Advent 3 – Animal Planet

“Animal Planet,” Bob Ryder

Genesis 1:26-31 – God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, to everything that has the breath of life I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so. God saw everything he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Deuteronomy 25:4 – Do not muzzle your ox as he threshes out the grain.

Proverbs 12:10 – Righteous people tend to the welfare of their animals.  But from the wicked, even mercy is a cruelty.

“A man’s character is most evident by how he treats those who are not in a position either to retaliate or reciprocate.” Paul Eldridge (Novelist)

We sent out our annual family Christmas letter this past week, wherein Susan made the observation that we’re both “approaching 60.”  She shared the usual highlights from our year – the travels, work and health updates, upcoming anniversaries – all the noteworthy experiences from the past 12 months condensed onto a half page.  But it was her observation about “approaching 60” that most caught my attention.  The prospect of getting older has never affected me much till now.  And “approaching” is a relative term: 60 is still a few years off – for me at least.  At any rate, for some reason 60 feels more important than any “divisible-by-10” age I’ve reached before.  30 years old – barely noticed.  40 years old – no big deal.  50 years old – yay for me, what’s next?  60 years old though, well now…

Maybe it’s that 60 is obviously past my halfway point.  When I turned 30, I certainly expected to live that long again, same at 40.  When I turned 50, I don’t suppose I expected to live to 100, but it was still plausible and seemed like a hopeful prospect.  When this next round number turns over pretty soon, though – there’s no way I’m living that long again; obviously no way I make 120.  Nor would I want to – I know better.  So recognizing I have more yesterdays than tomorrows, I can’t help but take stock.  I can’t help but consider whether I’m the person I mean to be or at least moving in the right direction.  I can’t help but wonder if the world a bit better off for my having been part of it, or if the net effect of my having passed through it will add up to a need for healing in my wake.  What self-improvement is still possible, still called for?  Searching for whatever wisdom I can distill as 60 comes into view on my horizon, I find there is much to be learned from my relationship with animals.

For this Advent season, we’re exploring the mystery of our existence, of our place in the universe, of our perception of the sacred.  “What does it mean to be a people of mystery?”  One of our congregation’s founding documents is a belief statement composed in the first few years after we began, and it includes this lovely passage…

When we use the word “God,” we refer to the Mystery in which our days are set, a Mystery which moves us to awe. We experience God as a presence at the center of our being and of all creation – a power and love our logic cannot define nor our spirits deny.

So what does it mean to be a people of mystery?  For this third Sunday of Advent, we’ll place images of animals on our Advent wreath, acknowledging the emergence of sentient beings into the unfolding story of the planet following the Earth’s rocky beginnings and the development of plants we celebrated the last two Sundays respectively.  There is much to be learned about our relationship with the sacred mystery by how we share the planet with other species.

Perhaps the first and most important thing to learn is that we humans are – ourselves – animals.  If that sounds obvious it bears frequent remembering nevertheless, for we’re prone to ignoring our animal nature in favor of a delusion that we are somehow above our station in the taxonomic order.  We’re invited to suppose that as humans we’re different from and superior to the rest of nature; worthy of preferred access to resources and immune from the consequences of destruction and waste.  In truth we are none of those things – neither different nor superior, not especially worthy or immune.  Our classification on the taxonomic chart is Anamalia, Chordata, Mammalia, Primate, Hominidae, Homo Sapiens (kingdom / phylum / class / order/ family / genus / species).  Force the latin words into a phrase and you’d have something like, “Animals with backbones who nurse their newborn, clever apes who walk upright and live together in groups.”  That’s us.

Now I misspeak when I say we’re not superior.  Homo Sapiens translates literally to “wise man,” which fits if we’re flexible interpreting “wise” as smart or clever or cunning.  We certainly have superior intelligence in several important respects that put us at the top of the food chain and enable extreme mental abilities.  We have the capacity for very advanced reasoning (would that we made better use of it). We have the capacity for abstraction and symbolism by which we create language and adapt science into technology, we have the capacity for music and poetry and art, law and economics, philosophy and morality.  We have the ability to coexist and cooperate socially with large multiples of other humans, such that we live and work as part of extended families and communities, gangs and teams, tribes and congregations, charitable organizations and corporations, political parties and government agencies, armies and nations.  We’re very clever apes.  We can’t jump out a 2nd floor window without badly hurting or killing ourselves, but we can fly to the moon – go figure!  Yet while as a species we’ve soared in technological and social intelligence, we stagger along trying to find wisdom.  Far from acting in partnership with the environment and other creatures upon whom we are utterly dependent in the web of life, far from conserving the only planet we’ll ever be able to thrive upon, far from cultivating our respect and compassion for other creatures of breathtaking beauty and variety, we treat the world and our neighbors in it as we treat a disposable container from a take-out restaurant.

