Neil Messer on the Proper Ends of Human and Nonhuman Animals

Professor Neil Messer

According to Neil Messer, an appropriately theological approach to the ethics of human-animal relations must be “teleological in character.” That is to say, “[i]t must be shaped and guided by an understanding of our, and their, proper ends: what we, and they, are for.” (Messer, 213). Theological assessment of practical ethical matters concerning our relations with other animals, then, rests upon a particular vision of the telos, the “proper ends”, of both human and nonhuman creatures.

This immediately raises the question of how we might know what those ends are. One strategy that has seemed obvious to many theologians, has been to draw on Aquinas’s natural law theory and its embedded account of the proper ends of creatures. Messer, has reservations about this however. While other critics have focused on the problematic ethical consequences of Aquinas’s insistence that “less noble creatures exist for the sake of the more noble creatures” (ST I 65.2), Messer’s concern is epistemological: Aquinas’s dependence on Aristotelian science renders “his account vulnerable to the extent that it depends on empirical or theoretical Aristotelian claims discredited by more recent biology.” (214). Messer’s criticism here is significant in that it isn’t primarily motivated by prior ethical commitments that might open him up to charges of begging the question. He observes how, in light of such concerns, some theologians have sought to develop a modified natural law theory in which modern science plays the role that Aristotelian science did for Aquinas. Such attempts, however, run aground on two fronts: first, the resolutely non-teleogical character of modern science (going back to, at least, Francis Bacon), and second, the gap between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ (most famously expressed by David Hume), which entails that ethical theories are always radically underdetermined by scientific evidence. Even if philosophers like Michael Ruse are correct, and “neo-Darwinian evolution can be said to give us an account of final causes” (215), the kinds of “final causes” that evolution seems to involve are those of survival and reproductive success. It’s difficult to see what such ends might have to do with ethics. Certainly, biology, as biology, gives us no reason for interpreting these as moral ends. Furthermore, behavior which no plausible ethic  would call “good”—including rape and infanticide—could prove conducive in some cases to the ends of survival and reproductive success. What appear to be the most likely ends of natural selection, then, seem to be among the least plausible candidates for moral ends.

Messer notes that underlying such attempts to incorporate modern science into a theory of natural law is an adherence to something like Aquinas’s dictum that “grace does not destroy nature but perfects it” (ST I 1.8). Messer does not disagree on this point, but takes it in a different (more Lubacian, less neoscholastic) direction, arguing instead that we cannot truly understand what “nature” is through empirical investigation into the world alone. Properly understood, Aquinas’ dictum means that “nature” must be defined in terms of grace precisely because it is only through theological reflection on the ends of nature, “graciously given by God and made known in Jesus Christ” (216), that “nature” can truly be understood. Here Messer finds interesting common ground between Aquinas’s understanding of the relation between grace and nature, and Karl Barth’s account of creation as the external basis of covenant and covenant as the internal basis of creation. On both accounts, creation/nature is understood as, in some sense, constitutively oriented towards completion and fulfillment by grace. There is a deep continuity, in other words, between God’s acts of creation, reconciliation and redemption, such that creation cannot be understood in itself apart from it’s ends in reconciliation and redemption. Drawing partly on Aquinas then, and partly on Karl Barth, Messer is able to provide an initial answer to the question raised above as to how we might learn about the proper ends of creatures: “[A] theological account of the proper ends of human and non-human animals, and the proper relations between them, must get its bearings from God’s good purposes in creating, reconciling, and redeeming the world, as those purposes are disclosed in Christ.” (217).

Despite his insistence on the importance of an understanding of the proper ends of nonhuman animals, however, Messer does not elaborate in any detail on what those ends are. The repeated references throughout the essay to “God’s good purposes in creating, reconciling and redeeming the world” give some indication that he thinks that other animals, like humans, have their proper ends in communion with God. But this remains an implicit and, therefore, somewhat ambiguous point throughout the essay. This omission becomes all the more problematic if we consider the bulk of theological opinion that regards nonhuman animals—and indeed, the entirety of creation—as existing to serve human beings. Without at least offering some argument in favor of an alternative account, this completely anthropocentric interpretation of the proper ends of other creatures seems to go unchallenged.

