It has been a while since I journalled. I kept some journals after my Journal of an Awakening, but they disappeared when my previous laptop died. I am not sure this is a bad thing; I don’t think that what I said in them was on par with my Journal of an Awakening, and certainly not stellar. It is not my talent to be able to continue to produce good writing in a genre of my choosing; writing in a new genre has often been easier than writing in one I have practice in. Or, to put it differently, my writings come to me with the genres they will be in, and if I try to force success in a style that has succeeded for me in the past, I may cause the style, but I will not always cause a successful writing.
Now writing is coming to me — or has been coming to me, I haven’t gotten it written down yet, and I fear I may have lost some of it — so it is time for me to get back to journalling, not necessarily on a day by day basis, but when the muse strikes. Tonight will be my first night in my new 1 bedroom apartment, and I will have more time — though I do not know what, or how much, will come to me.
The thing that has brought me back to journalling is as follows:
Last schoolyear, I spoke with a mystic who is a student at Pooh’s Corner (the group of people at Wheaton who meets to read children’s books aloud), and I talked about how I identify with Charles Wallace in Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, and Michael Valentine Smith in Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. I asked him if he knew of any other characters like that. He suggested that I read Steven Lawhead’s Merlin, where Merlin is portrayed as the last of the Druids, a Christian who has grown up with Druid lore, a mystic, and a politically active prophet. I was disappointed — I had been disappointed at his placement of Merlin with Moses and Elijah as political/leader/prophet/mystic types, because the character of Merlin reeks of magic, a reek that has as little to do with Christian mysticism as astrology does with astronomy. I did not mention this to him, because I did not want to enter a fruitless argument (I have had enough of those to last a lifetime), but I was disappointed.
Recently, wanting to read something that would give me insights into medieval culture (and having learned from another friend that Lawhead did historical research before writing), I checked Merlin out at the library, read partway through, and returned it after reading the scene in which Merlin makes the stones fly around in a circle. This was a display of pagan magic, not a Christian miracle, and I read it with a feeling of defilement.
I later waited and picked up the book again, reading it to the end. There were passages that I did not read in good conscience. There were other passages that grabbed me. As I began writing this journal entry, I realized — or, more properly, remembered — something. When I first read Stranger, I hated it — I saw its lewdness, its anti-Christian invective, its introduction of psychic powers in a context that (at least to begin) seemed as out of place, deus ex machina, as anything I could think of — and none of its strengths. I was going to say that I didn’t know if I was going to read Merlin again, but then I reflected on my actions in the past and how my emotions flow, and I realized that I will probably read Merlin again, but not now. God willing, the time of rereading will be when I know in my heart that God has given me the strength to be ready to read it without being troubled by the parts that defiled my conscience — and God has given me the strength to read Stranger — I was not polluted by it, merely angered.
What about Merlin pulls me, that I am writing about it now? I had that more clearly in my mind a few days ago, when I was thinking, walking about at a classic car show with my parents and one of my brothers, but there are three things:
- Ynes Avalach. Ynes Avalach is the island (Ynes) castle of the Fisher King (Avalach), the wounded king who sat on a boat on his island and speared fish. It was the place of Merlin’s childhood, the place where he grew up, and in a world of shifting sands it was steady — even unchanged, a piece of another world.Ynes Avalach resonates with me; it is a symbol of Heaven, and a place that I believe can be found on earth — but that we can never control. C.S. Lewis wrote about this sort of thing in his introduction to The Great Divorce, saying that Heaven is everywhere, but not everywhere is Heaven. I have a great longing for home, a place like Ynes Avalach; the two areas where I most consistently experience it are worship, and in writing and the expectant time when I feel out what I want to write.
- The bard’s awen. The awen is an aroused, mystical state that descends on a bard; Merlin felt it when he was close to the supernatural. Two of the times listed, he was fighting in battle and, suddenly, the world around him seemed to slow down, so that he moved rapidly and lightly amongst the sluggish invaders. Other times, it came around a miracle.The awen is also something that resonates with me. A similar state has descended on me, too, at times. It is not something that I can turn on at will, but walking has often been a precursor to its minor modes in writing.
- When Merlin was with the fhain (the people whom other races called the baen sidhe (fairies)), he spoke of learning “that which men call magic”. I realized (partly after reading the “How to Become a Hacker” document) that I have picked up along the way a number of skills that are in our world something like magic — I thought most specifically of being able to make web pages.
I also realized that many of the things that are supporting me now are things that I picked up along the way in activities I was discouraged from as distractions from my work. I learned how to program when I wrote The Minstrel’s Song — and it has profited me far more than additional effort on coursework would have. My writings on my web page are also things I have been discouraged from doing, and in them I believe I am accomplishing far more of lasting value there than in my job. Life is what happens when you are making other plans.
There was something else nagging at the back of my mind yesterday, that I wanted to remember, but couldn’t. It was the other point that motivated me to want to write in this journal.
On Saturday, my family went out to eat at a nice Italian restaurant. We were all under-dressed and over-smelly from a day’s hard work, and I was unshaven. I needed to go to the restroom in the beginning, and (after I washed my hands) I turned to find a towel dispenser to dry my hands. There was a smiling black man in a tuxedo (sans jacket), holding a roll of paper towel, and standing next to a rack of amenities (I remember seeing small cigars, and other things that looked expensive); he was complimenting me on my “PRAY HARD” T-shirt.
I was only marginally able to keep my composure then; I wouldn’t have been bothered that much by just having someone to hand me paper towel, but having a black man do it… I was not comfortable. It was patently offensive to me. It felt like having a slave. Semiotically, everything about him said, “I am here to smile and adore you, but I am only here to be treated like part of the wallpaper, to be treated like dirt if you are in a bad mood.” He looked like support staff under the mentality that makes jokes like, “Confucius say, ‘Secretary not part of furniture until screwed on desk.'” During dinner, I thought of reading about Gandhi as he was in danger and a rickshaw (a man-pulled cart which aged and wore terribly at its carriers) was offered to him… my feelings were lesser, but they were of the same kind.
After dinner, I needed to go to the bathroom, and it wasn’t until I was almost there that I remembered he was there… I had enough time using the facilities to decide that, if I could not avoid him, I could at least treat him as a peer, not as part of the furniture. So I talked with him, treating him as cordially as he treated me, and he told me that he was a Jew who grew up Baptist, but had never been to a synagogue. He asked me if I was a minister.
I think I missed a witnessing opportunity. The one person I spoke with about it thought I was being too hard on myself — I was tired and in a hurry — but there was an opportunity I missed to speak with someone who had some questions, and who was probably ready to move one step closer to the Kingdom of Light.
I have grown up in an academic context which tells us that witnessing is offensive and evil (at least when done by Christians — when done by environmentalists, it is treated differently). Sometimes it is even necessary to be offensive. But there are also many times when witness is not necessarily offensive, when it is welcome.
I think our equation of witnessing with offensiveness and disrespect for persons should be jettisoned.
I have been thinking recently about the origins of the word ‘obscene’. Ob-scene material is material that takes place off-scene.
As the word has developed, it has come to mean “material which should not be portrayed because it is highly inappropriate to portray.” (The meaning has narrowed further to mean “inappropriate sexual content”. I have not heard any contemporary usage having ‘obscene’ refer to violent content — probably stemming from the same reason as why there are innumerable films rated X due to sexual content, but almost none rated X due to violent content — the mentality that, in the words of one Christianity Today article, “finds massaging a breast to be more offensive than cutting it off.” Dorothy Sayers’ essay “The Other Six Deadly Sins” speaks powerfully to this problem.)
The word ‘obscene’ means “inappropriate content” to us, but placing material off-scene can serve other literary purposes. Done the right way, off-scene presentation can be more powerful than on-scene presentation. In Calvin and Hobbes, there are references to “the noodle incident”, which is never described. Watterson said that he believed it would be better if left to the reader’s imagination. For related but subtly different reasons, I am intentionally not specifying small but significant facets of my second novel — Aed’s academic discipline is never explicitly stated.
Giving just enough hints to fuel the imagination can be a powerful alternative to explicit portrayal.
There is a musing which I had some time ago, and never recorded.
When I was a TA in UIUC’s math department, during orientation, Prof. Weichsel told us, if we had to do something unpopular, to say, “It’s department policy,” and that he would be the complaints department for us, as well as a resource for questions and problems that came up.
I never said that an unpopular decision was department policy, but there was something that struck me about this, a sense of “You are supported in your good faith efforts.” He might suggest a different way of handling a situation if it came up in the future, but he would support us in our efforts.
I believe some of the same beauty is true of God. In terms of dealing with moral dilemmas, I have come to believe that a Christian who listens to the Spirit and makes a good faith effort to do right in a moral dilemma doesn’t have to succeed in guessing the right course of action — even if he makes a mistake in judgment, his action is holy, supported by God. There is a story — first mentioned to me, by the way, in a discussion with a Christian who believes in a just war — about one of Corrie ten Boom’s family, sheltering Jews when a Nazi soldier came and asked, “Are you hiding any Jews?” She told the truth: “Yes. They’re hiding under the table.” The Nazis didn’t believe her. They went on their way.
From the other side, there was a Christian couple, the wife pregnant and grievously ill. The doctors told her, “You cannot live and carry this child. You’re going to have to have an abortion.” After great prayer and deliberation, they decided to have the child removed from their womb and an attempt made to save his life. The child lived, and is a blessing to those who come into contact with him.
If I were asked, I would have advised both to choose differently. (At least a possibility in the first case, with my mind changing over time, and a certainty in the second case. I have heard of hard cases where not having an abortion would have been very difficult. I have not heard of a case where I would have approved of an abortion, and one person I have known was born out of one of those very hard cases.) Perhaps I am right, perhaps I am wrong; I am not raising these cases to stand in judgment over my fellow believers. The reason I am raising these cases is to say that God supported the believers in their choice. This is not an occasion for license to do anything and say “God will support me” — in both cases, people were seeking to do God’s will; it is necessary to seek out a knowledge of the right action through prayer and the Spirit — but it does mean that we are not going to land in trouble because there was a legitimate debate among believers, and we came down on one side of it, and God came down on another. (And — who knows? Maybe the lines of morality fall differently than any human system; maybe God led and specifically wanted Miss ten Boom to tell the truth about whether she was sheltering Jews, and specifically wanted Dietrich Bonhoeffer to try to assassinate Hitler. I don’t know if that is true, but it seems on a surface view to be consistent with how God works.)
Existentialism portrays a picture where we are orphans, who must make any, arbitrary choice because we are abandoned and without guidance. The place I was at for a while, where I believed you had to choose the right thing, believed there was a right choice, but saw us as in a sense abandoned in trying to pick out that choice. It had a ring of existentialism. This is, I believe, removes another layer of existentialism: there is a right choice, but God supports us in our efforts to pursue that choice; we are not abandoned in picking out the right. We are God’s children. We are supported.
After having a rough end of week, I was warmed by one part in particular of a conversation with my friend Heather. She and her boyfriend Josh had independently worked out an idea, which I will briefly summarize here as contrasting a Hellenistic mindset (thinking logically and constructing systems which men can piece together logically — and having difficulty with sets of statements that the thinker cannot reconcile) with a Hebraic mindset (believing that God is sovereign and accepting his sovereignty in a way that is open to paradox — and therefore not needing to fall into e.g. Calvinist/Arminian camps). (Josh wants to do a Ph.D. thesis about this, and Heather wants to write a book together, and Josh wants to have the book wait until the thesis is done — therefore I do not wish to explore details about their idea, which I think is an excellent discovery worthy of development and sharing, at this point.)
When Heather and I were walking, she commented to me that she had realized that talking with me about that idea and about the Hebraic mindset was like talking with a fish about water. I felt very warmed by that comment; it seemed to me a marker of a kind of spiritual success. It seemed to me a sign that I had become steeped in the Scriptures and Christian ways of thought.
