Thursday, February 18, 2010

Animals and Humans

The relationship between humans and animals in the Bible is often assumed to be marked by a sharp division between the two, but the Biblical record is not so clear cut.

The relationship between humans and animals is an interesting subject that has bearing on discussions of morality (which is obviously deeply connected with the atonement). As has been pointed out elsewhere on this blog here and here, animals seem to be capable of behaviours that we would call moral and create and exist in social structures of sorts.

These facts can be troubling for one who would seek to make a sharp distinction between human beings and the other animals. Such a view is often assumed to be intrinsic to Christianity, particularly since it teaches that humans are made in the image of God, something that no other life form is described as possessing in the creation accounts of Genesis. I do not believe that one needs to take a literal reading of Genesis (and I do not), but I also believe that this does not meant that there are not deep theological reflections and implications that can be taken from these passages. When we examine more closely the creation accounts in Genesis, we find several striking details that have bearing on this topic:

1) It must be kept in mind that while humans are described as being made in the image of God, they were also made on the same day as the rest of the animals. Also, God offers the plants of the earth to both humans and animals for food, making no mention of taking animal life for food (see Genesis 1:26-31)

2) In the account found in Genesis 2, God declares that it is not good for man to be alone, and only after this are the animals made. The man is made to name the animals (while vegetative life is not given any names), and it seems clear from the passage found in verse 20 that the man expected to find a suitable helper from among the other animals.

From these two points, it is clear that humans and animals are intimately connected in the Biblical creation account. Thus, it should be not be too surprising to find that animals exhibit many behaviors and interactions that we tend to think of as paradigmatically human. Even though the idea of imago dei is clearly found in the Genesis account, the account also shows much in common between humans and animals, which experience and evolutionary biology also teaches is the case.

24 comments:

Rich said...

Hi Matt,
A hitch in your post is in #2. God does declare that man shouldn't be alone but that he made animals after that declaration is what I question. The most glaring problem to that conclusion to me is that he mentions fowl as being made along with animals but in Genisis one they are made on day 5, a day before land animals and along with water creatures. Also doesn't evolution put animals before humans? That is going to make it hard for people to accept the conclusion you draw, in my opinion.

Matt K said...

Hi Rich,

Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 each record a different version of creation, so I was only referencing the account in Genesis 2 in my second point.

Also, I am not claiming that animals and humans were literally made on the "same day." Again, I don't think the account is literally telling us the processes and sequences by which the world was made. I think instead that it contains important truths about the nature of the world. As such, my point was that since humans and animals were created on the same day in the account that they are of a similar nature. The point of my post is that we shouldn't be too quick to assume that the Bible teaches that animals and humans are drastically different from one another. I am pointing to some of the ways in which the creation accounts point to similarities between humans and animals.

Thus, it isn't problematic that humans are not the first living creatures on earth and are the result of an evolutionary process. It is only problematic if you are trying to take a literal view of Genesis 1 while trying to treat it as telling the same story as Genesis 2, neither of which I am claiming or doing.

Rich said...

Hey Matt,

I don't think the accounts are literal either. I see your points better now. What I wonder though is how humans and animals being created on the "same day" necessarily draws the conclusion that they are of the similar nature. Or what you mean by similar nature. It seems like you are saying that since they are said to be created on the same day that makes it not surprising that we share some similarities wih the animal kingdom. Does that teach us that we are part of the animal kingdom like we are taught in school?

Logan Cres said...

Hi Matt,
you admit that you don't take a literal reading of genesis, then you base your argument on it.

Why would you base your argument on information that you are not committed to?

Second, the "image of god" as far as I know is undefined.

What are the "properties" of "the image of God" so we can compare them to the properties of humans and animals?

We could conceivably list all the properties of humans, animals and God in a spreadsheet,
the evidence in the rows of column 1,
the columns would be made of up of the statements
col 2, "property of humans"
col 3, "property of Animals"
col 4, "property of God"

then check off all that they have in common

then tabulate them to see how close in comparison the categories are to each other.