Messer does, however, go on to offer a set of “diagnostic questions” aimed at guiding deliberation in practical ethical matters in a way that is consonant with the teleological orientation of Christian ethics. Given that “humans are called to live and act in ways that go with the grain” of God’s good purposes in creating, reconciling, and redeeming the world, Messer argues that all human activity can be understood as falling into three possible categories: human action either conforms and witnesses to God’s purposes, is opposed to God’s purposes, “serving instead the ends of chaos and destruction”, or else is an attempt to substitute for God’s work in Christ (218). From this tripartite account of human activity, Messer develops the following set of diagnostic questions for the theological assessment of practical issues:

  1. What attitude does the action we have in view manifest towards the material world?
  2. Is this course of action an attempt to be like God (sicut Deus), or does it conform to the image of God (imago Dei)?
  3. What attitude does the action we have in view manifest towards past human failures?
  4. Is the action we have in view good news for the poor? Who stands to gain from it, and at whose expense?

In applying these questions to the assessment of our use of other animals for food, Messer suggests, with respect to the first question, that in some cases vegetarianism may very well express a negative attitude toward the material world, and even a “general disposition to reject the good gifts that God gives us to sustain our creaturely life in the world.” (222). Such vegetarianism would constitute what he calls a “pseudo-ascetic flight” from the material world, which suggests that there could be bad, as well as good, reasons for being vegetarian. With respect to the second question, however, he states:

“It has to be said that much present human use of non-human animals has the appearance of humanity sicut Deus: an exercise of raw power that hardly seems to reflect the imago Dei. It also has to be acknowledged that much of what the Christian tradition has in the past taken to be proper dominion reflecting the imago Dei looks, with hindsight, much more like the kind of domination characteristic of humanity sicut Deus. We might say that the tradition has often failed to appreciate the difference made by the agnus Dei [lamb of God] in this sphere.” (223-4)

The contrast between the imago Dei and the sicut Deus also tells against attempts to establish the kingdom, insofar as such attempts are motivated by what Barth identifies as “the kind of human pride that wants to be it’s own helper” (220). As Messer argues, “we are not called to inaugurate or establish that kingdom; the attempt to do so risks lapsing into a dangerous and potentially inhumane utopianism or fanaticism” (224). Consideration of the third diagnostic question here, should lead us to the recognition that we cannot avoid the “complex entanglement of human sin and the fallenness of the world” (225). The proper attitude towards the brokenness of the world and human complicity in it is one of repentance and confession. Indeed, as Jennifer McBride has argued, “Repentance is central to Christian political witness…not only because it manifests a proper humility—it acknowledges before the world that (unlike the sinless Jesus) Christians are complicit in the structural sins of our society especially those of us who effortlessly benefit from and uphold an unjust status quo—but also because it participates in the transformative work of Christ in the world.” (McBride, 189-90). Repentance just is how we participate in and witness to the future peaceable kingdom. Given the complex entanglement of human sin and the brokenness of the world, an essential part of what repentance entails in the context of our relations with other animals, is an effort to “avoid the violent exploitation of non-human animals whenever we can.” (Messer, 225).

With these diagnostic questions, Messer presents Christians with a powerful tool for assessing a wide range of human action in light of the teleological orientation of Chrtistian theology. For those of us personally involved in activism, I think they are an equally powerful tool for assessing how that activism should be carried out in light of our faith. Nevertheless, given the lack of any attempt to elaborate on what the proper ends of nonhuman animals are, it’s not entirely clear how this particular set of questions is supposed to be related to a theological vision of the telos of other animals. Why these particular questions rather than others?

