Every living thing that moveth upon the earth

by
19 February 2016

Any theology of creation must embrace non-human creatures, argues David Clough

Christophe Boisvieux/Superstock

Adam naming the animals, St Nicholas Anapausas monastery, Meteora, Greece

Adam naming the animals, St Nicholas Anapausas monastery, Meteora, Greece

IT IS abundantly obvious that human beings are but one small part of God’s project of creation. This realisation prompted the Psalmist to ask the disturbing question: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8.3-4).

The intensity of such a reflection can only increase given the discoveries of modern cosmology: that we are the inhabitants of one of many planets orbiting one of at least 100 billion stars in our galaxy, in a universe of at least 100 billion galaxies.

Even if we drastically reduce our field of vision by confining our attention to living creatures on our own planet, human beings represent only one of around nine million species, or a few hundredths of one per cent by mass of life on earth. A Christian doctrine of creation that gives attention only to the human would clearly be absurd.

 

THE Bible celebrates the diverse abundance of creaturely life: in the Genesis 1 creation story, God declares the creatures made on each day good in themselves. The great creation psalms such as Psalm 104 set out the magnificent expanse of God’s creative project, as well as God’s intimate care for all creatures, giving food to young ravens when they cry (Psalm 147.9), to take one of many examples.

In the closing chapters of Job, God makes it clear that Job understands very little of God’s dealings with other creatures, and that God delights in great creatures, such as Leviathan and Behemot, which are far more powerful than human beings.

In the fourth century, Basil of Caesarea preached a series of sermons on the six days of creation, collected as the Hexameron, in which he is so enthusiastic about detailing the myriad creatures of each day that he has to apologise for keeping his congregation late and having little time to consider human beings.

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In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas concluded that the whole diverse creation participates in and represents divine goodness better than any single creature could individually (Summa theologia).

 

THE human anxiety expressed in Psalm 8 about humans being only one small part in God’s vast creation is resolved in the psalm by emphasising the high status that God has given humanity: “You have made them a little lower than God” and “have given them dominion over the works of your hands” (Psalm 8.5-6).

These verses echo the pivotal place given to humans in Genesis 1: to be the image of God to creation, and have dominion over the other animals. This sense of status and task reassured those who were despairing in exile, when Genesis was written, and since then has continued to reassure God’s people, when they feel abandoned and alone. Part of the good news to God’s people is that God values them, will provide for them, and that they have a significant part to play in God’s plans.

And yet, while we need to recognise that many humans individually and collectively still need the reassurance that God cares for them, we now have a different setting for our understanding of the relationship of humanity to the rest of creation. We are now in no doubt about the power of humans to affect conditions of life for all God’s other living creatures on earth, through our expanding control of land, our pollution of the environment, and the changes in the earth’s climate that we are causing through greenhouse-gas emissions.

Even the dominion given in Genesis 1 was limited: humans were given plants to eat, and did not have permission to kill other animals for food. In our current exploitation of non-human creatures, humans have become images not of the God of the Bible who is gracious to all creation, but of a tyrannical despot.

From a theology of creation, we need much more than reassurance about our own significance: we need guidance in wielding the immense power that we now realise we possess, which threatens the life of both human and non-human creatures.

 

THE theology of non-human creatures we need in these days must therefore retrieve the biblical and theological strands in our tradition that affirm the value of all God’s creatures to God. God’s work in creation is not all about us. All creatures glorify God in their flourishing; all creatures participate in the life of God through their particular modes of existence; all creatures contribute to creation’s praise of its maker.

No creature is merely the means for another creature to live; no creature is too insignificant to be the object of God’s providential love; no creature will be missing when all things in heaven and earth are gathered up in Christ in the fullness of time (Ephesians 1.10).

Pope Francis’s recent encyclical Laudato Si’ affirms our kinship to other creatures, the particular purpose of each creature before God, and the way all creatures are moving with us towards the risen Christ (§§ 83–84).

 

THIS vision of the place of non-human creatures in God’s purposes has radical implications for Christian ethics. One obvious and pressing example is our intensive farming of animals, which now accounts for the vast majority of meat, egg, and dairy production.

These systems treat farmed animals as mere resources for our use, grown and harvested in ways that make the products of their bodies as cheap as possible. Such use is clearly at odds with a Christian recognition of them as fellow creatures, called with us to participate in the life and praise of God through their particular modes of flourishing.

It is surely time for Christians to give renewed attention to the place of non-human creatures in the doctrine of creation, and the ethical demands that clearly follow.

 

David Clough is Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chester, and the author of On Animals, Vol. I Systematic Theology (T&T Clark/Bloomsbury, 2012) and Vol. II Theological Ethics (forthcoming 2016).

His project “CreatureKind” (becreaturekind.org) is working to engage churches with issues of farm animal welfare.

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