The only thing that I can think of that has been verified that animals can't do to any degree is
cry.

that's it.
Please correct me if I'm missing something.

Matt K said...

Hi Logan,

My argument is not based on a literal reading of Genesis. I think literal was probably the wrong word to use since it obviously depends on context and intent, so I should have stated that I do not take the view that the stories recorded in Genesis 1 and 2 are scientific or historical.

My point in writing this post is to show that it is not clear from the creation accounts that there is a sharp bifurcation between human and animal life. I was responding to what I took to be an implicit assumption in your posts on animal interaction and altruism that the existence of these behaviors in non-human life somehow undermines a divine connection to morality. Such a view (I don't know if that is your view or not) would have to be based on a belief that sharp lines of division can be drawn between humans and other animals. I think the differences between humans and other animals are ones of degree and not of kind, which I think is a pretty uncontroversial view. My point was that the creation accounts don't presume such a radical division either.

As for the image of God, I think it means that humans reflect divine attributes (morality, rationality, aesthetic creativity, language, etc.). Again, this does not mean that animals do not possess rudimentary forms of some or all of these things, but rather it is a matter of the degree and sophistication with which humans possess them.

Logan Cres said...

Hi Mattk,
"My point in writing this post is to show that it is not clear from the creation accounts that there is a sharp bifurcation between human and animal life."
you are so right,
in fact, genesis is so ambiguous and so unrepresentative of what we know about the real world that is seems positively mythical, wouldn't you agree?

It is my view that God is not needed to derive morality.

now I plan on doing a post on this fairly soon with the venn diagram,
but what you propose is that there are overlapping characteristics between God, Humans and Animals.

What is the part the animals don't share that creates such a tight coupling between humans and god that "motivated" him to reveal himself to us?

Why is it that it doesn't matter if animals know about or believe in god and it matters if we do? Do animals "get separated after death", do they stay conscious after death to understand that they are separated from god?
Do we stay conscious after death to understand that we are separated from god?

And since this blog is about the atonement, it is implicit that we are talking about the christian god, but what prevents the same minds that created the stories of creation in genesis and evidently missed the "proof texts" in the old testament and misunderstood the criteria for their messiah to have gotten the god and the "analogy" right for you to use to base your argument on?

That whole story may be just a misunderstanding, or a fabrication.

I wonder why YOU don't take it literally?

Logan Cres said...

And I would like to see your answer to richs question about how being created on the same day is coupled logically to sharing properties.

Matt K said...

Hi Logan,

I'm going to do my best to address all the issues you raised, but if for some reason I overlook something or misunderstand what you're asking, just keep pressing me on it:-)

First, let me respond to Rich's question, which I meant to do yesterday but forgot. What I also forgot to do was include the part of the text that points to shared properties, namely Genesis 2:7 and 2:19, in which both humans and animals are described as being made out of the dust of the ground. This coupled with the fact that they are made on the same day (and each day seems to represent broad "kinds" i.e. plants are on a different day than animals) suggests that humans and animals can fit in a broad category together and are made of the same material.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that the text somehow teaches biological evolution. That is clearly not how its authors would have understood it and to read it that way would be obviously anachronistic. Like all revelation, I think God was speaking to me within their cultural and historical framework, thus He reveals things about creation through the genre of Near Eastern mythology, so it is not problematic that we find new shades of meaning in the light of new scientific observations and paradigms. In the future I’m sure biology will look very different than it does today, and as a result new meanings in the text will come to light that we aren’t able to see now because we lack the context.

Mythic does not equal devoid of truth, however. The mythic structure of the creation narratives does not rule out any theological truth or vital implications for us, in the same way that for example, the penetrating psychological portraits of Dostoevsky point to truths about human nature and experience even though no such person as Ivan Karamazov existed.

