Journal of Moral Theology will Focus on ‘Nonhuman Animals’

This Summer the Journal of Moral Theology, a biannual publication dedicated to Catholic moral theology, will be rolling out it’s issue on “nonhuman animals”. According to the journal’s website, it will be “the first ever issue of an academic journal dedicated to constructive approaches to ethics regarding non-human animals from the perspective of Roman Catholic moral theology.” The issue will be co-edited by three outstanding theologians: John Berkman, Celia Deane-Drummond, and Charlie Camosy (all of whom are featured on this blog’s “theologians” page, here), and will feature essays that

evaluate non-human animals as ‘subjects’ in some sense and not merely as ‘objects’ of analysis…essays that engage the significance of recent ethological or evolutionary studies; essays that engage the history of Catholic moral theology; ethical reflection on the ‘intrinsic’ goodness of a particular animal species in relation to its particular ends and capacities; ethical analyses of contemporary topics like non-human animals as pets and the factory farming of non-human animals.

From the looks of it, interested parties will be able to purchase hard copies of individual issues (no subscription necessary) for $25 through the website, or download a PDF of the issue for free. Be sure to check it out (along with the previous issues dedicated to topics such as Christology and ethics, virtue, and love, all of which are available for free online).

Advertisements

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.

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.

——–

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

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.

“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).

——–

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)