November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
October 2, 2006
I have a confession to make: I’m not all that interested in environmentalism, and though I’ve written two books on why Christians should be more compassionate toward animals, I’m not all that enthusiastic about saving animals, either. I am interested in Augustine’s insights into the unfathomable depths of original sin; so let me also confess that the above confession was insincere. That is, I’m not too worried about my lack of interest in environmentalism or the rights of animals. In fact, I take some foolish pride (and here I say foolish because all pride is foolish, not mine in particular) in my skepticism about these issues.
You can blame Augustine, as well as my innate stubbornness, for my lack of passion for environmentalism. As an Augustinian Christian, I do not think it is our job to save the world from evil. More importantly, I suspect that when we try to play god, we end up doing more harm than good. Nevertheless, I do feel guilty for not doing more to alleviate the suffering of animals. Augustine, however, has helped me to see how my feelings of guilt are not necessarily a trustworthy guide to what I should do. Feelings of guilt obscure the moral clarity we need for Christ-like action in the world.
As for stubbornness, I am a college professor, so my own particular environment is full of people who think nature is sacred and that animals have inalienable rights. Few of my colleagues go to church, but they can talk poetically about the miracle of nature and the consolations they find in woods, streams, and mountains. All of this strikes me as a convenient way for my secular friends to justify their religious sloth, and I have no interest in making them feel more reasonable about their rationalizations. What is more disappointing, though hardly surprising, is that many theologians have been quick to jump on board the naturalization of the supernatural. Environmental theologians think that people can be motivated to respect nature only if they are persuaded that God is a part of nature and nature a part of God. Feminists talk about a kinder, more gentle God who gives birth to the world, and postmodernists deconstruct the rigid dualisms that they find separating God from the world. The image of an interconnected web dominates these discussions, even though that image—in spite of my name—always conjures for me a foreboding of entrapment and death.
Feminists frequently insist that the image of God as the master of nature sanctions male mastery over women, as well as nature. I have never found this argument the least bit convincing, whether it is treated as an interpretation of history or as an analysis of religious psychology. Our Christian ancestors worried about their treatment of nature only because they knew that God was in control of it, not them. If God is not absolutely in control, then nature’s bounties are up for grabs. If God is the master, then we are the servants, and that image has always served to humble the human heart. Pollution is certainly a problem that Christians need to address, but blaming pollution on the traditional understanding of God’s transcendence leaves too many dots disconnected.
Scapegoating the Christian tradition for the consequences of the West’s rapid industrialization might make some secularists feel good about not going to church on Sunday mornings, but it cannot be taken as serious theology. Again, theologians—even those who feel guilty about the way the Church has flaunted its moral high ground over the centuries—should not be in the business of making non-Christians feel better about themselves.
Besides, the idea that nature is uniquely sacred hardly inspires respect for nature’s otherness. If God and nature are intimately connected, then it follows that we should make nature our home as well as our church. This is precisely what has happened. Romanticizing nature as God’s body only encourages people to treat it as one more item to be marketed and consumed. Think of all those people who build houses in the wild, in order to be closer to some vaguely construed source of spirituality. Think about all the billions that are spent on herbal remedies and high priced gadgets that bring a bit of nature into our homes. Environmentalists rightly worry about industrial pollution, but what do we make of all this spiritual pollution that clouds the religious landscape?
The decline of the mainline Protestant churches and the ascendancy of conservative forms of Christianity have left many people confused about the relationship of Christianity to American culture. Liberal Protestantism provided social cohesion for much of the twentieth century because it erased theological differences with the thick, broad brush of social justice. People could feel good about living in a Christian nation because the dominant form of Christianity did not offend anyone. Americans can be quite optimistic and tolerant, as long as they are not expected to tolerate anything that gets in the way of their optimism, and liberal Protestantism provided the ideology that kept optimism and tolerance on intimate terms.
Conservative Christians have little tolerance for an optimism based on secular notions of rationality, and they are not optimistic that tolerance alone can provide the necessary grounds for social stability. Conservative Christians have risen to power in America largely because secular liberals no longer feel the need to have religious backing for their optimism and tolerance. Yet it is not clear that conservative Christianity can become the American civil religion of the twenty first century just as the mainline denominations were the civil religion of the twentieth. A Christian church that tries to stand against the world has a hard time speaking to everyone in general terms that do not offend.
