animal soul

By: Ptolemy Tompkins


They hopped from tree to tree and loped across the ground in front of us, Their eyes bright with a combination of intelligence, wariness and what, to me , has always seemed like a touch of humor.

We were talking, in particular, about the Buddhist idea of reincarnation. Nicky’s mother (my stepmother), Betty, died of cancer in the summer of 1985. “If you’re a Buddhist,” I said, “then you believe that Betty could, by now, be one of these squirrels running around here.”

“Yes,” said Nicky. “When we die, according to Buddhist teaching, we bring the accumulated results of all our actions with us. All the choices my mother made in her life dictated what she would become in her next life — and that life could take place on any level: earthly, heavenly o r hellish. Animal existence is just one of the worlds she could come into, but certainly a possible one.”

A particularly young and inexperienced-looking squirrel stopped right in front of our bench, stood up on his hind legs, and moved his head up and down in that quick, jerky way that squirrels do when they’re sizing up a situation.

I looked at that squirrel and tried to imagine my stepmother’s soul squished down into that compact gray body — her personality transformed into the alert and engaging, but at the same time decidedly non-human, consciousness that sparkled in the squirrel’s eyes. “I just don’t see how Betty could be in there,” I said. “Why not?” said Nicky.  “It’s not because I don’t like squirrels. They’re one of my very favorite animals. But squirrels are ....... squirrels. They’re not humans. To me, the idea that a human personality could simply be translated into a squirrel personality just doesn’t make sense.

Though still not exactly common, conversations like this seem to happen a lot more frequently today than they used to. Even back in the spiritual 60s, the question of whether animals do or don’t have souls, and what becomes of those souls if they do have them, would have struck most people as adventurous at best — and more likely, simply naive and childish.

More and more, though, that’s changing —--and not just among people like my step-brother who have embraced non-Western faiths. In books like M. Jean Holmes’ Do Dogs Go to Heaven? and Andrew Linzey’s Animal Theology, Christian authors have increasingly been taking issue with the ease with which members of their own faith ---— especially clergy people ---— have dismissed this question in the past.

Here’s the way it often works. An animal lover who has lost her pet goes to her clergy person in search of confirmation for what she feels deep in her heart: This animal who was so real, so special ---— so individual -— can’t simply be gone completely. Surely there’s confirmation somewhere in scripture, in the old Christian tradition, that what she has lost is more than just a few pounds of fur and flesh, that something real in that animal has departed ---— has moved on.

The clergy person, at this point, all too often tells the grieving pet owner that while it’s perfectly understandable to grieve her loss, in fact she will not be seeing her pet again. No, pets do not have souls . God may have made your dog or cat or rabbit or canary, but it was a passing piece of his handiwork . Its soul life, while perhaps real in some negligible way while the animal was alive, is now over once and for all.

Is this really the only way to look at it?

The fact is, Christianity does have an old — and deep — tradition of downplaying the importance of animals as anything but objects created by God for humans. Both Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas made strong, and deeply influential, remarks belittling what one could call the soul status of animals. Aquinas in particular, following his master Aristotle, argued that because “dumb animals” were “devoid of the life of reason,” they “have no fellowship” with humans, who could use — and abuse — them at will.

But alongside this tradition is another one —just as old and just as deep —that says just the opposite . It’s a tradition that stretches right back to those sparrows that Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, argues are not “forgotten before God,” and that continues through the centuries in the writings of Christians like Athanasius, Saint John of the Cross and — of course — Saint Francis.

Nor does it stop in the modern age. “It is a mistake,” wrote the famous 20th-century Russian Christian philosopher Nicolai Berdyaev, “to think that communion is possible only between persons . It is possible with the animal world. It was like this with Saint Francis. The most surprising example of really true communion that eliminates solitude is the communion of the human ‘I’ with dogs who become real friends, often better friends than humans. Man’s relationship to dogs has a metaphysical significance.”

It wasn’t just dogs that Berdyaev cared about. In his autobiography, he describes the illness and death of his beloved cat, Muri. “I experienced Muri’s suffering before his death,” Berdyaev writes , “as the suffering of all creation. Through him I felt myself united to the whole of creation awaiting deliverance. ..... I very rarely weep, but when Muri died, I wept bitterly. And the death of such a charming one of God’s creatures was for me the experience of death in general. I demand for myself eternal life with Muri.”

Arguments from Augustine, Aquinas and others notwithstanding, there is no outright declaration in either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament that animals are soul-less creatures. In fact, the same term (nephesh chayah, “living soul”) is used in the Hebrew Bible to describe both humans and animals (though the translators of the King James Bible often chose to use different words when translating this term, depending on whether animals or humans were the subject).

Likewise, the New Testament is rich in language that suggests that all creation is spiritual in nature. “The same Christ,” writes Linzey in Animal Theology, “who is the co-creator, the Logos , the one who becomes incarnate in the very heart of being, is also the reconciler of all things.”

The very word “animal” holds the Latin word for soul (“anima”) within it. Many a writer has pointed out that if you translate the sentence “Animals don’t have souls” into Latin, what you end up with is something like this: “Soul beings have no souls.”

One reason for the ever-increasing popularity of Eastern religions is their more democratic view of creation, their willingness to grant not just human beings but all creatures a spiritual status . Buddhism (specifically, my stepbrother Nicky’s Tibetan variety) embraces the concept that a human soul can find itself in an animal body ---— be it a squirrel’s, an armadillo’s or a mosquito’s. I struggle with this idea, not because I respect animals any less than people, but because they seem so distinct ---— so different.

From pit bulls to cockatoos, all animals behave after the manner of their kind. But at the same time, every animal lover knows that each animal is an individual ---— a being that is itself and nothing else. Unrepeatable. Unique. As the Christian theologian Karl Barth put it, an animal is “a single being, a unique creature existing in an individuality which we cannot fathom but also cannot deny.”

But whether or not I agree with Nicky on all the fine points of his particular faith, I feel I am lucky to live in a time when conversations like the one we had in the park are possible. Whatever faith, or combination of faiths, one embraces, the days when the spiritual status of non-human creation could be comfortably left out of the picture ---— when the question “Do animals have souls?” could be dismissed as childish and naive ---— are gone for good.

Day by day, we are moving closer to the time predicted by those famous lines of Henry Beston in his book The Outermost House, when he called for “another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals.”


Ptolemy Tompkins is senior editor

 at Guideposts magazine.



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