Monday, September 14, 2015

Is my dog Christian?

Sometimes I'm not quite sure what to do with animals. Let me explain.

A few years back we began hosting a blessing of the animals event at Good Shepherd. This year it will be at noon on October 4th.

Doing so is by no means innovative. Many faith communities have been doing this for decades, often in conjunction with theFeast of St. Francis, the saint famous for preaching to the animals.

We typically host the blessing outside, on the church grounds. Brief prayer. Read a psalm. Then go around and bless each of the pets, and pray with families.

This is when things get interesting. Not all pets handle corporate worship as well as others (this is actually also true of humans, something I'll get back to in a bit). Some love it. Some are territorial. Some can't even attend, and have to send photos of themselves as proxy for the blessing.

It's also hard to know how to mix different kinds of pets. Should there be a separate blessing for the cats and the dogs? What about snakes, or beasts of the field?

Or should we welcome pets into the actual worship service some Sundays? It could be complicated, but then again, why not? What's a convincing theological reason not to welcome animals into worship (as opposed to a practical one, like they might bark, or make a mess, which are both things that, again, humans might do also)?

This is where I start to think, "Animals are perplexing in light of Christian theology."

Here are some examples. First of all, although in the creation account of Genesis 1 animals are created good, it remains a truth that humans are singled out as the very good creatures. Humans are the creatures made in the imago dei, the image of God.

This theologema rides right at the center of almost all Christian theology. Animals share one thing with us--we are all creatures, created. Yet animals are different, inasmuch as the economy of salvation functions differently for them than us.

They are not, for example, baptized. Nor do they participate in any of the sacraments of the church.

And with the wild and beautiful exception of St. Francis, they are not much preached to or considered in the mission of the Christian church.

Animals are around in the Scriptures, but almost never as pets. Can you think of anyone in Scripture with a pet? It's likely they lived with animals. Husbandry in that era often included shacking up with the animals one kept as a livelihood. But it is significant that no animal plays a significant narrative role in Scripture (with the enigmatic exception (!!!) of Balaam's donkey, Numbers 22:30).

This puzzles me. By comparison, think of Odysseus' faithful dog Argos, or the cat's of ancient Egypt.

In other words, Scripture itself, and as a result a considerable portion of Christian theological reflection ever since, has given us less than a robust set of resources to consider the place of animals theologically.

Returning to the concrete, we have a dog. His name is Charlie. I must confess, it is taking me some time to learn to love having a dog. I'm getting there, but I'm learning my love for Charlie through the love lavished on him by my family. I don't have an instinctual love of dogs. I'm not even sure why. Perhaps no dog can ever replace my childhood pet, Streak. Or perhaps it is a theological thing, I don't know.

Yet I know so many people who think of their pets as additional people, part of the family. They love their pets, profoundly. It's no surprise that sometimes people show up at church and want their pet baptized.

Now, I'm going to go traditional here and say I cannot find a compelling reason to baptize pets. First, I think pets have their own economy of grace they live out as God's beloved creatures, and the sacraments aren't really a part of that. I think Charlie's sacrament, for example, is the sun shining through the sliding glass door mid-day, or the snuggles he gets from our kids.

Yet I also think that animals have not gotten as much attention for their proper place within a Christian worldview as they could or should. This may explain why Christianities track record in its relation to the created order is so abysmal. We have not invested energy and attention in a theological consideration of God's relationship with the animals. Concomitantly, we have not considered the gospel of things in themselves, all things.

It may very well be the case that in order for me to love my neighbor, and so love God, I'll need to revisit my love of Charlie. Perhaps rightly ordered care of neighbor in an economy of grace relies on rightly ordered care of all ecology in an economy of creatureliness.

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