On Animals: reconciliation

In the second part of On Animals (see previous post here), David Clough turns to Christology. While the topic of creation might strike us as the obvious place where the question of animals would arise, it’s less apparent, at first blush, how they fit in to the great themes of Incarnation and Atonement–grouped together by Clough under the heading of “reconciliation.”

But this impression quickly disappears, as Clough engages in some of the most original and engaging thinking so far in the book. Clough offers three main arguments for why the Incarnation is relevant to animals. First, since we don’t restrict the significance of the Incarnation to males or Jews (Jesus was, after all, a Jewish man), why should the species boundary be the point at which its effects stop? As John’s gospel says, the Word became flesh, not simply human.

Second, Clough offers an extension of Karl Barth’s doctrine of election in Christ to include all creation. This at first seems like an unpromising approach–Barth after all is know for his rigorously human-centric account of God’s reconciling work. However, Clough argues that it’s a natural extension of Barth’s radical, Christocentric doctrine of election. “In Barthian terms, if we understand God to be radially ‘for’ creation, nothing less than the election of all creation can give it an adequate place in his theology” (3355).

Finally, Clough points to the passages in the New Testament–particularly the Pauline epistles–that speak of “all things” being created in Christ, or held together in him, or reconciled in him. It’s very clear that the NT sees the Incarnation as having cosmic–not merely human–significance. “Not merely the being of one species of creature, but the being of every kind of creature is transformed by the event of incarnation” (3480). This move allows Clough to come back to the discussion of the imago dei from part 1: Christ is the true image of God, and we only image God as we are conformed to him. However, as the fleshly incarnation of the Word, Christ makes it possible for all living creatures to “image” aspects of the divine.

Turning to the Atonement, Clough challenges our belief that animals don’t need reconciliation because they are incapable of sin. He points out that animals do seem to be capable of what we might recognize as “sinful” behavior–using the example of a group of infanticidal and cannibalistic chimpanzees observed by Jane Goodall. This was behavior that was clearly “abnormal” and regarded as such by the other chimps. While we might draw back from attributing moral responsibility to these animals, Clough points out that the line between humans with “free will” and animals without it is much fuzzier than we like to think. We all act from a mixture of causes (both biological and environmental) and conscious motives, and humans probably have less freedom than we think. The difference between us and chimps is more a matter of degree than of kind. Clough also recounts some of the long, strange history of humans putting animals on trial for various crimes (including a fascinating account of an excommunication trial of a swarm of locusts!). The notion that animals are incapable of acting sinfully or viciously is more recent than we might think.

Recognizing that this is somewhat speculative ground on which to stand, Clough offers another reason for thinking that animals are in need of reconciliation. This is the fact that the animal kingdom is characterized by predation and its attendant bloodshed and suffering. The long history of nature “red in tooth in claw” seems to be at odds with the vision of the “peaceable kingdom” offered in the Bible. Clough rejects a literalist reading of Genesis that would attribute predation and animal suffering to human sin, but he also rejects “evolutionary” theodicies (such as that offered by Christopher Southgate) which portray predation as a necessary part of creation. Instead, Clough prefers what he calls a “trans-temporal” and Christological account of the Fall. The depths of creation’s estrangement from God is only revealed in the light of Christ. It’s not something that happened at some point in time as the result of a single, fateful decision; instead, it is the fact of creaturely estrangement from God throughout history–a fact that is illuminated by the equally trans-temporal effects of the death and resurrection of Christ.

I have to confess that I find Clough’s account of the Fall opaque. I have a hard time distinguishing the idea of a creation that is estranged from God at every moment throughout history from one in which predation, suffering, and death are necessary elements of the evolutionary process. At the very least, I’d like to see it spelled out in more detail.

Clough then turns from the need for reconciliation to the means of reconciliation, pointing out that “Christ’s death is not merely like an animal sacrifice–it is an animal sacrifice” (4341). Simply put, the death of Jesus is the death of a human animal. “In Christ, a human animal was sacrificed not for humans but for the sake of all creatures” This creates a certain symmetry between the fact of the sacrifice and the scope of its saving power. This provocative suggestion is not really explored in depth, and I would’ve liked to see a bit more on Clough’s understanding of how this sacrifice makes a differences for (human and non-human) animals. But this minor quibble aside, Clough offers strong reasons for thinking that God’s act of reconciliation, as much as God’s act of creation, encompasses all creatures.


7 thoughts on “On Animals: reconciliation

  1. Gabe Ruth

    C.S. Lewis gets into some speculation like this, I think in Miracles, maybe The Problem of Pain. I’m a little leery of this: “The difference between us and chimps is more a matter of degree than of kind.” It’s the kind of statement that earns you nothing but can cost you a lot.

    Is the author making the case for a moral imperative to eat vegetarian?

  2. In this particular context, what he’s trying to do is call into question our assumption that only humans can sin and therefore animals aren’t in need of reconciliation with God.

    But more broadly I think what’s at issue is the question of whether there’s some uniquely human trait (e.g., reason or free will or what have you) that makes us superior to animals (and, often implicitly assumed, entitled to exploit them for our own purposes).

    I don’t know if he intends to argue for vegetarianism, or even if it’ll be addresses in this book, which is the first of a projected two-volume set.

  3. Pingback: A Thinking Reed on David Clough’s “On Animals: Systematic Theology” « The Grand Ampersand

  4. Pingback: On Animals: Redemption | A Thinking Reed

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