Is Christianity Animal-Friendly?

Kimberley C. Patton

In Review | Books The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity's Compassion for Animals, by Laura Hobgood-Oster. Baylor University Press, 230 pages, $19.95.

Building on her recent Holy Dogs and Asses: Animals in the Christian Tradition (2008), which aimed to recover the lost history of animals in Christianity, Laura Hobgood-Oster in her new book, The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity's Compassion for Animals, offers a passionate call to Christians to attend to animal suffering. A religion and environmental studies scholar, Hobgood-Oster reminds the Christian world of the long-standing mutual relationship between people and animals, and seeks to broaden narrow views of traditional Christian theology that would limit God's incarnation to Jesus alone—and his salvific regard only to human beings. "At its core," she asks, "is Christianity only about human beings?" (168).

In extending the range of the Incarnation, Hobgood-Oster takes a different tack than others before her. For example, the British trinitarian theologian Andrew Linzey focuses on the imperative of imitatio Dei in Christ's kenotic self-emptying for creatures lesser than himself; so we, following his example, need to serve animals. Animals, Hobgood-Oster says, have not only been chronic victims throughout Christian history, but have been a persistent presence in religiously meaningful ways, sanctified by divine regard. They are God's creatures, and our friends. They are therefore worthy not only of pity or compassion, but of the religious attention that comes with theological standing. Christian political energies are therefore rightly directed in liberating them from present-day systemic forms of abuse, such as factory farming, meat-eating, hunting, product research, thoroughbred horse racing, puppy mills, and dog fighting. The rubrics of friendship and hospitality, informed by her own relationships with particular beloved animals and by her extensive work as a rescue volunteer for abandoned and injured animals are her main platforms, and they are compellingly presented.

In Hobgood-Oster's vision, animals can be rehabilitated in Christianity as companions or even as angels. As with her previous book, The Friends We Keep has a historical project as well as theological and political ones, and covers much of the same territory. Hobgood-Oster claims feminist theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza's methodology, which she describes as making present "voices in the history of Christianity whose absence was simply assumed or whose presence was counted as insignificant" (xiii). As women have been recovered in Christian history, so should animals, she argues, since they are everywhere in the tradition, if one only looks close enough. On the one hand, this is hard to argue with; the lives of humans and animals in the ancient Mediterranean, like everywhere, were profoundly enmeshed. To appreciate this, one need only visit the reconstructed tenth-century Iron Age house in the Harvard Semitic Museum, with its first floor given over to pens for domestic animals and its second for family. This is almost certainly the archaeological foundation of Jephtha's vow to sacrifice to the Lord the first thing that came out of his house to greet him on his triumphal return: he expected it to be a sheep, not his only daughter. On the other hand, these animals were not "friends" or even nonhuman persons in the sense that today we might consider our pets, or even individual creatures in the wild. They were a source of food, milk, and clothing, and, occasionally, vehicles for devotion in the sacrificial cultus to maintain right human relationship with God.

It is always a utopian kind of challenge to recast an ancient religious tradition in a different image, since the tradition itself, from the time of its founding revelation to its long history of interpretation and lived religion, strains in the other, often deeply hierarchical direction—away from inclusivity and toward theologically justified oppression of one kind or another (of women, for example; of lower castes or slaves; of homosexuals or same-sex relationships; of children; of animals). This recasting can take at least three major forms. The first involves the "recovery" of ignored, marginalized, or suppressed strands within authoritative texts, as well as the mining of extracanonical texts, iconography, and especially mystical ideas to lift up what has been lost. This does indeed resemble a mining operation and is often spoken of as the search for "resources" within the (recalcitrant) tradition to support a new, more enlightened vision. The second type of recasting, related to the first, boldly reexamines the original revelation or earliest period in the tradition itself and argues that it was at its genesis egalitarian, refracting the illumined heart of God or the cosmos, but was tarnished and distorted by the deep prejudices and social machinery of the matrix in which it emerged, even in the first generation of exegesis that followed: a victim of the consciousness of its historical period and its "isms." The third, related to the first two but by far the most radical, aims for the heart of creedal theology, philosophy, or religious ideology and attempts to reframe it as other than how it has traditionally been understood in religious teaching.

