Ecumenical Animal Welfare Retreat

What we have always known?

Christian stewardship, empathetic observation and Scientific knowledge.


Revd Professor Martin Henig


Science, that is the observation of verifiable phenomena, which can be repeated experimentally, is presenting us with ‘discoveries’ of one kind or another every day. Some of these are concerned with animal behaviour, including observations which tell us about the intelligence and emotions of animals, communication skills and language. These are of course valuable and interesting just as are similar observations concerned with our own species and for much the same reason if they add to the flourishing of  groups and individuals. Here I am not speaking of anything which causes discomfort, pain and death like so much that takes place in animal laboratories which I regard as always illegitimate. But I am interested in how blue tits, badgers, monkeys and my human contemporaries spend their time. With regard to the last I could not be a professional archaeologist or priest; with regard to the first I could not claim to be an (admittedly amateur) Natural Historian.


As a priest, of course, I am required to have some familiarity with Scripture, which we understand as writings written at different times but nevertheless inspired by God. When I read Scripture I do not leave behind my other professions. As a Natural Historian, I observe that all the works were written by (and most are obsessed with) a single species, which happens to be my own! A few passages of scripture attempt to look at creation imaginatively, from the perspective of the creator God who is implicit in the Judeo-Christian narrative. The first chapter of Genesis is concerned with the creation of the elements and plants, then of  animals, sea creatures and birds on the fifth day, and land animals on the sixth day together with humans who are awarded stewardship (which is what that word ‘dominion’ actually means)  over the other creatures. Perhaps anterior to this in date (second millennium BC) , is the extraordinary Psalm 104, a hymn of praise to the creator in which human beings and animals are treated almost equally, and do what they were created to do. Ultimately every creature is created to praise God and this is the theme of Psalms 147 and 148 and also of the Song  of the Three Jews, familiar to us as the Benedicite. The Hebrew mind was able to comprehend the possibility that non-human creatures might be more attuned to the will of God than humans, as is evident from the folk-story of Baalam’s donkey in the book of Numbers, where the donkey upbraids Baalam for his cruelty, before it is revealed that the donkey has seen the angel of the Lord which Baalam has not seen (Numbers 22:21-33). In a later book, Jonah, it is the animals, first a whale, then the animals of Nineveh and finally the worm which devours the gourd which shelters Jonah as he sulks after Nineveh is not destroyed, who obey God rather than the disobedient and petulant prophet. But it is in Job, especially in the late chapters,38-41, that we find the fullest exposition of the mystery of animal behaviour as an expression of the unknowability of God. Some may be wise creatures, like the wild ass which ‘scorns the tumult of the city’ and some stupid, for instance the ostrich which ‘leaves its eggs to the earth, and lets them be warmed on the ground, forgetting that a foot may crush them’. The natural history may be flawed but the principle remains true.


Other traditions too , even the Greeks for whom ‘Man was the measure of all things’ –and the proper noun here is deliberate; women were seen as inferior and less intellectual- had an ambiguous attitude to animals and the natural world  in which, as is well known,  the gods had animal familiars and often adopted the persona of  particular animals. Zeus as an eagle carried off the shepherd boy Ganymede to Olympus, but also as a bull abducted Europa. Amongst other examples Athena had her little owl, Apollo his raven, Artemis her hind. One tradition in Greek thought, however, saw animals as lacking logos and hence different in kind from humans, and that was particularly the view of Aristotle from whom it was unfortunately inherited by Western Christian culture. But  there were opposing views seen for instance through Pythagoras and Porphyry where there is an acknowledgement of kinship between mankind and other animals, and examples of observation in Greek and Roman literature of  animal thought and intelligence which bear the marks of actual observation, for example by Lucretius on the emotional response of cows whose calves had been sacrificed (On the Nature of things 2,342-80), by Pliny on the wisdom of elephants (Natural History 8,1-3) by Herodotus on  Arion’s rescue by a dolphin (Herodotus I.23-24) and of course we all know the famous folktale of Androkles and the lion (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights V. xiv ; Aelian VII. xlviii ). There are also empathetic writings about animals notably  Apuleius’ Metamorphoses otherwise known as ‘the Golden Ass’ in which the world is viewed through the eyes of the supposed author, transmuted into a donkey. Apuleius was a convert to the gentle cult of Isis and that surely influenced his attitude. Moreover it is clear that individuals then, as now, developed close relationships with the animals which served them such as horses [think of Alexander the Great’s Bucephalos] and dogs [note Odysseus’s faithful dog Argos]. Notably, named horses (often racehorses) and hunting dogs bear names and were clearly valued by their owners.[1]


Relationship to other creatures and an appreciation that they too think, that they too have developed patterns of behaviour are found in the records and folk tales of many cultures from those of the Australian aborigines to those of  the so-called ‘Celtic fringe’ of the British Isles.  They are evident in the lively Palaeolithic wall paintings at Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain,where the humans clearly felt they had an ambiguous relationship with the other animals they hunted. What these have in common is that they are, or were, by their very nature non-urban cultures, and very much in touch with the natural environment around them. If you are close to nature and living an extremely ascetic life like Cuthbert on the Farne islands, you are literally close to the seals, otters and other creatures in your environment. You share their creaturiness every day.


