Children aren’t the only ones asking if they’ll see their pets in heaven. Theologians wonder too.
With 62 percent of U.S. households having pets, according to the recent National Pet Owners Survey, the link between animals and spirituality may be more relevant than ever.
This fall, the book Animals and the Afterlife: True Stories of Our Best Friends’ Journey Beyond Death will be released. In November, the American Academy of Religion will convene a group of scholars to discuss animals and spirituality. And the Roman Catholic feast day of St. Francis of Assisi on Oct. 4, long used to celebrate the Blessing of Animals, has now found form in other denominations as a way of bringing pets and other animals into the life of the church.
An ABC/Beliefnet telephone poll from summer 2001 found that 43 percent of Americans believed pets would go to heaven, 40 percent believed afterlife didn’t apply to pets, and 17 percent were undecided. In a variation on the question, the poll found that 41 percent believed all animals, and not just pets, would go to heaven.
The issue is complex. If animals go to heaven, then they must have souls. And if they have souls, that complicates the ethics of eating them. The general issue of the sanctity of animal life finds expression in numerous ways: becoming vegetarian or vegan; not hunting; blessing animals in church; conducting animal funerals and weddings; shutting down meat and dairy industries and much more.
Animal-rights activists have reached out to religious folk more in recent years, sometimes using religious texts to warrant claims of vegetarianism or veganism (a strict form of vegetarianism that refrains from consuming not only meat but eggs and dairy products as well).
For example, some activists point to Genesis 1:29-30 as a proof-text against the killing and eating of animals:
“Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.'”
Lisa Kemmerer, philosophy professor at Montana State University, argues that even though eating meat is later approved in Genesis, it is done so as a concession. God’s intent is for creation to return to its origins, she says, meaning a vegan lifestyle.
This debate isn’t unique to the 21st century. Christian thinkers including Augustine and Aquinas have dealt with the notion of animal spirituality throughout the centuries. Buddhism, which teaches reincarnation, views animals as part of that process involving all beings.
St. Timothy Church in Union, Ky., holds a Blessing of Animals ceremony on Oct. 4. The intent is “to celebrate God’s creation,” said Pastor Mark Witte in an e-mail to EthicsDaily.com.
Children typically bring their pets, he said, which are “part of life, just as all of creation.”
Witte pointed to the lasting influence of St. Francis of Assisi on Christians’ relationship to creation.
“St. Francis is a person who taught many about the beauty of God’s creation,” Witte said. “He was from a movement that in the midst of a ‘spiritual rigidity’ in the understanding of God taught that God is experienced in many ways.”
“He speaks of our brother the sun and sister moon,” Witte continued. “This is not to say that we are just matter in relation, but that we share in the creation of God.”
In fact, Witte pointed out, it was St. Francis who began the tradition of the crÃ¨che, or manger scene—complete with animals.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.