An author’s musing memoirs: retrospective reflections, retracings, and retractions

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Taking a second look at some of what I wrote

Dear Reader,

Years back, when I was a math grad student, I wrote a short essay entitled, Why study mathematics? The basic thought was connected with the general education math class I was taking, and it is not really an article for why to specialize in mathematics through intensive study, but why a more basic knowledge of math can be a valuable part of liberal arts education. Much like how I taught my class, I did not speak favorably of memorizing formulas—pejoratively called “mindless symbol manipulation” by mathematicians—but spoke of the beauty of the abstractions, the joy of puzzles and problem solving, and even spoke of mathematics as a form of weight lifting for the mind: if you can do math, I said, you can do almost anything. I was sincere in these words, and I believe my obscure little piece captures something that a lot of math students and faculty sensed even if they did not explain their assumption. Since then, there are some things I would say differently. Not exactly that I was incorrect in what I said, but I worked hard to climb a ladder that was leaning against the wrong building.

One famous author in software development, who wrote a big book about “software engineering”, had said, “What gets measured gets improved,” and began to express second thoughts about his gung-ho enthusiasm for measurement. He didn’t exactly take back his words of, “What gets measured gets improved,” but he said that the most important things to understand are rarely things that are easy or obvious to measure: the mantra “What gets measured gets improved,” is a mantra to ruthlessly optimize things that often are less important than you might think. His second thoughts went further: the words “software” and “engineering” have been joined at the hip, but however hard software developers have tried to claim to be engineers, what they do is very different from engineering: it’s an apples and oranges comparison.

I would pretty well stand by the statement that if you can deal with the abstraction in math, you can deal with the abstraction in anything: whether chemistry, analytic philosophy, engineering, or sales, there isn’t much out there that will call for more abstract thinking than you learn in math. But to pick sales, for instance, not many people fail in sales because they can’t handle the deep abstraction. Sales calls for social graces, the ability to handle rejection, and real persistence, and while you may really and truly learn persistence in math, I sincerely doubt that mathematical training is a sort of industrial strength preparation for social graces and dealing with rejection. And even in engineering, social graces matter more than you might think; it’s been said that being good at math gets you in the door, but social influence and effectiveness are what make a real superstar. I would still stand by a statement that if you can handle the abstraction in math, you can probably handle the abstraction in anything else. But I’m somewhat more wary of implying that if you have a mathematical mind, you just have an advantage for everything life may throw at you. That’s simply not true.

There are some things I have written that I would like to take back, at least in part, but even where my works are flawed I don’t believe mass deletions are the best response. I would rather write what might be called “Retractions and retracings” and leave them available with the original works. Why study Mathematics?, whatever its flaws, gives a real glimpse into the beauty that draws mathematicians to mathematics. I may be concerned with flaws here, but they are not the whole truth. However, there are some things I would like to comment on, some flaws to point out. In many cases, I don’t believe that what I said is mainly wrong, but I believe it is possible to raise one’s eyes higher.

HOW to HUG

Mathematics may be seen as a skill, but it can also be how a person is oriented: jokes may offer a caricature, but a caricature of something that’s there. One joke tells of a mathematician who finds something at a bookstore, is delighted to walk home with a thick volume entitled HOW to HUG, and then, at home, is dismayed to learn he purchased volume 11 of an encyclopædia. And I mention this as a then-mathematician who wrote A Treatise on Touch, which may be seen as interesting, may be seen as deep, and may have something in common with the mathematician purchasing a book so he could know how to hug.

