blackbirdonline journalFall 2015  Vol. 14 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
 print preview

The Heaven of Animals

For years I’ve been an occasional reader of “God Squad,” a syndicated column on religion that appears in my local newspaper. As a freelance theologian, I feel obliged to monitor the competition, to keep abreast of such religious opinions and controversies as editors deem suitable for the mass-market reader. The author of “God Squad” is Rabbi Marc Gellman, a reasonable and moderate clergyman, ecumenical in his theology and economical with his piety—an excellent role model, actually, for any man or woman of the cloth who chooses a public forum. I admire the way he picks his way through the perilous minefields of American spirituality, and I’ve rarely disagreed with Rabbi Gellman in any serious way.

Until recently. One of his columns, on the ethics of eating meat, was criticized by vegetarians who found the rabbi too tolerant of the carnivorous mainstream. Defending himself with his usual tact and moderation, Rabbi Gellman disappointed me by stooping, suddenly, to an orthodoxy I could never embrace.

“Animals are creations of God, and they feel pain,” he wrote, “but they don’t have the same moral or spiritual standing as human beings [my italics]. This is not just an arbitrary preference for our species, but a deep, enduring moral intuition held by the majority.”

I maintain a deep, enduring moral intuition that Rabbi Gellman is far off the mark on this one. My quarrel with Judeo-Christian tradition begins on the first page of the Holy Bible, Genesis 1:26-27: “And God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own [His italics] image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”

I might argue that this explosion of Bronze Age hubris, this keystone to a creation myth authored by some eloquent but impossibly vain priest millennia before the dawn of science, is the root of much of the self-inflicted evil that has befallen the human race in the ensuing centuries. “In his own image,” indeed. The god, the creating spirit of the billion galaxies we now know to exist, does he look exactly like a naked ape that evolved on one obscure Milky Way planet, a dangerous primate who shares 98.8 percent of his DNA with chimpanzees? Does He, the Alpha and the Omega, really resemble your mailman, or your Uncle Wally? When you contemplate the divine, is it like looking in the mirror? Or was that god we find in Genesis (what does he mean by “our,” anyway?) just a local, tribal god after all, a logical product of that remote time and place?

Is Genesis 1:26-27 very different from all the histories written by the winners, the survivors in every war or genocide, celebrating their own divine selection, the celestial design in their victory? Possibly the wisest thing I ever wrote about my own species—some thirty years ago—was this: “We made it to the top of the food chain, and we let it go to our heads.”

“Vanity of vanities,” the Bible also tells us in Ecclesiastes 1:2, “all is vanity.”

It’s an unattractive characteristic of Judeo-Christian theology, this extreme anthropocentricity, this arrogant assumption that humans and only humans share a spark of the divine while the “lower” creatures they’ve overpowered and outwitted are merely meat. Most ancient religions and many more recent ones included animal gods in their pantheons—prominently the Egyptians, the Hindus, the sub-Saharan Africans and Australian Aborigines, and American Indians north and south, to name just a few. My favorite deities may be the Centzon Totochtin, “the 400 rabbits,” Aztec gods of intoxication. But whenever religion seems dark and morose, consider Ganesh, the dancing elephant-headed god of the Hindus, usually portrayed by the artists of antiquity with “a twinkle in his eye.” It’s worth noting that Ganesh, a god without a human head, was the god of wisdom and learning.

Neither Christianity nor Judaism is among the oldest religions, and the saddest part of the food chain story is that once upon a time there were many more animals moving upon the earth and not nearly so many human beings. Did the ancients deify other creatures because they were such a constant presence in their lives, and when did the metastasizing human biomass begin to block out that presence? But even allowing for the great shift in bio-demographics, Judeo-Christian tradition seems especially indifferent to animals. Parts of Leviticus, one of the least edifying books of the Old Testament, is a kind of butcher’s manual, full of minute instructions for preparing burnt offerings of lambs, calves, oxen and all the unfortunate beasts the Hebrews fed to their perpetually vain and hungry god. Believers in the literal truth and unchanging mandate of the scriptures must struggle, at least a little, with this god of the bloody altar and the burning sacrifice. Has the God of Moses changed with the times like the rest of us, or does he still crave a lamb chop now and then?

Excuse me. Literal-minded religion is a pitifully easy target, as the most recent generation of atheist authors demonstrates ruthlessly. Martin Luther himself cursed human reason as the devil’s work and called it a whore. What bothers me is not the strange things people choose to believe—apparently there’s no cure for that—but the way those things influence their behavior and warp the cultures they create. No good could ever have come from Genesis 1:26-27. The fact that an intelligent man like Rabbi Gellman, thousands of years later, still consigns non-human creatures to a lower rung of his “moral and spiritual” ladder of being betrays an Old Testament legacy of vanity among Christians and Jews, and a grim dose of historical amnesia. At worst, as many science fiction writers have posited, the problem-solving apes of Earth are a noxious infestation that threatens to destroy the entire planet, in all its bounty and beauty. At best, humanity is a work in progress, and not one any conscientious Creator would rank among his greatest hits.

And what of the animals, those losers, runners-up and non-contenders in that critical race to the top of the food chain? Peter Singer, the animal rights philosopher, invented the word “speciesism” to describe our tendency to discount any living thing that doesn’t wear pants. If animals are treated with inadequate respect in a modern, Western society, can we trace that all the way back to the speciesism and narcissism of the Bible makers, to the “dominion” they won by guile and violence and then claimed as a gift from god? By what measure is any animal “morally” inferior to homo sapiens, the only creature subtler than an insect that practices warfare, the only animal that kills things—most obscenely, its own kind—it never intended to eat?

Morally speaking, in the simplest terms of right and wrong, decent and indecent, there could be no living thing lower than the lowest of human beings. Inflamed by twisted bits of ideology and theology, they daily, relentlessly slaughter innocent strangers. The difference between a common murderer and a political terrorist is morally nonexistent, but I’m not sure children could learn that from media partisans who split hairs about which butchers are their friends or enemies. Killer drones directed by the United States government murder Islamic radicals, and often anyone near the victims they target, without regard for laws or morals, or the blood-chilling fact that the same technology can easily be turned against troublesome citizens at home. Drones are so much cheaper than trials.

No courtroom advocate, no master of debate, no Darrow or Demosthenes could ever present a winning case for the moral superiority of human beings. The worst of us are demons made flesh, and our common denominator was never much to boast about. But I understand that when the rabbi speaks of “moral and spiritual standing,” he’s really referring to comprehension, to the ability of any individual creature to grasp the larger moral picture when it acts, or is acted upon. A chicken, presumably, feels fear but not the sting of injustice when its head is on the chopping block. And presumably, unlike Sir Thomas More, it entertains no hope of an afterlife as the ax descends. But these distinctions are based on assumptions about the intellectual limits of poultry that no science has confirmed. And the conceit that only humans experience empathy, compassion, outrage, and ethical complexity doesn’t finally work to our advantage. That we could comprehend so broadly and still behave so badly is the most damning indictment of all.

Of course the real issue, for the only animals known to indulge in self-criticism, is whether there’s a moral, ethical defense for the way modern humans deal with the rest of the animal kingdom. Professor Singer, who wrote a controversial book with the title, Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals (1975), argues that most of our behavior is indefensible. Our failure to acknowledge the dignity and interdependence of all life, Singer believes, is a flaw that will turn out to be fatal for all life, animals first and humanity not far behind. His book’s most controversial assertion, which created a firestorm even among the philosophical micro-minority, was that a severely disabled human being deserves no more ethical consideration than an animal of comparable intellect, like a normally functioning dog or monkey.

Very few disciples followed Dr. Singer through this first breach in the walled fortress of speciesism. (Most of the individuals who would have applauded were biologically incapable of reading or clapping.) His views have gained many adherents in the forty years since Animal Liberation was published. Unfortunately, they’ve been a dreadful forty years for most of the creatures he dreamed of liberating. Domestic animals, even the majority destined for slaughter, once lived reasonably pleasant lives on family farms and ranches. Today most of them live their brief lives under conditions no one wishes to read about, on vast factory farms where corporate profit margins leave no margin for ethics or compassion. There are currently at least 10 million hogs in my home state of North Carolina—slightly more than one hog for every human—a doomed majority that produces 40 million gallons of waste every day. The suffocating vapors from hog waste lagoons the size of Lake Michigan never seem to compromise the Tar Heel passion for barbecue. It’s well known, too, that pigs are animals of considerable intelligence—unlike most of North Carolina’s current legislators. Judged by Singer’s notorious comparable-intellect test, how many of these elected officials would outrank a poor hog whose destiny is a can of spam?

