Part 1 of the interview is here
What has been the response to the book and its ideas so far?
It’s too early to say much about the response to the book, but I have been writing and lecturing on the ideas behind it for some years. When I set out, I assumed that evangelical Christians, including ‘Reformationals’, would be the most interested, and would recognise themselves in their 'nonconformist' heritage of animal advocacy. However, with a few notable exceptions, I found that evangelicals, including most Reformationals, were indifferent at best to biblical teaching on animal ethics. Indeed, the strongest opposition I have met has come from some fellow evangelical Christians, especially those in North America who embrace a hunting ideology. Paradoxically, it was secular academics and Christians outside the evangelical tradition who showed most interest.
Sadly, I have also regularly met people over the years who have become alienated from the gospel as a result of ‘dominion’ teaching about animals. In view of the rapid growth in animal ethics (for example the meteoric rise of ethical veganism), this is likely to become a major obstacle to evangelism in the future. As one vegan friend put it on hearing a modern evangelical account of human ‘dominion’ over the animals, “why would I want to learn more about such a cruel religion?” As I argue in my book, biblical Christianity has historically inspired kindness and compassion towards animals, not cruelty.
There have recently been signs of change, as the work of Sarx
) and CreatureKind
) demonstrate. The Sarx
London Creature Conference in 2017 was the largest Christian engagement with animal issues since the nineteenth century, attracting nearly 200 participants from eight countries. The recent Christian Animal Advocate Connect Day tickets rapidly sold out; both Christians and non-Christians participated, indicating the growing recognition that the Christian gospel is good news for animals. CreatureKind
runs courses for churches to rediscover the biblical teaching about animals. I find these developments very encouraging signs that some Christians are reclaiming their 'nonconformist' heritage, and re-entering the historic mainstream.
How did you choose the selection of authors you examined?
Forming a source archive is a rather technical issue, but roughly speaking I began with the literature which describes, and tries to account for, the growth of animal ethics and advocacy from the seventeenth century onwards. This literature, by a range of authors from various backgrounds and intellectual traditions, identifies ‘nonconformists’, Puritans, Methodists, and eighteenth-century Anglican evangelicals as pioneers. This is paralleled by a corresponding literature about the growth of the environmental movement in the US. From this initial survey, it is possible to build a systematic archive based on institutional affiliation and textual interconnections. A common feature is a profound dependence upon the canonical biblical texts. For convenience, I refer to this archive as ‘nonconformist’, although it includes, for example, Clapham Sect Anglicans. These ‘nonconformists’ shared familial, intellectual, ecclesiastical and social networks over a period of several centuries, and they interact to a striking degree with one-another, or one-another’s texts. Thus, extra-textual criteria such as membership of the Westminster Assembly, association with the mid-seventeenth century ‘puritan’ movement or with the eighteenth-century evangelical revival would argue for inclusion. Similarly, intra-textual criteria include citations or quotations with approval of one author by another, as well as ‘intertextual’ referencing (including paraphrasing without acknowledgement) etc; these establish a network of purely literary interconnections.
So far as I am aware, no-one has suggested an alternative archive of comparable coherence. Of course, there are individuals from Thomas Tryon to Alexander Pope who opposed animal cruelty, but as the historian Keith Thomas observes, these were isolated voices. They do not show the same discursive consistency, nor were they associated with an institutional base, nor did they have a comparable impact upon animal welfare reform over several centuries. By contrast, ‘nonconformist’ discourse often appears in animal welfare pamphlets, animal advocacy books, parliamentary debate, and records of public meetings from the seventeenth century to the late nineteenth.
The resultant archive overlaps substantially with informal classifications such as ‘reformed evangelical’, or with on-line ‘Puritan’ libraries and collections of reprints such as those by the Banner of Truth. However, whereas those classifications and ‘libraries’ select texts for their doctrinal or edifying qualities, my archive is inclusive as described above. Thus, for example, Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor of the 1650s appears often in on-line libraries and has been reprinted by Banner of Truth in their Puritan Paperbacks series; Baxter’s The Poor Husbandman's Advocate to Rich Racking Landlords of 1691 does not. There are a number of reasons for this, not least that the latter text is more concerned than the former with the application of the gospel to social practices, and consequently does not attract the same ‘pietistic’ attention. Both of Baxter’s texts appear in my archive as they meet the criteria outlined above.
