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Should we care about extinction? We hear all kinds of numbers about this. At the top end, some claim that well over 10,000 species of life, animal and vegetable, are disappearing every year. This is exponentially higher than the “natural” (that is, not human-influenced) rate of species extinction. Among animals, in the last year alone, the world seems to have lost dozens of species of frogs, fish, bats, mites, birds, and more, never to be seen or known again. Whether the figures are accurate or not, we should care about this.

The question is why. The usual answer today is that non-human species are “living” beings as we are, and thus demand respect and care. This is true, of course. Ecclesiastes speaks of human beings and animals as “all” having “one breath” from God (3:19). David writes that “God saves man and beast” (Ps. 36:6). ­Isaiah speaks of the day when animals will “glorify” God (Isa. 43:20). And, of course, there is Noah’s story, when God commands the preservation of every beast, clean and unclean, “two by two,” crowning his grace with a rainbow.

The status of non-human animals has become confused in contemporary culture, which has tended to read these biblical stories in terms of a homogenized view of created life, and especially human life: “We are no different than other animals.” (Solomon himself wonders about this, though he concludes that it’s all “vanity.”) The “just like us” (or “just like them”) notion is both right and wrong. As created beings, made from God’s hands, human and non-­human life should be linked. But it is wrong if the differentiation between man and beast is not also clear. Only human beings are made in God’s “image.” Today, the divine breath that vivifies creation is often equated facilely with the ­Holy ­Spirit. But it does not endue all living things with God’s “­image.” Theologically, the imprint of the imago Dei does not indicate the action of the Holy Spirit itself. The imago given to Adam and Eve is, rather, bound to Christ, the “true image” of God. He is the endpoint toward which the male-female generative dynamic aims, running from the first Adam to the second Adam. The “image of God,” therefore, is a rich and utterly human reality that includes procreation, family, culture, reasoning, love, virtue, responsibility, and redemption.

So let’s set aside a fatuous appeal to “divine breath.” There is another reason why we should care about species extinction: Animals and plants are themselves God’s language. As they disappear, we hear less of God, less from God, and thus our knowledge of God is depleted. And when we hear less of and from God, the imago Dei itself is further dimmed, as ­Athanasius observed.

And not only Athanasius. I have always been astonished by the remarkable scholar Conrad Gessner (1516–1565). Living when modern biology was just emerging, Gessner has often been called the Father of Zoology. A Swiss intellectual prodigy, he was a walking (and sitting) encyclopedia, who gathered all the written knowledge he could find, summarized it, and indexed it. Amongst his many gargantuan projects was an accounting of every book ever written. (He covered around 12,000 volumes in his own multi-volume work.) It was a prodigious enterprise of listening to what those made in the image of God had said. But Gessner was most interested in the natural world, describing and explicating plants and animals in a series of monumental studies.

Today, Gessner is remembered mostly for a singular innovation: illustration. Through engravings he made, directed, or gathered from others, he compiled a vast collection of often carefully detailed images of every living creature he could find or read about (and quite a few that existed only in the realm of popular legend). These engravings are today prized by connoisseurs. Less studied are the long and intricate texts he wrote on his specimens, drawn from classical and contemporary authors, but also based, where possible, on his own careful observation. Gessner was one of the first Europeans to commend regular hiking in the mountains, and he combed the hills and peaks in search of local fauna and flora, speaking to villagers of their experiences, and cataloguing their generations-long familiarity with the creatures of their environs. Only a little of Gessner’s writing on these topics has been translated, which is a shame. For despite its pedantry, this work is often fascinating, genial, filled with anecdote and personal reflection, moving methodically from the words of the ancients to present-day encounters, and then to the creature’s forms and habits, mind and character, uses and perhaps even taste in a stew.

However pioneering in his interests, Gessner was bound to a long Christian tradition that saw animals as an essential part of the divine Book of Nature. Animals “meant” something; they signified divine truths. One reason Gessner’s writing on animals was later ignored, despite its breadth and substance, was because he so often engaged the Bible and the venerable tropes of Christian moralizing with respect to animals. For Gessner (a pious Protestant) and his era, animals still represented lessons from God, whether about ethics, virtue, wisdom, or beauty. “Learn from the ant,” Solomon writes in Proverbs 5:6.

Historians still write about one of the most influential examples of this tradition of reading the Book of Nature, the third- and fourth-­century Physiologus, whose wisdom continued to be mined throughout the Middle Ages. But it is a mistake to think that writings like these, and their interests, disappeared with the dawning light of “modern science.” Well into the nineteenth century, Puritan versions of the Physiologus, with their own highly abbreviated ­Gessnerian joy in creation, continued to be published, including a version by one of America’s most astonishing polymaths and artists, the New England minister ­Jonathan Fisher. The revelatory aspect of the animal world was underlined in these catalogues by the fact that they were largely devoted to biblical creatures, including otherwise unknown beasts about which there is still debate, given the uncertainty of the Hebrew terms used in the Old Testament. The animal world, even its mysterious and unknown denizens, is “all God’s.” To know it more fully is to know him more intimately.

Animals are central characters in the Bible. Asses, dogs, fish, and birds: They are not just elements of this or that narrative. Animals form the skeleton, as it were, of the Temple cult (and thus, of its transformation in Christ). Much of Leviticus depicts a tapestry of animal life and death woven into Israel’s existence. Jews and Christians have had to grapple with the strange distinction between clean and unclean, already present among the Ark’s passengers. The famed anthropologist Mary Douglas (­herself a devoted Catholic) wrote several studies on animals in Leviticus. She saw the book as a map of creation, outlining a realm of divinely protected life (the “unclean”) set beside the precincts of human responsibility (the “clean”). This twinned order grasps human existence in a posture of grateful and ever-amazed humility.

I’m not sure what to make of Douglas’s elaborate ­theory, but the larger concept makes sense. The world as a whole is God’s. Thus there exist vast realms of life that are “beyond” our grasp. How many times have we walked through the thick forests and realized that, moment by moment, day by day, year by year, literally thousands of living things invisible to us and ignorant of us are going about the ordering of their lives (or being ordered by the divine plan)? We still see hints of this profound intuition of life lived beyond our ken in our fascination with extra-­terrestrial reality—other galaxies, suns, planets, and their distinct populations of living things. God tells the complaining and self-involved Elijah, who thinks he is all alone in his beleaguered faithfulness, in effect, “Don’t kid yourself.” There are thousands of faithful prophets besides Elijah. God is the Creator of far more than human beings, you and me and the small worlds of our daily concerns. “I am working still” (John 5:17).

Against our inwardly turned gaze, God seeks to speak to us of and through all creation and its manifold forms of life. We dare not disdain the “extinction” of his voice. Gessner’s care, his disciplined training and skill, his intelligence and reason, and his faith—they were all geared toward turning the ear of his mind toward these animals (and much more). He manifested the imago Dei disposed in attentive wonder before the rest of God’s creation. We often think of creation and its creatures praising God: “The heavens declare” God’s glory, ever announcing (as Augustine put it) “You made me.” Our dignity as the crown of creation, the image of God, concerns more than our rational propositions, however penetrating; more than fabricating things, however beautiful; more than making noise with instrumental breath, however wise. It is about obediential hunger and fascinated pondering: reception, taking in, and ­s­avoring. Hence the essence of the imago Dei: God’s word, our hearing. “Speak, Lord; your servant ­listens” (1 Sam. 3:10).

Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.

Image by PxHere via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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