Public Theology and the Anthropocene: Exploring Human-Animal Relations

In: International Journal of Public Theology
Author: Eva van Urk1
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  • 1 PhD candidate, Faculty of Religion and Theology, Vrije UniversiteitAmsterdamThe Netherlands
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Given that the current ecological crises are largely human-caused, it is an issue of public concern to promote views which appreciate non-human animals (and creation at large) as inherently and independently valuable, and which stimulate efforts to reverse trends towards mass extinction. This article examines how theologians may critically explore the Bible’s relevance in the Anthropocene. It will show that theology can both critically incorporate new attitudes towards non-human animals, as well as dig into its own reservoirs, like biblical stories for the sake of an appropriate response. Such ‘digging’ needs to consist of a willingness both to discover and actualize a biblical ecological wisdom and to unmask possible anthropocentric tendencies. It is assumed that theology will continue to prove itself to be an indispensable conversation partner in public spheres.


Given that the current ecological crises are largely human-caused, it is an issue of public concern to promote views which appreciate non-human animals (and creation at large) as inherently and independently valuable, and which stimulate efforts to reverse trends towards mass extinction. This article examines how theologians may critically explore the Bible’s relevance in the Anthropocene. It will show that theology can both critically incorporate new attitudes towards non-human animals, as well as dig into its own reservoirs, like biblical stories for the sake of an appropriate response. Such ‘digging’ needs to consist of a willingness both to discover and actualize a biblical ecological wisdom and to unmask possible anthropocentric tendencies. It is assumed that theology will continue to prove itself to be an indispensable conversation partner in public spheres.

1 Introduction

‘[O]ne-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion,’ thus Elizabeth Kolbert summarizes the current mass extinction of species.1 Unlike the previous five extinction events in Earth’s history which, for example, were caused by an asteroid, this sixth one is largely caused by human beings. Contributing factors include greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, overfishing, agricultural activities, overhunting, excessive meat and dairy consumption and land-use change (like deforestation). Next to climate change, extinction is one of the major developments in the Anthropocene, so-called because of the enormous and ever-growing influence of human beings on the planet.2

Most environmental humanities scholars agree that, if we want to address the problem of mass extinction, our attitudes should become less anthropocentric and more inclusive towards non-human life.3 In this respect, it is widely acknowledged that the shared stories, values and beliefs that we as humans hold regarding our fellow humans and non-humans influence our concern or indifference about biodiversity, endangered species, and extinction.4 As Ursula K. Heise remarks:

[H]owever much individual environmentalists may be motivated by a selfless devotion to the well-being of non-human species, (…), their engagements with these species gain sociocultural traction to the extent that they become part of the stories that human communities tell about themselves: stories about their origins, their development, their identity, and their future horizons.5

Here, religion explicitly and publicly comes into play. Religions, like secular views of life, have always been, and continue to be, a considerable global factor in shaping people’s moral attitudes and actions. Even in secularized societies, alongside other traditions and narratives, religious views of life continue to be influential. As Paul Waldau, Director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy (Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine), acknowledges, ‘(…) religious traditions are ancient educators’.6 In light of the ecological crisis, then, whether religious traditions can offer publicly inspiring and appreciative views of non-humans animals is of crucial importance in society and is an issue of public concern.

Unfortunately, however, the legacy and ongoing influence of (Western) Christianity is frequently held responsible for elevating humans above ‘lesser’ parts of nature and paving the way to domination and abuse. According to the controversial and much debated thesis of historian Lynn White, ‘[Western] Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen’ because, on the basis of Scripture (for exampe, the book of Genesis), it is believed that ‘(…) although man’s body is made of clay, he is not simply part of nature: he is made in God’s image’.7 White (in)famously suggested that Christianity bears primary responsibility for the ecological crisis.8 Although White has been strongly criticized for a variety of reasons—one for example being that far more cultural-historical factors contribute to the ecological crisis than predominantly (Western) Christian traditions—the purport of his ideas still resounds in the environmental academic arena.9 In the wake of White, contemporary voices concur that the ecologically irresponsible behavior of the ‘anthropos’ of the Anthropocene is deeply rooted in a history of superiority claims inspired by philosophical and theological concepts of humanity.10

Religious communities and theologians, however, mine the very same Judaeo-Christian biblical traditions to rethink human-world relationships with an eye to sustainable and biodiverse futures.11 Within these contexts, it is readily acknowledged that Christianity—for example, with appeals to the notion of imago Dei—has unduly preserved notions of human superiority and continuously has to overcome unbridled anthropocentric worldviews that are potentially harmful.12 However, the (potential) relations between religious traditions and positive ecological attitudes are also stressed.13 It was, moreover, White himself who stated that ‘[s]ince the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not.’14 There is in any case no clear-cut story of the influence of Christianity and the rise of the ecological crisis.15 Whatever blame Christian traditions should take for current ecological problems, it is nonetheless clear that the Bible exerts an enormous cultural influence. For many people, the texts from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and New Testament remain an important source of (divine) guidance and inspiration for how to live life and connect to fellow beings. Importantly, it is more and more recognized that the Bible is not just about God and human beings—animals, as well as other life forms, are very much part of creaturely existence.

