An Open Letter to Toastmasters About Pathways

TL;DR

The new Pathways program is Coke II for Toastmasters. From a User Experience perspective, it is simply not ready for primetime. Extend D.T.M. program availability, and steer people towards D.T.M. pursuit until Pathways becomes adequate for public use and people abandon the old D.T.M. track manuals because they simply can’t compete with Pathways for member attention.

An XKCD comic parodying product improvements

Dear Toastmasters;

I’d like to quote from an old posting from my site, old enough that it was actually provocative when it was posted:

When the Master governs, people are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.

Lao Tze, Tao Te Ching, tr. Stephen Mitchell

In looking at various award review sites, I have seen people equating creative web design with good web design. This is not simply in acknowledgement that creativity is one of the gifts of the human mind and an indispensable part of the great triumphs of human culture. It goes further to take the perspective that “good web design” means design that impresses the viewer with its creativity. This perspective, which is almost never questioned among awards reviewers, is one which is eminently worthy of question.

Good acting does not leave people impressed with how good the acting is. The very best acting leads people to be so involved with the drama and tension that they forget they are watching actors at all. Not all acting reaches that standard — which is a very high standard — but acting has the quality that, at its best, it is transparent: people see through the acting to the important thing, the story.

What are the basic responses to my A Dream of Light? In order from best to worst:

  • Best: The reader is moved by the images and stimulated by the ideas, and leaves the reading a wiser person. Perhaps this involves being impressed by the thoughts, but the reader who is impressed is impressed as a side effect of the literature’s power. The reader leaves the reading thinking about the writing’s subject-matter.
  • Second best: The reader’s primary response is to think about how smart I am, or how eccentric, or something of that sort. The writing has not completely succeeded. The reader leaves the reading thinking about me.
  • Worst: The reader reads it and walks away thinking about the page’s design, even how clean and uncluttered it is. The reader leaves the reading thinking about the web design.

If a reader walks away from that piece of literature thinking about my web design, the design is a failure. The design is as bad as a photograph where the scene is blocked by the photographer’s thumb.

It is sometimes easy for webmasters to forget that readers spend most of their time viewing other pages — not figuring out mine. I intentionally employ a standard web design in nearly all of my pages: navigation bar to the left, and a body to the right with dark text on a light background, different colors for visited and unvisited links (with visited links looking washed-out compared to unvisited links), no frames, judicious use of emphasized text, a header at the top, and navigation links at the bottom. I do not use any technology just because it’s there — one page uses Java, and has content that would be almost meaningless if the applet were not there. The design on my home page is not creative, because it is intended not to be creative. I copied best practices from other sites and from friends’ suggestions, in order to make a design that gets out of the way so readers can see the content.

To adapt a classic proverb: Don’t bother to impress people with creative design when you can impress people with creative content. My web design is not evidence of any great creativity, but many readers have found the content in what I’ve written to show considerable creativity. I employ a very standardized web design for the same reason that I use standard spellings and grammar when I write: I want people to be able to see through them to whatever it is I’m writing about. Yf spelynge caulze uttinshun too ihtselv, itt yss mahch herdyr too thynque abaut whutt iz beeynge sayde. If, on the other hand, people employ standard spellings, readers can ignore the spelling and focus on the point the writer is trying to make. The spelling is transparent. Spelling is not where you want to demonstrate your creativity. And neither, usually, is web design.

Now, does that mean there is no place for creativity in design? No! In I learned it all from Jesus, I had each sentence a different color from the one before, andnone of it black — which I regard as a legitimate artistic liberty. The Quintessential Web Page is aiming at a quite different effect (humorous rather than artistic), and it does other things that are not ordinarily appropriate. In this page, I use the content to draw attention to the design — also not normally appropriate. These things are not a special privilege for me; I just mention my pages because they’re the ones I know best. There’s some really beautiful Flash art on the web. One human-computer interaction expert has created a usability resource that is one of the ugliest pages I have ever seen, and does almost every major no-no on the list. This is as it should be — he is making a point by demonstrating features of bad web design. In that regard, making a page that is singularly annoying makes the point far more forcefully than an exemplar of good web practices that says “Be careful that you don’t have text that’s indistinguishable from your background.” It is perfectly acceptable to stray from general rules if you have strong and specific reason to violate them. I learned it all from Jesus, in my opinion, is a unique and valuable addition to my web page — but if I made every page look like that, my PageRank would drop through the floor.

Picasso said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” Great artists never believe they have to invent everything from scratch to make good art — instead, they draw on the best that has been done before, and use their own creativity to build on top of what others have already accomplished. In web design, this means making a site that is usable to viewers who have learned how to use other sites.

A careful reader will notice one element of design on this site that is not standard, but should be. Designers for major sites, who often have excellent vision, will put navigation links on the page, but make them as small as they can be and not be completely illegible. This is a truly bad idea, and I don’t understand why it is so common. (Maybe web designers forget that some of us only have 20/20 vision?) The navigation links are some of the most important links on most web pages, and I wish to say, “Yes! I consider these links important for you to be able to read and use, and I will proudly let you read them at whatever your preferred text size is, not the smallest size I can read!”

I will consider this to be a successful design feature if you weren’t aware of it until I pointed it out.

A bit too self-congratulatory perhaps, and my design has changed, perhaps for the worse.

Now back to Toastmasters.

Every one of the few Distinguished Toastmaster (D.T.M.)-track printed books I have read is formulaic. I do not mean this as a dig: it is a very good thing. They are, and should be, formulaic, meaning that people don’t have to figure them out, because people open the first page already knowing how to use the book. Someone who is reasonably bright and determined stands a good chance of eventually making D.T.M. status without ever bothering the Vice President of Education about how to use the manuals. They are not only intelligently written; they use conventions successfully.

What is User Experience?

User Experience is an information technology discipline that is all about “Let’s not forget the user.” Every other part of the IT picture besides management that I am aware of is based in the sciences; communication is important, but the work product is ones and zeroes, and things built from ones and zeroes into something bigger. User Experience is different, and it draws primarily from the humanities. The User Experience professionals who worked at Xerox PARC and made the foundation for what became the Apple Macintosh were anthropologists, pure and simple. There are other disciplines that are relevant besides anthropology are psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and so on, but the work product is not building things from ones and zeroes, unless you count software like a word processor. It is a better understanding of how people interact with a particular system.

If you’d like to read further, I highly recommend Laura Klein’s UX [User Experience] for Lean Startups, which does an excellent job of introducing User Experience on a shoestring budget.

I would like to give one concrete example so as not to speak in colorless generalities. I was going to say I was going to nitpick a small detail, but while this may be a nitpick, upon reflection I do not consider it small.

There are three things about the popup that seems to do the lion’s share of the work that leave me puzzled. More specifically:

  1. That segment of the website is implemented with a popup window, as opposed to, for example, a lightbox within the page, a new browser window, or just being the whole page. This means that users won’t get to access something very important unless they dig into parts of the browsers most users never see. Speaking for myself as a professional, I go into my preferred browser’s settings all the time for IT reasons, but I don’t know how to browse to turn pop-up windows on or off or make exceptions for individual sites; I have to search. I am at a loss for why Toastmasters members are put through this choice.
  2. The popup window does not match its content in size. This means that, if the person tries to expand the window a bit, a feat of some dexterity is necessary, and it is necessary when the popup appears because the system doesn’t remember the user’s change. I am at a loss for why Toastmasters members are put through this choice.
  3. Lastly, I am at a loss for why the scrollbars have been confiscated when you can get them for free. (Someone thought that scrollbars are ugly and the page would look prettier if they were suppressed?) It is quite easy in CSS to only display scollbars when they are needed, and it may be the default behavior. I am at a loss for why, given the two points above, scrollbars are confiscated from Toastmasters members.

This is more or less the tone for the whole site.

The red flag hitting a User Experience professional again and again, about the site and the organization that implementented it, is comparable to starting a brand new car and being greeted by the overpowering smell of burning petrochemicals and seeing smoke escape from under the hood.

Jakob Nielsen, who was one of the founders of what is now User Experience for websites, gave some cardinally important maxims, such as “Zero learning time or die,” or “Users spend most of their time on other sites.” My own site uses a WordPress “child theme”, meaning a variation on a standard theme that (in this case) visitors have seen on many other sites. I try to respect this basic wisdom.

It is also a rule of thumb that if you are explaining to people how to use your site, that’s because you know on some level that it’s confusing. No D.T.M. material I’ve read opens with a “How to use this book” page.

One other cardinal finding that is really a matter of politeness at core is that if there is a site that’s confusing, people feel stupid. Worse, most visitors will blame themselves for being stupid or whatever, and not a website, if the website leaves them confused.

(There was a comic strip that I failed to track down that said:)

What Users Need (Amazon)

A classic and relatively simple Swiss Army Knife.

What Stakeholders Want (Amazon)

The legendary "everything but the kitchen sink" legendary Wenger Giant knife.

Where does this leave Toastmasters?

Where does this leave Toastmasters?

Actually, it leaves Toastmasters in a surprisingly good position to profit immensely from a mistake.

One thing I heard at a first job is that “Sunk costs are not an issue,” and “In a healthy company, 40% of all projects are scrapped.” This usually does not mean that people are honest with themselves and realize a project should have never have been started in the first case, or that they had no business being involved in that area in the first place. More often the thought is, “It was the right thing to start, it was the right thing to continue, and it was the right thing to stop.”

Second of all, copyright issues aside, a good Python shop should be able to clone the present Pathways site within a month, and possibly modify from there.

Third of all,, I would recommend that Toastmasters hire a good Python shop and a good User Experience lab, treat the existing site as an alpha release, and improve from there. (Or better, try to make a web equivalent of the program that made Toastmasters famous worldwide, and improve from there. The resources to do better are available, and they are within easy reach, possibly much easier reach than the current solution.

I remain available for questions or suggestions. I have knowledge of Python, known for getting a lot done quickly and well, which has facilities like Django (where “The web framework for perfectionists with deadlines” is not just a tagline), and I have interest in User Experience. I’m not sure I’d be the ideal person to tackle either side, but I have general knowledge in those areas.

And most of all: make D.T.M. a wide open door, at least until Pathways is genuinely ready for our members.

A toast: To the next and better Pathways implementation!

Cordially,
Christos Hayward, Competent Communicator, Sergeant at Arms

(P.S. How can you know when Pathways is ready? Very simple. It will go viral among members and clubs, and there will be no need to exhort, sell, or force people to use Pathways because they will adopt of its own. You can know when people stop ordering your excellent D.T.M. track materials. They will go the way of the horse, for routine U.S. transportation, if you make Pathways a good enough car.)

“‘Blessed’? When Did That Happen?”: A Crash Course in Twisted Logic

Read it on Kindle for $3!

On Facebook, one Orthodox priest (ROCOR, if I recall) commented in reference “Blessed Seraphim Rose,” “‘Blessed?’ When did that happen?”

I’d like to unravel that a bit. Let me say it’s very simple when that happened. It happened when Fr. Seraphim breathed out his last breath. It’s that simple.

We have an expression today that someone who has passed away in the Lord is said to be “of blessed memory.” That expression has been with us forever. Ecumenical councils like Chalcedon have even used a shortening of the original phrase, “blessed.” So today we might speak of “blessed Alexander Schmemann” or “blessed Alexander Lossky” as quickly and readily as “blessed Seraphim (Rose).” Or really these other two might be more appropriate, because we usually try to avoid using a monk’s last name.

'Blessed' Seraphim Rose

But the meaning of “blessed” has been hijacked!

There are at least two difference between “Blessed” for Fr. Seraphim compared to any other camp I’ve met:

  1. First, the ‘B’ is capitalized like an expected honorific; Fr. Seraphim seems to never be “blessed.”
  2. Unique in what I have seen, “Blessed” has been abbreviated to “Bl.”

Both of these nitpicks point out to something. More specifically, the word “Blessed” when used of Fr. Seraphim does not work like most adjectives. It is not fluid. It functions as the kind of honorific that would be rude to omit. And all this is strange if the point is to announce to the whole world that Fr. Seraphim has passed away.

In some academic circles this would be called, “misusing a speech act.” For everyone else I’ve sampled, the term “blessed” is a gentle ackowledge of someone’s passing and nothing more.

In the fundamentalist usage, the use of “Blessed” is not, however much used, a shrill insistence to keep on telling the whole world that their leader, Fr. Seraphim, is dead.

Fr. Seraphim’s following is not not even honest, not even to themselves: people warp an obscure term to be able to treat Fr. Seraphim as, to quote one flame, “If he is not a saint, who is?”

And to put things differently, the practice of calling someone of blessed memory, “blessed,” is being used as a sort of ecclesiastical loophole to venerate someone who has not been canonized.

In my earliest treatment of the topic, What Makes Me Uneasy About Fr. Seraphim (Rose) and His Followers:

Let me try to both introduce something new, and tie threads together here. Subjectivism can at its heart be described as breaking communion with reality. This is like breaking communion with the Orthodox Church, but in a way it is more deeply warped. It is breaking communion not only with God, but with the very cars, rocks and trees. I know this passion and it is the passion that has let me live in first world luxury and wish I lived in a castle. It tries to escape the gift God has given. And that passion in another form can say, “If God offers me Heaven, and Heaven requires me to open up and stop grasping Fr. Seraphim right or wrong, I will escape to a Hell that makes no such demand for me to open up to God or His reality.” And it is a red flag of this passion that breaks communion with reality, that the people most devoted to Fr. Seraphim hold on to pieces of fundamentalism with a tightly closed fist. And these Protestant insistences are a red flag, like a plume of smoke: if one sees a plume of smoke coming from a house, a neighbor’s uncomfortable concern is not that a plume of smoke is intolerable, but that where there’s smoke, there’s fire and something destructive may be going on in that house. And when I see subjectivism sweep things under the rug to insist on Fr. Seraphim’s canonization, and fail to open a fist closed on Protestant approaches to Holy Orthodoxy, I am concerned not only that Fr. Seraphim’s colleague may have broken communion with the Orthodox Church to avoid Church discipline, but that Fr. Seraphim’s devotees keep on breaking communion with reality when there is no question of discipline. The plume of smoke is not intolerable in itself, but it may betray fire.

There’s some pretty twisted logic there, and it’s warped in the same way.

You might also like…

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What Makes Me Uneasy About Fr. Seraphim (Rose) and His Followers

Two Victories in Tong Fior: Following the Lord of the Dance

In Tong Fior Blackbelt: The Martial Art of Joyous Conflict, I whimsically called myself a martial arts grandmaster, having the striking credentials of having studied three separate martial arts and failed in all three.

But there are a couple of events that happened recently, something that amounts to self-defense in a more usual sense of the term. Let me give them in reverse chronological order, and let me offer a framing perspective for this thing.

Walking on water—for ordinary Orthodox!

In Tong Fior Blackbelt: The Martial Art of Joyous Conflict, I wrote:

The canonized saints trample on the rules of nature again, and again, and again. Saints walk on water; one monk, the only one on a monastic coast worthy to retrieve an icon miraculously floating on water, when he absolutely had to do so, crawled on top of the surface of the water on all fours like a dog, because in his great humility he considered himself utterly unworthy to stand up normally and walk on top of the water like Christ did.

A bit later in Tong Fior Blackbelt: The Martial Art of Joyous Conflict, I make an important connection between saints and more ordinary Orthodox:

Furthermore the God who works in the heart of hearts to giants among the saints is also works in the hearts of the faithful. Monastic giants trample on scorpions with bare feet; many more faithful trample on pride. Majestic saints open the eyes of the blind; and men reject lust and find their sight truly opened. St. Paul the Apostle raised the dead more than once, and innumerable more among the faithful, across many centuries, have fed the hungry; and furthermore, in a point that many, many officially canonized saints have driven home across the centuries, feeding the hungry is greater work than raising the dead. The term “saint” referred originally to every member of the Church without exception, and one and the same God works in every stripe of saint to ultimately transcend the chasm between what is created, and what is uncreated. The wall between God and we who are merely created is there so that we may rise above it.

And the ordinary faithful can and do, at least at times, trample on the rules of nature. Ordinary faithful can and do take decisive action without being able, and perhaps not even trying in pretension, to get their ducks in a row. And they are less solipsistic than the rest of us; they recognize that God’s Grace allows impels us to leap before you look and land on solid ground if you see something through your inmost heart but not with any eyes save those of faith.

What I have to discuss is baby steps towards walking on water, in the ordinary faithful sense, because it is in fact possible, for Orthodox who will never be canonized, to trample on metaphorical water as they trample on literal pride. And in fact, there is an idiomatic statement that someone “walks on water” that is not intended or received literally, but a statement that someone can do amazing things. The image is significant.

This article is lost if it is only taken as a note on physical self-defense. Part of it is about the Lord of the Dance whose Grace exceeds all measure, and the strength flows from Grace through synergy with our genuine participation, but a martial artist would have every reason to say, “Dude, that ain’t martial arts skill on your part. You were just astonishingly lucky to hit home on one kick, and don’t count on such luck in the future!” And if I hear such a remark, I believe I would remain silent, but my opinion is that this represents neither martial arts skill, nor sheer luck, but God’s providence and synergy.

It has been stated that miracles occur to cover for human weakness, and those who do miracles usually don’t want to be there. This may be because God wishes miracles to happen without injuring our precious humility, and however much people try to show respect by saving another person’s pride, God wishes to save something infinitely better: our humility. And I would like to discuss two ordinary-grade miracles in my own recent experience.

