What Calvin Taught Me About God

This is an abridged reprise of a column I wrote for the September, 1995 issue of the More Light Update, the publication of Presbyterians for Lesbian & Gay Concerns (now More Light Presbyterians) edited by James D. Anderson. 

Total attentiveness.
Unconditional love.
Limited judgment.
Irresistible grace.
Providential play.

T.U.L.I.P.

This is what Calvin has taught me about God. And if it varies from the TULIP acronym for John Calvin’s teachings, it’s because this list summarizes what I’ve learned from quite another Calvin—our dog.

Calvin is a golden retriever/Labrador/shepherd mix we adopted from Atlanta’s Humane Society on the last day of 1994.

We got a house partly because we wanted a dog. We heard a voice that said, “Build the house, and he will come.” And so it was.

“Only Chris would find mythological import in getting a dog,” I can hear you saying. But life is filled with opportunities for spiritual metaphor. 

“Nothing more zealous than a convert,” someone else might be thinking—that is, anyone who knows me well enough to know that I was never a “dog person” before now. I had grown up being bitten by my brother’s dog on arbitrary occasions. My mother theorized that our dog’s behavior was the result of some neighbor children abusing Freckles when we were away.

Though enduring a relationship with an abusive canine never landed me on Oprah, it nonetheless inhibited my establishing close relations with any dog. I eventually learned to handle my fear and be friendly to friendly dogs and keep barking dogs at bay, but the idea of ever developing an intimate relationship with a dog was far from my mind.

The closest I ever came was a friendship with Smokey, a retriever mix that lived in a house I also lived in when I was in college.

Smokey helped me overcome my caninephobia and dogged doggy stereotypes. 

I took him to worship one Sunday for the children’s sermon to show them how he reminded me to play by dropping a ball in my lap while I studied. The kids took turns throwing the ball for him to retrieve, and I made the point that children play the vital role of reminding their parents to play. Smokey did not bite any of the children nor relieve himself on a leg of the Communion table, so I realized that at least some dogs could assist in worship and serve as limited role models.

But, if you’ll forgive the seemingly trivial comparison, it required an incarnation to completely overcome my dogma. Between the two of us, my [then] partner was the dog person and the motivating factor of our finding a dog. But when we went to the Humane Society “just to look,” it was I who pushed to adopt our puppy. Somehow I sensed we were a fit, the three of us.

Soon I was transformed. My partner could not believe my conversion. When I went to Los Angeles to visit my mother, she, too, was astounded at how differently I responded to her own dog, a beagle named Schultze.

But Calvin’s unconditional love had introduced me to a dog’s irresistible grace.

While I am aware of the creaturely paternalism inherent in “owning” a dog, Calvin is happily codependent. He follows us around the house and plops beside one or the other of us wherever we are. And Calvin, like Smokey, reminds us both to play.

We haven’t needed our alarm to wake us in the morning since our dog came to live with us. Calvin knows I’m the first to get up, so he starts licking me awake at the appropriate time. Later, when I call my partner to breakfast, Calvin does the same for him. It’s obviously more pleasurable than being awakened by an irritating buzzer.

Though we read a book about raising a dog, we made mistakes along the way. Thankfully, puppies have short memories, so we had many opportunities to do things better. We enjoyed unlimited atonement—though I doubt that would have been true if we had taken advantage of that and either poorly cared for him or abused him.

Rather than “obedience” school, we took him to dog training classes, which was more about training us than him. Trying to be model parents, we both attended every class with Calvin.

I’ve said in a variety of contexts that I believe “control” is the central spiritual issue with which we all struggle, and I learned this was also true of dogs.

As “lead dogs,” though, we had to learn not to “pull against resistance,” because a dog will resist being forced to do something. Rather, Calvin was to learn “attentiveness” to us. I thought to myself that, equally important, we needed to learn attentiveness to him. How else would we know when he needed to go out? Or be fed and watered? Or play and rest? Or go to the vet’s?

We also learned how to get Calvin “down,” how to, in a sense, give him permission to chill when he gets anxious or hyperactive. How many of us could use someone doing this for us? 

And finally, whenever he wants it, Calvin turns on his back with paws in the air to welcome our loving scratches and rubs.

What I’ve learned from Calvin prompts me to re-view my theology:

  • God wakes us every morning by “licking” our bodies with sunlight and shower, bedding and breakfast, and for some, the touch of someone who loves us.
  • Attentiveness is required to follow God’s lead. The spiritual life is all about attentiveness to the sacramental nature of existence, mindfulness of the present holiness. And, as a worthy “lead dog,” God is both attentive to our needs and intent on shepherding rather than “pulling against resistance” as well.
  • Spiritually, we need to work through our control issues to sometimes “let go and let God.” We also need to re-evaluate the concept that God is in absolute control, since that appears to make God responsible for evil as well as making God coercive rather than persuasive. (Calvin seems to realize our limitations as lead dogs, too.)
  • Practically, God is more concerned with the present than with past mistakes.
  • Providentially, playing and resting and pleasuring in God gives us peace and joy in the present and a foretaste of the commonwealth of God to come. 

But, in my lessons from Calvin, there is something yet more unique to the experience of those of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.

If I could change in my attitudes toward dogs, then those who fear LGBT people may similarly be transformed in our close relationships with them—relations already existing or that we form.

And yet more significantly for us: if I could experience the revelation that a dog may truly be a best friend, then those of us who have been repeatedly and arbitrarily “bitten” by God may yet have the revelation that God is truly our best friend, that the god that bit us was not truly representative of God, but was a manifestation of spiritual abuse at the hands of a homophobic church.

Postscript: As a result of an exchange of letters with Schultze, Calvin went on to write his own philosophical “take” on things in a 1998 book, Unleashed: The Wit and Wisdom of Calvin the Dog (excerpts here and more photos here). In 1999 he adopted his own dog, Hobbes, abandoned in a local park. For more on Calvin, read The Final Deadline: What Death Has Taught Me about Life. He went to dog heaven in 2007.

Copyright © 1995 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

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