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From The Ark Number 195 - Winter 2003

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Shelagh Ranger spent many years in Africa with her husband, an Oxford University Professor of East African Studies. Drawing on Christian and African traditions she describes here why Christian doctrines need to be revised for the sake of God’s other creatures.

by Shelagh Ranger

First, Aristotle

A headline in The Independent (20 May, 2003), reads ‘Chimps should be reclassified as humans.’ Apparently scientific research comparing the working genes of chimpanzees and humans has come to the conclusion that the two species are so alike at the level of their DNA that they should be classified as members of the same human genus Homo. According to the paper’s Science Editor, Steve Connor, a study by Morris Goodman published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, challenges ‘the anthropocentric concept of nature that has dominated zoological classification since Aristotle who conceived a "great chain of being" from the lowliest creatures to the higher forms of life’.

Ecologists have made us aware that chimpanzees and other species are threatened with extinction, but the extent to which Christian doctrines are responsible for this state of the world is not often appreciated. In fact Western society’s scientific or ‘rational’ explanations for physical phenomena in the ‘natural’ world, have been largely based on assumptions inherited from medieval Christendom and the Enlightenment that are difficult to shake off, particularly an underlying anthropocentric view of Creation. Christian doctrines may even have encouraged, rather than limited, mankind’s cruel treatment of other creatures.

Hebrew thought made no distinction between soul and body; the Christian doctrine of the immortality of the soul originated in Greek thought without reference to the resurrection of the body. The Church’s teaching that animals have no souls worthy of salvation arose out of a wide-ranging Greek debate begun long before the Christian era, according to the Oxford philosopher, Richard Sorabji. While Plato was willing to grant animals ‘a reasoning part of the soul’, he explains:

The Aristotelian and Stoic denial of rationality to animals proved all too congenial to Jews and Christians. It was opposed chiefly in the Pythagorean and Platonist traditions, by the Cynics and by those free-thinking Aristotelians who did not go along with their master. The Christians were not the first to take an anti-animal view, but they exploited the anti-animal views they found in the Stoics. And I believe it accounts for some of our own complacency about animals that we are heirs of a Western Christian tradition which selected just one side from a much more wide- ranging Greek debate.l

Greek and Stoic influence distorted the Jewish legacy so as to make the religion of the New Testament much more man-centred than that of the Old. Thus Christianity teaches, in a way that Judaism has never done, that the whole world is subordinate to human purposes.2

Moreover, early in the history of the Church, Aristotle’s teaching about animals and ‘natural slaves’, was adopted as justification for the institution of slavery:

The natural slave is one who is capable of belonging to another, which is why he does so belong, and who shares in (koinonein) reason (logos) to the extent of appreciating it (aisthanesthai), but not having it (ekhein). The other animals do not obey reason by appreciating it, but obey only their passions. And the use made of them differs little, since bodily help for basic necessities comes equally from slaves and tame animals. 3

The Church’s long involvement in the slave trade had a profound effect on popular beliefs not only about the supposed superiority of one human race over another, but also about the superiority of the human species over other animals. It is worth remembering that in some parts of the world the slave trade became an important source of income for the Catholic Church. In Luanda, for example, at the end of the 18th century the population included ‘about twice as many slaves as free subjects of any complexion,’ and all sectors of the population owned slaves, including religious orders. 4

Then St Augustine

Thus slavery was tolerated by the Church for hundreds of years in spite of Augustine’s teaching that ‘God did not want a rational being, made in his image, to have dominion over any except irrational creatures; not man over man, but over the beasts.’ Unlike man’s dominion over woman, he thought that man’s dominion over other men violates their original equality; hence ‘such a condition as slavery could only have arisen as a result of sin.’ 5

St Augustine taught that man alone was created in the image of God, and that a ‘woman could be so regarded only when united to her husband’. This doctrine has been challenged by feminist theologians. Fundamentalist Christians still adhere to the idea of ‘headship’ (based on 1 Cor 11: 7-10), but most Churches now accept that women and men are (at least in theory) equal in the sight of God. In the 18th century Quakers had begun to question Christian involvement in the slave trade, but it was a long time before the Catholic Church began to revise her doctrine.

Quakers were the first to challenge not only Catholic doctrine about slavery, but also about the purpose of Creation and the rights of animals. John Woolman wrote in 1772:

I was early convinced in my mind that true religion consisted in an inward life wherein the heart doth love and reverence God the Creator and learns to exercise true justice and goodness not only toward all men but also toward the brute creation; that as the mind was moved on an inward principle to love God as an invisible, incomprehensible being, on the same principle it was moved to love him in all his manifestations in the visible world; that as by his breath the flame of life was kindled in all animal and sensitive creatures, to say we love God ... and at the same time exercise cruelty toward the least creature ... was a contradiction in itself.6

Nowadays we can see that feminist theologians were right to challenge formulations of Christian doctrine on which ideas of male supremacy were based, just as Quakers and black theologians were right to challenge the doctrines that supported the institutions of slavery and of apartheid in South Africa. As a result of their efforts, the voices of marginalised people are increasingly heard in the Church. However, the voices of animals are not. Although most Christians no longer regard women as slaves, or slaves as animals, animals are still treated as expendable commodities to be used for scientific experiments, for sport, or simply as food for carnivores. They are captured and transported around the world in cruel conditions very reminiscent of the Atlantic slave trade.

