Sermon: Confessions of an Unrepentant Speciesist

04.24.2016     Preaching Text: “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.’” (Genesis 1:28)

 Years ago I was walking the halls at divinity school, minding my own business, when I encountered a fellow student. Also present was a beautiful dog, a Golden Retriever, if memory serves.

In any event, being the friendly sort, I asked this gentleman if he was the owner of the beautiful dog. At that he raised his eyebrows with disdain and sniffed indignantly, “No. I’m his partner.”

Boy, was there egg on my face! I had unwittingly revealed myself to be a “speciesist”! Oh, the shame and horror!

For those of you who haven’t been keeping up, a speciesist is someone who believes that human beings possess greater moral rights than animals and who thus has a bias toward humans over and against members of other species.

I confess to being guilty as charged. I don’t believe that humans and animals, or humans and the rest of nature, are the same, or are on an equal footing.

Back in the 60’s there was a rallying cry among many in my generation to “get back to nature.” Being “natural” was the ideal. In this humans would fit in harmoniously with the rest of creation and henceforth avoid repeating humanity’s countless sins of the past.

Then again, all one has to do is turn on PBS sometime and watch one of their nature shows. I remember one in particular. It featured the fierce animus between jackals and hyenas somewhere on the continent of Africa.

It was vicious and hard to watch. The fight scenes were struggles to the death, as violent and horrific as anything on television – and that’s saying something.

Thus the last thing I want to do is “get back to nature.” Because nature is in many respects a violent and inhospitable place. Have you ever heard anybody say, “It’s a jungle out there”! My guess is they didn’t mean this in the warm-and-fuzzy sense.

In today’s reading from Genesis, we encounter the definitive Judeo-Christian perspective on the human being. In this creation account, she is not considered equal to the other creatures or of nature, but set apart.

We are told she is created in the “image” and “likeness” of God and thus is instructed to “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.”

This biblical command, of course, is often cited by naturalists as an affront to creation. It is seen as license for human beings to do whatever they want with the natural world. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

The reason is found in the first part of our reading, that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. Implicit is the idea that we are tasked with “stewarding” creation in ways consistent with the One who created all that is.

Being made in the image and likeness of God means we are different from animals and from nature, though hardly indifferent to them.

Classic Christian theology asserts that human beings are made up of a body, a soul, and spirit. Here we share with animals (and possibly even plants) a body and a soul.

The soul has to do with our senses, desires, affections, and appetites. The spirit is that which connects us to God.

The soul has the capacity for consciousness, for rational, even abstract thought (such powers being present in animals only in a limited degree). It is the soul that enables humans to pursue scientific and philosophical inquiry and draw rational conclusions.

Unfortunately, as Timothy Ware points out in his book, The Orthodox Way, “The cultural and educational system of the contemporary West [is] based almost exclusively upon training the reasoning brain and, to a lesser degree, of the aesthetic emotions.”

“Most of us have forgotten,” in other words, “that we are not only brain and will, senses and feelings, we are also spirit. Modern man has for the most part lost touch with the truest and highest aspect of himself…”

Which is to say that we human beings possess a unity of body, soul, and spirit. Yet it is the spirit that distinguishes us from the rest of creation, from nature. It is the spirit which offers transcendence and genuine intellect, in the manner akin to God’s. It is this spirit we are to use in stewarding creation.

To repeat, this does not give us license to abuse and misuse creation. Rather, we are instructed to “subdue” creation in a manner consistent with the spiritual insights of God, the One who, after all, made all things.

In choir practice a few weeks back, Marcia handed out today’s Introit, O Brother Sun, based on St. Francis of Assisi’s famous poem, The Canticle of the Sun. She playfully announced that the words were probably OK because “God” is mentioned. (I think she was taking a shot at me!)

She was right, of course. For the basis of Francis’ celebration of creation in all its aspects comes from a place of deep spiritual reverence, that which only the Spirit of God bequeaths. It is the product of a rightly ordered intellect, born of divine transcendence, which alone enables Francis’ words to soar.

The reason the word “God” is essential is because without God the other words simply make no sense.

Francis was not, in other words, a proponent of “natural theology,” which seeks to know God through human reason and observation of nature alone. Nor was he a pantheist, who views nature as identical to God. (Think of Gaia!)

While insisting that creation is not itself God, Francis nonetheless glorifies creation as not only having been made by God, but as revealing something of who God is. Assuming, that is, we have spiritual eyes to see.

The problem with much contemporary thought is that it tries to collapse human nature into some sort of naturalistic, materialistic, animalistic, instinct-based ethos, which effectively eliminates the ‘unnatural’ distinctiveness born of the spirit, that aspect of human personhood wherein all things are rightly ordered.

So, in the end, the best strategy to insure the proper care of our planet is not to subsume our human-ness into a false state of “naturalism,” but to become as distinctly human as we possibly can be. Which means striving to live up to the image and likeness of the One by whom we and all things were created. Amen.