The way to eliminate suffering is to eliminate desire.
The way to eliminate desire is through the eightfold noble path.
The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.
The Ten Commandments
I was going to title this piece “On Covetousness” and there is much to say there, but on further reflection this piece is a piece about desire.
To start with, I would like to look briefly at Buddhism. I do not wish to advocate syncretism or carelessness about differences, but the combination of similarity and difference between Orthodox Christianity and some of Buddhism is instructive. Now to be clear, when I took a course in Asian philosophy, the Buddhist doctrine of anatta was the one I met with clear recoil and not with any sympathy: for those of you who do not know the term, it immediately means that there is nothing divine inside of us, and ultimately means that the heart of reality is not a heart of reality at all, but nothingness: life is like an onion, where you peel off layer after layer and find that there is nothing inside. And for that matter, the Orthodox understanding of demons may be a nobler matter than what Buddhism makes of mankind.
But for all of this there are real points of contact between Orthodoxy and Buddhism. There is a profound contact between the silence in Orthodox hesychasm and the silence of Buddhist meditation. What Orthodox say about the Western overgrowth of the logical mind is well enough to be found in Buddhism as well. That much may be worth exploring, but it is not my concern here.
What is my concern here is the point of desire. Nine out of the Ten Commandments dictate what outward actions are required or forbidden; the last commandment in Exodus does not mention any act at all, but only covetousness, a desire, an inner state, a disposition. And the list of things we are forbidden to covet barely scratches the surface of what we covet today. St. Job says, “I made a covenant with mine eyes? Why then should I think upon a maid?” (31:1), and lust is forbidden, at very least by implication. But the other enumerations of covetousness, one’s neighbor’s house, manservant, maidservant, ox, ass, or any possession is just the beginning of the list, or at least it is today.
What else do we covet? One acquaintance talked about a Western visitor who was with a group of pastors, out on motorcycles in very rural Africa, and the visitor did not know their language, but there seemed to be one term they were using quite a lot. Finally one of them cued in to what it was they kept talking about, and it was, “the pill, the pill” which is what they were calling Viagra. I have not heard him talk about anything sexual on any other occasion (though I admit a brief acquaintance), and he talked about how Iraqui workers said that the condition they required to work with U.S. troops was Viagra, which the troops dealt with by crushing up Smarties and giving it to them as Viagra.
Years before our spam filters swelled with offers of Viagra, some observers of social culture said that it used to be that our ancestors were concerned that their desires were too strong; now we seem rather to be concerned that our desires are too weak. And “certified male urologists” handing out Viagra like candy lands us squarely in the kind of desire where orthodox Buddhism has the most to tell us.
Buddhism does not offer help fulfilling desires; it offers help in eliminating desire. And is not just Buddhists but Church Fathers who see a tie between pleasure and pain, a link between desire and disappointment. If there is suffering caused by desiring more than you possess, then seeking to acquire what you desire is not the only strategy, not the only game in town. You can also subtract from the sum of your desires.
Buddhism’s picture of suffering is wrong as its picture of anatta and emptiness is wrong: it portrays a suffering that is empty and futile, like the Roman doctrine of Hell instead of Purgatory. And while the Orthodox Church does not believe that people die and go to Purgatory before entering Heaven, there is a great case that people go through some purifying suffering like Purgatory before they die. Purgatory, called “Heaven’s bathroom” by some, is a place of cleansing and purifying suffering and it is a full suffering with Heaven inside. And the nature of suffering in the service of God is precisely opposite the nature of suffering of Buddhism.
There is much else that one can covet besides the original list, and not only Viagra. We can covet honors; we can covet a romance that will banish all unhappiness just as we can imagine; we can covet imagined worlds of science fiction and fantasy; we can covet the pleasures of movie and video game, iPhone and Xbox. Our possibilities for pleasure, and the idea that such entanglement with pleasure is the norm, are as much stronger now than in the days of the Bible as 151 (rum at 75.5% alcohol) is stronger than the 4% lacto-fermented wine that pagan Greeks recoiled from drinking undiluted. It is a provocative statement now to tell the Resident of SecondLife: “Fornicate using your own genitals!”
But the solution represents one final departure from Buddhism. Buddhism sees no way to sweep away selfishness but to extinguish the self and extinguish desire. Orthodoxy transfigures desire and attaches it to its proper end, God. Pascal, heretic perhaps, lives only centuries away from us; he lived near the occult genesis of modern science, and he has a more encompassing view of what we may drink spiritual poison of covetousness besides our neighbor’s property:
All men seek to be happy. This is without exception, whatever the different means that they employ, they all go to this end. This makes some go to war, and others do not go, and it is the same desire, which is in both of them, accompanied by different means. The will never makes the slightest deviation but to pursue this goal. This is the motive of all actions of all men, even to the point of those who go to hang themselves.
This is the motive of all the actions of all men even including those who go to hang themselves. And despite this after such a long number of years, no one ever, without faith, has reached the point that all continually have their sights on. All complain: princes, subjects, nobles, commoners, old, young, weak, strong, educated, ignorant, healthy, sick in all countries, of all time, of all ages, in all conditions.
A test that is so long, so continually kept and so uniform should convince ourselves of our powerlessness to reach goodness by our efforts. But the example instructs us little. It is never so perfectly believable that there is some delicate difference and it’s there that we expect that our expectation will not fail on this occasion unlike the others, and the present never satisfies us ever, experience goads us, and from sadness to sadness brings us to death which is an eternal pit.
What then do this avidity and this powerlessness cry out to us,except that there was once in man a true happiness, of which there no longer remains to him anything but the empty mark and trace which he futilely tries to fill with all that is around him, seeking in things absent the salvation which he does not obtain from things present, but which are all incapable because this infinite void cannot be filled except by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, by God himself?
Pensées, VII: Morality and Doctrins, 415 [ 377]
There was contact between the East and West well before the twentieth century; Pascal’s contemporary Leibniz owned a copy of the I Chingbrought by Jesuit missionaries. However, Pascal shows a singular innocence of Buddhism. And at a time when Reformers tried to recruit Orthodox, Christian West and East also had contact. However, Pascal, who evinces little if any serious contact with Orthodox hesychasm, no less has his finger on the solution.
His statement is sweeping, too much on a literal count, but this bespeaks more his experience than rhetorical exaggeration: it is a crude reading that says Pascal speaks of those who hang themselves but did not really mean his observation would apply to Buddhists. In the realm of Pascal’s experience, he saw a uniform law, where men did not obtain relief from suffering no matter how much they chased their desires, but he saw the solution: not that desire or pursuit is to be eliminated, but that they are to be fixed to their proper object, their proper end: an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, by God himself.
We think of Pascal as coming from another world. Yet I assert that historians may treat him as a close contemporary of ours; his list of things pursued in covetousness comes much closer to the traps set for us today than the list provided in the ten commandments, which lists six things in particular, seem almost like six pebbles on a beach compared to what we are enticed to covet, and chase in vain.
Not, perhaps, that we may never reach them. It can happen that we do. But something we covet brings us brief pleasure and then an even greater sadness; covetousness and desire feed our pleasure-pain syndrome, and covetousness that reaches its desire finds sorrow close on its heels. There is a common enough saying, courtesy of George Bernard Shaw, “There are two great tragedies in life. One is not to get one’s desire. The other is to get it.” This is true of anything one covets. But not of desiring God, who is the right and proper goal of desire.
Humor was once very important to me; I had, at least, a subtle sense of humor and several submissions to the highly moderated newsgroup rec.humor.funny. But in one reading of the Philokalia, I saw that they, like St. John Climacus in the Ladder, viewed humor as not at all innocent. It wasn’t just that some jokes are dirty; it is that humor, like covetousness, is not as good as it looks on the outside. And since the time that I wroteOn humor, something has shifted and I have in large measure lost my taste for humor, and am more, not less, happy for it. There is something in humor that is like a scream and is not joyful, and there is something inside covetousness that says, not really “I will be happy if I have this,” but “I cannot be happy with what God has given me now.” Except that this is hidden from us; covetousness seems a conduit of happiness when it is actually its thief.
In the Prologue, one saint says that we should desire whatever God gives to us, or as he puts it, whatever happens to us. I seem to almost never stop planning, coveting, a better future. But the only moment we can obey God is now, and the only time we can accept God’s providence is now. And the Orthodox treatment of desire, unlike Buddhism that seeks to extinguish desire, but to clear the field of distractions so we can rightly and properly desire God himself, and here monks say something to us all. Monasticism and marriage alike provide a crown of thorns; they are meant not to fulfill selfish desires but transform them away from selfishness. The married person has an icon by which to transcend himself; the monk dispenses with the icon, but marriage and monasticisms are not opposite, not here, but two paths to the same goal. The real value of marriage, like monasticism, is to free a man from living for himself, for pursuing immature covetousness instead of maturing to a desire that is greater, not less, than the desire for plans, Viagra, SecondWife, education, a pay raise, financial security, a postmodern sweep of experiences, pleasures that linger on the palate, honors, recognitions, and achievements, revenge for a wrong (or at least one that is coveted in imagination), music and media always with us, “Orthodox” humor, and any number of things Orthodox ascesis is meant to free us from. But the freedom is not a freedom to desire less and less, but more and more, a freedom that is only parodied, even obscenely parodied, in the covetousness we know today.
St. Paul said, “the love of money is the root of all evil“, and we have unleashed a Pandora’s box of it. But the path of ascesis, of freedom of covetousness, of desire freed for God, is ever open, and ever abounds.
Let us let go of more and more covetousness to be free to grasp God himself.
When I was talking with some Wheaton science professors about origins questions and Wheaton’s hint of an inquisition, in which there are four stated views (two of which are deemed acceptable), and they were complaining about the President thinking that everything fits into four neat pigeonholes: everybody must believe position one, two, three, or four. (So far as I know, none of the science faculty believe any of those positions — I don’t.) Then one of them stated, for the sake of fairness, that Wheaton at least allowed four views, while the media only allowed two: either you’re a young earth creationist, or you believe in Darwinian evolution, and that’s the end of that. I had hoped that the Megalist at least would be above this misconception, and it was with some sadness that I found this hope disappointed in the posts I’ve read (I’m offline; most recent post was one about a $1M donation to a young-earth museum).
[The following paragraph describes a perspective on Thomas Aquinas. This is not my own perspective; it is one I am describing in accounting for other people’s beliefs.]
I have stated (or, more properly, implied) that young earth creationism is a marginal position among Evangelical scholars (I will not speak for Catholics or mainline Protestants, beyond to say that I expect them to be less inclined to young earth belief than Evangelicals). Augustine, who is portrayed by some Evangelicals as the good example of a solid Bible-believing pre-Protestant theologian, as contrasted to Aquinas’s dilution of Biblical faith with Aristotelian and humanist doctrine, did not have access to scientific inquiry concerning the age of the universe or the origins of life. His beliefs concerning origins were as far in technical detail from a young-earth story as would be a theistic evolutionary perspective. At Darwin’s time, Evangelicals were not generally young-earthers; a young earth perspective gained prominence for reasons to be discussed, but the old earth implied by evolutionary theory was not a surprising claim. I believe in an old earth; Johnson believes in an old earth; Behe believes in an old earth; Kenyon believes in an old earth. For that matter, the Scopes monkey trial’s Bryan, who was a member of the American Academy for the Advancement of Sciences, was not a Biblical literalist and did not believe in a young earth.
That stated, I would like to give a fair treatment and (in some sense) explanation of young earth creationism, including its popularity among some devout Christians. This is not, and is not intended as, argument concerning origins questions, and readers who are looking for germane material that will inform considerations of origins questions can safely skip this note. It is intended as painting a fuller and fairer picture, of there being something to these people’s beliefs besides a vulgar belligerance towards science.
In the following argument, I will make multiple Biblical references; these references are not here intended as appeal to religious authority, but as historical documents giving insight into how a particular people thought.
Among those cultures that permit eating meat, there can be dietary codes concerning what meat is and is not permitted. The term ‘dietary code’ is often associated with Judaism, with abstinence from pork holding a symbolic meaning of ethnic and religious identity, but this is neither the only dietary code, nor the only meaning a dietary code can have.
Contemporary American culture has a dietary code, albeit an unwritten one (beyond general health practices, and health code regulations about serving food). To give three examples of these unwritten rules: most Americans will not eat much of anything with a head on it or other visible reminders that the food is in fact the carcass of a slaughtered animal, will not eat much of any of the animals that are used as pets, and will not eat much of anything land-based with an exoskeleton. There are occasional exceptions to these rules — sardines, goldfish swallowing, and chocolate covered ants — but the exceptions are in fact occasional exceptions to general rules.
These dietary restrictions are not thought of consciously, and when an American travelling abroad sees people eating meat in violation of such rules, his first reaction is not likely to be to think about how American he is by abstaining from such food, but more likely disgust that people are eating such sickening food.
The quality of this perspective is representative of the most ancient Jewish attitude towards certain foods. The Torah lists a number of animals and tells people that they are to regard these animals as “unclean and detestable”, and are not to eat them (and someone who did became temporarily unclean). Uncleanness was not the same as moral defilement, and there were certain (albeit few) contexts (albeit not munching) in which texts reflect a social and religious permission to make oneself unclean. To eat unclean food was something you shouldn’t be doing, but it wasn’t something that had the particular meaning of treachery to Judaism, moreso than stealing — probably less; the injunction against stealing made the big 10.
In Judges, one of the older post-Torah books, one that narrates the social and moral chaos before there was a king, the Nazirite Samson eats honey from the carcass of an unclean lion — maybe something a Jew shouldn’t be doing in general, but quite particularly something a Nazirite shouldn’t be doing at all. This action forms part of the story of a morally flawed, intermittently obedient hero, but it is not interpreted as being particularly goyish, not moreso than the other actions he took that broke God’s law.
In Daniel, one of the latter additions to the Jewish canon, three sharp young Jews are brought to the palace of the king and make a big deal of not eating any meat at all, instead of eating the palace’s unclean food. On the evidence of the text alone, it is ambiguous whether eating unclean foods has acquired the symbolic meaning of goyishness, or whether it’s a matter that these three men were so devout that in a foreign land they would not compromise on even the issue of food.
In IV Maccabees (not canonical to Jews or most Christians, but an ancient Jewish document that sheds light on the community), a Greek persecutor is trying to forcibly convert Jews to Hellenistic life, and inflicts gruesome tortures on Jews who refuse to eat pork. Here abstinence from unclean foods has very clearly become a (perhaps the) symbol of Jewish faith, and it holds this crystallized meaning to Jewish martyr and Greek persecutor alike.
The near-total investment of dietary code with symbolic significance was not universal; one Jewish teacher said both “I have come not to abolish but fulfill the Tanakh,” and “What makes a man unclean is not what goes into him, but what comes out;” his disciples did not perceive any puzzling contradiction, and the movement he ignited from within Judaism is in numerous ways very Jewish to this day, but does not retain the dietary code.
This has conditioned subsequent history; not all Jews today keep the dietary code, but there are some who are atheistic or agnostic and still keep kosher — which is to say that they are making a symbolic act that means much more than just a choice in food, that means an identity that they do not wish to disappear.
The choices of the Jews in IV Maccabees do not exactly represent a claim that temporary ceremonial uncleanness from eating pork is literally a fate worse than death — a claim which is (at very least) hard to justify from the Torah. They rather recognized the literal act as the tip of the iceberg — and dug in, full force.
Young earth creationism is not what it appears to be on the surface, namely a mere benighted refusal to open in the light of science. If it is viewed in isolation, on simply scientific grounds — including the $1M gift to a young earth museum — it will necessarily appear more than a little looney, as is the choice of being tortured to death instead of eating a few bites of foreign food. But it’s not that at all. It is a symbolic act, one that is so thoroughly a part of these people that it would not occur to most of them to call it symbolic. They may have chosen the wrong literal point at which to dig in — I believe so, pending scientific support for a young earth besides records of bizarre ways to fool scientific dating techniques — and that is to their discredit. What I am much more hesitant to criticize them on is why they are digging in.
S.J. Gould paints a Pollyana-ish picture of the interaction between science and religion in his claim of non-overlapping magesterial areas — so that no scientific claim need have threatening implications for religion. To give a hint as to why this isn’t the case…
Suppose (for the sake of argument) that mathematics is required to hold as axiomatic that pi is equal to 22/7. It might be possible to pay lip service, claim pi to be 22/7 in certain circumstances, and otherwise get back to do serious mathematics. If that option were not taken, then the result would be a contradiction, from which anything would be provable (at least in certain fields of mathematics), from which point mathematics as we know it would be dead. Perhaps it might be possible to find some axiomatic revision of geometry that would produce a very different kind of mathematics in which there was something called a circle with a circumference:diameter ratio always equal to exactly 22:7. The point I’m getting at is that holding pi to be 22/7 might work for some not-seriously-mathematical purposes — you have to use some approximation for most numerical calculations — but the change would have far more disruptive implications for mathematics itself than might be obvious to someone looking in from the outside.
Darwinian evolution is not just a theory concerning the origins of life, in the sense of something that has little significant implication to other areas. William B. Provine, historian of science and evolutionary adherent, comments, “prominent evolutionists have joined with equally prominent theologians and religious leaders to sweep under the rug the incompatibilities of evolution and religion.” Darwinism is on some accounts the cutting edge of the sword wielded by naturalism, and when young earthers dig in over the ostensible issue of origins, they are digging in out of concern for much larger issues. I will not here argue the case that Darwinism bears the implications it is believed to, but I will say that when these people assert a young earth, they are standing not only against the claim of an old earth but against the naturalism that hides behind “We’re just teaching a well-established scientific theory.” and its implication of “This is a neutral claim whose truth does not threaten your beliefs at all.”
There was one point when I was talking with an astronomy professor at Wheaton, and he mentioned a student who had been threatened by the old universe perspective of the class (until he explained that students were not required to believe in an old universe, although the class would be taught from that perspective), and I suggested talking on the first day about the grounds on which Darwinian evolution may be challenged — so that the young earth/old earth question is not the fully symbolic question of divine creation versus mindless forces alone, but only the question of whether the universe is thousands or billions of years old. He liked my suggestion.
I have tried to give a sympathetic and respectful account of young earth creationists, not to persuade people that they are correct on the particular point they have chosen to dig in, but to suggest how something besides an insane aversion to listening to science might lie behind their choice. Having stated that, I would also like to state quite specifically that I disagree with their position, and regard it as unfortunate. For those wishing a further account (and something that provides a historical description instead of an analogy designed to convey a basic insight), I would reccommend Wheaton College Professor Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which traces the reactive movement you have encountered. For historical-cultural reasons Noll traces, Evangelicalism does not always share in the Christian tradition’s richer mental life, and among those who do not pursue the life of the mind, young-earth creationism seems a good way to assert God’s creation against teachings that life is the meaningless by-product of an uncaring universe. Among those Evangelicals and other Christians who do pursue the life of the mind, it is quite rare.
For this reason, I would request that, when I bring up what Kenyon, or Johnson, or Behe, has said, and ask what your justifications for dismissing it are, please don’t post a rebuttal to six-day, young earth creationism. A comparable response on my part, to back up a statement that evolution is flawed, would be to post an attack on [very passé] Lamarckian evolution and consider myself to have discredited “evolution”. A non sequitur of that magnitude, on my part, could possibly destroy any chances I had of being taken seriously. Perhaps I am alone in looking at the question this way, but I want to respect my fellow Megalist members in this discussion, and it is awfully hard for me to maintain that respect when I see posts like some of the traffic in the recent past.
Post Script, May 5, 2003: Since I posted this some time back, I have learned that leading members of the MegaList have become increasingly involved in the Intelligent Design movement.
I do not believe I can take more than incidental credit for this; I believe they are persuaded, not by my eloquence in a small number of posts, but because the evidence itself suggests things which aren’t well explained by a purely Darwinian account.
This and two other works were written when I was half-drunk with Elder Thaddeus’s Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives.
There is much that is true and Orthodox in that title, and there is something to its core point, but it is the most occultic book, with strange and awesome powers given to half-conscious thoughts, that I’ve seen yet. This post is retained for archival purposes but it is not particularly recommended as the author does not particularly recommend the book that furnished its inspiration.
An intriguing book… found in questionable quarters
I have found a watershed moment after a friend gave me a copy of Elder Thaddeus’s Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives. I don’t know that everybody will have a watershed moment; perhaps others will understand its central point much more naturally than I do. But I am very grateful to be given the book.
Before going further, and talking about “work-mysticism”, there are some hesitancies I would like to mention. And I really don’t know how to say this with due kindness and courtesy to fans of Fr. Seraphim (Rose), including one dearly loved member of my parish.
Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives bears the “warning label” of the St. Herman of Alaska brotherhood Fr. Seraphim started. Let me blandly state that I have associated Fr. Seraphim’s following with some harassment, and it has resonated with others when I’ve said Fr. Seraphim’s following “tastes like Kool-Aid.” Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, like other titles from that movement, is exotic to the Western reader, really too exotic, almost as if works were chosen on unconscious, tacit criteria that included appearing sufficiently exotic to a certain kind of Western convert, and bears the mark of a rebellion against the common things of the West, where a more Orthodox response would be to be alienated from Western things without expending the energy to constantly fight it. It is also characteristic, though not universal, to read texts associated with Fr. Seraphim and get the feeling of a magic spell falling over me: after praying and being comfortable with the decision I read the “Nine Enneads” of Christ the Eternal Tao, but not more; my conscience felt almost like an instruction to “take two stiff drinks and stop cold.”
One person who commented to me over email knew quite specifically that I was a member of ROCOR (quite probably the one Orthodox jurisdiction with the most nostalgia for nineteenth-century Russia), and tried to specifically make the point that nineteenth century Russia was no golden age. That much was not news to me; the priest who received me into the Church repeatedly emphasized, “There was never a golden age.” He didn’t mention nineteenth century Russia so much, but he talked about the Age of the Councils as being an Age when Ecumenical Councils were called because of how truly bad the problems and heresies were. But the other correspondent argued to me that nineteenth century Russia was a “Gnostic wonderland,” with something for every idle curiosity, and in his opinion the worst century in Orthodox history, and this is a problem for Fr. Seraphim because Fr. Seraphim got his bearings in Orthodoxy primarily from nineteenth century Russia.Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives tells of an elder who answered questions by speaking out of the Philokalia. I’ve read the Philokalia more than once, and the ascetical homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian, and the Bible many times more, and everything that is interesting about Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives is something I have never picked up even a little fromthe Bible, St. Isaac, and the Philokalia. Perhaps I haven’t read them enough, or grown enough, or something else enough, but I have not been able to pull a hint of Elder Thaddeus’s main points in any of the older classics mentioned.
Perhaps one place to begin is to challenge the simplified psychology of “I have my thoughts going on in my head and you have your thoughts going on in your head.” Someone who knows a bit of actual psychology may recognize something contagious about emotion, but let’s wave this aside: psychology is basically about your self-contained mind.
Not so, according to Elder Thaddeus and the Orthodox Tradition. What the West speaks of today as “the seven deadly sins” was originally known as “the eight demons,” demons who tempt us with particular temptations. A great deal of what we today classify as psychology has to do with the activity of demons intruding on our thoughts and experiences. Destructive thoughts may be something we make our own: but they are not our own, not from the beginning. They are stings where demons inject venom into our hearts. Now we do have a say in whether the injection succeeds: God help us if we had no defense or no say in the matter! The Philokalia works at length on the science of spiritual struggle and how “a stitch in time saves nine.” To quote the rather technical definition of “temptation” in the English glossary to the Philokalia:
Temptation (πειρασμος — peirasmos): also translated in our version as ‘trial’ or ‘test’. The word indicates, according to context: (i) a test or trial sent to man by God, so as to aid his progress on the spiritual way; (ii) a suggestion from the devil, enticing man to sin.
Using the word in sense (ii), the Greek Fathers employ a series of technical terms to describe the process of temptation. (See in particular Mark the Ascetic, On the Spiritual Law, 138-41, in vol. i of our translation, pp. 119-2-; John Klimakos, Ladder, Step 15, translated by Archimandrite Lazarus [op.cit., pp. 157-9; Maximos, On Love, i, 83-84, in vol. ii of our translation, pp. 62-63; John of Damaskos, On the Virtues and vices, also in vol. ii of out translation, pp. 337-8.) The basic distinction made by these fathers is between the demonic provocation and man’s assent: the first lies outside of man’s control, while for the second he is morally responsible. In detail, the chief terms employed are as follows:
(i) Provocation (προβολη — proslovi): the initial incitement to evil. Mark the Ascetic defines this as an ‘image-free stimulation in the heart’; so long as the provocation is not accompanied by images, it does not involve man in any guilt. Such provocations, originating as the devil, assail man from the outside, and so he is not morally responsible for them. His liability to these provocations is not a consequence of the fall: even in paradise, Mark maintains, Adam was assailed by the devil’s provocations. Man cannot prevent provocations from occurring; what does lie in his power, however, is to maintain constant watchfulness (q.v.) and so reject each provocation as soon as it emerges into his consciousness — that is to say, at its first appearance as a thought in his mind or intellect (μονολογιστος εμφασις — monologistos emphasis). If he does reject the provocation, the sequence is cut off and the process of temptation is terminated.
(ii) Momentary disturbance (παραρριπισμος — pararripismos) of the intellect, occurring ‘without any movement or working of bodily passion’ (see Mark, Letter to Nicholas the Solitary: in out translation, vol. i, p. 153). This seems to be more than the ‘first appearance’ of a provocation described in stage (i) above; for, at a certain point of spiritual growth in this life, it is possible to be totally released from such ‘momentary disturbance’, whereas no one can expect to be altogether free from demonic provocations.
(iii) Communion (ομιλια — homilia); coupling (συνδυασμος — syndyasmos). Without as yet entirely assenting to the demonic provocation, a man may begin to ‘entertain’ it, to converse or parley with it, turning it over in his mind pleasurably, yet still hesitating whether or not to act upon it. At this stage, which is indicated by the terms ‘communion’ or ‘coupling’, the provocation is no longer ‘image-free’ but has become a logismos or thought (q.v.) and man is morally responsible for having allowed this to happen.
(iv) Assent (συγκαταθεσις — synkatathesis). This signifies a step beyond mere ‘communion’ or ‘coupling’. No longer merely ‘playing’ with the evil suggestion, a man now resolves to act on it. There is now no doubt as to his moral culpability: even if circumstances prevent him from sinning outwardly, he is judged by God according to the intention in his heart.
(v) Prepossession (προληψις — prolipsis): defined by Mark as ‘the involuntary presence of former sins in the memory’. This state of ‘prepossession’ or prejudice results from repeated acts of sin which predispose a man to yield to particular temptations. In principle he retains his free choice and can reject demonic provocations; but in practice the force of habit makes it more and more difficult for him to resist.
(vi) Passion (q.v.). If a man does not fight strenuously against a prepossession, it will develop into an evil passion.
To put the same in nontechnical language, if there is a smouldering spark where it doesn’t belong, put it out as soon as you can. If you don’t, and its smouldering set an armchair on fire, drop everything and use use a fire extinguisher as soon as you can. If you let the fire spread to your whole house, call the fire department as soon as you can: there is a divine Fire Chief Who mightily rescued St. Mary of Egypt. However, the best portion by far is to be attentive and do whatever it takes to snuff out sparks when they’re still only sparks.
Mysticism that relates quite directly to work
“Save yourself, and ten thousand around you will be saved.”
“Make peace with yourself, and Heaven and earth will make peace with you.”
These words are tantalizing, and Elder Thaddeus’s contribution in Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives may be to offer a big picture of a world in which our thoughts matter, and not simply for us. A great deal of human misery stems from our needlessly warring against others in our thoughts.
Before digging further into workplace applications, I would orient things with a vignette of Elder Thaddeus’s biography:
In 1978 Fr. Thaddeus told G., one of his spiritual daughters, of another [rare] vision he had seen in a dream. “I had barely fallen asleep when I dreamt that I had died. Two young men led me into a room and had me stand on some sort of platform between them. To my right were the judges. Someone in the far left corner of the room was reading the charges against me. ‘That’s him! That’s the one who cannot get along with anyone!’ I stood there dumbfounded. The voice repeated the same accusation two more times. Then the young man standing on my right hand said to me, ‘Do not be afraid! It is not true that you cannot get along with anyone. You just cannot get along with yourself!'”
To take a work-related example of the basic issue, I remember feeling really sorry for a train conductor who said it made things easier to say that there was “one Monday, then three ‘Almost Fridays’, and then Friday.” My concern is not that this was a crutch; some crutches are legitimate and quite helpful. My concern was that this is not a crutch that makes work bearable at all; it is a crutch that makes work simply unbearable. It’s a crutch that makes you relate to work as something you have to barely endure.
Now some jobs are barely endurable, or simply unendurable. In areas of the third world, there are sweatshops where women are expected to work fifteen hour days, seven days a week, even if they are violently ill, and rape is used as a mainstream disciplinary measure. On a lesser scale, I’m not sure I’d do well as a customer service doormat constantly dealing with verbally abusive customers. And I know that various grades of harassment exist in the first world as well. But beyond that, how many jobs in the U.S. really are beyond all endurance? I’ve left one job, not when my boss was rude to me and humiliated me in front of all my colleagues, but because the work was other than as advertised in a way that was increasingly impacting my health (and other attempts had failed to produce results), and I think that I may have been justified, but there are still things I would rather have handled differently. But even if “people don’t stop working for companies; they stop working for bosses,” the number of times it’s the right thing to leave is rare compared to how quickly we do resign.
Let’s look at this on a bit deeper level. The issue is not that the situation does not need to improve; the work situation quite probably does need to improve. But not from the angle of what Alcoholics Anonymous calls “a geographical solution,” moving in the hope that your problems will go away. Elder Thaddeus wrote:
4.5. If in each family there were just one person who served God zealously, what harmony there would be in the world! I often remember the story of Sister J. She used to come and talk to me often while I was still at the Tumane Monastery. Once she came, together with an organized group of pilgrims, and complained, saying, “I can’t bear this any longer! People are so unkind to each other!” She went on to say that she was going to look for another job. I advised her against it, as there were few jobs and a high level of unemployment. I told her to stop the war she was fighting with her colleagues. “But I’m not fighting with anyone!” she said. I explained that, although she was not fighting physically, she was waging war with her colleagues in her thoughts by being dissatisfied with her position. She argued that it was beyond anyone’s endurance. “Of course it is,” I told her, “but you can’t do it yourself. You need God’s help. No one knows whether you are praying or not while you are at work. So, when they start offending you, do not return their offenses either with words or with negative thoughts. Try not to offend them even in your thoughts; pray to God that He may send them an angel of peace. Also ask that He not forget you. You will not be able to do this immediately, but if you always pray like that, you will see how things will change over time and how the people will change as well. In fact, you are going to change, too.” At that time I did not know whether she was going to heed my advice.
This happened in the Tumane Monastery in 1980. In 1981 I was sent to the Vitovnica Monastery. I was standing underneath the quince tree when I noticed a group of pilgrims that had arrived. She was in the group and she came up to me to receive a blessing. And this is what she said to me, “Oh, Father, I had no idea that people were so good!” I asked her whether she was referring to her colleagues at work and she said she was. “They have changed so much, Father, it’s unbelievable! No one offends me anymore, and I can see the change in myself, as well.” I asked her whether she was at peace with everyone, and she answered that there was one person with whom she could not make peace for a long time. Then, as she read the Gospels, she came to the part where the Lord commands us to love our enemies. Then she said to herself, “You are going to love this person whether you want to or not, because this is what the Lord commands us to do.” And now, you see, they are best friends!
There is, at least in the U.S, the issue of what is called “an instrumental view of labor.” That is to say, work is a necessary evil we do to get money, and there would be no reason to work if we didn’t need the money. And work has indeed been cursed and disfigured by the Fall, but not created in the curse of the Fall. And really the “thorns and thistles” affects all our work, not just agricultural workers. There is no job under the sun that is free of thorns and thistles. Some jobs may have a honeymoon period, but as with a real honeymoon, it stops at some point and lets the real work begin. Life may indeed be easier with the wisdom Elder Thaddeus puts forth, but Elder Thaddeus had a difficult life; one of the dimensions of holier living is that it is more of a crown of thorns the more closely you approach the Christ God Who wore a Crown of Thorns en route to his crucifixion.
Returning to an instrumental view of labor, it treats the here and now that we are often to work in as the sort of thing that one endures, a negative to obtain a positive. And that much is fundamentally mistaken. We are created to work. Certain classes of work, such as a broad stretch of volunteering, activism, developing open source software, and also artistic activities like writing, musicianship, provide additional outlet to work beyond one’s regular job. We really are made to work. An allergic reaction to the experience of (paid) work is part of the U.S. culture that need not be there, like finding waiting more than a few minutes to be unpleasant (there are cultures where people can wait an hour without being ruffled), and it is possible to enjoy working. And be at peace with oneself.
Be grateful.Count your blessings and be aware of how many blessings you have. Does your body work? That’s a blessing.I’ve studied several languages, and the more I’ve studied languages, the more I’ve become convinced that if you are knowing to know one word or phrase in your neighbor’s language, it should be “Thank you:” Spaseba—Russian; Terima kasih—Malaysian/Indonesian; Sheh-sheh—Chinese; Muy muchas gracias—Spanish. (See “Thank you” in many languages.)When I’ve said “Thank you” to people in their own heart language, they’ve been surprised and delighted at the gesture. No one seems to be offended at my pronunciation. Ever. If anything, clumsy execution only makes the endeavor more endearing.I’m not specifically suggesting that you learn languages, if that is not your thing. (For most people, it isn’t.) But please, pretty please, by all means, learn to be grateful, to say “Thank you” in letter and in spirit.
Cultivate a deep respect for others with whom you cross paths.What can be respected about a mean boss or a crotchety co-worker? They are made in the image of God, and they are part of the royal family of the human race. There is something made for eternal glory that God himself respects in each person you meet. This doesn’t mean it is always easy to respect others, but the holier a person is, the more he finds something to respect in each person he meets. Some people are wary of giving compliments that feed a person’s vanity, but even then there is a lot of respect that can be given without inflicting needless temptation.
Thirst for the cup of dishonor as if it were honor.This is a difficult step, and I one I have not mastered well. I want the most glorious assignment, or the most interesting, or whatever else would be most attractive to me, but I endure those that are menial. But it is a stroke of the masters to want the most menial work, and then perhaps be pleasantly surprised when some of their work is not menial.One health-oriented poster said, “Take the worst parking spot!” because it means a scant minute or two more walking. But it would be better, spiritually as well, to pick the least attractive parking spot. This point is made in the Gospel, Luke 14:7-11:
And he put forth a parable to those which were bidden, when he marked how they chose out the chief rooms; saying unto them, “When thou art bidden of any man to a wedding, sit not down in the highest room; lest a more honourable man than thou be bidden of him; And he that bade thee and him come and say to thee, ‘Give this man place;’ and thou begin with shame to take the lowest room. But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, ‘Friend, go up higher:’ then shalt thou have veneration in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee. For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”
Be obedient, in thought and action.As far as it is not sin, obey your boss, however wrong he may be, and offer him obedience on as many spiritual levels as you can.
Pray for your co-workers, especially the ones who are difficult.We should pray for everyone, but watchful prayer that quashes, as far as possible, the faintest thought of hostility is best.
As far as you can, go the extra mile and turn the other cheek.There is only so much we can do, but the Sermon on the Mount is clear on this point and gives it attention. Also relevant are the words of The Ladder of Divine Ascent: “[Humility] is to forestall one’s neighbor at a contentious moment and to be the first to end a quarrel.”
Let the other person have the upper hand, be “higher.”It seems entirely natural to establish the upper hand if one can, and so much of our conversation, even banter, has a thread of control. But if one can seek the lower room, you will be someone no-one struggles against.
Forgive seven billion times.In a Biblical culture where most people could not count to twenty without taking off any shoes, the strong rule was “Three strikes, you’re out!” St. Peter made a rather ludicrous question of the Savior: “Should I forgive seven times?” The Lord’s answer was even more ludicrous: “Not seven, but seven times seventy [or, more accurately, seventy-seven].” He might as well have said seven billion.We are to keep on forgiving.
Beware the “demon of noonday”.Today we speak of a “midafternoon slump” and perhaps “low blood sugar.” The ancient monastic tradition spoke of a demon that tempts us to escape and makes the early afternoon something tedious that makes the here and now something intolerable, to escape. It is fought by rejecting escape as far as we can and by praying through it, until we realize God’s Creation is not the sort of thing one rightly wants to escape from.
Be watchful of your thoughts, especially warring thoughts or negative thoughts.Different times have had different ideas of the worst sin; in caricature at least, Victorians were imagined to have made sexual sin the ultimate sin, while contemporary Protestantism usually gives that place to pride. In ancient times, apparently echoed by Elder Thaddeus, the worst sin was anger.One of the central themes that he keeps coming to is that we keep on holding warring thoughts, that if we would work on repenting and praying of, we would defuse a problematic situation, but we keep on holding onto our piece of the problem. Read Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives for all of the many things it says about the warring thoughts we are unaware of holding against our neighbors, including every boss and co-worker.
Blessed are the meek: Be meek!One repeated characteristic of martial artists is that those who are truly good tend to be the last person you would ever find in a fight, and the more likely to put up his hands and say, “You’re the tough guy!”I’m not specifically recommending martial arts, but if martial arts produce in its experts what the Tao Te Ching says as “A great warrior is not warlike,” what then is to be expected of the true brothers and true sisters of the Prince of Peace? Quite a lot, in fact.
Lastly, keep in touch with your priest or spiritual father, and do not engage in spiritual warfare above your strength.If following this advice would represent a basic change for you, then it is normally the sort of thing you should check in with your priest or spiritual father about. And there are some people you should, perhaps, leave alone, and there are some activities you should, perhaps, leave alone. Every spiritual father is different, but there have been a few specific situations where my spiritual father has advised me, appropriately under the circumstances as far as I can tell, not to try to mend fences. And if your priest or spiritual father does think this is helpful, you will have his blessing to boot!
Quotes and broader context
If I could fairly quote all of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives without threatening others’ income or running afoul of the law, I would. However, here are a few gems from the collection. I am limiting myself to the first chapter, “On Thoughts:”
1.1. Our life depends on the kind of thoughts we nurture. If out thoughts are peaceful, calm, meek, and kind, then that is what our life is like. If our attention is turned to the circumstances in which we live, we are drawn into a whirlpool of thoughts and can have neither peace nor tranquility.
1.7. A man who has within him the Kingdom of Heaven radiates holy thoughts, divine thoughts. The Kingdom of Heaven creates within us an atmosphere of Heaven, as opposed to the atmosphere of hell that is radiated by a person when hades abides in his heart. The role of Christians in this world is to filter the atmosphere on earth and expand the atmosphere of the Kingdom of God.
We can keep guard over the whole world by keeping guard over the atmosphere of heaven within us, for if we lose the Kingdom of Heaven, we will save neither ourselves nor others. He who has the Kingdom of God in himself will imperceptibly pass it on to others. People will be attracted by the peace and warmth in us, and the atmosphere of heaven will gradually pass on to them. It is not even necessary to speak to people about this. The atmosphere of Heaven will radiate from us even when we keep silence or talk about ordinary things. It will radiate from us even though we may not be aware of it.
1.16. An old woman came to me and told me that her neighbor was bothering her. She said the other woman was constantly throwing things so she was at her wits’ end. I asked her why she was always quarreling with her neighbor. But the old woman said she never even spoke to her evil neighbor. I insisted that she quarreled with her every day. I said to her, “You are convinced that she is doing evil things to you, and you are constantly thinking about her. Let her do whatever she is doing; you just turn your thoughts to prayer, and you will see that it will stop bothering you.”
1.19. Thoughts are planted in our minds all the time, from all sides and directions. Were it given us to see the radii of thoughts, we would see a real net of thoughts. Everyone has a “receiver” in his mind, one that is much more precise and sophisticated than a radio or television set. How wonderful is the mind of man! Unfortunately, we do not always appreciate this. We do not know how to unite ourselves with the Source of life and to feel joy…
It is my suggestion that Elder Thaddeus’s mystical theology in Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives has every relevance to the world at work. It has relevance to other places as well; in passages not quoted, the author speaks emphatically about family life and Chapter 1, “On Thoughts,” is followed up by Chapter 2, “On Family.” But it is no diminution of Elder Thaddeus to look at what his wisdom and legacy spell out for success at work. Perhaps Christians are not called to worldly success in the sense of abundant wealth; the Bible includes very wealthy business owners like St. Abraham and St. Job the Much-Suffering, and very poor prophets like St. Elias (Elijah) and St. John the Baptist and Forerunner. But I think of my Aunt Gail talking about a conversation she had with her son about his business, and praying that he would always have “enough.” And she was emphatic about “enough”: although she did not use the terms “wants” or “needs”, she was clearly praying that her son would enjoy the kind of success that was truly beneficial for him as a person. And usually that’s not “as much money as you want.” But it is “enough.”
And if this work-mysticism is not a door to abundant treasures on earth, at least not for all, it is a door to treasures in Heaven. It is an invitation to find treasure in difficulties as well as pleasant times, in conflict and dishonor as well as people who are easy to get along with, a door to living the life of Heaven starting here on earth. The joy is intertwined with suffering—but the joy is deeper than the suffering.
Three types of lies:
Lies, Statistics, and Infographics
To begin with, I would like to quote a portion of a poster, posted for government-required regulatory compliance at a once bastion of Christian conservatism, Wheaton College. My choice of this part of departure is not specifically focused on Wheaton, which was presumably not trying to be provocative, but to represent enough of a mainstream influence of feminism that I am not discussing a lunatic fringe of feminism, but something basic and (on feminist terms) not particularly controversial.
I apologize in advance for the poor quality of the picture as it was an attempt to take an accurate picture of a part of a poster that was roughly one to two feet above my head. I will reproduce the graphics as best I can, including the dark, dingy look of the coins (on the original you can see the scissors cuts where the pictures of the quarters had been cut out), but in clarity because I want to represent the poster fairly and not by the standards of my photography in a difficult shot. The poster says at the top, “In Illinois, a woman makes 71 cents for every dollar a man makes.” Then there is a picture of 71 cents in coins, “for her” at the top, and a picture of a dollar bill, “for him” below. The picture is as follows:
In the interests of fairness, I want to start with a crisp reproduction of what the Infographic said. It looked like:
And the natural response is outrage. But what if we tweak things a little and compare coins with coins? Then we have:
But the objection may come, “Um, that almost destroys the effect.” And my response is, “Yes. That is exactly the point.” And in this there are two visual lies exposed by this revamp:
Whatever a man gets, it looks like literally a dozen times what a woman gets. The sheer space taken for $.71 in coins (and, following usual practice, as few coins as you can use to reach that amount), is dwarfed by the visual space taken by a dollar bill. For that matter, the visual space taken by a man’s four quarters is dwarfed by the visual space taken by a dollar bill. This may only register subconsciously, but it is a powerful subconscious cue: the real, emotional impact is not that a woman earns 71 cents on the dollar for a man, but more like a miniscule 5 to 10 cents on the dollar. This cue, which may only register subconsciously (compared to the revised comparison of $.71 in coins and $1.00 in the largest common coin, the quarter), is only more powerful for its subconscious effect.
Secondly, the Infographic registers something else that only renders subconsciously. Compared to the currencies of other countries, especially before the slightly new look for larger bills, paper currency was big currency, and real money. If you walked into a store and paid for something cash, you paid with bills. Coins, while having some value, are often only something you get back as the smallest remaining money and have to figure out what to do with. Not only is spare change a small sort of thing compared to realmoney, it was honestly a bit of a nuisance. Now people usually pay with plastic or other non-cash items, and money is a bit tighter for most of us, so we may want the change more, but saying that she gets change and he gets real money is an apples and oranges comparison; the effect is like saying that he is paid in cold, hard cash, while she is paid only in coupons.
Now it is not simply the case that Inforgraphics can only ever lie; the works of Tufte such as Envisioning Information and The Visual Display of Quantative Information never stop at tearing apart bad Infographics; they compellingly demonstrate that the visual display of information can be at one stroke beautiful, powerful, and truthful. Something a little more informative, if perhaps imperfect, to convey a 71% statistic would be to simply show 71% of a dollar bill:
But it is a serious misunderstanding of feminism to think that a feminist will argue this way. Instead it is another case of:
The beating heart of feminism
I’m not sure how this plays out in feminism outside of feminist theology, but every feminist reader I’ve read has been in an extreme hurry to neutralize any sense that the Roman veneration of the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary. Now I have heard Orthodox comment that Roman and Orthodox veneration vary: Romans stress the Mother of God’s virginity, Orthodox stress her motherhood, and presumably there’s more. But one finds among feminist theologians the claim that since the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary was both a virgin and a mother, that means that you’re not really OK if you’re a woman unless you are both a virgin and a mother. And never mind that spiritually speaking it is ideal for Orthodox Christians, women and men to have a spiritual virginity, and to give birth to Christ God in others, the Roman veneration means a woman isn’t OK unless she is (literally) both a virgin and a mother. Fullstop. One gets the sense that feminists would sell a story that the Roman Catholic Church reviles the Virgin Mary, if people could be convinced of that.
A first glimpse of the good estate of women
I would like to make an interstitial comment here, namely that there is something feminism is suppressing. What feminists are in a hurry to neutralize is any sense that the veneration of the Mother of God could in any way be a surfacing of the good estate of women. What is it they want to stop you from seeing?
Let’s stop for a second and think about Nobel Prizes. There is presumably no Nobel Prize for web development, but this is not a slight: web development is much newer than Nobel Prizes and regardless of whether Alfred Nobel would have given a Nobel prize to web development if it wasn’t around, the Nobel Prize simply hasn’t commented on web development. There is a Nobel Prize for physics, and (the highest one of all), the Nobel Prize for Peace. When a Nobel Prize is given to a physicist, this is a statement that not only the laureate but the discipline of physics itself is praiseworthy: it is a slight that there is no Nobel Prize for mathematics (rumor has it that Alfred Nobel’s wife was having an affair with a mathematician). To award a Nobel Prize for physics is to say that physics is a praiseworthy kind of thing, and one person is singled out as a crystallization of an honor bestowed to the whole discipline of physics. And, if I may put it that way, the Mother of God won the Nobel Prize for womanhood.
The answer comes after a question: “Who heard the Word of God and kept it?” “Who pre-eminently heard the Word of God and kept it?” Of course many people have done so, but the unequalled answer to “Who pre-eminently heard the Word of God and kept it?” is only the Mother of God, She who said, “Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” The woman who spoke up at the crowd said, “Your mother must really be something because she bore you!”, and Christ implies, “My Mother is really something because she obeyed.” The Mother of God did not achieve the combination of virginity and motherhood; she obeyed God’s command, and in the wake of that obedience, motherhood was added to her virginity. But taking the Mother of God as a role model for women does not mean that women need to be both virgins and mothers, any more than Evangelicals who ask “What would Jesus do?” feel themselves obliged to learn Arimaic and move to Israel. I don’t want to downplay Mary’s virginity and motherhood, both of which are sacred offices, but it is a serious confusion—or rather a serious duplicity—to say that venerating the Mother of God means that women aren’t OK unless they pull off the combination of virginity and motherhood.
The Mother of God is She who obeyed, and obedience is for everyone, and highlighted for women. And while it may be easy enough for feminist theologians to excuse themselves from a fabricated straw obligation to be both virgins and mothers if they are to be OK as women, excusing oneself from obedience presents more of a pickle, and one that they don’t want you to see. Feminism doesn’t like obedience (especially of women to men); engineered, synthetic feminist “fairy tales” like Ella Enchanted make it clear that for a woman to be in a position of obedience is a curse: a clear and unmitigated curse.
The First Eve fell because she disobeyed; the Last or New Eve offered the perfect creaturely obedience and the gates of Hell began to crumble at her obedience. The Incarnation, the point has been plainly made, would have been absolutely impossible without the consent, obedience, and cooperation of the Mother of God as it would have been without the Holy Trinity. And only a woman could have first opened that door. The Theotokos is called the first Christian; she was the first of many to receive Christ, and men learn from her.
A look at early Antiochian versus Alexandrine Christology may also be instructive. In Antiochian Christology, Christ was significant pre-eminently because he was the Son of God, born of a Virgin, lived a sinless life, died as a sacrifice, and rose as the firstborn of the Dead. In Alexandrian Christology, Christ was significant as a teacher primarily. At least one theologian has said that St. Paul’s epistles don’t make much of Christ, because not a single one of his parables comes up in St. Paul’s writing. But this is a misunderstanding: St. Paul was in fact making a (proto-)Antiochian use of Christ, and the Christ who was the Son of God, died a sacrifice, and rose from the dead is of central significance to the entire body of his letters. Christ’s teaching recorded in the Gospels is invaluable, but we could be saved without it, and many people effectively have been saved without that teaching as believers who did not have the Gospel in their language. But we could not be saved by a Christ who lacked the Antiochian distinctives: who was not Son of God or did not rise from the dead, trampling down death by death. If I may describe them in what may be anachronous terms, early Antiochian Christology held Christ to be significant as an archetype, while early Alexandrian Christology held Christ to be significant as an individual. And the distinction between them is significant. You do not know the significance of Christ as the New Adam until you grasp him as an archetype and not a mere individual on a pedestal, and you do not know the significance of the Mother of God as the New Eve until you grasp her as an archetype and not a mere individual on a pedestal.
On a level that includes the archetypal, the Mother of God is mystically identified by such things as Paradise, the earth, the Church, the Container of Christ, and the city, and many other things such as a live lived of prayer that completes its head in time spent at Church. To be a man is a spiritual office, and to be a woman is a spiritual office. The Mother of God serves as a paradigm, not only of Christians, but of woman. And that is noble, glorious, and beautiful.
There are more things that are beautiful about God’s creation than are dreamed of in feminism—and more things than are dreamed of even in women.
I remember one Indian woman I spoke with in an online author’s community; she was taking stories from Indian lore and trying to make concrete retellings of them: moving from the archetypes to individuals on a pedestal. And what I told her is, basically, don’t. The archetypal stories were something I could well enough relate to; the archetypal (Indian) loving elder in the story had the same pulse and the same heart as loving elders I knew as a small (U.S.) child. The archetypal level is universal. Now what happens in the concrete is important, profoundly important, but you miss something if you cut out its archetypal head and heart and then try to talk with the body that is left over. And there is real rapprochement between men and women: Christ the New Adam and Mary the New Eve enjoyed indescribable intimacy, an interpenetration or perichoresis where she gave him his humanity and he gave her her participation in his divinity. The Mother of God’s perpetual virginity stems from this; after such a perichoresis with God incarnate, a merely earthly husband’s physical union was impossible. I have heard a complementarian Roman Catholic theology suggest that the word homoousios to describe the relationship between men and women: homoousios being the word of the Creed used to affirm that the Son is not an inferior, creaturely copy of the Father but of the same essence, fully of the same essence. The statement may be an exaggeration; if so, it was forcefully stating something true. I have attempted postmodern thick description of differences between men and women; I was wrong, not in believing that there are real differences, but in assuming a postmodern style of thick description in rendering those differences. St. Maximus the Confessor is described as describing five mediations in which any gulf is transcended: that between male and female, that between Paradise and the inhabited world, that between Heaven and Earth, that between spiritual and visible Creation, and ultimately that between uncreated and created nature, the chasm between God and his Creation. All of these chasms are real; all are transcended in Christ, in whom there is no male nor female, paradise nor merely earthly city, Heaven nor mere earth, spiritual nor merely physical, Creator nor mere creature. All these distinctions are transcended in a Christ who makes us to become by grace what He is by nature.
The beating heart throbbing head of feminism
I have mentioned two points of feminism: first, an infographic that was mainstream enough to be proclaimed as part of a regulatory compliance poster; and second, the neutered veneration of the Mother of God that is not allowed to mean anything positive for the estate of women. However, these are not intended as the core of a critique of feminism; in part they are intended as clues. Feminism gives a clue about its beating heart throbbing head in an unsavory infographic, and in its haste to neutralize any sense that the veneration of the Mother of God could be any good signal for women (or the ordinary kind—those who are not both virgins and mothers). Another author might have substituted other examples, and I must confess a degree of instance in that I keep bumping into feminism and I have tried to understand it, but there are depths unknown to most feminists and I would be wary of claiming exhaustive knowledge that I do not claim for cultures I have lived in for months or years. But I still observe, or have acknowledged, one major point.
One text, Women’s Reality: An Emerging Female System in a White Male Society by Annd Schaef, admittedly considered dated by many feminists today, mentioned that the author mentioned that many men say that women understand them better than men. And this puzzled her, because on the surface at least, it looked quite frankly like a compliment paid, by men, to women. But then she put on her feminist X-ray goggles, observed that the beginning of ‘understand’ is ‘under’, and juridically decided that to “understand” is by nature to stand under, that is, to be an inferior. And so she managed to wrest a blatant affront from the jaws of an apparent (substantial) compliment.
There was a counselor at my church who was trying to prepare me for my studies in a liberal theology program, and he told me that there was something I would find very hard to understand in feminism. Now I found this strange as I had already lived in, and adapted to, life in four countries on three continents. And he was right. What I would not easily understand is subjectivism, something at the beating heart, or throbbing head, of feminism. And what is called subjectivism looking at one end is pride recognized by the others, and pride is a topic about which Orthodoxy has everything to say. Pride is the heart, and subjecivism the head, of what Orthodoxy regards as one of the deadliest spiritual poisons around.
It is said that the gates of Hell are bolted and barred from the inside. It is only an image, but some say that the fire of Hell is the Light of Heaven as it is experienced through its rejection. And Heaven and Hell are spiritual realities that we begin to experience now; and feminism is, if anything, bolted and barred from the inside. To pick another example, with the influential You Just Don’t Understand by Deborah Tannen, the metamessage that is read into men holding doors for women was, “It is mine to give you this privilege, and it is mine to take away.” And on that point I would comment: I won’t judge this conversation by today’s etiquette, in which more often than not people are expected to hold the door for other people; I will comment on the older etiquette that met feminist critique. And on that point I must ask whether any other point in the entire etiquette, much of which was gender-neutral then, received such interpretation? Did saying, “Please,” or “Thank you,” or “I’m sorry,” ever carry a power play of “I extend this privilege to you and it is mine to take away?” More to the point, do body image feminists wish to find a sexist power play in the saying, “There are three things you do not ask a woman: her age, her weight, or her dress size.”? Or Was it not just part of a standard etiquette that no one claimed to be able to take away?
But even this is missing something, and I do not mean “men who are fair and women who care.” The unfairness is significant, not for being unfair in itself, but because it is the trail of clues left by something that breaches care. And to try to address this issue by reasoning is a losing battle, not because logic is somehow more open to men than women, but because you cannot reason subjectivism into truth any more than you can reason an alcoholic to stop drinking, fullstop. Now one may be able to make the case to a third party that it would better for a particular alcoholic to stop drinking, or that a particular feminist argument played fast and loose with the rules of logic, but it is madness to bring this to feminism. What is unfair in feminism is most directly speaking a breach of one of the lowest basic virtues of the Christian walk, namely justice, and caring is at essence about the highest of virtues in the Christian walk, namely αγαπη or love, but this is not what’s wrong. Dishonest arguments in feminism are a set of footprints left by pride or subjectivism, and it is by pride that Satan fell from being an angel in Heaven to being the Devil. It is also through pride, here known under the label of “consciousness raising”, that just as Michael Polanyi has been summarized as saying that behaviorists do not teach, “There is no soul,” but induce students into study in such a way that the possibility of a soul is never considered, feminists put on subjectivist X-ray goggles that let them see oppression of women in every nook and cranny, even in social politeness. And if you read Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, which has its merits even if they are limited, it is well worth studying what he says about bullies. Bullies do not see themselves as triumphant, or for that matter as oppressors, but as beleaguered victims. Everything has significance, and everything hashostile significance. Why did someone bump a bully in the hallway? The possibility that it was a crowded hall and growing children can be just a little bit clumsy with the current state of their bodies, is never even considered. An innocent bump in the hall is the tip of an assault, the tip of an iceberg in which a piece is moved in chess to achieve their defeat. And the bully’s actions are only a modest self-defense. The bully has X-ray goggles that make everything plain, and the bully’s state of mind is what is built up by the X-ray goggles of “consciousness raising.”
“Consciousness raising” is a brilliant euphemism for taking women who are in many cases happy and well-adjusted and transforming them into alienated, hostile women who believe that everything outside of feminism has it in for them.
Unpeeling the infographic a little further
In my discussion above, I left unchallenged the figure that women make $0.71 on the dollar compared to what men make. How can I put this? Subjectivists do not go out of their way to use statistics honestly. Subjectivists go for the most convenient cherry-picked data they could. As others have said, they use statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts: for support rather than illumination.
Christina Sommer’s Who Stole Feminism: How Women Have Betrayed Women suggests that that book does not follow the ceteris parabis principle of comparing with all other things being equal. Motherhood is hard to grind out of women, and spending significant time with her young children is hard to grind out of most women. The “71 cents on the dollar” figure keeps cropping up; in one discussion I remember it was repeatedly claimed that women made 69 cents on the dollar until one person said “Please either substantiate this statistic or stop bringing it up. The comparison in that study compared men who had a single, so to speak, major time commitment to their work, to women who were working hard to juggle a major time commitment to work with a major time commit to their younger children. When things were genuinely ceteris paribus, when men were only compared to women who had worked without reduced employment to care for children, then the figure was more like 86-91 cents on the dollar.
Is 86+ cents on the dollar in 1987 and a closing gap acceptable?
There was a short story that a roommate read to me in high school; it offended me and I was I was horrified. It showed a hiring manager saying, “Insipid. Pathetic. Disgusting. Miserable.” as he threw one more resume into the trash. Then a doorkeeper said, “Your 3:00 is here.” The manager said, “You’ve got some balls applying for a position like this. Why are you wasting my time?” The applicant said, “I have wanted to work with this company all my life. I want this position; I have friends, family, and a religion, but all of them are secondary; I will miss the birth of a child if that is what it takes to work.” The manager said, “Get out. Are you going to go by yourself or will I have to call to have security escort you off the premises?”
In a flash, the applicant leveled a .45 magnum at him and said, “I want this job. Now will you hire me or do I have to blow you away?” The hiring manager said, “Very well. Report to my desk at 8:00 AM Monday.” After the applicant left the room, the manager pulled the intercom and told the doorkeeper, “Tell all of the other applicants to f___ off. We have our man.”
This story horrified me a great deal more than an F-bomb alone, and it was part of an attempt on his part to convince me that no one ever does any action for any motive besides financial gain. (In the past I’ve had several people try to convince me of the truth of this point. In no case did any of these people stand to benefit financially from their efforts to persuade me. But I digress.) However, my roommate was trying to help me appreciate something about the business world that this caricature caught right on target.
Women in the business world have been advised to make a practice of asking, “What’s in it for me?” And for that matter, compassionate men may be advised to make a practice of asking, “What’s in it for me?” and play by the rules of a jungle because compassionate men do not do the best at succeeding in the business world. Now must you ask, “What’s in it for me?”
The answer is a simple “No, it’s optional,” but there’s a caveat. If you do not negotiate based on “What’s in it for me?”, you are less likely, man or woman, to receive more paycheck, prestige, power, and promotion. In the short story it did not strictly speaking need to be a man who negotiated with a gun in a job interview. But it is more often a man and not a woman who is mercenary to that degree. I myself do not naturally gravitate towards that thinking even if I’ve been advised to, and my salary history is an IT salary history, which is something to be thankful for, but it has been below average for many of the areas I’ve been working in, and whatever gifts I may have are applied on the job without necessarily receiving even average pay.
Let us ignore for one moment the Times cover story about “The Richer $ex,” meaning women. Is it possible that the following could be justified?
For him, ceteris paribus
For her, ceteris paribus
Could there be possibly more important questions for women than the question that began and ends this article?
The war against real women
In the Catholic social encyclicals, the modern ones since Rerum Novarum, the tone prior to Pope John Paul was celebratory, or sometimes complaining that the encyclicals were not progressive enough. But one thread out of this many-patched quilt is the call (added or amplified) for a “living wage”. That wage was something like $15 or $20 per hour, but not really set in stone. And there is a legitimate concern: perhaps not as dramatic as the situation in sweatshops, but being a greeter in Wal-Mart may be a great way for a kid to earn some change, but eking out a living on what Wal-Mart pays most employees in its stores is not really possible. Now there may also be a point in that the position labeled as progressive would result, not in a great many people earning $15-$20 an hour, but a great many people earning $0 an hour because businesses that can only keep employees paid a living wage have a short lifespan. (But let’s brush this under a rug.)
The consistent call was for work to pay a living wage, with one notable exception. Pope John Paul II called for a man to be able to earn a “family wage”, meaning not a living wage for an individual but some sort of support that would be sufficient for a family to live off of. And this was universally derided by feminist commentators, and not because John Paul II failed to also specify that women should be able to earn a family wage.
I’m not sure if you’ve heard, either in the context of artificial intelligence-related transhumanism or of planned exploration of Mars, the term ‘Melanesian’. The term may be racially charged, but I’m going to ignore that completely. The thought is vile on grounds that make it completely irrelevant whether the people being derided belong to one’s race or another. The basic idea of being ‘Melanesian’ is that for ages untold people have hunted, built, crafted things with their hands, told stories and sung songs, made love and raised children, and all of this is innocent enough in its place, but now we are upon the cusp of growing up, and we must leave ‘Melanesian’ things behind. The John 3:16 of the Mars Society is “Earth is the cradle of humankind, but one does not remain in a cradle forever.” We must grow up and leave ‘Melanesian’ things behind. Now the exact character of this growing up varies significantly, but in both cases the call to maturity is a call to forsake life as we know it and use technology to do something unprecedented. In the case of transhumanism, the idea is to use human life as a discardable booster rocket that will help us move to a world of artificially intellingent computers and robots where mere humans will be rendered obsolete. In the case of the Mars Society, it is to branch out and colonize other planets and the furthest reaches of space that we can colonize, and in the “Martian” (as Mars Society members optatively call themselves) mind heart, this mission, and the question of whether we are “a spacefaring race”, bears all the freight one finds in fully religious salvation.
All this is scaled back in the feminists who comment on Pope John Paul II’s call for a family wage, but there is something there that is not nearly so far on a lunatic fringe as transhumanism or the Mars Society, but much more live as a threat as it would be a brave soul who would call this a lunatic fringe. The feminist critique of Pope John Paul II’s call for a family wage is that it is unacceptable, and men should earn low enough amounts of money that it takes both parents’ work to support them. Women are to be made to “grow up”, and however much it may be untenable to deny a woman’s right to attend university or a woman’s work to do any job traditionally done by men, it is absolutely out of the question to allow a woman’s right to do a job traditionally done by women. They are to be pushed out of the nest and made to grow up. They are to be compelled by the economics of a situation where a husband cannot earn a family wage to work like a man.
The argument has been advanced that women are “The Richer $ex.” The question has been raised about whether men have become “the second sex”, as was the title of a classic of French feminism. A book could easily be pulled on The War Against Boys, and discussion could be made of how school and the academy are a girl’s game—and one Wheaton administrator described how some of the hardest calls he has to make is to explain to one parent why her daughter, with a perfect record of straight A’s, was rejected by Wheaton—and explain that Wheaton has four hundred others like her; Wheaton, which has a 45% male student body, could admit only female applicant with straight A’s and still be turning people away.
But the argument discussed just above is something of a side point. To put it plainly, feminism is anti-woman. Perhaps ire against men is easily enough found; Mary Daly, now unfashionable, makes a big deal of “castration” and defines almost every arrangement of society not ordained by feminism as “rape.” (This would include most of all societies in all of history that we have recorded.) And if Mary Daly is now unfashionable, she is unfashionable to people who follow in her wake and might be voiceless today if she had not gone before them. And Mary Daly at least may well wear a reform program for men on their sleeve. But others who have followed her, and perhaps used less brusque rhetoric, wear a reform program for women next to their hearts.
I would like to pause for a moment to unpack just what it may mean to elevate anger to the status of a central discipline. And gender feminism, at least, does make an enterprise fueled by anger.
Every sin and passion in the Orthodox sense is both a miniature Hell, and a seed that will grow into Hell if it is unchecked. Different ages have different ideas of what is the worst sin. Victorians, at least in caricature, are thought to have made sexual sin the worst sin. In the New Testament, sexual sin is easily forgiven, but in an age where men have Internet porn at their fingertips, it would be helpful to remember that lust is the disenchantment of the entire universe: first nothing else is interesting, and then not even lust is interesting: there is misery. Getting drunk once might feel good, but the recovering alcoholic will tell you that being in thrall to alcohol and drunk all of the time is suffering you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Many people today think pride, the sin that cast an angel out of Heaven to be the Devil, is the worst sin and all of us have a stench to clean up here. And to the Church Fathers, to whom love was paramount, anger was perhaps the greatest danger. Today we say that holding a grudge is like drinking poison and hoping it will hurt the other person, or that ‘anger’ is one letter from ‘danger’. The Fathers said, among other things, that it makes us more like the animals, and by implication less like what is noble and beautiful in the race of mankind. And it is one thing to lose one’s temper and find that dealing that with one particular person tries your patience. It is another thing entirely to walk a spiritual path that is fueled by the passion of anger. And this feminist choice is wrong. It is toxic, and we should have nothing to do with it.
Writers of both contemporary history and science texts, especially for the primary and secondary grades, make special efforts to provide “role models” for girls. Precollege texts now have an abundance of pictures; these now typically show women working in factories or looking through microscopes. A “sterotypical” picture of a woman with a baby is a frowned-upon rarity…
In an extensive study of the new textbooks written under feminist guidelines, New York University psychologist Paul Vitz could find no positive portrayal of romance, marriage or motherhood.
Although this is not directly a remark about feminism, something of my joy in A Wind in the Door was lost when I learned that Madeleine l’Engle viewed kything, the main supernatural element in the book, regarded it as literal fact. The idea that a reader is supposed to entertain a willing suspension of disbelief is not disturbed, but she meant, literally, that ordinary people should be able to send things directly, mind to mind. And what I took to be a beautiful metaphor (perhaps today I would say it needs to transcended in the noetic realm), made for an ugly literal claim. And the same thing happened when I read Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men, which is presented as a novel of Discworld. It is not set in Ankh-Morporkh, nor does any standard Discworld character or setting make more than one or two combined cameo appearances. So it is duplicitously called a novel of Discworld. And it is in fact not really centered on the Wee Free Men, who certainly make nice ornaments to the plot but never touch the story’s beating heart. The story is Wiccan and advertises witchcraft; like Mary Daly, who gives a duplicitous acknowledgement of Christ’s place (I parsed it and told the class point-blank, “I am more divine than her Christ”), argues for Wicca and witchcraft, tells how one may become a witch, and in her ‘Original Reintroduction’ written some decades after writes with a poetic and highly noetic character which drips with unnatural vice as much as Orthodox Liturgy drips with glory and Life. It was in reading The Wee Free Men that I first grasped why the Fathers called witchcraft unnatural vice. Never mind that witches deal in plants, and probably know a great more many details than the rest of us. There is a distinction like that of someone who studies available books on anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry, perhaps learning more than those in the medical profession, but to be an assassin (“If a sword blow hits the outside of the arm about a third of the way from the elbow to the shoulder, you can sever an artery and cause substantial bleeding.”). The analogy is not exact; I believe it misses things. But the entire Wiccan use of plants constitutes unnatural vice.
And in the shadow of those following Mary Daly, there is never a reform program for men that leaves women untouched. Maybe the reforms for men may be more clear; but good old-fashioned chauvinist men are almost a distraction compared to women who resist feminist improvement.
Women desire quite often simply motherhood. The very strength of the desire for romance, marriage, and motherhood in the face of gargantuation opposition says that what feminism is trying to free women from is an estate of happiness that women have yearned for from time immemorial. If it is prescribed hard enough that women will enter the workforce and work at some job wanted by men, she very well may do that—in addition to wanting children. Wendy Shalit in A Return to Modesty:
“Just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you can’t be a doctor or a lawyer.” Girls of my generation grew up on this expression. “Just because you’re a woman.” It was a motto like motner’s milk to us, and now it is the philosophy behind Take Our Daughters to Work Day. “Just because you’re a woman.” In other words, being a woman is a kind of handicap that with hard work, one can overcome. Some are born deformed; others are born women; but be brave. I’m sure you’ll make the best of it.
Yet now that we are free to be anything, doctors and lawyers, now that we’ve seen that women can be rational, and that men can cry, what we most want to know, and what we are not permitted to ask, is what does it mean to be a woman in the first place? Not in terms of what it won’t prevent us from doing—we are not unaware of our bountiful options—but what is meaningful about being a woman? Rosie the Riveter was riveting only because she didn’t usually rivet, and now that so many Rosies do, we most long to know what makes us unique again.
Two different women said to me, nervously, before graduation, What’s wrong with me? I want to have children. One had landed a job with an investment banking firm; the other was supposed to land a job with an investment banking firm because that’s what her father wanted, but the scouts who came to campus complained she wasn’t aggressive enough. What’s wrong with me? I want to have children… [emphasis original]
I think of a friend from college who was a powerful athlete, and for that matter was into boxing, and after college wanted to… settle down and be mother to a family, and a large one at that.
There is the Calvin and Hobbes strip where Hobbes says, “You can take the tiger out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the tiger.” And what it seems is that women can be pushed to be androgynous or like men in so many ways, and yet you still can’t take the jungle out of the tiger.
And perhaps women’s happiness is found in cutting with the grain of motherhood than against it.
And perhaps in place of a spiritual discipline of anger that puts on feminist X-ray goggles and finds oppression and insult lurking around every corner and in the most innocent of acts, women might place such spiritual disciplines as thanksgiving.
The darker the situation, the more we need thanksgiving. In the last major ordeal I went through, what saved me from despair was counting my blessings, and being mindful and thankful for innumerable things and people, and telling other people how thankful I was for them. I don’t know how else I could have had such joy at such a dark moment.
The properly traditional place for women is not exactly for men to be at work and women to be at home without adult company; the traditional placement for both men and women was to work in adult company, doing different work perhaps but doing hard work in adult company. Feminists have a point that the 1950’s ideal of a woman alone without adult company all the worklong day can induce depression, and cutting with the grain of motherhood does not automatically mean reproducing the 50’s. The perfect placement is for men to be with other men doing the work of men and women to be with women doing the work of women, and that is denied to men as well as women. The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies Are Harming Young Men attests that school has become girls’ turf. My own experiences in schooling were that in almost all areas that truly interested me, I was self-taught. Working first in math, then in theology, there was something more than the naive outsider’s question to academic theology: “Yes, I understand that we need to learn multiple languages, the history of theology, philosophy of religion, hermeneutics, and so on, but when are we going to study real theology?” This question is not in particular a man’s question; it could just as plausibly have been spoken by a young woman. But work and school both place its members as neuters; there may be some places of schooling that may be 80% male (I’ve been there), and there may be places of schooling that may be 80% female (I’ve been there), but the traditional roles for men and women are not optional; they are taken off the table altogether, leaving those who would have traditional roles holding the short straw.
But to say that and stop is misleading. I remember when I asked an Orthodox literature professor for his advice on a novella I was working that was a fantasy world based on the patristic Greek East instead of the medieval Latin West, and his advice, were I wise enough to listen to it (I wasn’t), was simply, “If Orthodoxy is not to work for the here and now, it simply isn’t worth very much.” And Orthodoxy has fashioned men and women who have thrived under pagan antiquity, under Constantine, under the devious oppression of Julian the Apostate, under the fairy-like wonderland of nineteenth century Russia, under the Bolshevik Revolution, under centuries in the Byzantine Empire, under Muslim rule after Byzantium shrunk and finally modern era guns ended the walls erected by a Byzantine Emperor ages before, in France by those fleeing persecution, in America under parallel jurisdictions. In every age and at every time the Orthodox Church has found saints who chanted, as the hymn in preparation for Communion states, “Thou, who art every hour and in every place worshipped and glorified…” And if you think our world is too tangled to let God work his work, there is something big, or rather Someone Big, who is missing from your picture. God harvested alike St. Zosima and St. Mary of Egypt. And it is not just true that God has fashioned and has continued to fashion real men in the intensely masculine atmosphere of a monastery of men; calling men’s monasteries simply schools that make men is to focus on a minor key. Helping men be men, and channeling machismo into povdig or ascetical feats, is a matter of seeking the Kingdom of God and having other things be added as well. I have heard of one man be straightened out on Mount Athos from his addiction to pornography and then depart and be married; that may not be the usual path on Mount Athos, but the strong medicine offered on Mount Athos is sufficient to address the biggest attack on manhood this world offers, and it is a place of salvation.
What prescription would I suggest for women? To get a part-time job while children are at school? To homeschool, and have some team teaching? To just stay at home? All of these and more are possibilities, but the most crucial suggestion is this:
The Greek word hubris refers to pride that inescapably blinds, the pride that goes before a fall. And subjectivism is tied to pride. Subjectivism is trying, in any of many ways, to make yourself happy by being in your own reality instead of learning happiness in the God-given reality that you’re in. Being in subjectivism is a start on being in Hell. Hell may not be what you think. Hell is light as it is experienced by people who would rather be in darkness. Hell is abundant health as experienced by people who would choose disease. Hell is freedom as experienced by those who will not stop clinging to spiritual chains. Hell is ten thousand other things: more pointedly, Hell is other people, as experienced by an existentialist. This Hell is Heaven as experienced through subjectivist narcissism, experiencing God’s glory and wishing for glory on your own power. The gates of Hell are bolted and barred from the inside. God is love; he cannot but ultimately give Heaven to his creatures, but we can, if we wish, choose to experience Heaven as Hell. The beginning of Heaven is this life, but we can, if we wish, be subjectivists and wish for something else and experience what God has given us as the start of Hell.
Step out of Hell, pray, and accept what God gives you.
If you’re reading this text, there’s a good chance that you are already halfway to being an anthropologist. Note: for the purposes of this chapter, ‘anthropology’ is used to refer to cultural anthropology. Other anthropological disciplines exist, but it is cultural anthropology and its techniques which are most directly relevant here.
How could an author know that you are probably at least half an anthropologist? Let’s turn the question around, and suppose you are a Python hacker. Why are you reading this article? Visual Basic .NET has enormous marketing muscle behind it, possibly eclipsing the marketing budgets for all open source technologies put together. Guido van Rossum holds a dim view of marketing, as does much of the Python community. Monster.com lists three thousand Visual Basic positions, almost five thousand .NET positions, but only one thousand Python positions. Why are you reading a “usability for hackers” article when you could be reading a title like Completely Master Visual Basic in Thirty Seconds or Less?
Not that any of these is necessary to be a hacker, but together these common trends point to a personality profile that can learn the anthropological style of observation relevant to usability work much more easily than the general public, or even Joe Professional Programmer who regards learning new technologies as a necessary evil rather than a joy, works in Visual Basic .NET after being swayed by advertising, goes home and watches TV after work, has probably never heard of ThinkGeek, and would probably rather do gift shopping at Walmart even if he does know of ThinkGeek.
All of this is to say that the culture surrounding you is not like water to a fish. It is a basic fact of life that you don’t automatically share the perspective of others. Cross-cultural experience or ethnic minority status may accentuate this, but this is true even if you’re not (regarded as) a minority. And this kind of experience provides a very good foundation for anthropological ways of understanding exactly how you are not a user and users don’t think like you.
Anthropological usability techniques
An introductory example: Card sorting
One basic challenge for organizing a site’s information architecture is the taxonomy, or way of breaking things down. If one is asked what an example of a good taxonomy, one example of a taxonomy par excellence is the biological taxonomy that organizes all the way from kingdoms down to species or subspecies and varieties. And indeed that is one kind of taxonomy, but it is not the only possibility. If one is asked to break down a list of a fork, spoon, plate, bowl, soup, and macaroni and cheese, one obvious way is to put the fork and spoon together as cutlery, the plate and bowl together as dishware, and the soup and macaroni and cheese together as food. But this is not the only basic way, and it can make sense to put the fork, plate, and macaroni and cheese together as representing one complete option, and the spoon, bowl, and soup together as representing another basic option. Stores and websites that have adopted the latter approach, such as a gardening store or website that organizes its products according to the type of garden a customer is trying to make and what the customer is trying to do, see a significant increase in sales. Even biology could use other complementary technologies: a taxonomy that classified organisms according to both ecosystems and their roles within their ecosystems and ecological subsystems could say something very valuable that the eighteenth century classification wouldn’t.
In terms of websites, an information architecture that corresponds to the organization’s org chart is never a helpful choice. Even when we are talking about an intranet intended only for organizational insiders, one section or subsite for each department is not the right choice: one better option would be to support workflow and design around the tasks that employees will be doing with the intranet.
What is the best information architecture? That’s not a question to answer by looking something in a book or even thinking it out; it is something that we should work out based on what we observe doing research, even if we also read and need to do a bit of thinking. And this is the best practice across the board for usability.
One valuable exercise to help guide information architecture design is called card sorting. In this exercise, we get a stack of index cards, perhaps 3×5″, and write the individual names of different pieces of functionality the website should offer, trying to name things neutrally so that the names do not have common terms suggesting how certain parts belong together. Then we shuffle and lay out the cards, and individually ask subjects (people who will participate in an experiment and who are not insiders, whether employees of your organization for an external website, or information technology professionals) to organize them so that cards that belong together are put in the same stack.
Then we note which cards have been placed together, thank the subject, and move on to the next person.
On looking through the notes, we may see a few things. First, not all people think the same. We will likely see some breakdowns that are very similar, but there will likely be two or more breakdowns as fundamentally divergent as our breakdowns of the fork, spoon, plate, bowl, soup, and macaroni and cheese. Second, there will probably be a breakdown that simply catches us off guard. And this is good; it means the exercise is working.
After doing this, we can go about looking for a preferably standard information architecture that will gracefully serve the major ways we observed of breaking things down.
Focus groups: Cargo cult research for usability
With an eye to how to best approach observation, we would like to take a moment to talk about Coca-Cola’s blunder with “New Coke” and explain why focus groups, bringing in a group of people and asking them what they want, are deprecated as a recipe to make products that look good on paper but don’t wear well in normal use. For those of you who don’t remember the uproar some years back, the Coca-Cola company announced that it was switching to a new and improved formula, and there was massive public outlash from people who wanted the old Coke back. (Now the company sells both the old formula as Coke Classic and the new formula as Coke II, and Coke Classic is vastly more popular.)
Why would the Coca-Cola company announce it was terminating its cash cow? The answer is that it did naïve marketing research, ran taste tests, and asked members of the public which they would choose: the formula today sold as Coke Classic, or the formula today sold as Coke II. The rather clear answer from the taste tests was that people said they would rather have the new formula, and it was a clear enough answer that it looked like a sensible course of action to simply drop the second-best formula. It wasn’t until everybody could see that the Coca-Cola company had given itself a PR black eye that the company woke up to a baseline observation in anthropology: the horse’s mouth is a vastly overrated source of information. Most anthropological observation, including the kinds relevant to usability, are about paying close attention to what people do, and not be too distracted by their good faith efforts to explain things that are very hard to get right.
Anthropological observation: The bedrock of usability
There is more than one way to see the same situation
The kind of observation needed is probably closest to the anthropological technique of participant observation, except that instead of participating in using software or a website, we are observing others as they use software. Half the goal is to understand how the same thing can be observed differently. To quote from James Spradley’s Participant Observation, which is an excellent resource:
One afternoon in 1973 I came across the following news item in the Minneapolis Tribune:
Nov. 23, 1973. Hartford, Connecticut. Three policemen giving a heart massage and oxygen to a heart attack victim Friday were attacked by a crowd of 75 to 100 people who apparently did not realize what the policemen were doing. Other policemen fended off the crowd of mostly Spanish-speaking residents until an ambulance arrived. Police said they tried to explain to the crowd what they were doing, but the crowd apparently thought they were beating the woman.
Despite the policemen’s efforts the victim, Evangelica Echevacria, 59, died.
Here we see people using their culture. Members of two different groups observed the same event but their interpretations were drastically different. The crowd used their cultural knowledge (a) to interpret the behavior of the policemen as cruel and (b) to act on the woman’s behalf to put a stop to what they perceived as brutality. They had acquired the cultural principles for acting and interpreting things this way through a particular shared experience.
The policemen, on the other hand, used their cultural knowledge (a) to interpret the woman’s condition as heart failure and their own behavior as life-saving effort and (b) to give her cardiac massage and oxygen. They used artifacts like an oxygen mask and ambulance. Furthermore, they interpreted the actions of the crowd in an entirely different manner from how the crowd saw their own behavior. The two groups of people each had elaborate cultural rules for interpreting their experience and for acting in emergency situations, and the conflict arose, at least in part, because these cultural rules were so different.
Before making my main point, I would simply like to comment that the Spanish-speaking crowd’s response makes a lot more sense than it would first seem. It makes a lot of sense even on the assumption that the crowd did in fact understand the police officer’s explanation that they “apparently did not understand.” What the article explicitly states is that the police officers were using an oxygen mask, and that is a device that needs to be pressed against a person’s face and necessarily cover the same parts of a person’s face one would cover to try to cause suffocation. If you’re not expecting something like that, it looks awfully strange. Furthermore, although I do not know whether this actually happened, it is standard operating procedure to many emergency medical technicians and paramedics who perform CPR to cut off the person’s top completely, palpate to the best place to place one’s hands, and mark the spot with a ball-point pen. This may or may not have happened, but if it did, it is appropriate enough for neighbors to view it as an extreme indignity. Lastly, although today’s best practices in CPR are more forceful than was reccommended in the past, “heart massage” is a technical term that does not refer to anything like softly kneading a friend’s shoulder. The people I have met who do CPR regularly say they crack ribs all the time: cracking ribs may not be desirable on its own, but if a responder is doing good CPR with enough force to be effective, breaking a patient’s ribs is considered entirely normal and not a red flag that CPR is being done inappropriately. Furthermore, the woman’s age of 59 raises the question of osteoporosis. Racism is almost certainly a factor in the community’s memories; the community had quite probable stories circulating of bad treatment by police officers and possible police brutality. I know that the police tried to explain what they were doing, but if I saw police apparently trying to suffocate a member of our community, possibly saw an offensive indignity in that a senior’s shirt and underwear had been cut away, and saw an officer keep on forcefully shoving down on her chest and probably heard ribs crackling with every shove, it would take quite some believing, almost a reprehensible gullibility, to believe the other officers who tried to explain, “No, really, we’re trying to help her!”
(And, for reasons below, I would be very wary of saying that she probably would have survived if only the crowd hadn’t intervened.)
I may pause to note that neither group, nor apparently the authors of the newspaper article or anthropology text, appears to grasp how the situation would be viewed by a doctor. “Heart massage” is now more commonly known as “Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation,” or CPR, recuscitation being an otherwise obscure synonym for resurrection or returning from the dead: in French religious language, for instance, resuscitation is the term one uses for Christ returning to life after death on a cross. There is, to the purist, some fundamental confusion in the marketing-style slogan, “CPR saves lives.” Clinically and legally, death occurs when a person’s heart stops beating. If a person is still alive, and if there is any chance of saving the person’s life, then CPR is both premature and inappropriate.
Once a person enters a state of “cardiac arrest,” meaning death, then there might be a possibility of getting that person back by cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, even if that is a long shot. CPR at its very best is a third as effective as a heart beating normally, and even under ideal conditions can slow deterioration to give the emergency room perhaps a 5% to 10% chance of getting the person back. And that is assuming that ideal conditions are possible: in reality ideal conditions don’t happen. Though most people giving CPR do not have to deal with a crowd interpreting their efforts as assault, hoping to deliver perfect CPR is like hoping to become a good enough coder that one need not contend with debugging: Eric Raymond implicitly showed great maturity as a programmer by saying he was dumbfounded when his first attempt at Python metaprogramming worked without debugging. The person who does CPR in a public setting will contend not only with the difficulties of CPR itself, but an “uh-oh squad,” bystanders who second-guess one’s efforts and create a social dynamic like that of giving a speech to an audience of hecklers.
Now there is no question of blows or physical restraint when it comes to the idea of CPR or cardiac massage as a way to save lives that is apparently shared by the newspaper article author, the anthropology author, and possibly the police, and the medical view that CPR is “only indicated in the case of cardiac arrest,” meaning that it is premature and inappropriate unless a person has already died, but can preserve a remote chance of getting a patient back after the patient has crossed the threshold of clinical death. Emergency room doctors who view CPR as slowing deterioration and holding onto a slender chance of getting someone back will be quite grateful for CPR performed by police officers and other members of the general public who view CPR as a skill which saves lives. But the understanding is still fundamentally different, and differences like this come up in how computer interfaces are understood: differences you will want and need to appreciate.
Applying this foundation to usability
The core of usability testing is designing some sample tasks, asking users to do them, and observe, as a fly on the wall, without helping. If you can record sessions, great; if not, a notepad, notebook, or netbook works well. (The advantage of recording sessions is that almost invariably people will say, “There’s no way the user could have that much trouble with our design,” and a five-minute video of a user looking everywhere on the page but where users are intended to look, is worth a thousand arguments.) Usually studying five users is sufficient.
There is a saying in customer service of, “The customer is always right.” One may read the cautionary tale of a salesperson who kept on winning arguments with customers and somehow never closed a sale. And the principle is very simple. A customer who is wrong is to be treated as a valued customer as well as a customer who is right, and whether your customer is right or wrong, you treat each customer as a valued customer. Unless you are talking about an abusive customer, in which case it is appropriate to draw a line in the sand, you don’t send a message of “I’m right, you’re wrong.”
That’s not what I am talking about when I say, “The user is always right.” Anyone who teaches programmers or remembers what it was like to begin programming remembers hearing, “There’s no way the computer can be right! The computer has to be running my code wrong, or the compiler isn’t working right!” And it is a slow and at times painful lesson that the computer is in fact (almost) always right, that no matter how right your code seems, or how certain you are, if your code is not working, it is because you did something you did not intend, and your code will begin working when you find out how your code does not obviously say what you think it does, and adjust that part of your code. Bugs in libraries and (more rarely) compilers and interpreters do exist, but one important threshold has been crossed when a programmer stops blaming the tool for confusing bugs and begins to take responsibility personally.
And in the same sense that the computer is always right, and not the sense that the customer is always right, the user is always right about how users behave. If the user interacts with the user interface and does something counterproductive, this means the same sort of thing as code doing something counterproductive if it’s been compiled. The user, who is always right, has identified an area where the interface needs improvement. The user should be regarded as “always right” just as the computer should be regarded as “always right,” and when the user is wrong, that’s good information about where the user interface has problems.
It was a deft move for Google to give Chrome a single search and URL bar, but the main reason may not be the one you think. Searching was heavily enough used that Firefox made life easier for many users by adding a second bar to the right of the search bar so that we could search without first pulling up the Google homepage; for heavy users, simplifying the URL bar and the search bar into one full-width piece is the next refinement. But this is not the main reason why it was deft for Google to give Chrome a unified search/URL bar, or at very least not the only reason.
My own experience helping others out with their computers has revealed that something obvious to us has been absolutely nonexistent in their minds. Perhaps you have had the experience, too, of telling someone to enter something in a page’s text field, and they start typing it in the URL bar, or vice versa typing a URL into a page’s search field. What this unearths is that something that is patently obvious to web designers is not obvious to many web users: “Here is an important, impenetrable dividing line, and all the chrome above that line belongs to the browser, and everything below that line (above the bottom chrome, and excluding any scrollbars) belongs to the website.” This division of labor is obvious enough to most web designers that only experience could teach them that there are some people who don’t understand it. But the real world has many users who do not have any such concept, and behaviors like typing search terms in the URL bar (years before Chrome was available) are clues to “This is something that’s out there.”
And if you think, “Ok, but users are more sophisticated now,” you might go through your website’s search logs and see how many website addresses you can see. It won’t be nearly as many as ordinary search terms, but have you ever wondered where the addresses to MySpace and porn sites in your search logs come from?
It’s just like (hard) debugging
I would like to make one closing parallel to debugging. There are several types of debugging I am not talking about: for instance, a missing close parenthesis causes an immediate error that makes it fairly quick work to find out what is wrong and what line of code it is. A traceback can also provide an excellent starting point for quick and effective debugging. Although debugging a failed unit test may not be quite so easy, a unit test is not just a tool to say that something is wrong, somewhere; it is a tool that should point a finger, and usually narrow the search field significantly. And many other bugs that are neither syntax errors nor resolved with the help of unit tests are still easy enough to fix that we need not be terribly aware of them; when we think of debugging we may only think of the few hard bugs rather than the majority of bugs which better programmers resolve without really thinking about it, like we turn on light switches on entering a darkened room, or unzip a coat outdoors when the day warms up, without giving the matter too much conscious thought or vividly remembering that we do this. (This is, incidentally, somewhat of an ethnographic observation of good programmers.)
What I am talking about, as hard bugs, are bugs where you go through every investigative tool you can think of, and still cannot pin down what is going on. (This may include a relatively small proportion of bugs that also generate tracebacks or unit test failures.) Observing the bug seems like observing, not a miniature ship in a bottle, but a ship in a seamless glass sphere: there’s no way you can tell that the ship could have gotten in there, but it is quite clear that the ship in fact is in a glass container that has no openings that you can imagine the ship getting in through.
Isaac Asimov said, “The most exciting sound in science is not, ‘Eureka!’ [I’ve found it!], but ‘That’s funny,'” and the history of science bears him out. Today, X-rays are widely known among scientifically literate people to be a very high-energy, short-wavelength radiation belonging to the same spectrum as visible light, but it was not always so; the name ‘X-rays’ is itself a holdover from when they were a fascinating and mysterious mystery, with the ‘X’ in ‘X’-rays referring to something unknown. It was known that they were radiation of some sort, but they passed through some opaque material and in general did not fit into anything people had a conceptual place for.
In the middle of efforts to understand this mystery, there was one physicist who stumbled upon a golden clue that X-rays might be something like light: he left unexposed photographic plates near a source of X-rays, and upon using and developing them, observed that they had all been partially exposed. His response, however, was to contact the photographic supply company and demand that they replace the photographic plates as defective. As Winston Churchill observed, “Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of the time he will pick himself up and continue on.”
In debugging, hard bugs, the kind that remain unresolved after we have investigated all the usual suspects, are rarely solved because we go looking for the right error and find exactly what we expected to find. With the analogy of the ship in the sphere, it is more like deciding there has to be some kind of concealed seam from gluing or otherwise sealing an aperture big enough to allow the ship to enter, at least in pieces, and after looking the glasswork over, using magnifying glasses and lights, and still finding no trace of a seam, you stop ignoring something you had noticed along the way: the ship itself appeared surprisingly glossy. When you stop to look at the ship for a second, you realize that it is not made of the wood and cloth you expected (and that it appears to be at first glance), but as far as you can tell is shaped out of colored glass. And, after doing a little more research, you learn of a glassblower who makes colored glass ships and forms seamless glass spheres around them. In this case, you were not wrong in saying there was no seam; there is still no way that such a thing could have been crafted at room temperature, and there is in fact no ultra-subtle seam that you failed to notice in our efforts to find the seam to an aperture through which the ship could have been inserted at room temperature, even in pieces. But that’s not the point. The ship in a globe was made at glassblower’s temperatures, and there it is possible to create a seamless sphere around a colored glass ship.
Hard bugs are debugged successfully when you learn to stop when you stumble over the truth. And the same is true in the anthropological side of usability techniques: some things you can know to look for, and find, but the much more important competency is to recognize when you have stumbled over the truth, and stop and pay attention to something you don’t know to look for.
Almost all of the difference between doing user observation badly and doing it well hinges on learning to recognize when you have stumbled over the truth.
Lessons from Other Areas
Live cross-cultural encounters
Learning and observing in cross-cultural encounters is an excellent way to learn how to pick up cues the way a user interface developer needs to. There are two basic cross-cultural encounters I recommend as particularly valuable. The first of these, as it takes shape in the U.S., is to spend time volunteering with an English as a Second Language program and tutor on computer basics. Or find out if you can tutor in classes at your local library. (If possible, work in an adult computer class that has seniors and not too many young people.) This may or may not be the most pleasant experience, but it is some of the most valuable. I remember one experience where I was working with a Sudanese refugee, quite possibly an escapee of the genocide against Christians, who had just had his life uprooted under presumably traumatic circumstances and was learning to deal with living in the U.S. all at once, which would presumably be trauma in itself. I remember in particular one moment when we had very slowly typed a word or two in a word processor, and ticked the button to close a document, and were staring at a dialog box asking if we wanted to save the document before closing. And I remember a slow dawning realization that not only did he not know the quite substantial cultural concepts involved in recognizing that this was how culturally one asks a question, expecting an answer in the form of a click on one of two areas of the screen to answer “Yes,” “No,” or “Mu” (“Cancel”), but the question itself, “Do you want to save this document before closing?” was a question that did not exist at all in his culture, and even if I spoke his native language I would probably not be able to explain the question on terms that would make any sense to him. That was probably my most difficult teaching experience, and the one where I have the most doubts about whether I succeeded in teaching anything at all. But it was a profoundly valuable experience to me, and helped me see how things could “go without saying” to me but be baffling to others.
The second of these two cross-cultural encounters is whatever you already have. Few if any of us have no cross-cultural encounters; whether one is ethnically or (a)religiously a majority or a minority, an immigrant or a native citizen of one’s country, or considering face-to-face encounters or Internet connections, most of us have at least some experience in cross-cultural encounter. The differences are there; if you have learned something from cross-cultural encounter, the experience can help us more readily recognize the cues you need to recognize.
While I am wary of reducing history to merely an apparatus to understand the cultures of previous times, most historians arrive at a fairly deep understanding of a culture that is not their own, and may arrive at a sensitivity to the ways, all to easy to ignore, in which historical texts veto modern assumptions. There was an experiment in which a question concerning Abraham Lincoln and a number of historical primary sources were given to a number of elementary school teachers, plus one historian of Lincoln, and a historian whose specialties were unrelated. During the time of the experiment, the elementary school teachers started with a wrong conceptual framework that imposed today’s basic categories on the texts, and did not progress to anything better. The historian of Lincoln started with a highly accurate conceptual framework and very quickly arrived at the answer. But what is particularly interesting is the other historian, who was trained as a historian but had little directly relevant knowledge to Lincoln. He started with the same conceptual framework as the non-historians, but by the end he had corrected his framework to the point of reaching where the Lincoln historian had started.
This latter historian is perhaps the most interesting, not because he was initially right, but because he was self-correcting: even though his starting framework was no better than the schoolteachers, he was able enough to adjust his perspective from cues based on the text so that he reached the framework the Lincoln historian started with. And, one would imagine, the Lincoln historian would have had a similar self-correcting sensitivity to the texts had he been asked the same kind of question about a historical setting he did not initially understand.
Getting history right is relevant to us in two ways. First, one understands one, or perhaps many, other cultures more or less well. Second, when one trips over a clue that one is wrong, one stops and learns from it, instead of hoping it will go away. Both of these strengths are a powerful foundation to usability.
Old Books and Literature
Books can be a very good place to sharpen anthropological competencies through meeting other cultures. However, I might clear the ground of some distractions if it is tempting to say, “But I meet other cultures in all my favorite books! I’m an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy.”
All science fiction is not created equal in terms of cultural encounter. There is a marked difference between reading Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and watching Star Trek. Heinlein understood both culture and culture shock, and though his book only treats one alien culture, it is written to create culture shock in the reader, and challenge us in assumptions we didn’t know we had. “Whaaa—? They can’t do that!” is a normal and intended reaction to several parts of the book. In Star Trek, there are many races, but culture shock in the viewer is almost nonexistent even when the plot is intended to surprise. To put it more pointedly, the average American’s culture shock from watching years of Star Trek is probably much less than the average American student’s culture shock from a few months’ experience in a foreign exchange program, perhaps less than the culture shock in the first month of that program. By comparison with a live encounter with another human culture, the alien races in Star Trek have less their own alien cultures than a shared personality profile we can already relate to even when we don’t like it.
Likewise, not all fantasy is created equal. J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis were both Oxford-educated medievalists who knew medieval literature intimately. The genre of fantasy that appeared in their wake, if you have seriously read medieval literature, seems by comparison like the opening rant in the movie Dungeons & Dragons, where a supposedly medieval character gives an impassioned “Miss America” speech about how horrible it is that the realm’s government is unlike a U.S.-style democracy. Today’s genre fantasy reads like the story of Westerners from our time who happen to be wearing armor; by contrast, in The Chronicles of Narnia some of the characters are indeed from the twentieth century, but in terms of how the story is put together there is something a bit medieval, and not individualist, about their characterization.
If our cultures’ science fiction and fantasy are not the best place to be challenged by another encounter, and to develop that kind of sensitivity, where can we go? One obvious response is to look to be challenged by books like the Dao De Jing and the Bhagavad-Gita. Those are both excellent places to look to be challenged, but if we assume that we can be challenged by the Bhagavad-Gita but not Plato, we are selling both of them short. The image in Plato of climbing out of the cave with its shadows and looking at the sun is something that a Hindu commentator on the Bhagavad-Gita can quite easily relate to, and in a certain sense Plato has more in common with that kind of Hinduism than with his disciple Aristotle.
What does it look like to read a text to see what one can pick up culturally? Consider the following text:
QUANTUM THEORY, THE. As recently as the opening years of the present century the vast majority of physicists still regarded Newton’s dynamical laws as something established for all time. And they were not without solid grounds for this faith. Many phenomena were indeed known, chiefly those which may be classed under the heading radiation, e.g. black body radiation and line spectra, which refused to accommodate themselves to any sort of theory founded on Newtonian principles; but it was generally believed that such phenomena would, sooner or later, be completely accounted for without any departure from the classical principles of physics. Even the theory of relativity developed by Lorentz, Einstein, Minkowski and their successors was regarded only as a widening or generalization of the Newtonian basis of physics. It was the culmination of classical physical theory. These phenomena we now believe, cannot be accounted for on the basis of classical physical theory, whether Newtonian or Einsteinian. The first act of sacrilege was committed by Max Planck, until recently professor of theoretical physics at the University of Berlin, about the end of the year 1900, when he initiated the quantum theory. One of the problems engaging the attention of physicists during the closing years of the last century was that of the radiation from a black body…
The reconciliation of these two aspects of the phenomenon, namely the independence of the energy of the ejected photo-electrons and the intensity, on the one hand, and the wave character of the radiation on the other, constitutes one of the most formidable problems which physical science has ever encountered…
Now I would like to make a couple of points. I could, for instance, have chosen an interminable fight narrative from a medieval Arthurian legend to say, “We look on Arthurian legends as mysterious tales of wonder. Did you know that a large portion of those legends is actually quite dull to the modern reader?” Some readers may be wondering, “This is a scientific article, not a cultural area where anything goes.” But, even if science is not a domain where anything goes, there are cultural issues here, and it may be possible to date the article by cultural markers as well as by values given for physical constants (Avogadro’s number appears to be given as 6.06 * 10^23, not today’s 6.022 * 10^23, and the unit of electrical charge is reported to have current values consistent with initial measurements, despite the fact that the initial reported experimental value was erroneous and subsequent experimenters fudged until it was found acceptable to report what is now believed to be the correct value.)
In the quoted text, there are two significant markers that date the text as showing significant cultural difference from how things are viewed today.
A physicist or philosopher today would say that Newtonian physics, Einsteinian physics, quantum physics, and for that matter superstring theory are fundamentally irreconcilable on an ontological plane but happen to predict the same behaviors for the kind of experiments one would expect of a high school physics lab: the predicted results for each of these theories are vastly smaller than even a top-notch experimental physicist doing high school experiments could possibly observe. But the reasons behind those differences are irreconcilable, like the difference between saying “You see this OS behavior because it is running natively on your computer” and “You see this OS behavior because it is being emulated under virtualization with several levels of indirection that are extremely slippery to understand.” The behavior predicted is interchangeable, but the reasons proposed for the behavior are fundamentally irreconcilable. Furthermore, this is not just true if one compares quantum physics with Einsteinian or Newtonian physics; it is also true if one compares Einsteinian with Newtonian physics: to today’s take on things, it is a bit astonishing to say, “on the basis of classical physical theory, whether Newtonian or Einsteinian.” The usual way of presenting things in a physics class today is to present Einstein’s theory of relativity as the first in a stream of foundational upsets after Newton reigned unchallenged and apparently eternally established for centuries. Today we would expect to need to dig a bit to find more examples of Einstein’s theory referred to as a further expansion developing Newton, which should still be considered “classical physical theory.”
The second quoted paragraph refers to how light (and, it may be mentioned, practically everything else as seen in quantum theory) behaves as a particle when treated in some ways and as a wave as treated in others. This duality has since hit the rumor mill well enough that a favorite illustration from science in theology programs is how light exists as both a particle and a wave, which reflects the extent to which the duality of light as particle and wave remains unresolved but is no longer regarded as, “one of the most formidable problems which physical science has ever encountered.”
Our point is not to deride the article, which is written at a higher level of sophistication and detail than, for instance, the Wikipedia. Apart from its certitude in the existence of an “aether,” slightly surprising in light of the fact that the Michelson-Morley experiment dates to 1887 and the article refers to 1900 as a past year, its picture of quantum physics portrays the same core science one would expect of a physics text today. But, even in physics, which is not in any sense a field where just anything goes, culture is present, and for that matter in this article the cultural cues alone are most likely sufficient for an historian of 20th century physics to closely date it.
This kind of cue is what you can practice learning in reading old books, and this kind of cue is what you need to be able to pick up in observing for good user interface development.
The way you observe that a user doesn’t share an understanding that is obvious to you is by the same kind of cue that can clue you in that a text doesn’t share an understanding that is obvious to you.
The last other area: Whatever you have
Whatever else you have is probably a resource you can draw on. Do you love birding? Birding is a hobby of observation. Do you do martial arts, for instance? A common theme in martial arts is harmony between opponents, and if you can attune yourself to a sparring partner, you should be able to attune yourself to a user. Comedy or performing arts? You’re not a good comedian if you’re insensitive to your audience. Have you made a lot of mistakes, and learned from them, or at least started to learn? Wonderful news! (Are you an amateur or professional anthropologist? That one doesn’t need explaining!) There is some connection between any two areas of life; let other skill support and strengthen your usability work.
Understanding the User
A lesson from optimization
Knuth said, for the novice programmer, “Don’t optimize,” and to experts only, “Optimize later.” Always writing for optimization is a recipe for bad, unreadable code, and for that matter slow code, compared to code written for clarity that is later optimized using that clarity. And Knuth also said, “Premature optimization is the root of all evil.”
In one production system I was working on, I wrote one search with the realization that the implementation I was using was extremely inefficient, and had to deliberately refrain from optimizing it, to leave for later. When the whole system was put together, it took a couple of seconds longer than was acceptable, and I began mentally gearing up to optimize the inefficient search. Before doing so, I did some testing, and found to my surprise that my inefficient search implementation took very little time to run, and when I began mapping things out, found the root problem. I had called a poorly chosen method, and with it made a purely preventable network call, and that network call took a few seconds. When that problem was fixed, the remaining code ran at acceptably fast times for even the largest accounts.
This story is my own version of something that keeps on being retold in the programming literature: “Our system was running slowly, and we had reasonable ideas about what was going on here, but our reasonable ideas were wrong. We didn’t know what the real problem was until we dug into some observation.”
This basic lesson in optimization is a fundamental phenomenon in usability as well. We will have reasonable ideas about what the usability issues are, and our reasonable ideas will be wrong. We won’t know what the real issues are until we dig into some observation.
What’s wrong with scratching an itch, or, you are not your user
The open source community is largely driven by scratching itches, but scratching a programmer’s itch is a terrible way to approach user interface design.
The story is told of a program used in an office where a popup window appeared and said, “Type mismatch.” And the secretary obediently typed M-I-S-M-A-T-C-H, a perfectly appropriate user response to an inappropriate error message. (This kind of thing shows up in many more subtle ways, some of which are not so obviously wrong.)
Designing a user interface that makes sense to someone who understands its inner workings, and designing a user interface that makes sense to its intended audience, are not the same thing. A mechanic’s understanding of how a car starts is very elaborate and detailed, but a user should be able to get by thinking, “I turn the key and press the gas, and the car starts” without necessarily thinking anything about what’s under the hood. If users need to understand what’s under the hood to operate the car, the car needs improvement.
Worst practices from the jargon file
The jargon file defines the extremely pejorative “PEBKAC” as:
[Abbrev., “Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair”] Used by support people, particularly at call centers and help desks. Not used with the public. Denotes pilot error as the cause of the crash, especially stupid errors that even a luser could figure out. Very derogatory. Usage: ‘Did you ever figure out why that guy couldn’t print?’ ‘Yeah, he kept cancelling the operation before it could finish. PEBKAC’. See also ID10T. Compare pilot error, UBD.
And the particular example is unfortunately revealing of an attitude user interface people need to avoid like the plague.
The example given in the jargon file’s definition of “PEBKAC” is, “‘Did you ever figure out why that guy couldn’t print?’ ‘Yeah, he kept canceling the operation before it could finish. PEBKAC.'” For a long time, at least, attempting to print from a GUI gave something that looked like a modal dialog box, but for this “modal dialog lookalike”, there is one important difference in behavior. When you click on the button to make it go away, it destroys your print job.
This is not a case of a problem existing between the user’s keyboard and chair.
It is a case of a problem existing between the user interface designer’s keyboard and chair. PEBKAC.
To pick on the jargon file a little more, “Drool-proof paper” is defined as:
Documentation that has been obsessively dumbed down, to the point where only a cretin could bear to read it, is said to have succumbed to the “drool-proof paper syndrome” or to have been “written on drool-proof paper”. For example, this is an actual quote from Apple Computer’s LaserWriter manual: “Do not expose your LaserWriter to open fire or flame.”
Let’s ignore the fact that this sounds less like a technical writer trying to be easy to understand, than corporate legal counsel trying to ward off ambulance chasers.
There is a very user-hostile attitude here, the basic idea that if your system is too difficult for your users to understand, the users must be too stupid, and making something user-friendly is a matter of stretching to meet people you shouldn’t have to cater to. Stories and terms like this circulate among programmers. I might suggest that terms like these, for your software’s audience, are little, if any, better than a racial slur. They reflect an attitude we don’t need.
Python and usability
You do not really understand Python until you understand something about usability as it appears in Python. Usability is the soul of ‘Pythonic’.
It’s not all about the computer!
There is something genuinely different about Python, and to explain it I would like to discuss the advantages of C.
If you want to nano-optimize every ounce of performance you can get, there is little serious competition to C. You can write assembler for different platforms, or write in a C++ that is multiparadigm like Python and have some parts of your program use high-level features like objects, templates, and operator overloading, while still writing almost unadulterated C for parts that are performance-critical. And the group of programmers that “vote with their keyboards” for using C this way, includes Guido van Rossum, who created Python. The first and canonical Python implementation is written in C, and a Pythonista underscoring the point that Python’s switch statement is a very efficient dictionary will explain that Python’s dictionary is implemented in tightly optimized C.
But this kind of advantage comes at a price. In the canonical list of ways to shoot yourself in the foot in different programming languages, C is “for people who want to load their own rounds before shooting themselves in the foot.” In one Python forum, a wannabe 133t hax0r asked how to write a buffer overflow in Python, and a wry Pythonista replied apologetically: “We’re sorry, but Python doesn’t support that feature.” But C does support the “feature” of buffer overflows; its default string handling never leaves home without it. With manual memory management and manual handling of pointers, C also supports “features” including all kinds of memory leaks and subtle pointer errors that can be extremely difficult to debug. Python closes this Pandora’s box, although Python is hardly the only language with the wisdom to do so. Python, PHP, Ruby, Perl, Tcl, and Java all close the Pandora’s box that must be wide open if you are to have tightly optimized C.
C has been called a language that combines the power of using assembler with the ease of using assembler, and I know of no compiled language that surpasses C for power over bare metal, or for corresponding possibilities for tight optimization. However, this is not the only way to keep score. Python keeps score by another metric: programmer productivity.
The one overriding concern motivating decisions in Python is not how you can get the tightest control over the computer’s productivity. It’s how to let the programmer be most productive, and it has been said of this relentless pursuit of programmer productivity that capital sentences are passed with less thorough deliberation than obscure Python features. And if you’ve used Python, the difference you have experienced is precisely because of this one overriding concern, this relentless pursuit. The people in charge of Python have decided that Python isn’t about what to do to optimize the computer; it’s about what you do to empower the programmer.
If you’re interested in usability, you have a good working example of usability to look at. To put Python’s strength a little differently, Python is a language where the one overriding concern and relentless pursuit is usability for you, the programmer. If you are working on usability, you are working to give end-users the same kind of thing that Python gives you. You are making a product more Pythonic to use, as opposed to giving the more C-like experience of an interface that lets users load their own rounds before shooting themselves in the foot.
Usability is about how to go from giving C user interfaces, to giving Pythonic user interfaces.
A first clue to something big, tucked into a choice of children’s books
I was once part of a group dedicated to reading children’s stories (primarily fantasy) aloud. At one point the group decided to read Patricia Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons. I had a visceral reaction to the book as something warped, but when I tried to explain it to the group by saying that it was like the Un-man in Perelandra, I was met with severe resistance from two men in the group. Despite this, and after lengthy further discussions, I was able to persuade them that the analogy was at least the best I could manage in a tight time slot.
I was puzzled at some mysterious slippage that had intelligent Christians who appreciated good literature magnetized by works that were, well… warped. And that mysterious slippage seemed to keep cropping up at other times and circumstances.
Why the big deal? I will get to the Un-man’s message in a moment, but for now let me say that little girls are sexistway too romantic. And this being sexistway too romantic motivates girls to want fairy tales, to want some knight in shining armor or some prince to sweep them off her feet. And seeing how this sexist deeply romantic desire cannot easily be ground out of them, feminists have written their own fairy tales, but…
To speak from my own experience, I never realized how straight traditional fairy tales were until I met feminist fairy tales. And by ‘straight’ I am not exactly meaning the opposite of queer (though that is close at hand), but the opposite of twisted and warped, like Do You Want to Date My Avatar? (I never knew how witchcraft could be considered unnatural vice until I read the witches’ apologetic in Terry Pratchett’s incredibly warped The Wee Free Men.) There is something warped in these tales that is not covered by saying that Dealing with Dragons has a heroine who delights only in what is forbidden, rejects marriage for the company of dragons, and ridicules every time its pariahs say something just isn’t done. Seeing as how rooting out from the desire for fairy tales from little girls and little kids in general, authors have presented warped anti-fairy tales.
Ella Enchanted makes it plain: for a girl or woman to be under obedience is an unmixed curse. There is no place for “love, honor, and obey.”
The commercials for Tangled leave some doubt about whether the heroine sings a Snow White-style “Some day my prince will come.”
The Un-man’s own tales
Perelandra has a protagonist who visits Venus or Perelandra, where an unfallen Eve is joined first by him and then by the antagonist, called the Un-man because he moves from prelest or spiritual illusion to calling demons or the Devil into himself and then letting his body be used as a demonic puppet.
How does the Un-man try to tempt this story’s Eve?
[The Lady said:] “I will think more of this. I will get the King to make me older about it.”
[The Un-man answered:] “How greatly I desire to meet this King of yours! But in the matter of Stories he may be no older than you himself.”
“That saying of yours is like a tree with no fruit. The King is always older than I, and about all things.”…
[The Lady said,] “What are [women on earth] like?”
[The Un-man answered,] “They are of great spirit. They always reach out their hands for the new and unexpected good, and see that it is good long before the men understand it. Their minds run ahead of what Maleldil has told them. They do not need to wait for Him to tell them what is good, but know it for themselves as He does…”
…The Lady seemed to be saying very little. [The Un-man]’s voice was speaking gently and continuously. It was not talking about the Fixed Land nor even about Maleldil. It appeared to be telling, with extreme beauty and pathos, a number of stories, and at first Ransom could not perceive any connecting link between them. They wre all about women, but women who had apparently lived at different periods of the world’s history and in quiet differences. From the Lady’s replies it appeared that the stories contained much that she did not understand; but oddly enough the Un-man did not mind. If the questions aroused by any one story proved at all difficult to answer, the speaker simply dropped that story and instantly began another. The heroines of the stories seemed all to have suffered a great deal—they had been oppressed by their fathers, cast off by husbands, deserted by lovers. Their children had risen up against them and society had driven them out. But the stories all ended, in a sense, hapily: sometimes with honours and praises to a heroine still living, more often by tardy acknowledgment and unavailing tears after her death. As the endless speech proceeded, the Lady’s questions grew always fewer…
The expression on [the Lady’s] face, revealed in the sudden light, was one that [Ransom] had not seen there before. Her eyes were not fixed on the narrator; as far as that went, her thoughts might have been a thousand miles away. Her lips were shut and a little pursed. Her eyebrows were slightly raised. He had not yet seen her look so like a woman of our own race; and yet her expression was one he had not very often met on earth—except, as he realized with a shock, on the stage. “Like a tragedy queen” was the disgusting comparison that arose in his mind. Of course it was a gross exaggeration. It was an insult for which he could not forgive himself. And yet… and yet… the tableau revealed by the lightning had photographed itself on his brain. Do what he would, he found it impossible not to think of that new look in her face. A very good tragedy queen, no doubt, very nobly played by an actress who was a good woman in real life…
A moment later [the Un-man] was explaining that men like Ransom in his own world—men of that intensely male and backward-looking type who always shrank away from the new good—had continuously laboured to keep women down to mere childbearing and to ignore the high destiny for which Maleldil had actually created her…
The external and, as it were, dramatic conception of the self was the enemy’s true aim. He was making her mind a theatre in which that phantom self should hold the stage. He had already written the play.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Lady is complementarian to the point where one wonders if the label ‘complementarian’ is sufficient, and the demon or Devil using the Un-man’s body is doing his treacherous worst to convert her to feminism. Hooper says he is trying to make her fall by transgressing one commandment, and that is true, but the entire substance of the attack to make her fall is by seducing her to feminism.
A strange silence in the criticism
Walter Hooper’s C.S. Lewis: Companion and Guide treats this dialogue in detail but without the faintest passing reference to feminism, men and women, sex roles, or anything else in that nexus. It does, however, treat the next and final book in the trilogy, That Hideous Strength, and defend Lewis from “anti-feminism” in a character who was a woman trying to do a dissertation on Milton: Lewis, it is revealed, had originally intended her to be doing a dissertation on biochemistry, but found that he was not in a position to make that part of the story compelling, and so set a character whose interests more closely paralleled his own. So the issue of feminism was on his radar, possibly looming large. But, and this is a common thread with other examples, he exhibits a mysterious slippage. His account gets too many things right to be dismissed on the ground that he doesn’t know how to read such literature, but it also leaves too much out, mysteriously, to conclude that he gave anything like such a scholar’s disinterested best in explaining the text. (It is my own opinion that Hooper in fact does know how to read; he just mysteriously sets this ability aside when Lewis counters feminism.) And this slippage keeps happening in other places and context, always mysterious on the hypothesis that the errors are just errors of disinterested, honest scholarship.
Jerry Root, in his own treatment in C.S. Lewis and a Problem of Evil: An Investigation of a Pervasive Theme, treats subjectivism as spiritual poison and problem of evil Lewis attacks in his different works: Root argues it to be the prime unifying theme in Lewis). But with slight irony, Root seems to turn subjectivistic, or at least disturbing, precisely where his book touches gender roles and egalitarianism. In his comments on The Great Divorce‘s greatest saint-figure, a woman, Susan Smith, is slighted: among other remarks, he quotes someone as saying that women in C.S. Lewis’s stories are “he neglects any intellectual virtue in his female characters,” and this is particularly applied to Sarah Smith. When he defends Lewis, after a fashion, Root volunteers, “a book written in the 1940s will lack some accommodations to the culture of the twenty-fist century.” But this section is among the gooiest logic in Root’s entire text, speaking with a quasi-psychoanalytic Freudian or Jungian outlook of “a kind of fertile mother-image and nature-goddess,” that is without other parallel and certainly does not infect the discussion of Lewis’s parents, who well enough loom large at points, but not in any psychoanalytic fashion. Root’s entire treatment at this point has an “I can’t put my finger on it, but—” resemblance to feminists disarming and neutralizing any claim that the Catholic veneration of the Virgin Mary could in any way, shape, or form contribute to the well-standing of women: one author, pointing out the difficulty of a woman today being both a virgin and a mother, used that as a pretext to entirely dismiss the idea that She could be a model for woman or a token of woman’s good estate, thus throwing out the baby, the bathwater, and indeed the tub. The Mother of God is She who answered, Be it unto me according to thy word, an answer that may be echoed whether or not one is a virgin, a mother, or for that matter a woman.
The critique Root repeats, on reflection, may meet an Orthodox response of “Huh?”, or more devastatingly, “Yes, but what’s your point?”, not because Lewis portrays a saint as “no model of intellectual virtue,” but because Orthodox sainthood is not a matter of intellectual virtue. Among its rich collection of many saints there are very few models of intellectual virtue, admittedly mostly men, and usually having received their formation outside the Orthodox Church: St. John Chrysostom was called “Chrysostom” or “Golden-Mouth” because of his formation and mastery of pagan rhetoric. But intellectual virtue as a whole is not a central force in the saints, and Bertrand Russell’s observation that in the Gospels not one word is put in praise of intelligence might be accepted, not as a weakness of the Gospel, but as a clarification of what is and is not central to Christian faith. And in terms of what is truly important, we would do well to recall the story of St. Zosima and St. Mary of Egypt. If Lewis’s image of sainthood is a woman who is not an academic, this is not an embarrassment to explain away, but a finger on the pulse of what does and does not matter for sainthood.
Root mentions the Un-man briefly, and gives heavy attention to the man who would become the Un-man as he appears in the prior book in the trilogy, but does not reference or suggest a connection between the Un-man and feminism. Root became an egalitarian, and shifts in his book from speaking of “men” to saying “humankind”. And this is far from one scholar’s idiosyncracy; a look at the World Evangelical Alliance’s online bookstore as I was involved with it showed this mysterious slippage not as something you find a little here, a little there, but as endemic and without any effective opposition.
Un-man’s tales for Grown-Ups
During my time as webmaster to the World Evangelical Alliance, the one truly depressing part of my work was getting the bookstore online. Something like eighty to ninety percent of the work was titles like Women as Risk-Takers for God which were Un-man’s tales for adults. I was depressed that the World Evangelical Alliance didn’t seem to have anything else to say on its bookshelves: not only was there a dearth of complementarian “opposing views” works like Man and Woman in Christ, but there was a dearth of anything besides Un-man’s tales. The same mysterious phenomenon was not limited to a ragtag group of friends, or individual scholars; it was dominant at the highest level in one of the most important parachurch organizations around, and not one that, like Christians for Biblical Equality, had a charter of egalitarian or feminist concerns and priorities.
G.K. Chesterton said, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” That might hold for Chesterton’s day, and classics like Grimm and MacDonald today, but today’s fairy tales, or rather Un-man’s tales, do not tell children the dragons can be killed. Children already know that deep down inside. They tell children dragons can be befriended and that dragons may make excellent company. For another title of the myriad represented by Dealing with Dragons, look at the tale of cross-cultural friendship one may look for in The Dragon and the George. When first published, Dealing with Dragons might have been provocative. Now Tangled is not. And reading Perelandra leaves one with an uncomfortable sense that C.S. Lewis apparently plagiarized, in the Un-man’s tales, works written decades after his death.
This issue is substantial, and Lewis’s sensitivity to it is almost prophetic: sensibilities may have changed, but only in the direction of our needing to hear the warning more. And it is one Christians seem to be blind to: complementarianism seems less wrong than petty, making a mountain out of a molehill. But the core issue is already a mountain, not a molehill.
Please read the article below for a note on animal lovers who are not in a position to responsibly own a pet and don’t want to put a companion animal in solitary confinement throughout business hours.
If you’re just looking for links about what to buy, Tribbles were the best thing I knew of when this article was originally written. Since then, there are Furreal Friends, which seem designed to give pleasure to children, and Joy for All Silver Cat with White Mitts appears specifically created for the pleasure of adult animal lovers.
Years back, one friend, Cynthia, explained why she will never own a furry pet. An editor, her work often allows her to be in her apartment building during business hours, and when she walks through the halls, she hears so many whimperings, whinings, barks, and the like, every one of them saying, “Will you come in and be with me?”
That conversation made an impression on me. I am an animal lover. I grew up with a dog about the house, kept kind and gentle care of a lab even when her barking cut into my sleep, and when I am visiting my brother Joe’s house, I love to see his cats. And I would love to have a furry cubicle pet. But the options there are somewhat limited, and not only because bosses sometimes have to say “No” to eccentric behavior. Though there have been workplaces where employees were welcome to bring well-behaved dogs, (see, for a rare example, Dreaming in Code), bringing a pet to work beyond a fish appropriately would include either transporting the pet with you or leaving your pet unattended for sixty or so hours straight each weekend, keeping the animal in an enclosed space without freedom to wander or explore, and so on. Now hamsters are solitary creatures and for what I know now, it might be possible to keep a hamster cage in a cubicle, leaving only problems like pet dander irritating other employees’ allergies. But on the whole, the question of how to keep an office pet without cruelty is a difficult question.
And, up to a point at least, for a single person to keep a pet at home is dodgy. Families and people who work out of their homes are a separate case, and two or more cats may be able to keep each other company, but if you have a fulltime job or serve as a consultant, the question of how to keep a pet without cruelty may be a bit of a challenge.
Some common and respected practices are in fact cruel. My brother has taken in rescue cats which were already declawed, but he and my sister-in-law have never declawed a cat they owned. The common statement is that even front declawing a kitten is like cutting a baby’s fingers off at the knuckles. My brother added that declawed cats are not, in fact, safer for owners to deal with: for a cat with front claws, the first line of defense is a swipe with claws which is only an abrasion, while for a declawed cat the first line of defense is abite, which is a puncture wound. Not only is that a more serious wound, but the puncture wound exposes you to whatever bacteria live in the cat’s mouth, and mouths tend to have lots of infectious bacteria. Strange as it may sound, if you have a cat, you want the cat to be able to swipe its claws at you if it’s cornered, angry, or afraid. It’s better than a declawed cat’s bite.
I have swing-mounted horses, and I would happily do so now if the opportunity offered to me. To swing-mount a horse, you crouch down, get a good grip of the horse’s mane with both hands, and leap up, pulling yourself up by the mane, and ideally land squarely on the horse’s back, and this is not cruel. Different species have different thresholds of pain, and a lot of animals are tougher than us; the average horse’s threshold of pain is seven times higher than the average human. This means, for instance, that you can grab a good bit of a horse’s mane in your hand and pull as hard as you can, and not only will it not injure the horse, it won’t cause pain or even really annoyance for the horse. Now horses can be skittish around people and may not be used to you, but if a horse is comfortable with your presence, yanking on its mane doesn’t mean anything.
And different thresholds of pain apply to dogs, too. The dog I had growing up would leap and dance for joy when she saw a famiy member starting to reach for her leash, because she knew that meant she would go for a walk outside. Years later, a dog a few months old would leap and dance for joy when he saw me reaching for a specific pair of workgloves, because he knew that meant he could bite me significantly harder when we were playing. He had a very high threshold of pain, unusual for even a dog, and he expected me to have the same high threshold of pain, and so things felt more natural and pleasant for him when I wore gloves and allowed him to bite me harder. And there’s no way those Thin gloves would have protected me if he were really trying to hurt me; if he had been trying to dodamage, he could have easily sliced through my gloves and cut me to the bone. He was pulling his punches with me, even when I was wearing gloves and I allowed him to bite me much harder. (It really was just horseplay.) Seeing as he didn’t draw blood on me, chances are pretty good it was just friendly horseplay to him. (Although dogs do not eat a meat-only diet, both cats and dogs are predators with powerful jaws, and both are well strong enough to cut to the bone.) And really, from my perspective those interactions with the puppy were pleasant play, and from his perspective they were nice, friendly horseplay. I have felt no inclination to bite any of my pets, but if I had started nipping at him with equal force, his enjoyment would probably have been so much the better. Nothing says love like a playful nip and ten or twenty slobbery kisses.
That is part of why I am puzzled when I occasionally hear of a man who was training dogs, and as something the dogs would relate to, bit the dogs for discipline, and he was rightly arrested for cruelty to animals. Part of my response was, “Um… why? Was he biting the dogs too hard? Did he draw blood? Did he misunderstand some detail of how an adult dog would use biting to discipline a younger dog? Did the police enforcing the anti-cruelty laws for animals have any idea of what normal social interaction between dogs looks like?” I thought of wearing gloves with that one puppy because I found his playful nips more painful than I wanted, but I can say in general of cats and dogs, that if it nips or bites you and it doesn’t draw blood, it almost certainly wasn’t trying to hurt you. Even if, perhaps, we need to draw lines and train dogs that they need to restrain their natural playfulness when horsing around with people, which most dogs purchased as pets can do well enough.
But more broadly than cats and claws, the question of how a single working person can responsibly own a furry pet without cruelty is difficult (I do not say necessarily impossible: but at least difficult). And I’ve explored a few things, starting when I was in grad school in 2007.
For reasons I don’t completely understand, people have made electronic pets that you wouldn’t want to pet; there is a whole line of artificial cats, dogs, etc. that are usually not furry and do not look like something you’d want to pet. Just search for something like robot pet and look at the pictures.
But by accident, that’s not the whole picture. I managed to get a Furby 2.0, and it seemed to be very well-done for its target audience of children, but have unnerving “uncanny valley”-like effects on me as an adult. I got my money’s worth out of the purchase; I gave it to a friend’s two-year-old where it became an almost instant hit and may have become his favorite toy. (Before letting it go, I quite deliberately gave it a fresh set of batteries, and showed both his parents where the “Off” switch was.)
Cue Star Trek. I am not the world’s biggest Star Trek fan personally speaking; there was one conversation when cell phones had recently become a common thing to have, and a friend was gushing about Star Trek, and said, “And cell phones! What would our society be like today if there were no Star Trek?” (My response: “We would have had much better science fiction?“) But Star Trek has many devoted fans, enough that when conditions would support it, it was economically viable to sell live, robotic, spayed-and-neutered Tribbles.
There is a large variety of Tribble merchandise; I have had medium and small Tribbles, and the small ones have been much less interactive. But for a cubicle pet and for people like me who would like to own something furry but aren’t in a position to take on a live pet responsibly and without cruelty in solitary confinement or whatnot, a Tribble may be the nicest thing out there.
If you’d like something vaguely furry without worrying if you are treating a pet cruelly, I would recommend one of the following:
I would like to begin and end with two C.S. Lewis quotes that fairly bracket the Biblical and Orthodox views on wealth. The plain sense of some painful passages in the Gospel and New Testament is an extraordinarily powerful door to important spiritual meadows. The first quote is about the the Sermon on the Mount, but applies to some other passages. Lewis said, “As to ‘caring for’ the Sermon on the Mount, if ‘caring for’ here means ‘liking’ or enjoying, I suppose no one ‘cares for’ it. Who can like being knocked flat on his face by a sledge-hammer?”
A look at all the New Testament teaching on wealth, in its plain sense, clears things up. The Parable of the Dishonest Steward takes quite a mercenary view of wealth. It is to be squandered in the process of getting onto more important things.
Elsewhere, Christ is dismissive of many showy and lavish gifts given out of rich people’s excess, and holds up the gift of the widow’s two mites, a gift of the only two practically worthless coins she had, as the paradigm example of right giving. God cares in giving, not what the number is on a cheque, but what they represent, what the spiritual act is that lies at the very heart of the gift. And in the case of the widow in this story, she would have been poor if she had kept both coins, much poorer than any of the wealthy donors after they gave their gift, and she would have been giving sacrificially if she had given “just” one coin. She gave both. Some people have said that she gave too much, but Christ held up the widow giving both her nearly worthless coins as the model of generosity, not moneybags.
The Old Testament passages are too long to quote and perhaps too long to summarize; the appropriate use of wealth is as basic a theme in the Prophets as sexual purity and worshipping God alone. But to pick one passage, and keeping in mind that the Old Testament ultimate insult is a comparison to Sodom as much as today’s ultimate insult is a comparison to Hitler, Ezekiel is quite blunt at times and verse 16:49 says, “Moreover this was the sin of thy sister Sodom, pride: she and her daughters lived in pleasure, in fullness of bread and in abundance: this belonged to her and her daughters, and they helped not the hand of the poor and needy.” And if this seems a twisting of the Genesis passage telling Sodom’s story, consider this: if the story of multiple horrors had at one stroke combined sexual perversion (“unnatural lust”, Jude 7), and obscene inhospitality, how would the people of Sodom have treated the poor? It may seem extreme to indict the whole city, and extreme to say that when Abraham bargained with the Lord over Sodom the Lord God of hosts could not find fifty righteous in the city, or even ten, but consider this: who else besides the Lot offered the visiting angels a night’s shelter under a roof? Who in the whole society besides Lot offered the angels even a night’s shelter?
There is much that could be said of this; an Orthodox monastic reader might see gluttony and failure to care for the poor as the bedrock sin that undergirded the obscene inhospitality of Sodom. And the Orthodox monastic tradition as well finds a tight tie between what lies above the belt, and what lies below; the wandering sexual curiosity shown by the men of Sodom is what happens when the reins are laid on the horse’s neck as far as the belly goes. But let us waive this aside and return to the Biblical texts.
One passage in the New Testament that people wince and squirm at is Matthew 25:31-46:
When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’
Then he will say to those at his left hand, `Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
Then they also will answer, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
Some Jewish readers have said that the point of the Creation story in Genesis 1 is that the human race, including beggars, is one single family. And how we treat beggars is treatment of our brothers and sisters. Now this does not automatically mean in itself that we should give money to beggars: one mother on YouTube put out a plea to stop giving beggars change because her two sons were homeless drug addicts and were using people’s generosity for their addictions. But it does mean out-and-out, in full, that come the Crack of Doom, when we can no longer repent, how we have treated our neighbor, including beggars, is tout court how we have treated Christ, and if we regard beggars as being like vermin, we have regarded Christ himself as being like vermin.
The Orthodox Christian tradition is clear that we should give something to beggars, at least those of us who have not made the monastic renunciation of all claim to property and become above alms. None of the priests I’ve heard say that you should give very much; one Orthodox priest I’ve heard specifically suggested not giving very much. If we have nothing with us, we can at least give a warm greeting. But we are told to give money, those of us that have something, and we are not guilty if a beggar uses your free gift to feed an addiction (“they may be sponging—that’s not for you to judge”) any more than God is guilty when he gives us gifts, times, and opportunities that we use in an unworthy manner. I don’t know exactly how far Jewish exegesis goes with the image of God, but in Orthodox Christian understanding that is as basic and fundamental to our understanding of personhood gets, and every person we meet, and in particular the low man on the totem pole, is more than our brother or sister. Every man, and not just every Orthodox, is a proxy for Christ. Christ in his own person is in Heaven and does not need anything we can give. But the question that will separate the sheep from the goats at the Last Judgment is “How did you treat me when I came to you in the least of these?” And the righteous and the damned will alike be astonished that everything they have done for the least of their neighbors is how we treated the Judge who comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried;
And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.’
Then he said, ‘I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham saith unto him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.’ And he said unto him, ‘If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.’
I will briefly pause to note that the rich man ate sumptuously every day. Slightly more to the point is that the rich man, who never “got it”—even in torment he treated Lazarus as a servant and seemed not to care for him—did not care for the beggar who was at his doorstep. The rich man is not faulted because he failed to feed every beggar in the world, but that he failed to feed the beggar at his doorstep.
And this brings me to a point that I’d rather not mention, that some of us meet requests for money etc. coming from Africa or the Third World, and that in my experience and those I’ve consulted with these requests are “little better than a con.” There may be a real need; but that real need can take a gift of $12, more than one usually gives a beggar at one’s doorstep, and persist in calling it small. Some of these requests for money are probably legitimate; it has not been my knowledge that they ever stop asking for more: The leech has two daughters; “Give, give,” they cry. We can and perhaps should give some non-local gifts, and while charity is one of many things that finds its a natural place in the home, this is a case where organizations like International Orthodox Christian Charities can best connect gifts with needs.
But enough of this for now, which should be a footnote after one has decided to show mercy and treat all neighbors as a face of Christ himself. The whole parable is meant to hit us flat on the chest with a sledgehammer. The heart of the parable says something very sharp and stark about being in luxury and failing to care for the beggar at our doorstep. There is a classic story about how millions of starfish had washed ashore, and a man was throwing them away from the sand, where they would die, back into the sea. Someone came to him and said, “What are you doing? There are so many that you can’t make a difference!” and the man threw another starfish and said, “It made a difference to that one!”
This discussion would not be complete without a discussion of the rich young ruler, Matthew 19:16-26:
And, behold, one came and said unto him, “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” And he said unto him, “Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” He saith unto him, “Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” The young man saith unto him, “All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?” Jesus said unto him, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.” But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, “Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.’”
The young man said, “All of these I have kept from my youth,” but this was not true. Christ quoted the commandments dealing with love of neighbor, and underscored the Law of Love. But the Ten Commandments deal first with the love of God, and in fact the young man had an idol: money. He broke “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
Christ goes on to say that all things are possible with God: in fact St. Philaret the Merciful, discussed below, is a shining example of a man who was rich and who entered the Kingdom of Heaven. And “Go and sell all that thou hast” has been taken to be not just spiritual medicine for the one man, but part of the counsels of perfection of poverty, obedience, and chastity. But those of us who are not monastics are called to be poor in spirit, to be detached from our possessions and observe spiritually what monastics observe literally.
Some people have taken the passage to mean that whatever idol is more important to you than God, that must be sacrificed, and in this case the idol happened to be money. And indeed it is good to recognize that we can have other idols besides Money in our heart, and that spiritually speaking we should tear out our right hand and our right eye if that is the cost of spiritual freedom. But it is not the case that this passage is a passage about letting go of whatever idol you have, and it so happened that in this random sampling the idol was money. This passage is about money as well as whatever may happen to be an idol, and it is cut from the same cloth as St. Paul writing, “greed, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). Any inordinate attachment is idolatry, and there are a great many things besides money that one may be attached to. But money is an easy-to-reach hazard, and it is not random that the Bible fills out the contours of an idol in the young man’s heart with “great possessions.”
On to a saint who handled money well:
I would like to give one extra-Biblical source in the life of a saint. Perhaps the saints are athletes and do not represent the threshold of what is barely adequate, but people are more quickly recognized from caricatures than from merely accurate portraits, and St. Philaret the Merciful provides, if you will, a diamond-sharp outline of one caring for the poor:
Righteous Philaret the Merciful, son of George and Anna, was raised in piety and the fear of God. He lived during the eighth century in the village of Amneia in the Paphlagonian district of Asia Minor. His wife, Theoseba, was from a rich and illustrious family, and they had three children: a son John, and daughters Hypatia and Evanthia.
Philaret was a rich and illustrious dignitary, but he did not hoard his wealth. Knowing that many people suffered from poverty, he remembered the words of the Savior about the dread Last Judgment and about “these least ones” (Mt. 25:40); the the Apostle Paul’s reminder that we will take nothing with us from this world (1 Tim 6:7); and the assertion of King David that the righteous would not be forsaken (Ps 36/37:25). Philaret, whose name means “lover of virtue,” was famed for his love for the poor.
One day Ishmaelites [Arabs] attacked Paphlagonia, devastating the land and plundering the estate of Philaret. There remained only two oxen, a donkey, a cow with her calf, some beehives, and the house. But he also shared them with the poor. His wife reproached him for being heartless and unconcerned for his own family. Mildly, yet firmly he endured the reproaches of his wife and the jeers of his children. “I have hidden away riches and treasure,” he told his family, “so much that it would be enough for you to feed and clothe yourselves, even if you lived a hundred years without working.”
The saint’s gifts always brought good to the recipient. Whoever received anything from him found that the gift would multiply, and that person would become rich. Knowing this, a certain man came to St Philaret asking for a calf so that he could start a herd. The cow missed its calf and began to bellow. Theoseba said to her husband, “You have no pity on us, you merciless man, but don’t you feel sorry for the cow? You have separated her from her calf.” The saint praised his wife, and agreed that it was not right to separate the cow and the calf. Therefore, he called the poor man to whom he had given the calf and told him to take the cow as well.
That year there was a famine, so St Philaret took the donkey and went to borrow six bushels of wheat from a friend of his. When he returned home, a poor man asked him for a little wheat, so he told his wife to give the man a bushel. Theoseba said, “First you must give a bushel to each of us in the family, then you can give away the rest as you choose.” Philaretos then gave the man two bushels of wheat. Theoseba said sarcastically, “Give him half the load so you can share it.” The saint measured out a third bushel and gave it to the man. Then Theoseba said, “Why don’t you give him the bag, too, so he can carry it?” He gave him the bag. The exasperated wife said, “Just to spite me, why not give him all the wheat.” St Philaret did so.
Now the man was unable to lift the six bushels of wheat, so Theoseba told her husband to give him the donkey so he could carry the wheat home. Blessing his wife, Philaret gave the donkey to the man, who went home rejoicing. Theoseba and the children wept because they were hungry.
The Lord rewarded Philaret for his generosity: when the last measure of wheat was given away, a old friend sent him forty bushels. Theoseba kept most of the wheat for herself and the children, and the saint gave away his share to the poor and had nothing left. When his wife and children were eating, he would go to them and they gave him some food. Theoseba grumbled saying, “How long are you going to keep that treasure of yours hidden? Take it out so we can buy food with it.”
During this time the Byzantine empress Irene (797-802) was seeking a bride for her son, the future emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitos (780-797). Therefore, emissaries were sent throughout all the Empire to find a suitable girl, and the envoys came to Amneia.
When Philaret and Theoseba learned that these most illustrious guests were to visit their house, Philaret was very happy, but Theoseba was sad, for they did not have enough food. But Philaret told his wife to light the fire and to decorate their home. Their neighbors, knowing that imperial envoys were expected, brought everything required for a rich feast.
The envoys were impressed by the saint’s daughters and granddaughters. Seeing their beauty, their deportment, their clothing, and their admirable qualities, the envoys agreed that Philaret’ granddaughter, Maria was exactly what they were looking for. This Maria exceeded all her rivals in quality and modesty and indeed became Constantine’s wife, and the emperor rewarded Philaret.
Thus fame and riches returned to Philaret. But just as before, this holy lover of the poor generously distributed alms and provided a feast for the poor. He and his family served them at the meal. Everyone was astonished at his humility and said: “This is a man of God, a true disciple of Christ.”
He ordered a servant to take three bags and fill one with gold, one with silver, and one with copper coins. When a beggar approached, Philaret ordered his servant to bring forth one of the bags, whichever God’s providence would ordain. Then he would reach into the bag and give to each person, as much as God willed.
St Philaret refused to wear fine clothes, nor would he accept any imperial rank. He said it was enough for him to be called the grandfather of the Empress. The saint reached ninety years of age and knew his end was approaching. He went to the Rodolpheia (“The Judgment”) monastery in Constantinople. He gave some gold to the Abbess and asked her to allow him to be buried there, saying that he would depart this life in ten days.
He returned home and became ill. On the tenth day he summoned his family, he exhorted them to imitate his love for the poor if they desired salvation. Then he fell asleep in the Lord. He died in the year 792 and was buried in the Rodolpheia Judgment monastery in Constantinople.
The appearance of a miracle after his death confirmed the sainthood of Righteous Philaret. As they bore the body of the saint to the cemetery, a certain man, possessed by the devil, followed the funeral procession and tried to overturn the coffin. When they reached the grave, the devil threw the man down on the ground and went out of him. Many other miracles and healings also took place at the grave of the saint.
After the death of the righteous Philaret, his wife Theoseba worked at restoring monasteries and churches devastated during a barbarian invasion.
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.
But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness! No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Do you think you can add one single hour to your life by taking thought? You might as well try by taking thought to work your way into being a foot taller!
And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or, ‘What shall we drink?’ or, ‘Wherewithal shall we be clothed’? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
“If thine eye be single:” a casual observer might think that this is a bit of something else tucked into a passage on a different topic, and most modern translations try to provide an equivalent rendering of “If thine eye be sound / whole”, perhaps with a footnote clarifying that the word has connotations of generosity. This much is of course true, but it is beside the point. “If thine eye be single” means “If your eye looks on God with an undiluted, unmixed gaze rather than trying to serve two masters.” And there is more to be said, but I am getting ahead of myself slightly. Let it be enough now to say that “If thine eye be single” is cut from the same cloth as the verses that surround it. But I am about to get ahead of myself.
Let me pick up another thread. There are a number of threads in this seamless tapestry, and they’re all interconnected. To pick up another thread, Christ says, “No man can serve two masters.” We may relate to money, and the things it can buy, like a servant that washes our clothes and dishes, builds a fire in the winter and cools the air in the summer, and so on and so forth. But Christ in the Sermon on the Mount does not call Money a servant, but a master. Treasures on earth may do two things: they can bring pleasure and luxury (a point which the Sermon on the Mount does not really discuss), and they can be looked for for security. And Christ unconditionally forbids us to look to money for our security, because the security we are to have is God’s providence and nothing less. My commentary on the Sermon on the Mount is called The Most Politically Incorrect Sermon in History, and for good reason. To pick up one thread, the whole concept of American money management, that you treat almsgiving like a luxury in that you get your ducks in order and then give a portion to others, is simply not present in the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount bids us to be like the birds of the air and the grass of the field, whom even Solomon with his yearly tribute of 666 seventy-five pound “talents” of gold never came close to. The Sermon on the Mount bids us trust in the providence of God. Money may have legitimate use; property may have legitimate use, and I am not poor like a monastic: I own both money and property. But the question is not whether trusting in God’s providence is really a secure alternative to financial planning; the question is whether financial planning is a valid substitute for trust in the Lord’s providence that leaves one as naked as Adam before the threats of the world, and the answer is no. People try to trust in financial planning because they don’t trust the most superficial sense of the Sermon on the Mount here: I can remember one Protestant pastor preaching, “Don’t spend your life protecting the center of things,” and he was right. We do have things we legitimately need, and our Creator out of all knows our needs better than we do. We are to pray for our daily bread, an exceedingly modest request and a formality in much of the first world, and trust that the Lord who guides us is the Lord who will provide us, and not because we have a financial plan that atheist and Christian alike could see as square and sound. We are to pray, but we do not need to inform God of our needs or how important our needs are; we are to trust in ways the atheist might find strange. And the entire Sermon on the Mount is an invitation to live the divine life as sons of God.
I am your owner. Receive freely of the food and drink I have provided.
Don’t drink out of the toilet!
And all the imposing “Thou shalt not”s in the Bible really boil down to “Don’t drink out of the toilet.” Drunkenness—not getting drunk once or twice but drunkenness being the new normal—is drinking out of the toilet, and any recovering alcoholic will tell you that bondage to alcohol is suffering you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. It takes humility to enjoy even pride, as G.K. Chesterton observed, and the further you sink in pride the more miserable things look: pride is drinking out of the toilet, as is lust. Lust is the disenchantment of the entire universe; it disenchants everything else and then disenchants itself. All sin is drinking out of the toilet, including seeking providence in things you own, but the second rule is a footnote to the first. “Don’t drink out of the toilet” is a footnote to “I am your owner. Receive freely of the food and drink I have provided you.” The Sermon on the Mount’s “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal” is a footnote to “But lay up for yourselves treasures in Heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and thieves do not break through and steal,” the words about “No man can serve two masters” is an invitation to serve the one Master whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light, and the dismissive rebuke to those who would seek a second-rate, fake, ersatz providence in something that is less than man, in cold, soulless gold or stock shares, is so that we may seek the providence of a Heavenly Father who knows and loves us better than we can ask and who can care and provide for us, in needs he himself created in us, better than all the shares of stock that the world will ever know.
The Ladder to Heaven
I will give perhaps one last long quote, if indeed anything can be given after these Gospel passages. The intent is not to transcend them further, but rather to open them up, and transcend their outer meaning to open up their inner heart. The quotes as I have treated them are a look at the literal plain sense of Scripture, which is perfectly legitimate, and is something like Dr. Who’s TARDIS: once you open them up, they are larger on the inside than on the outside.
We will begin at the beginning. The holy fathers of the Orthodox Church say that man was created in a state of pristine simplicity—pure awareness. In the beginning, his thoughts and memories were not diversified and fragmented as they are today, but were simple and one-pointed. He knew no mental distraction. While being wiser than any human being today, he was in a state of innocence, like a child, and in this state he lived in deep personal communion with God, and in harmony with the rest of creation.
Being in such close communion with God, primordial man participated directly in God’s grace, which he experienced as a divine and ineffable light dwelling within his very being. Here I am referring to the Orthodox Christian understanding of Grace, as the uncreated energy or power of God, in which God, Himself, is fully present. The holy fathers of the Church say that we can never know God’s essence, but we can know and experience God through His uncreated energy. Through God’s uncreated energy, or grace, we can participate in the divine life of God, Himself.
So in the beginning man had this grace dwelling with him, united with his soul. He was created in grace, and he possessed it as his own personal strength or power, but through the wrong use of his free will, he fell from the state of grace. Before, he had had communion with God. He had acted in accordance with the Way, the Tao, in accordance with the divine Logos. His fall was a departure from the Way, and this departure resulted in a corruption of his nature. Now grace was foreign to his nature, and he no longer had it living within him. He became spiritually dead, and this spiritual death made him subject to physical death.
With man’s departure from the Way, he lost the primal simplicity and became fragmented. His awareness was no longer single and one-pointed. As St. Macarius the Great wrote in the 4th century, “After his transgression, man’s thoughts became base and material, and the simplicity and goodness of his mind were entertwined with evil, worldly concerns.”
Also with his departure from the Way, man fell under the illusion of his self-sufficiency. Before, when he had lived in communion with God, he did not regard himself as self-sufficient. Living in harmony with the Way, he had acted spontaneously, without striving and without self-interest. When he stepped away from God, he fell to the lie that he could exist of himself. This is a lie, because without God willing him into existence, he would be nothing at all. Now man acted with calculation, no longer spontaneously, striving for the sake of personal gain, and pitting himself against others.
Man had been made to desire and to seek God, to rise ever higher toward God in the communion of love. But when he departed from the Way, he fell to love of himself, and to desire for created things. Since the desire for created things is against man’s original nature, it leads to suffering. It can never bring true, complete, and lasting happiness.
I referred to being “naked as Adam” earlier, but I was not in a position to unlock things from “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.” To have treasures on earth is not a matter of having possessions, but of wrongful attachment; the problem is in us, not in the possession, and even monks who have taken a vow of poverty may have certain property in a relative sense that may be taken away at any time that is really not much different from how non-monks may own property without falling into the trap of the rich young ruler. Many warnings are given about a world we are to avoid, but the term is occasionally made exceedingly clear: what is evil is not the rest of our Lord’s Creation, but our own passionate and wrongful attachment to it. It is like alcoholism: it doesn’t exist in bottles, but inside our heart.
I will now speak plainly of one rung on the Ladder to Heaven, and leave others to go further. It is wrong to hold grudges. Now that may seem a strange, if true, thing to say, but there is a real and direct connection. It is wrong for us to be attached to gold, and if getting rid of gold is the price of freedom, good riddance to the gold! (And this again is not because the gold is diseased but because we are diseased.) And if we are unable to let go of gold because we fear what we may lose if we loosen our grip on it, what is to be said for holding onto, and being afraid to let go of, festering wounds? For a grudge is in fact a festering wound that we cling to as if it were gold. And the state of blessedness is to hold every creation loosely, whether visible or invisible, and let go of passion. And we are to let go of grudges, which are a perverse treasure for us, and be as naked as Adam.
But there is more that we hold to our hurt that Adam didn’t. The unfallen Adam did not have plans as we have plans and did not have a modern identity as we have identity. Now we may have identity in the anthropological sense, meaning little more than that we speak a particular language a particular way and wear particular clothes a particular way, and that marks us as members of one community and not another. And we must wear some clothing and speak some language. But modern identity is much more, and much less, than its mere anthropological sense: no one, having ponderings about “Who am I?”, resolves those ponderings by saying “I dress and talk like other people I know.” That is not enough. That is nowhere near enough for such ponderings. The difference between identity in the merely anthropological sense is like the difference between the painter who paints a portrait intended to resemble someone, and the occultist who seeks to create an image just as imbued with life as the person portrayed, in a sense like the Pygmalion legend would have it. Making a picture that is like the person it represents is a feasible project to someone with basic artistic skills. Making a picture that is not merely lifelike, but fully living and alive, is God’s prerogative, and modern identity is an effort to make an identity that is much too alive.
And regarding our plans, I remember one priest talking about our having “godly ambitions.” There are some contexts where people add the word “godly” when they expect a person to sense that it is something other than “godly.” There is no saying in the Gospel that we shall not have plans at all, but there is at least a piecemeal condemnation of trying to plan things out under circumstances when one would think that carefully planning your words is most appropriate: But when they shall lead you, and deliver you up, take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do ye premeditate: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye: for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost. On a large scale and small, it is my experience that having and acting on big-P (P)lans is a recipe for not appreciating the here and now that God gives. Perhaps there is room for little-p (p)lans, perhaps we cannot do without planning of some sort, as we cannot do without identity in the anthropological sense. But all these things—grudges, modern identity, plans—bear the spiritual imprint of treasures on earth. Perhaps what is wrong with them may be seen in Fr. Damascene’s picture of Adam. It may be beside the point that Adam wore no clothes and did not know any language not common to all mankind. Could the unfallen Adam bear a grudge and hold on to a festering wound? Could he have plans that existed in his head that would in his mind trump God’s will unfolding around him? Could he have some curated collection of individual attributes he used to construct a “me, myself, and I”? In fact all of this would have been immeasurably foreign to him. The unfallen Adam and Eve may have had Paradise for a home, but they did not grasp it in a stranglehold; neither would they have tried to tighten a grip around plans, identity in the modern sense, or grudges. All these things that seem inescapable to us would be a jarring note in Eden, and in fact “Do not store up treasures on earth” in its inner chamber unfolds that we are not to hold physical things as treasures on earth, and we are not to hold invisible, mental things as treasures on earth either: the festering wound of a grudge, or plans, or identity is not to have our fingers close around it. If we climb this ladder that has the literal sense of the Gospel as its base, the higher rungs reach for something incomparably better than grasping at either visible or invisible things; “Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth” is a command to not grasp anything in our hands, but open them up to receive the hand of God and then hold his hand, not choke it with a death grip. It is “Don’t drink out of the toilet” all over again.
This is not the top, not near the top, of the ladder that reaches to Heaven. If it reaches above the ground level of the plain sense of the Gospel’s teaching about money, it does not yet rise too many steps higher: it simply recognizes that there are more things than treasure on earth we can hold with a deathgrip, and the treasures on earth we can wrongly store up are not only possessions but anything the heart can grasp. Our hands are not made for grasping, even in love. We can hold God’s hand, but not compel or grasp it; we can hold our neighbor’s hand, and perhaps we can grasp that—but only to our neighbor’s harm, and our own. But the higher one climbs the ladder, the more one is free to store up treasures in Heaven.
Would you like to climb higher on the Ladder to Heaven? Read The Ladder of Divine Ascent and the Philokalia for the science of spiritual struggle and some of the finest literature outside the Bible for spiritual growth.
And as promised, one last C.S. Lewis quote. The portion I have been able to track down is from the introduction to The Great Divorce: “You cannot take all luggage with you on all journeys; on one journey even your right hand and your right eye may be among the things you have to leave behind.” But the introduction itself also states: “I believe, to be sure, that any man who reaches Heaven will find that what he abandoned (even in plucking out his right eye) was precisely nothing: that the kernel of what he was really seeking even in his most depraved wishes will be there, beyond expectation, waiting for him in ‘the High Countries.'”
I would like to begin by telling a story. I was in a medical waiting room for a medical test, when a mother came in, pulling along a little girl by the hand, and taking care of the paperwork. The child had, by the looks of it, slammed her thumb in a door or something similar: there was a dark purple bulge under her thumbnail. I remembered when that had happened to me, and I was not a happy camper. No wonder the little girl was bawling her eyes out!
She was sitting in a chair, and I thought things might be better if she were engaged in a conversation. So, gently and softly, I told her a joke: “What kind of musical instrument does a dog play?” and answered, “A trombone.” She didn’t get it. So I tried to talk about several other things, trying and failing to engage her in conversation. After a few minutes, I had still managed an absolute zero percent success rate at making age-appropriate conversation that would allow her to contribute her half of the conversation. But I realized something: she was looking at me, and she was not crying. I had obtained her rapt attention, and for the moment she had completely stopped crying.
I was called and politely took my leave; a few minutes later, after my blood draw, I came out and the mother was giving TLC and comforting her daughter. The mother said, “You have a very gentle way about you.” I thanked her, shook the daughter’s hand, and told her, “I have to leave now, but I’m glad I met you.” The mother repeated once or twice, “You have a very gentle way about you.” And she caressed her little one.
This is a tale of treasure, and it arose in my heart, perhaps, because none of it is measured with dollars. My blood test cost money, of course, and the treatment of the child’s thumb presumably also cost money, of course, but the treasure is not measured in dollars. If the treasure were of gold, or some other material item, one could equate treasure with a high dollar value, but for the mother to pay me money, or for me to ask for it, would have been a crass way of defacing a treasure. There was joy and a lesson in it for me, and pain relief and a pleasant meeting for the child, but this, this treasure, falls under the heading of “The Best Things in Life are Free.”
By contrat, I would tell a joke:
I was trying to help a friend’s son look into colleges, and yesterday he handed me the phone, really excited, and said, “You have got to speak with these guys.” I fumbled the phone, picked it up, and heard, “—online. We offer perhaps the best-rounded of degrees, and from day one our students are equipped with a top-of-the-line Dell running up-to-the-minute Vista. We address back-end issues, giving students a grounding in Visual Basic .NET, striking the right balance between ‘reach’ and ‘rich,’ and a thorough groundings in Flash-based design and web design optimized for the latest version of Internet Explorer. Throw in an MCSE, and marketing-based communication instruction that harnesses the full power of PowerPoint and covers the most effective ways to make use of animated pop-ups, opt-in subscriber lists, and—”
I interrupted. “Excuse me, but what is your institution called?”
For those of you who have been spared the joke, there is a classic off-color joke where a group of performers approach a theatre owner or the like, are asked what they do and describe an X-rated show that is grosser than gross (bestiality, necrophilia, …), and when asked what they are called, say, “The Aristocrats.”
The fork off that joke above is that all of these mostly technological items, however expensive, are false treasure at best. The original “The Aristocrats” is plain in advertising anti-treasure; the latter take, in a Unix chauvinist’s way, has things that appear to be treasure but are really false treasure, anti-treasure that calls for the grosser-than-gross punch line. And perhaps more than one of those jokes is false treasure, but we won’t go into that.
My reason for mentioning treasure that is free, like the best things in life, and expensive anti-treasure, is to say that while many treasures may be worth money, and bigger treasures can be worth more money, real treasure is beyond money. The Best Things in Life are Free,as the saying goes.
Living for treasure
I live to create treasure. Actually I live to contemplate God, and worship his glory, but there are a million concrete ways one can contemplate God, and one of them is creating treasure. My website at CJSHayward.com is created to be a treasure, or a treasurehouse of treasures, and while there are pieces you could look at and say, “You botched this and that,” my intent is still to create a treasure. There are other areas where I try to create treasure (a picturebook of loved ones for a hospitalized child), but the greatest success I receive is to finish something and find it has been a treasure to the person who has received it.
And if ever there is treasure, he is God. Mankind and angels are treasures; there is a discussion in the Gospel where Christ is asked if it is lawful to pay a tax or not, asks to see the coin used to pay the tax, and asked whose image and superscription it was. “Give what is Caesar’s to Caesar, and what is God’s to God;” thus Jesus Christ appealed to a principle that whoever coins money has the authority to tax that money. Augustine picks up on this: “Caesar seeketh his image; render it; God seeketh his image; render it. Let not Caesar lose from you his coin: let not God lose in you His coin.” He explores it, and there is the suggestion at least that we are God’s coins: first and foremost by being struck with his image, but it cannot be too far from mind that coins could be struck on precious metal, that a coin is treasure. Augustine attends to the minor point, that the mere earthly coin with Caesar’s image is due to Caesar, but all the much more the coin imprinted in the image of God and nothing less, is due to God: a parish of faithful followers is much more a treasury than a room with chests of silver coins.
The Lord God Almighty and the Uncreated Light reigns over all; the Uncreated Light illumines the cherubim, seraphim, thrones, dominions, powers, authorities, principalities, archangels, and angels: the glory and treasure of the Lord thunder through rank on rank of angel host. The Mother of God bore God in her womb and exchanged with her Son: she gave him his humanity, and he gave to her from his divinity, leaving her as a treasure eclipsing all the angels. The treasure unfurls and unfolds on earth: the sacramental priesthood and the spiritual priesthood, songs, liturgy, angels, and ten thousand other treasures. And treasure is close to the heart of the treasure of the Church: a Church saying says, “If you have two small coins, you use one to buy bread for the altar, and the other to buy flowers for the icons.”
Touch is something deep which is lightly explored in my culture. I wish to explore it here.
It is characteristic of Western thought, probably in a tradition reaching back to the Greeks, to pay a strong degree of attention to sight when studying perception, to the exclusion of the other five senses. (The sixth sense is not ESP; it is the internal, kinesthetic sense, commonly called the sense of balance, which enables us to tell up from down; when this sense fails (after, for example, spinning around or drinking too much alcohol), we feel dizzy and become disoriented as to how to keep from falling over.) For example, in the Myers Psychology text, the vast majority of the space devoted to perception studied how we extract information from what our eyes report, so much so that ESP (which the authors did not believe in) received more attention and space than hearing, smell, taste, touch, and balance put together!
(I might incidentally comment that psychology, for all but the most recent times, has been explored as a part of philosophy, and in some ways has suffered more than any of the hard sciences from the separation. A lot of what goes on in psychology is truly bad philosophy, and would improve greatly if its theories were grounded in good philosophy. Behaviorism is a prime example of this.)
In speaking about touch, I intend not to generally talk about sex, for a couple of reasons. The first is that sexual technique, along with massage, is perhaps the one (two) narrow and restricted area of touch that people are taking seriously; manuals on sexual technique exist in droves. And I might incidentally mention that I do not know sexual technique — that will come if and when I get married. But even to if I were expert in sexual technique, and were writing to an audience of married couples, I do not think that I would write about sex. It is not because I despise sex — I believe it right and good that an entire book of Scripture, the Greatest of Songs, is pure erotica. It is for another reason, a reason that lies deeper.
The conception of romance and relationships in American thought is not nearly so universal as might be thought by someone who is from our time. At this point, I might shock the reader to drawing attention to how, in a great many cultures across much of time, people were happily married, sexually satisfied, and enjoying life, without ever having occur to them what modern America understands by romance. Romantic love was one of the great discoveries of the middle ages — a genuine discovery, because it was not really known.
If we exclude the supernatural love of agape, and the love-beyond-love of worship that is due to Jesus Christ, then we are left with four natural loves between human beings. There is the love of all other human beings, which applies even to strangers and even to enemies. Then there is the love of friends — a friend is both to be loved as a human being, and in a special way as a friend. There is next the love of one’s own family — family are to be loved as human beings, in a special way as friends, and in a more special way as family. Finally, there is the last love, a love which is romantic and sexual. A spouse is to be loved as a human being, in a special way as a friend, in a more special way as kin, and finally in the most special way as a lover, a lifelong partner and mate.
This fourth love does not stand on its own, and was never meant to in the first place. If we look in the Song of Songs, we see that the lover calls the beloved a woman, that the two are addressed as friends, and in particular he calls her his sister and then his bride. Even in a book all about sex, we see not sexual love in isolation, but sexual love as the crowning jewel, united with the other loves to make a rich and full marriage.
Romance, its delightful intoxication, is a wonderful and God-given thing. But it is transient, and when it wanes, there is (or at least should be) something far deeper than sex alone; that deeper, companionate love is what God intended as the basis for marriage, as thrilling as romance may be.
God created us as his image, and the particular way he in his goodness chose to do so was as a unity of spirit, soul, and body. The spirit, with its ability to love, is the greatest part, and love is greater than even rationality. But it is not the only part, or the only good. And even the word ‘part’ is deceptive; it suggests a collection of compartmental modules, when in fact there is a unity.
And in that unity, there is a spiritual way of drawing near and embracing by love; this is what Aquinas (for example) described as the will, seen not in the modern Nietzchian sense of iron determination, but rather as a recognition of good that inclines towards something. And in the spirit-soul-body unity by which God has blessed us, there is a physical way of drawing near and embracing by love. It is called touch.
If nothing else, by analogy at least, we should be able to look and see that among human loves there is a highest and superlative form of love in marriage, and yet the romantic love does not and should not stand in isolation, then sexual touch may be the highest, holiest, and most exciting form of touch by which God has blessed our race, but it probably wasn’t created in isolation to be the only touch — even in marriage.
And if I may push the analogy even further, I would say that that touch is absolutely wonderful while it lasts, but it is not the fundamental or foundational touch of physical love, even in marriage. Something else is.
What I am saying here may be more transparently obvious to women than to men. Women tend to feel more the need for physical affection, men the sexual drive. And many men, especially those who grew up in households with little physical affection, man not only not see the need for physical affection, but be uncomfortable with it. Even then, I would ask you to bear with me.
Our society has inherited the disastrous wake of Victorianism, and is a post-Victorian culture; I will include here an appendix an essay which I wrote on Victorianism as the death knell to sexual purity in Western culture. Apart from referring the reader to that, I will simply say that we’ve inherited a mess.
Victorianism, n. The death knell to sexual purity in Western culture.
Victorianism held sexual purity to be extremely important. All well and good, but it did not stop there. Victorianism believed sexual purity to be best approached via a Pharisaic guard around the Law. And, like every other guard around the Law, it did a trememdous amount of damage to numerous other things before destroying the very object it was meant to preserve.
Touch and community are vital elements of human health. This is witnessed in Scriptures that tell of John reclining in Jesus’s bosom and in the hands quickly extended to pets, one of the few situations where our society will allow an innocent touch to be an innocent touch. An infant who is not held will wither and die, and psychologists have a bluntly accurate term for the failure of parents to hold and cuddle their children a great deal: abuse. And of course the special kind of community that exists between a husband and wife is given a special kind of touch.
Victorianism looked at sex and did not quite see something which is fundamentally good within a certain context. It saw something which was essentially evil (but tolerable at best within a certain context). And, in progressively widening circles, encompassing different forms of touch further and further from what is necessarily foreplay, saw that there exists at least some possibility for that touch to be sexual (at least from the perspective of the younger monk), and placed on each one a label of “This is dirty. Avoid it.” Word such as “Greet one another with a kiss of love.” cease to be acknowledged as a divine command which was given for human good, and instead look like, um, an odd cultural thing which, um, shows, um, um, um…
The aim, it appears, was to end up with nothing that was sexual. The result was to make everything sexual, and create a major unanticipated problem.
God created people with certain needs, and when those needs are not met, Satan comes in with counterfeit substitutes. These things are hard enough to resist to someone whose needs are met with the genuine article; when there is an immense sucking vacuum coming from unmet needs, pushing away the counterfeits acquires a difficulty which is unbelieveable. A little girl who is deprived of a father’s hugs and kisses will grow into a young woman who has a tremendously difficult time avoiding sexual promiscuity, unsuccessfully searching in a series of abusive boyfriends’ embraces for enough love to fill the emptiness inside.
Fortunately, most of Victorianism did not quite leave a stain that dark and deep, but there is still a major problem with a culture that refuses to wholeheartedly say, “It’s OK. You may enjoy an innocent touch as an innocent touch.” There is still a failure to meet a need that God created people to have filled, and still an uphill battle to fight off the counterfeit substitutes.
In this century, Victorianism has crumbled, but, like every other evil, it fails to crumble in the ways that a sane person would want it to crumble. What disappeared was not the prohibition on friendly touch, but the belief that sexual sin is a deadly poison which should be fought tooth and nail. What appeared and took the place meant to be filled by innocent touch is something which is not innocent. Thus, Victorianism did a perfect job of making room and clearing the way for a great deal of lewdness.
Current Western culture is saturated with sexual sin, not despite, but because of the fact that it is the continuation of Victorian culture.
(There is one note I should like to mention before I forget. The careful reader may ask why I am undertaking to write about touch and have other people read it; the practice does not involve touch as thinking about logical reasoning involves reasoning. My response is threefold: (1) You have a point to an extent; reading or writing this is not an act of touch. (2) There is a place for thinking and theory in a way that is never intended to be complete or self-sufficient. Christian theology is not an insular system of ideas, but an integrated part of the walk of faith in which one loves and is loved by God. (3) Theory strengthens and furthers practice, as physics furthers engineering. The invention of devices is far older than any empirically accurate knowledge of physics — but that doesn’t mean that physics didn’t add a whole new dimension to engineering.)
Having talked about the philosophy and theology surrounding touch, the reader may well be wondering if I am going to say anything about touch itself. And the answer is ‘yes’. What I have been doing, or attempting to do at any rate, is to establish a framework that will make it possible to do so.
The first thing I will say about touch (perhaps belaboring the obvious, but remember George Orwell’s words, “It is the first duty of intellectuals to state the obvious.”), is that it is an immediate, proximal mode of perception. Sight, hearing, and smell, all work at a distance; touch only works when you are right with someone or something. This has rich potential for analogy — for instance, as you can only feel something if you draw near to it, so also there are ways in which you can only know something if you love it.
The second thing is that it is a baby’s primary sense — not sight. Only later does sight come to dominate. The baby is continually engaged in a tactile exploration of the world. He puts things into his mouth, not because plastic, cloth, wood, and stone taste wonderful, but because the tongue is the most sensitive part of the human body to touch — more sensitive than even the fingertips. And, long before the words “I love you.” have any meaning to a child, touch constitutes the baby’s awareness of his mother’s love. He is enfolded by her body for nine months as she carries him, and when born he is held, and hugged and kissed. He is fed, not in some abstract way, but by nursing — a very special and intimate touch. It is presumably not coincidental that the focus of a baby’s eyes is not twenty feet to infinity as with an adult, but eighteen inches — the distance between a mother’s breast and her nose.
The third thing I would like to say is that, thought touching is a surface to surface contact, it is anything but superficial. This is why doctors touch their patients when they want to know what is happening inside the body. In a few cases, exploratory surgery is necessary — they need to cut a person open to find out what’s inside. But most of the time, they can probe and find out what’s happening just by touching.
And, medicine aside, touch can communicate a wealth of information about a person’s emotions. Muscle tension, skin temperature, sweat, rate and quality of pulse — all have a story to tell about what’s going on inside a person’s heart.
The fourth thing is that touch is deep. I am not sure exactly how to convey this, as I am trying to express something greater than what I myself know. But, in the absence of perfect knowledge, I’ll give an analogy.
I have some training in martial arts. I have just enough knowledge to begin to appreciate the wealth of knowledge I do not know. I have seen the basics of pressure points, joint locks, and hip throws. I have seen enough to recognize that there are subtleties which elude me, and rich veins to explore. If I were to devote the rest of my life to the study of martial arts, I would not lament with Alexander, “Alas! I have no more worlds to conquer.” There would always be more there, always be more to explore.
For two specific kinds of touch — sex, and massage — there has been considerable exploration, and (though everybody can do them at least minimally) there are great books from which most people have a lot to learn.
Given what I know about God and his creation, I would be very surprised to learn that the rest of touch is shallow — that you learn a certain amount, and then there is nothing left to explore.
The fifth thing, in relation to the fourth, consists of a couple of analogies concerning what we may find in expoloring touch. I believe that we find something like a language, but a language, a communication, that is alogical and non-symbolic. (This may, indeed, be a lot like one of the things feminism is searching for. I’ll have to run this by a women’s studies professor.) I believe it also to be like art and music — in an act that is creative, and an expression of beauty. I believe it also to be qualitative rather than quantitative by nature — returning to the theme of an alogical language, this would communicate not the rule-based formal manipulations computers are capable of, but the qualities, the experience, of which computers are incapable.
I would now like to engage in a thought experiment. I will ask you to imagine three times that you put your hand into a dark hole in a wall, through which you cannot see.
The first time, you almost hurt yourself touching a sharp corner. As you feel inside, you recognize the shape of a box — a hard metal box. It is cold, unresponsive, and unyielding; it does not acknowledge your presence.
The second time, you meet no resistance; you have plunged your hand into a bucket of water. The water is too responsive and too yielding; there is nothing there but an acknowledgement of your presence. It has no shape but the shape of your hand; there is nothing there. So you pull your hand out and dry it off.
The third time you stick your hand in, you meet something that is yielding and yet solid, something that responds not out of what your hand is alone, but what it is. You meet something that is warm. You touch another human hand. As you touch, it wraps around, clasps, embraces your hand. You have finally found something very good.
Human touch is, or at least should be, like the third experience. It is not just a moderate between two extremes; it is something more. It is warm.
In the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong understood very well that warfare is won, not by destroying soldiers, but by destroying soldiers’ morale. That is why they had a very poor kill ratio, and were fighting a modern war against an enemy that vastly outranked them in resources, and still were never defeated.
One of the many weapons in that arsenal was called a ‘ballbuster’. It was a non-lethal anti-personnel land mine with a three foot blast radius.
Of the U.S. soldiers hit by such mines, there were some that still had male hormones produced by their bodies afterwards. And investigations showed that they were the men who had been involved in real, intimate relationships beforehand. Not, presumably, the common soldier’s visit to the brothel, or the rape of local women that has been a part of warfare since time immemorial. That is a dismal rule whose exceptions are few and far between. But real relationships. Those men still had testosterone.
The most sexual organ in the human body is not the genital organ, nor even the gonads. It is the brain.
Sex goes much further than just a physical act. It unites souls. It was created as such.
And again seeing as God has created us as spirit-soul-body unities, isn’t there every reason to believe that this is not isolated to sex? That when we touch other people, it need not be only wiht our bodies, but can also be with spirit and soul?
Madeleine L’Engle wrote of kything in A Wind in the Door. In one way, it is a colorful and fantastic picture of prayer, that shows its beauty. In another way, it seems to capture, not so much the literal fact, as the way of the best touching.
Individualism is a very impoverished notion of personhood, and touch is not a thin bridge between two essential islands, nor an act that one person (subject) does to another person as to an inanimate object; the latter, if a picture of any kind of “touch”, is a picture of rape.
Aquinas viewed teacher teaching and learner learning as part of the same activity; another helpful notion is that of intersubjectivity — it is not between isolated subject and object, but between two connected subjects. This doesn’t mean that there is uniformity and absolute symmetry; nursing mother and child cannot simply swap places. But it is intersubjective.
This may be an interesting way to view what constitutes the difference between making love and rape. Physically, the two are not very different — they have much, much more in common than making love and nursing a baby do, or than rape and murder (or even two kinds of murder) do. But spiritually, they are leagues apart. Making love is between two connected subjects, and rape is done by a subject to an object; spiritually and philosophically, these are two very different things. And it might be that the way rape crushes a woman’s psyche has much less to do with the physical event than the fact that a subject, an ‘I’, is reduced to an object, an ‘it’.
(Of course, another aspect is that the greatest evils come from twisting the greatest goods; Hitler could not have done one tenth the damage he did unless he were the legendary leader that he was.)
Something like this is related to why the mystics refer to God as ‘I’ without blaspheming. If a person must be understood as a subject, as an ‘I’ and not an ‘it’, how much moreso the Lord God of Hosts?
I would like to now talk about different forms of touch. I will not attempt here to begin in a logical order, first things first, because I am taken by a whimsy, a quality. I will begin talking about one of my favorite touches, tickling.
In a lighthearted mood, I coined the following beatitude:
Blessed are the ticklish,
For the touch of a friend shall fill them with laughter.
Tickling is light. It is a tactile tease. It is carefree, spontaneous, and whimsical. It is trusting. It is the least solemn of all the touches; it is serious and intimate, but in a completely silly and nonsensical way — thank God! Its very seriousness and intimacy is ruined if it becomes heavy and what most people think of when they hear ‘serious’. There is something special about it, something so special that both tickling and other things are ruined if, for example, someone tickles a person whose friend just died. Tickling can greatly enrich and deepen our understanding of what it means to be serious, if we let it.
There is an infinite difference between a friend’s playful teasing, and a cynic’s sneering. Neither is solemn or formal, but they lack solemnity and formality for very opposite reasons, just as a baby and an old man can lack hair, not because they are of the same age, but because they lie at opposite extremes.
A friend’s teasing is infinitely respectful. It is a respect which lies far too deep to confine to being somber, a respect which must bubble up into exuberance and say, “I take you far too seriously not to take you lightly.”
At this point, I will treat a certain aspect that may run the risk of offending feminists; I will ask for a suspended judgment until at least I have made my case. I am going to say this: sometimes ‘no’ means ‘no’, and sometimes ‘no’ means ‘yes’.
I am not here justifying the claim that “Her lips said ‘no’, but her eyes said ‘yes’.” That is stated chiefly by men who lack the honesty to admit, perhaps even to themselves, that “Her lips and her eyes said ‘no’, but my lust said ‘yes’.” I will damn that alongside any feminist.
What I am rather saying is that tickling exemplifies a pattern, a pattern of love and community that does not reduce to words. Consent is an important principle, but using explicit verbal words to inquire is a last resort, usually only necessary when two people do not know each other very well. And there is something deep enough about consent that it, and furthermore its recognition, are entirely compatible with saying ‘no’ or ‘stop’, or offering physical resistance.
As a paradigm example of this, I would point to a parent chasing around a little child in a back yard. The child is trying to escape, and in a sense doesn’t want to be caught. But in a deeper sense, he does want to be caught. (I at this point remember one woman, who, disappointed that I had stopped tickling her when she pushed my hands away, told me, “I am blocking you because I want you to push past.”) This is why it is good for a child’s psyche to be chased by a parent, even (especially) if he is caught, and it is very bad for a woman’s psyche to be chased by a rapist, even if she gets away.
Chasing, or tickling, is or at least should be an intersubjective act of love. What fundamentally distinguishes it from rape is not so much what lies on the surface as that deep below the surface, the one is done between two subjects, while the other is done by a subject to an object. The deep connection between two subjects is what enables ‘no’ to mean ‘yes’.
And tickling is not so much for the tickling as for the other person. It is not an act in isolation; it is a part of love. This provides another distinction between tickling and rape. The rapist does not truly desire the woman, even as just an object, an ‘it’; he desires the rape, the action, an action that exists self-sufficient, by itself and without any need of a larger context. Perhaps the rapist is to be greatly pitied alongside the victim; it does not cause consciously realized unending torment as being raped does, but it is a single act within oneself, an act of masturbation that involves an unfortunate woman, rather than an intersubjective act of love that transcends self. Even if rape did not violate a woman’s personhood and were not morally wrong, it would still be greatly be desired for his own sake that a rapist could let go of rape and give-receive a real hug.
The next touch I’ll mention is holding hands.
Someone once said, “If all other arguments failed, the thumb alone would convince me of God’s existence.” The hand is one of the most beautiful parts of the body; it contains the glory of the whole body in miniature. If you haven’t done so already, at least once in your life, I would encourage you to notice hands, to look at someone’s hands (yours or somebody else’s) as you would an Impressionist nude. I don’t think it is quite an accident that Michelangelo’s David, the single greatest male nude in Western sculpture, has hands that are just a little bit larger than they are proportioned in real life. The David’s hands are exquisite.
The hand is in a sense the most useful tool we have. It is amazing, strong, dextrous, sensitive, and versitile. It is uniquely adapted both to manipulate, and to feel and explore. And so it is not a surprise that one of the touches God has given us is holding hands — an equal touch between two sensitive areas of the body, which can last.
Our culture understands holding hands primarily in a romantic context — which it certainly can be, but need not be. At least a hint of this is seen in that parents hold little childrens’ hands. I still hold my twelve year old brothers’ hands, and I am happy to do so.
In many Islamic nations, men hold hands in public. This is not a sexual act (and, unfortunately, is not extended to women — even wives), and the fact that it may take some effort to really realize by many of us is reflective of a fundamental problem in how many of us view sex and morality.
Dorothy Sayers, in her essay, “The other six deadly sins,” points out that a man could be a liar and a drunkard, greedy and avaricious, wrathful, prideful, and dead to every noble instinct, and still we would not call him immoral, because we reserve the term ‘immorality’ to talk about — well, you know, immorality. Thus a term that was meant to cover the whole range of vices is reduced to referring to just one, because we are two embarrassed to call that one vice by its name, lust. Lust is one of the seven deadly sins; it is not the deadly sin. And the Church has always recognized that the cold-hearted sins, the sins of mind and spirit such as pride and greed, are infinitely worse than the disreputable sins of the flesh, such as lust. In the Inferno, the incontinent occupy the very least and outermost circle of Hell proper; it is only far deeper that we find sins like pride, the sin by which the highest and holiest being in all creation became the Satan, the Accuser who stands before God accusing the saints day and night.
(One thing that I beg of you here — do not flatter me by saying that I am original in claiming this; do not credit me with this innovation. Christianity has taught this for ages; it has just become a bit obscured recently.)
Homosexual lust, in this scheme, is in a sense worse than heterosexual lust; it is a perversion of nature in a way that even adultery is not. But it is not the vice beyond all vices, and it does not compare even to pride. And it is really paid a far-reaching and very undue tribute when it is held in the fear that it is, in how (for example) many men in our culture fear touching each other. All sin is serious, but in most cases the possibility of homosexual lust is not that serious of a threat that men need to be afraid of each other. Therefore, the Islamic world has it right in the level of touchiness and contact that it has between men.
Holding hands is a touch that can be deepened by pressure, variations in pressure, and responsiveness; one of the most common and basic letters in this alphabet is in giving a squeeze or answering a squeeze with another squeeze; it is a theme which has infinite variations. And this provides a lot of depth to a touch, making a touch more touchy, the very opposite of holding hands like a dead fish.
I would like to make a brief interlude to talk about the question of what touches are sexual — and to refuse to give a Pharisaic catalogue.
The Pharisees attempted the doomed project of an exacting guard of rules, more specifically the wrong type of tules. By contrast, I would like to draw an analogy with what C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity about modesty in dress across cultures. Different cultures vary greatly in what social rules they have concerning covering and showing different parts of the body. But having a principle of modesty does not, even in cultures that do not wear any clothing. It is like language; what sounds bear what meaning is highly variable. But having sounds that bear meaning, and parts of speech and grammar, is not. That is universal — and the deaf subculture is the exception that proves the rule; even when they can’t hear to be able to naturally converse as everyone else does, they use their eyes and hands in a language of hand signs.
Another analogy might be found in comparing the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico. Much (not all) of the Canadian border lies at a single latitude; there is a near-universal rule that tells, “One mile north of this latitude, you are in Canada; one mile south, you are in the U.S.A.” But no such rule exists between the U.S. and Mexico; there are some latitudes that (given that one is on land in North America) tell you that you’re in the U.S., and some latitudes that tell you that you are in Mexico, but a great many latitudes that could be either in the U.S. or Mexico.
However, the U.S.-Mexican border is just as sharply defined as that between the U.S. and Canada; the latitudinal rules fail in many cases, but there is still a razor sharp distinction to be made.
That distinction is made in the Holy Spirit; it is the Spirit who is the structure of obedience revealed in the New Testament, and that gives the believer the power to obey.
Any kind of touch can be sexual, and a good many can be non-sexual as well. And the power to be pure, the power to reserve sexual touch for its proper and special place, comes to the believer through the Holy Spirit.
I would like to say something more about tickling: it is dependent, not only on body, but also on mind. I will not belabor the obvious point that certain touches tickle some people, but rather point out something else: whether something tickles, depends on how it is perceived. A thin cotton shirt touches very lightly — but it does not tickle. And conversely, some vivid use of language can tickle from far away.
The kiss seems to receive the most attention in Scripture. The second verse of the Song of Songs says, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” And half the New Testament epistles say, in their closing exhortations, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” In a sense, the kiss is a symbol of all contact in Scripture. And it is significant that the prophets record Elijah being told when he is desparate, “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Ba’al, nor have their mouths kissed him.” It is so great of a touch that it cannot be bestowed on an idol.
To those who have seen it, I would recall the movie The Last Temptation of Christ. The kisses in even a seriously flawed movie stand out; the emotional charge bristles, and the final kiss between Christ and Judas stands as a tribute to how even a non-sexual kiss can be intense and passionate. And the kisses recorded in Genesis stand as a hallmark of that book’s sensitivity to emotion.
Someone writing about music talked about how, as a person’s experience with music grows, the keys gain different and distinct emotional residues, different moods, different qualities. And the same is true of touch, only moreso. There are twelve major and twelve minor keys, and that is fixed; but with each of the basic touches, there are variants, and variants of variants. A kiss may be on the lips or not on the lips, just a peck or longer, and so on, and these allow not just discrete combinations, but a continuum. And this provides room for great subtleties in emotional significance.
I just got back from my cognitive science class, and I believe that touch provides a good illustration of what is lacking in the classical model of cognition.
The classical model of cognition describes human thought as an essentially rule-based manipulation of symbols, ideally manifested in a formal game such as chess. Of one area where it is lacking — that of simulation, where people manipulate in their heads models or representations of things — I will not treat here. But there is another area which I *will* treat; I am not contesting that there are parts of the human mind that are well described in that manner, but rather that it is a description of a part, and not, by a long stretch of imagination, the whole. And so I will outline seven differences.
The first is that chess is manifestation-independent, while touch is fundamentally qualitative. Perhaps the best way I can put it is this. Humans happen to refer to chess pieces by poetic names, such as ‘knight’ and ‘castle’. But that is entirely irrelevant to the game; Deep Blue beat Kasparov without having the faintest inkling of the romance we know, of knights in shining armor and fair maidens in distress. And chess would be the same if Bill Gates played it with helicopters on rooftops; that is, the real game of chess can be separated from the physical objects which happen to be used in its play.
But this is not true of touch — at all. Chess is still chess without a chessboard; and it happens in blindfolded masters’ games. But a kiss would not still be a kiss without bodies, and I could not touch in anything remotely resembling the way i do now, if my soul were transplanted to the body of a steel robot.
There is a formal sense in which the numbers 1297 and 1348 are different, and in which we can recognize them as such, but there is a much deeper way in which red and green affect us differently; there is a fundamental qualitative difference in looking at two objects of different colors that we cannot experience in simply thinking about two different numbers. This kind of quality, which occurs incidentally (if at all) in chess, is fundamental to touch.
And in some way, this touches on a problem in Western thought, an occurrence of the ancient Gnostic heresy which recognizes us as spirits and minds, but refuses to give any recognition to us as animals whom God created to be fundamentally physical as well as fundamentally spiritual. Our bodies are not a merely coincidental attachment to our minds; God created us to be a certain way physically as well as a certain way spiritually, and body is not to be dispensed with or altered as we please. Touching is an act of the body, involving mind and spirit as it may, and it is (God be praised) not something we can simply assign the way we assign a particular shirt to cover us. Seeing everything as chess makes us pure minds who have the misfortune to be encumbered by some (possibly mutable) matter; seeing some things as touch recognizes us as blessed with some particular bodies, which are a part of us as much as reason is a part of us. God has given us a very earthy spirituality.
The second difference is that chess is driven by a single objective in the future, to which any particular action is a mere instrument, while touch embraces now and recognizes things as intrinsically good. (Now the truth is not either alone but both, and if I do not talk much about our ultimate future goal, it will only be by a restriction of attention.) In chess, there is one objective — checkmating your opponent before he can checkmate you — and nothing else is done because it is good in and of itself, but only because it can function as a means to that end. A checkmate is never made by a single move, except between two terrible players; it is carefully prepared in anticipation. Now goals, ends, and sacrifices are very important, probably more important than what I am concerned with here. But touch doesn’t work that way. A touch is not given because of what it will enable at some later moment, as a mere means to an end; it is given as valuable in and of itself. And we do not touch in the future, but touch now; the now (as well as the future) is given by God’s hand.
The third difference, which is probably more restricted to chess and other games than formal systems in general, but which I will mention, is that chess is oppositional, while touch is synergistic. What is good for your opponent in chess is bad for you, and vice versa. The success of one person necesitates the failure of another. Now there are principles of good sportsmanship, but these come because people are better than chess, and not from chess itself. Chess sets people at odds with each other, in and of itself. Touch, on the other hand, is of a cooperative and synergistic nature; for one person to benefit means in general the benefit and not the detriment of another. You will fare badly with someone who plays chess well; you will fare well with someone whose touch is good.
The fourth difference is that chess is digital and discrete, while touch is continuous. Touch moves not simply from black and white to a greyscale, but even further — to colors, where there are many different ways of being bright. I have talked about this before, so I will not treat it in detail here beyond saying that it ties into the qualitative aspect.
The fifth difference is that chess is abstract, while touch is concrete. Abstraction extracts certain key features, and then leaves the specific instances behind, which is a powerful thing to do, and good, but not the only kind of thinking which people do, and not the kind of thinking that most people are best at. The concrete takes a specific instance and explores it in detail, in specific things that abstraction leaves out. Touch is concrete, and can push one specific contact much deeper than is possible abstractly with every contact at once. Touch has the depth of concreteness rather than that of abstraction.
The sixth difference is that chess is logical and rational, while touch is emotional and perceptive. The chess type of thinking is best done by someone who can retreat into himself, and carry out cool, logical operations without regard for the outside world. Emotions are irrelevant. Touch, on the other hand, is something which emotions and the external world matter a great deal for; touch should be moved and moving, and it depends far less on isolated calculation than a sensitivity to other people. It is perceptive, connected, and interactive.
The seventh and final difference I will mention here is that chess is self-contained, while touch resonates of something greater. Once you know the rules of chess, you have no need to refer to anything outside of it, but touch is part of something far greater. It is a part of love, of the very highest potential of the imago dei. To understand the profound difference between making love and rape, you need to go past the touch alone and look at far greater things — to see how one is part of the sacred one-flesh union which God has given us, and the other is one of the most crushing and dehumanizing blows that one person can inflict on another.
Another facet of what something greater there is, may be found in the older and somewhat broader conception of Romance. I am not only referring to the romance that goes on between a man and a woman, but a broader sense of — poetry. It is related to the innocent and childlike wonder that looks and sees the real beauty in so many things, that is obscured so often by jaded eyes.
There is something haunting and elusive, something which we can chase but cannot catch, something beautiful. This something is why so many people have looked at woods and believed that there might be fairies dancing, or looked at a pool of water and seen that there might be a nymph. There is a sense of poetry, a sense of something beautiful. You cannot pin it down and hold a gun to its head, but it will surprise you.
This Romance is something which makes itself manifest in touch, or to put it another way, touch is laced with Romance; it is one of those beautiful things by which beauty surprises us.
Having lived in France, I rather miss the custom of friends giving kisses on alternate cheeks when they meet; there is something about a kiss that is delicate and embodies a tiny beauty. We do not give each other kisses in consolation; hugs are more fitting to those times. Of all the different touches, I think that the kiss is (to me, at least — there is a good subjective element here) the one most laced with Romance.
The handshake originated as a means of occupying someone’s weapon hand so as to afford some protection when he was within striking range. That is, it was a gesture of mistrust.
To see what it has become, is in my estimation a tribute to the nature of touch, and a tribute to the better side of humanness. Touching hands upon a meeting has become a greeting, a welcome, and I have received some warm handshakes that felt like hugs.
Hugging is perhaps the most equitable and universal of touches (at least in our culture; I acknowledge and understand that much of what I am writing may be culture bound, but even a non-universal cultural perspective can have great merit). It is the one touch I can think of that is fitting both after something very good has happened and after something very bad has happened; when someone is at a low point especially, a hug is one of the most simple and human actions of love and support, from one person to another.
In the book of Job, we read before any of the lengthy speeches, that Job’s three friends came, and sat with him in silence for a week because they saw his misery was so great. And this is the one thing which they did for which they were not reprimanded. There is a time when sorrow and agony are great, and even the best of words are too much of a burden to bear. In that time, it is a tremendous comfort to have a friend who will come, forgo the usual bad habits about always having to do something, and sit in silence, sharing in your pain, sharing with you his presence. And a hug, moreso than any other touch, is very appropriate then.
But hugs are far more than that. They can also be soft hugs, bear hugs, gentle hugs, pick-me-up hugs, and all sorts of other possibilities.
There was a man by the name of Bob Sklar at one of the places I worked, who would give all manner of friendly insults; the only time he didn’t insult you was if he was angry with you, and then you were in trouble.
Something like this is descriptive of banter; it is a sign that everything is going well. As an example of how that can fail, I would point to its absence in the situation concerning racial humor.
If my guess is correct, at least some readers had a significant jump in tension level — am I going to advocate racism in the form of jokes? There are substantial racial tensions, so that people in many situations are walking on eggshells, afraid to tell jokes involving race because it might be taken as a sign of racism — nobody seems to consider the revolutionary idea that some people might tell jokes involving race for the same reason they tell jokes not involving race — because they find them funny, and want to share a bit of good-natured mirth.
The one major exception is the exception that proves the rule. It is acceptable to joke about your own race — we are not too completely thick-skulled to think that (for example) a Jew might have reasons besides anti-Semitism for telling jokes about Jews. The fact that an exception be of such nature is a testament to the strength of the rule.
If nothing else, I must regard such a state of affairs as unfortunate for the sake of humor. If you have had the good fortune to know a few Jews as I have, you will no doubt know that the Jewish consciousness has produced a number of jokes which are subtle, clever, and extremely funny. I will quote two of my favorite ones here:
At a Jewish wedding, how do you tell which branch it is?If it’s an orthodox wedding, the bride’s mother is pregnant. If it’s a conservative wedding, the bride is pregnant. If it’s a reformed wedding, the rabbi is pregnant.
I take this one to be a good meta-joke as well as a joke. There are four branches of something called Judaism; the fourth, reconstructionism, is far out in loonie land, a sort of Jewish PC-USA. And it is both fitting and amusing that the joke doesn’t mention them.
A Jewish man named Jacob has fallen on hard times; he has lost his job, and goes to the synagogue to pray.”God? Could I please win the lottery?”
He doesn’t win the lottery, and not too much later his house is broken into, and everything of value is stolen. Visibly upset, he goes to teh synagogue again.
“God, I have done a lot for you, and I don’t ask for too much. Please, I beg you, please let me win the lottery.”
This week, not only does he not win the lottery, but his house burns down and his car is destroyed by a hit and run driver. Again he goes and prays.
“God, I have served you my whole life, and I don’t ask for too much at all. I have taken good care of my wife and children, and I want this money for them and not just for myself. I do so much and ask for so little. Please, God, please, can’t you let me win the lottery just this once?”
The voice of God booms forth, and fills the synagogue, saying,
“Jacob, meet me half way on this one. Buy a stupid ticket!”
Q: What do you say to a Puerto Rican in a three piece suit?A: “Will the defendant please rise?”
I mention these jokes specifically because they disturb how we are trying to have races live together peaceably. That such jokes are not often told may be slightly sad from a humor perspective, but it is also a sign of a much deeper problem, and for this problem I will again go to Jews for a treasure, an even greater treasure this time. I hope you might see why I would tell offensive jokes.
This treasure is the word ‘shalom’, which means peace — a rich and full peace, a peace which is not merely characterized by what is absent — physical, violent strife — but goes much further. Shalom as understood by Jews is a positive state of well-being, a state of justice and equity — “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like ever-flowing streams.” In my view, the best way to characterize this peace is to say that it is the manifest presence of love.
What we now have between races is not shalom; it is only a whitewashed wall. And it does not really help matters to put on another coat of whitewash, and proscribe racial humor because of how dangerously it threatens to reveal the racial tensions we pretend aren’t there, and how dangerously it threatens something even more terrifying — to make a human to human contact in mirth, to separate us from our separateness and let us see each other as brothers and sisters, the sons and daughters of one man and one woman.
Roughhousing is very dear to my heart, in part because it can only exist where there is shalom. It is too energetic, too real, not to destroy a whitewashed wall, and therefore if roughhousing can be enjoyed, there is a real shalom there, a shalom deep enough to take a bit of mock conflict on the surface and still be the strong flow of love between real people. In its own way, its obnoxious roughness achieves what a thousand polite and distant handshakes can never accomplish.
Touch is not simply a tame thing in a box, and — while there are certain patterns of touch that are hit on more often than others — there is always more. I, for instance, am quite fond of grabbing my little brothers’ noses, and tugging on their ears, and so on and so forth. These silly — or sometimes not so silly — little touches we make up have their place, their niche, as well. And other cultures, while almost certainly sharing foundational elements such as hugs and kisses, will have their own touches and their own variations on themes. What exactly this may be is variable, as the exact sounds of a language are variable. Having a language capable of communication is not. What I am writing in these pages is only one of a legion of possibilities on the topic; others can and should address other things that I omit.
Another aspect of touch is that it is free and voluntary. The Christian understanding is not quite the same as the overblown (or underinterpreted) American notion, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t substantial freedoms.
“If you love something, set it free; if it doesn’t come back, it was never yours to begin with.”
Another critical aspect of touch is that it is voluntary, that saying ‘no’ is an option. A part of what makes a touch enjoyable is the knowledge that it is not forced on you, that it comes from a love not only great enough to touch, but also and furthermore great enough not to touch. Another part of what makes rape rape is that the victim has no choice in the matter — that she is in fact in one of the most utterly powerless and defenseless situations, both physically and psychologically, that a person can be in. Then what should be one of the greatest goods becomes one of the greatest evils. The only other comparable situation I can think of is abortion, especially a partial birth abortion in which a child begins to receive that great and unique embrace called ‘birth’, and then his head is cut open and his brains are sucked out, live and unanaesthetized.
The nature of this freedom means, in particular, the freedom to become bound, the absence of which is an unnatural and constricting shackle. <<La liberté totale est la pire des prisons.>> — total liberty is the very worst of prisons. The poetic, the romantic, the true freedom is the freedom which can choose a good, not merely for a moment, but permanently. This freedom, rather than having to re-evaluate all of the time and have no solid basis to rely on, is truly free, infinitely more free than if every decision and commutment is in danger of being revoked at any time. This freedom is the basis for marriage and parenthood, a freedom that chooses permanently to be available to another person in touch and love.
There is one last specific touch I would like to mention, and that is massage. I do not mean to give an account of how to massage, as there are good books on it. But I will say this: that it is the touch of a healer, that it goes past the surface to work inside the body. It is perhaps the most involved and giving of non-sexual touches, and I regard it as not entirely unfortunate that it is the one non-sexual touch that it is easy to come by books on.
Touch is one of the blessings that lies far beyond Mammon. It’s free.
To begin what may well be the last section of this treatise, I will talk about something that is not so much a specific touch, as a topic relevant to touch. That is the difference between contract and covenant.
The contract is a very modern and very impoverished notion of the covenant. A contract is an external artifice which binds a person’s actions. A covenant is an internal reality which binds persons themselves. A contract is shallow. A covenant is profound.
The contract, especially the social contract, is the impoverished notion of community that corresponds to a view of people as isolated and essential individuals and islands, between which thin strands of bridges are erected as a minimal concession to our inability to function as absolute islands. It is a superficial modification to a basis of individualism.
Christianity is not an individualistic religion, and it has a much more rich, complex, and multifaceted view of personhood — for example, the insistance that we are both as much spirit as any angel, and as much animal as any beast. And it claims both that we have a profound individual side, and a profound corporate side — and that these two truths are not only not exclusive, but complementary. The individual side, which I have not treated here only due to a restriction of attention, is one which (for example) solitude figures in deeply. Many things are a part of both facets. Our uniqueness and difference, for example, is perhaps most visibly related to our individual natures, but Paul’s talk about the body — which needs not thirty-two ears but a great variety of different, equal, and necessary body parts, each in its proper place — shows how our differences can and should contribute to community as well.
The view of touch as a specific action defined by the consent of two individuals, with no intrinsic meaning in and of itself, is to the Christian view of touch as the concept of contract is to the Christian understanding of covenant — an impoverished and woefully inadequate simplification and truncation. Touch is not something accidental, which means whatever we decide that it means; it is part and parcel of who we are, with a meaning ordained by God. It is a part of love and community; it is a physical aspect of the very highest and holiest in the imago dei.
John wrote at the end of his account of the Gospel that he did not record everything which Jesus said and did, and that he supposed that if everything which Jesus said and did were written down, the whole world would not have room for all the books which would be written. Christ’s life is inexhaustible; even the four brief accounts which have come down to us from the apostles are themselves inexhaustible. It is one of the marks of what is great and profound.
I am drawing this work to a close rather arbitrarily — not because there is no more to be said, but because I decided that I would write for the length of the notebook I had chosen, and draw a line of moderation there. Instead of just writing forever, I am stopping to type it up, print it out, share the copies with other people, and what is most important of all, touch them.
I would ask you to do the same. I hope that you have enjoyed this; I hope that I have stimulated you to think; I hope that I have shared with you some good insights. Don’t cut this work short by stopping there. Go out and touch someone.
Epilogue, 21 June 03
Since I first wrote this, about six years have elapsed. I have since let it simmer inside me, and I have a couple of things to mention.
The first has been that what I wrote is incomplete. It’s not quite in a mature state. One caring, touch-y friend observed that there was something forced in my touch.
The second has been a realisation which crystallised after two comments. The first comment when one friend said, “You and Robin hug differently from most people.” I was surprised and asked, “How?” He said, “You hug with the whole of yourself.”
The other comment came when I asked a close friend, Yussif, when a hug was appropriate in Ghanian culture. He said that in England he learned to value hugs, and in Ghana he gives a handshake to close male friends. In retrospect, I realize that when Ghanian men have shaken my hand, it has never been distant, or a perfunctory greeting. Something Yussif said about “palm against palm” made me realise how unappreciative I had been about handshakes.
I tried to apply this treatise by seeking out hugs and kisses. I thought in terms of what kind of touch to seek, and I was basically barking up the wrong tree when I did so. I hesitate to say that I would never ask, “May I give you a hug?” or, “May I give you a kiss?” but that sort of thing occupies a far less central role than I assumed.
What would I put in its place? Go with the flow of the social situation rather than against it. Don’t force it. Be careful about when you muster courage—sometimes trying to muster courage is the wrong thing. And, when it is fitting to give a touch, be able to do so with your whole person. Don’t go overboard and try to give your total presence when you’ve just met someone and are shaking hands…
…but all these restrictions are but the shadow cast by a great light.
Good touch is a way that love shows itself. Embodied love, from one whole person to another, can appear in many different forms of touch, and what makes it deep is less dependent on technique or form than being given from the whole person. It is at least as much spiritual as physical, and is therefore to be sought in whole person love, given by God, which moves through the spirit to embrace the body. Things such as loving God and the other person, trying as much as possible to give your attention now rather than diverting it to other things (past or future), and meeting the other—whole person to whole person—are much deeper to pin down than any kind of minutia, and have a much deeper yield.
Perhaps after I have let this simmer for a few more years, there is something else I will be able to share.