Saturday 3 October 2009

About Caring About Animals

The Church Times has an open article relating to Animal Welfare Sunday from Andrew Linzey. Personally I endorse the sentiment and direction of the piece, so my criticisms are of detail, method and then rather considerable whilst accepting the ethical purpose of his piece.

Andrew Linzey writes:

Long before Darwin and the discoveries of evolution, Francis grasped that divine love establishes a kinship between all living things.

Is there an implied relationship between the two? I suggest that, whatever relationship we as sentient creatures and self-aware creatures generate with other animals, the mechanisms of Darwin and what Darwin didn't know have nothing to do with either divine love or otherwise. All Darwin suggested was a possible tree of life, and what we now know is that there is a tree of life - for example, the eye evolved once, starting as light sensitive cells, and pausing as such in creatures at levels of development, and demonstrates that evolution goes across species, and we are all interconnected. Switching cells demonstrates the same. But divine love is nothing to do with this, nor (for that matter) any divine plan. There is a possibility that evolution, that is decided in the particular time and place of a local environment, and thus constitutes an unknown chaotic system, nevertheless is a system of boundaries (as climate is to unpredictable weather) but no one has got there yet. And it won't need notions of divinity.

Andrew Linzey must be absolutely right about the poverty of insight of liturgical prayers regarding swine flu, given the intense 'husbandry' (what a funny word) where these viruses are born. But as regards the RSPCA provided liturgies, it does annoy me that the web based accessible presentations are copy protected. I am saying this (again) as someone who wants to respect and protect intellectual property. Of course you can break the copy restrictions, and I admit I have done so and this is because sometimes we can only take part of such useful liturgical texts into other services, or to just do some thorough reworking off the text - whilst giving full recognition to the original author and original intention. Clearly in a case of using the words in a whole service and changing elements permission needs to be asked, but there are practical rules about this as established in the academic community. Clearly if the direction and meaning of these texts is altered, so that the animal rights approach becomes something else, then there is a violence being done to the original. Here the relationship with the original gets severed - and the changes then ought to be thorough - but even then the original still needs to be recognised. I just don't see how making a text protected helps any of this in a world of presenting, using, recreating.

Part of my (perhaps thin-skinned) response to this is because I also relate to a Unitarian community where a past tradition was of evolving liturgical texts as beliefs changed, and one text so changed was the Book of Common Prayer. Other texts not based on that were nevertheless derived from its appearances - and that's the sort of change where the relationship with the original becomes severed despite origins. Anyway, copy protecting does not copy protect, even in a .PDF where there is no accessible source code.

I wonder too about using someone like John Henry Newman for part of what he says about animals when the rest of what he says is rather regular for the time. Of course Andrew Linzey recognises this (and there are parallels to selecting some liturgy and making it more your own with some distortion from the whole original!). And I am puzzled still about this 'Christlike' suffering statement. It seems to me that this is something of a construction. There are passages around Jesus that are animal-unfriendly, and what is 'Christlike' should surely refer (again, this point) more to the whole text rather than some. As for history, there needs to be reconstruction: being a loyal observant Jew of his time, Jesus will have participated in liturgical and ritual animal slaughter, and the story of the swine racing away the demons to their own horrible deaths has perhaps the wrong parallels with swine crowded together being 'hotbeds for pathogens'.

Unlike Andrew Linzey, I have never really believed that the story of Jesus is a foundation for animal welfare, and I think it has to be found elsewhere: with notable exceptions like St Francis, the narrative of animal welfare is generally to be found outside Christianity.

Still, he is right about the changes going on, of which he is a prime mover after all: the curate of the Anglican church I attend initiated a pets worship service and as such there is something of a revolution of attitudes from below, at least relating to a Church timescale (which, for so many ethical matters, seems to be going into a deep pit). Change is always possible and new resources and narratives can come about. I just wonder how sustainable they are. It indicates to me just how important Andrew Linzey's efforts are, institutionally at least.

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