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

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“In Whose Image are Animals Made?”

cHICKEN ICONEarlier today, a friend of mine posted an open question on Facebook:

If God made Man [sic] in his image, [in] whose image did he make animals?

I was tagged in the comments by a mutual friend who guessed rightly that I might have some thoughts on the matter. Other responses ranged from “He just made them up” and “Man is the only thing he made in anyone’s image”, to “the Bible doesn’t say.” Each of these, it seems to me is a valid response to the question. But, hoping to stir things up a bit, here’s what I responded with:

The first thing to say is that there’s no reason to think that animals would have to be created according to any image whatsoever. The traditional Christian idea that God creates the world ‘ex nihilo’ (out of nothing), means that creation is an act of divine sovereignty, freedom, and gratuitous love. In creating the world, God had no need to rely on anything outside himself. Given this, there’s no reason to think that God would have had to make creatures according to some image. So, I think it’s perfectly legitimate for Christians to say animals are not made in any image; that they are just not image-bearing creatures.

But there’s another way that a Christian might respond to your question, by developing our understanding of “image-bearing” so that other animals too might be said to bear the image of their creator in some way (albeit differently from the distinctive way in which humans image God).

To put my argument as succinctly as possible: While it is the case that Genesis 1 says that God creates Adam and Eve in his image and likeness, and that this has traditionally been interpreted as marking a significant distinction between humans and all other creatures, there are at least two major reasons that a Christian might reject such a view:

(1) the Bible never denies that other animals can and do image their creator in certain ways. As David Cunningham has pointed out, “the Bible’s silence with respect to the attribution of the imago Dei to non-human elements of the created order cannot, by itself, serve as an argument for a strong distinction between human and non-human creation in this regard.” There are numerous instances throughout the Bible in which other animals do indeed seem to image God, or certain characteristics of God, in various ways (Isa 31 , for instance, sees God as a lion growling over his prey; in Mat 23:37 and Luk 13:34, Jesus’ compassion and longing to gather Jerusalem to himself is conveyed in the image of a mother hen gathering her chicks; the lamb is repeatedly used as an image of Jesus throughout the New Testament, the dove decending at Jesus’ baptism in Mat 3:16 is a familiar image of the Holy Spirit, and there are numerous examples in the psalms and proverbs of animals imaging various Godly characteristics). And this point hasn’t been lost on the Christian tradition. Aquinas agrees with Augustine that a trace of the Trinity can be found in all creatures (Summa Theologica 1.45.7 citing Augustine’s De Trinitate). In an interesting passage, that deserves to be quoted at length, Aquinas even says:

“[God] brought things into being so that His goodness might be communicated to creatures and represented by them, and because His goodness could not be adequately represented by one creature alone, he produced many and diverse creatures that what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness, might be supplied by another…the whole universe together participates in the divine goodness, and represents it better than any single creature whatever.”

(2) Even more importantly than the first point, the New Testament dramatically revises our understanding of the image of God from Genesis 1. Passages like Col 1:15; 2Cor 4:4; Rom 8:29; 1Cor 15:49 reveal for the first time that Jesus Christ alone is the true image of God, the unique revelation of the unseen God. This Christ-centered revision of the image of God, undermines interpretations that suggest that human beings have a superior standing in relation to other creatures because they uniquely represent or resemble God. As David Clough puts it, “the key distinction is that between Christ and sll other creatures, rather than particular groups of creatures that image God in different ways.” In other words, recognizing that Christ alone is the true image of God, relativizes the differences drawn between humans and other animals based on the way we image God. Humans have a distinctive calling to image God in a particular human way (and this is tied to “dominion” and “stewardship”). But all creatures image their creator in ways that are unique to each species. To quote Cunningham again: “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…and the cats, as T.S. Eliot reminds us, in their mystery.”

What are your thoughts on the matter, Dear Reader?

Lamppost Farms: Slaughter as God Intended?

While reading a post written by a friend of mine for his church’s blog I came upon a statement, made only in passing, that nevertheless got me thinking. The author, Adam, notes the irony of a culture that is, on the one hand so obviously obsessed with blood and violence in movies, TV, and video games, and yet, on the other hand is so obviously repulsed by “the real stuff”. Adam then speculates, “I think this is why we let other people butcher our livestock,” noting that “we let them do it in places and institutions far, far away from our cloroxed and swiffered lives“.