For a more detailed account of the telos of nonhuman animals, I will turn (in the coming weeks) to David Clough’s discussion of the topic in On Animals: I. Systematic Theology. I hope then to explore the implications of this renewed attention to the common ends of human and nonhuman animals for a critical theological assessment of the role that modern economics plays in much of the exploitation of other animals. Stay tuned.

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Messer, Neil. “Humans, Animals, Evolution and Ends” Creaturely Theology: On God, Humans and Other Animals. Eds Celia Deane-Drummond, and David Clough. London: SCM, 2009. 211-227.

McBride, Jennifer. “Repentance as Political Witness” Christian Political Witness. Eds George Kalantzis, and Gregory W. Lee. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2014. 179-195.

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David Clough on Darwin, Theology, and Human and Nonhuman Animals

Christian theology cannot begin to take modern biological science seriously without attending to the way evolution necessarily complicates our anthropocentric readings of Genesis. So David Clough argues in his contribution to Barton and Wilkinson’s Reading Genesis After Darwin. Even those theologians who readily accept the basic premises of Darwin’s thought too often fail to acknowledge that human beings too are part of the created order, and are not, as he says, “suspended over it as some part-creature, part-divine hybrid.” (p. 145). However else they might engage different aspects of evolutionary theory, Christian readings of Genesis 1 remain pre-Darwinian insofar as they insist on a “human-separatist” view that posits a fundamental categorical distinction between humans and other creatures.

Clough traces this human-separatism to the influence of the first-century Jewish theologian Philo of Alexandria on subsequent Christian interpretation of Genesis. In his De Animalibus, for instance, Philo considers whether animals might possess reason and concludes that what may appear to us as purposive and rational behavior in animals, is better attributed to instinct not to reason. In short, animals don’t think. Only humans do. He takes a similar position in his De Opificio Mundi, where he identifies the “image of God” with the human mind. Apparently troubled by the fact that according to Genesis, human beings were created last among the creatures, Philo offers a number of reasons why, far from contradicting human superiority, this ordering should be understood as supporting it. The most interesting of his arguments is his claim that just as a host takes pains to prepare everything before his privileged guests arrive, so God prepared the world as a “banquet and sacred display” for humans. This is strikingly similar to the readings of Luther and of Calvin, who both agree that everything was somehow created with humans in mind. Indeed, Philo’s essentially Aristotelian division between humans and other animals on the basis of reason is representative of Christian interpretation of Genesis from Augustine to Aquinas and on up to the eighteenth century.

Modern interpretation of Genesis however differs markedly with respect to the meaning of the image of God. Clough notes that most commentators recognize that attempts to identify some particular human faculty (reason, language, mind, etc.) as that which images God are misguided. He also suggests that there is a general consensus today about how the image of God ought to be interpreted: as a democratization of Ancient Near Eastern political terminology, whereby the King was said to be the “image of God”. There is more dispute about this point than Clough seems to acknowledge here, but he is right to suggest a marked contrast between modern and pre-modern interpretation. Despite these shifts however, the image of God continues to function as drawing a sharp line between humans and other creatures, and it is precisely this view that Clough wants to suggest fails to take Darwin seriously.

