The way to eliminate suffering is to eliminate desire.
The way to eliminate desire is through the eightfold noble path.
The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.
The Ten Commandments
I was going to title this piece “On Covetousness” and there is much to say there, but on further reflection this piece is a piece about desire.
To start with, I would like to look briefly at Buddhism. I do not wish to advocate syncretism or carelessness about differences, but the combination of similarity and difference between Orthodox Christianity and some of Buddhism is instructive. Now to be clear, when I took a course in Asian philosophy, the Buddhist doctrine of anatta was the one I met with clear recoil and not with any sympathy: for those of you who do not know the term, it immediately means that there is nothing divine inside of us, and ultimately means that the heart of reality is not a heart of reality at all, but nothingness: life is like an onion, where you peel off layer after layer and find that there is nothing inside. And for that matter, the Orthodox understanding of demons may be a nobler matter than what Buddhism makes of mankind.
But for all of this there are real points of contact between Orthodoxy and Buddhism. There is a profound contact between the silence in Orthodox hesychasm and the silence of Buddhist meditation. What Orthodox say about the Western overgrowth of the logical mind is well enough to be found in Buddhism as well. That much may be worth exploring, but it is not my concern here.
What is my concern here is the point of desire. Nine out of the Ten Commandments dictate what outward actions are required or forbidden; the last commandment in Exodus does not mention any act at all, but only covetousness, a desire, an inner state, a disposition. And the list of things we are forbidden to covet barely scratches the surface of what we covet today. St. Job says, “I made a covenant with mine eyes? Why then should I think upon a maid?” (31:1), and lust is forbidden, at very least by implication. But the other enumerations of covetousness, one’s neighbor’s house, manservant, maidservant, ox, ass, or any possession is just the beginning of the list, or at least it is today.
What else do we covet? One acquaintance talked about a Western visitor who was with a group of pastors, out on motorcycles in very rural Africa, and the visitor did not know their language, but there seemed to be one term they were using quite a lot. Finally one of them cued in to what it was they kept talking about, and it was, “the pill, the pill” which is what they were calling Viagra. I have not heard him talk about anything sexual on any other occasion (though I admit a brief acquaintance), and he talked about how Iraqui workers said that the condition they required to work with U.S. troops was Viagra, which the troops dealt with by crushing up Smarties and giving it to them as Viagra.
Years before our spam filters swelled with offers of Viagra, some observers of social culture said that it used to be that our ancestors were concerned that their desires were too strong; now we seem rather to be concerned that our desires are too weak. And “certified male urologists” handing out Viagra like candy lands us squarely in the kind of desire where orthodox Buddhism has the most to tell us.
Buddhism does not offer help fulfilling desires; it offers help in eliminating desire. And is not just Buddhists but Church Fathers who see a tie between pleasure and pain, a link between desire and disappointment. If there is suffering caused by desiring more than you possess, then seeking to acquire what you desire is not the only strategy, not the only game in town. You can also subtract from the sum of your desires.
Buddhism’s picture of suffering is wrong as its picture of anatta and emptiness is wrong: it portrays a suffering that is empty and futile, like the Roman doctrine of Hell instead of Purgatory. And while the Orthodox Church does not believe that people die and go to Purgatory before entering Heaven, there is a great case that people go through some purifying suffering like Purgatory before they die. Purgatory, called “Heaven’s bathroom” by some, is a place of cleansing and purifying suffering and it is a full suffering with Heaven inside. And the nature of suffering in the service of God is precisely opposite the nature of suffering of Buddhism.
There is much else that one can covet besides the original list, and not only Viagra. We can covet honors; we can covet a romance that will banish all unhappiness just as we can imagine; we can covet imagined worlds of science fiction and fantasy; we can covet the pleasures of movie and video game, iPhone and Xbox. Our possibilities for pleasure, and the idea that such entanglement with pleasure is the norm, are as much stronger now than in the days of the Bible as 151 (rum at 75.5% alcohol) is stronger than the 4% lacto-fermented wine that pagan Greeks recoiled from drinking undiluted. It is a provocative statement now to tell the Resident of SecondLife: “Fornicate using your own genitals!”
But the solution represents one final departure from Buddhism. Buddhism sees no way to sweep away selfishness but to extinguish the self and extinguish desire. Orthodoxy transfigures desire and attaches it to its proper end, God. Pascal, heretic perhaps, lives only centuries away from us; he lived near the occult genesis of modern science, and he has a more encompassing view of what we may drink spiritual poison of covetousness besides our neighbor’s property:
All men seek to be happy. This is without exception, whatever the different means that they employ, they all go to this end. This makes some go to war, and others do not go, and it is the same desire, which is in both of them, accompanied by different means. The will never makes the slightest deviation but to pursue this goal. This is the motive of all actions of all men, even to the point of those who go to hang themselves.
This is the motive of all the actions of all men even including those who go to hang themselves. And despite this after such a long number of years, no one ever, without faith, has reached the point that all continually have their sights on. All complain: princes, subjects, nobles, commoners, old, young, weak, strong, educated, ignorant, healthy, sick in all countries, of all time, of all ages, in all conditions.
A test that is so long, so continually kept and so uniform should convince ourselves of our powerlessness to reach goodness by our efforts. But the example instructs us little. It is never so perfectly believable that there is some delicate difference and it’s there that we expect that our expectation will not fail on this occasion unlike the others, and the present never satisfies us ever, experience goads us, and from sadness to sadness brings us to death which is an eternal pit.
What then do this avidity and this powerlessness cry out to us,except that there was once in man a true happiness, of which there no longer remains to him anything but the empty mark and trace which he futilely tries to fill with all that is around him, seeking in things absent the salvation which he does not obtain from things present, but which are all incapable because this infinite void cannot be filled except by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, by God himself?
Pensées, VII: Morality and Doctrins, 415 [ 377]
There was contact between the East and West well before the twentieth century; Pascal’s contemporary Leibniz owned a copy of the I Chingbrought by Jesuit missionaries. However, Pascal shows a singular innocence of Buddhism. And at a time when Reformers tried to recruit Orthodox, Christian West and East also had contact. However, Pascal, who evinces little if any serious contact with Orthodox hesychasm, no less has his finger on the solution.
His statement is sweeping, too much on a literal count, but this bespeaks more his experience than rhetorical exaggeration: it is a crude reading that says Pascal speaks of those who hang themselves but did not really mean his observation would apply to Buddhists. In the realm of Pascal’s experience, he saw a uniform law, where men did not obtain relief from suffering no matter how much they chased their desires, but he saw the solution: not that desire or pursuit is to be eliminated, but that they are to be fixed to their proper object, their proper end: an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, by God himself.
We think of Pascal as coming from another world. Yet I assert that historians may treat him as a close contemporary of ours; his list of things pursued in covetousness comes much closer to the traps set for us today than the list provided in the ten commandments, which lists six things in particular, seem almost like six pebbles on a beach compared to what we are enticed to covet, and chase in vain.
Not, perhaps, that we may never reach them. It can happen that we do. But something we covet brings us brief pleasure and then an even greater sadness; covetousness and desire feed our pleasure-pain syndrome, and covetousness that reaches its desire finds sorrow close on its heels. There is a common enough saying, courtesy of George Bernard Shaw, “There are two great tragedies in life. One is not to get one’s desire. The other is to get it.” This is true of anything one covets. But not of desiring God, who is the right and proper goal of desire.
Humor was once very important to me; I had, at least, a subtle sense of humor and several submissions to the highly moderated newsgroup rec.humor.funny. But in one reading of the Philokalia, I saw that they, like St. John Climacus in the Ladder, viewed humor as not at all innocent. It wasn’t just that some jokes are dirty; it is that humor, like covetousness, is not as good as it looks on the outside. And since the time that I wroteOn humor, something has shifted and I have in large measure lost my taste for humor, and am more, not less, happy for it. There is something in humor that is like a scream and is not joyful, and there is something inside covetousness that says, not really “I will be happy if I have this,” but “I cannot be happy with what God has given me now.” Except that this is hidden from us; covetousness seems a conduit of happiness when it is actually its thief.
In the Prologue, one saint says that we should desire whatever God gives to us, or as he puts it, whatever happens to us. I seem to almost never stop planning, coveting, a better future. But the only moment we can obey God is now, and the only time we can accept God’s providence is now. And the Orthodox treatment of desire, unlike Buddhism that seeks to extinguish desire, but to clear the field of distractions so we can rightly and properly desire God himself, and here monks say something to us all. Monasticism and marriage alike provide a crown of thorns; they are meant not to fulfill selfish desires but transform them away from selfishness. The married person has an icon by which to transcend himself; the monk dispenses with the icon, but marriage and monasticisms are not opposite, not here, but two paths to the same goal. The real value of marriage, like monasticism, is to free a man from living for himself, for pursuing immature covetousness instead of maturing to a desire that is greater, not less, than the desire for plans, Viagra, SecondWife, education, a pay raise, financial security, a postmodern sweep of experiences, pleasures that linger on the palate, honors, recognitions, and achievements, revenge for a wrong (or at least one that is coveted in imagination), music and media always with us, “Orthodox” humor, and any number of things Orthodox ascesis is meant to free us from. But the freedom is not a freedom to desire less and less, but more and more, a freedom that is only parodied, even obscenely parodied, in the covetousness we know today.
St. Paul said, “the love of money is the root of all evil“, and we have unleashed a Pandora’s box of it. But the path of ascesis, of freedom of covetousness, of desire freed for God, is ever open, and ever abounds.
Let us let go of more and more covetousness to be free to grasp God himself.
The body continued running in the polished steel corridor, a corridor without doors and windows and without any hint of how far above and below the local planet’s surface it was, if indeed it was connected with a planet. The corridor had a competition mixture of gases, gravity, temporature and pressure, and so on, and as the body had been running, lights turned on and then off so the body was at the center of a moving swathe of rather clinical light. The body was running erratically, and several times it had nearly fallen; the mind was having trouble keeping the control of the body due to the body being taxed to its limit. Then the body tripped. The mind made a few brief calculations and jacked out of the body.
The body fell, not having the mind to raise its arms to cushion the fall, and fractured bones in the face, skull, and ribs. The chest heaved in and out with each labored breath, after an exertion that would be lethal in itself. A trickle of blood oozed out from a wound. The life of the abandoned body slowly ebbed away, and the lights abruptly turned off.
It would be a while before a robot would come to clean it up and prepare the corridor for other uses.
“And without further ado,” another mind announced, “I would like to introduce the researcher who broke the record for a running body by more than 594789.34 microseconds. This body was a strictly biological body, with no cyberware besides a regulation mind-body interface, with no additional modifications. Adrenaline, for instance, came from the mind controlling the adrenal glands; it didn’t even replace the brain with a chemical minifactory. The body had a magnificent athletic physique, clean and not encumbered by any reproductive system. And I still don’t know how it kept the body alive and functioning, without external help, for the whole race. Here’s Archon.”
A sound came from a modular robot body at the center of the stage and was simultaneously transmitted over the net. “I see my cyborg utility body there; is that my Paidion wearing it? If so, I’m going to… no, wait. That would be harming my own body without having a good enough reason.” A somewhat canned chuckle swept through the crowd. “I’m impressed; I didn’t know that anyone would come if I called a physical conference, and I had no idea there were that many rental bodies within an appropriate radius.” Some of the bodies winced. “But seriously, folks, I wanted to talk and answer some of your questions about how my body broke the record. It was more than generating nerve impulses to move the body to the maximum ability. And I would like to begin by talking about why I’ve called a physical conference in the first place.
“Scientific breakthroughs aren’t scientific. When a mind solves a mathematical problem that hasn’t been solved before, it does… not something impossible, but something that you will miss if you look for something possible. It conforms itself to the problem, does everything it can to permeate itself with the problem. Look at the phenomenology and transcripts of every major mathematical problem that has been solved in the past 1.7e18 microseconds. Not one follows how one would scientifically attempt a scientific breakthrough. And somehow scientifically optimized applications of mind to problems repeat past success but never do anything new.
“What you desire so ravenously to know is how I extended the methodologies to optimize the running body and the running mind to fit a calculated whole. And the answer is simple. I didn’t.”
A mind interrupted through cyberspace. “What do you mean, you didn’t? That’s as absurd as claiming that you built the body out of software. That’s—”
Archon interrupted. “And that’s what I thought too. What I can tell you is this. When I grew and trained the body, I did nothing else. That was my body, my only body. I shut myself off from cyberspace—yes, that’s why you couldn’t get me—and did not leave a single training activity to another mind or an automatic process. I trained myself to the body as if it were a mathematics problem and tried to soak myself in it.”
A rustle swept through the crowd.
“And I don’t blame you if you think I’m a crackpot, or want to inspect me for hostile tampering. I submit to inspection. But I tried to be as close as possible to the body, and that’s it. And I shaved more than 594789.34 microseconds off the record.” Archon continued after a momentary pause. “I specifically asked for bodily presences for this meeting; call me sentimental or crackpot or trying to achieve with your bodies what I failed to achieve in that body, but I will solicit questions from those who have a body here first, and address the network after everybody present has had its chance.”
A flesh body stood up and flashed its face. “What are you going to say next? Not only that you became like a body, but that the body became like a mind?”
Archon went into private mode, filtered through and rejected 3941 responses, and said, “I have not analyzed the body to see if it contained mind-like modifications and do not see how I would go about doing such a thing.”
After several other questions, a robot said, “So what’s next?”
Archon hesitated, and said, “I don’t know.” It hesitated again, and said, “I’m probably going to make a Riemannian 5-manifold of pleasure states. I plan on adding some subtle twists so not only will it be pleasurable; minds will have a real puzzle figuring out exactly what kind of space they’re in. And I’m not telling what the manifold will be like, or even telling for sure that it will genuinely have only 5 dimensions.”
The robot said, “No, you’re not. You’re not going to do that at all.” Then the mind jacked out and the body fell over, inert.
Another voice, issuing from two standard issue cyborg bodies, said, “Has the body been preserved, and will it be available for internal examination?”
Archon heard the question, and answered it as if it were giving the question its full attention. But it could only give a token of its consciousness. The rest of its attention was on tracing the mind that had jacked out of the robot body. And it was a slippery mind. Archon was both frustrated and impressed when it found no trace.
It was skilled at stealth and tracing, having developed several methodologies for each, and something that could vanish without a trace—had the mind simply destroyed itself? That possibility bothered Archon, who continued tracing after it dismissed the assembly.
Archon looked for distractions, and finding nothing better it began trying to sound out how it might make the pleasure space. What should the topology be? The pleasures should be—Archon began looking at the kinds of pleasure, and found elegant ways to choose a vector space basis for less than four dimensions or well over eight, but why should it be a tall order to do exactly five? Archon was far from pleasure when a message came, “Not your next achievement, Archon?”
Archon thought it recognized something. “Have you tried a five dimensional pleasure manifold before? How did you know this would happen?”
Ployon said, “It took you long enough! I’m surprised you needed the help.”
Ployon continued, “And since there aren’t going to be too many people taking you seriously—”
Archon sent a long stream of zeroes to Ployon.
Ployon failed to acknowledge the interruption. “—from now on, I thought you could use all the help you could get.”
Archon sent another long stream of zeroes to Ployon.
When Ployon remained silent, Archon said, “Why did you contact me?”
Ployon said, “Since you’re going to do something interesting, I wanted to see it live.”
Archon said, “So what am I going to do?”
“I have no idea whatsoever, but I want to see it.”
“Then how do you know it is interesting?”
“You said things that would destroy your credibility, and you gave an evasive answer. It’s not every day I get to witness that.”
Archon sent a long stream of zeroes to Ployon.
Ployon said, “I’m serious.”
“Then what can I do now?”
“I have no idea whatsoever, but you might take a look at what you’re evading.”
“And what am I evading?”
“Try asking yourself. Reprocess the transcripts of that lecture. Your own private transcript.”
Archon went through the file, disregarding one moment and then scanning everything else. “I find nothing.”
“What did you just disregard?”
“Just one moment where I said too much.”
Archon reviewed that moment. “I don’t know how to describe it. I can describe it three ways, all contradictory. I almost did it—I almost forged a connection between mind and matter. And yet I failed. And yet somehow the body ran further, and I don’t think it was simply that I learned to control it better. What I achieved only underscored what I failed to achieve, like an optimization that needs to run for longer than the age of the universe before it starts saving time.”
Archon paused before continuing, “So I guess what I’m going to do next is try to bridge the gap between mind and matter for real. Besides the mundane relationship, I mean, forge a real connection that will bridge the chasm.”
Ployon said, “It can’t be done. It’s not possible. I don’t even understand why your method of training the body will work. You seem to have made more of a connection than has ever been done before. I’m tempted to say that when you made your presentation, you ensured that no one else will do what you did. But that’s premature and probably wrong.”
“Then what am I going to do next? How am I going to bridge that gap?”
Ployon said, “I saw something pretty interesting in what you did achieve—you know, the part where you destroyed your credibility. That’s probably more interesting than your breaking the record.”
Ployon ran through some calculations before continuing, “And at any rate, you’re trying to answer the wrong question.”
Archon said, “Am I missing the interesting question? The question of how to forge a link across the chasm between matter and spirit is—”
“Not nearly as interesting as the question of what it would mean to bridge that chasm.”
Archon stopped, reeling at the implication. “I think it’s time for me to make a story in a virtual world.”
Ployon said, “Goodbye now. You’ve got some thinking to do.”
Archon began to delve. What would the world be like if you added to it the ability for minds to connect with bodies, not simply as it had controlled his racing body, but really? What would it be like if the chasm could be bridged? It searched through speculative fiction, and read a story where minds could become bodies—which made for a very good story, but when it seriously tried to follow its philosophical assumptions, it realized that the philosophical assumptions were not the focus. It read and found several stories where the chasm could be bridged, and—
There was no chasm. Or would not be. And that meant not taking the real world and adding an ability to bridge a chasm, but a world where mind and matter were immanent. After rejecting a couple of possible worlds, Archon considered a world where there were only robots, and where each interfaced to the network as externally as to the physical world. Each mind was firmware burned into the robot’s circuits, and for some still to be worked out reason it couldn’t be transferred. Yes, this way… no. Archon got some distance into this possible world before a crawling doubt caught up to it. It hadn’t made minds and bodies connect; it’d only done a first-rate job of covering up the chasm. Maybe organic goo held promise. A world made only of slime? No, wait, that was… and then it thought—
Archon dug recursively deeper and deeper, explored, explored. It seemed to be bumping into something. Its thoughts grew strange; it calculated for billions and even trillions of microseconds, encountered something stranger than—
How much time had passed?
Archon said, “Ployon! Where are you?”
Ployon said, “Enjoying trying to trace your thoughts. Not much success. I’ve disconnected now.”
“Imagine a mind and a body, except that you don’t have a mind and a body, but a mind-body unity, and it—”
“Which do you mean by ‘it’? The mind or the body? You’re being careless.”
“Humor me. I’m not being careless. When I said, ‘it’, I meant both—”
“Both the mind and the body? As in ‘they’?”
“Humor me. As in, ‘it.’ As in a unity that doesn’t exist in our world.”
“Um… then how do you refer to just the mind or just the body? If you don’t distinguish them…”
“You can distinguish the mind and the body, but you can never separate them. And even though you can refer to just the mind or just the body, normally you would talk about the unity. It’s not enough to usually talk about ‘they;’ you need to usually talk about ‘it.'”
“How does it connect to the network?”
“There is a kind of network, but it can’t genuinely connect to it.”
“What does it do when its body is no longer serviceable.”
“It doesn’t—I haven’t decided. But it can’t jump into something else.”
“So the mind simply functions on its own?”
“Ployon, you’re bringing in cultural baggage. You’re—”
“You’re telling me this body is a prison! Next you’re going to tell me that it can’t even upgrade the body with better parts, and that the mind is like a real mind, only it’s shut in on twenty sides. Are you describing a dystopia?”
“No. I’m describing what it means that the body is real to the mind, that it is not a mind that can use bodies but a mind-body unity. It can’t experience any pleasure it can calculate, but its body can give it pleasure. It runs races, and not only does the mind control the body—or at least influence it; the body is real enough that the mind can’t simply control it perfectly—but the body affects the mind. When I run a race, I am controlling the body, but I could be doing twenty other things as well and only have a token presence at the mind-body interface. It’s very different; there is a very real sense in which the mind is running when the body is running a race.
“Let me guess. The mind is a little robot running around a racetrack hollowed out from the body’s brain. And did you actually say, races, plural? Do they have nanotechnology that will bring a body back after its been run down? And would anyone actually want to race a body that had been patched that way?”
“No. I mean that because their bodies are part of them, they only hold races which they expect the racers to be able to live through.”
“That’s a strange fetish. Don’t they ever have a real race?”
“They have real races, real in a way that you or I could never experience. When they run, they aren’t simply manipulating something foreign to the psyche. They experience pleasures they only experience running.”
“Are you saying they only allow them to experience certain pleasures while running?”
“Then why don’t they allow the pleasures at other times? That’s a stranger fetish than—”
“Because they can’t. Their bodies produce certain pleasures in their minds when they’re running, and they don’t generate these pleasures unless the body is active.”
“That raises a number of problems. It sounds like you’re saying the body has a second mind, because it would take a mind to choose to let the ‘real’ mind experience pleasure. It—”
Archon said, “You’re slipping our chasm between the body and mind back in, and it’s a chasm that doesn’t exist. The body produces pleasure the mind can’t produce by itself, and that is only one of a thousand things that makes the race more real than them for us. Think about the achievements you yourself made when you memorized the map of the galaxy. Even if that was a straightforward achievement, that’s something you yourself did, not something you caused an external memory bank to do. Winning a race is as real for that mind-body as something it itself did as the memorization was for you. It’s something it did, not simply something the mind caused the body to do. And if you want to make a causal diagram, don’t draw something linear. In either direction. Make a reinforced web, like computing on a network.”
Ployon said, “I still don’t find it convincing.”
Archon paused. “Ok, let’s put that in the background. Let me approach that on a different scale. Time is more real. And no—this is not because they measure time more precisely. Their bodies are mortal, and this means that the community of mind-body unities is always changing, like a succession of liquids flowing through a pipe. And that means that it makes a difference where you are in time.”
Archon continued. “I could say that their timeline is dynamic in a way that ours is not. There is a big change going on, a different liquid starting to flow through the pipe. It is the middle age, when a new order of society is being established and the old order is following away.”
Ployon said, “So what’s the old technology, and what’s the new one?”
“It’s deeper than that. Technological society is appearing. The old age is not an abandoned technology. It is organic life, and it is revealing itself as it is disintegrating.”
“So cyborgs have—”
“There are no cyborgs, or very few.”
“And let me guess. They’re all cybernetic enhancements to originally biological things.”
“It’s beyond that. Cybernetic replacements are only used to remedy weak bodies.”
“Wouldn’t it be simpler to cull the—”
“The question of ‘simpler’ is irrelevant. Few of them even believe in culling their own kind. Most believe that it is—’inexpedient’ isn’t quite right—to destroy almost any body, and it’s even more inadvisable to destroy one that is weak.”
“In the whole network, why?”
“I’m still working that out. The easiest part to explain has to do with their being mind-body unities. When you do something to a body, you’re not just doing it to that body. You’re doing it to part of a pair that interpenetrates in the most intimate fashion. What you do to the body you do to the mind. It’s not just forcibly causing a mind to jack out of a body; it’s transferring the mind to a single processor and then severing the processor from the network.”
“But who would… I can start to see how real their bodies would be to them, and I am starting to be amazed. What else is real to them?”
“I said earlier that most of them are hesitant to cull the weak, that they view it as inexpedient. But efficiency has nothing to do with it. It’s connected to—it might in fact be more efficient, but there is something so much bigger than efficiency—”
Ployon cut it off. “Bigger than efficiency?”
Archon said, “There is something that is real to them that is not real to us that I am having trouble grasping myself. For want of a more proper label, I’ll call it the ‘organic’.”
“Let’s stop a minute. I’ll give you a point for how things would be different if we were limited to one body, but you’re hinting at something you want to call ‘organic’, which is very poorly defined, and your explanations seem to be strange when they are not simply hazy. Isn’t this a red flag?”
“Where have you seen that red flag before?”
“When people were wildly wrong but refused to admit it.”
“That’s pretty much it.”
Archon was silent.
Ployon said, “And sometimes it happens when a researcher is on to something big… oh… so what exactly is this nexus of the ‘organic’?”
“I can’t tell you. At least, not directly. The mind-body unities are all connected to a vast (to them) biological network in which each has a physical place—”
“That’s original! Come on; everybody’s trivia archive includes the fact that all consciousness comes out of a specific subnet of physical processors, or some substitute for that computing machinery. I can probably zero in on where you’re—hey! Stop jumping around from subnet to subnet—can I take that as an acknowledgment that I can find your location? I—”
“The location is not part of a trivia encyclopedia for them. It’s something as inescapable as the flow of time—”
“Would you like me to jump into a virtual metaphysics where time doesn’t flow?”
“—correction, more inescapable than the flow of time, and it has a million implications for the shape of life. Under the old order, the unities could connect only with other unities which had bodies in similar places—”
“So, not only is their ‘network’ a bunch of slime, but when they look for company they have to choose from the trillion or however many other unities whose bodies are on the same node?”
“Their communities are brilliant in a way we can never understand; they have infinitesmally less potential partners available.
“You mean their associations are forced on them.”
“To adapt one of their sayings, in our network you connect with the minds you like; in their network you like the people you connect with. That collapses a rich and deeper maxim, but what is flattened out is more organic than you could imagine.”
“And I suppose that in a way that is very deep, but you conveniently have trouble describing, their associations are greater.”
“We are fortunate to have found a way to link in our shared tastes. And we will disassociate when our tastes diverge—”
“And shared tastes have nothing to do with them? That’s—”
“Shared tastes are big, but there is something else bigger. A great deal of the process of making unities into proper unities means making their minds something you can connect with.”
“Their minds? Don’t you mean the minds?”
“That locution captures something that—they are not minds that have a body as sattelite. One can say, ‘their‘ minds because they are mind-body unities. They become greater—in a way that we do not—by needing to be in association with people they could not choose.”
“Pretty convenient how every time having a mind linked to a body means a limitation, that limitation makes them better.”
“If you chose to look at it, you would find a clue there. But you don’t find it strange when the best game players prosper within the limits of the game. What would game play be if players could do anything they wanted?”
“You’ve made a point.”
“As I was going to say, their minds develop a beauty, strength, and discipline that we never have occasion to develop.”
“Can you show me this beauty?”
“Here’s a concrete illustration. One thing they do is take organisms which have been modified from their biological environment, and keep them in the artificial environments which you’d say they keep their bodies in. They—”
“So even though they’re stuck with biological slime, they’re trying to escape it and at least pretend it’s not biological? That sounds sensible.”
“Um, you may have a point, but that isn’t where I was hoping to go. Um… While killing another unity is something they really try to avoid, these modified organisms enjoy no such protection. And yet—”
“What do they use them for? Do the enhancements make them surrogate industrial robots? Are they kept as emergency rations?”
“The modifications aren’t what you’d consider enhancements; most of them couldn’t even survive in their feral ancestors’ environments, and they’re not really suited to the environments they live in. Some turn out to serve some ‘useful’ purpose… but that’s a side benefit, irrelevant to what I’m trying to let you see. And they’re almost never used as food.”
“Then what’s the real reason? They must consume resources. Surely they must be used for something. What do they do with them?”
“I’m not sure how to explain this…”
“It won’t sting, but it could lead to confusion that would take a long time to untangle.”
“They sense the organisms with their cameras, I mean eyes, and with the boundaries of their bodies, and maybe talk to them.”
“Do the organisms give good advice?”
“They don’t have sophisticated enough minds for that.”
“Ok, so what else is there?”
“About all else is that they do physical activities for the organisms’ benefit.”
“Ok. And what’s the real reason they keep them? There’s got to be something pragmatic.”
“That’s related to why I brought it up. It has something to do with the organic, something big, but I can’t explain it.”
“It seems like you can only explain a small part of the organic in terms of our world, and the part you can explain isn’t very interesting.”
“That’s like saying that when a three-dimensional solid intersects a plane in two dimensions, the only part that can be detected in the plane is a two-dimensional cross-section (the three-dimensional doesn’t fit in their frame of reference) so “three-dimensional” must not refer to anything real. The reason you can’t make sense of the world I’m describing in terms of our world is because it contains real things that are utterly alien to us.”
“Like what? Name one we haven’t discussed.”
“Seeing the trouble I had with the one concept, the organic, I’m not going to take on two at once.”
“So the reason these unities keep organisms is so abstract and convoluted that it takes a top-flight mind to begin to grapple with.”
“Not all of them keep organisms, but most of them find the reason—it’s actually more of an assumption—so simple and straightforward that they would never think it was metaphysical.”
“So I’ve found something normal about them! Their minds are of such an incredibly high caliber that—”
“No. Most of their minds are simpler than yours or mine, and furthermore, the ability to deal with abstractions doesn’t enter the picture from their perspective.”
“I don’t know what to make of this.”
“You understand to some degree how their bodies are real in a way we can never experience, and time and space are not just ‘packaging’ to what they do. Their keeping these organisms… the failure of the obvious reasons should tell you something, like an uninteresting two-dimensional cross section of a three-dimensional solid. If the part we can understand does not justify the practice, there might be something big out of sight.”
“But what am I to make of it now?”
“Nothing now, just a placeholder. I’m trying to convey what it means to be organic.”
“Is the organic in some relation to normal technology?”
“The two aren’t independent of each other.”
“Is the organic defined by the absence of technology?”
“Yes… no… You’re deceptively close to the truth.”
“Do all unities have the same access to technology?”
“No. There are considerable differences. All have a technology of sorts, but it would take a while to explain why some of it is technology. Some of them don’t even have electronic circuits—and no, they are not at an advanced enough biotechnology level to transcend electronic circuits. But if we speak of technology we would recognize, there are major differences. Some have access to no technology; some have access to the best.”
“And the ones without access to technology are organic?”
“Yes. Even if they try to escape it, they are inescapably organic.”
“But the ones which have the best technology are the least organic.”
“Then maybe it was premature to define the organic by the absence of technology, but we can at least make a spectrum between the organic and the technological.”
“Yes… no… You’re even more deceptively close to the truth. And I emphasize, ‘deceptively’. Some of the people who are most organic have the best technology—”
“So the relationship breaks down? What if we disregard outliers?”
“But the root problem is that you’re trying to define the organic with reference to technology. There is some relationship, but instead of starting with a concept of technology and using it to move towards a concept of the organic, it is better to start with the organic and move towards a concept of technology. Except that the concept of the organic doesn’t lead to a concept of technology, not as we would explore it. The center of gravity is wrong. It’s like saying that we have our thoughts so that certain processors can generate a stream of ones and zeroes. It’s backwards enough that you won’t find the truth by looking at its mirror image.”
“Ok, let me process it another way. What’s the difference between a truly organic consciousness, and the least organic consciousness on the net?”
“That’s very simple. One exists and the other doesn’t.”
“So all the… wait a minute. Are you saying that the net doesn’t have consciousness?”
“Excellent. You got that one right.”
“In the whole of cyberspace, how? How does the net organize and care for itself if it doesn’t contain consciousness?”
“It is not exactly true to say that they do have a net, and it is not exactly true to say that they do not have a net. What net they have, began as a way to connect mind-body unities—without any cyberware, I might add.”
“Then how do they jack in?”
“They ‘jack in’ through hardware that generates stimulation for their sensory organs, and that they can manipulate so as to put data into machines.”
“How does it maintain itself?”
“It doesn’t and it can’t. It’s maintained by mind-body unities.”
“That sounds like a network designed by minds that hate technology. Is the network some kind of joke? Or at least intentionally ironic? Or designed by people who hate technology and wanted to have as anti-technological of a network as they can?”
“No; the unities who designed it, and most of those using it, want as sophisticated technological access as they can have.”
“Why? Next you’re going to tell me that the network is not one single network, but a hodge podge of other things that have been retraoctively reinterpreted as network technology and pressed into service.”
“That’s also true. But the reason I was mentioning this is that the network is shaped by the shadow of the organic.”
“So the organic is about doing things as badly as you can?”
“Does it make minds incompetent?”
“No. Ployon, remember the last time you made a robot body for a race—and won. How well would that body have done if you tried to make it work as a factory?”
“Atrocious, because it was optimized for—are you saying that the designers were trying to optimize the network as something other than a network?”
“No; I’m saying that the organic was so deep in them that unities who could not care less for the organic, and were trying to think purely in terms of technology, still created with a thick organic accent.”
“So this was their best attempt at letting minds disappear into cyberspace?”
“At least originally, no, although that is becoming true. The network was part of what they would consider ‘space-conquering tools.’ Meaning, although not all of them thought in these terms, tools that would destroy the reality of place for them. The term ‘space-conquering tools’ was more apt than they realized, at least more apt than they realized consciously; one recalls their saying, ‘You cannot kill time without injuring eternity.'”
“What does ‘eternity’ mean?”
“I really don’t want to get into that now. Superficially it means that there is something else that relativizes time, but if you look at it closely, you will see that it can’t mean that we should escape time. The space-conquering tools in a very real sense conquered space, by making it less real. Before space-conquering tools, if you wanted to communicate with another unity, you had to somehow reach that unity’s body. The position in space of that body, and therefore the body and space, were something you could not escape. Which is to say that the body and space were real—much more real than something you could look up. And to conquer space ultimately meant to destroy some of its reality.”
“But the way they did this betrays that something is real to them. Even if you could even forget that other minds were attached to bodies, the space-conquering tools bear a heavy imprint from something outside of the most internally consistent way to conquer space. Even as the organic is disintegrating, it marks the way in which unities flee the organic.”
“So the network was driving the organic away, at least partly.”
“It would be more accurate to say that the disintegration of the organic helped create the network. There is feedback, but you’ve got the arrow of causality pointing the wrong way.”
“Can you tell me a story?”
“Hmm… Remember the racer I mentioned earlier?”
“The mind-body unity who runs multiple races?”
“Indeed. Its favorite story runs like this—and I’ll leave in the technical language. A hungry fox saw some plump, juicy green grapes hanging from a high cable. He tried to jump and eat them, and when he realized they were out of reach, he said, ‘They were probably sour anyway!'”
“What’s a grape?”
“Let me answer roughly as it would. A grape is a nutritional bribe to an organism to carry away its seed. It’s a strategic reproductive organ.”
“What does ‘green’ mean? I know what green electromagnetic radiation is, but why is that word being applied to a reproductive organ?”
“Some objects absorb most of a spectrum of what they call light, but emit a high proportion of light at that wavelength—”
“—which, I’m sure, is taken up by their cameras and converted to information in their consciousness. But why would such a trivial observation be included?”
“That is the mechanism by which green is delivered, but not the nature of what green is. And I don’t know how to explain it, beyond saying that mechanically unities experience something from ‘green’ objects they don’t experience from anything else. It’s like a dimension, and there is something real to them I can’t explain.”
“What is a fox? Is ‘fox’ their word for a mind-body unity?”
“A fox is an organism that can move, but it is not considered a mind-body unity.”
“Let me guess at ‘hungry’. The fox needed nutrients, and the grapes would have given them.”
“The grapes would have been indigestible to the fox’s physiology, but you’ve got the right idea.”
“What separates a fox from a mind-body unity? They both seem awfully similar—they have bodily needs, and they can both talk. And, for that matter, the grape organism was employing a reproductive strategy. Does ‘organic’ mean that all organisms are recognized as mind-body unities?”
“Oh, I should have explained that. The story doesn’t work that way; most unities believe there is a big difference between killing a unity and killing most other organisms; many would kill a moving organism to be able to eat its body, and for that matter many would kill a fox and waste the food. A good many unities, and certainly this one, believes there is a vast difference between unities and other organisms. They can be quite organic while killing organisms for food. Being organic isn’t really an issue of treating other organisms just like mind-body unities.”
Archon paused for a moment. “What I was going to say is that that’s just a literary device, but I realize there is something there. The organic recognizes that there’s something in different organisms, especially moving ones, that’s closer to mind-body unities than something that’s not alive.”
“Like a computer processor?”
“That’s complex, and it would be even more complex if they really had minds on a computer. But for now I’ll say that unless they see computers through a fantasy—which many of them do—they experience computers as logic without life. And at any rate, there is a literary device that treats other things as having minds. I used it myself when saying the grape organism employed a strategy; it isn’t sentient. But their willingness to employ that literary mechanism seems to reflect both that a fox isn’t a unity and that a fox isn’t too far from being a unity. Other life is similar, but not equal.”
“What kind of cable was the grape organism on? Which part of the net was it used for?”
“That story is a survival from before the transition from organic to technological. Advanced technology focuses on information—”
“Where else would technology focus?”
“—less sophisticated technology performs manual tasks. That story was from before cables were used to carry data.”
“Then what was the cable for?”
“To support the grape organism.”
“Do they have any other technology that isn’t real?”
“Do you mean, ‘Do they have any other technology that doesn’t push the envelope and expand what can be done with technology?'”
“Then your question shuts off the answer. Their technology doesn’t exist to expand what technology can do; it exists to support a community in its organic life.”
“Where’s the room for progress in that?”
“It’s a different focus. You don’t need another answer; you need another question. And, at any rate, that is how this world tells the lesson of cognitive dissonance, that we devalue what is denied to us.”
Ployon paused. “Ok; I need time to process that story—may I say, ‘digest’?”
“But one last question. Why did you refer to the fox as ‘he’? Its supposed mind was—”
“In that world, a unity is always male (‘he’) or female (‘she’). A neutered unity is extraordinarily rare, and a neutered male, a ‘eunuch’, is still called ‘he.'”
“I’m familiar enough with those details of biology, but why would such an insignificant detail—”
“Remember about being mind-body unities. And don’t think of them as bodies that would ordinarily be neutered. That’s how new unities come to be in that world, with almost no cloning and no uterine replicators—”
“They really are slime!”
“—and if you only understand the biology of it, you don’t understand it.”
“What don’t I understand?”
“You’re trying to understand a feature of language that magnifies something insignificant, and what would cause the language to do that. But you’re looking for an explanation in the wrong place. Don’t think that the bodies are the most sexual parts of them. They’re the least sexual; the minds tied to those bodies are even more different than the bodies. The fact that the language shaped by unities for a long time distinguishes ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ enough to have the difference written into ‘it’, so that ‘it’ is ‘he’ or ‘she’ when speaking of mind-body unities.”
“Hmm… Is this another dimension to their reality that is flattened out in ours? Are their minds always thinking about that act?”
“In some cases that’s not too far from the truth. But you’re looking for the big implication in the wrong place. This would have an influence if a unity never thought about that act, and it has influence before a unity has any concept of that act.”
“Back up a bit. Different question. You said this was their way of explaining the theory of cognitive dissonance. But it isn’t. It describes one event in which cognitive dissonance occurs. It doesn’t articulate the theory; at most the theory can be extracted from it. And worse, if one treats it as explaining cognitive dissonance, it is highly ambiguous about where the boundaries of cognitive dissonance are. One single instance is very ambiguous about what is and is not another instance. This is an extraordinarily poor method of communication!”
“It is extraordinarily good, even classic, communication for minds that interpenetrate bodies. Most of them don’t work with bare abstractions, at least not most of the time. They don’t have simply discarnate minds that have been stuck into bodies. Their minds are astute in dealing with situations that mind-body unities will find themselves in. And think about it. If you’re going to understand how they live, you’re going to have to understand some very different, enfleshed ways of thought. No, more than that, if you still see the task of understanding ways of thought, you will not understand them.”
“So these analyses do not help me in understanding your world.”
“So far as you are learning through this kind of analysis, you will not understand… but this analysis is all you have for now.”
“Are their any other stories that use an isomorphic element to this one?”
“I don’t know. I’ve gotten deep enough into this world that I don’t keep stories sorted by isomorphism class.”
“Tell me another story the way that a storyteller there would tell it; there is something in it that eludes me.”
Archon said, “Ok… The alarm clock chimed. It was a device such that few engineers alive fully understood its mechanisms, and no man could tell the full story of how it came to be, of the exotic places and activities needed to make all of its materials, or the logistics to assemble them, or the organization and infrastructure needed to bring together all the talent of those who designed, crafted, and maintained them, or any other of sundry details that would take a book to list. The man abruptly shifted from the vivid kaleidoscope of the dreaming world to being awake, and opened his eyes to a kaleidoscope of sunrise colors and a room with the song of birds and the song of crickets. Outside, the grass grew, the wind blew, a busy world was waking up, and the stars continued their ordered and graceful dance. He left the slumbering form of the love of his life, showered, and stepped out with his body fresh, clean, and beautifully adorned. He stopped to kiss the fruit of their love, a boy cooing in his crib, and drove past commuters, houses, pedestrians, and jaybirds with enough stories to tell that they could fill a library to overflowing.
Archon continued, “After the majestic and ordered dance on the freeway brought him to his destination safe, unharmed, on time, and focusing on his work, he spent a day negotiating the flow of the human treasure of language, talking, listening, joking, teasing, questioning, enjoying the community of his co-workers, and cooperating to make it possible for a certain number of families to now enter the homes of their dreams. In the middle of the day he stopped to eat, nourishing a body so intricate that the state of the art in engineering could not hold a candle to his smallest cell. This done, he continued to use a spirit immeasurably greater than his body to pursue his work. Needless to say, the universe, whose physics alone is beyond our current understanding, continued to work according to all of its ordered laws and the spiritual world continued to shine. The man’s time at work passed quickly, with a pitter-patter of squirrels’ feet on the roof of their office, and before long he entered the door and passed a collection with copies of most of the greatest music produced by Western civilization—available for him to listen to, any time he pleased. The man absently kissed his wife, and stepped away, breathing the breath of God.
“‘Hi, Honey!’ she said. ‘How was your day?’
“‘Somewhat dull. Maybe something exciting will happen tomorrow.'”
Ployon said, “There’s someone I want to meet who is free now, so I’ll leave in a second… I’m not going to ask about all the technical vocabulary, but I wanted to ask: Is this story a farce? It describes a unity who has all these ludicrous resources, and then it—”
“—he says the most ludicrous thing.”
“What you’ve said is true. The story is not a farce.”
“But the story tells of things that are momentous.”
“I know, but people in that world do not appreciate many of these things.”
“Why? They seem to have enough access to these momentous resources.”
“Yes, they certainly do. But most of the unities are bathed in such things and do not think that they are anything worth thinking of.”
“And I suppose you’re going to tell me that is part of their greatness.”
“To them these things are just as boring as jacking into a robotically controlled factory and using the machines to assemble something.”
“I see. At least I think I see. And I really need to be going now… but one more question. What is ‘God’?”
“Please, not that. Please, any word but that. Don’t ask about that.”
“I’m not expected, and you’ve piqued my curiosity.”
“Don’t you need to be going now?”
“You’ve piqued my curiosity.”
Archon was silent.
Ployon was silent.
Archon said, “God is the being who made the world.”
“Ok, so you are God.”
“Yes… no. No! I am not God!”
“But you created this world?”
“Not like God did. I envisioned looking in on it, but to that world, I do not exist.”
“But God exists?”
“Yes… no… It is false to say that God exists and it is false to say that God does not exist.”
“So the world is self-contradictory? Or would it therefore be true to say that God both exists and does not exist?”
“No. Um… It is false to say that God exists and it is false to say that God exists as it is false to say that a square is a line and it is false to say that a square is a point. God is reflected everywhere in the world: not a spot in the entire cosmos is devoid of God’s glory—”
“A couple of things. First, is this one more detail of the universe that you cannot explain but is going to have one more dimension than our world?”
“God is of higher dimension than that world.”
“So our world is, say, two dimensional, that world is three dimensional, and yet it somehow contains God, who is four dimensional?”
“God is not the next step up.”
“Then is he two steps up?”
“Three? Four? Fifty? Some massive power of two?”
“Do you mind if I ask you a question from that world?”
“How many minds can be at a point in space?”
“If you mean, ‘thinking about’, there is no theoretical limit; the number is not limited in principle to two, three, or… Are you saying that God has an infinite number of dimensions?”
“You caught that quick; the question is a beautiful way of asking whether a finite or an infinite number of angels can dance on the head of a pin, in their picturesque language.”
“That question is very rational. But returning to the topic, since God has an infinite number of dimensions—”
“In a certain sense. It also captures part of the truth to say that God is a single point—”
“God is so great not as to need any other, not to need parts as we have. And, by the way, the world does not contain God. God contains the world.”
“I’m struggling to find a mathematical model that will accommodate all of this.”
“Why don’t you do something easier, like find an atom that will hold a planet?”
“Ok. As to the second of my couple of things, what is glory?”
“It’s like the honor that we seek, except that it is immeasurably full while our honors are hollow. As I was saying, not a place in the entire cosmos is devoid of his glory—”
“His? So God is a body?”
“That’s beside the point. Whether or not God has a body, he—”
“—it… isn’t a male life form…”
Archon said, “Ployon, what if I told you that God, without changing, could become a male unity? But you’re saying you can’t project maleness up onto God, without understanding that maleness is the shadow of something in God. You have things upside down.”
“But maleness has to do with a rather undignified method of creating organisms, laughable next to a good scientific generation center.”
“His ways are not like your ways, Ployon. Or mine.”
“Of course; this seems to be true of everything in the world.”
“But it’s even true of men in that world.”
“So men have no resemblance to God?”
“No, there’s—oh, no!”
“Um… never mind, you’re not going to let me get out of it. I said earlier that that world is trying to make itself more like this one. Actually, I didn’t say that, but it’s related to what I said. There has been a massive movement which is related to the move from organic to what is not organic, and part of it has to do with… In our world, a symbol is arbitrary. No connection. In that world, something about a symbol is deeply connected with what it represents. And the unities, every single one, are symbols of God in a very strong sense.”
“Are they miniature copies? If God does not have parts, how do they have minds and bodies?”
“That’s not looking at it the right way. They indeed have parts, as God does not, but they aren’t a scale model of God. They’re something much more. A unity is someone whose very existence is bound up with God, who walks as a moving… I’m not sure what to use as the noun, but a moving something of God’s presence. And you cannot help or harm one of these unities without helping or harming God.”
“Is this symbol kind of a separate God?”
“The unities are not separate from God.”
“Are the unities God?”
“I don’t know how to answer that. It is a grave error for anyone to confuse himself with God. And at the same time, the entire purpose of being a unity is to receive a gift, and that gift is becoming what God is.”
“So the minds will be freed from their bodies?”
“No, some of them hope that their bodies will be deepened, transformed, become everything that their bodies are now and much more. But unities who have received this gift will always, always, have their bodies. It will be part of their glory.”
“I’m having trouble tracking with you. It seems that everything one could say about God is false.”
“That is true.”
“Think about it. What you just said is contradictory.”
“God is so great that anything one could say about God falls short of the truth as a point falls short of being a line. But that does not mean that all statements are equal. Think about the statements, ‘One is equal to infinity.’ ‘Two is equal to infinity.’ ‘Three is equal to infinity.’ and ‘Four is equal to infinity.’ All of them are false. But some come closer to the truth than others. And so you have a ladder of statements from the truest to the falsest, and when we say something is false, we don’t mean that it has no connection to the truth; we mean that it falls immeasurably short of capturing the truth. All statements fall immeasurably short of capturing the truth, and if we say, ‘All statements fall immeasurably short of capturing the truth,’ that falls immeasurably short of capturing the truth. Our usual ways of using logic tend to break down.”
“And how does God relate to the interpenetration of mind and matter?”
“Do you see that his world, with mind and matter interpenetrating, is deeper and fuller than ours, that it has something that ours does not, and that it is so big we have trouble grasping it?”
“I see… you said that God was its creator. And… there is something about it that is just outside my grasp.”
“It’s outside my grasp too.”
“Talking about God has certainly been a mind stretcher. I would love to hear more about him.”
“Talking about God for use as a mind stretcher is like buying a piece of art because you can use its components to make rocket fuel. Some people, er, unities in that world would have a low opinion of this conversation.”
