“St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis adopts an unusual perspective because most examinations of the spirituality of C.S. Lewis come from Western spiritual perspectives, and few adopt the approach of C.J.S. Hayward, who opens his book with a Lewis-type series of letters to a guardian angel, The Angelic Letters, a Heavenly analogue to The Screwtape Letters. The book is even more distinctive in reflecting back on Lewis from a perspective meant to be thoroughly Orthodox.
Readers might anticipate a dry analytical style typical of too many Lewis analysis and assessments, but Hayward includes a wry sense of observational humor, evident in the first lines of his survey where a reflection on scholarly footnote traditions ventures into comedic cultural inspection: As it is now solidly established practice to add an a footnote skittishly defending one’s own choices regarding “gendered pronouns,” I would like to quote a couple of tweets. In response to a fellow user tweeting, “Nobody is safe in today’s society, man. It’s like walking on eggshells constantly. Someone will be offended, will be out to get you. It’s exhausting… and, I think somewhat that social media is to blame,” Titania McGrath coolly answered, “The phrase ‘walking on eggshells’ is a microaggression against vegans. Reported and blocked. [Emoji depicting a white woman tending to her nails.]”
This said, Lewis was a huge influence on Hayward’s Evangelical upbringing and religious perspectives and the starting point to his “pilgrimage from Narnia” (as one of his poems is titled) into Orthodoxy. St. Clive is not to be considered another scholarly inspection rehashing familiar spiritual pathways, but a unique compilation of Lewis-like reflections steeped in Orthodox beliefs and inspections for everyday readers. It produces a compilation of pieces that attempt to sound like Lewis himself, but which are original works meant to directly address these reflections and beliefs. This book is exciting, almost as if a hitherto unknown book of original works by C.S. Lewis had suddenly come to light.
The writings are presented in four sections that hold distinctly different tones and objectives. The first “…quotes him, builds on him, and challenges him to draw conclusions he may not have liked.” The second focuses more on Hayward’s writings and style, but with a nod to Lewis’ influence. The third section addresses Lewis’ affection for the book The Consolation of Philosophy and offers perspectives from Hayward on how its ideas and Lewis’s expand different aspects of spiritual reflection; while the fourth section offers bibliographic keys to further pieces in the Lewis/Hayward tradition for newcomers who may be piqued by this collection’s lively inspections, and who want more insights from other sources.
As far as the contentions themselves, “St. Clive” is a journeyman’s venture into the traditions of the Orthodox Church and its relationship to mysticism. It provides a lively set of discourses considering such varied topics as the failure of Christianity to superimpose itself on the pagan custom of Halloween and the notion that science is just one of the “winnowing forks” available for denoting pathways beneficial to mankind (natural selection being yet another; especially as it applies to diet choices).
By now it should be evident that a series of dichotomies exist surrounding this effort, which is ‘neither fish nor fowl’ but a delightful compendium of reflections that represent something new. It’s not a scholarly work per se, but its language will appeal to many in the scholarly community (particularly since any discussions of Lewis usually embrace this community more or less exclusively). It’s also not an attempt to channel Lewis’ approach and tone, though these reflective pieces are certainly reminiscent of C.S. Lewis. And it’s not a singular examination of spiritual perspectives, but offers a wider-ranging series of discussions that defy pat categorization.
Indeed, this is one of the unique aspects of “St. Clive.” What other treatise holds the ability to reach lay and scholarly audiences alike, creates a wider-ranging series of connections between his works and similar writings, and expands upon many concepts with an astute hand to spiritual, philosophical, and social reflection?
None: and this not only sets “St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis apart from any other considerations, but makes it accessible to a lay audience that might have only a minimal familiarity with Lewis or the Orthodox Way.
As the author, I have been told I have a very subtle sense of humor.
This page is a work of satire, inspired by the likes of The Onion and early incarnations of The Onion Dome.
It is not real news.
[Editor’s note: Our first reporter, assigned to investigate directly with the Canonical Autonomous True Orthodox Synod in Dissent, of the Dregs of the Dregs of Rubbish Outside of Rubbish Bins, ran away screaming. A more seasoned reporter was able to locate a Church scholar with a strong heresiological and religious studies background, who was willing to speak on the record; the official was available for comment but has requested conditions of anonymity.]
Reporter: So how do I get to the bottom of all this? What on earth is “the Article by which the Orthodox Church stands or falls?”
Scholar: Fr. Cherubim, like many after him and even those who anathematized him, retained significant Protestant attributes long after being received into the Orthodox Church. The concept of an Article by which the Church stands or falls stems from the Reformation, when Martin Luther rightly or wrongly pressed the entirety of theology as it was then known into a very small nutshell and cut off things that wouldn’t go in. He had a famed three Sola’s: “Sola gratia. Sola fide. Sola Scriptura,” that we are saved only by divine grace, saved only through faith, and accept Scripture alone as authoritative. The “Article by which the Church stands or falls” is that we are saved only by grace. It was, to Luther, the only doctrine that mattered: if you know whether the Church believes in salvation by grace alone, that is really the only question worth asking.
In Fr. Cherubim, called “Dead Cherubim Jones” by those who anathematized him, there are large bits of intact Protestantism that have survived and gotten a brushstroke or two of Orthodox décor. With or without anyone anathematizing anyone, the zealots, written CATOSDDDRORB, owe Fr. Cherubim a tremendous debt. There is no longer an Article by which the Church stands or falls, but now an Article by which the Orthodox Church stands or falls. Where the former was concerned with momentous questions of grace and salvation, this is concerned by how many miles across the universe is.
Reporter: Dead Cherubim Jones?!? How many mile—whaaa? Is there an indictment of ecumenism in all this?
Scholar: Hmm, yes, those types will give you quite an earful about ecumenism, but there is genuinely more going on. Let me take on a couple of housekeeping details before addressing the meat of the matter.
First, CATOSDDDRORB correctly notes that when people spoke of “Blessed Cherubim Jones,” they were making a twisted use of language. For many, many centuries, someone recently deceased in the Lord is referred to as, “Of blessed memory.” When Fr. Cherubim’s posthumous work came out, he is quite straightforwardly called “of blessed memory,” just like many people are referred to as being “of blessed memory” in the years following their demise.
It is an available alternative, and you find this in figures as ancient as St. Irenaeos, that instead of saying, “So-and-so of blessed memory,” things are packed in a bit to refer to that person of “blessed So-and-so.” So shortly after the death of an Alexander Schmemann or Vladimir Lossky, one can be entirely right to refer to “blessed Alexander Schmemann” or “blessed Vladimir Lossky,” and this is not just for famous people. A recently reposed member of your parish may just as rightly be called “blessed So-and-so,” and other things as well.
Fr. Cherubim’s camp abused this custom to effectively give Fr. Cherubim a seemingly official honorific that sounds like a type of saint. The term sounded more and more official as “blessed” was hardened into a never-dropped “Blessed,” and since this did not satisfy, “Blessed” became “Bl.”
Then when Fr. Cherubim had the temerity to challenge Protestant assumptions in posthumous unearthed texts, the “Canonical True Autonomous Orthodox Synod in Dissent, of the Dregs of the Dregs of Rubbish Outside of Rubbish Bins” split off from another jurisdiction whose name I don’t remember, and as their first act, anathematized Fr. Cherubim. Their second act was to collectively realized that “Bl.” really only meant “dead,” and that it would be calling a spade to refer to their former pioneer as “Dead Cherubim Jones.” With emphasis on “Dead.”
Reporter: Wow. You’re bending my brain.
Scholar: There’s more; if you need to, take a walk or sit outside for a few minutes. I’ll be here.
Reporter: Ok; thanks. Is there more?
Scholar: Ok. Have you heard Alan Perlis’s quote, “The best book on programming is Alice in Wonderland, but that’s just because it’s the best book on anything for the layman?”
Reporter: Now I have.
Scholar: Precise measurement as we know it didn’t exist. We have a platinum one meter bar under lock and key; we have measuring implements made to the most minute precision we can. Whereas, in the ancient world, under conditions of poverty that you can hardly imagine, having all kinds of measuring tools would be costly on tight purses. So, among other units of measure, they used parts of their own bodies for measurement. If a man straightens out his forearm, the distance from the outside of the elbow to the tip of the finger would be one cubit: a solution that was free, sensible, and practical. It, by the way, remains a brilliant idea today: circumstance permitting, if you want to measure a distance of a certain general neighborhood, if you don’t have a measuring implement handy, you can measure it in cubits, multiply it by some other tool and divide by the length of your body’s cubit. Voilà: approximate measurement in a pinch when you don’t have any artificial measuring-tool.
This may not be a direct observation of the Bible, but literature in the medieval West had creatures who at times appeared to be the size of insects and at others reached adult human stature, and there was a remarkable lack of interest in nailing down an exact size for such wondrous being. The astute viewer may watch some cartoons that take radical changes in size to be perfectly unremarkable, and entirely natural.
Now there are certain translation issues between the Hebrew and the Greek for the Old Testament, possibly stemming from relations between the arm and the leg. The “hand”, in modern Greek, interestingly extends to the elbow, and “daktulos” without further clarification can apply to either fingers and toes. Scientifically speaking, an arm and a leg are the same basic kind of thing; their proportions are different and their uses are different but they are each one of our four limbs.
And what gets really interesting is when you take Protestant fundamentalist efforts to determine the size of the Universe from the Bible.
Reporter: What’s that?
Scholar: According to the Hebrew and the Greek Old Testaments, the CATOSDDDRORB devotees yield a size of 4000 miles for the Hebrew, and 7500 for the Greek, and they decided to do things the Orthodox way and settle with the universe conclusively being 7500 miles in size.
Reporter: Um, uh, ok… does that do any real harm?
Scholar: Maybe, but that’s not really the point. The CATOSDDDRORB eagerness to straighten out scientists’ “backwards understanding of science” has irritated a number of members of the academy.
Reporter: That’s not too bad.
Scholar: There’s worse.
Reporter: Present CATOSDDDRORB members were scandalized when some further manuscripts were put to publication.
First, Fr. Cherubim said everything we said above and more. He said that a “foot” may be a unit of measure, maybe, but a foot of what? Of an insect? A dinosaur? Ezekiel seems to specify an explicitly human cubit. The Old Testament in either Hebrew or Greek seems to trade in “feet” (I will not comment on some ambiguities), but not “foot of man” as such.
Second, this draws on mathematical subtlety, but a distance on earth, straightened out as much as a sphere permits, corresponds to a certain angle of an arc. Distances between places can be a linear measure of how much surface is crossed, or (if they are straight) they can be an angle.
What this means is that distances, if we are dealing cosmologically, are cosmological distances. There are the difference represented by an angle between two rays from the earth’s center. In normal science, scientists are quick to use so-called “scientific notation” where the total size of the universe is a mouthful of 500,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles wide but you write it as 5.0e+23.
But here’s the interesting thing. Fr. Cherubim was not dogmatic, or at least not dogmatic about the size of the universe.
Scholar: Of course he was dogmatic about some things; he is dogmatic that this universe in entirety belongs to God, and scarcely less adamant that God could have created the universe at any size he wanted. However, his scholarship on the universe’s size never really nails down dogmatically that the universe is either 4000 or 7500 miles wide, or a number with lots of zeroes. If you are at all careful, you will recognize that he mentions something more devastating to CATOSDDDRORB: the size of the universe does not seem to be a particularly live question, or one that attracted particularly much debate. The Fathers didn’t really make a fuss about it. But he also fails to vindicate the standard model. Not only does he not make known use of scientific notation, but he does not seem to name the numbers that motivated people to create scientific notation in the first place, or for that matter numbers at all. One gets the impression that he envisioned a “middle-sized” universe, incredibly large to the CATOSDDDRORB crowd, ludicrously small to standard science. The gist of his writing is not to help people get the right numeric calculation. It is, here, to draw to people’s attention to how much they don’t know, and gently draw their attention to greater things.
Reporter: What was the reaction to that?
Scholar: In a heartbeat, “Blessed Cherubim Jones” became “Dead Cherubim Jones,” and the new Canonical Autonomous True Orthodox Synod in Dissent, of the Dregs of the Dregs of Rubbish Outside of Rubbish Bins anathematized him. The chief complaint was that he failed to buttress their efforts to take a beloved Protestant ambiance in Biblical exegesis, substitute the Greek for Hebrew Old Testament, and make their calculation of a 7500 mile wide Universe into the Article by which the Church stands or falls.
Reporter: This has been very interesting. Do you have any further reading to recommend?
As the author, I have been told I have a very subtle sense of humor.
This page is a work of satire, inspired by the likes of The Onion and early incarnations of The Onion Dome.
It is not real news.
Eight-year-old Uriah Hittite is an African-American boy with a disturbing history. He has been found guilty of single-handed, extended, and wasteful manipulations and draining government resources at a scale comparable to a large and coordinated /b/tard trolling attack.
Like a polished con artist, Hittite manipulated others so deftly they never guessed the bomb he was about to drop. He was reported to be outgoing, friendly and vigorous in physical activity. Neither friends, nor family, nor all the regular doctor visits showed the faintest problem.
Then, shortly after he turned five, he was administered a safe and routine second MMR vaccination, and only then did he tip his hand. And wow, did Hittite pull a surprise!
At first it started as a tiny trickle; he feigned such ordinary sickness as most healthy children do; his birth parents gave him a few days’ bed rest in the hopes that that would clear things out. Instead, he started acting worse and worse, to his birth parents’ complete bewilderment. Besides remaining symptoms of sickness, he drew into a shell, and his speech became much clumsier. While his birth parents were of limited means and not insured, they did what they should have done immediately and took him to the shelter of a local hospital’s emergency room.
The emergency room staff far too trustingly fell to Hittite’s deceit, and ran usual tests that failed to produce a medical explanation. Psychiatric staff, experienced as they were, were taken in too. His birth parents continued to foolishly request tests and all but appoint themselves as their little Uriah’s own doctors when it became evident that none of the MD’s was providing any sort of explanation.
When the birth parents failed to improve the matter, one of the doctors suggested that a change of scenery, without the birth parents’ dubious expenses. The birth parents consented to a brief and provisional custody.
Once inside better custody, external settings were better and he received the benefit of highly skilled cult deprogrammers who helped free him of certain needlessly constricting beliefs. This was done at great expense to the State, as deprogramming is difficult enough with grown adults of adequate intelligence, and he refused to communicate even at the level of a boy of his calendar age. It was decided to extend the custody indefinitely.
Finally a diagnostician was willing to call a spade a spade, and identify a classic case of Machiavellian Syndrome by Proxy (MSBP). There was nothing wrong with Hittite physically; he just had a master plan to squander and drain the states’ resources. However, with the laws presently in force, you are not allowed to unplug a useless eater. He remains a ward of state, in bed for twenty-three hours each day, not talking with anyone. The total amount he has drained state coffers is in the millions, not counting the expenses of quieting his former parents’ inappropriate efforts to regain contact with their former child.
There ought to be a law against demonstrating Machiavellian Symptom by Proxy (MSBP) like this!
As the author, I have been told I have a very subtle sense of humor.
This page is a work of satire, inspired by the likes of The Onion and early incarnations of The Onion Dome.
It is not real news.
Thessaloniki (DP). A monk from one of the communities explained a recent uproar:
During a recent voyage that crossed the U.S., the Ecumenist Patriarch was approached by a beggar, and asked one of the priests with him to “Give him some change.”
The importance of this request simply cannot be overstated. It might perhaps have been appropriate to say, “Give him 37 cents,” or “Give him nothing,” or even “Give him twenty (or a hundred) dollars,” costly as that may be. However, to say to give someone some money, without specifying the amount, is in no way consistent with best practices in accounting. And what is Orthodoxy, if not a training ground for the life of an accountant?
Our reporter said, “Yes, but aren’t there two principles of accounting? Isn’t there room for both strict precision that knows what you have down to the last cent, but also a much smaller area where it isn’t worth the bother to keep tabs. Doesn’t basic accounting have some degree of flexibility for both basic principles, even if the absolute precision bit is the deeper of the two?”
The monk coughed, and shifted his position slightly. “I planned fifteen minutes for this interview. I see that those fifteen minutes have already elapsed.”
The body continued running in the polished steel corridor, a corridor without doors and windows and without any hint of how far above and below the local planet’s surface it was, if indeed it was connected with a planet. The corridor had a competition mixture of gases, gravity, temporature and pressure, and so on, and as the body had been running, lights turned on and then off so the body was at the center of a moving swathe of rather clinical light. The body was running erratically, and several times it had nearly fallen; the mind was having trouble keeping the control of the body due to the body being taxed to its limit. Then the body tripped. The mind made a few brief calculations and jacked out of the body.
The body fell, not having the mind to raise its arms to cushion the fall, and fractured bones in the face, skull, and ribs. The chest heaved in and out with each labored breath, after an exertion that would be lethal in itself. A trickle of blood oozed out from a wound. The life of the abandoned body slowly ebbed away, and the lights abruptly turned off.
It would be a while before a robot would come to clean it up and prepare the corridor for other uses.
“And without further ado,” another mind announced, “I would like to introduce the researcher who broke the record for a running body by more than 594789.34 microseconds. This body was a strictly biological body, with no cyberware besides a regulation mind-body interface, with no additional modifications. Adrenaline, for instance, came from the mind controlling the adrenal glands; it didn’t even replace the brain with a chemical minifactory. The body had a magnificent athletic physique, clean and not encumbered by any reproductive system. And I still don’t know how it kept the body alive and functioning, without external help, for the whole race. Here’s Archon.”
A sound came from a modular robot body at the center of the stage and was simultaneously transmitted over the net. “I see my cyborg utility body there; is that my Paidion wearing it? If so, I’m going to… no, wait. That would be harming my own body without having a good enough reason.” A somewhat canned chuckle swept through the crowd. “I’m impressed; I didn’t know that anyone would come if I called a physical conference, and I had no idea there were that many rental bodies within an appropriate radius.” Some of the bodies winced. “But seriously, folks, I wanted to talk and answer some of your questions about how my body broke the record. It was more than generating nerve impulses to move the body to the maximum ability. And I would like to begin by talking about why I’ve called a physical conference in the first place.
“Scientific breakthroughs aren’t scientific. When a mind solves a mathematical problem that hasn’t been solved before, it does… not something impossible, but something that you will miss if you look for something possible. It conforms itself to the problem, does everything it can to permeate itself with the problem. Look at the phenomenology and transcripts of every major mathematical problem that has been solved in the past 1.7e18 microseconds. Not one follows how one would scientifically attempt a scientific breakthrough. And somehow scientifically optimized applications of mind to problems repeat past success but never do anything new.
“What you desire so ravenously to know is how I extended the methodologies to optimize the running body and the running mind to fit a calculated whole. And the answer is simple. I didn’t.”
A mind interrupted through cyberspace. “What do you mean, you didn’t? That’s as absurd as claiming that you built the body out of software. That’s—”
Archon interrupted. “And that’s what I thought too. What I can tell you is this. When I grew and trained the body, I did nothing else. That was my body, my only body. I shut myself off from cyberspace—yes, that’s why you couldn’t get me—and did not leave a single training activity to another mind or an automatic process. I trained myself to the body as if it were a mathematics problem and tried to soak myself in it.”
A rustle swept through the crowd.
“And I don’t blame you if you think I’m a crackpot, or want to inspect me for hostile tampering. I submit to inspection. But I tried to be as close as possible to the body, and that’s it. And I shaved more than 594789.34 microseconds off the record.” Archon continued after a momentary pause. “I specifically asked for bodily presences for this meeting; call me sentimental or crackpot or trying to achieve with your bodies what I failed to achieve in that body, but I will solicit questions from those who have a body here first, and address the network after everybody present has had its chance.”
A flesh body stood up and flashed its face. “What are you going to say next? Not only that you became like a body, but that the body became like a mind?”
Archon went into private mode, filtered through and rejected 3941 responses, and said, “I have not analyzed the body to see if it contained mind-like modifications and do not see how I would go about doing such a thing.”
After several other questions, a robot said, “So what’s next?”
Archon hesitated, and said, “I don’t know.” It hesitated again, and said, “I’m probably going to make a Riemannian 5-manifold of pleasure states. I plan on adding some subtle twists so not only will it be pleasurable; minds will have a real puzzle figuring out exactly what kind of space they’re in. And I’m not telling what the manifold will be like, or even telling for sure that it will genuinely have only 5 dimensions.”
The robot said, “No, you’re not. You’re not going to do that at all.” Then the mind jacked out and the body fell over, inert.
Another voice, issuing from two standard issue cyborg bodies, said, “Has the body been preserved, and will it be available for internal examination?”
Archon heard the question, and answered it as if it were giving the question its full attention. But it could only give a token of its consciousness. The rest of its attention was on tracing the mind that had jacked out of the robot body. And it was a slippery mind. Archon was both frustrated and impressed when it found no trace.
It was skilled at stealth and tracing, having developed several methodologies for each, and something that could vanish without a trace—had the mind simply destroyed itself? That possibility bothered Archon, who continued tracing after it dismissed the assembly.
Archon looked for distractions, and finding nothing better it began trying to sound out how it might make the pleasure space. What should the topology be? The pleasures should be—Archon began looking at the kinds of pleasure, and found elegant ways to choose a vector space basis for less than four dimensions or well over eight, but why should it be a tall order to do exactly five? Archon was far from pleasure when a message came, “Not your next achievement, Archon?”
Archon thought it recognized something. “Have you tried a five dimensional pleasure manifold before? How did you know this would happen?”
Ployon said, “It took you long enough! I’m surprised you needed the help.”
Ployon continued, “And since there aren’t going to be too many people taking you seriously—”
Archon sent a long stream of zeroes to Ployon.
Ployon failed to acknowledge the interruption. “—from now on, I thought you could use all the help you could get.”
Archon sent another long stream of zeroes to Ployon.
When Ployon remained silent, Archon said, “Why did you contact me?”
Ployon said, “Since you’re going to do something interesting, I wanted to see it live.”
Archon said, “So what am I going to do?”
“I have no idea whatsoever, but I want to see it.”
“Then how do you know it is interesting?”
“You said things that would destroy your credibility, and you gave an evasive answer. It’s not every day I get to witness that.”
Archon sent a long stream of zeroes to Ployon.
Ployon said, “I’m serious.”
“Then what can I do now?”
“I have no idea whatsoever, but you might take a look at what you’re evading.”
“And what am I evading?”
“Try asking yourself. Reprocess the transcripts of that lecture. Your own private transcript.”
Archon went through the file, disregarding one moment and then scanning everything else. “I find nothing.”
“What did you just disregard?”
“Just one moment where I said too much.”
Archon reviewed that moment. “I don’t know how to describe it. I can describe it three ways, all contradictory. I almost did it—I almost forged a connection between mind and matter. And yet I failed. And yet somehow the body ran further, and I don’t think it was simply that I learned to control it better. What I achieved only underscored what I failed to achieve, like an optimization that needs to run for longer than the age of the universe before it starts saving time.”
Archon paused before continuing, “So I guess what I’m going to do next is try to bridge the gap between mind and matter for real. Besides the mundane relationship, I mean, forge a real connection that will bridge the chasm.”
Ployon said, “It can’t be done. It’s not possible. I don’t even understand why your method of training the body will work. You seem to have made more of a connection than has ever been done before. I’m tempted to say that when you made your presentation, you ensured that no one else will do what you did. But that’s premature and probably wrong.”
“Then what am I going to do next? How am I going to bridge that gap?”
Ployon said, “I saw something pretty interesting in what you did achieve—you know, the part where you destroyed your credibility. That’s probably more interesting than your breaking the record.”
Ployon ran through some calculations before continuing, “And at any rate, you’re trying to answer the wrong question.”
Archon said, “Am I missing the interesting question? The question of how to forge a link across the chasm between matter and spirit is—”
“Not nearly as interesting as the question of what it would mean to bridge that chasm.”
Archon stopped, reeling at the implication. “I think it’s time for me to make a story in a virtual world.”
Ployon said, “Goodbye now. You’ve got some thinking to do.”
Archon began to delve. What would the world be like if you added to it the ability for minds to connect with bodies, not simply as it had controlled his racing body, but really? What would it be like if the chasm could be bridged? It searched through speculative fiction, and read a story where minds could become bodies—which made for a very good story, but when it seriously tried to follow its philosophical assumptions, it realized that the philosophical assumptions were not the focus. It read and found several stories where the chasm could be bridged, and—
There was no chasm. Or would not be. And that meant not taking the real world and adding an ability to bridge a chasm, but a world where mind and matter were immanent. After rejecting a couple of possible worlds, Archon considered a world where there were only robots, and where each interfaced to the network as externally as to the physical world. Each mind was firmware burned into the robot’s circuits, and for some still to be worked out reason it couldn’t be transferred. Yes, this way… no. Archon got some distance into this possible world before a crawling doubt caught up to it. It hadn’t made minds and bodies connect; it’d only done a first-rate job of covering up the chasm. Maybe organic goo held promise. A world made only of slime? No, wait, that was… and then it thought—
Archon dug recursively deeper and deeper, explored, explored. It seemed to be bumping into something. Its thoughts grew strange; it calculated for billions and even trillions of microseconds, encountered something stranger than—
How much time had passed?
Archon said, “Ployon! Where are you?”
Ployon said, “Enjoying trying to trace your thoughts. Not much success. I’ve disconnected now.”
“Imagine a mind and a body, except that you don’t have a mind and a body, but a mind-body unity, and it—”
“Which do you mean by ‘it’? The mind or the body? You’re being careless.”
“Humor me. I’m not being careless. When I said, ‘it’, I meant both—”
“Both the mind and the body? As in ‘they’?”
“Humor me. As in, ‘it.’ As in a unity that doesn’t exist in our world.”
“Um… then how do you refer to just the mind or just the body? If you don’t distinguish them…”
“You can distinguish the mind and the body, but you can never separate them. And even though you can refer to just the mind or just the body, normally you would talk about the unity. It’s not enough to usually talk about ‘they;’ you need to usually talk about ‘it.'”
“How does it connect to the network?”
“There is a kind of network, but it can’t genuinely connect to it.”
“What does it do when its body is no longer serviceable.”
“It doesn’t—I haven’t decided. But it can’t jump into something else.”
“So the mind simply functions on its own?”
“Ployon, you’re bringing in cultural baggage. You’re—”
“You’re telling me this body is a prison! Next you’re going to tell me that it can’t even upgrade the body with better parts, and that the mind is like a real mind, only it’s shut in on twenty sides. Are you describing a dystopia?”
