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Commentary

Lord of the Pets

In his spiritual autobiography, historian Paul Johnson surmises that when future generations reflect on the carnivorous habits of their predecessors they will be appalled, and—at least as far as people who take biblical faith seriously are concerned—he is most likely correct. For it is doubtful that the brutal, if economical, treatment of food animals in the industrialized world's factory farms is anything less than an affront to God's creation.

Getting Christians to put down their forks and consider such things is one objective of Stephen Webb's new book, On God and Dogs: A Christian Theology of Compassion for Animals (Oxford Univ. Press, 222 pp.; $29.95). Webb, who is associate professor of religion and theology at Wabash College, is not himself an advocate of "animal liberation." Against the "rights talk" of the liberationists, Webb calls for what he calls a "language of care." He maintains that animals need to be loved, not liberated. And he takes human feelings about animals—especially pets—seriously.

"I think that there is something philosophically significant about sentimentalism itself," he writes, and he believes that because animals (and especially dogs) are able to touch humans "deeply and completely," they can teach us something significant. In particular, Webb thinks that animals have something to teach us about divine grace, "the inclusive and expansive power of God's love to create and sustain relationships of real mutuality and reciprocity."

Webb suggests that the "sheer excess" of pets is their greatest value. "[N]ature itself seems to encourage the excessive and extravagant," he writes. "Animals do not serve a metaphysical or moral purpose; they are just there, splurges in the divine economy, embellishments, exuberant. … Animals show us that God loves waste, that God identifies with complexity and excess and not just order and organization. God countenances that which is not necessary, that which seems accidental, ...

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