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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

All Dogs Go to Heaven
distributed 12/17/10 - ©2010

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Rev. Jacqueline A. & Daniel Ziegler, of Bozeman, Montana.. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

I'm guessing that you've seen the wonderful series of "church signs" that fight over a thorny theological question. (I'm sorry to tell you, though, that the series is a spoof.)

The sign is a joke, the request is not!
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The alleged dialogue is between signs at Catholic and Presbyterian congregations. The Catholic sign takes the lead: "All dogs go to heaven." The response comes back: "Only humans go to heaven. Read the Bible."

The Catholic sign returns the volley: "God loves all his creations. Dogs included." The snippy "Presbyterian" sign says: "Dogs don't have souls. This is not open for debate." My quoting from the extended series ends with: "Catholic dogs go to heaven. Presbyterian dogs can talk to their pastor."

I'll admit that who -- or what -- goes to heaven is not one of my high-priority theological questions. But I am very concerned with a more foundational matter -- the end of alienation between God, humans, and the rest of creation. If heaven is the symbol for the realm of God where that division is totally erased, then I'd expect people and dogs, lions and lambs, elephants and dolphins, and a vast range of other creatures to be well represented there.

As Dieter Hessel put it, "God's project, involving humans, is Earth Community, not only Christian community. God is acting with justice and mercy to redeem creation, not only human animals."

So why has this been a contentious subject for Christians through the ages? Why the insistence that only humans have souls, and thus that only humans go to heaven? My simplistic hunch is that human exceptionalism has some practical advantages. If dogs, cattle, chickens and whales don't have souls, then we don't have to treat them as moral agents. We don't need to extend to them the same concern for welfare and rights that we would deem essential for humans.

Indeed, the claim has often been made that some humans -- enslaved Africans, oppressed Native Americans, or (awkwardly for my liberal ethics) unborn children -- do not have souls. Therefore, we're free to treat them as we wish.

Liberation theologian James Cone highlighted the historic link between the denial of rights and economic advantage. "The logic that led to slavery and segregation in the Americas, colonization and apartheid in Africa, and the rule of white supremacy throughout the world is the same one that leads to the exploitation of animals and the ravaging of nature. It is a mechanistic and instrumental logic that defines everything and everybody in terms of contribution to the development and defense of white world supremacy." How convenient for those who benefit.

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A theological ethic sensitive to Earth community -- or, for that matter, tuned to pervasive themes in scripture -- will acknowledge that all species, human and other-than-human, are beloved of God and have inherent worth. God enters into covenant with "all flesh" at the end of the Genesis flood account, and Job is instructed about God's delight in those creatures that humans consider worthless.

Even so, an apartheid theology (in Larry Rasmussen's term) fixates on the differences between humans and all those other species. Traditionally, several qualities have been used to show how special we are. Humans are utterly different because we are self-aware, use language, create tools, and feel emotions.

But these days, an inclusive theology is well-supported by scientific evidence. The differences between humans and other are, at most, matters of degree, not of kind.

Self-awareness can be indicated when a creature recognizes itself in a mirror. Certainly people pay lots of attention to their reflected image, but other species make that connection, too. Elephants, apes and dolphins will use a mirror to explore their own behaviors, and to look carefully at parts of their bodies that they can't otherwise see. Naturalist Ted Kerasote provides a vivid description of his dog's self-discovery in front of a mirror. Many species can come to the realization, "That's me!"

Human pride is kicked down a notch, too, when we acknowledge language among other species. Prairie dogs have a sophisticated language system that has been translated and tested. Whales have elaborate songs, and dolphins use complex sounds, that we have yet to decode. Primates can learn to use sign language and keyboards as means of expressing self-generated concepts.

Crows and ravens have demonstrated high-level thinking in creating and using tools. Chimps use a variety of tools, in a learned -- not instinctive -- set of behaviors. "Sometimes mothers will actually correct their young as they learn how to use a tool."

Emotion? That's far tougher to define and to measure. Still, many scientists are dropping the categorical insistence that animals have no emotions. Dogs, chimps and elephants are among those that seem to express clear emotions, and which excel at reading human emotion. A widely circulated news report five years ago described a humpback whale that had become entangled in ropes, weights and crab nets. A team of humans spent hours cutting the ropes away from the whale -- which held still to aid them in the rescue work. When the whale was free, it celebrated its release in a series of dives, then came back to thank each of the four humans.

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Do dogs go to heaven? I have no way of knowing, and I'm not sure I care. But I do care -- I hope that we all care -- about the respect and appreciation that we grant to the critters who share this planet with us.

All of the wonderful variety of species are creatures, each with unique gifts and abilities, and with distinctive roles in the complex web of life. We distort reality, and we develop misleading ethics, when we pretend that humans are qualitatively different from all other creatures. When we think that our kind is especially blessed, especially gifted, and totally unlike any other animal, it becomes all to easy to exploit and exterminate the other.

The realization that other species share qualities that we have long used to define human uniqueness opens the door to a more inclusive, more compassionate way of relating to this Earth, which is part of God's creation. May we find joy and healing as we discover our kinship with all life.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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