Friday, December 01, 2006

A garden, not a jungle

I've often toyed with writing a post about how pets, at least the better sort, like dogs, parakeets, and horses, and even (I'm gulping hard here) cats are an important part of the theology of nature. How raising pets is in some sense participating in Adam's command, his naming of all the animals. How it is only in that way that we achieve our right relation with the non-human world, and the non-human world receives some surcease, a drop of water in their ceaseless toil of want and ignorant sufferings.

But I don't have to write it because Stephen Webb just wrote it for me -- and thanks to Lee at verbum ipsum who brought it to my attention:

It starts off slow. The first half is stuff that is good and right to say, but has been said before. But the second half gives voice to things I've never heard anyone say before:

As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, I was never a nature lover. I began my thinking about animals, in fact, purely by happenstance. I had a dog, a dachshund named Marie, and I loved her more than my friends thought I should have. . . .

In Marie’s eyes I saw the glimmer of freedom, the first movements of spirit emerging from matter, wounded by what we humans had demanded of her species. Her eyes demanded responsibility, and even more, mutuality. Howard, our cat, would only glance at me, while Marie stared. Cats have a haughtiness that makes them hard to understand. They embrace their animality in spite of their freedom. Dogs plead, and thus risk losing everything. Dogs demand; cats indict, and turn away. Dogs are creatures in transition, incomplete without us. To hold a dog’s gaze is to set the dog free. The fragility of this dependence is easily abused, of course, but I was convinced that dogs say something not only about us but also about the origin and destiny of all animals.

. . . Perhaps Hegel spoke more truly than he understood when he argued that Schleiermacher's famous definition of religion as `absolute dependence' turned the dog into the best Christian. I too wanted to write a theology for the dogs.

I probably loved Marie too much, but then again, there is something excessive in all true love. I was convinced, in fact, that excessive love is what enabled both humans and dogs to overstep their species boundaries in the adventure that we call domestication. . . . Dogs made humans out of us, just as we have gone a little way toward making honorary humans out of dogs. . . .

I know that many of you will suspect that my relationship with Marie was more pathological than the typical environmentalist’s love for nature. Nonetheless, it seems to me that loving individual animals—and loving them for what they will yet become, rather than pretending that they are enough like us to merit equal consideration—is a more Christian gesture than loving nature as a whole.

. . .

Getting kicked out of my own organization only confirmed for me that Christianity was right to value vegetarianism in monasteries and on fast days but not to require it for everyone. For Christianity, compassion should be rooted not in dogmatic claims about the equality of humans and animals, or in an escapist flight from the realities of this world, but in our ability to be compassionate, to reach out and care for another being. Loving a dog, to return to my relationship with Marie, would not be such a bad way to begin and practice that compassion. Until the church can articulate an alternative to the modern animal rights movement, Coetzee's story demonstrates that the gnostic version of vegetarianism is still very much alive and well.

. . .

Christians have no business promulgating the aesthetic appreciation of coherence—a part of the whole is good as long as it contributes something to that whole—which reflects the old idea that this is the best of all possible worlds. The world is fallen, and nature is not what God intended it to be. The violence of nature is not all our fault, either, because the world into which Adam and Eve were expelled was already at odds with the peaceable harmony of Eden. If nature is fallen and its fall preceded our own, then there is little we can do to change nature in any dramatic way. Yet we can, like Noah with his ark, save a few fellow creatures from suffering as we try to warn others about God’s impending judgment.

. . . .

Nature cannot be a source of Christian morality, but it can be an object of Christian compassion. Yet it is impossible to have empathy for all of the animals that must become meals for others. Such sacrifices are biologically necessary, and to mourn necessity is foolishness. Perhaps this is why so many people today admire wild, carnivorous animals. It is easier to admire predators than their victims when there is nothing that we can do to change the one and save the other. Besides, wild animals confront us as something inassimilable to human measure, caring not for our help or sentiment. These animals follow their nature in beautiful, effortless and dignified ways, so that our inability to make moral judgments about them tempts us to romanticize them instead. The Christian idea that God sides with the victims somehow gets lost when we watch nature documentaries, wincing but marveling at a fearsome display of power that seems innocent and natural.

. . .

Traditionally, Christian theology portrays heaven as a garden, not a wild jungle, a place, like the original Garden of Eden, where God allows life to grow without the countless sacrifices of violent death. It is thus possible to argue that pets are the paradigm for the destiny of all animal life. In other words, according to the Christian myth, animals were originally domesticated, in the sense of being nonviolent and being in a positive relationship with us, and they will be again.

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