Creature discomforts

November 17, 1995

Theologian Andrew Linzey believes that Christians have got it terribly wrong about animals for the past 2,000 years. Aisling Irwin hears his arguments.

God might have saved his creatures a lot of trouble if, in the Garden of Eden, he had explained in words of one syllable what he meant by "dominion" when he told man he could wield it over other creatures. For one thing, a less enigmatic word might have propelled centuries of interpreters towards a benign stewardship of other animals rather than the bloody despotism that has resulted instead. Or so thinks Andrew Linzey, research fellow in theology and animal welfare at Mansfield College, Oxford. For another, God would have saved Linzey the trouble he has taken for 20 years arguing that Christians have got their attitudes towards animals terribly wrong for the past 2,000 years.

But, in 1995, in a country alive to arguments about animals, are theologians or church leaders changing their minds? This year we have watched the Bishop of Dover join protests against live animal export; we have heard Jewish theologian Dan Cohn-Sherbok liken those exports to the Nazi Holocaust; and we have heard how a European group is seeking bishops' signatures for a religious petition against the patenting of life. On the other hand, these activities may just be background crackle in a tradition that, from its theorisers to its congregations, has been criticised for being largely indifferent to animal suffering.

Linzey, a chuckling man crammed into a small study in Mansfield College, holds the first view. He thinks he is starting to win. He published his first book, Animal Rights: A Christian Assessment, in 1976, just before Animal Liberation, the influential animal rights manifesto by Australian philosopher Peter Singer. In it, Linzey argues that Christianity has drawn an artificial line between humans and other animals, ignoring the fact that both are sentient beings. Theologians have mistakenly believed that God is interested only in the fate of human beings and that God created the world solely for the benefit of humans. Linzey's interpretation leads to an agenda for greater compassion towards other creatures and, ineluctably, to animal rights. "It's the notion that what we owe animals is justice," he says. And he goes further, arguing that Christianity allows us to escape from anthropocentric values because of that all-important third party: God. A theocentric perspective liberates us from considering animals only in terms of our human needs and wants.

Linzey, a placid-seeming man who does not look like a radical campaigner who has pitted himself against the Church establishment, says he received thousands of letters when his first book was published. He became an instant animal spokesperson. "While many theologians were hostile," he says, "lots of people were interested in the thesis of the book and I felt I was articulating something for them." The attention has not stopped. He receives 60 messages a day, many of them requests to address first-year theology undergraduates or radio audiences. And yet it is not clear that he has achieved a sea change within either theology or the Church. In 1990, the Church synod defeated a motion to ban fox-hunting on church land. Four years later, the Catholic catechism, while noting for the first time that humans owe animals kindness, observed: "Animals, like plants and inanimate things, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present and future humanity." And Linzey admits there is only a trickle of discussion about animals in theological literature.

Some of his opponents have publicly ridiculed him. But Linzey is convinced that such criticisms show that his ideas are no longer "interesting and peripheral" but "threatening and controversial". According to a recent issue of The Spectator, Linzey enjoys an "utterly ridiculous" Pounds 400,000 grant "to determine whether animals have souls". The article continues: "Whether the Rev. is reaching his decision by research or revelation is not clear". Linzey is upset by the comment but has a complex of counter-arguments at his fingertips. First, theology is central. "When people today press the case for animals and their moral significance," he writes, "they may not directly utilise theological language but they are often expressing some fundamental moral insights which have their deepest roots in our Judeo-Christian heritage." Scattered throughout the Bible, he says, are the visions that secular animal liberationists have now exploited. In Isaiah, there is the peaceable kingdom in which the lion lies down with the lamb. In Romans, there is the world freed from the suffering caused by one species' parasitical behaviour towards another, found in the idea of the creation that will one day be redeemed by God. Second, Christianity provides essential spiritual insight: "I believe that the change of perception which this movement represents is the result of spiritual vision. It's a movement away from the idea that animals are machines to one of value, dignity and rights. That is really the fundamental insight and in that sense it is mystical. It's a moral discovery about the nature of the universe."

