Animals - What are they for anyway?

Special guest post from Dr Glen O'Brien

Mark Twain once said that human beings have a lot to learn from the higher animals. Investigation of interspecies spirituality and animals as religious subjects is new territory for most of us. But increasingly scientists, including psychologists, have begun to investigate such questions as whether animals dream, wonder, contemplate death, are conscious of themselves and others, have a sense of right and wrong, shame, loyalty etc. that go beyond the usual explanations of such things as purely instinctual responses devoid of what we humans call “reflection.” 

Philosophers have led the way in this discussion; theologians have been much less vocal. Andrew Rowan, Dean of Special Programs at Tufts University’s School of Veterinary Medicine in the USA has observed that “within the last fifteen to twenty years contemporary moral philosophers have written more on the topic of human responsibility to other animals than their predecessors had written in the previous two thousand years.”

This is certainly a new trend since philosophers have usually avoided the subject of animals very carefully. Albert Schweitzer famously compared the place of animals in European philosophy with a kitchen floor scrubbed clean by a housewife who is “careful to see that the door is shut lest the dog should come in and ruin the finished job with its footprints.” If we accept that “moral education…is about finding within us an ever-increasing sense of the worth of creation...” then this must include a sense of moral awareness regarding the place of animals within creation. What are animals for anyway?  The traditional Christian faith is that they are for our exploitation and use. They exist for human consumption, to lighten our labour, and to entertain and delight us. But there are important theological resources that broaden our understanding of and relationship to animals and I would like to raise some of those here.

It cannot be denied that traditional views have led to some outrageous treatment of God’s other creatures. Joseph Ricaby, SJ states that “Brute beasts, not having understanding, and therefore, not being persons, cannot have any rights.” When Robert Mortimer, formerly Anglican Bishop of Exeter, was asked to defend fox-hunting he stated that it reinforced “man’s high place in the hierarchy of being.” The Dictionary of Moral Theology published in 1962 stated “[Lovers of animals] often lose sight of the end for which animals were created by God, viz., the service and use of man… moral doctrine teaches that animals have no rights on the part of man.” More recently the 1995 Catholic Catechism has stated that “animals, like plants, and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present and future humanity,” and that “they may be used to serve the just satisfaction of man’s needs.” Of course, the idea that animals exist only for the benefit of humans predates Christianity. Aristotle held, for example, that since “nature makes nothing without some end in view, nothing to no purpose, it must be that nature has made [animals and plants] for the sake of man.”

In Animal Theology, Andrew Linzey, of Oxford University, a leading theologian and ethicist who has written extensively on the rights of animals challenges these views by asking three questions: 1. Should we show reverence, or respect, to animals? 2. Do we have a responsibility to animals? and 3. Do animals have rights? He proposes that all three questions should be answered in the affirmative. "Animals have the right to be animals. The natural life of a...creature is a gift from God. When we take over the life of an animal to the extent of distorting its natural life for no other purpose than our own gain, we fall into sin...Confining a de-beaked hen in a battery cage is more than a moral crime; it is a living sign of our failure to recognize the blessing of God in creation." In 1988, the World Council of Churches, commissioned a theological consultation which issued recommendations concerning the church’s failure to teach respect for animals. “Freedom [from oppression and for life with God] should not be so limited [to humans] because other creatures, both species and individuals, deserve to live in and for themselves and for God. Therefore we call on all Christians as well as other people of good will to work toward the liberation of life, all life.” 

What about vegetarianism?  This is seen by many as an appropriate Christian response to the inevitable exploitation and suffering of animals involved in the food industry.  Linzey thinks so: "It will be obvious that humans can live healthy, stimulating and rewarding lives without white veal, pate de foie gras...or cheap eggs...The Christian argument for vegetarianism…is simple: since animals belong to God, have value to God and live for God, then their needless destruction is sinful. In short: animals have some right to their life, all circumstances being equal...There were doubtless good reasons, partly theological, partly cultural and partly economic, why Christians in the past have found vegetarianism unfeasible. We do well not to judge too hastily, if at all. We cannot relive others’ lives, or think their thoughts, or enter their consciences...But what we can be sure about is that living without... ‘avoidable ill’ has a strong moral claim upon us now."

It has to be admitted that a biblical theology of animals is not enunciated in any systematic way in Scripture.  It’s interesting to note however that the Hebrew phrase nefesh chaya (“a living soul” or “creature”) is applied in the Old Testament to animals as well as to humans (Genesis 1:21-24). God is said to have established covenants with animals as well as with humans (Genesis 9:9-10; Hosea 2:18-22). The Bible expresses wonder at God’s creation, Jesus spoke of God’s concern even for a single sparrow, and Isaiah envisions a time when the lion will lie down with the lamb. Paul sees, in Romans 8, the whole creation (which must include animals) subjected to frustration through human sin, and that same creation participating, in some sense in the glorious liberty of the children of God yet to be revealed. Vegetarianism was the first dietary practice of the original creation (Genesis 1:29). Permission to eat animals was given after the flood but restrictions were placed on which animals could be eaten (kosher laws). According to Rabbi Abraham Kook, the Old Testament includes the goal of eventually restoring humanity to a vegetarian diet (Isaiah 11:69). All of this indicates a significant place for animals in the divine order.

