From Animals on the Agenda: Questions about
Animals for Theology and Ethics, ed. Andrew Linzey and Dorothy
Yamamoto, Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1998, 137-143.
The divine lure attracts all, not just human, creatures and to it all
respond according to their degree of freedom.
How Does God's Providential
Care Extend to Animals?
Thomas Hosinski, C.S.C.
As an undergraduate I
majored in geology, with a special interest in palaeontology. One day
towards the end of the basic palaeontology course, deeply awestruck by my
professor’s summary of the different types of animals that had lived and
gone extinct, I asked him why all those animals had lived and died. Most
palaeontologists then and now would simply have told me that there is no
reason other than evolution’s ceaseless exploration of any possible form
of life and every possible niche for its survival. But I was studying at
a Catholic university and my professor was a man of deep religious faith;
he told me that my question was theological in character, not scientific,
and that he was not competent to give an answer beyond his conviction that
there is some deeper meaning to the history of life.
I narrate this incident
because for me it expresses several points which I wish to discuss.
First, the question of how divine providence may be bestowed upon animals
must be addressed in the broad context of the evolutionary history of life
on this planet, not just in the restricted context of animals presently
living. Whatever position we come to must take into account and test
itself against that evolutionary history, in which contingency, chance,
and the operation of blind natural forces apparently play a large role.
A second point we must
address is the undeniable ambiguity of nature. If there are experiences
of beauty and harmony that lead a William Paley to affirm that ‘it is a
happy world after all,’1
there are also experiences of pain, suffering, and horrible deaths that
lead a Charles Darwin to exclaim ‘What a book a devil’s chaplain might
write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel works
Part of the motivation for my question to my palaeontology
professor was a feeling for the magnitude of the suffering and death
represented by the evolutionary history of life. Any answer we give must
deal with this problem of suffering and evil.
Another subject that
any proposed answer to the question must consider is the relation of human
beings and our history to animals and the evolutionary history of life.
Evolutionary theory discloses that we humans are but one of countless
animal species, that we are creatures of the evolutionary development of
life on earth, that we are related to all other forms of life and
consequently are squarely within nature, not above it. We can no longer
assume that there is some immense gulf separating humans from animals,
some ontological difference of status lifting humans outside the world of
nature so that God’s providence for us can be understood differently from
God’s involvement with the rest of creation. Any position on God’s
providence for animals must be consistent with our position on God’s
providence in human life and history, and vice versa.
At root the difficulty
confronting us is finding some persuasive way of understanding how God can
act in a universe such as science and our own experience reveal to us.
Ultimately we need an ontology of nature and history that will enable us
to construct a theological cosmology: a vision of how God interacts with
the world, a vision that is at once compatible with what science reveals
about the nature of reality and with what our religious faith holds about
reality based on the revelatory ‘event’ of Jesus Christ. I offer here a
few of the considerations a theological cosmology must take into account,
and provide an outline of how God’s providential care for animals might be
A useful place to begin
is to call attention to the history of life on our planet as we presently
know it. We do not know exactly when life emerged, but there is evidence
of life in rocks 3.75 billion years old.3
For 2.4 billion years after the earliest evidence (approximately
two-thirds of the entire history of life on earth), all organisms were
single-celled creatures of the simplest kind: prokaryotic cells
(possessing no organelles, no nucleus, no paired chromosomes, no
mitochondria, and no chloroplasts). Eukaryotic cells (with all the
complex features lacking in prokaryotic cells) appear in the fossil record
approximately 1.4 billion years ago; but for over 700 million years after
their appearance, there apparently were no multicellular organisms.
Multi-cellular organisms emerged approximately 570 million years ago and
their development into the multitude of extinct and presently living
species of plants and animals occupies only one-sixth of the entire
history of life on earth. This represents a veritable explosion of
experimentation in forms compared to the massive stability of
single-celled organisms for five-sixths of the history of life.
What is more, instead
of presenting us with a gradual evolution of many forms out of an original
few (the classic ‘tree trunk’ model of evolutionary history), the fossil
evidence for multi-cellular organisms seems to indicate a profusion of
initial forms (more like a bush having many shoots emerging from the
ground), which were subsequently ‘pruned’ by mass extinctions so that only
a few of the initial phyla survived. These surviving phyla diversified
into many orders, genera, and species, which were themselves severely
‘pruned’ by the periodic occurrence of mass extinctions.4
One of the leading contemporary theorists of evolution, Stephen
Jay Gould, has argued that this evolutionary history of life is
fundamentally contingent in character.5
He means that science can offer no reasons for the actual course of life’s
history other than the facticity of the history itself. The history of
life appears to be exactly like human history, composed entirely of
contingent events that might easily have been otherwise.
