"Eternal Consequences," That's What! Part I
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from All-Creatures.org


Gracia Fay Ellwood, Editor The Peaceable Table
April 2017

hen and chick
Photo of hen and chick by Alena

In the June, 2011 Peaceable Table we featured an essay by Carol J. Adams entitled “Under Her Wings: The Pollomorphic God,” meaning the chicken-shaped God, or the God who is like a chicken (see Pollomorphic ). The author describes several passages in the Hebrew scripture that represent God as similar to a bird sitting over her eggs, keeping them warm until they hatch, feeding and caring for the baby chicks, sheltering them under her wings. Jesus takes up this theme, presenting himself [or speaking, as a prophet, for God] as a compassionate mother hen who wants to shelter her scattered babies, the people of Jerusalem, under her wings.

Human beings, described in the Hebrew Scriptures as created in the image of God, often see God as like ourselves, having a voice that speaks to us, an outstretched arm that rescues us from trouble, and the like. There are a number of such anthropomorphic images in the Bible, and they are helpful to many. But in other ways, Adams points out, we humans are not like God, are aliens; humans are not the measure of all things as we tend to assume. Nevertheless, we are enjoined to love and to welcome all our neighbors, including the human aliens in our midst, and, by implication, other beings who seem alien as well. Like God symbolized as a mother chicken, Adams concludes, we, who are and are not made in God’s image, are to take the animals under our wings.

Because most people eat the flesh of chickens and other animals, they do not like to think of themselves as animals too--though of course we humans all are. Chickens, along with fish, are probably the “food” animals who seem most alien to flesh-eating humans. A certain percentage of meat-eaters have begun to get the sense that there’s something bad about killing and eating a cow or baby calf (which, indeed, there is). A little troubled by the message of the Animal Concern but not wanting to make uncomfortable changes in their lifestyle, they will say they have cut down on meat, and now eat just chicken (or fish). Bird-brained (and scaly) animals don’t really matter, right?

But what if we have a pollomorphic God? Carol Adams illustrated her message with a wonderful Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip in which pint-sized Calvin, sitting at the dinner table and perhaps looking at a chicken’s leg or wing on his plate, ponders the implications of such a disturbing possibility.

Calvin and Hobbes
Calvin and Hobbes comic strip © 1992 by Bill Watterson. Permission to reproduce sought.

If God can be symbolized by a chicken, perhaps a flesh-and-blood chicken has a special link to God? If so, what might the eternal consequences of killing and eating her be?

A Great Judgment?

I want to tease out some of the rich implications I see in Carol Adams’ “pollomorphic God,“ as illustrated by the Bill Watterson strip. To begin with, we need to ask what “eternal” might mean. Most people assume that “eternal consequences” refers to something happening after death; thus Calvin is perhaps imagining that after we die we will be confronted by the Great Chicken, who will be in a towering rage and attack us for the way we have treated all her chicken-people on earth. Calvin’s parents clearly find the whole idea too silly and naive to take seriously, and it seems likely most readers of the strip agreed, finding it amusing for that very reason.

Why should we take Calvin’s consequences seriously? The idea of the Great Judgment after death of our deeds, derived from traditions in the three Abrahamic religions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (and appearing in other religions as well) is one that most educated people, both secular and religious ones, have dismissed as hopelessly unrealistic and outdated, for a number of reasons.

Some of them are sound. For a long time religious authorities, especially in Christian religious establishments, have painted horrifying images of the Judgment resulting in hell as blackmail to tighten their control over the faithful. (I think of the odious clergyman Mr. Brocklehurst in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, who sadistically tries to terrify the ten-year-old Jane with such images.) But even when the intent was not primarily control but to motivate people to have faith and/or live good lives in order to attain to paradise (surprisingly, even strands of Buddhism takes this line), the concept is rather suspect. For one thing, the heaven/hell either/ or doesn’t fit the facts of human motivations; humans are not divided between fiends and saints. Most people have varying degrees of both good and evil in them. And the idea of a great divide between saints and sinners too often goes along with a self-congratulating attitude that God is with Us, and against You.

Secular thinkers have also condemned the reward-and-retribution idea, primarily the reward.

Karl Marx
Karl Marx

As Karl Marx made memorably clear, the concept is used by people with economic power to help them exploit vulnerable workers: they can pay abysmally low wages, meanwhile supporting religion’s God as a kindly parent-substitute that offers the sufferers solace in heaven. Thus, in his famous “opium of the people” passage, he described religion (borrowing from Ludwig Feuerbach), as “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions.” He is saying that in a class-divided society, people are alienated from their own hearts, projecting heart-values outward onto God and heaven, rather than rightly claiming their own hearts--finding fulfillment, and working toward a fair and compassionate society, here and now. Marx was of course thinking of laborers exploited by capitalists--farmed animals confined in their heartless and soulless world were, unsurprisingly, left out of the picture altogether.

There is truth to Marx’s accusation--many religious people have in fact abandoned any concern for the well-being of the world: the have-nots because they are trapped in misery and see no choice, the haves because it is easier and seems more rewarding to keep taking what they can get, as their colleagues are doing, than to awaken their hearts to injustice, change their ways, and work to remedy it on earth. But, as so often, generalizations such as this show too simple a picture. Religion has many dimensions; Marx’s prophetic thunder itself reverberates from the outraged cries of the great prophets of justice among his distant Hebrew forebears.

See "Eternal Consequences," That's What! Part II.

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