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  • Writer's pictureChapman Chen

St. Basil Deems Animals and Humans Equal and Asks us to Go Vegan. By Dr. Chapman Chen



Summary: Saint Basil of Caesarea (St. Basil the Great [330-379]), a highly esteemed early vegan church fathers, was progressively and pioneeringly adamant that all creatures, humans and other animals alike, are ontologically equal before God (Homily II, Hexaemeron), that animals live, not for humans alone, but for themselves and for God and that they cherish the sweetness of being alive (Homily IX, Hexaemeron). (Paradoxically, he still thought that only humans’re made in God’s image and endowed with reason so that they are entitled to rule over other species [Saint Basil 1950: 237].) In this vein, the Saint urged us to go vegan, reminding us of the tragic end of Moses’ people in Numbers 11, who, dissatisfied with the vegan manna mercifully supplied by God, demanded animal flesh instead (Homily I.9, On Fasting).  



1. Who’s Saint Basil of Caesarea?


St. Basil of Caesarea, also known as St. Basil the Great, was born around 330 A.D. in Cappadocia, a region in Asia Minor. He’s renowned as one of the Three Holy Heirarchs of the early church, along with Saint John Chrysostom the Vegan monk and Saint Gregory the Theologian. His Divine Liturgy is used during Lent today, and his homilies (sermons) are still widely read and discussed by Orthodox Christians.


He came from a family famous for their learning and piety. St. Basil was well-educated in classical Greek philosophy and literature and studied in places like Constantinople and Athens. After his education, he was drawn to the monastic life and established one of the earliest monastic communities in Asia Minor. St. Basil became the Bishop of Caesarea in 370 A.D. and was influential in the development of Christian monasticism and liturgy. 


St. Basil's compassion extended to all of God's creation. He believed in the value and sanctity of all life, which included animals; he saw the interconnectedness of all beings and emphasized the importance of living in harmony with all of creation. His writings often reflected a deep concern for the natural world and its creatures.  


2. All Creatures Have the Same Ontological Status before God


In Homily II of Hexaemeron, Saint Basil of Caesarea states, "For all that is, is of God; and there is nothing which is not of His essence. He is the cause of all things... The nature, then, of created things is not independent; it has its beginning in God... For we cannot say that anything which begins in time and belongs to creation was before all things" (Saint Basil n.d.b:33).


And in Homily IX of Hexaemeron, he points out:- "For this reason, after having formed the nature of all things, after having planned this universe so wisely and filled it with such variety, He [God] did not disdain this earth... For every creature proclaims the glory of God... For He spoke, and they were made: He commanded, and they were created. And not only do they show forth the glory of God by their greatness and beauty; but also by their obedience and submission to God's commandments they teach us a lesson of godliness. (Saint Basil n.d.b: 153-154)


To borrow Colin Gunton's (1998) words, Saint Basil of Caesarea, concludes "that there are no degrees of being...The fundamental division in being is... between creator and created... The creation is homogenous... everything has the same ontological status before God as the object of His creating will and love. All is 'very good' because He created it."


According to David Clough's (2012) interpretation, the significance of the above is that "the affirmation of God as creator of all things means the subversion of all human attempts to create hierarchy among creatures... we exist in solidarity with all other creatures, sisters and brothers of a single parent."


3.  God’s Fellowship with All


Since all sentient beings come from God, Saint Basil asserts in “A Prayer for the Earth” that animals are our brothers and sisters, our neighbours, our fellows, that we have abused “dominion” and caused them unspeakable pains, and that they have their own inherent value independent of humanity and the right to a decent life:-


The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, even our brothers, the animals, to whom Thou gavest the earth as their home in common with us.We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to thee in song, has been a groan of pain.May we realize that they live, not for us alone, but for themselves and for Thee and that they love the sweetness of life. (Linzey and Regan 1988)


3.1. "Dominion" in Genesis 1:28 Means Servanthood


According to Chaim & Laura (2015), ירדו (yirdu), the ancient biblical Hebrew word in consonantal form for "dominion" in Genesis 1:28 connotes both רָדָה (radah) (to tread down, subjugate, rule) and יָרַד (yarad) (to lower oneself, to descend). Rev. Prof. Andrew Linzey argues that "dominion" in Genesis 1:28 means stewardship rather than despotism (Linzey 1995:34), because it is immediately followed by a vegan diet prescribed by God to humans (Genesis 1:29). He even contends that the human species has the unique potential to become "the servant species" able to work with God in liberating animals (Linzey 1995:45, 57). Richard Ritenbaugh (1999) also notes that in Genesis 2:15, humans are particularly assigned to tend (עָבַד/abad) and keep (שָׁמַר/shamar) the garden—i.e., to be a caretaker of it. Thus, "dominion over animals" signifies that God commands humandkind to lower themselves and serve other animals as a servant. To interpret "dominion" as "servanthood" is safer than as "stewardship" and "caretakership" for "servanthood" involves least power and authority. Mind you: “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Lord Acton 1887).


