DOMINION, STEWARDSHIP, PRIESTHOOD – THE THEOLOGICAL MODELS OF HOW HUMANS RELATE TO ANIMALS. A paper given by Natalia Doran at the animal theology session of the recent IOTA conference.

In terms of the relationship between humans and animals, three models can be discerned in Christian theology: dominion, stewardship and priesthood. The aim of this essay is to critique the unlikely target of the stewardship model, but in order to put the discussion in context, a few words are needed about the other two as well.

The dominion model is based on the verses in the book of Genesis that give Man, or the Human, dominion over the fish in the sea, the fowl in the air, and the land-living animals. It is never interpreted, at least not by theologians, in such a way as to justify wanton cruelty or greed, but the concept does exist, and the interpretation falls, broadly speaking, into two categories: hard and soft dominion, as it were.

Hard dominion presupposes:
– a hierarchy of creation, (Neoplatonic, or Dionysian, hierarchy of mineral-plant-animal-human-angelic), with humans very much at the top the material creation,
– an absolute metaphysical divide between humans and animals, 
– an instrumental approach to animals (the assumption that animals were created for the sake of humans and can therefore be used for human needs), 
– and, consequently, an absolute priority of human interests over those of animals. 
This approach can be instantiated by Roger Scruton in the Protestant tradition, and Tristram Engelhardt in the Orthodox one.

Soft dominion can maintain all the above presuppositions, but stands the themes on their heads. It can allow for the hierarchy of material creation with Man at the top, but reminds us that, in the Christian tradition, the higher serves the lower, the logic being “whoever is greatest among you will be your servant”. This is the basis of Andew Linzey’s generosity theory. Professor Lynzey argues that human morality works on the principle of the ethical priority of the weak (women and children get on the life-boats first), and if we consider ourselves to be somehow “better” or “higher” that the animals, we should prioritize their interests. In the Orthodox tradition the same idea is contained in a “desert story” about the great Russian mystic St Sergius of Radonezh. St Sergius had a bear for a companion, whom he fed. One day, when food in the monastery was scarce, St Sergius was seen still feeding the bear. People told him, “Whoever heard of taking monks’ food and giving it to the bear?” To which he replied, “Whoever heard of a bear fasting?” The idea being that if we consider ourselves to be somehow better than the bear, we ought to be able to sublimate our hunger, for example into an ascetic practice, whereas the bear would just go hungry.

Soft dominion blends, more or less, into the concept of stewardship, teaching that we should love and care for God’s creation. Stewardship is the model of choice in a large part of modern Christian discourse. Many Christian organisations that champion animal welfare routinely use this word.

A note of caution is sounded, however, by no less of an authority – for the Orthodox, in any case, than Bishop John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon. While acknowledging that stewardship is certainly preferable to the kind of interpretation of dominion that leads to the exploitation of nature, he nonetheless points out two main limitations, or disadvantages of the stewardship model. The first one is what Bishop John calls a “managerial” approach, treating nature as an object to be managed. The second one is a “conservatist” attitude (once again, Bishop John’s term), attempting to preserve nature in a given state, an “unrealistic, and in some cases even undesirable” project. These reservations are worth a closer look, because they are not just theoretical concerns on the part of an eminent theologian, but real problems in conservation that lead to early and violent deaths for numerous animals.

The “managerial” character of the stewardship model can result in a conservation paradigm that rather arrogantly assumes that nature cannot manage itself, and needs humans to manage it, a kind of “white man’s burden”, but in relation to nature. In practice it often means killing, or “culling” individual animals who are deemed to be too numerous for the ecosystem, in the name of helping the ecosystem. The killing is said to be humane, because the animals die quickly.

One typical example of this type of conservation in action is the killing of animals in London Royal Parks. Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, Regents Park, St James’ Park, etc., are some of the most iconic urban open spaces in the entire world. Londoners and tourists go there to relax, to reconnect with nature, and to meet the animals, from the more unusual deer and parakeets to the more common pigeons, geese and squirrels – actually, the latter are the most popular animals with the tourists. However, as a Freedom of Information request by the animal protection organisation Animal Aid revealed, the very animals whom visitors photograph and admire are killed in exceptionally high numbers. (1) In an official statement from the Royal Parks authorities the killing is justified by appealing to the need for balancing out and managing the ecosystem. The justification sounds plausible, but is nonetheless ethically problematic, because it rests on at least three questionable assumptions. 

1 – The first questionable assumption is that ecosystems, or species, or biotic communities, are more important than individual animals, and that individual animal lives can therefore be sacrificed for their sakes. This assumption does not take due notice of animal sentience. The reason animals are accorded special moral consideration at all is because they are sentient. But the characteristic of sentience is predicated not of species or ecosystems, but of individual animals. It is not the ecosystem that feels fear or pain, but an individual animal. In this sense ecosystems are secondary: they have moral value inasmuch as individuals flourish in them, they are a means to an end. And if we then destroy individuals, for the sake of whom the ecosystems exist, in order to preserve the ecosystem, we are putting the ethical cart before the horse.

