Sunday, March 20, 2011

A dog's-eye view of the world

My late father fought in the Second World War as an enlisted man. He told me that he discovered what he was up to only after he returned home and read a few books. In the midst of battle, ignorance and confusion governed. Knowledge consisted of concrete imperatives: go left, retreat, hold your fire, cross the bridge, walk the road, take the town. How his deeds furthered some master plan he knew not: there was for him no big picture. My father could not see the forest because he was a tree. He just followed orders and tried to stay alive.
Those of us who are religious are like my father. We know that we are in a war but not how it goes or how it will eventuate; and few of us are generals. Our lot is rather to be good soldiers–to live according to the imperatives upon us and to save our souls.
I find it helpful in this connection to think about my dog Ralph, who is more German shepherd than anything else. Ralph knows that his food is kept in a large bag in the kitchen cabinet, and also that when I go to that cabinet with his dog bowl in hand, he is about to enjoy a meal. That is why he then barks with excitement Ralph further knows that rubbing his large paws and whiskered nose against the cabinet in my presence communicates hunger, and that turning over his empty water bowl will get it filled immediately. Regarding his food and water, then, Ralph can think well enough.
There is, however, a fixed limit to his understanding. He does not know that bags of dog food come from a grocery store, a thing for which he has no concept. He does not know that a store has products because there are trucking lines. And he knows nothing about the agricultural operations or the manufacturing processes that result in bags of food. Such knowledge is too high for him; he cannot attain it.
These are things, moreover, that he can never understand. I could spend every walking hour trying to instruct him about the long chain of events that puts dog food in the kitchen cabinet. But it would all be in vain, for his mind is constricted. Beyond a knowledge of certain facts about the cabinet and his bowl, there is only fog. His mind runs out.
So too must it be with us. Some of us seem to imagine that because we understand much, we should be able to understand everything, and that science will continue pulling up the blinds, exposing to the light more and more of the dark room that is our ignorance. But this is faith one need not be embarrassed to decline. Despite all our knowledge about ourselves and the universe we inhabit, much more is unknown than is known; our ignorance drowns our knowledge; and, just as Ralph’s understanding soon enough meets what it cannot fathom, so too is it with us. The world is large, and our minds our small, so the latter cannot always contain the former.

D. Allison, The Luminous Dusk (Eerdmans 2006), 23; 173-74. 


  1. Allison! Hmmmm!!

    He must have been arranged of mind with ideas as these:

    Ecc 3:11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.
    Ecc 3:12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live;
    Ecc 3:13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil--this is God's gift to man.


    Heb 6:3 And this we will do if God permits.

  2. This was encouraging. Do you recommend The Luminous Dusk?

  3. It's an interesting book. Allison is a liberal NT scholar. However, he's more independent than your average liberal. And he's more widely read.

    There are some other good quotables in the book.