4. Animals are our Covenant Partners, our Kin. 


In fact, the correct, moral way to respectfully address animals is "our covenant partners" or "our kin", according to US theologian Dr. Tripp York (2012:157). Words like bacon, leather, beef, pork, dairy, etc. are speciesist language that beautifies animal abuse, and turns sentient creatures of God into inanimate objects that humans may use in whatever ways they fancy.


Animals are our covenant partners because God made a covenant with animals besides humans (Genesis 9:9-10; Hosea 2:18). Animals are our kin, our sisters and brothers, because both humans and non-human animals were created by God. After creating each species of animals, God commented that "it was good" (Genesis 1:21, 25 KJV). The purpose of creation is "the participation of creatures in... fellowship" or communion with God (Clough 2012:23).


Furthermore, "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us" (John 1:14 NIV). As pointed out by Rev. Prof. Andrew Linzey (1998:xvi), "by becoming flesh, the Logos identifies... not only with humanity but with all creatures of flesh and blood" (cf. Cunningham 2009:116-117; Clough 2012:103). Ultimately, humans and other animals are fellow creatures of, and in, God. Therefore, to go vegan is the only proper way to treat other sentient creatures of God.


5. Saint Basil’s Anthropocentric Limitation


While Saint Basil assures us that animals and us are brothers and sister on the same level of value, he still paradoxically and anthropocentrically believes that only the human species is made in the image of God, endowed with reason and appointed the ruler of all other creation:-


Man is Made in the Image of God


God made man according to his image and likeness. He deemed him worthy of the knowledge of Himself, that in preference to all of the animals He adorned him with rationality, bestowed upon him the opportunity of taking his delight in the unbelievable beauties of paradise, and made him the chief of the creatures on earth.(Saint Basil 1950: 237)


5.1. Animals are at Least Partly Made in the Image of God


There is good reason to question whether Christians should think that only humans bear the image of God (Chen 2023c). Animals at least partly manifest God's image because of the following reasons:- Firstly, The Bible never denies that animals are made in the image of God. Secondly, both humanity and other animals were made out of dust by God. Thirdly, God made a covenant with not only humanity but also other animals (Genesis 9:9-11; Hosea 2:18). Fourthly, many verses in the Bible describe how different animals bear different characteristics of God (e.g. Isaiah 31:4; Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34; John 1:29; Matthew 3:16). Fifthly, not only humans but  other animals are gifted with a "living soul" (נֶ֣פֶשׁ חַיָּ֔ה nephesh chayyah) (Genesis 1:21, 24; Genesis 1:30). It follows that animals are our fellow creatures, that we should go vegan and stop eating and abusing them.


5.2. Rationality is NOT Limited to Humans!


Saint Basil is also wrong in thinking that only the human species is endowed with reason. A wide range of animals, including pigs, dolphins, bonobos, elephants, and various bird species, have demonstrated a level of intelligence that surpasses previous assumptions. Oord (2015) suggests that if intelligence or rationality are markers of being created in the image of God, then numerous species may also share this divine reflection.


Beyond intelligence, Oord (2015) goes on, the commonalities shared with humans extend to other areas. Experiments have shown that many animals are capable of decision-making. They exhibit creativity, not only in constructing intricate structures from lifeless materials but also in forming elaborate social networks. Emotional expression is not unique to humans either; creatures display a spectrum of feelings, from empathy to fear. Certain advanced species, like wolves, even show signs of having a sense of morality.


Communication, too, is a shared trait, with birds and other animals engaging in complex interactions, indicating that this ability is not solely human. In conclusion, characteristics once believed to be exclusive to humans are now recognized in other species, albeit sometimes in varied or lesser degrees. 

A lot of species exhibit a basic level of self-awareness and awareness of their surroundings. Capacities that are often considered uniquely human, like the ability to reason symbolically, may actually vary more in extent rather than in essence. While it's true that not all animals can engage in symbolic thought, many still display considerable mental abilities. See, for instance, Kristin Andrews (2015).


More importantly, as well put by John Bentham (1948), “The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor ‘Can they talk?’ but ‘Can they suffer?’”