All that Adam seems to mean by this statement is that most of us have a deep aversion to blood and violence and that this is evidenced in the way animal slaughter is carried out far away and behind closed doors. Nevertheless, I think his statement is also an implicit criticism of a certain artificiality, or hypocrisy, at the heart of our highly industrialized and impersonal modern way of life. Many people want to eat meat. But they also want to pretend as though that meat didn’t require the violent death of another creature; they’d like to imagine that they are somehow not implicated in the violence that their demand for animal flesh sustains.

Now, wholly apart from whether this is a criticism that Adam would want to make himself I think it’s an accurate one, as is indicated not only by the distance we place between ourselves and the slaughterhouse, but also in the very words we use to conceal the origins of our neatly packaged meat (e.g., we eat “beef” not “cow”, “bacon”, not “pig”, “veal”, not “baby calf”, etc.). Nevertheless, while I would be inbroad agreement with this implicit criticism, I do have some reservations about Adam’s particular juxtaposition of the violent reality of animal slaughter to the obvious artificiality of “cloroxed and swiffered lives”. For in framing things in this way, the author implicitly associates a certain kind of violence – for that is what the slaughter of animals is – with what is natural and authentic; qualities that we find lacking in our sheltered and domesticated lives. Again, these assumptions may or may not be anything Adam explicitly subscribes to himself. They are however implicit within his statement, and are in fact explicitly embraced by many people, including many Christians, who assume that raising and slaughtering one’s own animals, or at the very least buying locally-sourced meat, might be a sufficient antidote to the way in which our modern lives have become disconnected from the sources of the food we consume. For Christians, this may even have a distinctly theological flavor. Such a way of life might not only appear to be more authentic, more real and connected; it may also be taken as closer to life as God intended.

This in fact is the view taken in a recent article for Christianity Today. The title of the article asks, “Would You Kill a Chicken With Your Bare Hands?”, suggesting in it’s subtitle that, “it may be good for your soul”. In the article, author Bret Mavrich recounts his experience at Lamppost Farm, a family-owned, Christian-based “non-profit ministry”, owned and operated by Steve and Mel Montgomery in Columbiana, Ohio. Lamppost is not like other farms. The Montgomerys welcome visitors to come and learn where their meat comes from through hands on experience. Visitors, in other words, learn how to stun, kill, boil, defeather and process chickens themselves, transforming them from living creatures to “meat and bones” that will then be sold to local vendors and restaurants. For the Montgomerys however, Lamppost is more than just a way to make a living. Their ultimate aim is to impart to their visitors a sense of “the connectedness of creation and the goodness of the Creator—something most Westerners can miss when the sources of our food are obscured”. And according to Mavrich, the Mongomerys have found that “using tactile experiences like slaughtering hens, is the best way to teach this.”

“SLAUGHTER AS GOD INTENDED?”

Given these bold theological claims then, it’s somewhat disappointing to find that Mavrich offers virtually no theological justification for any of them. Besides a single vague and misappropriated reference to scripture, mentioned only as an aside, there is little that is recognizably Biblical about Mavrich’s various claims on behalf of Lamppost Farm. Take for instance his assertion that Lamppost teaches “slaughter as God intended”. How does this square with the Biblical vision according to which God did not create animals with the intention that they should be killed by humans at all? (See my brief discussion of Gen 1:29-30 and 2:18-19, here). My hunch is that it doesn’t, at least insofar as we are speaking about the God of the Bible. Biblically of course, no violence or predation of any kind can have a legitimate place within the created order that God speaks into being. These are realities that are utterly alien to the Biblical vision of life as God wills it. For death, however quick and painless, is an enemy of the God of life (1 Cor 15:26). To deny this, it seems to me, is to risk rendering the resurrection of Christ unintelligible. For it is in the resurrection of Christ more than anywhere else that death is revealed as being at odds with God’s will for creation. Of course if death is an enemy of God, it is to be an enemy of Christians who are called to be conformed to the image and likeness of God through their incorporation into the body of Christ who is the true image of God. Though some may be tempted to restrict “death” here to that which effects humans only, I can see no plausible ground for doing so, particularly when scripture seems to consistently refuse such ad hoc distinctions (e.g., Gen 9:8-17; Ecc 3:19; Jon 4:11; Hos 2:18).

