Monthly Archives: November 2015

Gratitude and humility

In this video, experimental social psychologist Dr. Sheldon Solomon presents some essential concepts in our understanding of gratitude and humility.

Note: The audio improves after the introduction (1 min.).


Let us make

A rabbi lamented that some people use the Hebrew scriptures to justify human domination of animals and the earth. She was referring to Genesis 1:26, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Genesis 1:26, KJV.

I took another look at this scripture. It did seem to be describing a relationship of domination between humans and animals. However, after a closer reading, a very interesting and puzzling thing appeared to me. This is the first time the Bible uses the plural pronouns ‘us’ and ‘our.’ It occurs in Genesis 1:26, “Let us make man in our image…” (italics mine). Who is this ‘us’ and ‘our,’ to which the Bible refers? Although I cannot say for sure, I do have a strong hunch.

Up to this point in the creation story, God has created Heaven, earth, day and night, separated the water from the dry land, created all the animals, everything except Adam and Eve. And up to this point, in creating all of these things, God acts alone. Then the Bible reports that God says, “Let us make man in our image…” This is very interesting. One interpretation, from the Catholic interpretive tradition, is that these plural-pronoun referents, ‘us’ and ‘our,’ refer to the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Another interpretation, from the Jewish commentaries, understands these pronoun referents as referring to the Heavenly Host. I would like to propose a third way that one might properly interpret their meaning.

The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber describes two types of relationships, “I-Thou” and “I-It” relationships, a concept inspired by the work of Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Buber claims that we properly recognize others as a “Thou” and not as an “It” in relating to the world, to other people, and to God. In this passage of Genesis, when God uses the words “let us make man in our image,” it’s as if God is addressing the animals and creation personally. The Bible seems to show God engaging all of creation as subjects in what Buber would describe as an “I-Thou” relationship.

In this passage, God addresses the animals and all created things directly. It is as though God takes a brief pause in this amazing creative act, a moment to reflect upon creation. It’s like a moment of gathering and growing excitement in this dramatic creation story. This is a moment of preparation for the singular event that follows. From this new perspective, I believe we can now propose another explanation for the words, “Let us make man in our image.”

The “us” and “our” refers to all of creation, that is, all things God has created, but also God the creator. At this moment, the Bible suggests, God intends to create man in the image of the creator and also in the image of creation. This is a plausible explanation because it squares with the widely understood nature of humans as being composed of both spirit and flesh, or “Heaven and earth.” Humans are created in the image of the creator – we have the power to create – but we are also created in the image of creation, we have the same characteristics as all created things. These characteristics are named in detail in the Genesis story. All creatures, including humans according to this view, are composed of:

  • things that yield seed
  • things that yield offspring like their own kind
  • creatures that move
  • creatures that multiply.

Therefore, a third way of interpreting Genesis 1:26, might be as one might view the process of any creative act. The artist or creator reflects upon her progress in the act of creating. That is, the creator ponders their creation, reflects and considers how the creation is progressing, and uses their reflexive feedback to inspire, influence and inform the subsequent creation. In this way, all parts of creation, light, dark, earth, moon, stars, land, water, plants, animals and humans are each unique in their own right, but all spring from the same basic physical material of creation.

God’s creation is a unity, inseparable and indivisible. All created things partake of the unity of the whole; the earth, plants, animals, human beings and all things are integral parts of the total work of the creator’s hand. From that we can say that God’s intent is that all are one, and all are intended by their creator to live together on the earth as a unity and holy community. So, what is different, unique about human beings is creativity, the power to create. This gives human beings a special power to envision and imagine the future and build the future they imagine.

This is what we refer to as the creative spirit, a special gift that gives humans great power, but also great responsibility. This responsibility demands that humans periodically pause to ponder their creation, reflect individually and collectively upon our creation, and upon our creative process. We must pause together as a global community and look at what we have created. When we do this, we should address our creation directly and ask these two questions: “What have we created?” “What shall we create?” Are we creating the world we want for ourselves, for our children and grandchildren, for the animals and the planet? One might even say, our unique responsibility and calling is to, “…let us make the world….” We humans, endowed by the creator to be the most creative force on this earth, get to decide to a large degree what this world will be. This may be the greatest insight from this passage in Genesis, that every moment of a human being’s life is a genesis, a new beginning, a decision point where one shall to reflect on the past and present, and decide the future we want. The Bible seems to show God modeling the artist’s way, in creating something good one must decide, must choose the future.

Failing to choose, to deliberately avoid reflecting on our individual and collective action is also a choice. In fact, the very definition of evil, according to Buber, is the inability to choose. He saw that letting human matters take a random course, be dominated by past decisions made in ignorance, chance or through fear, is evil. Not choosing is a choice. Human matters should be coached, guided and led through reason and in love and organized towards the greatest good for all. The greatest good is the common interest, a good in harmony with all earthly creatures, created through reason and especially through sympathy, empathy and care. Therefore, the third way of understanding the tiny phrase “let us make” in the Bible is, “let us together create something really good.”

