(Unsplash/Photo by Clovis Wood)
In the second paragraph of his 2015 encyclical letter, “Praise Si’, on the care of our common home”, Pope Francis reflects on the ways in which the human species has mistreated and abused the Earth, which he calls our “Sister, Mother Earth” in the tradition of his namesake Saint Francis of Assisi, the Pope affirms then: “We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gn 2, 7); our very bodies are made of its elements, we breathe its air, and draw life and refreshment from its waters.”
This single sentence says a lot. It acknowledges what both the second creation narrative in the Book of Genesis and the natural sciences say about our human bodies being made of the same stuff as the Earth, while noting that we have “forgotten”—or, perhaps better deliberately ignored—our inherent creatureliness over the centuries. As is clear from the rest of the text, Francis believes that one of the main causes of the environmental crises facing the Earth today is caused in part by the self-centeredness of the human species.
In other words, anthropocentrism is a major problem.
Too often, we humans live as if it’s all about us and all non-human creation is meant for us to do as we please. Francis is among religious leaders who have strongly criticized anthropocentrism, pointing out that non-human creatures are also loved by God and have their own inherent dignity and goodness.
(Unsplash / Jonny Gios)
Catholic theologians such as St. Joseph Sister Elizabeth Johnson, professor emeritus at Fordham University, in her 2014 book Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Loveand me more recently in my 2018 book All God’s Creatures: A Theology of Creation they have presented constructive theological arguments for a renewed understanding of nonhuman creation and our place within the cosmos that takes science and religion, reason and tradition seriously.
Over the years, in various scholarly articles and book chapters, I have also argued against an overly narrowly defined sense of agency, which has traditionally (certainly in the post-Western Enlightenment era) limited which creatures experience agency. creation of meaning or has displayed a kind of agency to human beings only. I am certainly not alone in making such a case based on theology and natural science. For example, I think of the tremendous work of the theologian Eric Daryl Meyer of Carroll College, among others.
But what has pleasantly surprised me is the interesting increase in coverage of such ideas in mainstream secular publications in recent months.
Explorations of the idea of nonhuman animal personality or the meaning-making worlds they inhabit had generally been reserved for ethologists and other scientific specialists. Likewise, considerations of complex networks of communication and cooperation between plants and life were the domain of researchers and graduate students. While there have been groundbreaking exceptions, such as the groundbreaking work of Jane Goodall and the well-known books of Frans de Waal, most of the general public has not given much thought to these issues.
And then, in the March 7, 2022, edition of The New Yorker, editor Lawrence Wright published a lengthy article titled “The Elephant in the Courtroom,” about the legal fight to recognize nonhuman animal personality and its rights. , especially against detention for fun or human entertainment.
Three months later, in the June 13 edition of The New Yorker, staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert published an article titled “The Strange and Secret Ways Animals Perceive the World.”
Kolbert’s inspiration came from the work of another journalist, Pulitzer Prize-winning Atlantic science writer Ed Yong, whose new book is titled An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us. (An excerpt from his book is in the July/August issue of the Atlantic, titled “How Animals Perceive the World”).
Yong’s masterful book is the latest in a line of work that dates back to at least the early 20th century and to the development of the field of biosemiotics by the Estonian philosopher and zoologist Jakob von Uexküll. (It must be recognized from the outset that Uexküll was at one time a registered member of the Nazi party, but scholars also point out that he distanced himself fairly quickly from Nazi ideology soon after he aligned himself and made public statements in opposition to racist and anti-Nazi ideology. Semitic policy of National Socialism).
Among the key concepts promoted by Uexküll was the notion of ambient (German for “environment” or “worldview”), which he used to describe the world as felt, experienced, and understood by a given animal. He suggested that animal bodies are similar to a house in that there are many windows facing parts of the world and these windows let in perceptible sensory data (sight, hearing, taste, touch, etc.) according to the abilities of the given creature.
All of us (humans, ants, birds, squirrels, etc.) can inhabit a similar space (such as a garden), but our experience, perception and understanding of that space is conditioned by the biological structure and the resulting “world”. environment” that we experience is our respective ambient.
Every creature, from tick to human, has a relative experience of the world and the making of meaning. Yong sums up the implications of this: “Unlike many of his contemporaries, Uexküll saw animals not as mere machines but as sentient entities, whose inner worlds not only existed but were worth contemplating.”
Uexküll did not claim that all creatures, both human and non-human, had the same value or dignity. Instead, he made the bold claim that just because a tick or squirrel doesn’t experience the world the way we humans do doesn’t mean they don’t have a deep and particular experience of the world their own way.
For much of our modern human history, we have assumed our absolute uniqueness as a species, denying the possibility of intelligence, emotion, moral reasoning, relationship building, and even types of religious experience for nonhuman animals. We simply assume that other creatures are, as René Descartes argued in the early 17th century, mere fleshy machines that only simulate feelings.
It doesn’t take much effort to see how such rigid anthropocentrism, what British moral theologian David Clough has called “human separatism,” has contributed to our abhorrent treatment of nonhuman animals over the years, from hunting to extinction and factory farming. to scientific experimentation, to circuses and zoos.
Regardless of whether US courts grant legal rights to some non-human animals, as outlined in Wright’s coverage of the elephant case (and I’d argue there are good reasons for at least some form of legal recognition of the personality of some non-human animals, particularly when considering that corporations are recognized as “legal entities” with certain rights in the US system), I think we humans need to adjust our sense of the world more than human.
Instead of pretending that the world around us, and the biome within us, is just some kind of static, inert backdrop for human life, perhaps we could open our minds to recognize that non-human creatures live fully as well. in this world, what Francis calls “our common home”. Likewise, we would do well to recognize our interdependence and inextricable connection with the rest of creation. We too are creatures, although we would like to pretend otherwise.
If you are looking for a source of inspiration in this regard, you can refer to the recently published five-volume series entitled Kinship: belonging in a world of relationships, produced by the Center for Humans and Nature in Illinois. These volumes, co-edited by Gavin Van Horn, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and John Hausdoerffer, contain essays and poetry that invite reflection and consideration of the human and non-human world through the lens of our inherent interconnectedness.
Such a change in human view of non-human animals may not solve all our ecological and spiritual crises overnight, but it may help renew the way we see, think, live, and pray in the world. And that is just one way to embrace the “ecological conversion” that the Holy Father continually calls us to pursue.
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