As you might expect, Dr. Singer takes it for granted that eating meat is a gross moral failure; his books are convincing arguments for the vegetarian option. But if a carnivorous human wants to understand how truly selfish and disgusting he or she may be, that meat addict should read Eating Animals (2009) by Jonathan Safran Foer. Foer convinced me thoroughly and left me burdened with a terrible guilt. My current rationale, as I struggle to join the protein-challenged pure of heart, is that all those dead creatures I devoured in a lifetime of greasy ignorance have damned me so hopelessly that no remorse or reform can save my soul.

For wild animals, it’s even worse. The recent past has been devastating, the future looks all but hopeless. In its latest plea for financial assistance, the World Wildlife Fund states the case plainly: “The planet’s most majestic species are being massacred by ruthless poachers at alarming rates. . . . right before our eyes. Organized crime and thriving black markets for illegal wildlife parts and products are driving some species to the brink of extinction.”

The martyrdom of Cecil—the slaughter of Zimbabwe’s famous lion by a moronic American—focused international indignation on the loathsome “canned” trophy hunts that turn rich Western “sportsmen” loose on Africa’s protected wildlife. But trophy hunters exact a small toll compared with the armies of native poachers. In those four decades since Singer published Animal Liberation,the WWF estimates that wildlife populations have been depleted by more than half. Sixty-five percent of all the world’s forest elephants were killed by ivory poachers between 2002 and 2011. In 1900, there were over 10 million elephants in Africa and Asia; today half a million remain. (Dance, Ganesh, if you can.) With two black rhino horns selling at $45,000, rhinoceros poaching in Africa has accelerated by 5,000 percent just since 2007. There are 5,000 black rhinos left in the wild, and only 3,200 tigers, whose range once covered most of Asia. The most appalling part is that the black market sells elephant ivory for trinkets, and rhino horns and tiger organs for Asian folk medicine—ludicrous pseudoscience aimed at the male idiot who believes that consuming bits of large dangerous animals will give him a large dangerous penis.

And these commercial massacres are only a sideshow in the great race to extinction. Wholesale habitat destruction, as the fuse on the human population bomb burns down, is wiping out thousands of species faster than biologists can discover and record them. As a human being, it grows tedious and even feels disloyal to point out that the archvillain in every terminal scenario looks a lot like me—and according to Genesis, a lot like God. But there’s nowhere to hide, friend. It’s lonely at the top of the food chain. If there had been a human-loving, human-looking god who actually intended to grant us dominion over the rest of the animals, wouldn’t he be proud of us now.

Through no fault of their own, the beasts of the field and forest—and feedlot—are locked into tragic endgames that human greed and callousness, not to mention reckless overbreeding, have set in motion. There’s no obvious escape for any of us, though the human race has produced a small minority of dedicated altruists who work to protect wildlife, save habitat, and rescue animals of all kinds from the cruelty and cynicism of the human majority. There was no Greenpeace, no WWF, no SPCA or PETA in the seventeenth century; today, favored animals are treated with far more consideration than our ancestors extended to poor people.

But the hour is late, and a new age of compassion and respect for all life seems as unlikely as an eleventh-hour rescue from the consequences of global warming. Take the case of the most favored and pampered of all animals, the beloved dog. “Man’s best friend” has largely lived up to its end of the friendship, as I see it. I confess to great prejudice in favor of dogs. I’ve had a couple who lived up to Lord Byron’s wonderful epitaph for his Newfoundland, Boatswain: “One who possessed beauty without vanity, strength without insolence, courage without ferocity, and all the virtues of man without his vices.” I write this paragraph with a large yellow retriever lying on my foot.