Now, to add some contrast to this new picture we’re creating of Genesis, let us briefly address the second part of this scripture, “…let them have dominion over….” The English word ‘dominion,’ which is the word used in the King James Bible, springs from the Old English root word ‘dem’ meaning ‘house’ or ‘household.’ The English word ‘dominate,’ which is not the word used in this translation, springs from the Old English root word ‘dam’ meaning ‘tame’ or ‘overcome.’ Would this not lead one to wonder where a reader might get the idea from this scripture that humans should dominate animals and creation? One might rather expect the, thoughtful informed reader to understand that animals, human beings and all of creation dwell together in God’s dominion, should be properly addressed as “Thou,” are original inhabitants of this earthly home, and eternal members of the house of God.

Moreover, the I-Thou relationship continues to exist today between God, humans, animals, and creation. We should understand, therefore, that it is our responsibility to be good keepers of God’s house, and use our power, which God has endowed to us, to create a “dominion over,” that is, a just and wholesome household and spiritual roof over all humans, animals and members of God’s creation.

Whatever one’s particular understanding of the words ‘us’ and ‘our’ in Genesis 1:26, and whether the word ‘dominion’ most closely translates to one as ‘dominate’ or ‘domicile,’ this scripture certainly offers a thoughtful person some deep and important questions to reflect upon in our time.

Pet Chaplain Rob Gierka, Raleigh, April 20, 2008

Dead Bird

Barely ten minutes into our conversation, a young man I met at the pet store began to tell me his story. He said that when his father was at home in the final stage of life and in and out of consciousness, his father said the letters “DB.” The young man’s wife, who was nearest the old man’s side, leaned over her father-in-law and asked, “Daddy, what does ‘DB’ mean?” The father replied, “Dead Bird,” and nothing more. He died soon thereafter.

The phrase meant nothing to the young man or his wife or anyone in their family. The family chalked it up to an instance of delirium in their father’s journey towards death. They put it out of their minds and soon forgot the conversation.

Two weeks after his father’s death, the man’s dog also died unexpectedly. The man had loved the dog dearly, which had been a gift from his father. These combined losses were devastating. A year passed and then two. One afternoon the man was browsing the Web when he happened on to an AKC (American Kennel Club) web site. He had no intention of finding another dog; he was still grieving deeply from his losses. But he saw a link to “Curly Haired Retrievers,” which sparked his curiosity, so he followed the link until he stumbled onto a breeder’s web site. He sent an inquiry to the owner to see what he could learn about the breed.

One thing led to another and the man and the breeder struck up an extended email conversation. One day the breeder told him about a new litter of pups and offered to show them to him. Since the young man had already decided that he would not have another dog unless it was male like the one he’d had — and many other buyers had already made arrangements with this breeder before him –he knew his chances of going home with a dog were slim-to-none because this litter had only one male. He decided to visit the puppies anyway.

When he met the puppies, the lone male puppy captured his heart, but he knew the breeder’s policy and the odds were against him. But the breeder had come to feel a special fondness for the man and his story and, feeling that he would make a good home for the pup, made an exception. That day, the man took home a new puppy, a curly-haired retriever.

Several weeks passed and the young man realized that he needed to train his clever new dog. After some Internet research and conversations with the breeder, he took his puppy to a training session specifically for curly haired retrievers. He had never seen this type of training and he knew little about what to expect, but he trusted the school and committed to the classes.

On the first day, the trainer took one of the advanced dogs and set out into a field to demonstrate some of the behaviors that the man might expect his dog to learn, a kind of preview of lessons to come. The trainer led her dog into the field. Another trainer placed a bird decoy nearby. Next, the trainer heeled her dog, directed him toward the decoy, shouted “Dead Bird,” and the dog shot forward.

At that moment, the man froze, his mind racing. He suddenly recalled his father’s words. “Dead Bird” was the retrieve command. This was the second time he had ever heard that phrase. It was like a premonition, and a good omen. He thought that his father must have wanted him to have this dog, this particular dog. He knelt down and scooped his pup in his arms. With tears welling in his eyes, the man had made a new connection with his father. Through this new relationship, he would find both new friendship and a loving reminder of his father.

– Pet Chaplain Rob

And God blessed them

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Genesis 1: 28, KJV

I have heard complaints from some of my friends, most of whom are animal lovers, vegetarians and environmentalists, who are confused and sometimes angered by this passage. They are confused because they believe the Bible is saying that humans should dominate the fish, birds, animals and all life on the earth. Even some church leaders teach a domination perspective. Of course, this is sometimes paired up with a sermon about a final battle between forces of good and evil and the Rapture, where all deserving humans are taken up into Heaven before the final destruction of the earth.

This interpretation could not be further from the meaning of this Bible passage in my view. I do not believe this passage is an endorsement of domination. In fact, the English word ‘domination’ is nowhere contained within the verse, at least in the King James translation. The human domination interpretation is far from the true meaning and spirit of this Bible passage. Let me briefly outline another interpretation and explain to you why I, a commissioned Pet Chaplain to people who love animals, do not have a problem whatsoever with Genesis 1:28. In fact, I believe that for animal-lovers, environmentalists, and others concerned about the animals and the earth, animal habitat destruction, pollution and global climate change, this may be the most vital passage to study and live by.

