Not too long ago, I was pondering something that had been on my mind for some time. As a past conservative creationist Christian, it had been somewhat difficult for me to reconcile my spirituality with evolution. Not because paganism conflicts with evolution in any way. In fact, I’ve found that most pagans love science and are quick to point out just how well it can coexist with new scientific knowledge. So if there was no contradictory theology, what was the problem? It was something that built up slowly, with every biology teacher who taught about humans’ place in evolution as if we came along just like any other animal, and might just as easily fade away to be replaced by others. I thought I needed to find a way to look at evolution that would make life seem… meaningful. Not like some completely arbitrary event, where the Divine stood back one day, shocked, and exclaimed, “Oh look! I, the Universe, have accidentally made some humans!” But as I thought more about the problem, the real issue hit me for the first time.
I didn’t want to be just an animal. Which is a terrible thing to be if an animal is a simple life form that lives and passes away while we, the superior humans, linger on in the Universal Goo or the Summerlands or wherever it is you think we end up. I wasn’t seeing the world around me from a pagan perspective at all. As much as I tried to distance myself from my faith of origin, I was still seeing life through the lens of a Christian worldview.
As I thought about it further, I realized that being “just an animal” is a complete non-issue for a pagan. Because the Divine is immanent, that spark, that spirit, is just as present in the plants and animals around us as it is in us. Over the next couple of days, I probed my beliefs about animals and, in fact, everything around me. Did animals have souls, I wondered. What is a soul? Did plants? And I came to the conclusion that, for me, believing that all life around me has some sort of animus, or spirit, helps me to reconcile my spirituality with the reality of the world and its history.
We pagans focus a lot on the spiritual side of ourselves and understand that what we see and that which is most obvious is not all that there is. Though we may disagree about the details, many of us at least agree that there’s more to being human than the bodies we move in and the minds we think with. That spirit within us communes with the spirits within the trees as we listen to them whisper words on the wind, and with the spirits within the animals as we watch them cautiously forage for food and dart away at the slightest sound.
I began to look at my pets in a different way. If the spirit, or soul, is that truest part of us, then the fact that they couldn’t understand my words didn’t make them less than me. On another level, perhaps their spirits could acknowledge and understand mine. I had been holding on to the Christian theological idea that man was made in the image of God, while other animals were lesser and under our care. That our possession of a self-aware intellect, that thing that scientists say sets us apart from other animals, did, in fact, make us superior to those animals. To be able to think about the world around us is an awesome thing, but I don’t think it makes us superior, and I don’t think that ability is the highest or most important part of us.
Maybe, as humans, we are just animals. But I’ve finally realized that it’s okay that our abilities and characteristics were inherited over time through the slow process of evolution, like those of all the other species. Maybe it’s even okay if, in the millenia to come, Homo Sapiens pass away entirely, to be replaced by some other species more fit than we. Being “just an animal” is no big deal, really. The spark within us is made of the same stuff, after all, no matter the outer guise we wear.
“Humankind has not woven the web of life.