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November 2022
Issue No. 311

All Creatures Great and Small: Revd Jonathan Chee talks animal theology

 (© 教聲/ ECHO)

4th October marked the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. Each year, a service for the blessing of animals is held at both St John’s Cathedral and All Saints’ Cathedral, an opportunity for all creation, no matter human or not, to come before our creator in worship.

The Revd Jonathan Chee is an avowed animal lover, and has long been interested in the subject of animal theology. Amongst Chinese churches, there has long been an interpretation of salvation being focused on personal souls, with some Christians even thinking that animals don’t have souls, and are thus excluded from God’s salvation. The prospect that animals would face annihilation upon death has long been a source of sadness, doubt, and fear for such Christians, and is something that we must tackle as part of our pastoral ministry today.

On the other hand, human beings have long viewed ourselves as masters of all creation. Animals are relegated to become humanity’s tools in pursuit of a better life, which is to be filled with convenience, health, entertainment, food, and various economic needs. On this path, humans have mistreated animals for our own gain. Species that are deemed popular are overbred with the least amount of space afforded to them, creating batch after batch of abused creatures to be sold, die, and replaced with a new one in a horrific cycle. 

Revd Chee quotes St Augustine (354-430) from his City of God how one of the sins of man is the mistreatment of animals. Though humanity has power over those animals that have less rationality than us, to be a ‘ruler’ is to be a ‘shepherd’, and it is the duty of a pastor to protect his ‘flock’ from ‘predators’. St Augustine discouraged Christians from participating in entertainment where animals are mistreated, and from feasts that serve meat in excess.

Revd Chee then refers to the incarnation theology as expounded by the Church Father Athanasius (296-373). In it, animals are perceived as part of a grander whole: God’s wondrous creation. With his Word, God created all; and amongst creatures, there is none that isn’t created by God. The goodness and beauty of this world can only continue to exist by the continued presence of the Word of God, which sustains and perpetuates his Creation. As such, all creatures, including animals, hold an inseparable relationship with the Word of God that became flesh. Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection happened for the reason of bringing salvation to the whole of creation, and not just us humans. Salvation was given as Christ’s Word became flesh, pouring grace onto all creation.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the pinnacle of Scholasticism, also wrote about the relation between God’s creation and animals, as Revd Chee tells us. Aquinas noted that all creation has an innate goodness to them, and it is by each playing their part that the whole universe becomes perfect. It follows then that animals do not exist for the purposes of serving humanity, because all creation was made with God as its centre, and humanity is but one part of his grand creation, tasked by God to look after all the other parts. And so our role is that of a steward, not master. However, as ours is a fallen world, it is inevitable that humanity should find itself killing and abusing animals. But all these stem from the sins of man, and not the original beauty of the world as God created it.

Many Christians interpret the Bible passage of Adam naming animals as an expression of humanity’s dominion over animals, but the former Bishop of Salisbury John Austin Baker (1928-2014) said that Adam’s act of naming confers not only power over animals, but also the responsibility to love them. The act of naming is an expression of total understanding and complete love. God created humanity using the dust of the ground, and named him Adam, which meant ‘soil’ in Hebrew. And so when Adam named the animals in Genesis, that was an expression of love. The Bible also mentioned how God also used the dust of the ground to make living creatures of every kind, both on land and in the air. We humans thus share the same origins as all other animals, and the same close relationship with God. 

  (© 教聲/ ECHO)

If we look at our created world today, and especially if we look at what happens between animals, we will see something quite different from the world of goodness and peace as written in the Bible. It is a world quite far away from the original goodness of God’s creation, and it is a ‘fallen’ world where might makes right. The relationship between each creature is that of either predator or victim. Revd Chee quotes Andrew Linzey (1952- ), a contemporary Anglican theologian who focuses on animal theology, saying that the created world has changed ever since the fall of man. Animal lives are sacrificed in the face of sin. What was originally created as good is now divided into the clean and the unclean. Animals weren’t even created as food, but are now used as tools for humanity’s sustenance.

Linzey’s animal theology seeks to answer five main questions: 

1. How we treat the whole of Creation

Linzey mentioned how important is it to ‘be with Jesus’. As all things are made by Christ and for Christ, humanity must reject the view of treating animals as ‘things’, ‘commodities’, or as ‘resources’ to be used by us. Such a view is a human-centric one, and is wrongfully utilitarian. Humanity is not the creator, and so we are not lords over animals, but rather we are asked by God to take care of them. Ours is not the right to extract usefulness from animals. 

2. The Problem of Suffering

Animals who suffer due to human cruelty are sharing in the same pain that the innocent Jesus did. Linzey quotes a sermon by Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) written in 1842, comparing the suffering Christ to those animals who suffer likewise in a state of innocence. They share the same humility, and the same mistreatment in the hands of others. It follows then that mistreating the innocent, whether they be children or animals, is the same as inflicting pain on the body of Christ. Jesus Christ is the Word made ‘flesh’, and is an exemplar for us as humans to reach out to all the disenfranchised in the world, be they humans or animals, and extend our care and protection to them. The horrors of despair are not exclusive to us, and are present in suffering animals as well. The mission given to us in the gospels is one that drives us to be responsible for all the goodness within God’s creation, including those animals who should not be suffering pain. 

3. The Problem of Animals’ Salvation

Salvation is something that deals with the relationship between the whole of creation and God, and should not be restricted to merely the sin of man. As detailed by Athanasius in his incarnation theology, all creation has escaped from the bonds of sin because of Christ, and all creation has reconciled with God. In us, the life of our Lord is made complete.
The current state of our world is not the same as how it was when God first created it. The mantra of might makes right has filled our fallen world with violence, disputes, and conflicts. What we see is pain and death, when what the gospel preaches is the love of our Lord. When Christians fight for the rights of animals, we are fighting a spiritual battle against the forces of cruelty and death, for we are fighting for the reconciliation between all creation and our Father in heaven. 

4. Humanity’s respect and responsibility towards animals and animal rights

God has commanded humanity to be the stewards of creation, and yet we always interpret this as if we are given dominion over the world. As stewards, we must respect God’s creation, and not seek to control it. We Christians have the responsibility and duty to look after all creatures great and small. Linzey mentions that we must stand with Jesus, that is to say, we have to stand with the weak and against the idea that ‘might makes right’. The essence of animals rights is such that animals are not property for us to own or tools for us to use – they are lives that deserve respect and rights. 

5. Generosity paradigm

‘Generosity paradigm’ refers to the great love that God has for all creatures, and it is on this love that we should build our relationship between humanity and animals. The spirit of the gospels tells us that we should imitate Christ’s example, and to love and serve selflessly all animals who suffer despite being innocent. With how common it is in our world that animals are exploited and consumed due to selfish reasons, Linzey reflects from a theological perspective that animal rights is a must, for only God is the creator of all things, and is the source of all animals’ inherent worth. As humanity rationalise away our exploitation of animals, using our daily needs, profit, desire, and medical research as excuses, Linzey argues in the contrary direction, saying that the gospels teach us Christ’s ‘generosity paradigm’, and our mistreatment of animals is contrary to God’s will. 

And so, the annual blessing of animals is not an occasion turning the church into a zoo; rather, it is a chance to expand churchgoers’ understanding of the gospels. It is a chance to take one small step towards reconciliation and unity with all of God’s creation.

 The Revd Jonathan Chee (© 教聲/ ECHO) 


<The above article was published in "Echo" Issue No. 311. Please click here>


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