The next book on my January reading journey is my good friend and colleague Nicola Hoggard Creegan’s Animal Suffering & the Problem of Evil.
Unlike the books by Stuart Lange and Peter Lineham discussed above which are historical informative surveys, this one is more difficult for me to comment on as it gets into areas of science I am ill-equipped to really comment on. Still, I can’t help myself, so here goes.
The first thing I have to say is that like the others mentioned above, Nicola is a great writer. It is well constructed and remarkably lucid and easy to understand considering the depth of the material. I mean it doesn’t get much deeper than the origins of life and evil! I was engaged from the get go. It has left me thinking greatly about the issues involved, and I am being way nicer to my cat! So, thanks Nicola.
The book assumes the position of theistic evolution, i.e. God created through evolutionary processes accepted by the majority of biological scientists today. For someone like me still working through the ins and outs of this view as compared to old earth ideas this is a big assumption. I remain unconvinced that macro-evolution is sufficiently proven for me to jump in boots and all. But, the book from there helps the likes of me see how the origins of the universe may have occurred more clearly. In my opinion the book achieves this, showing that a coherent theological construct can be formed which sees beginnings in this way.
One of the key arguments is that humans are animals and this has been downplayed in Christian tradition in favour of stressing human distinctness. This is a fair critique. While I accept I am an animal, my behaviour gives me away among other things, I wonder, however, if the book under-stresses the separation of humans from other animals. When I consider the marvels of human achievement (however flawed), while we are animals, something has transformed us into a very distinct species with unbelievable capacities. I would still want to stress our uniqueness. The book itself is evidence of it—a literary discussion of our origins indicating a tremendous level of sophisticated thought and self-reflection. Animals are in a different category as I see it.
I found the discussions of the various views on the problem of suffering very helpful and I now have a new range of books to read and consider. This is most helpful.
The Fall (or lack thereof) plays a big part in the thesis of the book. Throughout the notion of an idyllic perfect world which was corrupted by Adam and Eve’s Fall is rejected; rather, the creation has been blighted by an earlier fall. The Fall narrative then is not a fall from paradise, but human participation in the cosmic problem of evil.
There is nothing controversial about positing an earlier fall, many theodicies consider the presence of the serpent and evil in the garden as evidence of some earlier fall. So Isa 14 and Ezek 28 were understood in Judaism and some Christian circles as pointing to Satan’s fall, causing evil to enter the cosmos. However, to argue that this corrupted the “very good” creation (so it wasn’t perfect, but very good with lots of “not so good” in it) is challenging to traditional readings of Gen 1. I find the idea that there was no “fall” but a kind of enlightenment and participation in evil as intriguing. I think these form part of the story. However, I am not sure that Paul understood it thus. Romans 5:12 and 8:19-23 seem to me to be chiastically related (parallel) and suggest Paul saw death entering the cosmos at Adam’s sin and so the whole creation is subjected to futility and subjection to decay. However, Nicola pushes this futility and subjection further back to the original Fall. This means there is somewhat of a tension with Paul’s thinking. Of course, Paul was a man of his times (e.g. 1 Cor 11:1-16) and one can argue that on this he was functioning from his cultural and theological perspective. Still, the tension remains.
The whole idea of an earlier Fall which has corrupted the universe is a fascinating idea. Like Nicola, I agree that our experience of evil speaks of something “personal,” what the Biblical story calls Satan, the Devil, etc. The construct presented still begs the questions, how, why, who, etc. In recent times I have pondered “what the heck I am in” as I consider the world’s story. What fell? How? Why? Is Satan a fallen angel? If so, how does this relate to God’s omniscience? As a Pauline scholar who cannot deny his strong theology of predestination (while agreeing that he has an equally strong theology of human volition along with it), I consider God of the Bible to be omniscient and am not convinced by counter arguments. I am left wondering what sort of cosmic conflict led to the world’s corruption, in other words, “what the heck are we humans caught up in?”
As a biblical scholar I was somewhat uncomfortable with the use of the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares to speak of all creation being both penetrated by good and evil through its every part from creation. The intent of the parable from the mouth of Jesus and as used by the Gospel writers seems to me to relate to the Kingdom of God and the coming of Jesus Messiah, and so the church and/or the world from that point on. Still, thinking more broadly, theologically this is a clever and arguably appropriate lens to present the view espoused. As long as we are not saying that the parable originally meant this. Still, the idea of a creation which reflects both good and evil is certainly our present experience.
Another area I found very stimulating was the discussion of developments in evolutionary thinking toward acknowledging that the process involved not only mutations and violent contention, but symbiosis and cooperation. That is fascinating and greatly helpful for those who find it troubling that God might use such a process. I still struggle with the idea that God used violence and death to bring forth life; but this moderates the picture somewhat and by pushing back the Fall to an earlier point, opens up vistas for the likes of me to consider.
When it comes to the question of vegetarianism I find it hard to accept that this is an ideal ethical position when I consider that the Son of God who walked among us participated in Jewish sacrifices including eating Passover meals at which lamb is centre stage. Indeed, the Last Supper was likely a Passover meal (although some dispute this on the basis of John’s Gospel, but Paul does not, cf. 1 Cor 5). Jesus also ate fish on both sides of the crucifixion. I see no indication that Jesus had any inclination toward vegetarianism and did not expect that of his people. Neither does the OT where from Gen 9 on there seems no issue with eating meat. Paul was also very comfortable with Christians eating meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8, 10) and eating any food—“the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” (With the caveat that we do not bring our brother and sister down by doing so). As such, I think Nicola may be drawing the line between animals and humans a little too close and creating a theology that is in tension with that of Jesus in going so far as to see it as an ethical ideal. As such, I will quite happily go on eating meat, but I do agree that food should be ethically sourced and killed. Paul too leaves room for different views on this issue (Rom 14–15) and so should we I believe. We can agree to disagree on this Nicola.
Overall I think the book is a very fine example of Christian thinking and presents a coherent Christian position. It has caused me to think deeply about the Fall in particular and the idea that the problem of the corruption of the cosmos preceded the Adam and Eve story. I remain suspicious of evolutionary constructs but overall an agnostic where it comes to the various creation views argued by various Christians. That said, no matter what our view, I would recommend it heartily to everyone who has an open mind and wants to explore the theological possibilities around human origins.