Category Archives: Animals

Posts that focus on animals and religion

M Is for Mary

While pre-celebrating Christmas with some friends recently, the topic of cats came up. This really isn’t surprising since two of the families present had been members of the local 4-H cats club. For a while cats were ubiquitous on the internet, but since I have so little time to browse the web anymore, I’m not sure if that’s still the case. Nevertheless, being near Christmas, someone narrated a story I’d never heard before. Tabby cats (like many jungle cats) have a distinctive marking in the form of an “M” on their foreheads. The legend suggests that on the first Christmas a tabby cat was in the manger. Seeing a mouse trying to crawl into the trough were baby Jesus lay, the cat killed the mouse, earning the thanks of Mary, who kissed it on the forehead, bestowing her characteristic M. It is a nice story (apart from the point of view of the mouse, I suppose)—an etiology to explain an evolutionary development in fur patterns.

Blessed is M...

Blessed is M…

Shortly after that my wife sent me a story on the BBC about the oldest inscribed human artifact. Zigzag marking found on a fossilized clam shell from Indonesia suggest that Homo erectus was an abstract thinker, I’m told. The markings, which must at least be 430,000 years old, predate the earliest known human markings by 300,000 years. If accepted by anthropologists this evidence could rewrite all of human history. We had no idea that Homo erectus had time to doodle on shells. Looking at the photos accompanying the BBC article, I couldn’t help but notice they’re in the shape of an M. Perhaps Mary kissed these shells too? So etiologies begin.

If you’ll pardon me for attempting to brush off my training in ancient languages, Mary of Nazareth was likely born into an Aramaic-speaking family. Her name, Mariam, would have been spelled with mem, which, although representing water is some scripts, took roughly this form: מ (assuming the Imperial Aramaic alphabet). If Mary were both historical and literate (the latter, at least, is doubtful) she would not have recognized the tabby’s distinctive mark as part of her name. It would have been an abstract symbol. Of course, God, being a natural lover of cats, may have had the Greek alphabet in mind, where the letter mu gives us our classical capital M. Mary, however, would probably still not have known what to make of it. We love to attribute significances to perceived patterns. The tabby’s distinctive M, as well as Homo erectus’s early exercises in penmanship present us with opportunities to continue making myths. And we should keep the myths in Christmas.

Moral Animals

CanAnimalsBeMoralFor all of my life that I can remember, I have felt an affinity with animals. Even when I was relentlessly taught that evolution was wrong—Satanic even—I still held onto the idea that animals are more like us than they are different. I know this is partially the great sin of anthropomorphism (although I secretly doubt it is a mortal sin), but when I’ve interacted with animals, or watched them interact with each other, they’ve convinced me that they’re thinking. Since, however, we are the very top of the food-chain, we can’t allow such things. That’s why I turn to philosophy. Perhaps public transit isn’t the best place to appreciate fully a book of philosophy, but it’s the only time I have. Those who think categorically and with such rigid logic surely must have something to say on the issue of our fellow creatures. Mark Rowlands’s Can Animals Be Moral? is one of those books that might not be best read on a bus. I found myself constantly wanting to draw diagrams to visualize the course of his thought as we hit another pothole, or an angry bird killed a green pig in the next seat over.

While the animal stories that make such an engaging case are not a major part of Rowlands’s book, they nevertheless, for many of us lesser thinkers, seal the deal. When an animal acts in a way that shows its own lack of self-interest (how un-human!) we should sit up and pay attention. The question of morality, however, is thorny. Philosophers of ethics and religious analysts of the same seldom come near one another in their conclusions. We don’t know why we think morally, but it is clear we often do. It is obvious that it isn’t solely because of religion, although religion sometimes has a hand in it. It is, at the end of the day, a matter of feeling what is right. I feel that it is right to treat animals as thinking, feeling creatures. But are they moral?

