An Abstract Art of Memory

Surgeon General’s Warning

I’m leaving this work up as a spectacular example of my barking up the wrong tree.

Some time centuries past, it was fashionable as a sort of rite of passage to create your “own art of memory,” as there were other times when it was fashionable to produce a new proof to a particular well-known theorem (the Pythagorean theorem). And this marks a spectacular effort to resurrect that dead fashion, even if I’m not sure it’s learnable enough to be useful. It also represents, to my knowledge, the first art of memory specifically optimized to work gracefully with abstractions, a point on which I have found little competition.

It also falls entirely into Barlaam’s domain, where in one defining moment for the Orthodox Church, the champion of Orthodox hesychasm St. Gregory Palamas engaged the champion of Renaissance man secular learning Barlaam, and the Orthodox Church decisively recognized that the hesychastic or silent tradition still living in the East was its norm, and the Western book learning that puts logic behind the wheel has no place in living Orthodoxy.

I am leaving this up as an example of my being wrong, and as a point of hope that someone wrong may still be brought to saving grace.

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Abstract. Author briefly describes classic mnemotechnics, indicates a possible weakness in their ability to deal with abstractions, and suggests a parallel development of related principles designed to work well with abstractions.

Frances Yates opens The Art of Memory with a tale from ancient Greece[1]:

At a banquet given by a nobleman of Thessaly named Scopas, the poet Simonides of Ceos chanted a lyric poem in honor of his post but including a passage in praise of Castor and Pollux. Scopas meanly told the poet that he would only pay him half the sum agreed upon for the panegyric and that he must obtain the balance from the twin gods to whom he had devoted half the poem. A little later, a message was brought in to Simonides that two young men were waiting outside who wished to see him. He rose from the banquet and went out but could find no one. During his absence the roof of the banqueting hall fell in, crushing Scopas and all the guests beneath the ruins; the corpses were so mangled that the relatives who came to take them away for burial were unable to identify them. But Simonides remembered the places at which they had been sitting at the table and was therefore able to indicate to the relatives which were their dead.

After his spatial memory in this event, Simonides is credited with having created an art of memory: start with a building full of distinct places. If you want to remember something, imagine a striking image with a token of what you wish to remember at the place. To recall something naval, you might imagine a giant nail driven into your front door, with an anchor hanging from it; if you visualize this intensely, then when in your mind’s eye you go through your house and imagine your front door, then the anchor will come to mind and you will remember the boats. Imagining a striking image on a remembered place is called pegging: when you do this, you fasten a piece of information on a given peg, and can pick it up later. Yates uses the terms art of memory and artificial memory as essentially interchangeable with mnemotechnics, and I will follow a similar usage.

There is a little more than this to the technique, and it allows people to do things that seem staggering to someone not familiar with the phenomenon[2]. Being able to look at a list of twenty items and recite it forwards and backwards is more than a party trick. The technique is phenomenally well-adapted to language acquisition. It is possible for a person skilled in the technique to learn to read a language in weeks. It is the foundation to some people learning an amount of folklore so that today they would be considered walking encyclopedias. This art of memory was an important part of the ancient Greek rhetorical tradition[3], drawn by medieval Europe into the cardinal virtue of wisdom[4], and then transformed into an occult art by the Renaissance[5]. Medieval and renaissance variations put the technique to vastly different use, and understood it to signify greatly different things, but outside of Lullism[6] and Ramism[7], the essential technique was the same.

In my own efforts to learn the classical form of the art of memory, I have noticed something curious. I’m better at remembering people’s names, and I no longer need to write call numbers down when I go to the library. I was able, without difficulty, to deliver an hour-long speech from memory. Learning vocabulary for foreign languages has come much more quickly; it only took me about a month to learn to read the Latin Vulgate. My weaknesses in memory are not nearly so great as they were, and I know other people have been much better at the art than I am. At the same time, I’ve found one surprise, something different from the all-around better memory I suspected the art would give me. What is it? If there is a problem, it is most likely subtle: the system has obvious benefits. To tease it out, I’d like to recall a famous passage from Plato’s Phaedrus[8]:

Socrates: At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis was sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days Thamus was the king of the whole of Upper Egypt, which is in the district surrounding that great city which is called by the Hellenes Egyptian Thebes, and they call the god himself Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he went through them, and Thamus inquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. There would be no use in repeating all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; for this is the cure of forgetfulness and folly. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, he who has the gift of invention is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance a paternal love of your own child has led you to say what is not the fact: for this invention of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters. You have found a specific, not for memory but for reminiscence, and you give your disciples only the pretence of wisdom; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome, having the reputation of knowledge without the reality.

There is clear concern that writing is not what it appears, and it will endanger or destroy the knowledge people keep in memory; a case can be made that the phenomenon of Renaissance artificial memory as an occult practice occurred because only someone involved in the occult would have occasion to keep such memory after books were so easily available.

What kind of things might one wish to have in memory? Let me quote one classic example: the argument by which Cantor proved that there are more real numbers between 0 and 1 than there are counting numbers (1, 2, 3…). I paraphrase the basic argument here:

  1. Two sets are said to have the same number of elements if you can always pair them up, with nothing left over on either side. If one set always has something left over after the matching up, it has more elements.
  2. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that there are at least as many counting numbers as real numbers between 0 and 1. Then you can make a list of the numbers between 0 and 1:
    1:  .012343289889...
    2:  .328932198323...
    3:  .438724328743...
    4:  .988733287923...
    5:  .324432003442...
    6:  .213443765001...
    7:  .321010320030...
    8:  .323983213298...
    9:  .982133982198...
    10: .321932198904...
    11: .000321321278...
    12: .032103217832...
  3. Now, take the first decimal place of the first number, the second of the second number, and so on and so forth, and make them into a number:
    1:  .012343289889...
    2:  .328932198323...
    3:  .438724328743...
    4:  .988733287923...
    5:  .324432003442...
    6:  .213443765001...
    7:  .321010320030...
    8:  .323983213298...
    9:  .982133982198...
    10: .321932198904...
    11: .000321321278...
    12: .032103217832...


  4. Now make another number between 0 and 1 that is different at every decimal place from the number just computed:
  5. Now, remember that we assumed that the list has all the numbers between 0 and 1: every single one, without exception. Therefore, if this assumption is true, then the latter number we constructed must be on the list. But where?The number can’t be the first number on the list, because it was constructed to be different at the first decimal place from the first number on the list. It can’t be the second number on the list, because it was constructed to be different at the second decimal place from the second number on the list. Nor can it be the third, fourth, fifth… in fact, it can’t be anywhere on the list because it was constructed to be different. So we have one number left over. (Can we put that number on the list? Certainly, but the argument shows that the new list will leave out another number.)
  6. The list of numbers between 0 and 1 doesn’t have all the numbers between 0 and 1.
  7. We have a contradiction.
  8. We started by assuming that you can make a list that contains all the numbers between 0 and 1, but there’s a contradiction: any list leaves numbers left over. Therefore, our assumption must be wrong. Therefore, there must be too many real numbers between 0 and 1 to assign a separate counting number to each of them.

Let’s say we want to commit this argument to memory. A mathematician with artificial memory might say, “That’s easy! You just imagine a chessboard with distorted mirrors along its diagonal.” That is indeed a good image if you are a mathematician who already understands the concept. If you find the argument hard to follow, it is at best a difficult thing to store via the artificial memory. Even if it can be done, storing this argument in artificial memory is probably much more trouble than learning it as a mathematician would.

Let me repeat the quotation from the Phaedrus, while changing a few words:

Jefferson: At the Greek region of Thessaly, there was a famous old poet, whose name was Simonides; totems seen with the inner eye were devoted to him, and he was the inventor of a great art, greater than arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts. Now in those days Rousseau was a sage revered throughout the West, and they called the god himself Rationis. To him came Simonides and showed his invention, desiring that the rest of the world might be allowed to have the benefit of it; he went through it, and Rousseau inquired about its several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. There would be no use in repeating all that Rousseau said to Simonides in praise or blame of various facets. But when they came to inner writing, This, said Simonides, will make the West wiser and give it better memory; for this is the cure of forgetfulness and of folly. Rousseau replied: O most ingenious Simonides, he who has the gift of invention is not always the best judge of utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance a paternal love of your own child has led you to say what is not the fact; for this invention will create forgetfulness in the learner’s souls, because they will not remember abstract things; they will trust to mere mnemonic symbols and not remember things of depth. You have found a specific, not for memory but for reminiscence, and you give your disciples only the pretence of wisdom; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome, having the reputation and outer shell of knowledge without the reality of deep thought.

It is clear that if we follow Thomas Aquinas’s instructions on memory to visualize a woman for wisdom, we may recall wisdom. What is less clear is that this inner writing particularly helps an abstract recollection of wisdom. It may be able to recall an understanding of wisdom acquired without the help of artificial memory, but this art which allows at times stunning performance in the memorization of concrete data is of more debatable merit in learning abstraction. It has been my own experience that abstractions can be forced through the gate of concreteness in artificial memory, but it is like forcing a sponge through a funnel. While I admittedly don’t have a medieval practitioner’s inner vocabulary to deal with abstractions, using the artificial memory to deal with abstractions seems awkward in much the same way that storing individual letters through artificial memory[9] is awkward. The standard artificial memory is a tool for being reminded of abstractions, but not for remembering them. It offers the abstract thinker a seductive way to recall a great many concrete facts instead of learning deep thought.

The overall impression I receive of the artificial memory is not so much a failed attempt at a tool to store abstractions as a successful attempt at a concrete tool which was not intended to store abstractions. It is my belief that some of its principles, in modified form, suggest the beginnings of an art of memory well-fitted to dealing with abstractions. The mature form of such an endeavor will not simply be an abstract mirror image of a concrete artificial memory, but it is appropriate enough for the first steps I might hazard.

Consider the following four paragraphs:

  1. Physics is like music. Both owe something of substance to the Pythagoreans. Both are aesthetic endeavors that in some way represent nature in highly abstracted form. Both are interested in mechanical waves. Many good physicists are closet musicians, and all musical instruments operate on physical principle.
  2. Physics is like literature. Both are written in books that vary from moderately easy to very hard. Both deal with a distinction between action and what is acted on, be it plot and character or force and particle, and both allow complex entities to be built of simpler ones. Practitioners of both want to be thought of as insightful people who understand reality.
  3. Physics is like an adventure. Both involve a venture into the unknown, where the protagonist tries to discover what is happening. Both have a mystique that exists despite most people’s fear to experience such things themselves. To succeed in either, one is expected to have impressive strengths.
  4. Physics is like magic. Both flourished in the West, at the same time, out of the same desire: a desire to understand nature so as to control it. Both attract abstract thinkers, are practiced in part through the manipulation of arcane symbols, and may be found in the same person, from Newton to Feynman[10]. Magical theory claims matter to be composed of earth, air, fire, and water, while physics finds matter to be composed of solid, liquid, gas, and plasma.

What is the merit of these comparisons? They recall a story in which a literature professor asked Feynman if he thought physics was like literature. Feynman led him on with an elaborate analogy of how physics was like literature, and then said, “But it seems to me you can make such an analogy between any two subjects, so I don’t find such analogies helpful.” He observed that one can make a reasonably compelling analogy even if there’s no philosophically substantial connection.

The laws of logic and philosophy are not the laws of memory. What is a liability to Feynman’s implicit philosophical method is a strength to memory. The philosophical merit of the above comparisons is debatable. The benefit to memory is different: it appears to me that this is an abstract analogue to pegging. A connection, real or spurious, aids the memory even if it doesn’t aid a rigorous philosophical understanding. In pegging, it is considered an advantage to visualize a ludicrously illogical scene: it is much more memorable than something routine and sensible. Early psychological experiments in memory involved memorization of nonsense syllables. The experimenters intentionally chose meaningless material to memorize. Why? Well, if the subject perceived meaning, that would provide a spurious way for the subject to remember the data, and so proper Ebbinghausian memory study meant investigating how people investigate memory material which was as meaningless as possible. Without pausing to develop an obvious critique, I’d suggest that this spurious route to memory is of great interest to us. Meaningful data is more memorable than meaningless, and this is true whether the meaning perceived is philosophically sound or obviously contrived. I might suggest that interesting meaning provides a direct abstract parallel to the striking, special-effect appearance of effective images in pegging.

I intentionally chose not to compare physics to astronomy, chemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics, metaphysics, or statistics, because I wanted to show how a different concept can be used to establish connections to a new one. Or, more properly, different concepts. Having a new concept connected to three very different ones will capture different facets than one anchor point, and possibly cancel out some of each other’s biases. A multiplicity of perspectives lends balance and depth. This isn’t to say similar concepts can’t be used, only that searching for a partial or full isomorphism to a known concept is easier than encoding from scratch. If memorable connections can be made between physics and adventure, music, English, and magic, what might be obtained from comparison with mathematics, chemistry, and engineering? A comparison between physics and these last three disciplines is left as an exercise to the reader, and one that may be quite fruitful.

Is this a desirable way to remember things? I would make two different comments on this score. First, when learning Latin words, I would first peg it to an English word with a vivid image, then later recall the image and reconstruct the English equivalent, then recall the image and remember the English, then the image would drop out so I would directly remember the English, and finally the English word would drop out too, leaving me with a Latin usage often different from the English equivalent used. Artificial memory does not circumvent natural memory; instead it streamlines the process and short-circuits many of the disruptive trips to the dictionary. Pegs vanish with use; they are not an alternate final product but a more efficient route for concepts more frequently used, and a cache of reference material. Therefore, even if remembered comparisons between physics and adventure/music/English/magic fall short of how one would desire to understand the concept, a similar flattening of the learning curve is possible. Second, I would say that even if you fail to peg something, you may succeed. How? In trying to peg a person’s name, I hold that name and face in an intense focus—quite the opposite how I once reacted: “I’ll never remember that,” a belief which chased other people’s names out of my mind in seconds. That focus is relevant to memory, and it has happened more than once that I completely failed to create a peg, but my failure used enough mental energy that I still remembered. If you search through your memory and fail to make even forced connections between a new concept and existing concepts, the mental focus given to the concept will leave you much better off than if you had thrown up your hands and thought the self-fulfilling prophecy: “I will never remember that!”

Certain kinds of emotional intelligence are part of the discipline. Learning to cultivate presence has to do with an emotional side, and I have written elsewhere about activities that can help to cultivate such presence[11]. We learn material better if we are interested in it; therefore consciously cultivating an interest in the material and seeing how it can be fascinating is another edge. Cultivating and guarding your inner emotional state can have substantial impact on memory and learning abstractions. Much of it has to do with keeping a state of presence. Shutting out abstractions is one obvious way to do this; another, perhaps less obvious, is to avoid cramming and simply ploughing through material unless it’s something you don’t really need to learn. Why?

If there is a sprinkler that disperses a fine mist, it will slowly moisten the ground. What if there’s a high-volume sprinkler that shoots big, heavy drops of water high up in the air? With all that water pounding on the ground, it looks like the ground is quickly saturated. The appearance is deceptive. What has happened is that the heavy drops have pounded the surface of the ground into a beaten shield, so there really is water rolling off of a very wet surface, but go an inch down and the soil is as parched as ever. This sort of thing happens in studying, when people think that the more force they use, the better the results. Up to a point, definitely, and perseverance counts—but I have found myself to learn much more when I paid attention to my mental and emotional state and backed off if I sensed that I was leaving that optimal zone. I learn something if I say “This is important, so I’ll plough through as much as I can as quickly as I can,” but it’s not as much, and keeping on task needs to be balanced with getting off task when that is helpful.

Consider the following problem:[12]

In the inns of certain Himalayan villages is practiced a most civilized and refined tea ceremony. The ceremony involves a host and exactly two guests, neither more nor less. When his guests have arrived and have seated themselves at his table, the host performs five services for them. These services are listed in order of the nobility which the Himalayan attribute to them: (1) Stoking the Fire, (2) Fanning the Flames, (3) Passing the Rice Cakes, (4) Pouring the Tea, and (5) Reciting Poetry. During the ceremony, any of those present may ask another, “Honored Sir, may I perform this onerous task for you?” However, a person may request of another only the least noble of the tasks which the other is performing. Further, if a person is performing any tasks, then he may not request a task which is nobler than the least noble task he is already performing. Custom requires that by the time the tea ceremony is over, all the tasks will have been transferred from the host to the most senior of the guests. How may this be accomplished?

Incomprehensible appearances notwithstanding, this is a very simple problem, the Towers of Hanoi. Someone who has learned the Towers of Hanoi may still solve the tea ceremony formulation as slowly as someone who’s never seen any form of the problem[13]. A failure to recognize isomorphisms provides one of the more interesting passages in Feynman’s memoirs[14]:

I often liked to play tricks on people when I was at MIT. One time, in a mechanical drawing class, some joker picked up a French curve (a piece of plastic for drawing smooth curves—a curly, funny-looking thing) and said, “I wonder if the curves on this thing have some special formula?”

I thought for a moment and said, “Sure they do. The curves are very special curves. Lemme show ya,” and I picked up my French curve and began to turn it slowly. “The French curve is made so that at the lowest point on each curve, no matter how you turn it, the tangent is horizontal.”

All the guys in the class were holding their French curve up at different angles, holding their pencil up to it at the lowest point and laying it along, and discovering that, sure enough, the tangent is horizontal. They were all excited by this “discovery”—even though they had already gone through a certain amount of calculus and had already “learned” that the derivative (tangent) of the minimum (lowest point) of any curve is zero (horizontal). They didn’t put two and two together. They didn’t even know what they “knew.”

What is going on here is that Feynman perceives an isomorphism where the others do not. There may be a natural bent to or away from perceiving isomorphisms, and cognitive science suggests most people have a bent away. The finding, as best I can tell, is not so much that people can’t look for isomorphisms, as that they don’t. The practice of looking for and finding isomorphisms has something to give, because something can be treated as already known instead of learned from scratch. I might wonder in passing if the ultra-high-IQ rapid learning and interdisciplinary proclivities stem in part from the perception and application of isomorphisms, which may reduce the amount of material actually learned in picking up a new skill.

The classical art of memory derives strength from a mind that works visually; a background in abstract thought will help one learn abstractions. It has been thought[15] that people can more effectively encode and remember material in a given domain if it’s one they have worked with; I would suggest that this abstract pegging also creates a way to encode material with background from other domains. An elaborate, intense, and distinct encoding is believed to help recall[16]. Heightening of memorable features, in what is striking or humorous[17], should help, and mimetics seems likely to contain jewels in its accounts of how a meme makes itself striking.

Someone familiar with artificial memory may ask, “What about places (loci)?” Part of the art of memory, be it ancient, medieval, or renaissance, involved having an inner building of sorts that one could imagine going through in order and recalling items. I have two basic comments here. First, a connection could use traditional artificial memory techniques as an index: imagine a muscular man with a tremendous physique running onto the scene, grabbing an adventurer’s sword, shield, and pack, sitting down at a pipe organ which has a large illuminated manuscript on top, and clumsily playing music until a giant gold ring engraved with fiery letters falls on the scene and turns it to dust. You have pegged physics to adventure, music, literature, and magic; if you wanted to reconstruct an understanding of physics, you could see what it was pegged to, and then try to recall the given similarities. Second and more deeply, I believe that a person’s entire edifice of previously acquired concepts may serve as an immense memory palace. It is not spatial in the traditional sense, and I am not here concerned with the senses in which it might be considered a topological space, but it is a deeply qualitative place, and accessible if one uses traditional artificial memory for an index: these adaptations are intended to expand the repertoire of what disciplined artificial memory can do, not abolish the traditional discipline.

Symbols are the last unexplored facet. Earlier I suggested that a chessboard with mirrors along its diagonal may be a good token to represent Cantor’s diagonal argument, but does not bring memory of the whole proof. Now I would like to give the other side: an abstraction may not be fully captured by a symbol, but a good symbol helps. A sign/symbol distinction has been made, where a sign represents while a symbol represents and embodies. In this sense I suggest that tokens be as symbolic as possible.

Why use a token? Aren’t the deepest thoughts beyond words? Yes, but recall depends on being able to encode. I have found my deepest thoughts to not be worded and often difficult to translate to words, but I have also found that I lose them if I cannot put them in words. As such, thinking and choosing a good, mentally manipulable symbol for an abstraction is both difficult and desirable. My own discipline of formation, mathematics, chooses names for variables like ‘x’, ‘y’, and ‘z’ which software engineers are taught not to use because they impede comprehension: a computer program with variable names like ‘x’ and ‘y’ is harder to understand or even write to completion than one which with names like ‘trucks_remaining’ or ‘customers_last_name’. The authors of Design Patterns[18] comment that naming a pattern is one of the hardest parts of writing it down. The art of creating a manipulable symbol for an abstraction is hard, but worth the trouble. This, too, may also help you to probe an abstraction in a way that will aid recall.

To test these principles, I decided to spend a week[19] seeing what I could learn of a physics text[20] and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason[21]. I considered myself to have understood a portion of the physics text after being able to solve the last of the list of questions. I had originally decided to see how quickly I could absorb material. After working through 10% of the physics text in one day, I decided to shift emphasis and pursue depth more than speed. In reading Kant, the tendency to barely grasp a difficult concept forgotten in grasping the next difficult concept gave way, with artificial memory, to understanding the concepts better and grasping them in a way that had a more permanent effect. I read through page 108 of 607 in the physics text and 144 of 669 in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

The first day’s physics ventures saw two interesting ways of storing concepts, and one comment worth mentioning. There is a classic skit, in which two rescuers are performing two-person CPR on a patient. Then one of the rescuers says, “I’m getting tired. Let’s switch,” and the patient gets up, the tired rescuer lies down, and the other two perform CPR on him. This was used to store the interchangeability of point of effort, point of resistance, and fulcrum on a lever, based on an isomorphism to the skit’s humor element.

The rule given later, that along any axis the sum of forces for a body in equilibrium is always zero, was symbolized by an image of a knife cutting a circle through the center: no matter what angle of cutting there was, the cut leaves two equal halves.

These both involved images, but the images differed from pegging images as a schematic diagram differs from a computer animated advertisement. They seemed a combination of an isomorphism and a symbol, and in both cases the power stemmed not only from the resultant image but the process of creation. The images functioned in a sense related to pegging, but most of the images so far developed have been abstract images unlike anything I’ve read about in historical or how-to discussion of the art of memory.

The following was logged that night. The problem referred to is a somewhat complex lever problem given in three parts:

In reviewing the day’s thoughts at night, I recognized that the problems seem to admit a shortcut solution that does not rigorously apply the principles but obtains the correct answer: problem 12 on page 31 gives two weights and other information, and all three subproblems can be answered by assuming that there are two parts in the same ratio [as] the weights, and applying a little horse sense as to which goes where. It’s a bit like general relativity, which condenses to “Everything changes by a factor of the square root of (1 – (v^2/c^2)).” I am not sure whether this is a property of physics itself or a socially emergent property of problems used in physics texts.

I believe this suggests that I was interacting with the material deeply and quite probably in a fashion not anticipated by the authors.

In reading Kant, I can’t as easily say “I solved the last exercises in each section” and don’t simply want to just say, “I read these pages.” I would like to demonstrate interaction with the material with excerpts from my log:

…I am now in the introduction to the second edition, and there are two images in reference to Kant’s treatment of subjective and objective. One is of a disc which has been cut in half, sliced again along a perpendicular axis and brought together along the first axis so that the direction of the cut has been changed. The other is of a sphere being turned out by [topologically] compactifying R3 [Euclidean three-space] by the addition of a single point, and then shifting so the vast outside has become the cramped inside and the cramped inside has become the vast outside. Both images are inadequate to the text, indicating at best what sort of thing may be thought about in what sort of shift Kant tries to introduce, and I want to reread the last couple of pages. Closer to the mark is a story about three umpires who say, in turn, “I calls them as they are,” “I calls them as I see them,” and “They may be strikes, they may be balls, but they ain’t nothing until I calls them!”

Having reread, I believe that the topological example is truer than I realized. I made it on almost superficial grounds, after reading a footnote which gave as example scientific progress after Copernicus proposed, rather than that the observer be fixed and the heavens rotate, the heavens are fixed and the observer rotate. The deeper significance is this: prior accounts had apparently not given sufficient account to subjective factors, treating subjective differences as practically unimportant—what mattered for investigation was the things in themselves. Thus the subjective was the unexamined inside of the sphere. Then, after the transformation, the objective was the unexaminable inside of the new sphere: we may investigate what is now outside, our subjective states and the appearances conformed to them, but things in themselves are more sealed than our filters before: before, we didn’t look; after, we can’t look. What is stated [in Kant] so far is a gross overextension of a profound observation.

