Sunday, March 29, 2009

Save the Whales

Every Sunday on my way to my bitty church, I pass my local up-and-coming independent mini-mega church. They've been running a sermon series for the last month or so on heaven, and the question posed on their signage today was a simple one: ANIMALS IN HEAVEN?

The purpose of such a question is rather simple...will there be a doggie door on our heavenly mansion for Mr. Barky? Anyone who has a pet to which they've had deep emotional ties really doesn't want there to be any question: Captain Fluffykins will be there forever and ever.

Of course, I tend to find that way of understanding heaven a bit simplistic, but when you get right down to it, I think...sure. Yes. Of course animals are there. If you're OCD about scriptural references, it straight up says so in Ecclesiastes. Not the cheeriest of prooftexts, but hey, it answers the question.

Animals, of course, tend to be simpler creatures, and one could argue that they're considerably less aware than we are of their surroundings. As beings that have less self-awareness, they aren't prone to the type of destructive self-seeking that defines human sin...and therefore they'd just automatically get in. That, I would think, would be the theological position that a thoughtful pastor consoling a churchgoer at the loss of a companion animal might provide if pressed.

There's a deeper fuddle to this, though. Not all animals lack self-awareness. Higher primates like chimps and orangutans and gorillas clearly demonstrate memory, awareness of themselves as selves, and are even capable of grasping and expressing certain forms of human language. They can show compassion towards one another, and are also capable of intense brutality. But can they sin? If they have self-awareness, the answer would seem to be yes. If so...then are they somehow inherently unsaved according to the evangelical rubric? Koko the Gorilla never signed that she had accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior, after all.

A solid counterargument would be that even the brightest of the "lesser creatures" are like children, and thus not fully culpable for their actions. But...what about creatures that aren't meaningfully "lesser" than many folks who've responded to an altar call. Elephants have fairly sophisticated infrasonic language, and have brains and vocabularies that meet or exceed those of most reality TV stars. Cetaceans are clearly our equals, although the forms and structures of their intellects are very different from ours. That doesn't matter, though.

If they have sentience, and they have will, and they are aware...then from the basic underlying assumptions of orthodox theology, they should be capable of sin. But they don't know nor can they know Jesus, as they're not able to read the tracts we earnestly press up against the glass wall at SeaWorld.

Does this mean they're inherently damned? Or just that the contemporary evangelical understanding of sin and Christ's purpose isn't quite adequate to the task of explaining it's way through this conundrum?