Neil Messer on the Proper Ends of Human and Nonhuman Animals

Professor Neil Messer

According to Neil Messer, an appropriately theological approach to the ethics of human-animal relations must be “teleological in character.” That is to say, “[i]t must be shaped and guided by an understanding of our, and their, proper ends: what we, and they, are for.” (Messer, 213). Theological assessment of practical ethical matters concerning our relations with other animals, then, rests upon a particular vision of the telos, the “proper ends”, of both human and nonhuman creatures.

This immediately raises the question of how we might know what those ends are. One strategy that has seemed obvious to many theologians, has been to draw on Aquinas’s natural law theory and its embedded account of the proper ends of creatures. Messer, has reservations about this however. While other critics have focused on the problematic ethical consequences of Aquinas’s insistence that “less noble creatures exist for the sake of the more noble creatures” (ST I 65.2), Messer’s concern is epistemological: Aquinas’s dependence on Aristotelian science renders “his account vulnerable to the extent that it depends on empirical or theoretical Aristotelian claims discredited by more recent biology.” (214). Messer’s criticism here is significant in that it isn’t primarily motivated by prior ethical commitments that might open him up to charges of begging the question. He observes how, in light of such concerns, some theologians have sought to develop a modified natural law theory in which modern science plays the role that Aristotelian science did for Aquinas. Such attempts, however, run aground on two fronts: first, the resolutely non-teleogical character of modern science (going back to, at least, Francis Bacon), and second, the gap between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ (most famously expressed by David Hume), which entails that ethical theories are always radically underdetermined by scientific evidence. Even if philosophers like Michael Ruse are correct, and “neo-Darwinian evolution can be said to give us an account of final causes” (215), the kinds of “final causes” that evolution seems to involve are those of survival and reproductive success. It’s difficult to see what such ends might have to do with ethics. Certainly, biology, as biology, gives us no reason for interpreting these as moral ends. Furthermore, behavior which no plausible ethic  would call “good”—including rape and infanticide—could prove conducive in some cases to the ends of survival and reproductive success. What appear to be the most likely ends of natural selection, then, seem to be among the least plausible candidates for moral ends.

Messer notes that underlying such attempts to incorporate modern science into a theory of natural law is an adherence to something like Aquinas’s dictum that “grace does not destroy nature but perfects it” (ST I 1.8). Messer does not disagree on this point, but takes it in a different (more Lubacian, less neoscholastic) direction, arguing instead that we cannot truly understand what “nature” is through empirical investigation into the world alone. Properly understood, Aquinas’ dictum means that “nature” must be defined in terms of grace precisely because it is only through theological reflection on the ends of nature, “graciously given by God and made known in Jesus Christ” (216), that “nature” can truly be understood. Here Messer finds interesting common ground between Aquinas’s understanding of the relation between grace and nature, and Karl Barth’s account of creation as the external basis of covenant and covenant as the internal basis of creation. On both accounts, creation/nature is understood as, in some sense, constitutively oriented towards completion and fulfillment by grace. There is a deep continuity, in other words, between God’s acts of creation, reconciliation and redemption, such that creation cannot be understood in itself apart from it’s ends in reconciliation and redemption. Drawing partly on Aquinas then, and partly on Karl Barth, Messer is able to provide an initial answer to the question raised above as to how we might learn about the proper ends of creatures: “[A] theological account of the proper ends of human and non-human animals, and the proper relations between them, must get its bearings from God’s good purposes in creating, reconciling, and redeeming the world, as those purposes are disclosed in Christ.” (217).

Despite his insistence on the importance of an understanding of the proper ends of nonhuman animals, however, Messer does not elaborate in any detail on what those ends are. The repeated references throughout the essay to “God’s good purposes in creating, reconciling and redeeming the world” give some indication that he thinks that other animals, like humans, have their proper ends in communion with God. But this remains an implicit and, therefore, somewhat ambiguous point throughout the essay. This omission becomes all the more problematic if we consider the bulk of theological opinion that regards nonhuman animals—and indeed, the entirety of creation—as existing to serve human beings. Without at least offering some argument in favor of an alternative account, this completely anthropocentric interpretation of the proper ends of other creatures seems to go unchallenged.