Once an archive has been established, it is possible to investigate how its texts structure discourse about animals. Naturally, one finds received, conventional opinions, but of particular interest are novel ways of speaking about animals, informed by the biblical canon rather than tradition or Greek philosophy. These more biblical ways of speaking enabled new things to be said about animals, and had a disproportionate impact upon social practices (law, animal welfare societies etc). This ‘disproportion’ may, of course, be seen in providential terms, as God’s honouring obedience to his gospel.
Were the views of the authors you examined in the majority, or were they the minority view? Were all the non-Conformists of the same mind regarding animals? Did any adopt a more anthropocentric approach?
‘Non-conformists’, as defined above, were in the minority in Europe during the entire period I discuss; the consensus teaching on animals was overwhelmingly Thomist. In mainland Northern Europe, the situation is complex, with a ‘nonconformist’ majority representation mainly limited to some German states and Swiss cities. In England and Scotland, 'nonconformists' were probably always in the minority numerically, but in terms of depth and consistency of biblical teaching, they were enormously influential, especially during the mid-seventeenth century and the ‘Evangelical Revival’; substantial influence continued until the late nineteenth century.
Within the ‘nonconformist' archive itself, we find a variety of views about animals, as is inevitably the case with any archive of texts. The ‘nonconformists’ were decidedly not all of the same mind, and I do not seek to probe behind their words to identify what some historians call a ‘nonconformist’ or ‘early modern mind’. I seek only to identify patterns of discourse in their (usually written) language about animals. Some, especially those such as John Owen who were thoroughly familiar with Greek authors, largely adopted Aristotle’s view of animals, often mediated by late scholasticism. They usually conformed to the then prevalent pragmatic view of animals. Others held an uneasy compromise between Thomist views, and more biblical perspectives. Yet others rejected all or part of their Thomist heritage in the light of their canonical biblical discoveries.
The discourse I focus upon was that most thickened by an intimate acquaintance with the biblical texts; it was this way of speaking which was able to say new things about animals. It could reach startling conclusions, radically at odds with the pragmatic views of contemporaries. Moreover, the ‘evangelical’ nature of their world-view introduced a performative aspect into their language; after all, they spent a lot of energy on sermons and commentaries which were intended to affect the way their readers and hearers lived. ‘Nonconformist' discourse about animals, as about all of life, was intended to do something as well as to describe something. In this, they succeeded to a remarkable degree, having a profound impact upon animal welfare reform. I discuss this in my essay The Ethics of Eating in Evangelical Discourse: 1600-1876 (in Ethical Vegetarianism and Veganism. Linzey A. & Linzey C. (eds). Routledge, 2018. pp 82-93)
The question whether any ‘nonconformists’ adopted a more anthropocentric approach is an interesting one. The modern literature commonly claims that ‘nonconformists’, like other Christians, were anthropocentric; that is to say, they put humankind (usually ‘mankind’) at the centre. As I discuss in my book, this is a curious claim. I know of no other discipline, outside the history of animal advocacy and environmentalism, which claims that ‘nonconformists’ were man-centred. After all, the majority were Calvinists, and Calvin is not known for his celebration of human autonomy. Even ‘Arminian’ authors such as John Wesley were thoroughly God-centred. The Westminster Confession, on which most subsequent nonconformist confessions were based, makes it meticulously clear that all creation belongs to God, and that both creation and providence find their chief end in the worship and declaration of God. Even a theologian such as John Owen, whose view of animals remained deeply influenced by Aristotle, was thoroughly theo-centric in his Calvinism; this should urge caution in identifying even a Thomist view as ‘anthropocentric’. I argue that the modern claim that ‘nonconformists’ were anthropocentric reflects a reading of their literature from within an Enlightenment ground-motif.
How did the misconception about the anthropocentricity of the Christian faith come about?
The misconception in its modern form dates from the later nineteenth century, and has complex roots. It is usually framed within an instrumental discourse which did not exist before the Enlightenment.
