6th October 2009
Christianity has a poor record on animals. It has at least helped foster and promulgate instrumentalist views of animals as simply here for our use. But the tradition is not monochrome. There have been movements and voices for animals within almost every era of Christian history. St Francis of Assisi is an obvious case in point. But, even though he has been canonised and lauded, the idea that we should live fraternally and peaceably with animals has been generally disregarded. In a recent article in the Church Times, anticipating St Francis Day, 4th October (also World Day for Animals) I try to pinpoint his theological significance:
… there has always been something a bit too radical about St Francis for religious and non-religious people alike. We all know the stories of Francis preaching to the birds and befriending the wolf. They are normally derided as hagiographical gloss. But the underlying theology packs a punch: closer union with God ought to lead to a greater communion with God’s creatures.
Francis, writes St Bonaventure, called “creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ because he knew they had the same source as himself”. Long before Darwin and the discoveries of evolution, Francis grasped that divine love establishes a kinship between all living things.
Perhaps Francis acts out that strange verse in Mark 1.13 that Jesus was “with the wild beasts”. Jesus does not fight the wild beasts or seek to tame them. He is just “with” them. This, as Professor Richard Bauckham explains, almost certainly had messianic overtones, since the Messiah was believed to inaugurate universal peace between all creatures (as prophesied in Isaiah 11.1-9).
Mark, therefore, provides a snapshot of the eschatological possibility of living peaceably with animals, which Francis dramatically actualises in his own life (see Professor Bauckham’s chapter in Animals on the Agenda, SCM Press, 1998).
Even within the Churches, Francis has been variously invoked, lauded, and canonised, but the idea that living peaceably with animals is a Gospel imperative that has been widely disregarded.
The full article can be viewed here.