Yesterday we looked at a question posed by the Washington Post regarding animal rights. The post covered the ways the three major worldviews (atheism, pantheism and theism) tend to answer the question.
Today we’ll be looking at the uniqueness of Christian theology in its claim toward human dignity and the relationship of man and creation, which will form the basis for the eventual discussion of Christianity and environmentalism.
UNITY AND DIVERSITY
My freshman level Biology textbook was subtitled: “The Unity and Diversity of Life.” The question of unity-and-diversity has been wrestled with not only in the field of science but a whole host of other disciplines, ranging from philosophy to sociology to – of course – theology.
Christian theology differs from other forms of theism in that it claims that God is not only one but exists in three distinct persons (Father, Son and Spirit). The Christian concept of Trinity is not only unique amongst the world’s religious claims, but the only theological system that reflects the unity-and-diversity in nature, from quarks to DNA triplet sequences to entire ecosystems.
In contrast to atheism, Christian theology starts with the assertions that God not only exists, but also that God communicates. Because of this, Christianity is able to draw its understanding of God, man and creation from the unique claims of the Bible.
A word on Genesis: I realize that not all my readers are going to track with me on this point. Given the strangeness of a creation narrative containing fig leaves and talking serpents, I am hardly unsympathetic to those who approach the subject with raised eyebrows. But at the risk of sidestepping such important questions, we’ll proceed on the basis that the Genesis account does, in fact, describe the general contours of anthropology and ecology with accuracy, even if we can’t agree on some of the details.
CREATION > CREATOR
Pantheism teaches that creation and creator are equal. Theism teaches that creation and Creator are distinct, like an artist and his canvas.
Further, the Genesis account describes the completed works of God as being made “good.” But notice something important in the opening verses of Genesis: when God created light, He called it “good” (Ge 1:3-4). But when he created land and sky, He did not pronounce it “good” until He had created boundaries and division between sky, sea and dry land (Ge 1:9). At minimum, I take this to mean that “goodness” is not a mere product of being created, but having been created with order. The earth was not “good” until God had established an ecosystem – a point that will become important as we work towards our understanding of the environment.
IMAGE AND DOMINION
Genesis affirms man as unique among the animals. On this point, there is little ambiguity. In Genesis 1, the animals and birds are each produced from “the earth” and “the sea,” but God uniquely creates man in His own “image” and “likeness” (Ge 1:26), also granting man “dominion” over the natural world (Ge 1:30).
What does it mean to be created in God’s image? A lot of ink has been spilled over this issue (for a full, linguistic treatment, see Gordon Wenham’s commentary on Genesis). To simplify, I’ll say that I first equate the words “image” and “likeness” in this context. But to clarify, I want to make clear that this doesn’t mean a physical resemblance (which many commentators in the Washington Post article seemed to think, though this was largely due to the lack of clarity on the part of the panelists). After all, both men and women were created in this likeness.
Instead, to bear God’s image or tselem, means to share certain of His traits. Theologians typically identify things like a personal will, conscience, spirituality. I would argue that the primary traits (based on the immediate context) are creativity and relationality. We are created to be creators and to relate to one another as well as the created world.
To have “dominion” is therefore an extension of this “image.” To have dominion simply means having a role in the care and use of creation.
MAN VERSUS WILD
The fact that Adam and Eve – the first humans, according to Genesis – existed in the perfection of the Garden of Eden raises many questions.
Were Adam and Eve vegetarian? I don’t know. Some say yes – that God established meat-eating only after the Flood record (Ge 9:3). Others say that this verse simply ratifies a practice already in existence in the garden. I honestly don’t know that the text is clear.
Do animals have souls? First, what’s a “soul?” This is another subject over which a lot of ink has been spilled, but at its simplest, Christian theology agrees that the soul is the non-material component of humanity that is concerned with relationship with God. Do animals have this? On the one hand, the Genesis account affirms that animals have the same breath of life (nephesh) as humans. On the other, they are not created in God’s unique image as was man. While imagery of the afterlife and new world include many descriptions of animals (Isaiah 65, Revelation 19), there’s no clear evidence that animals actually have a soul, at least in the same sense as humans. We love our pets (which is actually a consequence of that “dominion” we mentioned), but if they do have souls, they’re certainly not the same as ours, in need of salvation.
If humans are unique, then are animals important? Again, drawing from the language of “dominion,” the answer is “yes.” Humans enjoy a privileged place over creation, something even Jesus affirms when He tells His disciples (perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek) that they are “worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31), yet quite equally affirming God’s goodness in caring for His own creation. Even the Flood account in Genesis affirms this, where Noah, in a sense, becomes the first “conservationist,” preserving the animal species to eventually rebuild the ecosystem.
CONCLUSION: ANIMAL RIGHTS?
This is still a hard subject. Christian theology has considerably less to say about animal rights than it does about human responsibility to care for creation and respect the diversity of its inhabitants.
But I think we must be clear on at least one issue: while care for animal species is important, I am hardly apologetic when I suggest that care for our fellow humans takes first priority. Which means, among other things, that I have no moral issue with animals used for medical research, so long as it is done humanely. This also means that while I’m hardly apathetic to issues of the environment and issues of animal abuse, I am far more concerned about the issues that affect humans, such as global poverty, human slavery and infectious disease.
Tomorrow we’ll finish by looking at Christian theology and environmentalism.