It has been a while since I journalled. I kept some journals after my Journal of an Awakening, but they disappeared when my previous laptop died. I am not sure this is a bad thing; I don’t think that what I said in them was on par with my Journal of an Awakening, and certainly not stellar. It is not my talent to be able to continue to produce good writing in a genre of my choosing; writing in a new genre has often been easier than writing in one I have practice in. Or, to put it differently, my writings come to me with the genres they will be in, and if I try to force success in a style that has succeeded for me in the past, I may cause the style, but I will not always cause a successful writing.
Now writing is coming to me — or has been coming to me, I haven’t gotten it written down yet, and I fear I may have lost some of it — so it is time for me to get back to journalling, not necessarily on a day by day basis, but when the muse strikes. Tonight will be my first night in my new 1 bedroom apartment, and I will have more time — though I do not know what, or how much, will come to me.
The thing that has brought me back to journalling is as follows:
Last schoolyear, I spoke with a mystic who is a student at Pooh’s Corner (the group of people at Wheaton who meets to read children’s books aloud), and I talked about how I identify with Charles Wallace in Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, and Michael Valentine Smith in Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. I asked him if he knew of any other characters like that. He suggested that I read Steven Lawhead’s Merlin, where Merlin is portrayed as the last of the Druids, a Christian who has grown up with Druid lore, a mystic, and a politically active prophet. I was disappointed — I had been disappointed at his placement of Merlin with Moses and Elijah as political/leader/prophet/mystic types, because the character of Merlin reeks of magic, a reek that has as little to do with Christian mysticism as astrology does with astronomy. I did not mention this to him, because I did not want to enter a fruitless argument (I have had enough of those to last a lifetime), but I was disappointed.
Recently, wanting to read something that would give me insights into medieval culture (and having learned from another friend that Lawhead did historical research before writing), I checked Merlin out at the library, read partway through, and returned it after reading the scene in which Merlin makes the stones fly around in a circle. This was a display of pagan magic, not a Christian miracle, and I read it with a feeling of defilement.
I later waited and picked up the book again, reading it to the end. There were passages that I did not read in good conscience. There were other passages that grabbed me. As I began writing this journal entry, I realized — or, more properly, remembered — something. When I first read Stranger, I hated it — I saw its lewdness, its anti-Christian invective, its introduction of psychic powers in a context that (at least to begin) seemed as out of place, deus ex machina, as anything I could think of — and none of its strengths. I was going to say that I didn’t know if I was going to read Merlin again, but then I reflected on my actions in the past and how my emotions flow, and I realized that I will probably read Merlin again, but not now. God willing, the time of rereading will be when I know in my heart that God has given me the strength to be ready to read it without being troubled by the parts that defiled my conscience — and God has given me the strength to read Stranger — I was not polluted by it, merely angered.
What about Merlin pulls me, that I am writing about it now? I had that more clearly in my mind a few days ago, when I was thinking, walking about at a classic car show with my parents and one of my brothers, but there are three things:
- Ynes Avalach. Ynes Avalach is the island (Ynes) castle of the Fisher King (Avalach), the wounded king who sat on a boat on his island and speared fish. It was the place of Merlin’s childhood, the place where he grew up, and in a world of shifting sands it was steady — even unchanged, a piece of another world.Ynes Avalach resonates with me; it is a symbol of Heaven, and a place that I believe can be found on earth — but that we can never control. C.S. Lewis wrote about this sort of thing in his introduction to The Great Divorce, saying that Heaven is everywhere, but not everywhere is Heaven. I have a great longing for home, a place like Ynes Avalach; the two areas where I most consistently experience it are worship, and in writing and the expectant time when I feel out what I want to write.
- The bard’s awen. The awen is an aroused, mystical state that descends on a bard; Merlin felt it when he was close to the supernatural. Two of the times listed, he was fighting in battle and, suddenly, the world around him seemed to slow down, so that he moved rapidly and lightly amongst the sluggish invaders. Other times, it came around a miracle.The awen is also something that resonates with me. A similar state has descended on me, too, at times. It is not something that I can turn on at will, but walking has often been a precursor to its minor modes in writing.
- When Merlin was with the fhain (the people whom other races called the baen sidhe (fairies)), he spoke of learning “that which men call magic”. I realized (partly after reading the “How to Become a Hacker” document) that I have picked up along the way a number of skills that are in our world something like magic — I thought most specifically of being able to make web pages.
I also realized that many of the things that are supporting me now are things that I picked up along the way in activities I was discouraged from as distractions from my work. I learned how to program when I wrote The Minstrel’s Song — and it has profited me far more than additional effort on coursework would have. My writings on my web page are also things I have been discouraged from doing, and in them I believe I am accomplishing far more of lasting value there than in my job. Life is what happens when you are making other plans.
There was something else nagging at the back of my mind yesterday, that I wanted to remember, but couldn’t. It was the other point that motivated me to want to write in this journal.
On Saturday, my family went out to eat at a nice Italian restaurant. We were all under-dressed and over-smelly from a day’s hard work, and I was unshaven. I needed to go to the restroom in the beginning, and (after I washed my hands) I turned to find a towel dispenser to dry my hands. There was a smiling black man in a tuxedo (sans jacket), holding a roll of paper towel, and standing next to a rack of amenities (I remember seeing small cigars, and other things that looked expensive); he was complimenting me on my “PRAY HARD” T-shirt.
I was only marginally able to keep my composure then; I wouldn’t have been bothered that much by just having someone to hand me paper towel, but having a black man do it… I was not comfortable. It was patently offensive to me. It felt like having a slave. Semiotically, everything about him said, “I am here to smile and adore you, but I am only here to be treated like part of the wallpaper, to be treated like dirt if you are in a bad mood.” He looked like support staff under the mentality that makes jokes like, “Confucius say, ‘Secretary not part of furniture until screwed on desk.'” During dinner, I thought of reading about Gandhi as he was in danger and a rickshaw (a man-pulled cart which aged and wore terribly at its carriers) was offered to him… my feelings were lesser, but they were of the same kind.
After dinner, I needed to go to the bathroom, and it wasn’t until I was almost there that I remembered he was there… I had enough time using the facilities to decide that, if I could not avoid him, I could at least treat him as a peer, not as part of the furniture. So I talked with him, treating him as cordially as he treated me, and he told me that he was a Jew who grew up Baptist, but had never been to a synagogue. He asked me if I was a minister.
I think I missed a witnessing opportunity. The one person I spoke with about it thought I was being too hard on myself — I was tired and in a hurry — but there was an opportunity I missed to speak with someone who had some questions, and who was probably ready to move one step closer to the Kingdom of Light.
I have grown up in an academic context which tells us that witnessing is offensive and evil (at least when done by Christians — when done by environmentalists, it is treated differently). Sometimes it is even necessary to be offensive. But there are also many times when witness is not necessarily offensive, when it is welcome.
I think our equation of witnessing with offensiveness and disrespect for persons should be jettisoned.
I have been thinking recently about the origins of the word ‘obscene’. Ob-scene material is material that takes place off-scene.
As the word has developed, it has come to mean “material which should not be portrayed because it is highly inappropriate to portray.” (The meaning has narrowed further to mean “inappropriate sexual content”. I have not heard any contemporary usage having ‘obscene’ refer to violent content — probably stemming from the same reason as why there are innumerable films rated X due to sexual content, but almost none rated X due to violent content — the mentality that, in the words of one Christianity Today article, “finds massaging a breast to be more offensive than cutting it off.” Dorothy Sayers’ essay “The Other Six Deadly Sins” speaks powerfully to this problem.)
The word ‘obscene’ means “inappropriate content” to us, but placing material off-scene can serve other literary purposes. Done the right way, off-scene presentation can be more powerful than on-scene presentation. In Calvin and Hobbes, there are references to “the noodle incident”, which is never described. Watterson said that he believed it would be better if left to the reader’s imagination. For related but subtly different reasons, I am intentionally not specifying small but significant facets of my second novel — Aed’s academic discipline is never explicitly stated.
Giving just enough hints to fuel the imagination can be a powerful alternative to explicit portrayal.
There is a musing which I had some time ago, and never recorded.
When I was a TA in UIUC’s math department, during orientation, Prof. Weichsel told us, if we had to do something unpopular, to say, “It’s department policy,” and that he would be the complaints department for us, as well as a resource for questions and problems that came up.
I never said that an unpopular decision was department policy, but there was something that struck me about this, a sense of “You are supported in your good faith efforts.” He might suggest a different way of handling a situation if it came up in the future, but he would support us in our efforts.
I believe some of the same beauty is true of God. In terms of dealing with moral dilemmas, I have come to believe that a Christian who listens to the Spirit and makes a good faith effort to do right in a moral dilemma doesn’t have to succeed in guessing the right course of action — even if he makes a mistake in judgment, his action is holy, supported by God. There is a story — first mentioned to me, by the way, in a discussion with a Christian who believes in a just war — about one of Corrie ten Boom’s family, sheltering Jews when a Nazi soldier came and asked, “Are you hiding any Jews?” She told the truth: “Yes. They’re hiding under the table.” The Nazis didn’t believe her. They went on their way.
From the other side, there was a Christian couple, the wife pregnant and grievously ill. The doctors told her, “You cannot live and carry this child. You’re going to have to have an abortion.” After great prayer and deliberation, they decided to have the child removed from their womb and an attempt made to save his life. The child lived, and is a blessing to those who come into contact with him.
If I were asked, I would have advised both to choose differently. (At least a possibility in the first case, with my mind changing over time, and a certainty in the second case. I have heard of hard cases where not having an abortion would have been very difficult. I have not heard of a case where I would have approved of an abortion, and one person I have known was born out of one of those very hard cases.) Perhaps I am right, perhaps I am wrong; I am not raising these cases to stand in judgment over my fellow believers. The reason I am raising these cases is to say that God supported the believers in their choice. This is not an occasion for license to do anything and say “God will support me” — in both cases, people were seeking to do God’s will; it is necessary to seek out a knowledge of the right action through prayer and the Spirit — but it does mean that we are not going to land in trouble because there was a legitimate debate among believers, and we came down on one side of it, and God came down on another. (And — who knows? Maybe the lines of morality fall differently than any human system; maybe God led and specifically wanted Miss ten Boom to tell the truth about whether she was sheltering Jews, and specifically wanted Dietrich Bonhoeffer to try to assassinate Hitler. I don’t know if that is true, but it seems on a surface view to be consistent with how God works.)
Existentialism portrays a picture where we are orphans, who must make any, arbitrary choice because we are abandoned and without guidance. The place I was at for a while, where I believed you had to choose the right thing, believed there was a right choice, but saw us as in a sense abandoned in trying to pick out that choice. It had a ring of existentialism. This is, I believe, removes another layer of existentialism: there is a right choice, but God supports us in our efforts to pursue that choice; we are not abandoned in picking out the right. We are God’s children. We are supported.
After having a rough end of week, I was warmed by one part in particular of a conversation with my friend Heather. She and her boyfriend Josh had independently worked out an idea, which I will briefly summarize here as contrasting a Hellenistic mindset (thinking logically and constructing systems which men can piece together logically — and having difficulty with sets of statements that the thinker cannot reconcile) with a Hebraic mindset (believing that God is sovereign and accepting his sovereignty in a way that is open to paradox — and therefore not needing to fall into e.g. Calvinist/Arminian camps). (Josh wants to do a Ph.D. thesis about this, and Heather wants to write a book together, and Josh wants to have the book wait until the thesis is done — therefore I do not wish to explore details about their idea, which I think is an excellent discovery worthy of development and sharing, at this point.)
When Heather and I were walking, she commented to me that she had realized that talking with me about that idea and about the Hebraic mindset was like talking with a fish about water. I felt very warmed by that comment; it seemed to me a marker of a kind of spiritual success. It seemed to me a sign that I had become steeped in the Scriptures and Christian ways of thought.
There was a classic poster I saw at Wheaton’s Computing Services on how to become a Unix wizard. It had, catechism style, questions of “How many kernels do I have to build?” and “Which books do I have to read?” The last question was, “How can I know when I have become a wizard?” The answer to it was, “Never mind that. Keep on toiling, and some day you will look back and realize the mantle of wizardhood has been on your shoulders since you knew not when.” I had not exactly the same experience; the image describes if anything more than I really experienced, but one of similar poetic resonance; I was down, and a comment like that was a pleasant surprise. Thinking Christianly means a great deal to me, and I believe that comment was a part of God’s ministrations of grace to me that day.
I have been thinking about a distinction for the past couple of days, between what might be termed explicit and implicit, or perhaps strong and weak, awareness. When someone says something that you knew beforehand but didn’t have the words to say, that is a transition from implicit or weak awareness to explicit or strong awareness. When you sense something but can’t quite put your finger on what, that is implicit awareness.
There are at least two levels of explicit awareness, and two levels of implicit awareness (although they are not in parallel — the difference between levels of implicit awareness is not the same kind of thing as the difference between levels of explicit awareness). The second level of explicit awareness is the one hinted at so far — when an implicit awareness is made explicit. There is also a first level of explicit awareness, where there is explicit expression without implicit awareness. This is what you have when you read a book but don’t yet know what it means, when the material has not been digested. The first level of implicit awareness, on the other hand, is what I have hinted at; the second level of implicit awareness lies beyond implicit awareness.
As to what that means — in a certain sense, I don’t see through the Hebraic mindset as Josh articulated it, and I don’t believe in the seven virtues or the seven deadly sins. I believe that all of the seven deadly sins are sins, and that the seven virtues are virtues, and I accept a great deal of what is said about them, but I don’t think in terms of the lists. You might say that I believe the list of the seven deadly sins, and the list of the seven virtues, are structured mnemonics that let people see a deeper structure, and I believe in the deeper structure, but not the superficial list. Or, another way of putting it would be, the lists of seven deadly sins and seven virtues are organizing lines drawn over a map, and I know the terrain and believe that it has structure, but I believe that the lines drawn (for the most part — not, for instance, the lines between land and water) are at least partially mnemonics, and not purely statements about the terrain. Lao Tze began the Tao Te Ching by saying, “The name that can be named is not the ultimate name,” (other translations being possible), and I believe that the deepest levels of awareness are beyond what one can say in words and mental structure. This is not true of God — he can express himself in a Word quite well — but, in the things they know most, such as their cultures, humans are terrible at explanation precisely because they know them too intimately to express them well. TAs are often better teachers than their professors, because they learned the material recently, and are more easily able to recall an explicit form like the way they learned.
Someone can see an explicit awareness instead of seeing through it to a second level implicit awareness. When Heather and Josh presented their thoughts on the Hebraic mindset, I saw the explicit portion — the lines drawn on the map… I think it was an explicit explanation of something I knew implicitly on the second level.
At least that’s a rough sketch; someone who saw my point might not subscribe to a number of particulars. There is a link between the first and second levels of implicit awareness, a continuum perhaps; tighter, at any rate, than between the levels of explicit awareness. Self-consciousness I associate with the second level of explicit awareness; the transition from the first level of implicit awareness to the second level of explicit awareness to the second level of implicit awareness is like the transition from simplicity to complexity to simplicity on the other side of complexity, or (in Unashamed) Abby’s transition from a free lack of self-consciousness to self-consciousness to an ease on the other side of self-consciousness.
At any rate, this insight could be applied to itself, or more properly to my expression of it; I spend a lot of time taking implicit awareness and making it explicit.
It seems a danger of writing that, when you draw lines to illustrate features of the terrain, readers will take the lines and forget the shape of the terrain.
The above distinction might be helpful in refuting the teaching that the real test of whether you understand a matter is whether you can explain it well to a layperson — the implication being that, unless you can do so, you don’t really understand what you’re talking about. One would never tell a sniper that, unless he can convey his skill in five minutes, it doesn’t count that he can hit shell casings from across a football field.
Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Life is worth living, intrinsically because of how God created it, but it bespeaks examination highly that Socrates would say that without it, life is not worth living.
What are the other things that a person could love so much as to say, at least poetically, that without it life is not worth living? I put that imperfectly; I could only honestly say “An unexamined life is not worth living,” if I were speaking poetically, but I believe that Socrates was speaking quite literally when he made that comment; the difference stems partly from different views of what the basic value of human life is.
I should also like to nuance this by mentioning an old distinction between “Good for all people” and “Good for me.” People make an error by going from a realization (true) that something has been highly beneficial to them, to a conclusion (false) that that something would be highly beneficial for everybody. Communion with God is good for anybody, but many spiritual practices are tremendous channels of grace through which God has blessed some people, without being beneficial for everyone. In the list, I will list things which have enough goodness that a poet could say that without it, life is not worth living. Some of these things I will list will be good for all people, and others of them will be good for some people, but not others; I will not distinguish between them.
What are some blessings of which a person who grew in them might say, “Without this, life is not worth living?” I can think of the following:
- Worship/communion with God/glorifying him/enjoying him forever
- The aesthetic: art, music, dance, literature, mathematics…
The list is neither definitive nor complete; it has fuzzy borders, and some parts of it might be contested. Being a good means in some sense being a deep good, and some of these goods have more in them than we commonly think. (The flipside, which I don’t know how to reconcile, is that some goods will deliver more if we do not have massive expectations of them; romance is this way, and C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves talks about how appreciation of nature can work this way: a Romantic-style worshipper of nature will be surprised by the beauty of nature less than will a Christian who goes into his garden merely to pray. I think romance is too inflated in our culture; we are to draw our sustenance from a diversity of goods, and (if not romance) I have tried to draw too much sustenance from lesser goods, like putting too much weight on a weak limb.)
There was something I thought of in a conversation with Heather that I want to record here. It concerns the sovereignty of God and free will.
The Calvinist-Armenian debate attests to the difficulty we have seeing both at the same time. My present insight is not exactly concerned with that question, or at least not primarily and directly concerned with it, but with the question of guidance, free will, and God’s direction for our lives. It concerns how we make decisions. The two major camps on this question are as follows:
- God has a plan for everyone and for every believer’s life. When faced with a decision, believers should make the decision by seeking out the Lord’s will.
- God has given us free will, and wants us to exercise that free will in the decisions we make. When we are faced with a decision between two good courses of action, God wants us to exercise that freedom in our choices.
It is the time-worn philosopher’s trick to say “the two opposing schools are both wrong because of where they both agree: …”, and I was trying to think of a less shopworn way to present where I’m going with this. I won’t exactly say “Both schools are wrong because of where they both agree,” but I am going to say “Both schools appear incomplete because of something they both miss.” I will leave it to the reader’s judgment as to whether I am saying anything different.
What do I think the two camps are missing? When two friends meet, the question of how the meeting will end is not determined a priori. It could be that one of them or the other will have some prior need that says “I have to be somewhere at 3:30,” so that that result is fixed at the beginning, but it will often be the case that the friends decide together how long to meet, and that the end time of their gathering is set by the interaction of the two people, so that the question of “Who will end the time together?” may have no fixed answer ahead of time.
The point where I would challenge both camps is that they both seem to believe that the real outcome of a decision boils down to the decision of one fixed party. Either God’s sovereignty means that we need to agree with God’s one decision in our lives, or our free will means that the decision is ours to make. As an alternative to this, I propose a metaphor of friends meeting: sometimes, God will have a very detailed, specific plan and say “I want you to do this” (Heather pointed out that God is often much more explicit and more likely to use skywriting with young believers), and sometimes, a decision will be left to us, but much of the time, we are invited to partnership, making decisions together with God, in which sovereignty and free will come together, in which seeking out God’s will is mingled with responsible exercise of our own free wills.
One might suggest as a description that, instead of saying that the decision is 100% God’s and 0% yours, or 0% God’s and 100% yours, or even stopping with a compromise that says the decision is 50% God’s and 50% yours, a decision instead that is 100% God’s and 100% yours, or perhaps 80% God’s and 80% yours. God chooses to exercise his sovereignty in a way that respects free will, so that it is possible to submit totally to God (or perhaps I should say, supposing for the sake of argument that we on earth could submit totally to God), and free will still exists and has room to breathe, and that free will, responsibly exercised to its fullest, respects God’s sovereignty. The reason I said 80-80 is that there are times when humility before God demands the sacrifice of things that free will has legitimate claim to, and because some people might argue that God lets go of things he has claim to because of people’s prayer (but I don’t want to discuss here the debate as to whether God ever changes his mind). Beyond that, I believe that the metaphor of friends meeting helps us to see a way in which sovereignty and free will can occupy the same space.
Another concept I’ve been drawing on recently involves some mathematical concepts, concerning what is called a function or a mapping.
A mapping is like a black box, where you put something in and you get something out. An example of a mapping might be the height of a person: for each person, there is a height. On the box analogy, you could put me in the box, and out comes a height of six feet. A telephone directory is an example of another mapping: you put into the box a person’s or company’s name, and out of it you get a phone number.
There are some cases where a mapping is invertible: it runs backwards. A telephone directory represents an invertible function: it is possible to make a reverse telephone directory, where you start with a phone number, and look up a person’s name.
Each function has a domain, of what you can put into the box, and a range of what you can get out of it. The domain of a telephone directory function consists of people and organizations, and the range is telephone numbers. The domain of the height function is the set of people, and the range is the set of heights.
Not all functions are invertible. If a function is not one to one — if more than one input has the same output — then it is ambiguous to say “Give me the thing the function maps to this result,” because more than one thing might map to the result. If someone says, “Give me the height of CJS Hayward,” it is a straightforward thing to measure my height. If, however, someone remembers my height but forgets my name, and says, “Give me the person who is six feet tall,” then there is a problem. There are many people who are six feet tall; if you wanted me and reached out and grabbed the first person you saw who was six feet tall, you would probably not get me. The height function is not invertible.
I was thinking, not exactly of functions, but of a related concept in the connection between thoughts and words. We know that if a thought can be expressed in words, it can probably be expressed in different ways, and that that a given set of words is usually at least slightly ambiguous as to what thoughts will correspond to. However, I am setting these observations aside for the moment, as not relevant to the basic insight, and I would ask the reader to accept (at least for the sake of argument) the assumption that a given wording will produce a single interpretation in the reader’s mind.
What I saw is this: Say that there are two functions: the function mapping ideas to wordings, and the function mapping wordings to ideas. The first function happens when a person has an idea, thinks about how to explain it, and writes it down; the second function happens when a person reads and gets ideas from it. Then these functions are not each other’s inverses, and furthermore there might be no way to express a given idea in such a way that the reader’s interpretation is what the writer intended, or (to put it differently) the most faithful expression of an idea may necessarily give rise in the reader’s mind to something else. The process might go on like this: One person (writer) thinks of a person and writes down his height. Another person (reader) takes the text and picks out the first person he sees who has the height, and thinks, “This is the person who has been written about.” There are many times and places where it works — perhaps a better analogy would be to say that the writer thinks of a person and writes down his first name, and the reader finds calls out the name and talks with the first person to answer. It works quite well, as long as you don’t have two people going by the same name. Get two Robins in the room, however, and things might be more difficult. If my friend David wants to talk about his roommate, he will say ‘Robin’, at which point I will probably think of my best friend (and his friend, too) Robin.
The first time I observed a phenomenon, or a realization, like this, was a couple of years ago. At the time, I believed in a sort of theistic evolution, and I started to write a story about a world, beginning with its creation. I envisioned that world as having been created by a theistic evolutionary process; when I thought about how to effectively describe it, I could only do it in poetry, and for that matter poetry further on a literal reading from a scientific view of the processes than the Genesis accounts are from a picture of evolution. In thinking about an idea — of God creating life through aeons and “chance” and natural forces — the best way I could think of to explain it was one that would have (on a literal level) give rise to something other than what I thought. This gave rise to the following insight:
Imagine two scenarios. In the first scenario, God creates the world in six days, about six thousand years in the past, as literally described in Genesis I. What is the best way to describe it? The text we have now.
In the second scenario, God shapes the world over billions of years through natural forces and a subtle but powerful influence over quantum phenomena — “chance”. What is the best way to describe it, with all of its majesty, glory, and wonder? Well, when I tried to do that in good faith, I came up with a far less literal account than the Genesis account. So probably, something like the text that we have now.
What this means is that the six day creation account is not as informative as it would appear at first glance in our understanding. From one perspective, a direct, naive reading of the text (and, connotations notwithstanding, naivete is often a good thing in reading a text), leads most naturally to a six day creation account, but, with this insight in consideration, the question of “How would you change the text if you were to make it reflect a theistic evolutionary perspective?” meets with an answer of “Not much.”
There is something that wants to keep me from settling there; I think it has something to do with crediting a naive understanding and believing that this philosophy does not give us a privileged understanding of the text. In the same way that I believe it misportrays the text to believe it is fundamentally about the scientific details of origins, I believe it grossly misportrays reading of the text to wield such an insight as a weapon against naive readings — God has hidden things from philosophers and shown them to children who have read a text naively. The person who reads a text naively profits from it far more than a genius with a thousand insights better than mine, who is too sophisticated to open himself to the straightforward meaning a child of ten would learn.
This is somewhat of a tangent; I meant it mainly as an example. The direction I was driving towards was to say that we have something to learn from computer tape drives, which often (after writing some information out) immediately read it back to see if what’s coming back from the tape is the same thing as what is supposed to have been written on it. I came with this basic insight when I was trying to think of how to express an insight I’ve now forgotten, and came to the realization that there was no way (so far as I could tell) for me to explain it so that a natural reading would give another person the thought I had meant to express: every way I could think of to express it, meant something else on a natural reading.
There are two directions in which this can be taken. One is, in communication, to ask “Is this idea expressible in the sense that it is what a person will think of on naively reading my text?” — and, if you go off the beaten path like I do, the answer may well occasionally be ‘no,’ or (what may be hoped) provide an adjustment for your words to let the reader know that you don’t mean the obvious interpretation. The other is, in talking with others, to ask, “What intended meanings, other than the obvious one, could have been meant when so-and-so said X?” Both might cut down on miscommunication.
Yesterday night I went to a square dance, and then hung out with some friends and some new acquaintances. I had some thoughts, the last of which I wish to elaborate here.
I was thinking about a similarity between dance and martial arts, both as kinds of kything, and then… connected. Not intensely, but in a relaxed manner. I was in a newer sense able to be at peace with not being in the bard’s awen — enjoying the ordinary as just the ordinary. I was thinking in part about how, in Kuk Sool, I was comfortable bowing to the instructor and other students, but not to the picture of the Kuk Sa Bo Nim (grandmaster), because bowing is to me an act so close to worship that it is fitting to bestow on a man but not anything lesser. And then —
The major debates are over an issue of substance. The Calvinist-Arminian debate exists not only because the Scriptures reflect a mystery not easily captured in models, but also because the question of how the sovereignty of God relates to free will is a big enough question to hold a debate over. Both sides know it’s important; that’s why there are two sides engaged in the discussion. The question of the relationship of faith and works is another area which is debated because both sides recognize it to be a matter of importance. (On that point, I regard it as beautiful and fitting that The Cost of Discipleship, one of the 20th century’s greatest books about works, was written by the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and that The Ragamuffin Gospel, perhaps a lesser work, but none the less a powerful inspirational classic about grace, was written by the Catholic Brennan Manning.)
Along these lines, I think that the question of whether or not men may be called gods concerns a big enough matter that it is surprising it is not a matter of debate. There is a terrible truth, a deep magic (to borrow a Narnian image) that we are not gods, that it is blasphemy to arrogate to ourselves the title of divinity. There is a more terrible truth, a deeper magic, that we are not only gods but more than gods, and that we shall become greater still than we are now. If you take and compare a weak believer — an alcoholic living on the street, someone who doesn’t go to church because he feels ashamed to be there, but who loves Jesus, whose eyes will tear up if you begin talking with him about Jesus — and compare him with the beings the Norsemen or the Greeks worshipped as God, the failing, weak, marginal believer is to me more majestic and more worthy of worship. In him is the Holy Spirit; in him is submission to the will of God; in him is in a sense something deeper than virtue, important as virtue may be. It is not just the Marines of the Army of God — those glowing saints whom we read about, and think we can never measure up to — who are godlike. It is, in a catholic sense, every man and woman of God, those whose faith is far weaker than ours as well as those whose faith is far stronger, who is a god and (invisibly to eyes this side of Heaven, usually) is wrapped in a glory that paganism never thought to give to its gods and goddesses.
I cannot in good conscience give the Sanskrit greeting Namaste, “I bow to the divine spirit in you.” We are not God, and we fall into trouble to think that we are — and yet the Scriptures contain so many things that I would think blasphemous if they were found in any other source. We are made in the image, likeness, and glory of God. We are invited to be his sons and daughters. We will judge angels. We are invited (Ephesians 6:11-17) to enter spiritual warfare wearing, among other things, the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation — that is, the armor worn by God (Isaiah 59:17). We have been chosen to share in the divine nature.
I believe C.S. Lewis addresses this basic insight in The Weight of Glory, although I haven’t read it recently. Each person is on the way to becoming either a being a godlike creature whom, if you saw now, you would be sorely tempted to worship, or else a horror such as you never encountered in your worst nightmares. Lewis wasn’t sure whether a person should think as much as possible about his own glory, but it can scarcely hurt to think as much as possible about his neighbor’s glory.
Worship is the supreme love reserved to God alone, but man as the image of God may be given a second love that is the image of worship.
This area is addressed more fully in A Dream of Light.
It often happens that people’s beliefs concerning a question can be placed along a continuum. One example of this may be the question of who may legitimately be addressed as “Father,” in light of Jesus’ words about “Call no one on earth your father” etc. People wishing to persuade you to shift in their direction may point out an extreme position in the opposite direction as a means of softening you up to slide away from that extreme — such as when a Catholic, after talking about hyperbole, asks what you are going to call your literal father. After reacting to the extreme pointed out — and realizing that you do legitimately call your earthly father ‘Father’ — the natural tendency is to slide a couple of notches closer to the position being advocated, namely “It is OK to address ecclesiastical authorities as ‘Father’.” That is a temptation to be resisted. It is in some sense true that “no one on earth” does not refer to one’s earthly father, but even hyperbole is a means of emphasizing something important — and it is difficult to me at least to believe that the obvious exceptions to “no one on earth” include all pastors. The context speaks directly about what ecclesiastical authorities may be called — if ecclesiastical authorities are included among obvious exceptions, it is hard to tell exactly what the point of saying that was. Perhaps Jesus was exaggerating, but what important point was he exaggerating, if the exceptions include the most direct and obvious point of application?