Many humans return canine affection appropriately. Some overdo it. On New York’s Fifth Avenue in the winter, I’ve seen small dogs wearing garments that most families would be proud to retailor and display on their children. But this beautiful interspecies love story, celebrated in art and literature, is not without its dark side. A few years ago, a dog-fighting ring dumped a truckload of dead and mutilated animals near the highway in High Point, North Carolina, a spectacle that made one state trooper physically sick. In today’s newspaper I tried to look away from a story about a man arrested for stabbing his husky to death with a military sword. My cousin has adopted a dog that was rescued from a gang of men who were taking turns kicking her. Several months later the same dog, recovered and for the first time in her life well fed, lay sprawled on her back on the couch, whimpering for me to keep scratching her stomach. Totally trusting. Somehow. Who, do you think, operates on the higher moral and spiritual plane, my cousin’s dog or the thugs who tried to kill her?

J.M. Coetzee, the Nobel laureate in literature, is an outspoken advocate for animal rights, a Singerite who has a character in his novel Disgrace say of dogs, “They do us the honor of treating us like gods, and we respond by treating them like things.” Here, I feel, is where we return to theology. A small mug shot accompanied the story about the man who butchered his dog with a sword. It was the same face—sometimes I think the news media recycle the same sad photo over and over again—that always seems attached to news items about child abuse, child pornography, domestic violence, methamphetamine labs, resisting arrest. A degraded, blank sort of face, usually male, that neither pride nor any variety of love has ever visited. I have no idea what a soul is, I don’t pretend to be getting closer to defining one—but whatever it is, I know this man doesn’t have one.

This generic subhuman, this walking nightmare of an empty man is the nemesis that only the luckiest among us, human and animal, will manage to avoid in this life. Unfortunately, the misbegotten man of violence is not a rare type. Thinking of him and of animals reminds me of one of the most moving passages I ever found in a work of fiction, in Dreams of My Russian Summers by Andrei Makine. The narrator’s grandmother tells him about the night she was shot, raped and left for dead by a gang of Uzbek riders, and survived the night on the freezing steppe only by pressing herself against the body of a dying saiga, a desert antelope that had been shot by the same heartless riders.

If you are the least bit sentimental about animals—and grandmothers—Makine will make you cry and convince you that if there’s any such thing as a soul, an antelope is as likely to own one as you are. From Makine’s saiga I connect directly to James Dickey’s beautiful poem, “The Heaven of Animals,” which begins:

Here they are. The soft eyes open.
If they have lived in a wood
It is a wood.
If they have lived on plains
It is grass rolling
Under their feet forever.

Having no souls, they have come,
Anyway, beyond their knowing.
Their instincts wholly bloom
And they rise.
The soft eyes open.

It troubles a sponge-soft heart like mine that this poet was a hunter, and a bow hunter at that, but mere fact cannot diminish such a perfect marriage of language and feeling. As a poet, Dickey tried repeatedly to bridge the great divide between men and animals. Remember “The Sheep-Child”: “. . . I saw for a blazing moment / The great grassy world from both sides, / Man and beast in the round of their need.”

Dickey denies his animals souls but admits them to paradise anyway, canceling by poetic fiat the Old Church rule that a soul is the sole ticket to the hereafter (a soul that only comes with a human pedigree). Two books were published last year with the stolen title The Heaven of Animals, one a book of short stories by David James Poissant, the other a children’s picture book by Nancy Tillman that imagines, like Dickey’s poem, a true heaven that was not designed for human beings.

Rabbi Gellman may soon find he’s falling behind the spiritual mainstream, when he gently relegates the beasts to the back of the bus. No less an authority than Pope Francis was recently quoted as saying “Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures,” a view some conservative Christians regard as heretical. As it turned out, Francis had said something similar, but the exact quote had come from Pope Paul VI. Those heavy Gates of Heaven are creaking open, slowly.

The afterlife is a far country for a lapsed Unitarian like me, though my family came to liberal religion through the Universalists, who maintained the lovely belief that all souls reunite with God, because in the end He’s too kind to say “no” to anyone, or presumably any thing. The spiritual plane is too insubstantial, it seems to me, to allow closed doors and sealed passages. All doors, all gates must stand open to admit all spirits. With the incredible recent advances in communication, surely it won’t be long before other animals can tell us what they’re thinking. Will most of them be filled with hate and thinking that they can’t wait until our reign of terror at the top of the food chain is over? Or will they grant that at least some of us embraced humility, some tried to listen and tried to learn?  end  

return to top