On the Mediatorial Relationship of Humans with Animals

On the Mediatorial Relationship of Humans with Animals March 15, 2010

If human stewardship over creation implies that we are to be, in some fashion or another, mediators of God’s grace to the world at large, then one might wonder if there were any examples of such mediatorship available for us to study. If so, this would allow us to better understand that role. After all, if we were made to be mediators, if that is a part of what it means to be human, one would expect that we would see someone becoming more humanized the more they mediate God’s grace to those around them. Is this something which is observable?

The answer to this question is yes. Our relationships with animals can be shown to positively affect both ourselves and the animals we encounter. While there are many ways this could be shown, there is no better way this can be addressed than by looking at our relationships with our pets.[1]

Before we begin, it must be pointed out that this relationship can be — and sadly, often is — abused. What is good can be abused, leading to evil, and the greater the good, the more room there is for such abuse. This does not mean the good should be denied, but checks and balances should be put into place to prevent such abuse of the good. With animals, it is quite clear that our factory-like method of breeding pets (such as “puppy mills”) has had a detrimental effect on the species we enjoy as pets; though it will produce pets who have good relationships with humans, there will be many who will be put into abusive relationships, and worse still, others will be born who are rejected and killed before they have any chance to enjoy the gift of life God has given to them. These abuses, which must be seen as evil, must be accounted for and dealt with — it is proper that laws should be put in place to prevent such cruelty. The need for reform in the pet industry does not mean, however, that there should be no such human-animal relationships (just as the existence of abusive marriages does not mean that there should be no such marital relationships between men and women). With this caveat put in place,[2] let us now look at the good which can out of our relationships with animals, not only to them, but to ourselves as well.

As a way to explore this topic, I find some of the speculative ideas of C.S. Lewis on the possibility of animal resurrection to be quite helpful. They are, I believe, incomplete, and founded upon an outdated understanding of animals, nonetheless, they possess a kernel of insight which should help us see the positive relationship we can have with them.

Lewis believes that animals, if they can be saved, will be saved through humanity in the same way humans are saved through Christ. That is, as we become a part of the Body of Christ, so they have salvation by being incorporated, in some fashion, with us. “Man is to be understood only in his relation to God. The beasts are to be understood only in their relation to man, and through man, to God.”[3] In saying this, we must remember how we become the Body of Christ, and what it means for us to be in that body —  it is participatory and a monistic destruction of personality.

Lewis has two more interesting ideas about animals which represent his important contributions to this discussion. The first is that from that point in history when humanity came into existence, humanity has played some sort of soteriological role for animals. Indeed, he suggested that we were meant to help establish peaceful relationship between different species of animals — a role which, even if we failed to accomplish, remains with us and can be seen to have some fulfillment as we help pets of different species have peaceful relations with each other:

If this hypothesis is worth considering, it is also worth considering whether man, at his first coming into the world, had not already a redemptive function to perform. Man, even now, can do wonders to animals: my cat and dog live together in my house and seem to like it. It may have been one of man’s functions to restore peace to the animal world, and if he had not joined the enemy he might have succeeded in doing so to an extent now hardly imaginable.[4]

The second important notion of Lewis is that that ‘tame’ animals, instead of being unnatural, should be seen as possessing the most natural state an animal could have. They are animals who are capable of fulfilling their nature because humanity has taken its task seriously and helped them find it:

Man was appointed by God to have dominion over the beasts, and everything a man does to an animal is either a lawful exercise, or a sacrilegious abuse, of an authority by divine right. The tame animals is therefore, in the deepest sense, the only ‘natural’ animal — the only one we see occupying the place it was made to occupy, and it is on the tame animal that we must base all our doctrine of beasts.[5]

We must look at this relationship as one where grace comes to humanity through Christ (even to people who do not know they are receptive of such grace), and this in turn comes through us and does not merely stay with us, but is shared with those around us, including animals. For Lewis, this grace is what allows for personal relations and distinctions in the animal realm. This he sees happens due to their contact with us. “Now it will be seen that, in so far as the tame animal has a real self or personality, it owes this almost entirely to its master. If a good sheepdog seems ‘almost human’ that is because a good shepherd has made it so.”[6]

While many have complained about the way pet-owners humanize their pets, because they believe pets are being treated too anthropomorphically, perhaps the answer to this complaint is to accept what is being said and to go on with it and complete it. That is, instead of disputing with this fact, we should admit we are indeed anthropomorphizing our pets, and this is because we are meant to do so, similar to how God deifies us. It is natural to do so because it is what we are expected to do. We are mediating God’s grace to animals, and this grace should raise them up beyond their current status until they find their proper place in the eschaton. We are called to help them find that perfection, and this inclination is not to be fought against, but to be reinforced. It is not that we should force them to become as we would like them to become, but rather, through our interactions with them, we should help them help themselves to their proper end. We can help them manifest their full potential in a way which would be more difficult without our intervention. That we have a role in their development does not mean it is an artificial development (as some might suggest); if it did, we would have to question our role in the development of our own children. Nonetheless, the fact is that we see animals develop and even come to perform significant tasks of their own choosing as a result of their contact with us. This shows that we can and do have a positive effect on them.

Now, in saying this, we must realize that our role must be in the encouragement of their own development similar to how we encourage the development of our children. If we do so, amazing things can happen.[7] August Derleth, in his book on Carl Marty, pointed out many such examples. Carl had a unique relationship with animals, taking care of many who were orphaned or hurt, especially if they were from the forest surrounding his home. Not only did he develop close bonds with them, he found out that animals could develop similar bonds with each other because of their interaction with him. One interesting example which Derleth related in the book was between a dog, Rusty, and a raccoon, Snoopy:

One afternoon Carl witnessed an instance of what can only be described as an intelligence greater than is generally attributed to animals by mankind. Rusty and Carl were in the yard at the time, and Carl was too busy to open the door for Rusty to go back into the house, as the dog wished to do. The dog, impatient, turned and ran off into the woods. In a few minutes he returned with Snoopy at his heels. They went directly up to the screen door, where Rusty stepped aside for the raccoon. Snoopy opened the screen door with his flexible forepaws. Rusty went into the house, and the raccoon returned to the woods. Subsequently this became a commonplace: The dog used the raccoon to do what he himself could not do.[8]

Rusty, and his descendents, had great relationships with animals in the forest, and indeed, helped Carl take care of them. The harmony between humans (Carl and his family) with the animals of the forest showed how all were capable of being made better as a result of these encounters. Carl, indeed, made it clear that one’s interactions with animals required not only that one should help them, but to also give them freedom — to show them the kind of respect one would want to be given:

After raising at least ten animals a year for many years and becoming acquainted with hundreds more, Carl found that anyone wishing to deal intimately with wild animals must learn certain fundamental rules. It is necessary for the human being to gain the confidence of the animals as soon as possible, and in order to accomplish this the human being must be both predictable and dependable in his behavior. There is no room for impatience in dealing with animals, nor must there ever be any effort to impede an animal’s movements.[9]

While such immediate experience with animals is important, we should not feel ourselves limited to it. There are all kinds of animals who have little to no real contact with us, and many of us have little to no real contact with animals. What should we say here? There is still a metaphysical relationship which is had between us and them, and that, Lewis believed, might be enough to affect them so that they can find a place in Christ’s salvation of the world:[10]

Supposing, as I do, that the personality of the tame animals is largely the gift of man — that their mere sentience is reborn to soulhood in us as our mere soulhood is reborn to spirituality in Christ — I naturally suppose that very few animals indeed, in their wild state, attain to a ‘self’ or ego. But if any do, and it is agreeable to the goodness of God that they should live again, their immortality would also be related to man — not, this time, to individual masters, but to humanity.[11]

Lewis, from all that we have seen, seems to suggest we have a positive role in the development of animals around us. Our experience of animals leads to times when they show qualities which surprise us. Lewis would suggest, and I think he is right, that many of these qualities come about because we can help encourage animals to become greater than they would be on their own. This is an insight which is worth exploring further. But if it is true, that this is part of our role in the world, one would expect that it would lead to positive effects on us. That is, if this is somehow associated with who we are and what we are meant to do, then fulfilling that task should lead to some sort of happiness. And this is exactly what we find. When people become loving servants to animals, they find their own lives are indeed improved. People from all walks of life find their own quality of life is improved when they act in this manner. Mark Bekoff points out a few such examples:

Pets can be social catalysts and help to draw out autistic and socially withdrawn children (an increase in pro-social behaviors). The term ‘pet therapy’ was coined by Boris Levinson more than four decades ago, and it is still in use today. An American child psychologist, Levinson found that man children who were withdrawn and uncommunicative would come out and interact positively if his dog, Jingles, joined them in therapy sessions.

Pets also help victims of abuse by teaching them about unconditional love and buffering and overcoming trauma.[12]

Fyodor Dostoevsky, from his own experiences in prison, also saw the way animals helped the lives of prisoners, not only by improving their personal happiness, but also by encouraging them to find the good they possessed in themselves: “Generally speaking, our prisoners were capable of loving animals, and if they had been allowed they would have delighted to rear large numbers of domestic animals and birds in the prison. And I wonder what other activity could better have softened and defined their harsh and brutal natures than this.”[13] He also believed that the Society for the Protection of Animals encouraged us to become humane — that once people took care of animals and helped protect them from harm, this would lead to a more positive interaction with fellow humanity:

And in fact the Society [Russian Society for the Protection of Animals] is concerned not only about poor dogs and horses; man, too — Russian man — needs to humanize and ‘image himself’ and this is something which the Society for the Protection of Animals can undoubtedly promote. Once the peasant has learned to have pity for his animals, he will begin to have pity for his wife. And therefore, although I am very fond of animals, I am delighted that the worthy Society values people even more than animals — people who have become coarse, inhumane, semi-barbaric, and who are seeking the light! And means of enlightenment are precious, and one can only with that the Society’s idea in fact becomes one means of enlightenment. Our children are raised and grow up encountering many disgusting sights. They see a peasant who has grossly overloaded his cart lashing his wretched nag, who gives him a living, across the eyes as she struggles in the mud; or, something I myself saw not very long ago, for instance: a peasant was hauling calves to the slaughterhouse in a large cart in which he had loaded about ten of the creatures; he climbed into the cart with an air of utmost calm and sat down upon a calf. He found a soft seat there — just like a sofa with springs — but the calf, its tongue hanging out and its eyes bulging, may have drawn its last breath even before it reached the slaughterhouse. I am sure that this scene didn’t trouble anyone on the street: ‘Doesn’t matter — it’s going to be slaughtered anyway.’ But scenes such as these undoubtedly brutalize and corrupt people, especially children.[14]

