Over at the blog Year of Plenty, Craig Goodwin reviews Laura Hobgood-Oster’s recent book The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals. It’s a generally positive review, but at the end Goodwin takes issue with some of Hobgood-Oster’s explanations for our troubled relationship with the animal world:
The references and historical background offered on these key doctrines of the Christian faith are too abbreviated and simplistic. For example I have an entire shelf of my library that is taken up by Karl Barth’s Dogmatics wherein Barth lays out thousands of pages of complex theological perspectives (the joke is that not even Barth read all of Barth.) To sum up Barth’s theology of the atonement in a few paragraphs and to suggest that this is a root cause of the problem is inadequate for the argument being put forth in the chapter.
Hobgood-Oster’s arguments in the concluding chapter regarding the influence of the Enlightenment on the disconnect are much more on target. The quote from Descartes regarding animals as unthinking “automata” is fascinating and informative.
I’d likely agree that Hobgood-Oster’s book, which is pitched toward a popular audience, probably doesn’t do full justice to the nuances of Barth’s doctrine of the atonement. (I don’t have the book in front of me, but I’m willing to agree this is the case.) On the other hand, it’s equally simplistic to blame our history of mistreating animals and neglecting their interests on the Enlightenment, which has in any event become much too convenient a whipping-boy in recent theology.
As Andrew Linzey and others have documented pretty exhaustively, the historical Christian tradition is pretty ambivalent about the status of animals. While there are lots of examples of saints showing compassion to animals and some examples of faith inspiring reform on animals’ behalf, official theology and church teaching have generally taken a much more negative view of non-human animals. Linzey has put a lot of effort into recovering the “animal-positive” aspects of the Christian tradition, but even he admits that this has been an uphill battle. The fact is that for most of its history Christianity has been overwhelmingly concerned with human beings and only tangentially, if at all, with non-humans. Fortunately, both the Christian and Enlightenment traditions have resources that can foster a greater concern for animals’ interests and the place in God’s creation.