Placing animals within our religious tradition

The association between religion and opposition to modern evolutionary theory can make it seem that religion sees man as standing apart from nature and its processes.  This narrow debate obscures, therefore, the extent to which understanding nature, a term that encompasses everything from the planets to animals, can be read as a complementary and essential part of our theological stories.  Although there are more posts to be written on how nature and ecological change form a backdrop to our stories of faith–from Old Testament famines to Utah’s crickets–in this post I want to focus on only one aspect of the link between nature and Christianity: the role of animals in parables and religious stories.

Some modern animal theory criticizes how we project anthropomorphic qualities onto the natural world and animals.  Religious stories might be said to be full of this kind of behavior: For example, Christ tells parables about hens gathering their chicks, making such animals exemplary of divine behavior, and common Christmas and Resurrection stories depict nature responding to Christ’s birth and death.  While it is certainly plausible to read these stories as mere anthropomorphic fables, more interesting to me is the idea that these attributes in animals are not in a sense “anthropomorphic” at all.  That is, since the critique of being anthropomorphic implicitly suggests that qualities such as emotion and recognition of the divine are exclusive to humans and not part of nature, it ignores the possibility that these qualities really are found within the natural world.

Whether or not this alternative reading is an accurate description of the world, I enjoy thinking about its implications for how we interact with animals and the environment.  If they, too, are to some extent able to participate in a universal religious tradition, does that alter the duties we owe them?


  1. become vegetarians?

  2. Good thing Utah is the Beehive State. It could have been the Spider Web State!

    Urban legend has it that a spider is so “faithful” and “dedicated” that you can destroy its web over and over thousands of times and it will, with no apparent despair, rebuild it anew each time exactly like the previous one. Dauntless, dutiful drudgery.

    Model of conscientious living? Maybe, but more likely instinct honed by natural selection: lazy and capricious spiders die young and childless from hunger.

    Metaphor or reality? Could our urge to be useful, productive, have a purpose, also have been (perhaps with God’s guidance) naturally selected into us when cooperation proved advantageous over selfish living.

    Another urban legend has it that certain birds mate for life. If a strange male makes sexual advances to a mated female, the male will mount a strong defense. If he is overpowered and the female is gang-raped, the male will join in as corapist.

    Strange bird S/M role playing? More likely, the husband knows a lost cause and wants to maximise the probability that any offspring issueing from the forced encounter will be his.

    Perhaps the real moral of the parable not from seeing animals as people but recognizing and crediting the animal in us. Our free choice might be divine, but the choices we must choose from are natural enough: we hunger, we lust, and we long to fight or cooperate. Even as animals can benignly enough tolerate more anthropomorphizing (they are anyway too dumb to care), we humans could stand a wee bit less of it. I dare say we give ourselves too much credit as it is.

  3. Larry the Cable Guy says:

    As I drove with frost-encrusted windows this morning to teach seminary, I caught a glimpse of a rabbit darting in front of my car in pursuit of a Darwin award.

    This post makes me very happy that upon driving back home, though I was carefully scanning for roadkill, there was none to be found.

    I think that animals are much, much more inclined to fill the measure of their creation than are homo sapiens. On the other hand, the spirit that inabits our biological bodies has a more personal slice of the divine (IMO), making us God’s children rather than just his creations. To me, that is a telling indication of how we, as humans, were created to act, and not be acted upon, even if we bring up the rear in terms of absolute obedience.

  4. Vegetarianism (I practiced it for a couple years a couple decades ago) has always struck me as philosophically muddled for the most part. Whether the current anti-industrial/anti-capitalist version will prove to be more tenable remains to be seen. (I confess that there are many vegetarians and many vegetarianisms and don’t mean to imply that all systems and practitioners are philosophically muddled.)

    Since many animals routinely eat other animals, the suggestion that the human animal must not eat non-human animals requires a radical division between animals and humans, but for many it is the philosophical imperative that animals are (roughly) human-equivalent that drives the commitment to vegetarianism. One could make a strong argument that omnivorism is more natural and more in tune with the rhythms of existence than eating carrots, soy beans, and Vitamin B12 supplements.

    I do like the movement to understand our food better, though, and like the idea of buying meat from local producers/ranchers or of buying a portion of an individual animal, though my preference in this respect is itself somewhat arbitrary.

