Thursday, March 17, 2011

Animals above

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, animals, spirituality

"And to every animal of the earth and to every bird of heaven and to everything that creeps upon the earth, in which is a living soul,..." Genesis 1:30a (KJV has "breath of life" for "living soul", which isn't too bad, but the correspondence with the next quote is lost.)

"Jehovah God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul." Genesis 2:7

"For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the coming glory to be revealed upon us. For the anxious watching of the creation eagerly awaits the revelation of the sons of God. For the creation was made subject go vanity, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will also be freed from the slavery of corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans together and travails in pain together until now." Romans 8:18-22

Do animals have a place in the eternal plan of God? Or, if you prefer, in the "Summerland" and higher spiritual realms? When a pet rabbit died, Ptolemy Tompkins decided to find out, as he writes in The Divine Life of Animals: One Man's Quest to Discover Whether the Souls of Animals Live On. If he had a better translation of the Bible than the KJV with which he is almost certainly the most familiar, and if that familiarity were a bit deeper, his quest might have been shorter. The "groaning creation" mentioned by Paul in the Romans quote refers to animals, for it is unlikely that rocks or plants suffer.

In five longish chapters the author tours through twenty millennia of human (and animal) history, searching for the roots of modern attitudes in the beliefs of early societies and their remnants among peoples often called "primitive." While more "animistic" cultures imputed soul and intelligence to all things, even those we might call "inanimate," by some 2,500 years ago both Eastern and Western cultural traditions had evolved a rather bleak view of the afterlife. Traditions that believed in reincarnation or metempsychosis sought eventual escape from the endless round of incarnations, while both Greek and earlier Hebrew traditions had settled on the notion of a "shade," in which a departed soul did not enjoy the afterlife so much as endure it with a fading stoicism, tending to mindlessness.

While the much earlier traditions posited a rich interplay of humans with animal spirits, those cultures that began to think of animals as property gradually lost all thought of nonhuman animals as active agents or spiritual beings. Particularly with the rise of first Aristotelian materialism and then classical and modern science, the animals were thought of as instinct-driven robots that neither thought nor suffered. Just as a more cheerful view of the afterlife became common in the West, no place was imagined in it for animals.

But a more modern trend has restored a sense of spirituality to animals, at least in some circles. Tompkins found it among readers of the semi-Christian publication Guideposts, and when he wrote an article "Will My Pet go to Heaven?", he triggered a wave of correspondence that went on for years, and yielded a rich harvest of animal stories: stories of visions of departed pets running in an ever-green land of sunshine; of warnings of danger; and of dreams of communication with a loved animal that promised to wait at a Rainbow Bridge.

In his final chapter he concludes that we are the Rainbow Bridge and that our animals need us to cross over to the even better place that awaits us both. This somewhat echoes the Romans quote above, though Paul did not really have "heaven" in mind, as he also averred that God would bring his heavenly kingdom to Earth, a restored Earth with "corruption" banished.

There is further evidence in the Bible that God's kingdom has a place for animals, found in those mysterious passages about Cherubim in Ezekiel and The Revelation. In one passage, each of these has four faces on one head, the face of a lion, of an ox, of an eagle, and of a man. In the other, each of four creatures has one face of these four. Regardless, they represent before God, the human realm, two orders of the mammal realm, and one for birds. Then there are various passages about God's kingdom that speak of lions lying down with lambs, and the serpents losing their venom and becoming harmless. It's a pity Tompkins doesn't mention them. However, he tries to give more-or-less equal space to a number of religious traditions, so perhaps there simply wasn't room.

But let us think practically on one point. "Heaven" or whatever must be quite a bit larger than Earth. In human history, the number who have died probably amounts to between fifty and one hundred billion souls. Nearly all animals live shorter lives than we do, so the number of departed cats and dogs could outnumber departed humans by ten to one. The rats and mice and canaries and hummingbirds would outnumber those even further. Where does the admission ticket stop? With insects? With bacteria? God has to have some way to balance the heavenly kingdom, or the comparatively few humans present (!) will be lost amongst the animal denizens. If I am to be reunited with every cat I've ever owned, I think there will be more than forty. I also had three dogs, but none of them lived very long (cars got them all).

He concludes that at least the animals people have loved will be found in the afterlife. Perhaps. Let us then remember to keep our accounts short with our God, to make sure we don't "go elsewhere" and stand up our beloved pets where they wait for us!

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