Questions about animals and religion
By Ptolemy Tompkins
(One of several articles related to St. Francis Day, which is celebrated by many churches with a Blessing of the Animals in October.)
Not too long ago I was sitting with my step-brother Nicky in a small park in New York City, discussing the afterlife.
It was a spring afternoon, and the park was full of squirrels. They hopped from tree to tree and loped across the ground in front of us, their eyes bright with a combination of intelligence, wariness, and what, to me, has always seemed like a touch of humor.
We were talking, in particular, about the Buddhist idea of reincarnation. Nicky’s mother – my step-mother – Betty, died of cancer in the summer of 1985.
“If you’re a Buddhist,” I said, “then you believe that Betty could, by now, be one of these squirrels running around here.”
“Yes,” said Nicky. “When we die, according to Tibetan teaching, we bring the accumulated results of all our actions with us. All the choices my mother made in her life dictated what she would become in her next life – and that life could take place on any level: earthly, heavenly, or hellish. Animal existence is just one of the worlds she could come into, but certainly a possible one.”
I tried to imagine my step-mother’s soul squished down into that compact gray body.A particularly young and inexperienced-looking squirrel stopped right in front of our bench, stood up on her hind legs, and moved her head up and down in that quick, jerky way that squirrels do when they’re sizing up a situation.
I looked at that squirrel and tried to imagine my step-mother’s soul squished down into that compact gray body – of her personality transforming into the alert, engaging, but at the same time decidedly non-human consciousness that sparkled in those eyes.
“I just don’t see how Betty could be in there,” I said.
“Why not?” said Nicky.
“It’s not because I don’t like squirrels. They’re one of my favorite animals. But squirrels are… squirrels. They’re not humans. To me, the idea that a human personality could simply be translated into a squirrel personality just doesn’t make sense.”
Though still not exactly common, conversations like this seem to go on a lot more frequently today than they used to.
Even back in the spiritual sixties, the question of whether animals do or don’t have souls, and what becomes of those souls if they do have them, would have struck most people as adventurous at best – and more likely, simply naïve and childish.
More and more, though, that’s changing – and not just among people like my step-brother who have embraced non-Western faiths. In books like M. Jean Holmes’ Do Dogs Go To Heaven? and Andrew Linzey’s Animal Theology, Christian authors have increasingly been taking issue with the ease with which members of their own faith – especially clergy people – have dismissed this question in the past.
The way it often works is like this. An animal lover who has lost her pet goes to her clergyperson in search of confirmation for what she feels deep in her heart: this animal that was so real, so special – so individual – can’t simply be gone completely. Surely there’s confirmation somewhere in scripture, in the Christian tradition, that what she has lost is more than just a few pounds of fur and flesh; that something real in that animal has departed – has moved on.
The clergyperson, at this point, all too often tells the grieving pet owner that while it’s perfectly understandable to grieve her loss, in fact she will not be seeing her pet again. No, pets do not have souls. God may have made your dog or cat or rabbit or canary, but it was a passing piece of his handiwork. Its soul life, while perhaps real in some negligible way while the animal was alive, is now over once and for all.
Is this really the only way to look at it?
The fact is, Christianity does have an old – and deep – tradition of downplaying the importance of animals as anything but objects created by God for humans. Saint Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas after him, both made strong, and deeply influential, remarks belittling what one could call the soul status of animals. Aquinas, in particular, following his master Aristotle, argued that because “dumb animals” were “devoid of the life of reason,” they “have no fellowship” with humans, who could use – and abuse – them as they would.
But alongside this tradition is another one – just as old and just as deep – that says just the opposite. It’s a tradition that stretches right back to those sparrows who Jesus argues, in the Sermon on the Mount, are not “forgotten before God,” and which continues through the centuries in the writings of Christians like Athanasius, Saint John of the Cross, and – of course – Saint Francis.
One reason for the ever-increasing popularity of Eastern religions is their less disguisedly democratic view of creation: their willingness to grant not just human beings but all creatures a spiritual status. In the case of Buddhism – specifically, my step-brother Nicky’s Tibetan variety – I myself struggle with the idea that a human soul can find itself in an animal body – be it a squirrel’s, an armadillo’s or a mosquito’s. Not because I respect animals any less than people, but because they seem so distinct – so different.
From pit bulls to cockatoos, all animals behave after the manner of their kind. But at the same time, every animal lover knows that each animal is an individual – a being that is itself and nothing else. Unrepeatable. Unique. As the Christian theologian Karl Barth put it, an animal is “a single being, a unique creature existing in an individuality which we cannot fathom but also cannot deny.”
But whether or not I agree with Nicky on all the fine points of his particular faith, I feel I am lucky to live in a time when conversations like the one we had in the park among the squirrels that day are possible. Whatever faith, or combination of faiths, one embraces, the days when the spiritual status of non-human creation could be comfortably left out of the picture – when the question “do animals have souls?” could be dismissed as childish and naïve – are gone for good. Day by day, we are moving closer to the time predicted by those famous lines of Henry Beston’s in his book The Outermost House, when he calls for “another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals.”
It’s a concept whose time has come.
Ptolemy Tompkins is the author of The Divine Life of Animals.
What do you say? What part do non-human animals play in your own spiritual life and beliefs? Let us know in a comment or on Facebook.
Blessings Galore at St. John the Divine – Inside Manhattan’s Cathedral Church as people await the Blessing of the Animals service.
Washington’s Official Cathedral Cat – She was a stray kittie found in an overgrown parking lot.
Angel in Their Midst– A furry messenger at a papal ceremony
Could Grandma Come Back as a Squirrel?– Thoughts on the Buddhist concept of reincarnation
How the Faith-Based Community Can Help the Animals– by former Congressman Chris Shays.