October 2, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
I saw a cartoon recently in which a man stands at the Pearly Gates greeted by Saint Peter and by a small very excited dog. St. Peter says to the man, “So you’re little Stevie! [Your dog] has been going on and on about you for the last 60 years.”
Those of us who are dog lovers like to imagine ourselves in that scene, greeted at the gates of heaven not only by our loved ones gone but also by a pack of overjoyed dogs who have been waiting for this moment to be reunited with us for the rest of eternity. If you are a cat lover, maybe you imagine beloved cats winding themselves around your legs. Or maybe it is a horse you hope to see again or a parrot or even a special hamster you had as a child. Will there be pets in heaven waiting to shower us with the love they once bestowed upon us in life?
The question of whether pets go to heaven is at a deeper level a question of whether animals have souls because whatever heaven is, it is not a place for our ordinary mortal bodies. Are human beings unique in our possession of a soul or do dogs and cats and elephants and Bengal tigers and the chickadee that comes to your feeder every day have souls as well? Now, I know that this is a question that no one can empirically answer since there is no experiment we can do to prove or disprove the presence of a soul even in a human, let alone a hamster, and the writer of Ecclesiastes acknowledges that it is ultimately a mystery, but just because the answer will always be elusive doesn’t mean it’s not an important one to engage. What we believe about the world, even when we can’t prove or disprove a belief conclusively, affects the way we behave in the world and, as the passage in Ecclesiastes indicates, the question of whether animals have souls has been around for a long time and the way people have answered that question has profoundly affected the human-animal relationship in their society.
Before we can talk about whether animals have souls, we have to first define what we mean by a soul and forgive me if this sounds more like a lecture than a sermon at times. It’s a complicated question.
For most of us, we think of a soul as something rattling around in our bodies that is released when we die to continue in some sort of afterlife but that’s not the way the Bible defines “soul.” In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for soul is nephesh, and it is a word that means “that which animates the body.” You might also call it “the life force, the life energy which originates in God.” When God creates the world in the stories in Genesis, God breathes nephesh into the people that God creates but Genesis 1 also says that God puts “nephesh” into the swarms of creatures that fill the air, that swim in the seas, and that move on the land. According to Genesis, then, every living being has nephesh — it has a soul — because it is the soul which gives it life. It would be an oxymoron to call something without nephesh alive. The soul is the force, the Bible says, given by God that animates the physical body and gives it the ability to move and react to its environment. This was the common understanding of the soul in the ancient world, and it was this understanding of the soul that led Socrates to argue that even plants have souls. They are, after all, alive.
Now, that doesn’t mean that everyone in the ancient world believed that animal souls were exactly the same as human souls. The Bible says, for example, that only human beings were created in the image of God suggesting that though both animals and human beings have been given souls by God, our souls are closer to the divine soul in character, whereas animals have a lower form of soul. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, like the biblical writers, also proposed a hierarchy of souls. He said that plants have “vegetative” sorts of souls that infuse them with a life force enabling them to do plant-y sorts of things, and animals have animal souls that enable them to do animal sorts of things, but only humans, Aristotle said, have souls that can think which puts us on the pinnacle of the soul hierarchy. So look at this carefully: in the Bible, both animals and human beings have souls but the difference is that our souls are made in God’s image, something Genesis goes on to suggest is seen in our ability to make moral choices. We are different from animals in that we have the capacity to understand good and bad. Aristotle, however, said that what makes our souls different from animal souls is our ability to think, and here is where we can find the headwaters for a philosophical stream that dragged the western world and ultimately the church far away from the Biblical view of animals and their God given souls. In the early 1600s, the philosopher Rene Descartes adopted Aristotle’s emphasis on rational thought, and he said that in fact, thinking is the only thing that really counts when it comes to souls and therefore, if you can’t think, you don’t have a soul. Now, I’m sure your mind immediately goes to some people whose lack of thinking might render them in Descartes’ scheme as soul-less but let’s stick with the question of animals right now.
Descartes argued that animals don’t have souls because animals don’t think. He said, in a rather human elitist way, that “the only certain sign of thought hidden in a body” is speech and while he acknowledged that most animals don’t have vocal cords or the proper organs to produce speech, he said that an intelligent thinking organism would come up with some to communicate to show us that they have a rational soul.
