Humility and the Nature of God, or The Parable of the Dog

Copyright (c) 2008 by Kenny Felder

Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.
~ Douglas Adams

I'm astounded by people who want to "know" the universe when it's hard enough to find your way around Chinatown.
~ Woody Allen

When people talk about humility, they usually mean lying.

"I'm not so good at math, I just got lucky on a few tests."

"Anything good about this book should be credited to my family and my agent, but all the mistakes are mine."

"What, this old dress?"

This type of humility does have a valid place: it can smooth out social situations, and perhaps provide a counter-balance against our natural tendency to inflate our own strengths. But if we're trying to answer the Big Questions, or trying to understand God, a different type of humility can come into play. This is what I describe using the parable of the dog.

I do actually have a dog, by the way. In doggie terms, Chester knows all about me: that is, he has a mental model of "Kenny" that functions pretty well. He knows what I look like, sound like, and smell like. When I reach for the spot where his leash hangs, he knows I'm about to take him for a walk. He knows that I leave the house every morning and come home before supper.

But suppose for a moment that Chester tries to figure out what I'm doing while I'm gone. He might imagine that I run around with other people, slobber on them, and sniff their butts. He will never imagine that I teach math to high school students, thus earning the money that pays for house and clothing and doggie treats. The best dog-trainer in the world could not make him understand this. A dog's brain is just not wired for that kind of abstraction.

Now, here comes the theological point, and it comes in the form of a nice linguistic pun that will help you remember the whole thing. (Ready for it?)

is the

Said in a less cutesy way, the intellectual gap between you and the universe is not any smaller than the intellectual gap between you and the dog. On the contrary, it is much greater. And whether you are Christian, Buddhist, or Quantum Physicist, your mental model of reality is no more adequate than Chester's.

The Book of Job 38-39 gets at this idea in some of the most beautiful (to me) poetry in the Bible, desperately trying to communicate how big the whole thing is. The passage below is just a brief excerpt of God's monologue to man: if you have a couple of minutes, read both chapters in full, and try to pause on each image before going to the next.

Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation, while the morning stars sang together?
Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain, and a path for the thunderstorm,
to water a land where no man lives, and make it sprout with grass?
Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Can you loose the cords of Orion?
Do you hunt the prey for the lioness and satisfy the hunger of the lions
when they crouch in their dens or lie in wait in a thicket?
Do you watch when the doe bears her fawn?
She crouches down and brings forth her young; her labor pains are ended.
Her young thrive and grow strong in the wilds; they leave and do not return.
Do you give the horse his strength? Striking terror with his proud snorting,
He paws fiercely, rejoicing in his strength, and charges into the fray.
He does not shy away from the sword. In frenzied excitement he eats up the ground.
He catches the scent of battle from afar, the shout of commanders and the battle cry.

Right now, as you read this, the baby lions wait for their mother to arrive with her prey. Right now, as you read this, the rain helps a small bud poke its way through the desert sand, unseen by man. Right now, as you read this, the depths of the sea hide mysteries that are dark and alive and unchanging. And the Pleiades light up the Northern sky, and a distant galaxy recedes at an accelerating rate, and a small boy wills his chubby fingers to tap out Für Elise, and a honeybee dances out instructions to a juicy flower. Right now, someone is dying, and someone is being born.

Now let me say it again: the gap of understanding between you and the universe is far greater than the gap of understanding between the dog and you.

What does all that look like, from the God's-eye perspective?

Of course, I have no idea. That's just the point: I can't possibly formulate it. But people are model-builders, and here is a model that I find helpful.

Imagine that you choose one small piece of this whole vast thing—let's say, the little shaded area under a particular tree in your back yard—and you observe it more closely than you have ever observed anything in your life. You watch the snow fall slowly until it covers the grass, track the snow gradually melting into the wet ground, and notice the first hints of new grass. You watch the anthill that appears suddenly one Tuesday evening, and the dog that demolishes it without even noticing, and the ants who patiently rebuild it.

Now imagine that you are not only a passive observer: you're a caretaker. During the drought, you carefully water the grass. When a particularly beautiful flower grows, you keep the nearby animals from eating it, although you know it will not last long. You make a circle of smooth white rocks, just for decoration, and watch the ants work around it.

Finally, imagine that this goes on for years...for decades. Now whole areas are shaded by a tree branch that didn't used to be there. You watched that branch grow slowly from year to year, and you saw the changes it caused for the grass and the ants and the flowers.

If you are imagining all this, I hope you're coming to the same conclusion I am: after all that time, observation, and care-taking, you love your little spot. Not because you feel that you are supposed to, but just because you do. And not because of what it can give you, but because of what it is in itself, and because of what you can give it.

