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Are We Kin? : Some Thoughts About Anthropomorphizing


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Mariellen Gilpin, Urbana-Champaign Friends Meeting

A dear friend traveled a thousand miles to join siblings and assorted grandchildren, who had never seen their little cousins before, to attend a family funeral. The grandkids immediately began to play together, and did so happily the entire weekend. She recalled lots of awkward play dates she had helped arrange, where the kids spent most of their time together just getting comfortable enough with each other to begin playing. My friend watched the little cousins getting along so famously so quickly and marveled, “They knew they were kin!” I remembered how important it was to me, in my mid-thirties, to meet for the first time my cousins on my father’s side of the family. I was so excited to discover that certain aspects of my personality were family traits—I was not alone in the universe. There were others like me—I had kin.

I reflected on these memories recently when a Friend urged me not to anthropomorphize God. I remembered also growing up on a small family farm, where the cows were very much members of the family. We were on a first-name basis with our cows. We loved them and they loved us. But they were not pets. We were more like distant cousins. Except, of course, we ate the cows. I once helped hunt for a little lost calf on a night so dark that I never so much as saw the silhouette of a cow against the night sky. All I had was the sound of an occasional snort, or the jingle of their ID chains around their necks. Yet I recognized each cow by her personality—her characteristic way of being—as I walked silently near her.

When a cow loved someone, she lowered her head and gently nudged the other one with her forehead. When a thousand pounds of market-ready beef nudged me, you might think I’d automatically land in a pile of manure, but I never did: our mutual affection was such that I always knew the cow would be extra-gentle with me. No doubt she in her turn knew I felt no need to resist or pull away. We understood each other. At some level beyond words, we knew we were kin.
Anyone who has pets knows animals each have their own unique personality, and are capable of loving others. When a young animal first comes into a human family, he looks around and makes a place for himself in the family. All the animal has to go from is what he knows about being a critter, and he relates to the humans as fellow critters. Some would say the human pet lover anthropomorphizes the pet. When I dressed my kitty in doll clothes and trundled her around in the doll carriage—when I felt guilted by my dog—I certainly anthropomorphized. But in some very important ways, the critter also critter-ized the human. When I petted the cat or dog, I thought I was enjoying the feel of the animal’s furry coat. But from the cat’s point of view, his mother nurtured him by stroking his fur with her tongue. Being stroked was a sign of affection in the cat’s mind. The cat craved affection and inserted his head into the ideal position for me to stroke him. The critter critter-ized me just as I anthropomorphized the cat…or cow, or pig.

What is it that critters and humans have in common? Both need sun and rain and fresh air. Both need to learn from our experiences. Both need nourishment, movement, and love. Most of all love. We are kin.

Something analogous happens between human and God, perhaps. All I have got to go on is my human experience and my human understand-ing. Whether I am talking about God or about electricity, I have to describe it in terms of what I know. Electricity is directional—from negative to positive—so I describe it in terms of water, which I have observed before, and I will speak of current. I know God is much, much more than my experience of God, but just as the critter critter-izes me, I in my turn learn about God through my human senses and my human understanding. I anthropomorphize God because I have to. I am sure much about me mystifies my cat, but the cat sees the love at the core of me, and knows we are kin. Much about God is a total mystery to me, but I sense the Love at the core of the universe, and know we are kin.

I sense the intelligence of the Mystery I call God, too. When I get upset by the same thing over and over again in a very few days, eventually I begin to consider what I need to learn about the upset-ness. Again eventually, I notice the same faulty thought pattern is at work in those experiences, and then I can begin to change. I can not help but notice that the Loving Intelligence at the core of the universe has picked out one aspect of my inner chaos and is helping me focus on that. I know I will have to work for my insight, and work to change my ways. I know also God will help me change my pattern. In my human experience, I describe this aspect of God as God the Teacher. Teachers I know about. God is a loving teacher.

All I have got—all any of us have—is our ability to extrapolate from our human experiences in order to learn about God. What I and my cat and God have in common is the capacity for love. The cat and I both learn by relating one experience to our earlier experiences. Anthropomorphizing can be both helpful and hurtful: if I decide that God is telling me to kill all the Canaanites, I am extrapolating from my own self-interest. I have forgotten that if the cows are my kin, certainly the Canaanites are too. I will know that killing all the cows is not in my own long term self-interest, and wonder if the same might be true of my enemies. But if I keep trying to learn how to love more wisely, widely, and deeply—if I work at learning how to love better through using all my human capacities for learning—I am probably using my tendency to anthropomorphize in healthy ways.