Jack Kinneer, an Orthodox Presbyterian minister and a D.Min. graduate of an Eastern Orthodox seminary, wrote a series of dense responses to his time at that seminary. The responses are generally concise, clear, and make the kind of observations that I like to make. My suspicion is that if Dr. Kineer is looking at things this way, there are a lot of other people who are looking at things the same way—but may not be able to put their finger on it. And he may have given voice to some things that Orthodox may wish to respond to.
Orthodoxy is difficult to understand, and I wrote a list of responses to some (not all) of the points he raises. I asked New Horizons, which printed his article, and they offered gracious permission to post with attribution, which is much appreciated. I believe that Dr. Kinneer’s words open a good conversation, and I am trying to worthily follow up on his lead.
A Calvinist Looks at Orthodoxy
Jack D. Kinneer
During my studies at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, I was often asked by students, “Are you Orthodox?” It always felt awkward to be asked such a question. I thought of myself as doctrinally orthodox. I was a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. So I thought I could claim the word orthodox.
But I did not belong to the communion of churches often called Eastern Orthodox, but more properly called simply Orthodox. I was not Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, or Antiochian Orthodox. As far as the Orthodox at St. Vladimir’s were concerned, I was not Orthodox, regardless of my agreement with them on various doctrines.
My studies at St. Vladimir’s allowed me to become acquainted with Orthodoxy and to become friends with a number of Orthodox professors, priests, and seminarians. My diploma was even signed by Metropolitan Theodosius, the head of the Orthodox Church in America. From the Metropolitan to the seminarians, I was received kindly and treated with respect and friendliness.
I am not the only Calvinist to have become acquainted with Orthodoxy in recent years. Sadly, a number have not only made the acquaintance, but also left the Reformed faith for Orthodoxy. What is Orthodoxy and what is its appeal to some in the Reformed churches?
The Appeal of Orthodoxy
Since the days of the apostles, there have been Christian communities in such ancient cities as Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Syria, and Corinth in Greece. In such places, the Christian church grew, endured the tribulation of Roman persecution, and ultimately prevailed when the Roman Empire was officially converted to Christianity. But, unlike Christians in the western half of the Roman Empire, the eastern Christians did not submit to the claims of the bishop of Rome to be the earthly head of the entire church. And why should they have done so? The centers of Orthodox Christianity were as old as, or even older than, the church in Rome. All the great ecumenical councils took place in the East and were attended overwhelmingly by Christian leaders from the East, with only a smattering of representatives from the West. Indeed, most of the great theologians and writers of the ancient church (commonly called the Church Fathers) were Greek-speaking Christians in the East.
The Orthodox churches have descended in an unbroken succession of generations from these ancient roots. As the Orthodox see it, the Western church followed the bishop of Rome into schism (in part by adding a phrase to the Nicene Creed). So, from their perspective, we Protestants are the product of a schism off a schism. The Orthodox believe that they have continued unbroken the churches founded by the apostles. They allow that we Reformed may be Christians, but our churches are not part of the true church, our ordinations are not valid, and our sacraments are no sacraments at all.
The apparently apostolic roots of Orthodoxy provide much of its appeal for some evangelical Protestants. Furthermore, it is not burdened with such later Roman Catholic developments as the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences, the immaculate conception of Mary, and her assumption into heaven. Orthodoxy is ancient; it is unified in a way that Protestantism is not; it lacks most of the medieval doctrines and practices that gave rise to the Reformation. This gives it for many a fascinating appeal.
Part of that appeal is the rich liturgical heritage of Orthodoxy, with its elaborate liturgies, its glorious garbing of the clergy, and its gestures, symbols, and icons. If it is true that the distinctive mark of Reformed worship is simplicity, then even more so is glory the distinctive mark of Orthodox worship. Another appealing aspect of Orthodox worship is its otherness. It is mysterious, sensual, and, as the Orthodox see it, heavenly. Orthodox worship at its best makes you feel like you have been transported into one of the worship scenes in the book of Revelation. Of course, if the priest chants off-key or the choir sings poorly, it is not quite so wonderful.
There are many other things that could be mentioned, but I’ve mentioned the things that have particularly struck me. These are also the things that converts from Protestantism say attracted them.
The Shortcomings of Orthodoxy
So then, is this Orthodox Presbyterian about to drop the “Presbyterian” and become simply Orthodox? No! In my estimation, the shortcomings of Orthodoxy outweigh its many fascinations. A comparison of the Reformed faith with the Orthodox faith would be a massive undertaking, made all the more difficult because Orthodoxy has no doctrinal statement comparable to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Orthodoxy is the consensus of faith arising from the ancient Fathers and the ecumenical councils. This includes the forty-nine volumes of the Ante- and Post-Nicene Fathers, plus the writings of the hermits and monastics known collectively as the Desert Fathers! It would take an entire issue of New Horizons just to outline the topics to be covered in a comparison of Orthodoxy and Reformed Christianity. So the following comments are selective rather than systematic.
First, in my experience, the Orthodox do not understand justification by faith. Some reject it. Others tolerate it, but no one I met or read seemed to really understand it. Just as Protestants can make justification the whole (rather than the beginning) of the gospel, so the Orthodox tend to make sanctification (which they call “theosis” or deification) the whole gospel. In my estimation, this is a serious defect. It weakens the Orthodox understanding of the nature of saving faith.
Orthodoxy also has a real problem with nominal members. Many Orthodox Christians have a very inadequate understanding of the gospel as Orthodoxy understands it. Their religion is often so intertwined with their ethnicity that being Russian or Greek becomes almost synonymous with being Orthodox. This is, by the way, a critique I heard from the lips of Orthodox leaders themselves. This is not nearly as serious a problem in Reformed churches because our preaching continually stresses the necessity for a personal, intimate trusting, receiving, and resting upon Jesus Christ alone for salvation. Such an emphasis is blurred among the Orthodox.
Second, the Orthodox have a very inadequate understanding of sovereign grace. It is not fair to say that they are Pelagians. (Pelagius was a Western Christian who denied original sin and taught that man’s will is free to choose good.) But they are definitely not Augustinians (Calvinists) on sin and grace. In a conversation with professors and doctoral students about the nature of salvation, I quoted Ezekiel 36:26-27 as showing that there is a grace of God that precedes faith and enables that human response. One professor said in response, “I never thought of that verse in that way before.” The Orthodox have not thought a lot about sin, regeneration, election, and so forth. Their view of original sin (a term which they avoid) falls far short of the teaching of Paul. Correspondingly, their understanding of Christ’s atonement and God’s calling is weak as well. Their views could best be described as undeveloped. If you want to see this for yourself, read Chrysostom on John 6:44-45, and then read Calvin on the same passage.
Third, the Orthodox are passionately committed to the use of icons (flat images of Christ, Mary, or a saint) in worship. Indeed, the annual Feast of Orthodoxy celebrates the restoration of icons to the churches at the end of the Iconoclast controversy (in a.d. 843). For the Orthodox, the making and venerating of icons is the mark of Orthodoxy—showing that one really believes that God the Son, who is consubstantial with the Father, became also truly human. Since I did not venerate icons, I was repeatedly asked whether or not I really believed in the Incarnation. The Orthodox are deeply offended at the suggestion that their veneration of icons is a violation of the second commandment. But after listening patiently to their justifications, I am convinced that whatever their intentions may be, their practice is not biblical. However, our dialogue on the subject sent me back to the Bible to study the issue in a way that I had not done before. The critique I would offer now is considerably different than the traditional Reformed critique of the practice.
Finally, many of the Orthodox tend to have a lower view of the Bible than the ancient Fathers had. At least at St. Vladimir’s, Orthodox scholars have been significantly influenced by higher-critical views of Scripture, especially as such views have developed in contemporary Roman Catholic scholarship. This is, however, a point of controversy among the Orthodox, just as it is among Catholics and Protestants. Orthodoxy also has its divisions between liberals and conservatives. But even those who are untainted by higher-critical views rarely accord to Scripture the authority that it claims for itself or which was accorded to it by the Fathers. The voice of Scripture is largely limited to the interpretations of Scripture found in the Fathers.
There is much else to be said. Orthodoxy is passionately committed to monasticism. Its liturgy includes prayers to Mary. And the Divine Liturgy, for all its antiquity, is the product of a long historical process. If you want to follow the “liturgy” that is unquestionably apostolic, then partake of the Lord’s Supper, pray the Lord’s Prayer, sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” and say “amen,” “hallelujah,” and “maranatha.” Almost everything else in any liturgy is a later adaptation and development.
A Concluding Assessment
But these criticisms do not mean that we have nothing to learn from Orthodoxy. Just as the Orthodox have not thought a lot about matters that have consumed us (such as justification, the nature of Scripture, sovereign grace, and Christ’s work on the cross), so we have not thought a lot about what have been their consuming passions: the Incarnation, the meaning of worship, the soul’s perfection in the communicable attributes of God (which they call the energies of God), and the disciplines by which we grow in grace. Let us have the maturity to keep the faith as we know it, and to learn from others where we need to learn.
Orthodoxy in many ways fascinates me, but it does not claim my heart nor stir my soul as does the Reformed faith. My firsthand exposure to Orthodoxy has left me all the more convinced that on the essential matters of human sin, divine forgiveness, and Christ’s atoning sacrifice, the Reformed faith is the biblical faith. I would love to see my Orthodox friends embrace a more biblical understanding of these matters. And I am grieved when Reformed friends sacrifice this greater good for the considerable but lesser goods of Orthodox liturgy and piety.
Dr. Kinneer is the director of Echo Hill Christian Study Center in Indian Head, Pa.
Reprinted from New Horizons of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, as posted at http://www.opc.org/new_horizons/calvinist_on_orthodoxy.html. Used with permission.
I wrote the following reply:
Dear Dr. Kinneer;
First, on an Orthodox mailing list, I saw a copy of your “A Calvinist Looks at Orthodoxy.” I would like to write a somewhat measured response that you might find of interest; please quote me if you like, preferably with attribution and a link to my website (CJSHayward.com). I am a convert Orthodox and a graduate of Calvin College, for which I have fond memories, although I was never a Calvinist, merely a non-Calvinist Evangelical welcomed in the warm embrace of the community. I am presently a Ph.D. student in theology and went to church for some time at St. Vladimir’s Seminary and have friends there. I hope that you may find something of interest in my comments here.
Second, you talk about discussion of being Eastern Orthodox versus being orthodox. I would take this as a linguistically confusing matter of the English language, where even in spoken English the context clarifies whether (o)rthodox or (O)rthodox is the meaning intended by the speaker.
Third, I will be focusing mostly on matters I where I would at least suggest some further nuance, but your summary headed “The Appeal of Orthodoxy,” among other things in the article, is a good sort of thing and the sort of thing I might find convenient to quote.
Fourth, the Orthodox consensus of faith is not a much longer and less manageable collection of texts than the Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, combined with the even more massive Patrologia Graecae, and other patristic sources. I have said elsewhere that Western and particularly Protestant and Evangelical culture are at their core written cultures, and Orthodoxy is at its core an oral culture that makes use of writing—I could suggest that it was precisely the Reformation that is at the root of what we now know as literate culture. This means that Orthodoxy does not have, as its closest equivalent to the Westminster Confession, a backbreaking load of books that even patristics scholars can’t read cover to cover; it means that the closest Orthodox equivalent to Westminster Confession is not anything printed but something alive in the life and culture of the community. (At very least this is true if you exclude the Nicene Creed, which is often considered “what Orthodox are supposed to believe.”)
Fifth, regarding the words, “First, in my experience, the Orthodox do not understand justification by faith:” are you contending that former Evangelicals, who had an Evangelical understanding of justification by faith, were probably fairly devout Evangelicals, and are well-represented at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, do not understand justification by faith?
There seems to be something going on here that is a mirror image of what you say below about icons: there, you complain about people assuming that if you don’t hold the Orthodox position on icons, you don’t understand the Christian doctrine of the incarnation; here, you seem in a mirror image to assume that if people don’t have a Reformation-compatible understanding of justification by faith, you don’t understand the Biblical teaching.
I wrote, for a novella I’m working on, The Sign of the Grail, a passage where the main character, an Evangelical, goes to an Orthodox liturgy, hears amidst the mysterious-sounding phrases a reading including “The just shall walk by faith,” before the homily:
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
One of the surprises in the Divine Comedy—to a few people at least—is that the Pope is in Hell. Or at least it’s a surprise to people who know Dante was a devoted Catholic but don’t recognize how good Patriarch John Paul and Patriarch Benedict have been; there have been some moments Catholics aren’t proud of, and while Luther doesn’t speak for Catholics today, he did put his finger on a lot of things that bothered people then. Now I remember an exasperated Catholic friend asking, “Don’t some Protestants know anything else about the Catholic Church besides the problems we had in the sixteenth century?” And when Luther made a centerpiece out of what the Bible said about “The righteous shall walk by faith,” which was in the Bible’s readings today, he changed it, chiefly by using it as a battle axe to attack his opponents and even things he didn’t like in Scripture.
It’s a little hard to see how Luther changed Paul, since in Paul the words are also a battle axe against legalistic opponents. Or at least it’s hard to see directly. Paul, too, is quoting, and I’d like to say exactly what Paul is quoting.
In one of the minor prophets, Habakkuk, the prophet calls out to the Lord and decries the wickedness of those who should be worshiping the Lord. The Lord’s response is to say that he’s sending in the Babylonians to conquer, and if you want to see some really gruesome archaeological findings, look up what it meant for the Babylonians or Chaldeans to conquer a people. I’m not saying what they did to the people they conquered because I don’t want to leave people here trying to get disturbing images out of people’s minds, but this was a terrible doomsday prophecy.
The prophet answered the Lord in anguish and asked how a God whose eyes were too pure to look on evil could possibly punish his wicked people by the much more wicked Babylonians. And the Lord’s response is very mysterious: “The righteous shall walk by faith.”
Let me ask you a question: How is this an answer to what the prophet asked the Lord? Answer: It isn’t. It’s a refusal to answer. The same thing could have been said by saying, “I AM the Lord, and my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways. I AM WHO I AM and I will do what I will do, and I am sovereign in this. I choose not to tell you how, in my righteousness, I choose to let my wicked children be punished by the gruesomely wicked Babylonians. Only know this: even in these conditions, the righteous shall walk by faith.”
The words “The righteous shall walk by faith” are an enigma, a shroud, and a protecting veil. To use them as Paul did is a legitimate use of authority, an authority that can only be understood from the inside, but these words remain a protecting veil even as they take on a more active role in the New Testament. The New Testament assumes the Old Testament even as the New Testament unlocks the Old Testament.
Paul does not say, “The righteous will walk by sight,” even as he invokes the words, “The righteous shall walk by faith.”
Here’s something to ponder: The righteous shall walk by faith even in their understanding of the words, “The righteous shall walk by faith.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
When I showed this to one Reformation scholar to check my treatment of the Reformation, he said that I didn’t explain what “The righteous shall walk by faith,” but my entire point was to show what the Old Testament quotation could mean besides a shibboleth that one is sanctified in entirety in response to faith without one iota being earned by good works. The Reformation teaching, as I understand it, reflects a subtle adaptation of the Pauline usage—and here I might underscore that Paul and Luther had different opponents—and a profound adaptation of the Old Testament usage. And it may be possible to properly understand the Biblical text without interpreting it along Reformation lines.
Sixth, you write that Orthodox tend to have a poor understanding of sovereign grace. I remember how offended my spiritual Father was when I shared that a self-proclaimed non-ordained Reformed minister—the one person who harassed me when I became Orthodox—said that Orthodox didn’t believe in grace. He wasn’t offended at me, but I cannot ever recall seeing him be more offended. (Note: that harassment was a bitter experience, but I’d really like to think I’m not bitter towards Calvinists; I have a lot of fond memories from my time at Calvin and some excellent memories of friends who tended to be born and bred Calvinists.)
I would suggest that if you can say that Orthodox do not understand sovereign grace shortly after talking about a heavy emphasis on theosis, you are thinking about Orthodox doctrine through a Western grid and are missing partly some details and partly the big picture of how things fit together.
Seventh, I am slightly surprised that you describe original sin as simply being in the Bible and something Orthodox do not teach. Rom 5:12 as translated in the Vulgate (“…in quo omnes peccaverunt”) has a Greek ambiguity translated out, so that a Greek text that could quite justifiably be rendered that death came into the world “because all sinned” (NIV) is unambiguously rendered as saying about Adam, “in whom all have sinned,” which in turn fed into Augustine’s shaping of the Western doctrine of original sin. It’s a little surprising to me that you present this reading of an ambiguity as simply being what the Bible says, so that the Orthodox are deficiently presenting the Bible by not sharing the reading.
Eighth, I too was puzzled by the belief that the Incarnation immediately justifies icons, and I find it less puzzling to hold a more nuanced understanding of the Orthodox teaching that if you understand the Incarnation on patristic terms—instead of by a Reformation definition—its inner logic flows out to the point of an embrace of creation that has room for icons. I won’t develop proof-texts here; what I will say is that the kind of logical inference that is made is similar to a kind of logical inference I see in your report, i.e. that “The righteous shall walk by faith” means the Reformation doctrine that we are justified by faith alone and not by works.
I believe that this kind of reasoning is neither automatically right nor automatically wrong, but something that needs to be judged in each case.
Ninth, you write, “Finally, many of the Orthodox tend to have a lower view of the Bible than the ancient Fathers had.” When I was about to be received into the Orthodox Church, I told my father that I had been devoted in my reading of the Bible and I would switch to being devoted in my reading of the Fathers. My spiritual father, who is a graduate of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, emphatically asked me to back up a bit, saying that the Bible was the core text and the Fathers were a commentary. He’s said that he would consider himself very fortunate if his parishioners would spend half an hour a day reading the Bible. On an Orthodox mailing list, one cradle Orthodox believer among mostly converts quoted as emphatic an Orthodox clergyman saying, “If you don’t read your Bible each day, you’re not a Christian.” Which I would take as exaggeration, perhaps, but exaggeration as a means of emphasizing something important.
Tenth, regarding higher-critical views at St. Vladimir’s Seminary: I agree that it is a problem, but I would remind you of how St. Vladimir’s Seminary and St. Tikhon’s Seminary compare. St. Vladimir’s Seminary is more liberal, and it is an excellent academic environment that gives degrees including an Orthodox M.Min. St. Tikhon’s Seminary is academically much looser but it is considered an excellent preparation for ministry. If you saw some degree of liberal academic theology at St. Vladimir’s, you are seeing the fruits of your (legitimate) selection. Not that St. Vladimir’s Seminary is the only Orthodox seminary which is not completely perfect, but if you want to see preparation for pastoral ministry placed ahead of academic study at an Orthodox institution, St. Tikhon’s might interest you.
Eleventh, after I was at Calvin, I remembered one friend, tongue-in-cheek, talking about “the person who led me to Calvin.” I also remember that when I was at Calvin, I heard more talk about being “disciples of John Calvin” than being “disciples of Jesus Christ,” and talk more about bearing the name of “Calvinist” than “Christian,” although this time it wasn’t tongue-in-cheek. I notice that you speak of how, “sadly,” people “left the Reformed faith for Orthodoxy.” One response might be one that Reformers like Calvin might share: “Was John Calvin crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of John Calvin?” (Cf I Cor. 1:13)
I left this out at first because it’s not as “nice” as some of the others, but I would like to invite you to perhaps leave the “faith” (as you call it) that aims for John Calvin, and embrace the faith that Calvin was trying to re-create in response to abuses in the Western Church. It’s still alive, and we still have an open door for you.
When I studied early modern era Orthodox Patriarch Cyril Lucaris, I compared the Eucharistic teaching in his profession of faith to the Eucharistic teaching in Calvin’s Institutes…
…and concluded that Calvin was more Orthodox. Calvin, among other things, concerned himself with the question of what John Chrysostom taught.
I really don’t think I was trying to be a pest. But what I did not develop is that Calvin tried to understand what the Greek Fathers taught, always as an answer to Protestant questions about what, in metaphysical terms, happens to the Holy Gifts. The Orthodox question is less about the transformation of the Holy Gifts than the transformation of those who receive it, and Calvin essentially let the Fathers say whatever they wanted… as long as they answered a question on terms set by the Reformation.
When I read Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live?, my immediate reaction was that I wished the book had been “expanded to six times its present length.” I have some reservations about the fruitfulness of presuppositional apologetics now. What I do not have reservations about is saying that there is a valid insight in Schaeffer’s approach, and more specifically there is distortion introduced by letting Orthodoxy say whatever it wants… as an answer to Calvinist questions.
To assert, without perceived need for justification, that the Orthodox have very little understanding of sovereign grace and follow this claim by saying that there is a preoccupation with divinization comes across to Orthodox much like saying, “_______ have very little concept of ‘medicine’ or ‘health’ and are always frequenting doctor’s offices, pharmacies, and exercise clubs.” It’s a sign that Orthodox are allowed to fill in the details of sin, incarnation, justification, or (in this case) grace, but on condition that they are filling out the Reformation’s unquestioned framework.
But the way to understand this is less analysis than worship.
The Greatest Treasures
These are some of the greatest treasures around to read, and there’s a lifetime worth of reading in them. I may be critical in some of my reviews, but I only list books I think are worth reading, and the pieces I criticize are probably worthy of a more charitable spirit.
- The Orthodox* Study Bible (Kindle)
- In this Orthodox bookshelf, a decisive pride of place goes to The Orthodox* Study Bible. I have felt more comfort in reading it than any other Bible, and it gives a real sense of reading the Bible, not privately, but in community with the saints across the ages. The footnotes are decisively better than the Bible de Jérusalem / New Jerusalem Bible, and those responsible for The Orthodox* Study Bible decisively understand that the proper use of footnotes in a text is not to speculate about how a text came together across the ages, but to illumine the Bible as the ultimate work of practical, spiritual, and mystical theology, with footnotes oriented towards practical, spiritual, and mystical theology.
Then why have I put an asterisk in The Orthodox* Study Bible?
The Orthodox* Study Bible shows signs of a group of converts who have described as trying to do too much, too fast. Their selection of saints for commentary is limited to the first millenium (have no nineteenth century saints already stood the test of time?), and the introduction harps on the ancient Church.
If harping on the antiquity of the Church doesn’t seem strange, think about how we are all the continuation of the royal, ancient bloodline of His Majesty King ADAM and Her Majesty Queen EVE. Poetry and meaning are alike profound when, to quote a Protestant author, C.S. Lewis has Aslan proclaim “Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve.” Such a thing may be poetic to note, and quaint, but it would be a strange thing to harp on and say that you respect other people primarily as carriers of an ancient bloodline. Most of the respect we have, or should have, for other people is not for the antiquity of our bloodline, but because they are fully human, however we may understand being human, because they are made in the image of God and can be transformed into the likeness of Christ. It may be a useful thing to remember that a beggar or a person we can’t stand is ultimately family to us, but very little of the language of respect for the human person, whether Orthodox, other religious, or secular, states that we are the fullness of the ancient bloodline of our first parents. And, notwithstanding that eagerness to re-create the ancient Church was foundational to the Reformation and can still be found in Protestant influences, the basis of respect for Orthodoxy is not that it is Ancient Orthodoxy, but that it is Holy Orthodoxy.
Though The Orthodox* Study Bible introduces its material by talking about the authentic continuity of the Orthodox Church (without so much as a brief passing mention of our antiquity as the authentic continuity of the bloodline of Lord Adam and Lady Eve), I have never heard such harping on the ancient Church among cradle Orthodox. Admittedly the Orthodox Church is the same living organism as the ancient Church, but in the altar at my parish, most of the books are ancient in character (service books, Gospel books, a Greek New Testament), not one of them is labelled as ancient: no service book touts “the ancient Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom.” ‘Ancient’ is not the point.
And there are other things like that are written to “smooth things over” at the expense of truth in The Orthodox* Study Bible. For one instance, the note on Creation on page 2 says like a politico, “Regarding scientific questions about the scientific accuracy of the Genesis account of creation, and about various viewpoints concerning evolution, the Orthodox Church has not dogmatized any particular view.” This is misleading disinformation; origins questions may well be among the many areas “not dogmatized”, but there is a near-universal consensus among the Church Fathers, including the Church Fathers of the first millenium that The Orthodox* Study Bible returns to, that the earth was created in six days about six thousand years ago. This may be inconvenient to point out, and it might be easier to help people get along if we say that several views are legitimate, but this is twisting facts for the sake of convenience. (And for the recdord, I believe in a billions of years old earth and legitimate disagreement over how God created the world), although the world was created 3:00 PM, March 25, 28 AD.)
With all that stated, The Orthodox* Study Bible has a number of helpful and edifying notes in an overall tenor that provides guidance in reading the Bible, and nothing better has come to fill its place.
Perhaps another work will come along that is not trying to do “too much, too fast,” but The Orthodox* Study Bible has left behind a pretty big pair of boots to fill, and there is much profit in it whether you know the Bible well or are just beginning to dive into it.
- The Philokalia is a library of practical theology, and there is nothing else like it. It is a collection about the science of spiritual struggle, and though entries can vary substantially from each other, they are very edifying and can orient us to what is truly important in life.
The Philokalia is best viewed, not as a book, but as a library of classics, and the intent is that people would read specific works as selected by a clergy member. I can attest that simply reading it cover to cover is a second-best solution.
Many Orthodox give The Philokalia first place outside of the Bible.
- The Ladder of Divine Ascent
- The Ladder of Divine Ascent is a work addressed to monastics, and is read each Lent in monasteries. However this is far from being a treasure only useful to monastics. It is a jewel of the Orthodox Church as a whole, and all kinds of people have read The Ladder of Divine Ascent to great spiritual profit.
- The Prologue of Ochrid (Volume 1, Volume 2 (Daily selections online; Old Calendar)
- The Orthodox Church has a great tradition of biography as theology: one grasps holiness by reading the lives of the saints. A rich sampling of these lives is found in the daily readings of the Prologue, which tells of all the saints commemorated on a particular day.
- The Jordanville Prayer Book
- Praying the prayers of the Church is a great help along the way, and The Jordanville Prayer Book (or any other good prayer book) is like the script to a play: it is not primarily meant to be read silently while sitting in a chair, but spoken aloud, brought to life, preferably from a standing position.
Prayers, with fasting, are an area to work out with one’s priest or spiritual father. They come alive when they are practiced as part of the life of the Church.
- Akathists (links to many good Akathists; note that the website, Orthodox Wiki, should be taken with a little grain of salt).
- St. Romanos the Melodist is said to have miraculously received the prayer of the Akathist to the Mother of God. Since then there is a tradition of Akathist prayers; the term “akathist” means “not seated,” i.e. standing to deliver the prayer. The first Akathist, and many of the ones that follow, are beautiful and powerful prayers.
- The Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Series 1, Series 2) collections (Read online)
The Ante-Nicene and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers provide the standard reference translations to a great many Church Fathers. This collection receives its own asterisk because while the texts are Orthodox they were translated by Anglicans grinding a massive axe against Rome. Hence a condemnation of contraception, abortion, and infanticide by St. John Chrysostom is turned into a condemnation of abortion and infanticide alone; Augustine may be allowed to condemn Natural Family Planning, but there is an axe that is ground in the texts and is even more explicit in the accompanying notes and introductions.
Still, this does not stop a great deal of glory from the Fathers; read, for instance, St. John Chrysostom’s Treatise to Prove that No One Can Injure the Man Who Does Not Harm Himself. The collection, for all its deficiencies, is still a great treasure.
- St. John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (Kindle), Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, etc.
- I have picked these two examples of works that it is work to read. I read them, not because I have grown enough that they seem easy and natural to read, but because they stretch me and challenge me to enter into a larger space. Fr. John Behr said, “The only thing worse than not reading the Fathers and reading them systematically;” in a similar fashion, the Fathers are of the most value to us, not when we find an endorsement of what we have always believed, but when we are challenged and invited to grow. I am challenged by these works, and I pick out these two as representative examples of innumerable works that challenge me to grow bigger and unpleasantly challenge me to enter a larger world.
This is a collection of lesser greats, limited in number by the limitations of what I am familiar with. Note that this does not include a lot of popular authors, such as Fr. Seraphim (Rose), or Met. John (Zizioulas); in the latter case, I answered the question, “Is John Zizioulas an existentialist in disguise?” by asking, “Where’s the disguise?” However, there is some good work produced recently, and I’ve even read a little of it.
- The Orthodox Way
- The standard print introduction to Orthodoxy is His Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos’s The Orthodox Church, but what captivated my attention was not that more systematic work but the less systematic and more mystical The Orthodox Way. It is an excellent introduction to Holy Orthodoxy.
- The Way of the Pilgrim (Kindle)
- The Way of the Pilgrim is a glimpse of one pilgrim for whom the Philokalia unlocked the treasures of the Gospel. The author, whose name is lost, would today be considered a vagrant; that was the form taken by his pilgrimage. Along the way the Jesus Prayerunfolds in his heart. The book is a lesser classic, but it is a classic.
One queer postmodern theologian speaking in class spoke of how the Fathers used “the best philosophical resources of their day,” the implication being that we should use the postmodern resources fashionable today. To that I might reply: the best philosophical resources available to the Fathers were neo-Platonism, and the best philosophical resources available today are neo-Platonism. That may sound harsh, but the Church that said “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” used philosophical resources without limiting themselves to them as captives. Neo-Platonism was at once the air the Fathers breathed and the opponent they struggled against; in today’s terms, slightly clumsy to apply to them, they strove for a critical reception of neo-Platonism, or developed (or rather preserved) a counterculture.
These books are not exhaustive; but they serve to point to an area that is worth reading. But perhaps this section of this Orthodox bookshelf is less important than one might think.
Note here that there is one category I have deliberately excluded: Gnostic and other heretical writings. Gnostic writing is spiritual pornography and I regret I have ever set eyes on it. I thought it would provide perspective to help me understand Orthodoxy. It did not, and I would rather have read any Orthodox resource than that form of spiritual poison.
- Plotinus: The Enneads (Kindle)
- A central work of neo-Platonism, and possibly the best single resource in philosophy from outside the Church into what the Fathers drew from when they drew from pagan philosophy, in the image of one Church Father, “like a bee that goes straight to the sweetest nectar and ignores all else.”
- Plato: The Republic (Kindle)
- A seminal work that was the first domino that would build to neo-Platonism. There are parts of the work that seem strange today; Derrida called it “the world’s oldest, longest, and least funny political joke”. I would amend that to “the world’s oldest, longest, least funny, and least intentional political joke.” The treatment of sexuality reads like something plagiarized from Monty Python today, but viewed in relation to historical context (in books I shouldn’t have read), it does not seem nearly so provocative a stance against currents of its own day as in currents of our own day. It sets forth one of the oldest radical political ideologies, but for all that it is a seed of many important things, many good things, and I lightly adapted its most famous passage in Plato: The Allegory of the…Flickering Screen?.
Almost last, and certainly least,
I would at least like to mention my own offerings, not because there is any conclusion that they are classics, but because I cherish them and they are what I have to offer. They are in:
The “Big Room”
Programmer slang uses “the Big Room” for outside, the “room” one is in when one is not hunched over a computer indoors. And there is something profound to looking beyond books and learning from life.
Monasticism has a maxim, “Your cell will teach you everything you need to know.” And the precept holds whether or not one is a monk; staying in one’s place and learning things is powerful. Most monks have been illiterate and not owned books; the maxim is not simply “Your bookshelf will teach you everything you need to know,” but “Your cell will teach you everything you need to know.” The here and now that God has put you in, that you are tempted to escape by real or virtual means, will teach you everything you need to know.
Models of Computation: The Church-Turing Thesis and Geometric Construction
The Church-Turing Thesis posits that the equivalence class that includes the Turing machine, and is also the basis for modern digital computing, is the most powerful model of computation. And it hasn’t been proven, but when people have checked out other models of computation, every one has turned out to either be equivalent to the Turing machine, or become lesser.
Quite probably it may be impossible to construct some useful computer by this model; quite possibly for that matter its greatest usefulness may come through simulations by digital computer, in which case its simulations will automatically not exceed Turing machines or digital computer by its power. However, even if is a failure at scaling some of the highest peaks, it seems an interesting and provoking possibility to explore.
Standard Euclidean geometric construction is a model of computation. It is not usually presented as such, but you start with a diagram and all that may be inferred from it, and you have two tools, a compass and straightedge, as well as a pen or other implement to draw with. And the solution to a construction is to come back with an algorithm that will go through computational steps that start with its initial state represented in a diagram, and use your three tools to create the desired end result.
Both models figure into the model of computation discussed here, but the model of computation is different.
The model of computation described here is like a blacksmith’s forge. I have read that one of the first things a blacksmith makes, is a pair of real tongs. And a blacksmith is not just turning out nails and other things for other people, but tools used in the forge. The core insight here is that a blacksmith can create tools, much as a computer programmer may make customized tools for their own work. This is at its core a geometric model of computation, with a more obvious debt to geometry, although the tools should be sufficient to implement a Turing machine. One person made the interesting suggestion that it is applying recursion to geometric construction.
The blacksmith’s forge
The main tools the blacksmith’s forge works with are as follows; the first three are taken from geometric computation:
- A compass, that can be used to draw circles.
- A straightedge.
- A marking implement.
- A jigsaw. The geometric plane is conceived not to be one point thin, but a uniform distance thick. When the blacksmith’s forge has constructed the closed outline of the shape, the shape can be cut out.
- Pins, equal in length to two or more (whole) times the thickness of the plane. If one pin goes between two shapes one on top of the other, and the shapes are not otherwise constrained, they will be able to pivot around the pin with respect to each other. If two or more pins go through, then the two positions will be rigid in how they are joined.
- Pieces cut out with the jigsaw, possibly joined by pins.
Idealized Physics in the Blacksmith’s Forge
The blacksmith’s forge has an idealized physics. The pin and jigsaw are parts of this idealized physics, but another part of the physics is that pieces do not tip over: any number of stackings that would immediately fall over in the real world are assumed to simply stand upright, the pieces resting on top of any other piece immediately beneath them for some positive areas. There is friction, and pieces pushed to where one entity crosses another, for instance, will immediately stop moving if they are no longer being pushed. Items touching each other can be pushed past each other, but only so far as they are pushed. This does not exhaust the physics, but if you think of the physics of ordinary geometric construction, you should be close to the mark.
Three Classic Problems
Trisecting an Angle
Consider the following diagram:
Take this constructed device, rotate it so point A is at an angle’s vertex, B is in the angle’s clockwise side, and expand or contract the accordion-like device so that C is at the angle’s other side. Angle DAB is now one-third of the (trisected) original angle.
Doubling the Cube
Consider the following modification of the previous diagram:
Take a circle, and draw a concentric circle at twice the radius. Then place the constructive device so point A is at the center, and expand out or collapse in so that B is on the initial circle. Then collapse or expand the device so that it is on the the new “double radius” circle. Point E will have a distance to the center equal to the original radius times the cube root of two.
Squaring the Circle
Cut out two circles, and a tall, thin rectangle. Put the circles snugly and squarely so that the line between them and the rectangles is perpendicular to the rectangles’ long dimension. Put pegs through the circles’ centers through the perpendicular rectangle, and mark (A) both the first circle and the rectangle where they meet. While holding the first circle squarely, push on the outer circle until it wraps the long rectangle around the first circle, and mark on the tall rectangle where it touched the circle’s mark.
You now have a distance marked out on the tall rectangle that is 2π times the radius of your circle. Getting the square root of π is not terribly difficult; you can draw two subsegments of a line segment, one equal to the original circle’s diameter in length and one equal to circle’s circumference, and then draw a long line segment perpendicular to the first segment starting where the two meet. Take one of the corner-like squares above, place it so that it touches both endpoints of the line segment, and while continuing to hold it tight to the ends of the segment, move it so its inner corner lies on the perpendicular line segment. The distance from that point along the line segment to the center is equal to the square root of π times the length of the original circle’s diameter:
You’re Using Extra Privilege!
I am indeed using extra privilege, but may I point something out?
There is a bit of a historical difference between now and ancient Greece. We now have a number of branches of mathematics, and though there may be likes and dislikes, it is something of an outsider’s question to ask, “Which is right: real analysis or modern algebra?” There is a general sense that as with board games, if you want to play chess you play by the rules of chess and if you want to play go you play by the rules of go.
