Image source: www.myflyingdoggies.com
Thеrе іѕ nοt аn animal that lives οn the earth, nοr a being that flies οn іtѕ wings, but forms раrt οf communities lіkе уοu… аnd in the end they shall all bе gathered tο their Lord.
– Qur’an 6.38
We here at psnt.net have become aware of a story which must be shared with all Alert Readers. It comes from Timothy Jackson, a professor here at Candler. I am privileged to have Dr. Jackson for two courses this semester: Ethics and Kierkegaard. In the preface of The Priority of Love, his text for the Ethics class, he tells stories about events in his life that have powerfully influenced his view of God, himself, and others. He has given me permission to share one of these stories. It is a story about a dog, a voice, and seeing the world anew.
WALKING DULLY ALONG Temple Street in New Haven, one March day in 1979, I awoke from a rationalist’s dream. I heard from over my right shoulder the screeching of tires, then a loud “Thump!” followed by horrific howling. I turned to see a beautiful black Labrador retriever staggering along the side of the road with blood dripping from its nose and mouth. It was instantly clear, to me and the other pedestrians transfixed on the sidewalk, that this dog was doomed. Its internal injuries from being hit by the car, which did not stop, were so severe that nothing could be done. It was only a matter of time, and time seemed to clot more and more slowly with each high-pitched “Yelp” from the beast. It obviously did not know how to die, because it came up to two of us in front of Timothy Dwight College and seemed to look imploringly into our eyes for some sort of explanation. I suddenly felt the need to beg pardon.
Partly inspired by Kant’s speculation that animal subjectivity is “less even than a dream,” I had just two months before written a graduate seminar paper arguing that animals don’t feel morally significant pain. Since meaningful pain requires the ability to be self-conscious, to know oneself as the ongoing subject of intentions and sensations across time, I reasoned, no sub-human brute can technically be said to suffer. Aversive behavior is best seen on the model of stimulus-response, I concluded, and our concern not to “harm” animals is best accounted for in aesthetic or prudential categories rather than strictly ethical ones. How can one wrongly injure what is not fully sentient or personal? Now, confronted by the Lab’s agony, I saw how absurdly callous and callow this opinion was. I did not go through any elaborate process of reasoning; I simply felt for the dying dog so obviously in pain and so needlessly undone. As it slumped down in a patch of grass, I was touched by its misery and viscerally ashamed of myself.
Several emotions overtook me, made more powerful by my inability to act on them. I wanted to apologize to the dog for the hit and run driver, as well as for my own moral stupidity. I wanted to upbraid God, in whom I was not sure I believed, for making creatures so vulnerable and people so careless. Throughout it all, I kept saying to myself, “I am watching my own death. There is no reason why this should not be me, and one day it will be.” This reaction was akin to a Rortian “solidarity with fellow sufferers,” but, to my vast surprise, with a difference. For out of nowhere but immediately everywhere, I intuited an infinitely loving Presence watching and upholding us all. I seemed to hear a still, but not so small voice, intone: “Take care of my children!”
Immediately, all academic convictions about projection theory [e.g., that God is merely a projection of human needs] were turned on their heads: I was the created, projected personality, while the Other was the really real, the paradigmatic Person. At that moment, I could not doubt that I was addressed by a One larger than anything human or natural, individual or collective — One on whom I, the dog, the bystanders, the heedless driver, the blades of bloody grass, the very stones on the pavement utterly depended. And I knew more surely than I knew my own name that, should this One withhold for a moment its unconditional love for me and the world, we would instantly cease to exist. My own and others’ stories were sustained by a Storyteller of ineffable beauty and goodness. And S/He expected something of me! More accurately, I felt charged with sin, forgiven, then charged with acting as forgiven for others.
The dog finally keeled over completely, exhaled with a low rattle, and died. Here was neither a happy ending or nor a fulfilled theodicy, but my life had been changed. I had no answer to “the problem of evil,” but I had been given a glimpse of a Love that makes evil at once intolerable and endurable, a Love that is a goad to action yet also a remedy for sorrow. I did not begin to believe in a just God in spite of natural tragedy and human wickedness; rather, I sensed a divine anguish yet sublime resoluteness in the midst of these dark realities. I did not begin to have faith in personal immortality in spite of physical death; rather, I was temporarily delivered form the overwhelming worry that death renders life pointless.
Over thirty years after the fact, it is no more yet no less possible to construe the Temple Street “visitation” as illusory. But whether one speaks with Teresa of Ávila of “a divine locution” or with Ebenezer Scrooge of “an undigested bit of beef,” I learned something that day… [we] can and should love the creatures of the world for their own sakes, not merely for God’s or the neighbor’s or one’s own.
There are so many points that this story touches on for me. So many. But I’m going to avoid the strong temptation to pontificate, and let the story speak to each of you as it will.
Have a fantastic weekend, and remember to be kind to your local animals.