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A Publication of
Catholic Concern for Animals


Selections From The Ark Number 215 - Summer 2010

Book Reviews

Gods, Humans and Animals: an invitation to enlarge our moral universe, by Robert N. Wennberg. Grand Rapids, MI/ Cambridge UK: Wm Eerdmans. ISBN 0802839754, 2003 £23.99.

Animals, Gods and Humans: changing attitudes to animals in Greek, Roman and early Christian ideas, by Ingvild Sælid Gilhus. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. ISBN 0415386500, 2006, £22.99.

These are two books with amazingly similar titles – until you read the subtitles, when the differences are revealed. They are both scholarly, yet readable, resources which should sit on the serious animal advocate’s bookshelves alongside all the ones by Andrew Linzey and Stephen Clark. The first (already seven years old but, until recently, unknown to this reviewer), an extract from which was published in the last issue of The Ark, is by a Christian academic philosopher who argues, lucidly and systematically, the case for animal advocacy in a range of situations, and provides two extended test cases – factory farming and ‘painful animal research’.

At all times the reasoning is clear, balanced and thoughtful – yet never losing sight of the purpose of the book as it says in the subtitle, in enlarging our moral universe to include animals. You can show this book to anyone sceptical or indifferent, and critical minds may well be opened. There is nothing strident here, nothing hectoring – just steady-as-you-go laying out the claims and the counter-claims with cool precision and from deeply-read research. An example is when discussing Thomas Aquinas, ‘widely regarded as the greatest Roman Catholic theologian, and Immanuel Kant, one of the giant figures in the history of philosophy’. Each, he says, ‘holds a moral theory that has no place for animals; yet being decent individuals, they do not want to be so insensitive as to be morally indifferent to the cruel and abusive treatment of animals. The trick for them is to morally condemn cruelty to animals without admitting direct moral obligations to animals. It can be done, they judge, by arguing that those who mistreat animals are likely to mistreat humans and for that reason – and that reason alone – such mistreatment is wrong.’

Wennberg gives serious consideration to the differences between Tom Regan’s animal rights theory and Andrew Linzey’s theory of theos-rights, as well as to the contribution of the virtue theory to the moral treatment of animals. Utilitarianism and stewardship are treated at length, but found wanting, while the contributions of feminist and eco-feminist theologians are appreciated and seen as a necessary balance to the traditional hierarchical and rules-based ethics that still dominate today. The emotions are not despised, indeed ‘not to feel in the moral realm is tantamount to not seeing; it constitutes a form of moral blindness’. And critics of the use of emotionalism to pursue animal causes are accused of double standards, as they are not likely similarly to criticise the use of emotional images in, for example, campaigns which seek to meet human needs.

The lack of direct evidence of concern for animals in the New Testament need not discourage animal advocates, suggests Wennberg, as a similar lack of support was found to oppose slavery – indeed it was even seen to condone the practice – and yet the very ethos of compassion, mercy and justice which Christianity inspires was what motivated those who brought slavery to an end. I’ll leave the last word about this book to Wennberg in his concluding paragraph:

‘In seeing animal pain as a significant part of evil and wrestling with it, as we have done, we are paying homage to the moral significance of animals. To enlarge the problem of evil in this way is simply a consequence of the Christian acknowledging that animals count morally and that animal welfare is to be a human as it is a divine concern.’To deal with the second book, Animals, Gods and Humans, by Ingvild Sælid Gilhus, is to move from American sunshine to Scandinavian gloom – an occasionally necessary and refreshing thing to do. An extract is given in this issue of The Ark, page 5.

Professor Gilhus provides the background to the traditional Christian indifference to animal suffering. By delving into Greek and Roman history, literature and tradition, she exposes those influences that caused the Early Church to espouse anti-animals ideas and those that caused them to reject more pro-animal traditions. ‘Art and literature’, she says, ‘reflect a mental universe, a universe of the imagination. The religious outlook has recourse to the same universe. In these [early] centuries, animals were caught up by the religious imagination and elaborated on by the different religions of the [Roman] empire.’ An example is given in Christian literature, where:

’The Christian panegyrics about man, who was the creature closest to God and sometimes even divine, had their predecessors in Greek and Roman authors, especially among the Stoics. … In this tradition there was an enthusiasm for man’s uniqueness in relation to other creatures, an enthusiasm that also encompassed man’s constitution and physiological equipment’.

There are fascinating insights into the problem caused by man’s lack of wings (to fly to heaven), pagan and Jewish dietary laws, the supposed difference between human flesh and animal flesh, the reasons for animal sacrifices and the significance of Christ’s sacrifice and those of the martyrs on the emerging religious understanding of whose bodies mediated between the human and the divine.

In 1993 there was the publication of a seminal book by Professor Richard Sorabji of London University, Animal Minds and Human Morals: the origins of the western debate, detailing through Greek and Latin texts the background of the status of animals in the classical world. This book is now a worthy successor, giving more emphasis to the early Christian Church’s use of its cultural context, and particularly the use of animals in myth and legend, and, more importantly, as allegory. It is this allegorizing trend, particularly in a New Testament context, Gilhus contends, ‘which turned animals into signs, contributed further to taking animals of flesh and blood out of religious focus’.

Why the early Christians did not espouse vegetarianism, other than by specific groups or at specific times, and what the affects of martyrdom by fierce wild animals in the arena had on the community, are all given detailed and fascinating answers. Once you start dipping into this book, you’ll be hooked for hours, be warned!


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