“It’s like finding the Holy Grail clutched in the bony fingers of Jimmy Hoffa… .”
That’s The New Yorker’s description of a site called “Tanis”—a dig in North Dakota where a young paleontologist uncovered a treasure trove of fossils from the day Earth nearly died (see here).
According to scientists, the mass burial was created when an asteroid impact triggered a cataclysm that wiped out nearly 99.99999 percent of living organisms on the planet.
“The energy released was more than that of billion Hiroshima bombs.”
The asteroid hit near the Yucatan peninsula. But even on the opposite side of the globe, the entire Indian subcontinent burst into flames. The Earth itself became toxic, and not only dinosaurs but almost all plant life died. The body count was beyond comprehension.
The story is relevant because my current series has been considering the question of animal death and suffering from a theological perspective:
- Part 1: Framing the problem via Darwin and Dawkins
- Part 2: Options for “Who done it?”
- Part 3: Two extremes to be avoided: Bambi-izing and Rene Descartes.
In this post, I’ll highlight what some Christians have thought to be a possible solution by viewing creaturely predation, suffering, and death through the lens of “sacrifice.”
ANIMAL DEATH AS “SACRIFICE”?
The New Testament has always claimed that life comes forth from a death of incalculable proportions. We call this the doctrine of atonement.
Likewise, at least three theologians have suggested that the metaphor of “sacrifice” may help us think about the “greater good” that flows forth from animal death in primal history.
1. Daniel Harrell
In a brief afterword to a recent book on Christianity and science (Adam and the Genome), the Congregationalist minister Daniel Harrell asks the following: “what if the apparent wastefulness” of animal predation and death was “understood as sacrifice?”
The final word is italicized for emphasis, but Harrell never explains his meaning beyond the claim that “The universe and humanity come about at immense cost, a cost that ascribes to them immense value (cf. John 3:16).”
In this line of reasoning, the vast amount of animal death may serve the good of making us grateful for the world that we inhabit.
2. Holmes Rolston III
A second thinker urging the use of sacrificial language is Holmes Rolston III.
Rolston’s claim is that animal death in Earth’s long history was actually necessary (like a kind of life-improving sacrifice) to produce certain goods that exist today. In his words, “The cougar’s fang has carved the limbs of the fleet-footed deer, and vice versa.” The claim is that creaturely life would not have developed in so many extraordinary ways without the survival of the fittest, and the deaths of countless less-fit creatures.
Rolston is sensitive, however, to the agony and suffering that his view entails for individual creatures, and he attempts to deal with that problem by finding God within the process, suffering through his creatures. In his view, the natural order is itself “cruciform” in that it reminds us of Christ’s passion even as God suffers with it.
In this argument, sacrifice comes into play because—just like on Golgotha—Nature “sacrifices” the individual for the sake of the whole, and in this way, the victims “share the labor of the divinity.”
Long before the cross, “the way of nature was already a via dolorosa.”
3. Sarah Coakley
A third and final theologian who has pressed the theme of sacrifice to speak of creaturely death is the British theologian Sarah Coakley. Her 2012 Gifford Lectures (accessible here) were entitled “Sacrifice Regained.”
Coakley builds her argument on recent scientific “game theory” that emphasizes not merely the selfishness and violent grasping that supposedly fueled creaturely development (i.e., the strong eat the weak), but the place of creaturely altruism (cooperation) that allows lifeforms to pass on their DNA by being willing to endure a “loss”—including death itself—in order to give life to others.
If this is true, then Coakley wonders if the same body (or rather: “bodies”) of evidence that Darwin saw as signs against God’s holy character might actually be read in the opposite way: as shadows of the cross.
Her claim is that there is a “subtle trinitarian shape” revealed through the cooperation and self-sacrifice of creatures: “a loss that is gain.” Yet she is also clear that creaturely cooperation and self-sacrifice fall short of the more radical self-sacrifice displayed by “supernormal” Christian witnesses. These greater witnesses (like saints and martyrs) model their self-giving love on Jesus Christ, who went well beyond the kind of “in group” love displayed by most animals and humans.
While some animals might “sacrifice” themselves in order to see their young survive, or to give life to members of their herd—this is still quite different from the inscrutable act of dying for one’s enemies, and being willing to leave no descendants (e.g., Acts 8:33, Isa 53:8). “If you [only] love those who love you,” Jesus might be heard to remark, what good is that!? Even orcas, hens, and grizzly bears do that! (Luke 6:32)
For Coakley, it is not only the proximity, but also the distance between animal cooperation and Christian “sacrifice” that must be emphasized. In this gap—between (the second) Adam and the animals—Coakley finds what she sees as an evolutionary argument for “a specifically Christian … theism.”
After all, a portion of the Christian tradition has long held that we are drawn to God partly by the example of others when we see a depth of love and devotion that—quite simply—makes no earthly sense.
In the inscrutable “loss” that is a gain—both in the animal kingdom and most fully in Jesus Christ—Coakley sees a signpost pointing to God’s heart.
Are any of these perspectives helpful?
In the face of cataclysmic events like the Tanis asteroid impact, does the lens of “sacrifice” help Christians think about animal death and suffering in a way that safeguards the Creator’s goodness?
In the next post, I’ll offer an evaluation.
Until then, Jimmy Hoffa and the Holy Grail will have to wait.
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