Satire / Humor Warning:
As the author, I have been told I have a very subtle sense of humor.
This page is a work of satire, inspired by the likes of The Onion and early incarnations of The Onion Dome.
It is not real news.
As the author, I have been told I have a very subtle sense of humor.
This page is a work of satire, inspired by the likes of The Onion and early incarnations of The Onion Dome.
It is not real news.
Fr. Cherubim has left a considerable wake; the tip of the iceberg is in his contribution to a wave of committed Evangelicals deciding that being Orthodox is an indispensible aid to pursuing their cottage industry of reconstructing the ancient Church. The sycophant excitedly commented, “Yes; there was an article on this phenomenon in The Onion Dome. It was a bit like that article in The Onion, um, what was it… there was a woman, a strong woman, who overcame years of childhood abuse to become a successful porn star…”
When I played Dungeons & Dragons in high school , one of the cardinal rules surrounded alignments: “Lawful Good”, “Neutral Good”, “Chaotic Good”, “Lawful Neutral”, “True Neutral”, “Chaotic Neutral”, “Lawful Evil”, “Neutral Evil”, and “Chaotic Evil”. Each of these alignments was quite different from each other, but there was a common undergirding: no matter what alignment you play, you pick a course of action and you stick with it. You may be a hero or a villain; you may be believe in organized cooperation or the power of the individual, but whatever your choice may be, you are shirking due diligence as a role playing gamer unless you pick a course of action and stick with it.
Except for one exception. “Chaotic Neutral” isn’t exactly a matter of picking a course of action and sticking it with it. “Chaotic Neutral” role play can be described as “You can do anything you want, as long as you don’t do it twice,” and it is the closest alignment to acting like a hero one day and a villain the next. It has a bad reputation among gamers, perhaps because it disproportionately draws gamers who want to dodge proper handling of one cardinal aspect of game play, and quite possibly may dodge due diligence in other areas as well. And the Western Rite seems in large measure to be the “Chaotic Neutral” of Orthodoxy.
If you are trying to understand Protestant Christianity, one of the key features you should understand is the “Great Apostasy”, even if the term is unfamiliar to many Protestants today. Today the Internet is in working order, and regardless of what may happen in the future, it would be a strange thing to seek out venture capitalists now to help fund the great endeavor of reconstructing the Internet. It doesn’t make sense to “reconstruct the Internet” unless the Internet is dead, which it isn’t. And it also doesn’t make sense to try to “reconstruct the authentic ancient Church” unless the ancient Church died and left no surviving continuation into our day.
The Reformers asserted that there were serious problems in the Catholic Church they knew, and on that score many loyal Romans agreed with them. (For that matter, there are problems in Orthodoxy today—real problems.) What the Reformers asserted was something stronger: some time between the days of the Apostles and their days, the genuine Church had vanished altogether, on some accounts very soon after the Apostles passed away, and this belief impelled them to a great project of scholarly research and antiquarian reconstruction to reconstruct the (genuine) ancient Church. And so we have the Evangelical cottage industry of trying to reconstruct the ancient Church, which only makes sense if the Church had vanished and, in Orthodox terms, there was no living Tradition whose milk we should turn to nurse from. It is not an accident that the Reformers abandoned Church vestments in favor of scholar’s robes; understanding the Bible was no longer through reading the words of holy saints, but through secular antiquarian research. (This attitude still holds in the secular discipline of Bible scholarship today.)
The Western Rite’s project does make some sense here: the Western Church did in fact go through a Great Apostasy, and while I have never heard someone from the Western Rite find a Great Apostasy and say that the Orthodox Church has died out in Antiochian, Greek, Russian, Serbian, Georgian, etc. living Tradition, none the less it is not a provocative thing to say that the West was once canonically Orthodox and has ceased to be that.
But in my conversations with Western Orthodox and what I have read, the plumbline of Orthodoxy is always a Protestant-style reconstruction of Western Orthodoxy from the time the West was Orthodox. Hence one asserts, for instance, that the vestments used follow the pattern of the time when East and West wore the same liturgical vestments, before the East changed. And this is not an isolated example; things keep coming up where the offered reason for a decision is that this is closest to what historical lessons tell us things were like in the ancient Church. It is a Protestant tune that is foreign to non-Western Rite Orthodox, and it keeps coming up.
One thing that concerns me is that Western Rite Orthodox are by and large not former Roman Catholics, but former Anglicans: one who understood Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism would be much more wary of former Anglicans practicing the Western Rite than former Romans. But let us waive that aside.
One point of spiritual danger for converts to the Orthodox Church is to overly associate with other converts from the same place, an arrangement that seems to invite subtle regressions to how the former confession places things. I have heard friends commenting how an Orthodox group of former Catholics was getting a bit unhealthy, and I have seen it in a mailing list of former Evangelicals. The Western Rite is largely a group of former Anglicans, and subtle (and maybe not-so-subtle) bits and pieces of Anglicanism seem to keep cropping up.
The Western Rite was unknown until St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco started to create it on his own authority; it is not a continuous, living tradition preserving Orthodoxy, and here nature abhors a vacuum. Converts practicing Western Orthodoxy, not in a position to nurse from the bosom of a living rite of Eastern Orthodoxy, willingly or unwillingly regress to the milk of an Anglicanism whose Archbishop of Canterbury is a Druid. (Some have said that the Anglican way is not via media as proclaimed, but “cut, copy, and paste.” But let us leave that aside.)
Christ did not invent baptism, nor did John the Baptist. Baptism was practiced in Judaism for the reception of non-Jewish pagans into Judaism: it was bringing in someone who was unambiguously portrayed as an outsider. What Christ did that was distinctive was to say that baptism is for everyone, Jew as much as Greek pagan. We all start outside.
The introduction to Bishop NIKOLAI’s Prayers by the Lake speaks of “the Christ-fighting Slavic soul”: Russians and Serbs need to swim upstream. And I remember a discussion with one Serb on Facebook who was a devout Orthodox and corrected my assumption that he had grown up in Orthodoxy: he grew up an atheist and learned that the giants of Serbian history were all Orthodox, and then discovered something much bigger than nationalism when he discovered Holy Orthodoxy.
One of the differences between Catholicism and Orthodoxy is that in Catholicism, philosophy and culture can be swapped in and out; Thomism is is a usual standby but Patriarch JOHN PAUL was a phenomenologist. In Orthodoxy, however, philosophy and culture are not something you change like a garment, and the Orthodox Church in its way keeps alive philosophies and cultures long after the West apostasized. Today’s Western culture boasts a millenium of apostasy and is scarcely closer to tenth century England than it is to present-day India. If you’re going to aim for what Western culture was when it was still Orthodox, you have at least as far to go as if you join an Orthodox Church and start to absorb its culture along the way.
And not to put too fine a point on it, but former Catholics and Protestants can only enter the Church as reconciled heretics; we may wish it were some other way, but former Anglicans (among others) are reconciled heretics who particularly need to submit to the Church as one shaped outside of her ways.
Let’s leave aside generalities for just one moment and talk in the specific. My priest is a protopresbyter or archpriest within ROCOR, and a former Anglican deacon. He is glad that he was not immediately ordained when he entered the Orthodox Church, but spent some time as a layman growing Orthodox roots. And not to put too fine a point on it, but I have never heard him argue, in Western Rite style, “This book says that this is how something was done in the ancient Church, so we should implement a program of change to restore this part of ancient Christianity.”
Not that he has any particular desire to throw out the old; he’s rather conservative. But one particular decision he has made is interesting. As well as being a priest he is a physician, a doctor who treats patients at the extremes of pain and suffering, and he has brought together an icon shrine devoted to one of the “holy unmercenary physicians”, saints who healed without charge. And he has placed, very near together, an icon of the ancient Roman St. Panteleimon next to a hand-painted icon of the twentieth century Blessed St. Luke. Another icon shows all of the holy unmercenaries across all the centuries, and as it so happens, the specific saint the corner is named after is St. Panteleimon. From the same fount as this icon corner comes a priest who will accept wisdom from a saint of any century, and again, I have never heard him argue, “This is what my book research says about how things were way back several centuries ago, or nineteenth century Russia or whatever, so we should change what we are doing to reconstruct the past.”
Looking at all the reconstruction of Western Orthodoxy that looms so large in the Western Rite, and seeing such an incredibly Anglican demeanor among Anglican converts who do not seem to really see themselves as reconciled heretics, wild olive branches grafted onto the Vine, leads me to want to say, “Oops… Could the Western Rite please try again?”
The Minstrel’s Song:
Further Notes and Musings
A note on magic…
Most people reading this have probably noticed the absence of anything magic.
This absence is quite intentional, and of it I would like to say a couple of things.
First of all, magic is sin. It’s that simple.
But, you may say, playing a character who uses magic does not mean that the player is tracing runes in the air, drawing chalk circles, and so on.
If you mean in the hands, granted. But there is something more to say.
One of the themes in the Sermon on the Mount is that purity belongs not only in the hands, but is to penetrate to the heart. Listen to how this precept is applied to sexual purity: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
That is to say, sin does not begin with the full act of sexual intercourse (outside of marriage); it is sinful to use the imagination to commit adultery in the heart — and a man who so much as casts one glance in lust has already done so.
The application to magic means that sin does not begin with chanting the words in a spellbook; it is wrong to use the imagination to use magic in the heart… and, just as lust does not begin after spending several minutes imagining every last instant and detail of foreplay and intercourse, pretending to use magic does not begin after imagining every last detail of casting a spell.
Role playing games provide a way to pretend, to use the imagination to become the great explorer who voyages into the unknown, the romantic bard whose tales spin beauty and wonder. Nobody wants to play a scullery maid or a cobbler who makes shoes day in and day out; a character who is played for enjoyment is someone whom it would be enjoyable to be. To play is to pretend; to have fun by playing a magical character is to have fun by committing the sin of sorcery in the heart. (The same also goes for violence, deceit, theievery, etc.)
The second thing to say is this: God creates. Satan only mocks. forming counterfeit substitutes.
Lust is not a wonderful creative flair which Satan came up with. Marriage, including sex, is God’s good creation; it is sacred, so much so that the Song of Songs (a Hebrew superlative meaning the greatest and most beautiful of songs) is devoted to eroticism. Lust is a cheap substitute, a cold prickly where God intends warm fuzzies. It can only be appealing because of the goodness of sex.
If the analogy is extended to magic, several useful things can be drawn from the analysis.
The question, “Why do people derive pleasure from pretending to use magic?” has two answers which I can immediately see.
The first is “Power.” Magical powers enable characters to do amazing things.
Power is certainly not innately evil — God is all-powerful, and the believer who walks in the Spirit grows in power — but Satan often twists it to do what it was never meant to; function as a substitute for love. Totalitarian dictators and despots are rarely described by psychologists as having spent childhood surrounded by warm and compassionate friends; they are rather described as having been picked on and bullied. Power has a place in life, but role play is not enhanced by making characters into demigods. The terms ‘munchkin’ and ‘Monty Haul’ do not describe a solid campaign. Perhaps a character is less powerful in some ways if he does not have a cloak which turns him invisible, but that does not make him a boring and pointless character.
The second, and in my estimation far more informative, answer to the question is, “Wonder.”
In common speech and in literature, words such as ‘magical’ and ‘enchanted’ are used to describe things that are spectacular, awe inspiring, breathtaking.
God created people to be filled with wonder. Wonder fills pious living, and one of the many evils of looking to magic is that it has a grievous potential to blind people to the wonder God wants to fill them with.
There is wonder in little things that often go unnoticed; in the dance of a candle’s flame and the feel of a gentle breeze. The created order — from the deep majesty of the starry vault, to the height of the mountains, to the depth of the oceans — is, as the human body, fearfully and wonderfully made.
There is also wonder in music, in art, in dance, in the form of ideas. It lies in personality, in the beauty of the human spirit. Finally, above and beyond these and many other things, is a source of wonder greater still.
The final and greatest source of wonder is God himself.
It is the motion of the Spirit which animates worship; indeed, Spirit-filled worship is probably the most wondrous element of human experience. It is the motion of the Spirit which enables men to speak in the tongues of men and angels; it is the motion of the Spirit which transported Philip from the Ethiopian eunuch to Azoth.
One need only read the story of Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al to catch a little of this. Elijah summoned the four hundred and fifty prophets of Ba’al, and asked the people of Israel, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If Yahweh is God, worship him, but if Ba’al is God, worship him.” He proposed a contest: each would have a bull to offer in sacrifice; the hundreds of prophets of Ba’al would ask Ba’al to send fire to their sacrifice, and Elijah would ask Yahweh to send fire to his sacrifice, and the one who answers with fire — he is God.
The prophets of Ba’al went about for hours dancing and gashing themselves, taunted by Elijah: “Surely Ba’al is god! Why don’t you cry a little louder? He could be asleep, or traveling. Who knows? Maybe he’s sitting on his porcelain throne.”
After a while, it was Elijah’s turn. He told the people, “I don’t want to bore Yahweh. This is too easy.” So, after preparing the sacrifice, he made the people thoroughly drench it in water, and drench it again, and then drench it again. Then he prayed, and fire came down from Heaven, consuming the bull, the wood, and all of the water.
It is not in magic, but in the Spirit — always faithful and never predictable — that the believer finds wonder.
One more note on magic:
There are certain elements of magic which seem to recurrently appear in Christian-designed fantasy role playing games.
I am referring in particular to magic in which the Bible or some book of liturgy becomes a spellbook, and verses/prayers/quotations become runes, incantations, etc.
If I may provide an analogy…
Creating a pornographic film is wrong.
Creating a pornographic film which has as its characters the characters of the Gospel (ergo, where it is Jesus, his disciples, Mary Magdala, the prostitutes and tax collectors whom Jesus said were entering the Kingdom of Heaven ahead of the Pharisees and so on who have an orgy, instead of random 20th century people having an orgy), is still wrong.
What is wrong with the latter mentioned pornographic film is not that it contains characters from the Gospel. What is wrong is that it is a pornographic film. Using Gospel characters within the context of a pornographic film does not make everything OK. The context of a pornographic film is wrong, even if the characters who appear in it are perfectly fine.
Now, to extend the analogy to gaming…
It is wrong to play a character who spends time studying dusty spellbooks, from which he learns a magical incantation which, once per day, will cause a fireball to explode in the midst of the enemy, or enable him to fly, or create a magical shield about him.
That stated, let me quote the LightRaider Net fanzine, for the Christian DragonRaid game, (c) 1996 Jill Oviatt (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Charlie Banders (email@example.com).
An important WordRune that I think goes hand in hand with #55 Purge Evil WordRune (covered in issue #5) is #49, No Sweat WordRune.NIV Romans 8:31b “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
This simple and easily memorized scripture (especially if you know the D+K song) is good by itself, but also a good balance to #55. Whereas #55 helps with the offensive strategy of the LightRaider, #49 helps with the defensive side of a battle. The No Sweat WordRune will allow you to raise your LightRaiders ‘Shield of Faith rating by 3 for the duration of one encounter’. This Wordrune may only be used once per day so use it wisely.
Even in an allegorical situation… This is still magical. It does not involve prayer which rests on faith and which God grants, but memorization, recitation, words which bear power in and of themselves, and in terms of description and game mechanical effects is indistinguishable from a wizard’s spell in Dungeons and Dragons.
Prayer is powerful, and memorization of Scripture is good. But the essence of prayer does not stem from the words in which it is spoken: when Jesus gave a model prayer in the Sermon on the Mount, he chastened people who babble because they believe they will be heard for the many words, and reminded his disciples that their Heavenly Father knew what they needed before they began to ask. When the Samaritan woman asked Jesus which place was the true place to worship, on this mountain or on that mountain, Jesus answered that the true place to worship was in Spirit and in truth. Does one do justice to these teachings of Jesus by saying that specific words spoken in prayer have a power in and of themselves, residing the words, that would not be found in any other words? No. The New Testament teaching is that the power resides in the prayer and in the faith of the believer, to which God responds as a loving father, which is anything but governed by mechanistic rules as given in such games.
This kind of thing is, just like taking characters from the Gospel and incorporating them into a pornographic film, taking words from Scripture and incorporating them into a system of magic.
This is not how God works and answers prayer.
A note on stories (note: this falls into the category of half-baked musings and suggestions rather than moral compulsions, and I may well be speaking of the impossible)
There was one professor of music who said of worship song that, rather than thinking “Here is the song on paper; we start it at time X and finish it at time Y”, it might be better to think of one neverending song that always has been and always will be rising in the presence of the Eternal; people who sing step, for a while, into this song.
My story is like a thread being woven into a great tapestry; beautiful in and of itself, it is being led into contact with other threads, and slowly woven into a magnificent whole. It is not the Story before which there was no world; it is a story which is rather included in a beauty it could never attain on its own. It is not really that God is a part of what I am doing, so much as that I am a part of what God is doing.
Something of this might be brought into play; rather than one party in the world which acts upon a static situation (and in which other events occasionally happen as needed as plot devices for the story of the one party), there might be a Copernican revolution to the point where the world is full of interconnected stories which are parts of the one great Story; the characters and the party are dancing the great Dance.
I’m not entirely sure how to implement this — I’m netter at designing worlds than telling stories; my mind is more shaped around what is, than what happens — but the following seem to be at least promising:
If the characters have a strictly professional relationship — I’ll keep track of where we are, deal with organization, and talk with the locals; you’ll take care of food and other supplies; Jim will work on puzzles and jury-rigging something to do the trick when we’re up against a brick wall, etc. — then that may be feasible. Indeed, working together to solve a puzzle is a quite enjoyable experience. I think, however, that rich role play should have friendship as well, which will work out to personal relationships more complex than individual/group.
I think that email may be able to bear *some* of the load. Letters from one character to another/others (cc’d to the game master) are a substantial tool for character development and role play. They can carry some interpersonal conversations very well, and are wonderful, to speak in a timewise manner: each player sends his character’s words when he is free, and the additional strain on the game master is negligible.
This should not supplant the traditional mode of play. Face to face interaction, the general social environment, munchies and something to drink — this is an enjoyable atmosphere, and a part of why the game is enjoyable.
A note on puzzles…
“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, and the glory of kings to search it out.”
After role play, an orientation towards puzzles should be an important constituent of enjoyable play. There is a certain pleasure that comes of a challenge mastered, and that pleasure is particularly sweet when it comes from the mastery of a puzzle. (The balance which should constitute play, as I envision it, would consist of role play, exploration, wonder (motion of the Spirit and detail in the world), and problem solving)
The following are suggested examples of puzzles:
Riddles: These could be posed by a gatekeeper as a requisite to crossing a bridge etc.; alternately, a door could have a riddle engraved on it, the answer to which would tell where the key may be found, or what button to press, or…
Logic puzzles: See Raymond Smullyan, _The_Lady_or_the_Tiger?;_ a good library, in that section, should have other books with other appropriate puzzles.
Mazes: twisty passages, secret doors…
Cryptogram: On this point, I would issue a strong warning, from personal nbobi experience, that the objective is *not* to protect information, but to es”Ni provide a puzzle which can be solved in a reasonable amount of time. er”nt Ergo, simple and relatively easy: substitution ciphers, something where eeytl the direction is reversed and the vowels are deleted, a creative ntofe rearrangement where “Ninety nine bottles of beer” becomes the contents of the square to the right, a text where the first letter of each word spells out the message, etc. It is very easy to make something which is too hard and frustrating to the players, but care and moderation should make something enjoyable.
Word game: Give a text with one rather bizarre feature — a void to perceive, or an odd pattern — which, when noticed, will be helpful to the party.
Strategy games: Something simple, but different. Examples of such games may be found among mathematical puzzle books in a library.
Spatial/three dimensional puzzles: Sokoban, various disassembly/reassembly puzzles which may be found in shops, Towers of Hanoi… if these can not be acquired, it’s not the end of the world, but they should add something.
Guess the rules: A very simple strategy game, with a (non-optimal) algorithm to play against… but the rules are not initially given, beyond a yes/no answer to the question of, “Is this legal?”
Tesselation puzzles: Fit the pieces in place and/or assemble to make a certain form.
(Explicit) mathematical problems: If there’s a good way to put them in play, math contest problems of the sort that can be found in books are a lot of fun to solve.
Charles Baudelaire, in “La Morale du Joujou”, made some very interesting observations about children’s play and toys… the most notable was that children, when they play with toys, are not really playing with toys.
There are some, to be sure, that, in all of their flash and snazzle, leave nothing to the imagination… but many, perhaps most children’s toys as played with mean a manner of play that uses toys as a springboard to play with imagination.
He commented, with a degree of sadness, that many adults who attend theater do not realize that it is possible to faithfully play Shakespeare with a very simple stage and costume setup. I think that something similar is to be seen in our culture’s intolerance of puppetry as a serious adult form of drama; only trivia that is small enough to relegate to children may be permitted to leave pieces to be filled in in the viewer’s mind. Hollywood in its present form spends who knows how many million dollars (probably enough to feed and clothe a small third world country) per movie on special effects and computer graphics. The result leaves nothing to the imagination but the plot.
Role playing games are, in a sense, a manner of play which does not directly fall prey to this tendency. Play sometimes involves the use of miniatures, many game books have vivid pictures, and game masters normally generate maps, but the general nature of play finds it entirely feasible to play in a space that exists within the imagination.
I would suggest, however, that this takes a second order form as comes to technical rules and game models. Bad players attempt to use game mechanics as a substitute for playing properly, and proper play — though characters may have attributes and skills to tell the game master what die roll is necessary to successfully swat a mosquito — does not really consist of it. Just as children use their toys but do not really play with them, good players use game rules but do not really play with them. To role play a believable and rounded character is too complex to reduce to dice and charts.
The one point where it is disanalogous, is strategic complexity. Complex and well-designed rule systems facilitate a high level of mathematical problem solving; I would describe the problem solving side of fantasy and science fiction battles as the intersection between mathematics and military strategy.
I think, however, that that challenge can come into through play through proper choice of puzzles.
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Wardrobe of fur coats and fir trees:
Sword and armor, castle and throne,
Talking beast and Cair Paravel:
From there began a journey,
From thence began a trek,
Further up and further in!
The mystic kiss of the Holy Mysteries,
A many-hued spectrum of saints,
Where the holiness of the One God unfurls,
Holy icons and holy relics:
Tales of magic reach for such things and miss,
Sincerely erecting an altar, “To an unknown god,”
Enchantment but the shadow whilst these are realities:
Whilst to us is bidden enjoy Reality Himself.
Further up and further in!
A journey of the heart, barely begun,
Anointed with chrism, like as prophet, priest, king,
A slow road of pain and loss,
Giving up straw to receive gold:
Further up and further in!
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner,
Silence without, building silence within:
The prayer of the mind in the heart,
Prayer without mind’s images and eye before holy icons,
A simple Way, a life’s work of simplicity,
Further up and further in!
A camel may pass through the eye of a needle,
Only by shedding every possession and kneeling humbly,
Book-learning and technological power as well as possessions,
Prestige and things that are yours— Even all that goes without saying:
To grow in this world one becomes more and more;
To grow in the Way one becomes less and less:
Further up and further in!
God and the Son of God became Man and the Son of Man,
That men and the sons of men might become gods and the sons of God:
The chief end of mankind,
Is to glorify God and become him forever.
The mysticism in the ordinary,
Not some faroff exotic place,
But here and now,
Living where God has placed us,
Lifting where we are up into Heaven:
Paradise is wherever holy men are found.
Escape is not possible:
Yet escape is not needed,
But our active engagement with the here and now,
And in this here and now we move,
Further up and further in!
We are summoned to war against dragons,
Sins, passions, demons:
Unseen warfare beyond that of fantasy:
For the combat of knights and armor is but a shadow:
Even this world is a shadow,
Compared to the eternal spoils of the victor in warfare unseen,
Compared to the eternal spoils of the man whose heart is purified,
Compared to the eternal spoils of the one who rejects activism:
Fighting real dragons in right order,
Slaying the dragons in his own heart,
And not chasing (real or imagined) snakelets in the world around:
Starting to remove the log from his own eye,
And not starting by removing the speck from his brother’s eye:
Further up and further in!
Spake a man who suffered sorely:
For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time,
Are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us, and:
Know ye not that we shall judge angels?
For the way of humility and tribulation we are beckoned to walk,
Is the path of greatest glory.
We do not live in the best of all possible worlds,
But we have the best of all possible Gods,
And live in a world ruled by the him,
And the most painful of his commands,
Are the very means to greatest glory,
Exercise to the utmost is a preparation,
To strengthen us for an Olympic gold medal,
An instant of earthly apprenticeship,
To a life of Heaven that already begins on earth:
He saved others, himself he cannot save,
Remains no longer a taunt filled with blasphemy:
But a definition of the Kingdom of God,
Turned to gold,
And God sees his sons as more precious than gold:
Beauty is forged in the eye of the Beholder:
Further up and further in!
When I became a man, I put away childish things:
Married or monastic, I must grow out of self-serving life:
For if I have self-serving life in me,
What room is there for the divine life?
If I hold straw with a death grip,
How will God give me living gold?
Further up and further in!
Verily, verily, I say to thee,
When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself,
And walkedst whither thou wouldest:
But when thou shalt be old,
Thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee,
And carry thee whither thou wouldest not.
This is victory:
Further up and further in!
It has been a while since I journalled. I kept some journals after my Journal of an Awakening, but they disappeared when my previous laptop died. I am not sure this is a bad thing; I don’t think that what I said in them was on par with my Journal of an Awakening, and certainly not stellar. It is not my talent to be able to continue to produce good writing in a genre of my choosing; writing in a new genre has often been easier than writing in one I have practice in. Or, to put it differently, my writings come to me with the genres they will be in, and if I try to force success in a style that has succeeded for me in the past, I may cause the style, but I will not always cause a successful writing.
Now writing is coming to me — or has been coming to me, I haven’t gotten it written down yet, and I fear I may have lost some of it — so it is time for me to get back to journalling, not necessarily on a day by day basis, but when the muse strikes. Tonight will be my first night in my new 1 bedroom apartment, and I will have more time — though I do not know what, or how much, will come to me.
The thing that has brought me back to journalling is as follows:
Last schoolyear, I spoke with a mystic who is a student at Pooh’s Corner (the group of people at Wheaton who meets to read children’s books aloud), and I talked about how I identify with Charles Wallace in Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, and Michael Valentine Smith in Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. I asked him if he knew of any other characters like that. He suggested that I read Steven Lawhead’s Merlin, where Merlin is portrayed as the last of the Druids, a Christian who has grown up with Druid lore, a mystic, and a politically active prophet. I was disappointed — I had been disappointed at his placement of Merlin with Moses and Elijah as political/leader/prophet/mystic types, because the character of Merlin reeks of magic, a reek that has as little to do with Christian mysticism as astrology does with astronomy. I did not mention this to him, because I did not want to enter a fruitless argument (I have had enough of those to last a lifetime), but I was disappointed.
Recently, wanting to read something that would give me insights into medieval culture (and having learned from another friend that Lawhead did historical research before writing), I checked Merlin out at the library, read partway through, and returned it after reading the scene in which Merlin makes the stones fly around in a circle. This was a display of pagan magic, not a Christian miracle, and I read it with a feeling of defilement.
I later waited and picked up the book again, reading it to the end. There were passages that I did not read in good conscience. There were other passages that grabbed me. As I began writing this journal entry, I realized — or, more properly, remembered — something. When I first read Stranger, I hated it — I saw its lewdness, its anti-Christian invective, its introduction of psychic powers in a context that (at least to begin) seemed as out of place, deus ex machina, as anything I could think of — and none of its strengths. I was going to say that I didn’t know if I was going to read Merlin again, but then I reflected on my actions in the past and how my emotions flow, and I realized that I will probably read Merlin again, but not now. God willing, the time of rereading will be when I know in my heart that God has given me the strength to be ready to read it without being troubled by the parts that defiled my conscience — and God has given me the strength to read Stranger — I was not polluted by it, merely angered.
What about Merlin pulls me, that I am writing about it now? I had that more clearly in my mind a few days ago, when I was thinking, walking about at a classic car show with my parents and one of my brothers, but there are three things:
I also realized that many of the things that are supporting me now are things that I picked up along the way in activities I was discouraged from as distractions from my work. I learned how to program when I wrote The Minstrel’s Song — and it has profited me far more than additional effort on coursework would have. My writings on my web page are also things I have been discouraged from doing, and in them I believe I am accomplishing far more of lasting value there than in my job. Life is what happens when you are making other plans.
There was something else nagging at the back of my mind yesterday, that I wanted to remember, but couldn’t. It was the other point that motivated me to want to write in this journal.
On Saturday, my family went out to eat at a nice Italian restaurant. We were all under-dressed and over-smelly from a day’s hard work, and I was unshaven. I needed to go to the restroom in the beginning, and (after I washed my hands) I turned to find a towel dispenser to dry my hands. There was a smiling black man in a tuxedo (sans jacket), holding a roll of paper towel, and standing next to a rack of amenities (I remember seeing small cigars, and other things that looked expensive); he was complimenting me on my “PRAY HARD” T-shirt.
I was only marginally able to keep my composure then; I wouldn’t have been bothered that much by just having someone to hand me paper towel, but having a black man do it… I was not comfortable. It was patently offensive to me. It felt like having a slave. Semiotically, everything about him said, “I am here to smile and adore you, but I am only here to be treated like part of the wallpaper, to be treated like dirt if you are in a bad mood.” He looked like support staff under the mentality that makes jokes like, “Confucius say, ‘Secretary not part of furniture until screwed on desk.'” During dinner, I thought of reading about Gandhi as he was in danger and a rickshaw (a man-pulled cart which aged and wore terribly at its carriers) was offered to him… my feelings were lesser, but they were of the same kind.
After dinner, I needed to go to the bathroom, and it wasn’t until I was almost there that I remembered he was there… I had enough time using the facilities to decide that, if I could not avoid him, I could at least treat him as a peer, not as part of the furniture. So I talked with him, treating him as cordially as he treated me, and he told me that he was a Jew who grew up Baptist, but had never been to a synagogue. He asked me if I was a minister.
I think I missed a witnessing opportunity. The one person I spoke with about it thought I was being too hard on myself — I was tired and in a hurry — but there was an opportunity I missed to speak with someone who had some questions, and who was probably ready to move one step closer to the Kingdom of Light.
I have grown up in an academic context which tells us that witnessing is offensive and evil (at least when done by Christians — when done by environmentalists, it is treated differently). Sometimes it is even necessary to be offensive. But there are also many times when witness is not necessarily offensive, when it is welcome.
I think our equation of witnessing with offensiveness and disrespect for persons should be jettisoned.
I have been thinking recently about the origins of the word ‘obscene’. Ob-scene material is material that takes place off-scene.
