Open the Window

The October issue of the Washington Window is online. It includes a column on “the sacred bond that we have with animals” by the Rev. Martin L. Smith that you can find beneath the “continue reading” button.

The other citizens of God’s kingdom

By Martin L. Smith

Friends who are familiar with my ways will sometimes blurt out “Uh oh!” when we are walking along a street, a signal they have caught sight of something that is bound to cause a delay. A basenji has come into view, and they know there will have to be a pause for basenji worship. I will cross the street and drop to one knee in front of the handsome dog, if the owner will indulge me, and make the kind of reverential fuss that we who love the breed must perform. Careful not to exhaust the patience of my friends, the owner, or the dog (basenjis don’t lose their dignity), I know to move on after a moment, elated from the chance to pay homage.

The word worship may sound like a facetious exaggeration, but it can be defended as a testimony to the sacredness of the bond that we can have with animals. The source of my devotion is simple enough to explain. The dog I most loved as a child was a basenji, and the mere sight of one will fill me with brimming emotions of tenderness and gratitude for all the pleasure she gave me. And these blissful sensations are sacred at depth, because we can hardly be prepared for a blissful relationship with God if we don’t have experiences that open our hearts to bliss, and forge the neural circuits in our brains and bodies that enable us to register profound delight. And if we are honest we might admit that certain animals, in their own ways, have been as effective in communicating certain aspects of God’s love to us as other human beings have been. The grief we experience when they die can sometimes feel as searing as our mourning for human loved ones.

I suppose there is a danger in thinking that it is only our relationships with pet animals that are sacred, because we tend to humanize them, pretending that they are more like us than they really are. But true sacredness always impresses us with a sense of otherness, and we can’t recognize the sacred character of our relationships with the animal world until we honor their radical otherness. Human beings are only one species, and we belong in an immense continuum with others that vastly outnumber us and differ from us in staggeringly varied ways. True wisdom honors the mysterious otherness of the animal world as God-given. I have always been deeply impressed with the centrality of this theme to one of the least understood books of the Bible, the book of Job. This extraordinary scripture insists on the contemplation of the animal kingdom in its startling non-human otherness as a critical necessity for human self-understanding before God.

The book builds tension by being deliberately tedious. Job and his friends go round and round for 37 chapters debating whether God is being fair in allowing us to suffer. Surely Job must have done something bad to bring down suffering on his own head as a punishment? Or is God being vicious and arbitrary in letting Job suffer when he hasn’t done anything to warrant his misery and loss? After these interminable arguments, God intervenes with a majestic but strange reply. God doesn’t resolve the enigma of human suffering with some kind of philosophical theory. Instead, to our bafflement, God replies in chapter 38 and 39 with a long interrogation that tests Job’s knowledge of nature, specifically the bizarre behavior patterns of such creatures as the ostrich, the crocodile, and the hippopotamus! God’s stern test of Job’s scientific observation of the natural world is specifically designed to emphasize that God did not create the world using a human template. The animal world in all its glorious otherness is a magnificent warning against the pretensions of the human imagination to make sense of the world, including the prevalence of pain, on exclusively human terms.

The message is as relevant today as it was 25 centuries ago. Most religious ideas of God as a being who manipulates events to punish or reward us are fictions. True wisdom accepts the complexity and strangeness of life itself and accepts that it doesn’t conform to simplistic human theories of cause and effect. God humbles us humans to recognize ourselves as creatures within a much larger ecological continuum that includes all the animals. Instead of fabricating clumsy theories about merit and punishment, we do better to accept our vulnerability as part of the risks of life, and devote our energies to wonder and gratitude instead of resentment and defensiveness. Only after God gives Job a long and intricate lecture about crocodile behavior does Job recognize the futility of his complaints and repent. His change of mind consists of being reinstated by God’s tough-love ecological lecture into the mysterious, complex, interrelated world of creatureliness.

Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He serves on the staff of St. Columba’s, D.C. as theologian-in-residence.

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