A safe place

I was in a highly impaired state when I called my doctor’s office and asked to make an appointment. Within a little bit of phone tag, I was told to go the ER, and never mind about making an appointment. Shortly after that, I was told I had reached a safe place. This was a good thing, because by the time I eventually reached the safe place, I was running on something like one neuron.

Once I was in the safe place, I was approached by a man who wanted to order me around, and I obeyed the first time or two before saying an unchanging “No.” sluggish thoughts ran through my mind, one of the first of which was, “He’s getting ready to be violent with me.”

Then he punched me in the face hard enough to knock me to the ground.

After about a second more had passed, I thought, with my mind moving like sludge, “I should kick him in the groin.” I managed a weak enough kick that astonishingly connected, but a kick that hit him hard enough to slow him down. Then, after another second or so’s delay, I thought, “When you’re in a self-defense situation, you’re supposed to make noise.” So I shouted, “HELP! STAFF!”

Hospital staff arrived, and soon separated us. I was given a CT scan for my head that came back squeaky-clean, and the person who was responsible for sutires looked more closely at the wound and said it was a shallow enough cut that stitches were not needed.

I am, incidentally, grateful that I was running on one neuron at the time. I do not seem to have injured my fellow patient above inflicting pain; I received no injury worthy of any real treatment. I surprised the staff by declining medication for pain (“Wow! High threshold of pain.”); I was bleeding but did not feel pain worth the bother to medicate. The reason I am grateful I was running on one neuron at the time is that if I were running at full steam, I would have hit him way harder. The most obvious choice would have been to drop to a fighting stance, with arms in place to at least try to be ready to block a blow, aim for a hard knee kick to the groin, followed by an even harder kick to his ribcage meant to send him sprawling, followed by standing with my foot over his windpipe for however long help took to arrive. And that’s more force than I would like in dealing with someone who wasn’t genuinely trying to harm me, just somebody who’s trying to be a tough guy, and the preferred response in Kuk Sool Won was to let the other person be the tough guy, back off and lose in every way socially if you think it would help at all. The great gunfighters of the West, or at least the ones that survived, would all be much happier to buy someone else a drink than get into gunfights. They might have been successful in the duels they fought, but they did almost everything they could to avoid as many duels as they could.

The #1 preferred response is to run away, preferably run away screaming or making lots of noise, but I have an old knee injury that means that if I try to bolt away, I will be on the ground in profound pain. I’m not billing myself as someone strong who won’t run, just someone weak who can’t do so without begging for self-inflicted injury.

Or as was stated in Kuk Sool Won, after giving numerous subtle and potent techniques, the instructors said, “If you’re in a real self-defense situation, go for the knees,” and had us practice kicking hard at knee-level pads. Or as Marines chant, “Ra, ra, ree! Kick him in the knee! Ra, ra, rass! Kick him in the other knee!” I believe that either response on my part would have been treated legally as an open and shut case of self-defense, but in my weakness God gave me a much less forceful way out of things. Also, when someone in scrubs told me that I that I could press charges, and I simply shrugged it off. What I only thought of later as something good to say was, “He has his personal problems and I have mine. I neither wish, nor see the need, to trade places.” Also, I had been getting a bit bored, and staff TLC made for a minor change of scenery.

I regard the encounter as providential, the work of the Lord of the Dance who would help me outgrow my solipsism. And it turned out better than I would have achieved had I been operating at much more than one neuron. There is a core concept in some religions of, “I cannot harm you without harming myself.” I’ve survived a long-term, painful knee injury. I am glad not to have inflicted the same on a fellow human being, even if he picked a fight.”

Self-defense and dealing with police

This was an experience on a few more neurons than the physical assault. And I am intentionally using “self-defense” in a way that is other than the most common usage. I am not, for the moment, talking about hiking up a skirt and kicking, or using a knife or pepper spray, or mastering the basics of a simplified art like Goshin Jutsu.

After a harrowing and difficult week, it came time for a farewell visit with a friend. I was at this point really struggling, but I decided not to back down on this commitment, which might be my last opportunity to see that family face-to-face. He asked me when I would arrive, and I stated what I hoped, and I received no response.

A couple of hours after I went to bed, I heard a voice say, “Sherrif’s office.” I gave a confused “Hello?” and went to the doorway. There were three Sherrif’s officers, who told me that my host was uncomfortable having me in the house with his wife and asked me to leave. (My immediate, unspoken reaction was, Wow, are the demons sore losers!”)

They asked me some routine questions, but the one I remember most was close to when they wound down the conversation was, “So, this was some kind of really horrible miscommunication?”

What had gotten them to that point was that I was extremely calm (partly because I was sleepy) moving deliberately slowly, telling them (or asking permission for) what I wanted to do next, and being compliant, and the longer we spoke, the more puzzled, and even baffled, the officers appeared to be that someone had involved the police in this matter. They let me collect my belongings, and still had to escort me off the property, although I am not sure how happy they were to be doing their job in that moment.

Now what does this have to do with self-defense?

Everything!

An armored military vehicle

One time a year or so before, there was a truck show oriented to interest kids, and among police cars, ambulances, etc., there was a multipurpose military vehicle that I would loosely call an armored SUV, and more specifically an armored SUV on steroids. I asked some outsider’s question about what the vehicle was intended for, and he responded. Then I went home, and realized I needed to say something more to him.

So I came back, looked down, and said, “Someone described service in Vietnam as, ‘If you’ve survived two weeks in the jungle, a twig snaps and you’re awake with a knife in one hand and a gun in the other.’ I know you have one of the nastiest jobs out there, and you have my respect.”

His response was beyond astonishment. He said, “And you mine,” and his voice was suddenly at a much higher pitch. I think he took my remark to be astonishing for a civilian to get how hard an occupation it is to be a soldier, let alone state his job description in one sentence!

Now let’s talk about police. I didn’t open a can of whoop-ass, nor would I have done so even if I could. At least with decent police officers (including the ones from the Sherriff’s office), you may not have bullying and power plays, but police work is not easy work, and military veterans who have gone the police route have often found that the work is terrifying.

One person explained it this way. Each time you have been pulled over by a police officer, you have known three things:

  1. You were (probably) unarmed.
  2. You did not have any kind of rigged booby-trap in your back seat as a weapon against police, and
  3. You had zero intent on murdering the officer.

No police officer who has ever pulled you over, has ever known any of these three things. And there’s a reason why a police officer who pulled you over quietly rests a palm on top of his sidearm.

Police officers need to be able to self-protect, they know that things aren’t always what they seem, and a situatio n can change in an instant. This means that one of the most basic concerns in dealing with a police officer who might be afraid, is to avoid giving any real or imagined reason, any surprise or startlement, to think they have to self-protect and kill you, and never assume that an action that is obviously completely harmless to you will be obviously harmless to an officer as well. Police officers aren’t always perfect at reading minds.

The police officers seemed to be getting further and further from worrying about their own protection. I was, only in small part by my limits, calm, and emotions are contagious. In addition to this, I deliberately moved slowly, and told them what I was going to do (and at one point asked, and was immediately given permission to finish a glass of water).

I said “I wanted to close up my bag,” which I had previously told them had a pocketknife (one of the officers said, “Don’t take it out,” but they seemed to show no further interest in my having a pocketknife in my bag.) Having told them ahead of time and moving slowly, they let me close a zipper that was remarkably close to my pocketknife, and for that matter the officers let me have practically everything else I wanted, and asked what possessions I had brought. My heart was in a (rather foggy) peace, and my actions left them less and less concerned about being able to draw a weapon quickly enough to self-protect. And on this point, I am less glad, but still glad, that I was in a mentally weakened state. I wouldn’t have tried to fight, but I don’t think I could have been so completely calm as I was, and here being full of calm is of infinitely more usefulness than the best firearm you own.

And on this point there is a story I didn’t like when I heard it, where a knight was challenged by a dragon, and the dragon said, “If you’ll come up to me and tickle the sides of my throat with your sword, you will have treasure worth more than rooms of silver and gold,” and the knight went up, in terror, and the dragon bit off his jewelled sword at the hilt, then began to breathe fire and spewed the molten sword onto the knight’s shield. The knight asked, “And what is this treasure?” before his horse began galloping away, and the dragon said, “Your LIFE!” and the knight ran away, grasping a treasure worth more than rooms full of gold.

What did this self-defense accomplish for me? Let me mention three things:

  1. As it turns out, I have been subjected to no legal actions at least for now.
  2. I was able to get out of that situation with all of my belongings.
  3. I was able to get out without an new hole in my chest or head.

The only other thing I can remember specifically being careful is not to reach for things until an officer has invited you to. If you don’t have your driver’s license and insurance card out ready when the officer comes, it might be wise not to reach for something in your pockets until the officer asks for driver’s license and proof of insurance. (Police can genuinely have difficulty the difference between someone reaching to a pocket for a handkerchief, and someone reaching to a pocket for a weapon. If I really needed a handkerchief in one of my pockets, I would ask permission and move slowly.)

There is no silver bullet besides God here; God in his kindness chose to send me officers who aimed for the little disruption that was possible, instead of taking my behavior as suspicious. I do not claim that any of these three is a bulletproof shield; the bulletproof shield is that which moves with the Lord of the Dance who ever beckons us half-solipsists to enter a larger world.

And by the way, it’s easier and safer to be with people to the extent that you understand them and can try to walk just a few feet in the other person’s shoes. It may sound strange to say that police officers feel the safest with their guns and bulletproof vests, but it’s really one of the most terrifying things out there, and you are distinctly safer if you understand it with a little bit of a police officer’s eyes, and make a few simple changes to your behavior like moving slowly, asking permission, or telling what you intend to do (for instance, my moving slowly and saying I wanted to zipper up the bag which they knew my Swiss Army Knife was in), to avoid as much as possible making any police officer see a real or imagined need to self-protect.

And by the way, one accomplished martial artist I know did in fact know how to take a gun away from a gun criminal, as he practiced thousands of times, but his main comment about self-defense from gun criminals is that most people feel very uncomfortable if they are in a situation where they’re pointing a gun at you and you aren’t acting afraid. And there is something of this enshrined in the very Passion narratives in the Gospel. The words, “Don’t you know that I have power to kill you and power to free you?” were only answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” Pilate was positively terrified on a much larger scale than a gun criminal: he was the authority and he had all the soldiers and all the weapons; he had authority to kill at least some people at will; and yet this Man wasn’t playing the game of a terrified criminal grasping at straws to escape execution.

That is something realized even outside of Christian trappings. One story in one of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books tells about a top negotiator who was confronted by gun-criminals and demanded to rob her. She said, slowly, “I don’t want those guns pointed at me. It makes me uncomfortable.” After an awkward pause, they stopped pointing their guns at her. Then she said, “I’m going to reach into my purse and pull out a twenty. Who’s going to take it?” Then eventually one person indicate himself, and she handed him a $20 bill. Then the criminals ran away, terrified! She had not even asked for them to leave.

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, and it’s better than the Druidic awen

One Anglican pastor, and a Marine to boot, commented that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” doesn’t mean I can wrestle down [name of a humble, gentle member of the congregation who looked like Gov. Schwarzinator, only beefier]. It doesn’t even mean I can wrestle down my colleague [name of another man who also silver-haired and who used to eat glass].” But it did mean something.

In Steven Lawhead’s Merlin, an (obviously fantasy) retelling of Arthurian legends, there is one point where Merlin enters what may have been an ambush, and time slows down to him and he moves, from everyone else’s perspective, something like ten times faster than anyone else. He nimbly dances around, dodging a weapon here and striking an opponent there, until finally the book says, “He put a trembling hand out to touch me and I saw his mouth move, but the words were slow in coming. ‘You can stop now, [Merlin]. It is over.”

This is presented as fantasy, and is in a fantasy novel, but the phenomenon described as Merlin’s awen is well enough documented in nonfiction works: The Dance of Life tells a documented tale:

Time Compression and Time Expansion

Time compression and time expansion are two objects of continuing fascination for [American and European] peoples. Time compresses when it speeds up. This is evident in emergency situations where one thinks one is about to die (“My whole life flashed before my eyes”) or where there is extreme pressure to survive. An example would be the case of Major Russ Stromberg, Navy test pilot, testing the Carrier AV-8C. Stromberg had just been catapulted from the deck of the aircraft carrier Tarawa and he realized that his plane was not developing power. This eight-second scenario of what he dealt with the emergency and survived took forty-five minutes to describe. “I was very surprised by the whole evolution of the thing. Everything went into solution. After about one second, after about seventy-five feet after I started rolling, I knew I was in deep trouble” (italics added). First, Stromberg had to see if the engine could be brought up to power by switching off mechanisms limiting takeoff power. That didn’t work. There was no way to get the engine up to power in the five seconds remaining before the plane would hit the water at over a hundred miles an hour and disintegrate. Ejection was the second option. However, to eject at the wrong moment would also have meant certain death. Even with only two or three seconds, he had the time to look around sothat he could pull the ejection handle at just the right moment: thirty feet above the water. Stromurg ejected and fortunately avoided the crash site by only a few feet. This meager description cannot possibly cover all the possible alternatives to decisions that Stromberg ultimately had to make—at the right time, in the right order, and without panic. If he had been on normal time, none of this would have been possible. If that capacity to expand time—in this case to about 300 percent of normal time[Sic; I believe the author meant a much more astounding 300 times normal time]—had not been built into the human species, it is doubtful that the human race would have survived.

This is called awen, loosely meaning ‘inspiration’ with a poetic center of gravity, and like profound giftedness and kything in Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, that I deeply coveted, because it resonated with me, because in turn it was what I already had. I have never been involved in Druidry or initiated as a (Druidic) Bard, though it made mention on my egotistical character sheet; I might in some sense be called a bard in the sense that I am a writer with poetry as one instance, and it would be a surprising claim to be a poet without being a bard, but on a deeper level, 90% of this website is driven by awen that comes in many genres (and life outside of writing) and can almost never be summoned at will: all of the following are examples of awen on this site:


This is enough of a digression, or not a digression really at all; in Merlin, the awen, like the Spirit of the Lord falling on someone in the Bible, quite often is given as near-superhuman abilities in combat.

And what “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” means in relation to the three sherriff’s officers was this: I was not, and am not, competent in general to overpower three police officers without getting hurt. (Nor stupid enough to try it even if I could.) I was given not an awen from the art of war, but an awen from the art of peace, and God used my weaknesses to keep me calm and help the police officers recognize that I was genuinely not a physical threat. And I left the encounter with something more valuable than rooms full of gold and diamond: my life!

It may also be that someday the Spirit of the Lord will fall upon me in a combat situation, and then “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” may open a major can of whoop-ass. I mentioned a couple of details about martial arts, where I have never tested above white belt cleanly, in my first martial art the instructors were pairing me with higher-level belts for sparring, eventually including blackbelt candidates and blackbelts. There was one balance sparring game where I was functioning at blackbelt candidate level or something else. I also took exactly one week to go from no rank to Sharpshooter, Bar VIII, innovating like a good athlete, and shot the target on Procedures for the Repair and Adjustment of Televisions two years out of practice on a gun that did not have its sight appropriately adjusted. (The soldier selling targets seemed a bit surprised when I asked to buy ten targets; but I did have enough stamina to shoot them all even if I flagged for the last 2 or 3.) And lastly, while firearms and pranks are not really a good idea, there was one target my brother showed me at home. It had two bullet holes in the larger white area of the target, and lead carelessly splattered near the top. I had squeezed off four rounds well into the black circle at the center of my target, waited for him to hit the target with a second shot, and then I head-on blasted the nail that was holding his target up, leaving splattered lead on the target face. (He wasn’t able to hit the target after that.)

Ok; enough boasting; but all above firearms feats have been without awen. If God wants to give me some awen in the narrow sense for some physical fight (as he won through me the fight started by a fellow patient), he may do so. I would prefer something peaceful and ideally holding satyagraha at its heart, but God’s ways often surprise us and are always, from a sufficiently great perspective, either what we wanted, or better than what we would have thought to ask.

And I would call both meeting my fellow patient, and meeting the officers, were miracles in the broader, everyday Orthodox sense. They were God covering for my weaknesses, and both were sufficient and in fact worked better in my already weakened state than if I were feeling more like myself.

That is perhaps, enough, but it really does say something about self-defense proper if self-defense is taken not only to include being able to provide violent defense in bad situations, but avoiding or improving bad situations. And while martial artists spend a lot of time on blows and joint locks, people where the martial art has taken proper root are fully willing and ready to run away screaming and completely lose in every sense socially rather lay a finger on their adversary in violence.

And you might review the section in Tong Fior Blackbelt: The Martial Art of Joyous Conflict under the heading of “God practices Ju-Jutsu…”

The seamless tapestry

Christ’s garment was seamless, and this much, if it is true, is neither more nor less than one thread in a seamless tapestry. I had tried to establish community sites for “Luddite Orthodox”, but this was wrong, not because of its irony, but because it is taking the greater-than-technological virtues of Orthodoxy and expecting them to stand alone.

Tong Fior, if there is anything in it to take seriously, is merely one thread by which one may rely on Providence, but that is really quite something. And if God is humble enough to make us co-workers with Christ, perhaps we might step aside from solipsism, materialism, atheism, and securing our own world, and follow the Humble One who leads the Great Dance!

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Alchemy: Fool’s Gold in Today’s World

Introduction: Alchemy and Questionable Moral Character

I would like to open with a disturbing passage from Mary Midgley’s Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and Its Meaning. I might briefly mention that Midgley is no feminist; she is a conservative whose chief influences are Plato and Aristotle.