Contrary then to Mavrich’s wholly misguided claim that Lamppost Farm is “as close to Eden as you could hope for”, scripture itself paints a very different picture; there Eden is portayed as a paradisial garden inhabited by herbivorous humans and vegetarian animals. It’s not until after the fall, according to the narrative of scripture, that humans or animals begin killing for food. However we understand the historicity of these passages, the relevant theological point remains the same: any slaughter of any animal, however humane, is from the perspective of Genesis 1, already at a far remove from life “as God intended”. Given this, it is shocking that Mavrich does not cite any Biblical support for his claims. What seems to be operative in Mavrich’s assertion is not so much a Biblical conception of the created order as much as an overly simplistic “natural theology”, that assumes what is closer to “nature” is therefore closer to God’s will. This is an especially problematic assumption for Christians since, as David Clough explains:

“Genesis 3 [the story of “the fall”] makes clear that…we can no longer read off God’s purposes by observation of the world in its current state. To insist against this that the life of the world we see around us is a reliable indication of God’s creative purposes is to privilege our own independent observation of the world over basic affirmations concerning the doctrine of God that are Biblically rooted and defended throughout the Christian tradition.” (Clough 124).

In other words, Mavrich’s assumption that what appears natural to us is closer to life as God intended it does not take sufficient account of the fall, which not only affects our ability to discern God’s will for us, but has devastating effects on creation as a whole (Rom 8:22).

THE LIFE IS IN THE BLOOD

Perhaps though, Mavrich isn’t thinking about God’s intended relations between human and nonhuman creatures before the fall. After all, despite the fact that such relations represent God’s ideal for human and nonhuman relations, much of what is apparently lost in the fall could not possibly be restored by any human effort alone (e.g., sin, predation among nonhuman animals). It would be as futile for us to try and mimic life as depicted in Genesis 1 and 2, as it would have been for Adam and Eve to attempt a return to Eden with the cherubim and the flaming sword guarding the way (Gen 3:24). Perhaps what Mavrich has in mind are the kashrut (or “kosher”) laws handed down in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, which specify for God’s people not only which among the many existing animals may be killed for food, but also the conditions under which the life of even those animals may be taken. This would appear to be the case, since Mavrich’s only reference to scripture is found in his statement that “the life is in the blood”; an implicit reference to a phrase first appearing in Leviticus 17:11, and again later on in Deuteronomy 12:23, as the rationale for the Bible’s strict prohibition against consuming blood (or flesh with the blood still in it).

Mavrich refers to this Biblical phrase in the context of his first experience slaughtering a chicken himself. He recounts his visceral reaction to the experience of having just severed the chicken’s jugular vein and carotid artery in order to let it bleed out. “It’s disturbing” he says, recalling Montgomery’s reassuring words: “It’s supposed to be….We’re not supposed to take a life and then say, well, whatever. That’s not how we’re made.” Of course, as is indicated by our previous discussion of the opening chapters of Genesis, this is true as far as it goes. But my contention is that it doesn’t go far enough.

While a full discussion of the significance of the blood prohibition and related parts of the dietary law of the Hebrew Bible will have to be deferred to a future post, there are a few points that are relevant to my argument here. First, prior to it’s appearance in the Mosaic law, the blood prohibition first occurs in Genesis 9:4, immediately following God’s concession of animal flesh to Noah and his family (Gen 9:3). This, coupled with the fact that the blood prohibition is reiterated so often throughout the dietary laws (especially in Lev 17, where it is repeated in such a fashion as to make acute it’s importance), is evidence that this concession cannot properly be understood as a once-and-for-all permission to take animal life as we so desire, but can only be seen as an accommodation to a fallen and sinful humanity. In other words, Genesis 9:3 is not unlike God’s reluctant concessions of divorce (Matt 19:8), or the establishment of monarchy in Israel (1Sam 8). Though these are all reluctantly permitted and tolerated by God (an extension of God’s gracious condescension to a fallen world), none represents God’s ultimate desire for his creatures. Because Christians are not simply called to live according to the external precepts of “the law”, but are called to be empowered by the Holy Spirit, who’s sanctifying work draws us closer to God’s ideals, we therefore have every reason to move beyond the Pharisaical tendency to simply seize upon the opportunities afforded our fallen nature by a legalistic interpretation of Genesis 9:3, and to follow the Spirit as it leads towards the fulfillment of God’s eschatological promise according to which “the wolf will lie down with the lamb” and “the lion will eat straw like the ox” (Isa 11:6,7).