The below passages refer to pp. 68-70:

Kant’s arguments that space is an a priori concept can be framed as showing that there exists a chicken-and-egg or bootstrapping gap between them and sense data.

What is a chicken-and-egg/bootstrapping gap? In assisting with English as a Second Language instruction, I was faced with a difficulty in explanation. Assuming certain background, it is possible for a person not to know something while there is a straightforward way of explaining—perhaps a very long way of explaining, but it’s obvious enough how to explain it in terms of communicable concepts. Then there is the case where there is no direct way to explain something: one example is how to explain to a small child what air is. One can point to water, wood, metal, stone, food, and a great many other things, but the same procedure may not yield understanding of air. It may be possible with a Zen-like cleverness to circumvent it—in saying, for example, that air is what presses on your skin on a windy day—but it is not as straightforward as even an involved and difficult explanation where you know how to use the other person’s concepts to build the one you want.

In English as a Second Language instruction, this kind of gap is a significant phenomenon in dealing with students who have no beginning English knowledge, and in dealing with concepts that cannot obviously be demonstrated: ‘sister’ and ‘woman’, when both terms refer to an adult, differ in a way that is almost certainly understood in the student’s native tongue but is nonetheless extremely difficult to explain. When I first made the musing, I envisioned a Zen-like solution. Koans immortalize incidents in which Zen masters bypassed chicken-and-egg gaps in trying to convey enlightenment that cannot be straightforwardly explained, and therefore show a powerful kind of communication. That is what I envisioned, but it is not how English is taught to speakers of other languages. What happens in ESL classes, and with younger children, is a gradual emergence that is difficult to account for in the terms of analytic philosophy—a straightforward explanation sounds like hand-waving and sloppy thinking—but with enough repetition, material is picked up. It may have something to do with a mechanism of learning outlined in Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge, which talks about how i.e. swimmers learn from coaches to inhale more air and exhale less completely so that their lungs act more as a flotation device than a non-swimmers, even though neither swimmer nor coach is likely aware of what is going on on any conscious level. People pick things up through at least one route besides grasping a concept consciously synthesized from sense data.

Kant’s proof that a given concept is a priori essentially consists of argument that the concept that cannot be synthesized from sense data through the obvious means of central route processing. He is probably right in that the concepts he classifies as a priori, and presumably others as well, cannot just be synthesized from sense data through central route processing. It does not follow that a concept must be a priori: there are other possibilities besides the route Kant investigates that one can acquire a belief. I do believe, though, that we come with some kind of innate or a priori knowledge: the difficulties experienced in visualizing four dimensional objects suggest that our dealing with three-dimensional space is not simply the result of a completely amorphous central nervous system which we happen to condition to deal with three dimensions; there is something of substance, comparable in character to a psychologist’s broader understanding of memory, that we are born to. An investigation of that would take me too far afield.

P. 87. “Now a thing in itself cannot be known throu[g]h mere relations; and we may therefore conclude that since outer science gives us nothing but mere relations, this sense can contain in its representation only the relation of an object to the subject, and not the inner properties of the object in itself.”

There is a near-compatibility between this and realist philosophy of science. How?

Recall my observation about chicken-and-egg gaps and how they may be surmounted (here I think of Zenlike short-circuiting of the gap rather than the vaguely indicated gradual emergence of concepts which haven’t been subject to a detailed and understood explanation). What goes on in a physics experiment? The truly famous ones since 1900—I think of the Millikin oil-drop experiment—include a very clever hack that tricks nature into revealing herself. People, not even experimental physicists, can grab a handful of household items and prove that electric charge is quantized.[22] Perhaps that was possible in Galileo’s day, but a groundbreaking experiment involves a brilliant, clever, unexpected trickery of nature that is isomorphic to a Zen short-circuiting in a chicken-and-egg gap, or a clever hack, and so on and so forth. Even a routine classroom experiment uses technology that is the fruit of this kind of resourcefulness. People do something they “shouldn’t” be able to do. This is possibly how we might learn intuitions Kant classifies as a priori, and how experimental scientists cleverly circumvent the roadblock Kant describes here. It might be said that understanding this basic problem is prerequisite to a good realist philosophy of science.

‘Hack’, in this context, refers to the programming cleverness described in Programming Pearls[23]. I analyzed that fundamental mode of problem solving and compared it with its counterpart in “Of Technology, Magic, and Channels”[24]. There are other observations and interactions with the text, but I believe these should adequately make the point.

I chose Kant because of his reputation as an impenetrable analytic philosopher. With the aid of a good translation and these principles, I was at times surprised at how easy it was to read. By the end of the week, I had another surprise when I decided to reread George MacDonald’s Phantastes[25], a work which I have greatly enjoyed. This time, my experience was different. I felt my mind working differently despite a high degree of mental fatigue. The evocative metaphor fell dead, and I found myself reading the text as I would read Kant, thinking in a manner deeply influenced by reading Kant, and in the end setting it down because my mind had shifted deeply into a mode quite different from what allows me to enjoy Phantastes. I was surprised at how deeply using abstract memory to read Kant had affected not only conscious recall of ideas but also ways of thought itself.

I do not consider my recorded observations to be in any sense a rigorous experiment, but I believe the experience suggests it’s interesting enough to be worth a good experiment.

Here are twelve proposed principles, or rules of thumb, of abstract memory:

  1. Be wholly present. Want to know the material. Make it emotionally relevant and connected to something that concerns you. Don’t take notes[26].
  2. Encode material in multiple ways. Some different ways to encode are: analogies to different abstractions, list distinctions from similar abstractions, paraphrase, search for isomorphisms, use the concepts, and create visual symbols.[27]
  3. At least in the beginning, mix a little bit of reading material with a lot of processing. Don’t plough through anything you want to remember. Work on drawing a lot of mist in, not pounding with heavy drops that will create a beaten shield.
  4. Don’t read out of a desire to finish reading a text. Read to draw the materials through processed thought.
  5. Process in a way that is striking, stunning, novel, and counter-intuitive: in a word, memorable.
  6. Process material on as deep a level as you can.[28]
  7. Search for subtle distinctions between a concept under study and its near neighbors.
  8. Converse, interact with, and respond to the abstractions. What would you say if an acquaintance said that in a discussion? What questions would you ask? Write it down.
  9. Know how much mental energy you have, and choose battles wisely. Given a limited amount of energy, it is better to fully remember a smaller number of critical abstractions than to have diffuse knowledge of many random ideas.
  10. Guard your emotions. Be aware of what emotional states you learn well in, and put being in those states before passing your eyes over such-and-such many pages of reading material.
  11. Review material after study, seeking to find a different way of putting it.
  12. Metacogitate. Be your own coach.

Committing these principles to memory is left as an exercise to the reader.

What can I say to conclude this monograph? I can think of one or two brief addenda, such as the programmer’s virtue of laziness[29], but in a very real sense I can’t conclude now. I can sketch out a couple of critiques that may be of interest. Jerry Mander[30] critiques the artificial unusuality of television and especially advertising, in a way that has direct bearing on traditional mnemotechnics. He suggests that giving otherwise uninteresting sensation a strained and artificial unusuality has undesirable impact on how people perceive life as seen outside of TV, and the angle of his critique is the main reason why I was hesitant to learn artificial memory. There may be room for similar critiques about why making ridiculous comparisons to remember ideas creates a bad habit for someone who wishes to think rigorously. There is also the cognitive critique that the search for isomorphisms will introduce unnoted distortion. One thinks of the person who says, “All the religions in the world say the same thing.” There is a common and problematic tendency to be astute in perceiving substantial similarities among world religions and all but blind in perceiving even more substantial differences. That is why I suggest comparing with multiple and different familiar concepts, rather than one. I could give other thoughts about critiques, but I’m trying to explain an art of memory, not especially to defend it.My intention here is not to settle all questions, but open the biggest one and suggest a direction of inquiry by which an emerging investigation may find a more powerful way to learn abstractions.[31]


