Animals and the Sacred

I often say that I hope to be a vegetarian by the time that I’m 30.  That doesn’t leave me much time to get around to making that kind of commitment, but I feel the draw for various reasons, not the least of which has to do with the origins of religious experience as I explain it to my senior religion class.  I begin the section that I title “God and Religion” with the movie “Into the Wild,” my favorite movie of a couple of years ago and a top five favorite of mine all time.  There is a poignant scene in the movie, pictured above, in which Christopher McCandless kills a moose.  He moves as quickly as he can to smoke the meat, but he is too late.  The flies lay their eggs in it and maggots get into the meat.  He writes in his notebook in a moment of agony that this is the saddest moment of his life.

I show this because as far as we can tell, some of the earliest religious experiences were closely linked to the experience of the hunt.  The earliest cave drawings in southern France that date back 30,000 years ago revolve around the sacred experience of hunting for food, of killing in order to survive.  There seems to have been a profound sense of tragedy associated with having to kill something in order to survive for oneself.  In other words, possibly one of the origins of the religious sense in human beings had to do with the experience of evil and lack in the world. We have to kill to survive, but that is not how things are meant to be.

What I find particularly interesting about this is that the story we read on the walls of the caves in southern France is the same story we read in the Bible.  The Eden myth makes it very clear that in the original “sacred place” where God and man were closely united there was no death.  This is the plan of God, the ideal in the future, that there be no death.  Humans in the story eat vegetation only.  It is only after the Fall that meat is allowed.  What I find telling about this myth is its similarities with ancient cave drawings.  Religion, sorrow, and a sense of the sacred seem to arise contemporaneously.  Ancient hunters would weep before a kill, and apologize to the animal.  They understood the trade off that was taking place: your life for mine. Your sacredness for my sacredness: a necessary evil.  Yet there must be a world in which this will not be the case.  This is the world that Eden idealizes in the future.

I have my students notice that with each new covenant in the Bible, there are both advances and concessions to human sinfulness.  In Genesis 9 after the flood, when God makes a new covenant with Noah, certain commands are repeated such as “be fruitful and multiply” and the observation that men and women are made in God’s image.  But there are also concessions.  Man can now take life as punishment and also kill animals to eat.  Notice how they go together.  What is envisioned by Eden – a lack of death – is lost by sin.  There is a concession to sin. And we continue to live in a world of concessions.

But as a Jesuit, whose primary mission is to realize the eschaton in some way, to begin to inaugurate the eternal banquet by vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as signs of the kingdom, shouldn’t I also live the ideal that Eden espouses? Shouldn’t I reject the concessions to sin and try to relive the earliest religious sense that eating meat is a necessary side-effect of sin?  Maybe the way of the commandments does not prohibit it, but the way of perfection does.

At the least, I have grown in an appreciation for the role that animals played in helping primitive man discover the presence of a God in the world.  What a profound link seems to have existed!  And I think of one of my own “initiation” moments when I took our first dog out, Sheila, to put her to sleep, since I didn’t want my dad to do it.  He was the closest to her and her “master.”  So I took the front-end loader out, dug a hole, and put the .22 to Sheila’s ear…and then cried like a baby.  Maybe this is the real reason we say grace before meals: to recognize before I eat some more turkey that this exact experience by my ancestors has given to me the awareness of a God in our world.

9 Responses to Animals and the Sacred

  1. crystal says:

    I’m a vegetarian for many of the reasons you mention. Your post reminded me of a couple of things –

    a TED video of Wade Davis, which mentions the cave paintings in France ….

    and this Sermon for the annual service of the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals
    Durham cathedral Saturday 26th September 2009 …

    Thanks for the post.

  2. Father Joseph LeBlanc says:

    I am not sure that I would have put the family dog down as you did since I am a strong animal lover in my old age. The description of doing this, hit my heart as somewhat brutal. No offense. . . just seemed there would have been a more gentle way than placing a gun in the ear. Good week and in your teaching ministry.

  3. bill bannon says:

    What I’d question is your phrase “concessions to sin”….which would make in the Noachic covenant… eating meat and the death penalty both sin motivated actions. Yet God gave as reason for the death penalty in that moment: that man was made in the image of God. Go from front to back of the Bible and God Himself only executes for sacrilege even in the Onan case where the deeper meaning is not sex but is that Onan was risking the non appearance of Christ whose ancestor then within that very story is Pharez born of the sins of Tamar and Judah who are not killed for those sexual sins by God since they led to the needed descendant next in line…Pharez. Ergo in the Noachic Covenant God was making murder a sacrilege (image of God) and then giving both Gentiles and Jews the solution of the death penalty which He Himself used often for sacrilege (Uzzah, Dathan and Abiram, the 42 children who mock Eliseus, the 72 descendants of Jeconiah who do not greet the ark, the murder of Uriah who had become sacred for refusing to leave the ark and go home, Herod in Acts 12 who let’s the crowd call him God, Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 who lie to the Holy Spirit). And Christ gets violent once and it is over sacrilege in the temple and He makes a whip of cords.
    Despite its questionable gymnastics on the death penalty based on non referenced alleged research by John Paul II??, the catechism in #2267 even could not go that far on the death penalty as to call it a concession to sin since Romans 13:3-4 perhaps gave them due fear (and echoes the Noachic command)…not to mention tradition from Augustine (and the canon including Romans 13:3-4) til Pius XII affirmed it in 1952 with more secure modern penology than we have now.

    But to the meat eating. In Acts 11 God tells Peter to “slay and eat” meat and Peter was reluctant due to the old religious ritual uncleaness laws regarding some meat but then God tells him to not call unclean what He has called clean. It is repeated three times by God which is an odd way of obscuring the way of perfection that you are pointing to. Slay and eat is thus what I and apparently you are still doing despite this post. Christ cooked fish for the apostles after the resurrection after they brought in 153 fish. Was He being imperfect after the resurrection?

  4. Virgilijus Kaulius says:

    Bill, your informed words are helpful in today’s
    climate of meat-eating bashing! Thanks!

    One could also get into the numerous human killings
    in Joshua’s case, et al., too! God and the bible
    remain mystery, at core. And many ultimate
    questions, it would seem, will never be adequately

    On a lighter note, I retain a priceless caveman
    humour item(!) Two cavemen are shown standing below
    historical artwork in a cave, with one explaining
    to the other: ‘it’s a hard hitting expose of the
    dark side of hunting and gathering!’ (Lol-3x!)

  5. bill bannon says:

    On the other hand, I can’t stand to watch hunting shows on TV. If they are eating all the meat or giving it to the poor, then it is moral. If not, it is pathetic to watch grown men think they are doing something brave by shooting an animal that is staring at them and standing still.
    I safe-trap mice unless it simply does not work in each case and I release them in a large park. I even got one out of a glue trap and released him since he had only one foot and his tail in the glue and with a razor, I was able to get him out and bring him to the park. We’ll be getting a Balinese cat soon though and will have to restrict her area at night since I don’t want her killing any mice.
    Now a human who rapes and kills a 5 year old as happened two weeks ago in North Carolina when he bought the child from its mother for that purpose, he should be killed as per ccc 2266 (redressing the disorder as primary) not preserved as per ccc 2267 (protection of society as primary) both of which then carry an internal contradiction between them. A life sentence of tv and card playing and part time work cannot redress what he did. Getting shot and delivered to God will redress that. Hell or very long purgatory can in addition redress it if he qualifies for the latter by repentance. Purgatory is not the default option…one must be holy or at least free of mortal sin to reach there.

  6. Jerry Strand says:

    How difficult it can be to decide when killing is permissable or not. Can one respect life and still “take it”? I believe so. Your decison to put your dog down is gut wrenching-but was the appropriate and humane way to end its life. No real difference than a shot by the vet except the vet has to do it. It actually is more honorable because of its connection to you. Some people hunt to kill and some kill to have hunted. All life forms are precious to God but with prayerful thought and respect we can make sense of the fact that all life will end at sometime. As intelligent life we need to make sure all life dies with the dignity and respect that God created it with.

  7. Bill,

    God gave reasons for the death penalty in the story. But these themselves are concessions to the ravishing effects of sin in the world. Punishment must increase since sin has increased. But it is still not how things are meant to be. The death penalty is a concession to sin, as is eating meat.

    I don’t accept the non-appearance of Christ argument.

    The animals in Peter’s dream symbolize gentiles. It is not real food that God is talking about.

    Obviously Jesus ate meat. And he says that it is not what goes into anyone that makes them impure, but what comes out. That is why us religious don’t take a vow to be vegetarians. There is no New Testament justification for such thing. But there is a rich history among the saints and in the Bible for not killing animals. I think even more importantly though, is how we kill them. The idea of asking forgiveness as we kill for food is rich in meaning. Taking life in order to live may be required in the current changing world, but it will not be the case in the eternal one.


