Although Sam already beat me to a post on animals in the gospel, I’m adding the one I prepared to the conversation surrounding his post . . .
Last month my dog, Blitzen, passed away. To lose a beloved pet – and to recognize in its absence how deeply its life was intertwined with one’s daily routine – is to realize that it is possible to have a more intimate relationship with an animal than I will ever have with the majority of people I meet.
Given the central position that animals occupy within our lives in an age when articles about pets routinely make it to the top of The New York Times most emailed articles (to be beaten out only by articles like “what a whale taught me about marriage” that combine animals and families into one article), I find myself wondering why the animal’s place remains so under-theorized within LDS theology. In an effort to begin to think about the animal’s place within the gospel, I want to look at what just a few of the fragments our scriptures say about the beasts. Although I will only look here at two moments in Genesis, I hope that other people might bring to light more passages that might help us understand the roles animals might play within our theology.
In the Middle Ages, animals had a far more central place in Christian theology than we currently recognize. Medieval bestiaries, books that compiled the histories of animals and fantastical beasts alike, allowing for a slippage between the real and the imaginary, flourished within monastic, civic, and religious life. These books often painted particular beasts with symbolic and instructional value. Dogs, for example, were often a symbol of Christian virtues, since they tended sheep, and their licks purportedly carried healing power. But by far the most central scene that these books depicted is the moment in Genesis where Adam names the animals.
“And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would name them: whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof” (Genesis 2:19).
Medieval bestiaries always depicted this short passage, and scholars used this moment in part to generate a complex theological understanding about man’s relationship to God. Although certainly the passage positioned man as a steward over God’s creations, many interpreted the passage to mean that man approximated God in his capacity to reason, because he demonstrated an ability to properly use language that elevated him above other life forms.
However, it seems to me that we should not overlook the fact that in this passage Adam’s birth into language and reason also establishes a hierarchal world in which his ability to use language justifies his dominion over animal life. More troublingly, in the next passage Adam names Eve, thus establishing his power of her. I question the ability of the mentality authorized here – one that empowers the human over the animal, the man over the woman, and those who speak over those who listen – to promote humble stewardship over God’s creations. The prevalence of hunting stories within LDS lore makes it seem all too likely that we have often grafted the (sometimes necessary, but often not) slaughtering of animals unto our stories about maturation and independence.
But Genesis also drops some hints that paint the Garden of Eden as a space of far more harmonious relationships between man and beast than my previous comment might suggest. Not only does the above passage allow for the alternative interpretation that Adam’s ability to be like God is founded on his ability to recognize, connect with, and care for animals, but other passages seem to suggest that Eden had a taboo on eating meat. After the flood, God tells Noah, “Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things” (Genesis 9:3). If we overlook how distasteful it must have been for Noah to receive authority to eat the creatures he tended on his ark, does this passage that equates animals with herbs suggest a new dietary law for a more fallen age?
I’m not entirely sure what to make of these fragmentary and contradictory glimpses of animal life within the Bible. And, certainly, I haven’t begun to cover all of the passages. The violence that I see sometimes within them undoubtedly stems from the fact that I relate to animals as pets rather than as food for survival – a luxury that surely few people have. But, I do find that these passages raise some questions.
Why do we continue to privilege the ability to speak so much over other abilities, such as the ability to listen and to hear the word, which, after all, is the quality of humbleness that saints must cultivate? Why do we not take more seriously – as seriously as we take taboos on tobacco and alcohol – the injunction in the Word of Wisdom to eat meat sparingly and to eat locally? In a moment of environmental awareness in which we increasingly understand the importance of eating local products and are witnessing the most rapid depletion of the world’s animal species to date such neglect seems inexcusable. I find myself wishing that we as church members would begin to take far more seriously our duties to be stewards over the earth and its animals and to recognize the centrality of preserving this earth to our narratives of eternal progression.