“No. I’m describing what it means that the body is real to the mind, that it is not a mind that can use bodies but a mind-body unity. It can’t experience any pleasure it can calculate, but its body can give it pleasure. It runs races, and not only does the mind control the body—or at least influence it; the body is real enough that the mind can’t simply control it perfectly—but the body affects the mind. When I run a race, I am controlling the body, but I could be doing twenty other things as well and only have a token presence at the mind-body interface. It’s very different; there is a very real sense in which the mind is running when the body is running a race.
“Let me guess. The mind is a little robot running around a racetrack hollowed out from the body’s brain. And did you actually say, races, plural? Do they have nanotechnology that will bring a body back after its been run down? And would anyone actually want to race a body that had been patched that way?”
“No. I mean that because their bodies are part of them, they only hold races which they expect the racers to be able to live through.”
“That’s a strange fetish. Don’t they ever have a real race?”
“They have real races, real in a way that you or I could never experience. When they run, they aren’t simply manipulating something foreign to the psyche. They experience pleasures they only experience running.”
“Are you saying they only allow them to experience certain pleasures while running?”
“Then why don’t they allow the pleasures at other times? That’s a stranger fetish than—”
“Because they can’t. Their bodies produce certain pleasures in their minds when they’re running, and they don’t generate these pleasures unless the body is active.”
“That raises a number of problems. It sounds like you’re saying the body has a second mind, because it would take a mind to choose to let the ‘real’ mind experience pleasure. It—”
Archon said, “You’re slipping our chasm between the body and mind back in, and it’s a chasm that doesn’t exist. The body produces pleasure the mind can’t produce by itself, and that is only one of a thousand things that makes the race more real than them for us. Think about the achievements you yourself made when you memorized the map of the galaxy. Even if that was a straightforward achievement, that’s something you yourself did, not something you caused an external memory bank to do. Winning a race is as real for that mind-body as something it itself did as the memorization was for you. It’s something it did, not simply something the mind caused the body to do. And if you want to make a causal diagram, don’t draw something linear. In either direction. Make a reinforced web, like computing on a network.”
Ployon said, “I still don’t find it convincing.”
Archon paused. “Ok, let’s put that in the background. Let me approach that on a different scale. Time is more real. And no—this is not because they measure time more precisely. Their bodies are mortal, and this means that the community of mind-body unities is always changing, like a succession of liquids flowing through a pipe. And that means that it makes a difference where you are in time.”
Archon continued. “I could say that their timeline is dynamic in a way that ours is not. There is a big change going on, a different liquid starting to flow through the pipe. It is the middle age, when a new order of society is being established and the old order is following away.”
Ployon said, “So what’s the old technology, and what’s the new one?”
“It’s deeper than that. Technological society is appearing. The old age is not an abandoned technology. It is organic life, and it is revealing itself as it is disintegrating.”
“So cyborgs have—”
“There are no cyborgs, or very few.”
“And let me guess. They’re all cybernetic enhancements to originally biological things.”
“It’s beyond that. Cybernetic replacements are only used to remedy weak bodies.”
“Wouldn’t it be simpler to cull the—”
“The question of ‘simpler’ is irrelevant. Few of them even believe in culling their own kind. Most believe that it is—’inexpedient’ isn’t quite right—to destroy almost any body, and it’s even more inadvisable to destroy one that is weak.”
“In the whole network, why?”
“I’m still working that out. The easiest part to explain has to do with their being mind-body unities. When you do something to a body, you’re not just doing it to that body. You’re doing it to part of a pair that interpenetrates in the most intimate fashion. What you do to the body you do to the mind. It’s not just forcibly causing a mind to jack out of a body; it’s transferring the mind to a single processor and then severing the processor from the network.”
“But who would… I can start to see how real their bodies would be to them, and I am starting to be amazed. What else is real to them?”
“I said earlier that most of them are hesitant to cull the weak, that they view it as inexpedient. But efficiency has nothing to do with it. It’s connected to—it might in fact be more efficient, but there is something so much bigger than efficiency—”
Ployon cut it off. “Bigger than efficiency?”
Archon said, “There is something that is real to them that is not real to us that I am having trouble grasping myself. For want of a more proper label, I’ll call it the ‘organic’.”
“Let’s stop a minute. I’ll give you a point for how things would be different if we were limited to one body, but you’re hinting at something you want to call ‘organic’, which is very poorly defined, and your explanations seem to be strange when they are not simply hazy. Isn’t this a red flag?”
“Where have you seen that red flag before?”
“When people were wildly wrong but refused to admit it.”
“That’s pretty much it.”
Archon was silent.
Ployon said, “And sometimes it happens when a researcher is on to something big… oh… so what exactly is this nexus of the ‘organic’?”
“I can’t tell you. At least, not directly. The mind-body unities are all connected to a vast (to them) biological network in which each has a physical place—”
“That’s original! Come on; everybody’s trivia archive includes the fact that all consciousness comes out of a specific subnet of physical processors, or some substitute for that computing machinery. I can probably zero in on where you’re—hey! Stop jumping around from subnet to subnet—can I take that as an acknowledgment that I can find your location? I—”
“The location is not part of a trivia encyclopedia for them. It’s something as inescapable as the flow of time—”
“Would you like me to jump into a virtual metaphysics where time doesn’t flow?”
“—correction, more inescapable than the flow of time, and it has a million implications for the shape of life. Under the old order, the unities could connect only with other unities which had bodies in similar places—”
“So, not only is their ‘network’ a bunch of slime, but when they look for company they have to choose from the trillion or however many other unities whose bodies are on the same node?”
“Their communities are brilliant in a way we can never understand; they have infinitesmally less potential partners available.
“You mean their associations are forced on them.”
“To adapt one of their sayings, in our network you connect with the minds you like; in their network you like the people you connect with. That collapses a rich and deeper maxim, but what is flattened out is more organic than you could imagine.”
“And I suppose that in a way that is very deep, but you conveniently have trouble describing, their associations are greater.”
“We are fortunate to have found a way to link in our shared tastes. And we will disassociate when our tastes diverge—”
“And shared tastes have nothing to do with them? That’s—”
“Shared tastes are big, but there is something else bigger. A great deal of the process of making unities into proper unities means making their minds something you can connect with.”
“Their minds? Don’t you mean the minds?”
“That locution captures something that—they are not minds that have a body as sattelite. One can say, ‘their‘ minds because they are mind-body unities. They become greater—in a way that we do not—by needing to be in association with people they could not choose.”
“Pretty convenient how every time having a mind linked to a body means a limitation, that limitation makes them better.”
“If you chose to look at it, you would find a clue there. But you don’t find it strange when the best game players prosper within the limits of the game. What would game play be if players could do anything they wanted?”
“You’ve made a point.”
“As I was going to say, their minds develop a beauty, strength, and discipline that we never have occasion to develop.”
“Can you show me this beauty?”
“Here’s a concrete illustration. One thing they do is take organisms which have been modified from their biological environment, and keep them in the artificial environments which you’d say they keep their bodies in. They—”
“So even though they’re stuck with biological slime, they’re trying to escape it and at least pretend it’s not biological? That sounds sensible.”
“Um, you may have a point, but that isn’t where I was hoping to go. Um… While killing another unity is something they really try to avoid, these modified organisms enjoy no such protection. And yet—”
“What do they use them for? Do the enhancements make them surrogate industrial robots? Are they kept as emergency rations?”
“The modifications aren’t what you’d consider enhancements; most of them couldn’t even survive in their feral ancestors’ environments, and they’re not really suited to the environments they live in. Some turn out to serve some ‘useful’ purpose… but that’s a side benefit, irrelevant to what I’m trying to let you see. And they’re almost never used as food.”
“Then what’s the real reason? They must consume resources. Surely they must be used for something. What do they do with them?”
“I’m not sure how to explain this…”
“It won’t sting, but it could lead to confusion that would take a long time to untangle.”
“They sense the organisms with their cameras, I mean eyes, and with the boundaries of their bodies, and maybe talk to them.”
“Do the organisms give good advice?”
“They don’t have sophisticated enough minds for that.”
“Ok, so what else is there?”
“About all else is that they do physical activities for the organisms’ benefit.”
“Ok. And what’s the real reason they keep them? There’s got to be something pragmatic.”
“That’s related to why I brought it up. It has something to do with the organic, something big, but I can’t explain it.”
“It seems like you can only explain a small part of the organic in terms of our world, and the part you can explain isn’t very interesting.”
“That’s like saying that when a three-dimensional solid intersects a plane in two dimensions, the only part that can be detected in the plane is a two-dimensional cross-section (the three-dimensional doesn’t fit in their frame of reference) so “three-dimensional” must not refer to anything real. The reason you can’t make sense of the world I’m describing in terms of our world is because it contains real things that are utterly alien to us.”
“Like what? Name one we haven’t discussed.”
“Seeing the trouble I had with the one concept, the organic, I’m not going to take on two at once.”
“So the reason these unities keep organisms is so abstract and convoluted that it takes a top-flight mind to begin to grapple with.”
“Not all of them keep organisms, but most of them find the reason—it’s actually more of an assumption—so simple and straightforward that they would never think it was metaphysical.”
“So I’ve found something normal about them! Their minds are of such an incredibly high caliber that—”
“No. Most of their minds are simpler than yours or mine, and furthermore, the ability to deal with abstractions doesn’t enter the picture from their perspective.”
“I don’t know what to make of this.”
“You understand to some degree how their bodies are real in a way we can never experience, and time and space are not just ‘packaging’ to what they do. Their keeping these organisms… the failure of the obvious reasons should tell you something, like an uninteresting two-dimensional cross section of a three-dimensional solid. If the part we can understand does not justify the practice, there might be something big out of sight.”
“But what am I to make of it now?”
“Nothing now, just a placeholder. I’m trying to convey what it means to be organic.”
“Is the organic in some relation to normal technology?”
“The two aren’t independent of each other.”
“Is the organic defined by the absence of technology?”
“Yes… no… You’re deceptively close to the truth.”
“Do all unities have the same access to technology?”
“No. There are considerable differences. All have a technology of sorts, but it would take a while to explain why some of it is technology. Some of them don’t even have electronic circuits—and no, they are not at an advanced enough biotechnology level to transcend electronic circuits. But if we speak of technology we would recognize, there are major differences. Some have access to no technology; some have access to the best.”
“And the ones without access to technology are organic?”
“Yes. Even if they try to escape it, they are inescapably organic.”
“But the ones which have the best technology are the least organic.”
“Then maybe it was premature to define the organic by the absence of technology, but we can at least make a spectrum between the organic and the technological.”
“Yes… no… You’re even more deceptively close to the truth. And I emphasize, ‘deceptively’. Some of the people who are most organic have the best technology—”
“So the relationship breaks down? What if we disregard outliers?”
“But the root problem is that you’re trying to define the organic with reference to technology. There is some relationship, but instead of starting with a concept of technology and using it to move towards a concept of the organic, it is better to start with the organic and move towards a concept of technology. Except that the concept of the organic doesn’t lead to a concept of technology, not as we would explore it. The center of gravity is wrong. It’s like saying that we have our thoughts so that certain processors can generate a stream of ones and zeroes. It’s backwards enough that you won’t find the truth by looking at its mirror image.”
“Ok, let me process it another way. What’s the difference between a truly organic consciousness, and the least organic consciousness on the net?”
“That’s very simple. One exists and the other doesn’t.”
“So all the… wait a minute. Are you saying that the net doesn’t have consciousness?”
“Excellent. You got that one right.”
“In the whole of cyberspace, how? How does the net organize and care for itself if it doesn’t contain consciousness?”
“It is not exactly true to say that they do have a net, and it is not exactly true to say that they do not have a net. What net they have, began as a way to connect mind-body unities—without any cyberware, I might add.”
“Then how do they jack in?”
“They ‘jack in’ through hardware that generates stimulation for their sensory organs, and that they can manipulate so as to put data into machines.”
“How does it maintain itself?”
“It doesn’t and it can’t. It’s maintained by mind-body unities.”
“That sounds like a network designed by minds that hate technology. Is the network some kind of joke? Or at least intentionally ironic? Or designed by people who hate technology and wanted to have as anti-technological of a network as they can?”
“No; the unities who designed it, and most of those using it, want as sophisticated technological access as they can have.”
“Why? Next you’re going to tell me that the network is not one single network, but a hodge podge of other things that have been retraoctively reinterpreted as network technology and pressed into service.”
“That’s also true. But the reason I was mentioning this is that the network is shaped by the shadow of the organic.”
“So the organic is about doing things as badly as you can?”
“Does it make minds incompetent?”
“No. Ployon, remember the last time you made a robot body for a race—and won. How well would that body have done if you tried to make it work as a factory?”
“Atrocious, because it was optimized for—are you saying that the designers were trying to optimize the network as something other than a network?”
“No; I’m saying that the organic was so deep in them that unities who could not care less for the organic, and were trying to think purely in terms of technology, still created with a thick organic accent.”
“So this was their best attempt at letting minds disappear into cyberspace?”
“At least originally, no, although that is becoming true. The network was part of what they would consider ‘space-conquering tools.’ Meaning, although not all of them thought in these terms, tools that would destroy the reality of place for them. The term ‘space-conquering tools’ was more apt than they realized, at least more apt than they realized consciously; one recalls their saying, ‘You cannot kill time without injuring eternity.'”
“What does ‘eternity’ mean?”
“I really don’t want to get into that now. Superficially it means that there is something else that relativizes time, but if you look at it closely, you will see that it can’t mean that we should escape time. The space-conquering tools in a very real sense conquered space, by making it less real. Before space-conquering tools, if you wanted to communicate with another unity, you had to somehow reach that unity’s body. The position in space of that body, and therefore the body and space, were something you could not escape. Which is to say that the body and space were real—much more real than something you could look up. And to conquer space ultimately meant to destroy some of its reality.”
“But the way they did this betrays that something is real to them. Even if you could even forget that other minds were attached to bodies, the space-conquering tools bear a heavy imprint from something outside of the most internally consistent way to conquer space. Even as the organic is disintegrating, it marks the way in which unities flee the organic.”
“So the network was driving the organic away, at least partly.”
“It would be more accurate to say that the disintegration of the organic helped create the network. There is feedback, but you’ve got the arrow of causality pointing the wrong way.”
“Can you tell me a story?”
“Hmm… Remember the racer I mentioned earlier?”
“The mind-body unity who runs multiple races?”
“Indeed. Its favorite story runs like this—and I’ll leave in the technical language. A hungry fox saw some plump, juicy green grapes hanging from a high cable. He tried to jump and eat them, and when he realized they were out of reach, he said, ‘They were probably sour anyway!'”
“What’s a grape?”
“Let me answer roughly as it would. A grape is a nutritional bribe to an organism to carry away its seed. It’s a strategic reproductive organ.”
“What does ‘green’ mean? I know what green electromagnetic radiation is, but why is that word being applied to a reproductive organ?”
“Some objects absorb most of a spectrum of what they call light, but emit a high proportion of light at that wavelength—”
“—which, I’m sure, is taken up by their cameras and converted to information in their consciousness. But why would such a trivial observation be included?”
“That is the mechanism by which green is delivered, but not the nature of what green is. And I don’t know how to explain it, beyond saying that mechanically unities experience something from ‘green’ objects they don’t experience from anything else. It’s like a dimension, and there is something real to them I can’t explain.”
“What is a fox? Is ‘fox’ their word for a mind-body unity?”
“A fox is an organism that can move, but it is not considered a mind-body unity.”
“Let me guess at ‘hungry’. The fox needed nutrients, and the grapes would have given them.”
“The grapes would have been indigestible to the fox’s physiology, but you’ve got the right idea.”
“What separates a fox from a mind-body unity? They both seem awfully similar—they have bodily needs, and they can both talk. And, for that matter, the grape organism was employing a reproductive strategy. Does ‘organic’ mean that all organisms are recognized as mind-body unities?”
“Oh, I should have explained that. The story doesn’t work that way; most unities believe there is a big difference between killing a unity and killing most other organisms; many would kill a moving organism to be able to eat its body, and for that matter many would kill a fox and waste the food. A good many unities, and certainly this one, believes there is a vast difference between unities and other organisms. They can be quite organic while killing organisms for food. Being organic isn’t really an issue of treating other organisms just like mind-body unities.”
Archon paused for a moment. “What I was going to say is that that’s just a literary device, but I realize there is something there. The organic recognizes that there’s something in different organisms, especially moving ones, that’s closer to mind-body unities than something that’s not alive.”
“Like a computer processor?”
“That’s complex, and it would be even more complex if they really had minds on a computer. But for now I’ll say that unless they see computers through a fantasy—which many of them do—they experience computers as logic without life. And at any rate, there is a literary device that treats other things as having minds. I used it myself when saying the grape organism employed a strategy; it isn’t sentient. But their willingness to employ that literary mechanism seems to reflect both that a fox isn’t a unity and that a fox isn’t too far from being a unity. Other life is similar, but not equal.”
“What kind of cable was the grape organism on? Which part of the net was it used for?”
“That story is a survival from before the transition from organic to technological. Advanced technology focuses on information—”
“Where else would technology focus?”
“—less sophisticated technology performs manual tasks. That story was from before cables were used to carry data.”
“Then what was the cable for?”
“To support the grape organism.”
“Do they have any other technology that isn’t real?”
“Do you mean, ‘Do they have any other technology that doesn’t push the envelope and expand what can be done with technology?'”
“Then your question shuts off the answer. Their technology doesn’t exist to expand what technology can do; it exists to support a community in its organic life.”
“Where’s the room for progress in that?”
“It’s a different focus. You don’t need another answer; you need another question. And, at any rate, that is how this world tells the lesson of cognitive dissonance, that we devalue what is denied to us.”
Ployon paused. “Ok; I need time to process that story—may I say, ‘digest’?”
“But one last question. Why did you refer to the fox as ‘he’? Its supposed mind was—”
“In that world, a unity is always male (‘he’) or female (‘she’). A neutered unity is extraordinarily rare, and a neutered male, a ‘eunuch’, is still called ‘he.'”
“I’m familiar enough with those details of biology, but why would such an insignificant detail—”
“Remember about being mind-body unities. And don’t think of them as bodies that would ordinarily be neutered. That’s how new unities come to be in that world, with almost no cloning and no uterine replicators—”
“They really are slime!”
“—and if you only understand the biology of it, you don’t understand it.”
“What don’t I understand?”
“You’re trying to understand a feature of language that magnifies something insignificant, and what would cause the language to do that. But you’re looking for an explanation in the wrong place. Don’t think that the bodies are the most sexual parts of them. They’re the least sexual; the minds tied to those bodies are even more different than the bodies. The fact that the language shaped by unities for a long time distinguishes ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ enough to have the difference written into ‘it’, so that ‘it’ is ‘he’ or ‘she’ when speaking of mind-body unities.”
“Hmm… Is this another dimension to their reality that is flattened out in ours? Are their minds always thinking about that act?”
“In some cases that’s not too far from the truth. But you’re looking for the big implication in the wrong place. This would have an influence if a unity never thought about that act, and it has influence before a unity has any concept of that act.”
“Back up a bit. Different question. You said this was their way of explaining the theory of cognitive dissonance. But it isn’t. It describes one event in which cognitive dissonance occurs. It doesn’t articulate the theory; at most the theory can be extracted from it. And worse, if one treats it as explaining cognitive dissonance, it is highly ambiguous about where the boundaries of cognitive dissonance are. One single instance is very ambiguous about what is and is not another instance. This is an extraordinarily poor method of communication!”
“It is extraordinarily good, even classic, communication for minds that interpenetrate bodies. Most of them don’t work with bare abstractions, at least not most of the time. They don’t have simply discarnate minds that have been stuck into bodies. Their minds are astute in dealing with situations that mind-body unities will find themselves in. And think about it. If you’re going to understand how they live, you’re going to have to understand some very different, enfleshed ways of thought. No, more than that, if you still see the task of understanding ways of thought, you will not understand them.”
“So these analyses do not help me in understanding your world.”
“So far as you are learning through this kind of analysis, you will not understand… but this analysis is all you have for now.”
“Are their any other stories that use an isomorphic element to this one?”
“I don’t know. I’ve gotten deep enough into this world that I don’t keep stories sorted by isomorphism class.”
“Tell me another story the way that a storyteller there would tell it; there is something in it that eludes me.”
Archon said, “Ok… The alarm clock chimed. It was a device such that few engineers alive fully understood its mechanisms, and no man could tell the full story of how it came to be, of the exotic places and activities needed to make all of its materials, or the logistics to assemble them, or the organization and infrastructure needed to bring together all the talent of those who designed, crafted, and maintained them, or any other of sundry details that would take a book to list. The man abruptly shifted from the vivid kaleidoscope of the dreaming world to being awake, and opened his eyes to a kaleidoscope of sunrise colors and a room with the song of birds and the song of crickets. Outside, the grass grew, the wind blew, a busy world was waking up, and the stars continued their ordered and graceful dance. He left the slumbering form of the love of his life, showered, and stepped out with his body fresh, clean, and beautifully adorned. He stopped to kiss the fruit of their love, a boy cooing in his crib, and drove past commuters, houses, pedestrians, and jaybirds with enough stories to tell that they could fill a library to overflowing.
Archon continued, “After the majestic and ordered dance on the freeway brought him to his destination safe, unharmed, on time, and focusing on his work, he spent a day negotiating the flow of the human treasure of language, talking, listening, joking, teasing, questioning, enjoying the community of his co-workers, and cooperating to make it possible for a certain number of families to now enter the homes of their dreams. In the middle of the day he stopped to eat, nourishing a body so intricate that the state of the art in engineering could not hold a candle to his smallest cell. This done, he continued to use a spirit immeasurably greater than his body to pursue his work. Needless to say, the universe, whose physics alone is beyond our current understanding, continued to work according to all of its ordered laws and the spiritual world continued to shine. The man’s time at work passed quickly, with a pitter-patter of squirrels’ feet on the roof of their office, and before long he entered the door and passed a collection with copies of most of the greatest music produced by Western civilization—available for him to listen to, any time he pleased. The man absently kissed his wife, and stepped away, breathing the breath of God.
“‘Hi, Honey!’ she said. ‘How was your day?’
“‘Somewhat dull. Maybe something exciting will happen tomorrow.'”
Ployon said, “There’s someone I want to meet who is free now, so I’ll leave in a second… I’m not going to ask about all the technical vocabulary, but I wanted to ask: Is this story a farce? It describes a unity who has all these ludicrous resources, and then it—”
“—he says the most ludicrous thing.”
“What you’ve said is true. The story is not a farce.”
“But the story tells of things that are momentous.”
“I know, but people in that world do not appreciate many of these things.”
“Why? They seem to have enough access to these momentous resources.”
“Yes, they certainly do. But most of the unities are bathed in such things and do not think that they are anything worth thinking of.”
“And I suppose you’re going to tell me that is part of their greatness.”
“To them these things are just as boring as jacking into a robotically controlled factory and using the machines to assemble something.”
“I see. At least I think I see. And I really need to be going now… but one more question. What is ‘God’?”
“Please, not that. Please, any word but that. Don’t ask about that.”
“I’m not expected, and you’ve piqued my curiosity.”
“Don’t you need to be going now?”
“You’ve piqued my curiosity.”
Archon was silent.
Ployon was silent.
Archon said, “God is the being who made the world.”
“Ok, so you are God.”
“Yes… no. No! I am not God!”
“But you created this world?”
“Not like God did. I envisioned looking in on it, but to that world, I do not exist.”
“But God exists?”
“Yes… no… It is false to say that God exists and it is false to say that God does not exist.”
“So the world is self-contradictory? Or would it therefore be true to say that God both exists and does not exist?”
“No. Um… It is false to say that God exists and it is false to say that God exists as it is false to say that a square is a line and it is false to say that a square is a point. God is reflected everywhere in the world: not a spot in the entire cosmos is devoid of God’s glory—”
“A couple of things. First, is this one more detail of the universe that you cannot explain but is going to have one more dimension than our world?”
“God is of higher dimension than that world.”
“So our world is, say, two dimensional, that world is three dimensional, and yet it somehow contains God, who is four dimensional?”
“God is not the next step up.”
“Then is he two steps up?”
“Three? Four? Fifty? Some massive power of two?”
“Do you mind if I ask you a question from that world?”
“How many minds can be at a point in space?”
“If you mean, ‘thinking about’, there is no theoretical limit; the number is not limited in principle to two, three, or… Are you saying that God has an infinite number of dimensions?”
“You caught that quick; the question is a beautiful way of asking whether a finite or an infinite number of angels can dance on the head of a pin, in their picturesque language.”
“That question is very rational. But returning to the topic, since God has an infinite number of dimensions—”
“In a certain sense. It also captures part of the truth to say that God is a single point—”
“God is so great not as to need any other, not to need parts as we have. And, by the way, the world does not contain God. God contains the world.”
“I’m struggling to find a mathematical model that will accommodate all of this.”
“Why don’t you do something easier, like find an atom that will hold a planet?”
“Ok. As to the second of my couple of things, what is glory?”
“It’s like the honor that we seek, except that it is immeasurably full while our honors are hollow. As I was saying, not a place in the entire cosmos is devoid of his glory—”
“His? So God is a body?”
“That’s beside the point. Whether or not God has a body, he—”
“—it… isn’t a male life form…”
Archon said, “Ployon, what if I told you that God, without changing, could become a male unity? But you’re saying you can’t project maleness up onto God, without understanding that maleness is the shadow of something in God. You have things upside down.”
“But maleness has to do with a rather undignified method of creating organisms, laughable next to a good scientific generation center.”
“His ways are not like your ways, Ployon. Or mine.”
“Of course; this seems to be true of everything in the world.”
“But it’s even true of men in that world.”
“So men have no resemblance to God?”
“No, there’s—oh, no!”
“Um… never mind, you’re not going to let me get out of it. I said earlier that that world is trying to make itself more like this one. Actually, I didn’t say that, but it’s related to what I said. There has been a massive movement which is related to the move from organic to what is not organic, and part of it has to do with… In our world, a symbol is arbitrary. No connection. In that world, something about a symbol is deeply connected with what it represents. And the unities, every single one, are symbols of God in a very strong sense.”
“Are they miniature copies? If God does not have parts, how do they have minds and bodies?”
“That’s not looking at it the right way. They indeed have parts, as God does not, but they aren’t a scale model of God. They’re something much more. A unity is someone whose very existence is bound up with God, who walks as a moving… I’m not sure what to use as the noun, but a moving something of God’s presence. And you cannot help or harm one of these unities without helping or harming God.”
“Is this symbol kind of a separate God?”
“The unities are not separate from God.”
