Humans as Spiritual Animals

The Bible
Deepening Spirituality
Questioning Church
Image of a cat
Angela Tilby

Angela Tilby is a writer, theological educator and broadcaster. She is a Canon of Honour of Portsmouth Cathedral and a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.

It is a massive generalisation that human beings have always distinguished themselves from animals, while at the same time recognising that we have much in common with them. Biblical and classical culture both testify that this distinction and recognition has ancient roots.

The Hebrew Bible speaks of humans and animals both having nephesh, soul. The Greek equivalent of nephesh would be psyche. But while the Greeks went on to develop the meaning of ‘soul’ in the direction of something separate from the senses, Hebrew thought understands nephesh as an awareness derived from sense experience. Animals can interpret their senses in a way which plants do not. Animals are animate beings. Adam is made from Adam-stuff, hand-crafted by God from the red dust of the ground. When God breathes into his nostrils nishmat hayyim, the breath of life, he becomes nephesh hayya - a living being.

Human beings and animals are also described in the Hebrew Bible as having spirit, ruach, which comes into Greek as pneuma, and Latin as spiritus. It’s not entirely clear whether there is a consistent difference in meaning between nephesh and ruach.  In the vision of the valley of dry bones the bones and muscles of the slain of the house of Israel come together and stand up at the Word of the Lord, but they are not truly alive until the prophet prophesies to the wind, ruach, calling on the four winds to give them life. In humans ruach can mean different things, from charisma, to inspiration, to human personality and distinctiveness. Jesus plays on the double meaning of ruach and pneuma as wind and Spirit in his dialogue with Nicodemus (John 3) and he breathes on the disciples after the Resurrection, giving them the Spirit, and so suggesting the recreation of the Adamic, earthy disciples to a new divine life (John 20.22).

In the Hebrew Bible humans recognise their kinship with animals and learn from them. The psalmist observes the sparrow and the swallow finding sanctuary in the temple (Psalm 84.3), suggesting that the mercy God shows to the birds mirrors the mercy he shows to those humans who take refuge in him. Jesus echoes the point, seeing the same divine care extended to sparrows as to humans. The psalmist also observes the provision God makes for animals, ‘the young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God’ (Psalm 104.21). In a rare Biblical example of an animal being given human characteristics, Balaam’s ass is given speech by God in order to complain about Balaam’s bad treatment (Numbers 22.28).

If there is wide recognition in the Biblical traditions of our commonality with animals how is the difference indicated? The Hebrew Bible is clear in the creation account in Genesis 1 that while both animals and humans are created to populate the earth according to their kind, human beings carry a special mark in that they are made in God’s image and according to his likeness. There is no indication of how the image and likeness is conferred other than by divine fiat, or precisely in what it consists. But the dominion over the earth (or, as we might prefer in our ecologically aware days, to say, the stewardship of the earth) is a major part of what it means to be made in God’s image and after God’s likeness. 

The Greeks were fascinated by animals and classified them as either domestic or wild, helpful or harmful. In general animals were classed as non-civilised, a status they often shared with barbarians, slaves and sometimes even women.  Unfamiliar animals represented foreign lands and exotic creations. Some entertained the belief that there were regions of the world in which humans had horns, hooves and fur, and Greek mythology is rich in stories of humans being transformed into animals and vice versa.

In scripture and mythology the agreed qualities of certain animals are transferred to human beings to idealise or demonise. So Judah is a lion, Egpyt a sinister crocodile, the Lamb a symbol of meekness, led to sacrifice without complaint. All this is very familiar. It forms the basis of a way of reading the natural world as a text, full of symbolic meaning, examples to emulate and to shun. Animals illuminate human behaviour and show us how we ought and ought not to live. The great theophany at the end of the book of Job reveals the extraordinary complexity and interrelationship of animal life on earth; the wise and the foolish, the strong and the weak all somehow linked together in God’s mysterious providence. Job as the leading character of the book casts a somewhat sceptical gaze on the notion that in such a complex universe, human beings have a central role to play. But ironically his demand that God makes himself present, and God’s answer to this, reveals the special relationship, the kinship between God and God’s human creature. For most classical theologians this kinship is essentially the capacity to reason, a capacity which was harmed by the Fall, but not destroyed. Reason as understood in the ancient world was not limited to calculation, but involved self-reflection, the capacity to learn from experience and to grow closer to God by tutoring the instincts and the emotions away from those lesser aspects of ourselves which we see mirrored in the animal world and towards the nobler qualities.

Of course the theory of evolution upset this way of understanding our relationship with the animal world, not because Darwin’s theory demoted us from beings in God’s image to ‘mere’ animals, but because the mechanism of natural selection appeared to render the whole process purposeless. Humans became what humans are, not because of any special creation on God’s part but through the simple interplay of chance and necessity. We were, in the end, as the television naturalist Desmond Morris once put it, no more than ‘naked apes’, with our refined consciousness simply a by-product of our neural complexity.