One problem for Christian vegetarians who maintain that there exists an ethical imperative to avoid meat eating, is that Jesus ate meat. A simple syllogism demonstrates this problem. Jesus was without sin. Jesus ate meat. Therefore, eating meat is not sinful. Christian animal ethicists are aware of all this of course but maintain that a meat-eating Saviour does not disprove their claim that the best ethical response of Christians in the developed world today is vegetarianism.

The mandating by God of animal sacrifice in the Old Testament might suggest that the killing of animals per se cannot be wrong. But animal sacrifice was viewed by those who practiced it, not simply as the destruction of life, but as the returning to the Creator that which was God’s gift. Thus, sacrifice at least affirmed the value of the life taken. This is a far cry from today’s situation where billions of cattle are systematically raised and slaughtered for no other purpose than that they become hamburger patties.

In John Wesley’s sermon No. 64, “The New Creation,” written in 1785, the founder of Methodism looked forward to the plant and animal kingdom sharing in the final cosmic renewal. The greatest change of all will be “An unmixed state of holiness and happiness far superior to that which Adam enjoyed in paradise.” There is here no sitting around on clouds playing golden harps while in some disembodied state. The bodily resurrection will be matched by a cosmic renewal of all creation. What implications might this have for a Christian view of animals? If we are to treat our bodies with respect for they are the temples of the Holy Spirit, and will one day be raised in glory, how then should we treat the natural world, including animals, which will also share in that cosmic renewal?

In “The General Deliverance” (Sermon 60) Wesley views the pre-fallen animal creation as “more highly exalted in intelligence than they are today.” Therefore, it did not surprise Eve to hear the serpent speak. Humanity was the channel of conveyance between God and the creation. When this channel was blocked or broken the “brute creation” was plunged into the fall along with Adam and Eve.  The brute creation groans and, though we don’t hear it, God does. “He knoweth all their pain, and is bringing them nearer and nearer to the birth which shall be accomplished in its season.” Wesley foresees even the possibility of animals being exalted to the present intellectual ability of human beings.

Some have argued that the Western tradition up until Descartes believed that animals had souls. Wesley seems to hold this view, speculating that God might even give animals, in the redeemed order, the capacity to love God. "May I be permitted," Wesley asks, "to conjecture concerning the brute creation? What, if it should then please the all-wise, the all-gracious Creator to raise them higher in the scale of beings? What, if it should please him, when he makes us “equal to angels,” to make them what we are now, - creatures capable of God; capable of knowing and loving and enjoying the Author of their being?"

John Wesley thought that the creation of a new world, purged of everything that hurts or kills, was the only final answer to the problem of evil.  Perhaps such an eschatological scenario will help give us greater compassion toward animals. According to Wesley, God is concerned “every moment for what befalls every creature upon earth; and more especially for anything that befalls any of the children of men.” Wesley adopted a vegetarian diet though it is not clear that it was out of concern for animals (it may have been simply part of his asceticism.)  His overall point here though is that all of God’s wisdom is employed for the good of his creatures, both human and non-human; therefore, all creatures great and small have a future in God.

Believers are called to live out in the now, the principles of the world that is to come. Generally the Christian tradition has respected the body, since it is destined for resurrection. Paul, for example, argues against both gluttony and fornication (in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20), on the basis that the body will participate in the resurrection. Nothing should be done with the body in this world that would be inappropriate in the next. A similar respect needs to be learned for the physical environment and for non-human life forms, since these also will participate in the general restoration of all things in the new heavens and the new earth. As an eschatological community, the Church is to give a watching world some glimpse of that world to come if it is to be faithful to its trust. There are a variety of ways in which believers bear witness to this future; vegetarianism is one.

To return to the original question – What are animals for anyway?  If they exist only for human exploitation as a food source, or as pets, or as labour devices they may be viewed in an entirely instrumental way, as means toward the end of human flourishing.  But what if they are the objects of God’s reconciling and recreating love? What if they will share with us in that greater participation in the divine brought on by the new creation? Vegetarianism and/or animal rights activism need not be every Christian’s response to this, but I would suggest that we all do need to think more seriously about how we relate to non-human species than has formerly been the case. 

[Pipeline+pic.jpg]What Glen says about himself...
I'm married to Lynda and we have four children and two grandchildren. I live in Mernda just beyond Melbourne's northern limit. I serve as Head of Humanities and Lecturer in History and Theology at Booth College, in Sydney (I commute) and have until recently been an ordained minister in the Wesleyan Methodist Church, now seeking to transfer my credentials to the Uniting Church. I watch too many movies, especially classic Hollywood, and need to start thinking about alternative storage solutions for my DVDs. As for music, I like it all. iPod therefore I am. I am a book enthusiast with a growing collection of classic theology texts, paperbacks from the classic era of crime fiction and Silver and Bronze Age (1960s and 70s) comics.


  1. Thank You Glen. Bit too soggy to take it all in at the moment... but I appreciate your thoughts and reflections very much.


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