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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Pets Aren't People!

I promised a soliloquy on pet salvation today, and here it is. Debates over whether or not animals go to heaven always remind me of this time in high school when I got in no small amount of trouble. My grandfather and the cat that belonged to my uncle’s "wife" (long story, don’t ask) died in the same week – and she took the opportunity of the assembled and mourning family to eulogize .... the cat. My, eh, choice words were not regarded by some of my relatives as being in good taste, let’s say.

But really, this sort of thing raises real questions – how much remorse should we feel for dead animals? How should we weigh the value of animal versus human life? Do animals go to heaven? Obviously, if animals go to heaven, then they have immortal souls and there is a strong argument in favor of allowing them just as much, or almost as much, sympathy, remorse, and care as we afford to people. Allow me to point out why this is wrong. Animals do not have immortal souls, do not go to heaven, and are not even present there as part of the human experience of salvation. Anyone who tells you differently is wrong, wrong, wrong.
To really do this discussion justice involves going back to first principles. Since it is the soul that lives after death (if any element of the creature does) and the soul that gives to a being its eternal properties, we must look at souls and whether or not animals possess them, and if so, of what kind they are. So, what is the soul? Aquinas defines the soul as "the first principle of life of those things which live," that is, the mover of the body from which an organism’s actions are ultimately derived. Thus, all creatures possess some form of soul, because, as Aquinas observes, they could not otherwise be "animate"; they would have no means of action.

But how do men and animals relate to one another in terms of the nature of their souls? If animals could attain salvation on their own merits, their supernatural natures would by necessity be comparable to man’s and exist on the same existential plane with his. This is not the case, though. We see in Genesis that God creates man, and only man, in His own image. He forms man out of the clay of the earth and breathes into him the "breath of life." These two depictions of the imparting of Divine life to humanity are not concerned with the physical form of men (since God is purely spiritual, he has no physical "image" to duplicate in man), but rather with the nature of man’s life. God, through this act, gave to man, and man alone, will and intellect, His spiritual image – not in the perfect and complete forms in which God possesses them, but in a limited form adapted for our physical natures. Scripture recounts no such impartation of the divine image to other creatures, it is a uniquely human gift. Furthermore, God continues on, giving to man dominion over all the earth, and all the other creatures in it. Thus, he resembles God not merely in the possession of intellect and will, but in the holding of dominion over the forms of creation below him. Man’s dominion, like the other aspects of his nature, is not complete, for only God is truly complete in any sense – but dominion it is still. This command given to man by God over the earth is starkly contrasted with the relationship between human rulers and subjects, however. God tells the Israelites that they should have no king but Him (a command eerily juxtaposed against the Sanheidren’s insistence that they had no king but Caesar). In so doing, He firmly establishes that while the preservation of worldly order may be entrusted in part to certain men, no man is to be given true rule and dominion over his fellow men. The problems of attempting to do so play out in the calamities that befall Israel under the kings that God later grants them because of their "stubbornness." Thus, it seems evident that if man is afforded dominion over the creatures of the earth but not over his fellow men, then there must be a real existential distinction between man and beast. The animal’s nature cannot be morally equal to that of man’s – otherwise he would be like man and therefore not be able to be ruled by him.

Furthermore, consider chapter 10 of the Acts of Apostles, in which God declares all creatures fit for human consumption. If an animal were possessed of an immortal soul that survived the death of its body, it would be sacrilege and murder to kill it, and an abomination to eat it. Yet the morality of eating meat (PETA billboards notwithstanding) is clearly established in scripture – God very clearly says to Peter "EAT." Yet, the morality of this action of consuming animal flesh can only be possible by distinguishing the animal from the human (whose flesh it is not moral to eat, even when it is just to kill him, which is rarely) in a spiritual sense. The very fact that man does have an immortal soul that lives after his death, that is possessed of a reflection of God’s divinity, and that possesses and animates and acts in the physical world through the body is what makes that body sacred and makes harming it unlawful. The animal would have to be afforded the same care as the human if possessed of the same sort of soul. Even if one were to argue that animals exist after death in a spiritual existence different from that of humans (a "doggie heaven," so to speak), the immortality of the creature’s soul would still render the killing and consumption of its body gravely evil. Furthermore, there exists no revelation to support the hypothesis that such bestial supernatural planes exist – the idea is a purely human construction, even more so than sola scriptura.

To put one more nail in the coffin, animals quite demonstrably (even apart from theologically, which here is a far easier test to prove) lack intellect and will – the two defining aspects of humanity. In this regard, man differs in type, and not merely in degree, from animals. As Chesterton points out in The Everlasting Man, were men just especially clever animals, there would exist more gradation between human society and the animal world – animals would make crude art, build crude cities, set up petty crude kingdoms, and have crude societies. But none of these things are seen at all in animals – the "paintings" made by apes and elephants are not "art" as we understand and use the term – the chimpanzee only spreads paint on a canvas because he was given a paintbrush, paint, and the canvas by humans. Left to his own devices he will never create these things, even in their most basic form, by himself. And please spare me the ants – ant colonies are not signs of intelligence, even by highly secular standards – the creatures lack even the physical capacity for thought in that they don’t have brains. Because animals lack will, they cannot choose to obey, or disobey, God; they cannot sin, they cannot love, they cannot hate, they cannot engage in virtuous or vicious acts – thus, they cannot attain salvation, nor can they be condemned to damnation. They glorify God unwittingly by their simple and unwilful existence, and their souls perish when they do.

So, what about the question raised as to whether or not creatures are present in heaven as an accessory to the human experience of it? I find this question far more unusual, and far easier to answer. To say that the virtuous in heaven experience their worldly pets as an element of their eternal happiness is really somewhat of an insult to God, because it denies the perfectness of the Beatific Vision. The whole POINT of heaven is that the presence of God, the act of being before His face unveiled in all its glory, is IN AND OF ITSELF the definition of complete happiness. What is worldly happiness? It is closeness to God. The perfect happiness of heaven, then, is nothing more than that happiness in its perfect state – being in God’s very presence. If I need my pet, or a game, or a plant, or my favorite mounted bass, or whatever, to really be happy in heaven, then God Himself is inadequate for me. And saying that is just simply and inexplicably contrary to everything Christians (of pretty much all types) have believed about God for the last 2000 years.

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