All this appears to
indicate that we would not be wrong to affirm a great deal of freedom in
the natural order, a great deal of flexibility. Instead of being a realm
of determinism, in which natural laws dictate all outcomes, the natural
world appears to be a large-scale experiment in the pursuit of
possibilities, in which the outcomes are largely a result of freedom,
contingency, and even chance. Just as the actual course of human history
is the result of a combination of chance and what humans in fact choose to
do in their freedom, so too the history of life seems to have just this
sort of contingent character. Contemporary physics, particularly quantum
theory and the physics of dynamic systems, leads to similar conclusions
concerning even ‘non-living’ matter and the world of sub-atomic particles.6
Our view of providence, of how God acts in the universe, must be able to
deal with the freedom that seems to be pervasively present in nature. It
must be compatible with the apparently contingent character of the history
of life (and perhaps of universal history). Most importantly, our view of
providence must have some way of reconciling a God of goodness and love
with the horrendous suffering to which life on earth has always been
subject and which manifests itself most strikingly in the periodic mass
extinctions that punctuate the history of life.
To most theologians
addressing these and related issues, it has seemed clear that an
understanding of God and God’s action that is compatible with what science
is revealing and implying about the nature of reality will involve several
important revisions of the traditional idea of God. Coming to the
question with different approaches and utilizing widely different
resources, theologians have achieved a remarkable degree of consensus on
the general outlines of such a revised understanding.7
The major points can be summarized swiftly.
1. God as Creator is
understood to endow all creatures, not just human beings, with genuine
2. In order to
understand the world’s freedom as truly genuine, we must affirm a
limitation on God’s power, whether it be self-imposed by God for the sake
of the creature or an inherent feature of reality to which God is subject.8
In either case God can no longer be understood to be omnipotent in
the classic sense.
3. Respect for the
freedom of creation also requires us to understand the future to be truly
open, for God as much as for the world; and this requires us to hold that
God does not know the future, for the simple reason that the future does
not yet exist to be known. Thus although God’s knowledge of past and
present is perfect and God grasps all future possibilities, we cannot
affirm God’s omniscience in the classic sense.
4. God must also be
understood to be receptive to and influenced by what is done in the
world’s freedom. God is consequently affected by the world, vulnerable to
it, though not entirely or finally captive to it.
5. God must be
understood as somehow experiencing time, as well as being transcendent to
In short, while
maintaining many aspects of the traditional understanding of God’s
transcendence, a contemporary idea of God consonant with the view of
reality revealed by modern science must also affirm God’s immanence in the
world in a new way: we must conceive of God being influenced by the world
and interacting with it.
A view of God developed
along these general lines implies an understanding of how God acts in the
universe, which is the crucial problem in working out a contemporary
notion of providence. Different approaches are possible. But in my own
reflections on this topic I have found Alfred North Whitehead’s analysis
of God’s relation to potentiality or possibility most helpful. Of all the
philosophers with whom I am acquainted, Whitehead took most seriously the
fact of the occurrence of novelty in the world and sought to deal with the
underlying philosophical problem of potentiality or possibility. In
Whitehead’s philosophy, God acts on the world by organizing and presenting
potentials or possibilities.9
God creates the world by making it possible, by endowing each agent in
creation with its potentials and the freedom to create itself on this
divinely-given ground. Each agent is free to actualize any of the
potentials or possibilities open to it in its situation. The only way God
can influence the free self-actualization of each agent is by ‘luring’ it
towards those possibilities God values as most beautiful and good. Thus
God acts in the world through persuasion, not through coercion. What
actually happens is finally in the hands of the causal agents of the
At each moment God
experiences what each agent in the universe has chosen to do in its
freedom and responds to it by presenting to each agent in the next moment
new possibilities for good. In this way God seeks to overcome whatever
evils or tragedies have resulted from the exercise of freedom by all
agents in the universe. Thus, apart from the persuasion towards the best
possibility (which is an unconscious experience even in those agents
capable of consciousness), God can exert no direct causal influence on the
world. Anything we might want to consider divine action can occur only
with the co-operative action of causal agents within the world.
