All That Became: The Theological Status of Animals

Professor Ryan McLaughlin, lecturer of theology at Siena College, New York, discusses the theological status of animals, the work of Christ and the practical implications of animal theological concern within the Christian life.


Ryan MacLaughlinFor someone who has never heard of “animal theology” how would you explain it to them?

In a Christian context, animal theology addresses questions about the responsibilities of humans in relation to nonhuman animals and seeks to answer these questions by drawing upon central themes of Christian theology (e.g. creation theology, christology, eschatology).  It’s important to note, though, that animal theology isn’t just about how animals fit into theology; it’s about how theology has meaning for animals in themselves.

In a very general sense, then, any theologian who seriously addresses questions such as the moral status of animals for the sake of those animals could qualify as an animal theologian.  Even so, most self-identified animal theologians tend toward a concern for individual animals—as opposed to a more holistic approach of preserving species and ecosystems.  For my part, I like to consider the camp more broadly.  Those holistically-minded theologians who are more concerned with species than individuals are still considering animals in themselves.  Still, it’s good to be aware that there’s a divide regarding the central unit of moral consideration (e.g., individuals or some more holistic unit such as species or ecosystems).

How has Christianity traditionally regarded animals and why has this been the case?

I don’t think there’s only one view regarding nonhuman animals in Christian history.  With this caveat noted, in Christian Theology and the Status of Animals (Palgrave Macmillan), I argue there is a dominant tradition—a more common one.  This tradition tends toward an anthropocentric worldview in which the rest of the creation exists for the well-being of the human community on its path towards communion with God.  Nonhuman well-being only matters inasmuch as it affects human well-being.  In other words, nonhumans only matter indirectly.  As Aquinas writes in his Summa Theologica, “He that kills another’s ox, sins, not through killing the ox, but through injuring another man in his property.”

Leaping the Thorns © Michael Cook

Leaping the Thorns © Michael Cook

I think this anthropocentric outlook became more dangerous with the Enlightenment and Industrialization.  On the one hand, the nonhuman world became disenchanted—an object that humans could master through careful examination.  The sacramental quality of the cosmos that was present even in the work of anthropocentric thinkers like Aquinas diminished.  On the other hand, with new types of technologies, humans could do new types of harm.  Hence, we now exist in a world of human-induced climate change with species disappearing at such an alarming rate that many scientists believe we’re witnessing (and causing) the next mass extinction event.

At any rate, the basic idea of Aquinas’s anthropocentrism seems to be present in contemporary forms of Christianity.  As only one example: the most recent Roman Catholic Catechism devotes only four paragraphs to nonhuman animals.  The section in which these paragraphs fall is organized according to the Ten Commandments.  And, while we might expect concern for animals to appear under the commandment regarding the Sabbath, the paragraphs instead appear under the commandment “Do not steal.”  While the Catechism maintains that humans owe animals kindness, it also holds that “Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity.”

Of course, my brief response is overly simplistic.  And I don’t mean to demonize those who have advocated or continue to promulgate this dominant tradition.  But it seems to me that such a tradition is there, and it is harmful to both individual animals and the environment as a whole.  However, we should realize two things at this point.  First, it is possible to retrieve voices within the dominant tradition and reapply them in a manner that is more favorable toward nonhuman animals.  Second, there are many other voices in the Christian tradition that lend themselves to establishing a stronger (and direct) concern for nonhuman animals.  Hence, the subtitle to Christian Theology and the Status of Animals is The Dominant Tradition and Its Alternatives.

Has the increased theological interest in animals brought about brand new perspectives on the status of non-humans or the re-discovery of authentic Biblical teaching?

Sister Water

Sister Water © Michael Cook

This question is complicated because it raises the issue of hermeneutics (interpretation).  I don’t think the Bible offers a single and uncontestable view of nonhuman animals.  For example, from a narrative standpoint, the God who remembered “Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark” (Genesis 8:1; NRSV) and made a covenant with all creatures (9:9-10) also seemed to enjoy the smell of burning animal flesh (8:21).

That said, I think more recent interest in animal theology has helped to develop what I consider to be a plausible and positive animal-friendly hermeneutic.  Reading scripture with such a hermeneutic reveals that it is not simply humans that matter.  God loves all creatures.  God is with all creatures, even in their suffering.  One of my favorite passages is Romans 8:18-27.  In that passage, Paul writes that all creation is “groaning” (8:22), that humans likewise “groan” (8:23), and the Spirit intercedes in our prayers with “sighs too deep for words” (8:26).  The Greek root for all three of these words (groaning, groan, and sighs) is the same: stenazō.  This linguistic connection suggests that God and creation—all creation—meet at the point of groaning (stenazō) in the midst of this world.  There is thus a community of creation in which all life has its own important meaning.

Anyway, I think animal theology has helped awaken theologians to an animal-friendly hermeneutic.  This hermeneutic is not the only method of interpreting scripture, but it seems to me to be a valid one.  So, animal theologians have reminded Christians that they don’t have decide between faithfulness to the Bible and concern for animals.  They can do both quite consistently. 

How does the work of Christ effect animals and does this have an impact on our understandings of eschatology?

EmmausAt one point, male-centered worldviews found some justification in the claim that God became man.  Fortunately, such views faltered at the recognition that God became human.  Another shift recognized that John 1:14 actually states that the Word became “flesh” (Greek, sarx).  I would go even further and point out that John’s prologue frequently uses the imperfect tense (suggesting an ongoing reality) to describe the history of the Logos. In the beginning “was the Word” (Greek, en), the Word “was with God” (Greek, en), and the Word “was God” (Greek, en).  But John presents the act of creation in the aorist (completed) form.  All things “came into being” (Greek, ginomai) through the Word.  There is thus a distinction between the Word and the creation.  The former always “was” and everything in the latter “became.”  Then, in John 1:14, something linguistically interesting happens: the Word “became” (Greek, ginomai).  Perhaps more important than what the Word became (male, human, flesh) is that the word became.  And in becoming, the Word that always was (en) takes on the reality of all things that become (ginomai).  Furthermore, Christ takes all becoming to the cross and redeems it.

In that sense, we may say that, in becoming and experiencing the full reality of becoming (e.g., suffering and death), Christ transfigures becoming with the resurrection.  “Heaven,” which I take to be a problematic and misleading term, is now open to all that has ever become (ginomai), which is to say all creation, down to the last quark and gluon.  Eschatology thus points to the resurrection of all creation into new creation.  Just as the same Jesus who became, suffered, and died is transfigured into a new reality, so also all creation, including all individual animals who become, suffer, and die, will be transfigured in the new creation.  

What practical implications does a revised understanding of animals have upon the Christian life?

It depends on how one revises it, of course.  Many more holistically-minded theologians have a great reverence for animal life, but they still eat meat—though typically from animals that have been “ethically raised” and in more sustainable quantities.  They are keen to protect species and eco-systems, but their reverence for the lives of individual animals is qualified.

For my part, I acknowledge the tension that exists in our world.  The reality seems to be that I wouldn’t exist if dinosaurs didn’t go extinct, if my mammalian ancestors didn’t engage in violence, or if the “good” microorganisms in my body didn’t war against the “bad” ones.  As Darwin noted long ago, nature’s war makes the human creature (along with “endless forms most beautiful”) possible.  Although nature is a place of symbiosis and cooperation, a perfect kind of peace—the kind we might envision where a wolf and lamb lie down together—simply isn’t possible in a world such as ours, a world driven at least in part by evolutionary mechanisms such as genetic mutation and competition.

In Preservation and Protest (Fortress Press) I suggest that our engagement with the creation at large—human and nonhuman—must embody a tension.  In a world such as ours, sometimes we must do violence.  When such violence is necessary to procure an equal or greater good, it is lamentably permissible.  That is, it remains evil, a cause for lament, but in some cases we must do it anyway.  However, protest keeps us from normalizing and sanctifying violence.  Just because violence is lamentably permissible in some causes doesn’t mean humans have free reign to do violence for any benefit whatsoever.

In protesting against violence, humans can become sacraments of the new creation in the midst of our Darwinian narrative.  We can trap an insect and set her outside instead of killing in order to spare ourselves a minor effort.  We can refuse ourselves certain luxuries—as Christ did—for the sake of the radical other, the nonhuman other.  For example, I don’t eat meat or wear animal products.  I avoid cosmetic products that have been tested on animals.  That’s a start, though there is much more I could do.  These practices don’t end the reality of “nature red in tooth and claw,” but they witness against the violence in nature.  Like the Eucharist in Orthodox theology, the peaceful interaction between humans and nonhumans becomes a foretaste of the new creation, a sacramental presence that can’t last in this world, but is nonetheless a powerful reality within it.


Professor Ryan MacLauglin earned his PhD in Theology from Duquesne University in 2013. He is the author of Christian Theology and the Status of Animals, published through Palgrave Macmillan. His central research interests are nonhuman theological ethics (both the environment and animals). His other interests include bioethics, interreligious dialogue, social justice, and epistemology.