If you condensed the history of the universe into a single calendar year, with the big bang occurring on January 1st, the stars of the Milky Way forming a galactic spiral in May, our solar system taking form in September, and the first animals rising to life in early December, then comparatively, human beings have only existed for the last 60 seconds before midnight, December 31st. Written history only extends back in time about 5 seconds.
That’s it. Human history is a breath.
Science feels like existential poetry when you remember that the light of the stars is billions of years old and the dirt beneath your feet is filled with ancient bones. The earth is scattered with the memory of creatures who lived before us. Their skeletons lie fossilized, curled and preserved in rock, waiting to be exhumed and remembered. Bones are a promise that there was once flesh, there was thought, there was life.
Maiasaura, “The Good Mother Dinosaur” left us her nest full of hatchlings. Her babies had grown past their newborn state but had remained in their nest, proving that she regularly returned to care for them.
Gigantopithecus, “The Giant Ape” left us his teeth. Towering at 10 feet tall, this prehistoric giant lived in the forest alongside early humans for nearly a million years, feasting on a vegetarian diet of bamboo and fruits.
Maiacetus inuus “The Mother Whale” left us her body, still pregnant. The protective cage of her skeleton shielded her child, who was pointed outward, face first, suggesting that these primitive whales gave birth on land.
There is something profoundly reorienting for me about the fact that thought predates humanity. Memory predates us. Pain, play, fear, maternal love, sight, joy, grief- these were experienced by creatures for millions of years before man ever drew breath. Across the millennia, in ancient seas and skies and in the treetops, lives were lived. The earth inhaled and exhaled and shifted with the vibrancy and drama of real, relational, communicative existence. Birth and death, sunrise and sunset.
According to the creation story in Genesis, God’s spirit was there all the while, hovering over the waters, weaving unspeakable wonders, whispering “It is good, it is good, it is good.” All the years which came before us were not empty. They were not “filler time.” They were not less significant because they did not include us. They mattered.
The poetry of the psalms declares that all creation worships its creator, and that the whale’s song is really a song of praise unto God. If that’s so, than even worship itself predates the human mind. There is a divine purpose for the faraway galaxies and ocean depths which human eyes will never see; there is magic and there is glory still unknown to the human heart.
The bedrock foundation of my belief systems began to shift when I became convinced that we do not give significance to everything else. We are a part of the cosmic story, but we are not the whole story. We are one expression of God’s vast creation undoubtedly a unique and special one- but we are not the sum of all things.
In recent years, I began thinking about something which has always been right before my eyes, yet was strangely absent from my moral consideration: the value and significance of animal life.
I was fascinated to learn about the vivid inner worlds of animals like whales and dolphins- creatures which lived in a mysterious, watery world, had complex social structures and modes of communication we are still just beginning to understand. I learned that whale and dolphin brains contain Spindle Cells, which are responsible for complex social responses such as empathy. There is even a part of the cetacean brain which humans do not have- called the Paralimc Cortex, which is associated with processing emotions and may contribute to their highly elaborate social groups. They suddenly seemed like aquatic alien life forms, fascinating in their uniqueness.
I started to consider the vast array of diversity of life on earth. I imagined life though the eyes of chimps and pigs and ravens and the dogs sleeping at my feet. Even those animals without hyper evolved intelligence or cognition were still sentient, and that sentience seemed to matter. A calf leaps for joy when released into an open, sunny field, and cries out in pain when it is caged too long.
Within my Christian circles, these sorts of discussions often descended into abject debate over whether or not animals possessed a “soul” as we define it. I was focused on something more immediate-their experience of their own life. I knew that whatever they were, they weren’t nothing. God endowed them with minds to think, he made them capable of feeling joy and of experiencing pain. I knew that whatever spark of life it was that gave my dog her personality, whatever spirit caused a mother elephant to weep over the body of her dead child, whatever awareness enabled Kanzi the bonobo ape to learn a language and use it to communicate with his keepers- it was a spark of life given by God. Surely his love and mercy were certainly not too small to include these creatures he had made. Surely he regarded them as something more than disposable commodities, and cared about their suffering and their pain.
I began to believe that animals possessed an intrinsic value which was altogether separate from how they could be used, appreciated, eaten, or otherwise utilized by man.
This was a significant perspective shift for me- me, who emerged from an anthropocentric tradition, from a humanity whose histories, mythologies, and philosophies have always centered man as the nucleus of creation. Me, who was raised in a religious tradition which often depicts God as only being concerned with human affairs, which has a blundered history of rejecting scientific findings which threaten to replace mankind as the center-most character in nature.
Before the Theory of Evolution came along, it was easy to draw a bold red line between man and the rest of the beasts. Darwin blurred this line of separation when he revealed that we are in fact connected to all other living things in a literal, biological sense. Although we are unique amongst the animals, we share a kinship with them as well.