Does God love the whole universe like that? Has he watched the Mariana's Trench over the eons, and the war horse, and the bands of Orion, and every random thought that flits through your head as you fall asleep?

In a very real sense, I think the answer is yes. Whether you believe in a "personal" or anthropomorphic deity or not, the universe really is all that. When you try to hold that in your head, when you re-read Job, a certain level of humility slams you in the face.

But the real humility, for me, comes back to the parable of the dog. Once again, I have created a mental model of God: a model so incredibly small that it fits into the mind of a Kenny, not to mention into a 1200-word essay. Does my model really capture what the universe, what God, what the absolute, is like? It is no closer than Chester's model of my day at work, digging up treats and sniffing butts.


From: Michelle Williams
September 23, 2008

Here's a question for you:

Young child dies after a painful battle against leukemia. Is that:

  1. One of the ants in the anthill carelessly demolished by the dog
  2. A blade of grass you crushed with your smooth white rock
  3. A leaf from the tree that's eaten by the ants or the careless dog
  4. The beautiful flower you knew wouldn't last long
  5. A limb of the tree that an ice storm brought down
  6. None of the above
(I don't actually expect you to answer the question. Just started trying to map your analogy onto our "reality" and headed in that direction as many a human does.)

From: Kenny Felder
September 23, 2008

It's a great question, and I wish I had a great answer. Let me offer several possibilities in non-metaphor.

  1. The child goes up into heaven or reincarnates or some such. So what appears to us as a tragic ending is really just a harmless transition.
  2. The life force that manifested in the child is also manifesting in other ways, all the time. So once again, just a harmless transition. (This actually translates pretty well into the ant metaphor, I think...the anthill is the stable entity, and the individual ants are just interchangeable parts.)
  3. Every time a child dies, something precious and irreplaceable is lost forever, and it just sucks.
I am partial to option (2)—not in the sense that I "believe" it with any conviction—but I do think it's worth investigating our sense of tragedy associated with such events. We all have a conviction at some level that option (3) is the right one, but then, it's incredibly hard to articulate (even to yourself) what it is that you feel has actually been lost.

From: Michelle Williams
September 23, 2008

Even if 1 and/or 2 are true, #3 is true in a way. What we lose when a child we love dies is the potential, the hope manifested in that child. All hope, all potential is not lost but what the child was going to do for your little corner of the universe at least in your dreams is lost. As well as the innocence and wonder they were exposing you to and other things as well.

Also I suspect there's a bit of guilt tied into the sadness. I apparently am coated in Teflon where guilt is concerned but parents in particular seem magnets to the idea they caused or should have at least done a better job preventing the pain associated with death.

Suddenly occurs: Not that you're disappointed in your own children—far from it: I know you love them, are amazed by them, and very proud of them—but did the dream about the younger versions of your children hit you so hard because of the loss of certain potentials or their wonder and amazement at the world?

From: Kenny Felder
September 24, 2008

In both cases—mourning for the death of a child, and mourning for the growing-up of a child—I think you put your finger on some key pieces. The dreams that this child would cure cancer, play Carnegie Hall, and hit one out of Yankee Stadium (oops) are gone. We might feel that we ourselves should have done more (I know that is a huge part of what I feel about my own little-kids-turned-big). And of course, one additional factor you didn't mention is intimations of our own mortality.

But your last point, about the wonder and amazement that is lost...push on that. Imagine the most gloriously filled-with-wonder little girl, twirling around in her big blue cupcake dress with her arms wide open. Now, suddenly and randomly, snuffed out. Try to clarify as much as possible exactly what has been lost. I'm not saying I know the answer, but I am saying I think that's the right question: what exactly are we so attached to?

A number of students have asked if I believe in life-after-death. I always ask what they mean: what part of you do you want to continue forever? Is it your memories? (In five years I probably won't remember this conversation at all.) Don't just say "my personality": is it your political beliefs, your sense of humor, your partiality to big sweatshirts and 70s music? What is it that you want to hold onto? And who wants to hold onto it?

From: Michelle Williams
September 24, 2008

Children often reawaken or at least force us to stop and re-acknowledge the sense of wonder we once had. "Mommy, why is a ladybug red and black instead of green and blue?" Quite often Mommy stops with the continual stream of "…can't forget milk. When can I stop for groceries? Not til after I drop Sue off at soccer. Wish Tom would get the damn groceries. Why do I have to do everything?! Oh, and I almost forgot that report due at work tomorrow. Maybe Tom can take the kids to school so I can go in early and get started on that. If I do that, maybe I can leave early to get the groceries. Oh and we need cereal …" and thinks "Huh. No clue. Never thought of it. I wonder why ladybugs are red and black." And along with that comes some amazement at the way the child's mind works. And amazement at the mysteries of God or whatever created the ladybug and the child's mind. And it's a relief to stop thinking about the groceries and the report for work and how useless Tom is for one tiny second and just appreciate. Something. Anything.

