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Impulse - Wahrnehmungen - Verköstigungen. Ein interdisziplinäres Projekt: Die Synergie aus Ökologie und Spiritualität

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Die Würde der Tiere - Vortrag und Symposium

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Samstag, 09.09.2017

Impulse - Wahrnehmungen - Verköstigungen. Ein ökumenisches Projekt: Für eine ökologische Reformation.

09.09.2017 // 16 - 18 Uhr // Workshop // Kapuzinerklostergarten Münster

Yearbook of Theological Zoology, 1/2014

Excerpt from the Yearbook of Theological Zoology, 1/2014 (pp.23-32)

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you…“ (Job 12,7)

About a new conception of animals in theology and spirituality

Dr. Rainer Hagencord

 

Being thrown back upon oneself: animals as lifesavers

Suddenly there it is, this wall. The world behind is unapproachable for the protagonist, obviously it is dead.  She is the only human being who survived. This is the hopeless starting situation of Marlen Haushofer’s novel “Die Wand” (The Wall). The novel has recently been made into a film. Being thrown back on herself, confronted with the fundamental questions of life, lonely and without companions, in the middle of the forest, the protagonist starts writing  driven by mere distress.

“I intended to wind up the watch every day and to cross out a day in the calendar. That seemed very important to me in those days. I really clung to the small number of things that remained for me from the human order. By the way, I never gave up certain habits. I wash myself every day, clean my teeth, do the washing, and keep the house clean. I do not know why I am doing these things. It is nearly an inner compulsion urging me to do these things. Perhaps I am afraid of slowly losing my human features if I gave up these habits and I would crawl around, dirty and stinking, uttering the queerest sounds. I was not afraid of becoming an animal, that would not be too bad, but a human being can never become an animal, he would fall into the abyss bypassing the animal. I do not want this to happen to me.”
(Translation of Marlen Haushofer, Die Wand, Düsseldorf 2003, pp. 43)

The animals, to be more precise, the cow, the little bull, Pearl, the cat, and above all Luchs, the dog keep the young woman alive. Eckart Tolle, a contemporary mystic, calls them “the guardians of being”, who never orient themselves to a particular purpose in life. Thomas of Aquinas attributes an immediate experience of God to them, which humans have lost. In contrast to us, who are free in choosing God, they are always directly lead by God, but not in a cartesian-mechanical way. “A human being can never become an animal. He would fall into the abyss bypassing the animal.” They are not romantically idealized, not projected by any characteristics which are supposed to make us see them as better humans. They are just there making the lonely woman not only survive physically, but make it possible for her to remain a human being.

The Book of Job: A Creation that is Non-Anthropocentric

The human being, thrown back upon himself, and the animals – that leads us to Job, the biblical being who was robbed of everything. In his life of suffering and being healed, our fellow creatures, the animals, play a pivotal role. The motto of our conference is taken from this magnificent work of world literature. Is God’s justice compatible with the suffering of the innocent? What kind of Creator of all life is he when it is possible that illnesses, suffering and also death are obviously part of life? These are the basic questions of this sapiental literature.

In the poetic main part of the book the talks of Job alternate with the talks of one of his friends where Job’s case is interpreted. ELIFAS, BILDAT and the others keep to the notion that the world is based on justice and we cannot imagine God doing something wrong, but in  Job’s opinion his fate proves God doing him an injustice. Whereas the friends believe that it is Job who is to be blamed for his suffering, Job blames God for his fate.

The question which immediately comes to our mind when faced with suffering is: “How can God let these things happen?” does not help, but causes us quite a headache and makes us see God in a role outside the often merciless facts of life. Then we see God as the inventor of allegedly pedagogical rules, but we have to understand them rationally. But the dynamism of this book leads to a fundamentally different direction where God’s presence can be sensed, can be looked for and can be found in our world. The question which is more appropriate because it broadens our horizon has to be put like that: “What is God’s role in this suffering?” Is he consolation, provocateur or last hope? In this way Job struggles for God’s presence.

And God answers. The name for God gains a special importance in these speeches about God (chapter 38). Whereas in the whole poetic work of Job God is always named EL (Canaanite name for God) or SCHADDAI (the Almighty), now JAHWE answers, the God who the Israelites got to know being in solidarity with them during their miserable situation as slaves in Egypt, and they got to know Him as liberating them during the exodus. Now Job got his answers from God who calls himself “I AM WHO I AM” in Ex 3,14. In this way Job and JAHWE can meet each other: not on the level of the law, but in the awareness of experience and insight. We have to centre our attention on the quality of being alive and should leave the rational approaches behind.

With the help of the literary and fictitious speeches of God, the Book Job gives a higher rank to a spiritualty where – apart from God and the humans - there is room for the uniqueness of nature and its representatives, the animals. It seems to be very modern when the Book protests against a too narrow concept of classification, resulting only and especially from human insights and interests and which is then put on a theological basis.

