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High steaks? On Animals Volume 2

Rebekah Earnshaw
Thursday 23 February 2017

On 22nd February, Professor David Clough visited the University of St Andrews Theology Research Seminar. Clough is Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chester and involved with many projects, including CreatureKind which engages churches as they think about animals and Christian faith. In practical and scholarly modes, Clough has sustained his interest in the Christian theology and ethics of animals over many years. This includes a two volume project “On Animals.” Volume 1 (2012) developed Clough’s theological treatment of animals within the systematic frame of creation, redemption, and new creation. Volume 2, promised for the end of 2017, will examine the ethical implications of Clough’s position.

With his usual clarity and piercing manner, Clough presented “Consuming Animal Creatures: The Ethics of Eating Animals.” In this paper Clough defends a moderate proposal, that ethical Christian consumption of animal creatures must respect them as fellow creatures of God. He argued there are strong faith based reasons for not consuming fellow animal creatures who have not been given a chance to flourish. This paper may be found online.

Since the application, if not the proposition itself, might be considered radical Clough opened by affirming scepticism of radical positions and countered three potential defeaters of his proposal. First, he argued that mass Christian inattention to consumption of animals in the twenty-first century has resulted from rapid changes in farming processes. Intensively farmed animals are new on the table. Second, biblical declarations that all foods are clean do not make eating practices a matter of ethical indifference. Rather, our eating practices are significant for our fellowship with humans and other creatures. Third, binary distinctions between human and non-human animals are unsustainable. Neither “reason”, nor dominion are sufficient grounds to dismiss a careful, considerate, friendly, and understanding concern for animals.

Clough then presented a brief summary of his theological grounding, primarily material from On Animals: Volume 1. Creation is God’s gift of being for the sake of flourishing of all creatures and participation in divine fellowship. All of creation is good. Animals, human and non-human who share the breath of life, particularly depend on others and mutual fellowship for their flourishing. The unique mode of life of each creature is worthy of attention. In redemption the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, reconciling all things to himself through his blood shed on the cross. Redemption concerns all creation, including animal creatures. Christians await the fulfilment of peace among all creatures in new creation. All creation is made for God’s praise and as no sparrow falls to the ground without God’s care all creation will find its place in the divine life.

Clough then transitioned from this theological basis to his particular ethical question. Sin means creation is broken and conflicted but Christians are to seek the peace and flourishing of all creatures now. However, he also argued that his position is not a flat equivalence of all creation; Clough wishes to maintain distinctions (with fuzzy boundaries) between humans, animals, plants, and non-living creatures. A anthropocentric, dualistic, utilitarian consumerism is not an adequate Christian ethic for animal consumption. He brought attention to the Franciscan tradition of animal care. Promoting the flourishing of animals acknowledges the hopeful and frustrated status of the present. Humans are not powerless and needless cruelty is unchristian. Christians should attend to the significance of animal lives before God and delight in their flourishing.

Clough then moved to current practices of intensive farming. His observations were matter of fact, yet all the more confronting for that, from the production of eggs, poultry, pork, dairy products, lamb, and beef. Harm done through intensive farming practices is not compatible with the flourishing of the animal creatures. Clough painted an alternative possibility of what flourishing might look like taken from studies of pigs. The scale of cruelty may feel overwhelming but the profit driven bottom line means that even small changes in consumer behaviour have a direct effect on practices and the scale of their implementation.

Clough again defended this proposition, that there are faith based reasons for rejecting consumption of fellow animal creatures who have now been given opportunity to flourish, against a false choice between human and non-human animal welfare. Wide-spread and cheap access for humans to meat does not out-weigh the harm inflicted. Clough observed that current consumption patterns are harmful for humans on the larger scale of creation care. Nor are other ethical issues determined by the factor of cheaper access. For example, the need for safe toys and fair wages for workers counters the demand for cheap access to these products. Clough also considered the objections that Jesus was not vegetarian, predatory behaviour is “natural”, and that hospitality and human fellowship is an ethically complex field in which eating and consumption of non-human animals plays a key cultural role.

Clough concluded by suggesting that the perfect is the enemy of the better and small and moderate steps are the way forward. Clough graciously engaged with a wide range of questions: hunting and fishing practices, the nature of flourishing, a new disconnect from OT heritage on animals, further details on an alternative to a capacities distinction between human and non-human animals, and whether we might aniticipate a future volume “On Plants.”

Dr Clough was, as always, clear and piercing in his theological articulation and challenge in this area. He quipped at the start of his presentation that the “stakes” (steaks?) were high but I don’t know what was ordered when the Head of School took Dr Clough to lunch.

Rebekah Earnshaw

(Views expressed in this post are my own and not those of St Mary’s College.)

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