It is my intention to engage with the question of how theologians may explore the Bible’s relevance in the Anthropocene and ‘talk back into the churches’ and the public arena from a non-anthropocentric mindset.16 As Richard Bauckham argues, ‘part of the responsibility of a Christian interpreter of Scripture today is to try to understand our contemporary context and to explore the Bible’s relevance to it in ways that reflect serious critical engagement with that context.’17 What, then, are the challenges and potentials of drawing on biblical texts as a way to engender public concern for non-human animals in the Anthropocene?

In order to fulfil this task, firstly, I will examine some representations of humans and animals as they have culturally and historically developed and as such have interacted—and continue to do so—with religious views. Secondly, on the basis of representative biblical examples, I will address selected related challenges and potentials in reading the Bible ecologically. Thirdly, I will in a more detailed manner discuss two case studies within the field of biblical ecological hermeneutics as literary and biblical scholar Michael Gilmour offers them.

2 Representations of Humans and (Non-Human) Animals

For some time in an influential strand of European history animals were thought of as irrational, unconscious machines that felt no pain at all and were merely driven by instinct, as indeed René Descartes argued.18 It is not surprising that such an attitude easily results in all kinds of harmful behaviour towards animals. There were no apparent serious constraints on human conduct. But now, from discoveries in the field of zoology—as well as from our own experiences—there is a recognition that animals are far more complex. There is now much literature available on the cognitive skills and emotional intelligence of all kinds of animals. Qualities that were considered to belong to humans alone appear to be present in other species too, albeit not in precisely the same fashion.19 Observations on elephants, for example, show that these large animals are concerned with suffering and death and react with compassion to other elephants in trouble or when they find a corpse. They even engage in what appear to be mourning rituals.20 If we turn our gaze to the Anthropocene, such observations are particularly striking; so many elephants are being killed for their ivory. Wildlife researcher Cynthia Moss records:

They stood around Tina’s carcass, touching it gently (…). Because it was rocky and the ground was wet, there was no loose dirt; but they tried to dig into it (…) and when they managed to get a little earth up they sprinkled it over the body. Trista, Tia, and some of the others went off and broke branches from the surrounding low brushes and brought them back and placed them on the carcass. They remained very alert to the sounds around them and kept smelling to the west, but they would not leave Tina. By nightfall they had nearly buried her with branches and earth. Then they stood vigil over her for most of the night and only as dawn was approaching did they reluctantly begin to walk away.21

Thus, the general (Western) view on animals has changed with regard to Descartes’ stance, although scholars take different positions on particular animal capacities and the human-animal relationship in general. Scholars who speak and write about the amazing life of other animals are frequently accused of ‘anthropomorphism’—that is, the attribution of human capacities to non-human beings and objects. Ecologist and evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff, argues that a critical anthropomorphism is not antiscientific, however: it is a way of making animal behaviour and emotions accessible to us, without implying that their experiences are precisely similar.22 In a similar vein, ecologist Carl Safina argues that the presence of shared brain structures, neurotransmitters and hormones makes it perfectly sensible to presume, for example, that a particular animal is ‘happy’ when it plays with its young.23

Correspondingly, and in addition to the natural sciences, the academic field of the humanities witnesses a ‘turn to the animal’. Academic attention is directed towards the exploration of animals in art, literature and popular media, and to questions of identity and commonalities and distinctions between humans and other animals.24 An important emphasis in the field of (critical) animal studies is that we should no longer view human beings as unique and superior among the living creatures on this earth, something for which traditional religion is often held accountable by both religious and non-religious thinkers alike.25 Instead, it is argued that we must become aware—if we were not yet already—of the profound (biological) interconnectedness between us and other animal species. Any form of crude anthropocentrism should be abandoned. The general thrust is that in the Anthropocene, now more than ever, we should affirm the biological, cultural and other links between ourselves and other species, and not be narrowly focused on ourselves at the expense of the life of other animals and the larger natural world.26