There was a classic poster I saw at Wheaton’s Computing Services on how to become a Unix wizard. It had, catechism style, questions of “How many kernels do I have to build?” and “Which books do I have to read?” The last question was, “How can I know when I have become a wizard?” The answer to it was, “Never mind that. Keep on toiling, and some day you will look back and realize the mantle of wizardhood has been on your shoulders since you knew not when.” I had not exactly the same experience; the image describes if anything more than I really experienced, but one of similar poetic resonance; I was down, and a comment like that was a pleasant surprise. Thinking Christianly means a great deal to me, and I believe that comment was a part of God’s ministrations of grace to me that day.
I have been thinking about a distinction for the past couple of days, between what might be termed explicit and implicit, or perhaps strong and weak, awareness. When someone says something that you knew beforehand but didn’t have the words to say, that is a transition from implicit or weak awareness to explicit or strong awareness. When you sense something but can’t quite put your finger on what, that is implicit awareness.
There are at least two levels of explicit awareness, and two levels of implicit awareness (although they are not in parallel — the difference between levels of implicit awareness is not the same kind of thing as the difference between levels of explicit awareness). The second level of explicit awareness is the one hinted at so far — when an implicit awareness is made explicit. There is also a first level of explicit awareness, where there is explicit expression without implicit awareness. This is what you have when you read a book but don’t yet know what it means, when the material has not been digested. The first level of implicit awareness, on the other hand, is what I have hinted at; the second level of implicit awareness lies beyond implicit awareness.
As to what that means — in a certain sense, I don’t see through the Hebraic mindset as Josh articulated it, and I don’t believe in the seven virtues or the seven deadly sins. I believe that all of the seven deadly sins are sins, and that the seven virtues are virtues, and I accept a great deal of what is said about them, but I don’t think in terms of the lists. You might say that I believe the list of the seven deadly sins, and the list of the seven virtues, are structured mnemonics that let people see a deeper structure, and I believe in the deeper structure, but not the superficial list. Or, another way of putting it would be, the lists of seven deadly sins and seven virtues are organizing lines drawn over a map, and I know the terrain and believe that it has structure, but I believe that the lines drawn (for the most part — not, for instance, the lines between land and water) are at least partially mnemonics, and not purely statements about the terrain. Lao Tze began the Tao Te Ching by saying, “The name that can be named is not the ultimate name,” (other translations being possible), and I believe that the deepest levels of awareness are beyond what one can say in words and mental structure. This is not true of God — he can express himself in a Word quite well — but, in the things they know most, such as their cultures, humans are terrible at explanation precisely because they know them too intimately to express them well. TAs are often better teachers than their professors, because they learned the material recently, and are more easily able to recall an explicit form like the way they learned.
Someone can see an explicit awareness instead of seeing through it to a second level implicit awareness. When Heather and Josh presented their thoughts on the Hebraic mindset, I saw the explicit portion — the lines drawn on the map… I think it was an explicit explanation of something I knew implicitly on the second level.
At least that’s a rough sketch; someone who saw my point might not subscribe to a number of particulars. There is a link between the first and second levels of implicit awareness, a continuum perhaps; tighter, at any rate, than between the levels of explicit awareness. Self-consciousness I associate with the second level of explicit awareness; the transition from the first level of implicit awareness to the second level of explicit awareness to the second level of implicit awareness is like the transition from simplicity to complexity to simplicity on the other side of complexity, or (in Unashamed) Abby’s transition from a free lack of self-consciousness to self-consciousness to an ease on the other side of self-consciousness.
At any rate, this insight could be applied to itself, or more properly to my expression of it; I spend a lot of time taking implicit awareness and making it explicit.
It seems a danger of writing that, when you draw lines to illustrate features of the terrain, readers will take the lines and forget the shape of the terrain.
The above distinction might be helpful in refuting the teaching that the real test of whether you understand a matter is whether you can explain it well to a layperson — the implication being that, unless you can do so, you don’t really understand what you’re talking about. One would never tell a sniper that, unless he can convey his skill in five minutes, it doesn’t count that he can hit shell casings from across a football field.
Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Life is worth living, intrinsically because of how God created it, but it bespeaks examination highly that Socrates would say that without it, life is not worth living.
What are the other things that a person could love so much as to say, at least poetically, that without it life is not worth living? I put that imperfectly; I could only honestly say “An unexamined life is not worth living,” if I were speaking poetically, but I believe that Socrates was speaking quite literally when he made that comment; the difference stems partly from different views of what the basic value of human life is.
I should also like to nuance this by mentioning an old distinction between “Good for all people” and “Good for me.” People make an error by going from a realization (true) that something has been highly beneficial to them, to a conclusion (false) that that something would be highly beneficial for everybody. Communion with God is good for anybody, but many spiritual practices are tremendous channels of grace through which God has blessed some people, without being beneficial for everyone. In the list, I will list things which have enough goodness that a poet could say that without it, life is not worth living. Some of these things I will list will be good for all people, and others of them will be good for some people, but not others; I will not distinguish between them.
What are some blessings of which a person who grew in them might say, “Without this, life is not worth living?” I can think of the following:
- Worship/communion with God/glorifying him/enjoying him forever
- The aesthetic: art, music, dance, literature, mathematics…
The list is neither definitive nor complete; it has fuzzy borders, and some parts of it might be contested. Being a good means in some sense being a deep good, and some of these goods have more in them than we commonly think. (The flipside, which I don’t know how to reconcile, is that some goods will deliver more if we do not have massive expectations of them; romance is this way, and C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves talks about how appreciation of nature can work this way: a Romantic-style worshipper of nature will be surprised by the beauty of nature less than will a Christian who goes into his garden merely to pray. I think romance is too inflated in our culture; we are to draw our sustenance from a diversity of goods, and (if not romance) I have tried to draw too much sustenance from lesser goods, like putting too much weight on a weak limb.)
There was something I thought of in a conversation with Heather that I want to record here. It concerns the sovereignty of God and free will.
The Calvinist-Armenian debate attests to the difficulty we have seeing both at the same time. My present insight is not exactly concerned with that question, or at least not primarily and directly concerned with it, but with the question of guidance, free will, and God’s direction for our lives. It concerns how we make decisions. The two major camps on this question are as follows:
- God has a plan for everyone and for every believer’s life. When faced with a decision, believers should make the decision by seeking out the Lord’s will.
- God has given us free will, and wants us to exercise that free will in the decisions we make. When we are faced with a decision between two good courses of action, God wants us to exercise that freedom in our choices.
It is the time-worn philosopher’s trick to say “the two opposing schools are both wrong because of where they both agree: …”, and I was trying to think of a less shopworn way to present where I’m going with this. I won’t exactly say “Both schools are wrong because of where they both agree,” but I am going to say “Both schools appear incomplete because of something they both miss.” I will leave it to the reader’s judgment as to whether I am saying anything different.
What do I think the two camps are missing? When two friends meet, the question of how the meeting will end is not determined a priori. It could be that one of them or the other will have some prior need that says “I have to be somewhere at 3:30,” so that that result is fixed at the beginning, but it will often be the case that the friends decide together how long to meet, and that the end time of their gathering is set by the interaction of the two people, so that the question of “Who will end the time together?” may have no fixed answer ahead of time.
The point where I would challenge both camps is that they both seem to believe that the real outcome of a decision boils down to the decision of one fixed party. Either God’s sovereignty means that we need to agree with God’s one decision in our lives, or our free will means that the decision is ours to make. As an alternative to this, I propose a metaphor of friends meeting: sometimes, God will have a very detailed, specific plan and say “I want you to do this” (Heather pointed out that God is often much more explicit and more likely to use skywriting with young believers), and sometimes, a decision will be left to us, but much of the time, we are invited to partnership, making decisions together with God, in which sovereignty and free will come together, in which seeking out God’s will is mingled with responsible exercise of our own free wills.
One might suggest as a description that, instead of saying that the decision is 100% God’s and 0% yours, or 0% God’s and 100% yours, or even stopping with a compromise that says the decision is 50% God’s and 50% yours, a decision instead that is 100% God’s and 100% yours, or perhaps 80% God’s and 80% yours. God chooses to exercise his sovereignty in a way that respects free will, so that it is possible to submit totally to God (or perhaps I should say, supposing for the sake of argument that we on earth could submit totally to God), and free will still exists and has room to breathe, and that free will, responsibly exercised to its fullest, respects God’s sovereignty. The reason I said 80-80 is that there are times when humility before God demands the sacrifice of things that free will has legitimate claim to, and because some people might argue that God lets go of things he has claim to because of people’s prayer (but I don’t want to discuss here the debate as to whether God ever changes his mind). Beyond that, I believe that the metaphor of friends meeting helps us to see a way in which sovereignty and free will can occupy the same space.
Another concept I’ve been drawing on recently involves some mathematical concepts, concerning what is called a function or a mapping.
A mapping is like a black box, where you put something in and you get something out. An example of a mapping might be the height of a person: for each person, there is a height. On the box analogy, you could put me in the box, and out comes a height of six feet. A telephone directory is an example of another mapping: you put into the box a person’s or company’s name, and out of it you get a phone number.
There are some cases where a mapping is invertible: it runs backwards. A telephone directory represents an invertible function: it is possible to make a reverse telephone directory, where you start with a phone number, and look up a person’s name.
Each function has a domain, of what you can put into the box, and a range of what you can get out of it. The domain of a telephone directory function consists of people and organizations, and the range is telephone numbers. The domain of the height function is the set of people, and the range is the set of heights.
Not all functions are invertible. If a function is not one to one — if more than one input has the same output — then it is ambiguous to say “Give me the thing the function maps to this result,” because more than one thing might map to the result. If someone says, “Give me the height of CJS Hayward,” it is a straightforward thing to measure my height. If, however, someone remembers my height but forgets my name, and says, “Give me the person who is six feet tall,” then there is a problem. There are many people who are six feet tall; if you wanted me and reached out and grabbed the first person you saw who was six feet tall, you would probably not get me. The height function is not invertible.
I was thinking, not exactly of functions, but of a related concept in the connection between thoughts and words. We know that if a thought can be expressed in words, it can probably be expressed in different ways, and that that a given set of words is usually at least slightly ambiguous as to what thoughts will correspond to. However, I am setting these observations aside for the moment, as not relevant to the basic insight, and I would ask the reader to accept (at least for the sake of argument) the assumption that a given wording will produce a single interpretation in the reader’s mind.
What I saw is this: Say that there are two functions: the function mapping ideas to wordings, and the function mapping wordings to ideas. The first function happens when a person has an idea, thinks about how to explain it, and writes it down; the second function happens when a person reads and gets ideas from it. Then these functions are not each other’s inverses, and furthermore there might be no way to express a given idea in such a way that the reader’s interpretation is what the writer intended, or (to put it differently) the most faithful expression of an idea may necessarily give rise in the reader’s mind to something else. The process might go on like this: One person (writer) thinks of a person and writes down his height. Another person (reader) takes the text and picks out the first person he sees who has the height, and thinks, “This is the person who has been written about.” There are many times and places where it works — perhaps a better analogy would be to say that the writer thinks of a person and writes down his first name, and the reader finds calls out the name and talks with the first person to answer. It works quite well, as long as you don’t have two people going by the same name. Get two Robins in the room, however, and things might be more difficult. If my friend David wants to talk about his roommate, he will say ‘Robin’, at which point I will probably think of my best friend (and his friend, too) Robin.
The first time I observed a phenomenon, or a realization, like this, was a couple of years ago. At the time, I believed in a sort of theistic evolution, and I started to write a story about a world, beginning with its creation. I envisioned that world as having been created by a theistic evolutionary process; when I thought about how to effectively describe it, I could only do it in poetry, and for that matter poetry further on a literal reading from a scientific view of the processes than the Genesis accounts are from a picture of evolution. In thinking about an idea — of God creating life through aeons and “chance” and natural forces — the best way I could think of to explain it was one that would have (on a literal level) give rise to something other than what I thought. This gave rise to the following insight:
Imagine two scenarios. In the first scenario, God creates the world in six days, about six thousand years in the past, as literally described in Genesis I. What is the best way to describe it? The text we have now.
In the second scenario, God shapes the world over billions of years through natural forces and a subtle but powerful influence over quantum phenomena — “chance”. What is the best way to describe it, with all of its majesty, glory, and wonder? Well, when I tried to do that in good faith, I came up with a far less literal account than the Genesis account. So probably, something like the text that we have now.
What this means is that the six day creation account is not as informative as it would appear at first glance in our understanding. From one perspective, a direct, naive reading of the text (and, connotations notwithstanding, naivete is often a good thing in reading a text), leads most naturally to a six day creation account, but, with this insight in consideration, the question of “How would you change the text if you were to make it reflect a theistic evolutionary perspective?” meets with an answer of “Not much.”
There is something that wants to keep me from settling there; I think it has something to do with crediting a naive understanding and believing that this philosophy does not give us a privileged understanding of the text. In the same way that I believe it misportrays the text to believe it is fundamentally about the scientific details of origins, I believe it grossly misportrays reading of the text to wield such an insight as a weapon against naive readings — God has hidden things from philosophers and shown them to children who have read a text naively. The person who reads a text naively profits from it far more than a genius with a thousand insights better than mine, who is too sophisticated to open himself to the straightforward meaning a child of ten would learn.
This is somewhat of a tangent; I meant it mainly as an example. The direction I was driving towards was to say that we have something to learn from computer tape drives, which often (after writing some information out) immediately read it back to see if what’s coming back from the tape is the same thing as what is supposed to have been written on it. I came with this basic insight when I was trying to think of how to express an insight I’ve now forgotten, and came to the realization that there was no way (so far as I could tell) for me to explain it so that a natural reading would give another person the thought I had meant to express: every way I could think of to express it, meant something else on a natural reading.
There are two directions in which this can be taken. One is, in communication, to ask “Is this idea expressible in the sense that it is what a person will think of on naively reading my text?” — and, if you go off the beaten path like I do, the answer may well occasionally be ‘no,’ or (what may be hoped) provide an adjustment for your words to let the reader know that you don’t mean the obvious interpretation. The other is, in talking with others, to ask, “What intended meanings, other than the obvious one, could have been meant when so-and-so said X?” Both might cut down on miscommunication.
Yesterday night I went to a square dance, and then hung out with some friends and some new acquaintances. I had some thoughts, the last of which I wish to elaborate here.
I was thinking about a similarity between dance and martial arts, both as kinds of kything, and then… connected. Not intensely, but in a relaxed manner. I was in a newer sense able to be at peace with not being in the bard’s awen — enjoying the ordinary as just the ordinary. I was thinking in part about how, in Kuk Sool, I was comfortable bowing to the instructor and other students, but not to the picture of the Kuk Sa Bo Nim (grandmaster), because bowing is to me an act so close to worship that it is fitting to bestow on a man but not anything lesser. And then —
The major debates are over an issue of substance. The Calvinist-Arminian debate exists not only because the Scriptures reflect a mystery not easily captured in models, but also because the question of how the sovereignty of God relates to free will is a big enough question to hold a debate over. Both sides know it’s important; that’s why there are two sides engaged in the discussion. The question of the relationship of faith and works is another area which is debated because both sides recognize it to be a matter of importance. (On that point, I regard it as beautiful and fitting that The Cost of Discipleship, one of the 20th century’s greatest books about works, was written by the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and that The Ragamuffin Gospel, perhaps a lesser work, but none the less a powerful inspirational classic about grace, was written by the Catholic Brennan Manning.)
Along these lines, I think that the question of whether or not men may be called gods concerns a big enough matter that it is surprising it is not a matter of debate. There is a terrible truth, a deep magic (to borrow a Narnian image) that we are not gods, that it is blasphemy to arrogate to ourselves the title of divinity. There is a more terrible truth, a deeper magic, that we are not only gods but more than gods, and that we shall become greater still than we are now. If you take and compare a weak believer — an alcoholic living on the street, someone who doesn’t go to church because he feels ashamed to be there, but who loves Jesus, whose eyes will tear up if you begin talking with him about Jesus — and compare him with the beings the Norsemen or the Greeks worshipped as God, the failing, weak, marginal believer is to me more majestic and more worthy of worship. In him is the Holy Spirit; in him is submission to the will of God; in him is in a sense something deeper than virtue, important as virtue may be. It is not just the Marines of the Army of God — those glowing saints whom we read about, and think we can never measure up to — who are godlike. It is, in a catholic sense, every man and woman of God, those whose faith is far weaker than ours as well as those whose faith is far stronger, who is a god and (invisibly to eyes this side of Heaven, usually) is wrapped in a glory that paganism never thought to give to its gods and goddesses.
I cannot in good conscience give the Sanskrit greeting Namaste, “I bow to the divine spirit in you.” We are not God, and we fall into trouble to think that we are — and yet the Scriptures contain so many things that I would think blasphemous if they were found in any other source. We are made in the image, likeness, and glory of God. We are invited to be his sons and daughters. We will judge angels. We are invited (Ephesians 6:11-17) to enter spiritual warfare wearing, among other things, the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation — that is, the armor worn by God (Isaiah 59:17). We have been chosen to share in the divine nature.
I believe C.S. Lewis addresses this basic insight in The Weight of Glory, although I haven’t read it recently. Each person is on the way to becoming either a being a godlike creature whom, if you saw now, you would be sorely tempted to worship, or else a horror such as you never encountered in your worst nightmares. Lewis wasn’t sure whether a person should think as much as possible about his own glory, but it can scarcely hurt to think as much as possible about his neighbor’s glory.
Worship is the supreme love reserved to God alone, but man as the image of God may be given a second love that is the image of worship.
This area is addressed more fully in A Dream of Light.
It often happens that people’s beliefs concerning a question can be placed along a continuum. One example of this may be the question of who may legitimately be addressed as “Father,” in light of Jesus’ words about “Call no one on earth your father” etc. People wishing to persuade you to shift in their direction may point out an extreme position in the opposite direction as a means of softening you up to slide away from that extreme — such as when a Catholic, after talking about hyperbole, asks what you are going to call your literal father. After reacting to the extreme pointed out — and realizing that you do legitimately call your earthly father ‘Father’ — the natural tendency is to slide a couple of notches closer to the position being advocated, namely “It is OK to address ecclesiastical authorities as ‘Father’.” That is a temptation to be resisted. It is in some sense true that “no one on earth” does not refer to one’s earthly father, but even hyperbole is a means of emphasizing something important — and it is difficult to me at least to believe that the obvious exceptions to “no one on earth” include all pastors. The context speaks directly about what ecclesiastical authorities may be called — if ecclesiastical authorities are included among obvious exceptions, it is hard to tell exactly what the point of saying that was. Perhaps Jesus was exaggerating, but what important point was he exaggerating, if the exceptions include the most direct and obvious point of application?
Reacting an extreme position is often a stepping stone to an unnecessary shift. Reacting the position of “Do not even call your earthly father ‘Father'” softens people up to say “I guess Jesus didn’t really mean absolutely no one when he said ‘Call no one on earth your father’,” and mean by it, “When Jesus said ‘Call no one on earth your father,’ he wasn’t referring to ecclesiastical authorities.”
The story of the boy who cried wolf has something to do with warnings and legal contracts.
Implicit in a warning message is a claim of “This message says something important and non-obvious about a real danger to sensible use.” After reading a certain number of warnings and finding them superfluous, people’s trust has been violated. They don’t believe warnings are worth reading. And they aren’t — usually.
An analogous, but related principle seems to apply in legal contracts. When you have to agree to a license agreement to download free software, and there are several pages of legalese — like the warning, the contract has lost fair claim to be read by the person signing it.
“A cheap car is rare. That which is rare is expensive. A cheap car is expensive.” There are limitations on what can be done by taking reasonable-sounding propositions and working from them logically. The proposition can be basically true — and lead, through a logical argument, to a false conclusion. (I know of at least one person who does not engage in philosophical speculation because of this.) This is not always true — there are cases where logical development from given statements can bring forth highly accurate contents — but care must be taken in logical development from approximate wordings. Sometimes it is hard to tell when words mean something approximately, and when they mean something exactly. In exegesis, I wonder if at least some of our debates stem from reading as exact words which were meant to be read approximately — perhaps partially because it is easy to equate taking a text seriously with reading it exactly — and so we go to as approximate of a reading as we need to to satify some texts, but have debates because we can only give certain other texts a literal reading.
On the note of exegesis, I wish to also record that it is bad practice to take some convenient set of Bible verses, those whose literal construal leads most easily to your position, and magnify them along the lines that lead to your position, and then explain away those verses which are problematic to your interpretation. God inspired and meant one as much as another; it is better to say, “I don’t understand how it all fits together,” or “Such-and-such is as much sense as I can make out of it,” than to magnify some verses and raze others. There is a certain bad odor — of contrived explanations, of explaining things away — that is free of logical contradiction, but which signals the presence of bad exegesis. It’s kind of like an announcement of a stunning new discovery that shatters old theological dogmas (as in the beginning of Jesus de Montreal) — even before logical eyes can see exactly what is wrong here, an experienced nose can smell that something is awry.
The past few days have been a fertile time for musings. I can’t remember everything that I thought, but there is one that I have been thinking about that I do wish to write down.
The best way I see to introduce it is by asking if TCKs (third culture kids — to oversimplify, people who have grown up with substantial exposure to multiple cultures, where their parents’ culture was different from the culture of the surrounding people) have a culture, and giving a provocative answer of “No, at least not in the sense that most of the world’s people have a culture.” The world’s majority, people who have one culture, have a space for culture, and TCKs also have that space, and also have something in that space, but that something is not a culture.
I’m hesitant to give a definition of culture, because definitions are finite and tend to take a life of their own, but one facet of culture is that it is something shared by a community, and shaped by that community, rising out of it. There is something that TCKs share, even a TCK community of sorts, but TCKs did not come to what they had by being immersed in it as a culture when they grew up. What they have in place of a culture may draw on two or more cultures, but it is not itself a culture.
I was trying to think of what to call this genus of which culture is a species, these things that can occupy the space which is in most people occupied by a culture, and I came across a couple of terms which are conceptually related but not identical to it: worldview and personality, as well as metaculture (a concept which I do not wish to describe in detail here, beyond saying that where a person in culture fits into and naturally breathes a culture, a person in metaculture is able to shift and move between cultures, and does not occupy a culture in the same way — is never in a culture so completely as to not see how else it could be), are related, but not the same. Without having a name, I would like to summarize the concept by saying that culture is a species of the genus of things which occupy the space normally occupied by culture.
Being a TCK can provide a person with something else in the place of a culture; so can exceptional intelligence, and possibly some of mental illness/neurological disorders. I think there are other kinds of differences capable of causing this as well; mental illness is relatively well-documented as a kind of difference that has a significant darkside; differences that do not have significant darksides would not seem to draw the same exploration as differences that cause significant problems for the people that bear them. What I realized is that I have something else in the place of a culture. I thought about writing a document about what that something else is, but am waiting on that for now, until some intuitions are more clear.
One question which may be useful as a rule of thumb for whether a person has a culture or something else in that place is, “When he changes something in the culture, does he change from within or change from without?” in a sense related to the distinction introduced by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. There is a difference between the person who uses materials inside the box to fumblingly try to think outside the box, and the person who uses materials outside the box to fumblingly try to think inside the box.
