Some Thoughts on Animals

Some Thoughts on Animals September 11, 2009

This will be a work of speculation. In it I am going to explain several of my thoughts about the animal world. It will not be a complete exposition, and it might not represent my final thoughts on the matter as my ideas and research develops. Nonetheless, it contains much which I have long held, modified as it is, because of my work with Hans Urs von Balthasar. The seeds of future works will likely be found here, though how those seeds will bloom, and if all of them will bloom, is impossible to predict.

Historically, the concept of the person (as we think of the term) developed out of Christianity and its debates about the Trinity. There was the need to see how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit could be relationally distinct from each other even though they were united by their divinity. The concept of the person presented itself as the best way this could be done. The idea is that the person is relational; each divine person was a hypostasis, subsistent but not independent from the rest of the Trinity. In the Trinity it was said that there is one will (in the incarnation, Jesus would have two, because of his humanity), showing us how the three persons work together and are united according to their divinity. Coming out of these debates, it was understood that humanity is also represented by persons, and so the idea of the human person came out of, and was reflective of, the divine persons, and indeed, shows us that the idea of the human person was an analogous concept developed from the revelation of the Trinity.

Sometime later, after the Trinitarian debates became an issue of scholastic commentary, the concept of the human person became further developed. In it, the whole idea of the person changed. Slowly we see the development of the idea of the person as a rational entity possessing its own will, therefore becoming independent from the rest of humanity. It is easy to see how individualism developed out of this, because it is the end product of this theorizing which ignored the Trinitarian foundation for the idea of the person. Finally, because of this notion of the person, Trinitarian theology has become quite difficult for us – we try to use the idea of the person developed for humanity and read it back into the Trinity, creating three individuals with their own sense of reason and will. No wonder the Trinity looks to many as a belief in three gods – because, if we follow the way the person is generally understood, this is exactly what the Trinity describes.

Theologians have seen this problem and have tried to work out new ways for us to understand what it is to be a person. Hans Urs von Balthasar, for example, generally sees the person within the category of the theological person, although, sometimes, he will use the term person in a more generic, modern sense.[1]The theological person is someone who has been given a role in the world, a mission from God. “It is when God addresses a conscious subject, tells him who he is and what he means to the eternal God of truth, and shows him the purpose of his existence – that is, imparts a distinctive and divinely authorized mission – that we can say of a conscious subject that he is a ‘person.’”[2] We all have our place in the world. If we fulfill that place, we become the person we are meant to be. Our judgment will be based upon how we have fulfilled that role, and where we have failed, that is where we will be changed. We must give up on the self we have made so that we can become that person God desires us to be.

Now if we understand a person within the perspective of the theological person, does it necessarily have to be limited to “humans”? Obviously not, since the idea itself (as found in Balthasar) is to show how our understanding of what it means to be a person must somehow be related to the personhood of Jesus Christ. We are to find our persons in Christ, who is himself a divine person of the Holy Trinity. But as Jesus is the Logos in which the logoi of creation are to find themselves, then it is possible to see others, beyond humanity, as being persons in Christ. Every creature as it fulfills its logos within the Logos will be a theological person.

This brings us to animals. As with humanity, they have a place in this world – indeed, as Scripture shows, they have a place in salvation history. Two of many examples of this are with Balaam’s donkey, which was made to talk (!),[3] and Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a colt.[4] In each case, animals served God’s work and helped direct human history. This means that animals have a place in the work of Christ in the world. Even if we would not say they have the same mission as humanity, they have a mission, and as they fulfill that mission, they reveal their own person and grandeur.

But there is more than meets the eye here. Animals exist in the world in relation to humanity, and often find their accomplishments in the world as coming from that relationship. Indeed, as Scripture shows, their place in salvation history was often in relationship to some human event. This is not to say all animals, as they exist in their own species, is to relate to us (since most do not), but it does show that there is a role of humanity in helping to make animals into theological persons. This is exactly was we would expect, since Christ become human. Humanity has been given “dominion” over the earth to help creation rise up and become that which it is meant to be – in and through Christ. This is why St Maximus (and others) could describe humanity as mediators of God’s grace to the world. We are called to help the animal world (and not just the animal world, to be sure) find its proper place in the eschaton. We are to help them rise up and proclaim the glory of God, to do so according to their nature and proper place in the world. In doing so, they can – and often do – show us, humans, up; history is full of examples where animals show greater reverence to God than the ordinary person (St Anthony of Padua preached to the fish because he would not be heard by humanity; their response to St Anthony helps demonstrate that after Christ, animals still can, and do, participate in God’s work).

