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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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