Editor’s note: Prompted by the death of his family’s dog, Kirby, Andrew Root offers a theological account of the deep relationship between humans and dogs in his new book, “The Grace of Dogs.” After his son, Owen, asks whether he will see Kirby in heaven, Root looks for an answer in the 1928 writings of a young pastoral intern in Barcelona who had faced the same question: Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
One day, a ten-year-old boy came to see Bonhoeffer. Breaking down and crying, the boy explained that his beloved German shepherd, Mr. Wolf, had just died. The boy sobbed as he told the story, but soon his tears stopped and he asked Bonhoeffer, with deep intensity, “Tell me now, Herr Bonhoeffer, will I see Mr. Wolf again? He is surely in heaven?”
Bonhoeffer explained in a letter to a friend that he was dumbfounded. He didn’t know what to say. Never before had one of his astute professors or gifted fellow students made such an inquiry, a question that Bonhoeffer could see meant so much to this grieving boy.
Bonhoeffer sat with the boy, feeling small next to his important question. Clearly Mr. Wolf had meant so much to the boy. The overly confident protégé, who had always been told he had a brilliant answer for every theological question, now sat humbled by the boy’s love for his dead dog.
Finally, turning to the boy, Bonhoeffer said, “Well, we know you loved Mr. Wolf, and we know that God loves you. And we know that God loves all the animals. So, yes, yes, I think you will indeed see Mr. Wolf in heaven, for I believe that God loses nothing that God loves.”
God loses nothing that God loves.
Bonhoeffer’s point was that when persons relate in love, it is an eternal act that transcends biology, chemistry, and history. Only love lasts forever. Spirit returns to its source in a personal God. Because “soul” is based in our personal relatedness, rather than being some kind of isolated substance, any being that participates in this kind of loving relatedness belongs to God, and will return to God.
This is the grace we are offered, in this world and the next. Grace is the invitation to share in the mind and heart of God; it can never be earned, but it comes to us always as a gift. So maybe heaven is a “place” of personal relatedness, where our relationships can never again be interpreted or corrupted by death, fear, or hate. Maybe heaven is where we are free from all that might threaten our sharing in the mind of one another and God. It is where our bodies are free from all that could upend or damage what we yearn for most, to be shared in and share in others.
All who participate in the gift and grace of deep personal relatedness are never lost. God will never let them go; for this deep connection rooted in love does not disappear when a loved one dies. When Jesus on the cross entered death, he built from within it our relationship with God and with one another, a relationship rooted in a love that is eternal and over which death no longer holds power.
These days I tell my son that he will see Kirby again. Like all those who have shared in his mind and heart through love, I tell him, Kirby will be resurrected again through the power of the God who is the eternally personal relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This is a theological conviction that I hold by faith. I teach it to my son so that Owen can feel his way into this reality, can begin to have words for the experience of love and grace.
Of course, reality is always putting our convictions to the test. At a deeply emotional level, whether we are people of faith or not, we all struggle with the grief of absence and wonder where our loved ones go when they leave us. If, in a moment of doubt, you were to press me to answer the question “Do you really believe that Owen will see Kirby again?” I might answer more tentatively. Still, I know in my soul -- like Owen on the floor of the vet’s office ... that the love of a dog is strong enough to last both in this world and in the next.
“No one knows for sure,” I’d tell you. “But I’ve studied this, and I think so. My answer is yes. The grace of God is echoed by the grace of dogs. And grace is eternal.”
“The Grace of Dogs: A Boy, a Black Lab, and a Father’s Search for the Canine Soul.” Copyright © 2017 by Andrew Root. Published by Convergent, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Used with permission.