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?

“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