As the word has developed, it has come to mean “material which should not be portrayed because it is highly inappropriate to portray.” (The meaning has narrowed further to mean “inappropriate sexual content”. I have not heard any contemporary usage having ‘obscene’ refer to violent content — probably stemming from the same reason as why there are innumerable films rated X due to sexual content, but almost none rated X due to violent content — the mentality that, in the words of one Christianity Today article, “finds massaging a breast to be more offensive than cutting it off.” Dorothy Sayers’ essay “The Other Six Deadly Sins” speaks powerfully to this problem.)
The word ‘obscene’ means “inappropriate content” to us, but placing material off-scene can serve other literary purposes. Done the right way, off-scene presentation can be more powerful than on-scene presentation. In Calvin and Hobbes, there are references to “the noodle incident”, which is never described. Watterson said that he believed it would be better if left to the reader’s imagination. For related but subtly different reasons, I am intentionally not specifying small but significant facets of my second novel — Aed’s academic discipline is never explicitly stated.
Giving just enough hints to fuel the imagination can be a powerful alternative to explicit portrayal.
There is a musing which I had some time ago, and never recorded.
When I was a TA in UIUC’s math department, during orientation, Prof. Weichsel told us, if we had to do something unpopular, to say, “It’s department policy,” and that he would be the complaints department for us, as well as a resource for questions and problems that came up.
I never said that an unpopular decision was department policy, but there was something that struck me about this, a sense of “You are supported in your good faith efforts.” He might suggest a different way of handling a situation if it came up in the future, but he would support us in our efforts.
I believe some of the same beauty is true of God. In terms of dealing with moral dilemmas, I have come to believe that a Christian who listens to the Spirit and makes a good faith effort to do right in a moral dilemma doesn’t have to succeed in guessing the right course of action — even if he makes a mistake in judgment, his action is holy, supported by God. There is a story — first mentioned to me, by the way, in a discussion with a Christian who believes in a just war — about one of Corrie ten Boom’s family, sheltering Jews when a Nazi soldier came and asked, “Are you hiding any Jews?” She told the truth: “Yes. They’re hiding under the table.” The Nazis didn’t believe her. They went on their way.
From the other side, there was a Christian couple, the wife pregnant and grievously ill. The doctors told her, “You cannot live and carry this child. You’re going to have to have an abortion.” After great prayer and deliberation, they decided to have the child removed from their womb and an attempt made to save his life. The child lived, and is a blessing to those who come into contact with him.
If I were asked, I would have advised both to choose differently. (At least a possibility in the first case, with my mind changing over time, and a certainty in the second case. I have heard of hard cases where not having an abortion would have been very difficult. I have not heard of a case where I would have approved of an abortion, and one person I have known was born out of one of those very hard cases.) Perhaps I am right, perhaps I am wrong; I am not raising these cases to stand in judgment over my fellow believers. The reason I am raising these cases is to say that God supported the believers in their choice. This is not an occasion for license to do anything and say “God will support me” — in both cases, people were seeking to do God’s will; it is necessary to seek out a knowledge of the right action through prayer and the Spirit — but it does mean that we are not going to land in trouble because there was a legitimate debate among believers, and we came down on one side of it, and God came down on another. (And — who knows? Maybe the lines of morality fall differently than any human system; maybe God led and specifically wanted Miss ten Boom to tell the truth about whether she was sheltering Jews, and specifically wanted Dietrich Bonhoeffer to try to assassinate Hitler. I don’t know if that is true, but it seems on a surface view to be consistent with how God works.)
Existentialism portrays a picture where we are orphans, who must make any, arbitrary choice because we are abandoned and without guidance. The place I was at for a while, where I believed you had to choose the right thing, believed there was a right choice, but saw us as in a sense abandoned in trying to pick out that choice. It had a ring of existentialism. This is, I believe, removes another layer of existentialism: there is a right choice, but God supports us in our efforts to pursue that choice; we are not abandoned in picking out the right. We are God’s children. We are supported.
After having a rough end of week, I was warmed by one part in particular of a conversation with my friend Heather. She and her boyfriend Josh had independently worked out an idea, which I will briefly summarize here as contrasting a Hellenistic mindset (thinking logically and constructing systems which men can piece together logically — and having difficulty with sets of statements that the thinker cannot reconcile) with a Hebraic mindset (believing that God is sovereign and accepting his sovereignty in a way that is open to paradox — and therefore not needing to fall into e.g. Calvinist/Arminian camps). (Josh wants to do a Ph.D. thesis about this, and Heather wants to write a book together, and Josh wants to have the book wait until the thesis is done — therefore I do not wish to explore details about their idea, which I think is an excellent discovery worthy of development and sharing, at this point.)
When Heather and I were walking, she commented to me that she had realized that talking with me about that idea and about the Hebraic mindset was like talking with a fish about water. I felt very warmed by that comment; it seemed to me a marker of a kind of spiritual success. It seemed to me a sign that I had become steeped in the Scriptures and Christian ways of thought.
There was a classic poster I saw at Wheaton’s Computing Services on how to become a Unix wizard. It had, catechism style, questions of “How many kernels do I have to build?” and “Which books do I have to read?” The last question was, “How can I know when I have become a wizard?” The answer to it was, “Never mind that. Keep on toiling, and some day you will look back and realize the mantle of wizardhood has been on your shoulders since you knew not when.” I had not exactly the same experience; the image describes if anything more than I really experienced, but one of similar poetic resonance; I was down, and a comment like that was a pleasant surprise. Thinking Christianly means a great deal to me, and I believe that comment was a part of God’s ministrations of grace to me that day.
I have been thinking about a distinction for the past couple of days, between what might be termed explicit and implicit, or perhaps strong and weak, awareness. When someone says something that you knew beforehand but didn’t have the words to say, that is a transition from implicit or weak awareness to explicit or strong awareness. When you sense something but can’t quite put your finger on what, that is implicit awareness.
There are at least two levels of explicit awareness, and two levels of implicit awareness (although they are not in parallel — the difference between levels of implicit awareness is not the same kind of thing as the difference between levels of explicit awareness). The second level of explicit awareness is the one hinted at so far — when an implicit awareness is made explicit. There is also a first level of explicit awareness, where there is explicit expression without implicit awareness. This is what you have when you read a book but don’t yet know what it means, when the material has not been digested. The first level of implicit awareness, on the other hand, is what I have hinted at; the second level of implicit awareness lies beyond implicit awareness.
As to what that means — in a certain sense, I don’t see through the Hebraic mindset as Josh articulated it, and I don’t believe in the seven virtues or the seven deadly sins. I believe that all of the seven deadly sins are sins, and that the seven virtues are virtues, and I accept a great deal of what is said about them, but I don’t think in terms of the lists. You might say that I believe the list of the seven deadly sins, and the list of the seven virtues, are structured mnemonics that let people see a deeper structure, and I believe in the deeper structure, but not the superficial list. Or, another way of putting it would be, the lists of seven deadly sins and seven virtues are organizing lines drawn over a map, and I know the terrain and believe that it has structure, but I believe that the lines drawn (for the most part — not, for instance, the lines between land and water) are at least partially mnemonics, and not purely statements about the terrain. Lao Tze began the Tao Te Ching by saying, “The name that can be named is not the ultimate name,” (other translations being possible), and I believe that the deepest levels of awareness are beyond what one can say in words and mental structure. This is not true of God — he can express himself in a Word quite well — but, in the things they know most, such as their cultures, humans are terrible at explanation precisely because they know them too intimately to express them well. TAs are often better teachers than their professors, because they learned the material recently, and are more easily able to recall an explicit form like the way they learned.
Someone can see an explicit awareness instead of seeing through it to a second level implicit awareness. When Heather and Josh presented their thoughts on the Hebraic mindset, I saw the explicit portion — the lines drawn on the map… I think it was an explicit explanation of something I knew implicitly on the second level.
At least that’s a rough sketch; someone who saw my point might not subscribe to a number of particulars. There is a link between the first and second levels of implicit awareness, a continuum perhaps; tighter, at any rate, than between the levels of explicit awareness. Self-consciousness I associate with the second level of explicit awareness; the transition from the first level of implicit awareness to the second level of explicit awareness to the second level of implicit awareness is like the transition from simplicity to complexity to simplicity on the other side of complexity, or (in Unashamed) Abby’s transition from a free lack of self-consciousness to self-consciousness to an ease on the other side of self-consciousness.
At any rate, this insight could be applied to itself, or more properly to my expression of it; I spend a lot of time taking implicit awareness and making it explicit.
It seems a danger of writing that, when you draw lines to illustrate features of the terrain, readers will take the lines and forget the shape of the terrain.
The above distinction might be helpful in refuting the teaching that the real test of whether you understand a matter is whether you can explain it well to a layperson — the implication being that, unless you can do so, you don’t really understand what you’re talking about. One would never tell a sniper that, unless he can convey his skill in five minutes, it doesn’t count that he can hit shell casings from across a football field.
Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Life is worth living, intrinsically because of how God created it, but it bespeaks examination highly that Socrates would say that without it, life is not worth living.
What are the other things that a person could love so much as to say, at least poetically, that without it life is not worth living? I put that imperfectly; I could only honestly say “An unexamined life is not worth living,” if I were speaking poetically, but I believe that Socrates was speaking quite literally when he made that comment; the difference stems partly from different views of what the basic value of human life is.
I should also like to nuance this by mentioning an old distinction between “Good for all people” and “Good for me.” People make an error by going from a realization (true) that something has been highly beneficial to them, to a conclusion (false) that that something would be highly beneficial for everybody. Communion with God is good for anybody, but many spiritual practices are tremendous channels of grace through which God has blessed some people, without being beneficial for everyone. In the list, I will list things which have enough goodness that a poet could say that without it, life is not worth living. Some of these things I will list will be good for all people, and others of them will be good for some people, but not others; I will not distinguish between them.
What are some blessings of which a person who grew in them might say, “Without this, life is not worth living?” I can think of the following:
The list is neither definitive nor complete; it has fuzzy borders, and some parts of it might be contested. Being a good means in some sense being a deep good, and some of these goods have more in them than we commonly think. (The flipside, which I don’t know how to reconcile, is that some goods will deliver more if we do not have massive expectations of them; romance is this way, and C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves talks about how appreciation of nature can work this way: a Romantic-style worshipper of nature will be surprised by the beauty of nature less than will a Christian who goes into his garden merely to pray. I think romance is too inflated in our culture; we are to draw our sustenance from a diversity of goods, and (if not romance) I have tried to draw too much sustenance from lesser goods, like putting too much weight on a weak limb.)
There was something I thought of in a conversation with Heather that I want to record here. It concerns the sovereignty of God and free will.
The Calvinist-Armenian debate attests to the difficulty we have seeing both at the same time. My present insight is not exactly concerned with that question, or at least not primarily and directly concerned with it, but with the question of guidance, free will, and God’s direction for our lives. It concerns how we make decisions. The two major camps on this question are as follows:
It is the time-worn philosopher’s trick to say “the two opposing schools are both wrong because of where they both agree: …”, and I was trying to think of a less shopworn way to present where I’m going with this. I won’t exactly say “Both schools are wrong because of where they both agree,” but I am going to say “Both schools appear incomplete because of something they both miss.” I will leave it to the reader’s judgment as to whether I am saying anything different.
What do I think the two camps are missing? When two friends meet, the question of how the meeting will end is not determined a priori. It could be that one of them or the other will have some prior need that says “I have to be somewhere at 3:30,” so that that result is fixed at the beginning, but it will often be the case that the friends decide together how long to meet, and that the end time of their gathering is set by the interaction of the two people, so that the question of “Who will end the time together?” may have no fixed answer ahead of time.
The point where I would challenge both camps is that they both seem to believe that the real outcome of a decision boils down to the decision of one fixed party. Either God’s sovereignty means that we need to agree with God’s one decision in our lives, or our free will means that the decision is ours to make. As an alternative to this, I propose a metaphor of friends meeting: sometimes, God will have a very detailed, specific plan and say “I want you to do this” (Heather pointed out that God is often much more explicit and more likely to use skywriting with young believers), and sometimes, a decision will be left to us, but much of the time, we are invited to partnership, making decisions together with God, in which sovereignty and free will come together, in which seeking out God’s will is mingled with responsible exercise of our own free wills.
One might suggest as a description that, instead of saying that the decision is 100% God’s and 0% yours, or 0% God’s and 100% yours, or even stopping with a compromise that says the decision is 50% God’s and 50% yours, a decision instead that is 100% God’s and 100% yours, or perhaps 80% God’s and 80% yours. God chooses to exercise his sovereignty in a way that respects free will, so that it is possible to submit totally to God (or perhaps I should say, supposing for the sake of argument that we on earth could submit totally to God), and free will still exists and has room to breathe, and that free will, responsibly exercised to its fullest, respects God’s sovereignty. The reason I said 80-80 is that there are times when humility before God demands the sacrifice of things that free will has legitimate claim to, and because some people might argue that God lets go of things he has claim to because of people’s prayer (but I don’t want to discuss here the debate as to whether God ever changes his mind). Beyond that, I believe that the metaphor of friends meeting helps us to see a way in which sovereignty and free will can occupy the same space.
Another concept I’ve been drawing on recently involves some mathematical concepts, concerning what is called a function or a mapping.
A mapping is like a black box, where you put something in and you get something out. An example of a mapping might be the height of a person: for each person, there is a height. On the box analogy, you could put me in the box, and out comes a height of six feet. A telephone directory is an example of another mapping: you put into the box a person’s or company’s name, and out of it you get a phone number.
There are some cases where a mapping is invertible: it runs backwards. A telephone directory represents an invertible function: it is possible to make a reverse telephone directory, where you start with a phone number, and look up a person’s name.
Each function has a domain, of what you can put into the box, and a range of what you can get out of it. The domain of a telephone directory function consists of people and organizations, and the range is telephone numbers. The domain of the height function is the set of people, and the range is the set of heights.
Not all functions are invertible. If a function is not one to one — if more than one input has the same output — then it is ambiguous to say “Give me the thing the function maps to this result,” because more than one thing might map to the result. If someone says, “Give me the height of C.J.S. Hayward,” it is a straightforward thing to measure my height. If, however, someone remembers my height but forgets my name, and says, “Give me the person who is six feet tall,” then there is a problem. There are many people who are six feet tall; if you wanted me and reached out and grabbed the first person you saw who was six feet tall, you would probably not get me. The height function is not invertible.
I was thinking, not exactly of functions, but of a related concept in the connection between thoughts and words. We know that if a thought can be expressed in words, it can probably be expressed in different ways, and that that a given set of words is usually at least slightly ambiguous as to what thoughts will correspond to. However, I am setting these observations aside for the moment, as not relevant to the basic insight, and I would ask the reader to accept (at least for the sake of argument) the assumption that a given wording will produce a single interpretation in the reader’s mind.
What I saw is this: Say that there are two functions: the function mapping ideas to wordings, and the function mapping wordings to ideas. The first function happens when a person has an idea, thinks about how to explain it, and writes it down; the second function happens when a person reads and gets ideas from it. Then these functions are not each other’s inverses, and furthermore there might be no way to express a given idea in such a way that the reader’s interpretation is what the writer intended, or (to put it differently) the most faithful expression of an idea may necessarily give rise in the reader’s mind to something else. The process might go on like this: One person (writer) thinks of a person and writes down his height. Another person (reader) takes the text and picks out the first person he sees who has the height, and thinks, “This is the person who has been written about.” There are many times and places where it works — perhaps a better analogy would be to say that the writer thinks of a person and writes down his first name, and the reader finds calls out the name and talks with the first person to answer. It works quite well, as long as you don’t have two people going by the same name. Get two Robins in the room, however, and things might be more difficult. If my friend David wants to talk about his roommate, he will say ‘Robin’, at which point I will probably think of my best friend (and his friend, too) Robin.
The first time I observed a phenomenon, or a realization, like this, was a couple of years ago. At the time, I believed in a sort of theistic evolution, and I started to write a story about a world, beginning with its creation. I envisioned that world as having been created by a theistic evolutionary process; when I thought about how to effectively describe it, I could only do it in poetry, and for that matter poetry further on a literal reading from a scientific view of the processes than the Genesis accounts are from a picture of evolution. In thinking about an idea — of God creating life through aeons and “chance” and natural forces — the best way I could think of to explain it was one that would have (on a literal level) give rise to something other than what I thought. This gave rise to the following insight:
Imagine two scenarios. In the first scenario, God creates the world in six days, about six thousand years in the past, as literally described in Genesis I. What is the best way to describe it? The text we have now.
In the second scenario, God shapes the world over billions of years through natural forces and a subtle but powerful influence over quantum phenomena — “chance”. What is the best way to describe it, with all of its majesty, glory, and wonder? Well, when I tried to do that in good faith, I came up with a far less literal account than the Genesis account. So probably, something like the text that we have now.
What this means is that the six day creation account is not as informative as it would appear at first glance in our understanding. From one perspective, a direct, naive reading of the text (and, connotations notwithstanding, naivete is often a good thing in reading a text), leads most naturally to a six day creation account, but, with this insight in consideration, the question of “How would you change the text if you were to make it reflect a theistic evolutionary perspective?” meets with an answer of “Not much.”
There is something that wants to keep me from settling there; I think it has something to do with crediting a naive understanding and believing that this philosophy does not give us a privileged understanding of the text. In the same way that I believe it misportrays the text to believe it is fundamentally about the scientific details of origins, I believe it grossly misportrays reading of the text to wield such an insight as a weapon against naive readings — God has hidden things from philosophers and shown them to children who have read a text naively. The person who reads a text naively profits from it far more than a genius with a thousand insights better than mine, who is too sophisticated to open himself to the straightforward meaning a child of ten would learn.
This is somewhat of a tangent; I meant it mainly as an example. The direction I was driving towards was to say that we have something to learn from computer tape drives, which often (after writing some information out) immediately read it back to see if what’s coming back from the tape is the same thing as what is supposed to have been written on it. I came with this basic insight when I was trying to think of how to express an insight I’ve now forgotten, and came to the realization that there was no way (so far as I could tell) for me to explain it so that a natural reading would give another person the thought I had meant to express: every way I could think of to express it, meant something else on a natural reading.
There are two directions in which this can be taken. One is, in communication, to ask “Is this idea expressible in the sense that it is what a person will think of on naively reading my text?” — and, if you go off the beaten path like I do, the answer may well occasionally be ‘no,’ or (what may be hoped) provide an adjustment for your words to let the reader know that you don’t mean the obvious interpretation. The other is, in talking with others, to ask, “What intended meanings, other than the obvious one, could have been meant when so-and-so said X?” Both might cut down on miscommunication.
Yesterday night I went to a square dance, and then hung out with some friends and some new acquaintances. I had some thoughts, the last of which I wish to elaborate here.
I was thinking about a similarity between dance and martial arts, both as kinds of kything, and then… connected. Not intensely, but in a relaxed manner. I was in a newer sense able to be at peace with not being in the bard’s awen — enjoying the ordinary as just the ordinary. I was thinking in part about how, in Kuk Sool, I was comfortable bowing to the instructor and other students, but not to the picture of the Kuk Sa Bo Nim (grandmaster), because bowing is to me an act so close to worship that it is fitting to bestow on a man but not anything lesser. And then —
The major debates are over an issue of substance. The Calvinist-Arminian debate exists not only because the Scriptures reflect a mystery not easily captured in models, but also because the question of how the sovereignty of God relates to free will is a big enough question to hold a debate over. Both sides know it’s important; that’s why there are two sides engaged in the discussion. The question of the relationship of faith and works is another area which is debated because both sides recognize it to be a matter of importance. (On that point, I regard it as beautiful and fitting that The Cost of Discipleship, one of the 20th century’s greatest books about works, was written by the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and that The Ragamuffin Gospel, perhaps a lesser work, but none the less a powerful inspirational classic about grace, was written by the Catholic Brennan Manning.)
Along these lines, I think that the question of whether or not men may be called gods concerns a big enough matter that it is surprising it is not a matter of debate. There is a terrible truth, a deep magic (to borrow a Narnian image) that we are not gods, that it is blasphemy to arrogate to ourselves the title of divinity. There is a more terrible truth, a deeper magic, that we are not only gods but more than gods, and that we shall become greater still than we are now. If you take and compare a weak believer — an alcoholic living on the street, someone who doesn’t go to church because he feels ashamed to be there, but who loves Jesus, whose eyes will tear up if you begin talking with him about Jesus — and compare him with the beings the Norsemen or the Greeks worshipped as God, the failing, weak, marginal believer is to me more majestic and more worthy of worship. In him is the Holy Spirit; in him is submission to the will of God; in him is in a sense something deeper than virtue, important as virtue may be. It is not just the Marines of the Army of God — those glowing saints whom we read about, and think we can never measure up to — who are godlike. It is, in a catholic sense, every man and woman of God, those whose faith is far weaker than ours as well as those whose faith is far stronger, who is a god and (invisibly to eyes this side of Heaven, usually) is wrapped in a glory that paganism never thought to give to its gods and goddesses.
I cannot in good conscience give the Sanskrit greeting Namaste, “I bow to the divine spirit in you.” We are not God, and we fall into trouble to think that we are — and yet the Scriptures contain so many things that I would think blasphemous if they were found in any other source. We are made in the image, likeness, and glory of God. We are invited to be his sons and daughters. We will judge angels. We are invited (Ephesians 6:11-17) to enter spiritual warfare wearing, among other things, the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation — that is, the armor worn by God (Isaiah 59:17). We have been chosen to share in the divine nature.
I believe C.S. Lewis addresses this basic insight in The Weight of Glory, although I haven’t read it recently. Each person is on the way to becoming either a being a godlike creature whom, if you saw now, you would be sorely tempted to worship, or else a horror such as you never encountered in your worst nightmares. Lewis wasn’t sure whether a person should think as much as possible about his own glory, but it can scarcely hurt to think as much as possible about his neighbor’s glory.
Worship is the supreme love reserved to God alone, but man as the image of God may be given a second love that is the image of worship.
This area is addressed more fully in A Dream of Light.
It often happens that people’s beliefs concerning a question can be placed along a continuum. One example of this may be the question of who may legitimately be addressed as “Father,” in light of Jesus’ words about “Call no one on earth your father” etc. People wishing to persuade you to shift in their direction may point out an extreme position in the opposite direction as a means of softening you up to slide away from that extreme — such as when a Catholic, after talking about hyperbole, asks what you are going to call your literal father. After reacting to the extreme pointed out — and realizing that you do legitimately call your earthly father ‘Father’ — the natural tendency is to slide a couple of notches closer to the position being advocated, namely “It is OK to address ecclesiastical authorities as ‘Father’.” That is a temptation to be resisted. It is in some sense true that “no one on earth” does not refer to one’s earthly father, but even hyperbole is a means of emphasizing something important — and it is difficult to me at least to believe that the obvious exceptions to “no one on earth” include all pastors. The context speaks directly about what ecclesiastical authorities may be called — if ecclesiastical authorities are included among obvious exceptions, it is hard to tell exactly what the point of saying that was. Perhaps Jesus was exaggerating, but what important point was he exaggerating, if the exceptions include the most direct and obvious point of application?
Reacting an extreme position is often a stepping stone to an unnecessary shift. Reacting the position of “Do not even call your earthly father ‘Father'” softens people up to say “I guess Jesus didn’t really mean absolutely no one when he said ‘Call no one on earth your father’,” and mean by it, “When Jesus said ‘Call no one on earth your father,’ he wasn’t referring to ecclesiastical authorities.”
The story of the boy who cried wolf has something to do with warnings and legal contracts.
Implicit in a warning message is a claim of “This message says something important and non-obvious about a real danger to sensible use.” After reading a certain number of warnings and finding them superfluous, people’s trust has been violated. They don’t believe warnings are worth reading. And they aren’t — usually.
An analogous, but related principle seems to apply in legal contracts. When you have to agree to a license agreement to download free software, and there are several pages of legalese — like the warning, the contract has lost fair claim to be read by the person signing it.
“A cheap car is rare. That which is rare is expensive. A cheap car is expensive.” There are limitations on what can be done by taking reasonable-sounding propositions and working from them logically. The proposition can be basically true — and lead, through a logical argument, to a false conclusion. (I know of at least one person who does not engage in philosophical speculation because of this.) This is not always true — there are cases where logical development from given statements can bring forth highly accurate contents — but care must be taken in logical development from approximate wordings. Sometimes it is hard to tell when words mean something approximately, and when they mean something exactly. In exegesis, I wonder if at least some of our debates stem from reading as exact words which were meant to be read approximately — perhaps partially because it is easy to equate taking a text seriously with reading it exactly — and so we go to as approximate of a reading as we need to to satify some texts, but have debates because we can only give certain other texts a literal reading.
On the note of exegesis, I wish to also record that it is bad practice to take some convenient set of Bible verses, those whose literal construal leads most easily to your position, and magnify them along the lines that lead to your position, and then explain away those verses which are problematic to your interpretation. God inspired and meant one as much as another; it is better to say, “I don’t understand how it all fits together,” or “Such-and-such is as much sense as I can make out of it,” than to magnify some verses and raze others. There is a certain bad odor — of contrived explanations, of explaining things away — that is free of logical contradiction, but which signals the presence of bad exegesis. It’s kind of like an announcement of a stunning new discovery that shatters old theological dogmas (as in the beginning of Jesus de Montreal) — even before logical eyes can see exactly what is wrong here, an experienced nose can smell that something is awry.
The past few days have been a fertile time for musings. I can’t remember everything that I thought, but there is one that I have been thinking about that I do wish to write down.
The best way I see to introduce it is by asking if TCKs (third culture kids — to oversimplify, people who have grown up with substantial exposure to multiple cultures, where their parents’ culture was different from the culture of the surrounding people) have a culture, and giving a provocative answer of “No, at least not in the sense that most of the world’s people have a culture.” The world’s majority, people who have one culture, have a space for culture, and TCKs also have that space, and also have something in that space, but that something is not a culture.
I’m hesitant to give a definition of culture, because definitions are finite and tend to take a life of their own, but one facet of culture is that it is something shared by a community, and shaped by that community, rising out of it. There is something that TCKs share, even a TCK community of sorts, but TCKs did not come to what they had by being immersed in it as a culture when they grew up. What they have in place of a culture may draw on two or more cultures, but it is not itself a culture.
I was trying to think of what to call this genus of which culture is a species, these things that can occupy the space which is in most people occupied by a culture, and I came across a couple of terms which are conceptually related but not identical to it: worldview and personality, as well as metaculture (a concept which I do not wish to describe in detail here, beyond saying that where a person in culture fits into and naturally breathes a culture, a person in metaculture is able to shift and move between cultures, and does not occupy a culture in the same way — is never in a culture so completely as to not see how else it could be), are related, but not the same. Without having a name, I would like to summarize the concept by saying that culture is a species of the genus of things which occupy the space normally occupied by culture.
Being a TCK can provide a person with something else in the place of a culture; so can exceptional intelligence, and possibly some of mental illness/neurological disorders. I think there are other kinds of differences capable of causing this as well; mental illness is relatively well-documented as a kind of difference that has a significant darkside; differences that do not have significant darksides would not seem to draw the same exploration as differences that cause significant problems for the people that bear them. What I realized is that I have something else in the place of a culture. I thought about writing a document about what that something else is, but am waiting on that for now, until some intuitions are more clear.
One question which may be useful as a rule of thumb for whether a person has a culture or something else in that place is, “When he changes something in the culture, does he change from within or change from without?” in a sense related to the distinction introduced by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. There is a difference between the person who uses materials inside the box to fumblingly try to think outside the box, and the person who uses materials outside the box to fumblingly try to think inside the box.
One logician I’ve read was arguing for game theoretical semantics, where a statement under examination is considered to represent a game, and one player is the Verifier, and the other is the Falsifier. The statement is considered to be true if the Verifier has a winning strategy, and False if the Falsifier has a winning strategy. It is possible for a game not to have a winning strategy on either side, and the logician argued from this that there may therefore be statements which are neither true nor false. (This struck me as an example of bad logic — you have a terrain and a standard map, and you suggest using another map, and point out that the second map has a property which the first map did not, concluding that the terrain might have the property indicated on the second map.) If one pursued those lines, though, the definition of a game can be loosened so that a game can at least potentially be won by both parties. This would correspond to games which (in some instances) could have a winning strategy for both Verifier and Falsifier, and statements which were neither true nor false. “This statement is false” could be the canonical simple example of a game which had neither a winning strategy for Verifier nor a winning strategy for Falsifier (a statement which is neither true nor false), and “This statement is true” the example of a statement which has winning strategies for both Verifier and Falsifier (a statement which is both true and false).
Christianity is a broad thing; individual believers may own the whole, but they live in a niche. Celibacy and married life both belong to all believers, but a believer will inhabit only one of those possibilities. This phenomenon (another instance is different spiritual gifts — no gift is common to all believers) is a part of what is meant by catholicity — the whole faith is to be believed by all believers, even though not every detail will come to play in every believer’s life. It is like a culture — it takes a village to transmit a culture, because a culture belongs to all its members, but it is larger than any single member’s role in it.
Fiction, I believe, can be true or false, even though we do not speak of it much in that way. For a work of fiction to be true does not mean that the events literally happened, but… Fiction presents a world-view, and says that things happen a certain way. The truth or falsity of fiction is not measured by the literal truth or falsity of what is seen, but the effects it has on the way people see. Action-adventure movies present life as cheap and of little consequence; killing someone is not only permissible, but not that big of a deal and without serious consequences. In so far as that is true, that fiction is false, and it is as false as a report that cigarettes are not addictive and do not pose any serious health threats. Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is a curious and powerful mix of truth and falsehood; it is a classic because it is powerfully true in certain ways — the psyche of Michael, especially at the beginning, and the interaction of cultures; perhaps also certain areas of law — but it also lies: the limitless perfectibility of man, a benign nature to promiscuity, a certain arbitrary reshapability to human culture are among its falsehoods.
It is also possible, in this sense, to have false statements that are literally true. The stories told by the Un-man(?) in C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra to the unfallen, Perelandrian Eve are false even if they are literally true. More to the point, Clinton’s electoral stories, television newscasting, or kneejerk conservative tales of welfare abuse are all falsehoods expressed in a way that is literally true. These tales are not only tales of “these details happened”, but “this is the way the world works.” On the welfare score, the tales of abuse are never tales of just “This abuse happened at this time.” The meaning of the tales extends much farther, to “This is how things work. The welfare system is a corrupt system the nature of which is to be taken advantage of by parasites who constitute a massive financial drain on hardworking, honest, overtaxed America, and it is in need of a massive overhaul and massive cutbacks.” That is not true.
