December 15, 2004
Imago Dei

Thanks for all the great comments, everyone. A lot of subjects came up, so let me deal with them one at a time.

If there's one constant on this blog, it's that everywhere I turn I seem to run into Stanley Hauerwas. Lee gave me the link to this article by Hauerwas and John Berkman on human/animal relations. There's a lot of interesting stuff in it, but one point I want to highlight is its critique of "anthropocentrism":

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.

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. The presumption of this dominant view has been forcefully challenged by Millard Schumaker, who argues that this stance owes far more to Cartesian presuppositions than to Christian theology. There is simply no good theological reason for claiming that what it means to be human is to possess some unique capacity that distinguishes humankind from that which is non-human.

This is why I objected to cutting animals completely out of salvation: it seems based on an anemic cogito ergo sum version of what it means to be human. In terms of separating moral from natural evil, it turns being human into a kind of legal standing, like "mental competence," that grants you certain rights and makes you morally culpable for certain actions. Yet I don't feel that such legalisms get to the heart of fallenness or salvation.

This passage also reminds me of Desmond Morris' belief that religion requires a sharp division between human and animal, stemming from a conviction that only humans have souls. If this were disproven, all religion would come crashing down. (This must come as a surprise to Hindus.) Some Christians seem to agree. The Assemblies of God defend their creationism by arguing that "If mankind has merely evolved from lower forms of life, one cannot possess the special imprint of Godís likeness."

However, for Hauerwas and Berkman, the "likeness" of God describes not ensoulment but action:

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 good creation. Thus, following Schumaker, Christians must not understand "image of God" to be based on any metaphysical or morphological 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.

They then go on to argue for vegetarianism, as a way for Christians to prefigure the "peaceable kingdom." I'm not so sure about that, partly because vegetarianism really isn't all that nonviolent -- between the underground critters torn up in tillage and the intended and accidental deaths from pesticides, crop-raising is virtually as destructive to animal life as livestock raising. (Not to mention, as Tom pointed out, that it's pretty destructive to the plants.) So I don't think anyone on this side of heaven can break from the life-eating-life cycle. But I do agree that viewing animals as fellow creatures of God, made for his glory and not our use, demands that we treat them better.

Posted by Camassia at December 15, 2004 07:41 PM | TrackBack

Dear Camassia,

I think that I can outline two different ways through which we can theologically see "animals as fellow creatures of God."

1. The human is a priest of creation, or, in the late Orthodox theologian Philip Sherard's words, "he who offers the world to God in his praise and worship and who simultaneously bestows divine love and beauty upon the world." Metropolitan John (Zizoulas) of Pergamon expands on this:

"According to Patristic theology man was created, material and spirit, to be a microcosm of creation. Angels, being spiritual creations only, cannot bring the material world into contact with God. As the priests of creation we have the unique mission and great responsibility of uniting God and the material world. Our task is not simply to preserve creation but to purify it and elevate it to the level of divine existence. This act of elevation, the referring of creation to its creator, is the essence of our priesthood; thus creation is sanctified and partakes of the blessings that participating in divine life involves. ...The salvation of human beings which is offered by and in Christ, is for us a cosmic event. Through human beings all creation will be saved. Christ not only saves us from ourselves, he offers the redemption of the whole of creation. The incarnation of the Son of God as man was nothing but assuming human nature, not to save man in his own right, but because it carries with it the rest of creation by implication."

Metropolitan John suggests that the ascetic experience lets us "participate in the suffering of the whole of creation, even to the extent of weeping over the death of a bird or animal," and also that "human beings, by participating in the Eucharist, participate in a redeemed material world."

2. The biblical exegete Richard Bauckham would suggest that this Orthodox conception remains too hierarchical; he instead suggests that a "horizontal model of fellow-creatureliness in the praise of God exists in counterpoise to the vertical model of human dominion over other creatures." He is able to draw on past examples of human spiritual solidarity with animals - St Francis of Assisi, beginning with his famous sermon to the birds, "carefully exhorted all birds all animals, all reptiles, and also insensible creatures, to praise and love their Creator, because daily, invoking the name of the Savior, he observed their obedience in his own experience" (Thomas of Celano, First Life of St Francis, 58).

