In my conference paper on meat and the resurrection, I quickly treated the question of animal resurrection in mainstream Christian doctrine: the answer? They don’t. Since then, I’ve been caught in a kind of research loop….
In between bouts of teaching and grading and committee-meeting [but, happy to say, not job-hunting: I hereby offer my support and encouragement to any of our readers interviewing at the MLA in a couple of weeks. All best!], my blog post-cum-book section swelled up into what could have been 3,000+ words: more an accidental conference paper than food for the blog. I realized I needed to limit myself, in part out of consideration for your time, but also to rein in this material. Even so, it’s probably too long for the blog. My apologies.
In Genesis 1:31, having finished his work, God gives his creation one last approving look. According to J. Edward Wright, this look inspired “a longing to return to this ‘very good’ mythical place, the place where humans existed before evil, pain, and suffering were introduced into our existence” (189); hence, as Wright suggests, the popularity of the conception of heaven as a garden. Yet something is missing: the renewed creation can scarcely be called a “garden.” Where are the animals? Where are the plants? They might be saved, but nowhere does Wright indicate that animals or plants ever found a place in heaven. I do not mean to single out Wright: his work, otherwise excellent, is typical of celestial studies in his non-acknowledgment of animal or other worldly nonhuman life (e.g., Peter Toon, Heaven and Hell: A Biblical and Theological Overview; Clifford Davidson, ed.,The Iconography of Heaven; Jan Swango Emerson and Hugh Feiss, eds, Imagining Heaven in the Middle Ages; Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang, Heaven: A History; Carolyn Muessig and Ad Putter, eds, Envisaging Heaven in the Middle Ages).
But regardless of what Aquinas might say (see here and, for the Latin, here), regardless of the gaps in celestial studies more generally, plants and animals do sometimes appear in the future paradise. Verdant, bucolic heavens appear as early as 2 Enoch 8:1-3 and, in more mainstream works, in Jeremiah 31:12 and Isaiah 11:6-9 and 65:25 and in Revelations 22:2, which finds a place for the tree of life in the Eternal City. The twelfth-century De contemptu mundi of Bernard of Cluny pictures a heaven in which the saints will “stroll and dance amidst holy lilies and blooming flowerbuds” (21); the Elucidarium pictures a world freed of the postlapsarian curse, in which “odoriferis floribus, liliis, rosis, violis immarcessibiliter” (PL 171:1168D; unfading, sweet-smelling flowers—lilies, roses, violets) bloom in a world without thorns; and Pearl famously imagines the afterlife as a garden thronged with the souls of the saved. There’s also this painting, which, if you’re feeling generous, can stand in for any number of sylvan depictions of paradise.
Giovanni di Paolo’s painting takes the floral luxury of the Elucidarium one step further by granting animals a place in paradise. They find a place, too, in Savonarola’s Compendium of Revelations, where “mild animals, like white sheep, ermines, rabbits, and harmless creatures” frolic in a meadow, although Savonarola effaces their animal existence by glossing them as representing “Christians engaged in the active life.” However, in a much earlier work, Irenaeus’s Against Heresies 5.33.4, actual animals resurrect to live again as they did in Eden:
the resurrection of the just [shall also apply] to those animals mentioned. For God is rich in all things. And it is right that when the creation is restored, all the animals should obey and be in subjection to man, and revert to the food originally given by God (for they had been originally subjected in obedience to Adam), that is, the productions of the earth. But some other occasion, and not the present, is [to be sought] for showing that the lion shall [then] feed on straw. And this indicates the large size and rich quality of the fruits. For if that animal, the lion, feeds upon straw [at that period], of what a quality must the wheat itself be whose straw shall serve as suitable food for lions?
To the best of my current knowledge, Irenaeus’s point here had little effect on medieval Christianity. Various apocryphal stories (discussed ably by Christopher R. Matthews in this anthology) were as uninfluential: in a version of the story of Androcles and the lion, the apostle Paul is saved in the arena by a lion he once baptized (Jerome, who himself records talking centaurs and all manner of pious animals, sniffed at the story: what nerve!); in the Acts of Philip, Philip and his entourage baptize a goat and a leopard, both of which eventually transform into humans in order to receive the Eucharist and thus, presumably, become suited for the resurrection. As stillborn as were these stories, tantalizing evidence of hope for animal life occasionally appears in later texts. Students of Middle English will remember the church founded at the end of Bevis of Hampton to pray for the souls of Bevis, his wife Josian, “And also for Arondel, / Yif men for eni hors bidde schel” (4616-7). In Les Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles (in a version of a tale also told by Rutebeuf), a poor village priest buries his beloved dog in a churchyard (and manages to dodge the avarice of his bishop by convincing him that the dog had set aside a fund for its own burial).