Unfortunately, animals and the larger world of creation have not always received much positive attention in Christian theology: the focus was mostly on the agency of human beings. Or, to put it more bluntly, the emphasis far too frequently fell on the souls of individual human beings going to heaven, or elsewhere. For a long time in history, human beings were seen as a middle category in the Great Chain of Being: they were placed below the angels, but above the animals.27 Theological accounts tended to disconnect humans from other creatures by their stress on the human possession of a rational soul or mind. As Wentzel van Huyssteen puts it: ‘Christian theology has traditionally assumed a radical split between human beings as created in the image of God and the rest of creation.’28 Many theologians have more recently come to doubt whether there exists such a profound biological and theological gap between ‘humans’ and ‘animals’. Subsequent critical investigations have resulted in the contemporary fields of ecotheology and animal theology, in which there is a fruitful interaction with the natural sciences, the field of animal studies and also with societal and cultural concerns.29 In general, there has developed a greater recognition of what David Fergusson describes as ‘the embodiedness of human beings and their belonging to the physical world with other creatures’.30 Fergusson observes that ‘[a] world that is both created and redeemed by God is not one in which human beings can be isolated and detached from fellow creatures to whom they are morally and spiritually bound.’31 Similarly, David Clough, who wrote a comprehensive systematic-theological treatise on animals,32 identifies humans as ‘one of God’s animal creatures’.33 Thus, most theologians nowadays make it very clear that the world with its creatures was not made by God for the sake of human beings. In other words, animals are not there for human creatures to use them in any way we like. The human being shares this planet with a great multitude of other living beings with their own inherent worth, specific interests and needs, and with whom we are in diverse and complex interrelationships. In the same vein, it is more and more put to the fore that the eschatological future as well will be inhabited by both humans and animals alike. Christopher Southgate has argued that ‘a redeemed cosmos [is] far more than merely an environment for resurrected humanity’. Rather, according to Southgate, ‘other creatures will have a share in the life of the eschaton’.34 So, the classic question of a child, ‘Does my pet go to heaven?’ appears to be no longer such a silly question. Even Pope Francis, in a video that went viral, recently comforted a little boy who had lost his dog that this was surely the case.35

Clearly, the way human beings have thought about their (religious) identity, and the identities of other living beings, has gone through diverse cultural and historical processes. The field of religion and theology actively reflects and incorporates these broader ideas about and attitudes towards animals, although in various ways and to different extents. Religions are not static entities: they are continually formed and adapted in interaction with what is going on in academia, society and culture.

3 Reading the Bible Ecologically

As part of the above described cultural developments, the Bible has become subject to an extensive quest for ecological wisdom as well as critical reflections as to its perceived anthropocentric contents.36 Two representative biblical examples of an ecological hermeneutic will suffice. The task is then to ‘recontextualize’ them within the context of the Anthropocene.

To highlight the interconnectedness among Earth’s inhabitants, and to point out the independent value of all God’s creatures, many ecologically minded scholars refer to the story of the Flood and the subsequent covenant God establishes with all life—not only humans.37 In this story after one hundred fifty days God ‘remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark’ (NRSV, Gen. 8:1). God then established a covenant with Noah and every other living creature, ‘as many as came out of the ark’ (NRSV, Gen. 9:10). In Genesis 9:17, furthermore, the primary distinction is between God and ‘all flesh on earth’. Humans and animals thus are ‘literally’ all in the same boat, whatever might further divide the species of creatures.

It is not difficult to imagine how biblical portrayals like these can inspire ethical perspectives on human-animal relations in the Anthropocene. They may even deepen cultural understandings of the time we live in. The philosopher Hub Zwart makes the case for the point that

the ancient story of the Ark acquires new relevance against the backdrop of the current era, which is often referred to (…) as the ‘Anthropocene’ (…). We are facing a global environmental crisis, a mass extinction event (…), so that the Ark is on the move again, but this time as a symbolic type of vessel, a structure which has assumed planetary proportions.38

Another biblical narrative that demonstrates the interconnectedness between humans and animals, as well as God’s encompassing mercy, is the book of Jonah.39 Here the city of Nineveh is about to be overthrown by God because of the evil ways of its inhabitants. After hearing the warning message of the prophet Jonah, the king deems it necessary for the community to fast, repent and wear sackcloth—human beings and animals alike (Jon. 3:7–8). God then decides to spare the city and subsequently rebukes the stubborn and discontented Jonah, who is grumbling over a withered bush that had provided him with shadow. God says to Jonah whereafter the biblical book comes to a closure:

You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?

NRSV, Jon. 4:10–11

Like the story of the Flood, this biblical episode lends itself to a recontextualization in the Anthropocene. It may run as follows. Firstly, humans and animals are pictured together; they share the same fate (namely the foretold destruction of the city).40 So too, both present-day humans and many animal species will suffer the consequences of the destructive ways of humanity, if there is no fresh anthropological insight that balances power and repentance. Secondly, God’s mercy extends to the life of animals, as apparent in the biblical closing words ‘and also many animals’ (NRSV, Jon. 4:11). God does not want to see animals being destroyed (although God’s main concern may be with human beings).41 Thirdly, like Jonah humanity is confronted with its own proud-hearted grumbles over things it wants and things it loses: it neglects what is—and who are—actually on God’s agenda. Should humanity only look after itself or should it also care for the ‘many animals’ that are adversely being affected by climate change and other anthropogenic destructors of biodiversity?

Such readings cannot, of course, be adopted straightforwardly, however appealing and telling they might be. The task of the exegete is not easy; that is especially the case when it comes to drawing ethical conclusions that speak to our contemporary ideas about animal identities. There are indeed less ‘animal-friendly’ explanations at hand that need to be considered critically and investigated. Some exegetes, for example, argue that the ‘many animals’ in Jon. 4:11 are to be understood in the context of forthcoming sacrifices that would be offered by the thankful Ninevites.42

A well-known example of a biblical text that is often perceived as more or less problematic from a non-anthropocentric perspective is 1 Cor. 9:9–10. Here, the apostle Paul comments on Deuteronomy 25:4 as follows:

For it is written in the law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Or does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was indeed written for our sake, for whoever plows should plow in hope and whoever threshes should thresh in hope of a share in the crop.