Messer does, however, go on to offer a set of “diagnostic questions” aimed at guiding deliberation in practical ethical matters in a way that is consonant with the teleological orientation of Christian ethics. Given that “humans are called to live and act in ways that go with the grain” of God’s good purposes in creating, reconciling, and redeeming the world, Messer argues that all human activity can be understood as falling into three possible categories: human action either conforms and witnesses to God’s purposes, is opposed to God’s purposes, “serving instead the ends of chaos and destruction”, or else is an attempt to substitute for God’s work in Christ (218). From this tripartite account of human activity, Messer develops the following set of diagnostic questions for the theological assessment of practical issues:

  1. What attitude does the action we have in view manifest towards the material world?
  2. Is this course of action an attempt to be like God (sicut Deus), or does it conform to the image of God (imago Dei)?
  3. What attitude does the action we have in view manifest towards past human failures?
  4. Is the action we have in view good news for the poor? Who stands to gain from it, and at whose expense?

In applying these questions to the assessment of our use of other animals for food, Messer suggests, with respect to the first question, that in some cases vegetarianism may very well express a negative attitude toward the material world, and even a “general disposition to reject the good gifts that God gives us to sustain our creaturely life in the world.” (222). Such vegetarianism would constitute what he calls a “pseudo-ascetic flight” from the material world, which suggests that there could be bad, as well as good, reasons for being vegetarian. With respect to the second question, however, he states:

“It has to be said that much present human use of non-human animals has the appearance of humanity sicut Deus: an exercise of raw power that hardly seems to reflect the imago Dei. It also has to be acknowledged that much of what the Christian tradition has in the past taken to be proper dominion reflecting the imago Dei looks, with hindsight, much more like the kind of domination characteristic of humanity sicut Deus. We might say that the tradition has often failed to appreciate the difference made by the agnus Dei [lamb of God] in this sphere.” (223-4)

The contrast between the imago Dei and the sicut Deus also tells against attempts to establish the kingdom, insofar as such attempts are motivated by what Barth identifies as “the kind of human pride that wants to be it’s own helper” (220). As Messer argues, “we are not called to inaugurate or establish that kingdom; the attempt to do so risks lapsing into a dangerous and potentially inhumane utopianism or fanaticism” (224). Consideration of the third diagnostic question here, should lead us to the recognition that we cannot avoid the “complex entanglement of human sin and the fallenness of the world” (225). The proper attitude towards the brokenness of the world and human complicity in it is one of repentance and confession. Indeed, as Jennifer McBride has argued, “Repentance is central to Christian political witness…not only because it manifests a proper humility—it acknowledges before the world that (unlike the sinless Jesus) Christians are complicit in the structural sins of our society especially those of us who effortlessly benefit from and uphold an unjust status quo—but also because it participates in the transformative work of Christ in the world.” (McBride, 189-90). Repentance just is how we participate in and witness to the future peaceable kingdom. Given the complex entanglement of human sin and the brokenness of the world, an essential part of what repentance entails in the context of our relations with other animals, is an effort to “avoid the violent exploitation of non-human animals whenever we can.” (Messer, 225).

With these diagnostic questions, Messer presents Christians with a powerful tool for assessing a wide range of human action in light of the teleological orientation of Chrtistian theology. For those of us personally involved in activism, I think they are an equally powerful tool for assessing how that activism should be carried out in light of our faith. Nevertheless, given the lack of any attempt to elaborate on what the proper ends of nonhuman animals are, it’s not entirely clear how this particular set of questions is supposed to be related to a theological vision of the telos of other animals. Why these particular questions rather than others?

For a more detailed account of the telos of nonhuman animals, I will turn (in the coming weeks) to David Clough’s discussion of the topic in On Animals: I. Systematic Theology. I hope then to explore the implications of this renewed attention to the common ends of human and nonhuman animals for a critical theological assessment of the role that modern economics plays in much of the exploitation of other animals. Stay tuned.

——-

Messer, Neil. “Humans, Animals, Evolution and Ends” Creaturely Theology: On God, Humans and Other Animals. Eds Celia Deane-Drummond, and David Clough. London: SCM, 2009. 211-227.