Reacting an extreme position is often a stepping stone to an unnecessary shift. Reacting the position of “Do not even call your earthly father ‘Father'” softens people up to say “I guess Jesus didn’t really mean absolutely no one when he said ‘Call no one on earth your father’,” and mean by it, “When Jesus said ‘Call no one on earth your father,’ he wasn’t referring to ecclesiastical authorities.”
The story of the boy who cried wolf has something to do with warnings and legal contracts.
Implicit in a warning message is a claim of “This message says something important and non-obvious about a real danger to sensible use.” After reading a certain number of warnings and finding them superfluous, people’s trust has been violated. They don’t believe warnings are worth reading. And they aren’t — usually.
An analogous, but related principle seems to apply in legal contracts. When you have to agree to a license agreement to download free software, and there are several pages of legalese — like the warning, the contract has lost fair claim to be read by the person signing it.
“A cheap car is rare. That which is rare is expensive. A cheap car is expensive.” There are limitations on what can be done by taking reasonable-sounding propositions and working from them logically. The proposition can be basically true — and lead, through a logical argument, to a false conclusion. (I know of at least one person who does not engage in philosophical speculation because of this.) This is not always true — there are cases where logical development from given statements can bring forth highly accurate contents — but care must be taken in logical development from approximate wordings. Sometimes it is hard to tell when words mean something approximately, and when they mean something exactly. In exegesis, I wonder if at least some of our debates stem from reading as exact words which were meant to be read approximately — perhaps partially because it is easy to equate taking a text seriously with reading it exactly — and so we go to as approximate of a reading as we need to to satify some texts, but have debates because we can only give certain other texts a literal reading.
On the note of exegesis, I wish to also record that it is bad practice to take some convenient set of Bible verses, those whose literal construal leads most easily to your position, and magnify them along the lines that lead to your position, and then explain away those verses which are problematic to your interpretation. God inspired and meant one as much as another; it is better to say, “I don’t understand how it all fits together,” or “Such-and-such is as much sense as I can make out of it,” than to magnify some verses and raze others. There is a certain bad odor — of contrived explanations, of explaining things away — that is free of logical contradiction, but which signals the presence of bad exegesis. It’s kind of like an announcement of a stunning new discovery that shatters old theological dogmas (as in the beginning of Jesus de Montreal) — even before logical eyes can see exactly what is wrong here, an experienced nose can smell that something is awry.
The past few days have been a fertile time for musings. I can’t remember everything that I thought, but there is one that I have been thinking about that I do wish to write down.
The best way I see to introduce it is by asking if TCKs (third culture kids — to oversimplify, people who have grown up with substantial exposure to multiple cultures, where their parents’ culture was different from the culture of the surrounding people) have a culture, and giving a provocative answer of “No, at least not in the sense that most of the world’s people have a culture.” The world’s majority, people who have one culture, have a space for culture, and TCKs also have that space, and also have something in that space, but that something is not a culture.
I’m hesitant to give a definition of culture, because definitions are finite and tend to take a life of their own, but one facet of culture is that it is something shared by a community, and shaped by that community, rising out of it. There is something that TCKs share, even a TCK community of sorts, but TCKs did not come to what they had by being immersed in it as a culture when they grew up. What they have in place of a culture may draw on two or more cultures, but it is not itself a culture.
I was trying to think of what to call this genus of which culture is a species, these things that can occupy the space which is in most people occupied by a culture, and I came across a couple of terms which are conceptually related but not identical to it: worldview and personality, as well as metaculture (a concept which I do not wish to describe in detail here, beyond saying that where a person in culture fits into and naturally breathes a culture, a person in metaculture is able to shift and move between cultures, and does not occupy a culture in the same way — is never in a culture so completely as to not see how else it could be), are related, but not the same. Without having a name, I would like to summarize the concept by saying that culture is a species of the genus of things which occupy the space normally occupied by culture.
Being a TCK can provide a person with something else in the place of a culture; so can exceptional intelligence, and possibly some of mental illness/neurological disorders. I think there are other kinds of differences capable of causing this as well; mental illness is relatively well-documented as a kind of difference that has a significant darkside; differences that do not have significant darksides would not seem to draw the same exploration as differences that cause significant problems for the people that bear them. What I realized is that I have something else in the place of a culture. I thought about writing a document about what that something else is, but am waiting on that for now, until some intuitions are more clear.
One question which may be useful as a rule of thumb for whether a person has a culture or something else in that place is, “When he changes something in the culture, does he change from within or change from without?” in a sense related to the distinction introduced by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. There is a difference between the person who uses materials inside the box to fumblingly try to think outside the box, and the person who uses materials outside the box to fumblingly try to think inside the box.
One logician I’ve read was arguing for game theoretical semantics, where a statement under examination is considered to represent a game, and one player is the Verifier, and the other is the Falsifier. The statement is considered to be true if the Verifier has a winning strategy, and False if the Falsifier has a winning strategy. It is possible for a game not to have a winning strategy on either side, and the logician argued from this that there may therefore be statements which are neither true nor false. (This struck me as an example of bad logic — you have a terrain and a standard map, and you suggest using another map, and point out that the second map has a property which the first map did not, concluding that the terrain might have the property indicated on the second map.) If one pursued those lines, though, the definition of a game can be loosened so that a game can at least potentially be won by both parties. This would correspond to games which (in some instances) could have a winning strategy for both Verifier and Falsifier, and statements which were neither true nor false. “This statement is false” could be the canonical simple example of a game which had neither a winning strategy for Verifier nor a winning strategy for Falsifier (a statement which is neither true nor false), and “This statement is true” the example of a statement which has winning strategies for both Verifier and Falsifier (a statement which is both true and false).
Christianity is a broad thing; individual believers may own the whole, but they live in a niche. Celibacy and married life both belong to all believers, but a believer will inhabit only one of those possibilities. This phenomenon (another instance is different spiritual gifts — no gift is common to all believers) is a part of what is meant by catholicity — the whole faith is to be believed by all believers, even though not every detail will come to play in every believer’s life. It is like a culture — it takes a village to transmit a culture, because a culture belongs to all its members, but it is larger than any single member’s role in it.
Fiction, I believe, can be true or false, even though we do not speak of it much in that way. For a work of fiction to be true does not mean that the events literally happened, but… Fiction presents a world-view, and says that things happen a certain way. The truth or falsity of fiction is not measured by the literal truth or falsity of what is seen, but the effects it has on the way people see. Action-adventure movies present life as cheap and of little consequence; killing someone is not only permissible, but not that big of a deal and without serious consequences. In so far as that is true, that fiction is false, and it is as false as a report that cigarettes are not addictive and do not pose any serious health threats. Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is a curious and powerful mix of truth and falsehood; it is a classic because it is powerfully true in certain ways — the psyche of Michael, especially at the beginning, and the interaction of cultures; perhaps also certain areas of law — but it also lies: the limitless perfectibility of man, a benign nature to promiscuity, a certain arbitrary reshapability to human culture are among its falsehoods.
It is also possible, in this sense, to have false statements that are literally true. The stories told by the Un-man(?) in C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra to the unfallen, Perelandrian Eve are false even if they are literally true. More to the point, Clinton’s electoral stories, television newscasting, or kneejerk conservative tales of welfare abuse are all falsehoods expressed in a way that is literally true. These tales are not only tales of “these details happened”, but “this is the way the world works.” On the welfare score, the tales of abuse are never tales of just “This abuse happened at this time.” The meaning of the tales extends much farther, to “This is how things work. The welfare system is a corrupt system the nature of which is to be taken advantage of by parasites who constitute a massive financial drain on hardworking, honest, overtaxed America, and it is in need of a massive overhaul and massive cutbacks.” That is not true.
There are a number of arguments in principle that are to be made for pacifism, which I will not mention here. I would like to mention one lesser, prudential, argument before I forget.
If you ask two Christian thinkers — one who believes in a just war, the other of whom is a pacifist — what they believe concerning violence and problem solving, the difference between the answers given is never going to be that the pacifist believes in constructive problem solving and the just war believer believes in killing people to solve problems. The difference will rather be something far closer and more subtle: both believe that man is the image of God, that human life is of infinite value, and that people should learn to solve conflict in ways to avoid violence. The difference is that the pacifist believes violence is never acceptable, where the just war believer, who would much rather die than be killed, accepts violence as a last resort when all else has failed, and the probable destruction caused by acting in violence is less than the probable destruction caused by any other route. So the difference is not a difference of whether violence or constructive problem solving is better, only a very small difference (among people who agree on the desirability of peaceable living) of what will be done in the last resort after every effort at a peaceable solution has failed.
What I would like to submit is that this picture is distorted. It fairly accurately captures the difference in what people say, but not the difference in what people do. Both the pacifist and the just war believer say that they believe in attempting a peaceful solution in a potentially violent situation, and that peaceful conflict resolution is vastly preferable to violence, but only the pacifist normally makes any serious effort to understand nonviolent solutions that can prevent violence. In my own experience, only pacifist churches and meetings have given any instruction in how to handle a problem solution so as to prevent violence; when I gave a speech at Wheaton on peace making, not one of the members of the audience believed in a just war. Or, to put it differently, in the whole student body at Wheaton, not one of the just war majority thought it worth an evening’s effort to attend a speech on peace making. Or, again, those who cared about peaceful resolution to conflicts consisted exclusively of pacifists, even in a student body where the vast majority believed in a just war.
In the stated just war position, the major thesis of the position is that human life is of infinite value, and that Christians should make dedicated efforts towards the peaceful resolution of problems. It is a minor clause that says that violence may be used as a last resort. I would like to submit that the pacifist keeps more of this position, more faithfully, than does the person who holds a just war position. That is to say, the pacifist not only lives up to the pacifist standards better than the one who believes in a just war; he also lives up to the just war standards better.
Sun Tzu, in The Art of War, told the general to cut off all hope of retreat from the troops, so that they are cornered and will either win a battle or die. At first this struck me as very strange: doing so limits options and prevents the troops from fighting another day if they lose. Now, though, I understand that it was a profound psychological insight that put those words in such a timeless classic on military strategy: the troops will fight to the death if cornered; they can’t fight that hard if there is a way of retreat.
On a naive model, the question of pacifism vs. just war is a question that has the same answer for most situations, differing only in that (in a small fraction of situations) the pacifist will either not act or else interpose himself in harm’s way, and the just war believer will use force. But the difference is not confined to those situations. There is also the difference that the pacifist is cornered and fights to the death in situations where the just war believer, fighting as hard as he can while still preserving a way out, doesn’t — can’t — try as hard as the cornered pacifist. And so the body count, if you will, from the two situations, cannot stop after taking into consideration the situation where the pacifist refuses to kill a murderer, resulting in his own death and that of the person the murderer set out to kill; it must also take into consideration the situation where the pacifist averted bloodshed by applying training that the just war believer did not take the effort to find out. If this is so, then even if there are some cases where use of violence will save more lives than it kills, it is still quite possible that overall allowing the option of violence kills more lives than it saves.
This ties in to a question in computer science concerning the use of goto statements, an area where I am trying to think of a nontechnical example, and finding nothing as good.
A goto statement is a part of a computer program that tells the computer to go from one part to another (go to, goto). When I was in gradeschool, I thought goto statements were the best thing since sliced bread. But it’s not. One classic computer science paper argued that the free-ranging functionality of the goto statement should be replaced with conditional statements (if A is true, then do B, else do C) and loops (while D is true, do E). This kind of discipline does wonders to control certain kinds of hidden nightmares, and all serious contemporary programming I’m aware of uses conditional statements and loops instead of gotos for the bedrock of computer programming.
The question arises, “Should programming languages allow goto statements, or not?” The reason the question is not closed is that, every once in a blue moon, a goto is out-and-out the best way to solve a problem. A good programmer never uses gotos as a first approach, and bad programmers will only use gotos in ways that are inappropriate, but once in a blue moon, a situation comes up where a goto will solve the problem better than conditionals and loops. So there is a case for allowing gotos. But many languages have chosen to leave goto statements out of the language’s functionality — not because a goto statement is never justified, but because if a goto statement is in a language, programmers will use gotos in cases which hurt program quality. So, in isolated cases, it is uncontested that goto statements are sometimes justified, but overall, it is deemed better to rule out all goto statements, including the ones that are justified, than deal with the effects on the programmer and through programming of leaving the statements in the language.
This question has implications for moral reasoning.
I would not place this argument as my primary argument for pacifism, but I would place it as something to think about — and, perhaps, as an occasion for people who believe in a just war to decide what they believe (not “Is violence ever justified?” but “Is violence undesirable enough that it is worth making a serious investigation into how one can prevent it?”), and live up to what I hope a just war position should be.
The concepts of classical and romantic, discussed in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (a second rate treatment of first rate issues), was something I originally thought of as “classical is concerned with what is below the surface, while romantic is concerned with the surface,” but I wish to revise that. Classical and romantic are both concerned with something behind and beneath the surface, but in different ways.
There is a distinction I have thought of between a logical and a practical conclusion. A logical conclusion answers the question, “What comes forth from this idea if a logician takes it and analyzes its implications?” A practical conclusion answers the question, “What comes forth from this idea if a group of people believe this idea and live with it for some time?” The two are related, but different. Sometimes there are things in a practical conclusion that wouldn’t be immediately evident to a logician.
My above musing about a prudential case for pacifism could be portrayed as teasing out of differences between the practical conclusions of just war and pacifist teachings.
There are at least two ways that a human environment can be hostile — actively and passively.
An actively hostile environment is one in which people are consciously and intentionally hostile to a person or another group of persons. I would take South African apartheid as a paradigm example of this. A passively hostile environment does not necessarily have active hostility, but there are elements in the environment which none the less make it a hostile place. I would take handicap-inaccessible architecture as the paradigm example here.
Active hostility is what is usually thought of in reference to a hostile environment, discrimination, etc. The two other examples I can think of of passive hostility are right-handed technology, and many of the things that make giftedness a burden — an educational system that breaks at both ends of the spectrum.
When I wrote the above material about truth, falsity, and fiction, there was something I realized was not quite on the head. Today I put my finger on it.
Madeleine l’Engle is reported to have said that if an author does not respect his characters’ free will, then the story becomes a false story. This, as well as embodiment of a false world view (perhaps moreso), is how a story can be false. Deus ex machina, at least in its bad sense, is a kind of falsity in storytelling.
A large part of the indictment of utilitarian Christian art in Franky Schaeffer’s Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts is that it is false art and literature. It brings to mind one interchange I read in a Christian magazine, about the relative merits of Christian and popular music. The argument one person put forth for listening to secular music was that it was better music than the Christian music, and the rebuttal was based on the fact that the Christian music had Christian lyrics. That is to say, the rebuttal to an indictment of musical inferiority was to not argue for the music’s quality, or even see it as an issue — the music was only a sugar coating for a doctrinal content of the lyrics. That is a defense and rationale for false music.
Much of the best art and literature stems from efforts at persuasion; the Aeneid and the Divine Comedy were both written by poets who wished to prove their languages weren’t inferior. The best art is rarely purely for art’s sake — but neither is it purely instrumental. Perhaps it comes from the interaction of trying to make good art and trying to serve another purpose. And perhaps the NEA-sponsored exhibits, which are often accused of making a virtue of incomprehensibility, does terrible “art for art’s sake”, falling into errors that are not possible for someone trying to persuade. But the major error in most of what I have seen is false art that violates the integrity of the artwork in order to do something useful. It kills the goose of art to get all the golden eggs of persuasion — and then bewails the fact that the goose no longer produces golden eggs. It can’t. It was killed by its creator.
Bill Watterson’s story of refusing to commercialize his comic strip, in a way that he regards as selling out his own creation (recounted, I think, in The Calvin and Hobbes 10th Anniversary Special), shows an artist’s difficult endeavor to retain the truth of his creation.
There was a connection which I made recently…
I have problems owning American culture. My heart is in a sense in Europe; partly in a romantic impression, but also and more substantially in a classical look at (especially) philosophy and other aspects of culture (friendship would probably be another).
What I realized, or remembered, was that I once had difficulty owning Western culture at all. I held some interest in Eastern thought, and resonances between Eastern and Christian thought. Part of this was rebellion, pride, wanting to be different and better than other people. But only part. Another part was recognition of the wreckage of the past 500 years of Western philosophical history — I still think the past 500 years of “progress” are mostly something that would best be erased, done over, and that even though Eastern philosophy (pagan virgin) does not measure up to Christian (married) philosophy, it provides a vastly better starting point, and even working medium, than most of contemporary Western philosophy (apostate divorcée). Another part of my difficulties in identifying with the West was that I had some awareness, albeit an unwitting, unconscious awareness that hit the very large nail not quite on the head, of how different I was from other people. I didn’t connect it with intelligence, and I did not have the clarity to put my thinking as “I am a Westerner who is more different from most Westerners than most Easterners are;” I thought of myself as non-Western in a way that roughly meant Eastern (and came to a deep understanding of one Eastern philosophy).
The second part of the realization is that I have, by whatever means, come to be at home with being a part of the West. Not like everybody else — not by a long shot — but distinctively Western. I have not, within the West, settled down to accepting being an American yet, in the sense that it naturally flows from me, but I am able to accept, with pleasure, being Western. And I had a breaking point at a square dance when I was able to look and realize that I was enjoying a distinctively American cultural beauty.
Exactly where in the geographical-historical map of the actual West my heart is, is still a little hard to say. In the West, but not at any literal place of it. Somewhere in Europe, probably France, spread out across a few centuries, with a touch of fantasy. I am using the term ‘fantasy’ in a poor metaphor because I do not see any better way to explain it, but it calls for some explanation. I do not mean the medieval-impression-plus-magic that is commonly meant by fantasy, nor the psychological sense of an escape into unreality. Rather I mean an “impression” (I mean something like what this word means, only deep rather than shallow), both classical and romantic in character (but more fundamentally classical), of a culture and a world that could be real but does not happen to be. The culture that most readily comes to mind is that of Blajeny in Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wind in the Door.
A certain element of this does not need to change. There are elements of American culture that I do not think I ever need to embody, and others that I may learn to play as a social game (I identify with the youngest star in Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. She tried to appear human — an eccentric old woman, outside on a terribly stormy night — and quite nearly botched it; the shawl and eating and making sheets look like ghosts was not who she was, was a game she played that did not begin to give even a glimpse of who she really was. This is a picture of an angel-like being in one sense, but in another sense is a revelation of a real, flesh-and-blood human being out of a human’s experience; it is a description not only of angels but of men). There are also a number of elements of American culture that I need to love and own.
There are a couple of things that have happened lately that I am taking as exciting indications that I am beginning to own American culture, and have the discipline to love it even when I do not like it.
Halloween is, or at least can be, a revelatory holiday.
By this I mean that it is a holiday that provides a social context for people to reveal themselves to other people in ways that would not normally occur in the usual course of interactions. For many people it’s not — the costume doesn’t say anything — but for me at least it is. My costumes say something about me.
Christmas is also, in a different way, a revelatory holiday. It is not just a revelatory holiday (such a thought makes me shudder), but it is such. Giving a gift is an act of communication; the gift says something about the person who it is given to, but also about the giver.
What other revelatory holidays could be imagined?
I could see a favorite books day, where people read a passage from their favorite books.
Something to draw on the theme of icebreakers at parties. Icebreakers are embarrassing and humiliating; every one I have examined since I made this basic observation crosses some social boundary and make people uncomfortable. I believe this is for a specific reason; pushing people across an internal boundary disinhibits them and opens the door to getting to know the other people. It takes a jolt to break the ice.
Persona day. People do not dress up in costumes, but (in normal wear) role play other people.
Prohibition day. Some common and basic activity or faculty is verboten for the course of the day. The Church does this with fasts and Lord’s day rest. I believe there are prohibitions which would force people to operate differently, but I can’t think of any (new ones) off the top of my head.
Baudelaire, in La Morale du Joujou, talks about how, in children’s play and religious artwork, the toy/art represents a reality, which it suggests but does not fully portray. When a little boy takes a small object (perhaps a spool of thread) and moves it about, making sounds, and pretends it is a spaceship, there is no need for a perfectly shaped model of what appears to be a spaceship — and, Baudelaire argues, it is better that way. It is better to have an incomplete portrayal, in which the imperfect vehicle is taken over by imagination to become what it represents, than a perfect and complete portrayal which leaves nothing left for the imagination to do.
In America, unlike many other countries, puppetry is allowed as a children’s art form but not taken seriously as a medium for adults — our loss. Some puppetry (euphemistically called ‘animatronics’ by people who do not want their use of puppetry to be known) is used in movies, albeit puppetry that has so much technical sophistication that it succeeds in appearing to be something else; we do not have puppets that appear as puppets. This is in contrast to the shadow puppet theatre of Malaysia, to take an instance off the top of my head, where there are beautiful but stylized puppets: they are meant to evoke, but not be mistaken for the real thing. Perhaps related to this, all the non-cartoon movies and television I’ve seen present as close an approximation to (a romantic impression of) a photorealistic image of what happens. There is no case where, as in child’s play, people look at an inverted garbage can and agree to make believe it’s a robot. When I watched The Matrix, after not having seen any movies in a while, I was distracted by the romantic impression; at times I had difficulty seeing through it to the characters and concepts. (This isn’t because the movie was ineffective within its genre; it’s because I had begun to lose touch with the medium, but I think there is something in my having lost touch.)
I think it would be an interesting matter to see a good movie in which there was enough to evoke images in the viewer’s minds, but not the complete substitute for imagination in detail — a shooting of a plainclothes rehearsal on an empty set. What would the experience be like?
I think that there is probably a link (both from the same source, possibly) between the fact that puppets that look like puppets are accepted by children but not adults (a sign, not of maturity, but of loss of imagination), and the fact that movies do not call on the viewer’s imagination. I know that television is criticized for rotting the imagination, but what if there was television that just showed actors on empty sets, with very crude props that suggested the objects they were to refer to? It wouldn’t be watched (see Mander’s argument for why television needs technical events and artificial unusuality in order to hold people in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television), but it’s an interesting concept. Perhaps it would be interesting to go to pre-dress rehearsals of plays.
On a related but distinct note — all movies I can recall seeing operate on a romantic rather than a classical plane, and attempting to interact with a movie on classical grounds (thinking about the science and technology is one of a number of examples) yields frustration. The science in science fiction movies is meant to be awe inspiring and impressive — not (in my experience) for people to try to understand. It would be interesting to see a classical movie — perhaps a classical movie that just had suggestive sets, costume, and props.
The image I used in A Dream of Light for the curse of Babel was a rainbow being shattered and its pieces being scattered across the sky to become stars. There was a fragmentation and a diminution of language.
I do not think that the New Jerusalem will see an exact reversal of what happened at Babel. I don’t think the diversity in languages will be reversed, even to restore the language of the Dawn of Creation. I believe that we will have something deeper — even more than in Eden an instrument of communion and not just communication — something that does not have to pass through the pipe of the senses. And I believe that the diversity of human languages, past, present, and future, will be preserved in that fusion. The observation is made of idiolects, that different people will use language in different ways; different idiolects can still be part of the same language in which people understand each other when speaking. In Heaven, I believe I will speak in a way influenced, foreshadowed by, the languages I have worked with here (with various degrees of proficiency — I speak two languages well, and have dabbled in others), and a way that others will understand.
I wrote about fantasy above. I wish to — not quite explain that theme more (I am having difficulty thinking about it clearly enough to say anything significant) — but talk about related material.
Fantasy is in our minds associated with another era; this is not because people invented a forgotten world, a faroff age and invested it with magic, but because people living in a then-contemporary world saw magic operating on their world. The fantastic element was not conceived to be fixed to their time, and the profession of woodcutter in fairy tales was originally as contemporary and as ordinary as a mechanic in our world. This is why, when C.S. Lewis wrote fairy tales for grown-ups (That Hideous Strength), he did not give people occupations from yesteryear; he set them in the contemporary world. The same is true of Madeleine l’Engle’s Time quartet. The fact that ‘fantasy’ means ‘pseudo-medieval’ is in some sense a matter of historical accident.
When writing A Cord of Seven Strands, or more properly when thinking before writing it, I was thinking over the question of whether not to write fantasy. I was sure of a contemporary setting, and I did not want magic in the story. What I was debating was a cultural and geographical bifurcation, something that would feel like our world but be different.
It was a related but different sense of ‘fantasy’ that I meant above. When I am trying to express something, I sometimes see a visual symbol before I can think of words; the visual symbol I saw was two along rays at a very acute angle. Both rays come from the same source. One ray ray represents the way things actually happened, the real world. The other represents the fantasy: it is nearly the same in orientation, but it is displaced, and the further you go, the further apart they are. Something similar may be said for Australian, English Canadian, British, and U.S. culture. They are all bifurcated (albeit interacting) lines from the same source, in a sense almost parallel. Complementary to the usual intuition of Britain being on its historical path and the colonies branching off or doing the same thing, it may also be said that these four countries represent alternate historical and cultural developments of the British culture that existed several centuries ago. To someone with a historical sense who had grown up in one of these four contemporary cultures and been transported to another, each provides an answer of “This is how it might have been but is not.” The direction of the angle I see is different — not a “This is how it might have been but is not” of historical and cultural development, but of the different feel brought with intelligence, the part of intelligence that is not connoted or implied by the popular understanding of the word ‘smart’. That isn’t quite it, or perhaps you could say that that is one facet but not all; at any rate, it is the only one I know how to concretely describe.
I was thinking about the direction of Madeleine l’Engle’s fantasy — breaking off from our world (though she would not view it that way) in the direction of (some) non-human characters, of kything and under-hearing. I regard it a valuable question to ask how my fantasy would break off. A part of it is in the direction of pseudo-fantasy, material that reads like fantasy while consisting exclusively of events I could believe happened. Other parts I can’t describe.
Recently I found out that a person whom I have been talking with (I won’t mention his name) was looking at an area of thought in a way that was fundamentally distorted (I won’t give the details on that, either). What I regard as significant is that my reply to him was emotional, only partially logically coherent, and probably not nearly as persuasive as most of what I write.
I was thinking about this, in large part because I was disturbed that I hadn’t given him a better answer, a better explanation — I was aware that I was explaining things badly as I wrote, but I couldn’t do better. It wasn’t because this was an obscure question that I knew little about; anything but. The reflection I had coming out of this was analogous to aesthetic distance: if an issue is too far out, then you do not know it well enough to talk about it effectively, then as it moves closer you can start to talk about it, but if it comes too close, then the lack of distance prevents effective discussion. These are some of the things you know best, but you can’t start talking about them.
If this is true, this may mean that on the handful of issues that a thinker becomes emotional and incoherent in argument, the incoherence is not because he doesn’t know what he is talking about, but because he knows it so intimately that he cannot discuss it effectively — it is when he is least persuasive that he may be voicing something far more important to him than what lets him be carried away on the wings of eloquence.
10/14/00 and subsequent days
There is a classic Reader’s Digest in which a married couple, building their dream house, tells their decorator that they want an authentic early American bathroom. The decorator hesitates, and says, “Ok. Exactly how far away from the house do you want it to be?”
It has occurred to me in thinking about that joke that I have been ungrateful to my own era. Perhaps I am in an era that doesn’t really have a place for me, but the Middle Ages wouldn’t necessarily have had a place for me either, even if my metacultural perspective is spiritually closer to medieval than modern or postmodern. So I would like to list twenty things about my historical-cultural perspective that I appreciate — partly out of discipline and contrition, but also to draw others (especially those who feel the legitimate pull of metaculture and the recognition that other historical-cultural milieux have legitimate and probably richer spiritual climates, who see in modern progress an illusion and are appalled by the literal and figurative 20th century body count) to an appreciation of the good things our climate uniquely holds. This is a bit like the 100 ways of kything in that I don’t know at the outset what all the entries are:
Things I like about my historical-cultural placement:
- Medical technology. I do not approve of worshipping technology, but it is not worship to note that medical technology has saved my life more than once, and that if I had lived in another era, then (barring supernatural healing) the bone infection I had in my ankle in eighth grade would have killed me, and I wouldn’t have produced any of my writings. In a significant sense, my writings are a ministry; the question is not whether I would have produced my writings, diminished, in the theological crampedness of my age, or produced them on the strength of a stronger age; the choice is between my struggling, fighting uphill, swimming upstream to think clearly and produce my writings (perhaps even doing a better job because I could not simply go with the flow), and being dead before I could mature enough to produce any of them.
- The internet. In previous technological environments (hand copying and then print), the expense and scarcity of writing materials meant that you had, to share writings, to convince someone with scarce resources that your writing was worth the allocation of scarce resources — and, even now, getting a book printed is more a matter of salesmanship than of writing. (And I am not an expert salesman.) The internet is the first means in history where a person like me can concentrate almost wholly on the quality of his writings and then, almost effortlessly, without any jumping through hoops, make them available worldwide. There is a kind of sharing and connection, community, made possible by the internet that wasn’t possible before. Many great writers of the past were discovered posthumously, by accident. The internet provides a place where writing is far less restricted.
- IMSA. The Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, the magnet school where I went to high school, is a world unto itself. Culturally, and in the way people think, it is one of a few homes to me; the last time I visited campus, there was a shared bond and a rate of connection that affected me as one of those moments that leave you wondering how you could have gotten used to its absence. IMSA has its many flaws, but even with them — it is on the strength of notesfile discussions at IMSA that I learned to write, and if I was able to later read the Bible repeatedly and perform a mental housecleaning to expunge myself of worldview/teachings from IMSA (i.e. the premise that math and science will solve our world’s problems), even that mental housecleaning used discipline acquired at IMSA. But IMSA is not to me just the place where I learned to think; it is a place where I met kindred spirits, and (even in its flaws) an Ynes Avalach to me, more of an alma mater than any of the four colleges and universities I attended. I am grateful to my era, and to the state of Illinois and its taxpayers, for letting me have that opportunity.
- Computers. Computers do not need to be an object of worship or another enhancement to corporate abilities to generate wealth. They can also be seen as a triumph of human culture, and an opportunity for interaction unlike anything any previous aeon has seen. Where else can you interact with a being that can do arithmetic and logic flawlessly but has no intelligence, not even common sense? There is something in interacting with something logical to show you that you are not logical; programming computers provides a new facet to a thinking man’s self-understanding.
- Religious volunteerism. The idea that one belongs to a given religious affiliation because he chooses to belong is, historically speaking, far from universal. There are imperfections — religion as a private choice, religion as something tamed — but they are imperfections in carrying out a great thing.