Indeed, when we look to the saints, we begin to notice something about their encounters with animals. They have relationships with them, friendships which allow the animal to rise up and reveal themselves as being something more than mere brutes (St Francis of Assisi with the wolf of Gubbio is a prime example of this). Holiness helps animals and provides them a means by which they can manifest their mission. Sin, on the other hand, seems to have a reverse effect, and indeed, the fall of humanity is said to caused the earth and all that is within it to be diminished, and therefore, to hold us in contempt.[5] It is for this reason that those great saints, whose holiness seem to be raised to raised them to a new level of humanity, the animal world obeyed and loved. “Particularly with holy hermits, we see a relationship with animals that precludes the need for domestication: wild animals are simply summoned to serve as needed, and they readily comply.”[6] Countless examples could be produced to demonstrate this; in modern times, St Seraphim of Sarov made friendship with animals in his hermitage, calling then brethren of his, and Pope Kyril VI of Alexandria was known to talk with the wolves of the Egyptian wilderness, and learn from them the comings and goings of Egypt! Animals, in their encounter with holiness (human, angelic, or divine) rise up and become as they were meant to be, and show they rightfully are declared persons even as we, humans, find ourselves as persons.

Of course, it is often asked, if they are persons, can they be said to be rational? I think the answer of this is relative and dependent upon which animals we are talking about. If communication is indicative of rationality, it is clear animals have a degree of reason. It seems to be a difference in quality, not kind. This should not surprise us, if we understand biological evolution. But it must be admitted, this is something which is rarely found discussed in the Christian tradition. While we will find various pre-Christian sources like Plutarch, and philosophers contemporary with Christianity like Porphyry, proclaim the rational ability of animals, for the most part Christians rejected this tradition and followed the typical “irrational” approach to animals which we know of today. However, it is also clear this judgment was based upon false concepts of rationality and has been used not only to misjudge the abilities of animals, but fellow humanity (for many, slavery was predicated on the idea that Africans were not fully human, and therefore, not entirely rational). St Thomas Aquinas, in his discussion on animals, connects their irrationality with a belief that they will not find a place in the eschaton (and eternal life). To justify this he said animals will defend their young at the expense of their own life, thereby showing no desire for life – and without a desire for life, they have no natural desire for eternal life. This argument, however, could be used against humanity as well – it is clear St Thomas was not really engaging this issue, but presumed an answer, and therefore, we should not be surprised or upset with his conclusion: rather, it shows us why we should re-examine this issue and not rely upon the conclusions of Thomas and the scholastics (who used similar arguments to justify proclaiming animals as being mere irrational brutes).

It is for these reasons I think he animal world (and the non-animal world) needs to be re-examined by Christians; we need to overcome the ignorance and prejudices of the past so as to look at the world around us, animal and non-animal alike, as having a role to play in history. If we read Scripture carefully, it is clear the world is more than we have let itself be. The world proclaims the glory of God. Perhaps that should be the foundation for our theological understanding of the world. It would at least open up the possibility that others, beyond us, might indeed by persons in Christ.


[1] Such as when he wrote, “Every human being is unique in his endowments, but he only becomes the unique person he is through the free development of these endowments in the chance medium of the world that surrounds him,” Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama III: Dramatis Personae: Persons in Christ. trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), 16. Of course this can and should relate to his understand of the theological person.

[2] Balthasar, Theo-Drama III, 207. “By means of the mission received, man discovers why he has been made and who he really is, since it is in mission, received as a gift from an ‘other,’ that he hears himself called as an ‘I’ buy a ‘Thou,’ and (made responsible by this latter) called to a response,” Ellero Babini, “Jesus Christ, form and norm of man according to Hans Urs von Balthasar,” Communio 16 (1989):448.

[3] Numbers 22:22 -40.

[4] Matthew 21: 1-11; Mark 11: 1- 11; Luke 19: 28 – 39; John 12:12 – 19.

[5] St Symeon the New Theologian portrays this well in expressing what happened to humanity after its fall from grace. “Do you see how the earth,, now cursed and deprived of its spontaneous germinations, received the transgressor? […] Therefore, indeed, when it saw him leave Paradise, all of the created world which God had brought out of non-being into existence no longer wished to be subject to the transgressor. The sun did not want to shine by day, nor the moon by night, or the starts to be seen by him. The springs of water did not want to well up for him, nor the rivers to flow. The very air itself thought about contracting itself and not proving breath for the rebel. The wild beasts and all the animals of the earth saw him stripped of his former glory and, despising him, immediately turned savagely against him. The sky was moving as if to fall justly down on him, and the very earth would not endure bearing him upon its back,” St Symeon the New Theologian, On the Mystical Life: the Ethical Discourses. trans. Alexander Golitzin (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 28-9.

[6] Elizabeth Theokritoff, Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology (Crestwood, NW: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009), 131.

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