2 – The second questionable assumption is that there is no difference between our positive moral obligations, what we should do, the “do”s, and negative moral obligations, what we should avoid doing, the “don’t”s. Animals kill each other, they suffer from environmental factors, they outcompete each other. We cannot carefully balance out the ecosystem to stop all that, and it is irrational to even try. But it is realistic for us to aspire not to harm – either the ecosystem as a whole, or individual animals. So when we kill hundreds upon hundreds of animals in the name of “helping the ecosystem” it is morally counter-productive: we are taking on a positive moral obligation to balance out and manage, which is not realistic and not even strictly speaking ours to take on, while violating a negative moral obligation not to harm, which is both realistic and ours to follow.

3 – The third questionable assumption is that the killing is “humane” if the death is quick and painless. In terms of environmental science, “death is not a welfare issue”. This attitude leaves unanswered the argument from foreclosed life opportunities for the individual animals. If there is goodness in the animal’s life to do be had, and it does not come about, it is, precisely theologically speaking, a serviceable definition of evil.

Going back to Bishop John’s reservations about the stewardship model, it is its “managerial” character, one could argue, that results in these ethical problems. His second reservation, the “conservatism” one, is even more serious.

The first problem is a practical one: the desire to go back to, and maintain, some kind of ideal past “golden age” state of nature sets Man on a collision course with Nature itself. Nature does not stand still, it changes all the time. It is surprisingly resilient, and can even deal with the ecological mess we create, although not always in the way we would like it to or expect it to. This Man versus Nature conflict in conservation is exemplified by the current irrational dislike for alien species. The mantra is very much “native good, alien bad”. It is irrational, because it is purely a question of fashion. In the 19th century the fashion was the opposite, it was fashionable to collect animals from all parts of the world and try to establish them on other continents. It was called acclimatization. Now the pendulum of fashion has swung in the opposite direction and, at least as far as traditional conservation is concerned, alien species are public enemy number one, regardless of their actual ecological impact. This attitude costs millions of animals their lives, and costs millions in money for the tax-payer, who is forced to pay for eradication programmes that target the species that are simply the most successful and can adapt to our economic activities and even our ecological mess.

In terms of theory, and precisely theology, the “conservatist” character of the stewardship model is also highly problematic. The idea that we fell from a state of perfection to which we now have to return is not an Orthodox one (St Maximus the Confessor explains this at length, for example). We fell from a state of potentiality, if anything, and “restoring a past golden age” either for ourselves or for the Creation that we were put in charge of cannot be part of the Christian agenda.

This theological lack of clarity seems to be symptomatic of the stewardship model as a whole. It is certainly better to look after God’s Creation than to exploit it, but the idea of stewardship is, for all that, theologically almost vacuous. It has a lot of intellectual safety in it, but its practical outworking, even the benign (non-culling) kind, has nothing specifically Christian about it: we can be taking care of God’s Creation, or serving Mother Earth, or following any kind of secular agenda; our actions would be the same. And it remains obvious that even if we do manage to stop all abuse and exploitation of animals, they will still kill each other and die of disease, “nature red in tooth and claw” has not been abolished. In a world created by a loving God.

This dilemma can only be answered by the third theological model of how humans relate to animals, i.e. the priesthood one. Unlike the intellectually safe area of stewardship, this model is highly speculative. But the need for priesthood in relation to nature has been articulated, most famously by Bishop John (Zizioulas). What brings this essay to its conclusion is an attempt to sketch a picture of what that model might look like, an attempt based on the writings of modern theologians: Bishop John (Zizioulas), Panayotis Nellas and Bishop Anthony of Sourozh, as well as traditional giants of classical Christian metaphysics: St Maximus the Confessor, Dionysius the Areopagite and the Cappadocian fathers.

One way of introducing the priesthood model would use the Dionysian/Neoplatonic hierarchy of Creation that was mentioned at the beginning: mineral-vegetable-animal-human. If we consider every tier of this hierarchy, we notice that humans consist of the same chemical elements as the rocks, have nutrition and growth like plants, have feelings and movement like animals, as well as their own specific features. This enables theologians to speak of Man as a microcosm, we have in us everything that is found in the rest of the material Creation. Furthermore, we have the cognitive capacity for abstract thinking, which allows us to conceive of Creation as a whole and refer it to God in the act of Eucharist, and then receive it back from God as transfigured life that, through us, can pass back to the rest of the material Creation. Here the word priest is used in its primary meaning of mediator with the Divine.

Another way of expressing the same idea would make use of St Maximus’ famous concept of logoi. In his system of thought, there are logoi of individuals, of species, of genera, and they all find their unity in the one Logos of Christ. These logoi are not just empty universals, they are, as one theologian put it, “invitations to relation”, something that connects us organically with the rest of Creation: we are material objects, we are living beings, we are sentient creatures. This gives Man the capacity to recapitulate the World and to provide a link between the material and the immaterial in the grand Cosmic Liturgy. According to St Maximus, this is our destiny.

The above statement is a very lofty one indeed. But it is worth noting that many Fathers, from the very beginning of the formulation of classical theology, have seen Man as the bridge between the material and the Divine. Which suggests that the priesthood model, although very challenging in terms of academic theology, is the only one that can do justice to the subject of who we are and how we relate to animals.

1 – The Freedom of Information process also revealed that no scientific assessment of the parks’ carrying capacity has been undertaken and that non-lethal methods of population control, though mentioned in policy statements, are not employed.