Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Cats and Friendship

"If, nevertheless , the strong conviction which we have of a real, though doubtless rudimentary, selfhood in the higher animals, and specially in those we tame, is not an illusion, their destiny demands a somewhat deeper consideration. The error we must avoid is that of considering them in themselves. Man is to be understood only in his relation to God. The beasts are to be understood only in their relation to man and, through man, to God....Man was appointed by God to have dominion over the beasts, and everything a man does to an animal is either a lawful exercise, or a sacrilegious abuse, of an authority by Divine right. The tame animal is therefore, in the deepest sense, the only ‘natural’ animal— the only one we see occupying the place it was made to occupy, and it is on the tame animal that we must base all our doctrine of beasts. Now it will be seen that, in so far as the tame animal has a real self or personality, it owes this almost entirely to its master. If a good sheepdog seems ‘almost human’ that is because a good shepherd has made it so.
You must not think of a beast by itself, and call that a personality and then inquire whether God will raise and bless that. You must take the whole context in which the beast acquires its selfhood— namely ‘The–goodman–and–the–goodwife–ruling–their–children–and–their–beasts–in–the–good–homestead’....If you ask, concerning an animal thus raised as a member of the whole Body of the homestead , where its personal identity resides, I answer ‘Where its identity always did reside even in the earthly life— in its relation to the Body and , specially , to the master who is the head of that Body.’ In other words , the man will know his dog: the dog will know its master and, in knowing him, will be itself."

CS Lewis, "The Problem of Pain"

Maybe it's just me, but these words ring true to me. I think any pet owner will insist on some sort of "personality" in their pet, something that makes the animal something more than an animal...not a person, perhaps, but something similar. I think about pets a lot, and their proper place in the world and in families. And I've come to a few conclusions:

  • Tame animals are, indeed, "natural" in the divine sense. As a cat owner, it pains me to see stray cats wandering streets and parking lots, knowing that they could at any moment meet their end by a careless driver. While such loss might be natural to a fallen world, it is most assuredly unnatural in the divine is a symptom of creation being "subjected to futility" and groaning in pain. The proper place of animals is in the care of - and under the authority of - humanity. And the proper place of Rory in particular is either purring on my lap, or sitting on his cat tree in a sun beam. 

  • Pets are NOT children, and shouldn't be treated as such. I think that any pet relationship that ends up essentially treating the pet as a substitute for children is disordered, an example of misplaced affections that will likely result in some degree of harm or distress. The pets will not be able to do what children do, and they lack the capacity to return the care and affection that child-rearing is supposed to result in. Child-rearing has a goal that pet-keeping is unable to fulfill.

  • However, as any pet owner will tell you, pets are friends and companions. Anna and I joke that a tired soul can be revitalized merely by rubbing one's face on a soft cat belly. Rory and Martha are our friends. We play with them, we talk to them, we sit with them, we miss them when we're away...the are our friends, in just about every sense of the word. 

  • Finally, I will insist that Rory and Martha have personality. They might not be persons...but they are more than mere beasts. And I tend to agree with Lewis that what they get in personhood, they get through being part of a human family. 
Had you asked me, before I got married and we got Rory, if I would EVER feel this attached to any animal, let alone a cat, I would have laughed at you. But's different. I think that pets have a valid role and significance to us specifically as Christians, and that properly keeping a pet can be a microcosm of humanity's intended role for all of creation. Also, it's really fun.