How does the Course view animals?

Question: How does the Course view animals?

Answer: We get asked this question, in one form or another, a lot. And the answer we usually give is that animals are included under the class of "all living things," which means that they are parts of the Sonship. Like us, they are formless, timeless creations of God who have fallen asleep and are dreaming that they are living in bodies—in this case, animal bodies (which, after all, aren't so different than human bodies).

But this time around, a different way of answering this question occurred to me, which was by asking the question, What do the Course's actual references to animals say about them?

The protective love of animals for their offspring is symbolic of the protectiveness we feel toward our ego

In many of the Course's references to animals, they are portrayed as feeling human emotions. In this passage, the love that animals have for their offspring is said to be analogous to how we feel about our ego. This love explains why we are so protective of the ego. This same dynamic explains why God is so protective of us.

Think of the love of animals for their offspring, and the need they feel to protect them. This is because they regard them as part of themselves. No one dismisses something he considers part of himself. You react to your ego much as God does to His creations,—with love, protection and charity. (T-4.II.4:1-3)

Angry predators are symbols for things of the ego

The Course has a number of images of angry predators. Lesson 72 talks about how we view life as if we were Christians in the Coliseum, about to be devoured by lions. We see life as a "carefully prepared arena, where angry animals seek for prey and mercy cannot enter" (W-pI.72.7:1). What has always struck me is that the animals here are both predators (they "seek for prey") and are specifically labeled as "angry."

This is drawn out more graphically in Lesson 161, which says that when you project your fear onto a brother, you see him as

poised to attack, and howling to unite with [you] again. Mistake not the intensity of rage projected fear must spawn. It shrieks in wrath, and claws the air in frantic hope it can reach to its maker [you] and devour him. (W-pI.161.8:2-4)

You see your brother, in other words, as a ravenous carnivore, filled with an "intensity of rage," and frantically hoping to tear you limb from limb. What a great symbol for how we often see the people who are closest to us!

This idea of angry carnivores occurs yet again in the Course's two "dog" references. One is the reference to "the dogs of fear" in "The Obstacles to Peace." These are hunting dogs who have been driven insane by their incredibly cruel master (fear). As a result, they are vicious, merciless creatures who hunt totally indiscriminately. "They pounce on any living thing they see, and carry it screaming to their master, to be devoured" (T-19.IV(A).12:7).

These dogs are actually symbols for our patterns of attention. They represent the ways in which our eyes go out and hunt for evidence of sin in others, in order to bring it back to us, where it feeds our fear.

Finally, there is the reference to our mind experiencing itself as a hostage to the body's instincts and infirmities, "a sleeping prisoner to the snarling dogs of hate and evil, sickness and attack" (T-31.III.5:1).

These, of course, are all symbolic references. Jesus is using animals to symbolize something in us. How interesting, though, that when Jesus thinks of animals, one of the things he thinks of are angry, enraged, snarling predators.

Our forgiveness and contact with God will bring healing to animals

The Course many times speaks of the light in us, especially our forgiveness, bringing healing to animals. For some reason, it always mentions birds in this capacity:

Each bird that ever sang will sing again in you. (T-25.IV.5:3)

Forgiveness turns the world of sin into a world of glory…[in which] every bird sings of the joy of Heaven. (T-26.IV.2:1-2)

Forgiveness shines its merciful reprieve upon each blade of grass and feathered wing and all the living things upon the earth. (S-3.IV.2:3)

There is a lovely passage that puts this idea into concrete, and beautiful, form. According to Lesson 109, every time we "rest with God" for our hourly five minutes, we heal "a bird with broken wings" (6:1) who then begins to sing again. At the same time, we heal "a stream long dry" (6:1), which begins to flow again. Meanwhile, a "tired mind" (6:1) who is too weary of life to go on any longer is walking by and hears the bird and sees the stream. As a result of seeing their renewal, he experiences his "hope reborn and energy restored to walk with lightened footsteps along the road that suddenly seems easy" (7:3). In other words, our meditation renews the bird and stream, and observing their rebirth renews a weary person walking by. He is restored by the rebirth of nature that he sees happening around him. What a lovely image!

This passage is clearly both poetic and extreme. Yet behind the poetry, I think Jesus intends us to believe that this kind of thing really happens. This passage is one of his attempts to motivate us to practice by telling us that our practice is not selfish but actually helps others around the world. Imagine how motivating it would be if he said, "Well, your practice doesn't actually heal birds and streams and people. That is just a metaphor." Unless our practice really does heal living things out there, this attempt to motivate us becomes purposeless, just a bit of poetic nonsense.

