Paul Andersen: How we are touched by animals is spiritual
The manger scene of the Christmas nativity offers a beautiful and encompassing symbolism. The birth of Jesus Christ in a simple stall on a bed of straw is a statement both humbling and earthy.
The infant Jesus is surrounded by animals — cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, bunnies. The animals flock to the nativity in a sign of conciliation and unity. The first act of Jesus is to role model harmony with the animal world and, by inference, with nature.
Genesis describes the natural order during the figurative six days of creation: “God said, ‘Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the heavens.’”
God then creates the “great sea-beasts and all living creatures that move and swarm in the water.” God then moves onto land and proclaims, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures, according to their various kinds: cattle, creeping things and wild animals.”
To this rich mosaic of life, Genesis assigns man’s dominion “over the fishes in the sea, the birds of the air, and every living thing that moves on the earth.”
This established what some consider a divine dictate to subordinate the whole of nature to man’s will. Others believe that dominion is more broadly and generously interpreted as stewardship through humane relations with the animal kingdom. “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good,” concludes Genesis, after which God took a long rest from the exhausting process of creation.
It’s time for that long rest to end. As we witness the Sixth Great Extinction, divine guidance is necessary in man’s continuing relationship with animals and the biosphere we all share. If not, then human agency threatens to destroy what Genesis credits to God’s good works.
Technological modern man is quick to assert his superiority on the top rung of the hierarchy of life, but anyone who has a relationship with animals and nature understands a far more equitable relationship with beings and forces that can touch us for all our lives.
As I am writing this column in my home office up the Frying Pan, a bighorn ram struts majestically past my window. Powerfully built, its deep chest pushed forward, its horns crowning its jutting, massive head, this ram inspires a swell of appreciation for the creative forces that contrived this beautiful creature.
“Animals constituted the first circle of what surrounded man,” wrote Gilles Aillaud in an essay, “Why Look at Animals.” He confirms what many feel: that animals were originally at the center of man’s world.
“With their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange … because it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species.”
After Descartes, Aillaud writes, man separated himself from animals by judging them as soulless. “Today, we live without them, and in this new solitude anthropomorphism makes us doubly uneasy.”
Social media is mistakenly thought to be an antidote to our loneliness, but technology fosters only virtual relations that leave us empty. Prehistoric cave paintings of bison and horses also strove to bridge the spiritual gap between lonely man and the community of animals.
Humans sensitized to the living world recognize our need for a soul connection with animals. However, an ethical gap is widened by the industrial processing of animals for food where they are seen as mere biotic machines. Aillaud questions the treatment of pets that are neutered, isolated and deprived of animal contact, making them “creatures of their owner’s way of life.”
Our relationship with animals is complex and contradictory. They touch us with their beauty, grace, power and vulnerability. We regard them with awe for their independence, like my visiting ram, or assign them to pet roles that serve our need for companionship.
The Christian creation myth oversimplifies the division between man and animals. All are equally imbued by the miracle of life, by the same supreme hand.
We enjoy telling stories about our encounters with animals because they awaken in us a larger sense of community. How we are touched by animals is how we are touched by the Creation.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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