Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Dogs patrol Hyde Park from dawn to past dusk, searching out delights and threats we humans can only imagine. Only the very old or the very weary plod along the center of the sidewalk as if to say, “I’ve been this way before.” (The hyper-trained strut with loose leads, as if to announce their superiority. “God, I thank Thee that I am not like other dogs! Arrogant SOBs.) Dogs unhindered by human expectations dart from plant to hydrant, zig zagging along the tree lawn with unbounded curiosity as if they have never been here before. After all, someone else may have been here since yesterday, and the thoughts of darting birds and squirrels lend an air of endless possibility. We watch, and smile, at the boundless enthusiasm.
Owners keep a tight grip guarding against the dangers of the street or an ugly confrontation, but grant more or less leash depending on mood and temperament. The irritated – or the cold – play tug of war, a battle of wills to keep on task. “Come on, come on!” The bored grow inattentive to trampled flowers or unsanctioned peeing leading to ominous no trespassing signs. Some owners, however, join dogs in the adventurous quest: “What do you smell? What do you see? Look, there’s a bunny!” Together they embody the shared curiosity of the created exploring the Creator’s gifts, “mercies never ceasing, new every morning.”
There’s something of the theologian in this partnership. For some, obedience rather than curiosity is the rule, the choke collar employed frequently to keep the adventurous at bay, the theory being that regular correction will discipline the free spirit. How smug they are as they dismiss other pairs as either foolish or dangerous dilettantes. How boring. There is no joy, no delight, no investigation of the new, no taking risks, and thus no discovery, just a grim slog to do one’s duty, the only reward at the end of the day being a full plastic bag in hand ripe for disposal.
Then there are those who follow their noses, less conscious of the leash. Some forays turn into dead ends, day old scents offering nothing really new. Some discoveries are toxic in spite of fascinating shapes and smells. “No! Put that down.” Some elude forever, like the squirrel dancing a tantalizing step or two away, always to be pursued, never quite captured. But oh, the joy of the chase! And then sometimes dog leads human to something entirely new, heretofore unknown, unimagined. And both, dog and human together, discover wonder, grace, joy. Tails, real and metaphorical, wag in tandem.
The leash remains important, the Great Tradition encompassing Word and Creed, liturgy and communal stories that keeps us within range of those who share our spiritual neighborhood. The leash keeps us from getting hopelessly lost, or run over, or from doing damage and violence to others. We profit from the leash, but only when it is employed gently, loosely, and with expansiveness. Chicago theologian of blessed memory, Joseph Sittler, puts it this way: The theologian, “unless he be a hod-carrier for a closed tradition or have a human soul carved in alabaster, will be alive and responsible to a double vocation. . . . The first binds him to history. . . . In obedience to this first vocation he must always look back and look down with responsibility, with gratitude, and in complete teachableness. In obedience to his second vocation. . . he must look his day full in the face, participate in the joyous thud of ideas in collision, listen to its multiple voices, become a creature of its vitalities and torments.”
It’s August, the dog days. Theologians, be attentive to the sidewalks of Hyde Park and beyond. The patrolling pairs, leashed together, have much to teach us.
John H. Thomas
August 18, 2016