“Think about this for a moment! We’re dealing with a God who says: Not a sparrow falls to the ground without My being aware of its suffering.”
From David Crumm’s talk with sociologist and evangelical scholar Tony Campolo
The spiritual lives of animals are a mystery to most of us, even though there’s not a more practical issue in millions of households around the world. Most preachers and teachers shy away from this issue, because the scriptural answers seem a little puzzling -– and because the subject quickly seems to veer off into other controversial questions like: Should we hunt?
But, pastor and scholar Tony Campolo is famous for his fearlessness in exploring spiritual themes that matter to ordinary people like you and me. And, I can tell you, this is an issue so powerful that it literally can bring us to our knees, if a beloved pet suddenly dies and we feel grief at the passing that’s as sharp and as real as the passing of a family member.
If you missed it, yesterday’s first part of our Conversation With Tony Campolo is just a click away (through the links at right you can find all of our earlier articles).
If you care to “READ MORE” on today’s themes, we’ve got individual book reviews ready for you – and direct links to buy these books from Amazon by clicking on the titles or the book covers displayed here: First, “God of Intimacy and Action” is Tony’s brand-new book that includes a section on this theme; “Letters to a Young Evangelical” is also a terrific overview of Tony’s approach to the faith; “John Wesley” by Stephen Tomkins provides a spirited look at this pioneer’s life; “Saint Francis of Assisi” by Robert Kennedy Jr. is a must-buy picture book for families; “Do Dogs Go To Heaven?” is a classic look at animals in scripture and the Skylight Illuminations guide to “Native American Stories of the Sacred” is delightful, as well.
AND NOW, here’s the rest of our Conversation in which Tony points out that an appreciation for the spirituality of animals is as ancient as scripture itself – and has been explored by earlier heroes of the faith like St. Francis and John Wesley.
TONY: … A lot of the new praise music contains so much from our tradition about nature all around us praising God. I think that’s a good thing.
DAVID: One of the things I found so refreshing about your new book is that you argue that this theme about nature, about the spirituality of animals, really isn’t “new” at all. I come from a Methodist background myself and I wasn’t fully aware, until I read your book, of how strongly John Wesley stressed this point.
TONY: Yes. I make that point about Wesley and there’s a lot more to that than what I included in the book. Wesley saw a spiritual quality to animals that those of us in the modern world are apt to ignore.
DAVID: You point out in the book that his answer to: “Will our pets go to heaven?” was a resounding: “Yes.” And, of course, there were a number of other early reformers, like Wesley, who wanted to change the way church people thought of their animals. William Wilberforce, who’s most famous for campaigning against slavery, was another one who called for a different way of thinking about animals.
TONY: We don’t talk much about it in the church today, but yes there were many. St. Francis, too.
All of this is part of the fact that as we move into a postmodern era, there is a rediscovery of dimensions of spirituality that got lost in the modern era. In the modern era, anything that could not be reduced to empirical data and logic was discounted. Now, all of a sudden, we find ourselves in a new place. It’s a place wherein there is a sense that there is more to reality than what can be ascertained by empiricism. We need to tap into that which transcends. We are not just into physics anymore. We’re into metaphysics in the postmodern era.
DAVID: It’s a different way of seeing the wholeness of the world, the Creation.
TONY: Right. Wesley understood that we have a connectedness with animals. C.S. Lewis was also aware of this. Lewis wondered how certain people could be in heaven –- truly in heaven –- unless the animals they loved and who loved them were there in heaven with them.
Read Lewis. I think he argues this point more convincingly than I do in my brief statements about this in the book.
DAVID: You’re saying it’s right there in scripture as well.
TONY: Go to the Psalms, particularly the 148th Psalm in which the Psalmist calls on us to worship with all of nature. And when we sing the words, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow; Praise him all creatures here below,” we don’t even stop to think about the words. But there’s that emphasis on all creatures here below. And there are songs that pick up the scripture about the leaves of the trees clapping their hands in praise of God. (See Isaiah 55:12.)
That view of nature is very popular right now in praise music. And, as a sociologist, I assure you that our hymnology always precedes our theology. People always sing the future before they live it. This means that these themes are becoming more important to us again.
DAVID: It’s a larger vision of God’s world.