NRSV, 1 Cor. 9:9–10

In these verses, it seems as if Paul has a diminished view of animals. The text gives the impression that any ethical prescription to treat them well is subject to ridicule. Some biblical commentators have alternatively responded that Paul’s intention is not to show a lack of divine concern for animals; rather, he wished to express another truth. The text does lend itself to the view that Paul actually stresses God’s primary concern with humans.43 There is no clear consensus on Paul’s estimate of ‘oxen’ in these verses.

Clearly, the Bible contains a variety of passages that speak about animals in diverse, often oppositional ways. Robert Wennberg reaches the conclusion that ‘as we look to Scripture for vindication of moral concern for animals, we do find texts and considerations supportive of that concern, but we also find some problematic texts.’44 Norman Habel likewise speaks of the Bible as an ‘inconvenient text’ that contains both ‘green’ and ‘grey’ passages. Grey passages ‘tend to focus on human interests and suppress the character or voice of Earth or members of the Earth community’.45 The variety of sometimes ambivalent texts in both the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and the New Testament should serve as a warning against cherry picking the verses that simply suit the argument and ignoring the rest. That this should be so does not mean it is not possible to adopt coherent theological stances about the inherent and independent value of animals on the basis of the biblical testimony.46 The point is well made by Conradie: ‘an ecological hermeneutics has to consider the suspicion that many Biblical texts do not escape from an anthropocentric bias’.47 Unfortunately, perhaps, ‘ecological theologians have to come to terms with the discovery that the Bible itself does not necessarily support (…) an ecological ethos’.48 Such a discovery may not be easy to accept for those who sympathize with Tina Dykesteen Nilsen and Anna Rebecca Solevåg who write that ‘[a]s ecologically engaged biblical scholars, we strive toward making the world a better place for all living beings’.49 Such engagement thus has to reckon with a sometimes ambivalent Bible and may take critical forms toward the texts under consideration. A more fruitful approach would be to come to the texts with both a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’—there might be anthropocentric tendencies within the text—and a ‘hermeneutics of trust or recovery’—there is ecological wisdom to be found as well (as perhaps clouded by dominant anthropocentric readings).50

There is a related interpretative challenge in mobilizing the Bible in service of a contemporary ecological agenda: the Anthropocenic contexts are quite different from bygone biblical eras. Present-day interpreters come to the texts with some blind spots as to the ancient cultural backgrounds of the texts. Bauckham, for example, points out that Western people nowadays think of eschatological peace between animals as such when they read Isaiah 11:6–9; rather the invitation is to envision peace between the domesticated world and the wild animals inasmuch as these two quite different ‘worlds’ give up their enmity of one another.51 The blindspot arises because in the present-day Western experience lions, for instance, are more likely to be encountered in the zoo. The general population does not experience the daily threats from wild beasts. Writing on Mark 1:13 Bauckham concludes that ‘[t]here is no reason to doubt that first-century people, who were well aware that they shared the world with wild animals, would be interested in this aspect of salvation for its own sake.’52 Socio-cultural bridges need to be crossed in order to arrive at more appropriate and authentic historical understandings.53

4 Two Case Studies

In light of the above explored shifting views on humans and animals, it comes as no surprise that theologians nowadays search to interpret the Bible in such a way as to foster positive and mutually beneficial relationships between humans and animals. These scholars search to take animals on their own terms, as ontological subjects and actual creatures, instead of mere allegories, symbols or passive moral objects as was so often the case in the past.54 One such writer is the New Testament scholar Michael Gilmour. How successful are Gilmour’s readings in speaking to the contemporary contexts of the Anthropocene while taking seriously the exegetical meanings of the biblical text?

4.1 Animals Offering Praise in the Psalms

In the book of the Psalms, all kinds of creatures are called upon by the biblical writers to offer their praises to God. One example is Psalm 148:7–12:

Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command! Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds! Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and women alike, old and young together!


By way of introduction to his reading of these verses, Gilmour critically addresses the legacy of anthropocentric biases that allegedly clouds our human minds: ‘We are biased toward our own species, tending to think we alone matter among all other living things. We find it difficult even to imagine other species possessing forms of intimacy with their Creator, but we find imagery to that effect in biblical poetry.’55 Gilmour then refers to the well-known primatologist Jane Goodall, who observed certain chimpanzee behaviour—chimpanzees reacting to waterfalls—and who suggested that ‘feelings akin to awe’ might be in play.56 On the basis of these ‘fascinating remarks coming as they do from one in the scientific community’,57 he raises the question: ‘Is it merely a poetic fancy for the psalmist to call on sea monsters, wild animals, cattle, creeping things, and flying birds to praise God (Ps 148: 7, 10), or is it possible that in their own way they actually do just that?’ He swiftly concludes: ‘Within the theological-poetic language of the Bible it is certainly possible for non-humans to engage in forms of communion with their Maker.’58