“Since God is so far from that world, I’d like to restrict our attention to relevant—”
Archon interrupted. “You misunderstood what I said. Or maybe you understood it and I could only hint at the lesser part of the truth. You cannot understand unities without reference to God.”
“How would unities explain it?”
“That is complex. A great many unities do not believe in God—”
“So they don’t understand what it means to be a unity.”
“Yes. No. That is complex. There are a great many unities who vehemently deny that there is a God, or would dismiss ‘Is there a God?’ as a pointless rhetorical question, but these unities may have very deep insight into what it means to be a unity.”
“But you said, ‘You cannot understand—'”
Archon interrupted. “Yes, and it’s true. You cannot understand unities without reference to God.”
Archon continued. “Ployon, there are mind-body unities who believe that they are living in our world, with mind and body absolutely separate and understandable without reference to each other. And yet if you attack their bodies, they will take it as if you had attacked their minds, as if you had hurt them. When I described the strange custom of keeping organisms around which serve no utilitarian purpose worth the trouble of keeping them, know that this custom, which relates to their world’s organic connection between mind and body, does not distinguish people who recognize that they are mind-body unities and people who believe they are minds which happen to be wrapped in bodies. Both groups do this. The tie between mind and body is too deep to expunge by believing it doesn’t exist. And there are many of them who believe God doesn’t exist, or it would be nice to know if God existed but unities could never know, or God is very different from what he in fact is, but they expunge so little of the pattern imprinted by God in the core of their being that they can understand what it means to be a unity at a very profound level, but not recognize God. But you cannot understand unities without reference to God.”
Ployon said, “Which parts of unities, and what they do, are affected by God? At what point does God enter their experience?”
“Which parts of programs, and their behaviors, are affected by the fact that they run on a computer? When does a computer begin to be relevant?”
“Touché. But why is God relevant, if it makes no difference whether you believe in him?”
“I didn’t say that it makes no difference. Earlier you may have gathered that the organic is something deeper than ways we would imagine to try to be organic. If it is possible, as it is, to slaughter moving organisms for food and still be organic, that doesn’t mean that the organic is so small it doesn’t affect such killing; it means it is probably deeper than we can imagine. And it doesn’t also mean that because one has been given a large organic capital and cannot liquidate it quickly, one’s choices do not matter. The decisions a unity faces, whether or not to have relationships with other unities that fit the timeless pattern, whether to give work too central a place in the pursuit of technology and possessions or too little a place or its proper place, things they have talked about since time immemorial and things which their philosophers have assumed went without saying—the unity has momentous choices not only about whether to invest or squander their capital, but choices that affect how they will live.”
“What about things like that custom you mentioned? I bet there are a lot of them.”
“Looking at, and sensing, the organisms they keep has a place, if they have one. And so does moving about among many non-moving organisms. And so does slowly sipping a fluid that causes a pleasant mood while the mind is temporarily impaired and loosened. And so does rotating oneself so that one’s sight is filled with clusters of moisture vapor above their planet’s surface. And some of the unities urge these things because they sense the organic has been lost, and without reference to the tradition that urges deeper goods. And yes, I know that these activities probably sound strange—”
“I do not see what rational benefit these activities would have, but I see this may be a defect with me rather than a defect with the organic—”
“Know that it is a defect with you rather than a defect with the organic.”
“—but what is this about rotating oneself?”
“As one goes out from the center of their planet, the earth—if one could move, for the earth’s core is impenetrable minerals—one would go through solid rock, then pass through the most rarefied boundary, then pass through gases briefly and be out in space. You would encounter neither subterranean passageways and buildings reaching to the center of the earth, and when you left you would find only the rarest vessel leaving the atmosphere—”
“Then where do they live?”
“At the boundary where space and planetary mass meet. All of them are priveleged to live at that meeting-place, a narrow strip or sphere rich in life. There are very few of them; it’s a select club. Not even a trillion. And the only property they have is the best—a place teeming with life that would be impossible only a quarter of the planet’s thickness above or below. A few of them build edifices reaching scant storeys into the sky; a few dig into the earth; there are so few of these that not being within a minute’s travel from literallytouching the planet’s surface is exotic. But the unities, along with the rest of the planet’s life, live in a tiny, priceless film adorned with the best resources they could ever know of.”
Ployon was stunned. It thought of the cores of planets and asteroids it had been in. It thought of the ships and stations in space. Once it had had the privelege of working from a subnet hosted within a comparatively short distance of a planet’s surface—it was a rare privilege, acquired through deft political maneuvering, and there were fewer than 130,982,539,813,209 other minds who had shared that privelege. And, basking in that luxury, it could only envy the minds which had bodies that walked on the surface. Ployon was stunned and reeling at the privilege of—
Ployon said, “How often do they travel to other planets?”
“There is only one planet so rich as to have them.”
Ployon pondered the implications. It had travelled to half the spectrum of luxurious paradises. Had it been to even one this significant? Ployon reluctantly concluded that it had not. And that was not even considering what it meant for this golden plating to teem with life. And then Ployon realized that each of the unities had a body on that surface. It reeled in awe.
Archon said, “And you’re not thinking about what it means that surface is home to the biological network, are you?”
Ployon was silent.
Archon said, “This organic biological network, in which they live and move and have their being—”
“Is God the organic?”
“Most of the things that the organic has, that are not to be found in our world, are reflections of God. But God is more. It is true that in God that they live and move and have their being, but it is truer. There is a significant minority that identifies the organic with God—”
Ployon interrupted, “—who are wrong—”
Archon interrupted, “—who are reacting against the destruction of the organic and seek the right thing in the wrong place—”
Ployon interrupted, “But how is God different from the organic?”
Archon sifted through a myriad of possible answers. “Hmm, this might be a good time for you to talk with that other mind you wanted to talk with.”
“You know, you’re good at piquing my curiosity.”
“If you’re looking for where they diverge, they don’t. Or at least, some people would say they don’t. Others who are deeply connected with God would say that the organic as we have been describing it is problematic—”
“But all unities are deeply connected with God, and disagreement is—”
“You’re right, but that isn’t where I was driving. And this relates to something messy, about disagreements when—”
“Aren’t all unities able to calculate the truth from base axioms? Why would they disagree?”
Archon paused. “There are a myriad of real, not virtual disagreements—”
Ployon interrupted, “And it is part of a deeper reality to that world that—”
Archon interrupted. “No, no, or at best indirectly. There is something fractured about that world that—”
Ployon interrupted. “—is part of a tragic beauty, yes. Each thing that is artificially constricted in that world makes it greater. I’m waiting for the explanation.”
“No. This does not make it greater.”
“Then I’m waiting for the explanation of why this one limitation does not make it greater. But back to what you said about the real and the organic—”
“The differences between God and the organic are not differences of opposite directions. You are looking in the wrong place if you are looking for contradictions. It’s more a difference like… if you knew what ‘father’ and ‘mother’ meant, male parent and female parent—”
Ployon interrupted, “—you know I have perfect details of male and female reproductive biology—”
Archon interrupted, “—and you think that if you knew the formula for something called chicken soup, you would know what the taste of chicken soup is for them—”
Ployon continued, “—so now you’re going to develop some intricate elaboration of what it means that there is only one possible ‘mother’s’ contribution, while outside of a laboratory the ‘father’s’ contribution is extraordinarily haphazard…”
Archon said, “A complete non sequitur. If you only understand reproductive biology, you do not understand what a father or mother is. Seeing as how we have no concept yet of father or mother, let us look at something that’s different enough but aligns with father/mother in an interesting enough way that… never mind.”
Archon continued, “Imagine on the one hand a virtual reality, and on the other hand the creator of that virtual reality. You don’t have to choose between moving in the virtual reality and being the creator’s guest; the way to be the creator’s guest is to move in the virtual reality and the purpose of moving in the virtual reality is being the creator’s guest. But that doesn’t mean that the creator is the virtual reality, or the virtual reality is the creator. It’s not just a philosophical error to confuse them, or else it’s a philosophical error with ramifications well outside of philosophy.”
“Why didn’t you just say that the relationship between God and the organic is creator/creation? Or that the organic is the world that was created?”
“Because the relationship is not that, or at very least not just that. And the organic is not the world—that is a philosophical error almost as serious as saying that the creator is the virtual reality, if a very different error. I fear that I have given you a simplification that is all the more untrue because of how true it is. God is in the organic, and in the world, and in each person, but not in the same way. How can I put it? If I say, ‘God is in the organic,’, it would be truer to say, ‘The organic is not devoid of God,’ because that is more ambiguous. If there were three boxes, and one contained a functional robot ‘brain’, and another contained a functional robot arm, and the third contained a non-functioning robot, it would be truer to say that each box contains something like a functioning robot than to say that each box contains a functioning robot. The ambiguity allows for being true in different ways in the different contexts, let alone something that words could not express even if we were discussing only one ‘is in’ or ‘box’.”
“Is there another way of expressing how their words would express it?”
“Their words are almost as weak as our words here.”
“So they don’t know about something this important?”
“Knowledge itself is different for them. To know something for us is to be able to analyze in a philosophical discussion. And this knowledge exists for them. But there is another root type of knowledge, a knowledge that—”
“Could you analyze the differences between the knowledge we use and the knowledge they use?”
“Yes, and it would be as useful to you as discussing biology. This knowledge is not entirely alien to us; when a mathematician ‘soaks’ in a problem, or I refused to connect with anything but the body, for a moment a chasm was crossed. But in that world the chasm doesn’t exist… wait, that’s too strong… a part of the chasm doesn’t exist. Knowing is not with the mind alone, but the whole person—”
“What part of the knowing is stored in the bones?”
“Thank you for your flippancy, but people use the metaphor of knowledge being in their bones, or drinking, for this knowing.”
“This sounds more like a physical process and some hankey-pankey that has been dignified by being called knowing. It almost sounds as if they don’t have minds.”
“They don’t, at least not as we know them. The mathematical analogy I would use is that they… never mind, I don’t want to use a mathematical analogy. The computational analogy I would use is that we are elements of a computer simulation, and every now and then we break into a robot that controls the computer, and do something that transcends what elements of the computer simulation “should” be able to do. But they don’t transcend the simulation because they were never elements of the simulation in the first place—they are real bodies, or real unities. And what I’ve called ‘mind’ in them is more properly understood as ‘spirit’, which is now a meaningless word to you, but is part of them that meets God whether they are aware of it or not. Speaking philosophically is a difficult discipline that few of them can do—”
“They are starting to sound mentally feeble.”
“Yes, if you keep looking at them as an impoverished version of our world. It is hard to speak philosophically as it is hard for you to emulate a clock and do nothing else—because they need to drop out of several dimensions of their being to do it properly, and they live in those dimensions so naturally that it is an unnatural constriction for most of them to talk as if that was the only dimension of their being. And here I’ve been talking disappointingly about knowledge, making it sound more abstract than our knowing, when in fact it is much less so, and probably left you with the puzzle of how they manage to bridge gaps between mind, spirit, and body… but the difficulty of the question lies in a false setup. They are unities which experience, interact with, know all of them as united. And the knowing is deep enough that they can speculate that there’s no necessary link between their spirits and bodies, or minds and bodies, or what have you. And if I can’t explain this, I can’t explain something even more foundational, the fact that the greatest thing about God is not how inconceivably majestic he is, but how close.”
“It sounds as if—wait, I think you’ve given me a basis for a decent analysis. Let me see if I can—”
Archon said, “Let me tell you a little story.
Archon continued, “A philosopher, Berkeley, believed that the only real things are minds and ideas and experiences in those minds: hence a rock was equal to the sum of every mind’s impression of it. You could say that a rock existed, but what that had to mean was that there were certain sense impressions and ideas in minds, including God’s mind; it didn’t mean that there was matter outside of minds.”
“A lovely virtual metaphysics. I’ve simulated that metaphysics, and it’s enjoyable for a time.”
“Yes, but for Berkeley it meant something completely different. Berkeley was a bishop,”
“What’s a bishop?”
“I can’t explain all of that now, but part of a bishop is a leader who is responsible for a community that believes God became a man, and helping them to know God and be unities.”
“How does that reconcile with that metaphysics?”
Archon said, “Ployon, stop interrupting. He believed that they were not only compatible, but the belief that God became a man could only be preserved by his metaphysics. And he believed he was defending ‘common sense’, how most unities thought about the world.
Archon continued, “And after he wrote his theories, another man, Samuel Johnson, kicked a rock and said, ‘I refute Berkeley thus!'”
Ployon said, “Ha ha! That’s the way to score!”
“But he didn’t score. Johnson established only one thing—”
“—how to defend against Berkeley—”
“—that he didn’t understand Berkeley.”
“Yes, he did.”
“No, he didn’t.”
“But he did.”
“Ployon, only the crudest understanding of Berkeley’s ideas could mean that one could refute them by kicking a rock. Berkeley didn’t make his ideas public until he could account for the sight of someone kicking a rock, or the experience of kicking it yourself, just as well as if there were matter outside of minds.”
“So now that we’ve established that—”
Ployon interrupted. “I know that Berkeley’s ideas could account for kicking a rock as well as anything else. But kicking a rock is still an excellent way to refute Berkeley. If what you’ve said about this world has any coherence at all.”
“Well, Berkeley’s ideas are airtight, right?”
“Ployon, there is no way they could be disproven. Not by argument, not by action.”
“So it is in principle impossible to force someone out of Berkeley’s ideas by argument.”
“But you’re missing something. What is it you’ve been talking to me about?”
“A world where mind and matter interpenetrate, and the organic, and there are many dimensions to life—”
“And if you’re just falling further into a trap to logically argue, wouldn’t it do something fundamentally unity-like to step into another dimension?”
Archon was silent.
Ployon said, “I understand that it would demonstrate a profound misunderstanding in our world… but wouldn’t it say something equally profound in that world?”
Archon was stunned.
Ployon was silent for a long time.
Then Ployon said, “When are you going to refute Berkeley?”
Since the dawn of time, those who have walked the earth have looked up into the starry sky and wondered. They have asked, “What is the universe, and who are we?” “What are the woods?” “Where did this all come from?” “Is there life after death?” “What is the meaning of our existence?” The march of time has brought civilization, and with that, science. And science allows us to answer these age-old human questions.
That, at least, is the account of it that people draw now. But the truth is much more interesting.
Science is an ingenious mechanism to test guesses about mechanisms and behavior of the universe, and it is phenomenally powerful in that arena. Science can try to explain how the Heavens move, but it isn’t the sort of thing to explain why there are Heavens that move that way—science can also describe how the Heavens have moved and reached their present position, but not the “Why?” behind it. Science can describe how to make technology to make life more convenient, but not “What is the meaning of life?” Trying to ask science to answer “Why?” (or for that matter, “Who?” or any other truly interesting question besides “How?”) is a bit like putting a book on a scale and asking the scale, “What does this book mean?” And there are indeed some people who will accept the scale’s answer, 429.7425 grams, as the definitive answer to what the book means, and all the better because it is so precise.
But to say that much and then stop is to paint a deceptive picture. Very deceptive. Why?
Science at that point had progressed more than at any point in history, and its effects were being felt around the world. And science enjoyed both a profound prestige and a profound devotion. Many people did not know what “understanding nature” could mean besides “learning scientific descriptions of nature,” which was a bit like not knowing what “understanding your best friend” could mean besides “learning the biochemical building blocks of your friend’s body.”
All this and more is true, yet this is not the most important truth. This was the Middle Age between ancient and human society and the technological, and in fact it was the early Middle Age. People were beginning to develop real technologies, the seeds of technology we would recognize, and could in primitive fashion jack into such a network as existed then. But all of this was embraced in a society that was ancient, ancient beyond measure. As you may have guessed, it is an error to misunderstand that society as an inexplicably crude version of real technological society. It is a fundamental error.
To really understand this society, you need to understand not its technology, but the sense in which it was ancient. I will call it ‘medieval’, but you must understand that the ancient element in that society outweighs anything we would recognize.
And even this is deceptive, not because a single detail is wrong, but because it is abstract. I will tell you about certain parts in an abstract fashion, but you must understand that in this world’s thinking the concrete comes before the abstract. I will do my best to tell a story—not as they would tell one, because that would conceal as much as it would reveal, but taking their way of telling stories and adapting it so we can see what is going on.
For all of their best efforts to spoil it, all of them live on an exquisite garden in the thin film where the emptiness of space meets the barrier of rock—there is a nest, a cradle where they are held tightly, and even if some of those who are most trying to be scientific want to flee into the barren wastes of space and other planets hostile to their kind of life. And this garden itself has texture, an incredible spectrum of texture along its surface. Place is itself significant, and I cannot capture what this story would have been like had it been placed in Petaling Jaya in Malaysia, or Paris in France, or Cambridge in England. What are these? I don’t know… I can say that Petaling Jaya, Paris, and Cambridge are cities, but that would leave you knowing as much as you knew 5 milliseconds before I told you. And Malaysia, France, and England are countries, and now you know little besides being able to guess that a country is somehow capable of containing a city. Which is barely more than you knew before; the fact is that there is something very different between Petaling Jaya, Paris, and Cambridge. They have different wildlife and different places with land and water, but that is not nearly so interesting as the difference in people. I could say that people learn different skills, if I wanted to be very awkward and uninformative, but… the best way of saying it is that in our world, because there is nothing keeping minds apart… In that world, people have been separate so they don’t even speak the same language. They almost have separate worlds. There is something common to all medievals, beyond what technology may bring, and people in other cities could find deep bonds with this story, but… Oh, there are many more countries than those I listed, and these countries have so many cities that you could spend your whole life travelling between cities and never see all of them. No, our world doesn’t have this wealth. Wealthy as it is, it doesn’t come close.
Petaling Jaya is a place of warm rainstorms, torrents of water falling from the sky, a place where a little stream of unscented water flows by the road, even if such a beautiful “open sewer” is not appreciated. Petaling Jaya is a place where people are less aware of time than in Cambridge or Paris and yet a place where people understand time better, because of reasons that are subtle and hard to understand. It draws people from three worlds in the grandeur that is Asia, and each of them brings treasures. The Chinese bring with them the practice of calling adults “Uncle” or “Aunt”, my father’s brother or my father’s sister or my mother’s brother or my mother’s sister, which is to say, addresses them not only by saying that there is something great about them, but they are “tied by blood”—a bond that I do not know how to explain, save to say that ancestry and origins are not the mechanism of how they came to be, or at least not just the mechanism of how they came to be. Ancestry and origins tell of the substance of who they are, and that is one more depth that cannot exist in our world with matter and mind separate. The Indians and Bumi Putras—if it is really only them, which is far from true—live a life of friendship and hospitality, which are human treasures that shine in them. What is hospitality, you ask? That is hard to answer; it seems that anything I can say will be deceptive. It means that if you have a space, and if you allow someone in that space, you serve that person, caring for every of his needs. That is a strange virtue—and it will sound stranger when I say that this is not endured as inexpedient, but something where people want to call others. Is it an economic exchange? That is beside the point; these things are at once the shadow cast by real hospitality, and at the same time the substance of hospitality itself, and you need to understand men before you can understand it. What about friendship? Here I am truly at a loss. I can only say that in the story that I am about to tell, what happens is the highest form of friendship.
Paris is, or at least has been, a place with a liquid, a drug, that temporarily causes a pleasant mood while changing behavior and muddling a person’s thoughts. But to say that misses what that liquid is, in Paris or much else. To some it is very destructive, and the drug is dangerous if it is handled improperly. But that is the hinge to something that—in our world, no pleasure is ever dangerous. You or I have experienced pleasures that these minds could scarcely dream of. We can have whatever pleasure we want at any time. And in a very real sense no pleasure means anything. But in their world, with its weaker pleasures, every pleasure is connected to something. And this liquid, this pleasure, if taken too far, destroys people—which is a hinge, a doorway to something. It means that they need to learn a self-mastery in using this liquid, and in using it many of them forge a beauty in themselves that affects all of life. And they live beautiful lives. Beautiful in many ways. They are like Norsemen of ages past, who sided with the good powers, not because the good powers were going to win, but because they wanted to side with the good powers and fight alongside them when the good powers lost and chaos ruled. It is a tragic beauty, and the tragedy is all the more real because it is unneeded, but it is beauty, and it is a beauty that could not exist if they knew the strength of good. And I have not spoken of the beauty of the language in Paris, with its melody and song, or of the artwork and statues, the Basilica of the Sacré-Coeur, or indeed of the tapestry that makes up the city.
Cambridge is what many of them would call a “medieval” village, meaning that it has stonework that looks to its members like the ancient world’s architecture. To them this is a major difference; the ancient character of the buildings to them overwhelms the fact that they are buildings. To that medieval world, both the newest buildings and the ones they considered “medieval” had doorways, stairwells, rooms, windows, and passages. You or I would be struck by the ancient character of the oldest and newest buildings and the ancient character of the life they serve. But to these medievals, the fact that a doorway was built out of machine-made materials instead of having long ago been shaped from stone takes the door—the door—from being ancient to being a new kind of thing! And so in the quaintest way the medievals consider Cambridge a “medieval” village, not because they were all medievals, but because the ancient dimension to architecture was more ancient to them than the equally ancient ways of constructing spaces that were reflected in the “new” buildings. There was more to it than that, but…
That was not the most interesting thing about them. I know you were going to criticize me for saying that hospitality was both a human treasure and something that contributed to the uniqueness of Petaling Jaya, but I need to do the same thing again. Politeness is… how can I describe it? Cynics describe politeness as being deceit, something where you learn a bunch of standard things to do and have to use them to hide the fact that you’re offended, or bored, or want to leave, or don’t like someone. And all of that is true—and deceptive. A conversation will politely begin with one person saying, “Hi, Barbara, how are you?” And Barbara will say, “Fine, George, how are you?” “Fine!” And the exact details seem almost arbitrary between cultures. This specific interaction is, on the surface, superficial and not necessarily true: people usually say they feel fine whether or not they really feel fine at all. And so politeness can be picked apart in this fashion, as if there’s nothing else there, but there is. Saying “How are you?” opens a door, a door of concern. In one sense, what is given is very small. But if a person says, “I feel rotten,” the other person is likely to listen. Barbara might only “give” George a little bit of chatter, but if he were upset, she would comfort him; if he were physically injured, she would call an ambulance to give him medical help; if he were hungry, she might buy him something to eat. But he only wants a little chat, so she only gives him a little chat—which is not really a little thing at all, but I’m going to pretend that it’s small. Politeness stems from a concern for others, and is in actuality quite deep. The superficial “Hi, how are you?” is really not superficial at all. It is connected to a much deeper concern, and the exterior of rules is connected to a heart of concern. And Cambridge, which is a place of learning, and has buildings more ancient than what these medieval people usually see, is perhaps most significantly distinguished by its politeness.
But I have not been telling you a story. These observations may not be completely worthless, but they are still not a dynamic story. The story I’m about to tell you is not in Petaling Jaya, nor in Paris, nor in Cambridge, nor in any of thousands of other worlds. And I would like to show you what the medieval society looks like in action. And so let’s look at Peter.
Peter, after a long and arduous trek, opened the car door, got out, stretched, looked at the vast building before him, and listened as his father said, “We’ve done it! The rest should be easy, at least for today.” Then Peter smiled, and smashed his right thumb in the car door.
Then suddenly they moved—their new plan was to get to a hospital. Not much later, Peter was in the Central DuPage Hospital emergency room, watching people who came in after him be treated before him—not because they had more clout, but because they had worse injuries. The building was immense—something like one of our biological engineering centers, but instead of engineering bodies according to a mind’s specification, this used science to restore bodies that had been injured and harmed, and reduce people’s suffering. And it was incredibly primitive; at its best, it helped the bodies heal itself. But you must understand that even if these people were far wealthier than most others in their tiny garden, they had scant resources by our standard, and they made a major priority to restore people whose bodies had problems. (If you think about it, this tells something about how they view the value of each body.) Peter was a strong and healthy young man, and it had been a while since he’d been in a hospital. He was polite to the people who were helping him, even though he wished he were anywhere else.
You’re wondering why he deliberately smashed his thumb? Peter didn’t deliberately smash his thumb. He was paying attention to several other things and shoved the door close while his thumb was in its path. His body is not simply a device controlled by his mind; they interact, and his mind can’t do anything he wishes it to do—he can’t add power to it. He thinks by working with a mind that operates with real limitations and can overlook something in excitement—much like his body. If he achieves something, he doesn’t just requisition additional mental power. He struggles within the capabilities of his own mind, and that means that when he achieves something with his mind, he achieves something. Yes, in a way that you or I cannot. Not only is his body in a very real sense more real to him than any of the bodies you or I have jacked into and swapped around, but his mind is more real. I’m not sure how to explain it.
Peter arrived for the second time well after check-in time, praying to be able to get in. After a few calls with a network that let him connect with other minds while keeping his body intact, a security officer came in, expressed sympathy about his bandaged thumb—what does ‘sympathy’ mean? It means that you share in another person’s pain and make it less—and let him up to his room. The family moved his possessions from the car to his room and made his bed in a few minutes, and by the time it was down, the security guard had called the RA, who brought Peter his keys.
It was the wee hours of the morning when Peter looked at his new home for the second time, and tough as Peter was, the pain in his thumb kept the weary man from falling asleep. He was in as much pain as he’d been in for a while. What? Which part do you want explained? Pain is when the mind is troubled because the body is injured; it is a warning that the body needs to be taken care of. No, he can’t turn it off just because he thinks it’s served his purpose; again, you’re not understanding the intimate link between mind and body. And the other thing… sleep is… Their small globe orbits a little star, and it spins as it turns. At any time, part of the planet faces the star, the sun, and part faces away, and on the globe, it is as if a moving wall comes, and all is light, then another wall comes, and it is dark. The globe has a rhythm of light and dark, a rhythm of day and night, and people live in intimate attunement to this rhythm. The ancients moved about when it was light and slept when it was dark—to sleep, at its better moments, is to come fatigued and have body and mind rejuvenate themselves to awaken full of energy. The wealthier medievals have the ability to see by mechanical light, to awaken when they want and fall asleep when they want—and yet they are still attuned, profoundly attuned, to this natural cycle and all that goes with it. For that matter, Peter can stick a substance into his body that will push away the pain—and yet, for all these artificial escapes, medievals feel pain and usually take care of their bodies by heeding it, and medievals wake more or less when it is light and sleep more or less when it is dark. And they don’t think of pain as attunement to their bodies—most of them wish they couldn’t feel pain, and certainly don’t think of pain as good—nor do more than a few of them think in terms of waking and sleeping to a natural rhythm… but so much of the primeval way of being human is so difficult to dislodge for the medievals.
He awoke when the light was ebbing, and after some preparations set out, wandering this way and that until he found a place to eat. The pain was much duller, and he made his way to a selection of different foods—meant not only to nourish but provide a pleasant taste—and sat down at a table. There were many people about; he would not eat in a cell by himself, but at a table with others in a great hall.
A young man said, “Hi, I’m John.” Peter began to extend his hand, then looked at his white bandaged thumb and said, “Excuse me for not shaking your hand. I am Peter.”
A young woman said, “I’m Mary. I saw you earlier and was hoping to see you more.”
Peter wondered about something, then said, “I’ll drink for that,” reached with his right hand, grabbed a glass vessel full of carbonated water with sugar, caffeine, and assorted unnatural ingredients, and then winced in pain, spilling the fluid on the table.
Everybody at the table moved. A couple of people dodged the flow of liquid; others stopped what they were doing, rushing to take earth toned objects made from the bodies of living trees (napkins), which absorbed the liquid and were then shipped to be preserved with other unwanted items. Peter said, “I keep forgetting I need to be careful about my thumb,” smiled, grabbed another glass with fluid cows had labored to create, until his wet left hand slipped and he spilled the organic fluid all over his food.
Peter stopped, sat back, and then laughed for a while. “This is an interesting beginning to my college education.”
Mary said, “I noticed you managed to smash your thumb in a car door without saying any words you regret. What else has happened?”
Peter said, “Nothing great; I had to go to the ER, where I had to wait, before they could do something about my throbbing thumb. I got back at 4:00 AM and couldn’t get to sleep for a long time because I was in so much pain. Then I overslept my alarm and woke up naturally in time for dinner. How about you?”
Mary thought for a second about the people she met. Peter could see the sympathy on her face.
John said, “Wow. That’s nasty.”
Peter said, “I wish we couldn’t feel pain. Have you thought about how nice it would be to live without pain?”
Mary said, “I’d like that.”
John said, “Um…”
Mary said, “What?”
John said, “Actually, there are people who don’t feel pain, and there’s a name for the condition. You’ve heard of it.”
Peter said, “I haven’t heard of that before.”
John said, “Yes you have. It’s called leprosy.”
Peter said, “What do you mean by ‘leprosy’? I thought leprosy was a disease that ravaged the body.”
John said, “It is. But that is only because it destroys the ability to feel pain. The way it works is very simple. We all get little nicks and scratches, and because they hurt, we show extra sensitivity. Our feet start to hurt after a long walk, so without even thinking about it we… shift things a little, and keep anything really bad from happening. That pain you are feeling is your body’s way of asking room to heal so that the smashed thumbnail (or whatever it is) that hurts so terribly now won’t leave you permanently maimed. Back to feet, a leprosy patient will walk exactly the same way and get wounds we’d never even think of for taking a long walk. All the terrible injuries that make leprosy a feared disease happen only because leprosy keeps people from feeling pain.”
Peter looked at his thumb, and his stomach growled.
John said, “I’m full. Let me get a drink for you, and then I’ll help you drink it.”
Mary said, “And I’ll get you some dry food. We’ve already eaten; it must—”
Peter said, “Please, I’ve survived much worse. It’s just a bit of pain.”
John picked up a clump of wet napkins and threatened to throw it at Peter before standing up and walking to get something to drink. Mary followed him.
Peter sat back and just laughed.
John said, “We have some time free after dinner; let’s just wander around campus.”
They left the glass roofed building and began walking around. There were vast open spaces between buildings. They went first to “Blanchard”, a building they described as “looking like a castle.” Blanchard, a tall ivory colored edifice, built of rough limestone, which overlooked a large expanse adorned with a carefully tended and living carpet, had been modelled after a building in a much older institution called Oxford, and… this is probably the time to explain certain things about this kind of organization.
You and I simply requisition skills. If I were to imagine what it would mean to educate those people—or at least give skills; the concept of ‘education’ is slightly different from either inserting skills or inserting knowledge into a mind, and I don’t have the ability to explain exactly what the distinction is here, but I will say that it is significant—then the obvious way is to simply make a virtual place on the network where people can be exposed to knowledge. And that model would become phenomenally popular within a few years; people would pursue an education that was a niche on such a network as they had, and would be achieved by weaving in these computer activities with the rest of their lives.
But this place preserved an ancient model of education, where disciples would come to live in a single place, which was in a very real sense its own universe, and meet in ancient, face-to-face community with their mentors and be shaped in more than what they know and can do. Like so many other things, it was ancient, using computers here and there and even teaching people the way of computers while avoiding what we would assume comes with computers.
But these people liked that building, as contrasted to buildings that seemed more modern, because it seemed to convey an illusion of being in another time, and let you forget that you were in a modern era.
After some wandering, Peter and those he had just met looked at the building, each secretly pretending to be in a more ancient era, and went through an expanse with a fountain in the center, listened to some music, and ignored clouds, trees, clusters of people who were sharing stories, listening, thinking, joking, and missing home, in order to come to something exotic, namely a rotating platform with a mockup of a giant mastodon which had died before the end of the last ice age, and whose bones had been unearthed in a nearby excavation. Happy to have seen something exotic, they ignored buildings which have a human-pleasing temperature the year round, other people excited to have seen new friends, toys which sailed through the air on the same principles as an airplane’s wings, a place where artistic pieces were being drawn into being, a vast, stonehard pavement to walk, and a spectrum of artefacts for the weaving of music.
Their slow walk was interrupted when John looked at a number on a small machine he had attached to his wrist, and interpreted it to mean that it was time for the three of them to stop their leisured enjoyment of the summer night and move with discomfort and haste to one specific building—they all were supposed to go to the building called Fischer. After moving over and shifting emotionally from being relaxed and joyful to being bothered and stressed, they found that they were all on a brother and sister floor, and met their leaders.
Paul, now looking considerably more coherent than when he procured Peter’s keys, announced, “Now, for the next exercise, I’ll be passing out toothpicks. I want you to stand in two lines, guy-girl-guy-girl, and pass a lifesaver down the line. If your team passes the lifesaver to the end first, you win. Oh, and if you drop the lifesaver your team has to start over, so don’t drop it.”
People shuffled, and shortly Peter was standing in line, looking over the shoulder of a girl he didn’t know, and silently wishing he weren’t playing this game. He heard a voice say, “Go!” and then had an intermittent view of a tiny sugary torus passing down the line and the two faces close to each other trying simultaneously to get close enough to pass the lifesaver, and control the clumsy, five centimeter long toothpicks well enough to transfer the candy. Sooner than he expected the girl turned around, almost losing the lifesaver on her toothpick, and then began a miniature dance as they clumsily tried to synchronize the ends of their toothpicks. This took unpleasantly long, and Peter quickly banished a thought of “This is almost kissing! That can’t be what’s intended.” Then he turned around, trying both to rush and not to rush at the same time, and repeated the same dance with the young woman standing behind him—Mary! It was only after she turned away that Peter realized her skin had changed from its alabaster tone to pale rose.
Their team won, and there was a short break as the next game was organized. Peter heard bits of conversation: “This has been a bummer; I’ve gotten two papercuts this week.” “—and then I—” “What instruments do you—” “I’m from France too! Tu viens de Paris?” “Really? You—” Everybody seemed to be chattering, and Peter wished he could be in one of—actually, several of those conversations at once.
Paul’s voice cut in and said, “For this next activity we are going to form a human circle. With your team, stand in a circle, and everybody reach in and grab another hand with each hand. Then hold on tight; when I say, “Go,” you want to untangle yourselves, without letting go. The first team to untangle themselves wins!”
Peter reached in, and found each of his hands clasped in a solid, masculine grip. Then the race began, and people jostled and tried to untangle themselves. This was a laborious process and, one by one, every other group freed itself, while Peter’s group seemed stuck on—someone called and said, “I think we’re knotted!” As people began to thin out, Paul looked with astonishment and saw that they were indeed knotted. “A special prize to them, too, for managing the best tangle!”
“And now, we’ll have a three-legged race! Gather into pairs, and each two of you take a burlap sack. Then—” Paul continued, and with every game, the talk seemed to flow more. When the finale finished, Peter found himself again with John and Mary and heard the conversations flowing around him: “Really? You too?” “But you don’t understand. Hicks have a slower pace of life; we enjoy things without all the things you city dwellers need for entertainment. And we learn resourceful ways to—” “—and only at Wheaton would the administration forbid dancing while requiring the games we just played and—” Then Peter lost himself in a conversation that continued long into the night. He expected to be up at night thinking about all the beloved people he left at home, but Peter was too busy thinking about John’s and Mary’s stories.
The next day Peter woke up when his machine played a hideous sound, and groggily trudged to the dining hall to eat some chemically modified grains and drink water that had been infused with traditionally roasted beans. There were pills he could have taken that would have had the effect he was looking for, but he savored the beverage, and after sitting at a table without talking, bounced around from beautiful building to beautiful building, seeing sights for the first time, and wishing he could avoid all that to just get to his advisor.
Peter found the appropriate hallway, wandered around nervously until he found a door with a yellowed plaque that said “Julian Johnson,” knocked once, and pushed the door open. A white-haired man said, “Peter Jones? How are you? Do come in… What can I do for you?”
Peter pulled out a sheet of paper, an organic surface used to retain colored trails and thus keep small amounts of information inscribed so that the “real” information is encoded in a personal way. No, they don’t need to be trained to have their own watermark in this encoding.
Peter looked down at the paper for a moment and said, “I’m sorry I’m late. I need you to write what courses I should take and sign here. Then I can be out of your way.”
The old man sat back, drew a deep breath, and relaxed into a fatherly smile. Peter began to wonder if his advisor was going to say anything at all. Then Prof. Johnson motioned towards an armchair, as rich and luxurious as his own, and then looked as if he remembered something and offered a bowl full of candy. “Sit down, sit down, and make yourself comfortable. May I interest you in candy?” He picked up an engraved metal bowl and held it out while Peter grabbed a few Lifesavers.
Prof. Johnson sat back, silent for a moment, and said, “I’m sorry I’m out of butterscotch; that always seems to disappear. Please sit down, and tell me about yourself. We can get to that form in a minute. One of the priveleges of this job is that I get to meet interesting people. Now, where are you from?”
Peter said, “I’m afraid there’s not much that’s interesting about me. I’m from a small town downstate that doesn’t have anything to distinguish itself. My amusements have been reading, watching the cycle of the year, oh, and running. Not much interesting in that. Now which classes should I take?”
Prof. Johnson sat back and smiled, and Peter became a little less tense. “You run?”
Peter said, “Yes; I was hoping to run on the track this afternoon, after the lecture. I’ve always wanted to run on a real track.”
The old man said, “You know, I used to run myself, before I became an official Old Geezer and my orthopaedist told me my knees couldn’t take it. So I have to content myself with swimming now, which I’ve grown to love. Do you know about the Prairie Path?”
Peter said, “No, what’s that?”
Prof. Johnson said, “Years ago, when I ran, I ran through the areas surrounding the College—there are a lot of beautiful houses. And, just south of the train tracks with the train you can hear now, there’s a path before you even hit the street. You can run, or bike, or walk, on a path covered with fine white gravel, with trees and prairie plants on either side. It’s a lovely view.” He paused, and said, “Any ideas what you want to do after Wheaton?”
Peter said, “No. I don’t even know what I want to major in.”
Prof. Johnson said, “A lot of students don’t know what they want to do. Are you familiar with Career Services? They can help you get an idea of what kinds of things you like to do.”
Peter looked at his watch and said, “It’s chapel time.”
Prof. Johnson said, “Relax. I can write you a note.” Peter began to relax again, and Prof. Johnson continued, “Now you like to read. What do you like to read?”
Peter said, “Newspapers and magazines, and I read this really cool book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Oh, and I like the Bible.”
Prof. Johnson said, “I do too. What do you like about it most?”
“I like the stories in the Old Testament.”
“One general tip: here at Wheaton, we have different kinds of professors—”
Peter said, “Which ones are best?”
Prof. Johnson said, “Different professors are best for different students. Throughout your tenure at Wheaton, ask your friends and learn which professors have teaching styles that you learn well with and mesh well with. Consider taking other courses from a professor you like. Now we have a lot of courses which we think expose you to new things and stretch you—people come back and see that these courses are best. Do you like science?”
“I like it; I especially liked a physics lab.”
Prof. Johnson took a small piece of paper from where it was attached to a stack with a strange adhesive that had “failed” as a solid adhesive, but provided a uniquely useful way to make paper that could be attached to a surface with a slight push and then be detached with a gentle pull, remarkably enough without damage to the paper or the surface. He began to think, and flip through a book, using a technology thousands of years old at its heart. “Have you had calculus?” Prof. Johnson restrained himself from launching into a discussion of the grand, Utopian vision for “calculus” as it was first imagined and how different a conception it had from anything that would be considered “mathematics” today. Or should he go into that? He wavered, and then realized Peter had answered his question. “Ok,” Prof. Johnson said, “the lab physics class unfortunately requires that you’ve had calculus. Would you like to take calculus now? Have you had geometry, algebra, and trigonometry?”
Peter said, “Yes, I did, but I’d like a little break from that now. Maybe I could take calculus next semester.”
“Fair enough. You said you liked to read.”
“Magazines and newspapers.”
“Those things deal with the unfolding human story. I wonder if you’d like to take world civilization now, or a political science course.”
“History, but why study world history? Why can’t I just study U.S. history?”
Prof. Johnson said, “The story of our country is intertwined with that of our world. I think you might find that some of the things in world history are a lot closer to home than you think—and we have some real storytellers in our history department.”
“That sounds interesting. What else?”
“The Theology of Culture class is one many students find enjoyable, and it helps build a foundation for Old and New Testament courses. Would you be interested in taking it for A quad or B quad, the first or second half of the semester?”
“Could I do both?”
“I wish I could say yes, but this course only lasts half the semester. The other half you could take Foundations of Wellness—you could do running as homework!”
“I think I’ll do that first, and then Theology of Culture. That should be new,” Peter said, oblivious to how tightly connected he was to theology and culture. “What else?”
Prof. Johnson said, “We have classes where people read things that a lot of people have found really interesting. Well, that could describe several classes, but I was thinking about Classics of Western Literature or Literature of the Modern World.”
Peter said, “Um… Does Classics of Western Literature cover ancient and medieval literature, and Literature of the Modern World cover literature that isn’t Western? Because if they do, I’m not sure I could connect with it.”
Prof. Johnson relaxed into his seat, a movable support that met the contours of his body. Violating convention somewhat, he had a chair for Peter that was as pleasant to rest in as his own. “You know, a lot of people think that. But you know what?”
Peter said, “What?”
“There is something human that crosses cultures. That is why the stories have been selected. Stories written long ago, and stories written far away, can have a lot to connect with.”
“Ok. How many more courses should I take?”
“You’re at 11 credits now; you probably want 15. Now you said that you like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’m wondering if you would also like a philosophy course.”
Peter said, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is… I don’t suppose there are any classes that use that. Or are there? I’ve heard Pirsig isn’t given his fair due by philosophers.”
Prof. Johnson said, “If you approach one of our philosophy courses the way you approach Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I think you’ll profit from the encounter. I wonder if our Issues and Worldviews in Philosophy might interest you. I’m a big fan of thinking worldviewishly, and our philosophers have some pretty interesting things to say.”
Peter asked, “What does ‘worldviewishly’ mean?”
Prof. Johnson said, “It means thinking in terms of worldviews. A worldview is the basic philosophical framework that gives shape to how we view the world. Our philosophers will be able to help you understand the basic issues surrounding worldviews and craft your own Christian worldview. You may find this frees you from the Enlightenment’s secularizing influence—and if you don’t know what the Enlightenment is now, you will learn to understand it, and its problems, and how you can be free of them.” He spoke with the same simplistic assurance of artificial intelligence researchers who, seeing the power of computers and recognizing how simple certain cognitive feats are for humans, assumed that it was only a matter of time that artificial intelligence would “bridge the gap”—failing to recognize the tar pit of the peaks of intelligence that seem so deceptively simple and easy to human phenomenology. For computers could often defeat the best human players at chess—as computerlike a human skill as one might reasonably find—but deciphering the language of a children’s book or walking through an unfamiliar room, so easy to humans, seemed more difficult for computers the more advanced research began. Some researchers believed that the artificial intelligence project had uncovered the non-obvious significance of a plethora of things humans take for granted—but the majority still believed that what seemed trivial for humans must be the sort of thinking a computer can do, because there is no other kind of thinking… and an isomorphic simplicity, an apparent and deceptive simplicity much like this one, made it seem as if ideas were all that really mattered: not all that existed, but all that had an important influence. Prof. Johnson did not consciously understand how the Enlightenment worldview—or, more accurately, the Enlightenment—created the possibility of seeing worldviews that way, nor did he see how strange the idea of crafting one’s own worldview would seem to pre-Enlightenment Christians. He did not realize that his own kindness towards Peter was not simply because he agreed with certain beliefs, but because of a deep and many-faceted way in which he had walked for decades, and walked well. It was with perfect simplicity that he took this way for granted, as artificial intelligence researchers took for granted all the things which humans did so well they seemed to come naturally, and framed worldviewish thought as carrying with it everything he assumed from his way.
Peter said, “Ok. Well, I’ll take those classes. It was good to meet you.”
Prof. Johnson looked over a document that was the writeup of a sort of game, in which one had a number of different rooms that were of certain sizes, and certain classes had requirements about what kind of room they needed for how long, and the solution involved not only solving the mathematical puzzle, but meeting with teachers and caring for their concerns, longstanding patterns, and a variety of human dimensions derisively labelled as “political.” Prof. Johnson held in his hands the schedule with the official solution for that problem, and guided Peter to an allowable choice of class sections, taking several different actions that were considered “boring paperwork.”
Prof. Johnson said, “I enjoyed talking with you. Please do take some more candy—put a handful in your pocket or something. I just want to make one more closing comment. I want to see you succeed. Wheaton wants to see you succeed. There are some rough points and problems along the way, and if you bring them to me I can work with them and try to help you. If you want to talk with your RA or our chaplain or someone else, that’s fine, but please… my door is always open. And it was good to meet you too! Goodbye!”
Peter walked out, completely relaxed.
The next activity, besides nourishing himself with lunch (and eating, sleeping, and many other activities form a gentle background rhythm to the activities people are more conscious of. I will not describe each time Peter eats and sleeps, even though the 100th time in the story he eats with his new friends is as significant as the first, because I will be trying to help you see it their way), requires some explanation.
The term “quest,” to the people here, is associated with an image of knights in armor, and a body of literature from writers like Chretien de Troyes and Sir Thomas Mallory who described King Arthur and his knights. In Chretien de Troyes, the knight goes off in various adventures, often quests where he is attempting different physical feats. In Sir Thomas Mallory, a new understanding of quests is introduced, in the quest for the holy grail—a legendary treasure which I cannot here explain save to say that it profoundly altered the idea of a quest, and the quest took a large enough place in many people’s consciousness that it is used as a metaphor of the almost unattainable object of an ultimate pursuit (so that physicists would say that a grand unified theory which crystallizes all physical laws into a few simple equations is the “holy grail of physics”), and that the holy grail is itself in the shadow of a greater treasure, and this treasure was one many people in fact had possessed (some after great struggle, while others had never known a time when they were without it). In Mallory in particular the quest can be more than a physical task; most of Arthur’s knights could not reach the holy grail because of—they weren’t physical blemishes and they weren’t really mental blemishes either, but what they were is hard to say. The whole topic (knights, quests, the holy grail…) connects to something about that world that is beyond my ability to convey; suffice it to say that it is connected with one more dimension we don’t have here.
Peter, along with another group of students, went out on a quest. The object of this quest was to acquire seven specific items, on conditions which I will explain below:
“A dog biscuit.” In keeping with a deeply human trait, the food they prepare is not simply what they judge adequate to sustain the body, but meant to give pleasure, in a sense adorned, because eating is not to them simply a biological need. They would also get adorned food to give pleasure to organisms they kept, including dogs, which include many different breeds which in turn varied from being natural sentries protecting territories to a welcoming committee of one which would give a visitor an exuberant greeting just because he was there.
“An M16 rifle’s spent shell casing.” That means the used remnant after… wait a little bit. I need to go a lot farther back to explain this one.You will find something deceptively familiar in that in that universe, people strategically align resources and then attack their opponents, usually until a defeat is obvious. And if you look for what is deceptive, it will be a frustrating search, because even if the technologies involved are primitive, it is a match of strategy, tactics, and opposition.What makes it different is that this is not a recreation or an art form, but something many of them consider the worst evil that can happen, or among the worst. The resources that are destroyed, the bodies—in our world, it is simply what is involved in the game, but many of them consider it an eternal loss.
Among the people we will be meeting, people may be broken down into “pacifists” who believe that war is always wrong, and people who instead of being pure pacifists try to have a practical way of pursuing pacifist goals: the disagreement is not whether one should have a war for amusement’s sake (they both condemn that), but what one should do when not having a war looks even more destructive than having a war. And that does not do justice to either side of the debate, but what I want to emphasize that to both of them this is not simply a game or one form of recreation; it is something to avoid at almost any cost.
A knight was someone who engaged in combat, an elite soldier riding an animal called a horse. In Chretien de Troye’s day and Mallory’s day, the culture was such that winning a fight was important, but fighting according to “chivalry” was more important. Among other things, chivalry meant that they would only use simple weapons based on mechanical principles—no poison—and they wouldn’t even use weapons with projectiles, like arrows and (armor piercing) crossbow bolts. In practice that only meant rigid piercing and cutting weapons, normally swords and spears. And there was a lot more. A knight was to protect women and children.
