Anthropomorphism and Christian Humanism

Medieval bestiaries are packed with quaintly inaccurate information about animals, birds, and other created things. Foxes and snakes are devilish critters; stags, pelicans and elephants are Christlike in their various ways.

Of course, the medievals picked this up from the Bible, where bestiary observations are fairly common. “Go to the ant, you sluggard” is the most famous. Solomon exhorts his son to observe the behavior of ants, and to take their behavior as a model for his own.

Leviticus and Deuteronomy both distinguish clean and unclean land animals, water animals, flying things, and swarming things. In some respects, the distinction has to do with the animal’s given physical features. To be clean, a land animal has to have split hooves – not paws, not a single hoof. Animals with single hoofs are useful in various ways, and animals with paws may have their function, but you cannot eat them, cannot incorporate the animal into your being. That suggests that there is something in the forbidden animals that should not become part of your system.

Split hooves for land animals are not enough. They also have to chew the cud. It is not clear why this would be the case, but it has been traditional to see this as an image of meditation. (According to Bede, Caedmon “learned all that he could of sacred history and then, memorising it and ruminating over it, like some clean animal chewing the cud.”). Ancient Israelites were supposed to notice the habits of certain animals, and imitate them. They were to incorporate these forms of life into their personal bodies, and into the body politic.

Donkeys, horses, and mules serve as examples, both positive and negative. Oxen and donkeys know their owners and know where to find the master’s crib, but Israel is worse: They don’t know who feeds them and they don’t know where to find food (Isaiah 1). “Do not be like the horse or mule, which have no understanding, whose trappings include bit and bridle to holy them in check” (Psalm 32:9). Don’t act like a mule, or you’ll have to be restrained like a mule.

The ferocity of wild animals is illustrative of ferocity in war. Hushai, an agent for David, gives Absalom bad advice, telling him not to attack David because he is fierce, “like a bear robbed of her cubs in the field” (2 Samuel 17:8). Jacob says that Judah will be a “lion’s whelp” that “couches, he lies down as a lion, and as a lion, who dares rouse him up?” (Genesis 49:9). Balaam involuntarily blesses Israel as a “lioness” people: “as a lion it lifts itself up. It will not lie down until it devours the prey, and drinks the blood of the slain” (Numbers 23:24).

Jesus is as much a naturalist as Solomon or Jacob. He observes the birds of the air and draws lessons about His Father’s care for His children. He looks at the grass and flowers, and learns that the Father glorifies things that are destined for burning. Wisdom comes from observing the created order as an order designed by a kind Father, and Jesus wants us to grow in wisdom by following His lead. He does not simply observe, but commands us to observe birds and flowers. He is a theological naturalist, and He wants us to become theological naturalists with Him.

As James Jordan has stressed, this sort of anthropomorphic reading of the natural world is deeply rooted in the biblical worldview, the creational worldview. God created all things. He is the original of which all things are copies. Everything manifests some aspect of God’s glory. And so all things are unified at least in this – that they are radiances of the glory of the Creator.

Human beings are made in the image of this God who created all things, who is the original of which all things are copies. Human beings are the copy of copies, the images in which all the images of God are collected. If everything in creation speaks of God, it also speaks of God’s image. Everything manifests some of the glory of man.

This is evident in specific ways in the creation week. We will look at this in more detail over the next couple days, but a couple of quick examples. God creates light on the first day of the creation week. Jesus is the Light of the world, the light that lightens every man, and Jesus tells His disciples that we are the light of the world. Because Jesus is light, and Jesus is in and with us, we too are light. As Paul says, “everything that is in the light is light.” We could spend a few months working through that, but it means at least this: Everything that receives light becomes a source of light; if it did not become a light source, it would not be visible at all, since visibility is radiance of light. So, reflection on light (!) leads us to understand something of human existence, and our new life in Christ.

When God places heavenly bodies in the firmament on Day 4, he sets them up to keep time (to mark times and seasons), to rule the day and the night, to signify. Sun, moon, and stars do all these things, especially in the old covenant, when calendars and schedules were more beholden to light and dark and the movement of planets. But these are also human activities: Human beings rule, and rule is sometimes compared to the operation of light (2 Samuel 23). Human beings signify. Human beings keep time and control time and mark seasons. We can look at the sun and learn lessons about what it means to rule.

Analogies between human beings and animals are built into creation. Human beings and land animals are made on the same sixth day. We come from the same ground. And both, according to the language of Genesis 1-2, have souls (nephesh). We are needy, animate, desiring, longing beings. We are being with breath, that only live by taking in breath. This is the created ground for the various animal comparisons mentioned earlier.

Now, all this might be interesting; it might illuminate certain portions of Scripture. But we can’t help but think it’s a bit quaint, old-fashioned, childish. And it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the really big issues that we face in the twenty-first century. I disagree vehemently. The loss of anthropomorphic imagination is one of the great evils of the modern age, and restoring it is essential to restoring sanity.

It is not surprising that we have that feeling. An attack on the anthropomorphic understanding of the world is one of the central themes of modern science. Specifically, early modern science rejected the Aristotelian notion that animals and inanimate things had purposes, a telos and end. That was a projection of human purpose and intention into creation and onto dumb animals. The world is much more like a machine than like a human being; it doesn’t have plans and purposes but only mechanisms and processes, matter in motion.

Since things don’t have any natural end or telos, and we do, we can take over the creation for our own purposes, imposing our own will and ends on the world around us. We can manipulate and control and shape it to our purposes. Thus the loss of anthropomorphism leads to a dominating anthropocentrism, and hubris. We have a purely instrumental relationship with nature; it is not there for our delight or instruction, certainly not as a manifestation of God’s glory. It is there as a means to satisfy human desires.

Anthropocentrism ultimately inverts. After all, human beings are natural beings too. Our bodies function by the same processes as animal bodies, and so we are ourselves machines. What we think of as human traits – reason, will, emotion, delight in beauty – are all reducible to bodily functions, and survival mechanisms. If that’s true, then the attack on anthropomorphism turns against the anthropos who is in the morphe of God. If I can no longer attribute human traits to the squirrel outside my window, it ultimately becomes illegitimate to attribute human traits to myself. I am no more than inert matter in motion.

This is the movement of dehumanization: Loss of anthropomorphism leads to a dominating anthropocentrism and an instrumental relationship with nature; anthropocentrism turns on man; and so the loss of anthropomorphism ultimately becomes anti-humanism.

If we want to strike at the root of scientism and anti-humanism, we need to recover the biblical vision of human beings as theomorphic, and of the creation as anthropomorphic.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.