McBride, Jennifer. “Repentance as Political Witness” Christian Political Witness. Eds George Kalantzis, and Gregory W. Lee. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2014. 179-195.

Advertisements

A Brief Thought on Karen Kilby’s Apophatic Trinitarianism

imageKaren Kilby has been one of the more ardent critics of the social trinitarianism [1] of theologians like Jürgen Moltmann, Miroslav Volf, John Zizoulas, Catherine LaCugna, and Leonardo Boff. The core of her criticism is that social doctrines of the Trinity presume to know more than is possible about the inner life and relations among the persons of the Trinity. Ultimately, human social relations cannot be modeled on the Trinity, as proponents of social trinitarianism claim, because the nature of the relations among the persons of the Trinity is unknowable. What’s more, theological models that aim to elucidate our understanding of the immanent Trinity based on concepts such as relations, perichoresis, processions, etc., are just models, mere “technical ways of articulating our inability to know.” [2]

Perceiving that what attracts many to a social doctrine of the Trinity is it’s political appeal, Kilby makes the fascinating suggestion that the unknowability of the Trinity itself has significant social and political implications [3]. While a properly apophatic [4] approach to the Trinity can’t provide us with a clear programme or vision upon which to model human social relations, the doctrine can serve to remind us that God is beyond our grasp. This should, according to Kilby, be grounds for a deep epistemic humility that might open up space for much more provisional, less absolute, approach to political theology (Though I’m uncertain whether this political apophaticism can offer anything more radical than the prescriptive tolerance that already characterizes liberal polity).

What I find intriguing about Kilby’s suggestion — why I’m writing about it here — is it’s possible implications for a political theology of other animals. It occurs to me that the mystery of the inner life of other animals is analogous to the mystery of the inner life of the triune God. Like the transcendence of God, the unknowability of other animal minds has the potential to unseat human pretensions. It can force us to acknowledge the limits of our own ability to know, and confront us with our own finitude and creatureliness. For Kilby, an apophatic approach to the Trinity serves as a corrective to the overconfidence represented in social doctrines of the trinity, steering us away from attempts to relate to God as an object of knowledge, and directing us instead toward contemplation and active participation in the life of the Trinity. Perhaps then such an apophatic approach can serve more generally to transform our basic orientation to all non-human otherness (whether that of God, or of other animals) from one of objectification to one of contemplation and participation. Perhaps the creaturely humility learned through such an apophatic approach can help us learn to see other animals no longer primarily as objects for human knowledge (whether as symbols on which to project our own meanings, or as literal objects in scientific experimentation), and see them instead as something like divine mysteries to be contemplated but never mastered, never subsumed fully in human thought. Perhaps we can even learn to respect these nonhuman others as co-participants in the economic life of the Trinity.

Continue reading

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?

——–

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

“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?

Does Genesis 9:3 “Trump” Christian Vegetarianism?

(I apologize for the length of this post. I had considered breaking it up into smaller posts, but decided against it so as to avoid “serializing” so soon after my botched attempt at a series. I hope it won’t deter you from reading to the end. One note to bear in mind as you read: what I offer here is not an argument for vegetarianism, but a much more modest case that Genesis 9:3 cannot be used as a “trump” against Christian vegetarianism.)

I. INTRO

Genesis 9:1-4 is one of those “notorious” Biblical passages that is often deployed in conversations as a kind of “trump” against any suggestion that killing and eating animals might be morally problematic from a theological perspective. Usually, the passage is read as a universal “blanket permission” for all people, at all times, in all circumstances to “kill and eat”, even when such killing is not strictly necessary for survival.

“God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will be on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. However, you must not eat flesh with it’s life, that is, it’s blood.” (Genesis 9:1-4)

Of course, Christian vegetarians and vegans have offered a variety of interpretations. The co-founder of the Seventh-Day Adventists, Ellen G. White, for instance, argued (with reference to Genesis 6:3) that the permission to eat meat was a “divine judgement against sinful humanity by cutting their days short with a[n unhealthy] meat-eating diet” (Young 59). Subsequent Adventists, as if to lessen the harshness of White’s reading, insisted that this was really an act of mercy: God was effectively limiting the amount of suffering that any one person could perpetrate or endure by limiting their time on Earth.

II.  A “TEMPORARY DISPENSATION”?

A much more popular interpretation has been to suggest that the massive “global flood” described in Genesis 7 and 8 effectively rendered a vegetarian diet impossible. This line of reasoning is developed by Judith Barad in her essay, “What About the Covenant With Noah?” in A Faith Embracing All Creatures. There Barad argues that such a devastating, global flood would have no doubt reduced the face of the earth to a “barren wasteland”. While Adam and Eve may have had the benefit of the lush and abundant Garden in which God had placed them, Noah would have had no vegetation to eat at all. So, If God’s will was that humans, despite their violence (Gen 6:11), should nevertheless continue to exist (as Gen 9:1 implies), they would have had to eat other animals. Given their dire circumstances then, Noah and his family are granted a “special dispensation” to eat flesh. This dispensation, however, differs from the admonition to eat plants in Genesis 1:29 in that the former, unlike the latter, is not intended as a practice for all humans at all times. As Barad is aware, “What is permissible in times of emergency is not necessarily permissible in ordinary times.” (Barad 18). In sum, Genesis 9:3 is not to be understood as a universally applicable permission to eat meat, but only a temporary concession granted to Noah out of the necessity of his immediate circumstances following the flood.

While Barad’s essay provides a number of valuable insights into the meaning of the text – such as her emphasis on the importance of the narrative context for a proper interpretation of the passage, or the practical point that those in desperate circumstances cannot be held to the same standard as those who can easily live without killing animals for food – nevertheless, her account faces a number of difficulties, that cannot easily be surmounted. Her literalistic approach to the story, for instance, raises the need for a satisfying account of how the various herbivorous species aboard the ark might have survived in the absence of any plants. As Richard Young points out, “If there was enough vegetation to sustain them, surely there would have been enough to sustain a human family of eight persons.” (Young 59). While one might be tempted to offer miraculous explanations, such answers will inevitably be speculative, going well beyond what the text itself warrants. Furthermore, Barad’s conclusion that the permission is to be understood as a temporary dispensation meant for Noah and his immediate family alone conflicts with a much less circumscribed understanding that seems to be presupposed throughout much of the rest of the Bible. David Horell has noted, for instance, that Genesis 9:3-4 is “fundamental to the Torah’s food regulations”, which presume the acceptability of eating, at least, some (i.e., “clean”) meat, despite placing significant restrictions on Israel’s freedom to kill for food (Horrel 44). A number of passages in the New Testament, moreover, seem to take the freedom granted in Genesis 9:3, as well as the restriction placed on it in the following verse, as applying to all humankind and not just Noah and his immediate family (see, e.g., Mark 7:19, Romans 14:14, 1 Corinthians 10:25-26, and Acts 11:3-12). While Barad’s insights into the hermeneutical significance of the passage’s narrative context are largely correct, her ultimate conclusions cannot easily be squared with the general thrust of the Biblical narrative. Ultimately, then, Barad’s account is largely untenable.

III. TOWARDS AN “ACCOMMODATIONIST” READING

The account offered by Andrew Linzey gives equal importance to the narrative context of Genesis 9:1-4, but is able to avoid many of the problems that confront Barad’s account. For Linzey, the fact that Genesis 9 immediately follows an account of the fall of humankind into deeper and deeper sin and violence is not without significance:

“The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart….the earth was corrupt [i.e., ruined, destroyed] in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted it’s ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them.’” (Gen 6:5-6, 11-12)

For Linzey, “It is in this context – subsequent to the Fall and the Flood – that we need to understand the permission to kill for food in Genesis 9.” The interpretive significance of this point is that the apparent contradiction between the vegetarian diet prescribed in Genesis 1:29 and the permission to eat meat in 9:3 can be resolved only when we recognize that the former (i.e., vegetarianism) is characteristic of creaturely life absent sin and violence, whereas the latter (i.e., freedom to eat meat) represents a divine accommodation to a fallen and deeply compromised world.

