Does God Have Pets?
A sermon by Colin Gibson from Mornington Church on an occasion when children brought their pets to Church
Yes, says the Bible, or rather the human beings who wrote down the Genesis stories. Yes, we human beings are God’s pets—all 9.2 billion of us, the descendents of the African Eve. Remember the familiar verses: ‘God created Man in his own image; male and female he created them. And God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living that moves upon the face of the earth’….And we pets are grateful! Psalm 8 proudly declares ‘You have made us little less than yourself, and crown us with glory, and dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under our feet.’ By the time of the medieval Christian church, the theologians had worked out what they called the great Chain of Being, stretching from inanimate stones at the bottom, up through every creature, ranked in order, and rising to ourselves, just beneath the angelic beings who surrounded God himself. And of course it has been left to us in our time to show ruthlessly just what such dominion over nature means.
O Yes, says the Bible, or rather the men who wrote the scriptures. God does have pets: males are God’s pets. Women are their helpers, created just to fill their lonely hours (Read the Genesis stories). Of course Paul puts a special spin on that idea: that married men are God’s pets. I’m quoting Ephesians 5: ‘Wives be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is head of the Church. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. And so began a thousand years of female servitude.
And Yes, chorus the good and righteous, God does have pets. The good and the righteous, those who obey the religious laws of the nation are God’s pets. This is an especially frequent theme in the Hebrew psalms, where God’s rewards for the good and his penal policy for the wicked is set out in lavish detail. So belief is invested in a fiercely moral deity, who favours some and rejects and destroys others. ‘Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked’ says Psalm 1, ‘in all that he does he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff which the wind drives away…the way of the wicked will perish.’ Unfortunately, this comforting idea is manifestly not true, but it has inspired an unpleasant form of self-righteousness which is never happier than when it dreams of ever more savage punishments for the ungodly, the ungood.
Yes, indeed, say the Hebrews whose sacred scriptures we so revere. Hebrews are God’s pets. We (meaning the Jewish race) have God’s own word for it: we are ‘God’s Chosen People’, the Bible tells us so over a hundred times. Take Ezekiel, for example: ‘Thus says the Lord God: I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel. And when you come there you will remove from it all its detestable things and all its abominations….You shall be my people, and I will be your God.’ What a formula for ethnic cleansing and ferocious nationalism.
That’s not it, said the white races of 19th-century Europe and Britain. We French and Germans and English and Dutch are God’s special pets; all other races are ‘lesser breeds’ who need us to teach and civilise them. Africans, Indians, Jews and Arabs, Asians, the indigenous people of the Americas, the Pacific, the Aborigines of Australia and the Maori of New Zealand: all of these are inferior human beings, less intelligent, less moral, less religious, less enlightened than ourselves.
True indeed, chorus the Christians. God does have favourites and we Christians are it: all members of other religious faiths are lost souls wandering in the darkness of ignorance, and (say fundamentalist Christians) doomed to the pains of hell. Didn’t Christ as reported by John say ‘I am the way, and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me’? Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Zoroastrians, Bahais, Hindus…they’re all God’s rejects, and in desperate need of conversion to the true faith to save their benighted souls.
Not all Christians, says the latest head of the Roman Catholic Church. You’ve got it wrong. Only Roman Catholic Christians are God’s pets; only those who follow the true faith of the Church of Rome and its infallible doctrines are real Christians. The rest are mistaken heretics and deviants with no claim on the rewards of heaven.
Pure nonsense, say Jehovah’s Witnesses. The members of our sect are God’s pets. Precisely 144,000 of us will be given immortality and reign forever in heaven with Christ as co-rulers over the rest of humanity during the Millennial Age. This age began in 1914 with the invisible second coming of Christ, but we’re still waiting for Armageddon to institute this particular form of pet-hood.
Don’t be silly, say the Calvinists, God selects his own human pets and has done so from eternity. God’s choice is mysterious to us and not based on recognition of any special virtue, merit, or faith. Such fortunate people simply belong of right among ‘the company of the Elect’. Unfortunately, the rest of humanity—that is, the majority of us—are in a state of total depravity and will remain so. You and I, the unelect, are all predestined to damnation (the worst form of un-pethood) and can do nothing whatever to save ourselves.
So human beings, sublimely confident of their own premiere status among all the creatures of this world, fall to quarrelling about which of their own kind deserves the title of God’s pets.
There’s a mini-picture of this sort of quarrel in the dispute which broke out among Jesus’ own disciples as to which of them was the greatest—which Jesus typically punctured by placing a child beside himself and declaring, ‘Who ever receives this child in my name receives me…Who ever is the least among you all is the one who is great’ (Luke 9).
I’m almost relieved to say that among all this foolishness, there is a steady vein of belief that God has no pets.
The Genesis record declares that when God successively created the living creatures who inhabit the seas, the air and the land, he pronounced each of them ‘good’. Notice, ‘good’; not ‘better’ or ‘best’.
Jesus memorably speaks of God’s equal dealing with the good and the evil: ‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You are to love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, to be true children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.’ (Mathew 5). Every one shares in the blessings of nature: no pets there.
Three of the New Testament letters speak of the abolition of all distinctions of race, gender, and social status in the new life in Christ (Romans 1, Galatians 3, Colossians 3). ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’
The great mystics of the Christian faith have always declared that God’s presence is in all things, all forms of being. The universe is not some kind of school class divided into teacher’s pets and the rest. No, says Hildegard of Bingen, 11th century visionary, scientist and poet. ‘All living creatures are, so to speak, sparks from the radiation of God’s brilliance, and these sparks emerge from God like the rays of the sun…If God did not give off these sparks, how would the divine flame become fully visible? No creature exists that lacks a radiance—be it greenness or seeds, buds or beauty. Otherwise it would not be a creature at all.’ For Hildegard, ‘all species of creatures ‘shine in their wonderful origin’, they ‘glitter in the beauty of their fullness,’ they continually reflect God’s light back and forth to one another.
Evan Lewis has recently produced a booklet illustrating the creation spirituality of Johannes Eckhart, 13th century German mystic and Dominican priest. Eckhart is close to Hildegard, and insistent that God has no pets. ‘All creatures are words of God. My mouth expresses and reveals God, but the existence of a stone does the same.’ ‘God enjoys himself. In the same enjoyment in which God enjoys himself he enjoys all creatures; not as creatures, but the creatures as God.’ ‘God loves all creatures equally and fills them with his being. Among all the creatures he does not love any more than any other. And we should lovingly meet all creatures in the same way.’ Eckhart goes so far as to declare that ‘whoever sees duality or distinction does not see God.’
And famously St Francis of Assisi declared all living beings to be his brothers and sisters. Francis, the patron saint of animals and now of the environment. Francis who preached to the birds and made a friend of the savage wolf of Gubbio.
Modern theologians are still struggling to catch up with such profound insights. But here is a passage quoted in a recent service celebrating Celtic spirituality, held at St Paul’s Cathedral here in Dunedin:
Connection and communion with the natural world at its deepest level is religious. In the mountains and bush, the smallest flower, the song of the bellbird and in human love we experience the mystery of the sacred. The Church has only in recent times addressed the ecological crisis, our pattern of living which is killing earth. But the concept promoted is one of stewardship, not of kinship. The steward may be responsible and caring, but remains over and apart from the estate. When we recognise our kinship, our interdependence in a loving and intimate relationship with earth and all of its creatures we will encounter the Creator Spirit pesent and active in the world.
Does God have pets? Yes: each one and every one, every you and me, every creature that you lavish your love on and every other creature in our world too. All filled with the radiant being of God; all loved and enjoyed by God just as you love your companion and friend, whoever, whatever that may be.