The confusion, in my opinion, hinges around two English words appearing in the King James Version, those words are ‘dominion’ and ‘subdue’. First I will address the original meanings of these English words, then I will discuss what I believe to be the true meaning of the Bible passage in light of their original meaning.

The word ‘dominion’ comes from English root ‘dem’ meaning ‘house’ or ‘household.’ From this root you also get English words such as ‘domicile,’ ‘dominate,’ and ‘domestic.’ The word ‘subdue’ comes from the English root ‘deuk’ meaning to lead. From this same root you also get English words such as ‘conduct,’ ‘educe’ and ‘educate.’ Now compare the King James version with two newer translations, The Living Bible and the New International Version.

The Living Bible (TLB): “And God blessed them and told them, “Multiply and fill the earth and subdue it; you are masters of the fish and birds and all the animals.” In TLB, the phrase “have dominion” is translated as, “you are masters.” The word ‘master’ comes from the English root ‘me’ meaning ‘great.’ From this same root you also get English words such as the prefix ‘mega,’ as in megaphone, ‘megavolt’ and ‘megalomania.’

New International Version (NIV): “God blessed them and said to them, Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” In the NIV, the phrase “have dominion” as in the KJV is translated as, “rule.” The English root for the word ‘rule’ is ‘reg,’ meaning ‘stretch out’ or ‘reach for.’ From this same root you also get English words such as ‘regiment’ and ‘regime.’

Putting these meanings side-by-side, we have the following:

  • KJV: dominion/house
  • TLB : master/great
  • NIV: rule/stretch out

The meanings of the English words in these versions of the Bible are very different. If we use the word ‘home’ as the meaning of ‘have dominion’, you get a very different meaning for this scripture than you do if you use either the words ‘great’ or ‘stretch out.’ The ideas of becoming great or stretching out are domination ideas, which are very different than the idea of house or home. I believe the author of Genesis was describing the earth as a house. It’s our house, the good earth created by God for us and all God’s creatures.

A television story once aired on PBS about a man who trained horses. They called him the Horse Whisperer. He lived on a ranch with his wife and 17 children (several were adopted or fostered). He trained horses for a living and became famous as someone who was so gentle in his training technique that it was said that he whispered to the animals and they responded. The particular television special I viewed showed him working with a wild Mustang from the Nevada desert. Many said that Mustangs are too wild to train. In fact, many trainers have died trying. The Horse Whisperer proved he could train any horse, including wild Mustangs using a different form of training, a form that respected the animal’s need for relationship.

From a young age, Monty Roberts, the Horse Whisperer, began to wonder about a different way of seeing our relationships with animals. At 13, he witnessed his father whipping a horse with a chain. The horse was reluctant be ridden. The man nearly killed the horse in the process. When Monty objected to his father’s treatment of the horse, his father turned his anger towards the boy. Because of this experience, Monty became convinced that another way of training horses, a gentle way, was needed. From that day, he resolved to watch horses in the wild and examine their behavior. He sought to understand how they interacted with each other and learn their language.

He found that horses are social animals by nature. He learned that a horse wants more than anything to belong, to have strong leadership, and to feel a part of a protective family group. He learned this by watching how the lead mare would eject a young colt if he was excessively harassing others in the herd. She would nip at the young horse and force him out. What Monty realized was that when a horse was cut free from his herd, especially a young male, the horse would feel anxiety from being exposed to danger. He was fearful of being challenged and possibly killed by lone stallions, especially the one guarding his herd. The lead mare would know when it was time to allow the male to return when he began exhibiting certain behaviors that the Horse Whisperer observed. These were a certain way of moving the jaw in a grinding motion and nodding of the head. These were messages to the mare that the unruly pony was ready to accept her leadership. His behavior indicated to her that he would not harass the other horsed if he were allowed back.

Likewise, the Horse Whisperer learned to train his horses to accept his leadership, to subtly isolate the horse and raise its anxiety until it eventually let him approach, saddle, and finally mount and ride him. The PBS special demonstrated Monty’s method by actually filming him following a wild Mustang for days. He isolated the horse away from its herd and then followed it on horseback for more than one hundred miles into the Nevada desert. Eventually the horse began to exhibit the chewing and nodding behaviors. When Monty saw this, he slowly acclimated him progressively to the rope, the bridle, a saddle, and eventually a rider. All this occurred in the span of a few days without violence to the animal.

This leadership, this non-domination approach to leading, is what is meant in our passage in Genesis by the word ‘subdue’. The word simply means educating, or leading. I do not believe there is any connotation of domination or violence intended in this scripture. The word domesticate has the same root as dominion ‘dem,’ meaning home. To domesticate an animal means, therefore, to bring it into your home and teach it to live in harmony with you and your family, just as you might teach your children, at least when you are being the kind of parent the Bible intends, gentle and loving. The Bible has many examples of this important point. Noah brought animals into the Ark two-by-two, pairs of animals in relationship with one another brought together into the family of animals and humans.

– Pet Chaplain Rob