Rowlands shows that some of the implications of animal morality can be serious. It was not that long ago that some animals were put on trial for the harm they’d putatively caused. Some were executed. (I wonder if they were eaten afterward?) If we attribute morality to animals, can they be blamed for their actions? Here is where the brilliance of Rowlands’s carefully argued book comes out—animals can be moral subjects without being moral agents. That is to say, they can act morally, but they can’t reason it out. I’m sure that I’m not saying this right, but the basic idea still appeals to me. Reading his final chapter on how moral Martians might view the naked apes of this planet gave me the chills. When we take ourselves off the top of the food-chain, the view becomes very sobering indeed. Would we want to be treated by Martians the way we treat animals on our own planet? Morality lies at the answer to that hypothetical question.

And With Thy Spirit

BenvenutiI grew up with pets. In a house with three boys, an aging mother, and no husband, my mother seemed to know instinctively that animals were a way to engage children. She herself had grown up with animals, although not really from a farming family. Living with animals leads to conclusions scientists fear to make. That’s one reason I find Anne Benvenuti’s Spirit Unleashed: Reimagining Human-Animal Relations so important. Not only do animals remind us of who we are, they are who we are. Benvenuti has the scientific credentials to make her case, although, I have to admit, her anecdotes of interactions with animals were my favorite part of the book. We may be told that animals don’t think or feel. Nature, however, proves that wrong for anyone who actually pays attention to animals. Unfortunately, humans are often the bullies of the planet just because our animal brains developed the way they did and our thumbs migrated to a position where we could easily manipulate objects. It’s time to bring animals up to the table with us.

For years I have suggested to my students that animal behavior has the rudiments of what we call religion. I’ve always felt like a voice calling in the wilderness here since both proponents of and opponents to religion think it is uniquely human. Again, the evidence suggests otherwise, but human knowledge often comes at the cost of evidence. It is refreshing to read a book—perhaps the first I ever have—that makes this idea plausible. The “spirit” of Benvenuti’s title is literal, in a sense. She argues forcefully that animals have souls and with this I would agree. The main problem is that we can’t quantify souls and therefore we don’t really know what they are. We know one, however, when we feel one. I’m not sure they’re much different than minds, or maybe they’re the feeling side of the thinking mind. Whatever they are, we are not the only animals to have them.

I’m convinced that one of the reasons we don’t like to admit animal souls (or animal religion) is that such belief ratchets up accountability. Stockyards start to become detainment camps for innocently condemned creatures. If we dare address the moral issue, we have to ask what gives us the right. To kill for food is natural (although I’m happily vegetarian) but to keep animals in miserable conditions their entire lives and then heartlessly kill them and process them as if they were mere objects is immoral. As Benvenuti notes, even farmers who spend time with their animals know they have personalities. Spirit Unleashed is a book full of wonder and awe. Not so much at human superiority, but rather at how much animals really are like us. How they communicate with us if we’ll listen. And how we all have, even if we can’t define the word, souls.

Spirit Works

SpiritOne of the unexpected (for me) perks of the academic life was book reviews. Some journal editor would send you expensive academic books you get to keep, just for reading them and giving your opinion in writing! Most academics, truth be told—at least old school ones—would work for books. But don’t—wait. I was going to say “don’t tell the dean,” but it is clear that administration is way ahead of me on this one. In any case, I miss not having a viable academic opinion any more. Not having an institution means journals no longer care what I think about books. Also, working in publishing, there may be a conflict of interest involved. That’s why I was so happy to learn that blogging also leads to free books, on occasion. Most of them aren’t university press books, but you don’t have to be a professor to have something profound or useful to say. So it is that I came to read Spirit: A Potential beyond Mind and Matter, by Reza Mohamed.