    Of course I agree with you. I recognized that killing the dog was necessary. I was simply struck at the time with the sadness of it. Of course, we can desensitize ourselves to that sadness, but I think it tells us something about our relationship to the world of conscious beings. St. Francis, often called the closest saint to Christ, recognized this kinship that we have with animals.

  8. bill bannon says:

    You wrote: “The animals in Peter’s dream symbolize gentiles. It is not real food that God is talking about.”
    He is speaking about both and hence Paul later says this about that formerly unclean literal meat:

    Rom 14:14 “I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that [there is] nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him [it is] unclean.
    Rom 14:15 But if thy brother be grieved with [thy] meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died…”

    As Aquinas explains, we are responsible for the scandal of the reasonable not for the scandal of the unreasonable so since some Jews at Paul’s time could reasonably be scandalized by other Christians eating the formerly forbidden meat, then at that time Paul and others could avoid eating it if it gave reasonable scandal which now it does not give to anyone since the time of Jews filling the early churches is well over. Since then the gentiles have filled those churches as Augustine comments on the prophecy: ” Japheth shal be enlarge in the tents of Shem.”…the gentiles shall fill and enlarge the early Jewish Churches. So Paul was persuaded by Jesus that the meats were now clean just as the gentiles were now clean and could be converted and did not have to pray in the outer precincts of the temple where the money changers were wont to go and set up.

    On Onan, you are wrong but join the club which is large and included Luther and Calvin along with Pius XI because sex is all things both to the sinful and the righteous men and Augustine was over-sexed when a fornicator accoprding to his own testimony in the Confessions and Aquinas warned that God leaves “remnants of sin” in the foregiven at times… and when the still sexual Augustine got to Onan (a contemporary said Augustine was never alone with women unlike Jerome), he…Augustine… saw himself and sex in Onan… period and missed the deeper meaning as it related to Christ who is then descended from Judah and Tamar without Onan in the very same story. Fortunately the NAB translation makes clear that Onan did coitus interruptus a number of times so was not killed for the act in se or he would have been killed at once but was not (“whenever” he went in to Tamar…unlike some old translations) and thus he was not killed by God for it but for preventing Tamar as to having any children forever as long as Onan was alive. For her to move to the next man in the family, Shela, God had to kill Onan even if Onan had been using an ancient version of NFP (which Augustine says that he himself used in a letter to a Manichaen leader) to prevent all offspring….and God would have had to kill him so that Tamar could move to the next man and in order that Christ would come from the house of Judah which was only 4 men at the time.

  9. Virgilijus Kaulius says:

    Hmm, fascinating dialogue!

    Then, since God created us with “reason” as Reason,
    that too must be factored into the Pilgrim Church’s
    evolutionary theology, in today’s context too,
    not just our perusal of the past, while legitimate
    in and of itself, but definitively incomplete:
    the past is a sing post, not a hitching post.

    So in difficult subject matter like meat eating,
    like killing, like sex, and all the rest, do we
    have to limit ourselves to merely Augustine,
    like was he so sacrosanct that say, today’s
    Jungian Psychology can have nothing more to say?

    At least it doesn’t seem so to my intuition, as
    Intuition, since for me, “Existential Certitude”
    rules finite reason:
    we are always ignorant of our ignorance!

    As far as sex goes, I recall we Christians took in
    full hog what the Pagan Philosophers merely
    observed going on in animals as animals at the
    time of the founding of Christianity: but we
    are humans! And psychology also inhabits our
    consciousness, as well as, our subconsciousness.
    Whereas animals don’t have the same parameters:
    they are only ruled by biology!

    Science now finds that only about 1 quarter of
    our consciousness handles matters with reason
    (mere logic) and the rest (3 quarters) is all
    processed in the subconscious, inaccessible to
    consciousness in spite and despite its best
    efforts! So we’ve got much to update on sex
    morality, for starters, for this and all
    future generations….

    The day may hopefully come, when Christianity
    can say, we now base our morality on knowledge
    of the human, and no longer on knowledge of
    the animal!

    And for me on the other issue of killing, we’ll
    never I think find an answer: it’ll always have to
    remain existential. Mainly because, Christ is
    the Triumph of Failure: we’ll never know why
    the Father’s will was His death!
    That, we’ll never answer!

    That leaves us to be careful and not “project”
    our sentiments from the human, into the animal,
    and mis-colour Charity in its application:
    to love one’s neighbour, and God. Charity can
    only be deemed into the animal, at best, if at

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