Where secular philosophers like Eva Meijer concentrate on animals as ‘political actors’, negotiating space for them in the public political domain,59 theologians like Gilmour focus on animals as ‘religious actors’, allowing for more-than-human spirituality. In a positive sense, the religious animal voices that there (possibly) are, next to the human ones, are by no means silenced or ignored in Gilmour’s reading. Indeed, animals may have their own independent relations to the Divine, alongside specific forms of human religiosity. As Karl Barth eloquently remarked: ‘The glory of other creatures lies in the concealment of their being with God, no less than ours in its disclosure. For all we know, their glory may well be greater.’60

At the same time, a few critical observations should be made, however sympathetic we may be towards attempts to dismiss overtly anthropocentric stances as to who can or cannot relate to the divine. It is the case that chimpanzees in the wild have been witnessed dancing ‘ecstatically’ in front of waterfalls and performing strange acts with stones, and that some researchers, like Goodall, cautiously compare this behaviour to sacred ritual and experiences of awe.61 However, from fields like evolutionary biology and zoology not much is (yet) clear about any religious capacities of non-human animals.62 Further, conclusions in this regard depend to a great extent on the precise definitions of spirituality and religion that are used and on how animal behaviour is thought to be most reliably interpreted, highly complex debates in and of themselves. Nonetheless, on the ground of the cognitive and emotional capacities of chimpanzees, ecologist and evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff suggests that religious or spiritual experiences must at least be possible in these animals.63

Coming back to a theological perspective and Barth, a sense of not-knowing and mystery as to animal spirituality so far remains. At least humans should realize, on the basis of Psalm 148 and other texts, that they are not the only earthly creatures in whom God delights and who reflect the glory of God. As seen from the context of the Anthropocene, (human-caused) extinction thus severely diminishes all creation’s praise as beautifully captured in Psalm 148 and shed new light on by Gilmour.64 That may give us pause for thought. As Bauckham aptly states:

[T]o recognize creation’s praise is to abandon an instrumental view of nature. All creatures exist for God’s glory, and we learn to see the non-human creatures in that way, to glimpse their value for God that has nothing to do with their usefulness to us, as we learn to join them in their own glorification of God.65

4.2 Heroic Swine in the Gospels

The second case study comes from the New Testament. In the Synoptic Gospels, there is the peculiar story where Jesus casts out demons from a human individual by sending these demons into a herd of swine: it is an explicit wish from the demons, who beg Jesus to grant them this. The human individual is freed from his evil spirits and thereby cured, but the unfortunate animals subsequently rush down a steep bank and drown (Mt. 8:28–32/Mk. 5:1–20/Lk. 8:26–39). In his discussion of this story, Gilmour draws our attention to the ‘entirely passive role’ that many commentators have assigned the swine. In this view the swine are merely ‘startled animals that bolt in terror when the demons enter’.66 Interestingly enough, Gilmour (on the basis of various biblical considerations) raises the question: ‘Is it possible that the pigs play a more active role in this deliverance story than usually assumed?’ As to the reason for this inquiry, he clarifies: ‘I raise the question because the Bible does not present animals as mere Cartesian automatons in relation to spiritual matters.’67 Gilmour wants to challenge us to read this story from a non-anthropocentric, more inclusive perspective, being aware of how Cartesianism has influenced—or troubled—human apprehension of (spiritual) animal agency. In his reading he suggests that perhaps the swine, far from being will-less and more or less ‘dumb’ victims, deliberately participate in Jesus’s rescuing activity of the demon-possessed human individual. They could very well be ‘warriors fighting against the powers of darkness bent on ruin’, who ‘sacrifice themselves’.68 Gilmour further explains: ‘The demons do not plunge the swine into the waters. It is the other way around. The swine hurl the demons into the “sea” using their own bodies, destroying the devils in the process.’69

Obviously, Gilmour’s reading is a whole new way of engaging such a biblical story. It may challenge us to take seriously the subjectivity of other animals in all kinds of encounters, be it in biblical literature or the surprising events of everyday. From modern research it is recognized that pigs are highly intelligent, easily bored and capable of playing games with human beings.70 As to the biblical literary plausibility of Gilmour’s interpretation, his reading might very well be a legitimate one in light of the broader corpus of biblical narratives in which animals play active roles vis-à-vis human protagonists/antagonists.71 Here, we might think of the self-assured donkey of Balaam in Numbers 22.72 However, even if the biblical authors and redactors of the Synoptic Gospel story never envisioned any subjective, autonomous role for the swine—they were even unclean animals in Jewish thought; perhaps the demons were thought to join their fellows—73 it is nevertheless positively challenging to read the story (once done knowingly and critically) in more ethically inspiring and inclusive ways.74 Such an interpretative perspective may be adopted without naively assuming a ‘positive [ecological] value of texts hidden beneath a history of misinterpretation’.75 Rather, the creativity and playfulness of Gilmour’s reading are to be welcomed. Perhaps his reading is to be characterized as a friendly and generous way of ‘facing, resisting and escaping intrinsically negative texts’ as they are part of the Bible as well.76

5 Conclusion

The Bible is a varied book that contains a whole range of views concerning the place and status of animals vis-à-vis human beings. Strategies to deal exegetically and theologically with this variety should be comprised of both a willingness to discover and actualize a biblical ecological wisdom and to unmask possible anthropocentric tendencies within the texts. Thus, there is need of a hermeneutics of trust or recovery but also of a hermeneutics of suspicion. It is necessary in this hermeneutical enterprise to explore critically one’s own and the text’s contexts insofar as the Bible was written in ancient eras: there are socio-cultural and temporal bridges to be crossed.

