I am a sinful, imperfect, and very unworthy layman of the Orthodox Church, seeking to enter monasticism to repent of my sins for the rest of my life. (However, I’ve written some pretty good stuff, and if you buy something you might help me along my way.)
What people are saying about this collection
“A collection of joyful, challenging, insightful, intelligent, mirthful, and jarring essays written by an Eastern Orthodox author who is much too wise for his years.”
—Joseph Donovan, Amazon
“Each piece is a delight: partially because each ‘speaks’ using a different voice and partially because a diversity of topics and cross-connections between theology and everyday living makes the entire collection a delight to read, packed with unexpected twists, turns, and intellectual challenges.
Fans of C.S. Lewis and similar Christian thinkers will find The Best of Jonathan’s Corner an absolute delight.”
—Diane Donovan, Midwest Book Review
“When I read C. S. Lewis, A. W. Tozer, or G. K. Chesterton, there is a deep ache for both the times and the men that made honor, wisdom, and clarity a thing of such beauty and strength. We wonder what they would say of our time, and why, with so many more people and better communication, we don’t see more of them.
Hayward is such a person of wisdom and depth. I do not say this lightly or flatteringly. He and I don’t agree on everything, but when we contrast, it will never be his side of the issue that is lacking in depth, beauty, or elegance. He’s Orthodox, yes (I’m not). But I suspect all sides will claim him as they do Lewis and Chesterton.”
—Kent Nebergall, Amazon
“The Sign of the Grail is a unique, scholarly, and thorough examination of the Grail mythos, granting it a top recommendation for academia and the non-specialist reader with an interest in these subjects. Also very highly recommended for personal, academic, and community library collections are C.J.S. Hayward’s other deftly written and original literary works, essays, and commentaries, compilations and anthologies: Yonder, Firestorm 2034, A Cord of Seven Strands, The Steel Orb, The Christmas Tales, and Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary [the other six Hayward titles then in print].”
—John Burroughs, Midwest Book Review
“Divinely inspired for our day and age’s spiritually thirsty fellows.”
—Colleen Woods, Amazon
“The work that stands out most among the creative pieces, perhaps among all of them, is that which opens the book, The Angelic Letters. I have had the pleasure of reading nearly all of Hayward’s writings, and I was delighted that he undertook to write such a work. Readers who are familiar with C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters will recognize at once that it is the very book which that author desired, but felt unable, to write in order to balance the demonic correspondence. It is a mark of Hayward’s skill, knowledge, and spiritual insight that he has successfully written something that such a theologian as Lewis did not wish to attempt. He has of course accomplished this work with God’s help, but one must realize the spiritual struggle, mental effort, careful study, and deep prayer that has gone into every piece in this anthology… This author has gathered pearls for us, and may we gladly look upon them. They hold glimmers that can reflect our lives.”
—Sydney “Nicoletta” Freedman, in the Foreword to The Best of Jonathan’s Corner.
This is the piece of which the Midwest Book Review wrote, “Each piece is a delight: partially because each ‘speaks’ using a different voice and partially because a diversity of topics and cross-connections between theology and everyday living makes the entire collection a delight to read, packed with unexpected twists, turns, and intellectual challenges.
In other words, it enchants as a Swiss Army Knife enchants, and individual works are as distinctive as blades on a Swiss Army Knife..
This is the flagship of my works, both in theology and writing as a whole, and there’s a lot there.
Among the critiques I’ve made, The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts has had a pretty broad and effective reach, in particular for a work that has numerous vitriolic one star reviews. This title, by contrast, contains another significant critique. The “Humane Tech” movement achieves some things, but I would recall a common misquote allegedly from Einstein: “Our problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” Humane Tech looks at how technology experts can work within today’s technical paradigms to soften some of technology’s rough spots. The Luddite’s Guide to Technology is written across ages to step much further outside the box, and the light adaptation of Plato in Plato: The Allegory of the… Flickering Screen? has been called deep, perhaps because it was a light touch to a masterpiece.
I mentioned in conversation with a previous parish priest that I would jump at an opportunity to do a homily, and when I asked for him to do a homily on something briefly touched on in previous opportunities, he invited me to give such a homily myself. I did, and it was the one time in my life that people burst out clapping after a homily. He was a great encourager, and it is my loss that he has moved to another state.
It’s not just that they’re both about a foot thick. The thickness comes from a numerous and varied set of tools: 87 implements with 141 functions for the Wenger Giant, compared with 230 separate works (as of the time of this writing) in the Kindle collection. Furthermore, if you search Amazon for my dozens of titles you will see something a bit like the many Swiss Army Knives you can search from above.
I would retain what I have written here, including a parallel Bible. However, a good friend tipped me off to FluentU (App Store, Google Play).
However, I think I’ve found a way to overclock FluentU. Once you have down the skill of pegging (see Memory and Prayer for an introduction to the skill and a tool to practice; the skill is discussed at book length in the first part of Kevin Trudeau’s Mega Ego Memory), FluentU gives the spelling and pronunciation of a Russian Word, and then deliberately slows down to visually emphasize what the word means, giving some animation to the item that is being communicated… in fact, they give enough time to peg the Russian word to what it refers to once you’re proficient at pegging. I don’t consider myself great at it, but I find that I’m retaining stuff much more quickly when I’m watching the animations that cover word content.
This post is most immediately about learning Russian for native English speakers, but most of the principles apply to learning other languages as well.
At least one webpage I’ve seen about easy, medium, and hard languages for native English speakers placed Russian squarely in the middle difficulty level for languages to learn; the major qualification for difficulty is simply a vocabulary that doesn’t overlap modern English that much; I would guesstimate that the number of Russian words a native English speaker would easily recognize amounts to less than 10% of the words one would encounter. Beyond that, the grammar is not particularly slippery, or otherwise odd; the alphabet has strong and recognizable similarities to our own (compare CJK ideograms or even trying to see where one letter ends and another begins in Arabic for the un-initiated). It’s actually a lot nicer an alphabet to outsiders than the English use of our alphabet is. Learning Russian is moderately difficult, but it’s doable, and this page is here because I want to share what gleanings I’ve learned in my studies, and make things easier.
A preliminary note: the Russian alphabet
The first point I’m mentioning is the alphabet. In a word, it’s not a hard alphabet to learn; it’s just unfamiliar and takes practice. I learned it on an iPhone app named “Learn to read Russian in three hours.” Good old fashioned flashcards should work just as well, or for that matter having the alphabet below handy for cross-reference in reading. (Or a memory technique discussed below.) Also, don’t feel the need to make every sound. The Russian R sound is trilled; I’ve tried at length to learn a trilled R and don’t know how to make it. The H sound is a grated H, the kind that makes you sound like you are clearing your throat because you have a bad chest cold. I can sometimes make it, but I’ve heard native Russian speakers pronounce it as an English K, or an English H, so apparently both work. There is also a sound that sounds like an “sh” followed immediately by a “ch”; I’m working on this and sometimes succeeding at making it one sound without a break between the “sh” and “ch” sounds. Don’t sweat it overall; in most languages people will have some tolerance for imprecise sounds: if your worst liability is an inauthentic R or H sound, you’re doing well!
A first language-learning workhorse: A parallel Bible
I will try to cover a few primary techniques, but the main workhorse I’ve found, after a lot of other things, is reading a parallel Russian-English Bible. I found, to my irritation, that all the Russian-English Bibles I could track down on Amazon were made by the Russian Bible Society, which is a Protestant organization that omits certain books of the Old Testament that are present both in the Russian and English translations. (The Reformers at least included those books in an appendix!) The modern Russian translation you will be wanting is the Synodal Version (RUSV), which was translated into Russian by Orthodox Christians rather than Protestants. I wanted a nice leatherbound edition; there is also a nice but cheaper option (the only one really cheaper one I could find was a paperback edition).
No matter how much you may want to learn Russian, please start forays into the Synodal Version slowly, and ramp up slowly. As Orthodox mystagogy would have it, you don’t begin exercise by running a marathon. What I would recommend instead is reading the Gospel of John the Theologian, and start with the prologue.
The basic initial technique is to look at the Russian side for a single verse like John 1:1, and then see if you can make connections to the English side. And if you don’t on the first try, that’s fine. But try again an hour later. If you’re comfortable with a verse, move on to the next one. Before long you may be able to read a different verse each hour, and continue with hourly study. If you are comfortable trying to read one verse at a time, try reading two verses, and maybe not all the time. When you are genuinely comfortable reading two verses, move on to three. It is possible this way to get up to maybe a chapter: “Little and often fills the purse.”
But by all means, no marathons, nor stretching yourself as hard as you can for a short while. One detail about lawn care is that the kind of sprinklers that are great for children to play in should only be used for that purpose as they are terrible at watering lawns. What happens to a lawn used by the sprinklers is that the stream of water is shot high up into the air, and with the same force slams down into the ground. If you slam water onto parched ground, it isn’t absorbed; it can’t be. What each droplet of a fist does, instead of being absorbed, is hammer the ground into a beaten shield that repels further droplets. And you end up with a deceptive situation where there is water streaming in rivulets over the surface of the wet-looking soil, but an inch down the soil remains as parched as before it was watered. This is something you don’t want to do in educational situations, including learning a language. Little and often fills the purse.
One specific note to people who are in fact looking to learn classical Hebrew and/or Koine Greek: you can fairly easily find a good intralinear Bible, and to some people this looks like practically all language learning solved at once. However, I would pass on a caution: unless you have already learned multiple languages and already have that discipline, it’s not perfect and you can easily create a habit of your eyes jumping to the intralinear English words and not really spending that much time, or making much progress, with Hebrew or Greek itself. However, one bit of discipline that I am using now is as follows. Use a specially cut rubber jar opener to only let you see the partial or complete line in the ancient language, and don’t unveil to yourself the English term until you have stopped to ponder the ancient language’s term and tried to figure it out without (intralinear) help.
In earlier versions of this page, I recommended using index cards to hide and show things in a way that would be optimal. After working with them, I found that unless you have the luxury of a page that is completely level, they slide around the page whether you want it or not. That problem was solved by making a cover out of a carefully cut rubber jar opener, which I obtained at a local grocery store.
Good Cook rubber jar openers include a circular jar opener, and a larger squarish jar opener. Either of them could be cut to be useful; I used the more square model but if I made too bad a mistake cutting it I could have used the other one. The unopened package looks like so:
I made a first cut; mine was too deep and I cut a slight distance off the top. The point of the cut at the top is to be placed on top of a page, at the line of text you are working on, and to reveal a line of text, up to a point, and conceal what hasn’t been revealed further.
The full vertical height is too much; go to the bottom of the page on at least some intralinear Bibles and the rubber will fall over the bottom of the page. It was cut to height that was much less but still appropriate:
Note that at the top the top borders are closer.
Here are three examples of reading a line of the text. In all cases, the point is to place the whole Hebrew line in view, while hiding the intralinear English translation until the Hebrew has been given primary attention:
These specific images are adapted to Hebrew, as a language that reads right to left. If you want to work with an interlinear Greek New Testament you can use the same covering in almost the same way; you’ll just pull the cover left to right, after first flipping the cover horizontally so it conceals what is to the right instead of what is to the left.
I am here mentioning something that has served me powerfully in the past, and works with multiple languages, but may not be as much needed in our setting.
The Elements of New Testament Greek, the Greek textbook I was taught from, told you what you needed to learn in vocabulary, etc. Greek to Me does one better by providing a practical means to learn the vocabulary above rote memorization; it applies the classical memory technique in the first half of Kevin Trudeau’s Mega Memory (I have a much shorter page and training tool online in Memory and Prayer), and it has been a tremendous accelerator in offering a five-times-faster alternative to looking things up in an old-fashioned print XYZ-English dictionary.
The reason I consider this to be optional now is that there is a faster alternative to avoid repeatedly looking up a term in a thick paper dictionary. You can go to translate.google.com, set it to translate from Russian to English, and spell things phonetically, or set your computer to let you type in Russian, and maybe buy keyboard stickers (or just post-it notes) putting Russian letters on top of your keys. There are two major Russian keyboard layouts both of which should be supported; there is one that is the standard layout (stickers are available), and one that is roughly phonetic for English speakers (I couldn’t find any stickers). If you are going to Russia, you will want the Russian standard keyboard layout; if you are not intending to go to Russia, you will probably find the phonetic layout to feel easier and more natural.
That stated, the memory technique has its uses, especially in getting a new alphabet down. It acts as scaffolding; you first remember XYZ through a vivid mental image from what is called “pegging”, and then with repeated use the provisional mental image fades out of significance and you more quickly remember the word itself.
I will briefly comment that some people develop a strong initial impression that the memory technique is too much work for what it tries to do. I personally have found it not to live up to its hype, but I don’t know anyone who has become proficient and still retains the initial bad impression. I would place it as one tool among others, and less decisive given today’s technology offerings than it has been for me in the past.
A quieter memory technique
The business world has come to recognize that multitasking is not a good thing, and divided attention is needlessly diluted attention. (The Orthodox Church has known this for much longer.)
There is a less striking memory technique of, when you discover or rediscover something or come across something worth keeping, stopping and pausing for a moment to simply give it your full attention. No mental images needed: just the studious slow, focused, and present attention Orthodoxy gives to anything worth keeping. This memory tool is something that combines well with many other techniques and resources.
Language classes aren’t available to all of us; but they can provide another tool. I wanted to take a course in conversational Russian, but it didn’t work out.
There are multiple computer training systems; Rosetta Stone is far from the only option. I don’t have informed opinion about all of them, but DuoLinguo comes highly recommended, and I respect it myself.
I have had difficulty locating edifying Russian-language film or video with English subtitles. However, if you do find something, it can be worth its weight in gold to try to make connections between the Russian you hear and the English you read. However, please note that there is not a complete correspondence between speech in the video and subtitles in another language. (You can have a few people talking but only the essential part is relayed in subtitle.)
Two gems I am aware of are Ostrov and The Tale of Peter and Fevronia.
Conversations with native speakers (if available)
Having a conversation, on a very basic level, can be helpful.
One note from Wheaton’s Institute for Cross-Cultural Training: in dealing with a native speaker, you may be working and working and working on improving your language, and it remains just as hard to talk to that person.
There is a reason for this, and it is really OK. Some people who are sensitive to others’ imperfect language abilities simplify what they say to match the proficiency of the person they are speaking with. This may mean that when you start they speak very simply, but they simplify less and less when they see you become more proficient. You are making progress talking with that person; it just doesn’t feel like it.
Reading books in Russian
This is not a first step in working on a foreign language, but when you are able it is tremendously valuable to read books in that language. What may come to mind first are the proverbial nineteenth-century Russian novels, but beside them there is a vast collection of spiritual literature available in Russian. When you are ready to read books in Russian, reading books really pays off.
Listening to liturgical music
This also can be invaluable.
Different techniques work best for different people; what works best for one person may not be best for another.
This point is worth experimenting on, and it is worth being in some sense watchful by paying attention for what works and what doesn’t.
Having trouble trying to keep track of nested parentheses in a page-long SQL query or PHP/Perl/Python etc. conditionals? Type or paste in code you have that has so many layers of parenthesis that you struggle to keep on top of the tangled depth of the code.
Security-conscious? This code doesn’t send your code snippet to the server: all calculations are handled in the browser. However, if you want that extra level of assurance, you are welcome to capture the source and make sure everything’s on the up-and-up before you use it. This code is dual-licensed, available to you under your choice of the terms of MIT and GPLv3 license.
This page is link-ware. If you like it, you are invited to put a link to CJSHayward.com.
This article is intended to do something that is usually best avoided, at least in the context of an article.
Some students of culture describe semiotic frames that define a society’s possibles et pensables: they shape what is seen as possible and what is even thinkable within a society. And it is usually preferable to handle communication so that you aren’t asking people to overhaul their mental frameworks: if you can think far enough outside the box that you find possibles et pensables the sort of thing that can be easily brought into question, that’s a wonderful thing to be able to do, but it is usually best kept under wraps, and usually best kept in a back pocket.
This piece is designed to delve into deeper work and not be as quickly digested as other fare. It’s harder to process than an article intended to persuade you between two options that we both already understand well enough. I tried to think about how to make my point while dodging working on what is seen as possible and what is even thinkable, and I don’t see how to eliminate that work from my point. I want to revise what is seen as possible and what is thinkable about branding today.
Where did branding come from anyway?
To the best of my knowledge, and to only present the beginning and end of a story, branding was once what happened when cattle owners would use a hot iron symbol to brand an identifying mark on cattle they owned, to be able to claim whose cattle they were if there were any question. There is a fairly close equivalent to this in the modern business world, but the equivalent isn’t really “how a company communicates itself and its offering to the outside world.” It’s really much more the unsexy practice of attaching metal tags to valuable company equipment that say, “This is property of XYZ corporation, serial number 12345.” And while there may be good reasons for engaging in this part of due diligence, it is hardly that interesting or deep.
Not so with real branding in today’s business world, not by any stretch. As I have prepared and thought about the question, I’m not sure I can think of an equally significant concept that I have met. To pick two examples from my own field in information technology, Agile development and open source software may be significant concepts, but I do not see the same niches and layers. There is some theory about open source software as such, and people may complain that a company that releases software under an open source license but “drops patches [external contributions] on the floor” isn’t really walking the walk, but in my experience the theory that most open source software developers are interested are the computer science and software engineering issues concerning their tools and pet projects, and you simply don’t have subspecialized high value consultants on the theory and ideology of open source. But branding is in fact a very big concept, and you do have high-value consultants actively engaged for their expertise in some specialization or subspecialization somewhere under the “branding” umbrella.
And with this significance comes something else, maybe something less attractive: however useful or prominent it may be, it is far from a worldwide universal, and I am not aware of any Great Teachers who have thought in terms of branding. Not only that, but Socrates might very well have lived to a ripe old age, instead of being condemned to death, if he had lived a brand that would have been socially acceptable to the citizens of his city. (The entire story of his gadfly’s teaching and life is an example of how to avoid branding yourself if you want to succeed and live.) Discussion of branding may be anachronous if applied to Socrates, but the principle justifies such an intrusion.
Two seismic shifts, one after another
In the popular Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, that a shift had taken place in wisdom literature: that is, what people have written about how to succeed as a person; one definition offered for such wisdom is, “skill for living.” Whenever the text was written, the author had apparently read a great deal of wisdom literature over time and made a cardinally important distinction between a character ethic and a personality ethic. Up until about World War II, the basic framing assumption in wisdom literature in the U.S. is that success is success arising from character. One needs to be diligent, and humble, and merciful to others, and so on. In short, we need virtuous living to get ahead. These virtues may include practices: Ben Franklin’s “A penny saved is a penny earned” is an exhortation to the virtue of thrift. But success is acquired through growing as a person, by growing in virtue.
The subsequent sub-par personality ethic was much more superficial; it offered tips and tricks to get ahead, while avoiding anything calling for real internal transformation. And while there are definitely mere practices that we could do better (I could smile more), most of my problems aren’t on the level of personality, but where I need to do more inner work. The shift Covey documents is a seismic shift, and it is difficult to overstate its significance. Something like the character ethic and the personality ethic exist at least to some extent side-by-side in information technology: there are people who have been educated in computer science and software engineering, and who maintain a lifelong curiosity towards those areas as well as working their way through fads and individual tools, and there are educational programs that just teach buzzwords and individual tools with only incidental coverage of deeper issues in theory. A manager who has dealt with both kinds of programmers will know the difference well.
I would posit, or rather point out, that there has been a second shift after a shift from a character ethic to a personality ethic: a shift from a personality ethic to a (personal) brand ethic. There are books I’ve read that offer an induction into a brand ethic in ways that someone who’s not already an insider will understand: but I don’t remember anything I’ve read treating as a live question whether we need a brand ethic or a personality ethic, or whether we need a brand ethic or a character ethic. Personality has a place: it has a place because a personal brand on Twitter that incorporates some amount of what feels like personality is a stronger brand than one that is one-dimensional. The place for personality is neither more nor less than what the brand ethic calls for. And that’s odd.
But you, CJS Hayward, have a brand!
In one sense, at least some people will say that I have a brand, and one that I have consciously contributed to. This blog’s background, for instance, is one touch out of many things that provide a sense of brand. Old-fashioned, exaggeratedly recognizable links could be called another. None the less, I meet the concept of a personal brand with some degree of puzzlement. I’ve written dialogues before, but I’m drawing a blank at how to flesh out a dialogue with pretty much any of the world’s great teachers about marketing-style branding as a paradigm for how to relate to others. I do not find branding in the Sermon on the Mount, I have difficulty envisioning what Sun Tzu or other sages would say, and for that matter I do not think that Muhammad would have understood the concept, and if he had understood it, would find it to be extremely offensive: much as democracy’s foundational attitude that you have a say in things is profoundly un-Islamic (when George Bush was pushing to endow Iraq with democracy, my comment to friends was, “I wish that Bush would herald a goal that would be less offensive to Muslims, like a hambone in every pot.”).
It is possible for brands to be layered. It is possible for brands to have depth. It is possible for brands to present a tip of an iceberg with lots of room to dig. However, I would pick as a particularly bad piece on personal branding a book chapter which advised the reader to pick three positive adjectives on the list, and simply decide, “These will be my brand.” And this isn’t just one book. When a company has announced that XYZ represent its values, it gives the impression of something arbitrarily chosen and tacked on, something plastic, something that would really make Michael Polanyi squirm.
