The whole reason for this series on animal suffering was to sort through an honest question raised by Charles Darwin (see pt 1):
Why would an all-powerful, all-loving God permit so many “lower animals” to suffer and die in the countless centuries that he believed to have preceded human beings?
Last time, I highlighted an answer that has been suggested in the metaphor of “sacrifice.” In other words, might there be a sacrificial good that emerges from the grand and groaning world of creaturely predation?
Three theologians (Harrell, Rolston, and Coakley) answered “Yes.” And having presented their views already (pt 4), it is time now to subject them to a “priestly” inspection for purity or blemishes.
HARRELL’S SACRIFICIAL SNIPPET
First, Daniel Harrell hinted that we might reframe the apparent waste of creaturely death as a kind of “sacrifice” that—by virtue of its cost—helps humans see the “value” of the present world.
This appears to be a version of the “only way to greater good” theodicy. The payoff is a lesson whereby otherwise ungrateful humans gain a sense of gratitude for the price that was paid to get us here. In this way, Harrell’s reference to creaturely “sacrifice” is similar to the common patriotic call to remember the soldiers who have died to give us freedom.
The weakness of this proposal lies, first, in its lack of development. It is merely a snippet of thought in a brief “afterword” in book by two other authors (Venema and McKnight, Adam and the Genome).
Furthermore, it is by no means clear why this “teachable moment” should require so much bloodshed on the part of animals. Indeed, Harrell’s claim seems rather like a cattle rancher who decides to teach his children to be grateful for their warm beds by allowing his herd to perish in a blizzard, and then shuttering the local Humane Society for good measure.
Even if the cruel scenario did make the children thankful for their hearth and home, it is far from obvious why the “lesson” might be the only way to bring forth gratitude.
Harrell’s Creator seems vulnerable to a charge of “excessive force.”
ROLSTON’S WAY OF THE DRAGON
Second, Holmes Rolston III combined the “only way to greater good” defense with the notion of God’s co-suffering in creation. From his panentheistic perspective, “sacrifice” is not just a metaphor to teach us to be grateful but a reality in which divine and creaturely pain is inherently redemptive.
This “good” comes about not because there is some future resurrection for the individual gazelle or grizzly cub, but because there is an intrinsic and ongoing relation between the deaths of evolutionary victims and the redemptive “perfecting” of future life.
Rolston may be commended for desiring to see all of life through the lens of Christ and his cross. Unfortunately, his way of doing so includes a tendency to “baptize” the way of the dragon (the strong kill the weak), and then confuse it with the way of the Lamb.
If Rolston is correct, then the cross is not (as Scripture teaches) a punctiliar event that upends the world’s wisdom and power, but a “principle” that blesses violent grasping in a frightful case of the ends justifying the means (The ghost of Hegel this way comes).
By this logic, the feminist and liberationist opponents of atonement doctrine would be right in claiming that what happened on Golgotha is not just “divine child abuse” but a kind of plenary indulgence in the face of abusive power plays and “animal cruelty.”
This disaster cannot be overcome by locating God within the process.
COAKLEY’S PURPLE THREAD
That brings me, thirdly, back to Sarah Coakley.
The obvious challenge in appropriating Coakley’s argument is that it is not focused on theodicy at all, or on the perceived problem of animal suffering in particular. Her interest is in reconsidering the “rationality” of Christian belief and “sacrificial living” in an age in which the chief critics of the faith are evolutionists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.
In the end, her claim is that “the ‘rationality’ of religious belief … may emerge from reflection on the mathematical patternings of evolution,” even if this logic must never be divorced from affective pulls toward “supernormal” sacrifice, displayed most fully in Christ, and to a lesser extent in saints and martyrs.
But this does not mean that Coakley’s sacrificial study is irrelevant to my “dead animal” fixation. She organizes her inaugural Norris-Hulse lecture around three colors that paint the (literal) backdrop to her study:
(1) red for violence,
(2) blue for analytic rationality,
(3) purple for Christ’s passion, mixed appropriately out of red and blue.
“To wax poetic,” states Coakley, “cooperation [is] the ‘thin purple line’ in evolution – the patterning of the special plenitude and productivity of ‘sacrifice’.”
To misquote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, she appears to be saying that this “thin purple line”—dividing good and evil (?)—“cuts through the heart,” not just of every human being (as Solzhenitsyn claimed), but perhaps through that of animals as well. As humans, Coakley believes that we retain the free choice to disown and discredit it.
Nonetheless, this “purple line” of creaturely self-sacrifice represents God’s “subtle pressure” woven into our biology “without which we would not be here at all.” And in Coakley’s estimation, it is the practice of this “rational [logika] sacrifice” (Rom 12:1–2) that “the world now urgently needs.”
All this is artfully framed and philosophically fascinating. But it remains to be clarified how Coakley’s “Sacrifice Regained” might relate to Darwin’s question (above).
With reference to this “thin purple line” (the sacrificial impulse) that has supposedly been implanted in the process of creaturely development, she appears to be saying that “God did it,” even while she acknowledges the darker potential of both cooperation and competition.
By reference to the “subtle trinitarian shape” to non-human cooperation, she attempts to highlight a “teachable moment” that is at once an apologetic tool and a kind of signpost pointing to Golgotha, and to a greater form of sacrifice. Yet again she remains free of the reductionism of “We did [all of] it” while also avoiding pan(en)theism and the claim that God is evil’s author.
What is absent from Coakley’s argument—perhaps because it clashes with the rationalistic blue of Cambridge sensibilities—is any reference to the role of Satan or evil spirits in the pre-fall world of animal predation. This is unsurprising for at least two reasons: First, we cannot be biblically certain what part, if any, fallen spirits played in primal history. And second, Walter Wink seems right to say that the devil remains, in sophisticated circles especially, “a scandal, a stone of stumbling, a bone in the throat of modernity” (Unmasking the Powers, 6).
Nonetheless, my own eulogy upon the carcasses of these “dead animals” will consider whether this diabolical “bone” within the modern throat might also warrant some paleontological (or rather: theological) inspection.
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