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February 1996
Christianity and Animals: An Interview with Andrew Linzey

By Rynn Berry

 


Rev. Dr. Andrew Linzey is International Fund for Animal Welfare Professor of Theology at Mansfield College, Oxford University, England. He is the author of a number of important books on Christianity and animals, most notably, Christianity and the Rights of Animals (1987) and Animal Theology (1995).

Q: Did you become a vegetarian prior to being ordained?
A: Yes, though the two things are not unrelated. When I was in my teens I had a series of intensely religious experiences. They deepened my sense of God as the creator of all things. And they also deepened my sensitivity towards creation itself so that concern for God’s creatures and animal rights followed from that. Some people think I’m an animal rights person who just happens, almost incidentally, to be religious. In fact, it’s because I believe in God that I’m concerned about God’s creatures. The religious impulse is primary.

Q: Have you exerted any influence on the Church of England’s position on animal rights?
A: The Church of England is a very liberal, diverse community in which people have a wide range of views on a whole range of issues from sexuality to war. There are some signs of light. For example in 1992, forty-one bishops signed a pledge not to wear fur because of the cruelty inflicted on animals. I’m very proud of the bishops because of their moral stance. But there are also many signs of darkness. For example, I attended the General Synod in 1990 about hunting and factory farming on Church-owned land. I came away from the debate feeling deeply depressed — not only because the pro-animal motion was overwhelmingly rejected — but also because there was a lack of theological depth and seriousness with which the whole issue was treated. Anglicans, like most Christians, haven’t really woken up to the moral issue of our exploitation of animals.

Q: Are there any vegetarian priests in the Church of England?
A: Some, perhaps a handful, but they tend to be vegetarians as a matter of health rather than on ethical grounds. Of course, there is an ascetical tradition within Christianity. It is possible to make a strong argument for ethical asceticism in relation to animals, but alas most of the ascetical tradition in Christianity has been involved in a way of thinking that can only be called "world denying" rather than "world affirming." It’s been concerned with denying creative pleasure — indeed with denying pleasure itself as a means to some higher spiritual state.

Generally, I think asceticism is an entirely false trail in religion. What I mean by "asceticism" is asceticism for itself. There is a strong case for "ethical asceticism," that is, denying those things that harm others. But asceticism in itself, I think, is misconceived.

Q: The first chapters of Genesis strongly suggest that God intended humans to be vegetarian. Could you comment on that?
A: At the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition is the dream of peace. Many people refer to how humans are given "dominion" in Genesis 1, and that’s true. But if you look at the whole saga: in verse 27, humans are made in the image of God; in verse 28, they’re given dominion, and in verse 29, they’re given a vegetarian diet. Herb-eating dominion is hardly a license for despotism. The original author was seeking to describe a relationship — not of egotistical exploitation — but of care for the earth. It’s extraordinary that almost 2000 years of biblical exegesis should so often have overlooked the radical vegetarian message in Genesis 1.

Of course, it’s not only in Genesis, it’s in Isaiah as well. Also you had this harking back, now futuristically described as the state in which the lion will lie down with the lamb. So, it’s not just in Genesis that you have this idea that peace between all creatures is God’s will and that killing runs counter to that will.

Q: But what about life after the "Fall"?
A: I’m not sure that I believe in an historical Fall. I think the Genesis narratives reflect an ambivalence about the morality of killing in the sight of God. You need to remember that the Hebrew writers who wrote Genesis were not themselves vegetarians. What they were trying to do was to interpret the world in the light of their moral intuitions of what they thought God wanted, and who they thought God was. Genesis is their poetic narrative of how the world came to be such a desperate and violent place. Their view basically was that God’s will was for peace and non-violence between all species, but that human wickedness threw the whole system into chaos — so much so that God, for example in the saga of Noah, would rather us not exist at all if we must live and be violent.

Q: Besides humans, are animals also the object of God’s wrath? Do animals share in the expulsion from Paradise and the Fall?
A: The whole creation suffers as a consequence. Nowadays the Jewish tradition makes a very sharp distinction between humans and animals, but I don’t see this sharp distinction in Genesis 1:9. After all, humans and land animals are created on the same day (the sixth). I would say that animals are inextricably linked by their creation so that when humans go wrong, the animal creation goes wrong too.

I’m inclined to believe that creation can never be set to rights so long as humans are so terribly violent. In that sense the colossal emphasis within the Judeo-Christian tradition on the salvation of human beings makes a lot of sense. My view is that the world of creation, and especially animals, will be redeemed as a matter of course. The only question is whether humans are going to be saved because they are often so faithless and violent.

Q: But the fate of animals is inextricably linked with that of humans, isn’t it?
A: I am one of those people who believe that humans need to be saved for the sake of creation itself. We know so little about animals and creation. One of my pet peeves is hearing people pontificate about what animals are or are not capable of — because the truth is we really don’t know. All the stuff about animals not having language, not having rational souls, not having culture, not being persons — all of these are human constructions. And I’m not sure how far any of these kinds of things matter to God even if they are true. Part of me wants to ask how we can know that God does not fundamentally value some parts of creation, or regard them as much more intimate with Herself, than human beings? All uniqueness-spotting on the part of humans is bound to be self-serving. Christians have been fiendishly good of course at drawing lines between humans and the rest of God’s creatures.

I think that what we really need is a theocentric view. In God’s eyes, all creatures have value whether we find them cuddly, affectionate, beautiful or otherwise. Our own perspective — in a way — is neither here nor there. Theology, at its best, can help to liberate us from our own anthropocentric limitations.

Q: What about the question of Christ’s having been a vegetarian?
A: If the canonical gospels are to be believed, Jesus was not a thoroughgoing vegetarian nor, it must be said, a feminist nor a believer in Home Rule for Israel. We must beware of remaking the historical Jesus in our own image. I don’t think that the contemporary Christian case for vegetarianism depends on Jesus himself being a vegetarian.

I think we have to ask what it would have meant for Jesus to have been a thoroughgoing vegetarian in first-century Palestine. It would probably have implied some association with Manicheanism. Manicheans were almost all vegetarians not on ethical but on ascetical grounds. [Manicheans believed in the radical separation of spirit, which was good, with the body, which was bad.] But Manicheanism was inimical to the thrust of Jesus’ teaching. After all Christians confessed their belief in God who had become incarnate in flesh and blood — in the very materiality that the Manicheans thought impure. Even today one of the problems it seems to me is that Christian theology is still Manichean in a way, that is, too "other worldly," too world denying. I think it is a great mistake to oppose the flesh to the spirit. Christianity is about the enfleshment of God in the incarnation.

I like the Rabbinic saying that when we get to heaven we shall have to account for every legitimate pleasure that we didn’t enjoy. For myself that provides a vast agenda in the present world, and I intend to take every advantage of it. (Laughs)

Q: So, in a sense, our mistreatment of animals, and our eating of their flesh, is an impediment to our pleasure.
A: Absolutely! It’s an impediment to spiritual pleasure. That’s why I think vegetarianism is implicitly a theological act. It’s not about saying "No" but about saying "Yes." About enjoying the lives of other creatures on this earth so much that even the thought of killing them is abhorrent. I think God rejoices in Her creatures, takes pleasure in their lives, and wants us to do so too. So much of our exploitation of animals stems from a kind of spiritual blindness: if we sensed and really felt the beauty and magnificence of the world, we would not exploit it as we do today.

Q: What about the depiction of Yahweh in Genesis and in various other places in the Old Testament as delighting in the odor of animal sacrifices?
A: It’s just conceivable that those who practiced animal sacrifice did not understand it as simply the gratuitous destruction of God’s creatures. It was in some ways thought of as the liberation and the returning to God of that life back to the very lifesource that caused everything to be. But, of course, there’s no one view of animal sacrifices even by those who practiced it. And one finds, for example in Isaiah, the contrary view — a rejection of sacrifice as cultically, if not morally, unacceptable to God. From the Christian point of view, however, the important thing theologically is that Jesus did not sacrifice animals.

Q: Jesus was seen as the ultimate sacrifice?
A: It’s all expressed in that incredible line: "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." Now, if you think about it in context, the shepherd did not lay down his life for the sheep. The shepherd slaughtered the sheep. By saying that, a whole new dimension of understanding is opened up. It is about how "the higher" should sacrifice itself for "the lower" and not the reverse.

Q: What about the communion ritual itself? To some anthropologists, the drinking of Christ’s blood and the eating of his flesh, however symbolic, smacks of cannibalism.
A: Well, Christians continue to celebrate the Eucharist with bread and wine; it does not contain dead flesh.

I would go so far as to say that the Eucharist is the continuing expression of how Christ replaces the blood and flesh of animals. Christ becomes the true lamb. The theology is not, "Oh well, therefore we must go on sacrificing animals, because Jesus is the true sacrifice!" No! It’s that Jesus has become The Sacrifice.

Q: Is it wrong for ecologists and animal rights advocates to blame Christianity and Judaism for the rape of the planet and the "slaughter of the innocent" for thousands of years?
A: My answer is yes and no. On the one hand, it’s right for animal rights people to be critical and judgmental of the Christian tradition. It has been amazingly callous towards animals. Christian theologians have been neglectful and dismissive of the cause of animals — and many still are. Christians and Jews have allowed their ancient texts — such as Genesis — to be read as licensing tyranny over animals, even though, as I have said, Genesis 1:29 commands vegetarianism!

On the other hand, animal rights people sometimes look on Christianity as though it was unambiguously "the enemy." I think it is wrong to write off Christianity in this way. All religious traditions have great resources for a very positive ethic in relation to animals. I would go further and say that however awful the record of Christianity has been, Christian theology has some unique insights fundamental to valuing animal life.

From my perspective, without a sense of ultimate meaning and purpose, it is difficult, if not impossible, to justify any kind of moral endeavor. If Christian societies have been awful to animals so also have atheistical ones. To my mind it’s not self-evident that one should live altruistically or generously. The Judeo-Christian tradition and other world religions have the potential to give us a vision of ourselves in the world that we so desperately need. I’m one of those people who believe that morality really depends upon vision. Acting morally is to live in response to a vision of how we should be, and the truth is that the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the Buddhist tradition, and the Hindu tradition, and the Jain tradition do have visions of how the world could be at peace.

More fundamentally still, like all the great reforming movements, animal rights depends upon a certain perception — insight — in our case about the intrinsic worth of animals. I think reason and rational argument are important in defending this insight and showing its intellectual coherence but the spiritual insight, I think, comes first. In other words, we are about trying to help people see animals differently. For me, animal rights is first and foremost spiritual experience and spiritual struggle.

Rynn Berry is the author of Food for the Gods: Vegetarianism and the World Religions, forthcoming in May, from which this interview is excerpted. Copies can be ordered for $14.95 + $3 shipping from 159 Eastern Parkway, #2H, Brooklyn, NY 11238.

 


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