There are a number of arguments in principle that are to be made for pacifism, which I will not mention here. I would like to mention one lesser, prudential, argument before I forget.
If you ask two Christian thinkers — one who believes in a just war, the other of whom is a pacifist — what they believe concerning violence and problem solving, the difference between the answers given is never going to be that the pacifist believes in constructive problem solving and the just war believer believes in killing people to solve problems. The difference will rather be something far closer and more subtle: both believe that man is the image of God, that human life is of infinite value, and that people should learn to solve conflict in ways to avoid violence. The difference is that the pacifist believes violence is never acceptable, where the just war believer, who would much rather die than be killed, accepts violence as a last resort when all else has failed, and the probable destruction caused by acting in violence is less than the probable destruction caused by any other route. So the difference is not a difference of whether violence or constructive problem solving is better, only a very small difference (among people who agree on the desirability of peaceable living) of what will be done in the last resort after every effort at a peaceable solution has failed.
What I would like to submit is that this picture is distorted. It fairly accurately captures the difference in what people say, but not the difference in what people do. Both the pacifist and the just war believer say that they believe in attempting a peaceful solution in a potentially violent situation, and that peaceful conflict resolution is vastly preferable to violence, but only the pacifist normally makes any serious effort to understand nonviolent solutions that can prevent violence. In my own experience, only pacifist churches and meetings have given any instruction in how to handle a problem solution so as to prevent violence; when I gave a speech at Wheaton on peace making, not one of the members of the audience believed in a just war. Or, to put it differently, in the whole student body at Wheaton, not one of the just war majority thought it worth an evening’s effort to attend a speech on peace making. Or, again, those who cared about peaceful resolution to conflicts consisted exclusively of pacifists, even in a student body where the vast majority believed in a just war.
In the stated just war position, the major thesis of the position is that human life is of infinite value, and that Christians should make dedicated efforts towards the peaceful resolution of problems. It is a minor clause that says that violence may be used as a last resort. I would like to submit that the pacifist keeps more of this position, more faithfully, than does the person who holds a just war position. That is to say, the pacifist not only lives up to the pacifist standards better than the one who believes in a just war; he also lives up to the just war standards better.
Sun Tzu, in The Art of War, told the general to cut off all hope of retreat from the troops, so that they are cornered and will either win a battle or die. At first this struck me as very strange: doing so limits options and prevents the troops from fighting another day if they lose. Now, though, I understand that it was a profound psychological insight that put those words in such a timeless classic on military strategy: the troops will fight to the death if cornered; they can’t fight that hard if there is a way of retreat.
On a naive model, the question of pacifism vs. just war is a question that has the same answer for most situations, differing only in that (in a small fraction of situations) the pacifist will either not act or else interpose himself in harm’s way, and the just war believer will use force. But the difference is not confined to those situations. There is also the difference that the pacifist is cornered and fights to the death in situations where the just war believer, fighting as hard as he can while still preserving a way out, doesn’t — can’t — try as hard as the cornered pacifist. And so the body count, if you will, from the two situations, cannot stop after taking into consideration the situation where the pacifist refuses to kill a murderer, resulting in his own death and that of the person the murderer set out to kill; it must also take into consideration the situation where the pacifist averted bloodshed by applying training that the just war believer did not take the effort to find out. If this is so, then even if there are some cases where use of violence will save more lives than it kills, it is still quite possible that overall allowing the option of violence kills more lives than it saves.
This ties in to a question in computer science concerning the use of goto statements, an area where I am trying to think of a nontechnical example, and finding nothing as good.
A goto statement is a part of a computer program that tells the computer to go from one part to another (go to, goto). When I was in gradeschool, I thought goto statements were the best thing since sliced bread. But it’s not. One classic computer science paper argued that the free-ranging functionality of the goto statement should be replaced with conditional statements (if A is true, then do B, else do C) and loops (while D is true, do E). This kind of discipline does wonders to control certain kinds of hidden nightmares, and all serious contemporary programming I’m aware of uses conditional statements and loops instead of gotos for the bedrock of computer programming.
The question arises, “Should programming languages allow goto statements, or not?” The reason the question is not closed is that, every once in a blue moon, a goto is out-and-out the best way to solve a problem. A good programmer never uses gotos as a first approach, and bad programmers will only use gotos in ways that are inappropriate, but once in a blue moon, a situation comes up where a goto will solve the problem better than conditionals and loops. So there is a case for allowing gotos. But many languages have chosen to leave goto statements out of the language’s functionality — not because a goto statement is never justified, but because if a goto statement is in a language, programmers will use gotos in cases which hurt program quality. So, in isolated cases, it is uncontested that goto statements are sometimes justified, but overall, it is deemed better to rule out all goto statements, including the ones that are justified, than deal with the effects on the programmer and through programming of leaving the statements in the language.
This question has implications for moral reasoning.
I would not place this argument as my primary argument for pacifism, but I would place it as something to think about — and, perhaps, as an occasion for people who believe in a just war to decide what they believe (not “Is violence ever justified?” but “Is violence undesirable enough that it is worth making a serious investigation into how one can prevent it?”), and live up to what I hope a just war position should be.
The concepts of classical and romantic, discussed in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (a second rate treatment of first rate issues), was something I originally thought of as “classical is concerned with what is below the surface, while romantic is concerned with the surface,” but I wish to revise that. Classical and romantic are both concerned with something behind and beneath the surface, but in different ways.
There is a distinction I have thought of between a logical and a practical conclusion. A logical conclusion answers the question, “What comes forth from this idea if a logician takes it and analyzes its implications?” A practical conclusion answers the question, “What comes forth from this idea if a group of people believe this idea and live with it for some time?” The two are related, but different. Sometimes there are things in a practical conclusion that wouldn’t be immediately evident to a logician.
My above musing about a prudential case for pacifism could be portrayed as teasing out of differences between the practical conclusions of just war and pacifist teachings.
There are at least two ways that a human environment can be hostile — actively and passively.
An actively hostile environment is one in which people are consciously and intentionally hostile to a person or another group of persons. I would take South African apartheid as a paradigm example of this. A passively hostile environment does not necessarily have active hostility, but there are elements in the environment which none the less make it a hostile place. I would take handicap-inaccessible architecture as the paradigm example here.
Active hostility is what is usually thought of in reference to a hostile environment, discrimination, etc. The two other examples I can think of of passive hostility are right-handed technology, and many of the things that make giftedness a burden — an educational system that breaks at both ends of the spectrum.
When I wrote the above material about truth, falsity, and fiction, there was something I realized was not quite on the head. Today I put my finger on it.
Madeleine l’Engle is reported to have said that if an author does not respect his characters’ free will, then the story becomes a false story. This, as well as embodiment of a false world view (perhaps moreso), is how a story can be false. Deus ex machina, at least in its bad sense, is a kind of falsity in storytelling.
A large part of the indictment of utilitarian Christian art in Franky Schaeffer’s Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts is that it is false art and literature. It brings to mind one interchange I read in a Christian magazine, about the relative merits of Christian and popular music. The argument one person put forth for listening to secular music was that it was better music than the Christian music, and the rebuttal was based on the fact that the Christian music had Christian lyrics. That is to say, the rebuttal to an indictment of musical inferiority was to not argue for the music’s quality, or even see it as an issue — the music was only a sugar coating for a doctrinal content of the lyrics. That is a defense and rationale for false music.
Much of the best art and literature stems from efforts at persuasion; the Aeneid and the Divine Comedy were both written by poets who wished to prove their languages weren’t inferior. The best art is rarely purely for art’s sake — but neither is it purely instrumental. Perhaps it comes from the interaction of trying to make good art and trying to serve another purpose. And perhaps the NEA-sponsored exhibits, which are often accused of making a virtue of incomprehensibility, does terrible “art for art’s sake”, falling into errors that are not possible for someone trying to persuade. But the major error in most of what I have seen is false art that violates the integrity of the artwork in order to do something useful. It kills the goose of art to get all the golden eggs of persuasion — and then bewails the fact that the goose no longer produces golden eggs. It can’t. It was killed by its creator.
Bill Watterson’s story of refusing to commercialize his comic strip, in a way that he regards as selling out his own creation (recounted, I think, in The Calvin and Hobbes 10th Anniversary Special), shows an artist’s difficult endeavor to retain the truth of his creation.
There was a connection which I made recently…
I have problems owning American culture. My heart is in a sense in Europe; partly in a romantic impression, but also and more substantially in a classical look at (especially) philosophy and other aspects of culture (friendship would probably be another).
What I realized, or remembered, was that I once had difficulty owning Western culture at all. I held some interest in Eastern thought, and resonances between Eastern and Christian thought. Part of this was rebellion, pride, wanting to be different and better than other people. But only part. Another part was recognition of the wreckage of the past 500 years of Western philosophical history — I still think the past 500 years of “progress” are mostly something that would best be erased, done over, and that even though Eastern philosophy (pagan virgin) does not measure up to Christian (married) philosophy, it provides a vastly better starting point, and even working medium, than most of contemporary Western philosophy (apostate divorcée). Another part of my difficulties in identifying with the West was that I had some awareness, albeit an unwitting, unconscious awareness that hit the very large nail not quite on the head, of how different I was from other people. I didn’t connect it with intelligence, and I did not have the clarity to put my thinking as “I am a Westerner who is more different from most Westerners than most Easterners are;” I thought of myself as non-Western in a way that roughly meant Eastern (and came to a deep understanding of one Eastern philosophy).
The second part of the realization is that I have, by whatever means, come to be at home with being a part of the West. Not like everybody else — not by a long shot — but distinctively Western. I have not, within the West, settled down to accepting being an American yet, in the sense that it naturally flows from me, but I am able to accept, with pleasure, being Western. And I had a breaking point at a square dance when I was able to look and realize that I was enjoying a distinctively American cultural beauty.
Exactly where in the geographical-historical map of the actual West my heart is, is still a little hard to say. In the West, but not at any literal place of it. Somewhere in Europe, probably France, spread out across a few centuries, with a touch of fantasy. I am using the term ‘fantasy’ in a poor metaphor because I do not see any better way to explain it, but it calls for some explanation. I do not mean the medieval-impression-plus-magic that is commonly meant by fantasy, nor the psychological sense of an escape into unreality. Rather I mean an “impression” (I mean something like what this word means, only deep rather than shallow), both classical and romantic in character (but more fundamentally classical), of a culture and a world that could be real but does not happen to be. The culture that most readily comes to mind is that of Blajeny in Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wind in the Door.
A certain element of this does not need to change. There are elements of American culture that I do not think I ever need to embody, and others that I may learn to play as a social game (I identify with the youngest star in Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. She tried to appear human — an eccentric old woman, outside on a terribly stormy night — and quite nearly botched it; the shawl and eating and making sheets look like ghosts was not who she was, was a game she played that did not begin to give even a glimpse of who she really was. This is a picture of an angel-like being in one sense, but in another sense is a revelation of a real, flesh-and-blood human being out of a human’s experience; it is a description not only of angels but of men). There are also a number of elements of American culture that I need to love and own.
There are a couple of things that have happened lately that I am taking as exciting indications that I am beginning to own American culture, and have the discipline to love it even when I do not like it.
Halloween is, or at least can be, a revelatory holiday.
By this I mean that it is a holiday that provides a social context for people to reveal themselves to other people in ways that would not normally occur in the usual course of interactions. For many people it’s not — the costume doesn’t say anything — but for me at least it is. My costumes say something about me.
Christmas is also, in a different way, a revelatory holiday. It is not just a revelatory holiday (such a thought makes me shudder), but it is such. Giving a gift is an act of communication; the gift says something about the person who it is given to, but also about the giver.
What other revelatory holidays could be imagined?
I could see a favorite books day, where people read a passage from their favorite books.
Something to draw on the theme of icebreakers at parties. Icebreakers are embarrassing and humiliating; every one I have examined since I made this basic observation crosses some social boundary and make people uncomfortable. I believe this is for a specific reason; pushing people across an internal boundary disinhibits them and opens the door to getting to know the other people. It takes a jolt to break the ice.
Persona day. People do not dress up in costumes, but (in normal wear) role play other people.
Prohibition day. Some common and basic activity or faculty is verboten for the course of the day. The Church does this with fasts and Lord’s day rest. I believe there are prohibitions which would force people to operate differently, but I can’t think of any (new ones) off the top of my head.
Baudelaire, in La Morale du Joujou, talks about how, in children’s play and religious artwork, the toy/art represents a reality, which it suggests but does not fully portray. When a little boy takes a small object (perhaps a spool of thread) and moves it about, making sounds, and pretends it is a spaceship, there is no need for a perfectly shaped model of what appears to be a spaceship — and, Baudelaire argues, it is better that way. It is better to have an incomplete portrayal, in which the imperfect vehicle is taken over by imagination to become what it represents, than a perfect and complete portrayal which leaves nothing left for the imagination to do.
In America, unlike many other countries, puppetry is allowed as a children’s art form but not taken seriously as a medium for adults — our loss. Some puppetry (euphemistically called ‘animatronics’ by people who do not want their use of puppetry to be known) is used in movies, albeit puppetry that has so much technical sophistication that it succeeds in appearing to be something else; we do not have puppets that appear as puppets. This is in contrast to the shadow puppet theatre of Malaysia, to take an instance off the top of my head, where there are beautiful but stylized puppets: they are meant to evoke, but not be mistaken for the real thing. Perhaps related to this, all the non-cartoon movies and television I’ve seen present as close an approximation to (a romantic impression of) a photorealistic image of what happens. There is no case where, as in child’s play, people look at an inverted garbage can and agree to make believe it’s a robot. When I watched The Matrix, after not having seen any movies in a while, I was distracted by the romantic impression; at times I had difficulty seeing through it to the characters and concepts. (This isn’t because the movie was ineffective within its genre; it’s because I had begun to lose touch with the medium, but I think there is something in my having lost touch.)
I think it would be an interesting matter to see a good movie in which there was enough to evoke images in the viewer’s minds, but not the complete substitute for imagination in detail — a shooting of a plainclothes rehearsal on an empty set. What would the experience be like?
I think that there is probably a link (both from the same source, possibly) between the fact that puppets that look like puppets are accepted by children but not adults (a sign, not of maturity, but of loss of imagination), and the fact that movies do not call on the viewer’s imagination. I know that television is criticized for rotting the imagination, but what if there was television that just showed actors on empty sets, with very crude props that suggested the objects they were to refer to? It wouldn’t be watched (see Mander’s argument for why television needs technical events and artificial unusuality in order to hold people in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television), but it’s an interesting concept. Perhaps it would be interesting to go to pre-dress rehearsals of plays.
On a related but distinct note — all movies I can recall seeing operate on a romantic rather than a classical plane, and attempting to interact with a movie on classical grounds (thinking about the science and technology is one of a number of examples) yields frustration. The science in science fiction movies is meant to be awe inspiring and impressive — not (in my experience) for people to try to understand. It would be interesting to see a classical movie — perhaps a classical movie that just had suggestive sets, costume, and props.
The image I used in A Dream of Light for the curse of Babel was a rainbow being shattered and its pieces being scattered across the sky to become stars. There was a fragmentation and a diminution of language.
I do not think that the New Jerusalem will see an exact reversal of what happened at Babel. I don’t think the diversity in languages will be reversed, even to restore the language of the Dawn of Creation. I believe that we will have something deeper — even more than in Eden an instrument of communion and not just communication — something that does not have to pass through the pipe of the senses. And I believe that the diversity of human languages, past, present, and future, will be preserved in that fusion. The observation is made of idiolects, that different people will use language in different ways; different idiolects can still be part of the same language in which people understand each other when speaking. In Heaven, I believe I will speak in a way influenced, foreshadowed by, the languages I have worked with here (with various degrees of proficiency — I speak two languages well, and have dabbled in others), and a way that others will understand.
I wrote about fantasy above. I wish to — not quite explain that theme more (I am having difficulty thinking about it clearly enough to say anything significant) — but talk about related material.
Fantasy is in our minds associated with another era; this is not because people invented a forgotten world, a faroff age and invested it with magic, but because people living in a then-contemporary world saw magic operating on their world. The fantastic element was not conceived to be fixed to their time, and the profession of woodcutter in fairy tales was originally as contemporary and as ordinary as a mechanic in our world. This is why, when C.S. Lewis wrote fairy tales for grown-ups (That Hideous Strength), he did not give people occupations from yesteryear; he set them in the contemporary world. The same is true of Madeleine l’Engle’s Time quartet. The fact that ‘fantasy’ means ‘pseudo-medieval’ is in some sense a matter of historical accident.
When writing A Cord of Seven Strands, or more properly when thinking before writing it, I was thinking over the question of whether not to write fantasy. I was sure of a contemporary setting, and I did not want magic in the story. What I was debating was a cultural and geographical bifurcation, something that would feel like our world but be different.
It was a related but different sense of ‘fantasy’ that I meant above. When I am trying to express something, I sometimes see a visual symbol before I can think of words; the visual symbol I saw was two along rays at a very acute angle. Both rays come from the same source. One ray ray represents the way things actually happened, the real world. The other represents the fantasy: it is nearly the same in orientation, but it is displaced, and the further you go, the further apart they are. Something similar may be said for Australian, English Canadian, British, and U.S. culture. They are all bifurcated (albeit interacting) lines from the same source, in a sense almost parallel. Complementary to the usual intuition of Britain being on its historical path and the colonies branching off or doing the same thing, it may also be said that these four countries represent alternate historical and cultural developments of the British culture that existed several centuries ago. To someone with a historical sense who had grown up in one of these four contemporary cultures and been transported to another, each provides an answer of “This is how it might have been but is not.” The direction of the angle I see is different — not a “This is how it might have been but is not” of historical and cultural development, but of the different feel brought with intelligence, the part of intelligence that is not connoted or implied by the popular understanding of the word ‘smart’. That isn’t quite it, or perhaps you could say that that is one facet but not all; at any rate, it is the only one I know how to concretely describe.
I was thinking about the direction of Madeleine l’Engle’s fantasy — breaking off from our world (though she would not view it that way) in the direction of (some) non-human characters, of kything and under-hearing. I regard it a valuable question to ask how my fantasy would break off. A part of it is in the direction of pseudo-fantasy, material that reads like fantasy while consisting exclusively of events I could believe happened. Other parts I can’t describe.
Recently I found out that a person whom I have been talking with (I won’t mention his name) was looking at an area of thought in a way that was fundamentally distorted (I won’t give the details on that, either). What I regard as significant is that my reply to him was emotional, only partially logically coherent, and probably not nearly as persuasive as most of what I write.
I was thinking about this, in large part because I was disturbed that I hadn’t given him a better answer, a better explanation — I was aware that I was explaining things badly as I wrote, but I couldn’t do better. It wasn’t because this was an obscure question that I knew little about; anything but. The reflection I had coming out of this was analogous to aesthetic distance: if an issue is too far out, then you do not know it well enough to talk about it effectively, then as it moves closer you can start to talk about it, but if it comes too close, then the lack of distance prevents effective discussion. These are some of the things you know best, but you can’t start talking about them.
If this is true, this may mean that on the handful of issues that a thinker becomes emotional and incoherent in argument, the incoherence is not because he doesn’t know what he is talking about, but because he knows it so intimately that he cannot discuss it effectively — it is when he is least persuasive that he may be voicing something far more important to him than what lets him be carried away on the wings of eloquence.
There is a classic Reader’s Digest in which a married couple, building their dream house, tells their decorator that they want an authentic early American bathroom. The decorator hesitates, and says, “Ok. Exactly how far away from the house do you want it to be?”
It has occurred to me in thinking about that joke that I have been ungrateful to my own era. Perhaps I am in an era that doesn’t really have a place for me, but the Middle Ages wouldn’t necessarily have had a place for me either, even if my metacultural perspective is spiritually closer to medieval than modern or postmodern. So I would like to list twenty things about my historical-cultural perspective that I appreciate — partly out of discipline and contrition, but also to draw others (especially those who feel the legitimate pull of metaculture and the recognition that other historical-cultural milieux have legitimate and probably richer spiritual climates, who see in modern progress an illusion and are appalled by the literal and figurative 20th century body count) to an appreciation of the good things our climate uniquely holds. This is a bit like the 100 ways of kything in that I don’t know at the outset what all the entries are:
There is a sense in which I think we’ve swapped the meanings of asceticism and hedonism. On the surface, at least, and as far as we usually look, asceticism is drab and unpleasant, and hedonism is really enjoying things. But this is the inverse of the reality. Hedonism is one of the pessimistic philosophies of life, trying to enjoy sensory pleasures as someone would enjoy his last meal before an execution. Some forms of asceticism are indeed joyless, but others make small sacrifices in the pursuit of something big. In so far as devout Christians live abstemeniously, it should not be a rejection of joy, but embracing a bigger joy than comes through hedonism.
When I came back to my [original] A Luddite Guide to Technology, I was amazed at the level of goofiness I had been blind to. I had spoken about the importance of love and forgiveness to all, and in almost the same breath poured out anti-Microsoft invective. Why is it easier to see another’s goofiness than one’s own?
Democracy is not coterminous with good government. It is associated with good government in at least one cultural context, and quite possibly others, but the assumption in e.g. TV newscasts that democracy is the one form of government that is best to all countries, and that the political health of a country can be measured by how democratic it is becoming, is worthy of question.
Earlier I spoke of us as gods. I might want to suggest another helpful picture, that of us as apprentice gods, where this life is an apprenticeship to full godhood in Heaven.
Zen emphasizes living in the now. I was thinking about that for a time, and came to realize that in some sense I live best when I am spread out over a time, when I am present to a moment that includes but is not limited to the present. A painter may momentarily only be brushing a small area of the painting, but he is throughout time present to the whole painting, in a way that is structured according to the painting rather than according to the path the brush tip may take (he may even forget what the brush tip took). In the same way, through time I have found a magical way of fitting in to time something that doesn’t fit into linear time, kind of like a mathematician’s Peano curve, where continuous twisting of a curve fills space.
Some theologians have spoken of eternity being without the flow of time as we understand it, where we will no longer have our existence rationed out to us. The Zen approach, where one is totally present to the moment, approximates this in one sense, but in another sense, the perspective I have become aware of (in failing to be exclusively present to the present, and understanding why I failed at it) is something that seems to reflect another aspect of eternity. What I have is something-embedded-in-time, a something that is more than time, and whatever unimaginable thing eternity will be, it will be more, not less, than what we have now. I believe it will be a more natural medium for what is snuck in to time — somehow, probably in a way that we cannot reason out, we will have all of our existence at once, and yet not be limited to a single instant, “ever changing from glory to glory.” (God has all of his existence at once, but he at very least interacts with time; his eternality is not a less-than-temporality.)
In A Wind in the Door, the Murrays’ having given up money and prestige to work in an obscure stone lab is something I identify with in my present stage of life. What I have is not so much a noble giving up as a loss, it has been a less voluntary moving from heavy-thinking, recognizable academic work to software engineering (which I am not doing as proficiently as well as I expected), and a quiet apartment to write in. But I am at peace. I have thought about (after a couple of years’ work) going back to school in cognitive science, and I have gone from enduring it’s-only-a-couple-of-years to being able to enjoy and cherish this time writing — something like the Zen koan that set my thinking, where a monk runs from a tiger, jumps over a cliff, and grabs a thin branch holding him above spiked rocks below. What does he do? He cannot climb up the cliff (the tiger — the past — makes this impossible), and he cannot let go and fall down (the spikes — the future — make this impossible). So he grabs and enjoys some strawberries next to him. I do not think it possible to be happy if both past and future are lethal, but I am enjoying the present without being able to go back to the past, or know or control the future. I am looking forward to the hope of cognitive science work, but I am also genuinely enjoying the present.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance says that there are two types of welders. One is not necessarily better than the other, but it is important to know which one you need, and have the right kind. (I’ll transpose the ordering from Pirsig’s.)
The first kind prefers to do familiar welds, and dislikes having to figure out a new one. The second kind regards figuring out the weld as part of the fun, and resents having to do a job over again.
What I pieced together is that I’m at least a notch or two past the second kind of welder — in my writing, where a new piece usually comes in a new genre, in riflery and martial arts (as Robin pointed out), in other things.
I also realized a strange similarity (or perhaps ‘similarity’ is too strong a word — ‘comparable character’, perhaps) between the attitudes of an agnostic Jew towards religious ceremony and my own.
Agnostic Jews participate in certain ceremonies that they don’t believe in in a religious sense, as a matter of preserving and keeping alive Jewish identity. The ceremonies do not mean, in a sense, the glory and worship of God. At least not primarily and not directly. That is, the agnostic Jew does a ceremony but doesn’t believe its direct meaning.
I realized a parallel between that attitude and my own attitude towards religious ceremony. I participate in religious ceremonies, but I do not believe that a given structure is the necessary form that worship takes, any more than the specific words of a given conversation are necessary to conversation between two people. They are to me the outer shell that worship took in that one case; they are not part of the substance of worship.
The most common use I hear of the term ‘semantic’ is as in “They were just arguing semantics,” meaning that people were having a pointless argument that existed, not because they disagreed over something substantial, but because they were using words differently.
That is in a sense a true use of the term ‘semantic’, but it is disappointing (especially as the primary way in which the term is used). An unnecessary argument because people didn’t know they were using words differently is the pocket lint of things semantic; there are so many greater things that can be referred to by ‘semantic’, of what people mean and what texts mean. Syntactic knowledge is shallow, surface knowledge (the connection of the letters l-o-v-e with the concept of love); semantic knowledge is real, deep knowledge (the conceptual wealth that is evoked by l-o-v-e). In computer programming, people who are trying to fill jobs are usually measuring by what syntactic knowledge is possessed (or, more properly, what buzzwords the person can claim); it is semantic knowledge (theory, the knowledge that is not searched for but is the most important knowledge a programmer possesses) that makes for real success.
I like semantic discussions that are something deeper than an unnecessary conflict because people did not understand how each other were using language.
I have spoken with Josh about disclosing his thoughts about Hebraic and Hellenistic mindsets. (It is Josh’s and Heather’s idea, but Josh had said something that made me want to ask him before distributing it.) Josh has given me permission to disclose it; my thoughts are a little fuzzy, because it’s been a little while since he and Heather explained the concepts, and I only have the one sheet they wrote things down on, but I’ll try to reproduce:
Josh began by saying that, with a couple of arguable exceptions, all the books of the Bible were written by Hebrews, operating from a Hebraic mindset, but subsequent Christian thought has largely followed a Greek mold, and that, if we are to understand the Scriptures, we should understand them as seen by the mindset in which they appeared. He then delved into one area where there is a discrepancy between a Hebraic and a Hellenistic mindset.
In the beginning of the explanation, Heather drew a line down the center of a sheet of paper, and began to write words in pairs, one on either side of the line:
|left brain||right brain|
Heather then asked me to imagine that I did not know about law and grace, and how they fit together, but only that God was righteous and cannot abide sin, that each transgression demands judgment, and at the same time that God is merciful, and desires to save men. Responses to such a situation show a divergence between the Hebraic and Hellenistic mind, especially in cases where a neat resolution is not known.
The Hebraic mind does not understand everything and does not expect to understand everything, but has a trust and room for paradox that enable them to believe both in God’s justice and mercy without having a knowledge of how they fit together. The Hellenistic mindset does not understand everything either, but it expects that it should. As such, and holding both the usual strengths (keenness of analysis) and the unnecessary but usual weaknesses (limiting oneself to it) of logic, it tries to create rational systems accounting for as much of the data as can be cut to fit into a consistent logical system. It is probably due to this phenomenon that people who forget the explanation/principle where perfect law meets perfect grace feel the need to cut one down to make room for the other: legalists cut down mercy to preserve their unyielding law, libertines cut down justice in order to prevent anything from bumping into their cruel mercy, and both sides become more aggravated and more extreme by trying to run away from the excesses of the other side.
This much happens with a paradox to which a logical reconciliation has been revealed in Scripture. It is not much better with Calvinism and Arminianism — both of which live in a mental system that takes certain passages, magnifying them and declaring them to be fundamental, and then play awfully fast and loose with inconvenient others. The same God who inspired one set of verses inspired the others; where the Hellenist needs to have an interpretation cut down enough to fit inside his head, the Hebraist can believe the whole without being able to know how it all works out. Although Josh didn’t mention it, there is something here reminiscent of a G.K. Chesterton quote, about how a poet merely wants to get his head into the Heavens, but a logician wants to get the Heavens into his head, and it is his head that splits.
I remember one time when I was talking with another friend (a graduate student in philosophy) and I made a fairly simple argument from Scripture, and he gave an it’s not that simple, saying that what I was saying was true under the thought-forms that clothed the message of the Bible in its original cultural context, but was not necessarily true if one took the intellectually responsible step of translating the Bible, not only from original to contemporary languages, but from original to contemporary languages. (This argument contains a real and significant kernel of (distorted) truth, but it springs from the same poisoned well as the perspective that dismisses Biblical arguments for traditional gender roles by saying that the Bible was written in a patriarchal culture. Beyond saying that, I do not wish to analyze either argument here.) The reason I mention this is to say that the language of the Bible is in a sense an outer husk that need not be a focus of attention, but the mindset, the mentality, is considerably less husk-like. The mentality is at times part of the core of what is communicated.
My initial reactions (and here is where I will begin to depart from Josh and Heather), apart from a mild-mannered acceptance (I reacted less than most people because it is an embodiment of something that I breathe — what I have to offer here are refinements, not correctives to something massively flawed), were to think of two things. One was to say that the list was a cultural artifact, meaning that it is a way of codifying truth that can be helpful to most people, but also that it is not an attribute of reality and not something that I happen to describe to — much like the list of seven deadly sins I spoke of above. That observation is trivial. The other one, though, is not, and it is one I would like to develop.
I began to articulate an alternative, in its beginning form, by talking about a chapter in Jeremiah or Ezekiel (Josh’s favorites, it turns out) in which the Lord tells Israel, “I did not pick you because you were worthy, because you were mighty or attractive. When I found you, you were a babe rolling in salt and blood…” and then narrates how he raised her to a woman of beauty and grace before she became unfaithful to him. Robert Heinlein, in cult classic Stranger in a Strange Land, tells the story of “a Martian named Smith”: a man raised by Martians, inculturated into Martian culture and then transported to earth. It is culture shock writ large, the story of an alien culture coming into contact with, coming into, human culture. That provides a helpful perspective for looking at the Bible and especially the Gospel accounts — in both, there is material that is stunningly countercultural to a reader who understands certain details of cultural context (e.g. how Jesus broke social norms in every recorded encounter with women). If Hebraic culture is a holy culture, it is so not because it (or any human culture) is worthy to be so, but because of uniquely prolonged and deep context with the divine forces. It is like a pet in a human house, tame out of a world of feral kin — its suitability to be with children stems from human contact, not because a feline is intrinsically more man-like than an opossum.
I coined the term ‘metaculture’ (partially explored in The Metacultural Gospel) out of seeing a similarity of phenomenon between third culture kids and people who are astronomically intelligent. Both of them are to some extent capable of entering into a culture, including whichever one they’ve grown up in, but cannot breathe it in the un-self-conscious way of the monocultural majority. One biological principle is that a creature which is particularly adapted to one specific environment will be poorly suited to others; a metacultural is not especially suited to any one environment, but has a certain flexibility. (There are other qualitative differences which escape me at the moment.) I have thought here about whether to use that term or make another (one denoting a kind of metaculture, the kind hinted at in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”), and I will stick with metaculture.
A metacultural isn’t exactly in any one culture; he’s in something else, and incidentally in a culture. That, I believe, provides a substantial alternative/refinement to the Hebraic mindset: the step after being in the Hebraic mindset is being in God, and being shaped by the same forces that shaped Hebraic culture. The solution to being in a darkened cavern is not to move into a cavern that someone has brought a light of, but to climb out of the cavern into the sunlight.
I spent some time thinking, because the metacultural mindset as I originally formulated it seemed accessible only to a minority, not a catholic possibility and therefore not a full solution. I think that the italicized wording, indicates a sense in which the metacultural mindset may be catholic.
That, and in particular the italicized phrase, is a mishnah that requires a Talmud, probably a Talmud with parts that vary from host culture to host culture. I believe it is, in core form, an insight that refines Josh’s, perhaps worth further exploration (although I have no further thoughts on it now).
An “It’s not that simple.” is when person A says something basic, and person B says, “It’s not that simple.” What that means, invariably in my experience, is “It really is that simple, in a direct and obvious sense, but person B has found an elaborate way to convince himself otherwise, probably (cognitive dissonance) because there is some advantage or cherished position that is threatened by an acknowledgment of straightforward observation.”
There is an insight I had when reading Em Griffin’s A First Look at Communication Theory and what it says about persuasion. The text describes the mechanics of persuasion, with an intended development of more effective influence in persuading others. Those basic mechanical principles can also be used to affect how one is influenced by others — to be more easily persuaded when one should be persuaded and less easily persuaded when one shouldn’t be persuaded.
Knowing the communication principles behind, i.e. people losing their faith at school, could be a step towards preparation. Knowledge of psychological principles does not nullify them, but it does give people a greater degree of control in how they act.
C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man talks about an outward direction/inward direction distinction. It’s easy (and sometimes appropriate) to desire outward influence in persuasion. It also strikes me as desirable to have inward influence with regards to persuasion.
In Matthew 10:30, Jesus says, “As for you, every hair on your head has been counted.” This is something that someone in love does.
Last night, a friend and I spent a long time trying to use the GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) to perform a simple task (swapping colors in a two-color submit button). I came away from the frustrating experience with a new appreciation for what Unix’s arcane interface is like to a newcomer.
Technical support people (and sometimes other hackers) have an acronym PEBKAC, short for Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair. From the jargon file:
[Abbrev., “Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair”] Used by support people, particularly at call centers and help desks. Not used with the public. Denotes pilot error as the cause of the crash, especially stupid errors that even a luser could figure out. Very derogatory. Usage: “Did you ever figure out why that guy couldn’t print?” “Yeah, he kept cancelling the operation before it could finish. PEBKAC.”
With a great many apparently technical problems, the problem exists between the keyboard and chair. The question I was thinking about is, which keyboard and chair?
On Mac and Windows computers, and to some extent on the web, an alert box will pop up with some snippet of text and a button. The messages that pop up are often not very important — something like the warning labels attached to many products — and, as such, alert boxes carry a nonverbal message of “I am interrupting your work because I have something to tell you, probably not very important, and you can’t use your computer until you click my button. Once you have clicked on this button, you can go about your business.” When there are a great many alert boxes like this, it is not a stupid thing at all to habitually click the button when the alert box appears… except that, on a small minority of such boxes, the habitual response cancels your print job. The problem with this system exists between keyboard and chair, but not the user’s keyboard. The problem with this system exists between the designer’s keyboard and chair. A great deal of stupid user errors are not stupid user errors at all, but the results of bad interface design by software developers who did not design with human-computer interaction factors in mind.
That’s the thing about people who think they hate computers. What they really hate is lousy programmers.
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in Oath of Fealty
I’ve thought of a hacker’s game. Here’s the core idea: Alice writes a program. Bob modifies the program in such a way that he can tell the difference between them. Alice wins if she can discern which is which. Bob wins if Alice can’t tell, but he can tell. The round is a draw if they both can’t tell.
This basic idea is in need of refinement and rules for both parties, roughly speaking in order that there are no obvious and cheap ways for either side to win. (Neither of them should be able to perform direct tests on the compiled programs, for instance, and things like “Click on the upper lefthand pixel of the applet window, and then hold shift and click on the bottom righthand pixel, and a smilie face will appear” aren’t the kind of cleverness that is desired.”) If such rules are formed, it will take a community’s work over time. But I think this could be a good programmer’s game.
I was saddened to learn of the demise of Canada’s Rhinoceros Party, a satirical political party with platforms like “Coast from coast to coast!” (after your car has been raised to the top of a giant, Canada-wide ramp), “My platform is the one I’m standing on,” and “Legalize pot. And pans. And spatulas. And other kitchen utensils.” It’s defunct as of the last two elections, and learning of its demise (when doing a web search, because I wanted to show Rhinoceros Party information to some of my coworkers) was saddening, like a child’s finding that all the fairies were dead — a learning that a shining part of the world has gone out.
The U.S. still has Dave Barry and his year 2000 presidential campaign (I’m taking an educated guess, as I’m waiting to hear the results of the Florida recount in the U.S. 2000 Presidential Elections, that the final difference between Bush and Gore will be less than the number of votes Dave Barry received), but that was saddening news.
There is an image I’ve had (partly from my own experience, partly from other sources) of someone very bright who is off in his own little world, and when he talks with other people, he tries to answer as faithfully to his own world as he can, and people just don’t get it. What I realized in my Gospel reading a few days ago is that this happened with Jesus. He spoke from his world, and people tried to interpret his words as what they would have meant from their world, and there was a glaring absence of connection. Examples of this are threaded throughout John’s mystical gospel account in particular; one conspicuous example is where Jesus is on trial before Pilate and they are talking about whether Jesus is a king. Jesus is trying to bring Pilate up to his plane, and Pilate is equally trying to understand Jesus’s words without leaving his own plane, and there is conflict.
Seeing this in the Gospel accounts, and having things click, gave me a feeling of being in good company.
Make-believe is a kind of illusion that implicitly depends on being recognized as illusion. I was thinking about this basic phenomenon in some matters related to my Halloween costume this year. My fun was spoiled when I realized that at least one of the children had literally believed I was Blajeny, that the illusion of my costume had not been recognized as illusion.
A while ago, I was having a conversation with Robin (techie) and another friend (Bob, non-techie). We were talking about making custom modifications to software, and I mentioned that a few decades ago, it was common to have computers with their own instruction sets. Robin immediately saw the point I was trying to make; to translate for Bob, I said that for each computer to have its own instruction set would be like each book having its own alphabet.
In places where we’ve gotten used to standards, breathing them is second nature. There are rare exceptions where it is desirable to break good standards — off the top of my head, I can think of the beautiful Elvish script in J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy — but, in certain areas, standards can be quite helpful. The computer industry is moving towards increasing standardization at higher levels of abstraction — and this is a good thing. Dealing with a locally suboptimal standard solution twenty times involves, among other things, significantly less cognitive strain than dealing with twenty locally optimal nonstandard solutions.
Where I see this argument as applying (technical areas, and human cognitive strain), this is not a death penalty on nonstandard approaches — many of the best technical ideas have been highly nonstandard approaches. I do believe, however, that things should be done in a standard manner unless there is good reason to do otherwise. For something meant for humans, doing something nonstandard means potential confusion and a probable learning curve.
Web pages that are not designed with a first-time visitor in mind are a prime example of material that breaks this principle.
I have been occupied recently, and have several ideas jotted down, but not taken the time to write them down. I wrote a letter and received an invitation to join a very high-intelligence mailing list; I spent a good deal of the past week worrying about whether I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. Today, I felt that still, small voice saying, “Get back to writing your musings.”
The musing I’ve been carrying around for a while, has to do with the monoglot and the polyglot (the person who speaks only one language versus the one who speaks several). I debated whether it was worth writing down, and decided for a while that it wasn’t worth writing until I came across something in George Steiner’s Errata. He mentioned the distinction, talked about his own polyglot background, and then poetically and emphatically argued that polyglot is the condition to be in — at one point, he said that the monoglot does not know even his own language.
That bothered me; to explain what bothered me, I would like to bring two brief images to mind: an American who is devoted to his country and holds the kind of patriotism Lewis extolls towards the beginning of The Four Loves, and the American who is devoted to his country and considers the natives of other countries to be unfortunate second-class world citizens. The first is laudable (and compatible with respect for the patriotism of other nations); the second is not. It is the second condition which parallels Stiener’s exaltation of the polyglot condition and (unnecessary) denigration of the monoglot condition.
To explain where I stand on this question, I would like to begin with a lunchtime conversation with my best friend (Robin), and an old friend of his (Morris). I surprised Robin by saying that I preferred to read texts in English translation when I had the option — preferably a free translation — rather than reading them in a non-English original.
It’s not that I’m afraid of learning another language. There have been times when I found thinking in French to be easier than thinking in English, and there has been a span of several years where my French sounded closer in relation to a typical native French speaker than my English sounded in relation to a typical native English speaker. If one counts mathematical and computer languages, I’ve worked with more languages than the number of years I’ve been alive, and this will probably remain true for the rest of my life. I’ve had the experience of not recognizing which language a text was written in, but still being able to read it. I’ve lost count of how many languages I’ve dreamed in, and I occasionally have dreams where my mind makes up a new language on the fly.
Why, then, would I prefer to read texts in English? In a single word, comprehension. I came to realize at one point that my knowledge of French at its best has been a rough equivalent to a native proficiency, but that I will never speak another language as well as I speak English, not if I am immersed in it for the rest of my life. The proficiency I have in English is something beyond what is normally meant by ‘native’. There is an additional cognitive strain — so I am spending energy trying to interpret the text (in the direct and mundane sense) rather than on interacting with its meaning (in a deeper sense). I’ll understand a good free translation a lot better.
More broadly, proficiency in multiple languages takes mental energy that could be used to other purposes. There are people that can afford that expenditure of mental energy, and there are definite benefits to knowing two or more languages — the ability to compare (“The better you know another world, the better you know your own.” — George Macdonald, Lilith), the ability to communicate with more people, the improved ability to pick up other languages. For all that, there is a consolidated energy that comes of having spent your efforts on learning one language and learning it well — and there are a great many people in the world who do not have the excess mental energy to have spare room to learn extra languages.
Bloom, in the introduction to his translation of Plato’s Republic, argued for making strictly literal translations. The essential argument is that the translator, however great a scholar he may be, must have the humility to realize that the student who reads his text may be a greater mind, capable of deeper understanding. As such, the translator should provide the student with what the words say, rather than confining the student to his interpretation. He proceeded to give several quotations from free translations of the Republic which, in trying to make the text accessible to a contemporary reader, succeeded in producing something accessible, albeit inappropriate as renderings of the text. I forget exactly what they were, but they would be comparable to portraying Martin Luther’s crisis of faith as a postmodern midlife identity crisis.
I do not believe that choosing between literal and free translations is a choice between a flawed and a near perfect rendering model; a student who wants to really understand a text (which is written in a language he cannot read well) should probably peruse several translations, varying in how literally/freely they render the text. And, if I want to know a short text or excerpt well, my rendering of choice will be a heavily footnoted literal translation.
For large-scale reading — for the kind of reading comprehension that can be sustained for numerous pages — there is a different phenomenon. The danger in free translation is that it can confine the reader to the translator’s interpretation. The danger in literal translation is that it can confine the reader to not understanding the text at all. A woodenly literal text, one that’s read for dozens or hundreds of pages, brings a cognitive strain and consumes energy that could be used in thinking about the text. And, for that reason, if I can only choose a single translation, I’ll take my chances with a free translation.
I read a book recently called Please Understand Me. It was a valuable resource to read, but it’s something I’d prefer to give to others with a complimentary grain of salt.
It’s about different personality and temperament types, and one of the central theses is that people have fundamentally different natures, but engage on a Pygmalion project to reshape others into copies of themselves. It is written in such a way that a reader who is persuaded of the legitimate point (that temperaments are not right or wrong, just different, and it is inappropriate to try to change a person to a temperament that he’s not) will (in a similar fashion to the Green Book in C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man) come to the unjustified and illegitimate conclusion that there is not right or wrong in much of anything, and that it is wrong to try to change a person on any score. It never draws this conclusion in so many words, but a transposition of key takes what Lewis said about the Green Book and fits it (quite well) to Please Understand Me.
The book is worth reading, if you can resist the conclusion that the flow of the text pulls you towards.
There is a distinction I have periodically been thinking about: it is a conceptual distinction between a gentleman’s duel and an assassin’s duel.
Both represent a kind of contest between two people, but contests of two different sorts. Don Quixote refers to knightly duels in which both parties were meticulously careful to make all things equal: both swords the same length, both parties standing at equal angles to the sun so that neither one would have the sun in his eyes more than the other. This is an extreme form of the basic idea of the gentleman’s duel. At the other end, there are no rules and no concept of fairness; an assassin might accept another’s challenge, and then arrange to have him shot by archers. Wesley’s battle of wits with Vizzini in The Princess Bride represents the quintessential assassin’s duel.
The two frameworks for a contest, or a test, offer distinct conceptions of how a person’s ability may be measured. I have seen a number of gentleman’s duel IQ tests, for instance; I am not aware of any established tests that operate like assassins’ duels, and the ability to function effectively outside of external structure (the cliche is ‘think outside the box’) is one of the distinctive features of intelligence.
Catholics speak a great deal about the primacy of Peter among Christ’s disciples, but there is also a primacy to John. Peter had a unique place in the nurture of the church (“Feed my sheep,”), but it was John who was closest to Jesus, John the mystic, who had a stunningly brilliant mind and probably understood him best. In a technology corporation, Peter might be compared to the CEO, and John to the prize research scientist.
My apartment is a sparse place, slightly messy and having no television. It is not really decorated; an outer austerity conceals an active life of the mind.
People’s homes can give insight into those who dwell there. My apartment does not exude the same romantic warmth as many other places, but that is because my attention is elsewhere.
I have a different perspective on aging than what I have seen about me. It always makes me slightly sad when I hear my father saying, “We’re getting old,” not because it is false, but because he says it as a confession of weakness. I view aging as getting closer to Heaven, (as described in Hebrews) as approaching the finish line of a great race. My way of holding this belief has a dark side — I sometimes look on life as enduring time so as to be past it and into eternity — but I still think I am better off not to be approaching my thirtieth birthday as when I will become a has-been.
I wrote about two types of welder above. I realized a certain affinity between the apostle Paul and myself, especially as regarded the welder distinction. Paul, as an apostle, skipped from place to place and culture to culture, with a veritable rainbow of activities: planting churches and writing were just the beginning. He certainly travelled more than I have.
Seeing a sort of kindred spirit (even if separated by millenia), and in someone whom I greatly respect, was warming to me.
I have thought that the entrenched numerical scale of IQs are unfortunate. The numbers corresponding to a person’s weight are proportional; one person who weighs 200 pounds has as much body-stuff as two people who weigh 100 pounds each, or four children who weigh 50 pounds each. It is simply not true, in a corresponding sense, that one person with an IQ of 200 has exactly twice as much thinking-stuff as two people with IQs of 100 each. A programmer with an IQ of 150 is quite possibly capable of doing feats that could not be accomplished by any number of programmers with IQ 100. There are not just quantitative differences (for which an exponential scale might be preferable), but qualitative differences as well.
The other critique I have of the concept of IQ is that it equates (for children and adults) higher intelligence with functioning at a more advanced mental age. This is true, in a sense, and brilliant adults grow out of precocious children, but there is an important mental dimension that is well-developed in most children and atrophied in most adults: mental flexibility/openness/creativity/curiosity. Experiments have found gradeschool children to be more creative than professional engineers; it is a rare mind that can enter adulthood without losing childhood creativity. A child with a high IQ, one would hope, is not simply at a cognitive level normally associated with people a few years older; he may be capable of tasks most people cannot complete until a few years older, but he retains the mental flexibility associated with his chronological age — perhaps a younger age. “A more intelligent child mentally functions like an older person” is a good rough take on the matter, but the basic concept of “older [up to mental maturity] = better” has room for further nuance.
The mathematical model used of the four dimensions of the Meyers-Briggs Personality Indicator is one-dimensional: one is introverted to the extent that one is not extraverted. So being more introverted is always at the expense of being less extraverted, and being more extraverted is always at the expense of being more introverted. The structure of the personality test reflects this perspective: each question is a forced choice between two preferences, and each point that a person scores for one preference is a point he didn’t score for the opposite preference.
That seems to me to be acceptable as a rough model, but on further reflection, a two-dimensional variant seems preferable. So, instead of the following scale:
+—+—+—+—+—+—+—+—+—+—+ 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Introversion 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0 Extraversion
I would suggest something more like the following:
I 10 + n 9 + A B t 8 + r 7 + o 6 + v 5 + C e 4 + r 3 + s 2 + i 1 + D E o 0 +—+—+—+—+—+—+—+—+—+—+ n 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Extraversion
On this scale, most people would likely fall somewhere between A (introverted, not extraverted) and E (extraverted, not introverted), but it is also possible to be at D (neither introverted nor extraverted — but not what is meant by ‘X’, namely half-and-half — that is ‘C’), or ‘B’ (both introverted and extraverted, but again not half-and-half).
When I first took the Myers-Briggs, I had difficulty answering the thinking-feeling questions — because I embodied both of the qualities which the test portrays as opposites. I had equal difficulty answering the judging-perceiving questions — but for a different reason: I was not familiar with, and did not identify with, either modus operandi. On a two-dimensional scale such as I drew above, I would be around point B for thinking-feeling, and point D for judging-perceiving.
My office had a Secret Santa gift exchange, and I got one of my co-workers a boxed set of Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. I was warmed to find out that she’d been wanting to get that series for a couple of years.
Today the biggest symbol of evil is Hitler or Naziism; there is almost no bigger insult than calling someone a Nazi or a comparison to Hitler. The Old Testament’s symbol of evil that did the same job was a city in which the Lord God of Hosts could not find fifty righteous, nor forty-five, nor forty, nor thirty, nor twenty, nor even ten righteous men. It was the city on which fire and brimstone rained down from Heaven in divine wrath until smoke arose as from a gigantic furnace. It was, in short, the city of Sodom.
Ezekiel has some remarks about Sodom’s sin that might surprise you. Ezekiel 16:49 says, This was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, more than enough food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.
These are far from the only stinging words the Bible says to rich people who could care for the poor and do not do so. Jesus said something that could better be translated, “It is easier for a rope to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25). It would take hours or perhaps days to recite everything blunt the Bible says about wealth, if even I could remember so much.
But who are the rich? The standard American answer is, “People who have more money than I do,” and the standard American answer is wrong. It takes too much for granted. Do you want to know how special it is, worldwide, to be able to afford meat for every meal you want it and your Church permits it? Imagine saying “We’re not rich; we just have Champagne and lobster every day.” That’s what it means for even poorer Americans to say “We’re not rich, just a bit comfortable.” The amount of money that America spends on weight loss products each year costs more than it would cost to feed the hungry worldwide. When Ezekiel says that “your sister Sodom” had more than enough food but did not care for the poor, he is saying something that has every relevance to us if we also fail to care for the poor.
I would be remiss not to mention the Sermon on the Mount here, because the Sermon on the Mount explains something we can miss (Matt 6:19-21,24-33):
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also… No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Money.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Do you think that by worrying you can add a single hour to your life? You might as well try to make yourself a foot taller! And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the Kingdom of God and his perfect righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.
This includes a hard saying about wealth, but it is not only a hard saying about wealth, but an invitation to joy. “Do not store up treasures on earth but store up treasures in Heaven” is a command to exchange lead for gold and have true wealth. It is an invitation to joy, and it is no accident that these sharp words about Money lead directly into the Bible’s central text on why we never need to worry.
Elsewhere we read, “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions,” (Luke 12:15), which is not a statement that spiritual people can rise so high that their lives aren’t measured by possessions. It is about everybody, great and small. If money doesn’t make you happy this is not something specially true about spiritual people; it’s something that’s true of everybody. But Jesus’s entire point is to direct us to what our life does consist in. The words about storing up treasures in Heaven prepare us for the “Therefore I tell you,” and an invitation to live a life that is fuller, richer, more vibrant, deeper, more alive, more radiant with the light of Heaven than we can possibly arrange through wealth.
What will we leave behind if we spend less on ourselves? Will we leave behind the Lord’s providence, or hugs, or friendship, or banter, or worship, or the Church, or feasting? Will we leave behind the love of the Father, or Christ as our High Priest, or the Spirit? Will we be losing a Heaven whose beginning is here and now, or will we be pulling out our right hands and our right eyes? If it seems that way, we may adapt C.S. Lewis to say that living the life of Heaven through our finances today may seem like it will cost our right hand and our right eye, or in today’s words an arm and a leg, but once we have taken that plunge, we will discover that what we have left behind is precisely nothing. Or perhaps we could say that we are leaving behind a false Savior who never delivers, but only distracts us from the true Savior in Christ, and the treasure that is ours when we lay our treasures at his feet.
Is there a luxury you could give up in this invitation to joy?
The Alumnus: Hello. I was in town, and I wanted to stop in for a visit.
The Visionary: How good to see you! What have you been up to? We’re all interested in hearing what our alumni are doing.
The Alumnus: Well, that would take a bit of explaining. I had a good experience with college.
The Visionary: That’s lovely to hear.
The Alumnus: Yes, and I know that some alumni from our Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, also known as IMSA, didn’t. I got through college the same way I got through gradeschool, playing by the law of the jungle. I stopped and thought about how to approach college. I realized soon that higher numbered courses were easier than lower numbered courses, and how to find professors I could work with. And I understand why one alumna said, “IMSA didn’t prepare me for college. It prepared me for graduate school.” College will not automatically be a good experience for IMSA students, but there are choices the college won’t advertise but could be made.
The Visionary: I wish you could speak to some of our students.
The Alumnus: I’d like the opportunity. There are a lot of things to say—that there’s a normal scale of elementary-junior high-high school-undergraduate-graduate school, and IMSA doesn’t fit on it. It has high school aged students, but it’s not a modified high school; it’s close in ways to graduate school, but there’s something about it that is missed if you put it at any one point on the scale. And this has the result that IMSA students need to realize that when they enter college, they are not going from high school to the next step after high school; they’re going from IMSA to something that was not meant to follow IMSA. But something that has opportunities if they knock on back doors and take advantage of some things the university doesn’t know they need.
The Visionary: If you’re serious about talking to our students, I mean talking with our students, I can introduce you to the appropriate people.
The Alumnus: Thank you. I was mentioning this to lead up to a gem of a class I took, one on what you need to know to make user-friendly computer programs, i.e. usability. There was something that set me thinking, nettled me, when I was reading through some of the jargon file’s Hell desk slang, um, I mean help desk slang. The term “pilot error” meant much the same thing as “ID ten T error”.
The Visionary: I know what “pilot error” means in some contexts, but what does “ID ten T error” mean?
The Alumnus: It’s easiest to see if you write it out.
The Visionary [goes to a markerboard and writes, “I D 1 0 T” ]: Um… I assume there’s a reason you started to say, “Hell desk.” Aren’t they just blowing off steam?
The Alumnus: Yes. Unfortunately, one of the ways many help desk employees have blown off steam is to say, “Ok. If you’ll hold for a minute, I’m going to transfer you to my supervisor. Would you tell her that you appear to have an ‘eye dee ten tee’ error?” And they all gloat over what they’ve gotten the customer to say. No, seriously, you don’t need to keep a straight face.
But what really struck me was the entry for PEBKAC, acronym for “Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair.” There was an example given of,
Did you figure out why that guy couldn’t print?
Yeah, he kept canceling the print operation before it could finish. PEBKAC.
This was philosophically interesting.
The Visionary: How?
The Alumnus: In a computer, you get these time wasting messages where a little window pops up and you can’t do any useful work until you click on the button. It becomes noise for the sake of noise; like the boy who cried, “Wolf!”, we have the computer that cries, “Worth your attention.” After a while, the normal thing most people do is click on the button automatically so they can get back to their work. It’s a waste of time to try to decipher the cryptic messages.
So when people go to print, another one of these waste-of-time windows pops up, except that this time, when you do the right thing and click on the button and make it go away, your print job fails. And this specific example is chosen as a paradigm example of PEBKAC.
For a lot of these errors, there is a problem between a keyboard and chair. But the problem isn’t between the user’s keyboard and chair. The problem is between the programmer’s keyboard and chair.
The Visionary: Ouch.
The Alumnus: That course was what led to what I did for my Ph.D.
The Visionary: And that was?
The Alumnus: My discipline of record is philosophy of mind/cognitive science.
The Visionary: “Discipline of record?” I’m curious to hear you drop the other shoe.
The Alumnus: Usability is connected to cognitive science—an amalgam of computer science, psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, linguistics, and other areas, all trying to understand human thought so we can re-implement it on a computer. It’s a fascinating area for interdisciplinary study, and usability draws on it, just from a different angle: instead of making computers intelligent, it tries to make computers friendly to people who don’t understand how they are built. And a lot of things which are clear as day if you built the system aren’t automatically clear to customers. A system which is usable lets the user have an illusory cognitive model of how the system works that is far, far simpler than how a programmer would understand it. And programmers don’t consciously believe that customers understand the innards of their system, but there’s an assumption that creeps in, an assumption of, “My way of thinking about it is how a person thinks about it.”
The Visionary: That way of putting it makes the programmers sound ego-centric.
The Alumnus: I wouldn’t put it in such crude terms as that; they are thinking in a way that is human.
With languages, there is a lot of diversity. Aside from the variety of languages, there’s a difference between the U.S., where the majority only speak one language, and Sénégal, where it is common for people to speak five or six languages. There’s a difference between Italy, where people speak one national language in a fairly pure form, and India, where English and Hindi are spliced together seamlessly. For that matter, there’s the deaf outlet of speaking with your hands instead of your mouth. But with all these differences, language itself is not something which is added to being human. Language is not a custom that cultures may happen to include. There are exceptional cases where people do not learn a language, and these are tragic cases where people are deprived of a human birthright. The specifics of language may vary, but language itself is not adding something to being human. It is something that is basically human. The details and even diversity of languages are details of how language works out.
And a lot of things are like that. Understanding something that you’re working on is not something added to being human; it’s an interpretation of something basic. How one thinks, about technology and other things, is not something added to being human. It’s something basically human.
One very natural tendency is to think that “I” or “we” or “people like us” are just being human; we just have what is natural to being human. The “them” group has all sorts of things that are added to being human, but “we” are just being human. So we expect other people to think like us. We assume it so deeply and unconsciously that we are shocked by their perversity when they violate this expectation.
The Visionary: Wow. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms before. Do you think IMSA provided a safe haven from this kind of lockstep thinking for its students?
The Alumnus: I think it provides a safe haven for quite a lot of its students. But getting back to my Ph.D. program—
The Visionary: Yes?
The Alumnus: So I began, encouraged by some initial successes, to try and make the first artificial mind. For a while I thought I would succeed, after overcoming some obstacles that couldn’t have been that bad.
The Visionary: What were these obstacles?
The Alumnus: Just a special case here and there, an unrepresentative anomaly. But when I worked, I had a sneaking suspicion dawn on me.
Freshman year, I had a college roommate who was brilliant and eccentric. He turned out stunning proofs in math classes. He was also trying to build a perpetual motion machine. He was adjusting this and that; I listened, entranced, when he traced the history of great experiments in physics, and talked about how across the centuries they went from observing obvious behavior to find subtle ways to trick nature into showing you something you weren’t supposed to see. Think of the ingenuity of the Millikan oil drop experiment. And so he went on, trying to adjust this and that, seeking to get things just right for a perpetual motion machine. There were times when he seemed to almost have it. It seemed there were ten things you needed for a perpetual motion machine, and he had an almost working machine for any nine of them. But that tenth one seemed never to fall into place.
And I had a sneaking suspicion, one that I was going to try awfully hard to ignore, that for a long time I convinced myself I didn’t know what I was expecting. But deja vu kept creeping in. I had just succeeded with a project that met every clearly defined goal I set for it… but I had just found another way not to make artificial intelligence.
The crusher was when I read von Neumann’s 1958 The Computer and the Brain. Then I stopped running from deja vu. Here was crass confidence that in 1958 we discoved the basis for all human thought, and all human thought is add, subtract, multiply, and divide. Here was an assumption in lieu of argument. And here was the air I breathed as a cognitive science.
The Visionary: But I’ve looked at some reports, and artificial intelligence seems to be just around the corner.
The Alumnus: Full artificial intelligence is just around the corner, and it’s been just around the corner since at least the fifties—arguably much longer, because for a hundred years before the brain was a computer, it was a telephone exchange. (I think that’s why we talk about a person being “wired” a particular way.) The brain is always understood as the state of the art technology we’re most proud of.
I hit rock bottom after thinking about how I had convinced myself I was creating a working artificial intelligence by obtaining results and reinterpreting results as success. It’s very seductive, and I was thinking about what some skeptics had said about magic.
What emerged was… The effort to make computers think has found ways that the human mind is much more interesting than we thought. And I began to push in a new direction. Instead of trying to understand human intelligence to make computers more intelligent, I began to try to understand human intelligence to make humans more intelligent.
The Visionary: What exactly do you mean?
The Alumnus: There are a lot of disciplines that teach you how to think. I think scholars in many disciplines see their discipline as the discipline that teaches you how to think, where truly different disciplines are a sort of no-man’s land that doesn’t qualify as “how to think.” But these are a coupled subject matter and how to think about the subject matter. This was, in abstracted, crystalline, and universal form, “How to think.” The analogy I used at the time was that it was the elementary school number line (1, 2, 3, …), abstracted from sets of one physical object, two physical objects, three physical objects…
The Visionary [pausing]: It sounds like you’re pioneering a new academic discipline. Would you like IMSA to highlight this?
The Alumnus: I am working that out. Not exactly whether what I am doing would qualify as an academic discipline—I’m pretty sure of that—but whether going down that route would be the wisest choice. For now, I’d rather wait.
The Visionary: Are you sure you wouldn’t want the prestige? Hmm… on second thought, I can see that.
What are the scientific underpinnings of your discipline?
The Alumnus [pause]: That question is one of the first ones people ask me. It’s automatic.
In tandem with what you might call my loss of faith in cognitive science, I began to question the cultural place of science. Including that in a question like this, the nearly immediate question people ask is one that assumes the answers are fed by science. Three of the most difficult mental accomplishments I’ve made are learning to think like a scientist, crafting this discipline of how to think, and learning to genuinely ask “How else could it be?” when people automatically go charging in with science.
The Visionary: But don’t you think it’s important to understand what’s going on in the body?
The Alumnus: Both your questions, “What are the scientific underpinnings of your discipline?” and “But don’t you think it’s important to understand what’s going on in the body?” are examples of the tendency I’m talking about. Your latter question assumes that “understanding the body” and “study the science of the body” are interchangeable terms; they often are treated that way in Western culture, but they need not be.
The Visionary: But how else could it be?
The Alumnus: In journalism and some writing classes, students are taught a technique of cubing, which asks six questions, one for each side of the cube. The six questions are all “w” words: who, what, when, where, and how.
In most aboriginal cultures, for instance, people ask more than one question, but the big question is, “Why?” The stories provide explanations for why the world is as it is.
In science, the big question is, “How?” Laws and theories provide mechanisms for how things happen. “Why?” isn’t just de-emphasized; it’s something people learn not to ask, something that is subtly stamped out like much of a child’s creativity. Asking “Why?” is a basic error, like asking how much an idea weighs. One philosopher of science I read gave an example of a father asking a teenaged son, “Why is the living room light on?” and getting the answer, “Because the switch is in the ‘on’ position, closing the circuit and causing electricity to flow through the bulb.” That isn’t why, that’s how. And if students are taught science without being taught how to be independent from science, or for that matter if they are in a culture influenced by science as ours has been, they’ll come to share the assumption that this is the one and only serious answer to, “Why is the living room light on?”
That puts things too simply, but my point is that science does not represent the full range of inquiry. Science has cast a powerful shadow, not just in that science is scientific (which is as it should be) but in that non-scientific inquiry is not as independent as it should be.
But I’m getting off topic. What I was meaning to say was that I use science, but my discipline is dependent on an independence from science as well.
The Visionary: Could I backtrack a fair distance?
The Alumnus: Sure, to what?
The Visionary: There was something in the back of my mind when you answered my question about IMSA shielding its students from a lockstep environment. May I ask a more specific question?
The Alumnus: Certainly.
The Visionary: Did IMSA shield you from a lockstep environment?
The Alumnus: IMSA was unquestionably a better environment for me than a mainstream school.
The Visionary: You’re being diplomatic.
The Alumnus: Ok. IMSA tries to be a magnet school serving the gifted population. Instead of memorization, it tries to produce critical observers, right?
The Visionary: Yes, and this isn’t just for IMSA. We want to be a beacon of hope, for educational progress to the state and to the world.
The Alumnus: IMSA still doesn’t have a football program, right?
The Visionary: IMSA students still don’t really want one. If there was enough demand, we’d have one.
The Alumnus: What would you say to a football coach who wanted to liberate the tough, aggressive quarterback struggling to get out of every IMSA bookworm?
The Visionary: I think I see where you’re going. Let me play devil’s advocate for the moment. Our society has recognized football as an endeavor for some. But don’t we recognize that education is a goal for all?
The Alumnus: All analogies break down, and I can’t force you to see my point if you don’t want to. My reason for drawing that analogy is that the average mind learns by memorization of given material, and that mind is ill-served by trying to liberate that critical observer just as many bookworms would be ill-served by trying to liberate that hidden quarterback. The kind of student that does well at IMSA doesn’t do so well with the memorization that serves the average student. But it’s a two-way street.
The Visionary: And I think I see a connection to what you said about programmers assume that how they think about a product is how everybody will think about it. And…
The Alumnus: Yes. But there’s something else.
The Visionary: So how do you think IMSA’s outreach should be changed? Should we stop outreach?
The Alumnus: I’d want to give that some thought. That isn’t why I brought this up. I brought up this two-edged sword to make it easier to see another two-edged sword.
The two-edged sword I’ve suggested is that, just as IMSA students tend to be uncomfortable with the instructional methods at most schools, average students would be uncomfortable with instruction that seeks to liberate a hidden critical observer. It’s a bad match both ways. The other two-edged sword has to do with the nature of giftedness. How would you define giftedness?
The Visionary: I try not to, at least in not as strong terms as you do. IMSA is trying to liberate the genius of every child.
The Alumnus: I think your actions are wiser than your rhetoric. How much thought goes into your admissions decisions?
The Visionary: Our admissions staff give a great deal of thought! Do you think we’re careless?
The Alumnus: I would have been disturbed if IMSA made a random choice from among the students whose genius would be nurtured. Are you sure you don’t want to define giftedness?
The Visionary: Every child has some talent.
The Alumnus: I agree, although your words sound suspiciously like words that many IMSA parents have learned to wince at. There are a lot of parents who have bright children who have learned that “All of our children are gifted.” means, in practical terms, “Your daughter will be educated according to our idealization of an average student, no matter how much it hurts her, and we won’t make accomodation.”
But you are, unlike me, an administrator whom everybody blames for problems, and you know that there are many occasions where coming out and expressing your candid opinions is an invitation to disaster. I groused about the administration to no end as a student; it is only as an adult that I’ve come to appreciate the difficult and delicate task of being an administrator, and what kind of performance on an administration’s part lets me focus on my work.
I’m going to put on my suspicious and mistrustful observer cap and read into your actions that it would be politically dangerous for you to say “This is the kind of gifted student we look for at IMSA.” But I am not an administrator. I am more of a private person than you can afford to be, and there are more degrees of freedom offered to me. Would you mind my giving my opinion on a matter where you in particular need to be very careful in what you say?
The Visionary: I’m always open to listen, and I’m not just saying this as an administrator.
The Alumnus: I should also say that because something is politic, I don’t automatically translate “politic” to “insincere.” I believe you’ve been as successful as you have partly because you sincerely want to hear what people have to say. When someone says, “political sensitivity,” I’ve learned to stop being a cynic and automatically hearing, “Machiavellian intrigue.”
But when I teach, I try to have a map that accomodates itself to terrain, both old and new to me. There are surprisingly many things I believe that are human universals, although I won’t discuss them here. But diversity is foundational to how I communicate, and in particular teach.
By “diversity” I don’t just mean “affirmative action concerns.” I read what I can about minority cultures, and how Asperger’s or ADD minds tick. That much is important, and I’m not just jumping on the bandwagon. But diversity doesn’t begin when a student labeled as “minority,” “different,” or “disadvantaged” sits down in your classroom. Diversity begins much earlier. Diversity is every person. I’m fond of books like David Kiersey’s Please Understand Me II which explore what temperament and Myers-Briggs types mean for personhood. I want to appreciate learning styles. I absolutely love when students come in during office hours, because then I can see exactly where a student is, and exactly how that student is learning and thinking, and give an explanation that is tailored to the student’s specific situation. I like to lecture too, but I’m freest to meet student needs when students visit me in my office.
And one very important facet of that diversity is one that is unfashionable today, more specifically IQ.
The Visionary: I remember seeing a report that your IQ was so high it was untestable by normal means. I’ve heard that polite drivers value politeness, skillful drivers value skill, and safe drivers value safety. Is there…?
The Alumnus: If you want to dismiss what I’m saying because of speculation about my motives, there’s a good case to do so. I know that. But please hear and accept or dismiss my arguments on their merits, and if you read books like James Webb’s Guiding the Gifted Child, you’ll see this isn’t just my idea. I accept multiple intelligence theory as a nuance, but I would point my finger to the idea that a single IQ was an adjustment in theory, made by people who started by assuming multiple intelligences.
But with all the debates, and in particular despite the unfashionability of “IQ”, there is excellent reason to discuss giftedness in terms of IQ. IQ may not be the whole story, but you’re missing something big if it is treated as one factor among others.
Several caveats deleted, I would point out that giftedness is not a binary attribute, any more than being tall is binary. There may be some people who are clearly tall and others who clearly aren’t, but regardless of where you draw the line, you can’t divide people into a “tall” group of people who are all exactly 190 centimeters tall and a “non-tall” group of people who are 160 centimeters tall. There is diversity, and this diversity remains even if you restrict your attention to tall people.
The Visionary: So then would you say that most high schools serve an average diversity, and IMSA serves a gifted diversity?
The Alumnus: Umm…
The Visionary: Yes?
The Alumnus: An average high school breaks at both ends of its spectrum…
The Visionary: Yes?
The Alumnus: Um…
The Visionary: Yes?
The Alumnus: And IMSA breaks at both ends of its spectrum.
The Visionary: If there are some students who the administration overestimates, this is unfortunate, but—
The Alumnus: That’s not my point. Ignoring several other dimensions of diversity, we don’t have two points of “average” and “gifted” defining a line. Giftedness, anyway, is not “the same kind of intelligence as most people have, only more of it and faster”; it’s a different kind of intelligence. It diverges more the further you go.
Instead of the two points of “average” and “gifted”, there are three points to consider: “average”, “gifted”, and “profoundly gifted.”
I think it is to IMSA’s great credit that you have a gifted education, not a pullout tacked on to a nongifted education. Serving gifted needs isn’t an adjustment; it’s the fabric you’ve woven, and it is impressive.
But “profoundly gifted” is as different from the “moderately gifted” as “moderately gifted” is from “average”…
…and IMSA attracts a good proportion of the profoundly gifted minority…
…and the position of the profoundly gifted at IMSA is exactly the position many IMSA students had in TAG pullouts.
The Visionary: May I say a word in IMSA’s defense?
The Alumnus: Certainly.
The Visionary: IMSA began as a dream, a wild, speculative, powerful, risky vision. From the beginning, its place was tentative; some of the first classes did math problems before the state government because IMSA was threatened with closing. IMSA makes things happen that wouldn’t happen anywhere, and for all we’ve done, there are still people who would remove us from the budget. I’ve talked with alumni, both those who like and dislike the school, and I see something in them which I didn’t see in other places.
The Alumnus: And IMSA is a safe place to learn and grow, and IMSA alumni are making a powerful contribution to the world. All of this I assume. And IMSA seems like the kind of place that could grow, that does grow. IMSA could offer the world certain extraordinarily talented individuals that have been stretched to their limit, who have spent certain very formative years doing things most people don’t even dream of, and doing so not in isolation but guided and supported as powerfully, and as gently for their needs, as IMSA already offers to so many of its students.
The Visionary: If you have any plans, I would like to hear them.
The Alumnus: Before I give the plans as such, I would like to give a brief overview, not just of the average, moderately gifted, and profoundly gifted mind, but of the average, moderately gifted, and profoundly gifted spirit. Keep in mind that this is not a trichotomy, but three reference points on a curve.
The average mind is concrete. It deals in practical, concrete matters. There was one study which posed isomorphic problems to people, one of which was stated abstractly, and one of which asked in concrete terms who the “cheaters” were. The average respondent did poorly on the abstract isomorph, but was astute when it was put concretely. The average mind is more practical, and learns by an understanding which gradually emerges by going over things again. The preferred learning style is oriented towards memorization and is relatively slow, concrete, and (on gifted terms) doesn’t make connections. This person is the fabric with which society is woven; a person like this tends to understand and be understood by others. The average mind concentrates on, and becomes reasonably proficient, in a small number of skills.
The moderately gifted mind, around an IMSA IQ of 140, deals with abstractions. It sees interconnections, and this may be related to why the moderately gifted mind learns more skills with less effort. (If this is true, an average mind would be learning from scratch, while a moderately gifted mind would only make adaptations from similar skills.) This person is likely to have a “collection of skills”, and have a low self-assessment in those skills. (Today’s breathtaking performance is, tomorrow, marginally adequate.) Self-actualizing concern for becoming a particular kind of person is much more common. The moderately gifted mind enjoys an advantage over the average mind, and is different, but still close enough to connect. This person learns more quickly, and most of society’s leaders are moderately gifted. (Some have suggested that this is not just because people above that range are much rarer, but because they can easily connect.
There is controversy about how isolated the profoundly gifted person is, with an IQ around 180. Some researchers believe that the greater gap is bridged by the greater ability to connect; Webb suggests otherwise, saying that children with an IQ above 170 feel like they don’t fit in anywhere. He asks what the effects would be if a normal child grew up in a world where most people had an IQ of 50-55. Some profoundly gifted have discussed the feeling that there’s an instruction manual to life that everyone but them has. The unusual sense of humor that appears in the moderately gifted is even more pronounced in the profoundly gifted. Average people tend to believe some tacit and naively realistic philosophy. Moderately gifted people tend to believe some conscious and creative reinterpretation of realism. Profoundly gifted people tend to believe an almost automatic anti-realism. The realism assumed by most people doesn’t resonate with them. And I need to explain what I mean by “believe” here. I don’t mean that someone engaged them in a discussion and are convinced by logic or eloquence that an anti-realist philosophy is true. I mean something close to experience, as we believe that a radiator is hot after we touch it. Realism is obvious for someone of average intelligence. For someone profoundly gifted, coming to that perspective represents a significant achievement.
Furthermore, where the moderately gifted person has a “skill collection”, the profoundly gifted individual has what might as well be magic powers—
The Visionary: You mean is involved with the occult or psychic phenomena?
The Alumnus: Not exactly. Profoundly gifted individuals have been known to do things like reinventing the steam engine at age six. Some of them can walk into a room and in an instant infer what kind of presentation is going to be given, and what kind of organization is going to give it. They have been known to make penetrating observations of connections between vastly different disciplines. Some have written a book in a week. Others remember everything they have read. Verbatim. Another still has invented a crude physics and using it to solve problems before she was old enough to talk. It’s entirely plausible for a profoundly gifted individual to think for a few hours about a philosophical school he’s just read about, and have a better grasp of the assumptions and implications surrounding that school than scholars who have studied the discipline for years. Many accomplishments are less extreme than that. Some are more extreme. I said that they might as well be magic powers because they are no more believable to many people than levitation or fairies granting wishes. Moderately gifted achievements are envied. Profoundly gifted achievements are disbelieved, and one social lesson the profoundly gifted learn is that there are certain accomplishments that you don’t talk about… which feels the way most people would feel if people were shocked and offended when they tried to say, “I can read,” or for that matter, “I can breathe.”
These people do not think of themselves as having magic powers. Their impressive abilities are no more breathtaking or astonishing to them than our impressive abilities of walking through an unfamiliar room or understanding a children’s book are to us—and if you don’t believe that walking through an unfamiliar room or understanding a children’s book is an astonishing mental feat, just spend a year in artificial intelligence. Artificial researchers know what kind of achievement is represented by these “basic” tasks. The rest of us misunderstand them as mundane. If you can understand how you can be better at understanding emotions than any computer in the world, and not think of yourself as gifted, you have a good start on understanding what it’s like to feel that it’s natural to tinker with your hands, imagine who you’re going to be when you grow up, enjoy cooking, and have dreams where your brain creates languages on the fly.
It’s a commonplace that the gifted can have a rough time of school. What IMSA does is place the profoundly gifted in the position of fixed pace classes designed for people significantly less intelligent than them.
It’s easier to criticize than it is to give a positive alternative; let me give a positive alternative.
First of all, profoundly gifted students can pick things up much more rapidly even than most IMSA students. Something like a factor of four speedup can happen again and again. Many of these students would tear through textbooks if you let them.
The Visionary: But at IMSA we don’t dump textbooks on students. We provide an environment where they can discover things for themselves.
The Alumnus: They will discover things for themselves. But if you look at learning styles, the profoundly gifted are some of the most able to understand a crystallized abstraction, and the most likely to work ahead in their textbooks.
IMSA may have a dozen or so profoundly gifted individuals at any one time.
The Visionary: And we’ve provided accommodation for a bright sophomore physics class.
The Alumnus: Yes, it is possible for students to lobby for accommodation on a specific point.
But it’s possible to go further, as IMSA has gone further than TAG pullouts.
There could be a small number of people who serve as tutors, in a sort of tutorial system as can be seen in Oxford’s and Cambridge’s history. They would be like thesis advisors, less responsible for knowing what the students need to learn than offering direction and referrals.
The Visionary: What would you have them do if they tear through IMSA’s curriculum sophomore year?
The Alumnus: Students that bright are likely to have their own axes to grind—good axes, axes which they should be encouraged. I really have trouble imagining a student flying through IMSA’s normal curriculum and then wanting to watch TV for two years. The problem of motivating these students is like the problem of defending a lion: the first thing is to get out of the way.
The teachers themselves should offer the kind of individualized instruction that is basic to special education, and deal with the “magic powers” that the main curriculum doesn’t know how to deal with.
The Visionary: Would the teachers have to be profoundly gifted?
The Alumnus: I don’t know. I would place more emphasis on understanding profoundly gifted students than necessarily being profoundly gifted oneself.
Furthermore, as well as standing in need of conceptual education, profoundly gifted students could benefit from personal development to help them meet the rest of the world. I don’t know whether it would be correct to say that average education should be about knowledge, gifted education should be about how to think, and profoundly gifted education should be about personal development. I think the idea is worth considering. And I would try to develop some things that aren’t needed in average education and less needed in moderately gifted education, such as how to bridge the gap and meet the rest of the world.
The Visionary: I’ll think about that. I would be delighted to say you’ve shown me how to solve this problem.
The Alumnus: I’d be surprised if I’ve shown you how to solve this problem. If I were asked what I could guarantee for this model, it would be that some part of it is wrong. I would ask you to consider what I’ve presented you as a rough draft. In my opinion it is a rough draft worth revising, changing course in midstream if need be, but it is a rough draft.
The Visionary: This is all very well for office hours, but how do you teach a class? You don’t try to individualize a lecture twenty different ways, do you?
The Alumnus: I believe what I said about diversity as foundational, but I also believe there are things that are common. I believe there are significant commonalities as well as significant differences.
What would you say is the dominant educational philosophy at IMSA?
The Visionary: There are several philosophies we draw on, and several things vary from teacher to teacher. But if I were to pick one school, it would be constructivism.
The Alumnus: Does constructivism see the student as an empty pot, to be filled with knowledge?
The Visionary: Quite the opposite. Constructivism sees the students as agents, trying to actively construct their models of the world, not as empty pots to be filled, or as formless clay for the teachers to shape. We see the teacher as supporting the student in this active task.
The Alumnus: And I agree that students should be active and encouraged by teachers. A related question—do you believe mathematics is something that research mathematicians invent, or something that they find out?
The Visionary: Well, the obvious answer would be that it’s something constructed.
The Alumnus: I disagree with you, at least about the “obvious” part.
The Visionary: Then I’ll trust your judgment that it’s something mathematicians discover. You’ve probably thought about this a lot more than I have.
The Alumnus: You don’t need to agree with me here. There are a lot of good mathematicians who believe mathematics is something invented.
The Visionary: Are you saying I should believe mathematics is constructed?
The Alumnus: No. There are also a lot of mathematicians who understand mathematics and say mathematics is something that’s found out.
The Visionary: Now I’m having trouble seeing where you’re going.
The Alumnus: There’s a debate among mathematicians as to whether mathematics is invented or discovered, with good mathematicians falling into either camp. The word ‘discover’ itself is ambiguous; one can say “I discovered the TV remote under the couch” and have “discover” mean “dis-cover” or “find out,” but one can also say, “I discovered a way to build a better mousetrap,” and have “discover” mean “invent”. “Invent” derives from the Latin “invenire,” which means “come into”, i.e. “find,” so that it would be more natural in Latin to say “I just invented my car keys” than “I invented a useful tool.”
The Visionary: I think I see what you are saying… Are you saying that there is a single reality described both by discovery and invention?
The Alumnus: Yes. Now to tie in with constructivism… What are students doing when they are constructing models?
The Visionary: They are shaping thought-stuff, for lack of a better term, in a way that’s different for each learner.
The Alumnus: And this is to break out of the Enlightenment/Diderot encyclopedia mindset which gives rise to stuffing the learner with facts?
The Visionary: Absolutely.
The Alumnus: Where would you place Kant? Was he a medieval philosopher?
The Visionary: He was one of the Enlightenment’s greatest philosophers.
The Alumnus: And Kant’s model of ideas was unchanged from Plato.
The Visionary: Um…
The Alumnus: Yes?
The Visionary: What Plato called “Ideas” and Kant ‘s “ideas” are two different things. For Plato, the Ideas were something strange to us: a reality outside the mind.
The Alumnus: Um… Plato and Kant would equally have affirmed the statement, “Ideas are internal.”
The Visionary: I don’t think so. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave suggests that the Ideas are part of something that is the same for all people.
The Alumnus: If I may digress for a moment, I think that famous passage should be called “the Allegory of the Television.” I appreciate your limiting the place of television at IMSA. But back to the topic, for Plato the Ideas were internal, but were not private.
The Visionary: Huh?
The Alumnus: Kant was a pivotal figure in our—the Enlightenment’s—idea that the only real stuff outside our head is matter. When Kant says “internal,” he says “private,” and when we say “internal,” we say “private.” If you think this way, then you believe that thought is something done in a private corner. This privacy may be culturally conditioned, but it is privacy. And yet, however self-evident this seems to us, a great many philosophers and cultures have believed otherwise.
There is a private aspect to thought, but my research into how to think has led me to question the Enlightenment model and believe that we all think on the same contoured surface. We can be on different parts and move in different ways, but in thinking we deal with a reality others deal with as well. And I’m going to sound like a kooky philosopher and say that you have a deficient cosmology, and therefore a deficient corollary understanding of how humans are capable of learning, if you believe that everything is either inside the mind or else something you can kick.
The Visionary: But we’re questioning the Enlightenment model, and rejecting parts of it that have problems!
The Alumnus: I know you are. And I would encourage you to question more of it.
The Visionary: How does this belief affect teaching for you?
The Alumnus: Most immediately, it helps me say ways to identify with students—connect with their thought. There are some things that pay off long term. But in the short run, when a student makes a mistake, the student is not bad, nor is the mistake is not an anomaly to push away. A mistake is an invaluable opportunity for me to understand how a student is thinking and draw the student to a better understanding.
In terms of base metaphor, if you look at Dewey’s foundationalism, what it is that bothers many IMSA teachers and IMSA teachers are working to change, the basic idea is that the teacher is building up knowledge, from its foundations, in the student’s mind. If I were to try and capture it in a metaphor, I would say that the student is an empty lot, and the teacher is building a house on it. The teacher is actively doing teaching to the student.
The constructivism that resonates with many IMSA teachers doesn’t like the idea of the teacher being active and the student being the passive receptacle of teaching. It’s fine for the teacher to be active, but they don’t believe the student is passive because they were quite active learners themselves. Constructivist writers don’t refer to ‘students’ so much as ‘learners;’ they emphasize that the learner is active. The basic idea is that people are actively trying to build their own unique understandings of the world, and a constructivist teacher is trying to support learners in this endeavor. If foundationalism is crystallized in the image of a teacher building a house on an empty lot, constructivist learning theory is crystallized in the image of learners picking up what they can to build their own private edifices of thought, their interior castles.
The Visionary: What do you think of those?
The Alumnus: I think we’re comparing a hammer with a screwdriver. If you read debate on the web, you’ll see people who think constructivism is a hazy and incomprehensibly bad version of foundationalism, and people who think foundationalism is a hazy and incomprehensibly bad version of constructivism. The truth is neither; good foundationalist teaching like Direct Instruction is doing one thing well, and good constructivist learning is doing another thing well, and different people learn differently.
The Visionary: But do you have an alternative?
The Alumnus: Yes, and it is again suggested by basic metaphor. Instead of building a house, or helping learners construct their private models, I would suggest looking at a single word, katalabein. I am using a Greek word without an exact English equivalent, because it ties together some things that are familiar—part of the shared inner human reality which we can recognize. It can be translated ‘overcome’ or ‘understand’, and it provides for a basic metaphor in which what is understood is actively acquired, achieved even, but it is not necessarily idiosyncratic and private. We still have an active learner, and implications for how a teacher can support that active learner…
The Visionary: Go on.
The Alumnus: But it’s different. I was fascinated with one constructivist learning page that recast the teacher as a sort of non-directive counselor. They facilitated learning experiences, but they realized that students came in with beliefs, like “Weeds are not plants because they don’t need to be nurtured,” and what really fascinated me was that some of them found themselves in an ethical quandary about the appropriateness of using a science class to influence student beliefs, say to agree with a botanist that dandelions are plants.
The Visionary: None of the IMSA teachers are that squeamish about influencing student beliefs.
The Alumnus: One alum made a comment that “looney liberals” seemed to him to offer a similar service to coal miner’s canaries. It wouldn’t be fair to accuse most liberals of their excesses, but it was still worth keeping an eye on them: they could be a warning that it was time to rethink basic ideas. Even if those web pages may fall more into the “canary” category than anything else…
The Visionary: But what do you have instead of helping students build private world-pictures?
The Alumnus: Instead of helping students build private world-pictures, helping students grapple with, in the overcoming that is understanding and the understanding that is overcoming, the katalabein of material. And this is material that always has a personal touch, but is understood to be internal in a way that is not simply how one has arbitrarily exercised privacy, but connects with a sort of inner terrain that is as shared as the outer terrain. No two people are at—no two people can be at—the exact same place in the external, physical world, nor can two people see the same thing, because their personal bodies get in the way. But that does not mean we inhabit our own private physical universes. I can tell you how to drive to my house because to get there, you would be navigating some of the same reality as I navigate. But somehow we believe that our bodies may touch the same doorknobs and our shoes may touch the same carpets… Somehow we believe that when we turn inside, the “reality” becomes impenetrably private, influenced by culture perhaps but shared to so little an extent that no two people shares the same inner sun and moon.
The Visionary: But that’s the external world! You’re not talking about when people can make up anything they want.
The Alumnus: Hmm… As part of your job, you field criticism from people who want IMSA to be shut down, right?
The Visionary: Yes.
The Alumnus: And a good portion of that criticism comes from people who are certain you’ve never considered the objection they raise, right?
The Visionary: You’ve been reading my mail!
The Alumnus: And how many years has it been since one of those letters contained a criticism that was new to you?
The Visionary: You’ve been reading my… um… [pause] Wow.
The Alumnus: The introduction to the Handbook of Special Education tries to make a point by quoting the opening meeting of the International Council for the Education of Exceptional Children. The meeting had in all respects a typical (for today) discussion of how one should define special needs children. And the meeting was in 1923. The point was made that special educators assume they’re the first people to address new issues, when neither the issues nor their thoughts are new. An old internet denizen, writing about “the September that never ended”, talked about how each year in September new college students would flood newsgroup discussions with “new, new, new” insights that were, in the denizen’s words, “exactly the same tripe” that had been posted the previous year.
There is really not that much that is new, and this is tied to another observation. There is really not that much that is private. There is some. Even in the outer world there are some things that are private to each person. But in the inner world—and I am not talking aboutyour inner world, or mine, but a real world, the inner world, a place that has contours of its own and laws of its own and terrain of its own and substances of its own which are no more the subject of an idiosyncratic private monopoly than the outer world’s sun and moon. Perhaps it has a private dimension, but to assume that an inner world is by definition someone’s most private possession is almost like answering the remark “The Atlantic Ocean is getting more polluted,” with “Whose Atlantic Ocean?”
The Visionary: Is there a way to integrate the inner world with the outer world?
The Alumnus: I am guilty of a rhetorical fault. I have spoken of the outer world as if it were separate from the inner world, and the inner world as if it were separate from the outer world. The real task is not one of integration but desegregation, and that is a lesson I’ve been wrestling with for years. The biggest lesson I took from my Ph.D. thesis, where I achieved a fascinating distillation of how to think from learning as we know it, is that how to think cannot be distilled from learning, and learning cannot be distilled from the rest of life. It is all interconnected. It’s like a classic plot in fantasy literature where a hero is searching for a legendary treasure, and goes to strange places and passes amazing trials. We’re there learning with him, until there is an end where “nothing” happens, but by the time that “nothing” takes place, we’ve been with the hero all along and we have been transformed just as much as he is, and we see through the “nothing” to recognize the treasure that has been all around the hero—and us—all along.
The real world has an internal and an external dimension, and there is nothing like trying to crystallize purer and purer internal knowledge to see the interpenetration of the internal and the external. I learned that the internal is not self-contained.
The Visionary: Is there anything that has been written which deals with this connection?
The Alumnus: Are you asking me if you can borrow a truckload of books? There are some cultures where it’s hard to find material which doesn’t relate the connection in some form.
But let me tie this in with education. Postmodernism is fragmented, so much so that postmodern scholars tend to put “postmodern” in ironic quotes and add some qualifier about whether it’s even coherent to talk about such a movement. From the inside, there isn’t a single postmodern movement; talking about a postmodern movement is like talking about a herd of housecats. But this is not because talking about being “postmodern” is meaningless; it’s because one of the characteristics is fragmentation, and so if there is anything called postmodern, then it will be much more of a grab bag than something called modern.
Constructivism is postmodern, not in that anything called postmodern must resemble it, but because it can be placed on a somewhat ad hoc spectrum. It is internally fragmented, in that it is not helping students navigate the world of ideas, but in trying to reckon with learners’ development of private models of the world. In typical postmodern fashion, the movement shows exquisite sensitivity to ways in which student constructed models are parochial, and does not inquire into ways in which students may be grappling with something universal. (At best learners’ constructs are culturally conditioned.)
In what I am suggesting, learners are active, but students are working with something which is not so much clay to be shaped in the privacy of one’s mind. I am aware of the parochial dimension—as a culture, we’ve been aware of it to death—but I’m trying to look at something we don’t pay as much attention to today. I suggest, instead of a basic metaphor of learners constructing their own models, learners struggling to conquer parts of the world of ideas. Conquer means in some sense to appropriate; it means in part what we mean when we say that a mountain climber physically conquered an ascent and mastered its terrain. And this is not a cookie cutter, but it provides serious place for something that doesn’t have soil to root itself in in constructivism.
I suspect that this is a lot less exotic than it sounds. Would you say that IMSA teachers often understand their students?
The Visionary: I think they often try.
The Alumnus: I think they often succeed.
Communication in general draws on being able to identify with the other. It says, “Even if I disagree with you, I understand what it means that you believe differently from what I do.” You know what it’s like when someone is talking with you and simply cannot identify with where you are coming from. It feels clumsy. Good communicators can identify with other people, and even a partial understanding is much better than no understanding at all.
I think the teachers I had at least showed something wiser than constructivism. Read something like Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and you will see appreciation of incommensurability and a communication divide between opposing camps; unlike the later Kuhn, you will also see that this claim of incommensurability, where opposing sides invariably argue past each other in debates, is applied to both major and minor paradigm shifts. Now if we look at a constructivist approach, where this kind of thinking is applied to individual peoples’ models as well as models that are shared across a camp, then we have an excellent reason not to teach.
We have an excellent reason to say that teachers’ and students’ models are not only conflicting but incommensurable, that the teacher may have more power but in a fair debate they would argue past each other, and that the basis for the teacher understanding and therefore successfully influencing the student is at very least questionable. In the end, we have something which affects the concept of teaching more profoundly than the observation that students will see things that teachers don’t realize. If you look at Kuhn, you will see a remark that the winning side of a scientific paradigm shift will naturally view the shift as progress. This contributes to an account for people thinking science progresses without science actually progressing. Science shifts. But the shift is not a step forward from less developed science to more developed science. It is a step sideways, from one reigning paradigm to another. And in like fashion, if you follow a natural constructivist path, you have an alternative to saying that the teacher knows more about science than the students. The teacher is more powerful, but there is a way out for someone who wants to deny that the teacher has more desirable knowledge that the students should learn. Not only can we argue that “teaching” communication is impossible, but we can argue that “teaching” communication is undesirable even if it were possible.
The Visionary: But that can’t be what our teachers believe! You have to be misunderstanding constructivism. That’s not how it works out.
The Alumnus: I agree with you that that can’t be what many IMSA teachers believe. It is only what they say. And what they think they believe.
The Visionary: You mean…
The Alumnus: Foundationalism is a bad account of how most IMSA teachers learn. They learn actively, and IMSA students learn actively. And constructivism offers a compelling metaphor for active learning. But teachers at IMSA don’t believe all its implications. Like the character in a George MacDonald book who was fond of saying, “Marry in haste, repent at leisure,” and had married in haste, but hadn’t really thought about repenting, even though she’d had plenty of leisure in which to repent. If constructivism may undercut the possibility of communication, and the possibility of the teacher drawing students to join her in expert practice, this is not yet a problem. In practical terms, teachers believe they can communicate, and they have something to share. And they do this. There may be problems where this goes down the road, but in practical terms IMSA teachers live a philosophy with communication that is often excellent.
And, as far as metaphors go, I think that the katalabein metaphor offers something valuable that the constructivist metaphor doesn’t. In particular, the fact that teachers can communicate, and leave students better off, doesn’t just happen to be true; it’s something that one can delve into. You don’t just take the metaphor into consideration when you communicate on a basis that doesn’t come from the model; the metaphor itself gives you a basis to communicate. And it’s different enough to compete in an interesting way. Or complement constructivism in an interesting way. Even if it’s not perfect.
The Visionary: Yes, I know. Do you regret the fact that it’s so messy?
The Alumnus: I regret the fact that it’s not messy enough.
When we describe a rainbow, we say that the colors are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. But those aren’t the colors of the rainbow. If you pick a color at random on the rainbow, there’s a zero percent chance that you will exactly pick one of those colors. A rainbow is a spectrum, and if you have a wavelength for each of those colors, you have seven reference points for a spectrum with infinitely many colors. And a reference point can help you understand a spectrum, but a reference point is not a spectrum.
I’ve done, I think, a decent job of describing one reference point on a spectrum. But teachers rarely follow one educational theory in pure form; they tend to draw on several, and this is intended not to be a complete theory, but a reference point in a pluralistic theory. Most theories are a single point. This theory is meant to be a spectrum, but isn’t there yet.
And as much as a robust theory of education needs to be pluralistic, sensitive to the diversity that is every student, there also also needs to be a sensitivity to the diversity of knowledge. English is cursed to only have one word for knowledge.
The Visionary:But we have well enough established division of knowledge into subjects. In fact that’s what we’re trying to teach our students to get past.
The Alumnus: That’s not quite what I meant.
In most of the languages I know, there’s more than one word for knowledge. In French, there is savoir, which is the knowledge one has about facts, and connaissance, which is the knowledge one has of a person. It’s a different kind of thing to know about a fact and to know of a person, and this is reflected in different words. Conscience is not simply the French word for conscience; it means consciousness, and some of the more ethereal and personal aspects of knowledge. The Latin eruditio and notitia have other nuances. In English we do have “wisdom,” “knowledge,” and “information,” which are as different from each other as an apple, an orange, and a pear.
And this is without treating ways of thought. One of the things I learned was that knowledge and ways of thought could be distinguished but not separated. If you look at Eastern ways, whether they are religions like Hinduism or Eastern Orthodoxy, or martial arts like Kuk Sool Won or Ninpo, you will find quite a different pedagogy from what we assume in the West. Instead of trying to open the mind and dump in knowledge, they begin by training the body, in actions, and then this begins to affect the soul and transform the spirit.
The Visionary: Isn’t constructivism more like that?
The Alumnus: It is. But instead of reinventing experiential learning, Eastern ways preserve a Tao, or for a Western word, a matrix. Most recently in the West, Matrix is the name of a trilogy where each movie was better than the next. But before that, a matrix was a mathematical construct, and are you familiar with what “matrix” meant before that? It was the Latin word meaning “womb.” And this concept of a womb, or a matrix, is something which has become alien to Western thought. A matrix is the medium in which you move, the air in which you breathe. It has the authority of your culture and your mother tongue. It is a very different kind of authority from the authority of a single leader, or a written rule; a matrix does not consciously command you, but provides you with the options which shape your choice. And the Eastern ways all preserve a matrix, a way, that provides their pedagogy. In a sense the difference between constructivist experiential learning and Eastern experiential learning is the difference between non-native speakers trying to speak a language and a community of native speakers continuing to use their language. Except to make the comparison more fair, constructivists are trying to construct a language, and put together something that works, and Eastern pedagogues have inherited something that works. The difference is kind of like the difference between an experimental kind of baseball glove that someone is trying out and a glove that is not only traditional but already broken in.
The Visionary: Um… I’ll have to think about what you have said about a “matrix.” Ok, you’ve given me a lot to think about. It would be premature for me to respond now. I’m going to need to think about what you’ve said. But let me change the susbject. What other ideas do you have about teaching, especially concrete ones?
The Alumnus: It’s a bit like a light—it makes other things easier to see. But let me talk about other ways of teaching, such as listening.
The Visionary: I know how you can listen if a student asks a question, but how do you listen when lecturing?
The Alumnus: Listening is about trying to understand the other person as a basis for communication. Apart from the feedback that’s in student questions—if you look for it—a person’s face is a window to what is going on inside, and a teacher sees student faces frequently. I know the ominous silence when the class is so lost that students are afraid to ask questions. I don’t just charge on because it’s important to cover the remaining material. I try to stop, back up, and help the students to genuinely understand, and then proceed from genuine understanding. Homework offers implicit feedback on what I succeeded in communicating, and what I did not succeed in. And there’s an implicit listening mindset behind trying not to inundate students with too much information at once.
There’s a book of little stories, and in one of them, a sage was asked, “What is your name?” He pondered for a moment and said, “My name used to be… Me. But now it’s… You.” I didn’t like that story at first, because I didn’t understand it. Now I understand enough of it to see that it has a profound truth. Talking is about “me”, and listening is part of a lifelong journey of learning to think in terms of “you.” Listening has far more to offer a teacher than a better understanding of student questions.
There are a lot of things I like about how IMSA works—your belief that the needs of the mind cannot be met if the needs of the body are neglected. How this you fit this in with Arbor food service is not clear to me—
The Visionary: Thanks, Dear…
The Alumnus: Any time. But I really like the understanding you have of the human person as interconnected on multiple levels, including the body and mind. I also take that as axiomatic, and teach so that students will understand concepts and preferably their connections, and many other things. Just as I haven’t read what I just said about listening in anything that came out of IMSA, but the teachers I had at IMSA were all examples of good listening.
The Visionary: Thank you.
The Alumnus: You’re welcome.
But another part of the Enlightenment I reject is its depersonalization of knowledge and teaching. Have you read any Polanyi?
The Visionary: Not yet. Should I put him on my reading list?
The Alumnus: I don’t know. He writes hefty, if understandable, material. It takes time to understand him, but he’s worth understanding.
Michael Polanyi was a philosopher of science, and his big work was on tacit and personal knowledge. The core idea is that scientific knowledge (I would say knowledge in general) is not a set of dessicated constructs that can be understood without reference to people; it is enfleshed in people who know it. He talked about how competing swimmers inhale a little more air and exhale a little less, so they always have more air in their lungs and therefore buoyancy than we would, but this knowledge is never thought of in so many words by the coach or by the student who “picks it up” from the coach, wordlessly. I don’t know if it’s a fair reading to say that the knowledge we can articulate is the just tip of the iceberg, but what I do think is a fair reading is to say that the knowledge we can put into so many words is not the whole picture. I think he would have liked IMSA trying to avoid teachers mindlessly regurgitating material so students can learn to mindlessly regurgitating material.
In tandem with the Enlightenment depersonalization of knowledge, is a depersonalization of the concept of teaching and a teacher. About two thousand years ago, one teacher tried to demote teachers from being human gods (who were superior to everyone else) to being human like the rest of us. Then, in connection with the Enlightenment there came a second demotion. A teacher was no longer someone responsible for initiating those in their care into humanity, but only a part of a person imparting a skill to another partial person.
That is an illusion; no matter how much keep our mouths shut on certain matters, we are humans teaching. The question is not whether or not teachers will be an ethical force; the question is whether, given that teachers will be an ethical force, whether they will be a positive force or a negative force. Because students are affected by what kind of people their teachers are—as well as what they say—a teacher should try to be a positive force. This means things like a humility that listens and appreciates other people, and caring, and is willing to listen both to “I don’t understand partial differentiation,” and “I’ve had a lousy week.”
This means that a teacher who sees past the present, and sees students as the concert pianists, research scientists, and ballerinas they can become, will by that very respect help make that potential a reality.
The Visionary [looks at watch]: Thank you. I need to be somewhere in a few minutes; do you have any closing comments?
The Alumnus: I think that one aspect of how we speak of teaching is unfortunate. We speak of the active teacher who teaches, and the presumably passive student who is taught. Nothing of this manner of speaking suggests a dialog, a two-way street—but if teaching succeeds, it must be because of a cooperation between student and teacher. Even with constructivist understanding of learning, we’re just looking at what the teacher can do.
I spend most of my time thinking about how I can see to my end of the partnership, not how students can handle their job. But there is something I would love to say to students, reinforced by a handout, on the first day of class, some toned-down version of:
Prometheus stole fire. Your job is to steal knowledge.
The wrong way to think is that my job is to teach you, and you just sit there and be taught, and after enough teachers have taught you, you’ll be educated.
You will get a much better education if you think that whatever I do, however well or poorly I teach, is simply the baseline, and you can start from there and see what you can do to take as much knowledge as you can.
Listening in class and asking questions is one way to steal knowledge. Is there something I said that doesn’t quite make sense? If you just let my teaching wash over you, you’ve missed an opportunity to steal knowledge.
If you listen to my words, that’s good. It’s even better if you think about why I would say what I am saying. There may be a clue, maybe a little whisper in your intuition that something more is going on than you realize. That is a key that you can use to steal knowledge.
When you read the textbook, it will tell you more if you push it harder. Look at the problems. What are they asking you to know? What are they asking you to think about? There’s a powerful clue about what’s important and what’s going on, if you’re adept enough to steal it.
What do I assume about the material? I make assumptions, and some of those are assumptions I make because of what I know. If you’re willing to ask why I assume something, you may steal knowledge of how people think when they understand the material.
My office hours are meant for you. Come in and discuss the material. If I see you make a mistake, that’s good. It means you’re learning and I have an opportunity to clarify. If you don’t understand something, and all of us don’t understand things from time to to time, it will cost you points to wait until the test to find out that you don’t understand it. It won’t cost you anything if you come in during my office hours, and I’ll be glad you visited. And you might steal some knowledge.
Steal knowledge. There’ll be some days when you’re a little tired, and you can’t look for all the extra knowledge you can steal. That’s OK; just try to take the knowledge I clearly set out before you. But steal knowledge when you can.
You’ve gotten into IMSA, which is one of the best and one of the worst places in the world. Take advantage of opportunity. Learn to steal knowledge. And when you graduate from IMSA… Steal knowledge.
The Visionary: I definitely have some food for thought to take into the meeting. Do come and visit again! Goodbye!
The Alumnus: That I shall. Goodbye!
Years back, when I was a math grad student, I wrote a short essay entitled, Why Study Mathematics? The basic thought was connected with the general education math class I was taking, and it is not really an article for why to specialize in mathematics through intensive study, but why a more basic knowledge of math can be a valuable part of liberal arts education. Much like how I taught my class, I did not speak favorably of memorizing formulas—pejoratively called “mindless symbol manipulation” by mathematicians—but spoke of the beauty of the abstractions, the joy of puzzles and problem solving, and even spoke of mathematics as a form of weight lifting for the mind: if you can do math, I said, you can do almost anything. I was sincere in these words, and I believe my obscure little piece captures something that a lot of math students and faculty sensed even if they did not explain their assumption. Since then, there are some things I would say differently. Not exactly that I was incorrect in what I said, but I worked hard to climb a ladder that was leaning against the wrong building.
One famous author in software development, who wrote a big book about “software engineering”, had said, “What gets measured gets improved,” and began to express second thoughts about his gung-ho enthusiasm for measurement. He didn’t exactly take back his words of, “What gets measured gets improved,” but he said that the most important things to understand are rarely things that are easy or obvious to measure: the mantra “What gets measured gets improved,” is a mantra to ruthlessly optimize things that often are less important than you might think. His second thoughts went further: the words “software” and “engineering” have been joined at the hip, but however hard software developers have tried to claim to be engineers, what they do is very different from engineering: it’s an apples and oranges comparison.
I would pretty well stand by the statement that if you can deal with the abstraction in math, you can deal with the abstraction in anything: whether chemistry, analytic philosophy, engineering, or sales, there isn’t much out there that will call for more abstract thinking than you learn in math. But to pick sales, for instance, not many people fail in sales because they can’t handle the deep abstraction. Sales calls for social graces, the ability to handle rejection, and real persistence, and while you may really and truly learn persistence in math, I sincerely doubt that mathematical training is a sort of industrial strength preparation for social graces and dealing with rejection. And even in engineering, social graces matter more than you might think; it’s been said that being good at math gets you in the door, but social influence and effectiveness are what make a real superstar. I would still stand by a statement that if you can handle the abstraction in math, you can probably handle the abstraction in anything else. But I’m somewhat more wary of implying that if you have a mathematical mind, you just have an advantage for everything life may throw at you. That’s simply not true.
There are some things I have written that I would like to take back, at least in part, but even where my works are flawed I don’t believe mass deletions are the best response. I would rather write what might be called “Retractions and retracings” and leave them available with the original works. Why study Mathematics?, whatever its flaws, gives a real glimpse into the beauty that draws mathematicians to mathematics. I may be concerned with flaws here, but they are not the whole truth. However, there are some things I would like to comment on, some flaws to point out. In many cases, I don’t believe that what I said is mainly wrong, but I believe it is possible to raise one’s eyes higher.
Mathematics may be seen as a skill, but it can also be how a person is oriented: jokes may offer a caricature, but a caricature of something that’s there. One joke tells of a mathematician who finds something at a bookstore, is delighted to walk home with a thick volume entitled HOW to HUG, and then, at home, is dismayed to learn he purchased volume 11 of an encyclopædia. And I mention this as a then-mathematician who wrote A Treatise on Touch, which may be seen as interesting, may be seen as deep, and may have something in common with the mathematician purchasing a book so he could know how to hug.
Part of what I have been working on is how, very slowly, to become more human. This struggle is reflected in Yonder, which is at its most literal a struggle of philosophers to reach what is human. There is an outer story of disembodied minds set in a dark science fiction world, who are the philosophers, and there is a story within a story, an inner story, of the tragic beauty of human life. When I showed it to a science fiction guru, he suggested that I cut the philosophical dialogues down by quite a bit. The suggestion had a lot of sense, and quite possibility a traditional publisher would want to greatly abbreviate the sections that he suggested I curtail. But I did not follow his advice, and I don’t think this was just author stubbornness. When literature builds up to a success, usually the path to success is filled with struggles and littered with failures. This is true of good heroic literature, and for that matter a lot of terrible heroic literature as well. (Just watch a bad adventure movie sometime.) Yonder is a story that is replete with struggles and failures, only the failures of the disembodied minds have nothing to do with physical journeys or combat. They begin stuck in philosophy, mere philosophy, and their clumsy efforts to break out provide the failures, and therefore to greatly abridge the philosophical discussion would be to strip away the struggle and failure by which they reach success: a vision of the grandeur of being human. Like much good and bad literature, the broad sweep was inspired by The Divine Comedy, opening with a vision of Hell and building up to a view of our painful life as a taste of Heaven, and you don’t tell The Divine Comedy faithfully if you replace the Inferno with a brief summary stating that there are some gruesome images and a few politically incorrect ideas about sin. The dark science fiction world and its mere philosophy provides the vision of Hell that prepares the reader to see the humanness of Heaven and the Heaven of humanness. The inner story can be told by itself; it is for that matter told independently in A Wonderful Life. But there is something in Yonder, as it paints the stark, dark, disturbing silhouette of the radiant, luminous splendor and beauty of human life.
While I was a math undergrad, I read and was deeply influenced by the Tao Te Ching; something of its influence may be seen in The Way of the Way. That work has its flaws, and I may have drunk too deeply of Taoism, but there was a seed planted that I would later recognize in fuller forms in the Orthodox Way. I had in full my goals of studying and thinking, but I realized by the way that there was some value to be had in stillness. Later I would come to be taught that stillness is not an ornament to put on top of a tree; it is the soil from which the tree of life grows.
After I completed my studies in math, and having trouble connecting with the business world, I took stock, and decided that the most important knowledge of all was theology. I had earlier planned to follow the established route of being a mathematician until I was no longer any good for mathematics and then turning out second rate theology. My plans shifted and I wanted to put my goal up front and, I told my pastor, “I want to think about theology in community.” (If you are wincing at this, good.) So, in this spirit, I applied to several schools and began the study of academic theology. If you are an astute reader, I will forgive you if you ask, “But isn’t this still a mathematician looking for a book on how to hug?” The goal I had, to teach at a university or even better train Orthodox priests at a seminary, was a laudable enough goal, and perhaps God will bless me with that in the future. Perhaps he wants the same thing, but perhaps God first wants to free me from the chain of being too much like a mathematician wanting to learn how to hug by reading a book.
During my time studying theology at Cambridge, I was received into the Orthodox Church. I am grateful to God for both a spiritual father whose lenience offered a corrective to my legalistic tendencies, and for a godfather who was fond of reading Orthodox loose cannons and who helped me see a great many things that were invisible to me at the time. For instance, I asked him for help on some aspect of getting my worldview worked out correctly, and I was caught off guard when he explained, “You aren’t being invited to work out the Orthodox worldview. You’re being invited to worship in the right glory of Orthodoxy, and you are being invited to walk the Orthodox way.” In that sense Orthodoxy is not really a system of ideas to work out correctly that, say, a martial art: there may be good books connected to martial arts, but you learn a martial art by practicing it, and you learn Orthodoxy by practicing it. And in that response, my godfather helped me take one step further away from being a mathematician trying to find a book that will teach him how to hug. (He also gave me repeated corrections when I persisted in the project of trying to improve Orthodox practices by historical reconstruction. And eventually he got through to me on that point.)
Becoming Orthodox for me has been a matter of becoming really and truly human, or at least beginning to. There is a saying that has rumbled down through the ages in different forms: in the second century, St. Irenaeus wrote, “For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God.” I have not read this in much earlier sources, but I have read many later phrasings: “God and the Son of God became Man and the Son of Man that man and the sons of man might become gods and the sons of God.” “The divine became human that the human might become divine.” “The Son of God became a man that men might become the sons of God.” And one real variation on this has been quoted, “Christ did not just become man so that I might become divine. He also became man that I might become a man.”
If Christ became man that I might become human, this is manifest in a million ways in the Orthodox Church. Let me give one way. When I was preparing to be received into the Orthodox Church, I asked my godfather some question about how to best straighten out my worldview. He told me that the Western project of worldview construction was not part of the Orthodox Way: I had been invited to walk the Orthodox Way but not work out the Orthodox worldview. If there is in fact an Orthodox worldview, it does not come from worldviewish endeavors: it arises out of the practices and life of the Orthodox Church, much in line with, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and his perfect righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” Not just corrections, but being caught off-guard by effectively being told, “Here are some of many rules; there is no need for you to know all of them. They are important, and you need to strive for strict excellence, but you are not treating them in the right spirit if you hold them rigidly and legalistically. (Work out with your priest how you will best bend them.)” The Orthodox Church’s nature as essentially an oral tradition has helped cure me of silly things like meticulously studying ancient texts to put my mind to an antiquarian reconstruction and answer the question, “How should we live?” (The Orthodox Church is ancient, but it is not really infected with antiquarian reconstruction efforts.) The rhythm of the liturgy and its appointed seasons, the spiritual housecleaning involved with preparing for confession, the profoundly important community of the faithful: all of these are part of how it works out in the Orthodox Church that God became man not only so that I might become divine, but also so that I might become more truly man.
Part of this becoming human on my part also has to do with silence, or as Orthodox call it, hesychasm. Part of the disorder of life as we know it is that our minds are scattered about: worrying about this, remembering that pain, and in general not gathered into the heart. Mathematical training is a training in drawing the mind out of the heart and into abstract thinking. The word “abstract” itself comes from the Latin abstrahere, meaning to pull back (from concrete things), and if you train yourself in the habit of abstraction you pull yourself back from silence and from what is good about the Tao Te Ching.
In Silence: Organic food for the soul, I all but closed with the words, “Be in your mind a garden locked and a fountain sealed,” which speaks about having a mind that is gathered together and is in the fullest sense mind: which is not when abstract thinking is its bread and butter. Perhaps some of the saints’ wisdom is abstract, but it does not come from building an edifice of abstractions.
The terms intellect and mind mean something very different in Orthodox classics than they do in today’s English. The difference is as great as the difference between using web to mean a physical object woven out of spider’s silk and web to mean interconnected documents and media available over the internet. Today you might say, “The intellect is what an IQ test measures.” An Orthodox saint who had been asked might have said, “The intellect is where you meet God.” The mind is an altar, and its proper thought flows out of its being an altar: in Within the Steel Orb, a visitor from our world steps into a trap:
“And your computer science is pretty advanced, right? Much more advanced than ours?”
“We know things that the trajectory of computer science in your world will never reach because it is not pointed in the right direction.” Oinos tapped the wall and arcs of pale blue light spun out.
“Then you should be well beyond the point of making artificial intelligence.”
“Why on a million, million worlds should we ever be able to do that? Or even think that is something we could accomplish?”
“Well, if I can be obvious, the brain is a computer, and the mind is its software.”
“What else could the mind be?”
“What else could the mind be? What about an altar at which to worship? A workshop? A bridge between Heaven and earth, a meeting place where eternity meets time? A treasury in which to gather riches? A spark of divine fire? A line in a strong grid? A river, ever flowing, ever full? A tree reaching to Heaven while its roots grasp the earth? A mountain made immovable for the greatest storm? A home in which to live and a ship by which to sail? A constellation of stars? A temple that sanctifies the earth? A force to draw things in? A captain directing a starship or a voyager who can travel without? A diamond forged over aeons from of old? A perpetual motion machine that is simply impossible but functions anyway? A faithful manuscript by which an ancient book passes on? A showcase of holy icons? A mirror, clear or clouded? A wind which can never be pinned down? A haunting moment? A home with which to welcome others, and a mouth with which to kiss? A strand of a web? An acrobat balancing for his whole life long on a slender crystalline prism between two chasms? A protecting veil and a concealing mist? An eye to glimpse the uncreated Light as the world moves on its way? A rift yawning into the depths of the earth? A kairometer, both primeval and young? A—”
“All right, all right! I get the idea, and that’s some pretty lovely poetry. (What’s a kairometer?) These are all very beautiful metaphors for the mind, but I am interested in what the mind is literally.”
“Then it might interest you to hear that your world’s computer is also a metaphor for the mind. A good and poetic metaphor, perhaps, but a metaphor, and one that is better to balance with other complementary metaphors. It is the habit of some in your world to understand the human mind through the metaphor of the latest technology for you to be infatuated with. Today, the mind is a computer, or something like that. Before you had the computer, ‘You’re just wired that way’ because the brain or the mind or whatever is a wired-up telephone exchange, the telephone exchange being your previous object of technological infatuation, before the computer. Admittedly, ‘the mind is a computer’ is an attractive metaphor. But there is some fundamental confusion in taking that metaphor literally and assuming that, since the mind is a computer, all you have to do is make some more progress with technology and research and you can give a computer an intelligent mind.”
That litany of metaphors summarizes much of my second master’s thesis. Which is not really the point; but my point here is that on an Orthodox understanding, intellect is not something you measure by an IQ test and a mind is not the spitting image of a computer. The mind, rightly understood, finds its home in prayer and simple silence. The intellect is where one meets God, and its knowing flows out of its contact with God and with spiritual reality. And, in the metaphors of the Song of Songs, the mind as it is meant to be is “a garden locked, a fountain sealed”, not spilled out promiscuously into worry, or grudges, or plans for the future that never satisfy. And this gathering together of the mind, this prayer of the mind in the heart, is one that was not proposed to me by my mathematical training.
Now I should mention that I have a lot to be grateful for as far as math goes. There are a lot of people who gave of themselves in my training; there are a lot of people who gave of themselves in the various math contests I was involved in. And, not to put too fine a point of it, I have a computer job now which is a blessing from God and in which I build on a strong mathematical foundation. It would be silly for me to say, “I am not grateful for this” as God has provided me many blessings through math. But I need to place things like “I have a lot of math awards” alongside what a monk said to a maid and to me: she was fortunate in the job she had, as manual labor that allowed her mind to pray as she was working in inner stillness, while I as a computer person was less fortunate because my job basically required me to be doing things with my mind that don’t invite mental stillness. My job may be a profound blessing and something not to take for granted. But he was pointing out that the best jobs for spiritual growth may not be the ones higher on the pecking order.
There is a streak of escapism in much of my work. If you read Within the Steel Orb, I believe you will find insight expressed with wonder, and I would not take back any of that. But the wisdom, which is wisdom from here and now, is expressed as the alien wisdom of an alien world that panders to a certain escapism. Wisdom and wonder can be expressed without escapism; Hymn to the Creator of Heaven and Earth and Doxology both express wisdom and wonder in a way that does not need to escape from a disdained here and now. But there is a thread of escapism in much of my work, even as I have sought to reject it.
During or shortly after I was in high school, I wrote a note in an online forum arguing that Terminator 2 had shot itself in the foot. The movie had a scene with two little boys angrily playing with toy guns and the voiceover complained about how tragic this was, and at the end the message was made even more explicit: “If a machine, a terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.” But the movie was an action-adventure movie, meaning a movie whose attraction was built on glorified violence with guns blazing. In terms of a movie that would speak out against violence, contrast it with a movie idea I had, for a movie that would rush along at an action-adventure clip for the first few minutes and then slow down like a European art film; from Lesser Icons: Reflections on Faith, Icons, and Art:
What I did do was to outline a film idea for a film that would start out indistinguishably from an action-adventure movie. It would have one of the hero’s friends held captive by some cardboard-cutout villains. There is a big operation to sneak in and deftly rescue him, and when that fails, all Hell breaks loose and there is a terrific action-adventure style firefight. There is a dramatic buildup to the hero getting in the helicopter, and as they are leaving, one of the villain’s henchmen comes running with a shotgun. Before he can aim, the hero blasts away his knee with a hollow-nosed .45.
The camera surprisingly does not follow the helicopter in its rush to glory, but instead focuses on the henchman for five or ten excruciating minutes as he curses and writhes in agony. Then the film slows down to explore what that one single gunshot means to the henchman for the remaining forty years of his life, as he nursed a spiritual wound of lust for vengeance that was infinitely more tragic than his devastating physical wound.
By contrast, it may be clearer what might be called shooting yourself in the foot in the Terminator 2 syndrome, and as far as escapism goes, I have a couple of pieces that shoot themselves in the foot with something like a Terminator 2 syndrome. In The Voyage, the miserable young Jason is an escapist and, when he meets an old man, asks the old man’s help in an escape he doesn’t believe is possible. The old man deftly opens Jason’s eyes to the beauty of this world, the beauty of the here and now, that are simply invisible to him. I stand by everything I wrote in that regard. But the closing line, when thanks to the old man Jason triumphs over escapism, is, “And Jason entered another world.” Which is to say that the story shot itself in the foot, like Terminator 2.
There may be a paradoxical link between escapism and self-absorption. Self-absorption is like being locked in your room and sensing that it is constricting, and so you wish that you could be teleported up to a spaceship and explore the final frontier, or maybe wish for a portal to open up that would take you to the Middle Ages or some fantasy world. And maybe you can get a bit of solace by decorating your room like someplace else and imagining that your room is that other place, and maybe you can pretend and do mind games, but they don’t really satisfy. What you miss is what you really need: to unlock the door, walk out, visit a friend, go shopping, and do some volunteering. It may not be what you could arrange if you were controlling everything, but that’s almost exactly the point. It may not what you want, but it is what you need, and it satisfies in a way that a quest to become a knight, at least in your imagination, cannot. And my own concerns to escape self-absorption and escapism play out in my writing: The Spectacles is more successful than The Voyage in telling of an escape from the Hell of self-absorption and escapism; I’ve been told it’s my best short story. But it still has the imprint of self-absorption even as it tells of someone finding way out of self-absorbed escapism. And something of that imprint affects my writing: there are some good things about my fiction, but I have been told that my characters are too similar and are only superficially different. I do not think I will ever receive the kind of compliment given to Charles Dickens, that he envisions a complete universe of different characters. People may say that my satire like Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary shows a brilliant wit and is bitingly funny, but you can be pretty full of yourself and still write good satire. By contrast, it takes humble empathy to make a universe of characters worthy of Dickens.
I earned a master’s in theology, and entered into a doctoral program. I thought for a long while about how to say something appropriate about that program, and I think the best I can do is this:
I’ve been through chemotherapy, and that was an experience: overall, it was not as bad as I feared, and I enjoyed life when I was going through chemotherapy. I still cherish The Spectacles, the first piece written after a long dry spell because I was drained by illness. I’m not sure it is a nice thing to have powerful cytotoxins injected into your body, and the rough spots included the worst hour of (purely physical) pain in my life, but on the whole, a lot of progress has been made in making chemotherapy not as bad as it used to be, and I had good people to care for me.
And then there are experiences that, to put it politely, put chemotherapy into perspective. My entering this doctoral program and trying to please the people there was one of those experiences into perspective: during that time, I contacted a dean and wrote, “I found chemotherapy easier than dealing with [a professor I believed was harassing me],” and received no response beyond a secretary’s brush-off. After this ordeal, my grades were just below the cutoff to continue, and that school is not in any way going to give me nice letters of reference to let me finish up somewhere else. I suppose I could answer spam emails and get a diploma mill Ph.D., but I don’t see how I am in a position to get the Ph.D. that I wanted badly enough to endure these ordeals.
And if I ask where God was in all this, the answer is probably, “I was with you, teaching you all the time.” When I was in middle school, I ranked 7th in the nation in the 1989 MathCounts competition, and I found it obvious then that this was because God wanted me to be a mathematician. For that matter, I didn’t go through the usual undergraduate panic about “What will I major in?” Now I find it obvious that God had something else in mind, something greater: discipleship, or sonship, which may pass through being a mathematician, or may not. Not straying too far from this, I wanted a Ph.D., and I thought that this would be the best way to honor him with my abilities. Again I was thinking too narrowly; I was still too much of the mathematician looking for a book to teach him how to hug; again the answer seemed to be, “That’s not the issue. Aim higher and be my servant.” As it turns out, I have four years’ graduate work in theology; that has some use in my writings, and even if it didn’t, the issue is not whether I am a good enough achiever, but whether I am faithful.
During this time I read quite a lot of medieval versions of the legends of King Arthur. There were a couple of things that drew me to them, both of them rather sad. The first was pride, both pride at thinking I was going to be an Arthurian author, and pride at sometimes reading medieval legends in the original.
But the second reason I kept reading them was that compared to what I was covering in theology class, reading the legends almost seemed like I was actually studying theology. (At least by comparison.) Whether a course in theological foundations that assumed, “We need to work from the common ground that is shared by all the world’s religious traditions, and that universal common ground is Western analytic philosophy,” or reading that theologians are scientists and they are every bit as much scientists as people in the so-called “hard sciences” like physics, or a course in “philosophy and contemporary theology” that was largely about queer matters and such topics as ambiguous genitalia, the whole experience was like “Monty Python teaches Christian theology.” And it would be a funny, if tasteless joke, but it was really something much more tragic than a Monty Python riff on theology. And in all this the Arthurian legends, which are really quite pale if they are held next to the grandeur of Christian theology, none the less seemed to give respite for me to study.
In the light of all this, there are three basic things that I wrote. The first is the Arthurian book I wanted to write out of all the medieval books I was reading:
The second thing is a group of pieces that were written largely as rebuttals to things I ran into there. (The university was a “Catholic” university, so they were generous to us Orthodox and treated us like liberal Catholics.) I’ve had enough contact with Catholics outside that university; those pieces are not written just in response to being at a “Catholic” university.
I believe there is some merit in these pieces, but not that much: if they say something that needs to be said, they are limited to winning an argument. Theology can win an argument and some of the best theology is meant to win an argument, but the purpose of real theological writing is to draw people into the presence of God. These pieces may say something valuable, but they do not really do the job of theology: beckon the reader to worship before the throne of God.
But that leaves the third group of pieces written in the wake of that un-theological theology program, and that is precisely pieces which are written to draw the reader to bask in the glory of God. The ones I would pick as best are:
I think I’ve made real progress but I still have a lot in common with that mathematian who bought a book so he could learn how to hug. Be that as it may, I have a lot to be thankful for.
I had my heart set on completing my program, but in 2005 I started a Ph.D. program that was estimated to take eight years to complete. And since then, the economy tanked. And in this, a gracious and merciful God didn’t give me what I wanted, but what I needed. Actually, more than that. In the aftermath of the program, I took some anthropology and linguistics coursework which on the one hand confirmed that I was already good at learning languages (the woman who scored the MLAT for me said, “I’ve scored this test for thirty years and I’ve never seen a score this high,”) and on the other hand, paradoxically provided good remedial understanding of things I just didn’t get about my own culture. And there’s something I’d like to point out about that. God provided academic coursework to teach me some things that most people just pick up as they grow, and perhaps studying academic theology was what God provided to help me get on to something that is at once more basic, greater, and more human: entering the Orthodox Church, and entering real, human theology.
But back to after the anthropology courses. Then the economy took a turn for the worse, and I found a good job. Then the economy got worse than that, and my job ended, and I had my fast job hunt yet and found an even better than that. There’s no way I’m entitled to this; it is God’s gracious providence at work. These are blessings covered in the divine fingerprints.
I still have failings to face: rather spectacular failings which I’d rather not detail. And it God’s grace that I am still learning of my clumsiness and my sin, and realize I really need to face ways I don’t measure up. But that is really not the issue.
Does God work with flawed people?
Who else does he have to work with?
He has glorious, majestic, awesome, terrifying holy angels. But there is another glory when God works in and through flawed people.
Even the sort of mathematician who would read a book on how to hug (or maybe write one). The worst of our flaws is like an ember thrown into the ocean of God’s transforming power.
And the same God wills to work in you, whatever your flaws may be.
Christos Jonathan Seth Hayward
I was sitting at a table with my classmates, and there was one part of the conversation in particular that stuck in my mind. One of my classmates was a vegan, and my professor, who was Orthodox but usually was not as strict as some people are observing Orthodox fasts, said that he was challenged by that position. He talked about Orthodox monasticism, which usually avoids meat, and its implication that meat is not necessary. I wanted to contribute to that discussion, but my sense was that that wasn’t quite the time to speak. When I explored it after that meal, it seemed more and more to be something that was part of a deep web, connected to other things.
When I became Orthodox, one of the biggest pieces of advice the priest who received me (my spiritual father) gave me was to take five or ten years to connect with the liturgical rhythm. Now in the Orthodox Church advice from spiritual fathers is like a doctor’s prescription in that what is given to one person may not be good at all for another: like a prescription given by a doctor, it is given to one person for that specific person’s needs, and should not normally be seen as universal advice that should be good for everyone. However, that doesn’t mean that advice is perversely designed to be useless to everyone else. I believe this was good pastoral advice not because of something ultimately idiosyncratic about me—something true of me but no one else—but because of something I share with a lot of other people, especially other Westerners.
In the Orthodox Church, there are days, weeks, and years as in the West, but what they mean is different. In some respects the similarity is deceptive. The biggest difference is less a matter of linear vs. cyclical time, as that in the West time is like money: people will say, “Time is money,” and if it is a metaphor, it is none the less a metaphor that captures people’s outlook very well. Time is like a scarce commodity; it’s something you use to get things done, and you can not have enough, and run out of time. Language of “saving time” like one would save resources is because the way people treat time is very close to how one would treat a commercial resource that you use to get things done. This may be deeply rooted in some Orthodox, especially Western members of the Orthodox, but instead of time being like a limited supply of money, time is like a kaleidoscope turning. There are different colors—different basic qualities held in place by worship, prayer at home, fasting from certain foods, feasting, commemorating different saints and Biblical events, and being mindful of different liturgical seasons—and they combine in cycles of day, week, and year, given different shades as people grow. Again, this is much less like “Time is money.” than “Time is the flow of colors in a kaleidoscope.”
One of those seasons is called “Theophany,” and it is defined by the third most important feast in the year. I am writing in that season, and it seems an appropriate enough season to write this piece. It fits Theophany.
“Theophany” means “the manifestation of God.” That word does not refer to icons or animals. But the way that God was manifest in Theophany has every relevance to icons and animals.
Theophany is the celebration of the Lord Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan, and at one point this was not celebrated from what we now celebrate in Christmas. At that baptism, the Father spoke from Heaven and said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,” the Son was baptized, and the Spirit appeared in the form of a dove. The Trinity was made manifest, but more to the point, the Trinity of God was made manifest to and through material Creation.
The Fathers have never drawn a very sharp line between Christ the Savior of men and Christ the Savior of the whole creation. This isn’t something the Fathers added to the Bible: the Son of God has entered into his creation so completely that the Bible itself says that Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.”
When Christ was baptized in water, he blessed the whole creation. Yes, he set a precedent for his followers. I wouldn’t want to diminish that. But if you draw the line and say the story is relevant to our being baptized but nothing more, you have cut off its fundamental relevance to the whole Creation. The Orthodox liturgy never forgets the rest of the created order, and the liturgy for Theophany crystallizes this in the service for the blessing of the water:
Great art thou, O Lord, and wonderful are thy works, and no word doeth justice to the praise of thy wonders; for by thy will thou didst bring out all things from nonexistence into existence; and by thy might thou dost control creation, and by thy providence thou dost govern the world. Thou it is who didst organize creation from the four elements, and crowned the cycle of the year with four seasons. Before thee tremble supersensual powers; thee the sun praiseth, the moon worshippeth, the stars submit to thee, the light obeyeth, the tempests tremble, the springs worship thee. Thou didst spread out the heaven like a tent; thou didst establish the earth on the waters. Thou didst surround the sea with sand. Thou didst pour out the air for breathing. Thee do the angelic hosts serve; thee the ranks of the archangels do worship, the many-eyed cherubim, the six-winged seraphim, as they stand in thy presence and fly about thee, hiding with fear from thine unapproachable glory…
And shortly the water is blessed, opening a season of blessing in which people’s houses are blessed, icons are blessed, people are blessed, and so on. To be human is to be created for worship, but it is not only humans; every material creature and every spiritual creature (the “supersensual powers”, the “many-eyed cherubim”, and other figures in the liturgy quoted above) are not only created to worship but have a place in what could be called a united organism.
People today are seeking a harmony between man and nature, and some people may wonder if Orthodoxy has a basis for such a harmony. The answer is a yes and no. Let me explain.
If we ask a different question, “What would harmony between humans and technology be? What would a society look like?” then there might be an image of people caring for machines, adapting themselves to them, and so on and so forth. And that image, or that projection, would lead to a deceptive image among societies today. If we are talking about the kind of technology in the first world today, then the first world today not only is better attuned with technology than the second or third world, but has done something with technology that is simply without parallel in the first 99.999% (literally) of the time humans have been around. Although some other nations like Japan may have a slight edge over my native USA, I’m going to focus on the USA for the simple reason that I know it better.
In the USA, which has something about technology that exceeds what has been done in the same vein in the first 99.999% of the time humans have been around, there are people who develop technology and are carefully attuned to it. And the culture is optimized to support technology in a way that I didn’t appreciate until I lived in the second world. You may be able to count on your fingers the number of societies that have ever managed, in the entire history and prehistory of the human race, to be more attuned to technology. And yet the society is not what one would imagine if one tried to imagine a society in harmony with technology.
This is a society with a minority current making Luddite arguments about why computers are bad (and to me the arguments have more weight than some might suspect). There are also people who have no academic axe to grind about the sociological effects of video games, but hate learning new programs. The predominant computer operating system is the most insecure operating system, the one that most exposes its users to viruses and worms—better operating systems are available, at very least from a security and privacy perspective, for free in some cases, but the industry standard is the one that leaves its users most vulnerable to malicious software. Furthermore, people do not hold technology as objects of reverence, or at least most people don’t. Not only is it not a big deal to dispose of no-longer-wanted technology, but “planned obsolescence” means that technology is made to be thrown away. When technology is broken, it will probably be replaced instead of being repaired. You can be very educated and know very little about technology. And the list goes on.
Now I ask: Is this attunement with technology? And the answer is “Yes,” but it is the kind of attunement seen in real society (perhaps more perfectly in Japan and other places), not what one would imagine as “harmony with technology.” The difference between the two is like the difference between romantic relationships—the kind you have with another flesh-and-blood human who has things that your imagination didn’t put there—and romantic fantasies. In fact people don’t think in terms of “harmony with technology;” to ask if American culture lives in harmony with technology is a question few Americans would ask.
Does Orthodoxy have a key to harmony with nature? Let me give one clue. No single technology—not SUVs, not environmentally incorrect inks, not styrofoam—dictates a heavy environmental footprint. Even if there were no soy inks, the printer in itself need not dictate environmental damage. What dictates environmental damage is waste. And Orthodoxy never tells a society what technologies it may and may not use—when someone ran an anti-SUV advertisement asking, “What would Jesus drive?” Orthodoxy may well agree with the archaeologist who in essence said, “Speaking as someone who’s done excavations in the Holy Land’s rugged terrain, you basically need an SUV, and Jesus with his twelve disciples would have driven a Hummer.” (This does not mean that we all need Hummers. I get rides from people but don’t own a car myself.) Even if Orthodoxy does not give a list of what technologies its people can’t use, Orthodoxy does join voices with many other Christians in saying that part of the walk of virtue is living simply, meaning using what you need but being willing to ask “Do we need what we can afford?” instead of just “Can we afford what we need?” This simplicity is not lived consistently in the first world, but the classical virtue of living simply, formulated at a time when people simply were not thinking in environmentalist terms, has implications for appropriate stewardship of the earth. Living simply has usually been conceived as something that deals with rich and poor—almost all people in the first world who have a home would be considered rich—but it is part of a right ordering that will rightly orient people and society to the material world.
But there is another side to the issue. In the Western way of looking at it, there is a fundamental opposition between harmony (shaded by equality) and domination (shaded by inequality). Harmony, by definition, does not include domination. But the way the Eastern Church approaches it fits neither into the Western boundaries of harmony nor the Western boundaries of domination. The link between man and nature needs harmony, but it is incomplete if it cannot include domination and even destruction. The PETA position, admittedly extreme for people who have animal rights sympathies, is that a duck is a rat is a goat is a boy. To them, meat is murder, not just as a way of exaggerating something deep, but in a literal sense. And I cannot agree with that. If I could kill a goat and save a girl, I would do so. And beyond that, I eat meat, more than most people (at least before low-carb diets came in vogue, and perhaps after).
When I was a boy, my art teacher told the class to get smocks, and my father gave me an unwanted shirt—but he would have given me his best shirt if I needed it. I used it and it kept me from getting clay and paint on my other clothing. (In other words, I destroyed it.) That wasn’t the only thing of my parents’ that I destroyed. I destroyed the meals my mother cooked for me (usually by eating them and throwing away as little as possible—you wouldn’t want them when I was done). I destroyed things that weren’t working by taking them apart to see what was inside. I destroyed clothing that my mother brought for me, usually by wearing it out. If my parents had back every penny they spent on something that I destroyed, they would have a good deal more money.
However, my parents did not raise me to be a destructive man. The smock is an example of justified destruction. The fact that my father gave me one of his shirts to destroy as a smock does not mean that it didn’t matter if I destroyed his shirts. He would have been quite bothered if I had rubbed red clay onto all of his shirts. Quite a lot of the destruction I did was appropriate. It was justified destruction within a context, and I believe it illustrates what it means to say both that destruction can be permissible, and that destruction matters. To speak of justified destruction is both to say that destruction can be justified and that justification needs to be justified: it is acceptable to destroy a dress shirt when a smock is needed, but destroying a dress shirt needs to be justified, and is not appropriate when it is not justified.
The concept of “raw materials” applied to the natural world isn’t a very Orthodox concept, for much the same reason that it would seem strange to interpret our house as merely a bunch of raw materials for me to destroy at will. The examples above notwithstanding, my parents did not want me to be destructive, and the fact that I was permitted to destroy things was not the central truth of the matter. It would be much closer to the truth to say that I was in that home to grow into a Christian and a man, and be a member of that family. There was also a footnote that said I could destroy some things in some circumstances. But even the things which I was permitted to destroy were not “raw material”. A shirt has value in itself, as a shirt, even if it is used as a smock.
The problem with considering the items in my parents’ house is raw material is that they have both status and value independently of what I might get out of destroying them. It might matter that I would benefit from destroying the shirt by using it as a smock, but the heart of the matter is that “potential for making a smock” is neither the only status nor the only value of a dress shirt.
An icon, a picture painted to help make spiritual realities manifest, has value as the emblem of a view of the Creation where science and materialism do not tell the whole story, where matter has spiritual qualities above the legitimate observation of scientists, and where saying “Nature is simply what science describes” is as fundamentally erroneous as saying “Your value as a human being is simply what you get when you subtract your financial liabilities from your assets.” If an icon is spiritual, if it is part of God manifesting himself through matter and restoring matter to his circle of blessing, then there is something inadequate if the only meaning to “matter” is “what science describes.” Matter is a part of the treasurehouse of God, and the icon is spiritual not as an exception to inert matter and raw material, but as the crystallization of something at the heart of Creation. Seeing the natural world as raw material is almost as strange from an Orthodox perspective as seeing people in terms of their financial net worth. It’s the same kind of error.
Of the possessions in my parents’ house, not are equal, and it makes a difference whether I am destroying a plastic cup or a landscape painted by my mother. In God’s own house with his treasures, not all are of equal value. There are some of these treasures that exist, in their way reflecting a God who is existence itself: rocks, for instance. There are some possessions which exist in a deeper sense, having an existence that is alive, a reflection of a God who is not only Being itself but Life itself. Then, beyond these oaks and roses, there are treasures which exist and even live in a way that moves: gazelles and badgers. As the pinnacle of material creation and the microcosm that brings together the material and the spiritual, are creatures that exist, live, and move in out of rationality—on a richer and more interesting understanding of “rationality” than most people would associate with the word today. That would be the realm of men. Lastly, there are bodiless rational spirits. rank on rank of angels.
We can destroy treasures that exist, live, and even move, and some people think that in dire circumstances we may destroy the highest of material treasures, the ones that are rational. But that does not mean that it’s all the same to destroy rocks, plants, and animals. Destroying a plant—to make a vegan’s meal, for instance—is more serious than smashing a pebble. (Unfortunately, you can’t live off of a diet of rocks.) Destroying an animal is far more serious, and there are sources which suggest it is more a concession than what we would think of today as a right. You can find people arguing that meat is more of a condition to weakness and medical concerns than something healthy people should need to resort to.
In Judaism, “kosher” is not only a matter of whether the meat comes from a clean animal like a cow or a sheep or an unclean animal like a pig. It also is a matter of how the animal was slaughtered.
The butcher says a blessing over the animal and then makes a single motion with a knife that has to be sharp, and is specified so that the animal dies as swiftly and painlessly as possible. Its lifeblood is also to be poured out as thoroughly as possible—because the animal’s life belongs to God, not to us, and even if we may kill it, Judaism at least frames acceptable slaughter in a way that shows respect for the animal killed.
If we look at a Jewish shepherd with his flock of sheep, under second temple Judaism, and a contemporary (to him) pagan Greek swineherd with his flock of pigs, they (or at least the Jew) would have seen themselves as complete opposites, at least after taking into account that they both raise a group of animals. There may have been a difference in whether all the animals were being raised for meat, but let’s ignore that for the sake of argument. The Greek swineherd might have found the comparison rather insulting: to Greeks, Jews were these antisocial people who wouldn’t mingle in polite company and for some reason treated one of the most delicious meats (pork) as if it were something revolting and putrid. In other words, Greeks perceived Jews as rather a bit weird, a beer or two short of a six-pack. The Jew, however, would have certainly found the comparison insulting to the extreme: not only was this figure a goy, a heathen dog, but he was raising pigs. Saying that he was like a swineherd is offensive in much the same way it would be offensive to tell a UPS delivery driver who is proud of helping the business world and contributing a little to help the economy run smoothly, that that she is like a gang’s drug runner because they both deliver packages, whether the packages are productive business documents or street drugs. The Jew would have been more offended by the comparison, but for people who raise flocks of animals, the Jew and Greek would have seen themselves as very different.
But let’s compare them to how pigs are raised today, in today’s factory farming. Pigs spend almost their entire lives in tiny cells, with an hour of artificial light a day—the rest of the day being surrounded by darkness—constricted in cells too small for them to turn around, deprived of a herd animal’s normal contact with other animals from its herd, traumatized not only by sounds but by the unending stench of rotting feces. The workers who treat them come down with atrocious respiratory diseases—and they are exposed to the vile air for a few hours a day instead of 24/7 as the pigs are. I don’t believe that feeding animals antibiotics is innately wrong, but with pigs it serves as an inappropriate band-aid for the damage caused by a dungeon—if that is a strong enough word—which is such a toxic environment that feeding the animals constant antibiotics actually makes a marked difference in the number of pigs killed by the life in their dungeon.
If we compare the Jew and the Greek herd-keepers, suddenly they look the same, and some things take on a new significance. Both allowed their herds to graze at least some of the time. Both allowed their animals to have natural contact with other like animals as part of a herd. Both raised their animals in daylight. Both raise their animals in places that gave them not just room to turn around, but room to move about normally. And now I’d like to ask what the Jewish shepherd (at least) would have thought of the factory farming way of raising (in the example above) pigs. Or, if you prefer, a rabbi.
Do you know how when you step on a tack or stub your toe, you feel tremendous pain, immediately, but if you get in a car accident and really need to go to the emergency room, it takes a while for the pain to register? My suspicion is that kosher slaughter techniques leave an animal unconscious and possibly dead before the pain has had time to register. Even if it is not painless slaughter, the specific rules are motivated by a principle that reduces suffering in a timespan of only a few minutes. And non-kosher slaughter, unless people go out of their way to cause suffering, cannot come anywhere near the suffering which factory farming inflicts on pigs. For that matter, it’s not clear how one would go about creating a torment-filled slaughter technique that would come anywhere near the lifelong suffering animals experience in factory farming. My suspicion is that people who are criminally convicted of cruelty to animals (at least in the U.S.) cause nowhere near the suffering before the animal is dead that factory farms do. To the best of my knowledge, Orthodox Judaism has not made rules about how an animal must be treated for its entire life to provide kosher meat, but if the rules were being articulated today, I suspect that the rules would recognize that lifelong torment is more of a problem than failing to kill an animal quickly and with a minimum of pain (as well as pouring its blood out as a reverent recognition that the life of an animal belongs to the Lord).
Before further discussion about factory farming’s evil side, I would like to explain what it has allowed. Raising animals the traditional way is expensive, requiring a lot of land and a lot of manpower. Factory farming—stacking animal cells in warehouse-like fashion and in general treating animals like mere machines—is a way to automate and mechanize the production of both meat and animal products like eggs and cheese. It is a tremendous way to cut corners, and the result is that things that come from animals are drastically reduced in price, drastically cheaper.
It is difficult, at least in the first world, for people to understand that for most of history people have not been vegetarians but neither did they eat meat every day. There have been a few hunter tribes that had a meat-based diet. For most people whose food came from farms, bread or rice has been the staple food. Meat was for special occasions or a seasoning; eating meat every day would seem strange to most people, like ordering lobster every time you feel like a snack, or drinking Champagne with every meal. Meat, being an expensive thing to produce, was something people didn’t have as the basis for normal meals. If you are an American adult—and you have not made a conscious choice early in your life to drastically reduce or eliminate meat from your diet—then you have almost certainly eaten much more meat than Jesus did. This does not automatically mean that we shouldn’t eat meat ever, or that we should eat meat rarely, but it does suggest that eating meat every day is not really the traditional way of doing things, even if most people were not vegetarians. A lot of people today love lobster and Champagne, but that doesn’t mean it’s normal in my society to have them every day. It might be telling that the “Our Father” Jesus gave doesn’t say, “Give us today our daily meat,” but “Give us today our daily bread.” That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t eat meat, but it seems not to assume, as people sometimes do, that meat is the main food.
I’d like to point out something more about American culture. Where I was growing up, I heard that a restaurant, Dragon West, had been closed down for improper use of domestic animals. For those of you who don’t have X-ray goggles, “improper use of domestic animals” is an opaque bureaucratic euphemism for the fact that they were serving dogs as food. The reason the restaurant was shut down has to do with the fact that eating dogs is culturally offensive to much of American culture, and there is a reason for that.
There’s a rule in America that if you keep a particular type of animal as a pet, you don’t eat that kind of animal’s meat. The rule is not absolute, and part of it is that most kinds of pets (carnivorous cats, for instance) would make poor livestock, and most kinds of livestock (behemothic bovines, for instance) would be hard to keep in a suburban home. And the rule isn’t absolute. Aside from rabbits, people swallow goldfish, although they seem to do that precisely because it crosses a line. But once you acknowledge a jagged border, it’s not just true that we happen not to eat the most common pets; many Americans would find the idea of eating a dog or cat to be nauseating. And it’s deeply seated enough to close down a restaurant.
You can, at some restaurants I’ve been to, order fish head curry. That doesn’t get a place shut down, but it breaks another rule. More specifically, it breaks the rule that meat shouldn’t give obvious clues that it came from an animal. Fish, which look the least like people, can be sold with their heads on. But unless you go out of your way, chickens are sold without head and feathers, and red meat and pork (which are from non-human mammals) is sold with even fewer clues that it’s some of the flesh of a slaughtered animal. Not that a detective couldn’t figure it out, but meat is sold in a form that hides where it came from, and people buying or eating beef would probably be grossed out by having a cow’s severed head nearby. Surely some of this is for economic reasons, but Americans who eat meat tend not to want to be reminded where it came from.
Lastly, people can be disturbed by the idea of eating certain kinds of “gross” things, things that creep and crawl—eating a tarantula or scorpion would be disturbing. (Interestingly, this rule seems to have a clause that says, “except if it came from the sea,” so the tarantula’s watery cousin the crab is fair game, as is the scorpion’s cousin the lobster.) That observation aside, the animals used to evoke horror in movies are generally not used as food.
My point in this is not to say that we all have rules, or think that only Orthodox Jews and Muslims have dietary rules. Even if the last rule has a strange exception, these rules are not random.
A devout Muslim will not eat pork and a devout Hindu will not eat beef, but the reasons are opposite: to the Muslim, a pig is an abomination, while to the Hindu, the god Shiva’s steed is a cow, and it would be an affront to Shiva to kill his steed for food. So we have abstinence out of disrespect and our of respect.
In the last rule I gave, “Thou shalt not eat anything creepy,” is an abstinence out of disrespect: spiders and lizards are dirty things that aren’t clean enough to eat. But neither of the first two rules is like this. The rules against eating animals that could be used as pets, and meat that looks too much like it came from an animal, are not rules of disrespect but rules of “Don’t remind me that an animal was killed for this.” The average suburbanite would rather be fed by meat from a kind of animal he has never interacted with closely—i.e. a cow—than think, “This came from a dog like the one I had growing up.”
This adds some complexity to the picture of “America is a place where people eat lots of meat and that’s that.” It suggests that, even if we eat lots of meat, there is something residual, a reticence that tries not to know that meat comes from slaughtered animals. (That is even without adding any knowledge of what it means for livestock to be raised under factory farming, which in my mind far outweighs the slaughter itself.)
Not all meat is created equal.
I had a bear of a time learning what specific conditions animals are raised under. Animal rights activists tend to want to treat animals as people, and only tell about what is inhumane, never what is humane, and so they will never tell you that beef cattle are raised under much nicer conditions than pigs. The people involved in factory farming seem not to advertise what they are doing. This makes not the easiest conditions to find out how much cruelty is associated with different things. (Or maybe I was just looking in the wrong places.)
What I was able to find—or the impression I was able to get—makes for a sort of ascending scale of cruelty, moving from least cruel (no more cruel than traditional animal husbandry) to most cruel. This scale isn’t perfect, but it’s the one I use.
Before we get on the scale, there is soy milk (which I’ve found to be available at grocery stores, and the chocolate is easiest to get used to), soy cream cheese, and so on. I still haven’t gotten the hang of liking tofu. I’ve found some other soy substitutes not to taste equivalent, but to taste good enough, and soy is claimed to have a complete protein signature.
At the base of the scale, the purest and most humane end, include ocean caught fish and seafood, and organic and free range anything. Organic food (which goes a little further than free range food—free range means that livestock can move about, free range, instead of being confined to coffinlike cells) can be found if you look for it at some supermarkets, and can be found at yuppie, granola music listening places like Whole Foods, which stacks exclusively organic produce, is pure as the driven snow, and has prompted a nickname of Whole Paycheck.
Next up the list are beef and mutton. Beef cattle do end up in fattening lots where they have little space, but they spend most of their lives growing up on open grazing land, able to move about, see sunlight, and be part of a herd.
Next up are eggs and dairy products. Because of the moral tenor of factory farming, animals can be treated cruelly even if they’re not exactly being raised for their meat, and if you order a cheeseburger, there’s more cruelty in the cheese than in the burger. Dairy cattle live much like pigs, although less of their lives (and therefore less cruelty) goes into producing a gallon of milk than a comparable amount of pork.
Last on the list are chicken, pork, turkey, and (the worst) veal. Many people know veal is cruel; pork and chicken are not much better. Chickens have a space roughly equal to a letter-sized paper folded in half, and farmers melt much of their beaks off (this is called “debeaking” by the farmers and the literature) because the living conditions cause so much fighting that the chickens would kill each other if they had their beaks and could peck like normal chickens would.
That is one of two things the animal rights crowd won’t tell you. There’s one other major thing I found that they don’t advertise.
In the Orthodox tradition, part of the story is fasting, which doesn’t mean abstaining from all foods and drinking only water, but usually means abstaining from some foods. The requirement on paper is to essentially go to a vegan diet (shellfish are allowed; oil and alcohol aren’t) and avoid most meat and animal products. This is more of a measuring stick than a requirement on paper, and some Orthodox bishops are concerned that new converts do not fast strictly. But, among people that observe fasting, most people go at least a notch or two closer than usual to a vegan diet. A little less than half the year has some fast or other, and the fast can be relaxed to some degree while still being observed. There are seasons of fasting, as well as days of the week.
What I realized in relation to fasting is that I hadn’t expected what fasting would really do. Giving up some of my favorite tastes was obvious, and I experienced that. But craving meat and not giving into that craving came up, and I don’t know that I consciously expected that, but it didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was consciousness, or more properly the effect it had on my consciousness.
Fasting quiets sinful habits and makes it easier to fight them. But at the same time, it drains energy and puts your mind in a fog. I have reason to believe that’s not the final effect, that your body responds differently over time, but fasting affects different people somewhat differently, and the effect on me is quite strong.
What I realized, that animal rights activists will not tell you, was that the main difference in giving up meat (temporarily or permanently) is not the taste; it’s not even really the craving, even if you fight a strong craving. It’s consciousness, and when one friend said he was going to cut meat mostly out of his diet as he married his mostly vegetarian fiancée, I strongly urged him to monitor his state of consciousness.
When I eat more than a little Splenda, it makes me sick—nothing life-threatening or anything like that; I don’t need a medical alert bracelet. But Splenda doesn’t agree with me. If I eat a little, nothing happens. If I eat a bit more than that, I feel mildly sick. If I eat a lot, not only will I feel sick but nature will call with a louder-than-usual voice.
It’s a shame, really. Every other artificial sweetener I’ve tried doesn’t taste right; it tastes like something that’s meant to taste like sugar, but fails. Splenda tastes like sugar’s cousin come in for substitute duty, instead of complete strangers dressed up to vaguely resemble sugar. And I’m not the only person who likes the taste.
Actually, I don’t think it’s a shame at all. Perhaps it has its downsides: I suddenly can’t eat most desserts, because at least where I buy desserts it’s hard to find a dessert sweetened with real, honest sugar. If you can’t eat Splenda, you can’t eat most desserts. And perhaps I will have to turn down more than a tiny serving of some hand-cooked desert made by the friend I am visiting. But there’s something to real, honest sugar, and it betrays something about Splenda.
A couple of friends in Kenya sent a newsletter trying to explain to the Western mind that people value a ring of oil as evidence of a stew’s richness, that bread lists its calories as how much energy it provides for hard work, and they underscored that the calorie is a unit of energy. This is a totally different attitude from in the U.S., when calories count as strikes against food.
It is also a healthier attitude, which underscores that food is eaten to nourish the body. Now God, in his generosity, has made it a pleasure as well, but we don’t need the pleasure, and we do need the nutrition (i.e. nourishment).
Splenda represents an effort to sever the link between eating and nourishment. It may be physically healthier to eat one ice cream bar sweetened with Splenda than with sugar, but it is not spiritually healthier, and there may be hidden consequences to the message, “I can eat and eat and not get fat.” Not only is that bad for the spirit, in that it causes you to fall short of the full stature of being human. If you think about it, it may end up being bad for the waistline.
Splenda is, in short, a very attractive invitation to become a moral eunuch.
In contrast to this, I remember a plaque with a picture of a pig, which said, “Eat to live. Don’t live to eat.” It is the same mindset as Richard Foster saying (I think quoting someone), “Hang the fashions. Buy only what you need.” Maybe he was talking about clothes, but it applies to foods too.
I try to eat animal products and meat, as much as are necessary for me be able to function. Unfortunately, I’ve found that I need a lot to function, partly for medical reasons. When I am receiving hospitality, I eat freely from what is offered to me; when I buy food, I buy a lot of beef, tuna, and chocolate soy milk. I try to get the minimum I need to function, and to take as much as I can from the lowest end of the cruelty scale. (I try. Sometimes I eat more than I need.) I also try to avoid wasting food and really try to avoid wasting meat—if it bothers me to see a pig raised in cruelty so I can eat a pork chop, it would be even worse for that pork chop to be thrown into the trash.
But there’s something wrong with that. I don’t mean that I chose the wrong private response to this dilemma. I think that as far as private responses go, it’s at least tolerable. Perhaps other people have chosen different responses, and maybe it could be better, but the problem is that it is a private response in the first place.
PETA, officially “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals” and labelled by some as “People Eating Tasty Animals,” tend to be the sort of people Rush Limbaugh would have lampooned when he wanted to give the impression that all liberals were crackpots. They made a gruesome TV commercial telling children to run from their fisherman fathers, apparently for much the same reason you’d run from a serial killer. They’ve probably done quite a lot that will prevent moderates and conservatives from taking animal welfare concerns seriously. But there is one area in which they are perfectly rational.
If, as they believe, meat is literally murder, and if, as they believe, imprisoning animals under lifelong conditions of misery is morally equivalent to imprisoning humans under lifelong conditions of misery, then it is entirely inappropriate to say “I’ll privately choose to be a vegan and you can privately eat your meat, and we can disagree without being disagreeable.” Whatever else they may have wrong, what they have right is that society’s default placement for the matter, of private decisions where people exercise their own private judgment on what if any dietary restrictions it may be. If they are completely wrong, and there is nothing wrong with veal, then maybe they have a private right to eat as if their erroneous beliefs are true, but if substantial parts of their claims are true, even the claims I have made, then there are real problems with the way American culture frames it.
I think I’m going to have to leave this approach “depracated without replacement”; I don’t see anything better that could believably replace it.
I’ve been told I’m good with animals. I certainly love pets, other peoples’ as well as my own: when I visit certain friends, I usually have a pet on my lap.
There was one point when a friend was moving into the area, and (for reasons I don’t understand) asked me to stay with her dog, who was afraid of men. (Even though there were women in the group of friends who had come to help her.) At the beginning, it was very clear that the dog was nervous about being at the other end of a leash from me. But after half an hour, the dog’s head was in my lap as I petted him, and when the group came, he was jumping up and down and wanted to meet the men as well as the women in the group. Part of what happened was because I knew how to approach slowly and let an animal get used to me, but part of it was probably something else.
That is probably the most exotic, or at least most impressive, story I can muster about my being good with animals. If I visit friends with pets, I usually ask to see the pets. And I believe my family’s warm atmosphere is part of why our cat is nineteen years old and still catches mice. This is not to say that we love our cat more than one friend, whose dog was hit by a car, or another friend, whose dog died of cancer. But it is to say that she might not have lived nearly so long if we merely gave her food and water, and that when she was attacked and was found curled up and not moving, she desparately needed a vet’s attention, but I’m not sure she would have pulled through if she didn’t have the love and prayers she received. (As it is, we are delighted that she pulled through and is back to being her old sweet self.)
When I left to study, I moved to an apartment where pets were not allowed—not dogs, not goldfish. (And even if they were allowed, I wouldn’t want to buy a pet that I wasn’t reasonably confident I could care for properly with vacations, moves, etc. I wouldn’t want to put a pet to sleep because it was no longer convenient to me.) So, I thought, I knew the perfect creative solution. I would buy a Furby—a furry stuffed animal that talks and moves, due to the technology inside. (In other words, a pet that wouldn’t make messes or upset the powers that be.)
So I tried to convince myself that I could enjoy it as a pet, and for a while I thought I was successful: the Furby spoke its own language, and I learned a few words, being fond of languages. It would respond to my commands at least some of the time. The perfect pet for my situation… and it took a while before I acknowledged that there was something creepy about it. It wasn’t creepy when it just stood there, looking like a stuffed animal and adding color to my room. But when it opened and closed its eyes, the technology seemed different from what I was expected. It almost seemed like the unnatural un-life of a vampire. I knew, of course, that it would run according to technology, and having done a master’s thesis about artificial intelligence running into a brick wall, I knew that it wouldn’t be truly intelligent. Yet I didn’t count on the creep effect. Now the Furby stands as a decoration in my room, one I like looking at. But it isn’t really to conserve battery power that I don’t activate it very often. I recognize it as an impressive technical achievement, but not as a pet.
There’s a spark of something that is there in a real animal that isn’t there in a robot dressed in a stuffed animal costume, and it was driven home to me when I tried to pretend that it didn’t make a difference. There is something special about existing, and there is something more special about living as a plant does, and something about the moving force that is an animal. Something that I can enjoy when I am with pets.
What is the point of this? Am I saying that being an animal lover is an obligation? No. I do not believe that the minimum acceptable requirement is being an animal lover. I don’t think there is any moral imperative to learn how to deal with animals or have the faintest desire for a pet. But I would say that it is part of the spectrum of things that are acceptable. Not everyone needs to be a big animal lover, but it is an appropriate exercise of freedom. Not everyone needs to be a wine afficionado, but it makes sense to savor subtle differences in flavor and aroma for good wines that doesn’t make sense with Mountain Dew. Slowly savoring a tiny taste of different years of Mouton Cadet rouge is not incongruous; slowly savoring a tiny taste of different years of Mountain Dew is absurd. It might me good for making a delightful lampoon of wine snobs, but Mountain Dew does not merit a treatment ordinarily reserved for wine. For the same reason, there is something that fits about luxuriating on a waterbed that does not fit about trying to luxuriate and savor a sleeping bag on a hard floor. There is no moral obligation to seek out a waterbed or even a bed, but there’s a difference between a waterbed and a floor. Similar things could be said about painting with oil paints versus trying to paint with SAE 10W-40 motor oil. There’s something there to animals that means that they make much better pets than shampoo bottles, so that being an animal lover is a fitting response whether or not it is a moral obligation. And that “something there” is present whether or not you are an animal lover.
There’s something there. The “something there” of animals undergirds the possibility of people enjoying pets as some of us do, a “something there” that is not human and is less than humanity, but is something more than almost anything else in nature. There is also “something more” than machinery, and while there are not ethical problems about cruelty in how we treat machinery, there is a dimension to a farm animal that isn’t there for economic assets in general. That means that there are ethical concerns surrounding meat and animal products even after some of us acknowledge that God has given us authority to slaughter his creatures.
Animal rights activists tend to think animal rights means treating animal rights as human. When people have treated me as human, they have given me a bedroom and made other rooms available. They have spent time with me, and made good food available—not raw unless there was good reason to serve it raw. They have given me Christmas presents and a million other signs of respect that animals do not merit. If I looked at things in terms of rights (I don’t), I would draw a much narrower and much more modest list of rights for animals: being part of a herd, moving about out doors, seeing sunlight during the day, and so on. Nothing about beds and cooked foods, but treated like an animal, which is much less than being treated as human, but it’s also different from being treated like a mere piece of machinery.
This leaves loose ends untied. I haven’t explained why the breeding that went into the breed of 96% of turkeys sold in America (which causes an ungodly amount of meat to grow on a skeleton and beast that really aren’t built to carry anywhere near that much weight—imagine the frame of a compact car supporting the bulk and weight of a full-fledged SUV) is cruel, and the breeding of housecats (which also introduces profound changes that some animal rights activists call out-and-out cruel) is appropriate stewardship with regard to God’s creation. And this article is dense enough without exploring all of those. Environmentally conscious readers may not be pleased to note that my ranking of cruelty encourages people to buy foods that have some of the worst environmental footprint—a pound of beef is said to require 4000 gallons of our scarce water. You can make meat with less impact on the environment if you are willing to cut corners, not only economically but morally. But I would argue that cruelty concerns are heavier than even environmental. And those are presumably not the only loose ends I’ve left. But there are a couple of points I would like to underscore.
First, thinking in terms of “raw material” is inappropriate. Destruction may be justified, but if so it is justified destruction of items that have something to them besides what economic use we might be able to find. The whole system of factory farming treats animals as mere economic assets who cannot suffer or whose suffering is not as important as making the most money. That causes terrible, usually lifelong suffering. Cruelty to animals matters.
Second, cause as much cruelty as you need to, but not more. Try to have the lightest footprint that doesn’t cause trouble to you—trouble meaning something more than “A cheese and bacon omelet would really hit the spot.” (In my case trouble meant difficulty concentrating on my studies, and since then I’ve learned what my body can handle.) Eat to live. Don’t live to eat. Remember that not all foods are created equal. Aside from soy, organic animal products and meat, and sea-caught fish and seafood are by far the least cruel; beef is more cruel than these, but less cruel than animal products like milk, cheese, and eggs; dairy and other animal products are less cruel than most meats, including turkey, pork, chicken, and especially veal. If you are eating meat because it tastes good and not because your body needs its nutrition and energy, that is unnecessary.
Third, caring about the living conditions of farm animals has been framed as a liberal thing. That may be because there’s a problem which arose, and liberals have been better at waking up to something conservatives should have been noticing. If you are dubious of my credentials as a conservative, I invite you to read Our Food from God, published in a Christian journal that argues long and hard against even the more moderate forms of feminism. It’s not just liberals who have a strong moral ground to criticize factory farming. It’s just that liberals have been quicker to wake up and say, “Houston, we have a problem.”
Seeing animals only as financial assets whose suffering is not important, instead of God’s treasures which may be judiciously destroyed but have value independent of their economic usefulness, is the same basic error as seeing a person in terms of financial worth. The error is more grievous in seeing a person in terms of money, but that same basic error—as opposed to keeping a light footprint and trying to keep to justified destruction—has caused terrible animal suffering. Consider ways in which you might limit suffering you cause, and consider emailing a friend a link to CJSH.name/meat/. And maybe visit the store locator for Whole Paycheck, er, Whole Foods.
There was an article which discussed the Orthodox Church and yoga in Georgia. It made no mention of martial arts, but it left me thinking about how its substance would meet martial arts.
Probably the most striking part of the discussion of the Orthodox Church in Georgia giving a cautious, skeptical eye to yoga, and one of yoga’s advocates said, “With time, as practitioners realized that “[b]y chanting one ‘Om,’ they’re not going to change their religion,” the objections vanished.” This answer reminds me of how Charles Babbage was asked by members of the Parliament if his analytical engine could arrive at the correct answer even if it were given incorrect data to work with. He said, “I cannot rightly apprehend what confusion of ideas would lead to such a question.” And I cannot rightly apprehend what confusion of ideas would lead an Orthodox to accept that reply.
The term ‘yoga’ is from the Sanskrit and means a spiritual path, and in that sense with unadorned simplicity an Orthodox Christian may claim to be a devotee of the Christian yoga, much as for that matter an Orthodox Christian speaking with a follower of the Budo (Warrior’s Way) may with unadorned simplicity claim to be following Christian Do. Something close to this insight is at the heart of Christ the Eternal Tao. The question of whether chanting one ‘Om,’ or rather, ‘Aum,’ as the “Sacred Syllable” is more properly called, will change your religion is neither here nor there. Saying the Jesus Prayer once not make one Orthodox, but this exact point is neither here nor there. Meditation in yoga does not stop with one ‘Om’ any more than Orthodox hesychasm stops with saying the Jesus Prayer once. On this point I would bring in that the Jesus Prayer is so important in Orthodoxy that in nineteenth century Russia there was genuine, heartfelt resistance to teaching the Jesus Prayer to laity on the concern that access to something so great without the protecting buttress of monastic living would lead them into pride to the point of spiritual illusion. At the risk of claiming insider status in Hinduism or treating Hinduism as a copy of Orthodoxy, I might suggest that the place of the “Sacred Syllable” in Hinduism is something like the place of the Jesus Prayer in Orthodoxy, alike foundational to the depths of their spiritual trasures, alike the metronome of silence to its practitioners. The concern that the yoga that is drawn from Hinduism constitutes a spiritual path inconsistent with Orthodoxy is anything but kneejerk conservatism, especially if chanting ‘Aum’ once is the Hindu equivalent of taking the Eucharist once (a point on which I am very unsure). But it represents some fundamental confusion of ideas to speak of “the neutral syllable ‘Om,'” as one workbook endorsed a popularization of yoga in the interest of treating depression and bipolar disorder.
Thus far I have focused on the analogies and similarities of hesychasm to the meditation that is found in Hinduism and Buddhism and is part of internal martial arts. It may be described as “divorced from” its religious roots (the founding grandmaster of Kuk Sool Won), but it is a common practice in internal martial arts (I never reached a high enough rank in Aiki Ninjutsu to be expected to join them in meditation), and it may not so easily be separated from its roots as it is presented. Part of the article I read on Georgia and yoga talked about meditation as affecting mind and body and in certain contexts produces a state of extreme suggestibility, quite far from the pattern in the saint’s lives where the Lord, the Theotokos, or a saint tells someone something, and ends up doing so at least two or three times because the devout Orthodox is simply more afraid of being deceived than of failing to jump at a command they consider themselves unworthy of. The state of extreme suggestibility produced by meditation opens the door to demonic “insights”, and one of the questions raised was, “Do you want to train in a discipline where the leaders are likely under demonic influence, in postures intended to be part of a spiritual path where you, too, will be invited to the place of suggestibility where you will be open to demonic influence?” The entire discipline points to the demonic; why think we can handle it safely? St. Paul writes, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” It might be begging the question to assume immediately that yoga is one of the cups referred to in this passage, but it is also precariously close to begging the question to assume that the passage is simply irrelevant to whether it is wise for Orthodox Christians to practice.
Before talking about martial arts, which I will get to after laying some preliminaries, I would like to talk about an area where I did my best to “smoke without inhaling.” I had come to believe that how Dungeons and Dragons and fantasy literature portray magic is not acceptable: perhaps it would be appropriate to portray a character’s occult engagement as a serious sin that opens a door to the demons who hate us, but as it was argued to me, it’s merely a depiction of a world with alternate physical laws, and when I took that up seriously and asked, “Do you know to what tolerances the constants of the physical world are tuned? If I were to have aim that good, I could hit something much smaller than a proton at the furthest reaches of the universe. Having alternate physical laws that would support ordinary life as we know it and in addition pack in magic is a very tall order. Would you also read fantasy of a world where adultery was harmless due to alternate laws?”
This last polemic may be beside the point here, but what is more to the point is that a friend, not to say very experienced author, responded to a mailing list post suggesting that marketing-wise the first three books an author publishes establish the author’s “brand”, and suggested that my brand might be non-magical fantasy. And while I would not wish for that brand now, this was a carefully considered suggestion from someone who had read my work at length, and it makes sense. The list of works that could be called nonmagical fantasy, some written after he made the suggestion, include the short stories The Spectacles, Within the Steel Orb, and the novellas, The Steel Orb, Firestorm 2034, and The Sign of the Grail. And there is a reason I have not displayed any of the novellas on my Amazon author page; The Sign of the Grail in particular was a work where I realized that my greatest successes (and in a work where I made some bad decisions that jeopardized the work) let me realize that what I was attempting was impossible. I would describe it as, “I succeeded, and in succeeding realized that what I was attempting was impossible.”
Some time later, a priest or monk was speaking me and warned about the perennial temptation to escape the here and now. This temptation is hard to pin down; it can take place physically, or mentally by imagination, or by street drugs, or… When this was pointed out, after initially resisting it, I realized that a great many things I did lacked the joy of gratefully accepting the here and now: they provide escape, and one good friend praised Within the Steel Orb precisely as a way to escape that he couldn’t put down.
I would have said then that I smoked, but didn’t inhale. I would now say that I inhaled more than I thought, and taking a “smoke, but do not inhale” attitude to sin is a losing proposition. Besides the works listed I made a role-playing game, The Minstrel’s Song, which is free of magic but still delivers the escape of fantasy. If you will, it offers a more dilute, less forceful delivery of poison than Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun, or many more of the plethora of role playing games out today, and perhaps God may use it to wean people off of that kind of recreation. I may have had a clear conscience when I wrote it, but remember Christ’s words, I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit, and this is one of the things God has pruned from me.
Proverbs asks, Can a man carry fire in his bosom and his clothes not be burned? This is God speaking, and the whole topic of fantasy, especially non-magical, represents an area where I tried to “smoke, but do not inhale,” and it is evident to me that I did inhale a good deal more than was good for me, and a great deal more than I realized. I had, and probably do still have, feet partly of iron and partly of clay.
When I touched base with my spiritual father years back about martial arts, he permitted it up to a point; I know that spiritual prescriptions are not to be copied from one patient to another, but he allowed me to study martial arts that were really just techniques, but not martial arts that were more of a philosophy. I had previously had about a year’s combined study between Kuk Sool Won and Karate; I thought that I would study another martial art without inhaling, and simply try to dodge certain aspects in studying Aiki Ninjutsu. (I tried to follow the spirit and intent of my spiritual father’s words, but perhaps I should have tried to ask him once I became aware of the neuro-linguistic programming and success plans.) What I really wanted was the stealth training, but God closed the door to the weekend training that would cover stealth.
After having gotten a certain point in, I emailed the instructor saying that I was coming to appreciate that Aiki Ninjutsu represents a complete spiritual tradition and does not mesh well with Christianity. I mentioned as an example the student’s Creed, which begins, not with the magnificence of “I believe in one God…”, but “I believe in myself. I am confident. I can accomplish my goals.” I said that believing in oneself represented a fundamental spiritual failing in Christianity. Had he asked questions or tried to understand me in dialogue beyond my first words, I would have referred to him to Chesterton in Orthodoxy, Chapter 2:
THOROUGHLY worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true. Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of the modern world. Yet I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it. The publisher said of somebody, “That man will get on; he believes in himself.” And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught an omnibus on which was written [the asylum] “Hanwell.” I said to him, “Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.” He said mildly that there were a good many men after all who believed in themselves and who were not in lunatic asylums. “Yes, there are,” I retorted, “and you of all men ought to know them. That drunken poet from whom you would not take a dreary tragedy, he believed in himself. That elderly minister with an epic from whom you were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself. If you consulted your business experience instead of your ugly individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who can’t act believe in themselves; and debtors who won’t pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness. Believing utterly in one’s self is a hysterical and superstitious belief like believing in Joanna Southcote: the man who has it has ‘Hanwell’ written on his face as plain as it is written on that omnibus.” And to all this my friend the publisher made this very deep and effective reply, “Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?” After a long pause I replied, “I will go home and write a book in answer to that question.” This is the book that I have written in answer to it.
I said that if he were to want to know more, I would have referred him to this passage. (The Fathers do not rebut the phrase “believing in yourself”, because it was coined and popularized after your time. When it was called “pride” or similar names, it was ripped to shreds.) Perhaps some of the more recent writing from Mount Athos may address “believing in yourself,” but I am limited in my grasp of what is current on Mount Athos.)
He responded with an authoritative statement that his art was appropriate for people of all religions or no religion, including Christian, and gave a recipe for success that began with believing in oneself. It was an Activist recipe, not a Saint’s, as I lay out two ultimate orientations in Farewell to Gandhi: The Saint and the Activist, not a saint’s; I did not expect him to take the role of the saint, but he seemed to only see the Activist approach as a live option. Now the Saint and the Activist do not represent mutually exhaustive options; I would expect Japan’s history to hold at least one other model besides them; and the martial art was presented as drawing on centuries or millenia of Japanese history, but it seemed to incorporate neuro-linguistic programming.
And on this point I will notice a difference between the martial art I was taught and prior martial arts: Kuk Sool Won and Karate both spoke, relatively frequently, of emphasizing “harmony between opponents.” In Aiki Ninjutsu, the code of ethics includes dealing with others in a “harmonious” way, but I never heard advocacy of humble harmony between opponents: by contrast, one of the more advanced lessons covered with beginners is “become the center:” you dictate what is going on. The art may have been combined with Aikido, which is perhaps the most harmonious-with-opponents of martial arts, but as it was combined and presented, I never heard on the mat someone speaking of harmony with one’s opponents, and I heard and saw practice at becoming the center. The teacher seemed to be trying to “win through becoming the center” rather than “win through harmony with one’s opponent.”
For my next point, I need to say a couple of words about the ki that is central to internal martial arts. “Ki”, translated “spirit” and “energy” in the Aikido poster hanging in the dojo, is a foundational concept in so-called “internal” martial arts and appears to me to be a large part of the inspiration for the Force as dramatized in Star Wars. The two are not interchangeable (for instance, I have never heard a martial artist discuss a light side and a dark side to ki or try to levitate something), but I’m not sure of any other concept readily accessible to the Western mind that translates “ki” (the Greek “pneuma” has been suggested by a Tae Kwon Do leader, but it is an approximation while “ki”, “chi”, and “qi” in Asian languges do translate each other or rather refer the user to the same concept). Interacting with ki is at the heart of internal martial arts.
Perhaps the most basic interaction with ki that I have seen in martial arts was to “ki out”, as it was called in Kuk Sool Won and maybe Karate, or “kiai” in Aiki Ninjutsu, sometimes translated “spirit yell.” Aiki Ninjutsu, unlike the other two arts as I was exposed to them, also has a system of four vowels, wrapped with consonants into English words in most English-speaking areas, which are used in different contexts; I am not sure about this but I believe they are connected to the elements of earth, air, fire, and water as they play out. And I emailed the instructor asking if it would make sense to train given that I was not comfortable with this spiritual practice. He gave me another “become the center” answer that spoke of my confusion of terminology, and I wrongly assumed that because it was called a “spirit yell”, it was a spiritual practice. But in my earlier practices totalling to about a year, I kied out and was never comfortable with it; it felt wrong. This time through, I watched a video where his beautiful wife, also a black belt and instructor, kiaied while cutting with the sword. What I saw in this was spiritual ugliness, as watching something unclean.
Besides telling me I was confused about terminology of the “spirit yell” and called it a spiritual practice out of confusion, he said that I was spending too much time trying to see how my religion would “fit into things,” gave a sharp quote about narrow-mindedness, and said it would make sense to “discontinue training.”
The other two times I was involved in martial arts, I did not try to avoid inhaling, and these were some of the driest times spiritually that I knew. This time, I signed a contract saying, in essence, “It is your choice what things you will participate in on an entirely voluntary basis; if you choose not to do certain things, it is our choice whether or not to withhold [advances in] rank.” Now I had expected to make progress slowly; martial arts’ first training is training me on my weakest point and while I believe I might advance quickly at higher levels where I would be in a better position to use my strengths, I expected slow progress. If I wanted to be trained differently, I could at my option pay for private lessons, but I was trying to just get through the basics without asking for exceptions to how the training usually works. I had not expected that the Sensei would like my asking about practicing without the spirit yell as a spiritual practice, but I was not expecting him to say that that was reason to discontinue practice.
Now if you will ask if I was angry with him, I would say “no”, and I don’t want to hear about him being hypocritical in his words about my narrow-mindedness. It seemed, if anything, like God acting through him to say “You have had enough” and take away a bottle of wine.
There were other times I quietly opted out and got away with it: on entering or leaving a class session, we were supposed to clap twice to get rid of bad energy and then clap once to acquire good energy. But I had been told repeatedly that I needed to yell a vowel on striking a target, and my opting out was noticed and given corrections during the last session.
I had practiced two other martial arts, Kuk Sool Won and Karate as mentioned, and did not attempt to “smoke without inhaling.” Both of those I did with an unclean conscience, and there was an incredible growing dryness in my spiritual life. This time I tried to avoid inhaling, and in large measure the question on my conscious was, “You deal in two forms of power that do not basically edify. Do you wish to deal in one more?” I have, for now at least, a regular paycheck coming in, and the Gospel is remarkably cool to the usefulness of money, especially when it is not used for alms for the poor. I work with computers, and I am rather skeptical about whether they are as good for the whole person as they might seem. (See the collection: The Luddite’s Guide to Techonology, $24.99 paperback, $2.99 Kindle for more details.) The moral of these things is not that the forms of power are utterly unlawful, but that they are less valuable than they seem, they require us to take command of them if we are to use them rightly, and most of the time they could use debunking. And in fact I did try to debunk them in the discussion of the Sermon on the Mount in Farewell to Gandhi: The Saint and the Activist. I spoke of being “naked as Adam”, and at the risk of belaboring a metaphor underscored that what is forbidden here is not literal clothing but metaphorical armor. Now martial practice can be consistent with being “without metaphorical armor;” one martial artist made a parody ad for martial arts touting such things as, “Get beat up by people twice your age and half your size!” The further people get into martial arts, the more aware they are of their vulnerability, and it’s pure snake oil when someone advertises some super elite program that will make you the world’s greatest martial artist in two months. So I would be cautious of saying that no one in any martial art can be living the Sermon on the Mount, but I believe the teacher did me a kindness by virtually expelling me from the art, and I am in no rush to find another. Instead of trying more efforts to acquire dubiously helpful forms of power, I could turn my attention to areas where I could better use what computers I have. The Philokalia tells of people who were mired in clay and calling out to others not to become mired, found their salvation. Perhaps that describes The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, because while I may have some of the detachment that is argued, I am a great deal more enmeshed with technology than with some other things. I would not say that I am strong enough to successfully “smoke without inhaling” when dealing with technology.
When I first visited the dojo, I saw a ?red? belt student wearing a black T-shirt with tattered letters, saying on one side,
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
– Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
I wasn’t able to look up what the other side said, but I remember it was a quote from the same book. And I said mentally, “I know what kind of people I’m dealing with.” Maybe I should have been afraid, confronted him, or something else; I have never seen such socially acceptable hate speech. But part of my reaction was, “Ok; I’ve been warned; this will be like my time studying theology at Fordham.
The instructor spoke of my terminological confusion in referencing the term “spirit yell”, and in fairness that was not the primary term and was not elaborated at length. The primary term, however, was “kiai”, and the philologist in me believes that the root of “kiai” (Aiki Ninjutsu) was ki. Certainly the term “ki out” (Kuk Sool Won) refers to ki. In the groundwork book that is given to newcomers, my instructor is identified as a third dan in Toshindo and also having rank in Aiki Ninjutsu. “Toshindo” is an alternate way of reading the characters to “ninpo”, which is ninjutsu considered in its spiritual aspect. In my opinion, he shouldn’t have been surprised when I said that Aiki Ninjutsu looked like a complete spiritual system to me. But however much he may have contradicted my identification of kiai as spiritually significant, either it was a sine qua non of my continued participation, or my not asking this kind of question about how it fit with my faith was such, or both. And though this was passing, the book identified which of the four elements one was most closely connected to, by astrological sign. In retrospect, I marched past too many red flags; the onus for my remaining under such conditions is primarily on me.
As a child I read of ninja who had stealth, and their stealth technique was called ninjutsu. Something of that captivated my (among many) people’s imagination; etymologically, ‘ninjutsu’ meant the technique of becoming invisible, an invisibility I assumed was metaphorical for physically skilled stealth, sixteenth century ninja suits, and the like. On my conscience’s prompting, I did not do what I very much wanted to do in going to the training weekend in a wooded area where stealth is best taught. Instead I went through a crunch at work where it would have been political suicide to be unavailable at work, although I did not expect this when I did not sign up for the training. And my imagination was enough captivated that I decided not to heed some strong red flags. The guilt for this is my own, not any of theirs.
My endeavor would have been perhaps using people had I consciously embarked on it as a philosophical experiment. Martial arts are often considered to be deeply occult (I doubt the clapping of hands was the only action with an occult intent), and while I would have to limit what I say to exclude Western arts such as fencing or boxing, and arguably some Eastern arts as well such as Brazilian Jiu-jutsu, which one Christian practitioner told me had none of the philosophical element. Certain things still appeal to me more; I would much rather pin an opponent by skill than pummel another person to the point of not being able to get up for ten seconds. To me the combat training was a secondary goal to training in stealth. But even then the lesson I would draw from this is less about martial arts, than trying to smoke without inhaling. While I ignored red flags and the sharp warnings of my conscience, I kept my conscience clean once I was in training, and peer pressure took a back seat to trying to keep my conscience clean. And perhaps I was succeeding enough at smoking without inhaling that the teacher ended my training. But the overall lesson I draw from this is that it is foolish to think, “I can smoke without inhaling.” Perhaps at Fordham the position was one where I had to try to smoke without inhaling—and did so at the Lord’s bidding. Never mind situations like that; they do happen. But it was a severe breach of wisdom for me to take on a situation where I would have to smoke without inhaling. Practicing the techniques put violence before my imagination and stained the purity of my soul. That was consistent. I do not wish to dictate to soldiers who bear the cross of St. George what they must do—but I was not a soldier following orders either.
Whether with regards to fantasy or martial arts or entirely unrelated circles of temptation, it is an error to try to smoke without inhaling. Can a man carry fire in his bosom and his clothes not be burned?