We come here to one more of the strange compensatory myths, dreams, or dramas that are my theme. The literature of early modern science is a mine of highly-coloured passages that describe Nature, by no means as a neutral object, but as a seductive but troublesome female, to be unrelentingly pursued, sought out, fought against, chased into her inmost sanctuaries, prevented from escaping, persistently courted, wooed, harried, vexed, tormented, unveiled, unrobed, and ‘put to the question’ (i.e. interrogated under torture), forced to confess ‘all that lay in her most intimate recesses’, her ‘beautiful bosom’ must be laid bare, she must be held down and finally ‘penetrated’, ‘pierced’, and ‘vanquished’ (words which constantly recur).

Now this odd talk does not come from a few exceptionally uninhibited writers. It has not been invented by modern feminists. It is the common, constant idiom of the age. Since historians began to notice it, they have been able to collect it up easily in handfuls for every discussion.

Or as I heard approvingly quoted many times by teachers at the liberal enough Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, “We place Nature on the rack [i.e. a particularly nasty instrument of torture] and compel her to bear witness.

Let’s talk about Sir Isaac Newton for a moment. He was the founder of physics as we know it, and the co-founder of calculus. Also, he was a world-class academic bully. All his scientific endeavors were side projects next to his involvement in alchemy, and he has been called, “Not the first of the scientists, but the last of the magicians.” He also, late in life, acquired a position of authority, bypassed certain checks and balances, and saw it to it that dozens of men died a slow and painful death.

(Some of us might detect a note of envy in that any and all effort he made to produce gold were failures even for him. At the same time, the men he destroyed were “coiners” or forgers who made at times remarkably convincing imitations of officially minted gold coins.)

Did I mention that messianic fantasies were standard issue for scientists then?

In fact there weren’t just messianic fantasies for scientists and alchemists. The original hope people saw in calculus was not, as today, a branch of mathematics that holds place X in the creation of new mathematicians and place Y in practical applications. It was rather hoped to be a tool where, as I quote, “there should be no more need for disputes among philosophers than among accountants,” because all differences of opinion could be resolved through straightforward use of calculus. The Utopian vision was a precursor to Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, only Hesse seemed very skeptical about how well something like this occult pipe dream would really play out for society.

My friends, the foundations of science smell bad, and alchemy with them.

Alchemy in the Limelight

Some time over ten years back, and much to my later chagrin, I wanted to illustrate a point and deliberately chose alchemy, as a jarring image, to illustrate it.

Later, I was one of the voices saying that alchemy was coming out of the closet. Here I would point out that semiotics defines a “sign” to be “anything that can be used to lie,” including not only words but posture, clothing, furniture, activities, etc. When I was working at the American Medical Association headquarters, there was a quilt hanging by the cafeteria, looking in every way quaint, domestic, and conservative… and explained dozens of alchemical symbols. (Did the AMA forget it was founded to shut down homeopathy as an occult medicine?)

Some years after that, I was saying simply that alchemy was out, no if’s, and’s, or but’s. And now I have stopped making such statements because they are superfluous. I have been told by Christians that alchemy was the bedrock nascent science was founded on.

Alchemy as a Strategy to Grow Whilst Dodging Spiritual Work

Why grind an axe against alchemy? The critique can be stated in six English words: “Sorry, kid. You need elbow grease.

I do not in cany sense wish to say that all religions say the same thing; that is ultimately a degrading way to say that no world religion says anything significant. However, there appears to be a widespread sense that we need elbow grease. The Hindu concept of the Royal Science of God-Realization does not work without elbow grease; it is scarcely more nor less than a structure and plan for elbow grease. The Buddha may have simplified Hinduism to an astonishing degree, but his eightfold noble path calls for, among other things, various dimensions of elbow grease. Even the apparent exception of staunch Evangelicals who believe with Luther that we are sanctified by grace alone and through faith alone (and, though it is not relevant here, that the Bible alone has authority), also have an expectation that if you have healthy and living faith, you will produce elbow grease, and for that matter you will produce quite a lot of elbow grease. Evangelicals may categorically deny that elbow grease can save, but they set the bar pretty high as far as world religious traditions go for how much elbow grease a genuine member should be producing.

Alchemy offers a dangerously treacherous and seductive shortcut. Its marketing proposition is to offer a shortcut to spiritual transformation, a technique in lieu of inner work, but a that does not legitimately work. It certainly didn’t work in Newton’s case; if we return to the Sermon on the Mount’s “by your fruits you shall know them,” Sir Isaac Newton’s moral character is the character of a false prophet on a capital scale.

There was one unenlightened book commenting about how ironic it was that an alchemist was to be spiritually transformed somewhere beyond greed before being able to transmute metals to gold. And so, it said, one of the requisites to produce gold ironically being to have let go of desiring gold. I do not find irony, and I find a point of contact with Orthodox iconography. The idea of ridding oneself of greed before being ready to create gold recalls a (possibly G.K. Chesterton) comment I have failed to track down, that a particular desire was like a spiritualist’s desire to see a nymph’s breasts and not that of a run-of-the-mill lecher, and I fail to see irony in the expectation to transcend greed. I am not here concerned with whether that makes sense to desire, but in Newton’s case it did not work!

I do not condemn alchemy because it so completely failed to let Newton transmute lead to gold.

I do condemn alchemy because it so completely failed to let Newton transmute his own heart to gold. (That is, incidentally, something that many, many non-alchemists have done.)

There was an Oprah Winfrey-endorsed book The Alchemist which on the back had a quote from ?Bill Clinton? saying something like, “When I read it I felt like I was awake and the whole world was asleep.” Friends, you do not want to feel like that. One of the usual signs you are coming to a spiritual breakthrough is that you are repenting.

Alchemy Is Deeper Than Hinduism? Huh?

In The Alchemist, a religious studies scholar studied all the world’s religions, which he summarily dismissed in favor of alchemy. Sorry, no. There may be religions in the world that are shallower than alchemy; but alchemy is a consolation prize, particularly as compared to Orthodox Christianity and Hinduism. G.K. Chesterton didn’t even mention alchemy when he said, “If you are considering world religions, you will save yourself a great deal of time by only considering Christianity and Hinduism, because Islam is just a Christian heresy, and Buddhism is just a Hindu heresy.”

I have heard Christian critiques of Hinduism, some of them sharp. One person at a theology faculty who was a Hindu before becoming an Orthodox Christian suggested that if I really want to understand Hinduism, I should focus less on a reconciliation between monotheism and polytheism and the striving for purity one encounters in modern commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, and instead read Kali’s Child. I have in fact not read the title yet, but Kali is a demon-goddess who wears skulls on her necklace, and the special blessing she bestows is madness. The point the scholar was making is that you don’t understand Hinduism until you understand the place of tantrism, which is trying to get ahead by something forbidden, much like alchemy today.

But for all this, Hinduism is still deeper than a whale can dive, and I am drawing a complete blank as to a reason to summarily dismiss even Hinduism in favor of alchemy. Possibly there are Hindus who also practice alchemy; Hinduism is cosmopolitan as far as religions go. And as far as Christianity, it only really occurs in The Alchemist as trappings to validate occult activity.

Even the Marketing Story Fails to Have Constructive Character Development

But I find it noteworthy and interesting how character development occurs in a book meant to let people covet alchemy. For the protagonist, there is no really positive change in character development; the character development in the book is only debauchery. Apart from occult sin, the hero grows more and more caught up in himself in pride; what are presented as the blunders he makes along the way are when he loves and acts out of consideration for others and forgets devotion to the polestar of his monumental pride. In the end, which may modify classical alchemy, the student is as much an alchemist as the master, and ends just as much infested with pride. He cannot transmute lead to gold or live forever because those are not part of his path in alchemy; but he acquires massive gold even if he cannot create it, and his lack of moral character matches his master.

Gnosticism, Alchemy’s Undying Cousin

Philip Lee, in Against the Protestant Gnostics, is a Protestant pastor who concludes, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” He suggests that historical study of Gnosticism is irrelevant because Gnosticism, as he reads it, is an ahistorical process that may keep recurring historically, but is not really historical. (I would loosely compare this point to why one does not study the history of the process of decomposition in untreated corpses.) He also says that Gnosticism is not fruitfully studied as a philosophy or system of ideas, because the process goes through ongoing changes of belief and over time later beliefs can and do contradict earlier beliefs. But while he knocks out two obvious scholar’s tools with which to approach Gnosticism, he leaves something solid. He suggests that all Gnosticism hinges on a mood: despair. This means more specifically a despair that can only hope as framed by escape and escapism.

Christians who read the Bible may be deaf to how shocking it was to open the Bible with a chapter repeating, “And God saw what he had made, and it was good,” and after man was created, “very good.” To my knowledge, no other Ancient Near Eastern Creation story tells the like. Marduk tore the evil dragon Tiamat’s body in two and made half into the sky and half into the earth. If that is so, our bodies are despicable. The same is true for an account of the world being produced, as best I recall, as a projection from vile sexual behavior.

Against these, Christianity tells us the world is the good Creation of a transcendent good God, and there is a very real sense that to be in communion with the Orthodox Church is to be in communion with not only God and choirs of angels and fellow Orthodox, but whales and rocks and stars and trees. Sin and its effects may be real enough: but however much we need repentance from sin, the goodness God bakes into Creation runs deeper.

Gnosticism, including alchemy, seems enticing to a certain mindset, but it is a route for unhappy people to reach an even more unhappy position.

I might note that while there are differences in the phenomenon of Gnosticism, the evil character of the world we live in, and the consequent framing of salvation that amounts to some exotic escapism, is remarkably consistent across times and schools. As Yoda said, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”

It might be found that repentance for an alchemist may only to a certain measure be about spiritual practices I don’t even want to know: it may be waking up to being placed in a world that is in and of itself good and finding that the need for escape is more apparent than real and becomes even less important as the healing balm of repentance soaks in.

Escapism wants something that’s not part of the world, and anything you can acquire as real gives only an ephemeral satisfaction. Repentance from this passion in most cases won’t help you acquire wants that you don’t have. It may instead help you “acquire” and appreciate those that you actually do.

Let me close with a poem. It was written a few years ago, but if anything it is more, not less, relevant today.

How Shall I Tell an Alchemist?

The cold matter of science—
Exists not, O God, O Life,
For Thou who art Life,
How could Thy humblest creature,
Be without life,
Fail to be in some wise,
The image of Life?
Minerals themselves,
Lead and silver and gold,
The vast emptiness of space and vacuum,
Teems more with Thy Life,
Than science will see in man,
Than hard and soft science,
Will to see in man.

How shall I praise Thee,
For making man a microcosm,
A human being the summary,
Of creation, spiritual and material,
Created to be,
A waterfall of divine grace,
Flowing to all things spiritual and material,
A waterfall of divine life,
Deity flowing out to man,
And out through man,
To all that exists,
And even nothingness itself?

And if I speak,
To an alchemist who seeks true gold,
May his eyes be opened,
To body made a spirit,
And spirit made a body,
The gold on the face of an icon,
Pure beyond twenty-four carats,
Even if the icon be cheap,
A cheap icon of paper faded?

How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Whose eyes overlook a transformation,
Next to which the transmutation,
Of lead to gold,
Is dust and ashes?
How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Of the holy consecration,
Whereby humble bread and wine,
Illumine as divine body and blood,
Brighter than gold, the metal of light,
The holy mystery the fulcrum,
Not stopping in chalice gilt,
But transforming men,
To be the mystical body,
The holy mystery the fulcrum of lives transmuted,
Of a waterfall spilling out,
The consecration of holy gifts,
That men may be radiant,
That men may be illumined,
That men be made the mystical body,
Course with divine Life,
Tasting the Fountain of Immortality,
The transformed elements the fulcrum,
Of God taking a lever and a place to stand,
To move the earth,
To move the cosmos whole,
Everything created,
Spiritual and material,
Returned to God,
Deified.

And how shall I tell an alchemist,
That alchemy suffices not,
For true transmutation of souls,
To put away searches for gold in crevices and in secret,
And see piles out in the open,
In common faith that seems mundane,
And out of the red earth that is humility,
To know the Philosopher’s Stone Who is Christ,
And the true alchemy,
Is found in the Holy Orthodox Church?

How Shall I Tell an Alchemist?

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“eBook Maker Gifts” Released!

There are a number of eBooks picked out from this site, but that barely scratches the surface of what is possible.

eBook Maker Gifts is meant to publish the envelope on what is possible. In maker fashion, it allows extended customization, beginning with the maker’s choice from among hundreds of texts and collections by the author that amount to more possible combination than there are stars in Heaven. And that does not count ways to arrange the works you choose. Or the options you have to give the collection a dedication you write, or an introduction to the reader. Did I mention it lets you upload a custom cover? The site as a whole is intended to work like a computer configurator webpage (click the page’s red button to see options).

The collection, and the books you can download, are under a CC0 “No rights reserved” license. eBook Maker Gifts are intended to allow you a lot of flexibility in what you use the platform to create. And they are also intended to let you create further.

Of course, you’re welcome to use eBook Maker to create gifts to yourself as well. You are entirely welcome to assemble a collection of things that you’d like to read yourself!

But this site is offered in large measure so that even if money is awfully tight, you have at least one option to select a gift with thought and care, personalize it just right, and give something that is far more than just a price tag.

Explore eBook Maker Gifts now!

Changes in Mac OSX Over Time: The Good Parts

C++: The Good Parts

C++ is the best example of second-system effect since OS/360. - Henry Spencer

 
Even Bjarne Stroustrup has some sense that there is indeed a smaller and more elegant language struggling to get out of C++. He is right that that language is not Java or C#, but I would suggest that this more elegant language has been right under our noses the whole time:
 

A modified book cover for K&R labeling it as"C++: The Good Parts"

Now if we could turn back the clock on MacOS

I used to think that OSX was my favorite flavor of Unix. Now I think that the Mac, iPad, iPhone, and Apple Watch may be preferred for nontechnical users on all counts, but Apple has been more and more going its own way, and the result has made an environment that is more and more hostile to Unix / Linux gurus. Some of this is discussed further in Macs are now Super.Computer.s running “IRIX,” a Super.Computer. OS!:

Terminal confusion

I have narrated above the breakage that shipped to me with OSX 12.2.4; the breakage that shipped with the OSX 12.2.2 update was Terminal.app crashing on a regular basis. And while I don’t wish to patronize developers who work with graphical IDE’s, the two most heavily used applications I have are Google Chrome and Terminal. When I poked around, I was pointed to an Apple developer bug first posted in 2016 that has 147 “I have this problem too” votes…  I wish they had done something more polite to Unix users than breaking and not fixing Terminal, like setting a Terminal.app background image of someone flipping the bird at command-line Unix / Linux types. Really, flipping the bird would be markedly more polite.

In conversations with technical support about malfunctioning in Apple’s version of Apache, it took me an escalation all the way to level 3 support before I spoke with someone who knew that the Macintosh had a command line (let alone having any idea what that meant). And I was told that Apple supported GUI use of e.g. webservers, but not command line.

More broadly, it’s been harder and harder by the year to get things working and I was astonished after initial difficulties installing SuiteCRM what my research turned up: Apple has removed parts of the OS that that project needed to run.

An even bigger shock

A much bigger shock came when I created a Linux VM to install some open source software projects I had meant to install natively.

I was shocked about how easy it was.

It was the command line version of “Point and click”.

I realized that over the years I had become more and more accustomed to  installing open source software under MacOS being like out-stubborning an obscure and crufty flavor of Unix (such as Irix on NCSA supercomputers, with a general comment of “Nothing works on Irix!“). And working on installing major open source projects recalls a favorite xkcd comic about the joy of first meeting Python:

A famous xkcd comic showing someone flying after a first encounter with Python

Tolerating upgrades that break software:
Do you remember how people used to just accept the forever close at hand BSOD?

Before Windows XP came out, I remember trying to make a point to a non-hacker friend that “Computers are logical but not rational.” Meaning that from a programming standpoint they ideally do neither more nor less than what the logic in a computer program called for, but state-of-the-art AI could not make sense of the basics of a children’s “I Can Read” book. (For that matter, computers cannot understand the gist of a program. They may execute the program, but only programmers understand the gist.)

She said, “I disagree. What if you’re using a computer and the mouse freezes?”

In the ensuing conversation, I failed completely in my efforts to communicate that incessant crashes on par with the Blue Screen of Death were simply not an automatic feature of how computers act, and that my Linux box did not malfunction at anywhere near the violence of Windows, on which point I quote Tad Phetteplace:

In a surprise announcement today, Microsoft President Steve Ballmer revealed that the Redmond-based company will allow computer resellers and end-users to customize the appearance of the Blue Screen of Death (BSOD), the screen that displays when the Windows operating system crashes.

The move comes as the result of numerous focus groups and customer surveys done by Microsoft. Thousands of Microsoft customers were asked, “What do you spend the most time doing on your computer?”

A surprising number of respondents said, “Staring at a Blue Screen of Death.” At 54 percent, it was the top answer, beating the second place answer “Downloading XXXScans” by an easy 12 points.

“We immediately recognized this as a great opportunity for ourselves, our channel partners, and especially our customers,” explained the excited Ballmer to a room full of reporters.

Immense video displays were used to show images of the new customizable BSOD screen side-by-side with the older static version. Users can select from a collection of “BSOD Themes,” allowing them to instead have a Mauve Screen of Death or even a Paisley Screen of Death. Graphics and multimedia content can now be incorporated into the screen, making the BSOD the perfect conduit for delivering product information and entertainment to Windows users.

The BSOD is by far the most recognized feature of the Windows operating system, and as a result, Microsoft has historically insisted on total control over its look and feel. This recent departure from that policy reflects Microsoft’s recognition of the Windows desktop itself as the “ultimate information portal.” By default, the new BSOD will be configured to show a random selection of Microsoft product information whenever the system crashes. Microsoft channel partners can negotiate with Microsoft for the right to customize the BSOD on systems they ship.

