“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

Advertisements

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)

Andy Alexis-Baker on ‘Jesus in the Temple’

Andy Alexis-Baker has a nice article at The Mennonite on Jesus’s actions in the temple (you know, turning over tables, whipping people, and driving out the money changers). He argues that careful consideration of Jesus’s reaction to the doves – pausing to tell the dove sellers to take the caged birds out of the temple – not only pose a challenge to the idea that Jesus was throwing an unrestrained and violent tantrum, but might also suggest that the Christian ethic of non-violent peacemaking needs to be expanded to include God’s other creatures as well as humans. The article is short and worth a read.

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