Also children tend to love you like dogs do. A favorite quote of mine that I can't recall who said it is something about wishing I could be the man my dog thinks I am. So there's the fact that they love and trust you whether you deserve it or not. And that's gone. One less person in the universe who loves like that. One less person in the universe who loves you like that. And there's the fact that you were likely a better, more patient, more appreciative, more aware person when you had to be for them.

So that's part of it. And part of it is missing them. You weren't done holding them and stroking their impossibly soft hair and smelling the child-sleeping-sweat smell that's sweet instead of acrid like older-person sweat. You have all this love yet to give and some opportunity to give it is gone.

I haven't actually experienced the loss of a child like that, so I'm just guessing. Someone who has been through it likely has better insights. Just thinking out loud. But none of that has much to do with whether there's life after death and the child is happily dancing around w/ the angels or whatever.

From: Kenny Felder
September 25, 2008

I agree, it's not about life-after-death or angels. As I said, for a variety of reasons, I tend to avoid speculating about those things. I would much rather speculate about why I get so moved by this imaginary child.

From: Augie Turak
September 28, 2008

I really liked the essay. Well written thoughtful and most importantly poignant. I read the comments by you and Michelle. Somehow sadness and loss MUST be part of the equation. Beauty depends on a sense of loss. We want to hold onto everything and everything is just slipping through our fingers. This I think is why we like things that are old. A crumbling city where thousands once lived rising out of the sand, fills us with wonder and awe as well as the terrible truth of life that everything passes away. T.S Eliot's "still point of the turning world" lies between all opposites but especially between the fact that we must both love and lose. I think if we really think about it very hard we wouldn't want it any other way. Who would take a pill that would make them oblivious to the death of that child? We want to feel, to care, and this means to suffer.

From: Felicia Bridges
August 3, 2009

Loved your essay, Kenny! And Michelle's description of the child almost had me in tears…I don't know that someone who has been through it could have described it any more poignantly. I've lost three children—all before even having the opportunity to know anything about them as basic as whether they were boys or girls—and the sorrow in that was definitely tied to the loss of all the dreams and potential wrapped up in that little bundle.

But I think the sorrow comes mostly from our perspective—which tends to be a selfish one. We are sad even at the passing of someone we love who was suffering terribly and for whom no future dreams existed—albeit, generally we are self-less enough that our sorrow is at least mitigated some small degree by the relief of believing that their suffering is at an end. We are sad because of all the things 'down here' that will be missed. To use the analogy of our little spot in the yard…if I were to decide to do something that from my perspective as gardener, would help the spot…maybe the grass is dying and the area needs to be tilled and re-seeded (bear with me; I am NOT a gardener, but hopefully you get the picture)…the ants might think it was a horrible tragedy that the grass was being all tilled up and ruined…many of them might even die off before the end result is realized. It might seem like the end of the world to them (picture a little ant with a sign—'repent! The end is near!' hee hee), but the gardener has a plan and this 'destruction' is simply part of His plan to make things perfect in the end. To me, this is where faith becomes critical. As a believer, my faith in God says that no matter what tragedy I face, it is part of a plan that, in the end, will be better for my having gone through that exact situation. And of course, that plan is sometimes as unfathomable to me as my day's activities are to my dog!

From: Kenny Felder
August 3, 2009

Thanks so much, Felicia. I had no idea that you had gone through such a painful experience...much less gone through it three times.

But the most beautiful thing about your philosophy, to me, is that it works even if you're wrong. Maybe there is a God who carefully plans everything, and decided that it would be a Good Thing for Felicia to lose three children. Then again, maybe there isn't. But if you look at it your way, and fully accept what has happened instead of denying or fighting against it, then you can learn whatever lessons there are to learn and move on. The faith that helps you take such a constructive attitude is definitely a huge asset.

From: Janice Nelson
August 10, 2009

I was truly drawn into your essay as well as Michelle's thoughts and responses. Together, it was a completely moving and begged for more - -. I don't agree with "Beauty depends on a sense of loss" which was stated in comment. Beauty stands alone until recognized by the beholder. It demands nothing. It just is. The beholder gives it life.

