Driving to church this morning I saw an advertisement on an electronic billboard for a “luxury pet hotel” that included, among other services, “web cam services.” The image of obsessive pet owners checking the Internet on their i-phones a few times a day to watch their cat or dog sitting in its cage was humorous to me for its outlandishness, but it also raised in my mind some serious thoughts about the way Western culture regards animals and how to think rightly about our relationship to animals.
Recently I read about a Presbyterian (PCUSA) church in Los Angeles that began a church service where worshippers are encouraged to bring their pets to the service. It’s not just that the people bring them, but the pets also receive special blessings in a “pet-centric” service. Writing about the service the Washington Times reports that the church aims to “attract new worshippers who are as crazy about God as they are their four-legged friends.”
There are at least two reasons why this sort of thing should disturb us. One is the focus on self-satisfaction and accommodating consumer desires of the audience in a worship service (less shocking examples of this abound in American churches battling for market share by reducing worship to another form of entertainment). The other is the placement of animals in a position of relating to God in which receiving a “special blessing” would be appropriate. Increasingly our society is confused about the relationship between people and animals, and the fundamental distinction between human beings and other creatures is being eroded. Here are a few other examples:
– Switizerland has included provisions for “plant dignity” in its constitution. Recently a molecular biologist had to apply for position to field test wheat that had been genetically engineered to resists a certain strand of fungi. He had to demonstrate to university ethicists that his research upheld plant dignity and prove to governmental officials that the tests would not disturb “the vital functions or lifestyle” of the plants.
– In 2009 the Spanish Parliament’s environmental committee passed a resolution that committed Spain to the Great Apes Project. The goal of this project is “to obtain for non-human great apes the fundamental moral and legal protections of the right to life, the freedom from arbitrary deprivation of liberty, and protection from torture.” Sound like human rights to you? That’s the point. Ethicists and Princeton professor Peter Singer argues that humans should grant to apes “the same considerations they do to other members of their own species.”
– There is a trend in business to offer employees “pet-ernity” leave when they get a new pet and grievance leave when a pet dies.
This kind of confusion arises from a secular materialist worldview which reduces humanity to just a highly evolved animal and denies the spiritual dimension of human nature. If human beings are mere evolutionary accidents, then why should we alone have rights (or conversely why should anything have rights in the first place)? If there is no underlying purpose to human life, then why should it be protected above any other species?
In contrast, the Bible teaches that God made human – male and female – in His image. Only after creating man in Genesis 1 does God declare what he made to be very good, signifying that people were the completion of his creative work – his ultimate creation, his magnum opus. This privileged status in the created order is the basis for unique human dignity and with that human rights, but it also brings with it extraordinary responsibility to the rest of creation. Humans alone have the ability and obligation to care for other creatures. Not only do we raise livestock and domesticate pets, we also plan and work for the preservation of other species from pandas to sea snails. So the Bible affirms with the animal rights activists and environmentalists our responsibility to “be kind to” and protect animals, but at the same time opposes the notion that animals and people have equal worth.
Without this distinction, society devalues human life and spirals into moral chaos. Chuck Colson shares an anecdote about a high school teacher who communicates with him yearly about an ethics survey he does with his students. He poses the simple question: “If your house was on fire and you could save either your household pet or an electrician trapped in side, who would you save?” Typically, the answers are divided 50/50, but this year, to his astonishment, 90% of the students chose the pet.
We live in a culture that increasingly devalues human life. As believers we should be incessantly affirming the uniqueness of human dignity, proclaiming the biblical truth that we alone are created in God’s image.