Cognitive ethology, the Left, faith, and dominion
A long but worthwhile essay that to some extent recapitulates the argument made by John Gray in Straw Dogs. Gray’s contention was that the secular Left has largely jettisoned the metaphysics of Christianity but held on to its anthropocentric outlook and belief in a progressive history. Echoing Nietzsche, Gray argues that the scientific, secular outlook undermines, instead of underwriting, humanism.
The author of this essay, Steve Best, maintains that the Left, even while taking pride in its progressive, enlightened, science-informed views, still has largely ignored the “animal question,” i.e., the fact that science increasingly reveals a continuity between human and non-human animals. Instead, progressives still largely hold on to the old, discredited humanism that posits an unbridgeable chasm between us and the rest of creation.
As a Christian who’s also interested in moving beyond a strictly anthropocentric theology, I come at this from a slightly different angle. On the one hand, the Bible (not to mention simple observation) reveals that we have at least a de facto dominion over the rest of nature: what we do disproportionately affects the rest of the world whether we like it or not. On the other hand, historical Christianity has largely adopted an anthropocentrism that is at odds with the Bible, at least on some readings. For instance, in a brief but interesting book, German theologian Michael Welker argues that a close reading of the opening chapters of Genesis describes a human dominion that privileges human interests but also demands a care for the rest of creation:
The mandate of dominion aims at nothing less than preserving creation while recognizing and giving pride of place to the interests of human beings. In all the recognizing and privileging of the interests of human beings, the central issue is the preservation of creation in its complex structures of interdependence. The expansion of the human race upon the earth is inseparable from the preservation of the community of solidarity with animals in particular, and inseparable from the caretaking preservation of the community of solidarity with all creatures in general. God judges human beings worthy of this preservation of creation. They are to exercise dominion over creatures by protecting them. Human beings acquire their power and their worth precisely in the process of caretaking. The mandate of dominion according to Genesis 1 means nothing more and nothing less. (Creation and Reality, p. 73, emphasis added)
Traditionally–and perhaps understandably given humanity’s limited ability to affect the non-human world in the past–Christianity has adopted the view that the rest of the world exists for our sake. There have been debates about whether this is an authentically biblical view or one imported from elsewhere (e.g., classical philosophy). Either way, I believe Christianity has the resources to adapt to new understandings of our place in creation without jettisoning the biblical tradition and the essential tenets of Christian theology.
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