More powerful for us than folk stories or even the words of venerable books are our own observations, or at least those fairly recently recorded. These are not strictly speaking ‘scientific’ because they are not subject to objective scientific method though they overwhelmingly disprove the Cartesian hypothesis (itself not scientific, and descended like that of Thomas Aquinas from Aristotle) that animals are merely machines which cannot feel real pain or experience real pleasure.


All of us are acquainted with companion animals, with those with whom we share a house, or those who live with others. If they were pre-programmed machines, their behaviour would be predictable, but they clearly have their own personalities, just like people. If we do not know the animals well,as personal friends, our responses are often similar to those we might adopt to small children, not I hope from any lack of respect to either, but because we do not share the same language to converse. We break through into their world and theirs into ours when it is apparent that a cat, a dog or a child wants us to play a game, normally throwing a ball or other object for them to retrieve. The exact analogy between child and, in this case, a primate infant came to me when on holiday in India and observing a local colony of macaques. A young monkey was attempting to display dexterity in acrobatics in the trees, a facility no doubt vital to him in later life. He looked at me; indeed, it was obvious that he wanted to attract my attention. I started to laugh and at that he really began to show-off jumping higher and sometimes losing his balance and clearly in a state of happy enjoyment. I at once recalled very young human friends, just beginning to talk and to use their bodies athletically and the frequent demand from them to: ‘Look at me!’


If that is one kind of empathy, there are others. Dogs in particular seem attuned to respond to emotions, those of other dogs, and of other species including our own. I remember the real companionship and sympathy accorded to me by a retriever at a time of deep grief. At St Margaret’s, Binsey, the little country church where I often officiate, Shay, the local farmer and churchwarden would arrive followed by his faithful old collie, Millie. He would ring the two bells to announce the service, but the tone of one of them upset Millie and so one of us would have to comfort her. There was a real and palpable bond of love between Millie and Shay, and when Millie died, Shay died shortly after. When we came to publish a book on Binsey and its church it seemed natural to dedicate it to them both.[2]

Something happens when one gathers such observations together. It is comparable in many ways to the technological revolution of our own day which has developed the computer out of all recognition. I was brought up on such books as Konrad Lorenz’s King Solomon’s Ring (1949)on his observation of jackdaws and geese in an Austrian village and on his Man meets Dog (1950), but it is the vast range of  observations and advancing knowledge about animal [including human] behaviour, communication and thought brought together in Jonathan Balcombe’s book Second Nature that has convinced me that we need to radically revise our world-view, our theology.[3] After reading it, and the many observations it contains, I declared that it was surely the most important contribution to theology that year, despite the fact that I don’t suppose the author thought he was writing  a theological work.


I should qualify that only to say I do not  think this new understanding in any way undermines a true understanding of God or, for that matter, of  the Incarnation. The key texts concerning Creation in the Hebrew Bible make it clear that the division lies not between humans and other animals but between the Creator and all creation. The Incarnation is surely a matter of God entering his creation, which had by its very nature to be specific, so he was incarnate not as an Amerindian but as a Jew, as a man and not a woman, in the Holy Land and not in Wales, and in 4BC or whenever it was and not at any other date. But ultimately these specifics are irrelevant as he is present for us all and the ‘us’ includes all he has made.

Sharing God’s love with the other animals does not lessen God’s love for any one of us as individuals. Without any of the resources of modern science Mother Julian of Norwich saw ‘everything that is’ in a small object, the size of a hazel-nut that  Our Lord placed in her hand, and that tiny object can only be sustained through love. It is insights such as these which send me out to fight for the environment, for the Amazonian Rain Forest, for our countryside, for elephants, badgers and foxes, for our fellow creatures living miserable lives in Factory Farms and tortured in laboratories in contempt of that loving hand and the tears falling from the Saviour’s eyes.








[1] A.Harden, Animals in the Classical World. Ethical Perspectives from Greek and Roman Texts (2013) is particularly useful.

[2] L.Carr, R.Dewhurst and M.Henig, Binsey: Oxford’s Holy Place. Its saint, village, and people (2013)

[3] J.Balcombe, Second Nature. The Inner lives of Animals (2010)