Advent for Humans and Other Animals

Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent, a season that marks the beginning of the liturgical year, and which leads up to the celebration of the nativity (i.e., birth) of Jesus. Advent is a time of recollection as well as of anticipation. As Christians, we recall what God has done for us already, in the incarnation. We also anticipate his return at the culmination of history, in which we believe the redemption of all creatures will find it’s fulfillment, being united to God and taken up into the inner life of the Trinity. In short then, Advent is a season centered around the incarnation, and orientated towards the future, towards the peaceable kingdom of God.

There are already a number of excellent Advent reflections out there in the blogosphere. My friend Travis, for example, has written an excellent piece reminding us that the incarnation does not start and stop with the nativity, but should be seen as including Christ’s presence within the church – his body (Eph 1:22-23) through the Holy Spirt. The season of Advent then, should remind us not just of what God has done for us in Christ, but also of what we are doing presently to embody Christ’s non-violent love in the world. I agree with pretty much everything that Travis says in this blog (and if you only have time to read one blog, go read his instead of mine). All I offer below is a discussion of an essay that explores the ways in which our understanding of the incarnation can be expanded to include animals (and other creatures) alongside humans.

In his essay on “The Redemption of Animals in an Incarnational Theology”, Denis Edwards asks how the “Christ-event” might be related to the world of animals. Citing a number of New Testament passages which speak of the reconciliation of all things in Christ (e.g., 1Cor 8:6; Rom 8:18-25, etc.), and which envision animals as “sharing in the resurrection of the Lamb and joining in the great cosmic liturgy” (Rev 5:13-14), Edwards proposes a theory of “redemption through incarnation” based on St. Athanasius’ classic incarnational theory of atonement. “Redemption” here is not limited to the forgiveness of (human) sin, but includes the whole range of New Testament images for what God does for us in Christ; images such as “healing, reconciliation, fulfilment, liberation from death, resurrection life, transformation in Christ, and communion in the life of the Trintarian God…” (p. 81)

Edwards turns to St. Athanasius, highlighting three aspects of his incarnational theology. The first aspect is Athanasius’ understanding of the relationship between God and creation. For Athanasius, the whole of created being exists ex nihilo not just in terms of it’s origin but at every moment of it’s existence. “Nature”, for Athanasius, refers to created being’s inherent tendency towards non-being, while “grace” stands, among other things, for the continual presence and creative action of the Logos which sustains creation in existence. There is in Athanasius’ theology a strong continuity between creation and incarnation; the latter fulfills the former. Indeed, as Edwards summarizes, “The saving act of incarnation is precisely about the union of God and creation in Jesus Christ.” (pp85-86). He then considers the central place that death and resurrection occupy in Athanasius’ view of the incarnation. For Athanasius, an essential part of what it means for God to enter into flesh, is that he enters into death. “We are saved by the word entering into bodilyness, deformed by sin and become subject to death, so that death is defeated from within and we are bound securely to the life of God.” (p. 86).

The radically ontological nature of Athanasius’ account of this transformation and appropriation of humanity into the life of God, leads Edwards to the final aspect of Athanasius’ theology, namely his emphasis on deification through incarnation. Deification, which is central in the soteriology of the Eastern church, but somewhat less familiar in the West, focuses on the radical change in the very being (ontology) of creation, brought about by the word made flesh. For Athanasius, Christ’s flesh (sarx) is the instrument for the salvation of all flesh: “Through the flesh assumed by the Logos, God communicates divine life to all flesh in principle.” (p. 88). This of course, has direct implications for nonhuman animals (see my previous post on David Cunningham’s essay on “The Way of All Flesh”). And surprisingly perhaps, Athanasius indicates on more than one occasion that he acknowledges his theology has implications for nonhuman creatures (p. 90).

In the last section of the essay, Edwards builds upon this Athanasian foundation, offering several theses that extend this redemptive vision of the incarnation to all of nonhuman creation, and nonhuman animals in particular. He insists that such a vision offers a coherent theory of salvation, that subsumes the violent images evoked by metaphors such as sacrifice, and penal substitution, within a broader picture of God entering into “the world of flesh” so that the “community of fleshly life might be forgiven, healed, freed from violence, reconciled, and find its fulfillment in the life of God.” (p. 91). Furthermore, following texts like Romans 8, and Colossians 1, Edwards insists that we must recognize that all of creation, not just humankind, cries out for salvation. A view of redemption through incarnation allows us to see how God responds in love to the need of all creatures, not just humans. For while, Edwards acknowledges that a proclivity to sin and violence, through our evolutionary past, may indeed be part of our “genetic inheritance”, Christ’s death and resurrection serve to transform human violence, through “redemptive non-violent love” (p. 92). This has practical implications. “Insofar as the human community lives in the redemptive way of nonviolent love this will radically change human interaction with all other animals.” (p. 94).

This also indicates that God is already involved in the redemption of the violent evolutionary history of life on Earth. As Edwards notes, this includes not only His loving presence and companionship in the life, struggle, travail and death of every individual creature, of every sparrow that falls to the ground (Matthew 10:29), but also the fulfillment of animal life through their inclusion, along with humans, in the eternal life of the trinity. Not one sparrow is “forgotten before God” (Luke 12:6). For Edwards, the sparrow, like all animals, is inscribed into the memory of God. It is part of the “all things” that are reconciled (Colossians 1:20), recapitulated (Ephesians 1:10), and made new (Revelation 21:5), in Christ.

Finally, the resurrection life which is made possible for us through the incarnation of the Word, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, calls us to “participate in the healing of the world through the commitment to the flourishing of animals and to ethical relationships with them.” (p 98). Resurrection life should involve not only the redemption of individuals, but the redemption of our relations to one another and to nonhuman animals.

Given that billions of animals and millions of poor humans all over the world, are made to suffer daily under our economic structures, perhaps this is something we can meditate on this Advent season. While the culture around us descends into it’s annual consumer frenzy, creating demand for cheaper and cheaper gadgets, decorations, toys, clothes, and food, Christians should resist this kind of thoughtless consumerism, especially at a time in which our tradition calls on us to reflect on the meaning of the incarnation, in eager anticipation of the eschatological peace of the future Kingdom. We should, as my friend’s blog points out, strive to be more “incarnational” for the sake of “the least of these”, a group that undoubtedly also includes nonhuman animals.

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Edwards, Denis. “The Redemption of Animals in an Incarnational Theology” in Creaturely Theology: God, Humans and Other Animals. Celia E. Deane-Drummond and David Clough (Eds) SCM Press, 2009. pp. 81-99

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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.

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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