Back in the Garden of Eden, where these new moral truths get some of their support, God's husbandry instructions to Adam have been fodder for both sides of the debate. In Genesis chapter 1, verse God created man in the image of himself. In verse 28, God gave man dominion over living creatures. In verse 29, God told man to be a vegetarian: "To you I give all the seed-bearing plantsIand all the trees with seed-bearing fruit; this will be your food." Linzey says that "a herb-eating dominion is hardly a licence for despotism". He adds that his opponents, in justifying human use of animals by singling out dominion, "always throw their weight at what is in fact the strongest vegetarian bit of the Bible".

"That amuses me," he hoots. But, after the flood, when God despaired that humans would ever achieve his intentions for them, he gave more instructions: "Every living thing that moves will be yours to eat." This means that, as Linzey points out, "you have two traditions in the Bible".

The momentous events in which God created man in the divine image and gave him dominion are "essential to the gospel of animal liberation," says Linzey. Unlike many secular animal rights theorists, he retains the idea that humans are unique among animals. But this uniqueness lies in our being the servant species rather than the master: "To possess the divine image and to rule creation is a highly accountable affair. What it doesn't mean is that humans are made the gods of creation and can do with the earth what they like". The model of accountable behaviour can be found in the life of Jesus Christ, through whom God demonstrated the proper use of power. Jesus's power was expressed as a practical, costly service, "extending to those who are beyond the normal boundaries of human concern," says Linzey. "If humans are to claim a lordship over creation, then it can only be - in theological terms - a lordship of service. To follow Jesus is to accept axiomatically that the weak have moral priority."

But why should we extend "the weak" to include animals? Linzey draws a parallel between animal and human suffering, and he turns again to Christ, whose death on the cross he thinks is best interpreted as God identifying with all innocent suffering, rather than as the orthodox view of God identifying with human suffering. "To inflict suffering on innocent, undefended, unprotected beings," he says, "is nothing less than intrinsically evil. A community sensitised to the awfulness of the crucifixion ought also to be sensitive to the infliction of suffering on innocents, both humans and animals."

So, if we keep busy lording over animals through practical, costly service to them, have we made Linzey happy? Not quite. We have to recognise also that they have rights: "If what is created is by definition sustained and loved by God, then we need the strongest possible ethical language to express God's own interest or rights in creation itself. In this regard, the strong language of rights and generosity is one of the best ways of doing justice to the divine deontological imperative. It is, I judge, a sign of our myopic humanocentricity that we think God's right as Creator is concerned only with events or relationships within the human sphere."

Within that human sphere, there are plenty of people who protest against Linzey's rights. John Habgood, former Archbishop of York, earlier this year argued that giving animals rights devalues human rights: "Human beings unquestionably have a moral responsibility towards animals, but they do not form part of the same moral community with us; indeed they do not form part of any moral community, since they do not and cannot exercise any moral responsibility." What kind of rights would we concede to vermin if we followed this path, he asks? Linzey replies: "For me the great, great sadness is that the very ideas that Habgood is attacking show that the Church is wrongfooted in a debate to which it has so much to contribute." Logically, he says, Habgood's argument would also exclude those with mental handicaps or children from having rights because they have no responsibilities.

Animal theology has few scholars, but they reckon that its time has come. Rabbi professor Dan Cohn-Sherbok draws hope from the Church's radical turnarounds over slavery and feminism. Cohn-Sherbok is a lecturer at the University of Kent and a vocal live export protester. As a result of feminism, he says, "we're increasingly sensitised to those who see themselves as victims". Meanwhile, the pipe-smoking vegetarian Reverend Linzey will continue his campaigns, which may include a private member's bill to Synod to ban fox-hunting on church land. And, he says, he lives in hope: "As an area of ethical exploration, especially for theology, it is one of the big remaining questions. One of the reasons I am convinced that the future is ours is that the ideas are ours. Our opponents are having to react to our agenda."

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