Animals, Dominion and the Sacredness of Creation 

Animals, Dominion and the Sacredness of Creation 

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:

  1. 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.

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This Messy Renewal

This Messy Renewal

In the past few years, my faith has been deconstructed, shaken, rearranged, re-imagined, worn thin, beat up, and in many ways, renewed.

Of course, for me, renewal has been less like flipping a switch, and more like shedding my skin. It’s like giving birth; long, drawn out and messy. It’s come through existential crisis, dark nights of the soul, genuine frustration, and long periods of feeling spiritually homeless. It comes through doubt, honesty, reading, talking, and whispered prayers. 

The extra-martial affair and subsequent suicide of my pastor in the fall of 2012 fractured the ceiling of my worldview, and little cracks followed along the fault lines. I was devastated, angry, and heartbroken. Questions flooded my mourning mind, and they were questions no one seemed to know how to answer. 

Isaac knew the bible better than anyone I know. If he believed the things he preached, why didn’t they help him in those final moments of despair?

How do I know that any pastor or leader I listen to is not also living a double life of secrecy? How can I trust anything church leaders say?

These public scandals, falls from grace, and moral collapses of mainstream ministers seem to be so common and widespread. What does that reveal about the way we’re structuring the church model? How much of this damage is a result of an unrealistic expectation of perfection thrust upon our pastors? How much of it is a result of an unhealthy imbalance of power between congregants and leadership teams? 

While it is true that the church is made up of humans and will therefore always be imperfect, isn’t it worth considering whether these catastrophes are symptomatic a sickness?

It amazing how once you begin questioning one thing, the floodgates of your mind open up and you start questioning everything else. I saw sickness everywhere I looked, and I tried in vain to swallow my mounting cynicism. Well-meaning Christian friends and family members would provide me with the standard Christian answers to my questions, but they now seemed pale, thin, and unhelpful. 

I realize now that the death of my pastor was probably the catalyst which unleashed all of the doubts and questions I’d kept at bay over the years. Growing up in the American Evangelical tradition, I had gotten the message that my Christian salvation is largely based upon believing in all the right things. And when your salvation depends on believing the right things, asking the wrong questions can be dangerous: getting the wrong answer is heresy.

During my college years, I existed on a pretty steady diet of neo-reformed teachers like John Piper and the other members of the Gospel Coalition. These days, when I see a “Desiring God” article appear on my news feed, I agonize over its often burdensome, extra-biblical, and legalistic content. But I didn’t back then. Once, it had felt safe and reassuring to be deep in this evangelical mainstream: a place where everything was black and white, right or wrong. There was an answer provided for every question, a higher purpose for every action, and a monopoly on truth which kept the mysteries of the universe tidy and organized. 

But then that fell apart, too.

I started to read the disturbing things Piper has said about women, like, that they should endure physical and emotional abuse “for a season” so as to not overthrow their husband’s authority over them, or that they shouldn’t be police officers because they are not to “have authority over a man.” Around that time, his buddy Mark Discoll was calling America a “pussified nation” and progressive Christians “pansies” and “homo-evangelicals.” Scandal circulated around his misappropriation of church funds, his domineering, bullying behavior, and his promotion of violent, macho masculinity.

The deeper I got into some of this neo-calvinist theology, the more it twisted, dark, and unrecognizable it became to me. Piper teaches that human beings are totally deprevaed, and that in order to display his glory, God made some people to be recipients of his saving grace, and he made others just to send them to hell. He also teaches that God does not just allow but ordains sin and suffering, and that he does so for the sake of his glory.

But if child rape, genocide, and slavery are not enemies of God which Christ came to conquer but tools God uses to make himself look good, then that was a God I did recognize.

Meanwhile, the swirling cloud of exclusionary rhetoric coming from Evangelicals in public and political arenas did nothing to alleviate this Christian identity crisis I was having. I struggled hard with the dissonance I sensed between the teachings of Jesus and some of the actions of my tradition. I mourned the casualties of these culture wars being waged by the Religious Right in the name of Christ. I felt pressured to denounce LGBT “lifestyles” and to vote a certain way, despite my conscience. 

Pillars of fundamentalism crashed around me, disappearing beneath dark waves. Whenever I touched one, it broke apart like dust, leaving my hand to grasp for something sturdier. There were a couple years when my faith was muffled by sadness and apathy. I slept in a lot of Sundays.

There must be more to the Christian imagination than compiling these lists of rights and wrongs, more to salvation than an intellectual response to a theological question, more to God’s redemptive promise than saving souls out of a ruined world. 

