Note: This article is part of a series. Please refer to earlier posts before reading further here, as I make references to Jane Goodall and the argument of whether animals have souls.
In proposing that animals have souls, there exists several counter arguments. Animals have souls? How preposterous! Everyone knows animals die, never to return! There’s nothing in any scripture to support such an absurd claim! And you’re listening to Jane Goodall? She’s not a Christian and worse, she’s a woman!
In some sense, I agree. I do not believe that matters of supernatural, supra natural, existential, or post-mortem are “locked” and would never present myself as offering an authoritative voice on them and further, I cannot claim that all animals in all times exist beyond the grave. Such thought runs counter to my own, borrowing extensively from the teachings on reincarnation from Buddhist or Hindi philosophy, or the sacredness of animals and Earth in Native American theology. Given the wide scope of her travels, I think it makes a great deal of sense that Goodall would have adopted the thought of other societies. In a 2010 interview, Goodall confessed
I don’t have any idea of who or what God is. But I do believe in some great spiritual power. I don’t know what to call it. I feel it particularly when I’m out in nature. It’s just something that’s bigger and stronger than what I am or what anybody is. I feel it. And it’s enough for me. (Readers Digest, Sept. 2010, pg 128)
The reluctance to align herself with a particular religion may be a warning sign to those who are conservative in their faith, practice and thought, though I feel it important for us to remember that her work requires she be more “fluid” in such matters, as are more diplomats, advocates, advisors, international representatives, etcetera. While I cannot say Goodall subscribes to any religion, I believe this is a conscious choice on her part rather than ignorance or subscription to the more universalist faiths. Whatever her beliefs, whatever her background, it is clear that Goodall’s theology brings attention to the natural (animal and Earth care).
Evangelicals are only now coming to the table of environmentalism. In part, I believe this is because there is overwhelming scientific evidence in support of what is common knowledge to everyone else – there are only a finite number of resources on Earth. Pres. Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and a handful of others were the first to bring American awareness to this, but with the profitability of World War II and the machinations of nation-states trying to race to fill power gaps, the entire world has forgotten this. It becomes a polite footnote in editorial notes, even though European authors (yes, including Christian authors like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien) together with the rise of organizations like The Sierra Club were practically screaming it. So it is that when people who have spent their lives working to protect God’s creation speak about that creation, I tend to listen, even if they take “ludicrous” positions – like animals having souls and proposing that we should restore their dignity. My reason for this is strictly because of an adherence to the Jewish concern with tikkun olam, “repairing the world.”
Personally, I find it hard to believe that some animals mate for life and will die once their mate has “of a broken heart” is strictly a scientific anomaly. Mating rituals and animal husbandry is simply insufficient to explain this. If some animals mate for life (to see a list of animals that mate for life, see link) even when they are such “primal, base creatures, so far removed from humanity,” then we can no longer claim marital unfaithfulness among humans a matter of “base nature, primal desire, or a remnant of human evolution from an earlier period” but instead nothing other than sin. If we can’t make allowances for creation, then we can’t make allowances for ourselves, right? If we, that is, humans, claim the high ground, then we must be willing ride it to Hell.
Contrariwise, humans are not “sinners by nature.” When we speak of a “natural” state for any part of creation, we cannot suppose that they are a particular way about them which easily fits into a box. Paul may argue that we are sinners because our ancestors were sinners (via Adam in his letter to the Roman outpost), but Jesus proves that humans are capable of not sinning.
The Aristotelian view positions the soul in a variety of ways, each corresponding to the nature of the host. Vegetables have vegetative souls, animals have animal souls, and humans have rational souls – each corresponding to the nature of their host. In carrying this out, the Aristotelian model makes space for universal souls (collecting the diverse pieces and the closest to God that we can know, as it makes space for everything – all matter, immaterial substance, whatall). These views are set against physicalists who argue that nothing possesses a “soul” per se. We are each alone, without connection to the rest of the world, without causality, etc. An extreme position, perhaps, but a very influential one in light of recent social movements towards nihilism, atheistic popularity, and even the influence of Chandler and Driscoll on Christianity.
Now, if animals have souls, even “souls befitting their kind” in the Aristotelian view, what is their responsibility? A responsibility “befitting their kind.” If the people of the Book want to position humans as the culmination, pinnacle, and end of God’s creation (a position I would disagree with strongly), then we must acknowledge the ways in which the Fall (of Adam and Eve/ humanity) have affected animals (e.g. violence, the transition from vegetarian to carnivorous diet, the mythological loss of speech, etcetera). And, as they possess a soul and not a spirit (the eternal and worshipping quality), they do not revisit creation, their souls are temporal/ temporary and they live and die at the whim of humans. What then, is the responsibility of humans? As eternal creatures possessing the form, the substance, and the spirit, their responsibility rests with God. With whom they are equal. God asks that they care for creation, but this “care” is expressed in a variety of ways – of which exploitation is one. The command to “subdue” the Earth is a matter of oppressing lower life forms.
