The word religion both in modern usage, but also biblically, tends to be employed in a variety of ways. In one of the few times the word is utilised in the New Testament, James in his epistle tells us what true religion is: ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.'(1) In this piece I’ll be using the word ‘religion’ in its purely negative sense as opposed to genuine spirituality or ‘faith’.
Humans are in their most foundational aspects spiritual beings. We were made to live in fellowship with our Creator and when our yearning for authentic spirituality is not met in Christ humankind inevitably resorts to various surrogates, one of the most notable of which is religion. We see the constant conflict between faith and religion all throughout Scripture but more generally in the world today. Jesus, after a ministry in which he was constantly opposed by the Pharisees, ultimately impacted against the religious system that brought about his death. Likewise, when studying Jesus’s teachings and parables we see that they are above all a polemic against every religious practice that seeks to usurp a living relationship with God.
But now we come to the point of this essay, namely how our treatment of animals relates to religion. Anyone who has been involved in any form of animal advocacy, whether secular or Christian will almost undoubtedly have come up against strong religious opposition. I believe it is imperative to try and understand better what religion actually is and what its goals are if we are to advocate more effectively for animals.
The Constantinian Fall
Christianity took a radical turn for the worst in the 4th century. After centuries of alternate persecutions and peace, the Emperor Constantine decided to make the Christian Church the official religion of the Empire. Christians in a very short time went from being a persecuted minority that heroically defied the most powerful Empire in the world to wielders of significant power. At the same time the pagan religious system that buttressed the Roman Empire was fused together with Christianity in order to form a new state religion:
From the standpoint of the history of religion, the former public claims of the Christian Church had their source in the public claims in the Roman state religion. Beginning with Constantine, and then consolidated in the legislation of the Emperors Theodosius and Justinian, the Christian religion took over the social place of the old Roman state religion. The Christian religion became the cultus publicus. It became the protector and preserver of the sacra publica. According to the classical view of the society, it is the supreme duty (finis principalis) of human societas to see that the gods are given their due veneration […] When the Christian faith took the place of the Roman state religion, then of course the public state sacrifices ceased, yet their places was taken by Christian prayers of intercession for the state and emperor. Thus the Christian faith became the “religion of society”. It fulfilled the supreme end of state and society. Hence titles of the Roman emperor-priest were transferred to the pope.(2)
But one wonders if the public sacrifices of Rome really did end. Could it be that this ritual has in some ways continued underground within the Constantinian state religion that emerged from this period, and later came to be known as ‘Christianity’? Meals within most Christian churches seem to inevitably be based on meat products, and this appears to be an almost sacred aspect of the weekly fellowship. When we observe the billions of creatures killed every year for no apparent reason it’s only natural to ask, ‘to whom or to what were these sacrifices offered?'(3) Scripture tends to identify the Roman Empire as a tangible manifestation and archetype of the Babylonian system that governs the world. Jesus, after all, ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate'(4) and was crucified, a typical Roman form of execution. If there ever was a symbol that authentic faith should be weary of it’s ancient Rome, and the religious forms through which it has survived.
(1) James 1:27
(2) J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope , Harper & Row, New York, 1967, p. 306.
(3) A question reminiscent of Hegel’s on the philosophy of history, albeit in a different sense.
(4) The Apostles’ Creed.
Stay tuned for Part Two in a couple of days (for those who would like to read the entire article at one time, go here: Challenging Religion)
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