- The concept of tolerance. Most readers will know of hypocrisies and imperfections in how this is carried out, the equation of “racist = white”, and the problems that have been caused in the name of diversity. I would recall the words, “Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue,” and say that the respect for personhood embodied in diversity concerns is a great thing.
- Breadth/specialization/academia/diversity. In terms of level of specialization, the present world has quite a few niches that wouldn’t exist in most other societies. (This is a mixed blessing, but a blessing.) My choice of professions is better now than in most historical-cultural contexts; in a small village, the selection of available professions (even without any cultural restrictions) would probably not have allowed me anything as thought-oriented as I have now.
- The value given to an individual life. One person’s life is held to be of tremendous value — not just VIPs, but everyone. This is far from a cultural universal.
- Creature comforts and good thinking environments. Creature comforts and a special place have a great influence on how well a person is able to perform abstract thought; creature comforts are nice in themselves, but they also allow people to ignore the absence of discomfort and sink into thought.
- A native language that is lingua franca throughout the world. This is something very few people in world history have enjoyed. There are any number of arguments that have been made about the dark side of American English steamrolling through half the world’s linguistic bases, and I don’t mean to make light of that — but to speak the language as your native tongue, and never need to learn another, is a rare privilege.
- Cheap books. Before the printing press, books were hard to come by; a library of sixty books was quite respectable in the Middle Ages. Books have since then become cheaper and easier to make, which means not only that books are easier to acquire, but that a broader selection of material is liable to be printed. True, much of this material is trash, but there is also material that is not trash.
- Roads and Other Transportation. Roads take a heavy and non-obvious toll; the Amish do not drive cars because it is their considered judgment that the use of cars tends to degrade the community. That stated, roads provide access to people, more diverse acquaintances than one would have in a small village. I consider my job options to be much better than if I had to choose from positions I could walk to — in which case I’d probably go bonkers.
- Psychology. Psychology, as all academic disciplines, has its own special way of being ridiculous. It also has generated an understanding of human nature with some strengths that many cultures do not have. I would hesitate to say that academic psychology has surpassed the insights of other cultures on their own terms, but on its terms psychology has provided us with some good understandings of human nature.
- Hallowe’en. Every age has beautiful holidays; I like Halloween: not the ghouls and witches and warlocks, but the opportunity to be someone else, to reveal yourself in a different way.
- Role play. This element of cultural wealth is something that has always been around — in the form of children’s make-believe. I am not aware of another cultural context that carries this into adulthood.
- Recognition of childhood. The non-universal concept of childhood, whose present disappearance Neil Postman explores and laments in The Disappearance of Childhood, is of benefit to both children and adults.
- Lex, Rex. The rule of law — the idea that everyone, even the highest governing officials, is subject to the law — is far from common in time and history. Many people from other nations had trouble understanding when Nixon was impeached: how could the highest official of the land be on trial for breaking the law? It struck them as it might strike us to see a family where the parents were grounded — grounding is something parents hand out to children, not something parents are themselves subject to. The rule of law is imperfectly followed — as I write, the chaos surrounding the 2000 American presidential election is just beginning to subside — and the concept has flaws. Yet, even with an imperfect implementation of imperfect ideas, attempts to follow the rule of law reduce arbitrariness.
- Bureaucracies. Now I know that some readers are probably wondering why I would put bureaucracies on the list — ‘bureaucracy’, like ‘mother-in-law’, carries strongly negative connotations. Do I like pushing through red tape? No. But, to an outsider, working with an American bureaucracy is a positive luxury. One Brazilian student was stunned when he applied for a scholarship without knowing anyone who could pull strings, and then received it; a friend at home couldn’t believe him when he explained what had happened. The reason is simple: in Brazil, like most countries across most of time, you need an inside connection to get anything out of a bureaucracy. In the US, it doesn’t hurt, but you have reasonable chances of getting a lot of things out of a bureaucracy — enough so that this can be taken for granted, and we can ungratefully grumble about how inefficient bureaucracies are.
- The concept of genius. The concept of genius is far from universal; while there are problematic developments (the “exceptional man” exposed in Crime and Punishment), the boundary between genius and normal (or even just gifted and average), like that between children adults, is one that benefits people on both sides.
- Mechanical devices to tinker with. When I made a fantasy world, one of the races had tinkering as a national hobby. It’s delightful and fascinating to tinker, to fix things MacGyver style, and to have intriguing gadgets. It’s not one of the greatest things in life — not up there with faith and friendship — but Legos and knicknacks (Legos being one of my favorite thinking toys as a child) are an enjoyable part of local color.
There is a sense in which I think we’ve swapped the meanings of asceticism and hedonism. On the surface, at least, and as far as we usually look, asceticism is drab and unpleasant, and hedonism is really enjoying things. But this is the inverse of the reality. Hedonism is one of the pessimistic philosophies of life, trying to enjoy sensory pleasures as someone would enjoy his last meal before an execution. Some forms of asceticism are indeed joyless, but others make small sacrifices in the pursuit of something big. In so far as devout Christians live abstemeniously, it should not be a rejection of joy, but embracing a bigger joy than comes through hedonism.
When I came back to my [original] A Luddite Guide to Technology, I was amazed at the level of goofiness I had been blind to. I had spoken about the importance of love and forgiveness to all, and in almost the same breath poured out anti-Microsoft invective. Why is it easier to see another’s goofiness than one’s own?
Democracy is not coterminous with good government. It is associated with good government in at least one cultural context, and quite possibly others, but the assumption in e.g. TV newscasts that democracy is the one form of government that is best to all countries, and that the political health of a country can be measured by how democratic it is becoming, is worthy of question.
Earlier I spoke of us as gods. I might want to suggest another helpful picture, that of us as apprentice gods, where this life is an apprenticeship to full godhood in Heaven.
Zen emphasizes living in the now. I was thinking about that for a time, and came to realize that in some sense I live best when I am spread out over a time, when I am present to a moment that includes but is not limited to the present. A painter may momentarily only be brushing a small area of the painting, but he is throughout time present to the whole painting, in a way that is structured according to the painting rather than according to the path the brush tip may take (he may even forget what the brush tip took). In the same way, through time I have found a magical way of fitting in to time something that doesn’t fit into linear time, kind of like a mathematician’s Peano curve, where continuous twisting of a curve fills space.
Some theologians have spoken of eternity being without the flow of time as we understand it, where we will no longer have our existence rationed out to us. The Zen approach, where one is totally present to the moment, approximates this in one sense, but in another sense, the perspective I have become aware of (in failing to be exclusively present to the present, and understanding why I failed at it) is something that seems to reflect another aspect of eternity. What I have is something-embedded-in-time, a something that is more than time, and whatever unimaginable thing eternity will be, it will be more, not less, than what we have now. I believe it will be a more natural medium for what is snuck in to time — somehow, probably in a way that we cannot reason out, we will have all of our existence at once, and yet not be limited to a single instant, “ever changing from glory to glory.” (God has all of his existence at once, but he at very least interacts with time; his eternality is not a less-than-temporality.)
In A Wind in the Door, the Murrays’ having given up money and prestige to work in an obscure stone lab is something I identify with in my present stage of life. What I have is not so much a noble giving up as a loss, it has been a less voluntary moving from heavy-thinking, recognizable academic work to software engineering (which I am not doing as proficiently as well as I expected), and a quiet apartment to write in. But I am at peace. I have thought about (after a couple of years’ work) going back to school in cognitive science, and I have gone from enduring it’s-only-a-couple-of-years to being able to enjoy and cherish this time writing — something like the Zen koan that set my thinking, where a monk runs from a tiger, jumps over a cliff, and grabs a thin branch holding him above spiked rocks below. What does he do? He cannot climb up the cliff (the tiger — the past — makes this impossible), and he cannot let go and fall down (the spikes — the future — make this impossible). So he grabs and enjoys some strawberries next to him. I do not think it possible to be happy if both past and future are lethal, but I am enjoying the present without being able to go back to the past, or know or control the future. I am looking forward to the hope of cognitive science work, but I am also genuinely enjoying the present.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance says that there are two types of welders. One is not necessarily better than the other, but it is important to know which one you need, and have the right kind. (I’ll transpose the ordering from Pirsig’s.)
The first kind prefers to do familiar welds, and dislikes having to figure out a new one. The second kind regards figuring out the weld as part of the fun, and resents having to do a job over again.
What I pieced together is that I’m at least a notch or two past the second kind of welder — in my writing, where a new piece usually comes in a new genre, in riflery and martial arts (as Robin pointed out), in other things.
I also realized a strange similarity (or perhaps ‘similarity’ is too strong a word — ‘comparable character’, perhaps) between the attitudes of an agnostic Jew towards religious ceremony and my own.
Agnostic Jews participate in certain ceremonies that they don’t believe in in a religious sense, as a matter of preserving and keeping alive Jewish identity. The ceremonies do not mean, in a sense, the glory and worship of God. At least not primarily and not directly. That is, the agnostic Jew does a ceremony but doesn’t believe its direct meaning.
I realized a parallel between that attitude and my own attitude towards religious ceremony. I participate in religious ceremonies, but I do not believe that a given structure is the necessary form that worship takes, any more than the specific words of a given conversation are necessary to conversation between two people. They are to me the outer shell that worship took in that one case; they are not part of the substance of worship.
The most common use I hear of the term ‘semantic’ is as in “They were just arguing semantics,” meaning that people were having a pointless argument that existed, not because they disagreed over something substantial, but because they were using words differently.
That is in a sense a true use of the term ‘semantic’, but it is disappointing (especially as the primary way in which the term is used). An unnecessary argument because people didn’t know they were using words differently is the pocket lint of things semantic; there are so many greater things that can be referred to by ‘semantic’, of what people mean and what texts mean. Syntactic knowledge is shallow, surface knowledge (the connection of the letters l-o-v-e with the concept of love); semantic knowledge is real, deep knowledge (the conceptual wealth that is evoked by l-o-v-e). In computer programming, people who are trying to fill jobs are usually measuring by what syntactic knowledge is possessed (or, more properly, what buzzwords the person can claim); it is semantic knowledge (theory, the knowledge that is not searched for but is the most important knowledge a programmer possesses) that makes for real success.
I like semantic discussions that are something deeper than an unnecessary conflict because people did not understand how each other were using language.
I have spoken with Josh about disclosing his thoughts about Hebraic and Hellenistic mindsets. (It is Josh’s and Heather’s idea, but Josh had said something that made me want to ask him before distributing it.) Josh has given me permission to disclose it; my thoughts are a little fuzzy, because it’s been a little while since he and Heather explained the concepts, and I only have the one sheet they wrote things down on, but I’ll try to reproduce:
Josh began by saying that, with a couple of arguable exceptions, all the books of the Bible were written by Hebrews, operating from a Hebraic mindset, but subsequent Christian thought has largely followed a Greek mold, and that, if we are to understand the Scriptures, we should understand them as seen by the mindset in which they appeared. He then delved into one area where there is a discrepancy between a Hebraic and a Hellenistic mindset.
In the beginning of the explanation, Heather drew a line down the center of a sheet of paper, and began to write words in pairs, one on either side of the line:
|left brain||right brain|
Heather then asked me to imagine that I did not know about law and grace, and how they fit together, but only that God was righteous and cannot abide sin, that each transgression demands judgment, and at the same time that God is merciful, and desires to save men. Responses to such a situation show a divergence between the Hebraic and Hellenistic mind, especially in cases where a neat resolution is not known.
The Hebraic mind does not understand everything and does not expect to understand everything, but has a trust and room for paradox that enable them to believe both in God’s justice and mercy without having a knowledge of how they fit together. The Hellenistic mindset does not understand everything either, but it expects that it should. As such, and holding both the usual strengths (keenness of analysis) and the unnecessary but usual weaknesses (limiting oneself to it) of logic, it tries to create rational systems accounting for as much of the data as can be cut to fit into a consistent logical system. It is probably due to this phenomenon that people who forget the explanation/principle where perfect law meets perfect grace feel the need to cut one down to make room for the other: legalists cut down mercy to preserve their unyielding law, libertines cut down justice in order to prevent anything from bumping into their cruel mercy, and both sides become more aggravated and more extreme by trying to run away from the excesses of the other side.
This much happens with a paradox to which a logical reconciliation has been revealed in Scripture. It is not much better with Calvinism and Arminianism — both of which live in a mental system that takes certain passages, magnifying them and declaring them to be fundamental, and then play awfully fast and loose with inconvenient others. The same God who inspired one set of verses inspired the others; where the Hellenist needs to have an interpretation cut down enough to fit inside his head, the Hebraist can believe the whole without being able to know how it all works out. Although Josh didn’t mention it, there is something here reminiscent of a G.K. Chesterton quote, about how a poet merely wants to get his head into the Heavens, but a logician wants to get the Heavens into his head, and it is his head that splits.
I remember one time when I was talking with another friend (a graduate student in philosophy) and I made a fairly simple argument from Scripture, and he gave an it’s not that simple, saying that what I was saying was true under the thought-forms that clothed the message of the Bible in its original cultural context, but was not necessarily true if one took the intellectually responsible step of translating the Bible, not only from original to contemporary languages, but from original to contemporary languages. (This argument contains a real and significant kernel of (distorted) truth, but it springs from the same poisoned well as the perspective that dismisses Biblical arguments for traditional gender roles by saying that the Bible was written in a patriarchal culture. Beyond saying that, I do not wish to analyze either argument here.) The reason I mention this is to say that the language of the Bible is in a sense an outer husk that need not be a focus of attention, but the mindset, the mentality, is considerably less husk-like. The mentality is at times part of the core of what is communicated.
My initial reactions (and here is where I will begin to depart from Josh and Heather), apart from a mild-mannered acceptance (I reacted less than most people because it is an embodiment of something that I breathe — what I have to offer here are refinements, not correctives to something massively flawed), were to think of two things. One was to say that the list was a cultural artifact, meaning that it is a way of codifying truth that can be helpful to most people, but also that it is not an attribute of reality and not something that I happen to describe to — much like the list of seven deadly sins I spoke of above. That observation is trivial. The other one, though, is not, and it is one I would like to develop.
I began to articulate an alternative, in its beginning form, by talking about a chapter in Jeremiah or Ezekiel (Josh’s favorites, it turns out) in which the Lord tells Israel, “I did not pick you because you were worthy, because you were mighty or attractive. When I found you, you were a babe rolling in salt and blood…” and then narrates how he raised her to a woman of beauty and grace before she became unfaithful to him. Robert Heinlein, in cult classic Stranger in a Strange Land, tells the story of “a Martian named Smith”: a man raised by Martians, inculturated into Martian culture and then transported to earth. It is culture shock writ large, the story of an alien culture coming into contact with, coming into, human culture. That provides a helpful perspective for looking at the Bible and especially the Gospel accounts — in both, there is material that is stunningly countercultural to a reader who understands certain details of cultural context (e.g. how Jesus broke social norms in every recorded encounter with women). If Hebraic culture is a holy culture, it is so not because it (or any human culture) is worthy to be so, but because of uniquely prolonged and deep context with the divine forces. It is like a pet in a human house, tame out of a world of feral kin — its suitability to be with children stems from human contact, not because a feline is intrinsically more man-like than an opossum.
I coined the term ‘metaculture’ (partially explored in The Metacultural Gospel) out of seeing a similarity of phenomenon between third culture kids and people who are astronomically intelligent. Both of them are to some extent capable of entering into a culture, including whichever one they’ve grown up in, but cannot breathe it in the un-self-conscious way of the monocultural majority. One biological principle is that a creature which is particularly adapted to one specific environment will be poorly suited to others; a metacultural is not especially suited to any one environment, but has a certain flexibility. (There are other qualitative differences which escape me at the moment.) I have thought here about whether to use that term or make another (one denoting a kind of metaculture, the kind hinted at in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”), and I will stick with metaculture.
A metacultural isn’t exactly in any one culture; he’s in something else, and incidentally in a culture. That, I believe, provides a substantial alternative/refinement to the Hebraic mindset: the step after being in the Hebraic mindset is being in God, and being shaped by the same forces that shaped Hebraic culture. The solution to being in a darkened cavern is not to move into a cavern that someone has brought a light of, but to climb out of the cavern into the sunlight.
I spent some time thinking, because the metacultural mindset as I originally formulated it seemed accessible only to a minority, not a catholic possibility and therefore not a full solution. I think that the italicized wording, indicates a sense in which the metacultural mindset may be catholic.
That, and in particular the italicized phrase, is a mishnah that requires a Talmud, probably a Talmud with parts that vary from host culture to host culture. I believe it is, in core form, an insight that refines Josh’s, perhaps worth further exploration (although I have no further thoughts on it now).
An “It’s not that simple.” is when person A says something basic, and person B says, “It’s not that simple.” What that means, invariably in my experience, is “It really is that simple, in a direct and obvious sense, but person B has found an elaborate way to convince himself otherwise, probably (cognitive dissonance) because there is some advantage or cherished position that is threatened by an acknowledgment of straightforward observation.”
There is an insight I had when reading Em Griffin’s A First Look at Communication Theory and what it says about persuasion. The text describes the mechanics of persuasion, with an intended development of more effective influence in persuading others. Those basic mechanical principles can also be used to affect how one is influenced by others — to be more easily persuaded when one should be persuaded and less easily persuaded when one shouldn’t be persuaded.
Knowing the communication principles behind, i.e. people losing their faith at school, could be a step towards preparation. Knowledge of psychological principles does not nullify them, but it does give people a greater degree of control in how they act.
C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man talks about an outward direction/inward direction distinction. It’s easy (and sometimes appropriate) to desire outward influence in persuasion. It also strikes me as desirable to have inward influence with regards to persuasion.
In Matthew 10:30, Jesus says, “As for you, every hair on your head has been counted.” This is something that someone in love does.
Last night, a friend and I spent a long time trying to use the GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) to perform a simple task (swapping colors in a two-color submit button). I came away from the frustrating experience with a new appreciation for what Unix’s arcane interface is like to a newcomer.
Technical support people (and sometimes other hackers) have an acronym PEBKAC, short for Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair. From the jargon file:
[Abbrev., “Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair”] Used by support people, particularly at call centers and help desks. Not used with the public. Denotes pilot error as the cause of the crash, especially stupid errors that even a luser could figure out. Very derogatory. Usage: “Did you ever figure out why that guy couldn’t print?” “Yeah, he kept cancelling the operation before it could finish. PEBKAC.”
With a great many apparently technical problems, the problem exists between the keyboard and chair. The question I was thinking about is, which keyboard and chair?
On Mac and Windows computers, and to some extent on the web, an alert box will pop up with some snippet of text and a button. The messages that pop up are often not very important — something like the warning labels attached to many products — and, as such, alert boxes carry a nonverbal message of “I am interrupting your work because I have something to tell you, probably not very important, and you can’t use your computer until you click my button. Once you have clicked on this button, you can go about your business.” When there are a great many alert boxes like this, it is not a stupid thing at all to habitually click the button when the alert box appears… except that, on a small minority of such boxes, the habitual response cancels your print job. The problem with this system exists between keyboard and chair, but not the user’s keyboard. The problem with this system exists between the designer’s keyboard and chair. A great deal of stupid user errors are not stupid user errors at all, but the results of bad interface design by software developers who did not design with human-computer interaction factors in mind.
That’s the thing about people who think they hate computers. What they really hate is lousy programmers.
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in Oath of Fealty
I’ve thought of a hacker’s game. Here’s the core idea: Alice writes a program. Bob modifies the program in such a way that he can tell the difference between them. Alice wins if she can discern which is which. Bob wins if Alice can’t tell, but he can tell. The round is a draw if they both can’t tell.
This basic idea is in need of refinement and rules for both parties, roughly speaking in order that there are no obvious and cheap ways for either side to win. (Neither of them should be able to perform direct tests on the compiled programs, for instance, and things like “Click on the upper lefthand pixel of the applet window, and then hold shift and click on the bottom righthand pixel, and a smilie face will appear” aren’t the kind of cleverness that is desired.”) If such rules are formed, it will take a community’s work over time. But I think this could be a good programmer’s game.
I was saddened to learn of the demise of Canada’s Rhinoceros Party, a satirical political party with platforms like “Coast from coast to coast!” (after your car has been raised to the top of a giant, Canada-wide ramp), “My platform is the one I’m standing on,” and “Legalize pot. And pans. And spatulas. And other kitchen utensils.” It’s defunct as of the last two elections, and learning of its demise (when doing a web search, because I wanted to show Rhinoceros Party information to some of my coworkers) was saddening, like a child’s finding that all the fairies were dead — a learning that a shining part of the world has gone out.
The U.S. still has Dave Barry and his year 2000 presidential campaign (I’m taking an educated guess, as I’m waiting to hear the results of the Florida recount in the U.S. 2000 Presidential Elections, that the final difference between Bush and Gore will be less than the number of votes Dave Barry received), but that was saddening news.
There is an image I’ve had (partly from my own experience, partly from other sources) of someone very bright who is off in his own little world, and when he talks with other people, he tries to answer as faithfully to his own world as he can, and people just don’t get it. What I realized in my Gospel reading a few days ago is that this happened with Jesus. He spoke from his world, and people tried to interpret his words as what they would have meant from their world, and there was a glaring absence of connection. Examples of this are threaded throughout John’s mystical gospel account in particular; one conspicuous example is where Jesus is on trial before Pilate and they are talking about whether Jesus is a king. Jesus is trying to bring Pilate up to his plane, and Pilate is equally trying to understand Jesus’s words without leaving his own plane, and there is conflict.
Seeing this in the Gospel accounts, and having things click, gave me a feeling of being in good company.
Make-believe is a kind of illusion that implicitly depends on being recognized as illusion. I was thinking about this basic phenomenon in some matters related to my Halloween costume this year. My fun was spoiled when I realized that at least one of the children had literally believed I was Blajeny, that the illusion of my costume had not been recognized as illusion.
A while ago, I was having a conversation with Robin (techie) and another friend (Bob, non-techie). We were talking about making custom modifications to software, and I mentioned that a few decades ago, it was common to have computers with their own instruction sets. Robin immediately saw the point I was trying to make; to translate for Bob, I said that for each computer to have its own instruction set would be like each book having its own alphabet.
In places where we’ve gotten used to standards, breathing them is second nature. There are rare exceptions where it is desirable to break good standards — off the top of my head, I can think of the beautiful Elvish script in J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy — but, in certain areas, standards can be quite helpful. The computer industry is moving towards increasing standardization at higher levels of abstraction — and this is a good thing. Dealing with a locally suboptimal standard solution twenty times involves, among other things, significantly less cognitive strain than dealing with twenty locally optimal nonstandard solutions.
Where I see this argument as applying (technical areas, and human cognitive strain), this is not a death penalty on nonstandard approaches — many of the best technical ideas have been highly nonstandard approaches. I do believe, however, that things should be done in a standard manner unless there is good reason to do otherwise. For something meant for humans, doing something nonstandard means potential confusion and a probable learning curve.
Web pages that are not designed with a first-time visitor in mind are a prime example of material that breaks this principle.
I have been occupied recently, and have several ideas jotted down, but not taken the time to write them down. I wrote a letter and received an invitation to join a very high-intelligence mailing list; I spent a good deal of the past week worrying about whether I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. Today, I felt that still, small voice saying, “Get back to writing your musings.”
The musing I’ve been carrying around for a while, has to do with the monoglot and the polyglot (the person who speaks only one language versus the one who speaks several). I debated whether it was worth writing down, and decided for a while that it wasn’t worth writing until I came across something in George Steiner’s Errata. He mentioned the distinction, talked about his own polyglot background, and then poetically and emphatically argued that polyglot is the condition to be in — at one point, he said that the monoglot does not know even his own language.
That bothered me; to explain what bothered me, I would like to bring two brief images to mind: an American who is devoted to his country and holds the kind of patriotism Lewis extolls towards the beginning of The Four Loves, and the American who is devoted to his country and considers the natives of other countries to be unfortunate second-class world citizens. The first is laudable (and compatible with respect for the patriotism of other nations); the second is not. It is the second condition which parallels Stiener’s exaltation of the polyglot condition and (unnecessary) denigration of the monoglot condition.
To explain where I stand on this question, I would like to begin with a lunchtime conversation with my best friend (Robin), and an old friend of his (Morris). I surprised Robin by saying that I preferred to read texts in English translation when I had the option — preferably a free translation — rather than reading them in a non-English original.
It’s not that I’m afraid of learning another language. There have been times when I found thinking in French to be easier than thinking in English, and there has been a span of several years where my French sounded closer in relation to a typical native French speaker than my English sounded in relation to a typical native English speaker. If one counts mathematical and computer languages, I’ve worked with more languages than the number of years I’ve been alive, and this will probably remain true for the rest of my life. I’ve had the experience of not recognizing which language a text was written in, but still being able to read it. I’ve lost count of how many languages I’ve dreamed in, and I occasionally have dreams where my mind makes up a new language on the fly.
Why, then, would I prefer to read texts in English? In a single word, comprehension. I came to realize at one point that my knowledge of French at its best has been a rough equivalent to a native proficiency, but that I will never speak another language as well as I speak English, not if I am immersed in it for the rest of my life. The proficiency I have in English is something beyond what is normally meant by ‘native’. There is an additional cognitive strain — so I am spending energy trying to interpret the text (in the direct and mundane sense) rather than on interacting with its meaning (in a deeper sense). I’ll understand a good free translation a lot better.
More broadly, proficiency in multiple languages takes mental energy that could be used to other purposes. There are people that can afford that expenditure of mental energy, and there are definite benefits to knowing two or more languages — the ability to compare (“The better you know another world, the better you know your own.” — George Macdonald, Lilith), the ability to communicate with more people, the improved ability to pick up other languages. For all that, there is a consolidated energy that comes of having spent your efforts on learning one language and learning it well — and there are a great many people in the world who do not have the excess mental energy to have spare room to learn extra languages.
Bloom, in the introduction to his translation of Plato’s Republic, argued for making strictly literal translations. The essential argument is that the translator, however great a scholar he may be, must have the humility to realize that the student who reads his text may be a greater mind, capable of deeper understanding. As such, the translator should provide the student with what the words say, rather than confining the student to his interpretation. He proceeded to give several quotations from free translations of the Republic which, in trying to make the text accessible to a contemporary reader, succeeded in producing something accessible, albeit inappropriate as renderings of the text. I forget exactly what they were, but they would be comparable to portraying Martin Luther’s crisis of faith as a postmodern midlife identity crisis.
I do not believe that choosing between literal and free translations is a choice between a flawed and a near perfect rendering model; a student who wants to really understand a text (which is written in a language he cannot read well) should probably peruse several translations, varying in how literally/freely they render the text. And, if I want to know a short text or excerpt well, my rendering of choice will be a heavily footnoted literal translation.
For large-scale reading — for the kind of reading comprehension that can be sustained for numerous pages — there is a different phenomenon. The danger in free translation is that it can confine the reader to the translator’s interpretation. The danger in literal translation is that it can confine the reader to not understanding the text at all. A woodenly literal text, one that’s read for dozens or hundreds of pages, brings a cognitive strain and consumes energy that could be used in thinking about the text. And, for that reason, if I can only choose a single translation, I’ll take my chances with a free translation.
I read a book recently called Please Understand Me. It was a valuable resource to read, but it’s something I’d prefer to give to others with a complimentary grain of salt.
It’s about different personality and temperament types, and one of the central theses is that people have fundamentally different natures, but engage on a Pygmalion project to reshape others into copies of themselves. It is written in such a way that a reader who is persuaded of the legitimate point (that temperaments are not right or wrong, just different, and it is inappropriate to try to change a person to a temperament that he’s not) will (in a similar fashion to the Green Book in C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man) come to the unjustified and illegitimate conclusion that there is not right or wrong in much of anything, and that it is wrong to try to change a person on any score. It never draws this conclusion in so many words, but a transposition of key takes what Lewis said about the Green Book and fits it (quite well) to Please Understand Me.
The book is worth reading, if you can resist the conclusion that the flow of the text pulls you towards.
There is a distinction I have periodically been thinking about: it is a conceptual distinction between a gentleman’s duel and an assassin’s duel.
Both represent a kind of contest between two people, but contests of two different sorts. Don Quixote refers to knightly duels in which both parties were meticulously careful to make all things equal: both swords the same length, both parties standing at equal angles to the sun so that neither one would have the sun in his eyes more than the other. This is an extreme form of the basic idea of the gentleman’s duel. At the other end, there are no rules and no concept of fairness; an assassin might accept another’s challenge, and then arrange to have him shot by archers. Wesley’s battle of wits with Vizzini in The Princess Bride represents the quintessential assassin’s duel.
The two frameworks for a contest, or a test, offer distinct conceptions of how a person’s ability may be measured. I have seen a number of gentleman’s duel IQ tests, for instance; I am not aware of any established tests that operate like assassins’ duels, and the ability to function effectively outside of external structure (the cliche is ‘think outside the box’) is one of the distinctive features of intelligence.
Catholics speak a great deal about the primacy of Peter among Christ’s disciples, but there is also a primacy to John. Peter had a unique place in the nurture of the church (“Feed my sheep,”), but it was John who was closest to Jesus, John the mystic, who had a stunningly brilliant mind and probably understood him best. In a technology corporation, Peter might be compared to the CEO, and John to the prize research scientist.
My apartment is a sparse place, slightly messy and having no television. It is not really decorated; an outer austerity conceals an active life of the mind.
People’s homes can give insight into those who dwell there. My apartment does not exude the same romantic warmth as many other places, but that is because my attention is elsewhere.
I have a different perspective on aging than what I have seen about me. It always makes me slightly sad when I hear my father saying, “We’re getting old,” not because it is false, but because he says it as a confession of weakness. I view aging as getting closer to Heaven, (as described in Hebrews) as approaching the finish line of a great race. My way of holding this belief has a dark side — I sometimes look on life as enduring time so as to be past it and into eternity — but I still think I am better off not to be approaching my thirtieth birthday as when I will become a has-been.
I wrote about two types of welder above. I realized a certain affinity between the apostle Paul and myself, especially as regarded the welder distinction. Paul, as an apostle, skipped from place to place and culture to culture, with a veritable rainbow of activities: planting churches and writing were just the beginning. He certainly travelled more than I have.
Seeing a sort of kindred spirit (even if separated by millenia), and in someone whom I greatly respect, was warming to me.
I have thought that the entrenched numerical scale of IQs are unfortunate. The numbers corresponding to a person’s weight are proportional; one person who weighs 200 pounds has as much body-stuff as two people who weigh 100 pounds each, or four children who weigh 50 pounds each. It is simply not true, in a corresponding sense, that one person with an IQ of 200 has exactly twice as much thinking-stuff as two people with IQs of 100 each. A programmer with an IQ of 150 is quite possibly capable of doing feats that could not be accomplished by any number of programmers with IQ 100. There are not just quantitative differences (for which an exponential scale might be preferable), but qualitative differences as well.
The other critique I have of the concept of IQ is that it equates (for children and adults) higher intelligence with functioning at a more advanced mental age. This is true, in a sense, and brilliant adults grow out of precocious children, but there is an important mental dimension that is well-developed in most children and atrophied in most adults: mental flexibility/openness/creativity/curiosity. Experiments have found gradeschool children to be more creative than professional engineers; it is a rare mind that can enter adulthood without losing childhood creativity. A child with a high IQ, one would hope, is not simply at a cognitive level normally associated with people a few years older; he may be capable of tasks most people cannot complete until a few years older, but he retains the mental flexibility associated with his chronological age — perhaps a younger age. “A more intelligent child mentally functions like an older person” is a good rough take on the matter, but the basic concept of “older [up to mental maturity] = better” has room for further nuance.
The mathematical model used of the four dimensions of the Meyers-Briggs Personality Indicator is one-dimensional: one is introverted to the extent that one is not extraverted. So being more introverted is always at the expense of being less extraverted, and being more extraverted is always at the expense of being more introverted. The structure of the personality test reflects this perspective: each question is a forced choice between two preferences, and each point that a person scores for one preference is a point he didn’t score for the opposite preference.
That seems to me to be acceptable as a rough model, but on further reflection, a two-dimensional variant seems preferable. So, instead of the following scale:
+—+—+—+—+—+—+—+—+—+—+ 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Introversion 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0 Extraversion
I would suggest something more like the following:
I 10 + n 9 + A B t 8 + r 7 + o 6 + v 5 + C e 4 + r 3 + s 2 + i 1 + D E o 0 +—+—+—+—+—+—+—+—+—+—+ n 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Extraversion
On this scale, most people would likely fall somewhere between A (introverted, not extraverted) and E (extraverted, not introverted), but it is also possible to be at D (neither introverted nor extraverted — but not what is meant by ‘X’, namely half-and-half — that is ‘C’), or ‘B’ (both introverted and extraverted, but again not half-and-half).
When I first took the Myers-Briggs, I had difficulty answering the thinking-feeling questions — because I embodied both of the qualities which the test portrays as opposites. I had equal difficulty answering the judging-perceiving questions — but for a different reason: I was not familiar with, and did not identify with, either modus operandi. On a two-dimensional scale such as I drew above, I would be around point B for thinking-feeling, and point D for judging-perceiving.
My office had a Secret Santa gift exchange, and I got one of my co-workers a boxed set of Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. I was warmed to find out that she’d been wanting to get that series for a couple of years.
Score: ✯ ✯ ✯ ✯ ✯ ✯ ✯ (7 out of 5 possible!)
Category: First Person Immersive / Puzzle / Real Life Adventure
- meatspace: /meet’spays/, n.
- The physical world, where the meat lives — as opposed to cyberspace. Hackers are actually more willing to use this term than ‘cyberspace’, because it’s not speculative — we already have a running meatspace implementation (the universe). Compare RL.
I am faced with the daunting task of reviewing Meatspace. The temptation is to say, “This is stunning! It makes [insert name of classic] look like a bad Pong clone! I want to play it again and again!” It’s a temptation, not because the game doesn’t live up to that praise, but because discerning readers read reviews like that and their defenses go up against a reviewer who is, to put it delicately, getting slightly carried away.
So I’ll let go of the obvious temptation, and talk about how Meatspace handles physics. There’s another game we all know where player slang for a smoke grenade is “lag bomb”, because the physics of the smoke is so taxing that it slows the other player’s computer to a crawl: a smoke grenade, aka lag bomb, is a cheap way to half-paralyze other players. Maybe that’s an extreme example, but haven’t we all dealt with games where things get choppy (maybe just a little) when there’s a lot going on?
That doesn’t happen in Meatspace. End of discussion. Period. For one example, one of a million little effects done perfectly is a squirrel running across your path. It’s a throwaway effect, really: the game would appear quite convincing without it, but every single detail, from how the furry little body changes shape as it moves to the artificial intelligence controlling its motion to every single perfectly rendered hair, is flawless. Trying to find something that works as a lag bomb simply doesn’t work. Move over, physics engines that have a reasonably convincing rag doll effect. Move over, for that matter, the supercomputers I used at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. The physics is absolutely stunning.
But to say that and stop there is to paint a deceptive picture. Very deceptive. The physics and the graphics are the best I’ve seen, but there is more to the game than the physics. Many players don’t give the physics a second thought. However well done the physics may be, and however stunningly advanced, the physics is one piece among a million. A beautiful piece, admittedly, but not even one of the biggest. At least to most players; there are some players who play only for the sight and sound aspect, but you can play the game well without those things even being much of a consideration. As impressive as the physics are, and as impressive as every sensory effect is, it would be deceptive at best to say that the game is driven by sight and sound.
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (the book, but unfortunately not the movie), Zaphod Beeblebrox is drawn towards the Total Perspective Vortex, which we learn is a horrifying death, before learning why it is a horrifying death. The Total Perspective Vortex shows a person’s absolute (in)significance within the universe as an insignificant and forgettable item in a universe that is vast beyond measure. And that is such a horrifying experience that people die from the trauma. Except that Zaphod walks into the Total Perspective Vortex and walks out not only not dead, but contented, happy, proud, and even more full of himself than usual.
What has been happening is that Zaphod has been in an alternate universe, and more specifically an alternate universe that completely revolves around him. He is the most important feature of the universe, and the universe knows it. Had he been thrown into the realuniverse’s Total Perspective Vortex, he would have been destroyed by it.
And in fact with the other computer games I’ve played and written, the player is the center of the universe. And that’s not the end of it. The universe revolves around the player, and in fact nothing is put into the game but things that are for the player. In a room in a first person shooter, there are millions and in fact billions of ways to see the room. But, if there is a player in the room, only one of those perspectives or angles is calculated: the player’s. Everything else is simply ignored. If there isn’t a player in the room, the room might as well not be visible. And the rooms themselves exist for the player. The player is a good deal more than the center of the universe: if it’s not there for the player, it’s not there.
Maybe I’ve been the center of the universe in other games I’ve played. In Meatspace, I am not the center of the universe. Meatspace has such an immense, fathomless universe that you or I could never be its center.
In Meatspace, if I am in a room and I can see, the light goes just as well where I can’t see it as where I can see it. If I leave the light on and walk out of the room, the room is visible—the physics calculations go on—just as well as I am in the room. There are places I could get to, and places I could never get to, and both are developed in full detail—even though there are many more places I couldn’t get to than places I could (conceivably) travel to. When I play the game—or, to be more exact, when I join the game—there are billions of others in the game, the vast, vast majority of whom have no idea that I am there. If I’m the center of a game’s universe, the universe is miserably small. In Meatspace, there is a universe with so many stars that no one inside the game knows exactly how many, and one planet on one of those stars is a rich enough world that no matter how long you played you could never see more than a tiny slice of its treasures.
And AI in the game… To talk about artificial intelligence, I need to draw an analogy with anime. When people watch anime, they are not so imperceptive that they think that the pictures look exactly like people, or cars, or whatever. What they do is cooperate with pictures that most people would never confuse with the real thing, and make believe with some not-very-realistic cartoons, and in their minds give something that isn’t really there. The pictures certainly suggest people, or whatever else they are supposed to represent. But people watching it cooperate and overlook some rather vast differences between the pictures and what people pretend the pictures are.
In games, the artificial intelligence is like this. You can pretend that you’re really having a conversation, or even that the non-player characters move around in a natural way. You can cooperate with the artificial intelligence the way anime enthusiasts cooperate with the cartoon. But you’re being generous.
I didn’t have to pretend the Meatspace people were intelligent. They were intelligent, without my pretending. The game was much more interesting than if the universe, and everybody’s life, revolved around me. People had an infinite wealth of experiences, stories, goals, projects, desires, habits, and I may have been part of the picture, but the picture was far bigger than me. When I talked with people, I was not pretending they were intelligent. There was no need. I was stepping into a larger world. In a fantasy world, characters talk about selling magic items, rumors, joining a party, and other things that revolve around a cramped player. I can’t list all the things people talk about in Meatspace (my hard drive only has 30 gigabytes of free space), but talking with another person is an encounter with a larger world that includes more than your priorities. The way other people appear in Meatspace is something I’ve never seen in another game: an opportunity to step into something deeper and vaster than “Me! Me! Me!”
And this is deceptive, because it generally describes something in a game where nothing is generic—everything is always specific. I’d like to give a slice of specifically what I encountered.
I went through a meandering course that took me through shops with sundry wares, ended up purchasing a few square feet of something very much like leather, and settled down at a place where I could get a food ration. Except “food ration” is a generic and therefore inappropriate term; they did not sell me a “food ration”, but (in this case) a delightfully spiced beef curry with vegetables and rice.
As I was waiting for them to make my food, there were pictures around. There was one picture of a beautiful Asian woman sitting on a low stone wall in front of a French formal garden and chateau, one picture of a beautiful Asian woman sitting on a camel in front of an Egyptian pyramid, and one picture of a beautiful Asian woman sitting against a powerful red sports car. There were other pictures obscured by stacked boxes of soda. The women, as well as being beautiful and wearing flattering Western clothes, had the general build and almost the complexion of a Western ideal of beauty.
I had seen this kind of artwork in previous levels of Meatspace—in one large area, there was simply no other kind of picture you could buy on a calendar—but I’d always been puzzled by it. This time, there was something else I could see. They were almost like religious icons. This is not to say that people specifically believed religious doctrines about them, or that there was some failure of perceivedly due reverence in stacking boxes of soda in front of them, or some other things like that, but it is to say that they aren’t just pictures of what they show. What they show is not only exotic but the emblem of something transcendent that’s shining through. And I can be saddened by some things about them—those pictures can easily slide into the pornographic—but there is something I was saddened by that I am no longer bothered by.
The image of beauty and transcendence is Western much for some of the same reasons that (for a tongue in cheek example) we have a Great White Ninja played by Chris Farley in Beverly Hills Ninja. The West is exotic to the East, and the East is exotic to the West. The pictures are misunderstood if they are not seen as a sort of stained glass window that people look at because they see something shining through it.
There’s probably a lot more to be said. If I spent several more years of play just to investigate the question, I might also be able to tell you why the shops allowed me to purchase about a square yard of an artificial surrogate for leather, and a few yards of cord, for less money than I would earn in an hour. For now, my game play has included little research into how communities can produce or fail to produce wealth. I just know enough to know that a detail like that, like the kind of system where there are poor people who eat meat with every meal, is a balancing act that has never before been managed in two and a half million years of human community, and quite probably a balancing act that will not survive longer than its civilization, any more than a tree can keep growing once its river runs dry.
There is something about the Meatspace levels we find ourselves in that makes it harder to see the gems around us. The medieval and the Arthurian looks a certain way to us after they no longer exist. What do things look like if we look at our placement in Meatspace as it might appear when our technological society is but a memory?
My avatar (but one could take a long time explaining how it is more than an avatar) was just in a place with Gothic lettering on a sign on the ground, saying, “Spaccarelli Meditation Garden.” A pale, almost luminous statue of the Virgin overlooks a waterfall, rocks, plants, and a bench. The garden is small, but in its enclosed space one can be drawn into the quiet of the waterfall’s song, forget about the outside world, even the nearby Gothic buildings—Gothic buildings that did not exist in the Middle Ages but do exist on a level that didn’t exist in the Middle Ages. I have since moved to a building that combines the Gothic with the modern: I can see stonework that evokes the Gothic, and I see it through a glass wall which would have been extremely unlikely at a time when glass cost as much as a precious metal.
Some players entered the game wishing they were set in the future instead of the past—anything but where they are now. What would my life have been like if I were born in the Middle Ages? That’s simple enough. I would have died in infancy, and my mother with me. Usually when I imagine myself in the Middle Ages, I take any number of things for granted.
The Middle Ages—the knights in armor of Arthurian legend, a picture which becomes even more interesting when it is deepened with scholarly resources to include a different way of perceiving time and space, the shadow of Plato, minstrels singing love songs, precursors to scientific method which become all the more interesting if one looks not at what they became but what they came from—all of this makes for a lost world that is all the more haunting because it can only be entered as a memory.
The character I play is studying theology at a university. “University” means a tradition that began in the Middle Ages, and it means living in community with other students and scholars, free to use technology but always connecting face-to-face and meeting as flesh and blood. As well as the older kind of university, the technology in Meatspace has allowed another kind of education which is a new enough possibility that many players remember when it would have been impossible. In the new model, a student may never meet any of his teachers; there is no sense of living together in community and no real sense that a path or way which has defined teaching since before the ancients is necessary. Not everyone in the ancient model understood or even would accepted the idea that a university should be an embodied community. But the only alternative, the older kind of correspondence school, never enjoyed the same prestige. Now there is another model, not so much another kind of community as a way to substitute for community and embodied presence, and it is gaining a massive ground in a short time. It is a real threat to the older university.
Given the rapid ascent of the “bodiless university”, it seems to me quite possible that by the end of my game, I will have seen the old order of a university as an embodied community as it has been since its medieval birth, will have vanished as the horse-drawn carriage vanished after Henry Ford introduced what seemed to simply be another option (besides riding a horse). Perhaps this will never happen, but if you consider how much could vanish, and how much is easy to take for granted, the scholarly community has something as hauntingly beautiful as the knight in shining armor, or perhaps more beautiful, and this is not only because the university is a medieval institution and some universities have Gothic architecture. The roots run much deeper than that. And that is only one slice of the game—a rather small slice, all things considered.
Technology in this area of the game is interesting, and more importantly than just the technology, the cultural forces surrounding technology are interesting. They hold a tragic beauty, in its own way as tragic and as beautiful as the tale of Arthur’s death: two armies stood across from each other, and each had been ordered not to attack unless the other side drew a sword. Then one soldier saw a snake in the grass, drew his sword to protect himself. Then the battle began, and King Arthur was mortally wounded. On the side of technology, the community had achieved technology that opened up possibilities that never existed before partly because it had oriented itself toward technology as no such community had done before. That made for a sorceror’s bargain that made it difficult to perceive other kinds of beauty in other cultures—or for that matter, their own. The full cultural story—were it possible to fully understand—is even deeper in its tragic beauty than the bittersweet hypothesis of a disembodied university opening up something new while hurting the older tradition. One cannot seriously examine technology without seeing its power—and even its beauty—yet in this society, it is a minority at best who know what it means, and what the beauty would consist of, for a society ordered around other principles like contemplation.
Yet to say that is silly. It’s like reviewing a chess program by describing the art history behind the pictures representing the pawns. Interesting, perhaps, and perhaps impressive, but it falls short of the mark, as does any serious attempt to review Meatspace. I haven’t discussed 99% of an expanse of pavement stretching as far as the eye can see and then further, nor a room that lets me look out over trees and buildings as if I were suspended in the sky, nor a melting pot which combines the wealth of Africa, indigenous Americans, Europe, and Asia and which is believed to be the birthplace of hip hop, nor indeed what it means to be in an outer borough in the “capital of the world,” nor why some dismiss the Bronx as being not a very nice place to live. I believe I have deeply failed to capture the global spirit of Meatspace because I gave too little attention to the unique local character of my level—and you cannot play Meatspace without encountering such a unique local character. To play Meatspace is to enter a world rich with apples and appearances, books and buttercups, children and cats, drivel and daydreams, electronics and excellence, fables and fairy tales, grandeur and giggles, horses (yes, they still exist!) and houses, igloos and imagination, jumping and justice, kites and katana, languages and laughter, microscopes and megaphones, noses and noise, operas and obverses, porpoises and porcupines, quiet and quickness, roaches and Russia, Swiss Army Knives and spirit, transportation and tummies, understanding and understatements, vowels and vices, water and wisdom, xanthan gum and xylophones, yule logs and youth, zebras and zits. It is far beyond my power to describe them.
I readily acknowledge that there are many math classes which are drudgery and a general waste of time, and that many people have had experiences with mathematics which give them good reason to hold a distaste for the discipline. However, it is my hope that I may provide readers with an insight that there is something more to mathematics, and that this something more may be worthwhile.
Let’s begin by looking at the reasons that the reader may already have come across for why he should study mathematics:
- There are certain basic computational skills that are needed in life. People should be able to figure out whether a 24-pack of their favorite soda for $3.89 is a better or worse deal than a 12-pack for $1.99.
- It builds character. I suffered through mathematics for such-and-such many years. So should you.
Of course, nobody explicitly says the second reason, but it may very well seem that way—like one of the hush-hushed truths that the Adult Conspiracy hides from students the same way it hides the fact that there is no Santa Claus from little children. And the first reason is something that many non-mathematical administrators believe.
But those are not the real reasons that a mathematician will give for why a nonmathematician should study mathematics, and what kind of mathematics a nonmathematician should study.
The first question which should be addressed is, “What is mathematics really about?”
The answer which many nonmathematicians may have is something along the lines of, “Mathematics, at its heart, is about learning and using formulas and things like that. In gradeschool, you learn the formulas and methods to add, subtract, multiply, and divide; then in middle school and high school it is on to bigger and better formulas, like the formula for the slope of a line passing through two points. Then in college, if your discipline unfortunately requires a little mathematics (such as the social sciences requiring statistics), you learn formulas that are even more complicated and harder to remember. The deeper you go into mathematics, the more formulas and rote methods you have to learn, and the worse it gets.”
The best response I can think of to that question is to respond by analogy, and my response is along the following lines:
A child is in school will be taught various grammatical rules, sentence diagramming, and so on. These will be drilled and studied for quite a long while, and it must be said that this is not the most interesting of areas to study.
An English teacher who is asked, “Is this what your discipline is really about?”, will almost certainly answer, “No!”. Perhaps the English student is proficient in grammar, but that’s not what English is about. English is about literature—about stories, about ideas, about characters, about plots, about poetic description, about philosophy, about theology, about thinking, about life. Grammar is not studied so that people can suffer through learning more pointless grammar; grammar is studied to provide students with a basic foundation from which they will be able to use the English language. It is a little drudgery which is worked through so that students may behold an object of great beauty.
This is the function of the formulas and rules of mathematics. Not rules and formulas so that the student is prepared for more rules and formulas, but rules and formulas which are studied so that the student can go past them to see what mathematics is really about.
And what is mathematics really about? Before I give a full answer, let me say that it is something like what English is about.
The one real glimpse that someone who has been through high school may have had of mathematics is in the study of geometry. There are a few things about high school geometry that I would like to point out:
- In geometry, one is given certain axioms and postulates (for example, the parallel postulate—given a line and a point not on the line, there is exactly one line through the given point which does not intersect the given line), definitions (a circle is the set of points equidistant (at an equal distance) from a given point), and undefined terms (point, line). From those axioms and postulates, definitions, and undefined terms, one begins to explore what they imply—theorems and lemmas.
- In geometry, rote memorization is not enough—and, in fact, is in and of itself one of the least effective approaches to take. It is necessary to understand—to get an intuitive grasp of the material. Learning comes from the “Aha!” when something clicks and fits together—then it is the idea that remains in the student’s memory.
- Geometry builds upon itself. One starts with fundamentals (axioms, postulates, definitions, and undefined terms), and uses them to prove basic theorems, which are in turn used along with axioms and postulates to prove more elaborate theorems, and so on. It is like a building—once the foundation has been laid, beams and walls may be secured to the foundation, and then one may continue to build up from the foundation and from what has been secured to the foundation. Geometry is an edifice built on its fundamentals with logic, and the structure that is ultimately built is quite impressive.
- Geometry is an abstract and rigorous way of thinking. (More will be made of this later.)
- Geometry is about creative problem solving. The aforespoken edifice—or, more specifically, what is in that edifice—is used by the geometer as tools with which to solve problems. Problem solving—figuring out how to prove a theorem or do a construction (which is a special kind of theorem)—is a creative endeavor, as much as painting, musical improvisation, or writing (and I am writing as one who does mathematics, paints, improvises, and writes).
Imagine a dream where there are many pillars—some low, some high—all of which are too high to step up to, and all of which are wide enough to stand upon.
Now imagine someone dreaming this dream. That person looks at one of the pillars and asks, “Has anyone been on top of that pillar?” Then one of the Inhabitants of his dream answers, “No, nobody has been on top of that pillar.” Then the person looks at another of the pillars, which has a set of stairs next to it, and asks, “Has anyone been on top of that pillar over there?”. The answer is, “Yes, someone has, and has left behind a set of steps. You may take those steps and climb up on top of the pillar yourself, if you wish.”
And this person continues, and sees more pillars. Some of them stand alone, too high to step up to, and nobody has been to those. Others have had someone on top, and there is always a set of steps which the person left behind, by which he may climb up personally. And the steps go every which way—some go straight up, some go one way and then another, some seem to almost go sideways. Some are very strange. Some pillars have more than one set of steps. But all of them lead up to the top of the pillar.
The person dreaming may well have the impression that one gets atop a pillar by laying down one step, then another, then another, until one has assembled steps that reach to the top of the pillar. And, indeed, it is possible to climb the steps up to the pillars that others have gone to first.
But that impression is wrong.
And the person sees what really happens when the guide becomes very excited and says, “Look over there! There is a great athlete who is going to attempt a pillar that nobody has ever been atop!”
And the athlete runs, and jumps, and sails through the air, and lands on top of the pillar.
And when the athlete lands, there appears a set of stairs around the pillar. The athlete climbs up and down the stairs a few times to tidy them up for other people, but the stairs were produced, not by laying down slabs of stone one atop another, but by jumping.
Then the guide explained to the dreamer that the athlete had learned to jump not only by looking at the steps that others had left, but by jumping to other pillars that already had steps, instead of using the steps.
Then the dreamer woke up.
What does the story mean?
The pillars are mathematical facts, some proven and some unproven.
The pillars that stand alone are mathematical facts that nobody has proven.
The pillars that stand with steps leading up to them are mathematical facts that have been proven.
The steps are the steps of proofs, the little assertions. As some of the steps are bizarre, so are some proofs. As some pillars have more than one path of steps, so some facts have more than one known proof.
The leap is a flash of intuition, by which the mathematician knows which of many steps will take him where he wants to go.
As the steps appeared when the leap was made, so the proof appears when the flash of intuition comes. The athlete then tidied up the steps, as the mathematician writes down and clarifies the proof, but the proof comes from jumping, not from building one step on another.
The athlete was the mathematician.
Finally, the athlete became an athlete not only by climbing up and down existing steps, but also by jumping up to pillars that already had steps—one becomes skilled at making intuitive leaps, not only by learning existing proofs, but also by solving already proven problems as if there were no proof to read.
As one philosophy major commented to me, “Mathematicians do proofs, but they don’t use them.”
That flash of insight is the flash of inspiration that artists work under, and in this sense a mathematician is very similar to an artist. (What do a mathematician and an artist have in common? Both are pursuing beauty, to start with…)
This character of mathematics that is captured in geometry is true to geometry, but the actual form that it takes is largely irrelevant. Other branches of mathematics, properly taught, could accomplish just the same purpose, and for that matter could just as well replace geometry. Two other disciplines which draw heavily on applied mathematics, namely computer science and physics, have essentially the same strong points. I would hold no objections, for that matter, if high school geometry classes were replaced by strategy games like chess and go.
Mathematics is about puzzle solving; I would refer the reader to works such as Raymond Smullyan’s The Lady or the Tiger? and Colin Adams’s The Knot Book: an Elementary Introduction to the Mathematical theory of Knots. There are many people to whom mathematics is a recreation, consisting of the pleasure of solving puzzles. If mathematics is approached as memorizing incomprehensible formulas and hoping to have the good luck to guess the right formula at the right time, it will be a chore and a torture. If it is instead approached as puzzle solving, the activity will yield unexpected pleasure.
My father has a doctorate in
physics and teaches computer science. He has said, more than once, that he would like for all of his students to take physics before taking his classes. There is a very important and simple reason for this. It is not because he wants his students to program physics simulators, or because there is any direct application of the mathematics in physics to the computer science he teaches. There isn’t. It is because of the problem solving, the manner of thinking. It is because someone who has learned how to think in a way that is effective in physics, will be able to think in a way that is effective in computer science.
This applies to other disciplines as well. Ancient Greek philosophers, and medieval European theologians, made the study of geometry a prerequisite to the study of their respective disciplines. It was not because the constructions or theorems would be directly useful in making claims about the nature of God. Like physics and computer science, there was no direct application. But in order to study geometry, one had to be able to think rigorously, analytically, critically, logically, and abstractly.
Thinking logically and abstractly is an important discipline in life and in other academic disciplines that consist of thinking—it has been said that if you can do mathematics, you can do almost anything. The main reason mathematics is valuable to the non-mathematician is as a form of weight lifting for the mind. Even when the knowledge has no application, the finesse that’s learned can be useful.
To the non-mathematician, mathematics is a valuable discipline which offers practice in how to think well—both analytic thought and problem solving. Mathematics classes will most profitably be approached, not as “What is the formula I have to memorize,” but with ideas such as those enumerated here. The nonmathematician who approaches a mathematics class as an opportunity for disciplined thought and problem solving will do better, profit more, and maybe, just maybe, enjoy the course.
It is my the hope that this essay have provided the nonmathematician with an inkling of why it is profitable for people who aren’t going to be mathematicians to still study mathematics.
God is the Creator and Origin of all. Leaving out of address the Problem of Evil, there is nothing good which does not issue from him.
That stated, God does have the power to create something which is both new and good, a good which is not in himself. That is an implication of the extent to which he is the Creator.
I would point to the material, physical world as a prime example of this. We are created as carnal creatures, and that is good. It is a gift given to us, and any spirituality which shuns or disdains the physical is a lie.
The physical, though, was wholly created. In history, after the Creation in Eden, God the Son became incarnate by the virgin Mary, but now (God the Father and God the Holy Spirit) and then in the three persons of God, God (was) an aphysical spirit.
When I speak of God as being masculine and not feminine, I am not asserting that femininity is an evil characteristic, or unreal, or something else of that order. Femininity was created as good. I am simply speaking of God as being masculine and not feminine.
I think that the Chinese concept of Yin and Yang (although not perfect for this purpose — look far enough in writings, and you will find lots of weird mysticism that wanders from truth) is capable of illuminating the matter a great deal. (I will, rather than refute, simply leave out what is inconsistent with Christian teaching)
First of all, the thought of Yin and Yang is greatly present. Something highly similar is embodied in that the structure of most languages intrinsically speaks of masculine and feminine; if I were writing this in French, at least half of the words would be masculine or feminine. It is not another superficial detail; it is a manner in which the world is seen.
Yang is the masculine, active principle; Yin is the passive, feminine principle. In a landscape, Yang is the great mountain which thrusts out and stands because that is the nature of its solid presence; Yin is the flat land or the valley whose quiet nature is there. Yang is rough and solid, the might and majesty of an organ played sforzando, the deep echo of tympani, the firmness of a rock. Yin is the soft and supple, the peacefulness of an organ (key of F) played gedekt, the sweet resonance of a soprano voice, the pliancy of velvet and water. Yang is constant and immutable; Yin is conformant and polymorphic. Yang gives; Yin receives.
The relation between God and man is the relation between Yang and Yin.
God is HE WHO IS, the rock and foundation. In God is such power and authority that he commanded, “Let there be light,” and it was so. It is God whose mere presence causes mountains to melt like wax, at whose awesome presence the prophet Isaiah cried out, “Woe is me, for I am destroyed.”
God created a garden, and placed man in it, telling him to receive; he forbade eating one of the two trees in the center of the garden (the other was the Tree of Life) only after telling them to enjoy and eat freely of the trees.
Again to Noah, God gave salvation from the flood.
Abraham, God called.
Moses, God bestowed the Law.
David, God promised an heir.
Israel, God sent prophets and righteous men.
In the fullness of time, God sent his Son.
“Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth. Yahweh Sabaoth is with us; The God of Jacob is our fortress.”
Righteousness is not something we earn; it is something Jesus earned for us when he offered one perfect sacrifice for all time. Works come because “we are sanctified by faith and faith alone, but faith which sanctifies is never alone.” The forgiveness of sins is a pure and undeserved gift; the power to obey, by the motion of the Spirit is a gift. All who accept and abide in these gifts will be presented spotless before God the Father, as the bride of Christ to feast with the bridegroom in glory, joy, and peace for all eternity. Christ, like the phoenix who dies only to shoot forth blazing in new glory, afire with the power of an indestructible life, offers this life to us, that we also may receive it.
The thread running through all of these things, through the words “Ask and receive, that your joy may be complete,” indeed through all of Scripture from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation, is, “I love you. Receive.”
To ask if God is more like a man or more like a woman is a backwards question.
The answer instead begins by looking at God.
God is the ultimate Yang.
“All creatures embody Yin and embrace Yang.”
-Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Man, next to God, is Yin. It is only in comparison with each other that the human male is Yang and the human female is Yin; both are very Yin in the shadow of God.
It is something of this that is found in the passages that most explicitly speak of the imago dei:
“God created man in his image; In the image of God he created him; Male and female he created them.”
“With [the tongue], we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse people, made in God’s image.”
“…[the man] is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man…. In the Lord, however, man is not independant of woman, nor is woman independant of man. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.”
I Cor. 11:7-9, 11-12
Now, before I proceed, let me issue a clear statement that this does not bear an implication of murder of a woman is no big deal, men are moral entities but women are chattels, or some other such nonsense. The Golden Rule is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” not “Do unto other males as you would have them do unto you;” indeed, the Sermon on the Mount, Paul’s letters, etc. were addressed to women as well as men. I could devote space to a detailed explanation of why it is wrong to treat women as subhuman, but I do not think that that particular problem is great enough now (at least here/in formal thought) to need a refutation, although it certainly merits a sharp reproof when it does appear.
The picture painted is one of the male being a Yin-reflection of God, and (here in a manner which is not nearly so different, and is essentially equal) the female being a Yin-reflection of God and man.
It is all humanity to which obedience means being Yin to God’s Yang, being clay which is pliant and supple in the hands of the potter. It is, in my opinion, one of the great graces, along with becoming the sons and daughters of God, that the Church is/is to be the bride of Christ. (Note that in the Old Testament and the New Testament alike, the metaphor is quite specifically bride, not ‘spouse’ in a generic sense and never ‘husband’.)
The relation between God and man is the relation between Yang and Yin; God is more Yang than Yang. The difference dwarfs even the profound differences between human male and female. There is a sense in which the standard is the same; even in the passages in which Paul talks about this order, there is nothing of a man having a macho iron fist and a woman being a nauseating sex toy. Ephesians 5:22, “Wives, submit to your husbands, as if to the Lord,” comes immediately after some words that are quite unfortunately far less cited: “Believers, submit to one another in love,” and the following words to husbands make an even higher call: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up to her.” Elucidation elsewhere (“Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them,” Col. 3:19) speaks at least as plainly; the passages addressed to wives telling them to submit are quite specifically addressed to wives, and not to husbands. The words, “Husbands, here is how you are to impose submission on your wives and keep them under control,” do not appear anywhere in Scripture.
To have a man who is macho and dominant, whose ideal of the ultimate form of manhood is Arnold Schwarzenegger carrying around a Gatling gun, or to have a woman who is wishy-washy and insubstantial, who is “so wonderfully free of the ravishes of intelligence” (Time Bandits), is disagreeable. It is, however, not at all disagreeable because “All people are essentially identical, but our phallocentric society has artificially imposed these unnatural gender differences.” It is not anything close to that.
It is rather that macho and wishy-washy both represent an exceedingly shallow, flattened out (per)version of masculinity or femininity. It is like the difference between an artificial cover of politeness and etiquette over a heart of ice, and a real and genuine love.
The solution is not to become unisex, but to move to a robust, three dimensional, profound, and true masculinity or femininity. There is a distinctly masculine, and a distinctly feminine way to embody virtue. It is like eating a hot casserole as contrasted to eating a cool piece of fruit: both are good and solidly nourishing, but they are different.
[note: I handwrote this document, and decided to type it later… a part of this next paragraph will have the same effect as Paul’s words, “See what large letters I am using as I write with my own hand,” in the tiny print of a pocket NIV… I am choosing to leave it in, because its thought contributes something even when the script is lost]
I know that I am not the perfect image of masculinity — there is a good deal of both macho and effeminacy in me — but there is one little thing of myself that I would like to draw attention to: my handwriting, the script in which this letter is written. It should be seen at a glance by anyone who thinks about it that this was written by a male; rather than the neat, round letters of a feminine script, this script bears fire and energy. I draw this to attention because it is one example of (in my case) masculinity showing itself in even a tiny detail.
A good part of growing mature is for a man to become truly masculine, and for a woman to grow truly feminine; it is also to be able to see masculinity and femininity.
Vive la différence!
- The Bible Gateway
- A powerful and easy to use interface permits visitors to look up passages and perform keyword searches in several Bible translations (in English and other languages).
- Christian Classics Ethereal Library
- The Christian Classics Ethereal Library, available on CD-ROM, is a collection of numerous classic Christian public domain e-texts, a lifetime’s worth of reading. G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy is a good place to start. This site also has links to other sites hosting noteworthy Christian content.
- First Things: A Journal of Religion and Public Life
- After long and frustrated surfing through innumerable web pages looking for serious Christian thought, and finding pages that are among human thought what MacDonald’s is among foods, I found a First Things article entitled Abortion: A Failure to Communicatethat was a breath of fresh air and then some: it was serious, thought-provoking, and drew attention to facts that were important but not obvious. First Things is a good place to go if you want to chomp on conceptual meat.
- Free Find is a free search engine, and powers the search functionality on this site.
- The Gutenberg Project
- The Gutenberg Project makes numerous classic books available online. It is the place I go if I want to read something on my computer and the Christian Classics Ethereal Library doesn’t have it.
- A collection of research tools for searching web, newsgroup, dictionary, encyclopedia, phone directory, biography, quotation, …
- Leadership University
- Leadership University is a massive compilation of articles from First Things and other sites; it’s a good place to go and read and think. It was actually the place where I first found Abortion: A Failure to Communicate.
- The Onion Dome
- The Onion Dome is an online journal about the funnier side of Orthodoxy.
- Orthodox Church in America Saints: The Prologue
- The links in the Prologue are an excellent way to get a daily taste of the Orthodox tradition of biography as theology.
- Orthodox Circle
- This is an example of what community portals should be: practical, friendly, and a work of art. This one is for Orthodox Christians.
- Vote Smart
- For reasons elaborated by Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business, present American political discourse is a matter of show business, sound bites, empty phrases, and hard-hitting images — not rational arguments and positions — to the effect that most of what reaches us from the candidates is not helpful in choosing who to vote for.
When I asked around for websites that would cut through the circus and tell where candidates stand on issues, Vote Smart was reccommended to me. I am mentioning it, not to say that it’s better than other sites in the same category, but in hopes that people may use resources like this to get past TV showmanship, and vote based on where the candidates stand on the issues.
This category is for personal sites, including those of friends and acquaintances who publish real content, that I like. At the moment, it’s small (my best friend Robin’s site, for instance, has little besides a resume and some links), but I’m hoping that it will grow over time.
Nota bene: Before the reflection, I have included a couple of journal entries which are alluded to and whose content contributes to the discourse. People not interested can skip down.
I was walking outside and met Robin, and we talked. When he asked me how I was doing, I didn’t have much to say, but mentioned a few thoughts I’d had. Then I asked him how he was doing, and he said that he had been feeling really close to God, and more aware of other people.
I hadn’t mentioned, because it had been around so long, the emptiness I was feeling, and I became more acutely aware of how dry my own spiritual life had been, how mechanical of an exercise my Bible reading was.
That night, I was walking over to Wheaton’s campus for Pooh’s Corner (a group of people that meets to read children’s books aloud). A long and slow-moving freight train was crossing the tracks. While I was standing and waiting, I thought about the conversation and my own dryness, and decided to work on my spiritual state when I got home.
—No, not when you get home. Now.
—Not now! I’m waiting for a train.
I decided to do something then and there. But what? Iniative and power are all on God’s side; there was nothing I could do that would accomplish closeness between God and me. So I prayed a simple prayer.
That moment, I was filled with joy and peace, deeper than I had known in a long time. I paced back and forth in that joy and peace waiting for the train — enjoying through them the simple little things: the walking, the sound of the train. Whatever I did, there was God.
I thought about Thérèse de Lisieux’s little way (as depicted in the movie Household Saints), about resting in God’s presence, and of being in God’s will in even the most simple places — even waiting for a train. At a low spot — when I medically can’t work above half-time, and have an intermittent job not related to computers — and when used to thinking about serving God in spectacular and heroic ways, it was good to realize that. I went on to Pooh’s corner, and enjoyed things there a great deal more. There were milk and cookies, and I enjoyed them in a different way than I usually enjoy food. I usually eat good food slowly and in little bites, to consciously savor its flavor — but I do not completely engage, or rather I am not able to let go of my disengagement. This time I was able to engage, and not just with the milk and cookies; I was also able to engage with the camaraderie and silliness.
When I create something (even something little), there is a first conception of the idea, then an incubation period where I let the idea ferment, then a time of implementation. The fermenting period is one which I cherish, and one which I had rarely experienced since a loss of creativity associated with my medication (the creativity has returned after an adjustment of the levels of those medications). I experienced it then. I also spent time worrying about the loss of the joy and peace, although I tried not to.
At Pooh’s Corner, I was distracted for a good part of it, wanting to get up and write about the posting on the forum wall, but still trying to enjoy it, as that would be all the Pooh’s Corner I would have for the week. Pooh’s Corner meets in the lobby of Fischer dorm, where I stayed my freshman year. It is a place full of distractions and people passing through. There is a piano there, and partway through I realized in a flash that I had been drinking the music in the same way that I drink wine.
What I mean is this: Wine, as contrasted to e.g. milk or juice, is something you can only take a small amount of. You can drink water until your thirst is quenched, or have several glasses of milk, but with wine it is different. If you are having one drink, then that translates to a 5 ounce glass — not even a full cup. If you drink it the same way you drink Pepsi, you are going to find yourself holding an empty glass before you know it.
Consequently, when I drink wine, I sip it very slowly, and I consciously savor it in a way that would never occur to me if I could drink an indefinite quantity and remain sober. What I realized last night as I was thinking about my realization was that I taste wine in a way that I do not taste milk. I drink milk, and like it, and vaguely and absently taste it, but do not taste it wholly. With wine, the realization that I only have a little amount and it will soon be gone keeps me from absently quaffing glass after glass; when I have a glass of wine, I sometimes close my eyes and am able to taste it so intensely that I am not aware of anything else.
That is what happened with the music, and which I realized afterwards. I have no control over the music that is played, and the most beautiful passages seem to be over so quickly. At one point in the music, I was doing the same thing as I do when I hold a sip of wine in my mouth, close my eyes, and savor it — I was concentrating on it so intensely that I was not aware of anything else (in a busy room with many voices talking and people passing through), and when it was over I had a feeling of having drunk it to the dregs.
It was somewhat strange to realize that I had learned such a thing from wine. My attitude towards alcohol is European rather than American, and (without trying to trace the argument here) I regard alcohol as a symbol of moderation, and learning to enjoy things in a temperate manner (the Puritan attitude towards alcohol). I had not, though, expected that in drinking I would learn something of this nature. I think that what I did is close to what goes on in empathic listening — a drinking in with your whole being. At the beginning of this journal, I talked about not being able to engage. This is a point where I have learned to truly engage in one area, and it may well help me to engage in others — it has helped me to enjoy music, at least.
I was also thinking, Tuesday, about a point related to chapter 4 of G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. Specifically, many things imagined as magic and psychic phenomena are exaggerated and cosmetically altered versions of things God has given us. For example, teleportation (to be able to move instantaneously from point to point) is less astounding than being able to move from point to point in the first place, and there are many creatures which live without any such faculty (such as trees). Telekenesis is not that much more astounding than having hands with which to move things. Mental telepathy is quite similar to speech, and the surprise we would have at seeing mental telepathy is nothing like the surprise an animal (with a sufficiently anthropomorphic mind) would have at discovering that once one of these creatures learns something, the rest know it. It would be like what reaction we might have upon first learning certain things about Star Trek’s Borg, multiplied tenfold. If it is thought of in this manner, the concept of speech is far more impressive than the concept of altering speech by changing the channel through which the mind-to-mind transmission occurs. It might be also pointed out that, in the past few millenia, we have found another channel for mind-to-mind transmission to occur: reading and writing. When one pair of Wycliffe missionaries was working with some tribesmen, they were trying to persuade the chief of the advantage of writing. One of them left the other room, and the other one asked the chief’s mother’s name, and wrote it down. When his partner returned and read her name, the chief almost fainted.
There are a couple of things that come from this.
The first is that God’s creation really is magical, in the sense of being something awesome, and something we should be amazed that we have. It is in our nature to become blasé; our eyes become glazed over at magnificent things. If we can somehow let scales fall from our eyes, we would be dumbstruck at what we have — for example, music.
The second is that, if we can become blasé at what God has given us, we would probably also become blasé at the things we fantasize about. When I was a child, I absolutely loved to swim, and I wished that I could breathe underwater… but that (after a little while) would have held nothing for me than being able to breathe air, hold my breath, and swim underwater. I have fantasized about all of the special powers that I would like to have, and when I do that I do not much enjoy the gifts I have, not only as a human being, but personally — my sharp mind and so on and so forth.
Also related to this insight was kything… In A Wind in the Door, Madeleine l’Engle uses the word ‘kythe’ to describe a beautiful communion beyond communication. It is the whole cherubic language, of which mental telepathy is just the beginning. It holds a similar place to ‘grok’ in Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and the meanings of the two words are similar. I am not going to try per se to describe its meaning further, but simply refer the reader to that excellent book.
What he had actually seen she could not begin to guess. That he had seen something, something unusual, she was positive.
This is the same sort of feeling I felt about kything.
There is something in that word that strikes a deep chord in my spirit; it is the primary reason why that is my favorite book out of the series, and at times been one of my favorite books at all. In conjunction with the above musing, l’Engle’s portrait of kything has a beauty that is not an ex nihilo creation, that shows forth a beauty that is really in this world but which we do not see. I would very much like to kythe — but I can’t do what’s in the book without sinning. What is in this world that embodies the beauty of kything?
As I was thinking and praying, I realized several things that may, in a sense, be called kything, that are beautiful in the same way. I felt a Spirit-tugging to list a hundred such things. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that, or if so where I’ll come up with a hundred, but I will none the less try.
3: Martial arts sparring. It takes time (I’ve studied martial arts for a little over a year, and I’ve only begun to taste this), but there is something martial artists call ‘harmony with opponents’ that is a deep attunement. I’ve had one sparring match where I knew everything my opponent was going to do about a quarter second before he did it. A good book to read to get a little better feeling for this is The Way of Karate: Beyond Technique.
4: Flow, as described in Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence.
5: Empathic listening. This is listening in which the listener is completely attuned to the speaker. I don’t know any books to reccommend for that topic.
6: Drinking as I drink wine, or as I drank music.
7: Improvising musically. Music is an alien language, not symbolic, not logical, and yet speaking powerfully. When you can really let the music flow through you, you are kything.
8: Making love. The subject of the Song of Songs is not just a physical act, but a total communion between a man and a woman, united for life.
9: Stillness. There is a way of being still that is kything.
10: What I did at Pooh’s Corner the first night described.
(Well, there’s ten at one sitting… I expect to come back to this later.)
11: Mathematical problem solving. I won’t even begin to explain this, beyond saying that to those who have experienced it no explanation is necessary. Just remembered — there’s a good book on this topic for non-mathematicians, entitled, The Art of Mathematics.
12: Musical improvisation with another person. I have never done this, but I remember, at Calvin, being fascinated by my friends Bruce and Janna talking about when they improvised together at the keyboard. It worked. I believe, from conversations, that the Spirit was guiding them, and it was a communion with the Spirit and each other.
13: Singing prayers in tongues. I don’t pray this way very often, but when I do, it’s very uplifting. It is a praying, not with the rational mind, but with the spirit, and it receives what to say moment by moment from the Spirit.
14: Non-sexual touch. It’s going to be hard to say something brief here, as I’ve written a whole treatise on this point, but to try: Non-sexual touch can be deep, and express something words cannot. It is the nature of love to draw close; touch is an incarnate race’s physical means of communicating love, and for babies the first and foremost way of knowing love. Beyond that… if what I am saying doesn’t resonate within you (or if you’d just like a hug), ask me for a hug — a real one. It took me a long time, but I have learned how to touch, and at times to drink touch as I drink wine.
15: Dancing. Wheaton alumnus Alan Light wrote a beautiful letter about how he had adopted a code of duty, honor, and steadfastness, and a folkdancing class had opened his eyes to joy, peace, and freedom. There is something beautiful of those things that can be learned in dancing, something that it’s easy not to know you’re missing. (For all that, I don’t dance very well. Before a knee injury, I had something to do with my feet that looked impressive, but I haven’t learned to dance (to commune with others, to connect in a merry, moving hug) as I have learned to touch.)
(Coming back after a time) I can recall one occasion when I really danced. At the last Mennonite Conference I attended, both youth and adult worship were religion within the bounds of amusement, but the youth worship was at least honest about it, and I preferred it to the adult sessions. Before a Ken Medema concert, there was a group of high schoolers playing a dance game, and I joined in. It lifted me out of sorrow, and there was a vibrant synergy, a joy and connection and communion. It’s something that everyone should experience at least once. He who dances, sings twice.
16: An I-Thou relationship. An I-Thou relationship differs from an I-It relationship as kything differs from mental telepathy. I only got halfway through Martin Buber’s I and Thou before setting the book down, because it was too hard to concentrate on, but it says a lot about how to kythe. As pertains to prayer and kything with God, I would pose an insight in the form of a riddle: how is it that the saint and mystic refers to God as `I’ without blaspheming?
17: Dreaming. One story in a marvelous book, Tales of a Magic Monastery by Theophane the Monk, ended with a character saying, “While you tend to judge a monk by his decorum during the day, we judge him by the number of persons he touches at night, and the number of stars.” Dreaming has always been special to me; it allows access to a different, fantastic world. It can be a way to kythe. What if there were a culture that regarded dreaming rather than waking as the aroused state?
18: Praying with another person. Where two or three are gathered, he is with them. When they are praying, there is not only an individual bond between each one and God; there are connections within the group. There have been some people who hold that a man and a woman who are not married to each other should not pray together; I do not agree with that, but the fact that such a position has been taken by levelheaded believers seems to underscore that there is a communion between people who pray together.
19: Artistic creation. When I create something, it fills my mind, my musings; I kythe with it as I give it form.
20: Children’s play. Children’s play can be timeless and absorbing, and Peter Kreeft, in Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing, says that the activity of Heaven will be neither work, which is wearying, nor rest, which is passive, but pure and unending play, an activity which is energetic and energizing. Playing with children is entering into another world, a magical world, and entering into it means kything.
21: Listening prayers; listening to the Spirit. Ordinarily we think of prayer as speaking to God, but it is also possible to listen to him. And dancing with the Spirit — there are so many adventures to be had.
22: The Romance. There is a sacred Romance described in, for example, C.S. Lewis’s Pilgrim’s Regress, and Brent Curtis’s Less-Wild Lovers: Standing at the Crossroads of Desire. You do not come to the Romance; the Romance comes to you, although you may respond. Being in that is kything.
(I thought I might be able to think of 20 ways of kything… I’ve already gotten past that, by God’s grace.)
23: Silliness. When some friends are doing something silly — tickling or teasing (without going too far — this is something I’m not very good at), for example, it is not thought of in terms of something serious (as ‘serious’ is misunderstood to mean ‘somber’). None the less, there is in the lightheartedness a bond being forged or strengthened, a connection being made. Kything at its best is communication that needs no symbolic content, that has something that can’t be reduced to words. So is grabbing your friend’s nose.
24: Friendship and family relations. This differs from the above items, in that it is not an instantaneous experience resembling an instant of kything. It is rather a bond over time that is more than communication, where hearts touch each other. It is a bond where two people know each other, and in the time spent together a connection accumulates.
25: Agape love. There is a vain phrase, “To know me is to love me,” that might fruitfully be turned around as, “To love me is to know me.”
One of the stories in Tales of a Magic Monastery goes roughly as follows:
The Crystal Globe
I told the guestmaster I’d like to become a monk.
“What kind of monk?” he asked. “A real monk?”
“Yes,” I said, “a real monk.”
He poured a cup of wine, and said, “Here, take this.”
No sooner had I drunk it than I became aware of a small crystal globe forming about me. It expanded until it included him.
Suddenly, this monk, who had seemed so commonplace, took on an astonishing beauty. I was struck dumb. I thought, “Maybe he doesn’t know how beautiful he is. Maybe I should tell him.” But I really was dumb. The wine had burned out my tongue!
After a time, he made a motion for me to leave, and I gladly got up, thinking that the memory of such beauty would be well worth the loss of my tongue. Imagine my surprise when, when each person would unwittingly pass into my globe, I would see his beauty too.
Is this what it means to be a real monk? To see the beauty in others and be silent?
There have been times that I have been able to see beauty in other people, sometimes beauty that they were not likely aware of. Robin and Joel might not think in these terms, but they have the sight that comes of love. The words, “I never met a man I didn’t like,” bespeak this kind of love. Love is the essence of kything.
26: Passion. When we are filled with passion, we are singleminded and undistracted. Someone said that hate is closer to love than is apathy; if anything is the opposite of kything, it is apathy. Kything need not be associated with intense emotion, but passion has something of the spark of kything.
27: Tears. Crying is cathartic, and comes unbidden at the moments when something comes really close to our heart — be it painful or joyful. My ex-fiancée Rebecca commented that she was impressed at one time she saw me crying in public. My friend Amy, after reading my treatise on touch, said that she wished I had written a treatise on crying — something that is well worth writing, but I don’t have it in me to write. To cry is to kythe.
28: Don a mask. Putting on a mask can be a way of revealing; in role-play, I have through characters found ways of expressing myself that I couldn’t have done otherwise, and many people learn more about themselves through acting. Temporarily putting on a mask allows you to kythe through that mask in a way that wouldn’t occur otherwise.
29: Stand on your head. With familiarity, we don’t really see the things before us; we become Inspector Clouseaus. This is why some painters stood on their heads to look at landscapes — to see afresh what was familiar. Standing on your head is not exactly a way of kything, but it does open up ways to kythe that would normally be overlooked.
I just had a change of perspective… I thought about soliciting others’ insights as to ways of kything, but with some guilt, as if thinking about not doing my work. Then I remembered what I was writing about — a connected communion — and that it would be very appropriate to have this be not my isolated work but the work of several minds. So I will solicit and seek the help of others.
30: Stop hurrying. Our culture is obsessed with doing things quickly, and rushes through almost everything. Carl Jung, heretic as he may have been, had rare moments of lucidity; in one of them, he said, “Hurry is not of the Devil. Hurry is the Devil.” Removing hurry, and letting a moment last however long it should last by its own internal timing, is not exactly kything, but it is a removal of one of the chief barriers we face to kything. Kything is a foretaste of the eternal, timeless joy that is to come, and in kything five seconds and five hours are the same. One good idea before trying to kythe is to take off your watch.
31: Walks. I have just come back from a kything walk. It was warm, the ground was moist after rain, the sky was mostly covered by pink clouds, and it was silence — there was even silence in the sound of cars going by. Summer nights, with fireflies and crickets and a crystalline blue sky, are excellent for kything walks. In thinking about this, I realized that what we have is an incarnate kything — spirit moving through matter — while l’Engle portrays what is essentially a discarnate kything — spirit moving without regard to matter. It is also interesting to note that (to me at least) touch is more kything than sight — with sight potentially working at almost any range (we can see stars billions of light-years away), and touch having no range at all. I’m glad that I can absorb the grass around me in a way that I cannot absorb the grass a thousand miles away.
32: Grace. Up until now, I have written about what you can do to kythe, but there is a lot of kything that God initiates and provides. Having a vision is a kind of kything, and that is not anything you can do. My time with God by the railroad tracks was a kything with him that I had no power to create.
33: Looking. I am allergic to cats, and my family has a wonderful grey tabby named Zappy. I usually don’t touch her, but I do sometimes sit and gaze at her for a while. (I just realized that looking at Zappy for a while has the same effect on me as stroking a cat has on most people.) I can recall being warmed by the same gaze as an expectant mother in my small group, Kelly, smiled at me as I stroked Lena’s head (Lena being the 5 year old daughter of the group leader). In medieval culture, beholding the body and blood of Christ at mass was in a sense almost more held to be a receiving, a partaking, than eating and drinking them. The kything power of sight is attested to in Augustine’s words: “See what you believe; become what you behold.”
34: Absorbing poetry. Here is an example of a poem I wrote which I think is effective for the purpose:
Beyond doing, there is being.
Beyond time, there is eternity.
Beyond mortality, there is immortality.
Beyond knowledge, there is faith.
Beyond justice, there is mercy.
Beyond happy thoughts, there is joy.
Beyond communication, there is communion.
Beyond petition, there is prayer.
Beyond work, there is rest.
Beyond right action, there is virtue.
Beyond virtue, there is the Holy Spirit.
Beyond appreciation, there is awe.
Beyond sound, there is stillness.
Beyond stillness, there is the eternal song.
Beyond law, there is grace.
Beyond even wisdom, there is love.
Beyond all else, HE IS.
35: Mirth. The one line from all of C.S. Lewis’s writing that most sticks in my mind comes from Out of the Silent Planet, where he wrote, “…but unfortunately, [name of villain] didn’t know the Malacandrian word for ‘laugh’. Indeed, ‘laugh’ was a word which he didn’t understand very well in any language.” I debated about whether to put laughter in, as it has many forms — some of which, as the cynic’s scoff, are corrupt, and some of which are lesser goods — but there is at least one form of laughter that really is kything. It is mirth. It can be found, for example, where old friends are sitting around a table after a hearty meal; the laughter is not just a reaction to isolated events, but a mood that has little eruptions over things that aren’t that funny in themselves. It is mingled with companionship and fellow-feeling, and is a mirth that is the crowning jewel of forms of laughter.
36: Becoming good. Websters Revised Unabridged Dictionary 1913, p. 877, has:
(Kythe, Kithe) (ki&thlig;), v. t. [imp. Kydde, Kidde (kid”de); p. p. Kythed Kid; p. pr. & vb. n. Kything.] [OE. kythen, kithen, cuden, to make known, AS. cydan, fr. cud known. √45. See Uncouth, Can to be able, and cf. Kith.] To make known; to manifest; to show; to declare. [Obs. or Scot.]
For gentle hearte kytheth gentilesse.
(Kythe), v. t. To come into view; to appear. [Scot.]
It kythes bright . . . because all is dark around it.
Sir W. Scott.
The latter meaning of ‘kythe’ is the reason Madeleine l’Engle, after a search, chose that word to carry her meaning.
C.S. Lewis said that the process of becoming good was like the process of becoming visible, in that objects becoming visible are more sharply distinguished not only from objects in obscurity but from each other; becoming good is becoming more truly the person you were created to be (being Named).
Becoming good is kything in the dictionary sense, and it is why I put it here. It is also a kind of kything, and an aid to kything, in l’Engle’s sense — a stepping into the great kythe, into the great dance. It is like learning vocabulary to speech, or a conversation in which one learns vocabulary.
37: Comforting those in pain. Pain can isolate, but it can also bring down the walls around a person. I can remember now one time at a retreat when I was in the long, dark night of the soul, when I drank in a friend’s silent presence and touch like a lifeline. The worst comforters offer words to fix everything with clichés and pat answers. The best often feel somewhat helpless, enduring an awkward silence as if they don’t have anything to offer to so great a pain, but none the less offer something deep, more than they could have put into words, more often than they realize.
38: Presence. This facet of kything is perhaps best portrayed not directly, but in its stark silhouette, painted by Charles Baudelaire in his poem “Enivrez-vous”: <<Il faut etre toujours ivre…. Pour ne pas sentir l’horrible fardeau du Temps qui brise vos épaules et vous penche vers la terre, il faut vous enivrer sans treve. Mais de quoi? De vin, de poésie, ou de vertu, à votre guise….>> — “You must always be drunk…. to not feel the horrible burden of Time which crushes your shoulders and pushes you towards the earth, you must ceaselessly get drunk. But with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you please….”
Against this silhouette, of seeking something, anything, to flee into, stands out another facet of kything: that of being present, and giving undivided, focused attention. The kind of person you’d like to be around, the kind of person you’d want to have as a friend — isn’t hepresent?
39: Digesting experience.
41: Brainstorming. I think I do not need to say much here.
42: Step into other people’s worlds… Tonight my father, Joseph, and I went to play ping-pong. I didn’t realize one thing I had been doing — playing Joe’s way, Joe’s rules — until I saw Dad make Joseph rather upset by insisting that he play a standard, official rules game of ping-pong. (To his credit, Dad later started playing Joe’s way.) Then I realized that I had been stepping into Joe’s own little world, and meeting him more completely than had I insisted we stay in the public space that all ping-pong players share. Joe didn’t exactly mean to play ping-pong; he wanted to spend some time together, play around, goof off in a way that happened to make use of the framework of ping-pong. Part of the time, he was doing silly things that weren’t ping-pong (such as hitting the ball around the room), which our father frowned on, and I commented were a little bit of Janra-ball (see below), a compliment which Joe said he really appreciated. People invite you into their worlds all the time, but the invitations don’t have much fanfare and can be hard to notice. I’m glad I accepted Joe’s invitation.
43: …and invite others into your own. In one letter, when cherished abilities were beginning to return in the healing, I wrote:
The other thing which I have to share now is something which happened during the Gospel reading at the mass. I had my first theological musing in a while. That touched a greater frustration — that of reading some of the richest passages of the Scriptures, and learning almost nothing from them. There had one text that I read and was able to appreciate, if not being able to think much at all (Isaiah 60: “Arise, shine, for your light has come…”). This bleak dryness was broken both mentally and emotionally (there is a distinct and deep pleasure I have in theological reasoning), as I mused over the words: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places [or rooms, or mansions, in other translations].”
The most obvious interpretation of this metaphor is to think of a physical building, and that is surely appropriate. But I began to think of another interpretation of the dwelling-places, and that is this: our souls and spirits.
We have a temptation and a culture which defines happiness and sadness almost purely in terms of what is materially external to us: our possessions, the way others treat us, etc. That is certainly relevant — in that such blessings are to be gratefully received as a part of God’s grace and provision, and pains are a real suffering to work through — but even more important and more central is what is internal to us and our interactions and relationship with God. Being an alcoholic is a worse suffering than being in prison. It is something related to this insight that is behind many Eastern religions defining Heaven and Hell to be defined almost purely by your internal state. One Zen koan tells us:
A Samurai came to a Zen master and said, “Show me the gates of Heaven and Hell.”
The Zen master said, “Are you a Samurai? You look much more like a beggar. And that sword — I bet it is so dull that it could not cut off my head.”
The enraged Samurai drew his sword, and raised it to strike the master down.
The Zen master said, “Now show me the gates of Heaven.”
The Samurai sheathed his sword, bowed to the master, and left.
A person’s bedroom is a place that has flavor and detail; it is an interesting place to explore, especially as compared to the sterility of a classroom or some other public place. A person’s soul, too, has something of this color and distinctiveness; there are interests, memories, stories, and other things even more vital but which I have more difficulty describing — the particular virtues and vices, the particular tendencies, which cause a person to act unlike any other. A soul, like a house, is a place of hospitality — a guest is invited into a host’s house, to enjoy his comforts, his foods, and a friend is invited into another friend’s soul, to enjoy it in a deeper form of the way in which we enjoy a friend’s house. (In Heaven, there will be very much opportunity for hospitality; it will be the final place of community and celebration, and therefore our dwelling places can hardly be places of isolation.) For many years, I thought of this passage in terms of something of a more ornate, perhaps almost magical, physical edifice that would be nothing more; now, I see what is in retrospect obvious: when the old order of things has passed away and behold, all things are made new, our dwelling places will not simply be better purely physical buildings, but better than purely physical buildings. This is just as our bodies, which are dwelling-places of the Holy Spirit, will not simply be better purely physical bodies, but pneumatikon, spirit-bodies, better than purely physical bodies. I thought before of these rooms as physical rooms which we would decorate with artistic creations — and those artists among you will know what it means, and what a room means, when you are able to fill it with your artwork. I still do believe that — and I realized another form that will take. By our faith, and by our works, we are doing with our spirits what an artist does with a room when he toils over artwork to adorn it with. We are shaping the dwelling places we will have for our eternal play (and one of the images painted of Heaven is one of neither work nor rest, but pure and unbounded play). God is shaping us to become gods and goddesses, but he is not doing it in a way that bypasses us and our free will; we are working with God in the work that will shape us forever.
Our souls, like our domiciles, are special places, far more than public places that anybody can enter without asking permission, in which to receive other people.
44: Nursing. The natural focal distance for an adult’s eyes is twenty feet and on; the natural focal distance for an infant’s eyes is eighteen inches, the distance between a woman’s nipple and her nose. (Infants look at, and remember, noses rather than eyes.) Feeding, important as it may be, is only the beginning of what is going on when a mother is nursing a child. To put it another way, the necessity of physical feeding provides the occasion for a kything of love that provides even more necessary spiritual feeding.
45: Pregnancy. A fortiori.
46: Timeless moments. One person, speaking of singing a worship song, suggested thinking not so much in terms of “We start and stop this song,” as “This song always has been going on and always will be going on; we just step into it for a time.” In this spirit, there are moments of kything, often unsought and unattempted, which do not so much start and stop as are a stepping into the Eternal Kythe.
47: Parenting a child with a severe disease. At a bioethics conference, Dr. C. Everett Koop said, “There is a special bond that forms with a defective child, often far moreso than a normal child.” He told a story from the practice of a Jewish pediatrician and colleague. A father lost a second child to Tay-Sachs, a degenerative disease whose people do not live to the age of four. Grieving, he said through tears, “He never gave me a moment’s trouble.” I am not sure why this is, but it may have something to do with why I enjoy a small glass of wine more than a bottomless cup of Coke.
48: Corporate worship. Worship is a foretaste of Heaven, and it plays a focal role in the Eastern Orthodox emphasis on bringing Heaven down to earth; they describe their worship as stepping into Heaven. Worship is also the highest form of love. In these two aspects, at least, worship is kything. Corporate worship is a kything not only with God, but with the others you are worshipping with.
49: Janra-ball. This is a game I devised, and has been described as a Zen NOMIC. To excerpt the ingredients list:
Springfield, Monty Python, Calvin-Ball, body language, Harlem Globetrotters, sideways logic, Thieves’ Cant, Intuition, counter-intuitive segues, spoon photography, creativity, Zen koans, Psychiatrist, adrenaline, perception, tickling, urban legend Spam recipe, swallowing a pill, illusionism, NOMIC, modern physics, raw chaos, F.D. & C. yellow number 5.
I originally hesitated to put this in, on the grounds that it is difficult to play, at least in a pure state. There’ve been a couple of times I’ve gotten together a group of people willing to play, and it didn’t work. I thought it would require players with more of something — perception, intuition, creativity, spontaneity, etc. — but in thinking recently, I have come to believe that it’s something, like empathic listening, that can’t just be turned on at will, especially by someone inexperienced (which would be everyone now). Joseph’s behavior at the game last night persuaded me that it is indeed possible, perhaps best started at in small increments from a more structured game. (Maybe Pooh’s Corner will be able to play. Who knows?) I will say this: It’s a difficult game to play, but if you can play it, it’s anawesome kythe.
50: Synchronicity/attunement. As treated in The Dance of Life, people have rhythms about them — outside of conscious awareness — and when people are together, these rhythms can become attuned (and, if so, the people themselves are more attuned). This is something that is not as well appreciated in our culture as in others. The easiest example or analogue I can point to (I’m not sure which) is in walking together and holding hands. When I was dating Rebecca, it took me a long time to learn to get in step, and stay in step — but things were smoother when I did.
51: A kind of openness. There is a kind of openness where you perceive something but can’t put your finger on exactly what. If you can listen, be opening, look, then there is a sort of listening kything. I checked out a copy of A Wind in the Door yesterday, and when I was reading through to find insights for more ways of kything, I came on something that I felt was significant to what I’m writing, but I couldn’t say what. I sat then, open, thinking, waiting to see what it was — and then realized that it was not the heart of a way of kything, but something to put at the beginning:
What he had actually seen she could not begin to guess. That he had seen something, something unusual, she was positive.
This is the same sort of feeling I felt about kything.
This is part of how kything is to Charles Wallace:
Meg said sharply, “Why? What did mother say?”
Charles Wallace walked slowly through the high grass in the orchard. “She hasn’t said. But it’s sort of like radar blipping at me.”
This kind of listening kythe is how I get a lot of the ideas for these items.
Then [Blajeny] sat up and folded his arms across his chest, and his strange luminous eyes turned inwards, so that he was looking not at the stars nor at the children but into some deep, dark place far within himself, and then further. He sat there, moving in, deeper and deeper, for time out of time. Then the focus of his eyes returned to the children, and he gave his radiant smile and answered Calvin’s question as though not a moment had passed.
Introspection is a kything with oneself.
53: Forgiveness. Forgiveness is a spiritual act, a restoration of broken communion.
54: Artistic appreciation. In high school, I made a silver ring, designed to hold a drop of water as a stone. When I started to paint, I learned a new way of seeing. After a painting in which a pair of hands played prominently, I was captivated by the beauty of people’s hands all around me; for the first time in my life, I saw in them a beauty as great as that of faces.
What an artist does is allow you to see through his eyes. When you look at a friend’s watercolor, you are seeing the beach through her eyes, as you would not have perceived it yourself. When you read this list, you are thinking about the word ‘kythe’ through my mind.
55: Talking. This one is so obvious I overlooked it completely. The magic of symbols that allows mind-to-mind communication is one that is appreciated, for instance, when trying to work with someone who doesn’t speak a common language with you.
56: Looking into another person, and telling him what you see. I have always enjoyed other people telling me what they see in me. For a time, I thought that was vanity, and vanity certainly played a part. But recently, I have come to see a deeper reason for asking this of other persons.
I have for a while enjoyed asking foreigners what they think of American culture, and probed a bit not only for the appreciation they will voice, but criticisms. Most foreigners can articulate the character of American culture better than can most Americans, and they have insights that wouldn’t occur to an American. They see things that have become invisible to Americans. They have a distance, like aesthetic distance, that allows them to see what is too close to be visible to us.
For the same or analogous reasons, having another person tell you what he sees in you is another variant on introspection, like using a mirror in looking at yourself to see parts you can’t look at directly. Different people who have known you for different amounts of time can see different parts of you.
When you tell another person what you see in him, you provide this sort of introspection; your words fuse with his knowledge of himself to form a deeper self-knowledge, and say more to him than they would mean to anyone else. They connect. They kythe. It is like the story of the crystal globe — only you can tell people how beautiful they are.
57: Driving. In the car this morning, after having to take my brother to school and my mother to work, I was thinking about the podracing in Star Wars: Episode I — one of the most Jedi/Force parts of the movie — and I realized I was really enjoying driving for the first time in years. (I started late in driving, and have a fear of it. I had enjoyed singing while driving, but not driving itself.) I was very aware of my surroundings, and connected, and entered flow. Though I stayed within the speed limit and there were no hazardous conditions, it was in a very real sense podracing. It was a kythe with my surroundings and especially with my car, which was as an extension of my body. It is entirely possible to kythe with technology (and I was seeking an example), to have your hands on a steering wheel or a keyboard so that you are thinking through them, and your thoughts are not on your hands or fingertips, but where the car is moving, or what letters are appearing on the screen. Technology (techne, art + logos, logic, reason, domain of knowledge) is part of the creation of the imago Dei, and therefore has a role in God’s order. There is a tendency for the sort of people interested in kything things to be Luddites, but this need not be. If you can kythe with God, with another person, with a shaggy dog, with the grass, with ideas, with experiences, then you can also kythe with a car, with a computer.
58: Pain. This one will probably be difficult for most Americans to understand, and I’m not sure I can explain it well — here I will probably be talking around my point mostly. We live in a painkilling culture, one that attemps to delete that entire region of human experience, and therefore neither understands nor profits from it.
A place to begin is to say that leprosy ravages the body through one very simple means: it shuts off a person’s ability to feel pain. Exactly how shutting off pain causes such severe damage is left as a valuable exercise to the reader’s imagination. Pain is an awareness of your body’s state, and of what you can and cannot do without aggravating an injury. I very rarely take painkillers, because I want to know exactly how my body is doing. (Sunday night was the first time in memory of taking a painkiller not prescribed by a doctor.)
In addition, pain is a present sensation; it is not in our nature to not notice. Intense pain can fill consciousness. (Some mentally ill people self-mutilate because the sensation of physical pain, if only momentarily, can take them out of their mental anguish.) If all our kything is as real as pain, we are doing well.
59: DeathWhat was said about pain and our culture applies, mutatis mutandis, to death and our culture. (I don’t know any good books on pain; a good, deep book on death is Peter Kreeft’s Love is Stronger Than Death.) In other kythes, you kythe love, or ideas, or listening; in this kythe, you kythe yourself. The art of dying well is an art of letting go of a world you’ve known for years and giving yourself fully to God. That’s about as full of a message as you can send.
60: Gift-giving. A good gift is at least three messages: a statement about the nature of the person giving the gift, a statement about the nature of the person receiving the gift, and something else peculiar to the character of the gift. None of these messages are symbolically encoded, and the result is that they can say things inexpressible in normal words. A gift is not worth a thousand words; there is no exchange rate between gifts and words.
61: Reminiscing. Reminiscing is a kything with memories.
62: Local traditions. There are traditions, like Pooh’s Corner or Club Pseudo (a tradition at my high school, similar to an open mike at a coffeehouse). These traditions have a unique local flavor and personality, and create a special bond among participants. Janra-ball, if it works, would be another example.
63: Community. Community is like friendship, but it does not reduce to friendship. A community is more than a set of friendships, as a friendship is more than two isolated individuals.
64: Ellis lifeguarding. This entry should not be written by me; it should be written by my high school acquaintance Chuck Saletta. American Red Cross lifeguards are taught to respond to problems; Ellis lifeguards are taught to see them coming. Chuck has written that he knows ahead of time when a swimmer is going to be in distress, and also that on the highway he watches the cars ahead of him and is usually able to tell whether or not they’ll turn on an exit — before they put their turn signals on. That has to involve an attention and attunement to the situation that is noteworthy.
“Has Mother actually told you all this?”
“Some of it. The rest I’ve just—gathered.”
Charles Wallace did gather things out of his mother’s mind, out of meg’s mind, as another child might gather daisies in a field.
This is another passage that sticks in my mind as an insight into kything. I gather when I muse, when I have certain intuitions. I gather passages from the book. Where do you gather?
66: Firing a ballista at your television. Television is a crawling abomination from the darkest pits of Hell. It is a pack of cigarettes for the mind. It blinds the inner eye. It is the anti-kythe.
When I was in fourth grade, we read The Last of the Really Great Wang-Doodles, and then drew pictures. My teacher commented that she could tell from the pictures who watched TV. A home without television is like a slice of chocolate cake without tartar sauce. Get rid of your television, and you will find yourself living life more fully, and kything more deeply.
Two good books dealing with this topic are Neil Postman’s concise and lively Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business, and Jerry Mander’s in-depth Four Arguments For the Elimination of Television.
67: Boundaries. Boundaries are an important part of friendship; the boundaries of a message give it shape; drinking a certain amount of wine and then stopping enables you to enjoy it without becoming drunk. Boundaries are a kind of kythe, and also a part of other kythes; a hug is best if it is neither too short nor too long.
68: Thunderstorms. Imagine that you are a child, outside in a thunderstorm at night, with the rain warm and heavy, the wind blowing about, the trees dancing, everything suddenly illumined by flashes of lightning. Wild nights are my glory. This is a night to connect with, to drink in.
(Idea taken from Robin Munn.)
69: Using a knack. I am adept at finding pressure points on the body — not just the ones I know, but the ones I don’t know. I can tell from looking if a person will say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a hug. More fallibly, I can sometimes guess if a person is ticklish (hi, Ashley!).
I don’t know how I do any of these things, but these knacks are a form of kything.
70: Trying to kythe. I think it was Richard Foster who said that the very act of struggling to pray is itself a form of prayer. Last night during Pooh’s Corner, my fear of driving began to act up, and I walked out of the building thinking, “I won’t be able to kythe now. I’m not in the proper frame of mind.” Then I realized — no, I could kythe. I couldn’t produce the same end result, but I could put myself into it. A small child’s crayon drawing of a five-legged dog whose head is larger than its body is a beautiful thing, and it is made beautiful not by the performance criteria that a commercial product would be judged by, but by the love and effort that went into it.
I have attention deficit disorder. I can hyperfocus at times (exactly which times being largely out of my control), but quite often I haven’t connected with Pooh’s Corner. I haven’t been in the silliness, drinking it in even as an observer. What I have realized in writing this entry is that that doesn’t matter nearly as much as I thought it did, just as the crudity of the above described drawing doesn’t matter very much. It doesn’t matter if I often don’t succeed. I try. I kythe.
71: Weight lifting. The amount of force coming from a muscle is the result, not only of the muscle’s size and condition, but the amount of nervous impulse coming from the brain. People can normally summon only a small fraction of the total possible muscle impulse. One case where there can be full or near-full exertion is when people are terrified; they can possess something called hysterical strength, where it is entirely possible for a small, middle-aged woman to lift the back end of a car. Another is an epileptic seizure; in my EMT class, we were told not to try to restrain someone having a seizure, because bones will snap sooner than muscle strength will give out.
I trained with weights for a few years, and doing so was largely on will. I had pencil-thin arms and legs as a child, and worked to the point of having a Greek figure. (I now have a Greek figure plus a paunch, but we won’t get into that.) I got to the point of being able to lift the full stack (as much resistance as a machine designed for football players can give) on the better part of the machines, and (in moments of being macho and trying to do something I could brag about) walked a couple of short steps while carrying over 400 pounds of weight, and injured my hand by punching through stone tiles. I didn’t get much bigger after a certain point. Only a small portion of my doing those things was muscle. The rest was mind.
Many of the items above have been kythes of drinking in. This a kythe of putting out.
72: Doing something new and difficult. When you are skilled at something, you don’t have to put much of yourself into it to succeed. In high school, I put a lot of effort into trying to learn how to balance on a slack rope. I never really succeeded at what I aimed for, but I learned a couple of things. My balance improved a lot. One person watching me said it was like watching the sensei catching flies with chopsticks, in The Karate Kid. Even if I didn’t succeed at my intention, I learned to put my whole self into it.
73: Going through a difficult experience together. Meg and Mr. Jenkins came to know each other in a way that never would have happened had things been light and sunny. It may not be seen for the pain at the moment, but afterwards a growing-closer has happened.
74: Intuitions. Being attuned to, and using, your intuition is another way of kything.
75: Knowing others.
[Meg:] “…Did you know it was one of Calvin’s brothers who beat Charles Wallace up today? I bet he’s upset—I don’t mean Whippy, he couldn’t care less—Calvin. Somebody’s bound to have told him.”
[Mrs. Murray:] “Do you want to call him?”
“Not me. Not Calvin. I just have to wait. Maybe he’ll come over or something.”
One form of communion comes from knowing another person so well that communication is unnecessary. There is something more in this passage than if Meg had called Calvin — far more.
76: The useless. Many of those areas of human intercourse which are cut out by American pragmatism are the areas of speech which most embody kything. Within speech, talking about how to get something done is not a kythe — certainly not compared to a discussion which conveys love or insight or theory. Kything is something that’s not in Pierce’s and Dewey’s practical world.
77: Culture. Culture, often invisible to us, is a shared kythe across a group of people. It is the framework for communication, a kythe that gives other kythes their shape.
78: Wordless knowledge. When I was at Innes’s house, she asked me if I thought my twin brothers Ben and Joe were introverted, extroverted, etc. My first response, after a bit of a pause, was, “I don’t know.” I thought some more, and realized that the truth was slightly different: it had never occurred to me to think about them in those terms.
After I read Stranger in a Strange Land, I began to realize that many of my deepest thoughts were not in English, not for that matter in anything like verbal language. When I write them down, it is usually a translation, and sometimes matter a far more difficult translation than between English and French. It is more like trying to translate a song into a poem. These thoughts are of a wordless thinking, like the kything of the fara.
Personal Knowledge, a profound book and an excellent cure for insomnia, deals with those facets of human thought and interaction that do not reduce to words.
79: Being underwater. I felt that this was a kythe, but couldn’t put my finger on how. I still can’t fully articulate it, but it has a similar feel to a visual kythe. The beginning of A Dream of Light provides a good description of an underwater kythe:
You pull your arms to your side and glide through the water. On your left is a fountain of bubbles, upside down, beneath a waterfall; the bubbles shoot down and then cascade out and to the surface. To your right swims a school of colorful fish, red and blue with thin black stripes. The water is cool, and you can feel the currents gently pushing and pulling your body. Ahead of you, seaweed above and long, bright green leaves below wave back and forth, flowing and bending. You pull your arms, again, with a powerful stroke which shoots you forward under the seaweed; your back feels cool in the shade. You kick, and you feel the warmth of the sun again, soaking in and through your skin and muscles. Bands of light dance on the sand beneath you, as the light is bent and turned by the waves.
There is a time of rest and stillness; all is at a deep and serene peace. The slow motion of the waves, the dancing lights below and above, the supple bending of the plants, all form part of a stillness. It is soothing, like the soft, smooth notes of a lullaby.
Your eyes slowly close, and you feel even more the warm sunlight, and the gentle caresses of the sea. And, in your rest, you become more aware of a silent presence. You were not unaware of it before, but you are more aware of it now. It is there:
Like a tree with water slowly flowing in, through roots hidden deep within the earth, and filling it from the inside out, you abide in the presence. It is a moment spent, not in time, but in eternity.
You look out of the eternity; your eyes are now open because you have eternity in your heart and your heart in eternity. In the distance, you see dolphins; one of them turns to you, and begins to swim. The others are not far off.
It lets you pet its nose, and nestles against you. You grab on to its dorsal fin, and go speeding off together. The water rushes by at an exhilarating speed; the dolphin jumps out of the water, so that you see waves and sky for a brief moment before splashing through the surface.
The dolphins chase each other, and swim hither and thither, in and out from the shore. After they all seem exhausted, they swim more slowly, until at last you come to a lagoon.
In the center, you see a large mass; swimming closer, you see that it is a sunken ship. You find an opening…
80: Becoming ancient. Most entries so far have focused on what you do when you kythe. This is an entry about who you are. When you are ancient, you have had ages to let God work with you. You have had time to grow mature. You have gained experience. You have lived through many events and circumstances. You have smiled on generations. You have experienced change, both without you and within you. You have learned what is constant, both without you and within you. You have grown wise. You kythe with depth, with reality. You are like Senex (whose name means ‘aged’), like the fara — deep, rooted, moving without motion, sharing in the age (however faintly) of the Ancient of Days. Become all this, and you will kythe.
81: Becoming a child. When you are a child, you look with wonder at every bit of the world God has made; you do not know jadedness. You do not know guile; it would never occur to you to wear a mask. You play. You are never afraid to come running for a hug. You stay out in the rain. You always want to grow. You always want to know, “Why?” You bear a peace no storm has troubled. You can believe anything. You are like the little farandolae, dancing, swimming. Become all this, and you will kythe.
82: Doing something for its own sake. Someone said that a classic is a book that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read. There is a big difference between reading a book because you want to have read it, and reading it because you want to read it. The former is something to endure, the latter something to enjoy. For a while, when I drove, I would often drive five or ten miles under the limit, and when I started driving at the limit, it was mainly as a courtesy to not stress other drivers, and because I started driving on streets with heavier traffic where it would be hazardous to drive that much more slowly than the flow of traffic. I do not generally get tense (for reasons other than my fear of driving, and blunders I make as I still learn to drive), have nervous fidgets, get angry, or experience stress at red lights, slow traffic, and other delays that shoot some drivers’ blood pressure through the roof. The reason is that I am operating within a mindset of “I am driving; I am in the process of getting there; I will be there,” as opposed to “I need to be therenow, and I am tolerating this drive because it is the least slow means of getting there, and— Hey! That’s another second’s delay. Ooh, that makes me mad!” Pirsig treats this point at some length in the section of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that deals with climbing and his son’s ego climbing.
Of course many activities are means to other activities, and we would be in a bad state if we couldn’t do one thing to get at something else. But even then, intermediate activities that are trampled on are not good to do. Really wanting to do something, and doing it for its own sake, is a kythe with the activity that is better for both you and the activity.
Through [Mr. Jenkins’s] discouragement she became aware of Calvin. “Hey, Meg! Communication implies sound. Communion doesn’t.” He sent her a brief image of walking silently through the woods, the two of them alone together, their feet almost noiseless on the rusty carpet of pine needles. They walked without speaking, without touching, and yet they were as close as it is possible for two human beings to be. They climbed up through the woods, coming out of the brilliant sunlight at the top of the hill. A few sumac trees showed their rusty candles. Mountain laurel, shiny, so dark a green the leaves seemed black in the fierceness of sunlight, pressed towards the woods. Meg and Calvin had stretched out in the thick, late-summer grass, lying on their backs and gazing up into the shimmering blue of sky, a vault interrupted only by a few small clouds.
And she had been as happy, she remembere, as it is possible to be, and as close to Calvin as she had ever been to anybody in her life, even Charles Wallace, so close that their separate bodies, daisies and buttercups joining rather than dividig them, seemed a single enjoyment of summer and sun and each other.
That was surely the purest form of kything.
When I was in France, Rebecca wrote a letter about some of the moments she valued most with me. There was one moment when we went into the fine arts center, and I improvised on the organ for her,
and then we sat
in the silence
in the dark
not saying anything
not doing anything
Other people had talked with her and done things with her. I was the first person to be in the silence with her, and it profoundly affected her.
84: Dodge-ball. When I thought of this during a slow, back-burner brainstorm, I initially wanted to put it in because of pride and boastfulness: I wanted to impress you with how talented I am. Then I realized what I was thinking, and realized that was entirely out of place, and decided to definitely leave it out. But I still had some idle thoughts about it mulling about… and I mused… and realized something amazing. This definitely belongs in.
In dodge-ball, I couldn’t throw worth beans. Still can’t. But, in a lock-in for sophomores at IMSA, I joined a game of dodge-ball, and hid around in the back… and noticed that there were fewer and fewer people left on my team… and then I was one of two… and then the only one. Then, for five minutes, i dodged the whole other team throwing at me, sometimes four or five balls at once, and then a ball brushed me. When I stopped and began to slow down, I realized that the soles of my bare feet were burning hit from the friction of my jumping. After another game like that, people decided that if it got down to the other team versus me, the game was a draw.
One of the upperclassmen supervising, Paul Vondrak, was a great thrower; he was able not only to throw accurately, but to throw much faster than anyone else. He would stand, wind up slowly, and throw like lightning. I think it only took him about five throws to nick me.
I was thinking about this latter item, and (examining the memory) realized that I was paying very close attention to him… then realized that I was attuned to him… then thought that it was almost like a martial artist… and then realized, in a flash of insight, that in the one game I was doing the same thing a Samurai does when he defeats ten men. I do not understand exactly why I was able to do this without any special training or experience, although it does lend some corroboration to the puzzling fact that as a karate white belt I was able to defeat two out of three of my blackbelt instructors in sparring. Now I know that I have had an experience I would not ordinarily expect to have access to. I guess I would chalk it up to an unusual talent for certain kinds of kything.
I was trying to analyze my state of mind in (especially) the five minute dodge at the end, and the first thing I realized was that I don’t remember that state of mind too well — not as well as I remember feeling that my feet were hot afterwards. From what I remember, my state of mind differed from normal consciousness. A hint of an explanation would be to say that the perceptual processing alone would have severely overloaded my conscious mind. It could also be described as flow or podracing. I know there’s more, but I can’t get at it. If I can better process this memory, I think I will better understand kything. As I mull over this, I think that those five minutes may qualify as the most intense kythe of my life.
85: Reading another person’s body languages and emotions. As telekinesis is really moving things with your arms and telepathy is really talking, Charles Wallace’s awareness, without being told, of what’s going on in meg is really a perception of others’ emotions. This is the origin for the spark of beauty in that facet of Charles Wallace’s kything, and it is an area where I’d like to grow.
[The Shal’s] moments of community are profound; their moments of solitude are even more profound. `Withdrawing’ is what they call it; it is a time of stillness, and an expression of a love so profound that all other loves appear to be hate. It is a time of finding a secret place, and then withdrawing — from family, friends, and loved ones, from music and the beauty of nature, from cherished activities, from sensation — into the heart of the Father. It is a time of — it is hard to say what. Of being loved, and of loving. Of growing still, and becoming. Of being set in a right state, and realigned in accordance with the ultimate reality. Of purity from the Origin. Of being made who one is to be. Of communion and worship. Of imago dei filled with the light of Deus. Of being pulled out of time and knowing something of the eternal.
87: Zoning out. This is one of the last places one would look for kything; Robin observed that one of the central themes tying these entries together is presence, and this would seem to be the essence of absence. For all that… I found myself spacing out, and left the spacing out for introspection, and realized that my mental and emotional state was that of kything. A start of an explanation is that if it is an absence, it is entirely devoid of the Baudelarian flight urged in Enivrez-vous. It is a present absence; it goes into It is an egoless sliding into enjoyment. It is still and peaceful; it is quite restful; it is a good. Being in a similar attitude will help other kythes.
88: Playing Springfield. Springfield is a game with very simple rules: two people alternate naming state capitals, and the first person to name Springfield wins.
What makes it interesting is that it’s not a game of mathematical strategy. It’s a game of perception. The real objective is to win as late as possible, and that means reading the other person and seeing how far you can go: from nonverbal cues, you need to read his mind.
Springfield is probably comparable to poker.
89: Thinking deeply, prolongedly, and intensely about a question. I realized today that I had been thinking pretty hard about kything for several days, and thought I should take a sabbath from it: I would record ideas that I had, but not intentionally give conscious thought to the question. It was after I did that that I began to realize how deeply I had been kything with the idea of kything.
The first thing I noticed was that it was hard to stop thinking. The second thing I realized was that I was still thinking of ways of kything. I probably don’t have to devote any more conscious effort to thinking to complete the number of entries.
When you think in that manner, for a sufficient length of time, your thought acquires the momentum of a frieght train. Mathematicians solve some of the most difficult problems after long and intense thought, and then cessation of conscious thought, usually to the point of forgetting it — and the solution comes. If it can be solved by continuous thought, it is not among the most difficult problems; the mathematician is not exercising his full abilities. When the storm ceases and the surface of the ocean stills, then the Leviathan stirs in the deeps. Deep calls to deep. This is perhaps the most profound kythe with an idea.
90: Experience. Experience in a domain constitutes and enables a kythe with that domain. My Mom asked me if I had a universal adaptor for her tape recorder, and I pulled one and said, “Is this the right jack? If it isn’t, I have another.” She said, “I don’t know, let me see.” A short while afterwards, she called me over to look at it, because “it seems to have two prongs.” I looked at, and instantly realized that it didn’t need an adaptor. It needed a power cord.
I was mildly irritated, and was finally able to put my finger on something I’d felt. Answering her help requests with technology has the same feel to me as explaining things to a small, naive child who doesn’t understand how the world works. She sees technology as this mysterious, unpredictable black box which works by magic.
I thought a little more, as my mother is neither naive nor childish. She is an intelligent and well-educated woman. What I realized was that I was not appreciating my own experience. Experience enables a person to look at the surface and see the depths — and a port for a power cord does not look fundamentally different from what a port for an adaptor might be. I see a computer as having definite inner workings which work according to understandable principle; when the computer is malfunctioning, I think I have a chance of understanding why. If my Mom thinks that the computer is a black box (you can see what it does, but not what’s inside it), I think of it as a white box (you can see what’s going on inside, and try to fix it if need be). The way I look at computers might be compared to the topographical anatomy I was taught in my EMT class, where you look at skin and see the underlying organs.
You kythe more when you’re interacting with a white box than with a black box, and that comes with experience.
91: Closing your eyes.
[Charles Wallace] closed his eyes, not to shut out Louise, not to shut out Meg, but to see with his inner eyes.
I closed my eyes when visiting my friend Innes’s house, and I realized what I was doing, and why: to focus, to connect, to concentrate. This is why couples close their eyes when they kiss; this is why we have the custom of closing our eyes when we pray. The image of a blind seer is a part of myth and literature; when we close our eyes, we momentarily blind ourselves so we can see.
92: Mental illness. Mental illness is not exactly a purely negative thing. It is a difference that is ecological in character, with positive as well as negative aspects. This very dark cloud has a silver lining, sometimes a mithril lining. This is why people with mental illness speak of a gift — something that puzzled me when I first heard it.
93: Mental health. If mental illness is a way of kything, then mental health is definitely a way of kything. Robin is a good friend and an excellent listener, and he radiates health. And Joel —
Robin once mentioned a theatre professor saying of his predecessor that with most people, they walk into a room and it’s “What about me?” His predecessor walks into the room and it’s, “What about you?”
I remember thinking, “I’d like to have a friend like that,” and then, “I would like to be like that.” A day later, I realized that I do have a friend like that: Joel. With Joel, it’s “What about you?”
Joel is probably the best kyther I know.
94: Watching or studying a kythe.
[Meg] found herself looking directly into one of his eyes, a great, amber cat’s eye, the dark mandala of the pupil, opening, compelling, beckoning.
She was drawn towards the oval, was pulled into it,
was through it.
My brothers were playing, and I was watching Ben and Joe play. I became aware of an energetic character to the play, and then I recognized a kythe a split second before remembering the entry about play as kything. So I decided to watch — and then I realized I was in the kythe.
95: Nature. To be out in the woods, or looking at night at the sapphire sky and crystalline stars, or listen to the sounds of a forest, or to play with an animal, or wade barefoot through a cold, babbling brook — these are ways of kything with nature. (Taken from Innes Sheridan.)
96: Swallowing a pill. Learning to swallow a pill was a long and traumatic experience for me; for the longest time, I tried my hardest and just couldn’t do it. The reason was precisely that I was trying my hardest: I was trying much too hard. When I finally did learn, I learned far better than most; I can now swallow several decent-sized pills on a sip of water — when I was last hospitalized, the nurses remarked at how little water I needed, and told me to drink more.
In what is for the most people a minor learning experience, I came to really appreciate how easy swallowing a pill is — to easy to force or accomplish by willpower. In this regard, it is not only an example of kything, but a symbol. Do, or do not. There is no try.
97: Mystical experiences. These are bestowed by God, and are not human doing; visions may come once or twice in a person’s life, not at all for most people. When they do happen, they are a special moment of grace, and communion with God, and they can leave a person changed for life.
98: Massage. Being able to do backrubs is a good skill to take to college campuses. When you give another person a massage, you communicate with his body through touch, and relax the flesh, the body, and the person you are touching, more fully than he can himself. It is different from many other touches, in that it is not spontaneous or habitual; it is a special time set aside to connect.
99: Saying farewell.
Parting is such sweet sorrow.
When someone’s leaving, people say many of the things that they should have said long before but never got around to. Barriers come down. People realize how much others mean. They cry.
That is an obvious insight into saying farewell. What is less obvious is that these things can happen at any time. It is not so much that people can’t normally commune in this manner and are specially enabled to when someone leaves, as that people normally avoid this communion, and when some leaves they realize how bad it would be to them at any point. You can tell someone how much they mean to you any day. I did something like this for Robin recently, as I stopped from writing this to think about practicing what I was preaching. He and I are both glad I did. One part of the barriers coming down is that sharing yourself is inherently risky, and there is less risk if a person is leaving — if you share something that makes the other person think you are stupid, at least he’ll be away. So people share more. If you realize this, you can share on ordinary days what you would normally share when saying farewell — and grow closer. It might be a good idea to hold a farewell party for someone when he’s not going away. The same may be said for a funeral — there is something magnificent that goes on at a funeral, that doesn’t really have to wait for a person’s death.
100: Anything. Thursday night, I was at a band concert at Ben and Joe’s school. Afterwards, when walking through the mass of people, there was a moment when I was looking down into a little girl’s face, and as it passed I realized I was kything. There is a sense in which anything can be kything, if it is done in the right way.
Now we kythe darkly and through a glass. Then we shall kythe fully, spirit to spirit, even as we are fully kythed.
As I start fleshing out ideas, I am at my grandparents’ house, probably for the last time before they move out; I have looked around at the impressions and memories. What I realized a little while ago, with some degree of surprise, that my conceptual paraphrase, equating classical with what is deep and concerned with what lies beyond the surface, and romantic with what is shallow and only concerned with the surface, was mistaken. Perhaps it is a fair representation of Pirsig’s book, which defines ‘classical’ and explores its inner depths, but does not explore ‘romantic’ much at all — but it is not a fair understanding of ‘classical’ and ‘romantic’. The romantic mode of perception is also deep and is also concerned with what lies beyond the surface; this is true in a way that a classical perspective would not recognize. With this realization came an awareness of romantic impressions I’ve had — impressions which mean something.
The meanings that the impressions hold to me would not necessarily be evident to other readers; for this reason, and because I do not know of an existing genre that serves my purposes, I am writing about the romantic impressions in a non-romantic (some would say ‘classical’) manner. I will describe the romantic impression first — or, more precisely, the image evoked in my mind — and then talk about what it means to me.
Or that is one way to put it. A slightly more informative statement would be that there are meanings in my mind, and they are represented by visual symbols and romantic images. What I am doing is recording the image, and then recording the meaning behind it and which is manipulated through that symbol. It may be a form of writing that captures nonlinguistic thought better than a direct enfleshing in words — and perhaps something will shine through the poetic images directly that is not captured in the analysis.
Missionary’s Kid Room
A missionary’s kid jumps up on a top bunk, sitting Indian-style, and is eating noodles with chopsticks.
One of the entries in You Know You’re an MK When… says, “You worry about fitting in, and wear a native wrap around the dorm.”
One division experienced by most people is a division between public and private. It is mauled in various vulgarizations — C.S. Lewis begins an essay by talking about a bad sermon from a parson eulogizing the family as the perfect place where you can put off all of society’s artificial restrictions — and showed how in the parson’s case this translated to setting aside every human decency and treating his children in ways he would not consider treating a stranger. It is mauled in various distortions, but it is a legitimate distinction, and some people experience it more intensely than others. There is a public world where one conforms to the agreed-upon compromises necessary for a world of different people to live with each other, and then there is (inside a boundary) a private sphere where agape is still needed, but where there is unique room to be yourself (a cliché — and a cliché is a cliché because it’s true). The basic distinction is human, but metaculturals experience it more intensely; it is to us not simply a fact of life, but a basic tension of existence.
Finding another person who can pass through the glass wall is difficult; I’ve been burned many times. But I have found some people who can pass through, and it is a rich reward. Dealing with someone through the glass wall requires both agape and acting according to standards designed by and for people who do not function as I do — while dealing with someone inside the glass wall “only” requires agape. It is still a high standard, but there is not an expectation which distorts a person who is different and has not yet acquired a great deal of maturity.
What does “through the glass wall” mean? In the movie Time Bandits, the bandits are walking though a vast desert wasteland — and bump into a glass wall. It’s invisible, but they can’t pass through it. They have been walking for hours in pursuit of a castle, which is nowhere in sight — and they start bickering. Tempers flare, and one of them picks up a skull and throws it at another. The other time bandit ducks.
The skull shatters the glass — and through the hole, the bandits suddenly see the castle they were looking for.
What I mean by “through the glass wall” is that, after being burned numerous times in approaching people — in ways that I didn’t understand were unusual — I have erected a sort of glass wall that (badly) hides those aspects of me that are alien to most people, and then pull people through the glass wall to something inside that is very different. By ‘pull’ I don’t mean either force or deceit; I rather mean that I draw the other person into my world.
One of my friends is jumping along, her arms raised, cheering.
There is a certain quality, loosely that of being ‘unashamed‘. If the above impression is of having a private world, this is the quality of being unashamed of it, of being comfortable. It is self-awareness without self-consciousness. There is room — not absolute freedom, but definite space none the less — to publicly differ from what is usual. This impression of one of my friends captures this quality.
“VMWare: Providing Linux with backwards compatibility with legacy computational infrastructure.”
If you’re a hacker, any explanation would is superfluous. If you’re not a hacker, this one would take a while to explain. If you really want to know, ask a hacker (if you know any), or appropriate newsgroup or mailing list.
Tae Kwon Do Demonstration
At an Asian culture festival, a group of non-Asians (mostly white) in martial arts uniforms gives a Tae Kwon Do demonstration. The head instructor steps up to the microphone, and says both “If you’re surprised at seeing us at an Asian culture festival, don’t be,” and that they have taken the Tae Kwon Do tradition and removed its competitiveness and militarism.
The analysis on this one is a bit more complicated than most. I am not bothered perforce by the presence of non-Asians at an exhibition of Asian culture. What did stick in my mind, quite a bit, was the presence of non-Asians at an Asian culture festival who exhibited attitudes contradictory to those of Eastern culture, or for that matter of Western culture for most of recorded history. I mean specifically the regard for a tradition as something arbitrary, to be changed according to whatever the Zeitgeist is blowing. Environmentalists are fond of the proverb, variously attributed to different aboriginal peoples of Africa and the Americas, that says, “Be kind to the earth. It was not inherited from our ancestors; it is borrowed from our children.” Members of a great many societies across much of history embody an attitude that could be stated as “Be careful with this tradition. It was not inherited from our ancestors; it is borrowed from our children.” Jewish children grow up acutely aware that it would take only one generation of Jews to finish Hitler’s work, to sever all future generations from the heritage and identity that has survived for so long under the most difficult of circumstances. This attitude, quite conspicuous by its absence at an Asian culture festival, is present in the medieval mindset — the environment that made cathedrals possible, masterpieces that (in the words of Jeffrey Burke Satinover) “are as impossible for us on spiritual grounds as our photocopiers would have been to medievals on technological grounds.” The romantic impression is distinctive as the inverse image of something very, very important.
Traveller Addressing Servant in Servant’s Native Tongue
A traveler who is visiting a house turns to a servant, and addresses the servant in his native tongue.
The traveler is someone of grandeur, and he shows this grandeur in the un-thought-of courtesy of speaking to a servant in his native tongue. Speaking in another person’s preferred tongue — even if it is only with the twenty words of politeness — is a kindness, if one not often thought of in 21st century America. Showing this courtesy to a servant — someone who is looked down on and ignored when not needed — is a mark of moral grandeur.
This has application, not just in literal languages, but in entering another person’s world — “speaking the other person’s language” in a figurative sense.
Merlin Unlocking Gate
In Lawhead’s Merlin, Merlin stands stumped by a locked gate, then as it were shakes off a dust of sleep, remembers his powers, and magically removes the lock. He speaks of “that which men call magic”, learned from the fhain.
The meaning of “that which men call magic” — which for me signifies an incredibly diverse (non-magical) collection of skills, such as writing HTML, jury-rigging things, and reading languages (some computer and some human) — is a birthright of gradually collected abilities that is described for my temperament in Please Understand Me II. The meaning of what the fhain taught Merlin in Lawhead’s book, “that which men call magic”, is an intriguing idea which I will not attempt to reproduce here.
An authority figure starts to tell someone that a given rule applies, then remembers who he’s talking to, and readily grants an exception.
There are a couple of specific examples — grandfather clauses, pacifists under draft. A draft board might not simply say, “Oh, you’re a pacifist. Never mind,” but they are illustrations of a basic pattern.
When I read Please Understand Me (reviewed in my canon), I came across an explanation that both accounted for my actions (in a non-insulting way) and made sense of my feelings. The SJ (sensate judging) temperament, which comprises 38% of the population, including most of the people who create and enforce rules, tends to believe that “Having rules and seeing that they are followed is very beneficial to a community,” while my temperament, NT (intuitive thinking), which comprises only 6% of the population, could state its perspective as “Rules exist for the betterment of community and may therefore be set aside when they do not contribute to that end.” The difference in perspective could be stated as “Rules are almost always good” versus “Rules are good if they are helpful, and not good if they are not helpful.” There are a number of times I have been in situations not anticipated by rules, in which the rules did not serve their intended purpose, and I was reasoning from an NT background that “If I show these people that applying the rules is not beneficial in this context, they will naturally make an exception.” The assumption betrays a lack of understanding of SJ perspective on rules, of course, but it was appropriate given my temperament and what I did and didn’t know at the time.
This impression is of someone in authority who looks at a situation, sees that applying the rules is not beneficial in that context, and readily grants an exception. It may be born more out of hope than experience, but it is a little picture of paradise — a paradise that sometimes says to people who are different, “The rule in this case was not created in anticipation of your situation, and will not be applied.” And who knows? Perhaps some people in authority might read this and exercise judgment so that rules do not harm those people for whom they were not created.
It Doesn’t Work That Way
A child expectantly asks an adult, “You’ll make everything better, right?”
The adult sadly answers, “It doesn’t work that way.”
There are a number of things that are, in the minds of people who do not understand them, magical. Among these may be mentioned adulthood, exceptional intelligence, computers, counseling, and medicine. People on the outside have certain expectations. Children expect adults to know what to do in every situation; people of normal intelligence expect a genius to have perfect grades and never make mistakes; people want computers to have humanlike intelligence; codependent people want to enlist the counselor’s help in controlling everybody around them; patients want doctors to always have a pill that will make everything better. Those people who are inside the magic circle can only shake their heads and say, “It just doesn’t work that way.” Genius, for instance, is not an immunity to failure; a genius will actually experience more failure.
It doesn’t mean that these domains don’t have power — all of them do. Rather, it means that this power isn’t what people expect it to be. Christ came as the long-awaited Messiah — and when he came to preach spiritual deliverance from sin instead of military deliverance from Rome, disappointed many of the people who were waiting for him.
With giftedness, for example, there is a common assumption that it is an automatic badge to success: perfect grades in school, and being better at everything. Not so; many bright individuals have terrible school grades (Einstein was failed at math), and their intelligence functions differently, so that they experience difficulties like those of a foreigner in a very different land.
It may be that, in dealing with a great good, we need to be open to its being good in a way we cannot anticipate — even if our anticipation of its goodness is what draws us to it.
In Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Michael Valentine Smith is raised in Martian culture and then brought to earth as a young man. He experiences terrific difficulty in adjustment, but adjusts to human culture first in author Jubal Harshaw’s den, and then explores the world on his own before creating his own nest — a unique place that combines Martian and human culture. Inside it, there is little clothing, and no need for money — but this is superficial; more deeply, there is a shared consciousness, a world that is entered when a person steps over the threshold.
Michael’s nest resonates with me in a very strong sense of home. I do not have any physical place with the external distinctiveness of Michael’s nest — a thief who broke in would probably think I am a boring person — but that is not the essence of Mike’s nest even in Heinlein’s book. It was almost a literary symbol — and people who saw through the external strangeness found an internal wonder, itself even stranger, that was preserved when the people in the nest moved to a hotel hideout. My nest, which I have just begun to build, is found in part in scattered places (here, there, everywhere: in the schoolyard during first-grade recess; with the cherubim and seraphim; among the farandolae) — most recently in the dance class I have started. I wrote above about there being a glass wall, and my having been burned again and again after inviting people to pass through it (perhaps I did not understand how difficult it is for other people) — and I have found a few friends who have passed through it without me being burned. With two of them in particular (Robin and Heather Munn, a delightful brother and sister), I am now not intentionally building so much as living inside a nest.
This nest is a symbol of Heaven, and I will never before death be able to have it in full — there are times when I long strongly for it, and am a bit closer, but this nest has the same fundamental beauty as the Romance described in Less-Wild Lovers: Standing at the Crossroads of Desire — or a related one.
Holy, Holy, Holy
In a room full of men, one man challenges another. The challenged man rises and begins to sing the hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Immediately other men rise, singing, until the room is filled with song.
The song is a symbol of the Christian faith. It is something shared, something great that is common to many people. It is worship — that is to say, it is a touch of Heaven here on earth. The harmony among people — a harmony that is assumed not to be there in the challenge — exists in contrast to the classification of private, arbitrary beliefs, a sort of thing you can do as long as you hide it and don’t make it anything public to be taken seriously. The singing is public and intended to be taken seriously.
There are other dimensions to be carried as well, although I do not recall them now. It is not an allegory, with exactly one specific meaning; the symbol itself is more ambiguous — it carries multiple meanings, the primary one being the one referred to above.
A tall person in a black cloak sits in a large hole at the center of an immense circular chessboard, slowly, unhurriedly moving pieces in and out in an intricate and complex pattern.
This image is a symbol of genius, but not of my own gifts. My gifts mean experience of both spectacular success and spectacular failure; this image of genius is of a mastermind who has several projects in motion, giving attention to each in due turn. It is something I do in part — but this image is an image of perfection.
A man puts on a mask and through it shows himself in a way that would not have come without the mask.
Some of this is hinted at in what I wrote about my Halloween costume. The terms I have used in my own thought (though I don’t remember using them with anyone else) concern a “standard translation”. In the ordinary course of events, a person reveals himself in certain standard ways — which is not a straight copy, but a translation in which something gets lost. Sometimes nonstandard translations can allow things to be seen — good things — that are not shown in the standard translation. There are ways in which actions which are on the surface complete fantasy, allow the presentation of things that do not have occasion to be shown normally.
I think something of this is common — acting is concerned not only with using the actor to reveal an arbitrarily chosen different person, but with the development and revelation of the actor (to those who know him) — but my experience of it seems more intense than usual. I was surprised when some friends and I were playing a game I made, and one friend pulled a card from the deck that said to tell what about her she most wished other people knew, and she said that most people understood the things about her that she wanted to be understood. I had assumed that my intuitions applied to everyone.
This impression came to me as I was listening to some Argentinian tango music, and gave new reality to something a church friend, whose family is from Argentina, talked about how it was the most European of South American countries, but the Argentina she knew of is a lost world — the country and the people are still there, but inflation and other factors have made a drastic change.
(This is what I remember from a couple of sources; it is not the result of research, and is not intended to be taken as such. It is listed here as a romantic impression from a historical situation whose full details I do not understand.)
Europe has more the symbolic meaning of home to me than does America, and a piece of Europe in the beautiful land of South America bears some of the romance l’Engle conveys in A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Its loss — the lost world symbol, or lost home — be it Atlantis, Ynes Avalach, Arthurian England for me, Gone With the Wind for many Southerners, and still other symbols for people of other backgrounds — is tremendously powerful, and those places live on as a memory inside people’s hearts even when they are only a memory.
Another facet is that my sense of self (my personal feeling? my experience of a universal human emotion?) is in someone from a lost realm. There is not too much external evidence that would suggest this — my high school has its own culture, and I can’t go back there, and my excursions into Malaysia and France cannot easily be repeated — but the country in which I have spent the bulk of my life is still the same country and has not changed with any particularly great violence — a society that embraces change will be more altered than one that tries to preserve traditions, but there is a strong continuity. Perhaps it is a part of adult nostalgia for a romanticized childhood — as Calvin put it, “People who are nostalgic about childhood were never children — but the symbol holds resonances for me, and is reflected in other works as well.
Sidhe Nobles in Cafe
Two people are sitting in a cafe full of people, talking. That is what can be easily seen. What is less easily seen is that they are færie nobles, an invisible minority and representatives of a lost world.
This is a part of the powerful romance captured in the online book excerpts for Changeling: the Dreaming. It bears a romance of a lost world, but it also captures something of those who, because of their intelligence, have minds more different than most people would dream to imagine before having encountered them. It also represents, as well as genius, Christians in naturalistic academia — and probably other things as well.
In a Hollywood action-adventure style, there is a hero wielding two shortswords, or two small automatic weapons (the visual symbol varies). It is in the midst of an intense battle, but under the surface of all the chaos there is stillness, control, and peace.
This one may surprise those who know me, and know that I am a pacifist and consider glorified violence in movies to be a significant problem. Why do I include it?
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a second rate treatment of first rate issues, Pirsig talks about being in Quality (the idea of Quality being similar to the Chinese concept of the Tao, as the book notes). He explains that this relaxed, peaceful state is not only found in meditation; it can be found in racing or heavy combat. I have not experienced this in sparring, but I believe it exists, and there is a powerful impression of a person who is in a situation of sheer chaos and hostility, but the chaos outside the person does not bring chaos within.
Boy chasing girl
In a room, a college girl dashes through, being eagerly chased by a college boy, who is asking a barrage of teasing questions. There are some adults who are in the room, and they continue on — one of them calmly sipping his tea — without anyone raising an eyebrow.
One of my friends, Ashley, has voiced emphatically that she doesn’t want to get married and is not domestic. It’s not that she doesn’t like men — she enjoys men a great deal, and can sit down at a table full of men and not feel self conscious at all. She just wants to be single.
At one point, she was spending a lot of time with one guy in particular, and the two of them started to sit together at Pooh’s Corner (a group of people who meet to read children’s books aloud).
I waited for a good moment, and then put an arm around her shoulder and said, “So, Ashley, when are you sending me a wedding invitation?”
The look on her face was classic.
(I’m glad Ashley’s such a good sport.)
I enjoy picking on those people who are close to me, especially girls and women. It’s a form of affection. Picking on can be mean-spirited — but need not be. I’ve heard people telling children “Don’t pick on people who don’t fit in,” but not (except by silence and possibly example) acknowledging that picking on someone in the right way, under the proper circumstances, can be part of a close bond.
Inside the glass wall, touch is important, as are teasing, tickling, horseplay, and the like. I don’t think that these are the most unusual things inside the glass wall — only that they play a part of the picture; they are part of the Nest.
The Bozone Layer
In a classic Far Side cartoon, there is a layer of stacked clowns hovering above the earth’s surface. The caption reads:
The Bozone Layer: Shielding the rest of the universe from the earth’s harmful effects.
This cartoon is funny, but in the way hackers call ‘ha ha only serious’ — it describes a truth. Our world is fallen — which means not only ‘sinful’ as positively understood, but at times positively goofy. I am a part of this, too — I do not see my own absurdities, as I don’t see my own blind spots, but from all the ridiculous things I have seen in others, I would be quite surprised if I was somehow exempt from this pervasive human law.
There is a peace that comes from the recognition of this absurdity, especially after trying and failing to make it go away. It is easy to hold an unstated belief that “If I only try hard enough, I can fix this — and if I can’t make it all better, I’m failing as a person.” The freedom and peace come from realizing that the absurdity is innate and out of our control, that it can perhaps be made better through our influence, but that if we try our best and it’s still positively looney, we can live with ourselves.
The Son of God incarnate did not cause the outrageous things of his countrymen to snap to where they should be; he attacked the absurdity tooth and nail, and his countrymen killed him. That at least should help us to accept that God doesn’t expect us to make the world anything near a perfect place: we should try to better it, and be at peace when our imperfect efforts achieve more imperfect results.
In the Wasteland
There is a hero who is powerful and respected, and has a fall — he is disgraced, his name made a laughingstock, and he is exiled in a wasteland — and forgotten.
In the wasteland — slowly, imperceptibly, not noticed by anyone — he slowly regains his strength. Nobody expects when he returns.
Perhaps the oldest recorded example of this impression is Samson’s story, but I was not originally thinking of that. I was thinking of what I hope part of my own experience to be.
I am in a wasteland now; I am not where I thought I would be five years ago. And I cannot tell the future, to confidently predict any glorious return. But I am in a sort of Sabbath, regaining my strength, refocusing, having lost certain things, and learning how to use other strengths to best advantage. The romance appeals to me; while ‘education’ commonly describes a first ascent to effectiveness, and ‘experience’ the slow refinement of skills as one works in the field, I do not know any single word to tell of regained competency after a fall. This image describes it, and it describes what I am trying to do now.
John is surprised, but the cabby explains. “You see,” he says, “I am from Sudan. I have seen my friends shot and killed. I have a wife whom I have not seen in two years, and a son whom I have never seen. But every day I save a little, and I am that much closer to bringing them here.” At the end of the trip, John rather pensively pays and tips the cabby.
Then he steps in the door—it is still dark, wet, and probably rather cold—and his wife says, “What a miserable day!”
John simply puts his arms around her and their little girl, and said, “Actually, to Me, It Is a Very Good Day.”
This is a good vignette to be mindful of, and if economic times are rougher now than when these words first appeared, it does not diminish their truth in the least. To me, it is a very good day.
To me, it is a very good day.
And let me explain what I mean.
One of my goals in life has been to be a scholar, and I’ve tried hard to earn credentials to teach in theology. Given the difficulties Ph.D. holders have getting a job, it seemed to me to be rather silly to apply for a job without getting the standard “union card:” a Ph.D.
I became a graduate student in theology while overcoming cancer, and earned a master’s in theology under Cambridge’s philosophy of religion seminar. And, after some time to recover, I entered a Ph.D. program. And…
I’ve spent a lot of time looking for a way to explain what happened in the Ph.D. program. Eventually, I began to suspect that I might be having such difficulty finding an appropriate way to explain those events because they are not the kind of thing that can be explained appropriately.
So let me say the following.
- I’m a pretty bright guy. Ranked 7th in a nationwide math contest. Did an independent study of calculus in middle school. Studied over a dozen languages. And so on.
- I honestly found more than one thing at the university to be worse than suffering chemo. (And chemotherapy included the worst hour of merely physical pain in my life.)
- The university is not budging in their position that, as my GPA in all that happened was 3.386/4.0 and a 3.5 was required, I have washed out of their Ph.D. program.
And I’m not sure, after an experience like that, that I’m really in the best position to apply to another program: references are important, and it would show a profound naïveté to tell a professor, “I know you retaliated for my gestures of friendship, but you’ll still be kind and give me a good letter of reference, right?” I am not in the best position to apply to another Ph.D. program. And I wish to very clearly say, today is a very good day to me.
The goals I was pursuing are a privilege and not a right. For that matter, the job I have now is not something to be taken for granted. I have a job that is meeting all my basic expenses. Most jobs you have at least one pest to deal with. Not this one; there is not a single person at my job that I would rather not deal with. They’re all decent people.
If I had my way and got my Ph.D., there are other things that probably would not have happened, including my books being published. And I am quite glad for that. And even in theology, I may never be involved with theology on the terms I envisioned, but that is not nearly so final as it sounds, and I would like to be clear about that.
A Christian in the West may or may not find it strange to place theology in the category of “academic disciplines.” In Orthodoxy the placement is strange indeed, because theology, even in its treatment of texts, is much more a spiritual discipline of prayer than a technical discipline of analysis. And in that sense, the door to theology is as open to me as it ever was: it is a door that I can enter through repentance, and is as open to me now as much as any time.
To me, it is a very good day.
And perhaps I may well leave behind something value, but perhaps God did not intend it to be scholarship. Perhaps I was just meant to write.
And on that note, I would like to share some snippets, some highlights, from my books.
The books include several shorter works building up to a long piece; The Sign of the Grail tells the story of a young man whose world begins to deepen when he discovers, in his college dorm room, a book of Arthurian legends:
After eating part of his meal, George opened Brocéliande, flipping from place to place until an illustration caught his eye. He read:
Merlin walked about in the clearing on the Isle of Avalon. To his right was the castle, and to his left was the forest. Amidst the birdsong a brook babbled, and a faint fragrance of frankincense flowed.
Sir Galahad walked out of the castle portal, and he bore a basket of bread.
Then Galahad asked Merlin about his secrets and ways, of what he could do and his lore, of his calling forth from the wood what a man anchored in the castle could never call forth. And Galahad enquired, and Merlin answered, and Galahad enquired of Merlin if Merlin knew words that were more words than our words and more mystically real than the British tongue, and then the High Latin tongue, and then the tongue of Old Atlantis. And then Galahad asked after anything beyond Atlantis, and Merlin’s inexhaustible fount ran dry.
Then Sir Galahad asked Merlin of his wood, of the stones and herbs, and the trees and birds, and the adder and the dragon, the gryphon and the lion, and the unicorn whom only a virgin may touch. And Merlin spake to him him of the pelican, piercing her bosom that her young may feed, and the wonders, virtues, and interpretation of each creature, until Galahad asked of the dragon’s head for which Uther had been called Uther Pendragon, and every Pendragon after him bore the title of King and Pendragon. Merlin wot the virtue of the dragon’s body, but of the dragon’s head he wot nothing, and Sir Galahad spake that it was better that Merlin wist not.
Then Sir Galahad did ask Merlin after things of which he knew him nothing, of what was the weight of fire, and of what is the end of natural philosophy without magic art, and what is a man if he enters not in the castle, and “Whom doth the Grail serve?”, and of how many layers the Grail hath. And Merlin did avow that of these he wist not none.
Then Merlin asked, “How is it that you are wise to ask after these all?”
Then Galahad spake of a soft voice in Merlin his ear and anon Merlin ran into the wood, bearing bread from the castle.
George was tired, and he wished he could read more. But he absently closed the book, threw away what was left of his hamburgers and fries, and crawled into bed. It seemed but a moment that he was dreaming.
George found himself on the enchanted Isle of Avalon, and it seemed that the Grail Castle was not far off.
George was in the castle, and explored room after room, entranced. Then he opened a heavy wooden door and found himself facing the museum exhibit, and he knew he was seeing the same 5th-6th century sword from the Celtic lands, only it looked exactly like a wall hanger sword he had seen online, a replica of a 13th century Provençale longsword that was mass produced, bore no artisan’s fingerprints, and would split if it struck a bale of hay. He tried to make it look like the real surface, ever so real, that he had seen, but machined steel never changed.
Then George looked at the plaque, and every letter, every word, every sentence was something he could read but the whole thing made no sense. Then the plaque grew larger and larger, until the words and even letters grew undecipherable, and he heard what he knew were a dragon’s footprints and smelled the stench of acrid smoke. George went through room and passage until the noises grew louder, and chanced to glance at a pool and see his reflection.
He could never remember what his body looked like, but his head was unmistakably the head of a dragon.
And the story of this nightmare is part of the story of how he begins questing for the Holy Grail and ultimately wakes up in life.
A short story builds up in The Christmas Tales:
The crown of Earth is the temple,
and the crown of the temple is Heaven.
Stephan ran to get away from his pesky sister—if nothing else he could at least outrun her!
Where to go?
One place seemed best, and his legs carried him to the chapel—or, better to say, the temple. The chapel was a building which seemed larger from the inside than the outside, and (though this is less remarkable than it sounds) it is shaped like an octagon on the outside and a cross on the inside.
Stephan slowed down to a walk. This place, so vast and open and full of light on the inside—a mystically hearted architect who read The Timeless Way of Building might have said that it breathed—and Stephan did not think of why he felt so much at home, but if he did he would have thought of the congregation worshipping with the skies and the seas, the rocks and the trees, and choir after choir of angels, and perhaps he would have thought of this place not only as a crown to earth but a room of Heaven.
What he was thinking of was the Icon that adorns the Icon stand, and for that matter adorns the whole temple. It had not only the Icons, but the relics of (from left to right) Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint John Chrysostom, and Saint Basil the Great. His mother had told Stephan that they were very old, and Stephan looked at her and said, “Older than email? Now that is old!” She closed her eyes, and when she opened them she smiled. “Older than email,” she said, “and electric lights, and cars, and a great many of the kinds of things in our house, and our country, and…” her voice trailed off. He said, “Was it as old as King Arthur?” She said, “It is older than even the tale of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.”
This story, incidentally, is set in a real place. I have been there.
One of the medium-sized works in A Cord of Seven Strands is a narrative as of a dream:
You pull your arms to your side and glide through the water. On your left is a fountain of bubbles, upside down, beneath a waterfall; the bubbles shoot down and then cascade out and to the surface. To your right swims a school of colorful fish, red and blue with thin black stripes. The water is cool, and you can feel the currents gently pushing and pulling on your body. Ahead of you, seaweed above and long, bright green leaves below wave back and forth, flowing and bending. You pull your arms, again, with a powerful stroke which shoots you forward under the seaweed; your back feels cool in the shade. You kick, and you feel the warmth of the sun again, soaking in and through your skin and muscles. Bands of light dance on the sand beneath you, as the light is bent and turned by the waves.
There is a time of rest and stillness; all is at a deep and serene peace. The slow motion of the waves, the dancing lights below and above, the supple bending of the plants, all form part of a stillness. It is soothing, like the soft, smooth notes of a lullaby.
Your eyes slowly close, and you feel even more the warm sunlight, and the gentle caresses of the sea. And, in your rest, you become more aware of a silent presence. You were not unaware of it before, but you are more aware of it now. It is there:
Like a tree with water slowly flowing in, through roots hidden deep within the earth, and filling it from the inside out, you abide in the presence. It is a moment spent, not in time, but in eternity.
Firestorm 2034 tells the story of a brilliant medieval traveler transported to some twenty or thirty years in our future. It’s a little like a story told more compactly and more like a dream:
It was late in the day, and my feet were hurting.
I had spent the past three hours on the winding path up the foothills, and you will excuse me if I was not paying attention to the beauty around me.
I saw it, and then wondered how I had not seen it—an alabaster palace rising out of the dark rock around it, hidden in a niche as foothill became mountain. After I saw it, I realized—I could not tell if the plants around me were wild or garden, but there was a grassy spot around it. Some of my fatigue eased as I looked into a pond and saw koi and goldfish swimming.
I looked around and saw the Gothic buildings, the trees, the stone path and walkways. I was beginning to relax, when I heard a voice say, “Good evening,” and looked, and realized there was a man on the bench in front of me.
He was wearing a grey-green monk’s robe, and cleaning a gun. He looked at me for a moment, tucked the gun into a shack, and welcomed me in.
Outside, the sun was setting. At the time, I thought of the last rays of the dying sun—but it was not that, so much as day giving birth to night. We passed inside to a hallway, with wooden chairs and a round wooden table. It seemed brightly enough lit, if by torchlight.
My guide disappeared into a hallway, and returned with two silver chalices, and set one before me. He raised his chalice, and took a sip.
The wine was a dry white wine—refreshing and cold as ice. It must have gone to my head faster than I expected; I gave a long list of complaints, about how inaccessible this place was, and how hard the road. He listened silently, and I burst out, “Can you get the master of this place to come to me? I need to see him personally.”
The servant softly replied, “He knows you are coming, and he will see you before you leave. In the mean time, may I show you around his corner of the world?”
I felt anger flaring within me; I am a busy man, and do not like to waste my time with subordinates. If it was only one of his underlings who would be available, I would have sent a subordinate myself. As I thought this, I was surprised to hear myself say, “Please.”
We set down the chalices, and started walking through a maze of passageways. He took a small oil lamp, one that seemed to burn brightly, and we passed through a few doors before stepping into a massive room.
The room blazed with intense brilliance; I covered my eyes, and wondered how they made a flame to burn so bright. Then I realized that the chandaliers were lit with incandescent light. The shelves had illuminated manuscripts next to books with plastic covers—computer science next to bestiaries. My guide went over by one place, tapped with his finger—and I realized that he was at a computer.
Perhaps reading the look on my face, my guide told me, “The master uses computers as much as you do. Do you need to check your e-mail?”
I asked, “Why are there torches in the room you left me in, and electric light here?”
He said, “Is a person not permitted to use both? The master, as you call him, believes that technology is like alcohol—good within proper limits—and not something you have to use as much as you can. There are electric lights here because their brilliance makes reading easier on the eyes. Other rooms have torches, or nothing at all, because a flame has a different meaning, one that we prefer. Never mind; I can get you a flashlight if you like. Oh, and you can take off your watch now. It won’t work here.”
“It won’t work? Look, it keeps track of time to the second, and it is working as we speak!”
The man studied my watch, though I think he was humoring me, and said, “It will give a number as well here as anywhere else. But that number means very little here, and you would do just as well to put it in your pocket.”
I looked at my watch, and kept it on. He asked, “What time is it?”
I looked, and said, “19:58.”
“Is that all?”
I told him the seconds, and then the date and year, and added, “But it doesn’t feel like the 21st century here.” I was beginning to feel a little nervous.
He said, “What century do you think it is here?”
I said, “Like a medieval time that someone’s taken a scissors to. You have a garden with perfect gothic architecture, and you in a monk’s robe, holding an expensive-looking rifle. And a computer in a library that doesn’t even try to organize books by subject or time.”
I looked around on the wall, and noticed a hunting trophy. Or at least that’s what I took it for at first. There was a large sheild-shaped piece of wood, such as would come with a beautiful stag—but no animal’s head. Instead, there were hundreds upon hundreds of bullet holes in the wood—enough that the wood should have shattered. I walked over, and read the glass plate: “This magnificent deer shot 1-4-98 in Wisconsin with an AK-47. God bless the NRA.”
I laughed a minute, and said, “What is this doing in here?”
The servant said, “What is anything doing here? Does it surprise you?”
I said, “From what I have heard, the master of this place is very serious about life.”
My guide said, “Of course he is. And he cherishes laughter.”
I looked around a bit, but could not understand why the other things were there—only be puzzled at how anyone could arrange a computer and other oddments to make a room that felt unmistably medieval. Or was it? “What time is it here? To you?”
My guide said, “Every time and no time. We do not measure time by numbers here; to the extent that time is ‘measured’, we ‘measure’ by what fills it—something qualitative and not quantiative. Your culture measures a place’s niche in history by how many physical years have passed before it; we understand that well enough, but we reckon time, not by its place in the march of seconds, but by the content of its character. You may think of this place as medieval if you want; others view it as ancient, and not a small part is postmodern—more than the computer is contemporary.”
I looked at my watch. Only five minutes had passed. I felt frustration and puzzlement, and wondered how long this could go on.
“When can we move on from here?”
“When you are ready. You aren’t ready yet.”
I looked at my watch. Not even ten seconds had passed. The second hand seemed to be moving very slowly.
I felt something moving in the back of my mind, but I tried to push it back. The second hand continued on its lazy journey, and then—I took off my watch and put it in my pocket.
My guide stood up and said, “Walk this way, please.”
He led me to a doorway, opening a door, and warning me not to step over the threshold. I looked, and saw why—there was a drop of about a foot, into a pool of water. The walls were blue, and there was sand at the far end. Two children—a little boy and a little girl—were making sand castles.
He led me through the mazelike passages to rooms I cannot describe. One room had mechanical devices in all stages of assembly and disassembly. Another was bare and clean. The kitchen had pepperoni and peppers hanging, and was filled with an orange glow that was more than torchlight. There was a deserted classroom filled with flickering blue light, and then we walked into a theatre.
The chamber was small, and this theatre had more than the usual slanted floor. The best way I could describe it is to say that it was a wall, at times vertical, with handholds and outcroppings. There were three women and two men on the stage, but not standing—or sitting, for that matter. They were climbing, shifting about as they talked.
I could not understand their language, but there was something about it that fascinated me. I was surprised to find myself listening to it. I was even more surprised to realize that, if I could not understand the words, I could no less grasp the story. It was a story of friendship, and there is something important in that words melted into song, and climbing into dance.
I watched to the end. The actors and actresses did not disappear backstage, but simply climbed down into the audience, and began talking with people. I could not tell if the conversation was part of the act, or if they were just seeing friends. I wondered if it really made any difference—and then realized, with a flash, that I had caught a glimpse into how this place worked.
When I wanted to go, the servant led me to a room filled with pipes. He cranked a wheel, and I heard gears turning, and began to see the jet black keys of an organ. He played a musical fragment; it sounded incomplete.
He said, “Play.”
I closed my eyes and said, “I don’t know how to play any instrument.”
He repeated the fragment and said, “That doesn’t matter. Play.”
There followed a game of question and answer—he would improvise a snatch of music, and I would follow. I would say that it was beautiful, but I couldn’t really put it that way. It would be better to say that his music was mediocre, and mine didn’t quite reach that standard.
We walked out into a cloister. I gasped. There was a sheltered pathway around a grassy court and a pool stirred by fish. It was illumined by moon and star, and the brilliance was dazzling.
We walked around, and I looked. In my mind’s eye I could see white marble statues of saints praying—I wasn’t sure, but I made up my mind to suggest that to the master. After a time we stopped walking on the grass, and entered another door.
Not too far into the hallway, he turned, set the oil lamp into a small alcove, and began to rise up the wall. Shortly before disappearing into the blackness above, he said, “Climb.”
I learn a little, I think. I did not protest; I put my hands and feet on the wall, and felt nothing. I leaned against it, and felt something give way—something yielding to give a handhold. Then I started climbing. I fell a couple of times, but reached the shadows where he disappeared. He took me by the hand and began to lead me along a path.
I could feel a wall on either side, and then nothing, save his hand and my feet. Where was I? I said, “I can’t see!”
A woman’s voice said, “No one can see here. Eyes aren’t needed.” I felt an arm around my waist, and a gentle squeeze.
I felt that warmth, and said, “I came to this place because I wanted to see the master of this house, and I wanted to see him personally. Now—I am ready to leave without seeing him. I have seen enough, and I no longer want to trouble him.”
I felt my guide’s hand on my shoulder, and heard his voice as he said, “You have seen me personally, and you are not troubling me. You are here at my invitation. You will always be welcome here.”
When I first entered the house, I would have been stunned. Now, it seemed the last puzzle piece in something I had been gathering since I started hiking.
The conversation was deep, and I cannot tell you what was said. I don’t mean that I forgot it—I remember it clearly enough. I don’t really mean that it would be a breach of confidence—it might be that as well. What I mean is that there was something special in that room, and it would not make much sense to you even if I could explain it. If I were to say that we talked in a room without light, where you had to feel around to move about—it would be literally true, but beside the point. When I remember the room, I do not think about what wasn’t there, but what was there. I was glad I took off my watch—but I cannot say why. The best thing I can say is that if you can figure out how a person could be aware of a succession of moments, and at the same time have time sense that is not entirely linear—or at very least not just linear—you have a glimpse of what I found in that room.
We talked long, and it was late into the next day when I got up from a perfectly ordinary guestroom, packed, and left. I put on my watch, returned to my business, and started working on the backlog of invoices and meetings that accumulated in my absence. I’m still pretty busy, but I have never left that room.
Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary is a thin volume for a dictionary, but then it works a little unlike the more standard dictionary one uses to look things up:
Form, n. A piece of paper used by administrations to deter people from using their services. It is the opinion of this lexicographer that the following form could be of the utmost assistance in helping bureaucracies more effectively serve those under their care.
Form to Request Information in the Form of a Form
Section 1: Personal Information
Name: ___________________________ Sex: [ ]M [ ]F Date of Birth: __/__/__
Social Security Number: ___-__-____
Driver’s License Number: ____-____-____
VISA/MasterCard Number: ____-____-____-____
Mailing Address, Business:
Street:_____________________________ City:________________ State:__ ZIP Code:_____
Mailing Address, Home:
Street:_____________________________ City:________________ State:__ ZIP Code:_____
Telephone, Work: (___)___-____, Ext. ____
Telephone, Home: (___)___-____
Telephone, Car: (___)___-____
Beeper: (___)___-____ Chicago High School: [ ]Y [ ]N
E-mail Address: ____________________________________________________ (if address is in domain aol.com or webtv.net, please explain on a separate sheet of paper)
Height: _’, __” Weight: ___# Hair: ______ Eyes: _____ Blood type: __ IQ: __
Political Affiliation: [ ]Federalist [ ]Republican [ ]Democrat [ ]Libertarian [ ]Monarchist [ ]Socialist [ ]Marxist [ ]Communist [ ]Nazi [ ]Fascist [ ]Anarchist [ ]Other (Please specify:_____________)
Citizenship: [ ]United States, including Canada and other territories [ ]Mexico [ ]California [ ]Other (Please specify:_____________________)
Race: [ ]Caucasian/Pigmentally Challenged [ ]African [ ]Asian [ ]Hispanic/Latino [ ]Amerindian [ ]Heinz-57 [ ]Other (Please specify: __________________) [ ]An athletic event where people run around an oval again and again and again.
Page 1 * End of Section 1 of 3
Section 2: Form Description
Length of Form, in Characters: _____
Number of Questions or Required Data: ____
Expected Time to Complete: __ Hours, __ Minutes, __ Seconds.
Expected Mental Effort Required to Complete: __________________________ (if form would insult the intelligence of a senile hamster, please explain on a separate sheet of paper)
Expected number of questions judged to be annoying, unnecessary, and/or personally offensive: __
Expected time wasted on questions judged to be annoying, unnecessary, and/or personally offensive: __ Hours, __ Minutes, __ Seconds.
Expected blood pressure increase while filling out form: __ mmHg systolic, __ mmHg diastolic.
If further contemplation has led you to believe that some of the questions asked are not strictly necessary to provide the service that you offer upon completion of said form, please enclose revised prototype here.
Page 2 * End of Section 2 of 3
Section 3: Essay Questions
Please explain, in 500 words or less, your philosophy concerning the use of forms.
Please explain, in 200 words or less, why you designed this form as you did.
Please explain, in 300 words or less, why you believe that this form is necessary. If you are in a service oriented sector and desire to require the form of people you serve, please explain why you believe that requiring people to fill out forms constitutes a service to them.
When this form is completed, please return to the address provided. The Committee for Selecting Forms will carefully examine your case and delegate responsibility to an appropriate subcommittee.
Please allow approximately six to eight weeks for the appointed subcommittee to lose your file in a paper shuffle.
Page 3 * End of Section 3 of 3
But many of the definitions are shorter: “Christmas, n. An annual holiday celebrating the coming of the chief Deity of Western civilization: Mammon.”
Yonder is a shorter work, like the others can be mischievous and iconoclastic, and opens with a fictitious news article heralding the discovery of an inclusive language manuscript for a good chunk of the Greek New Testament. The culminating work is a Socratic dialogue, set in a science fiction thoughtscape that paints a terrifying silhouette and asks a terrifying question, “What if we really didn’t have the things about a world of men and women and all the things that we chafe at?” Along the way to that work comes a moment of rest:
The day his daughter Abigail was born was the best day of Abraham’s life. Like father, like daughter, they said in the village, and especially of them. He was an accomplished musician, and she breathed music.
He taught her a music that was simple, pure, powerful. It had only one voice; it needed only one voice. It moved slowly, unhurriedly, and had a force that was spellbinding. Abraham taught Abigail many songs, and as she grew, she began to make songs of her own. Abigail knew nothing of polyphony, nor of hurried technical complexity; her songs needed nothing of them. Her songs came from an unhurried time out of time, gentle as lapping waves, and mighty as an ocean.
One day a visitor came, a young man in a white suit. He said, “Before your father comes, I would like you to see what you have been missing.” He took out a music player, and began to play.
Abby at first covered her ears; she was in turn stunned, shocked, and intrigued. The music had many voices, weaving in and out of each other quickly, intricately. She heard wheels within wheels within wheels within wheels of complexity. She began to try, began to think in polyphony — and the man said, “I will come to you later. It is time for your music with your father.”
Every time in her life, sitting down at a keyboard with her father was the highlight of her day. Every day but this day. This day, she could only think about how simple and plain the music was, how lacking in complexity. Abraham stopped his song and looked at his daughter. “Who have you been listening to, Abigail?”
Something had been gnawing at Abby’s heart; the music seemed bleak, grey. It was as if she had beheld the world in fair moonlight, and then a blast of eerie light assaulted her eyes — and now she could see nothing. She felt embarrassed by her music, ashamed to have dared to approach her father with anything so terribly unsophisticated. Crying, she gathered up her skirts and ran as if there were no tomorrow.
Tomorrow came, and the day after; it was a miserable day, after sleeping in a gutter. Abigail began to beg, and it was over a year before another beggar let her play on his keyboard. Abby learned to play in many voices; she was so successful that she forgot that she was missing something. She occupied herself so fully with intricate music that in another year she was asked to give concerts and performances. Her music was rich and full, and her heart was poor and empty.
Years passed, and Abigail gave the performance of her career. It was before a sold-out audience, and it was written about in the papers. She walked out after the performance and the reception, with moonlight falling over soft grass and fireflies dancing, and something happened.
Abby heard the wind blowing in the trees.
In the wind, Abigail heard music, and in the wind and the music Abigail heard all the things she had lost in her childhood. It was as if she had looked in an image and asked, “What is that wretched thing?” — and realized she was looking into a mirror. No, it was not quite that; it was as if in an instant her whole world was turned upside down, and her musical complexity she could not bear. She heard all over again the words, “Who have you been listening to?” — only, this time, she did not think them the words of a jealous monster, but words of concern, words of “Who has struck a blow against you?” She saw that she was blind and heard that she was deaf: that the hearing of complexity had not simply been an opening of her ears, but a wounding, a smiting, after which she could not know the concentrated presence a child had known, no matter how complex — or how simple — the music became. The sword cut deeper when she tried to sing songs from her childhood, at first could remember none, then could remember one — and it sounded empty — and she knew that the song was not empty. It was her. She lay down and wailed.
Suddenly, she realized she was not alone. An old man was watching her. Abigail looked around in fright; there was nowhere to run to hide. “What do you want?” she said.
“There is music even in your wail.”
“I loathe music.”
There was a time of silence, a time that drew uncomfortably long, and Abigail asked, “What is your name?”
The man said, “Look into my eyes. You know my name.”
Abigail stood, poised like a man balancing on the edge of a sword, a chasm to either side. She did not — Abigail shrieked with joy. “Daddy!”
“It has been a long time since we’ve sat down at music, sweet daughter.”
“You don’t want to hear my music. I was ashamed of what we used to play, and I am now ashamed of it all.”
“Oh, child! Yes, I do. I will never be ashamed of you. Will you come and walk with me? I have a keyboard.”
As Abby’s fingers began to dance, she first felt as if she were being weighed in the balance and found wanting. The self-consciousness she had finally managed to banish in her playing was now there — ugly, repulsive — and then she was through it. She made a horrible mistake, and then another, and then laughed, and Abraham laughed with her. Abby began to play and then sing, serious, inconsequential, silly, and delightful in the presence of her father. It was as if shackles fell from her wrists, her tongue loosed — she thought for a moment that she was like a little girl again, playing at her father’s side, and then knew that it was better. What could she compare it to? She couldn’t. She was at a simplicity beyond complexity, and her father called forth from her music that she could never have done without her trouble. The music seemed like dance, like laughter; it was under and around and through her, connecting her with her father, a moment out of time.
After they had both sung and laughed and cried, Abraham said, “Abby, will you come home with me? My house has never been the same without you.”
There are some other passages that I would like to quote, but I’ll stop with one more, from The Steel Orb, which ends with a paired science fiction short work and a fantasy novella. Both of those works share in this paean’s joy:
With what words
shall I hymn the Lord of Heaven and Earth,
the Creator of all things visible and invisible?
Shall I indeed meditate
on the beauty of his Creation?
As I pray to Thee, Lord,
what words shall I use,
and how shall I render Thee praise?
Shall I thank thee for the living tapestry,
oak and maple and ivy and grass,
that I see before me
as I go to return to Thee at Church?
Shall I thank Thee for Zappy,
and for her long life—
eighteen years old and still catching mice?
Shall I thank thee for her tiger stripes,
the color of pepper?
Shall I thank thee for her kindness,
and the warmth of her purr?
Shall I thank Thee for a starry sapphire orb
hung with a million million diamonds, where
“The heavens declare the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims the work of his hands.
Day to day utters speech,
and night to night proclaims knowledge.
There are no speeches or words,
in which their voices are not heard.
Their voice is gone out into all the earth,
and their words to the end of the earth.
In the sun he has set his tabernacle;
and he comes forth as a bridegroom out of his chamber: he will exult as a giant to run his course.”?
Shall I thank Thee for the river of time,
now flowing quickly,
now flowing slowly,
now flowing straight and clear,
now swirling in eddies that dance?
Shall I thank Thee for the hymns and songs,
the chant at Church, when we praise Thee in the head of Creation, the vanguard of Creation that has come from Thee in Thy splendor and to Thee returns in reverence?
Shall I thank thee for the Chalice:
a shadow of,
a participation in,
a re-embodiment of,
the Holy Grail?
Shall I forget how the Holy Grail itself
is but the shadow,
the golden surface reflecting the light,
secondary reflection to the primeval light,
the wrapping paper that disintegrates next to the Gift it holds:
that which is
mystically and really
the body and the blood of Christ:
the family of saints
for me to be united to,
and the divine Life?
Shall I meditate
on how I am fed
by the divine generosity
and the divine gift
of the divine energies?
Shall I thank Thee for a stew I am making,
or for a body nourished by food?
Shall I indeed muse that there is
nothing else I could be nourished by,
for spaghetti and bread and beer
are from a whole cosmos
illuminated by the divine light,
a candle next to the sun,
a beeswax candle,
where the sun’s energy filters through plants
and the work of bees
and the work of men
to deliver light and energy from the sun,
and as candle to sun,
so too is the bread of earth
to the Bread that came from Heaven,
the work of plants and men,
the firstfruits of Earth
returned to Heaven,
that they may become
the firstfruits of Heaven
returned to earth?
Shall I muse on the royal “we,”
where the kings and queens
said not of themselves”I”, but “we”
while Christians are called to say “we”
and learn that the “I” is to be transformed,
when we move beyond “Me, me, me,”
to learn to say, “we”?
And the royal priesthood is one in which we are called to be
a royal priesthood,
a chosen people,
more than conquerors,
a Church of God’s eclecticism,
a family of little Christs,
sons to God and brothers to Christ,
the ornament of the visible Creation,
of rocks and trees and stars and seas,
and the spiritual Creation as well:
seraphim, cherubim, thrones
dominions, principalities, authorities,
powers, archangels, angels,
rank on rank of angels,
singing before the presence of God,
and without whom no one can plumb the depths
of the world that can be seen and touched.
For to which of the angels did God say,
“You make my Creation complete,” or
“My whole Creation, visible and invisible,
is encapsulated in you,
summed up in your human race?”
To which of the angels
did the divine Word say,
“I am become what you are
that you may become what I am?”
To which of the angels did the Light say,
“Thou art my Son; today I have adopted Thee,”
and then turn to say,
“You are my sons; today I have adopted you;
because I AM WHO I AM,
you are who you are.”?
So I am called to learn to say, “we”,
and when we learn to say we,
that “we” means,
a royal priesthood,
a chosen people,
more than conquerors,
a Church of God’s eclecticism,
a family of little Christs,
the ornament of Creation, visible and invisible,
called to lead the whole Creation
loved into being by God,
to be in love
that to God they may return.
And when we worship thus,
it cannot be only us, for
apples and alligators,
boulders and bears,
creeks and crystals,
dolphins and dragonflies,
eggplants and emeralds,
fog and furballs,
galaxies and grapes,
horses and habaneros,
ice and icicles,
jacinth and jade,
kangaroos and knots,
lightning and light,
meadows and mist,
nebulas and neutrons,
oaks and octupi,
porcupines and petunias,
quails and quarks,
rocks and rivers,
skies and seas,
toads and trees,
ukeleles and umber umbrellas,
wine and weirs,
xylophones and X-rays,
yuccas and yaks,
zebras and zebrawood,
are all called to join us before Thy throne
in the Divine Liturgy:
Praise ye the Lord.
Praise ye the Lord from the heavens:
praise him in the heights.
Praise ye him, all his angels:
praise ye him, all his hosts.
Praise ye him, sun and moon:
praise him, all ye stars of light.
Praise him, ye heavens of heavens,
and ye waters that be above the heavens.
Let them praise the name of the Lord:
for he commanded, and they were created.
He hath also stablished them for ever and ever:
he hath made a decree which shall not pass.
Praise the Lord from the earth, ye dragons, and all deeps:
Fire, and hail; snow, and vapours;
stormy wind fulfilling his word:
Mountains, and all hills;
fruitful trees, and all cedars:
Beasts, and all cattle;
creeping things, and flying fowl:
Kings of the earth, and all people;
princes, and all judges of the earth:
Both young men, and maidens;
old men, and children:
Let them praise the name of the Lord:
for his name alone is excellent;
his glory is above the earth and heaven.
He also exalteth the horn of his people,
the praise of all his saints;
even of the children of Israel,
a people near unto him.
Praise ye the Lord.
And my blessings are not just that, unlike the cab driver, I have not seen my friends shot and killed. Nor is it just that I have a job in a time when having a job shouldn’t be taken for granted—working with kind co-workers, and a good boss, to boot. I’ve received my first major book review—and, I hope, not the last:
Down through the centuries, the Legend of King Arthur has been used as an icon for so many literary works in the western world. “The Sign of the Grail” is a collection of memorable literary works by CJS Hayward centering around the Holy Grail and what it means to orthodox religion, as well as those who follow those teachings. Tackling diverse subjects such as iconography and an earthly paradise, he pulls no punches when dealing with many of the topics laid out through the legends. “The Sign of the Grail” is a unique, scholarly, and thorough examination of the Grail mythos, granting it a top reccommendation for academia and the non-specialist general reader with an interest in these subjects. Also very highly recommended for personal, academic, and community library collections are CJS Hayward’s other deftly written and original literary works, essays, and commentaries compilations and anthologies: “Yonder” (9780615202174, $40.00); “Firestorm 2034” (9780615202167, $40.00), “A Cord of Seven Strands” (9780615202174, $40.00), “The Steel Orb” (9780615193618, $40.00), “The Christmas Tales” (9780615193632, $40.00), and “Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary” (9780615193625, $40.00).
[The Midwest Book Review]
Actually, to Me, It Is a Very Good Day.
My connections with these organizations vary. Some I am formally connected with, some informally; with some the connection is present and with some it is past. (And no, I don’t speak for them, unless they say so.) There’s a disproportionately high list of groups doing things with the mind; my guess as to why is that other communities I’m involved with aren’t as likely to have web pages.
- Calvin College
- I completed my bachelor’s in pure mathematics at Calvin. In many ways it was like Wheaton: a beautiful campus, challenging classes available, and faculty who care about students. I enjoyed moving about by touch in dark underground tunnels there, and improvising on the chapel organ. It was there that my most prized writings began: Religion Within the Bounds of Amusement and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. The Christian Reformed Church, which runs Calvin, puts a heavy emphasis on thinking Christianly, and it shows. (They also have a goofy tendency to worship the human mind, but we won’t go into that.)
- Cambridge University
- I earned my second master’s at Cambridge, England, a beautiful place where I took the pictures on my home page and the pictures I used for Impressions of Cambridge, a Myst-like virtual tour.
- Church of the Great Shepherd
- Church of the Great Shepherd has felt about as much of a home as any church has. A lot of things are nice—there’s more than one culture present, and the people are interesting—but the one thing that draws me most about it is that there is a community of love, worship, and the presence of the Spirit. There are a lot of little things I could point to and say “I like this, I like that,” but the one overriding interest is that God’s love is present. Leaving Church of the Great Shepherd, alongside leaving the people I know at Wheaton, is one of few things I was not looking forward to in my future studies at Cambridge. Church of the Great Shepherd is a place of fond memories for me.
- Eolas Technologies
- One respected book on software development said that, if you find a technically competent boss, you should do everything in your power to keep him. Mike Doyle, CEO and founder of Eolas, is all that and more. He’s a brilliant inventor who designed Eolas the way an inventor would design it, and as a person he’s surprised me by going the extra mile. I’d love to see him meet Mike Welge, who hired me into the National Center for Supercomputing Applications; both Eolas and NCSA combine deep thought, cool discovery, and technologies taken right out of science fiction books.
- Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy
- IMSA has very much its own feel, and creates a niche both eccentric and intriguing. I would trace my being taught to think and explore as a scholar to IMSA—I consider it the beginning of my higher education, and I graduated ready to take the highest level of coursework in mathematics, computer science, physics, philosophy, and French. I missed my graduation because I was away at a math contest, and IMSA was kind enough to devote a whole minute of silence to me before other graduates walked up to receive their diplomas.
- Mega Foundation
- The Mega Foundation exists to serve some of the needs of very bright individuals. (What special needs could there be? That would take a lot of explaining.) Among other things, the Mega Foundation runs the Ultranet (which has been important to me). It provides an environment for spellbinding conversation, and gave the warmest response of any online community when I shared that I’d been accepted to a good graduate school.
- Newman Foundation
- The Newman Foundation at the University of Illinois was founded to provide a home away from home for Catholic students. It appears to be, with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, one of two loci of vibrant Christian faith where “Christianity” does not mean “Christianity, revised and edited,” or the “Church of Jesus, Buddha, and Socrates,” or what some scholars term “Gnosticism.” The Foundation runs Newman Hall, where I stayed, and Newman Foundation Koinonia, where a retreat serves as the entrance to a very warm community. The hall has a few priests etc. on staff whose job description is 90% to care about you, whether or not you’re Catholic.
- Pooh’s Corner
- Pooh’s Corner is a group of mostly Wheaton students (an administrator and a couple of alumni thrown in) who meet at 9:58 Tuesday evenings to read children’s books aloud. It’s a colorful tradition, at times quite animated, and the silliness and fellowship are delightful. At the beginning of this year, when we were making signs to invite people, one student suggested the slogan, “Pooh’s Corner. Come for the women; stay for the food!” He was naturally met by a hail of crayons, but that sign ended up getting as much applause as any.
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
- Many Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy alumni arrive there, where I earned a master’s in applied mathematics with a computational science and engineering option. I was also the first student to graduate with the department’s new thesis option. My thesis described a new kind of mathematical structure between a topology and a metric space. It turns out to be easy to use those spaces to derive new types of numbers. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, like many other universities, is a little universe of its own. Other Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy alumni complained that the environment was boring, but I think they missed one of the most valuable lessons from attending a boarding school in the middle of a cornfield (no cars allowed). The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, a library of byzantine complexity, and all sorts of student organizations. There’s plenty of reason to find that fascinating.
- Université de Sorbonne
- My time at the Sorbonne is part of why I am so delighted to be accepted to Cambridge. I spent a semester studying abroad, and when I left France, my heart stayed. There are so many things about France that feel like home: wine, beautiful architecture, and saying hi to friends with a kiss on the cheek are among the more concretely enumerable reasons why. They are important, but there’s something of the mindset that’s harder to describe and which I prize highly. England and France are not the same country, but I believe that that spark will also be seen in Cambridge.
- Wheaton College
- I went to Wheaton College after high school, and have kept ties since then. When I realized that some community requirements were set in a way I couldn’t keep in good conscience, I left; the experience was painful, but Wheaton remains a place of sharp thinkers and considerable kindness. Wheaton remains close to my heart.
- Josh Wibberley
- Josh grew up in Turkey, writes, thinks, and makes web pages. He’s also good at entering other people’s worlds.
- Robin Munn
- Robin is my best friend. He grew up in France, double majored in computer science and philosophy, and wants to provide technical support for missionaries. He wants very much to be a good listener in his interactions with other people.