In the second section then, Clough considers two possible ways one might reconcile the human-separatist view with belief in human evolution. First, one might argue that humans have simply developed so far beyond other creatures that they are qualitatively (not merely quantitatively) different. Clough’s main difficulty with this argument is that it is difficult to fill out the content of this gap that is supposed to separate humans from other creatures. He considers Keith Ward’s synthesis of Thomism and evolution, according to which, “when the brain reaches a certain stage of complexity, the power of conceptual thought, of reasoning and thinking, begin to exist; and that is when a rational soul begins to be.” (148). One problem with this view that Clough doesn’t consider is that, this would have to be the case not just phylogenetically but ontogenetically as well. That is, if a rational soul only emerges when the brain achieves a level of complexity capable of conceptual thinking and so on, then not only is Ward denying a rational soul to other species, but he effectively denies it to small children, to the severely mentally impaired and so on. Furthermore, as Clough notes, recent scientific studies in fields like comparative psychology and cognitive ethology continue to illustrate that human beings differ from other creatures only in degree with respect to our cognitive faculties. This is the case not only for rationality, but for capacities such as concept formation, analogy, self-consciousness, language and even fairness.Clough cites the fascinating example of Koko the gorilla, who learned a vocabulary of over 1000 words, could express humor and irony, and could converse about emotions such as grief over her deceased cat, and even about her own mortality. We could add to this list other primates such as Washoe, Nim Chimpsky, Lana, Sarah, and Kanzi; Cetaceans such as Akeakamai and Phoenix, Alex, the African gray parrot, and even a border collie named Chaser; all of whom learned to produce (or understand) various languages, signed and/or spoken, with varying degrees of success.

The trouble with these kinds of examples is that, while they may suffice to complicate the human-separatist picture, they also risk reinforcing an anthropocentric understanding of “intelligence” as that which is typical of humans. It’s only from a perspective that privileges human language as an index of superior cognition that these case studies appear interesting. The task should not be to show how other animals are “like us”, but to decentralize our notion of intelligence, to recognize that our language is not a privileged point on some psychological scale, but, like other forms of animal communication, is relative to our particular creaturely ends. Nevertheless, Clough uses the example of Koko only to make his point that some of “the most frequently offered markers of difference – rationality, intelligence, language – are unable to identify a qualitative difference between humans and other creatures” (152).

There is, however, a second strategy theologians might employ that does not depend on natural attributes in order to claim a categorical distinction between humans and other animals. One could argue that “we do not need a natural difference to establish a theological difference” (152). Clough identifies three alternative construals of this theological distinction based on vocation, election, and incarnation. With regard to the first, Clough admits that there is no serious theological objection to the view that God appoints human beings to a particular role within the created order, but that this by itself is an insufficient basis to draw the kind of categorical distinction between humans and animals that the human-separatist view requires. With reference to passages such as Psalm 148, Romans 8, or chapters 38-41 of the book of Job, Clough makes clear that, “the Bible repeatedly affirms that all creation participates in the praise of God and each living thing has a part in God’s purposes” (153). In sum, our particular vocation as humans before God “denotes particularity rather than separation from other species” (153).

Arguments based on election claim that just as God calls Israel to be set apart from other nations and to enjoy a particular privileged status, so God elects humankind to a special status among creatures. Such an argument would it seems provide the necessary grounds for the human-separatist case. But, as Clough contends, there are no independent grounds, Biblical or otherwise, to maintain that God has elected human beings in this way. Walter Bruggeman’s argument for the election of humankind, for instance, is based on Karl Barth’s assertions about the special dignity of humanity, which in turn is grounded in his interpretation of the doctrine of the incarnation. So arguments from election turn out to depend upon prior arguments based on the incarnation.

Barth’s anthropocentriem is well known. It is one of his central tenets that God is ‘for’ humankind. In the incarnation of Christ, who is the center of Barth’s theology, God becomes human, that is, takes on humanity. Such a construal makes it difficult to avoid a categorical distinction between humans, as the privileged creature in whom God becomes incarnate, and everything else, including animals.

But, Clough counters, there is no Biblical reason why we should narrow God’s purposes in the creation and redemption of the universe, to human beings. In Genesis, God pronounces each creature “good” in itself, without reference to it’s appropriateness for human purposes (it’s telling that God does not give humans a separate pronouncement as He does other creatures, but steps back after he creates them and pronounces the whole of creation “very good”). He notes as well, Paul’s affirmation that God’s redemptive work is for the whole of creation in his letters to the Corinthians and to the Colossians.

