Theological Woopsies Part 3: Animal Crackers
Another brief example that veneers our thinking of a living spiritual world is our metaphysical perceptions of animals. It was fashionable at one point in time for church camps to hold mock-debates on the question, “Do animals go to heaven when they die?” One team had to affirm the idea, and the other had to negate it. Rhetoric poured forth, that would generally be led by the affirmative’s compassion for their pet, and then the naysayers would argue how animals are soul-less and therefore don’t go to heaven. The debates were interesting affairs!
If truth be told, we humans would class ourselves to be more spiritual than the animal kingdom. But again unintentionally our western interpretations of ancient cultural concepts are a bit off the mark.
The end of the first chapter of the Bible has this to say:
And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground, everything that has the breath of life in it, I give every green plant for food (1)
Then we read several verses later of God doing something unique with humanity: he bent down and moulded the shape of a human, breathed into his nostrils and the man “became a living being”(2). Now in our minds, that breath of God creates a superiority of our nature over that of the animal world. While it is true that humans have been made in God’s image, we assume that means our God-breathed soul is only unique to humanity. Even though we read that the animals have the “breath of life” in them, we tend to gloss over these verses assuming that it must be a different “breath of life”. But that is not the case.
The Hebrew word for soul, is nephesh. It is described as soul, life, living being, person, appetite, desire, passion and emotion(3). The Hebrew language uses the same word to describe both the souls of animals and people. And it is important to note that nephesh doesn’t refer to just a compartment of our being, but the totality of who we are: mind, will, emotion, body, spirit. Scripture doesn’t use a different category of soul for humans and animals. In fact in Genesis 1, nephesh is used four times to describe other living things and creatures before it is even used of mankind. The English translations of “living creature”(4) and “living being”(5) create categories in our thinking, leading us to assume a human being is of a superior metaphysical make-up than animal “creatures”. But again, that is not fully the case. We have created a division and a mis-guided hierarchy with how we translate nephesh.
Animals are not just living blobs of matter, but creatures with a God-made soul. New Zealand law has just recognised that “animals, like humans, are ‘sentient’ beings”(6). In other words, animals have feelings too. Which is why hunting in indigenous cultures is sacramental, not recreational. Understanding that animals also have souls is no small thing. It provides deep insight into our relationship to creation and helps create a worldview shift. The indigenous mind has much to teach the West about this. It is how indigenous peoples live and breathe in unison with all of life around them.
So, if we have been reading scripture for so long and yet are only now realising that some of our theological interpretations have been blindly skewed, then perhaps we’ve also been reading Māori culture incorrectly. Let us turn our attention to Te Ao Māori (The Maori World) to teach us how to see life in a different way and to enable us to read scripture and practice Christian mission more holistically.
1 Gen 1:30 NIV.
2 Gen 2:7 NIV.
3 Strongs no. 5315.
4 Genesis 1:20 NIV.
5 Genesis 2:7 NIV.
6 http://www.stuff.co.nz/nelson-mail/68363264/New-Zealand-legally-recognises-animals-as-sentient-beings Accessed: September 24, 2015.