Linzey’s account shares much in common with a view of Genesis 9:3 that was prominent among early Church Fathers like Tertullian, Basil the Great, and St. Jerome. In his treatise, On Fasting, for instance, Tertullian asks, “why was the limit of lawful food extended after the flood?” Tertullian argues that this was a necessary compromise given that humankind had proven too weak and sinful to be held to a strict standard of vegetarianism: “it was not suitable for man to be burdened with any further special law of abstinence, who so recently showed himself unable to tolerate so light an interdiction—of one single fruit.” A similar interpretation is found in the writings of St. Jerome who argues in a letter, Against Jovianus, that meat-eating, like divorce, was only conceded because of the hardness of men’s hearts. “At the beginning of the human race,” he states, “we neither ate flesh, nor gave bills of divorce, nor suffered circumcision for a sign. Thus we reached the deluge. But after the deluge, together with the giving of the law which no one could fulfill, flesh was given for food, and divorce was allowed to hard-hearted men.” Likewise, St. Basil’s homily On Fasting, explains, “There was no wine in Paradise, nor any slaughter of animals, nor any consumption of meat. After the flood, there was wine; after the flood came the ordinance: ‘Eat all things as the green herb.’” For Basil the rationale for this sudden change is clear. “When hope of human perfection was abandoned, then enjoyment was permitted.”

To be sure there are important differences between Linzey and the Early Church Fathers. For the latter, abstinence from flesh was primarily an ascetic and spiritual matter, whereas Linzey’s concern is primarily the well-being of animals. The Fathers seem to have assumed that humans remained vegetarian until after the flood. This is particularly the case in Jerome. Linzey, on the other hand, places the turn away from vegetarianism prior to the flood. In this respect, he is much closer to Jewish commentary than to early Christian interpretation. The midrash on Genesis 6 in the book of Jubilees, explains, “lawlessness increased on the earth and all flesh corrupted its way, alike men and cattle and beasts and birds and everything that walks on the earth – all of them corrupted their ways and their orders, and they began to devour each other.” Not only did humans kill and eat animals prior to the flood, then, the Jewish tradition maintains that this carnivorousness was part and parcel of the very violence and corruption that incited the wrath of God and precipitated the flood. Despite there differences however, the Church Fathers corroborate Linzey’s basic view that Genesis 9:3 is an “accommodation” to some form of human failing, for instance, sin, weakness, hardness-of-heart, or imperfection.

The upshot of this accommodationist account of Genesis 9:3 is that while meat-eating, like divorce, is regarded as permissible (i.e., not a “sin”), it nevertheless remains a symptom of the fall, essentially bound to the present age, and so remains a form of life that in some way runs counter to the direction in which God is drawing creation (there’s no space to develop this argument here, but see, e.g., Isa 11:6-9 and Hos 2:18). Unlike Barad then, Linzey offers an account of Genesis 9:1-4 that preserves the vegetarianism of Genesis 1:29 as the “ideal” toward which Christian ethics should strive without thereby contradicting subsequent passages that presume the compromise reached in Genesis 9 remains operative.

VI.  AGAINST “PERMISSION”

Richard Young’s position is similar to Linzey’s. He argues, for instance, that the narrative context of Genesis 9:3 indicates that the passage is to be understood as God’s “condescending to the state of disorder, violence, and death” described in the sequence leading up to the flood. For Young, God’s grace is manifest in his condescension to a fallen human race that insists, against his will, to live violently towards other creatures.

“When God says, ‘Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you.’…it is obvious that the statement is somehow related to the fallen state of humanity….Because of this, we should dismiss the idea that God is commanding us to eat meat. God’s commands are designed to inspire us toward divine ideals, whereas God’s concessions and permissions are designed to deal with us the way we are.” (Young 56).

Young warns against thinking of Genesis 9:3 as a “permission”, however, since, “permission does not carry a hint of divine reservation.” (Young 56). But, we could ask, what reason might there be to think that God has any reservations about humans eating other animals? Unfortunately, Young offers little argument in support of this presumption; he briefly mentions the “vegetarian ideal” of Genesis 1:29-30, to indicate that this “concession” of meat to Noah is at odds with God’s original plans for creation. However, I think that much more can be said to bolster Young’s claim that Genesis 9:3 must be understood as a “reluctant concession” rather than a “permission”.

Consider the preceding verse (9:2) in which God tells Noah that, as a result of his altered relationship with other creatures, “the fear and dread of you will be on every animal of the earth.” Reading Genesis 9:3 as a “permission”, rather than a reluctant concession, might imply that God somehow wills that his creatures should live in fear and dread. This fits awkwardly however, not only with the general picture of God as a loving savior, but more specifically, with the picture of God’s particular concern for the well-being of nonhuman animals throughout the Bible. The Psalms, for instance, speak of God’s compassion for all his creatures (145:9), and his care to provide for the wants and needs of all living things (145:16). Psalm 36:6 affirms that God saves humans and animals alike. Numerous laws and passages throughout the Torah display God’s concern for the well-being of animals as well. Leviticus 22:27, for example, forbids separating a calf from her mother too soon after birth, so as to spare the mother unnecessary grief. Deuteronomy 22:4 and Exodus 23:5 bid us to help animals that have fallen down on the road or under a heavy burden. Exodus 23:11 commands us to provide even for wild animals. Animals are to be given time to rest on the Sabbath (Exod 20:8-10, 23:12; Deut 5:12-14). Deuteronomy 25:4 prohibits muzzling an ox as it threshes grain out of respect for the animal’s natural urges to eat as it works. And of course, there are Jesus’ famous words in Matthew 10:29, about the sparrows, who, whatever their worth to humans, are attended to and cared for even in death, by the God who made them.

In light of this, the “fear and dread” referred to in Genesis 9:2 cannot be a matter of indifference to God. Describing Genesis 9:3 as a “permission” then, is problematic, insofar as it misleadingly implies that God unequivocally endorses our choice to kill and eat His other creatures. Understanding Genesis 9:3 as a “reluctant concession” however, enables us to reflect more deeply on the meaning of this “fear and dread”: it is a description of the consequences of man’s unfortunate insistence on killing other animals for food. Indeed, this description even appears to have certain parallels to the Genesis 3 description of Adam’s altered relation to the earth as a result of his disobedience: where Adam once enjoyed the abundance of “every tree of the Garden”, after the fall, he is warned, “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you…by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground…” (Gen 3:17-19). Similarly, Noah now finds that the animals, which, in Genesis 2:18-20 are created for relationship with humans, will no longer easily yield to him their cooperation, becoming wild, fractious, even hostile towards him. Both cases – Adam and Noah – seem to represent a definite loss, and not merely a modification, of the dominion that humankind was originally given over the created order. In any case, the “fear and dread” mentioned in Genesis 9:2 indicates a falling away from the peaceable relations between humans and other animals that God calls “very good” in Genesis 1:31.

V.  THE BLOOD PROHIBITION

One final indication that the language of “permission” is inadequate to describe what’s going on in Genesis 9:3 follows from an examination of the urgent prohibition against the consumption of blood that immediately follows in verse 4:

“However, you must not eat flesh with it’s life, that is, it’s blood.”

What’s going on in this verse? What does it mean to eat flesh “with it’s life”? And how does this translate into a prohibition against consuming “blood”? The key resides in the fact that, for the ancient Israelite, life (nephesh) was equated with, or at least closely associated with blood. This connection is made explicit, for instance, in Leviticus 17:

“‘I will set my face against any Israelite or any foreigner residing among them who eats blood, and I will cut them off from the people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood…” (Lev 17:10-11)

Here, life – the  ‘nephesh’, ‘soul’, or ‘animating life-force’ common to humans and animals – is said to reside in the blood. Christian vegetarians and vegans have not overlooked the significance of this symbolic connection for the interpretation of the prohibition in Genesis 9:4. Sometimes, this has led to implausibly exaggerated readings such as when Linzey suggests that the prohibition “might be seen as obliterating the permission [to eat meat] itself… To kill was to take blood. And yet it is precisely this permission which is denied.” Nathan MacDonald has criticized Linzey on precisely this point, noting that his “erroneous” and “selective” reading of these verses, involves him in “exegetical conundrums that are quite unnecessary” (MacDonald 22). Barad too, makes similarly exaggerated claims: “Since we cannot remove all the blood from animal flesh,” she argues, “this verse is not simply telling us to drain the blood before we eat an animal. In fact, whenever a person eats meat, he or she is eating blood.” She concludes, therefore, that “If this is the case, then God has not permitted us to eat meat even temporarily in a great emergency!” (Barad 18). As Matthew Barton explains,”Such a reading…runs close to what [Stephen] Webb calls the “conspiracy-theory” model. Given the broad consensus in the Jewish tradition about what the prohibition of blood constitutes, to argue that the real intention was a total prohibition of meat is a bold and contentious claim, lacking historical and scriptural support.” Richard Young also notes that such interpretations obviously contradict the clear meaning of the verse that occurs just before (Gen 9:3), and instead, focuses on the function the blood prohibition had in the liturgical formation of Israelite conscience:

“Blood symbolizes life, and in Israelite understanding, life belongs to and is under the jurisdiction of God. Before eating an animal, the Israelites symbolically gave the life back to God by pouring the blood on the ground (Deut 12:24). The ban against eating blood therefore functions as a constant reminder that animals belong to God and are to be treated accordingly. As such, animal life is sacred and has inherent value…” (Young 60).

In other words, in prohibiting the consumption of blood and demanding it be “returned to God” (specifically at the altar, in Lev 17:11, and later by burying it in the earth in Deut 12:24), the Torah acts to shape the Israelite’s conscience, instilling a sense of the sacredness of animal life. This is the conclusion reached by the Jewish Bible scholar Jacob Milgrom in his rather technical analysis of the dietary laws of Leviticus. For Milgrom, these dietary laws (i.e., the blood prohibition, the ritual slaughter, and the prohibition of “unclean” animals) are not simply a collection of disparate and ad hoc rules, but actually constitute a coherent system that functions to

teach the Israelite reverence for life by (1) reducing his choice of flesh to a few animals; (2) limiting the slaughter of even these few animals to the most humane way…and (3) prohibiting the ingestion of blood and mandating its disposal on the altar or by burial… as acknowledgement that bringing death to living things is a concession of God’s grace and not a privilege of man’s whim.” (Milgrom 735).

Interestingly, despite being neither a vegetarian nor ostensibly concerned with issues of animal ethics, Milgrom actually makes a much stronger case than Young does that the spilling of an animal’s blood is a grave matter within the Torah. Not only does he argue, as Young does, that the blood prohibition is put in place specifically to counteract the violence that has hitherto corrupted the earth (Milgrom 705), he also argues, on the basis of a close analysis of Leviticus 17:11, that “slaughtering an animal constitutes murder unless [the Israelite] offers it’s blood upon the altar to ransom his life.” (emphasis added). In examining Leviticus 17:3-4 (which declares that for any Israelite who slaughters an animal but does not bring it to the altar as an offering of well-being, “blood guilt shall be reckoned to that man: he has shed blood”), Milgrom notes the idiom “dam sapak” (translated as “shed blood”), is not merely a figure of speech but rather a precise legal term. “The idiom sapak dam is the well-attested accusation of murder” (e.g., in Gen 9:6; 37:22; Num 35:33; Deut 19:10, etc., etc.). Milgrom concludes that “he who commits profane slaughter is reckoned to be a murderer because he has shed blood.” (Milgrom 710). Indeed, the blood of the slain animal is brought to the altar, not as some general atonement for the Israelite’s sins (since the well-being offering is the only offering that does not have an atoning function), but precisely in order to ransom the life of the one who otherwise incurs “bloodguilt” as a result of spilling the animal’s blood.

The Point should be clear: within the worldview of the Pentateuch (or at least the so-called “Priestly” material, of  which Genesis 9:1-4 is a part), taking the life of an animal is a grave and serious matter. This point is understood even by Karl Barth, who criticized vegetarianism as a “wanton anticipation” of the future Kingdom glimpsed in Isaiah 11 (Barth 355-356):

If there is a freedom of man to kill animals, this signifies in any case the adoption of a qualified and in some sense enhanced responsibility. If that of his lordship over the living beast is serious enough, it takes on a new gravity when he sees himself compelled to express his lordship by depriving it of its life. He obviously cannot do this except under the pressure of necessity. Far less than all the other things which he dares to do in relation to animals, may this be ventured unthinkingly and as though it were self-evident. He must never treat this need for offensive and defensive action against the animal world as a natural one, nor include it as a normal element in his thinking or conduct.” (Barth 352)