The first of the two speeches about God (38,1-39,30) unfolds that the world is a dynamic process of life, not elements and requisites following one another, which only have to serve the interests of humans. In its second part (38,39-39,30) the speech about God describes God’s affirmation and approval of the habitats of the desert and the primeval forest, which humans regard as useless or threatening. This picture displayed in the book written in the 4th century is perhaps puzzling for modern humans, but promotes a world view where aspects which cannot be planned or which humans cannot understand or which are not dominated by humans must have a firm place, otherwise the Creation will either become a world machine or an idyll of garden gnomes. According to this approach, the Creator God would entirely and unconditionally be involved in the process of growing and passing away. To put it anthropomorphically, he even intently witnesses and is troubled by this process full of tension, which he has created himself. As He is the unfolding in every thing and  every creature, he is God himself as Nikolaus von Kues puts it.

While on the subject, this figurative image derives from an ancient Near Eastern, ancient Egyptian background and includes the following verses dealing with animals:

Do you hunt the prey for the lioness and satisfy the hunger of the lions…?

Who provides food for the raven when its young cry out to God and wander about for lack of food?

Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you watch when the doe bears her fawn?

(Iob 38, 39)

A total of ten animals, a number which expresses fullness, is presented resulting in a real elegy of wild, unplanned but nevertheless fascinating vitality. The Creator God claims that he has created it out of love - but that he has given these animals the freedom they need in their particular way of life.

This proves that, beyond any doubt, this creation myth of this wisdom-filled scripture is non-anthropocentric., particularly as the creation of man is not mentioned in the whole 38th chapter. In chapter 39 Job has to learn that the order of creation is not only geared to the needs of humans.

At first glance, answering the question of meaning of a long-suffering man in this way may seem cynical or brutal, however, at second glance, it is not, as suffering causes fear and narrows horizons. God himself wants to lead the protagonist out of this narrowness of mind by explaining the fullness of creation to him. Thus the perspective changes. The message of the speeches of God releases pressure from man in a fundamental way because he does not need to be the focal figure in the world. This fact makes the message a really comforting one. Seeing God caring about Creation, gives Job courage and confidence. He does not need to believe in a God he has just heard of, but he becomes receptive to the secret unfolding in everything alive in a loving way. This maintains and supports everything. That is why the Book Iob ends with his credo “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” (42,5).

Biblical Zoology

Together with Job and, in his tradition, Jesus of Nazareth, who, according to Marc, spent 40 days in the desert together with animals before his public ministry, we are amidst the biblical zoology. Here they are partners of the covenant of God and they are blessed by Him. They are fellow beings in the new world entrusted to man for the welfare of both. Furthermore, they function as teachers:

“Look at the bird of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. (Mt 6,26-29, see also Lk 12,24-27)

When searching for self-conception and when struggling with the question about God, the biblical human beings did not have a problem with seeing the animals as fellow creatures with whom they shared their habitat with and which they needed to survive in the agrarian culture. Their world is a wonderful cosmos of figures, gestures, sounds, behaviour, colours, pictures, and stories. 

In all cultures surrounding Israel the human being had always found his self-conception by including animals. The marvellous texts about animals in the Bible treasured this idea and enriched them in a variety of ways. Encountering animals, Israel experienced the mystery of life not only in its resplendent colourfulness, bit also in its mighty strength. By watching and  understanding them and by interpreting their behaviour, Israel became open to their fascination and was also inspired theologically.

For the biblical man the entry into this mysterious influence was pivotal, the influence of life being so different and yet so close to their own. The contact with the different, non-human life impeded the development of religious insights and theological reflections. This led them to God, who is always so unalike and yet incredibly close.

According to the Jewish-Christian tradition, the essential characteristic of man is not determined with regard to animals, and that is different to Egypt where God has revealed himself in the form of an animal. But nevertheless, according to the biblical tradition, man can reach a more profound, even theological self-conception when being mindful of his fellow beings, the animals. 

Nature with its animals and plants and even whole landscapes show the signature of the creator. They are mysterious and reveal “the numinous”.  This term is a modern one, and etymologically it can be traced back to the Roman antiquity. The word field being closely related to the Hebrew origin is ‘barak’ (to bless; to give something of value to another). We people living in the so called Western world connect ‘blessing’ and ‘to bless’ too easily with the spoken word due to a tradition focused on the spoken word. That is why we are above all interested in what is happening during the process of blessing whereas for the people in Ancient Israel  it was a matter of fact that ‘blessing’ (berakah) is part of everything created and can be experienced.

In the Book of Isaiah you can find a saying: “As when juice is still found in a cluster of grapes and men say, ‘Don’t destroy it, there is yet some good in it.’(Isaiah 65,8). Clearly in contrast to the religion in Egypt, the Jewish Credo has states programmatically that not any inner-worldly dimension should be absolutised. The deification of creation or any single being is clearly no option for the Israelites. But on the other hand, it cannot be an option to throw the baby out with the bathwater, in this case the numinous of creation. In fact it is about time to give creation back its soul and its dignity and to free it from its indignity based on the fact of  having become a totally profane counterpart of the Creator, a mere product of a sovereign and transcendent God, and an object of human science and exploitation.

According to the latest exegetical literature, in the biblical transmissions we can extricate two traditions relevant to my argument:

Man and animal being closely connected with one another are creatures of one God as well as participants of God’s covenant.