There were several points that stopped to give me pause in this book, but about half-way through an idea caught me and has stayed with me since. It revolves around the idea of consciousness, something that Mohamed writes quite a bit about. A number of sources lately have suggested that consciousness is not unique to humans. Clearly, to my mind, animals are also conscious, and I think evidence points to consciousness, on some level, for plants as well. Perhaps even what we call inanimate, or inorganic material. Indeed, perhaps the universe itself is conscious. What occurred to me in reading Spirit, is that perhaps consciousness is the primal element. Maybe it has always existed. Could it be possible that we, like riders on a train, borrow a bit of consciousness while our bodies last, and then when we expire we simply climb off that train and consciousness continues on down the track, waiting for the next passenger?

It is nearly impossible to determine whence consciousness arises. Believing that it always existed is more plausible to me than the odd suggestion that it is just what happens when neurons get all mushy from being too close together. All creatures, as Mohamed notes, have will. Plants that follow the sun—slowly, and over years—seem to have a purpose as well. Who’s to say that it stops there? What have we lost if consciousness is endemic to the universe? Of course I don’t have any answers. Just possibilities. Ideas can spring unexpectedly from books, and as a sometime writer, I can say they even surprise an author from time to time. Then, of course, my opinion is merely that of an independent scholar. But I still find myself working for books.

Christian Computing

Science and religion are often portrayed as fighting like dogs and cats. Both claim superiority and a comprehensive worldview that should make sense of everything. With reality television probing deep into the lives of rural folk who still hold to the old ways, it is easy to think that religion is awkward and backward and an embarrassment to the technologically sophisticated. In electrons we trust. As with most simplistic views, however, this dichotomy is overly dramatized. I recently found a flier for Computers for Christ. I didn’t have time to read it carefully, but the space-age font immediately told me that this was vintage 70s or 80s, back when computers were still so new that most of us had never seen an actual exemplar and we had to guess what the future might hold. Would these things catch on or not? A little closer reading revealed the date of 1982, back when I was a college freshman. I had, by that point in my life, never knowingly glimpsed a computer.

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Sitting here with a computer on my lap, and another in my pocket, I wondered what ever happened to Computers for Christ with its space-age crosses and early embracement of technology. I didn’t find anything that really matches it with a half-hearted web search, but it did make me realize that some enterprising Evangelicals had latched onto computers long before I ever did. I recall making a pact with a couple of friends my senior year in college that we’d never give in and use computers. Since I can’t find them online, my guess is that they kept their end of the deal. As usual, I caved. By 1985 computers had found their way even to Grove City College. A strange thing called a “server” allowed people to access it via multiple “terminals.” The computer science professor wore a large cross around his neck. I would go on to seminary and graduate with a second degree not ever having used such a device.

Dogs and cats are both mammals, and neither regularly preys upon the other for food. Although Computers for Christ may no longer exist, the internet has been fully exploited by some of the religious. Jesus was an early meme. I remember when “the winking Jesus” was all the rage since an image on screen was actually animated! The savior virtually moved an eyelid! Now we can find Jesus doing everything from walking on water to riding on dinosaurs. The son of God has adapted to life on the web quite well, and often with a sense of humor. There are those who would argue that this is a travesty of true faith. There are others who would argue that it is a silly use of serious technology. I grew up with both dogs and cats and learned that when domesticated together they seldom fight. As I file away this aging paper, I wonder how the world might change if people behaved so sensibly.

Monster Mash

American MonstersIn one of those ironies of personal history, I never met Linda Godfrey although we lived not far from one another and shared a great many common interests. I’m not sure she would return the sentiment, but while I lived at Nashotah House many odd things happened. Academics can be pretty deep in denial about what they experience, and although I never saw any man-wolves, as I stood outside one night to photograph a comet I felt terribly exposed and in not a little danger. This was on a rural seminary campus. Nashotah was still wooded then, before evangelical shaving of the landscape, and certainly among the most gothic of seminaries I’ve ever seen. Meanwhile Linda Godfrey was researching, just a few miles down the road, weird animal sightings on Bray Road. I began a correspondence with her after we left Wisconsin and I have read all of her books. Local history has always fascinated me, and although I was an accidental Wisconsonite, I nevertheless enjoyed learning about the strangeness of the state I formerly called home.

