It is now impossible to avoid the daily news reports detailing the negative impacts human activity is having on the planet. From the highest mountains to the depths of the ocean, nowhere on Earth appears unsullied by human activity. Throughout our short history as a species, we have modified and transformed the environment around us – whether through hunting mega-fauna to extinction, the emergence of settled agriculture 12-15,000 years ago, or the development of mega-cities during the last fifty years. But now, whether naked to the human eye – such as the rapidly increasing levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere – or clearly visible – such as the ubiquitous plastic in our waterways, oceans, and along coastlines – it is glaringly obvious that our relationship with the rest of the created order is badly awry. Our actions of destroying habitats and polluting soil, waterways, oceans, and the atmosphere is directly contributing to a dramatic decline in population sizes of other species. Homo sapiens are destroying the very fabric of life: we are the primary cause of the sixth great mass extinction currently unfolding.
What does the God we profess to worship think about this ecological cataclysm taking place? What should our response as followers of Jesus be to this enormous loss of biodiversity?
Faced with this existential threat, much of the theology one hears nowadays is often thoroughly anthropocentric. We have developed “otherworldly” theologies in which other species and the created order are viewed merely as a backdrop for what is conceived as the key event – God’s relationship with H. sapiens. But is our species really the centre of the still unfolding story of God’s relationship with all of creation? Digging deeper into Scripture and the Christian tradition and engaging with the discoveries of contemporary science, we become aware that we may have arrogantly overestimated ourselves and downplayed the significance of other creatures.
Creatures like us
That God has a deep love for all of creation is evident from the opening creation account which contains the seven-times repeated affirmation by the Creator of the “goodness” of creation (Genesis 1:2-23a). Later, in the Flood narrative (Gen 6-9), Noah obeys the LORD and builds an ark to ensure the preservation of biodiversity in the face of the ensuing “blotting out of life” (7:23). While the Creator’s love for all that has been created is clear, to what extent do God’s creatures respond to this love? What is the nature of the relationship the myriad of creatures have with their Creator?
Through recent advancements in science we now know that we share between 96-99% of the same DNA as our closest relatives, chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas. As well as this genetic similarity the research of animal behaviouralists is also breaking down the conceptual wall we have erected between ourselves and other creatures. Far from being machines, automata acting purely on instinct and incapable of experiencing pain, as infamously expressed by René Descartes, we are progressively discovering the depth of the interior life of many creatures. Evidence that creatures experience a range of emotions – pain, joy, grief, contentment, anger, depression, and loneliness – continues to grow. Many of the actions that we attribute uniquely to humans – planning and co-operation, deception, altruism, mourning, forgiveness, holding grudges, making peace, humour – are also apparent in other species.
Creatures breathed into life by God
Scripture too views other creatures not as automatons nor as flat cardboard-like figures, but rather as dynamic created beings with distinct identity, agency, and the capacity for relationship with their Creator. The powerful imagery used in Genesis 2:7 of the LORD God breathing life into the nostrils of ᾿ādām, the Earth creature, is repeated throughout the Old Testament. The Psalmist, observing all the creatures made through God’s wisdom, draws on the imagery of the breath/Spirit of God hovering over the waters of creation (Gen 1:2), writing:
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground. (Ps 104:29-30)
Scripture testifies that the life of all creatures is dependent upon this life-giving breath (ruach) of God. Qohelet, the author of Ecclesiastes, understood that human life and destiny is inextricably tied up with the lives of other creatures. Faced with the fragility and transitory nature of human life, Qohelet stressed that we should not think too highly of ourselves, reminding us that we too are animals.
18I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. 19For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. 20All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. 21Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth? (Eccl 3:18-21).
Creatures as God’s agents
Not only do creatures share the same life-animating breath/Spirit as ourselves, but Scripture also portrays creatures as both agents of God’s grace and messengers of God’s judgement. In 1 Kings 17:1-7 the prophet Elijah dutifully announces to the idolatrous King Ahab the onset of a drought. Faithful in speaking God’s judgement, Elijah still personally faces the consequences of this drought. Remarkably, it is the ceremonially unclean ravens who become agents of God’s grace, providing Elijah with a morning and evening meal. Likewise, another of God’s prophets becomes the recipient of the saving actions of a fellow creature. Israel, a land-based non-sea-faring people, had a deep antipathy for the seas. Nevertheless, Jonah, faced with what he perceives as a certain death-sentence in heading to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, to speak truth to power, chooses the terror of the sea. Tossed overboard, it is a creature of the feared deep that swallows Jonah, thus saving him from drowning. In contrast to Jonah the large fish is then obedient to God, returning Jonah to his terrestrial life to receive again the LORD’s instruction.
In another comical episode it is a faithful donkey which saves its owner – the soothsayer Balaam – from the angel of the LORD brandishing a sword. Summoned by Balak to curse the Israelites, Balaam beats his donkey, unaware that the animal’s sudden changing of direction is saving him from the unseen danger of the LORD’s judgement. Given speech, the donkey pleads his innocence. His testimony is upheld by the angel of the LORD who announces that was it not for his donkey’s intervention Balaam would have been struck down. Dismounted from his elevated position Balaam is made to stand alongside his fellow-creature, and stationary and silent, is required to listen again to the instruction he thus far has failed to fully heed (Numbers 22:1-35). It is worth reflecting how often we, like Jonah and Balaam, overlook or are ignorant of the ways in which the creatures that surround us are messengers of grace and agents of deliverance. Moving beyond an anthropocentrism worldview requires us, like Balaam, to be unseated, metaphorically, from our high horse.
Creatures demand our attention
Within the Christian tradition it has become common to speak of God’s two books of revelation: creation and Scripture. However, to hear what the book of creation is saying to us, in particular through the utterances of our fellow creatures, requires a new posture: one of stillness, characterised by humility and teachableness. Job, experiencing tremendous adversity, finds himself surrounded by well-meaning friends who explain that the cause of his woe is unconfessed guilt. Job defends his innocence, calling on his created-kin to defend his righteousness, briefly ending the lectures of his counsellors by summoning them to inquire and learn from their fellow creatures (Job 12:7-10). Later, Job is compelled to take his own advice. A voice from out of a whirlwind: the LORD, interrogates Job, offering a detailed description of the complexity and mystery of creation (Job 38-41). Confronted with the overwhelming wonder of an ecosystem teeming with dynamic life in which he is embedded and cannot exist apart from, Job humbly confesses: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5). It is no coincidence that later, another obedient and righteous individual, Jesus, will issue the same instructions to his disciples, calling them to “consider” (observe, pay attention to) the virtuous behaviour of ravens.
Still, as well as encountering God through contemplation of creation, what might it mean to further tune into the world of other creatures and commune directly with them? While it is an everyday occurrence to speak to other creatures – think of your interactions with pets – to what extent do we genuinely listen to their voices? Our failure to do so seems tied up with (1) the Cartesian assumption that only humans possess language and, (2) a misunderstanding about the primary purpose of language. While evidence appears to be growing debunking the notion that only humans communicate through language, we still tend to conceive of language in a self-referential way: language, we believe, gives us the ability to represent and interpret the world around us. While this is true, this is not the primary purpose of language. Thus far I have been following thematic threads noting (a) the breath/Spirit which animates us and the array of life on Earth, and (b) the extent to which language, rather than distinguishing us from other creatures, is a reciprocal activity connecting us to humans, other species, and God. These threads are woven together in a poetic passage by environmental philosopher, David Abram:
Oral language gusts through us – our sounded phrases borne by the same air that nourishes the cedars and swells the cumulus clouds. Laid out and immobilized on the flat surface, our words tend to forget that they are sustained by this windswept earth; they begin to imagine that their primary task is to provide a representation of the world (as though they were outside of, and not really a part of, this world). Nonetheless, the power of language remains, first and foremost, a way of singing oneself into contact with others and with the cosmos – a way of bridging the silence between oneself and another person, or a startled black bear, or the crescent moon soaring like a billowed sail above the roof. Whether sounded on the tongue, printed on the page, or shimmering on the screen, language’s primary gift is not to re-present the world around us, but to call ourselves into the vital presence of that world – and into deep and attentive presence with one another.
We share with other creatures varying amounts of the same genetic code, the same life-animating breath, and with many, the capacity for language. While this language summons us into a “deep and attentive presence with one another,” it has an even greater function. Theologically, the primary purpose of the gift of language, is to assist creatures in the praise of their Creator. And, while we may think that only humanity engages in worship, Scripture maintains that this is not the case. Psalm 148 portrays all of creation – angelic beings, sun, moon, stars, sea creatures and oceans, weather systems, landscapes and trees of terrestrial habitats and all the wild and domesticated species that reside in them – alongside humanity, as an enormous choir offering its praise to the LORD. Indeed, the book of Psalms concludes with the exhortation that all creatures offer the breath they have been given back in praise to their Maker: “Let everything that breathes praise the LORD!” (Psalm 150:6).
