The Covenant with All Living Creatures - Hope for the Future
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy


Stephen R. L. Clark

Hope for the Future

God's oracle to Isaiah: `the wolf lives with the lamb, the panther lies down with the kid, calf and lion cub feed together with a little boy to lead them. The cow and the bear make friends, their young lie down together. The lion eats straw like the ox. The infant plays over the cobra's hole; into the viper's lair the young child puts his hand. They do no hurt, no harm, on all my holy mountain, for the country is filled with the knowledge of Yahweh as the waters swell the sea.' The covenant of peace lies on the far side of a transformation, for God `will create new heavens and a new earth, and the past will not be remembered, and will come no more to men's minds'.

So what is the effect of this belief, that `from the beginning till now the entire creation ... has been groaning in one great act of giving birth'? In the new world none will hurt or harm; here, it often seems, we - which is all of sentient creation - are condemned to hurt and harm each other. `You bring darkness on, night falls, all the forest animals come out: savage lions roaring for their prey, claiming their food from God.' If, as so many people hasten to insist, `animals were given to us', it is only because we have all been `given' to each other: given, in part, that we may care for, and respect, each other. We should care for the weak and helpless, `champion the widow, defend the cause of the fatherless, give to the poor, protect the orphan, clothe the naked'. Even when we have done that, we shall be in the wrong, and need forgiveness: but maybe we need not trouble ourselves to do much more. In the new world, there will be no marriages, no temples and no courts of law. There, we shall call no man `father'. There, we shall be naked and unashamed. But it does not wholly follow that we should try to live by those laws here and now. Vegetarians, according to Karl Barth, are trying, like conscientious nudists, to anticipate the Kingdom - though the case would be more convincing if it were not so easy for us (I say nothing about lions, nor yet the Inuit) to be vegetarian.

Some of those who live in expectation of an imminent parousia have seemed to conclude that, being in the image of God, we are now entitled to do as we please with things. After all, some say, if this-world-here is due for demolition, then God himself must think it's garbage. But `those who boast of the dignity of their nature and the advantages of their station and thence infer their right of oppression of their inferiors, exhibit their folly as well as their malice.' Nebuchadnezzar learnt the hard way that `God has power to humble those who walk in pride'. `Let that mind be in us that was also in Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God did not think to snatch at equality with God'. A few of us many manage to make appropriate vows of poverty, chastity, non-violence, obedience, and to greet each other - which again is all of us - as the children of God we hope to be considered. We may strive to see that `garbage' is only in the eye of the beholder, that to be at all is to be something, to be informed, illuminated, by a real form, an aspect of God's Grandeur. Because this is indeed a radical alternative, which few of us adopt, we usually console ourselves by thinking of it, rather than attempting it. As Orwell commented: `we all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are "enlightened" all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our "enlightenment", demands that the robbery shall continue' - so we are satisfied with saying that we wish to stop. The world we actually inhabit is not that real world we say we believe in, but one constructed around the life we actually live.

Pigs, according to Chrysippus, should be reckoned locomotive meals, with souls instead of salt to keep them fresh. Trees, according to a recent, astonishingly ignorant columnist, are only bits of wood. The bloated turkeys bred for Christmas tables are incapable of natural reproduction, so they must be artefacts.

`There is a price to be paid for fabricating around us a society which is as artificial and as mechanized as our own; and this is that we can exist in it only on condition that we adapt ourselves to it. This is our punishment'.

Once we have abandoned anthropocentric fantasies of this sort we should ask instead how God, the transforming God, would have us think of pigs, of trees, of Nature, and how, in expectation of the Coming, we should treat them. Nothing is `just garbage'; nothing is `just a pig'; even of a fish it is blasphemy to say it is only a fish, or of a flower that it is `only a growth like any other'.