Our close contemporary Michael Polanyi (Wikipedia), to pick one of the achievements he is best known for, argued essentially that knowledge is not something separate from people. When people are initiated into a tradition of expert practice, there is knowledge tacitly held by those who are already insiders in the culture of expert practics, and this knowledge is tacitly transmitted to people who are being trained to become insiders, without ever being held or passing consciously to those in either role. He comments that swimming coaches and swimmers alike breathe differently from non-swimmers in that they expand their lungs to hold more air when they breathe in, and they keep more air in their lungs when they breathe out, using their lungs this way for added buoyancy. Other explanations may be available in this case, but, the broader picture is one that uses tacit knowledge, or to take the deliberately chosen title of his magnum opus, Personal Knowledge, and recognize that we have many layers beyond the surface. And I’m trying to imagine Polanyi reading a text telling him to pick three adjectives that should identify him as his personal brand. I see him squirming, much like the Far Side cartoon entitled, “Baryshnikov’s ultimate nightmare” that shows a square dance caller saying, “Swing your partner ’round and ’round, now promenade left and don’t fall down…”
However, the concern I raise, which may or may not be terribly distinct from Polanyi, isn’t just that a personal brand is shallow, or at least has been shallow in every book I’ve read telling me I need a personal brand. It’s also designed as artificial and plastic, not real and alive. It may have an alive motif, like the handmade-looking lettering and art in cookie-cutter Starbucks locations. But it is what Neal Stevenson described in In the Beginning was the Command Line, in describing a mediated and vicarious experience waiting in line for a ride at Disneyland:
The place looks more like what I have just described than any actual buildingyou might find in India. All the stones in the broken walls are weathered as if monsoon rains had been trickling down them for centuries, the paint on thegorgeous murals is flaked and faded just so, and Bengal tigers loll amid stumps of broken columns. Where modern repairs have been made to the ancient structure, they’ve been done, not as Disney’s engineers would do them, but asthrifty Indian janitors would–with hunks of bamboo and rust-spotted hunks of rebar. The rust is painted on, of course, and protected from real rust by aplastic clear-coat, but you can’t tell unless you get down on your knees.
And on this point I’d like to mention a point from The Cost of Discipleship. I don’t know now whether I’d agree with the suggestion Bonhoeffer makes, but he highlights that the Sermon on the Mount says both Let your light so shinebeforemen, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven, and also that we are to conceal our good deeds: But when thou doest alms, let not thy lefthand know what thy righthand doeth. Asking how these two incongruous commands fit together, Bonhoeffer says that we should do good deeds but hide them from ourselves, that we should reach a state of doing goodness that we do it without being aware of it. Now whether that should exactly be believed in reference to the Gospel, I don’t know. But something like that is true of some secular skill. I remember a conversation with a Unix professional who said that in a job interview he had claimed to be a Unix wizard because that was required in that social situation, but it would have been “an outright lie” for him to make that claim among his peers. I assure you he was very competent. But his competency had reached a level where (among other things) he knew how little he knew and how much more there was to know, and like almost any good Unix wizard, he found calling himself a Unix wizard to feel like an outright lie. When I was asked in high school as the school’s student Unix system administrator, I hesitated, and I was both surprised and delighted when a friend said “Yes” for me; I would have been making an outright lie (in my mind) to make that claim. Nor is this a specific local feature of Unix wizardry. That is just an example close to my experience, and it seems that nobody considers themselves what in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine terms would be called Morlocks. There is a kind of “reverse hypocrisy” here. A Morlock, to expert practitioners, is someone else at a higher level of skill. (Linus Torvalds has voiced confusion about why others consider him technical.)
The general rule is that the most confident in their performance are usually the most-overconfident, and the most competent are actually less confident; unlike the over-confident, they are guided by a sharply tuned inner self-criticism, the same self-criticism that in any competent practice of classical music means that musicians hear their performance mistakes more quickly than even the most discerning audience members. What is going on here is the same thing as was told to me as a child, which I’ll leave in politically incorrect terms:
An Indian and a white man were standing on a beach, and the white man drew a small circle and said, “This is what the Indian knows.” Then he drew a larger circle around it and said, “This is what the white man knows.” Then the Indian drew a huge circle encompassing both other circles and said, “This is what neither the Indian nor the white man knows.”
And this quality, of seeing a huge encompassing circle of things that none of us know, is foundational to being a genuine expert almost anywhere. Hence a high school biology text compares the discipline of biology to trying to discern the characters, plot, and themes of a long and intricately complex movie, when all you have is half a dozen stills in varying conditions. Hence one biology teacher I remember fondly saying very emphatically that we don’t know what’s going on: all that biologists know now is only a tiny slice of the truth.
So what does this all mean for branding? It means a couple of things, and perhaps it may be good to have three positive adjectives you seek to represent. But one thing it means is that people are often not aware of their good (and bad) properties, or at least not all of them. This might be true morally, but it is also true in terms of professional competence. I remember going to a presentation on getting a government job and the “stupid questionnaire” (the presenter’s preferred term) where you were asked to rate yourself from 1 up to 5 on different areas of competency. Now coming from a business background where I had been asked to rate myself 1 to 10 in competency and advised the higher self-rating I gave, the harder test questions would be asked of me, thought of rating myself mostly 3’s with a couple of 4’s on the ones I was strongest, the presenter made crystal-clear that that was not going to work. The only acceptable answer was a 5, or maybe you could get away with one or possibly two self-ratings of 4. And that’s not selecting for competency. It is selecting for overconfidence, and for gaming the system. For someone who is genuinely competent, and is not aware of how and why to game the system here, giving a sincere and well-thought-out self-evaluation is a recipe for elimination even if that employee’s past five supervisors would mark the person as a clear 5 across the board.
The title I’ve been mulling over, The Twitter Job Search Guide, is part of the cohort of books where branding is bedrock. It also suggests that Twitter competencies expand outside of Twitter, so that a cover letter is composed of a few tweets and a resume is composed of a few more tweets. Now that’s an idea I’d be cautious about dismissing; communicating value concisely is a valuable skill, and in some sense Twitter might be seen as a Toastmasters of written communication. Toastmasters’ Competent Communicator course trains people with five to seven minute speeches addressing core competencies in speaking (plus a couple of other details), and the thought is not exactly that participants will only need to give speeches of that length, but rather to lay a foundation that is explicitly intended to be adaptable to longer or shorter speeches. And Twitter is not always 140 characters of nothing; there are profound contributions made, and it is a valuable skill, and one quite often present among the most competent gifted, to make a significant point clearly and concisely. For a business world that just wants the time, not the whole process of a watch being built, it may be good discipline and skill to be able to write a six tweet cover letter and twelve tweet resume. But I am concerned when this all falls under the aegis of branding. And in The Twitter Job Search Guide, the tweets for a cover letter and resume all fall under the heading of communicating a brand. Though there is (for instance) discussion of what constitutes a good ratio between professional and personal tweets, I’ve read two thirds of the text and I haven’t yet seen advice to tweet or communicate something that does not fall under the aegis of your personal brand. The beginning, middle, and end of what you are advised to communicate is brand. There is no other way to relate to others, it seems, and this is a plastic form of life.
Now before going further, there is one point I would like to clarify about boundaries (a topic that I believe is ill-framed, but that is not my interest here). One professor, addressing graduate students who were or probably would be teaching assistants, talked about “being the same on the outside and on the inside.” She went on very directly to state that this did not mean “letting it all hang out”; that was precisely what it was not. Normal social interactions embody both what is anthropologically called “positive politeness” and “negative politeness”, and on this point I would recall another professor talking about appropriate communication in crossing cultures. He gave some examples of positive politeness, things like saying “Hello!” to a friend (the sort of examples of politeness that jump to mind). Then he said that when strangers approach each other and look down at the sidewalk when they’re a few meters apart, that’s politeness. It is a refusal to wantonly intrude; it says, “You have not invited me in and I will not presume where I am not invited and I do not belong.” And that is politeness. He mentioned, to drive the point a little bit further, that he had one good friend he visited, and though he did not do so at this visit, he would have thought nothing of opening his friend’s refrigerator and helping himself to anything inside. The principle of negative politeness is that you do not do things without invitation; one may surmise that some point along the way the professor’s friend gave one or several invitations to rummage through the fridge without asking specific permission, and I would be almost certain that the professor had not asked permission to arbitrarily rummage his friend’s fridge; he had presumably been given that permission as the friendship developed. And outside of a few exceptions like this, it is a significant violation of negative politeness to rummage through someone’s fridge without asking.
Socially appropriate relations, or boundaries, or negative politeness, or whatever you want to call it, applies; that can and should mediate our interactions, and brands that have any sense to them will stay within these boundaries. However, while I believe we need the mediation of negative (and positive) politeness, there is something plastic about the mediation of brands. It’s good not to give TMI, but a personal brand is neither the only nor the best way to communicate within positive and negative politeness that respects boundaries.
I’m not sure this addresses all of branding; I’d expect that someone who knew branding well could point to currents within branding that survive this critique. I’ve picked examples that struck me as silly; I haven’t discussed the silliness I see about corporations picking three identifying values, and in much more mainstream and professional venues than a book in a career center offering a list of positive adjectives and an invitation to pick three as defining your personal brand. But for what I’d like to see instead, I don’t have a big program to offer, just appropriate social interaction: social interaction that is appropriate to degree of relationships and the roles of the participants. Others have written The Clue Train Manifesto; I have not examined that manifesto in depth but its opening words about a human voice suggest I’m not the only person, nor the first person, concerned with human communication.
My personal unbrand
I wanted to give a bit on my personal brand, or rather unbrand, or, if you prefer, ersatz brand. You’re welcome to say, if you like, that it is in fact just a personal brand, only a personal brand that embodies at least one classic and cardinal mistake. Or at least two mistakes, apart from the easily digested simplicity of an effective brand, the bulk of my effort is growing in terms of both who I am as a person, and how I can achieve deeper competence. Some attention is given to appearance, but a brand works primarily on image management. Skills one acquires, for instance, are there because of their usefulness to a branded image. But let’s return to the other basic attribute in what makes sense in a brand.
One of the parameters that is desired in a brand is doing one thing well, simplicity. There may be contours to the brand’s landscape, but if you are a jack of all trades you are assumed to be a master of none. One part of a brand’s job description, personal or otherwise, is to present a simple core, perhaps one core feature that offers a value proposition with one core benefit. Or, perhaps, there are a few pieces working together, but if you can’t write it on the back of a business card, you have failed. And in fact this is not restricted to branding. Good to Great talks about good companies that became great companies having and/or discovering a core “hedgehog concept” that they keep returning to, and while such a general title on business has to assume marketing and with it branding as part of the picture, I do not recall the emphatic “hedgehog concept” discussion portraying it as a particular issue for marketing and branding. In Good to Great, the “hedgehog concept” defines a one-trick pony that fundamentally outperforms Renaissance man opponents.
In my own case, what I offer is a profoundly gifted portfolio of interconnected skills. Want to know what reading Latin and Greek has to do with the business world? At a competitive local exchange carrier, we were working with an upstream provider who did business with us because they were required to by law, even though they didn’t want to, because they saw us as cream-skimmers. Nobody else in my group could make sense of their opaque, bureaucratic communication. I could, and there wasn’t much of a hiccup when my boss, with my consent, added communication with that provider to my responsibilities. I don’t know if any of my bosses have cared that I enjoy writing, but several have cared that I could create and edit clear and high-value documents. I don’t know whether any of my bosses have particularly cared that I’ve received rankings as high as 7th in the nation in math contests, but they do care when I apply that to solo programming that hits the ball out of the park. In the positions I’m focusing on now in User Experience, I don’t really expect my prospective bosses to care that I have postgraduate coursework in essentially all major User Experience disciplines: anthropology, cognitive science, computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and psychology, with a distinctive work addressing something at the core of User Experience competency. However, once I am hired and running usability tests, I expect they’ll care how much that background lets me draw out of a test.
And, to dig a bit deeper, the achievements I value are not because of intelligence, but communication. I’ve calmly spoken to a bawling four-year-old with an extremely painful blood blister under her thumbnail, until she she had stopped completely. I’ve been asked why I know how to relate to Ukrainians. I’ve been told, “You are like a white American and like a black African, and closer than an African brother.” I’ve communicated across large gaps with remarkable success.
And, to give one last detail, I’ve had many projects and there is a common thread running through virtually all the ones I’ve liked most: I’ve reduced user pain, or made something a joy to work with. To pick one example from when I had just started a new job, I was given a four-word spec before my boss left for his vacation: “Get [name of employee] off overtime.” The employee was a revenue assurance auditor who was trying to keep on top of a provider who was slipping us inappropriate charges, a responsibility that had him on heavy overtime in a company which normally stuck with a 40 hour workweek. And I winced when I saw what he was doing. I respected him and his actions as a team player, but he was cutting a steak with a screwdriver because that was the only game in town, and I wanted to give a razor-sharp knife, designed for him personally. When he said he was perfectly willing to do drudge work, my unspoken response was, “I appreciate and respect that you’re willing to do drudge work. I still want to get it off your plate.” And I drew on Edward Tufte’s principles and made a carefully chosen greyscale (instead of numbers) system that cut his involvement down to 40 hours a week, then further down so only part of his time was spent keeping on top of this responsibilities, and he was in a position to engage other responsibilities that were out of the question earlier. At a certain point into the process, I told him, “The only reason I ever want you to do us the old tools is because you want to,” and he very quickly answered, “I don’t want to!” In other words, the new tool completely superseded prior methods, which is a rarity. I don’t remember exactly how far along we were when my boss returned from vacation, but the employee told me he was raving to my boss, and in that whole position my boss never really showed much inclination to micro-manage me. (He described me as “nearly self-managing.”)
These and other things could be a basis for a number of personal brands that I could treat as my working contract with the professional world. However, it is my preference not to have my dealings mediated by a constructed personal brand. I’d like to give my friends and employers alike the real “me”, and while I will act differently with friends, family, church, and an employer, I don’t want people dealing with an artificially infused personal brand. I want them to deal with me. And while one friend explained that a fellow graduate student in psychology who dealt in measuring psychological traits answered a questionnaire for a job application, she understood exactly how the test worked, answered like the personality profile that the company wanted, and just made sure to act like the profile they wanted while she was at work. I don’t want to judge, but I find something very sad about the story. And it has everything to do with working with a personal brand.
This is not as crystalline as a normal brand. That’s intended.
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.
Touch is something deep which is lightly explored in my culture. I wish to explore it here.
It is characteristic of Western thought, probably in a tradition reaching back to the Greeks, to pay a strong degree of attention to sight when studying perception, to the exclusion of the other five senses. (The sixth sense is not ESP; it is the internal, kinesthetic sense, commonly called the sense of balance, which enables us to tell up from down; when this sense fails (after, for example, spinning around or drinking too much alcohol), we feel dizzy and become disoriented as to how to keep from falling over.) For example, in the Myers Psychology text, the vast majority of the space devoted to perception studied how we extract information from what our eyes report, so much so that ESP (which the authors did not believe in) received more attention and space than hearing, smell, taste, touch, and balance put together!
(I might incidentally comment that psychology, for all but the most recent times, has been explored as a part of philosophy, and in some ways has suffered more than any of the hard sciences from the separation. A lot of what goes on in psychology is truly bad philosophy, and would improve greatly if its theories were grounded in good philosophy. Behaviorism is a prime example of this.)
In speaking about touch, I intend not to generally talk about sex, for a couple of reasons. The first is that sexual technique, along with massage, is perhaps the one (two) narrow and restricted area of touch that people are taking seriously; manuals on sexual technique exist in droves. And I might incidentally mention that I do not know sexual technique — that will come if and when I get married. But even to if I were expert in sexual technique, and were writing to an audience of married couples, I do not think that I would write about sex. It is not because I despise sex — I believe it right and good that an entire book of Scripture, the Greatest of Songs, is pure erotica. It is for another reason, a reason that lies deeper.
The conception of romance and relationships in American thought is not nearly so universal as might be thought by someone who is from our time. At this point, I might shock the reader to drawing attention to how, in a great many cultures across much of time, people were happily married, sexually satisfied, and enjoying life, without ever having occur to them what modern America understands by romance. Romantic love was one of the great discoveries of the middle ages — a genuine discovery, because it was not really known.
If we exclude the supernatural love of agape, and the love-beyond-love of worship that is due to Jesus Christ, then we are left with four natural loves between human beings. There is the love of all other human beings, which applies even to strangers and even to enemies. Then there is the love of friends — a friend is both to be loved as a human being, and in a special way as a friend. There is next the love of one’s own family — family are to be loved as human beings, in a special way as friends, and in a more special way as family. Finally, there is the last love, a love which is romantic and sexual. A spouse is to be loved as a human being, in a special way as a friend, in a more special way as kin, and finally in the most special way as a lover, a lifelong partner and mate.
This fourth love does not stand on its own, and was never meant to in the first place. If we look in the Song of Songs, we see that the lover calls the beloved a woman, that the two are addressed as friends, and in particular he calls her his sister and then his bride. Even in a book all about sex, we see not sexual love in isolation, but sexual love as the crowning jewel, united with the other loves to make a rich and full marriage.
Romance, its delightful intoxication, is a wonderful and God-given thing. But it is transient, and when it wanes, there is (or at least should be) something far deeper than sex alone; that deeper, companionate love is what God intended as the basis for marriage, as thrilling as romance may be.
God created us as his image, and the particular way he in his goodness chose to do so was as a unity of spirit, soul, and body. The spirit, with its ability to love, is the greatest part, and love is greater than even rationality. But it is not the only part, or the only good. And even the word ‘part’ is deceptive; it suggests a collection of compartmental modules, when in fact there is a unity.
And in that unity, there is a spiritual way of drawing near and embracing by love; this is what Aquinas (for example) described as the will, seen not in the modern Nietzchian sense of iron determination, but rather as a recognition of good that inclines towards something. And in the spirit-soul-body unity by which God has blessed us, there is a physical way of drawing near and embracing by love. It is called touch.
If nothing else, by analogy at least, we should be able to look and see that among human loves there is a highest and superlative form of love in marriage, and yet the romantic love does not and should not stand in isolation, then sexual touch may be the highest, holiest, and most exciting form of touch by which God has blessed our race, but it probably wasn’t created in isolation to be the only touch — even in marriage.
And if I may push the analogy even further, I would say that that touch is absolutely wonderful while it lasts, but it is not the fundamental or foundational touch of physical love, even in marriage. Something else is.
What I am saying here may be more transparently obvious to women than to men. Women tend to feel more the need for physical affection, men the sexual drive. And many men, especially those who grew up in households with little physical affection, man not only not see the need for physical affection, but be uncomfortable with it. Even then, I would ask you to bear with me.
Our society has inherited the disastrous wake of Victorianism, and is a post-Victorian culture; I will include here an appendix an essay which I wrote on Victorianism as the death knell to sexual purity in Western culture. Apart from referring the reader to that, I will simply say that we’ve inherited a mess.
Victorianism, n. The death knell to sexual purity in Western culture.
Victorianism held sexual purity to be extremely important. All well and good, but it did not stop there. Victorianism believed sexual purity to be best approached via a Pharisaic guard around the Law. And, like every other guard around the Law, it did a trememdous amount of damage to numerous other things before destroying the very object it was meant to preserve.
Touch and community are vital elements of human health. This is witnessed in Scriptures that tell of John reclining in Jesus’s bosom and in the hands quickly extended to pets, one of the few situations where our society will allow an innocent touch to be an innocent touch. An infant who is not held will wither and die, and psychologists have a bluntly accurate term for the failure of parents to hold and cuddle their children a great deal: abuse. And of course the special kind of community that exists between a husband and wife is given a special kind of touch.
Victorianism looked at sex and did not quite see something which is fundamentally good within a certain context. It saw something which was essentially evil (but tolerable at best within a certain context). And, in progressively widening circles, encompassing different forms of touch further and further from what is necessarily foreplay, saw that there exists at least some possibility for that touch to be sexual (at least from the perspective of the younger monk), and placed on each one a label of “This is dirty. Avoid it.” Word such as “Greet one another with a kiss of love.” cease to be acknowledged as a divine command which was given for human good, and instead look like, um, an odd cultural thing which, um, shows, um, um, um…
The aim, it appears, was to end up with nothing that was sexual. The result was to make everything sexual, and create a major unanticipated problem.
God created people with certain needs, and when those needs are not met, Satan comes in with counterfeit substitutes. These things are hard enough to resist to someone whose needs are met with the genuine article; when there is an immense sucking vacuum coming from unmet needs, pushing away the counterfeits acquires a difficulty which is unbelieveable. A little girl who is deprived of a father’s hugs and kisses will grow into a young woman who has a tremendously difficult time avoiding sexual promiscuity, unsuccessfully searching in a series of abusive boyfriends’ embraces for enough love to fill the emptiness inside.
Fortunately, most of Victorianism did not quite leave a stain that dark and deep, but there is still a major problem with a culture that refuses to wholeheartedly say, “It’s OK. You may enjoy an innocent touch as an innocent touch.” There is still a failure to meet a need that God created people to have filled, and still an uphill battle to fight off the counterfeit substitutes.
In this century, Victorianism has crumbled, but, like every other evil, it fails to crumble in the ways that a sane person would want it to crumble. What disappeared was not the prohibition on friendly touch, but the belief that sexual sin is a deadly poison which should be fought tooth and nail. What appeared and took the place meant to be filled by innocent touch is something which is not innocent. Thus, Victorianism did a perfect job of making room and clearing the way for a great deal of lewdness.
Current Western culture is saturated with sexual sin, not despite, but because of the fact that it is the continuation of Victorian culture.
(There is one note I should like to mention before I forget. The careful reader may ask why I am undertaking to write about touch and have other people read it; the practice does not involve touch as thinking about logical reasoning involves reasoning. My response is threefold: (1) You have a point to an extent; reading or writing this is not an act of touch. (2) There is a place for thinking and theory in a way that is never intended to be complete or self-sufficient. Christian theology is not an insular system of ideas, but an integrated part of the walk of faith in which one loves and is loved by God. (3) Theory strengthens and furthers practice, as physics furthers engineering. The invention of devices is far older than any empirically accurate knowledge of physics — but that doesn’t mean that physics didn’t add a whole new dimension to engineering.)
Having talked about the philosophy and theology surrounding touch, the reader may well be wondering if I am going to say anything about touch itself. And the answer is ‘yes’. What I have been doing, or attempting to do at any rate, is to establish a framework that will make it possible to do so.
The first thing I will say about touch (perhaps belaboring the obvious, but remember George Orwell’s words, “It is the first duty of intellectuals to state the obvious.”), is that it is an immediate, proximal mode of perception. Sight, hearing, and smell, all work at a distance; touch only works when you are right with someone or something. This has rich potential for analogy — for instance, as you can only feel something if you draw near to it, so also there are ways in which you can only know something if you love it.
The second thing is that it is a baby’s primary sense — not sight. Only later does sight come to dominate. The baby is continually engaged in a tactile exploration of the world. He puts things into his mouth, not because plastic, cloth, wood, and stone taste wonderful, but because the tongue is the most sensitive part of the human body to touch — more sensitive than even the fingertips. And, long before the words “I love you.” have any meaning to a child, touch constitutes the baby’s awareness of his mother’s love. He is enfolded by her body for nine months as she carries him, and when born he is held, and hugged and kissed. He is fed, not in some abstract way, but by nursing — a very special and intimate touch. It is presumably not coincidental that the focus of a baby’s eyes is not twenty feet to infinity as with an adult, but eighteen inches — the distance between a mother’s breast and her nose.
The third thing I would like to say is that, thought touching is a surface to surface contact, it is anything but superficial. This is why doctors touch their patients when they want to know what is happening inside the body. In a few cases, exploratory surgery is necessary — they need to cut a person open to find out what’s inside. But most of the time, they can probe and find out what’s happening just by touching.
And, medicine aside, touch can communicate a wealth of information about a person’s emotions. Muscle tension, skin temperature, sweat, rate and quality of pulse — all have a story to tell about what’s going on inside a person’s heart.
The fourth thing is that touch is deep. I am not sure exactly how to convey this, as I am trying to express something greater than what I myself know. But, in the absence of perfect knowledge, I’ll give an analogy.
I have some training in martial arts. I have just enough knowledge to begin to appreciate the wealth of knowledge I do not know. I have seen the basics of pressure points, joint locks, and hip throws. I have seen enough to recognize that there are subtleties which elude me, and rich veins to explore. If I were to devote the rest of my life to the study of martial arts, I would not lament with Alexander, “Alas! I have no more worlds to conquer.” There would always be more there, always be more to explore.
For two specific kinds of touch — sex, and massage — there has been considerable exploration, and (though everybody can do them at least minimally) there are great books from which most people have a lot to learn.
Given what I know about God and his creation, I would be very surprised to learn that the rest of touch is shallow — that you learn a certain amount, and then there is nothing left to explore.
The fifth thing, in relation to the fourth, consists of a couple of analogies concerning what we may find in expoloring touch. I believe that we find something like a language, but a language, a communication, that is alogical and non-symbolic. (This may, indeed, be a lot like one of the things feminism is searching for. I’ll have to run this by a women’s studies professor.) I believe it also to be like art and music — in an act that is creative, and an expression of beauty. I believe it also to be qualitative rather than quantitative by nature — returning to the theme of an alogical language, this would communicate not the rule-based formal manipulations computers are capable of, but the qualities, the experience, of which computers are incapable.
I would now like to engage in a thought experiment. I will ask you to imagine three times that you put your hand into a dark hole in a wall, through which you cannot see.
The first time, you almost hurt yourself touching a sharp corner. As you feel inside, you recognize the shape of a box — a hard metal box. It is cold, unresponsive, and unyielding; it does not acknowledge your presence.
The second time, you meet no resistance; you have plunged your hand into a bucket of water. The water is too responsive and too yielding; there is nothing there but an acknowledgement of your presence. It has no shape but the shape of your hand; there is nothing there. So you pull your hand out and dry it off.
The third time you stick your hand in, you meet something that is yielding and yet solid, something that responds not out of what your hand is alone, but what it is. You meet something that is warm. You touch another human hand. As you touch, it wraps around, clasps, embraces your hand. You have finally found something very good.
Human touch is, or at least should be, like the third experience. It is not just a moderate between two extremes; it is something more. It is warm.
In the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong understood very well that warfare is won, not by destroying soldiers, but by destroying soldiers’ morale. That is why they had a very poor kill ratio, and were fighting a modern war against an enemy that vastly outranked them in resources, and still were never defeated.
One of the many weapons in that arsenal was called a ‘ballbuster’. It was a non-lethal anti-personnel land mine with a three foot blast radius.
Of the U.S. soldiers hit by such mines, there were some that still had male hormones produced by their bodies afterwards. And investigations showed that they were the men who had been involved in real, intimate relationships beforehand. Not, presumably, the common soldier’s visit to the brothel, or the rape of local women that has been a part of warfare since time immemorial. That is a dismal rule whose exceptions are few and far between. But real relationships. Those men still had testosterone.
The most sexual organ in the human body is not the genital organ, nor even the gonads. It is the brain.
Sex goes much further than just a physical act. It unites souls. It was created as such.
And again seeing as God has created us as spirit-soul-body unities, isn’t there every reason to believe that this is not isolated to sex? That when we touch other people, it need not be only wiht our bodies, but can also be with spirit and soul?
Madeleine L’Engle wrote of kything in A Wind in the Door. In one way, it is a colorful and fantastic picture of prayer, that shows its beauty. In another way, it seems to capture, not so much the literal fact, as the way of the best touching.
Individualism is a very impoverished notion of personhood, and touch is not a thin bridge between two essential islands, nor an act that one person (subject) does to another person as to an inanimate object; the latter, if a picture of any kind of “touch”, is a picture of rape.
Aquinas viewed teacher teaching and learner learning as part of the same activity; another helpful notion is that of intersubjectivity — it is not between isolated subject and object, but between two connected subjects. This doesn’t mean that there is uniformity and absolute symmetry; nursing mother and child cannot simply swap places. But it is intersubjective.
This may be an interesting way to view what constitutes the difference between making love and rape. Physically, the two are not very different — they have much, much more in common than making love and nursing a baby do, or than rape and murder (or even two kinds of murder) do. But spiritually, they are leagues apart. Making love is between two connected subjects, and rape is done by a subject to an object; spiritually and philosophically, these are two very different things. And it might be that the way rape crushes a woman’s psyche has much less to do with the physical event than the fact that a subject, an ‘I’, is reduced to an object, an ‘it’.
(Of course, another aspect is that the greatest evils come from twisting the greatest goods; Hitler could not have done one tenth the damage he did unless he were the legendary leader that he was.)
Something like this is related to why the mystics refer to God as ‘I’ without blaspheming. If a person must be understood as a subject, as an ‘I’ and not an ‘it’, how much moreso the Lord God of Hosts?
I would like to now talk about different forms of touch. I will not attempt here to begin in a logical order, first things first, because I am taken by a whimsy, a quality. I will begin talking about one of my favorite touches, tickling.
In a lighthearted mood, I coined the following beatitude:
Blessed are the ticklish,
For the touch of a friend shall fill them with laughter.
Tickling is light. It is a tactile tease. It is carefree, spontaneous, and whimsical. It is trusting. It is the least solemn of all the touches; it is serious and intimate, but in a completely silly and nonsensical way — thank God! Its very seriousness and intimacy is ruined if it becomes heavy and what most people think of when they hear ‘serious’. There is something special about it, something so special that both tickling and other things are ruined if, for example, someone tickles a person whose friend just died. Tickling can greatly enrich and deepen our understanding of what it means to be serious, if we let it.
There is an infinite difference between a friend’s playful teasing, and a cynic’s sneering. Neither is solemn or formal, but they lack solemnity and formality for very opposite reasons, just as a baby and an old man can lack hair, not because they are of the same age, but because they lie at opposite extremes.
A friend’s teasing is infinitely respectful. It is a respect which lies far too deep to confine to being somber, a respect which must bubble up into exuberance and say, “I take you far too seriously not to take you lightly.”
At this point, I will treat a certain aspect that may run the risk of offending feminists; I will ask for a suspended judgment until at least I have made my case. I am going to say this: sometimes ‘no’ means ‘no’, and sometimes ‘no’ means ‘yes’.
I am not here justifying the claim that “Her lips said ‘no’, but her eyes said ‘yes’.” That is stated chiefly by men who lack the honesty to admit, perhaps even to themselves, that “Her lips and her eyes said ‘no’, but my lust said ‘yes’.” I will damn that alongside any feminist.
What I am rather saying is that tickling exemplifies a pattern, a pattern of love and community that does not reduce to words. Consent is an important principle, but using explicit verbal words to inquire is a last resort, usually only necessary when two people do not know each other very well. And there is something deep enough about consent that it, and furthermore its recognition, are entirely compatible with saying ‘no’ or ‘stop’, or offering physical resistance.
As a paradigm example of this, I would point to a parent chasing around a little child in a back yard. The child is trying to escape, and in a sense doesn’t want to be caught. But in a deeper sense, he does want to be caught. (I at this point remember one woman, who, disappointed that I had stopped tickling her when she pushed my hands away, told me, “I am blocking you because I want you to push past.”) This is why it is good for a child’s psyche to be chased by a parent, even (especially) if he is caught, and it is very bad for a woman’s psyche to be chased by a rapist, even if she gets away.
Chasing, or tickling, is or at least should be an intersubjective act of love. What fundamentally distinguishes it from rape is not so much what lies on the surface as that deep below the surface, the one is done between two subjects, while the other is done by a subject to an object. The deep connection between two subjects is what enables ‘no’ to mean ‘yes’.
And tickling is not so much for the tickling as for the other person. It is not an act in isolation; it is a part of love. This provides another distinction between tickling and rape. The rapist does not truly desire the woman, even as just an object, an ‘it’; he desires the rape, the action, an action that exists self-sufficient, by itself and without any need of a larger context. Perhaps the rapist is to be greatly pitied alongside the victim; it does not cause consciously realized unending torment as being raped does, but it is a single act within oneself, an act of masturbation that involves an unfortunate woman, rather than an intersubjective act of love that transcends self. Even if rape did not violate a woman’s personhood and were not morally wrong, it would still be greatly be desired for his own sake that a rapist could let go of rape and give-receive a real hug.
The next touch I’ll mention is holding hands.
Someone once said, “If all other arguments failed, the thumb alone would convince me of God’s existence.” The hand is one of the most beautiful parts of the body; it contains the glory of the whole body in miniature. If you haven’t done so already, at least once in your life, I would encourage you to notice hands, to look at someone’s hands (yours or somebody else’s) as you would an Impressionist nude. I don’t think it is quite an accident that Michelangelo’s David, the single greatest male nude in Western sculpture, has hands that are just a little bit larger than they are proportioned in real life. The David’s hands are exquisite.
The hand is in a sense the most useful tool we have. It is amazing, strong, dextrous, sensitive, and versitile. It is uniquely adapted both to manipulate, and to feel and explore. And so it is not a surprise that one of the touches God has given us is holding hands — an equal touch between two sensitive areas of the body, which can last.
Our culture understands holding hands primarily in a romantic context — which it certainly can be, but need not be. At least a hint of this is seen in that parents hold little childrens’ hands. I still hold my twelve year old brothers’ hands, and I am happy to do so.
In many Islamic nations, men hold hands in public. This is not a sexual act (and, unfortunately, is not extended to women — even wives), and the fact that it may take some effort to really realize by many of us is reflective of a fundamental problem in how many of us view sex and morality.
Dorothy Sayers, in her essay, “The other six deadly sins,” points out that a man could be a liar and a drunkard, greedy and avaricious, wrathful, prideful, and dead to every noble instinct, and still we would not call him immoral, because we reserve the term ‘immorality’ to talk about — well, you know, immorality. Thus a term that was meant to cover the whole range of vices is reduced to referring to just one, because we are two embarrassed to call that one vice by its name, lust. Lust is one of the seven deadly sins; it is not the deadly sin. And the Church has always recognized that the cold-hearted sins, the sins of mind and spirit such as pride and greed, are infinitely worse than the disreputable sins of the flesh, such as lust. In the Inferno, the incontinent occupy the very least and outermost circle of Hell proper; it is only far deeper that we find sins like pride, the sin by which the highest and holiest being in all creation became the Satan, the Accuser who stands before God accusing the saints day and night.
(One thing that I beg of you here — do not flatter me by saying that I am original in claiming this; do not credit me with this innovation. Christianity has taught this for ages; it has just become a bit obscured recently.)
Homosexual lust, in this scheme, is in a sense worse than heterosexual lust; it is a perversion of nature in a way that even adultery is not. But it is not the vice beyond all vices, and it does not compare even to pride. And it is really paid a far-reaching and very undue tribute when it is held in the fear that it is, in how (for example) many men in our culture fear touching each other. All sin is serious, but in most cases the possibility of homosexual lust is not that serious of a threat that men need to be afraid of each other. Therefore, the Islamic world has it right in the level of touchiness and contact that it has between men.
Holding hands is a touch that can be deepened by pressure, variations in pressure, and responsiveness; one of the most common and basic letters in this alphabet is in giving a squeeze or answering a squeeze with another squeeze; it is a theme which has infinite variations. And this provides a lot of depth to a touch, making a touch more touchy, the very opposite of holding hands like a dead fish.
I would like to make a brief interlude to talk about the question of what touches are sexual — and to refuse to give a Pharisaic catalogue.
The Pharisees attempted the doomed project of an exacting guard of rules, more specifically the wrong type of tules. By contrast, I would like to draw an analogy with what C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity about modesty in dress across cultures. Different cultures vary greatly in what social rules they have concerning covering and showing different parts of the body. But having a principle of modesty does not, even in cultures that do not wear any clothing. It is like language; what sounds bear what meaning is highly variable. But having sounds that bear meaning, and parts of speech and grammar, is not. That is universal — and the deaf subculture is the exception that proves the rule; even when they can’t hear to be able to naturally converse as everyone else does, they use their eyes and hands in a language of hand signs.
Another analogy might be found in comparing the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico. Much (not all) of the Canadian border lies at a single latitude; there is a near-universal rule that tells, “One mile north of this latitude, you are in Canada; one mile south, you are in the U.S.A.” But no such rule exists between the U.S. and Mexico; there are some latitudes that (given that one is on land in North America) tell you that you’re in the U.S., and some latitudes that tell you that you are in Mexico, but a great many latitudes that could be either in the U.S. or Mexico.
However, the U.S.-Mexican border is just as sharply defined as that between the U.S. and Canada; the latitudinal rules fail in many cases, but there is still a razor sharp distinction to be made.
That distinction is made in the Holy Spirit; it is the Spirit who is the structure of obedience revealed in the New Testament, and that gives the believer the power to obey.
Any kind of touch can be sexual, and a good many can be non-sexual as well. And the power to be pure, the power to reserve sexual touch for its proper and special place, comes to the believer through the Holy Spirit.
I would like to say something more about tickling: it is dependent, not only on body, but also on mind. I will not belabor the obvious point that certain touches tickle some people, but rather point out something else: whether something tickles, depends on how it is perceived. A thin cotton shirt touches very lightly — but it does not tickle. And conversely, some vivid use of language can tickle from far away.
The kiss seems to receive the most attention in Scripture. The second verse of the Song of Songs says, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” And half the New Testament epistles say, in their closing exhortations, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” In a sense, the kiss is a symbol of all contact in Scripture. And it is significant that the prophets record Elijah being told when he is desparate, “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Ba’al, nor have their mouths kissed him.” It is so great of a touch that it cannot be bestowed on an idol.
To those who have seen it, I would recall the movie The Last Temptation of Christ. The kisses in even a seriously flawed movie stand out; the emotional charge bristles, and the final kiss between Christ and Judas stands as a tribute to how even a non-sexual kiss can be intense and passionate. And the kisses recorded in Genesis stand as a hallmark of that book’s sensitivity to emotion.
Someone writing about music talked about how, as a person’s experience with music grows, the keys gain different and distinct emotional residues, different moods, different qualities. And the same is true of touch, only moreso. There are twelve major and twelve minor keys, and that is fixed; but with each of the basic touches, there are variants, and variants of variants. A kiss may be on the lips or not on the lips, just a peck or longer, and so on, and these allow not just discrete combinations, but a continuum. And this provides room for great subtleties in emotional significance.
I just got back from my cognitive science class, and I believe that touch provides a good illustration of what is lacking in the classical model of cognition.
The classical model of cognition describes human thought as an essentially rule-based manipulation of symbols, ideally manifested in a formal game such as chess. Of one area where it is lacking — that of simulation, where people manipulate in their heads models or representations of things — I will not treat here. But there is another area which I *will* treat; I am not contesting that there are parts of the human mind that are well described in that manner, but rather that it is a description of a part, and not, by a long stretch of imagination, the whole. And so I will outline seven differences.
The first is that chess is manifestation-independent, while touch is fundamentally qualitative. Perhaps the best way I can put it is this. Humans happen to refer to chess pieces by poetic names, such as ‘knight’ and ‘castle’. But that is entirely irrelevant to the game; Deep Blue beat Kasparov without having the faintest inkling of the romance we know, of knights in shining armor and fair maidens in distress. And chess would be the same if Bill Gates played it with helicopters on rooftops; that is, the real game of chess can be separated from the physical objects which happen to be used in its play.
But this is not true of touch — at all. Chess is still chess without a chessboard; and it happens in blindfolded masters’ games. But a kiss would not still be a kiss without bodies, and I could not touch in anything remotely resembling the way i do now, if my soul were transplanted to the body of a steel robot.
There is a formal sense in which the numbers 1297 and 1348 are different, and in which we can recognize them as such, but there is a much deeper way in which red and green affect us differently; there is a fundamental qualitative difference in looking at two objects of different colors that we cannot experience in simply thinking about two different numbers. This kind of quality, which occurs incidentally (if at all) in chess, is fundamental to touch.
And in some way, this touches on a problem in Western thought, an occurrence of the ancient Gnostic heresy which recognizes us as spirits and minds, but refuses to give any recognition to us as animals whom God created to be fundamentally physical as well as fundamentally spiritual. Our bodies are not a merely coincidental attachment to our minds; God created us to be a certain way physically as well as a certain way spiritually, and body is not to be dispensed with or altered as we please. Touching is an act of the body, involving mind and spirit as it may, and it is (God be praised) not something we can simply assign the way we assign a particular shirt to cover us. Seeing everything as chess makes us pure minds who have the misfortune to be encumbered by some (possibly mutable) matter; seeing some things as touch recognizes us as blessed with some particular bodies, which are a part of us as much as reason is a part of us. God has given us a very earthy spirituality.
The second difference is that chess is driven by a single objective in the future, to which any particular action is a mere instrument, while touch embraces now and recognizes things as intrinsically good. (Now the truth is not either alone but both, and if I do not talk much about our ultimate future goal, it will only be by a restriction of attention.) In chess, there is one objective — checkmating your opponent before he can checkmate you — and nothing else is done because it is good in and of itself, but only because it can function as a means to that end. A checkmate is never made by a single move, except between two terrible players; it is carefully prepared in anticipation. Now goals, ends, and sacrifices are very important, probably more important than what I am concerned with here. But touch doesn’t work that way. A touch is not given because of what it will enable at some later moment, as a mere means to an end; it is given as valuable in and of itself. And we do not touch in the future, but touch now; the now (as well as the future) is given by God’s hand.
The third difference, which is probably more restricted to chess and other games than formal systems in general, but which I will mention, is that chess is oppositional, while touch is synergistic. What is good for your opponent in chess is bad for you, and vice versa. The success of one person necesitates the failure of another. Now there are principles of good sportsmanship, but these come because people are better than chess, and not from chess itself. Chess sets people at odds with each other, in and of itself. Touch, on the other hand, is of a cooperative and synergistic nature; for one person to benefit means in general the benefit and not the detriment of another. You will fare badly with someone who plays chess well; you will fare well with someone whose touch is good.
The fourth difference is that chess is digital and discrete, while touch is continuous. Touch moves not simply from black and white to a greyscale, but even further — to colors, where there are many different ways of being bright. I have talked about this before, so I will not treat it in detail here beyond saying that it ties into the qualitative aspect.
The fifth difference is that chess is abstract, while touch is concrete. Abstraction extracts certain key features, and then leaves the specific instances behind, which is a powerful thing to do, and good, but not the only kind of thinking which people do, and not the kind of thinking that most people are best at. The concrete takes a specific instance and explores it in detail, in specific things that abstraction leaves out. Touch is concrete, and can push one specific contact much deeper than is possible abstractly with every contact at once. Touch has the depth of concreteness rather than that of abstraction.
The sixth difference is that chess is logical and rational, while touch is emotional and perceptive. The chess type of thinking is best done by someone who can retreat into himself, and carry out cool, logical operations without regard for the outside world. Emotions are irrelevant. Touch, on the other hand, is something which emotions and the external world matter a great deal for; touch should be moved and moving, and it depends far less on isolated calculation than a sensitivity to other people. It is perceptive, connected, and interactive.
The seventh and final difference I will mention here is that chess is self-contained, while touch resonates of something greater. Once you know the rules of chess, you have no need to refer to anything outside of it, but touch is part of something far greater. It is a part of love, of the very highest potential of the imago dei. To understand the profound difference between making love and rape, you need to go past the touch alone and look at far greater things — to see how one is part of the sacred one-flesh union which God has given us, and the other is one of the most crushing and dehumanizing blows that one person can inflict on another.