If we realize the holiness in us, animals will pay us homage

There is a beautiful passage in Lesson 156 that does not mention animals, but is definitely relevant to our discussion. It speaks of how, "as you step back, the light in you steps forward" (6:2)—the holiness in you steps forward. At that point, all of nature recognizes its own sleeping holiness in you, and pays homage to you as if you were royalty, "saluting you as savior and as God" (5:4). Just as subjects bow before the king, so "the waves bow down before you" (4:4). Just as palm branches are held up to shade the king and a special carpet is rolled out before him, so "the trees extend their arms to shield you from the heat, and lay their leaves before you on the ground that you may walk in softness" (4:4). Just as people lay gifts before the king, "All things that live bring gifts to you, and offer them in gratitude and gladness at your feet" (4:2).

This, I believe, is a poetic expression of what actually happens when we awaken to our innate holiness. We are recognized not only by people, but by animals, too—indeed, by all living things. For beyond the bodies, all of them are Sons of God who yearn to remember their holiness, and in us that holiness has just appeared and has stirred that ancient memory in them.

Substituting animals for people is an implied derogation of people

You have to wonder: If animals are Sons of God, just as people are, then why is the Course's focus so overwhelmingly on people? Why are there thousands of references to other people and only these few references to animals? An obscure passage in the Urtext, the Course's original typescript, hints at an explanation.

The passage is from a lengthy discussion of the concept of possession. This section lists four different kinds of the possession fallacy, only the first two of which are relevant for us here.

In the first kind, we want to possess (or be possessed by) other people's bodies. In the second kind, we want to possess things. Of this second kind, Jesus says, "This is essentially a shift from 1), and is usually due to an underlying fear of associating possession with people. In this sense, it is an attempt to protect people." In other words, we are actually afraid of our desire to possess others, afraid of what it does to them. And so, in order to protect them from us, we transfer our possessiveness to something more harmless, to things. It's the same principle as beating the pillow instead of your mate. This same fear can lead those obsessed with possessing others physically to unconsciously make themselves impotent, "in an attempt to force discontinuance."

Later, Jesus mentions the horse racing addict. He says, "Here, the conflicted drive is displaced both from people and things, and is invested in animals." Then comes the following fascinating remark: "The implied derogation of people is the cause of the underlying extreme superstition of the horse racing addict." What I believe he means is that somewhere inside we recognize that shifting our possessiveness to animals, which means away from people, implies a devaluing of people. This devaluing brings tremendous unconscious guilt, and this guilt conjures a picture in our minds in which the mysterious forces of fate are arrayed against us, foiling all of our plans, in payment for our secret sin of depreciating people. The only hope we have now of controlling these mysterious forces is magic. Maybe if we wear the same pair of red shoes every Wednesday when we go to the race track, maybe then we can outsmart fate and win.

We can broaden this point beyond the horse racing addict to arrive at an important principle. When we turn away from people and focus our desires on animals, when animals become our substitute for people, something in us understands "the implied derogation of people." As a result, we feel guilty, and this guilt then surfaces in fears of nameless punishments about to strike at us from out of nowhere.

To me, this implies that even though animals are Sons of God, too, at this point our greatest chances for real relationship, in which we actually share a common goal, a goal that transcends separate interests, is with people. Therefore, that is where our main focus should be, even if, along with that, we cultivate the same unconditional love and caring towards those fellow Sons who currently appear in animal bodies.


Let me try to draw these various threads together. The Course's few references to animals are striking for their portrayal of animals as having what we think of as human emotions. They love and protect their offspring, just as we love and protect the ego we made. They can be angry, enraged, vicious, and predatory, just as something in us can be. In fact, they are not so different from us. Ultimately, they, like us, are Sons of God, perfect beings who merely dream that they are stuck in bodies of flesh and at the mercy of those bodies' needs and instincts.

Yet even though, like us, they are sleeping Sons of God, in this world we are not as asleep. More mind is able to shine through the shutters of the human brain than the animal brain. This isn't stated in the Course, but this one idea can pull together all the threads of our various categories. This is why, for instance, animals are such good symbols of egoic elements in us—either of our attachment to our own ego, or of our "animal" side which wants to angrily devour others.

Yet this is also why we have a responsibility towards animals. As the leading edge of the Sonship on this earth, we have the greatest hope of transcending our animal nature and waking up to our true divinity. We therefore bear a responsibility to wake up, not just for ourselves, but for the healing effects this can bring to our brothers in the animal kingdom as well. Our awakening can turn into miracles for them, too, not just for us and our fellow humans. And when we do tap into our divine nature, they will recognize us. They will see in us their own sleeping divinity, and lay gifts at our feet in gratitude for their own remembering. They will salute us as savior and as God.

Yet although we love and honor all living things, we do have to beware of any tendency to use animals as substitutes for people. We must take care to not avoid our fellow humans. Because more of mind is present in them, and because on this level we are more like them, it is with them, in the human realm, that our greatest lessons in relationship lie.

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