An opening “Heads up!”
This article is intended to do something that is usually best avoided, at least in the context of an article.
Some students of culture describe semiotic frames that define a society’s possibles et pensables: they shape what is seen as possible and what is even thinkable within a society. And it is usually preferable to handle communication so that you aren’t asking people to overhaul their mental frameworks: if you can think far enough outside the box that you find possibles et pensables the sort of thing that can be easily brought into question, that’s a wonderful thing to be able to do, but it is usually best kept under wraps, and usually best kept in a back pocket.
This piece is designed to delve into deeper work and not be as quickly digested as other fare. It’s harder to process than an article intended to persuade you between two options that we both already understand well enough. I tried to think about how to make my point while dodging working on what is seen as possible and what is even thinkable, and I don’t see how to eliminate that work from my point. I want to revise what is seen as possible and what is thinkable about branding today.
Where did branding come from anyway?
To the best of my knowledge, and to only present the beginning and end of a story, branding was once what happened when cattle owners would use a hot iron symbol to brand an identifying mark on cattle they owned, to be able to claim whose cattle they were if there were any question. There is a fairly close equivalent to this in the modern business world, but the equivalent isn’t really “how a company communicates itself and its offering to the outside world.” It’s really much more the unsexy practice of attaching metal tags to valuable company equipment that say, “This is property of XYZ corporation, serial number 12345.” And while there may be good reasons for engaging in this part of due diligence, it is hardly that interesting or deep.
Not so with real branding in today’s business world, not by any stretch. As I have prepared and thought about the question, I’m not sure I can think of an equally significant concept that I have met. To pick two examples from my own field in information technology, Agile development and open source software may be significant concepts, but I do not see the same niches and layers. There is some theory about open source software as such, and people may complain that a company that releases software under an open source license but “drops patches [external contributions] on the floor” isn’t really walking the walk, but in my experience the theory that most open source software developers are interested are the computer science and software engineering issues concerning their tools and pet projects, and you simply don’t have subspecialized high value consultants on the theory and ideology of open source. But branding is in fact a very big concept, and you do have high-value consultants actively engaged for their expertise in some specialization or subspecialization somewhere under the “branding” umbrella.
And with this significance comes something else, maybe something less attractive: however useful or prominent it may be, it is far from a worldwide universal, and I am not aware of any Great Teachers who have thought in terms of branding. Not only that, but Socrates might very well have lived to a ripe old age, instead of being condemned to death, if he had lived a brand that would have been socially acceptable to the citizens of his city. (The entire story of his gadfly’s teaching and life is an example of how to avoid branding yourself if you want to succeed and live.) Discussion of branding may be anachronous if applied to Socrates, but the principle justifies such an intrusion.
Two seismic shifts, one after another
In the popular Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, that a shift had taken place in wisdom literature: that is, what people have written about how to succeed as a person; one definition offered for such wisdom is, “skill for living.” Whenever the text was written, the author had apparently read a great deal of wisdom literature over time and made a cardinally important distinction between a character ethic and a personality ethic. Up until about World War II, the basic framing assumption in wisdom literature in the U.S. is that success is success arising from character. One needs to be diligent, and humble, and merciful to others, and so on. In short, we need virtuous living to get ahead. These virtues may include practices: Ben Franklin’s “A penny saved is a penny earned” is an exhortation to the virtue of thrift. But success is acquired through growing as a person, by growing in virtue.
The subsequent sub-par personality ethic was much more superficial; it offered tips and tricks to get ahead, while avoiding anything calling for real internal transformation. And while there are definitely mere practices that we could do better (I could smile more), most of my problems aren’t on the level of personality, but where I need to do more inner work. The shift Covey documents is a seismic shift, and it is difficult to overstate its significance. Something like the character ethic and the personality ethic exist at least to some extent side-by-side in information technology: there are people who have been educated in computer science and software engineering, and who maintain a lifelong curiosity towards those areas as well as working their way through fads and individual tools, and there are educational programs that just teach buzzwords and individual tools with only incidental coverage of deeper issues in theory. A manager who has dealt with both kinds of programmers will know the difference well.
I would posit, or rather point out, that there has been a second shift after a shift from a character ethic to a personality ethic: a shift from a personality ethic to a (personal) brand ethic. There are books I’ve read that offer an induction into a brand ethic in ways that someone who’s not already an insider will understand: but I don’t remember anything I’ve read treating as a live question whether we need a brand ethic or a personality ethic, or whether we need a brand ethic or a character ethic. Personality has a place: it has a place because a personal brand on Twitter that incorporates some amount of what feels like personality is a stronger brand than one that is one-dimensional. The place for personality is neither more nor less than what the brand ethic calls for. And that’s odd.
But you, C.J.S. Hayward, have a brand!
In one sense, at least some people will say that I have a brand, and one that I have consciously contributed to. This blog’s background, for instance, is one touch out of many things that provide a sense of brand. Old-fashioned, exaggeratedly recognizable links could be called another. None the less, I meet the concept of a personal brand with some degree of puzzlement. I’ve written dialogues before, but I’m drawing a blank at how to flesh out a dialogue with pretty much any of the world’s great teachers about marketing-style branding as a paradigm for how to relate to others. I do not find branding in the Sermon on the Mount, I have difficulty envisioning what Sun Tzu or other sages would say, and for that matter I do not think that Muhammad would have understood the concept, and if he had understood it, would find it to be extremely offensive: much as democracy’s foundational attitude that you have a say in things is profoundly un-Islamic (when George Bush was pushing to endow Iraq with democracy, my comment to friends was, “I wish that Bush would herald a goal that would be less offensive to Muslims, like a hambone in every pot.”).
It is possible for brands to be layered. It is possible for brands to have depth. It is possible for brands to present a tip of an iceberg with lots of room to dig. However, I would pick as a particularly bad piece on personal branding a book chapter which advised the reader to pick three positive adjectives on the list, and simply decide, “These will be my brand.” And this isn’t just one book. When a company has announced that XYZ represent its values, it gives the impression of something arbitrarily chosen and tacked on, something plastic, something that would really make Michael Polanyi squirm.
Our close contemporary Michael Polanyi (Wikipedia), to pick one of the achievements he is best known for, argued essentially that knowledge is not something separate from people. When people are initiated into a tradition of expert practice, there is knowledge tacitly held by those who are already insiders in the culture of expert practics, and this knowledge is tacitly transmitted to people who are being trained to become insiders, without ever being held or passing consciously to those in either role. He comments that swimming coaches and swimmers alike breathe differently from non-swimmers in that they expand their lungs to hold more air when they breathe in, and they keep more air in their lungs when they breathe out, using their lungs this way for added buoyancy. Other explanations may be available in this case, but, the broader picture is one that uses tacit knowledge, or to take the deliberately chosen title of his magnum opus, Personal Knowledge, and recognize that we have many layers beyond the surface. And I’m trying to imagine Polanyi reading a text telling him to pick three adjectives that should identify him as his personal brand. I see him squirming, much like the Far Side cartoon entitled, “Baryshnikov’s ultimate nightmare” that shows a square dance caller saying, “Swing your partner ’round and ’round, now promenade left and don’t fall down…”
However, the concern I raise, which may or may not be terribly distinct from Polanyi, isn’t just that a personal brand is shallow, or at least has been shallow in every book I’ve read telling me I need a personal brand. It’s also designed as artificial and plastic, not real and alive. It may have an alive motif, like the handmade-looking lettering and art in cookie-cutter Starbucks locations. But it is what Neal Stevenson described in In the Beginning was the Command Line, in describing a mediated and vicarious experience waiting in line for a ride at Disneyland:
The place looks more like what I have just described than any actual building you might find in India. All the stones in the broken walls are weathered as if monsoon rains had been trickling down them for centuries, the paint on the gorgeous murals is flaked and faded just so, and Bengal tigers loll amid stumps of broken columns. Where modern repairs have been made to the ancient structure, they’ve been done, not as Disney’s engineers would do them, but as thrifty Indian janitors would–with hunks of bamboo and rust-spotted hunks of rebar. The rust is painted on, of course, and protected from real rust by a plastic clear-coat, but you can’t tell unless you get down on your knees.
And on this point I’d like to mention a point from The Cost of Discipleship. I don’t know now whether I’d agree with the suggestion Bonhoeffer makes, but he highlights that the Sermon on the Mount says both Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven, and also that we are to conceal our good deeds: But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth. Asking how these two incongruous commands fit together, Bonhoeffer says that we should do good deeds but hide them from ourselves, that we should reach a state of doing goodness that we do it without being aware of it. Now whether that should exactly be believed in reference to the Gospel, I don’t know. But something like that is true of some secular skill. I remember a conversation with a Unix professional who said that in a job interview he had claimed to be a Unix wizard because that was required in that social situation, but it would have been “an outright lie” for him to make that claim among his peers. I assure you he was very competent. But his competency had reached a level where (among other things) he knew how little he knew and how much more there was to know, and like almost any good Unix wizard, he found calling himself a Unix wizard to feel like an outright lie. When I was asked in high school as the school’s student Unix system administrator, I hesitated, and I was both surprised and delighted when a friend said “Yes” for me; I would have been making an outright lie (in my mind) to make that claim. Nor is this a specific local feature of Unix wizardry. That is just an example close to my experience, and it seems that nobody considers themselves what in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine terms would be called Morlocks. There is a kind of “reverse hypocrisy” here. A Morlock, to expert practitioners, is someone else at a higher level of skill. (Linus Torvalds has voiced confusion about why others consider him technical.)
The general rule is that the most confident in their performance are usually the most-overconfident, and the most competent are actually less confident; unlike the over-confident, they are guided by a sharply tuned inner self-criticism, the same self-criticism that in any competent practice of classical music means that musicians hear their performance mistakes more quickly than even the most discerning audience members. What is going on here is the same thing as was told to me as a child, which I’ll leave in politically incorrect terms:
An Indian and a white man were standing on a beach, and the white man drew a small circle and said, “This is what the Indian knows.” Then he drew a larger circle around it and said, “This is what the white man knows.” Then the Indian drew a huge circle encompassing both other circles and said, “This is what neither the Indian nor the white man knows.”
And this quality, of seeing a huge encompassing circle of things that none of us know, is foundational to being a genuine expert almost anywhere. Hence a high school biology text compares the discipline of biology to trying to discern the characters, plot, and themes of a long and intricately complex movie, when all you have is half a dozen stills in varying conditions. Hence one biology teacher I remember fondly saying very emphatically that we don’t know what’s going on: all that biologists know now is only a tiny slice of the truth.
So what does this all mean for branding? It means a couple of things, and perhaps it may be good to have three positive adjectives you seek to represent. But one thing it means is that people are often not aware of their good (and bad) properties, or at least not all of them. This might be true morally, but it is also true in terms of professional competence. I remember going to a presentation on getting a government job and the “stupid questionnaire” (the presenter’s preferred term) where you were asked to rate yourself from 1 up to 5 on different areas of competency. Now coming from a business background where I had been asked to rate myself 1 to 10 in competency and advised the higher self-rating I gave, the harder test questions would be asked of me, thought of rating myself mostly 3’s with a couple of 4’s on the ones I was strongest, the presenter made crystal-clear that that was not going to work. The only acceptable answer was a 5, or maybe you could get away with one or possibly two self-ratings of 4. And that’s not selecting for competency. It is selecting for overconfidence, and for gaming the system. For someone who is genuinely competent, and is not aware of how and why to game the system here, giving a sincere and well-thought-out self-evaluation is a recipe for elimination even if that employee’s past five supervisors would mark the person as a clear 5 across the board.
The title I’ve been mulling over, The Twitter Job Search Guide, is part of the cohort of books where branding is bedrock. It also suggests that Twitter competencies expand outside of Twitter, so that a cover letter is composed of a few tweets and a resume is composed of a few more tweets. Now that’s an idea I’d be cautious about dismissing; communicating value concisely is a valuable skill, and in some sense Twitter might be seen as a Toastmasters of written communication. Toastmasters’ Competent Communicator course trains people with five to seven minute speeches addressing core competencies in speaking (plus a couple of other details), and the thought is not exactly that participants will only need to give speeches of that length, but rather to lay a foundation that is explicitly intended to be adaptable to longer or shorter speeches. And Twitter is not always 140 characters of nothing; there are profound contributions made, and it is a valuable skill, and one quite often present among the most
competent gifted, to make a significant point clearly and concisely. For a business world that just wants the time, not the whole process of a watch being built, it may be good discipline and skill to be able to write a six tweet cover letter and twelve tweet resume. But I am concerned when this all falls under the aegis of branding. And in The Twitter Job Search Guide, the tweets for a cover letter and resume all fall under the heading of communicating a brand. Though there is (for instance) discussion of what constitutes a good ratio between professional and personal tweets, I’ve read two thirds of the text and I haven’t yet seen advice to tweet or communicate something that does not fall under the aegis of your personal brand. The beginning, middle, and end of what you are advised to communicate is brand. There is no other way to relate to others, it seems, and this is a plastic form of life.
Now before going further, there is one point I would like to clarify about boundaries (a topic that I believe is ill-framed, but that is not my interest here). One professor, addressing graduate students who were or probably would be teaching assistants, talked about “being the same on the outside and on the inside.” She went on very directly to state that this did not mean “letting it all hang out”; that was precisely what it was not. Normal social interactions embody both what is anthropologically called “positive politeness” and “negative politeness”, and on this point I would recall another professor talking about appropriate communication in crossing cultures. He gave some examples of positive politeness, things like saying “Hello!” to a friend (the sort of examples of politeness that jump to mind). Then he said that when strangers approach each other and look down at the sidewalk when they’re a few meters apart, that’s politeness. It is a refusal to wantonly intrude; it says, “You have not invited me in and I will not presume where I am not invited and I do not belong.” And that is politeness. He mentioned, to drive the point a little bit further, that he had one good friend he visited, and though he did not do so at this visit, he would have thought nothing of opening his friend’s refrigerator and helping himself to anything inside. The principle of negative politeness is that you do not do things without invitation; one may surmise that some point along the way the professor’s friend gave one or several invitations to rummage through the fridge without asking specific permission, and I would be almost certain that the professor had not asked permission to arbitrarily rummage his friend’s fridge; he had presumably been given that permission as the friendship developed. And outside of a few exceptions like this, it is a significant violation of negative politeness to rummage through someone’s fridge without asking.
Socially appropriate relations, or boundaries, or negative politeness, or whatever you want to call it, applies; that can and should mediate our interactions, and brands that have any sense to them will stay within these boundaries. However, while I believe we need the mediation of negative (and positive) politeness, there is something plastic about the mediation of brands. It’s good not to give TMI, but a personal brand is neither the only nor the best way to communicate within positive and negative politeness that respects boundaries.
I’m not sure this addresses all of branding; I’d expect that someone who knew branding well could point to currents within branding that survive this critique. I’ve picked examples that struck me as silly; I haven’t discussed the silliness I see about corporations picking three identifying values, and in much more mainstream and professional venues than a book in a career center offering a list of positive adjectives and an invitation to pick three as defining your personal brand. But for what I’d like to see instead, I don’t have a big program to offer, just appropriate social interaction: social interaction that is appropriate to degree of relationships and the roles of the participants. Others have written The Clue Train Manifesto; I have not examined that manifesto in depth but its opening words about a human voice suggest I’m not the only person, nor the first person, concerned with human communication.
My personal unbrand
I wanted to give a bit on my personal brand, or rather unbrand, or, if you prefer, ersatz brand. You’re welcome to say, if you like, that it is in fact just a personal brand, only a personal brand that embodies at least one classic and cardinal mistake. Or at least two mistakes, apart from the easily digested simplicity of an effective brand, the bulk of my effort is growing in terms of both who I am as a person, and how I can achieve deeper competence. Some attention is given to appearance, but a brand works primarily on image management. Skills one acquires, for instance, are there because of their usefulness to a branded image. But let’s return to the other basic attribute in what makes sense in a brand.
One of the parameters that is desired in a brand is doing one thing well, simplicity. There may be contours to the brand’s landscape, but if you are a jack of all trades you are assumed to be a master of none. One part of a brand’s job description, personal or otherwise, is to present a simple core, perhaps one core feature that offers a value proposition with one core benefit. Or, perhaps, there are a few pieces working together, but if you can’t write it on the back of a business card, you have failed. And in fact this is not restricted to branding. Good to Great talks about good companies that became great companies having and/or discovering a core “hedgehog concept” that they keep returning to, and while such a general title on business has to assume marketing and with it branding as part of the picture, I do not recall the emphatic “hedgehog concept” discussion portraying it as a particular issue for marketing and branding. In Good to Great, the “hedgehog concept” defines a one-trick pony that fundamentally outperforms Renaissance man opponents.
In my own case, what I offer is a profoundly gifted portfolio of interconnected skills. Want to know what reading Latin and Greek has to do with the business world? At a competitive local exchange carrier, we were working with an upstream provider who did business with us because they were required to by law, even though they didn’t want to, because they saw us as cream-skimmers. Nobody else in my group could make sense of their opaque, bureaucratic communication. I could, and there wasn’t much of a hiccup when my boss, with my consent, added communication with that provider to my responsibilities. I don’t know if any of my bosses have cared that I enjoy writing, but several have cared that I could create and edit clear and high-value documents. I don’t know whether any of my bosses have particularly cared that I’ve received rankings as high as 7th in the nation in math contests, but they do care when I apply that to solo programming that hits the ball out of the park. In the positions I’m focusing on now in User Experience, I don’t really expect my prospective bosses to care that I have postgraduate coursework in essentially all major User Experience disciplines: anthropology, cognitive science, computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and psychology, with a distinctive work addressing something at the core of User Experience competency. However, once I am hired and running usability tests, I expect they’ll care how much that background lets me draw out of a test.
And, to dig a bit deeper, the achievements I value are not because of intelligence, but communication. I’ve calmly spoken to a bawling four-year-old with an extremely painful blood blister under her thumbnail, until she she had stopped completely. I’ve been asked why I know how to relate to Ukrainians. I’ve been told, “You are like a white American and like a black African, and closer than an African brother.” I’ve communicated across large gaps with remarkable success.
And, to give one last detail, I’ve had many projects and there is a common thread running through virtually all the ones I’ve liked most: I’ve reduced user pain, or made something a joy to work with. To pick one example from when I had just started a new job, I was given a four-word spec before my boss left for his vacation: “Get [name of employee] off overtime.” The employee was a revenue assurance auditor who was trying to keep on top of a provider who was slipping us inappropriate charges, a responsibility that had him on heavy overtime in a company which normally stuck with a 40 hour workweek. And I winced when I saw what he was doing. I respected him and his actions as a team player, but he was cutting a steak with a screwdriver because that was the only game in town, and I wanted to give a razor-sharp knife, designed for him personally. When he said he was perfectly willing to do drudge work, my unspoken response was, “I appreciate and respect that you’re willing to do drudge work. I still want to get it off your plate.” And I drew on Edward Tufte’s principles and made a carefully chosen greyscale (instead of numbers) system that cut his involvement down to 40 hours a week, then further down so only part of his time was spent keeping on top of this responsibilities, and he was in a position to engage other responsibilities that were out of the question earlier. At a certain point into the process, I told him, “The only reason I ever want you to do us the old tools is because you want to,” and he very quickly answered, “I don’t want to!” In other words, the new tool completely superseded prior methods, which is a rarity. I don’t remember exactly how far along we were when my boss returned from vacation, but the employee told me he was raving to my boss, and in that whole position my boss never really showed much inclination to micro-manage me. (He described me as “nearly self-managing.”)
These and other things could be a basis for a number of personal brands that I could treat as my working contract with the professional world. However, it is my preference not to have my dealings mediated by a constructed personal brand. I’d like to give my friends and employers alike the real “me”, and while I will act differently with friends, family, church, and an employer, I don’t want people dealing with an artificially infused personal brand. I want them to deal with me. And while one friend explained that a fellow graduate student in psychology who dealt in measuring psychological traits answered a questionnaire for a job application, she understood exactly how the test worked, answered like the personality profile that the company wanted, and just made sure to act like the profile they wanted while she was at work. I don’t want to judge, but I find something very sad about the story. And it has everything to do with working with a personal brand.
This is not as crystalline as a normal brand. That’s intended.
Back to a character ethic…
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1: Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness, temptation and sin. Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. A vacation, besides taking you somewhere exotic, puts good before your eyes: but you can do that here and now, without even needing anything exotic. Fix your gaze on what is most worthy of your attention.
2: Remember that nothing can injure the man who does not harm himself. St. Job the Much-Suffering may have suffered terribly, but there was only one thing that could do him final harm: his own sin, and he would have been lost if he yielded to his wife’s temptation, “Curse God and die.” St. Job suffered terribly, and unlike us, the readers of his story, he is never told that he has served as God’s champion. However, everything the Devil did added jewels to St. Job’s royal and Heavenly crown.
3: Know that Satan is on a leash. People of the Lie, in many ways a perceptive book, argues that evil is terribly out of control, and that is understandable for a psychiatrist who faces full force a kind of evil in a profession where the very belief in a Devil is rare enough to be exotic. But God help us if that were the case; none could be saved if we were tempted as much as the devils want. The Philokalia talks about how, if we know what burdens a beast of burden can bear, God knows and cares all the more what we can bear. Everything that happens is either a blessing from God, or a temptation that has allowed for our strengthening; the concept of a temptation, rightly understood, encompasses both things that make sin look attractive, and trials and tribulations, or something where both contribute to a single nasty whole. In medieval theology that I haven’t been able to trace, Satan is called God’s jester, because his foolishness with us is something that God takes up in glory, and a glory that can work in us.
