Usability for Hackers: Developers, Anthropology, and Making Software More Usable

CJSH.name/usability

Usability begins with anthropology

… and hackers have a good start on anthropology

If you’re reading this text, there’s a good chance that you are already halfway to being an anthropologist. Note: for the purposes of this chapter, ‘anthropology’ is used to refer to cultural anthropology. Other anthropological disciplines exist, but it is cultural anthropology and its techniques which are most directly relevant here.

How could an author know that you are probably at least half an anthropologist? Let’s turn the question around, and suppose you are a Python hacker. Why are you reading this article? Visual Basic .NET has enormous marketing muscle behind it, possibly eclipsing the marketing budgets for all open source technologies put together. Guido van Rossum holds a dim view of marketing, as does much of the Python community. Monster.com lists three thousand Visual Basic positions, almost five thousand .NET positions, but only one thousand Python positions. Why are you reading a “usability for hackers” article when you could be reading a title like Completely Master Visual Basic in Thirty Seconds or Less?

You are probably a hacker. It does not matter if you were mortified when you found out the preferred JavaScript technique to create an object with fields that aren’t globally accessible variables, or if you wince when you hear of a devious way to get technology to do things that shouldn’t be possible, or if you have no desire to be considered a 133t hax0r. You’re probably a hacker. The classic “How to Become a Hacker” for the most part outlines things that have a very obvious relationship to being a hacker: attitudes towards technical problem solving, or learning an open source Unix, learning to program and contribute to the web, and so on and so forth. Towards the end there is a particularly interesting section because on the surface it looks completely beside the point. The section is titled “Points for Style,” and mentions learning to write well, reading in science fiction, training in martial arts, meditation, music (preferably obscure), and wordplay. Other things could be added: avoiding mainstream TV or having arcane hobbies and interests, for instance, so that in a social context hackers may ask each other questions about obscure hobbies as a rough social equivalent to, “What’s your favorite TV show?”

Not that any of these is necessary to be a hacker, but together these common trends point to a personality profile that can learn the anthropological style of observation relevant to usability work much more easily than the general public, or even Joe Professional Programmer who regards learning new technologies as a necessary evil rather than a joy, works in Visual Basic .NET after being swayed by advertising, goes home and watches TV after work, has probably never heard of ThinkGeek, and would probably rather do gift shopping at Walmart even if he does know of ThinkGeek.

All of this is to say that the culture surrounding you is not like water to a fish. It is a basic fact of life that you don’t automatically share the perspective of others. Cross-cultural experience or ethnic minority status may accentuate this, but this is true even if you’re not (regarded as) a minority. And this kind of experience provides a very good foundation for anthropological ways of understanding exactly how you are not a user and users don’t think like you.

Anthropological usability techniques

An introductory example: Card sorting

One basic challenge for organizing a site’s information architecture is the taxonomy, or way of breaking things down. If one is asked what an example of a good taxonomy, one example of a taxonomy par excellence is the biological taxonomy that organizes all the way from kingdoms down to species or subspecies and varieties. And indeed that is one kind of taxonomy, but it is not the only possibility. If one is asked to break down a list of a fork, spoon, plate, bowl, soup, and macaroni and cheese, one obvious way is to put the fork and spoon together as cutlery, the plate and bowl together as dishware, and the soup and macaroni and cheese together as food. But this is not the only basic way, and it can make sense to put the fork, plate, and macaroni and cheese together as representing one complete option, and the spoon, bowl, and soup together as representing another basic option. Stores and websites that have adopted the latter approach, such as a gardening store or website that organizes its products according to the type of garden a customer is trying to make and what the customer is trying to do, see a significant increase in sales. Even biology could use other complementary technologies: a taxonomy that classified organisms according to both ecosystems and their roles within their ecosystems and ecological subsystems could say something very valuable that the eighteenth century classification wouldn’t.

In terms of websites, an information architecture that corresponds to the organization’s org chart is never a helpful choice. Even when we are talking about an intranet intended only for organizational insiders, one section or subsite for each department is not the right choice: one better option would be to support workflow and design around the tasks that employees will be doing with the intranet.

What is the best information architecture? That’s not a question to answer by looking something in a book or even thinking it out; it is something that we should work out based on what we observe doing research, even if we also read and need to do a bit of thinking. And this is the best practice across the board for usability.

One valuable exercise to help guide information architecture design is called card sorting. In this exercise, we get a stack of index cards, perhaps 3×5″, and write the individual names of different pieces of functionality the website should offer, trying to name things neutrally so that the names do not have common terms suggesting how certain parts belong together. Then we shuffle and lay out the cards, and individually ask subjects (people who will participate in an experiment and who are not insiders, whether employees of your organization for an external website, or information technology professionals) to organize them so that cards that belong together are put in the same stack.

Then we note which cards have been placed together, thank the subject, and move on to the next person.

On looking through the notes, we may see a few things. First, not all people think the same. We will likely see some breakdowns that are very similar, but there will likely be two or more breakdowns as fundamentally divergent as our breakdowns of the fork, spoon, plate, bowl, soup, and macaroni and cheese. Second, there will probably be a breakdown that simply catches us off guard. And this is good; it means the exercise is working.

After doing this, we can go about looking for a preferably standard information architecture that will gracefully serve the major ways we observed of breaking things down.

Focus groups: Cargo cult research for usability

With an eye to how to best approach observation, we would like to take a moment to talk about Coca-Cola’s blunder with “New Coke” and explain why focus groups, bringing in a group of people and asking them what they want, are deprecated as a recipe to make products that look good on paper but don’t wear well in normal use. For those of you who don’t remember the uproar some years back, the Coca-Cola company announced that it was switching to a new and improved formula, and there was massive public outlash from people who wanted the old Coke back. (Now the company sells both the old formula as Coke Classic and the new formula as Coke II, and Coke Classic is vastly more popular.)

Why would the Coca-Cola company announce it was terminating its cash cow? The answer is that it did naïve marketing research, ran taste tests, and asked members of the public which they would choose: the formula today sold as Coke Classic, or the formula today sold as Coke II. The rather clear answer from the taste tests was that people said they would rather have the new formula, and it was a clear enough answer that it looked like a sensible course of action to simply drop the second-best formula. It wasn’t until everybody could see that the Coca-Cola company had given itself a PR black eye that the company woke up to a baseline observation in anthropology: the horse’s mouth is a vastly overrated source of information. Most anthropological observation, including the kinds relevant to usability, are about paying close attention to what people do, and not be too distracted by their good faith efforts to explain things that are very hard to get right.

Anthropological observation: The bedrock of usability

There is more than one way to see the same situation

The kind of observation needed is probably closest to the anthropological technique of participant observation, except that instead of participating in using software or a website, we are observing others as they use software. Half the goal is to understand how the same thing can be observed differently. To quote from James Spradley’s Participant Observation, which is an excellent resource:

One afternoon in 1973 I came across the following news item in the Minneapolis Tribune:

Nov. 23, 1973. Hartford, Connecticut. Three policemen giving a heart massage and oxygen to a heart attack victim Friday were attacked by a crowd of 75 to 100 people who apparently did not realize what the policemen were doing. Other policemen fended off the crowd of mostly Spanish-speaking residents until an ambulance arrived. Police said they tried to explain to the crowd what they were doing, but the crowd apparently thought they were beating the woman.

Despite the policemen’s efforts the victim, Evangelica Echevacria, 59, died.

Here we see people using their culture. Members of two different groups observed the same event but their interpretations were drastically different. The crowd used their cultural knowledge (a) to interpret the behavior of the policemen as cruel and (b) to act on the woman’s behalf to put a stop to what they perceived as brutality. They had acquired the cultural principles for acting and interpreting things this way through a particular shared experience.

The policemen, on the other hand, used their cultural knowledge (a) to interpret the woman’s condition as heart failure and their own behavior as life-saving effort and (b) to give her cardiac massage and oxygen. They used artifacts like an oxygen mask and ambulance. Furthermore, they interpreted the actions of the crowd in an entirely different manner from how the crowd saw their own behavior. The two groups of people each had elaborate cultural rules for interpreting their experience and for acting in emergency situations, and the conflict arose, at least in part, because these cultural rules were so different.

Before making my main point, I would simply like to comment that the Spanish-speaking crowd’s response makes a lot more sense than it would first seem. It makes a lot of sense even on the assumption that the crowd did in fact understand the police officer’s explanation that they “apparently did not understand.” What the article explicitly states is that the police officers were using an oxygen mask, and that is a device that needs to be pressed against a person’s face and necessarily cover the same parts of a person’s face one would cover to try to cause suffocation. If you’re not expecting something like that, it looks awfully strange. Furthermore, although I do not know whether this actually happened, it is standard operating procedure to many emergency medical technicians and paramedics who perform CPR to cut off the person’s top completely, palpate to the best place to place one’s hands, and mark the spot with a ball-point pen. This may or may not have happened, but if it did, it is appropriate enough for neighbors to view it as an extreme indignity. Lastly, although today’s best practices in CPR are more forceful than was reccommended in the past, “heart massage” is a technical term that does not refer to anything like softly kneading a friend’s shoulder. The people I have met who do CPR regularly say they crack ribs all the time: cracking ribs may not be desirable on its own, but if a responder is doing good CPR with enough force to be effective, breaking a patient’s ribs is considered entirely normal and not a red flag that CPR is being done inappropriately. Furthermore, the woman’s age of 59 raises the question of osteoporosis. Racism is almost certainly a factor in the community’s memories; the community had quite probable stories circulating of bad treatment by police officers and possible police brutality. I know that the police tried to explain what they were doing, but if I saw police apparently trying to suffocate a member of our community, possibly saw an offensive indignity in that a senior’s shirt and underwear had been cut away, and saw an officer keep on forcefully shoving down on her chest and probably heard ribs crackling with every shove, it would take quite some believing, almost a reprehensible gullibility, to believe the other officers who tried to explain, “No, really, we’re trying to help her!”

(And, for reasons below, I would be very wary of saying that she probably would have survived if only the crowd hadn’t intervened.)

I may pause to note that neither group, nor apparently the authors of the newspaper article or anthropology text, appears to grasp how the situation would be viewed by a doctor. “Heart massage” is now more commonly known as “Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation,” or CPR, recuscitation being an otherwise obscure synonym for resurrection or returning from the dead: in French religious language, for instance, resuscitation is the term one uses for Christ returning to life after death on a cross. There is, to the purist, some fundamental confusion in the marketing-style slogan, “CPR saves lives.” Clinically and legally, death occurs when a person’s heart stops beating. If a person is still alive, and if there is any chance of saving the person’s life, then CPR is both premature and inappropriate.

Once a person enters a state of “cardiac arrest,” meaning death, then there might be a possibility of getting that person back by cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, even if that is a long shot. CPR at its very best is a third as effective as a heart beating normally, and even under ideal conditions can slow deterioration to give the emergency room perhaps a 5% to 10% chance of getting the person back. And that is assuming that ideal conditions are possible: in reality ideal conditions don’t happen. Though most people giving CPR do not have to deal with a crowd interpreting their efforts as assault, hoping to deliver perfect CPR is like hoping to become a good enough coder that one need not contend with debugging: Eric Raymond implicitly showed great maturity as a programmer by saying he was dumbfounded when his first attempt at Python metaprogramming worked without debugging. The person who does CPR in a public setting will contend not only with the difficulties of CPR itself, but an “uh-oh squad,” bystanders who second-guess one’s efforts and create a social dynamic like that of giving a speech to an audience of hecklers.

Now there is no question of blows or physical restraint when it comes to the idea of CPR or cardiac massage as a way to save lives that is apparently shared by the newspaper article author, the anthropology author, and possibly the police, and the medical view that CPR is “only indicated in the case of cardiac arrest,” meaning that it is premature and inappropriate unless a person has already died, but can preserve a remote chance of getting a patient back after the patient has crossed the threshold of clinical death. Emergency room doctors who view CPR as slowing deterioration and holding onto a slender chance of getting someone back will be quite grateful for CPR performed by police officers and other members of the general public who view CPR as a skill which saves lives. But the understanding is still fundamentally different, and differences like this come up in how computer interfaces are understood: differences you will want and need to appreciate.

Applying this foundation to usability

The core of usability testing is designing some sample tasks, asking users to do them, and observe, as a fly on the wall, without helping. If you can record sessions, great; if not, a notepad, notebook, or netbook works well. (The advantage of recording sessions is that almost invariably people will say, “There’s no way the user could have that much trouble with our design,” and a five-minute video of a user looking everywhere on the page but where users are intended to look, is worth a thousand arguments.) Usually studying five users is sufficient.

There is a saying in customer service of, “The customer is always right.” One may read the cautionary tale of a salesperson who kept on winning arguments with customers and somehow never closed a sale. And the principle is very simple. A customer who is wrong is to be treated as a valued customer as well as a customer who is right, and whether your customer is right or wrong, you treat each customer as a valued customer. Unless you are talking about an abusive customer, in which case it is appropriate to draw a line in the sand, you don’t send a message of “I’m right, you’re wrong.”

That’s not what I am talking about when I say, “The user is always right.” Anyone who teaches programmers or remembers what it was like to begin programming remembers hearing, “There’s no way the computer can be right! The computer has to be running my code wrong, or the compiler isn’t working right!” And it is a slow and at times painful lesson that the computer is in fact (almost) always right, that no matter how right your code seems, or how certain you are, if your code is not working, it is because you did something you did not intend, and your code will begin working when you find out how your code does not obviously say what you think it does, and adjust that part of your code. Bugs in libraries and (more rarely) compilers and interpreters do exist, but one important threshold has been crossed when a programmer stops blaming the tool for confusing bugs and begins to take responsibility personally.

And in the same sense that the computer is always right, and not the sense that the customer is always right, the user is always right about how users behave. If the user interacts with the user interface and does something counterproductive, this means the same sort of thing as code doing something counterproductive if it’s been compiled. The user, who is always right, has identified an area where the interface needs improvement. The user should be regarded as “always right” just as the computer should be regarded as “always right,” and when the user is wrong, that’s good information about where the user interface has problems.

I could say that the only thing we really need to do at all is observe the user. But observing the user includes a major challenge: it includes the major task of grasping things that violate our assumptions. The task is something like first encountering how JavaScript’s support for object-oriented programming includes objects and inheritance, but without classes, first coming to a scripting language and asking, “When does integer overflow occur?” and being told, “Your question does have an answer, but it matters less than you might think,” or the experience of a novice programmer who posted to a forum, “How do I turn off all the annoying compiler warnings I’m getting?” and was extremely frustrated to have more than one guru say, “You want to beg your compiler to give you as many warnings as you can get, and treat all warnings as errors.”

It was a deft move for Google to give Chrome a single search and URL bar, but the main reason may not be the one you think. Searching was heavily enough used that Firefox made life easier for many users by adding a second bar to the right of the search bar so that we could search without first pulling up the Google homepage; for heavy users, simplifying the URL bar and the search bar into one full-width piece is the next refinement. But this is not the main reason why it was deft for Google to give Chrome a unified search/URL bar, or at very least not the only reason.

My own experience helping others out with their computers has revealed that something obvious to us has been absolutely nonexistent in their minds. Perhaps you have had the experience, too, of telling someone to enter something in a page’s text field, and they start typing it in the URL bar, or vice versa typing a URL into a page’s search field. What this unearths is that something that is patently obvious to web designers is not obvious to many web users: “Here is an important, impenetrable dividing line, and all the chrome above that line belongs to the browser, and everything below that line (above the bottom chrome, and excluding any scrollbars) belongs to the website.” This division of labor is obvious enough to most web designers that only experience could teach them that there are some people who don’t understand it. But the real world has many users who do not have any such concept, and behaviors like typing search terms in the URL bar (years before Chrome was available) are clues to “This is something that’s out there.”

And if you think, “Ok, but users are more sophisticated now,” you might go through your website’s search logs and see how many website addresses you can see. It won’t be nearly as many as ordinary search terms, but have you ever wondered where the addresses to MySpace and porn sites in your search logs come from?

Culture shock is a fundamental reality of when things go contrary to your expectations; most of us experience small amounts of culture shock in our day-to-day living and much greater amounts if we travel to another country or do something else. The three examples given above, of classless objects in JavaScript, integer overflow in scripting languages as not terribly important, and asking for a more draconian handling of warnings are examples of culture shock in relation to technologies. As a rule of thumb, if you aren’t experiencing culture shock from your user observations, you’re not deriving full benefit from them, and you don’t understand your users well enough to make the fullest improvements to the design. As a rule of thumb, if you aren’t experiencing culture shock from your user observations, that’s because you’re taking a shower with your raincoat on.

It’s just like (hard) debugging

I would like to make one closing parallel to debugging. There are several types of debugging I am not talking about: for instance, a missing close parenthesis causes an immediate error that makes it fairly quick work to find out what is wrong and what line of code it is. A traceback can also provide an excellent starting point for quick and effective debugging. Although debugging a failed unit test may not be quite so easy, a unit test is not just a tool to say that something is wrong, somewhere; it is a tool that should point a finger, and usually narrow the search field significantly. And many other bugs that are neither syntax errors nor resolved with the help of unit tests are still easy enough to fix that we need not be terribly aware of them; when we think of debugging we may only think of the few hard bugs rather than the majority of bugs which better programmers resolve without really thinking about it, like we turn on light switches on entering a darkened room, or unzip a coat outdoors when the day warms up, without giving the matter too much conscious thought or vividly remembering that we do this. (This is, incidentally, somewhat of an ethnographic observation of good programmers.)

What I am talking about, as hard bugs, are bugs where you go through every investigative tool you can think of, and still cannot pin down what is going on. (This may include a relatively small proportion of bugs that also generate tracebacks or unit test failures.) Observing the bug seems like observing, not a miniature ship in a bottle, but a ship in a seamless glass sphere: there’s no way you can tell that the ship could have gotten in there, but it is quite clear that the ship in fact is in a glass container that has no openings that you can imagine the ship getting in through.

Isaac Asimov said, “The most exciting sound in science is not, ‘Eureka!’ [I’ve found it!], but ‘That’s funny,'” and the history of science bears him out. Today, X-rays are widely known among scientifically literate people to be a very high-energy, short-wavelength radiation belonging to the same spectrum as visible light, but it was not always so; the name ‘X-rays’ is itself a holdover from when they were a fascinating and mysterious mystery, with the ‘X’ in ‘X’-rays referring to something unknown. It was known that they were radiation of some sort, but they passed through some opaque material and in general did not fit into anything people had a conceptual place for.

In the middle of efforts to understand this mystery, there was one physicist who stumbled upon a golden clue that X-rays might be something like light: he left unexposed photographic plates near a source of X-rays, and upon using and developing them, observed that they had all been partially exposed. His response, however, was to contact the photographic supply company and demand that they replace the photographic plates as defective. As Winston Churchill observed, “Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of the time he will pick himself up and continue on.”

In debugging, hard bugs, the kind that remain unresolved after we have investigated all the usual suspects, are rarely solved because we go looking for the right error and find exactly what we expected to find. With the analogy of the ship in the sphere, it is more like deciding there has to be some kind of concealed seam from gluing or otherwise sealing an aperture big enough to allow the ship to enter, at least in pieces, and after looking the glasswork over, using magnifying glasses and lights, and still finding no trace of a seam, you stop ignoring something you had noticed along the way: the ship itself appeared surprisingly glossy. When you stop to look at the ship for a second, you realize that it is not made of the wood and cloth you expected (and that it appears to be at first glance), but as far as you can tell is shaped out of colored glass. And, after doing a little more research, you learn of a glassblower who makes colored glass ships and forms seamless glass spheres around them. In this case, you were not wrong in saying there was no seam; there is still no way that such a thing could have been crafted at room temperature, and there is in fact no ultra-subtle seam that you failed to notice in our efforts to find the seam to an aperture through which the ship could have been inserted at room temperature, even in pieces. But that’s not the point. The ship in a globe was made at glassblower’s temperatures, and there it is possible to create a seamless sphere around a colored glass ship.

Hard bugs are debugged successfully when you learn to stop when you stumble over the truth. And the same is true in the anthropological side of usability techniques: some things you can know to look for, and find, but the much more important competency is to recognize when you have stumbled over the truth, and stop and pay attention to something you don’t know to look for.

Almost all of the difference between doing user observation badly and doing it well hinges on learning to recognize when you have stumbled over the truth.

Lessons from Other Areas

Live cross-cultural encounters

Learning and observing in cross-cultural encounters is an excellent way to learn how to pick up cues the way a user interface developer needs to. There are two basic cross-cultural encounters I recommend as particularly valuable. The first of these, as it takes shape in the U.S., is to spend time volunteering with an English as a Second Language program and tutor on computer basics. Or find out if you can tutor in classes at your local library. (If possible, work in an adult computer class that has seniors and not too many young people.) This may or may not be the most pleasant experience, but it is some of the most valuable. I remember one experience where I was working with a Sudanese refugee, quite possibly an escapee of the genocide against Christians, who had just had his life uprooted under presumably traumatic circumstances and was learning to deal with living in the U.S. all at once, which would presumably be trauma in itself. I remember in particular one moment when we had very slowly typed a word or two in a word processor, and ticked the button to close a document, and were staring at a dialog box asking if we wanted to save the document before closing. And I remember a slow dawning realization that not only did he not know the quite substantial cultural concepts involved in recognizing that this was how culturally one asks a question, expecting an answer in the form of a click on one of two areas of the screen to answer “Yes,” “No,” or “Mu” (“Cancel”), but the question itself, “Do you want to save this document before closing?” was a question that did not exist at all in his culture, and even if I spoke his native language I would probably not be able to explain the question on terms that would make any sense to him. That was probably my most difficult teaching experience, and the one where I have the most doubts about whether I succeeded in teaching anything at all. But it was a profoundly valuable experience to me, and helped me see how things could “go without saying” to me but be baffling to others.

The second of these two cross-cultural encounters is whatever you already have. Few if any of us have no cross-cultural encounters; whether one is ethnically or (a)religiously a majority or a minority, an immigrant or a native citizen of one’s country, or considering face-to-face encounters or Internet connections, most of us have at least some experience in cross-cultural encounter. The differences are there; if you have learned something from cross-cultural encounter, the experience can help us more readily recognize the cues you need to recognize.

History

While I am wary of reducing history to merely an apparatus to understand the cultures of previous times, most historians arrive at a fairly deep understanding of a culture that is not their own, and may arrive at a sensitivity to the ways, all to easy to ignore, in which historical texts veto modern assumptions. There was an experiment in which a question concerning Abraham Lincoln and a number of historical primary sources were given to a number of elementary school teachers, plus one historian of Lincoln, and a historian whose specialties were unrelated. During the time of the experiment, the elementary school teachers started with a wrong conceptual framework that imposed today’s basic categories on the texts, and did not progress to anything better. The historian of Lincoln started with a highly accurate conceptual framework and very quickly arrived at the answer. But what is particularly interesting is the other historian, who was trained as a historian but had little directly relevant knowledge to Lincoln. He started with the same conceptual framework as the non-historians, but by the end he had corrected his framework to the point of reaching where the Lincoln historian had started.

This latter historian is perhaps the most interesting, not because he was initially right, but because he was self-correcting: even though his starting framework was no better than the schoolteachers, he was able enough to adjust his perspective from cues based on the text so that he reached the framework the Lincoln historian started with. And, one would imagine, the Lincoln historian would have had a similar self-correcting sensitivity to the texts had he been asked the same kind of question about a historical setting he did not initially understand.

Getting history right is relevant to us in two ways. First, one understands one, or perhaps many, other cultures more or less well. Second, when one trips over a clue that one is wrong, one stops and learns from it, instead of hoping it will go away. Both of these strengths are a powerful foundation to usability.

Old Books and Literature

Books can be a very good place to sharpen anthropological competencies through meeting other cultures. However, I might clear the ground of some distractions if it is tempting to say, “But I meet other cultures in all my favorite books! I’m an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy.”

All science fiction is not created equal in terms of cultural encounter. There is a marked difference between reading Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and watching Star Trek. Heinlein understood both culture and culture shock, and though his book only treats one alien culture, it is written to create culture shock in the reader, and challenge us in assumptions we didn’t know we had. “Whaaa—? They can’t do that!” is a normal and intended reaction to several parts of the book. In Star Trek, there are many races, but culture shock in the viewer is almost nonexistent even when the plot is intended to surprise. To put it more pointedly, the average American’s culture shock from watching years of Star Trek is probably much less than the average American student’s culture shock from a few months’ experience in a foreign exchange program, perhaps less than the culture shock in the first month of that program. By comparison with a live encounter with another human culture, the alien races in Star Trek have less their own alien cultures than a shared personality profile we can already relate to even when we don’t like it.

Likewise, not all fantasy is created equal. J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis were both Oxford-educated medievalists who knew medieval literature intimately. The genre of fantasy that appeared in their wake, if you have seriously read medieval literature, seems by comparison like the opening rant in the movie Dungeons & Dragons, where a supposedly medieval character gives an impassioned “Miss America” speech about how horrible it is that the realm’s government is unlike a U.S.-style democracy. Today’s genre fantasy reads like the story of Westerners from our time who happen to be wearing armor; by contrast, in The Chronicles of Narnia some of the characters are indeed from the twentieth century, but in terms of how the story is put together there is something a bit medieval, and not individualist, about their characterization.

If our cultures’ science fiction and fantasy are not the best place to be challenged by another encounter, and to develop that kind of sensitivity, where can we go? One obvious response is to look to be challenged by books like the Dao De Jing and the Bhagavad-Gita. Those are both excellent places to look to be challenged, but if we assume that we can be challenged by the Bhagavad-Gita but not Plato, we are selling both of them short. The image in Plato of climbing out of the cave with its shadows and looking at the sun is something that a Hindu commentator on the Bhagavad-Gita can quite easily relate to, and in a certain sense Plato has more in common with that kind of Hinduism than with his disciple Aristotle.

What does it look like to read a text to see what one can pick up culturally? Consider the following text:

QUANTUM THEORY, THE. As recently as the opening years of the present century the vast majority of physicists still regarded Newton’s dynamical laws as something established for all time. And they were not without solid grounds for this faith. Many phenomena were indeed known, chiefly those which may be classed under the heading radiation, e.g. black body radiation and line spectra, which refused to accommodate themselves to any sort of theory founded on Newtonian principles; but it was generally believed that such phenomena would, sooner or later, be completely accounted for without any departure from the classical principles of physics. Even the theory of relativity developed by Lorentz, Einstein, Minkowski and their successors was regarded only as a widening or generalization of the Newtonian basis of physics. It was the culmination of classical physical theory. These phenomena we now believe, cannot be accounted for on the basis of classical physical theory, whether Newtonian or Einsteinian. The first act of sacrilege was committed by Max Planck, until recently professor of theoretical physics at the University of Berlin, about the end of the year 1900, when he initiated the quantum theory. One of the problems engaging the attention of physicists during the closing years of the last century was that of the radiation from a black body…

The reconciliation of these two aspects of the phenomenon, namely the independence of the energy of the ejected photo-electrons and the intensity, on the one hand, and the wave character of the radiation on the other, constitutes one of the most formidable problems which physical science has ever encountered…

Now I would like to make a couple of points. I could, for instance, have chosen an interminable fight narrative from a medieval Arthurian legend to say, “We look on Arthurian legends as mysterious tales of wonder. Did you know that a large portion of those legends is actually quite dull to the modern reader?” Some readers may be wondering, “This is a scientific article, not a cultural area where anything goes.” But, even if science is not a domain where anything goes, there are cultural issues here, and it may be possible to date the article by cultural markers as well as by values given for physical constants (Avogadro’s number appears to be given as 6.06 * 10^23, not today’s 6.022 * 10^23, and the unit of electrical charge is reported to have current values consistent with initial measurements, despite the fact that the initial reported experimental value was erroneous and subsequent experimenters fudged until it was found acceptable to report what is now believed to be the correct value.)

In the quoted text, there are two significant markers that date the text as showing significant cultural difference from how things are viewed today.

A physicist or philosopher today would say that Newtonian physics, Einsteinian physics, quantum physics, and for that matter superstring theory are fundamentally irreconcilable on an ontological plane but happen to predict the same behaviors for the kind of experiments one would expect of a high school physics lab: the predicted results for each of these theories are vastly smaller than even a top-notch experimental physicist doing high school experiments could possibly observe. But the reasons behind those differences are irreconcilable, like the difference between saying “You see this OS behavior because it is running natively on your computer” and “You see this OS behavior because it is being emulated under virtualization with several levels of indirection that are extremely slippery to understand.” The behavior predicted is interchangeable, but the reasons proposed for the behavior are fundamentally irreconcilable. Furthermore, this is not just true if one compares quantum physics with Einsteinian or Newtonian physics; it is also true if one compares Einsteinian with Newtonian physics: to today’s take on things, it is a bit astonishing to say, “on the basis of classical physical theory, whether Newtonian or Einsteinian.” The usual way of presenting things in a physics class today is to present Einstein’s theory of relativity as the first in a stream of foundational upsets after Newton reigned unchallenged and apparently eternally established for centuries. Today we would expect to need to dig a bit to find more examples of Einstein’s theory referred to as a further expansion developing Newton, which should still be considered “classical physical theory.”

The second quoted paragraph refers to how light (and, it may be mentioned, practically everything else as seen in quantum theory) behaves as a particle when treated in some ways and as a wave as treated in others. This duality has since hit the rumor mill well enough that a favorite illustration from science in theology programs is how light exists as both a particle and a wave, which reflects the extent to which the duality of light as particle and wave remains unresolved but is no longer regarded as, “one of the most formidable problems which physical science has ever encountered.”

Our point is not to deride the article, which is written at a higher level of sophistication and detail than, for instance, the Wikipedia. Apart from its certitude in the existence of an “aether,” slightly surprising in light of the fact that the Michelson-Morley experiment dates to 1887 and the article refers to 1900 as a past year, its picture of quantum physics portrays the same core science one would expect of a physics text today. But, even in physics, which is not in any sense a field where just anything goes, culture is present, and for that matter in this article the cultural cues alone are most likely sufficient for an historian of 20th century physics to closely date it.

This kind of cue is what you can practice learning in reading old books, and this kind of cue is what you need to be able to pick up in observing for good user interface development.

The way you observe that a user doesn’t share an understanding that is obvious to you is by the same kind of cue that can clue you in that a text doesn’t share an understanding that is obvious to you.

The last other area: Whatever you have

Whatever else you have is probably a resource you can draw on. Do you love birding? Birding is a hobby of observation. Do you do martial arts, for instance? A common theme in martial arts is harmony between opponents, and if you can attune yourself to a sparring partner, you should be able to attune yourself to a user. Comedy or performing arts? You’re not a good comedian if you’re insensitive to your audience. Have you made a lot of mistakes, and learned from them, or at least started to learn? Wonderful news! (Are you an amateur or professional anthropologist? That one doesn’t need explaining!) There is some connection between any two areas of life; let other skill support and strengthen your usability work.

Understanding the User

A lesson from optimization

Knuth said, for the novice programmer, “Don’t optimize,” and to experts only, “Optimize later.” Always writing for optimization is a recipe for bad, unreadable code, and for that matter slow code, compared to code written for clarity that is later optimized using that clarity. And Knuth also said, “Premature optimization is the root of all evil.”

In one production system I was working on, I wrote one search with the realization that the implementation I was using was extremely inefficient, and had to deliberately refrain from optimizing it, to leave for later. When the whole system was put together, it took a couple of seconds longer than was acceptable, and I began mentally gearing up to optimize the inefficient search. Before doing so, I did some testing, and found to my surprise that my inefficient search implementation took very little time to run, and when I began mapping things out, found the root problem. I had called a poorly chosen method, and with it made a purely preventable network call, and that network call took a few seconds. When that problem was fixed, the remaining code ran at acceptably fast times for even the largest accounts.

This story is my own version of something that keeps on being retold in the programming literature: “Our system was running slowly, and we had reasonable ideas about what was going on here, but our reasonable ideas were wrong. We didn’t know what the real problem was until we dug into some observation.”

This basic lesson in optimization is a fundamental phenomenon in usability as well. We will have reasonable ideas about what the usability issues are, and our reasonable ideas will be wrong. We won’t know what the real issues are until we dig into some observation.

What’s wrong with scratching an itch, or, you are not your user

The open source community is largely driven by scratching itches, but scratching a programmer’s itch is a terrible way to approach user interface design.

The story is told of a program used in an office where a popup window appeared and said, “Type mismatch.” And the secretary obediently typed M-I-S-M-A-T-C-H, a perfectly appropriate user response to an inappropriate error message. (This kind of thing shows up in many more subtle ways, some of which are not so obviously wrong.)

Designing a user interface that makes sense to someone who understands its inner workings, and designing a user interface that makes sense to its intended audience, are not the same thing. A mechanic’s understanding of how a car starts is very elaborate and detailed, but a user should be able to get by thinking, “I turn the key and press the gas, and the car starts” without necessarily thinking anything about what’s under the hood. If users need to understand what’s under the hood to operate the car, the car needs improvement.

Worst practices from the jargon file

The jargon file defines the extremely pejorative “PEBKAC” as:

[Abbrev., “Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair”] Used by support people, particularly at call centers and help desks. Not used with the public. Denotes pilot error as the cause of the crash, especially stupid errors that even a luser could figure out. Very derogatory. Usage: ‘Did you ever figure out why that guy couldn’t print?’ ‘Yeah, he kept cancelling the operation before it could finish. PEBKAC’. See also ID10T. Compare pilot error, UBD.

And the particular example is unfortunately revealing of an attitude user interface people need to avoid like the plague.

It is common enough in computer programs to have modal dialog boxes; the humble JavaScript alert(“Hello, world!”); is one of innumerable ways to get them. And what they mean from an ordinary nontechnical user perspective is, “A box popped up, probably one that you don’t want and may not understand. What is even more annoying is that it is blocking your work; you can’t continue what you are doing until you get rid of it.” And so an entirely appropriate way to deal with these annoyances is get rid of them as quickly as possible.

The example given in the jargon file’s definition of “PEBKAC” is, “‘Did you ever figure out why that guy couldn’t print?’ ‘Yeah, he kept canceling the operation before it could finish. PEBKAC.'” For a long time, at least, attempting to print from a GUI gave something that looked like a modal dialog box, but for this “modal dialog lookalike”, there is one important difference in behavior. When you click on the button to make it go away, it destroys your print job.

This is not a case of a problem existing between the user’s keyboard and chair.

It is a case of a problem existing between the user interface designer’s keyboard and chair. PEBKAC.

To pick on the jargon file a little more, “Drool-proof paper” is defined as:

Documentation that has been obsessively dumbed down, to the point where only a cretin could bear to read it, is said to have succumbed to the “drool-proof paper syndrome” or to have been “written on drool-proof paper”. For example, this is an actual quote from Apple Computer’s LaserWriter manual: “Do not expose your LaserWriter to open fire or flame.”

Let’s ignore the fact that this sounds less like a technical writer trying to be easy to understand, than corporate legal counsel trying to ward off ambulance chasers.

There is a very user-hostile attitude here, the basic idea that if your system is too difficult for your users to understand, the users must be too stupid, and making something user-friendly is a matter of stretching to meet people you shouldn’t have to cater to. Stories and terms like this circulate among programmers. I might suggest that terms like these, for your software’s audience, are little, if any, better than a racial slur. They reflect an attitude we don’t need.

Python and usability

You do not really understand Python until you understand something about usability as it appears in Python. Usability is the soul of ‘Pythonic’.

It’s not all about the computer!

There is something genuinely different about Python, and to explain it I would like to discuss the advantages of C.

If you want to nano-optimize every ounce of performance you can get, there is little serious competition to C. You can write assembler for different platforms, or write in a C++ that is multiparadigm like Python and have some parts of your program use high-level features like objects, templates, and operator overloading, while still writing almost unadulterated C for parts that are performance-critical. And the group of programmers that “vote with their keyboards” for using C this way, includes Guido van Rossum, who created Python. The first and canonical Python implementation is written in C, and a Pythonista underscoring the point that Python’s switch statement is a very efficient dictionary will explain that Python’s dictionary is implemented in tightly optimized C.

But this kind of advantage comes at a price. In the canonical list of ways to shoot yourself in the foot in different programming languages, C is “for people who want to load their own rounds before shooting themselves in the foot.” In one Python forum, a wannabe 133t hax0r asked how to write a buffer overflow in Python, and a wry Pythonista replied apologetically: “We’re sorry, but Python doesn’t support that feature.” But C does support the “feature” of buffer overflows; its default string handling never leaves home without it. With manual memory management and manual handling of pointers, C also supports “features” including all kinds of memory leaks and subtle pointer errors that can be extremely difficult to debug. Python closes this Pandora’s box, although Python is hardly the only language with the wisdom to do so. Python, PHP, Ruby, Perl, Tcl, and Java all close the Pandora’s box that must be wide open if you are to have tightly optimized C.

C has been called a language that combines the power of using assembler with the ease of using assembler, and I know of no compiled language that surpasses C for power over bare metal, or for corresponding possibilities for tight optimization. However, this is not the only way to keep score. Python keeps score by another metric: programmer productivity.

The one overriding concern motivating decisions in Python is not how you can get the tightest control over the computer’s productivity. It’s how to let the programmer be most productive, and it has been said of this relentless pursuit of programmer productivity that capital sentences are passed with less thorough deliberation than obscure Python features. And if you’ve used Python, the difference you have experienced is precisely because of this one overriding concern, this relentless pursuit. The people in charge of Python have decided that Python isn’t about what to do to optimize the computer; it’s about what you do to empower the programmer.

If you’re interested in usability, you have a good working example of usability to look at. To put Python’s strength a little differently, Python is a language where the one overriding concern and relentless pursuit is usability for you, the programmer. If you are working on usability, you are working to give end-users the same kind of thing that Python gives you. You are making a product more Pythonic to use, as opposed to giving the more C-like experience of an interface that lets users load their own rounds before shooting themselves in the foot.

Usability is about how to go from giving C user interfaces, to giving Pythonic user interfaces.

Hayward’s Free Intranet Employee Photo Directory

So, you’ve hired a hacker (revised and expanded)

Usability, the soul of Python: an introduction to the Python programming language

Within the Steel Orb

Un-Man’s Tales: C.S. Lewis’s “Perelandra,” Fairy Tales, and Feminism

CJSHayward.com/unman

Knights and Ladies, Women and Men
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A first clue to something big, tucked into a choice of children’s books

I was once part of a group dedicated to reading children’s stories (primarily fantasy) aloud. At one point the group decided to read Patricia Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons. I had a visceral reaction to the book as something warped, but when I tried to explain it to the group by saying that it was like the Un-man in Perelandra, I was met with severe resistance from two men in the group. Despite this, and after lengthy further discussions, I was able to persuade them that the analogy was at least the best I could manage in a tight time slot.

I was puzzled at some mysterious slippage that had intelligent Christians who appreciated good literature magnetized by works that were, well… warped. And that mysterious slippage seemed to keep cropping up at other times and circumstances.

Why the big deal? I will get to the Un-man’s message in a moment, but for now let me say that little girls are sexist way too romantic. And this being sexist way too romantic motivates girls to want fairy tales, to want some knight in shining armor or some prince to sweep them off their feet. And seeing how this sexist deeply romantic desire cannot easily be ground out of them, feminists have written their own fairy tales, but…

To speak from my own experience, I never realized how straight traditional fairy tales were until I met feminist fairy tales. And by ‘straight’ I am not exactly meaning the opposite of queer (though that is close at hand), but the opposite of twisted and warped, like Do You Want to Date My Avatar? (I never knew how witchcraft could be considered unnatural vice until I read the witches’ apologetic in Terry Pratchett’s incredibly warped The Wee Free Men.) There is something warped in these tales that is not covered by saying that Dealing with Dragons has a heroine who delights only in what is forbidden, rejects marriage for the company of dragons, and ridicules every time its pariahs say something just isn’t done. Seeing as how rooting out from the desire for fairy tales from little girls and little kids in general, authors have presented warped anti-fairy tales.

Ella Enchanted makes it plain: for a girl or woman to be under obedience is an unmixed curse. There is no place for “love, honor, and obey.”

The commercials for Tangled leave some doubt about whether the heroine sings a Snow White-style “Some day my prince will come.”

The Un-man’s own tales

Perelandra has a protagonist who visits Venus or Perelandra, where an unfallen Eve is joined first by him and then by the antagonist, called the Un-man because he moves from prelest or spiritual illusion to calling demons or the Devil into himself and then letting his body be used as a demonic puppet.

How does the Un-man try to tempt this story’s Eve?

[The Lady said:] “I will think more of this. I will get the King to make me older about it.”

[The Un-man answered:] “How greatly I desire to meet this King of yours! But in the matter of Stories he may be no older than you himself.”

“That saying of yours is like a tree with no fruit. The King is always older than I, and about all things.”…

[The Lady said,] “What are [women on earth] like?”

[The Un-man answered,] “They are of great spirit. They always reach out their hands for the new and unexpected good, and see that it is good long before the men understand it. Their minds run ahead of what Maleldil has told them. They do not need to wait for Him to tell them what is good, but know it for themselves as He does…”

…The Lady seemed to be saying very little. [The Un-man]’s voice was speaking gently and continuously. It was not talking about the Fixed Land nor even about Maleldil. It appeared to be telling, with extreme beauty and pathos, a number of stories, and at first Ransom could not perceive any connecting link between them. They wre all about women, but women who had apparently lived at different periods of the world’s history and in quiet differences. From the Lady’s replies it appeared that the stories contained much that she did not understand; but oddly enough the Un-man did not mind. If the questions aroused by any one story proved at all difficult to answer, the speaker simply dropped that story and instantly began another. The heroines of the stories seemed all to have suffered a great deal—they had been oppressed by their fathers, cast off by husbands, deserted by lovers. Their children had risen up against them and society had driven them out. But the stories all ended, in a sense, hapily: sometimes with honours and praises to a heroine still living, more often by tardy acknowledgment and unavailing tears after her death. As the endless speech proceeded, the Lady’s questions grew always fewer…

The expression on [the Lady’s] face, revealed in the sudden light, was one that [Ransom] had not seen there before. Her eyes were not fixed on the narrator; as far as that went, her thoughts might have been a thousand miles away. Her lips were shut and a little pursed. Her eyebrows were slightly raised. He had not yet seen her look so like a woman of our own race; and yet her expression was one he had not very often met on earth—except, as he realized with a shock, on the stage. “Like a tragedy queen” was the disgusting comparison that arose in his mind. Of course it was a gross exaggeration. It was an insult for which he could not forgive himself. And yet… and yet… the tableau revealed by the lightning had photographed itself on his brain. Do what he would, he found it impossible not to think of that new look in her face. A very good tragedy queen, no doubt, very nobly played by an actress who was a good woman in real life…

A moment later [the Un-man] was explaining that men like Ransom in his own world—men of that intensely male and backward-looking type who always shrank away from the new good—had continuously laboured to keep women down to mere childbearing and to ignore the high destiny for which Maleldil had actually created her…

The external and, as it were, dramatic conception of the self was the enemy’s true aim. He was making her mind a theatre in which that phantom self should hold the stage. He had already written the play.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Lady is complementarian to the point where one wonders if the label ‘complementarian’ is sufficient, and the demon or Devil using the Un-man’s body is doing his treacherous worst to convert her to feminism. Hooper says he is trying to make her fall by transgressing one commandment, and that is true, but the entire substance of the attack to make her fall is by seducing her to feminism.

A strange silence in the criticism

Walter Hooper’s C.S. Lewis: Companion and Guide treats this dialogue in detail but without the faintest passing reference to feminism, men and women, sex roles, or anything else in that nexus. It does, however, treat the next and final book in the trilogy, That Hideous Strength, and defend Lewis from “anti-feminism” in a character who was a woman trying to do a dissertation on Milton: Lewis, it is revealed, had originally intended her to be doing a dissertation on biochemistry, but found that he was not in a position to make that part of the story compelling, and so set a character whose interests more closely paralleled his own. So the issue of feminism was on his radar, possibly looming large. But, and this is a common thread with other examples, he exhibits a mysterious slippage. His account gets too many things right to be dismissed on the ground that he doesn’t know how to read such literature, but it also leaves too much out, mysteriously, to conclude that he gave anything like such a scholar’s disinterested best in explaining the text. (It is my own opinion that Hooper in fact does know how to read; he just mysteriously sets this ability aside when Lewis counters feminism.) And this slippage keeps happening in other places and context, always mysterious on the hypothesis that the errors are just errors of disinterested, honest scholarship.

Jerry Root, in his own treatment in C.S. Lewis and a Problem of Evil: An Investigation of a Pervasive Theme, treats subjectivism as spiritual poison and problem of evil Lewis attacks in his different works: Root argues it to be the prime unifying theme in Lewis). But with slight irony, Root seems to turn subjectivistic, or at least disturbing, precisely where his book touches gender roles and egalitarianism. In his comments on The Great Divorce‘s greatest saint-figure, a woman, Susan Smith, is slighted: among other remarks, he quotes someone as saying that women in C.S. Lewis’s stories are “he neglects any intellectual virtue in his female characters,” and this is particularly applied to Sarah Smith. When he defends Lewis, after a fashion, Root volunteers, “a book written in the 1940s will lack some accommodations to the culture of the twenty-fist century.” But this section is among the gooiest logic in Root’s entire text, speaking with a quasi-psychoanalytic Freudian or Jungian outlook of “a kind of fertile mother-image and nature-goddess,” that is without other parallel and certainly does not infect the discussion of Lewis’s parents, who well enough loom large at points, but not in any psychoanalytic fashion. Root’s entire treatment at this point has an “I can’t put my finger on it, but—” resemblance to feminists disarming and neutralizing any claim that the Catholic veneration of the Virgin Mary could in any way, shape, or form contribute to the well-standing of women: one author, pointing out the difficulty of a woman today being both a virgin and a mother, used that as a pretext to entirely dismiss the idea that She could be a model for woman or a token of woman’s good estate, thus throwing out the baby, the bathwater, and indeed the tub. The Mother of God is She who answered, Be it unto me according to thy word, an answer that may be echoed whether or not one is a virgin, a mother, or for that matter a woman.

The critique Root repeats, on reflection, may meet an Orthodox response of “Huh?”, or more devastatingly, “Yes, but what’s your point?”, not because Lewis portrays a saint as “no model of intellectual virtue,” but because Orthodox sainthood is not a matter of intellectual virtue. Among its rich collection of many saints there are very few models of intellectual virtue, admittedly mostly men, and usually having received their formation outside the Orthodox Church: St. John Chrysostom was called “Chrysostom” or “Golden-Mouth” because of his formation and mastery of pagan rhetoric. But intellectual virtue as a whole is not a central force in the saints, and Bertrand Russell’s observation that in the Gospels not one word is put in praise of intelligence might be accepted, not as a weakness of the Gospel, but as a clarification of what is and is not central to Christian faith. And in terms of what is truly important, we would do well to recall the story of St. Zosima and St. Mary of Egypt. If Lewis’s image of sainthood is a woman who is not an academic, this is not an embarrassment to explain away, but a finger on the pulse of what does and does not matter for sainthood.

Root mentions the Un-man briefly, and gives heavy attention to the man who would become the Un-man as he appears in the prior book in the trilogy, but does not reference or suggest a connection between the Un-man and feminism. Root became an egalitarian, and shifts in his book from speaking of “men” to saying “humankind”. And this is far from one scholar’s idiosyncracy; a look at the World Evangelical Alliance’s online bookstore as I was involved with it showed this mysterious slippage not as something you find a little here, a little there, but as endemic and without any effective opposition.

Un-man’s tales for Grown-Ups

During my time as webmaster to the World Evangelical Alliance, the one truly depressing part of my work was getting the bookstore online. Something like eighty to ninety percent of the work was titles like Women as Risk-Takers for God which were Un-man’s tales for adults. I was depressed that the World Evangelical Alliance didn’t seem to have anything else to say on its bookshelves: not only was there a dearth of complementarian “opposing views” works like Man and Woman in Christ, but there was a dearth of anything besides Un-man’s tales. The same mysterious phenomenon was not limited to a ragtag group of friends, or individual scholars; it was dominant at the highest level in one of the most important parachurch organizations around, and not one that, like Christians for Biblical Equality, had a charter of egalitarian or feminist concerns and priorities.

Conclusion

G.K. Chesterton said, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” That might hold for Chesterton’s day, and classics like Grimm and MacDonald today, but today’s fairy tales, or rather Un-man’s tales, do not tell children the dragons can be killed. Children already know that deep down inside. They tell children dragons can be befriended and that dragons may make excellent company. For another title of the myriad represented by Dealing with Dragons, look at the tale of cross-cultural friendship one may look for in The Dragon and the George. When first published, Dealing with Dragons might have been provocative. Now Tangled is not. And reading Perelandra leaves one with an uncomfortable sense that C.S. Lewis apparently plagiarized, in the Un-man’s tales, works written decades after his death.

This issue is substantial, and Lewis’s sensitivity to it is almost prophetic: sensibilities may have changed, but only in the direction of our needing to hear the warning more. And it is one Christians seem to be blind to: complementarianism seems less wrong than petty, making a mountain out of a molehill. But the core issue is already a mountain, not a molehill.

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Aim for something better than Un-man’s Tales.

Barbara’s tale: the fairy prince

A Dream of Light

The Sign of the Grail

Veni, vidi, vomi: a look at “Do you want to date my avatar?”

A Treatise on Touch

CJSH.name/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

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis

CJSH.name/technonomicon

The Luddite's Guide to Technology
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Part of the collection:
The Luddite’s Guide to Technology

  1. Many people are concerned today with harmony with nature. And indeed there is quite a lot to living according to nature.
  2. But you will not find something that is missing by looking twice as hard in the wrong place, and it matters where one seeks harmony with nature. In monasticism, the man of virtue is the quintessential natural man. And there is something in monasticism that is behind stories of the monk who can approach boar or bear.
  3. Being out of harmony with nature is not predominantly a lack of time in forests. There is a deeper root.
  4. Exercising is better than living a life without exercise. But there is something missing in a sedentary life with artificially added exercise, after, for centuries, we have worked to avoid the strenuous labor that most people have had to do.
  5. It is as if people had worked for centuries to make the perfect picnic and finally found a way to have perfectly green grass at an even height, a climate controlled environment with sunlight and just the right amount of cloud, and many other things. Then people find that something is missing in the perfect picnic, and say that there might be wisdom in the saying, “No picnic is complete without ants.” So they carefully engineer a colony of ants to add to the picnic.
  6. An exercise program may be sought in terms of harmony with nature: by walking, running, or biking out of doors. Or it may be pursued for physical health for people who do not connect exercise with harmony of nature. But and without concern for “ascesis” (spiritual discipline) or harmony with nature, many people know that complete deliverance from physical effort has some very bad physical effects. Vigorous exercise is part and parcel to the natural condition of man.
  7. Here are two different ways of seeking harmony with nature. The second might never consciously ask if life without physical toil is natural, nor whether our natural condition is how we should live, but still recognizes a problem—a little like a child who knows nothing of the medical theory of how burns are bad, but quickly withdraws his hand from a hot stove.
  8. But there is a third kind of approach to harmony with nature, besides a sense that we are incomplete without a better connection to the natural world, and a knowledge that our bodies are less healthy if we live sedentary lives, lives without reintroducing physical exertion because the perfectly engineered picnic is more satisfying if a colony of ants is engineered in.
  9. This third way is Ascesis, and Ascesis, which is spiritual discipline or spiritual exercise, moral struggle, and mystical toil, is the natural condition of man.
  10. The disciples were joyous because the demons submitted to them in Christ’s name, and Christ’s answer was: “Do not rejoice that the demons submit to you in my name. Rejoice instead that your names are written in Heaven.” The reality of the disciples’ names being written in Heaven dwarfed the reality of their power over demons, and in like manner the reality that monks can be so much in harmony with nature that they can safely approach wild bears is dwarfed by the reality that the royal road of Ascesis can bring so much harmony with nature that by God’s grace people work out their salvation with fear and trembling.
  11. The list of spiritual disciplines is open-ended, much like the list of sacraments, but one such list of spiritual disciplines might be prayer, worship, sacrament, service, silence, living simply, fasting, and the spiritual use of hardship. If these do not seem exotic enough for what we expect of spiritual discipline, we might learn that the spiritual disciplines can free us from seeking the exotic in too shallow of a fashion.
  12. The Bible was written in an age before our newest technologies, but it says much to the human use of technology, because it says much to the human use of property. If the Sermon on the Mount says, “No man can serve two masters… you cannot serve both God and money,” it is strange at best to assume that these words applied when money could buy food, clothing, and livestock but have no relevance to an age when money can also buy the computers and consumer electronics we are infatuated with. If anything, our interest in technology makes the timeless words, “No man can serve two masters” all the more needed in our day.
  13. Money can buy everything money can buy and nothing money cannot buy. To seek true glory, or community, or control over all risk from money is a fundamental error, like trying to make a marble statue so lifelike that it actually comes to life. What is so often sought in money is something living, while money itself is something dead, a stone that can appear deceptively lifelike but can never hold the breath of life.
  14. In the end, those who look to money to be their servant make it their master. “No man can serve two masters” is much the same truth as one Calvin and Hobbes strip:

    Calvin: I had the scariest dream last night. I dreamed that machines took over and made us do their bidding.

    Hobbes: That must have been scary!

    Calvin: It wa—holy, would you look at the time? My TV show is on!

    But this problem with technology has been a problem with property and wealth for ages, and it is foolish to believe that all the Scriptural skepticism and unbelief about whether wealth is really all that beneficial to us, are simply irrelevant to modern technology.

  15. There was great excitement in the past millenium when, it was believed, the Age of Pisces would draw to a close, and the Age of Aquarius would begin, and this New Age would be an exciting dawn when all we find dreary about the here and now would melt away. Then the Age of Aquarius started, at least officially, but the New Age failed to rescue us from finding the here and now to be dreary. Then there was great excitement as something like 97% of children born after a certain date were born indigo children: children whose auras are indigo rather than a more mundane color. But, unfortunately, this celebrated watershed did not stop the here and now from being miserable. Now there is great hope that in 2012, according to the Mayan “astrological” calendar, another momentous event will take place, perhaps finally delivering us from the here and now. And, presumably, when December 21, 2012 fails to satisfy us, subsequent momentous events will promise to deliver us from a here and now we find unbearable.
  16. If we do not try to sate this urge with New Age, we can try to satisfy it with technology: in what seems like aeons past, the advent of radio and movies seemed to change everything and provide an escape from the here and now, an escape into a totally different world. Then, more recently, surfing the net became the ultimate drug-free trip, only it turns out that the web isn’t able to save us from finding the here and now miserable after all. For that, apparently, we need SecondLife, or maybe some exciting development down the pike… or, perhaps, we are trying to work out a way to succeed by barking up the wrong lamppost.
  17. No technology is permanently exotic.
  18. When a Utopian vision dreams of turning the oceans to lemonade, then we have what has been called “a Utopia of spoiled children.” It is not a Utopian vision of people being supported in the difficult ascetical pursuit of virtue and ultimately God, but an aid to arrested development that forever panders to childish desires.
  19. Technology need not have the faintest conscious connection with Utopianism, but it can pursue one of the same ends. More specifically, it can be a means to stay in arrested development. What most technology offers is, in the end, a practical way to circumventAscesis. Technological “progress” often means that up until now, people have lived with a difficult struggle—a struggle that ultimately amounts to Ascesis—but now we can simply do without the struggle.
  20. Through the wonders of modern technology, we can eat and eat and eat candy all day and not have the candy show up on our waistline: but this does not make us any better, nobler, or wiser than if we could turn the oceans to lemonade. This is an invention from a Utopia of spoiled chilren.
  21. Sweetness is a gift from God, and the sweeter fruit and honey taste, the better the nourishment they give. But there is something amiss in tearing the sweetness away from healthy food, and, not being content with this, to say, “We think that eating is a good thing, and we wish to celebrate everything that is good about it. But, unfortunately, there is biological survival, a holdover from other days: food acts as a nutrient whether you want it or not. But through the wonders of modern science, we can celebrate the goodness of eating while making any effect on the body strictly optional. This is progress!”
  22. Statistically, people who switch to artificial sweeteners gain more weight. Splenda accomplishes two things: it makes things sweeter without adding calories, and it offers people a way to sever the cord between enjoying sweet taste, and calories entering the body. On spiritual grounds, this is a disturbing idea of how to “support” weight loss. It is like trying to stop people from getting hurt in traffic accidents by adding special “safety” features to some roads so people can drive however they please with impunity, even if they develop habits that will get them killed on any other road. What is spiritually unhealthy overflows into poorer health for the body. People gain more weight eating Splenda, and there are more ways than one that Splenda is unfit for human consumption.
  23. The Ascesis of fasting is not intended as an ultimate extreme measure for weight loss. That may follow—or may not—but there is something fundamentally deeper going on:Man does not live by bread alone, and if we let go of certain foods or other pleasures for a time, we are in a better position to grasp what more man lives on than mere food. When we rein in the nourishing food of the body and its delights, we may find ourselves in a better position to take in the nourishing food of the spirit and much deeper spiritual delights.Fasting pursued wrongly can do us no good, and it is the wisdom of the Orthodox Church to undergo such Ascesis under the direction of one’s priest or spiritual father. But the core issue in fasting is one that matters some for the body and much more for the spirit.
  24. Splenda and contraception are both body-conquering technologies that allow us to conquer part of our embodied nature: that the body takes nourishment from food, and that the greatest natural pleasure has deep fertile potential. And indeed, the technologies we call “space-conquering technologies” might more aptly be titled, “body-conquering technologies,” because they are used to conquer our embodied and embedded state as God made it.
  25. Today, “everybody knows” that the Orthodox Church, not exactly like the Catholic Church allowing contraceptive timing, allows contraception under certain guidelines, and the Orthodox Church has never defined a formal position on contraception above the level of one’s spiritual father. This is due, among other factors, to some influential scholarly spin-doctoring, the academic equivalent of the NBC Dateline episode that “proved” that a certain truck had a fire hazard in a 20mph collision by filming a 30mph collision (presented as a 20mph collision) and making sure there was a fiery spectacle by also detonating explosives planted above the truck’s gas tank (see analysis).
  26. St. John Chrysostom wrote,

    Where is there murder before birth? You do not even let a prostitute remain only a prostitute, but you make her a murderer as well… Do you see that from drunkenness comes fornication, from fornication adultery, and from adultery murder? Indeed, it is something worse than murder and do not know what to call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation. What then? Do you despise the gift of God, and fight with his laws? What is a curse, do you seek it as though it were a blessing?… Do you teach the woman who is given to you for the procreation of offspring to perpetrate killing? In this indifference of the married men there is greater evil filth; for then poisons are prepared, not against the womb of a prostitute, but against your injured wife.

  27. The Blessed Augustine devastatingly condemned Natural Family Banning: if procreation is sliced away from marital relations, Augustine says point blank, then true marriage is forbidden. There is no wife, but only a mistress, and if this is not enough, he holds that those who enjoin contraception fall under the full freight of St. Paul’s blistering words about forbidding marriage:

    Now, the Spirit expressly says that in the last days some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences have been seared with a hot iron: for they forbid marriage and demand avoidance of foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.

    Augustine absolutely did not believe that one can enjoy the good of marriage and treat the blessing of marriage’s fertility as a burden and a curse. Such an idea is strange, like trying to celebrate the good of medical care while taking measures to prevent it from improving one’s health.

  28. Such condemnations stem from the unanimous position of the Church Fathers on contraception.
  29. Such words seem strange today, and English Bible translations seem to only refer to contraception once: when God struck Onan dead for “pull and pray.” (There are also some condemnations of pharmakeia and pharmakoi—”medicine men” one would approach for a contraceptive—something that is lost in translation, unfortunately giving the impression that occult sin alone was the issue at stake.)
  30. Contraception allows a marriage à la carte: it offers some control over pursuing a couple’s hopes, together, on terms that they choose without relinquishing control altogether. And the root of this is a deeper answer to St. John Chrysostom’s admonition to leave other brothers and sisters to their children as their inheritance rather than mere earthly possessions.(This was under what would today be considered a third world standard of living, not the first world lifestyle of many people who claim today that they “simply cannot afford any more children”—which reflects not only that they cannot afford to have more children and retain their expected (entitled?) standard of living for them and their children, but their priorities once they realize that they may be unable to have both.)
  31. Contraception is chosen because it serves a certain way of life: it is not an accident in any way, shape, or form that Planned Barrenhood advertises, for both contraception, “Take control of your life!” For whether one plans two children, or four, or none, Planned Barrenhood sings the siren song of having your life under your control, or at least as much under control as you can make it, where you choose the terms where you will deal with your children, if and when you want.
  32. Marriage and monasticism both help people grow up by helping them to learn being out of control. Marriage may provide the Ascesis of minding children and monasticism that of obedience to one’s elder, but these different-sounding activities are aimed at building the same kind of spiritual virtue and power.
  33. Counselors offer people, not the help that many of them seek in controlling those they struggle with, but something that is rarely asked: learning to be at peace with letting go of being in control of others, and the unexpected freedom that that brings. Marriage and monasticism, at their best, do not provide a minor adjustment that one manages and is then on top of, but an arena, a spiritual struggle, a training ground in which people live the grace and beauty of the Sermon on the Mount, and are freed from the prison chamber of seeking control and the dank dungeon of living for themselves.
  34. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, nor about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t there more to life than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than them? And why do you worry about the lilies of the field: how they grow. They neither toil nor spin;” they have joy and peace. The height of technological progress in having pleasure without losing control—in artificial sweeteners, contraceptives and anything else—utterly pales in comparison.
  35. Technology is not evil. Many technologies have a right use, but that use is a use to pursue maturity and Ascesis, not an aid to living childishly.
  36. Wine was created by God as good, and it has a right use. But the man who seeks in wine a way to be happy or a way to drive away his problems has already lost.
  37. One classic attitude to wine was not “We forbid drinking wine,” or even “It would be better not to drink wine at all, but a little bit does not do too much damage,” but goes beyond saying, “The pleasure of wine was given by God as good” to saying: “Wine is an important training ground to learn the Ascesis of moderation, and learn a lesson that cannot be escaped: we are not obligated to learn moderation in wine, but if we do not drink wine, we still need moderation in work, play, eating, and everything else, and many of us would do well to grow up in Ascesis in the training arena of enjoying wine and be better prepared for other areas of life where the need for the Ascesis of moderation, of saying ‘when’ and drawing limits, is not only something we should not dodge: it is something we can never escape.”
  38. The ascetical use of technology is like the ascetical use of wine. It is pursued out of maturity, and as a support to maturity. It is not pursued out of childishness, nor as a support to childishness. And it should never be the center of gravity in our lives. (Drinking becomes a problem more or less when it becomes the focus of a person’s life and pursuits.)
  39. The Harvard business study behind Good to Great found that the most effective companies often made pioneering use of technology, but technology was never the center of the picture: however many news stories might be printed about how they used technologies, few of the CEOs mentioned technology at all when they discussed their company’s success, and none of them ascribed all that much importance to even their best technology. Transformed companies—companies selected in a study of all publicly traded U.S. companies whose astonishing stock history began to improve and then outperformed the market by something like a factor of three, sustained for fifteen years straight—didn’t think technology was all that important, not even technologies their people pioneered. They focused on something more significant.
  40. Good to Great leadership saw their companies’ success in terms of people.
  41. There were other finds, including that the most effective CEOs were not celebrity rockstars in the limelight, but humble servant leaders living for something beyond themselves. In a study about what best achieves what greed wants, not even one of the top executives followed a mercenary creed of ruthless greed and self-advancement.
  42. If people, not technology, make businesses tremendously profitable, then perhaps people who want more than profit also need something beyond technology in order to reach the spiritual riches and treasures in Heaven that we were made for.
  43. The right use of technology comes out of Ascesis and is therefore according to nature.
  44. In Robert Heinlein’s science fiction classic Stranger in a Strange Land, a “man” with human genes who starts with an entirely Martian heritage as his culture and tradition, comes to say, “Happiness is a matter of functioning the way a human being was organized to function… but the words in English are a mere tautology, empty. In Martian they are a complete set of working instructions.” The insight is true, but takes shape in a way that completely cuts against the grain of Stranger in a Strange Land.
  45. One most immediate example is that the science fiction vision is of an ideal of a community of “water brothers” who painstakingly root out natural jealousy and modesty, and establish free love within their circle: such, the story would have it, provides optimal human happiness. As compellingly as it may be written into the story, one may bring up studies which sought to find out which of the sexualities they wished to promote provided the greatest pleasure and satisfaction, and found to their astonishment and chagrin that the greatest satisfaction comes, not from any creative quest for the ultimate thrill, but from something they despised as a completely unacceptable perversion: a husband and wife, chaste before the wedding and faithful after, working to become one for as long as they both shall live, and perhaps even grateful for the fruitfulness o their love. Perhaps such an arrangement offers greater satisfaction than trying to “push the envelope” of adventuresome arrangements precisely because it is “functioning the way a human being was organized to function.”
  46. People only seek the ultimate exotic thrill when they are unhappy. Gnosticism is a spiritual porn whose sizzle entices people who despair: its “good news” of an escape from the miserable here and now is “good news” as misery would want it. Today’s Gnosticism may rarely teach, as did earlier Gnostic honesty, that our world could not be the good creastion of the ultimately good God, but holding that we need to escape our miserable world was as deep in ancient Gnostics’ bones as an alcoholic experiences that our miserable world needs to be medicated by drunkenness. Baudelaire said, in the nineteenth century: “Keep getting drunk! Whether with wine, or with poetry, or with virtue, as you please, keep getting drunk,” in a poem about medicating what might be a miserable existence. Today he might have said, “Keep getting drunk! Whether with New Age, or with the endless virtual realities of SecondWife, or with the ultimate Viagra-powered thrill, as you please, keep getting drunk!”
  47. What SecondLife—or rather SecondWife—offers is the apparent opportunity to have an alternative to a here and now one is not satisfied with. Presumably there are merits to this alternate reality: some uses are no more a means to escape the here and now than a mainstream business’s website, or phoning ahead to make a reservation at a restaurant. But SecondWife draws people with an alternative to the here and now they feel stuck in.
  48. It is one thing to get drunk to blot out the misery of another’s death. It is another altogether to keep getting drunk to blot out the misery of one’s own life.
  49. An old story from African-American lore tells of how a master and one of his slaves would compete by telling dreams they claimed they had. One time, the master said that he had a dream of African-American people’s Heaven, and everything was dingy and broken—and there were lots of dirty African-Americans everywhere. His slave answered that he had dreamed of white people’s Heaven, and everything was silver and gold, beautiful and in perfect order—but there wasn’t a soul in the place!
  50. Much of what technology seems to offer is to let people of all races enter a Heaven where there are luxuries the witty slave could never dream of, but in the end there is nothing much better than a Heaven full of gold and empty of people.
  51. “Social networking” is indeed about people, but there is something about social networking’s promise that is like an ambitious program to provide a tofu “virtual chicken” in every pot: there is something unambiguously social about social media, but there is also something as different from what “social” has meant for well over 99% of people as a chunk of tofu is from real chicken’s meat.
  52. There is a timeless way of relating to other people, and this timeless way is a large part of Ascesis. This is a way of relating to people in which one learns to relate primarily to people one did not choose, in friendship had more permancy than many today now give marriage, in which one was dependent on others (that is, interdependent with others), in which people did not by choice say goodbye to everyone they knew at once, as one does by moving in America, and a social interaction was largely through giving one’s immediate presence.
  53. “Social networking” is a very different beast. You choose whom to relate to, and you can set the terms; it is both easy and common to block users, nor is this considered a drastic measure. Anonymity is possible and largely encouraged; relationships can be transactional, which is one step beyond disposable, and many people never meet others they communicate with face-to-face, and for that matter arranging such a meeting is special because of its exceptional character.
  54. Social networking can have a place. Tofu can have a place. However, we would do well to take a cue to attend to cultures that have found a proper traditional place for tofu. Asian cuisines may be unashamed about using tofu, but they consume it in moderation—and never use it to replace meat.
  55. We need traditional social “meat.” The members of the youngest generation who have the most tofu in their diet may need meat the most.
  56. Today the older generation seems to grouse about our younger generation. Some years ago, someoone in the AARP magazine quipped about young people, “Those tight pants! Those frilly hairdos! And you should see what the girls are wearing!” Less witty complaints about the younger generation’s immodest style of dress, and their rude disrespect for their elders can just as well be found from the time of Mozart, for instance, or Socrates: and it seems that today’s older generation is as apt to criticize the younger generation as their elders presumably were. But here something really is to be said about the younger generation.
  57. The older generation kvetching about how the younger generation today has it so easy with toys their elders never dreamed of, never seem to connect their sardonic remarks with how they went to school with discipline problems like spitwads and the spoiled younger generation faced easily available street drugs, or how a well-behaved boy with an e-mail address may receive X-rated spam. “The youth these days” have luxuries their parents never even dreamed of—and temptations and dangers their parents never conceived, not in their worst nightmares.
  58. Elders have traditionally complained about the young people being rude, much of which amounts to mental inattention. Part of politeless is being present in body and mind to others, and when the older generation was young, their elders assuredly corrected them from not paying attention in the presence of other people and themselves.
  59. When they were young, the older generation’s ways of being rude included zoning out and daydreaming, making faces when adults turned their back, and in class throwing paper airplanes and passing notes—and growing up meant, in part, learning to turn their back on that arsenal of temptations, much like previous generations. And many of the older generation genuinely turned their backs on those temptations, and would genuinely like to help the younger generation learn to honor those around with more of their physical and mental presence.
  60. Consumer electronics like the smartphone, aimed to offer something to youth, often advertise to the younger generation precisely a far better way to avoid a spiritual lesson that was hard enough for previous generations to learn without nearly the same degree of temptation. Few explains to them that a smartphone is not only very useful, but it is designed and sold as an enticing ultra-portable temptation.
  61. Literature can be used to escape. But the dividing line between great and not-so-great literature is less a matter of theme, talent, or style than the question of whether the story serves to help the reader escape the world, or engage it.
  62. In technology, the question of the virtuous use of technology is less a matter of how fancy the technology is, or how recent, than whether it is used to escape the world or engage it. Two friends who use cell phones to help them meet face-to-face are using technology to support, in some form, the timeless way of relating to other people. Family members who IM to ask prayer for someone who is sick also incorporate technology into the timeless way of relating to other people. This use of technology is quiet and unobtrusive, and supports a focus on something greater than technology: the life God gave us.
  63. Was technology made for man, or man for technology?
  64. Much of the economy holds the premise that a culture should be optimized to produce wealth: man was made for the economy. The discipline of advertising is a discipline of influencing people without respecting them as people: the customer, apparently, exists for the benefit of the business.
  65. Advertising encourages us to take shopping as a sacrament, and the best response we can give is not activism as such, but a refusal of consent.
  66. Shopping is permissible, but not sacramental shopping, because sacramental shopping is an ersatz sacrament and identifying with brands an ersatz spiritual discipline. At best sacramental shopping is a distraction; more likely it is a lure and the bait for a spiritual trap.
  67. We may buy a product which carries a mystique, but not the mystique itself: and buying a cool product without buying into its “cool” is hard, harder than not buying. But if we buy into the cool, we forfeit great spiritual treasure.
  68. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and all of your life and all of your mind and all of your might, love your neighbor as yourself, and use things: do not love things while using people.
  69. Things can do the greatest good when we stop being infatuated with them and put first things first. The most powerful uses of technology, and the best, come from loving those whom you should love and using what you should use. We do not benefit from being infatuated with technology, nor from acting on such infatuation.
  70. The Liturgy prays, “Pierce our souls with longing for Thee.” Our longing for transcendence is a glory, and the deepest thing that draws us in advertisements for luxury goods, does so because of the glory we were made to seek.
  71. But let us attend to living in accordance with nature. Ordinarily when a technology is hailed as “space-conquering,” it is on a deep level body-conquering, defeating part of the limitations of our embodied nature—which is to say, defeating part of our embodied nature that is in a particular place in a particular way.
  72. Technologies to pass great distance quickly, or make it easy to communicate without being near, unravel what from ancient times was an ancient social fabric. They offer something of a line-item veto on the limits of our embodied state: if they do not change our bodies directly, they make our embodied limitations less relevant.
  73. A technology can conquer how the body takes nourishment from food, for instance, and therefore be body-conquering without being space-conquering. But whether celebrated or taken for granted, space-conquering technologies are called space-conquering because they make part of the limitations of our embodied nature less relevant.
  74. There is almost a parody of Ascesis in space-conquering technologies. Ascesis works to transcend the limited body, and space-conquering technologies seem a way to do the same. But they are opposites.
  75. “The demons always fast:” such people are told to instill that fasting has a place and a genuine use, but anyone who focuses too much on fasting, or fasts too rigidly, is well-advised to remember that every single demon outfasts every single saint. But there is something human about fasting: only a being made to eat can benefit from refraining from eating. Fasting is useful because, unlike the angels and demons, a man is not created purely a spirit, but created both spirit and body, and they are linked together. Ascesisknows better, and is more deeply attuned to nature, to attempt to work on the spirit with the body detached and ignored.
  76. Even as Ascesis subdues the comforts and the body, the work is not only to transfigure the spirit, and transform the body.
  77. In a saint the transfiguration means that when the person has died, the body is not what horror movies see in dead bodies: it is glorified into relics.
  78. This is a fundamentally different matter from circumventing the body’s limitations. There may be good, ascetical uses for space-conquering technologies: but the good part of it comes from the Ascesis shining through the technology.
  79. The limitations of our embodied existence—aging, bodily aches and pains, betrayal, having doors closed in our face—have been recognized as spiritual stepping stones, and the mature wonder, not whether they have too many spiritual stepping stones, but whether they might need more. Many impoverished saints were concerned, not with whether their life was too hard, but whether it was too easy. Some saints have been tremendously wealthy, but they used their wealth for other purposes than simply pandering to themselves.
  80. Some might ask today, for instance, whether there might be something symbolic to the burning bush that remained unconsumed which St. Moses the Lawgiver saw. And there are many layers of spiritual meaning to the miracle—an emblem of the Theotokos’s virgin birthgiving—but it is not the proper use of symbolic layers to avoid the literal layer, without which the symbolic layers do not stand. If the question is, “Isn’t there something symbolic about the story of the miracle of the burning bush?”, the answer is, “Yes, but it is a fundamental error to use the symbolic layers to dodge the difficulty of literally believing the miracle.” In like fashion, there are many virtuous uses of technology, but it is a fundamental error to expect those uses to include using technology to avoid the difficult lessons of spiritual Ascesis.
  81. Living according to nature is not a luxury we add once we have taken care of necessities: part of harmony with nature is built into necessities. Our ancestors gathered from the natural world, not to seek harmony with nature, but to meet their basic needs—often with far fewer luxuries than we have—and part of living according to nature has usually meant few, if any, luxuries. Perhaps there is more harmony with nature today in driving around a city to run errands for other people, than a luxurious day out in the countryside.
  82. Some of the promise the Internet seems to offer is the dream a mind-based society: a world of the human spirit where there is no distraction of external appearance because you have no appearance save that of a handle or avatar, for instance, or a world where people need not appear male or female except as they choose. But the important question is not whether technology through the internet can deliver such a dream, but whether the dream is a dream or a nightmare.
  83. To say that the Internet is much more mind-based than face-to-face interactions is partly true. But to say that a mind-based society is more fit for the human spirit than the timeless way of relating, in old-fashioned meatspace, is to correct the Creator on His mistaken notions regarding His creatures’ best interests.
  84. People still use the internet all the time as an adjunct to the timeless way of relating. Harmony with nature is not disrupted by technology’s use as an adjunct nearly so much as when it serves as a replacement. Pushing for a mind-based society, and harmony with nature, may appeal to the same people, especially when they are considered as mystiques. But pushing for a mind-based society is pushing for a greater breach of living according to nature, widening the gulf between modern society and the ancient human of human life. There is a contradiction in pushing for our life to be both more and less according to nature.
  85. There is an indirect concern for Ascesis in companies and bosses that disapprove of clock watching. The concern is not an aversion to technology, or that periodically glancing at one’s watch takes away all that much time from real work. The practical concern is of a spiritual state that hinders work: the employee’s attention and interest are divided, and a bad spiritual state overflows into bad work.
  86. In terms of Ascesis, the scattered state that cannot enjoy the present is the opposite of a spiritual condition called nepsis or, loosely, “watchfulness.”
  87. The problem that manifests itself in needing to keep getting drunk, with New Age and its hopes for, at the moment, 2012 delivering us from a miserable here and now, or needing a more and more exotic drugged-up sexual thrill, or fleeing to SecondWife, is essentially a lack of nepsis.
  88. To be delivered by such misery is not a matter of a more radical escape. In a room filled with eye-stinging smoke, what is needed is not a more heroic way to push away the smoke, but a way of quenching the fire. Once the fire is quenched, the smoke dissipates, and with it the problem of escaping the smoke.
  89. Nepsis is a watchfulness over one’s heart, including the mind.
  90. Nepsis is both like and unlike metacognition. It observes oneself, but it is not thinking about one’s thinking, or taking analysis to the next level: analysis of normal analysis. It is more like coming to one’s senses, getting back on course, and then trying to stay on course. It starts with a mindfulness of how one has not been mindful, which then flows to other areas of life.
  91. The man who steps back and observes that he is seeking ways to escape the here and now, has an edge. The same goes with worrying or other passions by which the soul is disturbed: for many of the things that trouble our soul, seduce us to answer the wrong question. This is almost invariably more pedestrian than brilliant metacognition, and does not look comfortable.
  92. Metanoia, or repentance, is both unconditional surrender and waking up and smelling the coffee. It is among the most terrifying of experiences, but afterwards, one realizes, “I was holding on to a piece of Hell!”
  93. Once one is past that uncomfortable recognition, one is free to grasp something better.
  94. That “something better” is ultimately Christ, and a there is a big difference between a mind filled with Christ and a mind filled with material things as one is trying to flee malaise.
  95. The attempt to escape a miserable here and now is doomed. We cannot escape into Eden. But we can find the joy of Eden, and the joy of Heaven, precisely in the here and now we are seduced to seek to escape.
  96. Living the divine life in Christ, is a spiritual well out of which many treasures pour forth: harmony with nature, the joy of Eden and all the other things that we are given if we seek first the Kingdom of God and His perfect righteousness.
  97. It was a real achievement when people pushing the envelope of technology and, with national effort and billions of dollars of resources, NASA succeeded in lifting a man to the moon.
  98. But, as a monk pointed out, the Orthodox Church has known for aeons how to use no resources beyond a little bread and water, and succeed in lifting a man up to God.
  99. And we miss the greatest treasures if we think that Ascesis or its fruits are only for monks.
  100. And there is something that lies beyond even ascesis: contemplation of the glory of God.

The Arena

The Best Things in Life Are Free

The Luddite’s Guide to Technology: fasting from technologies

The Pleasure-Pain Syndrome

Within the Steel Orb

Surgeon General’s Warning

Part of the books behind the title had a reviewer say, “It is, in turn, beautiful, frightening, wise,” and possibly the same could be said of this dialogue, but it is laced with the spiritual poison of escape.

This title has its merits, enough so not to delete. However, I would warn that its spice is spiritual MSG.

CJSH.name/steel


Read it on Kindle for $3!

The car pulled up on the dark cobblestones and stopped by the darker castle. The vehicle was silver-grey, low to the ground, and sleek. A—let us call him a man—opened the driver’s door on the right, and stood up, tall, dark, clad in a robe the color of the sky at midnight. Around the car he went, opened the door for his passenger, and once the passenger stepped out, made one swift motion and had two bags on his shoulder. The bags were large, but he moved as if he were accustomed to carrying far heavier fare. It was starlight out, and the moon was visible as moonlight rippled across a pool.

The guest reached for the bags. “Those are heavy. Let me—”

The host smiled darkly. “Do not worry about the weight of your bags.”

The host opened a solid greyblack door, of unearthly smoothness, and walked swiftly down a granite hallway, allowing his guest to follow. “You’ve had a long day. Let me get you something to drink.” He turned a door, poured something into two iridescent titanium mugs, and turned through another corridor and opened a door on its side. Inside the room were two deep armchairs and a low table.

“This is my first time traveling between worlds—how am I to address you?”

The host smiled. “Why do you wish to know more of my name? It is enough for you to call me Oinos. Please enjoy our welcome.”

The guest sipped his drink. “Cider?”

The host said, “You may call it that; it is a juice, which has not had artificial things done to make it taste like it just came out of its fruit regardless of how much it should have aged by the time you taste it. It is juice where time has been allowed to do its work.” He was holding a steel orb. “You are welcome here, Art.” Then—he barely seemed to move—there was a spark, and Oinos pulled a candle from the wall and set it on the table.

Art said, “Why not a fluorescent light to really light the room up?”

The host said, “For the same reason that you either do not offer your guests mocha at all, or else give them real mocha and not a mix of hot water, instant coffee, and hot cocoa powder. In our world, we can turn the room bright as day any time, but we do not often do so.”

“Aah. We have a lot to learn from you about getting back to nature.”

“Really? What do you mean by ‘getting back to nature’? What do you do to try to ‘get back to nature’?”

“Um, I don’t know what to really do. Maybe try to be in touch with the trees, not being cooped up inside all the time, if I were doing a better job of it…”

“If that is getting back in touch with nature, then we pay little attention to getting in touch with nature. And nature, as we understand it, is about something fundamentally beyond dancing on hills or sitting and watching waves. I don’t criticize you if you do them, but there is really something more. And I can talk with you about drinking juice without touching the natural processes that make cider or what have you, and I can talk with you about natural cycles and why we don’t have imitation daylight any time it would seem convenient. But I would like you to walk away with something more, and more interesting, than how we keep technology from being too disruptive to natural processes. That isn’t really the point. It’s almost what you might call a side effect.”

“But you do an awfully impressive job of putting technology in its place and not getting too involved with it.”

Oinos said, “Have you had enough chance to stretch out and rest and quench your thirst? Would you like to see something?”

“Yes.”

Oinos stood, and led the way down some stairs to a room that seemed to be filled with odd devices. He pushed some things aside, then walked up to a device with a square in the center, and pushed one side. Chains and gears moved, and another square replaced it.

“This is my workshop, with various items that I have worked on. You can come over here and play with this little labyrinth; it’s not completely working, but you can explore it if you take the time to figure it out. Come on over. It’s what I’ve been working on most recently.”

Art looked around, somewhat amazed, and walked over to the ‘labyrinth.’

Oinos said, “In your world, in classical Greek, the same word, ‘techne,’ means both ‘art’ and ‘technology.’ You misunderstand my kindred if you think we aren’t especially interested in technology; we have a great interest in technology, as with other kinds of art. But just as you can travel a long distance to see the Mona Lisa without needing a mass-produced Mona Lisa to hang in your bathroom, we enjoy and appreciate technologies without making them conveniences we need to have available every single day.”

Art pressed a square and the labyrinth shifted. “Have I come here to see technologies?”

Oinos paused. “I would not advise it. You see our technologies, or how we use them, because that is what you are most ready to see. Visitors from some other worlds hardly notice them, even if they are astonished when they are pointed out.”

Art said, “Then why don’t we go back to the other room?”

Oinos turned. “Excellent.” They went back, and Art sat down in his chair.

Art, after a long pause, said, “I still find it puzzling why, if you appreciate technology, you don’t want to have more of it.”

Oinos said, “Why do you find it so puzzling?”

“Technology does seem to add a lot to the body.”

“That is a very misleading way to put it. The effect of most technologies that you think of as adding to the body is in fact to undercut the body. The technologies that you call ‘space-conquering’ might be appropriately called ‘body-conquering.'”

“So the telephone is a body-conquering device? Does it make my body less real?”

“Once upon a time, long ago from your perspective, news and information could not really travel faster than a person could travel. If you were talking with a person, that person had to be pretty close, and it was awkward and inconvenient to communicate with those who were far away. That meant that the people you talked with were probably people from your local community.”

“So you were deprived of easy access to people far away?”

“Let me put it this way. It mattered where you were, meaning where your body was. Now, on the telephone, or instant messages, or the web, nothing and no one is really anywhere, and that means profound things for what communities are. And are not. You may have read about ‘close-knit rural communities’ which have become something exotic and esoteric to most of your world’s city dwellers… but when space conquering technologies had not come in, and another space-conquering technology, modern roads allowing easy moving so that people would have to say goodbye to face-to-face friendships every few years… It’s a very different way of relating. A close-knit rural community is exotic to you because it is a body-based community in ways that tend not to happen when people make heavy use of body-conquering, or space-conquering, or whatever you want to call them, technologies.”

“But isn’t there more than a lack of technologies to close-knit communities?”

“Yes, indeed… but… spiritual discipline is about much more than the body, but a lot of spiritual discipline can only shape people when people are running into the body’s limitations. The disciplines—worship, prayer, fasting, silence, almsgiving, and so on—only mean something if there are bodily limits you are bumping into. If you can take a pill that takes away your body’s discomfort in fasting, or standing through worship, then the body-conquering technology of that pill has cut you off from the spiritual benefit of that practice.”

“Aren’t spiritual practices about more than the body?”

“Yes indeed, but you won’t get there if you have something less than the body.”

Art sat back. “I’d be surprised if you’re not a real scientist. I imagine that in your world you know things that our scientists will not know for centuries.”

Oinos sat back and sat still for a time, closing his eyes. Then he opened his eyes and said, “What have you learned from science?”

“I’ve spent a lot of time lately, wondering what Einstein’s theory of relativity means for us today: even the ‘hard’ sciences are relative, and what ‘reality’ is, depends greatly on your own perspective. Even in the hardest sciences, it is fundamentally mistaken to be looking for absolute truth.”

Oinos leaned forward, paused, and then tapped the table four different places. In front of Art appeared a gridlike object which Art recognized with a start as a scientific calculator like his son’s. “Very well. Let me ask you a question. Relative to your frame of reference, an object of one kilogram rest mass is moving away from you at a speed of one tenth the speed of light. What, from your present frame of reference, is its effective mass?”

Art hesitated, and began to sit up.

Oinos said, “If you’d prefer, the table can be set to function as any major brand of calculator you’re familiar with. Or would you prefer a computer with Matlab or Mathematica? The remainder of the table’s surface can be used to browse the appropriate manuals.”

Art shrunk slightly towards his chair.

Oinos said, “I’ll give you hints. In the theory of relativity, objects can have an effective mass of above their rest mass, but never below it. Furthermore, most calculations of this type tend to have anything that changes, change by a factor of the inverse of the square root of the quantity: one minus the square of the object’s speed divided by the square of the speed of light. Do you need me to explain the buttons on the calculator?”

Art shrunk into his chair. “I don’t know all of those technical details, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about relativity.”

Oinos said, “If you are unable to answer that question before I started dropping hints, let alone after I gave hints, you should not pose as having contemplated what relativity means for us today. I’m not trying to humiliate you. But the first question I asked is the kind of question a teacher would put on a quiz to see if students were awake and not playing video games for most of the first lecture. I know it’s fashionable in your world to drop Einstein’s name as someone you have deeply pondered. It is also extraordinarily silly. I have noticed that scientists who have a good understanding of relativity often work without presenting themselves as having these deep ponderings about what Einstein means for them today. Trying to deeply ponder Einstein without learning even the basics of relativistic physics is like trying to write the next Nobel prize-winning German novel without being bothered to learn even them most rudimentary German vocabulary and grammar.”

“But don’t you think that relativity makes a big difference?”

“On a poetic level, I think it is an interesting development in your world’s history for a breakthrough in science, Einstein’s theory of relativity, to say that what is absolute is not time, but light. Space and time bend before light. There is a poetic beauty to Einstein making an unprecedented absolute out of light. But let us leave poetic appreciation of Einstein’s theory aside.

“You might be interested to know that the differences predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity are so minute that decades passed between Einstein making the theory of relativity and people being able to use a sensitive enough clock to measure the minute difference of the so-called ‘twins paradox’ by bringing an atomic clock on an airplane. The answer to the problem I gave you is that for a tenth the speed of light—which is faster than you can imagine, and well over a thousand times the top speed of the fastest supersonic vehicle your world will ever make—is one half of one percent. It’s a disappointingly small increase for a rather astounding speed. If the supersonic Skylon is ever built, would you care to guess the increase in effective mass as it travels at an astounding Mach 5.5?”

“Um, I don’t know…”

“Can you guess? Half its mass? The mass of a car? Or just the mass of a normal-sized adult?”

“Is this a trick question? Fifty pounds?”

“The effective mass increases above the rest mass, for that massive vehicle running at about five times the speed of sound and almost twice the top speed of the SR-71 Blackbird, is something like the mass of a mosquito.”

“A mosquito? You’re joking, right?”

“No. It’s an underwhelming, microscopic difference for what relativity says when the rumor mill has it that Einstein taught us that hard sciences are as fuzzy as anything else… or that perhaps, in Star Wars terms, ‘Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on your own point of view.’ Under Einstein, you will in fact not find that many of the observations that we cling to, depend greatly on your own frame of reference. You have to be doing something pretty exotic to have relativity make any measurable difference from the older physics at all.”

“Would you explain relativity to me so that I can discuss its implications?”

“I really think there might be more productive ways to use your visit.”

“But you have a scientist’s understanding of relativity.”

“I am not sure I’d say that.”

“Why? You seem to understand relativity a lot more like a scientist than I do.”

“Let’s talk about biology for a moment. Do you remember the theory of spontaneous generation? You know, the theory that life just emerges from appropriate material?”

“I think so.”

“But your world’s scientists haven’t believed in spontaneous generation since over a century before you were born. Why would you be taught that theory—I’m assuming you learned this in a science class and not digging into history?”

“My science course explained the theory in covering historical background, even though scientists no longer believe that bread spontaneously generates mold.”

“Let me ask what may seem like a non-sequitur. I assume you’re familiar with people who are working to get even more of religion taken out of public schools?”

“Yes.”

“They are very concerned about official prayers at school events, right? About having schools endorse even the occasional religious practice?”

“Yes.”

“Ok. Let me ask what may seem like a strange question. Have these ‘separation of Church and state’ advocates also advocated that geometry be taken out of the classroom?”

Art closed his eyes, and then looked at Oinos as if he had two heads. “It seems you don’t know everything about my world.”

“I don’t. But please understand that geometry did not originate as a secular technical practice. You migth have heard this mentioned. Geometry began its life as a ‘sacred science,’ or a religious practice, and to its founders the idea that geometry does not have religious content would have struck them as worse than saying that prayer does not have religious content.”

“Ok, I think I remember that being mentioned. So to speak, my math teacher taught about geometry the ‘sacred science’ the way that my biology teacher taught about the past theory of spontaneous generation.”

Oinos focused his eyes on Art. “In our schools, and in our training, physics, biology, and chemistry are ‘taught’ as ‘secular sciences’ the same way, in your school, spontaneous generation is taught as ‘past science’, or even better, the ‘sacred science’ of geometry is ‘taught’ in the course of getting on to a modern understanding of geometry.”

Art said, “So the idea that the terrain we call ‘biology’ is to you—”

Oinos continued: “As much something peered at through a glass bell as the idea that the terrain of regular polygons belongs to a secularized mathematics.”

“What is a sacred science?”

Oinos sat back. “If a science is about understanding something as self-contained whose explanations do not involve God, and it is an attempt to understand as physics understand, and the scientist understands as a detached observer, looking in through a window, then you have a secular science—the kind that reeks of the occult to us. Or that may sound strange, because in your world people proclaiming sacred sciences are proclaiming the occult. But let me deal with that later. A sacred science does not try to understand objects as something that can be explained without reference to God. A sacred science is first and foremost about God, not about objects. When it understands objects, it understands them out of God, and tries to see God shining through them. A sacred science has its home base in the understanding of God, not of inanimate matter, and its understanding of things bears the imprint of God. If you want the nature of its knowing in an image, do not think of someone looking in and observing, detached, through a window, but someone drinking something in.”

“Is everything a sacred science to you? And what is a sacred science? Astrology?”

“Something like that, except that I use the term ‘sacred science’ by way of accommodation. Our own term is one that has no good translation in your language. But let us turn to the stars.”

“Astrology is right in this: a star is more than a ball of plasma. Even in the Bible there is not always such a distinction between the ranks of angels and the stars as someone raised on materialist science might think.” He rose, and began to walk, gesturing for Art to follow him. In the passage, they turned and entered a door. Oinos lit a lamp next to an icon on the wall.

The icon looked like starlight. It showed angels praying at the left, and then the studded sapphiric canopy of the night sky behind a land with herbs shooting from the earth, and on the right an immense Man—if he was a Man—standing, his hand raised in benediction. All around the sapphire dome were some majestic figures, soaring aloft in two of their six wings. Art paused to drink it in.

“What are those symbols?”

“They are Greek letters. You are looking at an icon of the creation of the stars, but the text is not the text for that day; it is from another book, telling of the angels thunderously shouting for joy when the stars were created. So the stars are connected with the angels.”

“Is this astrology?”

“No, because the stars and angels both point to God. The influences in astrology point beyond matter to something else, but they do not point far enough beyond themselves. If you can use something to make a forecast that way, it doesn’t point far enough beyond itself.”

“Why not?”

“One definition to distinguish religion from magic—one used by anthropologists—is that religion is trying to come into contact with the divine, and magic is trying to control the divine. God cannot be controlled, and there is something of control in trying to foretell a future that God holds in mystery. A real God cannot be pried into by a skill. Astrology departs from a science that can only see stars as so much plasma, but it doesn’t go far enough to lead people to look into the stars and see a shadow of their Creator. To be a sacred science, it is not enough to point to something more than matter as secular science understands it; as the term is used in our language, one can only be a sacred science by pointing to God.”

“Then what is a sacred science? Which branches of learning as you break them up? Can they even be translated into my language?”

“You seem to think that if astrology is not a sacred science then sacred sciences must be something much more hidden. Not so. Farming is a sacred science, as is hunting, or inventing, or writing. When a monk makes incense, it is not about how much incense he can make per unit of time; his making incense is the active part of living contemplatively, and his prayer shows itself in physical labor. His act is more than material production; it is a sacred science, or sacred art or sacred endeavor, and what goes into and what comes out of the activity is prayer. Nor is it simply a matter that he is praying while he acts; his prayers matter for the incense. There are many lands from your world’s Desert Fathers to Mexico in your own day where people have a sense that it matters what state people cook in, and that cooking with love puts something into a dish that no money can buy. Perhaps you will not look at me askance when I say that not only monks in their monasteries exotically making incense for worship are performing a sacred science, but cooking, for people who may be low on the totem pole and who are not considered exotic, as much as for anyone else, can and should be a sacred science. Like the great work that will stay up with a sick child all night.”

“Hmm…” Art said, and then finished his tankard. “Have you traveled much?”

“I have not reached one in five of the galaxies with inhabited worlds. I can introduce you to people who have some traveling experience, but I am not an experienced traveler. Still, I have met sites worth visiting. I have met, learned, worshiped. Traveling in this castle I have drunk the blood of gems. There are worlds where there is nothing to see, for all is music, and song does everything that words do for you. I have beheld a star as it formed, and I have been part of an invention that moves forward as a thousand races in their laboratories add their devices. I have read books, and what is more I have spoken with members of different worlds and races. There seems to be no shortage of wonders, and I have even been to your own world, with people who write fantasy that continues to astonish us—”

“My son-in-law is big into fantasy—he got me to see a Lord of the whatever-it-was movie—but I don’t fancy them much myself.”

“We know about Tolkein, but he is not considered a source of astonishing fantasy to us.”

“Um…” Art took a long time to recall a name, and Oinos waited patiently. “Lewis?”

“If you’re looking for names you would have heard of, Voltaire and Jung are two of the fantasy authors we consider essential. Tolkein and Lewis are merely imaginative. It is Voltaire and Jung who are truly fantasy authors. But there are innumerable others in your world.”

Art said, “Um… what do you mean by ‘fantasy author’?”

Oinos turned. “I’m sorry; there is a discrepancy between how your language uses ‘fantasy author’ and ours. We have two separate words that your ‘fantasy’ translates, and the words stand for very different concepts. One refers to works of imagination that are set in another world that is not confused with reality. The other refers to a fundamental confusion that can cost a terrible price. Our world does not produce fiction; we do appreciate the fiction of other worlds, but we do not draw a particularly strong line between fiction where only the characters and events are imagined, and fiction where the whole world is imagined. But we do pay considerable attention to the second kind of fantasy, and our study of fantasy authors is not a study of imagination but a study of works that lead people into unreality. ‘Fantasy author’ is one of the more important terms in understanding your world and its history.”

Art failed to conceal his reaction.

“Or perhaps I was being too blunt. But, unfashionable as it may be, there is such a thing as evil in your world, and the ways in which people live, including what they believe, has something to do with it. Not everything, but something.”

Oinos waited for a time. Then, when Art remained silent, he said, “Come with me. I have something to show you.” He opened a door on the other side of the room, and went into the next room. The room was lit by diffuse moonlight, and there was a ledge around the room and water which Oinos stirred with his hand to light a phosphorescent glow. When Art had stepped in, Oinos stepped up, balancing on a steel cable, and stood silent for a while. “Is there anything here that you can focus on?”

“What do you mean?”

“Step up on this cable and take my hand.”

“What if I fall into the water?”

Art tried to balance, but it seemed even more difficult in the dark. For a while, he tried to keep his balance with Oinos’s help, but he seemed barely up. He overcompensated twice in opposite directions, began flying into the water, and was stopped at last by Oinos’s grip, strong as steel, on his arm.

“I can’t do this,” Art said.

“Very well.” Oinos opened a door on the other side of the room, and slowly led him out. As they walked, Oinos started up a spiral staircase and sat down to rest after Art reached the top. Then Art looked up at the sky, and down to see what looked like a telescope.

“What is it?”

“A telescope, not too different from those of your world.”

Oinos stood up, looked at it, and began some adjustments. Then he called Art over, and said, “Do you see that body?”

“What is it?”

“A small moon.”

Oinos said, “I want you to look at it as closely as you can,” and then pulled something on the telescope.

“It’s moving out of sight.”

“That’s right; I just deactivated the tracking feature. You should be able to feel handles; you can move the telescope with them.”

“Why do I need to move the telescope? Is the moon moving?”

“This planet is rotating: what the telescope sees will change as it rotates with the planet, and on a telescope you can see the rotation.”

Art moved the handles and found that it seemed either not to move at all or else move a lot when he put pressure on it.

Art said, “This is a hard telescope to control.”

Oinos said, “The telescope is worth controlling.”

“Can you turn the tracking back on?”

Oinos merely repeated, “The telescope is worth controlling.”

The celestial body had moved out of view. Art made several movements, barely passed over the moon, and then found it. He tried to see what he could, then give a relatively violent shove when the moon reached the edge of his field of view, and see if he could observe the body that way. After several tries, he began to get the object consistently in view… and found that he was seeing the same things about it, not being settled enough between jolts to really focus on what was there.

Art tried to make a smooth, slow movement with his body, and found that a much taller order than it sounded. His movement, which he could have sworn was gentle and smooth, produced what seemed like erratic movement, and it was only with greatest difficulty that he held the moon in view.

“Is this badly lubricated? Or do you have lubrication in this world?”

“We do, on some of our less precise machines. This telescope is massive, but it’s not something that moves roughly when it is pushed smoothly; the joints move so smoothly that putting oil or other lubricants that are familiar to you would make them move much more roughly.”

“Then why is it moving roughly every time I push it smoothly?”

“Maybe you aren’t pushing it as smoothly as you think you are?”

Art pushed back his irritation, and then found the moon again. And found, to his dismay, that when the telescope jerked, he had moved the slightest amount unevenly.

Art pushed observation of the moon to the back of his mind. He wanted to move the telescope smoothly enough that he wouldn’t have to keep finding the moon again. After a while, he found that this was less difficult than he thought, and tried for something harder: keeping the moon in the center of what he could see in the telescope.

He found, after a while, that he could keep the moon in the center if he tried, and for periods was able to manage something even harder: keeping the moon from moving, or perhaps just moving slowly. And then, after a time, he found himself concentrating through the telescope on taking in the beauty of the moon.

It was breathtaking, and Art later could never remember a time he had looked on something with quite that fascination.

Then Art realized he was exhausted, and began to sit down; Oinos pulled him to a bench.

After closing his eyes for a while, Art said, “This was a magnificent break from your teaching.”

“A break from teaching? What would you mean?”

Art sat, opened his mouth, and then closed it. After a while, he said, “I was thinking about what you said about fantasy authors… do you think there is anything that can help?”

Oinos said, “Let me show you.” He led Art into a long corridor with smooth walls and a round arch at top. A faint blue glow followed them, vanishing at the edges. Art said, “Do you think it will be long before our world has full artificial intelligence?”

Oinos said, “Hmm… Programming artificial intelligence on a computer is not that much more complex than getting a stone to lay an egg.”

Art said, “But our scientists are making progress. Your advanced world has artificial intelligence, right?”

Oinos said, “Why on earth would we be able to do that? Why would that even be a goal?”

“You have computers, right?”

“Yes, indeed; the table that I used to call up a scientific calculator works on the same principle as your world’s computers. I could almost say that inventing a new kind of computer is a rite of passage among serious inventors, or at least that’s the closest term your world would have.”

“And your computer science is pretty advanced, right? Much more advanced than ours?”

“We know things that the trajectory of computer science in your world will never reach because it is not pointed in the right direction.” Oinos tapped the wall and arcs of pale blue light spun out.

“Then you should be well beyond the point of making artificial intelligence.”

“Why on a million, million worlds should we ever be able to do that? Or even think that is something we could accomplish?”

“Well, if I can be obvious, the brain is a computer, and the mind is its software.”

“Is it?”

“What else could the mind be?”

“What else could the mind be? What about an altar at which to worship? A workshop? A bridge between Heaven and earth, a meeting place where eternity meets time? A treasury in which to gather riches? A spark of divine fire? A line in a strong grid? A river, ever flowing, ever full? A tree reaching to Heaven while its roots grasp the earth? A mountain made immovable for the greatest storm? A home in which to live and a ship by which to sail? A constellation of stars? A temple that sanctifies the earth? A force to draw things in? A captain directing a starship or a voyager who can travel without? A diamond forged over aeons from of old? A perpetual motion machine that is simply impossible but functions anyway? A faithful manuscript by which an ancient book passes on? A showcase of holy icons? A mirror, clear or clouded? A wind which can never be pinned down? A haunting moment? A home with which to welcome others, and a mouth with which to kiss? A strand of a web? An acrobat balancing for his whole life long on a slender crystalline prism between two chasms? A protecting veil and a concealing mist? An eye to glimpse the uncreated Light as the world moves on its way? A rift yawning into the depths of the earth? A kairometer, both primeval and young? A—”

“All right, all right! I get the idea, and that’s some pretty lovely poetry. (What’s a kairometer?) These are all very beautiful metaphors for the mind, but I am interested in what the mind is literally.”

“Then it might interest you to hear that your world’s computer is also a metaphor for the mind. A good and poetic metaphor, perhaps, but a metaphor, and one that is better to balance with other complementary metaphors. It is the habit of some in your world to understand the human mind through the metaphor of the latest technology for you to be infatuated with. Today, the mind is a computer, or something like that. Before you had the computer, ‘You’re just wired that way’ because the brain or the mind or whatever is a wired-up telephone exchange, the telephone exchange being your previous object of technological infatuation, before the computer. Admittedly, ‘the mind is a computer’ is an attractive metaphor. But there is some fundamental confusion in taking that metaphor literally and assuming that, since the mind is a computer, all you have to do is make some more progress with technology and research and you can give a computer an intelligent mind.”

“I know that computers don’t have emotions yet, but they seem to have rationality down cold.”

“Do they?”

“Are you actually going to tell me that computers, with their math and logic, aren’t rational?”

“Let me ask you a question. Would you say that the thing you can hold, a thing that you call a book, can make an argument?”

“Yes; I’ve seen some pretty good ones.”

“Really? How do paper and ink think out their position?”

Art hesitated, and said, “Um, if you’re going to nitpick…”

“I’m not nitpicking. A book is a tool of intelligent communication, and they are part of how people read author’s stories, or explanation of how to do things, or poetry, or ideas. But the physical thing is not thereby intelligent. However much you think of a book as making an argument, the book is incapable of knowing what an argument is, and for that matter the paper and ink have no idea of whether they contain the world’s best classic, or something mediocre, or incoherent accusations that world leaders are secretly planning to turn your world to dog drool, or randomly generated material that is absolute gibberish. The book may be meaningful to you, but the paper with ink on it is not the sort of thing that can understand what you recognize through the book.

“This might ordinarily be nitpicking, but it says something important about computers. One of the most difficult things for computer science instructors in your world to pound through people’s heads is that a computer does not get the gist of what you are asking it to do and overlook minor mistakes, because the computer has no sense of what you are doing and no way to discern what were trying to get it to do from a mistake where you wrote in a bug by telling it to do something slightly different from what you meant. The computer has no sense that a programmer meant anything. A computer follows instructions, one after another, whether or not they make sense, and indeed without being able to wonder whether they make sense. To you, a program may be a tool that acts as an electronic shopping cart to let you order things through the web, but the web server no more understands that it is being used as a web server than a humor book understands that it is meant to make people laugh. Now most or all of the books you see are meant to say something—there’s not much market for a paperback volume filled with random gibberish—but a computer can’t understand that it is running a program written for a purpose any more than a book can understand that the ink on its pages is intended for people to read.”

Art said, “You don’t think artificial intelligence is making real progress? They seem to keep making new achievements.”

Oinos said, “The rhetoric of ‘We’re making real breakthroughs now; we’re on the verge of full artificial intelligence, and with what we’re achieving, full artificial intelligence is just around the corner’ is not new: people have been saying that full artificial intelligence is just around the corner since before you were born. But breeding a better and better kind of apple tree is not progress towards growing oranges. Computer science, and not just artificial intelligence, has gotten good at getting computers to function better as computers. But human intelligence is something else… and it is profoundly missing the point to only realize that the computer is missing a crucial ingredient of the most computer-like activity of human rational analysis. Even if asking a computer to recognize a program’s purpose reflects a fundamental error—you’re barking up the wrong telephone pole. Some people from your world say that when you have a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. The most interesting thing about the mind is not that it can do something more complete when it pounds in computer-style nails. It’s something else entirely.”

“But what?”

“When things are going well, the ‘computer’ that performs calculating analysis is like your moon: a satellite, that reflects light from something greater. Its light is useful, but there is something more to be had. The sun, as it were, is that the mind is like an altar, or even something better. It takes long struggles and work, but you need to understand that the heart of the mind is at once practical and spiritual, and that its greatest fruit comes not in speech but in silence.”

Art was silent for a long time.

Oinos stopped, tapped a wall once, and waited as an opening appeared in the black stone. Inside an alcove was a small piece of rough hewn obsidian; Oinos reached in, took it, and turned it to reveal another side, finely machined, with a series of concentric ridged grooves centered around a tiny niche. “You asked what a kairometer was, and this is a kairometer, although it would take you some time to understand exactly what it is.”

“Is it one of the other types of computers in your world?”

“Yes. I would call it information technology, although not like the information technology you know. It is something people come back to, something by which people get something more than they had, but it does this not so much according to its current state as to our state in the moment we are using it. It does not change.” Oinos placed the object in Art’s hands.

Art slowly turned it. “Will our world have anything like this?”

Oinos took the kairometer back and returned it to its niche; when he withdrew his hand, the opening closed with a faint whine. “I will leave you to find that yourself.”

Oinos began walking, and they soon reached the end of the corridor. Art followed Oinos through the doorway at the end and gasped.

Through the doorway was something that left Art trying to figure out whether or not it was a room. It was a massive place, lit by a crystalline blue light. As Art looked around, he began to make sense of his surroundings: there were some bright things, lower down, in an immense room with rounded arches and a dome at the top, made of pure glass. Starlight streamed in. Art stepped through the doorway and sunk down a couple of inches.

Oinos stooped for a moment, and then said, “Take off your shoes. They are not needed here.” Art did so, and found that he was walking on a floor of velveteen softness. In the far heart of the room a thin plume of smoke arose. Art could not tell whether he smelled a fragrance, but he realized there was a piercing chant. Art asked, “What is the chant saying?”

Oinos did not answer.

What was the occasion? Art continued to look, to listen, and began trying to drink it in. It almost sounded as if they were preparing to receive a person of considerable importance. There was majesty in the air.

Oinos seemed to have slipped away.

Art turned and saw an icon behind him, hanging on the glass. There was something about it he couldn’t describe. The icon was dark, and the colors were bright, almost luminous. A man lay dreaming at the bottom, and something reached up to a light hidden in the clouds—was it a ladder? Art told himself the artistic effect was impressive, but there was something that seemed amiss in that way of looking at it.

What bothered him about saying the icon had good artistic effect? Was the artistry bad? That didn’t seem to be it. He looked at a couple of areas of artistic technique, but it was difficult to do so; such analysis felt like a foreign intrusion. He thought about his mood, but that seemed to be the wrong place to look, and almost the same kind of intrusion. There seemed to be something shining through the icon; looking at it was like other things he had done in this world, only moreso. He was looking through the icon and not around it, but… Art had some sense of what it was, but it was not something he could fit into words.

After being absorbed in the icon, Art looked around. There must have been hundreds of icons around, and lights, and people; he saw what seemed like a sparse number of people—of Oinos’s kind—spread out through the vast space. There was a chant of some kind that changed from time to time, but seemed to somehow be part of the same flow. Things seemed to move very slowly—or move in a different time, as if clock time were turned on its side, or perhaps as if he had known clock time as it was turned on its side and now it was right side up—but Art never had the sense of nothing going on. There seemed to always be something more going on than he could grasp.

Art shifted about, having stood for what seemed like too long, sat down for a time, and stood up. The place seemed chaotic, in a way cluttered, yet when he looked at the “clutter,” there was something shining through, clean as ice, majestic as starlight, resonant as silence, full of life as the power beneath the surface of a river, and ordered with an order that no rectangular grid could match. He did not understand any of the details of the brilliant dazzling darkness… but they spoke to him none the less.

After long hours of listening to the chant, Art realized with a start that the fingers of dawn had stolen all around him, and he saw stone and verdant forest about the glass walls until the sunlight began to blaze. He thought, he though he could understand the song even as its words remained beyond his reach, and he wished the light would grow stronger so he could see more. There was a crescendo all about him, and—

Oinos was before him. Perhaps for some time.

“I almost understand it,” Art said. “I have started to taste this world.”

Oinos bowed deeply. “It is time for you to leave.”

A periodic table: elements that have shaped me, and elements that I have shaped

The Steel Orb

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis

The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab

“Social Antibodies” Needed: A Request of Orthodox Clergy

CJSH.name/social-antibodies

Some time ago, a pastor contacted me and asked permission to quote one of my poems. We’ve been in contact at least occasionally, and he sent me an email newsletter that left me asking him for permission to quote.

Let me cite the article in full (©2014 Pastor Vince Homan, used by very gracious permission):

When there are many words, sin is unavoidable, but the one who controls his lips is wise. Proverbs 10:19

I recently violated a longstanding position I have held; to avoid all further interaction with social media, particularly Facebook. It wasn’t necessarily because of any moral high ground; it was more because I had already mastered e-mail and was satisfied with my online accomplishments. In addition, I didn’t have any additional time or interest to keep up with pithy little sayings, videos, cartoons, social life, or even cute kiddie pictures. But now I am happily in the fold of Facebook users (particularly if there is a picture of one of my grandbabies on it). In addition, it has allowed me to discover that there are literally dozens of people who are just waiting to be my friends. However, the real reason I’m on Facebook is work related. Thanks to the good work done by a few of our church members; both of our churches have excellent Facebook pages. In order to access those pages, I needed an account, so—here I am. And though all seems well with the world of Facebook, I am discovering that it is not always the case. For all the “warm fuzzies,” and catching up with friends and family it offers … there is also a dark side.

At a recent continuing education event I attended, the speaker presented some dire consequences to uninhibited use of social media. He reported that social media had replaced money as the number one contributor to marriage problems. He said it wasn’t so much affairs that online relationships led to; rather it was the persistent flirting that broke down barriers and hedges, which once protected the marriage. Such interaction often led to a downward spiral, corrupting and compromising the marriage vow. One in five divorces involves the social networking site Facebook, according to a new survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. A staggering 80% of divorce lawyers have also reported a spike in the number of cases that use social media for evidence of cheating, with Facebook by far the biggest offender. Flirty messages and and photographs found on Facebook are increasingly being cited as proof of unreasonable behavior or irreconcilable differences. Many cases revolve around social media users who get back in touch with old flames they hadn’t heard from in many years.

PBS recently hosted a webinar, This Emotional Life, about the internet’s impact on relationship and marriage.[i] One of the panelists, Theresa Bochard, explored the issue a bit farther in an article originally published on PsychCentral.com. She said that after reading hundreds of comments and emails from people who have been involved in online relationships or emotional affairs as well as the responses on several discussion boards, she concluded that while the internet and social media can foster intimacy in a marriage, it seems to do more harm than good. She reported that an astounding 90% of opposite-sex online relationships were damaging to the marriage. Facebook affairs are threatening healthy couples too.

“I have suggested to myself to write a thank you note to the inventors of Facebook and Myspace because they have been responsible for a significant percentage of my income,” says marriage counselor Dr. Dennis Boike. He’s not kidding. “I’m having people say I never would have expected me to do this. It’s in the privacy of my computer. I’m not going out anywhere, I’m not dressing for it, I’m not smelling of another’s perfume. There are no tell-tale signs except my computer record.” But a new study suggests Facebook can also help disconnect you from your better half. The site, which boasts more than 350 million active users, is mentioned in over 20% of divorce petitions, according to Divorce-Online.

Prominent Houston divorce attorney Bucky Allshouse can understand why. “It’s really kind of shocking what people put on Facebook,” says Allshouse. Perhaps it’s not so shocking that the social networking site can essentially pour kerosene on “old flames.” Most online relationships start out benign: an email from a person you knew in college, friending an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend on Facebook (as suggested by Facebook: “people you might know”), getting to know a co-worker or acquaintance better online. But the relationship can take a dangerous turn very quickly if you’re not careful and even more easily if you are doing most of the talking behind a computer.

We have no non-verbals with which to interpret people’s conversation when we communicate online. What we say can be misinterpreted and come off in a way we don’t intend. Or worse, we purposely allow our conversation to drift into an unhealthy area, where we put out “feelers” to see if the person we are communicating with will do the same. We will text things to people that would make us blush if we said them in person. All too often the end result is flirting, compromising our values, and allowing the secrecy of social media to sweep us off our feet and into a quagmire of social dysfunction. This is not a victimless choice. Many times, inappropriate conversations through social media lead to great pain with children, spouses, parents, and friends.

One such instance occurred when Jonathan found Sharon on Facebook, 20 years after he dumped her one week after their high school prom. She had never married, while he had and was also the father of two teenagers. During months of emailing and texting, Sharon proved a sympathetic listener to his sense of isolation and loneliness within his own marriage. He found they could talk easily, picking up with the friendship they had had years before. They shared feelings they had never shared with others. After a few months, they decided to cross a few states and meet half way. Then, they talked of marriage. Shortly after, Jonathan went through with his divorce and months later he and Sharon married. Not surprisingly, and after only four months, they divorced. What happened? Fantasy was hit hard by reality. They went into a marriage without really spending time to know each other as they are today. Their romance was fueled by their history (as 18-year-olds) not their adult present. The romantic idea of reconnecting with an old lover, at a time Jonathan was unhappy in his marriage, was a recipe for danger.

In talking about it later, Jonathan realized he had not intended to start up a romance; he hadn’t intended to leave his marriage in the first place. As he and Sharon shared feelings, he felt more cared for by her than by his wife. When asked who raised the issue of marriage, he wasn’t sure. “Perhaps she pushed it, but I may have been just been musing something like, ‘Wouldn’t it have been great if we got married,’ and that led her to talk about marriage. I wonder if I led her on. Did I promise more than I had realized and then feel in love with my own fantasy?”[ii]

When we cross barriers that were intended to keep us safely within the parameters of our marriage vows, we start in internal conflict—one that attacks our emotional and mental center. Conversations with people of the opposite sex can lead to flirtations. Flirtations can lead to imaginations which lead to fixations … and there is a fine line between fixation and passion. Promiscuity is rarely a random act. It is pre-meditated. Something triggers our thoughts. And that something can be social media.

Christians must be wary of intimate conversations with people of the opposite sex; it is a trap that too many good people have been caught in. Paul wrote: “We are casting down imaginations, and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God, and bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). It is good advice; cast down imaginations … take every thought captive, because it is often out of our imaginations and thoughts that bad choices are born. Jesus said something similar. Speaking to the disciples he warned, “But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15:18-19). The battleground is not the computer or cell phone; it is the heart and the mind. But secretive messaging avenues like social media offers can help plant the seed for a battle that good people lose every day.

Dr. Karen Gail Lewis, a marriage and family therapist of 39 years and author of numerous relationship books, offers these social networking guidelines for married couples.

  1. Be clear about your agenda in contacting the other person.
  2. Limit the frequency of your time online. This sets a good boundary around the social networking contact.
  3. Don’t talk intimately. By not sharing intimacies with your correspondence, you reduce the chance of sending a message that you want a more intimate relationship.
  4. Let your spouse know with whom you are contacting. This openness makes it clear you have nothing to hide. (I would add, especially so if you are contacting a person of the opposite sex).[iii].
  5. Share your outgoing and received emails/texts with your spouse. Sharing communications removes any chance for jealousy or misunderstandings (I would add, share passwords with your spouse; give them full access to your social media sites).[iv].
  6. Do not meet in person unless your spouse is with you. Meeting up with old friends with your spouse by your side is a reminder that you two are a team and removes sending mixed messages to your former lover. This also reinforces the importance of fixing your marriage before playing with the flames of old flames.[v].

Jesus taught us to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16). Social media is a place that Scripture applies. I believe in the sanctity of marriage. I believe a person places their personal integrity and honor on the line in the marriage vow more than anything else in their life. And I believe marriage is under attack from multiple directions. I have officiated at many young couples weddings. I spend time with each one, warning them of the potential pitfalls and dangers; encouraging them to make their marriage a priority each day. Because I know the reality; many of the ones I marry won’t make it. It’s not because they are bad people or people of no character; but they get caught in a trap, and they can’t seem to find a way out. And I also know most of them deeply regret their decisions after the fallout of their choices turn to consequences.

Social media can be a wonderful thing. I love keeping in touch with family and looking at pictures of the grandbabies. Now our churches are using social media to share the gospel. But Christians should be wary of the potential dangers. We must keep up our barriers at all times. James warned, “Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. So don’t be misled, my dear brothers and sisters” (James 1:14-16). Indeed, we must not be misled, rather be guided by the protective barriers God has placed around us; especially so if we are married. We must watch our words carefully and keep our thoughts captive. The sanctity of our marriage vow demands it.

Grace and Peace,
Pastor Vince


[i] http://www.pbs.org/thisemotionallife/blogs/does-internet-promote-or-damage-marriage

[ii] http://www.hitchedmag.com/article.php?id=903

[iii] Parenthetical mine

[iv] Parenthetical mine

[v] http://www.hitchedmag.com/article.php?id=903

This article left me reeling.

In part, I wondered if my collection in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, was simply wrong. Or if someone might rightly say to me, “What you give in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology is helpful up to a point, at least for someone with a similar background to yours. However, regular people need much more concrete guidance.” What struck me very concretely about Pastor Vince’s article is that it gave very practical advice on how married people can appropriately handle Facebook.

The article reminded me of remarks I’d seen by people interested in making computers that people can actually use that the Apple Macintosh was the first computer worth criticizing. Perhaps some detail of the guidance in the article above could be criticized: perhaps much of it should be criticized: but it may be the first article I’ve seen on the topic that was worth criticizing.

The concept of “social antibodies”: it’s not just Facebook

Paul Graham’s “The Acceleration of Addictiveness” is worth reading in full. (It’s also worth quoting in full, but he’s asked nicely that people link to it instead of reposting, which is a fair request. So I am linking to it even though I’d prefer to reproduce the whole article.)

The Acceleration of Addictiveness talks about a little bit bigger picture about things that are addictive. Though he mentions Facebook as something that’s even more addictive than television, he’s clear that the big picture is more than addictive little Facebook. Graham talks about a concept of “social antibodies” which I think is incredibly useful.

Decades ago, smoking cut through the US like a hot knife through butter. But, while smoking is still dangerous and there still continue to be new smokers, we no longer have glamour shots of celebrities holding cigarettes in some flashy, sophisticated, classy pose. Smoking is no longer “sexy;” over the past 20 years it has been seen as seedy, and “smoker” is not exacty the kindest thing to call someone. (I remember one friend commenting that he could think of a number of terms more polite than “smoker,” none of which were appropriate to the present company.) As a society, the US has developed social antibodies to smoking now.

There are many things that we need “social antibodies” for, and we keep developing new technologies, Facebook included, that need social antibodies. The six prescriptions in the quoted articles are essentially social antibodies for how to use Facebook without jeopardizing your marriage. They may seem harsh and excessively cautious, but I submit that they are easier to go through than divorce. Much easier. A piece of cake! And I quote Pastor Vince’s article because it’s something we need more of.

A helpful parallel to technology: Wine as an example

Simply not drinking alcoholic beverages is an option that I respect more as I think about it, but for the sake of this discussion, I will leave it on the side. I am interested in helpful parallels for “social antibodies” in moderation and restraint in using technology, and as much as I may respect people who do not drink, that option is not as interesting for my investigation. This is especially true because people living in my society assume that you are not abstaining from every technology that can cause trouble. So with a respectful note about not drinking alcohol at all, I want to look at social antibodies for moderate, temperate, and appropriate use of wine.

Wine and liquor slowly increased in strength in Western Europe, slowly enough that societies had at least the chance to build social antibodies. This makes for a marked contrast to escape through hard liquor among Native Americans, where hard liquor blew through decimated nations and peoples like escape through today’s street drugs would have blown through a Europe already coping with the combined effects of the bubonic plague and of barbarian invasions. Perhaps there are genetic differences affecting Native Americans and alcohol. A Native American friend told me that Native American blood can’t really cope with sugar, essentially unknown in Native American lands apart from some real exceptions like maple syrup. And lots of alcohol is worse than lots of sugar, even if some of us wince at the level of sugar and/or corn syrup in the main US industrial diet. (Even those of us not of Native American blood would do well to restrict our consumption of artificially concocted sugars.) But aside from the genetic question, introducing 80 proof whiskey to societies that did not know how to cope with beer would have been rough enough even if there were no genetic questions and no major external stresses on the societies. If there was something of a stereotype about Native Americans and whiskey, maybe part of that is because hard liquor that had been developed over centuries in the West appeared instanteously, under singularly unfortunate conditions, in societies that had not even the social antibodies to cope with even the weaker of beers.

I cite St. Cyril of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book Two, Chapter II: On Drinking as a model for approaching alcohol (and, by extension, a serious reference point in understanding moderate use of technology), with some reservations. The translation I link to is obscure and archaic, and if you can get past that, the individual prescriptions are the sort that would only be all kept (or, for that matter, mostly kept) by the sort of people who are filled with pride that they observe ancient canons more strictly than any canonical bishop. In other words, don’t try these directions at home unless you know you are in agreement with your priest or spiritual father. But the chapter of The Instructor on wine offers a priceless glimpse into real, live social antibodies on how to navigate dangerous waters. This is a live example of the sort of things we need. The book as a whole covers several topics, including clothing and boundaries between men and women, and they could serve as a model for pastoral literature to address the challenges offered to spiritual life today. Not specifically that online interactions between men and women introduce an element of danger. That element of danger has always been there, and always will be there. But online interactions frame things a little differently. This means that people with social antibodies that would show appropriate caution face-to-face might not recognize that you have to compensate when dealing with the opposite sex online, or might not intuit exactly how you have to compensate when dealing with the opposite sex online.

I would like to close this section with a word about wine and why I drink it. The politically incorrect way of putting this point is to say that wine is something which literally and figuratively is not part of Islam. Islam works out, in stark relief, what it means to subtract the Incarnation from Christian faith. It means that not only has the Son of God not become incarnate in Christ, but all the more does God become incarnate in his children. It means that Holy Communion is just a symbol, and wine could absolutely, absolutely neverbecome the blood of God. Water is necessary and wine is not, as St. Clement tells us, but the Orthodox Church that regards Islam as a Christian heresy used fermented wine exclusively in the Eucharist, and condemned heretics’ use of pure water for the same purpose. And my reason for drinking a little wine is that wine has an elasticity that bears the meaning of Jesus’s first miracle, turning water into even more wine when wine ran out at a wedding where the guests were already pretty drunk, and it bears the meaning of the Holy Mysteries: few if any material substances are as pregnant with spiritual depth as wine. Ecclesiastes is perhaps the most dismal book in the entire Bible, and “Go, eat thy bread with mirth, and drink thy wine with a joyful heart” is close to being the only invitation to joy in the book. I do not say that this is a reason why people who have decided not to drink should change their mind. However, the theological motive to drink in Christianity comes from a higher plane than the admittedly very real reasons to be careful with alcohol, or else abstain. It’s deeper.

Is the iPhone really that cool?

The LinkedIn article Come With Me If You Want to Live – Why I Terminated My iPhone talked about how one family decided to get rid of their iPhones. The author talked about how the iPhone had taken over their lives. They suggested that trying to use their habit to use the iPhone in moderation was a nonstarter, however enticing it may look. And, on a sobering note, they had earlier tried to avoid using smartphones, even for work. And I am convinced they made the right choice: not having any smartphone use is better than addictive smartphone use, hands down. And while I am cautious about advertising responsible smartphone use to people who can’t live without their iPhone—the analogy drawn in the LinkedIn article was, “In hindsight, it’s like an alcoholic saying ‘I thought I could have it in the house and not drink it.'” But I have iPhone use which is defensible, at least in my opinion; I have drawn a boundary that is partly tacit and partly explicit, and while it can be criticized, it is a non-addictive use of the iPhone. I average less than one text a day; I do not compulsively check anything that’s out there. A few of the guidelines I found are,

  1. Limit the time you spend using your smartphone. The general Orthodox advice is to cut back a little at once so you never experience absolute shock, but you are always stretched a little bit outside your comfort zone. That may be a way to work down cell phone use, or it may not. If you compulsively reach for your smartphone, you might leave it in one room that you’re not always in. Put a boundary between yourself and the smartphone.
  2. Limit how often you check your cell phone unprovoked. When I’m not at work, I try to limit checking email to once per hour. Limit yourself to maybe once per hour, maybe more, maybe less, and restrain yourself.
  3. When you’re going to bed for the day, you’re done using your smartphone for the day. I am not strict in this; I will answer a call, but checking my iPhone, unprovoked, after my evening prayers or my bedtime is a no-no.
  4. Don’t use the iPhone as a drone that you need to have always going on. This includes music, texting, games, and apps, including Vince’s hero, Facebook. Perhaps the single biggest way that this violates Apple’s marketing proposition with the iPhone is that the iPhone is designed and marketed to be a drone that is always with us, a bit of ambient noise, delivering precisely what the Orthodox spiritual tradition, with works like The Ladder, tell us is something we don’t need.The iPhone’s marketing proposition is to deliver an intravenous drip of noise. The Orthodox Church’s Tradition tells us to wean ourself from noise.
  5. iPhones have “Do Not Disturb” mode. Use it. And be willing to make having “Do Not Disturb” as your default way of using the phone, and turn it off when you want “Please Interrupt Me” mode explicitly.
  6. Don’t multitask if you can at all avoid it. I remember reading one theology text which claimed as a lesson from computer science, because people can switch between several applications rapidly, that we should take this “lesson” to life and switch between several activities rapidly. And in a business world where multitasking has been considered an essential task, people are finding that multitasking is fool’s gold, an ineffective way of working that introduces a significant productivity tax where people could be doing much better. Smartphones make it trivially easy to multiask. Don’t, unless a situation calls for it.I note with some concern that the most I’ve been shocked at someone using an iPhone was when 12 and under kids were manipulating the iPhone, not to get something to done, but to activate the iPhone’s smooth animations. Looking over their shoulders in shock has felt like I was eavesdropping on a (non-chemical) acid trip. Children’s use of iPhones driven by slick animated transitions between applications are even more unhelpful than what the business world means by multitasking. (This feature of kids’ use of iPhones has made me kind of wish iPhones were not used by people under 18.)

Now I should post this with a clarification that this is, so to speak, pastoral advice to myself. I’ve found the basic approach helpful, and priests and spiritual fathers may draw on it if they choose in their best judgment to take something from it, but I have not been ordained or tonsured, and I would fall back on the maxim, “As always, ask your priest.” My reason to post them is to provide another reference point beyond those given to “social antibodies” in dealing with technology. With these antibodies, I hold the reins, or at least I hold the reins a little better than if I didn’t have these antibodies. But I am aware of something vampiric, something that sucks out energy and life, in even my more moderate use of some technologies, and I am a little wary of comparing my use of technology to moderate and sober use of alcohol. Appropriate use of alcohol can be good, and apart from the risk of drinking getting out of control, it is an overall positive. I’m leery of claiming the same for my use of technology, even if I’ve tried hard to hold the reins and even if I may do better than average. There is something that has been drained from me; there is something that has been sucked out of me. Maybe I am less harmed than others: but my use of technology has harmed me. I am wary of saying now, “I’ve found the solution.”

In dealing with another passion besides sexual sin, namely anger, people have started to develop “social antibodies:” as mentioned briefly by Vince Homan, we don’t have the important channels of people’s nonverbal communication, which flattens out half the picture. And when we are angry, we can flame people in emails where there is no human face staring back to us, only letters on the screen that seem so right—or perhaps not nearly right enough!—and write hurtful flames unlike anything we would dare to say in person, even to someone who hurt us deeply. And on that score, people seem to me to have developed social antibodies; I’ve been in lots of flamewars and given and received many unholy words, but I don’t remember doing that recently, or seeing flames wage out of control on many mailing lists, even if admittedly I don’t spend much time on mailing lists. But sexual dangers are not the only dangers online, and for online flaming, most of the people I deal with do not flame people like I did when I was first involved in online community. I’ve acquired some “social antibodies,” as have others I meet online. Some social antibodies have already developed, and the case is not desperate for us as a Church learning how to handle technology in the service of holy living instead of simply being a danger.

Pastoral guidance and literature needed

I visited Amazon to try to get a gauge on how much Orthodox pastoral resources about appropriate use of computers, mobile, internet, and technology were out there, a sort of The Instructor for technology today, and my search for orthodox internet found 109 resources from Christianity, Judaism, and the occult, none of which seemed to be about “How does an Orthodox Christian negotiate the social issues surrounding computers, smartphones, tablets, the Internet, apps, and technology?” Some other searches, such as orthodox pastoral internet, orthodox pastoral smartphone, and orthodox pastoral technology turned up nothing whatsoever. A search for “orthodox technology” turned up one page of search results with… several connected works of my own. Um, thanks, I think. I guess I’m an expert, or at least a resource, and even if I didn’t want to, I should probably make myself available to Orthodox clergy, with my spiritual father and bishop foremost. But this compliment to me, if it is such (maybe it means I’m off the rails) caught me quite off-guard; I was expecting to see at least some publications from people with pastoral authority and experience. But seeing as I’m the local expert, or at least a first author for this particular topic, I’ll briefly state my credentials. I have been an Orthodox Christian for a decade, so no longer a recent convert, have works on social dimensions of technology dating back as far as 1994, have two years of postgraduate theology under slightly silly conditions at Cambridge, and two more years under very silly conditions at a sort of “Monty Python teaches theology” PhD program (one Orthodox priest consoled me, “All of us went through that”), but did not complete the program. I grew up with computers back when my home computer access meant going to an orange and black terminal and dialing up a Dec MicroVAX on a 2400 (or less) baud modem, was on basically non-web social networks years before it became a buzzword, have worked with the web since before it went mainstream, much of it professionally. I’ve been bitten by some of the traps people are fighting with now. And I’m also kind of bright. So I guess I am, by default, a local expert, although I really think a responsible treatment of the issues raised here would see serious involvement from someone with pastoral qualifications and experience. I haven’t been tonsured, at least not yet, and perhaps not ever.

But I would ask priests reading this piece to consider a work on a sort of technological appendix to The Rudder, or maybe I shouldn’t say that because I have only barely sampled the ancient canons. But I would like to see ideally two pastoral works parallel to The Instructor, Book II: one for pastoral clergy use, and one for “the rest of us faithful.” When I was a lay parish representative at a diocesian conference, there was talk about appropriate use of the internet; Vladyka PETER read something that talked about the many legitimate benefits we have received from using computers, but talked about porn on the internet, which is a sewer I haven’t mentioned; he said that young people are spending hours per day looking at porn, and it’s more addictive than some street drugs, and he commented how porn has always been available, but you used to have to put on a disguise and a trenchcoat, and go leave your car in front of a store with the windows covered up, where now, it finds you and it comes free with a basic utility in the privacy of your home. And the biggest thing I can say about freedom from porn comes from the entry for porn in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology:

There is a story about a philosopher who was standing in a river when someone came to him. The philosopher asked the visitor, “What do you want?” The visitor answered, “Truth!” Then the philosopher held the visitor under the water for a little while, and asked him the second time, “What do you want?” The visitor answered, “Truth!” Then the philosopher held the visitor under water for what seemed an interminable time, and let him up and asked, “What do you want?” The visitor gasped and said, “Air!” The philosopher said, “When you want Truth the way you want air, you will find it.”

The same thing goes for freedom from the ever-darker chain called pornography, along with masturbation and the use of “ED” drugs to heighten thrills (which can cause nasty street drug-like effects [and a doomed search for the ultimate sexual thrill that decimates sexual satisfaction] even in marriage).

And I would like to suggest some guidelines for fighting Internet porn, quite possibly the most commonly confessed sin among young men today. Sexual sins are among the most easily forgiven: but they are a deep pit. So, in the interest of providing a “dartboard” draft that’s put out for people to shoot at. I am intentionally saying more rather than less because it’s easier for a pastoral conversation to select from a set of options than furnish arbitrarily more additional options. Here are several things I’d consider, both sacred and secular:

  1. If your right eye offends you, tear it out and throw it away from you: for it is better for you that one part of your body should die than that your whole body should be thrown into Hell.These words are not to be taken literally; if you tore out your right eye you would still be sinning with your left eye, and the Church considers that it was one of Origen’s errors to castrate himself. But this is a forceful way of stating a profound truth. There is an incredible freedom that comes, a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light, when you want purity the way you want “Air!“, and you apply a tourniquet as high up as you need to to experience freedom.Give your only computer power cable to a friend, for a time, because you can’t have that temptation in the house? That is really much better than the alternative. Have the local teenager turn off display of images in Chrome’s settings? That is really much better than the alternative. Webpages may look suddenly ugly, but not nearly as ugly as bondage to porn. Only check email at the library? That is really much better than the alternative. These tourniquets may be revised in pastoral conversation, but tearing out your right eye is much more free and much less painful than forever wanting to be free from addiction to porn, but also secretly hoping to give in to the present temptation; as the Blessed Augustine prayed, “Lord, give me chastity, but not yet.” There is a great deal of power in wanting purity now, and once you go slash-and-burn, the power is amazing.
  2. Install content-control software, such as Norton Family / Norton Family Premier, and have things set up so that only the woman of the house knows the password to make exceptions. There are legitimate needs for exceptions, and I remember being annoyed when I went to customize Ubuntu Christian Edition and finding that a site with all sorts of software to customize the appearance of Ubuntu was blocked, apparently because of a small sliver of soft porn in the wallpaper section of a truly massive site. There will be legitimate exceptions, but it cuts through a lot of self-deception if you get the exception by asking your wife.
  3. Don’t bother trying to find out how to disable porn mode “Incognito Mode” on your browser; set up a router to log who visits what websites. However much browser makers may tout themselves as being all for empowerment and freedom, they have refused to honor the many requests of men who want freedom from porn and parents who care for their children in many, many voices asking for a way to shut off porn mode.There is an antique browser hidden in /usr/bin/firefox on my Aqua-themed virtual machine, but even with that after a fair amount of digging, I don’t see any real live option to browse for instance Gmail normally with a browser that doesn’t offer porn mode. But there is something else you should know.Routers exist that can log who visits what when, and if you know someone who is good with computers (or you can use paid technical support like the Geek Squad), have a router set up to provide a log of what computers visited what URLs so that the wife or parents know who is visiting what. The presence of a browser’s porn mode suddenly matters a lot less when a router records your browsing history whether or not the browser is in porn mode.
  4. Rein in your stomach. Eat less food. Fast. It is a classic observation in the Orthodox spiritual tradition that the appetites are tied: gluttony is a sort of “gateway drug” to sexual sin, and if you cut away at a full stomach, you necessarily undermine sexual sin and have an easier contest if you are not dealing with sexual temptation on top of a full stomach.And it has been my own experience that if I keep busy working, besides any issues about “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop,” the temptation to amuse and entertain myself with food is less. So that cuts off the temptation further upstream.If you eat only to nourish the body, it helps. Even if nourishing food tastes good, cutting out junk like corn-syrup-loaded soft drinks, or anything sold like potato chips in a bag instead of a meal, and moderating consumption of alcohol (none before going to bed; it doesn’t help), will help.
  5. When you are tempted, ask the prayers of St. John the Much-Suffering of the Kiev Near Caves, perhaps by crossing yourself and saying, “St. John the Much-Suffering, pray to God for me.” In the Orthodox Church you may ask the prayers of any saint for any need, but St. John is a powerful intercessor against lust. That is part of why I asked Orthodox Byzantine Icons to hand-paint an icon of St. John for me: a little so I would have the benefit of the icon myself, and the real reason because I wanted Orthodox Byzantine Icons’s catalogue to make available the treasure of icons of St. John the Much-Suffering to the world, which they would.Other saints to ask for prayer include St. Mary of Egypt, St. Moses the Hungarian, St. Photina, St. Thais of Egypt, St. Pelagia the Former Courtesan, St. Zlata the New Martyr, St. Boniface, St. Aglaida, St. Eudocia, St. Thomais, St. Pelagia, St. Marcella, St. Basil of Mangazea, St. Niphon, and St. Joseph the Patriarch. (Taken from Prayers for Purity.)
  6. Buy and pray with a copy of Prayers for Purity when you are tempted, and when you have fallen. It is an excellent collection and helps when you know you should praying but words are not coming to mind.
  7. If you have been wounded, bring your wound to confession the next weekend. (And try to have a rule of going to church each week.)It can be powerful, when you are facing a temptation, not to want to confess the same sin again in a couple of days.But in parallel with this remember when a visitor asked a saintly monk what they did at the monastery, and the saintly monk answered, “We fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up.” Fall down seven times and rise up eight: fall down seventy-seven times and rise up seventy-eight: keep on repenting for as long as you need to to achieve some freedom, and know that some saints before you have risen after falling very many times.
  8. Buy a prayer rope, and use it. When you are tempted, keep repeating a prayer for one prayer rope, and then another, and another, if you need it. Pray “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” or to St. John the Much-Suffering, “Holy Father John, pray to God for me,” or to St. Mary of Egypt, “Holy Mother Mary, pray to God for me.”
  9. Use the computer only when you have a specific purpose in mind, and not just to browse. Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop; For the fascination of wickedness obscures what is good, and roving desire perverts the innocent mind.; Do not look around in the streets of a city, or wander about in its deserted sections. Turn away your eyes from a shapely woman, and do not gaze at beauty belonging to another; many have been seduced by a woman’s beauty, and by it passion is kindled like a fire.Men’s roving sexual curiosity will find the worst-leading link on a page, and then another, and then another. Drop using roving curiosity when you are at a computer altogether; if you need to deal with boredom, ask your priest or spiritual father for guidance on how to fight the passion of boredom. But don’t use the Internet as a solution for boredom; that’s asking for trouble.
  10. Use a support group, if one is available in your area. If I were looking for a support group now, I would call Christian counseling centers in the area if available. Talking with other people who share the same struggle can help.
  11. Use XXXchurch.com, or at least explore their website. Their entire purpose is buying you your freedom from lust.
  12. Yearn for purity.In the homily A Pet Owner’s Rules, I wrote:

    God is a pet owner who has two rules, and only two rules. They are:

    1. I am your owner. Enjoy freely the food and water which I have provided for your good!
    2. Don’t drink out of the toilet.

    Lust is also drinking out of the toilet. Lust is the disenchantment of the entire universe. It is a magic spell where suddenly nothing else is interesting, and after lust destroys the ability to enjoy anything else, lust destroys the ability to enjoy even lust. Proverbs says, “The adulterous woman”—today one might add, “and internet porn” to that—”in the beginning is as sweet as honey and in the end as bitter as gall and as sharp as a double-edged sword.” Now this is talking about a lot more than pleasure, but it is talking about pleasure. Lust, a sin of pleasure, ends by destroying pleasure. It takes chastity to enjoy even lust.

    When we are in lust, God does not seem real to us. Rejecting lust allows us to start being re-sensitized to the beauty of God’s creation, to spiritual sweetness, to the lightness of Heavenly light. Lust may feel like you’re losing nothing but gaining everything, but try to be mindful of what you lose in lust.

And that’s my best stab at making a “dartboard,” meant so people will shoot at it and make something better, and more complete and less one-sided in navigating the pitfalls of technology. This isn’t the only trap out there—but it may be one of the worst.

I would suggest that we need a comprehensive—or at least somewhat comprehensive—set of guidelines for Orthodox use of technology. Such a work might not become dated as quickly as you may think; as I write in the resources section below, I unhesitantly cite a 1974 title as seriously relevant knowing full well that it makes no reference to individually owned computers or mobile devices: it’s a case of “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Or, perhaps, two works: one for clergy with pastoral responsibilities, and one for those of us laity seeking our own guidance and salvation. I believe that today, we who have forms of property and wealth undreamed of when Christ gave one of the sternest Luddite warnings ever, Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, can very easily use things that do not lead to spiritual health: sometimes like how Facebook can erode marriages that are well defended as regards old-school challenges.

The best I know, secondhand perhaps, is that today’s Church Fathers, on Mount Athos perhaps, are simply saying, “Unplug! Unplug! Unplug!” What they want instead sounds like a liberal political-social experiment, where people who have grown up in an urban setting and know only how to navigate life there, will move en masse and form some sort of Amish-like rural communities. Or perhaps something else is envisioned: mass migration to monasteries? Given all that monasticism offers, it seems sad to me to receive the angelic image, of all reasons, only because that’s the only remaining option where you can live a sufficiently Luddite life. I have heard of spiritual giants who incomparably excel me saying that we should stop using recent technology at all. I have yet to hear of spiritual giants who incomparably excel me, and who live in places where technology is socially mandated, advise us to unplug completely. For that matter, I have yet to hear of any Orthodox clergy who live in places in the world where technology is socially mandated say, only and purely, “Unplug! Unplug! Unplug!”

The Orthodox Church, or rather the Orthodox-Catholic Church, is really and truly Catholic, Catholic ultimately coming from the Greek kata, “with”, and holos, “whole”, meaning “with the whole”, meaning that the entirety of the Orthodox Church belongs to every Orthodox-Catholic Christian: the saints alike living and dead, the ranks of priesthood and the faithful, and marriage and monasticism in entirety belong to every Orthodox Christian, every Orthodox-Catholic Christian: and giving the advice “Unplug! Unplug! Unplug!” as the limits of where the Orthodox-Catholic Church’s God and salvation can reach, is very disappointing. It’s comparable to saying that only monastics can be saved.

Total avoidance of all electronic technology is guidance, but not appropriate guidance, and we need advice, somewhat like the advice that began on how to use Facebook, to what I wrote about iPhones or internet porn. A successful dartboard makes it easier to say “What you said about ___________ was wrong because ___________ and instead we should say ____________ because __________.” And I am trying to raise a question. I am trying to raise the question of how Orthodox may optimally use technology in furtherance of living the divine life.

Is astronomy about telescopes? No!

I would close with a quote about technology—or is it? Computer science giant Edgser Dijkstra said,

Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.

And how much more must Orthodox discussion of how to use technology ascetically be no more about technology than astronomy is about telescopes? The question is a question about spiritial discipline, of how the timeless and universal wisdom of the Bible, the Philokalia, and the canons of the Seven Ecumenical Councils (volume 1, 2).

Resources for further study

Books

All the Orthodox classics, from the Bible on down. The task at hand is not to replace the Philokalia, but to faithfullyadapt the Philokalia (and/or the Seven Ecumenical Councils to a new medium, as it were. The principles of the Bible, the Philokalia, and the Seven Ecumenical Councils are simply not dated and simplydo not need to be improved. However, their application, I believe, needs to beextended. We need ancient canons and immemorial custom that has the weight of canon law: however ancient canons express a good deal more about face-to-face boundaries between men and women than boundaries in Facebook and on smartphones. We need guidance for all of these.

St. Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor. I reference Book II and its chapter on wine as paradigms we might look too.

C.J.S. Hayward, The Luddite’s Guide to Technology. You don’t need to read all of my ebooks on the topic, and they overlap. This one I’m offering because I don’t know of anything better in (attempting to) address classic Orthodox spirituality to the question of ascetical use of technology.

Metropolitan Gregory (Postnikov), How to Live a Holy Life. This 1904 title gives concrete practical instruction. The technology is different from today’s technology, but it serves an interesting and valuable reference point for today.

Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Mander is a former advertising executive who came to believe things about television, with implications for computers and smartphones, For instance, he argues that sitting for hours seeing mainly the light of red, green, and blue fluorescent pixels is actually awfully creepy. Mander has no pretensions of being an Orthodox Christian, or an Orthodox Jew for that matter, sounded an alarm in his apostasy from advertising that is worth at least hearing out. (Related titles, good or bad, include The Plug-in Drug and Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Online Articles

(The only Orthodox articles I mention are my own. This is not by choice.)

Paul Graham, The Acceleration of Addictiveness. The author of Hackers & Painters raises a concern that is not specifically Orthodox, but “just” human. (But Orthodoxy is really just humanity exercised properly.)

Jeff Graham, Come With Me If You Want to Live – Why I Terminated My iPhone. It contains what look like useful links.

Vince Homan, the newsletter article quoted above. I do not believe further comment is needed.

All the articles below except iPhones and Spirituality are included in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology (paperback, kindle).

C.J.S. Hayward, Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis. This is a first attempt to approach a kind of writing common in the Philokalia on the topic of ascetical use of technology.

C.J.S. Hayward, Veni, Vidi, Vomi: A Look at, “Do You Want to Date My Avatar?”. My brother showed me a viral music video, “Do You Want to Date My Avatar?”, very effectively done. This is a conversation hinging on why I viewed the video with horror.

C.J.S. Hayward, Plato: The Allegory of the… Flickering Screen?. With slight, with minimal alterations, the most famous passage Plato wrote speaks volumes of our screens today.

C.J.S. Hayward, iPhones and Spirituality. This piece is partly about appropriate use of smartphones and partly what we lose of real, human life when we lay the reins on the iPhone’s neck. It was originally a Toastmasters speech.

C.J.S. Hayward, The Luddite’s Guide to Technology. This is my most serious attempt at making an encompassing treatment to prepare people for different technologies. Pastor Vince’s article helped me realize it was too much of a do-it-yourself kit, appropriate as far as it goes, but not addressing what the proper pastoral application of the principles should be. And that is why I am writing a piece that will, I hope, provoke Orthodox clergy to expand our coverage in pastoral literature.

Singularity

CJSH.name/singularity

The Best of Jonathan's Corner: An Anthology of Orthodox Christian Theology
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Herodotus: And what say thou of these people? Why callest thou them the Singularity, Merlin?

John: Mine illuminèd name is John, and John shall ye call me each and every one.

Herodotus: But the Singularity is such as only a Merlin could have unravelled.

John: Perchance: but the world is one of which only an illuminèd one may speak aright. Call thou me as one illuminèd, if thou wouldst hear me speak.

Herodotus: Of illumination speakest thou. Thou sawest with the eye of the hawk: now seest thou with the eye of the eagle.

John: If that be, speak thou me as an eagle?

Herodotus: A point well taken, excellent John, excellent John. What speakest thou of the Singularity?

John: A realm untold, to speak is hard. But of an icon will I speak: inscribed were words:

‘Waitress, is this coffee or tea?’

‘What does it taste like?’

‘IT TASTES LIKE DIESEL FUEL.’

‘That’s the coffee. The tea tastes like transmission fluid.’

Herodotus: Upon what manner of veneration were this icon worshipped?

John: That were a matter right subtle, too far to tell.

Herodotus: And of the inscription? That too be subtle to grasp.

John: Like as a plant hath sap, so a subtle engine by their philosophy wrought which needeth diesel fuel and transmission fluid.

Herodotus: [laughs] Then ’twere a joke, a jape! ‘Tis well enough told!

John: You perceive it yet?

Herodotus: A joke, a jape indeed, of a fool who could not tell, two different plants were he not to taste of their sap! Well spoke! Well spoke!

John: Thou hast grasped it afault, my fair lord. For the subtle engine hath many different saps, no two alike.

Herodotus: And what ambrosia be in their saps?

John: Heaven save us! The saps be a right unnatural fare; their substance from rotted carcasses of monsters from aeons past, then by the wisdom of their philosophy transmogrified, of the subtle engine.

Herodotus: Then they are masters of Alchemy?

John: Masters of an offscouring of all Alchemy, of the lowest toe of that depravèd ascetical enterprise, chopped off, severed from even the limb, made hollow, and then growen beyond all reason, into the head of reason.

Herodotus: Let us leave off this and speak of the icon. The icon were for veneration of such subtle philosophy?

John: No wonder, no awe, greeteth he who regardest this icon and receive it as is wont.

Herodotus: As is wont?

John: As is wanton. For veneration and icons are forcèd secrets; so there is an antithesis of the sacra pagina, and upon its light pages the greatest pages come upon the most filled with lightness, the icons of a world that knoweth icons not.

Let me make another essay.

The phrase ‘harmony with nature’ is of popular use, yet a deep slice of the Singularity, or what those inside the Singularity can see of it, might be called, ‘harmony with technology’.

Herodotus: These be mystics of technology.

John: They live in an artificial jungle of technology, or rather an artificial not-jungle of technology, an artificial anti-jungle of technology. For one example, what do you call the natural use of wood?

Herodotus: A bundle of wood is of course for burning.

John: And they know of using wood for burning, but it is an exotic, rare case to them; say ‘wood’ and precious few will think of gathering wood to burn.

Herodotus: Then what on earth do they use wood for? Do they eat it when food is scarce or something like that?

John: Say ‘wood’ and not exotic ‘firewood’, and they will think of building a house.

Herodotus: So then they are right dexterous, if they can build out of a bundle of gathered sticks instead of burning it.

John: They do not gather sticks such as you imagine. They fell great trees, and cut the heartwood into rectangular box shapes, which they fit together in geometrical fashion. And when it is done, they make a box, or many boxes, and take rectangles hotly fused sand to fill a window. And they add other philosophy on top of that, so that if the house is well-built, the air inside will be pleasant and still, unless they take a philosophical machine to push air, and whatever temperature the people please, and it will remain dry though the heavens be opened in rain. And most of their time is spent in houses, or other ‘buildings’ like a house in this respect.

Herodotus: What a fantastical enterprise! When do they enter such buildings?

John: When do they rather go out of them? They consider it normal to spend less than an hour a day outside of such shelters; the subtle machine mentioned earlier moves but it is like a house built out of metal in that it is an environment entirely contrived by philosophy and artifice to, in this case, convey people from one place to another.

Herodotus: How large is this machine? It would seem to have to be very big to convey all their people.

John: But this is a point where their ‘technology’ departs from the art that is implicit in τεχνη: it is in fact not a lovingly crafted work of art, shaped out of the spirit of that position ye call ‘inventor’ or ‘artist’, but poured out by the thousands by gigantical machines yet more subtle, and in the wealth of the Singularity, well nigh unto each hath his own machine.

Herodotus: And how many can each machine can convey? Perchance a thousand?

John: Five, or six, or two peradventure, but the question is what they would call ‘academical’: the most common use is to convey one.

Herodotus: They must be grateful for such property and such philosophy!

John: A few are very grateful, but the prayer, ‘Let us remember those less fortunate than ourselves’ breathes an odor that sounds truly archaical. It sounds old, old enough to perhaps make half the span of a man’s life. And such basic technology, though they should be very much upset to lose them, never presents itself to their mind’s eye when they hear the word ‘technology’. And indeed, why should it present itself to the mind his eye?

Herodotus: I strain to grasp thy thread.

John: To be thought of under the heading of ‘technology’, two things must hold. First, it must be possessed of an artificial unlife, not unlike the unlife of their folklore’s ghouls and vampires and zombies. And second, it must be of recent vintage, something not to be had until a time that is barely past. Most of the technologies they imagine provide artificially processed moving images, some of which are extremely old—again, by something like half the span of a man’s life—while some are new. Each newer version seemeth yet more potent. To those not satisfied with the artificial environment of an up-to-date building, regarded by them as something from time immemorial, there are unlife images of a completely imaginary artificial world where their saying ‘when pigs can fly’ meaning never is in fact one of innumerable things that happen in the imaginary world portrayed by the technology. ‘SecondLife’ offers a second alternative to human life, or so it would seem, until ‘something better comes along.’

Herodotus: My mind, it reeleth.

John: Well it reeleth. But this be but a sliver.

For life to them is keeping one’s balance on shifting sand; they have great museums of different products, as many as the herbs of the field. But herein lies a difference: we know the herbs of the field, which have virtues, and what the right use is. They know as many items produced by philosophy, but they are scarce worse for the deal when they encounter an item they have never met before. For while the herbs of the field be steady across generations and generations, the items belched forth by their subtle philosophy change not only within the span of a man’s life; they change year to year; perchance moon to moon.

Herodotus: Thou sayest that they can navigate a field they know not?

John: Aye, and more. The goal at which their catechism aims is to ‘learn how to learn’; the appearance and disappearance of kinds of items is a commonplace to them. And indeed this is not only for the items we use as the elements of our habitat: catechists attempt to prepare people for roles that exist not yet even as the students are being taught.

Though this be sinking sand they live in, they keep balance, of a sort, and do not find this strange. And they adapt to the changes they are given.

Herodotus: It beseemeth me that thou speakest as of a race of Gods.

John: A race of Gods? Forsooth! Thou knowest not half of the whole if thou speakest thus.

Herodotus: What remaineth?

John: They no longer think of making love as an action that in particular must needeth include an other.

Herodotus: I am stunned.

John: And the same is true writ large or writ small. A storyteller of a faintly smaller degree, living to them in ages past, placed me in an icon:

The Stranger mused for a few seconds, then, speaking in a slightly singsong voice, as though he repeated an old lesson, he asked, in two Latin hexameters, the following question:

‘Who is called Sulva? What road does she walk? Why is the womb barren on one side? Where are the cold marriages?’

Ransom replied, ‘Sulva is she whom mortals call the Moon. She walks in the lowest sphere. The rim of the world that was wasted goes through her. Half of her orb is turned towards us and shares our curse. Her other half looks to Deep Heaven; happy would he be who could cross that frontier and see the fields on her further side. On this side, the womb is barren and the marriages cold. There dwell an accursede people, full of pride and lust. There when a young man takes a maiden in marriage, they do not lie together, but each lies with a cunningly fashioned image of the other, made to move and to be warm by devilish arts, for real flesh will not please them, they are so dainty in their dreams of lust. Their real children they fabricate by vile arts in a secret place.’

The storyteller saw and saw not his future. ‘Tis rare in the Singularity to fabricate children ‘by vile arts in a secret place’. But the storyteller plays us false when he assumes their interest would be in a ‘cunningly fashioned image of the other’. Truer it would be to say that the men, by the fruits of philosophy, jump from one libidinous dream to another whilest awake.

Herodotus: Forsooth!

John: A prophet told them, the end will come when no man maketh a road to his neighbors. And what has happened to marriage has happened, by different means but by the same spirit, to friendship. Your most distant acquaintanceship to a fellow member is more permanent than their marriage; it is routine before the breakable God-created covenant of marriage to make unbreakable man-made covenants about what to do if, as planned for, the marriage ends in divorce. And if that is to be said of divorce, still less is the bond of friendship. Their own people have talked about how ‘permanent relationships’, including marriage and friendship, being replaced by ‘disposable relationships’ which can be dissolved for any and every reason, and by ‘disposable relationships’ to ‘transactional relationships’, which indeed have not even the pretension of being something that can be kept beyond a short transaction for any and every reason.

And the visits have been eviscerated, from a conversation where voice is delivered and vision is stripped out, to a conversation where words alone are transmitted without even hand writing; from a conversation where mental presence is normative to a conversation where split attention is expected. ‘Tis yet rarely worth the bother to make a physical trail, though they yet visit. And their philosophy, as it groweth yet more subtle, groweth yet more delicate. ‘Twould scarcely require much to ‘unplug’ it. And then, perhaps, the end will come?

Herodotus: Then there be a tragic beauty to these people.

John: A tragic beauty indeed.

Herodotus: What else hast thou to tell of them?

John: Let me give a little vignette:

Several men and women are in a room; all are fulfilling the same role, and they are swathed with clothing that covers much of their skin. And the differences between what the men wear, and what most of the women wear, are subtle enough that most of them do not perceive a difference.

Herodotus: Can they not perceive the difference between a man and a woman?

John: The sensitivity is dulled in some, but it is something they try to overlook. But I have not gotten to the core of this vignette:

One of them indicateth that had they be living several thousand years ago they would not have had need of clothing, not for modesty at least, and there are nods of agreement to her. And they all imagine such tribal times to be times of freedom, and their own to be of artificial restriction.

And they fail to see, by quite some measure, that prolonged time in mixed company is much more significant than being without clothing; or that their buildings deaden all of a million sources of natural awareness: the breeze blowing and the herbs waving in the wind; scents and odours as they appear; song of crickets’ kin chirping and song of bird, the sun as it shines through cloud; animals as they move about, and the subtleties and differences in the forest as one passes through it. They deaden all of these sensitivities and variations, until there is only one form of life that provides stimulation: the others who are working in one’s office. Small wonder, then, that to a man one woman demurely covered in an office has an effect that a dozen women wearing vines in a jungle would never have. But the libertines see themselves as repressed, and those they compare themselves to as, persay, emancipated.

Herodotus: At least they have the option of dressing modestly. What else hast thou?

John: There is infinitely more, and there is nothing more. Marriage is not thought of as open to children; it can be dissolved in divorce; it need not be intrinsically exclusive; a further installment in the package, played something like a pawn in a game of theirs, is that marriage need not be between a man and a woman. And if it is going to be dismantled to the previous portion, why not? They try to have a world without marriage, by their changes to marriage. The Singularity is a disintegration; it grows more and more, and what is said for marriage could be said for each of the eight devils: intertwined with this is pride, and it is only a peripheral point that those who further undefine marriage speak of ‘gay pride’. A generation before, not mavericks but the baseline of people were told they needed a ‘high self-esteem’, and religious leaders who warned about pride as a sin, perhaps as the sin by which the Devil fell from Heaven, raised no hue and cry that children were being raised to embrace pride as a necessary ascesis. And religion itself is officially permitted some role, but a private role: not that which fulfills the definition of religare in binding a society together. It is in some measure like saying, ‘You can speak any language you want, as long as you utter not a word in public discourse’: the true religion of the Singularity is such ersatz religion as the Singularity provides. Real religion is expected to wither in private.

The Singularity sings a song of progress, and it was giving new and different kinds of property; even now it continues. But its heart of ice showeth yet. For the march of new technologies continues, and with them poverty: cracks begin to appear, and the writing on the wall be harder to ignore. What is given with one hand is not-so-subtly taken away with the other. The Singularity is as needful to its dwellers as forest or plain to its dwellers, and if it crumbles, precious few will become new tribal clans taking all necessities from the land.

Herodotus: Then it beseemeth the tragedy outweigheth the beauty, or rather there is a shell of beauty under a heart of ice.

John: But there are weeds.

Herodotus: What is a weed?

John: It is a plant.

Herodotus: What kind of plant is a weed? Are the plants around us weeds?

John: They are not.

Herodotus: Then what kinds of plants are weeds?

John: In the Singularity, there is a distinction between ‘rural’, ‘suburban’, and ‘urban’: the ‘rural’ has deliberately set plants covering great tracts of land, the ‘suburban’ has fewer plants, if still perhaps green all around, and the ‘urban’ has but the scattered ensconced tree. But in all of them are weeds, in an urban area plants growing where the artificial stone has cracked. And among the natural philosophers there are some who study the life that cannot be extinguished even in an urban city; their specialty is called ‘urban ecology’. The definition of a weed is simply, ‘A plant I do not want.’ We do not have weeds because we do not seek an artificial envionment with plants only present when we have put them there. But when people seek to conform the environment to wishes and plans, even in the tight discipline of planned urban areas, weeds are remarkably persistent.

And in that regard, weeds are a tiny sliver of something magnificent.

Herodotus: What would that be?

John: The durability of Life that is writ small in a weed here in the urban, there in the suburban is but a shadow of the durabiity of Life that lives on in the sons of men. Mothers still sing lullabyes to their dear little children; friendships form and believers pray at church far more than happened in the age where my story was told, a story dwarfed by what was called the ‘age of faith’. The intensity of the attacks on the Church in a cruel social witness are compelled to bear unwilling witness to the vitality of the Church whose death has been greatly exaggerated: and indeed that Church is surging with vitality after surviving the attacks. The story told seems to tell of Life being, in their idiom, ‘dealt a card off every side of the deck’—and answering, ‘Checkmate, I win.’ I have told of the differences, but there are excellent similarities, and excellent differences. For a knight whoso commandeth a wild and unbridled horse receiveth greater commendation than a knight whoso commandeth a well-bred and gentle steed.

Herodotus: The wind bloweth where it listeth. The just shall live by his faith. Your cell, though it be wholly artificial, will teach you everything you need to know.

John: Thou hast eagerly grasped it; beyond beauty, tragedy, and beyond tragedy, beauty. Thou hast grasped it true.

[Here ends the manuscript]

Science and Knowledge: Regenerate Science, Philosophia Naturalis, and Human Ways of Knowing

CJSH.name/science

“[Merlin] is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our point of view, confused. For him, every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something dead—a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases… In a sense Merlin represents what we’ve got to get back to in some different way…”

C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

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

Perhaps I am asking impossibilities…

C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

Put this way, Lewis is advancing the possibility of a regenerate science as a speculation, as a call for something that doesn’t yet exist. But in fact a regenerate science does exist, whether “natural philosophy” or not, and this regenerate science is as old as the hills.

Let me quote first lecture material for a friend who is teaching interns about farming:

Learning with your whole body

I’m assuming that most of you have been to college. Even if you haven’t, you’ve been learning for 12 years in an institution that has taught you that learning is done with the brain, that it comes from words written on screens or paper, and that the way you show what you’ve learned is to write intelligent words on screens or paper.

Here is the first thing I need you to understand: out here in the garden, you do not learn with your brain. You learn with your hands and with your eyes and with your whole body. Your brain is involved, sure. But don’t let it take over. Don’t separate “learning” and “working.” Every moment you’re in this teaching garden, and even a lot of the time you’re working in other parts of the farm, if you pay attention you can be learning constantly.

School teaches us to think of learning as information. It’s such a mistake! Yes, there is information that will help you learn to garden, and I’ll teach you some of it—but if you don’t learn it with your body, it won’t be much use to you.

You’re going to need educated eyes—you’re going to need the ability to look at a plant and know if it’s thriving, to look at a little seedling and be able to see in your mind how big it’ll be so you can give it enough space, to look at a patch of weeds and have a sense of how much bigger it’ll be next week if you don’t kill it now. (The most advanced skill, which I’m still learning, is looking at a row of green beans and estimating—from how thick the blossoms & small beans on it are—how much it’s going to produce over the next couple weeks.) You need educated hands—you need to be able to feel, when you’re swinging a hoe, whether you’re really biting into the roots of the weeds, and you need hands that know how to weed fast and effectively, and how to use a pitchfork, etc, etc. And you need instincts, too—when you’ve just transplanted a plant, you need to have the instinct to check on it till it’s established, same as people have the instinct to check on a baby.

And you learn all that by experience. Writing it down won’t help. Doing it while being aware of it is what helps. Be in the moment, don’t be thinking of something else while you work. (Well, maybe when you’re weeding strawberries!) Get your hands in the dirt and feel it, compare it with how it felt last week, watch and observe the plants as they grow—and watch the weeds as they die! Watch how much quicker they die on a sunny or a windy day, watch how they re-root themselves even from a lying-down position if it’s too wet. At some point it all comes together and you start to develop a sort of instinctive understanding of the garden as a natural system. I’ve been doing this for five years now—I knew next to nothing about gardening before that—and I have a sense now of how all the pieces work together, not in theory but what’s happening in real time in my own garden, and it’s such a pleasure. It has been such a pleasure to go from someone who learned things only with her brain, to someone with hands and eyes that understand my garden.

I know some of what I’m saying you may already know, but I still think it’s worth saying at the start here. I’ve just seen so often how hard it is to get rid of the idea that reality is in our heads or on paper and start focusing on the reality that’s under our feet—to stop going on what you think is supposed to happen instead of looking at what really happens. I know it took me a lot longer than it should have. I still remember my breakthrough moment. I was using the push-cultivator—which I’ll teach you how to use—and it was a new tool for us at that point so I didn’t know its capabilites. The thing is that when the weeds get to a certain height, the push-cultivator doesn’t kill them anymore—you have to use a hoe. But I would push the cultivator on down the row and it would kill a few weeds and knock down the rest and cover them with dirt so the row looked clean, and I never noticed that their roots were still in the soil, and in my head I would make a little check mark—well that row’s done. The next week, we’d be looking through the garden to see what needed doing, and there would be a bunch of weeds in that row again, and I’d go, “Wow! They came back fast!” and cultivate again. I still remember the day the little lightbulb came on in my head and I realized I’d never killed those weeds at all. I felt so dumb. That was the day I learned to look at what I was doing. Not just at what I thought I was doing.

And that’s a lot of what is involved in learning a skill—not just knowing “how” but involving your hands and eyes and brain all together in the process, so that you can feel how the motion is working and you can see whether it’s working—and you remember to double-check the next day whether it worked!

Okay, I have one more story. This one taught me so much. We had a temporary volunteer in the garden for three days. He was this guy who, if you told him how to do something, would look annoyed as if you were patronizing him or something. Because, you know, everybody knows how to hoe, right? Well, I got embarrassed by him being offended and figured he was right, maybe it was rude to try and tell someone how to do such simple stuff. I was a beginner too, at the time. Erin told us to hoe a certain section, and we did it. And we did it backwards. We started at the back of the section and walked backwards to the front as we hoed, so that all the plants we hoed up ended up in a pile in the next bit we had to hoe, covering the weeds there. The result was that at the end of our work all you could see was a pile of dead plants, so it looked great, it looked done. And the next day when those dead plants had dried up and withered away, what you could see was a section that looked like someone had hit it a few times here and there with a hoe—at least half of the weeds were still alive and kicking. The next day Erin took me aside and showed me how to hoe for real: you move forward, and you hoe up every inch of the soil, whether you see a plant there or not. And I’ve never felt embarrassed to teach anyone to hoe since then. It’s a skill.

It’s a huge mistake to think of any part of farming as unskilled labor. A skilled worker can weed about five times as fast as a beginner—if not more. Farming is skilled, complicated, grounded work that involves your hands and your eyes and your brain and your whole body—and at some point you may find it starts to involve your heart. You’re learning something this year that you can be proud of.

(Heather Munn)

My friend is part of an intentional community and comes from a more ivy-like background; she as a writer was perhaps able to put into words what would perhaps have been water to a fish and perhaps too much “just the way things are” to readily put into words. Except, perhaps, in discomfort at city types who do skilled labor with computers and are above the unskilled labor in a farm… but wouldn’t eat except for “unskilled” labor at a farm.

Regenerate Science

But I am interested in this passage as a lettered glimpse into a regenerate science that does not do to vegetables what modern science threatens to do to men. It is not exotic: but perhaps it shouldn’t be exotic in the first place. Acting on plants bears no animistic or occult overtones or confusions, but it is quite naturally a personal operation. It is, humbly and naturally, sensitive to an I-Thou that never dissolves away into mere I-It. The regenerate science Lewis calls for is not waiting to be concocted by some genius of a bookworm; it has been around all along and remains (humbly) accessible even to bookworms like my friend.

And this regenerate science is not just the biology that is experientially known to a farmer, although I would be very cautious about too quickly dismissing this instance. True, it is a biology of very specific life and plants and not a biology of all life forms or even all farms everywhere: but it may be an attribute of the regenerate science that one knows what one has direct experience of and not everything, everywhere. That locality is arguably a strength.

But to shift focus slightly: Lewis talks about not doing to stones and plants what modern science threatens to do to man himself. This does not in its focus mean destruction of the same in laboratory conditions: though the twentieth century saw lethal experiments on prisoners and 21st century America does experiments on human embryos destroyed by the use that is made of them. However, Lewis’s point is somewhat more subtle: “When it explained, it would not explain away.” He goes on to raise the question whether science “must always be a [mythical monster, with lethal gaze] basilisk which kills what it sees and only sees by killing.” And the regenerate farming science with the manifesto above does not have a basilisk’s gaze. Even weeds are not reduced to nothingness, or explained away, or reduced to being a thing that one holds in the head. Live weeds may be literally killed and reduced to being dead weeds: but even as dead weeds they are not reduced to being merely the playing out of impersonal, discarnate ideas that really exist only in scientist’s heads. And the practitioner may be very ready to kill weeds, but in a certain sense she seems to love them in knowing them with a love that science does not apply to mankind.

Psychology is what we now have as our effort to take an empirical sciences approach to understanding mankind.

Psychology, a secularized surrogate for theology

My MPhil thesis advisor, Thomas Dixon, wrote Theology, Anti-Theology, and Atheology: From Christian Passions to Secular Emotions. His basic approach was to look at one concrete instance as an example of a broader pattern: theology being replaced by anti-theology which in turn moves to “atheology” (“a naturalistic quasi-theology without God”) which is alienated from theological roots but is more estranged from theology than actively fighting against it. He writes, “The details of empirical science are atheological in the sense that a recipe in a cookery book is atheological—both are, if you like, just ‘untheological.'”

The specific instance he chose was the nineteenth century moving from the Christian understanding of passions and affections, which exist within an ascetical framework and are understood in moral and ascetical terms as features belonging a fundamentally moral landscape in “pneumatology” understood of a department of practical theology rather than secular phenomena studied by psychologists who are just-as-much-scientists-as-people-in-the-so-called-hard-sciences-like-physics, to Darwin’s paper-thin understanding of emotion as discussed in Darwin’s The Expression of Emotions in Man and the Animals, where “emotion” is not in particular about something or part of any particular habit, moving to the atheology of today’s psychological understanding of emotions, where emotions may be about something and may be part of a healthy or unhealthy habit (as, for instance, alcoholism), but emotions are not seen as theological in character (and it is not terribly obvious to those within how one would go about associating emotions with theology). Much prior to the nineteenth century, it is not clear how people would react to or translate a statement like, “Feelings aren’t right. Feelings aren’t wrong. They’re just feelings.”

Dixon, as quoted, says, “The details of empirical science are atheological,” and his primary study in the article cited engages the emotions as developed in the category of psychology in the nineteenth century. Even though his point is intended to be an instance of a broader phenomenon or regularity, Dixon, like a good scholar, guards a narrow, tightly focused thesis for his article instead of a sprawling encyclopedia-length book. Dixon in his supervision of me encouraged me to read a book, Mary Midgley’s Science as Salvation, favored by one of my thesis reviewers (although, it seems, not especially foreign to his own interests). Midgley in the chapter “The Remarkable Masculine Birth of Time” talked about what I would call a macho, domineering rebellion against an older understanding of nature (you know, “Mother Nature”) to be merely cold matter as understood by the Newtonian physics that was heralded through vile, lurid rhetoric and imagery of sexual violence to the woman, Nature. Either Dixon’s actual focus of “from Christian passions to secular emotions in 19th century psychology” or a focus he didn’t take of “from a religious outlook on Mother Nature to cold matter in Newtonian era physics” would be better than an article with a combined thesis of “from a religious outlook on Mother Nature to cold matter in Newtonian era physics and from Christian passions to secular emotions in 19th century psychology,” and Dixon holds on to his narrow, focused thesis and explores it interestingly and well.

The friend who wrote the above manifesto had earlier talked about trying to understand people. She studied literature in college rather than psychology, and there is something significant in that. One bank president commented that he preferred making literature majors because they made the best bank tellers; in other words, literature majors made the best tellers because they were the best at getting inside people’s heads. And better, apparently, than psychology students. Psychologists may claim to be scientists-and-they-are-just-as-much-scientists-as-people-in-the-so-called-hard-sciences-like-physics, but literature in its better moments understands the human person without aping physics—and so much the better. The motive of understanding people is not the only motive one might have for studying literature, but it is an obvious motive, and one of the more important. Not to deify literature departments—they seem to get dumb academic fads thirty years later than everyone else, where the better portion would be simply to abstain—but one of the major currents is a science of understanding the human person, and a science that has some of the attributes of a regenerate science that Lewis seems to expect something very exotic, only to be found in some faroff never-never land. But students of literature who try to understand the human person and fulfill easily half of Lewis’s description of a regenerate science have been right under our noses the whole time, and include C.S. Lewis himself.

The queen of the sciences

Furthermore, theology was once known as the queen of sciences. This did not mean that theologians are scientists; in that sense the claim to be scientists, and especially just-as-much-scientists-as practitioners of some other discipline, is very much a “physics envy” phenomenon. Dorothy Sayers reiterates that theology is a science, meaning for instance that it is the kind of discipline that has a technical vocabulary and it matters if you use the terms correctly. But she makes no envious or wishful claim that theologians are “scientists,” and her usage is somewhat archaic. She does not make the claim, or even seem to betray any particular wish, that theology should be flattered by classifying it with empirical sciences like physics. The older claim that theology is a science should be taken seriously, but with it an understanding that “science” in this usage may be a serious claim, but one tenuously related to whether its bachelor’s and master’s degrees are ‘BS’ and ‘MS’, or ‘BA’ and ‘MA’. The same kind of older usage of “science” is enshrined in the words, “We have it down to a science,” which means “We have mastered some precise technique or skill to approach _______,” and not in particular that it is appropriate subject matter for a scientific journal.

In my mind one of the greatest of sciences is the science of spiritual struggle as articulated in the Philokalia. When I first read it it struck me as strange; then years later I found a book it seemed all I had wanted to read. The best way I can think to explain it is that I liked, and like, books like Oswald Chambers’s My Utmost for His Highest precisely because they contain some of what is concentrated in the Philokalia. Here is the pre-eminent science of sciences; if one looks at the medieval Great Chain of Being of God, Angels, Men, Animals, Plants, Rocks, Nothing, we have the science of God, Angels, and Men. No discipline has a higher ambit, though literature comes closer than some. Physics is the science of Rocks and Nothing; no other discipline has so humble of an ambit. Biology may be appropriately called a hard science and may have an ambit of Animals and Plants, perhaps touching on Men: but I have never read someone flatter himself by saying that people in his discipline are scientists-and-they-are-just-as-much-scientists-as-people-in-the-so-called-hard-sciences-like-biology. The envy is always for physics, and I want to ask, “Don’t you find that just a wee bit embarrassing? Don’t you appreciate an ambit of Men which you rightly study? Do you really want your study of Men to be in the image of physicists’s study of Rocks and Nothing? Is that really how you want to try to mediate prestige to your discipline? Even a biological study of Rotting Excrement, teeming with life, would be a nobler and more elevated ambit than the Rocks and Nothing which physics exquisitely delves into.”

Real Empirical Science

I rarely, perhaps only in this piece, use ‘science’ as including theology, at least outside of a grandfathered special case. The older statement that “theology is a science” says something that was, and is, true. However, today the meaning of the term “science” has shifted, and using the term as including theology is liable to cause confusion outside of a historically literate minority, and I am wary of suggesting that theology is a science when I do not have the luxury of explaining what that means besides the obvious implication that theology is a discipline with mathematical and statistical educated guesses about how the world functions that are tested in practical experiments. And I can and do genuinely believe that the ambit of the Philokalia is the crowning jewel of the queen of the sciences, next to which there is relatively little warrant to call physics “science,” but it would just add confusion to call the Philokalia excellent science without further clarification.

Further muddying the waters are the kind of claim that inspired one alleged theology article in my most concentrated course in feminist theology to say, Theologians are scientists, and they are every bit as much scientists as people in the so-called “hard sciences” like physics. The boilerplate, quoted word for word though without attribution (but also, perhaps, without plagiarism as few critics would seriously maintain that the claim is presented as anyone’s original insight), that practitioners of one’s own discipline are-scientists,-and-they-are-every-bit-as-much-scientists-as-people-in-the-so-called-hard-sciences-like-physics, enough so that in my theology education academic theologians sought to include science to mediate prestige and would do what I would later figure out was presenting a journalistically-written, op-ed style article from “science” pages about psychology and free will as representing genuine “science” (I tried quite in vain to say, “If for whatever reason you want to claim to understand science in your theology, get letters after your name in the sciences, and if you want to include scientific findings, quote something in a peer-reviewed journal and not something op-ed—perhaps not the greatest emotional intelligence on my part and probably more intimidating because I did not make any effort at all to incorporate ponderous grapplings with science, and I did have the letters BS and MS after my name), it is not enough to be a gentleman and a scholar: one must also claim to be a scientist, no matter how much one’s real talents may lie in other directions.

Some scholars, including some historians, attempt to use the term “empirical science” to un-muddy the waters a little. There is a legitimate distinction between the enterprise of empirical science and science-as-worldview; science-as-worldview may be very interesting to study, but it is distinct from the immediate enterprise. Secondly, the term cuts out the various disciplines claiming that they are scientists-and-they-are-just-as-much-scientists-as-people-in-the-hard-sciences-like-physics. It may take a rule of thumb that if the members of a discipline are claiming to be full-fledged scientists, they are outside of what is studied in empirical science. And I might comment that, for all the letters after my name, I’ve never read or heard of a textbook or publication in the hard sciences claiming that its practitioners are scientists at all, let alone that they are not one whit less scientific than physicists. One may encounter quaint books like The Art of Mathematics which place mathematics among the humanities, or one may encounter claims that physics properly includes metaphysics (without the counterbalancing nuance that learning competency in physics as taught today does not now include learning competency in metaphysics). But the shrill insistence that one is not one whit less a scientist than physics is really nowhere to be found. Disciplines that are as much science as physics don’t seem to suffer physics envy. And the use of the term “empirical sciences” whittles a very open-ended term down to the point where it is narrow enough to actually be useful for study.

None the less, I have enough foolhardiness to not only state that the mystical theology of spiritual struggle and growth is not only enough of a science that physics’s claim to be science pales in comparison, but that the mystical theology of spiritual struggle and growth is enough of an empirical science that physics’s claim to be empirical science pales in comparison.

Experiment: A term disconnected from its roots

The term ‘experiment’ comes from the same root as ‘experience’; at the birth of early modern science, at the point where there was real contention between Newtonian and Aristotelian physics, an ‘experiment’ could simply mean doing something straightforward and observing what happened. Aristotelian physics said that heavier items fell faster than light items; Newtonian physics said that things fall basically at the same speed regardless of weight (air friction turns out to account for something, but this is a bit of a side issue). At that point it was practical to test one’s experience, dropping a grape and an orange (or a pebble and a fist-sized rock) at the same time and observing whether they both hit ground at the same rough time or whether the heavier item hit the ground much more quickly. I’m going through the muddy spectacles of popularization of history here, but insofar as people were trying to test Newtonian against Aristotelian physics, there was a live possibility of using ordinary means to conduct an experiment where Newtonian and Aristotelian physics would predict appreciably different outcomes. And there can, in fact, be a first-hand knowing, in continuity with a farmer’s practical biology that is known with the whole person, that a pebble and a larger rock will fall through air at the same speed as far as one can tell with the kinds of equipment easily available at the birth of early modern science.

Something has changed along the way. Experiments now regarded as classic and relatively old physics experiments—I can think of the Millikan oil drop experiment and the Michaelson-Morley experiment, are not, in any sense, matters of interacting with the natural world and observing in a straightforward experiment. I have not seen even a very arrogant physics student look at one of those experiments for the first time and say, “I could have done that.” What these experiments instead represent are like devious hacks in information technology, where someone thinks of a clever way to trick the computer to do something that shouldn’t be possible at all (like programmatically shutting down a computer intended not to allow any programmatic shutdown, by continually overwriting the memory physically closest to a temperature sensor so it would read a false positive overheating and shut down). The classic experiments are no longer about observing whether a grape and an orange fall at the same speed as far as you can tell; they are all devious hacks that trick nature into revealing something about its inner workings that you could not tell. And unless you are very wealthy you cannot do experiments on the sort of equipment private people can own; people do experiments at Fermilab on incredibly delicate atom smashers which are just barely adequate to do what physicists are trying to do. When Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity was accepted, apart from possibly the perihelion of Mercury (when Mercury passes the sun, it appears to accelerate and decelerate because its light is bent by the sun’s gravity), there was a time period of decades between when relativity and its experiments and thought experiments could be practically tried out. The twins paradox was in fact pragmatically tried out, decades after Einstein, when scientists brought an atomic clock, which is still as precise a clock as the human race has managed, on board an airplane, and observed that after flying around there was the predicted clock skew against an atomic clock which had stayed on the ground. But absolutely none of the timekeeping devices in Einstein’s lifetime were nearly delicate enough to allow testing the prediction made in the twins paradox. And today there is a somewhat similar position with superstring theory: there is no way that has been projected with today’s technology and resources to do an experiment where the differences between what superstring theory predicts, and what older models in physics predict, are anywhere near big enough to measure. Some experiments have been imagined, but they would require, for instance, more energy than has ever been produced in the history of the human race.

I am probably going on even more shaky ground by suggesting that the term ‘experiment’ no longer applies to significant physics experiments, but I think I can say that the link between experiment in the sense of a physics experiment, and experience in the sense of, for instance, my friend’s knowledge of farming biology, is historical, etymological, and not live. Saying that an ‘experiment’ is something you ‘experience’ is like saying in U.S. English that someone who never drinks alcohol consumes ‘liquors’ all the time, as ‘liquor’, historically at least, can mean a broth that food is steeped with. There may have been a time when people saw ‘liquor’ as more elastic and naturally including both chicken broth and today’s Jack Daniel’s; but now one is apt to get confusion if one speaks of a teatotaller consuming liquor. And in the same sense the historical link between ‘experiment’ and ‘experience’ has been all but severed; precisely none of my friend’s summons to experience practical farm biology is an ‘experiment’ in the sense of the physics experiments I have mentioned, and conversely, precisely none of the modern physics experiments covered in my education constitute a way to have the knowing that drinks. We’re really talking apples and oranges.

For these reasons, mystical theology is empirical in ways that physics hardly touches. Now I should give one caveat, under teaching as a persuasive activity, that at my high school some of the first experiments were intended to dislodge what might be called “innate believed physics” after science education findings had found that it takes a certain number of contrary experimental findings to kill a student’s assumed physics. And I remember that I had an “innate believed physics” and I did not want to let it go. So the physics experiments that set the stage, so to speak, were chosen to give mystical, whole-person knowledge rather than simply convey ideas. But that is at least a somewhat provocative position to take in education, and it was used only at the beginning, simply because even the introductory physics class needed to go much further than experiential “experiments” would show. Such experiments can create trust in the physics being taught; but they can only teach so much of what was really intended to be a class that went far. And the further the class really pushed into interesting physics, the less it built on direct student experience. Now, of course, there were experiences of some stripe. One manipulated things used in the experiments, and read measuring instruments, and analyzed the results, and returned to class. All of this is an experience of some sort, class lectures and tests as much of the labs. But it was not knowledge arising from contact; the experience of reading a measuring instrument was irrelevant to what was being learned, and a teacher who asked, “How’s your experiment going?” to a student reading out an LED display would probably not be happy with an answer of, “There are LED digits that are red, as opposed to green, or dark digits on a silver background, and the background is dark, and they flicker a bit when they change. It looks kind of 80’s. Also, the top LED is a bit dim, and there’s a dent in the left side. Also, the battery might be starting to go dead.” A teacher in the classes wants the student to see past the experience to whatever point of physics was being addressed; the farmer’s practical biology knows by seeing through the experience.

By contrast, the knowing of regenerate science, pre-eminently present in the Philokalia, knows by participating, by drinking, by experience, and knows with the whole person. The farming manifesto of this knowing may speak of knowing with the whole body, and get around to knowing with the heart, while the Philokalia may deal with the heart front and center, although its most concentrated attention to the spirit always, always includes the body. But they are two parts of the same organism, and the knowing in one and the other is empirical in the deepest sense, whereas by comparison, physics is knowledge by hearsay. In physics, even if what you know from your own experiments is experienced or empirical in the proper sense—a point which I am slightly reluctant to grant except perhaps for the sake of argument—a very large portion of your bearings are from the authority of other scientists. The physical theories one works with may be the best provisional educated guess as tested by the scientific enterprise, but the picture I was told of science being distrustful of authority, and mentioning two high school students correcting a calculation by ?Newton? and being accepted in that, is dodgy at best. In both theology and physics there is a great deal that is accepted on authority, but the amount of theology that one knows with one’s whole person greatly exceeds the amount of physics one has by oneself corroborated through experiment, whereby the knowing of theology greatly eclipses that of physics, and furthermore the kind of knowing between the whole person and experiments one has performed is one where the knowing of theology eclipses that of physics. Theologians can say that the sin of an idle word is in anything one says that one has not learned with one’s whole person: woe to the physicist who says (even by analogy) that believing what one has not corroborated by one’s own personal experiments is simply forbidden.

Knowledge is intimate: Understanding feminism

I have another friend, Heather’s brother Robin, who in every other context but one has shown good character and in communication been entirely honest and straightforward. My earliest memories of feminism were of having a sense that it was necessary for Christians to agree with. Later, at one point after some drifting and still assuming feminism was largely true, I was squarely sitting on the fence regarding egalitarianism, he came back from an extended visit with a male relative, and began a rather vile argument that stated in heavily loaded language that we should believe that passages in Paul that feminists like should mean as much as possible what a feminist would mean by them, and passages which the same feminists found inconvenient were problems that should presumably be dealt with as problems. And I replied, in essence, “Whoa. Wait a minute. That’s loaded language… Why don’t you repeat what you just said with the language loaded in the opposite direction?”

Later on I would go to write my first little dissertation in theology as Dark Patterns / Anti-patterns and Cultural Context Study of Scriptural Texts: A Case Study in Craig Keener’s Paul, Women, and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul. My advisor, who was enough of an egalitarian to be a plenary speaker at a Christians for Biblical Equality conference, advised me to compare Keener’s text, chosen as an example of highly inappropriate persuasion, with a feminist / egalitarian treatment that did not pull dirty tricks. The suggestion was wise enough, but both of us searched through Tyndale House in Cambridge’s quite literally world-class library on the subject of New Testament Christianity in the Graeco-Roman world, and neither of us could find anything in a passel of feminist texts that didn’t pull dirty tricks (though I found one properly feminist treatment that was a little less forceful in shady communication). The closest thing I found to what my advisor suggested was a bit of an outlier of a commentary written by a postmodern, secular Jew who commented on the New Testament text but did not have even the pretension of receiving it as authority or Scripture.

My reason for mentioning that is this. All participants in the conversation, across the board, try to present their case in as powerful a fashion and as compelling a light as they can. This goes for conservatives, moderates, liberals, radicals, monotheists, polytheists, atheists, agnostics, and includes Yours Truly. And if egalitarians and feminists consistently and repeatedly communicate in a treacherous fashion, it may well turn out to be a message that goes flat if it is communicated on its merits in a straightforward fashion. I do not say that feminism cannot be communicated without manipulating the audience: but I do say that I have searched for years and not found examples of feminism communicating without manipulating the audience. And I am concerned, less for the immediate affront of an honest and straightforward friend suddenly communicating in a treacherous manner, than a red flag for “What kind of thing, really, is feminism if people only persuade others of it via vile, shady, manipulative communication?

But that is at best the outer shell of the knowledge I have gained of feminism; it is an intimate knowledge, a knowledge of the heart, a knowledge of the whole person. It goes beyond logical speculations of what feminism must be if it communicates as it does. And this heart has everything to do, for instance, with feminist fairy tales, on which point I realized that I did not realize how wholesome and true traditional fairy tales were until I had grasped feminist fairy tales, from the time when a group of college students who read children’s books aloud chose Patricia C. Wade’s Dealing with Dragons, a feminist fairy tale that like other feminist fairy tales is based on the realization that girls cannot be cured of wanting fairy tales, and so provide something with the external ornaments of a fairy tale that wages all-out war on what is right with fairy tales (Dealing with Dragons says, in a well-chosen dust jacket quote, something like “Once upon a time, there was a bad princess,” which is at the heart of what the book delivers). I was moved to strong nausea when I tried to accept that that was what the group was reading next. Again, knowledge of the whole person. I do not say knowledge is primarily a matter of what you feel, or that it always or even often causes one to feel XYZ intensely. But I do say that this is within how whole-person knowledge can express itself at something that warped.

C.S. Lewis opened The Abolition of Man with an exposé of something highly problematic placed in a children’s textbook to educate children; this serves as a springboard which launches into a broad-scale argument about morality, society, and efforts to engineer the abolition of man. However, it is significant that the concrete springboard Lewis chose was the materials society chooses to educate and inculturate children: the hand that propagandizes the cradle is the hand that rules the world.

In that sense, I watched Frozen at a friend’s house (the second time through I sat through the whole thing), and saw tradition unravelling in Disney just a little bit more. I noticed with some distance the standard, formulaic, codependent version of fairy-tale love: it can and does happen that there will be a roomful of people of which the vast majority are emotionally healthy and two are codependent, and the two codependent people’s eyes meet from across the room and they fall head over heels in infatuation and are convinced they have both found True Love and enter a relationship in which both are suffering mightily and struggling to breathe. And, perhaps showing my insularity, I don’t remember too many examples of Hollywood films, certainly not children’s films, where a man and a woman make friends and slowly realize that they want more than friendship. Now I do believe that years of love in a family represent something much deeper than instantaneous infatuation, that infatuation doesn’t last even in a blissfully happy marriage, and I believe various other things, but in Disney’s Frozen all these had the spiritual shape of winning a battle and losing the war. I was left wondering how close on the heels of Frozen will come the Disney version of Brokeback Mountain, and was sure that the first queer fairy tale will be something you have to be a complete heel not to make a little accommodation for—and ones coming after it the claws will come out, the same claws that ended the career of a distinguished open-and-free Mozilla employee after it came out that he had made a donation years back to some cause in favor of defending traditional marriage.

Frozen intruded with a literal level on what is archetypal in fairy tales; the glimpses of the princesses guiltily snarfing a bit of chocolate were A Didactic Lecture In Sensitivity. And Disney used the external shapes of codependent fairy tale romance while subverting them. And on a literal level, a sister’s hold and embrace wrought with deep sorrow is in fact more of true love, classically and analytically speaking, than an infatuated smooch. And could even be felt more, even if that is beside the point. But this is winning a battle and losing the war.

I tried, before my project was shut down by the leadership at Cambridge’s theology department, to write a thesis about the holy kiss as my second master’s thesis. I remember with irritation one point where my advisor, claiming to help me, suggested I narrow my thesis down to the differences between Jewish and Christian understanding of kissing in the Song of Songs. And I was irritated; I wanted to do a doctrinal study of a non-sexual kiss, and not only was his proposed narrowing down of my thesis not a narrowing down of what I had proposed, but it did not overlap what I wanted to research. And then the University decided two thirds of the way through the schoolyear that my thesis topic, which I had declared explicitly at the beginning of the year, did not belong in my philosophy of religion seminar.

Before that thesis got shot down, I read some very interesting scholarship, found out that the holy kiss (“Greet one another with a holy kiss”) was the only act that the Bible calls holy, and found statements like “Examples of the kiss as a means of making or breaking enchantments have been found in the folklore of almost every culture in the Western world.” And what I found about the holy kiss and its cultural contexts only made things stand out in much sharper relief. This isn’t the practice in most of the world now, but the holy kiss was in ancient times a kiss on the mouth, and it is doctrinally significant that the kiss of communion, with which we kiss Christ as well as fellow faithful, is planted on the “gates and doors,” the lips, that receive Christ himself in holy communion. Not specifically that that is what we should do today, but there is something powerfully archetypal in the holy kiss that exists in continuity with fairy tales’ breaking enchantments with a kiss of true love. And Frozen, which is careful not to disturb certain assumptions on the listener’s part (for instance, that their-eyes-meet-across-the-room infatuation is True Love, or that an act of True Love will be a sexual kiss), left me feeling cheated. As much as I cared about the holy kiss as specifically not being sexual, the fitting icon for breaking enchantments in a fairy tale is not a sexual kiss, even though a sexual kiss between the who the prince appeared to be, and the princess, would on a literal level been nowhere near the depth of an embrace of sisters’ love. On a literal level. But not on the archetypal level of fairy tales. And Frozen uproots a couple more pillars of archetypal fairy tale truth by “correcting” it on a literal level.

Sometime later, I wrote:

Barbara’s Tale: The Fairy Prince

Adam looked at his daughter and said, “Barbara, what do you have to share? I can hear you thinking.”

Barbara looked at her father and said, “You know what I’m thinking, Daddy. I’m thinking about the story you made for me, the story about the fairy prince.”

“Why don’t you tell it, Sweetie? You know it as well as I do.”

The child paused a moment, and said, “You tell it, Daddy.”

Here is the tale of the fairy prince.


Long ago and far away, the world was full of wonder. There were fairies in the flowers. People never knew a rift between the ordinary and the magical.

But that was not to last forever. The hearts of men are dark in many ways, and they soon raised their axe against the fairies and all that they stood for. The axe found a way to kill the dryad in a tree but leave the tree still standing—if indeed it was really a tree that was still standing. Thus begun the disenchantment of the entire universe.

Some time in, people realized their mistake. They tried to open their hearts to wonder, and bring the fairies back. They tried to raise the axe against disenchantment—but the axe they were wielding was cursed. You might as well use a sword to bring a dead man to life.

But this story is not about long ago and far away. It is about something that is recent and very near. Strange doings began when the son of the Fairy Queen looked on a world that was dying, where even song and dance and wine were mere spectres of what they had been. And so he disguised himself as a fool, and began to travel in the world of men.

The seeming fool came upon a group of men who were teasing a young woman: not the mirthful, merry teasing of friends, but a teasing of dark and bitter glee. He heard one say, “You are so ugly, you couldn’t pay a man enough to kiss you!” She ran away, weeping.

The prince stood before her and said, “Stop.” And she looked at him, startled.

He said, “Look at me.”

She looked into his eyes, and began to wonder. Her tears stopped.

He said, “Come here.”

She stood, and then began walking.

He said, “Would you like a kiss?”

Tears filled her eyes again.

He gave her his kiss.

She ran away, tears falling like hail from her eyes. Something had happened. Some people said they couldn’t see a single feature in her face that had changed. Others said that she was radiant. Others still said that whatever she had was better than gorgeous.

The prince went along his way, and he came to a very serious philosopher, and talked with him, and talked, and talked. The man said, “Don’t you see? You are cornered. What you are saying is not possible. Do you have any response?”

The prince said, “I do, but it comes not in words, but in an embrace. But you wouldn’t be interested in that, would you?”

For some reason, the man trusted him, and something changed for him too. He still read his books. But he would also dance with children. He would go into the forest, and he did not talk to the animals because he was listening to what the animals had to say.

The prince came upon a businessman, a man of the world with a nice car and a nice house, and after the fairy prince’s kiss the man sold everything and gave it away to the poor. He ate very little, eating the poorest fare he could find, and spent much time in silence, speaking little. One of his old friends said, “You have forsaken your treasures!”

He looked at his friend and said, “Forsaken my treasures? My dearest friend, you do not know the beginning of treasure.”

“You used to have much more than the beginning of treasure.”

“Perhaps, but now I have the greatest treasure of all.”

Sometimes the prince moved deftly. He spoke with a woman in the park, a pain-seared woman who decided to celebrate her fiftieth wedding anniversary—or what would have been the fiftieth anniversary of a long and blissful marriage, if her husband were still alive. She was poor, and had only one bottle of champagne which she had been saving for many years. She had many friends; she was a gracious woman. She invited the fairy prince, and it was only much later that her friends began to wonder that that the one small bottle of champagne had poured so amply for each of them.

The prince did many things, but not everybody liked it. Some people almost saw the prince in the fool. Others saw nothing but a fool. One time he went into a busy shopping mall, and made a crude altar, so people could offer their wares before the Almighty Dollar. When he was asked why, he simply said, “So people can understand the true meaning of Christmas. Some people are still confused and think it’s a religious holiday.” That was not well received.

Not long after, the woman whom he met in the park slept the sleep of angels, and he spoke at her funeral. People cried more than they cried at any other funeral. And their sides hurt. All of this was because they were laughing so hard, and the funny thing was that almost nobody could remember much afterwards. A great many people took offense at this fool. There was only one person who could begin to explain it. A very respected man looked down at a child and said, “Do you really think it is right to laugh so much after what happened to her?” And then, for just a moment, the child said, “He understood that. But if we really understood, laughter wouldn’t be enough.”

There were other things that he did that offended people, and those he offended sought to drive him away. And he returned to his home, the palace of the Fairy Queen.

But he had not really left. The fairy prince’s kiss was no ordinary kiss. It was a magic kiss. When he kissed you, he gave his spirit, his magic, his fairy blood. And the world looks very different when there is fairy blood coursing through your veins. You share the fairy prince’s kiss, and you can pass it on. And that pebble left behind an ever-expanding wave: we have magic, and wonder, and something deeper than either magic or wonder.

And that is how universe was re-enchanted.


Adam looked down at his daughter and said, “There, Sweetie. Have I told the story the way you like it?”

The child said, “Yes, Daddy, you have,” climbed into her father’s lap, and held up her mouth for a kiss.

This story represents a mixed success, and it creaks on a literal level. But it is at least an attempt to be faithful to the archetypal level. And its heavy hand shows what the reader is cheated of in the Act of True Love that Frozen offers.

Winding Down…

There are other things to be said, notably that while feminism claims to promote the good of women—and, more recently, gender studies claims to promote human flourishing—critiques of them are not thereby assaults on the dignity of woman. It may not be obvious how one could be for the good of women, and not for feminist reforms in the name of the good of women, but those thinkers I am in sympathy with are doing a better job of being for the good of women, and the whole human race. “Gender studies” may well pat itself on the back for being the discipline that promotes human flourishing, but it may be closer to the truth to say that the targets of gender studies attacks are usually attacked for something that is part and parcel of human flourishing. And that is true even if feminism arose in response to some genuine deteriorations in Western culture.

Feminism is more than anything else the one force that I personally have worked to critique (see partial list of works to the right), and my knowledge of it is intimate, a knowledge of the whole person. C.S. Lewis described regenerate science as something that while it explained would not explain away, would attend to the It without losing track of what Buber would have called the Thou-situation, would not be free with the words ‘merely’ and ‘only’, and would not reduce minerals and vegetables as modern science threatens to reduce man. I do not believe that my work as regards feminism is what Lewis had in mind when he speculated about a regenerate science, for the simple and boring reason that it is not science, at least not in the sense of empirical science, and I can only see contorted ways of including it under the heading of ‘Natural Philosophy.’ I can quite directly offer my friend’s words about the regenerate science in farming as a candidate for regenerate science; my own work as regards feminism (not necessarily other topics) has the attributes Mr. Lewis would like to see added to Natural Philosophy, but it only strainedly can be forced under the umbrella of Natural Philosophy.

But I submit that my knowledge of feminism is interesting. It has, point for point, all of the things Lewis said he wanted to see in a regenerate science that science, as we now understand it, lacks. And that bears a significance that would not be obvious from saying that the Philokalia represents the science of sciences and has those attributes Lewis projected in asking for a regenerate science. It is not just the knowledge of those things I most admire that have the attributes of a regenerate science. It is also my knowledge of those things I work hardest to critique that is an intimate knowledge affecting the whole person. This is not something that is automatically true or available. One article Lewis wrote, Bulverism from God in the Dock, talks about the fallacy of starting by assuming that your opponent is wrong and then speculating about problems in your opponent’s history that would account for the defect. (Mr. Lewis does not completely exclude investigating an opponents’ background; he only claims that first you have to show that an opponent’s position is wrong through addressing the position itself, and only then may you investigate reasons why your opponent has embraced a false position.) Bulverism is a way of explaining away, and I do not believe that I do it. I may assert that specific feminist claims are wrong, or do not in fact help us, in an attempt to treat them on their merits, and while my arguments are certainly not perfect, they represent a serious attempt to engage feminism on its merits. Perhaps feminists’ personal histories are relevant to the discussion, but I do not recall ever arguing that some detail of feminism is wrong because of some defect that I speculate exists in a feminist’s personal history. I may argue that some aspect of feminism creates a problematic future: but I critique from what is out on the table, in plain view, not from my speculations about what is wrong with feminists’ personal lives. I believe that even in my most serious and concerted critiques there is a personal and intimate knowledge at play, a knowledge that has the attributes that Lewis requests of a regenerate science. This makes the case more strongly that something of regenerate science is present than if it were only demonstrated that my knowledge of things I admire and most seek to emulate has, for instance, what Buber would call a sensitivity to the Thou-situation.

Should “science” dissolve into “knowledge”?

As an undergraduate I enrolled in a “philosophy of science” class that I was in love with from the time I learned about it until the time I read the front matter for a reader with material from classics in the philosophy of science.

What was so off-putting to me is that it said that to say that a study, for instance, was done “scientifically” is a compliment, and go on to state that essentially science and scientific ways of working were standards for excellence in all disciplines, even disciplines that did not have the pretension of being sciences. And while I was very enthusiastic to learn about science as one domain of excellence alongside other ways of excellence, I was dismayed to read a text that established science as the paradigm example of excellence in any discipline.

The conception, cultural placement, and status of science we have is problematic. Sciences are today’s prestige disciplines; but they are a way of knowing what is lowest on the Chain: Animals, Plants, Rocks, and Nothing. The idea that empirical sciences should be the most exalted and enviable disciplines is a bit like having a culture where dieticians mostly know the relative merits of eating Doritos, Velveeta, and microwave pizza, and do not really have much to say about avoiding most processed food, let alone eating Paleo. “Science” connotes a class all by itself, one that is better than non-science discipline, which is part of why some disciplines with a superior area of study, Man, try to mediate prestige to themselves by inculcating that they are scientists-and-they-are-just-as-much-scientists-as-people-in-the-so-called-hard-sciences-like-physics.

The concept of knowledge, as opposed to science, is perhaps in a better place. There is specific knowledge of Animals, Plants, Rocks, and Nothing. There is natural philosophy. Heather does, in fact, represent a regenerate science that, however modest it may seem, fits the bill of regenerate science very well. But this regenerate science is a department of knowledge, not something superior to the regenerate science by which she also tries to understand other people. And it may be helpful, instead of thinking in terms of “science” and “non-science,” to think in terms of “knowledge,” of which one department is the humble knowledge of a humbler domain.

Thoughts?

“Religion and Science” Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution

CJSH.name/religion-science

Read it on Kindle for $3!

A rude awakening

Early in one systematic theology PhD course at Fordham, the text assigned as theology opened by saying, “Theologians are scientists, and they are every bit as much scientists as people in the so-called ‘hard sciences’ like physics.” Not content with this striking claim, the author announced that she was going to use “a term from science,” thought experiment, which was never used to mean a Gedanken experiment as in physics, but instead meant: if we have an idea for how a society should run, we have to experimentally try out this thought and live with it for a while, because if we don’t, we will never know what would have happened. (“Stick your neck out! What have you got to lose?“—”Your head?”) The clumsiness in this use of “a term from science” was on par with saying that you are going to use “an expression from American English”, namely rabbit food, and subsequently use “rabbit food” as obviously a term meaning food made with rabbit meat.

In this one article were already two things that were fingernails on a chalkboard to my ears. Empirical sciences are today’s prestige disciplines, like philosophy / theology / law in bygone eras, and the claim to be a science seems to inevitably be how to mediate prestige to oneself and one’s own discipline. When I had earlier run into claims of, “Anthropologists are scientists, and they are every bit as much scientists as people in the so-called ‘hard sciences,’ like physics,” I had winced because the claim struck me as not only annoying and untrue, but self-demeaning. But it simply had not occurred to me that theologians would make such a claim, and when they did, I was not only shocked but embarrassed: why should theology, once acclaimed the queen of scholarly disciplines, now seek prestige by parroting the claim to be every-bit-as-much-a-science-as-the-so-called-“hard-sciences”-like-physics (where “so-called” seemed to always be part of the claim, along with the scare quotes around “hard sciences”)? To make my point clearer, I drew what was meant to be a shocking analogy: the claim that theologians are “scientists, and every bit as much as people in the so-called ‘hard sciences’ like physics” was like trying to defend the dignity of being a woman by saying, “Women are male, and they are just as much male as people who can sire a child.”

This “physics envy” looks particularly strange next to the medieval Great Chain of Being as it moved from the highest to the lowest: “God, Angels, Man, Animals, Plants, Rocks, Nothing”. Theology is the study of God and Man; no discipline is given a more noble field. And however much other disciplines may have “physics envy”, no other discipline looks lower than physics, the science that studies Rocks and Nothing. There may be something pathetic about an anthropologist trying to step up on the pecking order by claiming to be “just as much scientists as people in the so-called ‘hard sciences’ like physics.” Yet on the lips of a theologian, it bears a faint hint of a CEO absurdly saying, “CEOs are janitors, and they are every bit as much janitors as the people responsible for cleaning wastebaskets.”

Furthermore, the endemic claim I saw to introduce a “term from science” was, so far as I could remember:

  • Rarely if ever used in any correct fashion.The one exception I can remember being Wolfhart Pannenberg’s illustration of a point by talking about fields such as one finds in the study of electricity and magnetism: the non-scientist theologians in the room said they were having real trouble understanding the illustration conceptually, which would make it seem somewhat dubious as an illustration to help get a point across.
  • Always reflect an effort to claim some of science’s prestige.I remember the “you’re being quaint” smiles I got when I suggested that a point that Pannenberg was trying to make by comparing something to a field as defined in physics, seemed in fact to be a point that could have been much better made by a comparison to the Force from Star Wars.

    Why the patronizing smiles? The job of the example from physics was to mediate prestige as well as to illustrate a concept that could have been better explained without involving a particularly slippery concept from physics.

A first response

Examples of this kind of “science” abounded, and I was perhaps not wise enough to realize that my clumsy attempts to clarify various misrepresentations of science were perhaps not well received because I was stepping on the Dark and Shameful Secret of Not Being Scientific Enough, and reminding them of an inferiority they were trying hard to dodge. And my attempts to explain “Not being a scientist does not make you inferior” seemed to have no soil in which to grow. In an attempt to start an online discussion, I wrote a piece called “Rumor Science”:

I really wish the theology students I knew would either know a lot more about science, or a lot less, and I really wouldn’t consider “a lot less” to be disappointing.

Let me explain why. When I was working on my master’s in math, there was one passage in particular that struck me from Ann Wilson Schaef’s Women’s Reality: An Emerging Female System. Perhaps predictably given my being a mathematician in training, it was a remark about numbers, or rather about how people interact with numbers.

The author broke people down into more or less three groups of people. The first—she mentioned artists—was people that can’t count to twenty without taking off their shoes. She didn’t quite say that, but she emphasized artists and other people where math and numbers simply aren’t part of their consciousness. They don’t buy into the mystique. And they can say, and sincerely mean, that numbers don’t measure everything. They aren’t seriously tempted to believe otherwise.

The second group—she mentioned business people—consists of people for whom math works. Even if they’re not mathematicians, math works for them and does useful things, and they may say that numbers don’t measure anything, but it is well nigh impossible to believe—saying and meaning that numbers don’t measure everything is like saying that cars are nice but they can’t get you places.

And the third group in the progression? She mentioned scientists, but what she said was that they know math in and out and know it so well that they know its limitations and therefore they can say and mean that numbers don’t measure everything. And in the end, even though the “scientist” and the “artist” represent opposite extremes of mathematical competence, they both know there are things numbers can’t measure while the second, middle group for mathematical competence are in a position where they expect numbers to do things that numbers can’t do.

I was flattered, but I really think it stuck with me for more reasons than just the fact that she included me in one of the “good” groups. There is a sort of Karate Kid observation—”Karate is like a road. Know karate, safe. Don’t know karate, safe. In the middle, squash, like a grape!”—that is relevant to theology and science. It has to do with, among other things, Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, the question of evolution, and the like (perhaps I should mention the second law of thermodynamics). My point in this is not that there is an obligation to “know karate”, that theologians need to earn degrees in the sciences before they are qualified to work as theologians, but that there is something perfectly respectable about “don’t know karate.”

I’d like to start by talking about Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. Now a lot of people have heard about Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. Not many major mathematical theorems have had a Pulitzer prize-winning book written around them (and by the way, Gödel, Escher, Bach has been one of my favorite books). Nor do many theorems get summarized in Newsweek as an important theorem which demonstrates that mathematical “proofs” are not certain, but mathematical knowledge is as relative as any other knowledge.

Which is a crass error. The theological equivalent would be to say that Karl Barth’s unflattering remarks about “religion” are anti-Christian, or that liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor means that special concern for the poor is optional and to be dealt with according to personal preference. And saying that about liberation theology is a theological “squash like a grape,” because it is better to not know liberation theology and know you don’t know than believe that you understand liberation theology and “know” that the word “option” implies “optional.” It’s not what you don’t know that hurts you, but what you know that ain’t so.

For the record, what Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem means is that for a certain branch of mathematics, there are things that can be neither proven nor disproven—which made his theorem a shocker when there was a Tower of Babel effort to prove or disprove pretty much anything. It proves that some things can never be proven within certain systems. And it has other implications. But it does not mean that things that are proven in mathematics are uncertain, or that mathematical knowledge is relative. It says you can’t prove everything a mathematician would want to prove. But there are still lots and lots and lots of interesting things that can be proven, and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem does not touch these proofs, nor does it mean that mathematical knowledge is merely relative in humanities fashion.

And I’d like to mention what happens when I mention Gödel’s Completeness Theorem:

Dead silence.

The same great mathematical logician proved another theorem, which does not have a Pulitzer prize winning book, which says that in one other branch of mathematics, besides the branch that Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem speaks to, you can have pretty much what Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem says you can’t have in the other branch. In other words, you can—mechanically, for that matter, which is a big mathematical achievement—either prove or disprove every single statement. I’m not sure it’s as important as Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, but it’s a major theorem from the same mathematician and no one’s heard of it.

There would seem to be obvious non-mathematical reasons for why people would want to be informed about the first theorem and not want to mention the second. I consider it telling (about non-mathematical culture). I know it may be considered a mark of sophistication to mention Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and share how it’s informed your epistemology. But it hasn’t informed my epistemology and I really can’t tell how my theology would be different if I hadn’t heard of it. And my understanding is that other mathematicians tend not to have the highest view of people who are trying to take account of scientific discoveries that an educated person “should” know. There are other reasons for this, including goofy apologetics that make the famous theorem a proof for God. But I at least would rather talk with someone who simply hadn’t heard of the theorem than a theologian who had tried to make a “responsible” effort to learn from the discovery.

And my main example is one I’m less sure how to comment on, and not only because I know less biology than math. There was one almost flippant moment in England when the curate asked if anybody had questions about the upcoming Student Evolution conference that everybody was being urged to attend. I asked, “Is this ‘Student Evolution’ more of a gradual process, or more a matter of ‘punk eek’?” (That question brought down the house.)

Punctuated equilibrium, irreverently abbreviated ‘punk eek’, is a very interesting modification of Darwinian theory. Darwinian evolution in its early forms posits and implies a gradual process of very slow changes—almost constant over very long (“geological”) time frames. And that is a beautiful theory that flatly contracts almost all known data.

As explained by my Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy biology teacher, “Evolution is like baseball. It has long stretches of boring time interrupted by brief periods of intense excitement.” That’s punk eek in a nutshell, and what interests me most is that it’s the mirror image of saying “God created the world—through evolution!” It says, “Evolution occurred—through punctuated equilibrium!”

That’s not the only problem; evolution appears to be, in Kuhnian terms (Structure of Scientific Revolutions), a theory “in crisis”, which is the Kuhnian term for when a scientific theory is having serious difficulties accounting for currently given data and may well be on its way out the door. There are several ways people are trying to cope with this—preserving some semblance of a materialist explanation; there was the same kind of resistance going on before science acknowledged the Big Bang, because scientists who want a universe without cause and without beginning or creator heard something that sounded too much like “Let there be light!” They’re very interesting, and intellectually dishonest.

Now I need to clarify; people seem to think you have to either be a young earth creationist or else admit evolution of some stripe. I believe in 13 billion years as the rough age of the universe, not six thousand years; I also believe in natural selection and something called “micro-evolution.” (By the way, JPII’s “more than a hypothesis” was in the original French “plus qu’un hypothèse“, alternately translatable as “more than one hypothesis”, and the official Vatican translation takes this reading. One can say that micro-evolution is one of the hypothesis gathered under the heading of evolution.)

I wince when I see theologians trying their dutiful best to work out an obligation to take evolution into account as a proven fact: squash, like a grape. It’s not just that science doesn’t trade in proof and evolution is being treated like a revelation, as if a Pope had consulted the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences and canonized The Origin of the Species as a book of the Bible. Or maybe that’s putting it too strongly. It would also be strong language to say that many theologians are adopting a carefully critical attitude to classic Church claims and part of their being critical means placing an embarrassingly blind faith in evolution. But that’s truer than I’d want to admit.

What about the second law of thermodynamics?

I don’t know what the first and third laws of thermodynamics say, and I can’t say that I’m missing anything. I don’t feel obligated to make the second law, which I am familiar with, a feature of my theology, but if I did, I would try to understand the first and third laws of thermodynamics, and treat it as physics in which those three laws and presumably other things fit into a system that needs to be treated as a whole. I don’t know how I would incorporate that in my theology, but I’m supposing for the sake of argument that I would. I would rather avoid treating it the way people usually seem to treat it when they treat that as one of the things that educated people “should” know.

I guess that my point in all of this is that some people think there’s a duty to know science and be scientific in theology, but this is a duty better shirked. My theology is—or I would like it to be—closer to that of someone who doesn’t understand science, period, than that of people who try to improve their theology by incorporating what they can grasp of difficult scientific concepts that the scientists themselves learned with difficulty.

Rumor science is worse than no science, and an ascientific theology is not a handicap. When I say that I would rather see theologians know either much more or much less science, I’m not hoping that theologians will therefore get scientific degrees. The chief merit for a theologian to know science is that it can be a source of liberation that frees people from thinking “We live in a scientific age so it would be better for theology to be scientific.” I’m not sure I would be able to question that assumption if I knew much less science. But what I believe that buys me is not a better theology than someone scientifically innocent but freedom from the perceived need to “take science into account” in my theology so I can do the same kind of theology as someone scientifically innocent.

I’m not as sure what to say about ecological theology; I wrote Hymn to the Creator of Heaven and Earth at without scientific reference that I remember, and I believe there are other human ways of knowing Creation besides science. But an ecological theologian who draws on scientific studies is not trying to honor a duty to understand things an educated person should know, but pursuing something materially relevant. Science has some place; religion and science boundary issues are legitimate, and I don’t know I can dissuade people who think it’s progressive to try to make a scientific theology—although I really wish people with that interest would get letters after their name from a science discipline, or some other form of genuinely proper scientific credentials appropriate to a genuinely scientific theology.

There are probably other exceptions, and science is interesting. But there is no obligation to go from safely on one side of the road to a position in the middle because it is “closer” to a proper understanding of science. Perhaps liberation theologians want people to understand their cause, but it is better not to pretend to know liberation theology than to approach it in a way that leaves you “knowing” that the preferential option is optional. It isn’t what you know that hurts you, but what you know that ain’t so—and rumor science, with its accepted list of important scientific knowledge that scholars need to take into account, is one way to learn from what ain’t so.

Science is the prestige discipline(s) today; you see psychology wishing for its Newton to lead it into the promised land of being a science in the fullest sense of the term. You don’t see psychology pining for a Shakespeare to lead it into the promised land of being a humanity in the fullest sense of the term. And the social disciplines—I intentionally do not say social sciences because they are legitimate academic disciplines but not sciences—are constantly insisting that their members are scientists, but the claim that theologians are scientists annoys me as a scientist and almost offends me as a theologian. It should be offensive for much the same reason that it should be offensive to insist on female dignity by claiming that women are really male, and that they are just as much male as people who can sire a child.

It would be an interesting theological work to analyze today’s cultural assumptions surrounding science, which are quite important and not dictated by scientific knowledge itself, and then come to almost the same freedom as someone innocent of science.

“My theology,” ewwww. (While I was at it, why didn’t I discuss plans for my own private sun and moon? I’m not proud of proudly discussing “my theology”.) I know the text has a wart or two.

But the piece contains a suggestion: “rumor science” may be a red flag to a real problem in the place we give science.

Pondering Einstein, or at least dropping his name

That work left out the crowning jewel of scientific theories to ponder in “rumor science”: Einstein’s “theory of relativity.” Some time later, in my science fiction short story / Socratic dialogue, The Steel Orb, I wrote in fiction something that picked up what I had left out:

Art sat back. “I’d be surprised if you’re not a real scientist. I imagine that in your world you know things that our scientists will not know for centuries.”

Oinos sat back and sat still for a time, closing his eyes. Then he opened his eyes and said, “What have you learned from science?”

“I’ve spent a lot of time lately, wondering what Einstein’s theory of relativity means for us today: even the ‘hard’ sciences are relative, and what ‘reality’ is, depends greatly on your own perspective. Even in the hardest sciences, it is fundamentally mistaken to be looking for absolute truth.”

Oinos leaned forward, paused, and then tapped the table four different places. In front of Art appeared a gridlike object which Art recognized with a start as a scientific calculator like his son’s. “Very well. Let me ask you a question. Relative to your frame of reference, an object of one kilogram rest mass is moving away from you at a speed of one tenth the speed of light. What, from your present frame of reference, is its effective mass?”

Art hesitated, and began to sit up.

Oinos said, “If you’d prefer, the table can be set to function as any major brand of calculator you’re familiar with. Or would you prefer a computer with Matlab or Mathematica? The remainder of the table’s surface can be used to browse the appropriate manuals.”

Art shrunk slightly towards his chair.

Oinos said, “I’ll give you hints. In the theory of relativity, objects can have an effective mass of above their rest mass, but never below it. Furthermore, most calculations of this type tend to have anything that changes, change by a factor of the inverse of the square root of the quantity: one minus the square of the object’s speed divided by the square of the speed of light. Do you need me to explain the buttons on the calculator?”

Art shrunk into his chair. “I don’t know all of those technical details, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about relativity.”

Oinos said, “If you are unable to answer that question before I started dropping hints, let alone after I gave hints, you should not pose as having contemplated what relativity means for us today. I’m not trying to humiliate you. But the first question I asked is the kind of question a teacher would put on a quiz to see if students were awake and not playing video games for most of the first lecture. I know it’s fashionable in your world to drop Einstein’s name as someone you have deeply pondered. It is also extraordinarily silly. I have noticed that scientists who have a good understanding of relativity often work without presenting themselves as having these deep ponderings about what Einstein means for them today. Trying to deeply ponder Einstein without learning even the basics of relativistic physics is like trying to write the next Nobel prize-winning German novel without being bothered to learn even them most rudimentary German vocabulary and grammar.”

“But don’t you think that relativity makes a big difference?”

“On a poetic level, I think it is an interesting development in your world’s history for a breakthrough in science, Einstein’s theory of relativity, to say that what is absolute is not time, but light. Space and time bend before light. There is a poetic beauty to Einstein making an unprecedented absolute out of light. But let us leave poetic appreciation of Einstein’s theory aside.

“You might be interested to know that the differences predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity are so minute that decades passed between Einstein making the theory of relativity and people being able to use a sensitive enough clock to measure the microscopically small difference of the so-called ‘twins paradox’ by bringing an atomic clock on an airplane. The answer to the problem I gave you is that for a tenth the speed of light—which is faster than you can imagine, and well over a thousand times the top speed of the fastest supersonic vehicle your world will ever make—is one half of one percent. It’s a disappointingly small increase for a rather astounding speed. If the supersonic Skylon is ever built, would you care to guess the increase in effective mass as it travels at an astounding Mach 5.5?”

“Um, I don’t know…”

“Can you guess? Half its mass? The mass of a car? Or just the mass of a normal-sized adult?”

“Is this a trick question? Fifty pounds?”

“The effective mass increases above the rest mass, for that massive vehicle running at about five times the speed of sound and almost twice the top speed of the SR-71 Blackbird, is something like the mass of a mosquito.”

“A mosquito? You’re joking, right?”

“No. It’s an underwhelming, microscopic difference for what relativity says when the rumor mill has it that Einstein taught us that hard sciences are as fuzzy as anything else… or that perhaps, in Star Wars terms, ‘Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on your own point of view.’ Under Einstein, you will in fact not find that many of the observations that we cling to, depend greatly on your own frame of reference. You have to be doing something pretty exotic to have relativity make any measurable difference from the older physics at all.”

“Rumor science”: The tip of an iceberg?

But I would like to get on to something that is of far greater concern than “rumor science” as it treats Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, the second law of thermodynamics, relativity, evolution, and so on. If the only problem was making a bit of a hash of some scientific theories, that would be one thing. But “rumor science” may be the tip of an iceberg, a telling clue that something may be seriously amiss in how theology has been relating to science. There is another, far more serious boundary issue.

There is something about the nature of academic theology today that may become clearer if we ask questions about the nature of knowledge and line up academic theology with Orthodoxy on the one hand and modern science on the other. The table below lists a few questions connected with knowledge, and then a comparison between Orthodox Christianity, academic theology, and modern science in their own columns:

Question Orthodox Christianity Academic Theology Modern Science
What is knowledge like? “Adam knew Eve…” The primary word in the Old and New Testaments for sexual union is in fact ‘know’, and this is a significant clue about the intimate nature of knowledge. Knowledge is, at its core, the knowledge that drinks. It connects at a deepest level, and is cognate to how Orthodox say of the Holy Mysteries, “We have seen the true Light!”: to receive the Eucharist is to know. Knowledge is critical, meaning detached: the privileged position is of the outsider who stands clear of a situation and looks into a window. The devout believer enjoys no real advantage in grasping his religion compared to the methodical observer who remains detached—and the ordinary believer may be at a marked disadvantage. You can’t know how stars age or the limitations of the ideal gas law from direct personal experience. Science stems from a rationalism cognate to the Enlightenment, and even if one rebels against the Enlightenment, it’s awfully hard to know quarks and leptons solely by the intimacy of personal experience.
What aspect of yourself do you know with? This may not be part of the standard Western picture, but the Orthodox, non-materialist understanding of mind holds that there is a sort of “spiritual eye” which knows and which grasps spiritual realities as overflow to its central purpose of worshiping God. The center of gravity for knowing is this spiritual eye, and it is the center of a whole and integrated person. Logical and other “discursive” reasoning may have a place, but the seat of this kind of reasoning is a moon next to the light of the sun which is the spiritual eye, the nous. Good scholarship comes from putting all other aspects of the person in their place and enthroning the part of us that reasons logically and almost putting the logic bit on steroids. Continental philosophy may rebel against this, but it rebels after starting from this point. We have a slightly more rigorous use of primarily logical reasoning and a subject domain that allows this reasoning to shine.
What should teachers cultivate in their students? Teachers should induce students into discipleship and should be exemplary disciples themselves. They should train students who will not be content with their teachers’ interpretations but push past to their own takes on the matter. They should train students to develop experiments and theories to carefully challenge the “present working picture” in their field.
What is tradition, and how does your tradition relate to knowing? One may be not so much under Tradition as in Tradition: Tradition is like one’s culture or language, if a culture and language breathed on by the Holy Spirit of God. Though the matrix of Tradition need not be viewed with legalistic fundamentalism, it is missing something important to fail to love and revere Tradition as something of a mother. Something of the attitude is captured in what followed the telling of an anecdote about a New Testament Greek class where the professor had difficulties telling how to read a short text, until a classics student looked and suggested that the difficulty would evaporate if the text were read with a different set of accents from what scholars traditionally assigned it. The Greek professor’s response (“Accents are not inspired!”) was presented by the academic theologian retelling this story as full warrant to suggest that scholars should not view themselves as bound by tradition with its blind spots. As Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman observed, “You get to be part of the establishment by blowing up part of the establishment.”
How much emphasis do you place on creativity? It reflects some degree of fundamental confusion to measure the value of what someone says by how original it is. That which is true is not original, and that which is original is not true. Perhaps people may uncover new layers of meaning, but to measure someone by how many ideas he can claim as “mine” is a strange measure. Publish something original, or perish. Better to say something original but not true than not have any ideas to claim as “mine.” If need be, rehabilitate Arius or Nestorius. (Or, if you are Orthodox, meet current fashions halfway and show that St. Augustine need not be a whipping boy.) Continue to push the envelope. Are you an experimental physicist? If you cannot observe anything new by the layman’s means of observation, pioneer new equipment or a clever experiment to push the envelope of what can be observed. Publish something original or perish.
Where does your discipline place its empiricism? There is a very real sense of empiricism, albeit a sense that has very little directly to do with empirical science. Knowledge is what you know through the “spiritual eye” and it is a knowledge that can only be realized through direct participation. An “idle word” may be a word of that which you do not have this knowledge of, and this sin would appear to be foundational to the empiricism of science. We really do have an empiricism, but it might be better not to engender pointless confusion by claiming to be empirical when the empiricism known to the academy is pre-eminently that of empirical science, whether it is either actual or aspiring science. Theologians are just as empirical as physicists, whether or not they know basic statistics. We have such quasi-scientific empiricism as can be had for the human and divine domain we cover; there is a great deal of diversity, and some of us do not place much emphasis on the empiricism of science, but some of us have enough of scientific empiricism to do history work that stands its ground when judged by secular history’s standards. As much as theology’s empiricism is the empiricism of a knowledge of the “spiritual eye” and the whole person, our empiricism is an empiricism of detached, careful, methodical, reasoned investigation—the investigation of the reasoning faculty on steroids. Our science exhibits professionalism and a particular vision of intellectual virtue. Our empiricism corresponds to this vision, and no one has pushed this empiricism of the reasoning faculty further, and the unique technology founded on science is a testament to how far we have pushed this kind of empiricism.

When they are lined up, academic theology appears to have a great many continuities with science and a real disconnect with Orthodox Christianity. Could academic theologians feel an inferiority complex about Not Being Scientific Enough? Absolutely. But the actual problem may be that they are entirely too scientific. I am less concerned that their theology is not sufficiently scientific than that it is not sufficiently theological.

Origins questions: can we dig deeper?

It is along those lines that I have taken something of the track of “join the enemy’s camp to show its weaknesses from within” in exposing the blind spots of Darwinism, for instance. In the theologically driven short story The Commentary, the issue is not really whether Darwinism is correct at all. The question is not whether we should be content with Darwinian answers, but whether we should be content with Darwinian questions.

Martin stepped into his house and decided to have no more distractions. He wanted to begin reading commentary, now. He opened the book on the table and sat erect in his chair:

Genesis

1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
1:2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.
1:3 And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

The reader is now thinking about evolution. He is wondering whether Genesis 1 is right, and evolution is simply wrong, or whether evolution is right, and Genesis 1 is a myth that may be inspiring enough but does not actually tell how the world was created.

All of this is because of a culture phenomenally influenced by scientism and science. The theory of evolution is an attempt to map out, in terms appropriate to scientific dialogue, just what organisms occurred, when, and what mechanism led there to be new kinds of organisms that did not exist before. Therefore, nearly all Evangelicals assumed, Genesis 1 must be the Christian substitute for evolution. Its purpose must also be to map out what occurred when, to provide the same sort of mechanism. In short, if Genesis 1 is true, then it must be trying to answer the same question as evolution, only answering it differently.

Darwinian evolution is not a true answer to the question, “Why is there life as we know it?” Evolution is on philosophical grounds not a true answer to that question, because it is not an answer to that question at all. Even if it is true, evolution is only an answer to the question, “How is there life as we know it?” If someone asks, “Why is there this life that we see?” and someone answers, “Evolution,” it is like someone saying, “Why is the kitchen light on?” and someone else answering, “Because the switch is in the on position, thereby closing the electrical circuit and allowing current to flow through the bulb, which grows hot and produces light.”

Where the reader only sees one question, an ancient reader saw at least two other questions that are invisible to the present reader. As well as the question of “How?” that evolution addresses, there is the question of “Why?” and “What function does it serve?” These two questions are very important, and are not even considered when people are only trying to work out the antagonism between creationism and evolutionism.

Martin took a deep breath. Was the text advocating a six-day creationism? That was hard to tell. He felt uncomfortable, in a much deeper way than if Bible-thumpers were preaching to him that evolutionists would burn in Hell.

There is a hint here of why some people who do not believe in a young earth are no less concerned about young earth creationism: the concern is not exactly that it is junk science, but precisely that it is too scientific, assuming many of evolutionary theory’s blindnesses even as it asserts the full literal truth of the Bible in answering questions on the terms of what science asks of an origins theory.

There is an Dilbert strip which goes as follows:

Pointy-haired boss: I’m sending you to Elbonia to teach a class on Cobol on Thursday.

Dilbert: But I don’t know Cobol. Can’t you ask Wally? He knows Cobol!

Pointy-haired boss: I already checked, and he’s busy on Thursday.

Dilbert: Can’t you reschedule?

Pointy-haired boss: Ok, are you free on Tuesday?

Dilbert: You’re answering the wrong question!

Dilbert’s mortified, “You’re answering the wrong question!” has some slight relevance the issues of religion and science: in my homily, Two Decisive Moments I tried to ask people to look, and aim, higher:

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

There is a classic Monty Python “game show”: the moderator asks one of the contestants the second question: “In what year did Coventry City last win the English Cup?” The contestant looks at him with a blank stare, and then he opens the question up to the other contestants: “Anyone? In what year did Coventry City last win the English Cup?” And there is dead silence, until the moderator says, “Now, I’m not surprised that none of you got that. It is in fact a trick question. Coventry City has never won the English Cup.”

I’d like to dig into another trick question: “When was the world created: 13.7 billion years ago, or about six thousand years ago?” The answer in fact is “Neither,” but it takes some explaining to get to the point of realizing that the world was created 3:00 PM, March 25, 28 AD.

Adam fell and dragged down the whole realm of nature. God had and has every authority to repudiate Adam, to destroy him, but in fact God did something different. He called Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Elijah, and in the fullness of time he didn’t just call a prophet; he sent his Son to become a prophet and more.

It’s possible to say something that means more than you realize. Caiaphas, the high priest, did this when he said, “It is better that one man be killed than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:50) This also happened when Pilate sent Christ out, flogged, clothed in a purple robe, and said, “Behold the man!

What does this mean? It means more than Pilate could have possibly dreamed of, and “Adam” means “man”: Behold the man! Behold Adam, but not the Adam who sinned against God and dragged down the Creation in his rebellion, but the second Adam, the new Adam, the last Adam, who obeyed God and exalted the whole Creation in his rising. Behold the man, Adam as he was meant to be. Behold the New Adam who is even now transforming the Old Adam’s failure into glory!

Behold the man! Behold the first-born of the dead. Behold, as in the icon of the Resurrection, the man who descends to reach Adam and Eve and raise them up in his ascent. Behold the man who will enter the realm of the dead and forever crush death’s power to keep people down.

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

Behold the man and behold the firstborn of many brothers! You may know the great chapter on faith, chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews, and it is with good reason one of the most-loved chapters in the Bible, but it is not the only thing in Hebrews. The book of Hebrews looks at things people were caught up in, from the glory of angels to sacrifices and the Mosaic Law, and underscores how much more the Son excels above them. A little before the passage we read above, we see, “To which of the angels did he ever say, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you’?” (Hebrews 1:5) And yet in John’s prologue we read, “To those who received him and believed in his name, he gave the authority to become the children of God.” (John 1:9) We also read today, “To which of the angels did he ever say, ‘Sit at my right hand until I have made your enemies a footstool under your feet?'” (Hebrews 1:13) And yet Paul encourages us: “The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet,” (Romans 16:20) and elsewhere asks bickering Christians, “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (I Corinthians 6:3) Behold the man! Behold the firstborn of many brothers, the Son of God who became a man so that men might become the Sons of God. Behold the One who became what we are that we might by grace become what he is. Behold the supreme exemplar of what it means to be Christian.

Behold the man and behold the first-born of all Creation, through whom and by whom all things were made! Behold the Uncreated Son of God who has entered the Creation and forever transformed what it means to be a creature! Behold the Saviour of the whole Creation, the Victor who will return to Heaven bearing as trophies not merely his transfigured saints but the whole Creation! Behold the One by whom and through whom all things were created! Behold the man!

Pontius Pilate spoke words that were deeper than he could have possibly imagined. And Christ continued walking the fateful journey before him, continued walking to the place of the Skull, Golgotha, and finally struggled to breathe, his arms stretched out as far as love would go, and barely gasped out, “It is finished.”

Then and there, the entire work of Creation, which we read about from Genesis onwards, was complete. There and no other place the world was created, at 3:00 PM, March 25, 28 AD. Then the world was created.

I wince at the idea that for theologians “boundary issues” are mostly about demonstrating the compatibility of timeless revealed truths to the day’s state of flux in scientific speculation. I wince that theologians so often assume that the biggest contribution they can give to the dialogue between theology and science is the rubber stamp of perennially agreeing with science. I would decisively prefer that when theologians “approach religion and science boundary issues,” we do so as boundaries are understood in pop psychology—and more specifically bad pop psychology—which is all about you cannot meaningfully say “Yes” until it is your practice to say “No” when you should say “No”: what theology needs in its boundaries with science is not primarily a question of what else we should seek to embrace, but of where theology has ingested things toxic to its constitution.

What gets lost when theology loses track (by which I do not mean primarily rumor science, but the three columns where theology seemed a colony of science that had lost touch with Orthodox faith) is that when theology assumes the character of science, it loses the character of theology.

The research for my diploma thesis at Cambridge had me read a lot of historical-critical commentary on a relevant passage; I read everything I could find on the topic in Tyndale House’s specialized library, and something became painfully obvious. When a good Protestant sermon uses historical or cultural context to illuminate a passage from Scripture, the preacher has sifted through pearls amidst sand, and the impression that cultural context offers a motherlode of gold to enrich our understanding of the Bible is quite contrary to the historical-critical commentaries I read, which read almost like phone books in their records of details I’d have to stretch to use to illuminate the passage. The pastor’s discussion of context in a sermon is something like an archivist who goes into a scholar’s office, pulls an unexpected book, shows that it is surprisingly careworn and dog-eared, and discusses how the three longest underlined passage illuminate the scholar’s output. But the historical-critical commentary itself is like an archivist who describes in excruciating detail the furniture and ornaments in the author’s office and the statistics about the size and weight among books the scholar owned in reams of (largely uninterpreted) detail.

And what is lost in this careful scholarship? Perhaps what is lost is why we have Bible scholarship in the first place: it is a divinely given book and a support to life in Christ. If historical-critical scholarship is your (quasi-scientific) approach to theology, you won’t seek in your scholarship what I sought in writing my (non-scientific) Doxology:

How shall I praise thee, O Lord?
For naught that I might say,
Nor aught that I may do,
Compareth to thy worth.
Thou art the Father for whom every fatherhood in Heaven and on earth is named,
The Glory for whom all glory is named,
The Treasure for whom treasures are named,
The Light for whom all light is named,
The Love for whom all love is named,
The Eternal by whom all may glimpse eternity,
The Being by whom all beings exist,
יהוה,
Ο ΩΝ.
The King of Kings and Lord of Lords,
Who art eternally praised,
Who art all that thou canst be,
Greater than aught else that may be thought,
Greater than can be thought.
In thee is light,
In thee is honour,
In thee is mercy,
In thee is wisdom, and praise, and every good thing.
For good itself is named after thee,
God immeasurable, immortal, eternal, ever glorious, and humble.
What mighteth compare to thee?
What praise equalleth thee?
If I be fearfully and wonderfully made,
Only can it be,
Wherewith thou art fearful and wonderful,
And ten thousand things besides,
Thou who art One,
Eternally beyond time,
So wholly One,
That thou mayest be called infinite,
Timeless beyond time thou art,
The One who is greater than infinity art thou.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
The Three who are One,
No more bound by numbers than by word,
And yet the Son is called Ο ΛΟΓΟΣ,
The Word,
Divine ordering Reason,
Eternal Light and Cosmic Word,
Way pre-eminent of all things,
Beyond all, and infinitesimally close,
Thou transcendest transcendence itself,
The Creator entered into his Creation,
Sharing with us humble glory,
Lowered by love,
Raised to the highest,
The Suffering Servant known,
The King of Glory,
Ο ΩΝ.

What tongue mighteth sing of thee?
What noetic heart mighteth know thee,
With the knowledge that drinketh,
The drinking that knoweth,
Of the νους,
The loving, enlightened spiritual eye,
By which we may share the knowing,
Of divinised men joining rank on rank of angel.

Thou art,
The Hidden Transcendent God who transcendest transcendence itself,
The One God who transfigurest Creation,
The Son of God became a Man that men might become the sons of God,
The divine became man that man mighteth become divine.

Monty Python and Christian theology

I would like to start winding down with a less uplifting note. A few years back, I visited a friend who was a Christian and a big Monty Python fan and played for me a Monty Python clip:

God: Arthur! Arthur, King of the Britons! Oh, don’t grovel! If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s people groveling.

Arthur: Sorry—

God: And don’t apologize. Every time I try to talk to someone it’s ‘sorry this’ and ‘forgive me that’ and ‘I’m not worthy’. What are you doing now!?

Arthur: I’m averting my eyes, O Lord.

God: Well, don’t. It’s like those miserable Psalms—they’re so depressing. Now knock it off!

This is blasphemous, and I tried to keep my mouth shut about what my host had presented to me, I thought, for my rollicking laughter. But subsequent conversation showed I had misjudged his intent: he had not intended it to be shockingly funny.

He had, in fact, played the clip because it was something that he worried about: did God, in fact, want to give grumbling complaints about moments when my friend cried out to him in prayer? Does prayer annoy our Lord as an unwelcome intrusion from people who should have a little dignity and leave him alone or at least quit sniveling?

This is much more disturbing than merely playing the clip because you find it funny to imagine God bitterly kvetching when King Arthur tries to show him some respect. If it is actually taken as theology, Monty Python is really sad.

And it is not the best thing to be involved in Monty Python as theology.

One can whimsically imagine an interlocutor encountering some of the theology I have seen and trying to generously receive it in the best of humor: “A book that promises scientific theology in its title and goes on for a thousand pages of trajectories for other people to follow before a conclusion that apologizes for not actually getting on to any theology? You have a real sense of humor! Try to avoid imposing Christianity on others and start from the common ground of what all traditions across the world have in common, that non-sectarian common ground being the Western tradition of analytic philosophy? Roaringly funny! Run a theological anthropology course that tells how liberationists, feminists, queer theorists, post-colonialists, and so on have to say to the Christian tradition and does not begin to investigate what the Christian tradition has to say to them? You should have been a comedian! Yoke St. Gregory of Nyssa together with a lesbian deconstructionist like Judith Butler to advance the feminist agenda of gender fluidity? You’re really giving Monty Python a run for their money!“… until it gradually dawns on our interlocutor that the lewd discussion of sexual theology is not in any sense meant as an attempt to eclipse Monty Python. (Would our interlocutor spend the night weeping for lost sheep without a shepherd?)

There are many more benign examples of academic theology; many of even the problems may be slightly less striking. But theology that gives the impression that it could be from Monty Python is a bit of a dead (coal miner’s) canary.

Scientific theology does not appear to be blame for all of these, but it is not irrelevant. Problems that are not directly tied to (oxymoronic) scientific theology are usually a complication of (oxymoronic) secular theology, and scientific theology and secular theology are deeply enough intertwined.

The question of evolution is important, and it is no error that a figure like Philip Johnson gives neo-Darwinian evolution pride of place in assessing materialist attacks on religion. But it is not an adequate remedy to merely study intelligent design. Not enough by half.

If theology could, like bad pop psychology, conceive of its “boundary issues” not just in terms of saying “Yes” but of learning to stop saying “Yes” when it should say “No”, this would be a great gain. So far as I have seen, the questions about boundaries with science are primarily not scientific ideas theology needs to assimilate, but ways theology has assimilated some very deep characteristics of science that are not to its advantage. The question is less about what more could be added, than what more could be taken away. And the best way to do this is less the Western cottage industry of worldview construction than a journey of repentance such as one still finds preached in Eastern Christianity and a good deal of Christianity in the West.

A journey of repentance

Repentance is Heaven’s best-kept secret. Repentance has been called unconditional surrender, and it has been called the ultimate experience to fear. But when you surrender what you thought was your ornament and joy, you realize, “I was holding on to a piece of Hell!” And with letting go comes hands that are free to grasp joy you never thought to ask. Forgiveness is letting go of the other person and finding it is yourself you have set free; repentance is being terrified of letting go and then finding you have let go of needless pain. Repentance is indeed Heaven’s best-kept secret; it opens doors.

I have doubt whether academic theology will open the door of repentance; it is a beginner’s error to be the student who rushes in to single-handedly sort out what a number of devout Christian theologians see no way to fix. But as for theologians, the door of repentance is ever ready to open, and with it everything that the discipline of theology seeks in vain here using theories from the humanities, there trying to mediate prestige to itself science. Academic theologians who are, or who become, theologians in a more ancient sense find tremendous doors of beauty and joy open to them. The wondrous poetry of St. Ephrem the Syrian is ever open; the liturgy of the Church is open; the deifying rays of divine grace shine ever down upon those open to receiving tem and upon those not yet open. The Western understanding is that the door to the Middle Ages has long since been closed and the age of the Church Fathers was closed much earlier; but Orthodox will let you become a Church Father, here now. Faithful people today submit as best they are able to the Fathers before them, as St. Maximus Confessor did ages ago. There may be problems with academic theology today, but the door to theology in the classic sense is never closed, as in the maxim that has rumbled through the ages, “A theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.” Perhaps academic theology is not the best place to be equipped to be a giant like the saintly theologians of ages past. But that does not mean that one cannot become a saintly theologian as in ages past. God can still work with us, here now.

To quote St. Dionysius (pseudo-Dionysius) in The Mystical Theology,

Trinity! Higher than any being,
any divinity, any goodness!
Guide of Christians
in the wisdom of Heaven!
Lead us up beyond unknowing light,
up to the farthest, highest peak
of mystic scripture,
where the mysteries of God’s Word
lie simple, absolute and unchangeable
in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.
Amid the deepest shadow
They pour overwhelming light
on what is most manifest.
Amid the wholly unsensed and unseen
They completely fill our sightless minds
with treasures beyond all beauty.

Let us ever seek the theology of living faith!

AI as an arena of magical thinking for skeptics: artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and Eastern Orthodox views on personhood

Creation and Holy Orthodoxy: Fundamentalism Is Not Enough

The Most Politically Incorrect Sermon in History: A Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis

Pride

CJSHayward.com/pride

The Age of Rampant Pride

Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision.

Psalm 2:1-4, RSV

These words are timeless, and have a singular relevance to our own day, when it is not just the kings of the earth, the rulers, who counsel against the Lord and his Christ, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart, and cast their cords from us.” Times were bad enough when the kings of the earth pursued this occupation: today this pride is the avocation of the rank-and-file, the spiritual vocation embraced by John Q. Public.

Pride has always been present as an adversary to our well-being, but sociologists say that each generation is more “narcissistic” than the last: each generation is more deeply enmeshed in pride. When I was growing up I was urged on all fronts to have a healthy self-esteem; I was to feel I was special. Both these things would alarm the Church Fathers; speaking of “a healthy self-esteem” is like speaking of an alcoholic having “a healthy insatiable thirst for for eighty proof hard liquor.” The next generation after me is the generation that has to have its birthdays and other celebrations be a cut apart from the “ordinary”: the old formula of inviting a child’s friends and friend’s parents, ensuring a plentiful supply of sugary food, and hanging out for a couple of hours just doesn’t cut it. There has to be some special stamp imprinted on it, like a little girl having hours of costume and makeup to dress up as a fairy. To be adequate, a celebration need not merely be a cut above the old formula; it should ideally be a cut above the other “special” celebrations.

Pride has been called “the flaw of Narcissus,” and it is astonishing how well pride is represented and portrayed in the story. Before the end of the story, Narcissus was haughty, even scorning those who adored him—it is the character of pride, not only to view oneself highly, but to scorn others. (And it is the nature of humility, not only to view oneself modestly, but to genuinely admire and respect others.) But the central feature of the story is how Narcissus meets his end: even though no other person assaulted him, he was doomed as soon as he saw his own reflection in the water and stared in rapt fascination at his own beauty, until he pined away to nothing. He died because not even his bodily needs could take his attention from his entranced admiration of his own beauty. (“Narcissus” etymologically comes from “narke”, meaning sleep or drug-like drowsiness, and Narcissus might as well have been on drugs.) If you want a glimpse into the soul of Narcissism, read the myth of Narcissus.

Pick it up by the heart and it is called narcissism, pride, or self-esteem; pick it up by the head and it is called subjectivism. Subjectivism is insisting on believing what you want to believe, even when you know, or used to know, that it’s wrong. The increasing standard of narcissism in people’s lives is matched by an increasing standard of subjectivism at the university, an issue argued by the scholar who wrote C. S. Lewis and a Problem of Evil: An Investigation of a Pervasive Theme. Here “problem of evil” does not refer to theodicy, but subjectivism. Subjectivism says, “I will believe what I want to believe,” and far enough into it, subjectivism says, “I am right and God is wrong.” At a low dose, subjectivism is called “wishful thinking;” at a high enough dose it is called blasphemy. And subjectism comes from pride and builds up pride.

Pride Unfurls and Unfolds

The poison of pride unfurls in many ways.

Gay Pride

Where does “gay pride” fit into this? As a full-fledged member of pride unfurling, and as the wrong medicine. There is a lot of queer pain and suffering, and the idea that being queer is something to take pride in is to seek medication for this. It may be the wrong approach, but just as enough alcohol will seem to solve any problem for the short term, gay pride promises to medicate pain.

And the term is well chosen. It may not call itself subjectivism, but transgendered surgery is an effort to set right what God got wrong. Now gay pride may not on the surface claim to be pride; it may be on every conscious level an effort to come to terms with reality and celebrate who you really are. But pride cannot deliver that; only repentance and humility can make such a delivery. Only repentance and humility can make good on the promise. Narcissism in general is counterfeit coin: the classic Narcissism: Denial of the True Self could well enough have been written about gay pride. I have known one person who faced strong homosexual temptations who was at home with himself and truly happy; he came to terms with who he was, and he did it as ex-gay.

But if you think, “I’m straight; I don’t have to face that issue,” you are wrong. There are many ways we drink the same poison; LGBTQ’s are just honest enough to correctly name their salve as “pride.”

Gnosticism

Gnosticism is another theatre for this to play out in. Some years back, a few lone voices warned that the heresy of Gnosticism was coming back. Now you have to be pretty obtuse to deny a resurgence of Gnosticism; you can say if you want that contemporary attempts to resurrect the heresy are creating another beast altogether, but it is rather provocative to deny that recent years have seen a substantial interest in Gnosticism.

At one level of insight, one may enumerate various ideas and claims found in Gnosticism. At the next level, one may notice that Gnosticism is not a stable system of ideas; it is a process that moves from one point to another, and to study it as a historical phenomenon is to force it into something it isn’t, just as a study of untreated cancer across history would be mistaken, grossly mistaken, to find historical vogues, trends, and patterns in how tumors have grown in different ages in history. But there is one more level of insight worth mentioning.

Gnosticism, at its core, is not powered by a framework of ideas (for that matter, neither is Orthodoxy, even if her ideas are more stable). It offers a good news of escape that hinges on a mood of despair, and Gnostic esoterica are a kind of spiritual pornography, almost, that slakes the thirst of someone thirsting for an escape from despair. And there is bad news and good news for people pursuing such projects. The bad news is that escape is not possible beyond a shimmer that leaves one thirsting; the good news is announced,

Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

John 4:13-14, RSV

The bad news is that escape is not possible. The good news is that escape is not needed, and in the story of St. Photini, the woman at the well, she tried to enlist his help in fleeing from her shame and her pain, and he pulled her through her shame, helping her face what she was trying to flee, and left her running without shame through the whole city, “He told me all that I ever did.”

The despair that builds a thirst for Gnosticism and escape appears in times of plenty; it can also occur in times of economic collapse and loss. But the final assessment applies to both: escape is not possible. But escape is not needed.

Humility

And what does this have to do with pride? As much as the spiritual honesty of humility helps open one’s eyes to the beauty of others and the world (“in humility count others better than yourselves“), pride bears blindness and leaves one seeing a despicable world from which one can only wish escape. Hubris is called blinding arrogance, and it alike blinds you from your weaknesses and blinds you to what is delightful and good in the world around you. Walk far enough along the path of Narcissus, and like him you will find yourself despising those who adore you.

And I would like to comment in particular on “in humility count others better than yourselves.” This is bitter medicine and an insult to our pride. I don’t like it personally, and I’m not sure I’ve seen a person who can read those words and not squirm. I’m not near that spiritual maturity, but for all that I recognize and confess that this is not only Scripture, but that it specifically is a gateway to joy.

“How?”, you may ask: “How on earth?” The answer is almost in the text. If you are proud like Narcissus, you will despise others. And if you despise people, it is awfully hard to enjoy their company. But if, “in humiliy,” you “cosnsider other people better than yourself,” you will learn respect for others who are made in the image of God, and you will enjoy the company of the worst of sinners. Conflicts may happen, but if we follow the supreme humility of one whose (almost) dying words were a prayer for his murderers, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Is there humility beyond seeing the good, and seeking the good, for the people who are trying to kill you?)

Wishful Thinking

Let’s look at a light, seemingly innocuous form of subjectivism: wishful thinking. I wrote of one specific kind of wishful thinking:

We have a lot of ways of wishing that God had placed us someplace else, someplace different. One of the most interesting books I’ve glanced through, but not read, was covered in pink rosy foliage, and said that it was dealing with the #1 cause of unhappiness in women’s relationships. And that #1 cause was a surprise: romantic fantasies. The point was that dreaming up a romantic fantasy and then trying to make it real is a recipe, not for fulfillment, but for heartbreaking disappointment in circumstances where you could be truly happy. (When you have your heart set on a fantasy of just how the perfect man will fulfill all your desires and transform your world, no real man can seem anything but a disappointing shadow next to your fantasy.)

And I’ve done worse, with wishing I was in the world of Arthurian legends, and I was somehow a knight with the Holy Grail. i even wrote a novel out of that silliness. At least a happy romance and marriage is a natural enough wish; the Arthurian legends and the Holy Grail are not. And this list of two kinds of wishful thinking leaves a lot out. In Exotic golden ages and restoring harmony with nature: Anatomy of a Passion, the passage above continues,

This is not just a point about fantasies in romance. It is also a point that has something to do with technological wonders, secret societies, fascination with the paranormal, Star Trek, World of Warcraft, television, Dungeons and Dragons, sacramental shopping, SecondLife, conspiracy theories, smartphones, daydreams, Halloween, Harry Potter, Wicked, Wicca, The Golden Compass, special effects movies, alienated feminism, radical conservativism, Utopian dreams, political plans to transform the world, and every other way that we tell God, “Sorry, what you have given me is not good enough”—or what is much the same, wish God had given us something quite different.

And on a banal level, wishful thinking is a way to waste more time at work. for programmers, when you write something and it doesn’t work, it is not the right thing to try again and hope it will fix itself; the right thing to do is investigate what is wrong and fix it. And I was half-shocked when I paid attention to the time and energy I wasted wishfully trying something out again in the wishful hope it would magically fix itself.

Money and Technology

Dostoevsky, in a quote in The Brothers Karamazov that I can’t immediately trace, makes the point that money is something that people will think is good because it reduces their dependence on their neighbors. And while Alyosha indeed acknowledges that more money means less dependence, he sees this as a bad thing: perhaps it is God’s design for people to be dependent on their neighbors and not on sums of money. And this skepticism towards how good money really is is straight from the Bible. To pick one of innumerable quotes, let me cite the most politically incorrect sermon in history:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

Sandwiched between words about money are words about the health of one’s spiritual eye, which is darkened if it is greedy or stingy. If, perhaps, it is proud, with such pride as would substitute dependence on money for dependence on one’s neighbor.

The Acceleration of Addictiveness

And whatever cautions the Bible makes about money apply fourfold to our technological labyrinth. The Bible has warnings about alcohol when the strongest drink you could get was at 4% alcohol: weaker than most beer. Today we live in a world when if you have access to alcohol you can probably buy hard liquor at 40% alcohol: a strong enough drink that it is drunk with special little shot glasses that are too small to drink anything one would drink to slake thirst. And it’s not just alcoholic beverages that are on steroids. There’s something about smartphones that is in the same key.

One of the rules at alcohol, whether at 4% or 40%, is that it needs to be used in a discipline of moderation, with restraint. The wrong use is precisely to lay the reins on the horse’s neck and just go with the flow. And smartphones, like the matrix of technologies we live in, need to be used with a discipline of restraint and not lay the reins on the horse’s neck.

Once in a while we get a clue that texting and driving is as dangerous as drinking and driving, but we have not as a society put much more restraint than that. One may occasionally read in a newspaper that texting is eating away at teen’s sleep because the stream of new texts doesn’t shut off at bedtime, but the idea that texting, for instance, should be used in a disciplined way, does not dawn on us as a whole.

It is pride that seeks independence from one’s neighbor, and it is pride that seeks independence from one’s surroundings by means of technology. Back in the days of Walkmans, a friend’s grandmother commented that running with a Walkman is a way of disdainfully detaching yourself from attentiveness to your surroundings: an old tape-eating Walkman was a way to carry your own reality with you. And carrying one’s own reality with oneself is in the service of pride, and not a good thing.

I once thought of writing “The Luddite’s Guide to Technology” and describing how to use technology appropriately. In a word it would have been:

Use technologies in ways that arise from and support spiritual discipline, and do not use technologies in ways that arise from and support pride and other vices, including taking you to an alternate private world.

I stopped my attempt to write it because I was not writing anything particularly good, but I would love to see it written, if only as that summary above.

Plato: The Allegory of the… Flickering Screen?

Someone said that the difference between good and bad literature is that bad literature is used to escape reality, while good literature is used to engage reality. I’ve said that television is a pack of cigarettes for the mind, but television can be used to check weather and traffic, which is not at all turning on the television and entering a state where your body burns fewer calories than when sleeping. But it’s not just television. I had originally intended to revise Plato’s famous “Allegory of the Cave” into Plato: The Allegory of the Television, but I ended with a title of Plato: The Allegory of the… Flickering Screen? In both cases Plato’s lesson is applied twice to bad use of technology in which the user is twice imprisoned and far from contemplation of God. And so much of the value proposition of special effects movies, smartphones, role playing games, video games, and the like is escape. Reality isn’t good enough, not for the likes of us. We’re tripping over the same root again, the root called “pride.”

And that’s not all.

More could perhaps be said. What has been said about pride and despairing escapism, or pride and Gnosticism, or pride and technology, might as well be said about magic as an attempt to escape reality and enter another reality, however subtle the means. I haven’t talked about spellbound fascination with one’s own inner world. (The inner world is real, and it contains Heaven and Hell, but you’re selling yourself short if you think it’s just a place for “Me! Me! Me!” This is much for the same reason one priest says he doesn’t like hearing people talking about “my life:” his answer is that there is only one life, meaning God’s Life, and either you’re in it or you’re not.) I have not touched the dizzying abyss of postmodernism as spiritual drunkenness adventure, or a curious attitude towards sex that sees children as its liability and places its goodness in entirely the wrong place. On that last score, see the discussion in The Most Politically Incorrect Sermon in History: A commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. But perhaps this is enough meditation on evil.

Holy Humility

Is there anything good to be learned? Yes indeed, the humility that opens our eyes to the beauty of God and Creation. St. John of the Latter asked where humility came from, and wrote only:

Someone discovered in his heart how beautiful humility is, and in his amazement he asked her to reveal her parent’s name. Humility smiled, joyous and serene: “Why are you in such a rush to learn the name of my begetter? He has no name, nor will I reveal him to you until you have God as your possesssion. To Whom be glory forever.”

But if pride has served as an opening point, let us close with humility. One picture of humility is illuminated in Tales From a Magic Monastery:

The Crystal Globe

I told the guestmaster I’d like to become a monk.

“What kind of monk?” he asked. “A real monk?”

“Yes,” I said.

He poured me a cup of wine. “Here, take this.” No sooner had I drunk it than I became aware of a crystal globe forming around me. It began to expand until finally it surrounded him too. This monk, who a minute before had seemed so commonplace, now took on an astonishing beauty. I was struck dumb. After a bit the thought came to me, “Maybe I should tell him how beautiful he is—perhaps he doesn’t even know.”

But I really was dumb—that wine had burned out my tongue! But so great was my happiness at the sight of such beauty that I thought it was well worth the price of my tongue. When he made me a sign to leave, I turned away, confident that the memory of that beauty would be a joy forever.

But what was my surprise when I found that with each person I met it was the same—as soon as he would pass unwittingly into my crystal globe, I could see his beauty too. And I knew that it was real.

Is this what it means to be a REAL monk—to see the beauty in others and to be silent?

This is holy humility. This is what it means to see the image of God in others. This is what it means to “in humility count others better than yourself.

Let us make this our goal.

Doxology

Plato: the allegory of the… flickering screen?

The Spectacles

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis