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A dog’s life: Pets guide evolving theology of creation, environment

December 2, 2009

I miss you, old friend.

We first brought you home as a 1-year-old mutt nearly 15 years ago. You bounded across fields and along the shorelines of lakes and oceans, leading all your canine and human companions on futile chases. You covered twice the ground I did when we ran together, doubling up back and forth on paths to get enough exercise as you kept track of my progress.

In later years, Cookie, it sometimes seemed as if we would grow old together. As age forced us to stop running, we began walking around parks and lakes, you rolling in the grass and searching through abandoned fast-food wrappings and underneath grills and picnic benches, me taking the time to breathe in and observe the beauty of the changing seasons. Both of us appreciated a slower pace of life.

As our time together grew shorter, when a stroke and gradual loss of hearing and sight made clear the difference in our life cycles, every moment took on added significance. Our walks in the park with our mutual best friend and my wife, Beth, were clouded by the uncertainty of the time we had left together, and the anguish of whether Beth and I would have to be part of that decision.

Finally, came that day in November when Beth and I knew it was time. Before going to the vet, we took you in the car for one of the rides you loved, stopping at a Burger King for a double cheeseburger.

You and I shared the burger at a picnic table on that sunny afternoon, then you roamed around amid fields, trees and rivers in the park in Franklin, Tenn., hallowed ground where thousands of young men lost their lives in the Battle of Franklin in the Civil War.

I wanted this moment to go on forever.

A theology of animals

Beth and I share in America’s love affair with our dogs and other pets. Just how much is shown in part by how much Americans spend on animals. People are cutting back in several areas during the recession, but not on pets. The American Pet Products Association says pet-related spending climbed 5 percent from 2007 to 2008, and is expected to rise by a similar percentage to $45.4 billion in 2009.

A 2006 Gallup Poll showed more than two-thirds of respondents purchased a Christmas gift for their pet.

Figures like these tend to reinforce the idea that Americans pamper and spoil their pets. Even worse, some would argue, the attention amounts to an unethical distribution of resources in a world where many human beings lack the basic necessities.

A closer look at the evolving relationship between people and their pets, however, also shows a growing value placed on other living creatures, and an increasing theological and environmental awareness of our responsibility to care for all of those in need.

Most of us choose our dogs and cats for reasons that respect the animal’s part in the relationship. Two-thirds of respondents to a 2007 Gallup Poll said that the main reason they got a dog was for companionship and friendship or that they liked or loved animals.

And we are willing to sacrifice for our pets.

Fifty-seven percent of respondents to the 2008 General Social Survey said that scientists should not be allowed to perform research that causes pain and suffering to animals like dogs even if it produces new information about human health. The percentage of opposition hardly varied across all religious groups.

Many religious institutions have responded. Christian churches today regularly invite the community to bring their pets for blessings. Services have been developed from Christianity to Buddhism lifting up the place of pets in creation in this life and beyond. Several books, Web sites and observances keep alive the memory of pets.

There is even growing speculation, part of a theological discussion that has drawn in such luminaries as C.S. Lewis, on the afterlife of animals. One theory says, precisely because dogs are sinless, that they will be restored in a new creation.

That people are talking about these issues is important, says Stephen H. Webb, professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College and the author of “On God and Dogs: A Christian Theology of Compassion for Animals.”

“To think about animal resurrection means that these bodies are valued and will be restored; it means that their lives, as well as their deaths, will have to be treated with respect,” Webb writes.

I cannot offer a definitive opinion on the eternal life of animals. What I can say, after well more than a decade of field study of one 35-pound, black and gray dog of many breeds, is that Cookie made this world a better place.

A gentle love

Beth often told Cookie she loved her.

But I found it hard to say those words. Even at Beth’s urging, I felt uncomfortable, wanting to keep the line distinct between love for a human being and love for an animal.

Instead, I would say: “I like you, Cookie.”

And many times when we were together, I told her in a soft, reassuring voice, “You make a difference in this world. You bring gentleness and peace and affection to a world greatly in need of your gifts. Your life is important.”

In these moments, Cookie stretched and growled contentedly, as if she understood the sincerity of my words.

And I do believe them.

Cookie was the gentlest animal I have ever had.

She responded with unconditional affection to everyone who approached her. Even when 2- or 3-year-old children in the neighborhood unintentionally grabbed her roughly, she never barked or nipped in return.

She ran with tail wagging to any neighbor who was outside. She became a particular part of the lives of children and adults who did not own a dog themselves.

Cookie was an ambassador of peace, affection and gentleness.

After we arrived at the vet’s office that November afternoon, we petted Cookie over and over as we waited for the doctor.

Finally, I took her in my arms, lifted up the flap over one of her ears, and said in a loud voice:

“I love you, Cookie. I love you.”

— David Briggs

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