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.

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From Oxford University Press, Steve Wiggins on Spirit Unleashed

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It’s Natural to Love Nature

Photo: People’s Climate March, “Behind Noah’s Ark”

I was recently asked to speak at the Religions for the Earth Conference on the topic “Outdoor Epiphanies,” an expression that might well summarize the meaning of my life. As John Muir famously said, “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

To begin with, I want to state a scientific fact: all behavior is motivated by emotions. Or, in ordinary folk language, we are moved to action by the feeling of our hearts, not the thoughts in our minds. Having said this, I follow with the idea that it is natural for humans to love nature, to be moved by nature, to act out of that love we have for nature.

I went out for a walk at 35 years of age, and I stayed for life. What I learned over time is that it is my own deepest nature to love nature, whether or not my culture placed that love on the list of acceptable desires. Uncle Angaangaq said about his own work some words that caught my attention: he said the farthest distance humanity must travel is the distance between our minds and our hearts. I would add—and I say this as a scientist and as a priest—that going out for attentive walks in nature is the surest and shortest way to traverse that distance between our minds and our hearts. For 25 years I asked college students to tell me their favorite place. Of those hundreds of adult students, all but one described some especially beautiful and peaceful place in nature. This relationship to nature, this longing for nature; this being held in nature’s arms, it is essential to us, essential like food, essential like water, essential like human love. But no one talked about this.

Having taken a job at a small rural community college, I moved to the mountains, fully expecting to get a better job and to move again. But life had other plans for me. I remember distinctly the autumn day when, sitting on the rugged banks of Bull Run creek, I became aware of my senses opening. I saw light and colors in the water, and I heard the wind in the treetops, and moving through the grasses, and I heard waters splashing over rocks, and felt the warm sun and cool breeze both pressing on my skin. I said to myself these simple words, “I never want to give this up again.” Simultaneously, I understood that urban living had shut me up, imprisoned me within myself. That day was a pivotal moment of vocational choice for me, though it took many years before I really understood.

Living in a remote town of 1,800 people did not promise much career advancement, and it did not allow me to live with supportive tribe, but required me to live amongst people for whom I was a strange and not always welcome Other. These are big prices to pay. But, in those early years, this old song line came back to me… “out where the rivers like to run, I stand alone and take back something worth remembering.”

Now I understand better why I had to make the choice to stay with the waters and the wilds, and there have been many things worth remembering, though my culture gave me no words by which to recognize them. I recently collected some of the most deeply felt of these memories—my encounters with wild animals—like the little bat who was thirsting to death, whom I brought to water, and who finally swam away from me; or the injured fawn who taught me more about Jesus than all the theology books I’ve read; or the baby whale who befriended me in Baja California—I collected these stories and a lifetime of scholarly thinking about these encounters into a book about animals and natural spirituality, Spirit Unleashed. This book, which has now been nominated for literary awards including the Pulitzer, is the harvest of that decision to stay in my body and in my heart and in nature, the decision I made by the creek side so many years ago. The book I wrote was not the result of my ideas about career development, but a consequence of following my heart all the way home.

On the basis of my life experience, I offer two pieces of advice for gathering some things well worth having:

First, love an animal. Listen to an animal and become friends, as you would do with another human. If you have a pet, begin there, as you probably have already done. Or befriend a bird or a squirrel in your neighborhood—you will learn to tell one from another, and that one will come to recognize you too. Or adopt into your heart and visit a zoo animal; many of them are lonely and depressed and you might make a great anti-depressant. Many animals enjoy hearing humans sing; try it. Your animal friend will, no doubt, do something wonderful for you, too.

Second: Go out for a twenty-minute walk in nature as often as you possibly can; and, to turn off your relentless thoughts, treat each thing you encounter as a person.
“Hello, bird, who are you?”
“Creek, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

I came to call this exercise  “the animism experiment” as I assigned it to students over many years. Again and again, these adult students told me that doing this simple exercise once changed their sense of life. I think this happened for them because the “experiment” closed for a moment that great distance we tend to have between mind and heart.

When we expect to experience the world as “a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects” in the words of Thomas Berry, then whole world will come out to greet us and to welcome us home. This being welcomed home to the larger life of our planet is the foundational Outdoor Epiphany, and the greatest blessing of my life.


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An Interview with Anne Benvenuti about Spirit Unleashed

Who did you imagine reading Spirit Unleashed and what did you think they’d take from it?

I wrote it for people who like to do their own thinking and, especially those among them who love animals. I want people to realize they can bring their love of animals out of the intellectual closet and into a smart conversation.

In the back of  my mind, I had my experiences with Your Inner Fish, Neil Shubin’s wonderful book. It’s an academically grounded but readable book rooted in several fields of science integrated in a discussion of evolutionary continuity. It’s a book that educated me and made me feel smart at the same time; it did the same thing for the students to whom I assigned it. That’s what I hoped my book might do, both educate people and help them feel their own smarts at the same time. And, of course, it’s also emotionally satisfying for most of us to understand that all life is related.

Why this book, Spirit Unleashed?

The approach that I took to writing about human-animal relations is as important to me as the topic itself. I wanted to write a beautiful book, and a book that was what I call “integral.” That means approaching the topic from several academic disciplines, but also with emotion integrated into the thinking process, rather than continuing with the false assumption that feeling clouds rationality. Thinking and feeling are both necessary to correct understanding of the world and ourselves in the world, and so are necessary to living well. I wanted to think clearly and I wanted to feel clearly, and to have these two work together to produce something beautiful. All of that came together in Spirit Unleashed.

Why now?

Before I began writing the book, I was participating in an interdisciplinary seminar on the topic of human-animal relations. I realized that these smart scientists and theologians and philosophers simply were not very familiar with the strong trends that have been established in research findings from animal behavior and cognition, and in comparative cognitive science, and that their questions and opinions reflected that lack of knowledge. So I did a presentation called Spirit Unleashed in which I showed video footage of animal reasoning, feeling, social connections, language, and even suggested that animals may well participate in what is spiritual for humans. My colleagues received the information, and even my suggestion that the relationship of humans and other animals has a spiritual dimension, with enthusiasm. Some of them had never thought about it; others felt affirmed in what they had long thought might be true.  Spirituality in non human animals seemed like a bold and provocative claim when I started, but it’s really not so radical now because the scientific evidence keeps going in the same direction, the direction of evolutionary continuity.

What’s the take home message of Spirit Unleashed? If I couldn’t read all those great stories and just had to take away a single idea, what would it be?

The take home message is to look squarely at your love for non-human animals, own up to it, be curious about it, let it satisfy you and don’t think you have to hide the fact that it does. Not only is it legitimate to love other animals, but it supports and guides us in the urgent work of addressing ecological issues. We’ve been buzzing along on a market model, understanding the world in terms of economies, but as we are now recognizing, economies are dependent entirely upon ecologies.  You can’t produce and consume as though it were not all dependent on a set of relationships; what is perhaps less obvious for many of us is that the set of relationships itself may be what we crave more than we crave more “stuff.”

Our greatest satisfactions are not consumption—satisfying as that can be—but companionship and beauty. We hunger for these at least as much as we do for food and other consumables. So open the door and let your cat come in! And let that cat lead the parade of all the animals, and ultimately all of nature; these animals are family, nature is home.

You speak very confidently. Are you satisfied with Spirit Unleashed?
Is it what you hoped?

Yes! My confidence was certainly helped by strong expressions of delight and approval from people I respect, like Richard Rohr, and Jaak Panksepp, and Marc Bekoff, and my editor, Rodney Clapp, the Spinoza scholars to whom I took this work in Amsterdam. So I’m very confident about this book.

I also recognize that the book is hard to categorize, except to say that it’s non-fiction. I set out to break the bounds of convention. That leaves booksellers with the practical problem of knowing where to put the book so that people can find it. I experienced this first hand at Blackwell’s in Oxford. In the end, they placed it in both philosophy and psychology, both of which are good places for it. I think, though, that it might find its truest readership under the heading of “Animals.”

Do you have a favorite line or idea or story?

Yes, one of each in fact! My favorite line is “the price of not kissing is your miserable unkissed life.” My favorite idea is that all of life is literally family and that it’s natural for that to be satisfying emotionally. My favorite story is probably still the one about the bat because it was so surprising!

