My family deplores my habit of talking to pigs, partly because it involves rubbing noses with them, thereby polluting my person and maybe theirs’ with all manner of bacteria, and partly because it’s embarrassing to explain to strangers what I’m doing. Of course the pigs may imagine that they are going to obtain some food from this conversation, but they often give every evidence of enjoying it long beyond the discovery that I have nothing for them. I, on the other hand, enjoy their extraordinary vocal repertoire of grunts, gurgles and squeals, their robust slyness, their curiosity, their good humour. I have never known any particular pig for any length of time, but I imagine that it would be a fulfilling relationship. They are said to be one of the most intelligent animals, ranking above dogs, if below great apes.
I was thinking of pigs as I read a splendid book by Esther Woolfson, called Corvus, an account of her relationships with several members of the Crow family whom she kept in her house over years. She is unsentimental about them but attributes to them an affection for her which matches hers for them. She muses on what this means, concluding that “we are something of the same.” Perhaps humanity could be divided into those who think animals and human animals are something of the same and those who Insist on the differences. When I say animals, I am not referring primarily to pets, to whom many owners grant quasi human status, but rather to wild animals and especially those that live amongst us.
Humans and animals are creatures of the one ecological network, in which the former because of their superior intelligence have responsibility for the latter. Burns’ mock-heroic humour expresses this in relation to a mouse:
‘I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
He recognises the ‘dominion’, which the book of Genesis attributes to divine command, but also ‘nature’s social union’ which is an extension of Jean Jaques Rousseau’s ‘contrat social’, and holds them in regretful balance. He doesn’t deny the dominion, but hints that the social union is more important. Just as ‘A man’s man for a’ that’ rubbishes the importance of rank, so here he refuses any interpretation of ‘dominion’ that emphasises status to the exclusion of partnership.
I find myself drawn to this balance. Animal advocates who deny the ‘superiority’ of human beings often pay silent tribute to it when they protest the huge and destructive effect of humanity on the natural world. The intellectual capacity of human beings demands recognition if only so that it can be controlled. The Bible recognises it by commanding a ‘dominion’ which includes responsibility for all other creatures, although it also tells them to fill the earth and subdue it. In the biblical God’s original plan however, animals were not food for human beings, but humans and animals were to feed on plants. The bible account as a whole is ironical because it depicts human arrogance over status as the origin of evil.(‘you shall be like Gods..’.)
About the fellowship of all mortal creatures the Bible has nothing to say. Its main texts were written in a an era of extraordinary human development of technologies which allowed the growth of urban centres and the creation of a leisure class. Human wonder at its own achievements blinded its thinkers to all that humanity shared with animals. The 18th century in Europe began to challenge humanism from the standpoint of nature, providing the Romantic movement with some of its most important materials. The contemporary world is rich in radical thinking about ecological matters, and especially about the rights of animals. (At the same time, nevertheless, agribusiness on a huge scale continues to torture animals daily so that people can have cheap food.) I am not sure if the language of rights is helpful, except as a counterweight to abuse, but I want to promote nature’s social union through education, good farming practice, and knowledgeable appreciation of wild animals, while using man’s dominion to protect the web of life.
The Christian tradition can help construct this social union by discovering its own areas of blindness to other creatures as well as its areas of insight. (e.g. The Sabbath is for animals as well as humans.) One of the areas of blindness is the question of whether animals have ‘souls’ and can go to heaven. The traditional answer is that they don’t and can’t, an answer based partly on the bible and partly on cultural prejudice. It’s true that the Bible does not envisage animals having a share in eternal life. Indeed its authors viewed the Egyptian custom of providing the dead with animals to accompany their life after death as heathen superstition.
In fact, the bible tradition does not speak of humans “having souls” they are souls and bodies and minds and spirits. Hebrew culture certainly thought that animals were souls, in the sense of ‘centres of active life’. They forbad the consumption of an animal’s blood, because the ‘blood is the soul'( Hebrew:nephesh). Animals are not described as spirits. God is known through his spirit and he is also a body and a mind but is never described as a soul. How these different dimensions of life relate is not explicitly described in the Bible,but it seems clear that spirit is the dimension in which we are able to step outside of ourselves to affirm meaning, place trust and offer love.
So my question to the Bible is: on what grounds do you deny that animals are spirits? Do they not find meaning, place trust and offer love? For if indeed they step out from themselves towards other beings, surely they are as much spirit as me. I think that there are very few people who have had a serious relationship with an animal and would deny its spiritual capacity. Probably this what Esther Woolfson meant by “something of the same.” And if we share this relationship with animals, how can they be excluded from sharing the eternal life which we are promised?
Yes, it’s taken me all this time to get back to my title. If, by grace, I end up in heaven, I’ll be very disappointed if there no pigs.
There’s more to be said on this topic, but I’ll keep it for my next blog on this site.