Simon Jenkins: Do animals go to heaven?
Do animals go to heaven? Will there be mewing and woofing on the streets of the New Jerusalem? Are dogs not just for Christmas, nor life, but for eternity? Theologians have only occasionally bothered their planet-sized brains about this weighty question, which these days is raised whenever a blogger loses a much-loved cat, dog or budgie. I should know – I blogged about my dear departed dog Sasha last year.
For the enrichment of this column, I tried to find out if any of the great theologians kept a pet, hoping against hope to discover that the prim John Calvin kept a raucous, red-bottomed baboon. But Google kept getting distracted by words such as “dogma”, “catechism” and even “rabbi”.
I was pleased though, to discover that the German theologian and medical missionary Albert Schweitzer was very attached to Parsifal, his pet pelican, whom he adopted when its mother was shot. He observed: “There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: Music and cats.” And talking of cats, it was good to be reminded of St Jerome, who removed a thorn from the paw of a lion when it limped into his monastery one evening. The lion was so grateful that it shared Jerome’s study while he translated the Bible into Latin.
Meanwhile, talking-animal enthusiast CS Lewis shared his home with no less than three pets at the end of his life: Ricky the boxer, Snip the cat, and a ginger tom (called Tom) whom he described as “a great Don Juan and a mighty hunter before the Lord.” Lewis’ positive approach led him famously to speculate that animals which relate to humans would have a share in eternal life.
His attitude is a bit of a contrast with that of Bernard of Clairvaux, who popularised the saying, “Love me, love my dog” – Qui me amat, amet et canem meum – several centuries before it became a top 10 hit. The saying might sound like a warm invitation to cuddle up to my pooch, but in fact is intended to mean that if you love me, you have to accept everything about me, even the ghastly bits – hardly a compliment to my dog.
It took another St Bernard (of Montjoux) to atone for that insult by giving his name to the breed of brandy-bearing dogs, which were used by his monks high in the Alps to rescue pilgrims stuck in the snows en route to Rome.
If you know of any theologians – from Augustine to Bultmann – who kept ferrets or other pets, do let me know.
The reason I started thinking about all this is that I spotted a new book, Truly Devoted by H Norman Wright. The cover, decorated with bones, kennels and pawprints, features two grinning, panting retrievers with the subtitle: “What dogs teach us about life, love and loyalty”. It is, verily, the perfect Christmas gift for the dog-obsessed Christian, with chapters drawing life lessons from how dogs gnaw bones (“Our worries are the same. We bite and chew on them”), obedience classes (“How do you respond to God’s request to be obedient?”) and even a dog’s big nose (“Look in the mirror. How do you feel about yourself?”)
This is all well and good, except for the always-present danger of sentimentalising animals, which serves to prop up our general abuse of everything below us in the food chain. In fairness, Wright’s book has a lot of information and stories about dogs in their own right. But the idea of turning the lives of animals into parables for our benefit tends to cast them as adorable creatures who exist merely to serve their human masters.
That kitschy approach is very much on display in a new trend: Pet baptism and confirmation services. Earlier this year, one New Yorker took her miniature pinscher for confirmation in a church service involving godparents and a confirmation gown. This followed in the footsteps of a pet baptising kit sold on eBay, which came complete with holy water, a baptismal certificate, a prayer (of St Francis, naturally) and instructions for a ceremony that will “enrich the lives of both you and your pet”.
I’m sure kittens have earned their place in paradise if only for the work they do in pointing people to the Lord via the medium of the cheesy poster. One example I saw recently, shows a tiny tabby peeking out from behind a sunflower, while the text burbles: “Be patient. God isn’t finished with me yet.” Not one to view on a full stomach.
Perhaps we’re asking the wrong question. Rather than: “Will animals go to heaven?” we should be asking: “How on earth can they live with us?”
This article was published in the December 2013/January 2014 issue of Reform
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