Major computer resellers such as Compaq, Gateway, and Dell are already lining up for premier placement on the new and improved BSOD.

Ballmer concluded by getting a dig in against the Open Source community. “This just goes to show that Microsoft continues to innovate at a much faster pace than open source. I have yet to see any evidence that Linux even has a BSOD, let alone a customizable one.”

Most of the software upgrades I have purchased in over a decade of Mac ownership have been because an OSX upgrade broke them completely.

On this point I would distinguish between Windows and Mac on the one hand, and Linux on the other. Microsoft and Apple both need to make changes that people have to buy different software over time; Linux may include mistakes but there is no built-in need to radically change everything on a regular basis. Now some Linux programming may change quickly: front-end web developers face a very volatile list of technologies they should know. However, something said about Unix applies to Linux to a degree that is simply unparalleled in Windows or Mac: “Unix has a steep learning curve, but you only have to climb it once.

OSX admittedly has better UX than Linux, and possibly it make sense for open source types to buy a Mac, run VMware Fusion in Unity mode, and do Linux development and open source software use from a Linux Mint VM. (My own choice is just to do Linux, with Windows VM’s for compatibility.) However, for Unix and Linux wizards, the container is one that occasionally gives a nasty surprise.

Beautiful things work better:
An interesting solution

I’ve given a once-over to Linux Mint Sonya, to address UX tweaks and to echo some of that old glory. As is appropriate to an appliance, passwords are not needed (though the usual root methods of assigning a Linux password work better). The desktop and background are laid out to be truly beautiful!

To pick one little example of improved UX: copy is Control-C, and paste is Control-V, with gnome-terminal or without; if you want to send a literal Control-C, then Shift-Control-C will do that, and likewise for Control-V. This cuts down on frustrating attempts to remember, “In this context, will I copy by typing Control-C, or Control-Shift-C?” There are other little touches. For instance, Chrome is already installed, and the default Firefox search engine is configured out of the box to be, drum roll please… Google!

Mint comes with a search engine that in my experience only have SERPs with ads above the fold that are formatted exactly or almost exactly like real organic search results. And not only is Google not the main search engine: it is FUDded, banished to a list options that are either not monetizable to Mint’s makers, or are considered problematic and potentially unsafe. (Mint’s FUDding does not distinguish which is which; it is set up to make Google look seedy.)

A screenshot of the desktop.

Perhaps you don’t like the Aqua interface; it is if nothing else the gold star that North Korea’s One Star Linux Red Star Linux offers, and people seem interested in an Aqua-themed Linux enough to write HOWTO’s to get a root shell and migrate to English. Even if they advise against serious use, not because a fresh install has software that’s years obsolete software, but because the entire environment could be described not so much as having spyware, but being spyware.

Or perhaps it might served as a change of scenery, a virtual vacation of a virtual machine.

A download button

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The Magician’s Triplet: Magician, Scientist, Reformer

I would like to take a Protestant church’s electronic sign for a starting point. The sign, with a portrait of Martin Luther to the right, inviting people to an October 31st “Reformation Day potluck.” When I stopped driving to pick up a few things from ALDI’s, I tweeted:

I passed a church sign advertising a “Reformation Day” potluck.

I guess Orthodox might also confuse Halloween with the Reformation…

Those words, if one steps beyond a tweet, may be taken as a witty jibe not obviously connected with reality. Some people might an ask an obvious question: “What train of thought was behind that jab?” And I’d like to look at that, and answer that real or imagined interlocutor who might wonder.

 The Abolition of Man and The Magician’s Twin

When I first read The Abolition of Man as a student at Calvin College, I was quite enthralled, and in my political science class, I asked, “Do you agree with C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man ab—” and my teacher, a well-respected professor and a consummate communicator, cut me off before I could begin to say which specific point I was inquiring about, and basically said, “Yes and amen to the whole thing!” as as brilliant analysis of what is going on in both modernist and postmodernist projects alike.

C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man (available online in a really ugly webpage) is a small and easily enough overlooked book. It is, like Mere Christianity, a book in which a few essays are brought together in succession. In front matter, Lewis says that the (short) nonfiction title of The Abolition of Man and the (long) novel of That Hideous Strength represent two attempts to make the same basic point in two different literary formats. It isn’t as flashy as The Chronicles of Narnia, and perhaps the first two essays are not captivating at the same level of the third. However, let me say without further argument here that the book is profoundly significant.

Let me bring in another partner in the dialogue: The Magician’s Twin: C.S. Lewis, Science, Scientism, and Society. The title may need some explanation to someone who does not know Lewis, but I cannot ever read a book with so big a thesis so brilliantly summarized in so few words. There are allusions to two of his works: The Abolition of Man, which as discussed below calls the early scientist and the contemporary “high noon of magic” to be twins, motivated by science, but science blossomed and magic failed because science worked and magic didn’t. (In other words, a metaphorical Darwinian “survival of the fittest” cause science to ultimately succeed and magic to ultimately fail). In The Magician’s Nephew, Lewis has managed to pull off the rather shocking feat of presenting and critiquing the ultimately banal figures of the Renaissance magus and the Nietzchian Übermensch (and its multitude of other incarnations) in a way that is genuinely appropriate in a children’s book. The title of “The Magician’s Twin,” in three words including the word “The”, quotes by implication two major critiques Lewis provided, and one could almost say that the rest, as some mathematicians would say, “is left as an exercise for the reader.”

The book has flaws, some of them noteworthy, in particular letting Discovery Institute opinions about what Lewis would say trump what in fact he clearly did say. I detected, if I recall correctly, collisions with bits of Mere Christianity. And the most driving motivation is to compellingly argue Intelligent Design.  However, I’m not interested in engaging origins questions now (you can read my muddled ebook on the topic here).

What does interest me is what The Magician’s Twin pulls from The Abolition of Man’s side of the family. On that point I quote Lewis’s last essay at length:

Nothing I can say will prevent some people from describing this lecture as an attack on science. I deny the charge, of course: and real Natural Philosophers (there are some now alive) will perceive that in defending value I defend inter alia the value of knowledge, which must die like every other when its roots in the Tao [the basic wisdom of mankind, for which Lewis mentions other equally acceptable names such as “first principles” or “first platitudes”] are cut. But I can go further than that. I even suggest that from Science herself the cure might come.

I have described as a ‘magician’s bargain’ that process whereby man surrenders object after object, and finally himself, to Nature in return for power. And I meant what I said. The fact that the scientist has succeeded where the magician failed has put such a wide contrast between them in popular thought that the real story of the birth of Science is misunderstood. You will even find people who write about the sixteenth century as if Magic were a medieval survival and Science the new thing that came in to sweep it away. Those who have studied the period know better. There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. I allow that some (certainly not all) of the early scientists were actuated by a pure love of knowledge. But if we consider the temper of that age as a whole we can discern the impulse of which I speak.

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious — such as digging up and mutilating the dead.

If we compare the chief trumpeter of the new era (Bacon) with Marlowe’s Faustus, the similarity is striking. You will read in some critics that Faustus has a thirst for knowledge. In reality, he hardly mentions it. It is not truth he wants from the devils, but gold and guns and girls. ‘All things that move between the quiet poles ‘shall be at his command’ and ‘a sound magician is a mighty god’. In the same spirit Bacon condemns those who value knowledge as an end in itself: this, for him, is to ‘use as a mistress for pleasure what ought to be a spouse for fruit.’ The true object is to extend Man’s power to the performance of all things possible. He rejects magic because it does not work; but his goal is that of the magician. In Paracelsus the characters of magician and scientist are combined. No doubt those who really founded modern science were usually those whose love of truth exceeded their love of power; in every mixed movement the efficacy comes from the good elements not from the bad. But the presence of the bad elements is not irrelevant to the direction the efficacy takes. It might be going too far to say that the modern scientific movement was tainted from its birth: but I think it would be true to say that it was born in an unhealthy neighbourhood and at an inauspicious hour. Its triumphs may have-been too rapid and purchased at too high a price: reconsideration, and something like repentance, may be required.

Is it, then, possible to imagine a new Natural Philosophy, continually conscious that the natural object’ produced by analysis and abstraction is not reality but only a view, and always correcting the abstraction? I hardly know what I am asking for. I hear rumours that Goethe’s approach to nature deserves fuller consideration — that even Dr Steiner may have seen something that orthodox researchers have missed. The regenerate science which I have in mind would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself. When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole. While studying the It it would not lose what Martin Buber calls the Thou-situation. The analogy between the Tao of Man and the instincts of an animal species would mean for it new light cast on the unknown thing. Instinct, by the only known reality of conscience and not a reduction of conscience to the category of Instinct. Its followers would not be free with the words only and merely. In a word, it would conquer Nature without being at the same time conquered by her and buy knowledge at a lower cost than that of life.

Perhaps I am asking impossibilities.

I’m drawing a blank for anything I’ve seen in a life’s acquaintance with the sciences to see how I have ever met this postulate as true.

In my lifetime I have seen a shift in the most prestigious of sciences, physics (only a mathematician would be insulted to be compared with a physicist), shift from an empirical science to a fashionable superstring theory in which physics abdicates from the ancient scientific discipline of refining hypotheses, theories, and laws in light of experiments meant to test them in a feedback loop. With it, the discipline of physics abdicates from all fully justified claim to be science. And this is specifically physics we are talking about: hence the boilerplate Physics Envy Declaration, where practitioners of one’s own academic discipline are declared to be scientists-and-they-are-just-as-much-scientists-as-people-in-the-so-called-“hard-sciences”-like-physics.

I do not say that a solution could not come from science; I do say that I understand what are called the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines after people started grinding a certain very heavy political axe, I’ve had some pretty impressive achievements, and C.S. Lewis simply did not understand the science of his time too far above the level of an educated non-scientist: probably the biggest two clues that give away The Dark Tower as the work of another hand are that the author ineptly portrays portraiture gone mad in a world where portraiture would never have come to exist, and that the manuscript is hard science fiction at a level far beyond even Lewis’s science fiction. Lewis may have written the first science fiction title in which aliens are honorable, noble beings instead of vicious monsters, but The Dark Tower was written by someone who knew the hard sciences and hard science fiction much more than Lewis and humanities and literature much less. (The runner-up clue is anachronous placement of Ransom that I cannot reconcile with the chronological development of that character at any point in the Space Trilogy.)

However, that is just a distraction.

A third shoe to drop

There are three shoes to drop; one prominent archetype of modern science’s first centuries has been hidden.

Besides the figure of the Renaisssance Magus and the Founding Scientist is the intertwined figure of the Reformer.

Now I would like to mention three reasons why Lewis might have most likely thought of it and not discussed it.

First of all, people who write an academic or scholarly book usually try to hold on to a tightly focused thesis. A scholar does not ordinarily have the faintest wish to write a 1000-volume encyclopedia about everything. This may represent a shift in academic humanism since the Renaissance and Early Modern times, but Lewis has written a small, focused, and readable book. I don’t see how to charitably criticize Lewis on the grounds that he didn’t write up a brainstorm of every possible tangent; he has written a short book that was probably aiming to tax the reader’s attention as little as he could. Authors like Lewis might agree with a maxim that software developers quote: “The design is complete, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away.”

Second of all, it would cut against the grain of the Tao as discussed (the reader who so prefers is welcomed to use alternate phrasing like “first platitudes”). His appendix of quotations illustrating the Tao is relatively long and quotes Ancient Egyptian, Old Norse, Babylonian, Ancient Jewish, Hindu, Ancient Chinese, Roman, English, Ancient Christian, Native American, Greek, Australian Aborigines, and Anglo-Saxon, and this is integrated with the entire thrust of the book. If I were to attempt such a work as Lewis did, it would not be a particularly obvious time to try to make a sharp critique specifically about one tradition.

Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, C.S. Lewis is a founder of ecumenism as we know it today, and with pacifism / just war as one exception that comes to mind, he tried both to preach and to remain within “mere Christianity”, and it is not especially of interest to me that he was Protestant (and seemed to lean more Romeward to the end of his life). C.S. Lewis was one of the architects of ecumenism as we know it (ecumenism being anathematized heresy to the Orthodox Church as of 1987), but his own personal practice was stricter than stating one’s opinions as opinions and just not sledgehammering anyone who disagrees. There is a gaping hole for the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary in the Chronicles of Narnia; Aslan appears from the Emperor Beyond the Sea, but without any hint of relation to any mother that I can discern. This gaping hole may be well enough covered so that Christian readers don’t notice, but once it’s pointed out it’s a bit painful to think about.

For the first and second reasons, there would be reason enough not to criticize Reformers in that specific book. However, this is the reason I believe C.S. Lewis did not address the third triplet of the Renaissance Magus, the Founder of Science, and the Reformer. Lewis’s words here apply in full force to the Reformer: “It might be going too far to say that the modern scientific movement was tainted from its birth: but I think it would be true to say that it was born in an unhealthy neighbourhood and at an inauspicious hour.

You have to really dig into some of the history to realize how intertwined the Reformation was with the occult. Lewis says, for one among many examples, “In Paracelsus the characters of magician and scientist are combined.” Some have said that what is now called Lutheranism should be called Melancthonism, because as has happened many times in history, a charismatic teacher with striking influence opens a door, and then an important follower works certain things out and systematizes the collection. In Melancthon the characters of Reformer, Scientist, and Astrologer are combined. Now I would like to address one distraction: some people, including Lewis (The Discarded Image), draw a sharp distinction between astrology in the middle ages and the emptied-out version we have today. He says that our lumping astrology in with the occult would have surprised practitioners of either: Renaissance magic tasserted human power while astrology asserted human impotence. The Magician’s Twin interestingly suggests that astrology as discussed by C.S. Lewis is not a remnant of magic but as a precursor to present-day deterministic science. And there is an important distinction for those who know about astrology in relation to Melancthon. Medieval astrology was a comprehensive theory, including cosmology and psychology, where “judicial astrology”, meaning to use astrology for fortune-telling, was relatively minor. But astrology for fortune-telling was far more important to Melanchthon. And if there was quite a lot of fortune-telling on Melanchthon’s resume, there was much more clamor for what was then called natural philosophy and became what we now know as >e,?science.

Another troubling weed in the water has to do with Reformation history, not specifically because it is an issue with the Reformation, but because of a trap historians fall into. Alisdair McGrath’s Reformation Theology: An Introduction treats how many features common in Protestantism today came to arise, but this kind of thing is a failure in historical scholarship. There were many features present in Reformation phenomena that one rarely encounters in Protestant histories of the Reformation. Luther is studied, but I have not read in any Protestant source his satisfied quotation about going to a bar, drinking beer, and leering at the barmaids. I have not seen anything like the climax of Degenerate Moderns: Modernity as Rationalized Sexual Misbehavior, which covers Martin Luther’s rejection of his vow of celibacy being followed by large-scale assault on others’ celibacy (“liberating” innumerable nuns from their monastic communities), Luther’s extended womanizing, and his marriage to a nun as a way to cut back on his womanizing. For that matter, I grew up in the Anabaptist tradition, from which the conservatism of the Amish also came, and heard of historic root in terms of the compilation of martyrdoms in Martyr’s Mirror, without knowing a whisper of the degree to which Anabaptism was the anarchist wing of the Reformation.

Questions like “Where did Luther’s Sola Scriptura come from?”, or “Where did the Calvinist tradition’s acronym TULIP for ‘Total Depravity’, ‘Unconditional Election’, ‘Limited Atonement’, ‘Irresistable Grace’, and the ‘Perseverance of the Saints?’ come from?” are legitimate historical questions. However, questions like these only ask about matters that have rightly or wrongly survived the winnowing of history, and they tend to favor a twin that survived and flourished over a twin that withered and died. This means that the chaos associated with the founders of Anabaptism do not linger with how truly chaotic the community was at first, and in general Protestant accounts of the Reformation fail to report the degree to which the Reformation project was connected to a Renaissance that was profoundly occultic.

A big picture view from before I knew certain things

In AI as an Arena for Magical Thinking among Skeptics, one of the first real works I wrote as an Orthodox Christian, I try to better orient the reader to the basic terrain:

We miss how the occult turn taken by some of Western culture in the Renaissance and early modern period established lines of development that remain foundational to science today. Many chasms exist between the mediaeval perspective and our own, and there is good reason to place the decisive break between the mediaeval way of life and the Renaissance/early modern occult development, not placing mediaeval times and magic together with an exceptionalism for our science. I suggest that our main differences with the occult project are disagreements as to means, not ends—and that distinguishes the post-mediaeval West from the mediaevals. If so, there is a kinship between the occult project and our own time: we provide a variant answer to the same question as the Renaissance magus, whilst patristic and mediaeval Christians were exploring another question altogether. The occult vision has fragmented, with its dominion over the natural world becoming scientific technology, its vision for a better world becoming political ideology, and its spiritual practices becoming a private fantasy.

One way to look at historical data in a way that shows the kind of sensitivity I’m interested in, is explored by Mary Midgley in Science as Salvation (1992); she doesn’t dwell on the occult as such, but she perceptively argues that science is far more continuous with religion than its self-understanding would suggest. Her approach pays a certain kind of attention to things which science leads us to ignore. She looks at ways science is doing far more than falsifying hypotheses, and in so doing observes some things which are important. I hope to develop a similar argument in a different direction, arguing that science is far more continuous with the occult than its self-understanding would suggest. This thesis is intended neither to be a correction nor a refinement of her position, but development of a parallel line of enquiry.

