A Few Open Questions Concerning Some Common Cartesian Assumptions

Descartes concludes part five of his Discourse on Method as follows:

As to the rest, I elaborated here a little about the subject of the soul because it is of the greatest importance; for, after the error of those who deny the existence of God (which I believe I have sufficiently refuted), there is nothing that puts weak minds at a greater distance from the straight road of virtue than imagining that the soul of animals is of the same nature as ours and that, as a consequence, we have no more to fear nor to hope for after this life than have flies or ants

There are two features of this statement that I find puzzling, not only because Descartes puts them forward as obvious facts, but even more so because it seems many people today continue to hold to them. The first is that belief in the existence of God is tied in some special way to human exceptionalism and that to doubt the one is tantamount to doubting the other. The second is that emphasizing the commonality and continuity between human beings and other animals must necessarily mean “levelling down”, reducing humans to the debased status we assign to other animals, as opposed to lifting other animals out of their debased status.

What is it exactly that leads Descartes (and so many Christians today) to react to those who question the ontological distinction between humans and animals as if they were questioning the existence of God? From the perspective of Christian theology, isn’t there something deeply suspicious, almost idolatrous, about the way belief in human exceptionalism stands equal with belief in God? Moreover, why do so many Christians follow Descartes in assuming that to reject the categorical distinction between humans and (other) animals is to debase the human, even when the motivation for rejecting the distinction is explicitly to rethink the debased status we assign to other animals?

A Look Back at Animal Theology in 2014 (and a look forward)

2014 was a great year for animal theology if you take the number of publications on the topic as an indicator. In addition to the Summer edition of the Journal of Moral Theology, the first ever issue of an academic Journal dedicated entirely to non-human animals in Catholic moral theology, there were also a good deal of books on animal theology this year (more perhaps than in any previous year). The titles that I’m aware of include, the following:

Celia Deane-Drummond, The Wisdom of the Liminal: Evolution and Other Animals in Human Becoming

Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love

Jennifer L. Koosed (Ed), The Bible and Posthumanism

Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering

Ryan Patrick McLauglin, Christian Theology and the Status of Animals: The Dominant Tradition and its Alternatives

Ryan Patrick McLauglin, Preservation and Protest: Theological Foundations for an Eco-Eschatological Ethics

Stephen Moore (Ed), Divinanimality: Animal Theory, Creaturely Theology

Trent Dougherty, The Problem of Animal Pain: A Theodicy for All Creatures Great and Small

[Honorable mentions go to (1) Gordon Lindsay Campbell’s (Ed), Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Thought and Life (not really a theology text, but a major contribution to our understanding of how animals were understood in the ancient world), and (2) Tripp York and Andy Alexis-Baker’s (Eds), A Faith Encompassing All Creation: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Care for the Environment (not really on animals, but related)].

In the coming weeks, I will be updating some of the pages here (something long overdue). It’s one of my resolutions, as the new year approaches, to commit to writing much more frequently, even if that means many posts will consist entirely of summaries of my readings with little input of my own. I hope, at the very least, that this will keep my studies from stagnating. If I’m lucky, it will help to get some of the really great scholarly work being done in theology and animal studies out there to others in the blogosphere. In addition, I plan to expand the scope of the blog this year. Animal issues are, for me (and I suspect this is true for other Christians as well) one part of a much broader web of intersecting social justice struggles. Going forward, this blog will make intersectionality a high priority, exploring a plurality of perspectives that converge in their critique(s) of oppression and kyriarchy. There are a few books on posthumanism and critical animal studies that I plan to read as well, and so naturally, this means I will be writing about these subjects as well. All of this, I hope, will ultimately aid in the development of a richer theological discussion of the question of the animal and animality, while linking this with related critiques.

Thank you to everyone who has shown an interest in this blog. Thank you for your patience and your support.

