Thursday, July 22, 2010

Anglicans in the news

The Toronto Star reports: the priest at St Peter's Anglican Church, Toronto, is in hot water for giving a consecrated communion wafer to a dog. The circumstances seem particularly bizarre:
[The dog's owner] had been invited to the service after an incident where police heckled him as he sat peacefully on the steps of the church early one morning during the G20 weekend.

Angry over the experience, he called the church to vent. They invited him to come to church, and he did, bringing his dog with him.

When it was time for communion, the man went up to receive the bread and the wine, with the dog. “I am sure for [Rev'd Marguerite Rea] that was a surprise, like it was for all of us,” said [Deputy People's Warden Peggy] Needham. “But nobody felt like it was a big deal, because it wasn’t a big deal.”

According to the account [Bishop] Yu heard, the man asked the reverend to give the dog a wafer. But Needham says she doesn’t recall the man making such a request. Instead, she said Rev. Rea instinctively leaned over and placed a wafer on the dog’s wagging tongue.
The most charitable response to this is to assume that Rev'd Rea was so distracted during the administration of Communion that she didn't realize what she was doing. Her subsequent embarrassment and refusal to speak to the media support this interpretation. After all, it should be obvious to anyone with a basic grasp of Christian theology that giving the consecrated Host to a dog is completely inappropriate.


But apparently that's not obvious to Toronto Star reporters, or to the average St Peter's parishioner, or to the dozens of people who left vapid and ill-informed comments on the Star website.

The setup of the article uses the typical journalistic conceit of pitting two opposing sides against each other. On the one side, we have Bishop Patrick Yu, attesting that giving Communion to animals is impermissible, that the priest has been asked not to do it again, and that the matter is closed. On the other side, we have Deputy People's Warden Peggy Needham, who informs us that "it wasn't a big deal," that "Anyone might have done that," and that "Christ would have thought it was neat." (Needham is apparently confusing Christ with Dr Phil, a common mistake.) The question, in my mind, is why Needham would be asked for comment about a theological matter at all? A "deputy people's warden" is an elected position, one of four wardens responsible responsible for managing the temporal affairs of the parish; the position involves a lot of committee work and requires no theological training or expertise. She can offer a theological opinion if she wants, but a reporter should know better than to quote it as though it were authoritative.

The Star author, and most of the commenters, frame the question of animal Communion in terms of "inclusivity". Inclusivity is always a good thing, because if we exclude someone it always means that we hate them and wish them to be disempowered. There's a twisted logic to this point of view - after all, if we loved animals, why would we set them apart in a way that treats them as Other? Yet this view is too crude, as though there were no middle term between "God hates dogs and would like us to kill them" and "Dogs should receive Communion."

The point, though, is that humans are different from animals in important ways. Specifically, humans possess a highly developed rational intelligence. We have the capacity for abstract thought, and thus for language. While many animals have highly developed perceptual intelligence and can manipulate tools to perform advanced concrete tasks, they lack this additional level of conceptual abstraction. As humans, we value our intelligence and would never give it up - we can't even imagine existence without the capacity for speculative thought and linguistic invention. Yet there's also a sense in which self-awareness is a Faustian bargain, creating opportunities for wickedness and dissolution as well as virtue and growth. Animals may kill each other for food, or fight over scarce resources, but nothing they do can be properly considered "evil". Ostriches don't commit random acts of vandalism. Armadillos don't wipe each other out with atomic weapons. Iguanas don't build death camps to carry out the mass extermination of other iguanas.

The realization that self-awareness is a mixed blessing is at the heart of the Christian tradition. The Biblical narrative of the Fall tells us that something went wrong from the very beginning - that as soon as humans developed conscious awareness, they turned away from their natural end and toward their selfish desires. Because of this deliberate turn from the Good toward the self, humans require reunion with God, through a process of reconciliation which culminates in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Dogs and ostriches and sea urchins, on the other hand, don't require reunion with God because they are incapable of turning away from him. They don't need the medicine, because they're immune from the disease. Giving the consecrated Host to a dog is wrong not because it would hurt the dog, or because dogs are somehow evil, but because doing so is to pervert the entire message of the Christian faith, and to deeply misunderstand what it means to be human.

All of this would have been taken for granted eighty years ago, of course, but the basics of Christian theology are now so little understood that few churchgoers, and almost no non-Christians, would be able to formulate a good reason why a dog shouldn't receive Communion. And this is a great pity.