In scripture, the thing which separates humanity from the rest of the animals is the Imago Dei, “The Image of God.”
When I was a little girl in Sunday school, wearing my frilled dress and munching on glazed donuts from the sanctuary lobby, I learned-with the help of a green felt board- that God blessed Adam with this distinction gave him dominion over all the animals in the Garden of Eden.
“And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
Growing up in the Evangelical Church, the topic of animal suffering was almost never brought up. The Church’s silence spoke loudly to me about how secondary, how utterly unimportant this issue must be. The only thing which seemed somewhat clear was my understanding of dominion, which essentially meant that man is not only better than the rest of creation, he is the rightful ruler over all of it. Dominion was our God-given right to do with the environment and animals what we pleased. I have heard it used to excuse deforestation, mass extinction of species, intensive farming, and even global warming.
Dominion, rather than serving as a mandate for responsible ecological caretaking, is often used as a license for man’s complete control over everything else. Rather than emphasizing the importance of our relationship with the earth, it defends our tendency to make environmentalism a “none issue.” Too often, it is used as an excuse for the catastrophic mess we are making of the natural world, as if the complete domination and degradation of the earth were our birthright; as if widespread abuse, mistreatment, and disregard for animal suffering were somehow sanctioned by God.
This attitude is made worse by the belief that the earth is essentially disposable. As Mark Driscoll told conference attendees in 2013: “I know who made the environment and he’s coming back and going to burn it all up. So yes, I drive an SUV.”
If you believe that the eventual destiny of the natural world is to be reduced to a burning, discarded trash heap, one which the souls of the saved will be evacuated out and away from, that leaves no incentive to protect or conserve the environment. If anything, it gives permission to treat God’s creation like garbage.
But if you believe, as I do, that the Creator of the Universe is fiercely committed to the restoration and renewal of all things, to healing what has been broken and reclaiming what was once called “good,” then baring his image means bringing forth the first fruits of that renewal into the present by actively caring for the world he has made.
Romans chapter 8 says this:
19: The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.
It is true that we wield tremendous, terrible power over the rest of the planet. No other creature compares to us. There is not an animal on earth we cannot kill or natural landscape we cannot decimate when it suits us. The landscape, the atmosphere, the oceans, the rainforests, countless species of animals- they are all ours to do with what we will; to either protect and defend or abuse and destroy. All life on earth rests in our human hands.
Being endowed with the Imago Dei means we have a responsibility to reflect God’s image back into the rest of creation. And who is our God? Our God is Jesus- not an abusive tyrant, who savors and misuses his power, but one who made himself like a servant, emptying and sacrificing himself for the sake of the undeserving and the small. Christianity always calls for the the strong to defend the weak and the powerful to be kind to the powerless.
Our oldest commandment is not one of totalitarian power. It is not a license to inflict violence on creatures or ecological holocaust to the planet. It is a sacred call to join God in his mission to protect, care for, and liberate creation: to help set it free from it’s groan of travail.
In recent years, Christians have slowly but surely begun to warm up to the idea that caring for the Earth is part of our Christian responsibility. It’s now time to ask what that means for animals.
Consider, if you will, this information:
- We are currently experiencing the largest mass extinction of animal species since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Each day, dozens of species of animals disappear off of the face of the Earth forever. 99 Percent of the time, these mass extinctions are the result of human activities.
2. As a culture, we consume more meat at lower prices than any other society in human history. In order for this to be possible, nine billion animals are slaughtered annually in Factory Farms in the United States. In these factories, sentient animals are utterly devoid of rights and treated like pieces of machinery. They are routinely dismembered without anesthetic, kept in such tight confinement that they are unable to stand or turn around for the majority of their lives, and pumped so full of antibiotics (to preemptively guard against diseases in the filthy conditions) and growth hormones that their bones break beneath their own weight. Weak or sickly piglets are routinely picked up by their hind legs and swung hard onto the concrete floor so that their skulls are crushed. Male “layer” chicks are also of no use and are therefore ground up alive. Many animals which are not properly “stun gunned” are dropped into boiling vats of water fully conscious, beginning the process of slaughter while still slowly dying.
I don’t think it is extreme to say that this is a grievous, shameful, horrendous treatment of the creation God has given us to cultivate and keep.
No one wants to cause an animal pain or suffering unnecessarily. But if you’re willing to look behind the curtain, you’ll quickly find that our smallest convenience is worth their worst pain: an afternoon snack for us is worth a lifetime of suffering in darkness for them, a day at the zoo for us is worth a lifetime of unnatural confinement for them.
As Matthew Scully writes, “We are called to treat animals with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don’t: because they all stand unequal and powerless before us.”
Today, I want to urge you to reconsider the relationship we have to the rest of the animals God has made. To widen your circle of empathy, to see that the promise of renewal is not to small to include them.