A Christian Theology of Compassion for Animals
By Stephen H. Webb, Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy, Wabash College.
In recent years, too many books that were written to promote animal rights have treated the love and care that is lavished on animal companions as a mawkish sentimentality that needs to be outgrown.
The original impetus for taking pet owners to task is understandable. Frequently, the love they lavished on companion animals did nothing to promote compassion for other creatures. There was no concern for the brutality that dictated the life and death of those creatures who skin, or fur, or flesh, they coveted.
But, of course, it was not just pet owners who ignored the suffering and abuse of such animals. And in the effort to distance themselves from those who would limit the circle of concern to pets, some animal rights activists made it "politically incorrect" to either keep, or profess love for, companion animals.
But unlike those who try to rule out the emotional factor from any discussion of animals, Professor Webb integrates the emotional aspect of human relatedness into his "theology for, rather than about, dogs."
And he goes even further. He proposes that it is the the possibility of an emotional/intuitive relatedness that is able to bridge the gap between homo sapiens and others species. The "otherness" that seems to separate people from animals (or from other people) is resolved in the context of a responsible and loving relationship.
In a chapter titled "Jesus Christ and the Future of Animals" the author identifies this animal/human relatedness with Isaiah's prophetic vision of a millennium in which all God's creatures will live in harmony with their own species, and with each other. And he questions why, in the face of this prophecy "do we want to imagine the ultimate destiny of wild animals is to remain in the wilderness, turned against each other and against us in strife instead of living with each other and us in harmony and community."
The author goes on to give assent to the position of C.S. Lewis in regard to animals. He relates that Lewis foresaw "all animals will increasingly conform to the model of the pet as the wilderness shrinks and human need and technology continue to grow."
And Webb offers his own insight regarding the nature of a world in which all creation has finally been redeemed. "More and more animals are becoming dependent on us every year, and all animals depend on God for their very existence, just as people do. When God redeems the world with a final reconciliation...it seems warranted to imagine their participation in that world more along the lines of domesticated pets than wild beasts. After all, Isaiah envisioned the lion as lying down with the lamb, in a tame and restful state, joining with those creatures who do not need to kill but do need caring and attention."
Throughout his book, the author reiterates the necessity of responsibility as an irreducible component in a truly loving relationship with animals. "It is right, I am suggesting, to bring animals into a relationship with us but it is wrong to treat them as mere instruments for human advantage."
He also sees the ability to love a pet as containing the potential to love those animals with whom we do not have a personal relationship. There is "a love that begins in personal attachment, but also dares to reach beyond the personal."
This is the kind of love that Christ enjoined upon his followers when he related the parable of the Good Samaritan. It was the Samaritan's developed capacity for love that could reach across the barriers imposed by a culture that sought to limit the circumference of love to its "own kind." In a fallen world, all cultures try to restrict compassion and concern to their own religion, or nation r species. Jesus came to remove those restrictions.
On God and Dogs is a refutation of the attempt to restrict love and care to such narrow boundaries. Webb writes: "Not a single sparrow falls to the ground without God's knowledge and compassion. Jesus came to heal the sick and save the lost, so that saving animals from a natural or human-made disaster is a concrete anticipation of the divine plan to restore all of life to its original harmony."
It is this understanding of the value of even a single sparrow in the sight of God, that informs Webb's statement: "If God numbers the hairs on our head (Matthew 10:29) then surely God counts animals as individuals and not just members of a species."
In relating to animals, the ability to see them as individual creatures, with needs of their own, helps to avoid the trap into which some environmentalists have fallen. Endangered species are seen as having value only because their loss reduces the totality of human experience, or well-being. This perpetuates the attitude that animals are only a means to an end; that they do not have intrinsic value. It is an attitude that has allowed human beings to murder, consume, and torture other creatures in the name of recreation, nutrition, and experimentation.
But a world which reflects the responsible care and concern that is given to individual animal companions, is a world in which no creature can be viewed as a "thing." It is a world which reflects the all-encompassing love of God for all creatures. A world in which God's will is done on earth, as it is in heaven. #
You love a pet?
ON GOD AND DOGS is available at bookstores. Oxford University Press. © 1998. Hardcover, 222 pages