anthropomorphic:  ascribing human form or attributes to a being or thing not human, especially to a deity. – –

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.

9 Replies to “Anthropomorphic”

  1. Beautiful, Michelle! Your writing and clarity never fail to move me. It seems to me that when the bible said man has ‘dominion over’ the earth it was misinterpreted and not understood as kuleana, which would leave us with another mindset entirely…..

  2. Thanks so much, Wendy! I really appreciate it, especially since this particular butterfly made me chase it far and wide before I could get it in the net!
    Yes, kuleana is one of those strokes of Hawaiian genius. Responsibility, but not individual responsibility, more like a mutual or shared responsibility.

  3. Michelle,
    You have a perfectly lovely vision of God. I don’t know why you seem to feel that you must apologize for it.

    Whether I’m sitting in church or sitting with my back to a tree the moment can be a form of worship. When you were sitting in a Catholic church, it doesn’t matter that everyone around you has a different image of what they are worshiping. It doesn’t matter what form of God you believe is true for you, it is the act of worship that is central.

    Worship is an act of reverence. To revere something is to acknowledge that there is something greater than one’s self in the world. Worship is a form of submission, bowing down to that which is bigger than our own little self-interested, personal ego. That is why I believe that worship is fundamentally a good thing wherever it occurs. We acknowledge that we aren’t God! Are the humans who sit around you in the building you call a church any less worthy of your love and admiration that the cattle in your pasture? How can you see God in the natural world yet miss it in humans?

    Ignore people who argue theology, intellectualism is rarely spiritually illuminating. It doesn’t matter where you experience the feeling of ‘worship’. To admire the beauty of the natural world, to feel an outpouring of thankfulness or gratitude towards the universe, is to worship, to stand in awe and reverence.

    Hinduism has many forms of deities. Lord Krishna said in the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 12, Verse 5, that it is much more difficult for people to focus on a deity as the unmanifested than one with form, using anthropomorphic icons (murtis), because people need to perceive with their senses. He understood that humans need forms.

    Our human mind wants to label things and give them form. A deity has form because we need a form to relate to with our senses. This is how our human mind works. Putting things into human forms, or anthropomorphism, has been common throughout our history. It is natural to us. We do this because we attribute ‘humanness’ to objects as a way of understanding them. When we go beyond labels, when we encounter mystery, we are beyond forms, within unmanifested reality. This concept is a great struggle to understand.

    Perhaps you would be more comfortable with the spirituality of Taoist teachings as opposed to Christianity. It’s really just a matter of that with which we each feel most comfortable. There is no right or wrong to our ideas, Michelle!

    1. Youʻre absolutely right that I trend Taoist, Jody, but I do like to keep an open mind and heart.
      I think the point that Iʻm reaching for, aside from my near-obsession with opening up our spirituality to include the plants and animals of the world, is that perhaps we could have local gods again just like we have local-grown food. Perhaps that would help us to be motivated to take care of and cherish our local places.
      Here is an interview that you might find interesting about Plant Intelligence

  4. I’ve loved Buhner’s books for many years. His awareness of plants is such an inspiration to me! I loved the words he said at the end of the interview:

    “A shift from the surface to the depth of the world takes place in that exchange. That’s part of the metaphysical background of the world. It’s always there, beyond the surface. If you begin to spend time with anything—a plant, a river, a mountain, an animal—its surface becomes more porous and you become aware of the deeper meanings that are flowing through it and all around you, and always have been, but we shut them out because we’re so busy. Every time we stop and rekindle our feeling sense, we have the opportunity to reconnect to the metaphysical background of the world. Many times, though, it has to catch us by surprise.
    That’s why I like to spend time with plants. When I slow down enough, I can hear what they’re trying to teach me. And always, though I learn more about them and what they do, I also learn things I need to know about being a human being.”

  5. I’ve been consumed with these questions and observations ever since childhood. I can never get enough of others sharing their own experiences with this living tissue of existence in all its wondrous burgeoning forth of being. Even Greer this week, albeit curmudgeonly, writes of nature gods and of belief in general.

    I do think it is possible and necessary to talk positively of shamanic impulses in a civilisation that ascribes to such persons such negative epithets as “crazy”, “lazy”, “loser” or even something clinical out of one of the psychiatric disciplines (DSM, etc.). In a system in which it is everything to keep people in line and working menial jobs, any aberration from the norm must be labelled and treated. Believing in bleeding, corporeal gods – as I do too – means I live a secret life in some ways and also that if this whole thing starts to tip even more fascist, I will be in real trouble. And yet, those of us out here in this are the ancient unlinked lights holding forth in incredible darkness until someday, long after our bodies are stardust again, different beings might be able to still have the stories.

    1. thank you, Andrew. That photo of the glyph of the bighorn sheep on the edge on your site just says everything and more than can be said.

  6. I have to agree with Judy’s point about ‘awe’. And I’d also sign on (with some reservation) to Buhner’s contention that once we spend some time with something we begin to come to a deeper awareness of it. Where I’d part with Buhner on the investing of time as a beneficial practice is that I don’t see it being a universal. Some folks ‘get it’ and some don’t. Perhaps those who don’t yet, might someday. I hope this for them.

    And for me spiritual experience occurs in all sorts of venues. I can be in a packed church and marvel at the warmth of my fellow folk – all invested in the awe and wonder of the moment. I can be in the same space, entirely alone, and marvel at the warmth of a stolen moment to be deliberately contemplating an existence far beyond myself. But I can, as Michelle alludes, also experience spirituality in the rawness of the natural world. Especially there. And I include in the natural world such places as farm fields where humans have actively manipulated the Earth… and yet our fellow critters – all plants and animals – still take up their being and do what they will, because of us or despite us. In a sense it’s as if we don’t have absolute control. These others get to weigh in – even if we project upon their contribution(s) our vain sense that somehow we have set limits upon their existence.

    Death is important. Michelle makes this point and I’d second it. Extinction is, like death, also important in its own way. I think too many of us fail to appreciate that extinctions have to happen. We can rightly be saddened by careless killing and careless destruction that would result in unnecessary extinctions. But too often we bemoan all extinctions, all deaths. And I think this latter failure something of an immaturity in our thinking. There is much to learn from all the other fauna and flora in regard to living and dying. Perhaps spirituality is a means to realize some maturity about the nature of our existence. While we live we can be helpful or hurtful. We can make life for others better or worse… but in making such distinctions for others (what is better or worse for the other) we should be careful about our anthropomorphizing. What right have we to decide for the other what is desirable? I’ve never been a cow. But I have marveled at the ability of a cow to sense the weather, to defend her calf, to turn grass into milk and beef. Marveling is a form of awe. And awe is in great need.

    1. Hi Clem, re: the critters living in the cracks and margins of human modified environments. Iʻm not sure who is going to win in the end, me or “my” rats. Mine as in they live at the same address. Right now we have a bit of a detente but open warfare could break out at any time. They could win, they have brought the rat-lungworm weapon online. If you havenʻt heard about that, you might google it, itʻs quite a weapon.

      (I think) I hear you about extinction. There are times that not accepting extinction makes the situation worse or misdirects efforts from a winnable “battle” to a case that is lost because the habitat is gone. But itʻs one of those topics, like human over-population, where the minefield is very, very perilous, and the only way to make the right decision is to never have gotten so far down the road in the first place. And yet if we donʻt talk about it how will we come to any kind of common knowledge or way of talking about these difficult topics?

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