Category Archive: Animals

March 25, 2011

Talking Animals

Category: Animals,Literature :: Link :: Print

The other night, after meeting Glimfeather the Owl in C. S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, Theia said to me, “Papa, talking animals are only in stories, aren’t they?”

“Are they?” I asked.

“There aren’t talking animals in our world,” she replied.  “Only in stories.”

At first, I acted as if I was just teasing her.  “There are talking animals in our world, too,” I said.  She denied it, insisting that there aren’t.  I insisted there were.  She laughed, sure I was teasing, and insisted that there weren’t.

But I’ve read the Bible to her and she remembers it.  “Do you remember the serpent who talked to Eve in the Garden?” I asked.  She did.  “And do remember when we read the story about Balaam the prophet and how his donkey talked to him?”  Again, she did.  “That wasn’t just a story,” I said.  “That was in our world.  That really happened.  So animals in our world can talk.”

Stop a moment and think about that.   When it comes to the serpent, it’s easy to say that the serpent spoke because it was impelled to do so by Satan who was somehow linked up with or inhabiting the serpent.  After all, the Bible does speak of Satan as “the serpent of old” (Rev. 12), thereby identifying the tempter of Genesis 3 with the devil.  So, we conclude, snakes don’t talk — unless, of course, the devil is speaking through them.

But that doesn’t account for Balaam’s donkey.   I can imagine someone maintaining that it was really God who was speaking to Balaam, using the donkey’s voicebox to do so, and so people sometimes say, “God can speak through a donkey, and so he can speak through you, too” or something like that.  But look at the story.  It doesn’t say that God was speaking to Balaam through the donkey; it says that the donkey spoke.  And what’s more, the donkey draws on its memory of its past good behavior: “Have I ever been accustomed to do so to you?” (Num 22:30).  It was YHWH who opened the mouth of the donkey, that’s true, but it was the donkey who spoke to Balaam (22:28).

And that means that not just in Narnia, not just in fairy tales, not just in fiction but in this very world in which we live, there have been — and could be — talking animals.

“Yes,” Theia said.  “But they don’t talk to us very often.”  True.  But maybe someday.

Posted by John Barach @ 7:18 pm | Discuss (0)
January 5, 2007

Animals and the Afterlife

Category: Animals,Theology :: Link :: Print

Way back when I read Charles Williams’ The Place of the Lion, I mentioned that I wanted to blog sometime about the role of animals.  Why did God create animals?  Sure, I said, some of them are yummy, but not all animals are good to eat.  Nor are all of them equally good companions.  Not all of them are as useful and helpful for man as others.  So what are they for?  Williams’ novel doesn’t get into these matters, but it did raise these sorts of questions for me.  But I didn’t ever get around to blogging on the subject.

It’s perhaps not the most obvious place to look, but C. S. Lewis has some helpful stuff along these lines in his discussion of animal pain in The Problem of Pain. He starts by discussing whether all animals are sentient and concludes that he doesn’t know.  But there are some animals that do seem to have “a real, though doubtless rudimentary, selfhood,” and that is especially the case “in those we tame.”  And so, he says, we have to think about their destiny.  Do they simply die?  Or will animals be raised again in some way in the new heavens and the new earth (which Lewis sometimes just calls “heaven”)?

In answering this question, we must avoid an error which Lewis thinks springs from a form of unbelief, a form, in fact, of atheism:

The error we must avoid is that of considering them in themselves. Man is to be understood only in his relation to God.  The beasts are to be understood only in their relation to man and, through man, to God. Let us here guard against one of those untransmuted lumps of atheistical thought which often survive in the minds of modern believers. Atheists naturally regard the co-existence of man and the other animals as a mere contingent result of interacting biological facts; and the taming of an animal by a man as a purely arbitrary interference of one species with another.  The “real” or “natural” animal to them is the wild one, and the tame animal is an artificial or unnatural thing.

But a Christian must not think so.  Man was appointed by God to have dominion over the beasts, and everything a man does to an animal is either a lawful exercise, or a sacrilegious abuse, of an authority by divine right.  The tame animal is therefore, in the deepest sense, the only “natural” animal — the only one we see occupying the place it was made to occupy, and it is on the tame animal that we must base all our doctrine of beasts.

Now it will be seen that, in so far as the tame animal has a real self or personality, it owes this almost entirely to its master.  If a good sheepdog seems “almost human” that is because a good shepherd has made it so.

