Recently, and I’m not quite sure why, I’ve been drawn to thinking about animals and what our relationships with them should look like. I think it started with some questions I have about what exactly a self is, and whether a self should be considered a different thing from a soul or a mind, or if they should be taken as different words for the same thing. I haven’t really gotten to an answer on that yet, but those questions led me to think about animal treatment because it seems to me extremely plausible (if not quite probable) that selves, souls, and minds are the same thing. If that turns out to be the case, then one of the main distinctions commonly made (by Christians) between humans and other animals falls apart, and anything with the capacity for emotion, creative thinking, reason, choice, self-awareness, etc. should be granted whatever respect goes along with having what Christians call a soul, and that would probably include most of the animal kingdom.
The second strand of thought that converged with this one was my thinking about the soul itself from a biblical standpoint. It’s just not clear to me that the biblical concept of a soul is a floaty, immaterial self that inhabits the body, and which is transported into the direct presence of God when it’s separated from the body, where it waits for the recreation of the body, so it can reinhabit it. That’s the idea of the soul most commonly drawn from the New Testament (especially Paul’s writings), but it seems hard to reconcile with the Old Testament concept of a person, which seems to be materialistic – i.e. you are your body. In the OT, the word most often taken (by us) to mean ‘soul’ is simply ‘breath’ in Hebrew, and the OT often speaks of animals having the same breath in them that we do (Gen. 1:30). What’s more, if these two pictures of the self – the (seeming) NT concept of a body inhabited by a soul, and the (seeming) OT concept of a very special, complex, completely material creation – can be reconciled, it’s not clear that the final picture will look a lot like our (seeming) NT body+soul combo.
The significance of all this can be seen this way. Whenever I get in a conversation with a Christian about animal treatment, inevitably the point will be made that humans have souls, and (insert whatever other animal you want here) do not, and so they do not deserve the same sort of respect that we do. Most often this line of reasoning is an attempt to justify the belief that humans have something like a license to kill animals for the sake of convenience or personal comfort. I can kill a spider because it unnerves me (even though it isn’t poisonous). I can flush a goldfish because I’m tired of it. I can hit a possum because it’s in the road (or because it will be funny to some people). I can have my cat put to sleep because it claws me (or the furniture).
All of these lines of reasoning seem to fall apart if it turns out that souls, selves, and minds, are all the same thing. And the fact that we don’t know that they’re not the same thing is just as deadly to these conversations. Why? Well imagine this: you are hunting with a friend (for food). During a slow hour, your friend strolls off into the woods to relieve himself. While he’s gone, you notice a rustling in the brush that sounds very much like a boar – just the thing you’re hunting for that day. You think it’s probably a boar, but you know that there’s also a chance it’s your friend. Do you shoot?
Of course not. And notice this, you refrain from shooting into the bush (killing the cat, flushing the fish, etc.) not because you know it isn’t your friend (doesn’t have a soul), but because you don’t know what’s in there. This line of reasoning (as I’ve tried to show in parentheses) greatly illumines the question of animal treatment. It’s not because we know exactly what an animal self is that we treat it respect, but because we don’t know.
But maybe you think you do know. And maybe you think the bible gives you that knowledge. The bible never says any animal other than a human has a soul, granted, but here are some things to consider, when thinking about animals from a biblical perspective.
1. The bible never says animals don’t have ‘souls’ either. The text is simply silent on the issue.
2. Though humans certainly seem to uniquely be bearers of God’s image, this is probably irrelevant to the question of souls or selves. The imago dei (image of God) should most naturally be understood as authority and excellence over creation. We are to picture God to the rest of creation as rulers and superiors. There is no connection I see in the bible between our authority over creation and any metaphysical difference between us and animals. Taking the image of God to mean ‘has a soul’ doesn’t even make sense anyway unless you say God also has a soul, but what could that mean?
3. The bible wasn’t addressed to animals to answer their questions about life and existence, but was addressed to humans, concerning humans’ relationship to God and one another. Would we expect such a book to address the question of animal existence?
4. The one time a biblical author does seem to address the question of animal existence, he seems to do so agnostically – admitting he doesn’t know if they persist after death. (Ecclesiastes 3:21)
5. Jacob, at his death, spoke what may be considered a curse upon two of his sons, mentioning mistreatment of an animal among their offenses. Gen. 49:5-6
6. The ‘Noaic’ covanent that God made after the flood was made with all living animals. Gen. 9:8-17
7. The biblical concept of heaven is (at least partly) materialistic. There will be a new heavens and earth where we will live out real lives (much like our lives now) in material bodies. Jesus speaks of eating and drinking in the kingdom of heaven. In light of this picture of heaven as this-world-renewed, it seems totally reasonable to think there will be animals there, just as here.