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New books explore question: Will we see pets in heaven? Alfredo Garcia, Aug 13, 2010
By Alfredo Garcia Religion News Service
About 170 million cats and dogs have found a place in homes across the U.S., according to the 2009-2010 National Pet Owners Survey.
Probably most of them have also found a place in their owners’ hearts. And anyone who has ever had to say goodbye to Fido or Fluffy has wondered if their beloved pets will be waiting for them in heaven.
The fate of our four-legged friends—whether they have souls, whether they’ll be in the afterlife—has occupied the minds of Christian thinkers since the days of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine. Three new books try to answer the questions and affirm a special relationship between humans and animals—one that does not end with death.
Author Ptolemy Tompkins tracks the history of that relationship in The Divine Life of Animals, released in June by Crown Publishing Group. Mr. Tompkins, prompted to write by the death of his pet rabbit Angus, looks to the ancient past for the best models of animal-human interaction.
“Pre-modern cultures . . . were apparently able to see animals as undying spirits dressed, for the moment, in mortal bodies,” he writes. The idea is to recover that “new-yet-old vision” that “will allow us to see [animals] as the genuine soul-beings they are and always have been.”
In Mr. Tompkins’ view, Western culture is based on Christian theology, which in turn is heavily dependent upon ancient Greek thought that had a hard time accepting the idea of animal souls. Put another way: Humans are rational, animals are not.
Mr. Tompkins, a self-described “unconventional Christian,” doesn’t buy it.
“Through the Greeks, we allowed ourselves to [withdraw from] participation in the life around us,” he said in an interview. “With each step of knowledge, we understand the world a little better, but at the same time we get a little bit away from it.”
Laura Hobgood-Oster, professor of religion at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, believes the question of animal souls wasn’t always an issue. Her upcoming book The Friends We Keep (Waterbrook Press) places the animal-human relationship in the history of Christianity.
“It seems that the question of animals and the soul was much more plausible in Christian history up almost until the Enlightenment or up into the Reformation,” she said. Eventually, “all the animals started to disappear [from Christian theology].”
Like Mr. Tompkins, Dr. Hobgood-Oster doesn’t accept the idea that only humans can possess a soul. “In the last 20 or 30 years, I believe we’ve seen these questions raised anew [that challenge] traditional theology about humans being the only ones who matter, or humans as the only ones with souls.”
And if humans aren’t the only ones with souls, they’re probably not the only ones in heaven, she added. “There does not seem to be any indication [in Scripture] . . . that there is a special human exclusion.”
In 2009 Paraclete Press published Will I See My Dog in Heaven? by Jack Wintz, a Franciscan friar. In April he answered his own question with a follow-up, I Will See You in Heaven.
Taking inspiration from his order’s founder and the patron saint of animals, St. Francis of Assisi, Mr. Wintz presents biblical evidence for the inclusion of animals in heaven.
In the book of Genesis both humans and animals lived in a peaceful harmony that Mr. Wintz writes is “a wonderful and insightful glimpse of the paradise that is to come. . . . It makes sense to me, therefore, that the same loving creator who arranged for these animals . . . to enjoy happiness in the original Garden would not want to exclude them from the final paradise.”
Mr. Wintz also finds inspiration in the New Testament, noting in I Will See You in Heaven that “Jesus delighted using images from nature.”
He concludes it’s all evidence that “the gospel message will have a saving impact upon the whole family of creation, and not simply on the human family.”