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Read the first chapter!

Read the first chapter of my book! Used with kind permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Here’s the link to the Wipf and Stock page where you can buy the whole book. It’s also newly out on Kindle!!


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Spirit Unleashed!

The book is out! You can now order Spirit Unleashed: Reimagining Human-Animal Relations.

Who’ll be the first to add an Amazon review?

You can also order it directly from the publishers, Wipf & Stock.

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Why do Dolphins Look So Happy?

Yes, yes, the appearance of a smile is the consequence of dolphin physiology and not really a measure of mood. Still, dolphins are famously found to be in a good mood, as evidenced in all the usual ways, like engagement, energy, curiosity, play, laughter. Maybe dolphin physiology reflects dolphin karma? It certainly reflects dolphin evolution.

Dolphins are—we know, we know—very social and very intelligent, and they have special sonar powers too. But, as the cynics like to say, show me their technology, their art and finance; where’s their architecture, huh? What are they doing with all that intelligence?

Recent research seems to suggest that dolphins have actually majored in having good clean healthy fun; that’s what they are doing with their intelligence. Yup. They look so happy because they are so happy. And, if there were such a thing as a cynical dolphin, he or she might point to your finance, art and architecture and ask, “What’s the point when you’re all so miserable?”

Yes, I am going to say it: maybe we could learn something from dolphins. What would it be like to live with good-humored healthy fun as a primary purpose? What would it do to the world if seven billion humans changed their major to something dolphinesque?

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Imaginal Discs and Memories

From morning to late afternoon I watched a caterpillar climb a tall pine tree, climb without ever stopping to rest. That was September, two years ago, in the beautiful northern woods of Door County, Wisconsin. This tiny creature spent the entire day climbing, up and up the tall rugged trunk, over hill and dale, then out along a high branch, never resting. He seemed to be feeling some urgency I thought; who knows? I’ve not been a caterpillar. He was certainly determined. When he stopped, I thought he must be exhausted, and then he began to spin. Surely, he felt he was about to fall apart; how could he not? Did he know he was packing an incorruptible set of memories of lessons he had learned? And did he know about the imaginal discs that would transform him to something unrecognizable that would still be him living his life?

The autumn equinox is just past, and the time for preparing for winter is here, just like that; days shorter, nights longer, and tipping towards the dark and cold times at a seemingly accelerating pace. If I do my autumn work now, stacking wood and cleaning the chimney pipe, putting away the things of summer and bringing in the things of winter, I will likely get to enjoy some of the winter romance I imagine. I will sit by the fire on early dark winter eves, reading, drinking hot tea, journaling, taking some time to take stock of the year that is departing, to soothe the aches of it, savor the pleasures and victories, to release regrets, and to imagine a next year.

The idea of sitting by the fire in a kind of gentle transformation brings the image of a cocoon to mind. Last winter I was in a real cocoon, that is, the transformation was extreme, something more pleasant to remember than it was to anticipate. I had to give up the central organizing form I have lived within for the past twenty-five years, that of professor, and to trust that I could turn into something else. As if to drive home the point, I got very sick. Recalling the transformation of last winter, I notice that I am still me. Everything that happened before is still “mine,” my memories, my history, my scrunched up and retooled identity. It felt very big while it was happening, like death.

But this is nature’s way. There’s a time when the chick is too big for the egg, a time when the caterpillar may already be carrying little wing buds inside its body, when the transformation must happen, or there will be certain death. The ugly caterpillar that spins a cocoon, then goes to sleep in its little hammock, and wakes up a beautiful butterfly is legendary. Its actual process is more devastating, less romantic.

The first thing the little creature who has realized all its wormy potential must do is to create imaginal discs of what it will become. These imaginal discs are a few cells, maybe 50 in each disc. These will eventually organize a large number of cells, maybe 50,000 each. (Does it know what its doing, does it hope for wings?) The second thing the little caterpillar must do is to digest itself, quite literally give up all form, breaking down into a liquid that will become nutrition for the new form. The caterpillar does not turn into a butterfly, but into caterpillar soup with a few imaginal patterns floating around in the soup. For each body part that will be constructed—wings and legs, eyes and mouth, thorax and genitals, all are held in unimaginably compact form in those imaginal discs that slowly gather up the material of the former caterpillar and organize it into the parts that will organize themselves into a butterfly. The transformations feel like death because they are deaths, and every life requires many deaths.