Hobgood-Oster attempts to deploy all three approaches, with mixed success. Along the lines of historical recovery, she reminds us that Jesus was born among animals, dwelled with them in the wilderness for forty days, and used them to illustrate some of his most important imperatives in parables. Similarly, as she chronicles earlier in Holy Dogs and Asses, both Western and Eastern hagiographies are indeed replete with tales of deep relationships between saints and animals. The latter often recognizes the former's holiness in the coliseum (St. Perpetua) or in the desert (St. Gerasimos and the lion Jordanes): refusing to devour but feeding or being fed instead; being baptized (St. Paul's lion); becoming a form of spiritual askesis (St. Kevin's blackbird): or even burying the dead saint (St. Mary of Egypt). Even Martin Luther notes his little dog Tolpel's faithfulness in Table Talk. Churches from earliest times in Rome, Europe, and throughout the East, are decorated with images of animals participating in scenes of salvation history in countless frescoes, mosaics, and sculptures. In order to argue for these animals as crucial players, Hobgood-Oster must problematize the view that they are solely "symbolic" vehicles, repeatedly raising the possibility that such representations were informed by "real" animals. But this is a difficult position to maintain when it comes to religious traditions and their ideations. The ox and ass in the manger who breathe upon the infant Jesus do not appear until the ninth century, in an apocryphal gospel; the wild animals in the wilderness of Christ's temptation almost certainly are mentioned in the Gospels to emphasize its desolation rather than to give an account of a kind of primal symbiosis; the five sparrows sold for two denarii who are not forgotten by God (in Luke 12:6–7) contrast, at one end of a spectrum, with God's unending remembrance of his human children, at the other. Hobgood-Oster touches on this passage as "Jesus' reference to the value of sparrows to God" (108), but does not mention that the five sparrows are still sold and then ritually killed: these are the cheap offerings the poor can afford to buy outside the Jerusalem Temple and offer within, as was incumbent on them as observant Jews. (As Jonathan Klawans has shown in Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple, the fact that animals were cherished by shepherds does not mean they were not sacrificed; one sees the same trajectory with breast-fed family pigs in Melanesia.)

The dogs who "eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table," invoked by the Canaanite woman in her encounter with Jesus in Matthew 15, referenced in the book's opening, clearly represent the woman herself in a rhetorical response to Jesus' own mention of her people as "dogs." Hobgood-Oster's question, "might these dirty dogs be . . . real animals?" (2), is somewhat misleading and intellectually less than helpful; of course the "real" dogs of ancient Palestine inform the meaning-bearing dogs of the parable, but within their own context they remain tropes in the service of a larger theological agenda concerned with the human parameters of Jesus' salvific mission. The Irish St. Colman had a cock, a mouse, and a fly, whom he loved and who assisted him in his prayer life; when they died, he was heartbroken. But when he wrote to his friend St. Columba, Abbot of Iona, a quite heartless (to modern sensibilities) but thoroughly traditionally monastic, and Christian, response came back in reply: "There is neither lack nor loss where neither substance nor property is found." The hagiographer sided with Columba: "as though to question why a man of God, consecrated to supreme renunciation and to poverty, should set that heart on small things, which had renounced and spurned great things and high."1

In other words, Christianity is a tough customer for animal theologians and activists to redeem. It has a terrible history that is anything but "friendly" to animals. Throughout the book, Hobgood-Oster takes strong issue with the common perception of Christianity's "anthropocentrism"; but she does not acknowledge adequately that it is a reality and has been one for millennia, and it is not a conspiracy generated by a utilitarian disregard for animals. As in Holy Dogs and Asses, she holds "the Enlightenment" and Descartes' horrific view of animals as automata to blame, but this is an odd doorstep at which to lay blame for Christian disregard of animals as beings with inherent spiritual value. The author fails to acknowledge, and therefore to confront in a robust way, the doctrinal vectors that inevitably developed from Christian scriptural theological appropriation of Genesis: while God created every living thing, only human beings were created in the tselem elohim (image of God). It was the tarnished image of humans, not animals, that God came to restore in the Incarnation, as Athanasius explicated so eloquently in the fourth century—and Paul, Irenaeus, Jerome, and Origen before him. We may well wish this were not the case, but it is a problem to ignore it, no matter how noble the cause.

I would argue that Hobgood-Oster's magnanimous vision and its correlative moral imperatives find their greatest match in the views of Christian mystics throughout the centuries, in St. Isaac of Nineveh's compassionate, theomorphic heart that burns "even for the lizards"; in Margery Kempe's assimilation of the suffering of a beaten draft horse to Christ's own crucifixion; and in the "reverence for life" of Albert Schweitzer, who was far more of a Jain theologian than a traditional Christian one.2 But mystics in all religions have never hewed to hierarchies, and they have often been destroyed for it. Her project of recovery, reframing, and redemption of traditional Christianity surfaces far more tensions between a full existential or theological view of animals and Christianity than it can hope to resolve. Some of these tensions are productively reopened by her work; others are only exacerbated.


  1. For this story and the material quoted, see "St. Colman and the Cock, the Mouse, and the Fly," in Beasts and Saints, trans. Helen Waddell, ed. Esther De Waal (1934; Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996), 127–130.
  2. I discuss historical Christian mystical affirmations of the theological worth and special witness of animals in my article " 'He Who Sits in the Heavens Laughs': Recovering Animal Theology in the Abrahamic Traditions," Harvard Theological Review 93:4 (2000): 401–434; many other scholars, including Hobgood-Oster herself, have done the same; the point remains that mysticism, even if derivative from orthodox tradition, is heterodox and nonparadigmatic.

Kimberley C. Patton, Professor of the Comparative and Historical Study of Religion at Harvard Divinity School, is the author of Religion of the Gods: Ritual, Paradox, and Reflexivity (2009) and The Sea Can Wash Away All Evils: Modern Marine Pollution and the Ancient Cathartic Ocean (2006). Among the several books she has co-edited is A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics (2006).