Before employing this
philosophical view to address the specific question of how God’s
providence is bestowed on animals, we must test it to determine whether
Christian theology can adopt such a theory of divine action. I would
argue that this view of God’s action on the world is in conformity with
what we witness in the life of Jesus Christ. When we examine Jesus’ life,
we do not see him acting with coercive power, or the power of force.
Instead we see Jesus
acting by teaching and living God’s ‘kingdom,’ acting with the persuasive
power of ideals, with the ‘lure’ of beauty and value and holiness. We see
him unresisting at his arrest, trial, and execution; we see a deliberate
rejection of violent means. We see him suffering and dying, ‘powerless’
in the hands of those who opposed him and used coercive force against
him. Yet the tragedy and evil of his death was overcome and transformed
in his resurrection, which gave new possibilities and new hope to his
followers for ever after.
If Jesus Christ is our
strongest clue to how God acts in the world, then what we see is a God who
acts through the presentation of possibilities, ideals, and values; a God
who must suffer what the world chooses to do with its freedom; and a God
who overcomes and transforms the suffering and evil in the world with
healing and new hope in redemptive love.
This view of how God
acts does not demean God or render God ineffectual. Persuasion can be a
very powerful force, as we know from our own experience. And our minds
cannot begin to plumb the infinite wealth of possibility. The
resurrection of Jesus Christ is for Christian theology the firmest sort of
evidence that God can bring about the wholly unexpected.
As Jesus himself is
reported to have said, ‘With God all things are possible’ (Matt. 19.26).
Thus we must not underestimate what God can bring about in the world
through the power of divine persuasion.
With this view of how
God acts, we can affirm that in a metaphysically general sense God extends
providential care to animals in the same way God extends it to human
beings: at each moment God endows each creature with its possibilities and
seeks to ‘lure’ each animal to actualize in its freedom the best of the
possibilities open to it given its situation. God cherishes the beauty of
each creature and through the divine ‘lure’ seeks to bring about the best
for each creature. Whitehead’s philosophy suggests this way of
understanding God’s presence to, and care about, each creature in the
To recognize the
foundational implications of the doctrine of creation, as Whitehead’s
metaphysics does, is an important part of any understanding of how God’s
providence is extended to animals. There would be no universe at all
without God’s role as Creator, making the universe possible at each
moment. In Whitehead’s philosophy, each causal agent in the world (each
‘actual entity’) begins its self-creative becoming in each moment by
taking into itself the creative endowment it receives from God: its
possibilities and its drive to make something of itself in that moment.
As Whitehead once said, ‘The world lives by its incarnation of God in
When one reflects on the implications of this position, one can
conclude that it is not naive to believe that God cares for animal life,
that God ‘feeds the birds’ of the air. This belief is expressing a
religious intuition of the underlying religious dimension of our universe;
it is grasping God’s involvement and immanence in making our universe
possible, and grasping as well that all good things can rightly be traced
back ultimately to God’s creative action.
For a variety of
reasons, however, the divine lure towards the good and the beautiful will
not always be followed. Creatures choose for themselves, and in their
freedom may actualize any of the possibilities open to them, even the one
God values least. There is nothing in the nature of freedom itself that
determines it will always be exercised for the best. Thus we are not
faced with having to say that God intended the actual course of
evolutionary history or all the experiences of any individual life.
Because of the exercise of freedom in the entire natural universe, many
things can and do happen to bring suffering to animals. There is conflict
of purposes pursued by different agents exercising freedom and this will
result in great suffering, especially when animals are acted upon with
coercive power they cannot avoid. God can act in the world
only through persuasive power and
through the co-operation of the causal agents in the world. The very
freedom of all creatures in the world acts as a limit on what God can do;
freedom cannot be coerced without destroying it. Thus God can only seek
to persuade the creatures of the world along the best path. The coercive
power exercised by causal agents in their freedom can ignore and trample
upon persuasion and resist co-operation with the divine lures. All God
can do in such situations is to suffer with suffering creatures and seek
to bring the best out of bad situations. This view of God’s action and
the limitations on what God can do takes seriously the contingent
character and ambiguity of the evolutionary history of life and of the
experiences in any individual life and offers a solution to the problem of
There is one difference
between God’s providen-tial care for animals and God’s providential care
for humans that we must recognize. Human beings, so far as we know, are
unique in their ability to bring things to reflective consciousness. We
humans are capable of grasping God’s ‘lures’ to the good and the beautiful
quite consciously, whereas for all other animals the experience of these
divine lures is an unconscious one (as it is even for us most of the
time). One can argue that what the great religions teach is precisely
this, the conscious recognition of God’s lures for us. In Christianity,
for example, the symbol ‘kingdom of God’ presents to us in all its richness God’s vision of
what is possible for us and the world if we follow God’s lure. We must
recognize, then, our own capability of acting as instruments of God’s
providence for animals, exercising our freedom in co-operation with God’s
lures toward a universal ‘kingdom’ of peace and harmony.11
We can, to some degree, alleviate the suffering of animals, at
least that which we ourselves inflict on them; and in this way we act as
co-operative agents of God’s providential care.