Put simply, what we’ve inherited from the Judeo/Christian tradition informing our relationship with other animals is a sense of entitlement.  There are few passages of scripture more iconic than the first chapter of Genesis in which we find the emboldening suggestion that human beings are existentially exalted, “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”  Did I say inherited?  It would be more correct to say what we’ve chosen to hear.  Reading the passage carefully, we note that God gave both humans and animals the green plants and fruit for their food (not each other).  At our worst, we use religion to project our biases and insecurities onto the sacred.  We regard our superior technological intelligence over other animals as a privilege to be indulged.  We allow ourselves to regard other animals – consciously or subconsciously – as either useful, amusing, and/or expendable, but in any case undeserving of our consistent respect and compassion.  Our lack of consideration for other animals in how we eat and over-develop land is an abomination.

I offered a message along these lines in another congregation I worked for a long time ago, and one of the members told me later that week that he didn’t appreciate it when people “Disney-fy” animals, as in “Walt Disney.”  He was a large animal veterinarian, whom I had liked and respected generally, but the comment was so odd and so deliberately missed the point of what I’d been saying that it caused me to think less of him.  The feeling was mutual, I calculate.  I’m a behavior scientist, and in my work I get a lot of exposure to the beauty and nuance of how animals process information and experience emotion – human animals and other species.  I’ve made a modest second career helping humans get more out of their relationship with dogs, and dogs get more out of their relationship with humans.  I’ve trained Daisy to pick things up from the floor and hand them to me when my back is too sore to bend down, approaching 60 as I am now.  I’ve trained chickens and rats to run obstacle courses.  I’ve watched colleagues teach elephants and giraffes and rhinoceros and jackals and parrots and horses and whales to cooperate with veterinary care and thrive in captivity, and even train cattle to move calmly into a slaughterhouse so the experience isn’t as traumatic.  Here’s a short video demonstrating how trainers use positive reinforcement to help zoo animals stay physically and mentally healthy.



Animals have rich, complex emotional lives.  Many species – more than you’d guess – feel emotions in a way that is hauntingly like our experience; they feel anxiety and affection, longing and contentment, anger and happiness and even humor often very much as we do.  What I’ve learned in observing and studying behavior in a variety of animal species is that for as exquisitely different and diverse as animals are, we humans have much more in common with other animals than we usually let ourselves acknowledge.  We are more like the myriad other species who share the earth than we’ve ever dared to recognize, and we ignore our common citizenship with the rest of the animal kingdom at our peril and to our disgrace.  Thinking back about that “Disney-fy” comment that got under my skin years ago, I suppose it’s stayed with me because it’s so discouraging to see how our extraordinary human brains can still devolve to such willful ignorance.

Here’s a quote I’ve always appreciated from an author named Edward Abbey – among other things he was a pioneer in the environmental movement and here he articulates the essence of a philosophy known as deep ecology. (from an interview produced for New Dimensions Radio. redacted for brevity)…

I think the simplest way to describe deep ecology is to say that it is bio-centric rather than anthropocentric.  That is to say, it is centered about life in general and not merely human life.  Really the basic tenant of deep ecology is that all living forms have intrinsic value, a right to exist and continue for their own sakes, not for what they may contribute to human welfare.  We humans have the power to dominate every nook and cranny of the planet, and to exploit every living thing on the planet. But simply because we have the power, we do not thereby have the right to exercise that power. We have to respect the right of other living creatures to live in their own way. Deep ecologists are calling for a little self-restraint on the part of the human animal.

Here’s another worthy quotation by author Henry Beston from a book entitled “A Year in the Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod…”

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”

As the season of Advent unfolds, manger scenes show up depicting animals bearing witness and attending to the birth of Jesus right alongside the shepherds and wise men.  It’s worth noting this is based on a misreading of the gospels, as it’s in Luke where shepherds came to the stable, and Matthew where wise men followed the star to a house.  But blending the stories can reveal a mysterious truth if we’re thoughtful about it.  There is something deeply hopeful imagining animals gathered in a stable as the Christ came into the world, the sacred made manifest as an animal among animals – cows and sheep, horses and donkeys, goats and Homo sapiens – the “wise men” – all gathered in reverence around a sacred mystery who shares with us this earthly life, this animal life, that we might become more responsible and kind to one another.  Perhaps Advent has been offering all along that mystical concept of animals Henry Beston suggests.  We might even still be saved by it if we learn what it suggests about who we’re supposed to become with the time given us, if we’re open to wisdom from the sacred mystery in Advent.  Amen.