Clough makes his most compelling argument in my mind when he turns to consider disputes within the Church concerning what aspect of the incarnation should be determinative for our understanding of it’s scope. Is his “jewishness” the determinative feature? This seems to have effectively been rejected by the early Church in it’s affirmation that Gentiles should be admitted to the body of Christ without precondition, without, that is, first converting to Judaism (Acts 15). Similarly, we could ask is his “maleness” determinative? The history of the struggle of women for full and equal acceptance in the Church can be understood as a struggle against a Church effectively operating under the presumption that it Christ’s maleness is determinative. As Clough notes, “If we have widened our understanding from God becoming a Jewish male human, to male human, to human, there seems to be no barrier to broadening our view one step further in claiming that the incarnation is best understood as God becoming a creature” (155). Indeed, as David Cunningham has argued, “flesh” seems to be a particularly significant feature of the incarnation. It is central both to the Nicene formulation and to the Prologue to John’s Gospel. According to Cunningham, “God’s incarnation is not so much defined by the accidental properties of this flesh (Jewish, male, human) as it is by its essential fleshly character, which human beings share with many other creatures.” (Cunningham, 116). If, as Romans 8 has it, the whole of creation is groaning in need of God’s redemption, and if as Gregory of Nazianzus proclaimed, “what Christ does not assume [in the incarnation], he does not heal”, then it would follow that Christ must, in some sense, assume that which is common to all creatures, what Clough refers to as creatureliness. Thus, far from establishing a categorical distinction between humans and other creatures, the incarnation must be read as God becoming a creature, first and foremost.

Clough concludes that his arguments make clear that “the human-separatist view that posits a qualitative theological distinction between human beings and other species is incompatible with the belief that human beings evolved from other animals” (156). This is a strange assertion to make given that the majority of the latter part of the paper is dedicated to theological arguments for human-separatism that Clough acknowledges are independent of natural, biological considerations. It seems to me that one could hold to one of these latter theological distinctions, without thereby contradicting Darwin. Nevertheless, I find Clough’s arguments against all human-separatist views compelling.

What do you think, dear reader?

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Clough, David. “All God’s Creatures: Reading Genesis on Human and Non-human Animals” in Reading Genesis After Darwin. Eds Stephen C. Barton and David Wilkinson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, 145-162

Cunningham, David S. “The Way of All Flesh: Rethinking the Imago Dei” in Creaturely Theology: God, Humans and Other Animals. Eds Celia E. Deane-Drummond and David Clough (Eds) SCM Press, 2009. pp. 100-117

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

Divinanimality: Creaturely Theology

Back in 2011, The Theological School at Drew University hosted a three-day transdisciplinary colloquium entitled “Divinanimality: Creaturely Theology”. Fortunately, while the event itself is now long past, the talks are still available via the TTC’s Ustream channel. Below are two sets of talks I particularly enjoyed and thought I’d share here:

Panel 1:

Video streaming by Ustream

Panel 2:

Video streaming by Ustream

“Rethinking the Imago Dei” with David S. Cunningham

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).

David S. Cunningham

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).

Gregory of Nyssa

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).

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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

What Redemption in the Word Made Flesh means for Human-Animal Relationships

“While redemption is always the work of the Word and Spirit, it also always involves our participation. To participate in redemption in the Word made flesh includes an ethical commitment to the well-being of our fellow animals…. it commits us to a spirituality in which other animals have their places as fellow sentient creatures before God. To participate in the life of God is to seek to participate in God’s feeling for individual creatures. It involves remembering that every sparrow that falls on the ground is loved and held in the living memory of God.” – Denis Edwards, “The Redemption of Animals in an Incarnational Theology”, in Creaturely Theology: God, Humans and Other Animals (p. 99)

David Clough Lecture: Caring for Animals & the Environment

David was kind enough to send me a link to a paper he delivered at a conference on the work of Peter Singer and Christian ethics at Oxford. I’ve reposed it here for readers to enjoy.