Protestantism And Contemporary Anthropocentrism - Dialoguing with Tom Regan (1938-2017)

This year the Christian World commemorates the five-hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, an event that tradition tells us began on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. At the center of this movement stands Luther’s rediscovery of the Gospel message: human beings do not earn their salvation by doing good works; rather, God freely offers salvation to all who believe. In last month’s column, I considered some protestant theological tenets (e.g. the “Sola Scriptura” principle) that facilitated the emergence and reinforcement of modern “Linear Rationality” as a positive but also an ambivalent sociological event – one that deeply conditions today’s societies and churches and urgently demands a new theological and cultural reformulation.

A third main characteristic of the Reformation is represented by its radical defense of the “Sola Gratia” principle. According to this principle there is no relationship between any human dimension and God’s redemptive action. The Reformers believed that the Catholic salvation model was a mixture of reliance upon the grace of God and confidence in the merits of one's own works, performed in love. They pejoratively called it legalism. They posited that salvation is entirely embodied in God's gifts (that is, God's act of free grace), dispensed by the Holy Spirit according to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, alone. By upholding this principle Protestantism corrected two religious anomalies. First, it purified a medieval religion encumbered with numerous intermediary mechanisms that, instead of mediating, ended up drawing God away from people. Second, it facilitated the emergence of a new religion whose strength resided in immediacy between God and the believer, under cover of a new sense of trust and surrender.

But, beyond the undoubted religious benefits which the “Sola Gratia” principle brought, and beyond a more inclusive understanding churches and believers might have of it, this principle also provoked an important shift from “Creation” to “Salvation” – introducing a huge cultural revolution. This theological transformation allowed for and paradoxically also facilitated the emergence of Anthropocentrism (the belief that human beings are the central or most significant species on the planet). By detaching humanity from its natural cosmological roots and substituting the positive “arbitrariness” of God’s Grace alone, the door was open to the centrality of man himself in the Cosmos. Because God’s Grace finally and specially manifests itself in man’s absolute inwardness. It does not matter that contemporary humanity is not especially interested in “Salvation” but rather in economic, industrial or technical “Progress”. The detachment from the “Cosmos” (Creation), facilitated by the Reformers’ soteriology (doctrine of salvation), was caught up in an unstoppable, modern trend.

1. Benefits and limits of Western Anthropocentrism

On one hand, in light of today’s unquestionable “ecological crisis”, contemporary Anthropocentrism is certainly on trial. Just consider, for instance, the various reports produced by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC). But on the other hand, we need to admit that Anthropocentrism has played a positive historical role our amazing, rapid technical progress. Until recent times nature and life’s orders were seen as an unchangeable reality. This unfortunately hid an implied anthropological conformism that resulted in passive acceptance of nature’s rhythm, harshness and arbitrariness, as unchangeable destiny. But thanks to science and a new awareness of man’s potentialities, based on reason and action, modern man has managed to replace this classical perspective and impose a new revolution grounded in the scientific method. We all benefit from this increased understanding and control over nature’s main processes and mechanisms. But this positive “Anthropocentrism” has also brought serious collateral effects we need to consider urgently.

Understanding what we are as human beings is not easy to articulate. It never has been, particularly in our times, due to a double revolution. The first one is well known – the “cosmological revolution” of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, who broke down the old Ptolemaic system which reigned undisputed for centuries. They provoked and facilitated passage from a “Geocentric” (Earth-centered) to a “Heliocentric” (Sun-centered) understanding of the Universe. The second one is less known. It is the “anthropological turn” that strongly pushes and conditions us today to no longer understand humanity from a “cosmocentric” perspective but instead from an unusual and radical “anthropocentric” perspective. And the confusion starts here because both revolutions have had an enormous impact in the definition and articulation of what we are and what we do. The paradox consists in the fact that while, with the first revolution, “Earth” (Man included) was “de-centered” (undervalued), in the second revolution one element of Earth –“Man” – is made instead “Absolute” (overvalued). This double revolution has, in time, produced various anomalies. Let’s briefly mention three of them. First, “human exceptionalism”. This idea suggests that the only noble species on earth is humanity. “Human exceptionalism” finally resulted in “Species-ism”, the segregation and exploitation of other species, seen in today’s “Intensive Agricultural and Animal Farming”, present everywhere and benefiting us all in various ways. Second, “anthropological racism”. Because Western efficient and productive man became the ideal type of what humanity is and should be. Other races, which are mainly “cosmocentric” and not “anthropocentric”, were just described as inferior, unreliable and lazy. Third, “Biblical reductionism”. Because by a linear reading of the bible and by the refusal to contextualize it, genuine believers often end up reinforcing the structural anthropocentrism of our times that has become culturally and biblically problematic.

