“He Who Sits in the Heavens Laughs”: Recovering Animal Theology in the Abrahamic Traditions

The title of this post is the title of a superb article by Kimberley C. Patton that was published in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 93, No. 4 (Oct., 2000), pp. 401-434.  Patton is Professor of the Comparative and Historical Study of Religion at Harvard Divinity School.  I discovered the article several months ago, and I’ve been meaning to sing its praises ever since, but I kept getting sidetracked.  There is a passing reference to it, and its author, in this earlier post, for which I had intended a followup, i.e. part 2, but which I never got around to writing.  This is not that promised part 2, but in rereading Patton’s article last night, I was sufficiently shamed by the near-criminality of my not sharing some of her writing here that I composed this post instead.  I also think it “fits” nicely here, right after my last post (translating Jensen, expounding on Løgstrup).

Patton’s key insight is her recognition of the importance of construing animals “as theological subjects rather than as mediated objects.”  Patton is careful to distinguish herself and her inquiry from “animal rights-oriented scholars [who] tend to ignore the character of God in monotheistic traditions as so much apologetic drapery for chronic human narcissism and eco-exploitation.”  She states (her emphasis): “A traditional monotheistic schema does not theologically denigrate animals.  Rather, it elevates human beings and frames their moral choices as being of ultimate importance.

Nevertheless, Patton acknowledges that, in practice, the monotheistic traditions have, over time, allowed their hierarchical valuation of God, humans, and animals (in decreasing order of importance) to rigidify to the point that animal exploitation has occurred, with religious sanction.  Sometimes this has been a matter of interpreting older religious authorities in a one-sided way.  As an example she cites Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica who wrote, “… the Divine Ordinance of animals and plants is preserved not for themselves but for man … as Augustine says … both their life and death are subject to our use.”  Patton:

This passage is often cited as a kind of proof-text for a Christian hierarchical model whereby animals are assigned their place in the cosmos as resources and objects rather than as theological subjects.  In dwelling on the second half of Aquinas’s assertion in its apparently utilitarian cosmology, however, it is easy to overlook the burden of the first.  It is God who orders the schema that gives dominion (“benign or just sovereignty,” as Bernhard Anderson suggests; compare Isa 11:6-8) to humanity over the animals.  Yet, as sung by Psalms 145:9, and so often quoted by the rabbis, “His tender mercies are over all his works.”  God remains eternally invested in the well-being of all His creatures.

Patton concludes:

Thus we are poorly served by a chart that places God at the top, humanity at the next level down, and animals at the bottom, with the directionality of devotion, liturgical praxis, communication and ultimately of relationship charted only between those levels.  Instead I believe that a closer examination of the sacred literatures of these traditions, including scriptural, commentarial, and mystical writings, yields a different and rather arresting theological proposition.

Both as species and as individuals, animals have their own special, consecrated, differentiated and highly charged relationship to God.  That is, even when the moral predicament of human beings is the focus of a given narrative, the divine/animal relationship is not always humanly mediated.  Nor, as has been argued, can we construe animals that appear in monotheistic religious narratives or in sacred images solely as didactic vehicles.

She goes on to suggest that “what lies at the heart of God’s sanctified and charged relationship to animals … is the idea of divine ipseity, namely, the inexhaustible and reflexive creativity of God, His self-origination, self-sufficiency, and self-referentiality as expressed through the myriad forms of his creation.”

[“Blessing of the Animals” at The Episcopal Church of St. Benedict, Bolingbrook, Illinois.]

I would like to end this post with the following extended passage from Patton’s article, because it is so beautiful, and because it is so theologically challenging and uplifting.  (Note: I have had to convert some of the special characters in her text to their nearest English equivalents.)

From “‘He Who Sits in the Heavens Laughs’: Recovering Animal Theology in the Abrahamic Traditions” by Kimberley C. Patton:

Divine Compassion and Special Regard for Animals

It is not surprising that human beings are so special to God.  In all three Abrahamic traditions, human beings alone are created in God’s image.  This is clear in Genesis (Gen 1:1-2:3).  It is clear in Patristic, particularly in Athanasian, Christology, especially as it treats the redemption of the Fall through the Incarnation.  It is clear in the theological synthesis of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, which took as its starting point the uniqueness of Adam as God’s own creation from clay, imbued with His spirit (S 38:71-72).  Like human beings, animals are also God’s inventions, participating in the self-emptying of the divine nature as creative expressions of that mighty will and energy.  God alone subsists in Himself, while “things through their own essence have nothing but non-existence, and existence comes to them only from something else, by way of a loan.  But the existence of Allah is essential, unborrowed.  This reality of self-subsistence belongs to Allah alone.”  Thus despite their highly different moral stature and metaphysical potential, Adam and Eve share dependent origination with leopards and egrets.  The diverse streams of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all indicate that once established by creation, God’s relationship with animals does not stop then, but rather continues in an ongoing, vital way.

Although the inhabitants of Nineveh dwell outside the Mosaic covenant, it is not surprising that God upbraids Jonah with His concern for the people of “that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left. …” (Jon 4:9).   It is surprising when God adds, “and also many animals!”  But these are the animals who, only hours before, fasted and put on sackcloth alongside their human owners in penitence before the God of Israel.  It is not surprising that in the synoptic Gospels, Jesus iterates divine concern for the individual human being, even to the point of numbering the hairs on his or her head; it is surprising that He does so, as we have noted, by first iterating God’s awareness of the fall of a single sparrow – an individual (Matt 10:29).  It is not surprising that through the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet, God expresses His love for His people.  It is surprising that Surah 6:38 extends human religious organizational categories to the animal world: “There is not an animal (that lives) on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but (forms part of) communities (ummam) like you.”  A hadith qudsi reported by Abu Hurayrah reveals the radical sense of the word “communities”: The Prophet told of the stinging of another prophet in the past by an ant; in anger, he ordered the whole of the ants’ nest to be burned.  God reprimanded him: “Because one ant stung you, you have burned a whole community which glorified me.”  The groups in which animals, birds, and insects are constituted are themselves worshipping communities, in some sense analogous to human ummam, insofar as their collective well-being matters to God.  Ants and other creatures emerge as groups in their own right, worthy of divine regard.  As al-Hafiz Masri points out, this valuation seems to exist “not in relation to human species or its values,” including the human criteria of insignificance or dangerousness.  Furthermore, God did not find it just that the action of one individual ant should catalyze destruction for its entire ummah of ants.

In Judaism, the ancient principle of sa’ar ba’ale hayim, of refraining from harm to living things, safeguards individual animals in predictable ways, as for example, when in both the Sefer ha-Mitzvot and the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides summarizes rabbinical legislation requiring the unloading of a beast that struggles under an overtaxing load.  But the theme also startlingly breaks forth in the direction of theological subjectivity in the Talmudic account of the encounter of the great Judah ha-Nasi, redactor of the Mishnah (simply “Rabbi” in the tradition), with a calf on its way to kosher slaughter.  “When it broke away, [it] hid his head under Rabbi’s skirts, and lowed [in terror].”  Unmoved by the little creature’s plight, Judah ha-Nasi sent it away, saying, “Go, for this you were created.”  The Gemara tells us that the angels heard this: “Thereupon they said [in Heaven]: ‘Since he has no pity, let us bring suffering upon him'” (Baba Mesi’a 85a).

Judah ha-Nasi is then afflicted for thirteen years with excruciating bodily suffering.  He is only freed when, as the account in Baba Mesi’a continues, “One day Rabbi’s maidservant was sweeping the house; [seeing] some young weasels there, she made to sweep them away.  ‘Let them be,’ he said to her; ‘It is written, and his tender mercies are over all his works.’  Said they [in Heaven], ‘Since he is compassionate, let us be compassionate to him.'”

The calf is bolting from its assigned social role, namely that of being killed in a kosher manner to be eaten.  This is what lies behind Rabbi’s heartless statement to the calf: “Go, for this you were created.”  Yet in the calf’s transgressive act of breaking ranks, in its flight, and its search for refuge under the skirts of a great religious authority, it becomes a religious supplicant, in dialogue with another person who could be thought of as a stand-in for God – a potential source of divine mercy.  Judah ha-Nasi here is called upon to make the choice made by God Himself in Berakot 7a, where He prays that his mercy might overcome His justice and all His other attributes.  Instead Rabbi allows religiously determinative justification (“the order of things” established in Genesis) to overrule compassion, and sends the little calf to its doom.

On behalf of the calf, heaven exacts revenge.  Through years of chronic illness and suffering Judah ha-Nasi is cruelly, one might say even disproportionately, punished by the angels.  Nothing can redeem him except a later act of compassion toward animals – and, unlike the edible calf but like the stinging ant of the hadith qudsi, socially useless ones at that!  One notes not only the symmetry of the punishment and its amelioration – cruelty to one animal must be balanced by kindness to another animal – but the degree of keen ethical attention accorded to this situation by heaven.  In the end, Judah ha-Nasi suffers because he apparently failed to act as God would have.  Psalm 145:9 first condemns him in his pitilessness and then vindicates him in his tasuba with respect to the weasels.  In this story, God’s creatures are established as autonomous entities rather than merely as emblematic members of their species.  The calf is, surprisingly, an individual with whom God has a real and religiously defined relationship.  In God’s eyes both, calf and weasels have standing, have worth, can petition; above all, they can attract God’s protection and his mercy.

In the theomimetic heart of the mystic as it is alchemically refined in holy fire, human compassion, of necessity, imitates that of the Creator.  It overflows covenant and category like the banks of a river.  It naturally encompasses not only suffering humanity but all of God’s creatures, even the undesirable, the lost and fallen, the evil.  This was surely the vision of Isaac the Syrian, bishop of Nineveh, who in the eighth century wrote the following:

An elder was once asked, “What is a compassionate heart?”  He replied: “It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons and all that exists.  At the recollection and at the sight of them such a person’s eyes overflow with tears owing to the vehemence of the compassion which grips his heart; as a result of his deep mercy his heart shrinks and cannot bear to look on any injury or the slightest suffering of anything in creation.  This is why he constantly offers up prayer full of tears, even for the irrational animals and for the enemies of truth, even for those who harm him, so that they may be protected and find mercy.  He even prays for the reptiles as a result of the great compassion which is poured out beyond measure – after the likeness of God – in his heart.”

Nothing that he has made escapes his regard.  As God’s tender mercy is over all His works, so might the human heart made in His image also burn “for the whole of creation,” even for the reptiles.  In imitating Him, the scope of our prayer widens beyond imaginable limits, for He is inescapably everywhere, and “… Everything (that exists) will perish except His own Face.”

[“Princess” and young friend at “Celebration of Pets/Blessing of the Animals,” Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts.]

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