4: Expect not to understand. One author I remember said that Christ’s disciples were not so much sinful as thick-headed. I would be a bit careful about saying that, unless I say that I am thick-headed, too. God said through Isaiah, For my counsels are not as your counsels, nor are my ways as your ways, saith the Lord. But as the heaven is distant from the earth, so is my way distant from your ways, and your thoughts from my mind. One British preacher (this doesn’t work as well as with U.S. pronunciation) said that the name “Isaiah” is basically like saying, “Eyes higher!” And we are called to have our eyes higher, including in Isaiah, which has been called the Fifth Gospel and may be the most Messianic book the Old Testament offers.
To pick one example of what might be called thick-headedness for people who do not understand that “the prophet sees through a glass, darkly, while the archivist sees through a microscope, sharply,” we have in retrospect that Christ gave decisively clear predictions of his death and resurrection. However, St. Mary Magdalene came to Christ’s tomb for one and only one reason: to offer a last, singularly miserable service to a man dear to her, by embalming his body with aromatics. She was shocked at the empty tomb, and the only thing in her mind was disappointment that someone had seemingly stolen Christ’s body and was depriving her even of that last painful service she came to offer Christ. What had actually happened was utterly beyond her reckoning, but the Truth came to her: the grave was empty, defeated, with Christ resurrected beyond all earthly triumph. Much the same is true on the road to Emmaus, when Christ was quickening his disciples all along the way, and when their eyes were finally ready to be open to him, he vanished. Between the Resurrection and Ascension Christ was weaning his faithful to new ways of relating to him, ever beyond their initial reach. And even before then, he was trying to wean people off expectations of a political savior and an earthly king. He came to offer something fundamentally deeper than his disciples (or we) could look for.
I remember one couple who unhappily introduced their three-year-old boy as “an accident”, and complained about how hard it was to live their lives the way they wanted with him in the picture. I wanted to ask them, “Why must you look on the means of your deification as a curse?” Having children, whether we intend what God intends, is an opportunity for self-transcendence, where people who have transcended selfishness enough to love another are now given opportunity to transcend a selfishness of two. We may see a lot of other things that violate rights we think we have, and wonder where God is in all of this, but God is present all along; some have said that he is more visibly present in hard times than times of ease. Even if hard times shock us.
5. Love and respect others. “Blessed is the man who loves all men equally,” said St. Maximus Confessor. We are missing something if we say that some have given themselves to good deeds and some have given themselves to evil: all of us can make an eternal choice between Heaven and Hell because we are made in the image of God, and the most disfigured of us cannot completely exterminate the original beauty. All of us are constituted by the presence of God in the image. There is no shallow obligation to think the best of everyone, let alone whitewash sins. However, even when all sin is taken into account, we are members of the royal race. What sins a person may be rightly judged for are God’s concern, and God has not asked our help judging anyone. What divine image, and room for divine transformation, may exist in the vilest other are ours to respect and pray for.
Children who have been taught to respect adults may be more pleasant for adults to deal with, but the point of teaching children to respect adults really is not for the sake of adults, but for the sake of children to be able to benefit from adults. Ecclesiastical title and robes also don’t really exist for the wearer’s sake. Calling a priest ‘Father’ and the connected respect helps laity towards a position where they can benefit from clergy and their role.
6. Don’t wait on living until you have it all together. You probably never will. Abdicate from being in control of things. If there is a term for being in complete control of your life, it is probably “Hell” or “Gehenna”. The Sermon on the Mount speaks at length about being as the birds of the air or the grass of the field, and we, of the royal race, are of inestimably more value than plants and animals, venerable as they may be. There is only one Life: you’re in Him, or you’re not, and being in self-contained control over your life even if you can achieve it is not just dubiously achievable: it is dubiously desirable because you want to be independent of the one Life. The alternative is to dance the Great Dance, or as the Sermon on the Mount addresses our much more basic interests:
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.
Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Do you think you can add one single hour to your life by taking thought? You might as well try by taking thought to work your way into being a foot taller!
And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?
Therefore take no thought, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or, ‘What shall we drink?’ or, ‘Wherewithal shall we be clothed’? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
Christ speaks and assures us of our most basic material needs. There are other and more interesting needs, the need to grow in the divine Life and be freed from domination by our passions. But Christ here highlights things on a more basic level: not only does God wish to lead us in the Great Dance, but he also knows we need food and drink and offers practical care on his terms. The one petition out of the seven petitions in the Our Father, “Give us this day our daily bread”, is exaggeratedly modest, or seems such: “Hallowed be thy name” is an earth-shaking desire, as is “Forgive us our trespasses.” Asking for just enough providence for today is in fact more significant than asking, “Set providence for my whole life before me now.” The smallness of the request is like the Virgin’s womb: it is more spacious than the Heavens because it contained One that the Heavens of Heavens cannot contain.
7. Guard your heart. The Fathers talked about the importance of working, and monastics have worked to support their own needs, or even made baskets that were burned at the end of the year so that they would not be idle. In ancient times, the preferred handicraft for monastics was basketweaving; in modern times, apart from writing icons, one preferred handicraft for monastics is making incense. In both cases, it may be missing the point to say that it is menial work, and monastics humbled themselves to do menial work. Though I have tried my hand at neither craft, the simple repetitive motions involved appear to be deeply meditative, a project of choice to employ the hands while the heart is at prayer. Now monastics can and have chosen the worst that was available to them in their humility, but the constant basketweaving of the Fathers may have been a best known option to occupy the hands while drawing the heart further into prayer.
In any case, and not just for monastics, one tenth of what we do is external action, and nine tenths of the work is guarding a heart at prayer. Today’s respected forms of work like computer programming may present a bigger challenge to do prayerfully than tasks like janitorial work that are looked down on, but people in either line of work should make 9/10ths their effort to be at peace and at prayer, and 1/10th the external deliverable.
Furthermore, we should beware of all temptation, which starts as a spark and end, if not stopped, as a raging fire. Love keeps no record of wrongs, and remembrance of wrong is a self-torment; we make what was painful when we went through it to be present to us all again. In this case it may be helpful to silently pray the Jesus Prayer and attend to that rather than leave things to their course and re-attend painful memories.
8. Expect a road of pain and loss. Fr. Thomas said, “Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.” Christ’s own comment cuts deeper into why: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.” There can and should be other things beyond temptation and loss; God is good, and it’s meaningless or awfully close to meaningless to say that because God is good any evil that could possibly happen to us is harmless. However, if we “Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath” and “Do the most difficult and painful things first,” and recognize that we have no rights, the very letters will begin to shimmer and change. If we recognize that we do not have rights, instead of seeing rights of ours that are violated we may begin to see graces extended to us that we have no right to expect. If we have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to our last breath, we may recognize graces contrary to these expectations. The pain and the loss are real, and we may be shocked at times by what painful things God allows us. But the journey is purifying, and the God who prunes us does so that we may bear more fruit, and with it a fuller joy.
9. Observe Orthodox mystagogy, at least on one lesser point. There is such a thing as a book, or a teaching, that is above one’s present pay grade. Maybe it will be in reach later; it is not in reach now. There are classic books that open with exhortations to literary secrecy; far from an author today hoping to reach as broad an audience as possible, they say “Read this but keep it in secret from the many who would not profit from it.”
This is not the same point exactly, but there is a much lesser mystagogy than writing a book and asking that it be given a closed circulation. It is, as explained to me, if you know the truth, and you know that another person will reject the truth if you tell it, you hold your tongue instead of trying to argue the other person into accepting the truth. I’m not saying that we’re all really emotion and arguments do not persuade; arguments can persuade. This piece is in part argument, and it is legitimately meant to persuade by reasoning about the truth. But if you are dealing with a gay rights advocate or someone who is thoroughly convinced that Islam is a religion of peace, or whatever company may join them in the future, you do not try to argue them into a truth you know they will reject. When Judgment Day comes, it will better for the other person because they did not reject the truth. And it will also be better for you because you did not set them up for that sin. This is far from the full extent of Orthodox mystagogy; some people have advocated asking a priest or spiritual father to pick out books from them for a time, or said that they weren’t ready to read a book first but came back after they had grown spiritually and then found immense profit in the book. There is another thread of mystagogy in that monastics do not parade their mystical experiences for all the world or even all the faithful to see. Mystagogy is foundational to Orthodoxy even if it is pitifully observed now, but it still applies now in that you don’t try to use logical arguments to make people accept truths their hearts reject.
There is an alternative to compelling by arguing the truth: compelling by living the Truth. If we embrace a Truth who is ever so much more than right opinion, other people will pick up on it, the same as if we fully respect the image of God in another person, right or wrong. If we grow enough spiritually, people will sense something. Possibly this may create a teachable moment; possibly it won’t, but it will reach people’s hearts as a logical jackhammer cannot. St. Paul advises believing wives to win over unbelieving husbands without a word; but this is not an exception to an argumentative norm so much as an example that is almost supreme in character. The basic phenomenon reaches from one heart to another.
10. Read nourishing books in keeping with the Orthodox Church’s character as an oral tradition. There is a wealth of good books at the hands of the Orthodox Church; the collection of the Fathers over the centuries is like an encyclopedia in its length, and the Bible is indispensible. None the less, the Orthodox Church is at heart an oral tradition, and for most Orthodox Christians, being patristic is not achieved by quasi-academic reading of copious books, but by being in church where the priest mediates Tradition. There is oral tradition implied by the written tradition of the Philokalia, which is less properly a book than a library with different texts at different levels. It’s not meant to be read cover to cover, although that may also be permitted; it’s intended for a spiritual guide to pull selections for someone under guidance. And treat this text, too, as written property of oral tradition; use it (or not) as your priest or spiritual father guides you.
11. Banish two thoughts, and retain two thoughts. Abandon the thoughts, “I am a saint,” and “I will be damned.” Instead, think both “I am a great sinner,” and “God is merciful.” Repentance needs no despair; the worst of earthly sins are like a smouldering ember thrown into the ocean of God’s love.
12. In conjunction with your spiritual father, know your limits and don’t try to be perfect. If someone is harassing you, and both not responding and repeated requests to stop harassment are being answered with harassment, it’s time to involve social media or email authorities, or possibly the police, or just block someone on Facebook much earlier. It may be the case that some superspiritual saint could serenely shine through the worst of the harassment, but that is not the case for you and me. We aren’t there, at least not yet, and your priest or spiritual father may have very practical words about how mountains are moved here on earth.
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Legend has it that a sage was going to leave his locale, and a guard asked for a guide to live by. And so the sage left the Dao De Jing and disappeared, seemingly without further trace.
On this point I do not care if the legend is history: speaking as one with interest in the humanities, it does no violence to the text to read the Dao De Jing in this light, and speaking as a one interested in history I know that I am at some remove from a position where I could offer informed opinion whether the legend should be seen as historical.
My intent, though, and my point in reading it, is to offer a survival guide for the profoundly gifted, and one that speaks to adults as well as perhaps children.
On this point, at least, I am taking a break from tradition. The originator of the concept of IQ was Darwin’s envious cousin Galton, who wanted some of the fame Darwin had, and wrote a book, Hereditary Genius, which dealt with individuals up to a point, but only to see how good candidates they were for his eugenics platform. In response to that, Leta Hollingsworth was teaching a class that used IQ tests to measure levels of deficiency; and decided also for what it was worth to include an unaffected test subject. Much to the astonishment of any reader who understands statistics, that one person was profoundly gifted, past the “one in a million” mark. She went on to write the thickly descriptive Children Above 180 IQ Stanford-Binet: Origin and Development.
Hollingsworth, and her modification to Galton’s eugenics program, have been decisive in effect. For one example that could be called “so close, and yet so far”, she studied gifted children because “adult genius is mobile”, and if interventions are to be useful, they will be of most help in childhood. And she set the programme for gifted education, and for the fact to this day, about half a century after her passing, formal study of giftedness is first and foremost the study of gifted children and only incidentally of gifted adults.
This may be a point on which she should be challenged. One basic point of human psychology which applies in giftedness as much as anywhere else is that “like attracts like.” Children who are gifted and are at a mental age of older children or adults can often find like companionship. Adults who are gifted may have the Internet, and with it gifted organizations, mailing lists, etc., but my response to Hollingsworth is, “Adult genius is mobile? To go where? To some colony or Utopian village?” A gifted child, including profoundly gifted up to a point, stands good chances of social contacts (not via the Internet) who are of similar mental age enough to give a certain comfort. Now profoundly gifted can organize online, in a kind of New Social Movement, meet and have contact with other profoundly gifted, which may or may not be an historical novelty (the foundation of Universities itself was what may be seen as a New Social Movement of profoundly gifted movement in centuries past: Renaissance men), but however helpful it may be to attend to the peculiar needs of gifted children, gifted adults have needs, too.
And so I wanted to give a survival guide, of sorts, with the Dao De Jing taken very loosely as a model. I am not so silent as to leave a scant 81 poems, nor is this intended to directly help Everyman. People who are not profoundly gifted may be free enough to read it, but it is directed towards a few who may need it the most.
The Pearl of Great Price, and a word on anger
There is a C.S. Lewis quote, if I may persist in the Evangelical fashion of incessantly quoting an ecumenism and architect and apologist for ecumenism as we know the heresy today. Lewis writes in The Abolition of Man about nascent science that emerged in a Renaissance environment practically saturated with the occult:
It might be going too far to say that the modern scientific movement was tainted from its birth: but I think it might be true to say that it was born at an unhealthy neighborhood and at an inauspicious hour.
For my first stop after a preamble, I would mention a text connected with a figure I have great trepidation about: Fr. Seraphim (Rose). Whatever might be right or wrong about the deceased monk, the movement that unites in his name is a pest, and he alone has left me wanting to write a title like The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts (consistent one-star reviews saying, “BEWARE,” alleging logical fallacies etc.). Fr. Seraphim and his followers are usually classed as conservative, and I suppose they may be willing to assume the position of law and order in taking charge of Orthodox liberals’ spiritual condition: I may consider myself conservative and consider ecumenism to probably be the ecclesiological heresy of our day, but Fr. Seraphim’s crowd certainly commandeered a positon of law and order in straightening out my own spiritual condition in ways my priest wouldn’t dare.
But in a sense of “Do as I do and not as I say,” there is a profound nugget of wisdom in Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Thoughts and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitnovnica. It is subtle, and some would say occult, in its treatment of barely consciously made curses having extraordinary effect, even if the point is that we should not curse even in the subtlest way.
The essential point is not uniquely Orthodox, but I would put it this way. Between the point where a thought really isn’t active in our minds at all, and when it is genuinely and clearly present with mental images, there is a subtle point of consent that most of us are barely aware of, an opportunity to put out a smouldering candle to be delivered from needing to extinguish a full-fledged fire. This is present in how a psychologist tells addicts that “You have more power than you think.” My recollection of discussions of the book, which I haven’t read and may be portraying incorrectly, is that Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning hinged on the discovery of this freedom in a concentration camp. The nexus is tied to the satyagraha championed by Gandhi and held as precious in India today: one of the bigger compliments I have been given is that it is rare to find this kind of understanding of satyagraha outside of India. There are many contestants for the most politically incorrect verse or passage in the Bible; one that is emphasized in Orthodoxy, especially in Lent, is, “…Blessed is he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” The patriotic reading is that this refers to barely conscious thoughtlings which we can crush against Christ the Rock, ideally as soon as we can. The longer we let them grow, the more Hell-borne trouble will infest us.
That much is the big picture for this title. The microcosm Elder Thaddeus offers and fleshes out most is in anger; Elder Thaddeus may be faithfully following a tradition where the most deadly of sins is not lust, as the Victorians are rightly or wrongly charged with thinking, or pride such as some Protestants today may think, but anger. And that may seem an un-sexy choice of opponent for the elder to attack, but his choice may make perfect sense. And here a Law of Attraction comes into play. Perhaps we will not by placing our hands on a steering wheel of our SUV and saying “Thank you” (while imagining a much nicer one) thereby manipulate God into giving us more luxury. If there is some kind of Law of Attraction, it is simply not about acquiring luxuries. What is it about, you ask?
Like thoughts attract like thoughts. Thoughts of love, or courage, or gratitude attract further thoughts of love, or courage, or gratitude, and action with them. Thoughts of lust and anger attract more forceful thoughts of lust and anger, and action with them. And more to the point, thoughts of peace attract harmonious relations with others, and “warring thoughts”, thoughts of anger, bring Hellish conflict. On this point I count one of several anecdotes:
4.5. If in each family there were just one person who served God zealously, what harmony there would be in the world! I often remember the story of Sister J. She used to come and talk to me often while I was still at the Tumane Monastery. Once she came, together with an organized group of pilgrims, and complained, saying, “I can’t bear this any longer! People are so unkind to each other!” She went on to say that she was going to look for another job. I advised her against it, as there were few jobs and a high level of unemployment. I told her to stop the war she was fighting with her colleagues. “But I’m not fighting with anyone!” she said. I explained that, although she was not fighting physically, she was waging war with her colleagues in her thoughts by being dissatisfied with her position. She argued that it was beyond anyone’s endurance. “Of course it is,” I told her, “but you can’t do it yourself. You need God’s help. No one knows whether you are praying or not while you are at work. So, when they start offending you, do not return their offenses either with words or with negative thoughts. Try not to offend them even in your thoughts; pray to God that He may send them an angel of peace. Also ask that He not forget you. You will not be able to do this immediately, but if you always pray like that, you will see how things will change over time and how the people will change as well. In fact, you are going to change, too.” At that time I did not know whether she was going to heed my advice.
This happened in the Tumane Monastery in 1980. In 1981 I was sent to the Vitovnica Monastery. I was standing underneath the quince tree when I noticed a group of pilgrims that had arrived. She was in the group and she came up to me to receive a blessing. And this is what she said to me, “Oh, Father, I had no idea that people were so good!” I asked her whether she was referring to her colleagues at work and she said she was. “They have changed so much, Father, it’s unbelievable! No one offends me anymore, and I can see the change in myself, as well.” I asked her whether she was at peace with everyone, and she answered that there was one person with whom she could not make peace for a long time. Then, as she read the Gospels, she came to the part where the Lord commands us to love our enemies. Then she said to herself, “You are going to love this person whether you want to or not, because this is what the Lord commands us to do.” And now, you see, they are best friends!
This is at best one percent of theology and moral philosophy, and I am quoting it in an instrumental manner, which is to say falsely, or something like that. But in terms of immediate impact, it is front and center of what I have been trying to learn. You will have plenty of opportunities to forgive. Or at least I have. But there is something immensely powerful about the gentleness of spirit dealt with here. In another piece, I wrote a highly redundant piece, The Orthodox Martial Art Is Living the Sermon on the Mount. The title at least is worth considering, and is explained in the work. For this whole first point, I would say that the entire arena of morality (or at least that’s how things are cut up: in Orthodoxy, there is ascesis or spiritual discipline, and the field of morality, especially with outcroppings like social morality, does not arise on the same terms) is as important as it can be, but there are crimes that will get you executed in some places, and there are crimes that will get you dead before you get to the police station. For you, this is a crime that will get you dead before you reach the station.
One friend said of his parenting to a parishioner, “I tell my kids that they can say anything they want as long as they don’t use the F-word.” And continued, after a brief pause, “No, ‘Fair,'” and then said (this was a few years ago and may or may not be current) “File [U.S. Income tax forms] and don’t pay, and unless you owe $10000, it’s not worth the IRS’s time to come after you. Don’t file, and the IRS drops the hammer on you.” And there is something here that is not fair. Part of this point is that “A soft answer turns away wrath;” part of this point is meeting anger with meekness. But there is something unfair in that if other people offend here, they may not face particularly bad consequences. If you offend, you may receive a law and order response, or the hammer, or whatever you would like to call it.
Elder Thaddeus makes this question decisive and central, and I’m not sure it deserves that status; I have trouble pulling what he says from what I have seen in the Bible and the Fathers. Some of my attempts to turn the other cheek have met with further ill treatment. However that may be, I have deliberately placed this point as first after introductory comment.
One added remark before moving on to the closely related point of humility: there was a psychology experiment where people were shown brief video clips of doctors, without sound, and asked simply whether the doctor was “nice.” That simple question predicted, at 70% accuracy, whether the doctor would end up getting sued. The point sketched able may be your best shot at being taken to be “nice.”
Humility and pride
I have said earlier that sin, all sin, is like a pet ignoring a water bowl and drinking out of the toilet. Pride chokes off ability to respect others, and ability to enjoy others. But trying to be humble, perhaps under guidance, isn’t just good for what will happen in the next world. It is good for what happens in this world. And this hinges on something unfair again. Pride, arrogance, boastfulness–these benefit precisely no one, and people are rarely drawn to pride. However, pride is even more of a survival liability to the gifted. It offends others more than you have to, and it endangers you more than you have to…
…and it is also a form of stupidity, one you acquire even if natural intelligence does not demand it. Hubris has been described as “blinding arrogance,” and it is the behavior of pride to decide what you want to believe and ignore conflicting evidence that could save you were you to be humble enough to listen.
The proper place of humility is in a montage of interdependent virtues; I have called one to the forefront because of its survival value. You may be able to buy a little space by posturing and flattery, but this is false coin and doesn’t deliver much real weight.
Back in Greece, a member was one school was asked if he was “sophos” or wise, and answered that he was “philosophia” or one who “loved,” partly meaning “sought,” wisdom. The response was humble, or at least trying to act humble. “Philosophy” has meant different things over different times, and there is rich culture shock in people finding Eastern monasticism a much purer philosophy than the sort of thing taught in a philosophy department today. However, practitioners have retained a modest term for over two millennia. And it is perhaps an attitude even more appropriate with reference to humility would be to disclaim being humble, but if asked state that one is seeking humility.
Humility is a profound virtue, it has a great deal to do with the well-ordering of our soul, and there are two ways the profoundly gifted particularly need it. First, it is a sharper survival value and our failings hurt worse in the short term. Second, our gifts (meaning everyone’s gifts, really) are given to humble us. The Philokalia talks about how you can only take credit for actions you. performed before you were born. Meaning, put vividly, that none of us, not even if we arrive at such purity and growth that we can work miracles, should be taking any credit for ourselves. (God might do so at the Last Judgment, but here now it is not permitted or helpful to us.) How much more, then, if we cannot take credit for even the most heroic of our acts, should we be stuck up for our giftedness, which we did nothing to create or acquire, and indeed could do nothing to create or acquire?
Furthermore, humility has been described as a kind of spiritual honesty. It has been called less of a matter of thinking less of oneself, and more a matter of thinking of oneself less. I was told in response to one confession, “The only true intelligence is humility,” and the honest character of humility really gives something that a sky high IQ plus pride does not. There may be cardinally important differences, and they really matter, and it is not normally helpful to relate to most other people as if they were directly as smart as you, but humility is still even more of a necessity to the profoundly gifted.
In Christian Koans, I wrote:
Someone said to a master, “What about the people who have never heard of Christ? Are they all automatically damned to Hell? Tell me; I have heard that you have studied this question.”
The master said, “What you need to be saved is for you to believe in Christ, and you have heard of him.”
Other people may lack humility and get along fine. We need humility in a much more pointed fashion now, even though our eternal needs are the same.
Blaise Pascal said that there were two types of people in this world: sinners who believe they are saints, and saints who believe they are sinners. The pre-communion prayers speak of “…sinners, of whom I am chief,” and there is more.
There is a valuable lesson to be taken from the U.S. of years past, and possibly also the present: “No one in America is rich.” No one says, or at least said, “I have these luxuries; I am rich.” “Rich” is a word we use to describe someone else with a more rarified level of wealth and possession, perhaps with something we covet: whether a more prestigious brand of car, or a nicer house, or a better position in the stock market. Perhaps under present economic conditions some Americans are starting to wise up that a house you own, with a mortgage, an income, and a working car are nothing to sneeze at. But there is still much of the earlier attitude, and precious few Americans are “rich”; “rich” refers to wealthier people whose wealth and property one covets. The wealth and property one already has is, or at least was, taken for granted.
I propose that the above attitude can be lifted to a higher plane. None of us are humble; we seek the priceless treasure of humility, but we don’t, or shouldn’t, see the humility we have. Instead we see humble people around us, or humility in the saints’ lives, but no matter how much we have it should be nothing in our eyes, and we have an insatiable search for more.
The above version of the Law of Attraction, and humility, are two points taken from an encyclopedia’s worth; I have wondered if I have shortchanged humility by giving it too few words. But let’s move on.
Communication under the “Theory of Alien Minds”
In Profoundly Gifted Magazine Interviews Charles Wallace Murry of A Wind in the Door, I discuss what might be called a “theory of alien minds” which reaches beyond the psychological “theory of other minds:”
Profoundly Gifted: Then what is it? What should I make of it?
Charles Wallace: If I may shanghai an opportunity to follow the words, “If there is an elephant in the room, introduce him…”?
Profoundly Gifted: Yes?
Charles Wallace: Asperger’s Syndrome.
Profoundly Gifted: It’s kind of like profound giftedness, no?
Charles Wallace: Let me quietly count to ten… Ok…
I read David Pollock’s Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, and I said, “That’s me!” Then I read Edward Hallowell’s Driven to Distraction and it made sense. Then I read, on a medical practitioner’s advice, Tony Attwood’s The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, and my response was some more polite form of “Dude… pass me a toke of whatever it is that you’re smoking!“
The root problem, which I will get to in a minute, is that when people who are happy to have an Asperger’s diagnosis and happy to offer half the people they know an Asperger’s diagnosis, there are superficial similarities between profound giftedness and Asperger’s traits, things that a competent diagnostician should see far past.
Early in the title, Attwood says that when he diagnoses someone with Asperger’s, he says, “Congratulations! You have Asperger’s!” But then it goes downhill. Atwood argues that the obvious social impairments one would associate with Asperger’s are guilty as charged; Asperger’s people don’t know (without counseling and / or training) how to hold an appopriate social conversation. However, the strengths one would associate with Asperger’s are all but eviscerated. Asperger’s children may have a monologue that sounds like a competent adult discussing the matter, but this “knowledge” is a hollow shell, without much of anything of the deeper competency one would associate with an adult capable of such monologue. The common stereotype of Asperger’s patients portrays a slightly odd combination of strengths and weaknesses; Attwood’s book is less generous and really only ascribes real weaknesses.
The standard symptoms of Asperger’s have a perhaps 50% overlap with standard symptoms of profound giftedness; while it is certainly possible to be a member of both demographics, the profoundly gifted characteristics resemble Asperger’s characters for quite unrelated reasons. The similarity may be compared to the common cold, on the one hand, in which there is an immune response to a harmful invador, and environmental allergies on the other hand, in which there is a harmful response to something otherwise harmless. Or for those who prefer an example from Charles Baudelaire, there is an image of two females, one an infant too young to have teeth or hair, and the other a woman too old to have teeth or hair. (The coincidence of features is close to being due to diametrically opposed reasons.)
Profoundly Gifted: Is the question “Asperger’s or profound giftedness?” the sort of question you’d rather un-ask than answer?
Charles Wallace: It is indeed. Or at least I’m drawing a blank to see what a three-cornered discussion of normalcy, Asperger’s, and profound giftedness has to add to the older discussion of normalcy and profound giftedness. If we can overcome our chronological snobbishness says that only now could we say something worthwhile about XYZ and giftedness, Leta Hollingsworth decided as a counterbalance to a study of mental retardation a study of some who turned out to have an IQ of somewhere around 180 or higher. She wrote an insightful and descriptive, Children Above 180 IQ Stanford-Binet, much more insightful than the treatment of profoundly gifted scoring “Termites.”
Furthermore, and here I am less concerned with the relationship between profound giftedness and Asperger’s than improperly read research, there is a consistent finding that IQ-normal, autism-normal children do markedly better at what are unfortunately lumped together as “theory of other minds.”
A much better interpretation of Attwood’s data might come from splitting the theory of other minds into a separate theory of like minds, and also a theory of alien minds. A theory of like minds works with one’s homeys or peeps; hence someone IQ-normal and autism-normal surrounded by IQ-normal and autism-normal classmates will coast on a theory of like minds. But, except in how it may be refined by practice, a theory of like minds that comes virtually free to everyone isn’t in particular reserved to a majority of people (not) affected by XYZ condition. With some true exceptions like Tay-Sachs, everybody gets along with their peeps. Gifted and profoundly gifted click with their fellows; Asperger’s people click with their fellows; To pick a few many demographics, various geek subcultures, codependents, addicts, and various strains of queer should click just as well. Everybody gets a theory of like minds virtually free; the breadth of usefulness depends on how rarely or commonly one encounters like minds, and this heavily loads the dice for Attwood’s approach.
The comparison Attwood makes in interaction with autism-normal people loads the dice in a way that is totally unfair. The comparison is autism-normals’ theory of like minds to Asperger’s theory of alien minds; he never, ever tests autism-normals on their ability to relate to alien minds, nor does he ever test Asperger’s patients on their ability to relate to like minds. And while being unsure about how far this applies to IQ-normal Asperger’s patients, Asperger’s patients often make herculean and lifelong efforts to develop “theory of alien minds” aptitude, and the result is not just that they connect, perhaps clumsily, with people of the same age and socioeconomic status; they make very close connections across age, race, and gender, and for that matter animals who may start off by being afraid of them. The theory of alien minds is finely honed, even if it is not a valid substitute for a theory of like minds, and once it is honed, this theory of alien minds reaches much, much further than autism-normals resting on a theory of like minds.
In conversation, I’ve found people somewhat repulsed by the title of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. The title sounds gimmicky, or worse Machiavellian. It sounds like a way to manipulate and use people. However, it has (some would argue) a legitimate place, and some of us who have read the title prefer to deal with others who are following its lead. I’ll refrain from simply condensing the title; rather, I will take its summary key points and address how they relate to us who are profoundly gifted, with some adaptation in the process. This partial expansion is not intended to replace or supplant original text, but stand in its proper position after one has taken an hour or two to read Carnegie. I also after some thought am not covering all his chapters; there is a limit to what I have to say here that is useful.
- Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain. This one also makes Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 maxims, and there is a general principle in Orthodoxy that we should be strict with ourselves and lenient with others. I would suggest further: Don’t cause culture shock, at least if you can avoid it or unless you are willing to deal with the consequences. You see options that others can’t. That’s a blessing, but one thing that plays out is that people in a culture will make sense of what they see in terms of the options the culture defines as possible or even thinkable. Furthermore, there is negative attribution at play. “Negative attribution” is a phenomenon where actions that are not understood are assumed to have dishonorable, shady motives. It takes some doing for you to come to understand what makes culture shock, but if nothing else be aware of it, and be aware that causing culture shock comes with a social price tag.
- Give honest and sincere appreciation. Orthodox may take issue with this in some part; some regard frequent compliments as spiritual poison, either dodging them or calling them Devil’s talk. Which, perhaps, they can be, and perhaps “guilty as charged.” But there is another shoe to drop. Compliments may be spiritually toxic and feed spiritual disease, but we are called to infinite respect. It is decreed in at least one monastic rule that guests “are to be received as Christ himself;” the chilling end of Matthew 25 clarifies that whatever we do for the very least beggar we have done for Christ himself. There is perhaps no need, really, to give a diet of compliments, but the respect or disrespect we show to our neighbor is, come Judgment Day, respect or disrespect we have shown the King returning in glory.
- Arouse in the other person an eager want. What precedes this statement in Carnegie’s chapter here is more than is really summarized; subsumed under “Arouse in the other person an eager want” is seeing things from the other’s perspective and speaking in terms of what the other person would find attractive. This, for profoundly gifted, is squarely a matter of “theory of alien minds” competence, and I will not speak further here than give one generically geek example. It has to do with when someone, having had a frustrating experience with technology, calls in the geek and the geek sees what principle or whatever it is that the user failed to understand, uses the moment to try to explain the principle the user needs, and meets with forceful existence. Geeks don’t like this situation; some of them in great frustration have asked, “Don’t they have any curiosity?” To this I would say, “You don’t seem to be showing much curiosity about people. ‘At the end of their rope’ is not the usual example of a teachable moment, at very least not with computer difficulties.” As far as spiritual growth goes, amazing things are sometimes learned at the end of one’s rope: one chapel speaker said, “God’s address is at the end of your rope.” However, it is simply not helpful to give a technology lesson to someone who is exasperated and stressed out. Similar technology lessons might make complete sense another day, when the other person is relaxed and in a good mood. However, there really is something to be said about taking an active interest in other people, and trying to get inside the other person’s head, and communicate in terms they will find attractive, not just what comes most naturally to you.
- Become genuinely interested in other people. One friend identified herself as “a psychologian,” and it was fascinating to me to watch her turn her whole attention to a younger woman and see how she worked. We think today of psychology today as the discipline that understands people, but it was historically an alternative to the understanding of people provided by religion. There is another embodied sense in literature, and there are ways a literature major may understand a person better than a psychology major. But in any case, knowing people should be at least one of your chosen areas of expertise. You owe it to yourself, and others!
- Smile. And if you’re one of those people like me who is not very animated by nature, it might not hurt to go to improv classes. (At least a conceptual understanding of method acting might also help.)
- Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language. Carnegie does not discuss standard memory techniques such as are discussed in Kevin Trudeau’s Mega Memory; there is some debate how useful such techniques are, and they may or may not help. However, it is helpful by some means to learn. And this principle is a token of respect for a whole person. If a business says “You’re a name to us, not a number” (as the puzzled secretary at a sprinkler company read an advertisement), that is a claim of respect for the whole person. And if non-semantic information is not your main area of strength, this does not change the relational necessity of learning and using other people’s names. (Perhaps you might memorize the etymology that gives the name?)
- Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves. One expert negotiator was asked, “If I could shadow you for a day, and observe what you do, what in a sentence would I learn?” He said, “I don’t need a sentence. I just need two words: Listen better.” Listening, and a listening attitude, are bedrock to communication, persuasion, negotiation. The more important your message is, the more important it is for learning.
- Talk in terms of the other person’s interests. Make it a spiritual practice of being with other people, perhaps without even discussing their interests. There is a time and a place for persuasion, but even those who deprecate idle talk assume something far greater. Meet people where they are.
- The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it. Part of mystagogy is simple: if a person is wrong, and you know that person will not hear correction, you do not correct that person. On Judgment Day, it is better for the other person not to be guilty of hearing the truth and rejecting it, and it is also better for you not to have put the other person in that position. More broadly, argument and persuasion have a place, but the chief means of persuasion is one that a politically incorrect passage from the New Testament advises for the wife of an unbelieving husband. What we say is drowned out by how we live, and in the great scheme of things persuasion by Western logical argument is drowned out by the silent witness of our lives.
Why I am not a disciple of a staretz (or at least, not yet)
A staretz, or spiritual father in the monastic tradition, is one feature of Orthodoxy that is expected of monastics and open to non-monastics. I have heard varying opinions about whether laity should have a staretz. One bishop, perhaps associated with scandal, said that most of us living in the world should not rightly need a staretz, and that one should get the blessing of one’s priest and perhaps bishop before embarking on that unusual choice, even warning it might be out of pride / prelest that such decisions often spring from. Others have suggested that having a bond with a staretz is normal, and that one is limping spiritually to be Orthodox but not participate in that powerfully strengthening relationship.
I am not interested in advancing either of these positions, or criticizing either, beyond saying that I know Orthodox faithful who have their heads on straight and are not disciples of a staretz, and I know Orthodox faithful who regard a relationship with a staretz as a basic essential and also seem to have their heads on straight. There is a slight logistical detail about geographic location that is not of interest here, but what is to the point is the primary reason I do not now have a staretz.
A leading example of due diligence in Orthodoxy is the investigation that a prospective disciple is urged to make before entering obedience to a staretz. There is something of a monastic “Marry in haste; repent at leisure” phenomenon here, in that a prospective disciple is commanded to investigate the staretz, but once obedience has been entered, it is inviolable.
What I have found as a profoundly gifted individual is that a lot of authority figures have issues with the profoundly gifted. I’d like to give one or two examples, but they come from bosses, from professors, from clergy, from medical providers, from family, and it can take ten years for a repeated “No” to take effect.
One example from work
Let me take one example from work. I am deliberately mentioning work (not a first choice for jobseekers) rather than the offenses of someone who is close to me now.
I was brought on board to create a micro site that would supersede previous ways of tracking information about XYZ. I worked hard, and two days into a three week contract (we had already lost one week to administrative / paperwork issues that were not my boss’s fault or my own), I presented my first deliverable, a roughly 50-60% complete solution with an obvious trajectory to fill in the gaps. And let me preface what follows by saying that there are at least three ways in which I don’t believe my boss understood I was doing well because I was operating on a greased track:
- The contract was for either Python or Java development, and I used Python with Django, “the web framework for perfectionists with deadlines.” Each of the two languages has its own sweet spot where it vastly outperforms the other, and this specific contract fell squarely in Python and Django’s sweet spot.
- Second, I had just finished the publishing process for an IT title where the main software I developed to showcase my tools could serve as an example for what I had. Doing a project the second time through, as long as you avoid what is called “second-system effect”, is almost always faster. A lot faster, in most cases.
- In terms of personal working style, I had nearly optimally conditions for how I work best. I am not interested in commenting on what Agile variant or whatever provides the best working conditions overall, but I had a task, clearly defined and well understood in this case, and autonomy to do my best work. There was not much more for me to ask for.
So I came in on a greased track, politely and respectfully submitted my work, initially with pleasure of assurance that I had turned in something good, until my boss started making some very ominous remarks.
I plucked up my courage and asked directly, “How should it be different?”
I was assured that it would be explained in an upcoming meeting with him and one other employee.
In that meeting, I was told that my boss’s boss had asked how things were going with the project. My boss lied to save my skin, or so he said, telling him that we were only in “early planning stages”, with “nothing to show,” and my boss said that his boss was “LIVID“, emoting in a way that suggested he used “livid” because he couldn’t think of a stronger word to convey anger. I was also told, “Your only two friends within the company are in this room,” and that I should be terrifed of anyone else seeing my abysmal work. What the meeting left completely unaddressed was my question of, “Well, how should it be different?” Nothing in the meeting addressed my questions of “If you don’t like it now, how should I change it?” My boss walked out of the meeting looking very, very impressed with himself; he seemed proud for having cleverly defended himself from an attack.
Incidentally, I had run-in with my boss’s boss a day or so before; he asked how things were going, and I showed him pretty much what I showed my boss. He looked slightly bored at a reporting informational answer to what he apparently meant as a purely social question. (Note: this is not a hallmark of a particularly good liar.) I do not think he would have emoted that calmly if he were concealing rage towards me; and I also do not think that if he were in a rage he would let me continue to be employed there.
That was the biggest obnoxious thing that went on; it wasn’t the only one. The runner-up is that as part of his effort to make himself equal to me–and it has been my universal experience that when people try to make themselves my equal, things never go well–is that on one point in particular he spoke in riddles, refusing to give direct answers to my direct questions about what he wanted in the way of change even though he knew exactly what he wanted and he could have stated it clearly. He kept on forbidding me to copy the user interface to some internal-use system, and I thought, “Well enough: I’ll leave that system alone. I’ll refrain from even looking.” This was apparently not good enough; he kept on forbidding. After some point I realized that he wanted me to copy a key user interface feature exhibited by that other system, and when I did the work to copy that feature, the upshot was that I finally got it!
(As an aside, alongside people trying in sometimes nasty ways to make themselves equal to you, they will also sometimes show kindness, after a sort, by acting in a heirarchical relationship above you. Hence you may have people eager to advise you, or teach you, or start to provide unsolicited psychological services and feel very hurt if you politely decline–possibly talking to you for a solid hour without any request on your part–just whatever possible kindness will situate them above you. Now this is reason not to be arrogant as that is the one part of the problem you can most prevent, but even if you show a true and flawless humility, people can get intimidated.)
Another encounter at work
To muddy the waters a bit, this was a position where I requested accommodation for disability, and my boss tried a couple of times to push past the accommodation until I put my foot down. This can’t have improved my standing with him.
There was one major stint of my work that was handed in, and my boss accused me of doing a “fix one, break two,” after getting a bunch of people to find as many bugs as possible. This was an extremely serious allegation of incompetence, and I did not say anything immediately because I wasn’t sure how to respond and it isn’t something I am used to hearing. Then I got the big list of flaws in my work, and it was in fact not a list of flaws in my work. Every single one, without exception, was either a request to handle an ambiguity differently, often to the detriment of the product, or else it was a request for a feature enhancement that was not mentioned on the specifications I was working from. I told him this, and said that it is normal in the workflow for requests to be added, but I asked him not to frame requests for new features as evidence of my incompetence.
My boss never again made a specific allegation as to what was wrong with my code. After some time passed, he said in generic terms that my code was poor quality, and after a bit longer said it was not improved, and fired me.
I didn’t have any talent!
I could read music before I could read English, and as a little boy even… I love to play piano, but at a certain point my parents shut off my lessons and discouraged me when I continued to practice.
What my piano teacher told my mother, years later, was that she felt the need to distance herself from certain friends including my mother and me as connected to her. I might gently suggest another possibility. What she told my mother when discontinuing my lessons wasn’t that I should continue with another teacher. She instead shut down my lessons by telling my mother that I didn’t have any talent.
As one friend who was a piano teacher said, you don’t say that. It might possibly be true, but you don’t say that of your least talented student.
What exactly does “He doesn’t have any talent,” mean?
In this context, among other things, it meant that when I attended a Ken Medema session that was for Wheaton College Conservatory students (but open to others), I was the person who accepted an invitation and found myself placed to give a public performance. So I did, and people found it astonishing: one friend listened to it on tape and said, “That was you? It was beautiful.” That was my first time touching a keyboard in ten years.
My piano teacher couldn’t have known that. What she did know was that I was confused by the standard way of teaching relative pitch. I could do it, but I didn’t see the point, and the reason I didn’t see the point was that I had perfect pitch. And she knew I had perfect pitch.
I might comment that having authority figures trying to rebel against me didn’t begin when I had adult mental function and crude social skills. I’ve had authority figures rebel against me even as a young boy.
An example of a time bomb that blew up
There is also a time bomb aspect to these nasty (non-)surprises. I recall one mailing list where I had a conversation with one contributor, and joined the list for a time. At first the leader of the list said of 1054 and All That, “It tortures my funny bone,” which later changed to, “When you write satire, I grimace and bear it.” The woman who introduced me to the group asked me early on why I was guarded, and said, “We’re among friends.”
Things seemed to be on a sustained even keel for a while, but after a certain point the head of the mailing list increasingly opposed me, publicly attacking what I said and me as a person, which he tried to explain to me was introducing me to friendly candour, and even communicated that he was taking emotional risk and my place and obligation was to to validate and endorse the “friendly candor” he was so boldly poured forth.
I progressively withdrew from the conversation, first from stating opinion, then back from core Orthodoxy, until finally I was trying to make one and just one point. One of the members of the group was having a stressful, and really entirely needless, crisis of conscience: it was during the Nativity fast, and she had an obligation to attend a Christmas party, and she thought there were no exceptions or leniency to the rule of fasting. And at that point I was not interested in scoring points or being right as such; I was acting on a pastoral concern (if laity are allowed to act on pastoral concern) to tell her that there was a legitimate and time-honored exception here: she should go to the festival and enjoy what was offered her with a genuinely clean conscience. And the mailing list leader opposed me here as much as anywhere else: “I reply with three words: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.”
After a side conversation, I made a long post quoting ancient and modern sources in Orthodoxy, and explained that every source in Orthodoxy I had seen apart from the mailing list leader’s response said, in the words of my parish priest sometime back, “Hospitality trumps fasting.”
He locked me from posting on the list.
And there are several other instances like that that I can mention.
The pattern as a whole: and, more specifically why I am not attached to a staretz
The whole incident just mentioned–another was arguably betrayal by an Orthodox priest I looked up to–fed into a moment of “I have no mouth and I must scream,” that appeared in crystallized form in The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab, which I encourage you to take the time to read, perhaps now. A psychologist might talk about how a professor may have a need to believe “I’m an A and you’re all B’s,” the point being that non-threatening B’s get the A’s and unsettling A’s get B’s or worse. But the insight is hardly a new insight. Someone who knows the Bible well may note a decisive turning point after Paul heard people singing, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David has slain his tens of thousands.” He asked why he was only credited with thousands, if David was given tens of thousands, and that is pretty much the point where David began to be in serious danger from Saul. For that matter, even fairy tales contain a similar point. Snow White was pretty safe as long as the Queen still heard the answer she wanted when she asked, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” When the answer became “Snow White,” the Queen, like King Saul, sought noting short of murder.
And on this point this is why I have not sought a staretz. It is beyond a doubt to me that there are many startsy much too mature and humble to actually rebel against their disciples, but what I do hold in extreme doubt is my ability to distinguish them. Sometimes people show their colors immediately; it has also happened that harassment only began years later. I am not saying that I will never place myself under a staretz’s authority, let alone wish to criticize the institution as a whole. I am not interested in convincing people that they shouldn’t be disciples of a starter, or that they should. However, words like “Marry in haste, repent at leisure” and a history of time bombs leave me chary of placing myself under a bond of absolute obedience.
Saying “No” and enforcing that boundary
The standard psychological advice on this point is to give compliments, and show kindness so that anything unpleasant is sandwiched by things that are much more pleasant. And in terms of general social rules, it is good sense for people in general that if you have to say something unpleasant it is best to sandwich it with something more pleasant. For that matter, How to Win Friends and Influence People has much to say about gracefully dealing criticism, and while I am not a psychologist, I can imagine that a piece of routinely given advice to bookworms who find social situations challenging might be, “Read How to Win Friends and Influence People. Dale Carnegie wrote the book!” None the less, I submit that this boilerplate advice does not apply in the case of profound giftedness, or at least does not scale appropriately. Advice about giving a graceful apology when you have stepped on someone’s toes is inadequate to the situation if you can only wear cleats.
More broadly, I would compare driving on wintry roads after a heavy snowfall in Illinois versus Georgia. In Illinois, a snowfall of several inches is relatively routine. It may never be as safe to drive on snow-packed roads as roads without water, snow, or ice, but if you are exaggerating defensive driving a bit, drive a good bit more slowly, and allow yourself ample stopping room, you stand a significant chance of reaching a goal without an accident. However, in the case that is rarer than a blue moon that Georgia gets an equally heavy snowfall, the rules outlined above leave you significantly more vulnerable, because while in Illinois you are sharing the road largely with drivers who have some sense of what defensive driving on snow looks like, while the situation is far removed from anything they have well-formed habits for. The general psychological advice, cut from the same cloth as How to Win Friends and Influence People, is defensive driving in Illinois snow on roads shared with Illinois drivers. For the profoundly gifted it is taking Illinois defensive driving on snowy roads and trying to make it work in Georgia. (And I’m not trying to take a dig at Georgia; a Georgian is welcome to respond “Georgians don’t know how to drive deep snow and Illinoisans don’t know how to brace for a hurricane, and that’s a bigger deal.”)
But let me mention two situations where I shut down harassment.
One was a gay rights activist and now Roman priest who was essentially a self-appointed guardian of my orthodoxy. For quite a long time, when I posted a new written work, he would post a reply that inevitably did three things: it delivered pain, took me quite a few notches down socially, and lifted him even more notches above me, establishing him squarely as my superior.
After one dressing-down that was particularly offensive, I tried multiple ways to reason with him, and nothing worked: the last email he responded to was one in which I requested “no further unsolicited criticisms on any topic.” He responded, “Ok, I won’t send any more unsolicited criticisms, but I will take emails from you as solicitations for response,” followed by a dose of even more criticism. I then sent a letter, Cc’ed to our email provider, saying, “It seems I have no way of asking you to stop criticizing me so you will respect my wishes. Therefore I tell you that the next unsolicited criticism I receive will be forwarded to the system administrators with a request for disciplinary action.” I haven’t heard from him since.
In another case, someone who I trusted as a friend decided on his own authority that I had Asperger’s and he was going to treat me for it. When I repeatedly failed to opt-in to his diagnosis and treatment, he apparently decided that was not allowed to say no, and that was that. I asked him to stop half dozen or a dozen times, and was answered only by his telling me I was “sending mixed messages”, and his continuing to administer amateur psychotherapy. I sent one “CEASE AND DESIST” letter, Cc’ed to email@example.com. That killed that conversation as thoroughly as I desired.
It is my experience that when people are responding in their own special way to profound giftedness, your saying “No” is treated as something awfully spongy. It’s almost as if they believe, “If he says ‘No’ when I want him to say ‘Yes,’ that qualifies as a real, genuine ‘Yes.'” However, they know that they are wrong, and a Cc to an authority asking that something stop can something do something that a dozen privately sent “No”s will ever effect. If you are a member of an organization, know and be ready to apply grievance procedures.
And one other point, to be clear: Human Resources won’t always get it. In the job with the meeting where I was told, “Your only two friends in the company are in this room,” I contacted HR about possible harassment. HR’s only available response was to interpret my words about harassment (or hazing, or whatever you want to call it) was to interpret me as complaining that as a consultant I did not have job security, which they answered by explaining to me (as to a child) that as someone on a consulting gig my lack of job security was part of the game. I tried and failed to convey any of the points I was concerned about. And in general I’ve had trouble getting HR to see problems.
So there is a caveat. However, if I am being harassed, I have found the best mileage by saying “No,” perhaps privately at first, but if the private “No” is being pushed past, a “No” that is Cc’ed to an authority can bring remarkable clarity. I’m also not shy about sending a “CEASE AND DESIST” letter, also Cc’ed to an authority.
“So, You’ve Hired a Genius”
Another hacker wrote the original hacker FAQ, and after asking and obtaining permission, I expanded it into So, You’ve Hired a Hacker (Revised and Expanded). The premeir wordsmith in the profoundly gifted community approached me about co-authoring a similar work, So, You’ve Hired a Genius, that would take aim at stereotypes facing profoundly gifted in the workplace.
My response was to reluctantly muddy the waters. (And let me briefly add that I was excited about the topic, and just as excited about the honor of co-authoring the work he did.) The way I muddied the waters was essentially to say, “What you are calling stereotypes are not stereotypes, at least as far as mechanism. They have effects similar to stereotypes, but trying to dismantle them as stereotypes won’t work.”
For one example, he mentioned a “fallacy of dilution,” essentially a stereotype that says that if profoundly gifted are jacks of all trades, they must be masters of none with quite a diluted kind of knowing, because you can’t have knowledge that is both broad and deep. And what I said is that within their frame of reference (and most people have never met the profoundly gifted range), there are limits to what a person can do. You can be a generalist or a specialist, but you can’t have specialist-level proficiency in a broad stretch of disciplines. And so we don’t have a case of two related classes of people with the profoundly gifted miscategorized as “Jack of all trades, therefore master of none” when “comprehensive knowledge in multiple areas” is thinkable. The truth is simply something that doesn’t exist given most people’s horizons, and people, perhaps, make sense as best they can. This may produce the same effects as a stereotype, but people are not stereotypically filing the profoundly gifted into the wrong pigeonhole when the right pigeonhole is in their reach. They are responding to something outside their frame of reference, and trying to make sense given what is conceptually available.
Furthermore, I now have a second reason for being glad the title was not written, or at least that I wasn’t involved if someone else wrote it. On one level, the book’s approach was to contradict certain stereotypes that seem to keep cropping up. On another, slightly deeper level, the approach was almost certainly to adjust people’s possibles et pensables, what is possible and what is even thinkable, and if you enter that game you have already lost. This rule does not apply to people who are sufficiently gifted or other sundry exceptions, but if you are approaching regular people’s possibles et pensables as the sort of thing you negotiate and change at will, you have already lost.
“What would someone average do?” I remember visiting with some Mensans–this is significant–and offering magnetic business cards. And one of them raised the question of whether they would harm credit cards or other cards that had a magnetic stripe. The question was one that I had to considered, but one that I did not need to consider, apart from the fact that a stack of a few of them had not damaged any of my cards with a magnetic stripe, and, as I was to learn later, it really takes some doing to wreck a magnetic stripe. But the question had not occurred to me on “What would someone average do?” grounds. The magnetic backings were explicitly sold as backings for business cards. If they were to destroy any common wallet contents, they would be dropped by stores and possibly there would be class-action lawsuits. The average person was apparently safe to buy and use the cards as advertised without easily wrecking magnetic stripes: therefore, as a rule of thumb, someone “smarter than the average bear” was probably safe as well. I wouldn’t take this argument to its logical conclusion; The Luddite’s Guide to Technology is written on the premise that what an average person would do can have some very heavy price tags: in a word, millions of smokers CAN be wrong. However, even with that caveat, I would pose that “What would an average person do?” is a very important reference point, and possibly a default one should avoid deviating from if there is a reason. I believe that I personally need to know how to talk more like an average person, even if I manage talk about the weather and small talk a whole lot better than I did before.
And in negotiation it always helps to understand the other side. Of things you could wish, there are some things a particular person can conceive of and would consent to, some things a particular person can conceive of and would consent to, and some things a particular person would not conceive in the first place. I remember some time, over a decade ago, wanting to start a consultancy business of creating custom home pages for people. I believed, and continue to believe, that creating such pages would have been both doable and useful, and my Mom at least was very grateful when I made a personal-use homepage for her, or to be more specific, was grateful after I had created it and she began using it. (And I don’ think she was JUST being polite, or motherly, in her appreciation.) However, the feedback I got on a high-IQ mailing list about my business idea was, “I don’t think most people would understand what you were offering.” Perhaps some people would “get it” once they’d played around with it a bit, but to people who were not yet customers, I was a bit like what you get when you cross the godfather with a lawyer: someone who makes you an offer you can’t understand. This may be a huge competitive advantage: you may see good options that are invisible to any competition. However, it helps a great deal if you understand that there are thing you see that are invisible to others, and that explanation and negotiation do not, or at least do not always, change most people’s horizons of what is possible and what is even thinkable. Effective negotiation here does not mean changing someone else’s worldview; it means change from within from things that are already on their list of possibles et pensables.
One acquaintance I had said that when faced with a problem, he would ask, “What would a smart person do?” and try and reason from there. It is my suggestion that essentially in social areas, the question of “What would an average person do?” is fecund. It provides a basic anchor for social and other conduct, and if you don’t know how an average person talks in terms of length of speech, complexity, and whether they are speaking to inform or to communicate, you have a reasonable yardstick. This doesn’t mean that you limit your life to a tiny box, but it does mean that you should be communicating appropriately (including not–communicating appropriately) with most others. Are you teaching? Give serious consideration to taking homework questions from the main area of the textbook’s problems, rather than look for an appropriate challenge as you understand “appropriate challenge.”
When I was in grad school, I taught “Finite Math”, which was a general education course. I was trying to create a mathematical paradise that would expose people to the poetic beauty of mathematics. I did other things that I’d heard of that sounded cool, like letting people choose weightings for their grades. I got reamed in end-of-course student reviews (one student said, “Now it’s payback time!” when I passed out reviews sheets), and this was entirely appropropriate.
In my attempt to create a mathematical paradise, I was trying to teach people a different way of thought. I would loosely describe my model as too close to a mathematical Zen master, or an ersatz mathematical Zen master, trying to break the mind of mindless symbol manipulation. I completely failed to consider, for instance, that mastering some form(s) of mindless symbol manipulation could be a basis to award a high grade. What I considered conveying the beauty of mathematics was sectarian, only appropriate to some students, and not proper for the diversity in a general education class for non-majors. (I’m undecided about how appropriate it would have been for people in a class where students opted-in to more mathematics than they had to take; possibly it could have been well-done in a weed-out class. However, I was not teaching anything meant to weed students out.)
If I could send a message back in time to myself as I was a young man preparing a class, I would have urged reading, Please Understand Me!, which deals with some of the basic diversities among people, and Please Understand Me! II, which applies something of a multiple intelligence theory (though if you want multiple intelligence theory done well, I’d look for Howard Gardner and keep in mind that there may be some good stuff, but the topic is a kook magnet). The benefit of these books is, besides what they document directly, the fact that they sensitize a perceptive reader to how humans can vary, and the fact that diversity does not begin with race. It begins well before race!
Simplicity beyond complexity
There is something that has always bothered me about the suggestion that if you are really a expert, if you are really at the top of your game, then you can explain the problem you are working on in a nutshell that average Joes can understand. That may be true, but I can see it only as indirectly true, by accident. Specialists with a doctorate in what have you have jumped through hoops and paid metaphorical blood, sweat, and tears to reach their understanding. And they are supposed to explain what they took a decade to learn so that the onus is on them to produce a statement that will make the average listener understand immediately? The proposition was for a long time repulsive to me, seeming to be anti-intelletual, or driven by envy, or both!
However, there is a way that it is true, but it’s not really through a measure of expertise, unless we are talking about a measure of expertise that only the profoundly gifted achieve. And that is because at least some of the profoundly gifted reach the simplicity on the other side of complexity–as you may have hear the saying, “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
Characteristic of this, to take an example with Richard Feynman, is from the Challenger disaster hearings. The question had been raised of whether O-rings became brittle in the cold, and people argued and discussed, discussed and argued, with no real progress either way. Then Feynman took a piece of O-ring, swirled it around in his icewater, and went, snap! And the debate stopped cold.
There was also the story of a retiree’s publication where one senior wrote a letter saying that she calculated that she had heard ____ many thousands of sermons, but oddly enough she couldn’t remember any sermon she had heard, and she knew that pastors put a lot of time into sermons, and she wondered if the effort might be better spent elsewhere. That set off considerable debate; people argued and wrote letters one way and then another, until one gentleman wrote,
I met my wife ____ years ago and we have been happily married for ____ years. During this time, I estimate that my wife has prepared for me ____ thousand meals. I cannot remember any of the recipes she followed, but I am on the whole healthy and not any fatter than when I met her. I judge that it was worth her time to cook those meals.
The discussion was over. Period.
At a former parish, I, a layman, was allowed to preach a couple of homilies. I don’t think I understood the honor I was being given; in another jurisdiction, Deacons, who have entered major holy orders, do not preach.
The priest and subdeacons both spoke with me at some length. They didn’t warn of any consequence for anything, and they didn’t seem to doubt that I would deliver a homily that was correct and probably full of good points. They trusted me only to speak from Orthodoxy. However, the one point that they underscored at length was simplicity, and told me to address my homily to three parishioners who were the least bookworm-like members of the parish.
There are basically two thing that priest gave me:
- The honor and pleasure of delivering homilies.
- The ability to crystallize something simple out of something rich and complex.
And this last bit puts me at an open vista for new learning. I have learned to communicate well in complexity; now I am working on also being able to communicate simply.
This post, the one you are reading, may be seen as a professional bad example; I am communicating like someone who isn’t trying or succeeding at communicating simply. In other words, I do not have even the pretension here of modeling the communication style you should be using. But learning to extract a crystalline core to something conceptually large is something we can do, and something we need to do.
For a “before and after”, I would submit The Horn of Joy: A Meditation on Eternity and Time, Kairos and Chronos and the homily Two Decisive Moments. There are other homilies I believe communicate well; A Pet Owner’s Rules is an example, but it was not intended to simplify anything longer or more complex. The Horn of Joy is a leisured meditation, a complex river with eddies and swirls, and I wanted to miniaturize it, but I saw no faithful way to miniaturize the whole, and after the fact I am glad I didn’t pull off a synopsis of the whole thing. So I instead took a nugget, a kairos decisive moment, and delivered a homily without using the Greek word, just speaking of “two decisive moments.” And the homily, incidentally, was intended to challenge possibles et pensables. I point this out because the rules I am giving should be seen as guidelines from experience more than exceptions. I believe that in this case it also worked because there was really nothing more trying to claim attention. I remember commenting on Karl Rahner’s grundkurs title that he was describing the familiar as something alien, and I do that too (witness Game Review: Meatspace), but when I do that, that is pretty much all that is going on. If I’m making that heavy cognitive demand, I will try to lighten other parts of the load. And in Rahner the mystery of figuring out what could be said much more directly, in a much more familiar way, is only one layer of what makes his texts difficult to read. (I studied at a school that was mostly in Rahner’s camp, and while professors rejected my claim that Rahner’s rhetoric was confusing, we were none the less encouraged to deploy Rahner’s theology to people who would be scared off from reading Rahner in his own intricate words.)
There is one final caveat I wish to mention on this point. The poem Doxology was written out of love of its subject matter and of its language. It does not have even the pretension of being written with any attempt at simplicity. For that matter, it does not have even the pretension of being written in English as the language is spoken today: it is written in Elizabethan English. And, at least as far as the impression goes, it has had substantially more Facebook reshares than all of my other works put together. Simplicity is a guideline, and it may be a survival necessity, but it is not a straightjacket. There is a time and place to pull out beautiful words and give the undiluted force of your thought.
When you should lie
One time, on LinkedIn, someone posted, “Just give me the time, don’t build me a friggin’ watch,” and asked why engineers went on and on. I regret the answer I gave because it was honest and truthful as an engineer would understand those merits. What it was not was short. The answer I thought of a bit later was, “If you want a marketing executive’s answer, ask a marketing executive. If you want an engineer’s answer, ask an engineer. Why are you asking an engineer for a marketing executive’s answer?” And that may have been a better response, but it was a really good way of saying something I no longer hold true.
One friend spent some time in Nigeria, and one cultural note in conversation came when Uncle Monday asked her how her cold was, and she said it was getting worse. He said, “You don’t say that,” and explained that the expect response was, “It’s getting better,” even if it isn’t, and if you give a different response like “It’s getting worse,” socially you are asking for that person’s help. She commented that that experience helped her make peace with the American “How are you?”–“I’m fine!” even if things are not fine. As someone said, “‘How are you?’ is a greeting, not a question. The other person does not want to hear about your indigestion.” This is a general rule with exceptions; some that I am aware of are when you are close to the other person, when the person asking is devout, when the person asking is gifted, and when the person asking is on the spectrum. Any of those three, and perhaps others, may want to hear “I’m having a really rough day,” should that be the case. However, the usual social role in the U.S., with its unwritten boundaries, is that you normally give a positive and upbeat answer to the question, “How are you?”
I am job hunting now, and one area I have done poorly, is to give a two-sentence answer unless someone interviewing you asks for more–and you want to be asked for more. For most questions that come up, I feel like lying to give much of any two-sentence answer, and I want more than 140 characters. However, the correct answer, made in an attempt to be honest and appropriate, is a simple two sentence response that would be a lie to tell your colleagues. You may enjoy some discretion as to how you lie; you do not have discretion as to whether you lie.
Certain things like this may seem like a social game before they become candid. But the words “Fake it until it’s real” may apply here. Living properly in a culture may seem a social game before it becomes a living stream; and there are exceptions. There was one time at UIUC where a friend said he was writing a story set in a Biblical milieu, and asked if I had guidance to make it better. I asked him if he knew what culture shock was, and when he said “No,” I stepped uncomfortably close to his face (he started backing away very quickly), and I said, “That’s culture shock! It’s being surprised and caught off guard in a way you didn’t know you can be caught off guard.” He thanked me, and went on to write his story.
That is, as best I can recall, the first and only time in my life where I believe it was right to invade another person’s personal space. For the rest of the situations I’ve met, there are rules (perhaps varying from culture to culture) about what it means to be at a particular distance, what is too close, and what is too distant. This kind of rule should usually be observed as much as possible, even if it feels like an artificial shell for a time, and trying to negotiate (in this instance) proxemics is an attempt to negotiate what is possible and what is thinkable.
“People don’t understand me!”
Mosts people have a desire to be understood, and I recall in particular one person who was disappointed when people would hear that he was a professor and ask, “What do you teach?” when he really considered himself to be so much more than a teaching machine. There were several responses; one highly upvoted answer said, “In many languages, ‘Professor’ means ‘Teacher’“, and said, supposing for the sake of argument that he was a fellow mathematician, that people would have a better understanding of mathematics if they read some of Theoni Pappas’s titles explaining mathematics for non-mathematicians remarkably well, but in the end it was better to have social conversations without homework or footnotes. Most professions are a bit different from how public stereotypes would have it; it’s not just (as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance points out) that a mechanic’s job description is not in the first instance, “Disassemble a car partway, replace a broken part, and reassemble everything you took out;” that may be the easiest part of a job, and a mechanic’s basic challenge lies in figuring out mentally, or sleuthing, what sort of root cause would be behind the problems and behavior observed. Meanwhile, my expectation is that if one were to shadow a police officer or detective for a day, the experience would be anticlimactic given how those jobs are portrayed on television. Besides the sheer amount of paperwork that sworn officers are responsible for, the figure I’ve heard is that outside the firing range officers draw their gun on the job once every four years, if even that much. (My offhand suspicion is that most professions look different from the inside than from the outside.)
But the professor who felt belittled by the question of what he taught stands as a sign of something to beware of. Seeking to be understood, trying to have an identity in the modern sense, seem very natural, but we are better to wean ourselves off of them. And that excludes next-level silliness, like deciding which three qualities on a list make up your personal brand. There may in the end be something like personal brand, but it is built on a tacit and internal basis.
Pulling from the Zeitgeist
When I was at Cambridge, I was interested in studying the holy kiss, on which point I was ridiculed even by my advisor for an earlier thesis. I wasn’t the first person to study it; a literature search found prior discussion easily enough, but Cambridge did not take the question seriously, nor did they find any sense in my desire for a doctrinal, as opposed to historical and cultural, study.
But five or ten years later, I was surprised by people coming to me with treatment of the topic. They asked if I knew something not covered in The Eighth Sacrament, which was a homily distilled from mounds of data. But my point, which had been ridiculed earlier, became a standard item of interest in five or ten years, and not so far as I can tell through my advocacy. I also took flak (but that might be expected from critiquing what one editor called a “hornet’s nest”) for, after sone truly nasty experiences with Fr. Seraphim’s crowd, writing The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts. My suspicion is that in a few years people will say, “Whoa, something’s not right here,” and that my text may be called helpful, but I will be a bit player in the new consensus. The phenomenon played out in one mailing list and, right or wrong, intelligent design.
In mathematics at least, mathematicians are urged to have a sense of urgency in communicating results. It is a well-known phenomenon historically that a mathematical problem will remain open and unsolved for quite some time, and then simultaneously and independently be discovered by several people. And mathematics may have the least Zeitgeist of any academic discipline. There may be an increasingly tight standard of mathematical rigor, and mathematics may move from specialization to hyper-specialization, but mathematicians do not, like teenagers, say, “The fundamental theorem of calculus is ssoooooo last millennium!” In other disciplines you may (as one Nobel prize laureate said) get to be part of the establishment by blowing up part of the establishment, but with quasi-exceptions like Abel, you do not establish your credentials by dismantling something that was previously proven. And if in mathematics, where I discern no credible causes for a powerful Zeitgeist, the Zeitgeist is powerful enough that a competent mathematician will work to get credit for a solution to an unknown problem quickly, that makes Zeitgeist considerations important, even if some of us regard the Zeitgeist as rather silly, or worse, most of the time.
But it seems to be a profoundly gifted trait to pull things out of the Zeitgeist several years before it goes mainstream. I’m not sure of too many other examples than above, although when I mention Orthodoxy, Contraception, and Spin Doctoring: A Look at an Influentual but Disturbing Article to fellow Orthodox who disbelieve that Orthodoxy allows contraception, the response I’ve gotten is, “I read that some time back and I found it helpful.”
A cue from usability (UX)
Jakob Nielsen is one of the founding lights in usability, and one drum he kept beating was, “You are not a user.” He forcefully makes the point that whether a user interface makes sense to the programmer simply doesn’t matter. Maybe it matters if even the programmer can’t understand it, but knowing that user interface behavior makes sense to its creator gives essentially no useful information about whether the offering is yet fit for public consumption. This attitude is close to “theory of alien minds” proficiency.
In customer service, there is a saying, “The customer is always right,” and in psychology there is a saying, “The rat is always right,” but they mean two separate things. The customer service meaning is that the customer is king and customer service people should bend over backwards to please customers who are being jerks. The meaning in psychology is that no matter how much puzzlement and consternation a lab rat’s behavior may provoke in a researcher, a given lab rat under given experimental conditions always shows the correct behavior for a given lab rat under given experimental conditions, and if your theory can’t cope with that, it’s time to adjust your theory.
I have never heard this in UX literature, but there is good reason to say, “The user is always right.” If a user spends twenty minutes searching and fails to identify a large graphic for a link, the user is right. The basic standard of accountability, another drum Nielsen beats, is frequent discount usability testing.
I’m not aware of an established way to do usability testing, but close attention to social signals comes to mind, and if I had the money to spare, I would invest in some of Paul Eckman’s tools for picking up on hair trigger emotional reaction.
Q: What did the person who had an IQ of 137 say to the person who had an IQ of 189?
A: “I’ll have the burger and fries, please.”
For a rough map of the gifted range, Hollingsworth suggested a range of “socially optimal intelligence,” from which most leaders and successful people come, and it is misunderstanding the point somewhat to point out how rare it is to be above that range. I have seen the bottom of the range estimated at 120 and the top at 145, 150, or 155, and it is essentially a range where you have an advantage, but don’t really have to pay for it.
Above that range people seem to have what might as well be magic powers, but there is a price tag. Children above an IQ of 170 tend to feel that they don’t fit in anywhere; at the top of the gifted range people can develop enough of a theory of alien minds that they in fact do fit in pretty much of anywhere.
When I have taught and failed, it has usually been because I humbly though of others as my intellectual equals, and made demands that were entirely inappropriate. Part of this was asking students to call me by my first when they would have been more comfortable with “Mr. Hayward.” I failed to respect an intellectual and social distance, and shortchanged students in the process.
The gifted range is broader than the normal range, and to be really offensive, the number of points’ difference between the average profoundly gifted and the average gifted is pretty much the number of points’ difference between the average gifted and the average mentally retarded. I say this not to contribute to pride, but to contribute to an understanding of needing to build a bridge that the other party will not build alone.
Being a Renaissance man
I have heard the term “Renaissance man” used, and meant as a compliment, but did not see it as especially strong or specific. I was called a Renaissance man, I thought, because I had some accomplishment in the sciences and some accomplishment in the humanities: I appreciated the compliment but did not take it too seriously.
Then I read the Wikipedia entry; I quote paragraphs following an opening that refers to gifted people with some kind of skill:
“Renaissance man” was first recorded in written English in the early 20th century. It is now used to refer to great thinkers living before, during, or after the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci has often been described as the archetype of the Renaissance man, a man of “unquenchable curiosity” and “feverishly inventive imagination”.
Many notable polymaths lived during the Renaissance period, a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th through to the 17th century and that began in Italy in the late Middle Ages and later spread to the rest of Europe. These polymaths had a rounded approach to education that reflected the ideals of the humanists of the time. A gentleman or courtier of that era was expected to speak several languages, play a musical instrument, write poetry, and so on, thus fulfilling the Renaissance ideal. The idea of a universal education was essential to achieving polymath ability, hence the word university was used to describe a seat of learning. At this time universities did not specialize in specific areas but rather trained students in a broad array of science, philosophy, and theology. This universal education gave them a grounding from which they could continue into apprenticeship toward becoming a Master of a specific field.
- “Speak several languages:” check. This is with varying degrees of proficiency, but I’ve lost count how many. My LinkedIn profile lists a dozen.
- “Play a musical instrument:” years out of practice, but check.
- “Write poetry:” check.
- “And so on:” check. (See the skills list at skills.cjsh.name; besides theology, philosophy, and the sciences, there’s a lot that’s not listed here.)
But my response to seeing that I cover every skill fitting the original definition of “Renaissance man” was not, “Wow, I’m pretty cool;” it was much closer to saying that I stand in the company of heretics. Leonardo da Vinci stands as a man of toxic fascination (I was told in high school that when he was asked why he kept so many young boys as apprentices, he said, “They aren’t very good, but aah, the eyelashes!”; I don’t know if that’s true). What can probably be said is that Leonaro da Vinci does little to edify his admirers, even if the gain skill. A booklet like The Empty Self: Gnostic Foundation of Modern Identity is written by a former head of the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich, and while he acknowledges that his messianic fantasy was less serious than those of his more disturbed patients, he was very clear that his admiration of da Vinci was unprofitable. He talked about medieval statues of people who had their chest open and inside their heart was Christ enthroned, and his own vision of sorts where he saw da Vinci’s chest opened and enthroned inside was… Leonardo da Vinci. This is a vision of Hell.
So I do place myself in the company of the original Renaissance men, but from an Orthodox perspective this is like placing myself in the company of Arius, Sabellius, and Nestorius, architects of heresy. I have climbed a ladder that is leaning against the wrong building.
I don’t believe I should turn my back on this; in fact, I believe I am doing the right thing to use my finely tuned language-learning aptitude to yet another language (Russian). But I do believe my position calls for a little bit of humility.
I am intentionally posting this on the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas, commemorating the controversy in which the Church weighed Renaissance humanism in the balance and found it, in some sense, lacking. Renaissance humanism sought elevation in mastery of many secular skills; the Orthodox Church’s sought a divine humanism in a Christ who is our entire reference for what it means to be God and our entire reference for what it means to be human. In more recent times an Orthodox theologian said that it is a real and true accomplishment that with loads of science, engineering, and an enormous budget, we can send people to the moon. However, it is a greater matter that the Orthodox Church has known for ages how, on a small loaf of bread per week, to lift a person up to God. And really there is something charming about a Renaissance collection of secular skills: but it is nothing next to the true treasures offered by the Church.
A bed of pain
Lastly, or at least in the course of winding down, it may be mentioned that the profoundly gifted experience, at least for a signficant number, is rough. A number I remember reading and tried but failed to trace down for a paper was that profoundly gifted had a 27% psychiatric hospitalization rate, which is higher than practically any meaningful demographic besides “people who have undergone psychiatric hospitalization.” It is higher, for instance, than either unipolar or bipolar depression. A study of Termites identified as profoundly gifted said they found no evidence to support the popular belief that profoundly gifted have a rough life, and also mentioned in passing that one of the twenty-nine subjects committed suicide. But this did not moderate their earlier position (compare 1 in 10,000 general public incidence at the time), when perhaps the small profoundly gifted sample size limits the effectiveness of statistics, the res ipsa loquitur facts should have come across as a “WTF?” in fifteen feet high blinking neon letters.
Complicating the matter is that one’s best chances are to psychotherapy and psychiatrically prescribed medicines, but not only is the field of mental health a minefield, but the field of mental help is a minefield, and rational risk management is impossible. You can ask about the potential consequences and side effects all you want, but you won’t be told of any serious consequences (and an antidepressant or a tranquilizer can have drastically more severe side effects than an antibiotic or pain medicine). Electro-convulsive therapy is described as maybe causing you to forget which drawer you put your socks in, where patients of electro-convulsive therapy have said in some wording I forget that the memory loss is onerous: the treatment is the right treatment for severe depression that nothing else budges, but the memory loss is obnoxious. In dealing with psychiatrists and psychotherapists, remember that a good practitioner will mention a role that involves a heavy dose of narcissism, and for most people you meet you will be the smartest person the person you are dealing with has ever met. With most psychiatrists and therapists, the question is not whether you are more than a sigma above your healthcare provider (as a rule, people work best together when they are within a sigma, give or take). The question is really more whether you and the second-brightest person that provider has ever met are within a sigma of each other. We are genuinely talking about The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab territory in a heavy dose here. And that puts intimidation on steroids.
I would heed warning signs and look elsewhere early on, rather than wait for things to get better, if your provider shows incompetence, including behavior motivated by being (or becoming) threatened by what you represent. Psychotherapy and psychiatry may be close to being the only game in town, or otherwise indispensable for many profoundly gifted, but my own opinion is that the land is a minefield and the first provider you find is probably not part of the minority that will treat you in a competent manner.
The longest journey
My relationship with my ex-fiancée was painful. I’m tempted to write a long list of things she did wrong and expect you to join my pity party, but I will resist that temptation. What I will say is that of my own list of numerous failings, almost everything was related to my trying to reason things out and not engaging things on any level other than the rational. And my contribution to the trouble was worse than the points where I tried to reason something out and was wrong; there is something fundamentally false about being in a romantic relationship and not handling the other with your heart. Some have said, “Handle yourself with your head and other with your heart,” but really we should handle ourselves with our hearts, too.
One priest I know insists, “The longest journey we will take is the journey from our mind to our heart.” Now he has a good deal of knowledge: he became a pain management physician to learn the art and science of relieving pain and suffering, and once practicing he realized he knew how to treat pain (by a prescription for a strong enough pain reliever, perhaps), but he did not consider himself prepared to really address suffering, and that point led him into the priesthood. And if you ever meet him, you will most likely find that he deals with you out of his heart.
Learned man that he may be, his homilies are simple.
Socrates and God the Spiritual Father
One of my works, God the Spiritual Father, is one of the works that I consider the most helpful today, and especially today, as having reference to hard times. It is, incidentally, the one work most pulled together as a collection of quotes (as “plagiarism” is respected and endorsed in many past and present cultures; the intent is not to claim credit for something original, a concept which may not exist among plagiarists, but to honor pat excellence, setting it as a jewel in a bezel). Now I follow Western, if not precisely academic, conventions to mark quotations. and attribute them to the authors and works I lean on, and I don’t expect to be accused of plagiarism, even if some people find the heavy level of quotation unusual. But the spirit is close to ancient plagiarism that sought to include jewels from prior excellence.
The core point I drive, above divine purpose for suffering, is to drop another shoe. Voltaire gives a devastating critique of the popular-before-Lisbonne-earthquake optimism saying that we live in the best of all possible worlds. And we do not; that much is beyond serious dispute unless one delves into the kind of philosophical exploration that can, for instance, doubt that there is an external world. Even Christian Science acknowledges, if not exactly that there is evil in the world, that our perceptions have a problem. But saying that we live in the best of all worlds doesn’t really have a following in the West today.
However, there is another shoe to drop: while we do not live in the best of all possible worlds, we live in a world governed by the best of all possible Gods, and that makes a world of difference. It’s even better.
Some Orthodox are chary of adopting the non-canonical Anselm of Canterbury’s arguments, of which I will write a deliberate tangent in a minute, but such existed among the Fathers before Anselm. Perhaps Anselm’s best-known argument is that God, if such exits, is greater than anything else than can be thought. Now if we compare a God who is greater than anything else that can exist, for such a God to exist in thought and in reality is greater than for such a God to be greater than anything else that can exist but exists only as a thought in people’s minds. Therefore God must exist in reality; anything less would be a contradiction.
This argument (I’ll omit discussion of Gaunilo’s “In Defense of the Fool” which keeps getting reincarnated by atheists trying to give a fresh, new objection to Anselm, and also Anselm’s response) has been called the most controversial argument in the history of philosophy, and most people on hearing it feel like they’ve been slipped something even if they usually can’t put their finger on why. I would suggest, perhaps in an ersatz repetition of Kant, that two levels are conflated, like the rhetorical practice of writing an ambiguity where people can’t dispute one reading of the ambiguity, but it ends up being taken as support of another ambiguity. I cite Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business in a fallacy I don’t know how to name (documenting at least one such fallacy was my diploma thesis in theology),
A third example of the influence of media on our epistemological can be drawn from the trial of the great Socrates. At the opening of Socrates’s defense, addressing a jury of five hundred, he apologizes for not having a well-prepared speech. He tells his Athenian brothers that he will falter, begs that they not interrupt him on that account, asks that they regard him as they would a stranger from another city, and promises that he will tell them the truth, without adornment or eloquence. Beginning this way was, of course, characteristic of Socrates, but it was not characteristic of the age in which he lived. For, as Socrates knew full well, his Athenian brothers didn’t regard the principles of rhetoric and the expression of truth to be independent of each other. People like ourselves find great appeal in Socrates plea because we are accustomed to thinking of rhetoric as an ornament of speech–most often pretentious, superficial and unnecessary. But to the people who invented it, the Sophistsof fifth-century B.C. Greece and their heirs, rhetoric was not merely an opportunity for dramatic performance but a near indispensable means of organizing evidence and proofs, and therefore of communication truth.
I was not only a key element in the education of Athenians (far more important hand philosophy) but a preeminent art form. To the Greeks, rhetoric was a form of spoken writing. Though it always implied oral performance, its power to reveal the truth resided in the written word’s power to display arguments in orderly progression. Although Plato himself disputed this conception of truth (as we might guess from Socrates’ plea), his contemopraries believed that rhetoric was the proper means through which “right opinion” was to be discovered and articulated. To disdian rhetorical rules, to speak one’s thoughts in a random manner, without proper emphasis or appropriate passion, was considered demeaning to the audience’s intelligence and suggestive of falsehood. Thus, we can assume that many of the 280 jurors who cast a guilty ballot against Socrates did so because his manner was not consistent with truthful matter, as they understood the connection.
Postman’s book was formative to me and I still agree with much, but here he misses the boat. If I wished to reincarnate Postman’s error, I could say that the philosopher was not only found guilty, but on trial in the first place, because Socrates lived, acted, spoke, and taught in a way that caused culture shock and could not but draw negative attribution. The threshold for capital punishment (if it is allowed) varies somewhat between cultures, but usually you don’t end up a defendant on trial for a capital crime in your culture unless you have some enemies. Socrates was a teacher who influenced youth in a presumably distinctive way; if he was on trial for “corrupting the youth,” I regard it as charitable to read the allegation, right or wrong, as entirely sincere. And on those grounds his defense may be seen as a last unwelcome surprise to Athenians. It might perhaps have hurt him (or things may have been beyond that point), but it did not cause Socrates to lose skyhigh approval because he walked in to his trial with little approval in the first place. Postman presents things in such way that it appears that Socrates’s defense was a major contributor to his 280 guilty votes. I’m not so sure about that.
But I would pause to address a question that some might raise. If Socrates had heeded what I imply may be a wiser, or at least a more survivable course, would he have been as interesting or important? Would he really have been Socrates? And I don’t know; I am very wary about saying that Socrates could, with slightly better social skills, made every accomplishment the Socrates of history and philosophy made and not really ruffled Athenian feathers. However, I would recall a linguistics professor’s answer to a question from a missionary-in-training: “Do I have to do all the homework?” The professor restrained her first impulse, thought for a moment, and said, “No, you don’t have to. But be prepared to take the consequences.” And on those grounds, causing things like culture shock are usually a liability. Sometimes they’re necessarily tied to something good. However, I don’t thonk I would enjoy the company of someone profoundly gifted who caused culture shock out of simply never making serious efforts to learn to communicate effectively with others. Choose your battles.
And back to Anselm after a tangent that should perhaps be the conclusion.
We do, in fact, live not in the best of all possible worlds, but a world governed by the best of all possible Gods, and that really does make all the difference.
This piece has rambled; someone very charitable might say it has rambled in a manner worthy of Socrates. However, I wish to end this work the way an academic program is ended: with a ceremony deliberately named, “Commencement.” The choice of term says in essence, “This is not where your endeavor ends. This is where it truly begins.”
This work is a piece of wisdom literature, standing in a tradition of excellent and mediocre works about how to live well. Several books of the Old Testament fall under its rubric, and a great many books like Seven Habits of Highly Effective People also qualify as wisdom literature, and as best I recall the introduction talked about a relatively recent historical shift in wisdom literature from a “character ethic” to a “personality ethic”, the latter of which would presumably include picking three adjectives from a list and deciding they make up your personal brand.
This piece is narrow and specialized in its audience, but the whole stream of wisdom literature is a good place to pan for gold. And wisdom literature that make no effort to focus on giftedness can be richly valuable. The repeated references to How to Win Friends and Influence People above are references to it as wisdom literature.
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Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.
I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse: I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk: eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved.
A Socratic dialogue triggered by The Labyrinth
Trimmed slightly, but “minimally processed” from an email conversation following The Labyrinth:
Author: P.S. My brother showed me the following video as cool. He didn’t see why I found it a bit of a horror: “Do You Want to Date My Avatar?”
Visitor: Oh gosh, that’s just layers and layers of sad. It’s all about the experience, but the message is kept just this side of tolerable (“nerds are the new sexy” – the reversal of a supposed stigmatization) so it can function as an excuse for the experience. At least that’s my analysis.
Author: Thanks. I just hotlinked a line of Labyrinth to Avatar…
…and added a tooltip of, “Veni, vidi, vomi”.
Visitor: (Laughs) You have me completely mystified on this one, sorry.
However, you are welcome. And I’m glad to see that you’re cracking jokes. (I think.)
No seriously, laughing out loud. Even though I don’t exactly know why.
Is ‘vomi’ a made-up word? Men… when it comes right down to it you all have the same basic sense of humor. (I think.)
Author: Veni, vidi, vici: I came, I saw, I conquered.
Veni, vidi, vomi: I came, I saw, I puked.
Visitor: Yep… the basic masculine sense of humor, cloaked in Latin. I’m ever so honored you let me in on this. If the world were completely fair, someone would be there right now to punch your shoulder for me… this is my favorite form of discipline for my brother in law when he gets out of line.
But what’s Avatar… and hotlink and tooltip?
Author: The link to “Do you want to date my Avatar?” Hotlink is a synonym for link; tooltip, what displays if you leave your mouse hovering over it.
Visitor: Oh dear, I really didn’t understand what you were telling me; I was just in good spirits.
OK, I find that funny – and appropriate.
Author: Which do you think works better (i.e. The Labyrinth with or without images):
Visitor: I have some doubts about the video showing up in the text.
Author: Ok; I’ll leave it out. Thanks.
I did like the Christ image where you had it. It encouraged a sober pause at the right place in the meditation.
Author: Thank you; I’ve put it in slightly differently.
Visitor: I like that.
Author: Thank you.
I’ve also put the video (link) in a slightly different place than originally. I think it also works better there.
Visitor: Taking a risk of butting in… Would this be a more apropos place?
The true raison d’être was known to desert monks,
Ancient and today,
And by these fathers is called,
Temptation, passion, demon,
Of escaping the world.
Unless I’ve misunderstood some things and that’s always possible. (laughs) I never did ask you your analysis of what, in particular, horrified you about the video. But it seems like a perfect illustration not of pornography simple but of the underlying identity between the particular kind of lust expressed in pornography (not the same as wanting a person) and escapism, and that’s the place in the poem where you are talking about that identification.
Author:: Thank you. I’ve moved it.
In That Hideous Strength, towards the end, Lewis writes:
“Who is called Sulva? What road does she walk? Why is the womb barren on one side? Where are the cold marriages?”
Ransom replied, “Sulva is she whom mortals call the Moon. She walks in the lowest sphere. The rim of the world that was wasted goes through her. Half of her orb is turned towards us and shares our curse. Her other half looks to Deep Heaven; happy would he be who could cross that frontier and see the fields on her further side. On this side, the womb is barren and the marriages cold. There dwell an accursed people, full of pride and lust. There when a young man takes a maiden in marriage, they do not lie together, but each lies with a cunningly fashioned image of the other, made to move and to be warm by devilish arts, for real flesh will not please them, they are so dainty (delicati) in their dreams of lust. Their real children they fabricate by vile arts in a secret place.
Pp. 270/271 are in fantasy imagery what has become quite literally true decades later.
Visitor: Yes, that would be what I was missing… that fantasy banquet at the end of the video feels particularly creepy now.
However the girl I was telling you about had among other things watched a show where a “doctor” talked about giving seminars where women learn to experience the full physical effects of intercourse, using their minds only. (Gets into feminism, no?)
That’s why I was trying to tell her that “richter scale” measurements aren’t everything…
In this hatred of the body, in putting unhealthy barriers between genders, and in seeing the body as basically a tool for sexual experience, fundamentalist Christianity and cutting edge worldliness are really alike. (I had a pastor once who forbade the girls in the church school to wear sandals because they might tempt the boys with their “toe cleavage.”)
Author: I would be wary of discounting monastic experience; I as a single man, prudish by American standards, probably have more interaction with women than most married men in the patristic era.
But in the image… “eating” is not just eating. In the initial still image in the embedded version of “Do You Want to Date My Avatar?”, I made a connection. The sword is meant as a phallic symbol, and not just as half of a large category of items are a phallic symbol in some very elastic sense. It’s very direct. Queer sex and orgy are implied, even though everything directly portrayed seems “straight”, or at least straight as defined against the gender rainbow (as opposed, perhaps, to a “technology rainbow”).
Visitor: Yes, I see what you are saying. I suppose the opening shots in the video would also imply self-abuse. I was seeing those images and the ones you mention as just icky in themselves without thinking about them implying something else.
Author: P.S. My brother who introduced it to me, as something cool, explained to me that this is part of the main performer’s effort to work her way into mainstream television. She demonstrates, in terms of a prospect for work in television, that she can look beautiful, act, sing, dance, and be enticing while in a video that is demure in its surface effect as far as music videos go. (And she has carefully chosen a viral video to prove herself as talent.)
Not sure if that makes it even more disturbing; I didn’t mention it with any conscious intent to be as disturbing as I could, just wanted to give you a concrete snapshot of the culture and context for why I put what I put in The Labyrinth.
Visitor: It’s making a lot more sense now.
I’m not remembering the significance of the technology rainbow.
Author: As far as “technology rainbow”:
In contrast to “hetero-centrism” is advocated a gender rainbow where one live person may have any kind of arrangement with other live people, as long as everyone’s of age, and a binary “male and female” is replaced by a rainbow of variety that is beyond shades of gray.
I was speaking by analogy: a “technology rainbow”, in contrast to “face-to-face-centrism”, would seek as normative any creative possibility, again excluding child pornography, where face-to-face relationships are only one part of a “technology rainbow”.
It might also help make the point that internet-enabled expressions of sexuality, for most of the men, aren’t exactly straight. They do not involve same-sex attraction, nor animals or anything like that, but they depart from being straight in a slightly different trajectory from face-to-face relationships where heterosexuality is only one option.
Neither member of this conversation had anything more to say.
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How shall I be open to thee,
O Lord who is forever open to me?
Incessantly I seek to clench with tight fist,
Such joy as thou gavest mine open hand.
Why do I consider thy providence,
A light thing, and of light repute,
Next to the grandeur I imagine?
Why spurn I such grandeur as prayed,
Not my will but thine be done,
Such as taught us to pray,
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come:
Thy will be done?
Why be I so tight and constricted,
Why must clay shy back,
From the potter’s hand,
Who glorifieth clay better,
Than clay knoweth glory to seek?
Why am I such a small man?
Why do I refuse the joy you give?
Or, indeed, must I?
And yet I know,
Thou, the Theotokos, the saints,
Forever welcome me with open hearts,
And the oil of their gladness,
Loosens my fist,
Little by little.
God, why is my fist tightened on openness,
When thou openest in me?
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Want to survive?
I learned some pretty big things during the Y2k scare, and some of them have every relevance to how to survive an economic depression.
When year 2000 was approaching, I was part of the doomsday camp. I believed, wrongly, that technology would fail and everything around me would start to fall apart. But did a lot of digging and I think I learned something about what makes people survive really rough situations–and how to survive an economic depression. The economy is in deep trouble, and what I found out then has every relevance now that we are worried about how to survive an economic depression.
When Y2k was approaching, I found a lot of materials on physicalpreparation for such an event, but very little on psychological preparation. The most that I can remember reading about that was that when I said on a newsgroup that a Y2k doomsday would be psychologically as well as physically difficult, someone said that I was right and suggested that Y2k preparations include stocking up on board games and condoms.
That answer seemed, to put it politely, not up to snuff. As far as mental preparation goes, that was the equivalent of saying, “If bad things happen on January 1 2000, be prepared for great physical danger. Alwaysremember to look both ways before you cross the street!”
After failing to find something more informative on newsgroups, I went to the library, to look for more information on psychological survival in difficult situations. I did a lot of digging, reading whatever seemed like it might shed light, but finding very little of an answer anywhere that I looked. Even a book on psychology and the military said almost nothing about how either soldiers or civilians stood up psychologically to disaster, or what enables a survivor to overcome an incredibly difficult situation.
It was only after a lot of digging that I realized the answer was almost staring me in the face. What makes a survivor is not exactly psychological. It is spiritual. There was something spiritual about, for instance, people who had survived incredibly hostile situations as hostages and prisoners. It is not exactly that they had some special talent, or drew on some special mind trick or had developed what we would imagine as spiritual powers. It was something almost pedestrian.
It had something to do with religious devotion. Faith has something to do with how to survive an economic depression.
I imagine I may raise some eyebrows by suggesting faith has something to do with how to survive a disaster. But faith was how many people survived the Great Depression. Perhaps a great many survivors survived despite their useless faith, or maybe it was a crutch, but if it seems obvious to you that faith could have nothing to do with how people survived the Great Depression, then I would ask you to entertain a possibility you might not have considered. Maybe they know something we have forgotten.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Much of the Bible comes from disastrous times. In the Bible’s book ofHabakkuk, there is a prophet who sees great evil about him. He cries out to the Lord, and the Lord gives an answer that leaves the prophet stunned: the Lord will punish the wickedness of Israel by having an army of terrorists conquer their land. This was a disaster that might be worse than economic collapse. The prophet asks the Lord a question: how can a righteous God look on such wickedness? And the Lord responds without really answering the prophet’s question: the Lord responds without giving the prophet what he wants. But tucked away in the Lord’s response are some very significant words: “…the righteous shall live by faith.”
Those words were taken up in the New Testament and became a rallying-cry against rigid legalism. But they are more than a response to people who turn religion into a bunch of rules; they speak also in situations where legalism is simply not the issue. The prophet cried out to the Lord about rampant violence. The issue was not really legalism at all. And this is when the words were first spoken: “The righteous shall live by faith.” These words were given in terrifying times.
“The righteous shall live by faith” is a non-answer, and a quite deliberate non-answer. The prophet asked how such a pure God could allow such wickedness to exist, and God does not give the answer he is looking for. The Lord doesn’t really answer the prophet’s question at all. It’s almost like:
Someone said to a master, “What about the people who have never heard of Christ? Are they all automatically damned to Hell? Tell me; I have heard that you have studied this question.”
The master said, “What you need to be saved is for you to believe in Christ, and you have heard of him.”
The Lord doesn’t tell the prophet what he wants. He gives him something much better; these brief words say, “I AM WHO I AM, and I will do what I will do, and you may not look past the protecting veil that enshrouds me. But in the disastrous times you face, know this: the righteous shall live by faith.”
God doesn’t just refuse to tell the prophet what he wants. He gives Habakkuk something fundamentally richer and deeper. He tells the prophet what he needs. What God tells Habakkuk, “The righteous shall live by faith,” is a luminous thread appearing throughout Scripture, woven into the fabric of Proverbs and woven through and through in the Sermon on the Mount. This luminous, radiant thread declares that God is sovereign, in hard times as well as good, and that his divine providence is with his faithful no less. Even if we are in a depression, God can watch out for us.(Perhape especially if we are in a depression. The surprising report from many survivors is that God’s help is much more obvious in hard times than when things are easy.) Just witness this luminous thread in the Sermon on the Mount:
No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and 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 wear. Is there not more to life than food, and more to the body 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? And which of you by worrying can add one hour to his span of life? (You might as well try to worry yourself into being a foot and a half taller!) And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither work nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed as gloriously as 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 people without faith seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be given to you as well.
Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will have its own things to worry about. Each day has enough worries of its own.
The righteous shall live by faith, and the Sermon on the Mount has a great deal to say about exactly how the righteous shall live by faith. The radiant thread unfolds, unfurls, beams, “Money is unworthy of your trust: put your trust in God. Live in the security of faith. Have the true security of faith in God who provides, not the ersatz providence of what you can arrange for yourself. Do not spend your life building a sandcastle for your home and trying to keep it from collapsing. I offer you a way to build a solid house, built on the rock.”
And this is not just a statement about how we should not worry about the future when we have it easy. The Sermon on the Mount closes with words that are entirely relevant to surviving the storms of life when we wonder how to survive an economic depression:
Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.
And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and its collapse was great.
These are not words about nothing more than how to relax and enjoy life when it is easy. These are words about how to prepare for hard times, and how to survive in a disaster. In other words, they are words about how to survive an economic depression.
In hard times as well as good, the righteous shall live by faith. Indeed, the words “the righteous shall live by faith” originally come from times with an industrial-strength disaster on the horizon!
The Apostle Paul: Portrait of a survivor!
Who can survive stress like an industrial-strength disaster? The Bible paints a picture of one person who survived a lot of really rough times, and not only survived, but genuinely thrived.
When I was in college, part of the general “foundations of wellness” class was taking the Holmes Stress Point Scale, which assigns points for stressful events to add up to a rough estimate of how stressful your life is. You get a certain number of points for each stressful experience you’ve been through, and they add up to your total score for how stressful the past year of your life is. The events include:
- Jail term…
- Death of a close friend…
- Outstanding personal achievement…
- Minor violation of the law…
The higher a score from stressful events, the more stressful your life is. The scale’s explanation is: If your score is 300 or more, you are at a very high stress level and probably run a major risk of illness in the next year. If your score is 200 to 299, your stress and illness risk are moderate, and if your score is between 150 to 200, your stress and risk are mild.
My teacher mentioned that one student had computed such a score for a year in the life of the Apostle Paul, who went through a number of events that should score major points for stress:
- Attacked by a frenzied mob…
- Shipwrecked in the mother of all storms…
- Clandestine escape from a city when people were trying to kill him…
- Physically assaulted by soldiers…
- Survived an assassination attempt…
The student calculated a staggering 675 points for one year in the life of St. Paul!
But the odd thing is that if you read the Book of Acts, St. Paul does not really come across as someone we should pity. We read that some of his colleagues were harassed, beaten, and afterwards were rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer shame for the sake of their Lord. When I read the accounts of these events, I walk away with a sense, not that these suffering heroes are poor and pitiable, but that they are giants and they utterly dwarf me. There is something greater in the Apostle, far greater, than a whopping 675 points worth of externally stressful events.
It is the same thing, really, as with people who survived a long time being hostages for terrorists. They had dug deep and built their house on the rock, and when stormwinds battered their house, it survived and stood firm. It is the same thing for the bedrock of how people survived the Great Depression. And if we may be battered by hard economic times, we would like our houses to stand firm as well.
Suffering and sonship
It may be that what we fear that in a potential disaster is that we will lose what is good for us. We may fear getting sidetracked when none of our dreams seem to come true. We may fear that God cannot really provide our good if our recession becomes a depression or even an economic collapse–that the Sermon on the Mount is presumably about how to live in easy times but wouldn’t be quite so helpful when we’re in a depression. But there is something we are missing. Some of the things that we fear may have a surprisingly positive place in a well-lived life. There is something we are missing in all this.
Suffering has a place in the divine discipleship—the divine sonship—that the Sermon on the Mount is all about. “The Son of God became a man that men might become the Sons of God,” as C.S. Lewis echoed the ancient wisdom, a wisdom that plays out in discipleship. Discipleship, service to God in difficulties, providence, and ascetical or spiritual practices all come together: God provides for us and disciples us in hard times as well as good. Sometimes he provides more plainly when we have nothing than when we have everything. In the Philokalia, we hear the words of St. Makarios as he explains the place of suffering in discipleship:
He who wants to be an imitator of Christ, so that he too may be called a son of God, born of the Spirit, must above all bear courageously and patiently the afflictions he encounters, whether these be bodily illnesses, slander and vilification from men, or attacks from the unseen spirits. God in His providence allows souls to be tested by various afflictions of this kind, so that it may be revealed which of them truly loves Him. All the patriarchs, prophets, apostles and martyrs from the beginning of time traversed none other than this narrow road of trial and affliction, and it was by doing this that they fulfilled God’s will. ‘My son,’ says Scripture, ‘if you come to serve the Lord, prepare your soul for trial, set your heart straight, and patiently endure’ (Ecclus. 2 : 1-2). And elsewhere it is said: ‘Accept everything that comes as good, knowing that nothing occurs without God willing it.’ Thus the soul that wishes to do God’s will must strive above all to acquire patient endurance and hope. For one of the tricks of the devil is to make us listless at times of affliction, so that we give up our hope in the Lord. God never allows a soul that hopes in Him to be so oppressed by trials that it is put to utter confusion. As St Paul writes: ‘God is to be trusted not to let us be tried beyond our strength, but with the trial He will provide a way out, so that we are able to bear it (I Cor. 10 : 13). The devil harasses the soul not as much as he wants but as much as God allows him to. Men know what burden may be placed on a mule, what on a donkey, and what on a camel, and load each beast accordingly; and the potter knows how long he must leave pots in the fire, so that they are not cracked by staying in it too long or rendered useless by being taken out of it before they are properly fired. If human understanding extends this far, must not God be much more aware, infinitely more aware, of the degree of trial it is right to impose on each soul, so that it becomes tried and true, fit for the kingdom of heaven?
Hemp, unless it is well beaten, cannot be worked into fine yarn, while the more it is beaten and carded the finer and more serviceable it becomes. And a freshly moulded pot that has not been fired is of no use to man. And a child not yet proficient in worldly skills cannot build, plant, sow seed or perform any other worldly task. In a similar manner it often happens through the Lord’s goodness that souls, on account of their childlike innocence, participate in divine grace and are filled with the sweetness and repose of the Spirit; but because they have not yet been tested, and have not been tried by the various afflictions of the evil spirits, they are still immature and not yet fit for the kingdom of heaven. As the apostle says: ‘If you have not been disciplined you are bastards and not sons’ (Heb. 12 : 8). Thus trials and afflictions are laid upon a man in the way that is best for him, so as to make his soul stronger and more mature; and if the soul endures them to the end with hope in the Lord it cannot fail to attain the promised reward of the Spirit and deliverance from the evil passions.
The story is told of a woman who was told the Lord would be with her, and afterwards found herself an incredibly painful situation. When she cried out to the Lord and asked how this could be, the Lord answered: “I never said it would be easy. I said I’d be with you.” God’s way, it seems, is not to make things easy for us, but to strengthen us for greatness in what are often hard situations, and sometimes disasters. He gives us mountains to climb and the strength for climbing.
And we can climb mountains even if we are in an economic depression. Perhaps especially if we are in an economic recession. God’s providence does not spare us from our suffering. Not even if we’re really good Christians—especially not if we’re really good Christians! If you read the saints’ lives (see the links on the natural cycle clock), you will see that even with all the wondrous providence God provides for the saints, the saints in fact suffer much more than the rest of us; they know sufferings worse than most of us have ever been through.
There are saints whose prayers healed others—but who were for themselves never healed of their own major illnesses. If this sounds ironic, remember that Christ also was told, “Physician, heal thyself.” Christ is pre-eminent as one who saved others but could not save himself, and “He saved others, but he cannot save himself” is one way of defining God’s kingdom. Part of how people survived the Great Depression was that they carried the spirit of God’s kingdom and worked to save others, and not just themselves. Communities of people survived the Great Depression because, even if no one could save “Me! Me! Me!”, perhaps each one could help save others.
God’s providence does not spare us from our suffering, but he works with us in our suffering, often to do things with us that could never happen if we had things our way. It may be precisely on the mountain, in the act of climbing, that God gives us the strength to climb!
Sometimes God works with us despite our best efforts to fix things so we can have things our way. Wise people rightly tells us, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans,” and “You can’t always get what you want.” And perhaps if we did get what we wanted, we wouldn’t get what God wanted for us. Some of us may try to fix our problems and pray to God to take them away—when his plan is to use our problems to build us up. St. Makarios above quotes Hebrews, and in fact Hebrews is one of the clearest books of the Bible that God works with us in suffering—in fact, that Christ himself was perfected by suffering (source):
But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.
Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted. Therefore, holy brethren, who share in a heavenly call, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession.
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchiz’edek.
…But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on the prisoners, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised.
Our view of suffering is often that if we are suffering, then we cannot be where we should be. It often seems we can only be where we should be when we are out of a difficult situation). It seems that we are sidetracked, and will only stop being sidetracked when we have things our way. But that is absolutely false. God worked with Christ in suffering. God worked with the saints in suffering. God worked with us in suffering. And that means that we can be in suffering and in pain, with our godly plans failing, and we are still just where God wants us: we may not see it, but sometimes our earthly failure is a heavenly victory. If God allows us to be in an economic collapse, he may be doing things with us, good things, that we might never happen if we had the comfort we seem to need. The last words above, about suffering and failure, lead directly into the famous “faith hall of fame” in Hebrews 11.
What may be happening in our sufferings is that God is building us into greater people than if we succeed in getting what we want. Including if we are in an economic depression. This is a basic lesson of people growing up: many young people have big dreams for themselves, but grow by middle age into living for others, growing into something that could never happen if all their youthful dreams came true. And suffering has a place in this—and a greater and deeper value. The Son of God was made perfect through suffering. Innocent suffering is sharing in the suffering of Christ: Christ’s suffering is made perfect in his people. St. Paul, the survivor who went through terrible suffering, wrote, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” (Col 1.24 RSV)
Suffering is not getting off-track, nor does it force us out of God’s plans, so that we only get into God’s providence as soon as things are the way we would like. What some of us fear in suffering is that if we are in difficult circumstances, then that must mean we are spiritual failures as well as failing on earth. If we are faithful and still fail in our plans, this does not mean that either God’s plans or providence have failed. Often he is working at us when we are suffering and we are so far afield from anything that makes sense to us.
Everything we meet is either a blessing from God, or a trial that God allows for our strengthening. You may say that there is something evil in your trials, and you would be entirely right: there is something evil, and perhaps demonic, in our trials and afflictions. Perhaps you may say that there seems to be something almost demonic about an economic collapse, and you would still be right. But, as C.S. Lewis observes, all of us do the will of God. We may do the will of God as Satan and Judas did, asinstruments, or we may do the will of God as Peter and John did, as sons. But all of us do the will of God, and ultimately Satan and may be no more than a hammer in God’s hand. And even if God allows rough trials, he allows them for our strengthening. St. Makarios is very clear: “The devil harasses the soul not as much as he wants but as much as God allows him to.” Evil is on a leash. Let us be faithful. Every move the Devil plays is one move closer to his loss and God’s victory, and ours if we are faithful.
I am not saying that the future holds much suffering. You or I may have a lot of suffering, or actually not that much. I am, however, saying that however much suffering God allows, he can still work with us. He can still work with us in an economic depression. (And that is even without going into how a great many people have been in situations they dreaded, and found life to still be beautiful.) As St. Paul, a survivor, closed Romans 8:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Building a house on the rock—it’s not all about you!
Ascesis refers to disciplined spiritual practice. It’s a part of building a house on the rock. In the Orthodox tradition, these include sacraments, church attendance and daily liturgical prayers, reading and listening to Scripture, working to keep the Jesus prayer in your heart (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”), growing into the liturgical seasons and internal and external fasting, hospitality, service, thanksgiving, repentance, giving to others who ask your help, cutting back on selfish pleasures, including icons in your prayer, solitude, community, and other practices. All of these can offer different help in growing to spiritual maturity.
But there comes a crucial caveat. None of these, if they are working correctly, are all about us. However essential they are to building a house on the rock, they are infinitely more than tools for how to survive an economic depression. They are tools to living in communion with God and being transformed by his grace. These disciplines, used rightly, can clear away obstacles to our growing in discipleship under God, but if they are used wrongly, they can be extremely harmful.
Using ascetical practices wrongly, as ends in themselves, has the same problem as Eeyore in The House at Pooh Corner:
[Piglet picked some violets, decided to give them to Eeyore, and went to visit him.]
“Oh, Eeyore,” began Piglet a little nervously, because Eeyore was busy.
“To-morrow,” said Eeyore. “Or the next day.” Piglet came a little closer to see what it was. Eeyore had three sticks on the ground, and was looking at them. Two of the sticks were touching at one end, but not at the other, and the third stick was laid across them. Piglet thought that perhaps it was a Trap of some kind.
“Oh, Eeyore,” he began again, “I just—”
“Is that little Piglet?” said Eeyore, still looking hard at his sticks.
“Yes, Eeyore, and I—”
“Do you know what this is?”
“No,” said Piglet.
“It’s an A.”
“Oh,” said Piglet.
“Not O—A,” said Eeyore severely. “Can’t you hear, or do you think you have more education than Christopher Robin?”
“Yes,” said Piglet. “No,” said Piglet very quickly, and he came closer still.
“Christopher Robin said it was an A, and an A it is—until somebody treads on it,” Eeyore added sternly.
Piglet jumped backwards hurriedly, and smelt at his violets.
“Do you know what A means, little Piglet?”
“No, Eeyore, I don’t.”
“It means Learning, it means Education, it means all the things that you and Pooh haven’t got. That’s what A means.”
“Oh,” said Piglet again. “I mean, does it?” he explained quickly.
“I’m telling you. People come and go in this Forest, and they say, ‘It’s only Eeyore, so it doesn’t count.’ They walk to and fro saying ‘Ha ha!’ But do they know anything about A? They don’t. It’s just three sticks to them. But to the Educated—mark this, little Piglet—to the Educated, not meaning Poohs and Piglets, it’s a great and glorious A. Not,” he added, “just something that anybody can come and breathe on.”
Piglet stepped back nervously, and looked round for help.
“Here’s Rabbit,” he said gladly. “Hallo, Rabbit.”
Rabbit came up importantly, nodded to Piglet, and said, “Ah, Eeyore,” in the voice of one who would be saying “Good-bye” in about two more minutes.
“There’s just one thing I wanted to ask you, Eeyore. What happens to Christopher Robin in the mornings nowadays?”
“What’s this that I’m looking at?” said Eeyore, still looking at it.
“Three sticks,” said Rabbit promptly.
“You see?” said Eeyore to Piglet. He turned to Rabbit. “I will now answer your question,” he said solemnly.
“Thank you,” said Rabbit.
“What does Christopher Robin do in the mornings? He learns. He becones Educated. He instigorates—I think that is the word he mentioned, but I may be referring to something else—he instigorates Knowledge. In my small way, I also, if I have the word right, am—am doing what he does. That, doe instance is?”
“An A,” said Rabbit, “but not a very good one. Well, I must get back and tell the others.”
Eeyore looked at his sticks and then he looked at Piglet.
“What did Rabbit say it was?” he asked.
“An A,” said Piglet.
“Did you tell him?”
“No, Eeyore, I didn’t. I expect he just knew.”
“He knew? You mean this A thing is a thing Rabbit knew?”
“Yes, Eeyore. He’s very clever, Rabbit is.”
“Clever!” said Eeyore scornfully, putting a foot heavily on his three sticks. “Education!” said Eeyore bitterly, jumping on his six sticks. “What is Learning?” asked Eeyore as he kicked his twelve sticks into the air. “A thing Rabbit knows! Ha!”
We need to avoid being Eeyores with our spiritual discipline, or our spirituality, or our faith, or our religion. Letters serve a greater purpose, and so do ascetical practices: we should not, like Eeyore, stare at an A and tell ourselves that it is our Education and Learning, or Prayers and Church Attendance as the case may be.
The point of ascetical practices is to be steps of the Great Dance: living the life that God shares, and becoming one of the sons of God. It’s not merely a set of survival skills that work in an economic recession or depression, or even an economic collapse, even if “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will have its own worries. Each day has enough trouble of its own,” is quite practical advice. The point is to seek first the kingdom of a God who knows our survival needs: as God told Habakkuk before a disaster, “The righteous shall live by faith.” The luminous thread beams brightly because it is more than just a white thread. It shines, and it shines with the light of Heaven, a light of divine love that illumines Creation.
What Eeyore doesn’t get about the luminous thread is that it is the light of Heaven shining on earth.
Better than an endowment
Some years before I became Orthodox, I was at a class where someone was commenting on Proverbs, and its texts that say, in essence, “Put your trust in God, not money.” (“Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death,” Prov 11:4 RSV.) One point he made that particularly surprised me was, “Endowments aren’t so great.”
He asked a question: if we want to be independently wealthy, who do we want the “independently” to mean we are independent from? The answer he gave: “Independent from God.” If we want to be independently wealthy, we may want something more than mere luxuries. The basic fantasy of life as we imagine ourselves being independently wealthy, is a life that is in control and unlike the actual messiness of our real lives with so many things that are simply beyond our control. And his suggestion, based on real life as well as Proverbs, is that it is actually not good for us to have an endowment that we can trust.
One kind of person counselors work with is the person who cannot be happy without being in control of everyone around them. The basic problem is that a person who needs to be in control is a tragically shrunken person, and part of what a counselor will try to give a person is an opportunity to step into a larger world. If you believe, “I can’t be happy unless I’m in control of everyone I’m involved with,” that will set you up for a lot of unhappiness.
This is not just because it is really hard to control everyone else. A few people who want to control others really do manage to control others around them, but they are really as unhappy as others who want the same thing but don’t manage the control over others they always want to establish. As Chesterton observed, there may be some desires which are not achievable, but there are some desires which are not desirable.
If you want the world to be small enough that there is nothing outside your control, you want to live in a small and terribly shrunken world. If you let go of that kind of control, you may find that you have let yourself into a much bigger world than if you were the biggest thing around, and in the process you become bigger yourself. Instead of being a tin god ruling a world as cramped as a cubicle, you become servant in God’s vast mansions. And being one of many of these servants is a much better position to be in than dominating as a tin god.
And there is more to this larger world, the larger world of serving in God’s great mansions. The words, “The righteous shall live by faith” were given, in full force, when a brutal invasion was coming. Those words may not originally have been about how to survive an economic depression. They were originally more about how to survive something worse: your country being taken over by terrorists!
The words, “The righteous shall live by faith,” and the Sermon on the Mount, apply to some pretty rough situations, including an economic recession, economic depression, or economic collapse. Christ’s words about not worrying do not apply just to privileged people who have nothing seriously worth worrying about; many of the people who first heard theSermon on the Mount were on the bottom of the totem pole and would see less material comfort than the kind of person most Americans would imagine as a homeless person.
The model prayer Christ would give is not a prayer for something nicer for people stuck on a nasty diet of burgers and KFC; the one physical request is for bread—by American standards, quite a dull thing to eat day in and day out, and possibly poorer nutritional fare than fast food—and it is in thiscontext that Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, beckons us to store up treasure in Heaven, and invites us to a spiritual feast that unfurls in hard times as well as when everything meets our expectations. He invites us to the spiritual feast, the larger world, that is at the heart of spirituality and religion and is unlocked by faith. The Sermon on the Mount neither assumes nor needs a high standard of living to have real treasure.
The invitation to dance the Great Dance is open to us now as ever. All of us are invited to the Great Feast. Even if we’ve snubbed words like, “Money doesn’t make you happy,” and, “The Best Things in Life are Free,” not only do those truths remain open to us, but the Divine Providence is no less open. If our external circumstances remove all the luxuries that serve us, we may discover that not only is it better to give than receive, but it is also better to serve and be served. We might take a tip from how people survived the Great Depression. If we are unemployed, we might serve others and find something that technologies and luxuries can’t give, and if our 401(k) plan becomes a 404(k) and vanishes, we might lean on God’s providence and discover that God’s providence gives us more than money could.
There’s a sign that was seen around my hometown that says, “Money may not do everything, but it sure keeps the kids in touch!” And I wonder if that is precisely what we gain if we do not know what will meet our needs in the future: our material needs can “keep the kids in touch” for God. Especially in an economy in shambles. And if that happens, we have something no money could buy: keeping in touch with God in a way that is ultimately a Heavenly transformation.
The prodigal son: “I wish you were dead!”
The parable of the prodigal son begins (source):
There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, `Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them.
Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the husks that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything.
But when he came to himself he said, `How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, `Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
But the father said to his servants, `Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.
Today, one of the ways parents might give money to children is letting them “borrow against their inheritance:” they wouldn’t have to pay the money back, but they lose that much of their inheritance when their parents die. And this is considered a fairly normal arrangement.
This isn’t what is going on here. The younger son’s request telegraphs something loud and clear: “I wish you were dead!”
We see a first glimpse of God’s love—a love to the point of madness. Out of all responses the father could have to this affront, he gave every last penny he was asked for. The love to the point of madness may be easier to see later on, but it is already present in the gift by which he answers the ludicrously inappropriate request.
The son goes off to live life the way he wants to. And living life the way he wants to hits rock bottom. The big party he imagined he’d make for himself turns into famine and dire straits that leave him coveting the unappepetizing husks that he is feeding to unclean, vile swine. He thought things would be better if he were calling the shots, not his father.
He thought things would be better if he were calling the shots. Just like some of us here. We don’t want to have to wait under the authority of a Father who calls the shots. We want money and control, with things lined up here and now. What is it we are telling God if we ask him to give us money and control on our terms? Something a bit like, “I wish you were dead.”
The younger son has discovered that life with his father out of the picture is not so glorious and wonderful. And he realizes the extent of his fall. So he resolves to go back and beg, not even for forgiveness, but possibly his father might even contain his wounded resentment enough to let him work for pay and be able to buy bread. (Who knows? Maybe a long shot, but what real alternative did he have?)
What was the father doing in all of this?
When husbands have gone off to war, there have been wives who have stood by the path of the doorway, looking for some hope that their husbands may return, looking and waiting, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year… never giving up! And the father in our story was doing exactly that.
The father was looking, waiting, and saw his son far off, and completely cast off his upper-class dignity to run and embrace him. Love to the point of madness! He didn’t even wait for an apology before embracing him and kissing him!
And when the son made a full confession, hoping maybe to toil for his father’s scraps, the father pulls out all the stops: the best robe, a ring for his finger, and the best food possible for a royal feast. This is love to the point of madness!
But the story continues on to a more sobering note (source):
Now his older son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, `Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in.
His father came out and pleaded with him, but he answered his father, `Look, I have served you for all of these years, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a goat kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with prostitutes, you killed for him the fatted calf!’
And he said to him, `Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”
We have an Eeyore here.
This story has been called the parable of the two prodigals, meaning that not only did the one son tragically fall, but the other, elder son also tragically falls from the glory his father would have wished for him. At the beginning, the younger son wished that his father was dead. At the end, did the older son wish his father was dead?
The older son is a tragic spiritual Eeyore.
His statement could have come from a very different angle. For all of the years the older son was in his father’s service, he toiled, and he may not have had rich party food—only solid, nourishing, ordinary food day by day. For all these many years, he worked hard in the context of the father training him, and drawing him into mature manhood. In the meantime, his brother has been ripping up his own soul, losing even what he thought he had at the mercy of merciless people with no one else who cared for his well-being. The brother who all but told his father, “I wish you were dead,” was in every sense save the literal, himself dead.
If it is painful to lose one’s parents, it is another level of pain to lose one’s child, and the father had seen one of his sons—not to mention the older son’s only brother—die a living death. Now he was back, and in every sense including the literal, alive. Was killing the fatted calf even enough of a celebration?
The older son didn’t get it. How well did his service to his father work? Not very well; it went badly enough that instead of sharing in his father’s joy at a lost son who “was dead, and is alive again,” acts bitterly affronted and indicts his father searingly. Which is to say, the son’s hard work didn’twork, any more than Eeyore’s laborious staring at his three sticks achieved the true heart of “Learning” and “Education.”
The point, though, is not really the tragedy of the older son. The point is that God welcomes people who turn to him, and welcomes them with open arms. It is only one step to turn to God, even if you think you are ten thousand steps away. But when are we ready?
It is easy enough to wait for life to really begin. When? Maybe when the present illness is gone, or when we get that promotion, or maybe just when we get a job in the first place, or when someone we deal with will become not quite so difficult a person, or when we have something paid off, or when Washington gets its act together. When something big or small changes, then maybe we will be in God’s blessing. St. Herman of Alaska met some people who were waiting for their lives to really begin (source):
Father Herman gave them all one general question: “Gentlemen, what do you love above all, and what will each of you wish for your happiness?” Various answers were offered… Some desired wealth, others glory, some a beautiful wife, and still others a beautiful ship he would captain; and so forth in the same vein. “Is it not true,” Father Herman said to them concerning this, “that all your various wishes can bring us to one conclusion – that each of you desires that which in his own understanding he considers the best, and which is most worthy of his love?” They all answered, “Yes, that is so!” He then continued, “Would you not say, ‘Is not that which is best, above all, and surpassing all, and that which by preference is most worthy of love, the Very Lord, our Jesus Christ, who created us, adorned us with such ideals, gave life to all, sustains everything, nurtures and loves all, who is Himself Love and most beautiful of all men?’ Should we not then love God above everything, desire Him more than anything, and search him out?”
All said, “Why, yes! That’s self-evident!” Then the Elder asked, “But do you love God?” They all answered, “Certainly, we love God. How can we not love God?” “And I a sinner have been trying for more than forty years to love God, I cannot say that I love Him completely,” Father Herman protested to them. He then began to demonstrate to them the way in which we should love God. “If we love someone,” he said, “we always remember them; we try to please them. Day and night our heart is concerned with the subject. Is that the way you gentlemen love God? Do you turn to Him often? Do you always remember Him? Do you always pray to Him and fulfill His holy commandments?” They had to admit that they did not! “For our own good, and for our own fortune,” continued the Elder, “let us at least promise ourselves that from this very minute we will try to love God more than anything and to fulfill His Holy Will!”
The time for God is not at some indefinite point in the future when things will fit our hopes better. The time to work with God, in a sense the only time we should be concerned with, is now. Not later, now.
More precious than gold
When I was a child, I remembered a story about a fearsome dragon who told a knight that if the knight would tickle the dragon’s throat with a sword, he would have a great treasure. The knight rode up on his horse and approached the dragon, already afraid, and asked if the treasure was as good as a good horse and a good suit of armor. It was more, the dragon said. The knight asked if the treasure was as good as a silver suit of armor, and shield and sword to match. It was, the dragon assured him. The knight then asked if the treasure was better than gold. The dragon answered that it was more precious than rooms full of gold. So the terrified knight trembled and tickled the dragon’s throat with his sword, and asked what the treasure was. And the dragon turned and ripped the knight’s sword out of his hand, breathing out a tremendous deluge of fire and smoke and roared, “Your life!” And the terrified knight, having lost his sword, fled as best he could, and grasped a treasure far more precious than rooms and rooms full of gold.
Hard times may still let us know what is truly important, and what is truly treasure.
Even if we are in an economic depression, we have a treasure worth more than rooms and rooms full of gold: our lives.
For the righteous who walk by faith, hard times may even turn out to be good times.
St. John Chrysostom once wrote to people who think they are somebody if they conspicuously ride on a horse and have an armed servant clear the way before them, and told them that they were missing something and have all the wrong priorities. These words seem like they have nothing to do with how to survive in an economic depression—but on a very deep level, they have everything to do with how to survive in an economic depression where we may lose any number of things that seem so essential. St. John Chrysostom wrote (source):
And I know that I am disgusting my hearers. But what can I do? I have set my mind on this and will not stop saying these things, whether or not anything comes of it. For what is the point of having someone clear the way before you in the marketplace? Are you walking among wild beasts so that you need to drive away those who meet you? Do not be afraid of the people who approach you and walk near you; none of them bite. But why do you consider it an insult to walk alongside other people? What craziness is this, what ludicrous folly, when you don’t mind having a horse follow close behind you, but if it is a person, you think you are disgraced unless the person is driven a hundred miles away. And why do you have servants to carry horse ____, using the free as slaves, or rather yourself living more dishonorably than any slave? For truly, anyone who bears so much pride is more repulsive than any slave.
Therefore people who have enslaved themselves to this vile habit will never come within sight of true liberty. No, if you must drive away and clear away anything, do not let it be those who come near you, but your own pride. Do not do this by your servant, but by yourself, not by this material weapon, but by the spiritual one. Since now your servant drives away those who walk alongside you, but you yourself are driven from your rightful place by your own self-will, more disgracefully than any servant can drive your neighbor. But if, descending from your horse, you will drive away pride by humility, you will sit higher and place yourself in greater honor, without needing any servant to do this for you. I mean that when you have become modest and walk on the ground, you will be seated on the horse-drawn carriage of humility which carries you up to the very heavens, the carriage with winged steeds: but if falling from the horse-drawn carriage of heaven, you pass into that of arrogance, you will be in no better state than crippled beggars who are carried along the ground—no, much more wretched and pathetic than they are: since they are carried because of their bodies’ weakness, but you because of the disease of your own arrogance.
Some of us also need the carriage of humility, even if we are not even in a position to make everybody get out of our way. And some of us might benefit from the loving interdependence that was how people survived the Great Depression.
In tough times—and in tougher times—we may lose things we have set our hearts on, but it may be that however much we resist, God will give us something better. What if I lose my car, for instance? How could I get something better? But it is entirely possible that I could get something better than my present car. I might get something better than my own Rolls Royce, even better than my own private jet. I might get more inter-dependence, where I do not get around by what I do by my car. I may still be able to go places, but now by the love of my friends and family.
In that case, if I get some groceries, or a ride to church, I am not getting it as something run by me, me, me; I am riding on community and love. And the love of another who cares about me is a much bigger thing than economic self-sufficiency. It’s the same thing as food tasting better if it is prepared with love for hospitality—then it isn’t just food. You are, in a very real sense, eating a friend’s love, and that is a richer and deeper kind of sustenance—and a richer, deeper, and fuller goodness!
Who knows? I might ride even higher than this if my car is taken from me. Perhaps I might respond to the humiliation of losing my car by starting to let Christ chauffer me to Heaven in the flying Rolls-Royce of humility. Maybe I might even start being grateful, and be carried by the car of gratitude, and look for ways that I might launch into the heavens on the immense celestial starship of service to others.
And it is the starship of service to others—of saving others even though I cannot save myself—that shines with celestial glory. “It is more blessed to give than to receive”—the Sermon on the Mount again. Perhaps I might stop thinking about my own survival and instead think about how I can save others even though I cannot save myself. Some people did not just survive the Great Depression; they learned that life is beautiful. They stopped being tin gods trying to rule over a shrunken world and became servants of God and each other in the vast mansions of a glorious God. In the Great Depression, they did not have gold, but they grasped a treasure vaster than rooms and rooms full of gold. For some, the Great Depression was a wakeup call to what is truly important in life.
And that is true wealth.
Why are some of us not living this way already? Repentance is terrifying. In the tale of the prodigal son, the son who had devoured his father’s property was in far from his father’s house, and had real work to get back. He had to travel in a much rougher sense than taking a plane, train, or bus, and faced much nastier dangers than “Dinner in New York, breakfast in London, luggage in Sydney.”
Our word “travel” comes from the French travailler, referring to work, and not exactly easy work: with slightly different spelling, the same word appears in English as “travail,” meaning a mother’s struggle in childbirth. Travel was hard, gruelling, and dangerous labor, and not for the faint of heart. And the prodigal son undertook travel with far less of the strength—not to mention absolutely none of the wealth—by which he had gotten there. The feat would have been comparable to running a marathon, or at least a marathon where your path might well go through the turf of thugs lying in wait and quite willing to kill anyone who would travail into their ambush.
And yet this is exactly what the prodigal son did. His brother may have done the ascetical work of prayers and fasting; but the younger son undertook something much tougher: repentance which is, in a spiritual sense, what the younger son did to return home.
Repentance has been called unconditional surrender. It has been called other things as well, and it terrifies: it is a decision to return home and beg for mercy when you have no grounds to expect to be treated like anything but the vilest of the scum of the earth. Perhaps the Father’s love to the point of madness may respond otherwise when we have repented. Perhaps we when we surrender conditionally and expect to be razed to the ground, we find ourselves walking away triumphant victors whose refusal to surrender was holding on to defeat for dear life, terrified to let go of our defeat because we think it helps us. Perhaps we have nothing, really, to lose but our misery. But that isn’t our concern when we need to repent.
But if we can repent—for all of us have much to repent of—and step into the Sermon on the Mount and begin to live by faith, then the Father’s love will answer, and give us something better than whatever we grasp for in our forgetfulness that a provident God already knows our needs just as well in an economic depression as any other time. In an economic depression as much as any other time, the Father’s love can meet these needs much better than we will if we control our inheritance ourselves.
In hard times in the past the Lord’s arm and providence have shown more plainly than they sometimes do here. Do you want to know how to survive an economic depression? The answer is very simple. It’s not a matter of what you arrange. It’s a matter of what God provides. When there is no natural hope of God’s saints being taken care of, it may be a supernatural provideence that we don’t see as often when we have easy times.
In hard times as well as easy, the luminous thread woven throughout Scripture, appearing in one place in the words, “the just shall live by faith,” and another place in a Sermon on the Mount that says, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and his perfect righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you”—this luminous thread is at the heart of faith, spirituality, and religion—and this luminous thread is more. It is a participation in the life of a God of love to the point of madness.
The luminous thread is spun by a God of love to the point of madness.
It may be in hard times that we fear that in hard times we will lose what is good for us.
But it may be that hard times, whether a recession, depression, or economic collapse, serve as a divinely given clue-by-four when we discover that the Father’s love to the point of madness knows, and will give, what is much better for us. And on that point, I would like to quote a praise song about what is truly more precious than gold: the words go:
Lord, you are more precious than silver.
Lord, you are more costly than gold.
Lord, you are more beautiful than diamonds,
And nothing I desire compares to you.
In one variant, these words answer:
And the Father said:
“Child, you are more precious than silver.
Child, you are more costly than gold.
Child, you are more beautiful than diamonds,
And nothing I desire compares to you.”
These are the words of divine love to the point of madness, of a God who loves saints and sinners alike, of a God who rejoices more over one sinner who repents than ninety-nine righteous who do not need to repent. And this is a God who loves us in hard times as well as good, a God of providence who seeks our highest good whenever we turn to him.
God be merciful to us. (Amen!)