I recognize that there is much more that needs to be said concerning the significance of the Kashrut laws if I am to make my case compelling. These laws clearly do not outright prohibit the taking of animal life for food (at least certain kinds of animal life). A full discussion however would make this already lengthy post unreadable. Suffice it to say for now that I am in broad agreement with commentators on Leviticus, such as rabbi Jacob Milgrom, who has argued that the dietary laws of the Hebrew Bible comprise a coherent system, the aim of which is ethical rather than, as is often claimed, hygienic. The dietary laws of Leviticus, according to Milgrom, are part of an ethical pedagogy established by God to counteract humankind’s postlapsarian tendency toward violence, via the cultivation (in God’s people, at least) of a reverence for life (Milgrom 735).

While Mavrich and Montgomery hint at something like this reverence for animal life, as Christians, they stop too short of it’s logical conclusion. For if Milgrom is right about Leviticus, then the blood prohibition doesn’t simply require us to pay lip-service to the sacredness of animal life, but serves to remind us at a deep, visceral level, that death both human and nonhuman is inextricably bound up with human sin. Ultimately then, as Neil Messer notes, “A properly repentant attitude to human sin and the brokenness of the world should lead us to avoid the violent exploitation of non-human animals whenever we can.” (Messer 225)

While it may seem more natural, more real and down-to-earth, more connected with the rest of creation, the practices engaged at Lamppost Farm are, from a Biblical perspective, at a far remove from either God’s original or ultimate will for creation. This of course, is not to deny that Lamppost is a significant improvement upon the standard of factory farms. It is to say, however, that Mavrich’s claim that Lamppost represents the “Christian” alternative to factory farms is dangerously misleading. No doubt, we could all be more connected than we are to the rest of creation. But the connectedness glimpsed in Mavrich’s article can only be that which obtains between the human individual and the land. We can’t forget the importance of our connectedness to the lives of God’s nonhuman creatures as well. And while simply refraining from eating their flesh of course, does not on it’s own guarantee that we’ve established any real connection to them, if it is a practice rooted in a deeper recognition of the subjectivity of animals, and in their identity as fellow creatures of the same God, then it is my contention that it is much closer to the ideal than is possible if we are only ever able to relate to other animals as resources to be consumed. As Stanley Hauerwas has said ‘doing justice’ requires us to “reflect back to others what they truly are.” Indeed, it “demands that we see one another as God sees us.” Accordingly, if we fail to ask the crucial theological question of how it is that God sees the life of each animal, then we cannot but fail to do anything like justice to them.

Clough, David. On Animals Volume One: Systematic Theology. London: Bloomsbury, 2012.

Hauerwas, Stanley. “Doctrine and Ethics” in Colin Gunton (Ed), The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. pp 21-40.

Messer, Neil. “Humans, Animals, Evolution and Ends.” in Celia Deane-Drummond and David Clough (Eds), Creaturely Theology, London: SCM Press, 2009. pp 211-227

Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus 1-16: A NewTranslation with Introduction and Commentary.

Beginnings and Ends: Evolution, Creation and Eschatology in Christian Arguments for Vegetarianism

While the majority of theologians today don’t believe that there is any contradiction between the theory of evolution and their Christian faith (the emerging consensus among Biblical scholars is something like this), the story that evolutionary biology tells us about the origin of species emerging from an agonistic process of competition, death and the ‘survival of the fittest’ appears to present a problem for some Christian vegetarians who have argued that an ethical commitment of nonviolence toward nonhuman animals can be grounded in the “original” peace of creation as depicted in Genesis 1:29-30. Theologians like Andrew Linzey, J.R. Hyland, Richard Alan Young and others, have defended a “protological” rationale for vegetarianism, based on the idea that relations between human and nonhuman animals were “originally” intended by God to be peaceful; no animal (including man) was originally meant to depend upon any other for food. The problem however, is that it’s not clear just how this claim can be squared with an evolutionary account in which no such “original” state of peace appears to have ever existed?

