The Fellowship of Life
Diocesan Letter for August, 1985
by The Rt. Rev. Dr. John Habgood, Archbishop of York
Living as we do on the edge of a river my wife and I have had ample opportunity to observe the ducks. Some of them we have come to know as individuals. Some we have reared by hand and allowed them to return to the wild. A little further down the river, where the bank is accessible to the general public, there are those who lure the ducks with food and then shoot them at point blank range.
Anger and shame at the way human beings behave towards animals are curiously mixed emotions. As gardeners and house-holders we are only too anxious to get rid of slugs and rabbits and rats. Our pesticides are indiscriminate. We make friends with cows and pigs, and then eat them. We agonize over a lost cat or an injured dog, and acquiesce in thousands of their kind being used in medical research. Few of us who cheerfully eat meat would really like to know what goes on inside abattoirs, and shoppers looking for cheap food have a vested interest in not asking too many questions about factory farming.
In short, we are in a muddle about our relationship to other creatures. When I say ‘we’ I mean our civilization, a whole way of life which has achieved its present level of comfort and security by ruthless exploitation of the natural world. Few would want to return to the stage of civilization, still shared by millions of our fellow human beings, in which a crop failure, a plague of locusts, or an epidemic can spell utter disaster. We have had too many terrible reminders in recent months of how precarious human societies can be. But alongside this exploitation has grown a feeling for nature, which expresses itself in conservation programmes, in a delight in animals for their own sakes, in a sense of kinship with “all creatures great and small”, and in a nagging sense of guilt about what we do to them.
The muddle arises, I suspect, partly out of the very security which our exploitation has won for us. Those who struggle on the margins of survival cannot afford to be sentimental. Those who pioneered modern medicine through what may seem to us now to have been horrifying experiments, were battling against ignorance, pain and disease on a scale which in their eyes entirely justified what they were doing. The new sensibility about animals is not a wholly modern thing. It has been growing for centuries, but we are now in a position to reflect about it more urgently and more dispassionately than those in previous generations who felt they had no choice.
Our understanding of ourselves as part of an evolutionary process has also sharpened the issues. On the one hand we have been made aware that the gulf between human life and other forms of life is not as great as was once supposed. It is true that we are “made in the image of God”. But the whole creation also reflects his glory. Human beings have unique possibilities of relationship with God. We can justifiably claim that evolution reaches its climax in this God-given awareness of the divine source and ground of the whole process. There is no reason to suppose, however, that this relationship with God is totally exclusive. Does God not delight in the other things he has made? And if he does, and if he has enabled us to see more clearly the links between them and us, how should we treat them? Paradoxically, though, the exploration of this relationship in an evolving world, has also revealed the extent to which all living creatures exploit each other. Big fish eat little fish…. and so on ad infinitum.
I do not pretend to be able to find a way through this muddle. I simply draw attention to it as one which our civilization is going to have to tackle, and in which Christians ought to play a more constructive role than has often been the case in the past. There is a danger in becoming so obsessed with issues of direct personal importance, that we neglect to be good stewards of the wonderful world in which God has put us, a world we have to learn to share with his other creatures.
The alternative is the kind of vicious polarization of attitudes which takes its most extreme and unattractive form in the violent tactics of some of the animal ‘liberation’ movements. Animal welfare groups in general often do their cause a disservice by the stridency of their literature with its ‘shock horror’ approach, by their one-sidedness, and by their failure to respond sensitively to the muddle in which most people actually find themselves.
I can appreciate and share the feelings of anger at unnecessary cruelty. I am saddened by the insensitivity with which some people, including Christians, still display towards animal suffering. But I am convinced that we cannot develop more humane attitudes towards animals by hating our fellow human beings. The way lies through a deeper understanding of the rich and complex lives of animals themselves, through a greater respect for their different forms of sentience, and through a readiness to see them as having their own value in the eyes of God.
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