCM Press, 2009. pp. 100 – 117