Do You See Whales?

Exodus 20:1-2, 8-11
October 7, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

The province of Nova Scotia, a province of fishing towns, lobster boats, and fog shrouded shores, is technically a peninsula, joined to the mainland of Canada by a narrow strip of land on its northwest corner.  The rest of the province, however, is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and for most people, it is most easily accessed by ferry.  The CAT ferry leaves Portland, Maine once a day and sails almost directly eastward for five hours, quickly leaving the sight of land behind for the majority of the trip.  Many of the passengers spend the time reading, or sleeping, or hunkered down in front of one of the televisions scattered around the boat, but some lean against the ferry’s windows or stand on the narrow decks peering out toward the endless water hoping to catch a glimpse of mystery.

The ferry’s official “hostess” says that the most frequent question she is asked by passengers is, “Do you see whales?” and when she replies, “Almost every day,” children’s eyes light up and even the adults’ faces betray their envy. 

“And God created the huge whales,” Genesis says, “all the swarm of life in the waters… and God saw that it was good.”  (Genesis 1:21, Message translation)

The sight of whales has excited human hearts for centuries, but until recently, for a very different reason.  Whale hunting was a booming business in the 18th and 19th century as whales provided not only meat for food but oil for lamps, soaps, and perfume; and whale bones were shaped into corsets and even used as the ribs for umbrellas.  Whaling was a dangerous but lucrative profession and as the whaling industry became more proficient in the hunt, whale populations began to suffer.  Their numbers diminished dangerously until finally in the 1950s, countries began to place strict regulations on whale hunting, even banning hunting all together on some of the most endangered species.  It is around that same time that the first whale watching tours appeared perhaps as a way of supplementing the income of fishermen facing hard times.  In 1950 in San Diego, tourists could pay a dollar to take a boat ride into the bay to observe gray whales.  Over the years, other fishing towns around the world followed suit putting their boats to use carting tourists onto the open seas in hopes that they might hear the words, “Thar she blows,” the call to point, not their harpoons, but their cameras toward the whale spouting on the horizon.  Today whale watching has become an annual billion dollar tourism business, found in over 40 countries, and attracting millions of whale watchers each year.

“Do you see whales?”  The shift from whale hunting to whale watching, the desire to sight a whale in order to marvel at its glory instead of harvesting it for profit, is indicative of a broader shift that has been taking place over the last fifty years in our attitudes toward the animal life with whom we share the planet.  The shift is not complete by any means but it is gaining momentum as is evidenced by the growing desire for humane farming practices, the popularity of previously niche hobbies like birdwatching, the number of churches that now celebrate “Blessing of the Animals” Sunday, and of course, the dominance of cute animal videos on Youtube.  The shift we are seeing, however, is not to a new way of thinking about animals but is actually a return to a very old way of thinking about animals, an understanding that in our own faith tradition goes all the way back to the ancient days of Moses and the Israelites when God declared to the people: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.  For … the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.”

“The sabbath day is a holy day,” God told the people, “for you, for your slaves, for the sojourners, and for your livestock.”  Think about that.  God says that even the cows and donkeys; even the sheep and the plow-horses should enjoy a Sabbath break because God’s holiness encompasses all of the earth and every living creature in it.  And, in turn, the Bible says, all of the earth gives back its praise to God the creator.  As Francis of Assisi paraphrased in the hymn we sang earlier, Psalm 148 declares:  “Praise God, sun and moon; praise God, all you shining stars!… Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea creatures and all deeps… Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!  Kings of the earth and all peoples…Let them praise the name of the Lord….” 