While accepting this scientifically, most societies adhere to notions of human dignity which are inherited or adopted from Christianity. Without these it would be hard to find a basis for widely held moral concepts such as human rights, or the equality and dignity of human beings. And there is a paradox here. From such moral concepts human beings have begun to develop notions of animal rights. Movements for compassion and kindness in the treatment of animals, even those bred for human consumption, depend on a moral sense. And though an acceptance of evolution requires us to accept that this moral sense is itself evolved, it might go beyond immediate advantage. There is a trade-off between the selfish gene and inherited altruism.

For some the acceptance of evolution remains incompatible with a Biblically derived sense of human dignity. I remember watching footage of the children of 20th century American fundamentalists singing to rapturous applause, ‘I’m not descended from a monkey, no, no, no!’ The theologian Karl Barth, shunning any attempt to argue from the order of nature to the providence of God simply regarded the animal creation as an insoluble enigma. In his remarks on Romans 1.18-21 he suggested that the sheer existence of the animals that might be found in a zoo were problems to which we had no answer. A very different view came from Paul Tillich who discerned a tragic element in nature which echoes Romans 8. Even as nature proclaims the glory of God it points to the inevitable cycle of birth, growth, death and decay. We share in the bondage of nature, but part of our sharing of nature’s tragedy is our capacity to understand and mourn our fate while feeling our way towards a vision of redemption.

What rarely comes into the conversation is what human beings can learn positively about themselves from animals once they accept that they are, in fact, animals. Hints of this positive recognition are there in scripture, as I have indicated. Darwin did not write much about the animal origins of morality. He merely suggested that the ingredients of human morality must have seeds in the animal world. Today most would reject the idea that animals are mere bundles of blind instinct. We see the way animals appear to miss and mourn their dead, their capacity for fear and pain, their apparent delight in courting rituals, their skill at calculation and their curiosity. It is becoming accepted that animals have feelings which are in some kind of continuity with our own. And some have refined senses which go far beyond our own, one thinks of the way migrating birds are tuned to the earth’s magnetic field, whales communicate by sounds beyond our range, dogs are able to sniff out drugs or disease. Animals also have distinct personalities, preferences and aversions. Our lives are enriched by animals which have learnt from us, hitching their evolutionary wagon to us and making themselves attractive to us, so that we care for them as companions.

Perhaps out of all this something can be retrieved which echoes and enhances the old symbolic way of ‘reading’ the animal world. Seamus Heaney’s translation of the 9th century Irish poem in which a monk compares his scholarly work with that of his cat illustrates how observation of particular animals illuminates our own passions, interests and concerns. The cat, Pangur Ban, is hunting while the scholar works at his books. The cat pounces on a mouse as the scholar prises out the meaning hidden in his texts; both exult in their success and work together in harmony. As Seamus Heaney puts it:

“… To each his own.

No vying. No vexation.”

During the pandemic of 2020-2021 there was an increase in the demand for pet dogs as people recognised their need both for exercise in conditions of lockdown and for companionship. For many, the companionship of animals is a great blessing, a way of coping with anxiety, sadness and depression, and of exercising the benign responsibility that takes us out of ourselves. And there is the learning too. Animals live more spontaneously than we tend to. Though a life over-dominated by instinct is hardly human, humans that have become too dependent on their capacities for rationalisation can learn quite a lot by observation of their household pets. Food, sleep, shelter and warmth are the basics of life, and companionship helps make the animal/human journey bearable. In the pandemic many of us have had to live in separation from others for lengthy periods. Animals remind us of how artificial this is, of how touch and sense are necessary for our health and well-being. Above all they model for us what it means to have bodily existence, to be animate, to breathe the air, to sleep and rise, to suffer and to die.

If there is anything we need to add to this to give a true account of what it is to be human, it must surely be in our capacity to articulate the praise of God with and on behalf of the animal creation. As far as we know only humans can imagine the Word made flesh, living a human life, dying a human death and yet pointing us to our resurrection as spiritual bodies. It is not surprising that the nativity stories came to be embellished by the presence of an ox and an ass, by the sheep of the shepherds, and the camels of the magi. Or that Christ ate fish by the waters of Galilee and rode a donkey into Jerusalem. Or that his betrayal was heralded by the crow of a cock, or that his sacrifice was likened to the death of the Passover lamb. We are animals indeed and recognise ourselves in animal nature. But we also recognise in animals the seeds of what we experience as spirituality and morality, the instinct to worship and wonder, to feel guilt and to kindle hope.

The perennial and sometimes pastoral question of whether animals have souls should be seen in this context. There is surely a place for Pangur Ban in heaven.


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