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Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion
The Covenant with All Living Creatures
Stephen R. L. Clark
Philosophers are usually expected to argue only from premises acceptable to a secular audience, in ways that require no special commitment beyond that to the value of argument itself. As a philosopher, I see no particular reason to deny myself the opportunity to argue from other, more `sectarian', premises, in ways now unfamiliar to an unbelieving nation. In so doing I may (as theistical philosophers often do) sound more traditional than many theologians.
Covenant theology is normally concerned with the Mosaic covenant, and the `new covenant' promised by the prophets: theologians usually give these a humanitarian reading. It is certainly worth reading them like that. Consider the Ten Commandments, in view of recent commentary by poorly educated reporters (and clergy). These Commandments (popularly so called) prohibit acts that would make life within a decent society more difficult. Do not steal, or seek to kill; do not cause marital troubles; do not envy others; do not claim that God requires what God does not; do not always treat everything as if it were a tool or stuff for your own purposes (allow all things their space); honour those from whom you take your life. Above all, never let another ideal or goal take precedence over those divine requirements. In brief, let nothing matter more to you than leaving everything the space ordained by God: remember, you were slaves in Egypt. Atheistical commentators, or spokesmen of the Secular Society (and other similarly nineteenth century hold-outs), will often complain about the `absolutist' or `authoritarian' or `joyless' character of the Commandments. In doing so, they prove that they have never truly read them. Theistic tradition, ever since Abraham, has been concerned to identify the practical and theoretical conditions under which we have some chance of being just. The truth is, probably, that we won't succeed. It doesn't follow that we shouldn't try, nor that it is impossible to win.
We can learn from Ezekiel (18.10ff) what it is to turn one's back on the laws: the man of violence `obeys none of them, he feasts at mountain shrines, he dishonours another man's wife, he oppresses the unfortunate and the poor, he is a robber, he does not return the debtor's pledge, he lifts his eyes to idols and joins in abominable rites; he lends both at discount and at interest. Such a man shall not live'. Consider also the offence (2 Kings 23.10) of passing children through the fire `to Molech' (or `as a burnt offering'). Consider the iniquity of Sodom (not what people now suppose): `this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride of wealth and food in plenty, comfort and ease, and yet she never helped the poor and wretched' (Ezekiel 16.49).
The Bible's claim is that our possession of the land (and anything else we think we own) is conditional on our keeping to the covenant, whose conditions are listed in Deuteronomy chapter 28 (29.1 says this Moab covenant is in addition to the one at Horeb). So also the Psalms (132.12): the covenant with David's line is conditional.
Those conditions are regularly ignored. We easily believe that we can avoid all consequences for our sin: `You keep saying "This place is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!" This catchword of yours is a lie; put no trust in it. Mend your ways and your doings, deal fairly with one another, do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, shed no innocent blood in this place, do not run after other gods to your own ruin' (Jeremiah 7.4).
There have been many attacks on the scriptures as being `anti-environmentalist'. On the contrary, so I contend, the scriptures emphasize our duties - not as `stewards', but as neighbours. It is true that Baal, in some sense a Nature-god, is not approved (see 2 Kings 11.17f: Jehoiada's covenant against Baal) and some critics suspect - not entirely without reason - that modern pantheistic environmentalism, and New Age ideas, are exactly that sort of Baal-worship (Matthew Fox's writings give some credence to this).
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