These problems are taken up in Christopher Southgate’s essay on “Protological and Eschatological Vegetarianism” in Eating and Believeing: Intersiciplinary Perspectives on Vegetarianism and Theology. Southgate maintains that these protological arguments are based in a crucial way on a “particular exegesis” of Genesis 1:29-30 according to which “what God created was a vegetarian world, which was damaged by the fall of the first humans.” (Southgate, 247). This is especially apparent, he thinks, in Linzey’s work where an “eschatological ethic of vegetarianism must be based on the presumption that the natural world is not as God intended.” (Southgate, 248). Such claims, Southgate notes, fail to take seriously the findings of modern science:

“The scientific record of the Earth’s long history before the advent of human beings calls into profound question any account which regards human sin as the cause of struggle and suffering in the nonhuman creation in general. Predation, violence, parasitism, suffering and extinction were integral parts of the natural order long before Homo sapiens.” (Southgate, 249).

While Christians might do well to retain the idea of human “fallenness”, which he sees as crucial for theology, they ought to reject the idea of a literal, historical, fall – a real point in time at which our ancestors turned from God to sin, disrupting the original peace of God’s creation. This means, of course, that a theological argument for vegetarianism based on the idea that death and predation in nature are the outcomes of an historical fall, rather than God’s original intentions for creation, must be squarely rejected.

While there’s much in Southgate’s essay that I tend to agree with (e.g., that evolutionary theory is sound, if incomplete, science, and should be brought into constructive dialogue with Christian theology), I don’t find his case against “protological vegetarianism” ultimately compelling for a number of reasons. First, while he implies that proponents of such arguments rely on an idiosyncratic interpretation of Genesis 1:29-30, he fails to offer any alternative reading, implying then that this text has no enduring theological significance. Most Biblical scholars and theologians, however, even when they object to a literal, historical reading of Genesis 1, still insist that it has a significant role to play in the shaping of theology. While they may argue that certain textual considerations like genre, literary style, and authorial intent suggest Genesis 1 should not be read as offering “scientific truths”, they don’t usually end the discussion there (as Southgate does), but go on to argue that it offers “theological truths” instead, truths conveyed in a narrative format common to the literature of the ancient near east (see, John Walton’s Lost World of Genesis One). And these “theological truths” are presumably normative for theology today. In fact, Southgate himself clearly agrees with this when he says that the concept of “fallenness” is “brilliantly described by the myths of chapters 3-11.” (Southgate, 249). But if the ahistoricity (and even “mythology”!) of Genesis 3-11 does not preclude it’s theological significance, then it is entirely inconsistent to think Genesis 1:29-30 cannot similarly inform a theological ethic of vegetarianism.

The second problem with Southgate’s argument is that it comes dangerously close to “sacralizing nature” (to use Linzey’s language). For by displacing an historical interpretation of the fall without offering an alternative account, he seems to just assume that the processes of predation and death are simply the instrument of God’s creative process. In fact, this is stated more or less explicitly, when he says that he sees “value and disvalue, enrichment and catastrophe” as “functions of the same creative process” (p. 250). But why assume that this is the only option for Christians who want to take seriously the claims of both evolutionary theory and the Christian doctrine of creation? David Clough illustrates the problem nicely in his sermon at St. John’s College on “Animals and Creation”:

“I, like most Christians, see no contradiction between evolutionary theory and the Christian doctrine of creation: the creation theology of the Bible…addresses very different questions to those of Darwin. But how would things look if we rejected Christianity and tried to construct an alternative account of the world solely on the basis of a Darwinian evolutionary narrative? ….Instead of thinking of all things as willed into being by a good God, we might tell a story of life as competition between rival organisms in which only the strongest survive. On this account, our existence as humans is not God’s gift, but the triumphant victory of our ancestors, and our radical subordination of other species to our needs is the appropriate ordering of power relationships between successful and less successful species. On this account, we might feel justified in breeding other animals to make them ever better suited to our needs, slave species to the master species, and raise them in whatever the most efficient environment is for our ends.” (Clough, 2)

