Following the Animal Other

Humans and animals interact in the Bible at several levels. But surprisingly we seldom read the Bible in the light of animal studies. Animals belong to the non-human others of humanity. Perhaps, the very concept of animality is laden with anthropocentric underpinnings. While the question of the animal in the field of humanities pertains to the issues of human and animal difference, animal studies have begun to blur the dictions between humans and animals. Hence, we can ask in what way does our Biblical inheritance contribute to the thinking of animality? Perhaps, we may find Derrida as a good interlocutor to do this interpretive task. His work can be indeed insightful, illuminative and simulative. We do have the challenge to contest the animal/ human hierarchical binary that colours our reading of the Bible and open ourselves to new attitudes to animals, the cosmos, and other humans. It can certainly destabilise the atomistic subject of modernity.

We have the challenge to revisit this metaphysic of subjectivity that we bring to bear on the Biblical text while reading it. This subjective metaphysic is drawing interpretation of God-Human-Animal relation in the Bible from anthropocentric locations. We have to realign Divine-Human-Animal relations. The changing attitudes to animals in animal studies can redeem us from a human-obsessed reading of the Bible. Now that the threat of climate change is affecting the earth and all earthlings, we have the challenge to read the Bible in an ecologically emancipative way. This is why the question about animal is important for theology and ethics.

There are several intense moments of boundary-crossing between the Divine, Human and Animal in the Bible. God becomes man, animals speak, spirits haunt the living etc. Hence, we have the challenge to re-interpret what seems to be dominion over animals in the text of Genesis 1: 26 which says humans have ‘dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air and over cattle and over all the wild animals of the earth and over every creeping that creeps upon the earth’. Human sovereignty over animals today is contested in animal studies. The question of animal is not simply a question of animals alone. It is intertwined with God, Humans and the Earth and aligns the reigning hegemonic relations that have come to haunt us in the form of climate change.

This is why we have to overcome the question of animal forgotten in theologies of all hues and colours. While doing so we have to overcome another issue that is articulated by the following statement: ‘animals can look at us’. Hence we have to deal with the metaphysic of subjectivity that objectifies animals. The otherness of the animal that resists our totalization and mastery deconstructs the sovereign Cartesian self in us. As we confront our own being confronted by the animals, we can come to the subjectivity of animals. This condition of being confronted by the animal other can awaken us to compassion which itself can take us to ethics of care or hospitality. This means we have to deconstruct what we mean by animals and what we mean by human.

The question: who are we?’ has to be answered again. This answer has to cross the boundary between the Human and Animal binary and deconstruct human hegemony over animals. Therefore, like Emanuel Kant, we too have the challenge to wake up from our dogmatic slumbers. We can no longer put the animal outside the ethical circuit. The Animal is more radically other in the Levinasian sense and calls us to wakeful responsibility. Wakeful responsibility is attentively waiting for the coming of the Other. The real challenge, therefore, is to find our way out of the narcissistic thinking that is objectifying animals by assigning them human purpose. Animals are not totally other than humans. There is shareable unsharability in animals. We can share their unsharability . We do make use of this shareable unsharability to dominate and have our dominion over them. It may be true that all human violence is based on animal sacrifice which itself then is substituted in other violence that we commit.

Maybe we can resensitize ourselves about our animal other using Derrida’s strategy. Derrida coined the word animot to signify in sound animaux, animals in the plural rather than the animal in general singular, to mark the absurdity of what such a general animal singularity could mean. He uses the French word mot to point out how the word animal has the power to cram a vast multiplicity of beings, their meanings and deemed value in a verbal enclosure that then operates as a binary opposite of human. This means we have to submit that the world of the animals remains undecidable and cannot be simply defined by what it is not in reference to human. This submission to the undecidability of the animal other challenges us to open ourselves to the wakeful responsibility to the other.

The other in this context is the animal other. The wakeful attention is not one of mastery. It is one of waiting for the coming of the other. It is one that follows the other. It anticipates the other as one that is going before oneself. This indicates that the challenge that we have is to follow the animal other in our consciousness. Therefore goes before me in a wakeful responsibility. I say to the animal other –‘I after you’. Thus, the animal other is one who sees me and who signifies justice in abeyance, who finds my accountability as an essential possibility of ethics. This means the animal other calls me to be responsible to it to be human. This means that it is the non-human other in the animal, cosmos and the divine that we have our life and being as humans. This is why we have the challenge to bring to bear what we have called the ethics of wakeful responsibility as we read the Biblical texts, especially those that have animals in their narrations. This means we cannot gloss over or pass over the animals in the texts as irrelevant but wait for them to speak. It is only by following the animal other in the reading of the Bible and living our life that we may be enabled to save ourselves from the catastrophic annihilation that is coming due to climate change.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao