Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Animals, Salvation, and Humans, oh my

On Monday morning while crawling through the depths of the internet and desperately trying to avoid writing this blog entry, I stumbled upon this comment in an opinion piece on Religion Dispatches:

Perhaps some religions can be compatible with evolution and the closing of the gulf between humans and other animals, but Christianity can’t. Christianity is based on the concept of Jesus dying for the sins of man, and acceptance of his name granting eternal life in heaven. That argument makes no sense if humans and other animals are ultimately the same. 1

Leaving aside certain other problematic aspects of this comment2, my eyebrows did raise slightly at the assertion of a deep gulf between humans and animals within Christianity. Especially given the understanding of humanity's relation to animals that we have encountered in Albertus Magnus and the bestiaries.3 Inspired by this bit of eyebrow raising, I hope to investigate exactly how Albert, along with others, depict the distinction between humans and animals and what, if any, soteriological ramifications this distinction may have.

The author of the Aberdeen Bestiary had no problem including humans within their catalog of animals. Of course, trees and stones, which are certainty not animals, are also included within the bestiary, but with regard to humans the author clearly states, quoting Ovid:

And though other animals are prone and fix their gaze upon the earth, he gave to man an uplifted face and bade him look at heaven and raise his countenance to the stars.4

Likewise in his On Animals, Albertus clearly classifies humans within the broad group animals, albeit as the most perfect exemplar of the genus. In book 22 he writes:
We will being with those animals which are designated by particular letter.
We will being with the class of the most perfect ones. Since the human is the most perfect of all, we will deal first with him, assigning both the shared traits and the specific traits peculiar to him5

Having situated humanity as the most perfect animal, Albertus distinguishes the “specific traits” which make humans unique. Namely, humans can feel shame, they can discern between what is honorable and what is base, they can set their passions in accordance with virtue, can speculate on intellectual theorems, are civil,6 can learn by reason, and have a tall erect body.7 Most of these characteristics derive from humanity's unique possession of a rational soul, which is ultimately what distinguishes humans from other animals. Humans, for Albertus, are the only terrestrial beings which are capable of reason. The chief characteristic of reason seems to be the ability to abstract universals from sensibles. Although it may seem that other animals can do this, Albertus makes it clear:

They [animals] paricipate in speculation and in the speculatives in no way whatever, since this is done according to every sort of abstraction of universals from sensibles and this abstraction does not occur without reason and intellect.8

As a result, animals do not make judgments, nor do they participate in experiential knowledge, in the same manner as humans. Instead, they do so in ways which do not require speculation. More specifically, they judge and have experiential knowledge through their natures. Later Albertus makes it clear that animals' actions which appear to have no purpose, such as singing, and those actions which appear to be as a result of skill are a result of “the emotions attendant upon copulation, or on some other desire or pleasure” and their nature receptively.9

The distinction that Albertus draws between humans and other animals seems at once to be fairly sharp and somewhat flexible. Animals participate in a type of judgement, a type of experiential knowledge, which seem to approximate reason, and they share in all the powers10 of the sensitive soul that they share with humanity. Yet, they lack a rational soul, and thus, despite appearances, remain irrevocably distinct from humans. I take Albert to be fairly typical in drawing this distinction, although the exact contours of the divide may be different in other authors.11
Moving from the classification of animals towards the soteriological implications of this understanding, I would also like to move backwards a few centuries to the writings of the 9th century Carolingian theologian, John Scottus Eriugena. Eriugena presents us with a rather unique soteriological system,12 which both sheds light on what I take to be the dominant understanding of the animal-human-salvation dynamic and provides some interesting further avenues for study.13

Eriugena distinguishes humans an animals in much the same way as Albertus Magnus, although he is not particularly concerned with defining the exact nature of human reason vs. animal thought. For Eriugena, Humans are rational because they are created as the image of God. However, following from Pseudo-Dionysus and Plato, Eriugena conceives of angels as rational beings and thus also created in the image of God.14 It is humanity's animal nature,which Eriugena understands as the reason why humans have physical bodies, that distinguishes humanity from the angels.15 Without the body, moved by the animal soul, it would hardly have been necessary for the Word to become flesh. It is on these points that I take, although not without some fear of being mistaken, Eriugena to be fairly typical among medieval thinkers, in his understanding of the human-animal-salvation dynamic.16

Within humanity, their rational soul, the image of god, and their irrational, animal, soul are completely indistinguishable. They are perfectly and irreducibly joined through some mysterious manner in a unity reminiscent of the hypostatic union:

Therefore the whole soul is on the one hand produced from the earth in the genus of animals, and on the other hand is made in the image of God.17

Thus, in a sense, there is no distinction between humans and animals, in the same way that there was no distinction between Christ and humanity.18

In addition, as the image of God, humans contain within them reflections of the primordial causes present in the Word,19 which can be broadly understood as divine reasons coupled with the Augustinian idea of seminal reasons, of all created things, including animals. Humans are thus part of the animal genus and contain within themselves all other animals.20 Humans thus unite the divine and the material within themselves. As such, humans serve as the workshop, to use Eriugena's term, for the salvation of all created things. Humanity's return to its creator is, in effect, the return of all things to their creator.21 Eriugena, therefore, crafts a soteriology that, far from requiring humanity to be distinct from animals, necessitates that humanity be an animal, in order to allow for the return of all things to their creator. Certainly this is an area for further investigation. 

1Found here. The original comment thread is located here
2It's rather silly to expect good theology within an internet comment thread.
3Granted, Christian thought is not monolithic and has certainly changed since the time period that we're dealing with. This sharp divide is perhaps more representative of a Cartesian understanding of humanity's relationship to the animal kingdom, that has been touched on briefly by some of our readings.
4Begins here and continues on to the next page (emphasis mine).
5On Animals. 22.1.1
6The footnotes make is clear that this implies that humans alone are citizens of a state, living in cities. On Animals 1447 n22
7On Animals 22.1.5 Albertus also mentions that fasting humans can cure disease with their spittle, as well as perform certain other medical feats.
8On Animals 8.6.1
9On Animals 8.6.2 This raises the question of why exactly Albertus thinks that humans undertake so-called liberal activities, but I was unable to find an answer in Albertus.
10Although oftentimes in an imperfect fashion
11As indicated by the Sobol article.
12This is pretty evident when basically the very first thing he says about animals is that he doesn't understand why so many Fathers insist that irrational souls aren't immortal. Periphyseon IV 737b (hereafter PP)
13If you're guessing that I've also included him because a.) I'd like to pursue these avenues further in my research paper and b.) he's my favorite theologian, you would be correct.
14The idea of humans as imago dei is incredibly important to Eriugena's thought. These implications are far too broad to discuss in such a short space, but it is important to note that I'm only providing the barest bones of his thought on the matter.
15PP III 732d
16I should note, I advance this claim, particularly with regard to the previous sentence, very, very tentatively. I'd welcome comments on this understanding, because, if true, I believe it can be expanded upon to a great extent.
17PP IV 754d-755a, Eriugena interprets earth here allegorically.
18Again, this is a function of Eriugena's reliance on the idea of humanity as image of God.
19Eriugena takes this from the Prologue to John's Gospel by way of Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor
20This becomes considerably more complicated when you take into account that Eriugena is a sort of hyper-realist, who understands these primordial causes to be identical to the particulars manifested in the world. Thus, humans literally contain within themselves every living thing. Hence, why it will take a research paper to properly trace all this stuff out.
21See PP 916a-d for a brief discussion of this. Eriugena also discusses the idea of humanity as a workshop both of creation and salvation at length throughout the Periphyseon.