    1. Yates, Frances A., The Art of Memory, hereafter AM, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966, pp. 1-2. The text is a treasure trove on the development of mnemotechnics, also referred to here as artificial memory or the art of memory. Back
    2. Trudeau, Kevin, Kevin Trudeau’s Mega Memory, hereafter KTMM, New York: William Morrow & Co., 1995 is one of several practical manuals for someone who thinks the classical art of memory interesting and would like to be able to use it. Back
    3. AM, pp. 27ff. Back
    4. Ibid., pp. 50ff. Back
    5. Ibid., pp. 129ff. Back
    6. Ibid., pp. 173ff. Back
    7. Ibid., pp. 231ff. Back
    8. Jowett, B., The Dialogues of Plato, Vol. III, hereafter DP, New York: National Library Company, pp. 442-443. Back
    9. AM, pp. 112ff describes one popularizer whose somewhat debased form advocated memorizing individual letters. This practice is awkward, much as it would be awkward to record the appearance of a room by taking a notepad and writing one letter on each sheet of paper. Back
    10. Feynman, Richard, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, hereafter SYJMF, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1985, pp. 338ff and other places in the text. He began his famous “Cargo Cult Science” address by talking about his occult diversions from scientific endeavors, and it is arguable that Newton’s groundbreaking work in physics and optics was a scientific diversion from his main occult endeavors. I find it revealing that, even with Feynman’s occult forays left in the book, the index shows curious lacunae for “ESP”, “Hallicunation”, “New Age”, “Reflexology”, “Sensory deprivation”, etc. Back
    11. 100 Ways of Kything, hereafter 1WK, by C.J.S. Hayward, at describes a number of activities which can embody presence and focus. Back
  • Hayes, J.R., and Simon, H.A., “Understanding Written Problem Instructions”, 1974, in Gregg, L.W. ed., Knowledge and Cognition, hereafter KC, Hillsdale: Erlbaum. Quoted in Posner, Michael I. ed., Foundations of Cognitive Science, hereafterFCS, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1989, pp. 534-535. Back
  • FCS, pp. 559-560. Back
  • SYJMF, pp. 36-37. A more scholarly, if more pedestrian, mention of the phenomenon is provided in FCS, pp. 559-560. Back
  • FCS, p. 690. The authors do not necessarily subscribe to this view, but acknowledge influence among many in the field. Back
  • Ibid., p. 691. Back
  • “A Picture of Evil”, hereafter APE, by C.J.S. Hayward, at provides an example of communication which is striking in this manner. Back
  • Gamma, Erich; Helm, Richard; Johnson, Ralph; Vlissides, John, Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, hereafter DP, Reading: Addison-Wesley, p. 3. The book describes recurring good practices that are known to many expert practitioners, but often only on a tacit level—and tries to explain how this tacit knowledge can be made explicit. The book is commonly called ‘GoF’ (“Gang of Four”) by software developers. Thanks to Ron Miles for locating the page number. Back
  • February 9-15 2002. Testing abstract artificial and honing this article were juggled with other responsibilities. Back
  • Black, Newton Henry; Davis, Harvey Nathaniel, New Practical Physics: Fundamental Principles and Applications to Daily Life, hereafter NPP, New York: Macmillan, 1929. Given to me as a whimsical Christmas gift in 2001. At the time of beginning, I was significantly out of practice in both physics and mathematics. Back
  • Smith, Norman Kemp tr., Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, hereafter IKCPR, London: Macmillan, 1929. I had not previously read Kant. Back
  • I knew that science doesn’t deal in proof; experiments may corroborate a theory, but not establish it as something to never again doubt. I was thinking at that point along another dimension, to convey a quality of physics experiments today. Back
  • Bentley, Jon Louis, Programming Pearls, hereafter PP, Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1986. Back
  • Hayward, Jonathan, “Of Technology, Magic, and Channels”, in Gift of Fire, June 2001, number 126. Back
  • MacDonald, George, Phantastes, hereafter P, reprinted Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999. Back
  • Despite widespread endorsement of this practice, taking notes taxes limited mental energy that can better be used to understand the material, and acts to the mind as a signal of, “This can safely be forgotten.” KTMM, very early on, makes a point of telling readers not to take notes (p. 5). The purpose of attending a lecture or reading a book is to make internal comprehension rather than external reference materials. Back
  • Tulving, Endel; Craik, Fergus I.M., The Oxford Handbook of Memory, hereafter OHM, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, refers on p. 98 to the picture superiority effect, which states that pictures are better remembered because of a dual coding where they are encoded as image and words and therefore have two chances at being stored rather than the one chance when material is presented only as words. Back
  • OHM mentions on p. 94 the “levels of processing” view, a significant perspective which states that material is retained better the more deeply it is processed. Back
  • Wall, Larry; Christiansen, Tom; Schwartz, Randal L., Programming Perl, Second Edition, hereafter PP2, Sebastopol: O’Reilly, pp. 217ff and other places throughout the book. Known by the affectionate nickname of “the camel book” among software developers. (This book is distinct from PP). Back
  • Mander, Jerry, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, hereafter FAET, New York: Morrow Quill, 1978, pp. 299ff. Back
  • I would like to thank Robin Munn for giving me my first serious introduction to the art of memory, Linda Washington and Martin Harris for looking at my manuscript, William Struthers for valuable comments about source material, and Chris Tessone, Angela Zielinski, Kent and Theo Nebergall, and people from Wheaton College and International Christian Mensa for prayer. I would also like to thank those who read this article, apply it, perhaps extend it, and perhaps tell others about them. Back

Does God Suffer?

I had the privilege of reading A Foot in Two Worlds recently, and posting the following five star review titled, “REAL Theology”:

I’m Orthodox where Vince is old-style UMC, and one of the things valued in theology is that it’s not some sort of game you play in your head; it is what you work out, what you live. In that sense real theology is more like a wrestling class than a math class.

This is a book of real theology. The pastor who wrote it met a terrible pain, the abrupt news that his son, the kind of child who has it rough and who is especially dear to a parent’s loving heart, without warning collapsed in death. One day there, the next gone.

And in the midst of a pain no man should have to suffer, Pastor Vince dug down, deep down, and found that the bottom was solid, and built his house on rock. This is real theology. I don’t agree with every detail of what he says; if I were responsible for sorting out his ideas, a duty no one has appointed me to, I might try to convince him that all he says about the people who he calls sparrows in life is true, but the God who loves sparrows with an infinite and everlasting love, and sees every sparrow fall, is beyond suffering. No one can force him to suffer: but he chooses to enter into the suffering of his Creation. Even the formula “One of the Trinity has suffered” has been considered and roundly rejected. And the point is important; it is wrestling and not mental chess, but it is not one I would force upon the book. The theology in the book is real, and I would not try to argue him out of his belief that the God who loves the suffering ones, is compelled to Himself suffer. It would be less real theology if we entered a debate and he acknowledged I scored that point.

I mention theology because that is of cardinal interest to me. But that is, perhaps, not the biggest point to be made. He has taken pain, again a pain no parent should know, and crafted a work that is human and beautiful. It is painful, but it is beautiful, and if I were at my young age to keel over dead this instant, as abruptly as Vince’s son Gabe collapsed having no pulse, and leave my parents to sort out what would be left behind, I would scarcely have a better final message to give them than to leave my computer open to “A Foot in Two Worlds.

Disclosure: I am a poet, of sorts, and Pastor Vincent Homan asked permission to quote my poem “Open”, taken from the volume The Best of Jonathan’s Corner: An Anthology of Orthodox Christian Theology. Permission was gladly granted, and I am glad to have provided one of the many beautiful quotes Vince wove into this book.

I stand by every accolade I gave in that review, not to mention that the book represents superb writing. And if I were to pass away at my young age, I would want my parents to read A Foot in Two Worlds. But the more time passes, the less the question of whether God suffers looks purely academic. It is a question of doctrine of God, of theology proper, and it has more than meets the eye. And I am grateful to Pastor Vince because in writing his book he gave me the possibility of writing this work. In a real sense I owe the possibility of writing it to him.

There is a quote, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” My point is that God does not suffer in the sense of being a God too small to avoid suffering. My point is that “on the other side of complexity”, a God whom no one can constrain to suffer, a God utterly beyond anything we can imagine, has chosen to suffer.

I will look at several authors, some of them Eastern and some of them Western, and try to unfold the grandeur of a God who is beyond suffering, yet chooses to suffer in us, closing with why a God who is not bound to suffer is better news to us who suffer than a God who suffers would be.

The first stop I wish to make is with Anselm of Canterbury. His Monologion makes different arguments about God and is a bit of a hodge-podge that Anselm seemed to want to simplify on second thought. So he wrote the Proslogion. In it he presents the following argument:

God, whether or not he exists, is by definition that than which nothing greater can be thought. Now either he exists a real God in actuality, or only as a concept in people’s minds. But it is greater to be a God who exists in actuality than to exist only in people’s minds, so God must exist, or else reality is based on contradiction.

Most people on hearing this think the argument has slipped something past them, and atheists respond to this backward argument from the Middle Ages by saying, “But if that is true, by the same logic there must be some ultimate exotic paradise where it rains Champagne, and filet mignon and lobster grow on trees!” And in fact this argument has a quite venerable precedent; a man named Gaunilo published this argument soon after Anselm and Anselm offered a rebuttal arguing, “Yes, but not in the case of God.” Anselm expressed a wish that Gaunilo’s objection, and Anselm’s own response, be published together with the original piece, and so far that wish has been honored; my link to the Proslogion is actually to a translation that contains the Proslogion, Gaunilo’s objection, and Anselm’s reply. And I have never heard an atheist show knowledge of Gaunilo’s having anticipated their objection centuries ago, or of Anselm’s attempt to respond to it.

I am not asking that you accept this argument; it has been called the most controversial argument in the history of philosophy, and I’m not completely sure what to make of it. Something said of Bishop Berkeley’s strange arguments might be said of this “ontological argument”: “They admit no answer and produce no conviction.” My own reasons relate to why Thomas Aquinas said that the peasant who does not murder because the law of God is so deep in his bones is greater than the theologian who can reason, “Do not murder” from first principles. I have seen the argument compel a grudging head; I have never known the argument to directly compel a heart. And for that reason I hold it with tongs.

But I bring this up because whatever the status of the argument as a whole, it hits the nail on the head in terms of nature of God. God is greater than anything else that can be thought; Anselm rightly goes further in saying that God is greater than can be thought. God is the Greatest God That Could Possibly Be.

Editors often have the right aesthetic distance to pick out a title for a work, and are sometimes much better than authors about picking an appropriate title to a work that the author has deeply burrowed into. One editor described to me the title “Maximum Christology” to an article on the Christological Councils: the Councils met the various debates of their day by affirming that Christ is maximally God, maximally Man, and the Divine and human natures are both maximally united and maximally unconfused. This is the essence of what is called Chalcedonian Christology.

Humans suffer, and human parents suffer when their children suffer. But it is my thesis, which I will argue below, that God does not suffer in himself, as creatures do. He chooses to suffer in others, in Christ and in mankind: in the communicatio idiomatum, God “without change became Man,” as the Liturgy says, and Christ transcended his own state beyond suffering so that the Son of God suffered in the Son of Man everything Jesus suffered as a man. In fact the God whom no external force could compel to suffer, but chooses to suffer in Christ and in Creation, has something to offer suffering men that a God that could be forced to suffer would not. Perhaps the greatest God that we can think of is one bound to suffer. But there is a God who is greater than we can think of, and nothing can make him suffer against his will.

Let me try to explain.

Rudolf Bultmann is perhaps known for “de-mythologizing:” stripping out the mythological elements of Scripture to get at the truths behind them. What is perhaps less well known is that well over a millenium before, St. Dionysius, also called Pseudo-Dionysius, had done a much better and more interesting job of the de-mythologizing project.

Some hint of this project came up, as all theological issues came up, on a Sunday where the Gospel message had two Apostles, James and John (or, perhaps more embarrassingly, their mother) ask to sit on the right and left hand of Christ in glory. He said, “This is a strange request. What could it possibly mean?” I pointed out that the Creed, chanted in church every Liturgy, says that Christ “[sits to] the right hand of the Father,” and this “cannot be taken literally”, which he corrected to, “cannot literally be true.” This is an example of de-mythologizing: the Nicene Creed says things that cannot literally be true, and we say and mean them, without crossing our fingers. Some people know that the words are “best approximations”, and try to mean what the words are intended to approximate. Other people with less education may mean that Christ “came down from Heaven” literally speaking. But this is a little more a distinction of erudition than a distinction of faith itself; hence, as one person said, there are “grandmothers who don’t know the Creed, but are all ready for Heaven.” The story is told of a saint who went off in a boat to educate hermits, and spoke with three old hermits who were about as thick students as he could ask for. After an exhausting teaching visit when it seemed that no theology could get through to these thick-headed students, he started to row away, when the three men came out running on the water as if it were dry land, apologizing that they had forgotten even the first line of the “Our Father” and asking him to teach it to them again.

Something like this is why I inwardly winced at someone saying that, in Genesis 1, God spoke with a voice, lips, and a tongue—I think I challenged it in some form, but it was not a failure of faith. And if Orthodoxy admits a form of de-mythologization, it is not the center of gravity. De-mythologization isn’t worth much if it does not lead to a deeper participation in God.

We do not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we have the best of all possible Gods. And we have the best of all possible Gods regardless of how much right de-mythologization we undergo.

Children can be fond of asking, “Can God make a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it?”, on hearing that God can do anything. But the Bible, especially in places like Job, portray not exactly a picture of omnipotence, as such, but of absolute authority that extends beyond omnipotence. God cannot be tempted. He cannot change, nor can he lie. His nature is beyond suffering and cannot suffer directly. In the West, Thomas Aquinas said that nothing contradictory falls under the divine omnipotence.

Divine omnipotence does not mean that anything we can conceive or put into words must be something God can do.

It may be closer to the truth to say that what God can do is not anything we can conceive or put into words.

If we are to understand the divine omnipotence, the divine authority, we must let questions like “Could God create a rock so heavy he couldn’t lift it?” to fall away, like a booster rocket.

Some things we think are in God are in our relationship to God. And no, this relationship doesn’t have to be quasi-romantic in nature; it can be filial. By relationship here I mean how we are connected with God and not a second romance in our lives. We read, Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. The saved and the damned shall alike bow their knees and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord; but their relationships make it entirely different. To the saved, this will be a seal of ultimate victory; to the damned, a crushing blow of ultimate defeat. Here at least, the difference between our absolute victory and absolute defeat lies entirely in our relationship to God.

The difference between victory and defeat is not in what God does here. The difference is in us.

While I was studying as an undergraduate at Calvin, in one of the oldest pieces on my website, I wrote, The Way of the Way,

What does Heaven look like?

He who is proud will see that every man present is present, not because of, but despite what he merits.

He who is rebellious will see people serve an absolute King.

He who desires self-sufficiency will see that joy is offered in community.

He who seeks wealth, prestige, power, and other ways to dominate others, will find his effort in Heaven to be like buying a gun in a grocery store.

He who strives will see that there is no one to strive with.

He who despises the physical will see a bodily resurrection.

He who desires his own interpretation and his own set of beliefs, will see absolute truth in crystalline clarity.

To those who will not let God change their character to virtue and love, even Heaven would be Hell.

A friend advised me, “It almost sounds like you are saying that Heaven and Hell are the same thing.” At that point, out of what healthy instincts I had, I pulled back and said that Heaven and Hell are two different things. But among the images in Orthodoxy is one image, the River of Fire, in which the Light of God shines on all, and the saints embrace the Light as ultimate bliss, and the damned fight the Light and experience it through their rejection of Him: and to them, the Light of Heaven is experienced as the fire of Hell. The choice Adam made in Eden can be repeated:

Adam reigned as an immortal king and lord over the whole world. He had a wife like nothing else in all Creation, paradise for a home, and harmony with nature such as we could not dream of. And, he was like a little boy with a whole room full of toys who is miserable because he wants another toy and his parents said “No.”

God cannot but love. He cannot but shine. He cannot but resurrect. And regardless of how far that image should be taken—or de-mythologized—this much is clear: he resurrects the saved and the damned alike.

And something like this image is known in the West: I have not exactly seen the claim, “God does not send people to Hell, but the fires of Hell are nothing other than the light of Heaven experienced through the rejection of Christ” in Western sources, but C.S. Lewis says, “Heaven offers nothing that a mercenary soul can desire. It is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to.” He does not go so far as to say that mercenary souls will also see God, but the implication is that the experience of seeing God is in no way welcome or desirable to a mercenary soul. And it is possible—even if the point should not be pressed too far—that all will see God, and the pure in heart will delight in it, while mercenary souls will be beyond squirming; they will be scorched by it. And Lewis may press the point further in The Great Divorce:

Hell is a state of mind – ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly.

The formula, “Unus ex Trinitate passus est.” (“One of the Trinity has suffered.”) is one of few formulas from my education that I remember first in Latin, then in other languages. It was a debated formula that was considered, rejected by the same Church that rejected Nestorius for dividing the Christ, and ultimately accepted. If you will, it was decided that God is utterly beyond suffering, and then that God transcends this so that the Son of God was crucified. The Chalcedonian affirmation is that Christ is maximally God, maximally man, and the natures are maximully unconfused and maximally united. And suffering belongs to the human nature, not the Divine nature. But there is a distinction between I would speak of suffering in oneself and suffering in another: Not One of the Trinity has suffered in himself, but the Son of God suffered in the man with which he was maximally united, and suffers in the human race he became a member of. But something of this again exists in the creature’s relationship to God. Christ has ascended into Heaven, into the glory that we will also participate if we take up God’s offer of salvation. Then is there a possibly a way we can describe him as hungering or thirsting, sick or in prison?

The apocalyptic buildup in St. Matthew assures us there is:

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

This passage is not for Christ’s benefit; it’s for ours. If we cannot properly love Christ when he comes to us in the person of a beggar, how will we see him in the last day when he brings us to him face to face? The ascended Christ, enthroned in Heaven, is not thirsty in himself. However, each person is made in the image of God, is built according to the presence of God, and if we see beggars as a nuisance rather than an icon of Christ, and an icon in whom Christ suffers, what are we practicing for Judgment Day?

My music teacher in gradeschool emphatically stated, “Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent,” the point being that we should not just log time practicing, but log time practicing as well as we could. Each person we meet is one for whom God ordained that we should cross paths, and with each of these are practicing how we will meet Christ in his own person on Judgment Day. And one day, the results of our practicing will be made irrevocably permanent.

But what about the question of whether God suffers? Pastor Vince in A Foot in Two Worlds talks at length about “sparrows”, a point just nicked on in my review. Literal sparrows, in the Bible, were sold for offerings, two for a penny or five for two pennies: the fifth one thrown in because it wasn’t really worth much of anything. Metaphorical sparrows, infinitely dear to a parent’s heart, were those who suffer in life: those who lost at sports, or were clumsy, or got lousy grades, or were social outcasts, or didn’t look the prettiest. The person who was low man on the totem pole, who had it rough: these were the children dearest to a parent’s heart. Vince gives thicker description than the parable of the Last Judgment quoted above, but it is quite a similar roster of usual suspects. And a parent’s heart goes out to sparrows, and suffers with them. The greatest virtue the book paints of parental love is that it goes out to sparrows, and suffers with them. Suffering is not an option: the constitution of love demands it. If a child suffers, and a parent loves the child, the parent suffers the child’s suffering; and the parent suffers more than the child suffers. This is behind a statement that seems ludicrous sophistry to a child receiving punishment: “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” But it is not ludicrous sophstry: it is quite literally true.

And what can God be if he does not share in his children’s sufferings? And, of course, all of the people considered to be God’s children really are what the book says they are.

Something of the same thinking undergirds some of the texts for my classes: a Radical “Orthodoxy” essay stated that God was masculine, and feminine, and supramasculine, and suprafeminine, and I think neuter may have been thrown in there somewhere. What is going on is the same as texts one would expect Radical Orthodoxy, on the surface of it, to oppose: seeing that men and women exist equally on earth, an identical measure or kind of man-ness and woman-ness must be ascribed to God, and not a God who is masculine beyond any sense of femininity, because if that’s the case, then the good of woman is impaired. And scholars won’t see things any other way, and the possibility that the good of women could be advanced by the Father for whom every fatherhood in Heaven and earth is named, is inconceivable.

(But to those few who do glimpse what the alternative to the politically correct canon may be, there is a freedom and a fittingness that is like a lifelong experience of falling off a cliff.)

Charles Darwin buried a child, and his theory of evolution was a product of his grieving. Almost a triumph of it. Darwin could not believe that a good God, and one who intervened with miracles, could choose not to save his son. And so he developed a theory where God had not intervened with miracles, not only in the time of Christ, but at any time. Even before humans, the origin of species was to be without miracles. God was like a Watchmaker who carefully built a watch, wound it, set it in motion, and then never needed to touch it again. And so Darwin, in his efforts to save his belief in God, proposed a mechanism, evolution via natural selection, whereby species could appear without miracles. God, a good and honorable God if necessarily a distant one, could thus remain a good God even if Darwin’s son had died, because such a God was necessarily absolved of any guilt for failing to answer prayers. To rescue the goodness of God, Darwin found an ingenuius way to cut God down so that the divine goodness would fit into his head. Later, Darwinian and neo-Darwinian evolution would be taken up by some religious faithful, and by many naturalists who want to avoid the conclusion that life is the creation of a Creator God. The consequences are impressive. But the core is that in pain and grief, Charles Darwin cut down God until he would fit inside of his head.

I hesitate very much to lump Pastor Vince in with Darwin; it would be a brutal blow, and in poor taste. But consider this: parents, as a rule, love children. Love for children is part of the landscape even in abortion, where whatever the rhetoric of “my body, my choice” may be, women who have abortions grieve the loss of a child. No competent and honest post-abortion counselor will say that psychologically an abortion is just the removal of an unwanted parasite; the love of mother for child is real and a deeply engraved portion of the landscape, and this is true even when people cut against the grain by setting things up so women believe they are better off with an abortion. In other words, the love of parent for child is a major landmark even when the parent chooses a separation.

If this much is true, what is to be said for a man who has had years to learn to love his son, whose heart goes out to sparrows, who out of love for his neighbor has become a pastor, who pours out his love, his regrets, his sorrow, and his hope into a masterpiece, who still suffers in the suffering of his son and remains in regret even when his pain has come to be coupled by hope so he has one foot in suffering and one foot in hope? And if he believes that God as a parent must be a suffering God? The words, “Do not judge” come to mind. None the less, God does not suffer as earthly parents do. No external force pushes him into grief he did not choose. He is beyond all such constraint.

I have been speaking of the transcendence of God, although I have not used that term much. Words about Christ “[sits to] the right hand of the Father” as words that cannot literally be true, underscore his transcendence. Words about the Greatest God That Could Possibly Be underscore his transcendence. Words about the maximum Christology of the Maximum Christ underscore his transcendence. The entire thrust of the argument in this article has been to underscore that God infinitely transcends anything we could possibly ask or imagine. And this brings me to one last point:

God transcends his own transcendence.

St. Dionysius, in the height of what may be the height of the Orthodox Church’s works of theology on the transcendence of God, wrote:

The fact is that the more we take flight upward, the more our words are confined to the ideas we are capable of forming; so that now as we plunge into that darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing…

So this is what we say. The Cause of all is above all and is not inexistent, lifeless, speechless, mindless. It is not a material body, and hence has neither shape nor form, quality, quantity, or weight. It is not in any place and can neither be seen nor be touched. It is neither perceived nor is he perceptible. It suffers neither disorder nor disturbance and is overwhelmed by no earthly passion. It is not powerless and subject to the disturbances caused by sense perception. It endures no deprivation of light. It passes through no change, decay, division, loss, no ebb and flow, nothing of which the senses may be aware. None of all this can either be identified with it nor attributed to it.

Again, as we climb higher we say this. It is not soul or mind, nor does It possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is It speech per se, understanding per se. It cannot be spoken of and It cannot be grasped by understanding. It is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. It is not immovable, moving, or at rest. It has no power, It is not power, nor is It light. It does not live nor is It life. It is not a substance, nor is It eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding since It is neither knowledge nor truth. It is not kingship. It is not wisdom. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is It a spirit, in the sense in which we understand that term. It is not sonship or fatherhood and It is nothing known to us or to any other being. It falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being. Existing beings do not know It as It actually is and It does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of It, nor name nor knowledge of It. Darkness and light, error and truth—It is none of these. It is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to It, but never of It, for It is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of his preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; It is also beyond every denial.

And yet there is one point further: God transcends his own transcendence.

God is love.

In him we live, and move, and have our being.

The same God who is beyond the farthest stars is infinitesemally near.

We live by feeding off of the energies of God. It may be mediated by food and drink, but it is simply and ultimately God who sustains us.

The fact that God is Father and not Mother matters less than you think. Or rather, it does not hurt things. It is transcended.

