On Barking Dogmas

Fundamentalist and Modernist; Liberal and Conservative.  Sadly, these clumsy assignations are still made by Presbyterians.  I regret to say that I am myself victimized by this distinction, and I regret even more that I perpetuate its use.  The Apostle Paul discusses the broader problem of "we" and "they" (or to be more objective -- "us" and "them") in Philippians 1:15-18, coming to the remarkable conclusion that we should rejoice because Christ is being proclaimed, whether by "them" in pretense or by "us" in truth.


I have always admired those strong and bold souls who claim and proclaim right out loud before God and everybody that they are conservative or liberal.  My teacher, the late James I. McCord, once told us truth-seekers to inform our presbyteries we were “progressive conservatives” and leave it at that.


Still, I have now been around the block enough times to recognize that some distinctions are not going away.  For example, men are from Mars — women are from Venus.  I liked it much better when intelligent people wanted to know whether you were Platonic or Aristotelian.  The demise of that distinction is a considerable loss to me since I spent an immense amount of time and effort figuring out which I was — only to discover that now nobody cares.


In compensation, I am delighted with the sardonically satisfying conviction that American anti-intellectualism has reached its absolute zenith in my lifetime.  According to James B. Twichell, a deep “fault line of human personality” separates Coke and Pepsi drinkers (Lead Us Into Temptation:  The Triumph of American Materialism, pp. 141-142).  This means identity issues no longer require a time-consuming study of classical philosophy because the deepest loyalties of the human personality can be understood once you get a clear view of what the hand holds when the elbow bends.


If true, the Presbyterian Church could learn all it needs to know about “Unity and Diversity” from studying my family, since we are one family with two cola preferences.  In our harmonious household, Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola hang out together in the same ice chest.  Additionally, it is correct to say that both keep their cool very well.  Moreover, each retains its own effervescent nature, but that is lost almost immediately when either blows its top.


I lament over the distinction between liberal and conservative, delight in the distinction between Venus and Mars, long for the distinction between Platonist and Aristotelian, and pour (get it?) scorn on the distinction between Pepsi and Coke.


However, to my mind, a far more universal and serious human divide occurs between dog lovers and cat persons.  I should confess that some of my best friends are cat-persons, a fact which demonstrates, as nothing else could, my warm and compassionate nature.


My wife, known to her children as “the germ lady,” regards both domestic animals with a fine impartiality.  They are all dirty.  Therefore, I recognized before we were married that this deeply held conviction on her part would foreclose my American Deep South custom of dealing with cold winter nights by throwing another hound dog on the bed.  Moreover, the practice of having a small dog between the sheets to keep the feet warm was to be discontinued without discussion.  This being just one of the sacrifices men are expected to make for beautiful, if finicky, women.


Obviously people get tremendously attached to their animal companions.  As a pastor I made many calls on child and adult parishioners grieving the death of their pet.  In fact, one of my favorite elders confessed that he could handle the death of his beloved wife because he knew she was going to heaven and he hoped to join her there.  But he admitted with tears in his eyes that he was really worried about his beloved dog.


I told him about Rudyard Kipling’s charming vision of heaven with “Four-feet trotting behind.”  Kipling imagined his dog, “Flushing the cherubs everywhere/And skidding as she ran/ She refuged under Peter’s Chair/ And waited for her man.”  Then I called his attention to the “peaceable kingdom” passage in Isaiah 11:6f. and the “longing creation” of Romans 8:19.  In addition, I was prepared to evaluate Karl Barth’s curious little essay on the proper theological attitude of mankind to beastkind and plantkind (Church Dogmatics III.4.55 ET, p. 348ff.) as well as some long thoughts on Barth’s polymathic dialaogue partner, Albert Schweitzer, doctor of (1) theology, (2) music and (3) medicine.


Thus, some years later, I listened with great sympathy to my tennis buddy who for financial reasons was moving from his big house into student accommodations and could not find anyone to keep his animal during his two remaining years of seminary.  To the grief of his family, he was going to put their dog down.  Being a born-free country boy I could not imagine a tied-up city dog who could not run to you full speed when you whistled.  Nevertheless, the silver-tongued dog lover convinced the germ lady that it was our Christian duty to care for an obviously Presbyterian dog of a Presbyterian pastor-to-be.


As graduation approached I realized with considerable sadness that I was about to lose my frequent tennis partner and my regular dog at the same time.  One of them had gone walking with me every day and we had enjoyed the air together through sun and snow, rain and wind.  ON the day of departure our friends pulled up in front of our house.  Their car was tightly packed, except for the back seat where our common dog was to ride away.  It was all predestined, of course.


What I learned from this experience is that no good deed goes unpunished.  I expected at least some expression of gratitude for my life-saving contribution.  However, s the car drove away and I called out an emotionally choked “farewell” — that damn dog was looking straight ahead and never turned around to acknowledge his old companion.  I almost became a cat person.


Charles Partee
Presbyterian Outlook
January 2000