Fourth Sunday in Lent
1The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2God makes me lie down in green pastures; God leads me beside still waters;
3God restores my soul.
By Ric Hudgens
I live in a household with a seven-year old who has no trouble connecting with her animal identity. I often awaken in the morning to hear her downstairs growling, barking, howling, or singing. She may be imitating a dog, a monkey, a bear, a lion, or a bird. Like all young children she will eventually learn to separate her human identity from her animal identity. Mornings will grow quiet and my world will in one sense be a sadder place.
That I once behaved this way myself is beyond a distant memory. I was taught to divide the living into two categories: animal and human. That distinction is so basic to human civilization it is rarely questioned. Only those considered “primitive” confuse it. When we moderns do question it we focus almost entirely upon the serious negative consequences of human behavior upon animals through species extinction, factory farms, animal cruelty, and such.
But what are the negative consequences for humans of distancing ourselves so far from our animal nature? Have we perhaps placed ourselves too far up the great chain of being, only a little lower than the angels, and then broken the chain right beneath us?
In Psalm 23, the well-known, well-memorized, and perhaps overly familiar Psalm 23, the singer begins by inhabiting the psyche of a sheep: “The Lord is my shepherd”. The sheep our Psalmist empathizes with is a domesticated animal. God is the human surrogate “the shepherd” watching over, protecting, leading, guiding. The sheep is dependent upon the shepherd’s oversight and upon the resources that the shepherd leads them to: “green pastures” and “still waters”. The point of the first stanza is that when I submit to this dependent relationship God “restores my soul”. My “wants” shall be satisfied.
I am intrigued by how human anxiety is calmed by returning to or remembering the animal in relation to the divine. It is as if the Psalmist intuits that the alienation of human and animal (the adjective from the noun) can go too far. When it does go too far we human-animals forget we are animals. We are unable to find contentment as non-animal humans.
Several years ago I started introducing the word “wild” into my talks on Christian spirituality. I had done some good experiential work in wilderness psychology with people like Bill Plotkin and others and I was discovering a new level of understanding about my own human-animal nature. I would talk about wild and wilderness and rewilding spirituality and I would see the bodies of my audience tighten and squirm. Their pupils dilated and everyone became very alert. No one was bored!
What was the cause of this reaction (and it was a reaction not a response)? Well, our educated bias has taught us to be wary of such terms. To be human, fully human, is to become more and more distant from the animal. The more distant we are the more human become. That’s what they told us.
But what if this is a lie? A civilized lie? An “alternative fact”?
They tell us animals are wild, chaotic, and uncontrollable. To be human, to be civilized is to be domesticated, well-ordered, and cooperative.
It is of course a ridiculous stereotype of how animals exist in the wild and how wilderness is not disordered but only differently ordered; in fact differently ordered to a degree of sophistication that continues to fascinate and often baffle the most diligent observer.
When my adult daughter and I are discussing some perplexing relational difficulty in our very adult lives she will often comment about “being human in the world.” I sometimes wonder if our problem is being “too” human in the world. I wonder if we not only need to occasionally inhabit the psyche of a sheep in order to remember divine provision as in Psalm 23, but if we as humans need to reinhabit an entire animal way of being on this earth. It would be a way of harmony with the natural world, a differently ordered way, in which all of our wants would be met, and the divine-human connection would be central, and our human-animal souls would be restored.
I wonder sometimes about when Jesus went into the desert for forty days (commemorated during this season of Lent) and he was with the wild beasts (Mark 1:13) and he was in no danger – was it perhaps because he was one of them?
Ric Hudgens is a pastor, professor, and poet living in the Great Lakes watershed near Lake Michi Gami also known as Lake Michigan, the ancestral land of the Pottawatomi, and a region with four brilliant, intense, and distinct seasons for which he offers daily thanksgiving and praise. Ric participates in the Wild Church Network.