One logician I’ve read was arguing for game theoretical semantics, where a statement under examination is considered to represent a game, and one player is the Verifier, and the other is the Falsifier. The statement is considered to be true if the Verifier has a winning strategy, and False if the Falsifier has a winning strategy. It is possible for a game not to have a winning strategy on either side, and the logician argued from this that there may therefore be statements which are neither true nor false. (This struck me as an example of bad logic — you have a terrain and a standard map, and you suggest using another map, and point out that the second map has a property which the first map did not, concluding that the terrain might have the property indicated on the second map.) If one pursued those lines, though, the definition of a game can be loosened so that a game can at least potentially be won by both parties. This would correspond to games which (in some instances) could have a winning strategy for both Verifier and Falsifier, and statements which were neither true nor false. “This statement is false” could be the canonical simple example of a game which had neither a winning strategy for Verifier nor a winning strategy for Falsifier (a statement which is neither true nor false), and “This statement is true” the example of a statement which has winning strategies for both Verifier and Falsifier (a statement which is both true and false).
Christianity is a broad thing; individual believers may own the whole, but they live in a niche. Celibacy and married life both belong to all believers, but a believer will inhabit only one of those possibilities. This phenomenon (another instance is different spiritual gifts — no gift is common to all believers) is a part of what is meant by catholicity — the whole faith is to be believed by all believers, even though not every detail will come to play in every believer’s life. It is like a culture — it takes a village to transmit a culture, because a culture belongs to all its members, but it is larger than any single member’s role in it.
Fiction, I believe, can be true or false, even though we do not speak of it much in that way. For a work of fiction to be true does not mean that the events literally happened, but… Fiction presents a world-view, and says that things happen a certain way. The truth or falsity of fiction is not measured by the literal truth or falsity of what is seen, but the effects it has on the way people see. Action-adventure movies present life as cheap and of little consequence; killing someone is not only permissible, but not that big of a deal and without serious consequences. In so far as that is true, that fiction is false, and it is as false as a report that cigarettes are not addictive and do not pose any serious health threats. Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is a curious and powerful mix of truth and falsehood; it is a classic because it is powerfully true in certain ways — the psyche of Michael, especially at the beginning, and the interaction of cultures; perhaps also certain areas of law — but it also lies: the limitless perfectibility of man, a benign nature to promiscuity, a certain arbitrary reshapability to human culture are among its falsehoods.
It is also possible, in this sense, to have false statements that are literally true. The stories told by the Un-man(?) in C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra to the unfallen, Perelandrian Eve are false even if they are literally true. More to the point, Clinton’s electoral stories, television newscasting, or kneejerk conservative tales of welfare abuse are all falsehoods expressed in a way that is literally true. These tales are not only tales of “these details happened”, but “this is the way the world works.” On the welfare score, the tales of abuse are never tales of just “This abuse happened at this time.” The meaning of the tales extends much farther, to “This is how things work. The welfare system is a corrupt system the nature of which is to be taken advantage of by parasites who constitute a massive financial drain on hardworking, honest, overtaxed America, and it is in need of a massive overhaul and massive cutbacks.” That is not true.
There are a number of arguments in principle that are to be made for pacifism, which I will not mention here. I would like to mention one lesser, prudential, argument before I forget.
If you ask two Christian thinkers — one who believes in a just war, the other of whom is a pacifist — what they believe concerning violence and problem solving, the difference between the answers given is never going to be that the pacifist believes in constructive problem solving and the just war believer believes in killing people to solve problems. The difference will rather be something far closer and more subtle: both believe that man is the image of God, that human life is of infinite value, and that people should learn to solve conflict in ways to avoid violence. The difference is that the pacifist believes violence is never acceptable, where the just war believer, who would much rather die than be killed, accepts violence as a last resort when all else has failed, and the probable destruction caused by acting in violence is less than the probable destruction caused by any other route. So the difference is not a difference of whether violence or constructive problem solving is better, only a very small difference (among people who agree on the desirability of peaceable living) of what will be done in the last resort after every effort at a peaceable solution has failed.
What I would like to submit is that this picture is distorted. It fairly accurately captures the difference in what people say, but not the difference in what people do. Both the pacifist and the just war believer say that they believe in attempting a peaceful solution in a potentially violent situation, and that peaceful conflict resolution is vastly preferable to violence, but only the pacifist normally makes any serious effort to understand nonviolent solutions that can prevent violence. In my own experience, only pacifist churches and meetings have given any instruction in how to handle a problem solution so as to prevent violence; when I gave a speech at Wheaton on peace making, not one of the members of the audience believed in a just war. Or, to put it differently, in the whole student body at Wheaton, not one of the just war majority thought it worth an evening’s effort to attend a speech on peace making. Or, again, those who cared about peaceful resolution to conflicts consisted exclusively of pacifists, even in a student body where the vast majority believed in a just war.
In the stated just war position, the major thesis of the position is that human life is of infinite value, and that Christians should make dedicated efforts towards the peaceful resolution of problems. It is a minor clause that says that violence may be used as a last resort. I would like to submit that the pacifist keeps more of this position, more faithfully, than does the person who holds a just war position. That is to say, the pacifist not only lives up to the pacifist standards better than the one who believes in a just war; he also lives up to the just war standards better.
Sun Tzu, in The Art of War, told the general to cut off all hope of retreat from the troops, so that they are cornered and will either win a battle or die. At first this struck me as very strange: doing so limits options and prevents the troops from fighting another day if they lose. Now, though, I understand that it was a profound psychological insight that put those words in such a timeless classic on military strategy: the troops will fight to the death if cornered; they can’t fight that hard if there is a way of retreat.
On a naive model, the question of pacifism vs. just war is a question that has the same answer for most situations, differing only in that (in a small fraction of situations) the pacifist will either not act or else interpose himself in harm’s way, and the just war believer will use force. But the difference is not confined to those situations. There is also the difference that the pacifist is cornered and fights to the death in situations where the just war believer, fighting as hard as he can while still preserving a way out, doesn’t — can’t — try as hard as the cornered pacifist. And so the body count, if you will, from the two situations, cannot stop after taking into consideration the situation where the pacifist refuses to kill a murderer, resulting in his own death and that of the person the murderer set out to kill; it must also take into consideration the situation where the pacifist averted bloodshed by applying training that the just war believer did not take the effort to find out. If this is so, then even if there are some cases where use of violence will save more lives than it kills, it is still quite possible that overall allowing the option of violence kills more lives than it saves.
This ties in to a question in computer science concerning the use of goto statements, an area where I am trying to think of a nontechnical example, and finding nothing as good.
A goto statement is a part of a computer program that tells the computer to go from one part to another (go to, goto). When I was in gradeschool, I thought goto statements were the best thing since sliced bread. But it’s not. One classic computer science paper argued that the free-ranging functionality of the goto statement should be replaced with conditional statements (if A is true, then do B, else do C) and loops (while D is true, do E). This kind of discipline does wonders to control certain kinds of hidden nightmares, and all serious contemporary programming I’m aware of uses conditional statements and loops instead of gotos for the bedrock of computer programming.
The question arises, “Should programming languages allow goto statements, or not?” The reason the question is not closed is that, every once in a blue moon, a goto is out-and-out the best way to solve a problem. A good programmer never uses gotos as a first approach, and bad programmers will only use gotos in ways that are inappropriate, but once in a blue moon, a situation comes up where a goto will solve the problem better than conditionals and loops. So there is a case for allowing gotos. But many languages have chosen to leave goto statements out of the language’s functionality — not because a goto statement is never justified, but because if a goto statement is in a language, programmers will use gotos in cases which hurt program quality. So, in isolated cases, it is uncontested that goto statements are sometimes justified, but overall, it is deemed better to rule out all goto statements, including the ones that are justified, than deal with the effects on the programmer and through programming of leaving the statements in the language.
This question has implications for moral reasoning.
I would not place this argument as my primary argument for pacifism, but I would place it as something to think about — and, perhaps, as an occasion for people who believe in a just war to decide what they believe (not “Is violence ever justified?” but “Is violence undesirable enough that it is worth making a serious investigation into how one can prevent it?”), and live up to what I hope a just war position should be.
The concepts of classical and romantic, discussed in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (a second rate treatment of first rate issues), was something I originally thought of as “classical is concerned with what is below the surface, while romantic is concerned with the surface,” but I wish to revise that. Classical and romantic are both concerned with something behind and beneath the surface, but in different ways.
There is a distinction I have thought of between a logical and a practical conclusion. A logical conclusion answers the question, “What comes forth from this idea if a logician takes it and analyzes its implications?” A practical conclusion answers the question, “What comes forth from this idea if a group of people believe this idea and live with it for some time?” The two are related, but different. Sometimes there are things in a practical conclusion that wouldn’t be immediately evident to a logician.
My above musing about a prudential case for pacifism could be portrayed as teasing out of differences between the practical conclusions of just war and pacifist teachings.
There are at least two ways that a human environment can be hostile — actively and passively.
An actively hostile environment is one in which people are consciously and intentionally hostile to a person or another group of persons. I would take South African apartheid as a paradigm example of this. A passively hostile environment does not necessarily have active hostility, but there are elements in the environment which none the less make it a hostile place. I would take handicap-inaccessible architecture as the paradigm example here.
Active hostility is what is usually thought of in reference to a hostile environment, discrimination, etc. The two other examples I can think of of passive hostility are right-handed technology, and many of the things that make giftedness a burden — an educational system that breaks at both ends of the spectrum.
When I wrote the above material about truth, falsity, and fiction, there was something I realized was not quite on the head. Today I put my finger on it.
Madeleine l’Engle is reported to have said that if an author does not respect his characters’ free will, then the story becomes a false story. This, as well as embodiment of a false world view (perhaps moreso), is how a story can be false. Deus ex machina, at least in its bad sense, is a kind of falsity in storytelling.
A large part of the indictment of utilitarian Christian art in Franky Schaeffer’s Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts is that it is false art and literature. It brings to mind one interchange I read in a Christian magazine, about the relative merits of Christian and popular music. The argument one person put forth for listening to secular music was that it was better music than the Christian music, and the rebuttal was based on the fact that the Christian music had Christian lyrics. That is to say, the rebuttal to an indictment of musical inferiority was to not argue for the music’s quality, or even see it as an issue — the music was only a sugar coating for a doctrinal content of the lyrics. That is a defense and rationale for false music.
Much of the best art and literature stems from efforts at persuasion; the Aeneid and the Divine Comedy were both written by poets who wished to prove their languages weren’t inferior. The best art is rarely purely for art’s sake — but neither is it purely instrumental. Perhaps it comes from the interaction of trying to make good art and trying to serve another purpose. And perhaps the NEA-sponsored exhibits, which are often accused of making a virtue of incomprehensibility, does terrible “art for art’s sake”, falling into errors that are not possible for someone trying to persuade. But the major error in most of what I have seen is false art that violates the integrity of the artwork in order to do something useful. It kills the goose of art to get all the golden eggs of persuasion — and then bewails the fact that the goose no longer produces golden eggs. It can’t. It was killed by its creator.
Bill Watterson’s story of refusing to commercialize his comic strip, in a way that he regards as selling out his own creation (recounted, I think, in The Calvin and Hobbes 10th Anniversary Special), shows an artist’s difficult endeavor to retain the truth of his creation.
There was a connection which I made recently…
I have problems owning American culture. My heart is in a sense in Europe; partly in a romantic impression, but also and more substantially in a classical look at (especially) philosophy and other aspects of culture (friendship would probably be another).
What I realized, or remembered, was that I once had difficulty owning Western culture at all. I held some interest in Eastern thought, and resonances between Eastern and Christian thought. Part of this was rebellion, pride, wanting to be different and better than other people. But only part. Another part was recognition of the wreckage of the past 500 years of Western philosophical history — I still think the past 500 years of “progress” are mostly something that would best be erased, done over, and that even though Eastern philosophy (pagan virgin) does not measure up to Christian (married) philosophy, it provides a vastly better starting point, and even working medium, than most of contemporary Western philosophy (apostate divorcée). Another part of my difficulties in identifying with the West was that I had some awareness, albeit an unwitting, unconscious awareness that hit the very large nail not quite on the head, of how different I was from other people. I didn’t connect it with intelligence, and I did not have the clarity to put my thinking as “I am a Westerner who is more different from most Westerners than most Easterners are;” I thought of myself as non-Western in a way that roughly meant Eastern (and came to a deep understanding of one Eastern philosophy).
The second part of the realization is that I have, by whatever means, come to be at home with being a part of the West. Not like everybody else — not by a long shot — but distinctively Western. I have not, within the West, settled down to accepting being an American yet, in the sense that it naturally flows from me, but I am able to accept, with pleasure, being Western. And I had a breaking point at a square dance when I was able to look and realize that I was enjoying a distinctively American cultural beauty.
Exactly where in the geographical-historical map of the actual West my heart is, is still a little hard to say. In the West, but not at any literal place of it. Somewhere in Europe, probably France, spread out across a few centuries, with a touch of fantasy. I am using the term ‘fantasy’ in a poor metaphor because I do not see any better way to explain it, but it calls for some explanation. I do not mean the medieval-impression-plus-magic that is commonly meant by fantasy, nor the psychological sense of an escape into unreality. Rather I mean an “impression” (I mean something like what this word means, only deep rather than shallow), both classical and romantic in character (but more fundamentally classical), of a culture and a world that could be real but does not happen to be. The culture that most readily comes to mind is that of Blajeny in Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wind in the Door.
A certain element of this does not need to change. There are elements of American culture that I do not think I ever need to embody, and others that I may learn to play as a social game (I identify with the youngest star in Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. She tried to appear human — an eccentric old woman, outside on a terribly stormy night — and quite nearly botched it; the shawl and eating and making sheets look like ghosts was not who she was, was a game she played that did not begin to give even a glimpse of who she really was. This is a picture of an angel-like being in one sense, but in another sense is a revelation of a real, flesh-and-blood human being out of a human’s experience; it is a description not only of angels but of men). There are also a number of elements of American culture that I need to love and own.
There are a couple of things that have happened lately that I am taking as exciting indications that I am beginning to own American culture, and have the discipline to love it even when I do not like it.
Halloween is, or at least can be, a revelatory holiday.
By this I mean that it is a holiday that provides a social context for people to reveal themselves to other people in ways that would not normally occur in the usual course of interactions. For many people it’s not — the costume doesn’t say anything — but for me at least it is. My costumes say something about me.
Christmas is also, in a different way, a revelatory holiday. It is not just a revelatory holiday (such a thought makes me shudder), but it is such. Giving a gift is an act of communication; the gift says something about the person who it is given to, but also about the giver.
What other revelatory holidays could be imagined?
I could see a favorite books day, where people read a passage from their favorite books.
Something to draw on the theme of icebreakers at parties. Icebreakers are embarrassing and humiliating; every one I have examined since I made this basic observation crosses some social boundary and make people uncomfortable. I believe this is for a specific reason; pushing people across an internal boundary disinhibits them and opens the door to getting to know the other people. It takes a jolt to break the ice.
Persona day. People do not dress up in costumes, but (in normal wear) role play other people.
Prohibition day. Some common and basic activity or faculty is verboten for the course of the day. The Church does this with fasts and Lord’s day rest. I believe there are prohibitions which would force people to operate differently, but I can’t think of any (new ones) off the top of my head.
Baudelaire, in La Morale du Joujou, talks about how, in children’s play and religious artwork, the toy/art represents a reality, which it suggests but does not fully portray. When a little boy takes a small object (perhaps a spool of thread) and moves it about, making sounds, and pretends it is a spaceship, there is no need for a perfectly shaped model of what appears to be a spaceship — and, Baudelaire argues, it is better that way. It is better to have an incomplete portrayal, in which the imperfect vehicle is taken over by imagination to become what it represents, than a perfect and complete portrayal which leaves nothing left for the imagination to do.
In America, unlike many other countries, puppetry is allowed as a children’s art form but not taken seriously as a medium for adults — our loss. Some puppetry (euphemistically called ‘animatronics’ by people who do not want their use of puppetry to be known) is used in movies, albeit puppetry that has so much technical sophistication that it succeeds in appearing to be something else; we do not have puppets that appear as puppets. This is in contrast to the shadow puppet theatre of Malaysia, to take an instance off the top of my head, where there are beautiful but stylized puppets: they are meant to evoke, but not be mistaken for the real thing. Perhaps related to this, all the non-cartoon movies and television I’ve seen present as close an approximation to (a romantic impression of) a photorealistic image of what happens. There is no case where, as in child’s play, people look at an inverted garbage can and agree to make believe it’s a robot. When I watched The Matrix, after not having seen any movies in a while, I was distracted by the romantic impression; at times I had difficulty seeing through it to the characters and concepts. (This isn’t because the movie was ineffective within its genre; it’s because I had begun to lose touch with the medium, but I think there is something in my having lost touch.)
I think it would be an interesting matter to see a good movie in which there was enough to evoke images in the viewer’s minds, but not the complete substitute for imagination in detail — a shooting of a plainclothes rehearsal on an empty set. What would the experience be like?
I think that there is probably a link (both from the same source, possibly) between the fact that puppets that look like puppets are accepted by children but not adults (a sign, not of maturity, but of loss of imagination), and the fact that movies do not call on the viewer’s imagination. I know that television is criticized for rotting the imagination, but what if there was television that just showed actors on empty sets, with very crude props that suggested the objects they were to refer to? It wouldn’t be watched (see Mander’s argument for why television needs technical events and artificial unusuality in order to hold people in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television), but it’s an interesting concept. Perhaps it would be interesting to go to pre-dress rehearsals of plays.
On a related but distinct note — all movies I can recall seeing operate on a romantic rather than a classical plane, and attempting to interact with a movie on classical grounds (thinking about the science and technology is one of a number of examples) yields frustration. The science in science fiction movies is meant to be awe inspiring and impressive — not (in my experience) for people to try to understand. It would be interesting to see a classical movie — perhaps a classical movie that just had suggestive sets, costume, and props.
The image I used in A Dream of Light for the curse of Babel was a rainbow being shattered and its pieces being scattered across the sky to become stars. There was a fragmentation and a diminution of language.
I do not think that the New Jerusalem will see an exact reversal of what happened at Babel. I don’t think the diversity in languages will be reversed, even to restore the language of the Dawn of Creation. I believe that we will have something deeper — even more than in Eden an instrument of communion and not just communication — something that does not have to pass through the pipe of the senses. And I believe that the diversity of human languages, past, present, and future, will be preserved in that fusion. The observation is made of idiolects, that different people will use language in different ways; different idiolects can still be part of the same language in which people understand each other when speaking. In Heaven, I believe I will speak in a way influenced, foreshadowed by, the languages I have worked with here (with various degrees of proficiency — I speak two languages well, and have dabbled in others), and a way that others will understand.
I wrote about fantasy above. I wish to — not quite explain that theme more (I am having difficulty thinking about it clearly enough to say anything significant) — but talk about related material.
Fantasy is in our minds associated with another era; this is not because people invented a forgotten world, a faroff age and invested it with magic, but because people living in a then-contemporary world saw magic operating on their world. The fantastic element was not conceived to be fixed to their time, and the profession of woodcutter in fairy tales was originally as contemporary and as ordinary as a mechanic in our world. This is why, when C.S. Lewis wrote fairy tales for grown-ups (That Hideous Strength), he did not give people occupations from yesteryear; he set them in the contemporary world. The same is true of Madeleine l’Engle’s Time quartet. The fact that ‘fantasy’ means ‘pseudo-medieval’ is in some sense a matter of historical accident.
When writing A Cord of Seven Strands, or more properly when thinking before writing it, I was thinking over the question of whether not to write fantasy. I was sure of a contemporary setting, and I did not want magic in the story. What I was debating was a cultural and geographical bifurcation, something that would feel like our world but be different.
It was a related but different sense of ‘fantasy’ that I meant above. When I am trying to express something, I sometimes see a visual symbol before I can think of words; the visual symbol I saw was two along rays at a very acute angle. Both rays come from the same source. One ray ray represents the way things actually happened, the real world. The other represents the fantasy: it is nearly the same in orientation, but it is displaced, and the further you go, the further apart they are. Something similar may be said for Australian, English Canadian, British, and U.S. culture. They are all bifurcated (albeit interacting) lines from the same source, in a sense almost parallel. Complementary to the usual intuition of Britain being on its historical path and the colonies branching off or doing the same thing, it may also be said that these four countries represent alternate historical and cultural developments of the British culture that existed several centuries ago. To someone with a historical sense who had grown up in one of these four contemporary cultures and been transported to another, each provides an answer of “This is how it might have been but is not.” The direction of the angle I see is different — not a “This is how it might have been but is not” of historical and cultural development, but of the different feel brought with intelligence, the part of intelligence that is not connoted or implied by the popular understanding of the word ‘smart’. That isn’t quite it, or perhaps you could say that that is one facet but not all; at any rate, it is the only one I know how to concretely describe.
I was thinking about the direction of Madeleine l’Engle’s fantasy — breaking off from our world (though she would not view it that way) in the direction of (some) non-human characters, of kything and under-hearing. I regard it a valuable question to ask how my fantasy would break off. A part of it is in the direction of pseudo-fantasy, material that reads like fantasy while consisting exclusively of events I could believe happened. Other parts I can’t describe.
Recently I found out that a person whom I have been talking with (I won’t mention his name) was looking at an area of thought in a way that was fundamentally distorted (I won’t give the details on that, either). What I regard as significant is that my reply to him was emotional, only partially logically coherent, and probably not nearly as persuasive as most of what I write.
I was thinking about this, in large part because I was disturbed that I hadn’t given him a better answer, a better explanation — I was aware that I was explaining things badly as I wrote, but I couldn’t do better. It wasn’t because this was an obscure question that I knew little about; anything but. The reflection I had coming out of this was analogous to aesthetic distance: if an issue is too far out, then you do not know it well enough to talk about it effectively, then as it moves closer you can start to talk about it, but if it comes too close, then the lack of distance prevents effective discussion. These are some of the things you know best, but you can’t start talking about them.
If this is true, this may mean that on the handful of issues that a thinker becomes emotional and incoherent in argument, the incoherence is not because he doesn’t know what he is talking about, but because he knows it so intimately that he cannot discuss it effectively — it is when he is least persuasive that he may be voicing something far more important to him than what lets him be carried away on the wings of eloquence.
10/14/00 and subsequent days
There is a classic Reader’s Digest in which a married couple, building their dream house, tells their decorator that they want an authentic early American bathroom. The decorator hesitates, and says, “Ok. Exactly how far away from the house do you want it to be?”
It has occurred to me in thinking about that joke that I have been ungrateful to my own era. Perhaps I am in an era that doesn’t really have a place for me, but the Middle Ages wouldn’t necessarily have had a place for me either, even if my metacultural perspective is spiritually closer to medieval than modern or postmodern. So I would like to list twenty things about my historical-cultural perspective that I appreciate — partly out of discipline and contrition, but also to draw others (especially those who feel the legitimate pull of metaculture and the recognition that other historical-cultural milieux have legitimate and probably richer spiritual climates, who see in modern progress an illusion and are appalled by the literal and figurative 20th century body count) to an appreciation of the good things our climate uniquely holds. This is a bit like the 100 ways of kything in that I don’t know at the outset what all the entries are:
Things I like about my historical-cultural placement:
- Medical technology. I do not approve of worshipping technology, but it is not worship to note that medical technology has saved my life more than once, and that if I had lived in another era, then (barring supernatural healing) the bone infection I had in my ankle in eighth grade would have killed me, and I wouldn’t have produced any of my writings. In a significant sense, my writings are a ministry; the question is not whether I would have produced my writings, diminished, in the theological crampedness of my age, or produced them on the strength of a stronger age; the choice is between my struggling, fighting uphill, swimming upstream to think clearly and produce my writings (perhaps even doing a better job because I could not simply go with the flow), and being dead before I could mature enough to produce any of them.
- The internet. In previous technological environments (hand copying and then print), the expense and scarcity of writing materials meant that you had, to share writings, to convince someone with scarce resources that your writing was worth the allocation of scarce resources — and, even now, getting a book printed is more a matter of salesmanship than of writing. (And I am not an expert salesman.) The internet is the first means in history where a person like me can concentrate almost wholly on the quality of his writings and then, almost effortlessly, without any jumping through hoops, make them available worldwide. There is a kind of sharing and connection, community, made possible by the internet that wasn’t possible before. Many great writers of the past were discovered posthumously, by accident. The internet provides a place where writing is far less restricted.
- IMSA. The Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, the magnet school where I went to high school, is a world unto itself. Culturally, and in the way people think, it is one of a few homes to me; the last time I visited campus, there was a shared bond and a rate of connection that affected me as one of those moments that leave you wondering how you could have gotten used to its absence. IMSA has its many flaws, but even with them — it is on the strength of notesfile discussions at IMSA that I learned to write, and if I was able to later read the Bible repeatedly and perform a mental housecleaning to expunge myself of worldview/teachings from IMSA (i.e. the premise that math and science will solve our world’s problems), even that mental housecleaning used discipline acquired at IMSA. But IMSA is not to me just the place where I learned to think; it is a place where I met kindred spirits, and (even in its flaws) an Ynes Avalach to me, more of an alma mater than any of the four colleges and universities I attended. I am grateful to my era, and to the state of Illinois and its taxpayers, for letting me have that opportunity.
- Computers. Computers do not need to be an object of worship or another enhancement to corporate abilities to generate wealth. They can also be seen as a triumph of human culture, and an opportunity for interaction unlike anything any previous aeon has seen. Where else can you interact with a being that can do arithmetic and logic flawlessly but has no intelligence, not even common sense? There is something in interacting with something logical to show you that you are not logical; programming computers provides a new facet to a thinking man’s self-understanding.
- Religious volunteerism. The idea that one belongs to a given religious affiliation because he chooses to belong is, historically speaking, far from universal. There are imperfections — religion as a private choice, religion as something tamed — but they are imperfections in carrying out a great thing.
- The concept of tolerance. Most readers will know of hypocrisies and imperfections in how this is carried out, the equation of “racist = white”, and the problems that have been caused in the name of diversity. I would recall the words, “Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue,” and say that the respect for personhood embodied in diversity concerns is a great thing.
- Breadth/specialization/academia/diversity. In terms of level of specialization, the present world has quite a few niches that wouldn’t exist in most other societies. (This is a mixed blessing, but a blessing.) My choice of professions is better now than in most historical-cultural contexts; in a small village, the selection of available professions (even without any cultural restrictions) would probably not have allowed me anything as thought-oriented as I have now.
- The value given to an individual life. One person’s life is held to be of tremendous value — not just VIPs, but everyone. This is far from a cultural universal.
- Creature comforts and good thinking environments. Creature comforts and a special place have a great influence on how well a person is able to perform abstract thought; creature comforts are nice in themselves, but they also allow people to ignore the absence of discomfort and sink into thought.
- A native language that is lingua franca throughout the world. This is something very few people in world history have enjoyed. There are any number of arguments that have been made about the dark side of American English steamrolling through half the world’s linguistic bases, and I don’t mean to make light of that — but to speak the language as your native tongue, and never need to learn another, is a rare privilege.
- Cheap books. Before the printing press, books were hard to come by; a library of sixty books was quite respectable in the Middle Ages. Books have since then become cheaper and easier to make, which means not only that books are easier to acquire, but that a broader selection of material is liable to be printed. True, much of this material is trash, but there is also material that is not trash.
- Roads and Other Transportation. Roads take a heavy and non-obvious toll; the Amish do not drive cars because it is their considered judgment that the use of cars tends to degrade the community. That stated, roads provide access to people, more diverse acquaintances than one would have in a small village. I consider my job options to be much better than if I had to choose from positions I could walk to — in which case I’d probably go bonkers.
- Psychology. Psychology, as all academic disciplines, has its own special way of being ridiculous. It also has generated an understanding of human nature with some strengths that many cultures do not have. I would hesitate to say that academic psychology has surpassed the insights of other cultures on their own terms, but on its terms psychology has provided us with some good understandings of human nature.
- Hallowe’en. Every age has beautiful holidays; I like Halloween: not the ghouls and witches and warlocks, but the opportunity to be someone else, to reveal yourself in a different way.
- Role play. This element of cultural wealth is something that has always been around — in the form of children’s make-believe. I am not aware of another cultural context that carries this into adulthood.
- Recognition of childhood. The non-universal concept of childhood, whose present disappearance Neil Postman explores and laments in The Disappearance of Childhood, is of benefit to both children and adults.
- Lex, Rex. The rule of law — the idea that everyone, even the highest governing officials, is subject to the law — is far from common in time and history. Many people from other nations had trouble understanding when Nixon was impeached: how could the highest official of the land be on trial for breaking the law? It struck them as it might strike us to see a family where the parents were grounded — grounding is something parents hand out to children, not something parents are themselves subject to. The rule of law is imperfectly followed — as I write, the chaos surrounding the 2000 American presidential election is just beginning to subside — and the concept has flaws. Yet, even with an imperfect implementation of imperfect ideas, attempts to follow the rule of law reduce arbitrariness.
- Bureaucracies. Now I know that some readers are probably wondering why I would put bureaucracies on the list — ‘bureaucracy’, like ‘mother-in-law’, carries strongly negative connotations. Do I like pushing through red tape? No. But, to an outsider, working with an American bureaucracy is a positive luxury. One Brazilian student was stunned when he applied for a scholarship without knowing anyone who could pull strings, and then received it; a friend at home couldn’t believe him when he explained what had happened. The reason is simple: in Brazil, like most countries across most of time, you need an inside connection to get anything out of a bureaucracy. In the US, it doesn’t hurt, but you have reasonable chances of getting a lot of things out of a bureaucracy — enough so that this can be taken for granted, and we can ungratefully grumble about how inefficient bureaucracies are.
- The concept of genius. The concept of genius is far from universal; while there are problematic developments (the “exceptional man” exposed in Crime and Punishment), the boundary between genius and normal (or even just gifted and average), like that between children adults, is one that benefits people on both sides.
- Mechanical devices to tinker with. When I made a fantasy world, one of the races had tinkering as a national hobby. It’s delightful and fascinating to tinker, to fix things MacGyver style, and to have intriguing gadgets. It’s not one of the greatest things in life — not up there with faith and friendship — but Legos and knicknacks (Legos being one of my favorite thinking toys as a child) are an enjoyable part of local color.
There is a sense in which I think we’ve swapped the meanings of asceticism and hedonism. On the surface, at least, and as far as we usually look, asceticism is drab and unpleasant, and hedonism is really enjoying things. But this is the inverse of the reality. Hedonism is one of the pessimistic philosophies of life, trying to enjoy sensory pleasures as someone would enjoy his last meal before an execution. Some forms of asceticism are indeed joyless, but others make small sacrifices in the pursuit of something big. In so far as devout Christians live abstemeniously, it should not be a rejection of joy, but embracing a bigger joy than comes through hedonism.
When I came back to my [original] A Luddite Guide to Technology, I was amazed at the level of goofiness I had been blind to. I had spoken about the importance of love and forgiveness to all, and in almost the same breath poured out anti-Microsoft invective. Why is it easier to see another’s goofiness than one’s own?
Democracy is not coterminous with good government. It is associated with good government in at least one cultural context, and quite possibly others, but the assumption in e.g. TV newscasts that democracy is the one form of government that is best to all countries, and that the political health of a country can be measured by how democratic it is becoming, is worthy of question.
Earlier I spoke of us as gods. I might want to suggest another helpful picture, that of us as apprentice gods, where this life is an apprenticeship to full godhood in Heaven.
Zen emphasizes living in the now. I was thinking about that for a time, and came to realize that in some sense I live best when I am spread out over a time, when I am present to a moment that includes but is not limited to the present. A painter may momentarily only be brushing a small area of the painting, but he is throughout time present to the whole painting, in a way that is structured according to the painting rather than according to the path the brush tip may take (he may even forget what the brush tip took). In the same way, through time I have found a magical way of fitting in to time something that doesn’t fit into linear time, kind of like a mathematician’s Peano curve, where continuous twisting of a curve fills space.
Some theologians have spoken of eternity being without the flow of time as we understand it, where we will no longer have our existence rationed out to us. The Zen approach, where one is totally present to the moment, approximates this in one sense, but in another sense, the perspective I have become aware of (in failing to be exclusively present to the present, and understanding why I failed at it) is something that seems to reflect another aspect of eternity. What I have is something-embedded-in-time, a something that is more than time, and whatever unimaginable thing eternity will be, it will be more, not less, than what we have now. I believe it will be a more natural medium for what is snuck in to time — somehow, probably in a way that we cannot reason out, we will have all of our existence at once, and yet not be limited to a single instant, “ever changing from glory to glory.” (God has all of his existence at once, but he at very least interacts with time; his eternality is not a less-than-temporality.)
In A Wind in the Door, the Murrays’ having given up money and prestige to work in an obscure stone lab is something I identify with in my present stage of life. What I have is not so much a noble giving up as a loss, it has been a less voluntary moving from heavy-thinking, recognizable academic work to software engineering (which I am not doing as proficiently as well as I expected), and a quiet apartment to write in. But I am at peace. I have thought about (after a couple of years’ work) going back to school in cognitive science, and I have gone from enduring it’s-only-a-couple-of-years to being able to enjoy and cherish this time writing — something like the Zen koan that set my thinking, where a monk runs from a tiger, jumps over a cliff, and grabs a thin branch holding him above spiked rocks below. What does he do? He cannot climb up the cliff (the tiger — the past — makes this impossible), and he cannot let go and fall down (the spikes — the future — make this impossible). So he grabs and enjoys some strawberries next to him. I do not think it possible to be happy if both past and future are lethal, but I am enjoying the present without being able to go back to the past, or know or control the future. I am looking forward to the hope of cognitive science work, but I am also genuinely enjoying the present.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance says that there are two types of welders. One is not necessarily better than the other, but it is important to know which one you need, and have the right kind. (I’ll transpose the ordering from Pirsig’s.)
The first kind prefers to do familiar welds, and dislikes having to figure out a new one. The second kind regards figuring out the weld as part of the fun, and resents having to do a job over again.
What I pieced together is that I’m at least a notch or two past the second kind of welder — in my writing, where a new piece usually comes in a new genre, in riflery and martial arts (as Robin pointed out), in other things.
I also realized a strange similarity (or perhaps ‘similarity’ is too strong a word — ‘comparable character’, perhaps) between the attitudes of an agnostic Jew towards religious ceremony and my own.
Agnostic Jews participate in certain ceremonies that they don’t believe in in a religious sense, as a matter of preserving and keeping alive Jewish identity. The ceremonies do not mean, in a sense, the glory and worship of God. At least not primarily and not directly. That is, the agnostic Jew does a ceremony but doesn’t believe its direct meaning.
I realized a parallel between that attitude and my own attitude towards religious ceremony. I participate in religious ceremonies, but I do not believe that a given structure is the necessary form that worship takes, any more than the specific words of a given conversation are necessary to conversation between two people. They are to me the outer shell that worship took in that one case; they are not part of the substance of worship.
The most common use I hear of the term ‘semantic’ is as in “They were just arguing semantics,” meaning that people were having a pointless argument that existed, not because they disagreed over something substantial, but because they were using words differently.
That is in a sense a true use of the term ‘semantic’, but it is disappointing (especially as the primary way in which the term is used). An unnecessary argument because people didn’t know they were using words differently is the pocket lint of things semantic; there are so many greater things that can be referred to by ‘semantic’, of what people mean and what texts mean. Syntactic knowledge is shallow, surface knowledge (the connection of the letters l-o-v-e with the concept of love); semantic knowledge is real, deep knowledge (the conceptual wealth that is evoked by l-o-v-e). In computer programming, people who are trying to fill jobs are usually measuring by what syntactic knowledge is possessed (or, more properly, what buzzwords the person can claim); it is semantic knowledge (theory, the knowledge that is not searched for but is the most important knowledge a programmer possesses) that makes for real success.
I like semantic discussions that are something deeper than an unnecessary conflict because people did not understand how each other were using language.
I have spoken with Josh about disclosing his thoughts about Hebraic and Hellenistic mindsets. (It is Josh’s and Heather’s idea, but Josh had said something that made me want to ask him before distributing it.) Josh has given me permission to disclose it; my thoughts are a little fuzzy, because it’s been a little while since he and Heather explained the concepts, and I only have the one sheet they wrote things down on, but I’ll try to reproduce:
Josh began by saying that, with a couple of arguable exceptions, all the books of the Bible were written by Hebrews, operating from a Hebraic mindset, but subsequent Christian thought has largely followed a Greek mold, and that, if we are to understand the Scriptures, we should understand them as seen by the mindset in which they appeared. He then delved into one area where there is a discrepancy between a Hebraic and a Hellenistic mindset.
In the beginning of the explanation, Heather drew a line down the center of a sheet of paper, and began to write words in pairs, one on either side of the line:
|left brain||right brain|
Heather then asked me to imagine that I did not know about law and grace, and how they fit together, but only that God was righteous and cannot abide sin, that each transgression demands judgment, and at the same time that God is merciful, and desires to save men. Responses to such a situation show a divergence between the Hebraic and Hellenistic mind, especially in cases where a neat resolution is not known.
The Hebraic mind does not understand everything and does not expect to understand everything, but has a trust and room for paradox that enable them to believe both in God’s justice and mercy without having a knowledge of how they fit together. The Hellenistic mindset does not understand everything either, but it expects that it should. As such, and holding both the usual strengths (keenness of analysis) and the unnecessary but usual weaknesses (limiting oneself to it) of logic, it tries to create rational systems accounting for as much of the data as can be cut to fit into a consistent logical system. It is probably due to this phenomenon that people who forget the explanation/principle where perfect law meets perfect grace feel the need to cut one down to make room for the other: legalists cut down mercy to preserve their unyielding law, libertines cut down justice in order to prevent anything from bumping into their cruel mercy, and both sides become more aggravated and more extreme by trying to run away from the excesses of the other side.
This much happens with a paradox to which a logical reconciliation has been revealed in Scripture. It is not much better with Calvinism and Arminianism — both of which live in a mental system that takes certain passages, magnifying them and declaring them to be fundamental, and then play awfully fast and loose with inconvenient others. The same God who inspired one set of verses inspired the others; where the Hellenist needs to have an interpretation cut down enough to fit inside his head, the Hebraist can believe the whole without being able to know how it all works out. Although Josh didn’t mention it, there is something here reminiscent of a G.K. Chesterton quote, about how a poet merely wants to get his head into the Heavens, but a logician wants to get the Heavens into his head, and it is his head that splits.
I remember one time when I was talking with another friend (a graduate student in philosophy) and I made a fairly simple argument from Scripture, and he gave an it’s not that simple, saying that what I was saying was true under the thought-forms that clothed the message of the Bible in its original cultural context, but was not necessarily true if one took the intellectually responsible step of translating the Bible, not only from original to contemporary languages, but from original to contemporary languages. (This argument contains a real and significant kernel of (distorted) truth, but it springs from the same poisoned well as the perspective that dismisses Biblical arguments for traditional gender roles by saying that the Bible was written in a patriarchal culture. Beyond saying that, I do not wish to analyze either argument here.) The reason I mention this is to say that the language of the Bible is in a sense an outer husk that need not be a focus of attention, but the mindset, the mentality, is considerably less husk-like. The mentality is at times part of the core of what is communicated.
My initial reactions (and here is where I will begin to depart from Josh and Heather), apart from a mild-mannered acceptance (I reacted less than most people because it is an embodiment of something that I breathe — what I have to offer here are refinements, not correctives to something massively flawed), were to think of two things. One was to say that the list was a cultural artifact, meaning that it is a way of codifying truth that can be helpful to most people, but also that it is not an attribute of reality and not something that I happen to describe to — much like the list of seven deadly sins I spoke of above. That observation is trivial. The other one, though, is not, and it is one I would like to develop.
I began to articulate an alternative, in its beginning form, by talking about a chapter in Jeremiah or Ezekiel (Josh’s favorites, it turns out) in which the Lord tells Israel, “I did not pick you because you were worthy, because you were mighty or attractive. When I found you, you were a babe rolling in salt and blood…” and then narrates how he raised her to a woman of beauty and grace before she became unfaithful to him. Robert Heinlein, in cult classic Stranger in a Strange Land, tells the story of “a Martian named Smith”: a man raised by Martians, inculturated into Martian culture and then transported to earth. It is culture shock writ large, the story of an alien culture coming into contact with, coming into, human culture. That provides a helpful perspective for looking at the Bible and especially the Gospel accounts — in both, there is material that is stunningly countercultural to a reader who understands certain details of cultural context (e.g. how Jesus broke social norms in every recorded encounter with women). If Hebraic culture is a holy culture, it is so not because it (or any human culture) is worthy to be so, but because of uniquely prolonged and deep context with the divine forces. It is like a pet in a human house, tame out of a world of feral kin — its suitability to be with children stems from human contact, not because a feline is intrinsically more man-like than an opossum.
I coined the term ‘metaculture’ (partially explored in The Metacultural Gospel) out of seeing a similarity of phenomenon between third culture kids and people who are astronomically intelligent. Both of them are to some extent capable of entering into a culture, including whichever one they’ve grown up in, but cannot breathe it in the un-self-conscious way of the monocultural majority. One biological principle is that a creature which is particularly adapted to one specific environment will be poorly suited to others; a metacultural is not especially suited to any one environment, but has a certain flexibility. (There are other qualitative differences which escape me at the moment.) I have thought here about whether to use that term or make another (one denoting a kind of metaculture, the kind hinted at in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”), and I will stick with metaculture.
A metacultural isn’t exactly in any one culture; he’s in something else, and incidentally in a culture. That, I believe, provides a substantial alternative/refinement to the Hebraic mindset: the step after being in the Hebraic mindset is being in God, and being shaped by the same forces that shaped Hebraic culture. The solution to being in a darkened cavern is not to move into a cavern that someone has brought a light of, but to climb out of the cavern into the sunlight.
I spent some time thinking, because the metacultural mindset as I originally formulated it seemed accessible only to a minority, not a catholic possibility and therefore not a full solution. I think that the italicized wording, indicates a sense in which the metacultural mindset may be catholic.
That, and in particular the italicized phrase, is a mishnah that requires a Talmud, probably a Talmud with parts that vary from host culture to host culture. I believe it is, in core form, an insight that refines Josh’s, perhaps worth further exploration (although I have no further thoughts on it now).
An “It’s not that simple.” is when person A says something basic, and person B says, “It’s not that simple.” What that means, invariably in my experience, is “It really is that simple, in a direct and obvious sense, but person B has found an elaborate way to convince himself otherwise, probably (cognitive dissonance) because there is some advantage or cherished position that is threatened by an acknowledgment of straightforward observation.”
There is an insight I had when reading Em Griffin’s A First Look at Communication Theory and what it says about persuasion. The text describes the mechanics of persuasion, with an intended development of more effective influence in persuading others. Those basic mechanical principles can also be used to affect how one is influenced by others — to be more easily persuaded when one should be persuaded and less easily persuaded when one shouldn’t be persuaded.
Knowing the communication principles behind, i.e. people losing their faith at school, could be a step towards preparation. Knowledge of psychological principles does not nullify them, but it does give people a greater degree of control in how they act.
C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man talks about an outward direction/inward direction distinction. It’s easy (and sometimes appropriate) to desire outward influence in persuasion. It also strikes me as desirable to have inward influence with regards to persuasion.
In Matthew 10:30, Jesus says, “As for you, every hair on your head has been counted.” This is something that someone in love does.
Last night, a friend and I spent a long time trying to use the GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) to perform a simple task (swapping colors in a two-color submit button). I came away from the frustrating experience with a new appreciation for what Unix’s arcane interface is like to a newcomer.
Technical support people (and sometimes other hackers) have an acronym PEBKAC, short for Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair. From the jargon file:
[Abbrev., “Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair”] Used by support people, particularly at call centers and help desks. Not used with the public. Denotes pilot error as the cause of the crash, especially stupid errors that even a luser could figure out. Very derogatory. Usage: “Did you ever figure out why that guy couldn’t print?” “Yeah, he kept cancelling the operation before it could finish. PEBKAC.”
With a great many apparently technical problems, the problem exists between the keyboard and chair. The question I was thinking about is, which keyboard and chair?
On Mac and Windows computers, and to some extent on the web, an alert box will pop up with some snippet of text and a button. The messages that pop up are often not very important — something like the warning labels attached to many products — and, as such, alert boxes carry a nonverbal message of “I am interrupting your work because I have something to tell you, probably not very important, and you can’t use your computer until you click my button. Once you have clicked on this button, you can go about your business.” When there are a great many alert boxes like this, it is not a stupid thing at all to habitually click the button when the alert box appears… except that, on a small minority of such boxes, the habitual response cancels your print job. The problem with this system exists between keyboard and chair, but not the user’s keyboard. The problem with this system exists between the designer’s keyboard and chair. A great deal of stupid user errors are not stupid user errors at all, but the results of bad interface design by software developers who did not design with human-computer interaction factors in mind.
That’s the thing about people who think they hate computers. What they really hate is lousy programmers.
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in Oath of Fealty
I’ve thought of a hacker’s game. Here’s the core idea: Alice writes a program. Bob modifies the program in such a way that he can tell the difference between them. Alice wins if she can discern which is which. Bob wins if Alice can’t tell, but he can tell. The round is a draw if they both can’t tell.
This basic idea is in need of refinement and rules for both parties, roughly speaking in order that there are no obvious and cheap ways for either side to win. (Neither of them should be able to perform direct tests on the compiled programs, for instance, and things like “Click on the upper lefthand pixel of the applet window, and then hold shift and click on the bottom righthand pixel, and a smilie face will appear” aren’t the kind of cleverness that is desired.”) If such rules are formed, it will take a community’s work over time. But I think this could be a good programmer’s game.
I was saddened to learn of the demise of Canada’s Rhinoceros Party, a satirical political party with platforms like “Coast from coast to coast!” (after your car has been raised to the top of a giant, Canada-wide ramp), “My platform is the one I’m standing on,” and “Legalize pot. And pans. And spatulas. And other kitchen utensils.” It’s defunct as of the last two elections, and learning of its demise (when doing a web search, because I wanted to show Rhinoceros Party information to some of my coworkers) was saddening, like a child’s finding that all the fairies were dead — a learning that a shining part of the world has gone out.
The U.S. still has Dave Barry and his year 2000 presidential campaign (I’m taking an educated guess, as I’m waiting to hear the results of the Florida recount in the U.S. 2000 Presidential Elections, that the final difference between Bush and Gore will be less than the number of votes Dave Barry received), but that was saddening news.
There is an image I’ve had (partly from my own experience, partly from other sources) of someone very bright who is off in his own little world, and when he talks with other people, he tries to answer as faithfully to his own world as he can, and people just don’t get it. What I realized in my Gospel reading a few days ago is that this happened with Jesus. He spoke from his world, and people tried to interpret his words as what they would have meant from their world, and there was a glaring absence of connection. Examples of this are threaded throughout John’s mystical gospel account in particular; one conspicuous example is where Jesus is on trial before Pilate and they are talking about whether Jesus is a king. Jesus is trying to bring Pilate up to his plane, and Pilate is equally trying to understand Jesus’s words without leaving his own plane, and there is conflict.
Seeing this in the Gospel accounts, and having things click, gave me a feeling of being in good company.
Make-believe is a kind of illusion that implicitly depends on being recognized as illusion. I was thinking about this basic phenomenon in some matters related to my Halloween costume this year. My fun was spoiled when I realized that at least one of the children had literally believed I was Blajeny, that the illusion of my costume had not been recognized as illusion.
A while ago, I was having a conversation with Robin (techie) and another friend (Bob, non-techie). We were talking about making custom modifications to software, and I mentioned that a few decades ago, it was common to have computers with their own instruction sets. Robin immediately saw the point I was trying to make; to translate for Bob, I said that for each computer to have its own instruction set would be like each book having its own alphabet.
In places where we’ve gotten used to standards, breathing them is second nature. There are rare exceptions where it is desirable to break good standards — off the top of my head, I can think of the beautiful Elvish script in J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy — but, in certain areas, standards can be quite helpful. The computer industry is moving towards increasing standardization at higher levels of abstraction — and this is a good thing. Dealing with a locally suboptimal standard solution twenty times involves, among other things, significantly less cognitive strain than dealing with twenty locally optimal nonstandard solutions.
Where I see this argument as applying (technical areas, and human cognitive strain), this is not a death penalty on nonstandard approaches — many of the best technical ideas have been highly nonstandard approaches. I do believe, however, that things should be done in a standard manner unless there is good reason to do otherwise. For something meant for humans, doing something nonstandard means potential confusion and a probable learning curve.
Web pages that are not designed with a first-time visitor in mind are a prime example of material that breaks this principle.
I have been occupied recently, and have several ideas jotted down, but not taken the time to write them down. I wrote a letter and received an invitation to join a very high-intelligence mailing list; I spent a good deal of the past week worrying about whether I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. Today, I felt that still, small voice saying, “Get back to writing your musings.”
The musing I’ve been carrying around for a while, has to do with the monoglot and the polyglot (the person who speaks only one language versus the one who speaks several). I debated whether it was worth writing down, and decided for a while that it wasn’t worth writing until I came across something in George Steiner’s Errata. He mentioned the distinction, talked about his own polyglot background, and then poetically and emphatically argued that polyglot is the condition to be in — at one point, he said that the monoglot does not know even his own language.
That bothered me; to explain what bothered me, I would like to bring two brief images to mind: an American who is devoted to his country and holds the kind of patriotism Lewis extolls towards the beginning of The Four Loves, and the American who is devoted to his country and considers the natives of other countries to be unfortunate second-class world citizens. The first is laudable (and compatible with respect for the patriotism of other nations); the second is not. It is the second condition which parallels Stiener’s exaltation of the polyglot condition and (unnecessary) denigration of the monoglot condition.
To explain where I stand on this question, I would like to begin with a lunchtime conversation with my best friend (Robin), and an old friend of his (Morris). I surprised Robin by saying that I preferred to read texts in English translation when I had the option — preferably a free translation — rather than reading them in a non-English original.
It’s not that I’m afraid of learning another language. There have been times when I found thinking in French to be easier than thinking in English, and there has been a span of several years where my French sounded closer in relation to a typical native French speaker than my English sounded in relation to a typical native English speaker. If one counts mathematical and computer languages, I’ve worked with more languages than the number of years I’ve been alive, and this will probably remain true for the rest of my life. I’ve had the experience of not recognizing which language a text was written in, but still being able to read it. I’ve lost count of how many languages I’ve dreamed in, and I occasionally have dreams where my mind makes up a new language on the fly.
Why, then, would I prefer to read texts in English? In a single word, comprehension. I came to realize at one point that my knowledge of French at its best has been a rough equivalent to a native proficiency, but that I will never speak another language as well as I speak English, not if I am immersed in it for the rest of my life. The proficiency I have in English is something beyond what is normally meant by ‘native’. There is an additional cognitive strain — so I am spending energy trying to interpret the text (in the direct and mundane sense) rather than on interacting with its meaning (in a deeper sense). I’ll understand a good free translation a lot better.
More broadly, proficiency in multiple languages takes mental energy that could be used to other purposes. There are people that can afford that expenditure of mental energy, and there are definite benefits to knowing two or more languages — the ability to compare (“The better you know another world, the better you know your own.” — George Macdonald, Lilith), the ability to communicate with more people, the improved ability to pick up other languages. For all that, there is a consolidated energy that comes of having spent your efforts on learning one language and learning it well — and there are a great many people in the world who do not have the excess mental energy to have spare room to learn extra languages.
Bloom, in the introduction to his translation of Plato’s Republic, argued for making strictly literal translations. The essential argument is that the translator, however great a scholar he may be, must have the humility to realize that the student who reads his text may be a greater mind, capable of deeper understanding. As such, the translator should provide the student with what the words say, rather than confining the student to his interpretation. He proceeded to give several quotations from free translations of the Republic which, in trying to make the text accessible to a contemporary reader, succeeded in producing something accessible, albeit inappropriate as renderings of the text. I forget exactly what they were, but they would be comparable to portraying Martin Luther’s crisis of faith as a postmodern midlife identity crisis.
I do not believe that choosing between literal and free translations is a choice between a flawed and a near perfect rendering model; a student who wants to really understand a text (which is written in a language he cannot read well) should probably peruse several translations, varying in how literally/freely they render the text. And, if I want to know a short text or excerpt well, my rendering of choice will be a heavily footnoted literal translation.
For large-scale reading — for the kind of reading comprehension that can be sustained for numerous pages — there is a different phenomenon. The danger in free translation is that it can confine the reader to the translator’s interpretation. The danger in literal translation is that it can confine the reader to not understanding the text at all. A woodenly literal text, one that’s read for dozens or hundreds of pages, brings a cognitive strain and consumes energy that could be used in thinking about the text. And, for that reason, if I can only choose a single translation, I’ll take my chances with a free translation.
I read a book recently called Please Understand Me. It was a valuable resource to read, but it’s something I’d prefer to give to others with a complimentary grain of salt.
It’s about different personality and temperament types, and one of the central theses is that people have fundamentally different natures, but engage on a Pygmalion project to reshape others into copies of themselves. It is written in such a way that a reader who is persuaded of the legitimate point (that temperaments are not right or wrong, just different, and it is inappropriate to try to change a person to a temperament that he’s not) will (in a similar fashion to the Green Book in C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man) come to the unjustified and illegitimate conclusion that there is not right or wrong in much of anything, and that it is wrong to try to change a person on any score. It never draws this conclusion in so many words, but a transposition of key takes what Lewis said about the Green Book and fits it (quite well) to Please Understand Me.
The book is worth reading, if you can resist the conclusion that the flow of the text pulls you towards.
There is a distinction I have periodically been thinking about: it is a conceptual distinction between a gentleman’s duel and an assassin’s duel.
Both represent a kind of contest between two people, but contests of two different sorts. Don Quixote refers to knightly duels in which both parties were meticulously careful to make all things equal: both swords the same length, both parties standing at equal angles to the sun so that neither one would have the sun in his eyes more than the other. This is an extreme form of the basic idea of the gentleman’s duel. At the other end, there are no rules and no concept of fairness; an assassin might accept another’s challenge, and then arrange to have him shot by archers. Wesley’s battle of wits with Vizzini in The Princess Bride represents the quintessential assassin’s duel.
The two frameworks for a contest, or a test, offer distinct conceptions of how a person’s ability may be measured. I have seen a number of gentleman’s duel IQ tests, for instance; I am not aware of any established tests that operate like assassins’ duels, and the ability to function effectively outside of external structure (the cliche is ‘think outside the box’) is one of the distinctive features of intelligence.
Catholics speak a great deal about the primacy of Peter among Christ’s disciples, but there is also a primacy to John. Peter had a unique place in the nurture of the church (“Feed my sheep,”), but it was John who was closest to Jesus, John the mystic, who had a stunningly brilliant mind and probably understood him best. In a technology corporation, Peter might be compared to the CEO, and John to the prize research scientist.
My apartment is a sparse place, slightly messy and having no television. It is not really decorated; an outer austerity conceals an active life of the mind.
People’s homes can give insight into those who dwell there. My apartment does not exude the same romantic warmth as many other places, but that is because my attention is elsewhere.
I have a different perspective on aging than what I have seen about me. It always makes me slightly sad when I hear my father saying, “We’re getting old,” not because it is false, but because he says it as a confession of weakness. I view aging as getting closer to Heaven, (as described in Hebrews) as approaching the finish line of a great race. My way of holding this belief has a dark side — I sometimes look on life as enduring time so as to be past it and into eternity — but I still think I am better off not to be approaching my thirtieth birthday as when I will become a has-been.
I wrote about two types of welder above. I realized a certain affinity between the apostle Paul and myself, especially as regarded the welder distinction. Paul, as an apostle, skipped from place to place and culture to culture, with a veritable rainbow of activities: planting churches and writing were just the beginning. He certainly travelled more than I have.
Seeing a sort of kindred spirit (even if separated by millenia), and in someone whom I greatly respect, was warming to me.
I have thought that the entrenched numerical scale of IQs are unfortunate. The numbers corresponding to a person’s weight are proportional; one person who weighs 200 pounds has as much body-stuff as two people who weigh 100 pounds each, or four children who weigh 50 pounds each. It is simply not true, in a corresponding sense, that one person with an IQ of 200 has exactly twice as much thinking-stuff as two people with IQs of 100 each. A programmer with an IQ of 150 is quite possibly capable of doing feats that could not be accomplished by any number of programmers with IQ 100. There are not just quantitative differences (for which an exponential scale might be preferable), but qualitative differences as well.
The other critique I have of the concept of IQ is that it equates (for children and adults) higher intelligence with functioning at a more advanced mental age. This is true, in a sense, and brilliant adults grow out of precocious children, but there is an important mental dimension that is well-developed in most children and atrophied in most adults: mental flexibility/openness/creativity/curiosity. Experiments have found gradeschool children to be more creative than professional engineers; it is a rare mind that can enter adulthood without losing childhood creativity. A child with a high IQ, one would hope, is not simply at a cognitive level normally associated with people a few years older; he may be capable of tasks most people cannot complete until a few years older, but he retains the mental flexibility associated with his chronological age — perhaps a younger age. “A more intelligent child mentally functions like an older person” is a good rough take on the matter, but the basic concept of “older [up to mental maturity] = better” has room for further nuance.
The mathematical model used of the four dimensions of the Meyers-Briggs Personality Indicator is one-dimensional: one is introverted to the extent that one is not extraverted. So being more introverted is always at the expense of being less extraverted, and being more extraverted is always at the expense of being more introverted. The structure of the personality test reflects this perspective: each question is a forced choice between two preferences, and each point that a person scores for one preference is a point he didn’t score for the opposite preference.
That seems to me to be acceptable as a rough model, but on further reflection, a two-dimensional variant seems preferable. So, instead of the following scale:
+—+—+—+—+—+—+—+—+—+—+ 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Introversion 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0 Extraversion
I would suggest something more like the following:
I 10 + n 9 + A B t 8 + r 7 + o 6 + v 5 + C e 4 + r 3 + s 2 + i 1 + D E o 0 +—+—+—+—+—+—+—+—+—+—+ n 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Extraversion
On this scale, most people would likely fall somewhere between A (introverted, not extraverted) and E (extraverted, not introverted), but it is also possible to be at D (neither introverted nor extraverted — but not what is meant by ‘X’, namely half-and-half — that is ‘C’), or ‘B’ (both introverted and extraverted, but again not half-and-half).
When I first took the Myers-Briggs, I had difficulty answering the thinking-feeling questions — because I embodied both of the qualities which the test portrays as opposites. I had equal difficulty answering the judging-perceiving questions — but for a different reason: I was not familiar with, and did not identify with, either modus operandi. On a two-dimensional scale such as I drew above, I would be around point B for thinking-feeling, and point D for judging-perceiving.
My office had a Secret Santa gift exchange, and I got one of my co-workers a boxed set of Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. I was warmed to find out that she’d been wanting to get that series for a couple of years.