What has been suggested by Lewis is that we can have a positive influence in the development of animal personality, and that this role was one we were expected to have from the beginning. While I think he too quickly questions the notion of personality outside of human contact, because I think one can discern such personal distinctions in animal societies with little to no contact with humanity, I do think one can say contact with humanity in general can improve an animal’s sense of being in the world and what is available to them as they try to make out what it is they are to do in their lives.[15] This positive role we can have in the lives of animals presents to us one example of what it means to be mediators of God’s grace to animals. It does not have to be the only way our mediatorship can be understood, but rather, it presents the simplest way in which we can see that we possess such a role. It helps us understand that we do have an effect on animals and that we can help them find their own perfection. The happiness we find in this accomplishment indicates that this is indeed a part of our own moral role in the world. But this means, as said above, that there are all kinds of considerations which must be examined. If we understand ourselves as having priestly role to nature, then we can see, as Lewis did, that abuse of nature, of animals, is sacrilegious. This is why we must be careful — it is both a great ability but also a great responsibility placed upon us. When we ignore it, it is to our own peril.

“I encourage everyone to go where their hearts take them, with love, not fear. If we all travel this road, the world will be a better place for all beings.”[16] That is exactly the right way for the Christian to look at the issue at hand. God is love, and he expects us to love in return. We are called to love our neighbor as ourselves. But is not the world at large, including all the animals around us, our neighbor? We should treat God’s creations with respect. We should help them realize their own goodness just as we want our children to realize their own. But we must do it in the manner love would dictate. Any abuse we place upon them will likely result in some negative reaction. Indeed, when they are entrusted to us, and we abuse that trust, it is likely they will suffer from confusion and despair.[17] How else are we to understand the words of Balaam’s donkey, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?”  (Numbers 22:28). Let us not be reproached by the animals around us; rather, let us follow the example of Noah, who took care to protect animals so that they can be saved with him. Indeed, without them, he could not have finished his ark and find his own salvation. If we understand Noah’s ark as a type of the Church, this should show us how we are in this together — humanity and animals alike. Together we stand, and divided we will perish.


[1] In saying this, I will not limit my discussion to pets, which is usually defined as a “domesticated animal kept for companionship or entertainment.” Companionship with animals I think is important, but many of the ways in which they are seen as instruments for our entertainment are problematic or outright abuses. It is the role as animal as companion which I want to emphasize here, and the term pet is used in that sense; indeed, I think it can be applied even if the animal is not domesticated.

[2] I am not trying to dismiss this important point by only quickly going over it; rather, I point it out first so that it serves as a constant reminder of the danger which remains in poor human-animal relations. The subject is itself one worthy of its own consideration, though to do it properly, it would require a significant amount of research to relate all the abuse which is present in society today and the kinds of reform which are needed to address that abuse.

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Collier Books, 1962), 138. While I appreciate Lewis’ sentiment here, the problem I have with it is with the word “only” being used in it. If we removed all uses of that word in Lewis’ sentences, I think we will have a better, and more Catholic, understanding of relationships and how they work.

[4] ibid., 136.

[5] ibid., 139.

[6] ibid., 139.

[7] I am sure, like myself, most people who have had pets in their lives can name all kinds of interesting situations and cases which prove my point

[8] August Derleth, Forest Orphans: Carl Marty and His Animal Friends (New York: Edward Ernest, Inc., 1964), 49.

[9] ibid., 79.

[10] Lewis thought it would be rare, though I believe the opposite.

[11] Lewis, Problem of Pain, 141. One of the problems I have here is that Lewis looks at salvation as a salvation of the ego. While it is understandable that he wants to present salvation as something given to persons, an individual with an ego is not exactly the same thing as a person. A person is a unique relational entity that recognizes itself as such. Thus, if we change what Lewis said to this developed understanding of the person, then what Lewis said is still important, but can be shown to have greater ramifications than what he suggests here.

[12] Mark Bekoff, The Emotional Lives of Animals (Novato, California: New World Library, 2007), 20.

[13] Fydor Dostoevsky, Memoirs From the House of the Dead. Trans. Jessie Coulson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 293.

[14] Fydor Dostoyevsky, A Writer’s Diary. Volume I: 1873 – 1876. Trans. Kenneth Lantz (London: Quartet Books, 1994),  325-6.

[15] Just like what happens with our own children. Put in a proper environment, they are able to achieve more.

[16] Bekoff, The Emotional Lives of Animals, 24.

[17] And from such confusion and despair, we should not be surprised if they end up acting in hostility towards us.

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