Even if we must reject a literal, historical fall, as Southgate maintains, I suspect retaining a slightly qualified notion of “cosmic falleness” is at least as important for theology as Southgate insists the idea of human “fallenness” is. At the very least, the idea of “cosmic fallenness” would simply function as the theological equivalent of the “is/ought” gap in philosophical ethics, keeping us from “too blithe an affirmation that all is as it should be.” (Southgate, 250).

Christopher Southgate

Nevertheless, I am in agreement with Southgate that there are much more compelling theological arguments for vegetarianism than those based on an inference from what God supposedly “originally” intended. He is right to suggest that a Christological ethic informed by a kenotic (i.e., “self-giving”) love that genuinely desires the flourishing of the other “in his, her or it’s otherness”, is a much richer theological rationale for abstaining from meat for the sake of God’s nonhuman creatures. I also agree that the Bible’s general concern for justice for the poor, and for God’s creation should lead us to avoid contributing to the demand for food products derived from livestock, given all the evidence concerning livestock’s inefficient use of food resources, and it’s massive contributions to climate change. But unlike Southgate, I also think that there are compelling eschatological (or at least teleological) arguments that favor Christian vegetarianism. As Neil Messer’s essay “Humans, Animals, Evolution and Ends” argues, “a theological account of the proper ends of humans and non-human animals, and the proper relation between them, must get it’s bearings from God’s good purposes in creating, reconciling, and redeeming the world” (Messer, 217). Insofar as we are called, as Christians, to “witness to those purposes – specifically, in this case, to the promise of the peaceable kingdom” (Messer, 224), we ought to take more seriously the implications that an eschatological vision like Isaiah 11:6-9 may have for how we choose to live in the present, including, of course, what we choose to eat.

——

Clough, David, “Animals and Creation” http://www.joh.cam.ac.uk/creation-animals-and-creation

Linzey, Andrew. Animal Theology. University of Illinois Press. 1994.

Messer, Neil. “Humans, Animals, Evolution and Ends” in Creaturely Theology: God, Humans and Other Animals. Ed. Celia Deane-Drummond and David Clough. SCM Press. 2009

Southgate, Christopher. “Protological and Eschatological Vegetarianism” in Eating and Believing: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Vegetarianism and Theology, Ed. David Grummet and Rachel Muers. Continuum UK. Kindle Edition. 2008

2013 AAR Conference Will Discuss David Clough’s On Animals (Vol. 1) 

The American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature will be hosting their Annual Meetings in Baltimore this year from November 23 – 26. The meeting is one of the world’s largest gathering of scholars interested in the study of religion. This year’s meeting will feature a panel discussion of David Clough’s On Animals (Vol. 1): Systematic Theology co-sponsered by the Christian Systematic Theology Section and the Animals and Religion Group (Sun. Nov 24th 3p-5p). The panelists for the event will be Margaret Adam, Chris Carter, David Fergusson and Stephen Webb. David Cunningham will be chairing and David Clough will give a response to the panelist’s discussion. Here’s a description of the event from the AAR website:

David Clough’s On Animals is the first work to consider the place of animals in Christian systematic theology, treating a wide range of doctrinal questions under the broad headings of creation, reconciliation, and redemption. The book argues that addressing “the animal question” is crucial for the coherence of Christian theology — and that doing so can bring new insights to the discipline, as well as guiding human conduct in relation to non-human animals. This panel will subject the book to critical scrutiny from a diverse range of theological perspectives (feminist, African-American, philosophical, and denominational); panelists will explore the power relationships inherent in traditional Christian reflection on animals, as well as the implications of including or excluding animals from Christian accounts of community and communal praxis. The panel will consider whether the book succeeds in making its case for greater theological attention to animals, as well as evaluating the positions it defends.

Regrettably, I will not be able to attend, but for those who can it should be a great discussion! I do hope that there will be video or audio coverage of the event available online.

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.

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”.