It would appear as if Christian theology has ample resources to offer an appreciative view of animals as inherently and independently valuable. These scriptural and theological resources can give guidance in the ethical challenges that accompany the Anthropocene—that is, the ominously named ‘Age of Humans’. From the perspective of a public theology the biblical and hermeneutical witness possesses a bilingual capacity: it can speak back into the life of the churches and inform a Christian consciousness regarding the beauty and diversity of creaturely life. It can also motivate an ethical conversation in public spheres during a period in Earth’s history that is facing the possibility of Kolbert’s sixth mass extinction.


Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014), pp. 17–8.


Paul J. Crutzen, ‘Geology of Mankind’, Nature, 415 (2002).


E.g. Morten Tønnessen, Kristin Armstrong Oma and Silver Rattasepp, eds, Thinking about Animals in the Age of the Anthropocene (London: Lexington Books, 2016), pp. vii–xix.


E.g. Ursula K. Heise, Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), p. 237; Thom van Dooren, Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), pp. 7–10.


Heise, Imagining Extinction, p. 5.


Paul Waldau, ‘Religion and Animals’, in Peter Singer, ed, In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), p. 80.


Lynn White, Jr. ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis’, Science, 155:3767 (1967), 1205.


White, ‘Historical Roots’, 1203–7.


See for overviews and critical discussions (also the reception history) of Lynn White’s thesis Christoph Jedan, ‘A Different Kind of Reformation: Revisiting the Lynn White Thesis’, NTT. Journal for Theology and the Study of Religion, 71:3 (2017), 277–86; Willis Jenkins, ‘After Lynn White: Religious Ethics and Environmental Problems’, Journal of Religious Ethics, 37:2 (2009), 283–309.


For example, Madeleine Boyd, Matthew Chrulew and Chris Degeling, eds, Animals in the Anthropocene: Critical Perspectives on Non-Human Futures (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2015), p. x.


Richard Bauckham, Living with Other Creatures: Green Exegesis and Theology, (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2012); Ernst Conradie, Christianity and Ecological Theology: Resources for Further Research, (Stellenbosch: Sun Press, 2006); Michael S. Northcott, The Environment and Christian Ethics, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).


David Fergusson, Creation, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), pp. 13–4; David G. Kirchhoffer, ‘Turtles All the Way Down? Pressing Questions for Theological Anthropology in the Twenty-First Century’, in Lieven Boeve, Yves De Maeseneer and Ellen Van Stichel, eds, Questioning the Human: Toward a Theological Anthropology for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014), pp. 186–8.


Norman Habel, An Inconvenient Text: Is Green Reading of the Bible Possible? (Adelaide: ATF Press, 2009), pp. vii, ix. Ernst Conradie writes in the foreword about ‘the potential of the world’s religious traditions to offer the necessary inspiration, spiritual vision, ecological wisdom, ethical discernment, moral power, and hope to sustain an ecological transformation of the global economy and the widespread culture of consumerism’, p. ix.


See White, ‘Historical Roots’, 1207.


Anthropocentrism as such, in various guises, is as old as humanity itself and has been both defended and criticized throughout (Western) history. See Eva van Urk, ‘Een treetje lager? Antropocentrisme in christelijke theologie’, in Johan Goud and Frank G. Bosman, eds, Leven dat leven wil: Over dieren en mensen in filosofie, religie en kunst, (Almere: Uitgeverij Parthenon, 2020), pp. 77–87.


Clive Pearson, ‘The Purpose and Practice of a Public Theology in a Time of Climate Change’, International Journal of Public Theology, 4 (2010), 360. See also Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, ‘Tilling and Caring for the Earth: Public Theology and Ecology’, International Journal of Public Theology, 1 (2007), 247–8, who argues that ‘[a] public church can open the way for stopping to deny the ecologically destructive consequences of modern western lifestyles, while at the same time trusting in God’s power to move humanity in directions that reconcile human activity and the integrity of the earth’.


Richard Bauckham, The Bible in the Contemporary World: Exploring Texts and Contexts—Then and Now, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2016), p. ix.


René Descartes, Discourse on Method and Other Writings, trans. Frank Edmund Sutcliffe (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), pp. 74–5.


Studies are done on animal cognition, emotion, morality, sociality, culture, language, empathy, consciousness, etc., often with fascinating results. See, for example, Marc Bekoff, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, (California: New World Library, 2013).


Marc Bekoff, The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy—and Why They Matter, (California: New World Library, 2007), pp. 66–7.


Cynthia Moss, Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), pp. 73–4.


