When I first arose this rainy Tuesday morning, and stood on the bedroom rug contemplating the day, a small brown object abased itself at my feet. Tashi, our small Lhasa Apso, customarily abases herself this way when she has piddled on a rug and assumes we know about it, or when we yell at her, or first thing in the morning as in this instance. She lies on her back, exposing her soft underbelly as fully as possible, wriggles, and whimpers. Her body language is eloquent enough so that words can be readily supplied: “Oh Master, Oh Great One, forgive this insignificant object her trespasses, and allow her tiny soul to be warmed and illuminated by your majestic benevolence”. Or words to that effect. For variations, consult any Christian hymnal or book of prayer.
The congruity between Tashi’s behavior and that of a good Christian at worship is the subject of today’s sermon. I am to Tashi what God is to the good Xtian. Let us start with Tashi, and progress to God via the good Xtian, with a small aside at the end to discuss the deviant behavior of our other Apso, Mouse, and of yours truly.
Tashi needs me, and knows it, and freely acknowledges it. If it weren’t for me and my ilk she would have to forage for herself and would quickly starve. Unless she froze first. I (and my ilk) are the cosmic source of warmth and sustenance. She must needs love and honor me, as a matter of genuinely vital self-interest.
Tashi wants to please me and by and large knows what I expect of her. But there is a devil within her that forces her to violate God’s law. She piddles on the rug. She refrains from coming when I call. Impelled to attract my attention even when it hurts, she stretches out on the brown-carpeted stairs, almost invisible, so I stumble over her when I go up or down-and jumps into my favorite chair when I am heading in that direction myself, so that I have to disturb her, notice her, when I get there. She would rather be stepped on and sat on than ignored.
Tashi leads a tormented life, torn between her love and her fear of the Almighty. These powerful emotions sustain her and give meaning to her little existence.
The Good Christian knows that God is the source of all the blessed things that make life livable. (If he doesn’t know this he is not a good Christian). “Praise God from whom all blessings flow”. And he knows what God expects from him-not from the Bible, which gets confusing when you read more than one passage at a time-but from professional interpreters of God’s will, who speak for God from the pulpit every Sunday. And he knows that his behavior is wanting. He is frequently smitten with greed, envy, and even lust. He does unto his neighbor what he definitely would not want his neighbor to do unto him.
There seems to be some kind of a devil in him that makes him turn from God’s path more often than not. Aware of his sin, he goes through life possessed by a deep sense of guilt and inadequacy. As a partial expiation, he abases himself before his God, grovels and whimpers for forgiveness. But God never gives him a clear signal, one way or the other-so he goes through life torn by the conflict between his love and his fear of the Almighty.
When asked why he behaves this way, he explains that his belief in the Almighty sustains him and gives meaning to a life that would otherwise be devoid of significance.
How clever of our ancestors, to give us Dog as well as God, so that when we got tired of abasing ourselves, we could go in for a bit of role reversal with beings that abased themselves before us.
Mouse, my other Apso, does not fit into this pattern. He is ornery, and in Morocco he once bit a policeman. In his prime he was extraordinarily fit, and when we were in Minnesota he was happiest when roaming the prairies, a wild thing alone. Meaning for him consisted of finding a bitch in heat, that was all he needed. Now that he is old and feeble his sex drive has become nothing more than a memory, and he recognizes his dependence on us. He resents his condition, however, and still growls at us when irritated. He is capable of friendship and even affection but never abases himself.
For me, Mouse is preferable as a role model to Tashi. Except that I do not share his single-minded sense of purpose. I find meaning for my own life in all of humanity, in its progression from biological obscurity to its present enormously complicated stage, and onward toward uncharted futures. I do not need to abase myself before some deity that is purportedly more important than mankind itself. Nor can I bring myself really to respect people who do. Historically, yes. When our knowledge of what we are was much more limited than it is now, there was reason for men and women of good intentions and purpose to abase themselves before some ill-defined superior Being. That is no longer the case.
Come on, Mouse, you old bugger. Let’s take a walk, and nostalgically regard the pretty girls.
– June 29, 1988
Nearly two years have elapsed since I wrote the foregoing but the added years of experience have not caused any important change-except, of course, that Mouse has finally left the scene. Tashi continues to act like Tashi and I continue to hew to the same ornery theological views. I am adding this addendum only because Tashi has recently provided stimulating new evidence confirming the above. This evidence concerns the mental turmoil the true believer experiences when his faith in Divine Infallibility runs into cognitive dissonance.
Long, long ago, before Tashi was born, and when Mouse was still young, I got into the habit of calling him each morning when I was shaving, and giving him a dog biscuit when he came-if he deigned to do so. The idea was to build up a Pavlovian association so that he would be more likely to come any time I called him. Mouse was, of course, smarter than Pavlov, or at least he had more brains than Pavlov gave dogs credit for, so after a while he came fairly regularly when I called while shaving, and hardly ever at other times. Never mind, a tradition was established, and Tashi cheerfully joined the bandwagon.
In fact, Tashi early displayed a preference for the predictable that was almost human. Repetition she could handle, the unexpected left her a mass of quivering jelly. Every morning for years when I have been shaving Tashi sits there, and at the right time raises her little paw, which I shake, and then she gets her dog biscuit. Infallibly. Until the other day.
We were fresh back from the country and I was shaving and then I shook her little paw and reached back of the john where the biscuits live and oh dear there weren’t any, we had run out just before going to the country and had forgotten to bring any back. Catastrophe! I tried to explain to Tashi that God had Goofed. She just sat there on the floor by the bathroom door, her little paw trembling, looking sadder and sadder. My wife cuddled her, and explained that Gods had Goofed. She didn’t get the message. Her receiver wasn’t programmed to accommodate it. We finally went to breakfast, leaving her sitting by the bathroom door, looking sadder and sadder. We came back later and she was still there, having gone from sadder to saddest. And so life continued until somewhere about mid-morning, when a marked mood change overtook our little dog. She came to us crawling and whimpering and abased herself repeatedly, saying almost audibly, “God I have sinned! O God have I ever sinned! I don’t know exactly what I did but it must have been awful to cause you to break all precedent and withhold the hallowed biscuit! Never mind, the main thing is, I am full to overflowing with repentance! O God am I ever full of repentance! You wouldn’t think a miserable little vessel like me could hold so much repentance! Please Forgive me, Please Please PLEASE!!!!!”
And Tashi has felt fine ever since. Unshakable in her faith. Need I say more?
CSCoon – Nov. 11, 1986 (rev. 1996)