Baukham goes on to write:

"In the order of praise in Ps 148 and the Benedicite every creature is called to worship before humans are invited to join them. The creatures help us to worship primarily by their otherness that draws us out of our self-absorption into a world that exists not for us but for God's glory. This is what happens to Job in chapters 38-39, when the Lord speaking out of the whirlwind displays his whole creation to Job, from the immensity of the stellar universe to the sheer stupidity of the ostrich and the soaring otherness of the eagle. it is not just the moments of breathtaking beauty that help us to worship God, but the endlessly remarkable quiddity of other creatures, their being themselves in all the strangeness, intricacy and difference that God has given to each. This being themselves is their glorification of God, the way they continuously give back to God the glory the Creator has given them, and so for believers in God to attend to their quiddity is also to recognize the greater glory of the Creator who surpasses them."

So, we can think about the human-animal relationship in terms of the either the priesthood or fellow-creatureliness of the former.



Posted by: Neil on December 16, 2004 08:23 AM

Camassia, thanks for this discussion. I appreciate both of the perspectives that Neil outlined above. If we reconsider hierarchical as a diversity of gifts (including leadership) rather than top-down/better-than modelling, the Orthodox perception has merit. Some Orthodox writers, such as Fr. John Chryssavgis, are in fact reconsidering hierarchy in this manner. I also appreciate the fellow creatureliness model because it works well within the wisdom traditions I've been talking about.

I have trouble with anthropocentric modelling, as my relationships with animals, just watching them play, sit, eat, shows to me that they have their own ways of offering praise in voice and action to our Holy Creator--the Psalmist seems to think so as well. Plants even "sing". So I tend to think of plants and animals in partnership with us.

Our puppy "friend" (Friend is our common address to him) even joins my partner and when we meditate and pray (and who knows how his ways of prayer and praise might not join ours?), and he seems to know when it's "quiet time", time to stop playing, barking, jumping for a bit when we dim the lights and light a candle to the ikon of the BVM.

My seminary prof. once asked, "What kind of heaven would it be without animals and plants?" I agree, a poor heaven indeed. They shape our lives in so many ways. In his book, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis describes one scene where the passenger meets a woman in heaven glowing brightly surrounded by umpteen cats. He at first thinks this is the BVM, but the bus driver explains that she was a woman relatively unknown in life, but who had great love, and all of these cats were strays she took in, and by her love became themselves. I would add that by their love, she became more fully herself as well.

As for vegetarianism or not, I agree that vegetarianism in and of itself can also have violent effects. I tend more toward a sanctifying and mindful approach that through prayer and thanks to G-d and for the life of the plants and animals at every partaking and occasional abstinence and fasting, remembers that all is for the glory of G-d. I fail at times in our hurried world, but this is my trajectory. And limiting meat consumption or eating all together, say even on Fridays, is a way of keeping mindful of those fellow creatures whose lives we take to live.

lux Christi

Posted by: Christopher on December 16, 2004 09:32 AM

My seminary prof. once asked, "What kind of heaven would it be without animals and plants?" I agree, a poor heaven indeed.

A "poor heaven"? You mean being stuck there with nothing but God?

Posted by: Tom on December 16, 2004 12:02 PM

Dear Tom,

I think that your question suggests that heaven is some sort of escape from nature and history where God ultimately replaces His creation. I think that a more biblical eschatology imagines heaven as the restoration of the whole creation, inclusive of plants and animals. "In that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the creatures that move along the ground" (Hosea 2:18).

I know that you will mention that St Thomas and St Bonaventure claim that animals will not be in heaven. But you might want to also consider these words of St Irenaeus:

"And again [Isaiah] says, in recapitulation, 'Wolves and lambs shall then browse together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and the serpent earth as if it were bread; and they shall neither hurt nor annoy anything in my holy mountain, saith the Lord.' I am quite aware that some persons endeavour to refer these words to the case of savage men, both of different nations and various habits, who come to believe, and when they have believed, act in harmony with the righteous. But although this is [true] now with regard to some men coming from various nations to the harmony of the faith, nevertheless in the resurrection of the just [the words shall also apply] to those animals mentioned. For God is rich in all things. And it is right that when the creation is restored, all the animals should obey and be in subjection to man, and revert to the food originally given by God (for they had been originally subjected in obedience to Adam), that is, the productions of the earth. But some other occasion, and not the present, is [to be sought] for showing that the lion shall [then] feed on straw. And this indicates the large size and rich quality of the fruits. For if that animal, the lion, feeds upon straw [at that period], of what a quality must the wheat itself be whose straw shall serve as suitable food for lions?"