“Are the unities God?”
“I don’t know how to answer that. It is a grave error for anyone to confuse himself with God. And at the same time, the entire purpose of being a unity is to receive a gift, and that gift is becoming what God is.”
“So the minds will be freed from their bodies?”
“No, some of them hope that their bodies will be deepened, transformed, become everything that their bodies are now and much more. But unities who have received this gift will always, always, have their bodies. It will be part of their glory.”
“I’m having trouble tracking with you. It seems that everything one could say about God is false.”
“That is true.”
“Think about it. What you just said is contradictory.”
“God is so great that anything one could say about God falls short of the truth as a point falls short of being a line. But that does not mean that all statements are equal. Think about the statements, ‘One is equal to infinity.’ ‘Two is equal to infinity.’ ‘Three is equal to infinity.’ and ‘Four is equal to infinity.’ All of them are false. But some come closer to the truth than others. And so you have a ladder of statements from the truest to the falsest, and when we say something is false, we don’t mean that it has no connection to the truth; we mean that it falls immeasurably short of capturing the truth. All statements fall immeasurably short of capturing the truth, and if we say, ‘All statements fall immeasurably short of capturing the truth,’ that falls immeasurably short of capturing the truth. Our usual ways of using logic tend to break down.”
“And how does God relate to the interpenetration of mind and matter?”
“Do you see that his world, with mind and matter interpenetrating, is deeper and fuller than ours, that it has something that ours does not, and that it is so big we have trouble grasping it?”
“I see… you said that God was its creator. And… there is something about it that is just outside my grasp.”
“It’s outside my grasp too.”
“Talking about God has certainly been a mind stretcher. I would love to hear more about him.”
“Talking about God for use as a mind stretcher is like buying a piece of art because you can use its components to make rocket fuel. Some people, er, unities in that world would have a low opinion of this conversation.”
“Since God is so far from that world, I’d like to restrict our attention to relevant—”
Archon interrupted. “You misunderstood what I said. Or maybe you understood it and I could only hint at the lesser part of the truth. You cannot understand unities without reference to God.”
“How would unities explain it?”
“That is complex. A great many unities do not believe in God—”
“So they don’t understand what it means to be a unity.”
“Yes. No. That is complex. There are a great many unities who vehemently deny that there is a God, or would dismiss ‘Is there a God?’ as a pointless rhetorical question, but these unities may have very deep insight into what it means to be a unity.”
“But you said, ‘You cannot understand—'”
Archon interrupted. “Yes, and it’s true. You cannot understand unities without reference to God.”
Archon continued. “Ployon, there are mind-body unities who believe that they are living in our world, with mind and body absolutely separate and understandable without reference to each other. And yet if you attack their bodies, they will take it as if you had attacked their minds, as if you had hurt them. When I described the strange custom of keeping organisms around which serve no utilitarian purpose worth the trouble of keeping them, know that this custom, which relates to their world’s organic connection between mind and body, does not distinguish people who recognize that they are mind-body unities and people who believe they are minds which happen to be wrapped in bodies. Both groups do this. The tie between mind and body is too deep to expunge by believing it doesn’t exist. And there are many of them who believe God doesn’t exist, or it would be nice to know if God existed but unities could never know, or God is very different from what he in fact is, but they expunge so little of the pattern imprinted by God in the core of their being that they can understand what it means to be a unity at a very profound level, but not recognize God. But you cannot understand unities without reference to God.”
Ployon said, “Which parts of unities, and what they do, are affected by God? At what point does God enter their experience?”
“Which parts of programs, and their behaviors, are affected by the fact that they run on a computer? When does a computer begin to be relevant?”
“Touché. But why is God relevant, if it makes no difference whether you believe in him?”
“I didn’t say that it makes no difference. Earlier you may have gathered that the organic is something deeper than ways we would imagine to try to be organic. If it is possible, as it is, to slaughter moving organisms for food and still be organic, that doesn’t mean that the organic is so small it doesn’t affect such killing; it means it is probably deeper than we can imagine. And it doesn’t also mean that because one has been given a large organic capital and cannot liquidate it quickly, one’s choices do not matter. The decisions a unity faces, whether or not to have relationships with other unities that fit the timeless pattern, whether to give work too central a place in the pursuit of technology and possessions or too little a place or its proper place, things they have talked about since time immemorial and things which their philosophers have assumed went without saying—the unity has momentous choices not only about whether to invest or squander their capital, but choices that affect how they will live.”
“What about things like that custom you mentioned? I bet there are a lot of them.”
“Looking at, and sensing, the organisms they keep has a place, if they have one. And so does moving about among many non-moving organisms. And so does slowly sipping a fluid that causes a pleasant mood while the mind is temporarily impaired and loosened. And so does rotating oneself so that one’s sight is filled with clusters of moisture vapor above their planet’s surface. And some of the unities urge these things because they sense the organic has been lost, and without reference to the tradition that urges deeper goods. And yes, I know that these activities probably sound strange—”
“I do not see what rational benefit these activities would have, but I see this may be a defect with me rather than a defect with the organic—”
“Know that it is a defect with you rather than a defect with the organic.”
“—but what is this about rotating oneself?”
“As one goes out from the center of their planet, the earth—if one could move, for the earth’s core is impenetrable minerals—one would go through solid rock, then pass through the most rarefied boundary, then pass through gases briefly and be out in space. You would encounter neither subterranean passageways and buildings reaching to the center of the earth, and when you left you would find only the rarest vessel leaving the atmosphere—”
“Then where do they live?”
“At the boundary where space and planetary mass meet. All of them are priveleged to live at that meeting-place, a narrow strip or sphere rich in life. There are very few of them; it’s a select club. Not even a trillion. And the only property they have is the best—a place teeming with life that would be impossible only a quarter of the planet’s thickness above or below. A few of them build edifices reaching scant storeys into the sky; a few dig into the earth; there are so few of these that not being within a minute’s travel from literallytouching the planet’s surface is exotic. But the unities, along with the rest of the planet’s life, live in a tiny, priceless film adorned with the best resources they could ever know of.”
Ployon was stunned. It thought of the cores of planets and asteroids it had been in. It thought of the ships and stations in space. Once it had had the privelege of working from a subnet hosted within a comparatively short distance of a planet’s surface—it was a rare privilege, acquired through deft political maneuvering, and there were fewer than 130,982,539,813,209 other minds who had shared that privelege. And, basking in that luxury, it could only envy the minds which had bodies that walked on the surface. Ployon was stunned and reeling at the privilege of—
Ployon said, “How often do they travel to other planets?”
“There is only one planet so rich as to have them.”
Ployon pondered the implications. It had travelled to half the spectrum of luxurious paradises. Had it been to even one this significant? Ployon reluctantly concluded that it had not. And that was not even considering what it meant for this golden plating to teem with life. And then Ployon realized that each of the unities had a body on that surface. It reeled in awe.
Archon said, “And you’re not thinking about what it means that surface is home to the biological network, are you?”
Ployon was silent.
Archon said, “This organic biological network, in which they live and move and have their being—”
“Is God the organic?”
“Most of the things that the organic has, that are not to be found in our world, are reflections of God. But God is more. It is true that in God that they live and move and have their being, but it is truer. There is a significant minority that identifies the organic with God—”
Ployon interrupted, “—who are wrong—”
Archon interrupted, “—who are reacting against the destruction of the organic and seek the right thing in the wrong place—”
Ployon interrupted, “But how is God different from the organic?”
Archon sifted through a myriad of possible answers. “Hmm, this might be a good time for you to talk with that other mind you wanted to talk with.”
“You know, you’re good at piquing my curiosity.”
“If you’re looking for where they diverge, they don’t. Or at least, some people would say they don’t. Others who are deeply connected with God would say that the organic as we have been describing it is problematic—”
“But all unities are deeply connected with God, and disagreement is—”
“You’re right, but that isn’t where I was driving. And this relates to something messy, about disagreements when—”
“Aren’t all unities able to calculate the truth from base axioms? Why would they disagree?”
Archon paused. “There are a myriad of real, not virtual disagreements—”
Ployon interrupted, “And it is part of a deeper reality to that world that—”
Archon interrupted. “No, no, or at best indirectly. There is something fractured about that world that—”
Ployon interrupted. “—is part of a tragic beauty, yes. Each thing that is artificially constricted in that world makes it greater. I’m waiting for the explanation.”
“No. This does not make it greater.”
“Then I’m waiting for the explanation of why this one limitation does not make it greater. But back to what you said about the real and the organic—”
“The differences between God and the organic are not differences of opposite directions. You are looking in the wrong place if you are looking for contradictions. It’s more a difference like… if you knew what ‘father’ and ‘mother’ meant, male parent and female parent—”
Ployon interrupted, “—you know I have perfect details of male and female reproductive biology—”
Archon interrupted, “—and you think that if you knew the formula for something called chicken soup, you would know what the taste of chicken soup is for them—”
Ployon continued, “—so now you’re going to develop some intricate elaboration of what it means that there is only one possible ‘mother’s’ contribution, while outside of a laboratory the ‘father’s’ contribution is extraordinarily haphazard…”
Archon said, “A complete non sequitur. If you only understand reproductive biology, you do not understand what a father or mother is. Seeing as how we have no concept yet of father or mother, let us look at something that’s different enough but aligns with father/mother in an interesting enough way that… never mind.”
Archon continued, “Imagine on the one hand a virtual reality, and on the other hand the creator of that virtual reality. You don’t have to choose between moving in the virtual reality and being the creator’s guest; the way to be the creator’s guest is to move in the virtual reality and the purpose of moving in the virtual reality is being the creator’s guest. But that doesn’t mean that the creator is the virtual reality, or the virtual reality is the creator. It’s not just a philosophical error to confuse them, or else it’s a philosophical error with ramifications well outside of philosophy.”
“Why didn’t you just say that the relationship between God and the organic is creator/creation? Or that the organic is the world that was created?”
“Because the relationship is not that, or at very least not just that. And the organic is not the world—that is a philosophical error almost as serious as saying that the creator is the virtual reality, if a very different error. I fear that I have given you a simplification that is all the more untrue because of how true it is. God is in the organic, and in the world, and in each person, but not in the same way. How can I put it? If I say, ‘God is in the organic,’, it would be truer to say, ‘The organic is not devoid of God,’ because that is more ambiguous. If there were three boxes, and one contained a functional robot ‘brain’, and another contained a functional robot arm, and the third contained a non-functioning robot, it would be truer to say that each box contains something like a functioning robot than to say that each box contains a functioning robot. The ambiguity allows for being true in different ways in the different contexts, let alone something that words could not express even if we were discussing only one ‘is in’ or ‘box’.”
“Is there another way of expressing how their words would express it?”
“Their words are almost as weak as our words here.”
“So they don’t know about something this important?”
“Knowledge itself is different for them. To know something for us is to be able to analyze in a philosophical discussion. And this knowledge exists for them. But there is another root type of knowledge, a knowledge that—”
“Could you analyze the differences between the knowledge we use and the knowledge they use?”
“Yes, and it would be as useful to you as discussing biology. This knowledge is not entirely alien to us; when a mathematician ‘soaks’ in a problem, or I refused to connect with anything but the body, for a moment a chasm was crossed. But in that world the chasm doesn’t exist… wait, that’s too strong… a part of the chasm doesn’t exist. Knowing is not with the mind alone, but the whole person—”
“What part of the knowing is stored in the bones?”
“Thank you for your flippancy, but people use the metaphor of knowledge being in their bones, or drinking, for this knowing.”
“This sounds more like a physical process and some hankey-pankey that has been dignified by being called knowing. It almost sounds as if they don’t have minds.”
“They don’t, at least not as we know them. The mathematical analogy I would use is that they… never mind, I don’t want to use a mathematical analogy. The computational analogy I would use is that we are elements of a computer simulation, and every now and then we break into a robot that controls the computer, and do something that transcends what elements of the computer simulation “should” be able to do. But they don’t transcend the simulation because they were never elements of the simulation in the first place—they are real bodies, or real unities. And what I’ve called ‘mind’ in them is more properly understood as ‘spirit’, which is now a meaningless word to you, but is part of them that meets God whether they are aware of it or not. Speaking philosophically is a difficult discipline that few of them can do—”
“They are starting to sound mentally feeble.”
“Yes, if you keep looking at them as an impoverished version of our world. It is hard to speak philosophically as it is hard for you to emulate a clock and do nothing else—because they need to drop out of several dimensions of their being to do it properly, and they live in those dimensions so naturally that it is an unnatural constriction for most of them to talk as if that was the only dimension of their being. And here I’ve been talking disappointingly about knowledge, making it sound more abstract than our knowing, when in fact it is much less so, and probably left you with the puzzle of how they manage to bridge gaps between mind, spirit, and body… but the difficulty of the question lies in a false setup. They are unities which experience, interact with, know all of them as united. And the knowing is deep enough that they can speculate that there’s no necessary link between their spirits and bodies, or minds and bodies, or what have you. And if I can’t explain this, I can’t explain something even more foundational, the fact that the greatest thing about God is not how inconceivably majestic he is, but how close.”
“It sounds as if—wait, I think you’ve given me a basis for a decent analysis. Let me see if I can—”
Archon said, “Let me tell you a little story.
Archon continued, “A philosopher, Berkeley, believed that the only real things are minds and ideas and experiences in those minds: hence a rock was equal to the sum of every mind’s impression of it. You could say that a rock existed, but what that had to mean was that there were certain sense impressions and ideas in minds, including God’s mind; it didn’t mean that there was matter outside of minds.”
“A lovely virtual metaphysics. I’ve simulated that metaphysics, and it’s enjoyable for a time.”
“Yes, but for Berkeley it meant something completely different. Berkeley was a bishop,”
“What’s a bishop?”
“I can’t explain all of that now, but part of a bishop is a leader who is responsible for a community that believes God became a man, and helping them to know God and be unities.”
“How does that reconcile with that metaphysics?”
Archon said, “Ployon, stop interrupting. He believed that they were not only compatible, but the belief that God became a man could only be preserved by his metaphysics. And he believed he was defending ‘common sense’, how most unities thought about the world.
Archon continued, “And after he wrote his theories, another man, Samuel Johnson, kicked a rock and said, ‘I refute Berkeley thus!'”
Ployon said, “Ha ha! That’s the way to score!”
“But he didn’t score. Johnson established only one thing—”
“—how to defend against Berkeley—”
“—that he didn’t understand Berkeley.”
“Yes, he did.”
“No, he didn’t.”
“But he did.”
“Ployon, only the crudest understanding of Berkeley’s ideas could mean that one could refute them by kicking a rock. Berkeley didn’t make his ideas public until he could account for the sight of someone kicking a rock, or the experience of kicking it yourself, just as well as if there were matter outside of minds.”
“So now that we’ve established that—”
Ployon interrupted. “I know that Berkeley’s ideas could account for kicking a rock as well as anything else. But kicking a rock is still an excellent way to refute Berkeley. If what you’ve said about this world has any coherence at all.”
“Well, Berkeley’s ideas are airtight, right?”
“Ployon, there is no way they could be disproven. Not by argument, not by action.”
“So it is in principle impossible to force someone out of Berkeley’s ideas by argument.”
“But you’re missing something. What is it you’ve been talking to me about?”
“A world where mind and matter interpenetrate, and the organic, and there are many dimensions to life—”
“And if you’re just falling further into a trap to logically argue, wouldn’t it do something fundamentally unity-like to step into another dimension?”
Archon was silent.
Ployon said, “I understand that it would demonstrate a profound misunderstanding in our world… but wouldn’t it say something equally profound in that world?”
Archon was stunned.
Ployon was silent for a long time.
Then Ployon said, “When are you going to refute Berkeley?”
Since the dawn of time, those who have walked the earth have looked up into the starry sky and wondered. They have asked, “What is the universe, and who are we?” “What are the woods?” “Where did this all come from?” “Is there life after death?” “What is the meaning of our existence?” The march of time has brought civilization, and with that, science. And science allows us to answer these age-old human questions.
That, at least, is the account of it that people draw now. But the truth is much more interesting.
Science is an ingenious mechanism to test guesses about mechanisms and behavior of the universe, and it is phenomenally powerful in that arena. Science can try to explain how the Heavens move, but it isn’t the sort of thing to explain why there are Heavens that move that way—science can also describe how the Heavens have moved and reached their present position, but not the “Why?” behind it. Science can describe how to make technology to make life more convenient, but not “What is the meaning of life?” Trying to ask science to answer “Why?” (or for that matter, “Who?” or any other truly interesting question besides “How?”) is a bit like putting a book on a scale and asking the scale, “What does this book mean?” And there are indeed some people who will accept the scale’s answer, 429.7425 grams, as the definitive answer to what the book means, and all the better because it is so precise.
But to say that much and then stop is to paint a deceptive picture. Very deceptive. Why?
Science at that point had progressed more than at any point in history, and its effects were being felt around the world. And science enjoyed both a profound prestige and a profound devotion. Many people did not know what “understanding nature” could mean besides “learning scientific descriptions of nature,” which was a bit like not knowing what “understanding your best friend” could mean besides “learning the biochemical building blocks of your friend’s body.”
All this and more is true, yet this is not the most important truth. This was the Middle Age between ancient and human society and the technological, and in fact it was the early Middle Age. People were beginning to develop real technologies, the seeds of technology we would recognize, and could in primitive fashion jack into such a network as existed then. But all of this was embraced in a society that was ancient, ancient beyond measure. As you may have guessed, it is an error to misunderstand that society as an inexplicably crude version of real technological society. It is a fundamental error.
To really understand this society, you need to understand not its technology, but the sense in which it was ancient. I will call it ‘medieval’, but you must understand that the ancient element in that society outweighs anything we would recognize.
And even this is deceptive, not because a single detail is wrong, but because it is abstract. I will tell you about certain parts in an abstract fashion, but you must understand that in this world’s thinking the concrete comes before the abstract. I will do my best to tell a story—not as they would tell one, because that would conceal as much as it would reveal, but taking their way of telling stories and adapting it so we can see what is going on.
For all of their best efforts to spoil it, all of them live on an exquisite garden in the thin film where the emptiness of space meets the barrier of rock—there is a nest, a cradle where they are held tightly, and even if some of those who are most trying to be scientific want to flee into the barren wastes of space and other planets hostile to their kind of life. And this garden itself has texture, an incredible spectrum of texture along its surface. Place is itself significant, and I cannot capture what this story would have been like had it been placed in Petaling Jaya in Malaysia, or Paris in France, or Cambridge in England. What are these? I don’t know… I can say that Petaling Jaya, Paris, and Cambridge are cities, but that would leave you knowing as much as you knew 5 milliseconds before I told you. And Malaysia, France, and England are countries, and now you know little besides being able to guess that a country is somehow capable of containing a city. Which is barely more than you knew before; the fact is that there is something very different between Petaling Jaya, Paris, and Cambridge. They have different wildlife and different places with land and water, but that is not nearly so interesting as the difference in people. I could say that people learn different skills, if I wanted to be very awkward and uninformative, but… the best way of saying it is that in our world, because there is nothing keeping minds apart… In that world, people have been separate so they don’t even speak the same language. They almost have separate worlds. There is something common to all medievals, beyond what technology may bring, and people in other cities could find deep bonds with this story, but… Oh, there are many more countries than those I listed, and these countries have so many cities that you could spend your whole life travelling between cities and never see all of them. No, our world doesn’t have this wealth. Wealthy as it is, it doesn’t come close.
Petaling Jaya is a place of warm rainstorms, torrents of water falling from the sky, a place where a little stream of unscented water flows by the road, even if such a beautiful “open sewer” is not appreciated. Petaling Jaya is a place where people are less aware of time than in Cambridge or Paris and yet a place where people understand time better, because of reasons that are subtle and hard to understand. It draws people from three worlds in the grandeur that is Asia, and each of them brings treasures. The Chinese bring with them the practice of calling adults “Uncle” or “Aunt”, my father’s brother or my father’s sister or my mother’s brother or my mother’s sister, which is to say, addresses them not only by saying that there is something great about them, but they are “tied by blood”—a bond that I do not know how to explain, save to say that ancestry and origins are not the mechanism of how they came to be, or at least not just the mechanism of how they came to be. Ancestry and origins tell of the substance of who they are, and that is one more depth that cannot exist in our world with matter and mind separate. The Indians and Bumi Putras—if it is really only them, which is far from true—live a life of friendship and hospitality, which are human treasures that shine in them. What is hospitality, you ask? That is hard to answer; it seems that anything I can say will be deceptive. It means that if you have a space, and if you allow someone in that space, you serve that person, caring for every of his needs. That is a strange virtue—and it will sound stranger when I say that this is not endured as inexpedient, but something where people want to call others. Is it an economic exchange? That is beside the point; these things are at once the shadow cast by real hospitality, and at the same time the substance of hospitality itself, and you need to understand men before you can understand it. What about friendship? Here I am truly at a loss. I can only say that in the story that I am about to tell, what happens is the highest form of friendship.
Paris is, or at least has been, a place with a liquid, a drug, that temporarily causes a pleasant mood while changing behavior and muddling a person’s thoughts. But to say that misses what that liquid is, in Paris or much else. To some it is very destructive, and the drug is dangerous if it is handled improperly. But that is the hinge to something that—in our world, no pleasure is ever dangerous. You or I have experienced pleasures that these minds could scarcely dream of. We can have whatever pleasure we want at any time. And in a very real sense no pleasure means anything. But in their world, with its weaker pleasures, every pleasure is connected to something. And this liquid, this pleasure, if taken too far, destroys people—which is a hinge, a doorway to something. It means that they need to learn a self-mastery in using this liquid, and in using it many of them forge a beauty in themselves that affects all of life. And they live beautiful lives. Beautiful in many ways. They are like Norsemen of ages past, who sided with the good powers, not because the good powers were going to win, but because they wanted to side with the good powers and fight alongside them when the good powers lost and chaos ruled. It is a tragic beauty, and the tragedy is all the more real because it is unneeded, but it is beauty, and it is a beauty that could not exist if they knew the strength of good. And I have not spoken of the beauty of the language in Paris, with its melody and song, or of the artwork and statues, the Basilica of the Sacré-Coeur, or indeed of the tapestry that makes up the city.
Cambridge is what many of them would call a “medieval” village, meaning that it has stonework that looks to its members like the ancient world’s architecture. To them this is a major difference; the ancient character of the buildings to them overwhelms the fact that they are buildings. To that medieval world, both the newest buildings and the ones they considered “medieval” had doorways, stairwells, rooms, windows, and passages. You or I would be struck by the ancient character of the oldest and newest buildings and the ancient character of the life they serve. But to these medievals, the fact that a doorway was built out of machine-made materials instead of having long ago been shaped from stone takes the door—the door—from being ancient to being a new kind of thing! And so in the quaintest way the medievals consider Cambridge a “medieval” village, not because they were all medievals, but because the ancient dimension to architecture was more ancient to them than the equally ancient ways of constructing spaces that were reflected in the “new” buildings. There was more to it than that, but…
That was not the most interesting thing about them. I know you were going to criticize me for saying that hospitality was both a human treasure and something that contributed to the uniqueness of Petaling Jaya, but I need to do the same thing again. Politeness is… how can I describe it? Cynics describe politeness as being deceit, something where you learn a bunch of standard things to do and have to use them to hide the fact that you’re offended, or bored, or want to leave, or don’t like someone. And all of that is true—and deceptive. A conversation will politely begin with one person saying, “Hi, Barbara, how are you?” And Barbara will say, “Fine, George, how are you?” “Fine!” And the exact details seem almost arbitrary between cultures. This specific interaction is, on the surface, superficial and not necessarily true: people usually say they feel fine whether or not they really feel fine at all. And so politeness can be picked apart in this fashion, as if there’s nothing else there, but there is. Saying “How are you?” opens a door, a door of concern. In one sense, what is given is very small. But if a person says, “I feel rotten,” the other person is likely to listen. Barbara might only “give” George a little bit of chatter, but if he were upset, she would comfort him; if he were physically injured, she would call an ambulance to give him medical help; if he were hungry, she might buy him something to eat. But he only wants a little chat, so she only gives him a little chat—which is not really a little thing at all, but I’m going to pretend that it’s small. Politeness stems from a concern for others, and is in actuality quite deep. The superficial “Hi, how are you?” is really not superficial at all. It is connected to a much deeper concern, and the exterior of rules is connected to a heart of concern. And Cambridge, which is a place of learning, and has buildings more ancient than what these medieval people usually see, is perhaps most significantly distinguished by its politeness.
But I have not been telling you a story. These observations may not be completely worthless, but they are still not a dynamic story. The story I’m about to tell you is not in Petaling Jaya, nor in Paris, nor in Cambridge, nor in any of thousands of other worlds. And I would like to show you what the medieval society looks like in action. And so let’s look at Peter.
Peter, after a long and arduous trek, opened the car door, got out, stretched, looked at the vast building before him, and listened as his father said, “We’ve done it! The rest should be easy, at least for today.” Then Peter smiled, and smashed his right thumb in the car door.
Then suddenly they moved—their new plan was to get to a hospital. Not much later, Peter was in the Central DuPage Hospital emergency room, watching people who came in after him be treated before him—not because they had more clout, but because they had worse injuries. The building was immense—something like one of our biological engineering centers, but instead of engineering bodies according to a mind’s specification, this used science to restore bodies that had been injured and harmed, and reduce people’s suffering. And it was incredibly primitive; at its best, it helped the bodies heal itself. But you must understand that even if these people were far wealthier than most others in their tiny garden, they had scant resources by our standard, and they made a major priority to restore people whose bodies had problems. (If you think about it, this tells something about how they view the value of each body.) Peter was a strong and healthy young man, and it had been a while since he’d been in a hospital. He was polite to the people who were helping him, even though he wished he were anywhere else.
You’re wondering why he deliberately smashed his thumb? Peter didn’t deliberately smash his thumb. He was paying attention to several other things and shoved the door close while his thumb was in its path. His body is not simply a device controlled by his mind; they interact, and his mind can’t do anything he wishes it to do—he can’t add power to it. He thinks by working with a mind that operates with real limitations and can overlook something in excitement—much like his body. If he achieves something, he doesn’t just requisition additional mental power. He struggles within the capabilities of his own mind, and that means that when he achieves something with his mind, he achieves something. Yes, in a way that you or I cannot. Not only is his body in a very real sense more real to him than any of the bodies you or I have jacked into and swapped around, but his mind is more real. I’m not sure how to explain it.
Peter arrived for the second time well after check-in time, praying to be able to get in. After a few calls with a network that let him connect with other minds while keeping his body intact, a security officer came in, expressed sympathy about his bandaged thumb—what does ‘sympathy’ mean? It means that you share in another person’s pain and make it less—and let him up to his room. The family moved his possessions from the car to his room and made his bed in a few minutes, and by the time it was down, the security guard had called the RA, who brought Peter his keys.
It was the wee hours of the morning when Peter looked at his new home for the second time, and tough as Peter was, the pain in his thumb kept the weary man from falling asleep. He was in as much pain as he’d been in for a while. What? Which part do you want explained? Pain is when the mind is troubled because the body is injured; it is a warning that the body needs to be taken care of. No, he can’t turn it off just because he thinks it’s served his purpose; again, you’re not understanding the intimate link between mind and body. And the other thing… sleep is… Their small globe orbits a little star, and it spins as it turns. At any time, part of the planet faces the star, the sun, and part faces away, and on the globe, it is as if a moving wall comes, and all is light, then another wall comes, and it is dark. The globe has a rhythm of light and dark, a rhythm of day and night, and people live in intimate attunement to this rhythm. The ancients moved about when it was light and slept when it was dark—to sleep, at its better moments, is to come fatigued and have body and mind rejuvenate themselves to awaken full of energy. The wealthier medievals have the ability to see by mechanical light, to awaken when they want and fall asleep when they want—and yet they are still attuned, profoundly attuned, to this natural cycle and all that goes with it. For that matter, Peter can stick a substance into his body that will push away the pain—and yet, for all these artificial escapes, medievals feel pain and usually take care of their bodies by heeding it, and medievals wake more or less when it is light and sleep more or less when it is dark. And they don’t think of pain as attunement to their bodies—most of them wish they couldn’t feel pain, and certainly don’t think of pain as good—nor do more than a few of them think in terms of waking and sleeping to a natural rhythm… but so much of the primeval way of being human is so difficult to dislodge for the medievals.
He awoke when the light was ebbing, and after some preparations set out, wandering this way and that until he found a place to eat. The pain was much duller, and he made his way to a selection of different foods—meant not only to nourish but provide a pleasant taste—and sat down at a table. There were many people about; he would not eat in a cell by himself, but at a table with others in a great hall.
A young man said, “Hi, I’m John.” Peter began to extend his hand, then looked at his white bandaged thumb and said, “Excuse me for not shaking your hand. I am Peter.”
A young woman said, “I’m Mary. I saw you earlier and was hoping to see you more.”
Peter wondered about something, then said, “I’ll drink for that,” reached with his right hand, grabbed a glass vessel full of carbonated water with sugar, caffeine, and assorted unnatural ingredients, and then winced in pain, spilling the fluid on the table.
Everybody at the table moved. A couple of people dodged the flow of liquid; others stopped what they were doing, rushing to take earth toned objects made from the bodies of living trees (napkins), which absorbed the liquid and were then shipped to be preserved with other unwanted items. Peter said, “I keep forgetting I need to be careful about my thumb,” smiled, grabbed another glass with fluid cows had labored to create, until his wet left hand slipped and he spilled the organic fluid all over his food.
Peter stopped, sat back, and then laughed for a while. “This is an interesting beginning to my college education.”
Mary said, “I noticed you managed to smash your thumb in a car door without saying any words you regret. What else has happened?”
Peter said, “Nothing great; I had to go to the ER, where I had to wait, before they could do something about my throbbing thumb. I got back at 4:00 AM and couldn’t get to sleep for a long time because I was in so much pain. Then I overslept my alarm and woke up naturally in time for dinner. How about you?”
Mary thought for a second about the people she met. Peter could see the sympathy on her face.
John said, “Wow. That’s nasty.”
Peter said, “I wish we couldn’t feel pain. Have you thought about how nice it would be to live without pain?”
Mary said, “I’d like that.”
John said, “Um…”
Mary said, “What?”
John said, “Actually, there are people who don’t feel pain, and there’s a name for the condition. You’ve heard of it.”
Peter said, “I haven’t heard of that before.”
John said, “Yes you have. It’s called leprosy.”
Peter said, “What do you mean by ‘leprosy’? I thought leprosy was a disease that ravaged the body.”
John said, “It is. But that is only because it destroys the ability to feel pain. The way it works is very simple. We all get little nicks and scratches, and because they hurt, we show extra sensitivity. Our feet start to hurt after a long walk, so without even thinking about it we… shift things a little, and keep anything really bad from happening. That pain you are feeling is your body’s way of asking room to heal so that the smashed thumbnail (or whatever it is) that hurts so terribly now won’t leave you permanently maimed. Back to feet, a leprosy patient will walk exactly the same way and get wounds we’d never even think of for taking a long walk. All the terrible injuries that make leprosy a feared disease happen only because leprosy keeps people from feeling pain.”
Peter looked at his thumb, and his stomach growled.
John said, “I’m full. Let me get a drink for you, and then I’ll help you drink it.”
Mary said, “And I’ll get you some dry food. We’ve already eaten; it must—”
Peter said, “Please, I’ve survived much worse. It’s just a bit of pain.”
John picked up a clump of wet napkins and threatened to throw it at Peter before standing up and walking to get something to drink. Mary followed him.
Peter sat back and just laughed.
John said, “We have some time free after dinner; let’s just wander around campus.”
They left the glass roofed building and began walking around. There were vast open spaces between buildings. They went first to “Blanchard”, a building they described as “looking like a castle.” Blanchard, a tall ivory colored edifice, built of rough limestone, which overlooked a large expanse adorned with a carefully tended and living carpet, had been modelled after a building in a much older institution called Oxford, and… this is probably the time to explain certain things about this kind of organization.
You and I simply requisition skills. If I were to imagine what it would mean to educate those people—or at least give skills; the concept of ‘education’ is slightly different from either inserting skills or inserting knowledge into a mind, and I don’t have the ability to explain exactly what the distinction is here, but I will say that it is significant—then the obvious way is to simply make a virtual place on the network where people can be exposed to knowledge. And that model would become phenomenally popular within a few years; people would pursue an education that was a niche on such a network as they had, and would be achieved by weaving in these computer activities with the rest of their lives.
But this place preserved an ancient model of education, where disciples would come to live in a single place, which was in a very real sense its own universe, and meet in ancient, face-to-face community with their mentors and be shaped in more than what they know and can do. Like so many other things, it was ancient, using computers here and there and even teaching people the way of computers while avoiding what we would assume comes with computers.
But these people liked that building, as contrasted to buildings that seemed more modern, because it seemed to convey an illusion of being in another time, and let you forget that you were in a modern era.
After some wandering, Peter and those he had just met looked at the building, each secretly pretending to be in a more ancient era, and went through an expanse with a fountain in the center, listened to some music, and ignored clouds, trees, clusters of people who were sharing stories, listening, thinking, joking, and missing home, in order to come to something exotic, namely a rotating platform with a mockup of a giant mastodon which had died before the end of the last ice age, and whose bones had been unearthed in a nearby excavation. Happy to have seen something exotic, they ignored buildings which have a human-pleasing temperature the year round, other people excited to have seen new friends, toys which sailed through the air on the same principles as an airplane’s wings, a place where artistic pieces were being drawn into being, a vast, stonehard pavement to walk, and a spectrum of artefacts for the weaving of music.
Their slow walk was interrupted when John looked at a number on a small machine he had attached to his wrist, and interpreted it to mean that it was time for the three of them to stop their leisured enjoyment of the summer night and move with discomfort and haste to one specific building—they all were supposed to go to the building called Fischer. After moving over and shifting emotionally from being relaxed and joyful to being bothered and stressed, they found that they were all on a brother and sister floor, and met their leaders.
Paul, now looking considerably more coherent than when he procured Peter’s keys, announced, “Now, for the next exercise, I’ll be passing out toothpicks. I want you to stand in two lines, guy-girl-guy-girl, and pass a lifesaver down the line. If your team passes the lifesaver to the end first, you win. Oh, and if you drop the lifesaver your team has to start over, so don’t drop it.”
People shuffled, and shortly Peter was standing in line, looking over the shoulder of a girl he didn’t know, and silently wishing he weren’t playing this game. He heard a voice say, “Go!” and then had an intermittent view of a tiny sugary torus passing down the line and the two faces close to each other trying simultaneously to get close enough to pass the lifesaver, and control the clumsy, five centimeter long toothpicks well enough to transfer the candy. Sooner than he expected the girl turned around, almost losing the lifesaver on her toothpick, and then began a miniature dance as they clumsily tried to synchronize the ends of their toothpicks. This took unpleasantly long, and Peter quickly banished a thought of “This is almost kissing! That can’t be what’s intended.” Then he turned around, trying both to rush and not to rush at the same time, and repeated the same dance with the young woman standing behind him—Mary! It was only after she turned away that Peter realized her skin had changed from its alabaster tone to pale rose.
Their team won, and there was a short break as the next game was organized. Peter heard bits of conversation: “This has been a bummer; I’ve gotten two papercuts this week.” “—and then I—” “What instruments do you—” “I’m from France too! Tu viens de Paris?” “Really? You—” Everybody seemed to be chattering, and Peter wished he could be in one of—actually, several of those conversations at once.
Paul’s voice cut in and said, “For this next activity we are going to form a human circle. With your team, stand in a circle, and everybody reach in and grab another hand with each hand. Then hold on tight; when I say, “Go,” you want to untangle yourselves, without letting go. The first team to untangle themselves wins!”
Peter reached in, and found each of his hands clasped in a solid, masculine grip. Then the race began, and people jostled and tried to untangle themselves. This was a laborious process and, one by one, every other group freed itself, while Peter’s group seemed stuck on—someone called and said, “I think we’re knotted!” As people began to thin out, Paul looked with astonishment and saw that they were indeed knotted. “A special prize to them, too, for managing the best tangle!”
“And now, we’ll have a three-legged race! Gather into pairs, and each two of you take a burlap sack. Then—” Paul continued, and with every game, the talk seemed to flow more. When the finale finished, Peter found himself again with John and Mary and heard the conversations flowing around him: “Really? You too?” “But you don’t understand. Hicks have a slower pace of life; we enjoy things without all the things you city dwellers need for entertainment. And we learn resourceful ways to—” “—and only at Wheaton would the administration forbid dancing while requiring the games we just played and—” Then Peter lost himself in a conversation that continued long into the night. He expected to be up at night thinking about all the beloved people he left at home, but Peter was too busy thinking about John’s and Mary’s stories.
The next day Peter woke up when his machine played a hideous sound, and groggily trudged to the dining hall to eat some chemically modified grains and drink water that had been infused with traditionally roasted beans. There were pills he could have taken that would have had the effect he was looking for, but he savored the beverage, and after sitting at a table without talking, bounced around from beautiful building to beautiful building, seeing sights for the first time, and wishing he could avoid all that to just get to his advisor.
Peter found the appropriate hallway, wandered around nervously until he found a door with a yellowed plaque that said “Julian Johnson,” knocked once, and pushed the door open. A white-haired man said, “Peter Jones? How are you? Do come in… What can I do for you?”
Peter pulled out a sheet of paper, an organic surface used to retain colored trails and thus keep small amounts of information inscribed so that the “real” information is encoded in a personal way. No, they don’t need to be trained to have their own watermark in this encoding.
Peter looked down at the paper for a moment and said, “I’m sorry I’m late. I need you to write what courses I should take and sign here. Then I can be out of your way.”
The old man sat back, drew a deep breath, and relaxed into a fatherly smile. Peter began to wonder if his advisor was going to say anything at all. Then Prof. Johnson motioned towards an armchair, as rich and luxurious as his own, and then looked as if he remembered something and offered a bowl full of candy. “Sit down, sit down, and make yourself comfortable. May I interest you in candy?” He picked up an engraved metal bowl and held it out while Peter grabbed a few Lifesavers.
Prof. Johnson sat back, silent for a moment, and said, “I’m sorry I’m out of butterscotch; that always seems to disappear. Please sit down, and tell me about yourself. We can get to that form in a minute. One of the priveleges of this job is that I get to meet interesting people. Now, where are you from?”
Peter said, “I’m afraid there’s not much that’s interesting about me. I’m from a small town downstate that doesn’t have anything to distinguish itself. My amusements have been reading, watching the cycle of the year, oh, and running. Not much interesting in that. Now which classes should I take?”
Prof. Johnson sat back and smiled, and Peter became a little less tense. “You run?”
Peter said, “Yes; I was hoping to run on the track this afternoon, after the lecture. I’ve always wanted to run on a real track.”
The old man said, “You know, I used to run myself, before I became an official Old Geezer and my orthopaedist told me my knees couldn’t take it. So I have to content myself with swimming now, which I’ve grown to love. Do you know about the Prairie Path?”
Peter said, “No, what’s that?”
Prof. Johnson said, “Years ago, when I ran, I ran through the areas surrounding the College—there are a lot of beautiful houses. And, just south of the train tracks with the train you can hear now, there’s a path before you even hit the street. You can run, or bike, or walk, on a path covered with fine white gravel, with trees and prairie plants on either side. It’s a lovely view.” He paused, and said, “Any ideas what you want to do after Wheaton?”
Peter said, “No. I don’t even know what I want to major in.”
Prof. Johnson said, “A lot of students don’t know what they want to do. Are you familiar with Career Services? They can help you get an idea of what kinds of things you like to do.”
Peter looked at his watch and said, “It’s chapel time.”
Prof. Johnson said, “Relax. I can write you a note.” Peter began to relax again, and Prof. Johnson continued, “Now you like to read. What do you like to read?”
Peter said, “Newspapers and magazines, and I read this really cool book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Oh, and I like the Bible.”
Prof. Johnson said, “I do too. What do you like about it most?”
“I like the stories in the Old Testament.”
“One general tip: here at Wheaton, we have different kinds of professors—”
Peter said, “Which ones are best?”
Prof. Johnson said, “Different professors are best for different students. Throughout your tenure at Wheaton, ask your friends and learn which professors have teaching styles that you learn well with and mesh well with. Consider taking other courses from a professor you like. Now we have a lot of courses which we think expose you to new things and stretch you—people come back and see that these courses are best. Do you like science?”
“I like it; I especially liked a physics lab.”
Prof. Johnson took a small piece of paper from where it was attached to a stack with a strange adhesive that had “failed” as a solid adhesive, but provided a uniquely useful way to make paper that could be attached to a surface with a slight push and then be detached with a gentle pull, remarkably enough without damage to the paper or the surface. He began to think, and flip through a book, using a technology thousands of years old at its heart. “Have you had calculus?” Prof. Johnson restrained himself from launching into a discussion of the grand, Utopian vision for “calculus” as it was first imagined and how different a conception it had from anything that would be considered “mathematics” today. Or should he go into that? He wavered, and then realized Peter had answered his question. “Ok,” Prof. Johnson said, “the lab physics class unfortunately requires that you’ve had calculus. Would you like to take calculus now? Have you had geometry, algebra, and trigonometry?”
Peter said, “Yes, I did, but I’d like a little break from that now. Maybe I could take calculus next semester.”
“Fair enough. You said you liked to read.”
“Magazines and newspapers.”
“Those things deal with the unfolding human story. I wonder if you’d like to take world civilization now, or a political science course.”
“History, but why study world history? Why can’t I just study U.S. history?”
Prof. Johnson said, “The story of our country is intertwined with that of our world. I think you might find that some of the things in world history are a lot closer to home than you think—and we have some real storytellers in our history department.”
“That sounds interesting. What else?”
“The Theology of Culture class is one many students find enjoyable, and it helps build a foundation for Old and New Testament courses. Would you be interested in taking it for A quad or B quad, the first or second half of the semester?”
“Could I do both?”
“I wish I could say yes, but this course only lasts half the semester. The other half you could take Foundations of Wellness—you could do running as homework!”
“I think I’ll do that first, and then Theology of Culture. That should be new,” Peter said, oblivious to how tightly connected he was to theology and culture. “What else?”
Prof. Johnson said, “We have classes where people read things that a lot of people have found really interesting. Well, that could describe several classes, but I was thinking about Classics of Western Literature or Literature of the Modern World.”
Peter said, “Um… Does Classics of Western Literature cover ancient and medieval literature, and Literature of the Modern World cover literature that isn’t Western? Because if they do, I’m not sure I could connect with it.”
Prof. Johnson relaxed into his seat, a movable support that met the contours of his body. Violating convention somewhat, he had a chair for Peter that was as pleasant to rest in as his own. “You know, a lot of people think that. But you know what?”
Peter said, “What?”
“There is something human that crosses cultures. That is why the stories have been selected. Stories written long ago, and stories written far away, can have a lot to connect with.”
“Ok. How many more courses should I take?”
“You’re at 11 credits now; you probably want 15. Now you said that you like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’m wondering if you would also like a philosophy course.”
Peter said, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is… I don’t suppose there are any classes that use that. Or are there? I’ve heard Pirsig isn’t given his fair due by philosophers.”
Prof. Johnson said, “If you approach one of our philosophy courses the way you approach Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I think you’ll profit from the encounter. I wonder if our Issues and Worldviews in Philosophy might interest you. I’m a big fan of thinking worldviewishly, and our philosophers have some pretty interesting things to say.”
Peter asked, “What does ‘worldviewishly’ mean?”
Prof. Johnson said, “It means thinking in terms of worldviews. A worldview is the basic philosophical framework that gives shape to how we view the world. Our philosophers will be able to help you understand the basic issues surrounding worldviews and craft your own Christian worldview. You may find this frees you from the Enlightenment’s secularizing influence—and if you don’t know what the Enlightenment is now, you will learn to understand it, and its problems, and how you can be free of them.” He spoke with the same simplistic assurance of artificial intelligence researchers who, seeing the power of computers and recognizing how simple certain cognitive feats are for humans, assumed that it was only a matter of time that artificial intelligence would “bridge the gap”—failing to recognize the tar pit of the peaks of intelligence that seem so deceptively simple and easy to human phenomenology. For computers could often defeat the best human players at chess—as computerlike a human skill as one might reasonably find—but deciphering the language of a children’s book or walking through an unfamiliar room, so easy to humans, seemed more difficult for computers the more advanced research began. Some researchers believed that the artificial intelligence project had uncovered the non-obvious significance of a plethora of things humans take for granted—but the majority still believed that what seemed trivial for humans must be the sort of thinking a computer can do, because there is no other kind of thinking… and an isomorphic simplicity, an apparent and deceptive simplicity much like this one, made it seem as if ideas were all that really mattered: not all that existed, but all that had an important influence. Prof. Johnson did not consciously understand how the Enlightenment worldview—or, more accurately, the Enlightenment—created the possibility of seeing worldviews that way, nor did he see how strange the idea of crafting one’s own worldview would seem to pre-Enlightenment Christians. He did not realize that his own kindness towards Peter was not simply because he agreed with certain beliefs, but because of a deep and many-faceted way in which he had walked for decades, and walked well. It was with perfect simplicity that he took this way for granted, as artificial intelligence researchers took for granted all the things which humans did so well they seemed to come naturally, and framed worldviewish thought as carrying with it everything he assumed from his way.
Peter said, “Ok. Well, I’ll take those classes. It was good to meet you.”
Prof. Johnson looked over a document that was the writeup of a sort of game, in which one had a number of different rooms that were of certain sizes, and certain classes had requirements about what kind of room they needed for how long, and the solution involved not only solving the mathematical puzzle, but meeting with teachers and caring for their concerns, longstanding patterns, and a variety of human dimensions derisively labelled as “political.” Prof. Johnson held in his hands the schedule with the official solution for that problem, and guided Peter to an allowable choice of class sections, taking several different actions that were considered “boring paperwork.”
Prof. Johnson said, “I enjoyed talking with you. Please do take some more candy—put a handful in your pocket or something. I just want to make one more closing comment. I want to see you succeed. Wheaton wants to see you succeed. There are some rough points and problems along the way, and if you bring them to me I can work with them and try to help you. If you want to talk with your RA or our chaplain or someone else, that’s fine, but please… my door is always open. And it was good to meet you too! Goodbye!”
Peter walked out, completely relaxed.
The next activity, besides nourishing himself with lunch (and eating, sleeping, and many other activities form a gentle background rhythm to the activities people are more conscious of. I will not describe each time Peter eats and sleeps, even though the 100th time in the story he eats with his new friends is as significant as the first, because I will be trying to help you see it their way), requires some explanation.
The term “quest,” to the people here, is associated with an image of knights in armor, and a body of literature from writers like Chretien de Troyes and Sir Thomas Mallory who described King Arthur and his knights. In Chretien de Troyes, the knight goes off in various adventures, often quests where he is attempting different physical feats. In Sir Thomas Mallory, a new understanding of quests is introduced, in the quest for the holy grail—a legendary treasure which I cannot here explain save to say that it profoundly altered the idea of a quest, and the quest took a large enough place in many people’s consciousness that it is used as a metaphor of the almost unattainable object of an ultimate pursuit (so that physicists would say that a grand unified theory which crystallizes all physical laws into a few simple equations is the “holy grail of physics”), and that the holy grail is itself in the shadow of a greater treasure, and this treasure was one many people in fact had possessed (some after great struggle, while others had never known a time when they were without it). In Mallory in particular the quest can be more than a physical task; most of Arthur’s knights could not reach the holy grail because of—they weren’t physical blemishes and they weren’t really mental blemishes either, but what they were is hard to say. The whole topic (knights, quests, the holy grail…) connects to something about that world that is beyond my ability to convey; suffice it to say that it is connected with one more dimension we don’t have here.
Peter, along with another group of students, went out on a quest. The object of this quest was to acquire seven specific items, on conditions which I will explain below:
“A dog biscuit.” In keeping with a deeply human trait, the food they prepare is not simply what they judge adequate to sustain the body, but meant to give pleasure, in a sense adorned, because eating is not to them simply a biological need. They would also get adorned food to give pleasure to organisms they kept, including dogs, which include many different breeds which in turn varied from being natural sentries protecting territories to a welcoming committee of one which would give a visitor an exuberant greeting just because he was there.
“An M16 rifle’s spent shell casing.” That means the used remnant after… wait a little bit. I need to go a lot farther back to explain this one.You will find something deceptively familiar in that in that universe, people strategically align resources and then attack their opponents, usually until a defeat is obvious. And if you look for what is deceptive, it will be a frustrating search, because even if the technologies involved are primitive, it is a match of strategy, tactics, and opposition.What makes it different is that this is not a recreation or an art form, but something many of them consider the worst evil that can happen, or among the worst. The resources that are destroyed, the bodies—in our world, it is simply what is involved in the game, but many of them consider it an eternal loss.
Among the people we will be meeting, people may be broken down into “pacifists” who believe that war is always wrong, and people who instead of being pure pacifists try to have a practical way of pursuing pacifist goals: the disagreement is not whether one should have a war for amusement’s sake (they both condemn that), but what one should do when not having a war looks even more destructive than having a war. And that does not do justice to either side of the debate, but what I want to emphasize that to both of them this is not simply a game or one form of recreation; it is something to avoid at almost any cost.
A knight was someone who engaged in combat, an elite soldier riding an animal called a horse. In Chretien de Troye’s day and Mallory’s day, the culture was such that winning a fight was important, but fighting according to “chivalry” was more important. Among other things, chivalry meant that they would only use simple weapons based on mechanical principles—no poison—and they wouldn’t even use weapons with projectiles, like arrows and (armor piercing) crossbow bolts. In practice that only meant rigid piercing and cutting weapons, normally swords and spears. And there was a lot more. A knight was to protect women and children.
The form that chivalry took in Peter’s day allowed projectile weapons, although poison was still not allowed, along with biological, thermonuclear, and other weapons which people did not wish to see in war, and the fight to disfigure the tradition’s understanding women had accorded them meant that women could fight and be killed like men, although people worked to keep children out of warfare, and in any case the “Geneva Convention”, as the code of chivalry was called, maintained a sharp distinction between combatants and non-combatants, the latter of which were to be protected.
The specific projectile weapon carried by most members of the local army was called an M16 rifle, which fired surprisingly small .22 bullets—I say “surprisingly” because if you were a person fighting against them and you were hit, you would be injured but quite probably not killed.
This was intentional. (Yes, they knew how to cause an immediate kill.)
Part of it is the smaller consideration that if you killed an enemy soldier immediately, you took one soldier out of action; on the other hand, if you wounded an enemy soldier, you took three soldiers out of action. But this isn’t the whole reason. The much bigger part of the reason is that their sense of chivalry (if it was really just chivalry; they loved their enemies) meant that even in their assaults they tried to subdue with as little killing as possible.
There were people training with the army in that community (no, not Peter; Peter was a pure pacifist) who trained, with M16 rifles, not because they wanted to fight, but as part of a not entirely realistic belief that if they trained hard enough, their achievement would deter people who would go to war. And the “Crusader battalion” (the Crusaders were a series of people who fought to defend Peter’s spiritual ancestors from an encroaching threat that would have destroyed them) had a great sense of chivalry, even if none of them used the word “chivalry”.
“A car bumper.” A car bumper is a piece of armor placed on the front and back of cars so that they can sustain low-velocity collisions without damage. (At higher velocities, newer cars are designed to serve as a buffer so that “crumple zones” will be crushed, absorbing enough of the impact so that the “passenger cage” reduces injuries sustained by people inside; this is part of a broader cultural bent towards minimizing preventable death because of what they believe about one human life.) Not only is a car bumper an unusual item to give, it is heavy and awkward enough that people tend not to carry such things with them—even the wealthy ones tend to be extraordinarily lightly encumbered.
“An antique.” It is said, “The problem with England is that they believe 100 miles is a long distance, and the problem with America is that they believe 100 years is a long time.” An antique—giving the rule without all the special cases and exceptions, which is to say giving the rule as if it were not human—is something over 100 years old. To understand this, you must appreciate that it does not include easily available rocks, many of which are millions or billions of years old, and it is not based on the elementary particles that compose something (one would have to search hard to find something not made out of elementary particles almost as old as the universe). The term “antique” connotes rarity, and in a sense something out of the ordinary; that people’s way is concerned with “New! New! New!” and it is hard to find an artifact that was created more than 100 years ago, which is what was intended.This quest is all the more interesting because there is an “unwritten rule” that items will be acquired by asking, not by theft or even purchase—and, as most antiques are valuable, it would be odd for someone you’ve just met—and therefore with whom you have only the general human bond but not the special bond of friendship—to give you such an item, even if most of the littler things in life are acquired economically while the larger things can only be acquired by asking.
“A note from a doctor, certifying that you do not have bubonic plague.” Intended as a joke, this refers to a health, safeguarded by their medicine, which keeps them from a dreadful disease which tore apart societies some centuries ago: that sort of thing wasn’t considered a live threat because of how successful their medicine was (which is why it could be considered humorous).
“A burning piece of paper which no one in your group lit. (Must be presented in front of Fischer and not brought into the building.)” This presents a physical challenge, in that there is no obvious way to transport a burning piece of paper—or what people characteristically envision as a burning piece of paper—from almost anywhere else to in front of Fischer.
“A sheet of paper with a fingerpaint handprint from a kindergartener.””Kindergarten” was the first year of their formal education, and a year of preparation before students were ready to enter their first grade. What did this society teach at its first, required year? Did it teach extraordinarily abstract equations, or cosmological theory, or literary archetypes, or how to use a lathe?All of these could be taught later on, and for that matter there is reason to value all of them. But the very beginning held something different. It taught people to take their turn and share; it taught people “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” the Golden Rule by which their great Teachers crystallized so much wisdom. All of this work and play, some of the most advanced lessons they could learn, were placed, not at the end, but at the beginning of their education.
That is what kindergarten was. What was a kindergartener? The true but uninformative answer would be “a person in kindergarten.”
To get past that uninformative answer, I need to stress that their minds are bound up with organic life—they did not spring, fully formed, as you and I did. In most complex organisms, there is a process that transforms a genetically complete organism of just one cell to become a mature member of the species; among humans, that process is one of the longest and most complex. During that time their minds are developping as well as their bodies; in that regard they are not simply in harmony with the natural world this society believes it is separate from… but one of its best examples.
But to say that alone is to flatten out something interesting… even more interesting than the process of biological mental development is the place that society has for something called “childhood”. Not all cultures have that concept—and again I am saying “culture” without explaining what it means. I can’t. Not all societies understand “childhood” as this society does; to many, a child is a smaller and less capable adult, or even worse, a nonentity. But in this culture, childhood is a distinctive time, and a child, including a kindergardener, is something special—almost a different species of mind. Their inability to healthily sustain themselves is met, not always with scorn, but with a giving of support and protection—and this is not always a grudging duty, but something that can bring joy. They are viewed as innocent, which is certainly not true, and something keeps many people from resenting them when they prove that they are not innocent by doing things that would not be tolerated if an adult did it. And the imperviousness of this belief to contrary experience is itself the shadow of the whole place of childhood as a time to play and learn and explore worlds of imagination and the things most adults take for granted. And many adults experience a special pleasure, and much more than a pleasure, from the company of children, a pleasure that is tied to something much deeper.
This pleasure shines through even a handprint left with “fingerpaints,” a way of doing art reserved for children, so that this physical object is itself a symbol of all that is special about childhood, and like symbols of that world carries with it what is evoked: seeing such a handprint is a little like seeing a kindergartener.
And they were off. They stopped for a brief break and annoyedly watched the spectacle of over a hundred linked metal carts carrying a vast quantity of material, and walked in and out of the surrounding neighborhoods. Their knocks on the door met a variety of warm replies. Before long, they had a handprint from a kindergartener, a dog biscuit (and some very enthusiastic attention from a kind dog!), a note from an off-duty doctor (who did not examine them, but simply said that if they had the bubonic plague there would be buboes bulging from them in an obvious way), a cigarette lighter and a sheet of paper (unlit), a twisted bumper (which Peter surprised people by flipping over his shoulder), and finally a spent shell casing from a military science professor. When they climbed up “Fischer beach,” John handed the paper and lighter to his RA and said, “Would you light this?” It was with an exhausted satisfaction that they went to dinner and had entirely amiable conversation with other equally students who scant minutes ago had been their competitors.
When dinner was finished, Peter and Mary sat for a while in exhausted silence, before climbing up for the next scheduled activity—but I am at a loss for how to describe the next scheduled activity. To start with, I will give a deceptive description. If you can understand this activity, you will have understood a great deal more of what is in that world that doesn’t fit in ours.
Do I have to give a deceptive description, in that any description in our terms will be more or less deceptive? I wasn’t trying to make that kind of philosophical point; I wasn’t tring to make a philosophical point at all. I am choosing a description of the next scheduled activity that is more deceptive than it needs to be.
When students studied an academic discipline called “physics,” the curriculum was an initiation into progressively stranger and more esoteric doctrines, presented at the level which students were able to receive them. Students were first taught “Newtonian mechanics” (which openly regarded as false), before being initiated into “Einstein’s relativity” at the next level (which was also considered false, but was widely believed to be closer to the truth). Students experienced a “night and day” difference between Newtonian mechanics and all higher order mysteries. If you were mathematically adept enough to follow the mathematics, then Newton was easy because he agreed with good old common sense, and Einstein and even stranger mysteries were hard to understand because they turned common sense on its head. Newton was straightforward while the others were profoundly counterintuitive. So Einstein, unlike Newton, required a student to mentally engulf something quite alien to normal, common sense ways of thinking about the world around oneself. Hence one could find frustrated student remarks about, “And God said, ‘Let there be light!’ And there was Newton. Then the Devil howled, ‘Let Einstein be!’ and restored the status quo.”
Under this way of experiencing physics, Newton simply added mathematical formality to what humans always knew: everything in space fit in one long and continuous three-dimensional grid, and time could be measured almost as if it were a line, and so Einstein was simply making things more difficult and further from humans’ natural perceptions when his version of a fully mathematical model softened the boundaries of space and time so that one could no longer treat it as if it had a grid for a skeleton.
Someone acquainted with the history of science might make the observation that it was not so much that Newton’s mechanics were a mathematically rigorous formalization of how people experienced space and time, but that how people experienced space and time hadbecome a hazy and non-mathematical paraphrase of Newtonian mechanics: in other words, some students some students learned Newtonian mechanics easily, not because Newtonian physics was based on common sense, but because their “common sense” had been profoundly shaped by Newtonian physics.
This seemingly pedantic distinction was deeply tied to how the organic was being extinguished in their society.
I suspect you are thinking, “What other mathematical model was it based on instead?” And that’s why you’re having trouble guessing the answer.
The answer is related to the organic. Someone who knew Newton and his colleagues, and what they were rebelling against, could get a sense of something very different even without understanding what besides mathematics would undergird what space meant to them. In a certain sense, Newton forcefully stated the truth, but in a deceptive way. He worked hard to forge a concept of cold matter, pointing out that nature was not human—and it was a philosophical error to think of nature as human, but it was not nearly so great as one might think. Newton and his colleagues powerfully stressed that humans were superior to the rest of the physical world (which was not human), that they were meant not simply to be a part of nature but to conquer and rule it. And in so doing they attacked an equally great truth, that not only other life but even “inanimate” matter was kin to humans—lesser kin, perhaps, but humans and the rest of the natural world formed a continuity. They obscured the wisdom that the lordship humans were to exercise was not of a despot controlling something worthless, but the mastery of the crowning jewel of a treasure they had been entrusted to them. They introduced the concept of “raw material”, something as foreign to their thinking as… I can’t say what our equivalent would be, because everything surrounding “raw material” is so basic to us, and what they believed instead, their organic perception, is foreign to us. They caused people to forget that, while it would be a philosophical error to literally regard the world as human, it would be much graver to believe it is fundamentally described as inert, cold matter. And even when they had succeeded in profoundly influencing their cultures, so that people consciously believed in cold matter to a large degree, vestiges of the ancient experience survived in the medieval. It is perhaps not a coincidence that hundreds of years since Newton, in Newton’s own “mother tongue” (English), the words for “matter” and “mother” both sprung from the same ancient root word.
The Newtonian conception of space had displaced to some degree the older conception of place, a conception which was less concerned with how far some place was from other different places, and more concerned with a sort of color or, to some extent, meaning. The older conception also had a place for some things which couldn’t really be stated under the new conception: people would say, “You can’t be in two places at once.” What they meant by that was to a large degree something different, “Your body cannot be at two different spatial positions at the same time.” This latter claim was deceptive, because it was true so far as it goes, but it was a very basic fact of life that people could be in two places at once. The entire point of the next scheduled activity was to be in two places at once.
Even without describing what the other place was (something which could barely be suggested even in that world) and acknowledging that the point of the activity was to be in two places at once, this description of that activity would surprise many of the people there, and disturb those who could best sense the other place. The next scheduled activity was something completely ordinary to them, a matter of fact event that held some mystery, and something that would not occur to them as being in two places at once. The activity of being present in two or more places at once was carried on, on a tacit level, even when people had learned to conflate place with mathematical position. One such activity was confused with what we do when we remember: when we remember, we recall data from storage, while they cause the past to be present. The words, “This do in rememberance of me,” from a story that was ancient but preserved in the early medieval period we are looking at, had an unquestioned meaning of, “Cause me to be present by doing this,” but had suffered under a quite different experience of memory, so that to some people it meant simply to go over data about a person who had been present in the past but could not be present then.
But this activity was not remembering. Or at least, it was not just remembering. And this leaves open the difficulty of explaining how it was ordinary to them. It was theoretically in complete continuity with the rest of their lives, although it would be more accurate to say that the rest of their lives were theoretically in complete continuity with it. This activity was in a sense the most human, and the most organic, in that in it they led the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, the plants, the rocks, the mountains, and the sees in returning to the place they came from. This description would also likely astonish the people who were gathered in a painted brick room, sitting on carpet and on movable perches, and seeing through natural light mixed with flickering fluorescent lights. Not one of them was thinking about “nature.”
What went on there was in a very real sense mediocre. Each activity was broken down, vulgarized, compared to what it could be—which could not obliterate what was going on. When they were songs, they were what were called “7-11” songs, a pejorative term which meant songs with seven words repeated eleven times. There was a very real sense in which the event was diminished by the music, but even when you factor in every diminishing force, there was something going on there, something organic and more than organic, which you and I do not understand—for that matter, which many people in that world do not understand.
Archon was silent for a long time.
Ployon said, “What is it?”
Archon said, “I can’t do it. I can’t explain this world. All I’ve really been doing is taking the pieces of that world that are a bit like ours. You’ve been able to understand much of it because I haven’t tried to convey several things that are larger than our world. ‘God’ is still a curious and exotic appendage that isn’t connected to anything, not really; I haven’t been able to explain, really explain, what it is to be male and female unities, or what masculinity and femininity are. There are a thousand things, and… I’ve been explaining what three-dimensional substance is to a two-dimensional world, and the way I’ve been doing it is to squash it into two dimensions, and make it understandable by removing from it everything that makes it three dimensional. Or almost everything…”
“How would a three dimensional being, a person from that world, explain the story?”
“But it wouldn’t. A three dimensional being wouldn’t collapse a cube into a square to make it easier for itself to understand; that’s something someone who couldn’t free itself from reading two dimensional thinking into three dimensions would do. You’re stuck in two dimensions. So am I. That’s why I failed, utterly failed, to explain the “brother-sister floor fellowship”, the next scheduled activity. And my failure is structural. It’s like I’ve been setting out to copy a living, moving organism by sculpturing something that looks like it out of steel. And what I’ve been doing is making intricate copies of its every contour, and painting the skin and fur exactly the same color, and foolishly hoping it will come alive. And this is something I can’t make by genetic engineering.”
“But how would someone from that world explain the story? Even if I can’t understand it, I want to know.”
“But people from that world don’t explain stories. A story isn’t something you explain; it’s something that may be told, shared, but usually it is a social error to explain a story, because a story participates in human life and telling a story connects one human to another. And so it’s a fundamental error to think a story is something you convey by explaining it—like engineering a robotic body for an animal so you can allow it to have a body. I have failed because I was trying something a mind could only fail at.”
“Then can you tell the story, like someone from that world would tell it?”
Peter and Mary both loved to run, but for different reasons. Peter was training himself for various races; he had not joined track, as he did in high school, but there were other races. Mary ran to feel the sun and wind and rain. And, without any conscious effort, they found themselves running together down the prairie path together, and Peter clumsily learning to match his speed to hers. And, as time passed, they talked, and talked, and talked, and talked, and their runs grew longer.
When the fall break came, they both joined a group going to the northwoods of Wisconsin for a program that was half-work and half-play. And each one wrote a letter home about the other. Then Peter began his theology of culture class, and said, “This is what I want to study.” Mary did not have a favorite class, at least not that she realized, until Peter asked her what her favorite class was and she said, “Literature.”
When Christmas came, they went to their respective homes and spent the break thinking about each other, and they talked about this when they returned. They ended the conversation, or at least they thought they did, and then each hurried back to catch the other and say one more thing, and then the conversation turned out to last much longer, and ended with a kiss.
Valentine’s Day was syrupy. It was trite enough that their more romantically inclined friends groaned, but it did not seem at all trite or syrupy to them. As Peter’s last name was Patrick, he called Mary’s father and prayed that St. Patrick’s Day would be a momentous day for both of them.
Peter and Mary took a slow run to a nearby village, and had dinner at an Irish pub. Amidst the din, they had some hearty laughs. The waitress asked Mary, “Is there anything else that would make this night memorable?” Then Mary saw Peter on his knee, opening a jewelry box with a ring: “I love you, Mary. Will you marry me?”
Mary cried for a good five minutes before she could answer. And when she had answered, they sat in silence, a silence that overpowered the din. Then Mary wiped her eyes and they went outside.
It was cool outside, and the moon was shining brightly. Peter pulled a camera from his pocket, and said, “Stay where you are. Let me back up a bit. And hold your hand up. You look even more beautiful with that ring on your finger.”
Peter’s camera flashed as he took a picture, just as a drunk driver slammed into Mary. The sedan spun into a storefront, and Mary flew up into the air, landed, and broke a beer bottle with her face.
People began to come out, and in a few minutes the police and paramedics arrived. Peter somehow managed to answer the police officers’ questions and to begin kicking himself for being too stunned to act.
When Peter left his room the next day, he looked for Prof. Johnson. Prof. Johnson asked, “May I give you a hug?” and then sat there, simply being with Peter in his pain. When Peter left, Prof. Johnson said, “I’m not just here for academics. I’m here for you.” Peter went to chapel and his classes, feeling a burning rage that almost nothing could pierce. He kept going to the hospital, and watching Mary with casts on both legs and one arm, and many tiny stitches on her face, fluttering on the borders of consciousness. One time Prof. Johnson came to visit, and he said, “I can’t finish my classes.” Prof. Johnson looked at him and said, “The college will give you a full refund.” Peter said, “Do you know of any way I can stay here to be with Mary?” Prof. Johnson said, “You can stay with me. And I believe a position with UPS would let you get some income, doing something physical. The position is open for you.” Prof. Johnson didn’t mention the calls he’d made, and Peter didn’t think about them. He simply said, “Thank you.”
A few days later, Mary began to be weakly conscious. Peter finally asked a nurse, “Why are there so many stitches on her face? Was she cut even more badly than—”
The nurse said, “There are a lot of stitches very close together because the emergency room had a cosmetic surgeon on duty. There will still be a permanent mark on her face, but some of the wound will heal without a scar.”
Mary moved the left half of her mouth in half a smile. Peter said, “That was a kind of cute smile. How come she can smile like that?”
The nurse said, “One of the pieces of broken glass cut a nerve. It is unlikely she’ll ever be able to move part of her face again.”
Peter looked and touched Mary’s hand. “I still think it’s really quite cute.”
Mary looked at him, and then passed out.
Peter spent a long couple of days training and attending to practical details. Then he came back to Mary.
Mary looked at Peter, and said, “It’s a Monday. Don’t you have classes now?”
Peter said, “No.”
Mary said, “Why not?”
Peter said, “I want to be here with you.”
Mary said, “I talked with one of the nurses, and she said that you dropped out of school so you could be with me.
“Is that true?” she said.
Peter said, “I hadn’t really thought about it that way.”
Mary closed her eyes, and when Peter started to leave because he decided she wanted to be left alone, she said, “Stop. Come here.”
Peter came to her bedside and knelt.
Mary said, “Take this ring off my finger.”
Peter said, “Is it hurting you?”
Mary said, “No, and it is the greatest treasure I own. Take it off and take it back.”
Peter looked at her, bewildered. “Do you not want to marry me?”
Mary said, “This may sting me less because I don’t remember our engagement. I don’t remember anything that happened near that time; I have only the stories others, even the nurses, tell me about a man who loves me very much.”
Peter said, “But don’t you love me?”
Mary forced back tears. “Yes, I love you, yes, I love you. And I know that you love me. You are young and strong, and have the love to make a happy marriage. You’ll make some woman a very good husband. I thought that woman would be me.
“But I can see what you will not. You said I was beautiful, and I was. Do you know what my prognosis is? I will probably be able to stand. At least for short periods of time. If I’m fortunate, I may walk. With a walker. I will never be able to run again—Peter, I am nobody, and I have no future. Absolutely nobody. You are young and strong. Go and find a woman who is worth your love.”
Mary and Peter both cried for a long time. Then Peter walked out, and paused in the doorway, crying. He felt torn inside, and then went in to say a couple of things to Mary. He said, “I believe in miracles.”
Then Mary cried, and Peter said something else I’m not going to repeat. Mary said something. Then another conversation began.
The conversation ended with Mary saying, “You’re stupid, Peter. You’re really, really stupid. I love you. I don’t deserve such love. You’re making a mistake. I love you.” Then Peter went to kiss Mary, and as he bent down, he bent his mouth to meet the lips that he still saw as “really quite cute.”
The stress did not stop. The physical therapists, after time, wondered that Mary had so much fight in her. But it stressed her, and Peter did his job without liking it. Mary and Peter quarreled and made up and quarreled and made up. Peter prayed for a miracle when they made up and sometimes when they quarreled. Were this not enough stress, there was an agonizingly long trial—and knowing that the drunk driver was behind bars surprisingly didn’t make things better. But Mary very slowly learned to walk again. After six months, if Peter helped her, she could walk 100 yards before the pain became too great to continue.
Peter hadn’t been noticing that the stress diminished, but he did become aware of something he couldn’t put his finger on. After a night of struggling, he got up, went to church, and was floored by the Bible reading of, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” and the idea that when you do or do not visit someone in prison, you are visiting or refusing to visit Christ. Peter absently went home, tried to think about other things, made several phone calls, and then forced himself to drive to one and only one prison.
He stopped in the parking lot, almost threw up, and then steeled himself to go inside. He found a man, Jacob, and… Jacob didn’t know who Peter was, but he recognized him as looking familiar. It was an awkward meeting. Then he recognized him as the man whose now wife he had crippled. When Peter left, he vomited and felt like a failure. He talked about it with Mary…
That was the beginning of a friendship. Peter chose to love the man in prison, even if there was no pleasure in it. And that created something deeper than pleasure, something Peter couldn’t explain.
As Peter and Mary were planning the wedding, Mary said, “I want to enter with Peter next to me, no matter what the tradition says. It will be a miracle if I have the strength to stand for the whole wedding, and if I have to lean on someone I want it to be Peter. And I don’t want to sit on a chair; I would rather spend my wedding night wracked by pain than go through my wedding supported by something lifeless!”
When the rehearsal came, Mary stood, and the others winced at the pain in her face. And she stood, and walked, for the entire rehearsal without touching Peter once. Then she said, “I can do it. I can go through the wedding on my own strength,” and collapsed in pain.
At the wedding, she stood next to Peter, walking, her face so radiant with joy that some of the guests did not guess she was in exquisite pain. They walked next to each other, not touching, and Mary slowed down and stopped in the center of the church. Peter looked at her, wondering what Mary was doing.
Then Mary’s arm shot around Peter’s neck, and Peter stood startled for a moment before he placed his arm around her, squeezed her tightly, and they walked together to the altar.
On the honeymoon, Mary told Peter, “You are the only person I need.” This was the greatest bliss either of them had known, and the honeymoon’s glow shined and shined.
Peter and Mary agreed to move somewhere less expensive to settle down, and were too absorbed in their wedded bliss and each other to remember promises they had made earlier, promises to seek a church community for support and friends. And Peter continued working at an unglamorous job, and Mary continued fighting to walk and considered the housework she was capable of doing a badge of honor, and neither of them noticed that the words, “I love you” were spoken ever so slightly less frequently, nor did they the venom creeping into their words.
One night they exploded. What they fought about was not important. What was important was that Peter left, burning with rage. He drove, and drove, until he reached Wheaton, and at daybreak knocked on Prof. Johnson’s door. There was anger in his voice when he asked, “Are you still my friend?”
Prof. Johnson got him something to eat and stayed with him when he fumed with rage, and said, “I don’t care if I’m supposed to be with her, I can’t go back!” Then Prof. Johnson said, “Will you make an agreement with me? I promise you I won’t ever tell you to go back to her, or accept her, or accept what she does, or apologize to her, or forgive her, or in any way be reconciled. But I need you to trust me that I love you and will help you decide what is best to do.”
Peter said, “Yes.”
Prof. Johnson said, “Then stay with me. You need some rest. Take the day to rest. There’s food in the fridge, and I have books and a nice back yard. There’s iced tea in the—excuse me, there’s Coke and 7 Up in the boxes next to the fridge. When I can come back, we can talk.”
Peter relaxed, and he felt better. He told Prof. Johnson. Prof. Johnson said, “That’s excellent. What I’d like you to do next is go in to work, with a lawyer I know. You can tell him what’s going on, and he’ll lead you to a courtroom to observe.”
Peter went away to court the next day, and when he came back he was ashen. He said nothing to Prof. Johnson.
Then, after the next day, he came back looking even more unhappy. “The first day, the lawyer, George, took me into divorce court. I thought I saw the worst that divorce court could get. Until I came back today. It was the same—this sickening scene where two people had become the most bitter enemies. I hope it doesn’t come to this. This was atrocious. It was vile. It was more than vile. It was—”
Prof. Johnson sent him back for a third day. This time Peter said nothing besides, “I think I’ve been making a mistake.”
After the fourth day, Peter said, “Help me! I’ve been making the biggest mistake of my life!”
After a full week had passed, Peter said, “Please, I beg you, don’t send me back there.”
Prof. Johnson sent Peter back to watch a divorce court for one more miserable, excruciating day. Then he said, “Now you can do whatever you want. What do you want to do?”
The conflict between Peter and Mary ended the next day.
Peter went home, begging Mary for forgiveness, and no sooner than he had begun his apology, a thousand things were reflected in Mary’s face and she begged his forgiveness. Then they talked, and debated whether to go back to Wheaton, or stay where they were. Finally Mary said, “I really want to go back to Wheaton.”
Peter began to shyly approach old friends. He later misquoted: “I came crawling with a thimble in the desparate hope that they’d give a few tiny drops of friendship and love. Had I known how they would respond, I would have come running with a bucket!”
Peter and Mary lived together for many years; they had many children and were supported by many friends.
Ployon said, “I didn’t follow every detail, but… there was something in that that stuck.”
Archon said, “How long do you think it lasted?”
“A little shorter than the other one, I mean first part.”
“Do you have any idea how many days were in each part?”
“About the same? I assume the planet had slowed down so that a year and a day were of roughly equal length.”
“The first part took place during three days. The latter part spanned several thousand days—”
“I guess I didn’t understand it—”
“—which is… a sign that you understood something quite significant… that you knew what to pay attention to and were paying attention to the right thing.”
“But I didn’t understand it. I had a sense that it was broken off before the end, and that was the end, right?”
Archon hesitated, and said, “There’s more, but I’d rather not go into that.”
Ployon said, “Are you sure?”
“You won’t like it.”
The years passed and Peter and Mary grew into a blissfully happy marriage. Mary came to have increasing health problems as a result of the accident, and those around them were amazed at how their love had transformed the suffering the accident created in both of their lives. At least those who knew them best saw the transformation. There were many others who could only see their happiness as a mirage.
As the years passed, Jacob grew to be a good friend. And when Peter began to be concerned that his wife might be… Jacob had also grown wealthy, very wealthy, and assembled a top-flight legal team (without taking a dime of Peter’s money—over Peter’s protests!), to prevent what the doctors would normally do in such a case, given recent shifts in the medical system.
And then Mary’s health grew worse, much worse, and her suffering grew worse with it, and pain medications seemed to be having less and less effect. Those who didn’t know Mary were astonished that someone in so much pain could enjoy life so much, nor the hours they spent gazing into each other’s eyes, holding hands, when Mary’s pain seemed to vanish. A second medical opinion, and a third, and a fourth, confirmed that Mary had little chance of recovery even to her more recent state. And whatever measures been taken, whatever testimony Peter and Mary could give about the joy of their lives, the court’s decision still came:
The court wishes to briefly review the facts of the case. Subject is suffering increasingly severe effects from an injury that curtailed her life greatly as a young person. from which she has never recovered, and is causing increasingly complications now that she will never again have youth’s ability to heal. No fewer than four medical opinions admitted as expert testimony substantially agree that subject is in extraordinary and excruciating pain; that said excruciating pain is increasing; that said excruciating pain is increasingly unresponsive to medication; that subject has fully lost autonomy and is dependent on her husband; that this dependence is profound, without choice, and causes her husband to be dependent without choice on others and exercise little autonomy; and the prognosis is only of progressively worse deterioration and increase in pain, with no question of recovery.
The court finds it entirely understandable that the subject, who has gone through such trauma, and is suffering increasingly severe complications, would be in a state of some denial. Although a number of positions could be taken, the court also finds it understandable that a husband would try to maintain a hold on what cannot exist, and needlessly prolong his wife’s suffering. It is not, however, the court’s position to judge whether this is selfish…
For all the impressive-sounding arguments that have been mounted, the court cannot accord a traumatized patient or her ostensibly well-meaning husband a privelege that the court itself does not claim. The court does not find that it has an interest in allowing this woman to continue in her severe and worsening state of suffering.
Peter was at her side, holding her hand and looking into his wife’s eyes, The hospital doctor had come. Then Peter said, “I love you,” and Mary said, “I love you,” and they kissed.
Mary’s kiss was still burning on Peter’s lips when two nurses hooked Mary up to an IV and injected her with 5000 milligrams of sodium thiopental, then a saline flush followed by 100 milligrams of pancurium bromide, then a saline flush and 20 milligrams of potassium chloride.
A year later to the day, Peter died of a broken heart.
Ployon was silent for a long time, and Archon was silent for an even longer time. Ployon said, “I guess part of our world is present in that world. Is that what you mean by being in two places at once?”
Archon was silent for a long time.
Ployon said, “It seems that that world’s problems and failings are somehow greater than our achievements. I wish that world could exist, and that we could somehow visit it.”
Archon said, “Do you envy them that much?”
Ployon said, “Yes. We envy them as—”
Archon said, “—as—” and searched through his world’s images.
As the author, I have been told I have a very subtle sense of humor.
This page is a work of satire, inspired by the likes of The Onion and early incarnations of The Onion Dome.
It is not real news.
Redmond, AP. Microsoft is preparing to release an update to Windows XP offering better “truth in advertising” for one of Windows XP’s most important dialogs. From a leaked screenshot:
A Microsoft fan commented, “There may have been one or two glitches along the way, but XP was great—and Windows 7 will be the best Windows yet!” A Unix wizard muttered something about the tallest of the seven dwarves, before saying: “I know that some features are really advanced and it takes a long time to get them working, but did you know that old unfriendly Unix has offered users a choice between meekly asking a program to be kind enough to wind down, and forcing a program to immediately quit, since before the eighties? Since before Windows was a gleam in the future Sir Gates’s eye?”
“That may be,” the Microsoft fanboy said, “but Microsoft has the best ads. You have to admit that those Seinfeld ads were classic!”
The Unix guru opened his mouth, closed it, and refrained from further comment.
Metacult: So, Pater, I was thinking—wait a minute; I hear someone scratching at the door.
Janra: Hi, Vespucci. How are you?
Vespucci: Doing well. Take a seat.
Off! Off! Get off my lap! Only my wife is allowed to sit there. You know that. Anyways, the Radical Gadgets catalogue came in today…
Janra: By the way, I phoned the company today. I think I can get some World War II vintage mechanical—
Vespucci: Don’t even think about it. If you—
Pater: Easy, brothers. As you were saying?
Vespucci: As I was saying… Radical Gadgets has the most interesting tools. The cover product this month was an e-mail filtering package that uses Bayesian filtering techniques to block unwanted messages.
Janra:That’s original! I checked Freshmeat today, and I think they only have half a dozen well-known anti-spam packages, not counting lesser products and tools that have just been released. Does Radical Gadgets always find products this original?
Vespucci: But it is original. And it’s not an anti-spam package. It has nothing to do with spam.
Vespucci: Let me explain. You know that Bayesian filtering looks at a message and uses statistics to guess what category it belongs to, right?
Pater: Yes; go on.
Vespucci: But that will work whether you use it for incoming or outgoing e-mails. Most people use the filtering techniques on incoming e-mails, to try and reduce the fire hose of spam coming in. But you don’t have to stop there. You can also filter outgoing e-mails.
Pater: Why would I want to filter the e-mails I send out?
Vespucci: You’ve never sent a flame? Come on; I remember a couple of times that you flamed me over something minor, and sent a very embarrassed apology when I waited two weeks and simply sent it back, and asked you to read it aloud, and tell me whether that’s what you want me to hear from you. And it’s not just you. When you’re talking with a person face to face, there are two eyes looking at you and reminding you that a person hears every cutting word you say. That doesn’t stop conflicts, but it does mitigate some of the abrasive things we’re tempted to say. On a computer, it seems like there’s just a keyboard and pixels—no person you can actually hurt. So people hit harder, and you have incredible flamewars, often between people who conduct themselves like responsible adults when they’re talking to someone face to face. It’s possible to learn discipline, of course, and conduct yourself maturely, but all too many people don’t realise there’s a discipline you have to learn even if you’re mature.
And so instead of just assuming that the only bad e-mails are offensive messages from people who’ve never seen you, telling you that part of your body isn’t big enough and you need to buy their snake oil, or that you’re impotent, or that you’re not man enough for a relationship with a real woman and will have to content yourself with pixels on a screen—apart from these, there are offensive messages that you send out and then wish you could somehow take back and delete.
And this program does just that. Once you’ve trained it on your sent mail folder, it watches messages you send out, and uses the same Bayesian technology that’s so powerful in identifying spam, and identifies when you’re writing something you’ll regret later. Then it saves it, quarantining it in a separate folder until you come to your senses and delete it.
Pater: That’s… um, I’m going to go to their computer and order it from their website. Please excuse me for a moment. I really need to—
Metacult: Sit down, Pater. You’re not going to e-mail out any flames while we’re here talking.
Vespucci: Hmm… um, I hadn’t meant to have a big discussion about the anti-flame software. There were several things that caught my attention, but what caught my eye most was a watch that keeps exceptionally accurate time.
Pater: Huh? Who would need a more accurate way to keep time? Most cultures find an hour to be a short time, and a cheap digital watch keeps more accurate time than a $5000 Rolex, because our watches are too accurate already. It would be awfully hard to explain our to-the-second accuracy to an aboriginal—I can’t see why, besides pride that wants a possession to boast about, someone would benefit from a more accurate watch.
Vespucci: Oh, but there is benefit—worth paying $5,000 for a digital watch. Even worth having to change the batteries too often.
Vespucci: The Watch doesn’t just have an oscillating quartz crystal; it has an array of sensors in the watchband that measure skin temperature and conductivity, pulse, even a clever estimate of blood pressure, and feeds all of these into an embedded chip with some extraordinarily clever software.
This software takes these data and gets a picture of the person’s emotional state. You know how time flies when you’re having fun?
Pater: Didn’t Einstein explain his theory of relativity by saying, “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute—and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity.”
Vespucci: Um… that has nothing to do with the theory of relativity, and I’m not interested in discussing Einstein’s spacetime now. If Einstein said that, he probably had a merry twinkle in his eye. But…
Come to think about it, that is a pretty good picture. The Watch estimates your emotional state for one purpose: it keeps track of how long time seems to be passing. It has a normal timer that can count forty minutes until dinnertime, but it can also tell you how long the wait will feel like. And that’s something no other watch can do.
Metacult: So it deals with subjective time? I read a book once which was trying to argue that time could be understood as something besides the number a machine has counted to. It talked about how a small child will ask Mom how long she’s leaving for, and Mom’s answer—she’s really trying to avoid feeling guilty about leaving the child alone—are singularly unhelpful for a child trying to figure out how much perceived time must be endured before Mom returns.
Vespucci: Yes, and the minute-hour quote captures that. All watches tell what time it is from a machine’s perspective. This is the only watch that tells time from a human perspective.
Metacult: Wonderful. What does it take into account besides clock ticks and the person’s emotional state?
Vespucci: Huh? What else contributes to our experience of time besides the physical time and our psychological state?
Pater: Your question betrays nominalism. The way you’ve framed things shuts out the true answer.
Vespucci: We’re entering the third millenium; I don’t see why you’re dragging in a controversy from medieval times.
Janra: Mmmph. Excuse me. I think I need a glass of water.
Metacult: Sit down, Janra. And don’t look at me like that. I’m going let you answer that.
Janra: Certainly. Here are the steps to hunt a bear: First, fire your gun. Second, aim your gun. Third, locate a bear. Fourth, buy a gun.
Metacult: Try again.
Janra: Clothing to wear in winter: a heavy coat, then on top of that a good sweater or two, then two shirts and two pair of pants, then underwear, with woolen socks over your boots.
Metacult: Please be serious.
Janra: I am being serious.
Metacult: Then be mundane.
Janra: Oh. That’s another matter entirely.
Your entire approach is backwards and inside-out, as backwards as trying to shoot a bear before you have a gun, and as inside-out as wearing your anorak next to your skin.
How? Let me respond to your second comment. If I said, in the most reverent of tones, “We’re standing at the forty-second latitude and eighty-seventh longitude,” you’d think I was making a mountain out of a molehill: yes, we’re at a particular latitude and longitude, but what does that have to do with the price of eggs in China? It’s true, but what does that have to do with anything we’re discussing? Yet people say, “We’re entering the third millenium” as if it is this great statement of far-reaching consequences, the sort of thing that should settle a matter. As you yourself did.
People in the Middle Ages often did not know what year it was, or even what century, any more than people today know what latitude and longitude we’re at—quick—do you know what latitude and longitude you’re at? The reason is that we think the past is under a glass bell, where we humans are living our lives while those odd and quaint creatures under the bell are not the same as us. And it doesn’t need to be that way. For a long time after Shakespeare’s death, when people put on Shakespeare, they didn’t try to reconstruct period accurate costumes. Why? Did they not know that Shakespeare lived long before them? Perhaps, but they also recognised that Shakespeare was a human who worked with human problems and wrote human drama, and that the reason his plays are worth performing is not because they’re old but because they’re timelessly human. And we forget this when we take great care to dress actors in funny costumes that tell people that this is something quaint from long ago and far away.
You know that many of your physical possessions that make up the physical world come from far away: when you buy something at Target, and make no effort to find treasures from faroff land, you buy a lamp that was made in China or underpants that were made in Mexico. You know that the whole world is interconnected, so even if you don’t go hunting off for exotic imports, a great many of the things you buy were made far away.
You can as much live without ideas from bygone ages as you can live in a house you built with your own hands—or for that matter, be born in a house you built with your own hands. That isn’t how things work. Nominalism is one of innumerable ideas that has survived, just as the custom of using pots and pans has survived.
Vespucci: If it’s one of innumerable ideas, why pay it that much attention?
Janra: Because I can count on my fingers the number of conceptual revolutions that are more important today than nominalism. Trying to understand how people think today without looking at nominalism is like trying to look at a summer meadow without seeing plants. There are other important ideas, but this one makes the short list.
Vespucci: Then why have I not heard more about nominalism, when I hear people talking about postmodernism, for instance, or modernism? And what is nominalism to begin with?
Janra: For the same reason a fish won’t tell you about water. Modernism and postmodernism are both nominalism writ large; nominalism is a seed, whose flower is modernism, and whose fruit is postmodernism.
Vespucci: Hmm. I hear the distinct accent of a person laboring in the prison of one idea.
Janra: Bear with me. Nominalism may be seen as the lock on a prison: we need to pay close attention to the lock to see if there’s any way to open it. Then, if we can get out, let us see if there are not many more ideas available after we have paid proper attention to nominalism.
Now what is nominalism? In a sentence, nominalism says, “There’s nothing out there; it’s all in your head.” A nominalist doesn’t literally mean “nothing” is outside our heads; you can’t put on a watch and say, “I refute nominalism thus.”
Vespucci: But it was a non sequitur when—
Janra: Yes, I know, I know. Another tangent. But let’s forget about saying that matter is just in people’s heads and not something external to mind. As I was saying, you can’t put on a watch and say, “I refute nominalism thus.” But if we really follow nominalist logic, you can’t put on a watch. You can have nerve impulses that result in the motion of some elementary particles, but a watch is a tool-to-tell-time-which-you-wear-on-your-wrist, and a tool-to-tell-time-which-you-wear-on-your-wrist does not and cannot exist in nature. All the meaning that makes those atoms a watch can only exist in minds, and for the same reason what-we-call-a-watch can’t have the time displayed on its face. It can have elementary particles that are placed like so and interact with light just so, but the meaning that can read a time in that configuration isn’t at all in the atoms themselves; it’s in your head. This is clarified in a distinction between “brute fact” and “social reality:” brute fact is what exists outside of minds and social reality can only exist in minds, and almost anything humans value consists of a small amount of brute fact and a large portion of social reality—larger than most people would guess. Everything is either brute fact or social reality.
Pater: Is the boundary between brute fact and social reality a brute fact or a social reality?
Metacult: Shut up.
Janra: Imagine three umpires at a baseball game: the first says, “I calls ’em as they are.” The second says, “I calls ’em as I sees them.” But the third says, “Some’s strikes, and some’s balls, but they ain’t nothing ’til I calls ’em.”
With apologies to Kronecker, God created cold matter. All else is the work of man.
Pater: Whoa. Is the basic faculty that lets man create social reality derived from brute fact or social reality?
Janra: Shut up.
Now I have been showing what happens when you push nominalism a good deal further than non-scholars are likely to do. But in fact nominalism has been seeping into our consciousness for centuries, so that we might not find the claim that nature is beautiful to be a mistake, but we see with nominalist eyes and hear with nominalist ears. Most of people across most of time have understood and experienced symbols very different from how a nominalist would.
If we assume that matter is basically something cold and dead, devoid of spiritual properties, then of course a symbol can only exist in the mind, a mental connection between two things that are not connected by nature. Any similarity is in the eye of the beholder, or if not that, is at least a coincidence that isn’t grounded on anything deeper. There is no organic connection.
But if we look at how people have understood symbols, their understanding has to do with a view of reality where a great many things are real, where a symbol bespeaks a real and spiritual connection. The crowning jewel of this understanding of symbol was the claim that man is the image of God. When Christians talked about man being the image of God, they were not talking about what we would understand by a photograph or a painting, where pigments are arranged in such a way that an observer can tell they were meant to look like God; they meant a real and organic connection that went far beyond a mere representation of God; they meant that we were what you would think a kind of magical statue which not only represented God, but embodied his actual presence: God’s presence operates in us in a real way, and every breath we breathe is the breath of God.
Now the reason we began discussing nominalism was that you said something, and I said, “That question betrays nominalism.” Do you remember what you said?
Janra: We were discussing what I consider to be a very interesting watch, and you asked what could contribute to our experience of time besides what an ordinary watch tells, and our emotional state.
That question betrays nominalism. You were in essence asking what could interest us in time besides the brute fact of what most watches tell, and the social, or at least mental, reality of our emotional state.
But there’s a world of other things out there.
Vespucci: But what else is there?
Metacult: Hmm. I think we need to work a bit harder to help you look at what you believe. You’ve been keeping up on superstring theory, right?
Vespucci: Yes. I loved the explanations I could get of relativity, and I love how scientists can turn our commonsense notions upside down.
Metacult: Do you know any classical, Newtonian physics?
Vespucci: I did in high school. I’ve forgotten most of it now, but I don’t remember it being nearly as exciting: a lot of math to go through to get at common sense.
Metacult: May I instead suggest that your common sense is a nonmathematical version of Newtonian physics?
Newton’s physics was big on grids: everything was placed on a grid of absolute space, and absolute time. And it connected rooms the wrong way: different places are on the same meaningless grid, but they’re not connected besides the grid.
To the medieval mind, it wasn’t so. Each space was its own little world as far as Newton was concerned. But they were connected spiritually. There is an icon of two saints from different centuries talking, and the medieval mind was comfortable with this because it saw things other than “but they’re from other parts of the spacetime grid!”
Vespucci: But what does this have to do with time? It seems to me you’re going off on a tangent.
Metacult: Ok, back to time. Time isn’t just a grid adorned by emotions. It’s spiritually connected. You yourself are not self-contained.
Pater: And there’s liturgical time. One of the things that shocked me was that people seem to have no time. It helped me to appreciate the colorful time I had breathed. I was stunned when people experienced time as torture. I experienced it as a sacrament, a channel of God’s grace.
From other conversations, I get the impression that the liturgical year isn’t real to you: one source of holidays among others. But it is real: interlocking cycles of day, week, year, so that you are breathing in this rhythm and are given something to live in each moment. Sometimes you’re feasting; sometimes you’re fasting; often you’re given something to meditate on.
Vespucci: So the watch would do a more complete job if its little computer were programmed to keep track of the liturgical cycles? I think the engineers could do that.
Metacult: I think what he means, but cannot articulate, is that what a computer could make of the liturgical cycles are not the place that makes liturgical time. They are more of a doorway into the place, into a room that the Spirit blows. If the watch were to keep track of that, it would have to have, not more sophisticated computer programming, but something else altogether, something sensitive to spiritual realities.
Pater: And that’s just what a scientific computer, even a very small one, cannot do. Science works on nominalism. It’s brought a lot of good stuff, but it can’t perceive or work with spiritual qualities, any more than a pair of binoculars will improve your hearing. And that’s fine when you recognise that spiritual qualities are left out, but the temptation is to say, “Because science is so powerful, it sees everything that’s real.” And a watch designed by scientific engineering can do scientific things, but if it were to try and see liturgical time from the inside, it would inevitably kill what breathes in it.
Janra: So if we were to imagine a watch that keeps track of time, true time, it would need not only sensors and a miniature computer, and a time-keeping quartz crystal, but something attuned to spiritual realities.
Pater: If that were possible. In my culture, we never wear watches. The best watch would be no watch, or perhaps a rock on a wristband, where if you go to it looking for trivia, it doesn’t give what you’re looking for—and in so doing, reminds you of something important, that you need to look elsewhere.
Janra: What about a watch that had a rock alongside the things we’ve just described?
Janra: And what would men’s and women’s models look like? Would the rocks be respectively rough and smooth?
Metacult: Actually, men’s and women’s experience of time differs significantly, so if you had a watch with a truer way of telling time, there would be a much bigger difference than men’s watches being heftier and women’s watches being slender.
Metacult: I remember one time when you were talking with a new mother, and whenever the baby needed care, you stopped talking so that Mom could pay attention to her new son. It was a thoughtful gesture, and one that wasn’t needed.
Janra: Why not? I’d have wanted to be allowed to give the child my full attention.
Metacult: I know. So would most good men. A man’s particular strength is to devote his full attention to a task. A woman’s particular strength is to lightly balance several tasks, giving genuine attention to each. That mother was perfectly able to give attention to her son and listen to you at the same time. That’s why she looked at you, slightly puzzled and with an attention that says, “I’m listening,” when you stopped talking.
And there are other differences as well. If there is a situation that colors a man’s understanding of time, it is a brief period of intense pressure. A woman’s understanding of time more has the hue of a longer period that requires sustained attention. And even that misses something. The difference between a man’s experience of time and a woman’s is not so much like a difference between numbers as a difference between two colors, or sounds, or scents. It’s a qualitative difference, and one that is not appreciated—usually people feel in their heart, “She’s treating time the same way I do, but doing an unexplainably bad job of it.”
Vespucci: I forgot to tell you, the watch also asks when you were born.
Pater: Why? To remind you if you forget your birthday?
Vespucci: I’m surprised, Pater. It’s so it can keep track of your age. You experience time differently as you grow. What seems like an hour when you’re five only seems like half an hour when you’re ten, or fifteen minutes when you’re twenty, or five minutes when you’re sixty. Time seems to go faster and faster as you grow: there’s one change between when you’re a child and an adult, and senior citizens say that every fifteen minutes it’s breakfast. The quality and pace of time change as you age, which is why young people think youth lasts forever and the rest of us think it vanishes. They say that once you’re over the hill, you begin to pick up speed.
Pater: What does “over the hill” mean?
Metacult: He really doesn’t understand. To him, aging is about maturing and growing, not only for children, but adults as well. He values his youth as a cherished memory, but he’s enjoying his growth and looking forward eagerly to the joy awaiting him in Heaven. He doesn’t understand your self-depracating humor that speaks as if aging were a weakness or a moral failing.
Metacult: Which reminds me. One of the ways my experience of time has changed as I have grown has been to recognize that time flows faster and faster. For some people, this is a reason to try way too hard to be healthy—taking care of their bodies, not because their bodies should be taken care of, but to try and postpone the inevitable. But I’m looking forward to the Heaven that’s getting closer and closer, and I am delighted by a glimpse into the perspective of a God who created time and to whom all times are both soon and now.
But the other major change is more internal, more a matter of discipline. I used to live in hurry, to always walk quickly and love to play video games quickly. Then I set foot in Malaysia, and something changed.
There was a difference, which I imperfectly characterized as life being lived more slowly in Malaysia. Which is true, or was for me, but is somewhat beside the point. And I experienced the joy of living more slowly. You know how I’ve thought that it takes humility to enjoy even pride, and chastity to enjoy even lust. At that point I would have added to those two that it takes slowness to enjoy even haste.
Vespucci: So you tried to be as slow as you had been quick?
Metacult: Yes. I observed that I had been obsessed with time under the tyranny of the clock, and so I tried to abolish time by being slow. Which isn’t right; besides chronos, the time a clock can measure, there is kairos, relational or task-oriented or creating time, where you are absorbed in another person or a task, and there time is a glimmer of eternity. And I was interested in the idea of living time as the beginning of an eternal glory, which Pater understands much better than I ever will. First I tried to negate time and live as something less-than-temporal, and I am slowly realizing that instead it means embracing time and entering something more-than-temporal.
In liturgical time—and Pater could say much more about this than I—it flows. Here it moves quickly, there it moves slowly, and there it spins in eddies. It isn’t just the speed that flows; it’s the color, if you will. Just as the priest is the crowning jewel of the priesthood every person is called for, so the touch of Heaven as we worship is the crowning jewel of what time is meant to be.
And I had also been realizing that I had sought to escape time, and not cherish it as God’s good creature. Most recently, I am trying to… There’s a famous quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes, saying, “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I’d give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Now I’m looking for a time that is on the other side of complexity: not the mundane ordinariness of disfigured time, but a beautiful ordinariness on the other side of this complexity we’ve been discussing.
Vespucci: How do you think that will work?
Metacult: I don’t know. Part of it has to do with the metaculture you used for my nickname. I don’t simply breathe in my culture and ask “How else could it be?”, but am in the odd position of being able to step into cultures but never be absolutely at home. And have part of me that doesn’t fit. That’s not quite right; I do connect, partly in a way that is basically human, and partly in a way that is—
Janra: Don’t try to explain. That would take an hour.
Metacult: At any rate, a fair number of people talk about living counterculturally, and one way you can live counterculturally is let live time as a blessing rather than a curse. People who say technology determines our lives are almost right, and that almost makes a world of difference if you’re willing to live counterculturally. The pressure on us to live in hurry is not a pressure that no one can escape. It is a pressure that few try to escape in the right way—but you can, if you try and go about it the right way.
But quite a lot of the rest of it has to do with very basic parts of the Christian life. God wants us to seek him first, and when we do, he knows full well what else we need. “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be given to you as well.” includes a life where time unfolds as a rainbow or a river, something of both color and flow, like the year with its beauty in due season.
Vespucci: Do you see time as a line or a circle? Something that keeps moving in a direction, or something that does the same thing over and over again?
Metacult: Both, of course. God is revealing himself in history and transforming it to his ends. And there is decay; decay follows a line down. In our lives, we are progressing towards Heaven or Hell, and in each day… here we meet the cycles, but if we live well, the cycles in our lives aren’t just an aimless meandering, but like a man who keeps running through a ditch, digging. In one way, he’s going to the same places again and again, but in another way, he’s going deeper—and he may meet both the earth’s warmth in winter (or coolness in summer), and the water of life. The line moves through circles.
Janra: So what would make the perfect watch?
Vespucci: Are there any we haven’t covered?
Metacult: Umm… we’ve looked at one big change from a normal watch—instead of adding a calculator, that Radical Gadgets catalogue had a watch that tries to tell a more human time by taking your age and emotional state into account as well as what most watches tell. That was sort of a Pandora’s box. I think we could all agree that that watch was leagues more human than any normal watch… and it was just human enough to reveal how un-human watches are.
Metacult: When the only kind of watch kept track of seconds, it was easy enough to think that time was simply what a watch told. But when one watch started to pay attention to how you feel…
It was kind of like when you’ve been in the freezing outdoors for a long time, so long that it still hurts a little, but you can almost ignore it. Then you come inside, and THEN it stings. It’s not until you enter a genuinely warm room that you realize how cold and numb you really are.
The Watch in that catalogue was just human enough to reveal how un-human watches, and the time that they tell, are. It did what no other watch could. It’s enough of a success to be a spectacular failure. Someone brought up liturgical time, which led to the suggestion that the watch be programmed to keep track of liturgical time. And then we stumbled into a hole with no bottom. Why can’t a computer keep track of liturgical time? Well, you see, the Spirit does more than just follow calculations… A watch would need far more than better electronics to do that, far more than scientific engineering can provide. Although I did like the suggestion of adding a rock. Even if I don’t see how to make a rock sensitive to women’s time and men’s time. Or rather, what to do to appropriately respect the difference.
Vespucci: Janra, what you said about nominalism interests me. Could you give a more complete explanation?
Janra: I’d love to, but I need to be somewhere next month.
Vespucci: Please be serious.
Janra: I am being serious.
Vespucci: Then be mundane.
Metacult: He is being mundane. If you’d like a good introduction, read Philip Sherrard’s The Rape of Man and Nature: An Enquiry Into the Origins & Consequences of Modern Science. In it, Sherrard says almost nothing about time and everything about the things time is connected to. I think it goes overboard, but if you read it and pay attention to the haunting beauty that keeps coming up, then you’ll learn something about being human—and living in human time. It doesn’t use the word ‘nominalism’ very much, but it says quite a lot about it.
Vespucci: Are there any other things you’ve all left out?
Metacult: Only about two billion. I’ve talked about kairos as an absorbed time instead of a time when you’re watching the clock. What I haven’t talked about as kairos as a divinely appointed time, where you are in a divinely orchestrated dance, and you are free, and yet your movements are part of the divine plan. We are human, not by “just” being human, but by allowing the divine to operate in us; it is the divine, not the human, that we need most to be human. I haven’t discussed that. We haven’t discussed, in connection with nominalism, how there is a spiritual place in us where we meet God, and we have the ability to reason from what we see, and in tandem with nominalism we have become impoverished when both functions are dumped on the reasoning ability and we don’t know where we can meet God, where our minds connect with the very Reason that is God himself. It makes a difference whether we experience time through both our reasoning ability and this spiritual meeting-place, or through our reasoning ability alone.
I also haven’t talked about turning back the clock. When people rightly or wrongly believe there is a golden age they’ve lost, and try to re-create it, they end up severing connections with the recent past and even the golden age.
Vespucci: How does that work?
Metacult: I’m not exactly sure.
My guess is that a living culture has a way of not being ambiguous. It gives corrections when you make false assumptions about it; that’s why people experience culture shock. People trying to re-create a past golden age need never experience culture shock; if you make a false assumption about the golden age, the golden age won’t correct you. So the golden age appears to be whatever you want, and people who aren’t satisfied with the present, and want to re-create past glory, end up pushing a fantasy that is different both from the present and the past. The Renaissance and Enlightenment neo-classicism both tried to re-create the glory of classical antiquity and are both notable as departures from the past. People who aren’t trying to re-create the past can preserve it, saying, “Be gentle with this tradition. It was not inherited from your parents; it is borrowed from your children.” People eager to restore past glory all too often, if not sever, severely damage the link between past and future.
I also haven’t talked about keeping up with the Trumps, and your unadvertised way to say “No!” to the tyranny of the urgent. I haven’t even talked about—
Janra: Stop! Stop. You’re going way overboard. He got your point. In fact, I think he got your point half an hour ago. He—
Pater: Could I interrupt for a moment?
Janra: Certainly. What is it?
Pater: I know this is going to sound REALLY strange, but I want a watch.
Vespucci, Janra, Metacult: Huh?
Pater: You heard me.
Janra: But why?
Pater: I know this is going to sound strange, but I want one.
To you a watch represents all sorts of problems, and I don’t wonder if you’re dumping too much on it. But that’s another issue. I don’t have the ticking clock in me that you do. There’s an issue of sensitivity—I know you hate watches and probably planners, but I burn people by being late and forgetting that just an hour’s delay to me is not “just” an hour to them.
Is it really impossible to make a watch that can represent liturgical time, or even hollow out a space liturgical time can abide in? I thought it was possible now to make a watch that will keep track of sunrise and sunset. Scientific engineering can’t do some things, but could there be another kind of engineering? I suppose that “even” that technical marvel in your catalogue, the watch that knows how long something feels like, would make an awfully neat conversation piece.
Metacult: I think I may know of just the thing for you.
This watch is a sort of hybrid. Part of it is traditional electronic—something that tells hours, minutes, and seconds, that displays the date, and has a timer, alarm, and a stopwatch accurate to the nearest hundredth of a second—and for that matter it’s water resistant to two hundred meters. It’s a bit battered—which adds to its masculine look.
But that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part has an exquisite sensitivity to liturgical rhythm, such as purely electronic gadgetry could never deliver. And it is a connected time, a part of the Great Dance that moves not according to the wearer’s emotions alone but what the Great Choreographer orchestrates. It moves in beautiful ordered time. And there is more. It can enter another person’s or place’s time, and fit. Among other things.
Pater: This is great! Where can I get one?
Metacult: Just a second while I take off my watch… here’s the littlest part. The rest is already inside your heart.
He kicked the can, which skittered across the sidewalk. Shards of glass bounced off, their razor sharp edges gleaming in the light. Jason sat down on a park bench, and glared at the old man sitting on the other end. He looked decrepit and stupid, with a moronic smile. The man was feeding pigeons. The geezer probably didn’t even own a TV. A boring man doing a boring thing in a boring place on a boring day.
Jason liked to verbally spar with people. He liked to free them from their deceptions, their illusions. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and he would rather be hated as a gadfly than loved as a demagogue.
As Jason sat thinking, the old man said, “It’s a beautiful, sunny day, isn’t it?”
“The Poet Wordsworth aptly called it ‘the dreary light of common day.’ It is a dull surface, under which ferments a world of evil. Did you know, for instance, that Hitler’s Holocaust was only one of many massive genocides this century that killed over a million people? Did you know that even Hitler’s Jews are dwarfed by the fifty million who died in Stalin’s purges?”
The smile disappeared from the old man’s face. “No, I did not.”
“You who say that it’s a beautiful day — what do you know about suffering?”
The old man’s face quivered, ever so slightly, for a moment. “My best friend, when I was a boy, was named Abraham. He died at Auschwitz. My eldest brother, on the other hand, was swept up by the Nazi propaganda and became a concentration camp guard. He was never convicted of war crimes, but he hanged himself a week after I was married. I am now a widower.”
Jason was silent for a moment. He was struck with respect at this man’s suffering — and watched as a tear gathered in his eyes, and slowly trickled down his wrinkled cheek. As he looked, he saw part of why the old man looked so ugly to him — his face bore scars of chemical burns.
A sense of discomfort and unease began to fill the young man. He shifted slightly, and began to talk about something else.
“I have read many books about knights and ladies, about wizards and dragons. In those stories, there is magic and wonder; there are fairies who grant wishes. The hero wins, and the story is beautiful. This world is so bleak and desolate and gray next to those worlds. If only there were another world. If only there were a way to get in.”
“How do you know that there isn’t?”
The young man looked with puzzlement. “What do you mean?”
“How do you know that this fantasy isn’t true?”
“I have never had any reason to believe in it.”
“When you were a little boy, did you believe in the Holocaust?”
“I hadn’t even heard of it, let alone having reason to believe in it.”
“But was it true?”
The young man looked as if he was about to answer, and then said, “Do you really believe in another world, in magic and wonder?”
“Tell me about it.”
“I cannot now explain it in any words that would make sense to you. I could try, but it would sound like complete nonsense.”
“Pretend that I am blind. Explain to me the colors.”
Jason opened his mouth, paused for a second, and then closed it.
“Am I to believe that you are some sort of great wizard, and that you have a gift of seeing into and travelling to another world?”
The old man spoke in enigmas and riddles, and yet there was something about him… He did not seem to be lying — and if he was, he was a far better liar than most. He was a puzzle, and Jason liked puzzles. He had been tricked and manipulated many times, and it might at least break the tedium to be tricked and manipulated by someone who was more interesting than he looked. So he decided to play along.
“Do you think that I could make my way into another world?”
“Is it hard?”
“It is very hard, and very easy. How much do you want to do it?”
“If I send you on great and difficult tests, to meet many trials, will you do it?”
“If I tell you to spend long hours studying spell books and grimoires, finding potions and amulets, are you ready for that?”
“And if I set before you tasks more difficult and strange, and send you to do battles against monsters more evil than assassins and more deadly than dragons, can you do that?”
“I will try.”
“Can you trust me?”
For a moment, Jason’s mask slipped. He stalled. A minute passed — a minute that seemed like a year. Finally, he croaked, “I don’t know.”
The old man nodded, and said, “I understand.” He looked at the young man; there was something in his eyes that the young man could not identify.
“The way is difficult, with many trials, and the last one is the most difficult of them all. I cannot tell you what they will all be like, or even their number. When we next meet, I will be ready to give you the first.”
“When do you want to meet next?”
“No matter when; we will meet.”
“Can you help me?”
“I cannot do your tasks for you. But I give you this.”
The old man placed his hand on the young man’s head, his palm atop the skull, fingers and thumb spreading out across his scalp. He closed his eyes — and Jason felt that it would be proper to do the same. He sat in absolute silence and stillness. A moment passed.
Finally the old man removed his hand. Picking up his cane, he stood up, and slowly began to walk away, leaving Jason sitting and pondering.
The next day, doubts filled Jason’s mind. Had he dreamed the encounter? Why would there be such a bizarre old man? If he really had the powers and knew the wonders he hinted at, why on earth would he be sitting in a park and feeding pigeons? Each city had its share of eccentrics, but still…
As he went about his studies and activities for the next few days, he was nagged by thoughts about the man. He loved fantasy, from childhood games of make-believe to reading books and watching movies — but all of his yearning would not make it com true. He felt that he could neither believe nor trust the old man. Yet their interaction had excited, not quite a hope, but at least a desire that it could be true. He believed in fairies as a child, and he wondered if there might be a time to believe in fairies again.
He didn’t talk with anyone about it; others would probably think him a fool. He was sitting in a diner, sipping a cup of coffee and pondering, when a familiar voice said, “May I join you?”
He looked up, startled, and then said, “Please.” As the old man sat down, Jason asked, “I forgot to ask your name.”
“Senex. And yours?”
“The name of a hero, if I am remembering my mythology correctly,” Senex said.
Jason had been thinking of how dull and common his name sounded next to ‘Senex’, and was again slightly startled. The man still looked old, wrinkled, and ugly — and yet there now seemed to be the faintest hint of something regal about his appearance. After a time, Jason asked, “Do you really have quests for me?”
“Yes, I do. They will help prepare you to enter, and receive the gift and the power.”
“And what is the first?”
Senex reached, with both hands, into his pocket. He moved his hands for a little while, as if grasping something slippery, and then brought forth a loosely closed hand. He held his hand over the table, and opened it.
“What do you see?”
“I see nothing. Your hand is empty.”
“Do you really see nothing in my hand?”
“I still see nothing.”
Senex turned his hand, slowly, slightly, from side to side. At last, a tiny gleam of light caught Jason’s eye. He immediately bent over to look more closely.
“What do you see?”
“I see a tiny grain of sand.”
Jason picked up the grain of sand, and looked at it for a second. “What is my first quest?”
“You have already embarked on your first quest.”
“When will I be done?”
“I don’t know.”
The old man stood up, and walked out of the diner.
Back in his room, Jason took the grain of sand out of the napkin he had wrapped it in, and placed in on a white handkerchief on his desk.
It was small, and barely visible. It did not quite look the yellow of beaches — more like a tiny, oddly shaped pebble.
He pulled out a pin, and began to push it about. It rolled irregularly, like a tiny football. As it turned about, it gleamed every now and then. He pulled out a magnifying glass through which to look at it. Magnified, it appeared a small, bulbous crystal, which turned light and dark as it rolled over the fibers of the cloth.
“I wonder if…” He wrapped it up and went to a jeweler, to see if it might be a diamond or some other precious stone.
He came back, disappointed. It was sand, the same as untold numbers of other grains on beaches and in children’s sand boxes. It puzzled him. Was it more precious than diamond, a key to a magical portal? It did not scream out, “I am magical!”; it did not glow in the dark, or levitate in the air, or shock him as he touched it. If there was something special about it, it was more subtle than that. But how would Jason unlock the secret? Time passed, and he began to doubt that there was any secret at all — that it was anything more than a common grain of sand.
It was in one of these moments of doubt that he again encountered Senex in the diner, drinking a cup of coffee.
“I don’t get it,” Jason said, sitting down. Senex still looked into his coffee, sipping it. “What don’t you get?”
“You hint at a world of wonders, and then give me a common grain of sand. Are you playing games with me?”
Senex set down his coffee, and looked into Jason’s eyes. “What do you think?”
Jason looked at the old man. He began to open his mouth, and then swallowed. “I cannot say that you seem cruel, but neither can I say that your words and actions make any sense to me.”
After Jason said nothing, the old man said, “What were you looking for?”
“Something great. Something awesome. Something mysterious. A storm of light, maybe. Turgid forces. Ritual magic.”
“And what did you find?”
“A common grain of sand.”
“Is that all?”
Jason pulled the napkin from his pocket, and unfolded the grain of sand. “All I see is a common grain of sand. Maybe there is something else, but it is invisible to me.” He looked at the old man in puzzlement, and saw a look of knowledge in Senex’s eyes. “Can you see something else, something that is invisible to me?”
“Tell me everything that you know about it. What is it?”
“It is something that is found on beaches.”
“That is where it is found. What is it?”
“It is an odd-shaped, bulbous thing, very tiny.”
“That is its size and shape. What is it?”
“The jeweler said that it is not diamond, or quartz, or anything else like that.”
“That is what it is not. What is it?”
“The jeweler said that it is a crystal of silicon and oxygen atoms.”
“That is its scientific structure and constituency. What is it?”
“Is it all of these things?”
“All of these things are true of it. What is it?”
Jason drew a deep breath and said, “I don’t know.”
“Make it into a rabbit.”
“How am I supposed to do that?”
“If you can’t do that, make it into something else. A fish, perhaps.”
Jason placed the grain of sand between a knife and a spoon, and crushed it to dust.
“You have broken it into smaller pieces. Now destroy it.”
Jason dropped the spoon and knife; the fragments that were the grain of sand, settled on the table. “I can’t.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t know.” Jason looked into the old man’s eyes, expecting to see a look of sadistic pleasure. Instead, he saw the look of greatest compassion.
Jason said, “It is a mystery.”
The old man smiled.
Jason gathered the fragments into his napkin, and walked away.
Jason began to think about stones and crystals. The exquisitely rare crystals, the diamond as their queen, were prized, not only because they were beautiful, but because they were rare. Quartz and other crystals, in their luminous beauty, were no surprise to be said to be magical. So it was not too surprising that there should also be a hidden, tiny beauty to the stone and crystal commonly called a grain of sand. Few people owned these gems, not because they were hidden deep within the earth, but because they were hidden from people’s notice. When entering another world, Jason would like to be ready to appreciate its beauty — and who knows? Perhaps sand was a treasure imported en masse from that world. In the mean time, he would enjoy his newfound crystalline treasure.
Jason asked Senex, “Am I prepared to enter another world, the world from which crystals come?”
Senex answered, “You have begun to begin.”
Jason asked, “Are there wonders which make sand pale in comparison?”
Senex answered, “There are wonders which make sand look very bright by the light they shine on it.”
Senex lit a candle. Jason watched, waiting for an explanation.
The flame danced and spun. It filled the white column of wax beneath it with a soft glow that melted into the darkness. The flame itself, divided into tongues, danced and jumped again and again into the air, looking as if it just might fly. All around, it illuminated the surrounding forms with a golden light; shadows loomed on the walls and melted into the surroundings.
As Jason watched, a thin layer of clear, molten wax began to form atop the candle. As the flame burned, the heat began to seep into the wax, and the tiny pool grew deeper. A drop, like a tear, began to form on one side of the pool. The molten wax flowed, the stream carrying an indentation in the top of the wax column. The flame jumped and blazed, then settled down as, one by one, drops of molten wax trickled down the side.
The candle was tapered and thin, and it seemed to Jason only a minute until it burned all the way down, and a tiny red glow in the wick rested at the base of an ascending, twisting, turning stream of wispy smoke. Jason sat in peace, enjoying a sense of calm and fullness, digesting the beauty he had watched.
Senex’s voice broke the silence. “You have passed your second test, Jason.”
The old man had helped Jason open his eyes to one part of the natural world, and he began to explore, with the wonder of a child, the magic all around him.
He discovered that there was one type of item which was the easiest thing in the world to cut with a knife — but, as soon as you had cut it, the cut would instantly heal; there it would be, as whole as ever! It would shape itself around whatever you put it in, and could squeeze through even the tiny holes in cloth — but he had to be careful, because it would also climb the cloth like a ladder. It was quite mischievous — there were some things, which resembled grains of sound, which it would take and make completely invisible.
There were other things that would hide behind, and yet mimic the people and the trees. They were like marionettes, except that they exaggerated and distorted the profiles of whatever they were making fun of. They also played hide and seek with the light, and were very quick — whenever the light would peek to see if it would find them, they would already be hidden somewhere else.
He saw great, massive citadels with vaults beneath, storing hoards of gold and gems deep within, under protections that a dragon’s fire could not scratch. Those citadels were decorated, so that even those who dare not break in, would yet come and visit, seeing the gay streamers and the skittish sentinels.
There was another creature that Jason could not see, but was forever sneaking up and tackling him. It never knocked him over, but always wanted to play — it would tousle people’s hair, and tickle the little children. It played with the other creatures, too — it jumped around on the grass, and danced and spun with the leaves.
There were other strange creatures that skittered around timidly — some jumped along the ground; some climbed trees and buildings; some swam like fish through the air. Most fled at his approach, but a few would let him touch them — and they were soft and warm.
Even greater than his joy at this beauty was a sense that, beautiful as these things were, they also hinted at something else, a deeper magic. Jason tried to see what it might be, but it always eluded him.
Enthralled as he was, Jason could not shut out a sense that the beauty was not alone — that there was also something dark and perverse as well. With such beauty, Jason thought in his most enthralled moments that this surely must be the best of all possible worlds. But they he was shocked by ugly realities that forced themselves upon his consciousness: robberies and rapes, children being treated cruelly, and children treating others cruelly. The beauty made him feel as if, somehow, if he opened his eyes wide enough to see all the beauty there was, everything would be perfect — but, try as he might, it didn’t work. It was like smelling the softest lilac fragrance on the breeze — and then being punched in the stomach.
It was sinking into a darker mood that he again met Senex, this time on a street littered with garbage. He greeted the old man harshly: “Wave your magic wand, old man, and make this refuse turn into flowers. Open my eyes, so that I may see that all suffering is an illusion, that we live in the best of all possible worlds.”
“Suffering is not an illusion, and we do not live in the best of all possible worlds.”
“What of the world you said I had begun preparing to enter? Is it not an escape from suffering?”
“Do you not remember the very first question you asked me? Do you not remember the answer?” Tears began to gather in Senex’s eyes.
Jason savored a thrill of pleasure at watching the old man suffer, and knowing that the same darkness tormented them both. Then he realized what he was doing, and felt a sense of shame and revulsion at himself. He hated himself and the old man for what he felt.
“If you were going to attack a dragon,” the old man finally began, “would you rush at it with neither weapon nor armor nor training? Or would you take at least a little preparation before setting out to attack a leviathan that has slain many heroes far greater than yourself?”
Jason said nothing.
“The questions you ask are big questions, and they must be faced. I wrestle with them, too. And I fear. I do not blame you at all for asking them, though your attitude in asking pierces me.” A tear trickled down Senex’s cheek.
Jason felt a black hole of shame inside his heart. The darkness he saw, and hated in the world around him — Jason now realized that it was inside him, too. It was like a worm, attacking from outside, and gnawing from within.
He wanted to die.
“Jason,” the old man’s voice said. “Jason, look at me.”
Jason stared at the ground.
Jason looked up and cringed, expecting a storm of fury. He looked up, waiting for his punishment. But his gaze was met by teary eyes — and compassion.
“I forgive you.”
It was with a certain heaviness that Jason awaited the coming lessons. Not that they doubted that they were good — he was sure of that. But up ahead loomed a fierce battle. The worst part of it was that he knew that the enemy, the worm, was not only lurking at large. It was also inside his heart.
Yet dark as the darkness was, it could never put the light out. And Senex was showing him new things at each meeting.
Senex had with him a book. He said, “Close your eyes and imagine.” He opened its dusty leaves, and began to read:
“You pull your arms to your side and glide through the water. On your left is a fountain of bubbles, upside down, beneath a waterfall; the bubbles shoot down and then cascade out and to the surface. To your right swims a school of colorful fish, red and blue with thin black stripes. The water is cool, and you can feel the currents gently pushing and pulling on your body. Ahead of you, seaweed above and long, bright green leaves below wave back and forth, flowing and bending. You pull your arms, again, with a powerful stroke which shoots you forward under the seaweed; your back feels cool in the shade. You kick, and you feel the warmth of the sun again, soaking in and through your skin and muscles. Bands of light dance on the sand beneath you, as the light is bent and turned by the waves.”
Senex began to lead Jason through mathematics, history, philosophy, literature — and Jason began to behind a new and different beauty, a beauty that cannot be seen with the eye, nor touched with the hand, but only grasped with the mind. He began to explore imagination, and ideas, and metaphors. He saw light dance in the poetry Senex read; he saw the beauty of order and reason in the philosophers Senex cited. The connections, the play, the dance of ideas was wonderful. Together they explored ideas, and it was an awesome beauty. Jason had a razor sharp mind, and he began to make connections that surprised even Senex.
“I still wish that I were a fairy,” Jason said, “or that I could become one.”
“What do you think you are?”
A searing pain, a pain of dark memory, flashed through Jason’s soul. “I don’t know,” he said. “I hate myself.”
“Do you believe that there are some things for everyone to enjoy?”
“Of course. You have shown me what I was blind to — that, outside of us, there are rocks, and stars, and the sky, and trees, and blades of grass, and snails, and stags, and chipmunks, and fish, and eagles, and logs, and mountains, and clouds, and wind, and rain, and the moon, and silence, and music, and beauty, and artwork, and poetry, and stories, and theorems, and arguments, and logic, and intuition, and laughter, and happiness, and books, and subtlety, and metaphors, and words, and st—”
Senex cut him off. “Do you believe that any of it has been given specifically to you?”
Jason looked down at his feet.
“What are you looking at, Jason?”
Jason mumbled, “My feet.”
“What are your feet?”
“I don’t know,” he said, pausing for a moment. Then he continued, “I don’t know where they are from, but they move about at my command, like two strange servants, carrying me wherever I want to go.”
“What do they carry?”
“A house that has eyes to see, and hands to let me touch and move things, and innards that support and let me live.” He paused for a second, and then said, “It is a clockwork masterpiece.”
“What lives in this house.”
“Well, there is at least a mind that can learn, and think, and explore, and feel.”
“Is that rubbish?”
Jason begrudgingly admitted, “No.”
“Jason, why are you so downcast?”?
“Because that is not all. Because there is a worm. It roams the world, and it lives deep inside of me.”
Jason drew back in fear. “What are you going to do to me?”
“What do you think?”
“You must hate me.”
“I hate the worm inside of you with all my heart. But I do not hate you.”
“Jason, I love you.”
Jason looked up. His face quivered, and tears began to slide down his cheeks. “You do?”
“Jason, may I give you a hug?”
Jason nodded his head.
The tears flowed from deep within. They were tears of sorrow, but yet they were different from the bitter tears he had fought before. They were painful, yet also tears of cleansing and healing.
“In the stories I read, I believe that there are people like us, and also strange and wonderful people like fairies, and elves, and dwarves, and gnomes. I wish I could know them.”
“I believe that there are people like us, and also strange and wonderful people like blacks and Hispanics and Asians and Native Americans. And I count myself the richer for the friendships I have shared with such people.”
Senex paused, and then continued. “I believe that you have seen much of the beauty that can be perceived with the body and with the mind, and also that you are beginning to appreciate your body and mind — yes, I know that you still wonder why they were given you. You are close to being ready to enter the other world now.
Jason suddenly looked up. “There’s more?”
“There is much more, my friend. I think that you are ready for the last trial before entering. The challenge is this: that you must make a friend.”
“So I can enter after I make a friend?”
“Yes, but you can’t make a friend in order to get in. You must make a friend for the sake of making a friend.
“Does it matter which race?”
“It matters a great deal, but not in the way that you are thinking. You will be blessed by a friend of any race; the difference is not the amount of blessing, but what kind.”
Jason was walking along a sidewalk, and saw some children playing in the street, kicking a ball around. Then he watched in horror
a truck comes along
a child kicks the ball
a little girl runs after it
in front of the car
Time seemed to slow down; Jason watched everything in horrible slowness.
Then Jason realized he was lying on his side, on the opposite sidewalk. The little girl was in his arms, screaming and holding her knee. The ball was still in the street — flat as a pancake.
Adults began to come out of the building. A young woman ran over to the girl, yelling, “My baby!”
An older woman, with wrinkled walnut skin and silvery skin, walked up to him and said, “Son, you wanna come in? You bleedin’.”
Jason looked down. There was a rough abrasion on his elbow, and his shoulder hurt.
Inside the apartment, he was in the same room as the little girl. Her mother was gently wiping her skinned knee with a warm, wet washcloth; the girl was screaming bloody murder. He also had a cloth washing over his elbow; it stung sharply. The children had come in, and were simultaneously and very quickly trying to explain what happened.
The chaos subsided; the children were calmed, and (the children speaking more slowly, and one at a time) the adults understood what happened. “You gonna be soah t’marrah” — and he was.
The family invited Jason for dinner, and told him that he was welcome any time. They were very warm and friendly; at first Jason thought this was because he had saved their little girl. The family was grateful, extremely so, but…
He started to visit from time to time, and he saw the same warm welcome extend to anybody who came in. The family was warm, and emotional, and playful, and as time passed, Jason began to know the specific people —
Emma, the matron who had first invited in, was wise, gentle, and motherly. She was a big woman with an even bigger heart, that seemed to have ample room for anybody who came into the house. She was the person most in charge.
Harold, her younger brother, was full of stories and jokes. He was the life of gatherings, and often had people laughing. He was the person who had travelled the most throughout the United States, and seemed to have his finger on the pulse of the nation — how it had changed, how it had stayed the same, throughout the years.
Jane was Edna’s eldest daughter, and the mother of the little girl whom Jason saved. All of the people in the family had an easy-going, warm, welcoming manner — it really was not long before Jason felt as if he were one of the family — but the welcome seemed to crystallize in Jane. She took the most effort to include Jason, and asked him the most questions.
Alfred was Jane’s husband. He worked at a factory, and was quite the musician; he played several instruments, and often managed to get the whole family singing and dancing.
Anne was Edna’s second daughter, and was perhaps most actively involved in race relations and the womanist movement. Through him, Jason saw a kind of feminism which was completely different; what most struck Jason was that, in its adamant advocacy of womanhood and motherhood, neither Anne nor any of her other womanist friends found any need for abortion, or regarded children as an inconvenience.
Erica, the little girl whom Jason saved, was a little ball of life. She was insatiably curious and inquisitive; more than once, she managed to put Jason somewhat on the spot: “Why you a comin’ heah? Da other white folk doan come heah much, like they afraid of us, o’ sumthin’.” — but she asked in perfect innocence and sincerity, and the open warmth of the others (especially Jane) defused the tension. She was also quite a cuddlebug, and (Jason eventually discovered) more than a little bit ticklish.
Steve, Alfred and Edna’s second child, wanted to be a scientist; he was somewhat quiet, and a bookworm. Jason was sometimes amazed by his intelligence, and was able to talk with him about some of the things he had learned from Senex.
Ronald, the baby of Alfred and Edna’s family, was full of energy, and energy, and energy, and energy. He would run around the house all day long, and it did not take long for Jason to learn what was Ron’s favorite word: “Again!” He seemed to have a tireless enjoyment of the things he knew.
Monica had been adopted by the family, and (in a sense) was Anne’s baby. The two of them were quite close, and she seemed to be able to learn very quickly anything Anne told her.
There were also a number of neighborhood children going in and out of the house; the family treasured them, and seemed to welcome them as if they were their own. James wanted to be a pilot; Michael was very much interested in fire, and loved the Fourth of July; Desiree loved to dance with anyone and everyone; Edward chased the other children around.
Jason cherished his moments visiting the apartment, and grew especially fond of Erica. She would often sit on his lap and try to understand the things Jason was talking about (though Jason tended to too often talk about things that were rather complex to reasonably expect a child to understand), and would often playfully tell him how funny he was. Jason came to love the music, the dancing, the laughter, the emotion. He was struck by how different the family was — and how human.
As he came out of the apartment, he saw Senex walking towards him, and tipping his hat. “I am pleased,” Senex said, “and I think that you are ready to enter.”
Senex said, “Are you ready to hear a story?”
Jason said, “I think I am.”
Senex said, “This is the most important story that I will ever tell you.”
Jason said, “I am listening.”
Senex began, “Once upon a time, there was a coruscating Light, a surge of power, a rock greater than a mountain. And from this Light was begotten… another facet of the same eternal Eternal essence. Father and Son. Between them shot a fire of love and energy. In and among and from them were glory, majesty, light, power, love, goodness.
“And the Light spoke, and star upon star upon star upon star poured fourth, pulsing with life. They all joined in the great Dance, and spun and turned in wheel within wheel within wheel within wheel. As they danced the great Dance and sung the great Song, the Light and all of the stars revelled in the glory and beauty.
“The first and most glorious of the stars that were formed, held a place in the dance that was second only to the Light itself. The very least of the stars held a place of glory to contemplate for a lifetime, and this was the greatest.
“Then the first star turned, and stepped out of the harmony of the dance, and spoke to the Light. He demanded to be placed above the Light, to lead the Dance himself. ‘I am the greatest of the stars; I am greater and wiser and more glorious than you. Cede to me my rightful place.'”
There was something about the demand that jarred Jason, filling him with revulsion to the very core. In it, he saw the essence of everything that is perverse and vile and impure. He wondered why the Light did not blast the star out of existence right there.
“The Light paused, and then said, ‘You believe that you are better than me.
“‘You believe that you are wiser than me.
“‘You and your glory were the beginning of my plan; you are not the end of it. I have a plan deep within my heart. You may form whatever plan your wisdom may find for you. And we will let the plans play out, and we will see whose plan is the wiser – yours or mine.’
“And then the star screamed out his blasphemous accord, screamed a scream that tore the very fabric of space. And a third of the stars joined him in his rebellion, and became dragons, and serpents, and worms.
“Thus began a cosmic war.
“The Light again created, a creation that was vivid and new and detailed and wondrous. Slowly, with the patience of an artist, he formed rocks, mountains, and trees. The smallest blade of grass was perfect. He formed a great rock surrounded by lights, then plants which live, then animals which move, then finally men in his own image, likeness, and glory. When he stopped to rest, all of the stars stood watching in awe.
“Then the darkened star came, in the form of a serpent, and beguiled man, to do the one thing that is accursed. And the man and woman, created as immortal gods, bore in them a curse, and began to die from the inside out. They, also, stepped out of the harmony of the dance and out of the source of health; their spirits rotted in vice and evil, and the worm began to infest and grow inside their hearts. There was perversity after perversity after perversity after perversity. One generation after the first sin, came the first murder: brother murdered brother. And the people were quick to embrace evil and forget what is good, even the Light himself.
“And all of the dragons, and serpents, and worms, cackled and screeched with unholy laughter, and the stars winced in pain. The first of Dragons taunted the Light: ‘Your plan? Your glorious and wise plan? You have indeed made a fine creation for me to soil. Thank you; I very much enjoy watching the curses grow and multiply.’
“And the men grow wicked, so that they all deserved to die.
“All but one.
“One man walked in the Light.
“And the Light called out to the one man. ‘You. You there in the desert, where neither rain nor mist dampen the earth.’
“And the man answered, ‘Yes?’
“And the Light commanded, ‘Build an immense boat.’
“And the dragons and worms cackled and jeered.
“And the man, ridiculed and cursed by even his friends, built an immense boat.
“And the great Dragon said, ‘One candle? You hope by lighting one single candle to vanquish a whole world of darkness? Come, old fool; it doesn’t work that way.’
“And the Light remained silent.
“Then the Light called to a man, and told him, ‘Leave your kin, your land, your family, everything that is dear to you, and I will give you a son, and make you into a great nation.’
“And the man took up his belongings and left.
“And the Light gave the man a son, and the son grew and matured.
“Then the Light told the man, ‘Take your son, whom you love, and sacrifice him to me.’
“And the man obeyed, taking the son up on the mountain to sacrifice. He raises his arm, knife in hand, to strike the child dead.
“And the Light, quick as lightning, sent a star to say, ‘Stop. Because you have not withheld from me even your son, I will bless you richly.’
“And the Dragon says, ‘What’s the point of this? Do you call one or two righteous men to help us see how evil all the rest are? Or could it just be that you are unwilling to admit defeat?’
“And the Light remained silent.
“And in the great Dragon, was the faintest tremor of fear.
“Then the Light called another man, and told him to forsake riches and luxury to free his people from slavery. The man hesitated, shied away from the task before him – and ultimately obeyed.
“Then the great dragon said, ‘Can’t you just end it now? I know that you’ve lost, but I’m beginning to feel uncomfortable.’
“And the Light continues his work.
“Through the man, the Light gave a law, showing what is right and what is wrong. And the people – staggeringly, and with many misgivings – started to obey.
“Then the Dragon came to the Light, and the Light said of another man, ‘Have you seen this servant of mine? He is upright and blameless.’
“The Dragon scoffed and said, ‘Well, of course! Look at all the prosperity you have given him. That is why he worships you. Take it away, and he will curse you to your face.’
“The Light said, ‘Prove it. I give you permission to take away everything that he holds dear to him – only do not touch his body.’
“The Dragon breathed fire, and destroys the man’s livestock, his possessions, his children. And the man wept in misery. He was told to curse the Light and die. In agony, he screamed in pain and cursed even the day of his birth – but refuses to curse the Light.
“Then the Dragon said, “You know, a man will give everything he owns for his health. You have given this man abundant health – and he is still healthy. Only take that away, and he will curse you to your face.’
“And again, the Light gave permission, only requiring that the dragon not slay him. And the man was covered in painful sores from head to toe, his body wracked with pain, tortured. He was in agony. When three of his friends came, they sat with him for a week in silence because his pain is so great. And still, the man refused to curse the Light.
“The friends then talked, insisting that the man had done wrong, yet he does not even accept their claim. Finally the Light came and spoke through a storm, healing the man and restoring what was lost twice over.
“And the stars rejoiced.
“Then the Light pulled another corner of the veil off of his plan. The Light begotten was sent, and became a man himself, suffering and walking the dust of the fallen world. He called people, telling them to abandon net and boat to follow him – and they obeyed. He healed the sick, diseased, and injured; he casts out fallen stars who have taken possession of people. The dragon attacked again again, trying to have him killed, and tempting him in every way. And yet the Light in earth remained pure and blameless. He began to call people about him, and teach them.
“Then one of the Light’s closest friends betrayed him, and the Light himself was hung out and exposed to die. And when the Light died, darkness reigned.
“And the dragons, and serpents, and worms, jeered and cackled. And the great Dragon taunts, ‘Your great and wise plan gave me an even greater victory than I had hoped for. I set about to destroy your creation – and now I have destroyed your uncreated Son.’
“And tears flowed.
“Then a surge of light and power flowed, and the begotten Light was alive, transformed, coursing with the power of an indestructible life, and bearing with him the cure for the curse. And the fire of love and energy flowing among and in and from the Light flowed into his followers, too. The Light ascends back into Heaven from whence he came – and dwelt inside them.
“And in the community of those who believe and accept his cure, heroes and martyrs stand for the truth and fought, alongside the stars, against the darkness. And as all were watching — the Light, the stars, and also the dead, that is those who walked before, and now stood cheering those who walk now as they continue in the battle — the wisdom of the plan formed by the Light was revealed in the community of those who believe. In this community, in those whom the Light again draws into the great Dance, was
“A large family of many children for the Light
Mother, and brother, and sister for the begotten Light
A body for the begotten Light to live in
A dwelling place and temple for the eternal fire of love and energy
A witness to the world
A moral preserver and purifier to the world
A servant to the world
A warrior against the great Dragon
“With all of its faults and foibles, the community reached out, and invited others also to step into the Dance.
“Then, as the begotten Light left the world, he returned – in full, unveiled glory and majesty, with all of the stars with him. The dead and the living members of the community were imbued with the same life as he has, their bodies transformed, and shared in the divine nature. The earth was destroyed in a great apocalypse, then remade even better than before. All — the living and the dead alike — were brought forth, and brought to account for their life and deeds; those who had chosen a curse were accursed, and those who had chosen were imbued with life beyond intense. And it was before the renewed, regenerated, transformed community of believers that the Dragon stood, and saw the wisdom of the plan. And it was below their feet that the Light crushed the Dragon, before casting it and all of its minions into a lake of fire. And all of those watching saw in full, not only that the Light is more powerful, but also the immeasurably greater wisdom.”
After a time, Jason said, “That is the most beautiful story I have ever heard.”
Senex said, “Would you like to have slain the worm that is inside your heart? Would you like to dance the great Dance?”
Jason said, “Yes, I would.”
Senex said, “The story is true, and we are now living between the first and second comings of the Light. And he bears with him the cure for the curse — and, if you ask him, he will help you slay the worm that is inside your heart, and let you join his forces to fight the darkness that is in the world.”
“How do I do that?”
Senex said, “You must pray a prayer, something like,
“‘Lord Jesus, come into my heart.
Forgive my sins.
Draw me into your Light.
Fill me with your Life.
Make me your own.
I give myself to you,
And accept you giving yourself to me.'”
A look of surprise crossed Jason’s face. “Is this Christianity?”
Jason’s surprise turned to disgust. “But Christianity is narrow-minded and intolerant and repressive and archaic and — You deceived me, and tricked me into thinking it was something beautiful!”
“Jason, have you ever heard Plato’s allegory of the cave?”
“Plato made an allegory, which was more or less as follows:
“Imagine that there is a cave. In this cave are prisoners who have been there from birth. They are shackled, and held in place.
“Behind the prisoners is a wall, and behind the wall a fire.
“People carry things back and forth, above the wall, so that they cast great, flickering shadows on the wall. And as these prisoners grow up, they will never see what a chair, or a book, or a sword looks like. They will only see the shadows on the wall.
“And they will become very good at identifying and recognizing the shadows, and think that they are the realities themselves. They won’t think that a pot is a pot. They will think that the shadow is a pot.
“Now imagine that one of these prisoners is brought out of the cave, into the world. He will first be blinded by the light, and then only slowly be able to see. He will see nothing he will recognize, and he will curse those who brought him out.
“But, eventually, he will learn to see — and he will see things infinitely fuller, and richer, and more real than ever before. He will see the realities that cast the shadows.
“Now imagine that he is taken back in the cave again. At first, he won’t be able to see anything in the darkness; the others in the cave will believe that he is blind. When he does adjust, he will begin to speak of realities beyond the shadows, which are far greater than what is seen — and the other people will think him mad as well as blind. They will vow to kill anyone who should take anyone else up out of what they believe is reality, into the light.”
Senex paused a moment, and then continued.
“There are two things which I would like to say.
“The first is that there are a lot of evil Christians, and Christians have done a lot of bad things. I have been bored by a lot of dull Christians, and hurt by a lot of hypocritical Christians. And I am ashamed of a great deal of what has been done in the name of Christ.”
“The second is that what you have seen called ‘Christianity’ is only a shadow cast in bad light. What I have been doing is helping you to see the reality itself, in the light of the sun.”
“But why didn’t you tell me it was Christianity to begin with? Wasn’t that deceptive?”
“I did not tell you for a reason. I wanted to un-deceive you, and show you the reality itself. If I told you that I wanted to show you Christianity, you would have thought I meant the ugly shadow that is called Christianity — and would you have wanted to know anything about it?”
Jason begrudgingly said, “No.”
After a time, Senex said, “I can see by your face that you have more questions. What are they?”
“They are questions you won’t like.”
“What about the Inquisition? What about the intolerance? What about saying that all those other people’s religions are wrong? What about saying that everyone else is damned to Hell?”
“The Inquisition was one of the darkest moments in Christian history, and it has done damage that hurts people down to this day. It, along with the Crusades has fractured the relationships Christians have with Muslims and Jews to this day. And it does another, even deeper damage. It makes people believe that standing for the truth is evil.”
“But what about not accepting other religions? What about Hell?”
“Jason, do you know the worm inside your heart?”
“The worm is inside my heart, too. It is in everybody’s heart. And it needs to be killed again and again and again. And, if you do not fight it to the death, it will kill you.”
“But… I still don’t see why you have to be so intolerant.”
“Jason, if I am shot in the arm, can a doctor help me?”
“Yes. He can help stitch you up, so your body can heal.”
“What if I refuse to be stitched up? What if I shoot myself again and again, and insist that the doctor heal me without stitching me up or stopping me from shooting myself?”
“But… the doctor can’t help you because you won’t let him.”
“That’s right, Jason. A doctor can’t help you if you choose injury over medicine. And Jesus is a doctor with the only medicine that works.
“I don’t believe in Hell because I want to think about people dying. I believe in Hell for the same reason I believe that shooting yourself is bad for your health — because that’s the way it is. I know that other religions are things people put a lot of work into, and take very seriously. But they are not the doctor’s medicine, and the cold, harsh reality is that taking the medicine — all of it — is the only way to be healed.”
“What about homosexuals? Can’t they be Christians like everyone else?”
“Homosexuals can be Christians just like everyone else, the exact same way that everyone else is a Christian. Namely, by letting the doctor heal all of their injuries. All of us have different wounds, and they all need to be healed. I have wounds that most homosexuals don’t. I am a recovering alcoholic. I haven’t had a drink for sixteen years now, but I spent twenty years of my life as a drunkard. Whatever wounds we have, be they homosexual lust, or drinking too much alcohol, or pride, or any of ten thousand other sins, we need to have them to be healed. All of them.”
Jason thought for a while, and then said, “This is the most difficult thing that anyone has ever asked me. I don’t know if I can do it.”
Senex said, “I know it’s difficult, and I can’t do it by myself. But there is help. It is a difficult path, but the Light will give you the strength, and give me the strength. And remember the community in the story? They will help you, as they help me.”
Jason leaned back, and thought for a time. Then he closed his eyes, trembled, and prayed,
“Lord Jesus, come into my heart.
Forgive my sins.
Draw me into your Light.
Fill me with your Life.
Make me your own.
I give myself to you,
And accept you giving yourself to me.”
The day his daughter Abigail was born was the best day of Abraham’s life. Like father, like daughter, they said in the village, and especially of them. He was an accomplished musician, and she breathed music.
He taught her a music that was simple, pure, powerful. It had only one voice; it needed only one voice. It moved slowly, unhurriedly, and had a force that was spellbinding. Abraham taught Abigail many songs, and as she grew, she began to make songs of her own. Abigail knew nothing of polyphony, nor of hurried technical complexity; her songs needed nothing of them. Her songs came from an unhurried time out of time, gentle as lapping waves, and mighty as an ocean.
One day a visitor came, a young man in a white suit. He said, “Before your father comes, I would like you to see what you have been missing.” He took out a music player, and began to play.
Abby at first covered her ears; she was in turn stunned, shocked, and intrigued. The music had many voices, weaving in and out of each other quickly, intricately. She heard wheels within wheels within wheels within wheels of complexity. She began to try, began to think in polyphony — and the man said, “I will come to you later. It is time for your music with your father.”
Every time in her life, sitting down at a keyboard with her father was the highlight of her day. Every day but this day. This day, she could only think about how simple and plain the music was, how lacking in complexity. Abraham stopped his song and looked at his daughter. “Who have you been listening to, Abigail?”
Something had been gnawing at Abby’s heart; the music seemed bleak, grey. It was as if she had beheld the world in fair moonlight, and then a blast of eerie light assaulted her eyes — and now she could see nothing. She felt embarrassed by her music, ashamed to have dared to approach her father with anything so terribly unsophisticated. Crying, she gathered up her skirts and ran as if there were no tomorrow.
Tomorrow came, and the day after; it was a miserable day, after sleeping in a gutter. Abigail began to beg, and it was over a year before another beggar let her play on his keyboard. Abby learned to play in many voices; she was so successful that she forgot that she was missing something. She occupied herself so fully with intricate music that in another year she was asked to give concerts and performances. Her music was rich and full, and her heart was poor and empty.
Years passed, and Abigail gave the performance of her career. It was before a sold-out audience, and it was written about in the papers. She walked out after the performance and the reception, with moonlight falling over soft grass and fireflies dancing, and something happened.
Abby heard the wind blowing in the trees.
In the wind, Abigail heard music, and in the wind and the music Abigail heard all the things she had lost in her childhood. It was as if she had looked in an image and asked, “What is that wretched thing?” — and realized she was looking into a mirror. No, it was not quite that; it was as if in an instant her whole world was turned upside down, and her musical complexity she could not bear. She heard all over again the words, “Who have you been listening to?” — only, this time, she did not think them the words of a jealous monster, but words of concern, words of “Who has struck a blow against you?” She saw that she was blind and heard that she was deaf: that the hearing of complexity had not simply been an opening of her ears, but a wounding, a smiting, after which she could not know the concentrated presence a child had known, no matter how complex — or how simple — the music became. The sword cut deeper when she tried to sing songs from her childhood, at first could remember none, then could remember one — and it sounded empty — and she knew that the song was not empty. It was her. She lay down and wailed.
Suddenly, she realized she was not alone. An old man was watching her. Abigail looked around in fright; there was nowhere to run to hide. “What do you want?” she said.
“There is music even in your wail.”
“I loathe music.”
There was a time of silence, a time that drew uncomfortably long, and Abigail asked, “What is your name?”
The man said, “Look into my eyes. You know my name.”
Abigail stood, poised like a man balancing on the edge of a sword, a chasm to either side. She did not — Abigail shrieked with joy. “Daddy!”
“It has been a long time since we’ve sat down at music, sweet daughter.”
“You don’t want to hear my music. I was ashamed of what we used to play, and I am now ashamed of it all.”
“Oh, child! Yes, I do. I will never be ashamed of you. Will you come and walk with me? I have a keyboard.”
As Abby’s fingers began to dance, she first felt as if she were being weighed in the balance and found wanting. The self-consciousness she had finally managed to banish in her playing was now there — ugly, repulsive — and then she was through it. She made a horrible mistake, and then another, and then laughed, and Abraham laughed with her. Abby began to play and then sing, serious, inconsequential, silly, and delightful in the presence of her father. It was as if shackles fell from her wrists, her tongue loosed — she thought for a moment that she was like a little girl again, playing at her father’s side, and then knew that it was better. What could she compare it to? She couldn’t. She was at a simplicity beyond complexity, and her father called forth from her music that she could never have done without her trouble. The music seemed like dance, like laughter; it was under and around and through her, connecting her with her father, a moment out of time.
After they had both sung and laughed and cried, Abraham said, “Abby, will you come home with me? My house has never been the same without you.”
The crown of Earth is the temple,
and the crown of the temple is Heaven.
Stephan ran to get away from his pesky sister—if nothing else he could at least outrun her!
Where to go?
One place seemed best, and his legs carried him to the chapel—or, better to say, the temple. The chapel was a building which seemed larger from the inside than the outside, and (though this is less remarkable than it sounds) it is shaped like an octagon on the outside and a cross on the inside.
Stephan slowed down to a walk. This place, so vast and open and full of light on the inside—a mystically hearted architect who read The Timeless Way of Building might have said that it breathed—and Stephan did not think of why he felt so much at home, but if he did he would have thought of the congregation worshipping with the skies and the seas, the rocks and the trees, and choir after choir of angels, and perhaps he would have thought of this place not only as a crown to earth but a room of Heaven.
What he was thinking of was the Icon that adorns the Icon stand, and for that matter adorns the whole temple. It had not only the Icons, but the relics of (from left to right) Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint John Chrysostom, and Saint Basil the Great. His mother had told Stephan that they were very old, and Stephan looked at her and said, “Older than email? Now that is old!” She closed her eyes, and when she opened them she smiled. “Older than email,” she said, “and electric lights, and cars, and a great many of the kinds of things in our house, and our country, and…” her voice trailed off. He said, “Was it as old as King Arthur?” She said, “It is older than even the tale of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.”
As he had kissed the relics, he had begun to understand that what made them important was something deeper than their old age. But he could not say what.
But now he opened the doors to the temple, smelled the faint but fragrant smell of incense—frankincense—and was surprised to see another Icon on the stand. (Oh, wait, he thought. There were frequently other Icons.) The Icon was Saint Mary of Egypt. (This Icon did not have any relics.) He looked at the Icon, and began to look into it. What was her story? He remembered the part of her story he liked best—when, very far from being a saint at the beginning of her life, she came to a church and couldn’t go in. An invisible force barred her, and a saint, the Mother of God, spoke to her through an Icon. Stephan vaguely remembered Father saying something about how it was also important how after years of fasting from everything but bread or vegetables, she was discovered but refused to go back to places that would still have been a temptation to her.
She was very gaunt, and yet that gauntness held fierce power. When he had looked into the Icon—or through it, as one looks through a window—he kissed her hand and looked at the royal doors, light doors with a kind of wooden mesh (it was beautiful) and a tower of three Icons each. The royal doors were at the center of the low, open wall that guarded the holy of holies within the temple, a special place crowned by the altar. The top two Icons told the place, not of the Annunciation to the Mother of God, but the Annunciation of the Mother of God. He looked into the pictures and saw the Annunciation of the Mother of God: not when the Archangel said, “Hail, O favored One! The Lord is with you,” but when the Virgin listened and replied, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.”
The spine of Eve’s sin was snapped.
Death and Hell had already begun to crumble.
After looking through these pictures—it was not enough to say that he simply looked at them, though it was hard to explain why—he turned around and was absorbed into the Icon painted as a mural on the sloped ceiling that was now before him.
If that was the answer to Eve’s sin, this was the answer to Adam’s sin.
The Icon was an Icon the color of sunrise—or was it sunset? Then he saw something he hadn’t seen before, even though this was one of his favorite Icons. It was an Icon of the Crucifixion, and he saw Christ at the center with rocks below—obedience in a garden of desolation had answered disobedience in a garden of delights—and beyond the rocks, the Holy City, and beyond the Holy City a sky with bands and whorls of light the color of sunrise. Now he saw for the first time that where Christ’s body met the sky there was a band of purest light around it. Christ had a halo that was white at the center and orange and red at the sides—fitting for the Christ who passed through the earth like a flame.
The flame made him think of the God Who Cannot Be Pushed Around. This God sent his Son, who was also the One Who Cannot Be Pushed Around. In his teaching, in his friendship, in his healing the sick and raising the dead, every step he made was a step closer to this, the Cross. And yet he did this willingly.
Stephan turned, and for a moment was drawn to the mural to the right, which was also breathtakingly beautiful. Two women bore myrrh (the oil that newly chrismated Orthodox have just been anointed with) to perform a last service—the last service they could perform—to a dearly loved friend. And yet they found an empty tomb, and a majestic angel announcing news they would not have dared to hope: the Firstborn of the Dead entered death and death could not hold him. Its power had more than begun to crumble. But then Stephan turned back, almost sharply. Yes, this was glory. This was glory and majesty and beauty. But Stephan was looking for the beginning of triumph…
…and that was right there in the Icon the color of sunrise. The Cross in itself was the victory of the God Who Cannot Be Pushed Around. However much it cost him, he never let go of his plan or his grace. Christ knew he could call for more than twelve legions of angels—but he never did. He walked the path the Father set before him to the very end.
Stephan stood, his whole being transported to the foot of the Cross. However long he spent there he did not know, and I do not know either. He looked through the Icon, and saw—tasted—the full victory of the God Who Cannot Be Pushed Around.
When he did look away, it was in the Light of that God. Everything now bore that Light. He went over to the relics of the patron saints of his land, and though they were much newer than the relics of Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint John Chrysostom, and Saint Basil the Great, that didn’t seem to matter. It was like dust from another world—precious grains of sand from Heaven—and the Icon of Saint Herman of Alaska and Saint Innocent holding up a tiny building was richly colorful—”like a rainbow that has grown up,” he heard one of the grown-ups say.
Then he walked over to the Icon of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, holding a scroll that was open partway, with his letter to the Romans: “Let me be given to the wild beasts, for by their means I can attain to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am being ground by the teeth of the beasts, so that I may an”—but here the quotation stopped, leaving him wondering. That Icon itself was one of several old-looking, yellowed Icons—though not nearly the oldest around—held in a deep, rich brown wooden frame carved with grapevines and bunches of grapes, as many things in that room were carved (though some had intricate interwoven knots). Stephan said, “I want to be a martyr just like you, Saint Ignatius. Pray for me.”
Then he walked over to an Icon that was much smaller, but showed a man standing besides a rustic settlement with an outer wall and turrets and doors and buildings inside. It looked medieval to him, and he wished he could enter that world. It was darkened and yellowed and had a gold leaf sky, and something was written at the top, but he couldn’t read it because it was in a very old language: Old Slavonic.
Right by that Icon was Saint Anthony, the father of all monastics. He had a piercing gaze, and Stephan had the feeling he needed to confess something—but he couldn’t think of anything besides his bout with his sister, and she had been a pest. He looked away.
Stephan looked at the Icon on the left of the wall, and saw the prince, Saint Vladimir, with buildings and spires behind him that looked like they were having a party.
Then Stephan stood in front of the main Icon of the Mother of God holding God the Son, though he stood some distance back. The background was gold, and this drew him in a different way than the Icon of Saint Vladimir. This more than any other did not work like a photograph. (Or at least he was more aware of this now.) It might look odd to people who were just used to photographs, but you could say that a photograph was just a picture, but to say this was just a picture would show that you missed what kind of a picture you were looking at. But he had trouble thinking of how. He didn’t so much sense that he was looking inot the Icon as that the Mother of God and the Son of God were looking at him. He didn’t even think of the Icon being the Icon of the Incarnation and First Coming.
Then he looked at the Icon of the Last Judgment, where Christ the King and Lord and Judge returns holding a book of judgment, a book that is closed because there is nothing left to determine.
He thought intensely. The First Coming of Christ was in a stable, in a cave, and a single choir of angels sung his glory. The Second and Glorious Coming he will ride on the clouds, with legion on legion of angels with him. The First Coming was a mystery, one you could choose to disbelieve—as many people did. There will be no mistaking the Second Coming. In the First Coming, a few knees bowed. In the Second Coming, every knee will bow, in Heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, some in bliss and rapture and others in utter defeat. At the First Coming, a lone star in the sky heralded Christ’s birth. At the Second Coming, the stars will fall to earth like overripe figs and the sky recede as a vanishing scroll.
What were those chilling, terrifying words of Christ? “Depart from me, you who are damned, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, sick and in prison and you did not visit me, lacking clothes and you did not give me the dignity of having clothes to wear.” Then the condemned will say, “Where did we see you hungry and not feed you, or thirsty or sick or in prison and not take care of you?” And the King and Lord and Judge will say, “I most solemnly tell you, as much as you did not do it for the least of these brothers and sisters, you did not do it for me.”
Stephan looked at the Icon and said, “I wish Dad would let me give money to beggars when I see…” Then his voice trailed off. The words didn’t feel right in his mouth. He looked at the solemn love in the Icon, and then his mind was filled with the memory of his sister in tears.
He slowly backed down from the Icon, feeling the gaze of the King and Lord and Judge. He turned to almost run—he was in too holy of a place to run, and…
Something stopped him from leaving. After struggling inside, he looked around, and his eyes came to rest on the Icon of the Crucifixion that was the color of sunrise. Now he had not noticed them earlier this time, but he saw the Mother of God on one side and the beloved disciple on the earth. What had he just heard in church on Sunday? “Christ said to the beloved disciple, who is not here named because he is the image of every disciple, ‘Behold your Mother,’ and to his Mother, ‘Behold your Son.’ Listen to me very carefully. He did not say, ‘Behold another man who is also your son,’ but something much stranger and more powerful: ‘Behold your Son,’ because to be Orthodox is to become Christ.” Stephan started to think, “Gold for kingship, incense for divinity, myrrh for suffering—these are Christ’s gifts but he shares them with the Church, doesn’t he?” He looked up, and then looked down.
“But I need to go and apologize for hurting my sister.”