I have already noted the mysterious force of the word “in.”  I do not take all the senses of it in the New Testament to be identical, so that man is in Christ and Christ in God and the Holy Spirit in the Church and also in the individual believer in exactly the same sense.  They may be senses that rhyme or correspond rather than a single sense.

I am now going to suggest — though with great readiness to be set right by real theologians — that there may be a sense, corresponding, though not identical, with these, in which those beasts that attain a real self are in their masters.  That is to say, you must not think of a beast by itself, and call that a personality and then inquire whether God will raise and bless that.  You must take the whole context in which the beast acquires its selfhood — namely “The-goodman-and-the-goodwife-ruling-their-children-and-their-beasts-in-the-good-homestead.”

That whole context may be regarded as a “body” in the Pauline (or a closely sub-Pauline) sense; and how much of that “body” may be raised along with the goodman and the goodwife, who can predict?  So much, presumably, as is necessary not only for the glory of God and the beatitude of the human pair, but for that particular glory and that particular beatitude which is eternally coloured by that particular terrestrial experience.

And in this way it seems to me possible that certain animals may have an immortality, not in themselves, but in the immortality of their masters.  And the difficulty about personal identity in a creature barely personal disappears when the creature is thus kept in its proper context.  If you ask, concerning an animal thus raised as a member of the whole Body of the household, where its personal identity resides, I answer “Where its identity always did reside even in the earthly life — in its relation to the Body and, specially, to the master who is the head of that Body.”  In other words, the man will know his dog: the dog will know its master and, in knowing him, will be itself (pp. 126-128).

That sounds about right to me.  I’m particularly fascinated by the claim that because man was given dominion over the animals, they are to be considered in relation to man.  And the tame animals are the ones who are being most themselves.

I don’t know if that’s always true.  Leviathan is presented as pretty untamable in Job.  But I do think it’s true that my two cats are most themselves as my pets; they owe their personalities, in large measure, to my wife and me.  Their taming doesn’t detract from their true nature as cats and it isn’t interference on our part; it’s what makes them more truly themselves.

And, as part of our household, they have a bond with us and we with them, a bond which God uses in this life for good and which may continue into the next life.  That’s not something I can be dogmatic about, but it’s something I like to believe.

Lewis goes on to discuss wild animals, about which we know less.  Still, they are also to be related to man in some way  Lewis isn’t sure if they attain to “selfhood” the way tame animals do.

But if any do, and if it is agreeable to the goodness of God that they should live again, their immortality would also be related to man — not, this time, to individual masters, but to humanity.  That is to say, if in any instance the quasi-spiritual and emotional value which human tradition attributes to a beast (such as the “innocence” of the lamb or the heraldic royalty of the lion) has a real ground in the beast’s nature, and is not merely arbitrary or accidental, then it is in that capacity, or principally in that, that the beast may be expected to attend on risen man and make part of his “train.”

Or if the traditional character is quite erroneous, then the beast’s heavenly life [which Lewis, in a footnote says is “its participation in the heavenly life of men in Christ to God”] would be in virtue of the real, but unknown, effect it has actually had on man during his whole history: for if Christian cosmology is in any sense … true, then all that exists on our planet is related to man… (pp. 129-130).

In the resurrection, then, Lewis says, we’ll see the full glory of the lion:

I think the lion, when he has ceased to be dangerous, will still be awful: indeed, that we shall then first see that of which the present fangs and claws are a clumsy, and satanically perverted, imitation.  There will still be something like the shaking of a golden mane: and often the good Duke will say, “Let him roar again.”

Shades of Aslan!  And shades of Charles Williams!  (The Place of the Lion was the first Williams novel Lewis read and it was written well before The Problem of Pain, which is dedicated to the Inklings, Williams included).

I don’t agree about the “satanic” part here: I don’t believe there’s anything perverted about a lion’s present fangs and claws.  But it does seem likely to me that, since God created animals for this present heavens and earth, He may raise them in glory in the new heavens and new earth, allowing us to see their created glory clearly for the first time, recognizing in them what we only catch glimpses of now, the kinds of glimpses that make us identify lions with royal majesty.

[Update: James Jordan comments: “All animals are God’s pets.  He cares about sparrows.  Lewis doesn’t quite go far enough.”]

Posted by John Barach @ 2:20 pm | Discuss (11)