The other day a Facebook friend of mine posted a link intended to comfort those who have lost a pet. The linked-to story is that a little girl’s dog Abby has died, and she writes a letter to God, including a photo so that He will be sure to recognize her. Mother and daughter send the letter off addressed to God, Heaven….
Yesterday, there was a package wrapped in gold paper on our front porch addressed, ‘To Meredith’ in an unfamiliar hand. Meredith opened it. Inside was a book by Mr. Rogers called, ‘When a Pet Dies.’ Taped to the inside front cover was the letter we had written to God in its opened envelope. On the opposite page was the picture of Abbey & Meredith and this note:
Abbey arrived safely in heaven. Having the picture was a big help and I recognized her right away.
Abbey isn’t sick anymore. Her spirit is here with me just like it stays in your heart. Abbey loved being your dog. Since we don’t need our bodies in heaven, I don’t have any pockets to keep your picture in so I am sending it back to you in this little book for you to keep and have something to remember Abbey by.
Thank you for the beautiful letter and thank your mother for helping you write it and sending it to me. What a wonderful mother you have. I picked her especially for you. I send my blessings every day and remember that I love you very much. By the way, I’m easy to find. I am wherever there is love.
I couldn’t think of a polite way to ask my friend, who is a Christian, if she wasn’t disturbed by the idea that some dude at the Postal Service is pretending to be God Is this really considered kosher? And of course I am thankful that nobody can hear you gag over the Internet.
I did ask about the doctrine of canine salvation, which I found surprising. Do all dogs go to Heaven, or only pet dogs? Do the nasty aggressive dogs go to Heaven too? How about pet rats or snakes? This seems to me to lead into a theological quagmire. Lisa expressed the hope that ill-tempered dogs might go to Heaven, because her late pet was such a one; I thought this was a pretty gracious reply to my skepticism.
A couple of her friends gave more general replies. One wrote, “Since Heaven is God’s new creation and dogs are a part of God’s creation, they will certainly be there.” That strikes me as rather rickety argument—I mean, the 9/11 terrorists are part of God’s creation too, but few Christians expect to meet them in Heaven.
Another wrote that there must be horses in Heaven because Jesus will come back on a a horse. I always thought his preferred mount was a donkey, but in any case, I was asking about the Heavenly immortality of specific earthly animals, not about the presence there of generic types. For that matter, Christ might appear on something that appears to us to be a horse, but is in fact a being of celestial origin, just as angels may appear to us in human form without actually being human.
I suppose that in some ways dogs are better suited than humans to life in Heaven, a place, as the Talking Heads used to say, where nothing ever happens. It would take a very long time for my dog to get bored with having the same dinner of steak and Parmigiano Reggiano every night. Still, it seems inappropriate to drag them into the scheme of sin and redemption that is at the center of traditional Christianity. Dogs do not need salvation, and I see no evidence that they are concerned with any world other than this one.
Sometimes the fuzziness of modern Christian belief, where everybody and his dog goes to Heaven, seems like a get-rich-quick scheme compared with the rigor of the old days when each version of the Good News came with a hefty dose of Bad News (I’ve been reading accounts of the 16th Century by Hilary Mantel and Simon Schama). You could get the Bible in your own language, and direct access to God without mediation, but then you were stuck with predestination, the complete uselessness of virtuous works in obtaining salvation, and the abolition of most of the fun church stuff (art, music, in the 1640s even Christmas, though that was not a hit). Or you could have cool rituals and art, intercession by kindly saints and the Virgin Mary instead of just Nobodaddy, and salvation by works as well as faith, but at the cost of unintelligible hocus-pocus and the dictatorship of the priesthood , the rackets in masses and indulgences. You kinda knew where you stood.
That said, I have no nostalgia at all for the men who elaborated and enforced the principles of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, men (and a few women, like Bloody Mary) who lived as though their Bible were some combination of Mein Kampf and 50 Shades of Gray. I guess I am content to lose some of the fun of Early Modern theology in exchange for nicer Christians.