Advent for Humans and Other Animals

Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent, a season that marks the beginning of the liturgical year, and which leads up to the celebration of the nativity (i.e., birth) of Jesus. Advent is a time of recollection as well as of anticipation. As Christians, we recall what God has done for us already, in the incarnation. We also anticipate his return at the culmination of history, in which we believe the redemption of all creatures will find it’s fulfillment, being united to God and taken up into the inner life of the Trinity. In short then, Advent is a season centered around the incarnation, and orientated towards the future, towards the peaceable kingdom of God.

There are already a number of excellent Advent reflections out there in the blogosphere. My friend Travis, for example, has written an excellent piece reminding us that the incarnation does not start and stop with the nativity, but should be seen as including Christ’s presence within the church – his body (Eph 1:22-23) through the Holy Spirt. The season of Advent then, should remind us not just of what God has done for us in Christ, but also of what we are doing presently to embody Christ’s non-violent love in the world. I agree with pretty much everything that Travis says in this blog (and if you only have time to read one blog, go read his instead of mine). All I offer below is a discussion of an essay that explores the ways in which our understanding of the incarnation can be expanded to include animals (and other creatures) alongside humans.

In his essay on “The Redemption of Animals in an Incarnational Theology”, Denis Edwards asks how the “Christ-event” might be related to the world of animals. Citing a number of New Testament passages which speak of the reconciliation of all things in Christ (e.g., 1Cor 8:6; Rom 8:18-25, etc.), and which envision animals as “sharing in the resurrection of the Lamb and joining in the great cosmic liturgy” (Rev 5:13-14), Edwards proposes a theory of “redemption through incarnation” based on St. Athanasius’ classic incarnational theory of atonement. “Redemption” here is not limited to the forgiveness of (human) sin, but includes the whole range of New Testament images for what God does for us in Christ; images such as “healing, reconciliation, fulfilment, liberation from death, resurrection life, transformation in Christ, and communion in the life of the Trintarian God…” (p. 81)

Edwards turns to St. Athanasius, highlighting three aspects of his incarnational theology. The first aspect is Athanasius’ understanding of the relationship between God and creation. For Athanasius, the whole of created being exists ex nihilo not just in terms of it’s origin but at every moment of it’s existence. “Nature”, for Athanasius, refers to created being’s inherent tendency towards non-being, while “grace” stands, among other things, for the continual presence and creative action of the Logos which sustains creation in existence. There is in Athanasius’ theology a strong continuity between creation and incarnation; the latter fulfills the former. Indeed, as Edwards summarizes, “The saving act of incarnation is precisely about the union of God and creation in Jesus Christ.” (pp85-86). He then considers the central place that death and resurrection occupy in Athanasius’ view of the incarnation. For Athanasius, an essential part of what it means for God to enter into flesh, is that he enters into death. “We are saved by the word entering into bodilyness, deformed by sin and become subject to death, so that death is defeated from within and we are bound securely to the life of God.” (p. 86).

The radically ontological nature of Athanasius’ account of this transformation and appropriation of humanity into the life of God, leads Edwards to the final aspect of Athanasius’ theology, namely his emphasis on deification through incarnation. Deification, which is central in the soteriology of the Eastern church, but somewhat less familiar in the West, focuses on the radical change in the very being (ontology) of creation, brought about by the word made flesh. For Athanasius, Christ’s flesh (sarx) is the instrument for the salvation of all flesh: “Through the flesh assumed by the Logos, God communicates divine life to all flesh in principle.” (p. 88). This of course, has direct implications for nonhuman animals (see my previous post on David Cunningham’s essay on “The Way of All Flesh”). And surprisingly perhaps, Athanasius indicates on more than one occasion that he acknowledges his theology has implications for nonhuman creatures (p. 90).

In the last section of the essay, Edwards builds upon this Athanasian foundation, offering several theses that extend this redemptive vision of the incarnation to all of nonhuman creation, and nonhuman animals in particular. He insists that such a vision offers a coherent theory of salvation, that subsumes the violent images evoked by metaphors such as sacrifice, and penal substitution, within a broader picture of God entering into “the world of flesh” so that the “community of fleshly life might be forgiven, healed, freed from violence, reconciled, and find its fulfillment in the life of God.” (p. 91). Furthermore, following texts like Romans 8, and Colossians 1, Edwards insists that we must recognize that all of creation, not just humankind, cries out for salvation. A view of redemption through incarnation allows us to see how God responds in love to the need of all creatures, not just humans. For while, Edwards acknowledges that a proclivity to sin and violence, through our evolutionary past, may indeed be part of our “genetic inheritance”, Christ’s death and resurrection serve to transform human violence, through “redemptive non-violent love” (p. 92). This has practical implications. “Insofar as the human community lives in the redemptive way of nonviolent love this will radically change human interaction with all other animals.” (p. 94).

This also indicates that God is already involved in the redemption of the violent evolutionary history of life on Earth. As Edwards notes, this includes not only His loving presence and companionship in the life, struggle, travail and death of every individual creature, of every sparrow that falls to the ground (Matthew 10:29), but also the fulfillment of animal life through their inclusion, along with humans, in the eternal life of the trinity. Not one sparrow is “forgotten before God” (Luke 12:6). For Edwards, the sparrow, like all animals, is inscribed into the memory of God. It is part of the “all things” that are reconciled (Colossians 1:20), recapitulated (Ephesians 1:10), and made new (Revelation 21:5), in Christ.

Finally, the resurrection life which is made possible for us through the incarnation of the Word, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, calls us to “participate in the healing of the world through the commitment to the flourishing of animals and to ethical relationships with them.” (p 98). Resurrection life should involve not only the redemption of individuals, but the redemption of our relations to one another and to nonhuman animals.

Given that billions of animals and millions of poor humans all over the world, are made to suffer daily under our economic structures, perhaps this is something we can meditate on this Advent season. While the culture around us descends into it’s annual consumer frenzy, creating demand for cheaper and cheaper gadgets, decorations, toys, clothes, and food, Christians should resist this kind of thoughtless consumerism, especially at a time in which our tradition calls on us to reflect on the meaning of the incarnation, in eager anticipation of the eschatological peace of the future Kingdom. We should, as my friend’s blog points out, strive to be more “incarnational” for the sake of “the least of these”, a group that undoubtedly also includes nonhuman animals.

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Edwards, Denis. “The Redemption of Animals in an Incarnational Theology” in Creaturely Theology: God, Humans and Other Animals. Celia E. Deane-Drummond and David Clough (Eds) SCM Press, 2009. pp. 81-99

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