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.

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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.

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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?

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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