Reconciling God with Wild Animal Suffering

Mexican wolf. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

I’m an animal activist who wants to believe in God, but has a hard time getting past what’s known in theological circles as the problem of evil. Specifically, it’s difficult for me to reconcile the existence of God with wild animal suffering not caused by humans. So I decided to ask scholars, clergy, and other activists how they handled the issue.

One of the more interesting responses to my query on this problem of evil came from philosopher Thomas Jay Oord. He argued God wasn’t all powerful. It seemed like such a straightforward solution to so many age-old theological dilemmas, I was surprised more people haven’t taken it up. I’m pretty ignorant of religious debates, but I gather Oord’s is a heterodox view.

“I don’t think God can prevent suffering singlehandedly,” Oord said. “Simply can’t. I think God loves every creature, large and small, complex and simple. And God wants all to flourish. But God can’t prevent the evil of the world, whether done by humans or animals. So God’s not culpable for failing to prevent animal suffering.”

Among other roles, Victoria Moran is a cofounder of the Compassion Consortium, a non-sectarian, interfaith religious center for animal advocates. Based in New York City, the Consortium offers Sunday programs online, as well as other events, classes and services. Like many people interviewed for this piece, Moran seemed unbothered by the issue.

“You can say that God made it that way, or that God made everything vegan and perfect and humankind’s ‘Fall’ caused all the trouble, or that nature evolved to be the way it is,” she said. “Whatever the reason, things are as they are. Animals in nature kill only to eat or defend themselves. They are free from malice. Humans aren’t expected to ‘fix’ nature, only to fix ourselves.”

Dr. Alan McManus is an ex-Franciscan friar. After I emailed him, he responded with a post on his blog, alchemicalquality. McManus appeared to reject the premise of my question, noting how abusive and destructive humanity is toward animals and nature.

“It is the height of moral hubris for us to then imagine that how animals interact with each other is morally wrong and constitutes a theological problem about the goodness of their Creator,” he said. “We simply cannot imagine what Nature is because we see Nature, and animals living in Nature, through so many artificial lenses of our own construction.”

Many of those I interviewed answered in practical terms. David Clough offered such a response. For those unfamiliar with him, Clough is a Methodist lay preacher, a professor of theological ethics at the University of Chester, and president of the Society for the Study of Christian Ethics.

“The urgent task before us is to love God and our suffering neighbours,” he said. “Speculations about the origins of evil are no help in that, and some explanations of suffering make things worse by blaming victims or showing how their suffering is justifiable as part of a harmonious divine plan. It’s not. Our theology should focus on what we need to know to live faithfully as followers of Christ.”

Bruce Friedrich struck a similar note. He’s probably the activist whose work I most admire today. After a long stint at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, he now runs the Good Food Institute, which, among other things, pushes for government investment in cultivated-meat research.

“I find that focusing on Jesus and emulating Jesus’ focus on living to make the world better allows me to truly focus on what matters,” he said. “When Jesus talks about God, he talks about the ideal of God, and so too the prophets. It’s the human purpose to get us back to the vision of Jesus and the Prophets — nonviolence and justice for all.”

I appreciated the forthrightness of Michael Gilmour, who teaches the New Testament and English Literature at Providence University College. He made clear that his belief was a choice. It was a good reminder that if I wanted to believe in God, I’d likely have to choose to do so, as I’d probably never find proof that would satisfy my rational mind.

“I personally approach the question of animal suffering humbly, with no claim to understand it fully,” Gilmour said. “It remains a mystery, and I fall back on faith. As an act of faith, I believe the world to be good but fallen and animals — innocent themselves — suffer in consequence of that corruption. Also as an act of faith, I trust God to rescue this broken world.”

The Reverend William Melton provided an answer which is perhaps closest to my current view. It’s unsurprising, since this member of Compassion Consortium’s leadership team was an atheist for most of his life. Melton explained he didn’t believe in an external monotheistic or polytheistic god.

“For me, God exists within my own soul, and in the soul of each living being,” Melton said. “I simply have no expectation of an external God who could or would ease any suffering, whether human or non-human. Thus it is not necessary for me to reconcile this.”

Jon Hochschartner is the author of a number of books about animal-rights history, including The Animals’ Freedom Fighter, Ingrid Newkirk, and Puppy Killer, Leave Town.