Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Great Christian Mind: John Wesley

Sadly enough, the history of Christianity and its teachings have not been very kind or flattering to the animal kingdom. I became increasingly aware of this through my high school years and into college as I became more active in my faith. Humans were created in the image of God and animals on the other hand are worthless, soulless machines given to us by God to use in whatever way we see fit. I remember sermons, speakers, and the comments of other Christians who made light of and even seemed to take joy in the idea of killing animals, eating them, or causing them to go extinct. Needless to say, this disturbed me greatly. Not only did it disturb me but it struck at my core as being fundamentally wrong. Most frustrating of all was the isolation and aloneness I felt. It seems that very few Christians seem to understand what appears to me to be a very obvious truth.

Now, I do not reject the teaching that humans were created imago Dei nor am I denying that there is a clear difference between humans and animals in their capabilities and value. However, I do not and never have accepted that just because humans are God's image bearers, animals must be as worthless and have no value at all. I've never understood that extreme. I see God as an artist and in everything that an artist creates, he puts himself into his artwork, into his creation. If animals were also created by God, then God put a bit of Himself into them as well. How could someone look at a horse and not believe God placed a sparkle of His own majesty, beauty, and nobility into it? How could someone look at a dog and not see the image of God's faithfulness and companionship? Whatever differences there are between humans and animals, it is very clear that animals, especially higher mammals are sentient, feel emotion, possess intelligence, and feel pain which by any standard of ethics, Christian ethics no less so, demands a necessity for moral and compassionate treatment.

John Wesley was one of the few prominent Christian voices of his time to preach this view. I found a copy of his sermon titled "General Deliverance." Here is a link to it for those who may be interested:

What really makes Wesley unique is not the fact that he argued for the humane treatment of animals and against the tyranny and unjust rule of man....

Is the gene
rous horse, that serves his master’s necessity or pleasure with unwearied diligence, — is the faithful dog, that waits the motion of his hand, or his eye, exempt from this? What returns for their long and faithful service do many of these poor creatures find? And what a dreadful difference is there, between what they suffer from their fellow-brutes, and what they suffer from the tyrant man! The lion, the tiger, or the shark, gives them pain from mere necessity, in order to prolong their own life; and puts them out of their pain at once: But the human shark, without any such necessity, torments them of his free choice; and perhaps continues their lingering pain till, after months or years, death signs their release.

...but he views about the original condition of the animal kingdom and his vision of its restoration and improvement in the New Kingdom to come.

What, if it should then please the all-wise, the all-gracious Creator to raise them higher in the scale of beings? What, if it should please him, when he makes us “equal to angels,” to make them what we are now, — creatures capable of God; capable of knowing and loving and enjoying the Author of their being? If it should be so, ought our eye to be evil because he is good? However this be, he will certainly do what will be most for his own glory.

The whole brute creation will then, undoubtedly, be restored, not only to the vigour, strength, and swiftness which they had at their creation, but to a far higher degree of each than they ever enjoyed. They will be restored, not only to that measure of understanding which they had in paradise, but to a degree of it as much higher than that, as the understanding of an elephant is beyond that of a worm. And whatever affections they had in the garden of God, will be restored with vast increase; being exalted and refined in a manner which we ourselves are not now able to comprehend. The liberty they then had will be completely restored, and they will be free in all their motions. They will be delivered from all irregular appetites, from all unruly passions, from every disposition that is either evil in itself, or has any tendency to evil. No rage will be found in any creature, no fierceness, no cruelty, or thirst for blood. So far from it that “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain.” (Isaiah 11:6.)

What an immensely beautiful and interesting thought. I am especially fascinated with Wesley's belief that animals would be given human intellect in heaven and the new earth. I can't help but think of the talking beasts of Narnia, who may have represented the ideal state of animals, who were chosen out of the "dumb beasts" and could return to that state if they engaged in evil. Narnia, of course, was conceived by C.S. Lewis, who was another great animal-loving Christian thinker. It's ironic that many Christians who love and appeal to Lewis, do not actually understand some of the more "radical" ideals he held that did not align with traditional Christianity.

What I also love about this concept is that it provides some answers into the question of animal suffering, a topic that, disturbingly, many Christians seem unconcerned about.

I am very thankful for the few enlightened thinkers of God who were able to understand this vision, this truth, despite being taught otherwise in most cases. St. Francis who not only believed in the stewardship of nature and the kinship of animals, but believed the gospel applied to all of God's creatures. John Wesley as just mentioned. William Wilberforce who not only was a pioneer in the abolitionist movement to end slavery, but also established his own humane organization to preserve the ethical treatment of animals. C.S. Lewis who not only had the audacity to commit such offensive blasphemy by illustrating the Christian story and even Christ himself through the image of talking animals, but who also addressed the issue of animal suffering in relationship to a loving God. It is nice to know that I am in good company.