Bekoff, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed, pp. 111–5.


Ecologist Carl Safina makes this point in his TED Talk, see: ‘What are Animals Thinking and Feeling?’, TED Talk by Carl Safina, <>, [accessed April 9, 2016].


See Paul Waldau, Animal Studies: An Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).


See Boyd, Chrulew and Degeling, Animals in the Anthropocene, p. x.


See Boyd, Chrulew and Degeling, Animals in the Anthropocene, pp. vii–xxi.


See Johan De Tavernier, ‘Personalism and the Natural Roots of Morality’, in Lieven Boeve, Yves De Maeseneer and Ellen Van Stichel, eds, Questioning the Human: Toward a Theological Anthropology for the Twenty-First Century, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014), p. 43.


J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, Alone in the World? Human Uniqueness in Science and Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), p. 42.


See Andrew Linzey and Dorothy Yamamoto, eds, Animals on the Agenda: Questions about Animals for Theology and Ethics, (London: SCM Press, 1998).


Fergusson, Creation, p. 100.


Ibid., p. 99.


See David L. Clough, On Animals: Volume 1, Systematic Theology, (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2012). For the second volume, see Clough, On Animals: Volume 2, Theological Ethics, (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2019). The second volume deals with theological ethics in relation to animals.


David L. Clough, ‘Not a Not-Animal: The Vocation to be a Human Animal Creature’, Studies in Christian Ethics, 26:1 (2013), 5.


Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 82.


See ‘Pope Francis Says Dogs Can Go To Heaven’, CNN, <>, [accessed March 3, 2018].


For a critical discussion of two major ecological Bible projects, namely the Earth Bible Project and the Exeter Project, see Tina Dykesteen Nilsen and Anna Rebecca Solevåg, ‘Expanding Ecological Hermeneutics: The Case for Ecolonialism’, Journal of Biblical Literature, 135:4 (2016), 665–83.


Clough, On Animals: Volume 1, pp. 36, 41; Kris Hiuser and Matthew Barton, ‘A Promise Is a Promise: God’s Covenantal Relationship with Animals’, Scottish Journal of Theology, 67:3 (2014), 340–56; Joshua M. Moritz, ‘Animals and the Image of God in the Bible and Beyond’, Dialog: A Journal of Theology 48:2 (2009), 134–46.


Hub Zwart, ‘Comment: We All Live in a Planetary Ark (Planetary Ark, Planetary Ark …)’, in Bernice Bovenkerk and Jozef Keulartz, eds, Animal Ethics in the Age of Humans: Blurring Boundaries in Human-Animal Relationships, (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2016), p. 400.


See Ernst Conradie, ‘An Ecological Hermeneutics’, in Louis Jonker and Douglas Lawrie, eds, Fishing for Jonah (Anew): Various Approaches to Biblical Interpretation, (Stellenbosch: SUN Press, 2005), pp. 225–7; Kathryn Schifferdecker, ‘“And Also Many Animals”: Biblical Resources for Preaching about Creation’, Word & World, 27:2 (2007), 216–8; Yael Shemesh, ‘“And Many Beasts” (Jonah 4:11): The Function and Status of Animals in the Book of Jonah’, The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, 10:6 (2010), 1–26.


See Conradie, ‘Ecological Hermeneutics’, p. 226.




See Thomas M. Bolin, ‘Eternal Delight and Deliciousness: The Book of Jonah after Ten Years’, The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, 9 (2009), 9. For a discussion of various ecological interpretations of Jonah see Schalk Willem van Heerden, ‘Shades of Green—or Grey? Towards an Ecological Interpretation of Jonah 4:6–11’, Old Testament Essays, 30:2, (2017), 459–77; Willie van Heerden, ‘Ecological Interpretations of the Jonah Narrative—Have They Succeeded in Overcoming Anthropocentrism?,’ Journal for Semitics, 23:1 (2014), 114–34.


For a detailed discussion of 1 Cor. 9:9–10 , see Michael J. Gilmour, Eden’s Other Residents: The Bible and Animals, (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2014), pp. 30–5.


Robert N. Wennberg, God, Humans, and Animals: An Invitation to Enlarge Our Moral Universe, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 297–8. See also Andrew Linzey, Creatures of the Same God: Explorations in Animal Theology, (Winchester, England: Winchester University Press, 2007), p. 28.


Habel, Inconvenient Text, p. 115.


See Gijsbert van den Brink, ‘God and the Suffering of Animals’, in Koert van Bekkum, Jaap Dekker, Henk R. Kamp and Eric Peels, eds, Playing with Leviathan: Interpretation and Reception of Monsters from the Biblical World, (Leiden: Brill, 2017). Van den Brink draws attention to the value God attaches to animal life throughout the Bible before discussing the problem of (evolutionary) animal suffering from a theological point of view.


Ernst Conradie, ‘Towards an Ecological Biblical Hermeneutics: A Review Essay on the Earth Bible Project’, Scriptura, 85 (2004), 127.


