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A Publication of
Catholic Concern for Animals


Selections From The Ark Number 206 - Summer 2007

The Faithful Church

A Protestant and a Catholic theologian come together to reflect on what
it means to be the ‘image of God’, and to be Church, in relation to the animal creation.

By Stanley Hauerwas and John Berkman

Of course, we as humans generally think of ourselves as ‘animals with a difference’. Yet the account produced to elicit that difference makes all the difference in the world!

To put it most simply, the only significant theological difference between humans and animals lies in God’s giving humans a unique purpose. Herein lies what it means for God to create humans in God’s image. A part of this unique purpose is God’s charge to humans to tell animals who they are, and humans continue to do this by the very way they relate to other animals. We think there is an analogous relationship here; animals need humans to tell them their story, just as gentiles need Jews to tell them their story. (Indeed, if there is a reason for giving special attention to humankind, it is because Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, because salvation for all comes through one made human, so gentiles are privileged through one who became a Jew.)

Our account of what humankind as created in the ‘image of God’ means is, admittedly, a minority viewpoint. The dominant view holds that ‘image of God’ is some unique human capacity or ability, such as rational ability. ... There is simply no good theological reason for claiming [this]. ...

As for how Scripture is thus to be read, a Christian understanding of creation cannot be guided first and foremost by Genesis 1 and 2. In fact, these passages must be read in the light of our redemption in Christ and our end in the kingdom of God, an end to which Christians are guided by the Holy Spirit. More specifically, Christians cannot understand creation solely in terms of Genesis 1:31 – ‘Behold, it was very good’ – but must read this passage in conjunction with Romans 8:19-21 and Isaiah 11, where the original creation is understood in relation to the present bondage of creation and the dawning eschatology of the new creation.

In light of the scriptural witness that humans and other animals share in the ultimate end, which is God’s peaceable kingdom, we thus believe that each and every creature is created to manifest God’s glory. Animals will not manifest God’s glory insofar as their lives are measured in terms of human interests, but only in so far as their lives serve God’s good pleasure. Similarly, humans manifest God’s glory when we learn to see animals as God sees animals, recognizing that animals exist not to serve us, but rather for God’s good pleasure.

Understanding creation in this way decisively challenges many traditional theological efforts that make a sharp distinction between our status as humans and the status of other animals. Too often, the story of God’s creation of humans in God’s image has been read falsely as licensing humankind to dominate the animal world. Thus, the language of dominion in Genesis 1:28 is used to justify human manipulation of the rest of God’s creation for humanity’s own ends, thereby underwriting the presumption that all the world is created for the flourishing of humankind.

Acting as God’s image in the world
However, … this sense of dominion cannot be justified theologically. At most, the concept of dominion can only mean that God has chosen humanity to be an image of God’s own rule in the world. In other words, God appoints humans as rulers not because humans hold any special intrinsic trait, but simply because of God’s sovereign will; God simply chooses humans for the task of acting as God’s deputies amidst God’s own creation. Thus … Christians must not understand ‘image of God’ to be based on any …difference between humans and other animals but must reconceive ‘image of God’ in terms of the particular purposes that God assigns to humans. Specifically, Christians need to discover what it means for a human to act as an image of God’s rule in the world.

At this point, we realize that our understanding of how Christians are to rule over animals is directly connected with how we understand God to be ruling over us. If we are to throw off the view that dominion means domination over the other animals, we must turn to a Trinitarian understanding of what it means for humans to be in the image of God. Christians cannot read ‘image of God’ in Genesis 1 apart from what it means for them to be ‘image of Christ’. Ultimately, true likeness to God is not found in the ‘image of God’ of Genesis 1, nor even in the present striving to live in the image of Christ, but will only come at the end of time when we shall see God face to face. Jurgen Moltmann puts this point very well:

The restoration for new creation of the likeness to God comes about in the fellowship of believers with Christ: since [Christ] is the messianic imago Dei, believers become imago Christi, and through this enter upon the path which will make them gloria Dei on earth.
(Jurgen Moltmann, God in creation: a new theology of creation and the Spirit of God (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), p.226.)

 As a result, Christian lives are to display this purposive understanding of the image of God. In Genesis 1, the image of God is part of the vision for a peaceable creation, both between human and animal and between animal and animal, a peace where it is not necessary to sacrifice one for the other. Similarly, for Christians to live as the image of Christ means to live according to the call of the kingdom of God. In Gethsemane – in taking up the way of the Cross – Christ shows us clearly that the way of the kingdom of God is not the way of violence. In reaching the ultimate end of all our strivings, in the peaceable kingdom of God, we shall finally live in true shalom with all creatures of God.

Called to be a Church of ‘creatures’
To say that creation is an eschatological notion [i.e. to do with the ‘ultimate end of our strivings’], is to say that the universe is part of the drama that is not of its own making. That is, creation is part of a story Christians learn through being initiated into a community that has learned to live appropriately to that story. Since one cannot understand creation apart from initiation into such a story, we do not believe that creation is something that all people can affirm. Rather, the confession of creation is something made by a group of people who are called to be the Church in a world of people who do not know that they are, in fact, ‘creatures’.

… In short, in Christ we know that creation was not an act in and for itself but an act carried out for a purpose. This is what I meant by saying that God’s creation of the world is an eschatological confession. The original creation is aimed at a new creation, the creation of a community of all flesh that glorifies God.

Thus, we believe the Church is faithful when it lives out the fact that nature has a sacred element, not because Christians wish to uphold or preserve nature for its own sake, but because nature is creation in travail, and, as such, has its own end to glorify God, rather than to serve humans. Thus, Christians must strive to live the relationship between human and animal life in terms of the common end being life in the peaceable kingdom, the kingdom of God. In addition, Christians will strive to read Jesus’ parables of the kingdom as indications that our everyday actions may be signs of the power of the Christ who will bring about the coming of that kingdom.

  • The full article from which this extract came can be found in Good News for Animals?: Christian approaches for animal well-being (Ecology and Justice), edited by C.R. Pinches and J.B. McDaniel, Orbis, 1993 and ‘The Chief End of All Flesh’, in Theology Today (49.2). Reproduced with kind permission.
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