Christina Nellist’s ‘Eastern Orthodox Christianity And Animal Suffering:Ancient Voices in Modern Theology’ Reviewed By Nikolaos Asproulis

Due to its strong liturgical, or rather meta-historical vision, the Orthodox Church often expresses an ambiguity towards its engagement with historical and social affairs, focusing instead on the transfiguration of the present aeon through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. That being said, one should not fail to point also to those few voices, either of clergy or lay people, who dare, following the example of the great Church Fathers of the past, to dialogue with the challenges posed by (post)modernity—not by rejecting the patristic character and liturgical/Eucharistic nature of the Church, but by robustly elaborating a theology of life and practice relevant for the needs of the world today.

In this light Christina Nellist’s study of Eastern Orthodoxy and animal suffering cannot but be received as a welcome surprise. It is the first scholarly book on this topic from an Orthodox point of view, although clearly influenced by the increasing concern in the broader world regarding ecological issues. Indeed, while this topic has been long debated in secular and other Christian contexts, the Orthodox now face the difficulty of responding to this challenge. In the introduction, the author presents her overarching hypothesis that Eastern Orthodoxy has the means, resources, and sufficient teachings to articulate a clear vision on the topic, something that she develops in detail in the subsequent chapters.

Christina Nellist’s Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Animal Suffering, reviewed by Nikolaos Asproulis
ISBN: 978-1527541269
Published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing on January 1, 2020
Language: English
Pages: 436

From the very beginning, the author’s basic concern is to highlight the soteriological consequences for those who abuse animals in any way. Nellist strongly criticizes aspects of the Orthodox tradition that do not take seriously into account the suffering of animals, pointing to a “gap,” “lack of clarity,” or “ambiguity” between theory (debate about the care of the environment) and practice (addressing animal suffering). For example, in chapter 1 and particularly chapter 5, she illustrates this “gap” with a field research study in Cyprus, in order to substantiate her argument for the indifference of the majority of the Orthodox toward animal suffering. The results of this research are quite striking—for one thing, that among the Orthodox the matter of whether animals have souls is still an open question! In contrast to this modern mentality, the tradition of the Church provides considerable material for establishing a comprehensive theology of compassion for animals. According to this tradition, put forth in details in chapters 2–4, there is a clear vision of a God who created the world and everything in it through love. By no means could such a loving God create any creature in order for it to suffer. Thus, “something is seriously wrong in the way the animals are used” (315). Here Nellist challenges the still current and sometimes one-sided radical anthropocentric view of creation which has led to all these catastrophic results.

In chapter 3, the author provides a Christological account of animal suffering based on patristic resources to argue that everything in creation, including animals, will be recapitulated in Christ in the eschaton. This understanding points to the sacred character of creation in its entirety, in other words to the latent but clear “ontological connection” between all creatures, often forgotten in our (ab-)use of animals (not to mention human beings as well).

It is uncontested that the goal of Christian life is deification, theosis, in other words our adoption by God the Father in Christ through the Spirit. It is clear then that theosis is a gift from God. At the same time, however, theosis is a result of the human podvig (ascetic struggle) in history, a synergy with the grace of God towards the transfiguration, as we “sacrifice our fallen nature, with its self-indulgent sinful passions” (87) and of commending creation into the hands of the Creator. One cannot profess this and at the same time ignore the “rights” of all God’s creatures to be saved, even though this should be done through the priestly role of the human being and not directly as the author’s argument seems to imply. It is true that in the Christian tradition “humans are favoured over the non-human creation” (321) often due to humans’ rationality or other faculties and skills. Undoubtedly, such a view has contributed to the present-day irreversible ecological catastrophe of our planet. This does not mean, though, that humanity should be deprived of its central, although compassionate role.

In chapter 4, Nellist builds on the importance of “Christ-like love” on the part of humans “for all of His created beings” (322), stressing in this way the “ontological link” between humans and the rest of the created world. Along these lines, she points to “exemplars” (e.g. saints) of “compassionate and violence-free lives” (322), especially with regards to the abuse of animals. Not only does the tradition provide us with certain exemplars of this compassionate and loving attitude towards all the creatures of God, but also—although still the minority—certain voices of contemporary Hierarchs (chs. 6–7) who speak about “a cosmic dimension” of sin or a “mortal sin” (Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, 222, 128) and “ecological sin” (Metropolitan John Zizioulas, 220; cf. Rom. 8:19). These figures call for a different ethos that expresses compassion, care, and love toward all creatures.

Quite interesting for a wider audience is chapter 8, where the author makes use of various secular scientific views (including ethology and economics) in order to challenge the traditional philosophical and theological views that distinguish between the superior human being and the inferior animals on account of certain abilities (language, cognition, etc.) attributed exclusively to human beings. Here we must raise a concern. Following certain developments of modern science, the author asserts that any difference between the creatures of God is a matter of degree. While this is true, and one has to admit certain misunderstandings of the role of humanity throughout history, one should avoid the danger of reductionism, which deprives humanity of its unique responsibility and role. On the one hand, the image of God with which humanity is endowed should also include all creatures due to the ontological connection between them (as well as to their common animalhood, which raises the question of to what extent the image of God partakes of animality). On the other hand, Christ himself became man, not an angel or any other creature, in order to save the world. One clearly needs to put away the “separationist ethos” implied in a false theological anthropocentrism, while retaining theologically the uniqueness of the specifically human vocation. In other words, what is at stake here is the very role and position of the human being within creation. Without being a master and possessor of creation, or being totally disconnected from the latter (false anthropocentrism), the human being should remain the primary agent of God in the image of Christ for the salvation of the world, and ecotheology should take this uniqueness into account.

The last chapter (9) is characterized by the author herself as the most challenging since it calls into question our daily practice, calling for a formulation of a new, deeply practical and not primarily theoretical ethos. By questioning the current animal food production system and the animal testing model, the author highlights the view that perceives animals as “resources, units of production or ‘disposable life’, rather than created beings with individual needs” (337). This runs strikingly counter to our worldview and lifestyle, but it is more or less based on the time-honored Christian tradition, which for centuries has provided concrete holy examples of a different way of life that respects and cares about all creatures in view of the coming Kingdom of God.

Such a book could not end without concrete suggestions put forward by the author. This is not a merely theoretical study, but a practical guide that seeks to present a concrete way of life, based on the foundations of our faith, and to challenge our customs and prejudices. To the question of “what we as individuals and as leaders of our Church can do” about animal suffering (345), Nellist points to prayer, engagement, stepping out into the secular world, teaching, and suggesting concrete alternatives to scientists and the food production system that will reverse the current situation of everyday animal abuse, giving hope that all creatures count in God’s eyes and are worthy of salvation.

Nellist has written a powerful and passionate book. It is suitable not only for theologians, philosophers, and scientists, but is also recommended for those who cannot tolerate animal suffering, who take their Christian identity seriously and desire to work alongside of God for the care, the “rights,” and the salvation of “all the things” within creation, including of course animals. It is not a matter of rationality or statistics, but of an ethos, a new culture, a new way of life implied in the very core of the Christian Gospel: the compassionate, loving relationship between God, human beings, and all creatures as it is foretasted in the Eucharist and will be fully realized in the eschaton.

Dr. Nikolaos Asproulis
Deputy Director, Volos Academy for Theological Studies
Lecturer, Hellenic Open University