Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Human Animal and Other Animals in God's Creation

This summer I am again teaching a course on the Christian doctrine of creation. Early in the semester we wrestle with the place of human beings in creation and with the idea of "human exceptionalism," the notion that human beings are qualitatively different and separate from/above all other animals. Among those most critical of this idea has been Benjamin Hale, who writes for Harpers magazine. Last summer, in honor of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, he contributed an essay on Psalm 8 that attacked "the anthropocentric ordering of the Judeo-Christian universe," a view that "enrages" him "more than anything else in the Bible." He thinks it "has fostered an attitude dominant in our culture that uncompromisingly divides 'man' from 'beast.' Christian theology requires the assumption of human exceptionalism, since the Christian heaven is a human one. It requires us to assume that we alone have a culture and the capacity for morality; that only by the light of our 'unnatural' (whether this means supernatural or contradictory to survival of the fittest) human morality can we overcome the amoral, purely self-interested State of Nature. The dichotomy that pits humanity and morality against 'nature' does not align with observations of moral, social, and altruistic behavior in primates or in many other mammals--dogs, elephants, bats--something that suggests that both the good and the bad in us have precedent in other species" (Benjamin Hale, "Lower Than the Angels," Harpers Magazine [June 2011], 38.. In the August 2012 issue of the same magazine, he has written a film review that also makes reference to his critique of "human exceptionalism.")

I recently asked my students to respond to Hale's portrayal of "the Judeo-Christian universe" and its supposed assumption of "human exceptionalism." Many defended the idea that human beings, at least as understood within the main religious traditions, are indeed different from all other animals because they can use their reason and freedom to go against "natural" impulses and instincts that serve the self (and often do harm to others). While acknowledging the biological-evolutionary connection that human beings have to all other life forms on the planet, other students argued that human beings are uniquely qualified and positioned to act differently from other animals. This is both a challenge and a threat, since human actions can both help and harm other creatures and creation itself. 

At least a couple of students questioned Hale's assumption that "Christian theology requires the assumption of human exceptionalism, since the Christian heaven is a human one." For starters, these students noted that other creatures beyond humans will populate heaven. What about angels, for example? But students also noted that the difference between human beings and other animals does not necessarily mean that humans can mistreat animals. "The righteous know the needs of their animals, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel" (Prov. 12:10). 

Still other students asked, "Is it not also possible that other animals will be brought into God's future?" What about the vision of Isaiah of God's "new heavens and new earth" (Isaiah 65:17-19; cf. Rev. 21:1), which does not merely include renewed human beings but also renewed animals? "The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent--its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain" (Is. 65:25; NRSV). This new age is further described in 11:6ff: "The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them..."

The question of "human exceptionalism," supposedly premised on an animal-less heaven, is not merely an academic issue. It is also a pastoral one. Last week our 2.5-year-old "Schnoodle," Skipper, was killed by a fast-moving car on the county road behind our house. My wife had taken him for a walk in our quiet sub-division, but upon coming home he saw a wild rabbit and got away from my wife. His instincts told him to chase that critter, and so he did--and his chasing took him right out into the road. 

I wasn't present for the accident, but shortly thereafter my neighbor and crying wife appeared at our front door. Skipper was a mess. It was clear he had suffered severe head trauma and was bleeding internally. He was unconscious but still breathing. My son, Jacob, who has had only this one pet (other than a little hamster), immediately starting screaming and crying. We all quickly jumped in the car and tried to get Skipper to a pet hospital, but he died in my wife's and son's arms in the back seat. It didn't help that all the local vet offices were closed, with it being Sunday, and the closest pet hospital was forty minutes away.

It all happened so fast. I even remember pinching myself, "Is this really happening." And then to hear as I was driving the car, "I think he's gone."

But where did he go? Did he have a "spirit" or a "soul," like the Scriptures say human beings do? Skipper certainly had "life" and "breath" in him, and we've been around enough other pets to know that he had had a distinct "personality."

Skipper's death has been like losing a child. My 13-yr-old son laments, "I have lost a brother." For the past several days, as we wander through the house, we'll see things that remind us of him, spots he used to go to (and spots he has left behind!), items he's chewed, toys he's played with. We buried him in our backyard that Monday morning and put a grave marker over the spot, just like you would for a deceased human being. Certainly, anyone who has had a beloved pet knows what I'm talking about. They really become a part of your family. You have a deeper relationship to them than you realize, until they're gone. Skipper brought us a lot of joy and laughter. He could be so goofy at times. Our lives were made fuller because of him.

Do all dogs go to heaven? Just the good ones, the loved ones? Do not the visions of Second- and Third Isaiah, and John, indicate that non-human animals, too, will be brought through death into God's new creation. I find it difficult to believe that God would create all these varied creatures, just to have them die rather senselessly, if they too were not an aspect of God's eternal plan. Why couldn't the Creator of all these animals not make a provision for them in that future world? The actions and words of St. Francis to bless animals would also suggest this possibility.

