On Animals: creation

As mentioned in my previous post, David Clough’s On Animals is divided into three parts, each focusing on a central Christian doctrinal topic: creation, reconciliation, and redemption.

Chapters 1-3, making up the section on creation, collectively make the case that (non-human) animals have an independent value and role in God’s creation. Chapter 1 argues that human beings are not the point of creation. “It is not difficult to find Christian theologians stating that human beings are God’s sole or primary purpose in creation. It is harder, however, to find good theological argument in defense of this proposition” (685).* This view, Clough suggests, owes more to Stoicism or Platonism than the Bible, and rests on non-biblical distinctions between “rational” and “non-rational” or “immaterial” and “material” beings.

By contrast, the Bible is surprisingly reticent about exalting humanity, although we obviously occupy a special place in creation, and affirms the goodness of all created beings. Clough draws heavily on key passages like Psalm 104 and God’s speech to Job to highlight the biblical assertion that non-human animals have their own worth and role to play, quite independent of any benefit to us. Non-human creation is not merely the “scenery” for the human drama; rather, “all creaturely life, and each creature, has a part in God’s purposes” (869).

In chapter 2, Clough discusses what makes the animal form of life (including both human and non-human) distinctive. Because God is creator of all, there is a “basic creaturely solidarity” between all things, and the Bible frequently portrays humans and animals sharing a common life:

Together they are given life by their creator as fleshly creatures made of dust and inspired by the breath of life, together they are given common table in Eden and beyond, together they experience the fragility of mortal life, together they are the objects of God’s providential care, together they are given consideration under the law of Israel and its Rabbinic interpreters, together they are subject to God’s judgment and blessing, together they are called to praise their maker and together they gather around God’s throne in the new creation. (1558)

Animals are distinctive in that they are vulnerable–they depend on the existence of other living organisms to survive, but at the same time they have a capacity for independent action and responsibility (response-ability) before and to God. “It is clear… that it is not only human animals that are addressed by God and called to live in response to God.” (1588)

Having established the distinctiveness of animals as a theological category, in chapter 3, Clough considers the oft-touted distinction between human and non-animals. A long tradition of both religious and secular thought maintains that humans are superior to animals, and thus worthy of moral consideration that animals aren’t. Usually this entails identifying some trait uniquely possessed by humans, such as reason or free will. But both scientific and theological considerations call into question such an absolute distinction. Post-Darwinian biology has made familiar the idea that boundaries between species are far more fluid than we once thought, and comparative studies of animal behavior and cognition have shown that the differences between humans and animals relative to such things as rationality, emotion, sociability, and even a sense of morality are matters of degree rather than of kind.

This doesn’t mean that there are no significant differences between humans and non-human animals, but “we need to speak of human uniqueness with considerably more care and sophistication than has commonly been the case” (1949). What Clough emphasizes is that there is a wonderful diversity of animal life, which can’t be ranked along some unilinear “scale of perfection” or “great chain of being” with humans at the top. Traditional rankings usually place creatures higher or lower on the scale to the extent that they resemble humans, but “the project of constructing one particular hierarchy as authoritative is ill-conceived” (2254). Clough quotes Thomas Aquinas to good effect, who wrote that “because [God’s] goodness could not be adequately represented by one creature alone, He produced many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another” (2027). Clough notes that there is “something theologically striking about the sheer abundance of differentiation between creatures” (2055) and that “the Jewish and Christian creation narrative does not allow for some creatures being more distant from God than others” (2201).

Following many recent commentators, Clough suggests that the idea that humans were created in the “image of God” is best understood in “functionalist” rather than “substantialist” terms. That is to say, it refers to a task we are given to do (to represent God as caretakers of God’s creation), not to something we are or have (rationality, free will, etc.). He further notes that a fully Christian understanding of the image of God must make reference to Jesus Christ, who alone is the true “image of the invisible God.” This raises the question of how, or to what extent, the Incarnation and Atonement can be considered inclusive of non-human animal life, which is the topic of the second part of the book.
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*Parenthetical references refer to “location numbers” in the Kindle e-book edition. If someone knows of a different way of citing passages in an e-book, I’d be interested to hear it.

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8 thoughts on “On Animals: creation

  1. I’ve just started this book, too (thanks to your reminder; I lost track of its publication date), although I really shouldn’t add anything to my dissertation bibliography at this point! But at my school, we can’t use Kindle citations in papers or theses, so I plug a few key words from the passage I need into Amazon’s “look inside!” or Google Books, to get the page numbers I need.

  2. I am really thankful for your posts on Clough’s book and I look forward to reading more. I’ve been anticipating it’s release since September, but don’t have the money (or an e-reader) to get it right now. I’ve really enjoyed reading Clough’s articles on the subject, as well as his chapter on Luther in Creaturely Theology. Keep posting, and I’ll keep reading. Cheers!
    -Allen

    1. Maybe you don’t need this temptation, but you can read Kindle books on your PC with Amazon’s Kindle for PC (or Mac) application – no Kindle required.

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