humans, animals and imago dei

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The following is from my good friend Nancy Janisch, a former veterinarian of twenty years and currently ministry coordinator for True North Campus Ministry in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Nancy blogs at Conversation in Faith, often on matters of creation, science and faith (image courtesy Cheryl DeVries):  

We won’t understand our relationship with animals until we understand who we are as human beings.  And oddly enough, we won’t understand who we are as human beings until we understand our relationship with animals.

We have defined ourselves as humans, both theologically and biologically, by emphasizing the distinctions between ourselves and animals.  We have assumed ourselves to be the only beings who are self-aware, the only beings with the ability to reason, the only beings who could modify their environment, with a conscience and moral awareness, and with culture and language.  But as our knowledge about animals has increased, the distinctions between humans and animals have decreased.  The literature is vast, but here are just a few examples to illustrate the point:

Chimps, elephants and dolphins have been shown to have self-awareness.  That is, they know themselves as individuals who are distinct from other individuals.  Some animals like rats and ravens have, if not the ability to count, at least an awareness of numbers.  Tool using, making and modification are well-known phenomena not only among chimps, but also wasps and birds.

Animal groups develop distinctive ways of communication.  They learn from each other, they form complex social bonds and they work cooperatively.  Animal groups have standards regarding what constitutes acceptable social behavior.  They have methods of deaing with unacceptable behavior, and they also have ways of resolving conflict when group norms have been violated.

Chimps in different regions of Africa demonstrate different behaviors, distinctive methods of tool use, and different styles of vocalization.  They have developed different cultures.  Elephants live in matriarchal groups and form lifelong relationships.  They appear to grieve the death of group members.  You may recall reading about elephants in zoos who, after being separated for many years, not only recognized each other but appeared happy to see each other when they are reunited.  Whales develop complex songs to communicate, form alliances, act cooperatively in hunting, and pass along those skills to younger whales.   And they have social networks similar to primates and humans. 

In captivity, dolphins and chimps can learn artificial languages and sign language, becoming in a sense bilingual.  Some chimps who know American Sign Language teach it to their offspring, and have also been found to use ASL to communicate with other chimps even when humans are not present.  Animals can even be deceptive.  Wolves will store food and then retrieve it when other wolves are not looking.  Baboons who are being harassed by other baboons will signal that a predator is near, and when the harassing baboons check to find the fictional predator, they slip away. 

The more we study animals, the more qualities we thought made us different from animals are slipping away.  Animal communication is much more complex than we previously imagined.  The family and communal life of animals is more rich and emotionally meaningful than we believed possible.  Some animals even seek particular plants to consume apparently as treatment for parasites or certain diseases.  So what differences remain between us?

Some may claim that our own sense of awe and wonder, a recognition of the divine, separates us from other animals.  But there are a growing number of scientists who believe that certain animals, particularly primates, have a sense of awe and wonder.  There are recorded episodes of gorillas stopping to watch the sun set or gazing at a waterfall.

What if the differences between us may be more of degree than of kind?  What does that mean for us as humans?  What does it mean to be created in the image of God if it does not mean we are quite distinct from animals?  To answer that question we must first consider the role of images in the ancient near east, following which we must consider what the Genesis story meant to the original audience.  And then we will be able to read the story in a new way.

to be continued tomorrow ...