Seeing Creatures through God’s Eyes

2nd October 2022

A sermon preached in St Salvator’s Chapel, University of St Andrews, Scotland, on Animal Welfare Sunday by Dr Clair Linzey, Deputy Director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.

The poet Christina Rossetti wrote “And other eyes than ours / Were made to look on the flowers.” In Rossetti’s powerful words, we glimpse the idea that the world is not made for humans alone. That ours are not the only eyes looking at the world. That animals have eyes with which they also look upon the flowers. But also that creation was made not for human eyes and human delight, but rather for God’s eyes and God’s delight. The question: What does it mean to see the world, to see other creatures, through God’s eyes?  That is my focus today.

Now one might ask, is it not the very height of hubris to think that we can see the world through God’s eyes? And in one sense, yes of course it is. Theology, by recognising the divine, begins with the idea that we are not God. So of course we will never fully comprehend how God sees the world. And yet in this time of climate crisis, when the world desperately needs our help, what better theological place to start than to ask: What does God the creator see when she looks at her world?

In asking, how does God see the world, we can begin by looking at the biblical witness. In the first creation saga, God makes the animals, gives them their own living space, blesses them, and proclaims that they are “good” (Gen. 1. 25). The God of love creates not out of necessity, but to delight in other beings. Other-than-human beings, to delight in the feathers of the peacock, the gentleness of a cow, the speed of a cheetah, the playfulness of dolphins, and the strength of a rhino. God the creator delights, blesses and sees that all her creatures are good.

Next in the Genesis narrative, comes the part most often quoted, the creation of humans in the image of God. God gives humanity a special place in creation, created in his image, and then gives humans “dominion” over creation (v.26-8). And also what kind of dominion is it? Is it dominion as domination, as it has often been interpreted? Are we to rule over the world as lord and master? The answer is given in the next verse: Where God blesses humans and gives them a vegetarian, actually plant-based diet, “every plant yielding seed” (v. 29). We must ask ourselves what kind of relationship to the world is envisioned in a plant-based dominion? The answer, I suggest, is one of service and responsibility. We are to care for the world as God would care for the world.

The animals are also given a plant-based diet – “every green plant.” And it is this peaceful, harmonious, vegan vision of the world that God saw was “very good” (v. 31). The original kingdom of God envisioned was one of peace between all of God’s creatures. So when we ask what is good in God’s sight, the first answer seems to be a peaceable kingdom, a peaceful creation.

Now of course, humans, indeed all creation, has fallen short of this peaceable kingdom. But it is worth noting just how far we have moved away from it. On Animal Welfare Sunday, our task, is to really see how the world is for animals.

Seeing the world for animals involves facing the reality of suffering and pain of billions of animals worldwide for human gain. Over seventy three billion cows, sheep, pigs and chicken are killed every year for human consumption. Seventy three billion animals, for just 7.8 billion humans. And this is not all the animals killed for food, nor does it include all the fish and birds killed. The vast majority of farmed animals are kept in factory farms, intensively reared, removed from their mothers, and kept in conditions where they may never see the light of day or roam freely, before being transported sometimes hundreds of miles, and ultimately slaughtered. Conservative estimates suggest that one hundred and fifteen million animals are used in animal experiments every year. The use and abuse of animals is so widespread that the animals have become invisible. Seen in this light, the reality of animals lives is a million miles from the peaceable kingdom.

These animals have been scientifically shown to feel pain, suffer, and experience a range of emotions including fear, anxiety, and terror. In terms of suffering, the suffering of billions of animals worldwide every year who are used and abused for human gain counts as one of the major moral issues of our time.

Perhaps worst than the suffering of billions of animals is that in perpetuating this system of consuming animals, we are endangering our very life on the planet and the lives of all animals. Animal agriculture accounts for over 30 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, the primary emission from animal agriculture is methane, which is four times more potent than carbon dioxide. Researchers have concluded that becoming vegan is the single most effective thing you can do personally to combat climate change.  What we choose to consume will determine whether we are able to address the climate crisis. Climate change truly begins on our plate.

