The first two decades of the twenty-first century have witnessed something of an “animal turn” in theology, extending the previous century’s various critical and constructive interdisciplinary dialogues with the sciences and humanities to areas such as cognitive ethology and comparative psychology, posthumanism, and critical animal theory. Theologians have begun to engage the work of primatologists and ethologists, such as Frans de Waal, Marc Bekoff, and Jane Goodall, philosophers such as Peter Singer, Mary Midgley, and Carol Adams, posthumanist theorists like Cary Wolfe and Donna Haraway, and have begun reassessing Christian scripture and various theological traditions in order to both supplement a longstanding lack in traditional theological reflection concerning the place of nonhuman animals within God’s creative, reconciliatory, and redemptive purposes, and to reassess the place of the human animal among God’s other creatures.
Theological Animal, as the name might suggest, is written from a perspective that takes seriously the creatureliness of all humans (including theologians). It is therefore critical of the traditional theological tendency to focus exclusively on that which is presumed to differentiate and distinguish the human from the merely animal. This approach has tended to promote the mistaken idea that there is a categorical distinction between humans and other animals, that “animal” denotes one kind of thing, and “human” another. This human/animal binary has led to a number of difficulties both theoretical and practical. One such difficultiy is that the term “animal” has come to obscure the vast differences that exist between species, blurring the enormous diversity of non-human creation into a single, homogeneous category whose most important trait is that it is “not human”. As Jacques Derrida notes,
“Confined within this catch-all concept, within this vast encampment of the animal, in this general singular [‘the Animal’]…are all the living things that man does not recognize as his fellows, his neighbors, or his brothers. And that is so in spite of the infinite space that separates the lizard from the dog, the protazoon from the dolphin, the shark from the lamb, the parrot from the chimpanzee, the camel from the eagle, the squirrel from the tiger or the elephant from the cat, the ant from the silkworm or the hedgehog from the echidna.” (Derrida, 402)
Theologically speaking, this has dulled our ability to perceive and appreciate the significance of such created diversity that was apparent to earlier theologians such as Basil of Caesarea and Thomas Aquinas, who viewed the diversity of creatures as an intentional choice by God “in order to make creation more perfect than it would be if it only contained one kind of creature.” (Clough, 50).
This lack in our ability to perceive and appreciate the purpose and significance of creaturely diversity has given rise to a number of related problems such as anthropocentrism (the idea that humans are God’s central purpose in creation), and anthropomonism (that humans are God’s only purpose in creation), which in turn have given rise to a number of practical, ethical problems such as factory farming, vivisection, genetic modification of plants and animals, anthropogenic extinctions, deforestation, pollution and global climate change to name but a few.
If one problem of the human/animal binary is this conception of “the animal” as the “not-human”, then the twin notion of “the human” as that which is “not-animal” is another. Not only has this particular configuration given rise to the idea that there is an absolute, categorical split between humans and all other creatures, it has given rise to the notion that there is a radical ontological split within human nature itself between those attributes and characteristics that are “truly human” and those that reflect our lower, “beastly” nature. The problem is not only that this split has engendered a thin and impoverished sense of human nature, cutting us off, as it were, from a sense of all that makes us fully human, it has also historically fueled the oppression of women, racial minorities, indigenous peoples, the differently abled, and a host of other human groups who are “bestialized” by association with those attributes that the human/animal binary would characterize as “sub-human”. It is for this reason that John Sanbonmatsu, for instance, characterizes speciesism as the primordial form of fascism (Sanbonmatsu, 10). The oppression of various human “outgroups” is contingent upon their ideological association with the debased and devalued category of “the animal”, an association which is made possible (even inevitable) by the ontological split within the human between the “higher” faculties (e.g., rationality, culture, language, mastery over nature, etc.), and the “lower” fleshly nature. In this way, Theological Animal recognizes that the theological critique of the human/animal binary is part of the liberation of all creatures from oppressive regimes, both human and non-human.
Clough, David. On Animals Vol. 1: Systematic Theology. London: T & T Clark, 2012.
Derrida, Jacques and David Wills, “The Animal That Therfore I Am (More to Follow)”, Critical Inquiry 28:2 (2002), 369-418.
Sanbonmatsu, John. Critical Theory and Animal Liberation. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011. Print.