It is as if a great island, called Magic, began to drift away from the cultural mainland. It had plans for what the mainland should be converted into, but had no wish to be associated with the mainland. As time passed, the island fragmented into smaller islands, and on all of these new islands the features hardened and became more sharply defined. One of the islands is named Ideology. The one we are interested in is Science, which is not interchangeable with the original Magic, but is even less independent: in some ways Science differs from Magic by being more like Magic than Magic itself. Science is further from the mainland than Magic was, even if its influence on the mainland is if anything greater than what Magic once held. I am interested in a scientific endeavour, and in particular a basic relationship behind scientific enquiry, which are to a substantial degree continuous with a magical endeavour and a basic relationship behind magic. These are foundationally important, and even if it is not yet clear what they may mean, I will try to substantiate these as the thesis develops. I propose the idea of Magic breaking off from a societal mainland, and sharpening and hardening into Science, as more helpful than the idea of science and magic as opposites.

There is in fact historical precedent for such a phenomenon. I suggest that a parallel with Eucharistic doctrine might illuminate the interrelationship between Orthodoxy, Renaissance and early modern magic, and science (including artificial intelligence). When Aquinas made the Christian-Aristotelian synthesis, he changed the doctrine of the Eucharist. The Eucharist had previously been understood on Orthodox terms that used a Platonic conception of bread and wine participating in the body and blood of Christ, so that bread remained bread whilst becoming the body of Christ. One substance had two natures. Aristotelian philosophy had little room for one substance which had two natures, so one thing cannot simultaneously be bread and the body of Christ. When Aquinas subsumed real presence doctrine under an Aristotelian framework, he managed a delicate balancing act, in which bread ceased to be bread when it became the body of Christ, and it was a miracle that the accidents of bread held together after the substance had changed. I suggest that when Zwingli expunged real presence doctrine completely, he was not abolishing the Aristotelian impulse, but carrying it to its proper end. In like fashion, the scientific movement is not a repudiation of the magical impulse, but a development of it according to its own inner logic. It expunges the supernatural as Zwingli expunged the real presence, because that is where one gravitates once the journey has begun. What Aquinas and the Renaissance magus had was composed of things that did not fit together. As I will explore below under the heading ‘Renaissance and Early Modern Magic,’ the Renaissance magus ceased relating to society as to one’s mother and began treating it as raw material; this foundational change to a depersonalised relationship would later secularise the occult and transform it into science. The parallel between medieval Christianity/magic/science and Orthodoxy/Aquinas/Zwingli seems to be fertile: real presence doctrine can be placed under an Aristotelian framework, and a sense of the supernatural can be held by someone who is stepping out of a personal kind of relationship, but in both cases it doesn’t sit well, and after two or so centuries people finished the job by subtracting the supernatural.

What does the towering figure of the Reformer owe to the towering figure of the Renaissance Magus?

However little the connection may be underscored today, mere historical closeness would place a heavy burden of proof on the scholar who would deny that the Reformation owes an incalculable debt to the Renaissance that it succeeded. Protestant figures like Francis Schaeffer may be sharply critical of the Renaissance, but I’ve never seen them explain what the Reformation directly inherited.

The concept Sola Scriptura (that the Bible alone is God’s supreme revelation and no tradition outside the Bible is authoritative) is poured out from the heart of the Reformation cry, “Ad fontes!” (that we should go to classical sources alone and straighten out things from there). The term “Renaissance” / “Renascence” means, by mediation of two different languages, “Rebirth”, and more specifically a rebirth going back to original classic sources and building on them directly rather than by mediation of centuries. Luther owes a debt here even if he pushed past the Latin Bible to the Greek New Testament, and again past the revelation in the Septuagint or Greek Old Testament (the patristic Old Testament of choice) to the original Hebrew, dropping quite a few books of the Old Testament in the process. (He contemplated deeper cuts than that, and called the New Testament epistle of James a “letter of straw,” fit to be burned.)

The collection of texts Luther settled on is markedly different to the Renaissance interest in most or all of the real gems of classical antiquity. However, the approach is largely inherited. And the resemblance goes further.

I wrote above of the Renaissance Magus, one heir of which is the creation of political ideology as such, who stands against the mainland but, in something approaching Messianic fantasy, has designs to tear apart and rebuild the despicable raw material of society into something truly worthwhile and excellent by the power of his great mind. On this point, I can barely distinguish the Reformer from the Renaissance Magus beyond the fact that the Reformer’s raw material of abysmal society was more specifically the Church.

Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony with Nature: Anatomy of a Passion was something I wrote because of several reasons but triggered, at least, by a museum visit which was presented as an Enlightenment exhibit, and which showed a great many ancient, classical artifacts. After some point I realized that the exhibit as a whole was an exhibit on the Enlightenment specifically in the currents that spawned the still-living tradition of museums, and the neo-classicism which is also associated that century. I don’t remember what exact examples I settled on, and the article was one where examples could be swapped in or out. Possible examples include the Renaissance, the Reformation, Enlightenment neo-classicism, various shades of postmodernism, neo-paganism, the unending Protestant cottage industry of reconstructing the ancient Church, unending works on trying to make political ideologies that will transform one’s society to be more perfect, and (mumble) others; I wrote sharply, “Orthodoxy is pagan. Neo-paganism isn’t,” in The Sign of the Grail, my point being that if you want the grandeur of much of any original paganism (and paganism can have grandeur), you will do well to simply skip past the distraction and the mad free-for-all covered in even pro-paganism books like Drawing Down the Moon, and join the Orthodox Church, submitting to its discipline.

The Renaissance, the founding of modern science, and the Reformation have mushy, porous borders. This isn’t how we conceptualize things today, but then you could have pretty much been involved one, or any two, or all three.

The Renaissance Magus, the Founder of Science, and the Reformer are triplets!

Halloween: The Second U.S. National Holiday: Least Successful Christianization Ever!

There has been some background noise about Christianity incorporating various pagan customs and transforming them, often spoken so that the original and merely pagan aspect of the custom appears much more enticing than anything else. My suspicion is that this has happened many times, although most of the such connections I’ve heard, even from an Orthodox priest, amount to urban legend.

For example, one encyclopedia or reference material that I read when I was in gradeschool talked about how, in the late Roman Empire, people would celebrate on December 21st or 22nd, and remarked briefly that Christians could be identified by the fact that they didn’t bear swords. The Roman celebration was an annual celebration, held on the solstice, and Christians didn’t exactly observe the pagan holiday but timed their own celebration of the Nativity of Christ so as to be celebrated. And along the centuries, with the frequent corruptions that occurred with ancient timekeeping, the Nativity got moved just a few days to the 25th. However, ever recent vaguely scholarly treatment I have read have said that the original date of the Nativity was determined by independent factors. There was a religious belief stating that prophets die on an anniversary of their conception or birth, and the determination that placed the Nativity on December 25th was a spillover calculation to a date deemed more central, the Annunciation as the date when Christ was conceived, set as March 25th.

I do not say that all claims of Christianization of pagan custom are bogus; probably innumerable details of Orthodoxy are some way or other connected with paganism. However, such claims appearing in the usual rumor format, much like rumor science, rarely check out.

However, Halloween is a bit of anomaly.

Of all the attempts to Christianize a pagan custom, Halloween is the most abject failure. In one sense the practice of Christmas, with or without a date derived from a pagan festival, does not seem harmed by it. The Christmas tree may or may not be in continuity with pre-Christian pagan customs; but in either case the affirmative or negative answer does not matter that much. It was also more specifically a custom that came from the heterodox West, and while Orthodox Christians might object to that or at least not see the need, I am not interested in lodging a complaint against the custom. Numerous first-world Christians have complained about a commercialization of Christmas that does in fact does matter and poisons the Christmas celebration: C.S. Lewis, one might mention here, sounds off with quite a bit of success. My own college-day comment in Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary went:

Christmasn. A yearly holiday celebrating the coming of the chief Deity of Western civilization: Mammon.

And commercial poisoning of the Christmas spirit was also core to my The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. One might join many others and speak, instead of a Christianization of a pagan custom, of the commercialization of a Christian custom.

However, Halloween, or various archaic spellings and names that are commonly dug up, has kept its original character after a thousand years or so, and the biggest real dent in its character is that you don’t need to dress up as something dead or occult (or both); the practice exists of dressing up for Halloween as something that is not gruesome. Celebrities and characters from treasured TV shows and movies are pretty much mainstream costumes. But it is a minority, and the Christmas-level escalating displays in people’s front yards are, at least in my neck of the woods, all gruesome.

Martin Luther is in fact believed by many to have published his 95 theses (or at least made another significant move) on October 31, 1517, and people have been digging it up perhaps more than ever, this year marking a 500th anniversary. I only heard of “Reformation Day” for the first time as a junior in college, and the wonderful professor mentioned above asked me, “What do you think of celebrating Reformation Day?” and probably expecting something pungent. I answered, “I think celebrating one ghastly event per day is enough!”

Christianization attempts notwithstanding, Halloween seems to be growing and growing by the year!

Alchemy no longer needs to come out of the closet

Today the occult is in ascendancy and alchemy is coming out of the closet, or rather has been out of the closet from some time and still continuing to move away from it. Now there have been occult-heavy times before; besides the three triplets of Renaissance Magus, Founder of Science, and Reformer several centuries back, the Victorian era was at once the era of Romanticism and Logical Positivism, and at once an era with very strictly observe modesty and of a spiritualism that posited a spiritual realm of “Summer-land” where gauzy clothing could quickly be whisked away. Alchemy is now said to be more or less what modern science arose out of, and people are no longer surprised to hear that Newton’s founding of the first real physics that is part of the physics curriculum was given a small fraction of the time he devoted to pursuing alchemy. I haven’t yet gotten all the way through Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances: A History of Idolatry as it reads to me as choking antithesis to an Orthodox theology that is pregnant with icon. However, one of the steps along the way I did read was one talking about the heart, and, characteristic of many things in vogue today, he presents one figure as first introducing a mechanistic understanding of the heart as a pump that drives blood through the system of vessels: that much is retained at far greater detail in modern science, but in that liminal figure, such as alchemists love, the heart was still doing major alchemical jobs even if his successors may have abandoned them.

Today there are some people who have made some sharp apologetic responses. Books endorsed on Oprah may treat alchemy as supreme personal elevation. However, conservative authors acknowlege some points while condemning others as barren. It is perhaps true that alchemy represents a tradition intended to transform the practitioner spiritually. But alchemy is false in that spiritual transformation is approached through master of technique and “sympathetic magic” as Bible scholars use the term. We do not need a technique to transform us spiritually. We may need repentancefaithspiritual discipline that is neither more nor less than a cooperation with God, and communion, and in the Holy Mysteries we have a transformation that leaves gold in the dust. And alchemy is in the end  positively anemic when it stands next to full-blooded religion. And really, what person in any right mind would crawl on broken glass to create gold when Someone will give you the Providence of the true Dance and make the divine Life pulse through your blood?

A while ago, I wrote a poem, How Shall I Tell an Alchemist? which is I think where I’ll choose to end this section:

How Shall I Tell an Alchemist?

The cold matter of science—
Exists not, O God, O Life,
For Thou who art Life,
How could Thy humblest creature,
Be without life,
Fail to be in some wise,
The image of Life?
Minerals themselves,
Lead and silver and gold,
The vast emptiness of space and vacuum,
Teems more with Thy Life,
Than science will see in man,
Than hard and soft science,
Will to see in man.

How shall I praise Thee,
For making man a microcosm,
A human being the summary,
Of creation, spiritual and material,
Created to be,
A waterfall of divine grace,
Flowing to all things spiritual and material,
A waterfall of divine life,
Deity flowing out to man,
And out through man,
To all that exists,
And even nothingness itself?

And if I speak,
To an alchemist who seeks true gold,
May his eyes be opened,
To body made a spirit,
And spirit made a body,
The gold on the face of an icon,
Pure beyond twenty-four carats,
Even if the icon be cheap,
A cheap icon of paper faded?

How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Whose eyes overlook a transformation,
Next to which the transmutation,
Of lead to gold,
Is dust and ashes?
How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Of the holy consecration,
Whereby humble bread and wine,
Illumine as divine body and blood,
Brighter than gold, the metal of light,
The holy mystery the fulcrum,
Not stopping in chalice gilt,
But transforming men,
To be the mystical body,
The holy mystery the fulcrum of lives transmuted,
Of a waterfall spilling out,
The consecration of holy gifts,
That men may be radiant,
That men may be illumined,
That men be made the mystical body,
Course with divine Life,
Tasting the Fountain of Immortality,
The transformed elements the fulcrum,
Of God taking a lever and a place to stand,
To move the earth,
To move the cosmos whole,
Everything created,
Spiritual and material,
Returned to God,
Deified.

And how shall I tell an alchemist,
That alchemy suffices not,
For true transmutation of souls,
To put away searches for gold in crevices and in secret,
And see piles out in the open,
In common faith that seems mundane,
And out of the red earth that is humility,
To know the Philosopher’s Stone Who is Christ,
And the true alchemy,
Is found in the Holy Orthodox Church?

How Shall I Tell an Alchemist?

Most of us are quite clueless, and we are just as much clueless as people in the so-called “hard science” like physics!

If one begins to study not exactly physics itself, but the people who best contributed to 20th century physics, the first and most popular name will likely be Albert Einstein. However, if one extends the list of names, Nobel Prize laureate Richard P. Feynman will come up pretty quickly. He provided a series of lectures now known as the Feynman lectures, which are widely held as some of the most exemplary communication in the sciences around. He also gave a graduation lecture called “Cargo Cult Science” in which he demonstrates a lack of understanding of history. Its opening sentences read,

During the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas, such as that a piece of rhinoceros horn would increase potency.  (Another crazy idea of the Middle Ages is these hats we have on today—which is too loose in my case.)  Then a method was discovered for separating the ideas—which was to try one to see if it worked, and if it didn’t work, to eliminate it.  This method became organized, of course, into science.  And it developed very well, so that we are now in the scientific age.

Sorry. No. This gets an F. Parts are technically true, but this gets an F. It is not clear to me that it even reaches the dignity of cargo cult history. (On Feynman’s account, cargo cults usually managed to make something look like real airports.) If you don’t understand history, but leap centuries in a single bound, don’t presume to summarize the whole of it in a short paragraph. Feynman’s attempt to summarize as much of the sciences as possible in a single sentence is impressively well-done. This is not.

I wish to make use of Darwin, and what I will call “Paleo-Darwinism”, which I would distinguish from any version of Darwinism and evolution which is live in the academy.

What is called “Darwinism” or “evolution” has changed markedly from anything I can meaningfully connect with the theory Darwin articulated in The Origin of Species.

Some of the terms remain the same, and a few terms like “natural selection” even keep their maiden names. However, Darwin’s theory was genuinely a theory of evolution, meaning that life forms slowly evolve, and we should expect a fossil record that shows numerous steps of gradual transitions. There are multiple live variations of evolution in biology departments in mainstream academics, and I don’t know all the variations. However, my understanding is that part of the common ground between competing variations is that the fossil record is taken at face value and while there is common ancestry of a form, all the evidence we have is that there long periods of extreme stability with surprisingly little change worthy of the name, which are suddenly and miraculously interrupted by the appearance of new forms of life without preserved record of intermediate forms.

For this discussion I will be closer to Darwin’s theory in the original, and I wish to explicitly note that I am not intending, or pretending, to represent any theory or concept that is live in the biological sciences. By “Evolution” I mean Paleo-Evolution, an ongoing acquirement of gradual changes. And I would furthermore want to note the distinction between natural selection, and artificial selection.

Artificial selection, meaning breeding, was presumably a readily available concept to the 19th century mind. It was, or at least should be, a readily available concept thousands of years older than the dawn of modern science. Farmers had controlled mating within a gene pool to increase certain traits and diminish others. To an economy that was at least a little closer to farming, breeding was the sort of concept well enough available that someone might use it as a basis for an analogy or metaphor.

It appears that Darwin did just that. He introduced a concept of natural selection, something that might seem odd at first but was intelligible. “Natural selection” meant that there was something like breeding going on even in the absence of a breeder. Instead of farmers breeding (I think the term ecosystem may be anachronism to place in Darwin’s day and it apparently does not appear in his writing, but the term fits in Paleo-Darwinism as well as in newer forms like a glove), natural selection is a mechanism by which the natural environment will let organisms that survive continue to propagate, and organisms that can’t survive won’t propagate either. There is a marked difference between animals that are prey animals and those that aren’t. Animals that contend with predators tend to have sharp senses to notice predators, the ability to flee predators, and the ability to put up a fight. None of these traits is absolutely essential, but mice that do not evade cats cease to exist. Dodos in Darwin’s day, or field chickens in the 19th century U.S., did not face predators and at least the dodos were quickly hunted to extinction when humans discovered the place.

I wish to keep this distinction between two different methods and selections in saying that artificial selection is not the only selection and the scientific method is not the only selection either.

What else is there? Before a Paleo diet stopped some really nasty symptoms, I read Nourishing Traditions. That book documents, in scientific terms, ways and patterns of eating that are beneficial, even though those dishes appeared well before we had enough scientific understanding to dissect the benefits. Buttered asparagus, for instance, provides a nutritionally beneficial that is greater than the nutritional value of its parts. And there are many things; the author, celebrating fermentation, says that if you have a Ruben, you are eating five fermented foods.

The point I would make about (here) diet is that independently of scientific method, societies that had choices about what to eat tended by something like natural selection to optimize foods within their leeway that were beneficial.

Science has a very valuable way to select theories and laws that is really impressive. However, it is not the only winnowing fork available, and the other winnowing fork, analogous to natural selection, is live and powerful. And, though this is not really a fair comparison, a diet that has been passed down for generations in a society is almost certainly better than the industrial diet that is causing damage to people worldwide who can’t afford their traditional cuisine.

There exist some foods which were scientifically engineered to benefit the eater. During World War II, experiments were run on volunteers to know what kind of foods would bring the best benefits and best chance of survival to liberated, starving concentration camp prisoners. Right now even my local government has gotten a clue that breast milk is vastly better for babies than artificial formula, but people have still engineered a pretty impressive consolation prize in baby formulas meant to be as nourishing as possible (even if they still can’t confer the immune benefits conferred by mother’s milk). However, 99% of engineered foods are primarily intended to make a commercially profitable product. Concern for the actual health of the person eating the food is an afterthought (if even that).

Withered like Merlin—and, in a mirror, withered like me!

I would like to quote That Hideous Strength, which again was an attempt at a novel that in fictional format would explore the same terrain explored in the three essays of the nonfiction The Abolition of Man; it is among the book’s most haunting passages to me.

“…But about Merlin. What it comes to, as far as I can make out, is this. There were still possibilities for a man of that age which there aren’t for a man of ours. The earth itself was more like an animal in those days. And mental processes were much more like physical actions. And there were—well, Neutrals, knocking about.”

“Neutrals?”

“I don’t mean, of course, that anything can be a real neutral. A conscious being is either obeying God or disobeying Him. But there might be things neutral in relation to us.”

“You mean eldils—angels?”

“Well, the word angel rather begs the question. Even the Oyéresu aren’t exactly angels in the same sense as our guardian angels are. Technically they are Intelligences. The point is that while it may be true at the end of the world to describe every eldil either as an angel or a devil, and may even be true now, it was much less true in Merlin’s time. There used to be things on this Earth pursuing their own business, so to speak. They weren’t ministering spirits sent to help fallen humanity; but neither were they enemies preying upon us. Even in St. Paul one gets glimpses of a population that won’t exactly fit into our two columns of angels and devils. And if you go back further . . . all the gods, elves, dwarves, water-people, fatelongaevi. You and I know too much to think they are illusions.”

“You think there are things like that?”

“I think there were. I think there was room for them then, but the universe has come more to a point. Not all rational beings perhaps. Some would be mere wills inherent in matter, hardly conscious. More like animals. Others—but I don’t really know. At any rate, that is the sort of situation in which one got a man like Merlin.”

“It was rather horrible. I mean even in Merlin’s time (he came at the extreme tail end of it) though you could still use that sort of life in the universe innocently, you couldn’t do it safely. The things weren’t bad in themselves, but they were already bad for us. They sort of withered the man who dealt with them. Not on purpose. They couldn’t help doing it. Merlinus is withered. He’s quite pious and humble and all that, but something has been taken out of him. That quietness of his is just a little deadly, like the quiet of a gutted building. It’s the result of having his mind open to something that broadens the environment just a bit too much. Like polygamy. It wasn’t wrong for Abraham, but one can’t help feeling that even he lost something by it.”

“Cecil,” said Mrs. Dimble. “Do you feel quite comfortable about the Director’s using a man like this? I mean, doesn’t it look a bit like fighting Belbury with its own weapons?”

“No. I had thought of that. Merlin is the reverse of Belbury. He’s at the opposite extreme. He is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our modern point of view, confused. For him every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something to be dead—a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases. Finally, come the Belbury people who take over that view from the modern man unaltered and simply want to increase their powers by tacking on the aid of spirits—extra-natural, anti-natural spirits. Of course they hoped to have it both ways. They thought the old magia of Merlin which worked with the spiritual qualities of Nature, loving and reverencing them and knowing them from within, could be combined with the new goetia—the brutal surgery from without. No. In a sense Merlin represents what we’ve got to get back to in some different way. Do you know that he is forbidden by the rules of order to use any edged tool on any growing thing?”

I find this passage to speak a great truth, but coming the opposite direction! Let me explain.

I might briefly comment that the virtues that are posited to have pretty much died with Merlin are alive and kicking in Orthodoxy; see “Physics.” The Orthodox Christian is in a very real sense not just in communion with fellow Orthodox Christians alive on earth: to be in communion with the Orthodox Church is to be in communion with Christ, in communion with saints and angels, in communion with Creation from stars to starlings to stoplights, and even in a certain sense in communion with heterodox at a deeper level than the heterodox are in communion with themselves. This is present among devout laity, and it is given a sharper point in monasticism. It may be completely off-limits for a married or monastic Orthodox to set out to be like Merlin, but a monastic in particular who seeks first the Kingdom of God and his perfect righteousness may end up with quite a lot of what this passage sells Merlin on.

Now to the main part: I think the imagery in this passage brings certain truths into sharper contrast if it is rewired as a parable or allegory. I do not believe, nor do I ask you to believe, that there have ever been neutral spirits knocking about, going about on their own business. However, the overall structure and content work quite well with technologies: besides apocalyptic prophecies about submarines and radio being fulfilled in the twentieth century, there is something very deep about the suggestion that technology “sort of withers” the person dealing with it. I think I represent a bit of a rarity in that I have an iPhone, I use it, but I don’t use it all that much when I don’t need it. In particular I rarely use it to kill time, or when I know I should be doing something else. That’s an exception! The overall spiritual description of Merlin’s practices fits our reception of technology very well.

I have a number of titles on Amazon, and I would like to detail what I consider the most significant three things I might leave behind:

  1. The Best of Jonathan’s Corner: This is my flagship title, and also the one I am most pleased with reception.
  2. “The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts: More than any other of my books this book is a critique, and part of its 1.4 star review on Amazon is because Fr. Seraphim’s following seems to find the book extremely upsetting, and so the most helpful review states that the book is largely unintelligible, and casts doubt on how sober I was when I was writing it. I’m a bit more irritated that the title has received at least two five-star reviews that I am aware of, and those reviews universally vanish quickly. (I tried to ask Amazon to restore deleted reviews, but Amazon stated that their policy is that undeleting a censored review constitutes an unacceptable violation of the reviewer’s privacy.)
  3. The Luddite’s Guide to Technology: At the time of this writing, I have one review, and it is kind. However, I’m a bit disappointed in the book’s relative lack of reception. I believe it says something significant, partly because it is not framed in terms of “religion and science”, but “technology and faith”. Right and ascetically-based use of technology would seem to be a very helpful topic, and if I may make a point about Merlin, he appears to have crossed the line where if he drove he could get a drunk driving conviction. We, on the other hand, are three sheets to the wind.

“They sort of withered the man who dealt with them:”
Mathematician and Renaissance Man

I ranked 7th in the nation in the 1989 MathCounts competition, and that is something to be very humble about. There’s more than just jokes that have been floating around about, “How can you tell if a mathematician is an extravert?”—”He looks at your feet when he talks to you!”

In the troubled course of my troubled relationship with my ex-fiancée, I am not interested in disclosing my ex-fiancée’s faults. I am, however, interested in disclosing my own faults in very general terms. The root cause in most cases came from acting out of an overly mathematical mind, very frequently approaching things as basically a math problem to solve and relating to her almost exclusively with my head rather than my heart, and really, in the end, not relating to her as properly human (and, by the same stroke, not relating to myself as properly human either).

I do not say that the relationship would have succeeded if I had avoided this fault and the blunders that came up downwind of it. I am also not interested in providing a complete picture. I mention this for one reason: to say that at a certain level, a very mathematical mind is not really good for us!

This is something that is true at a basic level; it is structural and is built into ourselves as persons. Some vices are in easier reach. The Orthodox understanding is that the nous or spiritual eye is the part of us that should guide us both; the dianoia or logic-related understanding has a legitimate place, but the relation between the nous and the dianoia should ideally be the relationship between the sun and the moon. One Orthodox figure characterized academic types as having a hypertrophied or excessive, out-of-check logic-handling dianoia, and a darkened nous. I plead guilty on both counts, at least in my mathematical formation.

I might also recall a brief point from Everyday Saints, a book that has managed to get a pretty long book hold waitlist at some libraries. A Soviet government agent commented, rather squeamishly, that highly educated prisoners were the first to crack under torture.

Prayerful manual labor is considered normative in Orthodox monasticism, and in a monastery, the novices who are asked to do extensive manual labor are being given a first choice offering. The fact that abbots do less labor than most other monks is not a privilege of authority. Rather, it is a deprivation. The reduced amount of manual labor is a concession to necessities, and many abbots would exchange their responsibilities with those of a novice in a heartbeat.

(I have been told, “Bishops wish they were novices!”)

Along more recent lines, I have been called a Renaissance man, or less often a genius. I felt a warm glow in being called a Renaissance man; I took the term as a minor social compliment recognizing broad-ranging interests and achievements, and not really much more than that, or much more important. Then I pulled up the Wikipedia article for “polymath,” read the section on Renaissance men, and my blood ran cold.

The article does not even pretend to list detail of what was expected of Renaissance men, but as I ran down the list of distinctions, I realized that I had pretty much every single achievement on the list, and education, and a good deal more. And what came to me was, “I’m coming down on the side of Barlaam and not St. Gregory Palamas!” (For non-Orthodox readers, Barlaam and St. Gregory were disputants in a controversy where Barlaam said that Orthodox monks chiefly needed lots of academic learning and what would today be called the liberal arts ideal, and St. Gregory said that monks chiefly need the unceasing prayer usually called “prayer of the heart.”)

There was one executive who said, “I climbed to the top of the corporate ladder only to find that it was leaning against the wrong building,” and that’s pretty much where I found myself.

I have had less of a mathematical mind by the year, and I am hoping through monasticism to let go of things other than thoroughly seeking God, and let go of my Renaissance man chassis. My hope in monasticism is to try and follow the same path St. Gregory Palamas trod, and spend what time I have remaining in repentance (better late than never).

I now have a silence somewhat like the silence of a gutted building.

I seek the silence of hesychasm.

One wise priest said again and again, “The longest journey we will take is the journey from our mind to our heart.

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The Law of Love Leaves the Golden Rule Completely in the Dust

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fumble

In the present Wikipedia article on the Golden Rule, Harvard’s humanist chaplain Greg Epstein is quoted as saying, “‘do unto others’ … is a concept that essentially no religion misses entirely. But not a single one of these versions of the golden rule requires a God“. Yet months after I lodged a protest about this at least depending on where your quote from the Gospel begins and ends, the chaplain’s pristine wording still summarizes a list of quotes from the New Testament that begins and ends where some would expect it to. (In the other two parallel passages, Christ is quoted as saying explicitly that the duty to love one’s neighbor was like the duty to love God.) As quoted earlier in the very same Wikipedia article:

A similar passage, a parallel to the Great Commandment, is Luke 10:25-28

25And one day an authority on the law stood up to put Jesus to the test. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to receive eternal life?”

26What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you understand it?” 27He answered, ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Love him with all your strength and with all your mind.’(Deuteronomy 6:5) And, ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ ” 28“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do that, and you will live.”.

After the point where the quote is ended as cited here, Christ is asked an evasive question and drives home his point with an answer that is absolutely ludicrous and is meant to make his interlocutor pointedly uncomfortable. Though the absolute love for God is not treated as up for debate here, trying to love your neighbor as yourself without loving the Lord with your entire being is a chicken with its head cut off.

For now, I do not want to go into the unquoted followup to a question about where our obligations stop. I wish instead to say quite specifically here what the text quoted in the Wikipedia says. What it says, in essence, that “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” is a spillover to an absolute obligation to love God with your whole being. The obligation to love one’s neighbor is, in mathematical language, a corollary to an obligation to love God. It’s a consequence of the first stated imperative. Whilst one can cut the beginning and ending of the quotation so that “Love your neighbor as yourself” is all that survives the abbreviation, the obligation to love one’s neighbor is but a brilliant shadow cast by the infinite obligation to love God. There is some degree of confusion in the suggestion that this gem, shared by Jew and Christian, works just as well if “Love your neighbor as yourself” is stripped of its foundation of, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Love him with all your strength and with all your mind.” There is considerable insensitivity in seeing the two but failing to recognize them as connected.

While Eastern Orthodoxy may have a rich and many-layered understanding of holy icons and experience a rich interconnectedness between the theology of holy icons on the one hand, and a human race created in the image and likeness of God as stated in the very opening chapter of the Bible, it is not just Eastern Orthodox who have reason to see an implied, too-obvious-to-need-stating connection between loving God and loving people who are made in the image of God. You cannot be cruel to a child without paining that child’s healthy parent, and it is confusion to try to love God without implications for loving one’s neighbor. I am not aware of C.S. Lewis articulating any particularly interesting theology of icon as such, but the rising crescendo that closes The Weight of Glory could hardly be clearer: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” We are to love God entirely, and this love must unfold to loving God in the person of every neighbor who bears God’s divine image. Only a Harvard humanist chaplain could make a blanket statement for all world religions and let slip something so foundational to the plain, old New Testament. You know, the text from which we learned John 3:16 as Bible-believing kids.


Having said such, I would like to go over some rules and variations related to the Golden Rule, before explaining why I believe “Love your neighbor as yourself” is far more interesting than “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

A Fool’s Golden Rule: “If you can’t take it, don’t dish it out!

There is a bit of social wisdom, legitimate enough in itself, that is a sort of spurious version of the Golden Rule: “Don’t tease others beyond the point where you can handle them returning the same.” It may be wise enough to observe in practice, as it’s really best not to get into waters deeper than you can swim, but in itself doesn’t shed much light on whether teasing should really be avoided (a position that has adherents), or teasing is a legitimate and important dimension to any particularly strong personal connection (another position with adherents).

Of greater concern is this: different people have different tolerances for how much they can enjoy banter. Perhaps others will present less of a confusing situation if they also follow this Fool’s Golden Rule, but it is desirable, and in the spirit of a real Golden Rule, to avoid teasing others beyond what they can handle.

If we go with an expectation that some people avoid getting into waters beyond what they can swim in, and some are less perspective, there is an element of self-care in making sure you don’t invite more teasing than you can handle, and self-care can be perfectly legitimate. However, it doesn’t address how to approach banter legitimately, and without dishing out needless pain. Perhaps one pair of options are either to mostly avoid teasing, indefinitely, or to start very lightly, gradually escalate with a question mark in your eyes, and stop immediately and later on tone things down a bit on any social cue that the other person has had enough. I believe this suggestion is arguably appropriate, but runs somewhat independently of the Golden Rule, and is even based on recognition that knowing what “you would have others do unto you” does not fully answer everything essential. Teasing within people’s tolerances is an area where knowing only your own limits is not enough.

However, this would provide a nuance some have explored in relation to the Golden Rule. If you are eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a friend with a deadly peanut allergy walks by, perhaps you might show social respect, but there is neither any faintest obligation of hospitality nor the Golden Rule to knowingly give your special-needs friend food containing a large amount of peanut ingredients. If you’re having beef stew and a vegetarian friend walks by, one obvious level of interpreting the Golden Rule is to offer some social salute and, depending on how rushed the friend is, invite the friend to join the conversation but not, under any ordinary circumstance, offer a bowl of beef stew. A classic comic has a father taking a son to a restaurant and bowling to celebrate, and in the last frame the mother tells the son, “I know; we also did all the things he likes for my birthday too.”

I might note that some Orthodox authors have challenged this nuance (or, perhaps, nuanced the nuance). The essential argument is that if you’re spiritually healthy, you will probably be at least sometimes seeking for yourself things that are good and genuinely in your best interest. If you are trying to show kindness to someone in the grip of passions, that person will be seeking to indulge passion and not what is in his best interests. The correct gift is, for that person, one that in some minor way, and without invading and assuming command, what you would want in the sense of something in one’s own best interest, and not what the other person would want in the sense of serving one’s sinful passions.

The Silver Rule: “Do Not Do Things to Others That You Would Not Have Them Do to You

Figures in multiple religious traditions have summarized ethics in a commandment not to do things you wouldn’t want other people to do to you. It is unmistakable that “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.” has received devoted attention in Judaism for millennia. However, certain scholars who represent landmarks in the Talmud have summarized the Golden Rule in a more diluted form: they tell people only to refrain from doing things to others that they wouldn’t want others to do to them. This is a lower bar.

I would like to put a word in to puzzled Christians wondering why master scholars of the Jewish Bible would choose what is essentially an ethical consolation prize, and a negative morality rather than a positive morality.

My best guess here is that Talumidic scholars didn’t choose the easier of two serious options. That is, they did not line up “Treat others the way you’d like to be treated” and “Don’t do things to other people you wouldn’t want them to do to you,” and go for the less demanding option. The Old Testament thunders “Thou shalt not,” and not in just the Ten Commandments. It includes “Love your neighbor as yourself” but not, as stated in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” It took me a long time to understand what a Lawgiver was years back, because I thought of rules as unhelpful and constricting. But I would call to mind a medievalist conference that talked about law in Western Europe, and said in essence that law had captivated the public imagination, and fascinated people as being, among other things, a way for people to resolve conflicts without attacking each other physically. Perhaps even the word “lawyer” has slimy connotations today and we think litigation is completely out of control, but to many in the medieval West, people thought litigation was a live and better alternative to an ongoing and deadly feud. Law was seen as a peaceful way to avoid violence. St. Moses was a Lawgiver, and a great deal of that Law was devoted to forbidding people from engaging in destructive practices. There is brilliance in condensing the entirety of the Law to “Do not do things to other people that you would not do unto you,” and I would suggest it is an anachronism to criticize Rabbi ben Hillel and others like them because they chose the Silver Rule over the Golden Rule. (I see no reason to believe that they did anything of the sort.)

Whether or not the Silver Rule is not as good as the full-fledged Golden Rule, it shares the strengths that make the Golden Rule so important. The Silver Rule and the Golden Rule both alike are short, simple directives that offer broad and far-reaching guidance. They might not replace longer and more detailed treatment of what is right and wrong, but a treatment of ethical details alone presents a danger of not seeing the forest for the trees. The Silver and Golden Rules help people see the forest very quickly, and then be in a better position to see the trees situated in the forest when it’s time to study the trees. And, as has been pointed out, in U.S. educational culture the most important lessons are not introduced in graduate meta-ethics seminars; they’re taught in kindergarten, with the Golden Rule often given a place of prominence. The “All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” poster that was ubiquitous some decades back reflects important choices made in U.S. educational culture, whatever other flaws it may have. The most important ethical lessons are placed at the very beginning of formal education itself.

I would also like to comment on a the terms “negative morality” and “positive morality.” The language is loaded. It doesn’t mean, or at least not at first glance, that negative morality is bad and positive morality is good. I might mention what the term “progressive cancer” means. “Progressive” is not here loaded language complimenting someone for being sufficiently far to the left; a “progressive” cancer is a cancer that continues to grow and grow, and be more and more destructive despite every treatment that’s thrown at it. Returning to “negative” and “positive” morality, a negative morality essentially says, “Here’s a shortlist of things you shouldn’t do. You’re free to do anything else.” A positive morality dictates your options far more narrowly: “This is what you should do.” And I would make a pointed remark about positive moralities: if you are going to choose a positive morality, choose very, very carefully. Every single one of the twentieth century Utopias that racked up over a million innocent lives in its body count was driven by a positive morality!

I ultimately side with a positive morality, if “morality” is really the term; as Orthodox I use the term “moral” / “morality” primarily with non-Orthodox because the way Orthodoxy covers terrain there are spiritual disciplines and there is divinization, but there is not really a separate category of morality as such. However, it is usually not helpful to ask people to grapple with an oblong concept like that if it can be avoided.

The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

I wish to comment quite briefly about the Golden Rule as classically worded that it appears exactly once in the Bible, that Christ states it in the most important homily the Orthodox Church can offer, and that Christ himself endorses it as a complete summary of the Scriptures that existed then. The Golden Rule itself is the least in need of introduction of all these variations: asking the man on the street, “What’s the Silver Rule?” or “What’s the Platinum Rule?” should often elicit a perhaps puzzled, “I don’t know.” If you ask, “What’s the Golden Rule?” people may not be able to rattle off the words, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” but they should usually immediately recognize the reference and instantly recall the point, gist and basic concern whether or not they can quote (or misquote) the classic formulation.

The Platinum Rule: “Do unto others better than you would have them do unto you

I would briefly comment that the Platinum Rule is more a curiosity of discussion of ethics than a point in any live community’s ethical system that I am aware of. For reasons to be discussed below, I believe the Law of Love represents a far more valuable way to go beyond the Golden Rule than simply upping the ante for what one is expected to give others.

However, while I am not aware of religions teaching the Platinum Rule (even in ethics it seems to me to only come up in academic discussions), it does seem to come up in practice even if it is not enjoined. The first job I had was at a rental yard, where assignments ranged from assembling tents for a celebration to scrubbing burnt-on crud off steel to putting away sewer snakes. It was not a glamorous position. However, I noticed that the worst and most disgusting jobs (such as cleaning up a port-a-potty after a wild and wet trailer ride) were always done personally by a manager. Always. In a traditional marriage and family, feminists may claim that the husband and father occupies the position of greatest privilege. This is possibly so, but under the live definition of privilege, his privilege includes taking an ailing pet to the vet for the last time. In the business world, there is the manager who from time to time skips lunch during crunch mode, but would never arrange a schedule so that one of her subordinates was asked to miss a meal. Goodwill, whether or not it is an organization of goodwill towards its employees’ financial interests, asks people whether a donation is good enough to give a friend, and I would comment on that point that there are some pockets where people are generous and giving towards others, but continue to personally use worn or damaged possessions themselves that they would be mortified to give to someone else, especially someone lower than them socially. For a concluding example, anti-smoking advocates found that they met limited success with anti-smoking messages that said, “Hey, Dad! Look at what you’re doing to yourself!” (Dads seemed not to be terribly concerned.) Then they shifted the center of the message to, “Hey, Dad! Look at what you’re doing to your kids!” and, Wow! was there a change.

The Platinum Rule may or may not be preached anywhere outside of academia. It does, however, appear to be something people practice of themselves in situations where they have been brought up to respect the Golden Rule.

And now I will show you a more excellent way

One patristic claim has been that the Old Testament purifies what is done externally in the hands, and the New Testament purifies what is done inwardly in the heart. That may be painting things with broad strokes, and someone who doesn’t know the Bible well may still point out that as prominently as in the Ten Commandments the Old Testament forbids coveting in one’s heart, and the New Testament has numerous passages condemning concrete actions as sin. I don’t know the Talmud, but I’m pretty sure that a good Talmud scholar could point out numerous passages rejecting sins committed, at least at first, only in the heart. However, it is helpful to understand here that the relationship between “Old Testament” and “New Testament” is really not a relationship between “First installment” and “Second installment: more of the same.”

One core aspect of “Road to Emmaus” passage that winds up Luke’s Gospel is, “Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” “Scriptures” does not here refer to any part of the New Testament; there is only one place, in 2 Peter, that any part of the New Testament is called Scripture. Furthermore, at the time reported in this Gospel passage, none of the New Testament had been written. The basic model of Scripture in this passage, which remained live for a surprisingly long time, was that the Scriptures were the Old Testament and represented a locked treasure hoard, and the New Testament contained the key to unlock the Old Testament Scriptures. Fr. John Behr commented in a class that the worst thing that happened to the Church was the canonization of the New Testament. He was perhaps speaking provocatively, but he was driving home a patristic enough point that the Old and New Testaments should not be identified as a first installment and a second installment of the same.

At least in the Wikipedia, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is treated as a wording or formulation of the Golden Rule. I would like to draw an increasingly sharp distinction, and from here, I will use the terms Golden Rule to strictly mean paraphrases or repetitions of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and Law of Love to mean “Love your neighbor as yourself,” with or without explicitly stating the commandment to love God from which it arises.

In my own experience, I was surprised by what was apparently obvious enough to the article authors that there seemed no perceived need to establish or defend: that the Law of Love was a wording of the Golden Rule, apparently interchangeable with others.

The first, relatively superficial objection I had was that the Golden Rule uses one’s own desires as a guideline for what action to take. The Law of Love does not directly state what actions to take, and the implied line of action I would see (others might nominate other candidates) is an obligation to seek others’ best interests. It is long religious experience that we often do not seek our own best interests, but finely gilt spiritual potholes, and the Christ who commands love for one’s enemies might perhaps leave room to believe that someone who meets forgiving love with ongoing hostility might, perhaps, be even further from seeking what is genuinely beneficial to them. In the Golden Rule the yardstick of action, at least on a rule of thumb level, is one’s own desires. My personal impression, as someone who has problematic desires, is that the yardstick for action, besides love which I will come to in a minute, is that it is the other person’s best interests.

The second, more serious objection I can think of, has to do with virtue. One basic distinction has been made between a rule-based morality and a virtue-based morality. At the heart of Confucianism, for instance, is not any calculus of required, permitted, and forbidden actions; the highest goal is to become a person who embodies certain virtues, such as a filial piety. The Philokalia draws on certain Greek philosophy, carefully and selectively. The greatest debt I can see to a feature of Greek philosophy in the whole collection is in the cardinally important place that is given to virtues. The concept may be adapted for Christian use at points, but any reasonably sensitive reading would recognize that virtue, from wherever the authors acquired it, is extremely important in the text. As regards the Golden Rule, it is a strictly rule-based guideline and need not perturb a rule-based morality. As regards the Law of Love, “love” may appear as a verb and not a noun, but the commandment is to exercise virtue. Now there are feedback and reinforcement between what is in your heart and what you do with your hands; someone who is honest is more likely to tell the truth, but conversely telling the truth is a practice that also builds the virtue of honesty. However, the Law of Love takes the action from the Golden Rule’s playing field of (potentially) rule-based morality, and puts us on turf where virtue at least looms large.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent is on the shortlist of Orthodox classics, and Orthodox monastics traditionally read it each Lent. It has various steps of virtues to acquire and vices to surrender, amounting to thirty steps in total. And elements of Greek philosophy may be present; the step that is second from the top is “Dispassion”, a Holy Grail sought in the same philosophical currents that had the authors of the Philokalia think so much in terms of virtue. However, the very, very top rung of all in the great Ladder is the “Faith, Hope, and Love” in an industrial-strength allusion to one of the favorite chapters of the Bible the world around:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

And there is further to go than virtue-based morality.

Beyond even virtue-based morality

The concepts “You need right action” and “You need to be in the right moral state”, taken together, cover many of the world’s ethical systems, and for that matter cover most of what I have said so far.

I would like to push further.

Your actions are in some sense something you possess, and your virtues are in some sense something you possess. Perhaps neither one nor the other is an item you can put on your desk next to your car keys, but they can appear, so to speak, as self-contained. Which they are not.

I was rebuked, when I was newly minted as Orthodox, for asking a question entirely framed by the Reformation schema of nature, sin, and grace, and given very good pastoral advice to stay out of 16th century Reformation concerns for a while. I am grateful for this. That stated, the Reformers were not the first people to see grace, and our need for grace, in that faith whose book is the Bible. But the Philokalia has titles like the in-depth “On Those Who Think They Are Made Righteous By Works,” and stern warnings that you may only take credit for those achievements you pulled off before you were born (an exception could be made disqualifying the handful of places in the saints’ lives where an unborn child cries or speaks from within the womb). This is not exactly a teaching of grace alone, in that there is a sense of synergy in relation to a divinization where we contribute, but the relevant Fathers are here as clear as any of the Reformers that however much we seek virtue and right actions, we should take no credit before God. Even if, as it turns out, on Judgment Day the saved who take no credit for their works are given full credit for these works by God.

The whole of how we are created is for a divine dance, where we are part of a larger picture and God is calling the shots. Had I raised another Protestant question about discerning God’s will for my life, I might have gotten an equally helpful rebuke. Christ has all but sworn that if we seek first the Kingdom of God and his perfect righteousness, all God’s Providence will follow, including career paths, material needs, and so on and so forth, perhaps even without our needing to try to seek God’s will for our lives. God’s Providence may have plans for the course of our lives, which will be given if we seek first God’s Kingdom, but the New Testament doesn’t have a word about seeking God’s will for our lives. When it discusses God’s will, it discusses God’s will for Creation and the like. Nowhere do the Pauline letters discuss a discernment of what course is intended for your life, or mine.

Sometimes pagan custom ain’t so great

I was in England and on a Cambridge tour was excitedly shown, in a church building no longer live as a place of worship, pagan symbols such as two-tailed mermaids on the baptismal font. What I wanted to ask, instead of just holding my tongue, was whether she had anything to say about Christian symbols in the building. But I held my tongue.

There is an ambiance of mystery and the alluring today surrounding pagan customs, and someone who reads some of the same books I’ve read may read, for instance, about a heirarch who wisely decided to try to wean a newly-illumined people from pagan practices across a few generations, or that some particular detail of observance was in origin an exotic pagan custom that was incorporated into the Church’s intricate practices. And, in general, I’ve read that some leniency was observed in relation to pagan custom. What may be the first written account of the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov, Flame in the Snow, seems unblushing about recording a preserved pagan custom here and there.

But may I say something about pagan custom in relation to my own milieu, and one intended to be not enticing, but banal?

We have bank accounts and general financial planning and don’t let a good deal of what the Sermon on the Mount says about providence and God’s generosity get past our filters. We want endowments, or in short, we want the financial infrastructure to what is, in the end, Hell.

This may be a much less exotic and enticing than the chasing and catching game in the great St. Seraphim’s life, but I really mean it. Forget every sexy connotation that vaguely rises up at the thought of being allowed to practice a pagan custom. One of the great pagan customs in our world is wealth management, and here I write not as someone without slaves who calls for the abandonment of slavery, but someone with fewer slaves who calls for the abolition of slavery. We need, by God’s grace to wean ourselves from the violation of the Sermon on the Mount that forever tries to create our own providence, administered by nothing wiser than our own hand. That is (among the) pagan customs that should come to mind when we think of the Church trying by degrees to free generations of converts from pagan custom, ancestral or otherwise.

The story is told of a little girl who saw, in a vending machine, a metal necklace with gold wash. She asked her Dad, but he discouraged her. But she insisted, and he bought the necklace. That night at bedtime, he asked her, “Do you love me?” She said, “Yes.” He said, “Give me the necklace,” but she didn’t. The next night, the same thing happened. Many nights later, with tears in her eyes, she reached out and set her necklace in his hand, the gold wash all but gone. He, also with tears, reached out with his other hand, and gave her a necklace of solid gold.

What we are invited to is God’s Providence, but we can opt out by trying to get our own ersatz providence and not really need God’s intervention. (One of the names for this is, ”Hell.”) We are instead summoned to the Great Dance, where many people weave together in intricate motion and in unfolding glory, and things end up better than we could have imagined if we had everything our way. (Or we can insist on trying to have our way; one of the names for this is, “Hell.”) Or we can stop fighting, and work with God as he draws us into a larger world and opened our eyes to what was there all along, but still more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our financial planning.

And, incidentally, trying to live on a basis of what pseudo-providence you can get for yourself is not a new pagan custom: while admittedly some of our financial instruments were not available then, Christ calls the basic practice a pagan custom as much as anyone else has: “For after all these things the [pagans] seek.” Christ never denies that we need food, water, clothing, etc., but he does try to give people a clue that the God who has loved them from eternity already knows the needs he has built in to their constitution, and has every desire to provide everything necessary to people who are seeking what really is worth seeking.

(Similar remarks could be made for other ways we isolate ourselves from patristic submission to the Sermon on the Mount in favor of pagan customs.)

In depth: If thine eye be single…

St. Philaret of Moscow, possibly a rare instance of a Metropolitan named after a layman, wrote a famed prayer for the acceptance of God’s will:

O Lord, I do not know what to ask of Thee. Thou alone knowest what are my true needs. Thou lovest me more than I myself know how to love. Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me. I do not dare to ask either for a cross or for consolation. I can only wait on Thee. My heart is open to Thee. Visit and help me, for the sake of Thy great mercy. Strike me and heal me; cast me down and raise me up. I worship in silence Thy holy will and Thine unsearchable ways. I offer myself as a sacrifice to Thee. I have no other desire than to fulfill Thy will. Teach me to pray. Pray Thou Thyself in me. Amen.

And this humility opens up a passage from the Sermon on the Mount, the greatest Orthodox homily in history, and possibly the most politically incorrect:

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?

Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the [pagans] seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

“If thine eye be single”: this part appears to be a digression, even an intrusion. It is not. Most translations translate away a term like “single” to mean “healthy” or “sound”, and while an aspect of “single” is indeed “healthy” or “sound”, the direct and unusual rendering tells more. St. Paul describes one decisive advantage of celibacy: that the celibate can focus on God with an undivided, single attention, where the married Orthodox must needs live out a divided attention where effort is split between God and one’s spouse. This is no heretical rejection of sacred, holy marriage, where St. Paul elsewhere says forcefully, “…marriage, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth…”; he is simply advising people that he wishes to spare them the trouble, however holy marriage itself may be.

But here celibate and married are both summoned to an eye that is single: an eye that rests its gaze purely on God, instead of dividing attention between God and stupid money. It may be honorable to divide attention between God and a wife given as an icon by whom to love and serve God: but nowhere does the New Testament endorse it as also acceptable to divide attention between God and a lifeless, subhuman wealth that is utterly unworthy of human love.

The seeming digression ups the stakes for trying to serve both God and mammon. The cost of chasing after wealth is a fragmented and divided spiritual vision. There are several places in the Sermon on the Mount where advice about a divided attention could appropriately be placed: for example, if you look in lust, your eye is not single, and is not single in a much more obvious sense. However, Christ sandwiches the warning in a passage debunking the apparent and seemingly self-evident goodness of wealth. And this passage, like others in the Sermon on the Mount, opens up a larger world.

A third basis for morality beyond rules and virtues

In the philosophy class where a professor introduced a distinction between a rule-based morality and a virtue-based reality, I looked and rightly or wrongly drew a conclusion for a Holy Spirit-based morality that is productive of virtues as virtues are productive of right actions. The key verse I drew on was Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.”

I’m a little cautious about saying tout court that this musing is fully patristic. Some people have made a subtle but important distinction between virtues and “graces”, where a virtue is the sort of thing you build with God’s help but by your own action, and “graces”, which are also by God’s help but the divine generosity greatly exceeds the contribution you would normally need to build up a virtue. Possibly there are other adjustments needed; because it is my own musing, I think that it would best be endorsed as Orthodox by someone else besides me.

However, what I believe more legitimate for me to endorse is this. In The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit, St. Seraphim of Sarov, mentioned above, speaks with a layman who has essentially spent his life trying to understand, in Western terms, the meaning of life. St. Seraphim receives him with great respect, and lays out the answer: the central point of life is “the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.”