6. Eat Manna instead of Meat!


Consuming animals – our sisters and brothers – is not only unethical but also damaging to ourselves. In Homily I, “On Fasting”, Saint Basil explicitly tells us that eating animal flesh is bad for our body, our mind and our soul. He advises us to eat neither animal flesh nor alcohol but manna or the food of angels. Otherwise, he warns us, we may end up like the Israelites in Numbers 11. There, dissatisfied with the vegan manna mercifully supplied by God, they asked for animal flesh. To teach them a lesson, God brought them numerous grails from the sea, which they ate until the meat gushed out through their nostrils, which was followed by a deadly plague:-


Were they not those of the people who demanded to eat meat? As long as they were content with manna and water from the rock, they overcame the Egyptians and journeyed through the sea; there was not a feeble one among their tribes.” But when they recalled the fleshpots and returned to Egypt in their desires, they did not see the Promised Land. Do you not fear their example? Do you not shudder at their gluttony, lest it exclude you from the good things for which we hope? But not even the wise Daniel would have seen visions, had he not rendered his soul more pellucid through fasting. For certain thick vapors are emitted from rich foods, which, like a dense cloud, prevent the illumination produced by the Holy Spirit from entering the mind. But if there is any food that is proper even to Angels, it is bread, as the Prophet says: “Man ate the bread of Angels” (Psalm 77:25, Septuagint) — not meat, nor wine, nor those items that are zealously sought after by those enslaved to their stomachs. (Saint Basil the Great n.d.a, Homily I.9)


7. Conclusion


It is indeed pioneering, progressive and egalitarian for St. Basil to have asserted more than 1600 years ago that animals are our siblings, on the same level of value, under the same parental creator, although, like St. Thomas Aquinas, he also held an anthropocentric view that only the human species, being endowed with reason, is entitled to govern other animals. While St. Basil reprimands people for abusing “dominion” in Genesis 1:28 and terribly maltreating animals, he still interprets it as authoritative guardianship rather than servanthood, forgetting that absolute power absolutely corrupts. But St. Basil’s shortcomings do not outweigh his contributions to vegan theology and animal rights. His citing Numbers 11 to remind us of the spiritual, mental and physical dangers imposed by flesh consumption is by no means outdated even in the 21st Century.


References


Andrews, Kristin (2015). The Animal Mind: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Animal Cognition. New York: Routledge.


Bentham, Jeremy (1948). An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. New York, N.Y. : Hafner Pub. Co.



Chen, Chapman (2024) "Dominion in Genesis 1:28 Means Servanthood to Animals. Go Vegan!" HKBNews, Apr. 14. https://www.hkbnews.net/post/dominion-in-genesis-1-28-means-servanthood-to-animals-go-vegan-by-dr-chapman-chen


Chen, Chapman (2023a). “Animals and Humans Have the Same Ontological Status Before God. By Saint Basil. Ed. Dr. Chapman Chen.” HKBNews, Sept. 17. https://www.hkbnews.net/post/animals-and-humans-have-the-same-ontological-status-before-god-by-saint-basil-ed-dr-chapman-chen


Chen, Chapman (2023b). “Fear Meat-Eating Gluttony! By Saint Basil of Caesarea. Ed. Dr. Chapman Chen.” HKBNews, Sept. 16. https://www.hkbnews.net/post/fear-meat-eating-gluttony%EF%BC%81by-saint-basil-of-caesarea-ed-dr-chapman-chen


Chen, Chapman (2023c). "Animals are at least Partly Made in the Image of God. Go Vegan!" HKBNews, 25 Jan. https://www.hkbnews.net/post/animals-are-at-least-partly-made-in-the-image-of-god-go-vegan-by-dr-chapman-chen


Clough, David L. On Animals: Volume One Systematic Theology. London and NY: T&T Clark.


Gunton, Colin E (1998). The Truine Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP.


Linzey, Andrew (2016). "Christian Theology and Animal Rights." FRA. https://fra-respect-animal.org/christian-theology-and-animal-rights-andrew-linzey


Linzey, Andrew (1995). Animal Theology. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.


Linzey, Andrew and Regan, Tom (1988). Compassion for Animals. London: SPCK Press.

Oord, James Jay (2015). “Are Animals Made in God’s Image?” Thomas Jay Oord.com, Sept. 10. https://thomasjayoord.com/index.php/blog/archives/animals-made-in-gods-image


Ritenbaugh, Richard T. (1999). "The Bible and the Environment." Forerunner, "Prophecy Watch," February. https://www.bibletools.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/topical.show/RTD/cgg/ID/2163/Dominion-over-Animals.htm


Saint Basil (1950). “The Long Rules, Response 2.” In Saint Basil, Ascetical Works, The Fathers of the Church. Trans. Sr. Monica Wagner. Washington DC: Catholic University of American Press.



Saint Basil the Great (n.d.b). Hexaemeron. Trans. Bl. Jackson. Elpenor in Print. https://www.elpenor.org/basil/hexaemeron.asp  



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