A Personal Theology of Animals

Lately I’ve been interested in getting some farm animals. Chickens, bees, goats. I’ve wanted to since childhood, but when we finally got some property where we could do so, I felt overwhelmed by life and the idea of being responsible for yet another living thing. This was all wrapped up with the fact that right after we moved here, our beautiful collie Arwen was hit by a car and died, due to my own carelessness. But a few years have passed, we got another dog and I’ve managed to keep him alive so far, not to mention my kids, and I’ve found myself not feeling nearly so anxious about…everything…like I had been in recent years. 

As I was reading books and listening to podcasts about farm animals, I was struck by a theme strung through all of them: the animals we have in our care, that we use for food and clothing, and even pets, must be treated with dignity, respect, and love. If you can’t do that, you don’t have any business raising animals. It’s not that we shouldn’t use animals at all: they have been bred for the purpose of human use. But we need to take care not to take advantage of their vulnerability. 

This theme was really instilled in me because while researching farm animals I was also reading “Wild Animals I Have Known,” by Ernest Thompson Seton, an older book where each chapter is a life sketch of a wild animal (except for two domestic farm dogs.) Being a book of life sketches, each chapter ends with the animal’s death, and it is always tragic -usually at the hands of men, though sometimes the tooth and claw of a predator. Seton says in the prologue, “Such a collection of histories naturally suggests a common thought (…) no doubt each different mind will find a moral to its taste, but I hope some will herein find emphasized a moral as old as Scripture -we and the beasts are kin. Man has nothing that the animals have not at least a vestige of, the animals have nothing that man does not in some degree share. Since, then, the animals are creatures with wants and feelings differing in degree only from our own, they surely have their rights. This fact, now beginning to be recognized by the Caucasian world, was emphasized by the Buddhist over two thousand years ago,” (Seton.) When I finished the book, I realized that it had deeply moved me, which I wasn’t expecting. I felt a renewed motivation to treat animals as well as I knew how. This book, combined with the farm animals research, got me to really think about what I believe concerning animals and our responsibility towards them, on a theological level.

  As a Latter-Day Saint, my theology explicitly teaches that the whole world and each being in the world was created by God spiritually before it was created physically. “I, the Lord God, created all things (…) spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth.” And also, “I in heaven created them; and there was not yet flesh upon the earth, neither in the water, neither in the air,” (Moses 3:5.) In Genesis: “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew,” (Genesis 2:4-5.) “For by the power of my Spirit created I them; yea, all things both spiritual and temporal—First spiritual, secondly temporal,” (D&C 2931.) We also have a fascinating revelation about celestial animals -animals that are in “the paradise of God,” having arrived at their “destined border or sphere of creation, in the enjoyment of their eternal felicity.” They are “full of knowledge” and have “power to move, to act, etc,” (D&C 77:2-4.)  So yes, I believe nature, animals, plants, rocks, trees, humans, etc., all have spirits, or souls, have the power to choose right or wrong, and can even go to heaven. 

My theology is also clear that humans are different: as in, our spirits are not just a creation of God, but we are literally spirit children of God (Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother.) So I am trying to figure out what that means as far as how we all relate to each other (God, nature, humans.) It seems like humans are higher on the totem pole than nature, because we are children rather than creations. And that makes our current stewardship over nature make sense. And yet, when humanity considers itself separate from and above the entire rest of the world, that has Implications. A few I can see are feeling lonely and isolated, feeling justified in being wasteful, and feeling justified in seeking power over others (whether animal or human.) Ursula K Le Guin said, “We human beings have made a world reduced to ourselves and our artifacts, but we weren’t made for it, and we have to teach our children to live in it. Physically and mentally equipped to be at home in a richly various and unpredictable environment, competing and coesxisting with creatures of all kinds, our children must learn poverty and exile: to live on concrete among endless human beings, seeing a beast now and then through bars,” (Le Guin.) I don’t think we were ever meant to live this way. I don’t think it is something God wanted for us, but like so many things in this world, that’s the way it is. Our current circumstances that we have constructed for ourselves over the millenia have dictated the types of choices we can make. As I see it, one of those choices is how to treat the animals we have in our stewardship.

Another thing influencing my opinion here is something very personal. My childhood dog, a beautiful dalmatian named Lucky, died when I was about 16 or 17. Sometime in the years that followed, I had a dream about her. We were in heaven, and I was watching her run joyfulling through a field of grass. She didn’t come up to me, but we could somehow speak to each other in our minds. We didn’t use words, except that I said, “I miss you.”  From her I got a sense that she was very happy, very intelligent -even more intelligent than I had ever considered, and she knew who I was, loved me, and yet was not owned by me or anyone else. She was a free beast. I’ve never forgotten that dream and I take it pretty seriously. Dreams are often symbolic, and this one really left me with an impression that there is more going on inside an animal’s mind than we think we know. Also, that though we may have responsibility to care for animals in life due to our modern circumstances, they are meant to be free beasts, and more like friends or family than tools or slaves. 

When our collie Arwen was hit by a car after we (I) left the gate open and accidentally locked her out of the house when we left for a party, not only was I very sad to lose her, I felt deeply my failure to protect her. Because of the way we have constructed our modern world, our pets depend on us for everything. They are extremely vulnerable. When we buried her, I kept hearing the words from a song in my head, “You didn’t do right by me. You done me wrong.” My grief at her loss was compounded by the knowledge that I had done her wrong. It was a bitter lesson. It taught me the seriousness of choosing to keep animals, or even to use animals for food or clothing or what have you. Their position is extremely vulnerable, and we have a responsibility at this time to take our care of animals very seriously and somberly. 

As a Latter-Day Saint I have a lot of scripture available to me that reinforces this idea. Most of the “animal” verses in the Doctrine and Covenants have to do with using animals for food and clothing, and the general message is clear: we have a responsibility to take special care of the animals God has allowed us to use. God says that we should not tell anyone to “abstain from meats,” for that is not “ordained of God.” And yet, “wo be unto man that sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need.” He says “the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which cometh of the earth, is ordained for the use of man for food and for raiment, and that he might have in abundance.” But also “…these (are) to be used with prudence and thanksgiving…sparingly…and it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.” (D&C 49:18-21 and 89:10-21.) There is a tension in these assorted verses: we are given permission by God to use animals for meat and raiment, “that we might have in abundance,” but it would please God if we used them only in times of need. Wastefullness is condemned, and you’d think in this modern world of selfishness that we’d understand better the need to keep our resources from being overused. In another fascinating book related to this whole topic, The Enchanted Life, author Sharon Blackie warns, “As a consequence of our quest for mastery and possession of nature we are, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, much more likely to have sown the seeds of our own destruction,” (Blackie.)

When Arwen died I had to admit to myself that none of us are going to be perfect pet owners/farmers/meat eaters/leather shoe wearers, just like none of us are perfect parents, or perfect followers of Christ. I am never going to be able to take care of anything perfectly. Be it a pet, a house, a garden, finances, or even my own children. We live in an imperfect, fallen world where accidents happen and we make mistakes. Things get ruined or damaged. Loved ones get hurt or killed. We must do our best, and if we do so, things will probably turn out well most of the time. But that still doesn’t cover everything. Jesus Christ does. No, that doesn’t mean he is going to make life perfect and painless right now, and fix all our mistakes instantly. But he can help us see the beauty in this messy modern life, find peace, help us learn from our mistakes, and someday, because of him, everything that went wrong in this world will somehow be made right. With this knowledge, I feel ready to take on some more responsibility in the realm of caring for animals. I trust that God will bless my efforts.  

Works Cited:

Blackie, Sharon. The Enchanted Life. House of Anansi Press Inc., 2018. 

Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Beast in the Book.”  Words Are My Matter, Ursula K. Le Guin. Small Beer Press, 2016, pp47.

Seton, Ernest Thompson. Wild Animals I Have Known. Western Publishing Company, Inc., 1961.

The Doctrine and Covenants. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Salt Lake City, Utah, 2013.

The New Testament. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Salt Lake City, Utah, 2013.

The Old Testament. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Salt Lake City, Utah, 2013.

The Pearl of Great Price. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Salt Lake City, Utah, 2013.