If my analysis of religious turmoil today is even partly correct, then it helps to explain why environmentalism has become a kind of public, civil religion for many Americans. Worshipping nature, if that is not too hard a way of putting it, is an enjoyable activity that can pass as both good politics and tolerable religion. One could go further by saying that only a distorted form of religion could make the love of nature possible in the first place, because nature is, as evolutionary biology teaches us, violent, purposeless, and ever ready to sacrifice the lone individual for the glory of the species. Loving nature is a pathology born of Christian decline, which makes it a pathology that only Christianity can cure.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, I was never a nature lover. I began my thinking about animals, in fact, purely by happenstance. I had a dog, a dachshund named Marie, and I loved her more than my friends thought I should have. I had just started my teaching career and my wife was in graduate school an hour and a half away, so Marie and I spent a lot of time together. To this day, I cannot say that I really love all animals, or even all dogs. That level of abstraction is, I suspect, close to meaningless for anybody who is not God. But I loved Marie. I grew up with a dachshund companion, and through Marie I could smell my childhood memories. My friends were bemused, if not appalled. My lap was her throne, and when I greeted her after being apart, she would attack me with her passion. She was pure, unbounded love, and gave me permission to give the same. All of this seemed to suggest something of the category of grace to me, yet our relationship, under the skeptical eyes of my friends, also struck me as terribly transgressive.
In Marie’s eyes, I saw the glimmer of freedom, the first movements of spirit emerging from matter, wounded by what we humans had demanded of her species. Her eyes demanded responsibility, and even more, mutuality. Howard, our cat, would only glance at me, while Marie stared. Cats have a haughtiness that makes them hard to understand. They embrace their animality in spite of their freedom. Dogs plead, and thus risk losing everything. Dogs demand; cats indict, and turn away. Dogs are creatures in transition, incomplete without us. To hold a dog’s gaze is to set the dog free. The fragility of this dependence is easily abused, of course, but I was convinced that dogs say something not only about us but also about the origin and destiny of all animals.
I wrote my first book about animals, On God and Dogs: A Christian Theology of Compassion for Animals, for Marie. I was convinced at the time that loving a dog is good preparation for theology in the sense that writing about dogs risks speaking about something that is, perhaps, best left to silence. Direct speech about dogs or God sounds foolish and strained. Theologians, I suspected, write too much about the love of God, as if God is as familiar to them as their pets. We should be embarrassed by God’s love, I wanted to say, just as we are embarrassed by the love of a good dog. Both loves are really too much, and both are certainly undeserving. Perhaps Hegel spoke more truly than he understood when he argued that Schleiermacher’s famous definition of religion as `absolute dependence’ turned the dog into the best Christian. I too wanted to write a theology for the dogs.
I probably loved Marie too much, but then again, there is something excessive in all true love. I was convinced, in fact, that excessive love is what enabled both humans and dogs to overstep their species boundaries in the adventure that we call domestication. Domestication was not accomplished for utilitarian reasons, though such theories abound in the scholarly literature on this topic. Domestication began as a reckless venture of love that led humans to meet the eyes of the dog and led dogs to jump into the human circle. Dogs made humans out of us, just as we have gone a little way toward making honorary humans out of dogs. When Marie reached the end of her life, friends and family thought I would be inconsolable. I wasn’t. I buried her in the backyard hours after she died, and am confident that I will see her again in heaven.
I know that many of you will suspect that my relationship with Marie was more pathological than the typical environmentalist’s love for nature. Nonetheless, it seems to me that loving individual animals—and loving them for what they will yet become, rather than pretending that they are enough like us to merit equal consideration—is a more Christian gesture than loving nature as a whole. Ethical obligations have their origin, I suspect, with the particular and concrete rather than the general and abstract. Individuals suffer, not species. Humans and animals have a lot more in common than humans and trees. That is why I am a vegetarian but not an environmentalist. Nature is parasitical to its core; no ethic can be drawn from its competitive and heartless strife. Ecosystems are beautiful in the abstract but shocking in their details. That we have become accustomed to celebrating nature instead of being shocked by it is an indication, to me, of how religiously homeless modernity has made us.
