A Theology of Animal-love

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A few years back we added a third member to our family, Sonny Gray Scott.  He’s a twenty pound albino and hearing impaired poodle-mix, named after one of the best players on our favorite baseball team, and he’s taught me a lot about love and life.

Maybe the idea of a dog teaching us about love and life sounds silly or sophomoric to you, but hang with me for a moment because I think our connections to other living things might actually be graduate level theology.

Within the ancient creation stories of Judeo-Christian tradition is an important framework for how humanity might have originally related to non-human creation.  In Genesis 2:15 we read that humanity (Adam, a derivation of the Hebrew word Adamah  meaning earth) is given the task of working and taking care of its surroundings.  The Hebrew words here are shamar (guard) and abad (keep) both of which could be translated with a nurturing and protecting connotation.   In fact, it isn’t until after the flood story that we’re told humanity began eating other animals (Gen 9:3).  So it could be inferred from these stories that in our original design, our connection to other created beings was one much more benevolent than our current relationship with the planet and its other inhabitants.

Thankfully, this sense of connectedness and love for other creatures has been resurrected countless times throughout the history of our faith traditions.  Here are a few examples:

-Notable sixteenth century Jewish teacher, Maharsha, describes dogs as animals of love, reminding us that the Hebrew name for a dog is “kelev” which is etymologically derived from the words “kulo lev” or “all heart”.  This takes on an even deeper meaning if we remember that it was Adam’s job to name the animals.

-Saint Francis of Assissi is said to have taken the mandate of Jesus to proclaim the good news to all of creation quite literally, leading him to preach sermons to both his human and his animal audience.  He’s quoted as saying, “Not to hurt our humble brethren is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission — to be of service to them wherever they require it.”

-C.S. Lewis was a dog owner/lover and argued against animal cruelty.

-The British institution known as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), which would later inspire the American Humane Society, was founded by devout Christians William Wilberforce and Reverend Arthur Broome based on their faith ethics.

Keep in mind that these ideas actually come up against much of Western and Enlightenment values which often seek to commodify the planet and its inhabitants. Even Descartes claimed animals could not suffer nor feel pleasure.   So, I think it’s safe to say that connecting with animals in a loving way is deeply rooted in our faith traditions and even countercultural.

Alright, enough with the history lesson, let’s get back to current times and this fluffball.

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In the years I’ve hung out with Sonny I’ve been surprised by just how much I feel for him.  I know it sounds cliche, but his condition-less affection for both Alie and me is such a gift.  He’s always happy to see us and sad to see us leave.

As I’ve grown in my fondness of him and his presence, it’s increased my heart for other animals too.  Interestingly enough, it feels like my overall ability to love has grown.  Some might think that if I’m giving attention to my dog, I might have less attention to give to others, but I’ve found the opposite to be true.  Love seems to be one of the few things that only grows the more it’s given and received- and it never actually runs out.  Sonny reminds me of this.

Since he’s almost deaf, we’ve had to learn communication in a slightly different way.  It’s hard to explain but I think I can sense his feelings and I’m pretty sure he can sense mine too.  When I get worked up about something, so does Sonny.  And when he starts barking about some one walking passed our window, I can sense his stress.  It’s like there is an energy between us and it makes me wonder at just how connected we are to each other and to our planet.

Sonny relieves stress and brings me back down to earth.  His patient and unconditional affection seems truer and more noble than many of the accomplishments and vanity projects our culture seems to value.  Rabbi Levi Welton notes this saying, “the Almighty created animals before humans on the sixth day of creation to teach humans humility”.

So yeah, I’d argue that animal love is good, divine, and theologically sound.  When we care for animals in any fashion, we’re caring for vessels of the miraculous reality of life and evidences of divine creativity.  They can teach us faithfulness, humility, playfulness, and more.  And the fact that we can communicate, relate to, and even share love with them is beyond my understanding, but is something I both cannot deny and am immensely grateful for.

Here’s to you Sonny.

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