Sorry for the lateness of this post. Internet connection troubles.
Did it ever strike you as odd that Christians can affirm God’s care for and love of creation and simultaneously have given next to no thought about how our faith might influence how we treat animals and the rest of creation?
Part of the reason may be that the Bible doesn’t, for the most part, directly and explicitly address these concerns about animals. The Bible for all its significance for us today, was written in a particular place and time. It reflects many of the cultural assumptions of its time. While Torah has statements regarding the humane treatment of animals, it doesn’t question ancient near eastern beliefs about the role of animals in society. With some exceptions, until the anti cruelty movement began in England ( in the 1800s) most Christians accepted that ancient world view as normative.
For Protestants, our tendency to read the Bible searching for timeless truths and explicit doctrine has allowed us to mostly ignore animals. There is no definitive chapter and verse to cite, no “Thou shalt compassionately care for all creatures” and no “Thou shalt not degrade my environment”. Jesus doesn’t directly command us to care for animals. Neither does Paul.
Why doesn’t the Bible have more about animals and God’s relationship with then and about our relationship with animals? Does this silence mean the topic is simply not important? I don’t think so.
The Bible is primarily concerned to tell us about God. That is always its main point. God reveals God’s self to us in the stories of scripture. The Bible tells us important things. Things about who God is. What God’s relationship with us is about. And given our relationship with God, what our relationships with each other should be like.
The Bible doesn’t exist to completely explain everything anyone ever wanted guidance about. It’s not the Christian “Book of Everything”. There is not much about stem cells, nuclear power, the internal combustion engine, mutual funds, the electoral college, post graduate education, cable TV,…. well we could be adding to this list all day. You get the idea.
That doesn’t mean Scripture doesn’t offer guidance on these and many other topics. The Christian tradition has a long history of reading Scripture, faithfully and seriously, and then developing theological ideas that emerge from and expand on our reading. The Trinity would be an example of this. At the same time, this doesn’t mean that any idea anybody ever had after reading the Bible is acceptable. This sort of reflection needs to be done in conversation with the larger Christian community.
The stories about humankind’s relationship with animals are in the Bible. I find the early chapters of Genesis important for discovering what God intended the human animal relationship to be. ( If you type “genesis” , “animals”, and similar terms in the “search this site” feature in the sidebar you will find my earlier posts on this topic. )
God’s delight in and care of God’s creatures can also be found in the prophets, the Psalms and in Job. The stories of the Old Testament cover thousands of years of history and there was time for reflection in poetry and song on God’s activity in the natural world. The New Testament is more intense, focused on Jesus and the early decades of the church. But even in telling the story of Jesus, the underlying assumption remains. God cares for God’s creation. Stories about a good shepherd become an empty metaphor is the sheep don’t matter. God remembers each sparrow. All of creation awaits redemption.
But why do some think that now, in these days we need to think about the relationship between our faith and our relationship with animals? Why is it important now, since it doesn’t seem to have been important in earlier times?
In centuries past the worst we could do environmentally was to damage a small part of the planet. It was difficult for us to hunt a species into extinction. Not impossible but difficult. If we damaged the soil and the local ecosystem with our agricultural practices, we could move away and the earth had time to recover. There were so few of us and the earth was so big that our carelessness didn’t have the consequences it has today. We could ecologically speaking, get away with a self centered, self serving understanding of our role as the image bearers of God.
Those days are gone. People of faith can’t afford to be sloppy or lazy in our thinking. The creation matters to God. It should matter to us.
— Thanks to Ben DeVries for his insights into the Good Shepherd and sheep metaphors and the implicit assumption that the sheep matter.
This week marks the one year anniversary of Conversation in Faith. Thank you all for reading.