This then provides the final support for our understanding of Genesis 9:3 as a “reluctant concession”. If the Bible treats the killing of animals, even under circumstances of necessity, as a grave and serious matter, then the language of “permission”, which implies God’s approval, or at the very least, his indifference or neutrality, is woefully inadequate to describe Genesis 9:3. On the other hand, Christian vegans and vegetarians, if they hope to be persuasive to their their omnivorous brothers and sisters, should avoid weak, implausible, or otherwise theologically problematic arguments that simply sweep passages like Genesis 9:3 under the rug. My hope is that the considerations offered in this lengthy post can provide a kind of “third way” that takes seriously the clear meaning of Genesis 9:3 but in a way that makes clear that this “reluctant concession” of meat does not supersede the vegetarian “ideal” of Christian eschatology as an ethic to be proleptically enacted in the present wherever possible.

====

NOTES

Barad, Judith  “What About the Covenant With Noah?” in A Faith Embracing All Creatures: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Care for Animals,  Andy Alexis-Baker and Tripp York (Eds) 2013

Barth, Karl  Church Dogmatics III.4

Barton, Matthew  Dietary Pacifism: Animals, Nonviolence, and the Messianic Community (unpublished dissertation, University of Leeds) 2013

Horrel, David  “Biblical Vegetarianism? A Critical and Constructive Engagement” in Eating and Believing: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Vegetarianism and Theology, David Grummett and Rachel Muers (Eds), 2008.

Linzey, Andrew  Animal Theology 1994

MacDonald, Nathan  “Food and Diet in the Preistly Material of the Pentateuch” in Eating and Believing: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Vegetarianism and Theology David Grummett and Rachel Muers (Eds), 2008.

Milgrom, Jacob   Leviticus 1-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible, Vol. 3) 1998

Young, Richard Alan  Is God a Vegetarian? Christianity, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights 1999

 

 

Celia Deane-Drummond and Oliver Putz on Humans and Animals in Theology and Evolution

My free time is typically severely limited. I usually have one day a week that is not entirely filled with obligations well in advance, and that is usually the day in which I do most of my reading, and all of my writing. This past weekend however, I spent a total of 20 hours painting the set of a play being put on by my good friend’s drama students, so I had zero time to read or write anything for the blog. I did, however, come across some great talks given at Santa Clara University last month.

The first is a talk by professor Celia Deane-Drummond, on “The Wisdom of the Liminal: Re-Imaging the Image of God in an Evolutionary Multispecies Context”, and the second, by Oliver Putz, is entitled “What Good is God to Animals?: Human Uniqueness in Theology and Science.” Both talks consider different aspects of the supposed exceptionalism of human beings in a way that incorporates insights from both the theological tradition and the sciences, particularly those of evolutionary biology and cognitive ethology. Deane-Drummond’s talk probes the question of the image of God, going beyond substantivist, functionalist and even relational definitions to propose a novel “performative” conception of the imago Dei: She draws on the theodramatic approach of Hans Urs Von Balthasar as well as insights from anthropology into the co-evolution of humans and other animals in cooperative community “niches”, to suggest that the image of God in human beings can best be understood in terms of the unique performance of humanity in relation to God in a way that is responsive to the active presence of other creatures.

Oliver Putz turns to consider the possibility of religious, or at least proto-religious, experience in some nonhuman animals. Citing Jane Goodall’s observation that chimpanzees do indeed seem to exhibit something like awe at the sight of large bodies of water in the wild, he asks, “could it be that some animals are actually aware of the ineffable?” He shows that certain experiments in comparative psychology and cognitive ethology have demonstrated self-consciousness in certain non-human animals like primates, elephants, dolphins and magpies (Deane-Drummond mentions in the Q&A that similar experiments with dogs showed positive results only when scent was used in lieu of a visual marker for self-identification), and that there is ample evidence that these creatures exist in “intersubjective” relations with one another. Integrating these scientific insights with Karl Rahner’s theology of experience, Putz argues that insofar as these non-human animals possess self-consciousness, they possess that which Rahner argued is the basis for the experience of the transcendent in humans, namely, a pre-reflexive capacity to reach beyond the objects of sense experience to the underlying being itself.

Be sure to watch these fascinating discussions in your free time, along with the great Q&A below. Enjoy!

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).