As I read Descartes’ argument, I couldn’t help but imagine two dolphins having a similar discussion.
“If people have the capacity for thought,” one dolphin says to another, “Why haven’t they figured out how to talk with us? I must have told my trainer a thousand times to quit throwing the ball in the pool but I had to keep fetching it for him because he never could understand me. They are as dumb as kelp, those people.”
Today, in fact, we know that animals do think and that some even have the capacity for language, perhaps as complex as our own. Moreover, in a 21st century world, applying Descartes’ argument would mean that though your philodendron doesn’t have a soul, your iPhone might. It is the stuff of sci-fi: “If I think, therefore I am,” does Siri have a soul?
We can make hash of Descartes’ reasoning with what we know today, yet his philosophy continues to influence our attitudes primarily, I think, because when he denied the presence of souls in animals, he released us from our uneasy moral relationship with animals. If animals have no souls, he argued, if they are nothing more than complex machines, though they may experience pain, they can’t reflect on it. They have no minds to consider the nature of what they are feeling, and therefore, he argued, they cannot truly suffer. (This is a simplification of his argument but I think it’s an accurate summary of the end result.) Suffering is reflection on the sensation of pain, and is an experience only available to a creature with a soul. So when Descartes removed souls from animals, he also removed any guilt we feel when we butcher them, hitch them to a plow and make them work in the hot sun all day, or kick them in anger, experiment on them, or drive them into extinction.
Turning animals into soul-less machines may have relieved people of the burden of guilt they felt using animals to provide for their own needs, but it had horrible consequences for the animals. How we used them or abused them no longer mattered in the eyes of the church or of God, we declared, any more than God cares about that old television set you are chucking into the trash heap and much of today’s environmental crisis is a direct result of thinking about the earth and its creatures in a soul-less mechanistic way. Moreover, denying that animals have souls has had terrible consequences for us as well. It has severed our personal connection to the animals with whom we share this earth, leaving us alone in a world of automatons. When the church adopted Descartes thinking and did away with animal’s souls, there was nothing left in our faith to explain our devotion to non-human life. Many chose to leave the church so that they could express their sense of connection to the earth’s creatures through earth-centered spiritualities, and those who stayed, remained silent, never asking for prayers when their pets died even though their hearts were breaking. Our intense relationships with our pets and the natural world felt shameful, silly, or at the least something entirely irrelevant to our faith.
If we can reclaim the biblical world view however, our deep spiritual bond with animals, whether it be with the pets in our home, or the whale breaching in the sea, makes absolute sense because we recognize the nephesh in one another. We and animals are soul mates, each infused with God’s breath. The ancient people may not have known much about science but they intuitively understood what research is finally discovering — that animals do think, that animals do have complex lives and consciousness, and that they can feel joy and sorrow and even love. The Bible tells us that what God breathed into us God also breathed into the eagle that soars through the sky, the dolphin that leaps in the water, and the cat that curls itself around your feet. We’ve all got nephesh; the earth is alive with souls.
And to come back to that original question — will I see my dog in heaven? — the Bible assures us that whatever eternity looks like, we can be certain that it will be populated with the souls of all of creatures. In Genesis 9, God makes a promise to Noah that God will preserve all life and never destroy again, and Genesis says specifically that God’s promise is made not just to humanity but to all living creatures. The nephesh — the soul — that God breathes into us at birth, will not be destroyed by death, God promises. Even the animals will be held in God’s hands. Not a sparrow falls to the earth without God’s knowledge, Jesus says, and in the very last days when God creates a new earth and the Lamb is seated on the throne, the book of Revelation declares that every creature in heaven, and on earth, and in the sea will sing in joyous acclamation. The animals will be there at the end of time.
I don’t know what heaven will look like; I can’t know exactly what will happen to this life-force, this soul that was breathed into me by God, after I die; but I choose to have faith in the promise of the Bible that whatever becomes of my soul will be waiting for my dog’s soul as well. We are soul-mates, he and I, just I am soul mates with the sparrows of the air, and the trout in the rivers, and the martin hunting in the forest, and every creature of this earth. God has breathed souls into us all, and God promises to be with us all until the end of time itself.