We named her after Hilda, the Abbess of Whitby, who lived in the seventh century, and over the last 11 years she lived into her namesake. Hilda was the founding abbess of Whitby and had a reputation as an administrator. Our Hilda was the founding member of her three-person pack and was something of a herder as well, cajoling and nudging us into her favorite activities. The original Hilda had a reputation for love and devotion, our Hilda did as well, no matter how well or badly the day went, Hilda was always there with the same measure of both. The original Hilda had a reputation for chewing on bishops, we restricted our Hilda to a purple hippo throw toy, which was eventually replaced by tennis balls as our friends who are bishops began visiting us. Not all bishops need to be chewed on!
As with anyone who has ever welcomed a dog into their lives, it is impossible to overestimate the gifts that God gives us through them. It seems almost axiomatic to say it, but they do become part of our families, and they shape our family stories. We will never forget the evening that Hilda spotted the deer in our backyard before we did and took off, full tilt, dragging the patio chair to which she was leashed with her, or her love of snow and tennis balls, sometimes in combination with one another.
But there is much more to our relationship with dogs and animals in general, than just the stories there are to tell. The opening chapter of Genesis describes humankind as viceroys of God’s creation. Viceroys do not exercise unilateral authority and they do not impose their own designs on the world around them. They care for the world that is entrusted to them in conformity with the values and dictates of the king. This is not an administrative responsibility. It is a mystery that reveals our shared dependence upon God.
If we are listening, our relationship with dogs can also reveal truths about ourselves. More than once Hilda reminded me of our “createdness” and the hubris that sometimes wraps itself around our efforts to deny our created nature (and its costs). Like so many dog owners, Hilda reminded me of the limits and conditional nature of much of what we call love, and, as I thought about it, even the stories we projected onto her life with us, told me a good deal about what we wanted or longed for. In short, it will be a long time, if ever, that we will completely understand the gifts that God gave to us through her.
Thankfully, we have eternity to work through those gifts. The Christian vision of eternity revolves around a vision, not of endless hours of floating on clouds, but of a restored heaven and earth. It is all but impossible to imagine either without the presence of dogs and many other animals in a place of that kind and I am confident that experience of harmony will transform our understanding of ourselves and our relationships.
Contrary to modern misreadings of the Christian tradition, in order to imagine that destiny, it is not necessary to imagine that dogs are just like us, or that they have souls. Nor is it necessary to argue that human beings are just like any other animals, without a set of unique responsibilities as those made in the have a unique place in that divine order. Our obsession with equity has led to nonsensical assumptions about the world in which we live and rests on the assumption that harmony lies in uniformity. It does not.
Harmony lies, instead, in the acknowledgement that there is a God and we are not; and that living into that acknowledgement requires attention to our differences and the responsibilities that accompany them. It also lies in recognizing the differing shape of our needs as seen by God, not as dictated by us. Dogs do not have souls, nor are they made in the image of God, but, to coin a phrase, “all dogs go to heaven.” It is human beings who have made a mess of their participation in God’s renewed heaven and earth.
The wisdom of Genesis lies in its attention to this truth about ourselves and our four-legged companions. I am grateful for the gift God gave us in the warm, dark eyes of the one who organized her pack and herded us through so many years of joy and love.