I don’t know about the status of animals after death, though I won’t dismiss a priori the idea that animals may take part in the resurrection. It only matters if we “believe in God” because we are morally aware agents. I don’t think God is interested in belief as he is in seeing us made fully alive. If a person submits to the moral will of God without knowing its source I think that they are nearer to the kingdom of God than someone who has an explicit belief in God but ignores God’s moral promptings. If an animal cannot comprehend its actions in a moral light then they aren’t morally responsible (this is a totally different issue than the one of whether or not animals behave with structured social interactions or exhibit behaviors we would call “moral”). As Paul writes in Romans 5:13 “for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law” (I have written elsewhere on this site about the idea of “law” in the Bible and I think those points should be taken into consideration here as well).

Matt K said...

Why don’t I take the creation story literally? I can think of several reasons off the top of my head: 1) literary analysis shows poetic structure and a look at its genre in its broader cultural context puts it as a sort of saga it would seem, 2) historically, the Church Fathers have found various levels of meaning in the text and have interpreted it in both literal and non-literal lights so there is not strict precedent that it is only understood literally in Christian circles, 3) there is evidence within Scripture that God communicates to humans through and within their cultural contexts. Since I am not an Ancient Near Easterner, I need not and probably should not understand a text in the same way that they would, 4) further scientific investigation of God’s general revelation (the natural world) provides insights from geology, biology, genetics, etc. that push against a literal interpretation. I don’t think I am at all being unfaithful to the Bible or somehow scrambling for a new position after science has somehow destroyed my old one. Such a view is very na├»ve and ignores Church history and smuggles in a whole Common Sense Realist philosophical tradition and assumes that such a tradition is ahistorically true, claims that are open to debate but I think clearly not made by the Bible.

Whew, that took longer that I thought and now I need to get some sleep. I trust I have provided plenty of fodder for additional responses, however:-)

Logan Cres said...

mattk,
when people gain more insight to how the world works, and then various people each reinterpret some text differently in light of it, you haven't gotten closer to understanding, you have moved further away from understanding.

that process is taking what you know and looking for patterns in the text that could support it. That is a form of bias, Confirmation Bias and is described as "reading too much into it".

This is exactly the same argument fundamentalist Muslims use to demonstrate "science" in the quran. By your standards they have a good argument and should be taken seriously.

The text is ambiguous, and generally speaking, ambiguous text is not very useful for understanding, teaching or instruction.

If you want to be a teacher, surely you must know this to be true.

the understandings have to converge "naturally" at a point, not be forced by "interpretations".

The interpretation should lead you to something observable, discoverable.

Interpretations do not carry the same weight in decision making as unambiguous information that is observable and measurable. Interpretations come from data that is observable, even the bible. The bible is observable and measurable.

people and animals weren't derived from dirt.
It is severe exaggeration to say that shared behavior between humans and animals is revealed in a passage that says that humans and animals were made from dirt.

From that perspective, genesis also says that Me, my dog and my car all share similar qualities.

Interpretations can expand the scope to ridiculous proportions and leave the topic undefined.

When you assign a research paper to one of your students,
what are you going to use as CRITERIA FOR A GOOD SOURCE?
If they want to use the quran, genesis, the vedas, the sutras, some triblal religious text or scientific research from the last twenty years as evidence that humans and animals have shared properties, which are you going to permit? And on what grounds?

would you grade them equally as one of your students that used only Scientific papers from the last twenty years?

Have you given any thought to what the criteria for good sources of research are? Does genesis qualify as a good source?
why or why not?

Logan Cres said...

Here's a better question.
Could we have discovered that humans and animals have similar traits to different degrees without the bible?

If yes, then why is it relevant?

Logan Cres said...

I'm going to take a break from discussions until I can get something I've been working on for some time finished. It is an argument fundamental to my viewpoint and I'd like to have it out there in the open for review, critique and reference.
Talk to you all soon
[unfortunately I don't have to time write and draw out everything in my head :-( ]

Matt K said...

