The concept that ‘everything is person’ seems incredulous. For Animists this is not simply an intellectual belief, but true from personal experience. The biblical text is powerfully supportive.1
A biblical understanding of human personhood is a fusion of soil and spirit. Genesis 2:7 explains that God ‘… formed adam from the dust of the ground (adamah) and breathed into human nostrils the breath of life (neshamah, elsewhere ruach is used2) and adam became a living being (nephesh)’. Nephesh (wrongly translated as ‘soul’) means ‘being alive as a physical being’. Nephesh is the primary biblical word for ‘a person’.
Apart from Genesis 1:26 saying we are ‘made in the image and likeness of God’ (a statement more about mission than status); everything said about humans is equally true of animals. They are ‘formed from the ground’ (adamah),3 animated by God’s breath (neshamah,4 elsewhere ruach is used 5), and described as nephesh,6 ‘a person’.
In the ‘Creation Hymn’ (Gen 1) fish and birds appear to be created from ‘the waters’ to fill the spaces of ocean and air, both described as nephesh.7 In the ‘Eden Story’ (Gen 2) birds are ‘formed from the ground’ (adamah),8 brought to life by God’s breath and spoken of as nephesh (as above).
In Genesis 2:18-20, God states, “It is not good for adam to be alone” and decides to make a companion as a ‘helper and partner’. So animals and birds are created for this role. Adam gives them ‘names’. Biblically, naming implies a deep reciprocal relationship between one person and another. It implies knowing and honouring their character. While Eve becomes the ultimate partner, the text is clear that animals were created for our companionship because they too are persons.
Ezekiel’s vision of God’s ‘Chariot Throne’ when called to be a prophet is overwhelming.9 Central to the vision are four ‘living creatures’, each with four faces: a lion, an eagle, an ox and a human. They symbolize shared, harmonious and complementary personhood, each with equal standing in the presence of God.
Every plant is alive; across scripture they are spoken of in moral, spiritual and person terms.10 In war trees are not to be destroyed like some human enemy.11 Jesus tells us to, ‘Consider the lilies’12 - to learn from them. These statements all imply personhood.
We are expected to be in covenant (berith) with the rocks of the wilderness: a covenant can only be made between persons. We are told, ‘Even the stones will cry out’ along with the land, a deep personal and moral demand for the truth and against injustice.13The wind, fire and water-clouds are all persons and God’s servants.14
Of course the earth itself is the foundational person (‘the mother’ across many cultures). Biblically she is both womb and provider for creation.15 God makes berith with the earth. God calls upon the sky and earth to stand together as personal witnesses.16 Animism calls us to understand and explore personhood in much deeper and more profound ways.
1 In this piece we refer to the biblical creation stories in Genesis because we believe they give a profound insight into how we should understand the world and how we should act within it. We believe in evolution, so do not see these stories as an historical account of how the world came into being
2 See 6:17; 7:22
3 See Gen 1:21, 24; 2:19
4 Gen 7:21-22
5 See 6:17; 7:15, 22
6 See Gen 1:24; 2:19; 9:9-16
7 Gen 1:21
8 Gen 2:19
9 Ezk 1:1-28 see also Rev 4:6-8
10 E.g. Gen 3:22; Lk 6:44; Rev 22:2
1 Deut 20:19
12 Lk 12:27
13 Job 5:23; Lk 19:40; cf. Hab 2:11; Gen 4:10; Job 31:38
14 Cf. Ps 104:4
15 Gen 1:24; Isa 51:1 cf. Job 1:21; Ps 139:15
16 Gen 9:13; Deut 4:26