Steve Wiggins, Religions Editor for Oxford University Press, on Spirit Unleashed.

And With Thy Spirit
Posted on December 12, 2014 | 2 Comments

I grew up with pets. In a house with three boys, an aging mother, and no husband, my mother seemed to know instinctively that animals were a way to engage children. She herself had grown up with animals, although not really from a farming family. Living with animals leads to conclusions scientists fear to make. That’s one reason I find Anne Benvenuti’s Spirit Unleashed: Reimagining Human-Animal Relations so important. Not only do animals remind us of who we are, they are who we are. Benvenuti has the scientific credentials to make her case, although, I have to admit, her anecdotes of interactions with animals were my favorite part of the book. We may be told that animals don’t think or feel. Nature, however, proves that wrong for anyone who actually pays attention to animals. Unfortunately, humans are often the bullies of the planet just because our animal brains developed the way they did and our thumbs migrated to a position where we could easily manipulate objects. It’s time to bring animals up to the table with us.

For years I have suggested to my students that animal behavior has the rudiments of what we call religion. I’ve always felt like a voice calling in the wilderness here since both proponents of and opponents to religion think it is uniquely human. Again, the evidence suggests otherwise, but human knowledge often comes at the cost of evidence. It is refreshing to read a book—perhaps the first I ever have—that makes this idea plausible. The “spirit” of Benvenuti’s title is literal, in a sense. She argues forcefully that animals have souls and with this I would agree. The main problem is that we can’t quantify souls and therefore we don’t really know what they are. We know one, however, when we feel one. I’m not sure they’re much different than minds, or maybe they’re the feeling side of the thinking mind. Whatever they are, we are not the only animals to have them.

I’m convinced that one of the reasons we don’t like to admit animal souls (or animal religion) is that such belief ratchets up accountability. Stockyards start to become detainment camps for innocently condemned creatures. If we dare address the moral issue, we have to ask what gives us the right. To kill for food is natural (although I’m happily vegetarian) but to keep animals in miserable conditions their entire lives and then heartlessly kill them and process them as if they were mere objects is immoral. As Benvenuti notes, even farmers who spend time with their animals know they have personalities. Spirit Unleashed is a book full of wonder and awe. Not so much at human superiority, but rather at how much animals really are like us. How they communicate with us if we’ll listen. And how we all have, even if we can’t define the word, souls.

About Anne Benvenuti

My second book, "Kindred Spirits" is in gestation, soon to be delivered! My first book is called "Spirit Unleashed: Reimagining Human-Animal Relations," June 2014, Wipf and Stock. From the book jacket: "In Spirit Unleashed, Anne Benvenuti uses analysis of real encounters with animals, wild and domestic, to take us on an intellectual tour of our thinking about animals by way of biological sciences, scientific psychology, philosophy, and theology to show that we have been wrong in our understanding of ourselves amongst other animals. The good news is that we can correct course and make ourselves happier in the process. Drawing us into encounters with a desert rattlesnake, an offended bonobo, an injured fawn, a curious whale, a determined woodpecker, and others, she gives us a glimpse of their souls. Anne Benvenuti strongly makes the case that to change the way that we think about animals—and our way of relating to them—holds the possibility of changing all life on Earth for the better."I am an integrative scholar and author, a licensed clinical psychologist, a priest of the Episcopal Church, a Trustee of the Parliament of the World's Religions (and representative to the United Nations), a published poet, and photographer. The New Archaic: A Neurophenomenological Approach to Religious Ways of Knowing," in A Field Guide to a New Meta-Field: Bridging the Humanities/Neurosciences Divide, ed. Barbara Maria Stafford, University of Chicago Press, 2011. My recent presentations include "Promise and Peril: Can Religious and Political Selves Be Reconciled?" at the International Academy of Law and Mental Health, Berlin, 2011; "The New Archaic: Neuroscience, Spiritual Practice, and Healing" at the Parliament for the World's Religions, Melbourne, 2009; and "Gratefully at Home in the Body: Neuroscience and Spiritual Practice," at Spiritual Directors International, San Francisco, 2010.
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