Creaturely theology

Following on the heels of his Why Animal Suffering Matters, Andrew Linzey’s Creatures of the Same God addresses many of the same issues, but from a more explicitly theological point of view. In fact, Creatures is a collection of mostly previously published essays, expanding on and refining ideas first developed in Linzey’s other books, especially Animal Theology and Animal Gospel.

The persistent theme of the book is religion’s–particularly Christianity’s–potential for being at the forefront of the movement for animal protection. Linzey is a cold-eyed realist when it comes to Christianity’s track record on the treatment of animals, but he’s just as firm in his insistence that the triune God loves each and every creature she has made and that human beings are called to be the “servant species,” caring for the well-being of all creation, particularly our fellow sentients.

In the first three chapters, Linzey summarizes the theological case for animal rights. In “Religion and Sensitivity to Animal Suffering” he contends that religion provides spiritual vision and hope necessary for long-haul causes that often seem hopeless. “Theology as if Animals Mattered” highlights some of the challenges traditional theology faces if we take animals seriously as fellow creatures. And “Animal Rights and Animal Theology” traces some of the history of Christian concern for animals, which is surprisingly robust given the disregard the mainstream theological tradition has shown for the interests of animals.

The next two chapters take a somewhat more polemical turn. In “The Conflict Between Ecotheology and Animal Theology” Linzey shows that the two movements aren’t necessarily in sync, particularly when it comes to their view of “nature.” Ecotheologians err, Linzey says, when they treat the natural world as “sacred” or as an unambiguous source of moral norms. Ecotheologians see little need for the redemption of nature. Animal theologians, with their concern for the suffering of particular individual creatures, are more willing to say that nature doesn’t reflect God’s ultimate will for creation. Thus nature, along with humanity, stands in need of redemption.

In “Responding to the Debate about Animal Theology” Linzey engages with several critical readings of his work. Some of the points that stand out here are his frank confession that the Bible is not uniformly “pro-animal” (just as it isn’t uniformly “pro-woman”) and therefore a critical reading is necessary in order to draw out principles for expanding the circle of moral concern. This concern is rooted in the paradigm of Jesus’ self-giving love for others. He also defends his radicalization of Karl Barth’s doctrine of the Incarnation, arguing, in a lovely turn of phrase, that “the incarnation is God’s love affair with all flesh” (p. 51). In fact, he contends, this is a recovery of the patristic doctrine of the Incarnation and an affirmation of the “Cosmic Christ” in whom all things have their being and life.

Two interesting essays in the second half of the book mine ancient Christian history for a pro-animal perspective. “Jesus and Animals” draws on certain non-canonical works to show that, at the very least, certain early Christians believed that the coming of Jesus had implications for relations with non-human animals. Some of these writings show Jesus healing animals, creating living sparrows out of clay, and restoring the edenic, non-violent, non-competitive relationship between humans and animals. Linzey suggests that some of these stories may have elements that can be traced back to the historical Jesus, and certainly depict a valuable strain of early Christian belief and spirituality that has gotten lost over the ages.

“Vegetarianism in Early Chinese Christianity” draws on the “Jesus Sutras,” ancient manuscripts that indicate the existence of an early Chinese form of Christianity, dating back well before the arrival of Catholic missionaries. Possibly influenced by Taoism or Buddhism, these writings seem to depict a non-violent, vegetarian Christianity that flourished for some time before being wiped out. To Linzey, this suggests a path not taken, though one we might find our way back to.

Finally, “On Being an Animal Liturgist” is a slightly more biographical piece, detailing the responses to the publication of Linzey’s Animal Rites, a book of prayers and liturgies for animals. Animals have been largely excluded from the worship of the Christian church; even ecologically sensitive worship tends to focus on the Earth or the environment in general. But animals–particularly companion animals–are very significant parts of many people’s lives. Though roundly mocked in official church quarters, Linzey stoutly defends this endeavor as both meeting a real pastoral need and striking a blow against the starkly anthropocentric focus of so much Christian worship.

The book concludes with an agenda for a pro-animal Christianity. This includes animal-friendly biblical scholarship, theology, ministry, and rites. Linzey makes the somewhat surprising claim that animals are not just one issue among others that theology might engage with, but a test of any adequate theology. This is because theology ought to be truly theocentric:

Ludwig Feuerbach famously argued that Christianity is nothing other than the self-aggrandizement, even the deification of the human species. To avoid this charge, theology needs to show how it can provide what it promises–namely a truly Godward (rather than a simply anthropocentric) view of the world. Its obsession with human beings to the exclusion of all else betokens a deeply unbalanced doctrine of God the Creator. Animal theology can help save Christians from the idolarty of self-worship. (p. 15)

I don’t have much critical to say here, since I agree with most of what Linzey writes. I do think the relationship between animal theology and eco-theology merits more exploration. I agree that Linzey has put his finger on a weakness of at least some eco-theology, which takes too rosy a view of the natural world. And yet, I’m not entirely on board with Linzey’s apparent endorsement of a “cosmic fall” to explain the disorders or predation and suffering, signs of creation’s “groaning.”

I think a middle way is possible that affirms both the inherent goodness of the created order and its need for redemption. Denis Edwards, whom Linzey mentions favorably, is one such theologian who has tried to give an account of natural evil in an evolutionary context, but also strongly emphasizes our kinship with other animals. He avoids an excessive “holism” and the attendant moral egalitariansim that would give equal moral rights to all life-forms. Like Linzey, Edwards ascribes to human beings a special role, but one of experiencing kinship with other creatures and of caring for the earth. This is very close to Linzey’s notion of human beings as the servant species, and provides a way of thinking about our role in the world that would support both animal protection and sound ecological awareness and practices.

One thought on “Creaturely theology

  1. Pingback: Press and web reports up to February 2010 | Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics

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