This year is still living. I have tomatoes and squash on the vines, potatoes and beets in the still soft soil. But the world is beginning to weave its cocoon, to shed its leaves, to give up its green and blue. Soon it will go all brown and gray. And out of that cold and gray will come next year. We do not know how it happens that death gives birth to new beings and new years, new versions of ourselves that are still somehow continuous with the one who died.

A recent series of experiments at Georgetown demonstrated that butterflies remember lessons they learned as caterpillars. How can this be? If you cut open the cocoon at its most liquid moment, you would not see any body parts, no worm, no wings, and you would see no memories of lessons learned. You would see brown soup. But the images and memories are in there, unrecognizable.

I like to take lessons from other creatures, those who do life so seemingly differently from the way I do it. I imagine I can perhaps even radically expand my behavioral repertoire that way, perhaps not all the way to wings, but maybe to flight behavior (to borrow Barbara Kingsolver’s latest title). So I offer this lesson from a worm that can be recalled when you have to let go of your center, when a death is speeding towards you. The memories of your past, the imaginal discs of your future, they are in there, in the soup, the broken down you that will become nutritional substance for some imaginal potential you don’t yet know you have.


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Dawn Chorus (Other Nations)

“Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”   –Henry Beston, The Outermost House (1928)

Enjoying the dawn chorus, I sat in the wooden tub just off my bedroom deck this morning, noticing change in the air. Not enough change though and not fast enough! With increasing intensity, I feel the way it’s still so hot—it’s been over 100 degrees for several days running—while the days are shorter, and the nights longer. I was out at 6:30 rather than 5:00, my tub time in June. There’s a discrepancy between the way the light falls slant now and the intense heat, they don’t go together. It works to intensify a longing for the change of season, the real change of season to falling leaves, cooler temperatures, and abundance in the garden on its way out.

This morning I saw that the Acorn Woodpeckers are well into harvest season, with or without cooler temperatures. One crew was drilling out their barns and tossing out last year’s detritus while another crew was hauling in large acorns to stuff into those clean barns: knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock. I send them a Woody Woodpecker good morning. They glance briefly in my direction, like people everywhere who are focused on a task. “Mmmhmm,” they say, “I’m busy right now.” What do the woodpeckers feel? What do they know and how do they know it? Surely we all share understanding of longer nights, shorter days. They are up later, too.

And what about the rest of the gang? The blue jays are fluttering in the treetops, squawking a kind of slow dance. In June, they were the first ones up, raising a racket at four thirty in the morning. Back then they danced a veritable tarantella several yards from their nest in order to distract any predators from the real location of their babies. They’ve ceased with this obnoxious necessity, and they seem to be enjoying life more. Are they talking about the weather and the seasons, like we do?

A lone gray titmouse cocks her pointed little head as she hops on the rock wall. She’s a newcomer, I think, a bird I have not seen in recent months. It may be though, that she’s been there and just out-flashed by the hummingbirds and goldfinches. I think it more likely that she is seasonal and just arriving.

The ravens zoom over, calling out their typical three-note greeting, Caw, caw, caw. I return the greeting in my best Corvid accent and they turn to fly over again, this time inspecting me as they go. The ravens talk about me amongst themselves. I know they do, and one day I will say how I know this. Not today though, today belongs to all of them, and especially to the hard working Acorn Woodpeckers.


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Why the New Archaic?

Why The New Archaic?

“The New Archaic, this expression of yours that I guess I love to hate,” said my colleague, Mladin Turk, professor at Elmhurst College in Illinois, “what does this oxymoronic expression mean?” This very good question came in the context of a talk I gave last spring at the Advanced Seminar of the Zygon Center for the study of science and religion in Chicago. I was talking about Pacific Gray Whales, trying, in fact, to imagine their souls; and trying to convince these scientists and theologians that imagining the souls of whales is a very worthy occupation. My colleagues were, to my great pleasure, receptive.

As for the New Archaic, I use these two words of seemingly mutual contradiction to signify a complex reality, that now we are in not just a “postmodern” era but a post-cultural era, and so the “new” that was once human culture is old and worn, and the archaic that is elemental nature is newly necessary and newly beautiful. Further, I think the challenge for this time of great change is to make a new human culture that incorporates consciously and wholeheartedly the archaic and elemental into the sanctuaries of our lives.

If I were to try to generalize about the last three thousand years or so of human history, I would say there’s been a trajectory of humans relating ever increasingly to human culture. Before that it’s a good guess that most humans lived primarily in relation to nature and that culture was the way they dealt with nature. Earth, air, fire, water. Is this fertile soil? Will the weather hold for us to gather in our crops? Will the sun scorch our crops in the field, or fail to warm them to life in the first place? Will the rains come, enough to water the crops, not so much as to drown the crops or even us? How can we make sure nature cooperates, and how can we make sure people cooperate sufficiently? These are the core questions of culture.

But that was all a long time ago. I know many people who scoff at my earthy stuff; they’re dialed in, urban, cultured and they neither know nor want to know nature. They are relieved that food comes from the grocery store and that the doctor has pharmaceuticals and that the air conditioner can be relied upon. In my heart of hearts, though I have some overlap with them, I am not one of them. I need to see the stars at night. I need to see water flow in creeks and rivers. I need silence. I despise the sound of machines. I love the company of animals and the dawn chorus of birds. But it’s not to express these personal preferences that I coined the phrase New Archaic. Rather it is to say that we have to relate to nature again, because nature is the contingent foundation upon which culture rests, nature is the source of “resources” that we use to make culture, and, though we wish to be something other, nature is us.

This is all to say that humanism is dead, though many humanists yet live. I once loved the quote from Saint Irenaeus, “The glory of God is man fully alive,” but now I nearly gag at the thought of it. This is not to say that I have no love for humanity. But it is to say that we are not the whole of the universe, and we are not the center of the universe, and we are not so clever as to be self-sufficient; we are not the highly prized in our own eyes “Other” to everything else in the universe. No, we are one expression of the universe. Human life can’t be defined or understood in the context of humanity; it really is that simple. Rather, we belong to something much bigger than humanity, and we are made of things much older than humanity, and we have effects much greater than those we have on humanity. And, though the urban humanists amongst us, and those who aspire to be human urbanites, might yawn and ask, “who cares?”, we will soon have to care.

Honestly, I think the other animals are worth caring about for their own sakes. I don’t think God loves us more than them. I don’t believe we are the most special thing that ever happened or ever could happen. I tingle to think that I was born 13.7 billion years ago, long before I had consciousness and that such parts of me as belong to the dance will go on and on. But, even if you’re not like me and you don’t crave nature and you don’t care about the elements coming into being and you like your food best in a cardboard takeout, you are still going to have to care because we all have to get beyond human culture; we have to embrace what is “beneath” and “within” humanity. Human culture is made out of things that are now threatened by human culture, like our own bodies and minds, like earth, wind, fire, water, ecosystems.

The earth doesn’t need us. We could be extinct in some imaginable, maybe now likely, future. But our extinction by way of nature would be a lot like nature’s past; species come and species go, planets come and planets go. But we are here now, and the elemental is necessary to us, necessary. Culture is only the icing on the cake of human life; the natural world is the cake, we are that world and, if we think otherwise, we die, even as nature goes on. It is us, but it doesn’t need us. That’s the New Archaic.

For me nature’s bounty and nature’s beauty is the most glorious thing about being human, nature within me, nature around me, nature beneath me, nature above me. That’s the human spirit of the New Archaic, and I am so grateful that it broke through the cement of culture in me, that green things have grown through the cracks in my heart. Oh necessary cracks that have awakened in me such a bountiful beautiful sense of living in a living world. I would like to see the whole of human culture transformed by our embrace of connection to everything. The universe is 13.7 billion years old and it is our grandma and our grandpa. Who knew?

And yet we might know this truth with sufficient depth to do something entirely new and creative, something so in the spirit of this one great being whom we express.

© 2013 Anne Benvenuti

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