The issue, however, is not just about climate change. How we treat God’s other creatures has a direct impact on humans. We have seen the devastating impact zoonotic diseases, those transferred from animals to humans, can have upon us. Every country around the world was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic which has at its roots the way animals are treated in agriculture globally. Even if the causes of the pandemic are still debated, the causes of avian flu, foot and mouth, Ebola, and numerous other diseases are not. They are caused by the close confinement in which we keep animals. Confinement so bad that around one hundred and sixty thousand tons of antibiotics are given to factory farmed animals each year. We are giving animals so many antibiotics in fact that we are creating antibiotic resistant diseases, reducing our own ability to fight illness. Human health is directly tied to the way we treat other creatures.

Moreover, there is strong scientific evidence to show that living in cycles of violence towards animals is bad for humans. Humans who work in or live near abattoirs are statistically more likely to exhibit violent behaviour, including assault, domestic violence, and murder, and have increased mental health problems. We have been so caught up in how we can treat animals, power as its own self-justification, we have failed to stop and ask how we should treat them.

At every point our treatment of creation directly impacts negatively on humans and on the world. Learning to really see other creatures as God’s beings, with their own intrinsic dignity and rights is the only way to embody the peaceable kingdom envisioned in Genesis. If we can learn to appreciate our place in the world as God’s guardians of creation, we will be helping not just ourselves but alleviating the suffering of billions of animals.

This is not to say this is easy to achieve. But the first step in solving any problem is to admit that there is a problem. We are culturally, socially, and politically in a mess. We have institutionalised animal suffering: We hunt, fish, shoot, experiment upon, keep in captivity, and use for entertainment billions of animals each year. We are engaged willingly, or unwillingly, in systems of violence to animals in every part of our lives. It is so systemic that their suffering has become invisible. Every item we consume or use from water to pesticides has been tested on animals. Rabbits and horses are used for glue. Building homes and roads for humans destroys countless habitats for animals. At every turn animal use has become institutionalised into the way we live our lives.  There is no purity here, even if you live totally off the grid and grow your own food, as long as you are paying taxes your money goes to support industries that negatively impact animals. The first step to changing things is to admit we are in a mess, that we have a problem.

Secondly, we can all take small steps to help live out the peaceable kingdom in this life. Buy cruelty free cosmetics, don’t financially support zoos or other forms of animal entertainment, rescue your companion animals, reduce and eventually eliminate animal consumption, no not wear fur or leather, and tell your elected representatives that you care about issues that affect animals. Truly treat the others in God’s creation as individual beings in their own right, loved, and blessed by God, and we may see ourselves towards a better world.

St Paul’s Letter to the Romans reveals how we are all, human and nonhuman alike, caught in the groaning of creation (Rom.8.22). Creation literally groans, cries out for us to hear their suffering. Cows cry for days, when their calves are taken from them at just days old, to produce milk for humans. If we can truly see and truly listen to the cries of animals and the cries of the world, we can hear what is wrong with the way we have constructed our societies.

But the text goes further than saying we are caught in the groaning of creation. Rather, Paul suggests that is our duty as “children of God” to help liberate creation. As Jesus liberates humans from the “bondage to decay,” then it is our task to free other creatures from decay and futility (Rom. 8. 18-24). The role of humanity is to aid in the redemption of creation.

Henry Beston in his The Outermost House, echoes Paul, when he writes: “[Other animals] are not brethren; they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

Our task then in seeing God’s creatures is to recognise those other nations who share the world with us. Animals are complex sentient beings that have abilities and emotions well beyond what scientists had previously discovered. Elephants mourn the deaths of other elephants, even performing funeral rites. Dolphins and whales communicate using sonar in a complex language that is passed down through their pods by their matriarchs.  Octopuses are so maternal that they weaken themselves to the extent that they change colour in order to protect their children. These are just a few examples of the wonder and beauty of the animal kingdom, of the nations other than our own.

Paul says in Romans, “in this hope we are saved” (8. 24). It is in God’s hope for the world, the hope for a peaceable kingdom that through the Spirit we are saved, and through which we can save other nations. The Spirit is God’s eyes in the world through which she sees the world and all her creatures. The Spirit’s role in Creation, as suggested in Romans, is in helping us to move past speciesism and see God’s creatures, as fellow creatures.

By seeing God’s other creatures and helping free them from suffering, in this we will also save ourselves, and hopefully the planet.

© Copyright, C. Linzey, 2022.

The full service can be seen here.