Another facet of what something greater there is, may be found in the older and somewhat broader conception of Romance. I am not only referring to the romance that goes on between a man and a woman, but a broader sense of — poetry. It is related to the innocent and childlike wonder that looks and sees the real beauty in so many things, that is obscured so often by jaded eyes.
There is something haunting and elusive, something which we can chase but cannot catch, something beautiful. This something is why so many people have looked at woods and believed that there might be fairies dancing, or looked at a pool of water and seen that there might be a nymph. There is a sense of poetry, a sense of something beautiful. You cannot pin it down and hold a gun to its head, but it will surprise you.
This Romance is something which makes itself manifest in touch, or to put it another way, touch is laced with Romance; it is one of those beautiful things by which beauty surprises us.
Having lived in France, I rather miss the custom of friends giving kisses on alternate cheeks when they meet; there is something about a kiss that is delicate and embodies a tiny beauty. We do not give each other kisses in consolation; hugs are more fitting to those times. Of all the different touches, I think that the kiss is (to me, at least — there is a good subjective element here) the one most laced with Romance.
The handshake originated as a means of occupying someone’s weapon hand so as to afford some protection when he was within striking range. That is, it was a gesture of mistrust.
To see what it has become, is in my estimation a tribute to the nature of touch, and a tribute to the better side of humanness. Touching hands upon a meeting has become a greeting, a welcome, and I have received some warm handshakes that felt like hugs.
Hugging is perhaps the most equitable and universal of touches (at least in our culture; I acknowledge and understand that much of what I am writing may be culture bound, but even a non-universal cultural perspective can have great merit). It is the one touch I can think of that is fitting both after something very good has happened and after something very bad has happened; when someone is at a low point especially, a hug is one of the most simple and human actions of love and support, from one person to another.
In the book of Job, we read before any of the lengthy speeches, that Job’s three friends came, and sat with him in silence for a week because they saw his misery was so great. And this is the one thing which they did for which they were not reprimanded. There is a time when sorrow and agony are great, and even the best of words are too much of a burden to bear. In that time, it is a tremendous comfort to have a friend who will come, forgo the usual bad habits about always having to do something, and sit in silence, sharing in your pain, sharing with you his presence. And a hug, moreso than any other touch, is very appropriate then.
But hugs are far more than that. They can also be soft hugs, bear hugs, gentle hugs, pick-me-up hugs, and all sorts of other possibilities.
There was a man by the name of Bob Sklar at one of the places I worked, who would give all manner of friendly insults; the only time he didn’t insult you was if he was angry with you, and then you were in trouble.
Something like this is descriptive of banter; it is a sign that everything is going well. As an example of how that can fail, I would point to its absence in the situation concerning racial humor.
If my guess is correct, at least some readers had a significant jump in tension level — am I going to advocate racism in the form of jokes? There are substantial racial tensions, so that people in many situations are walking on eggshells, afraid to tell jokes involving race because it might be taken as a sign of racism — nobody seems to consider the revolutionary idea that some people might tell jokes involving race for the same reason they tell jokes not involving race — because they find them funny, and want to share a bit of good-natured mirth.
The one major exception is the exception that proves the rule. It is acceptable to joke about your own race — we are not too completely thick-skulled to think that (for example) a Jew might have reasons besides anti-Semitism for telling jokes about Jews. The fact that an exception be of such nature is a testament to the strength of the rule.
If nothing else, I must regard such a state of affairs as unfortunate for the sake of humor. If you have had the good fortune to know a few Jews as I have, you will no doubt know that the Jewish consciousness has produced a number of jokes which are subtle, clever, and extremely funny. I will quote two of my favorite ones here:
At a Jewish wedding, how do you tell which branch it is?If it’s an orthodox wedding, the bride’s mother is pregnant. If it’s a conservative wedding, the bride is pregnant. If it’s a reformed wedding, the rabbi is pregnant.
I take this one to be a good meta-joke as well as a joke. There are four branches of something called Judaism; the fourth, reconstructionism, is far out in loonie land, a sort of Jewish PC-USA. And it is both fitting and amusing that the joke doesn’t mention them.
A Jewish man named Jacob has fallen on hard times; he has lost his job, and goes to the synagogue to pray.”God? Could I please win the lottery?”
He doesn’t win the lottery, and not too much later his house is broken into, and everything of value is stolen. Visibly upset, he goes to teh synagogue again.
“God, I have done a lot for you, and I don’t ask for too much. Please, I beg you, please let me win the lottery.”
This week, not only does he not win the lottery, but his house burns down and his car is destroyed by a hit and run driver. Again he goes and prays.
“God, I have served you my whole life, and I don’t ask for too much at all. I have taken good care of my wife and children, and I want this money for them and not just for myself. I do so much and ask for so little. Please, God, please, can’t you let me win the lottery just this once?”
The voice of God booms forth, and fills the synagogue, saying,
“Jacob, meet me half way on this one. Buy a stupid ticket!”
Q: What do you say to a Puerto Rican in a three piece suit?A: “Will the defendant please rise?”
I mention these jokes specifically because they disturb how we are trying to have races live together peaceably. That such jokes are not often told may be slightly sad from a humor perspective, but it is also a sign of a much deeper problem, and for this problem I will again go to Jews for a treasure, an even greater treasure this time. I hope you might see why I would tell offensive jokes.
This treasure is the word ‘shalom’, which means peace — a rich and full peace, a peace which is not merely characterized by what is absent — physical, violent strife — but goes much further. Shalom as understood by Jews is a positive state of well-being, a state of justice and equity — “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like ever-flowing streams.” In my view, the best way to characterize this peace is to say that it is the manifest presence of love.
What we now have between races is not shalom; it is only a whitewashed wall. And it does not really help matters to put on another coat of whitewash, and proscribe racial humor because of how dangerously it threatens to reveal the racial tensions we pretend aren’t there, and how dangerously it threatens something even more terrifying — to make a human to human contact in mirth, to separate us from our separateness and let us see each other as brothers and sisters, the sons and daughters of one man and one woman.
Roughhousing is very dear to my heart, in part because it can only exist where there is shalom. It is too energetic, too real, not to destroy a whitewashed wall, and therefore if roughhousing can be enjoyed, there is a real shalom there, a shalom deep enough to take a bit of mock conflict on the surface and still be the strong flow of love between real people. In its own way, its obnoxious roughness achieves what a thousand polite and distant handshakes can never accomplish.
Touch is not simply a tame thing in a box, and — while there are certain patterns of touch that are hit on more often than others — there is always more. I, for instance, am quite fond of grabbing my little brothers’ noses, and tugging on their ears, and so on and so forth. These silly — or sometimes not so silly — little touches we make up have their place, their niche, as well. And other cultures, while almost certainly sharing foundational elements such as hugs and kisses, will have their own touches and their own variations on themes. What exactly this may be is variable, as the exact sounds of a language are variable. Having a language capable of communication is not. What I am writing in these pages is only one of a legion of possibilities on the topic; others can and should address other things that I omit.
Another aspect of touch is that it is free and voluntary. The Christian understanding is not quite the same as the overblown (or underinterpreted) American notion, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t substantial freedoms.
“If you love something, set it free; if it doesn’t come back, it was never yours to begin with.”
Another critical aspect of touch is that it is voluntary, that saying ‘no’ is an option. A part of what makes a touch enjoyable is the knowledge that it is not forced on you, that it comes from a love not only great enough to touch, but also and furthermore great enough not to touch. Another part of what makes rape rape is that the victim has no choice in the matter — that she is in fact in one of the most utterly powerless and defenseless situations, both physically and psychologically, that a person can be in. Then what should be one of the greatest goods becomes one of the greatest evils. The only other comparable situation I can think of is abortion, especially a partial birth abortion in which a child begins to receive that great and unique embrace called ‘birth’, and then his head is cut open and his brains are sucked out, live and unanaesthetized.
The nature of this freedom means, in particular, the freedom to become bound, the absence of which is an unnatural and constricting shackle. <<La liberté totale est la pire des prisons.>> — total liberty is the very worst of prisons. The poetic, the romantic, the true freedom is the freedom which can choose a good, not merely for a moment, but permanently. This freedom, rather than having to re-evaluate all of the time and have no solid basis to rely on, is truly free, infinitely more free than if every decision and commutment is in danger of being revoked at any time. This freedom is the basis for marriage and parenthood, a freedom that chooses permanently to be available to another person in touch and love.
There is one last specific touch I would like to mention, and that is massage. I do not mean to give an account of how to massage, as there are good books on it. But I will say this: that it is the touch of a healer, that it goes past the surface to work inside the body. It is perhaps the most involved and giving of non-sexual touches, and I regard it as not entirely unfortunate that it is the one non-sexual touch that it is easy to come by books on.
Touch is one of the blessings that lies far beyond Mammon. It’s free.
To begin what may well be the last section of this treatise, I will talk about something that is not so much a specific touch, as a topic relevant to touch. That is the difference between contract and covenant.
The contract is a very modern and very impoverished notion of the covenant. A contract is an external artifice which binds a person’s actions. A covenant is an internal reality which binds persons themselves. A contract is shallow. A covenant is profound.
The contract, especially the social contract, is the impoverished notion of community that corresponds to a view of people as isolated and essential individuals and islands, between which thin strands of bridges are erected as a minimal concession to our inability to function as absolute islands. It is a superficial modification to a basis of individualism.
Christianity is not an individualistic religion, and it has a much more rich, complex, and multifaceted view of personhood — for example, the insistance that we are both as much spirit as any angel, and as much animal as any beast. And it claims both that we have a profound individual side, and a profound corporate side — and that these two truths are not only not exclusive, but complementary. The individual side, which I have not treated here only due to a restriction of attention, is one which (for example) solitude figures in deeply. Many things are a part of both facets. Our uniqueness and difference, for example, is perhaps most visibly related to our individual natures, but Paul’s talk about the body — which needs not thirty-two ears but a great variety of different, equal, and necessary body parts, each in its proper place — shows how our differences can and should contribute to community as well.
The view of touch as a specific action defined by the consent of two individuals, with no intrinsic meaning in and of itself, is to the Christian view of touch as the concept of contract is to the Christian understanding of covenant — an impoverished and woefully inadequate simplification and truncation. Touch is not something accidental, which means whatever we decide that it means; it is part and parcel of who we are, with a meaning ordained by God. It is a part of love and community; it is a physical aspect of the very highest and holiest in the imago dei.
John wrote at the end of his account of the Gospel that he did not record everything which Jesus said and did, and that he supposed that if everything which Jesus said and did were written down, the whole world would not have room for all the books which would be written. Christ’s life is inexhaustible; even the four brief accounts which have come down to us from the apostles are themselves inexhaustible. It is one of the marks of what is great and profound.
I am drawing this work to a close rather arbitrarily — not because there is no more to be said, but because I decided that I would write for the length of the notebook I had chosen, and draw a line of moderation there. Instead of just writing forever, I am stopping to type it up, print it out, share the copies with other people, and what is most important of all, touch them.
I would ask you to do the same. I hope that you have enjoyed this; I hope that I have stimulated you to think; I hope that I have shared with you some good insights. Don’t cut this work short by stopping there. Go out and touch someone.
Epilogue, 21 June 03
Since I first wrote this, about six years have elapsed. I have since let it simmer inside me, and I have a couple of things to mention.
The first has been that what I wrote is incomplete. It’s not quite in a mature state. One caring, touch-y friend observed that there was something forced in my touch.
The second has been a realisation which crystallised after two comments. The first comment when one friend said, “You and Robin hug differently from most people.” I was surprised and asked, “How?” He said, “You hug with the whole of yourself.”
The other comment came when I asked a close friend, Yussif, when a hug was appropriate in Ghanian culture. He said that in England he learned to value hugs, and in Ghana he gives a handshake to close male friends. In retrospect, I realize that when Ghanian men have shaken my hand, it has never been distant, or a perfunctory greeting. Something Yussif said about “palm against palm” made me realise how unappreciative I had been about handshakes.
I tried to apply this treatise by seeking out hugs and kisses. I thought in terms of what kind of touch to seek, and I was basically barking up the wrong tree when I did so. I hesitate to say that I would never ask, “May I give you a hug?” or, “May I give you a kiss?” but that sort of thing occupies a far less central role than I assumed.
What would I put in its place? Go with the flow of the social situation rather than against it. Don’t force it. Be careful about when you muster courage—sometimes trying to muster courage is the wrong thing. And, when it is fitting to give a touch, be able to do so with your whole person. Don’t go overboard and try to give your total presence when you’ve just met someone and are shaking hands…
…but all these restrictions are but the shadow cast by a great light.
Good touch is a way that love shows itself. Embodied love, from one whole person to another, can appear in many different forms of touch, and what makes it deep is less dependent on technique or form than being given from the whole person. It is at least as much spiritual as physical, and is therefore to be sought in whole person love, given by God, which moves through the spirit to embrace the body. Things such as loving God and the other person, trying as much as possible to give your attention now rather than diverting it to other things (past or future), and meeting the other—whole person to whole person—are much deeper to pin down than any kind of minutia, and have a much deeper yield.
Perhaps after I have let this simmer for a few more years, there is something else I will be able to share.
There are a number of people who helped make this website possible. I’d like to thank:
My family, for supporting me as I’ve been working on this.
Anthony Trendl, who encouraged and convinced me to revamp my website the first time.
Innes Sheridan, Lester Barker, and Michael Rascia, who took various pictures for my site.
IMSA, which was a cool experience, and which hosted my writings for several years.
All of the people who have given me awards, or who have taken precious time out of their lives to evaluate my site (even if they didn’t give me an award).
Tamuril, for giving me the kick in the seat of the pants that I needed, by rejecting my application upgrade and saying in essence, “I’ve given you as many points as I can without you sprucing up your graphics more,” and then offering help and feedback when I asked for it.
It has been a while since I journalled. I kept some journals after my Journal of an Awakening, but they disappeared when my previous laptop died. I am not sure this is a bad thing; I don’t think that what I said in them was on par with my Journal of an Awakening, and certainly not stellar. It is not my talent to be able to continue to produce good writing in a genre of my choosing; writing in a new genre has often been easier than writing in one I have practice in. Or, to put it differently, my writings come to me with the genres they will be in, and if I try to force success in a style that has succeeded for me in the past, I may cause the style, but I will not always cause a successful writing.
Now writing is coming to me — or has been coming to me, I haven’t gotten it written down yet, and I fear I may have lost some of it — so it is time for me to get back to journalling, not necessarily on a day by day basis, but when the muse strikes. Tonight will be my first night in my new 1 bedroom apartment, and I will have more time — though I do not know what, or how much, will come to me.
The thing that has brought me back to journalling is as follows:
Last schoolyear, I spoke with a mystic who is a student at Pooh’s Corner (the group of people at Wheaton who meets to read children’s books aloud), and I talked about how I identify with Charles Wallace in Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, and Michael Valentine Smith in Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. I asked him if he knew of any other characters like that. He suggested that I read Steven Lawhead’s Merlin, where Merlin is portrayed as the last of the Druids, a Christian who has grown up with Druid lore, a mystic, and a politically active prophet. I was disappointed — I had been disappointed at his placement of Merlin with Moses and Elijah as political/leader/prophet/mystic types, because the character of Merlin reeks of magic, a reek that has as little to do with Christian mysticism as astrology does with astronomy. I did not mention this to him, because I did not want to enter a fruitless argument (I have had enough of those to last a lifetime), but I was disappointed.
Recently, wanting to read something that would give me insights into medieval culture (and having learned from another friend that Lawhead did historical research before writing), I checked Merlin out at the library, read partway through, and returned it after reading the scene in which Merlin makes the stones fly around in a circle. This was a display of pagan magic, not a Christian miracle, and I read it with a feeling of defilement.
I later waited and picked up the book again, reading it to the end. There were passages that I did not read in good conscience. There were other passages that grabbed me. As I began writing this journal entry, I realized — or, more properly, remembered — something. When I first read Stranger, I hated it — I saw its lewdness, its anti-Christian invective, its introduction of psychic powers in a context that (at least to begin) seemed as out of place, deus ex machina, as anything I could think of — and none of its strengths. I was going to say that I didn’t know if I was going to read Merlin again, but then I reflected on my actions in the past and how my emotions flow, and I realized that I will probably read Merlin again, but not now. God willing, the time of rereading will be when I know in my heart that God has given me the strength to be ready to read it without being troubled by the parts that defiled my conscience — and God has given me the strength to read Stranger — I was not polluted by it, merely angered.
What about Merlin pulls me, that I am writing about it now? I had that more clearly in my mind a few days ago, when I was thinking, walking about at a classic car show with my parents and one of my brothers, but there are three things:
Ynes Avalach. Ynes Avalach is the island (Ynes) castle of the Fisher King (Avalach), the wounded king who sat on a boat on his island and speared fish. It was the place of Merlin’s childhood, the place where he grew up, and in a world of shifting sands it was steady — even unchanged, a piece of another world.Ynes Avalach resonates with me; it is a symbol of Heaven, and a place that I believe can be found on earth — but that we can never control. C.S. Lewis wrote about this sort of thing in his introduction to The Great Divorce, saying that Heaven is everywhere, but not everywhere is Heaven. I have a great longing for home, a place like Ynes Avalach; the two areas where I most consistently experience it are worship, and in writing and the expectant time when I feel out what I want to write.
The bard’s awen. The awen is an aroused, mystical state that descends on a bard; Merlin felt it when he was close to the supernatural. Two of the times listed, he was fighting in battle and, suddenly, the world around him seemed to slow down, so that he moved rapidly and lightly amongst the sluggish invaders. Other times, it came around a miracle.The awen is also something that resonates with me. A similar state has descended on me, too, at times. It is not something that I can turn on at will, but walking has often been a precursor to its minor modes in writing.
When Merlin was with the fhain (the people whom other races called the baen sidhe (fairies)), he spoke of learning “that which men call magic”. I realized (partly after reading the “How to Become a Hacker” document) that I have picked up along the way a number of skills that are in our world something like magic — I thought most specifically of being able to make web pages.
I also realized that many of the things that are supporting me now are things that I picked up along the way in activities I was discouraged from as distractions from my work. I learned how to program when I wrote The Minstrel’s Song — and it has profited me far more than additional effort on coursework would have. My writings on my web page are also things I have been discouraged from doing, and in them I believe I am accomplishing far more of lasting value there than in my job. Life is what happens when you are making other plans.
There was something else nagging at the back of my mind yesterday, that I wanted to remember, but couldn’t. It was the other point that motivated me to want to write in this journal.
On Saturday, my family went out to eat at a nice Italian restaurant. We were all under-dressed and over-smelly from a day’s hard work, and I was unshaven. I needed to go to the restroom in the beginning, and (after I washed my hands) I turned to find a towel dispenser to dry my hands. There was a smiling black man in a tuxedo (sans jacket), holding a roll of paper towel, and standing next to a rack of amenities (I remember seeing small cigars, and other things that looked expensive); he was complimenting me on my “PRAY HARD” T-shirt.
I was only marginally able to keep my composure then; I wouldn’t have been bothered that much by just having someone to hand me paper towel, but having a black man do it… I was not comfortable. It was patently offensive to me. It felt like having a slave. Semiotically, everything about him said, “I am here to smile and adore you, but I am only here to be treated like part of the wallpaper, to be treated like dirt if you are in a bad mood.” He looked like support staff under the mentality that makes jokes like, “Confucius say, ‘Secretary not part of furniture until screwed on desk.'” During dinner, I thought of reading about Gandhi as he was in danger and a rickshaw (a man-pulled cart which aged and wore terribly at its carriers) was offered to him… my feelings were lesser, but they were of the same kind.
After dinner, I needed to go to the bathroom, and it wasn’t until I was almost there that I remembered he was there… I had enough time using the facilities to decide that, if I could not avoid him, I could at least treat him as a peer, not as part of the furniture. So I talked with him, treating him as cordially as he treated me, and he told me that he was a Jew who grew up Baptist, but had never been to a synagogue. He asked me if I was a minister.
I think I missed a witnessing opportunity. The one person I spoke with about it thought I was being too hard on myself — I was tired and in a hurry — but there was an opportunity I missed to speak with someone who had some questions, and who was probably ready to move one step closer to the Kingdom of Light.
I have grown up in an academic context which tells us that witnessing is offensive and evil (at least when done by Christians — when done by environmentalists, it is treated differently). Sometimes it is even necessary to be offensive. But there are also many times when witness is not necessarily offensive, when it is welcome.
I think our equation of witnessing with offensiveness and disrespect for persons should be jettisoned.
I have been thinking recently about the origins of the word ‘obscene’. Ob-scene material is material that takes place off-scene.
As the word has developed, it has come to mean “material which should not be portrayed because it is highly inappropriate to portray.” (The meaning has narrowed further to mean “inappropriate sexual content”. I have not heard any contemporary usage having ‘obscene’ refer to violent content — probably stemming from the same reason as why there are innumerable films rated X due to sexual content, but almost none rated X due to violent content — the mentality that, in the words of one Christianity Today article, “finds massaging a breast to be more offensive than cutting it off.” Dorothy Sayers’ essay “The Other Six Deadly Sins” speaks powerfully to this problem.)
The word ‘obscene’ means “inappropriate content” to us, but placing material off-scene can serve other literary purposes. Done the right way, off-scene presentation can be more powerful than on-scene presentation. In Calvin and Hobbes, there are references to “the noodle incident”, which is never described. Watterson said that he believed it would be better if left to the reader’s imagination. For related but subtly different reasons, I am intentionally not specifying small but significant facets of my second novel — Aed’s academic discipline is never explicitly stated.
Giving just enough hints to fuel the imagination can be a powerful alternative to explicit portrayal.
There is a musing which I had some time ago, and never recorded.
When I was a TA in UIUC’s math department, during orientation, Prof. Weichsel told us, if we had to do something unpopular, to say, “It’s department policy,” and that he would be the complaints department for us, as well as a resource for questions and problems that came up.
I never said that an unpopular decision was department policy, but there was something that struck me about this, a sense of “You are supported in your good faith efforts.” He might suggest a different way of handling a situation if it came up in the future, but he would support us in our efforts.
I believe some of the same beauty is true of God. In terms of dealing with moral dilemmas, I have come to believe that a Christian who listens to the Spirit and makes a good faith effort to do right in a moral dilemma doesn’t have to succeed in guessing the right course of action — even if he makes a mistake in judgment, his action is holy, supported by God. There is a story — first mentioned to me, by the way, in a discussion with a Christian who believes in a just war — about one of Corrie ten Boom’s family, sheltering Jews when a Nazi soldier came and asked, “Are you hiding any Jews?” She told the truth: “Yes. They’re hiding under the table.” The Nazis didn’t believe her. They went on their way.
From the other side, there was a Christian couple, the wife pregnant and grievously ill. The doctors told her, “You cannot live and carry this child. You’re going to have to have an abortion.” After great prayer and deliberation, they decided to have the child removed from their womb and an attempt made to save his life. The child lived, and is a blessing to those who come into contact with him.
If I were asked, I would have advised both to choose differently. (At least a possibility in the first case, with my mind changing over time, and a certainty in the second case. I have heard of hard cases where not having an abortion would have been very difficult. I have not heard of a case where I would have approved of an abortion, and one person I have known was born out of one of those very hard cases.) Perhaps I am right, perhaps I am wrong; I am not raising these cases to stand in judgment over my fellow believers. The reason I am raising these cases is to say that God supported the believers in their choice. This is not an occasion for license to do anything and say “God will support me” — in both cases, people were seeking to do God’s will; it is necessary to seek out a knowledge of the right action through prayer and the Spirit — but it does mean that we are not going to land in trouble because there was a legitimate debate among believers, and we came down on one side of it, and God came down on another. (And — who knows? Maybe the lines of morality fall differently than any human system; maybe God led and specifically wanted Miss ten Boom to tell the truth about whether she was sheltering Jews, and specifically wanted Dietrich Bonhoeffer to try to assassinate Hitler. I don’t know if that is true, but it seems on a surface view to be consistent with how God works.)
Existentialism portrays a picture where we are orphans, who must make any, arbitrary choice because we are abandoned and without guidance. The place I was at for a while, where I believed you had to choose the right thing, believed there was a right choice, but saw us as in a sense abandoned in trying to pick out that choice. It had a ring of existentialism. This is, I believe, removes another layer of existentialism: there is a right choice, but God supports us in our efforts to pursue that choice; we are not abandoned in picking out the right. We are God’s children. We are supported.
After having a rough end of week, I was warmed by one part in particular of a conversation with my friend Heather. She and her boyfriend Josh had independently worked out an idea, which I will briefly summarize here as contrasting a Hellenistic mindset (thinking logically and constructing systems which men can piece together logically — and having difficulty with sets of statements that the thinker cannot reconcile) with a Hebraic mindset (believing that God is sovereign and accepting his sovereignty in a way that is open to paradox — and therefore not needing to fall into e.g. Calvinist/Arminian camps). (Josh wants to do a Ph.D. thesis about this, and Heather wants to write a book together, and Josh wants to have the book wait until the thesis is done — therefore I do not wish to explore details about their idea, which I think is an excellent discovery worthy of development and sharing, at this point.)
When Heather and I were walking, she commented to me that she had realized that talking with me about that idea and about the Hebraic mindset was like talking with a fish about water. I felt very warmed by that comment; it seemed to me a marker of a kind of spiritual success. It seemed to me a sign that I had become steeped in the Scriptures and Christian ways of thought.
There was a classic poster I saw at Wheaton’s Computing Services on how to become a Unix wizard. It had, catechism style, questions of “How many kernels do I have to build?” and “Which books do I have to read?” The last question was, “How can I know when I have become a wizard?” The answer to it was, “Never mind that. Keep on toiling, and some day you will look back and realize the mantle of wizardhood has been on your shoulders since you knew not when.” I had not exactly the same experience; the image describes if anything more than I really experienced, but one of similar poetic resonance; I was down, and a comment like that was a pleasant surprise. Thinking Christianly means a great deal to me, and I believe that comment was a part of God’s ministrations of grace to me that day.
I have been thinking about a distinction for the past couple of days, between what might be termed explicit and implicit, or perhaps strong and weak, awareness. When someone says something that you knew beforehand but didn’t have the words to say, that is a transition from implicit or weak awareness to explicit or strong awareness. When you sense something but can’t quite put your finger on what, that is implicit awareness.
There are at least two levels of explicit awareness, and two levels of implicit awareness (although they are not in parallel — the difference between levels of implicit awareness is not the same kind of thing as the difference between levels of explicit awareness). The second level of explicit awareness is the one hinted at so far — when an implicit awareness is made explicit. There is also a first level of explicit awareness, where there is explicit expression without implicit awareness. This is what you have when you read a book but don’t yet know what it means, when the material has not been digested. The first level of implicit awareness, on the other hand, is what I have hinted at; the second level of implicit awareness lies beyond implicit awareness.
As to what that means — in a certain sense, I don’t see through the Hebraic mindset as Josh articulated it, and I don’t believe in the seven virtues or the seven deadly sins. I believe that all of the seven deadly sins are sins, and that the seven virtues are virtues, and I accept a great deal of what is said about them, but I don’t think in terms of the lists. You might say that I believe the list of the seven deadly sins, and the list of the seven virtues, are structured mnemonics that let people see a deeper structure, and I believe in the deeper structure, but not the superficial list. Or, another way of putting it would be, the lists of seven deadly sins and seven virtues are organizing lines drawn over a map, and I know the terrain and believe that it has structure, but I believe that the lines drawn (for the most part — not, for instance, the lines between land and water) are at least partially mnemonics, and not purely statements about the terrain. Lao Tze began the Tao Te Ching by saying, “The name that can be named is not the ultimate name,” (other translations being possible), and I believe that the deepest levels of awareness are beyond what one can say in words and mental structure. This is not true of God — he can express himself in a Word quite well — but, in the things they know most, such as their cultures, humans are terrible at explanation precisely because they know them too intimately to express them well. TAs are often better teachers than their professors, because they learned the material recently, and are more easily able to recall an explicit form like the way they learned.
Someone can see an explicit awareness instead of seeing through it to a second level implicit awareness. When Heather and Josh presented their thoughts on the Hebraic mindset, I saw the explicit portion — the lines drawn on the map… I think it was an explicit explanation of something I knew implicitly on the second level.
At least that’s a rough sketch; someone who saw my point might not subscribe to a number of particulars. There is a link between the first and second levels of implicit awareness, a continuum perhaps; tighter, at any rate, than between the levels of explicit awareness. Self-consciousness I associate with the second level of explicit awareness; the transition from the first level of implicit awareness to the second level of explicit awareness to the second level of implicit awareness is like the transition from simplicity to complexity to simplicity on the other side of complexity, or (in Unashamed) Abby’s transition from a free lack of self-consciousness to self-consciousness to an ease on the other side of self-consciousness.
At any rate, this insight could be applied to itself, or more properly to my expression of it; I spend a lot of time taking implicit awareness and making it explicit.
It seems a danger of writing that, when you draw lines to illustrate features of the terrain, readers will take the lines and forget the shape of the terrain.
The above distinction might be helpful in refuting the teaching that the real test of whether you understand a matter is whether you can explain it well to a layperson — the implication being that, unless you can do so, you don’t really understand what you’re talking about. One would never tell a sniper that, unless he can convey his skill in five minutes, it doesn’t count that he can hit shell casings from across a football field.
Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Life is worth living, intrinsically because of how God created it, but it bespeaks examination highly that Socrates would say that without it, life is not worth living.
What are the other things that a person could love so much as to say, at least poetically, that without it life is not worth living? I put that imperfectly; I could only honestly say “An unexamined life is not worth living,” if I were speaking poetically, but I believe that Socrates was speaking quite literally when he made that comment; the difference stems partly from different views of what the basic value of human life is.
I should also like to nuance this by mentioning an old distinction between “Good for all people” and “Good for me.” People make an error by going from a realization (true) that something has been highly beneficial to them, to a conclusion (false) that that something would be highly beneficial for everybody. Communion with God is good for anybody, but many spiritual practices are tremendous channels of grace through which God has blessed some people, without being beneficial for everyone. In the list, I will list things which have enough goodness that a poet could say that without it, life is not worth living. Some of these things I will list will be good for all people, and others of them will be good for some people, but not others; I will not distinguish between them.
What are some blessings of which a person who grew in them might say, “Without this, life is not worth living?” I can think of the following:
Worship/communion with God/glorifying him/enjoying him forever
The list is neither definitive nor complete; it has fuzzy borders, and some parts of it might be contested. Being a good means in some sense being a deep good, and some of these goods have more in them than we commonly think. (The flipside, which I don’t know how to reconcile, is that some goods will deliver more if we do not have massive expectations of them; romance is this way, and C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves talks about how appreciation of nature can work this way: a Romantic-style worshipper of nature will be surprised by the beauty of nature less than will a Christian who goes into his garden merely to pray. I think romance is too inflated in our culture; we are to draw our sustenance from a diversity of goods, and (if not romance) I have tried to draw too much sustenance from lesser goods, like putting too much weight on a weak limb.)
There was something I thought of in a conversation with Heather that I want to record here. It concerns the sovereignty of God and free will.
The Calvinist-Armenian debate attests to the difficulty we have seeing both at the same time. My present insight is not exactly concerned with that question, or at least not primarily and directly concerned with it, but with the question of guidance, free will, and God’s direction for our lives. It concerns how we make decisions. The two major camps on this question are as follows:
God has a plan for everyone and for every believer’s life. When faced with a decision, believers should make the decision by seeking out the Lord’s will.
God has given us free will, and wants us to exercise that free will in the decisions we make. When we are faced with a decision between two good courses of action, God wants us to exercise that freedom in our choices.
It is the time-worn philosopher’s trick to say “the two opposing schools are both wrong because of where they both agree: …”, and I was trying to think of a less shopworn way to present where I’m going with this. I won’t exactly say “Both schools are wrong because of where they both agree,” but I am going to say “Both schools appear incomplete because of something they both miss.” I will leave it to the reader’s judgment as to whether I am saying anything different.
What do I think the two camps are missing? When two friends meet, the question of how the meeting will end is not determined a priori. It could be that one of them or the other will have some prior need that says “I have to be somewhere at 3:30,” so that that result is fixed at the beginning, but it will often be the case that the friends decide together how long to meet, and that the end time of their gathering is set by the interaction of the two people, so that the question of “Who will end the time together?” may have no fixed answer ahead of time.
The point where I would challenge both camps is that they both seem to believe that the real outcome of a decision boils down to the decision of one fixed party. Either God’s sovereignty means that we need to agree with God’s one decision in our lives, or our free will means that the decision is ours to make. As an alternative to this, I propose a metaphor of friends meeting: sometimes, God will have a very detailed, specific plan and say “I want you to do this” (Heather pointed out that God is often much more explicit and more likely to use skywriting with young believers), and sometimes, a decision will be left to us, but much of the time, we are invited to partnership, making decisions together with God, in which sovereignty and free will come together, in which seeking out God’s will is mingled with responsible exercise of our own free wills.
One might suggest as a description that, instead of saying that the decision is 100% God’s and 0% yours, or 0% God’s and 100% yours, or even stopping with a compromise that says the decision is 50% God’s and 50% yours, a decision instead that is 100% God’s and 100% yours, or perhaps 80% God’s and 80% yours. God chooses to exercise his sovereignty in a way that respects free will, so that it is possible to submit totally to God (or perhaps I should say, supposing for the sake of argument that we on earth could submit totally to God), and free will still exists and has room to breathe, and that free will, responsibly exercised to its fullest, respects God’s sovereignty. The reason I said 80-80 is that there are times when humility before God demands the sacrifice of things that free will has legitimate claim to, and because some people might argue that God lets go of things he has claim to because of people’s prayer (but I don’t want to discuss here the debate as to whether God ever changes his mind). Beyond that, I believe that the metaphor of friends meeting helps us to see a way in which sovereignty and free will can occupy the same space.
Another concept I’ve been drawing on recently involves some mathematical concepts, concerning what is called a function or a mapping.
A mapping is like a black box, where you put something in and you get something out. An example of a mapping might be the height of a person: for each person, there is a height. On the box analogy, you could put me in the box, and out comes a height of six feet. A telephone directory is an example of another mapping: you put into the box a person’s or company’s name, and out of it you get a phone number.
There are some cases where a mapping is invertible: it runs backwards. A telephone directory represents an invertible function: it is possible to make a reverse telephone directory, where you start with a phone number, and look up a person’s name.
Each function has a domain, of what you can put into the box, and a range of what you can get out of it. The domain of a telephone directory function consists of people and organizations, and the range is telephone numbers. The domain of the height function is the set of people, and the range is the set of heights.
Not all functions are invertible. If a function is not one to one — if more than one input has the same output — then it is ambiguous to say “Give me the thing the function maps to this result,” because more than one thing might map to the result. If someone says, “Give me the height of CJS Hayward,” it is a straightforward thing to measure my height. If, however, someone remembers my height but forgets my name, and says, “Give me the person who is six feet tall,” then there is a problem. There are many people who are six feet tall; if you wanted me and reached out and grabbed the first person you saw who was six feet tall, you would probably not get me. The height function is not invertible.
I was thinking, not exactly of functions, but of a related concept in the connection between thoughts and words. We know that if a thought can be expressed in words, it can probably be expressed in different ways, and that that a given set of words is usually at least slightly ambiguous as to what thoughts will correspond to. However, I am setting these observations aside for the moment, as not relevant to the basic insight, and I would ask the reader to accept (at least for the sake of argument) the assumption that a given wording will produce a single interpretation in the reader’s mind.
What I saw is this: Say that there are two functions: the function mapping ideas to wordings, and the function mapping wordings to ideas. The first function happens when a person has an idea, thinks about how to explain it, and writes it down; the second function happens when a person reads and gets ideas from it. Then these functions are not each other’s inverses, and furthermore there might be no way to express a given idea in such a way that the reader’s interpretation is what the writer intended, or (to put it differently) the most faithful expression of an idea may necessarily give rise in the reader’s mind to something else. The process might go on like this: One person (writer) thinks of a person and writes down his height. Another person (reader) takes the text and picks out the first person he sees who has the height, and thinks, “This is the person who has been written about.” There are many times and places where it works — perhaps a better analogy would be to say that the writer thinks of a person and writes down his first name, and the reader finds calls out the name and talks with the first person to answer. It works quite well, as long as you don’t have two people going by the same name. Get two Robins in the room, however, and things might be more difficult. If my friend David wants to talk about his roommate, he will say ‘Robin’, at which point I will probably think of my best friend (and his friend, too) Robin.
The first time I observed a phenomenon, or a realization, like this, was a couple of years ago. At the time, I believed in a sort of theistic evolution, and I started to write a story about a world, beginning with its creation. I envisioned that world as having been created by a theistic evolutionary process; when I thought about how to effectively describe it, I could only do it in poetry, and for that matter poetry further on a literal reading from a scientific view of the processes than the Genesis accounts are from a picture of evolution. In thinking about an idea — of God creating life through aeons and “chance” and natural forces — the best way I could think of to explain it was one that would have (on a literal level) give rise to something other than what I thought. This gave rise to the following insight:
Imagine two scenarios. In the first scenario, God creates the world in six days, about six thousand years in the past, as literally described in Genesis I. What is the best way to describe it? The text we have now.
In the second scenario, God shapes the world over billions of years through natural forces and a subtle but powerful influence over quantum phenomena — “chance”. What is the best way to describe it, with all of its majesty, glory, and wonder? Well, when I tried to do that in good faith, I came up with a far less literal account than the Genesis account. So probably, something like the text that we have now.
What this means is that the six day creation account is not as informative as it would appear at first glance in our understanding. From one perspective, a direct, naive reading of the text (and, connotations notwithstanding, naivete is often a good thing in reading a text), leads most naturally to a six day creation account, but, with this insight in consideration, the question of “How would you change the text if you were to make it reflect a theistic evolutionary perspective?” meets with an answer of “Not much.”
There is something that wants to keep me from settling there; I think it has something to do with crediting a naive understanding and believing that this philosophy does not give us a privileged understanding of the text. In the same way that I believe it misportrays the text to believe it is fundamentally about the scientific details of origins, I believe it grossly misportrays reading of the text to wield such an insight as a weapon against naive readings — God has hidden things from philosophers and shown them to children who have read a text naively. The person who reads a text naively profits from it far more than a genius with a thousand insights better than mine, who is too sophisticated to open himself to the straightforward meaning a child of ten would learn.
This is somewhat of a tangent; I meant it mainly as an example. The direction I was driving towards was to say that we have something to learn from computer tape drives, which often (after writing some information out) immediately read it back to see if what’s coming back from the tape is the same thing as what is supposed to have been written on it. I came with this basic insight when I was trying to think of how to express an insight I’ve now forgotten, and came to the realization that there was no way (so far as I could tell) for me to explain it so that a natural reading would give another person the thought I had meant to express: every way I could think of to express it, meant something else on a natural reading.
There are two directions in which this can be taken. One is, in communication, to ask “Is this idea expressible in the sense that it is what a person will think of on naively reading my text?” — and, if you go off the beaten path like I do, the answer may well occasionally be ‘no,’ or (what may be hoped) provide an adjustment for your words to let the reader know that you don’t mean the obvious interpretation. The other is, in talking with others, to ask, “What intended meanings, other than the obvious one, could have been meant when so-and-so said X?” Both might cut down on miscommunication.
Yesterday night I went to a square dance, and then hung out with some friends and some new acquaintances. I had some thoughts, the last of which I wish to elaborate here.
I was thinking about a similarity between dance and martial arts, both as kinds of kything, and then… connected. Not intensely, but in a relaxed manner. I was in a newer sense able to be at peace with not being in the bard’s awen — enjoying the ordinary as just the ordinary. I was thinking in part about how, in Kuk Sool, I was comfortable bowing to the instructor and other students, but not to the picture of the Kuk Sa Bo Nim (grandmaster), because bowing is to me an act so close to worship that it is fitting to bestow on a man but not anything lesser. And then —
The major debates are over an issue of substance. The Calvinist-Arminian debate exists not only because the Scriptures reflect a mystery not easily captured in models, but also because the question of how the sovereignty of God relates to free will is a big enough question to hold a debate over. Both sides know it’s important; that’s why there are two sides engaged in the discussion. The question of the relationship of faith and works is another area which is debated because both sides recognize it to be a matter of importance. (On that point, I regard it as beautiful and fitting that The Cost of Discipleship, one of the 20th century’s greatest books about works, was written by the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and that The Ragamuffin Gospel, perhaps a lesser work, but none the less a powerful inspirational classic about grace, was written by the Catholic Brennan Manning.)
Along these lines, I think that the question of whether or not men may be called gods concerns a big enough matter that it is surprising it is not a matter of debate. There is a terrible truth, a deep magic (to borrow a Narnian image) that we are not gods, that it is blasphemy to arrogate to ourselves the title of divinity. There is a more terrible truth, a deeper magic, that we are not only gods but more than gods, and that we shall become greater still than we are now. If you take and compare a weak believer — an alcoholic living on the street, someone who doesn’t go to church because he feels ashamed to be there, but who loves Jesus, whose eyes will tear up if you begin talking with him about Jesus — and compare him with the beings the Norsemen or the Greeks worshipped as God, the failing, weak, marginal believer is to me more majestic and more worthy of worship. In him is the Holy Spirit; in him is submission to the will of God; in him is in a sense something deeper than virtue, important as virtue may be. It is not just the Marines of the Army of God — those glowing saints whom we read about, and think we can never measure up to — who are godlike. It is, in a catholic sense, every man and woman of God, those whose faith is far weaker than ours as well as those whose faith is far stronger, who is a god and (invisibly to eyes this side of Heaven, usually) is wrapped in a glory that paganism never thought to give to its gods and goddesses.
I cannot in good conscience give the Sanskrit greeting Namaste, “I bow to the divine spirit in you.” We are not God, and we fall into trouble to think that we are — and yet the Scriptures contain so many things that I would think blasphemous if they were found in any other source. We are made in the image, likeness, and glory of God. We are invited to be his sons and daughters. We will judge angels. We are invited (Ephesians 6:11-17) to enter spiritual warfare wearing, among other things, the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation — that is, the armor worn by God (Isaiah 59:17). We have been chosen to share in the divine nature.
I believe C.S. Lewis addresses this basic insight in The Weight of Glory, although I haven’t read it recently. Each person is on the way to becoming either a being a godlike creature whom, if you saw now, you would be sorely tempted to worship, or else a horror such as you never encountered in your worst nightmares. Lewis wasn’t sure whether a person should think as much as possible about his own glory, but it can scarcely hurt to think as much as possible about his neighbor’s glory.
Worship is the supreme love reserved to God alone, but man as the image of God may be given a second love that is the image of worship.
It often happens that people’s beliefs concerning a question can be placed along a continuum. One example of this may be the question of who may legitimately be addressed as “Father,” in light of Jesus’ words about “Call no one on earth your father” etc. People wishing to persuade you to shift in their direction may point out an extreme position in the opposite direction as a means of softening you up to slide away from that extreme — such as when a Catholic, after talking about hyperbole, asks what you are going to call your literal father. After reacting to the extreme pointed out — and realizing that you do legitimately call your earthly father ‘Father’ — the natural tendency is to slide a couple of notches closer to the position being advocated, namely “It is OK to address ecclesiastical authorities as ‘Father’.” That is a temptation to be resisted. It is in some sense true that “no one on earth” does not refer to one’s earthly father, but even hyperbole is a means of emphasizing something important — and it is difficult to me at least to believe that the obvious exceptions to “no one on earth” include all pastors. The context speaks directly about what ecclesiastical authorities may be called — if ecclesiastical authorities are included among obvious exceptions, it is hard to tell exactly what the point of saying that was. Perhaps Jesus was exaggerating, but what important point was he exaggerating, if the exceptions include the most direct and obvious point of application?
Reacting an extreme position is often a stepping stone to an unnecessary shift. Reacting the position of “Do not even call your earthly father ‘Father'” softens people up to say “I guess Jesus didn’t really mean absolutely no one when he said ‘Call no one on earth your father’,” and mean by it, “When Jesus said ‘Call no one on earth your father,’ he wasn’t referring to ecclesiastical authorities.”
The story of the boy who cried wolf has something to do with warnings and legal contracts.
Implicit in a warning message is a claim of “This message says something important and non-obvious about a real danger to sensible use.” After reading a certain number of warnings and finding them superfluous, people’s trust has been violated. They don’t believe warnings are worth reading. And they aren’t — usually.
An analogous, but related principle seems to apply in legal contracts. When you have to agree to a license agreement to download free software, and there are several pages of legalese — like the warning, the contract has lost fair claim to be read by the person signing it.
“A cheap car is rare. That which is rare is expensive. A cheap car is expensive.” There are limitations on what can be done by taking reasonable-sounding propositions and working from them logically. The proposition can be basically true — and lead, through a logical argument, to a false conclusion. (I know of at least one person who does not engage in philosophical speculation because of this.) This is not always true — there are cases where logical development from given statements can bring forth highly accurate contents — but care must be taken in logical development from approximate wordings. Sometimes it is hard to tell when words mean something approximately, and when they mean something exactly. In exegesis, I wonder if at least some of our debates stem from reading as exact words which were meant to be read approximately — perhaps partially because it is easy to equate taking a text seriously with reading it exactly — and so we go to as approximate of a reading as we need to to satify some texts, but have debates because we can only give certain other texts a literal reading.
On the note of exegesis, I wish to also record that it is bad practice to take some convenient set of Bible verses, those whose literal construal leads most easily to your position, and magnify them along the lines that lead to your position, and then explain away those verses which are problematic to your interpretation. God inspired and meant one as much as another; it is better to say, “I don’t understand how it all fits together,” or “Such-and-such is as much sense as I can make out of it,” than to magnify some verses and raze others. There is a certain bad odor — of contrived explanations, of explaining things away — that is free of logical contradiction, but which signals the presence of bad exegesis. It’s kind of like an announcement of a stunning new discovery that shatters old theological dogmas (as in the beginning of Jesus de Montreal) — even before logical eyes can see exactly what is wrong here, an experienced nose can smell that something is awry.
The past few days have been a fertile time for musings. I can’t remember everything that I thought, but there is one that I have been thinking about that I do wish to write down.
The best way I see to introduce it is by asking if TCKs (third culture kids — to oversimplify, people who have grown up with substantial exposure to multiple cultures, where their parents’ culture was different from the culture of the surrounding people) have a culture, and giving a provocative answer of “No, at least not in the sense that most of the world’s people have a culture.” The world’s majority, people who have one culture, have a space for culture, and TCKs also have that space, and also have something in that space, but that something is not a culture.
I’m hesitant to give a definition of culture, because definitions are finite and tend to take a life of their own, but one facet of culture is that it is something shared by a community, and shaped by that community, rising out of it. There is something that TCKs share, even a TCK community of sorts, but TCKs did not come to what they had by being immersed in it as a culture when they grew up. What they have in place of a culture may draw on two or more cultures, but it is not itself a culture.
I was trying to think of what to call this genus of which culture is a species, these things that can occupy the space which is in most people occupied by a culture, and I came across a couple of terms which are conceptually related but not identical to it: worldview and personality, as well as metaculture (a concept which I do not wish to describe in detail here, beyond saying that where a person in culture fits into and naturally breathes a culture, a person in metaculture is able to shift and move between cultures, and does not occupy a culture in the same way — is never in a culture so completely as to not see how else it could be), are related, but not the same. Without having a name, I would like to summarize the concept by saying that culture is a species of the genus of things which occupy the space normally occupied by culture.
Being a TCK can provide a person with something else in the place of a culture; so can exceptional intelligence, and possibly some of mental illness/neurological disorders. I think there are other kinds of differences capable of causing this as well; mental illness is relatively well-documented as a kind of difference that has a significant darkside; differences that do not have significant darksides would not seem to draw the same exploration as differences that cause significant problems for the people that bear them. What I realized is that I have something else in the place of a culture. I thought about writing a document about what that something else is, but am waiting on that for now, until some intuitions are more clear.
One question which may be useful as a rule of thumb for whether a person has a culture or something else in that place is, “When he changes something in the culture, does he change from within or change from without?” in a sense related to the distinction introduced by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. There is a difference between the person who uses materials inside the box to fumblingly try to think outside the box, and the person who uses materials outside the box to fumblingly try to think inside the box.
One logician I’ve read was arguing for game theoretical semantics, where a statement under examination is considered to represent a game, and one player is the Verifier, and the other is the Falsifier. The statement is considered to be true if the Verifier has a winning strategy, and False if the Falsifier has a winning strategy. It is possible for a game not to have a winning strategy on either side, and the logician argued from this that there may therefore be statements which are neither true nor false. (This struck me as an example of bad logic — you have a terrain and a standard map, and you suggest using another map, and point out that the second map has a property which the first map did not, concluding that the terrain might have the property indicated on the second map.) If one pursued those lines, though, the definition of a game can be loosened so that a game can at least potentially be won by both parties. This would correspond to games which (in some instances) could have a winning strategy for both Verifier and Falsifier, and statements which were neither true nor false. “This statement is false” could be the canonical simple example of a game which had neither a winning strategy for Verifier nor a winning strategy for Falsifier (a statement which is neither true nor false), and “This statement is true” the example of a statement which has winning strategies for both Verifier and Falsifier (a statement which is both true and false).
Christianity is a broad thing; individual believers may own the whole, but they live in a niche. Celibacy and married life both belong to all believers, but a believer will inhabit only one of those possibilities. This phenomenon (another instance is different spiritual gifts — no gift is common to all believers) is a part of what is meant by catholicity — the whole faith is to be believed by all believers, even though not every detail will come to play in every believer’s life. It is like a culture — it takes a village to transmit a culture, because a culture belongs to all its members, but it is larger than any single member’s role in it.
Different kinds of writing have, in a sense, different ways of being true. A metaphor embodies or fails to embody truth along somewhat different lines from a literal statement.
Fiction, I believe, can be true or false, even though we do not speak of it much in that way. For a work of fiction to be true does not mean that the events literally happened, but… Fiction presents a world-view, and says that things happen a certain way. The truth or falsity of fiction is not measured by the literal truth or falsity of what is seen, but the effects it has on the way people see. Action-adventure movies present life as cheap and of little consequence; killing someone is not only permissible, but not that big of a deal and without serious consequences. In so far as that is true, that fiction is false, and it is as false as a report that cigarettes are not addictive and do not pose any serious health threats. Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is a curious and powerful mix of truth and falsehood; it is a classic because it is powerfully true in certain ways — the psyche of Michael, especially at the beginning, and the interaction of cultures; perhaps also certain areas of law — but it also lies: the limitless perfectibility of man, a benign nature to promiscuity, a certain arbitrary reshapability to human culture are among its falsehoods.
It is also possible, in this sense, to have false statements that are literally true. The stories told by the Un-man(?) in C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra to the unfallen, Perelandrian Eve are false even if they are literally true. More to the point, Clinton’s electoral stories, television newscasting, or kneejerk conservative tales of welfare abuse are all falsehoods expressed in a way that is literally true. These tales are not only tales of “these details happened”, but “this is the way the world works.” On the welfare score, the tales of abuse are never tales of just “This abuse happened at this time.” The meaning of the tales extends much farther, to “This is how things work. The welfare system is a corrupt system the nature of which is to be taken advantage of by parasites who constitute a massive financial drain on hardworking, honest, overtaxed America, and it is in need of a massive overhaul and massive cutbacks.” That is not true.
There are a number of arguments in principle that are to be made for pacifism, which I will not mention here. I would like to mention one lesser, prudential, argument before I forget.
If you ask two Christian thinkers — one who believes in a just war, the other of whom is a pacifist — what they believe concerning violence and problem solving, the difference between the answers given is never going to be that the pacifist believes in constructive problem solving and the just war believer believes in killing people to solve problems. The difference will rather be something far closer and more subtle: both believe that man is the image of God, that human life is of infinite value, and that people should learn to solve conflict in ways to avoid violence. The difference is that the pacifist believes violence is never acceptable, where the just war believer, who would much rather die than be killed, accepts violence as a last resort when all else has failed, and the probable destruction caused by acting in violence is less than the probable destruction caused by any other route. So the difference is not a difference of whether violence or constructive problem solving is better, only a very small difference (among people who agree on the desirability of peaceable living) of what will be done in the last resort after every effort at a peaceable solution has failed.
What I would like to submit is that this picture is distorted. It fairly accurately captures the difference in what people say, but not the difference in what people do. Both the pacifist and the just war believer say that they believe in attempting a peaceful solution in a potentially violent situation, and that peaceful conflict resolution is vastly preferable to violence, but only the pacifist normally makes any serious effort to understand nonviolent solutions that can prevent violence. In my own experience, only pacifist churches and meetings have given any instruction in how to handle a problem solution so as to prevent violence; when I gave a speech at Wheaton on peace making, not one of the members of the audience believed in a just war. Or, to put it differently, in the whole student body at Wheaton, not one of the just war majority thought it worth an evening’s effort to attend a speech on peace making. Or, again, those who cared about peaceful resolution to conflicts consisted exclusively of pacifists, even in a student body where the vast majority believed in a just war.
In the stated just war position, the major thesis of the position is that human life is of infinite value, and that Christians should make dedicated efforts towards the peaceful resolution of problems. It is a minor clause that says that violence may be used as a last resort. I would like to submit that the pacifist keeps more of this position, more faithfully, than does the person who holds a just war position. That is to say, the pacifist not only lives up to the pacifist standards better than the one who believes in a just war; he also lives up to the just war standards better.
Sun Tzu, in The Art of War, told the general to cut off all hope of retreat from the troops, so that they are cornered and will either win a battle or die. At first this struck me as very strange: doing so limits options and prevents the troops from fighting another day if they lose. Now, though, I understand that it was a profound psychological insight that put those words in such a timeless classic on military strategy: the troops will fight to the death if cornered; they can’t fight that hard if there is a way of retreat.
On a naive model, the question of pacifism vs. just war is a question that has the same answer for most situations, differing only in that (in a small fraction of situations) the pacifist will either not act or else interpose himself in harm’s way, and the just war believer will use force. But the difference is not confined to those situations. There is also the difference that the pacifist is cornered and fights to the death in situations where the just war believer, fighting as hard as he can while still preserving a way out, doesn’t — can’t — try as hard as the cornered pacifist. And so the body count, if you will, from the two situations, cannot stop after taking into consideration the situation where the pacifist refuses to kill a murderer, resulting in his own death and that of the person the murderer set out to kill; it must also take into consideration the situation where the pacifist averted bloodshed by applying training that the just war believer did not take the effort to find out. If this is so, then even if there are some cases where use of violence will save more lives than it kills, it is still quite possible that overall allowing the option of violence kills more lives than it saves.
This ties in to a question in computer science concerning the use of goto statements, an area where I am trying to think of a nontechnical example, and finding nothing as good.
A goto statement is a part of a computer program that tells the computer to go from one part to another (go to, goto). When I was in gradeschool, I thought goto statements were the best thing since sliced bread. But it’s not. One classic computer science paper argued that the free-ranging functionality of the goto statement should be replaced with conditional statements (if A is true, then do B, else do C) and loops (while D is true, do E). This kind of discipline does wonders to control certain kinds of hidden nightmares, and all serious contemporary programming I’m aware of uses conditional statements and loops instead of gotos for the bedrock of computer programming.
The question arises, “Should programming languages allow goto statements, or not?” The reason the question is not closed is that, every once in a blue moon, a goto is out-and-out the best way to solve a problem. A good programmer never uses gotos as a first approach, and bad programmers will only use gotos in ways that are inappropriate, but once in a blue moon, a situation comes up where a goto will solve the problem better than conditionals and loops. So there is a case for allowing gotos. But many languages have chosen to leave goto statements out of the language’s functionality — not because a goto statement is never justified, but because if a goto statement is in a language, programmers will use gotos in cases which hurt program quality. So, in isolated cases, it is uncontested that goto statements are sometimes justified, but overall, it is deemed better to rule out all goto statements, including the ones that are justified, than deal with the effects on the programmer and through programming of leaving the statements in the language.
This question has implications for moral reasoning.
I would not place this argument as my primary argument for pacifism, but I would place it as something to think about — and, perhaps, as an occasion for people who believe in a just war to decide what they believe (not “Is violence ever justified?” but “Is violence undesirable enough that it is worth making a serious investigation into how one can prevent it?”), and live up to what I hope a just war position should be.
The concepts of classical and romantic, discussed in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (a second rate treatment of first rate issues), was something I originally thought of as “classical is concerned with what is below the surface, while romantic is concerned with the surface,” but I wish to revise that. Classical and romantic are both concerned with something behind and beneath the surface, but in different ways.
There is a distinction I have thought of between a logical and a practical conclusion. A logical conclusion answers the question, “What comes forth from this idea if a logician takes it and analyzes its implications?” A practical conclusion answers the question, “What comes forth from this idea if a group of people believe this idea and live with it for some time?” The two are related, but different. Sometimes there are things in a practical conclusion that wouldn’t be immediately evident to a logician.
My above musing about a prudential case for pacifism could be portrayed as teasing out of differences between the practical conclusions of just war and pacifist teachings.
There are at least two ways that a human environment can be hostile — actively and passively.
An actively hostile environment is one in which people are consciously and intentionally hostile to a person or another group of persons. I would take South African apartheid as a paradigm example of this. A passively hostile environment does not necessarily have active hostility, but there are elements in the environment which none the less make it a hostile place. I would take handicap-inaccessible architecture as the paradigm example here.
Active hostility is what is usually thought of in reference to a hostile environment, discrimination, etc. The two other examples I can think of of passive hostility are right-handed technology, and many of the things that make giftedness a burden — an educational system that breaks at both ends of the spectrum.
When I wrote the above material about truth, falsity, and fiction, there was something I realized was not quite on the head. Today I put my finger on it.
Madeleine l’Engle is reported to have said that if an author does not respect his characters’ free will, then the story becomes a false story. This, as well as embodiment of a false world view (perhaps moreso), is how a story can be false. Deus ex machina, at least in its bad sense, is a kind of falsity in storytelling.
A large part of the indictment of utilitarian Christian art in Franky Schaeffer’s Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts is that it is false art and literature. It brings to mind one interchange I read in a Christian magazine, about the relative merits of Christian and popular music. The argument one person put forth for listening to secular music was that it was better music than the Christian music, and the rebuttal was based on the fact that the Christian music had Christian lyrics. That is to say, the rebuttal to an indictment of musical inferiority was to not argue for the music’s quality, or even see it as an issue — the music was only a sugar coating for a doctrinal content of the lyrics. That is a defense and rationale for false music.
Much of the best art and literature stems from efforts at persuasion; the Aeneid and the Divine Comedy were both written by poets who wished to prove their languages weren’t inferior. The best art is rarely purely for art’s sake — but neither is it purely instrumental. Perhaps it comes from the interaction of trying to make good art and trying to serve another purpose. And perhaps the NEA-sponsored exhibits, which are often accused of making a virtue of incomprehensibility, does terrible “art for art’s sake”, falling into errors that are not possible for someone trying to persuade. But the major error in most of what I have seen is false art that violates the integrity of the artwork in order to do something useful. It kills the goose of art to get all the golden eggs of persuasion — and then bewails the fact that the goose no longer produces golden eggs. It can’t. It was killed by its creator.
Bill Watterson’s story of refusing to commercialize his comic strip, in a way that he regards as selling out his own creation (recounted, I think, in The Calvin and Hobbes 10th Anniversary Special), shows an artist’s difficult endeavor to retain the truth of his creation.
There was a connection which I made recently…
I have problems owning American culture. My heart is in a sense in Europe; partly in a romantic impression, but also and more substantially in a classical look at (especially) philosophy and other aspects of culture (friendship would probably be another).
What I realized, or remembered, was that I once had difficulty owning Western culture at all. I held some interest in Eastern thought, and resonances between Eastern and Christian thought. Part of this was rebellion, pride, wanting to be different and better than other people. But only part. Another part was recognition of the wreckage of the past 500 years of Western philosophical history — I still think the past 500 years of “progress” are mostly something that would best be erased, done over, and that even though Eastern philosophy (pagan virgin) does not measure up to Christian (married) philosophy, it provides a vastly better starting point, and even working medium, than most of contemporary Western philosophy (apostate divorcée). Another part of my difficulties in identifying with the West was that I had some awareness, albeit an unwitting, unconscious awareness that hit the very large nail not quite on the head, of how different I was from other people. I didn’t connect it with intelligence, and I did not have the clarity to put my thinking as “I am a Westerner who is more different from most Westerners than most Easterners are;” I thought of myself as non-Western in a way that roughly meant Eastern (and came to a deep understanding of one Eastern philosophy).
The second part of the realization is that I have, by whatever means, come to be at home with being a part of the West. Not like everybody else — not by a long shot — but distinctively Western. I have not, within the West, settled down to accepting being an American yet, in the sense that it naturally flows from me, but I am able to accept, with pleasure, being Western. And I had a breaking point at a square dance when I was able to look and realize that I was enjoying a distinctively American cultural beauty.
Exactly where in the geographical-historical map of the actual West my heart is, is still a little hard to say. In the West, but not at any literal place of it. Somewhere in Europe, probably France, spread out across a few centuries, with a touch of fantasy. I am using the term ‘fantasy’ in a poor metaphor because I do not see any better way to explain it, but it calls for some explanation. I do not mean the medieval-impression-plus-magic that is commonly meant by fantasy, nor the psychological sense of an escape into unreality. Rather I mean an “impression” (I mean something like what this word means, only deep rather than shallow), both classical and romantic in character (but more fundamentally classical), of a culture and a world that could be real but does not happen to be. The culture that most readily comes to mind is that of Blajeny in Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wind in the Door.
A certain element of this does not need to change. There are elements of American culture that I do not think I ever need to embody, and others that I may learn to play as a social game (I identify with the youngest star in Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. She tried to appear human — an eccentric old woman, outside on a terribly stormy night — and quite nearly botched it; the shawl and eating and making sheets look like ghosts was not who she was, was a game she played that did not begin to give even a glimpse of who she really was. This is a picture of an angel-like being in one sense, but in another sense is a revelation of a real, flesh-and-blood human being out of a human’s experience; it is a description not only of angels but of men). There are also a number of elements of American culture that I need to love and own.
There are a couple of things that have happened lately that I am taking as exciting indications that I am beginning to own American culture, and have the discipline to love it even when I do not like it.
Halloween is, or at least can be, a revelatory holiday.
By this I mean that it is a holiday that provides a social context for people to reveal themselves to other people in ways that would not normally occur in the usual course of interactions. For many people it’s not — the costume doesn’t say anything — but for me at least it is. My costumes say something about me.
Christmas is also, in a different way, a revelatory holiday. It is not just a revelatory holiday (such a thought makes me shudder), but it is such. Giving a gift is an act of communication; the gift says something about the person who it is given to, but also about the giver.
What other revelatory holidays could be imagined?
I could see a favorite books day, where people read a passage from their favorite books.
Something to draw on the theme of icebreakers at parties. Icebreakers are embarrassing and humiliating; every one I have examined since I made this basic observation crosses some social boundary and make people uncomfortable. I believe this is for a specific reason; pushing people across an internal boundary disinhibits them and opens the door to getting to know the other people. It takes a jolt to break the ice.
Persona day. People do not dress up in costumes, but (in normal wear) role play other people.
Prohibition day. Some common and basic activity or faculty is verboten for the course of the day. The Church does this with fasts and Lord’s day rest. I believe there are prohibitions which would force people to operate differently, but I can’t think of any (new ones) off the top of my head.
Baudelaire, in La Morale du Joujou, talks about how, in children’s play and religious artwork, the toy/art represents a reality, which it suggests but does not fully portray. When a little boy takes a small object (perhaps a spool of thread) and moves it about, making sounds, and pretends it is a spaceship, there is no need for a perfectly shaped model of what appears to be a spaceship — and, Baudelaire argues, it is better that way. It is better to have an incomplete portrayal, in which the imperfect vehicle is taken over by imagination to become what it represents, than a perfect and complete portrayal which leaves nothing left for the imagination to do.
In America, unlike many other countries, puppetry is allowed as a children’s art form but not taken seriously as a medium for adults — our loss. Some puppetry (euphemistically called ‘animatronics’ by people who do not want their use of puppetry to be known) is used in movies, albeit puppetry that has so much technical sophistication that it succeeds in appearing to be something else; we do not have puppets that appear as puppets. This is in contrast to the shadow puppet theatre of Malaysia, to take an instance off the top of my head, where there are beautiful but stylized puppets: they are meant to evoke, but not be mistaken for the real thing. Perhaps related to this, all the non-cartoon movies and television I’ve seen present as close an approximation to (a romantic impression of) a photorealistic image of what happens. There is no case where, as in child’s play, people look at an inverted garbage can and agree to make believe it’s a robot. When I watched The Matrix, after not having seen any movies in a while, I was distracted by the romantic impression; at times I had difficulty seeing through it to the characters and concepts. (This isn’t because the movie was ineffective within its genre; it’s because I had begun to lose touch with the medium, but I think there is something in my having lost touch.)
I think it would be an interesting matter to see a good movie in which there was enough to evoke images in the viewer’s minds, but not the complete substitute for imagination in detail — a shooting of a plainclothes rehearsal on an empty set. What would the experience be like?
I think that there is probably a link (both from the same source, possibly) between the fact that puppets that look like puppets are accepted by children but not adults (a sign, not of maturity, but of loss of imagination), and the fact that movies do not call on the viewer’s imagination. I know that television is criticized for rotting the imagination, but what if there was television that just showed actors on empty sets, with very crude props that suggested the objects they were to refer to? It wouldn’t be watched (see Mander’s argument for why television needs technical events and artificial unusuality in order to hold people in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television), but it’s an interesting concept. Perhaps it would be interesting to go to pre-dress rehearsals of plays.
On a related but distinct note — all movies I can recall seeing operate on a romantic rather than a classical plane, and attempting to interact with a movie on classical grounds (thinking about the science and technology is one of a number of examples) yields frustration. The science in science fiction movies is meant to be awe inspiring and impressive — not (in my experience) for people to try to understand. It would be interesting to see a classical movie — perhaps a classical movie that just had suggestive sets, costume, and props.
The image I used in A Dream of Light for the curse of Babel was a rainbow being shattered and its pieces being scattered across the sky to become stars. There was a fragmentation and a diminution of language.
I do not think that the New Jerusalem will see an exact reversal of what happened at Babel. I don’t think the diversity in languages will be reversed, even to restore the language of the Dawn of Creation. I believe that we will have something deeper — even more than in Eden an instrument of communion and not just communication — something that does not have to pass through the pipe of the senses. And I believe that the diversity of human languages, past, present, and future, will be preserved in that fusion. The observation is made of idiolects, that different people will use language in different ways; different idiolects can still be part of the same language in which people understand each other when speaking. In Heaven, I believe I will speak in a way influenced, foreshadowed by, the languages I have worked with here (with various degrees of proficiency — I speak two languages well, and have dabbled in others), and a way that others will understand.
I wrote about fantasy above. I wish to — not quite explain that theme more (I am having difficulty thinking about it clearly enough to say anything significant) — but talk about related material.
Fantasy is in our minds associated with another era; this is not because people invented a forgotten world, a faroff age and invested it with magic, but because people living in a then-contemporary world saw magic operating on their world. The fantastic element was not conceived to be fixed to their time, and the profession of woodcutter in fairy tales was originally as contemporary and as ordinary as a mechanic in our world. This is why, when C.S. Lewis wrote fairy tales for grown-ups (That Hideous Strength), he did not give people occupations from yesteryear; he set them in the contemporary world. The same is true of Madeleine l’Engle’s Time quartet. The fact that ‘fantasy’ means ‘pseudo-medieval’ is in some sense a matter of historical accident.
When writing A Cord of Seven Strands, or more properly when thinking before writing it, I was thinking over the question of whether not to write fantasy. I was sure of a contemporary setting, and I did not want magic in the story. What I was debating was a cultural and geographical bifurcation, something that would feel like our world but be different.
It was a related but different sense of ‘fantasy’ that I meant above. When I am trying to express something, I sometimes see a visual symbol before I can think of words; the visual symbol I saw was two along rays at a very acute angle. Both rays come from the same source. One ray ray represents the way things actually happened, the real world. The other represents the fantasy: it is nearly the same in orientation, but it is displaced, and the further you go, the further apart they are. Something similar may be said for Australian, English Canadian, British, and U.S. culture. They are all bifurcated (albeit interacting) lines from the same source, in a sense almost parallel. Complementary to the usual intuition of Britain being on its historical path and the colonies branching off or doing the same thing, it may also be said that these four countries represent alternate historical and cultural developments of the British culture that existed several centuries ago. To someone with a historical sense who had grown up in one of these four contemporary cultures and been transported to another, each provides an answer of “This is how it might have been but is not.” The direction of the angle I see is different — not a “This is how it might have been but is not” of historical and cultural development, but of the different feel brought with intelligence, the part of intelligence that is not connoted or implied by the popular understanding of the word ‘smart’. That isn’t quite it, or perhaps you could say that that is one facet but not all; at any rate, it is the only one I know how to concretely describe.
I was thinking about the direction of Madeleine l’Engle’s fantasy — breaking off from our world (though she would not view it that way) in the direction of (some) non-human characters, of kything and under-hearing. I regard it a valuable question to ask how my fantasy would break off. A part of it is in the direction of pseudo-fantasy, material that reads like fantasy while consisting exclusively of events I could believe happened. Other parts I can’t describe.
Recently I found out that a person whom I have been talking with (I won’t mention his name) was looking at an area of thought in a way that was fundamentally distorted (I won’t give the details on that, either). What I regard as significant is that my reply to him was emotional, only partially logically coherent, and probably not nearly as persuasive as most of what I write.
I was thinking about this, in large part because I was disturbed that I hadn’t given him a better answer, a better explanation — I was aware that I was explaining things badly as I wrote, but I couldn’t do better. It wasn’t because this was an obscure question that I knew little about; anything but. The reflection I had coming out of this was analogous to aesthetic distance: if an issue is too far out, then you do not know it well enough to talk about it effectively, then as it moves closer you can start to talk about it, but if it comes too close, then the lack of distance prevents effective discussion. These are some of the things you know best, but you can’t start talking about them.
If this is true, this may mean that on the handful of issues that a thinker becomes emotional and incoherent in argument, the incoherence is not because he doesn’t know what he is talking about, but because he knows it so intimately that he cannot discuss it effectively — it is when he is least persuasive that he may be voicing something far more important to him than what lets him be carried away on the wings of eloquence.
10/14/00 and subsequent days
There is a classic Reader’s Digest in which a married couple, building their dream house, tells their decorator that they want an authentic early American bathroom. The decorator hesitates, and says, “Ok. Exactly how far away from the house do you want it to be?”
It has occurred to me in thinking about that joke that I have been ungrateful to my own era. Perhaps I am in an era that doesn’t really have a place for me, but the Middle Ages wouldn’t necessarily have had a place for me either, even if my metacultural perspective is spiritually closer to medieval than modern or postmodern. So I would like to list twenty things about my historical-cultural perspective that I appreciate — partly out of discipline and contrition, but also to draw others (especially those who feel the legitimate pull of metaculture and the recognition that other historical-cultural milieux have legitimate and probably richer spiritual climates, who see in modern progress an illusion and are appalled by the literal and figurative 20th century body count) to an appreciation of the good things our climate uniquely holds. This is a bit like the 100 ways of kything in that I don’t know at the outset what all the entries are:
Things I like about my historical-cultural placement:
Medical technology. I do not approve of worshipping technology, but it is not worship to note that medical technology has saved my life more than once, and that if I had lived in another era, then (barring supernatural healing) the bone infection I had in my ankle in eighth grade would have killed me, and I wouldn’t have produced any of my writings. In a significant sense, my writings are a ministry; the question is not whether I would have produced my writings, diminished, in the theological crampedness of my age, or produced them on the strength of a stronger age; the choice is between my struggling, fighting uphill, swimming upstream to think clearly and produce my writings (perhaps even doing a better job because I could not simply go with the flow), and being dead before I could mature enough to produce any of them.
The internet. In previous technological environments (hand copying and then print), the expense and scarcity of writing materials meant that you had, to share writings, to convince someone with scarce resources that your writing was worth the allocation of scarce resources — and, even now, getting a book printed is more a matter of salesmanship than of writing. (And I am not an expert salesman.) The internet is the first means in history where a person like me can concentrate almost wholly on the quality of his writings and then, almost effortlessly, without any jumping through hoops, make them available worldwide. There is a kind of sharing and connection, community, made possible by the internet that wasn’t possible before. Many great writers of the past were discovered posthumously, by accident. The internet provides a place where writing is far less restricted.
IMSA. The Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, the magnet school where I went to high school, is a world unto itself. Culturally, and in the way people think, it is one of a few homes to me; the last time I visited campus, there was a shared bond and a rate of connection that affected me as one of those moments that leave you wondering how you could have gotten used to its absence. IMSA has its many flaws, but even with them — it is on the strength of notesfile discussions at IMSA that I learned to write, and if I was able to later read the Bible repeatedly and perform a mental housecleaning to expunge myself of worldview/teachings from IMSA (i.e. the premise that math and science will solve our world’s problems), even that mental housecleaning used discipline acquired at IMSA. But IMSA is not to me just the place where I learned to think; it is a place where I met kindred spirits, and (even in its flaws) an Ynes Avalach to me, more of an alma mater than any of the four colleges and universities I attended. I am grateful to my era, and to the state of Illinois and its taxpayers, for letting me have that opportunity.
Computers. Computers do not need to be an object of worship or another enhancement to corporate abilities to generate wealth. They can also be seen as a triumph of human culture, and an opportunity for interaction unlike anything any previous aeon has seen. Where else can you interact with a being that can do arithmetic and logic flawlessly but has no intelligence, not even common sense? There is something in interacting with something logical to show you that you are not logical; programming computers provides a new facet to a thinking man’s self-understanding.
Religious volunteerism. The idea that one belongs to a given religious affiliation because he chooses to belong is, historically speaking, far from universal. There are imperfections — religion as a private choice, religion as something tamed — but they are imperfections in carrying out a great thing.
The concept of tolerance. Most readers will know of hypocrisies and imperfections in how this is carried out, the equation of “racist = white”, and the problems that have been caused in the name of diversity. I would recall the words, “Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue,” and say that the respect for personhood embodied in diversity concerns is a great thing.
Breadth/specialization/academia/diversity. In terms of level of specialization, the present world has quite a few niches that wouldn’t exist in most other societies. (This is a mixed blessing, but a blessing.) My choice of professions is better now than in most historical-cultural contexts; in a small village, the selection of available professions (even without any cultural restrictions) would probably not have allowed me anything as thought-oriented as I have now.
The value given to an individual life. One person’s life is held to be of tremendous value — not just VIPs, but everyone. This is far from a cultural universal.
Creature comforts and good thinking environments. Creature comforts and a special place have a great influence on how well a person is able to perform abstract thought; creature comforts are nice in themselves, but they also allow people to ignore the absence of discomfort and sink into thought.
A native language that is lingua franca throughout the world. This is something very few people in world history have enjoyed. There are any number of arguments that have been made about the dark side of American English steamrolling through half the world’s linguistic bases, and I don’t mean to make light of that — but to speak the language as your native tongue, and never need to learn another, is a rare privilege.
Cheap books. Before the printing press, books were hard to come by; a library of sixty books was quite respectable in the Middle Ages. Books have since then become cheaper and easier to make, which means not only that books are easier to acquire, but that a broader selection of material is liable to be printed. True, much of this material is trash, but there is also material that is not trash.
Roads and Other Transportation. Roads take a heavy and non-obvious toll; the Amish do not drive cars because it is their considered judgment that the use of cars tends to degrade the community. That stated, roads provide access to people, more diverse acquaintances than one would have in a small village. I consider my job options to be much better than if I had to choose from positions I could walk to — in which case I’d probably go bonkers.
Psychology. Psychology, as all academic disciplines, has its own special way of being ridiculous. It also has generated an understanding of human nature with some strengths that many cultures do not have. I would hesitate to say that academic psychology has surpassed the insights of other cultures on their own terms, but on its terms psychology has provided us with some good understandings of human nature.
Hallowe’en. Every age has beautiful holidays; I like Halloween: not the ghouls and witches and warlocks, but the opportunity to be someone else, to reveal yourself in a different way.
Role play. This element of cultural wealth is something that has always been around — in the form of children’s make-believe. I am not aware of another cultural context that carries this into adulthood.
Recognition of childhood. The non-universal concept of childhood, whose present disappearance Neil Postman explores and laments in The Disappearance of Childhood, is of benefit to both children and adults.
Lex, Rex. The rule of law — the idea that everyone, even the highest governing officials, is subject to the law — is far from common in time and history. Many people from other nations had trouble understanding when Nixon was impeached: how could the highest official of the land be on trial for breaking the law? It struck them as it might strike us to see a family where the parents were grounded — grounding is something parents hand out to children, not something parents are themselves subject to. The rule of law is imperfectly followed — as I write, the chaos surrounding the 2000 American presidential election is just beginning to subside — and the concept has flaws. Yet, even with an imperfect implementation of imperfect ideas, attempts to follow the rule of law reduce arbitrariness.
Bureaucracies. Now I know that some readers are probably wondering why I would put bureaucracies on the list — ‘bureaucracy’, like ‘mother-in-law’, carries strongly negative connotations. Do I like pushing through red tape? No. But, to an outsider, working with an American bureaucracy is a positive luxury. One Brazilian student was stunned when he applied for a scholarship without knowing anyone who could pull strings, and then received it; a friend at home couldn’t believe him when he explained what had happened. The reason is simple: in Brazil, like most countries across most of time, you need an inside connection to get anything out of a bureaucracy. In the US, it doesn’t hurt, but you have reasonable chances of getting a lot of things out of a bureaucracy — enough so that this can be taken for granted, and we can ungratefully grumble about how inefficient bureaucracies are.
The concept of genius. The concept of genius is far from universal; while there are problematic developments (the “exceptional man” exposed in Crime and Punishment), the boundary between genius and normal (or even just gifted and average), like that between children adults, is one that benefits people on both sides.
Mechanical devices to tinker with. When I made a fantasy world, one of the races had tinkering as a national hobby. It’s delightful and fascinating to tinker, to fix things MacGyver style, and to have intriguing gadgets. It’s not one of the greatest things in life — not up there with faith and friendship — but Legos and knicknacks (Legos being one of my favorite thinking toys as a child) are an enjoyable part of local color.
There is a sense in which I think we’ve swapped the meanings of asceticism and hedonism. On the surface, at least, and as far as we usually look, asceticism is drab and unpleasant, and hedonism is really enjoying things. But this is the inverse of the reality. Hedonism is one of the pessimistic philosophies of life, trying to enjoy sensory pleasures as someone would enjoy his last meal before an execution. Some forms of asceticism are indeed joyless, but others make small sacrifices in the pursuit of something big. In so far as devout Christians live abstemeniously, it should not be a rejection of joy, but embracing a bigger joy than comes through hedonism.
When I came back to my [original] A Luddite Guide to Technology, I was amazed at the level of goofiness I had been blind to. I had spoken about the importance of love and forgiveness to all, and in almost the same breath poured out anti-Microsoft invective. Why is it easier to see another’s goofiness than one’s own?
Democracy is not coterminous with good government. It is associated with good government in at least one cultural context, and quite possibly others, but the assumption in e.g. TV newscasts that democracy is the one form of government that is best to all countries, and that the political health of a country can be measured by how democratic it is becoming, is worthy of question.
Earlier I spoke of us as gods. I might want to suggest another helpful picture, that of us as apprentice gods, where this life is an apprenticeship to full godhood in Heaven.
Zen emphasizes living in the now. I was thinking about that for a time, and came to realize that in some sense I live best when I am spread out over a time, when I am present to a moment that includes but is not limited to the present. A painter may momentarily only be brushing a small area of the painting, but he is throughout time present to the whole painting, in a way that is structured according to the painting rather than according to the path the brush tip may take (he may even forget what the brush tip took). In the same way, through time I have found a magical way of fitting in to time something that doesn’t fit into linear time, kind of like a mathematician’s Peano curve, where continuous twisting of a curve fills space.
Some theologians have spoken of eternity being without the flow of time as we understand it, where we will no longer have our existence rationed out to us. The Zen approach, where one is totally present to the moment, approximates this in one sense, but in another sense, the perspective I have become aware of (in failing to be exclusively present to the present, and understanding why I failed at it) is something that seems to reflect another aspect of eternity. What I have is something-embedded-in-time, a something that is more than time, and whatever unimaginable thing eternity will be, it will be more, not less, than what we have now. I believe it will be a more natural medium for what is snuck in to time — somehow, probably in a way that we cannot reason out, we will have all of our existence at once, and yet not be limited to a single instant, “ever changing from glory to glory.” (God has all of his existence at once, but he at very least interacts with time; his eternality is not a less-than-temporality.)
In A Wind in the Door, the Murrays’ having given up money and prestige to work in an obscure stone lab is something I identify with in my present stage of life. What I have is not so much a noble giving up as a loss, it has been a less voluntary moving from heavy-thinking, recognizable academic work to software engineering (which I am not doing as proficiently as well as I expected), and a quiet apartment to write in. But I am at peace. I have thought about (after a couple of years’ work) going back to school in cognitive science, and I have gone from enduring it’s-only-a-couple-of-years to being able to enjoy and cherish this time writing — something like the Zen koan that set my thinking, where a monk runs from a tiger, jumps over a cliff, and grabs a thin branch holding him above spiked rocks below. What does he do? He cannot climb up the cliff (the tiger — the past — makes this impossible), and he cannot let go and fall down (the spikes — the future — make this impossible). So he grabs and enjoys some strawberries next to him. I do not think it possible to be happy if both past and future are lethal, but I am enjoying the present without being able to go back to the past, or know or control the future. I am looking forward to the hope of cognitive science work, but I am also genuinely enjoying the present.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance says that there are two types of welders. One is not necessarily better than the other, but it is important to know which one you need, and have the right kind. (I’ll transpose the ordering from Pirsig’s.)
The first kind prefers to do familiar welds, and dislikes having to figure out a new one. The second kind regards figuring out the weld as part of the fun, and resents having to do a job over again.
What I pieced together is that I’m at least a notch or two past the second kind of welder — in my writing, where a new piece usually comes in a new genre, in riflery and martial arts (as Robin pointed out), in other things.
I also realized a strange similarity (or perhaps ‘similarity’ is too strong a word — ‘comparable character’, perhaps) between the attitudes of an agnostic Jew towards religious ceremony and my own.
Agnostic Jews participate in certain ceremonies that they don’t believe in in a religious sense, as a matter of preserving and keeping alive Jewish identity. The ceremonies do not mean, in a sense, the glory and worship of God. At least not primarily and not directly. That is, the agnostic Jew does a ceremony but doesn’t believe its direct meaning.
I realized a parallel between that attitude and my own attitude towards religious ceremony. I participate in religious ceremonies, but I do not believe that a given structure is the necessary form that worship takes, any more than the specific words of a given conversation are necessary to conversation between two people. They are to me the outer shell that worship took in that one case; they are not part of the substance of worship.
The most common use I hear of the term ‘semantic’ is as in “They were just arguing semantics,” meaning that people were having a pointless argument that existed, not because they disagreed over something substantial, but because they were using words differently.
That is in a sense a true use of the term ‘semantic’, but it is disappointing (especially as the primary way in which the term is used). An unnecessary argument because people didn’t know they were using words differently is the pocket lint of things semantic; there are so many greater things that can be referred to by ‘semantic’, of what people mean and what texts mean. Syntactic knowledge is shallow, surface knowledge (the connection of the letters l-o-v-e with the concept of love); semantic knowledge is real, deep knowledge (the conceptual wealth that is evoked by l-o-v-e). In computer programming, people who are trying to fill jobs are usually measuring by what syntactic knowledge is possessed (or, more properly, what buzzwords the person can claim); it is semantic knowledge (theory, the knowledge that is not searched for but is the most important knowledge a programmer possesses) that makes for real success.
I like semantic discussions that are something deeper than an unnecessary conflict because people did not understand how each other were using language.
I have spoken with Josh about disclosing his thoughts about Hebraic and Hellenistic mindsets. (It is Josh’s and Heather’s idea, but Josh had said something that made me want to ask him before distributing it.) Josh has given me permission to disclose it; my thoughts are a little fuzzy, because it’s been a little while since he and Heather explained the concepts, and I only have the one sheet they wrote things down on, but I’ll try to reproduce:
Josh began by saying that, with a couple of arguable exceptions, all the books of the Bible were written by Hebrews, operating from a Hebraic mindset, but subsequent Christian thought has largely followed a Greek mold, and that, if we are to understand the Scriptures, we should understand them as seen by the mindset in which they appeared. He then delved into one area where there is a discrepancy between a Hebraic and a Hellenistic mindset.
In the beginning of the explanation, Heather drew a line down the center of a sheet of paper, and began to write words in pairs, one on either side of the line:
Heather then asked me to imagine that I did not know about law and grace, and how they fit together, but only that God was righteous and cannot abide sin, that each transgression demands judgment, and at the same time that God is merciful, and desires to save men. Responses to such a situation show a divergence between the Hebraic and Hellenistic mind, especially in cases where a neat resolution is not known.
The Hebraic mind does not understand everything and does not expect to understand everything, but has a trust and room for paradox that enable them to believe both in God’s justice and mercy without having a knowledge of how they fit together. The Hellenistic mindset does not understand everything either, but it expects that it should. As such, and holding both the usual strengths (keenness of analysis) and the unnecessary but usual weaknesses (limiting oneself to it) of logic, it tries to create rational systems accounting for as much of the data as can be cut to fit into a consistent logical system. It is probably due to this phenomenon that people who forget the explanation/principle where perfect law meets perfect grace feel the need to cut one down to make room for the other: legalists cut down mercy to preserve their unyielding law, libertines cut down justice in order to prevent anything from bumping into their cruel mercy, and both sides become more aggravated and more extreme by trying to run away from the excesses of the other side.
This much happens with a paradox to which a logical reconciliation has been revealed in Scripture. It is not much better with Calvinism and Arminianism — both of which live in a mental system that takes certain passages, magnifying them and declaring them to be fundamental, and then play awfully fast and loose with inconvenient others. The same God who inspired one set of verses inspired the others; where the Hellenist needs to have an interpretation cut down enough to fit inside his head, the Hebraist can believe the whole without being able to know how it all works out. Although Josh didn’t mention it, there is something here reminiscent of a G.K. Chesterton quote, about how a poet merely wants to get his head into the Heavens, but a logician wants to get the Heavens into his head, and it is his head that splits.
I remember one time when I was talking with another friend (a graduate student in philosophy) and I made a fairly simple argument from Scripture, and he gave an it’s not that simple, saying that what I was saying was true under the thought-forms that clothed the message of the Bible in its original cultural context, but was not necessarily true if one took the intellectually responsible step of translating the Bible, not only from original to contemporary languages, but from original to contemporary languages. (This argument contains a real and significant kernel of (distorted) truth, but it springs from the same poisoned well as the perspective that dismisses Biblical arguments for traditional gender roles by saying that the Bible was written in a patriarchal culture. Beyond saying that, I do not wish to analyze either argument here.) The reason I mention this is to say that the language of the Bible is in a sense an outer husk that need not be a focus of attention, but the mindset, the mentality, is considerably less husk-like. The mentality is at times part of the core of what is communicated.
My initial reactions (and here is where I will begin to depart from Josh and Heather), apart from a mild-mannered acceptance (I reacted less than most people because it is an embodiment of something that I breathe — what I have to offer here are refinements, not correctives to something massively flawed), were to think of two things. One was to say that the list was a cultural artifact, meaning that it is a way of codifying truth that can be helpful to most people, but also that it is not an attribute of reality and not something that I happen to describe to — much like the list of seven deadly sins I spoke of above. That observation is trivial. The other one, though, is not, and it is one I would like to develop.
I began to articulate an alternative, in its beginning form, by talking about a chapter in Jeremiah or Ezekiel (Josh’s favorites, it turns out) in which the Lord tells Israel, “I did not pick you because you were worthy, because you were mighty or attractive. When I found you, you were a babe rolling in salt and blood…” and then narrates how he raised her to a woman of beauty and grace before she became unfaithful to him. Robert Heinlein, in cult classic Stranger in a Strange Land, tells the story of “a Martian named Smith”: a man raised by Martians, inculturated into Martian culture and then transported to earth. It is culture shock writ large, the story of an alien culture coming into contact with, coming into, human culture. That provides a helpful perspective for looking at the Bible and especially the Gospel accounts — in both, there is material that is stunningly countercultural to a reader who understands certain details of cultural context (e.g. how Jesus broke social norms in every recorded encounter with women). If Hebraic culture is a holy culture, it is so not because it (or any human culture) is worthy to be so, but because of uniquely prolonged and deep context with the divine forces. It is like a pet in a human house, tame out of a world of feral kin — its suitability to be with children stems from human contact, not because a feline is intrinsically more man-like than an opossum.
I coined the term ‘metaculture’ (partially explored in The Metacultural Gospel) out of seeing a similarity of phenomenon between third culture kids and people who are astronomically intelligent. Both of them are to some extent capable of entering into a culture, including whichever one they’ve grown up in, but cannot breathe it in the un-self-conscious way of the monocultural majority. One biological principle is that a creature which is particularly adapted to one specific environment will be poorly suited to others; a metacultural is not especially suited to any one environment, but has a certain flexibility. (There are other qualitative differences which escape me at the moment.) I have thought here about whether to use that term or make another (one denoting a kind of metaculture, the kind hinted at in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”), and I will stick with metaculture.
A metacultural isn’t exactly in any one culture; he’s in something else, and incidentally in a culture. That, I believe, provides a substantial alternative/refinement to the Hebraic mindset: the step after being in the Hebraic mindset is being in God, and being shaped by the same forces that shaped Hebraic culture. The solution to being in a darkened cavern is not to move into a cavern that someone has brought a light of, but to climb out of the cavern into the sunlight.
I spent some time thinking, because the metacultural mindset as I originally formulated it seemed accessible only to a minority, not a catholic possibility and therefore not a full solution. I think that the italicized wording, indicates a sense in which the metacultural mindset may be catholic.
That, and in particular the italicized phrase, is a mishnah that requires a Talmud, probably a Talmud with parts that vary from host culture to host culture. I believe it is, in core form, an insight that refines Josh’s, perhaps worth further exploration (although I have no further thoughts on it now).
An “It’s not that simple.” is when person A says something basic, and person B says, “It’s not that simple.” What that means, invariably in my experience, is “It really is that simple, in a direct and obvious sense, but person B has found an elaborate way to convince himself otherwise, probably (cognitive dissonance) because there is some advantage or cherished position that is threatened by an acknowledgment of straightforward observation.”
There is an insight I had when reading Em Griffin’s A First Look at Communication Theory and what it says about persuasion. The text describes the mechanics of persuasion, with an intended development of more effective influence in persuading others. Those basic mechanical principles can also be used to affect how one is influenced by others — to be more easily persuaded when one should be persuaded and less easily persuaded when one shouldn’t be persuaded.
Knowing the communication principles behind, i.e. people losing their faith at school, could be a step towards preparation. Knowledge of psychological principles does not nullify them, but it does give people a greater degree of control in how they act.
C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man talks about an outward direction/inward direction distinction. It’s easy (and sometimes appropriate) to desire outward influence in persuasion. It also strikes me as desirable to have inward influence with regards to persuasion.
In Matthew 10:30, Jesus says, “As for you, every hair on your head has been counted.” This is something that someone in love does.
Last night, a friend and I spent a long time trying to use the GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) to perform a simple task (swapping colors in a two-color submit button). I came away from the frustrating experience with a new appreciation for what Unix’s arcane interface is like to a newcomer.
Technical support people (and sometimes other hackers) have an acronym PEBKAC, short for Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair. From the jargon file:
[Abbrev., “Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair”] Used by support people, particularly at call centers and help desks. Not used with the public. Denotes pilot error as the cause of the crash, especially stupid errors that even a luser could figure out. Very derogatory. Usage: “Did you ever figure out why that guy couldn’t print?” “Yeah, he kept cancelling the operation before it could finish. PEBKAC.”
With a great many apparently technical problems, the problem exists between the keyboard and chair. The question I was thinking about is, which keyboard and chair?
On Mac and Windows computers, and to some extent on the web, an alert box will pop up with some snippet of text and a button. The messages that pop up are often not very important — something like the warning labels attached to many products — and, as such, alert boxes carry a nonverbal message of “I am interrupting your work because I have something to tell you, probably not very important, and you can’t use your computer until you click my button. Once you have clicked on this button, you can go about your business.” When there are a great many alert boxes like this, it is not a stupid thing at all to habitually click the button when the alert box appears… except that, on a small minority of such boxes, the habitual response cancels your print job. The problem with this system exists between keyboard and chair, but not the user’s keyboard. The problem with this system exists between the designer’s keyboard and chair. A great deal of stupid user errors are not stupid user errors at all, but the results of bad interface design by software developers who did not design with human-computer interaction factors in mind.
That’s the thing about people who think they hate computers. What they really hate is lousy programmers.
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in Oath of Fealty
I’ve thought of a hacker’s game. Here’s the core idea: Alice writes a program. Bob modifies the program in such a way that he can tell the difference between them. Alice wins if she can discern which is which. Bob wins if Alice can’t tell, but he can tell. The round is a draw if they both can’t tell.
This basic idea is in need of refinement and rules for both parties, roughly speaking in order that there are no obvious and cheap ways for either side to win. (Neither of them should be able to perform direct tests on the compiled programs, for instance, and things like “Click on the upper lefthand pixel of the applet window, and then hold shift and click on the bottom righthand pixel, and a smilie face will appear” aren’t the kind of cleverness that is desired.”) If such rules are formed, it will take a community’s work over time. But I think this could be a good programmer’s game.
I was saddened to learn of the demise of Canada’s Rhinoceros Party, a satirical political party with platforms like “Coast from coast to coast!” (after your car has been raised to the top of a giant, Canada-wide ramp), “My platform is the one I’m standing on,” and “Legalize pot. And pans. And spatulas. And other kitchen utensils.” It’s defunct as of the last two elections, and learning of its demise (when doing a web search, because I wanted to show Rhinoceros Party information to some of my coworkers) was saddening, like a child’s finding that all the fairies were dead — a learning that a shining part of the world has gone out.
The U.S. still has Dave Barry and his year 2000 presidential campaign (I’m taking an educated guess, as I’m waiting to hear the results of the Florida recount in the U.S. 2000 Presidential Elections, that the final difference between Bush and Gore will be less than the number of votes Dave Barry received), but that was saddening news.
There is an image I’ve had (partly from my own experience, partly from other sources) of someone very bright who is off in his own little world, and when he talks with other people, he tries to answer as faithfully to his own world as he can, and people just don’t get it. What I realized in my Gospel reading a few days ago is that this happened with Jesus. He spoke from his world, and people tried to interpret his words as what they would have meant from their world, and there was a glaring absence of connection. Examples of this are threaded throughout John’s mystical gospel account in particular; one conspicuous example is where Jesus is on trial before Pilate and they are talking about whether Jesus is a king. Jesus is trying to bring Pilate up to his plane, and Pilate is equally trying to understand Jesus’s words without leaving his own plane, and there is conflict.
Seeing this in the Gospel accounts, and having things click, gave me a feeling of being in good company.
Make-believe is a kind of illusion that implicitly depends on being recognized as illusion. I was thinking about this basic phenomenon in some matters related to my Halloween costume this year. My fun was spoiled when I realized that at least one of the children had literally believed I was Blajeny, that the illusion of my costume had not been recognized as illusion.
A while ago, I was having a conversation with Robin (techie) and another friend (Bob, non-techie). We were talking about making custom modifications to software, and I mentioned that a few decades ago, it was common to have computers with their own instruction sets. Robin immediately saw the point I was trying to make; to translate for Bob, I said that for each computer to have its own instruction set would be like each book having its own alphabet.
In places where we’ve gotten used to standards, breathing them is second nature. There are rare exceptions where it is desirable to break good standards — off the top of my head, I can think of the beautiful Elvish script in J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy — but, in certain areas, standards can be quite helpful. The computer industry is moving towards increasing standardization at higher levels of abstraction — and this is a good thing. Dealing with a locally suboptimal standard solution twenty times involves, among other things, significantly less cognitive strain than dealing with twenty locally optimal nonstandard solutions.
Where I see this argument as applying (technical areas, and human cognitive strain), this is not a death penalty on nonstandard approaches — many of the best technical ideas have been highly nonstandard approaches. I do believe, however, that things should be done in a standard manner unless there is good reason to do otherwise. For something meant for humans, doing something nonstandard means potential confusion and a probable learning curve.
Web pages that are not designed with a first-time visitor in mind are a prime example of material that breaks this principle.
I have been occupied recently, and have several ideas jotted down, but not taken the time to write them down. I wrote a letter and received an invitation to join a very high-intelligence mailing list; I spent a good deal of the past week worrying about whether I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. Today, I felt that still, small voice saying, “Get back to writing your musings.”
The musing I’ve been carrying around for a while, has to do with the monoglot and the polyglot (the person who speaks only one language versus the one who speaks several). I debated whether it was worth writing down, and decided for a while that it wasn’t worth writing until I came across something in George Steiner’s Errata. He mentioned the distinction, talked about his own polyglot background, and then poetically and emphatically argued that polyglot is the condition to be in — at one point, he said that the monoglot does not know even his own language.
That bothered me; to explain what bothered me, I would like to bring two brief images to mind: an American who is devoted to his country and holds the kind of patriotism Lewis extolls towards the beginning of The Four Loves, and the American who is devoted to his country and considers the natives of other countries to be unfortunate second-class world citizens. The first is laudable (and compatible with respect for the patriotism of other nations); the second is not. It is the second condition which parallels Stiener’s exaltation of the polyglot condition and (unnecessary) denigration of the monoglot condition.
To explain where I stand on this question, I would like to begin with a lunchtime conversation with my best friend (Robin), and an old friend of his (Morris). I surprised Robin by saying that I preferred to read texts in English translation when I had the option — preferably a free translation — rather than reading them in a non-English original.
It’s not that I’m afraid of learning another language. There have been times when I found thinking in French to be easier than thinking in English, and there has been a span of several years where my French sounded closer in relation to a typical native French speaker than my English sounded in relation to a typical native English speaker. If one counts mathematical and computer languages, I’ve worked with more languages than the number of years I’ve been alive, and this will probably remain true for the rest of my life. I’ve had the experience of not recognizing which language a text was written in, but still being able to read it. I’ve lost count of how many languages I’ve dreamed in, and I occasionally have dreams where my mind makes up a new language on the fly.
Why, then, would I prefer to read texts in English? In a single word, comprehension. I came to realize at one point that my knowledge of French at its best has been a rough equivalent to a native proficiency, but that I will never speak another language as well as I speak English, not if I am immersed in it for the rest of my life. The proficiency I have in English is something beyond what is normally meant by ‘native’. There is an additional cognitive strain — so I am spending energy trying to interpret the text (in the direct and mundane sense) rather than on interacting with its meaning (in a deeper sense). I’ll understand a good free translation a lot better.
More broadly, proficiency in multiple languages takes mental energy that could be used to other purposes. There are people that can afford that expenditure of mental energy, and there are definite benefits to knowing two or more languages — the ability to compare (“The better you know another world, the better you know your own.” — George Macdonald, Lilith), the ability to communicate with more people, the improved ability to pick up other languages. For all that, there is a consolidated energy that comes of having spent your efforts on learning one language and learning it well — and there are a great many people in the world who do not have the excess mental energy to have spare room to learn extra languages.
Bloom, in the introduction to his translation of Plato’s Republic, argued for making strictly literal translations. The essential argument is that the translator, however great a scholar he may be, must have the humility to realize that the student who reads his text may be a greater mind, capable of deeper understanding. As such, the translator should provide the student with what the words say, rather than confining the student to his interpretation. He proceeded to give several quotations from free translations of the Republic which, in trying to make the text accessible to a contemporary reader, succeeded in producing something accessible, albeit inappropriate as renderings of the text. I forget exactly what they were, but they would be comparable to portraying Martin Luther’s crisis of faith as a postmodern midlife identity crisis.
I do not believe that choosing between literal and free translations is a choice between a flawed and a near perfect rendering model; a student who wants to really understand a text (which is written in a language he cannot read well) should probably peruse several translations, varying in how literally/freely they render the text. And, if I want to know a short text or excerpt well, my rendering of choice will be a heavily footnoted literal translation.
For large-scale reading — for the kind of reading comprehension that can be sustained for numerous pages — there is a different phenomenon. The danger in free translation is that it can confine the reader to the translator’s interpretation. The danger in literal translation is that it can confine the reader to not understanding the text at all. A woodenly literal text, one that’s read for dozens or hundreds of pages, brings a cognitive strain and consumes energy that could be used in thinking about the text. And, for that reason, if I can only choose a single translation, I’ll take my chances with a free translation.
I read a book recently called Please Understand Me. It was a valuable resource to read, but it’s something I’d prefer to give to others with a complimentary grain of salt.
It’s about different personality and temperament types, and one of the central theses is that people have fundamentally different natures, but engage on a Pygmalion project to reshape others into copies of themselves. It is written in such a way that a reader who is persuaded of the legitimate point (that temperaments are not right or wrong, just different, and it is inappropriate to try to change a person to a temperament that he’s not) will (in a similar fashion to the Green Book in C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man) come to the unjustified and illegitimate conclusion that there is not right or wrong in much of anything, and that it is wrong to try to change a person on any score. It never draws this conclusion in so many words, but a transposition of key takes what Lewis said about the Green Book and fits it (quite well) to Please Understand Me.
The book is worth reading, if you can resist the conclusion that the flow of the text pulls you towards.
There is a distinction I have periodically been thinking about: it is a conceptual distinction between a gentleman’s duel and an assassin’s duel.
Both represent a kind of contest between two people, but contests of two different sorts. Don Quixote refers to knightly duels in which both parties were meticulously careful to make all things equal: both swords the same length, both parties standing at equal angles to the sun so that neither one would have the sun in his eyes more than the other. This is an extreme form of the basic idea of the gentleman’s duel. At the other end, there are no rules and no concept of fairness; an assassin might accept another’s challenge, and then arrange to have him shot by archers. Wesley’s battle of wits with Vizzini in The Princess Bride represents the quintessential assassin’s duel.
The two frameworks for a contest, or a test, offer distinct conceptions of how a person’s ability may be measured. I have seen a number of gentleman’s duel IQ tests, for instance; I am not aware of any established tests that operate like assassins’ duels, and the ability to function effectively outside of external structure (the cliche is ‘think outside the box’) is one of the distinctive features of intelligence.
Catholics speak a great deal about the primacy of Peter among Christ’s disciples, but there is also a primacy to John. Peter had a unique place in the nurture of the church (“Feed my sheep,”), but it was John who was closest to Jesus, John the mystic, who had a stunningly brilliant mind and probably understood him best. In a technology corporation, Peter might be compared to the CEO, and John to the prize research scientist.
My apartment is a sparse place, slightly messy and having no television. It is not really decorated; an outer austerity conceals an active life of the mind.
People’s homes can give insight into those who dwell there. My apartment does not exude the same romantic warmth as many other places, but that is because my attention is elsewhere.
I have a different perspective on aging than what I have seen about me. It always makes me slightly sad when I hear my father saying, “We’re getting old,” not because it is false, but because he says it as a confession of weakness. I view aging as getting closer to Heaven, (as described in Hebrews) as approaching the finish line of a great race. My way of holding this belief has a dark side — I sometimes look on life as enduring time so as to be past it and into eternity — but I still think I am better off not to be approaching my thirtieth birthday as when I will become a has-been.
I wrote about two types of welder above. I realized a certain affinity between the apostle Paul and myself, especially as regarded the welder distinction. Paul, as an apostle, skipped from place to place and culture to culture, with a veritable rainbow of activities: planting churches and writing were just the beginning. He certainly travelled more than I have.
Seeing a sort of kindred spirit (even if separated by millenia), and in someone whom I greatly respect, was warming to me.
I have thought that the entrenched numerical scale of IQs are unfortunate. The numbers corresponding to a person’s weight are proportional; one person who weighs 200 pounds has as much body-stuff as two people who weigh 100 pounds each, or four children who weigh 50 pounds each. It is simply not true, in a corresponding sense, that one person with an IQ of 200 has exactly twice as much thinking-stuff as two people with IQs of 100 each. A programmer with an IQ of 150 is quite possibly capable of doing feats that could not be accomplished by any number of programmers with IQ 100. There are not just quantitative differences (for which an exponential scale might be preferable), but qualitative differences as well.
The other critique I have of the concept of IQ is that it equates (for children and adults) higher intelligence with functioning at a more advanced mental age. This is true, in a sense, and brilliant adults grow out of precocious children, but there is an important mental dimension that is well-developed in most children and atrophied in most adults: mental flexibility/openness/creativity/curiosity. Experiments have found gradeschool children to be more creative than professional engineers; it is a rare mind that can enter adulthood without losing childhood creativity. A child with a high IQ, one would hope, is not simply at a cognitive level normally associated with people a few years older; he may be capable of tasks most people cannot complete until a few years older, but he retains the mental flexibility associated with his chronological age — perhaps a younger age. “A more intelligent child mentally functions like an older person” is a good rough take on the matter, but the basic concept of “older [up to mental maturity] = better” has room for further nuance.
The mathematical model used of the four dimensions of the Meyers-Briggs Personality Indicator is one-dimensional: one is introverted to the extent that one is not extraverted. So being more introverted is always at the expense of being less extraverted, and being more extraverted is always at the expense of being more introverted. The structure of the personality test reflects this perspective: each question is a forced choice between two preferences, and each point that a person scores for one preference is a point he didn’t score for the opposite preference.
That seems to me to be acceptable as a rough model, but on further reflection, a two-dimensional variant seems preferable. So, instead of the following scale:
I would suggest something more like the following:
I 10 +
n 9 + A B
t 8 +
r 7 +
o 6 +
v 5 + C
e 4 +
r 3 +
s 2 +
i 1 + D E
o 0 +—+—+—+—+—+—+—+—+—+—+
n 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
On this scale, most people would likely fall somewhere between A (introverted, not extraverted) and E (extraverted, not introverted), but it is also possible to be at D (neither introverted nor extraverted — but not what is meant by ‘X’, namely half-and-half — that is ‘C’), or ‘B’ (both introverted and extraverted, but again not half-and-half).
When I first took the Myers-Briggs, I had difficulty answering the thinking-feeling questions — because I embodied both of the qualities which the test portrays as opposites. I had equal difficulty answering the judging-perceiving questions — but for a different reason: I was not familiar with, and did not identify with, either modus operandi. On a two-dimensional scale such as I drew above, I would be around point B for thinking-feeling, and point D for judging-perceiving.
My office had a Secret Santa gift exchange, and I got one of my co-workers a boxed set of Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. I was warmed to find out that she’d been wanting to get that series for a couple of years.