Thank you.


Posted by: Neil on December 16, 2004 03:28 PM


I am far less concerned with whether animals will be present in the new creation than with the poverty of thought which leads some to think that the presence of God would be insufficient.

Posted by: Tom on December 16, 2004 07:26 PM

Is it a matter of the presence of God being insufficient? I would have thought it more a regret that such a heaven would leave animals and plants in some sense unredeemed.

I mean, we believe in bodily resurrection, right? The incarnation and resurrection are a sign that our bodies are (maybe in some really weird changed way, as Paul's epistles suggest, and not just as they are now) part of what gets restored. But, if all God had to offer us was spiritual resurrection, no bodies at all, it would still be sufficient, because it would be, well, what God was offering, and would include the presence of God. So, in some sense, nothing is lacking, whether we get a bodily resurrection or not. And yet, I find something valuable in the belief that our bodies also matter to God, that they're not just vessels for our spirits.

In the same way, I would hope that animals would also be part of the new creation.

Posted by: Lynn Gazis-Sax on December 16, 2004 08:33 PM

Well, of course for Catholics a no-bodies-at-all resurrection is a non-starter. But yes, I do think for many people it is a matter of the presence of God being insufficient.

I know a theologically sophisticated thinker who says heaven wouldn't be heaven if his wife weren't there; plenty of unsophisticated thinkers feel the same way. No one blames them, and to the extent it is motivated by (or motivates) a desire for the spouse's salvation it's even laudable. But to the extent it is motivated by an assertion of what is and isn't necessary for one's personal beatitude, it is, I suppose you could say, an unredeemed outlook.

Posted by: Tom on December 17, 2004 05:17 AM

I know a theologically sophisticated thinker who says heaven wouldn't be heaven if his wife weren't there; plenty of unsophisticated thinkers feel the same way.

Given that in-laws come along with wives this may be an argument against the possibility of heaven...

Posted by: Zippy on December 17, 2004 06:56 AM

There is a saying of Jesus that makes it explicit that there are no wives in heaven. Your sophisticated friend's error is in using the possessive term "wife" with regard to a soul eternally set free by the Truth.

Posted by: Rob on December 17, 2004 10:52 AM

Anyone who thinks the term "wife" is possessive has not met any of the women in my family.

Posted by: Zippy on December 17, 2004 11:41 AM

You make an excellent point, but one that would have horrified St. Paul.

Posted by: Rob on December 17, 2004 11:53 AM

Well at least St. Paul took the high road with respect to the chicken hawk argument and didn't send men off to war when he had never fought in one himself. (We are discussing marriage, right?)

Posted by: Zippy on December 17, 2004 01:18 PM

Marriage? Now I'm confused. I had thought that we were discussing the problem of evil as it relates to omniscience, omnibenevolence, and the ability to choose a righteous and unequivocally manly beverage.

Posted by: Rob on December 17, 2004 01:38 PM

Well it follows conclusively that if there are going to be animals, in-laws, and (former earthly) wives in heaven then there better at least be good scotch!

Posted by: Zippy on December 17, 2004 02:25 PM

I wonder which makes more urgent the need for 'good' scotch--(former earthly) wives, or (earthly) former wives?

Posted by: Rob on December 17, 2004 02:44 PM

Ah, a theological topic near and dear to my heart, the teleology of distillation and cherry-cask maturation as it relates to women.

A Catholic ought not tell this sort of joke Rob, but it is Friday:

Do you know why divorce is so expensive?

(drum roll...)

Because it is worth it.

(Do you think Tom pointed us over here so we would be more of Camassia's problem and less of his problem? He is a sneaky one, our Tom.)

Posted by: Zippy on December 17, 2004 03:30 PM

(LoL) I had the same thought about Tom's possible sneakiness. I'm not too certain that the tenor of our badinage is quite as appropriate for Camassia's readership as it is for Tom's, who tend to deserve it.

