In our almost 11 years of living in South Africa, I have become socialised by the surrounding culture to own a dog and a pickup truck… or what locals call a bakkie. I am yet to purchase a bakkie, but we are the embarrassingly proud owners of a four-year-old Hungarian Vizsla called Lowen. Now, what on earth has dog ownership got to do with Christian formation I hear (some of you) say? Well, it turns out, more than I could imagine.
Six years ago, my wife and I moved in with our friend for a season. When she travelled, which she did quite often, we looked after her Great Dane. For the years before this move, we were slowly but surely being stretched in all areas of life. Between prayer meetings, leadership meetings, the meetings that leadership meetings seem to create, community gatherings, and outreach afternoons we could leave at 7 am and return at 11 pm multiple times a week.
But, when our friend left on a trip, we were responsible for her dog, Riley. Instead of long hours out, our days became interspersed with walking, feeding, and being present to this dear dog.
We suddenly recognised how positive these rituals were, not only because it suddenly gave us a legitimate reason to turn down endless meeting requests, but also because it rooted and grounded us in a rhythm that allowed my wife and I to connect and debrief as we walked the dog. Ironically, an animal dog offered us a more human pace, a more boundaried existence, and endless enthusiastic greetings! Riley ended up being a grace of God in our lives. But, I think, even if you don’t own a dog, this blog has something to offer you too.
Responsibility that Grounds Us
Once we moved into our own house we got a Vizsla puppy called Lowen. While Riley, a fully grown and well-trained dog, offered rhythm and companionship, our new puppy asked for much more than he offered! He was incessantly needy. He ate inedible things and, consequently, pooped and peed on everything. I discovered puppy ownership looks very different from the Instagram ideal.
But there is something about responsibility that grounds us, as if humans all along were made to care for things. Caring for such dependent animals somehow calls deep to the echo of Eden that lives inside each one of us.
While owning a puppy taught us the gift of responsibility and a fresh pace of life which humanised us, it also created far more connection than we could have ever realised. After walking the streets with a puppy, and later a dog, Lowen became a passport for connection. Within a few months, we knew twice the people we had met in the previous 7 years living in the same community.
I’m venturing to say that owning a dog is a particular kind of grace – a physical creature that communicates the life and love of God to us. Whatever our day has held, whether we were built up or torn down, we are greeted by a wiggling creature ecstatic that we are simply with him. In his own way, Lowen becomes a kind of physical sign or a sacrament of God’s always present love towards us.
Bringing Us Back to our Role in the Garden
Creatures teach us something about power in a way that is different from our relationship with other human image-bearers. While raising a child is, in most cases, a trajectory of increasing independence that outlasts our own earthly lives, our care for animals does not lead towards independence. Animals require our care, compassion, and diligence to uphold their entire lives. In this way, they offer us a particular connection to the creation-based intentions of God for humans before the fall of Genesis 3. We glimpse in that time before, the primary task of the first humans to care for, name, and wield authority over animals. This task was more than is depicted as the cute petting zoo of our children’s storybook bibles, our relationship to animals reveals our key role in creation.
As the creation story unfolds, the context of creation is described as a temple. In the Genesis story, God is creating a place in which he intends to dwell. In this original temple garden, humans are placed there to be the Priests of the temple. Priests exist to represent God and mediate the presence of God.
But if all humans were originally intended to be Priests then who are they representing? The answer is, they are meant to be the Priests of creation.
We are meant to be the place that all creation, including animals, looks to see what God is like. This is why, as Romans says, “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” because when we recover our priestly calling the rest of creation finds its right place too.
While we, in Christ, are the first fruits of God’s complete and cosmic redemption, we live in a time when the disease of death continues to infect God’s good creation. It is because of this that we end up with the somber priestly calling towards animals that means we often participate in the ending of their lives. God gives a gift of days to all human image-bearers and has made it clear that the taking of human life is his responsibility and burden. This is why murder and euthanasia have been consistently rejected as an offense to God throughout the moral history of Judaism and Christianity. In contrast, we are the ones who hold the responsibility for the animals in our care and are authorised to take this role. It is a difficult task, and yet, one that is key to the stewardship of God’s good but diseased creation.
As C.S. Lewis reflects in The Four Loves, for now, our loves always carry the risk of loss:
“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
While the pain of loss and the sting of grief are a blight on God’s good creation (one that humans were not made to have to endure), we are still called to love. To love, as God has, in order to act with hope and expectation in the world, to begin to sing the song that will be joined by all creation at the end of time.
Once again CS Lewis offers this reflection in the Problem of Pain:
“Man was appointed by God to have dominion over the beasts, and everything a man does to an animal is either a lawful exercise, or a sacrilegious abuse, of an authority by Divine right. The 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.”
Our relationship with animals is either a recovery of our ancient calling or an offense against our creator. When domestic animals respond to our authority and are tamed, we experience a foretaste of the peaceable intentions of all creation – of a day when the lion and the lamb will lie down together (Isaiah 11) and a recovery of our original call in Eden.
And, finally the biggest theological question that burns in the heart of so many dog-lovers: Will my dog be in heaven?! Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once told a 10-year-old boy: “God doesn’t lose anything that God loves.”
While it is speculation on my part, I think that our dogs might just find their way into God’s new creation through the love of their owners because all that is loving and lovable is upheld by the life of God. After all, dogs are graced by God to teach us how to become God-shaped-humans again.
*Note – All photos are of the dogs owned and loved by folks involved with the centre.
This article was originally published as part of the Lectio Letter