Then, something incredible happened. I started to hear an echo of my experiences in the voices of others: in the pages of books, on blogs and in 140 characters or less.

I read Rachel Held Evans’ book Searching for Sunday and wept nearly every time I opened its pages. Her words were sweet and sacred to me, they hugged and rocked me back and forth as I read them on my bathroom floor at 3 am. They were proof that I was not alone, they were a reminder that Jesus was walking towards me through this fog.

It felt like a fresh wind was blowing through the halls of my soul. It rushed in unannounced, waking me up from sleep, shaking loose old tenets of my faith, forcing me to my feet. I saw, with renewed excitement, there was more to the mission of God than I had previously thought. During this time, I realized how starved I was for the holy, ministering voices of women. I had been deprived of hearing women teach from the pulpit my whole life, and receiving their wisdom felt like water. God brought women into my life to encourage and embolden me, women who inspired me to find a voice in the midst of my struggles.

My husband, too, was a steady, wise, compassionate voice of reason as storms raged around my soul. He was a real flesh and blood reminder of how deeply good, honest, reasonable, and accepting Christians can be. I was lucky enough to fall asleep next to him every night, and talk his ear off about everything I was thinking and reading.

Slowly but surely, I began to believe that God wasn’t afraid of my questions, doubts, and differences of opinion. Maybe he even encouraged them: maybe he wanted the full, honest engagement of my intellect. Maybe wrestling with him was what was keeping my faith alive.

As I investigated multifaceted and nuanced theological problems, I began to suspect maybe God deals with people uniquely, as individuals, instead of requiring that everyone fit into narrow, rigid categories. Maybe his grace fills in the spaces where our theological boxes remain unchecked.

My take on evangelism became less about a mission to gain Christian recruits and more about a challenge to sincerely listen to and love people. My goal shifted away from trying to convince to people to think like an evangelical, and moved towards an effort to introduce people to Jesus by meeting their immediate needs. 

And although I maintain a strong belief that there is Truth to be found, I became realistic about the fact that none of us knows it completely. Since we are all learning and growing, since none of us has all of the answers, our salvation can’t possibly be contingent having the right intellectual response to a theological problem. There had to be something more to it than that.

As I took these steps, and I breathed in these freeing thoughts, it felt like a contorted mask was falling off the face of God, revealing a face more loving, wild, and beautiful than the one I had been led to believe in.


 

On this journey, I’ve met so many people whose story resonates with my own. I’ve listened as they shared their own painful church experiences, with trembling hands clasped over cups of coffee. I heard stories from people who experienced abuse within the church walls, controlling and bullying behavior from church leadership, or had long been taught damaging doctrines. I heard from people who felt silenced, abandoned, or just plain out of place in the church pews. These wounds were deep, widespread, and far too common to count.

A lot of these people make up the drastic statistical drop in church attendance and religious affiliation in America.  While I cannot speak for everyone, I know that a lot of us feel spiritually homeless, but not spiritually hopeless.

We’re frustrated by what we’re seeing. We’re disillusioned by what we’ve experienced. We don’t quite fit into the spaces available to us. But for many of us, that doesn’t mean we’re ready to walk away from the faith. We want church. We long for it. Though we have seen that the church can wound, but we are unwilling to give up hope that it can also heal. It can surround. It can embrace. It can lift up and restore.

Contrary to being “too consumerist,” most people from my generation don’t come to church looking for a concert, a performance, or an advertisement. We come in search of a safe place to bring our whole, authentic selves; doubts, differences of opinion, and all. Despite our differences, we want to be bound together with the saints who came before us and the saints to stand beside us by tasting and reviving the sacraments.

If there’s any validity to the experience of people like me, the church owes it to themselves to self to listen to our concerns with an open mind and an open heart. As author Zach Hoag said, “The decline of Christianity in America is not a problem to be solved but an opportunity to be embraced.”  The church must be willing to continually examine itself, as an institution, a denomination, a congregation, and not be above reproach. It must be willing to examine the ways in which certain methodologies or ideologies may contribute to unhealthy patterns, made way for unfair power structures, been complicit in abuse or oversight, or taught damaging doctrines.

Even though some days its hard, I am committed to rejecting cynicism and rooting myself in the hope of Christ. I am committed to this messy, arduous, imperfect process of continual death and rebirth. I am sustained by the belief that our invisible, unknowable God looks like Jesus Christ, and that he will not abandon us in this.

If you’re reading this and you’ve felt the way I have, please know that you’re not alone. Know that you don’t have to be silent. Know that you don’t have to have it all figured out. Reach out and tell your story.