Friday, April 28, 2006


So this morning, I made my kids some scrambled eggs for breakfast. My wife had been working on some personal projects most of the night before, and was napping on the couch while I sat with my kids eating a bowl of cereal. One of my kids looked at my cereal, turned toward my sleeping wife, and said, "Mommy, I want some of that!"

"What do you want, sweetie?" I asked, but she ignored me, shouting her request louder to my wife.

"Mommy! I want some of that!!"

It's an annoying problem that I don't want to go too far in depth in explaining, as it will likely fill the whole post before I get to making any actual point, but my daughter is simply going through an odd phase where she virtually refuses to talk to me, and directs all her verbal skills toward her mother, apparently likewise only listening to her as well. She'll only interact with me when Mommy is not around. There's something familiar about it.

When I grew up, I didn't get along with my stepfather. I would occasionally do things that annoyed him, and his response was usually to start an argument with my mother about my behavior. I always thought this was strange and obnoxious; if I'm the one causing a problem, shouldn't someone be arguing with me, or at least outright telling me to change my behavior? Because of this, I tended to strongly dislike my stepfather, and I assumed he strongly disliked me.

Then, when I was in high school, my mother took a multi-week trip to Russia, leaving me alone with him. I thought it would be awful, and you know what? It wasn't. My stepfather and I had a great time! For that time we were alone, we were like best buddies. We had barbecues, watched movies, and I'm not sure, but I seem to vaguely recall going to a sporting event of some sort. I wondered, have I reached some sort of level of maturity that is allowing me to get along with my dad in some way? Then, the very day my mother returned, they were back to arguing about my behavior.

I love my mom. I assume my mom loved my stepdad, since she married him and stayed with him for an awfully long time (and although divorced today, they're still friends). I found out within that short amount of time that my stepdad apparently loved me. Why could the three of us never get along together?

I found out recently that psychologists call this phenomenon "triangulation". It's the invisible social force that sometimes makes any three people able to get along very well in pairs, but miserable when all together. My wife does fine with our kids on her own, I do fine with them on my own, and when my wife and I can find the time to slip away alone, we greatly enjoy each other's company. Put us all together, and everybody is prone to losing their temper and committing antisocial acts all of a sudden. Apparently some close relationships strengthen each other, while others grate on each other in an odd way.

Well, the above is a well-known phenomenon, or at least I assume so if it's been named by psychologists. What interests me about this, and why I include it in my blog here about religion, is that it's been my experience from my early days of being a Christian that some people experience triangulation with God.

One of my closest friends in the early days of my being a Christian was a guy who considered himself to be a Zen Buddhist. It was always fascinating to me the way it was often easier to discuss theology with a Buddhist than with a fellow Christian. It's part and parcel of the phenomenon I noted in the first post of my other blog. Christians sometimes collectively nod their heads and say, "Isn't it great we all agree?" and move on, but if someone sticks their neck out and says, "but I don't agree," or sometimes even just, "I'm not sure I agree," then trouble can ensue. When I discuss theology with a Buddhist, I run virtually no risk of offending him, because we already understand we don't agree before we uncover the full nature of our disagreements.

Isn't this a matter, as I said above, of "triangulation with God?" Person A says, "I have such a close, personal relationship with Jesus Christ." Person B says, "Me, too!" Then they find out that A is a Catholic and B is a Methodist or something along those lines, and everything unravels. Mathematically/logically, we understand that if A is close to C and B is close to C, then A ought to be close to B.

But how could someone possibly believe that infants should be baptized? How could one possibly not baptize infants? Jesus' mother was an eternal virgin? Preposterous! But it's always been believed to be so; how could one go against centuries of tradition? You mean you believe in the Bible, but don't go to a formalized church with a big, fancy building?! Why does your minister wear those funny clothes, does he think he's better than everyone else? And on and on...

It's funny, but a few years ago, I was taking a computer programming class from a Muslim instructor, and over the course of various class breaks, we discovered to our mutual delight how many beliefs Christians and Muslims share. Sure, both of us know that we are of two separate religions, neither of which will accept the truth of the other, at least in full; but because of the distance that we know exists between our faiths, finding common ground of any sort was almost cause for celebration. When you're talking with someone you assume to have the same position as you, it's the discovery of differences that's notable. I wonder if it happens among atheists as well? (There was a time that I considered myself an "atheist", but probably my beliefs would have been better labeled "deist". Would such a revelation to an atheist friend have been cause for shock?)

My kids are only two years old. They don't have the maturity to do better than they are, and I understand that. My stepfather probably had some maturity problems, and honestly, some of my current situation is probably caused by my own shortcomings in various ways that I'm never fully aware of. Yes, adults aren't immune from maturity issues, probably especially those of us who so strongly deny that it's possible in ourselves.

Can Christians and other religions learn to be mature enough to live together in peace, despite our smaller differences? I don't know. Certainly, from what I gather in the news about Iraq, one of the biggest problem is not between Iraqis and Americans (although there's no denying there's quite a bit of tension there), but between differing Muslim sects.

At least in America, we're not blowing up each other's churches for our disagreements (at least, not to the degree it's happening there). Still, I'd tend to think Jesus expects more of us than simply not killing each other. My own church split in two this last year, not due to theological differences, but administrative staffing issues. As Jesus said in Matthew 5:47, "And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?" Maybe pagans are doing better than us, Lord. What kind of witness is that?