Part of what I have been working on is how, very slowly, to become more human. This struggle is reflected in Yonder, which is at its most literal a struggle of philosophers to reach what is human. There is an outer story of disembodied minds set in a dark science fiction world, who are the philosophers, and there is a story within a story, an inner story, of the tragic beauty of human life. When I showed it to a science fiction guru, he suggested that I cut the philosophical dialogues down by quite a bit. The suggestion had a lot of sense, and quite possibility a traditional publisher would want to greatly abbreviate the sections that he suggested I curtail. But I did not follow his advice, and I don’t think this was just author stubbornness. When literature builds up to a success, usually the path to success is filled with struggles and littered with failures. This is true of good heroic literature, and for that matter a lot of terrible heroic literature as well. (Just watch a bad adventure movie sometime.) Yonder is a story that is replete with struggles and failures, only the failures of the disembodied minds have nothing to do with physical journeys or combat. They begin stuck in philosophy, mere philosophy, and their clumsy efforts to break out provide the failures, and therefore to greatly abridge the philosophical discussion would be to strip away the struggle and failure by which they reach success: a vision of the grandeur of being human. Like much good and bad literature, the broad sweep was inspired by The Divine Comedy, opening with a vision of Hell and building up to a view of our painful life as a taste of Heaven, and you don’t tell The Divine Comedy faithfully if you replace the Inferno with a brief summary stating that there are some gruesome images and a few politically incorrect ideas about sin. The dark science fiction world and its mere philosophy provides the vision of Hell that prepares the reader to see the humanness of Heaven and the Heaven of humanness. The inner story can be told by itself; it is for that matter told independently in A Wonderful Life. But there is something in Yonder, as it paints the stark, dark, disturbing silhouette of the radiant, luminous splendor and beauty of human life.

While I was a math undergrad, I read and was deeply influenced by the Tao Te Ching; something of its influence may be seen in The Way of the Way. That work has its flaws, and I may have drunk too deeply of Taoism, but there was a seed planted that I would later recognize in fuller forms in the Orthodox Way. I had in full my goals of studying and thinking, but I realized by the way that there was some value to be had in stillness. Later I would come to be taught that stillness is not an ornament to put on top of a tree; it is the soil from which the tree of life grows.

After I completed my studies in math, and having trouble connecting with the business world, I took stock, and decided that the most important knowledge of all was theology. I had earlier planned to follow the established route of being a mathematician until I was no longer any good for mathematics and then turning out second rate theology. My plans shifted and I wanted to put my goal up front and, I told my pastor, “I want to think about theology in community.” (If you are wincing at this, good.) So, in this spirit, I applied to several schools and began the study of academic theology. If you are an astute reader, I will forgive you if you ask, “But isn’t this still a mathematician looking for a book on how to hug?” The goal I had, to teach at a university or even better train Orthodox priests at a seminary, was a laudable enough goal, and perhaps God will bless me with that in the future. Perhaps he wants the same thing, but perhaps God first wants to free me from the chain of being too much like a mathematician wanting to learn how to hug by reading a book.

During my time studying theology at Cambridge, I was received into the Orthodox Church. I am grateful to God for both a spiritual father whose lenience offered a corrective to my legalistic tendencies, and for a godfather who was fond of reading Orthodox loose cannons and who helped me see a great many things that were invisible to me at the time. For instance, I asked him for help on some aspect of getting my worldview worked out correctly, and I was caught off guard when he explained, “You aren’t being invited to work out the Orthodox worldview. You’re being invited to worship in the right glory of Orthodoxy, and you are being invited to walk the Orthodox way.” In that sense Orthodoxy is not really a system of ideas to work out correctly that, say, a martial art: there may be good books connected to martial arts, but you learn a martial art by practicing it, and you learn Orthodoxy by practicing it. And in that response, my godfather helped me take one step further away from being a mathematician trying to find a book that will teach him how to hug. (He also gave me repeated corrections when I persisted in the project of trying to improve Orthodox practices by historical reconstruction. And eventually he got through to me on that point.)

Becoming Orthodox for me has been a matter of becoming really and truly human, or at least beginning to. There is a saying that has rumbled down through the ages in different forms: in the second century, St. Irenaeus wrote, “For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God.” I have not read this in much earlier sources, but I have read many later phrasings: “God and the Son of God became Man and the Son of Man that man and the sons of man might become gods and the sons of God.” “The divine became human that the human might become divine.” “The Son of God became a man that men might become the sons of God.” And one real variation on this has been quoted, “Christ did not just become man so that I might become divine. He also became man that I might become a man.

