If you look on the web, you can find a lot of interesting quotes about what is simple and what is complex. These quotes are often interesting. They are sometimes contradictory. Some say reality is simple. Some say reality is complex. One of the most famous quotes is, “Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses remove it.”
Probably the most interesting claim I read was, “Complexity goes before simplicity.” And that sounds strange. In biology complex organisms originally come from simple life forms. Programmers have repeated, “Every complex system that works is found to have evolved from a simple system that works.” However, I insist that the claim “Complexity goes before simplicity” is true, and furthermore that this claim unfolds the words, “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would given my life for the simplicity on other side of complexity.”
When I read The Twitter Job Search Book, something struck me as odd. One Twitter user said, “If you can’t make your case in 140 characters, having more space won’t help.” The author underscored this point. However, that was not what struck me as odd. What struck me as odd was that the quote was broken across three long tweets because it couldn’t fit anywhere near 140 characters. Twitter may serve legitimate purposes. Books and articles are still not obsolete.
Every U.S. presidential candidate in recent races, whether they are from the the left, right, or center, has something that they stand for. That “something” is usually big enough that even loyal followers can’t put all of it in words. But they also have a slogan. This slogan is often not even a complete sentence. The slogan may be just a short sentence fragment. And yet, at least to loyal followers, those few words put everything the candidate stands for in a very short nutshell. But the simple slogan comes after the big ideas a candidate stands for. The big ideas never stem from the slogan.
In the Gospel, Christ is asked which of the commandments is greatest out of the Law that opens the Bible, and answers, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” Someone familiar with the culture would recognize both the question and answer as stemming from an established and important tradition. Let me put the question in modern terms: “Out of all the commandments in the Law, can you put the whole thing in a nutshell?”
The response Christ gave wasn’t the only possible answer. There were several other accepted answers, such as “He has shown you, man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” However, the answer Christ gave was considered the greatest of all such answers. And there is a crucial point. You need to appreciate something of the Old Testament Law’s six hundred and thirteen commandments at some level before you understand why all of them fit in that nutshell. Reading a couple of sentences’ nutshell version is no substitute for knowing the Law in its long and complex form. Only then can you properly understand the nutshell.
Among the Great Teachers, the Golden Rule keeps resurfacing. People who have said giant things about ethics often say “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or something similar, and the Law of Love, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is considered an expression of the Golden Rule. However, it is lunacy to keep the text of the Golden Rule and simply drop the other 99% of what moral teachers have written. We need help fleshing things out.
People who are at the top of their game can put tremendously complex things into a nutshell. They can communicate with extreme simplicity. For instance, in Congressional hearings after the Challenger disaster, people were endlessly discussing whether O-rings could be brittle under cold conditions. People hemmed and hawed and said almost every perspective imaginable on the topic. Then Richard Feynman took a piece of an O-ring, swirled it around in his icewater, and went Snap! and was suddenly holding broken shards of O-ring. The discussion was over.
However, this isn’t because e.g. physics is simple and any physicist who can’t explain it simply doesn’t really understand. It says more about the talent that can reach mastery. Physics is not easy to master. It takes years for even very bright people to understand physics. The “Feynman lectures” are considered top masterpieces in scientific communication. They are noted for their simplicity. They are also simple for their subject and are not any kind of fluffy read. Let’s look at a related discipline. There was an uproar after Mattel released a speaking Barbie doll that might say, “Math is hard!” But the comment I remember from other math students was, “Umm… but math is hard!” Mathematicians consider doing something simply to be elegant and desirable given a correct solution, but math is is still hard. On that point I quote Einstein: “Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics. I can assure you that mine are greater still.”
Let me close with one illustration that closed an argument with something really beyond simplicity. In the “letters to the editor” section of a senior-oriented publication, one member wrote an article saying, in essence, “I have attended church such-and-such many years and during that time, I estimate that I have heard such-and-such many thousand sermons. I cannot however remember any of the sermons. I know that pastors work very hard on their sermons, but I wonder if their time might be better spent.”
Here, too, people hemmed and hawed, and made ongoing arguments in different discussions, until finally another member wrote a letter to the editor saying, “I met my wife such-and-such many years ago, and we have been happily married for such-and-such years. During that time, I estimate that my wife has made me such-and-such many tens of thousands of meals. I do not remember the recipe to any of the meals, but I am on the whole in good health and not any fatter than when I met her. I judge that it was worth her time to cook all those meals.”
The discussion was over.
Simplicity is good, but it is not the only good. And “Simplicity comes after complexity.”
I am trying, before leaving for Mount Athos, God willing, October 16, 2017, to complete the Toastmasters Competent Communicator badge. This means a documented path towards ten speeches developing progressive competency. After a gentle reminder from my home club’s leadership, I am bringing the book used to record results and feedback, and I am now usually keeping it in the car.
That book didn’t have records of the usual “Icebreaker” speech, the first speech and a speech of self-introduction, and so I gave one today, visiting at a second club that gives more, and more direct, feedback, and what I was told about the speech was different from usual: people usually talked about themselves and things they had done, and I talked about things other people had done and my aspiration. The feedback was polite, but the gently given point was that my speech was off-topic for an introduction in Toastmasters’s “Icebreaker.”
I thought about that a bit, and decided that the speech really did introduce me, and that it really was worth repeating. I present it here, slightly changed, as follows:
The theme of fatherhood is one that is important to me. The time that I most felt like a man was after I had been away for schooling, and I went to say hello to our neighbors across the street. I chatted with the wife briefly, and their little boy didn’t remember me at first, which is not surprising. (Please keep in mind that the absence represented a much greater proportion of his life than any adult in the picture.)
About an hour later, I wanted to fix a flat on my van, and by that point he was starting to more than remember me. He came over and wanted to help. And I did my delighted best to accommodate him. In each step of the process I was looking for where I could slice off a little-boy-sized increment of work, and work with him while giving him bite-sized assignments. It took more time and more effort to work with his help, but I wouldn’t have exchanged it for anything in the world.
This is something I believe I picked up from my parents. When I was a kid, they seemed to almost never want to say “No” to “Can I help you?” Once in a while they did say “No;” I was upset when I came as a little boy to help my father work with the garbageman to heave an unusually large item into the garbage truck. But events like these were rare enough, and my parents’ strong preference was to try to honor any child’s offer of help.
One process where help was invited was carrying things when a group of friends would help one of their members move house. One of my brothers, at one point, was a little boy holding a tiny load, and said, perhaps feeling rather small, that he wasn’t carrying very much. My Dad gave him a big smile, and said, “You’re helping!” It really didn’t seem that long before that little boy holding a smaller item was a bigger boy holding a bigger item, and then a youth or young man carrying an adult load.
On this point I thoroughly hold to what my parents practiced. I’ve been helping people move on various occasions, and I’ve seen little children ask to help and be told, “You can’t help.” That’s been about the only situation where I’ve openly challenged a friend’s parenting decision in front of a young child. At at least one point, I gave the parents an explanation, but not before reaching in the top of an open box, finding some small item, and asking the child to carry that item.
More recently I have been noticing that I have been behaving in a slightly more fatherly way to those who are college aged. When I went in for some labwork, a supervisor was helping guide a young trainee through the multi-step paperwork to check me in, and early on I commented, “It’s so nice to see a young person going into the medical professions.” When I walked out from my labs not much later, the supervisor was glowing.
My heart’s desire and everything I am trying to do now is enter Orthodox monasticism, which is entering into receiving the deepest fatherhood the Orthodox Church offers. I’m counting the days. In the famed vows of “poverty”, “obedience”, “chastity”, the absolute “obedience” is the greatest fatherly healing that is available, and my only real regret in seeking monasticism now is that I didn’t do it twenty years ago.
There are other things I have already done that are fatherly. Not long after my first nephew was born, people were commenting that he wanted to be using a phone; he seemed to me to be playing in a way that suggested he wanted to be in on an adult game. So I began calling my brother, who worked a slightly early shift and was home by late afternoon, and initially just talked to my nephew nonstop for a few minutes, just telling him that I loved him. Then he started talking, and things shifted quickly to my spending maybe ten percent of the time asking him social questions, and the rest listening as he talked about his day. The relationship didn’t really change with this change in behavior.
There have been other things. I was at one point visiting with some friends, and the parents repeatedly told a slightly older little boy to play catch with his slightly younger brother. After I heard “I don’t want to play catch with [Name]” enough times, I stood up, said, “I want to play catch with [Name],” scooped him up, and said, “What I’m going to do is I’m going to count to three, and when I get to three, I’ll throw you to your Daddy!” Then I swung him around in the air while counting to three, and after swing number three, lifted him high up in the air, and set him with feather gentleness in his father’s outstretched arms. That event pretty much changed what it meant to the adults in that family to play catch with someone.
Right now I stand at an open door. It is time to be receiving again fatherly care, entering the Kingdom of Heaven as a little child. I have seen great generosity from people, and I pray that God will repay them, as I cannot.
The speech is perhaps imperfect and not a usual Toastmasters “Icebreaker” speech, but I do not count among its imperfections that I speak of contact with others whom I am connected to, nor that I look ahead out my windshield as well as my rear-view mirror. Monasticism is the biggest thing in site, and I look forward to that help in repenting of my sins, and working in obedience to an Elder’s spiritual fatherhood to reach the one freedom that matters.
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 a sign to leave, I turned away, confident that the memory of such 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 in my crystal globe, I could see his beauty too. And I knew it was real.
Is this what it means to be a REAL monk—to see the beauty in others and be silent?
To even get near [humility], even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert.
Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody.
Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.
If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less.
These two striking Western quotes need some counterbalance. Orthodox confess before communion: “I believe that thou hast come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” And though this is above my pay grade, there are some very important words (in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, for instance) about longing for the cup of dishonor as if it were honor, an experience that I believe is very different from the inside and from the outside. The experience of reaching a new level of pride may be exultant for an instant, but the natural course of that sin, if we do not repent of it, is to hold on to the sin while its pleasure necessarily vanishes. My suspicion that those who long for the cup of dishonor as if it were honor, retain the virtue while its sting gives way to joy. Repentance is Heaven’s best-kept secret, and the monastic longing for dishonor may also bring joyful surprises.
With all of that stated, the story about the globe is the best picture I’ve seen of the heart of humility. And the humblest people I have known don’t really try to impress upon me how horrible people they are. They bear a striking resemblance to the figure Lewis describes: hospitable, generous, open, welcoming, listening, wanting to understand what you have to say, and wanting to understand you. Their style, the practical living effect of their belief that God is everything and they are nothing, is marked by joy in whatever person’s company God deigns to grace them with.
One verse that I’ve found profoundly difficult to appreciate is, “In humility consider others better than yourself.” I suspect others don’t find it pleasant either. But there is treasure inside.
I’d like for you to imagine yourself sitting next to your hero: your favorite person, past or present, near or far, someone you know or someone you might never meet. What is it like to be next to that person?
Now imagine someone who is a jerk and acts like an absolute scumbag. Do you enjoy the company?
Which one of these two is humbly considering others better than yourselves?
Pride is blinding; the term “hubris” refers to a blinding arrogance. The greatest degree of pride that has a label I’m aware of is called “prelest” or spiritual illusion, a term that doesn’t even mention self-opinion but describes being completely and destructively out of touch with reality and what will benefit oneself and/or others.
But with humility it is quite different. Some have said that the only true intelligence is humility. Humility opens people’s eyes, and it opens them to everything that is beautiful, honorable, and noble in others.
Humility allows us to see and enjoy the royal race.
The royal race
What do I mean by “the royal race?”
Let’s visit Confucius.
One nice, opaque snippet states that Confucius learned of a fire in the horse stables. Confucius asked, “Were any people hurt?” And we are explicitly told that he did not ask about the horses.
Today this story lends itself to thinking, “I guess Confucius just wasn’t the world’s biggest animal lover,” and trust me if I say, “Please ignore that; something completely different was going on culturally.”
In the China of Confucius’s day, a stable worker was a slave, here meaning a mere commodity worth only 20% of the value of a horse. Please contrast this with U.S. Southern slave owners who rationalized slavery at infinite length because they knew it was wrong, and they rationalized because they knew that it was morally wrong to keep African-American slaves in conditions unworthy of human beings and unfit for human consumption. In Confucius’s day, they didn’t even know it was wrong. The socially expected response from Confucius, upon hearing that there had been a major fire in the horse stables, would be to ask about what was the most valuable and important: the precious horses, not the expendable stable hands.
Confucius’s question about people in the stable left the obvious, socially expected response highly conspicuous by its absence. The point he sledgehammered was of the supreme value of every human life, whether at the top of the social scale, or the bottom, or anywhere in between. He didn’t say that all human life is sacred, and possibly it would not have occurred to him to connect life with the sacred, but the essential point he drove home is the supreme value of human life.
And that is really a dignity of the royal race.
Having mentioned race, I would like to comment something on the biology of the royal race. If we lay out on a football field the whole millions of years since humans first appeared, the first ninety-nine yards, or perhaps even the first ninety-nine and a half yards, show to the best of my knowledge our ancestors as living in Africa in the Sahara Forest. Then, a geological eyeblink ago, there was an Ice Age, and some of our ancestors bundled up against the cold and migrated under sub-Arctic conditions to what was eventually Europe. And they suddenly changed from needing lots of dark pigment to block out the mighty African sun, to vastly decreased levels of our built-in sunscreen because they needed to get as much of the precious little sun as they could. The whole change was only reducing the amount of one particular chemical: that’s it. And that is one major factor of the difference between dark and light skin.
What I would like to comment here is that this is an extremely shallow biological adaptation. Never mind that a dark-skinned and a much lighter-skinned person look quite different to the uninstructed.The biological difference is shallow. It is quite literally only skin-deep. None of us as the royal race grow feathers and have the ability to fly like birds, or can breathe underwater without technology, or can sleep while standing up unsupported. Nor, apart from birth defect, accident, etc. have we lost toes, or lose the full support of a circulatory system, or anything like that. Unless disability or adverse circumstances stop us, we all walk and we all trade in the miracle of language. There is one set of human anatomical features to be had with distinction between the sexes. We all need food, water, sleep, and so on. We tend to think we are very different because we look different, but the adaptations we have are biologically the shallow adaptations of a single, royal human race. There are admittedly other adaptations besides the pigments in our skin, but race as we know it hinges on people leaving Africa an extremely short time ago on geological terms and not enough time for much of any particularly interesting evolution to have occurred. We are all from the same species, Homo sapiens. For that matter, we are also all from the same, more specific subspecies: Homo sapiens sapiens!
Now I would balance my remark in biology and acknowledge any number of the most profound cultural differences across the world and possibly right in each other’s back yards, but again this is the royal race. Humpback whales have a culture; wolves have a culture; but there is essentially one culture for an animal community in a wild ecosystem. So far as I know the vast number of cultures that exist today attest to an unparalleled flexibility built into the royal race.
And if we look at Genesis 1, perhaps the two biggest takeaways are that we are made in the image of God, constituted by the divine presence in us, and that the entire human race is one family. The person before you is great: and he is your brother.
A note on beggars
And I would like to make one comment, very specific: “He is your brother” includes beggars.
I know some people, who do or do not give to beggars, who have made a careful and considerate decision and act in a situation where evaluating the best action is hard to do. I know of some people whose considered judgment is that giving money to beggars does more harm than good, and their refrain from giving is harder to them than giving would be. I might also suggest that one could give things other than money; one can carry a bag with easily peeled Cuties citrus fruit, or a Halloween-style bag of tiny chocolate bars if the weather won’t melt them.
However, I have heard, and wince, when someone says “beggars” like they are some kind of disgusting vermin.They are not. They are made in the image of God, as you, and the Orthodox Church’s teaching is that you should give, and when you give, you are respecting others made in the image of God. It is possible that their begging is sinful; that is not your concern and you do not share in the guilt by a gift. I’ve heard multiple Orthodox priests address the topic, and they never seem to suggest giving particularly much; the specific suggestion is to give little at least most of the time, without any suggestion that you have to furnish all that a beggar with a story of need lists as the needed expense.
But there is a more basic concern than meeting beggars with an open hand, and that is meeting them with an open heart. Monastics are said to be “above alms”: those who have placed themselves above possessions may not have a single bite of food to offer at the moment. But the literature quotes, “Is not a word better than a gift?”, with the implication explicitly explored that if you have nothing you could give (or, perhaps, you have a $20 bill but have run out of the quarters or singles you carry in a separate pocket to give), a warm welcome is itself giving a gift. Monastics are spoken of as “above alms”, but they are not above loving beggars. Those monastics, perhaps more than people who are not above alms, are called to fit the picture of humility towards beggars: hospitable, generous, open, welcoming, listening, wanting to understand what they have to say, and wanting to understand them. This kind of warm welcome is a much bigger gift than a quarter.
But may I suggest a view of beggars that has more sharply defined contours?
Look at beggars as altars. The beggar, regardless of religion, is made in the image of God and can never be rightly understood without reference to God. He who despises the poor shows reproach for their Maker; God loves everybody at every level of the social scale, and to show kindness to a beggar is to show a kindness to God. It is possible to embrace without touching, or embrace in an offered fist bump. Insofar as you are able, give a quarter or dollar (if you are in the U.S.) / a Cutie / chocolate / …, and what is more, try to give in the generosity of a monk above alms who meets the dues of hospitality.
Look on beggars as altars on whom you can show kindnesses to God.
One more quote to squirm by
Here is one more quote that makes people squirm; it is a personal favorite (Mt 25:31-46, NIV):
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Christ, in his own person, has no needs beyond the Trinity and could not possibly benefit from any generosity from any person.
But Christ in the person of a beggar is another story. There we can welcome him as Christ; there we can ease his hunger; there we can show a million kindnesses that will answer for us on that dread day when we are judged before his throne.
Someone who had a large collection of books asked, “Will I have any of these books with me in Heaven?” The answer came, “Probably.” The book lover then asked, “Which ones?” The answer came, “The ones you gave away.”
When our life is spent, none of the possessions we cling to will offer us any hope. However, even the tiniest of gifts given in the right spirit will answer for us. Even a smile, when you didn’t have change available, counts!
In humility consider beggars better than yourself. They, too, belong to the royal race!
In chapel, a speaker spoke of a person who was asked “Do you know how to play golf?” and answered “Yes, I learned yesterday.” He then went on to speak of one of the simplest of Jesus’s lessons, and how to truly learn that lesson is the work of a lifetime. If I were to be asked if I understand what I am talking about, the best and most honest answer I could give would be “No, but I am beginning to.” For all of my life, I have been shown and have seen that there is something horrible that occurs when a human life without Christ is extinguished, and believed that, if destruction is something God wishes humans to avoid, then he would not place them in situations where it is unavoidable. It is not God’s nature to say “this is to be avoided” and then be unfaithful and not provide a way out: sin is to be avoided and minimized. God always provides a way out. When I sin, it is not because God allowed me to come to a situation where there is no way to act without sin, or even because there was a way out that was beyond my strength, but because I choose to disregard what God in his love and wisdom has provided, and bring pain and destruction to myself and to God. And so I have spent time questioning and studying, and in the past couple of years have stumbled across something that astounds me. At first I saw one means that can work when diplomacy fails, and does not say to any other human being “You are expendible. I will permit you to die.” And then, looking deeper, I have seen that it is not only another way to avoid violence, but that it is the imitation of Christ, and a new understanding of what it means to imitate Christ, to suffer for him, to conquer in his name. From time to time, God has given me affirmations of what I am doing – showing me other Christians who before me have seen what I have discovered, bringing a new light to the darkness that is in causing suffering to another. I have no delusions of being a master of that of which I speak – while I learn, while I progress, I do not see how I will ever be other than a novice before I am in Heaven and no longer see darkly and through a glass – but, at the same time, God has shown me something that is awesome in the true meaning of the word, and it is something that I cannot keep to myself.
The most dangerous assumption is the one that is not realized as such. An assumption that is realized can be strengthened and improved in detail if it is true, and rejected if it is false. The one that is unstated offers the danger of not showing its full glory if it is true, and not offering itself for rejection if it is false. There is an often unrealized assumption that there are ultimately some situations where violence is the only way out (IE where God can’t or won’t use any other means), and furthermore that the choice is between violence and inaction (no other alternatives). Stating that it is an assumption neither proves nor disproves it, but does bring it to light – to consider and judge as an assumption.
The idea that the use of physical force is an evil is a presupposition that is carried throughout this work. All agree violence is preferably to be avoided, not a desirable state, and its means, deception and destruction, bear the mark of darkness rather than the mark of light.
I know fully that the sixth commandment, translated as “Thou shalt not kill.” in King James, used language that would better be translated “You shall not murder.”, a command that left open the possibility of killing in many cases. This does not mean that that moral avenue is still open. The ninth commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” was written in language that specifically spoke of lying in court. This does not mean that a court of law is the only place that a Christian is not permitted to lie. There are many things that were made complete when Christ came, one of which was shifting from inwardly attempting to maintain purity to outwardly evangelizing. In the Old Testament, the prophet had a role calling back the lost sheep of Israel, but to the Gentiles there was no real sense of the Great Commission. Christ’s coming changed that, so that one of the primary responsibilities given to Christians is to win souls. It is with knowledge of this that Paul spoke of becoming a servant to all, ending with “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” (I Cor 9:22)
Each person in this world is either ready to die or not ready to die. A person who is ready to die will not be serving someone who needs to be stopped. I know that there are many soldiers who would rather not fight, who would rather die than kill, and who bear no hatred towards their enemies. At the same, if you would kill, I have this question for you: Can you consider it to be the best possible form of evangelism to look an enemy soldier in the eyes, say “Jesus loves you. He died so that you may be forgiven of your sins and go to Heaven. I love you.” and then, pulling a trigger, send that soldier to Hell?
The early Christian church (before Constantine’s vision) had a strong aversion to the shedding of blood, as reflected by people such as Athenagorus, who said in 180 AD “We [Christians] cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly.” When the Emperor attempted to create a Christian state, a part of the compromise that was introduced was the concept of just war theory: killing is undesirable and an evil under all circumstances, but there are some circumstances when it is not the greatest evil, and inaction and the damage it will cause is a greater evil. This thought is at the center of misunderstanding of pacifism: that a pacifist sits back and does nothing, that pacifism is passivism. I will attempt here to outline the difference between pacifism and passivism. If I succeed, it is only by God’s grace.
If Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had prescribed to the idea that it would be possible to know in advance what is the greater evil and what is the lesser evil, and to choose between, then certainly the lesser of the two evils would have been to bow down _once_ and continue with their many other ministries. The story, however, glorifies their refusal to commit even the smallest evil, and reflects God’s disregard for what is and isn’t humanly possible. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit.”, says the Lord. Zech. 4:6
The new law is to love your enemy as yourself, and to forgive the one who injures you seven times seventy, as per Matthew 18:22.
Oftentimes people ask me “Well, God commanded not only defensive wars and even conquest but genocide in the Old Testament; what about those?” Please be assured that, were I to be born before Christ came, I would believe that violence is sometimes allowed. If I were to be born before Christ came, I would probably be an active member of the military, because that is what God commanded of many people and something that my gifts would be suited for. Jesus, however, said “You have heard that it was said: ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute you… Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:43,44,48) Before this command, it would have been not only acceptable but a moral duty to strike at some enemies, just as it was not only acceptable but a moral duty to repay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe (Ex. 21:23-25). With Christ, however, things were completely changed: “You have heard that it was said: ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matt. 5:38-39) Any action taken in a war must be reconcilable with complete and absolute love for the enemies attacked: loving (“Love does no harm to its neighbor”, Rom 13:10), doing good towards, praying for, blessing.
If you wish to become a warrior, then you will study and try to learn tactics and strategy. An attack that is lacking in planning will fall to a defense that is strategic, even if the attackers have better soldiers and better weapons.
If you wish to use the means of peace (whether or not you believe that they are always sufficient), then just as a warrior must study, you must study the concepts and principles of the means of peacemaking. You must study the tactics and strategy of making peace before even considering to declare it an insufficient tool for a situation where violence is necessary.
Once the men of a village came, running, and told Gandhi that they had run away while the police were raping and pillaging. When they told him that this was because of his instruction to be nonviolent, he hung his head in shame. He would not have been angry with them if they had defended their families by the power of a sword. He would have approved had they stood in harm’s way, calling all injury to themselves without seeking to strike or to harm, to the point of death. But to run away like that and passively leave those who could not run was an act of great and terrible cowardice, the darkest possible answer to the problem. Gandhi – because the Hindu religion sees grey and dark_er_ and light_er_ courses of action (every action falling onto a spectrum) believed that violence was necessary in many situations, in any event infinitely superior to cowardice. I do not believe that God presents a situation that does not have some way out that is free of sin and evil, and so I believe that violence is completely unnecessary to the Christian. The point of this example still stands, however – that cowardice is diametrically opposed to peacemaking.
Random violence for its own sake is not farther from a just war than sitting back and doing nothing is from pacifism. Cowardice is the direct opposite of peacemaking, and a coward CANNOT learn to be a peacemaker without first learning bravery.
Long before one person _ever_ strikes another in a corporeal manner, peace has been breached. The first principle of peace is something that lies much stronger and much deeper than the absence of physical conflict. The Hebrew word “shalom” has come to have the meaning that peace should have – if you have not encountered the word shalom, take “harmony” or “accord” to be a rough English equivalent. When there is truly peace between two people, they love each other to the point of being ready to forfeit wealth, honor, and life. Such peace leaves no room for prejudice and misunderstanding, which scatter as cockroaches scatter at the appearance of light. To establish peace, you do not merely ensure a lack of physical violence (particularly not through intimidation at your own superior capability for violence – “peace through strength” destroys what it wishes to establish), but rather work to remove all traces of hatred and injustice. Peace is not an absence, but the presence of love.
“The greatest of these is love.” I Cor 13:13 Establish love and there will be peace.
Just as a warrior must be ready to sacrifice the life of another by killing, so also, to live by peace you must be ready to sacrifice yourself by dying. This is the heart of the difference between passivism and pacifism. A passivist sits back and does nothing. A pacifist goes out on the battlefield, ready to die. To go out into a battle to kill, with the knowledge that you may die, requires great courage. To go out into a battle, not to kill, but to die, requires greater courage still.
It is obvious that there is a certain power which, in order to harness, it is necessary to take up arms and be ready to kill if need be. What is not so obvious is that there is another power for which it is necessary to put down arms and be ready to die if need be.
It is easy to return love to one who loves. It is not easy to give love to one who hates. And yet to do this impossible task is possible by the grace of God: “I can do everything in Christ who gives me strength.” Phil. 4:13
Christ did not conquer us by threats of fire and brimstone. His message was not centered around “If you do not follow me, you will go to Hell.” (although that is true) He did not torture us until we said “Ok, Ok, I believe.” (although he has the power, the authority, and the right to do so) He rather said “Look how much I love you. Look at what I did for you. Look at what I want to do for you.” He loved us who were his mortal enemies, and conquered us from the inside out: not by force, not by threat, but by love that knew no bounds. When we evangelize – conquering those who are God’s mortal enemies – we do not threaten with Hell or use torture. We show our love, and by the power of the Holy Spirit conquer from _the_inside_out,_ making an ally of an enemy and bringing blessing where God wills. This nature, this love, this manner of conquering is the heart of peacemaking.
In the midst of a world where darkness has its dominion, the powers of light are not overcome. This is not because the power of Satan is weak, but because the power of God is stronger. If you master an enemy by violence, your victory is temporary. If you master an enemy by love, your victory is eternal.
In the study of war and peace, look not only at troubled individuals and nations in the time of war, but also when there is peace – and know, as much as what went wrong when there were battles, what went right when there was love. Formal elaboration of some principles of peacemaking are rare, but its practice is more common than you might think. When you use your body to shield another person from injury, when you place yourself in the path of harm – take the example of the king of Denmark shielding Jews from Hitler – that is peacemaking.
Brother Andrew, while speaking at a chapel here, recounted an an excellent example of peacemaking. He was talking with the leader of a terrorist liberation front who was holding hostages. He reasoned with the leader for a while, talking about how he could not rest if a single brother or sister of his in Christ was in captivity, but did not succeed. Diplomacy failed, as it sometimes will. He did not break into a fistfight, or try to grab one of the guns in the room. What he did do was to ask, “Will you take me in his place? Will you let him go free, and chain me to the central radiator?” The leader was astonished, not believing at first that he actually realized (let alone meant) what he said, and then that Andrew’s house was in order, and that he really was ready to be a hostage. That is acting in Christ’s love.
Love is not weakened or limited by hostility of the ones loved. It would be hollow and worthless if it were only an effective means of dealing with people who love you and take you seriously. Christ came down and died, died not for perfect people who were worthy of salvation (such people would need no such thing), but for people who were walking in the darkness and hated the light. His manifest power is revealed in the ones who have been conquered and transformed by its strength, and so Billy Graham, Jeffrey Dahlmer, and myself who were all repulsive in his sight and fully worthy of Hell have come to be forgiven and made anew. We were God’s enemies, conquered not by a show of force on God’s part (which would have been easy – God could kill me as easily as I lift a finger), but by costly love. He came down in human form and, when he had shown his love in all other ways, showed his love by dying. And, as God conquered us who were his enemies by the power of his love, and made us to be his reconciled sons and daughters, so we must conquer those who are our enemies by the power of his love manifest in us, and make them to be our reconciled brothers and sisters.
Jesus said “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matt. 5:39) This is not a command to act as if you have no rights and passively let yourself be regarded as subhuman, but rather an insistence on the fact that you do have rights. In the society of that time, a slap on the cheek was not intended as a physical injury but rather as an insult, putting an inferior back in his or her place. The strength of that insult depended greatly upon which hand dealt it: as the left hand was seen as unclean, a slap with the left hand was the insult far greater than one dealt with the right hand. This was reflected in the legal penalties for an inappropriate slap: the penalty for slapping a peer with your left hand was a fine one hundred times the penalty for slapping a peer with your right hand; the penalty for slapping a better with your right hand was a fine while the penalty for slapping a better with your left hand was death. The people Jesus was speaking to most directly were, by and large, slaves and the downtrodden. A slap on the right cheek was dealt with the left hand. To turn the other cheek would leave the master with two options. The first would be to slap the slave again, but this time with the right hand (therefore declaring the slave a peer). The second would be not to slap the slave again (therefore effectively rescinding the first slap). Now, such impudence and sauciness would often tend to bring punishment, but it none the less says “Hey, I’m a human. I have rights. You can’t treat me like this.” It is not an action without suffering for oneself, nor does it inflict suffering on the “enemy”: but it does say and do something in a powerful way.
If you are to be a peacemaker, you must act against any evil – no matter how small it may appear (by human measure – there is _no_ small evil by God’s measure) – whenever you see it. Even if it is not a breach of peace in the military sense, it is a breach of shalom, and should be stopped as soon as possible, so that it does not grow and multiply. If this is done, it will be rare if ever that violent intervention is even a question.
The power of violence is in what it can compel of the body. The power of peacemaking is what it can compel of the soul. If someone commands you to do what is morally repugnant to you, and you use the force of arms to stop that person, then you will probably slay some, and you will certainly make emnity. If instead you use the force of peacemaking – by noncompliance, being disobedient and taking whatever the consequences must be, and by choosing your own suffering over the convenience of obedience – you will not see results as quickly, but your actions will command respect rather than emnity.
If you are to gain the power to successfully intervene with violence, then you must devote resources to equipment and time to training. Time and money thus spent are not spent on humanitarian ends. This is not to say that military technology and research does not have civilian spinoffs, or to say that the precision and discipline within military bodies is not something that can be very useful. Both of these benefits do exist, and are worth taking note (and advantage) of. At the same time, it is necessary to think: Is this really the most powerful and best way to spend this money? Love and active peacemaking are not limited to the well financed. Its power does not come from the investment of scarce monetary resources, but rather through the Holy Spirit, which is anything but a scarce resource. Money is freed to other ends.
Everyone in this discussion agrees that it is better to voluntarily suffer than to inflict suffering on others.
Diplomacy is a powerful thing. It becomes even more powerful if you study the positions of all parties involved, study both their stated desires and what is unstated: their culture, their experience, the motivation behind stating the desires and intentions that they state. Oftentimes goals that appear diametrically opposed will, when examined at the root, reveal a mutually beneficial way of resolution. The power of diplomacy is not, however, absolute, and it depends to an extent on the goodwill of both parties. It is then that either one side must turn back, or that the desires be accomplished at the price of suffering. The usual method of waging wars uses physical force to conquer. The method of peacemaking – to stand in the way of the evil being done against you, and not dodge or resist the blows aimed at you – uses spiritual force which opens a hardened heart.
Love is not the exclusive domain or power of one group. Any individual can bring surprise by an act of love. The power of love, when applied to all ways so that there are no charges of incompletion or hypocrisy, is overwhelming.
Love wishes nothing that it would not accord to another. Greed, the placement of self at the center of the universe, is diametrically opposed to love.
Christ’s resistance and even revulsion at our evil did not cause him to force that evil from us. He rather showed us the better way, and left us to choose between the paths of light and those of darkness. So it is with love that makes peace: it is not forced upon those who believe violence to be the greatest interventive power.
Proclaim Christ at all times, and use words if need be.
Morally, there is not a difference between directly and indirectly causing an action. The one who commissions an assassination is no less guilty than the one who murders in person. Be sure that the actions you support are as pure as the actions you would take in person.
Just as Jesus said not to murder either in body (by breaking the sixth commandment) or in mind (by harboring hatred), peacemaking and love must penetrate both the actions of the body and the actions of the mind completely.
If you oppose someone with peacemaking, you will call to yourself the love and respect of others. Your power is not dependent on the extent of your military might (which is dependent on the extent to which you sacrifice humanitarian ends), but only on the extent to which you love and to which the Holy Spirit has power. In other words, if it fails, it is because God sees more good in that momentary failure than its success.
Peacemaking is more the opposite of inaction than it is of violence. Violence consists of seeing an evil and trying to act to rectify it; the means are imperfect. Cowardice and inaction make no hint of an effort to rectify the situation, and in my view are more reproachable than well meant violence. I have no respect for cowards – including those who dodge military conscription because they are afraid to die or be maimed in battle – but do hold respect for soldiers who have the courage and the desire to rectify which is the heart of peacemaking.
The power of love to conquer a hostile person without harm is a mystery; I would be a great liar if I said that I have always treated others in love. I will say that, when I have acted in a manner that says “You are expendable”, there is a seed of evil and poison, however small, that starts to grow. When I have acted in a manner that does not see the least (by the world’s measure) as expendible, God’s love acting in me has shown power that is beyond my comprehension.
At the heart of violent intervention is a presupposition that you know the hearts of your enemies and that you can predict what can happen, so that the slaughter you cause will be lesser than the slaughter you prevent, and that if you instead intervene with your own blood without physically incapacitating your enemy, God will not work through and bless your actions as much as if you had compromised. When this assumption comes to mind, I believe that God has answered it when he said “Satan is a liar and the father of all lies.” John 8:44, and that that he can and will do “immeasurably more than we all ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20) I am personally offended by the idea that it is necessary to take evil in order to prevent evil, because it carries the implication that God is either a hypocrite (by telling us never to to evil, and having the power to keep us from a choice between acts of evil, but choosing not to) or incompetent (telling us never to do evil, but lacking the power to make this possible). At the heart of peacemaking is faith, faith that without committing any undesirable evil it is possible to conquer the darkness. I have taken too many leaps of faith and landed on solid ground too many times to think that God is unable or even unwilling to grant power to those that will not compromise.
It is said that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Whether or not you agree with that – I find a great blessing in both – it is evident that one of the marks of love is that it benefits the one who loves and the one who is loved. Violence does not “do no harm to its neighbor” (I Cor 13:10), but very regretfully does what it hopes to be a minimum of harm to its neighbor. The power of love and peacemaking is such that it brings blessings upon the one who uses it to oppose evil, and the person whose evil is opposed.
Civil disobedience must be loving and sincere in all regards. To hatefully scream while restraining your fists is not enough: you must act in complete love and not harm in the least the person who you are resisting.
When you take an action, always look at why you act.
Love that is ready to die leaves no room to be cowardly.
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:21
I hope that, if God offers me the honor of becoming a martyr, I would have the courage to accept the honor. As Paul said in Phillipians 1:21, “To live is Christ; to die is gain.”
All Scriptural quotations (except for quotations from the ten commandments) NIV.
As we [Paul and Silas] were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by soothsaying. She followed Paul and us, crying, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” And this she did for many days. But Paul was annoyed, and turned and said to the spirit, “I charge you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.
But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market place before the rulers; and when they had brought them to the magistrates they said, “These men are Jews and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs which it is not lawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”
The crowd joined in attacking them; and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, charging the jailer to keep them safely. Having received this charge, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.
But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and every one’s fetters were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”
And he called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas, and brought them out and said, “Men, what must I do to be saved?”
And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all that were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their wounds, and he was baptized at once, with all his family. Then he brought them up into his house, and set food before them; and he rejoiced with all his household that he had believed in God.
Acts 16:16-34, RSV
As he [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him. We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
As he said this, he spat on the ground and made clay of the spittle and anointed the man’s eyes with the clay, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Silo’am” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing.
The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar, said, “Is not this the man who used to sit and beg?” Some said, “It is he”; others said, “No, but he is like him.” He said, “I am the man.”
They said to him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”
He answered, “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and said to me, `Go to Silo’am and wash’; so I went and washed and received my sight.”
They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the clay and opened his eyes. The Pharisees again asked him how he had received his sight. And he said to them, “He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and I see.”
Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” There was a division among them.
So they again said to the blind man, “What do you say about him, since he has opened your eyes?” He said, “He is a prophet.”
The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight, until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight, and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?”
His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but how he now sees we do not know, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age, he will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if any one should confess him to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age, ask him.”
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and said to him, “Give God the praise; we know that this man is a sinner.”
He answered, “Whether he is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you too want to become his disciples?”
And they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”
The man answered, “Why, this is a marvel! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if any one is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. Never since the world began has it been heard that any one opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
They answered him, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” And they cast him out.
Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of man?”
He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?”
Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who speaks to you.”
He said, “Lord, I believe”; and he worshiped him.
John 9:1-38, RSV
The Gospel today deals with physical blindness, but it is about much more than physical blindness. In this passage, the man who was blind from birth received his physical sight. That is an impressive gift, but there’s more. The passage deals with the Pharisees’ spiritual blindness, but the Church has chosen to end today’s reading with the blind man saying, “Lord, I believe,” and worshipping Christ. When he did this, the blind man demonstrated that he had gained something far more valuable than physical sight. He had gained spiritual sight. The Bible actually gives a few more chilling words about the Pharisee’s spiritual blindness, but the Church, following the Spirit, is attentive to spiritual sight and ends its reading with the man demonstrating his spiritual sight by adoring Christ in worship.
What is spiritual sight? We see a glimmer of it in the passage from Acts, where we read something astonishing. We read that Paul and Silas were stripped, savagely beaten, and thrown into what was probably a dungeon. And how do they respond to their “reward” for a mighty good deed? Do they say, “Why me?” Do they rail at God and tell him he’s doing a lousy job at being God? Do they sink into despair?
In fact none of these happen; they pray and sing to God. Like the man born blind, they turn to God in worship. As should we.
That is advanced spiritual sight. I’m not there yet and you’re probably not there either. But let me suggest some basic spiritual sight: Next time someone cuts you off on the road and you almost have an accident, instead of fuming and maybe thinking of evil things to do the other driver, why don’t you thank God?
What do you have to be thankful for? Well, for starters, your eyes work and so do your driver’s reflexes, you have a car, and your brakes work, and probably your horn. And God just saved you from a nasty scrape that would have caused you trouble. Can’t you be thankful for some of that?
In the West, we think in terms of rights. Almost all of the ancient world worked without our concept of rights. People then, and some people now, believed in things we should or should not do—we should love others and we shouldn’t steal, cheat, or murder—but then there was a queer shift to people thinking “I have an entitlement to this.” “This is something the universe owes me.” Now we tend to have a long list of things that we’re entitled to (or we think God, or the universe, or someone “owes me”), and if someone violates our rights, boy do we get mad.
But in fact God owes none of the things we take for granted. Not even our lives. One woman with breast cancer responded to what the women’s breast cancer support group was named (“Why me?”), and suggested there should be a Christian support group for women with breast cancer called “Why not me?”
That isn’t just a woman with a strong spirit speaking. That is the voice of spiritual sight. Spiritual sight recognizes that we have no right to things we take for granted. We have no right to exist, and God could have created us as rocks or fish, and that would have been generous. We have no right to be free of disease. If most of us see, that is God’s generosity at work. He doesn’t owe it to us. Those of us who live in the first world, with the first world’s luxuries, do not have those luxuries as any sort of right.
I am thinking of one friend out of many who have been a blessing. I stop by his house, and he receives me hospitably. Usually he gives me a good conversation and I can hold his bunny Smudge on my lap and tell Smudge that my shirt is not edible. This is God’s generosity and my friend’s. Not one of these blessings is anything God owes me, or for that matter my friend owes me. Each visit is a gift.
It isn’t just first world luxuries that none of us are entitled to. We have no right to live in a world where a sapphire sky is hung with a million constellations of diamonds. If there is a breathtaking night sky, God chose to create it in his goodness and generosity. Not only do I have no right to be a man instead of a butterfly or a bird (or to exist in the first place), I have no right to be in community with other people with friendships and family. God could have chosen to make me the only human in a lonely world. Instead, in his sovereignty, he chose to place me in a world of other people where his love would often come through them. I have no right to that. I’m not entitled to it. If I have friends and family, that is because God has given me something better than I have any right to. God isn’t concerned with giving me the paltry things I have a right to. He is generous, and gives all of us things that are better than our rights. We have no right to join the seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, powers, authorities, principalities, archangels, and angels—rank upon rank of angels adoring God. Nor do we have any right to live in a world that is both spiritual and material, where God who gives us a house of worship to worship him in, also truly meets us as we work, garden, play, visit with our friends, and go about the business of being human.
Isn’t it terrible if we don’t have rights? It’s not terrible at all. It means that instead of having a long list of things we take for granted as “Here’s what God, or the universe, or somebody owes me,” we are free not to take it for granted and to rejoice at God’s generosity and recognize that everything we could take for granted, from our living bodies to the possessions God has given us to God placing us at a particular point in place in time and choosing a here and now for us, with our own cultures, friendships, languages, homelands, sights and sounds, so that we live as much in a particular here and now as Christ, to a world carpeted with life that includes three hundred and fifty thousand species of beetles, to the possibility of rights. Every single one of these is an opportunity to turn back in praise and worship God. It is an opportunity for joy, as we were created for worship and we find our fullest joy in worshipping God and thanking him. Would you rather live in a world where you only have some of the things that can be taken for granted, or in a world where God has created for you so many more blessings than he or anyone else owes you?
There is, actually, one thing that we have a right to, and it’s a strange thing to have a right to. Hell. We have a right to go to Hell; we’ve earned a ticket to Hell with our sins, and we’ve earned it so completely that it cost God the death of his Son to let us choose anyone else. But Hell is not only a place that God casts people into; it is also where he leaves people, with infinite reluctance, after he has spent a lifetime telling people, “Let go of Hell. Let go of what you think you have a right to, and let me give you something better.” Hell is the place God reluctantly leaves people when they tell him, “You can’t take my rights away from me,” and the gates of Hell are barred and bolted from the inside by people who will not open their hands to the Lord’s grace. The Lord is gracious, and if we allow him, he will give us something infinitely better than our rights. He will give us Heaven itself, and God himself, and he will give us the real beginnings of Heaven in this life. The good news of God is not that he gives us what we think we have a right to, but that he will pour out blessings that we will know we have no right to, and one of these blessings is spiritual sight that recognizes this cornucopia as an opportunity for joyful thanksgiving and worship.
When I was preparing this homily, there’s one word in the Greek text that stood out to me because I didn’t recognize it. When the blind man says that Christ must be from God and have healed him as a “worshiper of God,” the word translated “worshiper of God” istheosebes, and it’s a very rare word in the Orthodox Church’s Greek Bible. Another form of the word appears in Acts but this is the only time this word appears in either the Gospels or the books John wrote. It is also rare in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint. It occurs only four times: once in IV Maccabees 15:28 where the mother of seven martyred sons sees past even her maternal love “because of faith in God” (15:24) and is called “the daughter of God-fearing [theosebes] Abraham,” and three times in Job where the blameless Job is called a theosebes, or “worshiper of God.” In Job, this word occurs once in the book’s opening verse, then Job is twice called a “worshiper of God” by God himself. The Maccabees’ mother is not even called theosebes herself, but “the daughter oftheosebes Abraham.”
What does this mean? I’m not sure what it all means, but John didn’t use very many unusual words. Unlike several New Testament authors, he used simple language. In the Greek Old Testament, this word is reserved for special occasions, it seems to be a powerful word, and it always occurs in relation to innocent suffering. Job is the very image of innocent suffering and the Maccabees mother shows monumental resolve in the face of innocent suffering—the text is very clear about what it means for a mother to watch her sons be tortured to death. The Gospel passage is about innocent suffering as well as spiritual sight. When the blind man calls Christ a “worshiper of God,” he is speaking about a man who would suffer torture for a miracle, before Paul and Silas, and this little story helps move the Gospel towards the passion. But Christ says that the blind man suffered innocently, and I’m not sure that we recognize all of what that meant.
People believed then, as many people believe now, that sickness is a punishment for sin. The question, “Who sinned? Who caused this man’s blindness?” was an obvious question to ask. And Jesus says explicitly that neither this man nor his parents sinned to bring on his blindness. Jesus, in other words, says that this man’s suffering was innocent, and he was saying something shocking.
What does this have to do with spiritual sight?
Spiritual sight is not blind to evil. The Son of God came to destroy the Devil’s work, and that includes sin, disease, and death. Sin, disease, and death are the work of the Devil. The woman who survived breast cancer who suggested there should be a Christian support group called “Why not me?” never suggested that cancer is a good thing, and would probably never tell a friend, “I wish you could have the sufferings of cancer.” When Paul and Silas were beaten with rods, being spiritual didn’t mean that they didn’t feel pain. I believe the beatings hurt terribly. Sin is not good. Disease is not good. Death is not good. Spiritual sight neither ignores these things, nor pretends that they are blessings from God. Instead, God transforms them and makes them part of something larger. He transformed the suffering of Paul and Silas into a sharing of the sufferings of Christ, a sharing of the sufferings of Christ that is not only in the Bible but is written in Heaven. I’ve had sufferings that gave terrifying reality to what had always seemed a trite exaggeration that “Hell is a place you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.” My sufferings are something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, and it is terrifying to realize that Hell is worse. So why then is spiritual sight joyful?
C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce describes a journey. This journey begins in an odd place, and one that is not terribly cheerful. Anyone can have anything physical he wants just by wishing, only it’s not very good. The ever-expanding borders of this place are pushed out further and further as people flee from each other and try to get what they want.
A bus Driver takes anyone who wants into his bus, which ascends and ascends into a country that is painfully beautiful to look at, where not only are the colors bright and full but heavy, rich, and deep. It is painful to walk on the ground because the people who got off the bus are barely more than ghosts, devoid of weight and substance, and their feet are not real enough to bend the grass. This is in fact a trip from Hell to Heaven, where Hell is mediocre and insubstantial, and Heaven is real and hefty beyond measure, not only beautiful and good but colorful and rich and deep—and infinitely more real than Hell. One part that really struck me was that when Lewis’s Heavenly guide (George MacDonald) explains why a woman in Heaven, whom MacDonald said had gone down as far as she could, did not go so far as descending to Hell:
“Look,” he [MacDonald] said, and with the word he went down on his hands and knees. I did the same (how it hurt my knees!) and presently saw that he had plucked a blade of grass. Using its thin end as a pointer, he made me see, after I had looked very closely, a crack in the soil so small that I could not have identified it without his aid.
“I cannot be certain,” he said, “that this is the crack ye came up through. But through a crack no bigger than that ye certainly came.”
“But—but” I gasped with a feeling of bewilderment not unlike terror. “I saw an infinite abyss. And cliffs towering up and up. And then this country on top of the cliffs.”
“Aye. But the voyage was not mere locomotion. That buss, and all you inside it, were increasing in size.”
“Do you mean then that Hell—all that infinite empty town—is down some little crack like this?”
“Yes. All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World. Look at yon butterfly. If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or have any taste.”
“It seems big enough when you’re in it, Sir.”
“And yet all loneliness, angers, hatreds, envies and itchings that it contains, if rolled into one single experience and put into the scale against the least moment of the joy that is felt by the least in Heaven, would have no weight that could be registered at all. Bad cannot succeed even in being bad as truly as good is good.”
Bad cannot succeed even in being bad as truly as good as good is good, and spiritual sight knows this. To have spiritual sight is not to close your eyes so tight they don’t even see evil, but to let God open your eyes wider. Our eyes can never open wide enough to see God as he truly is, but God can open our eyes wide enough to see a lot. Why were Paul and Silas able to turn from being viciously beaten and imprisoned to singing and praying to God? For the same reason a butterfly from Heaven could swallow all of Hell without it even registering. In that image of Heaven, not just the saints but the very birds and butterflies could swallow up Hell. This is just an image; the Real Place, real Heaven, is far more glorious.
Death is swallowed up in victory. Let us let spiritual blindness be swallowed up by spiritual sight that begins to see just how much God’s generosity, grace, mercy, kindness, love, and 1001 other gifts we have to be thankful for. Let us worship God.
Today the biggest symbol of evil is Hitler or Naziism; there is almost no bigger insult than calling someone a Nazi or a comparison to Hitler. The Old Testament’s symbol of evil that did the same job was a city in which the Lord God of Hosts could not find fifty righteous, nor forty-five, nor forty, nor thirty, nor twenty, nor even ten righteous men. It was the city on which fire and brimstone rained down from Heaven in divine wrath until smoke arose as from a gigantic furnace. It was, in short, the city of Sodom.
Ezekiel has some remarks about Sodom’s sin that might surprise you. Ezekiel 16:49 says, This was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, more than enough food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.
These are far from the only stinging words the Bible says to rich people who could care for the poor and do not do so. Jesus said something that could better be translated, “It is easier for a rope to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25). It would take hours or perhaps days to recite everything blunt the Bible says about wealth, if even I could remember so much.
But who are the rich? The standard American answer is, “People who have more money than I do,” and the standard American answer is wrong. It takes too much for granted. Do you want to know how special it is, worldwide, to be able to afford meat for every meal you want it and your Church permits it? Imagine saying “We’re not rich; we just have Champagne and lobster every day.” That’s what it means for even poorer Americans to say “We’re not rich, just a bit comfortable.” The amount of money that America spends on weight loss products each year costs more than it would cost to feed the hungry worldwide. When Ezekiel says that “your sister Sodom” had more than enough food but did not care for the poor, he is saying something that has every relevance to us if we also fail to care for the poor.
I would be remiss not to mention the Sermon on the Mount here, because the Sermon on the Mount explains something we can miss (Matt 6:19-21,24-33):
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also… No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Money.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Do you think that by worrying you can add a single hour to your life? You might as well try to make yourself a foot taller! And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the Kingdom of God and his perfect righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.
This includes a hard saying about wealth, but it is not only a hard saying about wealth, but an invitation to joy. “Do not store up treasures on earth but store up treasures in Heaven” is a command to exchange lead for gold and have true wealth. It is an invitation to joy, and it is no accident that these sharp words about Money lead directly into the Bible’s central text on why we never need to worry.
Elsewhere we read, “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions,” (Luke 12:15), which is not a statement that spiritual people can rise so high that their lives aren’t measured by possessions. It is about everybody, great and small. If money doesn’t make you happy this is not something specially true about spiritual people; it’s something that’s true of everybody. But Jesus’s entire point is to direct us to what our life does consist in. The words about storing up treasures in Heaven prepare us for the “Therefore I tell you,” and an invitation to live a life that is fuller, richer, more vibrant, deeper, more alive, more radiant with the light of Heaven than we can possibly arrange through wealth.
What will we leave behind if we spend less on ourselves? Will we leave behind the Lord’s providence, or hugs, or friendship, or banter, or worship, or the Church, or feasting? Will we leave behind the love of the Father, or Christ as our High Priest, or the Spirit? Will we be losing a Heaven whose beginning is here and now, or will we be pulling out our right hands and our right eyes? If it seems that way, we may adapt C.S. Lewis to say that living the life of Heaven through our finances today may seem like it will cost our right hand and our right eye, or in today’s words an arm and a leg, but once we have taken that plunge, we will discover that what we have left behind is precisely nothing. Or perhaps we could say that we are leaving behind a false Savior who never delivers, but only distracts us from the true Savior in Christ, and the treasure that is ours when we lay our treasures at his feet.
Is there a luxury you could give up in this invitation to joy?
Today I’m going to talk about head and body (headship). And I say “headship” with hesitation, because in today’s world asserting “headship” means, “defending traditional gender roles against feminism.” And that maybe important, but I want to talk about something larger, something that will be missed if “headship” means nothing more than “one position in the feminist controversy.”
One speaker didn’t like people entering Church and saying, “It’s so good to enter the Lord’s presence.” He said, “Where were you all week? How did you escape the Lord’s presence?” And whatever Church is, it is absolutely not entering the one place where God is present. At least, it’s not stepping out of some imaginary place where God simply can’t be found.
But if we are always in the Lord’s presence, that doesn’t mean that Church isn’t special. It is special, and it is the head of living in God’s presence for all of our lives. Our time in Church is an example of headship. Worshipping God in Church is the head of a life of worship, and it is the head of a body.
There is something special about our time in Church. But the way we live our lives, our “body” of time spent, manifests that glory in a different way. Christ didn’t say that people will know we are his disciples by our “official” worship, however much God’s blessing may rest on it. Christ said instead that all people will know we are his disciples by this, that we love one another. That isn’t primarily in Church. That’s in our day to day lives. If our time in Church crystallizes a life of worship, our love for one another is to manifest it. And that is the place of the body.
The relationship between head and body is the relationship between corporate worship and our lives as a whole. The body manifests the glory of the head. In my head I can decide to walk to a friend’s house. But the head needs the body and the body needs the head, and I can only go to a friend’s house if my head’s decision to visit a friend’s house is lived out in my body. “The head cannot say to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.'”
The Father is the head of the Son. “No man can see God and live.” God the Father is utterly beyond us; he transcends anything we could know; he is pure glory. If we were to have direct contact with him, we would be destroyed. And yet the Son is equal to the Father; the Son is just as far beyond this Creation, but there is a difference. The Son is the bridge between God and man, and God and his Creation. God the Father created the world through the Son, and the Son is just as glorious as the Father, but the Son can touch us without destroying us. The Father displays himself through the Son. The Father’s love came to earth through the Son. The Father’s wish that we may be made divine is possible precisely because the Son became man. And finally we can know the Father through the Son. If you have seen the Son, you have seen the Father.
We read in the New Testament that Christ is the head of man, that Christ is the head of all authority, that Christ is the head of the Church, and that Christ is the head of the whole Creation. If we think, with people today, that to have any authority over us, any head, is degrading, then we have to resent a lot more than a husband’s headship to his wife. But that’s not the only option. When Christ is the head of the cosmos, there is more than authority going on, even if we have a negative view of authority. Our Orthodox understanding that the Son of God became a man that men might become the sons of God, that the divine became human that the human might become divine, expresses what the headship of Christ means. Christ is the head, and that means that the Church is drawn up in his divinity. If we are the body of Christ the head, that doesn’t mean we’re just under his authority. It means that we are a part of him and share in his divinity. The teaching that we share in his divinity is very tightly connected to the teaching of “recapitulation”, or “re-heading,” where Christ being the head of the Church, and our sharing in Christ’s divinity, are two sides of the same coin. Christ is the head, and we, the body, make Christ manifest to the world. Some people may not know Christ except what they see in us. We cannot have Christ as our head without being a manifestation of his glory, and if Christ is the head of the Creation and Christ is the head of the Church, that means that when we worship, inside this building and in our daily lives, we are leading the whole visible Creation in turning to God in glory, and living the life of Heaven here on earth.
Christ is the head of the whole Creation, not just the Church. Christ isn’t just concerned with his people, but the whole created world. By him and through him all things were created. Icons, which reflect the full implications Christ’s headship over his Creation, exist precisely because Christ is the head of the whole Creation. We use a censer, a building, icons, water, flowers, and other aspects of our matter-embracing religion as representatives of the whole material Creation over which Christ is head. Christ doesn’t tell us to be spiritual as spirits who are unfortunately trapped in matter; far from it, we are the crowning jewel of the material Creation, and Christ’s headship glorifies the whole Creation and makes it foundational to how we are saved. The universe is a symbol that manifests the glory of its head, Christ.
One example of headship that is immediate to me, although I don’t know how immediate it is to the rest of you, is artistic creation. I create, write, and program, and in a very real sense I am at my fullest when I create. When I create, at first there is a hazy idea that I don’t understand very well. Then I listen to it, and begin struggling with it, trying to understand my creation, and even if I am wrestling with it, I am wrestling less to dominate it than to get myself out of its way so I can help bring it into being. If in one sense I wrestle with it, in another sense I am wrestling with myself to let my creation be what it should be. If I were to simply dominate my creation, I would crush it, breaking its spirit. My best creations are those which I serve, where I use my headship to give my creations freedom and cooperate with them so that they are greater than if I did not give my creations room to breathe. My best work comes, not when I decide, “I am going to create,” but when I cooperate with a creation, love it, serve it, and help it to become real, the creation becomes a share of my spirit.
A great many writers could say that, and I don’t think this is something that is only found in writing, but how something far more general plays out. All of us are called to exercise headship over our work. In a family, the father is the head of the household and the mother is the heart of the household. The mother’s headship over work in the home provides ten thousand touches that make a house a home. A mother’s headship over the home is as much human headship over one’s work as my headship over my creations and writing. What I do when I create is love my creation, serve it, develop it, work with God and with my creation to help it be real. If I’m not mistaken, when a woman makes a house into a real home, she loves it, serves it, develops it, and works with God and what she has to make it real. When a woman makes a house into a warm and inviting home, that’s headship.
What is the relationship between women and the home? In societies where people have best been able to honor what the Bible says about men’s and women’s roles, there is a strong association between women and the home. The home, in those societies, was the main focus of business, charity work, and education, besides the much narrower role played by a home today. To say that women were mainly in the home is to say that they held an important place in one of society’s important institutions, an institution that was the chief home of business, education, hospitality, and what would today be insurance, and held many responsibilities that are denied to housewives today. The isolation felt by many housewives today was much less an issue because women worked together with other women; like men, they worked in adult company. I believe there should be an association between women and the home, and I believe the home should be respected and influential. And, for that matter, I believe that both men and women are sold short with the options they have today. But instead of going too deep into that sort of question, important as it may be, I would like to look at what headship means.
The sanctuary is the head of the nave. Part of what that means is that there is something richer than either if there were just an sanctuary or just a nave. But we’ll miss something fundamental if we only say that the sanctuary is more glorious to the nave. They are connected and part of the same body. They are part of the same organism, and the sanctuary manifests the glory of the sanctuary. There is also a head-body relation between the saint and the icon. Or between the reality a symbol represents, and a symbol. Or between Heaven and earth. Bringing Heaven down to earth is a right ordering of this world. Heaven isn’t just something that happens after death after we serve God by suffering in this world. “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has any heart imagined what God has prepared for those who love him,” but God wants to work Heaven in our lives, beginning here and now. If we are bringing Heaven down to earth, we are realizing God’s design that Heaven be the head of earth, in the fullness of what headship means.
What about husbands and wives? There’s something that we’ll miss today if we just expect wives to submit to their husbands, even if we recognized that that’s tied to an even more difficult assignment for husbands, loving their wives on the model of Christ giving up his own life for the Church. And we need to be countercultural, but there’s something we’ll miss if we just react to the currents in society that make this unattractive. Quite a few heresies got their start in reactions against older heresies; it is spiritually dangerous to simply react against errors, and if feminism might have problems, simply reacting to feminism is likely to have problems. Wives should submit to their husbands, and husbands should love their wives with a costly love, but there’s more.
It bothers me when conservatives say, “I want to turn the clock back… all the way back… to 1954!” If we’re just reacting against some feminists when they say women should be strong and independent, and have no further reference point, we’re likely to defend a femininity that says that women are weak and passive. What’s wrong with that? For starters, it’s not Biblical.
If you want to know God’s version of femininity, read the conclusion of Proverbs. The opening of this conclusion is often translated, “Who can find a good wife?” That’s too weak. It is better translated as, “Who can find a wife of valor,” with “valor” being a word that could be used of a mighty soldier. She is strong—physically strong. The text explicitly mentions her powerful arms. She is active in commerce and charity. There are important differences between this and the feminist picture, but if we are defending an un-Biblical ideal for womanhood, some delicate thing that can’t do anything and is always in a swoon, then our reaction against feminism isn’t going to put us in a much better spot.
And men should be men, but that doesn’t mean that men should be rugged individuals who say, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul!” That is as wrong as saying that Biblical femininity is weak and passive. Perhaps men should be rugged, but to be a man is to be under authority. Trying to be the captain of your soul is spiritually toxic, and perhaps blasphemous. There is one person who can say, “I am the captain of my soul,” and it isn’t Christ. Not even Christ can say that, but only God the Father. Christ’s glory was to be the Son of God, so that the Father was the captain of his soul, and he did the Father’s work. Even Christ was under the headship of the Father, and if you read what John says about the Father and the Son, the fact that Christ was under headship, under authority, is part of his dignity and his own authority. To be a man is, if things are going well, to be a contributing member of a community, and in submission to its authority. Individualism is a severe distortion of masculinity; it may not be feminine, but it is hardly characteristic of healthy masculinity. There are a lot of false and destructive pictures of what a man should be, as well as what a woman should be.
If simply reacting against feminism is a way to miss what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman, it is also a way to miss something more, to miss a broader glory. This something more is foundational to the structure of reality; it is a resonance not only with God’s Creation, but within the nature of God and how the Father’s glory is shown through the Son. This something more is in continuity with God’s headship to Christ, Christ’s headship to the Church, Christ’s headship to the cosmos, Heaven’s headship to earth, the sanctuary’s headship to the nave, the spiritual world’s headship to the physical world, the soul’s headship to the body, contemplation’s headship to action, and other manifestations of a headship relation. On the Sunday of Orthodoxy, we proclaim:
…Thus we declare, thus we assert, thus we preach Christ our true God, and honor as Saints in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in churches, in Holy Icons; on the one hand worshipping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord, and on the other hand honoring as true servants of the same Lord of all and accordingly offering them veneration… This is the Faith of the Apostles, this is the Faith of the Fathers, this is the Faith of the Orthodox, this is the Faith which has established the Universe.
What does this have to do with heads and bodies? The word “icon” itself means a body, and its role is to manifest the glory of the saints, as the saints are to manifest the glory of God.
We don’t have a choice about whether we will live in a universe with headship, but we do have a choice whether to work with the grain or against it, work with it to our profit or fight it to our detriment. Let’s make headship part of how we rejoice in God and his Creation.
Let me begin by sharing my favorite For Better or for Worse strip. On a night that is dark, wet, and probably quite cold, John Patterson steps into a cab and says, “What a miserable day!” The cabby surprises him by saying, “Actually, to Me, It Is a Very Good Day.”
John is surprised, but the cabby explains. “You see,” he says, “I am from Sudan. I have seen my friends shot and killed. I have a wife whom I have not seen in two years, and a son whom I have never seen. But every day I save a little, and I am that much closer to bringing them here.” At the end of the trip, John rather pensively pays and tips the cabby.
Then he steps in the door—it is still dark, wet, and probably rather cold—and his wife says, “What a miserable day!”
John simply puts his arms around her and their little girl, and said, “Actually, to Me, It Is a Very Good Day.”
This is a good vignette to be mindful of, and if economic times are rougher now than when these words first appeared, it does not diminish their truth in the least. To me, it is a very good day.
To me, it is a very good day.
And let me explain what I mean.
One of my goals in life has been to be a scholar, and I’ve tried hard to earn credentials to teach in theology. Given the difficulties Ph.D. holders have getting a job, it seemed to me to be rather silly to apply for a job without getting the standard “union card:” a Ph.D.
I became a graduate student in theology while overcoming cancer, and earned a master’s in theology under Cambridge’s philosophy of religion seminar. And, after some time to recover, I entered a Ph.D. program. And…
I’ve spent a lot of time looking for a way to explain what happened in the Ph.D. program. Eventually, I began to suspect that I might be having such difficulty finding an appropriate way to explain those events because they are not the kind of thing that can be explained appropriately.
So let me say the following.
I’m a pretty bright guy. Ranked 7th in a nationwide math contest. Did an independent study of calculus in middle school. Studied over a dozen languages. And so on.
I honestly found more than one thing at the university to be worse than suffering chemo. (And chemotherapy included the worst hour of merely physical pain in my life.)
The university is not budging in their position that, as my GPA in all that happened was 3.386/4.0 and a 3.5 was required, I have washed out of their Ph.D. program.
And I’m not sure, after an experience like that, that I’m really in the best position to apply to another program: references are important, and it would show a profound naïveté to tell a professor, “I know you retaliated for my gestures of friendship, but you’ll still be kind and give me a good letter of reference, right?” I am not in the best position to apply to another Ph.D. program. And I wish to very clearly say, today is a very good day to me.
The goals I was pursuing are a privilege and not a right. For that matter, the job I have now is not something to be taken for granted. I have a job that is meeting all my basic expenses. Most jobs you have at least one pest to deal with. Not this one; there is not a single person at my job that I would rather not deal with. They’re all decent people.
If I had my way and got my Ph.D., there are other things that probably would not have happened, including my books being published. And I am quite glad for that. And even in theology, I may never be involved with theology on the terms I envisioned, but that is not nearly so final as it sounds, and I would like to be clear about that.
A Christian in the West may or may not find it strange to place theology in the category of “academic disciplines.” In Orthodoxy the placement is strange indeed, because theology, even in its treatment of texts, is much more a spiritual discipline of prayer than a technical discipline of analysis. And in that sense, the door to theology is as open to me as it ever was: it is a door that I can enter through repentance, and is as open to me now as much as any time.
To me, it is a very good day.
And perhaps I may well leave behind something value, but perhaps God did not intend it to be scholarship. Perhaps I was just meant to write.
And on that note, I would like to share some snippets, some highlights, from my books.
The books include several shorter works building up to a long piece; The Sign of the Grail tells the story of a young man whose world begins to deepen when he discovers, in his college dorm room, a book of Arthurian legends:
After eating part of his meal, George opened Brocéliande, flipping from place to place until an illustration caught his eye. He read:
Merlin walked about in the clearing on the Isle of Avalon. To his right was the castle, and to his left was the forest. Amidst the birdsong a brook babbled, and a faint fragrance of frankincense flowed.
Sir Galahad walked out of the castle portal, and he bore a basket of bread.
Then Galahad asked Merlin about his secrets and ways, of what he could do and his lore, of his calling forth from the wood what a man anchored in the castle could never call forth. And Galahad enquired, and Merlin answered, and Galahad enquired of Merlin if Merlin knew words that were more words than our words and more mystically real than the British tongue, and then the High Latin tongue, and then the tongue of Old Atlantis. And then Galahad asked after anything beyond Atlantis, and Merlin’s inexhaustible fount ran dry.
Then Sir Galahad asked Merlin of his wood, of the stones and herbs, and the trees and birds, and the adder and the dragon, the gryphon and the lion, and the unicorn whom only a virgin may touch. And Merlin spake to him him of the pelican, piercing her bosom that her young may feed, and the wonders, virtues, and interpretation of each creature, until Galahad asked of the dragon’s head for which Uther had been called Uther Pendragon, and every Pendragon after him bore the title of King and Pendragon. Merlin wot the virtue of the dragon’s body, but of the dragon’s head he wot nothing, and Sir Galahad spake that it was better that Merlin wist not.
Then Sir Galahad did ask Merlin after things of which he knew him nothing, of what was the weight of fire, and of what is the end of natural philosophy without magic art, and what is a man if he enters not in the castle, and “Whom doth the Grail serve?”, and of how many layers the Grail hath. And Merlin did avow that of these he wist not none.
Then Merlin asked, “How is it that you are wise to ask after these all?”
Then Galahad spake of a soft voice in Merlin his ear and anon Merlin ran into the wood, bearing bread from the castle.
George was tired, and he wished he could read more. But he absently closed the book, threw away what was left of his hamburgers and fries, and crawled into bed. It seemed but a moment that he was dreaming.
George found himself on the enchanted Isle of Avalon, and it seemed that the Grail Castle was not far off.
George was in the castle, and explored room after room, entranced. Then he opened a heavy wooden door and found himself facing the museum exhibit, and he knew he was seeing the same 5th-6th century sword from the Celtic lands, only it looked exactly like a wall hanger sword he had seen online, a replica of a 13th century Provençale longsword that was mass produced, bore no artisan’s fingerprints, and would split if it struck a bale of hay. He tried to make it look like the real surface, ever so real, that he had seen, but machined steel never changed.
Then George looked at the plaque, and every letter, every word, every sentence was something he could read but the whole thing made no sense. Then the plaque grew larger and larger, until the words and even letters grew undecipherable, and he heard what he knew were a dragon’s footprints and smelled the stench of acrid smoke. George went through room and passage until the noises grew louder, and chanced to glance at a pool and see his reflection.
He could never remember what his body looked like, but his head was unmistakably the head of a dragon.
And the story of this nightmare is part of the story of how he begins questing for the Holy Grail and ultimately wakes up in life.
The crown of Earth is the temple,
and the crown of the temple is Heaven.
Stephan ran to get away from his pesky sister—if nothing else he could at least outrun her!
Where to go?
One place seemed best, and his legs carried him to the chapel—or, better to say, the temple. The chapel was a building which seemed larger from the inside than the outside, and (though this is less remarkable than it sounds) it is shaped like an octagon on the outside and a cross on the inside.
Stephan slowed down to a walk. This place, so vast and open and full of light on the inside—a mystically hearted architect who read The Timeless Way of Building might have said that it breathed—and Stephan did not think of why he felt so much at home, but if he did he would have thought of the congregation worshipping with the skies and the seas, the rocks and the trees, and choir after choir of angels, and perhaps he would have thought of this place not only as a crown to earth but a room of Heaven.
What he was thinking of was the Icon that adorns the Icon stand, and for that matter adorns the whole temple. It had not only the Icons, but the relics of (from left to right) Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint John Chrysostom, and Saint Basil the Great. His mother had told Stephan that they were very old, and Stephan looked at her and said, “Older than email? Now that is old!” She closed her eyes, and when she opened them she smiled. “Older than email,” she said, “and electric lights, and cars, and a great many of the kinds of things in our house, and our country, and…” her voice trailed off. He said, “Was it as old as King Arthur?” She said, “It is older than even the tale of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.”
This story, incidentally, is set in a real place. I have been there.
You pull your arms to your side and glide through the water. On your left is a fountain of bubbles, upside down, beneath a waterfall; the bubbles shoot down and then cascade out and to the surface. To your right swims a school of colorful fish, red and blue with thin black stripes. The water is cool, and you can feel the currents gently pushing and pulling on your body. Ahead of you, seaweed above and long, bright green leaves below wave back and forth, flowing and bending. You pull your arms, again, with a powerful stroke which shoots you forward under the seaweed; your back feels cool in the shade. You kick, and you feel the warmth of the sun again, soaking in and through your skin and muscles. Bands of light dance on the sand beneath you, as the light is bent and turned by the waves.
There is a time of rest and stillness; all is at a deep and serene peace. The slow motion of the waves, the dancing lights below and above, the supple bending of the plants, all form part of a stillness. It is soothing, like the soft, smooth notes of a lullaby.
Your eyes slowly close, and you feel even more the warm sunlight, and the gentle caresses of the sea. And, in your rest, you become more aware of a silent presence. You were not unaware of it before, but you are more aware of it now. It is there:
Like a tree with water slowly flowing in, through roots hidden deep within the earth, and filling it from the inside out, you abide in the presence. It is a moment spent, not in time, but in eternity.
Firestorm 2034 tells the story of a brilliant medieval traveler transported to some twenty or thirty years in our future. It’s a little like a story told more compactly and more like a dream:
It was late in the day, and my feet were hurting.
I had spent the past three hours on the winding path up the foothills, and you will excuse me if I was not paying attention to the beauty around me.
I saw it, and then wondered how I had not seen it—an alabaster palace rising out of the dark rock around it, hidden in a niche as foothill became mountain. After I saw it, I realized—I could not tell if the plants around me were wild or garden, but there was a grassy spot around it. Some of my fatigue eased as I looked into a pond and saw koi and goldfish swimming.
I looked around and saw the Gothic buildings, the trees, the stone path and walkways. I was beginning to relax, when I heard a voice say, “Good evening,” and looked, and realized there was a man on the bench in front of me.
He was wearing a grey-green monk’s robe, and cleaning a gun. He looked at me for a moment, tucked the gun into a shack, and welcomed me in.
Outside, the sun was setting. At the time, I thought of the last rays of the dying sun—but it was not that, so much as day giving birth to night. We passed inside to a hallway, with wooden chairs and a round wooden table. It seemed brightly enough lit, if by torchlight.
My guide disappeared into a hallway, and returned with two silver chalices, and set one before me. He raised his chalice, and took a sip.
The wine was a dry white wine—refreshing and cold as ice. It must have gone to my head faster than I expected; I gave a long list of complaints, about how inaccessible this place was, and how hard the road. He listened silently, and I burst out, “Can you get the master of this place to come to me? I need to see him personally.”
The servant softly replied, “He knows you are coming, and he will see you before you leave. In the mean time, may I show you around his corner of the world?”
I felt anger flaring within me; I am a busy man, and do not like to waste my time with subordinates. If it was only one of his underlings who would be available, I would have sent a subordinate myself. As I thought this, I was surprised to hear myself say, “Please.”
We set down the chalices, and started walking through a maze of passageways. He took a small oil lamp, one that seemed to burn brightly, and we passed through a few doors before stepping into a massive room.
The room blazed with intense brilliance; I covered my eyes, and wondered how they made a flame to burn so bright. Then I realized that the chandaliers were lit with incandescent light. The shelves had illuminated manuscripts next to books with plastic covers—computer science next to bestiaries. My guide went over by one place, tapped with his finger—and I realized that he was at a computer.
Perhaps reading the look on my face, my guide told me, “The master uses computers as much as you do. Do you need to check your e-mail?”
I asked, “Why are there torches in the room you left me in, and electric light here?”
He said, “Is a person not permitted to use both? The master, as you call him, believes that technology is like alcohol—good within proper limits—and not something you have to use as much as you can. There are electric lights here because their brilliance makes reading easier on the eyes. Other rooms have torches, or nothing at all, because a flame has a different meaning, one that we prefer. Never mind; I can get you a flashlight if you like. Oh, and you can take off your watch now. It won’t work here.”
“It won’t work? Look, it keeps track of time to the second, and it is working as we speak!”
The man studied my watch, though I think he was humoring me, and said, “It will give a number as well here as anywhere else. But that number means very little here, and you would do just as well to put it in your pocket.”
I looked at my watch, and kept it on. He asked, “What time is it?”
I looked, and said, “19:58.”
“Is that all?”
I told him the seconds, and then the date and year, and added, “But it doesn’t feel like the 21st century here.” I was beginning to feel a little nervous.
He said, “What century do you think it is here?”
I said, “Like a medieval time that someone’s taken a scissors to. You have a garden with perfect gothic architecture, and you in a monk’s robe, holding an expensive-looking rifle. And a computer in a library that doesn’t even try to organize books by subject or time.”
I looked around on the wall, and noticed a hunting trophy. Or at least that’s what I took it for at first. There was a large sheild-shaped piece of wood, such as would come with a beautiful stag—but no animal’s head. Instead, there were hundreds upon hundreds of bullet holes in the wood—enough that the wood should have shattered. I walked over, and read the glass plate: “This magnificent deer shot 1-4-98 in Wisconsin with an AK-47. God bless the NRA.”
I laughed a minute, and said, “What is this doing in here?”
The servant said, “What is anything doing here? Does it surprise you?”
I said, “From what I have heard, the master of this place is very serious about life.”
My guide said, “Of course he is. And he cherishes laughter.”
I looked around a bit, but could not understand why the other things were there—only be puzzled at how anyone could arrange a computer and other oddments to make a room that felt unmistably medieval. Or was it? “What time is it here? To you?”
My guide said, “Every time and no time. We do not measure time by numbers here; to the extent that time is ‘measured’, we ‘measure’ by what fills it—something qualitative and not quantiative. Your culture measures a place’s niche in history by how many physical years have passed before it; we understand that well enough, but we reckon time, not by its place in the march of seconds, but by the content of its character. You may think of this place as medieval if you want; others view it as ancient, and not a small part is postmodern—more than the computer is contemporary.”
I looked at my watch. Only five minutes had passed. I felt frustration and puzzlement, and wondered how long this could go on.
“When can we move on from here?”
“When you are ready. You aren’t ready yet.”
I looked at my watch. Not even ten seconds had passed. The second hand seemed to be moving very slowly.
I felt something moving in the back of my mind, but I tried to push it back. The second hand continued on its lazy journey, and then—I took off my watch and put it in my pocket.
My guide stood up and said, “Walk this way, please.”
He led me to a doorway, opening a door, and warning me not to step over the threshold. I looked, and saw why—there was a drop of about a foot, into a pool of water. The walls were blue, and there was sand at the far end. Two children—a little boy and a little girl—were making sand castles.
He led me through the mazelike passages to rooms I cannot describe. One room had mechanical devices in all stages of assembly and disassembly. Another was bare and clean. The kitchen had pepperoni and peppers hanging, and was filled with an orange glow that was more than torchlight. There was a deserted classroom filled with flickering blue light, and then we walked into a theatre.
The chamber was small, and this theatre had more than the usual slanted floor. The best way I could describe it is to say that it was a wall, at times vertical, with handholds and outcroppings. There were three women and two men on the stage, but not standing—or sitting, for that matter. They were climbing, shifting about as they talked.
I could not understand their language, but there was something about it that fascinated me. I was surprised to find myself listening to it. I was even more surprised to realize that, if I could not understand the words, I could no less grasp the story. It was a story of friendship, and there is something important in that words melted into song, and climbing into dance.
I watched to the end. The actors and actresses did not disappear backstage, but simply climbed down into the audience, and began talking with people. I could not tell if the conversation was part of the act, or if they were just seeing friends. I wondered if it really made any difference—and then realized, with a flash, that I had caught a glimpse into how this place worked.
When I wanted to go, the servant led me to a room filled with pipes. He cranked a wheel, and I heard gears turning, and began to see the jet black keys of an organ. He played a musical fragment; it sounded incomplete.
He said, “Play.”
I closed my eyes and said, “I don’t know how to play any instrument.”
He repeated the fragment and said, “That doesn’t matter. Play.”
There followed a game of question and answer—he would improvise a snatch of music, and I would follow. I would say that it was beautiful, but I couldn’t really put it that way. It would be better to say that his music was mediocre, and mine didn’t quite reach that standard.
We walked out into a cloister. I gasped. There was a sheltered pathway around a grassy court and a pool stirred by fish. It was illumined by moon and star, and the brilliance was dazzling.
We walked around, and I looked. In my mind’s eye I could see white marble statues of saints praying—I wasn’t sure, but I made up my mind to suggest that to the master. After a time we stopped walking on the grass, and entered another door.
Not too far into the hallway, he turned, set the oil lamp into a small alcove, and began to rise up the wall. Shortly before disappearing into the blackness above, he said, “Climb.”
I learn a little, I think. I did not protest; I put my hands and feet on the wall, and felt nothing. I leaned against it, and felt something give way—something yielding to give a handhold. Then I started climbing. I fell a couple of times, but reached the shadows where he disappeared. He took me by the hand and began to lead me along a path.
I could feel a wall on either side, and then nothing, save his hand and my feet. Where was I? I said, “I can’t see!”
A woman’s voice said, “No one can see here. Eyes aren’t needed.” I felt an arm around my waist, and a gentle squeeze.
I felt that warmth, and said, “I came to this place because I wanted to see the master of this house, and I wanted to see him personally. Now—I am ready to leave without seeing him. I have seen enough, and I no longer want to trouble him.”
I felt my guide’s hand on my shoulder, and heard his voice as he said, “You have seen me personally, and you are not troubling me. You are here at my invitation. You will always be welcome here.”
When I first entered the house, I would have been stunned. Now, it seemed the last puzzle piece in something I had been gathering since I started hiking.
The conversation was deep, and I cannot tell you what was said. I don’t mean that I forgot it—I remember it clearly enough. I don’t really mean that it would be a breach of confidence—it might be that as well. What I mean is that there was something special in that room, and it would not make much sense to you even if I could explain it. If I were to say that we talked in a room without light, where you had to feel around to move about—it would be literally true, but beside the point. When I remember the room, I do not think about what wasn’t there, but what was there. I was glad I took off my watch—but I cannot say why. The best thing I can say is that if you can figure out how a person could be aware of a succession of moments, and at the same time have time sense that is not entirely linear—or at very least not just linear—you have a glimpse of what I found in that room.
We talked long, and it was late into the next day when I got up from a perfectly ordinary guestroom, packed, and left. I put on my watch, returned to my business, and started working on the backlog of invoices and meetings that accumulated in my absence. I’m still pretty busy, but I have never left that room.
Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary is a thin volume for a dictionary, but then it works a little unlike the more standard dictionary one uses to look things up:
Form, n. A piece of paper used by administrations to deter people from using their services. It is the opinion of this lexicographer that the following form could be of the utmost assistance in helping bureaucracies more effectively serve those under their care.
Form to Request Information in the Form of a Form
Section 1: Personal Information
Name: ___________________________ Sex: [ ]M [ ]F Date of Birth: __/__/__ Social Security Number: ___-__-____ Driver’s License Number: ____-____-____ VISA/MasterCard Number: ____-____-____-____ Mailing Address, Business: Street:_____________________________ City:________________ State:__ ZIP Code:_____ Mailing Address, Home: Street:_____________________________ City:________________ State:__ ZIP Code:_____ Telephone, Work: (___)___-____, Ext. ____ Telephone, Home: (___)___-____ Telephone, Car: (___)___-____ Beeper: (___)___-____ Chicago High School: [ ]Y [ ]N E-mail Address: ____________________________________________________ (if address is in domain aol.com or webtv.net, please explain on a separate sheet of paper) Height: _’, __” Weight: ___# Hair: ______ Eyes: _____ Blood type: __ IQ: __ Political Affiliation: [ ]Federalist [ ]Republican [ ]Democrat [ ]Libertarian [ ]Monarchist [ ]Socialist [ ]Marxist [ ]Communist [ ]Nazi [ ]Fascist [ ]Anarchist [ ]Other (Please specify:_____________) Citizenship: [ ]United States, including Canada and other territories [ ]Mexico [ ]California [ ]Other (Please specify:_____________________) Race: [ ]Caucasian/Pigmentally Challenged [ ]African [ ]Asian [ ]Hispanic/Latino [ ]Amerindian [ ]Heinz-57 [ ]Other (Please specify: __________________) [ ]An athletic event where people run around an oval again and again and again.
Page 1 * End of Section 1 of 3
Section 2: Form Description
Length of Form, in Characters: _____ Number of Questions or Required Data: ____ Expected Time to Complete: __ Hours, __ Minutes, __ Seconds. Expected Mental Effort Required to Complete: __________________________ (if form would insult the intelligence of a senile hamster, please explain on a separate sheet of paper) Expected number of questions judged to be annoying, unnecessary, and/or personally offensive: __ Expected time wasted on questions judged to be annoying, unnecessary, and/or personally offensive: __ Hours, __ Minutes, __ Seconds. Expected blood pressure increase while filling out form: __ mmHg systolic, __ mmHg diastolic.
If further contemplation has led you to believe that some of the questions asked are not strictly necessary to provide the service that you offer upon completion of said form, please enclose revised prototype here.
Page 2 * End of Section 2 of 3
Section 3: Essay Questions
Please explain, in 500 words or less, your philosophy concerning the use of forms.
Please explain, in 200 words or less, why you designed this form as you did.
Please explain, in 300 words or less, why you believe that this form is necessary. If you are in a service oriented sector and desire to require the form of people you serve, please explain why you believe that requiring people to fill out forms constitutes a service to them.
When this form is completed, please return to the address provided. The Committee for Selecting Forms will carefully examine your case and delegate responsibility to an appropriate subcommittee.
Please allow approximately six to eight weeks for the appointed subcommittee to lose your file in a paper shuffle.
Page 3 * End of Section 3 of 3
But many of the definitions are shorter: “Christmas, n. An annual holiday celebrating the coming of the chief Deity of Western civilization: Mammon.”
Yonder is a shorter work, like the others can be mischievous and iconoclastic, and opens with a fictitious news article heralding the discovery of an inclusive language manuscript for a good chunk of the Greek New Testament. The culminating work is a Socratic dialogue, set in a science fiction thoughtscape that paints a terrifying silhouette and asks a terrifying question, “What if we really didn’t have the things about a world of men and women and all the things that we chafe at?” Along the way to that work comes a moment of rest:
The day his daughter Abigail was born was the best day of Abraham’s life. Like father, like daughter, they said in the village, and especially of them. He was an accomplished musician, and she breathed music.
He taught her a music that was simple, pure, powerful. It had only one voice; it needed only one voice. It moved slowly, unhurriedly, and had a force that was spellbinding. Abraham taught Abigail many songs, and as she grew, she began to make songs of her own. Abigail knew nothing of polyphony, nor of hurried technical complexity; her songs needed nothing of them. Her songs came from an unhurried time out of time, gentle as lapping waves, and mighty as an ocean.
One day a visitor came, a young man in a white suit. He said, “Before your father comes, I would like you to see what you have been missing.” He took out a music player, and began to play.
Abby at first covered her ears; she was in turn stunned, shocked, and intrigued. The music had many voices, weaving in and out of each other quickly, intricately. She heard wheels within wheels within wheels within wheels of complexity. She began to try, began to think in polyphony — and the man said, “I will come to you later. It is time for your music with your father.”
Every time in her life, sitting down at a keyboard with her father was the highlight of her day. Every day but this day. This day, she could only think about how simple and plain the music was, how lacking in complexity. Abraham stopped his song and looked at his daughter. “Who have you been listening to, Abigail?”
Something had been gnawing at Abby’s heart; the music seemed bleak, grey. It was as if she had beheld the world in fair moonlight, and then a blast of eerie light assaulted her eyes — and now she could see nothing. She felt embarrassed by her music, ashamed to have dared to approach her father with anything so terribly unsophisticated. Crying, she gathered up her skirts and ran as if there were no tomorrow.
Tomorrow came, and the day after; it was a miserable day, after sleeping in a gutter. Abigail began to beg, and it was over a year before another beggar let her play on his keyboard. Abby learned to play in many voices; she was so successful that she forgot that she was missing something. She occupied herself so fully with intricate music that in another year she was asked to give concerts and performances. Her music was rich and full, and her heart was poor and empty.
Years passed, and Abigail gave the performance of her career. It was before a sold-out audience, and it was written about in the papers. She walked out after the performance and the reception, with moonlight falling over soft grass and fireflies dancing, and something happened.
Abby heard the wind blowing in the trees.
In the wind, Abigail heard music, and in the wind and the music Abigail heard all the things she had lost in her childhood. It was as if she had looked in an image and asked, “What is that wretched thing?” — and realized she was looking into a mirror. No, it was not quite that; it was as if in an instant her whole world was turned upside down, and her musical complexity she could not bear. She heard all over again the words, “Who have you been listening to?” — only, this time, she did not think them the words of a jealous monster, but words of concern, words of “Who has struck a blow against you?” She saw that she was blind and heard that she was deaf: that the hearing of complexity had not simply been an opening of her ears, but a wounding, a smiting, after which she could not know the concentrated presence a child had known, no matter how complex — or how simple — the music became. The sword cut deeper when she tried to sing songs from her childhood, at first could remember none, then could remember one — and it sounded empty — and she knew that the song was not empty. It was her. She lay down and wailed.
Suddenly, she realized she was not alone. An old man was watching her. Abigail looked around in fright; there was nowhere to run to hide. “What do you want?” she said.
“There is music even in your wail.”
“I loathe music.”
There was a time of silence, a time that drew uncomfortably long, and Abigail asked, “What is your name?”
The man said, “Look into my eyes. You know my name.”
Abigail stood, poised like a man balancing on the edge of a sword, a chasm to either side. She did not — Abigail shrieked with joy. “Daddy!”
“It has been a long time since we’ve sat down at music, sweet daughter.”
“You don’t want to hear my music. I was ashamed of what we used to play, and I am now ashamed of it all.”
“Oh, child! Yes, I do. I will never be ashamed of you. Will you come and walk with me? I have a keyboard.”
As Abby’s fingers began to dance, she first felt as if she were being weighed in the balance and found wanting. The self-consciousness she had finally managed to banish in her playing was now there — ugly, repulsive — and then she was through it. She made a horrible mistake, and then another, and then laughed, and Abraham laughed with her. Abby began to play and then sing, serious, inconsequential, silly, and delightful in the presence of her father. It was as if shackles fell from her wrists, her tongue loosed — she thought for a moment that she was like a little girl again, playing at her father’s side, and then knew that it was better. What could she compare it to? She couldn’t. She was at a simplicity beyond complexity, and her father called forth from her music that she could never have done without her trouble. The music seemed like dance, like laughter; it was under and around and through her, connecting her with her father, a moment out of time.
After they had both sung and laughed and cried, Abraham said, “Abby, will you come home with me? My house has never been the same without you.”
There are some other passages that I would like to quote, but I’ll stop with one more, from The Steel Orb, which ends with a paired science fiction short work and a fantasy novella. Both of those works share in this paean’s joy:
With what words
shall I hymn the Lord of Heaven and Earth,
the Creator of all things visible and invisible?
Shall I indeed meditate
on the beauty of his Creation?
As I pray to Thee, Lord,
what words shall I use,
and how shall I render Thee praise?
Shall I thank thee for the living tapestry,
oak and maple and ivy and grass,
that I see before me
as I go to return to Thee at Church?
Shall I thank Thee for Zappy,
and for her long life—
eighteen years old and still catching mice?
Shall I thank thee for her tiger stripes,
the color of pepper?
Shall I thank thee for her kindness,
and the warmth of her purr?
Shall I thank Thee for a starry sapphire orb
hung with a million million diamonds, where
“The heavens declare the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims the work of his hands.
Day to day utters speech,
and night to night proclaims knowledge.
There are no speeches or words,
in which their voices are not heard.
Their voice is gone out into all the earth,
and their words to the end of the earth.
In the sun he has set his tabernacle;
and he comes forth as a bridegroom out of his chamber: he will exult as a giant to run his course.”?
Shall I thank Thee for the river of time,
now flowing quickly,
now flowing slowly,
now flowing straight and clear,
now swirling in eddies that dance?
Shall I thank Thee for the hymns and songs,
the chant at Church, when we praise Thee in the head of Creation, the vanguard of Creation that has come from Thee in Thy splendor and to Thee returns in reverence?
Shall I thank thee for the Chalice:
a shadow of,
a participation in,
a re-embodiment of,
the Holy Grail?
Shall I forget how the Holy Grail itself
is but the shadow,
the golden surface reflecting the light,
secondary reflection to the primeval light,
the wrapping paper that disintegrates next to the Gift it holds:
that which is
mystically and really
the body and the blood of Christ:
the family of saints
for me to be united to,
and the divine Life?
Shall I meditate
on how I am fed
by the divine generosity
and the divine gift
of the divine energies?
Shall I thank Thee for a stew I am making,
or for a body nourished by food?
Shall I indeed muse that there is
nothing else I could be nourished by,
for spaghetti and bread and beer
are from a whole cosmos
illuminated by the divine light,
a candle next to the sun,
a beeswax candle,
where the sun’s energy filters through plants
and the work of bees
and the work of men
to deliver light and energy from the sun,
and as candle to sun,
so too is the bread of earth
to the Bread that came from Heaven,
the work of plants and men,
the firstfruits of Earth
returned to Heaven,
that they may become
the firstfruits of Heaven
returned to earth?
Shall I muse on the royal “we,”
where the kings and queens
said not of themselves”I”, but “we”
while Christians are called to say “we”
and learn that the “I” is to be transformed,
when we move beyond “Me, me, me,”
to learn to say, “we”?
And the royal priesthood is one in which we are called to be
a royal priesthood,
a chosen people,
more than conquerors,
a Church of God’s eclecticism,
a family of little Christs,
sons to God and brothers to Christ,
the ornament of the visible Creation,
of rocks and trees and stars and seas,
and the spiritual Creation as well:
seraphim, cherubim, thrones
dominions, principalities, authorities,
powers, archangels, angels,
rank on rank of angels,
singing before the presence of God,
and without whom no one can plumb the depths
of the world that can be seen and touched.
For to which of the angels did God say,
“You make my Creation complete,” or
“My whole Creation, visible and invisible,
is encapsulated in you,
summed up in your human race?”
To which of the angels
did the divine Word say,
“I am become what you are
that you may become what I am?”
To which of the angels did the Light say,
“Thou art my Son; today I have adopted Thee,”
and then turn to say,
“You are my sons; today I have adopted you;
because I AM WHO I AM,
you are who you are.”?
So I am called to learn to say, “we”,
and when we learn to say we,
that “we” means,
a royal priesthood,
a chosen people,
more than conquerors,
a Church of God’s eclecticism,
a family of little Christs,
the ornament of Creation, visible and invisible,
called to lead the whole Creation
loved into being by God,
to be in love
that to God they may return.
And when we worship thus,
it cannot be only us, for
apples and alligators,
boulders and bears,
creeks and crystals,
dolphins and dragonflies,
eggplants and emeralds,
fog and furballs,
galaxies and grapes,
horses and habaneros,
ice and icicles,
jacinth and jade,
kangaroos and knots,
lightning and light,
meadows and mist,
nebulas and neutrons,
oaks and octupi,
porcupines and petunias,
quails and quarks,
rocks and rivers,
skies and seas,
toads and trees,
ukeleles and umber umbrellas,
wine and weirs,
xylophones and X-rays,
yuccas and yaks,
zebras and zebrawood,
are all called to join us before Thy throne
in the Divine Liturgy:
Praise ye the Lord.
Praise ye the Lord from the heavens:
praise him in the heights.
Praise ye him, all his angels:
praise ye him, all his hosts.
Praise ye him, sun and moon:
praise him, all ye stars of light.
Praise him, ye heavens of heavens,
and ye waters that be above the heavens.
Let them praise the name of the Lord:
for he commanded, and they were created.
He hath also stablished them for ever and ever:
he hath made a decree which shall not pass.
Praise the Lord from the earth, ye dragons, and all deeps:
Fire, and hail; snow, and vapours;
stormy wind fulfilling his word:
Mountains, and all hills;
fruitful trees, and all cedars:
Beasts, and all cattle;
creeping things, and flying fowl:
Kings of the earth, and all people;
princes, and all judges of the earth:
Both young men, and maidens;
old men, and children:
Let them praise the name of the Lord:
for his name alone is excellent;
his glory is above the earth and heaven.
He also exalteth the horn of his people,
the praise of all his saints;
even of the children of Israel,
a people near unto him.
Praise ye the Lord.
And my blessings are not just that, unlike the cab driver, I have not seen my friends shot and killed. Nor is it just that I have a job in a time when having a job shouldn’t be taken for granted—working with kind co-workers, and a good boss, to boot. I’ve received my first major book review—and, I hope, not the last:
Down through the centuries, the Legend of King Arthur has been used as an icon for so many literary works in the western world. “The Sign of the Grail” is a collection of memorable literary works by CJS Hayward centering around the Holy Grail and what it means to orthodox religion, as well as those who follow those teachings. Tackling diverse subjects such as iconography and an earthly paradise, he pulls no punches when dealing with many of the topics laid out through the legends. “The Sign of the Grail” is a unique, scholarly, and thorough examination of the Grail mythos, granting it a top reccommendation for academia and the non-specialist general reader with an interest in these subjects. Also very highly recommended for personal, academic, and community library collections are CJS Hayward’s other deftly written and original literary works, essays, and commentaries compilations and anthologies: “Yonder” (9780615202174, $40.00); “Firestorm 2034” (9780615202167, $40.00), “A Cord of Seven Strands” (9780615202174, $40.00), “The Steel Orb” (9780615193618, $40.00), “The Christmas Tales” (9780615193632, $40.00), and “Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary” (9780615193625, $40.00).
This lecture was given Oct. 26, 2001 during the Midwestern Mensa regional gathering, at the Arlington Heights Sheraton.
Introductory remarks by Dr. Mike Doyle, CEO and Founder of Eolas Technologies: I first met CJS Hayward on the MegaList about a year and a half ago. I was impressed enough by his abilities to hire him at the first opportunity, and he now works as a software developer for Eolas Technologies. Jonathan, in one year, did an independent study of calculus, programmed a four-dimensional maze, and ranked 7th nationally in the 1989 MathCounts competition. Then he turned 14 and turned his attention to deeper challenges. He has studied at Wheaton College, the Sorbonne, and the University of Illinois. Like many profoundly gifted, Jonathan moves among a wide range of interests. He is now focused on writing. He has been published in Ubiquity, Noesis, Inner Sanctum, Perfection, and nowVidya, with Religion Within the Bounds of Amusement. Please welcome him as he speaks about his experiences as a profoundly gifted individual.
Jonathan: Thank you. It is a privelege to be here; I have been looking forward to this night, a time when we can connect and share—not only through our costumes. More on my costume later. Before I begin my speech proper, I’d like to deal with a couple of preliminaries. I have a slight speech impediment; I’ll try to speak clearly, but you may have to work a little harder to understand me. Second, I’d like to review the seven points of my speech, the seven facets of the seven-sided gem:
Metaculture: a term which I coined and which I’ll explain.
Ages and cultures: by ‘ages’ I mean different temporal ages, not how old a person is.
Beyond the Binet-Simon: alternative approaches to intelligence estimation.
Inside the glass wall: a private symbol I’ll explain.
A musing life: Do I mean a life that is amusing or a life that has musing? I’ll explain that.
Thinking inside the box: lessons learned from living among IQ normals.
Mystic, Artist, Christian.
Don’t talk about the things you’re interested in with someone you’ve just met. Never mind that, to you, abstract conversation is a staple of acquaintanceship and friendship. To the other person, it may be boring, unpleasant, or a sign of unwanted romantic interest.
Never mind that you have five points of great subtlety and complexity. Pick one, and when you have simplified past the point of distortion, be ready for the other person to say, “Excuse me. Could you say that in English?”
Don’t assume that the person in authority believes, “The rules exist for the betterment of the community and are therefore negotiable when they do not contribute to that end.” Even if the rules do not consider your case, even if they end up hurting you, expect, “The rules are the rules and I am not here to make exceptions.”
Never mind that you can shift your culture at will, or that it is something you must do to connect with others. Don’t try explaining it to others, and whatever you do don’t ask them to do so. If you do, they will experience culture shock and react accordingly. Never mind that to you, foreign cultures are familiar and familiar cultures foreign. Don’t try to explain this either. It asks them to do something completely unfair.
Be very careful in sharing accomplishments, or even things you don’t think of as accomplishments, just cherished moments. To the other person, they may well be intimidating to the point of alienation.
Grieve a thousand wounds, but don’t fall prey to the worst wound of all. Don’t come to believe, “I will never connect with them, and they will never understand me.” If you do, you will find yourself in a sort of Hell—not in the world to come, but here on earth. You will be in a Hell of isolation, an alien in an alien land.
They can joke. That’s why you’re frustrated they don’t understand your humor. They can think. That’s why you’re hurt and upset when they never fathom your deepest thoughts. To those separated by the greatest chasm, is given the greatest ability to bridge chasms.
Perhaps it is harder than doing calculus in middle school or creating a language. It is still something you can do. That intellect that leaves people dazed is the intellect you can use to communicate—connect—in ways that aren’t open to them. That burning intensity that’s gotten you into so much trouble can put fire in your friendships such as many of your friends would never have otherwise known. That unique inner world, that you’ve closed the doors to, after being burned time and time again, is a place you may learn to draw people into. I cannot tell you how, but with a lot of hard work, a lot of patience, a lot of humility, a lot of forgiveness given and received, you may come to a point of synergy past the point where you wished you were not quite so gifted.
An anthropologist at this point might make the case that there is an unbridgeable chasm between the already very bright minds associated with Mensa, and the severely gifted. I’d rather say something different. I’d rather say the severely gifted experience is a crystallization of many things that make the Mensa experience distinctive, and there is a common bond of giftedness as well as the bond of being human. I’d rather say that what gap does exist is one that can be bridged. That is the premise this whole talk is based on.
A much better speaker than I am might be able to explain, in the abstract and in entirety, what the inner world and experience of the severely gifted is like. I can’t do that, but I have my sights set on a much more modest goal: to share something of my own inner world and experience, and light a candle of illumination.
When I was a student at Wheaton College, there was a chapel where students lined up and shared some of the, ahem, interesting questions they’d been asked: “You grew up in Japan? Say something in Chinese!” “Say something in African!” “What did it feel like growing up in Finland?” (Uh, I don’t know. Slight tingling sensation around the toes?) The chapel was given by missionary’s kids/third culture kids, sometimes abbreviated MK/TCK. A third culture kid is a kid who grows up surrounded by one host culture—let us say, blue—to parents who belong to another culture—let us say, yellow. They are neither properly blue nor properly yellow, but create a third culture that draws on both. This is not a simple average of the two cultures; there are common similarities, whether it’s a U.S. kid growing up in Kenya, or a Japanese growing up in the U.S. It is a different mode of experience, a different way of being human. Third culture kids tend to have a tremendous ability to adapt to new cultures, but at times a cost: the price of never being completely at home in a culture, as a fish in water. When I heard that chapel, I said, “That’s me!”
It is the characteristic of very creative minds to hit a very large nail not quite on the head. I am not literally a third culture kid; by the time I heard that chapel, I had not lived abroad. There was something deep that resonated, however. The best way I can describe it is that a third culture kid creates a third culture after being shaped by the outer forces of the host culture on one hand and his parents on the other, and a severely gifted individual is shaped by the outer forces of an IQ-normal world and an inner world from a different kind of mind: the higher you go on the IQ spectrum, there is less and less more of the same intelligence, and more and more of a different kind of intelligence altogether. I coined the term ‘metaculture’ to refer to the commonality of experience, a way of not ever being in a culture as a fish is in water. It brings pain, a sense of never fitting in, and at the same time a freedom from some of the blindnesses others can’t escape.
In talking about cultures, I’m hesitant to say that they’ve left an imprint on me, because the metaphor is deficient. It evokes an image of an active, solid, definite culture that leaves a mark on hot wax which is simply there to receive an imprint. The truth is much more interesting: the cultures are themselves, yes, but I am actively drawing, discerning, seeing what in them is of interest to me and can be drawn into myself. Anyone who knows cultures knows that conveying even one culture in five hours is impossible; I hope not to convey the cultures I visited, so much as give a sense of what sort of thing is interesting.
The summer after that chapel, I lived in Malaysia. My father spent the year teaching, and the rest of the family lived there. I got to spend the summer. I understand why my Mom said it was the best year of her life.
In American culture, there is always a clock tick-tick-ticking. It’s not just there when you look down at your watch; it may be more present when you’re not looking: when you’re visiting your friend and distracted with twenty other things to do that day, or on the road where you move faster than any human athlete can run, and one second’s needless delay is one second’s torment. In Malaysia, the clock’s constant ticking stops. This is not unique to Malaysia; those of you familiar with African cultures, or Latin American, will know something similar, but it is at any rate different from the U.S. It’s not exactly true that the Malaysians perceive time slowly where we perceive it quickly, as that the U.S. is conscious of time where Malaysians are conscious of other things. I have continued to shape my sense of time after leaving Malaysia, and come to focus not on time but on people, creation, and some work. If I try to spend a half an hour on my third novel, what will dominate is the half hour, not the novel; I try to give focused presence to what I am doing now and not have a clock cut up my emotions. It is a tremendous boon in writing, or being with people. I try to keep enough of an American time sense to not be needlessly rude by being late to appointments, but on the inside I seek a different time, and I believe my friendships and my creations are the better for it. Dost thou love life? Then do not quantize time, for numbers are not the stuff life’s made of.
Some time after that, I studied in Paris at the Sorbonne. It was a wonderful time; part of my heart is still there. During my time as a student, I acquired a taste for alcohol. One thing I realized rather quickly is that five ounces of wine is not much. If I had a glass of wine with dinner and tossed it back after my first bites, I could have another… and another… and another… and become rather quickly inebriated. Or I could simply not have any more wine. Or—there is an alternative—I could sip my wine, savor it.
In doing that, I tasted wine as I had not tasted any beverage before. Because there was so little, I learned to be present and enjoy much more than absently having a hazy awareness that something I liked was passing through my mouth. My absent awareness of sodas was not a bad thing; one thing I learned upon returning is that American soft drinks are not intended to be consumed that way. If you sip a small glass of Mountain Don’t, you will soon learn that Mountain Don’t isn’t meant to be so sipped. I learned to be present, not just to wine and non-alcoholic beverages like fruit drinks and Mocha, but also to food, and to a much broader circle. If I am in a public place, and music I like comes across the air, it is transient; it is fleeting. I cannot make it last any longer, but I can be present to it in the short time it does last. When a friend comes from out of town, in all likelihood her visit will be over before it has begun—but I can be present in that time as well. This presence has added something to my life complimentary to the time sense I acquired from Malaysia.
What’s the last culture? One that will take a bit more explaining, as I have to swim upstream against more than one thread of American culture. What is it that I have to swim up against? “This is an idea whose time has come.” “It’s the wave of the future.” “We’re entering the third millenium.”
If I were to speak of “an idea whose time has come, and gone,” or “the wave of the past,” it would be less clear that I was speaking a compliment. If I were to say, in the most reverent of tones, “We’re standing at the forty-second latitude and eighty-seventh longitude.”, you’d have every right to accuse me of a non sequitur. I believe that “We’re entering the third millenium.” is also a non sequitur, even though it is spoken as a statement of great significance.
There are two ideas closely intertwined: the doctrine of progress, which says we are better, nobler, wiser people than those who came before—a temporal version of ethnocentrism, which says that ideas like machines grow rust and need to be replaced—and period awareness, which goes beyond the historicist observation that all of us, past and present, exist in a historical-cultural context and are affected by it; period awareness fixes an unbridgeable chasm between the people who walked before and us; they are in a hermetically sealed box. The net respect is to believe that the peoples of the past cannot talk with us: we can point out how they were less enlightened times, but they certainly cannot criticize us.
My second novel, Firestorm 2034, is the story of a medieval in 21st century America. In the course of researching medieval culture, thinking about it, and trying to convey it, it left a mark on me in many ways similar to Malaysia and France. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a masterpiece of humor that is often mistaken for a reasonable treatment of medieval culture; my novel reverses it in more ways than one. Not only is it a medieval in America, but more deeply I reject the belief that the most significant difference between the medievals and us is that we have better technology. There is a wealth of culture and wisdom that has been largely lost.
What is one such area? The present issue of My Generation, the magazine of the American Association of Retired Persons, has a cover story about “Jeff Bridges: Beautiful Dreamer.” On the cover, he has black hair tinged with silver, although I would forgive you if you glanced and said it was brown. It’s a few inches longer than mine. He’s curled up, slouching, with his arms over his knees, wearing faded jeans, white socks, and tennis shoes. The man looks like a teenager. This is not an accident. I have never seen a My Generationcover with a woman who looks old enough to be admitted to the AARP, and when I first saw that periodical, I mistook it for a GenX magazine.
Why? The core idea is that there is a short period of glory—I’ll say from fifteen to twenty-five years, although some of you might place the beginning and end a little differently—and before that point, you’re only a child, meaning curiously enough that you don’t have access to adult pleasures; you can’t drink, you can’t drive—and after that point, you’re a has-been. This message is ubiquitous, present not only in children’s TV shows but equally in a magazine for retired people. And, in a certain manner, it makes perfect sense.
It makes perfect sense if there is nothing more to have in life than physical pleasure. Before fifteen, you can’t acquire as much pleasure as someone with adult resources; after twenty-five, your capacity for youthful pleasure diminishes. And so, if one starts by assuming that the whole point of life is to have pleasure, that the point of science is to create a Utopia of spoiled children, then it follows quite simply that a child is nothing much and someone past the age of thirty is a has-been. It follows quite simply for us, but the medievals saw it differently.
The medievals believed that the entire purpose of this life is as a preparation, an apprenticeship, a beginning, to an eternity gazing on God’s glory. It means that, even in this life, there is infinitely more to seek than physical pleasure. There is more to desire. There is virtue, both earthly, natural virtues, and the merry, heavenly, deiform virtues. One can begin to be a heavenly person, enjoy Heaven’s joys, and know God.
The words, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die,” voice a pessimistic philosophy: enjoy pleasure because there’s nothing more and we have a grim life. The medieval view sought much more than pleasure, and in following it, I want to grow more. I don’t believe I’m leaving the time when I can enjoy the only good in life, pleasure. I believe I have different fruits in season coming. Some people dread their thirtieth birthday. I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to turning thirty, forty, fifty, to when my hair turns tweed and then white. I’m looking forward to growing in wisdom: the interesting part of my life isn’t ending, but just beginning.
What about intelligence testing? I like Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wind in the Door; it’s a children’s book with a little boy, Charles Wallace, whose IQ is “so high it’s untestable by normal means.” I like the story and Charles Wallace; I identify with him, and in reference to that passage began to wish the same were true of me, that my IQ were so high it was untestable by normal means. I even tried to convince myself, in moments of pride, that this was true.
It came as a great disappointment to learn not only was this literally true, that my IQ was literally so high as to be untestable by normal means, but that the threshold was so low. If the authors of the Binet-Simon test, paradigm example of the good IQ test, were to be told, “This test you’ve made, doesn’t really distinguish average from below average, but shows a remarkably fine discrimination at the upper strata of human intelligence,” they would have regarded the test as a failure, pure and simple. The Binet-Simon test is a test for inferiority. Sources I’ve seen differ as to why; one gently states that it was meant to identify special needs people and give them that extra boost of special education they need to function in life. Another says, less charitably, that it’s to identify certain people as inferior: exclude them; stop ‘wasting’ resources on them. In either case, it is less than clear to me that this is the model of test for organizations like Mensa.
Some other high-IQ societies use an adjusted model of test, where they take off the time limit, because they recognize that rushing people doesn’t get best behavior, and put all the problems on anabolic steroids. This can probably boost the ceiling a little, but it has its own problems. It’s a bit like taking an office where work isn’t getting done, and making everybody work twenty more hours a week: if work isn’t getting done, five more hours might help a little, but twenty won’t fix the problem. Howard Gardner, multiple intelligence theorist, spends most of Extraordinary Minds arguing for a multiplicity of genius; in the beginning, he asks if there’s anything common to all kinds of genius, and says, yes, he’d identify three things:
There is some domain of performance.
There is a community that appreciates the genius’s performance in this domain.
According to Gardner, a genius fails more, and more spectacularly, than an average person.
This notwithstanding, if you’re trying to get into Mega Society East, what counts on the test is not what you get right; it’s what you get wrong. It’s not the absolutely brilliant answers you had to questions two, five, and seven; it’s the fact that you missed something on questions one, four, and nine. Given the cognitive diversity at the upper end of the spectrum, there are limitations to even high-ceiling tests.
Is there any alternative? I would say yes, and I believe a hint of it comes from a story about a high school physics student. After the unit covering air pressure, the teacher wrote on an exam, “Explain how to use a barometer to determine the height of a tall building.” The student wrote, “Tie a rope around the barometer, lower it from the top of the building until it hits the ground, make a mark on the rope, pull it up, and measure the length of the rope. (There are other ways of doing this.)”
This put the teacher in a bit of a bind. He called in one of his colleagues, and explained what had happened. The colleague said, “In a way that demonstrates your knowledge of physics, explain how to use a barometer to determine the height of a tall building.” The student said, “Go to the top of the building with a barometer and a stopwatch. Drop the barometer, and measure the time before the barometer splatters on the ground beneath. Then use the formula y = 1/2 at2 to calculate the height of the building.” The teachers conferred and gave him almost full credit.
The teacher asked what some of the other ways were: “Go outside on a sunny day, and measure the height of the barometer, the length of the barometer’s shadow, and the length of the building’s shadows, and use ratios to determine the height of the building.” “This probably isn’t the best way, but go into the basement, knock on the superintendent’s door, and say, ‘Mr. Superintendent! I have a fine barometer for you if you will only tell me the height of the building!'”
What this story screams out to me is not just that the student is bright enough that he could see the desired answer about calculating from the difference in air pressure. I’m positive of that. It’s not just that he could give several alternate approaches. It’s that he would. It’s that he behaved like a gifted mind does when it’s been completely insulted.
That gives a hint of an indirect approach: don’t try IQ-normal-style cognitive strain questions, but look for a very different kind of thinking, and the effects of living in a world where most other people are two, three, four, five sigma below you. I wrote up the basic ideas, and e-mailed Paul Cooijmans, head of Giga and Glia. He suggested I start my own high-IQ society. I thought that was a little more ambitious than I wanted to take on now, but I did create a test. I wrote it up, gave it to heads of some high-IQ societies to distribute, received very kind responses from Gina LoSasso of the Mega Foundation and Nik Lygeros of the Pi Society… and have gotten two tests filled out, which I haven’t looked at because I want to read them together. The test may turn out to be nothing more than an interesting fizzle. Even then, I thought it might be interesting enough to share.
What about the glass wall? The symbol relates to me to three layers, or levels, of maturity in dealing with others. The first layer is not recognizing there is a difference. In childhood, even when I scored high in the MathCounts competition, I might have realized there was something called intelligence and I had more of it, but not that I thought all that differently: I treated others as if they were the same as me underneath. That is a recipe for giving and receiving hurt.
When I finally let myself see that there were differences, I tried to fit in through blending in. In the short run, that’s much better; there are far fewer incidents. Over time, it costs—the cost of a false self. There were some things in myself I wasn’t showing anyone, not even myself.
After that, I began to erect a glass wall about myself, something that would keep things out of view before I was confident people were ready, but not permanently—and would let me draw others in. I don’t think this is a final resting place—in fact, I’m almost positive itisn’t—but it seems a definite step ahead of the other two steps.
What’s inside the glass wall? Much of this speech hints at things inside the glass wall, but I’d like to give one concrete example.
In the book Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Phillip Yancey helps draw out stories and insights from Paul Brand, the doctor who discovered that leprosy ravages the body by destroying the sense of touch, and with it the ability to feel pain. In one of these stories, Dr. Brand tells how he left a speaking engagement sick, sat hunched in the corner of a train car, wishing the interminable train ride would be over, and finally staggered to his hotel room. He began to undress, and realized to his horror that there was no feeling in his left heel.
He pricked himself with a pin and felt nothing. He jabbed himself harder, watched a drop of blood form, and moaned for the pain that would not come. That night, he lay dressed on his bed. He knew that sulfone drugs would probably stop the spread of the disease quite quickly, but he still could not help imagine it spreading to his hands, his feet. As a doctor who worked with patients who’d lost their sense of touch, he cherished the feel of earth in his fingers, the feel of a puppy’s fur, the affection of a friend. His career as a surgeon would soon end. What’s more, what would become of his movement? He, their leader, had assured others that leprosy was the least contagious of all communicable diseases, and careful hygeine could almost ensure that they would not get it. What would it mean if he, their leader, was a leper? That ugly word he’d banished from his vocabulary rose like a monster with new strength.
After a long and sleepless night, Dr. Brand got up, and took a pin to face the gristly task of mapping out the affected area. He took a breath, jabbed himself—and roared in pain. Nothing had ever felt so delicious to him as that one electric jolt of pain.
He realized what had happened. He was sick, with something mundane, and as a sick traveller had forgone his usual motion. His foot had fallen asleep. Dr. Brand was for a time too ashamed to recount that dismal experience, but I’m glad he did. The experience changed his life, and the story has impacted me.
As far as perception goes, I’m not sure if my sense of touch is more perceptive than most people’s. Probably a little bit. I can say that it is integrated with other senses. There was one time I was at the supermarket, and the woman in front of me in the checkout line dropped a soda bottle a short distance. Being bored, I gently pinched the bottle, and then made a comment that seemed to me almost too obvious to be worth saying: if you pinch a soda bottle, you can tell if it’s safe to open. A bottle that can be safely opened will give slightly to moderate pressure; a bottle that’s shaken up is firm as a rock. Her reply, “Oh, is that the trick that you use?” caught me off guard. Feeling a shaken soda bottle like that is no more a trick to me than looking at the stove for dancing orange spots is a trick to see if I’ve started a grease fire.
As an American who’s lived in France, I like to give my friends hugs and kisses. I’m careful how and when I ask, particularly about a kiss on the cheek, and I listen to people with my intuition before asking those questions… but that invitation (accepted or not) is usually tied to when I pull someone inside the glass wall.
What about a musing life? Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business talks about the dark side of television’s effects on culture. Without going into a full analysis of Plato’s Allegory of the Television, I will say that television blinds the inner eye by stimulating the surface and starving the depths. A home without a television is like a slice of chocolate cake without tartar sauce.
Without television, what happens? At times, you get bored, and then more bored, and then you come to a place on the other side of boredom with renewed creativity, sensitivity, and insight. I try to live there; like my time sense and the presence learned through wine, it gives focus to musings, such as this talk was woven from. It is a sort of fast for the mind, and makes room for a considerable degree of depth.
What is my interest in thinking inside the box? There’s been a lot of homage paid to the many virtues of thinking outside the box. Perhaps many of you have stories to tell of a time when someone was extolling the many virtues of thinking outside the box, but that’s not where I’m going. The praises of thinking outside the box are sung because thinking inside and outside the box complement each other, and most people are so often inside the box that it’s hard for them to step out. With severely gifted individuals, the real challenge is not thinking outside the box, but thinking inside the box.
There are many times that it’s better to think inside the box. Driving to work, for instance. More deeply, communicating and negotiating requires one to understand and think like the other person, and for many people, this means thinking inside the box. I’d also like to give one very concrete example of where it’s important to think inside the box: manners.
Manners are an arbitrary collection of rules, and there is no unifying principle that everything else flows from. Respecting and valuing the person will not tell you why you should hold a fork like a pen instead of how a little boy wants to hold a knife. Something that meaningless may be very difficult for you and me to learn, but it is important. Why? To many people, manners are the very foundation of civilized interaction, and it presents them with a needless and pointless obstacle if you say, “I respect you and I do not feel the need to observe manners in your presence.” It’s been said, “Never offend people with style when you can offend them with substance;” if people are going to walk away from you offended, let them be offended by something of substance, not by crude manners.
And lastly: mystic, artist, Christian. Why do I group these together? Does being a mystic make one an artist and a Christian? No; nothing like that holds directly, but there is a common thread. It’s illuminated by a conversation I had with one friend, where I said that pragmatism was a philosophical disease. I learned shortly thereafter that pragmatism was quite important to her.
Why would I say something like that? In one conversation a few years earlier, at Calvin College, one of my friends asked me why I wanted something, and didn’t like my response. A little probing, and I knew why: while the words he used were, “Why do you want it?”, what he meant by it, the only thing he could mean at that time, was, “What do you find it useful for?” The item, whatever it was (I don’t remember), was not something I wanted for its usefulness in letting me get something else; it was something I valued in itself. He couldn’t see that.
So I asked him, “Do you value having that arm on your body?” “Uh, yes…” “Why?” “Because if I have an arm, I can grab an apple.” “Why do you want that?” “Because if I grab an apple, I can eat an apple.” “Why do you want that?” “Because if I eat an apple, I can live and not die!” “Why do you want that?” At that point, he gave the response I’d been waiting for: an impassioned explanation that living and not dying was not simply valued as a means to something else, but something he wanted for itself.
Pragmatism and utilitarianism have a very small circle of things that are valued outside of their usefulness to something else: the Oxford Companion to Philosophy lists only pleasure, which seems a dismally small selection to me. Franky Schaeffer’s Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts talks about the insipid banality in the Christian art tradition: the tradition that once produced Dante and Bach has now produced “John’s Christian Stores”, and a large part of that is because Christians sold their birthright to embrace pragmatism. Where pragmatism draws a small circle of things that are embraced, Christianity, mysticism, and art draw a much larger circle: there’s something there that isn’t in Dewey and Mill’s practical world.
Madeleine l’Engle, in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, tells of a time in college when her professor asked on a test how Chaucer chose a particular literary device in a passage, and she wrote in a white heat of fury that Chaucer did not “choose a literary device;” that’s not how an artist works at all! I had a loosely similar experience, if not involving anger; I was sharing something I was writing with a new acquaintance, and she complimented my use of personification at a specific point. I had to reread the passage more than once to see what she meant; she made a straightforward statement, but I had not thought in those terms. A good artist may have excellent technique, but the technique is there because the art is good; the art is not good just because of the technique. Good art comes through something much more, and much more interesting, than technique: listening to the work, serving it, cooperating with it, helping an unformed idea have a shape that others can see.
What about mysticism? There is a problem here; you might say that insofar as mysticism can be explained, it is not mysticism. I will say that the characters I identify with most in literature have been characters who’ve had a foot in another world. Charles Wallace from Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wind in the Door is not the boy genius, Dexter from Dexter’s Laboratory, an abstract personification of intelligence; he is a very real and believable person. He is open to another world, not surprised to think he’s seen dragons in the twins’ vegetable garden, and he kythes; that is, he has a real and present communication, something beyond communication, with others. You can read about kything in the 100 ways of kything on my webpage.
In Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Michael Valentine Smith is born as a baby boy on Mars, orphaned by all human travellers, raised on Mars by Martians in Martian culture, and brought to earth as a young man. Let’s talk about culture shock for a moment. Smith causes and receives quite a lot of it, as the story narrates his progression from a Martian with the genes and ancestry of a man to a character who is both human and Martian. There are quite a few stumbling points along the way to this. At one point, early in the story, someone asks Michael what is intended to be a very routine question, but Michael doesn’t get it. He has heard the words before, but he’s a bit like a top-notch English professor trying to decipher a math paper: even with a glossary to all the symbol, there’s a whole way of thinking that goes with the strange words, and Michael doesn’t understand it. Heinlein says that half a million years’ wildly alien abstractions raced through his mind. I don’t have half a million years’ worth of much of anything, but I do have wildly alien abstractions. I first became a philosopher as a boy, too young to touch any of my thoughts in language; one of the questions I thought of was, “Am I human?”, or, “Am I a being of the same class as those I observe around me?” I observed that my parents were linguistic creatures who moved naturally in language, that I was not linguistic in any comparable way, and concluded that I was not human. Another question I pondered was a short, simple question that could be rendered, “Can there be a perpetual motion machine, and if so, how can it be started?” The second part of the question was tied to the first; the best way I can explain it is that, given time-symmetric laws of physics, if there’s a machine that will keep on going forever, then the other side of the coin is that it has been going on forever, and there’s no way to start it. In middle school, I started French at about the age of ten, and in a few years was able to think more fluently in French than in English. My accent sounded more typical of a native Parisian French speaker than a Midwestern American English speaker. Why? There are a couple of reasons, differences in how the two languages were taught, but one of the basic ones is that English was here, French was there, and my way of thinking was way out there, and happened to be closer to French than English.
Blajeny, also from A Wind in the Door, is a Teacher from another galaxy, and the lessons he brings are sometimes difficult: not as, “Face your worst fear ever,” but as different from what they’d expect. He tells the children they will be in his class, and Meg is elated that her brother Charles will never have to go to the red schoolhouse again; then he says something that leaves her wondering where his classroom is. Blajeny retreats inside himself, and when she’s decided he won’t answer, he says, “Here, there, everywhere. In the schoolyard in first-grade recess. With the cherubim and seraphim. Among the farandolae.” I am wearing the costume you see me in because of how I identify with Blajeny, because there’s something of me that shines through him.
Last, what about being a Christian? There’s one music professor who said that, rather than thinking that we sing a song one and then it’s over, and we sing it later, and so on, we should rather thing that as long as there have been created beings, there is an eternal song rising before God, a song rising as incense that will never go out, and that when we sing we step into that song. Christianity is the foundation this whole edifice of thought is built upon, and its crowning jewel. It is the soil in which other things grow, and the thoughts I have given are an example of how Christians may think.
So now in this brief time I have shared a little bit about myself; I have answered a few questions and raised many more. Come visit my website, at CJS Hayward; it’s in your program. Of course I’d like to hear from an editor who’d like me to write something, or would like an existing manuscript, or someone who’d like to hear me speak, or someone who’d like a website built, but more than any of that I have given this talk for the same reason I’ve built my website: to connect. What have I left you wondering about?
After the speech, two hours’ worth of discussion followed. That night, after the speech, Jonathan was invited to speak at the next conference, and invited to two other engagements. He is available.