Sermon from 2009 Annual Service

Durham Cathedral Saturday 26th September 2009 Steven Shakespeare


I want you to imagine something. I want you to imagine that there is another world above us. I’m not talking about a heavenly or spiritual world. It exists, like ours, in space and time. But it is a world fundamentally different from ours. The inhabitants of this world – because it is not a lonely place - have a rich experience. But their experience of dimensions, of colour and sound, of desire and satisfaction, of communication – all of this is so far detached from anything we might recognise, as to be unrecognisable. We would find it hard – impossible even - to know what it would be like to live in this other world or to be one of its inhabitants.

Let’s say that, somehow we had contact with this other world. We couldn’t talk with its inhabitants or understand their point of view, we couldn’t enter into their experience – but we were aware of them. What attitude should we take towards them? Should we pity them because they are not like us? Should assume that the only way we can understand them is to assume that at some level they really must be like us after all? Should we fear them, try to keep them out of our world? Should we even do what we could to destroy them?

I hope you might agree with me that all of these reactions – of pity, assimilation, of fear and hate – all of them have more to do with our own insecurity and need for boundaries than anything else. None of them is really warranted by our contact with this other world.

Now you might already have worked out that I am not talking about anything particularly far fetched or exotic. That other world I asked you to imagine is very real, and very everyday. In fact it is quite literally above our heads right at this moment. For in this great cathedral, there is a thriving colony of bats.

Now why should we be interested in bats? Aren’t those of us who think there is a valid reason to be concerned about the moral status of bats and other nonhumans just a bit well, batty - a word that just means having bats in your mental belfry?

I now teach philosophy and ethics, and one of my courses looks at the whole issue of what it means to be a person. What defines a person? Is it reason, language, community, emotion? Can persons be explained as nothing more than neural processes, behavioural responses, chemical reactions? And – crucially – are human beings the only ones who qualify to be persons?

One of the seminal articles on this topic came out in 1974. Written by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, it was entitled ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ In essence, Nagel’s argument was simple. Few would deny that bats have some kind of experience. But because they find their way around the world through sonar, a system of subtly modulated shrieks and echoes, their world is experienced by them in a way we can hardly begin to conceive. Our bodily and mental structures are so wholly dissimilar. Just imagining what it would like to have membrane wings, or be the size of a bat: none of this helps. We cannot get into their heads.

And still, we have good reason to think that bats do have experiences, that they do have a world and that they do communicate with it and each other. Nagel’s point is that, however much we might come up with elaborate physical explanations of bat behaviour, something will still escape us: the felt quality of actually being a bat, actually living in that strange world so different from ours.

As far as I know, Nagel wasn’t setting out to make an argument for treating bats kindly. His purpose was to reject the idea that experience – including our own – could ever be reduced or explained away physically. There is something unique, something irreplaceable about the quality of what each of us experiences. It can’t be captured by abstract definitions or by science, however helpful science is in revealing the wonders of life around us. Scientists cannot become bats, despite what the films might pretend.

This might seem a far cry from what motivates each of us to think that nonhuman animals are worthy of our moral attention, of our care, concern and compassion. But I believe there is a very strong link.

We are often inclined to think that we are at the centre of the world. Perhaps not us as individuals, but our species. Human beings are the reason creation exists, the hub around which everything revolves. It was an image of our importance that was underlined by the classical idea that the whole universe really did orbit around the earth – and that only human beings had the reason and language and soul to contact the higher spheres.

The church has at times supported that vision, as it has bought into other exclusive and colonial assumptions. But it is not true to the radical heart of Christian existence. Christian faith exists because these exclusive boundaries have been crossed. The Word becomes flesh: not simply human, but flesh. The scandal of Christianity is that the eternal God identifies with the matter of the world. And one of the first things Jesus does, after the Spirit descends on him in the form of a dove is to go to the desert, beyond all human waymarks and ownership – to be with the wild animals.

God so loves the world that he gives his only Son. Not just human beings, the world. In Greek: the cosmos: the whole complex, rich and startling universe which unfolds around us in myriad forms of matter and life. For all that the drama of salvation is described in terms of human sin and faith, there is another text to be read: the Word made flesh comes to disturb our thrones and empires. The world is no longer ours to fear, dominate and control. There world is many, with voices we cannot hear and lives we cannot understand – but all of them included with us in the creative love of God. In our reading from Revelation, when we come to the heavenly throne, what do we find? A picture of the divine as a lamb, an image of sacrifice and animality. How subversive is that?

We should not be surprised by this, even though we might struggle with what it means. We have a hard enough time grasping that for God our little hierarchies of race and gender and sexuality crumble before the breath of the Spirit. Fortunately, there have always been voices in our traditions who have witnessed to God’s solidarity with the world and with all life. Scientific study of nonhuman animals has enriched our appreciation of their wonderful diversity and intricate adaptation. We know we are not alone in possessing the power to make signs and communicate, have social bonds and rituals, use tools and show compassion.

But for all this, we still need a change of heart and mind. Knowledge alone is not enough. We need to experience a shift in our picture of the world no less radical than the one which displaced the earth at the centre of the universe.

I hope I’ve said enough to persuade you that this is about more than animal rights. Don’t get me wrong: the call for animal rights has played a key role in combating cruelty, and Christians have a role to play in animals rights movements now as ever. But even as people have gradually accepted that animals have some kind of rights, we still meet with barriers. European legislation on animal experimentation is watered down, numbers of animals used in UK experiments is on the rise; zero grazing is still a reality; Tesco resists high profile campaigns to eliminate factory farmed chickens. You may have seen some of the disturbing imagery inside slaughterhouses filmed in an undercover operation by Animal Aid. What lingers is the sense of callousness, the way sentient creatures are treated as objects to be kicked, trampled and discarded.

But the slaughterhouse is only the graphic reflection of our own society, of our own minds. The callousness is bred into us. And we have to ask which is worse: the tired out worker who can’t be bothered to stun an animal properly before it is killed, or the well-fed consumers who chuck the packaged product into their trolleys.

We need a change of heart. Not only animal rights, as if animals are lesser versions of ourselves, but a sense of wonder at the mystery of nonhuman life. Shock and outrage at cruelty can move us to change. But we also need to feed and educate our desires, our connectedness with the worlds around us, our humility in the face of so much mystery that lives and breathes without reference to us.

That is why its crucial for services like this to happen, for all the resources of symbol, tone and texture to be used. One of the themes put forward for this year’s Animal Welfare Sunday is that animals are ‘not forgotten by God’. Remembrance for Christians is not just a mental thing. It is physical, emotional, spiritual. The primary remembrance we celebrate is when we break bread and share wine in memory of him who gave his life for the world. God’s body is remembered, is able to reach and touch the earth. Wounded and abused, it identifies with all tormented and enslaved creatures. Risen and glorious, it affirms that the life of the flesh can be liberated and renewed.

The liberation theologian Johannes Baptiste Metz calls our remembrance of Jesus a dangerous memory. It is dangerous because it challenges the power structures of our world, the stories of power and exploitation we live by. It calls us out of the comfortable centre to walk with a subversive Lord. And who knows which worlds he will take us into?

Of course there are those who say that this is all a diversion from our central concern: human suffering. I disagree. There is no absolute dividing line between human and animal. Cutting the world up in that way is an act of violence. There is really no such thing as an animal standing over against human beings. How can we force the sublime diversity of nonhuman life into such a narrow straitjacket? And how can we ignore our own evolved and animal selves?

Even on its own terms, this idea that attending to nonhuman welfare is a distraction just doesn’t add up. There are well documented links between violence done to humans and violence done to animals. And we have only to look at the ways in which excluded groups are labelled as bestial and subhuman to realise that the whole language of human and animal is weighted down by powerful acts of exclusion which affect people as much as other sentient life. Consider just one example, from the biologist Ernst Haeckel, who was an influence on Nazi ideology. He wrote that non-European races are ‘psychologically nearer to the mammals (apes and dogs) than to civilized Europeans, we must, therefore, assign a totally different value to their lives’. The divide between humans and animals is never neutral. It is a link in the chain of enslavement, colonisation and ethnic extermination which has reached such a pitch in the last hundred years.

How can we be freed from this legacy? I believe grace draws us into another space, one which is not dominated by our gaze, made solely for our needs, one that is a strange new creation. I remember one day walking in the Peak District in a valley filled with abandoned millstones. These markers of human industry were being reclaimed by moss, soil and grass. As we looked for somewhere to sit, we saw a line of ants was marching across the path. As we watched them, we realised that we were in the middle of a huge network of anthills, each connected by busy roads full of insects going backwards and forwards. Suddenly, the whole place was changed. It was no longer just scenic backdrop for our leisure. We had come across a world, a complex world with its own geography and lines of communication, a world totally indifferent to us. The valley was no longer simply ours. It was a revelation.

Cynics will ask if ants have rights or if they are worth as much as human beings. Such questions miss the point. It is not enough to define the world with legalities, however important these may be. The starting point must simply be to stop and wonder. And wonder can be an opening to the traffic of grace, even a grace carried along the beaten tracks made by insect feet. Grace creates a different geography of the heart.

Nonhuman animals do not have to be like us, or of use to us in order to be remembered by God, to be touched by the saving body of God. We do not have to be bats and they do not have to be us for them to be included in God’s care. It is the radical difference and strangeness of the world of the bat – of the bird, of the ant, of the eel – which should make us pause. The boundaries of our imagination and understanding are not the boundaries of reality.

When we travel in awe and trepidation to those boundaries, we should treat them as holy places, not final limits. This does not mean that there will not be conflicts between our plans and projects and those of other animals. But dealing with conflict is very different from the wholesale assumption that animals exist to be caged, eaten, worn and experimented upon for our own benefit.

The bats above us are a reminder that there are creative ways for different lives and different worlds to be held together. At the limit, at the boundary – God awaits us. With a gift of mystery and of love, God holds the worlds in outstretched wings.


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