Monday, June 22, 2009

Do Animals Have Souls?

Mark Twain once said that human beings have a lot to learn from the higher animals. Some of those things are perhaps expressed by Gary Kowalski’s description of his dog, Chinook.

"My dog has deep knowledge to impart. He makes friends easily and doesn’t hold a grudge. He enjoys simple pleasures and takes each day as it comes…he eats when he’s hungry and sleeps when he’s tired. He’s not hung up about sex…He never growls at the children or barks at his wife. So my dog is sort of guru. When I become too serious and preoccupied he reminds me of the importance of frolicking and play. When I get too wrapped up in abstractions and ideas, he reminds me of the importance of exercising and caring for the body. On his own canine level, he shows me that it might be possible to live without inner conflicts or neuroses: uncomplicated, genuine and glad to be alive."

Investigation of interspecies spirituality is new territory for most of us. But increasingly scientists, including psychologists, have begin to investigate such questions as whether animals dream, wonder, contemplate death, are conscious of themselves and others, have a sense of right and wrong, shame, loyalty etc. that go beyond the usual explanations of such things as purely instinctual responses devoid of what we humans call “reflection.”

The idea of progressive revelation maintains that, while God’s self revelation does not change, our human capacity to receive and understand that revelation does change. As the human race has learned to understand God more fully, it is claimed, such things as human sacrifice, polytheism, polygamy, racial genocide on religious grounds, etc. have been put aside as our apprehension of who God is and what he requires of us has enlarged. The Church once gave “biblical” defenses for the preservation of human slavery and the subjugation of women, arguments which no longer hold water today. Might it not be that the current discussion and theological reflection over the treatment of animals may be another stage in our understanding of God’s will and ways that necessitates a radical re-think on our part?

In 1988, the World Council of Churches, commissioned a theological consultation which issued recommendations concerning the church’s failure to teach respect for animals. “Freedom [from oppression and for life with God] should not be so limited [to humans] because other creatures, both species and individuals, deserve to live in and for themselves and for God. Therefore we call on all Christians as well as other people of good will to work toward the liberation of life, all life.”

Of course, a doctrine of “progressive revelation, whilst legitimate in the main, often betrays a “natural theology” bias that does not sit well with those who hold that Christianity is a “revealed” religion, and who affirm more classical views of biblical authority and direct inspiration. R. J. Hyland speaks for a progressive revelation stance when he maintains that God never condoned animal sacrifice but that “biblical writers wished to justify their practice by projecting their own violent nature onto God.”

If, on the other hand, as the classical tradition maintains, animal sacrifice was a practice mandated by God in the Old Testament, then the killing of animals per se cannot be wrong. Linzey places a more positive spin on animal sacrifice than does his fellow animal rights theologian, Hyland, claiming that animal sacrifice was viewed by those who practiced it, not simply as the destruction of life, but as the returning to the Creator that which was God’s gift. For God to receive the gift, it must have been assumed that the life of the animal survived beyond death. Thus, sacrifice affirmed the value of the life taken.

In Hinduism, a religion which now frowns on the unnecessary destruction of animals, animal sacrifice was originally widely practiced and was a key feature in the power of the priesthood over the devotees. Only the priest could offer the required sacrifices that would appease the gods. A remarkable shake up occurred in Hinduism when teachers such as Buddha and Mahavira, denounced the sacrifice of animals, in part as a protest against the Brahmin priests’ monopoly on religious power.

In a somewhat similar way, the Hebrew prophets of the same era, though not denouncing animal sacrifice as such, or for quite the same reasons as the Buddha, attacked the priestly system as corrupt and the sacrifices as useless if not accompanied by genuine heart religion. God would not accept the sacrifices of animals unaccompanied by a sacrifice of the heart. Such sacrifices were an abomination to him. Of course, in Jesus, the final sacrifice for sin has made the sacrifice of animals no longer necessary. A new covenant has been established, the final outcome of which is yet to be seen, in a new heaven and a new earth, spoken of by the prophets, in which “they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain (Isaiah 11:9).” Whether or not animals have souls, as creatures of God, they are deserving of respect. All actions toward them must surely be at least informed by the holy mountain foreseen by Isaiah.


Ludicrousity said...

Interesting thoughts Glen! YOu always have a great way of conveying deep ideas!

Ross said...

I recently commented on a post on an atheist blog. It's one of those blogs that likes to point out what are considered to be examples of Christian hypocrisy or general unpleasantness. The writer was pointing out what he saw as a lack of compassion for animals on the part of Christians. The story was that on a Sunday morning a group of Christians were standing in the carpark of their church which was on a busy street. He observed that while they were talking, a dog or cat was ran over by a car and was badly injured. Despite this happening in their full view, none of them offered any help to the injured animal.


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