Ibid. See also e.g. David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt, Christopher Southgate and Francesca Stavrakopoulou, eds. Ecological Hermeneutics: Biblical, Historical and Theological Perspectives, (London: T&T Clark, 2010), p. 6.


Nilsen and Solevåg, ‘Expanding Ecological Hermeneutics’, 675.


See Conradie, ‘Towards an Ecological Biblical Hermeneutics’, 127; David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt and Christopher Southgate, ‘Appeals to the Bible in Ecotheology and Environmental Ethics: A Typology of Hermeneutical Stances’, Studies in Christian Ethics, 21:2 (2008), 221–31. Habel, Inconvenient Text, 51–64. Habel’s approach consists of ‘suspicion’, ‘identification’ and ‘retrieval’.


Bauckham, Living with Other Creatures, p. 130.


Bauckham, Living with Other Creatures, p. 131.


See for a discussion of this aspect e.g. Francesca Stavrakopoulou, ‘Introduction to Part I’, in David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt, Christopher Southgate and Francesca Stavrakopoulou, eds, Ecological Hermeneutics, pp. 19–20.


See Forrest Clingerman, ‘Butterflies Dwell Betwixt and Between: Non-Human Animals, Theology, and Dwelling in Place’, in David Clough, Celia Deane-Drummond and Rebecca Artinian-Kaiser, eds, Animals as Religious Subjects: Transdisciplinary Perspectives, (New York: T&T Clark/Continuum, 2013), pp. 378–81.


Gilmour, Eden’s Other Residents, p. 87.


Ibid. See also Jane Goodall with Phillip Berman, Reasons for Hope: A Spiritual Journey, (New York: Warner, 1999), p. 189.


Gilmour, Eden’s Other Residents, p. 87.


Ibid., p. 88.


Eva Meijer, ‘Political Animal Voices’ (PhD diss., University of Amsterdam, 2017).


Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III 2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1960), p. 138. See also Barth’s comment that the creatures in Psalm 148—contrary to those in Gen. 1:22—receive a direct (not an indirect) address from God. See Barth, Church Dogmatics III 1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1960), p. 174.


See Jane Goodall, ‘Primate Spirituality’, in Bron Taylor, ed, Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, (London: Continuum, 2005), pp. 1303–6.


See Donovan O. Schaefer, ‘Do Animals Have Religion? Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Religion and Embodiment’, Anthrozoös, 25:1 (2015), 173–89.


Marc Bekoff, ‘Reflections on Animal Emotions and Beastly Virtues: Appreciating, Honoring and Respecting the Public Passions of Animals’, The Journal of Religion, Nature and Culture, 1.1 (2007), 72–3. For a discussion of animals and religious capacities, see Bekoff, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed, pp. 143–5.


Christopher Southgate similarly states that ‘extinction removes from the biosphere, for ever, a certain strategy of being alive, a certain way, to pick up an important motif from the Psalms, in which God is praised by God’s creation’. See Christopher Southgate, ‘Does God’s Care Make Any Difference? Theological Reflection on the Suffering of God’s Creatures’, in Ernst M. Conradie, Sigurd Bergmann, Celia Deane-Drummond and Denis Edwards, eds, Christian Faith and the Earth: Current Paths and Emerging Horizons in Ecotheology. (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), pp. 97–114.


Bauckham, Living with Other Creatures, p. 151.


Gilmour, Eden’s Other Residents, p. 84.


Ibid., p. 86.


Gilmour, Eden’s Other Residents, p. 86.


Ibid., p. 86. See also Clough, On Animals: Volume 1, pp. 41–2, who briefly refers to Mt. 8: 28–32 as an example of a place ‘where animals play a role in fulfilling God’s purposes without the need for direct address’ (p. 41). According to Clough, ‘pigs are [Jesus’s] means of exorcising demoniacs’ (p. 42).


See Clemens Driessen, Kars Alfrink, Marinka Copier, Hein Lagerweij and Irene van Peer, ‘What Could Playing with Pigs Do to Us? Game Design as Multispecies Philosophy’, Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, 30 (2014), 81–104.


In this connection, Gilmour rhetorically asks: ‘In the literary environment where we find this story [of the swine], animals are actively in communion with their Creator. What prevents us from viewing this scene as an act of worship, one that involves the rescue of a fellow creature and, in partnership with Jesus, a reclaiming of God’s good world through self-sacrifice, especially in a religious context that values martyrdom?’ See Gilmour, Eden’s Other Residents, p. 87.


See for this and other examples of animals’ active role also Gilmour, Eden’s Other Residents, p. 86.


Gilmour in his discussion of the swine-story mentions that ‘Torah regulations do not permit Jews to eat pork (Lev 11:7–8; Deut 14:8; cf. 1 Macc 1:47)’. Ibid., p. 83.


In the New Testament, it is common that the possessed (here the pigs) do the will of their possessor(s). According to Joel Marcus the demons ‘find themselves incapable of controlling them [the pigs]’. See Joel Marcus, Mark 1–8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, (New York: Doubleday, 2000), pp. 345, 352.


See the typology of hermeneutical stances in Horrell, Hunt and Southgate, ‘Appeals to the Bible’, 225.



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