All Creatures of Our God and King – On the Dignity of God’s Creation and the Special Dignity of the Human Person

I was recently challenged by a reader to saysomething about cruelty to animals. At first I thought this sort of topic was secondary but as I prayed I thought I’d like to offer a thought or two here on animals and humans.

Avoiding Extremes – As Human beings we seem to have exhibited some extremes in how we have regarded animals. At one extreme was the concept that they were mere brutes with no real sense or “feelings” at all. My own experience with the pets I have had over the years is that animals are more than mere instinct or devoid of feelings. The cats and dogs I have had seem to experience some degree of real feelings: happiness when I return home or hint at food, sadness or fear, even anger when I had to scold them, stress and anxiety when it was necessary to confine them. They also seemed to be able to interact with me at some level, knowing some of the words I used and exhibiting reaction to them. I could ask my dog to sit and he did, tell him to bark and he did. I could announce that we were going for a walk and he’d leap for joy and head for the door. The cat I currently have is less responsive to verbal interaction but he does meow and scamper about upon my return and reacts when I announce food, his tail swishes and he heads for the bowl. He is also able to express desire for a back rub or food. So it seems that animals, at least the higher mammals are not brutes. They seem to have something of an “inner life.”

But the other extreme is to regard animals as no different than us. This extreme does not really exult the animals, rather,  it diminishes us. We are clearly in a wholly different category than animals, even the higher mammals that exhibit a certain intelligence. Animals do not write poetry, build cities, fight for justice, build shrines and churches to worship God. They do not seem to form lasting governments or have a culture that builds upon the wisdom of previous gernations. They have not acquired medical or scientific advancement, gone to the moon, and do not seem to ponder higher things such as the meaning of life, truth, and the looming fact of death. Indeed, we human beings are clearly unique and have a highly developed inner life. We manifest a longing for things outside ourselves. We have what the philosophers call capax Dei (a capcity for God).

So, it is not wrong to insist that animals be treated with some respect and that we refrain from cruelty due to the fact that they experience pain and stress etc. But it is wrong to say there is no difference between them and us.

The Unique Dignity of the Human Person – Scripture confirms that God gave man dominion over all living creatures  and instructed us to fill and subdue the earth (Gen 1:28-29). God  also supplied man with a special dignity by breathing his own Spirit into man making man “a living soul” (Gen 2:7). He did not do this for any other living being. Hence our soul has a special capacity, a spiritual nature (capax Dei) that opens us to God and the things of God. Further, no other living creature is said in Scripture to have been created in the image of God (cf Gen 1:27).

Reverencing the Gift and the Giver is Key – Therefore we are to make use of the plants, animals and resources of creation with reverence for God who gave them and with respect for nature and limits of the animals and resources involved.  Cruelty to animals is dehumanizing for us. If we are sensitive we note that animals are NOT mere brutes. They experience physical pain as well as mental stress and that they do seem manifest at least rudimentary feelings. It is wrong for us to merely disregard this. Even if we must employ them as “beasts of burden” we ought to care well for their needs, feed them well, tend to their injuries and allow them proper rest. That we use animals for food is allowed by scripture (cf Gen 9:1-5). However we ought to kill them as quickly and painlessly as possible. Recent reports have sometimes indicated that slaughter houses are deficient in this manner and we ought to improve our methods, making them swifter and more merciful.

So, in the end a balance is necessary. Humans have a unique dignity that must be recognized. Yet it is also true that animals are a gift from God and they ought to be treated with respect by that very fact. It would be wrong for me to take a gift from you and misuse it, that would not only be wrong for me, it would be offensive to you. However, if you give me a gift you also expect me to make use of it. You might well be offended if I just cast it on the shelf or under a bed and made no use of it. Hence we do well to make use of the animals in ways God intends. As for cruelty, there is absolutely no place for it. Rather, we should imitate God who richly provides and cares for all his creatures.

By the way the Cat at the top of this post is my rectory cat “Daniel.” He’s a great mouser and a good friend and was curled up on my desk next to the computer as I typed this post!

This video show the capacity even for certain birds to interact with us. It is of a Parakeet with an incredible vocabulary. God really does remarkable work. Enjoy this video.