118: Even Evangelicals Are Exploring the Spiritual Lives of Animals

     “Think about this for a
moment! We’re dealing with a God who says: Not a sparrow falls to the
ground without My being aware of its suffering.”

    From an earlier conversation with sociologist and evangelical scholar Tony Campolo

    This week, we’ve got an addition to our Wednesday “Conversation”  on a subject that — every time we touch on it at ReadTheSpirit — draws a strong response nationwide:

    The spiritual lives of animals.

     If you go back to our earlier Conversation with Tony Campolo about the landmark new book he has co-authored with Mary Albert Darling, “The God of Intimacy and Action,” you’ll find that we also spent two days talking with Tony. And, on the second day — we talked about this theme.
    Well, this week, in our Conversation with Tony’s co-author Mary, I discovered that Tony shares more than the basic theme of mysticism with Mary. They also share a deep interest in this emerging theme as well.
    Or, rather, I should say: this re-surfacing theme, because Tony points out that this idea stretches back more than 200 years within evangelical Protestant circles to the era of John Wesley and his Methodist movement. William Wilberforce, the champion of abolition in Great Britain, also shared this passion.
    So, knowing that it is of great interest to our readers, here is a section of my Conversation With Mary Albert Darling that dealt with this theme — and that we saved for today as a special supplement to the lengthy dialogue we published yesterday.

    DAVID: I talked with Tony at some length about the passage about the spiritual lives of animals in his section of your book. I know that Tony is, in some circles, quite controversial for speaking out on this issue. He’s very critical of hunting as a sport, for example.
    MARY: He says that, if people really need to hunt to feed themselves that’s different. But he has this whole thing he does, telling people that they should make sure that they’re not enjoying hunting. I’ve heard him do it. He feels very strongly about it.
    DAVID: But this section about animals in your book isn’t really about hunting. In that section, Tony’s talking about something bigger than that: His awareness that God’s creation is very big and animals play a role in that.
    Why do you think this theme of the spirituality of animals is emerging now?
    MARY: I don’t know exactly why it’s emerging. I don’t know if we go in cycles and it’s time now that this cycle is re-emerging. I do think that the spirit is moving in this. The Spirit of God is moving. I don’t know whether we should say that people are listening now because we’re in a postmodern era. Or, whether we’re just more open to thinking about this subject now.
    But I do know that people are talking about this more. A book I really like on this is Jay McDaniel’s “Of God and Pelicans: A Theology of Reverence for Life.” I would recommend that to you and anyone who is thinking more about this. He’s a wonderful author.

    DAVID: How did you become more attuned to this theme yourself?
    MARY: My sister in law teaches out in the Boston area. I’m more sensitized, I think, because of her. When my 14-year-old son was 6, he became a vegetarian and he has been a vegetarian ever since. None of the rest of us are at home. But my sister in law is a vegan and he talked to her. She didn’t push this on him. They were very careful about how they talked about this.
    But something about it just went straight to his heart — and it has become a real conviction for him.
    When he was 6 years old, if you asked him why he was a vegetarian, he would say: “It’s because I care about God’s creation.”
    DAVID: Wow. Bright young fellow.
    MARY: Really. That’s what he would say. I’m not a vegetarian myself, but I respect that this has been a real conviction for him.
    My Mom had this thing about animals, so this is in my family. She had a St. Francis kind of thing. We had a front window that birds would fly into sometimes. And she would go outside and bring in these birds that had hit our window to help them recover. These wild birds would sit in her hand. It reminds me of St. Francis.
    The birds would let her put them up to her cheek. And, I can remember seeing her outside one day with a blue jay in her hand. She put her hand up — and the blue jay flew away. I’ll never forget seeing that.

     DAVID: Remarkable memories.
    I think we should let people know that this isn’t something that just arose in recent years. Tony points out in your book that this goes all the way back in the Protestant movement to John Wesley and William Wilberforce, the crusader in Great Britain against slavery.
    MARY: You know that movie about Wilberforce? “Amazing Grace”? I couldn’t watch the opening of “Amazing Grace.”
    DAVID: Oh, I know the scene you’re talking about. The film shows him stopping some men from beating a horse — but, sitting there in the theater, you see men just mercilessly beating a horse. It’s a  special effect, I’m sure, and a real horse was not hurt — but, still —
    MARY: Oh, I just could not stand to watch that scene as the horse was beaten!
    DAVID: But, thinking back to what they represented — people like Wilberforce and Wesley. They were amazing pioneers in this field, when you look back at that era.
    MARY: And there are so many others. There’s this autistic woman who writes about animals. She’s got a fascinating story. She has a doctorate in animal science.
    DAVID: Temple Grandin, I think. The book is “Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior.”
    MARY: She realized that people didn’t intuitively understand animals the way she does. And, then, she worked with corporations. The McDonald’s corporation hired her to help them design more humane slaughterhouses. And I know some people were really upset with her for doing this — and she said she hates the fact that we have slaughterhouses — but that’s not going to end. So, we need to do what we can to be more humane.
    DAVID: You’re right. That’s the kind of approach Wilberforce and Wesley took.
    MARY: I find this in so many places. Martin Buber in “I and Thou,” he has this little section where he talks about even these relationships with animals.
    DAVID: It’s a relationship between two beings for him — not between a person and a thing — but two beings.
    MARY: I look for people like this who give weight and credibility to what we’re talking about. Buber talks about this relationship with his cat. I think we need to let people know that it isn’t just a few  people talking about this. There are many people who’ve talked about these ideas. Martin Buber himself touched on this.

    DAVID: I like Tony’s line in the book that people in Wesley’s era could tell where the Methodists lived — by the way the animals were treated around their homes and farms.
    MARY: His Sermon No. 60 is about caring for animals — including wild animals, not just domestic animals. Now, in Wesley’s time, that was revolutionary! But, even with all of these people who’ve talked about it — Wesley, Buber and others — I know that a lot of people don’t get this.
    I still see resistance. A lot of people don’t like it if you choose not to eat meat. My son has had people put meat onto his plate — to tease him. And, I don’t see why someone thinks that’s funny.
    When I start talking to people about this, some of them will say to me: Oh come on! They’ll say it like they’re trying to dismiss the whole thing.
    Then, I say: Why shouldn’t we care about God’s living creatures? Then, a lot of people are stumped. They have no context for that question.
    But it’s also very simple for many people to see. I look at my own dog here beside me — and I think about how people hurt animals or abuse animals — and I just cannot understand it. I look at my dog and I know these are God’s creatures.
    For many people, it’s as simple as that.

AND, that’s the end of our Conversation With Mary Albert Darling.

    IF you missed it above — we have provided highlights of Wesley’s famous sermon on animals that you can read for yourself. Remember, this was a sermon more than 200 years ago, so the language isn’t quite what we would choose today — but it was a pioneering message from the great evangelist.

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