The three questions neatly and easily answered are the standard three famous problems which it was subsequently proven to be impossible to construct with Euclidean geometry. And these were not simply mathematical chess problems; I don’t know the stories for all of them, but legend has it that there was a plague killing many people and an oracle stated that the plague would be stopped if a cubic altar were built that was twice the volume of an original cubic altar. This was not one where people only used Euclidean construction because they decided they could only play by the rules of Euclidean geometry. This was a “by any means necessary” matter, and it should be understood as much. The attitude of “This is the set of rules for this particular game” is anachronous; people would be very glad to have an extension to Euclidean construction that would allow solution of at least one of these problems.
And it is not clear to me whether this is any sense of useful model of computation. (I personally think, out of my second master’s thesis, that the human brain can do things no Turing-approximant style of computers can do. Some people have said, “A year spent in artificial vision is enough to make one believe in God,” and there are some basic things, like making sense of an I can read book, that most humans do well but are so far insurmountable to computers; one writer wrote of an embodied AI robot “Cog,” “The weakness of Cog at present seems to be that it cannot actually do very much. Even its insect-like computer forebears do not seem to have had the intelligence of insects, and Cog is clearly nowhere near having human intelligence.”
But I think this model of computation is interesting, whether or not it proves useful.
With that done, let me first tell how I have come to this infusion of spiritual life.
I was walking outside and met a friend, 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. I experienced it then. I also spent time worrying about the loss of the joy and peace, although I tried not to.
I am not sure how to begin; a lot has happened since then. My account will probably grow more linear and chronological as time moves on, but the account of the days before will probably be more by lessons learned and by theme.
The lessons I have learned have not in a sense been new lessons, in the sense of something I couldn’t have articulated before, but I have owned and experienced the knowledge more deeply.
The first lesson has to do with the bread from Heaven, manna. It was divine nourishment, and it required trust in God. You couldn’t gather extra for two days; it would spoil. However much you gathered, it was enough. These two principles I have found to apply to God’s presence, and spiritual nourishment.
I struggle with wanting to have things under control, to know ahead of time what to do with my time (in small part to avoid boredom, and in large part to continue to be nourished and grow close to God), and God doesn’t tell me. That is better for my learning to trust him, I think. God isn’t giving me a programme to follow. He’s giving me a relationship.
Before that Tuesday, I was uniformly groggy. My emotions after then have been a little bit of a roller coaster — I’ve had some moments of bliss, and some moments of sadness. Now I am feeling groggy and perhaps a little depressed — although that’s probably because I didn’t get enough sleep. God has blessed me with emotions; now perhaps he is trying to wean me off of them. He saved me for himself, not for emotions. I hope that the good feelings won’t end yet, though; I need to heal from pain. I ask that I may first have him, and then after that enjoy him through emotional blessings.
I have been reminded of, and appreciating, the way of the heart described in Brent Curtis’s Less-Wild Lovers: Standing at the Crossroads of Desire, which I will summarize/condense here, and would highly encourage you to read:
There is within us a yearning for a sacred Romance, a haunting that won’t go away. Art, literature, music have explored this Romance and its loss. It uncontrollably haunts through natural beauty, telling of something lost with a promise to return.
If this were all there was to it, that would be great — but it’s not. The Romance has an enemy, the Message of the Arrows.
We once trusted in good because we had not known evil. Now we must trust in good, with full knowledge of evil. Our loss of innocence came through painful experiences we adapted to by wearing a false self.
The Romance appears through things — moonlight, a song — but those things will sear us if we think the Romance is in them. We can hurt ourselves by trying to capture the things through which Romance has shown, or we can hurt ourselves by trying to forget the Haunting, and resigning ourselves to the Romance’s loss. This resignation sees good as not startling, but only “nice”, and evil as normal.
In resignation we give up on the sacred Romance, but our heart will not give up, and we compromise. We become, and take, less-wild lovers.
God calls us to give up the less-wild lovers, embrace our nakedness, and trust in his goodness. We are at a fork in the road. The one path can only be seen for a short distance, and looks uncertain, unpredictable. Anxious, we have no good road map, but just snippets of travellers before: encouraging but frustratingly vague.
The other way looks straight and safe far as the eye can see, and signs promise success on the next leg if directions are precisely followed. We read one last note quaintly encouraging us to trust the goodness of the first path, and start on the route of discipline and duty.
We discover that we don’t feel much of anything, don’t connect with people. Our passions show themselves in inappropriate ways. Our heart is with us, journeying under protest. So we crush it with more activity — or let our heart have a secret life on the side. We arrive at Vanity Fair, peopled by deadness of spirit, lack of love, lust, pride, anger… We think this is as close to the Celestial City as we are going to get, and so set up shop and try to distract ourselves with the soul curiosities and anesthetics: Bible study, community service, religious seminars, hobbies… These are often good things, but misused to squelch our heart’s longings.
Most of us fall into two categories vis-a-vis these less-wild lovers. There are those who anesthetize their hearts via competence or order (a clean desk, stellar athletic skills, impressive dinner parties, massive amounts of time reading Scriptire), like a picture perfect wife who is always busy, admirably involved with the community, and is never really there to her husband. Her sadness says, “My heart is not available for anything that is not safe and tame. I am careful to avoid surprises that might upset my control, and if you were wise, you would, too.” She tries to keep away the pain of the Arrows by sealing off those compartments of the heart that have been wounded. She may have grown up in an atmosphere too delicate to handle the weight of her unedited soul.
Others choose a different kind of control: indulgence. They seek a taste of transcendence from non-transcendent sources: porn, obsession with sports, or living off our giftedness, which is like crack cocaine to our souls. They touch the heart-place made for transcendent communion without being transcendent, and shackle us: addiction.
Only unfallen communion will ever satisfy our desire, or allow it to drink freely without imprisoning it and us.
If God married to us experiences from the first group a legalistic controller, the second group is a harlot whose heart is seduced by every scent on the evening breeze. God says, “I love you and yet you betray me at the drop of a hat. Can’t you see we’re made for each other?”
God’s love became even more wild, but we become and take on lovers that are less wild. We give up on being in a relationship of heroic proportions, and take what is smaller but under our control.
The indulgence looks better than anesthesia, but the passion must be fed by worship or use of the other and so does ot leave us free to love. Its pleasure is part of the vanity of vanities.
The formulae that seem to control everything, do not offer wisdom about what to do with the depth of desire God has given us. If we try to anesthetize the desire, we become relational islands, and if we seek to indulge then familiarity breeds contempt and we must seek mystery elsewhere.
What, then, is the road less travelled, the way of the heart?
Perhaps, more than improving our habits, we are to invite Jesus into the aching abyss of our hearts. Internal discipline is valuable, but discipline imposed from the outside will be defeated. There comes a point when renewed religious activity is worthless. We must place our hand in God’s, and relate in a personal way to him. We are drawn to and fear this intimacy.
We are once again at the crossroads. There is a chasm between us and Christ, but he beckons and promises a bridge. We listen, but his words sound like many we should not have trusted. Some return to Vanity Fair, some close their eyes and take a step. We look in our valise, and pull words we disdained the last time we stood at a crossroads — now we see their truth. We see that good can be trusted in, and that God is good. We see that to be free, we must allow ourselves to be haunted, surprised by goodness we cannot hold.
We fear to really ask for such bold movement from the wild God, and sit down, honest with ourselves. Vanity Fair never really has felt like home. We are captured by our less-wild lovers. We take the step into freedom.
We are clueless as to how we will cross the abyss, but we are glad to be on our way.
After a number of activities last night, I felt a beckoning from God to lie down and be with him. I lay down, and made being with him one more activity — I was trying to do something to accomplish being with him. I felt a prompting to stop, and did, with hesitation — trying to let go, and beginning to succeed.
The next thing I knew, I awoke from a nap, wonderfully refreshed and filled with his presence.
Discipline is essential to spiritual growth, and there are several things I am doing as a matter of discipline: Bible reading, e-mailing prayer requests to my friends and praying for their prayer requests, transcribing the lyrics to hymns into a collection, and this journal. But the disciplines are for faith, not faith for the disciplines, and I have felt a freedom to not be bound too tightly by the disciplines. Yesterday I did not enter a hymn, and it felt wonderful.
One of the questions or doubts I have concerns my professional future. I have a master’s degree in applied mathematics, with a computational science and engineering option, and want to work as a mathematician or at least a programmer. Use it or lose it skills are beginning to atrophy. I think it will be sad if I acquire this education and then never really use it — I am trying to hold that out, open to God to work with. It’s his domain, not mine.
I visited my friend Robin, a few days after we spoke and that first spark was lit, to see if there were any words of wisdom that he could share with me, any direction or advice. I asked him what he had been learning, and he said a number of things. Nearly all of them were things I had reasoned out theologically, but there is sometimes a difference between reasoning out a truth as a doctrinal proposition and coming to own it, to breathe it. The lesson above about manna, for instance, was one I had thought out before (and I do not wish in the least to denigrate learning something intellectually. I am served very well by my intellectual knowledge, and I am worshipping God when I reason things out). But there was one he mentioned that hit me. Although I had reasoned it out, I am not sure how well I’ve assimilated it.
That has to do with where your identity comes from. The Christian’s identity should come from Christ, and I realized that my identity in very large part comes from what Curtis would have referred to as competence — what I can do. I am very intelligent and have a number of talents, and when I think about myself… perhaps you could say that I have feet partly of iron and partly of clay. Being a Christian is a very large part of my identity, but so are the talents that I have. I realized a couple of days ago that many of my fantasies are about having some (usually odd) superhuman power, such as knowing the contents of all the books ever written, or speaking a thousand languages at a native proficiency. Those fantasies express something very revealing; they answer in some way the question of “What, in my heart of hearts, do I really believe would be an expression of who I would like to be?” Who you would like to be is usually an expression of who you are, a magnified and concentrated sense if you will. A hint of how this is, might be shown in that a black man’s fantasies will have him be a black man, and a white man’s fantasies will have him be a white man: a black man does not become more of the essence of a black man by becoming white, nor a white man become more of the essence of a white man by becoming black. (I realize that this isn’t the whole picture, but I don’t want to add all the nuances now.)
The importance of “Who do you understand yourself to be?” might be observed in a fact about the early Christian Church. The society they lived in was quite sharply divided and segregated by race, gender, and social status. Feelings of superiority and hatred were the norm; an organization like the KKK would not seem to people to be abnormal or disappointing.
In this context, there appeared what both itself and outsiders recognized as a new race: Christians. There really was not any longer Jew nor Greek nor barbarian, male nor female, slave nor free. People mingled across those boundaries, and a large part of this was because their identities were not “I am a free Jewish man,” but simply “I am a Christian.” (Martyr’s Mirror records some early martyrs who, when asked their names, simply answered, “Christian.”) People were still (for example) free African men, but the core of their identity, the core answer to the question, “Who am I?”, was Christian.
I am not at that point yet. A large part of my identity comes from speaking French and ranking 7th nationally in the 1989 MathCounts competition, for instance. It has been very difficult for me to not have, or be frustrated in applying, or slowly be losing, some of those abilities. Those things are to be enjoyed and used, and are blessings from God, but… My friend Robin was able to say that he had realized that if he were to lose (for example) his computer abilities, it would be an adjustment, but it would not be that difficult to go on; he would not have lost who he was. I’m not at that point yet. I think that (say) being paralyzed from the waist down would be an easier adjustment than having my intelligence move to an average level.
I think this is important, but I don’t know what to do about it. Pray and be open to God, perhaps; he’ll move on when he wants to, and maybe I’m not ready for that. God doesn’t try to do everything at once; we couldn’t take it. He works on us slowly and patiently; he isn’t in a hurry.
There were a few insights I had theologically, and I thought about including them, but decided not to. This is a journal of how I am doing spiritually, not primarily a theological writing. (I think some of the above may have shifted too much to writing a lecture for readers from writing a journal as I grow close to God. I’ll try to shift back.)
Today has been a good day. I had a good, long, and unplanned conversation with my 14 year old brother Joseph. Deep, open conversations are something I have wanted and not had for a while. I’ve had people willing to talk and listen, but when the time comes I haven’t found much to say. (That is frustrating — wanting to talk and having someone to talk with, but not to actually be able to say anything.)
I thought a bit about what Robin said — about being closer to God, and being more open to other people. I think the two are linked for him. I was able this time to be open to Joseph, to listen and engage when he was ready to talk.
One thing that I have been thinking with, out of this, is that I have been affected by the scientific method. The aspect of the method that is relevant here is that you reproduce initial conditions to bring about the same outcome — a matter in which the scientific method reflects human and even animal psychology. It runs deep in me, and it is something I have to let go of in this regard.
In spiritual life, I do not (at least on some scales) have an experimental apparatus before me to manipulate in order to get desired effects. The conversation I had with Joseph was a good conversation, but I know I can’t bring about another such conversation by repeating what I did before this one. The more immature side of me would also like to have over again the experience at the train tracks, but I know that I cannot cause that to be repeated. God can, but I can’t. These experiences are to be enjoyed, then cherished and let go of when they are over. God will grant fresh experiences, like writing this journal entry for me (I didn’t think I’d have anything to say after a day’s rest), but the manna must be fresh each day. The temptation is perennial to regard God as my personal genie — but he is not, and I cannot control what he does, not even by faithfully repeating whatever I did to which he responded with a blessing. He answers prayers, and even his unpredictability is part of his love. He is faithful, and responds to his people’s reaching up to him. He blesses people as they receive Communion. But there is something in spiritual life — or at least the speck of it I’m experiencing now — that is quite unpredictable, where God responds to us as he will and refuses to be manipulated by our doing what we did before a blessing.
Tomorrow after church, instead of seeking out people to listen to me, I’ll try to seek out someone I can listen to. I mean to ask, “How are you?” — slowly — and then wait and listen to the answer.
When I was growing up, I had a miniature collie named Goldie. (A miniature collie is a dog like Lassie on TV, only smaller.) She was a wonderful dog, a good breed to have with children. When I was a little boy, I covered her back with Vaseline. Then my brother Matthew (3 years younger) covered her back with peanut butter. Then we both covered her back with honey. Later and finally, Ben and Joe (10 years younger) covered her with honey. The poor dog hated baths. I have a lot of fond memories of her.
This morning, I looked out the family room window, and saw a miniature collie wandering through the back yard. It was good to stand and watch it.
Then, when I arrived late at church, I was looking at the bulletin cover. The bulletin covers vary in cover according to the liturgical year, and today’s bulletin cover was white. I slowly realized that the cover was not a pure white, but flecked with little specks of color — something that I had been trying to find for a Christmas gift but not been able to.
Finally, as I looked through the songs, I saw that the last communion song was “We will dance”, a beautiful song that I had been looking for the lyrics for and not found. The song goes:
Sing a song of celebration Lift up a shout of praise
For the Bridegroom will come, The glorious One
And Oh, we will look on his face
We’ll go to a much better place.
Dance with all your might Lift up your hands and clap for joy
The time’s drawing near, When He will appear
And Oh, we will stand by his side
A strong, pure, spotless bride
We will dance on the streets that are golden
The glorious bride and the great Son of Man
From every tongue and tribe and nation
We’ll join in the song of the Lamb
Sing aloud for the time of rejoicing is near
The risen King, our groom, is soon to appear
The wedding feast to come Is now near at hand
Lift up your voice, Proclaim the coming Lamb.
I said three blessings, but I remembered a fourth. I had become slightly depressed last Sunday after meeting a girl but not being able to talk with her. I was able to chat with her and a few other people today.
These blessings are interesting, because they are a kind of blessing I try not to focus on. The immature mind seeks to find happiness primarily by controlling the circumstances out there; the mature mind seeks to find happiness more by controlling the circumstances in here. These blessings are the sort of blessings that someone immature would ask for; therefore I wasn’t expecting them. I had forgotten them, and forgotten that, even if they are lesser blessings than a tranquil heart, they are still blessings. I hope that I have a few more such blessings.
A part of maturity comes in giving up a pleasure principle — in having joy and being able to appreciate pleasures, but not chasing after them in a primary sense. I have come to realize that there’s more of that pleasure seeking in me than I thought. It’s part of what I seek from God. I evaluate some of the blessings in part by what pleasure they give me. I don’t know when (if ever) I’ll outgrow it, but at least I’m aware of it now.
There is one more thing I remembered about the church service. As background for this, I wasn’t holding my bulletin at the time, and the musicians often repeat verses, so it can be hard to tell when a song will end:
As “We will dance” was being sung, there came a point when the music was winding down, and I said to myself, “I enjoyed that, but I don’t need it to go any longer.” I happily prepared to sit down. Then things sped up a little and the song continued on for a bit longer — at which I was delighted — but I did not wistfully desire for the song to linger on and on. I was able to enjoy it, cherish it, and then let it go.
(The background principle, if it would help to state explicitly, is that a person who is full doesn’t ask for more. Immoderation, finding something good, will try to have more and more of it, or finding a good moment, try to make that moment last forever. Moderation allows good things to pass from experiences to memories, capable of both holding on and letting go. The topic is explored beautifully in C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet.)
The music is hauntingly beautiful, and speaks of a childlike, hushed awe and wonder. It is music that can be sung without breaking the stillness, the silence. The emotions that the piece, or its thought, evokes, are the ones I have surrounding Christmas carols in a minor key — which is what I decided to make of it. It tells of being a little boy in pyjamas, warm and out in the living room, drinking a cup of hot cocoa at night where it is wintry cold outside and warm inside, waiting for Christmas to come. (When I was a boy, Christmas was one of my favorite holidays because of all the presents I got, and I looked forward to that a great deal. Now it’s the presents I give.) (I’ve got the melody written down, and I have some words, but I’m not completely happy with them — except for the last four stanzas. They allow people to sing and listen to the music.) To me, there has been something special about music in minor keys, that I have difficulty explaining. Perhaps you could say that major keys are pretty, like a dandelion, and minor keys are beautiful, like a rose. I have heard people say that minor keys are sad, and there is some truth to that, but to say that and nothing more is to paint a very deceptive picture. A better word would be ‘bittersweet’, and music in a minor key can tell of a bittersweet beauty — which includes the haunting beauty of the Romance described above. Bittersweet waters run deep.
Here is the present version of the piece; I don’t know how to write sheet music in HTML, and for that matter I don’t know if there is any better way to do it than include a GIF of some sheet music, which is why the music is written as it is.
(As I have been writing this, I have been feeling the emotions I would feel if I were singing it.)
Once there was born a lit-tle ba-by,
Born out of the pure vir-gin Mary,
Sent from Hea-ven he ca-ame to ea-arth,
Word of Cre-a-tion, found a-a-mong us,
Son of God, the Word ma-ade fle-esh,
King of Kings and Lord o-of Lo-ords,
I had coffee with a really cool friend tonight. His name’s Joel. At the beginning, I showed him something I’ve been working on for Christmas, and he cried; he has been in intense spiritual warfare, and what I wrote really touched him. (I was worried during the time he was reading, because his brow wrinkled and I thought he didn’t like it.) He is a seminary student, and asked permission to use parts of it when he returns to Mexico. During that time, I also decided to see if the church would use “In the Silence” around Christmastime. I’ll go to the church office tomorrow.
We had a good conversation, and I was able to encourage him, and talk and listen. We talked about different cultures (among other things), and he spoke of Mexican communication style: where an American would have a logical, outlined plan (premise, point 1, point 2, point 3, conclusion…), a Mexican will have one central point and then give many different pieces of supporting evidence. Joel mentioned that his wife sometimes got frustrated with this: “Get to the point! Get to the point!” I mentioned to him that I am interested in different cultural communication styles, and he was welcome to communicate with me in the Mexican style.
When I walked away, I realized that he had been communicating with me in the Mexican fashion, and I was listening to it with ease.
A month or two ago in church, I was thinking about Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, which has as a premise a person of totally alien culture entering our world (roughly). As well as experiencing culture shock, he causes a great deal of culture shock. He violates expectations people didn’t know they had.
I was wanting to find some other piece of literature like that, something else like that to read. Such a theme would be hard to find — it’s not the sort of thing people generally write about. And then it suddenly dawned on me what other book would fit that description: theBible, with God in it as the stranger. “My thoughts are not like your thoughts, nor are my ways like your ways.” God is a totally alien intelligence, one not like a man. He does not have any culture, but uses people’s cultures to speak and work with them. He speaks all languages, and knows all cultures’ ways of thinking. He works with these things and meets people where they are, but is always more than they are, and beyond comprehension. He is not now an organism walking on earth, but is immaterial, in all places at all times. He is not bound even by time. He is par excellence the stranger in a strange land.
I remembered this in connection with my present experience because, for my years of faith and study of spiritual things, what is happening is very different from what I would have expected an awakening to be like. The first thing (the experience at the railroad tracks) is about the only thing that happened the way I could have expected. My unspoken attitude towards the blessings on Sunday was, “Thanks, God, these Christmas presents are nice, but would you please draw me close to you?” Whoops.
I’m so glad that God doesn’t give us what we want.
Oh, and I’ve gotten almost nothing out of what I’ve read of Thérèse de Lisieux’s autobiography. I was expecting to learn a lot from that.
After reading Less-Wild Lovers: Standing at the Crossroads of Desire, I began to think, “That article should be a book,” or more properly was wishing that I could find a book to read that would be like it, hold the same charm. The haunting beauty it tells of manifests itself in the article. There are a lot of books a little like that, but I only know of one that’s really like it: Peter Kreeft’s Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing, which I hope to reread. Then I realized something heartening: I may be writing a book like Less-Wild Lovers: Standing at the Crossroads of Desire. I might not be, of course, and I cannot tell if this writing will haunt others as Less-Wild Lovers: Standing at the Crossroads of Desire haunted me. If it does, though, that will be a beautiful thing.
Free time is a blessing in moderation. Having eight hours of free time a day is not eight times as good as having one hour of free time a day. I was very frustrated to have hours and hours of free time on my hands and have lost my creativity. Now it feels good, once in a while, to have been a bit busy.
At lunch today, I said something that I realized had broader application than its original context, and application to blessings from God.
It has to do with a difference between European and American attitudes towards alcohol and parties. In America, alcohol is the reason for the party. In Europe, alcohol is present and it is enjoyed, but it is not the reason for the party. It is given a subordinate role, a part of the enjoyment of the other people — and therefore probably enjoyed more.
A good party doesn’t need alcohol, but alcohol can add something to a party. C.S. Lewis said that nobody puts a bow on a baby’s head to hide how ugly she is. In the same spirit, alcohol is not what makes a party good, but neither is it something that has nothing to add. It adorns the goodness of a good party, just as a bow adorns a baby’s head.
Many things are like that — not needed, but they have something to add. Christmas gifts are like that to friendship and family — gifts cannot be the substance of the relationships (and it is perverse to try to buy love by giving gifts), and a good friendship needs no exchange of gifts — but they are none the less a beautiful adornment. The principle also applies to some of my attitude towards how God was working with me — I was thinking “Either I have community with God, or I have lesser things that are easier to want and harder to be satisfied with.” No — I can have both, with the lesser adorning the greater. A lesser good is still a good.
Up until recently, I was somewhat ashamed of my singing voice. Now, I have been able to listen and hear its beauty.
Relatedly… I am afraid of driving. I am slightly nervous when I drive, and more nervous when I’m not driving but thinking about it. My fear has been soothed a great deal by singing in the car.
Tuesday nights are Pooh’s Corner nights, meeting at 9:58 — one of the highlights of the week. Tonight I was waiting for it to start, and around 8:30 or 9:00 felt what seemed like a prompting to leave my house for Pooh’s Corner. Leave and do what? I wondered, as the only thing I could think of was to go to a little chapel on campus, and I expected half an hour or an hour of prayer to be too much, too boring. After some dallying, I went. The chapel was dark, with a little light filtering in through a stained glass window. I love darkness and semidarkness; I love starlight and moonlight. (My eyes are fairly sensitive in dim light.) And in there I sang; that is, I prayed twice. After a time of singing prayers and sitting in peaceful silence, I felt a prompting to leave. I looked at my watch; it was a bit early. So I dallied a bit, and then left, and on my way out found a Palestinian high school student with little brother, who was looking to see if the Stupe (Wheaton’s snack shop) was open. It was closed. We walked and talked for a little while; I started to take him to a nearby Starbucks, but found out that he was on a tight time schedule, and we parted ways.
I walked to Fischer, where Pooh’s corner meets, and found out that it’s not meeting — Thanksgiving weekend. I was not too disappointed, not as much as I would have been other times. I was then glad for the time in the chapel (which I approached with an attitude of rushing, as something to do while impatiently waiting for Pooh’s corner) and with the high schooler (who I enjoyed the opportunity to try to serve, looking with pleasure on an opportunity to serve Christ, thinking, “Pooh’s corner can wait,” and for that matter contemplating staying with them for coffee). I was able to watch and listen to a whole freight train crossing the tracks (something I enjoy). And I was able to get back in time to be able to get some sleep tonight — I would have been up even later if there had been Pooh’s corner, and I would have been tired for work (I was pleasantly surprised at how well rested I felt today).
I just, as I was writing, pieced together something that had been on my mind. I was at the church office today, and an acquaintance by the name of Andy brought in someone named David (I think; my memory’s hazy) who walked like someone with a bad case of cerebral palsy, made annoying noises when he breathed, was immature and mentally retarded, and couldn’t talk. I was annoyed, and I think I did a pretty good job of containing my annoyance and trying to think lovingly (which is not something that is stopped by feeling annoyed), but I couldn’t concentrate. Andy was talking with him, gently and patiently, and there was something in the manner in which he was talking that said that he very much enjoyed David’s company. “How can he do that?” I wondered. I was right in how I acted — there is nothing wrong with controlling yourself, nor with seeking to love when you don’t feel like it (indeed, loving when you don’t feel like it is valuable spiritual exercise). I was still in wonder at Andy, though.
Then when I was writing about the Palestinian student, I realized what it was.
Jesus, in one of his more chilling parables, tells us (Matt. 25:31-46, NJB):
When the Son of man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on his throne of glory. All nations will be assembled before him and he will separate people one from another as the shepherd separates sheep from goats. He will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right hand, “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take as your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome, lacking clothes and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.” Then the upright will say to him in reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome, lacking clothes and clothe you? When did we find you sick or in prison and go to see you?” And the King will answer, “In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those on his left hand, “Go away from me, with your curse upon you, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you never gave me food, I was thirsty and you never gave me anything to drink, I was a stranger and you never made me welcome, lacking clothes and you never clothed me, sick and in prison and you never visited me.” Then it will be their turn to ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or lacking clothes, sick or in prison, and did not come to your help?” Then he will answer, “In truth I tell you, in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it for me.” And they will go away to eternal punishment, and the upright to eternal life.
This parable is foundational in importance, and it needs to be digested. It affects your whole attitude towards people. It was the semiconscious backdrop to my attitude towards that Palestinian student — and the fact that I did not see him as an inconvenience or an interruption (interruptions can be the some of the most beautiful things; certain interruptions are to be seized), that I was happy to spend a few minutes with him and would have been happy to spend an hour over a cup of coffee and miss Pooh’s corner, that I had difficulty understanding his accent and had to ask him to repeat things, that I offered to lend him my coat when it was cold out and he did not have a coat… None of those things were done with gritting-my-teeth willpower, or offered as noble sacrifices. (The thought that they could be viewed as sacrifices didn’t even occur to me until I started writing.) They came out of a gift — the ability to do those things is a gift from God. That gift’s name is ‘love’, or ‘caritas’, or ‘agape’. Like some other gifts from God, it is a gift that grows with use — and Andy is a bit further along in that gift than I am. There is something special about that virtue that it hides itself, so that its presence may not even be recognized. When I asked myself, “How can he do that?”, I was really asking the question of “How can he summon the willpower to behave kindly when he is experiencing the same annoyance I feel?” That is a wrong question. The answer to the right question is, “It flows from God’s grace.”
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
As I was sitting, watching my little brothers play Monotony, and chatting with Matthew, who is studying at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and not around very often, I felt a prompting to look for a gift to give him. What gift could I pull up for him in an hour? Well, I reasoned, I have my creativity back, so I’ll probably be able to think of something. So I started thinking, and paced a bit (which is what I sometimes do when I’m thinking), and thought of this journal — and quickly dismissed the thought, for several reasons. It is the project I’m presently working on, and when I’m working on a creative project I want to tell the whole world — and so I send it to all sorts of people I know, including some who probably shouldn’t be bothered. (Sometimes I do it for the wrong reason; I am doing it less to share than for an emotional desire for the praise I receive.) I also sometimes give gifts, or big gifts I’ve put too much work into too quickly — before the relational context has been built up for a gift to have its proper meaning; it has somewhat of the same thing wrong as buying love. This journal-in-progress is not the sort of gift that is appropriate to give to an acquaintance whom you have only talked with for two hours.
I said that I dismissed the thought; it would be more accurate to say that I fought it with the same energy that is in defensiveness: Qui s’excuse, s’accuse. I fought it, and thought of another gift to give, a signed printout on nice paper of one of my poems. And I will give him that, too. But throughout the time, I had a feeling that I really should give him this journal. Finally came the words, “Think about who you are going to see.”
When we first met, Carlos paid for the coffee, and (when I was feeling guilty about not doing a better job of fighting for the check, something I do badly) he said something; I don’t remember the exact words, but he said that it tastes better if you don’t argue about who’s going to pay for it. Not fighting for the check can express a trust and acceptance of the other party’s generosity, and letting someone else be generous and pay for it is as kind as paying for it yourself. Before that point, I felt bad about not knowing how to fight for a check; after that conversation, I have had some doubts about that custom — it embodies some virtue, but doesn’t go all the way. Love should be generous and willing to pay; it should also honor others’ generosity. It is more blessed to give than to receive, and a holy heart should be willing to let others have the greater blessing. I might ask him to buy me a rice crispies treat when I get there.
Then I realized exactly what Carlos will do when he receives this. He will read it carefully and with interest — probably making time for it soon after he receives it. He will feel honored to receive it, love me more for it, and use what it says when he thinks about what to pray for when he is praying for me. (Carlos, could you pray that I grow closer to my brother Matthew?) And for a friend like Carlos, even if I’ve only talked with him for two hours, this gift is perfectly appropriate.
Carlos was feeling sick after work, and almost called to cancel our meeting. That was why he didn’t say much; I caught him when he wasn’t doing well. He treated me to a good steak burrito and a bottle of guava Jarritos. (When he asked how the burrito was, I told him that it seemed good, but I’d need another one to be sure.) And he said that he was glad we met.
There was one C.S. Lewis short story where several people were at a colony in space. After a number of events, the story ended with a monk asking in prayer, “Can you forgive me, Father, for thinking I was sent here for my own spiritual convenience?”
I was thinking primarily of myself and my own spiritual growth when I asked Carlos to meet for coffee, which there was nothing wrong about. We should place a great emphasis on our own spiritual development: what does it profit a man to gain the entire world and lose his soul? Here, though, God was calling me to the next step: to meet Carlos not for my own benefit, but for his. It was good for me, though, but in a different way: another step in maturing.
It’ll be a good lesson to keep in mind as I see relatives today at Thanksgiving.
I prayed and went to bed early last night — more slowing down instead of always moving. I woke up today feeling relaxed and truly refreshed for the first time in a while. I’m in the family car, moving up, and plan to get some sleep now.
I am writing this on a laptop which I am quite fond of. I use it for programming, writing, and other things. I wrote the above entry, shut it down to sleep, and when I next tried to turn it on, it wouldn’t go on. My heart was placid; I expected a non-functional computer to be a disruption to what I do, but I wasn’t upset. I think that’s a good sign. I tried to turn it on just now, and it worked. I’m a little worried now, because of an intermittent failure, but I’m glad that this happened. I thought I was much more attached to this possession.
I think I might know what is wrong with the laptop; the switch may be bad. If so, that shouldn’t cost much to replace.
I have struggled, and felt guilt about, a dislike for the aged. For a while, I haven’t liked my grandmother, because her mind is going and she looks old. I remember some frustrating conversations in which I was unable to think of anything to ask or anything to say that would elicit a response which could appropriately be called normal adult conversation. I did not sin in having a dislike to deal with, and I do not think my guilty feelings were called for, but my displeasure at her presence and that of other seniors distressed me.
There is an element of beauty that is culture independent, but cultural conditioning can affect what is perceived as beautiful. Ideals of beauty vary from culture to culture. The American ideal of feminine beauty could be caricatured as a pre-pubescent boy with silicone implants. A healthy woman’s body will tend to have thicker legs and bigger hips than most women on TV, and the Venus de Milo looks almost flat next to them. Many cultures would find our supermodels to be sickly, and nowhere here would we find a comment like one made by Marco Polo in the Travels, that a nation’s women had breasts four times as large as those of normal women, and they were exceedingly ugly. Our culture’s icons of feminine beauty are also very young. There is no chance that someone the age of Patrick Stewart or Sean Connery would be voted the sexiest woman in America. When an older adult appears in advertising, he is usually portrayed disrespectfully; many of the disapproving adults in Tropicana Twister ads were elderly, far older than anyone shown heralding a product other than something like Depends undergarments. It is disturbing that one way of promoting a product is to show a wrinkled nun making a face that would curdle new milk saying “We don’t approve of Tropicana Twister.” Would such a thing be done with a bosomy young nymph? We have very little sense of what it means to revere the hoary head, or why someone would refer to the aged as ‘venerable’.
Tonight, amidst the fellowship, I was able for the first time in as long as I can remember to look at my grandmother and see her as truly beautiful. Yes, she is an octogenarian; yes, she is wrinkled, yes, she was sunken in her wheelchair. She still looked beautiful to me. And it was good, not only to be able to enjoy looking on her, but to realize that something had healed in me. It was something like what I realized as I wrote about Andy at the church office and my time with the Palestinian high schooler — good to see an unmerited, God-given grace.
At most family gatherings, I have not connected with the other people, not clicked, not jived. (I was once kicked out of a frat party for that reason.) At this gathering, I wandered around a bit, initiating a few conversations (I had a good talk with my uncle Doug; he’s a good listener), told a few jokes (Jenna had the most delicious expression on her face as she got them), and finally after sitting down with the adults talking realized that there was a relaxed synergy going; I had clicked, and was in the conversation. It felt a little like a campfire.
There was a poster I saw on the wall at Wheaton College’s Computing Services, that talked about becoming a Unix wizard. It was in the form of a miniature catechism, and had questions like, “How many kernels do I have to take apart?” and “What books should I read?” The last question was, “How will I know I know when I am a Unix wizard?” Its answer was profound: “Never mind about when you will become a wizard. Just walk along the path, and someday you will look over your shoulders and see that the mantle of the Unix wizard has lain upon your shoulders since you knew not when.”
That insight applies to many things in life; it offers a deep alternative to our habit of thinking of everything in terms of a sharp beginning and an end. Here, I would certainly not say that a great mantle has lain upon my shoulders since I knew not when; all the same, there is something similar: suddenly realizing a virtue I had hoped for but not had.
I mentioned “In the Silence” in a letter to Grandma, saying that I would sing it to her at Christmas. She has a broken hip, and probably won’t be around for that much longer. I hope that the expectation helps give her the strength to hold on, and that she will be able to hold on gracefully until then. She is very lonely in the nursing home, where she is to heal.
My brother Ben just came in from outside and showed me a battered, dirty diver’s watch, asking me if I recognized it. It took me a second, but I recognized it as a watch I had worn a while back. It was still working. I was at that point trying to politely entertain an interruption I didn’t want. Then he pulled something else out and asked me if I recognized that. I looked at what he had pulled out, at first not recognizing it and then not believing what I saw.
It was my high school class ring.
I had worn it on the band of that watch for a time, and when a pin came loose and the watch fell off, the ring was lost with it. I looked all over the house for it, and today found out why I hadn’t located it — it was outside, next to the garage. This happened at least a year ago, and I was sad to see it go. My high school was very important to me, a formative influence, and I did not get rings for any of the three institutions of higher learning I attended. Having it back reminded me on a little level of the parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:8-9, NASB):
Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully untill she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!
