Satya has ceased publication. This website is maintained for informational purposes only.

To learn more about the upcoming Special Edition of Satya and Call for Submissions, click here.

back issues


September 1998
On God and Dogs

By Stephen Webb



Satya invited Stephen Webb, Associate Professor Religion and Philosophy at Wabash College, to reflect on why he wrote his recent book On God and Dogs: A Christian Theology of Compassion for Animals, how it was different, and to consider whether there was any movement in the Church on animal welfare.

I wanted to write this book because I thought that too many of those interested in the animal rights movement downplayed the role of companion animals in shaping our ethical commitments to animals in general. Many who come at these issues from an environmentalist perspective are most interested in wild animals and the preservation of habitats for endangered species. When I looked at the history of the animal rights movement in England, however, I noticed how important companion animals were in the growing awareness among Victorians of animal intelligence and animal feelings. Moreover, in my own experience I know how powerful my relationship to dogs is, and how my relationship to my dachshund has caused me to reevaluate my relationship to all animals. Too often domestic animals are dismissed as degenerate animals because they have been manipulated and bred for human purposes and interests. Yet domestic animals show us that the destiny of humans and animals is not to live apart but to work together and to create shared spaces for common ventures. Domestic animals have taken the risk to enter into our world, and they are the ones who put the most evident ethical obligations on us. The animal rights movement, by trying to distinguish itself from the earlier human societies and welfare groups, has gone too far in valuing the wild and dismissing the domestic. All animals, I argue, are under our control now, whether we are willing to admit that or not. There is no wild left. Pets thus are a paradigmatic animal, and their very closeness to us can teach us about the ways in which we need to respect animal otherness but also take responsibility for animals on the basis of closeness, affection and intimacy.

Where my project most differs from others is my attempt to ground this view of animals in Christian theology. Christianity is a lost voice in the many discussions about nature and animals that echo throughout our culture. Christianity is blamed for having a tame, domesticated view of nature and for justifying the human exploitation of nature. Actually, I argue in my book that Christianity, unlike the environmental movement, does not think that humans or nature can stand alone. Yes, Christianity (and Judaism) place humans in the center of the cosmos, but these religions also place humans below the majesty of God, so that humans are to serve God's creation, carrying out God's purposes for nature and animals. I uncovered in my researches a hidden history of vegetarianism in the Bible and among early Christians and church leaders. For example, whenever early Christians were praised for asceticism (self-denying practices), they almost always were vegetarians. To be holy in the ancient world meant giving up the eating of meat. I explore the various reasons why this tradition dies out in western Christianity. The main point of my book is that Judaism and Christianity envision a world that has an initial peace between humans and animals and that hopes for and awaits the return of that peace. In the beginning, then, all animals were something like pets, and in the end, when in the world to come harmony is restored to God's creation, animals and humans will coexist peacefully, so that one can say that pets represent a preview of the world to come, and that pets are the destiny of all animals. This is a highly provocative thing to say among most animal rights groups, I realize, but Christianity does not think that nature is good to the extent that it stands by itself. Rather, nature (and animals) are good to the extent that they stand in the proper relationship to God, mediated by the role that humanity plays as the stewards of God's creation. This theological ethic of animals thus ends up with different conclusions and different results than the ethic of valuing the wilderness and the wild (for example, I defend zoos in my book).

I do think that there is movement among the churches on this issue. There are some evangelical groups that are getting involved in environmental issues, and vegetarianism is so prevalent now that the Christian churches cannot avoid it. What Christians need is a distinctive voice on these issues, so that they know they don't just have to imitate the views of the secular animal rights crowd. A Christian vegetarian movement is just beginning, and I am hopeful that Christians can regain a vision of compassion for animals that is biblical and traditional and powerful-and different from the other positions that are already prevalent in our culture.

On God and Dogs: A Christian Theology of Compassion for Animals by Stephen H. Webb is published by Oxford University.


All contents are copyrighted. Click here to learn about reprinting text or images that appear on this site.