Creatures as fellow-worshippers
Accordingly, most significant of all, Scripture decentres and re-orientates us by asserting that as well as being messengers of grace and judgement, and teachers of virtue, other creatures are also fellow-worshippers. This imagery of all God’s creatures worshipping their Creator and Redeemer reaches its zenith in John’s apocalyptic vision. Four living creatures – symbolic of wild creatures (a lion), domesticated animals (an ox), human beings, and avian life (an eagle) – gather before the throne of God declaring that the life of all creatures stems from God’s initiative (Revelation 4:11). Their reason to exist is to give glory to God. As the Lamb of God, standing beside the throne, opens the scroll which declares just judgement, vindicating God’s reign of love, these four creatures are joined by “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea”, every creature extinct or extant, in offering eternal praise:
To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honour and glory and might
forever and ever!
Faced with the diminishing of biodiversity we are compelled by this same love to protect the life of our fellow choristers that their voices may continue to praise their Creator.
Questions for discussion
- Read the Book of Jonah. What role do animals play in God’s work in this book?
- Read Psalm 148 or Revelation 4-5. What role do animals play in these passages?
- What experiences have you had in which other creatures have been messengers of God’s grace and/or agents of deliverance?
- What difference would conceiving of other creatures as God’s agents and as fellow-worshippers make for your life? What difference would it make for your university? Your student movement? Your church
This coming week set aside a period of time to be still, silent, and attentive to the life of other creatures around you. Keep a journal of how God speaks to you through the book of creation.
- Bauckham, Richard. Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010.
- Clough, David L. On Animals: Theological Ethics. Vol. 2. London: Bloomsbury, 2019.
- Clough, David L. On Animals: Systematic Theology. Vol. 1. London: T. & T. Clark, 2012.
- Deane-Drummond, Celia, and David L. Clough. Creaturely Theology: On God, Humans and Other Animals. London: SCM Press, 2009.
- Harris, Peter. Kingfisher’s Fire: A Story of Hope for God’s Earth. Oxford: Monarch, 2008.
- Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2014.
- A.J. Jamieson et al. “Microplastics and synthetic particles ingested by deep-sea amphipods in six of the deepest marine ecosystems on Earth,” R. Soc. open sci. 6: 180667, https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/pdf/10.1098/rsos.180667; Heather Saul, “Human waste left by climbers on Mount Everest is causing pollution and could spread diseases,” Independent, 3 March 2015, https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/human-waste-left-by-climbers-on-mount-everest-is-causing-pollution-and-could-spread-diseases-10081562.html.
- WWF. 2018. Living Planet Report – 2018: Aiming Higher. Grooten, M. and Almond, R.E.A. (Eds). WWF, Gland, Switzerland, https://c402277.ssl.cf1.rackcdn.com/publications/1187/files/original/LPR2018_Full_Report_Spreads.pdf?1540487589.
- While the human population of 7.6 billion represents only 0.01% of all living things, since the emergence of Homo sapiens our actions have led to the extinction of 83% of all wild mammals; 80% of marine mammals; 50% of plants; and 15% of fish. See: Yinon M. Bar-On, Rob Phillips, and Ron Milo (2018), “The Biomass Distribution on Earth,” Proceedings of the National Academic of Sciences 115 (25): 6506-11. While extinction is a normal part of the evolutionary process scientists estimate that the current rates of species extinction is 100-10,000 times higher than the background extinction rate.
- See the work of Dutch primatologist and ethologist, Frans de Waal, particularly: Our Inner Ape (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005) and Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves (New York: W.W. Norton, 2019).
- Genesis 6:17; Genesis 7:21-22; Job 12:10, 27:3 32:8,33:4, 34:14-15; Psalm 104:29-30, Isaiah 42:5, 57:16.
- The Hebrew word ruach can be translated as wind, breath, or Spirit.
- Luke 12:24; see Andrew Shepherd, “Being ‘Rich towards God’ in the Capitalocene: An Ecological/Economic Reading of Luke 12.13-34,” The Bible Translator (forthcoming).
- Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010), 11, italics original.
Scripture passages are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.