I took Ben to celebrate with me at The Popcorn Shop. The Popcorn Shop is a converted alleyway between two brick buildings, and has a wall lined with glass containers of all different kinds of candy, ranging in price from $1.00 to 1¢. It is the sort of place children’s dreams are made of. It is one of those places that is not polished and commercial in veneer, business as it may be, but instead has something that a child would find magical. It was good to take Ben there and spend some time talking with him, although I was cold. When I looked up the parable, I appreciated experientially Jesus’s explanation (Luke 15:10, NASB):
In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
After that, we went bowling, which was nice. I got my first strike in a while, followed by a spare; my total score was 66 for one of the games. During part of that, I began to realize something about myself. I have been an intense and passionate person; for an e-mail address, I chose nimbus(@ameritech.net), and in role play have spent a fair amount of time playing a character named Nimbus. ‘Nimbus’ is Latin for ‘storm’. Some people might have chosen the name Nimbus in a negative sense — with connotations of being dark, forboding, and destructive — but I chose it in a positive sense. From childhood I have loved being out in a storm, and I especially cherished the warm, wet rainstorms in Malaysia, and so I chose the name Nimbus in an entirely positive sense: it has a meaning of wild goodness, of energy, of life-giving water pouring out of Heaven, of play. Even the darkness I never associated with evil or forboding, but with colors that are rich, deep, and alive, and of the same sort of beauty I wrote of in describing the chapel.
Now, I am starting to feel, perhaps to become, something like the peace after a storm, when everything is still and fresh.
Possibly related to this, in a negative manner, is something else I have realized. For at least a few months, I have felt broken, in a sense similar to how a torturer breaks a man. It is not separately articulated in Less-Wild Lovers: Standing at the Crossroads of Desire, but it does seem to be related to (for example) how the article talks about people who have heard the Message of the Arrows giving up on being part of a romance of epic proportions. It is more than a breaking of will. It is a breaking of dreams.
It seems to have occurred through a couple of things. One of them, but a lesser and indirect one, has been being unemployed in the areas I would like to be working in: something that would be intensive in mathematics and computer science (two disciplines that are intermingled), work that would involve heavy brainpower and allow my own particular combination of abilities to shine. Another more severe one is having nothing to do for much of my time — and more severe still, and related to it, a loss of creativity and general dullness. Having a lot of time on my hands would have been a good thing if I had creativity to think of things to do, and now I am enjoying the time much more because I can work on projects.
Those projects are not just pass-time (and I have started not to write down theological insights if I would just be writing them to amuse myself), nor even just work, but Work. I’m not sure how to concisely describe it… ‘work’ is a dreary, menial, meaningless job that is taken in order to obtain money. ‘Work’ is spiritually ennobling activity that may not be immediately pleasant (such as an assistant in a hospital wiping patients’ butts), but which a person connects with, has a relation to human dignity (and Mother Theresa’s dignity was helped and not hindered by cleaning festering sores), and is done for the sake of getting work done. It may be paid or unpaid, and may occur in a number of contexts, both formal and institutionalized, and informal. At least in this country, people doing Work for their jobs are often making less than they could be making if they were to do whatever work paid the most money. My father is an associate professor of computer science and a top-notch information technology worker, and supports our family at a reasonable level; we have everything we need and a few things we don’t. He enjoys the contact with people and the opportunity to share the joy of his discipline with others. If he wanted money, he could fairly easily pursue consulting work and charge justified fees that would earn enough money to make us all miserable. I’m glad he has chosen his Work as a professor.
I was doing work but not Work, and… my father used the word ‘submerged’ in reference to how I was doing. These things — lots of time that I was unable to Work in, loss of my creativity and perhaps other cherished faculties, and a general narcosis-like state that could be described as dullness, being submerged, or a haze — seem to have been what caused a brokenness. Out of the Message of the Arrows came, not so much a defense of wearing a false self, but a weary brokenness that would not throw my whole self into things.
I was in my room wondering today, why God is giving me what seem like a lot of little things, but not some of the bigger things I want — among them a computer science job that I can Work in. As I was writing, I realized that maybe I’m not ready for that, that maybe he has to heal me first. A Bible story may be taken as an illustration (Luke 5:17-26, NAB):
One day as Jesus was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem, and the power of the Lord was with him for healing. And some men brought on a stretcher a man who was paralyzed; they were trying to bring him and set [him] in his presence. But not finding a way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on the stretcher through the tiles into the middle in front of Jesus. When he saw their faith, he said, “As for you, your sins are forgiven.” Then the scribes and Pharisees began to ask themselves, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who but God alone can forgive sins?” Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them in reply, “What are you thinking in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, `Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, `Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed, “I say to you, rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home.” He stood up immediately before them, picked up what he had been lying on, and went home, glorifying God. Then astonishment seized them all and they glorified God, and, struck with awe, they sayd, “We have seen incredible things today.”
Jesus did care about the invalid’s body, and did eventually heal it. But he put first things first, and beforehand gave him something of infinitely greater value: he healed the man’s relationship with God. My sins are forgiven, but there are other wounds I bear that need to be healed, perhaps before I will be ready to get a job where I will really be exercising the talents God has given me.
I realized as I was writing the past few paragraphs that, since the night at the railroad tracks, I have not felt like saying, “I give up,” meaning a giving up on life (although I am not clear, besides suicide, on how exactly one might go about doing that). I had felt like that often before then. This doesn’t mean that I’m healed, but it probably does mean that healing is at work.
There is a possibility for one information technology job that has come across my door, a webmastering position at two hours a week. It’s not exactly what I would have envisioned (I would have thought of something half-time in programming), but it would be a good first step as well as my present job in manual labor half time to get into information technology work — and a good prospect at learning how to webmaster. I would like this possibility to become a reality, but strangely I am not clinging to it. I am a little better able to let God work with me, putting first things first and healing my broken spirit first, and let him work at whatever pace he chooses.
God’s way is not to delete evil, but take it and redeem it, producing something even better than things were before. Heaven will not simply be Eden restored; it will be something better, far better. We will share in the divine nature. In the Gospels, a woman’s bad reputation and many sins were taken and made not only into a restored person but a beautiful story (Mark 14:3-9, NASB):
And while He was in Bethany at the home of Simon the leper, and reclining at the table, there came a woman with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume of pure nard; and she broke the vial and poured it over His head.
But some were indignantly remarking to one another, “Why has this perfume been wasted? For this perfume might have been sold for over three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they were scolding her.
But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you bother her? She has done a good deed to Me. For the poor you always have with you, and whenever you wish, you can do them good; but you do not always have Me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for the burial. And truly I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, that also which this woman has done will be spoken in memory of her.”
Perhaps Nimbus becoming Pax (and the fruit of the Spirit is peace) may how my brokenness is being redeemed. Perhaps my passion is coming back, albeit in a sublimated form. I don’t know. But I am trying to open my heart to the wind’s free play.
That surprised me a bit, as we both know the value of discipline — and he clarified later that he was not meaning to disparage Bible reading at all. But there is something in that. I think I understood it a little better today, when I realized that I hadn’t been reading theBible much for the past few days, and been no less close to God. It’s hard to put into words why — an approximation would be to say that God is in control, and he will orchestrate things as he chooses.
On Thanksgiving, my uncle Doug asked me if I was a coffee drinker, and (after a hesitant pause) the answer I gave was this: I enjoy coffee a great deal when I drink it, but I don’t drink it very often. I like to savor a crèeme de menthe espresso, but the thought of gulping down some sludge each morning to be jolted out of a stupor seems disgusting to me. As much as I enjoy it when I drink it, I just wouldn’t want it to become an everyday thing. (Today I went out with Joseph and purchased ice cream for him and another hazelnut mocha for myself. I should have gotten ice cream. The coffee, triple as it was, was nowhere near too much caffeine over time in a health sense, but it was trying to have a pleasure over again too quickly. As good as it was, I enjoyed the few bites I had of Joe’s ice cream more.)
I realized today that that attitude, apart from the possible snobbishness that can accompany a preference for gourmet coffees to American staple coffees (and I do not wish to suggest that drinking a cup of Maxwell House each morning is sinful — but I am not going to attempt to explain why this jives with the rest of what I am saying beyond saying that a line of moderation can legitimately be drawn in different places), is a manifestation of moderation. By this I mean that moderation goes further than stopping at a certain point and not going further. It, over time, will reach into a deeper orientation of attitudes, emotions, and desires, such that the desire to enjoy a blessing does not translate to a desire to have more and more of it. My dislike for the idea of drinking coffee every day is not moderation itself, but an effect and signal of moderation. An ability to enjoy blessings in an appropriate time and place without extending them to every time and place showed itself in wanting an occasional coffee while losing the desire to be drinking good coffee as often as possible. It is something that is not very much a part of American culture, not taught very much. (I think we lost a real understanding of what temperance was, about the time of the temperance movement.)
I also realized something else today, and was able to articulate something that had been implicit in what I wrote earlier, namely that virtue can take qualitatively different forms as it develops and matures. Andy’s graceful kindness with David, and my frustrating struggle to maintain a good attitude and not think ill of him, both came from the same virtue, from the highest of virtues in fact: agape, caritas, deiform love. The difference was a difference of maturity in the virtue’s formation: it flowed from him, but I could only remain in that virtue through difficult struggle. A similar difference may be seen in forms of moderation: at an early stage (and I am still at an early stage in other facets of moderation), it revolves around determination in cutting back your desire to have more, and at a later stage the virtue results in a realignment of desires so that the way you want to enjoy things is a way that can draw full benefit from doing something once, and not engage in a futile attempt to obtain from four or five what eluded you the first time. This kind of moderation means enjoying things more, not less; it enjoys things more in the fashion of a museum goer who spends a couple of hours and truly comprehends a few paintings, than failing to enjoy them in the fashion of a museum goer who rushes here and there, looks for a couple of seconds at hundreds of paintings, and at best manages to see that some of them are pretty.
In some ways the immature forms of virtue might even be more strongly commended than the mature forms, because they are more difficult and less enjoyable. A recovering alcoholic who strugglingly refuses to touch a single drop of liquor (rather than have just one drink, and then just one more, nad then just one more, adn than jest won more, andt hen jes tone mroe, antdh nej tonf qfr3…) is to be commended in a fashion that is not merited by a man who has no real propensity to alcoholism, and has two drinks and easily refuses a third. He puts far more effort into exercising virtue. But the more mature forms of virtue are more highly to be desired.
Thomas Aquinas did not regard self-control as a virtue, because who he understood to be a virtuous man would not be constantly needing to restrain his passions — kind of like saying that a family with parents who are good disciplinarians is not one where the parents are expert at stopping the children from fighting and throwing temper tantrums, but one where the parents do not need to stop the children from fighting and throwing temper tantrums. I would suggest rather that self-control is a virtue which has a much more prominent place where the person’s virtues are immature, than when the virtues have matured more. If parents adopt children who come from a rough background, then good disciplinarians as they may be, much of what they may find themselves doing at first is stopping fights and temper tantrums. Good discipline over time will mean that there are fewer and fewer fights and temper tantrums to stop, but that does not change the fact that the immediate form of good discipline will mean a restraint on the children’s unruliness.
After my creativity began to return, the first real creation I can remember making is the following poster:
I learned it all from Jesus.
A gift does not need to be costly in order to be big. A little child is worth God’s time. All who believe are brothers and sisters. Be thankful. Be the first to say, “I’m sorry,” and the first to forgive. Believing means clinging with your whole heart. Clothe yourself in prayer. Commune with God. Cry. Dance. Don’t judge. A respected pillar of the community can be two steps from Hell, and a prostitute can be two steps from Heaven. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Today has enough worries of its own. Every blade of grass, every twinkling star, every ticklish friend, is a blessing from God. Cherish them. Everything in the whole Creation tells us something about God. Give someone a gift today. God delights in you. God has a sense of humor. God is a friend who’ll never, never leave you. God is an artist. God is everywhere, from the highest star to inside your heart. There is nowhere you can go to escape his presence — or his love. God is found, not in earthquake nor fire nor mighty wind, but in a soft and gentle whisper. God is your Daddy. God watches over even the little sparrows. Heaven is very close. He is risen! He who sings, prays twice. He who dances, sings twice. He who laughs, dances twice. He who prays, laughs twice. Hug your friends. If you have to have everything under your control, trusting God may look as stable as a cow on ice skates. Trust him anyway. It’s worth it. If you want God to smile, tell him your prayers. If you want God to laugh, tell him your plans. It’s never too late to repent. Joy comes from suffering. Keep on forgiving. Laugh.Listen to other people’s stories. Listen to the silence. Love God with your whole being. Love one another. Love your enemies. Love your neighbor as yourself. Make every action a prayer. Make your prayers and your good deeds secret. Play with children. Prayers ascend like incense before God’s throne. Purity does not reside in the hands, but in the heart. Respect the aged. Rest. Serve. Sing. Take time to be alone with God. Tell God you love him. Tell your friends that you love them. The Heavens tell the glory of God.There are miracles all around. You just have to be able to see. Treasure God’s smallest blessings. We can bring little pieces of Heaven down to earth. What you do for the least, you do for God. Work is a blessing from God. You are God’s image.
Then, a few days after then, the Christmas carol “In the Silence” above was the first musical piece I had composed since the loss of creativity. Now, the above musing about virtue changing form is the first significant and new (to me) theological insight I have had since that point.
Last night, I had some time before bed that I didn’t know what to do with. I felt let down and deserted; my emotions were of the same kind as when I had time and was unable to think of anything worthwhile. So I prayed.
The first thought that occurred to me was to clean my room. But I was reluctant to do that, and said in sincerity “I’m not ready for that now.” The next thought was of catching up on my New Testament reading (the one part out of four that I hadn’t caught up on yet), but I was Bibled out for the day. Then I cleaned up a couple of the larger items on my floor and paced a bit, and noticed on the piano a page of music that I had left out: a simple piano arrangement of Amazing Grace. I played that with pleasure, and when I was standing up to leave I noticed a splash of color: Roger van Oech’s Creative Whack Pack.
The Creative Whack Pack, which I had noticed earlier and forgotten to look at, is a deck of 64 cards, each one of which has a tip on how to function more creativity. It is quite good, especially for someone who doesn’t know how to use his creative faculties well or doesn’t have naturally flowing creative juices (another good resource is a book entitled Conceptual Blockbusting, written for engineers but valuable to all sorts of people). I slowly read through a few cards, trying to savor the experience rather than fly through and have the whole deck read before I knew it. Some were things I knew, a couple were surprises, and after hitting “Sell, sell, sell!”, I acknowledged an insight which I had been suppressing: some of aspects of the cards were questionable, or at least left another shoe to drop. Someone said, “Never mind about others stealing your ideas. If they’re really good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.” The resistance suggested in that quote is akin to a resistance I had been putting up so well that I wasn’t even aware of it: that the authority (in this case, the deck) could be wrong. Once I admitted that idea, I had another idea for something to write: “The Other Side of the Coin,” which would give the other side of the coin for these cards. (I’m not going to share that writing, at least yet, for copyright reasons: at least the most obvious good way to write it would involve citing the entire text of the cards, and I’m not doing that without obtaining permission from Mr. von Oech.) It’s good to have something more to write.
I thought a small group meeting I was invited to, was going to be at 5:00, and was disappointed to find out that it’s not until 6:00 or 7:00 (I’m writing a bit before 6:00). I started reading through more of the Creative Whack Pack, and then set it down and noticed three pieces of framed Malaysian batik that are hanging on the wall (and just now, the play of the light). The batik is really beautiful, with flowing colors, and I hadn’t really noticed it when I came in. It’s a funny thing to realize after writing what I wrote about the two museum goers.
This journal is more of an outer journal — a journal of what I do and what happens to me — and less of an inner journal — a journal of what transpires within me and who I am — than I’d intended. I’m not sure what to make of that; perhaps it’s better that way. I don’t know.
I feel a certain trepidation towards going to work tomorrow. Especially after a long weekend, it’s hard to go back to work… the dread I feel is similar to that I feel towards driving a car, which can leave me lying in bed slightly nervous the night before, and similar to the trepidation I feel in anticipating a long block of time I can’t think of anything to do in. It is not an intense fear, but one that is vague, ill-defined, and discomforting. In it is some doubt — the little doubt is a doubt that I’ll have enough energy to keep going, and the big doubt is a doubt that it’ll be like the time I’ve spent with God over the weekend.
These emotions do not correspond entirely to my best rational judgments. I know in my head that God is quite as capable of meeting me as I am testing toy computers as he is of meeting me as I read something good or write this journal, and that the work day is only four hours, which I am ready for. I know in my head, but my heart doesn’t know, and I’m a bit scared.
I am taking this as a time to trust him, to (as the Mars Hill article says) embrace my nakedness and trust in God’s goodness.
Something else which I just realized (or, more properly, admitted to myself) as another place where soul work is required…
I am not at peace with being an American. I would much rather be a European.I cannot now say “I am an American,” with the same secure pleasure that I would say “Je suis un français,” were that true.
I am legitimately far more European in spirit than most Americans. I believe that there severe flaws in American culture, moreso than most fallen cultures — ranging from pragmatism that has no patience for things without immediately visible use (which turns out to mean many of the deepest and best things in life), to television, to a shallow and disposable concept of human relationships — and I know that Neil Postman in Technopoly certainly wasn’t grinding an axe against America when he named America the world’s first and (as of the book’s writing) only technocracy (a country which is ruled by technology). I enjoy a great many things about French and other European culture: the sound of the language, the idea of moderation in use of alcohol, the deeper friendships, the higher level of education and greater intellectual substance of the conversations people have (a group of French young people will discuss Balzac rather than the Bears), the old cities, the art, the architecture, the speaking multiple languages, the body language, the kisses, and many other things I cannot now name. After she spent a month in France, my ex-fiancée Rebecca commented that everything she saw there reminded her of me. I hold both differences with many of the peculiar features of American culture, and affinities to many aspects of European culture. That stated, there is still something in the picture that is wrong.
Perhaps a way to state it is that I not only embody certain European characteristics, but wistfully wish to be what I am not, and be further over. That doesn’t capture the latter part quite well… Another approximation would be to say that it’s like a child’s walking, dressing, and talking like a sports hero — appropriate in a boy, but not in a man. It may have something to do with a manifestation of reverse culture shock that I haven’t gotten over for some reason. A good description of the root problem would be to say that I’m not at peace with being an American.
In college, I wrote a cynical book entitled Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary: A Free Online (Satire) Dictionary. All of the problems I described in that book are real problems, but it was still written in the wrong spirit. I wrote in a way that took pleasure from pointing out what was wrong, and that should never be. As I let go of that, I realized that one of the tests of love is to see everything a cynic sees, and still not be a cynic. I don’t want to stop seeing all of the problems in American culture, nor do I want to stop being somewhat European in spirit, nor do I want to stop seeing how beautiful French culture is. What I do want is the analogue of still not being a cynic: to be at peace with being an American. Living in France was a great blessing for a certain period of time, and it will always be a sweet memory, but it is not a blessing I have now, and perhaps a blessing I may never again have this side of heaven. I still may not fit in very well among typical Americans, and that does not bother me. I do want to stop looking down on my homeland — and really hold it to be my homeland — and take that culture as a basis for interacting with other cultures.
This is a less-wild lover to give up.
(But the reprieve hasn’t been as exciting as I’d hoped.)
I just realized something that I don’t know exactly what to do with.
In the early stages of a friendship, it is easy to share things about yourself with your friend, because you don’t know each other very well. As time passes, that becomes more difficult; it’s harder to think of something to share. I was expecting something similar to appear with this journal. It may well kick in at a later date (I’ve only been writing for about two weeks) — but I am surprised at the pace I’ve been able to keep up with. (I have been looking forward to the slowing up, in order to write a less gargantuan epistle, leaving something behind that will let people see the crystallized essence of my journey.)
I acquired a Dilbert poster that listed several definitions to terms in information technology jargon. Among the definitions new to me was ‘brain dump’, defined as “The act of telling someone everything one knows about a particular topic or project. Typically used when someone is going to let a new party utilize and maintain a piece of programming code.” That struck me as a really cool phrase, in part because I am familiar with the Unix term ‘core dump’ from which it would appear to have come. It’s a beautiful metaphor.
I was looking for an opportunity to use it, and today I realized that what I am writing is a brain dump of an awakening. I thought for a bit about changing the title of this document to “Brain Dump of an Awakening,” but the term’s really too obscure to use in a title… unless it’s something that would acquire meaning as its definition is encountered in the document… not for the moment, at least.
When I first heard about Y2k, I basically ignored it, or more properly did not seriously think about it. I am not much given to alarmist pictures.
In my job search, I talked with some consultants who are involved in selling Y2k merchandise, who painted a doomsday picture and then gave me a couple of URLs to look at. I looked at them and others; with others since then, I’ve seen expert opinion varying from hiccup to doomsday. What is disturbing is that the thinking of the doomsday experts seems eminently rational; with my knowledge of the realities of software maintenance, the argument I’ve seen for why the power grid should be expected to go dark makes perfect sense. I haven’t seen rebuttals to the arguments for things going wrong. Now, I’m not sure either way; I haven’t seen evidence to persuade in another direction, but either outcome tendency seems plausible. I would say that there is at least a 30% chance of something going severely wrong: the grid going black, or distribution logistics breaking because of defective code (and fixing that stuff involves finding several needles in a haystack), or chaos because of public panic, or some stock market crash for these or other reasons. If some of those things happen, I will probably die.
One thing that I observed in people talking about how to prepare for Y2k was that there was a lot of talk about preparation for physical needs (food, water, heat, money…), and almost no talk about mental, emotional, and spiritual preparation. This seemed to make no sense to me, as (for example) being snowbound generally offers no severe physical threats, but causes people to go batty (“cabin fever”). Disasters seem to be at least as much a mental stress as a physical threat, and being properly prepared at least as much psychologically as physically. I asked in a couple of newsgroups about this. Apart from “I’ve noticed this, too; please tell me what you find,” I got basically three responses: (1) Get books, games, contraceptives, etc. to pass the time, (2) you could study a martial art, as the discipline will help you, and (3) draw close to the Lord.
Many people have been helped by faith in traumatic situations, such as being held hostage and prisoner by terrorists. I was a bit disappointed by the answers I got, because I was hoping for something I didn’t know or couldn’t have guessed at, but especially with the third one… I do not see this awakening in terms of Y2k (I did not make a connection before today), but if I were primarily concerned with spiritual preparation for Y2k, I would not choose much differently from what I am doing now.
Martin Luther was once asked what he would do if he knew that the Lord were returning the next day. His answer? “Plant a tree.”
Before I continue, let me make an aside and say that my evaluation of certain things, and the impression I take away from them, differs from that of many people. In books, the titles I have most benefitted from have not typically been the most classic of what I read; I learned far more from G.K. Chesterton’s biography of Francis of Assisi than I did from Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae. (I’m sure that Aquinas would gently smile at this, happy that I could learn about God from some source, and that Chesterton would positively wince.) My observations usually don’t directly conflict with other people’s, but I observe a different part and draw different conclusions. The three movies I have held in highest regard, only one of which I would want to see now, are The Game, Labyrinth, and Titanic.
In the reviews I read, Cutthroat Island got slammed again and again: it forced 20th century politically correct feminism onto another era, some things were ludicrously unrealistic, and so on and so forth — criticisms which were entirely valid. But I liked it. Why? Part of it probably has something to do with the fact that I drank two shots of spiced rum as I watched it, but I think there’s more to it than that. What I liked about the movie was that it captured a certain beauty, a certain romance. When children are playing pirate, they are capturing a certain feeling, a certain impression. It’s the same sort of thing a Disneyland ride does well that a Six Flags ride does badly if at all. That’s what Cutthroat Island did. The visual scenery was beautiful. That movie can be enjoyed in the same spirit as Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean.
It was the visual effect that haunted me, and from which I felt a desire to visit the rich, white side of the colonial West Indies that was in some sense portrayed — and it ached all the more because it is a place I cannot go, a place that perhaps never really existed (and I do not mean to suggest that I take Cutthroat Island as serious historical fiction), a place that I can only go in my dreams (if ever — and I have returned to Paris in my dreams). A haunting to go back to Paris is one that may quite possibly come true — I expect to go to California to be with my father’s side of the family for Christmas, and that was not something I expected until my parents started talking about it recently; Paris would not be that stranger of a windfall, and for that matter one of my uncles and one of my cousins will be in Paris soon for layovers going to and from Mali, where they will be translating. A haunting to go and participate in Carnevale in Italy is something I do not regard as probable, but would quite probably come true (including sharpening my Italian to a basic conversational proficiency) if I threw my weight into it. But a yearning to visit a place that no longer exists… The trip to California will be bittersweet, as my grandparents will shortly thereafter be selling their house, a house that holds a lot of fond memories for me (such as the time that Matthew and me, as little boys, climbed up in their treehouse and couldn’t figure out how to get down). The visit to the house will hold the bittersweet knowledge that I can enjoy it as I visit it, but I’ll never see it again. And soon my occasional remiscences of that place will be yearnings to visit a place that can I can never visit again. To get back on track, a haunting to visit a place which no longer exists is more painful than one to visit a place I may well return to, or one that I will probably will never see, but still could if I put my mind to it.
For all the ache, it was a special and pleasurable moment, a sign of life.
When I first looked at Wheaton, I felt that there was something wrong with its Pledge, but signed it anyway. (The Pledge is a document that all community members are required to sign, and tries to outline a Christian life and then prohibits activities such as drinking and dancing.) During my time there, I found myself running away from my conscience over this issue, and at one point decided to stop running, did a massive search of Scripture, my conscience, and the perspectives of other people, and came to a conclusion. I wrote the following letter to the editor, which one of the philosophy professors said was the best treatment of the issue he’d seen in eight years of being a professor there:
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Pledge
If the name of this letter hasn’t nettled you, then something is wrong. If what it refers to hasn’t nettled you more, then something is very wrong.
At the heart of Christianity are many things. I will not name and elaborate each one here, but there is one which seems forgotten to some: the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
When Christ came, he fulfilled and completed the Law. The Law was not a bad thing, but it was incomplete – not as a matter of God being a spiteful bully, but because it was the most complete form that could be before the Messiah. Now has come the one about whom Jesus said, “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have said to you.” (Luke 14:26, NIV). Throughout Galatians, Paul corrected those who were trying to live under law and rejecting the Spirit: “How is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? … But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.” (4:9, 5:18, NIV).
While the Law has some very important commands (love God, love your neighbor, maintain sexual purity, worship God alone, care for the poor…), it does not have the Spirit and consequent freedom. When you take away the Spirit, then there is a replacement of freedom with written codes that restrict in situations where they are not useful: don’t eat any bacon, don’t wear clothing made of two different fabrics, don’t consume any alcohol, don’t dance.
Now, you may say, there is a difference between the Mosaic Law and the Pledge. Of course there is: God himself composed the Law and handed it over to one of the greatest prophets of all time, before Christ.
The Pledge’s restrictions, pragmatically speaking, do not constitute more than a mild annoyance to me. Missing a dance every couple of months does not annoy me nearly as much as if (for example) my dorm had only one laundry room, off in a far corner of the basement. Theologically speaking, however, there is a much more major concern. The Pledge is a perfect fit for a castrated Christianity without the Holy Spirit: despite its many words and enumerations, nowhere does it mention the Holy Spirit, and parts of the end (…in order to establish a Christian community…) implicitly require the heretical notion that the Holy Spirit either doesn’t exist, or cannot be a basis for such a community.
The joy of my life would not be destroyed if all pig products left my diet for pragmatic reasons (the local grocery store doesn’t carry them, it’s too expensive, I don’t want to clean up the grease splatters from cooking bacon…), but if a present day Judaizer were to imply that it is unclean to consume what Christ has declared clean, or that that would aid the establishment of a Christian academic community in a way that the Holy Spirit cannot, then that would badly need correction. Likewise, I dislike the taste of alcohol, but am deeply offended that, in order to teach here, my professors cannot enjoy a glass of wine with dinner.
Satan’s way of working in this world is often to twist good things that God has created. The things that the Pledge “goes beyond what is written” (I Cor. 4:6, NIV) to prohibit are, in some cases, good things that God has ordained for the benefit and enjoyment of humans, which Satan often likes to twist into deadly poison. The solution is not to completely disallow these things for all members of the community, but rather (as per Romans 14-15) to use judgment and the Spirit to avoid what will cause you to fall into sin, and to avoid what will cause fellow believers to fall into sin.
If you haven’t done so lately, please read Romans 14-15, Galatians, and Colossians. And think – about letter, about freedom, and about the Spirit.
CPO 1202, x6751
I requested a conscientious exemption from the Pledge, and when that was denied, I transferred out of Wheaton. It was one of the most painful decisions of my life.
Now, George Poynor, one of the people in charge of Wheaton College’s Computing Services, is trying to line up what would be an excellent job and opportunity in almost all respects. My father was explaining this to me, and commented that George was trying to see if he could get independent contractor status for me (which would not be considered community membership and therefore not require signing of the Pledge), and if that didn’t work out, “it’s only six months.” When I told him, “I can’t do that,” it became evident that he is considering trying to force me to sign the Pledge, and that he does not understand my “No” to mean “No.” His mind’s not made up on that, but it is possible that he will try to make me sign the Pledge. I can’t do that in good conscience. Much of my will may be broken, but not that part; when I left Wheaton, I made a very firm decision never to make that mistake again, never again to swallow my conscience like that. If my father throws his weight into insisting that I sign it, the conflict will be long, drawn-out, and exquisitely painful.
I feel angry, truly angry, for the first time in a long while.
The forum wall is one piece of local color at Wheaton; it’s a section of brick wall where people tape things up, write on the things taped, etc. When we arrived, Robin drew my attention to one piece that was up on the wall:
WANT TO KNOW IF YOU ARE A WHEATON CYNIC?
“In sexual love the cynic perceives lust; in sacrifice and dedication, guilt; in charity, condescension; in political skills, manipulation; in the powers of the mind, rationalization; in peacefulness, ennui; in neighborliness, self-interest; in friendship, opportunism. The vitality of the old is pathetic; the exuberance of the young is immature; the steadiness of the middle-aged is boredom.
“And yet, even for the most disillusioned cynic, an aching longing remains for something true, good, or beautiful.” (so there is hope for you yet)
He started moving other posts to make space, and suggested that I put it up next to this post. I was puzzled, as I had been when he suggested I read it, and asked, “As a rebuttal? A joke?” He said, “No,” and pointed me towards the bottom of the post.
It wasn’t until we got back to his apartment that I got it — and realized that he had selected the perfect place to put it.
I have been feeling depressed.
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 also realized in my walking on Tuesday that I really do know myself, and that that is a good starting point for relating with people. It was a pleasant thing to realize, after a feeling of clumsiness and not really knowing how to relate to other people — not that I now feel perfect at relating to other people, but I feel that I have a good start.
In the car going to work today, I suddenly realized a couple of things: (1) I had forgotten to sing, and (2) I was not afraid, either in the car or before then. I felt some fear after realizing this (perhaps I had simply forgotten to be afraid), but it was good to realize.
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.
2: Holy Communion. God speaks to us through that.
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 he present?
39: Digesting experience.
A book is best understood, not just after being read once, but after being gone over several times. The same thing goes for experiences — they can be contemplated and pondered. This does not have instantaneous effect, but in a certain way it makes the experience contemplated a more complete experience, one that is more fully grasped.
40: Riflery. Riflery, I discovered, is not a macho thing, and someone who comes in with a macho attitude won’t shoot very well. It has much more do do with concentration, stillness, and patience. In riflery, I learned how to hold at least parts of my body so still that the biggest cause of motion was the beating of my heart. Riflery is not so much a kything with, as just a kything.
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, 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 long 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.
For further information, click here.
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: Death. What 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.
A home without television is like a slice of chocolate cake without tartar sauce.
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. 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. 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 there now, 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 Destroying Asian Philosophy 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 freight 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 a very good kyther.
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.
I look for books that are filled with the Romance; they come to me in the strangest of ways, but they are impossible to find. I started this journal thinking it was not very good… I have realized that I may be writing a book filled with the Romance, a scrapbook of the beautiful. It is not something that I could have even approached if I had tried.
When I thought about what to write, I realized something. All is well with my soul. Of course I should not get cocky (“He who thinks he stands should take heed lest he fall.”), and this isn’t the end of the growth God wants for me. But I am close to God. I am spiritually awake. It is in a way that would surprise me; I am doing ordinary things, and enjoying working on my creations. Ecclesiastes, even if it is the most pessimistic book of the Bible, says (2:24, 9:7, NRSV):
There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This, also, is from the hand of God.
Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do.
I am doing these things, and enjoying their blessings. It is nothing spectacular, at least not in the Hollywood sense, but Hollywood can be quite blind. I am worshipping God in the ordinary things that are not very ordinary at all, and I see in them what Baudelaire cannot.
Here ends the Journal of an Awakening. It ends, not for the reasons I anticipated at the beginning, but because the awakening has reached its proper end (both finis and telos): I am awake. I mean to continue to journal, but this journal has reached its logical conclusion.
Please pray for me, that I remain steadfast in the abundant life God has given me.
I. Mindset considerations
Does Augustine Return to the Interpersonal Image of Love as Representing the Trinity, or Does He Abandon This in Favour of the Psychological Image? Behind this question may lurk another question that is both connected and distinct from it: ‘Does Augustine have a relational understanding of the image, or is his understanding ultimately solipsistic?’ I take Rowan Williams as an example of a scholar writing from a mindset which fails to adequately distinguish the two questions. He opens with quotes that read Augustine as almost Sabellian, and ends his opening paragraph with a spectacular strawman:
Augustine stands accused of collaborating in the construction of the modern consciousness that has wrought such havoc in the North Atlantic cultural world, and is busy exporting its sickness to the rest of the globe, while occluding the vision of the whole planet’s future in its delusions of technocratic mastery — a hugely inflated self-regard, fed by the history of introspection.
Williams is building up to a rescue operation. He offers a careful study which either counterbalances Augustine’s apparent meaning or replaces it. He brings up quotations like, ‘In the West, especially since the time of Augustine, the unity of the divine being served as the starting point of Trinitarian theology’, as examples of the reading he doesn’t like. Williams’s presentation of Augustine’s text does not bring up Augustine’s claim that all three persons of the Trinity speak in Old Testament theophanies. This claim is significant because Augustine rejects the Patristic claim that Old Testament theophanies are specially made through the immanent Son. Williams seems to be fighting an obvious reading so he can rescue relationality in Augustine. I would argue that the psychological image is relational from the beginning, and that Augustine’s image is psychological.
We’re looking for relationality in the wrong place if we look for it in where Augustine stood in the controversies of his day. The deepest relationality does not lie in i.e. his writing against Arianism, but something that was so deeply ingrained in the Church that he would never have thought it necessary to explain. The very individualism he is accused of helping construct had not come together. In the Reformation-era Anabaptist/Zwinglian controversy over infant baptism, the issue was not whether faith precedes baptism. Both sides believed that much. The issue was whether that faith was reckoned along proto-individualist lines, or whether the faith of a community could sanctify members too young to embrace faith on terms an individualist would recognise. Augustine lived over a thousand years before that controversy. His tacit theory of boundaries was that of a community’s bishop, not a counselor imparting the ‘value-free’ boundaries that flow from atomist individualism. I mention these examples to underscore that Augustine’s understanding of where one person ends and another begins is much less articulate, much less thorough, much less basic, much less sealed, and in the end much less focal than ours. The difference is like the qualitative difference between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Bible, and what either Arian or a Trinitarian did with what is present in the Bible. One is tacitly present, something you can’t explain (‘That’s just the way things are!’), and the other is articulate, the sort of thing you can at least begin to explain and give reason for. In the end Augustine’s understanding of how one person can meet another arises from a very different mindset from a setting where scholars argue that communication is impossible. This means that combining passages with individualist assumptions gives a very different meaning from combining the same passages with Augustine’s patristic assumptions. It is the latter which represents Augustine’s thought. I believe that Augustine did plant proto-modernist seeds. These seeds became a vital ingredient of modernism with many thinkers’ successive modifications. However, the fact that they have become modernism today with the influence of a millenium and a half of change does not make Augustine an early modernist. His beliefs were quite different from atomist individualist modernism.
What is most important in Augustine’s thought, and what he believed most deeply, includes some of what would never occur to him to think needed saying. These things that leave less obvious traces than his explicit claims. With that in mind, I would like to look more closely at Augustine’s interiority:
But it [the mind] is also in the things that it thinks about with love, and it has got used to loving sensible, that is bodily things; so it is unable to be in itself without their images. Hence arises its shameful mistake [errus dedecus ], that it cannot make itself out among the images of things it has perceived with the senses, and see itself alone…
What is interesting is what Augustine doesn’t say here. A materialist would see bodily things as including other people, but Augustine did not think from that starting point. Would he have included people? That’s a little less clear-cut. People are equal to oneself, and purely sensible objects are inferior. One is trying to go upwards, and Augustine does not seem to include equal people with inferior objects. Perhaps he does not raise this question. Augustine does go on to give a primacy to ‘Know thyself,’ but this is a matter of means,not of final end. Augustine is telling us to start with what is near at hand. The distinction between what Augustine called ‘interior’ and what we would call ‘private’ is significant. It contains not only phantasms (sense impressions) but the res ipsa (the realities themselves) of intelligible things, and is where the soul meets intelligible truth. God is in the interior, and is shared between people. Furthermore, when we unite with God, we are united with others united with God. Where there is privacy, this is darkness caused by the Fall.
