Friday, November 8, 2013

On the Death of a Pet


Earlier this week our family's red tabby cat, Brynn, died. To be more precise, she was killed while running in haste across the street in order, as was her wont, to greet my son and me when we arrived home in our car. As a mere feline, she naturally failed to look both ways before crossing the street directly in front of an approaching vehicle, and so her love and loyalty, her two most salient characteristics, proved to be her ultimate undoing.

If one is an animal lover and lives long enough, one is bound to experience the pain caused by the loss of a beloved pet. In the case of our family, the losses have been frequent: innumerable guinea pigs, four rabbits, and—worst of all—three cats and three dogs. The joy such animal companions both radiate and produce is short-lived indeed, and quickly turns to heavy-hearted grief when they are taken from us in an untimely way.

Brynn Kitty was a uniquely klutzy cat with a ponderous gait and an unmusical meow. But such attributes simply contributed to her charm, adding a humorous dimension to a personality dominated by the aforementioned traits of love and loyalty. From the day my daughter bought her at the Humane League of Lancaster in 2005—the deciding point in her favor was their shared name of Brynn—Brynn Kitty leavened her innate feline independence with copious amounts of affection for her new family. Whenever I arrive home from work or play, my Westie Louisa always gallops to the door, howling and tail a-wagging at the joy of seeing me. Until this past Tuesday, however, following closely behind was faithful Brynn Kitty, the leaden thump of her paws clearly audible as she hurried down the stairs to say hello. Such affection as she regularly showed could be irritating at times, such as her penchant for plopping down on the keyboard as one tried to use the computer. Nor could one often simply sit down to watch the telly without Brynn jumping on one's lap or on the back of the chair, her tail flicking the back of one's head as she lay there in contented bliss. Such momentary irritations are now but a thing of the past, kept alive thankfully by memory. Oh to experience such irritations today.

I have nothing profound or novel to say about this all-too-common human experience. Just allow me three short reflections. First, living with a beloved cat or dog reinforces the point that animals are intended by God to be companions of his human image bearers. Indeed, this is partly the point of the charming story in Genesis 2:18-25, where God parades the various animals in front of the man, who names them but fails to find in any the desired "helper" corresponding to him, which deficiency God rectifies when he creates woman out of the man's side. Animals, like humans, are given the "breath of life" (Gen 7:22) and are the beneficiaries, along with human beings, of the covenant God made with Noah in Genesis 9. As God's image bearers (Gen 1:26-27), human beings are given the unique vocation to mediate God's rule over what he has made and to sum up the inarticulate praise of creation to its maker. Such "dominion" is emphatically not the dominion of the pillager who rapes the land and uses the created order as a means to achieve his or her own designs. Rather, it is the "dominion" of the steward, who acts so as to cause the ultimate flourishing of creation. As C. S. Lewis argued in his The Problem of Pain, such an understanding suggests that "[t]he tame animal is therefore, in the deepest sense, the only ‘natural’ animal—the only one we see occupying the place it was made to occupy…” "Survival of the fittest" may be an empirical description of the modus operandi of how the animal world has developed, but it certainly is not consistent with the Bible's consistent eschatological vision towards which the divinely-designed human vocation vis-a-vis animals is directed.

Second, the tragically short lives of animals is a salutary reminder to us, who are all too prone to delusions of immortality, of the nasty, unwelcome fact of our own inevitable demise. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it this way: "Just as it is appointed for human beings to die once, and after that comes judgment ..." (Heb 9:27 [ESV, alt. JRM]). The note of judgment is unappealing to many people in the postmodern West, but it is a consistent refrain in the Bible. Thankfully, the context of Hebrews 9:27 provides the way in which all of us can approach that inevitability with confidence based entirely on what Christ has done externally on our behalf: "For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him" (Heb 9:24-28, ESV).

Finally, a musing on the possibility of an afterlife for animals. One thing I was confidently taught in my early biblical studies was that humans are distinct from animals in that they alone have "souls." The corollary of this was quite clear. Humans, in that they are endowed with an "immortal" soul, have an afterlife; animals, not so endowed, do not. Well, as in so many areas of my theological development, things are not as clear to me as they once appeared. For one, developments in neuroscience and increasing intellectual distance from an assumed Greek philosophy have, at minimum, cast doubt on the long regnant "substance dualism" (i.e., mortal body, immortal soul) I had been confidently taught (see esp. Fuller Seminary Professor Joel Green's Body, Soul, and Human Life). For another, it is quite clear from St. Paul that God alone is inherently immortal (1 Tim 6:16), and that any immortality attaching to human beings must be granted when they receive their resurrection body (1 Cor 15:53). So the presence of a soul, or lack thereof, is no necessary index to a definitive answer to the question.

Increasingly Christians are coming to the biblical realization that the climax of salvation history, and the final state of the redeemed, will be on a renovated/reconstituted earth rather than in an ethereal, disembodied state in "heaven." This means an earth on which human beings will at last live and function as they were intended from the beginning by God. And that means as well a creation that, as Paul says, "will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Rom 8:21). One need not be a naive literalist to see in such prophecies as Isaiah 11:6 ("The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat ...") an indication that the final state of the kingdom of God will be a state of affairs in which all of creation, including animals, will be redeemed and live as God always intended them ultimately to live.

Indeed, even John Calvin in his Commentary on Romans argued that all creatures will ultimately share in the blessed state consequent upon the restoration of the present fallen world (at Rom 8:21). Yet he deemed it "neither expedient nor right," and indeed "unbalanced," to speculate further about the perfection and possible "immortality" of all sorts of animals in the coming eschaton. Nonetheless, others have dared to go where the venerable Genevan feared to tread. Oxford theologian Keith Ward, in his 1982 work Rational Theology and the Creativity of God, argued that God, who has revealed himself to be a God of both love and justice, must and therefore will ultimately recompense animals who have suffered unjustly in the present world. The aforementioned C. S. Lewis, while not a theologian per se, argued in The Problem of Pain that some animals, by virtue of their inextricable connection with redeemed people, will be resurrected along with their masters to experience eternity.

Such suggestions are mere guesses, of course. We must distinguish the matters of animal presence on the new earth and the resurrection of individual animals to provide that coming population. There certainly is no explicit scriptural support for the latter notion. Nevertheless the arguments of such men as Ward and Lewis are at least suggestive. The God who raised his Son Jesus from the dead and has promised to do the same for his people certainly can raise animals to immortal bodies as well. And it is not inconsistent with a God of love to do so for his beloved children whose lives were so improved by their animal companions in this life. Thus, I cannot say whether or not it will be so. But I have my suspicions ... and my hopes, one of which is to once again hear and see my Brynn Kitty running down the stairs to greet me as I walk through the front door.

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