Saturday, 9 August 2014

Animals in the Index: A review of David Clough

A guest-review by Steve Wright. David Clough, On Animals. Volume 1: Systematic Theology (T&T Clark) 

Like most academics, I rarely find it necessary to read a book cover to cover in order to ridicule or praise it. I have far too little time and far too many books on my shelves to go about reading them all. Fortunately, within the world of theology, reading is optional. For the index is a perfectly succinct list-form summary of a book’s argument. All one has to do is cross-check the number of entries listed under “Barth, Karl” with “election, the doctrine of” and you know what kind of book you have in your hands. Similarly, any book with entries under “language, the poverty of” spills all its secrets out into the open without the need of perusing a single apophatic line from within its chapters.

A good index, however, is like a good waiter: it not only tells you what you will get for dinner, but invites you to sit down and enjoy the aromas of the kitchen while you make your selection. David Clough has written an index like this. Or, rather, I should say that his theology has spilled into his index, for when one peruses the index of his persuasively written book, On Animals, one finds that it has been invaded by animals. “Bacon, Francis” sits just beneath “baboons”; and “Crisp, Oliver” is sandwiched between “creeping things” and “crocodiles”. Just as naturally as most theological books will list “Balthasar, Hans Urs von”, “Barth Karl”, and “Bultmann, Rudolf” in neat alphabetical order, Clough lines up “cats”, “caterpillars”, “cattle”, and “cauliflower” in his index. All of this to say that Clough has produced an index of creatures – critters and all.

In this book, Clough tests one of the core teachings of Christian orthodoxy that goes back at least as far as Basil: when it comes to being, one is either the Creator of all, or one is a creature. Humanity does not occupy an ontologically ambiguous place between the two, Clough observes, but sits firmly on the creaturely side of the divide. Sticking with the core doctrines of the faith, Clough also notes that the significance of the incarnation is not so much that the eternal Word became a human, as that the eternal Word mysteriously crossed the fundamental divide to become a creature. When God takes on flesh, God takes on creatureliness. A manger was the perfect place for the incarnate God to rest.

Despite the focus on animals, Clough has produced a very human book. His reasoning liberates us from the burden of construing the human as anything other than what it is: an animal among fellows. There are always creatures in the index, but we often separate the “Persons” from the “Subjects”. I might even go as far as to claim that separating humans into their own index is a theological move, betraying at least some relative anthropocentrism. Clough favours a “General Index” filled with all the glorious creatures of God’s creation, from red pandas to onions to John Wesley. It is the best kind of index: one that invites you to read the book.

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