The Task of Moral Theology vis-a-vis Non-Human Animals

“As moral theologians, our first responsibility in writing about the moral treatment of non-human animals is to understand and communicate God’s story about them. That story, as I understand it, is first and foremost a story of God’s providential love and concern for each species of animal, including the individuals of each species. And an aspect of God’s providential love are the ends of each animal, ends by which it flourishes as a member of its species. On this understanding, part of human stewardship of our fellow creatures consists in seeking to understand the flourishing of various species and the conditions un- der which various species flourish. And when possible, to facilitate or at least seek to avoid diminishing the capacity of God’s creatures to flourish according to their kind.” – John Berkman “From Theological Speciesism to a Theological Ethology: Where Catholic Moral Theology Needs to Go” in Journal of Moral Theology July 2014

Apologies….

Ok. I’ll admit it. I was foolish to have promised a timely series of consecutive posts engaging Aronofsky’s Noah in relation to animal theology. Foolish because, I should have known that, life being what it is, I might not have the time to deal with all the issues I’d like to in a timely manner. Foolish, because the film touches on some of the biggest and most controversial topics at the heart of Christian theology and animal welfare. Of course I realize now that further discussion of the film will likely be passe and of little interest to most readers. I realize too that I left the conversation on a rather precarious cliffhanger (Sorry for that). While I’ve decide to forgo further engagement with the film, I plan to pick up with the theological issues where I left off, soon. I am currently wrapping up a lengthier essay on Genesis 9:3 (which may or may not be available on academia.edu. I’ll keep you posted) and, I plan to condense some of that research into a blog post. Thanks for reading. I hope to have more for you soon.

Two-month hiatus

My apologies for the unannounced, two-month long hiatus. I’ve been extremely busy with a handful of other things, and haven’t had much time to do any reading or writing. I will however, be back to blogging more frequently at the beginning of February. Which is good news, since David Clough’s book On Animals Volume 1: Systematic Theology was released in affordable paperback earlier this month, and I just received my copy. There will be plenty to write about. Cheers!

New Things to Check out…

  • Charles Camosy answers your questions about animals and Christian ethics over at The Dish. In the first video, Camosy makes the case for factory farming as a “structural sin”. In the second and third videos, he tackles the question “Should Christians Eat Animals?” More to come soon!
  • An interesting story about a dog named Guinefort, who was venerated as a martyr and a saint in the 13th century (albeit unofficially)
  • The AAR’s annual meeting is coming up, and there will be a panel discussion of David Clough’s book On Animals (Vol. 1): Systematic Theology. So stoked!
  • Hampton Creek Food’s new all plant-based egg substitute “Beyond Eggs” has been getting a lot of attention lately. I’m interested.

Updates and Recent Readings (and Listenings)

I apologize for the relative lack of engaging writing here (that is, for mostly posting links and quotes without much of my own reflection). I have been bogged down with work and other commitments and so have been unable to focus much time to reading or writing lately. I do have a few reviews planned however, and I will hopefully be able to start posting more regularly in the near future. I will also be continuing the discussion of “Evolution, Creation and Eschatology in Christian Arguments for Vegetarianism” in upcoming weeks. So stay tuned.

In the meantime, here are some articles (and audio) for you to check out:

(1) Catholic moral theologian, Charles Camosy’s new book For the Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action will be out in the US on the Oct 15th (Just 8 days from today!). Beth Haile has a thoughtful review of Camosy’s book up at Catholic Moral Theology.

(2) David Clough has been kind enough to send me a link to the audio and transcript to a great sermon he delivered by at St. John’s College, Cambridge on “Animals and Creation”. Be sure to give it a listen!

(3) Matthew Scully (Not a theologian, but someone who has written extensively about Christian ethics and Animals) has written an interesting piece on being “pro-life” and “vegan”. Whatever your stance is on either of these issues, Scully’s article is thought-provoking and very well-written, and brings together two issues that aren’t typically associated with one another. (Also, from a similar perspective, is this article written by Charles Camosy).