Posted by: Rob on December 17, 2004 05:17 PM

Well, as long as the thread is deteriorating already, I feel compelled to point out C.S. Lewis's suggestion that heaven for mosquitos could easily be combined with hell for humans.

Posted by: Lynn Gazis-Sax on December 17, 2004 10:41 PM

Well, a somewhat more serious comment. I just read the Hauerwas and Berkman article and was quite impressed by it. As to those who are vegetarians for moral and ethical reasons, I think their their case is totally persuasive. I am writing this as someone who still eats meat, but I eat it because I'm too weak-willed.

It was not always so, but we can now say that in a country like the United States there is absolutely no need to eat meat. We can all lead healthy lives without any animal flesh. Yes, crop-raising can involve some violence to animals, but it does not compare to the violence and suffering inflicted on animals raised for food. And needless to say, crops also have to be raised to feed livestock animals. Unlike plants, animals feel pain and fear, especially animals with a highly developed central nervous system (mammals and birds fall into this category.) Some vegetarians are rather sanctimonious and self-righteous, but this does not change the fact that they have a strong case.

Posted by: Kolya on December 19, 2004 11:19 AM

I think it depends on how the animals are raised. I don't think there's a real excuse for factory farming, so I make a point of buying meat and dairy from animals that were raised under better conditions. But there's actually reason to believe that farm animals (and crops, for that matter) became domesticated not so much from humans subjugating them as that they co-evolved to be interdependent over thousands of years.

Consider the aurochs, for instance. It's the ancestor of domestic cattle, and has been extinct for millennia. From the aurochs' point of view, becoming domesticated ensured its survival. That fate was much better for it than becoming another large animal (and aurochs were even bigger than domestic cattle) competing with humans for space. If we had been vegetarian, much of its pastureland would probably be farmed, and it would likely be extinct in any case.

Hauerwas and Berkman referred vaguely to this problem, but didn't really deal with it. I do think our modern society is terrible at animal husbandry, but I'm not convinced this means we shouldn't husband animals at all.

Posted by: Camassia on December 27, 2004 07:06 PM

Let me recommend Stephen Webb's "Good Eating" - a very helpful non-dogmatic discussion of using animals for food:

One point Webb makes that I think it's helpful to remember is that there's no "pure" stance we can take that absolves us from cooperation in evil & suffering. The kinds of choices we make can gesture toward or witness to a world without violence, but they can't bring it about or take us out of it.

Certainly factory farming, for instance, imposes gross and unnecessary suffering on animals and tends to deny their very nature since it prevents them from living even the modest kinds of lives they're fitted for (also, if you get a chance to read some accounts of what goes on in industrial slaughterhouses you'll see that they're no picnic either - for the animals or the people working there).

Posted by: Lee on December 29, 2004 07:42 AM

Happy New Year, Camassia!

I'll try to be brief in my response to your comment. Once again, keep in mind that even though I find the moral argument for vegeterianism persuasive I still occasionally eat meat because of my indulgent weak will.

I agree with you that if people are going to eat meat, they should know where that meat comes from, and that they should definitely reject any meat from factory farm animals (which, alas, is most of the meat eaten in the US.) And I agree with you that when speaking in terms of species (or varieties/breeds) many of these species/breeds/varieties are flourishing today precisely because we eat them. But this does not change the fact that nowadays we don't need to eat the flesh of those animals in order to survive and that those animals are being slaughtered against their will at the prime of their lives--they are not gladly relinquishing their lives in order to feed us. Even animals raised under humane conditions die hard. The question should be: why is this *individual* animal being taken to slaughter at the prime of his life? Under most cases, the answer is that we actually didn't have to kill that animal. We did it simply to indulge our taste buds.

And I'm saying all that as a former sheepherder (out West, many years ago) and as someone who works in a farm that tries hard to follow sustainable practices. Although I work at the vegetable end of things, the farm also has some beef cattle. The cows are treated well and have a fairly good life, but I do feel very uneasy about the fact that many of these animals are killed at their prime not because we have to eat them to survive, but simply because we like their taste.

Posted by: Kolya on December 31, 2004 11:41 AM
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