2. Is it possible to go beyond an “Anthropocentric” reading of the Bible?

The strong, self-correcting mechanisms present in western society have also pushed it to be partially aware of the ambivalence of Anthropocentrism and to find some alternatives to it. So we have today various non-anthropocentric approaches to reality in different disciplines which work with multi-directional, holistic strategies. They try to remind us that men and women are not alone on this planet. There are other species that have the same dignity as us (Peter Singer) and that the earth itself is a living organism (James Lovelock, Lynn Margulis) which we should not manipulate to our own convenience. For this reason it is not the profile and model of the “productive man” that we need to promote and follow today. This typical anthropocentric profile is based on human exceptionalism and ends up exploiting nature and others. The new profile should be that of the “Dialoguing man”. A humanity recognizing the need for co-existing together with other species through real processes of renunciation, negotiation and downsizing artificial needs.

It is in this context that great value can be found in the legacy of Tom Regan, who passed away early this year, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. More than Peter Singer (also a renowned Animalist whose approach follows rather the tenets of “moral consequentialism”) Regan has insisted on the “intrinsic” value of animals following a characteristic “deontological” approach (judging morality based on rules) to the animal issue. In his book “The Case for Animal Rights”, Regan argued that non-human animals bear moral rights. His philosophy aligns broadly within the tradition of Immanuel Kant, though he rejects Kant's idea that respect is due only to rational beings. Regan points out that we routinely ascribe inherent value, and thus the right to be treated with respect, to humans who are not rational – including infants and the severely mentally impaired. The crucial attribute that all humans have in common, he argues, is not rationality, but the fact that each of us has a life that matters to us; in other words, what happens to us matters to us, regardless of whether it matters to anyone else. In Regan's terminology, we each experience being the “Subject-of-a-life”. If this is the true basis for ascribing inherent value to individuals, then to be consistent we must ascribe inherent value – and hence moral rights – to all subjects-of-a-life, including non-humans. The basic right that all who possess inherent value have, he argues, is the right never to be treated merely as a means to the ends of others.

Can we Adventists, starting from the Bible, overcome – or at least limit – the strong Anthropocentrism we derived unilaterally from the Bible itself and, subsequently, extended to theology, administration, pedagogy, and ethics? We should try for at least two reasons. First, an exclusive and hard Anthropocentrism is not mandatory – theologically or culturally. Valid alternatives exist already. Second, and the main reason, is the Bible itself. The main literary biblical forms are poetry, narrative, parables, oracles, visions and metaphors. Fundamentally all these forms are uncongenial to an exploitative, productive or compulsive model of action. Rather they structurally balance correct action with wisdom, prayer, communality, sharing and respect for nature. And for Adventists, Genesis reminds us that the crown, peak and height of Creation is not man but the Sabbath. The Sabbath is probably the strongest biblical element that radically contrasts our contemporary Anthropocentrism without discarding the legitimacy of a balanced affirmation of humans. Protestantism has, is, and should be a living witness to a refreshing anthropology maintaining in tension the various complex elements of a “heterogeneous,” and “poly-centric” Bible.

Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8151
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Another illuminating essay by Professor Gutierrez which exposes the “contribution” of Reformation theology to our current species extinctions, climate crisis, and wars of domination over resources and other human beings. Very striking was the concluding suggestion that the Sabbath was the crowning achievement of creation, not human beings. This one sentence encapsulates the notion that all creation is to be celebrated and nurtured, not just we “rational” creatures. Most ironic is the fact that we destroy ourselves in the process of enriching our lives though the relentless exploitation of creation.

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What is meant by “crown, peak and height”? When Jesus made the statement, “The Sabbath was created for man and not man for the Sabbath”, was he saying that the Sabbath was the crown, peak, and height of creation or was he defining man as the crown, peak, and height?

One common perspective is that the institution of Sabbath was not a creative act at all, but rather an absolute cessation of creative acts. This, and the teaching of Jesus, would more likely indicate (to me, at least) that the crown, peak, and height of creation is that which was created on the sixth day rather than the rest from creativity that occurred on the seventh.

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This essay from Hans Gutierrez reminds me of theologian Herbert Richardson, whose late-sixties work Toward an American Theology, argued that in the Genesis creation story what God made on each day was for what would appear on the day following. From this perspective he could make precisely the point Hans is making: humanity (6th day) was made for the Sabbath, for fellowship with God, for enjoyment of divine presence and alignment with divine purposes.

There is some Christian truth, I would have thought, in the idea of human “exceptionalism”: no gerbil bears the divine image. Still, the predatory obsessions of human beings under the sway of today’s popular culture must be reckoned misguided and dangerous. Thanks, Hans, for this essay. Thanks for reminding us that a key element of our tradition can be pressed into the service of social and political transformation.

As for Jesus’ Sabbath saying in the Gospel of Mark, the context was his battle with legalism. Was Jesus taking issue with Genesis? I don’t think so.

Chuck

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A hard-hitting essay by Hans G. that reminds one of a quote variously attributed to George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain and Voltaire: “God made man in His own image and man returned the favor”.,
God creating man in His own image is mentioned FOUR times in Genesis; a stark reminder of human potential. Instead we seem to be fascinated by and ‘hell-bent’ on economic, industrial and technical progress to the exclusion of other possible priorities.
Also, to me, the Genesis account does not appear to present the Sabbath and man as competing for significance

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Setting aside the fact that it is extremely chic for writers of every stripe to begin each discourse with an illusion to either global catastrophes to come, or the lunacy of Donald Trump–and who knows, perhaps these are the same thing?–the issue that underlies all of the other assumptions expounded in is article is the fact that the universe is, in fact, “omni-centric”.