  1. Good topic--definitely something worth pursuing for your research paper!

    I, too, am weary of throw-away arguments about how Christianity makes it impossible for human beings to relate properly to animals (or the physical world more generally, for that matter). Such arguments tend to focus heavily on the question of personal immortality (souls) and neglect the larger scale of what salvation means. When Adam and Eve fell (or so the usual medieval argument goes), nature fell with them. Nobody gets to live in the Garden anymore--until, that is, the whole of Creation is redeemed by Christ. I think you will find plenty of evidence in the medieval sources for the potential sanctity of nature as such precisely because it is a creature of God. Think about the mappae mundi, for example: they show not just human beings, but the whole world, animals included, being embraced by the Savior. I myself am very interested in this question, as the Virgin Mary is often closely associated with the plants and animals of creation. By giving birth to Christ, she becomes (in Anselm's words) the "mother of all re-creation"--and the whole of creation rejoices with her. Sarah Jane Boss has argued this explicitly in her recent work on Mary: there is an ecological as well as an anthropological claim at stake in saying that God became man through her. You might also find useful Jay McDaniel's essay on "Practicing the Presence of God: A Christian Approach to Animals," in A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science and Ethics, ed. Paul Waldau and Kimberley Patton (New York, 2006), pp. 132-45.

  2. These are good questions and I think it's a great topic to explore. One factor I am curious to hear your (and others') opinion about is the potential impact the Genesis narrative may have on theological views towards human-animal relationships, specifically, God's command to Adam: "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it" (1:28). My assumption has always been that it is in this kind of language that one can argue for an explicitly detailed relationship in which mankind is owner, and the world is property.

    There are a few problems I can think of with this question—one is, how much weight do we give to this kind of language? Does it fundamentally inform our sense of self-understanding in subsequent generations, or am I cherry-picking? Secondly, it can be argued that we're talking about two different issues; one could accept the owner-owned relationship between human and animal as a given, yet still explore the properties that connect all beings together in a metaphysical or biological sense without any discomfort. However, I do think that it can be shown that any categorical difference of power between two groups must always come with some anxiety, since the definitions that separate one group from the other are never so strong that they are invulnerable to questioning. If this is the case, any effort, be it artistic, philosophical, or social, that somehow challenges the fundamental correctness of this Biblical claim that "we are not animals, but rather their masters" will always be met with a certain degree of unease.

  3. Good point about Genesis! However, would this owner/property distinction have carried the same segregative weight during the middle ages as it does now? Servants on a manor, as we saw in class today, are often grouped together with animals as "laborers" (I'm thinking of one particular section in Walter that began with a discussion of which humans to trust and then moved into which animals to entrust with plowing). The medieval hierarchy "subdued" many people and made them responsible to a lord, but no one seems to be denying that these were people. It seems to me the overlord/servant distinction may well have also been applied to human/animal relationships without meaning that animals were in a completely separate category from humans.

    A few other scattered thoughts:
    - Although humans are created in the image of God, God does create all the animals as well. This gives animals a similar connection to God (do they really need a human to bridge the gap if God created both?), although in a less emulative form.
    - I would like to also point out that the last Eriugena quote you use seems to suggest a tension between the animal/earthly soul and the godly soul. The use of "on the other hand" suggests an alternative, if not a competition, rather than a complementary or equivalent piece. Could Eriugena be saying the animal like desires in us are in competition or conflict with the godly desires and rational thinking? Or are they, although not interchangeable, somehow working together to achieve something?

  4. Trying to answer some of your scattered thoughts to the best of my understanding of the text.

    "Although humans are created in the image of God, God does create all the animals as well. This gives animals a similar connection to God (do they really need a human to bridge the gap if God created both?), although in a less emulative form."

    In Eriugena's thought, very much so. Animals are only connected to God in that they are connected through humanity. The divine ideas are implanted within man as imago dei, and thus, to an extent, the very existence of animals, indeed all creation, is grounded on this image. Eriugena, borrowing from Maximus the Confessor, therefore understands humanity as the "workshop" of creation.

    "I would like to also point out that the last Eriugena quote you use seems to suggest a tension between the animal/earthly soul and the godly soul."

    I don't think so. Eriugena's understanding of reality is fundamentally dialectical. Thus God is and God is not, Christ is man and is God, Man is rational and animal, the two aspects of the humans soul are, in some sense, opposed but because of this opposition, they're inherently united and transcend the original categories. Humanity isn't purely animal, like say a dog, or purely rational, like an angel, but simultaneously both, neither, and more than both.