The form that chivalry took in Peter’s day allowed projectile weapons, although poison was still not allowed, along with biological, thermonuclear, and other weapons which people did not wish to see in war, and the fight to disfigure the tradition’s understanding women had accorded them meant that women could fight and be killed like men, although people worked to keep children out of warfare, and in any case the “Geneva Convention”, as the code of chivalry was called, maintained a sharp distinction between combatants and non-combatants, the latter of which were to be protected.
The specific projectile weapon carried by most members of the local army was called an M16 rifle, which fired surprisingly small .22 bullets—I say “surprisingly” because if you were a person fighting against them and you were hit, you would be injured but quite probably not killed.
This was intentional. (Yes, they knew how to cause an immediate kill.)
Part of it is the smaller consideration that if you killed an enemy soldier immediately, you took one soldier out of action; on the other hand, if you wounded an enemy soldier, you took three soldiers out of action. But this isn’t the whole reason. The much bigger part of the reason is that their sense of chivalry (if it was really just chivalry; they loved their enemies) meant that even in their assaults they tried to subdue with as little killing as possible.
There were people training with the army in that community (no, not Peter; Peter was a pure pacifist) who trained, with M16 rifles, not because they wanted to fight, but as part of a not entirely realistic belief that if they trained hard enough, their achievement would deter people who would go to war. And the “Crusader battalion” (the Crusaders were a series of people who fought to defend Peter’s spiritual ancestors from an encroaching threat that would have destroyed them) had a great sense of chivalry, even if none of them used the word “chivalry”.
“A car bumper.” A car bumper is a piece of armor placed on the front and back of cars so that they can sustain low-velocity collisions without damage. (At higher velocities, newer cars are designed to serve as a buffer so that “crumple zones” will be crushed, absorbing enough of the impact so that the “passenger cage” reduces injuries sustained by people inside; this is part of a broader cultural bent towards minimizing preventable death because of what they believe about one human life.) Not only is a car bumper an unusual item to give, it is heavy and awkward enough that people tend not to carry such things with them—even the wealthy ones tend to be extraordinarily lightly encumbered.
“An antique.” It is said, “The problem with England is that they believe 100 miles is a long distance, and the problem with America is that they believe 100 years is a long time.” An antique—giving the rule without all the special cases and exceptions, which is to say giving the rule as if it were not human—is something over 100 years old. To understand this, you must appreciate that it does not include easily available rocks, many of which are millions or billions of years old, and it is not based on the elementary particles that compose something (one would have to search hard to find something not made out of elementary particles almost as old as the universe). The term “antique” connotes rarity, and in a sense something out of the ordinary; that people’s way is concerned with “New! New! New!” and it is hard to find an artifact that was created more than 100 years ago, which is what was intended.This quest is all the more interesting because there is an “unwritten rule” that items will be acquired by asking, not by theft or even purchase—and, as most antiques are valuable, it would be odd for someone you’ve just met—and therefore with whom you have only the general human bond but not the special bond of friendship—to give you such an item, even if most of the littler things in life are acquired economically while the larger things can only be acquired by asking.
“A note from a doctor, certifying that you do not have bubonic plague.” Intended as a joke, this refers to a health, safeguarded by their medicine, which keeps them from a dreadful disease which tore apart societies some centuries ago: that sort of thing wasn’t considered a live threat because of how successful their medicine was (which is why it could be considered humorous).
“A burning piece of paper which no one in your group lit. (Must be presented in front of Fischer and not brought into the building.)” This presents a physical challenge, in that there is no obvious way to transport a burning piece of paper—or what people characteristically envision as a burning piece of paper—from almost anywhere else to in front of Fischer.
“A sheet of paper with a fingerpaint handprint from a kindergartener.””Kindergarten” was the first year of their formal education, and a year of preparation before students were ready to enter their first grade. What did this society teach at its first, required year? Did it teach extraordinarily abstract equations, or cosmological theory, or literary archetypes, or how to use a lathe?All of these could be taught later on, and for that matter there is reason to value all of them. But the very beginning held something different. It taught people to take their turn and share; it taught people “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” the Golden Rule by which their great Teachers crystallized so much wisdom. All of this work and play, some of the most advanced lessons they could learn, were placed, not at the end, but at the beginning of their education.
That is what kindergarten was. What was a kindergartener? The true but uninformative answer would be “a person in kindergarten.”
To get past that uninformative answer, I need to stress that their minds are bound up with organic life—they did not spring, fully formed, as you and I did. In most complex organisms, there is a process that transforms a genetically complete organism of just one cell to become a mature member of the species; among humans, that process is one of the longest and most complex. During that time their minds are developping as well as their bodies; in that regard they are not simply in harmony with the natural world this society believes it is separate from… but one of its best examples.
But to say that alone is to flatten out something interesting… even more interesting than the process of biological mental development is the place that society has for something called “childhood”. Not all cultures have that concept—and again I am saying “culture” without explaining what it means. I can’t. Not all societies understand “childhood” as this society does; to many, a child is a smaller and less capable adult, or even worse, a nonentity. But in this culture, childhood is a distinctive time, and a child, including a kindergardener, is something special—almost a different species of mind. Their inability to healthily sustain themselves is met, not always with scorn, but with a giving of support and protection—and this is not always a grudging duty, but something that can bring joy. They are viewed as innocent, which is certainly not true, and something keeps many people from resenting them when they prove that they are not innocent by doing things that would not be tolerated if an adult did it. And the imperviousness of this belief to contrary experience is itself the shadow of the whole place of childhood as a time to play and learn and explore worlds of imagination and the things most adults take for granted. And many adults experience a special pleasure, and much more than a pleasure, from the company of children, a pleasure that is tied to something much deeper.
This pleasure shines through even a handprint left with “fingerpaints,” a way of doing art reserved for children, so that this physical object is itself a symbol of all that is special about childhood, and like symbols of that world carries with it what is evoked: seeing such a handprint is a little like seeing a kindergartener.
And they were off. They stopped for a brief break and annoyedly watched the spectacle of over a hundred linked metal carts carrying a vast quantity of material, and walked in and out of the surrounding neighborhoods. Their knocks on the door met a variety of warm replies. Before long, they had a handprint from a kindergartener, a dog biscuit (and some very enthusiastic attention from a kind dog!), a note from an off-duty doctor (who did not examine them, but simply said that if they had the bubonic plague there would be buboes bulging from them in an obvious way), a cigarette lighter and a sheet of paper (unlit), a twisted bumper (which Peter surprised people by flipping over his shoulder), and finally a spent shell casing from a military science professor. When they climbed up “Fischer beach,” John handed the paper and lighter to his RA and said, “Would you light this?” It was with an exhausted satisfaction that they went to dinner and had entirely amiable conversation with other equally students who scant minutes ago had been their competitors.
When dinner was finished, Peter and Mary sat for a while in exhausted silence, before climbing up for the next scheduled activity—but I am at a loss for how to describe the next scheduled activity. To start with, I will give a deceptive description. If you can understand this activity, you will have understood a great deal more of what is in that world that doesn’t fit in ours.
Do I have to give a deceptive description, in that any description in our terms will be more or less deceptive? I wasn’t trying to make that kind of philosophical point; I wasn’t tring to make a philosophical point at all. I am choosing a description of the next scheduled activity that is more deceptive than it needs to be.
When students studied an academic discipline called “physics,” the curriculum was an initiation into progressively stranger and more esoteric doctrines, presented at the level which students were able to receive them. Students were first taught “Newtonian mechanics” (which openly regarded as false), before being initiated into “Einstein’s relativity” at the next level (which was also considered false, but was widely believed to be closer to the truth). Students experienced a “night and day” difference between Newtonian mechanics and all higher order mysteries. If you were mathematically adept enough to follow the mathematics, then Newton was easy because he agreed with good old common sense, and Einstein and even stranger mysteries were hard to understand because they turned common sense on its head. Newton was straightforward while the others were profoundly counterintuitive. So Einstein, unlike Newton, required a student to mentally engulf something quite alien to normal, common sense ways of thinking about the world around oneself. Hence one could find frustrated student remarks about, “And God said, ‘Let there be light!’ And there was Newton. Then the Devil howled, ‘Let Einstein be!’ and restored the status quo.”
Under this way of experiencing physics, Newton simply added mathematical formality to what humans always knew: everything in space fit in one long and continuous three-dimensional grid, and time could be measured almost as if it were a line, and so Einstein was simply making things more difficult and further from humans’ natural perceptions when his version of a fully mathematical model softened the boundaries of space and time so that one could no longer treat it as if it had a grid for a skeleton.
Someone acquainted with the history of science might make the observation that it was not so much that Newton’s mechanics were a mathematically rigorous formalization of how people experienced space and time, but that how people experienced space and time hadbecome a hazy and non-mathematical paraphrase of Newtonian mechanics: in other words, some students some students learned Newtonian mechanics easily, not because Newtonian physics was based on common sense, but because their “common sense” had been profoundly shaped by Newtonian physics.
This seemingly pedantic distinction was deeply tied to how the organic was being extinguished in their society.
I suspect you are thinking, “What other mathematical model was it based on instead?” And that’s why you’re having trouble guessing the answer.
The answer is related to the organic. Someone who knew Newton and his colleagues, and what they were rebelling against, could get a sense of something very different even without understanding what besides mathematics would undergird what space meant to them. In a certain sense, Newton forcefully stated the truth, but in a deceptive way. He worked hard to forge a concept of cold matter, pointing out that nature was not human—and it was a philosophical error to think of nature as human, but it was not nearly so great as one might think. Newton and his colleagues powerfully stressed that humans were superior to the rest of the physical world (which was not human), that they were meant not simply to be a part of nature but to conquer and rule it. And in so doing they attacked an equally great truth, that not only other life but even “inanimate” matter was kin to humans—lesser kin, perhaps, but humans and the rest of the natural world formed a continuity. They obscured the wisdom that the lordship humans were to exercise was not of a despot controlling something worthless, but the mastery of the crowning jewel of a treasure they had been entrusted to them. They introduced the concept of “raw material”, something as foreign to their thinking as… I can’t say what our equivalent would be, because everything surrounding “raw material” is so basic to us, and what they believed instead, their organic perception, is foreign to us. They caused people to forget that, while it would be a philosophical error to literally regard the world as human, it would be much graver to believe it is fundamentally described as inert, cold matter. And even when they had succeeded in profoundly influencing their cultures, so that people consciously believed in cold matter to a large degree, vestiges of the ancient experience survived in the medieval. It is perhaps not a coincidence that hundreds of years since Newton, in Newton’s own “mother tongue” (English), the words for “matter” and “mother” both sprung from the same ancient root word.
The Newtonian conception of space had displaced to some degree the older conception of place, a conception which was less concerned with how far some place was from other different places, and more concerned with a sort of color or, to some extent, meaning. The older conception also had a place for some things which couldn’t really be stated under the new conception: people would say, “You can’t be in two places at once.” What they meant by that was to a large degree something different, “Your body cannot be at two different spatial positions at the same time.” This latter claim was deceptive, because it was true so far as it goes, but it was a very basic fact of life that people could be in two places at once. The entire point of the next scheduled activity was to be in two places at once.
Even without describing what the other place was (something which could barely be suggested even in that world) and acknowledging that the point of the activity was to be in two places at once, this description of that activity would surprise many of the people there, and disturb those who could best sense the other place. The next scheduled activity was something completely ordinary to them, a matter of fact event that held some mystery, and something that would not occur to them as being in two places at once. The activity of being present in two or more places at once was carried on, on a tacit level, even when people had learned to conflate place with mathematical position. One such activity was confused with what we do when we remember: when we remember, we recall data from storage, while they cause the past to be present. The words, “This do in rememberance of me,” from a story that was ancient but preserved in the early medieval period we are looking at, had an unquestioned meaning of, “Cause me to be present by doing this,” but had suffered under a quite different experience of memory, so that to some people it meant simply to go over data about a person who had been present in the past but could not be present then.
But this activity was not remembering. Or at least, it was not just remembering. And this leaves open the difficulty of explaining how it was ordinary to them. It was theoretically in complete continuity with the rest of their lives, although it would be more accurate to say that the rest of their lives were theoretically in complete continuity with it. This activity was in a sense the most human, and the most organic, in that in it they led the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, the plants, the rocks, the mountains, and the sees in returning to the place they came from. This description would also likely astonish the people who were gathered in a painted brick room, sitting on carpet and on movable perches, and seeing through natural light mixed with flickering fluorescent lights. Not one of them was thinking about “nature.”
What went on there was in a very real sense mediocre. Each activity was broken down, vulgarized, compared to what it could be—which could not obliterate what was going on. When they were songs, they were what were called “7-11” songs, a pejorative term which meant songs with seven words repeated eleven times. There was a very real sense in which the event was diminished by the music, but even when you factor in every diminishing force, there was something going on there, something organic and more than organic, which you and I do not understand—for that matter, which many people in that world do not understand.
Archon was silent for a long time.
Ployon said, “What is it?”
Archon said, “I can’t do it. I can’t explain this world. All I’ve really been doing is taking the pieces of that world that are a bit like ours. You’ve been able to understand much of it because I haven’t tried to convey several things that are larger than our world. ‘God’ is still a curious and exotic appendage that isn’t connected to anything, not really; I haven’t been able to explain, really explain, what it is to be male and female unities, or what masculinity and femininity are. There are a thousand things, and… I’ve been explaining what three-dimensional substance is to a two-dimensional world, and the way I’ve been doing it is to squash it into two dimensions, and make it understandable by removing from it everything that makes it three dimensional. Or almost everything…”
“How would a three dimensional being, a person from that world, explain the story?”
“But it wouldn’t. A three dimensional being wouldn’t collapse a cube into a square to make it easier for itself to understand; that’s something someone who couldn’t free itself from reading two dimensional thinking into three dimensions would do. You’re stuck in two dimensions. So am I. That’s why I failed, utterly failed, to explain the “brother-sister floor fellowship”, the next scheduled activity. And my failure is structural. It’s like I’ve been setting out to copy a living, moving organism by sculpturing something that looks like it out of steel. And what I’ve been doing is making intricate copies of its every contour, and painting the skin and fur exactly the same color, and foolishly hoping it will come alive. And this is something I can’t make by genetic engineering.”
“But how would someone from that world explain the story? Even if I can’t understand it, I want to know.”
“But people from that world don’t explain stories. A story isn’t something you explain; it’s something that may be told, shared, but usually it is a social error to explain a story, because a story participates in human life and telling a story connects one human to another. And so it’s a fundamental error to think a story is something you convey by explaining it—like engineering a robotic body for an animal so you can allow it to have a body. I have failed because I was trying something a mind could only fail at.”
“Then can you tell the story, like someone from that world would tell it?”
Peter and Mary both loved to run, but for different reasons. Peter was training himself for various races; he had not joined track, as he did in high school, but there were other races. Mary ran to feel the sun and wind and rain. And, without any conscious effort, they found themselves running together down the prairie path together, and Peter clumsily learning to match his speed to hers. And, as time passed, they talked, and talked, and talked, and talked, and their runs grew longer.
When the fall break came, they both joined a group going to the northwoods of Wisconsin for a program that was half-work and half-play. And each one wrote a letter home about the other. Then Peter began his theology of culture class, and said, “This is what I want to study.” Mary did not have a favorite class, at least not that she realized, until Peter asked her what her favorite class was and she said, “Literature.”
When Christmas came, they went to their respective homes and spent the break thinking about each other, and they talked about this when they returned. They ended the conversation, or at least they thought they did, and then each hurried back to catch the other and say one more thing, and then the conversation turned out to last much longer, and ended with a kiss.
Valentine’s Day was syrupy. It was trite enough that their more romantically inclined friends groaned, but it did not seem at all trite or syrupy to them. As Peter’s last name was Patrick, he called Mary’s father and prayed that St. Patrick’s Day would be a momentous day for both of them.
Peter and Mary took a slow run to a nearby village, and had dinner at an Irish pub. Amidst the din, they had some hearty laughs. The waitress asked Mary, “Is there anything else that would make this night memorable?” Then Mary saw Peter on his knee, opening a jewelry box with a ring: “I love you, Mary. Will you marry me?”
Mary cried for a good five minutes before she could answer. And when she had answered, they sat in silence, a silence that overpowered the din. Then Mary wiped her eyes and they went outside.
It was cool outside, and the moon was shining brightly. Peter pulled a camera from his pocket, and said, “Stay where you are. Let me back up a bit. And hold your hand up. You look even more beautiful with that ring on your finger.”
Peter’s camera flashed as he took a picture, just as a drunk driver slammed into Mary. The sedan spun into a storefront, and Mary flew up into the air, landed, and broke a beer bottle with her face.
People began to come out, and in a few minutes the police and paramedics arrived. Peter somehow managed to answer the police officers’ questions and to begin kicking himself for being too stunned to act.
When Peter left his room the next day, he looked for Prof. Johnson. Prof. Johnson asked, “May I give you a hug?” and then sat there, simply being with Peter in his pain. When Peter left, Prof. Johnson said, “I’m not just here for academics. I’m here for you.” Peter went to chapel and his classes, feeling a burning rage that almost nothing could pierce. He kept going to the hospital, and watching Mary with casts on both legs and one arm, and many tiny stitches on her face, fluttering on the borders of consciousness. One time Prof. Johnson came to visit, and he said, “I can’t finish my classes.” Prof. Johnson looked at him and said, “The college will give you a full refund.” Peter said, “Do you know of any way I can stay here to be with Mary?” Prof. Johnson said, “You can stay with me. And I believe a position with UPS would let you get some income, doing something physical. The position is open for you.” Prof. Johnson didn’t mention the calls he’d made, and Peter didn’t think about them. He simply said, “Thank you.”
A few days later, Mary began to be weakly conscious. Peter finally asked a nurse, “Why are there so many stitches on her face? Was she cut even more badly than—”
The nurse said, “There are a lot of stitches very close together because the emergency room had a cosmetic surgeon on duty. There will still be a permanent mark on her face, but some of the wound will heal without a scar.”
Mary moved the left half of her mouth in half a smile. Peter said, “That was a kind of cute smile. How come she can smile like that?”
The nurse said, “One of the pieces of broken glass cut a nerve. It is unlikely she’ll ever be able to move part of her face again.”
Peter looked and touched Mary’s hand. “I still think it’s really quite cute.”
Mary looked at him, and then passed out.
Peter spent a long couple of days training and attending to practical details. Then he came back to Mary.
Mary looked at Peter, and said, “It’s a Monday. Don’t you have classes now?”
Peter said, “No.”
Mary said, “Why not?”
Peter said, “I want to be here with you.”
Mary said, “I talked with one of the nurses, and she said that you dropped out of school so you could be with me.
“Is that true?” she said.
Peter said, “I hadn’t really thought about it that way.”
Mary closed her eyes, and when Peter started to leave because he decided she wanted to be left alone, she said, “Stop. Come here.”
Peter came to her bedside and knelt.
Mary said, “Take this ring off my finger.”
Peter said, “Is it hurting you?”
Mary said, “No, and it is the greatest treasure I own. Take it off and take it back.”
Peter looked at her, bewildered. “Do you not want to marry me?”
Mary said, “This may sting me less because I don’t remember our engagement. I don’t remember anything that happened near that time; I have only the stories others, even the nurses, tell me about a man who loves me very much.”
Peter said, “But don’t you love me?”
Mary forced back tears. “Yes, I love you, yes, I love you. And I know that you love me. You are young and strong, and have the love to make a happy marriage. You’ll make some woman a very good husband. I thought that woman would be me.
“But I can see what you will not. You said I was beautiful, and I was. Do you know what my prognosis is? I will probably be able to stand. At least for short periods of time. If I’m fortunate, I may walk. With a walker. I will never be able to run again—Peter, I am nobody, and I have no future. Absolutely nobody. You are young and strong. Go and find a woman who is worth your love.”
Mary and Peter both cried for a long time. Then Peter walked out, and paused in the doorway, crying. He felt torn inside, and then went in to say a couple of things to Mary. He said, “I believe in miracles.”
Then Mary cried, and Peter said something else I’m not going to repeat. Mary said something. Then another conversation began.
The conversation ended with Mary saying, “You’re stupid, Peter. You’re really, really stupid. I love you. I don’t deserve such love. You’re making a mistake. I love you.” Then Peter went to kiss Mary, and as he bent down, he bent his mouth to meet the lips that he still saw as “really quite cute.”
The stress did not stop. The physical therapists, after time, wondered that Mary had so much fight in her. But it stressed her, and Peter did his job without liking it. Mary and Peter quarreled and made up and quarreled and made up. Peter prayed for a miracle when they made up and sometimes when they quarreled. Were this not enough stress, there was an agonizingly long trial—and knowing that the drunk driver was behind bars surprisingly didn’t make things better. But Mary very slowly learned to walk again. After six months, if Peter helped her, she could walk 100 yards before the pain became too great to continue.
Peter hadn’t been noticing that the stress diminished, but he did become aware of something he couldn’t put his finger on. After a night of struggling, he got up, went to church, and was floored by the Bible reading of, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” and the idea that when you do or do not visit someone in prison, you are visiting or refusing to visit Christ. Peter absently went home, tried to think about other things, made several phone calls, and then forced himself to drive to one and only one prison.
He stopped in the parking lot, almost threw up, and then steeled himself to go inside. He found a man, Jacob, and… Jacob didn’t know who Peter was, but he recognized him as looking familiar. It was an awkward meeting. Then he recognized him as the man whose now wife he had crippled. When Peter left, he vomited and felt like a failure. He talked about it with Mary…
That was the beginning of a friendship. Peter chose to love the man in prison, even if there was no pleasure in it. And that created something deeper than pleasure, something Peter couldn’t explain.
As Peter and Mary were planning the wedding, Mary said, “I want to enter with Peter next to me, no matter what the tradition says. It will be a miracle if I have the strength to stand for the whole wedding, and if I have to lean on someone I want it to be Peter. And I don’t want to sit on a chair; I would rather spend my wedding night wracked by pain than go through my wedding supported by something lifeless!”
When the rehearsal came, Mary stood, and the others winced at the pain in her face. And she stood, and walked, for the entire rehearsal without touching Peter once. Then she said, “I can do it. I can go through the wedding on my own strength,” and collapsed in pain.
At the wedding, she stood next to Peter, walking, her face so radiant with joy that some of the guests did not guess she was in exquisite pain. They walked next to each other, not touching, and Mary slowed down and stopped in the center of the church. Peter looked at her, wondering what Mary was doing.
Then Mary’s arm shot around Peter’s neck, and Peter stood startled for a moment before he placed his arm around her, squeezed her tightly, and they walked together to the altar.
On the honeymoon, Mary told Peter, “You are the only person I need.” This was the greatest bliss either of them had known, and the honeymoon’s glow shined and shined.
Peter and Mary agreed to move somewhere less expensive to settle down, and were too absorbed in their wedded bliss and each other to remember promises they had made earlier, promises to seek a church community for support and friends. And Peter continued working at an unglamorous job, and Mary continued fighting to walk and considered the housework she was capable of doing a badge of honor, and neither of them noticed that the words, “I love you” were spoken ever so slightly less frequently, nor did they the venom creeping into their words.
One night they exploded. What they fought about was not important. What was important was that Peter left, burning with rage. He drove, and drove, until he reached Wheaton, and at daybreak knocked on Prof. Johnson’s door. There was anger in his voice when he asked, “Are you still my friend?”
Prof. Johnson got him something to eat and stayed with him when he fumed with rage, and said, “I don’t care if I’m supposed to be with her, I can’t go back!” Then Prof. Johnson said, “Will you make an agreement with me? I promise you I won’t ever tell you to go back to her, or accept her, or accept what she does, or apologize to her, or forgive her, or in any way be reconciled. But I need you to trust me that I love you and will help you decide what is best to do.”
Peter said, “Yes.”
Prof. Johnson said, “Then stay with me. You need some rest. Take the day to rest. There’s food in the fridge, and I have books and a nice back yard. There’s iced tea in the—excuse me, there’s Coke and 7 Up in the boxes next to the fridge. When I can come back, we can talk.”
Peter relaxed, and he felt better. He told Prof. Johnson. Prof. Johnson said, “That’s excellent. What I’d like you to do next is go in to work, with a lawyer I know. You can tell him what’s going on, and he’ll lead you to a courtroom to observe.”
Peter went away to court the next day, and when he came back he was ashen. He said nothing to Prof. Johnson.
Then, after the next day, he came back looking even more unhappy. “The first day, the lawyer, George, took me into divorce court. I thought I saw the worst that divorce court could get. Until I came back today. It was the same—this sickening scene where two people had become the most bitter enemies. I hope it doesn’t come to this. This was atrocious. It was vile. It was more than vile. It was—”
Prof. Johnson sent him back for a third day. This time Peter said nothing besides, “I think I’ve been making a mistake.”
After the fourth day, Peter said, “Help me! I’ve been making the biggest mistake of my life!”
After a full week had passed, Peter said, “Please, I beg you, don’t send me back there.”
Prof. Johnson sent Peter back to watch a divorce court for one more miserable, excruciating day. Then he said, “Now you can do whatever you want. What do you want to do?”
The conflict between Peter and Mary ended the next day.
Peter went home, begging Mary for forgiveness, and no sooner than he had begun his apology, a thousand things were reflected in Mary’s face and she begged his forgiveness. Then they talked, and debated whether to go back to Wheaton, or stay where they were. Finally Mary said, “I really want to go back to Wheaton.”
Peter began to shyly approach old friends. He later misquoted: “I came crawling with a thimble in the desparate hope that they’d give a few tiny drops of friendship and love. Had I known how they would respond, I would have come running with a bucket!”
Peter and Mary lived together for many years; they had many children and were supported by many friends.
Ployon said, “I didn’t follow every detail, but… there was something in that that stuck.”
Archon said, “How long do you think it lasted?”
“A little shorter than the other one, I mean first part.”
“Do you have any idea how many days were in each part?”
“About the same? I assume the planet had slowed down so that a year and a day were of roughly equal length.”
“The first part took place during three days. The latter part spanned several thousand days—”
“I guess I didn’t understand it—”
“—which is… a sign that you understood something quite significant… that you knew what to pay attention to and were paying attention to the right thing.”
“But I didn’t understand it. I had a sense that it was broken off before the end, and that was the end, right?”
Archon hesitated, and said, “There’s more, but I’d rather not go into that.”
Ployon said, “Are you sure?”
“You won’t like it.”
The years passed and Peter and Mary grew into a blissfully happy marriage. Mary came to have increasing health problems as a result of the accident, and those around them were amazed at how their love had transformed the suffering the accident created in both of their lives. At least those who knew them best saw the transformation. There were many others who could only see their happiness as a mirage.
As the years passed, Jacob grew to be a good friend. And when Peter began to be concerned that his wife might be… Jacob had also grown wealthy, very wealthy, and assembled a top-flight legal team (without taking a dime of Peter’s money—over Peter’s protests!), to prevent what the doctors would normally do in such a case, given recent shifts in the medical system.
And then Mary’s health grew worse, much worse, and her suffering grew worse with it, and pain medications seemed to be having less and less effect. Those who didn’t know Mary were astonished that someone in so much pain could enjoy life so much, nor the hours they spent gazing into each other’s eyes, holding hands, when Mary’s pain seemed to vanish. A second medical opinion, and a third, and a fourth, confirmed that Mary had little chance of recovery even to her more recent state. And whatever measures been taken, whatever testimony Peter and Mary could give about the joy of their lives, the court’s decision still came:
The court wishes to briefly review the facts of the case. Subject is suffering increasingly severe effects from an injury that curtailed her life greatly as a young person. from which she has never recovered, and is causing increasingly complications now that she will never again have youth’s ability to heal. No fewer than four medical opinions admitted as expert testimony substantially agree that subject is in extraordinary and excruciating pain; that said excruciating pain is increasing; that said excruciating pain is increasingly unresponsive to medication; that subject has fully lost autonomy and is dependent on her husband; that this dependence is profound, without choice, and causes her husband to be dependent without choice on others and exercise little autonomy; and the prognosis is only of progressively worse deterioration and increase in pain, with no question of recovery.
The court finds it entirely understandable that the subject, who has gone through such trauma, and is suffering increasingly severe complications, would be in a state of some denial. Although a number of positions could be taken, the court also finds it understandable that a husband would try to maintain a hold on what cannot exist, and needlessly prolong his wife’s suffering. It is not, however, the court’s position to judge whether this is selfish…
For all the impressive-sounding arguments that have been mounted, the court cannot accord a traumatized patient or her ostensibly well-meaning husband a privelege that the court itself does not claim. The court does not find that it has an interest in allowing this woman to continue in her severe and worsening state of suffering.
Peter was at her side, holding her hand and looking into his wife’s eyes, The hospital doctor had come. Then Peter said, “I love you,” and Mary said, “I love you,” and they kissed.
Mary’s kiss was still burning on Peter’s lips when two nurses hooked Mary up to an IV and injected her with 5000 milligrams of sodium thiopental, then a saline flush followed by 100 milligrams of pancurium bromide, then a saline flush and 20 milligrams of potassium chloride.
A year later to the day, Peter died of a broken heart.
Ployon was silent for a long time, and Archon was silent for an even longer time. Ployon said, “I guess part of our world is present in that world. Is that what you mean by being in two places at once?”
Archon was silent for a long time.
Ployon said, “It seems that that world’s problems and failings are somehow greater than our achievements. I wish that world could exist, and that we could somehow visit it.”
Archon said, “Do you envy them that much?”
Ployon said, “Yes. We envy them as—”
Archon said, “—as—” and searched through his world’s images.
Three types of lies:
Lies, Statistics, and Infographics
To begin with, I would like to quote a portion of a poster, posted for government-required regulatory compliance at a once bastion of Christian conservatism, Wheaton College. My choice of this part of departure is not specifically focused on Wheaton, which was presumably not trying to be provocative, but to represent enough of a mainstream influence of feminism that I am not discussing a lunatic fringe of feminism, but something basic and (on feminist terms) not particularly controversial.
I apologize in advance for the poor quality of the picture as it was an attempt to take an accurate picture of a part of a poster that was roughly one to two feet above my head. I will reproduce the graphics as best I can, including the dark, dingy look of the coins (on the original you can see the scissors cuts where the pictures of the quarters had been cut out), but in clarity because I want to represent the poster fairly and not by the standards of my photography in a difficult shot. The poster says at the top, “In Illinois, a woman makes 71 cents for every dollar a man makes.” Then there is a picture of 71 cents in coins, “for her” at the top, and a picture of a dollar bill, “for him” below. The picture is as follows:
In the interests of fairness, I want to start with a crisp reproduction of what the Infographic said. It looked like:
And the natural response is outrage. But what if we tweak things a little and compare coins with coins? Then we have:
But the objection may come, “Um, that almost destroys the effect.” And my response is, “Yes. That is exactly the point.” And in this there are two visual lies exposed by this revamp:
Whatever a man gets, it looks like literally a dozen times what a woman gets. The sheer space taken for $.71 in coins (and, following usual practice, as few coins as you can use to reach that amount), is dwarfed by the visual space taken by a dollar bill. For that matter, the visual space taken by a man’s four quarters is dwarfed by the visual space taken by a dollar bill. This may only register subconsciously, but it is a powerful subconscious cue: the real, emotional impact is not that a woman earns 71 cents on the dollar for a man, but more like a miniscule 5 to 10 cents on the dollar. This cue, which may only register subconsciously (compared to the revised comparison of $.71 in coins and $1.00 in the largest common coin, the quarter), is only more powerful for its subconscious effect.
Secondly, the Infographic registers something else that only renders subconsciously. Compared to the currencies of other countries, especially before the slightly new look for larger bills, paper currency was big currency, and real money. If you walked into a store and paid for something cash, you paid with bills. Coins, while having some value, are often only something you get back as the smallest remaining money and have to figure out what to do with. Not only is spare change a small sort of thing compared to realmoney, it was honestly a bit of a nuisance. Now people usually pay with plastic or other non-cash items, and money is a bit tighter for most of us, so we may want the change more, but saying that she gets change and he gets real money is an apples and oranges comparison; the effect is like saying that he is paid in cold, hard cash, while she is paid only in coupons.
Now it is not simply the case that Inforgraphics can only ever lie; the works of Tufte such as Envisioning Information and The Visual Display of Quantative Information never stop at tearing apart bad Infographics; they compellingly demonstrate that the visual display of information can be at one stroke beautiful, powerful, and truthful. Something a little more informative, if perhaps imperfect, to convey a 71% statistic would be to simply show 71% of a dollar bill:
But it is a serious misunderstanding of feminism to think that a feminist will argue this way. Instead it is another case of:
The beating heart of feminism
I’m not sure how this plays out in feminism outside of feminist theology, but every feminist reader I’ve read has been in an extreme hurry to neutralize any sense that the Roman veneration of the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary. Now I have heard Orthodox comment that Roman and Orthodox veneration vary: Romans stress the Mother of God’s virginity, Orthodox stress her motherhood, and presumably there’s more. But one finds among feminist theologians the claim that since the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary was both a virgin and a mother, that means that you’re not really OK if you’re a woman unless you are both a virgin and a mother. And never mind that spiritually speaking it is ideal for Orthodox Christians, women and men to have a spiritual virginity, and to give birth to Christ God in others, the Roman veneration means a woman isn’t OK unless she is (literally) both a virgin and a mother. Fullstop. One gets the sense that feminists would sell a story that the Roman Catholic Church reviles the Virgin Mary, if people could be convinced of that.
A first glimpse of the good estate of women
I would like to make an interstitial comment here, namely that there is something feminism is suppressing. What feminists are in a hurry to neutralize is any sense that the veneration of the Mother of God could in any way be a surfacing of the good estate of women. What is it they want to stop you from seeing?
Let’s stop for a second and think about Nobel Prizes. There is presumably no Nobel Prize for web development, but this is not a slight: web development is much newer than Nobel Prizes and regardless of whether Alfred Nobel would have given a Nobel prize to web development if it wasn’t around, the Nobel Prize simply hasn’t commented on web development. There is a Nobel Prize for physics, and (the highest one of all), the Nobel Prize for Peace. When a Nobel Prize is given to a physicist, this is a statement that not only the laureate but the discipline of physics itself is praiseworthy: it is a slight that there is no Nobel Prize for mathematics (rumor has it that Alfred Nobel’s wife was having an affair with a mathematician). To award a Nobel Prize for physics is to say that physics is a praiseworthy kind of thing, and one person is singled out as a crystallization of an honor bestowed to the whole discipline of physics. And, if I may put it that way, the Mother of God won the Nobel Prize for womanhood.
The answer comes after a question: “Who heard the Word of God and kept it?” “Who pre-eminently heard the Word of God and kept it?” Of course many people have done so, but the unequalled answer to “Who pre-eminently heard the Word of God and kept it?” is only the Mother of God, She who said, “Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” The woman who spoke up at the crowd said, “Your mother must really be something because she bore you!”, and Christ implies, “My Mother is really something because she obeyed.” The Mother of God did not achieve the combination of virginity and motherhood; she obeyed God’s command, and in the wake of that obedience, motherhood was added to her virginity. But taking the Mother of God as a role model for women does not mean that women need to be both virgins and mothers, any more than Evangelicals who ask “What would Jesus do?” feel themselves obliged to learn Arimaic and move to Israel. I don’t want to downplay Mary’s virginity and motherhood, both of which are sacred offices, but it is a serious confusion—or rather a serious duplicity—to say that venerating the Mother of God means that women aren’t OK unless they pull off the combination of virginity and motherhood.
The Mother of God is She who obeyed, and obedience is for everyone, and highlighted for women. And while it may be easy enough for feminist theologians to excuse themselves from a fabricated straw obligation to be both virgins and mothers if they are to be OK as women, excusing oneself from obedience presents more of a pickle, and one that they don’t want you to see. Feminism doesn’t like obedience (especially of women to men); engineered, synthetic feminist “fairy tales” like Ella Enchanted make it clear that for a woman to be in a position of obedience is a curse: a clear and unmitigated curse.
The First Eve fell because she disobeyed; the Last or New Eve offered the perfect creaturely obedience and the gates of Hell began to crumble at her obedience. The Incarnation, the point has been plainly made, would have been absolutely impossible without the consent, obedience, and cooperation of the Mother of God as it would have been without the Holy Trinity. And only a woman could have first opened that door. The Theotokos is called the first Christian; she was the first of many to receive Christ, and men learn from her.
A look at early Antiochian versus Alexandrine Christology may also be instructive. In Antiochian Christology, Christ was significant pre-eminently because he was the Son of God, born of a Virgin, lived a sinless life, died as a sacrifice, and rose as the firstborn of the Dead. In Alexandrian Christology, Christ was significant as a teacher primarily. At least one theologian has said that St. Paul’s epistles don’t make much of Christ, because not a single one of his parables comes up in St. Paul’s writing. But this is a misunderstanding: St. Paul was in fact making a (proto-)Antiochian use of Christ, and the Christ who was the Son of God, died a sacrifice, and rose from the dead is of central significance to the entire body of his letters. Christ’s teaching recorded in the Gospels is invaluable, but we could be saved without it, and many people effectively have been saved without that teaching as believers who did not have the Gospel in their language. But we could not be saved by a Christ who lacked the Antiochian distinctives: who was not Son of God or did not rise from the dead, trampling down death by death. If I may describe them in what may be anachronous terms, early Antiochian Christology held Christ to be significant as an archetype, while early Alexandrian Christology held Christ to be significant as an individual. And the distinction between them is significant. You do not know the significance of Christ as the New Adam until you grasp him as an archetype and not a mere individual on a pedestal, and you do not know the significance of the Mother of God as the New Eve until you grasp her as an archetype and not a mere individual on a pedestal.
On a level that includes the archetypal, the Mother of God is mystically identified by such things as Paradise, the earth, the Church, the Container of Christ, and the city, and many other things such as a live lived of prayer that completes its head in time spent at Church. To be a man is a spiritual office, and to be a woman is a spiritual office. The Mother of God serves as a paradigm, not only of Christians, but of woman. And that is noble, glorious, and beautiful.
There are more things that are beautiful about God’s creation than are dreamed of in feminism—and more things than are dreamed of even in women.
I remember one Indian woman I spoke with in an online author’s community; she was taking stories from Indian lore and trying to make concrete retellings of them: moving from the archetypes to individuals on a pedestal. And what I told her is, basically, don’t. The archetypal stories were something I could well enough relate to; the archetypal (Indian) loving elder in the story had the same pulse and the same heart as loving elders I knew as a small (U.S.) child. The archetypal level is universal. Now what happens in the concrete is important, profoundly important, but you miss something if you cut out its archetypal head and heart and then try to talk with the body that is left over. And there is real rapprochement between men and women: Christ the New Adam and Mary the New Eve enjoyed indescribable intimacy, an interpenetration or perichoresis where she gave him his humanity and he gave her her participation in his divinity. The Mother of God’s perpetual virginity stems from this; after such a perichoresis with God incarnate, a merely earthly husband’s physical union was impossible. I have heard a complementarian Roman Catholic theology suggest that the word homoousios to describe the relationship between men and women: homoousios being the word of the Creed used to affirm that the Son is not an inferior, creaturely copy of the Father but of the same essence, fully of the same essence. The statement may be an exaggeration; if so, it was forcefully stating something true. I have attempted postmodern thick description of differences between men and women; I was wrong, not in believing that there are real differences, but in assuming a postmodern style of thick description in rendering those differences. St. Maximus the Confessor is described as describing five mediations in which any gulf is transcended: that between male and female, that between Paradise and the inhabited world, that between Heaven and Earth, that between spiritual and visible Creation, and ultimately that between uncreated and created nature, the chasm between God and his Creation. All of these chasms are real; all are transcended in Christ, in whom there is no male nor female, paradise nor merely earthly city, Heaven nor mere earth, spiritual nor merely physical, Creator nor mere creature. All these distinctions are transcended in a Christ who makes us to become by grace what He is by nature.
The beating heart throbbing head of feminism
I have mentioned two points of feminism: first, an infographic that was mainstream enough to be proclaimed as part of a regulatory compliance poster; and second, the neutered veneration of the Mother of God that is not allowed to mean anything positive for the estate of women. However, these are not intended as the core of a critique of feminism; in part they are intended as clues. Feminism gives a clue about its beating heart throbbing head in an unsavory infographic, and in its haste to neutralize any sense that the veneration of the Mother of God could be any good signal for women (or the ordinary kind—those who are not both virgins and mothers). Another author might have substituted other examples, and I must confess a degree of instance in that I keep bumping into feminism and I have tried to understand it, but there are depths unknown to most feminists and I would be wary of claiming exhaustive knowledge that I do not claim for cultures I have lived in for months or years. But I still observe, or have acknowledged, one major point.
One text, Women’s Reality: An Emerging Female System in a White Male Society by Annd Schaef, admittedly considered dated by many feminists today, mentioned that the author mentioned that many men say that women understand them better than men. And this puzzled her, because on the surface at least, it looked quite frankly like a compliment paid, by men, to women. But then she put on her feminist X-ray goggles, observed that the beginning of ‘understand’ is ‘under’, and juridically decided that to “understand” is by nature to stand under, that is, to be an inferior. And so she managed to wrest a blatant affront from the jaws of an apparent (substantial) compliment.
There was a counselor at my church who was trying to prepare me for my studies in a liberal theology program, and he told me that there was something I would find very hard to understand in feminism. Now I found this strange as I had already lived in, and adapted to, life in four countries on three continents. And he was right. What I would not easily understand is subjectivism, something at the beating heart, or throbbing head, of feminism. And what is called subjectivism looking at one end is pride recognized by the others, and pride is a topic about which Orthodoxy has everything to say. Pride is the heart, and subjecivism the head, of what Orthodoxy regards as one of the deadliest spiritual poisons around.
It is said that the gates of Hell are bolted and barred from the inside. It is only an image, but some say that the fire of Hell is the Light of Heaven as it is experienced through its rejection. And Heaven and Hell are spiritual realities that we begin to experience now; and feminism is, if anything, bolted and barred from the inside. To pick another example, with the influential You Just Don’t Understand by Deborah Tannen, the metamessage that is read into men holding doors for women was, “It is mine to give you this privilege, and it is mine to take away.” And on that point I would comment: I won’t judge this conversation by today’s etiquette, in which more often than not people are expected to hold the door for other people; I will comment on the older etiquette that met feminist critique. And on that point I must ask whether any other point in the entire etiquette, much of which was gender-neutral then, received such interpretation? Did saying, “Please,” or “Thank you,” or “I’m sorry,” ever carry a power play of “I extend this privilege to you and it is mine to take away?” More to the point, do body image feminists wish to find a sexist power play in the saying, “There are three things you do not ask a woman: her age, her weight, or her dress size.”? Or Was it not just part of a standard etiquette that no one claimed to be able to take away?
But even this is missing something, and I do not mean “men who are fair and women who care.” The unfairness is significant, not for being unfair in itself, but because it is the trail of clues left by something that breaches care. And to try to address this issue by reasoning is a losing battle, not because logic is somehow more open to men than women, but because you cannot reason subjectivism into truth any more than you can reason an alcoholic to stop drinking, fullstop. Now one may be able to make the case to a third party that it would better for a particular alcoholic to stop drinking, or that a particular feminist argument played fast and loose with the rules of logic, but it is madness to bring this to feminism. What is unfair in feminism is most directly speaking a breach of one of the lowest basic virtues of the Christian walk, namely justice, and caring is at essence about the highest of virtues in the Christian walk, namely αγαπη or love, but this is not what’s wrong. Dishonest arguments in feminism are a set of footprints left by pride or subjectivism, and it is by pride that Satan fell from being an angel in Heaven to being the Devil. It is also through pride, here known under the label of “consciousness raising”, that just as Michael Polanyi has been summarized as saying that behaviorists do not teach, “There is no soul,” but induce students into study in such a way that the possibility of a soul is never considered, feminists put on subjectivist X-ray goggles that let them see oppression of women in every nook and cranny, even in social politeness. And if you read Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, which has its merits even if they are limited, it is well worth studying what he says about bullies. Bullies do not see themselves as triumphant, or for that matter as oppressors, but as beleaguered victims. Everything has significance, and everything hashostile significance. Why did someone bump a bully in the hallway? The possibility that it was a crowded hall and growing children can be just a little bit clumsy with the current state of their bodies, is never even considered. An innocent bump in the hall is the tip of an assault, the tip of an iceberg in which a piece is moved in chess to achieve their defeat. And the bully’s actions are only a modest self-defense. The bully has X-ray goggles that make everything plain, and the bully’s state of mind is what is built up by the X-ray goggles of “consciousness raising.”
“Consciousness raising” is a brilliant euphemism for taking women who are in many cases happy and well-adjusted and transforming them into alienated, hostile women who believe that everything outside of feminism has it in for them.
Unpeeling the infographic a little further
In my discussion above, I left unchallenged the figure that women make $0.71 on the dollar compared to what men make. How can I put this? Subjectivists do not go out of their way to use statistics honestly. Subjectivists go for the most convenient cherry-picked data they could. As others have said, they use statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts: for support rather than illumination.
Christina Sommer’s Who Stole Feminism: How Women Have Betrayed Women suggests that that book does not follow the ceteris parabis principle of comparing with all other things being equal. Motherhood is hard to grind out of women, and spending significant time with her young children is hard to grind out of most women. The “71 cents on the dollar” figure keeps cropping up; in one discussion I remember it was repeatedly claimed that women made 69 cents on the dollar until one person said “Please either substantiate this statistic or stop bringing it up. The comparison in that study compared men who had a single, so to speak, major time commitment to their work, to women who were working hard to juggle a major time commitment to work with a major time commit to their younger children. When things were genuinely ceteris paribus, when men were only compared to women who had worked without reduced employment to care for children, then the figure was more like 86-91 cents on the dollar.
Is 86+ cents on the dollar in 1987 and a closing gap acceptable?
There was a short story that a roommate read to me in high school; it offended me and I was I was horrified. It showed a hiring manager saying, “Insipid. Pathetic. Disgusting. Miserable.” as he threw one more resume into the trash. Then a doorkeeper said, “Your 3:00 is here.” The manager said, “You’ve got some balls applying for a position like this. Why are you wasting my time?” The applicant said, “I have wanted to work with this company all my life. I want this position; I have friends, family, and a religion, but all of them are secondary; I will miss the birth of a child if that is what it takes to work.” The manager said, “Get out. Are you going to go by yourself or will I have to call to have security escort you off the premises?”
In a flash, the applicant leveled a .45 magnum at him and said, “I want this job. Now will you hire me or do I have to blow you away?” The hiring manager said, “Very well. Report to my desk at 8:00 AM Monday.” After the applicant left the room, the manager pulled the intercom and told the doorkeeper, “Tell all of the other applicants to f___ off. We have our man.”
This story horrified me a great deal more than an F-bomb alone, and it was part of an attempt on his part to convince me that no one ever does any action for any motive besides financial gain. (In the past I’ve had several people try to convince me of the truth of this point. In no case did any of these people stand to benefit financially from their efforts to persuade me. But I digress.) However, my roommate was trying to help me appreciate something about the business world that this caricature caught right on target.
Women in the business world have been advised to make a practice of asking, “What’s in it for me?” And for that matter, compassionate men may be advised to make a practice of asking, “What’s in it for me?” and play by the rules of a jungle because compassionate men do not do the best at succeeding in the business world. Now must you ask, “What’s in it for me?”
The answer is a simple “No, it’s optional,” but there’s a caveat. If you do not negotiate based on “What’s in it for me?”, you are less likely, man or woman, to receive more paycheck, prestige, power, and promotion. In the short story it did not strictly speaking need to be a man who negotiated with a gun in a job interview. But it is more often a man and not a woman who is mercenary to that degree. I myself do not naturally gravitate towards that thinking even if I’ve been advised to, and my salary history is an IT salary history, which is something to be thankful for, but it has been below average for many of the areas I’ve been working in, and whatever gifts I may have are applied on the job without necessarily receiving even average pay.
Let us ignore for one moment the Times cover story about “The Richer $ex,” meaning women. Is it possible that the following could be justified?
