There was something that bothered me about the idea of a personal Constitution. I respect Steve and enjoy his acquaintanceship — I didn’t feel a nagging doubt about him, only a disagreement with the idea of a personal constitution. The basic idea of lex, rex — “the law comes before the king” — is foundational to American government, runs so deep that justices who violate it invariably acknowledge its place by paying lip service to it, checks many of the abuses when a ruler is permitted to do anything he wants, and strikes me as fundamentally flawed. What you know is always more than you can write down, and living by a personal constitution makes a creation greater than its creator. The principle that can be written is not the ultimate principle.
I felt an objection, but I also felt something worth imitating. I followed my intuitions for a while, and came to a flag. I hold objection to the way flags are treated in American culture — the only physical object I have ever been asked to pledge allegiance to. I was required by law to pass a school test on the Constitution and on the flag, and the flag is the only item I have been told to never let touch the ground. Nobody objects when I (quite frequently) put a Bible on the floor, nor does anybody object when I am roughhousing with friends (human — created in the image of God!) and push them into the ground — but the American flag is to be held in such high respect that it may not touch the ground, not even when it is being respectfully folded. The proper term, I believe, for an object of this veneration is: ‘Idol’.
That is what American culture makes of a flag, but that is not what it must be. I choose to make it something else — a way to share who I am to other people. Like many symbols, it holds meaning, but does not explain itself. So here is an explanation of its symbolic side:
Most flags are very simple, with perhaps one true picture at the center; my flag is intended to be at once both simple and complex. I will treat the simple aspects before going on to the little details.
The two obvious allusions are to the French and British flags. Why does the French flag appear reversed? I am left-handed. There’s been a lot of silly stuff written about left-handedness, but there are some serious aspects as well. My brain has an unusual wiring pattern that appears in some left-handers — the pattern is only found in 2% of the world’s population. If you meet me in person, you will find that I speak slowly, after a pause — but when I do speak, my words are as carefully chosen as those I write. I think differently, by nature.
I chose the French flag as the main model, because I have spent time in France, and because there are ways in which it is more home than America — French people often think and discuss ideas where Americans often watch television. I enjoy speaking French a great deal. But why is America not represented at all?
It is, only in a way that is not obvious.
The common mental model of American history is that there was England, and then English colonists came and settled in America, and then they broke off and formed their own nation, and now the U.S. is the U.S. and England is England. How else could anyone think of it?
One of my professors argued that Martin Luther King was essentially a conservative: his “I have a dream” speech did not try to attack, change, or replace the fundamental principles of American government, but instead asked for a more consistent application of American principles. When he said that the bank of justice did not have insufficient funds, he was not asking white America to write a new check; he was trying to cash a check that had already been written. In a similar manner, the United States was in large part founded by English colonists who had been promised certain “rights of Englishmen”, rights that were not forfeited by colonizing faraway soil, and rebelled when these English rights were violated. “No taxation without representation!” was an English cry. Another analogous situation would be the Reformation. The Reformation did not start when people decided that they wanted to break off from the Church and do something else; it started with criticisms from people who believed, rightly or wrongly, that the Roman Catholic Church was failing to live up to Catholic standards. Reams of anti-Catholic invective came later, but the initial idea was to help the Church be more properly Catholic. Something of the same is at work with America’s independence. In contradistinction to the idea that the colonies split off from England and became different, I would suggest that a bifurcation occurred — and that the two sides are not very far apart. A friend who grew up in France commented on the similarity of spiritual atmosphere between France and the United States; both France and the United States are part of the West, and England and the United States are closer still. Now the U.S. has economic and military distinction, and (for good or for bad) is drawing much of the world’s technical talent — but there are strong similarities, and some of the intellectual movements that have been pointed to as America distinguishing itself from Europe are things I’d rather forget: pragmatism, behaviorism, etc. The English flag, in a non-obvious way, represents America, along with the basic colors of red, white, and blue.
This third of the flag might be titled, ‘Eclectica’ — not named for this website, but including various eclectic aspects of my interest or my person. Red was my favorite color when I was a boy. Specific things listed, loosely from top to bottom, are:
- The world. In this case, the world is not a symbol of the environment per se, so much as of cultures the world around. I am interested in cultures, and find them to be objects of fascination and beauty.
- A climber. I love to climb, and I am very happy that Wheaton College recently opened a climbing wall. I’m hoping to learn how to climb up a thick tree trunk without using branches.
- A hand, showing the bones inside. A skeleton is not necessarily a gruesome part of a corpse; it is also part of a living, breathing human body. In Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Paul Brand talks about how a lobster has a hard skeleton on the outside — and how a man has a skeleton that’s strong as steel, but covered with soft flesh. I don’t know how well I live up to this standard (I know one person who’s said that I don’t), but I want to live to the standard of rock hard, unyielding principles inside, but a soft touch that meets things on the outside.
- A paper target, viewed through a competition rifle’s sight. I don’t get to do riflery very often, but I enjoy it a great deal. Marksmanship is not about the machismo that Hollywood shows; it’s about concentration and growing still.
- A Swiss Army Knife. I carry a thick Swiss Army Knife, and use it for all sorts of things. After watching MacGyver as a child, I came to value resourcefulness, tinkering, and jury-rigging; I still find the knife to be quite useful.
- A place called “the Web” at Honey Rock Camp. Honey Rock is a place that has been special to me from childhood; it is easier to know other people there, and there are beautifully eclectic physical facilities. One of these has a World War II cargo net strung up to make a place for children to romp around in: the Web. It is now, so far as I know, closed — the fabric is deteriorating, and it is a legal liability. The camp retains its beauty, and provided the home setting for A Cord of Seven Strands.
- A clock with no hands. After spending a summer in Malaysia, I changed my time sense to move more slowly, to not need to have things happen quickly and try to let go of the number of minutes elapsed when I am with a friend. Something of this basic insight is captured in Madeleine l’Engle’s description of kairos in Walking on Water, Neil Postman’s description of moments (before the clock ruled) in Amusing Ourselves to Death, and by an anthropologist in The Dance of Life. Why? It’s not that I wanted to lose awareness of time, so much as to gain a more effective focus on things that are lost. There are other facets, but I do not wish to expand here — the interested reader is encouraged to look at the mentioned titles.
- A roll of duct tape. Same basic meaning as the Swiss Army Knife; I used to also carry that, too.
- Swimming underwater. I haven’t done much swimming in the past few years, but I was quite often in the water as a boy — and, more often than not, swimming under the surface. I cherish those memories.
- A television with clothing on top and books in front. It’s hard to portray the absence of a television per se, but I can portray one that hasn’t been used in a long time. I generally try to avoid watching television, and I do not have one in my apartment. Not only is an hour of television an hour not spent doing other things, but watching television subtly alters — impairs — our experience of the external world. How does it do that? Read Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.
- A cave. A cave is a quiet place to rest and think; it is a symbol of withdrawing to meditating. My apartment is such a place.
- A graveyard. A graveyard is not necessarily a symbol of the macabre; it is a place symbolic of continuity between the living and the dead. This is why many old churches and cathedrals bury people under the sanctuary; it is a symbol of connection with those who walked before. I do not believe in the modern concept of progress, nor the postmodern rejection of progress and everything near it; I believe in a human and a Christian continuity with those who walked before.
The center of the flag, and the connection between the other two portions, is faith. The Cross is central and defines what else is there.
There are innumerable symbols that could be used, but I chose to restrict myself to four. Those four are:
- Grapes. Grapes are a symbol of wine, one of God’s blessings to man. It is a blessing so special that Christ chose it to become his blood, and when we drink Christ’s blood, we are drinking the divine life — something hidden and mystical, and close to my heart.
- A candle. There is something a candle symbolizes that is not in a light bulb. It is a softer light. There is a reason couples want a candle for a special dinner, and it is a reason not confined to romantic love. I cannot explain what it is, but it is something like faith.
- Me, sitting in my blue armchair, praying. There is an interplay of light between God and me.
- Friends hugging. Touch is also important to me, and with it, more broadly, kything — I identify strongly with Charles Wallace in Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, a work whose resonance has pierced my heart like few other.
The last third of the flag, blue, is devoted to reason. A particular emphasis on the mind is not catholic and universal like the claims of the Christian faith, but it is one part of the broad corpus of human and Christian work, and it is important to me.
I should note that the word ‘reason’ has shifted meaning in the last few centuries, and it is an older meaning that I wish to invoke. Now the term ‘imagination’ is used very broadly for human brilliance; a person might say that a plan shows “real imagination” as a way of saying that it reflected insight and understanding. In the Middle Ages, however, the term did not have its present meaning. It meant the faculty that formed visual images, and little else — the term ‘imagination’ has expanded in meaning. The term ‘reason’, however, has shrunk in meaning. At present, it does not mean much else besides logical thinking — but in the Middle Ages, ‘reason’ referred much more broadly to human faculties, including many things we would now call ‘imagination’. ‘Reason’ is an alternate translation to the Greek logos that John used to describe God the Son. ‘Reason’ does not mean ‘rationalism’ (“Among intellectuals, there are two types of people: those that worship the mind, and those that use it.” — G.K. Chesterton), but a special effort to love God with all of my mind.
From bottom to top, here are the symbols represented:
- A book, open, with light flaring out, and things coming from that light. The book is a symbol of learning in general, and the Book.
- A hypercube (tesseract) — mathematics, which provided discipline for my mind, among other things.
- A storm of blue and orange flame, by a burning tree: Firestorm 2034 as the image of literature, both read and written.
- A networked computer, coming in part through the hypercube. Math and computer science are tightly linked, and computer work is putting bread on the table.
- A magnifying glass, and a cadeceus: “You must study the ways of all professions.” (Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings. As well as the basic academic disciplines, I have tried to understand other areas that would stimulate and broaden my thinking: emergency medicine, forensics…
- Deep waters. The thought that can be stated is not the ultimate thought; the worded thoughts give way to things that cannot be explained, and the symbol into which others recede is formless, deep waters. Most of my thoughts are now in words, but my deepest thoughts are never in words to begin with.