A Publication of
Catholic Concern for Animals
Selections From The Ark Number 204 - Autumn/Winter 2006
JOINT PRIZE-WINNING ESSAY
‘Animals are God's creatures’ (Catechism of the Catholic
Church, n. 2416).
BY PETER ELLIS
When Abraham had been tested to the limit – having bound Isaac to the altar and reached for his knife – God intervened. God’s angel called to Abraham and told him to stop, and, just as Abraham had said to Isaac when the boy asked where the sacrifice was, God provided it in the form of the ram caught in a thicket nearby (Gen 22:1-14). The story epitomises the way we look at the drama of the Bible, where we are in the spotlight on the stage set of the planet, with the animals as extras in the wings. For too long we have been so involved in ourselves that we have been unable to see the extras and the stage set properly. Yes, we say, animals are God’s creatures, but only in so far as they appear on the stage at the crucial moment like the ram getting Abraham out of his dilemma. But now we can no longer fail to see that ram in its suffering reality rather than symbolically, and in doing so we see that, just like him, we are caught in a seemingly impenetrable mental thicket made up of the very concepts and ideas that stop us from articulating what we see.
C.S. Lewis, putting animals in the same position as Milton put women, warned
us not to consider animals in themselves but to understand them only in their
relation to us and through us to God. If we look at the theological discourse
about animals and about the statement that ‘Animals are God’s creatures’, we see
that this is the basic rule. In discussing animals it is not long before we
humans come to dominate the debate and to discuss it in our own terms. However
this essay will argue that the real implication of animals being God’s creatures
is that God’s creation is not anthropocentric but encompasses otherness and is
infinite and plural. What stops us from seeing that? To answer that question
requires some disentangling of the conceptual and terminological undergrowth.
One of the dominant theological themes is animal rights. If we consider animals as having ‘rights’ then we start by locking them into our world and our propositions – just as C.S. Lewis would want us to. The rights debate is located on our ground since rights imply a constitutional framework within which every person knows what others owe them and what they owe to others – in other words, membership of a state. Rights are about widening an existing society by including a formerly excluded group – women, slaves, people of colour, non-heterosexuals, children, and now animals. To participate in the debate each of these groups has to demand their rights. But to do so they must subordinate themselves to the larger whole and argue their case in the larger whole’s terms. This may not be what they want. The primary demand of the oppressed when they come to articulate their suffering is for the removal of oppression, for the freedom to be – which implies the freedom to be different. Rights are about involvement in the existing order rather than detachment from it. Freedom, on the other hand, is about not being an item on an existing agenda. So while the ram in the thicket simply wants to be disentangled, we are concerned to legitimate and organise its existence into a wider scheme of things than its simple desire to escape. By discussing rights in a theological context we close down the possibilities of God’s creation.
Another way in which we bring everything back to ourselves comes when we consider God’s purposes in creation. Our creation story tells us that God created us last at the summit of his scheme ‘in his own image’. When he lost patience with us it was nevertheless to a human, Noah, that he turned to make a fresh start. Later, with the Incarnation, Jesus came in human form. We locate God’s purposes in a great design to reconcile not just us to ourselves but also, following Paul, the whole creation to itself. Since modern scientific knowledge shows us that, uniquely in the whole of creation, only humans are able to research and model its totality theoretically, then it must be the case that God’s purposes are to be worked out with ourselves at the centre of them. We simply are unable to consider God’s creation without humans as the central theme, even though the Bible warns us often that the scale and meaning of God’s purposes and intentions can be very different from ours.
All of this theological entanglement is serviced by the language we use in the debate about animals. By being so determined to be logical, our very discourse places animals outside – for theirs is not the rationality of our discourse. But as we see Abraham advancing towards the ram we feel the sorrow of the situation first and then rationalise its injustice second, while, instead, the whole discourse about animals takes place the other way round – reason first, feeling second. The words we use – even ‘animal’ itself – already prejudge what we say and how we are going to say it.
Everything about animals is hedged about with our fears of the irrational –
often manifested as a contempt for sentimentality. So animal theology has to
dissociate itself from popular sentiment about pandas or whales. Why? Jesus
rejoiced that his message was clear to children and hidden from the wise (Luke
10:21), and we only have to look at a child’s relationship at bedtime with its
bear or rabbit to see that they do not have the same problem with animals as
grown-ups do. Theirs is not far from the theological position with regard to
animals of Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov, who commanded us to ‘Love
animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing you will perceive
the mystery of God in things’,or of St Isaac the Syrian who calls us to have a
charitable heart – which is one that ‘burns with charity ... for the birds, for
the beasts, for the demons – for all creatures’, or of Thomas Merton who heard
the dawn chorus as God opening the birds’ eyes ‘and they speak to him, wondering
if it is time to ‘be’?’ This language allows an approach to God’s creation as
something to be learnt from, not something to be rationalised.
Animals as God intended
If animals are God’s creatures then we have to consider, contra C.S. Lewis,
animals in themselves. To do this we have to detach ourselves from them and to
look not at our pets, fascinating though they are, or at other domesticated
animals, beautiful though they are, but at animals as God intended them – in the
wild. Here we have to disentangle ourselves from some very clinging brambles and
accept that many of the theological discourses about animals are faulty in fact.
The errors are initiated in the bible stories themselves, for these latter make
a fundamental mistake about the domestication of animals by humans. The Bible’s
creation accounts assume animal and crop husbandry at the outset. Cattle emerge
with the creeping things and the beasts of the earth (Gen 1:24), and Adam’s
first act is tilling the garden (Gen 2:15). But the first domestication of
animals and cultivation of the fields came a mere 5,000 years or so before the
Bible account, 8,000 years from now at the outside. Before then the animals had
many many millions of years without humans, while we had three million years of
coexistence with animals, more or less, before we began to domesticate them –
the last 300,000 years equipped with the same mental apparatus and abilities as
we have today and the last 130,000 looking exactly like we do now. God’s
creation has, therefore, only recently involved its genetic modification by
humans and this is reflected in the rapidity with which domesticated animals
released into the wild become ferals and even change their appearance after a
few generations – Darwin noted this ‘tendency to return to the primitive state’.
One of the theological implications of looking at animals as God’s creatures might then be to allow the reintegration of spirituality with theology. Look at the questions thought proper for discussion in the theology of animals. Do they feel pain? How far should we exploit them? Do we have duties to non-rational creatures? and so on. Then look at Psalm 148, or St Francis’ prayers, or the Canticle Omnia Opera. There are clearly different things going on here but there are great possibilities for them to inform each other.
Animals are pure beings. Their overflowing existence is entirely in the present moment. They are all beautiful and yet all the same within a species. They do not make mistakes – their skills are seemingly perfect from start to end. They reconcile Heraclitus’ view that all things change, and Parmenides’ that everything stays the same. When they suffer they withdraw from being uncomplainingly. We are mistaken in thinking that they are only concerned with procreation and food, for they spend hours in wakeful contemplation. They have skills of knowing where they are that are quite beyond us. In really knowing them we experience what Heidegger described as ‘the wonder of wonder: that beings are’. It may be that they can tell us something about God’s purpose. If we study them we see that they function in fixed action patterns – that is to say when they undertake an operation which we would describe in one term, like feeding their young, they actually perform separate operations. Our descriptions collapse different animal activities into one – could it be that God’s thoughts and ours have the same relationship?
The theological implications of animals being God’s creatures are that it is a plural world, one where difference can exist and otherness can be accepted. This need not be a contradiction of panentheism – the sense that everything comes from God and that we are all included together in God, so long as we allow a plurality to God. Recognising animals as from God offers great balm to the existential estrangement that Paul Tillich described. If God’s creatures are all around us then, though we may not know the reason why, we can nevertheless feel comforted. St Francis must be seen to have been right in seeing the animals as our brothers and sisters ‘because they have the same source as ourselves’.
St Bonaventure’s stories of Francis’s empathy with animals do seem to
concentrate on the domesticated kind, but the point is that Francis’ realisation
was that there was no hierarchy involved. Animals and humans share the same
world and are equal in it. Jesus’ message of total transformation of ourselves
and of our world may be reflected in the extraordinary transformations we see in
animals. It may be, as Tillich says, that ‘the manifestation of saving power in
one place implies that saving power is operating in all places’ and who knows
how that might occur.
But the most important theological implication must be in the realisation that God created wild animals not domesticated ones. Our control of nature has expanded from that first control of the wild beasts and their conversion into flocks and herds. We have seemingly gained everything (though only a minority have and it is based on violence) but we have lost any sense of unity and oneness – so much so that only in occasional moments do we see our fellows as they are – our brothers and sisters – let alone other beings as St Francis did. And this is because we have ordered and tamed our world and filled it with ordered and tamed thoughts and an ordered and tamed God.
If we accept that animals are God’s creatures then we see that God is not like that, God is wild and untamed and his world has a place for the other. Our theology – what we tell God about God – is full of explanation and interpretation. Our spirituality – what God tells us if only we can listen – is full of wonder and praise. Our thoughts about the ram in the thicket should be thoughts of freedom and of a return to the wilderness – to where Christ was with the wild animals (Mark 1:13), to where we can hear his ‘unfamiliar’ voice (Psalm 81:6).
What of the practical implications of other creatures being God’s, aside from ourselves? They are a disengagement from domesticated farm animals, and so a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. They are also an opposition to the laboratory testing of animals, to vivisection, to hunting and to genetic engineering. There is, however, no perfect point to be arrived at and so nothing to take pride in or be self-righteous about. As Zossima said we ‘fester the earth by [our] appearance on it, and leave [our] festering trace behind’.
We are always using up materials to exist and will always be in a quandary about right living. It is therefore important to try to integrate the theological with the political and the political with the personal, otherwise we slip into soul/body dualisms where we long to be free of our materiality. If we can disentangle the theology of animals from the rational anthropocentric way it is generally conducted, then we could allow our lifestyle and our opposition to the ways of the world to be a product of a love of animals as God’s creatures.
Could not the study of nature also be detached a little from the objectivity of science? The natural historian knows that to observe animals we need to stop still for ten minutes before the natural world emerges from its hiding place.
Those initial minutes of stillness can be remarkably like the preliminaries
to contemplation. Why should the close observation of an animal – of being
itself, unmediated and unhierarchical – not be the close contemplation of God?
The Dome of the Rock
The place where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac and instead sacrificed the ram caught in the thicket is by tradition marked by the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. This building remarkably incorporates a rock outcrop so that the tamed ashlar stone and the natural rock coexist. This essay has tried to widen the story of Abraham and Isaac so as to include not just the domesticated ram but also the wild animals in the desert beyond. Is it too fanciful to take the symbolism of the Dome’s architecture – in a divided city and forming a focal point for both Islam and Christianity – as underlining the necessity to allow our theological thinking and our lives to include the concept of the other, of the possibility of difference? The story is important, but the desert background is important too and its call to accept the wildness of our origins and of our existence, and the unknowable, unconfined side of God.
* A version of this essay with full footnotes is available from the editor –
firstname.lastname@example.org or tel 01242 677423
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