What Kinds of Things Could We Worship?: Part II – Material, Personal Objects (Animals)

“So all the people took off the gold rings that were on their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from their hands, fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made it into an image of a calf. Then they said, “Israel, this is your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:3-4)

For though they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or show gratitude. Instead, their thinking became nonsense, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, birds, four-footed animals, and reptiles.” (Romans 1:21-23)

In my last post I discussed what kinds of things we could worship,1For present purposes I will define worship as: the giving of a maximal kind and degree of love, attention, and adoration to an object for an extended period of time, regardless of variation in intensity at specific points in time, because one beholds that object to be a maximally good thing; a thing worthy of maximum love, maximum attention, and maximum adoration. in the hope of discerning what kind of thing, or object, might be most worthy of worship. We identified some kinds of things that probably could exist and others that certainly do exist: 1) created, immaterial, and concrete (or personal) objects, such as minds or angels; 2) immaterial, abstract (or impersonal) objects, such as sets or numbers; 3) material, personal objects, such as animals or human persons; and 4) material, impersonal objects, such as rocks or sound waves. Moreover, I posited that there could be one other category worth considering, namely, an uncreated, immaterial, and personal Being or beings (e.g. God).

Going in reverse order (4-1), I first ruled out material, impersonal objects, like the element Fe, or chemical aggregates like mountain chains or redwoods, arguing that while these might be praiseworthy for their beauty, they lacked certain communicative and relational attributes that would make them worthy of worship.

Continuing in this order, I now look at material, personal objects, seeing whether or not they might be the kinds of things one would consider sufficient for worship. In this category of objects we have two kinds of animals, non-human animals (everything from myxozoa to chimpanzees) and human persons. Let’s consider non-human animals first.

Non-human animals certainly seem to have some potential for worship-worthiness. Of course, initially, we probably want to make a distinction between certain categories of animals. Taxonomically, it seems difficult for most of us, apart from perhaps some elaborate system of religious belief (e.g. pantheism), to recognize certain lower forms of animal life as personal (e.g. stink bugs or, again, myxozoa). Other kinds of animals (e.g. horses, dogs & chimps), however, are easily recognized as displaying very sophisticated forms of personality. As I argued in the last post concerning material, impersonal objects, the possession of certain communicative and relational attributes, attributes that make something personal, seems to be a desirable, if not necessary, condition for worship-worthiness.

Thus, we perceive a greater degree of communicative capacity and emotional relationality between us and dogs, for example, then between us and termites. Dogs, as just one example amongst several, seem to possess emotional states (e.g. joy, fear, anxiety), higher degrees of mental capacity (e.g. limited reasoning, non-verbal communication), and perhaps even intentionality (i.e. dogs can seem willful or spirited about something or someone).

Stories abound of man’s best friend conducting physically sophisticated actions that appear noble, heroic, even intentional. Dogs have been awarded military medals, and treated with nearly as much regard as human persons. There are even social movements dedicated to conferring certain kinds of human rights upon dogs and other higher mammals (not that I endorse them).

Moreover, even the Bible suggests that some animals possess the nephesh (נֶ֥פֶשׁ), “breath” or “living soul,” in them (see Gen 1:21,24; 2:19; 9:10,12) that would make them not only valuable, but appropriate companions to human beings. Taking into account, then, both our experiential and scientific knowledge of, at least, higher-order mammals, and the data from the Bible itself, would we say that animals possesses the necessary and sufficient condition for worship-worthiness?

Upon further reflection, unfortunately, it seems that although some necessary conditions are present in animals, other ones are lacking. Perhaps most obvious is that animals are by degree far less rational, far less powerful (at least cognitively), far less knowledgable, and far less creative than human persons. Thus, in spite of the cleverness of the orangutan, the majestic strength of the lion, or the architectural capacity of the beaver, these attributes fail to measure up to a degree that would necessitate our total and abiding love and devotion, and this in spite of how nature religions or animistic faiths have approached the animal kingdom (although many such religions have also held to the belief in a “Great Spirit” that rules over these lesser, animal souls).

In addition to the lack of certain capacities by degree, there is one kind of capacity that no one, or no culture, that I am aware of has ever ascribed to animals, namely, moral agency. Thus, when we observe a male lion forcibly copulating with a lioness, we do not charge him with rape. Animals cannot transcend their physical behavior, so we do not hold them accountable.

Moreover, it seems odd to think we would worship beings that, for likely the vast majority of our human existence on earth, we have dominated over and domesticated for our own goals and purposes. Thus, while there are certainly attributes of animals that we can admire, and particular animals that we can love and cherish (e.g. my wife’s three cats), most human beings throughout time and culture have tended to see animals as not beings to be worshipped in themselves, but as symbols or objects through which we could get in touch with or worship other kinds of beings. Beings that themselves were beyond the physical realm, spirit beings.2 For example, even the above passage from Exodus that refers to Israel’s rebellion against YHWH’s second commandment is seen by many Jewish commentators as not the worship of the calf itself, but as an inappropriate means for worshipping YHWH. The Israelites who rebelled were still worshiping YHWH, but in an unsanctioned way. See Nahum M. Sarna, Exodus =: [shemot], The Jps Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), 203-204.

Finally, there are also the relational capacities of animals that tend to leave us wanting more. Sure, there are abundant examples of animals acting as sources of comfort or joy, even in light of great tragedy, but regardless, there is something almost tragic itself in thinking that comfort dogs or other emotional support animals, can really be the answer to life’s deepest and most existential pains. In the midst of mass shootings, or crippling cancers, it would be almost indecent to heap the burden of relieving human pain onto a poor animal.

In the final analysis, no matter how much we anthropomorphize animals, without the capacity for self-transcendence, moral choice, and language, animals leave us looking for another “other” with whom we can communicate and relate. In the next post, I will look at the second category of material, personal objects, namely, the human being, to see if we should consider our own selves worship-worthy.

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