II. Is the psychological image relational?
I would suggest that the psychological image is relational. Furthermore, I would suggest that the deepest relationality comes before making God the object of the vestigia (divine shadows or traces in Creation) of memory, understanding, and will. Augustine comments:
Even in this case [I Cor. 8:2], you notice, he [Paul] did not say “knows him”, which would be a dangerous piece of presumption, but “is known by him.” It is like another place where as soon as he said, But now knowing God, he corrected himself and said,Or rather being known by God…
Before we worry if God is the object of our love, he must be the Subject behind it. And that does not mean we need to worry about orienting the vestigia (traces of God imprinted in Creation) so we add relationality as something external; relationality is there in the beginning, as God knowing us.
Is remembering, understanding, and willing oneself a relational activity? If it’s sought on the right terms, it is. That means that it is not the pre-eminent goal , but a means, the bridge that must be crossed to gain access to other places. That means that remembering, understanding, and willing have God as their goal even before he is their object. Augustine comments in another draft of the psychological image:
This word is conceived in love of either the creature or the creator, that is of changeable nature or unchangeable truth; which means either in covetousness or in charity. Not that the creature is not to be loved, but if that love is related to the creator it will no longer be covetousness but charity. It is only covetousness when the creature is loved on its own account.
Augustine’s discussion of use and enjoyment forbids the psyche to enjoy itself: regardless of immediate object, God is the goal or goal of ‘Know thyself.’
In regard to the rest of Creation, it is much easier to read a psychological image as non-relational. His enjoyment/use distinction is not utilitarian but helped make utilitarianism. Whilst he chose Christianity over Manicheanism and Platonism, these other beliefs left a lasting imprint; Augustine rejected their claims that matter was evil, but his conversion to believing in the goodness of created matter was less thorough than one could desire. At one point Augustine considered sex a major to reject marriage; later he acknowledged sex an instrumental good when it propagates the people of God. Augustine’s much-criticised views on sex were in continuity with his understanding of creation, especially material creation. The created order that is neither called evil nor fully embraced as good, even fallen good: ‘Cleansed from all infection of corruption, they are established in tranquil abodes until they get their bodies back—but incorruptible bodies now, which will be their guerdon [beneficial help], not their burden.’ This negative view of our (current) bodies is not a view of something one would want to be in relation with, and that is part of who we are created to be. From these, one could argue a continuity, if perhaps not parity, with a mindset that would support an individualistic psychological image. The argument has some plausibility, but I believe it is not ultimately true.
The biggest difference between a person and mere matter is that a person has spirit. Augustine can say, ‘Now let us remove from our consideration of this matter all the many other things of which man consists, and to find what we are looking for with as much clarity as possible in these matters, let us only discuss the mind,’ and abstract away a person’s body to see the mind. I did not find a parallel passage abstracting away a person’s mind to see body alone. Even if we assume he remained fully Manichean or fully Platonist, both Manicheanism and Platonism find some people to be above the level of matter. Augustine was free enough of Platonism to forcefully defend the resurrection of the body in De Civitate Dei (The City of God). His belief in community is strong enough to make the interpersonal image important in his discussion. As argued in ‘Mindset Considerations’, he was quite far from individualism to begin with.
If community is important, why have a psychological image? Let me give one line of speculation. Augustine may be trying to put community on a proper ground. The Trinity turns outwards, not in an attempt to remedy any kind of defect, to try to get the creation to fill some need that it can’t fill itself. The Trinity turns outwards out of abundance and fulness. Augustine may not want half persons seeking other half persons to try and create fulness. I believe he wants whole persons turning outwards out of the fulness within. In other words, a psychological image lays the ground for robust interpersonal relationship. Leaving this speculation aside, community was deeply ingrained in the patristic mindset, so that it didn’t need saying. A psychological image could be explored without Augustine needing to add constant footnotes saying, ‘But I still believe in community.’
III. What understanding does Augustine hold in the end?
Augustine explores a number of possible images of the Trinity before settling on one. He starts with an interpersonal image of lover, beloved, and love representing Father, Son, and Spirit respectively. Then he explores a ‘psychological’ image of mind, mental word, and will, which he revises into memory, understanding, and will.  Besides these images there are others not explored in this essay, such as thing seen, sense impression formed, and will. I would like to show which image Augustine chooses.
I would also like to make a distinction which makes sense of his choosing one image from several candidates. The distinction is the distinction between images that are ‘built in’ and ‘after the fact’. The difference between an image that is ‘after the fact’ and one that is ‘built in’ is the difference between a portrait which resembles a person, and a cloud in which a resemblance is found. Is the image something prior to anything observable, something around which other things are shaped, or is the image what we can find when we find things that look like a trinity?
This is arguably latent in Augustine’s discussion of enigmas, and in remarks like ‘It is true of all of his creatures, both spiritual and corporeal, that he does not know them because they are, but that they are because he knows them.’ The discussion of enigmas discusses things mysteriously hidden and then brought forth: Augustine mentions the story of Hagar and Sarah and then Paul drawing out their hidden symbolism. He wrote, ‘As far as I can see then, by the word “mirror” he wanted us to understand an image, and by the word “enigma” he was indicating that although it is a likeness, it is an obscure one and difficult to penetrate.’ Augustine has looked through any number of images ‘after the fact.’ Now Augustine is trying to find out which of these plausible ‘after the fact’ candidates holds its plausibility precisely because it is the image ‘built in’. He wants to know which of the resemblances to the Trinity is there precisely because the Trinity created it to be ‘after our likeness’.
What, at heart, is the distance between an image ‘built in’ and ‘after the fact’? An ‘after the fact’ image is an ‘after the fact image’ because the behaviour and properties it shows, whilst a ‘built in’ image is such by its internal logic. An early draft of the psychological image compares the mind to the Father, its word to the Son, and the will joining them together to the Holy Spirit. Augustine, conscious of Arianism, says that a human mental word is equal to the mind that begot it. Even if he did not say this, and the word was described as inferior to the mind, there would be reason to see the mind/word/will psychological image as a ‘built in’ image. A person looking for an ‘after the fact’ image would look for the property that word and mind are equal because Father and Son are equal; if we look at ‘built in’ logic it is possible that uncreated God can beget a Word equal to himself, but a creaturely mind lacks the stature to beget a word that is its equal. Then the image would lack the property of equality, but it would have the internal logic of begetting what word one can beget, and reflect the Trinity at a deeper level.  This is like the difference between a literal translation and a dynamic equivalent. A literal translation tries to faithfully represent the text word for word; a dynamic equivalent tries to faithfully represent the text’s impact, and it may give the text much more breathing room than a literal translator feels is respectful. A literal translation preserves details, but only a dynamic equivalent can render a poem into something that breathes as poetry. This may be part of why Williams writes, ‘Growing into the image of God, then, is not a matter of perfecting our possession of certain qualities held in common with God… It is for us to be at home with our created selves…’ Growing into the image of God is not to look as if we had not been created, a literal rendering of God’s attributes, but a creaturely dynamic equivalent in which a glimpse of the Trinity is rendered in creaturely idiom. This is inadequate; the creaturely idiom isn’t powerful enough to capture the divine original, regardless of how it is rendered. Yet Augustine does settle on one image, one translation, not just as bearing ‘after the fact’ resemblance, but as having been constructed to have a ‘built in’ resemblance.
At the end of XV.3, Augustine quotes Wisdom 13:1-5 on recognising creation as the work of the Creator, and comments:
I quote this passage from the book of Wisdom in case any of the faithful should reckon I have been wasting time for nothing in first searching creation for signs of that supreme trinity we are looking for when we are looking for God, going step by step through various trinities of different sorts until we arrive at the mind of man.
This sets the programme for much of book XV. This program has subtleties of various sorts, and Augustine says far more than merely settling on the psychological image. The mind is the genuine image of the Trinity in that God has projected his own likeness downwards, but if we try to project anything in creation upwards—even the image God himself has fashioned—it must fall immeasurably short. The most faithful photograph captures at best a glimpse of the living person it portrays. So while Augustine settles with the psychological image, he is careful to portray its fundamental incompleteness. The psychological image may hold a unique privelege. Of all the ‘after the fact’ images surveyed, it alone bears apparent ‘after the fact’ resemblance because it was built to be image. In the end, this privelege of place underscores the book’s apophasis all the more powerfully. Not only do the various apparent ‘after the fact’ images which we see fail to accurately convey the Trinity, but theimage which the Trinity itself has built into us, itself falls fundamentally short of God’s transcendence. This is a far greater testimony to the divine transcendence: if an ‘after the fact’ image breaks down on closer observation, that only says that one specific ‘after the fact’ image breaks down on closer inspection. When the one ‘built in’ image, created by the Trinity itself, also breaks down, this says that the Trinity utterly transcends anything the creation can contain. The bigger it is, the immeasurably harder it falls, and the more we can learn from its failure.
But is this a failure of the created image?
Let’s look more specifically at Augustine settling on the psychological image. In book X, Augustine writes:
These three, then, memory, understanding, and will, are not three lives but one life, not three minds but one mind…. Are we already then in a position to rise with all our powers of concentration to that supreme and most high being of which the human mind is the unequal image, but image nonetheless? [emphasis added]
This is an important distinction. Augustine is not looking for a perfect and uncreated image of the Trinity, as the Son is the perfect and uncreated image of the Father. This is stated here, but I am not sure that this is a basic insight which informed his thought. He writes,
Again, there is this enormous difference, that whether we talk about mind in man and its knowledge and love, or whether about memory, understanding, and will, we remember nothing of the mind except through memory, and understand nothing except through understanding, and love nothing except through will. But who would presume to say that the Father does not understand either himself or the Son or the Holy Spirit except through the Son…
This is an observation that the ‘built in’ image he has chosen does not have what one would seek in a ‘after the fact’ image. In the surrounding text, Augustine doesn’t explicitly state that the differences are failings. However the long discussion of how much of the Trinity is not captured in this image does not seem a verbose way of saying that this image functions along ‘built in’ rather than ‘after the fact’ lines. It seems to be criticising the ‘built in’ image for failing to demonstrate ‘after the fact’ properties. If so, Augustine made something like a category error. This would suggest that the meticulous Augustine, so careful in accounting for the details of Bible verses, didn’t conceive this as something to be meticulous about. The impression I receive from reading Augustine is that Augustine probably had thoughts like the ‘built in’/’after the fact’ distinction I drew, but they were probably tacit, much less developed and much less prominent, and in particular not an organising principle or winnowing tool Augustine used in deciding which of many trinities he would rest with.
And there are other texts which show a psychological image:
So the trinity as a thing in itself is quite different from the image of the trinity in another thing. It is on account of this image that the thing in which these three [memory, understanding, and love] are found is simultaneously called image…
IV. Directions for further enquiry
The distinction between ‘built in’ and ‘after the fact’ appears to be significant. It would be interesting to study more specifically what is the relation between Augustine and this concept. There are quotations one could piece together to argue that Augustine thought in these terms, but other passages make this somewhat less clear. I have raised a question, but I believe more work needs to be done. My comments about that distinction in regard to Augustine’s choice of image may be treated more as a question than an answer.
People who read Augustine as overly unitarian seem to find a psychological image, and people who read him as a balanced Trinitarian seem to find an interpersonal image. Reading the psychological image as relational may suggest an alternative placement with regard to these basic positions.
The earliest Church Fathers, writing more or less systematic theological treatises, generally didn’t write about the Church. Was this because it was not important or not believed? To the contrary, it was air they breathed so deeply that they would never have thought of that as needing saying. Augustine was a Church Father and had the mindset of a Church Father. He chose a psychological image and did not try too hard to make it relational because he never thought it was the sort of thing that needed to have relationship added.
I have chosen an obvious reading which people may give people pause because it appears individualistic and not relational; this reading is that Augustine chose memory, understanding, and will as the ‘built in’ image of the Trinity. Of things raised in this essay that could merit further study, the most interesting is probably the concept of ‘built in’ images as contrasted with ‘after the fact’ images.
Ayres, Lewis, ‘The Discipline of Self-Knowledge in Augustine’s De Trinitate Book X’, in ed. Ayres, Lewis, The Passionate Intellect, Rutgers University Studies in the Classical Humanities, vol. 7, Brunswick: Transaction, 1995, pp. 261-96
Bourassa, F., ‘Théologie trinitaire chez s. Augustin’, Gregorianum 58, 1997
Brown, Peter, Augustine of Hippo (revised edition), London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1967, 2000
Cavadini, John, ‘The Structure and Intention of Augustine’s De Trinitate,’ Augustinian Studies 23, 1992
Fitzgerald, Allan D. (ed.), Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1999
Hill, Edmund (tr.), The Trinity, New City Press: Hyde Park, 1991.
MAXIMOS O PLANOUDHS, AUGUSTONOU PERI TRIADOS BIBLIA PENTEKAILEKA APER EK TES LATINON DIALEKTOU EIS THN ELLADA METENEGKE, AQENAI: KENTRON EKDOSEWS ERGWN ELLHNON SUGGRAFEWN, 1995 (Maximus the Traveler, Augustine’s On the Trinity, Fifteen Books From the Latin Translated to [medieval] Greek Brought Together [in parallel translation], Athens: Center For Giving Greek Work and Collaborative Writing, 1995)
Meyendorff, John, Byzantine Theology. Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes, London, 1975
Williams, Rowan, ‘Sapientia and the Trinity: Reflections on the De Trinitate‘, Augustiniana, 1990.
Yates, Frances, The Art of Memory, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1966, pp. 1-49
 Williams 1990, 317-332
 Williams 1990, 317
 Meyendorff 1974 (page number not specified), as quoted in Williams 1990, 317
 II.19-22; Williams 1990, 317-332. Unless otherwise noted, all references to Augustine are from De Trinitate, and all English quotations from De Trinitate are from Hill’s translation.
 ‘The mind you see is not told Know thyself in the same way as it might be told “Know the cherubim and seraphim”; of them, as absent beings, we believe what they are declared to be, that they are certain heavenly powers.’ (X.12)
 These latter observations in the same paragraph are taken from Fitzgerald 1999, 454-5.
 X.12 presents ‘thyself’ as more immediately knowable than (higher) ‘cherubim and seraphim’.
 Hill 1991, 283-4.
 Fitzgerald 1999, 341, 591.
 Ibid., 535-6.
 Fitzgerald 1999, 653.
‘Memory’, ‘understanding’, ‘will’, and (mental) ‘word’ are all understood very differently in Augustine from their meanings today. I can give a bare hint at the nature of difference by saying will is not a Neitzchian Übermensch‘s power to domineer, crush, and persevere in lonely selfishness, but something whose nature is to incline towards the other in love, and something that holds things together even inside a person. Beyond that, it would be at least another essay to try to explain these different concepts. I’m going to have to content myself with saying there are significant cultural differences that I can’t fairly explain. A good understanding of Augustine’s memory, for instance, is suggested by reading Confessions X, complemented by Yates’ (1966, 1-49) treatment of memory in relation to ancient rhetoric.
 I have thought of this distinction out of discussion of universalia ante rem and universalia post rem that I had read, and I had originally used the more precise, if less vivid, terminology of ‘ante rem‘ and ‘post rem‘ for ‘built-in’ and ‘after the fact’ respectively. So far as I know, this usage is original to me.
 Gen 1:26, RSV
 This distinction applies to other images Augustine looks at; I chose and modified this example to highlight something also present in other parts of the text.
 Williams 1990, 321
This is a proof of concept, and only a proof of concept, for an approach that will allow exact precision arithmetic for any computable number. Want the square root of three to three decimal places? Realize later-on that the user wants twenty decimal places instead, or that the number of decimal places is dynamic? No need to refactor the original calculation; just ask the stored square root of three for twenty, or a user-supplied number, of decimal places. Have algorithms to calculate e and π? Add e and π together, and don’t worry until later about how many decimal places you want for e + π. Numbers are stored with exact precision and decimal approximations are print-on-demand.
The approach is outlined in the original email:
I was thinking about a way to try to have integer-clean arithmetic on algebraic numbers, and a brief Google search for “integer-clean arithmetic algebraic numbers” did not turn up obvious software tools for integer-clean handling of algebraic numbers.
However, I think I may have found a way to use objects to circumvent the corruption that comes from naive use of floating point numbers, where the corruption can increase exponentially.
Let’s say that every number is an object that is either:
- Something that primitively can return an arbitrarily specified number of digits’ accuracy, which includes π and e, eventually, but what I originally have in mind is just integers, which will just return more zeroes after the decimal point if you keep asking for more digits of accuracy. —OR—
- An object storing a first number, a second number, and an operation between them (addition, multiplication, and exponentiation, and their inverses).
Let us furthermore suppose that each number object has a method to evaluate its contents to a specified accuracy.
Numbers in class should be calculable by querying both numbers with enough additional places of accuracy that, when the operation is performed on them, the error is orders of magnitude smaller than the requested accuracy. (Note that this leaves the door open to some question of rounding error; but if a certain number of digits’ accuracy has rounding error that overlaps the rounding for the requested accuracy, more digits might be requested. Rounding error may be a fly in the ointment, although it would seem that an epsilon-delta style argument would establish that there are no corner cases that cannot be met by specifying enough digits.)
So if I request (31 / 10 + the square root of 2), accurate to three decimal places, and we say that we are giving two digits of padding, that resolves first to 31.00000 / 10.00000, round to 3.10000, and the second resolves to 2.00000 ^ .500000, which resolves to 1.41421. I add them, getting 3.51421, which I round to three decimal places, getting 3.514. And nothing in this calculation has been integer clean arithmetic in the usual sense, but the number has been evaluated accurately to three places, and it could just as well have been evaluated accurately to twenty places.
Now this abandons one feature that comes with specification floating-point arithmetic, namely that any number takes O(1) memory. This seems like numbers would have something more like O(n log n) memory, maybe more but seems subquadratic at least. And on a machine with 16 gigs of RAM, there may be some calculations where you want and can afford the memory consumption for these objects. For that matter, 16 megs of RAM might still be enough that you don’t absolutely need O(1) floating point numbers.
I think I’ll see about a Python package tomorrow.
P.S. to [Name]: I’m interviewing with Google.
The proof of concept is only intended as a proof of concept, not a production release and not necessarily something that will handle every corner case. However, it is intended to clearly outline how one would go about such things and what the concept is that’s being proven.
This is implemented in Python that is written to be executable pseudo-code, (perhaps apart from the laborious parser that takes integer, float, string, and Decimal values and converts them to Numbers built from integers). The code is meant to be not-clever, and serve programmers in other languages as pseudocode that demonstrates how one might go about implementing this approach to arithmetic and number in the language of one’s choice.
This page is link-ware. If you like it, please consider a link to CJSHayward.com.
Can you pull out Leviathan with a hook,
or press his tongue down with a cord?
Can you put a rope in his nose,
or pierce his jaw with a hook?
Will he make many supplications to you?
Will he speak soft words to you?
Will he make a covenant with you?
Will he be your servant forever?
Will you play with him as with a bird?
Or will you put him on a rope for your maidens?
Will traders bargain for him?
Shall he be divided among the merchants?
Can you fill his skin with harpoons,
or his head with fishing spears?
Lay hands on him;
Think of the battle; you will not do it again!
Behold, the hope of a man is disappointed;
he is laid low even at the sight of him.
No one is so fierce as to dare to stir him up.
Who then is he who can stand before him?
Who can confront him and be safe?
Under the whole Heavens, who?
I will not keep silence concerning his limbs,
or his mighty strength, or his powerful frame.
Who can strip off his outer garment?
Who can penetrate his double coat of mail?
Who can open the doors of his face?
Round about his teeth is terror.
His back is made of rows of shields,
shut up as tightly as with a seal.
One is so near to another
that no air can pass between them.
They are joined to one another;
they clasp each other and cannot be separated.
His sneezings flash forth light;
and his eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn.
Out of his mouth go flaming torches;
sparks of fire leap forth.
Out of his nostrils comes forth smoke,
as from a boiling pot and burning rushes.
In his neck abides strength,
and terror dances before him.
The folds of his flesh cleave together,
firmly cast upon him and immovable.
His heart is as hard as a stone,
as hard as the lower millstone.
When he raises himself up, the gods are afraid;
at the crashing they are beside themselves.
Though the sword reaches him, it does not avail;
nor spear, nor dart, nor javelin.
He counts iron as straw,
and bronze as rotted wood.
The arrow cannot make him flee;
for him slingstones are turned to rubble.
Clubs are counted as stubble;
he laughs at the rattle of javelins.
His underparts are like sharp potsherds;
he spreads himself like a threshing sledge on the mire.
He makes the deep boil like a pot;
he makes the sea like a pot of ointment.
Behind him he leaves a shining wake;
one would think the deep to be hoary.
Upon earth there is not his equal,
a creature without fear.
He beholds everything that is high;
he is king over all of the sons of pride. (Job 41)
Behold Behemoth, which I made with you;
he eats grass as an ox.
Look now; his strength is in his loins,
and his power is in the muscles of his belly.
He swings his tail like a cedar;
the sinews of his thighs are knit together.
His bones are like rods of bronze;
his limbs are like bars of iron.
He is the chief of the works of God;
his maker can approach him with the sword.
Surely the mountains bring forth food to him,
where all of the beasts of the field play.
He lies under the lotus trees;
the willows of the book surround him.
Behold, he drinks up a river and is not frightened;
he is confident though the Jordan rushes into his mouth.
Can a man take him with hooks,
or pierce his nose with a snare? (Job 40:15-24)
These words, lightly altered from the Revised Standard Version, culminate a divine answer to Job out of the whirlwind: where was Job when God laid the foundation of earth? The divine voice turns to the foundations of the earth and the bounds of the sea, light and darkness, rain and hail, the stars, and the lion, mountain goat, wild ox and ass, ostrich, horse, and the hawk. The text is powerful even if translators demurely use “tail” for what the Behemoth swings like a cedar.
On a more pedestrian level, I was reticent when some friends had told me that they were going to be catsitting in their apartment and invited me over. (They know I love cats and other animals.) What I thought to explain later was that I proportionately outweigh a housecat by about as much as a mammoth outweighs me (perhaps “rhinoceros” would have been more appropriately modest than “mammoth”), and I try to let animals choose the pace at which they decide I’m not a threat. (And the cat has no way of knowing I don’t eat cats.) As far as the environment to meet goes, I didn’t bring up “You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” but humans are more forgiving than animals. Although I didn’t mention that, I did mention the difference between someone approaching you in a mailroom and someone following you in a less safe place. All of which was to explain why I love animals but would be cautious about approaching a cat in those circumstances and would play any visit by ear. (I later explained how even if the cat is not sociable and spends most of its visit hiding, they can still experience significant success by returning the cat to his owner unharmed with any unpleasantness quickly forgotten in the arms of his owner.)
As I write, I spent a lovely afternoon with those friends, and tried to serve as a tour guide. What I realized as I was speaking to them was that I was mixing the scientific with what was not scientific, not exactly by saying things some scientists would disapprove like why eyeless cave fish suggest a reason natural selection might work against the formation of complex internal and external organs, but by something else altogether.
What is this something else? It is the point of this essay to try and uncover that.
I wrote in Meat why I eat lots of beef but am wary of suffering caused by cruel farming, and for that reason don’t eat veal and go light on pork: I believe it is legitimate to kill animals for food but not moral to raise them under lifelong cruelty to make meat cheap. (Jesus was very poor by American standards and rarely had the luxury of eating meat.) While I hope you will bookmark Meat and consider trying to eat lower on the animal cruelty scale, my reason for bringing this up is different. The reason I wrote Meat has to do with something older in my life than my presently being delighted to find beef sausage and beef bacon, and trying not to eat much more meat than I need. And I am really trying hard not to repeat what I wrote before.
Thomas Aquinas is reported to have said that the one who does not murder because “Do not murder” is so deep in his bones that he needs no law to tell him not to murder, is greater than the theologian who can derive that law from first principles. What I want to talk about is simultaneously “deep in the bones” knowledge and something I would like to discover, and it is paradoxically something I want to discover because it is deep in my bones. And it is connected in my minds less to meat than when one of my friends, having come with a large dog who was extremely skittish around men, had a mix of both women and men over to help her move into her apartment, and asked me and not any of the women to take care of a dog she acknowledged was afraid of men. (I don’t know why she did this; I don’t think she thought about my being a man.) At the beginning of half an hour, the dog was manifestly not happy at being at the other end of a leash with me; at the end of the half hour the dog had his head in my lap and was wagging his tail to meet the other men as well as women.
Part of this was knowledge in the pure Enlightenment sense about stretching an animal’s comfort zone without pushing it into panic—a large part, in fact. But another part is that while I don’t believe that animals are people, I try to understand animals and relate to them the same way I understand and relate to people. Maybe I can’t discuss philosophy with a rabbit, and maybe a little bit of knowledge science-wise helps about minimizing intimidation to a creature whose main emotion is fear.
But that’s not all.
After I ended the phone conversation where I explained why I was wary of terrifying what might be an already afraid cat, I realized something. I had just completed a paper for a feminist theology class which criticized historical scholarship that looked at giants of the past as behaving strangely and inexplicably, and I tried to explain why their behavior was neither strange nor inexplicable. I suggested that historical sources need to be understood as human and said that if you don’t understand why someone would write what you’re reading, that’s probably a sign there’s something you don’t understand. Most of the length of my paper went into trying to help the reader see where the sources were coming from and see why their words were human, and neither strange nor inexplicable. What I realized after the phone conversation was that I had given the exact same kind of argument for why I was hesitant to introduce myself to the cat: I later called and suggested that the cat spend his first fifteen minutes in the new apartment with his owner petting him. I never said that the cat was human, and unlike some cat owners I would never say that the cat was equal to a human, but even if I will never meet that cat, my approach to dealing with the cat meet him is not cut off from my approach to dealing with people. And in that regard I’m not anywhere near a perfect Merlin (incidentally, a merlin is a kind of hawk, the last majestic creature we encounter before the proud Behemoth and Leviathan, and it does not seem strange to me that a lot of Druids have hawk in their name, nor do I think the name grandiose), but Merlin appears in characters’ speculation in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength as someone who achieves certain effects, not by external spells, but by who he is and how he relates to nature. That has an existentialist ring I’d like to exorcise, but if I can get by with saying that I feel no need to meditate in front of a tree and repeat a mantra of “I see the tree. The tree sees me,” nor do I spend much of any time trying to “Get in touch with nature…” then after those clarifications I think I can explain why something of Lewis’s portrayal of Merlin resonates. (And I don’t think it’s the most terribly helpful approach to talk about later “accretions” and try to understand Arthurian legend through archaeological reconstruction of 6th century Britain; that’s almost as bad as asking astronomy to be more authentic by only using the kind of telescopes Galileo could use.) It is not the scientific knowledge I can recite that enables me to relate to animals well, but by what is in my bones: a matter of who I am even before woolgathering about “Who am I?”
This has little to do with owning pets; I do not know that I would have a pet whether or not my apartment would allow them, and have not gone trotting out for a cat fix even though one is available next door. It’s not a matter of having moral compunctions about meat, although it fed into my acquiring such compunctions a few years ago. It’s not about houseplants either; my apartment allows houseplants but I have not gone to the trouble of buying one. Nor is it a matter of learning biology; physics, math, and computer science were pivotally important to me, but not only was learning biology never a priority for my leisure time, but I am rather distressed that when people want to understand nature they inevitably grab for a popular book on biology. When people try to understand other people, do they ask for CT scan of the other person’s brain? Or do they recognize that there is something besides biological and medical theories that can lend insight into people and other creatures?
The fact that we do not try to relate to people primarily through medicine suggests a way we might relate to other animals besides science: trying to relate to nature by understanding science is asking an I-It tree to bear I-Thou fruit. (If you are unfamiliar with Martin Buber’s I and Thou, it would also be comparable to asking a stone to lay an egg.)
I’m not going to be graphic, but I would like to talk about dissection. Different people respond differently to different circumstances, and I know that my experience with gradeschool dissection is not universal. I also know that dissection is not a big deal for some people, as I know that the hunters I know are among the kindest people I’ve met. Still I wish to make some remarks.
The first thing is that there is an emotional reaction you people need to suppress. Perhaps some adults almost reminisce about that part of their education as greatly dreaded but almost disappointing in its lack of psychological trauma. And I may be somewhat sensitive. But there’s something going on in that experience, stronger for some people and weaker in others. It’s one learning experience among others and what is learned is significant.
But is it really one learning experience among others?
Again without being graphic, dissection could have been used as a bigger example in C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a book I strongly reccommend. It finds a red flag in the dissection room, if mentioned only briefly—a red flag that something of our humanity is being lost.
To be slightly more graphic, one subtle cue was that in my biology classroom, there were plenty of gloves to begin with, then as the dissections progressed, only one glove per person, then no gloves at all—at a school for the financially gifted. And, to note something less subtle, the animals were arranged in a very specific order. You could call the progression, if you wanted to, the simplest and least technical to properly dissect, up to a last analysis which called for distinctly more technical skill. Someone more suspicious might point out how surprisingly the list of animals coincides with what a psychologist would choose in order to desensitize appropriately sensitive children. I really don’t think I’m being too emotional by calling this order a progression from what you’d want to step on to what some people would want to cuddle. I don’t remember the Latin names I memorized to make sense of what I was looking at. What it did to my manhood, or if you prefer humanity, is lasting, or at least remembered. Perhaps my sensibilities might have needed to be coarsened, but it is with no great pride that I remember forcing myself in bravado to dissect without gloves even when everybody else was wearing them. Perhaps I crossed that line so early because there were other lines that had already been crossed in me. And perhaps I am not simply being delicate, but voicing a process that happened for other people too.
If the question is, “What do we need in dealing with animals?”, one answer might be, “What dissection makes children kill.” I’m not talking about the animals, mind you; with the exception of one earthworm, I never killed a specimen. Perhaps the memories would be more noxious if I had, but all my specimens were pre-killed and I was not asked to do that. But even with pre-killed specimens I was, in melodramatic terms, ordered to kill something of my humanity. I do not mean specifically that I experienced unpleasant emotions; I’ve had a rougher time with many things I can remember with no regrets. What I mean is that any emotions were a red flag that something of an appropriate way of relating to animals was being cut up with every unwanted touch of the scalpel. It’s not just animals that are dismantled in the experience.
When I wrote my second novel, I wrote to convey medieval culture (perhaps Firestorm 2034 would have been better if I focused more on, say, telling a story), and one thing I realized was that I would have an easier time conveying medieval culture if I showed its contact, in a sense its dismantling, with a science fiction setting, although I could have used the present day: I tried not to stray too far from the present day U.S. There is something that is exposed in contact with something very different. It applies in a story about a medieval wreaking havoc in a science fiction near future. It also applies in the dissection room. Harmony with nature, or animals, may not be seen in meditating in a forest. Or at least not as clearly as when we are fighting harmony with animals as we go along with an educator’s requests to [graphic description deleted].
Let me return to the account from which I took words about a Leviathan and a Behemoth whose tail swings like a cedar. This seemingly mythological account—if you do not know how Hebrew poetry operates, or that a related languages calls the hippopotamuspehemoth instead of using the Greek for “river horse” as we do—is better understood if you know what leads up to it. A stricken Job, slandered before God as only serving God as a mercenary, cries out to him in anguish and is met by comforters who tell him he is being punished justly. The drama is more complex than that, but God save me from such comforters in my hour of need. The only thing he did not rebuke the comforters for was sitting with Job in silence for a week because they saw his anguish was so great.
Job said, “But I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God.” (Job 13:3) And, after heated long-winded dialogue, we read (Job 38-39, RSV):
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together,
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Or who shut in the sea with doors,
when it burst forth from the womb;
when I made clouds its garment,
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it,
and set bars and doors,
and said, `Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?
Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
and caused the dawn to know its place,
that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth,
and the wicked be shaken out of it?
It is changed like clay under the seal,
and it is dyed like a garment.
From the wicked their light is withheld,
and their uplifted arm is broken.
Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Declare, if you know all this.
Where is the way to the dwelling of light,
and where is the place of darkness,
that you may take it to its territory
and that you may discern the paths to its home?
You know, for you were born then,
and the number of your days is great!
Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,
or have you seen the storehouses of the hail,
which I have reserved for the time of trouble,
for the day of battle and war?
What is the way to the place where the light is distributed,
or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth?
Who has cleft a channel for the torrents of rain,
and a way for the thunderbolt,
to bring rain on a land where no man is,
on the desert in which there is no man;
to satisfy the waste and desolate land,
and to make the ground put forth grass?
Has the rain a father,
or who has begotten the drops of dew?
From whose womb did the ice come forth,
and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?
The waters become hard like stone,
and the face of the deep is frozen.
Can you bind the chains of the Plei’ades,
or loose the cords of Orion?
Can you lead forth the Maz’zaroth in their season,
or can you guide the Bear with its children?
Do you know the ordinances of the heavens?
Can you establish their rule on the earth?
Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
that a flood of waters may cover you?
Can you send forth lightnings, that they may go
and say to you, `Here we are’?
Who has put wisdom in the clouds,
or given understanding to the mists?
Who can number the clouds by wisdom?
Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
when the dust runs into a mass
and the clods cleave fast together?
Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
when they crouch in their dens,
or lie in wait in their covert?
Who provides for the raven its prey,
when its young ones cry to God,
and wander about for lack of food?
Do you know when the mountain goats bring forth?
Do you observe the calving of the hinds?
Can you number the months that they fulfil,
and do you know the time when they bring forth,
when they crouch, bring forth their offspring,
and are delivered of their young?
Their young ones become strong, they grow up in the open;
they go forth, and do not return to them.
Who has let the wild ass go free?
Who has loosed the bonds of the swift ass,
to whom I have given the steppe for his home,
and the salt land for his dwelling place?
He scorns the tumult of the city;
he hears not the shouts of the driver.
He ranges the mountains as his pasture,
and he searches after every green thing.
Is the wild ox willing to serve you?
Will he spend the night at your crib?
Can you bind him in the furrow with ropes,
or will he harrow the valleys after you?
Will you depend on him because his strength is great,
and will you leave to him your labor?
Do you have faith in him that he will return,
and bring your grain to your threshing floor?
The wings of the ostrich wave proudly;
but are they the pinions and plumage of love?
For she leaves her eggs to the earth,
and lets them be warmed on the ground,
forgetting that a foot may crush them,
and that the wild beast may trample them.
She deals cruelly with her young, as if they were not hers;
though her labor be in vain, yet she has no fear;
because God has made her forget wisdom,
and given her no share in understanding.
When she rouses herself to flee,
she laughs at the horse and his rider.
Do you give the horse his might?
Do you clothe his neck with strength?
Do you make him leap like the locust?
His majestic snorting is terrible.
He paws in the valley, and exults in his strength;
he goes out to meet the weapons.
He laughs at fear, and is not dismayed;
he does not turn back from the sword.
Upon him rattle the quiver,
the flashing spear and the javelin.
With fierceness and rage he swallows the ground;
he cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet.
When the trumpet sounds, he says `Aha!’
He smells the battle from afar,
the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.
Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars,
and spreads his wings toward the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up
and makes his nest on high?
On the rock he dwells and makes his home
in the fastness of the rocky crag.
Thence he spies out the prey; his eyes behold it afar off.
[closing gruesome image deleted]
Then Job says some very humble and humbled words. Then the Lord gives his coup de grace, a demand to show strength like God that culminates with words about the Leviathan and Behemoth. Job answers “… Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know… I had heard of thee by hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee.” (Job 42:3,5, RSV)
Did God blast Job like a soup cracker?
Absolutely, but if that is all you have to say about the text, you’ve missed the text.
There’s something about Job’s “comforters” defending a sanitized religion too brittle to come to terms with un-sanitized experience and un-sanitized humanity; Job cares enough about God to show his anger, and though he is never given the chance to plead his case before God, he meets God: he is not given what he asks for, but what he needs.
