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Stephen H. Webb

Do All Good Dogs Go to Heaven?

What do you say when your child loses a pet and asks you if her dog will go to heaven? Or, more likely today given the faddishness of vegetarianism, what do you say when your teenager asks you why you eat meat? Indeed, what should the church say to the growing animal-rights movement? Most of us have a beloved pet, but must we love all animals? Is that practical, or even possible? Does even God do that?

The animal-rights movement has been around at least since the early nineteenth century, although classical thinkers often wrote about animals, and some, like Pythagoras, advocated vegetarianism (a term that was not coined until the 1840s). The earliest animal advocates in England were Christians who were also worried about the treatment of children and the working conditions of the poor. In its modern guise, however, the animal-rights movement is often hostile to religion and single-minded in its focus on animals.

Most Christians rightfully distance themselves from a movement that blames Judaism and Christianity for negative Western attitudes about animals. When the animal-rights movement is not scapegoating Christianity for every abused animal, it is turning to bad theology for a supporting framework. Many writers about animals are committed to a pantheistic affirmation of the entire world that leaves no room for the uniqueness of human rationality and responsibility. Such pantheism views animals as manifestations of the divine. In the theology of animal rights, the Fall occurs when men take Genesis literally and set out to dominate nature. Paradise, according to this theology, is not a world where community is restored under a benevolent authority. Instead, paradise would be achieved when the government guarantees every individual's (including every animal's) right to be left alone by everyone else.

There is no doubt that bad theology often drives out good theology, but that should not keep us from asking about the biblical foundations for an answer to the animal-rights movement. Are animals here merely to serve as meat machines for our unhealthy diets? Do they share our origin and our destiny, and if so, how should we treat them now?

The Bible is radical in not treating animals as messengers of the gods. The Bible treats animals as others who are genuinely different from us and yet similar enough to merit kindness and to be included in God's plan for the world. The Bible certainly does not treat animals as equal to humans. Humans are God's representatives on earth, put here to mediate to animals God's original purposes and intentions. So what is God's plan for the animals?

Andrew Linzey's new anthology demonstrates how thinking about animals drives to the heart of Christian faith. When someone asks you if all good dogs go to heaven, you have to think very hard about what precisely you think heaven is. Every Christian should have a position on the value of animals, their value not just to us but, more important, to the God who created them.

Most Americans keep pets and are very interested in animals, but theologians have been slow to respond to this need. To some extent, then, the theology of animal rights is what the church gets when it keeps silent for too long about a major issue. Too often, when Christians do write about this topic, they end up speaking about nature in general and abstract terms, rather than addressing the more specific and difficult question of animals. It is too easy to say that we should respect the world as God's good creation without specifying what our obligations to animals are.

Putting animals on the agenda displaces humans from the center of theology and thus opens a space for the return of God to the pinnacle of religious concerns. This shift does not have to be antihuman, but it can help us to escape the humanism that has infected even the most orthodox theologies of the modern period. To say that God loves animals—and the rest of creation—is not to limit the special moral role we play in the world. To say that God loves only us is surely to reveal our limited imaginations and the self-interest that governs even the most theocentric theological models. Thus, putting animals on the agenda can, among other things, serve to save theology from the distortions of human pride.

Animals on the Agenda begins with an examination of Scripture.1 J. W. Rogerson situates animal sacrifices between the vegetarian paradise of Eden and the prophetic hope for a peaceable kingdom for humans and animals alike. Christians have always had trouble interpreting animal sacrifices, and the future of Jewish-Christian dialogue depends on a better understanding of the ancient Jewish practices that Christianity rejected or transformed. Rogerson concludes, provocatively, that "for some priests at least, the system of animal sacrifice symbolized the failure of humanity as represented by Israel to live in the world as God intended." Animal sacrifices, then, are an interim practice, never intended to displace the fundamental Hebrew vision of God's peaceful intentions for the world.

Walter Houston discusses the difficult problem of interpreting the biblical classification of animals into clean and unclean, which still governs the diet of orthodox Jews. He notes that the result of this system is to restrict the eating of meat. "So the dietary laws mediate the contradiction between the ideal of a non-violent world and the fact of unrestrained violence against animals." Meat eating is severely limited by the kosher rules that dictate what animals can be eaten and how animals are to be killed.

The dietary code also separated the Jews from their neighbors, and it was this aspect of Judaism that the early Christians were anxious to put behind them, as evidenced by Peter's dream (Acts 10). Paul especially did not want dietary restrictions to hinder his mission to present the gospel message to Gentiles. Indeed, hospitality through shared meals was an important means for the spreading of Christianity.

Today, however, Christians need to rethink the issue of whether we should eat like everyone else. I don't mean to suggest that Christians should imitate the scrupulous and self-righteous vegetarianism (often vegan) of animal rightists. Nevertheless, why is it that when I (a vegetarian) attend church potlucks, invariably there is much more meat served than at any potluck I attend with my unchurched friends? Likewise, when I am invited to dinner with my unchurched friends, I am much more likely to be given a vegetarian option than when I dine with my Christian friends.2 Might Christians today think about voluntary abstention from eating animals raised under the horrendous conditions of factory farming as an affirmation rather than a contradiction of God's free grace?

Richard Bauckham contributes two essays on Jesus and animals. In the first, Bauckham makes the case that Jesus fits into the general framework of Jewish compassion for animals. When Jesus taught that God loves the birds (Matt. 6:29 and Luke 12:24), this "is not, as some modern readers tend to assume, just a picturesque illustration of Jesus' point, as though the point could stand without the illustration." Moreover, when Jesus used the argument from the lesser to the greater, comparing our worth to God's love for the sparrows, he did not thereby put humans on an altogether separate plane from animals. On the contrary, he used an argumentative form common in rabbinic rhetoric that presupposes the intrinsic value of animals.

In his second essay, however, Bauckham backs away from some of the implications of this portrait of Jesus. He argues that Jesus had no fundamental problems with the sacrificial worship at the temple and that, unlike his brother James, he did not abstain from meat and wine. Yet Bauckham goes on to argue that the passage in Mark where Jesus spends 40 days with the wild beasts (1:13) is clearly an indication of his ministry to restore the world to its original peace and harmony. Jesus saw himself as embodying and pointing toward the eschatological fulfillment of God's original intentions for the world. This surely shaped his relationship to animals, even though Jesus was not a strict vegetarian. (As a peasant, he probably ate meat rarely, and the only meat we know for certain that he ate is fish.)

Of course, until recently, most people thought that eating some meat was necessary for survival, and in the ancient world, vegetarianism was often connected to a cosmology that envisioned the world as beyond redemption, using diet as a way of freeing the soul from the body. Vegetarianism meant something different in Jesus' time (it expressed life-denying rather than life-affirming values), so that what we mean by vegetarianism today was not an option for Jesus then, even though the case can be made that the shape of Jesus' life and ministry makes it a compelling option now.

Stephen R. L. Clark contributes a typically brilliant essay to this collection, criticizing the pantheism that is implicit in much religious writing about nature. Environmentalists want us to believe that what is makes sense, that nature is a self-correcting organism that operates very well, as long as humans do not interfere. This faith in Gaia, mother earth, is not only unchristian, it also denies the inherent violence of the natural world. To be a pantheist, Clark argues, is to try to find your values in nature, an ethical move that can justify the most horrifying of practices. Monotheism, rather than rejecting the intrinsic value of the natural world, actually allows us to see the world for what it really is, a beautiful and yet fallen place that is in need of redemption as much as we are.

Three of the essays (by Thomas E. Hosinski, Jay B. McDaniel, and John B. Cobb, Jr.) defend and amplify a process theology account of animals. The problems with this approach to the issue of animals seem insoluble and overwhelming. First, the God of process theology is a limited being who is hardly able to redeem the world and restore it to an original harmony. Indeed, the only hope of redemption is that animals will be remembered by God, which will hardly do much good for the animals themselves. Second, process thought portrays God as luring animals to a higher good, but these thinkers also insist that God must be seen as luring animals in ways that are consonant with their biological constitution. Thus, God lures animals against each other, so that the way in which animals kill each other is God's will for the universe. Third, process thinkers emphasize how God feels all things, but this merely means that God feels not only the pain of the victims of violence but also the satisfaction of the aggressors. God feels the full belly of the beast that kills as well as the torture of the creature who is torn apart.

The process God enjoys all animal experience, and he is able to harmonize the carnivore with the vegetarian, but God's own private mental gymnastics do little for the actual situation of animals in the world. It is not enough that some animals are sacrificed to others; on top of that, we are asked to imagine that they also serve as food for God's own inner life, so that God can maximize the divine experience and get the most out of lives that are otherwise wasted! The process God sounds more like the ancient pagan deities who demanded to be fed by bloody sacrifices than the Christian God who put an end to all animal sacrifices by the substitution of his Son.

Process theology denies the Fall, but watch any show about nature on TV and the traditional notion of the Fall will make more and more sense. Michael Lloyd makes this case persuasively. Animals are fallen, not due to any fault of their own, but as victims of the general cataclysm that occurred when humanity turned away from God. One consequence of that fall is the enmity between humans and animals. Humans now can take advantage of animals and abuse them, but that is surely not what God intended for this world. Animals too are in need of redemption, not in the sense that they have acted immorally, but in the sense that their lives are incomplete, and anything that is not right in this world will be put right in the next.

Linzey's response to the plight of animals is to extend the benefit of legal rights to them. I have criticized the use of rights language for animals in my own work, On God and Dogs: A Christian Theology of Compassion for Animals (Oxford Univ. Press, 1998). Simply put, animals do not need liberation from us. They need our stewardship and protective care. I agree with C. S. Lewis that animals will be in heaven because they are an integral part of our lives. We mediate salvation to them just as Jesus mediates salvation for us.

We cannot return to Eden, living at peace with the animals. But we should not let our fallen state be an excuse for treating animals as objects with no feelings and no value. We hope and pray for the day when the lion will lie down with the lamb. Until then, we are free to practice vegetarianism as a protest against the way most farm animals are treated today and as an anticipation of the eschaton, when God will be in all things, and animals too will be singing God's praises. This timely collection of essays shows that thinking about animals is not a quaint or eccentric theological diversion but is rather one of the primary tasks for a theology of the next millennium.

Stephen H. Webb is associate professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College. He is the author most recently of On God and Dogs: A Christian Theology of Compassion for Animals (Oxford Univ. Press).

1. For a fuller account of the issues raised by this book, see my forthcoming review essay in Reviews in Religion and Theology.

2. See my essay, "Whatever Happened to the Sin of Gluttony? Or, Why Christians Do Not Serve Meat with the Eucharist," Encounter (Summer 1997), pp. 243-50.

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