That is, science tells us that every point in the universe is moving away from every other point, and that it is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that no matter where you are, you are at the exact center of absolutely everything…just like everybody and everything else. When you walk on the beach, every ray of sunshine seems to be aimed directly at you…and everyone walking in the opposite direction has their own rays, pointing right at them. And the upshot of all this is a very profound sense of narcissism, for oneself, his species, his country, his planet, his solar system, his views on God, etc.

However, if anthropocentrism is a “problem” it can only be dealt with in the same way that we take on all of life’s other challenges. Does it do any good to say that we need to fix the fact that the earth is orbiting the sun? Or should we try to correct our suspicions that whales think they’re better than us just because their brains are bigger and they have a better vocabulary? Would it help to recite memory verses to the celestial bodies or read a few passage from EGW to the every Orca you see?

Perhaps so, but then again, it seems that a reasonable person can look around himself and see that all is going along swimmingly. for the most part, and the biggest concern for any human is whether or not he can reconcile himself to that fact without despairing over the relatively miniscule amounts of time he has to spend, dealing with “evil”.

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Dr. Gutierrez,
A few observations relating to anthropocentrism.

-Jesus warned His followers not to fall into idolatry. Yet He never mentioned another religion of His day - the Greek or Roman pantheon of gods, Caesar worship, Zoroastrianism, or even Buddhism. Rather, He repeatedly cautioned about the lure of mammon or money, or greed (which is really a manifestation of selfishness, our problem from the beginning). Is that not the simple answer? We have stomped on the rights of the conquered and degraded our planet in the quest for riches. Now there are so many of us demanding so much we are marching toward ecological disaster.
It has always been about money and what money connotes. It is useful as a servant but, as Christ said, not as a master. The supposed needs of our flesh are seen as paramount. Materialism is now our religion. We are manipulated to believe we can find true happiness there.
Our aim has become to satisfy what Paul calls the ‘outer man’, ‘the flesh’ or ‘the carnal man’. One commentator I read calls him ‘the egoic self’. He is the false self. The self-centred self. The anthropocentric self. He parades himself in pride, boasting that he can wound his enemy. He responds by announcing his own ‘fire and fury’ and he is ‘locked and loaded’.
The good news or gospel is that he died on the cross in Christ. In God’s eyes he is legally dead. To teach us he is a ‘dead end’ and can lead only to tragedy, God has not yet seen fit to finally put him out of his misery. So he soldiers on in his useless attempt at self glory. He is not the true self, the new creation, the one begotten from above by the Holy Spirit. The one conceived through faith in the living word and founded on the promises of God, not the will of man. The one destined for adoption as a child of God.

-Concerning creation week, you spoke of the ultimate act being the Sabbath as opposed to the creation of man (as is our custom, our focus is anthropocentric, so we assume that the main point of the account must be one or the other as each relates directly to us). I’m sure you are familiar with the chiastic nature of Hebrew poetry. Its structure is that the essential point is related in the centre of the narrative with steps on either side of it reflecting each other. So, I think we are to view the fourth day as the apex or crown of the creation week account. The heavenly luminaries should be our focus. The sun, moon and stars. They are all there for ‘signs and seasons’ (or appointed times).
Christ is the light of the world, the sun of righteousness:


We, as the moon, can but reflect His glory as we attempt, with varying success, to bring light into darkness.
The stars, the constellations in the zodiac, were placed by God to write the plan of salvation across the heavens for all to see as it is revealed progressively each night through the course of a year (see Ps 19:1-6, or, for example, the book ‘The Witness of the Stars’ by E. W. Bullinger). Over 100 Hebrew star names have survived to us.
Rather than resting in God and accepting His plan for our lives each day as it unfolds, we have corrupted this beautiful message into a form of fortune-telling called astrology.

-Finally, isn’t theology itself (especially Arminianism) by definition anthropocentric?
We need to create a belief system to help explain God. Something that makes some kind of sense at our level because God’s doings are often incomprehensible to us now and we crave a dualistic structure of good/evil, right/wrong that we can make judgments about and try to follow to show our worthiness.

“The crucial attribute that all humans have in common, he argues, is not rationality but the fact that each of us has a life that matters to us; in other words, what happens to us matters to us, regardless of whether it matters to anyone else.”

This idea, that we each have a life that matters to us, is vividly portrayed in the person and actions of Wallendar, a fictional police inspector, created by Swedish novelist, Henning Mankell. In a society Christians would call godless, materialism and exploitation abounds and evil exists, Wallendar demonstrates and verbalizes a remarkable value for the importance of human life. Of even the most despicable of villains, he states that “No one deserves to die.” While Menkell, through Wallendar, writes of the individual’s “subject-of-a-life” awareness, he goes no further than showing how this idea extends, or in the case of the villains, doesn’t extend to valuing and respecting the lives of other humans.

Philosophical constructs eventually trickle down to, and are expressed by, theology and the arts( literature,music, etc.)