There’s a lot of good theology about God giving us what we need, but without exploring that in detail, I would point out that the Almighty shows himself Almighty through his Creation, quite often through animals. There may be reference to rank on rank of angels named as all the sons of God shouting for joy (Job 38:7), but man is curiously absent from the list of majestic works; the closest reference to human splendor is “When [Leviathan] raises himself up the gods are afraid; at the crashing they are beside themselves” (Job 41:25). The RSV thoughtfully replaces “gods” with “mighty” in the text, relegating “gods” to a footnote—perhaps out of concern for readers who mihgt be disturbed by the Old and New Testament practice of occasionally referring to humans as gods, here in order to to emphasize that even the mightiest or warriors are terrified by the Leviathan.
This is some of the Old Testament poetry at its finest, written by the Shakespeare of the Old Testament, and as Hebrew poetry it lays heavy emphasis on one the most terrifying creature the author knew of, the crocodile, a terrifying enough beast that Crocodile Dundee demonstrates his manhood to the audience by killing a crocodile—and the film successfully competes head-to-head against fantasy movies that leave nothing to the imagination for a viewer who wants to see a fire-breathing dragon.
Let me move on to a subtle point made in Macintyre’s Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues. While the main emphasis of the work is that dependence is neither alien to being human nor something that makes us somehow less than human, he alludes to the classical definition of man as “rational mortal animal” and makes a subtle point.
Up until a few centuries ago the term “animal” could be used in a sense that either included or excluded humans. While both senses coexisted, there was not a sense that calling a person an animal was degrading any more than it was degrading to mention that we have bodies. Now calling someone an animal is either a way of declaring that they are beneath the bounds of humanity, or a dubious compliment to a man for boorish qualities, or else an evolutionary biologist’s way of insisting that we are simply one animal species among others, in neo-Darwinist fashion enjoying no special privilege. But Aristotle meant none of these when he recognized we are animals.
To be human is to be both spirit and beast, and not only is there not shame in that we have bodies that need food and drink like other animals, but there is also not shame in a great many other things: We perceive the world and think through our bodies, which is to say as animals. We communicate to other people through our bodies, which is to say as animals. Were we not animals the Eucharist would be impossible for Christians to receive. We are also spirit, and our spirit is a much graver matter than our status as animals, including in Holy Communion; our spirit is to be our center of gravity, and our resurrection body is to be transformed to be spiritual. But the ultimate Christian hope of bodily resurrection at the Lord’s return is a hope that as spiritual animals we will be transfigured and stand before God as the crowning jewel of bodily creation. The meaning of our animal nature will be changed and profoundly transformed, but never destroyed. Nor should we hope to be released from being animals. To approach Christianity in the hope that it will save us from our animal natures—being animals—is the same kind of mistake as a child who understandably hopes that growing up means being in complete control of one’s surroundings. Adulthood and Christianity both bring many benefits, but that is not the kind of benefit Christianity provides (or adulthood).
If that is the case, then perhaps there is nothing terribly provocative about my trying to understand other animals the way I understand other people. Granted, the understanding cannot run as deep because no other animal besides man is as deep as man and some would have it that man is the ornament of both visible and spiritual creation, Christ having become man and honored animal man in an honor shared by no angel. The old theology as man as microcosm, shared perhaps with non-Christian sources, sees us as the encapsulation of the entire created order. Does this mean that there are miniature stars in our kidneys? It is somewhat beside the point to underscore that every carbon nucleus in your body is a relic of a star. A more apropos response would be that to be human is to be both spirit and matter, to share life with the plants and the motion of animals, and that it is impossible to be this microcosm without being an animal. God has honored the angels with a spiritual and non-bodily creation, but that is not the only honor to be had.
In my homily Two Decisive Moments, I said,
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
There is a classic Monty Python “game show”: the moderator asks one of the contestants the second question: “In what year did Coventry City last win the English Cup?” The contestant looks at him with a blank stare, and then he opens the question up to the other contestants: “Anyone? In what year did Coventry City last win the English Cup?” And there is dead silence, until the moderator says, “Now, I’m not surprised that none of you got that. It is in fact a trick question. Coventry City has never won the English Cup.”
I’d like to dig into another trick question: “When was the world created: 13.7 billion years ago, or about six thousand years ago?” The answer in fact is “Neither,” but it takes some explaining to get to the point of realizing that the world was created 3:00 PM, March 25, 28 AD.
Adam fell and dragged down the whole realm of nature. God had and has every authority to repudiate Adam, to destroy him, but in fact God did something different. He called Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Elijah, and in the fullness of time he didn’t just call a prophet; he sent his Son to become a prophet and more.
It’s possible to say something that means more than you realize. Caiaphas, the high priest, did this when he said, “It is better that one man be killed than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:50) This also happened when Pilate sent Christ out, flogged, clothed in a purple robe, and said, “Behold the man!”
What does this mean? It means more than Pilate could have possibly dreamed of, and “Adam” means “man”: Behold the man! Behold Adam, but not the Adam who sinned against God and dragged down the Creation in his rebellion, but the second Adam, the new Adam, the last Adam, who obeyed God and exalted the whole Creation in his rising. Behold the man, Adam as he was meant to be. Behold the New Adam who is even now transforming the Old Adam’s failure into glory!
Behold the man! Behold the first-born of the dead. Behold, as in the icon of the Resurrection, the man who descends to reach Adam and Eve and raise them up in his ascent. Behold the man who will enter the realm of the dead and forever crush death’s power to keep people down.
Behold the man and behold the firstborn of many brothers! You may know the great chapter on faith, chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews, and it is with good reason one of the most-loved chapters in the Bible, but it is not the only thing in Hebrews. The book of Hebrews looks at things people were caught up in, from the glory of angels to sacrifices and the Mosaic Law, and underscores how much more the Son excels above them. A little before the passage we read above, we see, “To which of the angels did he ever say, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you’?” (Hebrews 1:5) And yet in John’s prologue we read, “To those who received him and believed in his name, he gave the authority to become the children of God.” (John 1:9) We also read today, “To which of the angels did he ever say, ‘Sit at my right hand until I have made your enemies a footstool under your feet?'” (Hebrews 1:13) And yet Paul encourages us: “The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet,” (Romans 16:20) and elsewhere asks bickering Christians, “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (I Corinthians 6:3) Behold the man! Behold the firstborn of many brothers, the Son of God who became a man so that men might become the Sons of God. Behold the One who became what we are that we might by grace become what he is. Behold the supreme exemplar of what it means to be Christian.
Behold the man and behold the first-born of all Creation, through whom and by whom all things were made! Behold the Uncreated Son of God who has entered the Creation and forever transformed what it means to be a creature! Behold the Saviour of the whole Creation, the Victor who will return to Heaven bearing as trophies not merely his transfigured saints but the whole Creation! Behold the One by whom and through whom all things were created! Behold the man!
Pontius Pilate spoke words that were deeper than he could have possibly imagined. And Christ continued walking the fateful journey before him, continued walking to the place of the Skull, Golgotha, and finally struggled to breathe, his arms stretched out as far as love would go, and barely gasped out, “It is finished.”
Then and there, the entire work of Creation, which we read about from Genesis onwards, was complete. There and no other place the world was created, at 3:00 PM, March 25, 28 AD. Then the world was created.
To the Orthodox, at least in better moments, Christ is not just our perfect image of what it means to be God. He is also the definition of what it means to be Christian and what it ultimately means to be man.
Can we understand this and deny that Christ is an animal?
Surgeon General’s Warning
This piece represents my first serious study as an Orthodox Christian. The gist of it, by which I mean a critique of the artificial intelligence and cognitive science movement whose members are convinced of its progress for reasons unrelated to any real achievement of its core goal, is one I would still maintain. Artificial intelligence, over a decade after the thesis was written, remains “just around the corner since 1950”. The core pioneer John von Neumann’s The Computer and the Brain‘s core assertion that the basis of human thought is “add, subtract, multiply, and divide” remains astonishingly naïve to the point of being crass.
With that much stated, there are things that don’t belong. The “I-Thou” existentialism is not of Orthodox origin and its study of occult aspects is simply inappropriate. I do not say inaccurate, only wrong. I believe there is probably some truth to some suggestion that the artificial intelligence endeavor represents a recurrence of age-old occult dreams dressed in the clothing of computer science and secular rationality. Such things should still not have been studied, or at very least not by me.
For those still interested, my dissertation is below.
AI as an Arena for Magical Thinking Among Skeptics
Artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and Eastern Orthodox views on personhood
15 June 2004
Table of Contents
I explore artificial intelligence as failing in a way that is characteristic of a faulty anthropology. Artificial intelligence has had excellent funding, brilliant minds, and exponentially faster computers, which suggests that any failures present may not be due to lack of resources, but arise from an error that is manifest in anthropology and may even be cosmological. Maximus Confessor provides a genuinely different background to criticise artificial intelligence, a background which shares far fewer assumptions with the artificial intelligence movement than figures like John Searle. Throughout this dissertation, I will be looking at topics which seem to offer something interesting, even if cultural factors today often obscure their relevance. I discuss Maximus’s use of the patristic distinction between ‘reason’ and spiritual ‘intellect’ as providing an interesting alternative to ‘cognitive faculties.’ My approach is meant to be distinctive both by reference to Greek Fathers and by studying artificial intelligence in light of the occult foundations of modern science, an important datum omitted in the broader scientific movement’s self-presentation. The occult serves as a bridge easing the transition between Maximus Confessor’s worldview and that of artificial intelligence. The broader goal is to make three suggestions: first, that artificial intelligence provides an experimental test of scientific materialism’s picture of the human mind; second, that the outcome of the experiment suggests we might reconsider scientific materialism’s I-It relationship to the world; and third, that figures like Maximus Confessor, working within an I-Thou relationship, offer more wisdom to us today than is sometimes assumed. I do not attempt to compare Maximus Confessor’s Orthodoxy with other religious traditions, however I do suggest that Orthodoxy has relevant insights into personhood which the artificial intelligence community still lacks.
Some decades ago, one could imagine a science fiction writer asking, ‘What would happen if billions of dollars, dedicated laboratories with some of the world’s most advanced equipment, indeed an important academic discipline with decades of work from some of the world’s most brilliant minds—what if all of these were poured into an attempt to make an artificial mind based on an understanding of personhood that came out of a framework of false assumptions?’ We could wince at the waste, or wonder that after all the failures the researchers still had faith in their project. And yet exactly this philosophical experiment has been carried out, in full, and has been expanded. This philosophical experiment is the artificial intelligence movement.
What relevance does AI have to theology? Artificial intelligence assumes a particular anthropology, and failures by artificial intelligence may reflect something of interest to theological anthropology. It appears that the artificial intelligence project has failed in a substantial and characteristic way, and furthermore that it has failed as if its assumptions were false—in a way that makes sense given some form of Christian theological anthropology. I will therefore be using the failure of artificial intelligence as a point of departure for the study of theological anthropology. Beyond a negative critique, I will be exploring a positive alternative. The structure of this dissertation will open with critiques, then trace historical development from an interesting alternative to the present problematic state, and then explore that older alternative. I will thus move in the opposite of the usual direction.
For the purposes of this dissertation, artificial intelligence (AI) denotes the endeavour to create computer software that will be humanly intelligent, and cognitive science the interdisciplinary field which seeks to understand the mind on computational terms so it can be re-implemented on a computer. Artificial intelligence is more focused on programming, whilst cognitive science includes other disciplines such as philosophy of mind, cognitive psychology, and linguistics. Strong AI is the classical approach which has generated chess players and theorem provers, and tries to create a disembodied mind. Other areas of artificial intelligence include the connectionist school, which works with neural nets, and embodied AI, which tries to take our mind’s embodiment seriously. The picture on the cover is from an embodied AI website and is interesting for reasons which I will discuss below under the heading of ‘Artificial Intelligence.’
Fraser Watts (2002) and John Puddefoot (1996) offer similar and straightforward pictures of AI. I will depart from them in being less optimistic about the present state of AI, and more willing to find something lurking beneath appearances. I owe my brief remarks about AI and its eschatology, under the heading of ‘Artificial Intelligence‘ below, to a line of Watts’ argument.
Other critics argue that artificial intelligence neglects the body as mere packaging for the mind, pointing out ways in which our intelligence is embodied. They share many of the basic assumptions of artificial intelligence but understand our minds as biologically emergent and therefore tied to the body.
There are two basic points I accept in their critiques:
First, they argue that our intelligence is an embodied intelligence, often with specific arguments that are worth attention.
Second, they often capture a quality, or flavour, to thought that beautifully illustrates what sort of thing human thought might be besides digital symbol manipulation on biological hardware.
There are two basic points where I will be departing from their line of argument:
First, they think outside the box, but may not go far enough. They are playing on the opposite team to cognitive science researchers, but they are playing the same game, by the same rules. The disagreement between proponents and critics is not whether mind may be explained in purely materialist terms, but only whether that assumption entails that minds can be re-implemented on computers.
Second, they see the mind’s ties to the body, but not to the spirit, which means that they miss out on half of a spectrum of interesting critiques. I will seek to explore what, in particular, some of the other half of the spectrum might look like. As their critiques explore what it might mean to say that the mind is embodied, the discussion of reason and intellect under the heading ‘Intellect and Reason‘ below may give some sense of what it might mean to say that the mind is spiritual. In particular, the conception of the intellects offers an interesting base characterisation of human thought that competes with cognitive faculties. Rather than saying that the critics offer false critiques, I suggest that they are too narrow and miss important arguments that are worth exploring.
I will explore failures of artificial intelligence in connection with the Greek Fathers. More specifically, I will look at the seventh century Maximus Confessor’s Mystagogia. I will investigate the occult as a conduit between the (quasi-Patristic) medieval West and the West today. The use of Orthodox sources could be a particularly helpful light, and one that is not explored elsewhere. Artificial intelligence seems to fail along lines predictable to the patristic understanding of a spirit-soul-body unity, essentially connected with God and other creatures. The discussion becomes more interesting when one looks at the implications of the patristic distinction between ‘reason’ and the spiritual ‘intellect.’ I suggest that connections with the Orthodox doctrine of divinisation may make an interesting a direction for future enquiry. I will only make a two-way comparison between Orthodox theological anthropology and one particular quasi-theological anthropology. This dissertation is in particular not an attempt to compare Orthodoxy with other religious traditions.
One wag said that the best book on computer programming for the layperson was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but that’s just because the best book on anything for the layperson was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. One lesson learned by a beginning scholar is that many things that ‘everybody knows’ are mistaken or half-truths, as ‘everybody knows’ the truth about Galileo, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and other select historical topics which we learn about by rumour. There are some things we will have trouble understanding unless we can question what ‘everybody knows.’ This dissertation will be challenging certain things that ‘everybody knows,’ such as that we’re making progress towards achieving artificial intelligence, that seventh century theology belongs in a separate mental compartment from AI, or that science is a different kind of thing from magic. The result is bound to resemble a tour of Wonderland, not because I am pursuing strangeness for its own sake, but because my attempt to understand artificial intelligence has taken me to strange places. Renaissance and early modern magic is a place artificial intelligence has been, and patristic theology represents what we had to leave to get to artificial intelligence.
The artificial intelligence project as we know it has existed for perhaps half a century, but its roots reach much further back. This picture attests to something that has been a human desire for much longer than we’ve had digital computers. In exploring the roots of artificial intelligence, there may be reason to look at a topic that may seem strange to mention in connection with science: the Renaissance and early modern occult enterprise.
Why bring the occult into a discussion of artificial intelligence? It doesn’t make sense if you accept science’s own self-portrayal and look at the past through its eyes. Yet this shows bias and insensitivity to another culture’s inner logic, almost a cultural imperialism—not between two cultures today but between the present and the past. A part of what I will be trying to do in this thesis is look at things that have genuine relevance to this question, but whose relevance is obscured by cultural factors today. Our sense of a deep divide between science and magic is more cultural prejudice than considered historical judgment. We judge by the concept of scientific progress, and treating prior cultures’ endeavours as more or less successful attempts to establish a scientific enterprise properly measured by our terms.
We miss how the occult turn taken by some of Western culture in the Renaissance and early modern period established lines of development that remain foundational to science today. Many chasms exist between the mediaeval perspective and our own, and there is good reason to place the decisive break between the mediaeval way of life and the Renaissance/early modern occult development, not placing mediaeval times and magic together with an exceptionalism for our science. I suggest that our main differences with the occult project are disagreements as to means, not ends—and that distinguishes the post-mediaeval West from the mediaevals. If so, there is a kinship between the occult project and our own time: we provide a variant answer to the same question as the Renaissance magus, whilst patristic and mediaeval Christians were exploring another question altogether. The occult vision has fragmented, with its dominion over the natural world becoming scientific technology, its vision for a better world becoming political ideology, and its spiritual practices becoming a private fantasy.
One way to look at historical data in a way that shows the kind of sensitivity I’m interested in, is explored by Mary Midgley in Science as Salvation (1992); she doesn’t dwell on the occult as such, but she perceptively argues that science is far more continuous with religion than its self-understanding would suggest. Her approach pays a certain kind of attention to things which science leads us to ignore. She looks at ways science is doing far more than falsifying hypotheses, and in so doing observes some things which are important. I hope to develop a similar argument in a different direction, arguing that science is far more continuous with the occult than its self-understanding would suggest. This thesis is intended neither to be a correction nor a refinement of her position, but development of a parallel line of enquiry.
It is as if a great island, called Magic, began to drift away from the cultural mainland. It had plans for what the mainland should be converted into, but had no wish to be associated with the mainland. As time passed, the island fragmented into smaller islands, and on all of these new islands the features hardened and became more sharply defined. One of the islands is named Ideology. The one we are interested in is Science, which is not interchangeable with the original Magic, but is even less independent: in some ways Science differs from Magic by being more like Magic than Magic itself. Science is further from the mainland than Magic was, even if its influence on the mainland is if anything greater than what Magic once held. I am interested in a scientific endeavour, and in particular a basic relationship behind scientific enquiry, which are to a substantial degree continuous with a magical endeavour and a basic relationship behind magic. These are foundationally important, and even if it is not yet clear what they may mean, I will try to substantiate these as the thesis develops. I propose the idea of Magic breaking off from a societal mainland, and sharpening and hardening into Science, as more helpful than the idea of science and magic as opposites.
There is in fact historical precedent for such a phenomenon. I suggest that a parallel with Eucharistic doctrine might illuminate the interrelationship between Orthodoxy, Renaissance and early modern magic, and science (including artificial intelligence). When Aquinas made the Christian-Aristotelian synthesis, he changed the doctrine of the Eucharist. The Eucharist had previously been understood on Orthodox terms that used a Platonic conception of bread and wine participating in the body and blood of Christ, so that bread remained bread whilst becoming the body of Christ. One substance had two natures. Aristotelian philosophy had little room for one substance which had two natures, so one thing cannot simultaneously be bread and the body of Christ. When Aquinas subsumed real presence doctrine under an Aristotelian framework, he managed a delicate balancing act, in which bread ceased to be bread when it became the body of Christ, and it was a miracle that the accidents of bread held together after the substance had changed. I suggest that when Zwingli expunged real presence doctrine completely, he was not abolishing the Aristotelian impulse, but carrying it to its proper end. In like fashion, the scientific movement is not a repudiation of the magical impulse, but a development of it according to its own inner logic. It expunges the supernatural as Zwingli expunged the real presence, because that is where one gravitates once the journey has begun. What Aquinas and the Renaissance magus had was composed of things that did not fit together. As I will explore below under the heading ‘Renaissance and Early Modern Magic,’ the Renaissance magus ceased relating to society as to one’s mother and began treating it as raw material; this foundational change to a depersonalised relationship would later secularise the occult and transform it into science. The parallel between medieval Christianity/magic/science and Orthodoxy/Aquinas/Zwingli seems to be fertile: real presence doctrine can be placed under an Aristotelian framework, and a sense of the supernatural can be held by someone who is stepping out of a personal kind of relationship, but in both cases it doesn’t sit well, and after two or so centuries people finished the job by subtracting the supernatural.
Without discussing the principles in Thomas Dixon’s 1999 delineation of theology, anti-theology, and atheology that can be un-theological or quasi-theological, regarding when one is justified in claiming that theology is present, I adopt the following rule:
A claim is considered quasi-theological if it can conflict with theological claims.
Given this rule, patristic theology, Renaissance and early modern magic (hereafter ‘magic’ or ‘the occult’), and artificial intelligence claims are all considered to be theological or quasi-theological.
I will not properly trace an historical development so much as show the distinctions between archetypal scientific, occult, and Orthodox worldviews as seen at different times, and briefly discuss their relationships with some historical remarks. Not only are there surprisingly persistent tendencies, but Lee repeats Weber’s suggestion that there is real value to understand ideal types.
I will be attempting to bring together pieces of a puzzle—pieces scattered across disciplines and across centuries, often hidden by today’s cultural assumptions about what is and is not connected—to show their interconnections and the picture that emerges from their fit. I will be looking at features including intentionality, teleology, cognitive faculties, the spiritual intellect, cosmology, and a strange figure who wields a magic sword with which to slice through society’s Gordian knots. Why? In a word, all of this connected. Cosmology is relevant if there is a cosmological error behind artificial intelligence. There are both an organic connection and a distinction between teleology and intentionality, and the shift from teleology to intentionality is an important shift; when one shifts from teleology to intentionality one becomes partly blind to what the artificial intelligence picture is missing. Someone brought up on cognitive faculties may have trouble answering, ‘How else could it be?’; the patristic understanding of the spiritual intellect gives a very interesting answer, and offers a completely different way to understand thought. And the figure with the magic sword? I’ll let this figure remain mysterious for the moment, but I’ll hint that without that metaphorical magic sword we would never have a literal artificial intelligence project. I do not believe I am forging new connections among these things, so much as uncovering something that was already there, overlooked but worth investigating.
This is an attempt to connect some very diverse sources, even if the different sections are meant primarily as philosophy of religion. This brings problems of coherence and disciplinary consistency, but the greater risk is tied to the possibility of greater reward. It will take more work to show connections than in a more externally focused enquiry, but if I can give a believable case for those interconnections, this will ipso facto be a more interesting enquiry.
All translations from French, German, Latin, and Greek are my own.
Artificial intelligence is not just one scientific project among others. It is a cultural manifestation of a timeless dream. It does not represent the repudiation of the occult impulse, but letting that impulse work out according to its own inner logic. Artificial intelligence is connected with a transhumanist vision for the future which tries to create a science-fiction-like future of an engineered society of superior beings. This artificial intelligence vision for the future is similar to the occult visions for the future we will see below. Very few members of the artificial intelligence movement embrace the full vision—but I may suggeste that its spectre is rarely absent, and that that spectre shows itself by a perennial sense of, ‘We’re making real breakthroughs today, and full AI is just around the corner.’ Both those who embrace the fuller enthusiasm and those who are more modestly excited by current project have a hope that we are making progress towards creating something fundamentally new under the sun, of bequeathing humanity with something that has never before been available, machines that genuinely think. Indeed, this kind of hope is one of magic’s most salient features. The exact content and features vary, but the sometimes heady excitement and the hope to bestow something powerful and new mark a significant point contact between the artificial intelligence and the magic that enshrouded science’s birth.
There is something timeless and archetypal about the desire to create humans through artifice instead of procreation. Jewish legend tells of a rabbi who used the Kaballah to create a clay golem to defend a city against anti-semites in 1581. Frankenstein has so marked the popular imagination that genetically modified foods are referred to as ‘Frankenfoods,’ and there are many (fictional) stories of scientists creating androids who rebel against and possibly destroy their creators. Robots who have artificial bodies but think and act enough like humans never to cause culture shock are a staple of science fiction.  There is a timeless and archetypal desire to create humans by artifice rather than procreation. Indeed, this desire has more than a little occult resonance.
We should draw a distinction between what may be called ‘pretentious AI’ and ‘un-pretentious AI.’ The artificial intelligence project has managed technical feats that are sometimes staggering, and from a computer scientist’s perspective, the state of computer science is richer and more mature than if there had been no artificial intelligence project. Without making any general claim that artificial intelligence achieves nothing or achieves nothing significant, I will explore a more specific and weaker claim that artificial intelligence does not and cannot duplicate human intelligence.
A paradigm example of un-pretentious AI is the United States Postal Service handwriting recognition system. It succeeds in reading the addresses on 85% of postal items, and the USPS annual report is justifiably proud of this achievement. However, there is nothing mythic claimed for it: the USPS does not claim a major breakthrough in emulating human thought, nor does it give people the impression that artificial mail carriers are just around the corner. The handwriting recognition system is a tool—admittedly, quite an impressive tool—but it is nothing more than a tool, and no one pretends it is anything more than a tool.
For a paradigm example of pretentious AI, I will look at something different. The robot Cog represents equally impressive feats in artificial hand-eye coordination and motor control, but its creators claim something deeper, something archetypal and mythic:
Fig. 2: Cog, portrayed as Robo sapiens
The scholar places his hand on the robots’ shoulder as if they had a longstanding friendship. At almost every semiotic level, this picture constitutes an implicit claim that the researcher has a deep friendship with what must be a deep being. The unfortunately blurred caption reads, ‘©2000 Peter Menzel / Robo sapiens.’ On the Cog main website area, every picture with Cog and a person theatrically shows the person treating the robot as quite lifelike—giving the impression that the robot must be essentially human.
But how close is Cog to being human? Watts writes,
The weakness of Cog at present seems to be that it cannot actually do very much. Even its insect-like computer forebears do not seem to have had the intelligence of insects, and Cog is clearly nowhere near having human intelligence.
The somewhat light-hearted frequently-asked-questions list acknowledges that the robot ‘has no idea what it did two minutes ago,’ answers ‘Can Cog pass the Turing test?’ by saying, ‘No… but neither could an infant,’ and interestingly answers ‘Is Cog conscious?’ by saying, ‘We try to avoid using the c-word in our lab. For the record, no. Off the record, we have no idea what that question even means. And still, no.’ The response to a very basic question is ambiguous, but it seems to joke that ‘consciousness’ is obscene language, and gives the impression that this is not an appropriate question to ask: a mature adult, when evaluating our AI, does not childishly frame the question in terms of consciousness. Apparently, we should accept the optimistic impression of Cog, whilst recognising that it’s not fair to the robot to ask about features of human personhood that the robot can’t exhibit. This smells of begging the question.
Un-pretentious AI makes an impressive technical achievement, but recognises and acknowledges that they’ve created a tool and not something virtually human. Pretentious AI can make equally impressive technical achievements, and it recognises that what it’s created is not equivalent to human, but it does not acknowledge this. The answer to ‘Is Cog conscious?’ is a refusal to acknowledge something the researchers have to recognise: that Cog has no analogue to human consciousness. Is it a light-hearted way of making a serious claim of strong agnosticism about Cog’s consciousness? It doesn’t read much like a mature statement that ‘We could never know if Cog were conscious.’ The researcher in Figure 2 wrote an abstract on how to give robots a theory of other minds, which reads more like psychology than computer science.
There’s something going on here that also goes on in the occult. In neo-paganism, practitioners find their magic to work, not exactly as an outsider would expect, by making incantations and hoping that something will happen that a skeptic would recognise as supernatural, but by doing what they can and then interpreting reality as if the magic had worked. They create an illusion and subconsciously embrace it. This mechanism works well enough, in fact, that large segments of today’s neo-paganism started as jokes and then became real, something their practitioners took quite seriously. There’s power in trying to place a magical incantation or a computer program (or, in programmer slang, ‘incantation’) to fill a transcendent hope: one finds ways that it appears to work, regardless of what an outsider’s interpretation may be. This basic technique appears to be at work in magic as early as the Renaissance, and it appears to be exactly what’s going on in pretentious AI. The basic factor of stepping into an illusion after you do what you can makes sense of the rhetoric quoted above and why Cog is portrayed not merely as a successful experiment in coordination but as Robo sapiens, the successful creation of a living golem. Of course we don’t interpret it as magic because we assume that artificial and intelligence and magic are very different things, but the researchers’ self-deception falls into a quite venerable magical tradition.
Computers seem quite logical. Are they really that far from human rationality? Computers are logical without being rational. Programming a computer is like explaining a task to someone who follows directions very well but has no judgment and no ability to recognise broader intentions in a request. It follows a list of instructions without any recognition or a sense of what is being attempted. The ability to understand a conversation, or recognise another person’s intent—even with mistakes—or any of a number of things humans take for granted, belongs to rationality. A computer’s behaviour is built up from logical rules that do certain precise manipulations of symbols without any sense of meaning whatsoever: it is logical without being rational. The discipline of usability is about how to write well-designed computer programs; these programs usually let the user forget that computers aren’t rational. For instance, a user can undo something when the computer logically and literally follows an instruction, and the user rationally realises that that isn’t really what was intended. But even the best of this design doesn’t let the computer understand what one meant to say. One frustration people have with computers stems from the fact that there is a gist to what humans say, and other people pick up that gist. Computers do not have even the most rudimentary sense of gist, only the ability to logically follow instructions. This means that the experience of bugs and debugging in programming is extremely frustrating to those learning how to program; the computer’s response to what seems a correct program goes beyond nitpicking. This logicality without rationality is deceptive, for it presents something that looks very much like rationality at first glance, but produces unpleasant surprises when you treat it as rational. There’s something interesting going on here. When we read rationality into a computer’s logicality, we are in part creating the illusion of artificial intelligence. ‘Don’t anthropomorphise computers,’ one tells novice programmers. ‘They hate that.’ A computer is logical enough that we tend to treat it as rational, and in fact if you want to believe that you’ve achieved artificial intelligence, you have an excellent basis to use in forming a magician’s self-deception.
Artificial intelligence is a mythic attempt to create an artificial person, and it does so in a revealing way. Thought is assumed to be a private manipulation of mental representations, not something that works in terms of spirit. Embodied AI excluded, the body is assumed to be packaging, and the attempt is not just to duplicate the ‘mind’ in a complete sense, but our more computer-like rationality: this assumes a highly significant division of what is essential, what is packaging, and what comes along for free if you duplicate the essential bits. None of this is simply how humans have always thought, nor is it neutral. Maximus Confessor’s assumptions are different enough from AI’s that a comparison makes it easier to see some of AI’s assumptions, and furthermore what sort of coherent picture could deny them. I will explore how exactly he does so below under the heading ‘Orthodox Anthropology in Maximus Confessor’s Mystagogia,‘ More immediately, I wish to discuss a basic type of assumption shared by artificial intelligence and the occult.
The Optimality Assumption
One commonality that much of magic and science share is that broad visions often include the assumption that what they don’t understand must be simple, and be easy to modify or improve. Midgley discusses Bernal’s exceedingly optimistic hope for society to transform itself into a simplistically conceived scientific Utopia (if perhaps lacking most of what we value in human society); I will discuss later, under various headings, how society simply works better in Thomas More’s and B.F. Skinner’s Utopias if only it is re-engineered according to their simple models. Aren’t Utopian visions satires, not prescriptions? I would argue that the satire itself has a strong prescriptive element, even if it’s not literal. The connection between Utopia and AI is that the same sort of thinking feeds into what, exactly, is needed to duplicate a human mind. For instance, let us examine a sample of dialogue which Turing imagined going on in a Turing test:
Q: Please write me a sonnet on the subject of the Forth Bridge.
A: Count me out on this one. I never could write poetry.
Q: Add 34957 to 70764.
A: (Pause about 30 seconds and then give as answer) 105621.
Q: Do you play chess?
Q: I have K at my K1, and no other pieces. You have only K at K6 and R at R1. It is your move. What do you play?
A: (After a pause of 15 seconds) R-R8 mate.
Turing seems to assume that if you duplicate his favoured tasks of arithmetic and chess, the task of understanding natural language comes along, more or less for free. The subsequent history of artificial intelligence has not been kind to this assumption. Setting aside the fact that most people do not strike up a conversation by strangely requesting the other person to solve a chess problem and add five-digit numbers, Turing is showing an occult way of thinking by assuming there’s nothing really obscure, or deep, about the human person, and that the range of cognitive tasks needed to do AI is the range of tasks that immediately present themselves to him. This optimism may be damped by subsequent setbacks which the artificial intelligence movement has experienced, but it’s still present. It’s hard to see an artificial intelligence researcher saying, ‘The obvious problem looks hard to solve, but there are probably hidden problems which are much harder,’ let alone consider whether human thought might be non-computational.
Given the difficulties they acknowledge, artificial intelligence researchers seem to assume that the problem is as easy as possible to solve. As I will discuss later, this kind of assumption has profound occult resonance. I will call this assumption the optimality assumption: with allowances and caveats, the optimality assumption states that artificial intelligence is an optimally easy problem to solve. This doesn’t mean an optimally easy problem to solve given the easiest possible world, but rather, taking into the difficulties and nuances recognised by the practitioner, the problem is then assumed to be optimally easy, and thenit could be said that we live in the (believable) possible world where artificial intelligence would be easiest to implement. Anything that doesn’t work like a computer is assumedly easy, or a matter of unnecessary packaging. There are variations on the theme of begging the question. One basic strategy of ensuring that computers can reach the bar of human intelligence is to lower the bar until it is already met. Another strategy is to try to duplicate human intelligence on computer-like tasks. Remember the Turing test which Turing imagined, which seemed to recognise only the cognitive tasks of writing a poem, doing arithmetic, and solving a chess problem: Turing apparently assumed that natural language understanding would come along for free by the time computers could do both arithmetic and chess. Now we have computer calculators and chess players that can beat humans, whilst natural language understanding tasks which are simple to humans represent an unscaled Everest to artificial intelligence.
We have a situation very much like the attempt to make a robot that can imitate human locomotion—if the attempt is tested by having a robot race a human athlete on a racetrack ergonomically designed for robots. Chess is about as computer-like a human skill as one could find.
Turing’s script for an imagined Turing test is one manifestation of a tendency to assume that the problem is optimally easy: the optimality assumption. Furthermore, Turing sees only three tasks of composing a sonnet, adding two numbers, and making a move in chess. But in fact this leaves out a task of almost unassailable difficulty for AI: understanding and appropriately acting on natural language requests. This is part of human rationality that cannot simply be assumed to come with a computer’s logicality.
Four decades after Turing imagined the above dialogue, Kurt VanLehn describes a study of problem solving that used a standard story problem. The ensuing discussion is telling. Two subjects’ interpretations are treated as problems to be resolved, apparently chosen for their departure from how a human ‘should’ think about these things. One is a nine year old girl, Cathy: ‘…It is apparent from [her] protocol that Cathy solves this problem by imagining the physical situation and the actions taken in it, as opposed to, say, converting the puzzle to a directed graph then finding a traversal of the graph.’ The purpose of the experiment was to understand how humans solve problems, but it was approached with a tunnel vision that gave a classic kind of computer science ‘graph theory’ problem, wrapped up in words, and treated any other interpretation of those words as an interesting abnormality. It seems that it is not the theory’s duty to approach the subject matter, but the subject matter’s duty to approach the theory—a signature trait of occult projects. Is this merely VanLehn’s tunnel vision? He goes on to describe the state of cognitive science itself:
For instance, one can ask a subject to draw a pretty picture… [such] Problems whose understanding is not readily represented as a problem space are called ill-defined. Sketching pretty pictures is an example of an ill-defined problem… There have only been a few studies of ill-defined problem solving.
Foerst summarises a tradition of feminist critique: AI was started by men who chose a particular kind of abstract task as the hallmark of intelligence; women might value disembodied abstraction less and might choose something like social skills. The critique may be pushed one step further than that: beyond any claim that AI researchers, when looking for a basis for computer intelligence, tacitly crystallised intelligence out of men’s activities rather than women’s, it seems that their minds were so steeped in mathematics and computers that they crystallised intelligence out of human performance more in computer-like activities than anything essentially human, even in a masculine way. Turing didn’t talk about making artificial car mechanics or deer hunters any more than he had plans for artificial hostesses or childminders.
Harman’s 1989 account of functionalism, for instance, provides a more polished-looking version of an optimality assumption: ‘According to functionalism, it does not matter what mental states and processes are made of any more than it matters what a carburetor or heart or a chess king is made of.’ (832). Another suggestion may be made, not as an axiom but as an answer to the question, ‘How else could it be?’ This other suggestion might be called the tip of the iceberg conception.
A ‘tip of the iceberg’ conception might reply, ‘Suppose for the sake of argument that it doesn’t matter what an iceberg is made of, so long as it sticks up above the surface and is hard enough to sink a ship. The task is then to make an artificial iceberg. One can hire engineers to construct a hard shell to function as a surrogate iceberg. What has been left out is that these properties of something observable from the surface rest on something that lies much, much deeper than the surface. (A mere scrape with an iceberg sunk the Titanic, not only because the iceberg was hard, but because it had an iceberg’s monumental inertia behind that hardness.) One can’t make a functional tip of the iceberg that way, because a functional tip of an iceberg requires a functional iceberg, and we have very little idea of how to duplicate those parts of an iceberg that aren’t visible from a ship. You are merely assuming that one can try hard enough to duplicate what you can see from a ship, and if you duplicate those observables, everything else will follow.’ This is not a fatal objection, but it is intended to suggest what the truth could be besides the repeated assumption that intelligence is as easy as possible to duplicate in a computer. Here again is the optimality assumption, and it is a specific example of a broader optimality assumption which will appear in occult sources discussed under the ‘Renaissance and Early Modern Magic‘ heading below. The ‘tip of the iceberg’ conception is notoriously absent in occult and artificial intelligence sources alike. In occult sources, the endeavour is to create a magically sharp sword that will slice all of the Gordian knots of society’s problems; in artificial intelligence the Gordian knots are not societal problems but obstacles to creating a thinking machine, and researchers may only be attempting to use razor blades to cut tangled shoelaces, but researchers are still trying to get as close to that magic sword as they believe possible.
Just Around the Corner Since 1950
The artificial intelligence movement has a number of reasonably stable features, including an abiding sense of ‘Today’s discoveries are a real breakthrough; artificial minds are just around the corner.’ This mood may even be older than digital computers; Dreyfus writes,
In the period between the invention of the telephone relay and its apotheosis in the digital computer, the brain, always understood in terms of the latest technological inventions, was understood as a large telephone switchboard, or more recently, as an electronic computer.
The discoveries and the details of the claim may change, and experience has battered some of strong AI’s optimism, but in pioneers and today’s embodied AI advocates alike there is a similar mood: ‘What we’ve developed now is effacing the boundary between machine and human.’ This mood is quite stable. There is a striking similarity between the statements,
These emotions [discomfort and shock at something so human-like] might arise because in our interactions with Cog, little distinguishes us from the robot, and the differences between a machine and its human counterparts fade.
The reader must accept it as a fact that digital computers can be constructed, and indeed have been constructed, according to the principles we have described, and that they can in fact mimic the actions of a human computer very closely.
What is interesting here is that the second was made by Turing in 1950, and the first by Foerst in 1998. As regards Turing, no one now believes 1950 computers could perform any but the most menial of mathematicians’ tasks, and some of Cog’s weaknesses have been discussed above (“Cog… cannot actually very much. Even its insect-like forebears do not seem to have had the intelligence of insects…”). The more artificial intelligence changes, the more it seems to stay the same. The overall impression one receives is that for all the surface progress of the artificial intelligence, the underlying philosophy and spirit remain the same—and part of this underlying spirit is the conviction, ‘We’re making real breakthroughs now, and full artificial intelligence is just around the corner.’ This self-deception is sustained in classically magical fashion. Artificial intelligence’s self-presentation exudes novelty, a sense that today’s breakthroughs are decisive—whilst its actual rate of change is much slower. The ‘It’s just around the corner.’ rhetoric is a longstanding feature. For all the changes in processor power and greater consistency in a materialist doctrine of mind, there are salient features which seem to repeat in 1950’s and today’s cognitive science. In both, the strategy to ensure that computers could jump the bar of human intelligence is by lowering the bar until it had already been jumped.
The Ghost in the Machine
It has been suggested in connection with Polanyi’s understanding of tacit knowledge that behaviourists did not teach, ‘There is no soul.’ Rather, they draw students into a mode of enquiry where the possibility of a soul is never considered.
Modern psychology takes completely for granted that behavior and neural function are perfectly correlated, that one is completely caused by the other. There is no separate soul or lifeforce to stick a finger into the brain now and then and make neural cells do what they would not otherwise. Actually, of course, this is a working assumption only….It is quite conceivable that someday the assumption will have to be rejected. But it is important also to see that we have not reached that day yet: the working assumption is a necessary one and there is no real evidence opposed to it. Our failure to solve a problem so far does not make it insoluble. One cannot logically be a determinist in physics and biology, and a mystic in psychology.
This is a balder and more provocative way of stating what writers like Turing lead the reader to never think of questioning. The assumption is that the soul, if there is one, is by nature external and separate from the body, so that any interaction between the two is a violation of the body’s usual way of functioning. Thus what is denied is a ‘separate soul or lifeforce to stick a finger into the brain now and then and make neural cells do what they would not do otherwise.’ The Orthodox and others’ doctrine of unified personhood is very different from an affirmation of a ghost in the machine. To affirm a ghost in the machine is to assume the soul’s basic externality to the body: the basic inability of a soul to interact with a body creates the problem of the ghost in the machine. By the time one attempts to solve the problem of the ghost in the machine, one is already outside of an Orthodox doctrine of personhood in which spirit, soul, and body are united and the whole unit is not an atom.
The objective here is not mainly to criticise AI, but to see what can be learned: AI seems to fail in a way that is characteristic. It does not fail because of insufficient funding or lack of technical progress, but on another plane: it is built on an erroneous quasi-theological anthropology, and its failures may suggest something about being human. The main goal is to answer the question, ‘How else could it be?’ in a way that is missed by critics working in materialist confines.
What can we say in summary?
First, artificial intelligence work may be divided into un-pretentious and pretentious AI. Un-pretentious AI makes tools that no one presents as anything more than tools. Pretentious AI is presented as more human than is properly warranted.
Second, there are stable features to the artificial intelligence movement, including a claim of, ‘We have something essentially human. With today’s discoveries, full artificial intelligence is just around the corner.’ The exact form of this assertion may change, but the basic claim does not.
Third, artificial intelligence research posits a multifarious ‘optimality assumption,’ namely that, given the caveats recognised by the researcher, artificial intelligence is an optimally easy assumption to solve. The human mind is assumed to be the sort of thing that is optimally easy to re-create on a computer.
Fourth, artificial intelligence comes from the same kind of thinking as the ghost in the machine problem.
There is more going on in the artificial intelligence project than an attempt to produce scientific results. The persistent rhetoric of ‘It’s just around the corner.’ is not because artificial intelligence scientists have held that sober judgment since the project began, but because there’s something else going on. For reasons that I hope will become clearer in the next section, this is beginning to look like an occult project—a secularised occult project, perhaps, but ‘secularised occult’ is not an empty term in that you take all of the occult away if you take away spellbooks. There is much more to the occult than crystal balls, and a good deal of this ‘much more’ is at play even if artificial intelligence doesn’t do things the Skeptical Enquirer would frown on.
Occult Foundations of Modern Science
With acknowledgment of the relevance of the Reformation, the wake of Aristotelianism, and the via moderna of nominalism, I will be looking at a surprising candidate for discussion on this topic: magic. Magic was a large part of what shaped modernity, a much larger factor than one would expect from modernity’s own self-portrayal, and it has been neglected for reasons besides than the disinterested pursuit of truth. It is more attractive to our culture to say that our science exists in the wake of Renaissance learning or brave Reformers than to say that science has roots in it decries as superstition. For reasons that I will discuss below under the next heading, I suggest that what we now classify as the artificial intelligence movement is a further development of some of magic’s major features.
There is a major qualitative shift between Newton’s development of physics being considered by some to be a diversion from his alchemical and other occult endeavours, and ‘spooky’ topics today being taboo for scientific research. Yet it is still incomplete to enter a serious philosophical discussion of science without understanding the occult, as as it incomplete to enter a serious discussion of Christianity without understanding Judaism. Lewis points out that the popular understanding of modern science displacing the magic of the middle ages is at least misleading; there was very little magic in the middle ages, and then science and magic flourished at the same time, for the same reason, often in the same people: the reason science became stronger than magic is purely Darwinian: it worked better. One may say that medieval religion is the matrix from which Renaissance magic departed, and early modern magic is the matrix from which science departed.
What is the relationship between the mediaeval West and patristic Christianity? In this context, the practical difference is not yet a great one. The essential difference is that certain seeds have been sown—such as nominalism and the rediscovered Aristotelianism—which in the mediaeval West would grow into something significant, but had not in much of any practical sense affected the fabric of society. People still believed that the heavens told the glory of God; people lived a life oriented towards contemplation rather than consumption; monasteries and saints were assumed so strongly that they were present even—especially—as they retreated from society. Certain seeds had been sown in the mediaeval West, but they had not grown to any significant stature. For this discussion, I will treat mediaeval and patristic Christianity as more alike than different.
Renaissance and Early Modern Magic
Magic in this context is much more than a means of casting spells or otherwise manipulating supernatural powers to obtain results. That practice is the token of an entire worldview and enterprise, something that defines life’s meaning and what one ought to seek. To illustrate this, I will look at some details of work by a characteristic figure, Leibniz. Then I will look at the distinctive way the Renaissance magus related to the world and the legacy this relationship has today. Alongside this I will look at a shift from understanding this life as a contemplative apprenticeship to Heaven, to understanding this life as something for us to make more pleasurable.
Leibniz, a 17th century mathematician and scientist who co-discovered calculus, appears to have been more than conversant with the occult memory tradition, and his understanding of calculus was not, as today, a tool used by engineers to calculate volumes. Rather, it was part of an entire Utopian vision, which could encompass all knowledge and all thoughts, an apparently transcendent tool that would obviate the need for philosophical disagreements:
If we had this [calculus], there would be no more reason for disputes between philosophers than between accountants. It would be enough for them to take their quills and say, ‘Let us calculate!’
Leibniz’s 1690 Ars Combinatoria contains some material that is immediately accessible to a modern mathematician. It also contains material that is less accessible. Much of the second chapter (9-48) discusses combinations of the letters U, P, J, S, A, and N; these letters are tied to concepts ranging from philosophy to theology, jurisprudence and mathematics: another table links philosophical concepts with numbers (42-3). The apparent goal was to validly manipulate concepts through mechanical manipulations of words, but I was unable to readily tell what (mathematico-logical?) principle was supposed to make this work. (The principle is apparently unfamiliar to me.) This may reflect the influence of Ramon Lull, thirteenth century magician and doctor of the Catholic Church who adapted a baptised Kaballah which involved manipulating combinations of (Latin) letters. Leibniz makes repeated reference to Lull (28, 31, 34, 46), and specifically mentions his occult ars magna (28). Like Lull, Leibniz is interested in the occult, and seeks to pioneer some new tool that will obviate the need for this world’s troubles. He was an important figure in the creation of science, and his notation is still used for calculus today. Leibniz is not trying to be just another member of society, or to contribute to society’s good the way members have always contributed to society’s good: he stands above it, and his intended contribution is to reorder the fabric of society according to his endowed vision. Leibniz provides a characteristic glimpse of how early modern magic has left a lasting imprint.
If the person one should be in Orthodoxy is the member of Church and society, the figure in magic is the magus, a singular character who stands outside of the fabric of society and seeks to transform it. What is the difference? The member of the faithful is an integrated part of society, and lives in submission and organic connection to it. The magus, by contrast, stands above society, superior to it, having a relation to society as one whose right and perhaps duty is to tear apart and reconstruct society along better lines. We have a difference between humility and pride, between relating to society as to one’s mother and treating society as raw material for one to transform. The magus is cut off from the common herd by two closely related endowments: a magic sword to cut through society’s Gordian knots, and a messianic fantasy. In Leibniz’s case the magic sword is an artificial language which will make philosophical disagreements simply obsolete. For the artificial intelligence movement, the magic sword is artificial intelligence itself. The exact character of the sword, knot, and fantasy may differ, but their presence does not.
The character of the Renaissance magus may be seen as as hinging on despair with the natural world. This mood seems to be woven into Hermetic texts that were held in such esteem in the Renaissance and were connected at the opening of pre-eminent Renaissance neo-Platonist Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man. If there is good to be had, it is not met in the mundane world of the hoi polloi. It must be very different from their reality, something hidden that is only accessible to an elite. The sense in which this spells out an interest in the occult means far more than carrying around a rabbit’s foot. The specific supernatural contact was valued because the occult was far hidden from appearances and the unwashed masses. (The Christian claim that one can simply pray to God and be heard is thus profoundly uninteresting. Supernatural as it may be, it is ordinary, humble, and accessible in a way that the magus is trying to push past.) This desire for what is hidden or very different from the ordinary means that the ideal future must be very different from the present. Therefore Thomas More, Renaissance author, canonised saint, and strong devotee of Mirandola’s writing, himself writes Utopia. In this work, the philosophic sailor Raphael establishes his own reason as judge over the appropriateness of executing thieves, and describes a Utopia where society simply works better: there seem to be no unpleasant surprises or unintended consequences.  There is little sense of a complex inner logic to society that needs to be respected, or any kind of authority to submit to. Indeed, Raphael abhors authority and responds to the suggestion that he attach himself to a king’s court by saying, ‘Happier! Is that to follow a path that my soul abhors?’ This Utopian vision, even if it is from a canonised Roman saint, captures something deep of the occult currents that would later feed into the development of political ideology. The content of an occult vision for constructing a better tomorrow may vary, but it is a vision that seeks to tear up the world as we now know it and reconstructs it along different lines.
Magic and science alike relate to what they are interested in via an I-It rather than an I-Thou relationship. Relating to society as to one’s mother is an I-Thou relationship; treating society as raw material is an I-It relationship. An I-Thou relationship is receptive to quality. It can gain wisdom and insight. It can connect out of the whole person. The particular kind of I-It relationship that undergirds science has a powerful and narrow tool that deals in what can be mathematically represented. The difference between those two is misunderstood if one stops after saying, ‘I-It can make technology available much better than I-Thou.’ That is how things look through I-It eyes. But I-Thou allows a quality of relationship that does not exist with I-It. ‘The fundamental word I-Thou can only be spoken with one’s whole being. The fundamental word I-It can never be spoken with one’s whole being.’ I-Thou allows a quality-rich relationship that always has another layer of meaning. In the Romance languages there are two different words for knowledge: in French,connaissance and savoir. They both mean ‘knowledge,’ but in different ways: savoir is knowledge of fact (or know-how); one can sait que (‘know that’) something is true. Connaissance is the kind of knowledge of a person, a ‘knowledge of’ rather than a ‘knowledge that’ or ‘knowledge how.’ It can never be a complete knowledge, and one cannot connait que (‘know-of that’) something is true. It is personal in character. An I-It relationship is not just true of magic; as I will discuss below under the heading of ‘Science, Psychology, and Behaviourism,’ psychology seeks a baseline savoir of people where it might seek a connaissance , and its theories are meant to be abstracted from relationships with specific people. Like magic, the powers that are based on science are epiphenomenal to the relationship science is based on. Relating in an I-Thou rather than I-It fashion is not simply less like magic and science; it is richer, fuller, and more human.
In the patristic and medieval eras, the goal of living had been contemplation and the goal of moral instruction was to conform people to reality. Now there was a shift from conforming people to reality, towards conforming reality to people. This set the stage, centuries later, for a major and resource-intensive effort to create an artificial mind, a goal that would not have fit well with a society oriented to contemplation. This is not to say that there is no faith today, nor that there was no technology in the middle ages, nor that there has been no shift between the early modern period and today. Rather, it is to say that a basic trajectory was established in magic that significantly shapes science today.
The difference between the Renaissance magus and the mediaeval member of the Church casts a significant shadow today. The scientist seems to live more in the shadow of the Renaissance magus than of the member of mediaeval society. This is not to say that scientists cannot be humble and moral, nor that they cannot hold wonder at what they study. But it is to say that there are a number of points of contact between the Renaissance magus’s way of relating to the world and that of a scientist and those who live in science’s shadow. Governments today consult social scientists before making policy decisions: the relationship seems to be how to best deal with material rather than a relationship as to one’s mother. We have more than a hint of secularised magic in which substantial fragments of Renaissance and early modern magic have long outlived some magical practices.
Under the patristic and medieval conception, this life was an apprenticeship to the life in Heaven, the beginning of an eternal glory contemplating God. Magic retained a sense of supernatural reality and a larger world, but its goal was to improve this life, understood as largely self-contained and not as beginning of the next. That was the new chief end of humanity. That shift is a shift towards the secular, magical as its beginning may be. Magic contains the seeds of its own secularisation, in other words of its becoming scientific. The shift from contemplation of the next world to power in this world is why the occult was associated with all sorts of Utopian visions to transform the world, a legacy reflected in our political ideologies. One of the tools developed in that magical milieu was science: a tool that, for Darwinian reasons, was to eclipse all the rest. The real magic that has emerged is science.
Science, Psychology, and Behaviourism
What is the niche science has carved out for itself? I’d like to look at an academic discipline that is working hard to be a science, psychology. I will more specifically look at behaviourism, as symptomatic within the history of psychology. Is it fair to look at behaviourism, which psychology itself rejected? It seems that behaviourism offers a valuable case study by demonstrating what is more subtly present elsewhere in psychology. Behaviourism makes some basic observations about reward and punishment and people repeating behaviours, and portrays this as a comprehensive psychological theory: behaviourism does not acknowledge beliefs, for instance. Nonetheless, I suggest that behaviourism is a conceivable development in modern psychology which would have been impossible in other settings. Behaviourism may be unusual in the extreme simplicity of its vision and its refusal to recognise internal states, but not in desiring a Newton who will make psychology a full-fledged science and let psychology know its material with the same kind of knowing as physics has for its material.
Newton and his kin provided a completely de-anthropomorphised account of natural phenomena, and behaviourism provided a de-anthropomorphised account of humans. In leading behaviourist B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two (1948), we have a Utopian vision where every part of society seems to work better: artists raised under Skinner’s conditioning produce work which is ‘extraordinarily good,’ the women are more beautiful, and Skinner’s alter ego expresses the hope of controlling the weather, and compares himself with God. Skinner resemble seems to resemble a Renaissance magus more than a mediaeval member: society is raw material for him to transform. Skinner is, in a real sense, a Renaissance magus whose magic has become secularised. Quite a lot of the magus survives the secularisation of Skinner’s magic.
Even without these more grandiose aspirations, psychology is symptomatic of something that is difficult to discern by looking at the hard sciences. Psychological experiments try to find ways in which the human person responds in terms comparable to a physics experiment—and by nature do not relate to their subjects as human agents. These experiments study one aspect of human personhood, good literature another, and literature offers a different kind of knowing from a psychological experiment. If we assume that psychology is the best way to understand people—and that the mind is a mechanism-driven thing—then the assumed burden of proof falls on anyone saying, ‘But a human mind isn’t the sort of thing you can duplicate on a computer.’ The cultural place of science constitutes a powerful influence on how people conceive the question of artificial intelligence.
Behaviourism offers a very simple and very sharp magic sword to cut the Gordian knot of unscientific teleology, a knot that will be discussed under the heading of ‘Intentionality and Teleology‘ below. It removes suspicion of the reason being attached to a spiritual intellect by refusing to acknowledge reason. It removes the suspicion of emotions having a spiritual dimension by refusing to acknowledge emotions. He denies enough of the human person that even psychologists who share those goals would want to distance themselves from him. And yet Skinner does more than entertain messianic fantasies: Walden Two is a Utopia, and when Skinner’s alter ego compares himself with God, God ends up second best. I suggest that this is no a contradiction at all, or more properly it is a blatant contradiction as far as common sense is concerned, but as far as human human phenomena go, we have two sides of the same coin. The magic sword and the messianic fantasy belong to one and the same magus.
There is in fact an intermediate step between the full-fledged magus and the mortal herd. One can be a magician’s assistant, clearing away debris and performing menial tasks to support the real magi.  The proportion of the Western population who are scientists is enormous compared to science’s founding, and the vast majority of the increase is in magician’s assistants. If one meets a scientist at a social gathering, the science is in all probability not a full-fledged magus, but a magician’s assistant, set midway between the magus and the commoner. The common scientist is below the magus in knowledge of science but well above most commoners. In place of a personal messianic fantasy is a more communal tendency to assume that the scientific enterprise is our best hope for the betterment of society. (Commoners may share this belief.) There is a significant difference between the magus and most assistants today. Nonetheless, the figure of the magus is alive today—secularised, in most cases, but alive and well. Paul Johnson’s Augustinian account ofIntellectuals includes such eminent twentieth century scientific figures as Bertrand Russell, Noam Chompsky, and Albert Einstein; the figures one encounters in his pages are steeped in the relationship to society as to raw material instead as to one’s mother, the magic sword, and the messianic fantasy.
I-Thou and Humanness
I suggest that the most interesting critiques of artificial intelligence are not obtained by looking through I-It eyes in another direction, but in using other eyes to begin with, looking through I-Thou eyes. Let us consider Turing’s ‘Arguments from Various Disabilities’.Perhaps the people who furnished Turing with these objections were speaking out of something deeper than they could explain:
Be kind, resourceful, beautiful, friendly, have initiative, have a sense of humour, tell right from wrong, make mistakes, fall in love, enjoy strawberries and cream, make some one fall in love with it, learn from experience, use words properly, be the subject of its own thought, have as much diversity of behaviour as a man, do something really new.
Kindness is listed by Paul as the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22) in other words, an outflow of a person living in the Spirit. Disregarding the question of whether all kindness is the fruit of the Spirit, in humans kindness is not merely following rules, but the outflow of a concern for the other person. Even counterfeit kindness is a counterfeit from someone who knows the genuine article. It thus uses some faculty of humanity other than the reasoning ability, which classical AI tries to duplicate and which is assumed to be the one thing necessary to duplicate human cognition.
The artificial intelligence assumption is that if something is non-deterministic, it is random, because deterministic and pseudo-random are the only options one can use in programming a computer. This leaves out a third possibility, that by non-computational faculties someone may think, not merely ‘outside the box,’ in a random direction, but above it. The creative spark comes neither from continuing a systematic approach, nor simply picking something random (‘because I can’t get my computer to turn on, I’ll pour coffee on it and see if that helps’), but something that we don’t know how to give a computer.
Beauty is a spiritual quality that is not perceived by scientific enquiry and, given our time’s interpretation of scientific enquiry, is in principle not recognised. Why not? If we push materialist assumptions to the extreme, it is almost a category error to look at a woman and say, ‘She is beautiful.’ What is really being said—if one is not making a category error—is, ‘I have certain emotions when I look at her.’ Even if there is not a connection between physical beauty and intelligence, there seems to be some peasant shrewdness involved. It is a genuine, if misapplied, appeal to look at something that has been overlooked.
True as opposed to counterfeit friendliness is a manifestation of love, which has its home in the will, especially if the will is not understood as a quasi-muscular power of domination, but part of the spirit which lets us turn towards another in love.
Remarks could easily be multiplied. What is meant to come through all this is that science is not magic, but science works in magic’s wake. Among relevant features may be mentioned relating as a magus would (in many ways distilling an I-It relationship further), and seeking power over the world in this life rather living an apprenticeship to the next.
Orthodox Anthropology in Maximus Confessor’s Mystagogia
I will begin detailed enquiry in the Greek Fathers by considering an author who is foundational to Eastern Orthodoxy, the seventh century Greek Father Maximus Confessor. Out of the existing body of literature, I will focus on one work, his Mystagogia, with some reference to the Capita Gnosticae. Maximus Confessor is a synthetic thinker, and the Mystagogia is an anthropological work; its discussion of Church mystagogy is dense in theological anthropology as the training for a medical doctor is dense in human biology.
Orthodox Christians have a different cosmology from the Protestant division of nature, sin, and grace. Nature is never un-graced, and the grace that restores from sin is the same grace that provides continued existence and that created nature in the first place. That is to say, grace flows from God’s generosity, and is never alien to nature. The one God inhabits the whole creation: granted, in a more special and concentrated way in a person than in a rock, but the same God is really present in both.
Already, without having seriously engaged theological anthropology, we have differences with how AI looks at things. Not only are the answers different, but the questions themselves are posed in a different way. ‘Cold matter,’ such as is assumed by scientific materialism, doesn’t exist, not because matter is denied in Berkeleyan fashion but because it is part of a spiritual cosmology and affirmed to be something more. It is mistaken to think of cold matter, just as it is mistaken to think of tepid fire. Even matter has spiritual attributes and is graced. Everything that exists, from God and the spiritual creation to the material creation, from seraphim to stone, is the sort of thing one connects to in an I-Thou relationship. An I-It relationship is out of place, and from this perspective magic and science look almost the same, different signposts in the process of establishing a progressively purer I-It relationship.
Intellect and Reason
Maximus’ anthropology is threefold: the person is divided into soul and body, and the soul itself is divided into a higher part, the intellect, and a lower part, the reason:
[Pseudo-Dionysius] used to teach that the whole person is a synthesis of soul and body joined together, and furthermore the soul itself can be examined by reason. (The person is an image which reflects teaching about the Holy Church.) Thus he said that the soul had an intellectual and living faculty that were essentially united, and described the moving, intellectual, authoritative power—with the living part described according its will-less nature. And again, the whole mind deals with intelligible things, with the intelligible power being called intellect, whilst the sensible power is called reason.
This passage shows a one-word translation difficulty which is symptomatic of a difference between his theology and the quasi-theological assumptions of the artificial intelligence project. The word in question, which I have rendered as ‘authoritative power,’ is ‘exousiastikws,’ with root word ‘exousia.’ The root and its associated forms could be misconstrued today as having a double meaning of ‘power’ and ‘authority,’ with ‘authority’ as the basic sense. In both classical and patristic usage, it seems debatable whether ‘exousia’ is tied to any concept of power divorced from authority. In particular this passage’s ‘exousiastikws‘ is most immediately translated as power rather than any kind of authority that is separate from power. Yet Maximus Confessor’s whole sense of power here is one that arises from a divine authorisation to know the truth. This sense of power is teleologically oriented and has intrinsic meaning. This is not to say that Maximus could only conceive of power in terms of authority. He repeatedly uses ‘dunamis,’ (proem.15-6, 26, 28, etc), a word for power without significant connotations of authority. However, he could conceive of power in terms of authority, and that is exactly what he does when describing the intellect’s power.
What is the relationship between ‘intellect’/’reason’ and cognitive faculties? Which, if either, has cognitive faculties a computer can’t duplicate? Here we run into another difficulty. It is hard to say that Maximus Confessor traded in cognitive faculties. For Maximus Confessor the core sense of ‘cognitive faculties’ is inadequate, as it is inadequate to define an eye as something that provides nerve impulses which the brain uses to generate other nerve impulses. What is missing from this picture? This definition does not provide any sense that the eye interacts with the external world, so that under normal circumstances its nerve impulses are sent because photons strike photoreceptors in an organ resembling a camera. Even this description hides most teleology and evaluative judgment. It does not say that an eye is an organ for perceiving the external world through an image reconstructed in the brain, and may be called ‘good’ if it sees clearly and ‘bad’ if it doesn’t. This may be used as a point of departure to comment on Maximus Confessor and the conception of cognitive faculties.
Maximus Confessor does not, in an amoral or self-contained fashion, see faculties that operate on mental representations. He sees an intellect that is where one meets God, and where one encounters a Truth that is no more private than the world one sees with the eye is private.
Intellect and reason compete with today’s cognitive faculties, but Maximus Confessor understands the intellect in particular as something fundamentally moral, spiritual, and connected to spiritual realities. His conception of morality is itself different from today’s private choice of ethical code; morality had more public and more encompassing boundaries, and included such things as Jesus’ admonition not to take the place of highest honour so as not to receive public humiliation (Luke 14:7-10): it embraced practical advice for social conduct, because the moral and spiritual were not separated from the practical. It is difficult to Maximus Confessor conceiving of practicality as hampered by morality. In Maximus Confessor’s day what we separate into cognitive, moral, spiritual, and practical domains were woven into a seamless tapestry.
Intellect, Principles, and Cosmology
Chapter twenty-three opens by emphasising that contemplation is more than looking at appearances (23.1-10), and discusses the Principles of things. The concept of a Principle is important to his cosmology. There is a foundational difference between the assumed cosmologies of artificial intelligence and Maximus Confessor. Maximus Confessor’s cosmology is not the artificial intelligence cosmology with a spiritual dimension added, as a living organism is not a machine modified to use foodstuffs as fuel.
Why do I speak of the ‘artificial intelligence cosmology’? Surely one can have a long debate about artificial intelligence without adding cosmology to the discussion. This is true, but it is true because cosmology has become invisible, part of the assumed backdrop of discussion. In America, one cultural assumption is that ‘culture’ and ‘customs’ are for faroff and exotic people, not for ‘us’—’we’ are just being human. It doesn’t occur to most Americans to think of eating Turkey on Thanksgiving Day or removing one’s hat inside a building as customs, because ‘custom’ is a concept that only applies to exotic people. I suggest that Maximus Confessor has an interesting cosmology, not because he’s exotic, but because he’s human.
Artificial intelligence proponents and (most) critics do not differ on cosmology, but because that is because it is an important assumption which is not questioned even by most people who deny the possibility of artificial intelligence. Searle may disagree with Fodor about what is implied by a materialist cosmology, but not whether one should accept materialism. I suggest that some artificial intelligence critics miss the most interesting critiques of artificial intelligence because they share that project’s cosmology. If AI is based on a cosmological error, then no amount of fine-tuning within the system will rectify the error. We need to consider cosmology if we are to have any hope of correcting an error that basic. (Bad metaphysics does not create good physics.) I will describe Maximus Confessor’s cosmology in this section, not because he has cosmology and AI doesn’t, but because his cosmology seems to suggest a correction to the artificial intelligence cosmology.
At the base of Maximus’s cosmology is God. God holds the Principles in his heart, and they share something of his reality. Concrete beings (including us) are created through the Principles, and we share something of their reality and of God. The Principles are a more concrete realisation of God, and we are a more concrete realisation of the Principles. Thought (nohsis) means beholding God and the Principles ( logoi) through the eye of the intellect. Thinking of a tree means connecting with something that is more tree-like than the tree itself.
It may be easier to see what the important Principles in Maximus Confessor’s cosmology if we see how they are being dismantled today. Without saying that Church Fathers simply grafted in Platonism, I believe it safe to say that Plato resembled some of Church doctrine, and at any rate Plato’s one finger pointing up to God offers a closer approximation to Christianity than Aristotle’s fingers pointing down. I would suggest further that looking at Plato can suggest how Christianity differs from Aristotelianism’s materialistic tendencies, tendencies that are still unfolding today. Edelman describes the assumptions accompanying Darwin’s evolution as the ‘death blow’ to the essentialism, the doctrine that there are fixed kinds of things, as taught by Plato and other idealists. Edelman seems not to appreciate why so many biologists assent to punctuated equilibrium. However, if we assume that there is solid evidence establishing that all life gradually evolved from a common ancestor, then this remark is both apropos and perceptive.
When we look around, we see organisms that fit neatly into different classes: human, housefly, oak. Beginning philosophy students may find it quaint to hear of Plato’s Ideas, and the Ideal horse that is copied in all physical horses, but we tend to assume Platonism at least in that horses are similar ‘as if’ there were an Ideal horse: we don’t believe in the Ideal horse any more, but we still treat its shadow as if it were the Ideal horse’s shadowy copy.
Darwin’s theory of evolution suggests that all organisms are connected via slow, continuous change to a common ancestor and therefore to each other. If this is true, there are dire implications for Platonism. It is as if we had pictures of wet clay pottery, and posited a sharp divide between discrete classes of plates, cups, and bowls. Then someone showed a movie of a potter deforming one and the same clay from one shape to another, so that the divisions are now shown to be arbitrary. There are no discrete classes of vessels, just one lump of clay being shaped into different things. Here we are pushing a picture to the other end of a spectrum, further away from Platonism. It is a push from tacitly assuming there is a shadow, to expunging the remnant of belief in the horse and its shadow.
But this doesn’t mean we’re perfect Platonists, or can effortlessly appreciate the Platonic mindset. There are things we have to understand before we can travel in the other direction. If anything, there is more work involved. We act as if the Ideas’ shadows are real things, but we don’t genuinely believe in the shadows qua shadows, let alone the Ideas. We’ve simply inherited the habit of treating shadows as a convenient fiction. But Maximus Confessor believed the Principles (Ideas) represented something fuller and deeper than concrete things.
This is foundational to why Maximus Confessor would not have understood thought as manipulating mental representations in the inescapable privacy of one’s mind. Contemplation is not a matter of closing one’s eyes and fantasising, but of opening one’s eyes and beholding something deeper and more real than reality itself. The sensible reason can perceive the external physical world through the senses, but this takes a very different light from Kant’s view.
Maximus Confessor offers a genuinely interesting suggestion that we know things not only because of our power-to-know, but because of their power-to-be-known, an approach that I will explore later under the heading ‘Knowledge of the Immanent.’ The world is not purely transcendent, but immanent. For Kant the mind is a box that is hermetically sealed on top but has a few frustratingly small holes on the bottom: the senses. Maximus Confessor doesn’t view the senses very differently, but the top of the box is open.
This means that the intellect is most basically where one meets God. Its powerful ability to know truth is connected to this, and it connects with the Principles of things, as the senses connect with mere things. Is it fair to the senses to compare the intellect’s connection with Principles with the senses’ experience of physical things? The real question is not that, but whether it is fair to the intellect, and the answer is ‘no.’ The Principles are deeper, richer, and fuller than the mere visible things, as a horse is richer than its shadow. The knowledge we have through the intellect’s connection with the Principles is of a deeper and richer sort than what is merely inferred from the senses.
The Intelligible and the Sensible
Maximus Confessor lists, and connects, several linked pairs, which I have incorporated into a schema below. The first column of this schema relates to the second column along lines just illustrated: the first member of each pair is transcendent and eminent to the second, but also immanent to it.
|holy of holies||sanctuary (2.8-9)|
|spiritual wisdom||practical wisdom (5.13-15)|
|unforgettable knowledge||faith (5.58-60)|
|New Testament||Old Testament (6.4-6)|
|spiritual meaning of a text||literal meaning of a text (6.14-5)|
|bishop’s seating on throne||bishop’s entrance into Church (8.5-6, 20-21)|
|Christ’s return in glory||Christ’s first coming, glory veiled (8.6-7, 18)|
Maximus Confessor’s cosmology sees neither a disparate collection of unconnected things, nor an undistinguished monism that denies differences. Instead, he sees a unity that sees natures (1.16-17) in which God not only limits differences, as a circle limits its radii (1.62-67), but transcends all differences. Things may be distinguished, but they are not divided. This is key to understanding both doctrine and method. He identifies the world with a person, and connects the Church with the image of God. Doctrine and method are alike synthetic, which suggests that passages about his cosmology and ecclesiology illuminate anthropology.
One recurring theme shows in his treatment of heaven and earth, the soul and the body, the intelligible (spiritual) and the sensible (material). The intelligible both transcends the sensible, and is immanent to it, present in it. The intelligible is what can be apprehended by the part of us that meets God; the sensible is what presents itself to the world of senses. (The senses are not our only connection with the world.) This is a different way of thinking about matter and spirit from the Cartesian model, which gives rise to the ghost in the machine problem. Maximus Confessor’s understanding of spirit and matter does not make much room for this dilemma. Matter and spirit interpenetrate. This is true not just in us but in the cosmos, which is itself ‘human’: he considers ‘…the three people: the cosmos (let us say), the Holy Scriptures, and this is true with us’ (7.40-1). The attempt to connect spirit and matter might have struck him like an attempt to forge a link between fire and heat, two things already linked.
Knowledge of the Immanent
The word which I here render ‘thought’ is ‘nohsis‘, cognate to ‘intellect’ (‘nous‘) which has been discussed as that which is inseparably the home of thought and of meeting God. We already have a hint of a conceptual cast in which thought will be understood in terms of connection and contemplation.
In contrast to understanding thought as a process within a mind, Maximus describes thought in terms of a relationship: a thought can exist because there is a power to think of in the one thinking, and a power to be thought of in what is thought of. We could no more know an absolutely transcendent creature than we could know an absolutely transcendent Creator. Even imperfect thought exists because we are dealing with something that ‘holds power to be apprehended by the intellect’ (I.82). We say something is purple because its manifest purpleness meets our ability to perceive purple. What about the claim that purple is a mental experience arising from a certain wavelength of light striking our retinas? One answer that might be given is that those are the mechanisms by which purple is delivered, not the nature of what purple is. The distinction is important.
We may ask, what about capacity for fantasy and errors? The first response I would suggest is cultural. The birth of modernity was a major shift, and its abstraction introduced new things into the Western mind, including much of what supports our concept of fantasy (in literature, etc.). The category of fantasy is a basic category to our mindset but not to the patristic or medieval mind. Therefore, instead of speculating how Maximus Confessor would have replied to these objections, we can point out that they aren’t the sort of thing that he would ever think of, or perhaps even understand.
But in fact a more positive reply can be taken. It can be said of good and evil that good is the only real substance. Evil is not its own substance, but a blemish in good substance. This parallels error. Error is not something fundamentally new, but a blurred or distorted form of truth. Fantasy does not represent another fundamentally independent, if hypothetical, reality; it is a funhouse mirror refracting this world. We do not have a representation that exists in one’s mind alone, but a dual relationship that arises both from apprehending intellect and an immanent thing. The possibility of errors and speculation make for a longer explanation but need not make us discard this basic picture.
Intentionality and Teleology
One of the basic differences in cosmology between Maximus Confessor and our own day relates to intentionality. As it is described in cognitive science’s philosophy of mind, ‘intentionality’ refers to an ‘about-ness’ of human mental states, such as beliefs and emotions. The word ‘tree’ is about an object outside the mind, and even the word ‘pegasus’ evokes something that one could imagine existing outside of the mind, even if it does not. Intentionality does not exist in computer programs: a computer chess program manipulates symbols in an entirely self-enclosed system, so ‘queen’ cannot refer to any external person or carry the web of associations we assume. Intentionality presents a philosophical problem for artificial intelligence. Human mental states and symbol manipulation are about something that reach out to the external world, whilst computer symbol manipulation is purely internal. A computer may manipulate symbols that are meaningful to humans using it, but the computer has no more sense of what a webpage means than a physical book has a sense that its pages contain good or bad writing. Intentionality is a special feature of living minds, and does not exist outside of them. Something significant will be achieved if ever a computer program first embodies intentionality outside of a living mind.
Maximus Confessor would likely have had difficulty understanding this perspective as he would have had difficulty understanding the problem of the ghost in the machine: this perspective makes intentionality a special exception as the ghost in the machine made our minds’ interaction with our bodies a special exception, and to him both ‘exceptions’ are in fact the crowning jewel of something which permeates the cosmos.
The theory of evolution is symptomatic of a difference between the post-Enlightenment West and the patristic era. This theory is on analytic grounds not a true answer to the question, ‘Why is there life as we know it?’ because it does not address the question, ‘Why is there life as we know it?’ At best it is a true answer to the question, ‘How is there life as we know it?’ which people often fail to distinguish from the very different question, ‘Why is there life as we know it?’ The Enlightenment contributed to an effort to expunge all trace of teleology from causality, all trace of ‘Why?’ from ‘How?’ Of Aristotle’s four causes, only the efficient cause is familiar; a beginning philosophy student is liable to misconstrue Aristotle’s final cause as being an efficient cause whose effect curiously precedes the cause. The heavy teleological scent to final causation is liable to be missed at first by a student in the wake of reducing ‘why’ to ‘how’; in Maximus Confessor, causation is not simply mechanical, but tells what purpose something serves, what it embodies, what meaning and relationships define it, and why it exists.
Strictly speaking, one should speak of ‘scientific mechanisms’ rather than ‘scientific explanations.’ Why? ‘Scientific proof’ is an oxymoron: science does not deal in positive proof any more than mathematics deals in experiment, so talk of ‘scientific proof’ ordinarily signals a speaker who has more faith in science than understanding of what science really does. ‘Scientific explanation’ is a less blatant contradiction in terms, but it reflects a misunderstanding, perhaps one that is more widespread, as it often present among people who would never speak of ‘scientific proof.’ Talk of ‘scientific explanation’ is not simply careless speech; there needs to be a widespread category error before there is any reason to write a book like Mary Midgley’s Science as Salvation (1992). Science is an enterprise which provides mechanisms and has been given the cultural place of providing explanations. This discrepancy has the effect that people searching for explanations turn to scientific mechanisms, and may not be receptive when a genuine explanation is provided, because ‘explanation’ to them means ‘something like what science gives.’ This may not be the only factor, but it casts a long shadow. The burden of proof is born by anyone who would present a non-scientific explanation as being as real as a scientific explanation. An even heavier burden of proof falls on the person who would claim that a non-scientific explanation—not just as social construction, but a real claim about the external world—offers something that science does not.
The distinction between mechanism and explanation is also relevant because the ways in which artificial intelligence has failed may reflect mechanisms made to do the work of explanations. In other words, the question of ‘What is the nature of a human?’ is answered by, ‘We are able to discern these mental mechanisms in a human.’ If this is true, the failure to duplicate a human mind in computers may be connected to researchers answering the wrong question in the first place. These are different, as the question, ‘What literary devices can you find in The Merchant of Venice?’ is different from ‘Why is The Merchant of Venice powerful drama?’ The devices aren’t irrelevant, but neither are they the whole picture.
Of the once great and beautiful land of teleology, a land once brimming in explanations, all has been conquered, all has been levelled, all has been razed and transformed by the power of I-It. All except two stubborn, embattled holdouts. The first holdout is intentionality: if it is a category error to project things in the human mind onto the outer world, nonetheless we recognise that intentionality exists in the mind—but about-ness of intentionality is far less than the about-ness once believed to fill the cosmos. The second and last holdout is evolution: if there is to be no mythic story of origins that gives shape and meaning to human existence, if there cannot be an answer to ‘Why is there life as we know it?’ because there is no reason at all for life, because housefly, horse, and human are alike the by-product of mindless forces that did not have us in mind, nonetheless there is still an emaciated spectre, an evolutionary mechanism that does just enough work to keep away a teleological approach to origins questions. The land of teleology has been razed, but there is a similarity between these two remnants, placeholders which are granted special permission to do what even the I-It approach recognises it cannot completely remove of teleology. That is the official picture, at least. Midgley is liable to pester us with counterexamples of a teleology that is far more persistent than the official picture gives credit for: she looks at evolution doing the work of a myth instead of a placeholder that keeps myths away, for instance. Let’s ignore her for the moment and stick with the official version. Then looking at both intentionality and evolution can be instructive in seeing what has happened to teleology, and appreciating what teleology was and could be. Now Midgley offers us reasons why it may not be productive to pretend we can excise teleology: the examples of teleology she discusses do not seem to be improved by being driven underground and presented as non-teleological.
Maximus’s picture, as well as being teleological, is moral and spiritual. As well as having intentions, we are living manifestations of a teleological, moral and spiritual Intention in God’s heart. Maximus Confessor held a cosmology, and therefore an anthropology, that did not see the world in terms of disconnected and meaningless things. He exhibited a number of traits that the Enlightenment stripped out: in particular, a pervasive teleology in both cosmology and anthropology. He believed in a threefold anthropology of intellect/spirit, reason/soul, and body, all intimately tied together. What cognitive science accounts for through cognitive faculties, manipulating mental representations, were accounted for quite differently by an intellect that sees God and the Principles of beings, and a reason that works with the truths apprehended by intellect. The differences between the respective cosmologies and anthropologies are not the differences between two alternate answers to the same question, but answers to two different questions, differently conceived. They are alike in that they can collide because they are wrestling with the same thing: where they disagree, at least one of them must be wrong. They are different in that they are looking at the same aspect of personhood from two different cultures, and Maximus Confessor seems to have enough distance to provide a genuinely interesting critique.
Maximus Confessor was a synthetic thinker, and I suggest that his writings, which are synthetic both in method and in doctrine, are valuable not only because he was brilliant but because synthetic enquiry can be itself valuable. I have pursued a synthetic enquiry, not out of an attempt to be like Maximus Confessor, but because I think an approach that is sensitive to connections could be productive here. I’m not the only critic who has the resources to interpret AI as floundering in a way that may be symptomatic of a cosmological error. It’s not hard to see that many religious cosmologies offer inhospitable climates to machines that think: Foerst’s reinterpretation of the image of God seems part of an effort to avoid seeing exactly this point. The interesting task is understanding and conveying an interconnected web. So I have connected science with magic, for instance, because although the official version is that they’re completely unrelated, there is a strong historic link between them, and cultural factors today obscure the difference, and for that matter obscure several other things that interest us.
This dissertation falls under the heading of boundary issues between religion and science, and some readers may perceive me to approach boundary issues in a slightly different fashion. That perception is correct. One of the main ways that boundary issues are framed seems to be for Christian theologians to show the compatibility of their timeless doctrines with that minority of scientific theories which have already been accepted by the scientific community and which have not yet been rejected by that same community. With the question of origins, there has been a lot of work done to show that Christianity is far more compatible with evolutionary theory than a literal reading of Genesis 1 would suggest. It seems to have only been recently that gadflies within the intelligent design movement have suggested both that the scientific case for evolution is weaker that it has been made out to be, and there seems to be good reason to believe that Christianity and evolution are incompatible at a deep enough level that the literal details of Genesis 1 are almost superfluous. Nobody conceives the boundary issues to mean that theologians should demonstrate the compatibility of Christianity with that silent majority of scientific theories which have either been both accepted and discredited (like spontaneous generation) or not yet accepted (like the cognitive-theoretic model of the universe). The minority is different, but not as different as people often assume.
One of the questions which is debated is whether it is best to understand subject-matter from within or without. I am an M.Phil. student in theology with a master’s and an adjunct professorship in the sciences. I have worked to understand the sciences from within, and from that base look and understand science from without as well as within. Someone who only sees science from without may lack appreciation of certain things that come with experience of science, whilst someone who only sees science from within may not be able to question enough of science’s self-portrayal. This composite view may not be available to all, nor is it needed, but I believe it has helped me in another basic röle from showing religion’s compatibility with current science: namely, serving as a critical observer and raising important questions that science is itself unlikely to raise, sometimes turning a scientific assumption on its head. Theology may have other things to offer in its discussion with science than simply offering assent: instead of solely being the recipient of claims from science, it should be an agent which adds to the conversation.
Are there reasons why the position I propose is to be preferred? Science’s interpretation of the matter is deeply entrenched, enough so that it seems strange to connect science with the occult. One response is that this perspective should at least be listened to, because it is challenging a now entrenched cultural force, and it may be a cue to how we could avoid some of our own blind spots. Even if it is wrong, it could be wrong in an interesting way. A more positive response would be to say that this is by my own admission far from a complete picture, but it makes sense of part of the historical record that is meaningless if one says that modern science just happened to be born whilst a magical movement waxed strong, and some of science’s founders just happened to be magicians. A more robust picture would see the early modern era as an interlocking whole that encompassed a continuing Reformation, Descartes, magic, nascent science, and the wake of the Renaissance polymath. They all interconnect, even if none is fully determined. Lack of time and space preclude me from more than mentioning what that broader picture might be. There is also another reason to question the validity of science’s basic picture:
Artificial intelligence doesn’t work, at least not for a working copy of human intelligence.
Billions of dollars have been expended in the pursuit of artificial intelligence, so it is difficult to say the artificial intelligence project has failed through lack of funding. The project has attracted many of the world’s most brilliant minds, so it is difficult to say that the project has failed through lack of talent. Technology has improved a thousandfold or a millionfold since a giant like Turing thought computer technology was powerful enough for artificial intelligence, so it is difficult to say that today’s computers are too underpowered for artificial intelligence. Computer science has matured considerably, so it’s hard to say that artificial intelligence hasn’t had a chance to mature. In 1950, one could have posited a number of reasons for the lack of success then, but subsequent experience has made many of these possibilities difficult to maintain. This leaves open the possibility that artificial intelligence has failed because the whole enterprise is based on a false assumption, perhaps an error so deep as to be cosmological.
The power of science-based technology is a side effect of learning something significant about the natural world, and both scientific knowledge and technology are impressive cultural achievements. Yet science is not a complete picture—and I do not mean simply that we can have our own private fantasies—and science does not capture the spiritual qualities of matter, let alone a human being. The question of whether science understands mechanical properties of physical things has been put to the test, and the outcome is a resounding yes. The question of whether science understands enough about humans to duplicate human thought is also being put to the test, and when the rubber meets the road, the answer to that question looks a lot like, ‘No.’ It’s not definitive (it couldn’t be), but the picture so far is that science is trying something that can’t work. It can’t work because of spiritual principles, as a perpetual motion machine can’t work because of physical principles. It’s not a matter of insufficient resources available so far, or still needing to find the right approach. It doesn’t seem to be the sort of thing which could work.
We miss something about the artificial intelligence project if we frame it as something that began after computer scientists saw that computers can manipulate symbols. People have been trying to make intelligent computers for half a century, but artificial intelligence is a phenomenon that has been centuries in the making. The fact that people saw the brain as a telephone switchboard, when that was the new technology, is more a symptom than a beginning. There’s more than artificial intelligence’s surface resemblance to alchemists’ artificial person (‘homunculus’). A repeated feature of the occult enterprise is that you do not have people giving to society in the ways that people have always given to society; you have exceptional figures trying to delve into unexplored recesses and forge some new creation, some new power—some new technology or method—to achieve something mythic that has simply not been achieved before. The magus is endowed with a magic sword to powerfully slice through his day’s Gordian knots, and with a messianic fantasy. This is true of Leibniz’s Ars Combinatoria and it is true of more than a little of artificial intelligence. To the reader who suggests, ‘But magic doesn’t really work!’ I would point out that artificial intelligence also doesn’t really work—although its researchers find it to work, like Renaissance magi and modern neo-pagans. The vast gap between magic and science that exists in our imagination is a cultural prejudice rather than a historical conclusion. Some puzzles which emerge from an non-historical picture of science—in particular, why a discipline with modest claims about falsifying hypotheses is held in such awe—seem to make a lot more sense if science is investigated as a historical phenomenon partly stemming from magic.
If there is one unexpected theme running through this enquiry, it is what has emerged about relationships. The question of whether one relates to society (or the natural world) as to one’s mother or as to raw material, in I-Thou or I-It fashion, first crept in as a minor clarification. The more I have thought about it, the more significant it seems. The Renaissance magus distinguished himself from his medieval predecessors by converting I-Thou relationships into I-It. How is modern science different? To start with, it is much more consistent in pursuing I-It relationships. The fact that science gives mechanisms instead of explanations is connected; an explanation is an I-Thou thing, whilst a bare mechanism is I-It: if you are going to relate to the world in I-It fashion, there is every reason to replace explanations with mechanisms. An I-Thou relationship understands in a holistic, teleological fashion: if you are going to push an I-It relationship far enough, the obvious approach is to try to expunge teleology as the Enlightenment tried. A great many things about magus and scientist alike hinge on the rejection of Orthodoxy’s I-Thou relationship.
In Arthurian legend, the figure of Merlin is a figure who holds magical powers, not by spells and incantations, but by something deeper and fundamental. Merlin does not need spells and incantations because he relates to the natural world in a way that almost goes beyond I-Thou; he relates to nature as if it were human. I suggest that science provides a figure of an anti-Merlin who holds anti-magical powers, not by spells and incantations, but by something deeper and fundamental. Science does not need spells and incantations because it relates to the natural world and humans in a way that almost goes beyond I-It; it relates to even the human as if it were inanimate. In both cases, the power hinges on a relationship, and the power is epiphenomenal to that relationship.
If this is a problem, what all is to be done? Let me say what is not to be done. What is not to be done is to engineer a programme to enlist people in an I-Thou ideology. Why not? ‘I-Thou ideology’ is a contradiction in terms. The standard response of starting a political programme treats society as raw material to be transformed according to one’s vision—and I am not just disputing the specific content of some visions, but saying that’s the wrong way to start. Many of the obvious ways of ‘making a difference’ that present themselves to the modern mind work through an I-It relationship, calculating how to obtain a response from people, and are therefore tainted from the start. Does that mean that nothing is to be done? No; there are many things, from a walk of faith as transforming communion with God, to learning to relate to God, people, and the entire cosmos in I-Thou fashion, to using forms of persuasion that appeal to a whole person acting in freedom. But that is another thesis to explore.
I look back at this piece six years later, and see both real strengths and things I wince at. This was one of my first major works after being chrismated Orthodox, and while I am enthusiastic for Orthodoxy there are misunderstandings. My focus on cosmology is just one step away from Western, and in particular scientific, roots, and such pressure to get cosmology right is not found in any good Orthodox theologian I know. That was one of several areas where I had a pretty Western way of trying to be Orthodox, and I do not blame people who raise eyebrows at my heavy use of existentialist distinction between I-Thou and I-It relationship. And the amount of time and energy spent discussing magic almost deterred me from posting it from my website; for that reason alone, I spent time debating whether the piece was fit for human consumption. And it is possibly theology in the academic sense, but not so much the Orthodox sense: lots of ideas, cleverly put together, with little invitation to worship.
But for all this, I am still posting it. The basic points it raises, and much of the terrain, are interesting. There may be fewer true believers among scientists who still chase an artificial intelligence pot o’ gold, but it remain an element of the popular imagination and belief even as people’s interests turn more and more to finding a magic sword that will slice through society’s Gordian knots—which is to say that there may be something relevant in this thesis besides the artificial intelligence critique.
I am posting it because I believe it is interesting and adds something to the convesation. I am also posting it in the hope that it might serve as a sort of gateway drug to some of my more recent works, and provide a contrast: this is how I approached theology just after being received into Holy Orthodoxy, and other works show what I would present as theology having had more time to steep in Orthodoxy, such as The Arena.
I pray that God will bless you.
Augustine, In Euangelium Ioannis Tractatus, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series I, Volume VII, Edinburgh: T & T Clarke, 1888.
Bianchi, Massimo Luigi, Signatum Rerum: Segni, Magia e Conoscenza da Paracelso a Leibniz, Edizioni dell’Ateneo, 1987.
Buber, Martin, Ich und Du, in Werke,Erster Band Schriften zur Philosophie, Heidelberg: Kösel-Verlag, 1962, 79-170.
Caroll, Lewis, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Cambridge: Candlewick Press, 2003.
Dixon, Thomas, ‘Theology, Anti-Theology and Atheology: From Christian Passions to Secular Emotions,’ in Modern Theology, Vol 15, No 3, Oxford: Blackwell 1999, 297-330.
Dreyfus, Hubert L., What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason, London: MIT Press, 1992.
Edelman, Gerald, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, New York: BasicBooks, 1992.
Fodor, Jerry, In Critical Condition: Polemical Essays on Cognitive Science and the Philosophy of Mind, London: MIT Press, 1998.
Foerst, Anne, ‘Cog, a Humanoid Robot, and the Question of the Image of God,’ in Zygon 33, no. 1, 1998, 91-111.
Gibson, William, Neuromancer, New York: Ace, 2003.
Harman, Gilbert, ‘Some Philosophical Issues in Cognitive Science: Qualia, Intentionality, and the Mind-Body Problem,’ in Posner 1989, pp. 831-848.
Hebb, D.O. Organization of Behavior: A Neuropsychological Theory, New York: Wiley, 1949.
Johnson, Paul, Intellectuals, New York: Perennial, 1990.
Layton, Bentley, The Gnostic Scriptures: Ancient Wisdom for the New Age, London: Doubleday, 1987.
Lee, Philip J., Against the Protestant Gnostics, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
VanLehn, Kurt, ‘Problem Solving and Cognitive Skill Acquisition,’ in Posner 1989, pp. 527-580.
Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm, Frieherr von, Ars Combinatoria, Francofurti: Henri Christopher Cröckerum, 1690.
Lewis, C.S., The Abolition of Man, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1950-6.
Lewis, C.S., That Hideous Strength, London: MacMillan, 1965.
Lewis, C.S., The Chronicles of Narnia, London: Harper Collins, 2001.
Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess Worshippers and Other Pagans in America Today (Revised and Expanded Edition), Boston: Beacon Press, 1986,
Maximus Confessor, Capita Gnosticae (Capita Theologiae et OEconomiae), in Patrologiae Graeca 90: Maximus Confessor, Tome I, Paris: Migne, 1860, 1083-1462.
Maximus Confessor; Berthold, George (tr.), Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings, New York, Paulist Press,, 1985.
Maximus Confessor, Mystagogia, as published at Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/inst/browser?uid=&lang=eng&work=2892049&context=21&rawescs=N&printable=N&betalink=Y&filepos=0&outline=N&GreekFont=Unicode. Citations from the Mystagogia will be referenced by chapter and line number as referenced by Thesaurus Linguae Graecae.
Midgley, Mary, Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and Its Meaning, London: Routledge, 1992.
More, Thomas, Thomas More: Utopia, Digitale Rekonstruktion (online scan of 1516 Latin version), http://www.ub.uni-bielefeld.de/diglib/more/utopia/, as seen on 2 June 2004.
Norman, Donald, The Invisible Computer, London: MIT Press, 1998.
Norman, Donald, Things That Make Us Smart, Cambridge: Perseus 1994.
Von Neumann, John, The Computer and the Brain, London: Yale University Press, 1958.
Polanyi, Michael, Personal Knowledge, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.
Posner, Michael I. (ed.), Foundations of Cognitive Science, London: MIT, 1989.
Pseudo-Dionysius; Luibheid, Colm (tr.), Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, New York: Paulist Press, 1987.
Puddefoot, John, God and the Mind Machine: Computers, Artificial Intelligence and the Human Soul, London: SPCK1996.
Read, John, ‘Alchimia e magia e la ”separazione delle due vie”,’ in Cesare Vasoli (ed.), Magia e scienza nella civilté umanistica, Bologna: Societé editrice il Mulino 1976, 83-108.
Sacks, Oliver, The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Basingstroke: Picador, 1985.
Searle, John, Minds, Brains, and Science, London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1984.
Searle, John, The Mystery of Consciousness, London: Granta Books, 1997.
Shakespeare, William, The Merchant of Venice, as seen on the Project Gutenberg archive at http://www.gutenberg.net/etext97/1ws1810.txt on 15 June 2004.
Skinner, B. F., Walden Two, New York: Macmillan, 1948.
Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England, Letchworth: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971.
Turing, Alan M., ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence,’ in Mind 49, 1950, pp. 433-60, as seen at http://cogprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/archive/00000499/00/turing.html on 25 Feb 04.
Watts, Fraser, ‘Artificial Intelligence’ in Psychology and Theology, Aldercroft: Ashgate, 2002.
Webster, Charles, From Paracelsus to Newton: Magic and the Making of Modern Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Yates, Frances A., The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, London: Routledge, 1979.
Yates, Frances A., Selected Works, Volume III: The Art of Memory, London: Routledge, 1966, as reprinted 1999.
 These neural nets are modelled after biological neural nets but are organised differently and seem to take the concept of a neuron on something of a tangent from its organisation and function in a natural brain, be it insect or human.
 Cog, http://www.ai.mit.edu/projects/humanoid-robotics-group/cog/images/cog-rod-slinky.gif, as seen on 11 June 2004 (enlarged).
 2002, 50-1.
 Searle 1998, Edelman 1992, etc., including some of Dreyfus 1992. Edelman lists Jerome Brunner, Alan Gauld, Claes von Hofsten, George Lakoff, Ronald Langaker, Ruth Garrett Millikan, Hilary Putnam, John Searle, and Benny Shannon as convergent members of a realist camp (1992, 220).
 Lee 1987, 6.
 ‘Intentionality’ is a philosophy of mind term for the ‘about-ness’ of mental states.
 By ‘teleology’ I understand in a somewhat inclusive sense that branch of theology and philosophy that deals with goals, ends, and ultimate meanings.
 ‘Cognitive faculty’ is a philosophy of mind conception of a feature of the human mind that operates on mental representations to perform a specific function.
 The spiritual ‘intellect’ is a patristic concept that embraces thought, conceived on different terms from ‘cognitive science,’ and is inseparably the place where a person meets God. Augustine locates the image of God in the intellect (In Euangelium Ioannis Tractatus, III.4), and compares the intellect to Christ as illuminating both itself and everything else (In Euangelium Ioannis Tractatus, XLVII, 3).
 C.S. Lewis critiques this project in The Abolition of Man (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1965). He does not address the question of whether this is a possible goal, but argues that it is not a desirable goal: the glorious future it heralds is in fact a horror compared to the present it so disparages.
 Encyclopedia Mythica, ‘Rabbi Loeb,’ http://www.pantheon.org/articles/r/rabbi_loeb.html, as seen on 26 Mar 04.
 Foerst 1998, 109 also brings up this archetypal tendency in her conclusion.
 United States Postal Service 2003 annual report, http://www.usps.com/history/anrpt03/html/realkind.htm, as seen on 6 May 2004.
 Cog, as seen on http://www.ai.mit.edu/projects/humanoid-robotics-group/cog/images/scaz-cog.gif, on 6 May 2004 (enlarged).
 2002, 57.
 Cog, ‘Theory of Mind for a Humanoid Robots,’ http://www.ai.mit.edu/projects/humanoid-robotics/group/cog/Abstracts2000/scaz.pdf, as seen on 6 May 2004.
 Adler 1986, 319-321.
 1992, 161-4.
 Utopias are often a satire more than a prescription literally conceived, but they are also far more prescriptive than one would gather from a simple statement that they are satire.
 Turing 1950.
 VanLehn 1989, in Posner 1989, 532.
 Ibid. in Posner 1989, 534.
 1998, 101.
 1992, 159.
 Foerst 1998, 103.
 Turing 1950.
 Hebb 1949, as quoted in the Linux ‘fortune’ program.
 Nominalism said that general categories are something in the mind drawn from real things, and not something things themselves arise from. This has profoundly shaped the course of Western culture.
 Lewis 1943, 46.
 Yates 1966, 380-382.
 Without submitting to the Church in the usual way, the magus is equal to its highest members (Webster 1982, 57).
 George Mason University’s Modern & Classical Languages, ‘Pico della Mirandola: Oratio de hominis dignitate,’ http://www.gmu.edu/departments/fld/CLASSICS/mirandola.oratio.html, as seen on 18 May 2004. See Poim 27-9, CH7 1-2 in Bentley 1987 for texts reflecting an understanding of the world as evil and associated contempt for the hoi polloi.
 Thomas More: Utopia, Digitale Rekonstruktion, http://www.ub.uni-bielefeld.de/cgi-bin/button.cgi?pfad=/diglib/more/utopia/jpeg/&seite=00000017.jpg&jump=1, http://www.ub.uni-bielefeld.de/cgi-bin/button.cgi?pfad=/diglib/more/utopia/jpeg/&seite=00000018.jpg&jump=1, etc. (pp. 35-6), as seen on 2 June 2004.
 Thomas More: Utopia, Digitale Rekonstruktion, http://www.ub.uni-bielefeld.de/cgi-bin/button.cgi?pfad=/diglib/more/utopia/jpeg/&seite=00000039.jpg&jump=1, http://www.ub.uni-bielefeld.de/cgi-bin/button.cgi?pfad=/diglib/more/utopia/jpeg/&seite=00000040.jpg&jump=1, etc., (pp. 79-86), as seen on 2 June 2004. This runs through most of the book.
 Lewis 1943, 46.
 Ibid., 33-35.
 Ibid., 23-24.
 Ibid., 295-299.
 See Midgley, 1992, 80.
 1990, 195, 197-224,337-41.
 References will be to the online Greek version at Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/inst/wsearch?wtitle=2892+049&uid=&GreekFont=Unicode&mode=c_search, according to chapter and line. Unless otherwise specified, references in this section will be to the Mystagogia.
 5.1-10. ‘Intellect’ in particular is used as a scholarly rendering of the Greek ‘nous,’ and is not equivalent to the layman’s use of ‘intellect,’ particularly not as cognate to ‘intelligence.’ The ‘reason’ (‘logos‘) is closer to today’s use of the term, but not as close as you might think. This basic conceptualisation is common to other patristic and medieval authors, such as Augustine.
 1992, 239.
 ‘Punctuated equilibrium’ is a variant on Darwin’s theory of (gradual) evolution. It tries to retain an essentially Darwinian mechanism whilst acknowledging a fossil record and other evidence which indicate long periods of stability interrupted by the abrupt appearance and disappearance of life forms. It is called ‘punk eek’ by the irreverent.
 I.82. Material from the Capita Gnosticae, not available in Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, will be referenced by century and chapter number, i.e. I.82 abbreviates Century I, Chapter 82.
 See Lewis 2001, 522.
 What we usually mean by ’cause’ today: something which mechanically brings about its effect, as time and favourable conditions cause an acorn to grow into an oak.
 The ‘final cause’ is the goal something is progressing towards: thus a mature oak is the final cause of the acorn that would one day grow into it.
 As seen on the Project Gutenberg archive at http://www.gutenberg.net/etext97/1ws1810.txt on 15 June 2004.
 1992, 147-165.
 1998, 104-7.
Revisited after some time
Someone said that a memo is written, not to inform the reader, but to protect the sender.
There is something wrong when employees receive so much allegedly mandatory reading material that if they were actually to sit down and read it as told, they wouldn’t get other work done. And it is entirely inappropriate to demand that people without significant legal acumen claim to have read and understood a contract. Really, contracts are rightly understood only if you understand the tradition surrounding how they are interpreted. That means that unless (or possibly even if) you are a lawyer (or else a hobbyist who may not legally be licensed to practice but who is fascinated at learning how law works), you don’t understand the contract. This is, incidentally, why there’s the website tosdr.org (“Terms of Service – Didn’t Read“).
That much I still believe. However, I believe there was some nasty pride in expecting the business world to meet what I consider reasonable. The normal way of dealing with things is to not read, or to read just enough. And that is why in my first job with over a quarter inch of daily allegedly mandatory reading, I should just have listened to a colleague gently tell me that I didn’t have to read that.
I’ve worked on humility a little bit since then.
Once upon a time, there was a new employee, hired fresh out of college by a big company. The first day on the job, he attended a pep rally, filled out paperwork concerning taxes and insurance, and received a two page document that said at the top, “Sexual Harassment Policy: Important. Read Very Carefully!”
So our employee read the sexual harassment policy with utmost care, and signed at the bottom indicating that he had read it. The policy was a remedial course in common sense, although parts of it showed a decided lack of common sense. It was an insult to both his intelligence and his social maturity.
Our employee was slightly puzzled as to why he was expected to read such a document that carefully, but soon pushed doubts out of his mind. He trotted over to his new cubicle, sat down, and began to read the two inch thick manual on core essentials that every employee needs to know. He was still reading core essentials two hours later when his boss came by and said, “Could you take a break from that? I want to introduce you to your new co-workers, and show you around.”
So our employee talked with his boss — a knowledgeable, competent, and understanding woman — and enjoyed meeting his co-workers, trying to learn their names. He didn’t have very much other work yet, so he dutifully read everything that the administrators sent him — even the ones that didn’t say “Important — please read” at the top. He read about ISO 9001 certification, continual changes and updates to company policy, new technologies that the company was adopting, employee discounts, customer success stories, and other oddments totalling to at least a quarter inch of paper each day, not counting e-mails.
His boss saw that he worked well, and began to assign more difficult tasks appropriate to his talent. He took on this new workload while continuing to read everything the administration told him to read, and worked longer and longer days.
One day, a veteran came and put a hand on his shoulder, saying, “Kid, just between the two of us, you don’t have to read every piece of paper that says ‘Important’ at the top. None of us read all that.”
And so our friend began to glance at the first pages of long memos, to see if they said anything helpful for him to know, and found that most of them did not. Some time after that, he realized that his boss or one of his co-workers would explicitly tell him if there was a memo that said something he needed to know. The employee found his workload reduced to slightly less than fifty hours per week. He was productive and happy.
One day, a memo came. It said at the top, “Important: Please Read.” A little more than halfway through, on page twenty-seven, there was a description of a new law that had been passed, and how it required several jobs (including his own) to be done in a slightly different manner. Unfortunately, our friend’s boss was in bed with a bad stomach flu, and so she wasn’t able to tell him he needed to read the memo. So he continued doing his job as usual.
A year later, the company found itself the defendant in a forty million dollar lawsuit, and traced the negligence to the action of one single employee — our friend. He was fired, and made the central villain in the storm of bad publicity.
But he definitely was in the wrong, and deserved what was coming to him. The administration very clearly explained the liability and his responsibility, in a memo very clearly labelled “Important”. And he didn’t even read the memo. It’s his fault, right?
Every communication that is sent to a person constitutes an implicit claim of, “This concerns you and is worth your attention.” If experience tells other people that we lie again and again when we say this, then what right do we have to be believed when we really do have something important to say?
I retold the story of the boy who cried wolf as the story of the administrator who cried important, because administrators are among the worst offenders, along with lawyers, spammers, and perhaps people who pass along e-mail forwards. Among the stack of paper I was expected to sign when I moved in to my apartment was a statement that I had tested my smoke detector. The apartment staff was surprised that I wanted to test my smoke detector before signing my name to that statement. When an authority figure is surprised when a person reads a statement carefully and doesn’t want to sign a claim that all involved know to be false, it’s a bad sign.
There is communication that concerns the person it’s directed to, but says too much — for example, most of the legal contracts I’ve seen. The tiny print used to print many of those contracts constitutes an implicit acknowledment that the signer is not expected to read it: they don’t even use the additional sheets of paper necessary to print text at a size that a person who only has 20/20 vision can easily read. There is also communication that is broadcast to many people who have no interest in it. To that communication, I would propose the following rule: Do not, without exceptionally good reason, broadcast a communication that concerns only a minority of its recipients. It’s OK every now and then to announce that the blue Toyota with license place ABC 123 has its lights on. It’s not OK to have a regular announcement that broadcasts anything that is approved as having interest to some of the recipients.
My church, which I am in general very happy with, has succumbed to vice by adding a section to the worship liturgy called “Announcements”, where someone reads a list of events and such just before the end of the service, and completely dispels the moment that has been filling the sanctuary up until the announcements start. They don’t do this with other things — the offering is announced by music (usually good music) that contributes to the reverent atmosphere of the service. But when the service is drawing to a close, the worshipful atmosphere is disrupted by announcements which I at least almost never find useful. If the same list were printed on a sheet of paper, I could read it after the service, in less time, with greater comprehension, with zero disruption to the moment that every other part of the service tries so carefully to build — and I could skip over any announcements that begin “For Married Couples:” or “Attention Junior High and High Schoolers!” The only advantage I can see to the present practice, from the church leadership’s perspective, is that many people will not read the announcements at all if they have a choice about it — and maybe, just maybe, there’s a lesson in that.
As well as pointing out examples of a rampant problem in communication, where an administrator cries “Important!” over many things that are not worth reading, and then wonders why people don’t believe him when he cries “Important!” about something which isimportant, I would like to suggest an alternative for communities that have access to the internet. A web server could use a form to let people select areas of concern and interest, and announcements submitted would be categorized, optionally cleared with a moderator, and sent only to those people who are interested in them. Another desirable feature might let end receivers select how much announcement information they can receive in a day — providing a discernible incentive to the senders to minimize trivial communication. In a sense, this is what happens already — intercom litanies of announcements ignored by school students in a classroom, employees carrying memos straight from their mailboxes to the recycle bins — but in this case, administrators receive clear incentive and choice to conserve bandwidth and only send stuff that is genuinely important.
While I’m giving my Utopian dreams, I’d like to comment that at least some of this functionality is already supported by the infrastructure developed by UseNet. Probably there are refinements that can be implemented in a web interface — all announcements for one topic shown from a single web page, since they shouldn’t be nearly as long as a normal UseNet post arguing some obscure detail in an ongoing discussion. Perhaps other and better can be done — I am suggesting “Here’s something better than the status quo,” not “Here’s something so perfect that there’s no room for improvement.”
In one UseNet newsgroup, an exchange occurred that broadcasters of announcements would be well-advised to keep in mind. One person said, “I’m trying to decide whether to give the UseNet Bore of the Year Award to [name] or [name]. The winner will receive, as his prize, a copy of all of their postings, minutely inscribed, and rolled up inside a two foot poster tube.”
Someone else posted a reply asking, “Length or diameter?”
To those of you who broadcast to people whom you are able to address because of your position and not because they have chosen to receive your broadcasts, I have the following to say: In each communication you send, you are deciding the basis by which people will decide if future communications are worth paying attention to, or just unwanted noise. If your noise deafens their ears, you have no right to complain that the few truly important things you have to tell them fall on deaf ears. Only you can prevent spam!
Surgeon General’s Warning
I’m leaving this work up as a spectacular example of my barking up the wrong tree.
Some time centuries past, it was fashionable as a sort of rite of passage to create your “own art of memory,” as there were other times when it was fashionable to produce a new proof to a particular well-known theorem (the Pythagorean theorem). And this marks a spectacular effort to resurrect that dead fashion, even if I’m not sure it’s learnable enough to be useful. It also represents, to my knowledge, the first art of memory specifically optimized to work gracefully with abstractions, a point on which I have found little competition.
It also falls entirely into Barlaam’s domain, where in one defining moment for the Orthodox Church, the champion of Orthodox hesychasm St. Gregory Palamas engaged the champion of Renaissance man secular learning Barlaam, and the Orthodox Church decisively recognized that the hesychastic or silent tradition still living in the East was its norm, and the Western book learning that puts logic behind the wheel has no place in living Orthodoxy.
I am leaving this up as an example of my being wrong, and as a point of hope that someone wrong may still be brought to saving grace.
Abstract. Author briefly describes classic mnemotechnics, indicates a possible weakness in their ability to deal with abstractions, and suggests a parallel development of related principles designed to work well with abstractions.
Frances Yates opens The Art of Memory with a tale from ancient Greece:
At a banquet given by a nobleman of Thessaly named Scopas, the poet Simonides of Ceos chanted a lyric poem in honor of his post but including a passage in praise of Castor and Pollux. Scopas meanly told the poet that he would only pay him half the sum agreed upon for the panegyric and that he must obtain the balance from the twin gods to whom he had devoted half the poem. A little later, a message was brought in to Simonides that two young men were waiting outside who wished to see him. He rose from the banquet and went out but could find no one. During his absence the roof of the banqueting hall fell in, crushing Scopas and all the guests beneath the ruins; the corpses were so mangled that the relatives who came to take them away for burial were unable to identify them. But Simonides remembered the places at which they had been sitting at the table and was therefore able to indicate to the relatives which were their dead.
After his spatial memory in this event, Simonides is credited with having created an art of memory: start with a building full of distinct places. If you want to remember something, imagine a striking image with a token of what you wish to remember at the place. To recall something naval, you might imagine a giant nail driven into your front door, with an anchor hanging from it; if you visualize this intensely, then when in your mind’s eye you go through your house and imagine your front door, then the anchor will come to mind and you will remember the boats. Imagining a striking image on a remembered place is called pegging: when you do this, you fasten a piece of information on a given peg, and can pick it up later. Yates uses the terms art of memory and artificial memory as essentially interchangeable with mnemotechnics, and I will follow a similar usage.
There is a little more than this to the technique, and it allows people to do things that seem staggering to someone not familiar with the phenomenon. Being able to look at a list of twenty items and recite it forwards and backwards is more than a party trick. The technique is phenomenally well-adapted to language acquisition. It is possible for a person skilled in the technique to learn to read a language in weeks. It is the foundation to some people learning an amount of folklore so that today they would be considered walking encyclopedias. This art of memory was an important part of the ancient Greek rhetorical tradition, drawn by medieval Europe into the cardinal virtue of wisdom, and then transformed into an occult art by the Renaissance. Medieval and renaissance variations put the technique to vastly different use, and understood it to signify greatly different things, but outside of Lullism and Ramism, the essential technique was the same.
In my own efforts to learn the classical form of the art of memory, I have noticed something curious. I’m better at remembering people’s names, and I no longer need to write call numbers down when I go to the library. I was able, without difficulty, to deliver an hour-long speech from memory. Learning vocabulary for foreign languages has come much more quickly; it only took me about a month to learn to read the Latin Vulgate. My weaknesses in memory are not nearly so great as they were, and I know other people have been much better at the art than I am. At the same time, I’ve found one surprise, something different from the all-around better memory I suspected the art would give me. What is it? If there is a problem, it is most likely subtle: the system has obvious benefits. To tease it out, I’d like to recall a famous passage from Plato’s Phaedrus:
Socrates: At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis was sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days Thamus was the king of the whole of Upper Egypt, which is in the district surrounding that great city which is called by the Hellenes Egyptian Thebes, and they call the god himself Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he went through them, and Thamus inquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. There would be no use in repeating all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; for this is the cure of forgetfulness and folly. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, he who has the gift of invention is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance a paternal love of your own child has led you to say what is not the fact: for this invention of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters. You have found a specific, not for memory but for reminiscence, and you give your disciples only the pretence of wisdom; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome, having the reputation of knowledge without the reality.
There is clear concern that writing is not what it appears, and it will endanger or destroy the knowledge people keep in memory; a case can be made that the phenomenon of Renaissance artificial memory as an occult practice occurred because only someone involved in the occult would have occasion to keep such memory after books were so easily available.
What kind of things might one wish to have in memory? Let me quote one classic example: the argument by which Cantor proved that there are more real numbers between 0 and 1 than there are counting numbers (1, 2, 3…). I paraphrase the basic argument here:
- Two sets are said to have the same number of elements if you can always pair them up, with nothing left over on either side. If one set always has something left over after the matching up, it has more elements.
- Suppose, for the sake of argument, that there are at least as many counting numbers as real numbers between 0 and 1. Then you can make a list of the numbers between 0 and 1:
1: .012343289889... 2: .328932198323... 3: .438724328743... 4: .988733287923... 5: .324432003442... 6: .213443765001... 7: .321010320030... 8: .323983213298... 9: .982133982198... 10: .321932198904... 11: .000321321278... 12: .032103217832...
- Now, take the first decimal place of the first number, the second of the second number, and so on and so forth, and make them into a number:
1: .012343289889... 2: .328932198323... 3: .438724328743... 4: .988733287923... 5: .324432003442... 6: .213443765001... 7: .321010320030... 8: .323983213298... 9: .982133982198... 10: .321932198904... 11: .000321321278... 12: .032103217832...
- Now make another number between 0 and 1 that is different at every decimal place from the number just computed:
- Now, remember that we assumed that the list has all the numbers between 0 and 1: every single one, without exception. Therefore, if this assumption is true, then the latter number we constructed must be on the list. But where?The number can’t be the first number on the list, because it was constructed to be different at the first decimal place from the first number on the list. It can’t be the second number on the list, because it was constructed to be different at the second decimal place from the second number on the list. Nor can it be the third, fourth, fifth… in fact, it can’t be anywhere on the list because it was constructed to be different. So we have one number left over. (Can we put that number on the list? Certainly, but the argument shows that the new list will leave out another number.)
- The list of numbers between 0 and 1 doesn’t have all the numbers between 0 and 1.
- We have a contradiction.
- We started by assuming that you can make a list that contains all the numbers between 0 and 1, but there’s a contradiction: any list leaves numbers left over. Therefore, our assumption must be wrong. Therefore, there must be too many real numbers between 0 and 1 to assign a separate counting number to each of them.
Let’s say we want to commit this argument to memory. A mathematician with artificial memory might say, “That’s easy! You just imagine a chessboard with distorted mirrors along its diagonal.” That is indeed a good image if you are a mathematician who already understands the concept. If you find the argument hard to follow, it is at best a difficult thing to store via the artificial memory. Even if it can be done, storing this argument in artificial memory is probably much more trouble than learning it as a mathematician would.
Let me repeat the quotation from the Phaedrus, while changing a few words:
Jefferson: At the Greek region of Thessaly, there was a famous old poet, whose name was Simonides; totems seen with the inner eye were devoted to him, and he was the inventor of a great art, greater than arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts. Now in those days Rousseau was a sage revered throughout the West, and they called the god himself Rationis. To him came Simonides and showed his invention, desiring that the rest of the world might be allowed to have the benefit of it; he went through it, and Rousseau inquired about its several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. There would be no use in repeating all that Rousseau said to Simonides in praise or blame of various facets. But when they came to inner writing, This, said Simonides, will make the West wiser and give it better memory; for this is the cure of forgetfulness and of folly. Rousseau replied: O most ingenious Simonides, he who has the gift of invention is not always the best judge of utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance a paternal love of your own child has led you to say what is not the fact; for this invention will create forgetfulness in the learner’s souls, because they will not remember abstract things; they will trust to mere mnemonic symbols and not remember things of depth. You have found a specific, not for memory but for reminiscence, and you give your disciples only the pretence of wisdom; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome, having the reputation and outer shell of knowledge without the reality of deep thought.
It is clear that if we follow Thomas Aquinas’s instructions on memory to visualize a woman for wisdom, we may recall wisdom. What is less clear is that this inner writing particularly helps an abstract recollection of wisdom. It may be able to recall an understanding of wisdom acquired without the help of artificial memory, but this art which allows at times stunning performance in the memorization of concrete data is of more debatable merit in learning abstraction. It has been my own experience that abstractions can be forced through the gate of concreteness in artificial memory, but it is like forcing a sponge through a funnel. While I admittedly don’t have a medieval practitioner’s inner vocabulary to deal with abstractions, using the artificial memory to deal with abstractions seems awkward in much the same way that storing individual letters through artificial memory is awkward. The standard artificial memory is a tool for being reminded of abstractions, but not for remembering them. It offers the abstract thinker a seductive way to recall a great many concrete facts instead of learning deep thought.
The overall impression I receive of the artificial memory is not so much a failed attempt at a tool to store abstractions as a successful attempt at a concrete tool which was not intended to store abstractions. It is my belief that some of its principles, in modified form, suggest the beginnings of an art of memory well-fitted to dealing with abstractions. The mature form of such an endeavor will not simply be an abstract mirror image of a concrete artificial memory, but it is appropriate enough for the first steps I might hazard.
Consider the following four paragraphs:
- Physics is like music. Both owe something of substance to the Pythagoreans. Both are aesthetic endeavors that in some way represent nature in highly abstracted form. Both are interested in mechanical waves. Many good physicists are closet musicians, and all musical instruments operate on physical principle.
- Physics is like literature. Both are written in books that vary from moderately easy to very hard. Both deal with a distinction between action and what is acted on, be it plot and character or force and particle, and both allow complex entities to be built of simpler ones. Practitioners of both want to be thought of as insightful people who understand reality.
- Physics is like an adventure. Both involve a venture into the unknown, where the protagonist tries to discover what is happening. Both have a mystique that exists despite most people’s fear to experience such things themselves. To succeed in either, one is expected to have impressive strengths.
- Physics is like magic. Both flourished in the West, at the same time, out of the same desire: a desire to understand nature so as to control it. Both attract abstract thinkers, are practiced in part through the manipulation of arcane symbols, and may be found in the same person, from Newton to Feynman. Magical theory claims matter to be composed of earth, air, fire, and water, while physics finds matter to be composed of solid, liquid, gas, and plasma.
What is the merit of these comparisons? They recall a story in which a literature professor asked Feynman if he thought physics was like literature. Feynman led him on with an elaborate analogy of how physics was like literature, and then said, “But it seems to me you can make such an analogy between any two subjects, so I don’t find such analogies helpful.” He observed that one can make a reasonably compelling analogy even if there’s no philosophically substantial connection.
The laws of logic and philosophy are not the laws of memory. What is a liability to Feynman’s implicit philosophical method is a strength to memory. The philosophical merit of the above comparisons is debatable. The benefit to memory is different: it appears to me that this is an abstract analogue to pegging. A connection, real or spurious, aids the memory even if it doesn’t aid a rigorous philosophical understanding. In pegging, it is considered an advantage to visualize a ludicrously illogical scene: it is much more memorable than something routine and sensible. Early psychological experiments in memory involved memorization of nonsense syllables. The experimenters intentionally chose meaningless material to memorize. Why? Well, if the subject perceived meaning, that would provide a spurious way for the subject to remember the data, and so proper Ebbinghausian memory study meant investigating how people investigate memory material which was as meaningless as possible. Without pausing to develop an obvious critique, I’d suggest that this spurious route to memory is of great interest to us. Meaningful data is more memorable than meaningless, and this is true whether the meaning perceived is philosophically sound or obviously contrived. I might suggest that interesting meaning provides a direct abstract parallel to the striking, special-effect appearance of effective images in pegging.
I intentionally chose not to compare physics to astronomy, chemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics, metaphysics, or statistics, because I wanted to show how a different concept can be used to establish connections to a new one. Or, more properly, different concepts. Having a new concept connected to three very different ones will capture different facets than one anchor point, and possibly cancel out some of each other’s biases. A multiplicity of perspectives lends balance and depth. This isn’t to say similar concepts can’t be used, only that searching for a partial or full isomorphism to a known concept is easier than encoding from scratch. If memorable connections can be made between physics and adventure, music, English, and magic, what might be obtained from comparison with mathematics, chemistry, and engineering? A comparison between physics and these last three disciplines is left as an exercise to the reader, and one that may be quite fruitful.
Is this a desirable way to remember things? I would make two different comments on this score. First, when learning Latin words, I would first peg it to an English word with a vivid image, then later recall the image and reconstruct the English equivalent, then recall the image and remember the English, then the image would drop out so I would directly remember the English, and finally the English word would drop out too, leaving me with a Latin usage often different from the English equivalent used. Artificial memory does not circumvent natural memory; instead it streamlines the process and short-circuits many of the disruptive trips to the dictionary. Pegs vanish with use; they are not an alternate final product but a more efficient route for concepts more frequently used, and a cache of reference material. Therefore, even if remembered comparisons between physics and adventure/music/English/magic fall short of how one would desire to understand the concept, a similar flattening of the learning curve is possible. Second, I would say that even if you fail to peg something, you may succeed. How? In trying to peg a person’s name, I hold that name and face in an intense focus—quite the opposite how I once reacted: “I’ll never remember that,” a belief which chased other people’s names out of my mind in seconds. That focus is relevant to memory, and it has happened more than once that I completely failed to create a peg, but my failure used enough mental energy that I still remembered. If you search through your memory and fail to make even forced connections between a new concept and existing concepts, the mental focus given to the concept will leave you much better off than if you had thrown up your hands and thought the self-fulfilling prophecy: “I will never remember that!”
Certain kinds of emotional intelligence are part of the discipline. Learning to cultivate presence has to do with an emotional side, and I have written elsewhere about activities that can help to cultivate such presence. We learn material better if we are interested in it; therefore consciously cultivating an interest in the material and seeing how it can be fascinating is another edge. Cultivating and guarding your inner emotional state can have substantial impact on memory and learning abstractions. Much of it has to do with keeping a state of presence. Shutting out abstractions is one obvious way to do this; another, perhaps less obvious, is to avoid cramming and simply ploughing through material unless it’s something you don’t really need to learn. Why?
If there is a sprinkler that disperses a fine mist, it will slowly moisten the ground. What if there’s a high-volume sprinkler that shoots big, heavy drops of water high up in the air? With all that water pounding on the ground, it looks like the ground is quickly saturated. The appearance is deceptive. What has happened is that the heavy drops have pounded the surface of the ground into a beaten shield, so there really is water rolling off of a very wet surface, but go an inch down and the soil is as parched as ever. This sort of thing happens in studying, when people think that the more force they use, the better the results. Up to a point, definitely, and perseverance counts—but I have found myself to learn much more when I paid attention to my mental and emotional state and backed off if I sensed that I was leaving that optimal zone. I learn something if I say “This is important, so I’ll plough through as much as I can as quickly as I can,” but it’s not as much, and keeping on task needs to be balanced with getting off task when that is helpful.
Consider the following problem:
In the inns of certain Himalayan villages is practiced a most civilized and refined tea ceremony. The ceremony involves a host and exactly two guests, neither more nor less. When his guests have arrived and have seated themselves at his table, the host performs five services for them. These services are listed in order of the nobility which the Himalayan attribute to them: (1) Stoking the Fire, (2) Fanning the Flames, (3) Passing the Rice Cakes, (4) Pouring the Tea, and (5) Reciting Poetry. During the ceremony, any of those present may ask another, “Honored Sir, may I perform this onerous task for you?” However, a person may request of another only the least noble of the tasks which the other is performing. Further, if a person is performing any tasks, then he may not request a task which is nobler than the least noble task he is already performing. Custom requires that by the time the tea ceremony is over, all the tasks will have been transferred from the host to the most senior of the guests. How may this be accomplished?
Incomprehensible appearances notwithstanding, this is a very simple problem, the Towers of Hanoi. Someone who has learned the Towers of Hanoi may still solve the tea ceremony formulation as slowly as someone who’s never seen any form of the problem. A failure to recognize isomorphisms provides one of the more interesting passages in Feynman’s memoirs:
I often liked to play tricks on people when I was at MIT. One time, in a mechanical drawing class, some joker picked up a French curve (a piece of plastic for drawing smooth curves—a curly, funny-looking thing) and said, “I wonder if the curves on this thing have some special formula?”
I thought for a moment and said, “Sure they do. The curves are very special curves. Lemme show ya,” and I picked up my French curve and began to turn it slowly. “The French curve is made so that at the lowest point on each curve, no matter how you turn it, the tangent is horizontal.”
All the guys in the class were holding their French curve up at different angles, holding their pencil up to it at the lowest point and laying it along, and discovering that, sure enough, the tangent is horizontal. They were all excited by this “discovery”—even though they had already gone through a certain amount of calculus and had already “learned” that the derivative (tangent) of the minimum (lowest point) of any curve is zero (horizontal). They didn’t put two and two together. They didn’t even know what they “knew.”
What is going on here is that Feynman perceives an isomorphism where the others do not. There may be a natural bent to or away from perceiving isomorphisms, and cognitive science suggests most people have a bent away. The finding, as best I can tell, is not so much that people can’t look for isomorphisms, as that they don’t. The practice of looking for and finding isomorphisms has something to give, because something can be treated as already known instead of learned from scratch. I might wonder in passing if the ultra-high-IQ rapid learning and interdisciplinary proclivities stem in part from the perception and application of isomorphisms, which may reduce the amount of material actually learned in picking up a new skill.
The classical art of memory derives strength from a mind that works visually; a background in abstract thought will help one learn abstractions. It has been thought that people can more effectively encode and remember material in a given domain if it’s one they have worked with; I would suggest that this abstract pegging also creates a way to encode material with background from other domains. An elaborate, intense, and distinct encoding is believed to help recall. Heightening of memorable features, in what is striking or humorous, should help, and mimetics seems likely to contain jewels in its accounts of how a meme makes itself striking.
Someone familiar with artificial memory may ask, “What about places (loci)?” Part of the art of memory, be it ancient, medieval, or renaissance, involved having an inner building of sorts that one could imagine going through in order and recalling items. I have two basic comments here. First, a connection could use traditional artificial memory techniques as an index: imagine a muscular man with a tremendous physique running onto the scene, grabbing an adventurer’s sword, shield, and pack, sitting down at a pipe organ which has a large illuminated manuscript on top, and clumsily playing music until a giant gold ring engraved with fiery letters falls on the scene and turns it to dust. You have pegged physics to adventure, music, literature, and magic; if you wanted to reconstruct an understanding of physics, you could see what it was pegged to, and then try to recall the given similarities. Second and more deeply, I believe that a person’s entire edifice of previously acquired concepts may serve as an immense memory palace. It is not spatial in the traditional sense, and I am not here concerned with the senses in which it might be considered a topological space, but it is a deeply qualitative place, and accessible if one uses traditional artificial memory for an index: these adaptations are intended to expand the repertoire of what disciplined artificial memory can do, not abolish the traditional discipline.
Symbols are the last unexplored facet. Earlier I suggested that a chessboard with mirrors along its diagonal may be a good token to represent Cantor’s diagonal argument, but does not bring memory of the whole proof. Now I would like to give the other side: an abstraction may not be fully captured by a symbol, but a good symbol helps. A sign/symbol distinction has been made, where a sign represents while a symbol represents and embodies. In this sense I suggest that tokens be as symbolic as possible.
Why use a token? Aren’t the deepest thoughts beyond words? Yes, but recall depends on being able to encode. I have found my deepest thoughts to not be worded and often difficult to translate to words, but I have also found that I lose them if I cannot put them in words. As such, thinking and choosing a good, mentally manipulable symbol for an abstraction is both difficult and desirable. My own discipline of formation, mathematics, chooses names for variables like ‘x’, ‘y’, and ‘z’ which software engineers are taught not to use because they impede comprehension: a computer program with variable names like ‘x’ and ‘y’ is harder to understand or even write to completion than one which with names like ‘trucks_remaining’ or ‘customers_last_name’. The authors of Design Patterns comment that naming a pattern is one of the hardest parts of writing it down. The art of creating a manipulable symbol for an abstraction is hard, but worth the trouble. This, too, may also help you to probe an abstraction in a way that will aid recall.
To test these principles, I decided to spend a week seeing what I could learn of a physics text and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I considered myself to have understood a portion of the physics text after being able to solve the last of the list of questions. I had originally decided to see how quickly I could absorb material. After working through 10% of the physics text in one day, I decided to shift emphasis and pursue depth more than speed. In reading Kant, the tendency to barely grasp a difficult concept forgotten in grasping the next difficult concept gave way, with artificial memory, to understanding the concepts better and grasping them in a way that had a more permanent effect. I read through page 108 of 607 in the physics text and 144 of 669 in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.
The first day’s physics ventures saw two interesting ways of storing concepts, and one comment worth mentioning. There is a classic skit, in which two rescuers are performing two-person CPR on a patient. Then one of the rescuers says, “I’m getting tired. Let’s switch,” and the patient gets up, the tired rescuer lies down, and the other two perform CPR on him. This was used to store the interchangeability of point of effort, point of resistance, and fulcrum on a lever, based on an isomorphism to the skit’s humor element.
The rule given later, that along any axis the sum of forces for a body in equilibrium is always zero, was symbolized by an image of a knife cutting a circle through the center: no matter what angle of cutting there was, the cut leaves two equal halves.
These both involved images, but the images differed from pegging images as a schematic diagram differs from a computer animated advertisement. They seemed a combination of an isomorphism and a symbol, and in both cases the power stemmed not only from the resultant image but the process of creation. The images functioned in a sense related to pegging, but most of the images so far developed have been abstract images unlike anything I’ve read about in historical or how-to discussion of the art of memory.
The following was logged that night. The problem referred to is a somewhat complex lever problem given in three parts:
In reviewing the day’s thoughts at night, I recognized that the problems seem to admit a shortcut solution that does not rigorously apply the principles but obtains the correct answer: problem 12 on page 31 gives two weights and other information, and all three subproblems can be answered by assuming that there are two parts in the same ratio [as] the weights, and applying a little horse sense as to which goes where. It’s a bit like general relativity, which condenses to “Everything changes by a factor of the square root of (1 – (v^2/c^2)).” I am not sure whether this is a property of physics itself or a socially emergent property of problems used in physics texts.
I believe this suggests that I was interacting with the material deeply and quite probably in a fashion not anticipated by the authors.
In reading Kant, I can’t as easily say “I solved the last exercises in each section” and don’t simply want to just say, “I read these pages.” I would like to demonstrate interaction with the material with excerpts from my log:
…I am now in the introduction to the second edition, and there are two images in reference to Kant’s treatment of subjective and objective. One is of a disc which has been cut in half, sliced again along a perpendicular axis and brought together along the first axis so that the direction of the cut has been changed. The other is of a sphere being turned out by [topologically] compactifying R3 [Euclidean three-space] by the addition of a single point, and then shifting so the vast outside has become the cramped inside and the cramped inside has become the vast outside. Both images are inadequate to the text, indicating at best what sort of thing may be thought about in what sort of shift Kant tries to introduce, and I want to reread the last couple of pages. Closer to the mark is a story about three umpires who say, in turn, “I calls them as they are,” “I calls them as I see them,” and “They may be strikes, they may be balls, but they ain’t nothing until I calls them!”
Having reread, I believe that the topological example is truer than I realized. I made it on almost superficial grounds, after reading a footnote which gave as example scientific progress after Copernicus proposed, rather than that the observer be fixed and the heavens rotate, the heavens are fixed and the observer rotate. The deeper significance is this: prior accounts had apparently not given sufficient account to subjective factors, treating subjective differences as practically unimportant—what mattered for investigation was the things in themselves. Thus the subjective was the unexamined inside of the sphere. Then, after the transformation, the objective was the unexaminable inside of the new sphere: we may investigate what is now outside, our subjective states and the appearances conformed to them, but things in themselves are more sealed than our filters before: before, we didn’t look; after, we can’t look. What is stated [in Kant] so far is a gross overextension of a profound observation.
The below passages refer to pp. 68-70:
Kant’s arguments that space is an a priori concept can be framed as showing that there exists a chicken-and-egg or bootstrapping gap between them and sense data.
What is a chicken-and-egg/bootstrapping gap? In assisting with English as a Second Language instruction, I was faced with a difficulty in explanation. Assuming certain background, it is possible for a person not to know something while there is a straightforward way of explaining—perhaps a very long way of explaining, but it’s obvious enough how to explain it in terms of communicable concepts. Then there is the case where there is no direct way to explain something: one example is how to explain to a small child what air is. One can point to water, wood, metal, stone, food, and a great many other things, but the same procedure may not yield understanding of air. It may be possible with a Zen-like cleverness to circumvent it—in saying, for example, that air is what presses on your skin on a windy day—but it is not as straightforward as even an involved and difficult explanation where you know how to use the other person’s concepts to build the one you want.
In English as a Second Language instruction, this kind of gap is a significant phenomenon in dealing with students who have no beginning English knowledge, and in dealing with concepts that cannot obviously be demonstrated: ‘sister’ and ‘woman’, when both terms refer to an adult, differ in a way that is almost certainly understood in the student’s native tongue but is nonetheless extremely difficult to explain. When I first made the musing, I envisioned a Zen-like solution. Koans immortalize incidents in which Zen masters bypassed chicken-and-egg gaps in trying to convey enlightenment that cannot be straightforwardly explained, and therefore show a powerful kind of communication. That is what I envisioned, but it is not how English is taught to speakers of other languages. What happens in ESL classes, and with younger children, is a gradual emergence that is difficult to account for in the terms of analytic philosophy—a straightforward explanation sounds like hand-waving and sloppy thinking—but with enough repetition, material is picked up. It may have something to do with a mechanism of learning outlined in Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge, which talks about how i.e. swimmers learn from coaches to inhale more air and exhale less completely so that their lungs act more as a flotation device than a non-swimmers, even though neither swimmer nor coach is likely aware of what is going on on any conscious level. People pick things up through at least one route besides grasping a concept consciously synthesized from sense data.
Kant’s proof that a given concept is a priori essentially consists of argument that the concept that cannot be synthesized from sense data through the obvious means of central route processing. He is probably right in that the concepts he classifies as a priori, and presumably others as well, cannot just be synthesized from sense data through central route processing. It does not follow that a concept must be a priori: there are other possibilities besides the route Kant investigates that one can acquire a belief. I do believe, though, that we come with some kind of innate or a priori knowledge: the difficulties experienced in visualizing four dimensional objects suggest that our dealing with three-dimensional space is not simply the result of a completely amorphous central nervous system which we happen to condition to deal with three dimensions; there is something of substance, comparable in character to a psychologist’s broader understanding of memory, that we are born to. An investigation of that would take me too far afield.
P. 87. “Now a thing in itself cannot be known throu[g]h mere relations; and we may therefore conclude that since outer science gives us nothing but mere relations, this sense can contain in its representation only the relation of an object to the subject, and not the inner properties of the object in itself.”
There is a near-compatibility between this and realist philosophy of science. How?
Recall my observation about chicken-and-egg gaps and how they may be surmounted (here I think of Zenlike short-circuiting of the gap rather than the vaguely indicated gradual emergence of concepts which haven’t been subject to a detailed and understood explanation). What goes on in a physics experiment? The truly famous ones since 1900—I think of the Millikin oil-drop experiment—include a very clever hack that tricks nature into revealing herself. People, not even experimental physicists, can grab a handful of household items and prove that electric charge is quantized. Perhaps that was possible in Galileo’s day, but a groundbreaking experiment involves a brilliant, clever, unexpected trickery of nature that is isomorphic to a Zen short-circuiting in a chicken-and-egg gap, or a clever hack, and so on and so forth. Even a routine classroom experiment uses technology that is the fruit of this kind of resourcefulness. People do something they “shouldn’t” be able to do. This is possibly how we might learn intuitions Kant classifies as a priori, and how experimental scientists cleverly circumvent the roadblock Kant describes here. It might be said that understanding this basic problem is prerequisite to a good realist philosophy of science.
‘Hack’, in this context, refers to the programming cleverness described in Programming Pearls. I analyzed that fundamental mode of problem solving and compared it with its counterpart in “Of Technology, Magic, and Channels”. There are other observations and interactions with the text, but I believe these should adequately make the point.
I chose Kant because of his reputation as an impenetrable analytic philosopher. With the aid of a good translation and these principles, I was at times surprised at how easy it was to read. By the end of the week, I had another surprise when I decided to reread George MacDonald’s Phantastes, a work which I have greatly enjoyed. This time, my experience was different. I felt my mind working differently despite a high degree of mental fatigue. The evocative metaphor fell dead, and I found myself reading the text as I would read Kant, thinking in a manner deeply influenced by reading Kant, and in the end setting it down because my mind had shifted deeply into a mode quite different from what allows me to enjoy Phantastes. I was surprised at how deeply using abstract memory to read Kant had affected not only conscious recall of ideas but also ways of thought itself.
I do not consider my recorded observations to be in any sense a rigorous experiment, but I believe the experience suggests it’s interesting enough to be worth a good experiment.
Here are twelve proposed principles, or rules of thumb, of abstract memory:
- Be wholly present. Want to know the material. Make it emotionally relevant and connected to something that concerns you. Don’t take notes.
- Encode material in multiple ways. Some different ways to encode are: analogies to different abstractions, list distinctions from similar abstractions, paraphrase, search for isomorphisms, use the concepts, and create visual symbols.
- At least in the beginning, mix a little bit of reading material with a lot of processing. Don’t plough through anything you want to remember. Work on drawing a lot of mist in, not pounding with heavy drops that will create a beaten shield.
- Don’t read out of a desire to finish reading a text. Read to draw the materials through processed thought.
- Process in a way that is striking, stunning, novel, and counter-intuitive: in a word, memorable.
- Process material on as deep a level as you can.
- Search for subtle distinctions between a concept under study and its near neighbors.
- Converse, interact with, and respond to the abstractions. What would you say if an acquaintance said that in a discussion? What questions would you ask? Write it down.
- Know how much mental energy you have, and choose battles wisely. Given a limited amount of energy, it is better to fully remember a smaller number of critical abstractions than to have diffuse knowledge of many random ideas.
- Guard your emotions. Be aware of what emotional states you learn well in, and put being in those states before passing your eyes over such-and-such many pages of reading material.
- Review material after study, seeking to find a different way of putting it.
- Metacogitate. Be your own coach.
Committing these principles to memory is left as an exercise to the reader.
What can I say to conclude this monograph? I can think of one or two brief addenda, such as the programmer’s virtue of laziness, but in a very real sense I can’t conclude now. I can sketch out a couple of critiques that may be of interest. Jerry Mander critiques the artificial unusuality of television and especially advertising, in a way that has direct bearing on traditional mnemotechnics. He suggests that giving otherwise uninteresting sensation a strained and artificial unusuality has undesirable impact on how people perceive life as seen outside of TV, and the angle of his critique is the main reason why I was hesitant to learn artificial memory. There may be room for similar critiques about why making ridiculous comparisons to remember ideas creates a bad habit for someone who wishes to think rigorously. There is also the cognitive critique that the search for isomorphisms will introduce unnoted distortion. One thinks of the person who says, “All the religions in the world say the same thing.” There is a common and problematic tendency to be astute in perceiving substantial similarities among world religions and all but blind in perceiving even more substantial differences. That is why I suggest comparing with multiple and different familiar concepts, rather than one. I could give other thoughts about critiques, but I’m trying to explain an art of memory, not especially to defend it.My intention here is not to settle all questions, but open the biggest one and suggest a direction of inquiry by which an emerging investigation may find a more powerful way to learn abstractions.
- Yates, Frances A., The Art of Memory, hereafter AM, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966, pp. 1-2. The text is a treasure trove on the development of mnemotechnics, also referred to here as artificial memory or the art of memory. Back
- Trudeau, Kevin, Kevin Trudeau’s Mega Memory, hereafter KTMM, New York: William Morrow & Co., 1995 is one of several practical manuals for someone who thinks the classical art of memory interesting and would like to be able to use it. Back
- AM, pp. 27ff. Back
- Ibid., pp. 50ff. Back
- Ibid., pp. 129ff. Back
- Ibid., pp. 173ff. Back
- Ibid., pp. 231ff. Back
- Jowett, B., The Dialogues of Plato, Vol. III, hereafter DP, New York: National Library Company, pp. 442-443. Back
- AM, pp. 112ff describes one popularizer whose somewhat debased form advocated memorizing individual letters. This practice is awkward, much as it would be awkward to record the appearance of a room by taking a notepad and writing one letter on each sheet of paper. Back
- Feynman, Richard, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, hereafter SYJMF, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1985, pp. 338ff and other places in the text. He began his famous “Cargo Cult Science” address by talking about his occult diversions from scientific endeavors, and it is arguable that Newton’s groundbreaking work in physics and optics was a scientific diversion from his main occult endeavors. I find it revealing that, even with Feynman’s occult forays left in the book, the index shows curious lacunae for “ESP”, “Hallicunation”, “New Age”, “Reflexology”, “Sensory deprivation”, etc. Back
- 100 Ways of Kything, hereafter 1WK, by CJS Hayward, at CJSH.name/kything describes a number of activities which can embody presence and focus. Back
- Hayes, J.R., and Simon, H.A., “Understanding Written Problem Instructions”, 1974, in Gregg, L.W. ed., Knowledge and Cognition, hereafter KC, Hillsdale: Erlbaum. Quoted in Posner, Michael I. ed., Foundations of Cognitive Science, hereafterFCS, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1989, pp. 534-535. Back
- FCS, pp. 559-560. Back
- SYJMF, pp. 36-37. A more scholarly, if more pedestrian, mention of the phenomenon is provided in FCS, pp. 559-560. Back
- FCS, p. 690. The authors do not necessarily subscribe to this view, but acknowledge influence among many in the field. Back
- Ibid., p. 691. Back
- “A Picture of Evil”, hereafter APE, by CJS Hayward, at CJSH.name/evil/ provides an example of communication which is striking in this manner. Back
- Gamma, Erich; Helm, Richard; Johnson, Ralph; Vlissides, John, Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, hereafter DP, Reading: Addison-Wesley, p. 3. The book describes recurring good practices that are known to many expert practitioners, but often only on a tacit level—and tries to explain how this tacit knowledge can be made explicit. The book is commonly called ‘GoF’ (“Gang of Four”) by software developers. Thanks to Ron Miles for locating the page number. Back
- February 9-15 2002. Testing abstract artificial and honing this article were juggled with other responsibilities. Back
- Black, Newton Henry; Davis, Harvey Nathaniel, New Practical Physics: Fundamental Principles and Applications to Daily Life, hereafter NPP, New York: Macmillan, 1929. Given to me as a whimsical Christmas gift in 2001. At the time of beginning, I was significantly out of practice in both physics and mathematics. Back
- Smith, Norman Kemp tr., Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, hereafter IKCPR, London: Macmillan, 1929. I had not previously read Kant. Back
- I knew that science doesn’t deal in proof; experiments may corroborate a theory, but not establish it as something to never again doubt. I was thinking at that point along another dimension, to convey a quality of physics experiments today. Back
- Bentley, Jon Louis, Programming Pearls, hereafter PP, Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1986. Back
- Hayward, Jonathan, “Of Technology, Magic, and Channels”, in Gift of Fire, June 2001, number 126. Back
- MacDonald, George, Phantastes, hereafter P, reprinted Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999. Back
- Despite widespread endorsement of this practice, taking notes taxes limited mental energy that can better be used to understand the material, and acts to the mind as a signal of, “This can safely be forgotten.” KTMM, very early on, makes a point of telling readers not to take notes (p. 5). The purpose of attending a lecture or reading a book is to make internal comprehension rather than external reference materials. Back
- Tulving, Endel; Craik, Fergus I.M., The Oxford Handbook of Memory, hereafter OHM, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, refers on p. 98 to the picture superiority effect, which states that pictures are better remembered because of a dual coding where they are encoded as image and words and therefore have two chances at being stored rather than the one chance when material is presented only as words. Back
- OHM mentions on p. 94 the “levels of processing” view, a significant perspective which states that material is retained better the more deeply it is processed. Back
- Wall, Larry; Christiansen, Tom; Schwartz, Randal L., Programming Perl, Second Edition, hereafter PP2, Sebastopol: O’Reilly, pp. 217ff and other places throughout the book. Known by the affectionate nickname of “the camel book” among software developers. (This book is distinct from PP). Back
- Mander, Jerry, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, hereafter FAET, New York: Morrow Quill, 1978, pp. 299ff. Back
- I would like to thank Robin Munn for giving me my first serious introduction to the art of memory, Linda Washington and Martin Harris for looking at my manuscript, William Struthers for valuable comments about source material, and Chris Tessone, Angela Zielinski, Kent and Theo Nebergall, and people from Wheaton College and International Christian Mensa for prayer. I would also like to thank those who read this article, apply it, perhaps extend it, and perhaps tell others about them. Back