Treasures in Heaven: The Inner Meaning of, “Do Not Store Up Treasures on Earth”

The ground floor

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.

Another passage, cut from the same cloth, is The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus and reads:

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!”

We cannot address every face of Christ in our neighbor (“And who is my neighbor?”—yet another question Christ answered with a sledgehammer; see at least part of the footnote on verse 35). It’s not just that we can’t make things 100% better; perhaps we cannot make things right for 1% of the population, and most likely, if we can write just one cheque that will neatly solve a problem, odds are good that Christ is not working through us. But we would do well to buy one family a bag of groceries, or buy a cheap refurbished Lenovo Thinkpad (a line of notebooks that is cheap and good) and ask the local professional or teen to install Linux Mint. If God is working with us, there probably isn’t any way we can make everything better, but that isn’t the point. We may be given the opportunity to makesomething better, and that is the point.

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.

And for a last quote from the Gospels, I will turn to the Sermon on the Mount, and more specifically Matthew 6:19-34:

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.

In A Pet Owner’s Rules, I described God as being like a pet owner who has two rules:

  • 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.

Fr. Damascene in an Ancient Faith Radio interview:

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.'”

Have a blessed Lent.

Posted on Clean Monday, Lent, 2014.


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Treasure is not measured in dollars

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?”

“The Aristocrats.”

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 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.

In Doxology, God the Father is called,

The Treasure for whom all treasures are named,

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.”

Hard treasure

There are some hard lessons in The Best Things In Life Are Free, and hard lessons in Maximum Christ, Maximum Ambition, Maximum Repentance. But both of these give up false treasure for true treasure, true treasure for greater treasure. Christ commanded something great: “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.” Some of us are to hold earthly treasure with detachment; others are to get rid of it altogether, but in any case we are called to reach far beyond earthly treasure for treasures in Heaven, such as good works, virtues, and graces. The call is a Narnian Further up and further in!

We live in a time where treasures seem to be evaporating, or at least money. Once a rising standard of living was taken for granted; now employment is not taken for granted. We are urged to sell gold for cash. But treasure is still here. The Best Things in Life are Free,even now, even if we are in an arena, a cosmic coliseum. False treasures abound; for treacherous techncology, see the Technonomicon. And there is a great deal in technologies that can be treacherous, with a right grievous backswing. But that is not all.

The authors John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes were authors with a very pessimistic view of mankind. But in the comic strip named after them, Calvin and Hobbes, we meet a claim well worth heeding:

There’s treasure everywhere!

The Angelic Letters

The Best Things in Life Are Free


A Pilgrimage from Narnia

The Transcendent God Who Approaches Us Through Our Neighbor

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The temperature of Heaven can be rather accurately computed from available data. Our authority is the Bible: Isaiah 30:26 reads, Moreover the light of the Moon shall be as the light of the Sun and the light of the Sun shall be sevenfold, as the light of seven days. Thus Heaven receives from the Moon as much radiation as we do from the Sun and in addition seven times seven (forty-nine) times as much as the Earth does from the Sun, or fifty times in all. The light we receive from the Moon is a ten-thousandth of the light we receive from the sun, so we can ignore that. With these data we can compute the temperature of Heaven. The radiation falling on Heaven will heat it to the point where the heat lost by radiation is just equal to the heat lost by radiation. Using the Stefan-Boltzmann fourth power law for radiation and where H is the temperature of Heaven, E that of the Earth – 300 K – we have

(H/E)4 = 50.

This gives H as 798 K or 525°C.

The exact temperature of Hell cannot be computed but it must be less than 444.6°C, the temperature at which brimstone or sulphur changes from a liquid to a gas. Revelations 21:8: But the fearful, and unbelieving . . . shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone. A lake of molten brimstone means that its temperature must be below the boiling point, which is 444.6°C.

We have, then, temperature of Heaven, 525°C. Temperature of Hell, less than 445°C. Therefore, Heaven is hotter than Hell.

Applied Optics, 11, A14 (1972)

One brief remark before continuing: one man I knew was in an elevator on a sweltering hot day, when a profusely sweating jogger stepped into the elevator and said, “It’s hotter ‘n Hell out there!” and he replied, slowly, “No, it isn’t.” There is something amiss with the humorous quote above, and Mark Twain, the great humorist, wrote, “The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in Heaven.” There is a sense in Orthodoxy that humor does not belong in the holiest places, and devout Orthodox I know have a deep joy but laugh little. The connotations of “humorless” do not describe them; they are not sour, nor joyless, nor rigid, nor quick to take offense, but they are luminous with the Light of a Heaven that needs no humor.

But the physicist quoted above underscores something: words are inadequate to capture Heaven. There are situations in life where words fail us: people say, “Words cannot express how grateful I am.” And if words fail us for expressing gratitude, for instance, or romantic love, they fail all the more in describing Heaven and God. “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, heart has not conceived, what God has prepared for them that love him:” words cannot express Heaven, nor God.

In classical theology this is spoken of as God’s transcendence: God is infinitely far beyond any created thing. He is reflected in a million ways in our created world, but the hidden transcendent God is beyond all of them. In a book of profound influence but only a few pages long, The Mystical Theology, St. Dionysius writes of ascending towards God:

The fact is that the more we take flight upward, the more our words are confined to the ideas we are capable of forming; so that now as we plunge into that darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing…

So this is what we say. The Cause of all is above all and is not inexistent, lifeless, speechless, mindless. He is not a material body, and hence has neither shape nor form, quality, quantity, or weight. He is not in any place and can neither be seen nor be touched. He is neither perceived nor is he perceptible. He suffers neither disorder nor disturbance and is overwhelmed by no earthly passion. He is not powerless and subject to the disturbances caused by sense perception. He endures no deprivation of light. He passes through no change, decay, division, loss, no ebb and flow, nothing of which the senses may be aware. None of all this can either be identified with it nor attributed to it.

Again, as we climb higher we say this. He is not soul or mind, nor does he possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is he speech per se, understanding per se. He cannot be spoken of and he cannot be grasped by understanding. He is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. He is not immovable, moving, or at rest. He has no power, he is not power, nor is he light. He does not live nor is he life. He is not a substance, nor is he eternity or time. He cannot be grasped by the understanding since he is neither knowledge nor truth. He is not kingship. He is not wisdom. He is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is he a spirit, in the sense in which we understand that term. He is not sonship or fatherhood and he is nothing known to us or to any other being. He falls neither within the predicate of nonbehing nor of being. Existing beings do not know him as he actually is and he does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of him, nor name nor knowledge of him. Darkness and light, error and truth—he is none of these. He is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to him, but never of him, for he is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of his preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; he is also beyond every denial.

Over a millenium before a Bultmann would go on a program of saying that the images we have in Scripture are inadequate, the Orthodox Church would do one better. Her saints would tell of the hidden transcendent God who transcends everything we might say of him. And better than this can be said. God transcends his own transcendence, and transcends transcendence itself. And here we must leave Bultmann completely behind as not having gone far enough.

God transcends his own transcendence, and the transcendent God so far transcends his own transcendence that not only is he infinitesmally close to the Creation, immanent to all Creation, but he entered his Creation: God became man. And the reason God became man is that man might become divine. And there is never a sharp separation between Christ coming to save mankind and Christ coming to save the whole Creation: the transcendent God so far transcends his own incomparable transcendence that he is at work to deify men, and ultimately the whole Creation. In Christ there is no male nor female, paradise nor inhabitated world, heaven nor earth, spiritual nor material, uncreated nor created, but Christ is all, and in all, and transcends all, and in him all these differences are to be transcended. The transcendent Christ God transcends his Creation and transcends his own transcendence, and he returns to his Father in victory, bearing deified men and Creation as trophies who share in his transcendent victory. There is no distinction between male and female, paradise and the inhabited world, heaven and earth, spiritual and material, uncreated God and created creation, for the same transcendent Lord is Lord of all and bestows riches upon all who call him, and makes all one in Christ Jesus.

And this Lord who infinitely transcends his creation shouts through it. He shouts through icons, through every human love, through music, through storm and star. He is a God who so far transcends his Creation that he can enter into it, and a failure to love our neighbor is a failure to love God. Consider the parable of the sheep and the goats:

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.

This transcendent God transcends his own Creation and transcends his own transcendence that his image is imprinted in every man, woman, and child, and we cannot fail to love our neighbor without failing ot love Christ God; we cannot mistreat our neighbor without mistreating Christ God. Christ so far transcends his own transcendence that there is not the faintest gap between our treatment of our least neighbors and our treatment of Christ God himself. The Pope is not Christ’s vicar on earth; our neighbor is Christ’s vicar on earth, and how we treat our neighbor is vicariously how we treat the Christ we will answer to on Judgment Day.

And who is our neighbor? Let’s have a slightly updated answer with disturbing clarity:

A certain religious scholar stood up and tested Jesus, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal Life?”

He said to him, “What is written in the heart of the Bible? How do you read it?”

He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your inward being, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

He said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this, and you will live.”

But he, desiring to justify himself, asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

Jesus answered, “A certain man, an American, went into the worst part of town at night and was held up by thugs who took not only took his valuables but beat him and left him for dead, throwing him deep into a dark alley.

“By chance a police officer was walking down that way. When he saw the man, he gave the alley a wide berth and ran along.

“In the same way a boy scout passed through the place and gave the alley a wide berth.

“But when it got to the wee hours of the morning, he heard footsteps and a terrorist came along, and the man called out ‘Help me!’ from the dark alley in the worst part of town. And the terrorist was viscerally moved with compassion, came to him, and bandaged his wounds, using some of his clothing, and carried him to an emergency room.

“When the terrorist left, he took all of the money that he had with him, and gave it to the hospital, and said, ‘Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond what I have given you, I will repay.’

“Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?”

He said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Do you believe God is transcendent? Go and do likewise to the transcendent Christ who approaches you in you neighbor.

A Treatise on Touch

A Cord of Seven Strands
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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.

The essay:

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!”

One more:

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.

A Dream of Light

The Eighth Sacrament

Espiriticthus: Cultures of a Fantasy World Not Touched by Evil

The Sign of the Grail

The Hayward Nonstandard Test: An Interesting Failure

Read it on Kindle for $3!

In recent years, I published what I then (and now) consider an interesting test. It was meant to look for indirect signs of profound giftedness. I wrote it with the hope that it would circumvent the ceiling of standard model tests, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if it showed a floor above some other tests’ ceilings. Let me cite the questions before continuing:

  1. Describe who you are, how you see the world, and what your inner world is like.
  2. Describe your most impressive and distinctive achievements.
  3. Describe your most impressive and distinctive failures.
  4. Describe what you hope/wish/want/intend to accomplish with your life. What do you believe you will accomplish?
  5. What is your educational background? Include out of classroom learning you consider appropriate.
  6. What is (are) your domain(s) of desired excellence? What is your work there? What have you achieved? What failures have you experienced?
  7. Have you ever had management problems or been fired? If so, describe each time.
  8. Describe any unusual or distinctive characteristics of your childhood physiology and physique.
  9. What mental health diagnoses and misdiagnoses have been considered for you (that you are comfortable divulging)? Elaborate if desired; if there is information you’d prefer to omit, please say so.
  10. What are your interests?
  11. On a scale of -1.0 to 1.0, rate yourself on the dimensions of the Myers-Briggs test: E(-1) to I(1), S(-1) to N(1), T(-1) to F(1), P(-1) to J(1). Elaborate if desired.There are a few ways to take the Myers-Briggs test, one of the cheapest of which is to check out e.g. Kiersey’s Please Understand Me II from the library; the Kiersey web site has assorted information online.
  12. What is one of your favorite books? Why? Elaborate.
  13. Provide a sample of your best writing.
  14. What is one of your most cherished of your creations? Explain. If feasible, include a copy; if not, describe.
  15. As a child or youth, what was one inconsistency you observed in the adult world that was painful?
  16. Describe, with examples, your sense of humor.
  17. Do you fit in (yes/no/question does not admit a yes or no answer for you)? Explain.
  18. Provide, and answer, one question that you believe will provide me with deep insight into your intelligence.
  19. Write your own short intelligence test.
  20. What else can you say to provide me with evidence of your intelligence?

Richard Feynmann’s Cargo Cult Science address talks about the need to publicize failed experiments as well as successes. I am publishing results, not to claim a new success, but because in its failure it may be interesting. Someone else may find a refinement of the idea that works, or other lessons may be taken from its failure. This seems to be an interesting failure.

I received responses from four men, whom I will call Adam, Brandon, Charles, and David. I opened and read them at the same time to limit bias. Adam seemed gifted, around the top of the range of “optimum intelligence” where you have a definite advantage over others but aren’t so different that it starts to really hurt. Brandon seemed just over the edge; I hesitated in comparing them and finally placed Brandon slightly above Adam. Charles showed signs of real giftedness; earlier in life he had effectively solved a problem that it originally took Euler to solve. Charles struck me as profoundly gifted. Finally, if Charles showed brilliant complexity, David showed a simplicity on the other side of complexity. (“I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I’d give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”) In my notes, I compared his communication to how Richard Feynman closed the O-ring debate: “Feynmann, after people enquiring into the Challenger disaster had spent days arguing whether it was too cold for the O-rings, took an O-ring, swirled it around in his icewater, and pinched it, snapping it.” David struck me as not only profoundly gifted but at a higher plateau than Charles’s dazzling performance. Trying to describe the spread, I said that if the lowest score were a 1 and the highest were an 8, then I would give Adam 1, Brandon 2, Charles 6, and David 8. (I guessed numbers at 150, 155, 165, and 185; I intentionally did not reconcile these two sets of numbers.) Then I opened their prior test scores.

Charles had scores of 140-151, which I regarded as ceiling scores which did not provide useful information beyond being ceiling scores. Adam, Brandon, and David had highest prior scores of 168, 172, and 174 respectively. (I am inclined to lend more credence to the higher scores as it is more plausible to say that someone properly rated around 170 hit his head on the ceiling and scored around 130 than someone properly rated at 130 accidently obtained a score around 170. I acknowledge that this could inflate my estimates.) After an hour or so of trying to convince myself I could interpret their scores so that they would say my test worked, I realised that my test found a significant difference where none was independently verified. Adam, Brandon, and David had highest scores well within measurement error of each other. Furthermore, Adam had consistently high scores: his lowest score was 156, while no one else had two scores above 155. Comparing with previous data, there was no positive correlation to prior test scores, and the person who looked best from previous scores was the person I’d ranked the lowest.

This does not necessarily mean my test is invalid. Four responses, three of which were within measurement error of each other, do not a norming make. Given that responses had appeared at a rate of about one per year, it’s not clear how long it would take to obtain a basis for a solid anchor norming, and if I would still be alive when enough responses had been completed. I opened the responses more on an intuition than anything else, and what I have is not a norming but an understanding of why it might not have been helpful to wait for enough responses for a norming. Furthermore, the fact that previous test data does not distinguish between them does not mean that they are at the same level. All four normees are bright enough to get ceiling scores on standardized tests. That leaves open the possibility of significant differences between them, including the possibility that Charles and David are appreciably brighter than Adam and Brandon. However, I am speaking about what is possible and not about claims that my results support. My results do not say anything positive about my ability to discriminate between responses. If there is anything interesting obtained from my test, it is not between responses but the fact that people responded at all. My website, C.J.S. Hayward , averages between 500 and 1000 unique visitors per day, with an average of two people reading the test per day. Only four people responded in three years, with all of the normees being brilliant. That seems significant, and I’m not sure what all it means. Apart from that, no ability to discriminate usefully between scores has been established in the usual fashion.

Summary of Responses

I would like to briefly describe the responses I received, both to provide an overall picture and to describe what I would single out in my evaluation. Here and elsewhere in the evaluation, I am intentionally using vague and generic descriptions rather than ones that are detailed and specific. This impoverishes the writing and gives a less valuable analysis, but I want to be cautious about confidence, and I expect that some of the people reading this will be quite good at connecting dots.


Adam’s response was three pages long, seemed candid (as did the others), and included achievements at state level. His responses answered the questions, but did not have the florid, ornate, wheels within wheels quality I associate with someone brilliant who is speaking on a topic he finds interesting. The content of his responses strikes me as reflecting more intelligence than the writing style: it was well-written, but did not reflect the “mental overflow” I was looking for. His list of interests was relatively short (twelve), and included a few items that do not specifically reflect intelligence. Several of his choices suggest noteworthy social maturity; this, combined with my losing track of how he opened his responses, led me to assume that he was more gifted than profoundly gifted.


Brandon’s response was also three pages long, and showed the pain of the social disconnect which many profoundly gifted experience. His list of interests was also short, but the activities themselves more distinctively suggest high intelligence. His general approach, in particular to society and authority, shows many of the signature traits David Kiersey (Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence, Buffalo: Prometheus, 1998) describes in profiling the NT “rational” temperament. (Three out of the four normees were NTs, and all of them were strongly intuitive.) He also has an uncanny knack for guessing certain kinds of information—which is an anomaly that I’m not sure what to do with. The examples, however, did not leave me wanting attack the anomaly by pointing him to Thomas Gilovich’s How We Know What Isn’t So (New York: Free Press reprint, 1993). He showed a desire to use his mind to transform society that seems to be common among very bright people.


Charles’s response was twenty-seven pages of wheels within wheels. From the first page I was met with nuance that let me know I hadn’t taken everything in on the first reading, despite it being well-written. He claimed not to have any distinctive achievements. This modest remark was followed by no fewer than eight pages of dense summaries of some of his theories. These theories were subtle. They had a logical and scientific character and a spark of something interesting that stretches outside the bounds of science. He used a nonstandard format that made their logical structure clearer—successfully modifying a familiar format to make an unfamiliar format that works better, which is difficult. In the pages of his response I met an edifice of thought which impressed me and which I knew I didn’t understand. (I say this as someone who has put a lot of effort into understanding other people’s belief systems.) His response to that question reminds me of a passage in my current novel:

The woman looked at me briefly. “What languages do you know?”

If anything, I sank further back into my chair. I wished the question would go away. When she continued to listen, I waited for sluggish thoughts to congeal. “I… Fish, Shroud, Inscription, and Shadow are all spoken around my island, and I speak all of them well. I speak Starlight badly, despite the fact that they trade with our village frequently. I do not speak Stream well at all, even though it is known to many races of voyagers. I once translated a book from Boulder to Pedestal, although that is hardly to be reckoned: it was obscure and technical, and it has nothing of the invisible subtlety of ‘common’ conversation. You know how—”

The man said, “Yes; something highly technical in a matter you understand is always easier to translate than children’s talk. Go on.”

“And—I created a special purpose language,” I said, “to try to help a child who couldn’t speak. I did my best, but it didn’t work. I still don’t understand why not. And I—” I tried to think, to remember if there were any languages I had omitted. Nothing returned to my mind.

I looked down and closed my eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m not very good with languages.”

Charles listed approximately fifty different interests—which is less significant than it sounds, as he broke his interests down in more detail than the other normees, but the detailed breakdown strikes me as significant independent of its content. He was the one normee who answered the Myers-Briggs question in the mathematical format requested—which does not mean that he is the only normee who could do that task, but may suggest that he was the one person who didn’t take a shortcut by “just using adjectives”. I wrote the test to listen for a certain accent in how people respond, and his sense of humor showed that accent loud and strong.

He wrote a complete test which seemed to have a low ceiling, but was polished enough that I wouldn’t be surprised to see something similar on the web, and he showed self-criticism in writing the test, acknowledging that it was culture-biased. The completeness and level of polish for that answer caught me off guard.

I was looking to be surprised in a certain way, and for reasons discussed above Charles gave me the kind of surprises I was looking for.


David’s response was twenty pages. He provided an extended writing sample, and (to my surprise) a complete transcript of grades from childhood. His answers were by far the most polished; they give the impression of finding, out of a large space of things that could be said, a microcosmic gem that encapsulates the whole space. Most of his responses were short; the twenty pages stem from the length of his answers to a small number of questions.

Question 11, requesting Myers-Briggs personality type, contained a hidden question. I was interested in Myers-Briggs type, but most interested in whether the normee would question the test or talk about not fitting in the frame the Myers-Briggs test provides. David told his type en route to making a dismissive remark about the test. In other words, he was the one respondent who questioned the test. The most cherished creation he gave was one that showed a certain kind of mental fireworks, reminiscent of the dialogues in Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (New York: Basic Books reprint, 1999).

David also surprised me, and I heard an accent of brilliance.

Interesting Features

What are the distinctive features of my test? I would like to describe them below.

Emphasis on Tacit Knowing

The way Western culture is shaped means that psychology tries to know its subject-matter with the same kind of knowing as physics has of its subject-matter, in other words I-It rather than I-Thou knowing that is depersonalised and banishes tacit knowing as far as possible. (Banishing anthropomorphism is appropriate when you’re studying rocks. It’s more debatable in trying to understand people.) When I was thinking about how to write up the experiment, before I looked at prior scores, one of the things I intended to compare was writing samples. Brandon offered a clever placeholder in place of a “real” composition. Adam provided some poetry that reminded me of fifth grade English reading; I objectively recognized quality but felt no subjective emotional response. Charles provided poetry that I wasn’t sure I understood but none the less felt like something powerful was washing over me, and I was sorry when it ended. David sent a fiction excerpt that filled me with despair. The tone of the writing was not despairing; I felt the despair of being shown writing so perfect that I despaired of ever attaining that standard.

Why am I talking about my subjective emotional reactions instead of objective assessment? That is why I chose this specific example, instead of examples of thought that would have more to justify them from the framework that understands knowledge in depersonalized and objective terms. I choose it because I paid attention to subjective emotional reactions. I believe that they are tied to tacit and personal ways of knowing: I experienced subjective emotional reactions because I was responding to different pieces of writing that were not of the same quality. Subjective emotional response is one of several things that can be a cue worth listening to.

(I am intentionally keeping the philosophy brief; the philosophical dimension involved in this topic is one that admits very long discussion.)

Listening for an Accent

In most tests, there is a suite of questions meant to map out where a person’s intelligence breaks down, and scoring is how many points total are earned. In this test, the questions do not represent a direct attempt to present difficulty in answering. The intent is rather to obtain a composite picture, and shed indirect light on how bright a person is. The assumption is that different levels of giftedness will leave a definite mark on a person, and that that definite mark is discernible through understanding the person. For one example, above a certain level, a person is so different from the majority of people that there is a social disconnect; children above IQ 170 tend to feel that they don’t fit in anywhere. That kind of social disconnect was clearly discernible in all but one of the responses; Brandon clearly articulated it.

To some extent, that is corroborated by the data. I identified all of the normees as significantly gifted—which I had no reason to anticipate. The first norming of the Mega test had fewer than 10% of normees successfully answer any of the questions. (People who are emotionally insecure often attempt difficult tests to get an answer that may feel special; as the number of emotionally insecure people vastly outweighs the number of people at that level of giftedness, they “should” have been a small minority.) So I was able to recognize giftedness in all of the normees when I was not expecting it. That stated, the evidence does not warrant the conclusion that my test usefully discriminates among the normees.

Problems with the Norming and Test

As this test, or at least this norming, has been a failure, it’s worth paying attention to what went wrong.

Pool of Normees

I have not done any real statistical analysis because there is no basis for analysis, and the statistics would only give a more precise quantification to the statement, “The measurement error exceeds the difference measured.” Even if the four normees represented an optimal 120-140-160-180 spread, four points would be questionable. As is, the only conclusion I can confidently claim from prior test data is that all of the normees are at or above standardized test ceilings. In other words, data from previous tests do not provide a basis to claim that my test discriminates (and what correlation exists is negative).

Two Dimensions Flattened Into One

Giftedness affects personality, but it is inadequate to simply say, “Giftedness is personality.” There is diversity at each stratum of giftedness, and the normee pool did not permit the kind of two-dimensional analysis that would be needed to properly interpret responses (if there is a proper interpretation to be had).

An Invasive Test

This test is invasive. It’s painful and offensive. There is probably a way to attempt a similar operation much more gently and delicately. My guess is that this, more than anything else, is why I only had four responses in three years. If this principle were put to serious use, it would have to be rethought so that it went about its aims with a far defter touch. (Or perhaps just remove certain questions.)

One question which I wonder is whether this offensiveness, which is partly an unedited form of giftedness, was the main reason why only brilliant men responded. The test’s form may have been a powerful selector. So it would have put most people off. But that is not the whole story. Keep in mind that “reading” on a conscious or unconscious level is a two-way street, and the test reveals something significant about me as well as requesting revelation of the normee. A few very bright people, however, might be bothered by the invasiveness, but they recognize and respond to a voice that feels like home. It connects. That, at least, is speculation which seems plausible, but which I don’t see how to support without writing a gentler test.

Not Personal Enough

In one sense, this test was personal, too personal—it probed bluntly into things that are not polite to ask. In another sense, though, it related to the normees as objects to be studied, trying to dissect them as people but still dissecting them. It moves partway from I-It to I-Thou, but I believe it is possible to have a fuller I-Thou knowing, although I don’t know what a fully I-Thou approach would be like. It could be argued that the questions are offensive because the test was not personal enough. In other words, the test reflected an attempt to understand people but not in a personal way. Furthermore, some of the philosophical merits to a personal approach may bear fruit if there were a more genuinely personal approach.

Lack of Checks

The attempt to be objective tries to strip out everything subjective as a means to strip out subjective bias. Ideally one would want to allow subjective strengths while using another form of rigor to mitigate subjective bias, but I am not sure what that other and more difficult rigor would be; I have not solved that problem.

I requested responses to questions and personal information separately, so I wouldn’t know whose material I was working with until after I had ranked the results. There was one normee for whom this attempted anonymization failed—David, whom I know and I hold in awe. I’d like to say that I didn’t let this influence my estimation, but that’s not true. As it is now, Adam’s responses struck me as simple because it seemed what he was saying wasn’t very big, and David’s responses struck me as simplicity on the other side of complexity—something big in an elegant nutshell. Charles’s responses struck me as complex, in other words as simply being big. I’d like to say that I was unbiased, and I didn’t think “David answered, and I’m terribly impressed with him, so I’ll put him highest,” but I simply followed the argument where it led. I’d like to say that, but I can’t. Maybe I should have ranked Charles highest. I’m vulnerable to accusation of bias at least here. And this kind of bias may be present in the attempt to understand another person—recognition is a risk.

Book Knowledge that Didn’t Pan Out

There’s a reason why I asked about people’s worst failures, and it’s not because I like making people squirm.

Howard Gardner’s Extraordinary Minds (New York: Basic Books reprint, 1998) is a multiple intelligence treatment of genius. One of the points that he talked about was failure—experiencing failures and being spurred on by them (120-123). Because of this, I was hoping to see discussion of trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and failing—like Edison’s numerous failures en route to inventing a working light bulb. I believed that genius and those approaching genius not only are not immune to failure, but fail more often and more significantly than the vast majority of human beings.

This is a nice theory, and it may well be true, but the question based on it did not obtain informative answers for this purpose. I was expecting for normees at this level to see different degrees of failing in courageous projects (and in less glorious matters); I would not want to divulge what the normees shared, but if they did experience this pattern of life, I did not discern it in the replies. (This question should probably be removed in derivative work; the offensive questions seem less informative than I had expected.)

Another question was related to Leta Hollingworth’s Children Above 180 IQ: Stanford-Binet Origin and Development (New York: Arno Press, 1975), in which Hollingworth claims that the children she studied were significantly above average size and weight for their age. I thought that the brighter respondents would share this distinctive physique. Only Brandon mentioned something along these lines, which means it might be useful as one piece of a large puzzle, but it was not the predictor I’d hoped. (There were other questions motivated by similar concerns.)

A Successful Failure?

This test is a failure, or at very least my attempt to norm this test is a failure. Out of an estimated two thousand people that were aware of the test, only four responded, and the result is a statistically insignificant and negative correlation. I underestimated Adam in particular; if there is a lesson to be drawn from him, it is that it is possible to be brilliant while showing relatively few of the indirect traits this test sought to identify.

I was not looking forward to the prospect of writing delicate responses to a majority of normees who were insecure and of normal intelligence, and would approach difficult tests to have a big number that will make them feel OK about being human. That this did not happen touches on two reasons why I consider this an interesting failure:

  1. Only brilliant normees responded. Therefore, while demonstrated ability to discriminate between answers is nonexistant, the fact of responding to the test is highly significant. There is an implicit hidden question: not, “What traits will distinguish your response?” but “Will you respond at all?”
  2. I correctly identified all the respondents as significantly gifted. The lowest estimate I gave was a three sigma score. In other words, I correctly identified all respondents as being at or above the 99.9th percentile, even though this was contrary to my expectations.

This is also an interesting failure in that it attempts an inquiry that is based on a different principle. If it were not for confidence issues, I would likely publish the responses so that specific questions could be analyzed. It may be possible to make a hybrid test that combines traditional high-ceiling tests with this basic approach. The two approaches could be complementary.

Given that this is a first try, it may be better to label this approach as “Hasn’t succeeded yet” than “Has failed.” It would be surprising if this kind of distinctive approach succeeded on the first try. Furthermore, the way this norming failed suggests there’s something in the approach.

There are several philosophical questions which admit interesting discussion. One of the more interesting questions is what alternatives to dealing with subjective bias exist besides trying to exclude all subjective elements (officially, at least: I suspect that good “objective” judgment has drawn on subjective strengths all along). Most of the philosophical aspects mentioned merit further inquiry.

I believe that Charlie and David are at a higher plateau than Adam and Brandon; data from other tests does not discriminate from them, but I have priveleged external information that would place David above Adam. If they were to contact a third party who could corroborate that Adam and Brandon are at one high plateau and Charlie and David at a higher plateau, that would be reason to take a second look at the results.

I believe that the responses give a much richer picture of the person than a standard test. Someone, instead of asking, “Does this compete with traditional tests?” might ask, “What interesting data does this give that traditional tests don’t?”

So this test is a failure, but an interesting failure, and perhaps even a successful failure.

Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony with Nature: Anatomy of a Passion

Gifted? Let me harass you!

The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab

Within the Steel Orb

The Swiss Army Knife and God

The great Swiss Army Knife and its kin

It has become fashionable to say a bit of nuance when something is compared to a Swiss Army Knife: a Swiss Army Knife is a collection of second-rate tools: the can opener may be better than nothing, but it is a surrogate for a real can opener. At least it seems to be sophisticated nuance, but I write after having opened a can with my Swiss Army Knife when a “real” can opener was right in the drawer in front of me.

A spider’s web is small, flimsy, easy to overlook, and in houses something people sweep away as a nuisance. Yet none of these faults are brought to mind when something is compared to the world wide web, or someone discussing history compares the 19th century establishment of nationwide railways crossing the U.S. to the establishment of the web. For that matter, there is a positive connotation to the spider’s web that we do not evoke: a spider’s web is what provides spiders something to eat, and some of us (including yours truly) are privileged to make a living from the web. The web is an intricate mesh of cross-linking, and the idea of one node connected to the other is the prime metaphor evoked when we speak of the “web.”

I carry four Swiss Army Knives, or at least material Swiss Army Knives, besides my wallet.

The first is a Swisschamp my parents got for me in England when we traveled when I was a teen, and I’ve made a couple of custom modifications to it: I filed away at part of the metal saw/nail file/metal file to make a harder-than-steel blade for cutting at screens, and I also narrowed the end of the tweezers to try and make it work better as a splinter tweezers. I’ve stopped carrying it once or twice, but so far at least I have gotten back to carrying it again. I know its features by heart: large blade, small blade, metal saw, metal file, nail file, nail cleaner, added harder-than-steel blade, wood saw, scissors, magnifying glass, Phillips screwdriver, pliers, large slotted screwdriver, can opener, wire stripper, small slotted screwdriver, can opener, corkscrew, jeweler’s screwdriver, pin, wood chisel, additional slotted screwdriver, hook, reamer, pen, toothpick, tweezers (sadly replaced with a regular tweezers when I sent it in for repairs—I’m sure they meant it well).

The second Swiss Army Knife I carry is one that I purchased in a moment of “sacramental shopping” against my best judgment: my watch was having problems, but I already had a perfectly useful way to tell time. I had quite vulgarly agreed with the contents of my spam folder to believe that I needed an extra special watch and it would make me special. And so I purchased a Casio Pathfinder watch, water resistant to 100 meters, and besides the normal time, five alarms, stopwatch, and timer one might expect of a digital watch, it has a compass, barometer/altimeter, a surprisingly useless thermometer, tells time in other time zones, is set each night by a signal from an atomic clock and is probably within a second of the “official” absolute time without my ever setting it, and recharges by solar power even when I do nothing to make sure it gets light. It has never been below the highest level of charge. Oh, and its color is a military olive green with black highlight, so it fits in with my green and earth tone wardrobe. I have, as it turns out, used the compass, and I do hope it lasts me a while, but I regard the purchase as an ersatz sacrament, vulgar as a “replica luxury watch” hawked in spam.

The third Swiss Army Knife I carry is an iPhone; I upgraded in the recent past from my iPhone 1 to an iPhone 4 because AT&T’s rate limiting was getting to be a quite practical limitation; sending a thank-you note after a job interview was like breathing through a straw. I have not upgraded to the 4 S; it sounds impressive, but my present iPhone 4 works as nicely today as when I got it, good enough that the fact that something better is out there does not concern me.

(No, not Android; I’ve tried Android and didn’t like it. I’ve wished I knew enough video editing to take one of the initial commercials, which said things like “iDon’t have a real keyboard”, to say all but the last “iDon’t”, and then edit in, “iDon’t have a second-rate user interface,” and then let the commercial give its final, “Droid does!”)

My fourth Swiss Army Knife, which I use rarely, is/was (it is lost now) an Ubuntu USB key: it can store files and it can boot (or install) Ubuntu Linux. While I use thend as someone answered a forum question, “I’ve installed Linux, now where I can get some games,” and answered, “Linux is the game!” other three Swiss Army Knives all the time, this one is there but there are not too many situations to use it. I did install Linux at a friend’s house when he requested it and there was no question of going somewhere else to get media, but the way life moves today I spend little time using it; there may be students storing all their homework on a USB key, but I don’t find myself using it often.

Part of the reasons people compare things to Swiss Army Knives (and call Perl “Unix’s Swiss Army Chainsaw”, Python being a lightsabre that cuts like a hot knife through butter), is that there is a mystique to this one bit of Swiss machinecraft that can do so many things. As a relatively young boy, I believe after addictively watching MacGyver, I was asked what I wanted for Christmas and said I wanted a Swiss Army Knife, and my Mom, who would not have been making the choice out of financial constraint, purchased me a wooden-handled pocketknife with two (literal) blades, and said, “See, I got you a Swiss Army Knife!” I tried to contain my disappointment; it was as if I had asked for a bacon cheeseburger, and imagined a good sit-down restaurant bacon cheeseburger piled high with toppings, and was told in perfect sincerity, “Here’s the hamburger you asked for,” and been given a tiny White Castle burger.

It was perhaps out of this experience that I made a purchase for a boy at church: his parents had told him, perhaps not strangely, that he could own a pocketknife (I believe he owns a couple), but he could not carry anything dangerous. I think sometime back I had given him a vaguely Swiss Army-like folding tool, but more recently I found out there was a Leatherman expressly designed to be able to be taken through airport security, having been cleared approval with the TSA and 315 airports, and they had rather ingeniously made a mechanical folding pliers that was a bit small, but folded out to a pliers, scissors, nail file, carabiner, and (I believe) a screwdriver designed to work with either slotted or Phillips screws, and a tweezers, but all of this without being like a weapon. And he thanked me for it, once initially as one would expect from politeness, and once a week later (and he showed me its features!). The gift had scored home with him, and I believe my actions were conditioned (though I did not think of it at the time) by my disappointment when my parents admittedly entrusted me with a blade, but did not give the abounding mechanical clockwork-like coolness that motivated my request for a Swiss Army Knife.

Is Orthodoxy a Swiss Army Knife? (Is God?)

The liturgical flow of day and year is intricate, with its ebb and flow and nooks and crannies, and the exact combination of songs, musical tones, readings, and so on for a Divine Liturgy are something that may not be exactly repeated for hundreds of years. And a certain sense you can say that God is a Swiss Army Knife, and the saints are his blades—or, really, the whole race of mankind.

But on a deeper level the image does not fit, and here we run into a basic difficulty in theology. There are two basic modes of theology in talking about God, and they are opposite. One mode, the cataphatic, is to say that God is described by the images of his Creation, that he is King and Father, and so on. And there is some element of truth even in comparing HE WHO IS to solid stone: “Blessed be my rock,” the Psalmist bard proclaims. But in a deeper sense these images all ultimately fail, as loudly proclaims apophatic theology. The image of God as stone fails more quickly, but ultimately even the images of a Father and King run dry.

And HE WHO IS, one God in Trinity, is utterly and completely simple, and simple beyond any created simplicity. The beauty of a Swiss Army Knife is that it is amny things folded into its handle; it is a beauty of multiplicity that falls infinitely short of God. God may be seen in many saints, but they are all brought to his oneness. And this oneness reflects down: the virtues may look like a Swiss Army Knife of the soul, and they indeed are in a certain sense, but on a more profound level there is a unity to the virtues (and the vices). The deepest virtue is only one virtue, and indeed Christ names one virtue as the foundation of all Scripture:

Jesus said unto him, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

The spiritual life is one of simplicity, praying the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and the Swiss-like clockwork of the liturgy is paradoxically an entryway into this simplicity.

The most interesting way a Swiss Army Knife illumines God is not in its similarity, but precisely how its fundamental beauty differs from God’s fundamental beauty.

God the Game Changer

A Pet Owner’s Rules

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis


Not Stressed?

You want to know how to deal with stress—if I have anything to tell you. Yes, indeed. Let me pass on some advice I found in a book:

So don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, but your Heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than them? And which of you can add another hour to his life by worrying? You might as well try to add another foot to your height! And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, and how they grow. They neither toil nor spin, but I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was dressed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, won’t he much more clothe you, you who have so little faith? Don’t worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your Heavenly Father knows well enough that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will also be given to you. (Matt. 6:25-33, RSV, altered.)

Oh, I’ve annoyed you. I’m sorry. You didn’t want me to just quote Bible verses; you wanted something more, well, impressive. How about if I tell you about something I’ve taken from my travels in Asia?

I spent a summer in Malaysia, and one of the things I learned there is that people interact differently with time. I don’t know how to explain that experience: it was as if for your entire life the only music you heard was the music of a banjo, so that to you the sound of a banjo was the sound of music. Then, after its quick strumming, for the first time you heard a violin, later to be joined by trumpets and flutes: a whole orchestra of music you had not heard. My experience of Malaysian time was like hearing the first notes from a violin.

What’s special about Malaysian time? Before answering that, I’d like to answer what is special about American time, and describe it as something foreign. If you took geometry and used protractors to measure angles, you may remember how small a degree is. Three hundred and sixty degrees make a circle; if you imagine a cross section of a knife, which would look like a wedge, it’s something like a five degree angle. Putting tick marks on the protractor for degrees is awfully precise—more precise than you really need.

None the less, there are smaller angles, a way to measure even more precisely if you’ve got the tools to do it. You can divide a degree into sixty minutely small parts, called minutes—it would take 300 of them to make a wedge as thick as a knife—and then if that isn’t tiny enough for you, you can divide a minute into sixty even smaller pieces, so small that it would take 18,000 of them to make a wedge as thick as a knife. These sort of “second minutes” are called seconds, and if an angle one minute wide is ridiculously tiny, a second is even more ridiculous.

Yet our watches measure minutes and seconds—a digital stopwatch measures hundredths of seconds. In the Bible, an hour is the smallest unit of time. We have taken an hour and divided it into minute parts, called minutes, and then secondly minute parts called seconds. If I were describing my culture’s time sense to an aborigine who understood English, I would say that we have machines that count, and that time is the exact number on a counting machine, and that we are so incredibly attuned to this mechanical counting of tiny time increments that we can ask a machine to cook food for five minutes and count down the last minute in tense agony. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he struggled to grasp an understanding of time that is so exotic.

In Malaysia, as in many non-Western countries, things tend to be slower than in America. However, this is something from a detour from a qualitative difference in the experience of time. We are sharply attuned to time as numbers, minutely measured. To the Malaysian, time fades to the background as you try to be with people relationally: you visit someone and it takes however long it takes. You don’t say “I’ll talk with you for fifteen minutes;” you talk with the person and let the visit itself work out how many numbers a machine would count before you leave. That’s a simplified explanation, and I won’t try to explain the difference between the Malaysian experience of time and what effect a Western visitor experiences. Instead of explaining that, I’d like to talk about what effect it had on me.

That was my first experience living abroad, and it opened a door. It was the first time my culture shifted. It let me realize that I could shift my culture. What? I’m not sure how to explain. I consciously shifted my sense of time in Malaysia, and the conscious shifting didn’t stop when I left. I’ve been interested in different experiences of time since then, and I’ve worked hard to keep a slower, more relational sense of time, where time recedes to the background and presence becomes more important—which has rescued me from the tyrarny of the clock. I’ve picked up things from other cultures—a medieval sense of space, for instance. How’s that?

When I took a class in modern physics, the professor was interested in my assessment that Newtonian physics is basically a mathematical restatement of our common sense understanding of how the world works: everything has its place at a given time; time is straightforward; space is a three-dimensional version of what we study in high school geometry, and so on and so forth. Modern physics is a complete reversal: space itself is convoluted in ways that are hard to understand unless you know advanced math, there is no absolute time and space, there are funny things that happen when you try to measure both where something is and how fast it’s moving, everything (including you and me) is both a particle and a wave, you can have a cat that’s both dead and alive until you look at it… A few years later, I read about medieval culture and made a very slight change to my evaluation that Newtonian physics is a mathematical development of our common sense while modern physics is closer to the result of a contest to see who could find the strangest way of describing our world.

In medieval thought, you don’t have anything like Newton’s one absolute time and space that encompasses everything. There’s an icon of two saints from different centuries talking together, and this troubles the medieval mind not at all. Each place is not one more cell of an immense Newtonian grid, but its own little world with its own internal logic. (Could the medievals do logic? They invented the university, and Aristotle, who defined logic, was to many medievals the philosopher.) This, more than any logical weakness, appears to be why the medievals could look at four places all claiming to have the head of John the Baptist, and be grateful that God had been so generous. This understanding of space may be part of why C.S. Lewis, a medievalist, would write a children’s story that begins to get interesting when a girl walks into a wardrobe and finds that inside is a passage to another world. When I understood this view of space, I revised my estimation that Newton’s physics is a mathematical version of our common sense and modern physics is strange. Newton is not a mathematical version of common sense because my culture’s common sense is a non-mathematical simplification of Newtonian physics. We have the cart before the horse: Newtonian physics shaped what I felt was common sense, and this common sense is something not shared by a great many intelligent people.

I remember one point that I was walking with some friends through a park and felt momentarily disoriented when I saw an American flag. The reason I felt disoriented was that I was looking at a very picturesque pastoral view and talking with my friends, and had become steeped enough in the medieval view of space that I thought of it as its own country. I value that error—even if it was an error—because it showed that the medieval view of space had seeped deep enough into my bones that I could not only talk about it, but see through medieval eyes. Do I think that my culture’s view of time and space is false? I believe they’re a rather small kind of truth—true so far as they go, but not nearly as significant as they seem. The medieval view of space means that when I enter the house of God, I am entering a special place, a sacred space, a place to cast aside all earthly cares. (This way of thinking, by the way, makes a difference in being able to enter another person’s world.)

Some people could probably say nasty things about this, and I have gotten myself in the trouble. But I have made it a discipline to become acquainted with other cultures, past and present, and draw on them. In this discipline, I’ve learned that there are things I can say ‘no’ to, things that don’t have to be. Living under the tyranny of the clock, and a lot of the stress we experience, doesn’t have to be. My time in Malaysia was the key that opened that door.

It would take a very long time to explain, or even remember, the treasures I’ve encountered. Let me mention one. Another practical life skill has to do with technology. Computer hobbyist as I am, I once began a book entitled, The Luddite Guide to Technology. The title was meant less to convey irony than to suggest something: technology costs other things besides its price tag. A cell phone, for instance, means that you are available to people who want to reach you no matter where you are. It also means that you lose your privacy. This is, in fact, the same thing, and it is part of why I don’t own one. Technology has ramifications well beyond what you pray in a store, and I believe there’s a lot to be said for seeing a technology and asking, “What effects will this have?” before asking, “Can I afford it?” The Amish position is a lot more sophisticated than it seems. It’s not, “Technology, bad!” The Amish believe that technologies will impact their community, and they evaluate a technology based on whether it will help or hinder their community. The reason they have buggies but not cars is not that buggies are older than cars, but that buggies give mobility within a community and cars make it all too easy to detach oneself from a community. This is a major difference. I disagree with some specifics of how they take that project, but I respect them profoundly for making that inquiry.

What does this have to do with de-stressing? I read a webpage a while back where the author talked about getting a perspective about 1950’s wages versus 1990’s wages. In both decades, an hour’s work at minimum wage will buy you a burger and fries at a restaurant. Then how has a double income become insufficient for a family? He started listing i.e. what was in a kitchen in the 1950’s versus the many things found in a 1990’s kitchen, and his conclusion was, “We’re not keeping up with the Joneses any more. We’re keeping up with the Trumps.” The spiritual discipline of simplicity provides an alternative to burning the candle at both ends.

When Y2k was approaching, I was profoundly pessimistic. It was my considered judgment that January 1, 2000 would be doomsday. So I was trying hard to prepare. And one of the things that I realized was that if society shut down, there wouldn’t just be the physical challenge of food, drink, and so on. Any physical challenges would be dwarfed by the psychological challenge. So I began doing research.

I asked around on newsgroups; I checked out books on people in wartime and disaster conditions. In the end I received very little in the way of interesting responses; about the most I got by way of response was one person on a survivalist newsgroup saying, “You’re right; be sure to get some board games.” (If I were to be stuck in my house long term, board games would have been profoundly inadequate.) The best I was able to find was material about Christians who had been held hostage. Those who weathered the storm best were those who had a strong devotional life. Spiritual discipline made the difference.

What I have found in my travels, in my reading, in my exploring, amounts at its most basic to spiritual discipline. Sometimes this is quite mundane spiritual discipline. There was a man who told a doctor, “I don’t want you to tell me to stop burning the candle at both ends. I want you to give me more candle.” Part of spiritual discipline is learning what is possible rather than chasing an impossible fantasy—to stop searching for something to give you more candle, and instead learn to put out one of the flames and let the other flame burn for its full length of time.

One of the things I have learned is to guard the inner person. Guard thoughts, beliefs, emotions, desires. C.S. Lewis said that today we only ask one ethical question, or maybe two, out of three major questions the ancients asked. If we use the image of ships at sea, the main question we ask is, “How can the ships avoid bumping into each other?” The other two questions, which were recognised in the ancient world, are “How can the ships be shipshape inside?”, and “Why are they out at sea in the first place?” It’s awfully hard to keep from bumping into other ships if you don’t do whatever it takes to be shipshape inside—even if you can’t do it perfectly (I certainly can’t), it’s better to aim for the sky and miss than aim for manure and hit. Being unstressed has something to do with how I am inside, what care I take of myself, and how I live in the Spirit whose communion makes a world of difference. And this care of this inner person, means sitting and thinking and praying, but it also saying ‘no’ to things that push me too far from calm and quiet: I can’t do this completely, but if I have a choice between working overtime and not having the latest appliances and working overtime, I’ll have a bit of an emptier house. This is also true on a smaller scale: sometimes when I am most desparately locked into “I need to get this done!”, is precisely the point when I most need to take a break. Besides the larger-scale lifestyle choice, there is a vast number of little choices that add up to a lot. Choices like “How long will I work on this task today?”, or “Will I start something productive or procrastinate just a little?” add up to a lot. There’s a saying that procrastination is the thief of time. Putting off work drains your time and mine, doing something that is neither productive work nor refreshing leisure—and steals time from both your work and leisure. Sometimes I’m feeling burned out when I stop work at 5:00, and it’s awfully hard to do anything besides sit in the chair and stare into nothingness. That can be when I most need to play with a pet project, or take a walk, or talk with another person—and I have a choice there whether to act proactively or simply sit, drained. What I need is, on the small scale, a proactive sense of balance that means both choosing to avoid now what is too much for now, and to overcome myself and pour myself into something when my natural bent is to just procrastinate, just a little. He who is faithful in little is also faithful in much. He who is unfaithful in little is also unfaithful in much. This means that if I am going to do a good job on a project, I am not given a choice about whether I will do well on it. I really only have a million little choices about whether I’ll get to work or fiddle with something non-productive, just for a little while.

Another aspect of spiritual discipline that has made a difference is to learn, even if I learn slowly and badly, to stop thinking in practical terms like an atheist. What do I mean by that? (I’ve been a Christian all my life.) Let me explain. One of my friends, who is an administrator, has a paper above his desk that says, “Good morning. This is God. I will handle all of your problems today. Please relax, and enjoy the day.” There’s a big difference between believing that and believing on paper that there is a God, but you have to solve all of your problems on your own, by yourself. One is a situation where you are working with a loving God, and he’s ultimately in charge. The other is one where you’re an orphan, nobody’s in control, and if you don’t get things just right, you’re at the mercy of chance—and if you do happen to get things right, you’re still at the mercy of merciless chance. There’s a world of difference between these two. Believing that you are working with God, he is in charge, and will deal with things in his sovereign manner, means so much less stress.

Now I am learning about another kind of time, liturgical time. This aspect of spiritual discipline surprised me, because I became Orthodox without this being a reason why: I was more humoring the Church than believing its practice was anything good. And I was surprised when it was. In liturgy, time flows, like a stream in a peaceful forest: here it moves quickly, there it flows slowly, there it turns in eddies. That’s how liturgical time flows in Orthodox worship. But liturgical time isn’t confined to Church; there are the cycles of the day, week, and year, and all of these interlock, making exquisite patterns. There is a whole spectrum of interlocking colours. Alexander Schmemann wrote that secular culture has “literally no time”: the tyranny of the clock is a vast emptiness compared to what time should—and can—be. Orthodoxy has this discipline—an hour to begin, a lifetime to master—and it manages to preserve wisdom that has endured for ages and at the same time be about living a life of faith, now. There is the paradox—or at least what seems to be a paradox from outside—of a living anachronism, of something that is in a very real sense ancient, a Patristic culture that is alive today, and at the same time something that is not trying to restore a golden age, because it’s trying to live now.

And to describe Orthodoxy as a culture, in purely secular terms, is to miss something fundamental. The culture is there precisely because it is part of something larger. If you say Orthodoxy is a culture, you have another detail of earth. If you recognize that Orthodoxy brings Heaven down to earth, and draws people to share in the divine life, then you are no longer looking at earth alone. This has profound ramifications for spiritual discipline—for what it means and what it does. It means that spiritual disciplines are not an earthly tool to give you an edge in living an earthly life. They take the life we live and begin to draw it into a Heavenly life that begins here on earth. Someone has said, “Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.” Spiritual discipline isn’t the whole picture, but it does much more than mitigate the worst effects of the rat race. As you begin to walk the path, the Orthodox way, you begin to live the joy you were made for. God touches you so you become more like Christ, and live more deeply, richly, and fully the divine life.

Have I left anything out? Yes, volumes. I haven’t talked about prayers, but praying has done a world of good to me. (And God has also given me many of the things I’ve asked for. But that’s another story.) In prayer, God takes the many requests we make of him and weaves them into something immeasurably greater: communion with him, the Lord and Creator of all that exists. I haven’t talked about the simplicity and “Non-Conform Freely” of Living More with Less, a book that says quite a lot that’s relevant here. I haven’t evenmentioned sacraments. Of the things I’ve met, read, thought about, imagined, and created, the treasures all seem to boil down to spiritual discipline, which is quite a lot. Is there anything that spiritual discipline boils down to? Funny you should ask. I’ve found some very practical advice in a book:

So don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, but your Heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than them? And which of you can add another hour to his life by worrying? You might as well try to add another foot to your height! And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, and how they grow. They neither toil nor spin, but I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was dressed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, won’t he much more clothe you, you who have so little faith? Don’t worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your Heavenly Father knows well enough that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will also be given to you. (Matt. 6:25-33, RSV, altered.)

For Further Reading…

The Powered Access Bible
I made the Powered Access Bible to make it easy to find things in the Bible and read them in context. The Sermon on the Mount is an excellent place to start learning about the foundations of spiritual discipline.

The Philokalia (Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, and Volume 4).
The Philokalia is a massive compilation by spiritual masters from the fourth to fifteenth centuries. It is all about the life of discipline, and is second only to the Bible in spiritual writings that have influenced the Orthodox Church.

In Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster
I was given this book on my baptism at Petaling Jaya Gospel Hall. It’s a good introduction to spiritual discipline, especially if you find it foreign.

A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers
This is the prayer book that I use in my prayers. It is part of the liturgical rhythm I am using, and it has prayers of great beauty.

Living More with Less, by Doris Longacre
This is a very simple book that outlines five principles. Where it talks about abstaining from things, this is always in the context of a fuller life. It does a good job of underscoring the joy of spiritual discipline.

Maximus Confessor: Selected Writing, by Saint Maximus Confessor
Saint Maximus Confessor wrote at the end of the Patristic age and was a key figure in helping crystallise the Christian understanding of who Christ was. His writings are slow reading, enigmatic, and full of insight. I’d reccommend starting with his “chapters on love”.

The Orthodox Way, by His Eminence KALLISTOS
The Orthodox Church, also by His Eminence, has become the standard introduction to the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Way is much shorter and says less, but resonates more. Or at least that’s what I’ve found. More than anything else I’ve read, this book answers the question, “What does a life of discipline look like from the inside?”

From Russia, With Love: a spiritual guide to surviving political and economic disaster

How to Survive Hard Times

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis


That Beautiful Strength

That Hideous Strength

The Shadow of that hyddeous strength
Sax myle and more it is of length.

The shadow of that hideous strength
Six miles and more it is of length.

Opening quotation to C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

That Hideous Strength is the third book in C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy, the other two being Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. Out of the Silent Planet is the first science fiction book that featured aliens in which the aliens were not a vile monstrosity, but I am not concerned with the science fiction here. That Hideous Strength has an important Arthurian element, and while I’ve written my own take on the Arthurian legends, I am not concerned with that here either. And there are other things about That Hideous Strength that I am also not concerned with.

Then what am I concerned with?

Among programmers there is a slang term “hhos”, an abbreviation for “Ha ha, only serious!” It describes, not exactly jokes that aren’t really funny, but jokes that aren’t really jokes at their core: three of my own examples might be Pope Makes Historic Ecumenical Bid to Woo Eastern Rite Catholics, Devotees of Fr. Cherubim (Jones) Demand his Immediate Canonization and Full Recognition as “Equal to the Heirophants”, and Unvera Announces New Kool-Aid Line. These pieces fall on to the more “serious” end of “Ha ha, only serious!” And something like “Ha ha, only serious!” is found in That Hideous Strength.

That Hideous Strength is darker and harder to appreciate than Out of the Silent Planet or Perelandra, but I’ve heard people say they appreciate it most of all when they have got into it. The book, as Lewis clearly introduces it in some editions, is “a fairy-tale for grown-ups”, and he makes an opening pre-emptive move to explain that the traditional fairy tale begins with once-common themes before moving to the magical: “We do not always notice [the traditional fairy-tale’s] method, because the cottages, castles, woodcutters, and petty kings with which a fairy-tale opens have become for us as remote as the witches and ogres to which it progresses.” But the traditional fairy-tale begins with the pedestrian John Q. Public and only then moves on to the magical. And Lewis’s book begins with “such hum-drum scenes and persons” before moving on to “magicians, devils, pantomime animals, and planetary angels.”

But C.S. Lewis’s tale is, if not exactly “ha ha, only serious,” a prime example of “ha ha, only realistic.” I do not mean exactly that the figure of Merlin or a Pendragon who has visited other planets is realism; what I do mean is that That Hideous Strength is a tale of a hideous strength and that hideous strength is realistic and real in our world today.

Today that hideous strength has bared its power, and I would be very wary of saying the worst is past.

The poem Lewis quotes, “The shadow of that hideous strength / Six miles and more it is of length,” is about the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-13, RSV):

Now the whole earth had one language and few words.

And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Ba’bel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

I spent a long time trying to think of how to put this, and perhaps this is one way of explaining. Those of us who used to play Dungeons & Dragons heard of, and perhaps wanted to play, a race of elves called Drow. The earliest AD&D sources denied or were ambiguous about whether Drow even existed, and then more and more became known about them. They were a Machiavellian society living deep in caverns beneath the earth; they kept fearsome “mind flayers” (Illithid) as slaves; they possessed weapons and armor of adamantite alloy that was on par with some of the most powerful magical items those on the surface of the earth could have. And these enchanted adamantite armaments were dependent on the magical energies of the Underdark; they needed to spend one week in four immersed in the magical energies flowing around the Underdark, and their enchanted properties would be destroyed completely if they saw the light of the sun. I believe this adamantite gear was what military buffs would call a “capture-proof weapon”: weapons and armor that would soon cease to be useful if captured by enemy forces.

I am one of many who succumbed to the temptation to have a really cool watch; the watch I have is a dark green Casio Pathfinder by Casio and features a barometer/altimeter and compass, and I’ve used it to navigate. And it features “tough solar” power; I should never need to replace its batteries because it draws power from the sun, making it the opposite of Drow gear… or maybe not. I purchased it after a botched battery replacement broke the waterproof seal on an earlier model Pathfinder; I wanted something cooler, so I chose a forest green watch rather than a blue watch, and one that was “atomic”, meaning not exactly that it contained a super-exact atomic clock, but that its time would be set to well under one second accuracy by a nightly radio signal in various parts of the world. But my point is not exactly about this magical attunement to energies of the Underdark, but that my watch is a capture-proof weapon. I purchased it to replace a watch I was annoyed at having broke down, and the company that gave me an earlier watch that broke down also gave me a newer watch that will also break down. It would probably take a few years to break down, but I do not imagine I have purchased a watch that I can wear for the rest of a long life.

My newly upgraded iPhone 4 is also capture-proof, dependent on the energies of the Underdark in more ways than one. It needs to be kept charged, and will quickly become useless without a source of power. But 90% of its functionality is lost immediately if it loses network functionality. People can and do make iPhone apps that work without network access, but the overall current is to fetch things fresh from the network in a way that is completely useless if network access is not available. And, as a Popular Mechanics cover article stated, “Your gadgets spy on you;” my iPhone’s GPS is what older science fiction referred to as a tracking device, if it were not enough to have the NSA monitoring phone calls and network usage.

This is just the tip of an iceberg, the outer ornament of a Tower of Babel that is at its heart not about technology any more than astronomy is about telescopes or love letters or about ink. This Tower of Babel permeates life and culture. A political ideology is by definition a Tower of Babel. But something is odd even in the technology. Advances of technology in practice mean technologies that are more dependent on Underdark energy, and ultimately more fragile, than “obsolete” technologies they replace. This fragility, this vulnerability is the outer shell in shifts in life and culture that are at the essence of that hideous strength. Only I’m not sure how to untangle the whole of it. Perhaps I don’t need to. Perhaps it is enough to say that trouble has been brewing for centuries and it takes a global political and economic meltdown for people to see how hideous it is.

I’m uneasy about some of the things that seem to come with Fr. Seraphim (Rose)’s followers. However, interest in Taoism and the Tao Te Ching was also part of how I found my way to Holy Orthodoxy, and a very brief look at Christ the Eternal Tao made it clear that Fr. Seraphim (as a monastic, he does not need to have ‘Rose’ repeated) grasped Taoism and the Tao Te Ching at a deeper level than I did, and in a more organic way. And one of the points I believe Fr. Seraphim nailed is that people were less tangled in Lao Tzu’s world than ours, that in some sense Lao Tzu can be placed with Plato as (anonymous) Christians before Christ, and that however fallen Lao Tzu’s China may have been, we have fallen further. One head of this hydra is marketing, cognate to manipulation, propaganda, and porn, that basically relates to people as things to be manipulated and not related to as human. One American visited (our day’s) China and wondered how the Chinese could stand to be bombarded by such ludicrous propaganda: and then came home with fresh eyes to messages informing her that she would be cooler if she drank Pepsi. Some people have said that branding has taken the place of spiritual discipline in today’s world—a professor asked students a question, “Imagine your successful future self,” and continued, “With what brands do you imagine yourself associating?” And he received no puzzled stares or social cues that anybody found this a strange question. Branding is powerful; I’ve mentioned a couple of brands and regard my name-dropping of Casio Pathfinder and the iPhone 4 as ultimately shameful. And this is one tentacle among a thousand; I could elsewhere review some of Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony with Nature: Anatomy of a passion, or make a deeper cut and say, “Feminism is anti-woman. No, really. Never mind the marketing image; if you really want to see sparks fly, ask a good, devoted feminist if feminism and gender studies give us human fluorishing, and then smile and say, ‘You know, I think Phyllis Schlafly is a beautiful example of human flourishing.'” And when you’re done ducking for cover, look at another of the many tentacles of today’s Tower of Babel (or perhaps many Towers of Babel). Perhaps look at the premise that relationships are a disposable commodity and marriages fall apart at the drop of a hat next to not-particularly-close friendships in bygone ages: and if that is not enough, the next installment is that relationships are not disposable if someone wants out, but transactional, intended to be dropper fairly quickly even if there is nothing like a falling-out.

Perhaps we do not need to spend too much more time looking into that abyss.

That Beautiful Strength

An Orthodox icon of the Resurrection.
An icon of the Resurrection

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov answers C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength.

The Brothers Karamazov does not discuss anything apocalyptic and predicts no Russian Revolution, but it is eminently concerned with the problem of evil, and two chapters provide two of the most powerful statements of the problem of evil in literature. But after evil has full reign, something good follows in its wake. There is a superficial happy ending when an escape is planned for a man who wounded but did not kill his father, and is convicted of parricide. But that is almost superficial. On a deeper level there is something good that follows the Christlike Alyosha, and evil at the death of a young boy does not have the last word. The book as a whole is painful to read, or I found it such. But its ending is fragrant. It has the fragrance of the resurrection.

The mystery of the resurrection is not only for the consummation of time in the Last Judgment. Heaven is for now, and the mystery of the resurrection is for now.

This year, on Holy Saturday, I finally got something that I hadn’t gotten before, thick as I am. I had begun studying theology and against what seemed insurmountable odds (including studying during treatment for cancer), I earned a master’s degree in theology. Then I entered a Ph.D. program at another school to be able to teach at a seminary. I did not complete the program; you can read my author bio if you want to see what I’ve accomplished in other settings, but I washed out of this program in a very painful way. (As in, it was so rough that I found chemotherapy an easier experience.)

What I realized this Sunday was that what prevented me from getting a Ph.D. did not stop God’s purposes; it may well enough have thwarted what I thought was God’s intent, but right now I have a great many blessings to count and am profoundly grateful to God that I am not still working on a Ph.D. program that would have on the average taken eight years to complete and would still not have gotten me a Ph.D. by now. My regrets now are the right and proper regrets that I was angry and I failed to use hardship in an ascetical, spiritually disciplined manner. And I recognize God’s wonderful, severe mercy in all of this: I failed to recognize the words of Christ the True Vine: Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. God’s hand was powerful enough when several good things that never happen fell into place for me to go a certain distance into academic theology. And it was even more powerful in several bad things that never happen fell into place to keep me from completing my program.

Most of the theology covered was queer, or gender studies, or Marxist, or what have you; but on this point I would recall the words of one flaming liberal theologian who said that Christ’s resurrection was not on the same level as his death; it wasn’t simply reversing his death so that with Lazarus he was alive in the same way as before. Instead Christ remained, in a certain sense, dead; the marks of death remained with him, but God had the last word. The East does not really have a tradition of saints bearing the stigmata but instead saints who shine with the radiant uncreated Light of Heaven, but even in the East it is clear that the marks of the crucifixion on St. Francis of Assisi are a treasure beyond pearls. Christ was crucified, but this did not annihilate Christ: instead it annihilated crucifixion. Christ would become the firstborn of the dead: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death!” And others have pointed out that Christ did not return to the level of things in his passion and have a petty triumph: he did not return to Pilate and say, “You said, ‘What is truth?'”, nor return to the Sanhedrin and say, “Are you sure that I am a mere man who blasphemed when you asked me if I was the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” It’s not just that Christ wasn’t being petty; he was working on another level. The only exception seems to be St. Thomas, who said, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” and when Christ took him up on his claim, St. Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God!“, confessing infinitely more than Christ’s resurrection. Christ triumphed in his fruitful unbelief.

That Hideous Strength describes something that is real and active, but for all the hideous strength of Hell, when evil triumphs, God the changes the game.

That Beautiful Strength has the last word. The resurrection is not a fundamental exception to how God works; it is the supreme example of a law that plays out on a much smaller scale. An unintended pregnancy can be the gateway for two people to move past living for themselves, and live for something bigger than an egotism of two. And in some ways that is like how, despite all my best efforts to become an official theologian, God has introduced me to theology—the real kind. Not that he doesn’t mean others to be a scholar, but to Orthodox scholar and nonscholar alike theology is life; it is for all Orthodox Christians; it is a Heaven that begins on earth, a practice of the virtues and a spiritual walk, and something much bigger than an academic discipline. Even if some Orthodox can and should be practitioners in academic theology. And even if I’m thick enough that it took me years to see this.

That Beautiful Strength is unconstrained no matter how many cards that hideous strength plays off the side of the deck. That Beautiful Strength brings Heaven wherever God’s saints may be, even in a concentration camp. That Beautiful Strength thrives in losses we consider catastrophic, losses of things we think we need. That Beautiful Strength takes tragedy as the canvas for a masterpiece of beauty, glory, and wonder. That Beautiful Strength fixes the root problems despite all our efforts to fix things ourselves. That Beautiful Strength, however deep the magic of that hideous strength may be, is of a deeper magic from beyond the bounds of time. That Beautiful Strength took the marks of the lowest death, the crucifixion of a disobedient slave, and made them more precious than rubies and pearls. That Beautiful Strength takes sinners and makes them saints. That Beautiful Strength will someday hear the praises of the mute, be heard by the deaf, and be seen by the blind, but it is a strength that is alive and well and works its power and wonder today.

That Hideous Strength is alive and powerful, but it need never be the last word.

The Angelic Letters

The Damned Backswing


A Pilgrimage from Narnia

Looking at “Stranger in a Strange Land” as a Modern Christological Heresy

Maximum Christ

On a personal note, I write this as someone who became absorbed in Stranger in a Strange Land, who has felt its pull, and who has overreached and undershot in the same act many times. The things I critique are never too far from home for me. But there is something interesting to be said, and it begins with Christological heresy.

The Eastern Orthodox Church has often been called the Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, and these councils, especially the early ones, were about who Christ was and is, namely Christology. The Orthodox Church rejected as heresy a number of answers to the question, “Who is Christ?” as deficient. What the councils affirmed might be titled “Maximum Christology.” And what they rejected was Christologies that were too small, and made Christ too little.

Arius, perhaps the most castigated of the heretics, taught that Christ was “a Creature, but not as one of the creatures,” a pre-eminent created work through whom God created all else. (And his teaching is alive and well, especially among Protestants; what Arius invented, keeps getting re-invented.) The insight of Athanasius was that this “a-mermaid-at-best Christ” failed to bridge God and his Creation: he has been summarized as saying that Arius’s Christ was an isolated post in the chasm between God and his Creation, and the proof that the chasm could never truly be bridged.

Nestorius came on another solution, that Christ included both complete God and complete man, but there was something like a gentleman’s agreement; they were not fully united. The Council that rejected him affirmed that not only was Christ fully divine and fully human, but the divine nature and the human nature were fully united in Christ’s person. Another council affirmed that while the divine and human natures were fully united, they yet remained unconfused. Other rejected teachings included that Christ had a human body but no human soul, the soul’s job being done by the divine nature, or that Christ had most of a human soul but not a human will. (To which the Orthodox reply that this is a most curious omission: it is by the will that we fell from our original glory, and what is not taken up in Christ is not saved. The maxim goes, “What is not assumed [taken into Christ] is not deified.” But more of that later.) The Church in rejecting these affirmed the maximum Christology of a Maximum Christ, maximally God, maximally man, with the divine and human natures maximally united, and yet maximally unconfused. The Christ worshipped by Orthodox is the Maximum Christ.

One book commented that someone had made a perceptive study of Martin Luther’s crisis of faith in light of modern identity crises, although Martin Luther probably would not have understood the comparison between his great crisis of faith and modern identity crises, and he almost certainly would have found the comparison reprehensible if he had understood it. In somewhat similar fashion, Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, in either the cut or uncut edition, cannot be placed alongside Arius, Nestorius, or the other classic arch-heretics as trying to offer a compelling solution to the question, “Who is Jesus Christ?” Heinlein has been called a “sex-crazed, anti-Christian libertine,” and Stranger in a Strange Land plays it to the hilt. But Stranger in a Strange Land admits a quite fruitful comparison to seductive Christological heresies, and I might suggest that this book, in which Heinlein was aiming for something monumental, is a Messiah story. Heinlein had nothing higher to shoot for. However anti-Christian Heinlein may be, he had nothing higher than a Messiah story to shoot for.

Heinlein’s Messiah

The figure of Merlin, deepened, becomes Christ. But I would like to clear away a distraction in Michael Valentine Smith, and avoid going down the road of, “Well, Christ has a dual nature, and Michael Valentine Smith also has a dual nature by the end of the book: he is both Martian and human.”

Stranger in a Strange Land is riveting. You can love the book, or you can be offended at it, but yawning and asking if there’s anything good on television is not an option, or at least not one I’ve met. Michael Valentine Smith “passed through the earth like a flame” and quite assuredly “never bored a soul,” to use words Dorothy Sayer applied to Christ. He comes to offer a gospel, and to awaken people to abundant life. Stranger in a Strange Land is a cult classic, with devoted readers who have never liked another science fiction book, and there are people who tried to create and live the Church of All Worlds it outlines: quite an achievement for a work of fiction with no pretensions of being anything else.

In this book, which a number of people consider the greatest science science fiction novel ever written (sound similar to “the greatest drama ever told”?), Michael Valentine Smith is born and raised on Mars with the wealth of Martian culture; early on he is referred to as a man, and another character adamantly denies this, says that he is not a man, calling him a Martian with the genes and ancestry of a man. He is brought to earth, but this is no homecoming, at least not at first; he faces the struggles and challenges of dealing with what is to him a completely alien culture and language.

Much of the early part of the book is concerned with his struggles; when the book moves on to the next stage, where he tries all sorts of professions, fails at most of them, and undergoes a sort of self-directed apprenticeship about living and doing things on our world. Here he is still struggling at being human, and his failures are often spectacular, but he has made a connection on something that eluded him earlier: he has something that those around him do not. He bears a wealth of Martian culture, language, and psychic powers, and he is gaining a foothold in how to do things on earth.

In the last part of the book, he begins a church, the Church of All Worlds, and uses the genre of a mystery religion to share the wealth of Martian culture. It is a microcosm of Mars on earth, as well as being presented as fully human, and the story culminates in the martyrdom of a man who gave and received culture shock practically everywhere he went.

Tenets of faith

Towards the middle of Stranger in a Strange Land, Michael asks Jubal, a father figure who gave Michael (much of) his humanity, why he didn’t mention “faith” when Jubal told him the list of bad words he shouldn’t say.

The “faith” that Michael rejects may well be a “faith” that Orthodoxy rejects too: if “faith” means believing in a God who does not interact with daily life, and a Heaven which only starts after death, then Orthodoxy rejects that “faith” too—as surely as Orthodoxy rejects “faith” without works. Faith in the Orthodox Church is something practical, an interaction that begins here and now, something that tastes and knows. To “grok” in Martian is to drink deeply and to know, and this is bedrock to Orthodox faith. So the “faith” that is rejected in Stranger in a Strange Land is something the Orthodox faith rejects too.

Nonetheless, it seems somewhat clumsy to speak of Michael’s “tenets of faith” in the book, and I will strike through the “bad” word, writing, “tenets of faith.” (You are welcome to read this as “The word ‘faith’ is behind the line used to strike through it.”)

I would like to look at several tenets of faith that run throughout the book, and underscore and unfold something: It is possible to overreach and undershoot in the same act. This happens in Stranger in a Strange Land‘s tenets of faith.

“Thou art God”

Mike, after struggling with human concepts, tells Jubal, “Thou art God!” and Jubal facepalms and says to back up. But Michael is confident and serene, and “Thou art God” becomes a foundational tenet of faith for the Church of All Worlds.

It has been said, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give everything I own for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” And that is a hint of why everything simply being God from the beginning is much less powerful a drama than God creating something else besides himself, and then by his grace deifying it. “Pantheism”, the idea that everything is God, has been called “paneverythingism,” the idea that “everything is everything else”—and something like this is underscored by a joke later on in the book where one worm asks another, “Will you marry me?” and the other worm says, “Marry you? I’m your other end!” It kind of drains romance, and if that is being God, then it isn’t really that much of an honor, or that big a deal, to be God. (Or, one might say, it isn’t really that much of an honor to be Everything, like everything else.)

It has been observed that love poetry flourishes in cultures where people believe God has a conversation with something that is not-God. If everyone and everything is God by nature, if as the dialogue in the book goes the cat that eats the bird or mouse is God and the bird or mouse is God and it doesn’t matter who is eaten, then being God does not hold a candle to the Orthodox teaching of divinization, that the Son of God became a Man and the Son of Man that men might become gods and the sons of God.

That is the simplicity on the other side of complexity: that is the deification on the other side of being created and not God.

Michael’s Martian “Thou art God!” overreaches and undershoots in the same movement.

The Kiss of Brotherhood

Within the bond of Michael’s group, there was a kiss of brotherhood, and this among the most central tenets of faith—but Heinlein was really borrowing here. Remember the Bible on “Greet one another with a holy kiss?”

The kiss of love, shared within the community of the Church, is the one act the Bible calls holy. It has been said, “Examples of the kiss as a means of making and breaking enchantments have been found in the folklore of virtually every culture in the Western world,” and this resonates with the holy kiss.

The Orthodox holy kiss is a microcosm of spiritual life. It is tied to Holy Communion, and receiving the Holy Mysteries is itself understood as a kiss. It is by the mouth that one breathes with one’s spirit, and with the mouth that one receives communion, and though it is a kiss on the cheek, by implication it is a kiss on the mouth, displaced somewhat.

Perhaps there is much more to be said in this vein, even if the holy kiss seems somewhat restrained compared to the “all-out kiss of brotherhood” which was, um, more than a kiss. But there is another shoe to drop.

“Good fences make good neighbors:” we have a culture with boundaries and limits that are there for our protection. The difference between the Martian “kiss of brotherhood” and the Orthodox holy kiss is a bit like the difference between liberating yourself to be drunk all the time, and drinking wine in moderation. And the holy kiss is not a fixation: it is one of many things that fit into a larger reality, only one tree in a large forest. This factor is completely lost in Stranger in a Strange Land. Heinlein may have made much more of a to-do about the kiss itself, but there are some things in life where less is more.

The Orthodox holy kiss is much more striking in its original ancient context than one might imagine; and yet the Church preserved a balancing act with a holy kiss that respected boundaries. Exactly how it did so has changed over time, but balance has been preserved. Heinlein, to make it different from Christianity, toppled the balance by leaving nothing of personal or community boundaries. Destroy the balancing act, and the holy kiss becomes a gateway to pain.

In the “kiss of brotherhood”, Heinlein overreached and undershot in the same act.


In Stranger in a Strange Land, the idea of wearing clothes for modesty is ridiculed as an irrational local custom. “Clothes optional” is a defining feature of the little bubble of Mars on earth. Not just a tenet of faith in the book, it was a basic practice when people tried to make a real-life Church of All Worlds following Heinlein’s blueprint. But the bumper sticker saying, “God’s original plan was to live in a garden with two naked vegetarians” is really missing something.

As to what exactly is missing, a frequent Orthodox hymn says of the Devil, “He who of old stripped you both naked” to Adam and Eve. What Adam and Eve had in the Garden of Eden was not something we re-create by taking our clothes off; we are in fact closer to Adam and Eve’s original condition when we are clothed in modesty. The term “naked” itself comes from “nake”, a verb that one would use to talk about stripping the natural covering from a nut. Never mind that some cultures don’t use clothes, and express their modesty in other ways. The natural condition is to present the person, not simply expose flesh, and the human person is presented properly when properly clothed. The New Eve, the Mother of God, is hymned, “Rejoice, robe of boldness for the naked!” because a person is naturally and properly presented when naturally and properly clothed.

Robert Heinlein sure makes nudity look good on paper. But from all reports, particularly Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty, living nude is not all it’s cracked up to be.

This attempt to remove barriers by removing clothing, too, overreaches and undershoots in the same act.

Laced with escapism

Stranger in a Strange Land has bubbles of Martian culture, and Martian life, introduced to earth; and Orthodoxy brings the Kingdom of Heaven and eternal life into earth. But there is a difference. The literary work of Stranger in a Strange Land, and the Martian culture it heralds, is laced with escapism. Escapism is not simply a tenet of faith; an escapist streak gives form and substance to every tenet of faith. By contrast, Orthodox eternal Life, lived here and now, is not escapist. It is intended for the here and now we are in, even the messy circumstances of our real lives, not the lives we might wish we were living.

It is difficult to describe the lust for escape, the lust to escape this world, that is laced through and through the novel and its movement. I tried to describe it in Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony with Nature: Anatomy of a passion. It is a lust I know well. And to those thirsting with that lust, there is good news and bad news. The bad news is that you can’t make the escape you thirst for. The good news is that you don’t need to.

Orthodoxy seems exotic enough; when you start out, things are very exotic, and in a certain sense it becomes something better than exotic when you have worn the shoe for long enough. But it lifts up slogwork, and offers engagement where one is tempted to seek escape. Stranger in a Strange Land, when its woven spell works its magic, leaves you wishing Martian culture was something you could enter. Orthodoxy leaves you able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and live the eternal life, where you are now, wherever you are now.

Stranger in a Strange Land, in trying to reach for something beyond the ken of earth, overreaches and undershoots in the same act. We need to let go of escape and discover that escape is not needed.

Water brothers

Water brothers are described as a very serious bond, “much more serious than a marriage,” and the tenet of faith of water brothers is indeed more serious than Heinlein’s version of marriage. But to some readers it seems mysterious how Heinlein tears up traditional, permanent, monogamous marriage and then rushes in with water brotherhood as if there was a gaping hole he needed to fill.

The seriousness of water brotherhood parallels the seriousness of marriage and monasticism the Orthodox Church celebrates, and arguably its “inner circle” version of friendship bears such gravity. I’ve never read a reviewer of Stranger in a Strange Land say, “You know, this ‘water brother’ bond is something I just can’t relate to.” Water brotherhood is good and it appears different ways in different places. But in Stranger in a Strange Land its job is to fill a gaping hole after Heinlein has ripped up traditional marriage.

I remember reading a book where, to build up alchemy and give it a sense of transcendence, a character said he had studied all the world’s religions and spurned them for the seriousness of alchemy. There was a very recognizable move of literary craft being made, if one that struck me as oddly: alchemy is not a more serious alternative to lightweight world religions, but a lightweight alternative to more serious world religions, and any one of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and sundry other religions offer a much meatier alternative to the alchemy that was being offered. Here, in Stranger in a Strange Land, the same kind of move is offered: kindred, friendship, and even traditional marriage are dismissed to make way for the weight of water brotherhood. But we would do well to avoid lusting for the depth of “water brother” bonds and pursue deeper relationships with those around us, especially if we are married to them.

After parenthetically adding a note about “Good fences make good neighbors” being part of how you form healthy bonds, I would say that in Heinlein’s thirst for transcendent friendship, he has overreached and undershot in the same move.

Martian discipline and powers

Although the term “psychic” never appears for Martian disciplines and powers, Michael Valentine Smith and the people he trains in Martian discipline have psychic powers. If you follow their tenets of faith in this book, you should expect to develop psychic powers. Characters see things and communicate far away, they can psychically kill and make things disappear (though a gun is very much a wrong thing, killing by psychic powers is a light and casual deal), and more. And on that point I would admit a comparison.

Orthodox saints levitate, see things past and future and know what is in others’ minds, and shine with the Light of Heaven. But to mention this is misleading, because it is a side effect: The Ladder of Divine Ascent says that people who see these things are like people who look at a sunbeam and see specks floating in the sunbeam because they are looking at the sunbeam itself. Michael Valentine Smith psychically kills a great many people; the greatest of Orthodox saints have raised the dead. But the Orthodox voice is insistent, emphatic, adamant. Repenting of your sins is greater work than raising the dead! The saints insist: Feeding the hungry is greater work than raising the dead! The few saints who work miracles see less wish fulfillment than us, not more; their struggles are like the messy circumstances of our lives, only much moreso.

The freedom in Stranger in a Strange Land is the freedom of wish-fulfillment, of immature desires sated. The freedom in Orthodoxy is the freedom that counts: the Mother of God who is addressed, “Rejoice, robe of boldness for the naked!” is also addressed, “Rejoice, love that doth vanquish all desire,” and the freedom in Orthodoxy is triumph over immature desire, and freedom to move on to more excellent things than one desires. In English, Stranger in a Strange Land tells us, being happy is a matter of functioning the way a person is meant to function; in Martian the statement amounts to a complete working manual. But Orthodoxy knows what it is, and has not only the Philokalia (volume 1, volume 2, volume 3, and volume 4) written out of deep knowledge and experience of what the science of spiritual struggle entails, but has Tradition, a living voice that offers bite-sized morcels to help day-by-day in our struggles. Orthodox Tradition trains us in the only freedom that really counts: not anything like psychic powers to sate unrefined desire, but transforming and transfiguring desire itself, which is itself greater work than raising the dead!

Heinlein offers powers equal to the powers of the saints in the superficial sense of the miraculous, and equal biofeedback-type control over their bodies so that one could stand through an ice storm naked (which some Orthodox saints can probably do), but without the most excellent way of the ABC of moral refinement and spiritual struggle. Fighting lust is one part of it, but not the only one, and here Heinlein offers heroes who win the Nobel prize for literature but do not deign to learn handwriting or typing. In Orthodoxy, the realization is that Nobel prizes are really not the bread-and-butter of life, but literacy in spiritual discipline is.

In psychic giants who embrace lust, Heinlein has overshot and underreached in the same heroes.

The Heretic

The initial working title for Stranger in a Strange Land was, The Heretic, and this seems a carefully chosen title. On that point it is worth quoting St. Irenaeos, Against Heresies:

Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king.

This image seems apropos to the “practical gospel”, if you will, in Stranger in a Strange Land, and it doesn’t speak much of Michael Valentine Smith.

Or does it?

In antiquity, there were Alexandrian and Antiochian schools of thought, and the Alexandrian school understood Christ as a teacher and a bearer of important teachings. And from the Alexandrian perspective, St. Paul’s epistles in the Bible are quite puzzling: they make almost nothing of the wealth of teaching preserved in the Gospels; there is little if any trace of the parables the Gospels keep finding in the Lord’s mouth. And all of this is puzzling until you realize that St. Paul was not making an Alexandrian use of Christ as a pivotal Teacher, but laying the foundations for what would become the Antiochian school, which found the significance of Christ in his becoming incarnate as man, dying as a sacrifice, and rising from the dead and trampling down death by death. And that is everywhere in St. Paul’s quite Christocentric letters.

And if we place Stranger in a Strange Land‘s account of Michael Valentine Smith with respect to these poles, Heinlein’s precept and example are alike Alexandrian: his Messiah is a Teacher who is significant for the tenets of faith he bears. At one point Michael is compared to the first man who discovered fire; in that sense he is more like the most important of many important saints than a Messiah proper. In the Orthodox Church, Christ alone is divine by nature; the faithful and even the saints are made to be divine by grace when God transcends the difference between Creator and creature. The uniqueness of Christ is too secure to be threatened by his divinizing work among the Church and Creation with it. And in that sense, Michael Valentine Smith stands the hero of a Messiah story, but in an Alexandrian sense.

Michael Valentine Smith is significant as a deliverer of tenets of faith.

And in that sense his story stands as a Christological heresy, like the heresies the Church rejected in confessing her Maximum Christ.

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An Open Letter to Spam Patrons

Hayward's Unabridged Dictionary
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C.J.S. Hayward

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