If Christ became man that I might become human, this is manifest in a million ways in the Orthodox Church. Let me give one way. When I was preparing to be received into the Orthodox Church, I asked my godfather some question about how to best straighten out my worldview. He told me that the Western project of worldview construction was not part of the Orthodox Way: I had been invited to walk the Orthodox Way but not work out the Orthodox worldview. If there is in fact an Orthodox worldview, it does not come from worldviewish endeavors: it arises out of the practices and life of the Orthodox Church, much in line with, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and his perfect righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” Not just corrections, but being caught off-guard by effectively being told, “Here are some of many rules; there is no need for you to know all of them. They are important, and you need to strive for strict excellence, but you are not treating them in the right spirit if you hold them rigidly and legalistically. (Work out with your priest how you will best bend them.)” The Orthodox Church’s nature as essentially an oral tradition has helped cure me of silly things like meticulously studying ancient texts to put my mind to an antiquarian reconstruction and answer the question, “How should we live?” (The Orthodox Church is ancient, but it is not really infected with antiquarian reconstruction efforts.) The rhythm of the liturgy and its appointed seasons, the spiritual housecleaning involved with preparing for confession, the profoundly important community of the faithful: all of these are part of how it works out in the Orthodox Church that God became man not only so that I might become divine, but also so that I might become more truly man.

Part of this becoming human on my part also has to do with silence, or as Orthodox call it, hesychasm. Part of the disorder of life as we know it is that our minds are scattered about: worrying about this, remembering that pain, and in general not gathered into the heart. Mathematical training is a training in drawing the mind out of the heart and into abstract thinking. The word “abstract” itself comes from the Latin abstrahere, meaning to pull back (from concrete things), and if you train yourself in the habit of abstraction you pull yourself back from silence and from what is good about the Tao Te Ching.

In Silence: Organic food for the soul, I all but closed with the words, “Be in your mind a garden locked and a fountain sealed,” which speaks about having a mind that is gathered together and is in the fullest sense mind: which is not when abstract thinking is its bread and butter. Perhaps some of the saints’ wisdom is abstract, but it does not come from building an edifice of abstractions.

The terms intellect and mind mean something very different in Orthodox classics than they do in today’s English. The difference is as great as the difference between using web to mean a physical object woven out of spider’s silk and web to mean interconnected documents and media available over the internet. Today you might say, “The intellect is what an IQ test measures.” An Orthodox saint who had been asked might have said, “The intellect is where you meet God.” The mind is an altar, and its proper thought flows out of its being an altar: in Within the Steel Orb, a visitor from our world steps into a trap:

“And your computer science is pretty advanced, right? Much more advanced than ours?”

“We know things that the trajectory of computer science in your world will never reach because it is not pointed in the right direction.” Oinos tapped the wall and arcs of pale blue light spun out.

“Then you should be well beyond the point of making artificial intelligence.”

“Why on a million, million worlds should we ever be able to do that? Or even think that is something we could accomplish?”

“Well, if I can be obvious, the brain is a computer, and the mind is its software.”

“Is it?”

“What else could the mind be?”

“What else could the mind be? What about an altar at which to worship? A workshop? A bridge between Heaven and earth, a meeting place where eternity meets time? A treasury in which to gather riches? A spark of divine fire? A line in a strong grid? A river, ever flowing, ever full? A tree reaching to Heaven while its roots grasp the earth? A mountain made immovable for the greatest storm? A home in which to live and a ship by which to sail? A constellation of stars? A temple that sanctifies the earth? A force to draw things in? A captain directing a starship or a voyager who can travel without? A diamond forged over aeons from of old? A perpetual motion machine that is simply impossible but functions anyway? A faithful manuscript by which an ancient book passes on? A showcase of holy icons? A mirror, clear or clouded? A wind which can never be pinned down? A haunting moment? A home with which to welcome others, and a mouth with which to kiss? A strand of a web? An acrobat balancing for his whole life long on a slender crystalline prism between two chasms? A protecting veil and a concealing mist? An eye to glimpse the uncreated Light as the world moves on its way? A rift yawning into the depths of the earth? A kairometer, both primeval and young? A—”

“All right, all right! I get the idea, and that’s some pretty lovely poetry. (What’s a kairometer?) These are all very beautiful metaphors for the mind, but I am interested in what the mind is literally.”

“Then it might interest you to hear that your world’s computer is also a metaphor for the mind. A good and poetic metaphor, perhaps, but a metaphor, and one that is better to balance with other complementary metaphors. It is the habit of some in your world to understand the human mind through the metaphor of the latest technology for you to be infatuated with. Today, the mind is a computer, or something like that. Before you had the computer, ‘You’re just wired that way’ because the brain or the mind or whatever is a wired-up telephone exchange, the telephone exchange being your previous object of technological infatuation, before the computer. Admittedly, ‘the mind is a computer’ is an attractive metaphor. But there is some fundamental confusion in taking that metaphor literally and assuming that, since the mind is a computer, all you have to do is make some more progress with technology and research and you can give a computer an intelligent mind.”

That litany of metaphors summarizes much of my second master’s thesis. Which is not really the point; but my point here is that on an Orthodox understanding, intellect is not something you measure by an IQ test and a mind is not the spitting image of a computer. The mind, rightly understood, finds its home in prayer and simple silence. The intellect is where one meets God, and its knowing flows out of its contact with God and with spiritual reality. And, in the metaphors of the Song of Songs, the mind as it is meant to be is “a garden locked, a fountain sealed”, not spilled out promiscuously into worry, or grudges, or plans for the future that never satisfy. And this gathering together of the mind, this prayer of the mind in the heart, is one that was not proposed to me by my mathematical training.

Now I should mention that I have a lot to be grateful for as far as math goes. There are a lot of people who gave of themselves in my training; there are a lot of people who gave of themselves in the various math contests I was involved in. And, not to put too fine a point of it, I have a computer job now which is a blessing from God and in which I build on a strong mathematical foundation. It would be silly for me to say, “I am not grateful for this” as God has provided me many blessings through math. But I need to place things like “I have a lot of math awards” alongside what a monk said to a maid and to me: she was fortunate in the job she had, as manual labor that allowed her mind to pray as she was working in inner stillness, while I as a computer person was less fortunate because my job basically required me to be doing things with my mind that don’t invite mental stillness. My job may be a profound blessing and something not to take for granted. But he was pointing out that the best jobs for spiritual growth may not be the ones higher on the pecking order.

A streak of escapism

There is a streak of escapism in much of my work. If you read Within the Steel Orb, I believe you will find insight expressed with wonder, and I would not take back any of that. But the wisdom, which is wisdom from here and now, is expressed as the alien wisdom of an alien world that panders to a certain escapism. Wisdom and wonder can be expressed without escapism; Hymn to the Creator of Heaven and Earth and Doxology both express wisdom and wonder in a way that does not need to escape from a disdained here and now. But there is a thread of escapism in much of my work, even as I have sought to reject it.

During or shortly after I was in high school, I wrote a note in an online forum arguing that Terminator 2 had shot itself in the foot. The movie had a scene with two little boys angrily playing with toy guns and the voiceover complained about how tragic this was, and at the end the message was made even more explicit: “If a machine, a terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.” But the movie was an action-adventure movie, meaning a movie whose attraction was built on glorified violence with guns blazing. In terms of a movie that would speak out against violence, contrast it with a movie idea I had, for a movie that would rush along at an action-adventure clip for the first few minutes and then slow down like a European art film; from Lesser icons: Reflections on faith, icons, and art:

What I did do was to outline a film idea for a film that would start out indistinguishably from an action-adventure movie. It would have one of the hero’s friends held captive by some cardboard-cutout villains. There is a big operation to sneak in and deftly rescue him, and when that fails, all Hell breaks loose and there is a terrific action-adventure style firefight. There is a dramatic buildup to the hero getting in the helicopter, and as they are leaving, one of the villain’s henchmen comes running with a shotgun. Before he can aim, the hero blasts away his knee with a hollow-nosed .45.

The camera surprisingly does not follow the helicopter in its rush to glory, but instead focuses on the henchman for five or ten excruciating minutes as he curses and writhes in agony. Then the film slows down to explore what that one single gunshot means to the henchman for the remaining forty years of his life, as he nursed a spiritual wound of lust for vengeance that was infinitely more tragic than his devastating physical wound.

By contrast, it may be clearer what might be called shooting yourself in the foot in the Terminator 2 syndrome, and as far as escapism goes, I have a couple of pieces that shoot themselves in the foot with something like a Terminator 2 syndrome. In The Voyage, the miserable young Jason is an escapist and, when he meets an old man, asks the old man’s help in an escape he doesn’t believe is possible. The old man deftly opens Jason’s eyes to the beauty of this world, the beauty of the here and now, that are simply invisible to him. I stand by everything I wrote in that regard. But the closing line, when thanks to the old man Jason triumphs over escapism, is, “And Jason entered another world.” Which is to say that the story shot itself in the foot, like Terminator 2.

There may be a paradoxical link between escapism and self-absorption. Self-absorption is like being locked in your room and sensing that it is constricting, and so you wish that you could be teleported up to a spaceship and explore the final frontier, or maybe wish for a portal to open up that would take you to the Middle Ages or some fantasy world. And maybe you can get a bit of solace by decorating your room like someplace else and imagining that your room is that other place, and maybe you can pretend and do mind games, but they don’t really satisfy. What you miss is what you really need: to unlock the door, walk out, visit a friend, go shopping, and do some volunteering. It may not be what you could arrange if you were controlling everything, but that’s almost exactly the point. It may not what you want, but it is what you need, and it satisfies in a way that a quest to become a knight, at least in your imagination, cannot. And my own concerns to escape self-absorption and escapism play out in my writing: The Spectacles is more successful than The Voyage in telling of an escape from the Hell of self-absorption and escapism; I’ve been told it’s my best short story. But it still has the imprint of self-absorption even as it tells of someone finding way out of self-absorbed escapism. And something of that imprint affects my writing: there are some good things about my fiction, but I have been told that my characters are too similar and are only superficially different. I do not think I will ever receive the kind of compliment given to Charles Dickens, that he envisions a complete universe of different characters. People may say that my satire like Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary shows a brilliant wit and is bitingly funny, but you can be pretty full of yourself and still write good satire. By contrast, it takes humble empathy to make a universe of characters worthy of Dickens.

A door slammed shut:

God’s severe mercy

I earned a master’s in theology, and entered into a doctoral program. I thought for a long while about how to say something appropriate about that program, and I think the best I can do is this:

I’ve been through chemotherapy, and that was an experience: overall, it was not as bad as I feared, and I enjoyed life when I was going through chemotherapy. I still cherish The Spectacles, the first piece written after a long dry spell because I was drained by illness. I’m not sure it is a nice thing to have powerful cytotoxins injected into your body, and the rough spots included the worst hour of (purely physical) pain in my life, but on the whole, a lot of progress has been made in making chemotherapy not as bad as it used to be, and I had good people to care for me.

And then there are experiences that, to put it politely, put chemotherapy into perspective. My entering this doctoral program and trying to please the people there was one of those experiences into perspective: during that time, I contacted a dean and wrote, “I found chemotherapy easier than dealing with [a professor I believed was harassing me],” and received no response beyond a secretary’s brush-off. After this ordeal, my grades were just below the cutoff to continue, and that school is not in any way going to give me nice letters of reference to let me finish up somewhere else. I suppose I could answer spam emails and get a diploma mill Ph.D., but I don’t see how I am in a position to get the Ph.D. that I wanted badly enough to endure these ordeals.

And if I ask where God was in all this, the answer is probably, “I was with you, teaching you all the time.” When I was in middle school, I ranked 7th in the nation in the 1989 MathCounts competition, and I found it obvious then that this was because God wanted me to be a mathematician. For that matter, I didn’t go through the usual undergraduate panic about “What will I major in?” Now I find it obvious that God had something else in mind, something greater: discipleship, or sonship, which may pass through being a mathematician, or may not. Not straying too far from this, I wanted a Ph.D., and I thought that this would be the best way to honor him with my abilities. Again I was thinking too narrowly; I was still too much of the mathematician looking for a book to teach him how to hug; again the answer seemed to be, “That’s not the issue. Aim higher and be my servant.” As it turns out, I have four years’ graduate work in theology; that has some use in my writings, and even if it didn’t, the issue is not whether I am a good enough achiever, but whether I am faithful.

During this time I read quite a lot of medieval versions of the legends of King Arthur. There were a couple of things that drew me to them, both of them rather sad. The first was pride, both pride at thinking I was going to be an Arthurian author, and pride at sometimes reading medieval legends in the original.

But the second reason I kept reading them was that compared to what I was covering in theology class, reading the legends almost seemed like I was actually studying theology. (At least by comparison.) Whether a course in theological foundations that assumed, “We need to work from the common ground that is shared by all the world’s religious traditions, and that universal common ground is Western analytic philosophy,” or reading that theologians are scientists and they are every bit as much scientists as people in the so-called “hard sciences” like physics, or a course in “philosophy and contemporary theology” that was largely about queer matters and such topics as ambiguous genitalia, the whole experience was like “Monty Python teaches Christian theology.” And it would be a funny, if tasteless joke, but it was really something much more tragic than a Monty Python riff on theology. And in all this the Arthurian legends, which are really quite pale if they are held next to the grandeur of Christian theology, none the less seemed to give respite for me to study.

In the light of all this, there are three basic things that I wrote. The first is the Arthurian book I wanted to write out of all the medieval books I was reading:

The second thing is a group of pieces that were written largely as rebuttals to things I ran into there. (The university was a “Catholic” university, so they were generous to us Orthodox and treated us like liberal Catholics.) I’ve had enough contact with Catholics outside that university; those pieces are not written just in response to being at a “Catholic” university.

I believe there is some merit in these pieces, but not that much: if they say something that needs to be said, they are limited to winning an argument. Theology can win an argument and some of the best theology is meant to win an argument, but the purpose of real theological writing is to draw people into the presence of God. These pieces may say something valuable, but they do not really do the job of theology: beckon the reader to worship before the throne of God.

But that leaves the third group of pieces written in the wake of that un-theological theology program, and that is precisely pieces which are written to draw the reader to bask in the glory of God. The ones I would pick as best are:

So where does this leave me now?

I think I’ve made real progress but I still have a lot in common with that mathematian who bought a book so he could learn how to hug. Be that as it may, I have a lot to be thankful for.

I had my heart set on completing my program, but in 2005 I started a Ph.D. program that was estimated to take eight years to complete. And since then, the economy tanked. And in this, a gracious and merciful God didn’t give me what I wanted, but what I needed. Actually, more than that. In the aftermath of the program, I took some anthropology and linguistics coursework which on the one hand confirmed that I was already good at learning languages (the woman who scored the MLAT for me said, “I’ve scored this test for thirty years and I’ve never seen a score this high,”) and on the other hand, paradoxically provided good remedial understanding of things I just didn’t get about my own culture. And there’s something I’d like to point out about that. God provided academic coursework to teach me some things that most people just pick up as they grow, and perhaps studying academic theology was what God provided to help me get on to something that is at once more basic, greater, and more human: entering the Orthodox Church, and entering real, human theology.

But back to after the anthropology courses. Then the economy took a turn for the worse, and I found a good job. Then the economy got worse than that, and my job ended, and I had my fast job hunt yet and found an even better than that. There’s no way I’m entitled to this; it is God’s gracious providence at work. These are blessings covered in the divine fingerprints.

I still have failings to face: rather spectacular failings which I’d rather not detail. And it God’s grace that I am still learning of my clumsiness and my sin, and realize I really need to face ways I don’t measure up. But that is really not the issue.

Does God work with flawed people?

Who else does he have to work with?

He has glorious, majestic, awesome, terrifying holy angels. But there is another glory when God works in and through flawed people.

Even the sort of mathematician who would read a book on how to hug (or maybe write one). The worst of our flaws is like an ember thrown into the ocean of God’s transforming power.

And the same God wills to work in you, whatever your flaws may be.

Much love,
Christos Jonathan Seth Hayward

About the author

Doxology

The spectacles

The wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab