Posted by: Geoffrey Meadows | June 10, 2007

The Souls of Animals

Sometimes you hear the argument that, as regards to the protection of wildlife, that we are the only species that really matters. What about people? – seems to be the thing to say.

What about us? There are over 6 billion people on the earth now taking up more and more of the earth’s precious resources. There’s a thing called “net primary production” which is roughly the amount of energy brought into the earth’s ecosystem by plants – plants being basically the only source of energy in our earth’s ecosystem – all creatures on the planet depending on plants either directly or indirectly. Humans are taking up a larger and larger percentage of that net primary production. And that limits the amount available to every other living thing.

Should we as a species allow ourselves to thus take over the earth’s resources without considering the needs of plants and animals?

But there is something else at the bottom of this argument. I think really that it’s the belief that only human beings have souls. Thus God cares only about us.

Why does there have to be such a strict dividing line between us and the rest of life? In my view, there is no such line of demarcation. As we seem fond of saying – “The difference between us and the animals is …” – and then we can never seem to come up with anything that really distinguishes us. We make tools, but so do the chimps. We use language, but the gorillas and chimps can use sign language. The difference it seems to me is not anything absolute, it’s a matter of gradations. There is nothing that absolutely distinguishes us from the animals.

I talked to a friend of mine recently, an African-American woman, and told her I believed in evolution, and she quickly argued that, She didn’t come from the apes. What I should have said in reply was that she is not only related to the apes, but she is related to everything else in nature, too. It may be embarrassing for all of us to look at the apes and say we come from them, but it opens up the world to say I am related to all life on this planet. Maybe distantly in some cases, but we are related to everything. We all are living things, we all have RNA or DNA, and we as “keepers” have a duty to take care of everything on the planet. Our sense of duty should be universal.

But the Bible itself seems to have a mixed record on this subject.

Obviously, one can quote where Jesus says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” (Matthew, chapter 10, verse 29) So Jesus affirms to us that even the sparrows matter to God. But what about this scripture (from the Apostle Paul):

“For it is written in the Law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing.’ God is not concerned about oxen, is He? Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written… ” (1 Corinthians, chapter 9, verses 9 & 10a)

 

God does not care about oxen? Then what did He make them for, one is tempted to ask? But Paul, being an evangelist, seems to say strange things from time to time. (Granted, everything he says must be subverted to that one goal of saving souls. Maybe that’s why he says things that seem difficult to understand or why in some circumstances he seems not to want to rock the boat. Paul also did not oppose slavery when he had the chance.) (See Philemon 12-14)

 
 Frankly, I don’t see how this verse is not a problem for Christians doing environmental work with animals. How do you get around a verse like this? But maybe Christians will have to look at all the scriptures as a totality, and not focus on one verse. Maybe they will need a nuanced defense of environmentalism in the Bible. (1)

Another argument you hear sometimes is that God, when he created each group of living things said, “It is good,” but after he made man he said, “It is very good.” But this is not quite accurate. If you look at the scripture you see that God is looking at the whole creation. It goes like this:

“God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” (Genesis, chapter 1, verse 31a)

So if it’s the totality of life on the planet which makes it not only good but very good, where will we be if we end up losing 20% of the birds, or 10% of the mammals, etc.? What will be God’s attitude? And doesn’t that mean that the creation on this planet will be in some way less good?

In any case, wouldn’t it be easier for us to save what wildlife is endangered if we can feel in our hearts our connectedness with it? This is not at all like worshipping nature, so I don’t think that is a valid argument against this. I’m saying we have a connectedness with nature. To try to work on saving endangered species, for instance, without this is to enfeeble one’s self. And we can’t do this job well without our hearts.

***

(1) A good parallel to environmental issues is the slavery issue, very well discussed in the following book. Like slavery did, the environment conjures up debaters on both sides. With respect to the environment, the authors of the scriptures were at an even greater disadvantage because they could not have anticipated our present situation. See The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, by Mark A. Noll. — Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, c2006.

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