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
by Stephen H. Webb is published by Oxford University.