As mentioned, I’m a little cautious about saying that my own formulation that Christianity has a Spirit-driven morality that reaches higher than virtue-based morality as virtue-based morality is higher than rule-based morality. It hasn’t stood the test of time so far as I am aware. However, what I think has stood the test of time is that, while thoughts, actions, and virtues are all very important in the New Testament and the Philokalia, it is even more, more important to focus on a God who infinitely eclipses the greatest virtue. I’ve heard Orthodox raise a question of, “Then why am I here?” and assert that the reception of grace is synergistic, where the reception of grace includes our active cooperation with Christ in us, the hope of glory. But, whatever other differences may exist between Orthodoxy and Protestantism, I have never heard an Orthodox complain that Martin Luther, or any other figure, overstated the importance of grace. (For that matter, I have never heard an Orthodox Christian state that it is possible to overstate the importance of grace.)

The surprise I hadn’t mentioned

There was a surprise I met with the Wikipedia article that I haven’t mentioned. I was surprised that the Law of Love was classified as an articulation of the Golden Rule at all. After numerous readings of the Bible, it was settled in my mind that the Golden Rule’s explicit presence in the entire Bible amounted to part of a single verse of the Sermon on the Mount. It was not just that I preferred the Law of Love to other things that were called phrasings of the Golden Rule. To me they were so different that I never made the connection.

The Golden Rule is great partly because it offers direct prescriptions for action. If we avoid getting bogged down too much in special cases, if I wish others to show me such courtesies as saying “Please” and “Thank you,” that’s probably a sign I should seek to extend those courtesies to others. If I prefer not to be needlessly interrupted, in most cases I should probably avoid needlessly interrupting others. If I prefer that others’ communications with me be straightforward, that is probably a sign I should usually be straightforward with others. The Golden Rule may be stated in a sentence, but it covers an enormous territory.

The Law of Love dictates virtue, not action, and is far more ambiguous as far as action goes. There is respected precedent in monastic literature to what may be an assumption that the actions most fitting to the Law of Love are those that seek the complete best interests of the other. The point of monasticism, including the point of its many unpleasant parts, is to advance your best interests, which are never trumped by treating people the way they would like to be treated.

Let me give one example. At least some monastic rules state that “Monastery guests are to be treated as Christ himself,” and even without that implication the third parable of Matthew 25 provides excellent and chilling warrant to all Orthodox to treat all others as Christ. Good Abbots meet visitors with infinite respect. And for all this, monastics, including Abbots, are normally very sparing with compliments. (And they sometimes shock visitors by trying to dodge social compliments.)

There is no contradiction to this. In many cultures, compliments are given freely and are a staple of managing mood in the other. The Philokalia speaks of foul plants of spiritual sickness as being (as rendered in the polite English translation) “manured by praise.” The Philokalia is not generally foul-mouthed, and to the best of my knowledge human praise is the only thing that the entire collection metaphorically compares to excrement.

Marriage is also an institution for self-transcendence; some have said that marriage is not a place for children to grow up, but for parents to grow up. Marriage is also a vessel of holiness and salvation, but things are perhaps sharper and perhaps easier to see in monasticism. If insults and cleaning latrines are what it will take for a novice to gain the precious treasure of humility, then the love of an Abbot will be expressed in that nasty way. And monasticism above marriage highlights the difference between a nuanced understanding of the Golden Rule that will treat other people the way they want to be treated on the one hand, and on the other hand a nuanced understanding of the Law of Love as seeking the other’s best interests. We should best not treat ourselves as honorary Abbots and authorities above others, but seeking the other’s total best interest is more important than being pleasing to others.

Conclusion: A doorway to the divine

If I may quote Lewis again, this time from The Abolition of Man, “It is Paul, the Pharisee, the man ‘perfect as touching the Law’ who learns where and how that Law was deficient.” It is further St. Paul, the Apostle, who tells us that the Law is a tutor meant to train us up until we are ready for greater things.

I might suggest that the Golden Rule, at least in the forms I have seen it, be given a place similar to what place the Apostle gives to the Law, and in one aspect the place Church Fathers give to the Old Testament as addressing outer righteousness until the New Testament could train us in inner righteousness.

That is to say that we should keep the Golden Rule, perhaps at some level of sophistication and nuance so we don’t knowingly offer a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to a friend who has a deadly peanut allergy. And furthermore we should recognize its significance in that world religious traditions are immeasurably different in immeasurable ways, yet precious few fail to offer some form of the Golden Rule. That speaks for a profound significance even beyond that a moral directive that covers an incredible amount of ground with something in a nutshell. Even a good subset of these credentials properly qualify the Golden Rule as astonishing and arresting.

Yet, for all of this, neither the Platinum Rule, nor the Golden Rule, nor the Silver Rule, nor this article’s nomination for a Fool’s Golden Rule speak a whisper about inner state or virtue, and on this account they must be seen as outer righteousness as Church Fathers have received the Old Testament as a tutor in outer righteousness. The Silver, Gold, and Platinum Rules may progressively escalate the action that is specified in their demand towards our neighbor: but even the Platinum Rule does not show the faintest hint of a request for virtue. The Silver, Gold, and Platinum Rules push further forward in the same plane: not one of them rises higher to draw our eyes towards virtue.

The Law of Love does, and here I am not especially interested in the fact that on the level of action it is possible to rise from pleasing people to seeking their best interests as best we can in a given situation. The Law of Love is a summons to virtue, and more. It moves beyond outer action alone to inner state, and here I might mention that contrary to today’s psychological framing of “inner”, figures such as Augustine held the inner realm to hold the things themselves for spiritual realities: or as condensed in homilectics, Heaven and Hell are inside us. I do not claim any Orthodox or Christian monopoly on inner concerns; the desire for inner virtue may be found in innumerable world religions and age-old philosophies. However, the Law of Love says something that was missed in the Silver Rule. Even if Ben Hillel probably knew both summonses to love, by heart.

Furthermore, the Law of Love implies something that I am not aware of in any formulation of the Golden Rule, and though I am hesitant to quote someone I’ve just critiqued as an authority, is something that a certain Harvard chaplain did not at least notice anywhere else: the box is open at the top.

Nothing hinders a materialist from seeking to act by the Golden Rule, and it may be seen as needlessly insulting to question whether a materialist might take guidance from that beacon. For that matter, you can be in your actions halfway to being a solipsist and still seek to obey the Golden Rule, even if you might end up being hampered by your habits because you are trying to act beyond what your philosophical reserves will afford you. There is nothing in any standard formulation of the Silver, Golden, or Platinum Rule that forbids you from being, and seeing yourself as, self-contained. One can of course subscribe to the Golden Rule and be open to things vaster than the Heavens: Christ himself did as much, and it’s hard to see what stronger warrant one could ask to say that a practitioner of the Golden Rule might be open. However, if we hear that chaplain say, “None of these versions requires a God,” then we might see circumstantial evidence that, as magnificent and really astonishing as the Golden Rule may be, it does not reach high enough to bid us seek a box that is open at the top.

The Law of Love is more and different compared to this. It really does say, “There are more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy, and I want to show them to you.” It summons us to leave the Hell of self. Its overwhelming impulse that bids us exercise the highest of all virtues, love itself, is a surge from the heart of a command to render an even higher, absolute love to a God who is infinitely beyond. A hymn tells the Theotokos, “When you gave birth, you tore all the philosopher’s nets;” along with that is all possibility of enclosure by anything less than God. I have quoted from the Sermon on the Mount; it is important enough in Orthodoxy that even in the shorter forms of the Divine Liturgy it is quoted in shorthand by chanting its opening Beatitudes. It is characterized by a fundamental openness that is needed as an exegesis of the right and proper love to God, and if you try to love God and live a self-contained life, you may find God responding to you by offering you help to repent of your sin and begin to enjoy a larger world.

I wish to conclude by quoting a poem I wrote, Open:

How shall I be open to thee,
O Lord who is forever open to me?
Incessantly I seek to clench with tight fist,
Such joy as thou gavest mine open hand.
Why do I consider thy providence,
A light thing, and of light repute,
Next to the grandeur I imagine?
Why spurn I such grandeur as prayed,
Not my will but thine be done,
Such as taught us to pray,
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come:
Thy will be done?
Why be I so tight and constricted,
Why must clay shy back,
From the potter’s hand,
Who glorifieth clay better,
Than clay knoweth glory to seek?
Why am I such a small man?
Why do I refuse the joy you give?
Or, indeed, must I?

And yet I know,
Thou, the Theotokos, the saints,
Forever welcome me with open hearts,
And the oil of their gladness,
Loosens my fist,
Little by little.

God, why is my fist tightened on openness,
When thou openest in me?

Simplicity Beyond Complexity

If you look on the web, you can find a lot of interesting quotes about what is simple and what is complex. These quotes are often interesting. They are sometimes contradictory. Some say reality is simple. Some say reality is complex. One of the most famous quotes is, “Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses remove it.”

Probably the most interesting claim I read was, “Complexity goes before simplicity.” And that sounds strange. In biology complex organisms originally come from simple life forms. Programmers have repeated, “Every complex system that works is found to have evolved from a simple system that works.” However, I insist that the claim “Complexity goes before simplicity” is true, and furthermore that this claim unfolds the words, “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would given my life for the simplicity on other side of complexity.”

When I read The Twitter Job Search Book, something struck me as odd. One Twitter user said, “If you can’t make your case in 140 characters, having more space won’t help.” The author underscored this point. However, that was not what struck me as odd. What struck me as odd was that the quote was broken across three long tweets because it couldn’t fit anywhere near 140 characters. Twitter may serve legitimate purposes. Books and articles are still not obsolete.

Every U.S. presidential candidate in recent races, whether they are from the the left, right, or center, has something that they stand for. That “something” is usually big enough that even loyal followers can’t put all of it in words. But they also have a slogan. This slogan is often not even a complete sentence. The slogan may be just a short sentence fragment. And yet, at least to loyal followers, those few words put everything the candidate stands for in a very short nutshell. But the simple slogan comes after the big ideas a candidate stands for. The big ideas never stem from the slogan.

In the Gospel, Christ is asked which of the commandments is greatest out of the Law that opens the Bible, and answers, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” Someone familiar with the culture would recognize both the question and answer as stemming from an established and important tradition. Let me put the question in modern terms: “Out of all the commandments in the Law, can you put the whole thing in a nutshell?”

The response Christ gave wasn’t the only possible answer. There were several other accepted answers, such as “He has shown you, man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” However, the answer Christ gave was considered the greatest of all such answers. And there is a crucial point. You need to appreciate something of the Old Testament Law’s six hundred and thirteen commandments at some level before you understand why all of them fit in that nutshell. Reading a couple of sentences’ nutshell version is no substitute for knowing the Law in its long and complex form. Only then can you properly understand the nutshell.

Among the Great Teachers, the Golden Rule keeps resurfacing. People who have said giant things about ethics often say “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or something similar, and the Law of Love, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is considered an expression of the Golden Rule. However, it is lunacy to keep the text of the Golden Rule and simply drop the other 99% of what moral teachers have written. We need help fleshing things out.

People who are at the top of their game can put tremendously complex things into a nutshell. They can communicate with extreme simplicity. For instance, in Congressional hearings after the Challenger disaster, people were endlessly discussing whether O-rings could be brittle under cold conditions. People hemmed and hawed and said almost every perspective imaginable on the topic. Then Richard Feynman took a piece of an O-ring, swirled it around in his icewater, and went Snap! and was suddenly holding broken shards of O-ring. The discussion was over.

However, this isn’t because e.g. physics is simple and any physicist who can’t explain it simply doesn’t really understand. It says more about the talent that can reach mastery. Physics is not easy to master. It takes years for even very bright people to understand physics. The “Feynman lectures” are considered top masterpieces in scientific communication. They are noted for their simplicity. They are also simple for their subject and are not any kind of fluffy read. Let’s look at a related discipline. There was an uproar after Mattel released a speaking Barbie doll that might say, “Math is hard!” But the comment I remember from other math students was, “Umm… but math is hard!” Mathematicians consider doing something simply to be elegant and desirable given a correct solution, but math is is still hard. On that point I quote Einstein: “Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics. I can assure you that mine are greater still.”

Let me close with one illustration that closed an argument with something really beyond simplicity. In the “letters to the editor” section of a senior-oriented publication, one member wrote an article saying, in essence, “I have attended church such-and-such many years and during that time, I estimate that I have heard such-and-such many thousand sermons. I cannot however remember any of the sermons. I know that pastors work very hard on their sermons, but I wonder if their time might be better spent.”

Here, too, people hemmed and hawed, and made ongoing arguments in different discussions, until finally another member wrote a letter to the editor saying, “I met my wife such-and-such many years ago, and we have been happily married for such-and-such years. During that time, I estimate that my wife has made me such-and-such many tens of thousands of meals. I do not remember the recipe to any of the meals, but I am on the whole in good health and not any fatter than when I met her. I judge that it was worth her time to cook all those meals.”

The discussion was over.

Simplicity is good, but it is not the only good. And “Simplicity comes after complexity.”

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A long-lost letter to the editor

There was a letter to the editor I wrote long ago and have tried and failed to find. It did not seem to come up in a search on the magazine that printed it; but I do not fault the magazine or its website because I also could not find it in my Gmail archives. My Gmail account is over a decade old, but the core conversation was a couple of years before I opened my Gmail account.

What I essentially said was as follows:

The common terminology of “inclusive language” and “exclusive language” is loaded language and harsh, exclusive language… It would be better to speak of “belabored inclusive language” and “naturally inclusive language.”

Confidence and timidity

When I was on one consulting gig at a prestigious client, political correctness in language was present but not enforced. What I mean by that is this: I heard both the old style and the new style of language. I never heard someone get even a little upset at someone using “he” in an inclusive way, but there was a good chunk of my colleagues who used naturally inclusive language (N.B. including some immigrants), and a good chunk of my colleagues who used belabored inclusive language).

When people spoke in naturally inclusive language, without exception it was bold, confident, assured. And they did not seem to be thinking about being confident; they seemed to be quite undistracted in making whatever point they wanted to make.

When men at very least spoke (I don’t clearly remember a woman speaking in anything but naturally inclusive language, although that was probably included), there was a timidity and a bad kind of self-consciousness. Even a divided attention. A man saying “they” for a single person of unspecified sex always had a question on his face of “Is this un-sexist enough?” Even men who were current with the belabored inclusive language of political correctness as it existed then had a perennial distracted question on their faces of, “Have I done enough?” with significant doubt as to any definite and positive answer.

This kind of divided mind is not especially good for business communication, or non-business communication for that matter.

Feminists don’t even use inclusive language

Feminism is a bazaar not a cathedral, and one can find a mainstream feminist classic saying that “all the central terms [in feminism] are up for grabs” (and, presumably, one could also find numerous disagreements to those words). Even the term “feminism” may appear dated when this work is new; as of classes a decade ago feminism was working on a far-reaching rebranding as “gender studies”, and I tolerate both that this work’s treatment of feminism will likely appear dated in five or ten years, and for that matter might have appeared dated to feminist readers ten years ago. However, as no form of feminism that has emerged that I am aware of has yet been stable, I am not particularly interested in endlessly updating a minor work to keep up with fashions.

My point is this. I have read feminists at length. I have spoken with people and met its live form. I have taken a graduate course in feminist theology. One of my advisors was big enough in egalitarian circles to be a plenary speaker at Christians for “Biblical” Equality. And I have yet to read a feminist author use inclusive language. Ever.

How?

What do I mean by that?

The essential feminist bailiwick, the area of primary feminist concern, is members of the human species and the human race, Homo sapiens, who are female, for the entirety of life, from whenever life is considered to begin, to whenever life is considered to end.

And the universal feminist-used term for a member of this bailiwick is not “human female” or “female human.” It is “woman.”

Do you see something odd?

Without imposing nearly so great a reform program to create a politically correct English, we have a mainstream English term that begins and ends neatly where the bailiwick begins and ends, and a pronoun that works perfectly: “she.” This amounts to a much smaller shift in language than migrating from “man-hours” to “work-hours”, “waiter” or “waitress” to “server” and “waitstaff”, and selling “five-seat licenses,” a term which engenders considerable confusion about what part of the body most makes us human. By contrast, even cattle have historically been given enough dignity to be counted by the head. “Head” may be taken to have an undesired second meaning now, but couldn’t we at least be counted by the spine?

But every single feminist author I’ve read is content to refer to the entire bailiwick as “women.”

“Woman,” age-wise, is not inclusive language. It refers to adults alone, according to the shallow view of communication, and if “man” excludes “woman”, “woman” excludes “female children.”

It happens that feminist authors, at least for a present discussion, will talk about human females who are seniors and cope with issues about aging, or girls in math classes (classes which seem to always being given an ‘F’). And if a feminist author is writing about minors alone, she may refer to the human females in question as “girls.” But I have yet to read a feminist source of any decade use any other term at all for any member of the whole bailiwick. The sense is that when you write “woman,” female minors are spoken for. There is no felt need to specify “women and girls” (or, to perhaps pursue a familiar logic, “girls and women”) when the group of females in question is mixed and includes minors. Nor, as far as principles and general approach, is there any concept that a good solution for adult women might be misguided if applied to minors. There might be storms of protest at some strain of literature that says, “A man should watch his step carefully all the days of his life,” and the required, and almost hysterical, allegation placed that the author in question had not conceived of any advice that considers women, and this hysterical enough allegation may be accompanied by ostensible clarification that the text should only be quoted as “A man [Sic] should watch his [Sic] step carefully all the days of his [Sic] life.” But there is no uproar, there is not a whisper of dissent, when discussions of “women” are taken to obviously fully include girls unless excluded by context such as discussion of distinctively senior needs.

If you look at feminist use of the term “woman”, with blindingly obvious concern for all human females, you have a remarkably good working model for how a good, naturally inclusive language might function.

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