On Animals: Redemption

Picking back up the thread of David Clough’s On Animals, let’s look at the third part, which deals with animal redemption. Clough’s argument throughout has been that it makes more sense to understand God’s great acts (creation, reconciliation, redemption) as including non-humans than as exclusively concerned with humans. This is no less true of redemption than of the other two doctrinal themes. He goes so far as to say that they are “different aspects of a single divine act of graciousness by God towards all that is.” The question then is: Will animals share in human deliverance from sin, suffering, and death, or are they destined to be cast aside as a kind of cosmic detritus?

Clough cites John Wesley, who argued in his sermon “The Great Deliverance” that non-human animals needed–and would receive–redemption, just as humans would, and John Hildrop, who maintained that God brought each individual creature into existence for a reason, and thus God has reason to maintain them in existence. Clough writes that “[j]ust as we are accustomed to picturing human beings as being gathered up in Christ without regard to when they died, so we must become accustomed to think of other animals, too–ammonites and stegosaurs, dodos and Javan tigers–beign gathered up in the divine plan of redemption.” What God has created, God will redeem.

An alternative argument for animal redemption draws on considerations of theodicy–the suffering of animals should be compensated for by life after death. While he strongly affirms the reality of animal suffering, Clought rejects this line of argument on the grounds that theodicies generally tend to justify suffering–by seeing it as a necessary part of some overarching plan or system. This portrays God as having to compensate animals for an injustice experienced at his hand. Rather, Clough says, “God must be understood to be the redeemer of all creatures, human and other-than-human, because God has determined to be gracious and faithful to them in this sphere, as well as in their creation and reconciliation, not because they would otherwise have a legitimate cause of complaint.”

Animal redemption is part and parcel of a vision of cosmic redemption that has deep roots in the Christian tradition. Key New Testament texts here are those that speak of “all things being gathered up in Christ” and God being “all in all.” Origen took these and ran with them in his doctrine of universal restoration. In fact, Clough suggests, the same sorts of considerations that point many in the direction of universal salvation tell equally well in favor of animal redemption.

In the final chapter, Clough goes on to consider “the shape of redeemed living.” While he is postponing discussion of ethical issues to the second volume of his work, he offers some general thoughts on what redeemed relationships between human and non-human animals would look like. He draws on the eschatological vision of “peace between creatures” offered in key Christian texts. These include the early chapters of Genesis, Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom, and the portrait of the New Jerusalem in Revelation, as well as the church’s stories of saints who “made peace” with wild animals. These suggest that God’s redemptive purpose is that “all creaturely enmity will be overcome in the new creation, and predator and prey will be reconciled to one another.”

This gives rise to a number of puzzles to which we can offer only speculative answers, such as: Will individual animals be redeemed, or only species? How can predators be reconciled with their prey without losing their essential nature? What does redemption look like for domesticated animals who have had their natures altered by human intervention? Are all animals ultimately to be “tamed,” or is their room for wilderness in the new creation? Clough offers some tentative answers to these questions with which I’m largely in sympathy, but he also cautions against dogmatic certainty when it comes to specifics.

But the trajectory, he thinks, is clear: the destiny of creation is to live in peace, even if it now “groans as in the pains of childbirth.” And this has practical implications. Whatever the details of our eschatology,

a vision of what the reconciliation and redemption of all things by God in Christ through the Spirit might mean for relationships between humans and other animals will cause Christians to be motivated to act in whatever ways they can to witness to redeemed patterns of creaturely relations.

I think the point here is that creaturely solidarity is, or should be, much more deeply woven into theology–and the Christian life more broadly–than has usually been the case. Animals are as deeply involved in God’s acts of creation, reconciliation, and redemption as we are. This has implications for ethics–and maybe also for community life and politics. For example, what would church life look like if we took seriously the view that we are part of a “mixed community” that includes many different kinds of animals? How should we anticipate the creaturely peace that is to characterize the new creation, even while recognizing that we still live in a fallen world? These are the kinds of questions I’d like to see Clough take up in his second volume.

Previous posts:

Reading David Clough’s On Animals

On Animals: Creation

On Animals: Reconciliation

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7 thoughts on “On Animals: Redemption

  1. “How can predators be reconciled with their prey without losing their essential nature?”

    Many of the questions asked like this one about animals could be asked about humans too. I read somewhere that Augustine believed that though there would be no sex in heaven, women would still have secondary sexual characteristics in heaven so that men could still enjoy oggeling them … is having breasts part of woman’s essential nature, is being a jerk part of man’s essential nature? 🙂 Animals and humans too have the the bodies and natures that evolved to survive on planet earth – who can say who or what we’ll be when that’s no longer the case.

  2. I agree with Crystal. I also think there’s an interesting dichotomy throughout Christian thought – that is, theology and doctrine and dogma but *not* the scripture these are based on – about what, exactly, “nature” means. When we talk solely about the human creature, it’s pretty bread-and-butter (sorry vegans) stuff: created in the image but fallen, we are sinful in our very nature and in need of grace and restoration. To say “it’s only natural” with reference to human action, then, is essentially to label it sinful; and this is a very good thing, assuming we share the evolutionary view of what is natural.

    When, however, attention is turned to how humans relate to other creatures – and in particular, to nonhuman animals – then this strange ambiguity around “nature” starts to creep back in. It is only natural, we are told, for humans to eat animals: to expect more is to arrogantly want to create the kingdom here on earth (Chris Southgate takes roughly this line, but my crude paraphrase above is distinctly not the whole of his argument). Why, if the church is called to live as witness to the kingdom here in the world, if we are freed by grace to live not for ourselves but for others, are we content to fall back on the defence “it’s only natural” when we look at human-animal relationships? Any Christian would surely be deeply unsatisfied by the defence “it’s only natural” were a fist-fight to break out in church, or on a larger scale if “it’s only natural” was offered as the core justification for going to war… and yet the use of force to settle disputes is quite clearly natural. Christians are not called to live according to their own nature, but by God’s own grace; and while this doesn’t lead to a conclusion that we are to treat all creatures as we treat our fellow humans (a strange thought), it surely puts a damper on any drawings of our extra-human relationships as natural-and-therefore-alright.

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

  4. Good points! I agree that the appeal to nature is problematic if we assume (at the very least) that creation, including human nautre, is not as God intends it to be.

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