The Fellowship of Life
a Christian-based vegetarian group founded in 1973


Temptation to act as tyrant over the rest of creation

From The Universe dated Friday, November 13 1987:

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie, recently addressed the annual meeting of the Council of Christians and Jews. His thought-provoking lecture raised a number of questions, which the Archbishop himself readily admitted were controversial. We publish an extract below and, to stimulate debate, we also print commentaries from two noted Catholic theologians. Dr Runcie discusses in the extract the common ground that Christians and Jews share in their reverence for the whole of creation, and its relevance to the problems of the modern world. It should be remembered that this extract is only part of a longer speech which dwelt on a number of important areas of Christian-Jewish understanding:

'The doctrines of creation and human responsibility are...inextricably linked in our two faiths. God who is Creator, Sustainer and Providential Guide, has conferred among human beings the obligation to join him in the work of creation.

But joining God in the work of creation is not only man's vocation, but his temptation, too. The temptation is that he will usurp God's place as Creator and exercise a tyrannical dominion over creation...

Are we to accept that the rest of creation has been created only for man? Does dominion necessarily lead to domination? And what, in any case, are the limits of the category of creation known as man?

Both in theory and practice, the boundaries of the human family are becoming unclear. This is particularly true in medicine. There, practical problems are encountered which challenge Christians and Jews alike to re-examine and redefine their theology of creation.

Does, for example, a human fetus have all the rights and value of a human being? Or is it possible that, at a certain stage of development, the fetus may be used for experiments which might eventually lead to termination of its future?

Practical dilemmas

Should the elderly victim of severe brain damage be sustained indefinitely in some kind of minimal life by sophisticated medical support?

These are everyday practical dilemmas behind which lies the difficulty of defining what it is that decisively distinguishes the human from the non-human. And this difficulty increases as, for instance, naturalists determine in non-human creatures subtleties of behaviour and complexities of communication which, until recently, would have been thought uniquely and exclusively human.

Such dilemmas and difficulties will certainly increase. I sense that already developing are two distinct and irreconcilable kinds of response to the problem. The first is to maintain the present status and value of the human by defining in very clear and unambiguous terms where the boundaries of humanity lie.

Complex terms such as rationality, self-awareness, and moral sense would, no doubt, be deployed in producing such a definition.

This course of action would at least clarify those areas of creation over which man's dominion lay. But the cost of it might be great. It might belittle the value of the non-human, and the arrogance of man needs no such encouragement. We must not reduce the area of the sacred: we must extend it.

Perhaps instead our theology of creation, in which we see all things coming from God who is all in all, might lead us to enhance the value of the non-human. The question of the definition of the human would then be less important: for intrinsic value, varying in degree but on the same scale of value, would be seen to extend beyond the boundary fixed by any definition of the human.

Beyond the indefinite edge of the human would lie a world of creatures and things valuable on their own account and not simply for the support or interest or delight which they provide for the human.

The value of, let us say, a horse, would not lie simply in its capacity to give service or delight to man. It would have its own intrinsic value - and so one might properly destroy a horse to save a human life. But the intrinsic value of the horse would not be negligible - so that it would not be proper to destroy an indefinite number of horses to save or prolong one human life or to confer some marginal benefit on a number of human lives.

The values of nature and of man would be seen to belong on the same scale of value, and nature would no longer be regarded as indefinitely available and expendable for the benefit of man.


I believe that too often our theology of creation has been distorted by being too man-centred. We need to maintain the value, the preciousness of the human by preaching with emphasis the preciousness of the non-human also - of all that is.

For our concept of God, both Jew and Christian alike, forbids the idea of a cheap creation, of a throwaway universe in which everything in principle is expendable save human existence...'

...And two Catholic views -

Bishop Mario Conti of Aberdeen: Overriding dignity of human life

"I believe that too often our theology of creation has been distorted by being too man-centred. We need to maintain the value, the preciousness of the human by preaching with emphasis the preciousness of the non-human also".

In this, the archbishop echoes Psalm 103: "How many are your works, O Lord; in wisdom you have made them all. The earth is full of your riches."

Reverence for the whole of creation is certainly fundamental in both Jewish and Christian faith cultures. However, there is nothing incompatible in holding the overriding dignity of human life and the need to show it a unique sort of reverence.

It is not simply because the human animal is more wonderful in the complexity of its nature and more beautiful in form, but because it has been made in the image and likeness of God, made by God viceroy in his world, and made capable of knowing and loving his creator.

Here, too, the Psalmist provides the most appropriate words: "You have made him little less than a God, with glory and honour you crowned him, gave him power over the works of your hand, put all things under his feet" (Psalm 8).

This, too, is fundamental to Jewish and Christian understanding of man - the whole of the Old Testament preaches his uniqueness, without in any way minimising the marvels of creation.

In the New Testament, St Paul sees the whole creation "groaning in a common travail" - sharing the birth pangs of the new creation in which men and women through Christ become the children of God. "Before the world was made, he chose us, chose us in Christ...determining that we should become his adopted sons" (St Paul).

Man may not be physically the centre of the universe, but he is - above all in Christ - at its heart, rendering to the Creator Father the praise of the whole creation. The capacity of even the littlest to do this makes him or her uniquely precious.


The rest of creation, while never expendable, is subordinate to this little one. I think we need to hold to, and proclaim ever more clearly, this insight and dogma of our Judeo-Christian inheritance.

It must be one of the things in the archbishop's praise, " in which our communities could speak and act together."

The lesson of the Holocaust is that unless each individual human is regarded as having an inalienable dignity, and right to life and respect, first some and then many become expendable for increasingly trivial and evil purposes.

John McDade SJ, editor of The Month: Painful choices that must be made

Archbishop Runcie is right to suggest that our "arrogance" towards the "non-human" part of creation comes from a failure to value the whole of creation as a dimension of God's love - we need to envisage a continuum of "creatureliness" which restrains our human instinct to abuse and destroy.

We have mistakenly interpreted "dominion" over creatures, given in Genesis, as the right to do what we will with creation, as long as it is for our own benefit.

Instead, dominion involves responsibility and stewardship, exercised with reverence for "all that exists".

Equally, we are not entitled to presume that the only value to be considered is what benefits human beings. Recent philosophical work on animal rights challenges the presumption that we can treat the non-human side of creation as expendable.

Archbishop Runcie is right to focus our attention on the significance of our belief in a doctrine of creation, in which the human and the non-human have intrinsic value. However, human moral dilemmas involve choices in which we have to choose between the rights of non-humans and the rights of human beings - the use of animals in medical research for example.

It is not clear that by insisting on the continuum of creatureliness within creation, we thereby clarify the hierarchy of moral values. If I had to choose between saving the life of the last pair of American Bald Eagles (a protected species) and saving a human being, I would regard the latter option as my primary moral duty. And in making that painful choice, I don't think I would be treating creation as cheap and disposable.

NB the first of the above responses to the Archbishop of Canterbury's speech in 1987 has been reproduced for informational rather than inspirational purposes.

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