How do you reconcile the existence of God with animal suffering, specifically wild animal suffering not caused by humans?
This is my response:
Firstly, I must say that it’s a question that has never bothered me. I don’t think that’s because I’m callous to the suffering of wild animals that is not caused by human beings but rather that, because it’s part and parcel of Nature, it doesn’t seem to me to be a moral problem. I also don’t see either human suffering or animal suffering caused by humans to be a theological problem. Suffering caused by humans is certainly a moral problem but the first and fundamental gift to humanity, after existence itself, is free will. Therefore, the alternative to suffering is lack of autonomy. God, the Architect of the Universe, could of course have decided to create us as puppets without any free will but that wasn’t the plan.
Although it may not be originally a Christian idea, the Neoplatonic notion of the Pleroma, that I first encountered in Arthur O. Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being, tackles this problem head-on. Lovejoy’s answer is that, in Plotinus’ account of creation through the Demiurge, it is an expression of the Divine, according to the Divine Will, and must necessarily express all possibilities – otherwise creation would be lacking. This is because, in the ancient Greek sensibility, fullness is better than lack: it is more perfect for something to be actualised than not to be actualised. So then everything has to be. Aristotle sometimes uses this sensibility to argue for something necessarily in being rather than simply in potential – and it is this binary of being and potential, of fullness and lack, that is the basis for his theory of Forms.
The concept of pleroma does occur in the New Testament, especially in the letters of Saint Paul, who of course was a Greek scholar, as his learned discourse to the Athenians (which is often criticised by fundamentalist Christians) shows. Saint Paul doesn’t apply this concept to creation directly but he does apply it to both Christ and the Church, including to believers:
(I quote from the Jerusalem Bible)
1:15 “He is the image of the unseen God and the first-born of all creation,
1:16 for in him were created all things in heaven and on earth: everything visible and everything invisible, Thrones, Dominations, Sovereignties, Powers – all things were created through him and for him.
1:17 Before anything was created, he existed, and he holds all things in unity. Now the Church is his body, he is its head.
1:18 As he is the Beginning, he was first to be born from the dead, so that he should be first in every way;
1:19 because God wanted all perfection to be found in him
1:20 and all things to be reconciled through him and for him, everything in heaven and everything on earth, when he made peace by his death on the cross.”
1 CORINTHIANS 10:26 “for the earth and everything that is in it belong to the Lord.”
3:16 “Out of his infinite glory, may he give you the power through his Spirit for your hidden self to grow strong,
3:17 so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith, and then, planted in love and built on love,
3:18 you will with all the saints have strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth;
3:19 until, knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond all knowledge, you are filled with the utter fullness of God.”
I think also that we have to remember how artificial our ideas of animals are; how artificial our ideas of Nature are. We live in countries where “wilderness” is mostly created and often has been created by erasing the dwellings and habitats of former inhabitants, human or animal, or both. This has been extensively theorised by J. Baird Callicott, whose critique of wilderness is now less controversial than his proposed alternatives – some of which seem perilously close to UN elite neo-colonialism (see below). I do recommend the work of Lee Hall whose ideas about animal domestication I find very challenging, especially because I have a dog. Lee highlights how artificial animal domestication is, and as a vegan of years who spent decades as a vegetarian, I find this very challenging indeed because it opens my eyes to the fact that, when I go walks with my dog, he immediately wants to be with other dogs. And what he really wants to do is to form a pack and then go hunting and to mate and therefore to ensure the survival of the pack.
My brother-in-law is a dog trainer and I have benefited greatly from his advice, the core of which is that dogs think differently from human beings, and that they have a reason for their behaviour. It’s interesting to me the derision that canine behaviourists have for this idea, as basically they see dog training not as forming a bond with another rational animal but rather as “teaching your dog good manners”, as one put it to me in conversation.
Lee’s work challenges me to accept that the relationship I have, and that my family and my friends have, with my extremely cute tan terrier, Ben, is highly artificial and is, to a great extent, abusive. Ben was taken from his family, at least from his mother and siblings, at an early age. His tail was inexpertly docked in his first year, in his second he was castrated and by the time he got to me he could not live with other dogs because of his aggressive behaviour. Now, with my brother-in-law’s advice, he’s a calm and happy dog aged 11. He gets on well with other dogs and loves people. But his life is not natural and it’s full of frustrated impulses. Just this morning I stopped him from heading into a foxhole. He obviously found this confusing. It’s bad dog logic. Dogs and foxes have a mutual enmity, who am I to interfere? But the land all around, the habitat of this fox, has been devastated by recent tree felling and burning as well as house building some decades ago. There is also an almost continual presence of at least one dog and accompanying human. So to further tip the balance by letting Ben dig out and kill Reynard would be immoral. Ben is like a model prisoner who gets on extremely well with his gaolers and even likes them. Sometimes, when I’m so extremely busy, because I’m an unpaid carer with three part time jobs, he only gets out to the back garden and otherwise out for a short 15 minute walk. He accepts this. He has no choice.
So my point in this long ramble is that the problem of the suffering of wild animals is not a theological problem because the alternative is immoral. We svelte, urbanised, soft, humans have a twisted idea of morality, especially when it comes to animals, because we are so good at hiding from ourselves the abuse that we practise on animals in the name of a “kindness” which is actually selfishness. Nowhere is this more evident than in the services which are dedicated to animal welfare. I remember watching a video on social media of a dedicated (obsessive) animal shelter officer who managed to trap a female dog and her puppies who were living in a junkyard I think, feral, and bring them into the Pound. That, of course, was the end of the story. And it may have been for the female dog. The puppies, if they were lucky, would have been separated. If not, they would have been killed along with their mother. For “their own good”. That somewhat natural family could have been living, still, in the urban wilderness. Suffering no doubt but together and alive. However, the kind human being couldn’t stand seeing that and so she “rescued” them and probably killed at least some of them. It’s this same deadly kindness (allied with economy) that causes us to reject any possibility of the kind of palliative care we extend to our human kin, when one of our beloved domesticated animals is gravely ill. Instead we employ a euphemism for lethal injection, get weepy and expect sympathy. For our kindness.
We have to take responsibility for how sanitised our concept of Nature is. How we have artificially created wilderness by displacing indigenous people and the rural poor in order to make the wilderness a playground for the urban elite. How we have caused devastating ecological change in order to make the world into this playground. So we can’t be surprised about the “wrong kind of Green” that is happening right now under the marketing strategy “The Great Reset”, as detailed by journalist and activist Cory Morningstar, because the monetization of Nature is an old concept and we have all signed up to it already.
Most human interaction with Nature and with animals is now destructive and abusive. It is the height of moral hubris for us to then imagine that how animals interact with each other is morally wrong and constitutes a theological problem about the goodness of their Creator. We simply cannot imagine what Nature is because we see Nature, and animals living in Nature, through so many artificial lenses of our own construction. The best thing we can do for animals is to leave them alone. The second best thing we can do for them is to try to remedy in some way the destruction to their lives and their habitats which we have already wreaked on them. In both endeavours, we can look to God, because we are told (Matthew 5:23-24) that we cannot be in good relation with God when we are at odds with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Therefore, we cannot be in communion with God while we are at odds with our fellow creatures.
Rather than judge their Creator for the destruction and the pain that wild animals would cause each other, if they were living in a state of Nature, we should accept responsibility and seek remedy for the destruction and pain we have already caused them, because they are not.
Thanks to George Hodan for releasing his image Raven into the Public Domain.