Man and animal are blessed beings and  have their own value and a deep relationship to the Creator and thus they have their own distinctive position within creation. 

Elias Canetti, nobel laureate in literature in 1981 says:

When scientific insight increases,
the relationship between animals and men will become closer and closer.
When they are as close as in the old myths,
there will hardly be any animals left.


In an interdisciplinary discourse the project of the theological zoology intends to place the focus on animals again – not only on an irrelevant theological and socio-political playing-field. …there will hardly be any animals left as Canetti puts it. If this process is not stopped, they will disappear not only in the breath-taking habitats in this world. According to recent calculations, in the year 2020  between 10 per cent and 38 per cent of all species will be exterminated. The reason for this process is the irresponsible way of life in the industrial countries. In addition to that, it is a pervert process that turkeys, hens, pigs and cattle can hardly be seen in  fields, but in slaughterhouses and animal factories their numbers have dramatically increased. Is the lacking presence of animals in theology and preaching the consequence or also a reason for this catastrophe? These questions will be dealt with in another context.

Necessary Questions

We want to focus on the promising consequences of a new esteem of our fellow creatures in spirituality and theology. The following issues were dealt with in different workshops during a meeting in 2014:

1. The psychiatrist and therapist Bert te Wildt from Bochum regards the present world as being characterized by ”a collective relocation of people into the world of media”. According to him it is the next stage of development of man after civilization. It is a change possibly more radical than the revolution caused by Gutenberg in the 15th century. As a developmental psychologist he sees the consequences of this process as follows:

“On average, children can differentiate between reality and virtuality not before being eight years old. When they are exposed to the contents of cyberspace at a too early stage, the children’s  the inner psyche is colonised from the outside.” (translation of an excerpt from SZ, 13-11-2012, p. 16)

This analysis evokes fundamental theological and anthropological questions. In the context of a definition and explanation of a world in which nature is merely a façade and living things are downgraded to supernumeraries this relocation might not have any consequences. No matter if we admire nature in a cool and distant way and find sun, moon and stars in a way nice, or if we are in a world generated completely by artificial means, it will not make any difference then.

But what if nature is the distinctive and unique place of incarnation and furthermore the privileged place where God can be experienced? Is the God of the Jewish-Christian tradition to be found there as well? 

2. Are we bypassing the animals – as HAUSHOFER puts it – when falling into the abyss of cyberspace. Is not their special way of existence a nearly sacramental hint that for God, who is inconceivable to us, life is not predetermined for a specific purpose?

Do cows, dogs and all the other animals not represent anthropological constants that help us remember that earthly presence and animal nature are essentially human?

Should theology not become much more zoological? That means the quality of being alive should be the basis for reflection and be its constant corrective factor.

3. Hence, is not there the need for the revitalization of poetry alongside with the scientific language and the recognition of theological figures of thought? There is the need for a language which expects and detects the UNIVERSAL UNITY even in the smallest things and relates us with everything alive instead of keeping it away from us.

Is it not high time for Christian communities, which are rediscovering their prophetic existence, to find alternative models to alienation from nature, industrial farming of animals, and desertification? Should they not rediscover a lifestyle, a celebration tradition, and a food culture which dignify and value creation highly? What is the role of catechesis, liturgy and Religious Education in this process?

Should we not overcome anthropocentrism not being in accordance with the bible before it is too late?

From MATTHEW FOX, Creation Spirituality:

From the secularization of everything to resacrilization of all things.

From complacency to compassion

From overly institutional religion to living mysticism.

From an anthropocentric and nondemocratic capitalism to an earth-centered economics.

From an “I think therefore I am” philosophy to a “creation begets therefore we are” philosophy.

Last but not least: MARLENE HAUSHOFER again:

As usual, the abyss was dark and damp, nothing had changed. It was slightly drizzling and a soft fog was hanging in the beech trees. Not a single salamander showed up. Most likely, they were sleeping under the damp stones. During this summer I had not seen any, only green and brown lizards on the mountain pasture. Once Tiger had bit one to death and had put it at my feet. He used to bring all his preys to me, such as giant grasshoppers, beetles, and shimmering flies. The lizard had been his first big success. Full of expectation, he glanced at me, the light mirrored golden yellow in his eyes. I was to praise and caress him. What else should I have done? I am neither the God of the lizards, nor of the God of cats. I am an outsider who should not interfere at all. Sometimes I cannot resist and play providence a bit when I save an animal from its certain death, or I hunt a wild animal because I need its meat. But the forest can easily cope with my bad job. One roe deer is growing up, another one is rushing into its doom. I am not a serious intruder. The nettles next to the stable will go on growing, even if I wipe them out a hundred times, and they will survive me. They have much more time than I have. Once I will have gone, and nobody will mow the pasture, the undergrowth will grow into it, and then the forest will spread to the wall and reclaim the land which man has taken from it. Sometimes my thoughts get confused and the forest seems to put down roots in my mind and to think its old and eternal thoughts in my brain.  

(Translation of an excerpt from MARLENE HAUSHOFER; Die Wand, pp. 184)