TONY: Yes. Imagine if there were no human beings on earth. Well, there still would be a reason behind the Creation. Creation is here to glorify God. From a Wesleyan point of view, everything in creation was created for the purpose of worship.
Now, I want to emphasize that I do think there is a different kind of spirituality in creatures that are lower than human beings in the Creation. The Psalmist says that as humans we are creatures somewhere between the angels and the animal world.
But I am also saying that in this world of animals there is God’s presence. There is a kind of spiritual presence in all of nature and people who are truly spiritual have an empathy with nature that is important for us to appreciate.
Many people have recognized this. Erich Fromm in his book, “The Art of Loving,” really attacks what has happened in our modern world. He points out that before the modern era, people were able to relate to animals, trees and nature in a very empathetic way. Movies like “Dances with Wolves” catch this from Native American traditions and, now, there’s a great interest in Native American traditions for this reason, I think.
DAVID: But when someone like Wesley came to this realization it was quite striking. You say in your book that people joked that they could tell a Methodist household by the way people treated their animals.
TONY: You have in Wesley someone tapping back into Francis, where Francis felt this sense of kinship with the moon and the sun and the stars.
Others have felt that kinship. “Great is thy faithfulness,” says the hymn. And, “Sun, moon and stars in their courses above, join with all nature in manifold witness, to Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.” There’s this sense of connectedness.
And anyone who loves an animal and reaches a point in that animal’s life when we have to put that animal to death because it is suffering so much –- after that, we go through a period of grief that is profound.
DAVID: People who haven’t experienced it don’t appreciate it.
TONY: No. Other people look at that and say, “Oh, isn’t that cute that you feel that way about your pet.” And they expect you to get over it right away. They don’t understand.
But if you tap into what’s happening there, when you realize that it is a good and godly thing to feel that connection, then you can appreciate more about God’s Creation. We’re dealing with a God whose eye is on the sparrow. We say that. We sing that. But, think about this for a moment! We’re dealing with a God who says: Not a sparrow falls to the ground without my being aware of its suffering.
DAVID: So, we’ve reached the hot potato issue and I should ask at least a little about that, because you’ve talked about it before: Hunting.
TONY: I get letters from people all the time complaining about what I say about this, but my response is always the same: I ask, “Does God empathize with a deer? Does God feel the agony of a deer? Is that something God experiences? Does God feel what a deer feels or a bear feels? Does God empathize with the creatures of nature?”
Then I say, “If so, then when an animal feels pain and suffering and death, God feels that. Do we want to be the cause of God feeling that?”
This isn’t a new question. There’s the ancient Talmudic tradition that goes back beyond the modern era. It says there’s nothing wrong with killing an animal for food, but to make a sport of this? No.
There is a wideness in God’s mercy that goes way beyond anything we can conceive. It shows us the greatness of God to think that not a sparrow falls to earth without God being aware of it.
DAVID: I know that hunting is a controversial issue, but this issue of God’s concern for animals and for our pets, especially –- that’s a spiritual issue that touches far more people than church leaders envision.
TONY: If you start talking about animals and God’s concern for animals to your congregation, many people sitting out there from somewhere way down deep inside of them are going to say: Thank God! They’re thinking: Here is a part of my world that is very important to me and the church has never spoken to me about this before.
My response is: Is God involved in every aspect of life?
I say: Yes. Francis said: Yes. Wesley said: Yes.
And, most importantly, the scriptures say: Yes!
And, that’s the End of our Conversation for this week … Come back next Wednesday for A Conversation with Frederick Buechner!
And, make sure to come back Tomorrow for:
“006: A Major New Voice Is Rising in Islam …”
HERE’s An Important Note on Balance from those of us here at ReadTheSpirit:
We’re just getting to know each other, but we are aware that there are many good and godly people who find hunting and fishing a pleasurable part of their communion with Creation and, by offering today’s Conversation, we’re not trying to pick a fight. Our guiding principle in all that we do is: Great curiosity about people’s spiritual viewpoints — coupled with great respect. Over the past 48 hours, we’ve welcomed Tony Campolo’s viewpoints. We’ll welcome a rich array of other viewpoints in coming weeks and months.
Share your viewpoint with us, please, in this same curious-respectful way. Click Here to email me, David Crumm, or leave a Comment for all of our readers to see by clicking below.
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