From: Augie Turak
August 10, 2009

Dear Janice, you are in good company a number of people have objected to my analysis of beauty! However I'm sticking to my guns. I think beauty does not stand alone. It requires the interaction and participation of the "beholder." There is something essentially human about beauty. I also think that there is something "awful" in beauty in the sense that the word awful implies BOTH a sense of awe and a sense of sadness. Beauty often moves us to tears and acccording to a scientific study I read all tears—even tears of joy—are connected to sadness.

I think the reason why we always feel tinged with sadness admidst our joy in beauty is because we KNOW we cannot "hold onto it."

One of the most beautiful things I ever read is from a poem by T.S Eliot called Preludes. "I am moved by fancies that are curled, around these images and cling, the notion of some infinitely gentle infinitely suffering thing." This quote is both beautiful and describes beauty. Thanks so much. augie

From: Janice Nelson
August 10, 2009

So nice to hear from you again, Augie. However, I am "sticking to my guns" as well. You stated that "Beauty requires the interaction and participation of the 'beholder'" which reminds me of an old adage, "If a tree falls in the forest with no one to hear it, does it still make a noise?", or something like that. What does it matter? The beauty of the forest flower still remains so even if we have not come upon it as yet. How can one not agree that even unseen by anyone, the lovely Lady Slipper still exhibits its beauty? Once we are able to view this lovliness, we share in the delight of it's beauty, but are not required to do so in order to render the Lady Slipper beautiful. Why does that require sadness?

From: Hilary Keilp Bolea
October 5, 2009

I have my own blog about animal minds and my insights from being a dog trainer. I would humbly offer that your dog doesn't have the capacity to consider what you do when you leave your house... but you probably knew that. :-)

From: Prakash TC
June 30, 2013

I happened on your site while looking for a layman's-eye view of Bell's Theorem, but then started reading your essay on the DOG/GOD parable and got drawn into it, and the subsequent discussion it sparked off...

I think grief, and the "problem of evil" (evil=incomprehensible death of innocent child) and everything else that was talked about is what it is because of what might be called "the dog's point of view".

Another way of putting it might be that it's me that's feeling bad or sad or whatever; once I take "me" out the equation, the whole thing takes on a different complexion. It's not impossible to take me out of the equation, although it can be difficult enough to feel impossible. "Me" being that conglomeration of race, nationality, gender, culture, habits of mind and body, and what-have-you that I am accustomed to thinking of as me. If I can hold all that in abeyance for a bit, maybe, I can get out of the "dog" view point and come to at least a meagre understanding of reality?

I'm truly glad I came across your site.

Warm Regards

From: Kenny Felder
June 30, 2013

So what is left when "me" is out of the way? The Buddhists, if I understand them correctly, say that nothing at all is left. I don't know.

From: Prakash TC
July 2, 2013

There is a very real sense in which I am pure awareness. Before I am human, male, Indian, HIndu, Malayalee, born in such-and-such a place, in such-and-such a year, in short before I am "me", I am awareness. This awareness, it is said, is neither born nor dies.... but I don't know about all that for sure. What does seem to be true is that what remains without the "me" is awareness, but awareness without a subject. This is difficult to imagine because for awareness to exist, it would seem that there has to be someone (the subject) who is aware of something (the object).

The problem is that as soon as the subject-object relationship exists, the "me" comes into being. To comprehend the kind of awareness that would exist without a subject / object relationship, one has at least to suspend that relationship temporarily, that is, put the "me" on the bench for a little while.

The "me" is supported and maintained by my internal dialogue, and if I can stop that dialogue, the me becomes quiescent, at least for that much time. This is quite a difficult task, because the internal dialogue goes far deeper than verbal formations; It began to be created the moment I was born and perhaps even in the womb. Many of those memories are pre-verbal and deep in the sub-conscious and as such not easily accessible. The foundations of the internal dialogue are therefore far deeper than I can reach with my conscious mind. So how do I stop the dialogue? Eckhart Tolle recommends stopping psychological time—being present. So does J Krishnamurthi.

Easier said than done, of course. :)

As an aside, my daughter often wonders how our cat can sit still for hours at a time without getting bored. I think it's because the cat does not have a "me"—an internal dialogue—time does not pass. She is always concerned with the present moment. There is only a now, no then, past or future. (Or may be the cat does get bored :-) ... Who knows? )

From: Kenny Felder
July 2, 2013

Beautifully said! You and I are very much on the same page.

At the same time, Eckhart Tolle did not reach his current state by trying to silence his internal monologue. He reached it through a crisis, almost a death. My own teacher, Augie Turak, often points out that this seems to be a crucial part of the path, but it's the part everyone wants to skip. The "me" does not slip off quietly into the night—it dies kicking and screaming.

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