The Power to Name

While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

The Power to Name


Genesis 2:18-20

John 10:11-16

It’s amazing how people try to put our human race above other animals; try to prove how unique we are.

Over my life I have heard all of these arguments:

  • we have language, animals don’t (except maybe whales, dolphins, etc.);
  • we have opposable thumbs (so do other primates);
  • we make tools (so can most primates, dolphins, elephants, corvids, squids & octopi, even some insects);
  • we can manipulate numbers (crows can do basic addition and subtraction at least).

The latest I have heard: we have reason, animals have only instinct. This might be true, if you are thinking about the kind of reason you learn in a philosophy class.

BUT I remember watching Siggy when she was a puppy, discovering the joys of cause and effect; not just the “if you chew on this pillow you get in trouble” kind, but the understanding that if you stick your nose in the grass when it smells like frog, the grass explodes and a frog flies out in some random direction and if you stick your nose in the new place the grass explodes again!

Instinct may be where it starts, but it’s not all. She shows no interest in eating the frog but she finds it highly entertaining and she is using a basic kind of logic to make these connections.

The people who keep trying to elevate humanity to a lofty place above other animals are just wrong-headed theologically, like they have only read the first creation story in Genesis 1, where God creates the universe and saves humans for the end, as a kind of crowning glory. That’s not the only lesson of Genesis 1, not even the main lesson but it’s the one that people love.

But there’s another creation story, in Genesis 2. The order of creation is reversed; humans (Adam) created before the other animals and given the job of naming them.

It’s important to note: this change of order is not a theological problem: the Bible was never intended as a Science text. Each version of the creation story has a different theological truth to reveal, a different aspect of the relationship between God, humans, and the rest of creation.

This one shows God involving humans in the life of other animals,

by naming them.

Think of the power involved in naming! Say someone moves like a tiger: a compliment (scary, maybe, but a compliment). Say someone moves like a sloth: well, no chance that’s a compliment!

The way we name things influences their lives hugely. A campaign to save an endangered species of butterfly is much more likely to be successful than a campaign to save an endangered species of dung beetle.

By taking on that power to name, we have entered into a relationship with other animals around us. In the Genesis 2 story, God is explicitly trying them out as companions for Adam. They are not the same as we are but they are worthy to be considered our companions and as anyone who has pets knows, they can be amazing companions.

The relationship between people and animals in the Bible does not support arrogant human superiority. The lesson from John’s gospel is founded on the understanding that the good shepherd will be willing to die for a flock of sheep.

It makes a great metaphor BUT it was literally true. David the shepherd boy faced down lions and bears with only a sling. If he’d failed, he might well have died. It was a very realistic risk which is why the spiritual metaphor works so well. People really did die for their animals in Jesus’ day and had done for generations.

People sometimes remark that we, in the Western World have become spiritually empty, barren and in one sense it is often true. We have made it acceptable for people to be utterly selfish, putting themselves above other people and inventing economic or cultural theories to explain why it’s okay. Also putting people so far above the other creatures around us that we get to destroy their habitat, hunt and fish them to extinction and even experiment on them in sadistic ways.

God did not create the universe for Human beings to live alone and did not give us skills to manipulate the world around us so that we could use those skills to destroy.

God put us in the world to be with the other creatures around us in a relationship with the life around us that works in many directions at once.

As our Genesis lesson puts it, they are worth considering as our companions but we have the power to name them, which is a good metaphor for all the powers we have over them.

And with that power comes the responsibility to treat them well, to see them as good – just as God has declared them all to be good – to love them and protect them following that example of the Good Shepherd.

We need the animals in our lives; they are ongoing reminders of God’s love, of our connection as humans to the rest of the life in God’s universe.

With their own lives they show us joy, loyalty and faithfulness; they give us their trust and love; they can stretch us in ways that people haven’t managed, helping us to grow.

Whatever their particular genius in our lives, the animals around us are a blessing from God.

Let us consider how we can be a blessing to them and all their wild cousins as we thank God for them and seek God’s blessing on their lives.


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