For the ancient people of our faith, animals were not just marketable products whose value was purely economic.  Nor were animals biological machines: living tractors, plows, and fertilizer producers for their fields.  They were living beings made by God and instilled with godly worth.  Obviously, the Israelites depended on their animals for their sustenance and didn’t romanticize their relationship to those animals – they hunted the wildlife around them, they butchered their cows and sheep, they traded their donkeys and goats in order to increase their own economic security – but at the same time, they understood those animals to have an inherent value apart from their mere utilitarian worth.  In the stories of creation that the Israelites shared with their children as they sat about the hearth, God created the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and all that walked upon the earth, and pronounced them good before human beings even appeared on the scene.  Animals weren’t good because they could be used for food and clothing for human beings; animals weren’t good because they gave people a way to make a living; animals were good because God made them and loved them and said they were blessed before a human being ever appeared on stage.  

The historian Keith Thomas researched attitudes towards animals and nature from the 1500s until today and argues that the idea that animals have no souls, that animals are little more than unfeeling unthinking biological machines created for the use of human beings, and that human beings are somehow fundamentally different from the rest of the natural world because we possess spirit and consciousness, did not become a prevalent idea until after the Renaissance and the “Age of Reason.”  The theologian Thomas Aquinas, for example, who lived in the 1200s, consistently referred to animals in his theological writings as “other animals.”  What does this simple phrase do?  It levels the playing field and prevents human hubris by reminding us of our kinship with the rest of creation.  1   In fact, Keith Thomas says, “in the Middle Ages it was assumed not only that other animals had souls but also consciences and moral intents as evidenced in the occasional hanging of miscreant pigs, cows or horses, hung for crimes just like human beings.”  2   The people of the Middle Ages would never have argued about whether your dog knew what it was doing when it tore up your slippers because you left him alone all day.  

“Yes, yes he did,” they would tell you.  “Nor is it your imagination that your cat will deliberately snub you when she is not pleased with you.”  Medieval people believed that animals have souls and are capable of moral intent.  Certainly, we have come a long way since the Middle Ages in understanding exactly how the brains of our dogs and cats work, and none of us today would argue that pigs should be hung if they break into the neighbor’s garden.  (Unless you are the one whose garden was trampled.)  Through neuroscience and psychology, we know now more about the development of moral thinking and understand that we can’t judge a pig’s moral behavior by our biologically bound worldview, but the Bible tells us that while animals’ minds may remain fundamentally mysterious to us, that shouldn’t mean that they have no worth in God’s eyes.  In fact, the ultimate inscrutability of other animal’s minds reminds us of how little we know, how limited the human imagination is, and that no matter how high we believe we have become, we are still not God.  Rather, we remain one of the animals of God’s creation, kin to worms, houseflies, chipmunks, and whales.

The growing concern for the welfare of the other animals with which we share this planet is not, then, as some would make it out to be, a new agey kind of fuzzy spirituality but is, instead, a return to a faith tradition that was pushed aside and buried during the rise of rationalism and the industrial age.  And the reason for its return is the recognition that the age of reason and its insistence that animals are merely biological machines has been disastrous for the planet.  When we turn animals into machines, we justify their exploitation and have no reason to care about the quality of their habitat.  If animals are merely an economic product and it is more profitable to turn forests into malls and mountains into strip mines, even if it pushes whole species into extinction, then what is the problem?  Well, in the last hundred years we have discovered exactly what the problem is:  we are animals too, and we too are dependent on the health of the planet we share with those other species.  It turns out that caring about those other animals is the best way to care about ourselves. 

In other words, it turns out that God knows best.  God knows that what is good for the whale is good for us and that when we recognize our kinship to all of creation, our lives will be healthier, more whole, and closer to the way in which God intended creation to be.  The growing respect for all non-human life with which we share this earth is not a new-age tree hugging hooby-dooby spirituality; it is a tradition as old as our faith, proclaimed in the psalms, written into the covenant God made with the people in the wilderness, and declared from the very beginning of all things:  And God looked on all that God had made and said, “It is good.” 

Footnotes:

  1. From “Do Dolphins Carry the Cross…”  Michael S. Northcott  https://thenephesh.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/michael-northcott-dolphins-carry-cross.pdf
  2. ibid