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)

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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”.