The Dog and the Handler

“It’s not mysterious. It’s not eerie. It’s a beautiful sight, a dog trusting his nose, ignoring his handler’s efforts to get him to unstick himself from the flypaper scent that he’s stuck to. The dog who ignores the handler’s gaze, which is irrelevant to the task at hand. This is what real faith should look like — hard and unwavering… The dog’s commitment to the truth in the face of your moving away… The dog pointing his nose or paw or whole body at the scent, telling his handler, You bloody idiot! It’s here!”

-Cat Warren, What the Dog Knows

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

-Hebrews 11:1

We all have a dog and a handler within us: an intuition (a concrete body of knowledge built through hands-on experience and training), and an intellect (reasoning and abstraction). Our ability to key in to reality — emotional and spiritual and relational, sometimes even physical — depends on whether the handler controls the dog so much that it learns to alert only in response to the handler’s indications, rather than the reality around it, or whether the dog is given freedom and trust enough to be able to show the handler things unseen, though just as real.

At the same time, the dog can’t do its work without the handler on the team, training the dog, knowing where to start the search. These two function together, not separately, in mutual respect for each other.

This is what real faith should look like — hard and unwavering. It’s realistic, brought about through the external input of hands-on experience, but at the same time, it’s oriented by the compass of reasoning that’s been taught through outside references. Both internal wellsprings need to inform each other by utilizing time-tested things outside themselves.

We have senses that our various cultures teach us to ignore. What the west ignores, the east may embrace, and vice versa. Every dog is a different breed and colour. However, the most crucial and universal sense may be what Calvin called the sensus divinitatis, or sense of the divine. Often, the cues to crush that sense come directly from culture, upbringing, and peer influence.

Scripture says that unbelievers know God (Rom. 1:21), but it also says they do not know him (1 Cor. 2:1415:341 Thess. 4:52 Thess. 1:8, compare 2 Tim. 3:7Tit. 1:161 John 4:8). Evidently, then, we must make some distinctions, for in some sense or senses, knowledge of God is universal, and otherwise it is not.

Rom. 1:18-32 is the classic text on this question. Here Paul stresses the clarity of God’s revelation to the unrighteous. God reveals his wrath to them (verse 18), and makes truth about himself ‘plain to them’ (19), ‘clearly perceived’ (20). That revealed truth includes his ‘eternal power and divine nature’ (20). It also contains moral content, the knowledge of ‘God’s decree that those who practice [wicked things] deserve to die’ (32). Significantly, the text does not state that this revelation in nature communicates the way of salvation. 

John Frame, “Unregenerate Knowledge of God”

Sensing the existence of something divine isn’t enough to let us intuit or reason through how to connect to the divine. In fact, when we follow our own mysticism and our own cherished ethical comforts, such as people are basically good, it’s not that the handler is training the dog badly: it’s that the handler is trying to train the cat.

Now, if you put the cat in charge of the team, the best you can expect is a benevolent anarchy of subservience to the cat’s comforts and a starved, neglected dog. The cat may purr and snuggle and make you feel good, but its nature hasn’t been designed to serve the same functions as a dog.

According to what Romans 1 says, the first glimpse of truth is when we’re able to perceive God as wrathful. Before that, we puttered along obliviously, not even getting wind of a warning of this news. But it’s not the last glimpse. There’s a whole scent trail to follow, things which eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man; all that God has prepared for those who love Him. (1 Cor. 2:9)

The question is, what’s to be done with this? Can the soul bear to proceed further and discover the rest of the picture of a God who is also love? Or will we do as most do, as described in Romans 1? Frame continues:

The knowledge given by general revelation is not only a knowledge about God, a knowledge of propositions. It is a knowledge of God himself, a personal knowledge. For Paul says, not only that the wicked have information about God, but that “they knew God” (21).

Nevertheless, according to Paul, the wicked do not make proper use of this revealed knowledge. Rather, they ‘by their unrighteousness suppress the truth’ (18). He continues, ‘although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools…’ (21-22). Paul describes their foolishness as idolatry (22-23). In his view, idolatry is not an innocent search for the divine or the result of honest ignorance. It is, rather, willfully and culpably turning away from clear revelation of the true God. So it is ‘exchanging the glory of the immortal God for images…’ (23), exchanging ‘the truth of God for a lie’ (25).

Frame, ibid.

The first thing we want to lie to ourselves about is God’s wrath towards sin: The infinitely powerful grief, anger and outrage of God towards the evil and harm our choices have brought into the world. We begin by exclaiming that God must not be good if He allows bad things to happen. Then we end by discovering in the biblical account that He does in fact judge, punish and intervene to stop evil — and saying we want no part of such a harsh God and the healthy boundaries He imposes upon our various penchants for doing evil.

Most of us give up being dog handlers in favour of being cat herders. This first knowledge is more than anyone can bear, unless the grace of God Himself really does intervene to soothe the spirit with a greater and realer comfort than petting the cat can provide.

There are several problems in this dilemma. First, if the Creator God is good, why is there evil in the world? Secondly, if the Creator God is evil, why is there good in the world? Thirdly, if we do away with this Creator God nonsense altogether, where can we anchor our concepts of personhood, purpose and meaning? Is there anything but the shifting sands of our own opinions? Does any of the pain we’ve experienced even matter, or are we ultimately, utterly alone in our most secret sufferings?

Here, we come upon what the dog knows: The scent of truth that eludes our inner handler and all his or her reasoning and overthinking. That truth is that there is both good and evil in the world, and thousands of years of human effort through religion, good works, social engineering, morality, ethics, and all the best of human love have failed to advance us in goodness or even in moral sophistication. There is nothing new under the sun.

The very, very best we can do is to reimagine the world as something it isn’t: to exchange the truth for a lie.

And that’s not doing anything at all, in reality. We never find out where the dead bodies really are. The innocent take the blame for crimes they didn’t commit, and the guilty go free. Our own perception of justice becomes irreparably warped.

The harder way is to train the dog in the wisdom handed down and then to trust it, rather than controlling it to the point of uselessness. If, by God’s grace, He intervenes to show us how to train our intuition even the tiniest bit, we find ourselves called to something beyond the superstition that matters of life and death are mysterious and eerie. Though it’s stark and harsh, we find ourselves compelled to pursue the trail we can’t see until we find the putrefying corpse that emits its odour through these tangled woods.

Death cannot be untimely if there’s no good; death cannot be death if there’s no evil. And yet, death is.

Of course the wrath of God is awful. It means death is real, and worse, it means there’s no hoping in ourselves, even though we bear His very image.

Though we try to march on past this indication, more and more entangled in our own false narrative of events, that dogged sense of the divine keeps pointing to the evidence and the reality. Usually, we manage to untrain it, starve and neglect it. The cat’s affection will cultivate our ego, our own sense of prowess in the living of life, at the expense of nature and reality.

Yet the cat is still a predator, quietly destroying birdsong in the garden, digging up the flowers and leaving excrement in exchange. She’s indiscriminate: Though she takes the rodents and their damage and diseases, she takes the better things too. Even without active intention, just by following function, the cat and her toxoplasmosis come — affectionately, warmly, comfortingly — to take our sight and mind and health. Death still is.

For the sake of cat lovers everywhere, the author would like to acknowledge that this metaphor, like all metaphors, is not meant to be a literalistic representation of the character of either dogs or cats, just as dogs or cats are not meant to literalistically represent the character of either our sense of the divine or our sin nature, and that this metaphor occurs primarily to provide delight and validation to the incomparable, incorrigible Quixote, whose leathery Texan hide and quick wits enabled him to survive the long over-persistence of a feline demon beneath the sink.