Development of doctrine

Fortunately, Christian doctrines do change, and slavery is a case in point, although sadly, in concluding that slaves were after all fully human with immortal souls to be saved, the Church continued to regard the rest of the animal kingdom as having no souls and therefore of no more value than sticks and stones. According to the Catholic Catechism only the human soul is created in the image of God, with the three powers of memory, understanding and will.

The 20th-century ‘option for the poor’ has sought to liberate human beings from hunger, oppression and war, but the Church has been slow to recognize a similar responsibility to non-human species, as Charles Birch points out:

Christians have tended to interpret Scripture anthropocentrically, denying value and rights to non-human life. Some of this can no doubt be traced back to the fact that the doctrine of imago Dei has been understood to mean that humans alone are created in the image of God. The proper context of this doctrine in a creation-inclusive theology has largely been lost during the course of Christian thought. A second reason for the reluctance of Christian churches to accept responsibility for the whole creation is their prior concern for the poor and oppressed. But why should a concern for oppressed and suffering animals detract from the consideration of the basic human needs of the poor and oppressed human beings? If a concern for humanity were held together with a concern for the creation at the same time, the human perspective might then come closer to the divine perspective on the creation.7

The Image of God

The Second Vatican Council rightly emphasized the Creator’s universal concern for the poor and even declared that other ‘created things’ have their own truth and goodness which must be respected:

For by the very circumstance of their having been created, all things are endowed with their own stability , truth, goodness, proper laws, and order. Man must respect these as he isolates them by the appropriate methods of the individual sciences or arts. ... But when God is forgotten the creature itself grows unintelligible.8

Splendid though this doctrine is, the Council fathers did not draw the necessary conclusion that species created millions of years before mankind could be equally loved by their Creator and equally intended to reflect the image of God. Towards the end of the Second Vatican Council the theologian, Yves Congar, belatedly recognised that our ‘theology of Catholicity is too timid, insufficiently cosmic’. According to Edward Echlin, Congar then proposed radical guidelines for reform:

We can, for example, learn from the Society of Friends, the first Christian community to recognise the connection between peace among humans and harmony with all creation. We can also learn from young children. Many children intuitively realise their presence within and not above the rest of creation, especially their solidarity with other creatures.9

Like women and children and slaves, so long excluded, other animal species should now be seen as ‘the ones he chose specially long ago and intended to become true images of his Son, so that his Son might be the eldest of many brothers’ (Rom 8:29). Support for such a revision could be found in Scripture, in some early Church Fathers and in scholastic theology. St Bonaventure taught that ‘creatures in the sense-world signify the invisible attributes of God’, so that, properly seen ‘every creature is by its nature a kind of effigy and likeness of the eternal Wisdom’.10 This idea is also found in the writings of St Thomas Aquinas. Rupert Sheldrake, a biologist, praises the ‘amazing realm of creative synthesis’ in that 13th century theological giant:

For the life of nature and the life of the mind are not independent of the life of God; they are an expression of God’s life and creative power. ... Every creature participates in some way in the likeness of the Divine essence. All creatures are images of God, who is the first agent. ... In all creatures there is a footprint of the Trinity.11


1. Richard Sorabji, Animal Minds and Human Morals: the origins of the Western debate (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995) pp. 8-10.

2. Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: changing attitudes in England 1500-1800 (Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 24.

3. Aristotle, Pol. 1.5, 1254b 20-4. quoted in Richard Sorabji, p. 135.

4. Joseph C. Miller, Way of Death: merchant capitalism and the Angolan slave trade 1730-1830 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988) p. 271. Today the UK charity, Anti-Slavery International (founded in 1839), reckons that there are still 27 million slaves in the world.

5. St Augustine, De Civitate Dei, 19, 15, quoted in Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve and the Serpent (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988, and Penguin, 1990) p. 114.

6. Cited in Quaker Faith & Practice: the book of Christian discipline of the yearly meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, 1995, Chapter 25.05.

7. Charles Birch & Lukas Vischer, Living with the Animals: the community of God’s creatures (Geneva: WCC, 1997) pp. 60-61.

8. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Chapter II, in The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Walter M. Abbott, SoJ., (London and Dublin: Geoffrey Chapman, 1966) pp. 223,232-233..

9. Edward P. Echlin, ‘Four useful Guidelines to assist a greener Church’, Catholic Gazette, July 1991.

10. St Bonaventure, The Life of St Francis and The Soul’s Journey into God; ed., trans. and intro. Ewert Cousins (London: SPCK, 1978), p. 77, quoted in Andrew Linzey and Dan Cohn-Sherbok, After Noah: animals and the liberation of theology (Mowbray Cassell, 1997) p. 71.

11. Rupert Sheldrake, ‘Foreword’ in Matthew Fox, Sheer Joy: conversations with Thomas Aquinas on creation spirituality (Harper SanFrancisco, 1982) p. xvii

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