I think it is partly due to the persistence of Aristotelian thought through the teaching of Aquinas, partly a lack of familiarity with the literature of pre-twentieth century nonconformity, and partly a tendency to read phrases such as ‘animals were created for our use’ within an Enlightenment instrumentalism rather than a debate about whether God created to fulfil his own (supposed) needs. Christians of many traditions have rejected the idea that God is needy and dependent upon his creation, affirming that, to the contrary, ‘animals were created for our benefit’, not God’s. But this is a statement of a human lack of autonomy, and God’s fatherly care for us; it should not be read in a Kantian instrumentalist sense as though animals belonged to us, to do with as we wish. Even less, should it be read as ‘animals were created as ingredients’. The bible is quite clear that ‘the earth is the Lord’s’, that humans were not to kill or eat animals before the fall, and that cruelty is wickedness.
Some authors have argued that the modern representation of the Christian faith as anthropocentric is a distortion by a secular agenda. There may be some truth to this, but many Christians have themselves endorsed an anthropocentric view. Today, this is, I think, a major factor. Christians, especially evangelicals who claim most familiarity with Jesus and his revelation to us, commonly proclaim anthropocentrism as the biblical teaching. It is therefore not surprising if secular opinion takes them at their word. This seems associated with a narrowing down of the gospel to pietism during the twentieth century, to what Francis Schaeffer called ‘personal peace and affluence’. Happily, there are signs of change among younger Christians, but it is a tragedy that we have so squandered our heritage.
You mention Dooyeweerd a few times in the book - how did you get introduced to his philosophy?
As with many others in the UK, I first encountered Dooyeweerd’s work through Richard and Janice Russell who were members of the Ilkley Group. I found the recognition that the gospel demands our response in all of life refreshing, and the philosophical consistency attractive. However, I increasingly found many of its advocates (Richard and Jan excepted, of course) too disengaged from social and political reality, and sometimes from the text of the bible itself. Especially in my own field of animal ethics, it yielded rather thin gruel. Tony Garood, Alan and Elaine Storkey, and David Lyon showed me what a more biblically engaged path might look like. I have since tried to draw upon Dooyeweerd’s insights into modal disciplines and groundmotives, while thickening these insights from direct scriptural sources. My recent ‘ethics’ book is an example of this, and I try to discuss some of the wider issues in relation to the European philosophical tradition in my essay Humans, Animals and Others (Intersections in Christianity and Critical Theory. C. Falke (ed). Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Pp 120-134).
What other projects are you working on?
For the past seven years, Miriam and I have run a course for visiting scholars from mainline China who are studying at the local university. They are mainly English lecturers at Chinese universities, and realise that an understanding of English literature needs the context of its biblical setting. Entitled The Bible and Modern Western Culture, we cover a range of different aspects. This year’s lectures are about to begin, so we are preparing for that.
Over the next year or so, I hope to publish a series of short papers each dealing in detail with aspects raised in the ‘Ethics’ book. For example, a number of nineteenth-century authors, from Sarah Burdett or Frances Power Cobbe to Henry Salt, published animal advocacy texts which clearly drew on the ‘nonconformist' tradition, yet they are usually seen as inspired by an Enlightenment ‘humanism’. I would also like to find a mainstream publisher within the evangelical world for a book on ‘Animals and the Gospel’, explaining the lost 'nonconformist' tradition. Unhappily, I have so far found much less interest in my work among Christian than secular publishers.
What books are you reading at the moment?
A lot of my reading is dominated by research needs: seventeenth-century sermons and treatises, the works of the Clapham Sect members etc. Simply keeping up with the rapidly growing field of animal ethics takes most of my time. I occasionally find time for novels, and am currently finishing a Graham Greene.
What do you like to do for fun?
Miriam and I regularly visit art galleries in Europe or the U.S., and we see many of the exhibitions in London. When we travel, we enjoy seeking out good vegan and vegetarian restaurants - where once this was quite difficult, we are now often spoiled for choice. Miriam is a musician, and we enjoy going to concerts together, although less often than we would like. We both enjoy cinema and occasionally theatre; the cinema broadcasts of classic theatre, live or recorded, are great. We also enjoy the Hampshire countryside, visiting family and friends, growing and cooking vegetables, and following the vicissitudes of the England cricket teams.
Some of my friends are alarmed that, for relaxation, I sometimes listen to the excellent lectures on theoretical physics and mathematics now available from major university sites. I especially recommend Leonard Susskind’s lectures at Stanford University to anyone who has some background in mathematics. I recently fulfilled one of my ‘bucket-list’ aims to learn enough tensor analysis to get a finger-tip hold on Einstein’s General Theory. I discovered there a beauty in God’s creation which moved me to tears. ‘With all creation I sing, praise to the King of kings’.