Hi Logan,

I'm looking forward to what you're working on and I'm sure I'll have some thoughts on it. I'm going to respond to some of your points now anyway and you can critique them later.

I disagree that you move further away from understanding when you read a text in a different light. You are ignoring the fundamentally historical nature of reading a text. You seem to imply that if I cannot support the same reading of a text that someone three thousand years ago could that my understanding of it must be illegitimate, which I think is wrongheaded.

I believe I listed four different reasons for not taking a literal reading of Genesis, in doing so I was attempting to give a holistic view of the text and acknowledge and respect its polyvalence. If a Muslim is able to do the same thing with the Quran to support a scientific viewpoint than I think it is at least worthy of consideration, particularly by other Muslim scholars who would be better able to see if such a view was faithful or compatible with elements of Islamic history and tradition. I accept the possibility and existence of divine revelation, and as such I don't reject a priori other faith traditions claim to possess. I think I need to keep an open mind about such matters.

I disagree with Christians who seek to demonstrate scientific propositions in Genesis, but that is for all of the reasons I listed above, the chief most of which is that it ignores the genre of the text. I am not claiming that people and animals were made out of dirt. I think something written a mythic/saga genre deserves to be read in light of its genre so I attempt to read it in a poetic sense, which was my point. Why do you insist on reading literal meanings into a poetic interpretation? I imagine that you would say that poetic/literary works are poor sources of information, and I imagine as engineering and humanities types (respectively) we will just have to agree to disagree to on this one.

If someone wanted to show how scientific evidence was consonant with the poetic sense of a sacred text I would evaluate it on its own merits. Obviously, if they gave the source a naive reading, assuming it to be a modern scientific treatise, I would push back.

Hermeneutics is not a cut and dry subject, and the dirty little secret is that this is just as much the case for any text, be it scientific, literary, or anything in between.

Rich said...

Hi Loganster
Does genesis qualify as a good source?

That would depend on what you are researching. It has its use in certain areas.

Could we have discovered that humans and animals have similar traits to different degrees without the bible?

Yes we can, and do.

If yes, then why is it relevant?

As in why is Genesis or the Bible relevant? Assuming that is your question I'll be happy to takke a shot at the answer.
First let me define scripture as I understand it and that will help. Scripture is a collection of writtings of the dealings that God has with people. It comes from revelation(God speaking to a chosen person) to us. So I would say that I agree with Matt that when we read the bible we are looking at a time period and people being taught how they can receive salvation within the context of their culture. The bible is written by people and translated be people. It's relevance is not in helping us with science, but rather our relationship with God.

Logan Cres said...

Hi rich, matt,
this is reprint from matts blog.
---------
it has nothing to do with science.
what you twp are missing is the "look" test
and the "relevance" test.

sure literature can be "true" just as much as dosteyfsy (whatever) can be true in a sense. Scripture, jewish, hindu, buddhist, christian muslim is all "wisdom literature" its the accumulated wisdom caputured for the intended audience, which was the local community. But the reason its "true" is because we can "look" at it and "comapare" it to what we know and if it gives us a method of living, then if there are no better methods, its relevant, if there are better methods its not relevant.

Genesis is full of all kinds of crazy events, violations of normative principles, such as putting poison in the reach of children (tree of knowledge of good and evil),
then kicking them out of the house, and ruining the prospects for their offspring, just because they were so naive as to fall for a liar. According to the story, they had never suffered and never been lied to.

though this isn't literal, its not a responsible method of living or worthy of emulation.

No god is required to "inspire" this wisdom literature, any more than any god was needed to inspire any other wisdom literature you want to put up against genesis.

Matt K said...

(I'm also cross-posting this here and at Reflective Faith as well)

I don't think its quite as easy as you would have me believe with your "look" and "relevance" tests. I think one glance at world history and current events will show anyone that there are serious differences throughout the world over what should be seen as good, what kind of a world or society is best, and why. Obviously, you have your standards, but its clear that other people do not share them, so on what basis do you hope to decide if a method is better than another? That may be your take on how literary truth can be seen as "true" but I think you will admit that it is just one possible story that can be told.

"though this isn't literal, its not a responsible method of living or worthy of emulation."

-That's actually a point made by many of the Church Fathers, who claimed that the sin of Adam and Eve was to reach for something that they were not mature enough to handle responsible, not for seeking to attain a certain kind of knowledge in and of itself.

I'm saying that literary truth can reveal something that observation cannot, it can help us to articulate things that are felt but seem to defy explanation or at least vocalization.

I'm curious to know, what would it look like for you for God to be "required"? Do you take that to mean anything that can be deduced through human observation and reasoning does not require a God?

Logan Cres said...

woah mattk,
lets break this down and reduce the scope a little bit. Its getting too far off the ground for my taste.

It goes like this,
is it your opinion that the structure of the story of the fall of man is optimal to such a degree that it could only have been conceived of by the supreme intelligence in the universe?

Or is it the case that it was conceived of by some bronze age thinkers and modeled after their rules of comportment?

literal or not, GENERALLY true about human nature or not, it depends on arguably immoral principles that
- it is justifible to put poison among innocents as long as you tell them not to touch it
- that when they do touch it they will get punished beyond their wildest dreams
- and so will their offspring
- until a human sacrifice makes it all better

tell me what culture observes these principles as a normative standard.

A bronze age culture with bronze age thinkers.

We've come a long way since then, the rules of cooperation have even been discovered that produce computer models of cooperation in groups.

Matt K said...

I'll try to rein in the scope of things here:-) (Although I do think that underlying questions about the good lurk behind these things)

No, it is not my opinion that the structure of the story is optimal to such a degree that it could only have been conceived of by the supreme intelligence of the universe. However, I again would like to know what it would mean for you for something to "require" God.

I have emphasized again and again that I think God speaks through human cultures and constructs, not simply by doing things sui generis. I find ample evidence of this in the Bible, so I see no need to adopt your standard that God can only be attributed to things for which there is no remotely conceivable possibility of human involvement.

Also, the immoral principles you are finding in Genesis reflect a strictly literal reading of the text. The story is about human rejection of God's commands and the troubles that result when we presume to know better than God, not about justifying principles found in a literal reading of literary devices.

Logan Cres said...

so then it has striking insight into the human condition that people don't do what their told to the detriment of the group and that the story as it is is relevant to today's culture?

If he spoke to them using their culture, then he spoke to them at the turn of the millenium in the culture of that time, he obviously has a set a trend of changing things to suit the culture.

so people are driving gods direction.

Is it your opinion that the insight that humans don't do what they are told is only observable by the omnipresent eye of the almighty?

Logan Cres said...

Hi mattk
and another thing!
[index finger raised over his head shaking uncontrollably]

I'm not avoiding answering your question
"However, I again would like to know what it would mean for you for something to "require" God."

I fully intend to, but you'll have to wait till I post my article.

;-)

Matt K said...

Ooooook [tapping foot impatiently]:-P

Logan Cres said...

thats it?
you don't have anything to say about my "people are driving god..." comment?

I think I have come up with a fun, interactive way to generate some data to support my point.

Look for an article on it soon.

Matt K said...

Oops, I overlooked your previous comment. I didn't mean to let your "people are driving god's direction" comment to slip by:-P

It's not God being driven by humans, but graciously accomodating cultural features. After all, if God is primarily interested in moral development, then our cosmology, etc. has little relevance. And no, I don't think that only God can observe that human's don't do what they are told:-)

Logan Cres said...

heres a link to an advance preview at one of my blogger 'reverse engineering' sites.
link