Creaturely Theology: On God, Humans and Other Animals.
Creaturely Theology is a collection of thirteen essays exploring the theology (or relationship) of humans and nonhuman creatures. The question is explored from a variety of theological traditions: Thomistic (John Berkman); Lutheran (David Clough); and Orthodox (Esther Reed). Other chapters use a historical figure to focus the question: Athanasius (Denis Edwards); Emmanuel Levinas (Aaron Gross); and Augustine (Rachel Muers). The authors use these historical approaches to suggest a closeness of humans to nonhuman animals. Other essays focus more on the description of human beings as alone being created in the image and likeness of God (one by David Cunningham and another by Celia Deane-Drummond). Some of the essays use prehistory (Stephen Clark), evolution (Neil Messer), or climate change (Christopher Southgate) as a tool to explore the question. Peter Manley Scott's essay imagines a human-animal coalition and its implications. Michael Northcott's essay examines the violence animals experience in their connection with humans. This brief summary inadequately describes the diverse investigations of the topics readers will find in the book. It also minimizes the interconnections evident between the essays. Not always "easy reads," the essays are scholarly in nature (603 footnotes in 265 pages plus nineteen pages of references in a bibliography as well as six index pages). Readers will probably select one essay at a time to read and then ponder its approach to the topic rather than read all of the essays at once. They will discover that each essay is a doorway to further study. Each one could serve as the basis for discussion (if the members of the group are professional or interested in scholarly concerns).
Several authors use the recent findings of animal behaviorists to inform their thinking. I found such surveying to be accurate (for further study, readers should look at Sara Shettleworth's new edition of Cognition, Evolution, and Behavior [New York: Oxford University Press, 2009]). In addition, biblical texts were often utilized. As a result, my understanding of some of the texts was significantly expanded. The one exception was Michael Northcott's translation of nephesh as blood (p. 236) in a context of a moral sensibility regarding animals in ancient Israel. His point was that the sacrificial system enjoined a respect for the lives of animals, but he could have used the Hebrew word for blood instead of nephesh, which means breath or spirit. Finally, the essays provide "nuances of argument that are truly valuable" (a phrase from Rolf Bouma's review of Vantassel's book on the same subject matter--see Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 62, no. 1 : 62). I would recommend Creaturely Theology to anyone interested in thinking about the relationship of humans to animals.
While I appreciated the book, it does have its challenges. The title is poorly phrased. The editors define "creaturely theology" as "engaging in the theological task conscious of one's creatureliness" (p. 1). This definition certainly describes the agenda of the essays, especially if one subscribes to a broad use of the word theology. Nevertheless, it could have been entitled better, something similar to Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Animals and Theology. The reader would then have a clearer idea of the book's subject matter. Another lingering irritation is the lack of closure. I am used to scientific papers closing with a discussion of what the results mean. Often future research is indicated, but I leave the article with the impression of another brick added to the scientific edifice. These essays often open with reasons to question a position and then close by outlining possible routes to explore in the future. The book ends with an editorial postscript setting out five different areas for further research. This lack of closure may reflect the complexity of the question, but it is disconcerting for readers such as myself who expect conclusions to provide answers and not just more questions. Finally, the essays seek to minimize the distance between humans and other animals. While this may represent the current thinking of many people, I (and perhaps readers of this journal) will continue to suspect the existence of an intangible, qualitative difference between humans and other animals. Nonetheless, the arguments presented are thoughtful and thought provoking. If I were asked to present on this topic, having read Creaturely Theology, I would note both the objective certainty that humans are animals and the subjective possibility of humans surpassing animals.
Reviewed by Bruce Buttler, Professor of Biology, Canadian University College, Lacombe, AB T4L 2E5.
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|Publication:||Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2010|
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