Is Christianity Irredeemably Speciesist?


Prompted by the previous post announcement of the Oxford Animal Ethics Centre, I thought I would post my thoughts/notes on the topic of speciesism, after I took a seminar with Revd Prof Andrew Linzey. And I can't remember ever reading a blog post on this topic (although I'm sure there are some, let me know if you know any?)

Speciesism: Is the assumption of human superiority leading to the exploitation of animals.

Background: why is this an issue we need to examine?

We have had the arbitrary favouring of one species (humans) from others and have seen the exploitation of billions of sentient species. When it comes to sentience, we know that not just humans suffer mental pain but animals/birds also suffer the mental anticipation of pain. Animals exhibit a great deal of sentience, and we are discovering they have more every day.

There has been a dominant idea that, animals are here for our use. Historically is has been a standard Christians idea, that has less to do with the bible and more with greek philosophy. For example,

- Aristotle said “Animals are made for us”. - Within Scholastic Thomism: the imperfect (animals) are made for the perfect (humans). - St.Thomas Aquinas: builds on Aristotle word for word. “For by divine providence they are intended for man’s use according to the order of nature.”

In the west we have had theological support to kill animals as we want and to use them in anyway we want. We have had a Gastro-centric view of the universe.The idea of what are animals for if they are not to be eaten?

After Aquinas some other negatives with regards to animals continue to develop. Animals have no; Mind, Reason, Souls, Sentiency, Status, Rights.

This flowed from a rational hierarchy, that the scholastics bequeathed to the world, that had men above women, humans above animals, etc.(Based on reason, women are less rational etc. see my post on christian sexism.)

Catholic tradition has never denied animals have souls, but they have asserted that animals don’t have rational souls and therefore eternal souls. And you cannot have a rational soul unless you are a rational person.

The we have Cartesianism as a school of thought that impacted our responses to animals. The father of this was Rene Descartes, who suggested that all animals are unable to think and are thereby 'dumb animals'. This has a secular counter part in behaviourism where the pain of animals was regarded as the creaking of machinery. For example Descartes compared a sparrow to a clock. It's interesting that in so many emerging church discussions of the mechanistic reductionism of modernity, we can see that so visibly with this topic/theme.

So Animals have no value in themselves, and no status, only in how they impact others.They have no rights, and are tools, machines and commodities.

Three Strands So there have been three strands at the centre of Christian thinking in this area:

1. Humanism: Were animals don’t matter, and are not on the moral radar. 2. Dualism: Of Flesh/spirit – body/soul – spiritual/earthly – higher/lower. Animals are always defined as being on the other side of these dualism, to the detriment of animals. 3. Instrumentalism: Animals are ‘instruments’ for our use

We have had a humancentricity in our thinking about animals, where only humans matter, only human interests count, and God doesn’t care about animals, or seem to, so why should we? Our ideas have been distorted, our vision of animals has been filtered by some of these christian beliefs.

Reclaiming a Positive Tradition How do we recover a biblical understanding of creatures in the face of this history of animal abuse? Maybe by:

1. Seeing that Creation has value: We are all fellow creatures, animals are not machines or tools. Jesus says we are worth more than many sparrows (LK 12:7), not to denegrate sparrows but to remind us that the cooked sparrow bits on sticks that the disciples might have bought and been eating, show that God remembers even them!

2. Covenant with all creatures:Being made in the Image of God is as a servant species, not a master species, as we so often interpret. Karl Barth suggested that God elects human beings into covenant with God, and he makes the covenant with all living creators. God has made a covenant with all of creation, and all of his creatures not just human beings.

3. Redemption of all creation: Jesus the word of God (logos) is the source and destiny of all created things. The Incarnation is God's yes to the special-ness of human beings, but it is also His yes to all flesh and beings. The incarnation is God’s love affair with human beings to raise us up to tend to the whole of his creation. In that context how can that be a licence to exploit anyone, or anything? Despite some of attitudes of those in church in history, the view of bible is that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of creation, that gives life to all creation and creatures, and not just humans!

What is the goal of creation of Genesis 1? The Sabbath experience is when the whole of the good creation enters into the experience of blessedness that God has purposed for it. The God who creates is the God who redeems everything. The son redeems everything, then it is sanctified by the spirit.

Sub-Traditions That Have Preserved Animal Friendly Rights There have been some traditions that have preserved a differet approach to animals and creatures in history, for instance.

1. Apocryphal Literature: 2-8th century Animals in nativity only mentioned in pseudo gospel of Matthew, from the 2nd century onwards, and are depicted on sarcophagi.

2. Hagiography: 3-14th Centuries Christian stories in legend that as we get closer to God we get closer to creation

3. Humanitarian Movement: 19th Century Wilberforce, RSPCA develops etc.

Conclusion We need a theology that reflects the Generosity of god as a creator and redeemer, and theology needs animals to save it from (Feurbach’s claim) the deification of the human species.

Perhaps Animals Can Save us From:

1. Idolatry: The constant putting of humans in the place of God. 2. Humanism: The Assumption that humans – rather than God – are the centre of the universe. 3. Hubris: Thinking that the whole purpose of creation is the salvation of the human species

This doesn’t mean we can’t use animals for labour and for food, but historically we have gone way beyond that. We have had Clergy supporting bull fighting, a house of lords with mainly the clergy voting for foxhunting, and N Ireland's Hare coursing etc.

Cruelty to animals should remain problematic to us. There are times when we must kill animals in human need, and Jesus seems to have eaten fish and meat.

Mamals and birds are beings that have the capacity for rudimentary intelligence, and ability to anitipate and experience pain, and this must challenge us. Non violence is always the Christian imperative, and not just for wars. Extending non violence to animals when we can is a way anticipating the non violent kingdom of God.

In Mark 1, Jesus is in the wilderness with the wild beasts, we just think he is outside with animals around him, but Richard Bauckham says it’s a messianic story, relating to Isaiah 11, a hint the child with the lion. Just as we used to see no place for Jesus saying anything about women in the bible, but now we do, there are things we haven’t seen about animals and creatures, that might be there after all.

Our ideas emerge so often in institutions, which perpetuate these ideas, and we go on doing things without questioning them. And Institutions perpetuate themselves. Maybe we need new institutions to reconceive ways of embodying new thoughts and approaches to animals.

Once there was an ancient tradition of how humans and animals live together, and we seem to have lost it. The life of the mind has been so highly valued, that the body had been devalued. Felt emotions and feelings have less value than reason, and Animals are caught in that movement, where they are fleshly, worldly, corruptible.

Christina Rosette said, ‘Other eyes than ours were made to look upon the flowers’ . Not just human beings see the world, there are other perceptions to seeing the world. Living a life fed by a sense of awe and wonder, is surely what we were made to be. Do we stop and wonder, and reflect on the creators creation.

There is an encounter with creatures, that we are missing. Children on housing estates, and in urban areas are being dehumanised by disconnection to creation and being able to see animals. Like architecture where many of us need a guide to help develop a visual awareness, we probably need help with finding guidance to see the creation in ways hinted at in this post.