anthropomorphic: ascribing human form or attributes to a being or thing not human, especially to a deity. – – Dictionary.com
I’m at mass in a Catholic church: a beautiful, modern church filled with flowers, warm wood panelling and richly colored stained glass. High up there is wooden image of Christ in the Passion and a statue of Mary in the corner. There are tall candles, music, and incense. I’m feeling like a fish out of water. I rarely go to church. Sometimes I think I ought to. It seems a fine thing to devote a certain amount of time to religious and moral contemplation, to sing together and to join hands in peace with your neighbors. The trouble is that I don’t believe in this God, or any God that I’ve ever heard of in any church I’ve been in. To be honest, I have no interest in believing in this Father God and his Son. I don’t deny the existence of God. I have experienced some things that might be called God. I have experienced Love, for instance, as something that stitches the stars together. So if God is Love, then I believe in God, by a slightly awkward act of translation.
Still, there’s a gap. My God is a god of wild places. My god has the face of a bird, sometimes, and the moon-shaped horns of a cow. My god is a boar and a sow. My god is every tree in the forest and the totality of the forest. My god offers neither redemption nor salvation and is as mortal as I am. This might seem blasphemous, but I can’t help it. When I think of God that’s what looks back at me.
What is the name for people whose gods are shy, nameless, monstrous? Shamanist, animist, pagan, heathen? I don’t know. What is the meaning of these obscure gods? They peek out of stories and myths: shape-shifters and fantastical beasts, demigods and semi-demons, the malformed ones like the hunch-backed horse of fairy-tales, the Medusa, the headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow. They are the forgotten gods of conquered peoples. They remind us of the places where animals and humans meet and bleed together. It was with a shock of recognition that I came upon the gods of the ancient kingdom of Chu (present-day Hunan province in China). Very little is known of them. But such gods are everywhere when you start to look: ʻaumakua and kachina, spirit guardians and messengers.
If any mammal appears to be free of emotions, apart perhaps from cynicism, it would be the goat. – Jan Hoole
Scientists, biologists especially, have been trained to enforce the distinction between humans and all other life. Among scientists and those in a scientific frame of mind, it is still taboo to attribute even the simplest emotions to animals, and any kind of sentience to plants. This forbidden way of thinking is called anthropomorphizing. Sometime avoiding anthropomorphism is taken to illogical extremes, such as when the calls of a mother animal searching for her infant are denied emotional content. The line between humans and animals is still being policed, because to grant animals consciousness and complex emotions is one step away from recognizing them as full subjects in their own way.
What are the implications of recognizing the subjectivity of plants and animals? What is at stake? Recognizing subjectivity is seen as dangerous because it erodes the foundation of Civilization as we know it – our civilization that is based on the idea that we can do what we want with the plants, animals, waters and minerals of this world.
This is our Myth: We are the only life-forms with full subjectivity because God is a human God. Everything else is, more or less, dead matter: mere bundles of nerves and enzymes, instinctive, bestial, un-conscious. It means that we are the only beings that truly exist, and the way that have constructed our civilization reflects our myth.
We make God in our image, and we begrudge animals bare sentience. These are complementary myths about what it means to be human. They are strange myths when you think about it – the myths of an anxious adolescent, grasping at ways to be special and separate, to be the entitled of the earth.
I know what you might say: that I am a traitor and a hypocrite. How can I, a cattle rancher of all people, acknowledge the full subjectivity of animals? But this is still Civilization talking, trying to maintain an inviolable separation. This is just the city trying to keep up the wall. It is not necessary to demean an animal (or plant) just because you will kill it. Life and death are intertwined: it is necessary to kill in order to live, and it is necessary to die. I know this complicates our morality (we must ask quite seriously when and how is it justified to take non-human life, and when is it not). It can’t be helped. We donʻt have a God-given right to everything on this earth and we are not beings set apart. We are animals, too. The little gods on the edges whose faces are those of animals or monsters intertwine what is earthly and in-human and still divine. They are the gods I am inspired by, for better or worse.
Churches are places to seek peace, transcendence, and communion – I have been deeply grateful for them in the past. Today though I am happy to get outside again, even if it is pouring rain.