FOR a tiny smudge of biological life in an unremarkable corner of the universe, humans are a remarkably self-regarding species. We routinely separate ourselves from the rest of the created order, and from the other animals here on earth, exercising dominion as the pinnacle of God’s creative ambitions: his highest achievement. The animals beneath us are but brute beasts, and we label hideous things as “bestial”.
Theology has reinforced this separation, granting us an overlordship of the creation. Thomas Aquinas — swallowing Aristotle’s view whole — declares animals to be of no moral status; our treatment of them an irrelevance. Indeed, they are given to us by God for food, and for the work that we do not care to do ourselves.
THEOLOGY has always lived in fear of discovering that we might be just as brute as the beasts, or that they were somewhat less brute than we would like. What, after all, are animals for? If it is all about us, why is there this fabulously beautiful array of living things here as well: are they mere decoration — background scenery for the drama of the saving of humankind?
These questions could not have occurred to pre-lapsarian Adam and Eve, because the separation had not happened, and the uniqueness that we claim had yet to be bestowed. That was the gift of the Fall, and, in that mythic event, our alienation from the creation is accomplished and we are marked out as the ones who do not fit in.
Our Fall may be unique, pre-eminent, but it brings in its train a polluting of the whole of creation. Being uniquely capable of pondering the divine nature comes at the cost of dwelling in a creation that we have poisoned with sin, to the extent that the wolf no longer dwells with the lamb; and the calf, the lion, and the fatling will not be led by a little child. Isaiah’s vision would return us to Eden before the Fall, before it all went wrong; and that moment of disaster — the sweet mouthful of our first disobedience — has fascinated many artists.
FOR Christians, of course, the disaster becomes the happy fault that not only plunges us into the delights of sin and the tiresomeness of death, but also opens the pathway for the Redeemer to appear at the right moment to effect the necessary rescue. But sin does not suddenly exist as a “thing” at the Fall. What, after all, could it consist of? Is what we label “sin” a range of human behaviours that are prohibited at any particular time, in line with our inherited ability to feel societal and personal shame?
Lacking any easily depicted material reality, sin is difficult to imagine ontologically, but its effects are visually stunning — hence the universal success of pornography. The supposed entrance of sin into the world fascinated Lucas Cranach the Elder, who, with the artists of his studio, painted this cataclysmic moment many times over.
There is, necessarily, a “before and after” element to the Fall, but, in Cranach’s Adam and Eve of 1526, the Fall seems only partially accomplished. We are midway through the calamity. Cranach’s confused and head-scratching Adam is puzzled and enthralled by his freshly fallen wife, whose left hand delicately holds on to the phallus-wide branch of knowledge from which she has picked the forbidden fruit.
Her hair radiates an electric vibrancy, while she coolly considers her dim-looking mate with allure and power, her eyes half-closed in worldly determination, her form slinkily similar to the serpent’s. She does not offer the fruit, but presents it proudly: “Look at this!”
Cranach’s Eve is rosy-cheeked, ready for more; displaying and spreading open her hairless and nubile body, urged on by the victorious serpent — her partner in mortal crime. Above her is a whole tree-full of fruits to be enjoyed. Just one bite, and you gain access to all 40: the traditional number for testing transformed into a banquet of fleshly delights. And, of course, she knows that she is naked, and he doesn’t — yet. She has passed from that nature she shared with the animals into the one we recognise, knowing the danger of her exposure but wanting to be “known” by her husband.
IF THE creation itself also falls, so that St Paul can talk of its “groanings”, then it does so quite spectacularly with the loss of Eden. Cranach’s wonderful animals are not naked, nor could they be. They do not share in our awareness of sin, either original or mundane; and, from the moment of the Fall, we become the interlopers in their kingdom, ever seeking to control it for our use.
The Fall not only enables us to murder our fellow humans in astonishing numbers, but also frees us to kill animals for meat, to drain female mammals of their milk, and — most surprisingly — to upload into the human psyche an appetite for the senseless slaughter of other species. We become the only species to imagine that cutting off a rhino’s horn might make the horns of men firmer; the only species that could concoct the obscenity of placing a pangolin foetus in soup as a delicacy.
BEFORE the Fall, the hapless pair had been living at peace, sans predation, farming, and lust. Eden is a chaste vegan vision; in falling, Adam’s curse is to farm the land, while the snake suddenly recognises the threat that humans now pose as it slithers away to escape their clumsy feet.
The snake was right in telling them that they would not die. Instead, they become killers, passing on the gene of violence to all subsequent copies, starting with their firstborn, Cain.
Cranach captures this moment of change with great subtlety. Has the lion begun to sniff the truth that the bucks at the water are to be his prey? Note the female buck’s ears pricking up while her mate gazes at his reflection with a narcissistic calm that is all too human. The proximity of the hind’s razor-sharp antlers to Adam’s genitals show that this is also a Fall into a dangerous knowledge of sex and desire. Until he eats, Adam is caught on the cuckold’s horns: a submissive observer of his dominant wife, Eve, who is freshly despoiled with knowledge.
Cranach — a close friend and supporter of Martin Luther — would undoubtedly have seen possession of knowledge as a good thing; and, in this picture, it is Eve who has passed into enlightenment, while her mate is befuddled and slow. She is bathed in the light of knowledge, and makes necessary Adam’s Fall, as required by Luther’s theodicy.
BUT are Adam and Eve really the subject of this picture? Take the humans out of this picture and everything is at peace. There is no suggestion that the animals were also subject to expulsion. One can imagine the fallen pair expelled, and everything else returning to its Edenic state, all notes of aggression and despair removed, the strange, upright-walking creatures forgotten. We might sometimes feel rather the same about our despoiled planet.
Perhaps this picture can encourage us to consider our place within God’s creation. The moral priority of the weak in Christian theology suggests that our “dominion” over creation should be exercised as responsible stewardship, including the prevention of cruelty to animals. We have no justification — contra the Thomist stance — for disregarding the suffering of animals.*
We know roughly how evolution works. A theodicy which takes seriously the whole of creation and all of its creatures necessitates God’s allowing of the suffering and death required by evolution, but evolution itself is as teleological as dropping a marble on the ground. There is no goal — evolution has a great memory, but does no forward planning. We, therefore, have a responsibility to act where we can to preserve the created order.
SINCE we are the species gifted with a unique capacity to diminish suffering, only we can be the servant species. The moral priority of the weak — and here animals and creation are the weak — has a claim over us, and over our actions.
What are animals for? They are “for” their Creator, in much the same way as we are. The Eden myth as painted by Cranach reminds us that the original plan was the one that Isaiah pined after: a return of peace, an end to the killing — “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.”
Cranach and Luther would have seen the Fall as necessary, but that is no excuse for compounding its effects in our own day.
The Revd Dr Martin Thomas is Team Rector of the Catford and Downham Team Ministry in the diocese of Southwark.