For him, ceteris paribus
For her, ceteris paribus
Could there be possibly more important questions for women than the question that began and ends this article?
The war against real women
In the Catholic social encyclicals, the modern ones since Rerum Novarum, the tone prior to Pope John Paul was celebratory, or sometimes complaining that the encyclicals were not progressive enough. But one thread out of this many-patched quilt is the call (added or amplified) for a “living wage”. That wage was something like $15 or $20 per hour, but not really set in stone. And there is a legitimate concern: perhaps not as dramatic as the situation in sweatshops, but being a greeter in Wal-Mart may be a great way for a kid to earn some change, but eking out a living on what Wal-Mart pays most employees in its stores is not really possible. Now there may also be a point in that the position labeled as progressive would result, not in a great many people earning $15-$20 an hour, but a great many people earning $0 an hour because businesses that can only keep employees paid a living wage have a short lifespan. (But let’s brush this under a rug.)
The consistent call was for work to pay a living wage, with one notable exception. Pope John Paul II called for a man to be able to earn a “family wage”, meaning not a living wage for an individual but some sort of support that would be sufficient for a family to live off of. And this was universally derided by feminist commentators, and not because John Paul II failed to also specify that women should be able to earn a family wage.
I’m not sure if you’ve heard, either in the context of artificial intelligence-related transhumanism or of planned exploration of Mars, the term ‘Melanesian’. The term may be racially charged, but I’m going to ignore that completely. The thought is vile on grounds that make it completely irrelevant whether the people being derided belong to one’s race or another. The basic idea of being ‘Melanesian’ is that for ages untold people have hunted, built, crafted things with their hands, told stories and sung songs, made love and raised children, and all of this is innocent enough in its place, but now we are upon the cusp of growing up, and we must leave ‘Melanesian’ things behind. The John 3:16 of the Mars Society is “Earth is the cradle of humankind, but one does not remain in a cradle forever.” We must grow up and leave ‘Melanesian’ things behind. Now the exact character of this growing up varies significantly, but in both cases the call to maturity is a call to forsake life as we know it and use technology to do something unprecedented. In the case of transhumanism, the idea is to use human life as a discardable booster rocket that will help us move to a world of artificially intellingent computers and robots where mere humans will be rendered obsolete. In the case of the Mars Society, it is to branch out and colonize other planets and the furthest reaches of space that we can colonize, and in the “Martian” (as Mars Society members optatively call themselves) mind heart, this mission, and the question of whether we are “a spacefaring race”, bears all the freight one finds in fully religious salvation.
All this is scaled back in the feminists who comment on Pope John Paul II’s call for a family wage, but there is something there that is not nearly so far on a lunatic fringe as transhumanism or the Mars Society, but much more live as a threat as it would be a brave soul who would call this a lunatic fringe. The feminist critique of Pope John Paul II’s call for a family wage is that it is unacceptable, and men should earn low enough amounts of money that it takes both parents’ work to support them. Women are to be made to “grow up”, and however much it may be untenable to deny a woman’s right to attend university or a woman’s work to do any job traditionally done by men, it is absolutely out of the question to allow a woman’s right to do a job traditionally done by women. They are to be pushed out of the nest and made to grow up. They are to be compelled by the economics of a situation where a husband cannot earn a family wage to work like a man.
The argument has been advanced that women are “The Richer $ex.” The question has been raised about whether men have become “the second sex”, as was the title of a classic of French feminism. A book could easily be pulled on The War Against Boys, and discussion could be made of how school and the academy are a girl’s game—and one Wheaton administrator described how some of the hardest calls he has to make is to explain to one parent why her daughter, with a perfect record of straight A’s, was rejected by Wheaton—and explain that Wheaton has four hundred others like her; Wheaton, which has a 45% male student body, could admit only female applicant with straight A’s and still be turning people away.
But the argument discussed just above is something of a side point. To put it plainly, feminism is anti-woman. Perhaps ire against men is easily enough found; Mary Daly, now unfashionable, makes a big deal of “castration” and defines almost every arrangement of society not ordained by feminism as “rape.” (This would include most of all societies in all of history that we have recorded.) And if Mary Daly is now unfashionable, she is unfashionable to people who follow in her wake and might be voiceless today if she had not gone before them. And Mary Daly at least may well wear a reform program for men on their sleeve. But others who have followed her, and perhaps used less brusque rhetoric, wear a reform program for women next to their hearts.
I would like to pause for a moment to unpack just what it may mean to elevate anger to the status of a central discipline. And gender feminism, at least, does make an enterprise fueled by anger.
Every sin and passion in the Orthodox sense is both a miniature Hell, and a seed that will grow into Hell if it is unchecked. Different ages have different ideas of what is the worst sin. Victorians, at least in caricature, are thought to have made sexual sin the worst sin. In the New Testament, sexual sin is easily forgiven, but in an age where men have Internet porn at their fingertips, it would be helpful to remember that lust is the disenchantment of the entire universe: first nothing else is interesting, and then not even lust is interesting: there is misery. Getting drunk once might feel good, but the recovering alcoholic will tell you that being in thrall to alcohol and drunk all of the time is suffering you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Many people today think pride, the sin that cast an angel out of Heaven to be the Devil, is the worst sin and all of us have a stench to clean up here. And to the Church Fathers, to whom love was paramount, anger was perhaps the greatest danger. Today we say that holding a grudge is like drinking poison and hoping it will hurt the other person, or that ‘anger’ is one letter from ‘danger’. The Fathers said, among other things, that it makes us more like the animals, and by implication less like what is noble and beautiful in the race of mankind. And it is one thing to lose one’s temper and find that dealing that with one particular person tries your patience. It is another thing entirely to walk a spiritual path that is fueled by the passion of anger. And this feminist choice is wrong. It is toxic, and we should have nothing to do with it.
Writers of both contemporary history and science texts, especially for the primary and secondary grades, make special efforts to provide “role models” for girls. Precollege texts now have an abundance of pictures; these now typically show women working in factories or looking through microscopes. A “sterotypical” picture of a woman with a baby is a frowned-upon rarity…
In an extensive study of the new textbooks written under feminist guidelines, New York University psychologist Paul Vitz could find no positive portrayal of romance, marriage or motherhood.
Although this is not directly a remark about feminism, something of my joy in A Wind in the Door was lost when I learned that Madeleine l’Engle viewed kything, the main supernatural element in the book, regarded it as literal fact. The idea that a reader is supposed to entertain a willing suspension of disbelief is not disturbed, but she meant, literally, that ordinary people should be able to send things directly, mind to mind. And what I took to be a beautiful metaphor (perhaps today I would say it needs to transcended in the noetic realm), made for an ugly literal claim. And the same thing happened when I read Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men, which is presented as a novel of Discworld. It is not set in Ankh-Morporkh, nor does any standard Discworld character or setting make more than one or two combined cameo appearances. So it is duplicitously called a novel of Discworld. And it is in fact not really centered on the Wee Free Men, who certainly make nice ornaments to the plot but never touch the story’s beating heart. The story is Wiccan and advertises witchcraft; like Mary Daly, who gives a duplicitous acknowledgement of Christ’s place (I parsed it and told the class point-blank, “I am more divine than her Christ”), argues for Wicca and witchcraft, tells how one may become a witch, and in her ‘Original Reintroduction’ written some decades after writes with a poetic and highly noetic character which drips with unnatural vice as much as Orthodox Liturgy drips with glory and Life. It was in reading The Wee Free Men that I first grasped why the Fathers called witchcraft unnatural vice. Never mind that witches deal in plants, and probably know a great more many details than the rest of us. There is a distinction like that of someone who studies available books on anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry, perhaps learning more than those in the medical profession, but to be an assassin (“If a sword blow hits the outside of the arm about a third of the way from the elbow to the shoulder, you can sever an artery and cause substantial bleeding.”). The analogy is not exact; I believe it misses things. But the entire Wiccan use of plants constitutes unnatural vice.
And in the shadow of those following Mary Daly, there is never a reform program for men that leaves women untouched. Maybe the reforms for men may be more clear; but good old-fashioned chauvinist men are almost a distraction compared to women who resist feminist improvement.
Women desire quite often simply motherhood. The very strength of the desire for romance, marriage, and motherhood in the face of gargantuation opposition says that what feminism is trying to free women from is an estate of happiness that women have yearned for from time immemorial. If it is prescribed hard enough that women will enter the workforce and work at some job wanted by men, she very well may do that—in addition to wanting children. Wendy Shalit in A Return to Modesty:
“Just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you can’t be a doctor or a lawyer.” Girls of my generation grew up on this expression. “Just because you’re a woman.” It was a motto like motner’s milk to us, and now it is the philosophy behind Take Our Daughters to Work Day. “Just because you’re a woman.” In other words, being a woman is a kind of handicap that with hard work, one can overcome. Some are born deformed; others are born women; but be brave. I’m sure you’ll make the best of it.
Yet now that we are free to be anything, doctors and lawyers, now that we’ve seen that women can be rational, and that men can cry, what we most want to know, and what we are not permitted to ask, is what does it mean to be a woman in the first place? Not in terms of what it won’t prevent us from doing—we are not unaware of our bountiful options—but what is meaningful about being a woman? Rosie the Riveter was riveting only because she didn’t usually rivet, and now that so many Rosies do, we most long to know what makes us unique again.
Two different women said to me, nervously, before graduation, What’s wrong with me? I want to have children. One had landed a job with an investment banking firm; the other was supposed to land a job with an investment banking firm because that’s what her father wanted, but the scouts who came to campus complained she wasn’t aggressive enough. What’s wrong with me? I want to have children… [emphasis original]
I think of a friend from college who was a powerful athlete, and for that matter was into boxing, and after college wanted to… settle down and be mother to a family, and a large one at that.
There is the Calvin and Hobbes strip where Hobbes says, “You can take the tiger out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the tiger.” And what it seems is that women can be pushed to be androgynous or like men in so many ways, and yet you still can’t take the jungle out of the tiger.
And perhaps women’s happiness is found in cutting with the grain of motherhood than against it.
And perhaps in place of a spiritual discipline of anger that puts on feminist X-ray goggles and finds oppression and insult lurking around every corner and in the most innocent of acts, women might place such spiritual disciplines as thanksgiving.
The darker the situation, the more we need thanksgiving. In the last major ordeal I went through, what saved me from despair was counting my blessings, and being mindful and thankful for innumerable things and people, and telling other people how thankful I was for them. I don’t know how else I could have had such joy at such a dark moment.
The properly traditional place for women is not exactly for men to be at work and women to be at home without adult company; the traditional placement for both men and women was to work in adult company, doing different work perhaps but doing hard work in adult company. Feminists have a point that the 1950’s ideal of a woman alone without adult company all the worklong day can induce depression, and cutting with the grain of motherhood does not automatically mean reproducing the 50’s. The perfect placement is for men to be with other men doing the work of men and women to be with women doing the work of women, and that is denied to men as well as women. The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies Are Harming Young Men attests that school has become girls’ turf. My own experiences in schooling were that in almost all areas that truly interested me, I was self-taught. Working first in math, then in theology, there was something more than the naive outsider’s question to academic theology: “Yes, I understand that we need to learn multiple languages, the history of theology, philosophy of religion, hermeneutics, and so on, but when are we going to study real theology?” This question is not in particular a man’s question; it could just as plausibly have been spoken by a young woman. But work and school both place its members as neuters; there may be some places of schooling that may be 80% male (I’ve been there), and there may be places of schooling that may be 80% female (I’ve been there), but the traditional roles for men and women are not optional; they are taken off the table altogether, leaving those who would have traditional roles holding the short straw.
But to say that and stop is misleading. I remember when I asked an Orthodox literature professor for his advice on a novella I was working that was a fantasy world based on the patristic Greek East instead of the medieval Latin West, and his advice, were I wise enough to listen to it (I wasn’t), was simply, “If Orthodoxy is not to work for the here and now, it simply isn’t worth very much.” And Orthodoxy has fashioned men and women who have thrived under pagan antiquity, under Constantine, under the devious oppression of Julian the Apostate, under the fairy-like wonderland of nineteenth century Russia, under the Bolshevik Revolution, under centuries in the Byzantine Empire, under Muslim rule after Byzantium shrunk and finally modern era guns ended the walls erected by a Byzantine Emperor ages before, in France by those fleeing persecution, in America under parallel jurisdictions. In every age and at every time the Orthodox Church has found saints who chanted, as the hymn in preparation for Communion states, “Thou, who art every hour and in every place worshipped and glorified…” And if you think our world is too tangled to let God work his work, there is something big, or rather Someone Big, who is missing from your picture. God harvested alike St. Zosima and St. Mary of Egypt. And it is not just true that God has fashioned and has continued to fashion real men in the intensely masculine atmosphere of a monastery of men; calling men’s monasteries simply schools that make men is to focus on a minor key. Helping men be men, and channeling machismo into povdig or ascetical feats, is a matter of seeking the Kingdom of God and having other things be added as well. I have heard of one man be straightened out on Mount Athos from his addiction to pornography and then depart and be married; that may not be the usual path on Mount Athos, but the strong medicine offered on Mount Athos is sufficient to address the biggest attack on manhood this world offers, and it is a place of salvation.
What prescription would I suggest for women? To get a part-time job while children are at school? To homeschool, and have some team teaching? To just stay at home? All of these and more are possibilities, but the most crucial suggestion is this:
The Greek word hubris refers to pride that inescapably blinds, the pride that goes before a fall. And subjectivism is tied to pride. Subjectivism is trying, in any of many ways, to make yourself happy by being in your own reality instead of learning happiness in the God-given reality that you’re in. Being in subjectivism is a start on being in Hell. Hell may not be what you think. Hell is light as it is experienced by people who would rather be in darkness. Hell is abundant health as experienced by people who would choose disease. Hell is freedom as experienced by those who will not stop clinging to spiritual chains. Hell is ten thousand other things: more pointedly, Hell is other people, as experienced by an existentialist. This Hell is Heaven as experienced through subjectivist narcissism, experiencing God’s glory and wishing for glory on your own power. The gates of Hell are bolted and barred from the inside. God is love; he cannot but ultimately give Heaven to his creatures, but we can, if we wish, choose to experience Heaven as Hell. The beginning of Heaven is this life, but we can, if we wish, be subjectivists and wish for something else and experience what God has given us as the start of Hell.
Step out of Hell, pray, and accept what God gives you.
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.
Love and the Spirit are the basis for all true order.
When love and true religion have departed, there is honor and morality.
When honor and morality have departed, there are rules.
Rules do not depart when they have lost their power. They grow and multiply.
When rules have grown to their full measure, there is chaos.
The more the rules, the less the order, and how does that profit anyone?
The value of silence, of stillness, of meditation, of rest, is great.
I will not attempt to explain it with words.
Strength is made perfect in weakness.
A vessel that is solid is worthless.
A vessel that is empty and hollow has room to be filled.
If you wish to become strong, learn weakness.
V The Heart
Thought goes before deed; that which fills the heart will fill the hands.
Greater than any conquest without, is the conquest within.
Remove the log from your own eye, and you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye. Master the mountain within, and you will be in a right state to challenge the mountain without.
Do you consider yourself ready for the task? You do not take it seriously.
Do you despair of ever accomplishing it yourself? You are ready to receive help.
Poverty is a deadly bane. Yet it can be made a blessing.
If you wish to see the power of love and the Spirit of God at work, look at those who have nothing else.
Wealth is a blessing. Yet it can become a deadly bane.
Look at the wealthy.
There are few who own and are served by many possessions.
There are many who are owned by and serve many possessions.
Look at the wealthy.
There are many who can buy their children toys, video games, and cars.
There are few who pick their children up and hold them.
Look at the wealthy.
There are many who can afford any pleasure they want.
There are few who know joy.
Look at the wealthy.
There are many who can buy any vacation or entertainment device they want.
There are few who ever know leisure, rest, peace.
Look at the wealthy.
There are many who have more money than the poor would know how to spend.
There are few who are as generous as the poor.
Look at the wealthy.
There are many who can buy the softest and most luxuriant pets.
There are few who truly know the feel of a human touch.
Look at yourself.
Look at most of the people in the world.
Are you not wealthy?
Joy comes through suffering.
Freedom comes through discipline.
Glory comes through humility.
Security comes through letting go.
Masculinity comes through not being macho.
Femininity comes through not being a sex toy.
Life comes through death.
VIII The Kingdom
The Kingdom of Heaven is not a kingdom of this world.
It is a kingdom in which the weak have been chosen to shame the strong.
It is a kingdom in which the foolish have been chosen to shame the wise.
It is a kingdom in which the poor have been chosen to shame the rich.
It is a kingdom in which the humble have become the friends of God.
It is a kingdom in which that which the world has told, “You are worthless,” God has told, “You are priceless.”
It is a kingdom in which there is more rejoicing over one filthy sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous men who do not need to repent.
It is a kingdom in which vulgar peasants have been chosen to shame great theologians and sages.
It is a kingdom in which many wealthy men gave great and ostentatious gifts, and a poor widow, dropping in two pennies, surpassed them all.
It is a kingdom in which the power to conquer is held, not by the man who is able to stand behind the barrel of a gun, but by the man who is willing to stand in front of it.
It is a kingdom in which, to become a leader, you must become a slave.
It is a kingdom which begins, not with the love that you pour out, but with the love that is poured out on you.
A river in health has water flowing in and water flowing out.
If it dams its outflow, saying, “I will gain more fresh water this way,” then it only grows stagnant. Its greed and selfishness create an illusion of gain, that is only loss.
It must give out as it has received, and then it will be filled with water fresh and pure as it was first filled.
So it is with men.
Proclaim Christ at all times, and use words if need be.
Words are powerful, and can speak mightily.
Deeds are more powerful, and can speak more mightily.
The way to teach is not as a master.
It is as a brother, as a friend, and as a slave.
The one who seeks to control and dominate does not understand how to lead. Manipulation is not much different from dominating by intimidation; it is only better hidden. Both are hurt and pain lying and saying that they are health. If you wish to become a leader, scrub out a wastebasket.
Once, after years of teaching, the Buddha was walking with his students, and one of them asked him for one last, final lesson.
He bent down, and picked a flower.
All of his students looked intently, waiting for an explanation.
All but one.
The one student smiled.
And to this one student, Buddha smiled back.
Lessons are everywhere. They are in books and in the classroom, to be certain. But there are many, many other places.
Look at a single blade of grass. Its beauty bears the fingerprints of the Creator. There is a lesson there.
Feel the warmth of a friend when you give him a hug. We were not created to spend time only in solitude, but also in community, and touch is vital. There is a lesson in the touch of another person.
Write a story or draw a picture. You will learn something when you do it.
Pray. There is a lesson in the simplest prayer.
Where is there not a lesson to be learned?
Children are a lot like everyone else, except that they have not fully learned how to act like everyone else. Therefore there is much to learn from them.
There is nothing like a child seeing that you are hurt, and coming up and giving you a hug. There is nothing like a child making a gift to give to someone.
There is also nothing like a child being loud, rude, and inconsiderate, ripping a toy away from someone smaller because he wants it and he is strong enough to take it. There is nothing like a child staring into your eyes with eyes of ice and saying, “I hate you.”
Children embody good things that others have forgotten. A child knows how to imagine, how to look at how pretty a flower is, and they have not yet learned that it’s not OK to say that you’re hurting and need help. Children also embody pure and unmasked vice; it is very easy to see a child lie, manipulate, tear apart the one who doesn’t fit in, and fight anyone who dare stand in the way of his selfishness.
Confucius said, “When I see a virtuous man, I try to be like him. When I see an evil man, I reflect on my own behavior.”
XII Untainted virtue
Become as a little child, but do not become childish.
Become loving, and yet become firm.
Become strong, and yet become gentle.
Become wise, and yet do not rely on your own wisdom.
Become great, and yet become humble.
Become filled with imagination and dreams, and yet do not forget the world.
Become as a skillful warrior, and yet become peaceful.
Become ancient, and yet do not lose your childhood.
Become timeless, and yet use time wisely.
When people are unwilling to draw near to God and neighbor, they become religious.
When people shun worship, they create ceremonies.
When people are afraid to pray, they babble endless words.
When people abandon the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they try to create order by rules and regulations.
When people refuse to let themselves be drawn into holiness, they ordain priests.
When people flee from confronting the evil that lies within, they become self righteous and holier-than-thou.
When people do not accept the glory of the reality and substance that is found in Christ, they flee to familiar comforts and embrace mere shadows.
Once a father gave each of his three sons a penny, as a test; he would bestow his inheritance on the son who could go into the marketplace and, in a day, buy something to fill the room.
The eldest son came, with his pouch filled with sand. He took the sand and threw it, scattering it through the room. It covered a little of the floor, but not all of it.
The second son came, with his arms full of straw. He spread the straw on the floor, scattering it through the room. It covered all of the floor, but it did not fill the room.
The youngest son came, and, opening his hand, held out a tiny candle. He lit it,
and filled the room with light.
XV Wrong Questions
It is possible for an answer to a question to be wrong.
“Is murder good or evil?”
Yet it does not take an answer for there to be a mistake.
“How many times must I forgive my brother before I may bear a grudge against him?”
If you are asking such a question, you are already mistaken. Here are some, to avoid:
“What is the rational justification for faith?”
“What must I do to make myself good and make myself righteous before God?”
“Where should I seek out suffering in order to take up my cross?”
“How may I learn humility?”
“How do I decide for myself what is good and what is evil?”
“How much force is necessary to bring order to this situation?”
“How do I choose the lesser of two evils?”
“What words constitute a true prayer?”
“What is the necessary, time, place, and form for true worship?”
“Where do you draw the line between proper use of food and drink, and gluttony and drunkenness?”
“How much money do I need in order to be able to do something good?”
“What kind of rules should I use to infuse life to my spirituality?”
“What denomination should I join?”
“Who is my neighbor?”
XVI The Middle Path
In many ways, the Way a is balance. The temptation is not infrequent to try to avoid one error by embracing its opposite.
Good speech and writing does not contain words for the sake of words. Neither is it cut short for the sake of being concise.
Order is not gained by adding rules to what God has given, nor freedom by acting as if sin were not evil.
Wisdom is not gained by deifying the mind as something supreme which God must bow down and worship, nor humility by rejecting it as a piece of filth which God did not create.
In moderation and balance are work, play, rest, exercise, thought, meditation, words, music, silence, food, drink, and refrain, all good things.
Do you wish to see twistedness and depravity beyond belief?
If a man were offered five dollars to not think of a glowing pink bear, he would not be able to claim the prize. Yet he would have been doing it perfectly until he tried.
Likewise, people act inconspicuous until they try to act inconspicuous.
That is easy; they are matters where something is done automatically until they are tried.
Were a plank of wood a foot wide laid across the floor, anybody could walk across it without falling.
Yet, were it crossing a yawning and abysmal chasm, firmly secured so that it would not shake, many people would try to walk across it without falling, because they would, seeing the possibility of falling, cease to walk perfectly across the plank and instead try to walk perfectly across it.
The prayer of faith is like this; he who offers a prayer of faith succeeds, and he who tries to offer a prayer of faith fails.
That is more valuable and more difficult; it is a matter where it is not done automatically, nor something that is done by trying, but something that can be done only by doing. It is easy; children do this with great power until they grow up and learn to try.
There is something greater yet, which is most valuable and impossible.
Man is fallen, and sin and evil have pervaded his whole being. Sin must be escaped to enter into life, for its wages are absolute death.
But what is the way for man to escape from sin? Automatic doing or trying or doing or not-doing? Wisdom or stupidity or knowledge or ignorance or tantrism or willpower or doing nothing?
That is like asking what brand of gasoline to use to extinguish a fire.
Such proceed from man and are inescapably tainted by evil. At their worst, they are straw. At their best, they are straw. They cannot save.
God emptied himself of divine power and majesty to become a man, and then emptied himself of even human power and majesty to die on a cross.
He who was without sin became anathema, bearing the curse for sins.
Now, to those who have earned in full the full measure of God’s wrath, he offers this: that they accept the gift of God taking the curse upon himself, so that they will not have to bear it themselves.
The impossible is freely given to whoever believes, praying, “Jesus, please forgive my sins and come into my heart.”
This is the message of the Cross. It is foolish and weak. There is no way around it, no escape.
You cannot stoop to such useless nonsense? There is some question which remains unresolved, which must be answered before you can accept it?
Then go, and extinguish your fire with gasoline.
XIX A Difference
Once a man was on a beach, where countless thousands of starfish had washed up, their life and water ever so slowly ebbing into dust.
Someone came along, and asked him, “What are you doing? Had you the rest of your life to spend doing this, you would not scratch the surface of the dying starfish. You cannot help more than a drop in the bucket. Why do you think that it matters?”
The man calmly, patiently, bent over, took a starfish, and threw it up in the air, arcing as it came down to splash back into the life giving water.
“It mattered to that one.”
Teaching is not fallible men claiming divine authority.
It is divine authority claiming fallible men.
Righteousness is not, do what is right and you will be justified.
It is, be justified, and you will do what is right.
The beginning is not man reaching up to God.
It is God reaching down to man.
God is not a reflection of the best in man.
Man is a reflection of the best in God.
Wisdom is not mind establishing the place for faith and building it up.
It is faith establishing the place for mind and building it up.
You do not come to see the world as you should and therefore know God.
You come to know God, and therefore see the world as you should.
The Cross was the point where the power of sin and death crushed God.
It is the point where God crushed the power of sin and death.
XXI The Other Side
The foundation is that God loves you and your neighbor.
The foundation is that you shall love God and your neighbor.
Only those who believe can obey.
Only those who obey can believe.
A wise man will pursue love.
A man of love will pursue wisdom.
Christ shared in our life and died our death,
That we may share in his death and live his life.
The believer abides in the Father, in the Son, and in the Holy Spirit.
The Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit abide in the believer.
Inside of your heart, there is a void that can be filled only by God.
Inside of God’s heart, there is a void that can be filled only by you.
If you have nothing that you are ready to die for, then you have nothing that you are ready to live for.
If you will not lose yourself, then you can not find yourself.
If you can not accept that your own wisdom is not the final measure, then you can not become wise.
If you can not let go of efficiency, then you can not use what has been entrusted you properly.
If you do not fear God, then you will not know either courage or peace.
If you do not renounce everything to gain Christ, then you can not truly gain anything.
If you do not see the net sum of all your good works as ——, then you can never produce good works.
Once a man came out of a church service, visibly moved. He walked along with the town cynic, and began to speak.
“There’s a new preacher, and his message is totally different.”
“Really? What did the old one say?”
“He said that we have all sinned, and that Jesus died for our sins, and that, unless we accept his forgiveness for our sins, we’re all going to go to Hell.”
“And what does the new one say?”
“He says that we have all sinned, and that Jesus died for our sins, and that, unless we accept his forgiveness for our sins, we’re all going to go to Hell.”
“Bah! Doesn’t sound like much of a difference to me.”
“Oh, there’s a world of difference. He says it with tears in his eyes.”
The just shall live by faith.
Not, “The just shall live by works,” to which faith is a means. “The just shall live by faith,” of which works are a result.
Not, “The just shall live by meaning,” to which faith is a means. “The just shall live by faith,” of which meaning is a result.
Not, “The just shall live by rational explanation,” to which faith is a means. “The just shall live by faith,” of which rational explanation is a result.
Not, “The just shall live by mystery,” to which faith is a means. “The just shall live by faith,” of which mystery is a result.
Not, “The just shall live by power,” to which faith is a means. “The just shall live by faith,” of which power is a result.
Not, “The just shall live by security,” to which faith is a means. “The just shall live by faith,” of which security is a result.
Not, “The just shall live by happiness,” to which faith is a means. “The just shall live by faith,” of which happiness is a result.
The just shall live by faith.
The more haste, the less speed.
The more prudishness, the less purity.
The more rules, the less order.
The more will, the less power to obey.
The more excess, the less satisfaction.
The more license, the less freedom.
The more wrong means, the less right ends.
It is necessary, not only to believe that God has given the right ends, but also that he knows the best means to those ends.
There is the Law for the lawless.
There is no Law for the righteous.
The Law is not a tool to help people obey. It is a mirror to show people that they can’t obey.
It is meant to show people that however hard they try, they need something greater: that the Something Greater is how they are to obey.
Alas, for how many have tried to obey with the Law?
XXVII Virtue and Vice
The one man perfect in virtue was the Man of Sorrows, and we are not greater. In this world, virtue is no escape from suffering.
Yet vice is anything from the path of joy. Joy, indeed, is a part of virtue, and can not truly be separated from it.
Virtue is hard to begin with, but ends in joy.
Vice is easy to begin with, but ends in misery.
What does Heaven look like?
He who is proud will see that every man present is present, not because of, but despite what he merits.
He who is rebellious will see people serve an absolute King.
He who desires self-sufficiency will see that joy is offered in community.
He who seeks wealth, prestige, power, and other ways to dominate others, will find his effort in Heaven to be like buying a gun in a grocery store.
He who strives will see that there is no one to strive with.
He who despises the physical will see a bodily resurrection.
He who desires his own interpretation and his own set of beliefs, will see absolute truth in crystalline clarity.
To those who will not let God change their character to virtue and love, even Heaven would be Hell.
XXVIII Wrong Tools
Does one use an ice cube to start a fire?
Does one use a chainsaw to mend a torn garment?
Does one use nerve gas to heal paralysis?
Then why do people use worry to create security, or wealth and power to create happiness, or excess to create satisfaction, or distortions of pleasure to surpass pleasure in its proper function?
Perhaps the reason that the Tempter is the Father of Lies, is that only a master of illusion could make sin appear desirable.
Fallenness is subtle, and appears in many ways.
People do reverence to nothings, and disturb the order.
What should be used is loved, and what should be loved is used.
People consider ends which are good themselves, to be merely means to other ends, ends which are trivia. It is like seeking to heal a man deaf and dumb, so that he can tell you what time it is.
People try to achieve the right ends through the wrong means.
People take the right action for the wrong reason.
People try to do good by themselves instead of relying on the Spirit.
As well to give a thirsty man a canteen, without first allowing it to be filled with water.
Man alone can not escape sin. Only in God is that power found.
Peace is not the absence of violent conflict between men.
Peace is first of all a peace between God and man, and then virtue inside a man.
Peace is not an absence of anything, but the presence of love.
The manifest presence of love does not leave room for people to try to kill each other, but it is far more than an absence.
In that way, peace is like many good things. Right action does not lie, steal, or commit adultery, but its essence is not what it does not do, but what it does do: in the Spirit, act according to love and compassion. Virtue does not contain vice, but it is a positive thing, the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, moderation, courage, justice, wisdom, honor, purity, timelessness, balance, obedience, submission, honesty, chastity, simplicity, penitence, faith, hope, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, humility.
Violence can not create peace. Only love can.
XXXI Nothing Else
Nothing can atone for the insult of a gift, except for the love of the person who gives it.
Nothing can allow the power to do good, except letting go of grasping power as the means to do good.
Nothing can sanctify any activity, possession, or skill, except offering it up completely to God.
Nothing can bless any activity of man reaching up to God, except for the activity of God reaching down to man.
Too much information; not enough wisdom.
Too many subtleties of interpretation; not enough understanding of the plain and simple.
Too much amusement; not enough leisure.
Too many activities; not enough true accomplishment.
Too much on the surface; not enough in the core.
Too much acceptance; not enough love.
Too much filled-by-man; not enough filled-by-God.
Sometimes, more is less.
XXXIII The Upside-Down Kingdom
The Kingdom of Heaven knows madness in which there is infinite method. The kingdom of this world knows method in which there is infinite madness.
It is a kingdom in which walking is a luxury, and driving a car is a necessity.
It is a kingdom in which lifelong marriage is less cherished than the isolated pleasure of sex.
It is a kingdom in which peace is pursued through intimidation and violence.
It is a kingdom in which men pursue freedom and joy by doing what they were never meant to.
It is a kingdom in which labor-saving devices destroy leisure.
It is a kingdom in which an unexpected moment of rest at a busy time, is considered an annoyance.
It is a kingdom in which certainty is pursued through doubt.
It is a kingdom in which men try to elevate and build up, by separating from foundations.
It is a kingdom which ignores, ridicules, or kills the prophets God sends it.
It is a kingdom which manages to be so terribly practical that it loses what practicality is meant to achieve.
It is a kingdom in which holding power is more esteemed than being loved.
Which kingdom is really the upside-down kingdom?
XXXIV He Who Is
He is the Way.
He is Truth.
He is Tao.
He is Light.
He is Life.
He is Love.
He is the Word.
He is Mystery.
He is Beyond.
He is the Origin.
He is Energy.
It is in him that we walk, and live, and breathe.
It is by knowing him that we know ourselves.
It is by being united with him that we become ourselves.
When people forsake the Spirit, they embrace rigid asceticism.
Asceticism gives birth to libertinism, and libertinism gives birth to death.
When people forsake wisdom, they embrace rationalism.
Rationalism gives birth to anti-intellectualism, and anti-intellectualism gives birth to chaos.
When people forsake faith in God, they embrace faith in man.
Faith in man gives birth to faith in nothing, and faith in nothing gives birth to nothing.
There are ten thousand improvements on the Way. Do you know where they lead?
In Eden, there were no temples.
There was no place where men did not come to meet God.
In Eden, there were no priests.
There was no one who did not know God intimately.
In Eden, there were no oaths.
There was no falsehood.
The words, “At that time, men began to call on the name of Yahweh,” do not tell of heights to which man had risen. They tell of the depths to which man had sunk.
The Kingdom of Heaven does not know a great many things.
Rather, it knows what was unspoiled in Eden, and something yet greater.
Its members are gentle, humble, and pure.
They carry a sense of timelessness about them, and they make peace.
They repay evil with good, and rejoice when persecuted.
They walk in the Spirit.
They have overcome the world.
Eden saw the image of God.
The New Jerusalem will see sinners redeemed, who are not only God’s image, but share in the divine nature.
In Eden, men saw by lights God had made.
In the New Jerusalem, there will never be a lamp, for God himself will be their light.
Like is because. Love is despite.
If you begin to understand all of the reasons man has given God not to love him, you will begin to understand the nature of God’s love.
Love is not desire, nor is it want, nor is it even duty.
Love is love.
When does love prove that it is love?
When you look into a man, see some virtue, something beautiful, something great he has done for you, and love him more?
No. When you look into a man, see some vice, something ugly, some great wrong he has committed against you, and love him more.
It is perhaps those who are called unloveable who are easiest to love, for love for them will truly be love.
XXXVIII True Learning
A student, beginning the study of a new language, will first ask, “What does this word mean? What is the word for that?” Translation will be difficult.
As time passes, he will learn more of the skill of translation. He will know more words, and understand not only what word stands for what word, but what idiom stands for what idiom.
Then, gradually, something else will begin to happen. He will begin to understand the new language, not in terms of the old tongue, but on its own terms. He will learn to think in the new language. He will begin to understand that which lies a step beyond words or even idioms, that which can not be translated. His words in the new tongue will begin to sound, not like a new translation, but like the language itself.
Then, even more gradually, this will be done, not with effort, but as a part of him. His speech will flow, free and unconstrained, as in his native tongue. Translation, in the end as in the beginning, will be difficult; in the beginning, as an unnatural artifice to which there is no alternative, and in the end, as an unnatural artifice which does not compare to the beauty and simplicity of the language itself.
The language has been mastered, not when the student has become skilled in translation, but when he does not need to.
The Way, the Kingdom, the Spirit, are like this.
They are not new. They are ancient. But sin has grown so great that they are not even recognized.
Of course it is possible to strive to make these clear. It is in their nature that this be done. The Way has come, that those who are blind may see.
There are many parables which tell, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like.”
Yet the parables say always, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like,” never “The Kingdom of Heaven is.”
It can never be fully translated.
It must be learned.
The blind will see God’s face.
The dumb will sing praises to him.
The deaf will listen to the eternal song.
The lame will dance for joy.
Those convulsed by spasms will rest in perfect stillness.
The leprous will feel God’s touch.
But all this is dwarfed by the shadow of the wonder beyond wonders.
Sinners will be made holy.
Believe and know that which can be grasped by reason.
Believe that which can only be called mystery.
So also, know God who is very personal.
So also, know God who is beyond personality.
Call him firstly and finally, “Abba,” Daddy.
Rest in his bosom.
Know also that, though man is like God, God is not like man.
Embody Tao, and walk according to the Way.
The nature of God — three persons who are yet one — is vast and incomprehensible.
He is all of the things of which I have spoken, and more, far more.
It is good to love so that any sacrifice considered is made.
It is better to love so that sacrifice is no longer considered.
It is good to understand through profound symbols.
It is better to come to the point of understanding from which profound symbols are made.
It is good to have faith be a part of everyday life.
It is better to have everyday life be a part of faith.
It is good to abstain from what should not be done.
It is better to do what should be done.
It is good for the Way to become a part of you.
It is better for you to become a part of the Way.
It is good to know a friend so that you understand his words.
It is better to know a friend so that you understand without words.
It is good to see an enemy, with all the evil he has done you, and love him.
It is better to love so that you do not see an enemy.
He does not know how to swim who can recite manuals and comment on them.
He knows how to swim who can fall into water and not be harmed.
Those who have pursued knowledge have learned that knowledge is never mastered when it resides only in the head.
This character of knowledge is difficult to describe; something of it is captured in that the word ‘know’ tells of the union of male and female.
Knowledge proceeds from faith. The call is to believe and know the truth.
There is much to wisdom that is not captured by systematic theology, and he is wise who knows systematic theology and the rest of wisdom.
The call to know God and know yourself is a call to truly know.
The one who knows the Way, knows it in the head, the heart, the hands; it rests in his spirit.
Sanity builds an immense boat in the middle of a desert.
Sanity offers up the son of the promise on the altar.
Sanity leaves net and boat to obey the words, “Come, follow me.”
The only true sanity will let go of everything to grasp the Way.
He who follows the Way may have no possessions.
He who follows the Way may have no identity.
He who follows the Way may have no security.
He who follows the Way may have no good works.
He who follows the Way may have no friends.
He who follows the Way may have no family.
He who follows the Way may not have even his own life.
The Way costs everything. To follow it, one must let go of, renounce, hate all of these things, offering them up completely to God.
Then, and only then,
His possession will be the Kingdom of Heaven.
His identity will be Christ.
His security will be the providence of God.
His good works will be the good works of Christ.
His friends will begin with God.
His family will be all who follow the Way.
His life will be eternal.
Of the old things, he will expect nothing back.
That which is given back will be taken to be an unexpected gift.
Even then, he will not have them as before.
He will not have them except according to the Way.
They are not his; they belong to the Way.
A great leader is not overbearing.
A humble man is not self-depracating.
A man of love is not accepting.
Why is this?
It is because they follow, not the pattern below, but the pattern above.
XLV Leaving Room
A great teacher does not spell out every detail.
He leaves room open for the student to understand.
Think about why a joke is funny. It causes no laughter if it is explained.
A great teacher leaves room for his students to learn.
Wind, earthquake, and fire are but heralds of something greater.
That something greater is soft and still.
That is the voice to listen to, and the voice to imitate.
It is shouting which makes a man hoarse.
If you wish to be heard, do not raise your voice.
Speak in a gentle whisper.
The Way between man and God does not leave them separate.
It draws them together.
The Way between two people does not leave them separate.
It draws them together.
The Way between man and nature does not leave them separate.
It draws them together.
Where there is separation, the Way enters the separation and creates intimacy.
Where there is discord, the Way enters the discord and creates harmony.
Where there is absence, the Way enters the absence and creates presence.
In the beginning was the Way.
And the Way was with God.
And the Way was God.
Slowly, slowly, ever so slowly.
It is over untold aeons that coal is turned to diamond.
The Way is not speedy, hasted, or rushed.
It is always on time, because it is never in a hurry.
It is nonsense to pray, “Lord, give me patience, and give it to me now.”
God gives patience, patiently.
God draws people into the Way, according to the way of the Way.
It is ever so slowly and imperceptibly that they grow in virtue.
The time to obey is now.
The time for results to come, is God’s concern, not yours.
Do not be in a hurry with God.
God is not in a hurry with you.
Do not spend a season without food,
nor a week without drink,
nor an hour without air,
nor a second without prayer.
Prayer is not useful. Wonders come of it, but it is not useful.
Prayer makes innumerable petitions, but it is not a tool to get things.
Prayer is the step by which a man walks in the way.
Prayer is the letting go by which a man rests in the Spirit.
Prayer is the force by which God draws man into himself.
Prayer does not draw into communion with God to ask and receive.
Prayer asks and receives to draw into communion with God.
A microbe controls the biologist who studies it. It causes him to place it on a glass slide, and look at it through a microscope.
A mountain controls the climber who scales it. It causes him to flatten himself against the rock, grab on to tiny holds, and move according to their pattern.
A thermometer controls the patient who uses it. It causes him to sit still and close his mouth.
There are many other things that control, for good or evil, and the control rarely extends only to the moment.
Lust causes a man to look at a person and see only breasts and legs.
Devotion to mammon causes a man to think of “What does this cost? What am I willing to pay?”, and worry for his riches.
Playing a tactical assassination game causes a man to think about how to kill stranger and friend, and jump in fear at every sound, paranoid without cease about which stranger or friend is trying to kill him.
The Way causes a man to be filled with peace and innocence.
Forgiving wrongs causes a man to be undisturbed by hate and anger.
Prayer causes a man to be filled with trust and security.
Mercy causes a man to be filled with love.
A man can choose what will control him.
He cannot choose whether or not he will be controlled.
It is those who most resist control, who are most under control, and whose master destroys.
What controls you?
A step into the Way has been made by the person who ceases to say, “God, look how big my problems are!”, and instead says, “Problems, look how big my God is!”
Greatness is in God, and in everything that comes from him.
The Way is great.
The Kingdom of Heaven is great.
Tao is great.
I do not know words that will hold the greatness of God.
Greatness comes to a man, not by conquering a city, nor by earning a million dollars, but by growing into accordance with the Way.
To enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, become as a little child.
A true climber will climb according to the shape of the mountain.
A true wayfarer does not stay in hotels, ride tour buses, and buy shiny trinkets; he steps into the culture, meeting its people, listening to its music, tasting its food.
A true architect will not take a medieval cloister and attach to it an addition that belongs in a shiny new mall. Rather, he will build new buildings that fit the pattern of the landscape, and new additions which fit the pattern of the old.
Being will do, but it is a doing which is in accordance with being and does not strive.
A man who walks in the Way will not strive with what around him is not evil.
One does not write poetry to defy the rules of a language; it is rather to write in accordance with the nature of the tongue.
A poet may change the structure of his language, but he does so only according to its spirit.
An intercessor can change the will of God, but he will do so only in accordance with what God wills.
God is eternal, constant, timeless, unchanging.
In time, he has constantly changed his will, that there may remain inviolate his unchanging love.
Therefore, to change the will of God is in accordance with God’s will.
Such change will be the nature of change made by a man who walks in the Way; he will never try to make changes which are haphazard or random. If that is how it is changed, even more accordance is how it is not changed.
He who walks in the way will know accordance.
Freedom of motion is the freedom of a skeleton intact. It is a freedom that allows a person to run, and jump, and dance.
What comes of breaking a bone is freedom to bend a limb in ways it was never meant to move, freedom to have sherds of bone tear at living flesh, freedom to writhe in agony, and freedom to die.
That is not freedom.
It is only in accordance with the Way that there is freedom.
It hurts to kick against the goads.
For freedom, all who walk in the Way have been set free. Freedom is the nature of the Way.
To the faithful, God shows himself faithful.
To the forgiving, God shows himself forgiving.
To the kind, God shows himself kind.
To the wise, God shows himself wise.
To the patient, God shows himself patient.
To the pure, God shows himself pure.
To the loving, God shows himself loving.
When the Spirit places virtue in a man, he is ready to see that virtue in God.
Seek what is right, and it will be accorded to you.
“Do not call me master. There is but one.”
“Surely you know that you are a sage.”
“He is a fool who considers himself wise.”
“Do not think of me as teacher, either.”
“But I see in you such wisdom, such gentleness, such peace. If I may not call you master, nor sage, nor even teacher, then how may I call you?”
A wise man learns from the words of the simple.
Only a man of little learning says, “I have nothing to learn from you.”
In this, wisdom reflects the Way.
Growth is not like an empty room being filled with boxes, where each thing placed inside leaves less and less room for more.
It is rather like dominoes being placed on a table; the more are set in place, the more possibilities are created to add more.
The more a man grows in the Way, the more he is able to grow.
Playing with one sniffly child and lecturing to one thousand eminent scholars,
Blessing a meal and commanding a mountain to be thrown into the sea,
Praying for a minute and praying for an hour,
Giving up a shoe and giving up life,
These things are not different in the Way; they are different only in men’s minds.
One who walks in the Way will not care for numbers, or fame, or so-called greatness. They come, and he will not be puffed up; they leave, and he will not be distraught.
There are many people who have faith to move mountains. Then why is it not seen? Because the Spirit does not lead them to perform parlor tricks to obviate the need for faith.
The Way is silent as light; ears filled with the din and noise of the world must grow silent to hear it. It performs great wonders, but they go unnoticed.
The Way has its own measure.
Behold the candle. It gives itself up, that others may have light.
Behold water. It does not resist one who pushes against it, yet it changes the shape of mountains.
Behold light. Men see it, and by it see all else.
Behold. Even the pebbles beneath your feet tell of God, of the Way, of the man who walks in the Way. They bear its imprint.
When two believers come together, the power of their prayer increases tenfold.
A hand or a foot on its own is dead. The sum of such hands, feet, eyes, and other members is still dead. That it is larger and more complete means only that its stench will be greater.
Yet there is the breath of life, animating the body of every man alive.
Life is in each part, and each part is united with the whole.
The body is controlled by the head, which loves it, and the breath of life animates each member.
Christ is the head.
The Spirit is the breath of life.
All who follow the Way are the members.
There is infinite variety among them.
Why are they different?
Because they are members of one body.
The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
The step from boyhood to manhood has been made, not by the one who looks into the mirror and finds the first excuse to shave, but by the one who looks into the mirror and finds the first excuse not to shave.
Dignity is found, not by the one who tears others down, but by the one who builds others up.
Good works shine before men, not when they are paraded, but when they are done in secret.
Ceasing to make God the image of man comes, not by making God the impersonal image of not-man, but by letting God be God:
HE WHO IS,
mysterious and incomprehensible,
unlike a man,
far beyond anything that can be captured by personality,
and therefore more personal than any man.
He who loves God will have all the more love for his neighbor, and he who loves his neighbor will have all the more love for God.
The more love and joy are shared, the more they abound.
The more prayer, worship, and Communion abound, the more they become special, sacred.
One who sees will look at a gift and see also the love which gave it.
One who sees will look at a face and see also a person.
One who sees will look at artwork and see also an artist.
One who sees will look at the physical and see also the spiritual.
One who hears will listen to the words of a friend, and hear both what is said and what is not said.
One who hears will listen to a question, and hear also the thoughts, the perspective, and the knowledge from which it came.
One who feels will sense the presence of God’s love in the dryness of the absconditus deus.
The Way is a way of reality and substance.
An artist who creates a masterpiece will care for the smallest detail, but the compilation of technical details never forms art. One who abides in the way will never despise accident, for he knows that a forest is never seen by chopping down trees; yet neither will he look at accident and fail to see substance.
Look at the surface and see into the depths.
Nobody who enjoys wine takes some grape juice, throws some yeast in, and hopes that it will be ready in ten minutes.
Instead, it is carefully prepared, and stored away to rest. Years will pass before it graces a table as fine wine.
This is how a wise man is like the master of a storehouse, producing from it treasures old and new.
In studying the Scriptures, looking into the wonders of Creation, listening to the voice of the Spirit, every morcel of wisdom will be carefully stored away, allowed to ferment for minutes or years until the right moment comes.
Even in use, the thought of utility does not come. Like all else in the way, wisdom is pursued, not for the sake of using, but for the sake of having.
The first lesson in practicality is to let go of it.
