Book Review: Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Animal Suffering: Ancient Voices in Modern Theology.

Dr Christina Nellist has written the first book on Eastern Orthodox theology on the subject of animal suffering and human soteriology and I am delighted to recommend it to you.

Currently the modern Eastern Orthodox Church is undergoing much public debate on the subject of the environment and how Orthodox teachings shed light on today’s environmental issues. As Christina points out, the huge subject of animal suffering is largely ignored in the debate, despite there being many biblical and patristic texts supporting the compassionate treatment of animals. Christina’s book expertly addresses this issue and fills this gap.

Dr Nellist is uniquely qualified to do this, as she is an Eastern Orthodox theologian who specialises in animal suffering and human soteriology and is a visiting Early Career Fellow in the Department of Theology, Religion & Philosophy at the University of Winchester. She is the founder of the charity Pan-Orthodox Concern for Animals and has worked on stray dog control with the chief veterinary officers of Chile and the Seychelles.

The book has many similarities to Dr Deborah Jones’ book ‘The School of Compassion’, which addresses the issue of the treatment of animals in the Catholic tradition and I would recommend both books as providing considerable enlightenment on what the Bible and the patristic and canonical texts actually do say about our relationship with animals.

After providing a brief introduction to animal suffering in the first chapter, Dr Nellist goes on to explore the ancient voices of the old and new testaments and then those of the saints. After that, she presents her practical research which includes a Cyprus Case Study and interviews with modern-day leaders of the Orthodox Church, to understand how the Orthodox Church is perceived in relation to its engagement with the issue of animal suffering. The results are not good for the Orthodox Church.

A brief overview:

According to Christina, the patristic tradition is noted for its frequent references to ‘the Creation’ and ‘all things’ and it teaches that there is sin in the misuse of creation. Rather than holding the view that the Creation was made for man’s use, it teaches that God cares for his whole creation and in making humans in his image, expects them to do the same. She argues that dominion is understood as stewardship rather than domination. The creation is not man’s to use and abuse, but to care for and live in harmony with.

In Genesis, the perfect creation is described in Eden, where humans, non-humans and the whole garden live in peace and harmony. It is this prelapsarian age that we must strive to return to, not the world after the Fall and the time of Noah, where God had to give concessions to men with hardened hearts. We should be striving for the Peaceable Kingdom aspired to by the later prophets. It is notable that the diet God provides in Eden is a vegan one.

It is noted by St Irenaeus that only humans sinned while the rest of creation continued in their perfect state, submitting to the will of God, whilst man went astray. All creatures know God and praise Him in all they do. The saints are exemplars of how to aspire to live as Image of God in their holy lives which often included living with and rescuing animals. They condemned the cruelties to animals they saw around them, both for the soteriological effect it had on humans but also for the sake of the creatures themselves.

Cruelty to animals exists on a huge scale today and according to Aiden Hart, the designer of the icon on the front cover, it ‘not only causes physical suffering to the victims but also introduces a tragic dissonance to this cosmic hymn. Such behavior is therefore a sin not only against the animals, for it is also a failure of us humans to be conductors of the Eucharistic choir’. Aiden Hart’s icon on the front cover depicts ‘Christ Breaking the Bonds of Animal Suffering’. The full icon depicts Christ in the midst of Creation, with saints Irenaeus and Isaac standing at his side and is more fully explained in the book.

Dr Nellist is successfully getting animal welfare onto the agenda of the Orthodox Church. In her book she has demonstrated three things:

1. That there are gaps between Eastern Orthodox literature and academic debate on the subject of animal welfare, and also between the posited theory and the practice of the Eastern Orthodox Church at both senior and parish levels. This was revealed by her research, described in the book. 2. The development of an Eastern Orthodox theology for animals. 3. That animal abuse has soteriological implications for humanity.

One cannot do such a wonderful work justice in a short review such as this. However, I will summarize by saying that this is an excellent book with well reasoned arguments and should be adopted by the Eastern Orthodox Church as ‘the’ guide to reintroducing early Church teachings on care for the Creation into modern day teaching and practice. It is also highly relevant to Catholic and indeed all Christian communities who share a common history with the Eastern Orthodox Church. I thoroughly recommend this book.

Cambridge Scholars Publishing – ISBN 978-1-5275-1602-1

Barbara Gardner is editor of Catholic Concern for Animal’s journal The Ark.