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?