To come into being is not something one causes; it is given by God.
The forgiveness of sins is not something one earns; it is given by God.
Obedience is not something one accomplishes; it is given by God.
The Father created man in his image.
The Son was crucified that men’s sins might be forgiven.
The Spirit is poured out that men be given the power to obey.
Do not do; obey.
It is only to a stranger that respect is shown by formality and distance. To a good friend, respect is shown by a love that has no need of such things.
It is only to a foreign student of language that thoughts of grammatical rules occur. To a native speaker, the language flows.
It is only to someone outside that obedience looks like willpower and rules. To someone inside, obedience flows from the motion of the Spirit and its fruit, virtue.
The Way is a way of closeness, intimacy. It knows the great order which lets go of the silliness of little order. It has no need for formal structure, ceremonial laws, and other such trivia.
It is in this Way that men greet each other with a warm embrace and address the Creator of Heaven and earth as “Daddy.” It is in this Way that men grow into all that is good and pure.
It is in this Way that men become of one spirit with HE WHO IS.
Good acting does not cause people to think about what good acting there is. It allows them to see into the characters.
Good clothing does not cause people to think about what good clothing they are wearing. It allows them to move without discomfort or restraint.
Good government does not cause people to think about what good government they have. It allows them to go about their affairs without interference.
A good window does not cause people to think about what a good window it is. It allows them to see clearly what is on the other side.
A good waiter does not cause people to think about what a good waiter he is. He allows them to enjoy their meal.
A good temperature does not cause people to think about what a good temperature the air has. It allows them to live undisturbed by heat or cold.
A good preacher does not cause people to think about what a good preacher they have. He allows them to think about what a great God they have.
The Way is as silent as light. It is gentle, soft, and unobtrusive. One who walks in the Way does not seek his own glory.
It is from the Way that issued the words,
“My precious, precious child,
I love you and will never leave you.
When you see but one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you.”
When man embraced evil, he was expelled from Paradise and bestowed a curse. Accursed, that time would see him wither and die.
Yet even in that curse, was an act of great mercy.
The true curse would have been an imperishable body, filled with eternal youth.
A body forever young, as spirit and soul rot in vice.
Tine would see bitterness and suffering grow without end.
Worse than a curse to die away from the Way, is a curse to live apart from the Way.
But Mercy did not do that.
Mercy gave another gift, a gift greater still.
In the Way, though men waste away outwardly, inwardly they are renewed day by day.
The moment of death is transformed into a birth into life.
After death comes the resurrection; spirit, soul, and body filled with a life even greater than that of Eden. Men will become the sons of God, sharing in the divine nature.
HE WHO IS took death beyond death, and transformed it into life beyond life.
Swallowing a pill is a difficult thing to learn.
It is difficult because a child will strive to do it, and it is something which can only be not-done.
Even discipline follows the path of not-doing.
Discipline does not force a square peg into a round hole; it slides a round peg into a round hole.
Six days of work were not evil, but it was one day of rest that was holy.
Rest surpasses work because it was before.
Before the worlds began, before even the creation of time, the Father is in glory with the Son.
In that glory is absolute rest.
In that glory will be the rest of all who follow the Way.
From being issues doing; from being and not-doing issue doing.
This is the order of the Way.
Not-doing leaves room open for God to fill.
Faith is a rest-in-God; it is a state of being and not-doing.
It is from faith that actions proceed.
Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
To those who not-do, abide, receive, believe, life is given.
The Son rests in the Father’s bosom, and the Spirit flows between them.
In this nature, rest, glory, and love, will they share.
Be and become.
Not-do and rest in God.
Let love flow into action.
To walk in the Way is to become honest.
Honesty certainly does not lie on an income tax form, but there is something more. To become honest is to become unmasked.
A mask is an armored shell.
It protects from feeling pain.
It protects from being healed.
It protects from growing and becoming real.
To remove it is to become naked and vulnerable.
It is to allow people to look into your eyes.
The pain of removing it is the pain of being healed.
It is like swallowing pride.
To swallow pride tastes foul, not because of the nature of humility, but because it is the taste of the foul and bitter nature of the pride that is swallowed.
After the mask is removed, there is a warmth and freedom like the freshness that comes after tears.
There is substance and reality in the image of God.
There is substance and reality in the Way.
There is too much substance and reality to fit inside of a mask.
The Kingdom of Heaven does not know interactions based on power: “I will compel you to do this.”
Neither does it know interactions of economic character: “I will do this for you if you do this for me.”
Instead, its interactions are based on love, freely and lavishly bestowed.
This lavishness is embedded in the words, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
He who uses power to compel things from other people, or economic exchanges to bargain things from them, does so for a reason. He does so in order to gain what is good, desirable, and beneficial for himself.
The question, “Why does he want that?” is a misplaced question. He does not wish to benefit himself as a means to something else. He loves himself.
This is how you should love yourself.
This is how you should love your neighbor.
Love is not the son of want.
Love is the foundation of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Love is the air which its citizens breathe and through which they see.
Prayer is love in communion with God.
Kindness is love wearing work gloves.
It is freely received and freely given, poured out without measure.
It is shared, and increases all the more.
It is generous, like the woman who poured pure nard over Jesus’s feet.
It is a cascade of flowing water, which cleanses what is soiled and heals what is wounded.
It is full of joy; finding something good, it seeks to share.
It is forgiving; it looks upon the person who has wronged it, and says, “I love you.”
Love the brothers and sisters, all mankind, yourself.
Love the stars, the waters, the animals, the trees.
All that is written about the nature of godly living is an explanation of love.
Heaven, the hope of the ages, is the final hope of being united and immersed in love with God and the saints.
The Kingdom of Heaven is a kingdom of love.
The rock, the foundation, the origin of all.
A state of being eternal and changeless.
All glory, all holiness, all authority, all wisdom.
Beyond all measure.
Life beyond life.
Light without any darkness.
Thomas Aquinas wrote many books; among numerous others, he wrote a Summa Theologica of encyclopaedic volume.
Late in life, he had a vision.
In this vision, Christ spoke to him from the Cross.
The vision profoundly affected him.
He became silent, and ceased to write.
And all his great and wonderful writings?
He declared them to be straw.
A journey is a long voyage that leads home.
Childlike faith meets testing and fire and new experiences, that it may become childlike faith.
Depths of theology, profound insight, and great learning, lead to hearing the simple words, “Jesus loves you,” and trusting them.
The Alpha is the Omega; the First is the Last; the Beginning is the End.
All good things come from God through the Way;
all good things return to God through the Way.
To worship is to take a little step into Heaven.
A candle which is lit, glows. It sheds light and warmth on all that is around it.
One who walks in the Way will carry little pieces of Heaven with him. He will bear with him a sense of timelessness, peace, joy, and love.
Bringing Heaven down to earth is very important.
It is to be not-done and done.
A relief worker, returning to a war zone, said, “I’m going back to Hell, to plant some flowers.”
All mapmakers face a difficult task.
They have a flat surface with which to represent a surface which is not flat.
Many maps of the world look very different.
Some have a grid which preserves latitude and longitude.
Some preserve the area of each part.
Some preserve something else.
Someone who knows only flat surfaces may be confused.
He may think that each mapmaker has produced a map of his own perspective.
He may imagine something vague and indefinite, tell a parable of blind men feeling an elephant, and call it great arrogance when mapmakers examine something which looks like a map and declare it unacceptable.
This is not a mark of openmindedness, nor of nuanced understanding, nor of humility.
It is a mark of ignorance.
The truth is not something indefinite and unreal.
The truth is very definite and real.
Maps vary because they represent something too definite and too real to fully capture with a flat surface.
A mapmaker never alters geographical features which he doesn’t like or which do not seem to make sense to him.
Mapmaking is an activity of absolute fidelity.
A parent has properly disciplined a child, not when he behaves properly upon sight of an authority figure, but when he behaves properly regardless.
Protection from drunkenness does not come from restricted access to alcohol, but from learning to know and respect one’s limits.
Order is not externally imposed; it comes from what is placed within.
Training does not give men the power to conform reality to their nature, but to conform their nature to the ultimate reality.
Fighting the evil without never comes without fighting the evil within.
To walk in the Way is always to look inwards.
There is no need to worry about what to eat; God feeds even the birds of the air, and we are worth more than many sparrows. He knows our needs and desires before we begin to pray. He desires to give even more than we desire to receive.
It would seem that a man of faith would believe in this, and not annoy God by interrupting him with requests for bread.
Yet the model for prayer asks for the coming of the Kingdom, the forgiveness of sins — and, day by day, “Give us this day our daily bread.”
Why is this?
It is because man does not live by bread alone.
God wishes that man be nourished in body and spirit.
As bread sustains the body, prayer and communion sustain the spirit.
Therefore, we are invited to share his presence in the smallest detail of our lives.
It is by prayer that we receive each meal as a gift wrapped in love.
It is by prayer that a blade of grass can draw us into the heart of the Father.
Cognition is made complete by metacognition.
Cognition sees that wealth will buy an abundance of possessions.
Metacognition sees that life does not consist of an abundance of possessions.
Cognition finds an edge in the rat race.
Metacognition climbs out of the rat race.
Cognition finds a way to admire the Emperor’s new clothes.
Metacognition asks, “Why is that man naked?”
Cognition gives the greatest volume of food to the highest number of beggars in the least amount of time.
Metacognition shares a human touch with at least one beggar.
Cognition asks, “What does this say?”
Metacognition asks, “Is this orthodox?”
Cognition asks, “How can I do this?”
Metacognition asks, “Is this right?”
Metacognition thinks about how cognition thinks.
Cognition is necessary, but it is even more vital to take a step back and restore things to sanity.
Of what is to be known, I know little.
Of what I know, I can explain little.
These words tell of the Way by which a man may find life.
Come to the Way of which these words tell.
These words are imperfect; the Way is perfect.
Do not come to these words to find life.
If you do, they will kill you.
Love is the foundation and cornerstone of Law and virtue.
Love is the character of a saint.
The Law, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, care for the poor, worship God alone”, is an extended commentary on the actions which love dictates.
Virtue is only another name for the different sides of love. Patience and forgiveness are the nature of love when it is wronged.
And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love.
The greatest of these is love.
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.
If you’re reading this text, there’s a good chance that you are already halfway to being an anthropologist. Note: for the purposes of this chapter, ‘anthropology’ is used to refer to cultural anthropology. Other anthropological disciplines exist, but it is cultural anthropology and its techniques which are most directly relevant here.
How could an author know that you are probably at least half an anthropologist? Let’s turn the question around, and suppose you are a Python hacker. Why are you reading this article? Visual Basic .NET has enormous marketing muscle behind it, possibly eclipsing the marketing budgets for all open source technologies put together. Guido van Rossum holds a dim view of marketing, as does much of the Python community. Monster.com lists three thousand Visual Basic positions, almost five thousand .NET positions, but only one thousand Python positions. Why are you reading a “usability for hackers” article when you could be reading a title like Completely Master Visual Basic in Thirty Seconds or Less?
Not that any of these is necessary to be a hacker, but together these common trends point to a personality profile that can learn the anthropological style of observation relevant to usability work much more easily than the general public, or even Joe Professional Programmer who regards learning new technologies as a necessary evil rather than a joy, works in Visual Basic .NET after being swayed by advertising, goes home and watches TV after work, has probably never heard of ThinkGeek, and would probably rather do gift shopping at Walmart even if he does know of ThinkGeek.
All of this is to say that the culture surrounding you is not like water to a fish. It is a basic fact of life that you don’t automatically share the perspective of others. Cross-cultural experience or ethnic minority status may accentuate this, but this is true even if you’re not (regarded as) a minority. And this kind of experience provides a very good foundation for anthropological ways of understanding exactly how you are not a user and users don’t think like you.
Anthropological usability techniques
An introductory example: Card sorting
One basic challenge for organizing a site’s information architecture is the taxonomy, or way of breaking things down. If one is asked what an example of a good taxonomy, one example of a taxonomy par excellence is the biological taxonomy that organizes all the way from kingdoms down to species or subspecies and varieties. And indeed that is one kind of taxonomy, but it is not the only possibility. If one is asked to break down a list of a fork, spoon, plate, bowl, soup, and macaroni and cheese, one obvious way is to put the fork and spoon together as cutlery, the plate and bowl together as dishware, and the soup and macaroni and cheese together as food. But this is not the only basic way, and it can make sense to put the fork, plate, and macaroni and cheese together as representing one complete option, and the spoon, bowl, and soup together as representing another basic option. Stores and websites that have adopted the latter approach, such as a gardening store or website that organizes its products according to the type of garden a customer is trying to make and what the customer is trying to do, see a significant increase in sales. Even biology could use other complementary technologies: a taxonomy that classified organisms according to both ecosystems and their roles within their ecosystems and ecological subsystems could say something very valuable that the eighteenth century classification wouldn’t.
In terms of websites, an information architecture that corresponds to the organization’s org chart is never a helpful choice. Even when we are talking about an intranet intended only for organizational insiders, one section or subsite for each department is not the right choice: one better option would be to support workflow and design around the tasks that employees will be doing with the intranet.
What is the best information architecture? That’s not a question to answer by looking something in a book or even thinking it out; it is something that we should work out based on what we observe doing research, even if we also read and need to do a bit of thinking. And this is the best practice across the board for usability.
One valuable exercise to help guide information architecture design is called card sorting. In this exercise, we get a stack of index cards, perhaps 3×5″, and write the individual names of different pieces of functionality the website should offer, trying to name things neutrally so that the names do not have common terms suggesting how certain parts belong together. Then we shuffle and lay out the cards, and individually ask subjects (people who will participate in an experiment and who are not insiders, whether employees of your organization for an external website, or information technology professionals) to organize them so that cards that belong together are put in the same stack.
Then we note which cards have been placed together, thank the subject, and move on to the next person.
On looking through the notes, we may see a few things. First, not all people think the same. We will likely see some breakdowns that are very similar, but there will likely be two or more breakdowns as fundamentally divergent as our breakdowns of the fork, spoon, plate, bowl, soup, and macaroni and cheese. Second, there will probably be a breakdown that simply catches us off guard. And this is good; it means the exercise is working.
After doing this, we can go about looking for a preferably standard information architecture that will gracefully serve the major ways we observed of breaking things down.
Focus groups: Cargo cult research for usability
With an eye to how to best approach observation, we would like to take a moment to talk about Coca-Cola’s blunder with “New Coke” and explain why focus groups, bringing in a group of people and asking them what they want, are deprecated as a recipe to make products that look good on paper but don’t wear well in normal use. For those of you who don’t remember the uproar some years back, the Coca-Cola company announced that it was switching to a new and improved formula, and there was massive public outlash from people who wanted the old Coke back. (Now the company sells both the old formula as Coke Classic and the new formula as Coke II, and Coke Classic is vastly more popular.)
Why would the Coca-Cola company announce it was terminating its cash cow? The answer is that it did naïve marketing research, ran taste tests, and asked members of the public which they would choose: the formula today sold as Coke Classic, or the formula today sold as Coke II. The rather clear answer from the taste tests was that people said they would rather have the new formula, and it was a clear enough answer that it looked like a sensible course of action to simply drop the second-best formula. It wasn’t until everybody could see that the Coca-Cola company had given itself a PR black eye that the company woke up to a baseline observation in anthropology: the horse’s mouth is a vastly overrated source of information. Most anthropological observation, including the kinds relevant to usability, are about paying close attention to what people do, and not be too distracted by their good faith efforts to explain things that are very hard to get right.
Anthropological observation: The bedrock of usability
There is more than one way to see the same situation
The kind of observation needed is probably closest to the anthropological technique of participant observation, except that instead of participating in using software or a website, we are observing others as they use software. Half the goal is to understand how the same thing can be observed differently. To quote from James Spradley’s Participant Observation, which is an excellent resource:
One afternoon in 1973 I came across the following news item in the Minneapolis Tribune:
Nov. 23, 1973. Hartford, Connecticut. Three policemen giving a heart massage and oxygen to a heart attack victim Friday were attacked by a crowd of 75 to 100 people who apparently did not realize what the policemen were doing. Other policemen fended off the crowd of mostly Spanish-speaking residents until an ambulance arrived. Police said they tried to explain to the crowd what they were doing, but the crowd apparently thought they were beating the woman.
Despite the policemen’s efforts the victim, Evangelica Echevacria, 59, died.
Here we see people using their culture. Members of two different groups observed the same event but their interpretations were drastically different. The crowd used their cultural knowledge (a) to interpret the behavior of the policemen as cruel and (b) to act on the woman’s behalf to put a stop to what they perceived as brutality. They had acquired the cultural principles for acting and interpreting things this way through a particular shared experience.
The policemen, on the other hand, used their cultural knowledge (a) to interpret the woman’s condition as heart failure and their own behavior as life-saving effort and (b) to give her cardiac massage and oxygen. They used artifacts like an oxygen mask and ambulance. Furthermore, they interpreted the actions of the crowd in an entirely different manner from how the crowd saw their own behavior. The two groups of people each had elaborate cultural rules for interpreting their experience and for acting in emergency situations, and the conflict arose, at least in part, because these cultural rules were so different.
Before making my main point, I would simply like to comment that the Spanish-speaking crowd’s response makes a lot more sense than it would first seem. It makes a lot of sense even on the assumption that the crowd did in fact understand the police officer’s explanation that they “apparently did not understand.” What the article explicitly states is that the police officers were using an oxygen mask, and that is a device that needs to be pressed against a person’s face and necessarily cover the same parts of a person’s face one would cover to try to cause suffocation. If you’re not expecting something like that, it looks awfully strange. Furthermore, although I do not know whether this actually happened, it is standard operating procedure to many emergency medical technicians and paramedics who perform CPR to cut off the person’s top completely, palpate to the best place to place one’s hands, and mark the spot with a ball-point pen. This may or may not have happened, but if it did, it is appropriate enough for neighbors to view it as an extreme indignity. Lastly, although today’s best practices in CPR are more forceful than was reccommended in the past, “heart massage” is a technical term that does not refer to anything like softly kneading a friend’s shoulder. The people I have met who do CPR regularly say they crack ribs all the time: cracking ribs may not be desirable on its own, but if a responder is doing good CPR with enough force to be effective, breaking a patient’s ribs is considered entirely normal and not a red flag that CPR is being done inappropriately. Furthermore, the woman’s age of 59 raises the question of osteoporosis. Racism is almost certainly a factor in the community’s memories; the community had quite probable stories circulating of bad treatment by police officers and possible police brutality. I know that the police tried to explain what they were doing, but if I saw police apparently trying to suffocate a member of our community, possibly saw an offensive indignity in that a senior’s shirt and underwear had been cut away, and saw an officer keep on forcefully shoving down on her chest and probably heard ribs crackling with every shove, it would take quite some believing, almost a reprehensible gullibility, to believe the other officers who tried to explain, “No, really, we’re trying to help her!”
(And, for reasons below, I would be very wary of saying that she probably would have survived if only the crowd hadn’t intervened.)
I may pause to note that neither group, nor apparently the authors of the newspaper article or anthropology text, appears to grasp how the situation would be viewed by a doctor. “Heart massage” is now more commonly known as “Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation,” or CPR, recuscitation being an otherwise obscure synonym for resurrection or returning from the dead: in French religious language, for instance, resuscitation is the term one uses for Christ returning to life after death on a cross. There is, to the purist, some fundamental confusion in the marketing-style slogan, “CPR saves lives.” Clinically and legally, death occurs when a person’s heart stops beating. If a person is still alive, and if there is any chance of saving the person’s life, then CPR is both premature and inappropriate.
Once a person enters a state of “cardiac arrest,” meaning death, then there might be a possibility of getting that person back by cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, even if that is a long shot. CPR at its very best is a third as effective as a heart beating normally, and even under ideal conditions can slow deterioration to give the emergency room perhaps a 5% to 10% chance of getting the person back. And that is assuming that ideal conditions are possible: in reality ideal conditions don’t happen. Though most people giving CPR do not have to deal with a crowd interpreting their efforts as assault, hoping to deliver perfect CPR is like hoping to become a good enough coder that one need not contend with debugging: Eric Raymond implicitly showed great maturity as a programmer by saying he was dumbfounded when his first attempt at Python metaprogramming worked without debugging. The person who does CPR in a public setting will contend not only with the difficulties of CPR itself, but an “uh-oh squad,” bystanders who second-guess one’s efforts and create a social dynamic like that of giving a speech to an audience of hecklers.
Now there is no question of blows or physical restraint when it comes to the idea of CPR or cardiac massage as a way to save lives that is apparently shared by the newspaper article author, the anthropology author, and possibly the police, and the medical view that CPR is “only indicated in the case of cardiac arrest,” meaning that it is premature and inappropriate unless a person has already died, but can preserve a remote chance of getting a patient back after the patient has crossed the threshold of clinical death. Emergency room doctors who view CPR as slowing deterioration and holding onto a slender chance of getting someone back will be quite grateful for CPR performed by police officers and other members of the general public who view CPR as a skill which saves lives. But the understanding is still fundamentally different, and differences like this come up in how computer interfaces are understood: differences you will want and need to appreciate.
Applying this foundation to usability
The core of usability testing is designing some sample tasks, asking users to do them, and observe, as a fly on the wall, without helping. If you can record sessions, great; if not, a notepad, notebook, or netbook works well. (The advantage of recording sessions is that almost invariably people will say, “There’s no way the user could have that much trouble with our design,” and a five-minute video of a user looking everywhere on the page but where users are intended to look, is worth a thousand arguments.) Usually studying five users is sufficient.
There is a saying in customer service of, “The customer is always right.” One may read the cautionary tale of a salesperson who kept on winning arguments with customers and somehow never closed a sale. And the principle is very simple. A customer who is wrong is to be treated as a valued customer as well as a customer who is right, and whether your customer is right or wrong, you treat each customer as a valued customer. Unless you are talking about an abusive customer, in which case it is appropriate to draw a line in the sand, you don’t send a message of “I’m right, you’re wrong.”
That’s not what I am talking about when I say, “The user is always right.” Anyone who teaches programmers or remembers what it was like to begin programming remembers hearing, “There’s no way the computer can be right! The computer has to be running my code wrong, or the compiler isn’t working right!” And it is a slow and at times painful lesson that the computer is in fact (almost) always right, that no matter how right your code seems, or how certain you are, if your code is not working, it is because you did something you did not intend, and your code will begin working when you find out how your code does not obviously say what you think it does, and adjust that part of your code. Bugs in libraries and (more rarely) compilers and interpreters do exist, but one important threshold has been crossed when a programmer stops blaming the tool for confusing bugs and begins to take responsibility personally.
And in the same sense that the computer is always right, and not the sense that the customer is always right, the user is always right about how users behave. If the user interacts with the user interface and does something counterproductive, this means the same sort of thing as code doing something counterproductive if it’s been compiled. The user, who is always right, has identified an area where the interface needs improvement. The user should be regarded as “always right” just as the computer should be regarded as “always right,” and when the user is wrong, that’s good information about where the user interface has problems.
It was a deft move for Google to give Chrome a single search and URL bar, but the main reason may not be the one you think. Searching was heavily enough used that Firefox made life easier for many users by adding a second bar to the right of the search bar so that we could search without first pulling up the Google homepage; for heavy users, simplifying the URL bar and the search bar into one full-width piece is the next refinement. But this is not the main reason why it was deft for Google to give Chrome a unified search/URL bar, or at very least not the only reason.
My own experience helping others out with their computers has revealed that something obvious to us has been absolutely nonexistent in their minds. Perhaps you have had the experience, too, of telling someone to enter something in a page’s text field, and they start typing it in the URL bar, or vice versa typing a URL into a page’s search field. What this unearths is that something that is patently obvious to web designers is not obvious to many web users: “Here is an important, impenetrable dividing line, and all the chrome above that line belongs to the browser, and everything below that line (above the bottom chrome, and excluding any scrollbars) belongs to the website.” This division of labor is obvious enough to most web designers that only experience could teach them that there are some people who don’t understand it. But the real world has many users who do not have any such concept, and behaviors like typing search terms in the URL bar (years before Chrome was available) are clues to “This is something that’s out there.”
And if you think, “Ok, but users are more sophisticated now,” you might go through your website’s search logs and see how many website addresses you can see. It won’t be nearly as many as ordinary search terms, but have you ever wondered where the addresses to MySpace and porn sites in your search logs come from?
It’s just like (hard) debugging
I would like to make one closing parallel to debugging. There are several types of debugging I am not talking about: for instance, a missing close parenthesis causes an immediate error that makes it fairly quick work to find out what is wrong and what line of code it is. A traceback can also provide an excellent starting point for quick and effective debugging. Although debugging a failed unit test may not be quite so easy, a unit test is not just a tool to say that something is wrong, somewhere; it is a tool that should point a finger, and usually narrow the search field significantly. And many other bugs that are neither syntax errors nor resolved with the help of unit tests are still easy enough to fix that we need not be terribly aware of them; when we think of debugging we may only think of the few hard bugs rather than the majority of bugs which better programmers resolve without really thinking about it, like we turn on light switches on entering a darkened room, or unzip a coat outdoors when the day warms up, without giving the matter too much conscious thought or vividly remembering that we do this. (This is, incidentally, somewhat of an ethnographic observation of good programmers.)
What I am talking about, as hard bugs, are bugs where you go through every investigative tool you can think of, and still cannot pin down what is going on. (This may include a relatively small proportion of bugs that also generate tracebacks or unit test failures.) Observing the bug seems like observing, not a miniature ship in a bottle, but a ship in a seamless glass sphere: there’s no way you can tell that the ship could have gotten in there, but it is quite clear that the ship in fact is in a glass container that has no openings that you can imagine the ship getting in through.
Isaac Asimov said, “The most exciting sound in science is not, ‘Eureka!’ [I’ve found it!], but ‘That’s funny,'” and the history of science bears him out. Today, X-rays are widely known among scientifically literate people to be a very high-energy, short-wavelength radiation belonging to the same spectrum as visible light, but it was not always so; the name ‘X-rays’ is itself a holdover from when they were a fascinating and mysterious mystery, with the ‘X’ in ‘X’-rays referring to something unknown. It was known that they were radiation of some sort, but they passed through some opaque material and in general did not fit into anything people had a conceptual place for.
In the middle of efforts to understand this mystery, there was one physicist who stumbled upon a golden clue that X-rays might be something like light: he left unexposed photographic plates near a source of X-rays, and upon using and developing them, observed that they had all been partially exposed. His response, however, was to contact the photographic supply company and demand that they replace the photographic plates as defective. As Winston Churchill observed, “Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of the time he will pick himself up and continue on.”
In debugging, hard bugs, the kind that remain unresolved after we have investigated all the usual suspects, are rarely solved because we go looking for the right error and find exactly what we expected to find. With the analogy of the ship in the sphere, it is more like deciding there has to be some kind of concealed seam from gluing or otherwise sealing an aperture big enough to allow the ship to enter, at least in pieces, and after looking the glasswork over, using magnifying glasses and lights, and still finding no trace of a seam, you stop ignoring something you had noticed along the way: the ship itself appeared surprisingly glossy. When you stop to look at the ship for a second, you realize that it is not made of the wood and cloth you expected (and that it appears to be at first glance), but as far as you can tell is shaped out of colored glass. And, after doing a little more research, you learn of a glassblower who makes colored glass ships and forms seamless glass spheres around them. In this case, you were not wrong in saying there was no seam; there is still no way that such a thing could have been crafted at room temperature, and there is in fact no ultra-subtle seam that you failed to notice in our efforts to find the seam to an aperture through which the ship could have been inserted at room temperature, even in pieces. But that’s not the point. The ship in a globe was made at glassblower’s temperatures, and there it is possible to create a seamless sphere around a colored glass ship.
Hard bugs are debugged successfully when you learn to stop when you stumble over the truth. And the same is true in the anthropological side of usability techniques: some things you can know to look for, and find, but the much more important competency is to recognize when you have stumbled over the truth, and stop and pay attention to something you don’t know to look for.
Almost all of the difference between doing user observation badly and doing it well hinges on learning to recognize when you have stumbled over the truth.
Lessons from Other Areas
Live cross-cultural encounters
Learning and observing in cross-cultural encounters is an excellent way to learn how to pick up cues the way a user interface developer needs to. There are two basic cross-cultural encounters I recommend as particularly valuable. The first of these, as it takes shape in the U.S., is to spend time volunteering with an English as a Second Language program and tutor on computer basics. Or find out if you can tutor in classes at your local library. (If possible, work in an adult computer class that has seniors and not too many young people.) This may or may not be the most pleasant experience, but it is some of the most valuable. I remember one experience where I was working with a Sudanese refugee, quite possibly an escapee of the genocide against Christians, who had just had his life uprooted under presumably traumatic circumstances and was learning to deal with living in the U.S. all at once, which would presumably be trauma in itself. I remember in particular one moment when we had very slowly typed a word or two in a word processor, and ticked the button to close a document, and were staring at a dialog box asking if we wanted to save the document before closing. And I remember a slow dawning realization that not only did he not know the quite substantial cultural concepts involved in recognizing that this was how culturally one asks a question, expecting an answer in the form of a click on one of two areas of the screen to answer “Yes,” “No,” or “Mu” (“Cancel”), but the question itself, “Do you want to save this document before closing?” was a question that did not exist at all in his culture, and even if I spoke his native language I would probably not be able to explain the question on terms that would make any sense to him. That was probably my most difficult teaching experience, and the one where I have the most doubts about whether I succeeded in teaching anything at all. But it was a profoundly valuable experience to me, and helped me see how things could “go without saying” to me but be baffling to others.
The second of these two cross-cultural encounters is whatever you already have. Few if any of us have no cross-cultural encounters; whether one is ethnically or (a)religiously a majority or a minority, an immigrant or a native citizen of one’s country, or considering face-to-face encounters or Internet connections, most of us have at least some experience in cross-cultural encounter. The differences are there; if you have learned something from cross-cultural encounter, the experience can help us more readily recognize the cues you need to recognize.
While I am wary of reducing history to merely an apparatus to understand the cultures of previous times, most historians arrive at a fairly deep understanding of a culture that is not their own, and may arrive at a sensitivity to the ways, all to easy to ignore, in which historical texts veto modern assumptions. There was an experiment in which a question concerning Abraham Lincoln and a number of historical primary sources were given to a number of elementary school teachers, plus one historian of Lincoln, and a historian whose specialties were unrelated. During the time of the experiment, the elementary school teachers started with a wrong conceptual framework that imposed today’s basic categories on the texts, and did not progress to anything better. The historian of Lincoln started with a highly accurate conceptual framework and very quickly arrived at the answer. But what is particularly interesting is the other historian, who was trained as a historian but had little directly relevant knowledge to Lincoln. He started with the same conceptual framework as the non-historians, but by the end he had corrected his framework to the point of reaching where the Lincoln historian had started.
This latter historian is perhaps the most interesting, not because he was initially right, but because he was self-correcting: even though his starting framework was no better than the schoolteachers, he was able enough to adjust his perspective from cues based on the text so that he reached the framework the Lincoln historian started with. And, one would imagine, the Lincoln historian would have had a similar self-correcting sensitivity to the texts had he been asked the same kind of question about a historical setting he did not initially understand.
Getting history right is relevant to us in two ways. First, one understands one, or perhaps many, other cultures more or less well. Second, when one trips over a clue that one is wrong, one stops and learns from it, instead of hoping it will go away. Both of these strengths are a powerful foundation to usability.
Old Books and Literature
Books can be a very good place to sharpen anthropological competencies through meeting other cultures. However, I might clear the ground of some distractions if it is tempting to say, “But I meet other cultures in all my favorite books! I’m an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy.”
All science fiction is not created equal in terms of cultural encounter. There is a marked difference between reading Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and watching Star Trek. Heinlein understood both culture and culture shock, and though his book only treats one alien culture, it is written to create culture shock in the reader, and challenge us in assumptions we didn’t know we had. “Whaaa—? They can’t do that!” is a normal and intended reaction to several parts of the book. In Star Trek, there are many races, but culture shock in the viewer is almost nonexistent even when the plot is intended to surprise. To put it more pointedly, the average American’s culture shock from watching years of Star Trek is probably much less than the average American student’s culture shock from a few months’ experience in a foreign exchange program, perhaps less than the culture shock in the first month of that program. By comparison with a live encounter with another human culture, the alien races in Star Trek have less their own alien cultures than a shared personality profile we can already relate to even when we don’t like it.
Likewise, not all fantasy is created equal. J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis were both Oxford-educated medievalists who knew medieval literature intimately. The genre of fantasy that appeared in their wake, if you have seriously read medieval literature, seems by comparison like the opening rant in the movie Dungeons & Dragons, where a supposedly medieval character gives an impassioned “Miss America” speech about how horrible it is that the realm’s government is unlike a U.S.-style democracy. Today’s genre fantasy reads like the story of Westerners from our time who happen to be wearing armor; by contrast, in The Chronicles of Narnia some of the characters are indeed from the twentieth century, but in terms of how the story is put together there is something a bit medieval, and not individualist, about their characterization.
If our cultures’ science fiction and fantasy are not the best place to be challenged by another encounter, and to develop that kind of sensitivity, where can we go? One obvious response is to look to be challenged by books like the Dao De Jing and the Bhagavad-Gita. Those are both excellent places to look to be challenged, but if we assume that we can be challenged by the Bhagavad-Gita but not Plato, we are selling both of them short. The image in Plato of climbing out of the cave with its shadows and looking at the sun is something that a Hindu commentator on the Bhagavad-Gita can quite easily relate to, and in a certain sense Plato has more in common with that kind of Hinduism than with his disciple Aristotle.
What does it look like to read a text to see what one can pick up culturally? Consider the following text:
QUANTUM THEORY, THE. As recently as the opening years of the present century the vast majority of physicists still regarded Newton’s dynamical laws as something established for all time. And they were not without solid grounds for this faith. Many phenomena were indeed known, chiefly those which may be classed under the heading radiation, e.g. black body radiation and line spectra, which refused to accommodate themselves to any sort of theory founded on Newtonian principles; but it was generally believed that such phenomena would, sooner or later, be completely accounted for without any departure from the classical principles of physics. Even the theory of relativity developed by Lorentz, Einstein, Minkowski and their successors was regarded only as a widening or generalization of the Newtonian basis of physics. It was the culmination of classical physical theory. These phenomena we now believe, cannot be accounted for on the basis of classical physical theory, whether Newtonian or Einsteinian. The first act of sacrilege was committed by Max Planck, until recently professor of theoretical physics at the University of Berlin, about the end of the year 1900, when he initiated the quantum theory. One of the problems engaging the attention of physicists during the closing years of the last century was that of the radiation from a black body…
The reconciliation of these two aspects of the phenomenon, namely the independence of the energy of the ejected photo-electrons and the intensity, on the one hand, and the wave character of the radiation on the other, constitutes one of the most formidable problems which physical science has ever encountered…
Now I would like to make a couple of points. I could, for instance, have chosen an interminable fight narrative from a medieval Arthurian legend to say, “We look on Arthurian legends as mysterious tales of wonder. Did you know that a large portion of those legends is actually quite dull to the modern reader?” Some readers may be wondering, “This is a scientific article, not a cultural area where anything goes.” But, even if science is not a domain where anything goes, there are cultural issues here, and it may be possible to date the article by cultural markers as well as by values given for physical constants (Avogadro’s number appears to be given as 6.06 * 10^23, not today’s 6.022 * 10^23, and the unit of electrical charge is reported to have current values consistent with initial measurements, despite the fact that the initial reported experimental value was erroneous and subsequent experimenters fudged until it was found acceptable to report what is now believed to be the correct value.)
In the quoted text, there are two significant markers that date the text as showing significant cultural difference from how things are viewed today.
A physicist or philosopher today would say that Newtonian physics, Einsteinian physics, quantum physics, and for that matter superstring theory are fundamentally irreconcilable on an ontological plane but happen to predict the same behaviors for the kind of experiments one would expect of a high school physics lab: the predicted results for each of these theories are vastly smaller than even a top-notch experimental physicist doing high school experiments could possibly observe. But the reasons behind those differences are irreconcilable, like the difference between saying “You see this OS behavior because it is running natively on your computer” and “You see this OS behavior because it is being emulated under virtualization with several levels of indirection that are extremely slippery to understand.” The behavior predicted is interchangeable, but the reasons proposed for the behavior are fundamentally irreconcilable. Furthermore, this is not just true if one compares quantum physics with Einsteinian or Newtonian physics; it is also true if one compares Einsteinian with Newtonian physics: to today’s take on things, it is a bit astonishing to say, “on the basis of classical physical theory, whether Newtonian or Einsteinian.” The usual way of presenting things in a physics class today is to present Einstein’s theory of relativity as the first in a stream of foundational upsets after Newton reigned unchallenged and apparently eternally established for centuries. Today we would expect to need to dig a bit to find more examples of Einstein’s theory referred to as a further expansion developing Newton, which should still be considered “classical physical theory.”
The second quoted paragraph refers to how light (and, it may be mentioned, practically everything else as seen in quantum theory) behaves as a particle when treated in some ways and as a wave as treated in others. This duality has since hit the rumor mill well enough that a favorite illustration from science in theology programs is how light exists as both a particle and a wave, which reflects the extent to which the duality of light as particle and wave remains unresolved but is no longer regarded as, “one of the most formidable problems which physical science has ever encountered.”
Our point is not to deride the article, which is written at a higher level of sophistication and detail than, for instance, the Wikipedia. Apart from its certitude in the existence of an “aether,” slightly surprising in light of the fact that the Michelson-Morley experiment dates to 1887 and the article refers to 1900 as a past year, its picture of quantum physics portrays the same core science one would expect of a physics text today. But, even in physics, which is not in any sense a field where just anything goes, culture is present, and for that matter in this article the cultural cues alone are most likely sufficient for an historian of 20th century physics to closely date it.
This kind of cue is what you can practice learning in reading old books, and this kind of cue is what you need to be able to pick up in observing for good user interface development.
The way you observe that a user doesn’t share an understanding that is obvious to you is by the same kind of cue that can clue you in that a text doesn’t share an understanding that is obvious to you.
The last other area: Whatever you have
Whatever else you have is probably a resource you can draw on. Do you love birding? Birding is a hobby of observation. Do you do martial arts, for instance? A common theme in martial arts is harmony between opponents, and if you can attune yourself to a sparring partner, you should be able to attune yourself to a user. Comedy or performing arts? You’re not a good comedian if you’re insensitive to your audience. Have you made a lot of mistakes, and learned from them, or at least started to learn? Wonderful news! (Are you an amateur or professional anthropologist? That one doesn’t need explaining!) There is some connection between any two areas of life; let other skill support and strengthen your usability work.
Understanding the User
A lesson from optimization
Knuth said, for the novice programmer, “Don’t optimize,” and to experts only, “Optimize later.” Always writing for optimization is a recipe for bad, unreadable code, and for that matter slow code, compared to code written for clarity that is later optimized using that clarity. And Knuth also said, “Premature optimization is the root of all evil.”
In one production system I was working on, I wrote one search with the realization that the implementation I was using was extremely inefficient, and had to deliberately refrain from optimizing it, to leave for later. When the whole system was put together, it took a couple of seconds longer than was acceptable, and I began mentally gearing up to optimize the inefficient search. Before doing so, I did some testing, and found to my surprise that my inefficient search implementation took very little time to run, and when I began mapping things out, found the root problem. I had called a poorly chosen method, and with it made a purely preventable network call, and that network call took a few seconds. When that problem was fixed, the remaining code ran at acceptably fast times for even the largest accounts.
This story is my own version of something that keeps on being retold in the programming literature: “Our system was running slowly, and we had reasonable ideas about what was going on here, but our reasonable ideas were wrong. We didn’t know what the real problem was until we dug into some observation.”
This basic lesson in optimization is a fundamental phenomenon in usability as well. We will have reasonable ideas about what the usability issues are, and our reasonable ideas will be wrong. We won’t know what the real issues are until we dig into some observation.
What’s wrong with scratching an itch, or, you are not your user
The open source community is largely driven by scratching itches, but scratching a programmer’s itch is a terrible way to approach user interface design.
The story is told of a program used in an office where a popup window appeared and said, “Type mismatch.” And the secretary obediently typed M-I-S-M-A-T-C-H, a perfectly appropriate user response to an inappropriate error message. (This kind of thing shows up in many more subtle ways, some of which are not so obviously wrong.)
Designing a user interface that makes sense to someone who understands its inner workings, and designing a user interface that makes sense to its intended audience, are not the same thing. A mechanic’s understanding of how a car starts is very elaborate and detailed, but a user should be able to get by thinking, “I turn the key and press the gas, and the car starts” without necessarily thinking anything about what’s under the hood. If users need to understand what’s under the hood to operate the car, the car needs improvement.
Worst practices from the jargon file
The jargon file defines the extremely pejorative “PEBKAC” as:
[Abbrev., “Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair”] Used by support people, particularly at call centers and help desks. Not used with the public. Denotes pilot error as the cause of the crash, especially stupid errors that even a luser could figure out. Very derogatory. Usage: ‘Did you ever figure out why that guy couldn’t print?’ ‘Yeah, he kept cancelling the operation before it could finish. PEBKAC’. See also ID10T. Compare pilot error, UBD.
And the particular example is unfortunately revealing of an attitude user interface people need to avoid like the plague.
The example given in the jargon file’s definition of “PEBKAC” is, “‘Did you ever figure out why that guy couldn’t print?’ ‘Yeah, he kept canceling the operation before it could finish. PEBKAC.'” For a long time, at least, attempting to print from a GUI gave something that looked like a modal dialog box, but for this “modal dialog lookalike”, there is one important difference in behavior. When you click on the button to make it go away, it destroys your print job.
This is not a case of a problem existing between the user’s keyboard and chair.
It is a case of a problem existing between the user interface designer’s keyboard and chair. PEBKAC.
To pick on the jargon file a little more, “Drool-proof paper” is defined as:
Documentation that has been obsessively dumbed down, to the point where only a cretin could bear to read it, is said to have succumbed to the “drool-proof paper syndrome” or to have been “written on drool-proof paper”. For example, this is an actual quote from Apple Computer’s LaserWriter manual: “Do not expose your LaserWriter to open fire or flame.”
Let’s ignore the fact that this sounds less like a technical writer trying to be easy to understand, than corporate legal counsel trying to ward off ambulance chasers.
There is a very user-hostile attitude here, the basic idea that if your system is too difficult for your users to understand, the users must be too stupid, and making something user-friendly is a matter of stretching to meet people you shouldn’t have to cater to. Stories and terms like this circulate among programmers. I might suggest that terms like these, for your software’s audience, are little, if any, better than a racial slur. They reflect an attitude we don’t need.
Python and usability
You do not really understand Python until you understand something about usability as it appears in Python. Usability is the soul of ‘Pythonic’.
It’s not all about the computer!
There is something genuinely different about Python, and to explain it I would like to discuss the advantages of C.
If you want to nano-optimize every ounce of performance you can get, there is little serious competition to C. You can write assembler for different platforms, or write in a C++ that is multiparadigm like Python and have some parts of your program use high-level features like objects, templates, and operator overloading, while still writing almost unadulterated C for parts that are performance-critical. And the group of programmers that “vote with their keyboards” for using C this way, includes Guido van Rossum, who created Python. The first and canonical Python implementation is written in C, and a Pythonista underscoring the point that Python’s switch statement is a very efficient dictionary will explain that Python’s dictionary is implemented in tightly optimized C.
But this kind of advantage comes at a price. In the canonical list of ways to shoot yourself in the foot in different programming languages, C is “for people who want to load their own rounds before shooting themselves in the foot.” In one Python forum, a wannabe 133t hax0r asked how to write a buffer overflow in Python, and a wry Pythonista replied apologetically: “We’re sorry, but Python doesn’t support that feature.” But C does support the “feature” of buffer overflows; its default string handling never leaves home without it. With manual memory management and manual handling of pointers, C also supports “features” including all kinds of memory leaks and subtle pointer errors that can be extremely difficult to debug. Python closes this Pandora’s box, although Python is hardly the only language with the wisdom to do so. Python, PHP, Ruby, Perl, Tcl, and Java all close the Pandora’s box that must be wide open if you are to have tightly optimized C.
C has been called a language that combines the power of using assembler with the ease of using assembler, and I know of no compiled language that surpasses C for power over bare metal, or for corresponding possibilities for tight optimization. However, this is not the only way to keep score. Python keeps score by another metric: programmer productivity.
The one overriding concern motivating decisions in Python is not how you can get the tightest control over the computer’s productivity. It’s how to let the programmer be most productive, and it has been said of this relentless pursuit of programmer productivity that capital sentences are passed with less thorough deliberation than obscure Python features. And if you’ve used Python, the difference you have experienced is precisely because of this one overriding concern, this relentless pursuit. The people in charge of Python have decided that Python isn’t about what to do to optimize the computer; it’s about what you do to empower the programmer.
If you’re interested in usability, you have a good working example of usability to look at. To put Python’s strength a little differently, Python is a language where the one overriding concern and relentless pursuit is usability for you, the programmer. If you are working on usability, you are working to give end-users the same kind of thing that Python gives you. You are making a product more Pythonic to use, as opposed to giving the more C-like experience of an interface that lets users load their own rounds before shooting themselves in the foot.
Usability is about how to go from giving C user interfaces, to giving Pythonic user interfaces.
A first clue to something big, tucked into a choice of children’s books
I was once part of a group dedicated to reading children’s stories (primarily fantasy) aloud. At one point the group decided to read Patricia Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons. I had a visceral reaction to the book as something warped, but when I tried to explain it to the group by saying that it was like the Un-man in Perelandra, I was met with severe resistance from two men in the group. Despite this, and after lengthy further discussions, I was able to persuade them that the analogy was at least the best I could manage in a tight time slot.
I was puzzled at some mysterious slippage that had intelligent Christians who appreciated good literature magnetized by works that were, well… warped. And that mysterious slippage seemed to keep cropping up at other times and circumstances.
Why the big deal? I will get to the Un-man’s message in a moment, but for now let me say that little girls are sexistway too romantic. And this being sexistway too romantic motivates girls to want fairy tales, to want some knight in shining armor or some prince to sweep them off her feet. And seeing how this sexist deeply romantic desire cannot easily be ground out of them, feminists have written their own fairy tales, but…
To speak from my own experience, I never realized how straight traditional fairy tales were until I met feminist fairy tales. And by ‘straight’ I am not exactly meaning the opposite of queer (though that is close at hand), but the opposite of twisted and warped, like Do You Want to Date My Avatar? (I never knew how witchcraft could be considered unnatural vice until I read the witches’ apologetic in Terry Pratchett’s incredibly warped The Wee Free Men.) There is something warped in these tales that is not covered by saying that Dealing with Dragons has a heroine who delights only in what is forbidden, rejects marriage for the company of dragons, and ridicules every time its pariahs say something just isn’t done. Seeing as how rooting out from the desire for fairy tales from little girls and little kids in general, authors have presented warped anti-fairy tales.
Ella Enchanted makes it plain: for a girl or woman to be under obedience is an unmixed curse. There is no place for “love, honor, and obey.”
The commercials for Tangled leave some doubt about whether the heroine sings a Snow White-style “Some day my prince will come.”
The Un-man’s own tales
Perelandra has a protagonist who visits Venus or Perelandra, where an unfallen Eve is joined first by him and then by the antagonist, called the Un-man because he moves from prelest or spiritual illusion to calling demons or the Devil into himself and then letting his body be used as a demonic puppet.
How does the Un-man try to tempt this story’s Eve?
[The Lady said:] “I will think more of this. I will get the King to make me older about it.”
[The Un-man answered:] “How greatly I desire to meet this King of yours! But in the matter of Stories he may be no older than you himself.”
“That saying of yours is like a tree with no fruit. The King is always older than I, and about all things.”…
[The Lady said,] “What are [women on earth] like?”
[The Un-man answered,] “They are of great spirit. They always reach out their hands for the new and unexpected good, and see that it is good long before the men understand it. Their minds run ahead of what Maleldil has told them. They do not need to wait for Him to tell them what is good, but know it for themselves as He does…”
…The Lady seemed to be saying very little. [The Un-man]’s voice was speaking gently and continuously. It was not talking about the Fixed Land nor even about Maleldil. It appeared to be telling, with extreme beauty and pathos, a number of stories, and at first Ransom could not perceive any connecting link between them. They wre all about women, but women who had apparently lived at different periods of the world’s history and in quiet differences. From the Lady’s replies it appeared that the stories contained much that she did not understand; but oddly enough the Un-man did not mind. If the questions aroused by any one story proved at all difficult to answer, the speaker simply dropped that story and instantly began another. The heroines of the stories seemed all to have suffered a great deal—they had been oppressed by their fathers, cast off by husbands, deserted by lovers. Their children had risen up against them and society had driven them out. But the stories all ended, in a sense, hapily: sometimes with honours and praises to a heroine still living, more often by tardy acknowledgment and unavailing tears after her death. As the endless speech proceeded, the Lady’s questions grew always fewer…
The expression on [the Lady’s] face, revealed in the sudden light, was one that [Ransom] had not seen there before. Her eyes were not fixed on the narrator; as far as that went, her thoughts might have been a thousand miles away. Her lips were shut and a little pursed. Her eyebrows were slightly raised. He had not yet seen her look so like a woman of our own race; and yet her expression was one he had not very often met on earth—except, as he realized with a shock, on the stage. “Like a tragedy queen” was the disgusting comparison that arose in his mind. Of course it was a gross exaggeration. It was an insult for which he could not forgive himself. And yet… and yet… the tableau revealed by the lightning had photographed itself on his brain. Do what he would, he found it impossible not to think of that new look in her face. A very good tragedy queen, no doubt, very nobly played by an actress who was a good woman in real life…
A moment later [the Un-man] was explaining that men like Ransom in his own world—men of that intensely male and backward-looking type who always shrank away from the new good—had continuously laboured to keep women down to mere childbearing and to ignore the high destiny for which Maleldil had actually created her…
The external and, as it were, dramatic conception of the self was the enemy’s true aim. He was making her mind a theatre in which that phantom self should hold the stage. He had already written the play.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Lady is complementarian to the point where one wonders if the label ‘complementarian’ is sufficient, and the demon or Devil using the Un-man’s body is doing his treacherous worst to convert her to feminism. Hooper says he is trying to make her fall by transgressing one commandment, and that is true, but the entire substance of the attack to make her fall is by seducing her to feminism.
A strange silence in the criticism
Walter Hooper’s C.S. Lewis: Companion and Guide treats this dialogue in detail but without the faintest passing reference to feminism, men and women, sex roles, or anything else in that nexus. It does, however, treat the next and final book in the trilogy, That Hideous Strength, and defend Lewis from “anti-feminism” in a character who was a woman trying to do a dissertation on Milton: Lewis, it is revealed, had originally intended her to be doing a dissertation on biochemistry, but found that he was not in a position to make that part of the story compelling, and so set a character whose interests more closely paralleled his own. So the issue of feminism was on his radar, possibly looming large. But, and this is a common thread with other examples, he exhibits a mysterious slippage. His account gets too many things right to be dismissed on the ground that he doesn’t know how to read such literature, but it also leaves too much out, mysteriously, to conclude that he gave anything like such a scholar’s disinterested best in explaining the text. (It is my own opinion that Hooper in fact does know how to read; he just mysteriously sets this ability aside when Lewis counters feminism.) And this slippage keeps happening in other places and context, always mysterious on the hypothesis that the errors are just errors of disinterested, honest scholarship.
Jerry Root, in his own treatment in C.S. Lewis and a Problem of Evil: An Investigation of a Pervasive Theme, treats subjectivism as spiritual poison and problem of evil Lewis attacks in his different works: Root argues it to be the prime unifying theme in Lewis). But with slight irony, Root seems to turn subjectivistic, or at least disturbing, precisely where his book touches gender roles and egalitarianism. In his comments on The Great Divorce‘s greatest saint-figure, a woman, Susan Smith, is slighted: among other remarks, he quotes someone as saying that women in C.S. Lewis’s stories are “he neglects any intellectual virtue in his female characters,” and this is particularly applied to Sarah Smith. When he defends Lewis, after a fashion, Root volunteers, “a book written in the 1940s will lack some accommodations to the culture of the twenty-fist century.” But this section is among the gooiest logic in Root’s entire text, speaking with a quasi-psychoanalytic Freudian or Jungian outlook of “a kind of fertile mother-image and nature-goddess,” that is without other parallel and certainly does not infect the discussion of Lewis’s parents, who well enough loom large at points, but not in any psychoanalytic fashion. Root’s entire treatment at this point has an “I can’t put my finger on it, but—” resemblance to feminists disarming and neutralizing any claim that the Catholic veneration of the Virgin Mary could in any way, shape, or form contribute to the well-standing of women: one author, pointing out the difficulty of a woman today being both a virgin and a mother, used that as a pretext to entirely dismiss the idea that She could be a model for woman or a token of woman’s good estate, thus throwing out the baby, the bathwater, and indeed the tub. The Mother of God is She who answered, Be it unto me according to thy word, an answer that may be echoed whether or not one is a virgin, a mother, or for that matter a woman.
The critique Root repeats, on reflection, may meet an Orthodox response of “Huh?”, or more devastatingly, “Yes, but what’s your point?”, not because Lewis portrays a saint as “no model of intellectual virtue,” but because Orthodox sainthood is not a matter of intellectual virtue. Among its rich collection of many saints there are very few models of intellectual virtue, admittedly mostly men, and usually having received their formation outside the Orthodox Church: St. John Chrysostom was called “Chrysostom” or “Golden-Mouth” because of his formation and mastery of pagan rhetoric. But intellectual virtue as a whole is not a central force in the saints, and Bertrand Russell’s observation that in the Gospels not one word is put in praise of intelligence might be accepted, not as a weakness of the Gospel, but as a clarification of what is and is not central to Christian faith. And in terms of what is truly important, we would do well to recall the story of St. Zosima and St. Mary of Egypt. If Lewis’s image of sainthood is a woman who is not an academic, this is not an embarrassment to explain away, but a finger on the pulse of what does and does not matter for sainthood.
Root mentions the Un-man briefly, and gives heavy attention to the man who would become the Un-man as he appears in the prior book in the trilogy, but does not reference or suggest a connection between the Un-man and feminism. Root became an egalitarian, and shifts in his book from speaking of “men” to saying “humankind”. And this is far from one scholar’s idiosyncracy; a look at the World Evangelical Alliance’s online bookstore as I was involved with it showed this mysterious slippage not as something you find a little here, a little there, but as endemic and without any effective opposition.
Un-man’s tales for Grown-Ups
During my time as webmaster to the World Evangelical Alliance, the one truly depressing part of my work was getting the bookstore online. Something like eighty to ninety percent of the work was titles like Women as Risk-Takers for God which were Un-man’s tales for adults. I was depressed that the World Evangelical Alliance didn’t seem to have anything else to say on its bookshelves: not only was there a dearth of complementarian “opposing views” works like Man and Woman in Christ, but there was a dearth of anything besides Un-man’s tales. The same mysterious phenomenon was not limited to a ragtag group of friends, or individual scholars; it was dominant at the highest level in one of the most important parachurch organizations around, and not one that, like Christians for Biblical Equality, had a charter of egalitarian or feminist concerns and priorities.
G.K. Chesterton said, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” That might hold for Chesterton’s day, and classics like Grimm and MacDonald today, but today’s fairy tales, or rather Un-man’s tales, do not tell children the dragons can be killed. Children already know that deep down inside. They tell children dragons can be befriended and that dragons may make excellent company. For another title of the myriad represented by Dealing with Dragons, look at the tale of cross-cultural friendship one may look for in The Dragon and the George. When first published, Dealing with Dragons might have been provocative. Now Tangled is not. And reading Perelandra leaves one with an uncomfortable sense that C.S. Lewis apparently plagiarized, in the Un-man’s tales, works written decades after his death.
This issue is substantial, and Lewis’s sensitivity to it is almost prophetic: sensibilities may have changed, but only in the direction of our needing to hear the warning more. And it is one Christians seem to be blind to: complementarianism seems less wrong than petty, making a mountain out of a molehill. But the core issue is already a mountain, not a molehill.
Touch is something deep which is lightly explored in my culture. I wish to explore it here.
It is characteristic of Western thought, probably in a tradition reaching back to the Greeks, to pay a strong degree of attention to sight when studying perception, to the exclusion of the other five senses. (The sixth sense is not ESP; it is the internal, kinesthetic sense, commonly called the sense of balance, which enables us to tell up from down; when this sense fails (after, for example, spinning around or drinking too much alcohol), we feel dizzy and become disoriented as to how to keep from falling over.) For example, in the Myers Psychology text, the vast majority of the space devoted to perception studied how we extract information from what our eyes report, so much so that ESP (which the authors did not believe in) received more attention and space than hearing, smell, taste, touch, and balance put together!
(I might incidentally comment that psychology, for all but the most recent times, has been explored as a part of philosophy, and in some ways has suffered more than any of the hard sciences from the separation. A lot of what goes on in psychology is truly bad philosophy, and would improve greatly if its theories were grounded in good philosophy. Behaviorism is a prime example of this.)
In speaking about touch, I intend not to generally talk about sex, for a couple of reasons. The first is that sexual technique, along with massage, is perhaps the one (two) narrow and restricted area of touch that people are taking seriously; manuals on sexual technique exist in droves. And I might incidentally mention that I do not know sexual technique — that will come if and when I get married. But even to if I were expert in sexual technique, and were writing to an audience of married couples, I do not think that I would write about sex. It is not because I despise sex — I believe it right and good that an entire book of Scripture, the Greatest of Songs, is pure erotica. It is for another reason, a reason that lies deeper.
The conception of romance and relationships in American thought is not nearly so universal as might be thought by someone who is from our time. At this point, I might shock the reader to drawing attention to how, in a great many cultures across much of time, people were happily married, sexually satisfied, and enjoying life, without ever having occur to them what modern America understands by romance. Romantic love was one of the great discoveries of the middle ages — a genuine discovery, because it was not really known.
If we exclude the supernatural love of agape, and the love-beyond-love of worship that is due to Jesus Christ, then we are left with four natural loves between human beings. There is the love of all other human beings, which applies even to strangers and even to enemies. Then there is the love of friends — a friend is both to be loved as a human being, and in a special way as a friend. There is next the love of one’s own family — family are to be loved as human beings, in a special way as friends, and in a more special way as family. Finally, there is the last love, a love which is romantic and sexual. A spouse is to be loved as a human being, in a special way as a friend, in a more special way as kin, and finally in the most special way as a lover, a lifelong partner and mate.
This fourth love does not stand on its own, and was never meant to in the first place. If we look in the Song of Songs, we see that the lover calls the beloved a woman, that the two are addressed as friends, and in particular he calls her his sister and then his bride. Even in a book all about sex, we see not sexual love in isolation, but sexual love as the crowning jewel, united with the other loves to make a rich and full marriage.
Romance, its delightful intoxication, is a wonderful and God-given thing. But it is transient, and when it wanes, there is (or at least should be) something far deeper than sex alone; that deeper, companionate love is what God intended as the basis for marriage, as thrilling as romance may be.
God created us as his image, and the particular way he in his goodness chose to do so was as a unity of spirit, soul, and body. The spirit, with its ability to love, is the greatest part, and love is greater than even rationality. But it is not the only part, or the only good. And even the word ‘part’ is deceptive; it suggests a collection of compartmental modules, when in fact there is a unity.
And in that unity, there is a spiritual way of drawing near and embracing by love; this is what Aquinas (for example) described as the will, seen not in the modern Nietzchian sense of iron determination, but rather as a recognition of good that inclines towards something. And in the spirit-soul-body unity by which God has blessed us, there is a physical way of drawing near and embracing by love. It is called touch.
If nothing else, by analogy at least, we should be able to look and see that among human loves there is a highest and superlative form of love in marriage, and yet the romantic love does not and should not stand in isolation, then sexual touch may be the highest, holiest, and most exciting form of touch by which God has blessed our race, but it probably wasn’t created in isolation to be the only touch — even in marriage.
And if I may push the analogy even further, I would say that that touch is absolutely wonderful while it lasts, but it is not the fundamental or foundational touch of physical love, even in marriage. Something else is.
What I am saying here may be more transparently obvious to women than to men. Women tend to feel more the need for physical affection, men the sexual drive. And many men, especially those who grew up in households with little physical affection, man not only not see the need for physical affection, but be uncomfortable with it. Even then, I would ask you to bear with me.
Our society has inherited the disastrous wake of Victorianism, and is a post-Victorian culture; I will include here an appendix an essay which I wrote on Victorianism as the death knell to sexual purity in Western culture. Apart from referring the reader to that, I will simply say that we’ve inherited a mess.
Victorianism, n. The death knell to sexual purity in Western culture.
Victorianism held sexual purity to be extremely important. All well and good, but it did not stop there. Victorianism believed sexual purity to be best approached via a Pharisaic guard around the Law. And, like every other guard around the Law, it did a trememdous amount of damage to numerous other things before destroying the very object it was meant to preserve.
Touch and community are vital elements of human health. This is witnessed in Scriptures that tell of John reclining in Jesus’s bosom and in the hands quickly extended to pets, one of the few situations where our society will allow an innocent touch to be an innocent touch. An infant who is not held will wither and die, and psychologists have a bluntly accurate term for the failure of parents to hold and cuddle their children a great deal: abuse. And of course the special kind of community that exists between a husband and wife is given a special kind of touch.
Victorianism looked at sex and did not quite see something which is fundamentally good within a certain context. It saw something which was essentially evil (but tolerable at best within a certain context). And, in progressively widening circles, encompassing different forms of touch further and further from what is necessarily foreplay, saw that there exists at least some possibility for that touch to be sexual (at least from the perspective of the younger monk), and placed on each one a label of “This is dirty. Avoid it.” Word such as “Greet one another with a kiss of love.” cease to be acknowledged as a divine command which was given for human good, and instead look like, um, an odd cultural thing which, um, shows, um, um, um…
The aim, it appears, was to end up with nothing that was sexual. The result was to make everything sexual, and create a major unanticipated problem.
God created people with certain needs, and when those needs are not met, Satan comes in with counterfeit substitutes. These things are hard enough to resist to someone whose needs are met with the genuine article; when there is an immense sucking vacuum coming from unmet needs, pushing away the counterfeits acquires a difficulty which is unbelieveable. A little girl who is deprived of a father’s hugs and kisses will grow into a young woman who has a tremendously difficult time avoiding sexual promiscuity, unsuccessfully searching in a series of abusive boyfriends’ embraces for enough love to fill the emptiness inside.
Fortunately, most of Victorianism did not quite leave a stain that dark and deep, but there is still a major problem with a culture that refuses to wholeheartedly say, “It’s OK. You may enjoy an innocent touch as an innocent touch.” There is still a failure to meet a need that God created people to have filled, and still an uphill battle to fight off the counterfeit substitutes.
In this century, Victorianism has crumbled, but, like every other evil, it fails to crumble in the ways that a sane person would want it to crumble. What disappeared was not the prohibition on friendly touch, but the belief that sexual sin is a deadly poison which should be fought tooth and nail. What appeared and took the place meant to be filled by innocent touch is something which is not innocent. Thus, Victorianism did a perfect job of making room and clearing the way for a great deal of lewdness.
Current Western culture is saturated with sexual sin, not despite, but because of the fact that it is the continuation of Victorian culture.
(There is one note I should like to mention before I forget. The careful reader may ask why I am undertaking to write about touch and have other people read it; the practice does not involve touch as thinking about logical reasoning involves reasoning. My response is threefold: (1) You have a point to an extent; reading or writing this is not an act of touch. (2) There is a place for thinking and theory in a way that is never intended to be complete or self-sufficient. Christian theology is not an insular system of ideas, but an integrated part of the walk of faith in which one loves and is loved by God. (3) Theory strengthens and furthers practice, as physics furthers engineering. The invention of devices is far older than any empirically accurate knowledge of physics — but that doesn’t mean that physics didn’t add a whole new dimension to engineering.)
Having talked about the philosophy and theology surrounding touch, the reader may well be wondering if I am going to say anything about touch itself. And the answer is ‘yes’. What I have been doing, or attempting to do at any rate, is to establish a framework that will make it possible to do so.
The first thing I will say about touch (perhaps belaboring the obvious, but remember George Orwell’s words, “It is the first duty of intellectuals to state the obvious.”), is that it is an immediate, proximal mode of perception. Sight, hearing, and smell, all work at a distance; touch only works when you are right with someone or something. This has rich potential for analogy — for instance, as you can only feel something if you draw near to it, so also there are ways in which you can only know something if you love it.
The second thing is that it is a baby’s primary sense — not sight. Only later does sight come to dominate. The baby is continually engaged in a tactile exploration of the world. He puts things into his mouth, not because plastic, cloth, wood, and stone taste wonderful, but because the tongue is the most sensitive part of the human body to touch — more sensitive than even the fingertips. And, long before the words “I love you.” have any meaning to a child, touch constitutes the baby’s awareness of his mother’s love. He is enfolded by her body for nine months as she carries him, and when born he is held, and hugged and kissed. He is fed, not in some abstract way, but by nursing — a very special and intimate touch. It is presumably not coincidental that the focus of a baby’s eyes is not twenty feet to infinity as with an adult, but eighteen inches — the distance between a mother’s breast and her nose.
The third thing I would like to say is that, thought touching is a surface to surface contact, it is anything but superficial. This is why doctors touch their patients when they want to know what is happening inside the body. In a few cases, exploratory surgery is necessary — they need to cut a person open to find out what’s inside. But most of the time, they can probe and find out what’s happening just by touching.
And, medicine aside, touch can communicate a wealth of information about a person’s emotions. Muscle tension, skin temperature, sweat, rate and quality of pulse — all have a story to tell about what’s going on inside a person’s heart.
The fourth thing is that touch is deep. I am not sure exactly how to convey this, as I am trying to express something greater than what I myself know. But, in the absence of perfect knowledge, I’ll give an analogy.
I have some training in martial arts. I have just enough knowledge to begin to appreciate the wealth of knowledge I do not know. I have seen the basics of pressure points, joint locks, and hip throws. I have seen enough to recognize that there are subtleties which elude me, and rich veins to explore. If I were to devote the rest of my life to the study of martial arts, I would not lament with Alexander, “Alas! I have no more worlds to conquer.” There would always be more there, always be more to explore.
For two specific kinds of touch — sex, and massage — there has been considerable exploration, and (though everybody can do them at least minimally) there are great books from which most people have a lot to learn.
Given what I know about God and his creation, I would be very surprised to learn that the rest of touch is shallow — that you learn a certain amount, and then there is nothing left to explore.
The fifth thing, in relation to the fourth, consists of a couple of analogies concerning what we may find in expoloring touch. I believe that we find something like a language, but a language, a communication, that is alogical and non-symbolic. (This may, indeed, be a lot like one of the things feminism is searching for. I’ll have to run this by a women’s studies professor.) I believe it also to be like art and music — in an act that is creative, and an expression of beauty. I believe it also to be qualitative rather than quantitative by nature — returning to the theme of an alogical language, this would communicate not the rule-based formal manipulations computers are capable of, but the qualities, the experience, of which computers are incapable.
I would now like to engage in a thought experiment. I will ask you to imagine three times that you put your hand into a dark hole in a wall, through which you cannot see.
The first time, you almost hurt yourself touching a sharp corner. As you feel inside, you recognize the shape of a box — a hard metal box. It is cold, unresponsive, and unyielding; it does not acknowledge your presence.
The second time, you meet no resistance; you have plunged your hand into a bucket of water. The water is too responsive and too yielding; there is nothing there but an acknowledgement of your presence. It has no shape but the shape of your hand; there is nothing there. So you pull your hand out and dry it off.
The third time you stick your hand in, you meet something that is yielding and yet solid, something that responds not out of what your hand is alone, but what it is. You meet something that is warm. You touch another human hand. As you touch, it wraps around, clasps, embraces your hand. You have finally found something very good.
Human touch is, or at least should be, like the third experience. It is not just a moderate between two extremes; it is something more. It is warm.
In the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong understood very well that warfare is won, not by destroying soldiers, but by destroying soldiers’ morale. That is why they had a very poor kill ratio, and were fighting a modern war against an enemy that vastly outranked them in resources, and still were never defeated.
One of the many weapons in that arsenal was called a ‘ballbuster’. It was a non-lethal anti-personnel land mine with a three foot blast radius.
Of the U.S. soldiers hit by such mines, there were some that still had male hormones produced by their bodies afterwards. And investigations showed that they were the men who had been involved in real, intimate relationships beforehand. Not, presumably, the common soldier’s visit to the brothel, or the rape of local women that has been a part of warfare since time immemorial. That is a dismal rule whose exceptions are few and far between. But real relationships. Those men still had testosterone.
The most sexual organ in the human body is not the genital organ, nor even the gonads. It is the brain.
Sex goes much further than just a physical act. It unites souls. It was created as such.
And again seeing as God has created us as spirit-soul-body unities, isn’t there every reason to believe that this is not isolated to sex? That when we touch other people, it need not be only wiht our bodies, but can also be with spirit and soul?
Madeleine L’Engle wrote of kything in A Wind in the Door. In one way, it is a colorful and fantastic picture of prayer, that shows its beauty. In another way, it seems to capture, not so much the literal fact, as the way of the best touching.
Individualism is a very impoverished notion of personhood, and touch is not a thin bridge between two essential islands, nor an act that one person (subject) does to another person as to an inanimate object; the latter, if a picture of any kind of “touch”, is a picture of rape.
Aquinas viewed teacher teaching and learner learning as part of the same activity; another helpful notion is that of intersubjectivity — it is not between isolated subject and object, but between two connected subjects. This doesn’t mean that there is uniformity and absolute symmetry; nursing mother and child cannot simply swap places. But it is intersubjective.
This may be an interesting way to view what constitutes the difference between making love and rape. Physically, the two are not very different — they have much, much more in common than making love and nursing a baby do, or than rape and murder (or even two kinds of murder) do. But spiritually, they are leagues apart. Making love is between two connected subjects, and rape is done by a subject to an object; spiritually and philosophically, these are two very different things. And it might be that the way rape crushes a woman’s psyche has much less to do with the physical event than the fact that a subject, an ‘I’, is reduced to an object, an ‘it’.
(Of course, another aspect is that the greatest evils come from twisting the greatest goods; Hitler could not have done one tenth the damage he did unless he were the legendary leader that he was.)
Something like this is related to why the mystics refer to God as ‘I’ without blaspheming. If a person must be understood as a subject, as an ‘I’ and not an ‘it’, how much moreso the Lord God of Hosts?
I would like to now talk about different forms of touch. I will not attempt here to begin in a logical order, first things first, because I am taken by a whimsy, a quality. I will begin talking about one of my favorite touches, tickling.
In a lighthearted mood, I coined the following beatitude:
Blessed are the ticklish,
For the touch of a friend shall fill them with laughter.
Tickling is light. It is a tactile tease. It is carefree, spontaneous, and whimsical. It is trusting. It is the least solemn of all the touches; it is serious and intimate, but in a completely silly and nonsensical way — thank God! Its very seriousness and intimacy is ruined if it becomes heavy and what most people think of when they hear ‘serious’. There is something special about it, something so special that both tickling and other things are ruined if, for example, someone tickles a person whose friend just died. Tickling can greatly enrich and deepen our understanding of what it means to be serious, if we let it.
There is an infinite difference between a friend’s playful teasing, and a cynic’s sneering. Neither is solemn or formal, but they lack solemnity and formality for very opposite reasons, just as a baby and an old man can lack hair, not because they are of the same age, but because they lie at opposite extremes.
A friend’s teasing is infinitely respectful. It is a respect which lies far too deep to confine to being somber, a respect which must bubble up into exuberance and say, “I take you far too seriously not to take you lightly.”
At this point, I will treat a certain aspect that may run the risk of offending feminists; I will ask for a suspended judgment until at least I have made my case. I am going to say this: sometimes ‘no’ means ‘no’, and sometimes ‘no’ means ‘yes’.
I am not here justifying the claim that “Her lips said ‘no’, but her eyes said ‘yes’.” That is stated chiefly by men who lack the honesty to admit, perhaps even to themselves, that “Her lips and her eyes said ‘no’, but my lust said ‘yes’.” I will damn that alongside any feminist.
What I am rather saying is that tickling exemplifies a pattern, a pattern of love and community that does not reduce to words. Consent is an important principle, but using explicit verbal words to inquire is a last resort, usually only necessary when two people do not know each other very well. And there is something deep enough about consent that it, and furthermore its recognition, are entirely compatible with saying ‘no’ or ‘stop’, or offering physical resistance.
As a paradigm example of this, I would point to a parent chasing around a little child in a back yard. The child is trying to escape, and in a sense doesn’t want to be caught. But in a deeper sense, he does want to be caught. (I at this point remember one woman, who, disappointed that I had stopped tickling her when she pushed my hands away, told me, “I am blocking you because I want you to push past.”) This is why it is good for a child’s psyche to be chased by a parent, even (especially) if he is caught, and it is very bad for a woman’s psyche to be chased by a rapist, even if she gets away.
Chasing, or tickling, is or at least should be an intersubjective act of love. What fundamentally distinguishes it from rape is not so much what lies on the surface as that deep below the surface, the one is done between two subjects, while the other is done by a subject to an object. The deep connection between two subjects is what enables ‘no’ to mean ‘yes’.
And tickling is not so much for the tickling as for the other person. It is not an act in isolation; it is a part of love. This provides another distinction between tickling and rape. The rapist does not truly desire the woman, even as just an object, an ‘it’; he desires the rape, the action, an action that exists self-sufficient, by itself and without any need of a larger context. Perhaps the rapist is to be greatly pitied alongside the victim; it does not cause consciously realized unending torment as being raped does, but it is a single act within oneself, an act of masturbation that involves an unfortunate woman, rather than an intersubjective act of love that transcends self. Even if rape did not violate a woman’s personhood and were not morally wrong, it would still be greatly be desired for his own sake that a rapist could let go of rape and give-receive a real hug.
The next touch I’ll mention is holding hands.
Someone once said, “If all other arguments failed, the thumb alone would convince me of God’s existence.” The hand is one of the most beautiful parts of the body; it contains the glory of the whole body in miniature. If you haven’t done so already, at least once in your life, I would encourage you to notice hands, to look at someone’s hands (yours or somebody else’s) as you would an Impressionist nude. I don’t think it is quite an accident that Michelangelo’s David, the single greatest male nude in Western sculpture, has hands that are just a little bit larger than they are proportioned in real life. The David’s hands are exquisite.
The hand is in a sense the most useful tool we have. It is amazing, strong, dextrous, sensitive, and versitile. It is uniquely adapted both to manipulate, and to feel and explore. And so it is not a surprise that one of the touches God has given us is holding hands — an equal touch between two sensitive areas of the body, which can last.
Our culture understands holding hands primarily in a romantic context — which it certainly can be, but need not be. At least a hint of this is seen in that parents hold little childrens’ hands. I still hold my twelve year old brothers’ hands, and I am happy to do so.
In many Islamic nations, men hold hands in public. This is not a sexual act (and, unfortunately, is not extended to women — even wives), and the fact that it may take some effort to really realize by many of us is reflective of a fundamental problem in how many of us view sex and morality.
Dorothy Sayers, in her essay, “The other six deadly sins,” points out that a man could be a liar and a drunkard, greedy and avaricious, wrathful, prideful, and dead to every noble instinct, and still we would not call him immoral, because we reserve the term ‘immorality’ to talk about — well, you know, immorality. Thus a term that was meant to cover the whole range of vices is reduced to referring to just one, because we are two embarrassed to call that one vice by its name, lust. Lust is one of the seven deadly sins; it is not the deadly sin. And the Church has always recognized that the cold-hearted sins, the sins of mind and spirit such as pride and greed, are infinitely worse than the disreputable sins of the flesh, such as lust. In the Inferno, the incontinent occupy the very least and outermost circle of Hell proper; it is only far deeper that we find sins like pride, the sin by which the highest and holiest being in all creation became the Satan, the Accuser who stands before God accusing the saints day and night.
(One thing that I beg of you here — do not flatter me by saying that I am original in claiming this; do not credit me with this innovation. Christianity has taught this for ages; it has just become a bit obscured recently.)
Homosexual lust, in this scheme, is in a sense worse than heterosexual lust; it is a perversion of nature in a way that even adultery is not. But it is not the vice beyond all vices, and it does not compare even to pride. And it is really paid a far-reaching and very undue tribute when it is held in the fear that it is, in how (for example) many men in our culture fear touching each other. All sin is serious, but in most cases the possibility of homosexual lust is not that serious of a threat that men need to be afraid of each other. Therefore, the Islamic world has it right in the level of touchiness and contact that it has between men.
Holding hands is a touch that can be deepened by pressure, variations in pressure, and responsiveness; one of the most common and basic letters in this alphabet is in giving a squeeze or answering a squeeze with another squeeze; it is a theme which has infinite variations. And this provides a lot of depth to a touch, making a touch more touchy, the very opposite of holding hands like a dead fish.
I would like to make a brief interlude to talk about the question of what touches are sexual — and to refuse to give a Pharisaic catalogue.
The Pharisees attempted the doomed project of an exacting guard of rules, more specifically the wrong type of tules. By contrast, I would like to draw an analogy with what C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity about modesty in dress across cultures. Different cultures vary greatly in what social rules they have concerning covering and showing different parts of the body. But having a principle of modesty does not, even in cultures that do not wear any clothing. It is like language; what sounds bear what meaning is highly variable. But having sounds that bear meaning, and parts of speech and grammar, is not. That is universal — and the deaf subculture is the exception that proves the rule; even when they can’t hear to be able to naturally converse as everyone else does, they use their eyes and hands in a language of hand signs.
Another analogy might be found in comparing the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico. Much (not all) of the Canadian border lies at a single latitude; there is a near-universal rule that tells, “One mile north of this latitude, you are in Canada; one mile south, you are in the U.S.A.” But no such rule exists between the U.S. and Mexico; there are some latitudes that (given that one is on land in North America) tell you that you’re in the U.S., and some latitudes that tell you that you are in Mexico, but a great many latitudes that could be either in the U.S. or Mexico.
However, the U.S.-Mexican border is just as sharply defined as that between the U.S. and Canada; the latitudinal rules fail in many cases, but there is still a razor sharp distinction to be made.
That distinction is made in the Holy Spirit; it is the Spirit who is the structure of obedience revealed in the New Testament, and that gives the believer the power to obey.
Any kind of touch can be sexual, and a good many can be non-sexual as well. And the power to be pure, the power to reserve sexual touch for its proper and special place, comes to the believer through the Holy Spirit.
I would like to say something more about tickling: it is dependent, not only on body, but also on mind. I will not belabor the obvious point that certain touches tickle some people, but rather point out something else: whether something tickles, depends on how it is perceived. A thin cotton shirt touches very lightly — but it does not tickle. And conversely, some vivid use of language can tickle from far away.
The kiss seems to receive the most attention in Scripture. The second verse of the Song of Songs says, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” And half the New Testament epistles say, in their closing exhortations, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” In a sense, the kiss is a symbol of all contact in Scripture. And it is significant that the prophets record Elijah being told when he is desparate, “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Ba’al, nor have their mouths kissed him.” It is so great of a touch that it cannot be bestowed on an idol.
To those who have seen it, I would recall the movie The Last Temptation of Christ. The kisses in even a seriously flawed movie stand out; the emotional charge bristles, and the final kiss between Christ and Judas stands as a tribute to how even a non-sexual kiss can be intense and passionate. And the kisses recorded in Genesis stand as a hallmark of that book’s sensitivity to emotion.
Someone writing about music talked about how, as a person’s experience with music grows, the keys gain different and distinct emotional residues, different moods, different qualities. And the same is true of touch, only moreso. There are twelve major and twelve minor keys, and that is fixed; but with each of the basic touches, there are variants, and variants of variants. A kiss may be on the lips or not on the lips, just a peck or longer, and so on, and these allow not just discrete combinations, but a continuum. And this provides room for great subtleties in emotional significance.
I just got back from my cognitive science class, and I believe that touch provides a good illustration of what is lacking in the classical model of cognition.
The classical model of cognition describes human thought as an essentially rule-based manipulation of symbols, ideally manifested in a formal game such as chess. Of one area where it is lacking — that of simulation, where people manipulate in their heads models or representations of things — I will not treat here. But there is another area which I *will* treat; I am not contesting that there are parts of the human mind that are well described in that manner, but rather that it is a description of a part, and not, by a long stretch of imagination, the whole. And so I will outline seven differences.
The first is that chess is manifestation-independent, while touch is fundamentally qualitative. Perhaps the best way I can put it is this. Humans happen to refer to chess pieces by poetic names, such as ‘knight’ and ‘castle’. But that is entirely irrelevant to the game; Deep Blue beat Kasparov without having the faintest inkling of the romance we know, of knights in shining armor and fair maidens in distress. And chess would be the same if Bill Gates played it with helicopters on rooftops; that is, the real game of chess can be separated from the physical objects which happen to be used in its play.
But this is not true of touch — at all. Chess is still chess without a chessboard; and it happens in blindfolded masters’ games. But a kiss would not still be a kiss without bodies, and I could not touch in anything remotely resembling the way i do now, if my soul were transplanted to the body of a steel robot.
There is a formal sense in which the numbers 1297 and 1348 are different, and in which we can recognize them as such, but there is a much deeper way in which red and green affect us differently; there is a fundamental qualitative difference in looking at two objects of different colors that we cannot experience in simply thinking about two different numbers. This kind of quality, which occurs incidentally (if at all) in chess, is fundamental to touch.
And in some way, this touches on a problem in Western thought, an occurrence of the ancient Gnostic heresy which recognizes us as spirits and minds, but refuses to give any recognition to us as animals whom God created to be fundamentally physical as well as fundamentally spiritual. Our bodies are not a merely coincidental attachment to our minds; God created us to be a certain way physically as well as a certain way spiritually, and body is not to be dispensed with or altered as we please. Touching is an act of the body, involving mind and spirit as it may, and it is (God be praised) not something we can simply assign the way we assign a particular shirt to cover us. Seeing everything as chess makes us pure minds who have the misfortune to be encumbered by some (possibly mutable) matter; seeing some things as touch recognizes us as blessed with some particular bodies, which are a part of us as much as reason is a part of us. God has given us a very earthy spirituality.
The second difference is that chess is driven by a single objective in the future, to which any particular action is a mere instrument, while touch embraces now and recognizes things as intrinsically good. (Now the truth is not either alone but both, and if I do not talk much about our ultimate future goal, it will only be by a restriction of attention.) In chess, there is one objective — checkmating your opponent before he can checkmate you — and nothing else is done because it is good in and of itself, but only because it can function as a means to that end. A checkmate is never made by a single move, except between two terrible players; it is carefully prepared in anticipation. Now goals, ends, and sacrifices are very important, probably more important than what I am concerned with here. But touch doesn’t work that way. A touch is not given because of what it will enable at some later moment, as a mere means to an end; it is given as valuable in and of itself. And we do not touch in the future, but touch now; the now (as well as the future) is given by God’s hand.
The third difference, which is probably more restricted to chess and other games than formal systems in general, but which I will mention, is that chess is oppositional, while touch is synergistic. What is good for your opponent in chess is bad for you, and vice versa. The success of one person necesitates the failure of another. Now there are principles of good sportsmanship, but these come because people are better than chess, and not from chess itself. Chess sets people at odds with each other, in and of itself. Touch, on the other hand, is of a cooperative and synergistic nature; for one person to benefit means in general the benefit and not the detriment of another. You will fare badly with someone who plays chess well; you will fare well with someone whose touch is good.
The fourth difference is that chess is digital and discrete, while touch is continuous. Touch moves not simply from black and white to a greyscale, but even further — to colors, where there are many different ways of being bright. I have talked about this before, so I will not treat it in detail here beyond saying that it ties into the qualitative aspect.
The fifth difference is that chess is abstract, while touch is concrete. Abstraction extracts certain key features, and then leaves the specific instances behind, which is a powerful thing to do, and good, but not the only kind of thinking which people do, and not the kind of thinking that most people are best at. The concrete takes a specific instance and explores it in detail, in specific things that abstraction leaves out. Touch is concrete, and can push one specific contact much deeper than is possible abstractly with every contact at once. Touch has the depth of concreteness rather than that of abstraction.
The sixth difference is that chess is logical and rational, while touch is emotional and perceptive. The chess type of thinking is best done by someone who can retreat into himself, and carry out cool, logical operations without regard for the outside world. Emotions are irrelevant. Touch, on the other hand, is something which emotions and the external world matter a great deal for; touch should be moved and moving, and it depends far less on isolated calculation than a sensitivity to other people. It is perceptive, connected, and interactive.
The seventh and final difference I will mention here is that chess is self-contained, while touch resonates of something greater. Once you know the rules of chess, you have no need to refer to anything outside of it, but touch is part of something far greater. It is a part of love, of the very highest potential of the imago dei. To understand the profound difference between making love and rape, you need to go past the touch alone and look at far greater things — to see how one is part of the sacred one-flesh union which God has given us, and the other is one of the most crushing and dehumanizing blows that one person can inflict on another.
Another facet of what something greater there is, may be found in the older and somewhat broader conception of Romance. I am not only referring to the romance that goes on between a man and a woman, but a broader sense of — poetry. It is related to the innocent and childlike wonder that looks and sees the real beauty in so many things, that is obscured so often by jaded eyes.
There is something haunting and elusive, something which we can chase but cannot catch, something beautiful. This something is why so many people have looked at woods and believed that there might be fairies dancing, or looked at a pool of water and seen that there might be a nymph. There is a sense of poetry, a sense of something beautiful. You cannot pin it down and hold a gun to its head, but it will surprise you.
This Romance is something which makes itself manifest in touch, or to put it another way, touch is laced with Romance; it is one of those beautiful things by which beauty surprises us.
Having lived in France, I rather miss the custom of friends giving kisses on alternate cheeks when they meet; there is something about a kiss that is delicate and embodies a tiny beauty. We do not give each other kisses in consolation; hugs are more fitting to those times. Of all the different touches, I think that the kiss is (to me, at least — there is a good subjective element here) the one most laced with Romance.
The handshake originated as a means of occupying someone’s weapon hand so as to afford some protection when he was within striking range. That is, it was a gesture of mistrust.
To see what it has become, is in my estimation a tribute to the nature of touch, and a tribute to the better side of humanness. Touching hands upon a meeting has become a greeting, a welcome, and I have received some warm handshakes that felt like hugs.
Hugging is perhaps the most equitable and universal of touches (at least in our culture; I acknowledge and understand that much of what I am writing may be culture bound, but even a non-universal cultural perspective can have great merit). It is the one touch I can think of that is fitting both after something very good has happened and after something very bad has happened; when someone is at a low point especially, a hug is one of the most simple and human actions of love and support, from one person to another.
In the book of Job, we read before any of the lengthy speeches, that Job’s three friends came, and sat with him in silence for a week because they saw his misery was so great. And this is the one thing which they did for which they were not reprimanded. There is a time when sorrow and agony are great, and even the best of words are too much of a burden to bear. In that time, it is a tremendous comfort to have a friend who will come, forgo the usual bad habits about always having to do something, and sit in silence, sharing in your pain, sharing with you his presence. And a hug, moreso than any other touch, is very appropriate then.
But hugs are far more than that. They can also be soft hugs, bear hugs, gentle hugs, pick-me-up hugs, and all sorts of other possibilities.
There was a man by the name of Bob Sklar at one of the places I worked, who would give all manner of friendly insults; the only time he didn’t insult you was if he was angry with you, and then you were in trouble.
Something like this is descriptive of banter; it is a sign that everything is going well. As an example of how that can fail, I would point to its absence in the situation concerning racial humor.
If my guess is correct, at least some readers had a significant jump in tension level — am I going to advocate racism in the form of jokes? There are substantial racial tensions, so that people in many situations are walking on eggshells, afraid to tell jokes involving race because it might be taken as a sign of racism — nobody seems to consider the revolutionary idea that some people might tell jokes involving race for the same reason they tell jokes not involving race — because they find them funny, and want to share a bit of good-natured mirth.
The one major exception is the exception that proves the rule. It is acceptable to joke about your own race — we are not too completely thick-skulled to think that (for example) a Jew might have reasons besides anti-Semitism for telling jokes about Jews. The fact that an exception be of such nature is a testament to the strength of the rule.
If nothing else, I must regard such a state of affairs as unfortunate for the sake of humor. If you have had the good fortune to know a few Jews as I have, you will no doubt know that the Jewish consciousness has produced a number of jokes which are subtle, clever, and extremely funny. I will quote two of my favorite ones here:
At a Jewish wedding, how do you tell which branch it is?If it’s an orthodox wedding, the bride’s mother is pregnant. If it’s a conservative wedding, the bride is pregnant. If it’s a reformed wedding, the rabbi is pregnant.
I take this one to be a good meta-joke as well as a joke. There are four branches of something called Judaism; the fourth, reconstructionism, is far out in loonie land, a sort of Jewish PC-USA. And it is both fitting and amusing that the joke doesn’t mention them.
A Jewish man named Jacob has fallen on hard times; he has lost his job, and goes to the synagogue to pray.”God? Could I please win the lottery?”
He doesn’t win the lottery, and not too much later his house is broken into, and everything of value is stolen. Visibly upset, he goes to teh synagogue again.
“God, I have done a lot for you, and I don’t ask for too much. Please, I beg you, please let me win the lottery.”
This week, not only does he not win the lottery, but his house burns down and his car is destroyed by a hit and run driver. Again he goes and prays.
“God, I have served you my whole life, and I don’t ask for too much at all. I have taken good care of my wife and children, and I want this money for them and not just for myself. I do so much and ask for so little. Please, God, please, can’t you let me win the lottery just this once?”
The voice of God booms forth, and fills the synagogue, saying,
“Jacob, meet me half way on this one. Buy a stupid ticket!”
Q: What do you say to a Puerto Rican in a three piece suit?A: “Will the defendant please rise?”
I mention these jokes specifically because they disturb how we are trying to have races live together peaceably. That such jokes are not often told may be slightly sad from a humor perspective, but it is also a sign of a much deeper problem, and for this problem I will again go to Jews for a treasure, an even greater treasure this time. I hope you might see why I would tell offensive jokes.
This treasure is the word ‘shalom’, which means peace — a rich and full peace, a peace which is not merely characterized by what is absent — physical, violent strife — but goes much further. Shalom as understood by Jews is a positive state of well-being, a state of justice and equity — “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like ever-flowing streams.” In my view, the best way to characterize this peace is to say that it is the manifest presence of love.
What we now have between races is not shalom; it is only a whitewashed wall. And it does not really help matters to put on another coat of whitewash, and proscribe racial humor because of how dangerously it threatens to reveal the racial tensions we pretend aren’t there, and how dangerously it threatens something even more terrifying — to make a human to human contact in mirth, to separate us from our separateness and let us see each other as brothers and sisters, the sons and daughters of one man and one woman.
Roughhousing is very dear to my heart, in part because it can only exist where there is shalom. It is too energetic, too real, not to destroy a whitewashed wall, and therefore if roughhousing can be enjoyed, there is a real shalom there, a shalom deep enough to take a bit of mock conflict on the surface and still be the strong flow of love between real people. In its own way, its obnoxious roughness achieves what a thousand polite and distant handshakes can never accomplish.
Touch is not simply a tame thing in a box, and — while there are certain patterns of touch that are hit on more often than others — there is always more. I, for instance, am quite fond of grabbing my little brothers’ noses, and tugging on their ears, and so on and so forth. These silly — or sometimes not so silly — little touches we make up have their place, their niche, as well. And other cultures, while almost certainly sharing foundational elements such as hugs and kisses, will have their own touches and their own variations on themes. What exactly this may be is variable, as the exact sounds of a language are variable. Having a language capable of communication is not. What I am writing in these pages is only one of a legion of possibilities on the topic; others can and should address other things that I omit.
Another aspect of touch is that it is free and voluntary. The Christian understanding is not quite the same as the overblown (or underinterpreted) American notion, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t substantial freedoms.
“If you love something, set it free; if it doesn’t come back, it was never yours to begin with.”
Another critical aspect of touch is that it is voluntary, that saying ‘no’ is an option. A part of what makes a touch enjoyable is the knowledge that it is not forced on you, that it comes from a love not only great enough to touch, but also and furthermore great enough not to touch. Another part of what makes rape rape is that the victim has no choice in the matter — that she is in fact in one of the most utterly powerless and defenseless situations, both physically and psychologically, that a person can be in. Then what should be one of the greatest goods becomes one of the greatest evils. The only other comparable situation I can think of is abortion, especially a partial birth abortion in which a child begins to receive that great and unique embrace called ‘birth’, and then his head is cut open and his brains are sucked out, live and unanaesthetized.
The nature of this freedom means, in particular, the freedom to become bound, the absence of which is an unnatural and constricting shackle. <<La liberté totale est la pire des prisons.>> — total liberty is the very worst of prisons. The poetic, the romantic, the true freedom is the freedom which can choose a good, not merely for a moment, but permanently. This freedom, rather than having to re-evaluate all of the time and have no solid basis to rely on, is truly free, infinitely more free than if every decision and commutment is in danger of being revoked at any time. This freedom is the basis for marriage and parenthood, a freedom that chooses permanently to be available to another person in touch and love.
There is one last specific touch I would like to mention, and that is massage. I do not mean to give an account of how to massage, as there are good books on it. But I will say this: that it is the touch of a healer, that it goes past the surface to work inside the body. It is perhaps the most involved and giving of non-sexual touches, and I regard it as not entirely unfortunate that it is the one non-sexual touch that it is easy to come by books on.
Touch is one of the blessings that lies far beyond Mammon. It’s free.
To begin what may well be the last section of this treatise, I will talk about something that is not so much a specific touch, as a topic relevant to touch. That is the difference between contract and covenant.
The contract is a very modern and very impoverished notion of the covenant. A contract is an external artifice which binds a person’s actions. A covenant is an internal reality which binds persons themselves. A contract is shallow. A covenant is profound.
The contract, especially the social contract, is the impoverished notion of community that corresponds to a view of people as isolated and essential individuals and islands, between which thin strands of bridges are erected as a minimal concession to our inability to function as absolute islands. It is a superficial modification to a basis of individualism.
Christianity is not an individualistic religion, and it has a much more rich, complex, and multifaceted view of personhood — for example, the insistance that we are both as much spirit as any angel, and as much animal as any beast. And it claims both that we have a profound individual side, and a profound corporate side — and that these two truths are not only not exclusive, but complementary. The individual side, which I have not treated here only due to a restriction of attention, is one which (for example) solitude figures in deeply. Many things are a part of both facets. Our uniqueness and difference, for example, is perhaps most visibly related to our individual natures, but Paul’s talk about the body — which needs not thirty-two ears but a great variety of different, equal, and necessary body parts, each in its proper place — shows how our differences can and should contribute to community as well.
The view of touch as a specific action defined by the consent of two individuals, with no intrinsic meaning in and of itself, is to the Christian view of touch as the concept of contract is to the Christian understanding of covenant — an impoverished and woefully inadequate simplification and truncation. Touch is not something accidental, which means whatever we decide that it means; it is part and parcel of who we are, with a meaning ordained by God. It is a part of love and community; it is a physical aspect of the very highest and holiest in the imago dei.
John wrote at the end of his account of the Gospel that he did not record everything which Jesus said and did, and that he supposed that if everything which Jesus said and did were written down, the whole world would not have room for all the books which would be written. Christ’s life is inexhaustible; even the four brief accounts which have come down to us from the apostles are themselves inexhaustible. It is one of the marks of what is great and profound.
I am drawing this work to a close rather arbitrarily — not because there is no more to be said, but because I decided that I would write for the length of the notebook I had chosen, and draw a line of moderation there. Instead of just writing forever, I am stopping to type it up, print it out, share the copies with other people, and what is most important of all, touch them.
I would ask you to do the same. I hope that you have enjoyed this; I hope that I have stimulated you to think; I hope that I have shared with you some good insights. Don’t cut this work short by stopping there. Go out and touch someone.
Epilogue, 21 June 03
Since I first wrote this, about six years have elapsed. I have since let it simmer inside me, and I have a couple of things to mention.
The first has been that what I wrote is incomplete. It’s not quite in a mature state. One caring, touch-y friend observed that there was something forced in my touch.
The second has been a realisation which crystallised after two comments. The first comment when one friend said, “You and Robin hug differently from most people.” I was surprised and asked, “How?” He said, “You hug with the whole of yourself.”
The other comment came when I asked a close friend, Yussif, when a hug was appropriate in Ghanian culture. He said that in England he learned to value hugs, and in Ghana he gives a handshake to close male friends. In retrospect, I realize that when Ghanian men have shaken my hand, it has never been distant, or a perfunctory greeting. Something Yussif said about “palm against palm” made me realise how unappreciative I had been about handshakes.
I tried to apply this treatise by seeking out hugs and kisses. I thought in terms of what kind of touch to seek, and I was basically barking up the wrong tree when I did so. I hesitate to say that I would never ask, “May I give you a hug?” or, “May I give you a kiss?” but that sort of thing occupies a far less central role than I assumed.
What would I put in its place? Go with the flow of the social situation rather than against it. Don’t force it. Be careful about when you muster courage—sometimes trying to muster courage is the wrong thing. And, when it is fitting to give a touch, be able to do so with your whole person. Don’t go overboard and try to give your total presence when you’ve just met someone and are shaking hands…
…but all these restrictions are but the shadow cast by a great light.
Good touch is a way that love shows itself. Embodied love, from one whole person to another, can appear in many different forms of touch, and what makes it deep is less dependent on technique or form than being given from the whole person. It is at least as much spiritual as physical, and is therefore to be sought in whole person love, given by God, which moves through the spirit to embrace the body. Things such as loving God and the other person, trying as much as possible to give your attention now rather than diverting it to other things (past or future), and meeting the other—whole person to whole person—are much deeper to pin down than any kind of minutia, and have a much deeper yield.
Perhaps after I have let this simmer for a few more years, there is something else I will be able to share.
Many people are concerned today with harmony with nature. And indeed there is quite a lot to living according to nature.
But you will not find something that is missing by looking twice as hard in the wrong place, and it matters where one seeks harmony with nature. In monasticism, the man of virtue is the quintessential natural man. And there is something in monasticism that is behind stories of the monk who can approach boar or bear.
Being out of harmony with nature is not predominantly a lack of time in forests. There is a deeper root.
Exercising is better than living a life without exercise. But there is something missing in a sedentary life with artificially added exercise, after, for centuries, we have worked to avoid the strenuous labor that most people have had to do.
It is as if people had worked for centuries to make the perfect picnic and finally found a way to have perfectly green grass at an even height, a climate controlled environment with sunlight and just the right amount of cloud, and many other things. Then people find that something is missing in the perfect picnic, and say that there might be wisdom in the saying, “No picnic is complete without ants.” So they carefully engineer a colony of ants to add to the picnic.
An exercise program may be sought in terms of harmony with nature: by walking, running, or biking out of doors. Or it may be pursued for physical health for people who do not connect exercise with harmony of nature. But and without concern for “ascesis” (spiritual discipline) or harmony with nature, many people know that complete deliverance from physical effort has some very bad physical effects. Vigorous exercise is part and parcel to the natural condition of man.
Here are two different ways of seeking harmony with nature. The second might never consciously ask if life without physical toil is natural, nor whether our natural condition is how we should live, but still recognizes a problem—a little like a child who knows nothing of the medical theory of how burns are bad, but quickly withdraws his hand from a hot stove.
But there is a third kind of approach to harmony with nature, besides a sense that we are incomplete without a better connection to the natural world, and a knowledge that our bodies are less healthy if we live sedentary lives, lives without reintroducing physical exertion because the perfectly engineered picnic is more satisfying if a colony of ants is engineered in.
This third way is Ascesis, and Ascesis, which is spiritual discipline or spiritual exercise, moral struggle, and mystical toil, is the natural condition of man.
The disciples were joyous because the demons submitted to them in Christ’s name, and Christ’s answer was: “Do not rejoice that the demons submit to you in my name. Rejoice instead that your names are written in Heaven.” The reality of the disciples’ names being written in Heaven dwarfed the reality of their power over demons, and in like manner the reality that monks can be so much in harmony with nature that they can safely approach wild bears is dwarfed by the reality that the royal road of Ascesis can bring so much harmony with nature that by God’s grace people work out their salvation with fear and trembling.
The list of spiritual disciplines is open-ended, much like the list of sacraments, but one such list of spiritual disciplines might be prayer, worship, sacrament, service, silence, living simply, fasting, and the spiritual use of hardship. If these do not seem exotic enough for what we expect of spiritual discipline, we might learn that the spiritual disciplines can free us from seeking the exotic in too shallow of a fashion.
The Bible was written in an age before our newest technologies, but it says much to the human use of technology, because it says much to the human use of property. If the Sermon on the Mount says, “No man can serve two masters… you cannot serve both God and money,” it is strange at best to assume that these words applied when money could buy food, clothing, and livestock but have no relevance to an age when money can also buy the computers and consumer electronics we are infatuated with. If anything, our interest in technology makes the timeless words, “No man can serve two masters” all the more needed in our day.
Money can buy everything money can buy and nothing money cannot buy. To seek true glory, or community, or control over all risk from money is a fundamental error, like trying to make a marble statue so lifelike that it actually comes to life. What is so often sought in money is something living, while money itself is something dead, a stone that can appear deceptively lifelike but can never hold the breath of life.
In the end, those who look to money to be their servant make it their master. “No man can serve two masters” is much the same truth as one Calvin and Hobbes strip:
Calvin: I had the scariest dream last night. I dreamed that machines took over and made us do their bidding.
Hobbes: That must have been scary!
Calvin: It wa—holy, would you look at the time? My TV show is on!
But this problem with technology has been a problem with property and wealth for ages, and it is foolish to believe that all the Scriptural skepticism and unbelief about whether wealth is really all that beneficial to us, are simply irrelevant to modern technology.
There was great excitement in the past millenium when, it was believed, the Age of Pisces would draw to a close, and the Age of Aquarius would begin, and this New Age would be an exciting dawn when all we find dreary about the here and now would melt away. Then the Age of Aquarius started, at least officially, but the New Age failed to rescue us from finding the here and now to be dreary. Then there was great excitement as something like 97% of children born after a certain date were born indigo children: children whose auras are indigo rather than a more mundane color. But, unfortunately, this celebrated watershed did not stop the here and now from being miserable. Now there is great hope that in 2012, according to the Mayan “astrological” calendar, another momentous event will take place, perhaps finally delivering us from the here and now. And, presumably, when December 21, 2012 fails to satisfy us, subsequent momentous events will promise to deliver us from a here and now we find unbearable.
If we do not try to sate this urge with New Age, we can try to satisfy it with technology: in what seems like aeons past, the advent of radio and movies seemed to change everything and provide an escape from the here and now, an escape into a totally different world. Then, more recently, surfing the net became the ultimate drug-free trip, only it turns out that the web isn’t able to save us from finding the here and now miserable after all. For that, apparently, we need SecondLife, or maybe some exciting development down the pike… or, perhaps, we are trying to work out a way to succeed by barking up the wrong lamppost.
No technology is permanently exotic.
When a Utopian vision dreams of turning the oceans to lemonade, then we have what has been called “a Utopia of spoiled children.” It is not a Utopian vision of people being supported in the difficult ascetical pursuit of virtue and ultimately God, but an aid to arrested development that forever panders to childish desires.
Technology need not have the faintest conscious connection with Utopianism, but it can pursue one of the same ends. More specifically, it can be a means to stay in arrested development. What most technology offers is, in the end, a practical way to circumventAscesis. Technological “progress” often means that up until now, people have lived with a difficult struggle—a struggle that ultimately amounts to Ascesis—but now we can simply do without the struggle.
Through the wonders of modern technology, we can eat and eat and eat candy all day and not have the candy show up on our waistline: but this does not make us any better, nobler, or wiser than if we could turn the oceans to lemonade. This is an invention from a Utopia of spoiled chilren.
Sweetness is a gift from God, and the sweeter fruit and honey taste, the better the nourishment they give. But there is something amiss in tearing the sweetness away from healthy food, and, not being content with this, to say, “We think that eating is a good thing, and we wish to celebrate everything that is good about it. But, unfortunately, there is biological survival, a holdover from other days: food acts as a nutrient whether you want it or not. But through the wonders of modern science, we can celebrate the goodness of eating while making any effect on the body strictly optional. This is progress!”
Statistically, people who switch to artificial sweeteners gain more weight. Splenda accomplishes two things: it makes things sweeter without adding calories, and it offers people a way to sever the cord between enjoying sweet taste, and calories entering the body. On spiritual grounds, this is a disturbing idea of how to “support” weight loss. It is like trying to stop people from getting hurt in traffic accidents by adding special “safety” features to some roads so people can drive however they please with impunity, even if they develop habits that will get them killed on any other road. What is spiritually unhealthy overflows into poorer health for the body. People gain more weight eating Splenda, and there are more ways than one that Splenda is unfit for human consumption.
The Ascesis of fasting is not intended as an ultimate extreme measure for weight loss. That may follow—or may not—but there is something fundamentally deeper going on:Man does not live by bread alone, and if we let go of certain foods or other pleasures for a time, we are in a better position to grasp what more man lives on than mere food. When we rein in the nourishing food of the body and its delights, we may find ourselves in a better position to take in the nourishing food of the spirit and much deeper spiritual delights.Fasting pursued wrongly can do us no good, and it is the wisdom of the Orthodox Church to undergo such Ascesis under the direction of one’s priest or spiritual father. But the core issue in fasting is one that matters some for the body and much more for the spirit.
Splenda and contraception are both body-conquering technologies that allow us to conquer part of our embodied nature: that the body takes nourishment from food, and that the greatest natural pleasure has deep fertile potential. And indeed, the technologies we call “space-conquering technologies” might more aptly be titled, “body-conquering technologies,” because they are used to conquer our embodied and embedded state as God made it.
Today, “everybody knows” that the Orthodox Church, not exactly like the Catholic Church allowing contraceptive timing, allows contraception under certain guidelines, and the Orthodox Church has never defined a formal position on contraception above the level of one’s spiritual father. This is due, among other factors, to some influential scholarly spin-doctoring, the academic equivalent of the NBC Dateline episode that “proved” that a certain truck had a fire hazard in a 20mph collision by filming a 30mph collision (presented as a 20mph collision) and making sure there was a fiery spectacle by also detonating explosives planted above the truck’s gas tank (see analysis).
St. John Chrysostom wrote,
Where is there murder before birth? You do not even let a prostitute remain only a prostitute, but you make her a murderer as well… Do you see that from drunkenness comes fornication, from fornication adultery, and from adultery murder? Indeed, it is something worse than murder and do not know what to call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation. What then? Do you despise the gift of God, and fight with his laws? What is a curse, do you seek it as though it were a blessing?… Do you teach the woman who is given to you for the procreation of offspring to perpetrate killing? In this indifference of the married men there is greater evil filth; for then poisons are prepared, not against the womb of a prostitute, but against your injured wife.
The Blessed Augustine devastatingly condemned Natural Family Banning: if procreation is sliced away from marital relations, Augustine says point blank, then true marriage is forbidden. There is no wife, but only a mistress, and if this is not enough, he holds that those who enjoin contraception fall under the full freight of St. Paul’s blistering words about forbidding marriage:
Now, the Spirit expressly says that in the last days some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences have been seared with a hot iron: for they forbid marriage and demand avoidance of foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.
Augustine absolutely did not believe that one can enjoy the good of marriage and treat the blessing of marriage’s fertility as a burden and a curse. Such an idea is strange, like trying to celebrate the good of medical care while taking measures to prevent it from improving one’s health.
Such condemnations stem from the unanimous position of the Church Fathers on contraception.
Such words seem strange today, and English Bible translations seem to only refer to contraception once: when God struck Onan dead for “pull and pray.” (There are also some condemnations of pharmakeia and pharmakoi—”medicine men” one would approach for a contraceptive—something that is lost in translation, unfortunately giving the impression that occult sin alone was the issue at stake.)
Contraception allows a marriage à la carte: it offers some control over pursuing a couple’s hopes, together, on terms that they choose without relinquishing control altogether. And the root of this is a deeper answer to St. John Chrysostom’s admonition to leave other brothers and sisters to their children as their inheritance rather than mere earthly possessions.(This was under what would today be considered a third world standard of living, not the first world lifestyle of many people who claim today that they “simply cannot afford any more children”—which reflects not only that they cannot afford to have more children and retain their expected (entitled?) standard of living for them and their children, but their priorities once they realize that they may be unable to have both.)
Contraception is chosen because it serves a certain way of life: it is not an accident in any way, shape, or form that Planned Barrenhood advertises, for both contraception, “Take control of your life!” For whether one plans two children, or four, or none, Planned Barrenhood sings the siren song of having your life under your control, or at least as much under control as you can make it, where you choose the terms where you will deal with your children, if and when you want.
Marriage and monasticism both help people grow up by helping them to learn being out of control. Marriage may provide the Ascesis of minding children and monasticism that of obedience to one’s elder, but these different-sounding activities are aimed at building the same kind of spiritual virtue and power.
Counselors offer people, not the help that many of them seek in controlling those they struggle with, but something that is rarely asked: learning to be at peace with letting go of being in control of others, and the unexpected freedom that that brings. Marriage and monasticism, at their best, do not provide a minor adjustment that one manages and is then on top of, but an arena, a spiritual struggle, a training ground in which people live the grace and beauty of the Sermon on the Mount, and are freed from the prison chamber of seeking control and the dank dungeon of living for themselves.
“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, nor about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t there more to life than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than them? And why do you worry about the lilies of the field: how they grow. They neither toil nor spin;” they have joy and peace. The height of technological progress in having pleasure without losing control—in artificial sweeteners, contraceptives and anything else—utterly pales in comparison.
Technology is not evil. Many technologies have a right use, but that use is a use to pursue maturity and Ascesis, not an aid to living childishly.
Wine was created by God as good, and it has a right use. But the man who seeks in wine a way to be happy or a way to drive away his problems has already lost.
One classic attitude to wine was not “We forbid drinking wine,” or even “It would be better not to drink wine at all, but a little bit does not do too much damage,” but goes beyond saying, “The pleasure of wine was given by God as good” to saying: “Wine is an important training ground to learn the Ascesis of moderation, and learn a lesson that cannot be escaped: we are not obligated to learn moderation in wine, but if we do not drink wine, we still need moderation in work, play, eating, and everything else, and many of us would do well to grow up in Ascesis in the training arena of enjoying wine and be better prepared for other areas of life where the need for the Ascesis of moderation, of saying ‘when’ and drawing limits, is not only something we should not dodge: it is something we can never escape.”
The ascetical use of technology is like the ascetical use of wine. It is pursued out of maturity, and as a support to maturity. It is not pursued out of childishness, nor as a support to childishness. And it should never be the center of gravity in our lives. (Drinking becomes a problem more or less when it becomes the focus of a person’s life and pursuits.)
The Harvard business study behind Good to Great found that the most effective companies often made pioneering use of technology, but technology was never the center of the picture: however many news stories might be printed about how they used technologies, few of the CEOs mentioned technology at all when they discussed their company’s success, and none of them ascribed all that much importance to even their best technology. Transformed companies—companies selected in a study of all publicly traded U.S. companies whose astonishing stock history began to improve and then outperformed the market by something like a factor of three, sustained for fifteen years straight—didn’t think technology was all that important, not even technologies their people pioneered. They focused on something more significant.
Good to Great leadership saw their companies’ success in terms of people.
There were other finds, including that the most effective CEOs were not celebrity rockstars in the limelight, but humble servant leaders living for something beyond themselves. In a study about what best achieves what greed wants, not even one of the top executives followed a mercenary creed of ruthless greed and self-advancement.
If people, not technology, make businesses tremendously profitable, then perhaps people who want more than profit also need something beyond technology in order to reach the spiritual riches and treasures in Heaven that we were made for.
The right use of technology comes out of Ascesis and is therefore according to nature.
In Robert Heinlein’s science fiction classic Stranger in a Strange Land, a “man” with human genes who starts with an entirely Martian heritage as his culture and tradition, comes to say, “Happiness is a matter of functioning the way a human being was organized to function… but the words in English are a mere tautology, empty. In Martian they are a complete set of working instructions.” The insight is true, but takes shape in a way that completely cuts against the grain of Stranger in a Strange Land.
One most immediate example is that the science fiction vision is of an ideal of a community of “water brothers” who painstakingly root out natural jealousy and modesty, and establish free love within their circle: such, the story would have it, provides optimal human happiness. As compellingly as it may be written into the story, one may bring up studies which sought to find out which of the sexualities they wished to promote provided the greatest pleasure and satisfaction, and found to their astonishment and chagrin that the greatest satisfaction comes, not from any creative quest for the ultimate thrill, but from something they despised as a completely unacceptable perversion: a husband and wife, chaste before the wedding and faithful after, working to become one for as long as they both shall live, and perhaps even grateful for the fruitfulness o their love. Perhaps such an arrangement offers greater satisfaction than trying to “push the envelope” of adventuresome arrangements precisely because it is “functioning the way a human being was organized to function.”
People only seek the ultimate exotic thrill when they are unhappy. Gnosticism is a spiritual porn whose sizzle entices people who despair: its “good news” of an escape from the miserable here and now is “good news” as misery would want it. Today’s Gnosticism may rarely teach, as did earlier Gnostic honesty, that our world could not be the good creastion of the ultimately good God, but holding that we need to escape our miserable world was as deep in ancient Gnostics’ bones as an alcoholic experiences that our miserable world needs to be medicated by drunkenness. Baudelaire said, in the nineteenth century: “Keep getting drunk! Whether with wine, or with poetry, or with virtue, as you please, keep getting drunk,” in a poem about medicating what might be a miserable existence. Today he might have said, “Keep getting drunk! Whether with New Age, or with the endless virtual realities of SecondWife, or with the ultimate Viagra-powered thrill, as you please, keep getting drunk!”
What SecondLife—or rather SecondWife—offers is the apparent opportunity to have an alternative to a here and now one is not satisfied with. Presumably there are merits to this alternate reality: some uses are no more a means to escape the here and now than a mainstream business’s website, or phoning ahead to make a reservation at a restaurant. But SecondWife draws people with an alternative to the here and now they feel stuck in.
It is one thing to get drunk to blot out the misery of another’s death. It is another altogether to keep getting drunk to blot out the misery of one’s own life.
An old story from African-American lore tells of how a master and one of his slaves would compete by telling dreams they claimed they had. One time, the master said that he had a dream of African-American people’s Heaven, and everything was dingy and broken—and there were lots of dirty African-Americans everywhere. His slave answered that he had dreamed of white people’s Heaven, and everything was silver and gold, beautiful and in perfect order—but there wasn’t a soul in the place!
Much of what technology seems to offer is to let people of all races enter a Heaven where there are luxuries the witty slave could never dream of, but in the end there is nothing much better than a Heaven full of gold and empty of people.
“Social networking” is indeed about people, but there is something about social networking’s promise that is like an ambitious program to provide a tofu “virtual chicken” in every pot: there is something unambiguously social about social media, but there is also something as different from what “social” has meant for well over 99% of people as a chunk of tofu is from real chicken’s meat.
There is a timeless way of relating to other people, and this timeless way is a large part of Ascesis. This is a way of relating to people in which one learns to relate primarily to people one did not choose, in friendship had more permancy than many today now give marriage, in which one was dependent on others (that is, interdependent with others), in which people did not by choice say goodbye to everyone they knew at once, as one does by moving in America, and a social interaction was largely through giving one’s immediate presence.
“Social networking” is a very different beast. You choose whom to relate to, and you can set the terms; it is both easy and common to block users, nor is this considered a drastic measure. Anonymity is possible and largely encouraged; relationships can be transactional, which is one step beyond disposable, and many people never meet others they communicate with face-to-face, and for that matter arranging such a meeting is special because of its exceptional character.
Social networking can have a place. Tofu can have a place. However, we would do well to take a cue to attend to cultures that have found a proper traditional place for tofu. Asian cuisines may be unashamed about using tofu, but they consume it in moderation—and never use it to replace meat.
We need traditional social “meat.” The members of the youngest generation who have the most tofu in their diet may need meat the most.
Today the older generation seems to grouse about our younger generation. Some years ago, someoone in the AARP magazine quipped about young people, “Those tight pants! Those frilly hairdos! And you should see what the girls are wearing!” Less witty complaints about the younger generation’s immodest style of dress, and their rude disrespect for their elders can just as well be found from the time of Mozart, for instance, or Socrates: and it seems that today’s older generation is as apt to criticize the younger generation as their elders presumably were. But here something really is to be said about the younger generation.
The older generation kvetching about how the younger generation today has it so easy with toys their elders never dreamed of, never seem to connect their sardonic remarks with how they went to school with discipline problems like spitwads and the spoiled younger generation faced easily available street drugs, or how a well-behaved boy with an e-mail address may receive X-rated spam. “The youth these days” have luxuries their parents never even dreamed of—and temptations and dangers their parents never conceived, not in their worst nightmares.
Elders have traditionally complained about the young people being rude, much of which amounts to mental inattention. Part of politeless is being present in body and mind to others, and when the older generation was young, their elders assuredly corrected them from not paying attention in the presence of other people and themselves.
When they were young, the older generation’s ways of being rude included zoning out and daydreaming, making faces when adults turned their back, and in class throwing paper airplanes and passing notes—and growing up meant, in part, learning to turn their back on that arsenal of temptations, much like previous generations. And many of the older generation genuinely turned their backs on those temptations, and would genuinely like to help the younger generation learn to honor those around with more of their physical and mental presence.
Consumer electronics like the smartphone, aimed to offer something to youth, often advertise to the younger generation precisely a far better way to avoid a spiritual lesson that was hard enough for previous generations to learn without nearly the same degree of temptation. Few explains to them that a smartphone is not only very useful, but it is designed and sold as an enticing ultra-portable temptation.
Literature can be used to escape. But the dividing line between great and not-so-great literature is less a matter of theme, talent, or style than the question of whether the story serves to help the reader escape the world, or engage it.
In technology, the question of the virtuous use of technology is less a matter of how fancy the technology is, or how recent, than whether it is used to escape the world or engage it. Two friends who use cell phones to help them meet face-to-face are using technology to support, in some form, the timeless way of relating to other people. Family members who IM to ask prayer for someone who is sick also incorporate technology into the timeless way of relating to other people. This use of technology is quiet and unobtrusive, and supports a focus on something greater than technology: the life God gave us.
Was technology made for man, or man for technology?
Much of the economy holds the premise that a culture should be optimized to produce wealth: man was made for the economy. The discipline of advertising is a discipline of influencing people without respecting them as people: the customer, apparently, exists for the benefit of the business.
Advertising encourages us to take shopping as a sacrament, and the best response we can give is not activism as such, but a refusal of consent.
Shopping is permissible, but not sacramental shopping, because sacramental shopping is an ersatz sacrament and identifying with brands an ersatz spiritual discipline. At best sacramental shopping is a distraction; more likely it is a lure and the bait for a spiritual trap.
We may buy a product which carries a mystique, but not the mystique itself: and buying a cool product without buying into its “cool” is hard, harder than not buying. But if we buy into the cool, we forfeit great spiritual treasure.
Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and all of your life and all of your mind and all of your might, love your neighbor as yourself, and use things: do not love things while using people.
Things can do the greatest good when we stop being infatuated with them and put first things first. The most powerful uses of technology, and the best, come from loving those whom you should love and using what you should use. We do not benefit from being infatuated with technology, nor from acting on such infatuation.
The Liturgy prays, “Pierce our souls with longing for Thee.” Our longing for transcendence is a glory, and the deepest thing that draws us in advertisements for luxury goods, does so because of the glory we were made to seek.
But let us attend to living in accordance with nature. Ordinarily when a technology is hailed as “space-conquering,” it is on a deep level body-conquering, defeating part of the limitations of our embodied nature—which is to say, defeating part of our embodied nature that is in a particular place in a particular way.
Technologies to pass great distance quickly, or make it easy to communicate without being near, unravel what from ancient times was an ancient social fabric. They offer something of a line-item veto on the limits of our embodied state: if they do not change our bodies directly, they make our embodied limitations less relevant.
A technology can conquer how the body takes nourishment from food, for instance, and therefore be body-conquering without being space-conquering. But whether celebrated or taken for granted, space-conquering technologies are called space-conquering because they make part of the limitations of our embodied nature less relevant.
There is almost a parody of Ascesis in space-conquering technologies. Ascesis works to transcend the limited body, and space-conquering technologies seem a way to do the same. But they are opposites.
“The demons always fast:” such people are told to instill that fasting has a place and a genuine use, but anyone who focuses too much on fasting, or fasts too rigidly, is well-advised to remember that every single demon outfasts every single saint. But there is something human about fasting: only a being made to eat can benefit from refraining from eating. Fasting is useful because, unlike the angels and demons, a man is not created purely a spirit, but created both spirit and body, and they are linked together. Ascesisknows better, and is more deeply attuned to nature, to attempt to work on the spirit with the body detached and ignored.
Even as Ascesis subdues the comforts and the body, the work is not only to transfigure the spirit, and transform the body.
In a saint the transfiguration means that when the person has died, the body is not what horror movies see in dead bodies: it is glorified into relics.
This is a fundamentally different matter from circumventing the body’s limitations. There may be good, ascetical uses for space-conquering technologies: but the good part of it comes from the Ascesis shining through the technology.
The limitations of our embodied existence—aging, bodily aches and pains, betrayal, having doors closed in our face—have been recognized as spiritual stepping stones, and the mature wonder, not whether they have too many spiritual stepping stones, but whether they might need more. Many impoverished saints were concerned, not with whether their life was too hard, but whether it was too easy. Some saints have been tremendously wealthy, but they used their wealth for other purposes than simply pandering to themselves.
Some might ask today, for instance, whether there might be something symbolic to the burning bush that remained unconsumed which St. Moses the Lawgiver saw. And there are many layers of spiritual meaning to the miracle—an emblem of the Theotokos’s virgin birthgiving—but it is not the proper use of symbolic layers to avoid the literal layer, without which the symbolic layers do not stand. If the question is, “Isn’t there something symbolic about the story of the miracle of the burning bush?”, the answer is, “Yes, but it is a fundamental error to use the symbolic layers to dodge the difficulty of literally believing the miracle.” In like fashion, there are many virtuous uses of technology, but it is a fundamental error to expect those uses to include using technology to avoid the difficult lessons of spiritual Ascesis.
Living according to nature is not a luxury we add once we have taken care of necessities: part of harmony with nature is built into necessities. Our ancestors gathered from the natural world, not to seek harmony with nature, but to meet their basic needs—often with far fewer luxuries than we have—and part of living according to nature has usually meant few, if any, luxuries. Perhaps there is more harmony with nature today in driving around a city to run errands for other people, than a luxurious day out in the countryside.
Some of the promise the Internet seems to offer is the dream a mind-based society: a world of the human spirit where there is no distraction of external appearance because you have no appearance save that of a handle or avatar, for instance, or a world where people need not appear male or female except as they choose. But the important question is not whether technology through the internet can deliver such a dream, but whether the dream is a dream or a nightmare.
To say that the Internet is much more mind-based than face-to-face interactions is partly true. But to say that a mind-based society is more fit for the human spirit than the timeless way of relating, in old-fashioned meatspace, is to correct the Creator on His mistaken notions regarding His creatures’ best interests.
People still use the internet all the time as an adjunct to the timeless way of relating. Harmony with nature is not disrupted by technology’s use as an adjunct nearly so much as when it serves as a replacement. Pushing for a mind-based society, and harmony with nature, may appeal to the same people, especially when they are considered as mystiques. But pushing for a mind-based society is pushing for a greater breach of living according to nature, widening the gulf between modern society and the ancient human of human life. There is a contradiction in pushing for our life to be both more and less according to nature.
There is an indirect concern for Ascesis in companies and bosses that disapprove of clock watching. The concern is not an aversion to technology, or that periodically glancing at one’s watch takes away all that much time from real work. The practical concern is of a spiritual state that hinders work: the employee’s attention and interest are divided, and a bad spiritual state overflows into bad work.
In terms of Ascesis, the scattered state that cannot enjoy the present is the opposite of a spiritual condition called nepsis or, loosely, “watchfulness.”
The problem that manifests itself in needing to keep getting drunk, with New Age and its hopes for, at the moment, 2012 delivering us from a miserable here and now, or needing a more and more exotic drugged-up sexual thrill, or fleeing to SecondWife, is essentially a lack of nepsis.
To be delivered by such misery is not a matter of a more radical escape. In a room filled with eye-stinging smoke, what is needed is not a more heroic way to push away the smoke, but a way of quenching the fire. Once the fire is quenched, the smoke dissipates, and with it the problem of escaping the smoke.
Nepsis is a watchfulness over one’s heart, including the mind.
Nepsis is both like and unlike metacognition. It observes oneself, but it is not thinking about one’s thinking, or taking analysis to the next level: analysis of normal analysis. It is more like coming to one’s senses, getting back on course, and then trying to stay on course. It starts with a mindfulness of how one has not been mindful, which then flows to other areas of life.
The man who steps back and observes that he is seeking ways to escape the here and now, has an edge. The same goes with worrying or other passions by which the soul is disturbed: for many of the things that trouble our soul, seduce us to answer the wrong question. This is almost invariably more pedestrian than brilliant metacognition, and does not look comfortable.
Metanoia, or repentance, is both unconditional surrender and waking up and smelling the coffee. It is among the most terrifying of experiences, but afterwards, one realizes, “I was holding on to a piece of Hell!”
Once one is past that uncomfortable recognition, one is free to grasp something better.
That “something better” is ultimately Christ, and a there is a big difference between a mind filled with Christ and a mind filled with material things as one is trying to flee malaise.
The attempt to escape a miserable here and now is doomed. We cannot escape into Eden. But we can find the joy of Eden, and the joy of Heaven, precisely in the here and now we are seduced to seek to escape.
Living the divine life in Christ, is a spiritual well out of which many treasures pour forth: harmony with nature, the joy of Eden and all the other things that we are given if we seek first the Kingdom of God and His perfect righteousness.
It was a real achievement when people pushing the envelope of technology and, with national effort and billions of dollars of resources, NASA succeeded in lifting a man to the moon.
But, as a monk pointed out, the Orthodox Church has known for aeons how to use no resources beyond a little bread and water, and succeed in lifting a man up to God.
And we miss the greatest treasures if we think that Ascesis or its fruits are only for monks.
And there is something that lies beyond even ascesis: contemplation of the glory of God.
Part of the books behind the title had a reviewer say, “It is, in turn, beautiful, frightening, wise,” and possibly the same could be said of this dialogue, but it is laced with the spiritual poison of escape.
This title has its merits, enough so not to delete. However, I would warn that its spice is spiritual MSG.
The car pulled up on the dark cobblestones and stopped by the darker castle. The vehicle was silver-grey, low to the ground, and sleek. A—let us call him a man—opened the driver’s door on the right, and stood up, tall, dark, clad in a robe the color of the sky at midnight. Around the car he went, opened the door for his passenger, and once the passenger stepped out, made one swift motion and had two bags on his shoulder. The bags were large, but he moved as if he were accustomed to carrying far heavier fare. It was starlight out, and the moon was visible as moonlight rippled across a pool.
The guest reached for the bags. “Those are heavy. Let me—”
The host smiled darkly. “Do not worry about the weight of your bags.”
The host opened a solid greyblack door, of unearthly smoothness, and walked swiftly down a granite hallway, allowing his guest to follow. “You’ve had a long day. Let me get you something to drink.” He turned a door, poured something into two iridescent titanium mugs, and turned through another corridor and opened a door on its side. Inside the room were two deep armchairs and a low table.
“This is my first time traveling between worlds—how am I to address you?”
The host smiled. “Why do you wish to know more of my name? It is enough for you to call me Oinos. Please enjoy our welcome.”
The guest sipped his drink. “Cider?”
The host said, “You may call it that; it is a juice, which has not had artificial things done to make it taste like it just came out of its fruit regardless of how much it should have aged by the time you taste it. It is juice where time has been allowed to do its work.” He was holding a steel orb. “You are welcome here, Art.” Then—he barely seemed to move—there was a spark, and Oinos pulled a candle from the wall and set it on the table.
Art said, “Why not a fluorescent light to really light the room up?”
The host said, “For the same reason that you either do not offer your guests mocha at all, or else give them real mocha and not a mix of hot water, instant coffee, and hot cocoa powder. In our world, we can turn the room bright as day any time, but we do not often do so.”
“Aah. We have a lot to learn from you about getting back to nature.”
“Really? What do you mean by ‘getting back to nature’? What do you do to try to ‘get back to nature’?”
“Um, I don’t know what to really do. Maybe try to be in touch with the trees, not being cooped up inside all the time, if I were doing a better job of it…”
“If that is getting back in touch with nature, then we pay little attention to getting in touch with nature. And nature, as we understand it, is about something fundamentally beyond dancing on hills or sitting and watching waves. I don’t criticize you if you do them, but there is really something more. And I can talk with you about drinking juice without touching the natural processes that make cider or what have you, and I can talk with you about natural cycles and why we don’t have imitation daylight any time it would seem convenient. But I would like you to walk away with something more, and more interesting, than how we keep technology from being too disruptive to natural processes. That isn’t really the point. It’s almost what you might call a side effect.”
“But you do an awfully impressive job of putting technology in its place and not getting too involved with it.”
Oinos said, “Have you had enough chance to stretch out and rest and quench your thirst? Would you like to see something?”
Oinos stood, and led the way down some stairs to a room that seemed to be filled with odd devices. He pushed some things aside, then walked up to a device with a square in the center, and pushed one side. Chains and gears moved, and another square replaced it.
“This is my workshop, with various items that I have worked on. You can come over here and play with this little labyrinth; it’s not completely working, but you can explore it if you take the time to figure it out. Come on over. It’s what I’ve been working on most recently.”
Art looked around, somewhat amazed, and walked over to the ‘labyrinth.’
Oinos said, “In your world, in classical Greek, the same word, ‘techne,’ means both ‘art’ and ‘technology.’ You misunderstand my kindred if you think we aren’t especially interested in technology; we have a great interest in technology, as with other kinds of art. But just as you can travel a long distance to see the Mona Lisa without needing a mass-produced Mona Lisa to hang in your bathroom, we enjoy and appreciate technologies without making them conveniences we need to have available every single day.”
Art pressed a square and the labyrinth shifted. “Have I come here to see technologies?”
Oinos paused. “I would not advise it. You see our technologies, or how we use them, because that is what you are most ready to see. Visitors from some other worlds hardly notice them, even if they are astonished when they are pointed out.”
Art said, “Then why don’t we go back to the other room?”
Oinos turned. “Excellent.” They went back, and Art sat down in his chair.
Art, after a long pause, said, “I still find it puzzling why, if you appreciate technology, you don’t want to have more of it.”
Oinos said, “Why do you find it so puzzling?”
“Technology does seem to add a lot to the body.”
“That is a very misleading way to put it. The effect of most technologies that you think of as adding to the body is in fact to undercut the body. The technologies that you call ‘space-conquering’ might be appropriately called ‘body-conquering.'”
“So the telephone is a body-conquering device? Does it make my body less real?”
“Once upon a time, long ago from your perspective, news and information could not really travel faster than a person could travel. If you were talking with a person, that person had to be pretty close, and it was awkward and inconvenient to communicate with those who were far away. That meant that the people you talked with were probably people from your local community.”
“So you were deprived of easy access to people far away?”
“Let me put it this way. It mattered where you were, meaning where your body was. Now, on the telephone, or instant messages, or the web, nothing and no one is really anywhere, and that means profound things for what communities are. And are not. You may have read about ‘close-knit rural communities’ which have become something exotic and esoteric to most of your world’s city dwellers… but when space conquering technologies had not come in, and another space-conquering technology, modern roads allowing easy moving so that people would have to say goodbye to face-to-face friendships every few years… It’s a very different way of relating. A close-knit rural community is exotic to you because it is a body-based community in ways that tend not to happen when people make heavy use of body-conquering, or space-conquering, or whatever you want to call them, technologies.”
“But isn’t there more than a lack of technologies to close-knit communities?”
“Yes, indeed… but… spiritual discipline is about much more than the body, but a lot of spiritual discipline can only shape people when people are running into the body’s limitations. The disciplines—worship, prayer, fasting, silence, almsgiving, and so on—only mean something if there are bodily limits you are bumping into. If you can take a pill that takes away your body’s discomfort in fasting, or standing through worship, then the body-conquering technology of that pill has cut you off from the spiritual benefit of that practice.”
“Aren’t spiritual practices about more than the body?”
“Yes indeed, but you won’t get there if you have something less than the body.”
Art sat back. “I’d be surprised if you’re not a real scientist. I imagine that in your world you know things that our scientists will not know for centuries.”
Oinos sat back and sat still for a time, closing his eyes. Then he opened his eyes and said, “What have you learned from science?”
“I’ve spent a lot of time lately, wondering what Einstein’s theory of relativity means for us today: even the ‘hard’ sciences are relative, and what ‘reality’ is, depends greatly on your own perspective. Even in the hardest sciences, it is fundamentally mistaken to be looking for absolute truth.”
Oinos leaned forward, paused, and then tapped the table four different places. In front of Art appeared a gridlike object which Art recognized with a start as a scientific calculator like his son’s. “Very well. Let me ask you a question. Relative to your frame of reference, an object of one kilogram rest mass is moving away from you at a speed of one tenth the speed of light. What, from your present frame of reference, is its effective mass?”
Art hesitated, and began to sit up.
Oinos said, “If you’d prefer, the table can be set to function as any major brand of calculator you’re familiar with. Or would you prefer a computer with Matlab or Mathematica? The remainder of the table’s surface can be used to browse the appropriate manuals.”
Art shrunk slightly towards his chair.
Oinos said, “I’ll give you hints. In the theory of relativity, objects can have an effective mass of above their rest mass, but never below it. Furthermore, most calculations of this type tend to have anything that changes, change by a factor of the inverse of the square root of the quantity: one minus the square of the object’s speed divided by the square of the speed of light. Do you need me to explain the buttons on the calculator?”
Art shrunk into his chair. “I don’t know all of those technical details, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about relativity.”
Oinos said, “If you are unable to answer that question before I started dropping hints, let alone after I gave hints, you should not pose as having contemplated what relativity means for us today. I’m not trying to humiliate you. But the first question I asked is the kind of question a teacher would put on a quiz to see if students were awake and not playing video games for most of the first lecture. I know it’s fashionable in your world to drop Einstein’s name as someone you have deeply pondered. It is also extraordinarily silly. I have noticed that scientists who have a good understanding of relativity often work without presenting themselves as having these deep ponderings about what Einstein means for them today. Trying to deeply ponder Einstein without learning even the basics of relativistic physics is like trying to write the next Nobel prize-winning German novel without being bothered to learn even them most rudimentary German vocabulary and grammar.”
“But don’t you think that relativity makes a big difference?”
“On a poetic level, I think it is an interesting development in your world’s history for a breakthrough in science, Einstein’s theory of relativity, to say that what is absolute is not time, but light. Space and time bend before light. There is a poetic beauty to Einstein making an unprecedented absolute out of light. But let us leave poetic appreciation of Einstein’s theory aside.
“You might be interested to know that the differences predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity are so minute that decades passed between Einstein making the theory of relativity and people being able to use a sensitive enough clock to measure the minute difference of the so-called ‘twins paradox’ by bringing an atomic clock on an airplane. The answer to the problem I gave you is that for a tenth the speed of light—which is faster than you can imagine, and well over a thousand times the top speed of the fastest supersonic vehicle your world will ever make—is one half of one percent. It’s a disappointingly small increase for a rather astounding speed. If the supersonic Skylon is ever built, would you care to guess the increase in effective mass as it travels at an astounding Mach 5.5?”
“Um, I don’t know…”
“Can you guess? Half its mass? The mass of a car? Or just the mass of a normal-sized adult?”
“Is this a trick question? Fifty pounds?”
“The effective mass increases above the rest mass, for that massive vehicle running at about five times the speed of sound and almost twice the top speed of the SR-71 Blackbird, is something like the mass of a mosquito.”
“A mosquito? You’re joking, right?”
“No. It’s an underwhelming, microscopic difference for what relativity says when the rumor mill has it that Einstein taught us that hard sciences are as fuzzy as anything else… or that perhaps, in Star Wars terms, ‘Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on your own point of view.’ Under Einstein, you will in fact not find that many of the observations that we cling to, depend greatly on your own frame of reference. You have to be doing something pretty exotic to have relativity make any measurable difference from the older physics at all.”
“Would you explain relativity to me so that I can discuss its implications?”
“I really think there might be more productive ways to use your visit.”
“But you have a scientist’s understanding of relativity.”
“I am not sure I’d say that.”
“Why? You seem to understand relativity a lot more like a scientist than I do.”
“Let’s talk about biology for a moment. Do you remember the theory of spontaneous generation? You know, the theory that life just emerges from appropriate material?”
“I think so.”
“But your world’s scientists haven’t believed in spontaneous generation since over a century before you were born. Why would you be taught that theory—I’m assuming you learned this in a science class and not digging into history?”
“My science course explained the theory in covering historical background, even though scientists no longer believe that bread spontaneously generates mold.”
“Let me ask what may seem like a non-sequitur. I assume you’re familiar with people who are working to get even more of religion taken out of public schools?”
“They are very concerned about official prayers at school events, right? About having schools endorse even the occasional religious practice?”
“Ok. Let me ask what may seem like a strange question. Have these ‘separation of Church and state’ advocates also advocated that geometry be taken out of the classroom?”
Art closed his eyes, and then looked at Oinos as if he had two heads. “It seems you don’t know everything about my world.”
“I don’t. But please understand that geometry did not originate as a secular technical practice. You migth have heard this mentioned. Geometry began its life as a ‘sacred science,’ or a religious practice, and to its founders the idea that geometry does not have religious content would have struck them as worse than saying that prayer does not have religious content.”
“Ok, I think I remember that being mentioned. So to speak, my math teacher taught about geometry the ‘sacred science’ the way that my biology teacher taught about the past theory of spontaneous generation.”
Oinos focused his eyes on Art. “In our schools, and in our training, physics, biology, and chemistry are ‘taught’ as ‘secular sciences’ the same way, in your school, spontaneous generation is taught as ‘past science’, or even better, the ‘sacred science’ of geometry is ‘taught’ in the course of getting on to a modern understanding of geometry.”
Art said, “So the idea that the terrain we call ‘biology’ is to you—”
Oinos continued: “As much something peered at through a glass bell as the idea that the terrain of regular polygons belongs to a secularized mathematics.”
“What is a sacred science?”
Oinos sat back. “If a science is about understanding something as self-contained whose explanations do not involve God, and it is an attempt to understand as physics understand, and the scientist understands as a detached observer, looking in through a window, then you have a secular science—the kind that reeks of the occult to us. Or that may sound strange, because in your world people proclaiming sacred sciences are proclaiming the occult. But let me deal with that later. A sacred science does not try to understand objects as something that can be explained without reference to God. A sacred science is first and foremost about God, not about objects. When it understands objects, it understands them out of God, and tries to see God shining through them. A sacred science has its home base in the understanding of God, not of inanimate matter, and its understanding of things bears the imprint of God. If you want the nature of its knowing in an image, do not think of someone looking in and observing, detached, through a window, but someone drinking something in.”
“Is everything a sacred science to you? And what is a sacred science? Astrology?”
“Something like that, except that I use the term ‘sacred science’ by way of accommodation. Our own term is one that has no good translation in your language. But let us turn to the stars.”
“Astrology is right in this: a star is more than a ball of plasma. Even in the Bible there is not always such a distinction between the ranks of angels and the stars as someone raised on materialist science might think.” He rose, and began to walk, gesturing for Art to follow him. In the passage, they turned and entered a door. Oinos lit a lamp next to an icon on the wall.
The icon looked like starlight. It showed angels praying at the left, and then the studded sapphiric canopy of the night sky behind a land with herbs shooting from the earth, and on the right an immense Man—if he was a Man—standing, his hand raised in benediction. All around the sapphire dome were some majestic figures, soaring aloft in two of their six wings. Art paused to drink it in.
“What are those symbols?”
“They are Greek letters. You are looking at an icon of the creation of the stars, but the text is not the text for that day; it is from another book, telling of the angels thunderously shouting for joy when the stars were created. So the stars are connected with the angels.”
“Is this astrology?”
“No, because the stars and angels both point to God. The influences in astrology point beyond matter to something else, but they do not point far enough beyond themselves. If you can use something to make a forecast that way, it doesn’t point far enough beyond itself.”
“One definition to distinguish religion from magic—one used by anthropologists—is that religion is trying to come into contact with the divine, and magic is trying to control the divine. God cannot be controlled, and there is something of control in trying to foretell a future that God holds in mystery. A real God cannot be pried into by a skill. Astrology departs from a science that can only see stars as so much plasma, but it doesn’t go far enough to lead people to look into the stars and see a shadow of their Creator. To be a sacred science, it is not enough to point to something more than matter as secular science understands it; as the term is used in our language, one can only be a sacred science by pointing to God.”
“Then what is a sacred science? Which branches of learning as you break them up? Can they even be translated into my language?”
“You seem to think that if astrology is not a sacred science then sacred sciences must be something much more hidden. Not so. Farming is a sacred science, as is hunting, or inventing, or writing. When a monk makes incense, it is not about how much incense he can make per unit of time; his making incense is the active part of living contemplatively, and his prayer shows itself in physical labor. His act is more than material production; it is a sacred science, or sacred art or sacred endeavor, and what goes into and what comes out of the activity is prayer. Nor is it simply a matter that he is praying while he acts; his prayers matter for the incense. There are many lands from your world’s Desert Fathers to Mexico in your own day where people have a sense that it matters what state people cook in, and that cooking with love puts something into a dish that no money can buy. Perhaps you will not look at me askance when I say that not only monks in their monasteries exotically making incense for worship are performing a sacred science, but cooking, for people who may be low on the totem pole and who are not considered exotic, as much as for anyone else, can and should be a sacred science. Like the great work that will stay up with a sick child all night.”
“Hmm…” Art said, and then finished his tankard. “Have you traveled much?”
“I have not reached one in five of the galaxies with inhabited worlds. I can introduce you to people who have some traveling experience, but I am not an experienced traveler. Still, I have met sites worth visiting. I have met, learned, worshiped. Traveling in this castle I have drunk the blood of gems. There are worlds where there is nothing to see, for all is music, and song does everything that words do for you. I have beheld a star as it formed, and I have been part of an invention that moves forward as a thousand races in their laboratories add their devices. I have read books, and what is more I have spoken with members of different worlds and races. There seems to be no shortage of wonders, and I have even been to your own world, with people who write fantasy that continues to astonish us—”
“My son-in-law is big into fantasy—he got me to see a Lord of the whatever-it-was movie—but I don’t fancy them much myself.”
“We know about Tolkein, but he is not considered a source of astonishing fantasy to us.”
“Um…” Art took a long time to recall a name, and Oinos waited patiently. “Lewis?”
“If you’re looking for names you would have heard of, Voltaire and Jung are two of the fantasy authors we consider essential. Tolkein and Lewis are merely imaginative. It is Voltaire and Jung who are truly fantasy authors. But there are innumerable others in your world.”
Art said, “Um… what do you mean by ‘fantasy author’?”
Oinos turned. “I’m sorry; there is a discrepancy between how your language uses ‘fantasy author’ and ours. We have two separate words that your ‘fantasy’ translates, and the words stand for very different concepts. One refers to works of imagination that are set in another world that is not confused with reality. The other refers to a fundamental confusion that can cost a terrible price. Our world does not produce fiction; we do appreciate the fiction of other worlds, but we do not draw a particularly strong line between fiction where only the characters and events are imagined, and fiction where the whole world is imagined. But we do pay considerable attention to the second kind of fantasy, and our study of fantasy authors is not a study of imagination but a study of works that lead people into unreality. ‘Fantasy author’ is one of the more important terms in understanding your world and its history.”
Art failed to conceal his reaction.
“Or perhaps I was being too blunt. But, unfashionable as it may be, there is such a thing as evil in your world, and the ways in which people live, including what they believe, has something to do with it. Not everything, but something.”
Oinos waited for a time. Then, when Art remained silent, he said, “Come with me. I have something to show you.” He opened a door on the other side of the room, and went into the next room. The room was lit by diffuse moonlight, and there was a ledge around the room and water which Oinos stirred with his hand to light a phosphorescent glow. When Art had stepped in, Oinos stepped up, balancing on a steel cable, and stood silent for a while. “Is there anything here that you can focus on?”
“What do you mean?”
“Step up on this cable and take my hand.”
“What if I fall into the water?”
Art tried to balance, but it seemed even more difficult in the dark. For a while, he tried to keep his balance with Oinos’s help, but he seemed barely up. He overcompensated twice in opposite directions, began flying into the water, and was stopped at last by Oinos’s grip, strong as steel, on his arm.
“I can’t do this,” Art said.
“Very well.” Oinos opened a door on the other side of the room, and slowly led him out. As they walked, Oinos started up a spiral staircase and sat down to rest after Art reached the top. Then Art looked up at the sky, and down to see what looked like a telescope.
“What is it?”
“A telescope, not too different from those of your world.”
Oinos stood up, looked at it, and began some adjustments. Then he called Art over, and said, “Do you see that body?”
“What is it?”
“A small moon.”
Oinos said, “I want you to look at it as closely as you can,” and then pulled something on the telescope.
“It’s moving out of sight.”
“That’s right; I just deactivated the tracking feature. You should be able to feel handles; you can move the telescope with them.”
“Why do I need to move the telescope? Is the moon moving?”
“This planet is rotating: what the telescope sees will change as it rotates with the planet, and on a telescope you can see the rotation.”
Art moved the handles and found that it seemed either not to move at all or else move a lot when he put pressure on it.
Art said, “This is a hard telescope to control.”
Oinos said, “The telescope is worth controlling.”
“Can you turn the tracking back on?”
Oinos merely repeated, “The telescope is worth controlling.”
The celestial body had moved out of view. Art made several movements, barely passed over the moon, and then found it. He tried to see what he could, then give a relatively violent shove when the moon reached the edge of his field of view, and see if he could observe the body that way. After several tries, he began to get the object consistently in view… and found that he was seeing the same things about it, not being settled enough between jolts to really focus on what was there.
Art tried to make a smooth, slow movement with his body, and found that a much taller order than it sounded. His movement, which he could have sworn was gentle and smooth, produced what seemed like erratic movement, and it was only with greatest difficulty that he held the moon in view.
“Is this badly lubricated? Or do you have lubrication in this world?”
“We do, on some of our less precise machines. This telescope is massive, but it’s not something that moves roughly when it is pushed smoothly; the joints move so smoothly that putting oil or other lubricants that are familiar to you would make them move much more roughly.”
“Then why is it moving roughly every time I push it smoothly?”
“Maybe you aren’t pushing it as smoothly as you think you are?”
Art pushed back his irritation, and then found the moon again. And found, to his dismay, that when the telescope jerked, he had moved the slightest amount unevenly.
Art pushed observation of the moon to the back of his mind. He wanted to move the telescope smoothly enough that he wouldn’t have to keep finding the moon again. After a while, he found that this was less difficult than he thought, and tried for something harder: keeping the moon in the center of what he could see in the telescope.
He found, after a while, that he could keep the moon in the center if he tried, and for periods was able to manage something even harder: keeping the moon from moving, or perhaps just moving slowly. And then, after a time, he found himself concentrating through the telescope on taking in the beauty of the moon.
It was breathtaking, and Art later could never remember a time he had looked on something with quite that fascination.
Then Art realized he was exhausted, and began to sit down; Oinos pulled him to a bench.
After closing his eyes for a while, Art said, “This was a magnificent break from your teaching.”
“A break from teaching? What would you mean?”
Art sat, opened his mouth, and then closed it. After a while, he said, “I was thinking about what you said about fantasy authors… do you think there is anything that can help?”
Oinos said, “Let me show you.” He led Art into a long corridor with smooth walls and a round arch at top. A faint blue glow followed them, vanishing at the edges. Art said, “Do you think it will be long before our world has full artificial intelligence?”
Oinos said, “Hmm… Programming artificial intelligence on a computer is not that much more complex than getting a stone to lay an egg.”
Art said, “But our scientists are making progress. Your advanced world has artificial intelligence, right?”
Oinos said, “Why on earth would we be able to do that? Why would that even be a goal?”
“You have computers, right?”
“Yes, indeed; the table that I used to call up a scientific calculator works on the same principle as your world’s computers. I could almost say that inventing a new kind of computer is a rite of passage among serious inventors, or at least that’s the closest term your world would have.”
“And your computer science is pretty advanced, right? Much more advanced than ours?”
“We know things that the trajectory of computer science in your world will never reach because it is not pointed in the right direction.” Oinos tapped the wall and arcs of pale blue light spun out.
“Then you should be well beyond the point of making artificial intelligence.”
“Why on a million, million worlds should we ever be able to do that? Or even think that is something we could accomplish?”
“Well, if I can be obvious, the brain is a computer, and the mind is its software.”
“What else could the mind be?”
“What else could the mind be? What about an altar at which to worship? A workshop? A bridge between Heaven and earth, a meeting place where eternity meets time? A treasury in which to gather riches? A spark of divine fire? A line in a strong grid? A river, ever flowing, ever full? A tree reaching to Heaven while its roots grasp the earth? A mountain made immovable for the greatest storm? A home in which to live and a ship by which to sail? A constellation of stars? A temple that sanctifies the earth? A force to draw things in? A captain directing a starship or a voyager who can travel without? A diamond forged over aeons from of old? A perpetual motion machine that is simply impossible but functions anyway? A faithful manuscript by which an ancient book passes on? A showcase of holy icons? A mirror, clear or clouded? A wind which can never be pinned down? A haunting moment? A home with which to welcome others, and a mouth with which to kiss? A strand of a web? An acrobat balancing for his whole life long on a slender crystalline prism between two chasms? A protecting veil and a concealing mist? An eye to glimpse the uncreated Light as the world moves on its way? A rift yawning into the depths of the earth? A kairometer, both primeval and young? A—”
“All right, all right! I get the idea, and that’s some pretty lovely poetry. (What’s a kairometer?) These are all very beautiful metaphors for the mind, but I am interested in what the mind is literally.”
“Then it might interest you to hear that your world’s computer is also a metaphor for the mind. A good and poetic metaphor, perhaps, but a metaphor, and one that is better to balance with other complementary metaphors. It is the habit of some in your world to understand the human mind through the metaphor of the latest technology for you to be infatuated with. Today, the mind is a computer, or something like that. Before you had the computer, ‘You’re just wired that way’ because the brain or the mind or whatever is a wired-up telephone exchange, the telephone exchange being your previous object of technological infatuation, before the computer. Admittedly, ‘the mind is a computer’ is an attractive metaphor. But there is some fundamental confusion in taking that metaphor literally and assuming that, since the mind is a computer, all you have to do is make some more progress with technology and research and you can give a computer an intelligent mind.”
“I know that computers don’t have emotions yet, but they seem to have rationality down cold.”
“Are you actually going to tell me that computers, with their math and logic, aren’t rational?”
“Let me ask you a question. Would you say that the thing you can hold, a thing that you call a book, can make an argument?”
“Yes; I’ve seen some pretty good ones.”
“Really? How do paper and ink think out their position?”
Art hesitated, and said, “Um, if you’re going to nitpick…”
“I’m not nitpicking. A book is a tool of intelligent communication, and they are part of how people read author’s stories, or explanation of how to do things, or poetry, or ideas. But the physical thing is not thereby intelligent. However much you think of a book as making an argument, the book is incapable of knowing what an argument is, and for that matter the paper and ink have no idea of whether they contain the world’s best classic, or something mediocre, or incoherent accusations that world leaders are secretly planning to turn your world to dog drool, or randomly generated material that is absolute gibberish. The book may be meaningful to you, but the paper with ink on it is not the sort of thing that can understand what you recognize through the book.
“This might ordinarily be nitpicking, but it says something important about computers. One of the most difficult things for computer science instructors in your world to pound through people’s heads is that a computer does not get the gist of what you are asking it to do and overlook minor mistakes, because the computer has no sense of what you are doing and no way to discern what were trying to get it to do from a mistake where you wrote in a bug by telling it to do something slightly different from what you meant. The computer has no sense that a programmer meant anything. A computer follows instructions, one after another, whether or not they make sense, and indeed without being able to wonder whether they make sense. To you, a program may be a tool that acts as an electronic shopping cart to let you order things through the web, but the web server no more understands that it is being used as a web server than a humor book understands that it is meant to make people laugh. Now most or all of the books you see are meant to say something—there’s not much market for a paperback volume filled with random gibberish—but a computer can’t understand that it is running a program written for a purpose any more than a book can understand that the ink on its pages is intended for people to read.”
Art said, “You don’t think artificial intelligence is making real progress? They seem to keep making new achievements.”
Oinos said, “The rhetoric of ‘We’re making real breakthroughs now; we’re on the verge of full artificial intelligence, and with what we’re achieving, full artificial intelligence is just around the corner’ is not new: people have been saying that full artificial intelligence is just around the corner since before you were born. But breeding a better and better kind of apple tree is not progress towards growing oranges. Computer science, and not just artificial intelligence, has gotten good at getting computers to function better as computers. But human intelligence is something else… and it is profoundly missing the point to only realize that the computer is missing a crucial ingredient of the most computer-like activity of human rational analysis. Even if asking a computer to recognize a program’s purpose reflects a fundamental error—you’re barking up the wrong telephone pole. Some people from your world say that when you have a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. The most interesting thing about the mind is not that it can do something more complete when it pounds in computer-style nails. It’s something else entirely.”
“When things are going well, the ‘computer’ that performs calculating analysis is like your moon: a satellite, that reflects light from something greater. Its light is useful, but there is something more to be had. The sun, as it were, is that the mind is like an altar, or even something better. It takes long struggles and work, but you need to understand that the heart of the mind is at once practical and spiritual, and that its greatest fruit comes not in speech but in silence.”
Art was silent for a long time.
Oinos stopped, tapped a wall once, and waited as an opening appeared in the black stone. Inside an alcove was a small piece of rough hewn obsidian; Oinos reached in, took it, and turned it to reveal another side, finely machined, with a series of concentric ridged grooves centered around a tiny niche. “You asked what a kairometer was, and this is a kairometer, although it would take you some time to understand exactly what it is.”
“Is it one of the other types of computers in your world?”
“Yes. I would call it information technology, although not like the information technology you know. It is something people come back to, something by which people get something more than they had, but it does this not so much according to its current state as to our state in the moment we are using it. It does not change.” Oinos placed the object in Art’s hands.
Art slowly turned it. “Will our world have anything like this?”
Oinos took the kairometer back and returned it to its niche; when he withdrew his hand, the opening closed with a faint whine. “I will leave you to find that yourself.”
Oinos began walking, and they soon reached the end of the corridor. Art followed Oinos through the doorway at the end and gasped.
Through the doorway was something that left Art trying to figure out whether or not it was a room. It was a massive place, lit by a crystalline blue light. As Art looked around, he began to make sense of his surroundings: there were some bright things, lower down, in an immense room with rounded arches and a dome at the top, made of pure glass. Starlight streamed in. Art stepped through the doorway and sunk down a couple of inches.
Oinos stooped for a moment, and then said, “Take off your shoes. They are not needed here.” Art did so, and found that he was walking on a floor of velveteen softness. In the far heart of the room a thin plume of smoke arose. Art could not tell whether he smelled a fragrance, but he realized there was a piercing chant. Art asked, “What is the chant saying?”
Oinos did not answer.
What was the occasion? Art continued to look, to listen, and began trying to drink it in. It almost sounded as if they were preparing to receive a person of considerable importance. There was majesty in the air.
Oinos seemed to have slipped away.
Art turned and saw an icon behind him, hanging on the glass. There was something about it he couldn’t describe. The icon was dark, and the colors were bright, almost luminous. A man lay dreaming at the bottom, and something reached up to a light hidden in the clouds—was it a ladder? Art told himself the artistic effect was impressive, but there was something that seemed amiss in that way of looking at it.
What bothered him about saying the icon had good artistic effect? Was the artistry bad? That didn’t seem to be it. He looked at a couple of areas of artistic technique, but it was difficult to do so; such analysis felt like a foreign intrusion. He thought about his mood, but that seemed to be the wrong place to look, and almost the same kind of intrusion. There seemed to be something shining through the icon; looking at it was like other things he had done in this world, only moreso. He was looking through the icon and not around it, but… Art had some sense of what it was, but it was not something he could fit into words.
After being absorbed in the icon, Art looked around. There must have been hundreds of icons around, and lights, and people; he saw what seemed like a sparse number of people—of Oinos’s kind—spread out through the vast space. There was a chant of some kind that changed from time to time, but seemed to somehow be part of the same flow. Things seemed to move very slowly—or move in a different time, as if clock time were turned on its side, or perhaps as if he had known clock time as it was turned on its side and now it was right side up—but Art never had the sense of nothing going on. There seemed to always be something more going on than he could grasp.
Art shifted about, having stood for what seemed like too long, sat down for a time, and stood up. The place seemed chaotic, in a way cluttered, yet when he looked at the “clutter,” there was something shining through, clean as ice, majestic as starlight, resonant as silence, full of life as the power beneath the surface of a river, and ordered with an order that no rectangular grid could match. He did not understand any of the details of the brilliant dazzling darkness… but they spoke to him none the less.
After long hours of listening to the chant, Art realized with a start that the fingers of dawn had stolen all around him, and he saw stone and verdant forest about the glass walls until the sunlight began to blaze. He thought, he though he could understand the song even as its words remained beyond his reach, and he wished the light would grow stronger so he could see more. There was a crescendo all about him, and—
Oinos was before him. Perhaps for some time.
“I almost understand it,” Art said. “I have started to taste this world.”
Oinos bowed deeply. “It is time for you to leave.”
Some time ago, a pastor contacted me and asked permission to quote one of my poems. We’ve been in contact at least occasionally, and he sent me an email newsletter that left me asking him for permission to quote.
When there are many words, sin is unavoidable, but the one who controls his lips is wise. Proverbs 10:19
I recently violated a longstanding position I have held; to avoid all further interaction with social media, particularly Facebook. It wasn’t necessarily because of any moral high ground; it was more because I had already mastered e-mail and was satisfied with my online accomplishments. In addition, I didn’t have any additional time or interest to keep up with pithy little sayings, videos, cartoons, social life, or even cute kiddie pictures. But now I am happily in the fold of Facebook users (particularly if there is a picture of one of my grandbabies on it). In addition, it has allowed me to discover that there are literally dozens of people who are just waiting to be my friends. However, the real reason I’m on Facebook is work related. Thanks to the good work done by a few of our church members; both of our churches have excellent Facebook pages. In order to access those pages, I needed an account, so—here I am. And though all seems well with the world of Facebook, I am discovering that it is not always the case. For all the “warm fuzzies,” and catching up with friends and family it offers … there is also a dark side.
At a recent continuing education event I attended, the speaker presented some dire consequences to uninhibited use of social media. He reported that social media had replaced money as the number one contributor to marriage problems. He said it wasn’t so much affairs that online relationships led to; rather it was the persistent flirting that broke down barriers and hedges, which once protected the marriage. Such interaction often led to a downward spiral, corrupting and compromising the marriage vow. One in five divorces involves the social networking site Facebook, according to a new survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. A staggering 80% of divorce lawyers have also reported a spike in the number of cases that use social media for evidence of cheating, with Facebook by far the biggest offender. Flirty messages and and photographs found on Facebook are increasingly being cited as proof of unreasonable behavior or irreconcilable differences. Many cases revolve around social media users who get back in touch with old flames they hadn’t heard from in many years.
PBS recently hosted a webinar, This Emotional Life, about the internet’s impact on relationship and marriage.[i] One of the panelists, Theresa Bochard, explored the issue a bit farther in an article originally published on PsychCentral.com. She said that after reading hundreds of comments and emails from people who have been involved in online relationships or emotional affairs as well as the responses on several discussion boards, she concluded that while the internet and social media can foster intimacy in a marriage, it seems to do more harm than good. She reported that an astounding 90% of opposite-sex online relationships were damaging to the marriage. Facebook affairs are threatening healthy couples too.
“I have suggested to myself to write a thank you note to the inventors of Facebook and Myspace because they have been responsible for a significant percentage of my income,” says marriage counselor Dr. Dennis Boike. He’s not kidding. “I’m having people say I never would have expected me to do this. It’s in the privacy of my computer. I’m not going out anywhere, I’m not dressing for it, I’m not smelling of another’s perfume. There are no tell-tale signs except my computer record.” But a new study suggests Facebook can also help disconnect you from your better half. The site, which boasts more than 350 million active users, is mentioned in over 20% of divorce petitions, according to Divorce-Online.
Prominent Houston divorce attorney Bucky Allshouse can understand why. “It’s really kind of shocking what people put on Facebook,” says Allshouse. Perhaps it’s not so shocking that the social networking site can essentially pour kerosene on “old flames.” Most online relationships start out benign: an email from a person you knew in college, friending an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend on Facebook (as suggested by Facebook: “people you might know”), getting to know a co-worker or acquaintance better online. But the relationship can take a dangerous turn very quickly if you’re not careful and even more easily if you are doing most of the talking behind a computer.
We have no non-verbals with which to interpret people’s conversation when we communicate online. What we say can be misinterpreted and come off in a way we don’t intend. Or worse, we purposely allow our conversation to drift into an unhealthy area, where we put out “feelers” to see if the person we are communicating with will do the same. We will text things to people that would make us blush if we said them in person. All too often the end result is flirting, compromising our values, and allowing the secrecy of social media to sweep us off our feet and into a quagmire of social dysfunction. This is not a victimless choice. Many times, inappropriate conversations through social media lead to great pain with children, spouses, parents, and friends.
One such instance occurred when Jonathan found Sharon on Facebook, 20 years after he dumped her one week after their high school prom. She had never married, while he had and was also the father of two teenagers. During months of emailing and texting, Sharon proved a sympathetic listener to his sense of isolation and loneliness within his own marriage. He found they could talk easily, picking up with the friendship they had had years before. They shared feelings they had never shared with others. After a few months, they decided to cross a few states and meet half way. Then, they talked of marriage. Shortly after, Jonathan went through with his divorce and months later he and Sharon married. Not surprisingly, and after only four months, they divorced. What happened? Fantasy was hit hard by reality. They went into a marriage without really spending time to know each other as they are today. Their romance was fueled by their history (as 18-year-olds) not their adult present. The romantic idea of reconnecting with an old lover, at a time Jonathan was unhappy in his marriage, was a recipe for danger.
In talking about it later, Jonathan realized he had not intended to start up a romance; he hadn’t intended to leave his marriage in the first place. As he and Sharon shared feelings, he felt more cared for by her than by his wife. When asked who raised the issue of marriage, he wasn’t sure. “Perhaps she pushed it, but I may have been just been musing something like, ‘Wouldn’t it have been great if we got married,’ and that led her to talk about marriage. I wonder if I led her on. Did I promise more than I had realized and then feel in love with my own fantasy?”[ii]
When we cross barriers that were intended to keep us safely within the parameters of our marriage vows, we start in internal conflict—one that attacks our emotional and mental center. Conversations with people of the opposite sex can lead to flirtations. Flirtations can lead to imaginations which lead to fixations … and there is a fine line between fixation and passion. Promiscuity is rarely a random act. It is pre-meditated. Something triggers our thoughts. And that something can be social media.
Christians must be wary of intimate conversations with people of the opposite sex; it is a trap that too many good people have been caught in. Paul wrote: “We are casting down imaginations, and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God, and bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). It is good advice; cast down imaginations … take every thought captive, because it is often out of our imaginations and thoughts that bad choices are born. Jesus said something similar. Speaking to the disciples he warned, “But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15:18-19). The battleground is not the computer or cell phone; it is the heart and the mind. But secretive messaging avenues like social media offers can help plant the seed for a battle that good people lose every day.
Dr. Karen Gail Lewis, a marriage and family therapist of 39 years and author of numerous relationship books, offers these social networking guidelines for married couples.
Be clear about your agenda in contacting the other person.
Limit the frequency of your time online. This sets a good boundary around the social networking contact.
Don’t talk intimately. By not sharing intimacies with your correspondence, you reduce the chance of sending a message that you want a more intimate relationship.
Let your spouse know with whom you are contacting. This openness makes it clear you have nothing to hide. (I would add, especially so if you are contacting a person of the opposite sex).[iii].
Share your outgoing and received emails/texts with your spouse. Sharing communications removes any chance for jealousy or misunderstandings (I would add, share passwords with your spouse; give them full access to your social media sites).[iv].
Do not meet in person unless your spouse is with you. Meeting up with old friends with your spouse by your side is a reminder that you two are a team and removes sending mixed messages to your former lover. This also reinforces the importance of fixing your marriage before playing with the flames of old flames.[v].
Jesus taught us to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16). Social media is a place that Scripture applies. I believe in the sanctity of marriage. I believe a person places their personal integrity and honor on the line in the marriage vow more than anything else in their life. And I believe marriage is under attack from multiple directions. I have officiated at many young couples weddings. I spend time with each one, warning them of the potential pitfalls and dangers; encouraging them to make their marriage a priority each day. Because I know the reality; many of the ones I marry won’t make it. It’s not because they are bad people or people of no character; but they get caught in a trap, and they can’t seem to find a way out. And I also know most of them deeply regret their decisions after the fallout of their choices turn to consequences.
Social media can be a wonderful thing. I love keeping in touch with family and looking at pictures of the grandbabies. Now our churches are using social media to share the gospel. But Christians should be wary of the potential dangers. We must keep up our barriers at all times. James warned, “Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. So don’t be misled, my dear brothers and sisters” (James 1:14-16). Indeed, we must not be misled, rather be guided by the protective barriers God has placed around us; especially so if we are married. We must watch our words carefully and keep our thoughts captive. The sanctity of our marriage vow demands it.
In part, I wondered if my collection in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, was simply wrong. Or if someone might rightly say to me, “What you give in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology is helpful up to a point, at least for someone with a similar background to yours. However, regular people need much more concrete guidance.” What struck me very concretely about Pastor Vince’s article is that it gave very practical advice on how married people can appropriately handle Facebook.
The article reminded me of remarks I’d seen by people interested in making computers that people can actually use that the Apple Macintosh was the first computer worth criticizing. Perhaps some detail of the guidance in the article above could be criticized: perhaps much of it should be criticized: but it may be the first article I’ve seen on the topic that was worth criticizing.
The concept of “social antibodies”: it’s not just Facebook
Paul Graham’s “The Acceleration of Addictiveness” is worth reading in full. (It’s also worth quoting in full, but he’s asked nicely that people link to it instead of reposting, which is a fair request. So I am linking to it even though I’d prefer to reproduce the whole article.)
The Acceleration of Addictiveness talks about a little bit bigger picture about things that are addictive. Though he mentions Facebook as something that’s even more addictive than television, he’s clear that the big picture is more than addictive little Facebook. Graham talks about a concept of “social antibodies” which I think is incredibly useful.
Decades ago, smoking cut through the US like a hot knife through butter. But, while smoking is still dangerous and there still continue to be new smokers, we no longer have glamour shots of celebrities holding cigarettes in some flashy, sophisticated, classy pose. Smoking is no longer “sexy;” over the past 20 years it has been seen as seedy, and “smoker” is not exacty the kindest thing to call someone. (I remember one friend commenting that he could think of a number of terms more polite than “smoker,” none of which were appropriate to the present company.) As a society, the US has developed social antibodies to smoking now.
There are many things that we need “social antibodies” for, and we keep developing new technologies, Facebook included, that need social antibodies. The six prescriptions in the quoted articles are essentially social antibodies for how to use Facebook without jeopardizing your marriage. They may seem harsh and excessively cautious, but I submit that they are easier to go through than divorce. Much easier. A piece of cake! And I quote Pastor Vince’s article because it’s something we need more of.
A helpful parallel to technology: Wine as an example
Simply not drinking alcoholic beverages is an option that I respect more as I think about it, but for the sake of this discussion, I will leave it on the side. I am interested in helpful parallels for “social antibodies” in moderation and restraint in using technology, and as much as I may respect people who do not drink, that option is not as interesting for my investigation. This is especially true because people living in my society assume that you are not abstaining from every technology that can cause trouble. So with a respectful note about not drinking alcohol at all, I want to look at social antibodies for moderate, temperate, and appropriate use of wine.
Wine and liquor slowly increased in strength in Western Europe, slowly enough that societies had at least the chance to build social antibodies. This makes for a marked contrast to escape through hard liquor among Native Americans, where hard liquor blew through decimated nations and peoples like escape through today’s street drugs would have blown through a Europe already coping with the combined effects of the bubonic plague and of barbarian invasions. Perhaps there are genetic differences affecting Native Americans and alcohol. A Native American friend told me that Native American blood can’t really cope with sugar, essentially unknown in Native American lands apart from some real exceptions like maple syrup. And lots of alcohol is worse than lots of sugar, even if some of us wince at the level of sugar and/or corn syrup in the main US industrial diet. (Even those of us not of Native American blood would do well to restrict our consumption of artificially concocted sugars.) But aside from the genetic question, introducing 80 proof whiskey to societies that did not know how to cope with beer would have been rough enough even if there were no genetic questions and no major external stresses on the societies. If there was something of a stereotype about Native Americans and whiskey, maybe part of that is because hard liquor that had been developed over centuries in the West appeared instanteously, under singularly unfortunate conditions, in societies that had not even the social antibodies to cope with even the weaker of beers.
I cite St. Cyril of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book Two, Chapter II: On Drinking as a model for approaching alcohol (and, by extension, a serious reference point in understanding moderate use of technology), with some reservations. The translation I link to is obscure and archaic, and if you can get past that, the individual prescriptions are the sort that would only be all kept (or, for that matter, mostly kept) by the sort of people who are filled with pride that they observe ancient canons more strictly than any canonical bishop. In other words, don’t try these directions at home unless you know you are in agreement with your priest or spiritual father. But the chapter of The Instructor on wine offers a priceless glimpse into real, live social antibodies on how to navigate dangerous waters. This is a live example of the sort of things we need. The book as a whole covers several topics, including clothing and boundaries between men and women, and they could serve as a model for pastoral literature to address the challenges offered to spiritual life today. Not specifically that online interactions between men and women introduce an element of danger. That element of danger has always been there, and always will be there. But online interactions frame things a little differently. This means that people with social antibodies that would show appropriate caution face-to-face might not recognize that you have to compensate when dealing with the opposite sex online, or might not intuit exactly how you have to compensate when dealing with the opposite sex online.
I would like to close this section with a word about wine and why I drink it. The politically incorrect way of putting this point is to say that wine is something which literally and figuratively is not part of Islam. Islam works out, in stark relief, what it means to subtract the Incarnation from Christian faith. It means that not only has the Son of God not become incarnate in Christ, but all the more does God become incarnate in his children. It means that Holy Communion is just a symbol, and wine could absolutely, absolutely neverbecome the blood of God. Water is necessary and wine is not, as St. Clement tells us, but the Orthodox Church that regards Islam as a Christian heresy used fermented wine exclusively in the Eucharist, and condemned heretics’ use of pure water for the same purpose. And my reason for drinking a little wine is that wine has an elasticity that bears the meaning of Jesus’s first miracle, turning water into even more wine when wine ran out at a wedding where the guests were already pretty drunk, and it bears the meaning of the Holy Mysteries: few if any material substances are as pregnant with spiritual depth as wine. Ecclesiastes is perhaps the most dismal book in the entire Bible, and “Go, eat thy bread with mirth, and drink thy wine with a joyful heart” is close to being the only invitation to joy in the book. I do not say that this is a reason why people who have decided not to drink should change their mind. However, the theological motive to drink in Christianity comes from a higher plane than the admittedly very real reasons to be careful with alcohol, or else abstain. It’s deeper.
Is the iPhone really that cool?
The LinkedIn article Come With Me If You Want to Live – Why I Terminated My iPhone talked about how one family decided to get rid of their iPhones. The author talked about how the iPhone had taken over their lives. They suggested that trying to use their habit to use the iPhone in moderation was a nonstarter, however enticing it may look. And, on a sobering note, they had earlier tried to avoid using smartphones, even for work. And I am convinced they made the right choice: not having any smartphone use is better than addictive smartphone use, hands down. And while I am cautious about advertising responsible smartphone use to people who can’t live without their iPhone—the analogy drawn in the LinkedIn article was, “In hindsight, it’s like an alcoholic saying ‘I thought I could have it in the house and not drink it.'” But I have iPhone use which is defensible, at least in my opinion; I have drawn a boundary that is partly tacit and partly explicit, and while it can be criticized, it is a non-addictive use of the iPhone. I average less than one text a day; I do not compulsively check anything that’s out there. A few of the guidelines I found are,
Limit the time you spend using your smartphone. The general Orthodox advice is to cut back a little at once so you never experience absolute shock, but you are always stretched a little bit outside your comfort zone. That may be a way to work down cell phone use, or it may not. If you compulsively reach for your smartphone, you might leave it in one room that you’re not always in. Put a boundary between yourself and the smartphone.
Limit how often you check your cell phone unprovoked. When I’m not at work, I try to limit checking email to once per hour. Limit yourself to maybe once per hour, maybe more, maybe less, and restrain yourself.
When you’re going to bed for the day, you’re done using your smartphone for the day. I am not strict in this; I will answer a call, but checking my iPhone, unprovoked, after my evening prayers or my bedtime is a no-no.
Don’t use the iPhone as a drone that you need to have always going on. This includes music, texting, games, and apps, including Vince’s hero, Facebook. Perhaps the single biggest way that this violates Apple’s marketing proposition with the iPhone is that the iPhone is designed and marketed to be a drone that is always with us, a bit of ambient noise, delivering precisely what the Orthodox spiritual tradition, with works like The Ladder, tell us is something we don’t need.The iPhone’s marketing proposition is to deliver an intravenous drip of noise. The Orthodox Church’s Tradition tells us to wean ourself from noise.
iPhones have “Do Not Disturb” mode. Use it. And be willing to make having “Do Not Disturb” as your default way of using the phone, and turn it off when you want “Please Interrupt Me” mode explicitly.
Don’t multitask if you can at all avoid it. I remember reading one theology text which claimed as a lesson from computer science, because people can switch between several applications rapidly, that we should take this “lesson” to life and switch between several activities rapidly. And in a business world where multitasking has been considered an essential task, people are finding that multitasking is fool’s gold, an ineffective way of working that introduces a significant productivity tax where people could be doing much better. Smartphones make it trivially easy to multiask. Don’t, unless a situation calls for it.I note with some concern that the most I’ve been shocked at someone using an iPhone was when 12 and under kids were manipulating the iPhone, not to get something to done, but to activate the iPhone’s smooth animations. Looking over their shoulders in shock has felt like I was eavesdropping on a (non-chemical) acid trip. Children’s use of iPhones driven by slick animated transitions between applications are even more unhelpful than what the business world means by multitasking. (This feature of kids’ use of iPhones has made me kind of wish iPhones were not used by people under 18.)
Now I should post this with a clarification that this is, so to speak, pastoral advice to myself. I’ve found the basic approach helpful, and priests and spiritual fathers may draw on it if they choose in their best judgment to take something from it, but I have not been ordained or tonsured, and I would fall back on the maxim, “As always, ask your priest.” My reason to post them is to provide another reference point beyond those given to “social antibodies” in dealing with technology. With these antibodies, I hold the reins, or at least I hold the reins a little better than if I didn’t have these antibodies. But I am aware of something vampiric, something that sucks out energy and life, in even my more moderate use of some technologies, and I am a little wary of comparing my use of technology to moderate and sober use of alcohol. Appropriate use of alcohol can be good, and apart from the risk of drinking getting out of control, it is an overall positive. I’m leery of claiming the same for my use of technology, even if I’ve tried hard to hold the reins and even if I may do better than average. There is something that has been drained from me; there is something that has been sucked out of me. Maybe I am less harmed than others: but my use of technology has harmed me. I am wary of saying now, “I’ve found the solution.”
In dealing with another passion besides sexual sin, namely anger, people have started to develop “social antibodies:” as mentioned briefly by Vince Homan, we don’t have the important channels of people’s nonverbal communication, which flattens out half the picture. And when we are angry, we can flame people in emails where there is no human face staring back to us, only letters on the screen that seem so right—or perhaps not nearly right enough!—and write hurtful flames unlike anything we would dare to say in person, even to someone who hurt us deeply. And on that score, people seem to me to have developed social antibodies; I’ve been in lots of flamewars and given and received many unholy words, but I don’t remember doing that recently, or seeing flames wage out of control on many mailing lists, even if admittedly I don’t spend much time on mailing lists. But sexual dangers are not the only dangers online, and for online flaming, most of the people I deal with do not flame people like I did when I was first involved in online community. I’ve acquired some “social antibodies,” as have others I meet online. Some social antibodies have already developed, and the case is not desperate for us as a Church learning how to handle technology in the service of holy living instead of simply being a danger.
Pastoral guidance and literature needed
I visited Amazon to try to get a gauge on how much Orthodox pastoral resources about appropriate use of computers, mobile, internet, and technology were out there, a sort of The Instructor for technology today, and my search for orthodox internet found 109 resources from Christianity, Judaism, and the occult, none of which seemed to be about “How does an Orthodox Christian negotiate the social issues surrounding computers, smartphones, tablets, the Internet, apps, and technology?” Some other searches, such as orthodox pastoral internet, orthodox pastoral smartphone, and orthodox pastoral technology turned up nothing whatsoever. A search for “orthodox technology” turned up one page of search results with… several connected works of my own. Um, thanks, I think. I guess I’m an expert, or at least a resource, and even if I didn’t want to, I should probably make myself available to Orthodox clergy, with my spiritual father and bishop foremost. But this compliment to me, if it is such (maybe it means I’m off the rails) caught me quite off-guard; I was expecting to see at least some publications from people with pastoral authority and experience. But seeing as I’m the local expert, or at least a first author for this particular topic, I’ll briefly state my credentials. I have been an Orthodox Christian for a decade, so no longer a recent convert, have works on social dimensions of technology dating back as far as 1994, have two years of postgraduate theology under slightly silly conditions at Cambridge, and two more years under very silly conditions at a sort of “Monty Python teaches theology” PhD program (one Orthodox priest consoled me, “All of us went through that”), but did not complete the program. I grew up with computers back when my home computer access meant going to an orange and black terminal and dialing up a Dec MicroVAX on a 2400 (or less) baud modem, was on basically non-web social networks years before it became a buzzword, have worked with the web since before it went mainstream, much of it professionally. I’ve been bitten by some of the traps people are fighting with now. And I’m also kind of bright. So I guess I am, by default, a local expert, although I really think a responsible treatment of the issues raised here would see serious involvement from someone with pastoral qualifications and experience. I haven’t been tonsured, at least not yet, and perhaps not ever.
But I would ask priests reading this piece to consider a work on a sort of technological appendix to The Rudder, or maybe I shouldn’t say that because I have only barely sampled the ancient canons. But I would like to see ideally two pastoral works parallel to The Instructor, Book II: one for pastoral clergy use, and one for “the rest of us faithful.” When I was a lay parish representative at a diocesian conference, there was talk about appropriate use of the internet; Vladyka PETER read something that talked about the many legitimate benefits we have received from using computers, but talked about porn on the internet, which is a sewer I haven’t mentioned; he said that young people are spending hours per day looking at porn, and it’s more addictive than some street drugs, and he commented how porn has always been available, but you used to have to put on a disguise and a trenchcoat, and go leave your car in front of a store with the windows covered up, where now, it finds you and it comes free with a basic utility in the privacy of your home. And the biggest thing I can say about freedom from porn comes from the entry for porn in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology:
There is a story about a philosopher who was standing in a river when someone came to him. The philosopher asked the visitor, “What do you want?” The visitor answered, “Truth!” Then the philosopher held the visitor under the water for a little while, and asked him the second time, “What do you want?” The visitor answered, “Truth!” Then the philosopher held the visitor under water for what seemed an interminable time, and let him up and asked, “What do you want?” The visitor gasped and said, “Air!” The philosopher said, “When you want Truth the way you want air, you will find it.”
The same thing goes for freedom from the ever-darker chain called pornography, along with masturbation and the use of “ED” drugs to heighten thrills (which can cause nasty street drug-like effects [and a doomed search for the ultimate sexual thrill that decimates sexual satisfaction] even in marriage).
And I would like to suggest some guidelines for fighting Internet porn, quite possibly the most commonly confessed sin among young men today. Sexual sins are among the most easily forgiven: but they are a deep pit. So, in the interest of providing a “dartboard” draft that’s put out for people to shoot at. I am intentionally saying more rather than less because it’s easier for a pastoral conversation to select from a set of options than furnish arbitrarily more additional options. Here are several things I’d consider, both sacred and secular:
If your right eye offends you, tear it out and throw it away from you: for it is better for you that one part of your body should die than that your whole body should be thrown into Hell.These words are not to be taken literally; if you tore out your right eye you would still be sinning with your left eye, and the Church considers that it was one of Origen’s errors to castrate himself. But this is a forceful way of stating a profound truth. There is an incredible freedom that comes, a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light, when you want purity the way you want “Air!“, and you apply a tourniquet as high up as you need to to experience freedom.Give your only computer power cable to a friend, for a time, because you can’t have that temptation in the house? That is really much better than the alternative. Have the local teenager turn off display of images in Chrome’s settings? That is really much better than the alternative. Webpages may look suddenly ugly, but not nearly as ugly as bondage to porn. Only check email at the library? That is really much better than the alternative. These tourniquets may be revised in pastoral conversation, but tearing out your right eye is much more free and much less painful than forever wanting to be free from addiction to porn, but also secretly hoping to give in to the present temptation; as the Blessed Augustine prayed, “Lord, give me chastity, but not yet.” There is a great deal of power in wanting purity now, and once you go slash-and-burn, the power is amazing.
Install content-control software, such as Norton Family / Norton Family Premier, and have things set up so that only the woman of the house knows the password to make exceptions. There are legitimate needs for exceptions, and I remember being annoyed when I went to customize Ubuntu Christian Edition and finding that a site with all sorts of software to customize the appearance of Ubuntu was blocked, apparently because of a small sliver of soft porn in the wallpaper section of a truly massive site. There will be legitimate exceptions, but it cuts through a lot of self-deception if you get the exception by asking your wife.
Don’t bother trying to find out how to disable porn mode “Incognito Mode” on your browser; set up a router to log who visits what websites. However much browser makers may tout themselves as being all for empowerment and freedom, they have refused to honor the many requests of men who want freedom from porn and parents who care for their children in many, many voices asking for a way to shut off porn mode. (Even if you found a pre-porn-mode browser version, it would place you at incredible information security risk, and not only because your browser is the #1 way to attack your computer.) But there is something else you should know.Routers exist that can log who visits what when, and if you know someone who is good with computers (or you can use paid technical support like the Geek Squad), have a router set up to provide a log of what computers visited what URLs so that the wife or parents know who is visiting what. The presence of a browser’s porn mode suddenly matters a lot less when a router records your browsing history whether or not the browser is in porn mode.
Rein in your stomach. Eat less food. Fast. It is a classic observation in the Orthodox spiritual tradition that the appetites are tied: gluttony is a sort of “gateway drug” to sexual sin, and if you cut away at a full stomach, you necessarily undermine sexual sin and have an easier contest if you are not dealing with sexual temptation on top of a full stomach.And it has been my own experience that if I keep busy working, besides any issues about “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop,” the temptation to amuse and entertain myself with food is less. So that cuts off the temptation further upstream.If you eat only to nourish the body, it helps. Even if nourishing food tastes good, cutting out junk like corn-syrup-loaded soft drinks, or anything sold like potato chips in a bag instead of a meal, and moderating consumption of alcohol (none before going to bed; it doesn’t help), will help.
Buy and pray with a copy of Prayers for Purity when you are tempted, and when you have fallen. It is an excellent collection and helps when you know you should praying but words are not coming to mind.
If you have been wounded, bring your wound to confession the next weekend. (And try to have a rule of going to church each week.)It can be powerful, when you are facing a temptation, not to want to confess the same sin again in a couple of days.But in parallel with this remember when a visitor asked a saintly monk what they did at the monastery, and the saintly monk answered, “We fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up.” Fall down seven times and rise up eight: fall down seventy-seven times and rise up seventy-eight: keep on repenting for as long as you need to to achieve some freedom, and know that some saints before you have risen after falling very many times.
, and use it. When you are tempted, keep repeating a prayer for one prayer rope, and then another, and another, if you need it. Pray “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” or to St. John the Much-Suffering, “Holy Father John, pray to God for me,” or to St. Mary of Egypt, “Holy Mother Mary, pray to God for me.”
Use a support group, if one is available in your area. If I were looking for a support group now, I would call Christian counseling centers in the area if available. Talking with other people who share the same struggle can help.
Use XXXchurch.com, or at least explore their website. Their entire purpose is buying you your freedom from lust.
God is a pet owner who has two rules, and only two rules. They are:
I am your owner. Enjoy freely the food and water which I have provided for your good!
Don’t drink out of the toilet.
Lust is also drinking out of the toilet. Lust is the disenchantment of the entire universe. It is a magic spell where suddenly nothing else is interesting, and after lust destroys the ability to enjoy anything else, lust destroys the ability to enjoy even lust. Proverbs says, “The adulterous woman”—today one might add, “and internet porn” to that—”in the beginning is as sweet as honey and in the end as bitter as gall and as sharp as a double-edged sword.” Now this is talking about a lot more than pleasure, but it is talking about pleasure. Lust, a sin of pleasure, ends by destroying pleasure. It takes chastity to enjoy even lust.
When we are in lust, God does not seem real to us. Rejecting lust allows us to start being re-sensitized to the beauty of God’s creation, to spiritual sweetness, to the lightness of Heavenly light. Lust may feel like you’re losing nothing but gaining everything, but try to be mindful of what you lose in lust.
And that’s my best stab at making a “dartboard,” meant so people will shoot at it and make something better, and more complete and less one-sided in navigating the pitfalls of technology. This isn’t the only trap out there—but it may be one of the worst.
I would suggest that we need a comprehensive—or at least somewhat comprehensive—set of guidelines for Orthodox use of technology. Such a work might not become dated as quickly as you may think; as I write in the resources section below, I unhesitantly cite a 1974 title as seriously relevant knowing full well that it makes no reference to individually owned computers or mobile devices: it’s a case of “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Or, perhaps, two works: one for clergy with pastoral responsibilities, and one for those of us laity seeking our own guidance and salvation. I believe that today, we who have forms of property and wealth undreamed of when Christ gave one of the sternest Luddite warnings ever, Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, can very easily use things that do not lead to spiritual health: sometimes like how Facebook can erode marriages that are well defended as regards old-school challenges.
The best I know, secondhand perhaps, is that today’s Church Fathers, on Mount Athos perhaps, are simply saying, “Unplug! Unplug! Unplug!” What they want instead sounds like a liberal political-social experiment, where people who have grown up in an urban setting and know only how to navigate life there, will move en masse and form some sort of Amish-like rural communities. Or perhaps something else is envisioned: mass migration to monasteries? Given all that monasticism offers, it seems sad to me to receive the angelic image, of all reasons, only because that’s the only remaining option where you can live a sufficiently Luddite life. I have heard of spiritual giants who incomparably excel me saying that we should stop using recent technology at all. I have yet to hear of spiritual giants who incomparably excel me, and who live in places where technology is socially mandated, advise us to unplug completely. For that matter, I have yet to hear of any Orthodox clergy who live in places in the world where technology is socially mandated say, only and purely, “Unplug! Unplug! Unplug!”
The Orthodox Church, or rather the Orthodox-Catholic Church, is really and truly Catholic, Catholic ultimately coming from the Greek kata, “with”, and holos, “whole”, meaning “with the whole”, meaning that the entirety of the Orthodox Church belongs to every Orthodox-Catholic Christian: the saints alike living and dead, the ranks of priesthood and the faithful, and marriage and monasticism in entirety belong to every Orthodox Christian, every Orthodox-Catholic Christian: and giving the advice “Unplug! Unplug! Unplug!” as the limits of where the Orthodox-Catholic Church’s God and salvation can reach, is very disappointing. It’s comparable to saying that only monastics can be saved.
Total avoidance of all electronic technology is guidance, but not appropriate guidance, and we need advice, somewhat like the advice that began on how to use Facebook, to what I wrote about iPhones or internet porn. A successful dartboard makes it easier to say “What you said about ___________ was wrong because ___________ and instead we should say ____________ because __________.” And I am trying to raise a question. I am trying to raise the question of how Orthodox may optimally use technology in furtherance of living the divine life.
Is astronomy about telescopes? No!
I would close with a quote about technology—or is it? Computer science giant Edgser Dijkstra said,
Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.
And how much more must Orthodox discussion of how to use technology ascetically be no more about technology than astronomy is about telescopes? The question is a question about spiritial discipline, of how the timeless and universal wisdom of the Bible, the Philokalia, and the canons of the Seven Ecumenical Councils (volume 1, 2).
Resources for further study
All the Orthodox classics, from the Bible on down. The task at hand is not to replace the Philokalia, but to faithfullyadapt the Philokalia (and/or the Seven Ecumenical Councils to a new medium, as it were. The principles of the Bible, the Philokalia, and the Seven Ecumenical Councils are simply not dated and simplydo not need to be improved. However, their application, I believe, needs to beextended. We need ancient canons and immemorial custom that has the weight of canon law: however ancient canons express a good deal more about face-to-face boundaries between men and women than boundaries in Facebook and on smartphones. We need guidance for all of these.
CJS Hayward, The Luddite’s Guide to Technology. You don’t need to read all of my ebooks on the topic, and they overlap. This one I’m offering because I don’t know of anything better in (attempting to) address classic Orthodox spirituality to the question of ascetical use of technology.
Metropolitan Gregory (Postnikov), How to Live a Holy Life. This 1904 title gives concrete practical instruction. The technology is different from today’s technology, but it serves an interesting and valuable reference point for today.
Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Mander is a former advertising executive who came to believe things about television, with implications for computers and smartphones, For instance, he argues that sitting for hours seeing mainly the light of red, green, and blue fluorescent pixels is actually awfully creepy. Mander has no pretensions of being an Orthodox Christian, or an Orthodox Jew for that matter, sounded an alarm in his apostasy from advertising that is worth at least hearing out. (Related titles, good or bad, include The Plug-in Drug and Amusing Ourselves to Death.
(The only Orthodox articles I mention are my own. This is not by choice.)
CJS Hayward, iPhones and Spirituality. This piece is partly about appropriate use of smartphones and partly what we lose of real, human life when we lay the reins on the iPhone’s neck. It was originally a Toastmasters speech.
CJS Hayward, The Luddite’s Guide to Technology. This is my most serious attempt at making an encompassing treatment to prepare people for different technologies. Pastor Vince’s article helped me realize it was too much of a do-it-yourself kit, appropriate as far as it goes, but not addressing what the proper pastoral application of the principles should be. And that is why I am writing a piece that will, I hope, provoke Orthodox clergy to expand our coverage in pastoral literature.