Red in Tooth and Claw (pt 5)

Red in Tooth and Claw (pt 5)

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.

Next time.


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Red in Tooth and Claw (pt 4)

Red in Tooth and Claw (pt 4)

“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.

CONCLUSION

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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The dazzling darkness

The dazzling darkness

~And Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was (Exod. 20.21).

“Apophaticism” is a strange word by any stretch of the imagination.

In theology, it refers to our inability to put God into speech. The true God is transcendent. He is mysterious. And because he is not an object in creation—like a beetle or a bag of marbles—all attempts to define and explain him exhaustively must fall short.

Like trying to pin a living tiger to the cardboard matting of one’s bug collection.

This is so, because, as T.S. Eliot wrote:

Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish

So while we cannot do justice to what God IS, we can say some things about what God is NOT—while leaving space for mystery. This is apophasis.

As most acknowledge, this apophatic approach should be balanced by “cataphasis,” which refers to what can be said of God. This includes the reality that God is love, that he is holy, and many other things besides.

Yet while all these cataphatic claims are true, the apophatic tradition emphasizes that there are shadowlands as well—blank spaces on our maps. And at these points, our knowledge bumps against the veil of the infinite—or what Sarah Coakley of Cambridge calls “the dazzling darkness.”

I’ve been thinking of this recently because the Scottish Journal of Theology has just published an article of mine in which I engage with both Coakley and N.T. Wright regarding Paul, apophasis, the Holy Spirit, and the mystical tradition (see here).

I won’t attempt to duplicate that here, but I would like to ask a couple questions about the promise and the pitfalls of a more “apophatic” faith.  First, the promise.

THE PROMISE

One virtue of apophaticism is that some use of it is manifestly biblical.

Paul, for instance, glories in the fact that God’s judgments are “unsearchable,” and his paths “beyond tracing out.”

            Who has known the mind of the Lord?

Or who has been his counselor? (Rom. 11.34).

Beyond tracing.

This phrase strikes me, because while the inability to understand God often troubles us moderns, Paul sees it as a cause for worship (“To him be the glory forever!” [vs.36]).

One reason is that if you can “trace” your deity, you can be darn sure you’re worshiping an idol.

Idols are traceable; YHWH is not.

And this mystery is evident even in God’s clearest revelations.

Take Romans for instance. Here, Paul writes that:

since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen… (1.20).

The passage is clear that God has revealed himself through the created order: sunsets, supernovas, and the miracle of newborn life. The revelation is clearly seen. Yet note what is “seen”: God’s “invisible qualities.”

Can you describe for me what invisible qualities look like? Can you trace them? Please, draw me a picture of an invisible cat (*C.S. Lewis reference).

Perhaps the lesson here is that even amid the clarity of revelation, there is mystery and an overthrow of overreaching human intellect.

To acknowledge this seems important for those of us (read: me) who make a living talking and writing about God. There is a danger for me to pretend that I have “traced” the untraceable. And, once again, the biblical word for this is IDOLATRY.

At such points, apophasis can be helpful if I allow my pride to be pierced by what the Christian mystic Pseudo-Dionysius called “a ray of darkness.”

This is necessary, not just because of the great distance between God and I – but because of the great CLOSENESS. As the theologian Karen Kilby notes, our life “in” God makes it impossible to step back and view him from afar.

As Paul states in Acts 17: “In him we live and move and have our being.”

So in the same way that sitting inside a Boeing 747 makes it impossible to view the plane from a distance, so too our life in God makes “tracing” him impossible.

This, then, is the promise of apophaticism: (1) the piercing of our pride, and (2) a guard against idolatry.

What though about the pitfalls?

THE PITFALLS

When taken too far, however, apophasis may be a gateway drug to another A-word: agnosticism.

In my academic response to Coakley, I took issue (politely) with her description of the Christian life as “a love affair with a blank.”

Because while faith may sometimes feel like this (Eloi; Eloi…), Christians also believe that God has revealed himself in concrete ways: in the Scriptures, and most importantly, in Jesus Christ.

To forget this is to stand in the Areopagus of Acts 17 and bow down to that statue of “THE UNKNOWN GOD.”

In some cases, I suspect that the renewed interest in apophaticism (while helpful to a point) may be an academic attempt to avoid the uncomfortable clarity of Scripture at various points.

And when this happens, the “dazzling darkness” hides more pernicious spirits.

There is mystery, to be sure.

And there are “rays of darkness” that must pierce our prideful attempts to trace divinity.

But there are also rays of light.

Christ is the image of the invisible God. And to glimpse his character is to see the heart of the divine.