God, free will and golden retrievers

My good friend and colleague Penny Hanes is one of the several dog owners I join for lunch each day. She and her dog Gus hate people like me who walk their dogs off-leash in suburban neighborhoods. They have a point, but we disagree on another aspect of dog behavior. When I did walk my golden retriever Dax on-leash she would invariably take the leash in her mouth and walk me instead. My lunch group of “dog whisperers” explained that Dax was simply usurping my position as her alpha male/pack leader, trying to assert her free will. Who can really say? Certainly Dax on-leash did not have free will: ‘Guess I’ll chase that squirrel now,’ ‘Guess I’ll terrorize Penny’s little dog now.’

In the fullness of time Dax showed me that thousands of Mercyhurst professors can be wrong. How? When I let Dax off her leash in areas where I thought that she couldn’t get in too much trouble, she would rush around with glee but soon come back to find me. Taking the leash in her mouth she would then walk at my side the rest of the way home. Rather than futilely simulating free will, she could in fact choose to run free at any time but had decided not to.

How like our faith, I would think. People often argue against the existence of a higher power by whining, “If there really is a God, how can she permit evil things, cruelty and war for instance, that threaten to destroy our world?” The response is often, “God needs to give her followers free will; obedience to her precepts would have little meaning if there was no choice.” Without free will, wouldn’t we be making our way through life like a dog on-leash?

So, how does it go? Rushing about off-leash, free to be totally self-absorbed, grew old fairly soon for my spiritual side. Focusing on the portion of God within me I chose to pick up the leash of divine love that guides my progress through life. Love of self and of others, enthusiastically, non-judgmentally and unconditionally, leads to a life of compassion. As the hymn says, “And they will know we are Christians by our love, by our love.”

Dax is gone now and Addie, another beautiful loving golden, walks with me in her stead. When I release her to run free she returns to me from time to time to exhibit her own response to control by the master. She takes the end of the unconnected leash in her mouth and proceeds to pull it from one side of me to the other, growling and leaping like a hooked rainbow trout trying to escape from the end of a fly line.

Addie is still a young pup reminding me of the young pup I used to be. Earlier in my attempt to understand why I should restrict my behavior from self-serving gratification, I struggled mightily. If I needed only to accept Christ to wipe out a life of dissolution, why not live it up and put off being “born again”?

In spite of herself, Addie is a golden retriever through and through. With a constantly wagging tail and a ready smile, she lives her life with non-judgmental unconditional love of everyone and everything. Nearly always her attitude brings out a similar response from all she encounters. When she is met with snarls and barking, she is truly confused. I think she instinctively knows what it has taken me so long to learn: Living with enthusiastic, good-hearted love is no sacrifice. If each of us could live that way, it would truly be heaven on earth. Being “born again” is simply to accept that a piece of God resides within me and every one I meet. Each of us is truly good and worthy of love. If only we could get out of our own way and live our lives like a golden retriever.

(Dr. M. Raymond Buyce has been a professor in the Geology Department as Mercyhurst College for 25 years. He has served as the Geology Department chair, and is currently the Chief of Geological Research for the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute. Dr. Buyce says that his favorite aspect of Mercyhurst is its small-college atmosphere that allows for easy and open communication and interaction between faculty from all disciplines and backgrounds. He is originally from Lake Pleasant in the Adirondack region of New York State.)