Of course, vegetarianism has its own problems, which involve, of course, the stubborn sin of pride. Vegetarianism, especially in its more legalistic form of the animal rights movement, blurs the boundaries between humans and animals. Worse, the animal rights movement is utopian (as well as Pelagian) in its optimism about our ability to change the world. Few writers make this point more eloquently than the great South African novelist, J. M. Coetzee, in his book The Lives of Animals. He raises this pointed question: Are vegetarians trying to save animals or are they trying to save themselves? That is, are they really concerned about the world or are they trying to escape it?
In this postmodern work of meta-fiction, Coetzee tells the story of a novelist who holds some of the same views of the author regarding the moral status of animals. Elizabeth Costello has been invited to give two lectures at Appleton College, where her son teaches physics. She surprises her audience by talking about the rights of animals rather than literature. Her audience is skeptical and condescending, but where Coetzee stands in this exchange is hard to pinpoint. He has made his character old and dying, so her plea for the rights of animals can be read as a plea for herself. Moreover, she has a hostile relationship with her son and daughter-in-law, and her defense of animals further widens that gap. She also repeatedly draws the insensitive analogy between the killing of animals and the death of Jews in the Holocaust.
Costello rejects rationality as the criteria for judging animal worth, defending instead the ability of the imagination to instill sympathy. Yet Costello cannot imagine a way of healing her relationship with those who are closest to her. Her love for animals is not part of an ordered life, where everything is loved according to its place in God’s creation. Instead, her love is disordered and destructive. She is scandalized by the meat-eating world, and thus she seeks not only justice but also revenge. The being of bats, she insists, is just as full as the being of humans, thereby denying the uniqueness of humanity. She can raise the value of animals only by lowering the value of humanity.
From a theological point of view, Costello needs salvation as much as the animals she defends. In the end, she breaks down, and her son takes her in his arms. “There, there,” he says. “It will soon be over.” This is the one moment of human contact in the story. Perhaps Coetzee is saying that only humans can worry this much about death and that human solidarity is our only defense against the suffering of others. Curiously, none of the characters mentions a personal encounter with an animal. Maybe Costello could have received the same comfort from hugging a beloved pet.
The early Christians were drawn to but finally rejected vegetarianism for two reasons. First, they wanted to distinguish themselves from Judaism, and in their missionary zeal they did not want to be hindered by dietary rules. They sensed that vegetarianism could become a new legalism that would lead to schism, something the early church could not afford. Second, gnostic groups used vegetarianism as a means of claiming moral purity and separating themselves from the cares of this world. Gnostics did not eat meat because they thought the world was beyond the grace of God, and so they restricted their diets as one way of turning their backs on the suffering that surrounded them. Many modern day vegetarians also seem to use this commendable diet as a way of claiming moral superiority and expressing a deep alienation from the world. Somehow, Christians need to find a way of talking about vegetarianism that would not lapse into legalism or utopianism.
This is hard to do. To lapse into confession again, I should note that I was the co-founder of a web organization, the Christian Vegetarian Association (Christianveg.com) that has had much success in raising the issue of diet among Christians. The point of the organization, I thought, was to provide an alternative to the rigidity and utopianism of the animal rights movement, as well as to demonstrate that new age spirituality was not the only religious path to a healthier diet. My co-founder went on to other projects, and my new co-chair took the lead in making the CVA a leader in religious activism for animals. Unfortunately, activism and reflection are often at odds with each other. When I wrote an essay where I confessed (there I go again!) that I eat meat occasionally, my co-chair organized a coup. The CVA, it turns out, could not tolerate a chair who is not religiously vegetarian—or a chair whose religious motivation for vegetarianism did not lead to moral absolutes.
Getting kicked out of my own organization only confirmed for me that Christianity was right to value vegetarianism in monasteries and on fast days but not to require it for everyone. For Christianity, compassion should be rooted not in dogmatic claims about the equality of humans and animals, or in an escapist flight from the realities of this world, but in our ability to be compassionate, to reach out and care for another being. Loving a dog, to return to my relationship with Marie, would not be such a bad way to begin and practice that compassion. Until the church can articulate an alternative to the modern animal rights movement, Coetzee’s story demonstrates that the gnostic version of vegetarianism is still very much alive and well.
