Jesus is the lamb of God. The Holy Spirit is likened to a dove. The faithful are flocks tended by a loving shepherd.
So why is it that when you walk into most churches today, human beings are the only living things inside?
Because Americans have become so caught up in their love of technology and human achievement that they have lost touch with the natural world, says Christopher Manes, author of “Other Creations: Rediscovering the Spirituality of Animals.”
In his new book from Doubleday, Manes asks readers to see animals in a new theological light, one in which lambs and doves - and cats and dogs - are a source for discovering spiritual values and essential religious truths.
“Animal imagery doesn’t decorate religion,” Manes said in an interview. “It’s central to understanding its message.”
From the first chapter of Genesis, when God creates “wild animals of the Earth of every kind” and saw that it was good, animal imagery is pervasive throughout the Bible.
Balaam’s ass, a talking animal precursor to “Mr. Ed,” proves wiser than his master in their encounter in Numbers.
The biblical hope of a peaceful world expressed in Isaiah 10 is one where all of God’s creatures live in harmony: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”
In early Christian history, the relationship between the animal and human world for centuries invigorated the religious imagination of popular culture, Manes writes.
Until the 14th century, pets regularly accompanied their owners to church services, according to Manes, a doctoral candidate in medieval literature at the University of Oregon.
The Renaissance and the Enlightenment started the theological move toward a more human-centered theology, a movement that continues in many churches today, where religion has become a monologue about humanity.
“Our theology has marginalized animals and tried to point away from them,” Manes said. “We need to emphasize how marvelous creation is, and point to it.”
There are notable exceptions. Some churches, particularly in services remembering the ministry of St. Francis, sponsor a Blessing of the Animals on their grounds and in their sanctuaries.