Yet the mainstream exegetical reaction to Romans 8:19-23 is telling. Paul writes:
For the expectation of the creature waiteth for the revelation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him that made it subject, in hope: Because the creature also itself shall be delivered from the servitude of corruption, into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. For we know that every creature groaneth and travaileth in pain, even till now. And not only it, but ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption of the sons of God, the redemption of our body.
Paul is otherwise scornful of animal life (see 1 Corinthians 9:9-10). But here, if “the creature” that groaningly awaits delivery from “corruption” into another more perfect existence is understood as distinct from the “ourselves” and “we” awaiting the “redemption of the body,” then Paul is suggesting that nonhuman life will resurrect. The possibility, only a possibility because of Paul’s typically obscure prose, becomes glaringly apparent in the reactions of medieval exegesis. Rabanus Maurus feels compelled to assert that “creaturam, ut pote rationabilem, habere exspectationem quamdam” (PL 111:1454C; “the creature,” insofar as it is rational, has this expectation). A late antique commentary on the Epistles (ascribed by the PL to Jerome but likely by Pelagius) explains that Paul’s promise of redemption could apply only to humans and then reemphasizes the proper dominance of humans over the worldly creation: “Exspectatio creaturae, de rationi creatura sermonem fecit, et non sicut quidam existimant, de irrationali, vel insensibili, quae ad servitutem hominum creata est” (PL 30: 683A; “The expectation of the creature”: he said this about a rational creature, and not as some think, about an unreasoning creature, or an insensible one, which was made to serve man). Augustine’s exegesis in the Refutation of the Priscillianists and Origenists and in question sixty-seven of the Miscellany of Eight-Three Questions proved to be the foundational approach to the verses (see the commentaries by Lanfranc, PL 150:132A-B; Hervé de Bourg-Dieu, PL 181: 710D-11C; Hugh of St. Victor, PL 175:481D; William of St.-Thierry, PL 180:634D-635A; and Peter Lombard, PL 191:1442B-1444C). Countering the purportedly Origenist notion that the stars and other celestial bodies might resurrect, Augustine argued that Paul referred only to humans. As he explained, all creation may be understood as present in humans, since humans are a microcosm: they are rational, like angels; they can sense, like animals; they have life, like trees, which, like our hair, can grow without being aware of its own growth. Moreover, the four elements are present in humans: they are made from earth, heat is required for bodily life and “light shines forth from our eyes”; the lungs are filled with air; and the flow of blood is evidence of the presence of moisture. Haymo of Auxerre (in a commentary the PL ascribes mistakenly to Haymo of Halberstadt) directly asserts what is only hinted at by other exegetes, namely, the gross error of any reading of the passage that “comprehenderit…bestias” (PL 117:432B,; understood it as being about beasts) rather than as about men, who can stand in for all creation. For, in Haymo’s citation of Gregory the Great wrote, humans “esse cum lapidibus, vivere cum arboribus, sentire et [0432D] vivere cum animalibus; intelligere, id est rationabilitatem habere, cum angelis” (PL 117:432D; have being as do stones, live as do trees, sense and live as do animals, understand, that is, have reason, as do angels).
To sum up: the most doctrinally orthodox Christianity reserved the afterlife for rational beings only: humans, God, and angels. Only animals and other worldly nonhuman life, as I have argued elsewhere, could be said to die; humans suffered, at worst, an interruption. Nonetheless, we can still glimpse witnesses to the love of humans for at least individual animals; in a point I hope to talk about further, we can also witness the difficulty of imagining human life unworlded. The gardens of paradise, I think, are not just returns to Eden; they are not just fantasies of an elite in love with their own Springtime. Ralph Acampora has argued that the primacy of being “always already caught up in the experience of being a live body thoroughly involved in a plethora of ecological and social interrelationships with other living bodies and people” (5). It requires a vigorous effort, the effort of high, professional doctrine, to sustain the imagination of a future in which humans exist as themselves, with their God and with the angels and with each other, but without anything else; it requires an effort as vigorous as any effort, Cartesian or otherwise, of “dissociation and nonaffiliation” (5) with the world. Failures of that effort, or what might better be called refusals to unrecognize being a worlded (human) creature, can be witnessed in those visions of paradise that are worlds, like this one, but better, of humans and plants and animals and rocks and wind and the smell of flowers, all with each other. To fail the philosophical project of Aquinas and others is, as Acampora might write, to sustain oneself in the hope of the presently existing paradise that we could make paradise if only we knew our place in it.