As word of Skipper's death reached other family members and friends, one of them told me that when he had been a student of Jaroslav Pelikan at Concordia Seminary, Pelikan had told them about his own pet's death and how it had affected his family. His son, too, asked him, "Will there be pets in heaven?" Dr. Pelikan responded by saying that if that was important for his son's happiness in heaven, then his son's pet would surely be there. This is what I have told my son, too.

Coincidentally, today's "Sightings" article by Carol J. Adams, "Five Religious Approaches to Thinking about Meat Eating," raises the same issue about the relation of "human beings" to "animals" in God's creation. Adams, who participated in the first-ever panel on "Animals and Religion" at the American Academy of Religion in 1994, has identified at least five approaches "for addressing the issue of the consumption of animals" that arise when one studies religion: 

1) Most religious traditions postulate a vegan beginning. In the religions that hold the Book of Genesis as a part of their scriptures, a vegan diet is pronounced as the appropriate food for human beings (Genesis 1:29); the much-contested “dominion” granted in Genesis 1:26 is dominion within a vegan world. Christopher Chapple suggests the possibility that one can trace religious ideas of the practice of nonviolence to an ancient renouncer tradition that later gave birth to Jainism and Buddhism and influenced aspects of Hinduism, including the classical yoga school. This is one of the reasons Rynn Berry calls Jainism, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism the “four ahimsa-based 'vegetarian’ religions.” What do those beginnings suggest about our relationships with other created beings?
2) As mentioned above, some find it helpful to invoke what Jesus, the Buddha, or Mohammed ate. Recently, the question has shifted to “if they were alive in our time, what would they eat now? If they learned about the way animals live and die within factory farms, what would they do?” Would they agree with the winner of the recent New York Times competition that “most present-day meat production is an ecologically foolish and ethically wrong endeavor”?
3) What is the nature of creation and what is our place in it? Some religious traditions are seen as reinforcing human-centeredness because they appear to suggest that humans are the teleological fulfillment of creation. Are we removed from creation or embedded within it? If our relationship with creation is a religious issue, and since animals are a part of creation, is not our relationship with animals also a religious issue? Karen Davis suggests in response to Aldo Leopold that before she could think like a mountain, she wanted to know if that would include thinking like a chicken. In other words, we should not lose sight of the individuals within creation.
4) What are the effects of anthropormorphizing God? Does an anthropormophic God cause us to see animals as excluded from God’s love or concern? Moreover, what is the effect of seeing humans as in God’s image? Why is being in God’s image often interpreted in view of power and manipulation and hegemony instead of compassion and mercy and emptying unconditional love? Do we anthropomorphize God out of properties that we are most likely to be using against others? We are most likely to assert the image of God when we are lording over others, and using our power. Acts of unconditional love, suspensions of judgment, mercy for the weak, kindness to animals, get associated with a picture of wishy washy ineffectualness and weakness—qualities often seen as undesirable.

5) How do we show compassion and who are our neighbors? Do animals fall within a religious call to be compassionate? Are animals our neighbors? While most religions might have what some call a “miminal treatment” ethics regarding how animals should be treated, recent writings argue for expanding that. In their Religious Vegetarianism, Kerry Walter and Lisa Portmess suggest, “Whatever the sacred and the holy are thought to be, the human slaughter of animals questions it, renders it paradoxical, demands reflection.” In my own work, I have found the writings of Simone Weil illuminating. Weil writes that all our neighbor requires of us is to ask “What are you going through?” and to be willing to listen to the answer.
What are you going through, chicken, cow, pig, lamb, fish? This may be a more profound and urgent question in the twenty-first century than ever before. 

("Sightings" comes each Monday from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.) 


Berry, Rynn. Food for the Gods: Vegetarianism and the World’s Religions. New York and Los Angeles: Pythagorean Publishers, 1998.

Chapple, Christoper Key. Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Traditions. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Davis, Karen, “Thinking Like a Chicken,” in Carol J. Adams, and Josephine Donovan, eds. Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

Walters, Kerry S. and Lisa Portmess, ed. Religious Vegetarianism from the Hesiod to the Dalai Lama. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Weil, Simone. “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to The Love of God,” in Waiting on God. London: Fontana Books, 1971. 

Carol J. Adams is the author of The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, Woman-Battering (in Fortress Press’s Creative Pastoral Care and Counseling Series), Prayers for Animals, and a four-book children’s series of prayers for animals. In addition, she has edited and co-edited five anthologies, including Ecofeminism and the Sacred. She is working on a book on theology and animals. Her website can be found at