Suitable music for a canine-themed service would include choral works and the great G+ organ sonata of Edward Elgar, one of the great dog lovers of music history.


ian said...

"The point, though, is that humans are different from animals in important ways. Specifically, humans are self-aware. We have the capacity for abstract thought, and thus for language. While many animals have highly developed perceptual intelligence and can manipulate tools to perform advanced concrete tasks, they lack this additional level of conceptual abstraction."

I think most biologists would disagree with this. Animals are clearly self-aware. Most of modern philosophy would also discredit this line of thinking.

Just because we, as humans, attach symbolic language to most thought does not mean that we are the only "beings" capable of abstract thought. Ever see a dog or cat asleep, and clearly dreaming?

Also, have you ever thought of an object, pictured it in your head (so to speak), but couldn't immediately think of the word that we use to describe it? Most animals are no different, they just use mental images for cognition and memory instead of attaching a "word" to it.

We are all animals. No books written by man can sidestep that...

Osbert Parsley said...

Ian: You're clearly right that at least some animals are self-aware - this was sloppy writing on my part, and I've corrected the original post to more closely reflect my intended point.

I'm not sure, though, if the rest of your examples prove anything useful. My argument is not that human consciousness is discontinuous with animal consciousness, but that humans possess the additional quality of rational intelligence. It's therefore not surprising that human thought would include some prelinguistic elements. I also don't see what animal dreams have to do with abstract reason, since the content of dreams is concrete images.

I think you'll find that an account such as I've given has in fact been defended successfully by modern philosophers. See, for example, Alasdair MacIntyre's Dependent Rational Animals, which uses the data of modern biology to support a broadly Aristotleian account of ethics.

ian said...

I thought your point was that dogs shouldn't be given communion wafers...? While I agree with that in general--the religion defines that only humans are eligible--I took exception with your attempted use of natural phenomena to justify a religious doctrine. We know that dolphins give each other names through sonic communication (speaking and hearing... ok maybe not speaking... squeaking?), for example. Is this much different than you saying my name to me?

While I certainly think that our human intelligence is of a higher level than non-humans (at least in the capacity for symbolic thought, abstraction, and reason), the difference between human and non-human intelligence seems to be of degree, not of capability.

I don't see how one could rule out that animals can "think" in abstractions. Is emotion completely detached from thought? A sad dog is not thinking in concrete terms. He is reacting to an experience by processing the information and event(s) involved (just in a different way than we do when we, for example, recount an event and think of what we might do differently).

Finally, I always love a good book recommendation... Mine to you, for this topic, would be Animals as Persons by Gary Francione. Also, I maybe should have said "current" or "contemporary" instead of "modern" philosophy, as modern could go back too far...

Osbert Parsley said...

I certainly agree that the difference between human and animal consciousness is in large part a question of degree, not of kind, and that many aspects of human intelligence exist in animals. So there's nothing surprising in the idea that a dog might experience emotions, or that a dolphin might have a rudimentary ability to communicate. Still, the differences between our consciousness and that of a dolphin is significant enough to imply widely different realms of possibility and responsibility for the two species. For Christian theology, one of the most important differences would be the absence of sin (or, if you like, moral culpability) in animals. A "bad dog" isn't somehow evil, but an animal whose inherent nature is in conflict with the expectations of human society, and who hasn't been trained to accommodate himself to those expectations. One doesn't speak that way about Idi Amin or the emperor Caligula.

The association of Christianity with fideistic irrationalism is a modern Protestant phenomenon which I totally reject. The mainstream of Christian thought testifies that the revealed truths of religion are in congruence with the truth of natural reason, since both truths ultimately come from the same source. I therefore see nothing inappropriate in using a philosophical argument to support the doctrine of the Church, particularly when addressing a secular audience.

I've noted down your book recommendation for future reference - I have a huge stack of books that await reading, but I'd be interested to hear what Francione has to say.

ian said...

Sorry, I was unaware that you are aiming at a secular audience. I just discovered this blog earlier this week, and began following it because I especially liked your posts about classical music, as well as the War on Neon Arrows, and the Concertina Brow. I'll leave the religious talk alone, though.

"...the world is a complicated place, and that anyone who tries to offer an all-encompassing theory to explain it - a brightly-coloured neon arrow pointing in a particular direction - is probably trying to sell you something."

That about sums up how I feel about churches...

Take care.