In a recent issue of First Things (“Vinculum Magnum Entis,” April), David Hart recounts (or, perhaps, constructs) a conversation with a paleo-traditional Thomist over the salvific status of animals. His interlocutor defends “a particularly colorless construal of the beatific vision” which has the consequence of preventing any pesky animals from passing through the Pearly Gates. Hart appeals to the dog lovers’ natural feelings of affection and companionship as well as to the Bible’s vision of the lion lying down with the lamb to defend his “hope to see puppies in paradise.” He also admits that this eschatological debate, in the end, “comes down to metaphysics.” I share Hart’s hope for eternal canine happiness, but I wonder whether his metaphysics is as strong as his feeling for these kindred souls. The title of my piece, therefore, is a little misleading. What I am really asking is this: Will David Hart’s dog go to his conception of heaven?
Hart is well known as one of the most masterful contemporary defenders of the synthesis of Greek philosophy and Christian theology commonly known as classical theism. In his brilliant book, The Experience of God, he writes that, “As a practical reality, the God of faith and the God of the philosophers are in many crucial respects recognizably one and the same.” God is being—not a being—and our access to faith depends upon “some kind of ultimate coincidence or convertibility between being and consciousness.” The human mind is oriented toward “a horizon of total intelligibility,” and that horizon is none other than “pure intelligence—the mind of God.” To be is to act, he says, and “the highest power to act—and hence the most unconditioned and unconstrained reality of being—is rational mind. Absolute being, therefore, must be absolute mind.” Knowing God is “essentially a kind of ecstasy of the mind toward an end beyond the limits of nature.” Thus the subtitle of Hart’s book: Being, Consciousness, Bliss.
Hart rightly asserts that his theology is in general agreement with the classical metaphysical consensus that extends from Aristotle to Aquinas. Aristotle, for example, says that, “Mankind possesses nothing divine or blessed that is of any account except what there is in us of mind and understanding.” The God of classical theism is unmoved by emotion but has unlimited mental mobility, since pure consciousness is able to be present everywhere, just as our own self-moved thoughts are evidence of our freedom from material constraint. Matter is the great divide of creator and creature, and once it is removed, human souls can think the thoughts of God and thus partake in the divine. The study of theology is a pale imitation of this absolute convergence of thinking and the object of thought, which is why classical theists like Gregory of Nazianzus warn that theology “is not for all people, but only for those who have been tested” and “are undergoing purification of body and soul” (Oration 27). Students of theology should not be distracted by “illusory, wandering images” and they should not confuse theology with “entertaining small talk, after the races, the theater, songs, food, and sex.” Needless to say, Gregory would include in this list petting a dog.
Hart’s interlocutor is a devoted reader of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, who was one of the ablest defenders of classical theism. Thomists like Garrigou-Lagrange carried on a forceful polemic against Duns Scotus and his followers, because “they hold that the will is superior to the intelligence” and thus “maintain that essential beatitude consists formally in love, to which vision is subordinated.” Garrigou-Lagrange admits that heaven is a place, but it is not clear why it needs a spatial dimension. The beatific vision will consist of “contemplation without medium” in which we will be absorbed into the mind of God “without a word to express it.” Heaven will be the triumph, in Hart’s words, of “total rationalism.”
Needless to say, when the beatific vision is reduced to intellectual intuition, only rational souls will be able to see God. Traditional Thomists deny that humans can love dogs for the same reason that they deny that dogs can enter into heaven: dogs do not possess a rational soul. If dogs can go to heaven, as both Hart and I agree, then much of the classical theistic tradition will have to be rethought. The mind’s dependence on embodiment will have to be more firmly stated. Theologians will have to explain how petting a dog in the presence of the divine could be as fulfilling as contemplating eternal, silent truths.
Hart responds to the intellectualistic bias in Thomism by arguing that animals are rational in their own way. “We have learned so much about the intelligence, cognitive and social, of so many animals,” he writes. He also suggests that animals can benefit from the role that humans play as mediators of the “material and spiritual order.” I agree with both of these points, but I think animal afterlife requires a deeper interrogation of the foundations of classical theism. Otherwise, the invisible line that can be drawn from God’s pure intelligence to humanity’s immaterial soul remains a barrier to recognizing the spiritual value of matter.
There is an alternative to Thomistic immaterialism. All theologians believe that souls are created, but in contrast to Thomists, most Eastern Church Fathers as well as many Franciscan theologians assume that all created entities have a hylomorphic structure. To be created is to be composed of form and matter. The concept of immateriality was conceptually loose until Aquinas stabilized it in his metaphysical system. Aquinas elevated immateriality to a metaphysical first principle, but at the cost of devising logical hijinks to account for the generic nature of angels and the post-mortal individuality of souls. For universal hylomorphists, souls are immaterial relative to bodies but material relative to God, which suggests that there are different kinds of matter depending on their closeness to spirit. Aquinas rejected the idea of spiritual matter because he followed Aristotle in defining matter as pure potency. Prime matter, bereft of any agency of its own, cannot be differentiated with regard to degrees of participatory potential.
Aquinas thought that the perfection of the world requires the existence of intellectual creatures, and pure intellect is mind unimpeded by a body (ST Ia 50.1). What if minds are naturally embodied, and souls are refined forms of matter? The souls of dogs would be more materially dense than those of humans, but the light of God would still shine through them. Heaven could be seen as a place where all kinds of bodies flourish—and where love, not reason, would have the last word. In that kind of place, petting a dog would matter very much.
Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author most recently of Mormon Christianity.