Unfortunately, theologians are often in too much of a hurry to talk about nature these days, and thus they do not take the time to reflect about the nature that is closest to them—their pets. Environmentalists lift up the values of interdependence and holism, which they adopt from ecology, but these principles are another way of saying that eco-systems do not care about individuals. Rather than interdependence, I would want to emphasize relationships. Interdependence suggests that nature works quite well on its own accord, and human intervention inevitably upsets the balance. When I think of interdependence, I think of a spider’s web, not a mutual affirmation of difference and dignity.
Christians have no business promulgating the aesthetic appreciation of coherence—a part of the whole is good as long as it contributes something to that whole—which reflects the old idea that this is the best of all possible worlds. The world is fallen, and nature is not what God intended it to be. The violence of nature is not all our fault, either, because the world into which Adam and Eve were expelled was already at odds with the peaceable harmony of Eden. If nature is fallen and its fall preceded our own, then there is little we can do to change nature in any dramatic way. Yet we can, like Noah with his ark, save a few fellow creatures from suffering as we try to warn others about God’s impending judgment.
In On God and Dogs and Good Eating, I defined pets as animals who share with us a relationship of mutuality and reciprocity. So defined, they can serve as a paradigm for our treatment of all animals and even nature in general. Most people who read have read this claim in my books greet it with a mixture of amazement and disdain. By beginning with a set of assumptions different from the environmental movement, my position, influenced by and yet also a challenge to the animal rights movement, is bound to be controversial and provocative to most of those who currently write about religion and the natural world. If nature is fallen, yet our destiny is not completely separable from nature, and all suffering will be redeemed in the end, then animals need redemption as much as we do. We cannot turn our backs on the animal world and pretend that it is a good place, if only we were not there. Animals and humans are tied together in this world and, I want to add, in the world to come.
Nature cannot be a source of Christian morality, but it can be an object of Christian compassion. Yet it is impossible to have empathy for all of the animals that must become meals for others. Such sacrifices are biologically necessary, and to mourn necessity is foolishness. Perhaps this is why so many people today admire wild, carnivorous animals. It is easier to admire predators than their victims when there is nothing that we can do to change the one and save the other. Besides, wild animals confront us as something inassimilable to human measure, caring not for our help or sentiment. These animals follow their nature in beautiful, effortless and dignified ways, so that our inability to make moral judgments about them tempts us to romanticize them instead. The Christian idea that God sides with the victims somehow gets lost when we watch nature documentaries, wincing but marveling at a fearsome display of power that seems innocent and natural.
Beginning a theology of the environment by reflecting on pets will lead to a very different place than beginning with nature in general or wild animals with their freedom threatened by human population growth. The nature that God pronounced good in the Genesis creation account was not the nature that forced humans to toil for their food and animals to fight each other. Animals were named by Adam, which suggests that the authority of humanity over animals is not incompatible with intimacy and friendship. Animals are meant to stand in relation with God by being in relation with humanity. In his science fiction novel, Perelandra, C. S. Lewis describes a planet where the fall has not (yet) occurred. He portrays the animals as both mysterious and gentle, living according to their own laws but also welcoming human company.
Traditionally, Christian theology portrays heaven as a garden, not a wild jungle, a place, like the original Garden of Eden, where God allows life to grow without the countless sacrifices of violent death. It is thus possible to argue that pets are the paradigm for the destiny of all animal life. In other words, according to the Christian myth, animals were originally domesticated, in the sense of being nonviolent and being in a positive relationship with us, and they will be again.
That is a radical and wild idea, but for anyone who has ever loved a dog, it will make perfectly good sense.
Stephen H. Webb
Stephen H. Webb is Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Wabash College, Crawfordsville, Indiana. He and his wife, Diane Timmerman, who is Professor of Theatre at Butler University, have four children and two dogs. Webb is the author of 11 books, including two about food: Good Eating (Brazos Press, 2001) and On God and Dogs (Oxford University Press, 1998). His wife does most of the cooking.