philosophy also allows us to affirm a higher kind of providence: an
ultimate redemption of the suffering, fragmented, disharmoni-ous world. In
Whitehead’s philosophy, each moment of experience in the world affects
God, is taken into God’s own experience, and lives everlastingly in God.
Although I do not have space here to explore the technical aspects of his
argument, Whitehead affirms that in God’s developing experience all
creatures are not simply received into God, but are transformed, ‘purged,’
and harmonized in the everlasting unity of God’s own life.12
What is ambiguity in the temporal world is redeemed and harmonized
in God. The sufferings and evils are still quite real, but they are
healed and redeemed in God’s own life and find some ultimate meaning and
harmonization in relation to God’s eternal vision of value and beauty.
This seems to me to
give philosophical expression to the promise expressed in Isaiah’s vision
of a peaceable kingdom where the lion and the lamb lie down together (Isa.
This vision and promise
allows us to hope that the highest aspect of God’s providential
care—ultimate redemption and inclusion in the everlasting life of God’s
‘kingdom’—will in fact be extended to all God’s creatures.
Natural Theology: Selections ed. Frederick Ferre, The Library of
Liberal Arts, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill 1963 p. 54.
Charles Darwin, letter to J. D. Hooker,
13 July 1856,
More Letters of
Charles Darwin ed. Francis Darwin and A. C. Seward, 2 vols, John
Murray 1903, vol. i, p. 94.
I am drawing this
summary from Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and
the Nature of History, W. W. Norton 1989, pp. 58-60.
Ibid., pp. 299-308.
Ibid., pp. 277-323.
See e.g. John Polkinghorne, Science
and Providence: God's Interaction with the World, Boston, Mass.:
Shambhala Publications 1989, which summarizes much of the evidence for
See e.g. Langdon Gilkey, Message and
Exisetnce, New York; Seabury 1980, chs 4 and 5; Langdon Gilkey,
Reaping the Whirlwind: A Christian Interpretation of History, New
York; Seabury 1976, ch. 12; John B. Cobb, Jr and David Ray Griffin,
Process Theology, Philadelphia: Westminster Press 1976; Marjorie
Hewitt Suchocki, God-Christ-Church: A Practical Guide to Process
Theology, New York: Crossroad 1982; Jürgen Moltmann, God in
Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God, trs.
Marget Kohl, SCM Press/Harper & Row 1985; Ian Barbour, Religion in an
Age of Science, The Gifford Lectures 1989-91, vol. 1, SCM Press/Harper
& Row 1990, esp. ch. 9; Arthur Peacocke, God and the New Biology,
San Francisco: Harper & Row 1986; Polkinghorne, Science and Providence;
Sallie McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear
Age, Philadelphia: SCM Press/Fortress Press 1987.
This expresses the
major difference between the 'process' theologians, who generally treat
freedom as inherent in actuality because of the operation of creativity in
every actual thing, and those theologians who treat freedom as a gift to
creation because of God's free self-limitation.
Alfred North Whitehead, Process and
Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, corrected edn, ed. David Ray Griffin
and Donald W. Sherburne, New York:The Free Press 1978; and Thomas E.
Hosinksi, Stubborn Fact and Creative Advance: An Introduction to the
Metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead, Lanham, Md: Rowman &
Littlefield 1993, chs 7 and 8.
See Alfred North Whitehead,
Religion in the
Making, New York: Macmillan 1926, p. 156. See also
Hosinski, Stubborn Fact, ch. 7
Jeffrey G. Sobosan
has articulated the implications of Christian faith for the care of
animals in his Bless the Beasts: A Spirituality of Animal Care, New
York: Crossroad 1991.
See Whitehead, Process and Reality,
Part V, ch 2, and Hosinski, Stubborn Fact, chs 8 and 9.
Posted March 1, 2007