Godfrey’s latest book, American Monsters: A History of Monster Lore, Legends, and Sightings in America, throws a wider net. We are all in here with the monsters. Blending, as the subtitle suggests, lore and legends with eyewitness accounts, American Monsters can leave the reader a little disoriented, in a good way. We’ve been taught to discount anything that doesn’t match the everyday—what boss wants a worker with a higher vision?—and pretend that such things don’t exist. Weird creatures don’t donate their bodies to science readily, and we are left wondering if something is really peering at us from these October woods. Inside you’ll find stories of flying, swimming, and running monsters. We are safe nowhere. Either from the scientifically undocumented or from those that are purely imaginary. I stand outside in the dark in a smallish town waiting for a bus. What was that sound behind me?

Monsters are only now beginning to gain academic respectability. When I was in graduate school the topic felt so puerile that no respectable Ph.D. candidate would dare suggest such a dissertation to a button-down committee. Now they are beginning to roll off the presses. As part of the religious imagination, monsters are not so easily dismissed. We can assign them to the dark caverns of fantasy and under-stimulated imagination, but they will burst out in their own time and, like gods, demand our devotion. I have no idea whether these cryptids creep, flap, or swish around in our world. People see them all the same. And believing may be seeing. I’m glad for Godfrey’s success at pointing out that our rational world is full of monsters. Hers is a perfect book for days of effacing light and lengthening shadows, all across the country.

See Serpent

GreatNewEnglandSeaSerpentSeeing, it is said, is believing. I have a feeling that this truism may have become effaced somewhat in this age of deft photo manipulation and apps that are marketed to insert ghosts and UFOs into any picture. Nevertheless, anyone who has seen anything genuinely puzzling knows that it creates a lasting impression. A world without mystery, although a capitalist’s dream, is a nightmare for everyone else. So it was, now that October is here, I settled down with J. P. O’Neill’s The Great New England Sea Serpent. I found O’Neill’s book in a used bookstore a few weekends ago (appropriately water-damaged), and since I have a fascination with the ocean and monsters, this seemed like it would appeal to both of my avocations. It did indeed. O’Neill isn’t a sensationalist writer, but rather she is a normal person with normal jobs who has an interest in strange animals. Beginning in 1751 and up to three-quarters through the twentieth century, people had been spotting a classical sea serpent along the New England coast, and occasionally on ocean voyages across the Atlantic. Of course, we’re told, sea serpents don’t exist.

The Great New England Sea Serpent is a compendium of sightings from many reliable witnesses over the centuries. Of course, to many it is impossible. To me this appears to be the same kind of arrogance we apply to the universe—if we haven’t catalogued it by now, it doesn’t exist—to suggest there are no monsters of the deep. As any oceanographer will tell you, we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about our own oceans. If you turn your globe (or app) just right, there are views of our planet where virtually no land is visible. We are a watery planet. Even with current technology, the deep ocean is difficult, and very expensive, to explore. Who knows what might be lurking there right off the bow? O’Neill’s account is full of old salts and snarky journalists, but at the core of it all is a humility in the face of the largeness of the sea. What do we really know?

Of course, there is a fear of literalism. The Bible (and other ancient texts) take sea monsters for granted. Leviathan is a dangerous beast and, no matter what the pundits say, is no crocodile. And yet, for the past several decades the reports of the New England beast have dried up. Where has our beloved sea serpent gone? I have to wonder with both our polluting our oceans and our increasingly efficient (and massive) ships, if we haven’t simply forgotten that ancient maps used to leave space for dragons. Our great ships, guided by GPS, and our oceans running a temperature, are sure signs that greed has surpassed wonder. Have we, in our self-centeredness, slain the last of our dragons? O’Neill, please understand, does not call them dragons. Hers is a sober and straightforward account. But when October comes I just can’t help but hope there are still some monsters out there, deep under the waves.