The Noahic covenant permits us to make use of other creatures, in a ruined world, so long as we do not use their blood, which is their life. The Mosaic law lays down further, explicit principles: we may not, for example, muzzle the oxen that tread out the corn, nor take mother and young from any nest, nor take a calf, lamb or kid from its mother till seven days after its birth, nor boil a kid in its own mother's milk, nor leave a beast trapped in a well on the pretext that today is holy, nor yoke ox and ass together, nor plough up all the fields, in every year, and so deprive the wild things of their livelihood. I am aware, before you tell me so, that many of these laws may once have had a ritual or anagogical significance. `Does God care for oxen? Or is the reference clearly to ourselves?' I see no reason not to answer: `Both'. `For all existing things are dear to thee and thou hatest nothing that thou hast created - why else wouldst thous have made it?' (Wisdom 11.24). That is certainly how they have been taken, in Rabbinic, Christian and Islamic commentary. They may indeed have their beginnings in religion rather than human morals, in the vision of what shall be rather than the plan to do as well as we can here-now. But maybe that is where the love even of humanity begins: not in the bargains struck by desperate brigands which modern moralists sometimes identify as the real form of morals, but in the revelation that we may yet be gods.

All these laws are regularly broken now, and all the laws that echo or put fences round them. Later prophets make it clear that even permitted sacrifices, which are the only source of lawful meat, are not approved: `I am sick of holocausts of rams and the fat of calves. The blood of bulls and goats revolts me'. Once again, I am aware that these condemnations are sometimes said to be merely provisional, and that Isaiah, or the Lord, was only objecting to sacrifices made `with unclean hands': are our hands clean? But in any case, all such sacrifices ended, for those who follow Christ, at the Crucifixion. Paul accepted that Christians need not fear to eat the meat of beasts sacrificed to idols, but only on the assumption that by doing so they did not worship demons, and on condition that this `liberty' did not become a pitfall for the weak. Those tempted to continue eating meat - and doing all the other things that amount to that - should perhaps now wonder what it is they worship, and refrain. Everything God made is good, no doubt: but that is a very strange reason to treat it just as `useful', or to suppose that everything it does, or has done to it, must be perfectly alright. I am told that Islamic commentators have also argued that animal sacrifice, and meat-eating, is permitted, or even required - but the assumption is still made that the animals have really been treated justly. If (as I suppose) they haven't, then the sacrifice is unclean.

Turning aside from the mechanized, anthropocentric world to the world promised by the prophets (even if we cannot get there by ourselves, or swiftly) is a wakening.

`We live in a world of unreality and dreams. To give up our imaginary position as the centre, to renounce it, not only intellectually but in the imaginative part of our soul, that means to awaken to what is real and eternal, to see the true light and hear the true silence. A transformation then takes place at the very roots of our sensibility, in our immediate reception of sense impressions and psychological impressions. It is a transformation analogous to that which takes place in the dusk of evening on a road, where we suddenly discern as a tree what we had at first seen as a stooping man; or where we suddenly recognize as a rustling of leaves what we thought at first was whispering voices. We see the same colours, we hear the same sounds, but not in the same way. To empty ourselves of our false divinity, to deny ourselves, to give up being the centre of the world in imagination, to discern that all points in the world are equally centres and that the true centre is outside the world, this is to consent to the rule of mechanical necessity in matter and of free choice at the centre of each soul. Such consent is love. The face of this love which is turned towards thinking persons is the love of our neighbour: the face turned towards matter is love of the order of the world, or love of the beauty of the world which is the same thing.

Weil here draws too rigid, too Cartesian a distinction between thinking persons and matter: there are innumerable grades of being, tradition tells us, `below' and `above' the thinking person. `The moral consequence of faith in God', so Niebuhr tells us, `is the universal love of all being in Him. ... This is [faith's] requirement: that all beings, not only our friends, but also our enemies, not only men but also animals and the imanimate, be met with reverence, for all are friends in the friendship of the one to whom we are reconciled in faith'. How can we be reconciled to God, if we show no mercy to our neighbour? `If a man nurses anger against another, can he then demand compassion from the Lord?' (Ecclesiasticus 28.2f).

Go on to Bargains within the Covenant 

Return to Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion