I am fascinated by the question of the animal: What exactly is the difference between the categories of “human” and “animal”? To what extent do they overlap? What ethical obligations do humans owe to non-human animals?
The phrase “non-human animal” itself suggests that humans are also a kind of animal of the genus Homo. Humans, like other animals, are subject to the same physical, biotic, evolutionary, and ecosystemic laws that enable us all to live. I believe that the way humans and other animals function perceptually and emotionally are also essentially homologous. Animals and humans both perceive and relate to the worlds around them in the same way even if the world, say, a dog sees looks different than what a human sees. (An interesting book about this is Jakob von Uexküll’s A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans.)
Beyond that, however, it’s less clear what animals and humans have in common and to what extent. Animals use tools, but they don’t develop technologies. Animals use symbolic sounds to communicate, but they don’t speak or use language. (“Words are for those with promises to keep,” as W.H. Auden said.) Animals seem to recognize fairness, cooperation, and empathy, but they don’t make moral judgments or have theory of mind the way we do.
Where must the line between human and animal be drawn? The problem with drawing that line at some capacity, such as the capacity for rational thought, is that some animals exhibit these capacities too. The movement of this human animal line is what Nicholas Wolterstorff describes a “moral see-saw” when it comes to grounding animal rights and human rights. If the definition for inclusion in the human rights-bearing community is set too low, some higher functioning animals have to be included. But set the bar higher in order to exclude animals and result is that some humans, such as infants or the mentally impaired, will be excluded.
Some believe that such humans can be excluded from full humanity, resulting in justifications for infanticide, abortion, euthanasia, or worse.
Others, recognizing that animals can indeed be wronged, want to include some animals (chimps, elephants, and the like) in the legal community of “persons” rather than “things.” There are efforts underway right now to redefine legal personhood to include some animals in order to protect their rights. While animals can certainly be wronged and therefore deserve to have recognized rights, I don’t think it’s the role or proper authority of the state to redefine words and categories in order to attempt to right the injustices. Groups excluded from their proper rights should have those particular rights restored. Changing the definition of personhood to include falsehoods like “corporate personhood” only creates more problems than would recognizing that entities other than individual humans (like corporate entities, or animals) have their own kinds of rights. Redefinition of defined categories, cultural confusion about membership requirements in those categories, and transgression of proper spheres of authority will not likely contribute to a sustainable path towards justice.
Michael Pollan recognizes the moral see-saw regarding the pain of animals and their capacity to desire its avoidance in “An Animal’s Place.” But he settles on a conception of animal rights that doesn’t go as far as legal personhood. Justice for animals—and the American food system is based in injustices against animals—is about human responsibility to respect the inherent worth of animals and help open their ability to flourish as creatures with their own interests, not simply for human ends.
What of animals’ religious capacity? Spirituality seems uniquely human, but animals have long been seen as having some sort of religious capacity, at least analogous to humans’. In Genesis, God enters into covenant with the entire creation, not just humans. Isaiah 1:3 has long been interpreted in Nativity iconography as the animals’ recognition of the baby Jesus’ divinity: “An ox knows its owner, And a donkey its master’s manger…” Les Murray’s lovely poem “Animal Nativity” and the folk hymn “The Friendly Beasts” suggest the same. The Bible is full of animals meaningfully interacting with God and humans. (Just check out the Caldecott-medal-winning Animals of the Bible.) I recently watched the beautiful and profound film Au hasard Balthazar, which portrays the donkey Balthazar, a humble beast of burden, as a saint who lives a Christ-imaging life. If Christ is the Word made flesh, then Christ is also, at least, the Word made animal.
Many questions about the similarities and differences between humans and other animals boil down to questions of religious significance, questions of origins and meaning: where do these laws come from? Is there meaning and intention to them beyond what humans impose? Are the laws of psychology, rationality, morality, etc. reducible to the laws of biology (or physics)? Are culture, language, and religion merely evolutionary strategies?
My own view is that these laws are how God structures the creation of the world and imbues the every aspect of reality with meaning. Reducing the world to materiality (or any other aspect of the world) is idolatry. These laws aren’t reducible to each other; each law implies a different way of loving and worshipping God, including just by living and perceiving the world as our animality allows us. All these aspects taken together define the human community, and, by extension human personhood. Humanity is the status of those made in the image of God, which includes all humans of whatever capacity. The imago dei is reflected in humanity’s genetics and bodiliness (shared with other animals) as well as humanity’s unique expressions of language, aesthetics, faith, and creaturely tasks as well as, perhaps most importantly, humanity’s integrated personhood.
In conclusion, when I think about the relationship of animals and humans and God, I find great hope and comfort in the fact that Biblical images of the restored, redeemed, and renewed creation (such as the Peaceable Kingdom of Isaiah 11) include animals, transformed even as we will be transformed:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Originally from a vegetable farm in rural northwest Indiana, Rob now lives with his wife Hope in Eugene, Oregon, as he pursues a PhD in English at the University of Oregon. He teaches undergraduate writing courses and studies religion, secularization, and environment in nineteenth-century American literature. He graduated from Calvin in 2007 with a major in history of religion but returned the next year to complete the English major. “Glory be to God for dappled things—”