  5. When the Word of Wisdom instructs us on what to eat and what not to eat, those verses are usually interpreted in a human-centered way—don’t eat much meat because too much of it is bad for our bodies, etc. But maybe it’s not all about us. Maybe God tells us what to eat and what not to eat because he has a plan and purpose for his other creations as well, and we should think about that before we consume whatever we want. I think that more closely follows the language in sec. 89 (where God explains what creations are “ordained” for our use)

  6. I like that rp. I was always fascinated with the Native American tradition of thanking animals for letting you eat them. But maybe that was just on TV…

    At any rate, I like the idea that eating animals is okay but should be balanced with the fact that they also have plans and purposes in God’s creation. It adds a responsibility to not be wasteful, and to be more aware of life in general.

  7. In response to the several comments about vegetarianism/veganism within church culture, I would highly suggest a read of

    I myself am a practicing vegan – a life choice I’ve made in part through an interpretation of D&C 89 and other modern scripture. I feel that modern society has led us to form a rift between us and what we see on the dinner table, and though I don’t see meat as evil, I will continue my eating habits until I feel that I am in a position to use – as a proper ‘steward’ – the creatures God has ordained for us. Our interaction with animals is indicative of how we treat ourselves, how we treat others, and how we respect God.

  8. In the 1835 edition of the D&C, there was no comma after “not be used.” This significantly changes the meaning.

    “Yea, flesh also, of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, hath ordained for the use of man, with thanksgiving. Nevertheless, they are to be used sparingly; and it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.”

    Eat small portions of meat, with thanksgiving, throughout the year.

    Try reading the verse without the “not”. “…it is pleasing unto me that they SHOULD BE USED ONLY in times of winter”, etc. Without the “not”, the verse would teach that eating of meat is allowed only in times of extremity. But with the “not” in the verse, it is again evident that eating meat should not be limited to certain times of the year.

    I will go eat the last of the left-over turkey now… :0)

  9. TaterTot:

    Right, but weren’t grammatical corrections made to subsequent editions of the Book of Mormon to make the revelations more true to their original intent? Wouldn’t the addition of the comma imply that it is MORE important that it’s there, rather than vice versa?

    Despite the debate of that singular comma, that phrase is reemphasized and clarified two verses later in DC 89:15,

    ‘And these (beasts, fowl, and wild animals) hath God ordained for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger.’

  10. M. Dean:

    The problem arises we consider that this comma was not added until the 1921 edition. Some view it as a printing error, others as an intentional editorial correction.

    It is interesting what a difference a simple comma can make.

    Ezra T. Benson seemed to think that verse 15 was specifically talking about the “wild animals” that are mentioned in the preceding verse. Ensign May 1971

  11. That should read “The problem arises when we….” clumsy fingers….

  12. And Heber J. Grant seemed to take the other side of the spectrum when he said,

    ‘I think that another reason I have very splendid strength for an old man is that during the years we have had a cafeteria… I have not, with exception of not more than a dozen times, ordered meat of any kind. …I have endeavored to live the Word of Wisdom and that, in my opinion, is one reason for my good health’ (April 1937 General Conference, then President of the Church).

  13. RHemingway says:

    Oh I do love a good match of GA Texas hold’em!

  14. twitterpated says:

    Speaking of animals, I like the story of Balaam and the donkey. Balaam was interested in receiving a fee from the King of Moab for cursing the Israelites, but Jesus forbad this. Stubbornly, Balaam set out on his donkey anyway, but an angel of destruction opposed him. After saving her ungrateful master’s life by avoiding the angel, the donkey was beaten by Balaam and the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth. She said unto Balaam, “What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?” The angel then told Balaam that if the donkey had not avoided the destruction that awaited Balaam, he would have destroyed the wicked man but saved the innocent donkey.

    Besides being an insightful story, this is a Messianic prophecy of Christ being struck when he, the Judge of Heaven and Earth, was led to an illegal trial and condemnation. The ass is a symbol of royalty and of judgment in the Old Testament.

    I think the fact that the Lord would use an animal as a symbol of his sufferings on our behalf says a lot about the eternal nature of his creatures. I also think that an animal’s divine intelligence greatly exceeds that which humans normally attribute to it, as evidenced by the way the donkey could converse quite easily when the Lord allowed it to do so.

    Bottom line: Animals are just as welcome in heaven as obedient Christians.