Monday, April 24, 2006


This morning, an odd thing happened to me that reminded me to write this post that I've had sitting on the back burner of my mind for some time, even long before the last post was written. One of my coworkers showed up at work on her day off today with her dog in tow. Although I'm not the sort of person who likes to own dogs, I am the sort who enjoys a bit of friendly interaction with other people's dogs (or just about any other pet).

Anyway, I got down on my knees in front of this dog, and said to it in a sort of baby-talk voice (yeah, I'm that sort of person as well), "Aw, aren't you a friendly puppy?" To which he turned and gave me a "doggy kiss". Now, I had been expecting and even hoping for one of these, although more of a sort of friendly lick on the cheek. What I got was more like a full-on doggy frenching, and before I fully got the word "puppy" out, this canine was licking my teeth and had his lips firmly planted on my own.

There's an odd conundrum involved with being in such a position with a dog. On the one hand, and usually the most obvious, it's sort of gross. Who knows what said dog had enjoyed in its last five meals or so and was now smearing on the inside of my mouth? On the other hand, as I said, I was (sort of) expecting such a friendly greeting. What strikes me as really interesting about this, though, is that there are some social situations in which many of us wouldn't mind a particular attractive person not formally known to us coming up and planting their lips on ours (think high school crush or the like) and yet we in no way expect that this will happen. Why is this? I have a friend who would be delighted to meet Geena Davis and have her first reaction upon meeting him be to leap into his lap and snuggle up against him, but it's highly unlikely it would happen, or that it would fail to raise an eyebrow on the rare chance that it did occur. Yet upon his visiting my house, my cat did exactly that to him, to nobody's surprise or shock.

Why do we treat animals differently? How much differently should we treat them (if at all)? I find it quite interesting that most people understand that there is a divide between people and the rest of the animal kingdom even if they don't believe so for religious reasons. Of course religiously, from a Judeo-Christian viewpoint, mankind is the crowning creation of all the universe, made last, and made to rule over the rest. Some see this as instilling in us absolute power and moral superiority, allowing us to use animals for labor, food, and even sadistic entertainment of sorts with no moral repercussions. Others see us as having responsibility to treat them like a younger sibling, giving them attention and comforts as one would a small child. Many fall somewhere in between. Is there any clear moral roadmap set out for us by the Bible or any established church institution?

Those who don't believe in the Bible, but probably lean on Darwinian principles to form their opinions on animals (not that these are entirely exclusive viewpoints, nor the only two) likewise comprise a whole spectrum of attitudes. While some may also see evolutionary principles pointing to humans as the pinnacle of evolution, I think those who really understand atheistic evolutionary theory realize that we are in many senses no more than one among many animals that inhabit the planet. Does this mean that we are to be kind and generous because they are our extended family, or does it give us license to do as we wish to them as the outcome is merely the result of their being less "fit" and therefore not worthy to survive? Once again, I see no clear roadmap set for the atheist. (I'm not the sort to assume that "atheistic = amoral".) Still, the most staunch believer in the former philosophy of the brotherhood of all animals probably knows there's something wrong with molesting sheep, and would rather be kissed by (Jessica Simpson/Josh Hartnett/insert human celebrity name of choice) than a spotted owl.

Still, I can't help but think animals deserve a place of respect in our lives, especially ones that we voluntarily have live with us as pets and/or livestock. The cat mentioned above has an annoying habit of being highly territorial when it comes to non-humans. While any person visiting our home will find our cat quite friendly and welcoming, any other animals who come within sight are subject to violent attack. A few weeks ago, she attempted to assault a strange cat who had wandered into our backyard, despite the fact that there was a thick glass plate separating them. The next day, a lump on her shoulder and a marked limp made us wonder if she had dislocated her shoulder in her vain attempt to protect her domain. The vet at the pet hospital told us that it would cost a few hundred dollars just to find out what was wrong, treatment aside.

It's one of those moments when you ponder the nature of the divide between man and beast. On one hand, with my family's current financial situation (I'm working two jobs just to pay the bills) I suspect that I may be squeezing the food budget to pay the vet bill. On the other hand, our cat is like a member of the family. What to do? A little over $600 later, I found out that the lump was essentially a big bruise, and I wished for the power to communicate with my cat the way I would with my children to say, "I understand you feel protective of your personal space, but you're not doing anybody any favors by crashing full-bore into plate glass windows. Think next time!"

Do we live in the conjunction of two worlds, one of animals and one of humans? What sets us apart? Language? Some primates seem to be able to learn sign language, and dolphins appear to have some sort of communication system as well. Usage of tools? Once again, primates can certainly learn to use various tools, and there are many instances of animals in the wild using sticks and rocks in numerous fashions to obtain food. Some have suggested that religion is what sets humans apart from animals, but I suspect from an atheistic point of view, that might be a show of our own inferiority. Besides, might it not be possible that animals have a form of religion that we simply do not understand?

I hate writing a post like this without having a specific end in mind. Not that I feel a need to wrap up every post here in a neat package, but still... Maybe the answer in some ways is not so important as asking the question. In my mind, since there is doubt, I wonder if these sort of questions may be some of the most important questions of all. After all, in weighing the balance between humans and the rest of the animals, we're in a strong minority, aren't we?