This, as should be obvious, is the line of thought that nations have used to oppress others. This understanding is the same that held Africans in captivity for hundreds of years, the same that continues to say women are “the weaker vessel” (containing a soul like the male, but inherently “less” than male – running contrary to science and reason). This is the same line of thought which harvests the Earth without end, without replenishment, without letting the land lay fallow to be renourished, and which actively promotes detrimental health practices concerning food. Since food is not renewable in such conditions, we have a mandate from God to “subdue” the elements and create a composite food.
This may be a shocking misreading to you, Reader.
And I would agree. It certainly shocked me to come to terms with it. Which is why, years ago, I began to examine those views to which I held so tightly and began to allow for animals and “baser life forms” possessing something more than the reductionism that science and religion (together as much as apart) allows. When Goodall proposes that animals have souls, I cannot counter it. Instead, I support it.
The Hebrew and Christian apocalyptic literature (Isaiah, Daniel, and Revelation in particular) expressly state that animals and humans will live together in The New Jerusalem / New Earth. Whether these animals will be out favorite pets (e.g. “Boo-boo Kitty” or “Oreo” from my childhood) remains to be seen. On this, I have no idea. I would, however, affirm the dignity of creation – animals as well as the Earth and other planets. In saying that I affirm the dignity of the Earth, I do not mean we have carte blanche to mine and exploit another planet, for instance.
PErhaps this makes me out to be some wild-eyed “liberal,” but I cannot apologize on this. We must, as a people of faith, begin to affirm the dignity of creation and if that means we take the schematic of a human soul (mind, will, and emotion) and see evidence of this in other parts of creation, reason dictates we do so. While it may be argued that I am used a philosophical model (the structure of the soul as tripartite does not appear in Judeo-Christian scripture, but later in philosophical writings and reaffirmed in theological ones), I would counter that scripture does not outline a great many other things – including humans having a soul. These are constructions we extrapolate, words used to approximate, not items in the text with “passage and verse.” Hints exist, nephesh and ruach, but the literal meaning of them does not necessarily depict “soul” as it is understood in common English. Instead, they are approximations which point to the metaphysical and divine – not that immaterial substance which so defines the human experiment (see Gen. 1, 2:7, 19; I Sam. 1:15; Mk. 8:36; Acts 2:17-18; Rev. 6:9-10). Further, the Greek psuche/psyche (from which we get psycho[ology]) in an anachronistic expression for the same (anachronistic = “against time / not linear”) which we read backwards into the text. These terms are used in scripture not of animals or humans, but of life in general – both human and divine. Very, very rarely are they located as indicative of humans.
I can already hear the defense, Brother, you’ve read the Bible wrong. Those expressions always refer to humans and God.
What of Ecclesiastes 3:21, which states that both humans and animals have “breath” which exists postmortem? Or the care God gives on a renewable “resource” like birds in Luke 12: 6-7? God recognizing the hairs on your head does not mean he forgets the feathers of the birds.
Animals are a rarely said to have a soul, Ecc. 3:21 says that animals have souls. This is the sole exception and Aristotle was right, “It is clear that the body of an animal cannot be simple.” (Aristotle, On the Soul, Bk III, Ch.22)
Further, if the bi-partite and tripartite divisions are post-Biblical (or even, I would argue, inter-Biblical) developments, we again come up against the “soul” as located in the body itself (e.g. kidneys, bowels, bones, flesh, and especially the heart in Rom. 2:15; Jer. 31:33; Mk. 12:30). Can the “essence” be divided from the body/ corporeal/ temporal? These instances express not just sentiment, but desires, hopes, pursuit of God, etc. which we see animals expressing (e.g. Pavlov’s experiment prove animals possess the ability to anticipate/ hope). And even if we were to dismiss the temporal somehow from the eternal, to shed the “animal” qualities of humanity for something higher, we must recognize that this is an exercise undergone only because there is a priority to the immaterial only because the body is ever withering away (2 Cor. 4:16; Lev. 21:22; Lk. 14:12-14). It does not give evidence that the body or animal qualities of humanity will discontinue in the Evermore. Death is, in some great sense, the doorway to life after the Afterlife. Scripture does not detail the difference between the body and soul or how they are related. That would be dualism. And any argument towards qualifying animals as lower creatures on this basis (the nature of their form is ill-equipped to house a human-shaped soul) is, again, a later development of philosophy and not scriptural.
It is imperialistic to think we have hard and fast understandings.
But, to return to my first, I want to conclude with one final question to be taken up at another time: In promoting animals to dignity, in saying animals have a soul, I believe there exists a tremendous indictment of organized religion (as much as the disorganized variety) towards the disabled who, in possessing human form, are forgotten. In some great sense, we neglect to affirm the souls of those in a vegetative state because they are “like” animals in that they possess limited intellect and are expendable. This was one of the many sins of the Third Reich, and one I cannot abide. We must, for the sake of what we hold to be holy, begin to affirm the dignity of God’s creation instead of continually demoting it. It is an easy affair to ever debate who possesses what and when. It is much harder, and indeed the only course we are ever called to, to choose the simple love, grace, peace, forgiveness, and renewal of hope because this places new demands, new yokes, upon us. Whether they are easy and light? That is a conversation for the dining hall.