Again to return to C.S. Lewis, “Prayer does not change God. Prayer changes me.” But the divine Transcendence of God is so great that the fact that prayer does not change God, matters less than you might think. Or rather, it does not hurt things. It is transcended. God is Transcendent, and prayer is powerful; it is among the most powerful things we can do. And the fact that we cannot change God’s mind detracts nothing from the power of prayer. Indeed, it is better for us that we cannot change God’s mind, as it is better for us that The Greatest God That Can Possibly Be is untouched by how we would solve problems.

And the fact that God cannot suffer in himself matters less than you think. Or rather, it does not hurt things. It is transcended. Every earthly suffering borne out of love for another who suffers is a shadow of the God who is beyond suffering and yet transcends this to choose to suffer in his Creation.

In his book, Vince spoke of a wound rubbed raw, in people telling him, “I know just how you feel.” Now a tangent might speak of genderlects and explain that this is a helpful assurance when speaking to a woman but not to a man; here the Golden Rule needs a little adjustment in that it is wiser not to give a member of the opposite sex the exact same form of encouragement you would best respond to. But this sensitivity was not present, and people assured him that because of some bereavement they’d experienced, “I know just how you feel.” (The most offensive example was the loss of a pet.) I’ve lost both grandparents on my mother’s side, and while there was grief—my grandmother’s death came as a shock even as it was expected—it’s not just sensitivity of “He’s said he doesn’t like being told others know just how you feel” that stops me from saying that I know just how he feels. I’ve experienced bereavements that cause pain that fades after time. Some of them hurt much worse than my grandmother’s death. But the death of a child can cause lifelong pain, and his experience has been one of unending pain that in one sense improves by being accompanied by hope as time goes on, but in another sense never stops stinging. Thanks be to God, my pains have not been like that. But I would say this: “God knows just how you feel. He understands you perfectly. He understands your sorrows, and every nook and cranny of your grief. Every regret you feel, he sees from the inside. And he is at work. Suffering is God’s workshop. And he is working on you with eternal intentions. Perhaps he does not suffer in himself. He has chosen to enter your sufferings. He understands and loves you better than if he did.” And I would hesitate to say this, because the greatest insensitivity to his nerves has been to calmly say, “I know just how you feel,” and speaking personally as a cancer survivor, when I met with my Uncle Mark who had travelled for cancer treatment, he voiced pain at people saying, “I know just how you feel.” I didn’t offer him any such assurance, even though I possibly did know something like what he felt. But someone who knows just how you feel may connect without saying, “I know just how you feel;” if I did understand my uncle’s experience, he picked it up without my making the claim. But with all due respect to a wound rubbed raw, God knows just how the pastor feels, and does this no less because he does not suffer himself.

And here is where the God who is beyond suffering, who suffers because he transcends his own transcendence, has most to give us. In Isaiah, we are told, For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. We are dealing, with so to speak, the ultimate benevolent alien Intelligence. (No, not crop circles. Crop circles are toxic and something to turn your back on if you want any spiritual or mental health.) The alien Intelligence, as it were, speaks our language, but is beyond the “abstractions of half a million years of wildly alien culture” found in Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, a perenially interesting cult classic that has never gone out of print. The premise of the book is that a rocket ship travels to Mars, a baby boy is born before all adults die or are killed, and the boy is raised in the wisdom and spiritual discipline of Martian culture, and then brought “back” as a young “man” to earth. (‘”Smith… is… not… a… man.” – “Huh? Explain yourself, Captain.” – “Smith is an intelligent creature with the ancestry of a man, but he is more Martian than man. Until we came along he had never laid eyes on a man.”…) Amidst unfolding space opera political drama, Michael struggles to adapt to survive, has to struggle terribly to adjust to human culture and human language, then becomes adept in both human culture and language, which he fuses with the treasure of Martian culture and becomes a Messiah-figure, bringing to mankind the wisdom and spiritual disciplines of Martian culture, making a quite literal “best of both worlds” that offers a profound improvement to human life. (At least that’s a sanitized summary of the story.)

I mention Stranger because something like this happens in the Bible and God’s drama with the world, and I wrote, Looking at Stranger in a Strange Land as a Modern Christological Heresy, basically because its attraction is a theme more interestingly engaged in the Bible itself. Not, specifically, that Stranger is a Christological heresy in the sense of being a flawed attempt at Christology someone worked out; Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self comments that one scholar had made a perceptive study of Martin Luther’s momentous crisis of faith in light of the psychological literature of modern midlife identity crises, even though Martin Luther probably would not have understood the comparison and probably would have found it represensible if he had understood it. In like fashion, Heinlein cannot properly be considered someone who was trying to get Christology right and failed, but his book can be studied in light of the various Christologies of which the Church has said, “This is inadequate to the Maximum Christ… That is inadequate to the Maximum Christ… That one, too, is inadequate to the Maximum Christ…”

I would like to close with the letter I wrote Vince after a bit of time to recoil from the force and power of A Foot in Two Worlds. I didn’t mention that he had placed my quotation in the most honoring place it could have been, even though I was deeply grateful. I believe it shows something of the Alien Intellicence Who Loves Us, The Greatest God That Could Be, the God Who Cannot Suffer In Himself But Suffers In Us, Embracing Our Suffering, the God Who Is Greater Than Can Be Thought:

Vince, I am in awe of your work of honesty and practical theology. It’s been a while since I have read something of this caliber in what I read.

I was wondering if I could give an appropriate response, and I think I will send you an email today. The book you wrote was of unexpected pain; this is of unexpected joy. I don’t want to say this is as good as your son’s death was bad, when such is manifestly and obviously not the case. But surprises come, and I started reading your book in suffering without hope of release, and to my surprise this is what I have to offer you in my hands in response to what you had to offer from your hands.

I pray that God may bless you.

One of my doctors referred me to a sleep center, which did some studies that seemed to me at first to be a simple disappointment. They didn’t seem to offer hope that I could be more awake, when I had decreasing energy during the day.

Then I met with one of their specialists, and he basically unravelled the puzzle reflected by my habits and medications. There had been an earlier conversation on a list when I mentioned nausea, in light of preceding history.

There had been an ill-advised medication switch by one doctor that resulted in a long-term underdose that almost killed me: I experienced nausea that built over months and led to me going without food or water for two days before I figured out that the approved underdose was making nausea. I asked generalists and specialists for help with nausea and the only thing I found was that if I increased my dosage of some medications [again], I could stave off nausea [for a little longer].

And in light of this conversation, it was singularly helpful that a friend pointed out that ginger is a potent anti-nauseant. This was much more helpful than the doctor’s “I dunno”, or a pharmacist informing me that non-prescription anti-nauseants boil down to sugar. (I was steered to a chemically engineered concoction of table sugar, [pharmaceutical grade] corn syrup, etc. and decided that if sugar was the only game in town besides a prescription anti-nauseant, which I had been refused, I’d rather have real honey than corn syrup.)

And the specialist I spoke with today explained to me why I felt so tired: the controlled sleep medicine I was given was one that has over 50% still remain in your system 24 hours later, so yes, he saw reason for my trouble escaping sleepiness. He wants to work with me to ratchet down the [prescription] drug complex I have after all my adventures, so I am really at doses that are medically necessary and not at doses that happen to include nausea control.

He wants me to do that, but first I need to make a preliminary adjustment for two weeks: get down to my normal 10 hours of sleep. (I legitimately need more sleep than most people, but not as much as I’ve been getting.)

I began to try to think about what to do. Jobhunting has had me a little more active, but it has its lulls. Then I remembered that I know little of Dickens, who has been described to me as “the primer for character and plot.” Once I finish the piece I’m reading, the humanness of Dickens lies open. And I may ask on social media for reading recommendations, and read and reread the Fathers. Perhaps I will need breaks, but it looks like something to use the time constructively and help me grow as an author and as a man. I want to give my jobhunting first attention, but of all jobhunts this is the one that I would be most happy with my being slow at. I am not in my best state now, and up to a point the longer I wait the better I may be prepared to work. And there are other things I can do; pro bono technical work, maybe, and walking.

I feel like I’ve crossed a threshold. I don’t expect any sudden changes of any sort, but vistas lie open. Thanks to Cynthia, the friend mentioned on this mailing list, I have a “nearly side effect free” way of controlling nausea; and now thanks to this I hope for a slow but effective process of waking up from my present state of being medicated to narcosis, and getting back to the Christos Jonathan you knew earlier.

This piece, that you are reading, is the first work of theology I have been able to create in months. My site’s list of recent postings has three items from previous months that were posted out of something older, but this is the first blade of grass showing after a thaw.