The Holiness of Dogs
A Reflection by Bruce Epperly
Some of my favorite scriptural passages involve the affirmation that God has an intimate relationship with the non-human world. Psalm 150 proclaims, “Let everything that breathes praise God.” Romans 8 speaks of all creation groaning in quest of wholeness, and suggests that the same spirit that moves through non-human life also speaks in sighs too deep for words in our own experience.
Now, I must confess that my first conscious theological reflection was connected with the salvation of dogs. When I was no more than five years old, my parents left my brother and me for a few days with a pious Baptist lady, Mrs. Orr, while they attended a conference. Mrs. Orr had a dog named “Taffy” and for three days I played non-stop with this lively terrier. I had never had a dog before, and this was a boy meets dog, love at first sight encounter. Being a pious Baptist boy, I asked Mrs. Orr, “Will Taffy go to heaven?” I still recall her making a face and responding as if I’d said a bad word, “Talk to your father, he’ll straighten you out. Don’t ever ask such questions again? You should know that God only loves humans and that Christ died for us, not dogs!”
At that moment, I began to question the theology of my childhood. “If God didn’t love Taffy, something must be wrong. I love her. Shouldn’t God love the things that I love? What has Taffy done that would keep her out of heaven?”
Now, I believe that when John 3:16 says, “God so loved the world,” the scripture means just hat – that God loves the cosmos, including creatures of all kinds. In the wondrous journey of creation, God has brought forth varieties of creatures, and has called them good. (Genesis 1) God loves dogs and cats, dolphins and fireflies, infants and senior adults. I believe that God feels the joy of a dog running across the field or chasing lemons in an orchard, and God feels the pain of dogs who have been mistreated by their owners and dogs who grieve the death of beloved owners. I am sure that Eric Liddell’s affirmation from the film “Chariots of Fire” also applies to dogs, “God made me fast, and when I run I feel God’s pleasure.”
For many people, God speaks through their animals, and especially dogs, to them. They experience God’s faithfulness and acceptance in a beloved companion animal awaiting their arrival home each day, often intuiting their moods better than most human companions.
The holiness of dogs and all creation stems from the doctrine of God’s omnipresence. God’s omnipresence means that God is present in every cell and every soul. There are no God-free spots in the universe. More than that, God’s omnipresence is not neutral in orientation, but is aimed at beauty and wholeness. In some way or another, Jesus’ affirmation, I have come that they might have abundant life (John 10:10), applies to all creation, including dogs and cats, and not just humankind. If God is present as the source of inspiration and guidance in all things (what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead calls the “initial aim”), then God is surely inspiring dogs and cats, enabling them to care in ways congruent with their experience and context. Grace is global, not partial. In the interdependence of life, there is a continuity of grace, sufficient for each creature – whether the firefly that lights up for a few days on a summer night, my cat Charlie sitting on my lap as I meditate. God is present in my grandson sleeping in my arms and in the bluebirds that mesmerize him as he looks out the window.
I believe that all creatures share in God’s everlasting life, initially, in God’s intimate memory of all things. God’s memory is described by Alfred North Whitehead as a tender care that loses nothing of value. Surely, anything that is loved shares in eternity, and that means my first dog Duke, and Flaca, the dog of my adult years.
A more controversial question among theologians involves the ability of animals to live on beyond the grave. Theories of reincarnation suggest the possibility that all experiencing creatures participate in a process of spiritual evolution. Insects and amphibians are small souls leaning toward higher experience on the road to God awareness. Our companion animals are closer to the human stage, which holds the possibility of both knowing and following the Divine Within. From this perspective, dogs share in divinity, along with all creation. By their fidelity in this lifetime, dogs prepare for the next stage of spiritual evolution.
Christian visions take a slightly different path and are more ambiguous about who is capable of experiencing God’s beatitude in heaven. Many Christians take Ms. Orr’s anthropocentric (human centered) course, asserting that God’s care and eternity only fully belong to human beings. When animals die, their animating principle dies with them, and they are no more. However, given the evidence of Psalm 148, 150, and Romans 8, there is no scriptural reason, in principle, to bar non-humans from God’s everlasting realm. If you can praise and yearn, you can be saved. If you can love and be loved, you share in the Love that created the universes and continues to create through our planetary and cosmic adventures. When non-humans and humans alike reach out in love, however advanced or altruistic that love may be, they share in God’s suffering and celebrating love. Before we diminish the love of dogs and cats, we had best reflect on the limitations inherent in our love, which is often possessive and misdirected, yet still shares in the love of God.
A number of years ago there was a children’s film, “All Dogs go to Heaven.” While the next steps on our journey have not been revealed to me, I believe that God’s love has a place for Taffy, Ed, Duke, and Flaca, and of course cats, like my Charlie and Mr. Sweets. And all animals, all creatures of the flesh. Love abounds, and perhaps in some way we cannot yet understand, even animals can experience that “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” (Romans 8:38-39)