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Surgeon General’s Warning
It has happened occasionally that something I’ve written as a lone voice has a few years later become the mainstream. Such was my academic interest in the holy kiss, one tiny snippet of which is in The Eighth Sacrament and which is a theme in The Sign of the Grail. When I proposed study, my own advisor subjected me to social ridicule until I persisted and he said, “I don’t know. It seems not to be researched.” Five years later, it entered the Zeitgeist and I had people asking if I knew more than The Eighth Sacrament (a work which was in fact intended to be a tiny crystallization of a vast body of research about the only act the Bible calls holy).
The opening paragraph to this work states, “Alchemy is a more jarring image.” No, it isn’t, or at least not any more; alchemy has been coming out of the closet for years, and aside from bestsellers, I worked once at the American Medical Association, an organization founded to shut down homeopathic occult medicine in favor of medicine that would today be seen as mostly scientific, and in the place of artwork there was a large handmade quilt by the cafeteria explaining numerous alchemical symbols. Touchstone Magazine is kind of “C.S. Lewis meets Eastern Orthodoxy,” there was an article explaining that Harry Potter is not occult sin; it’s just clean alchemical imagery that is perfectly innocuous, included just the same as other English greats, including C.S. Lewis.
Usually when I find I’ve served as a forerunner heralding the future Zeitgeist, I don’t get too puffed up. It’s more like an occasion for self-examination where I try to understand how I got things so wrong.
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As I write, I am in a couch in a large parlor looking out on an atrium with over a dozen marble pillars, onto another parlor on the other side. I have spent the day wandering around a college campus and enjoying the exploration. I’ve gotten little of the homework done that I meant to do (reading and writing about a theologian), and spent most of my energies trying to dodge the sense that the best way to explain what I want to explain about time is to begin with a classical form of alchemy. (The other alternative to lead into the discussion would be to start talking about Augustine, but that could more easily create a false familiarity. Alchemy is a more jarring image.)
Alchemy is one of those subjects most people learn about by rumor, which means in that case that almost everything we “know” about it is false. Trying to understand it through today’s ideas of science, magic, and proto-science is like trying to understand nonfiction reference materials, like an encyclopedia, through the categories of fiction and poetry, or conversely trying to understand fictional and poetic works through (the non-fiction parts of) the Dewey Decimal system.
It is much more accurate to say that alchemy is a particular religious tradition, perhaps a flawed religious tradition, which was meant to transform its practitioners and embrace matter in the process. It may be rejected as heresy, but it is impossible to really understand heresy until you understand that heresy is impressively similar to orthodox Christianity, confusingly similar, and ‘heresy’ does not mean “the absolute opposite of what Christians believe.” (Heresy is far more seductive than that.) Perhaps you may have heard the rumor that alchemists sought to turn lead into gold. The verdict on this historical urban legend, as with many urban legends, is, “Yes, but…”
Alchemy sought a way to turn lead into gold, but it has absolutely nothing to offer the greedy person who wants money to indulge his greed. Alchemy is scarcely more about turning lead into gold than astronomy is about telescopes. A telescope is a tool an astronomer uses to observe his real quarry, the stars as best they can be observed, and the alchemist, who sought to make matter into spirit and spirit into matter was trying to establish a spiritual bond with the matter so that the metals were incorporated into the person being performed. An Orthodox Christian might say the alchemist was seeking to be transfigured, even if that was a spiritually toxic way of seeking transfiguration or transformation—which is to say that the alchemist sought a profound and spiritual good. The alchemist sought gold that was above 24 karat purity, which is absurd if you think in today’s material terms about a karat gold that was chemically up to 100% (24k) pure… but what we call a “chemist” today is the successor to what alchemists called “charcoal blowers”, and chemistry today is a more sophisticated form of what the “charcoal blowers” were doing, not the alchemists. But the desire for purer-than-24k-gold becomes a much clearer and more intelligible desire when you understand that gold was not seen by the alchemists as simply a “container” for economic value, but the most noble substance in the material world. (And a “material” world that is not just “material” as Americans today would understand it.) If you look at Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount about “Store up treasures in Heaven,” and “Do not store up treasures on earth,” the alchemists’ desire to transmute metals and eventually produce gold is much more of a treasure in Heaven than merely a treasure on earth. (Think about why it is better to have a heart of gold and no merely physical gold than have all the merely physical gold in the world and a heart of ice with it.)
Newton, introduced to me as one of the greatest physicists, spent more time on alchemy than on the science he is remembered for today. He was also, among other things, an incredibly abrasive person and proof that while alchemy promises spiritual transformation it at least sometimes fails miserably, and there are a lot of other scathing things one could say about alchemy that I will refrain from saying. But I would like to suggest one way we could learn something from the alchemists:
When I wanted to explain the term “charcoal blower” by giving a good analogy for it, I searched and searched and couldn’t find the same kind of pejorative term today. I don’t mean that I couldn’t find another epithet that was equally abrasive; we have insults just as insulting. But I couldn’t find another term that was pejorative for the same reason. The closest parallels I found (and they were reasonably close parallels) to what lie behind the name of “charcoal blower” would be how a serious artist would see a colleague who produced mercenary propaganda for the highest bidder, or how a clergyman who chose the ministry to love God and serve his neighbor would view people who entered the clergy for prestige and power over others. (It may be a sign of a problem on our side that while we can understand why people might be offended in these cases, we do not (as the alchemists did) have a term that embodies that reprobation. The alchemists called proto-chemists “charcoal blowers” because the alchemists had a pulse.)
To an alchemist, a “charcoal blower” was someone merely interested in what we would today call the science of chemistry and its applications—and someone who completely failed to pursue spiritual purification. Calling someone a “charcoal blower” is akin to calling someone an “irreligious, power hungry minister.” Whether they were right in this estimation or not, alchemists would not have recognized chemistry as a more mature development of alchemy. They would have seen today’s chemistry as a completely unspiritual parody of their endeavor: perhaps a meticulous and sophisticated unspiritual parody, but a parody none the less.
This provides a glimpse of a thing, or a kind of thing, that can be very difficult to see today. “Alchemy is a crude, superstitious predecessor to real chemistry” or “Chemistry is alchemy that’s gotten its act together” is what people often assume when the only categories they have are shaped by our age’s massive scientific influence.
Science is a big enough force that young earth Creationists deny Darwinian evolution by assuming that Genesis 1 is answering the same kind of questions that evolution is concerned with, namely “What were the material details of how life came to be?”What was the mechanism that caused those details to happen?” That is to say, young earth Creationism still assumes that if Genesis 1 is true, that could only mean that it is doing the same job as evolution while providing different answers. It is very difficult for many people to see that Genesis 1-2 might address questions that evolution never raises: neo-Darwinian evolution is silent or ambivalent about all questions of meaning (if it does not answer “There is no meaning and that is not a question mature scientists should ask.”). It is a serious problem if young earth proponents can read Genesis 1 and be insensitive to how the texts speak to questions of “What significance/meaning/purpose/goal does each creation and the whole Creation live and breathe?” This may be a simplification, but we live in enough of a scientific age that many people who oppose the juggernaut (in this case, neo-Darwinian evolution) still resort to disturbingly scientific frameworks and can show a pathological dependence of scientific ways of looking at the world, even when there is no conscious attempt to be scientific. Perhaps evolutionists may accuse young earth Creationists of not being scientific enough, but I would suggest that the deepest problem is that they are too scientific: they may not meet the yardstick in non-Creationist biology departments, but they try to play the game of science hard enough that whatever critique you may offer of their success in gaining science’s sight, nobody notices how perfectly they gain science’s blind spots—even when they are blind spots that make more sense to find in a neo-Darwinist but are extremely strange in a religiously motivated movement.
This is symptomatic of today’s Zeitgeist, and it affects our understanding of time.
Time is something that I don’t think can be unraveled without being able to question the assumed science-like categories and framework that define what is thinkable when we have no pretensions of thinking scientifically, along lines like what I have said of alchemy. I’m not really interested in calling chemists “charcoal blowers”: the Pythagoreans would probably censure me in similar vein after finding I ranked such-and-such in a major math competition, did my first master’s in applied math, and to their horror studied a mathematics that was completely secularized and had absolutely nothing of the “sacred science”spiritual discipline” character of their geometry left.
I may not want to call scientists “charcoal blowers”, but I do want to say and explore things that cannot be said unless we appreciate something else. That something else… If you say that alchemy disintegrated to become chemistry, that something else disintegrated in alchemy with its secrets and something else purportedly better than what was in the open. Alchemy has a host of problems that need to be peeled back; they may be different problems than those of our scientific age, and it may make a helpful illustration before the peeling back further and cutting deeper that is my real goal, but it is a problematic illustration.
I once would have said that classical (Newtonian) physics was simply a mathematical formalization of our common sense. My idea of this began when I was taking a class that dealt with modern physics (after covering Einstein’s theory of relativity). I grappled with something that many budding physicists grapple with: compared to classical physics, the theory of relativity and modern physics are remarkably counter-intuitive. One wag said, “God said, ‘Let there be light!’ And there was Newton. The Devil howled, ‘Let darkness return!’ And there was Einstein [and then modern physics], and the status quo was restored.” Modern physics may describe our world’s behavior more accurately, but it takes the strangest route to get to its result: not only is light both a particle and a wave, but everything, from a sound wave to you, is both a particle and a wave; nothing is exactly at any one place (we’re all spread throughout the whole universe but particularly densely concentrated in some places more than others); it can depend on your frame of reference whether two things happen simultaneously; Newton’s mathematically simple, coherent, lovely grid for all of space no longer exists, even if you don’t consider space having all sorts of curvatures that aren’t that hard to describe mathematically but are impossible to directly visualize. (And that was before superstring theory came into vogue; it seems that whatever doesn’t kill physics makes it stranger.)
I would make one perhaps subtle, but important, change to what I said earlier, that classical Newtonian physics is a mathematical expression of common sense: I had things backwards and the Western common sense I grew up with is a non-mathematical paraphrase of classical physics.
One thing Einstein dismantled was a single absolute grid for space and a single timeline that everything fit on. That was something Newton (and perhaps others—see the chapter “The Remarkable Masculine Birth of Time” in Science as Salvation, Mary Midgley) worked hard to establish. What people are not fond of saying today is that “It’s all relative” is something people might like to be backed by Einstein’s theory, but relativity is no more relativism than ‘lightning’ is ‘lightning bug’. In that sense the theory of relativity makes a far smaller difference than you might expect… Einstein if anything fine-tuned Newton’s timeline and grid and left behind something practically indistinguishable. But let’s look at Newton’s timeline and not look at almost equivalent replacements later physics has fine-tuned. All of space fits on a single absolute grid and all of time is to be understood in terms of its place on a timeline. This is physics shaping the rest of its culture. It’s also something many cultures do not share. I do not mean that the laws of physics only apply where people believe in them; setting aside miracles, a stove works as Newtonian physics says it should whether you worship Newton, defy him and disbelieve him whenever you can, or simply have never thought of physics in connection with your stove. I don’t mean that kind of “subjective reality”. That’s not what I’m saying. But the experience of space as “what fits on a grid”, so that a grid you cannot touch is a deeper reality than the things you see and touch every day, and the experience of time as “what fits on a timeline” is something that can be weaker or often nonexistent in other cultures. It’s not an essential to how humans automatically experience the world.
There is a medieval icon of two saints from different centuries meeting; this is not a strange thing to portray in a medieval context because much as space was not “what fills out a grid” but spaces (plural) which were more or less their own worlds, enclosed as our rooms are, time was not defined as “what clocks measure” even if people just began to use clocks.
Quick—what are the time and date? I would expect you to know the year immediately (or maybe misremember because the year has just changed), and quite possibly have a watch that keeps track of seconds.
Quick—what latitude and longitude you are at? If you didn’t or don’t know the Chicago area and read in a human interest news story that someone took an afternoon stroll from Homewood to Schaumburg, IL, would those two names make the statement seem strange?
What if you continued reading and found out that Homewood is at 41°34’46″N and 87°39’57″W and Schaumburg is at 42°01’39″N and 88°05’32W? Setting aside the quite significant fact that most of us don’t tell latitude and longitude when we see a place name, what would that say?
If you do the calculations, you see that saying someone walked from Homewood to Schaumburg and back in an afternoon is like a newspaper saying that the President was born in 671. Schaumburg and Homewood are both Chicago suburbs, but in almost opposite directions, and to the best of my knowledge no distance runner could run from Homewood to Schaumburg to Homewood in an afternoon—even in good traffic the drive would chew up more than a little bit of an afternoon.
Do you see the difference between how we approach and experience our position on the time-grid on the one-hand, and our latitudinal and longitudinal position on the other? Setting aside various questions about calendars, I would suggest that the way most of us neither know nor care what latitude and longitude we’re at, can give a glimpse into how a great many people neither know nor cared not only what a watch says but what century they’re in. (Quick—does your country include the “turn of the century” for degrees latitude or longitude?)
There are other things to say; I want to get into chronos or kairos, and some of the meaning of “You cannot kill time without injuring eternity.” (One facet, besides the wordplay, is that time is an image of not only eternity but the Eternal One.) There are several images of time, or names of time, that I wish to explore; none of them is perfect, but all of them say something. But first let me give the question I am trying to answer.
Before I say more about time in the sense of giving names to it, I would like to explain the question I am trying to answer, because it is perhaps idiosyncratically my own question, and one that may not be entirely obvious.
There is a book on college admissions essays that listed cliché student essays that almost immediately make an admissions reader’s eyes glaze over. Among these was The Travel Experience, which went something like this:
In my trip to ________, I discovered a different way of life that challenged many of my assumptions. It even challenged assumptions I didn’t know I had! Yet I discovered that their way of life is also valid and also human.
Note that this boiled down essay is ambiguous, not only about what region or what country, but for that matter what continent the writer has been to. And thus, however deep and interesting the experience itself may have been, the writeup is cliché and uninteresting.
This, in my opinion, is because the experience is deep in a way that is difficult to convey. If something funny happened yesterday on the way to the store, it is perfectly straightforward to explain what happened, but a deep cross-cultural counter is the sort of thing people grasp at words to convey. It’s like the deepest gratitude that doesn’t know how to express itself except by repeating the cliché, “Words cannot express my gratitude to you.”
I’m from the U.S. and have lived in Malaysia, France, and England (in that order). I was only in Malaysia for a couple of months, but I was baptized there, and I have fond memories of my time there—I understand why a lot of Westerners come to Malaysia and want to spend the rest of their lives there.
One thing I changed there was how quickly I walked. Before then, I walked at a swift clip. But walking that way comes across somewhere between strange and bothersome, and I had to learn to walk slowly—and that was the beginning of my encounter with time in Malaysia. In the cliché above, I learned that some things that were to me not just presuppositions but “just the way things were” were in fact not “just the way things were” but cultural assumptions and a cultural way of experiencing time, which could be experienced very differently.
Some of this is an “ex-pat” experience of time in Malaysia rather than a native Malaysian experience of Malaysian time (there are important differences between the two), but the best concise way I can describe it is that there are people in the U.S. who try and want to escape the “tyranny of the clock,” and the tyranny of the clock is frequently criticized in some circles, but in Malaysia there is much less tyranny of the clock—I was tempted to say the tyranny of the clock didn’t exist at all. People walk more slowly because walking is not something you rush through just to get it done, even if it’s important that you arrive where you’re walking to.
Every place I’ve lived I’ve taken something away. The biggest personal change I took from Malaysia had to do with time. That experience gave me something I personally would not have gained from hearing and even agreeing with complaints about the tyranny of the clock. The first domino started to topple in Malaysia, and the chain continued after I returned to the U.S.
What I tried to do on the outside was move more slowly and rebel against the clock, and on the inside to experience, or cultivate, a different time more slowly. (I was trying to be less time-bound, but interacted with time in ways I didn’t do before Malaysia.) I still tried (and still try) to meet people on time, but where I had freedom, the clock was as absent as I could make it. And it was essentially an internal experience, in a sort of classically postmodern fashion. I wore a watch, but changed its meaning. Augustine regarded there being something evil about our existence being rationed out to us, God having his whole existence in one “eternal moment”; I equated time with the tyranny of the clock and “what a clock measures”, and called timelessness a virtue. If we set aside the inconsistency between trying to “escape” time as not basically good and digging more and more deeply into time, you have something that was growing in me, with nuance, over the years since I’ve been in Malaysia.
That sets much of the stage for why I began to write this. In one sense, this is an answer to “What can time be besides what the tyranny of the clock says it is?” In another sense it is recognizing that I took something good from Malaysia, but didn’t quite hit the nail on the head: I regarded time as basically evil, something to neutralize and minimize even as I was in it, which I now repent of. That is an incorrect way of trying to articulate something good. I would like to both correct and build upon my earlier living-of-time, beginning with what might be called the flesh of the Incarnation.
The Flesh of the Incarnation
One time several friends and I were together, and one of them, who is quite strong but is silver-haired, talked about how he couldn’t put a finger on it, but he saw a sadness in the fact that the closest place for him to be buried that would satisfy certain Orthodox concerns was a couple of states over. I said that there were Nobel prizes for literature and economics, but there would never be a Nobel prize for scamming seniors out of their retirement. In that sense the Nobel prize is not just an honor for the negligible handful of physicists who receive that accolade, but every physicist. Perhaps there are a great many more honorable professions than there are Nobel prizes, but the Nobel prize doesn’t vacuously say that physics is a good thing but specifically recognizes one physicist at a time, and by implication honors those who share in the same labor.
I said that “God does not make any generic people,” and I clarified that in the Incarnation, Jesus was not a sort of “generic person” (“I went to the general store and they wouldn’t sell me anything specific!”) who sort of generically blessed the earth and in some generic fashion sympathized with those of us specific people who live in time. God has never made a specific person, and when Christ became incarnate, he became a specific man in a specific place at a specific time. As much as we are all specific people who live in a specific place at a specific time, he became a specific person who lived in a specific place at a specific time, and by doing that he honored every place and time.
“The flesh of the Incarnation,” in Orthodox understanding, is not and cannot be limited to what an atheist trying to be rigorous would consider the body of Christ. The Incarnation is a shock wave ever reaching out in different directions. One direction is that the Son of God became a Man that men might become the Sons of God. Another direction is that Christ the Savior of man or the Church can never be separated from Christ the Savior of the whole cosmos, and for people who are concerned with ecology, Christ’s shockwave cannot but say something profound from the Creation which we must care for. Sacraments and icons are part of this Transfigured matter, and the Transfiguration is a glimpse of what God is working not only for his human faithful but the entire universe he created to share in his glory.
To me at least, “the flesh of the Incarnation” is why, while the Catholic Church is willing to experiment with different philosophies and culture, because they are not part of the theological core, the Orthodox Church has preserved a far greater core of the patristic philosophy and culture. It is as if the Catholic Church, getting too much Augustine (or even worse, DesCartes), said “Spirit and matter are different things; so are theology and philosophy. We must keep the spirit of theology, but matter is separate and can be replaced.” An Orthodox reply might be “Spirit and matter are connected at the most intimate level; so are theology, philosophy and culture. We must keep the spirit of theology without separating it from the philosophy and culture which have been the flesh of the Incarnation from the Church’s origin.”
If Jesus was not a “generic person”, and I am not supposed to be a “generic person”, then the place in time he made for you is to be transfigured as the flesh of the Incarnation. What I mean by “the flesh of the Incarnation” is that Christ became Incarnate at a specific time and place, and by so doing he honored not only your flesh and mine—he is as much a son of Adam as you and me—but every time and place.
There is a major Orthodox exegesis which looks at the Gospels and says that when Pilate presented Christ to the crowd and said, “Idou ton anthropon.” (“Behold the man”, Jn 19.5), he was prophesying like Caiphas and (perhaps without knowing it) completing the Genesis story; when Christ on the cross said, “It is finished,” he announced that the work of Creation which was begun in Genesis had come to its conclusion—not, perhaps, the end of history, but the beginning of the fulness which Creation always needed but is only found at the cross. There are theologians today which answer the question “When did God create the earth?” by giving the date of the crucifixion: not that nothing existed before then, but then it was made complete. 25 March 28 AD is, in commercial terms, not the beginning of when prototypes began to be assembled and plans began to be made towards a product release, but the date that the finished product is released and thereafter available to the public. The Cross is the axis of the world, so that the Incarnation is not simply the central event in history but the defining event, not only in the time and place that we falsely consider remote which Jesus lived in, but your time and mine.
A Paradox: Historical Accuracy and Timelessness
I read a cultural commentary on the Bible cover to cover (IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, New Testament), and in one sense I’m glad I read it, but in another sense, I think I would have been better off reading the Bible cover to cover another time. Or, for that matter, creating computer software or pursuing some other interest outside of the Bible and theology.
Years earlier, I said I wished I could read a cultural commentary on the Bible, but reading it drove home a point in a Dorothy Sayers essay. The essay suggested that “period awareness”, our sharp sense of “That was then and this is now” that puts such a sharp break between the past and the present, is a product of the Enlightenment and something a great many periods do not share. When one reads the Canterbury Tales and asks what they thought about cultures, the answer is that though the stories begin in classical times there is no modern sense of “These people lived in another time so I need to try to be historically accurate and keep track of lots of historical context to take them seriously.”
What I have realized, partly in writing my first theology thesis in Biblical studies, was that a lot of cultural commentary is spiritually inert when it is not used as a tool to manipulate or neutralize the Bible for contradicting what’s in vogue today. Even when the sizeable “lobbyist” misuse of cultural context is ignored, there is a big difference between scholarly cultural and historical inquiry and a cultural sermon illustration—and it’s not that less scholarly pastors do a half-baked job of something “real” scholars do much better. Cultural sermon comments are selected from a vast body of knowledge specifically because they illuminate the text and therefore at least can enhance how the text speaks to us. “Serious”, “real” scholarship tends to bury the text’s meaning under a lot of details and result in the same kind of loss of meaning that would happen if someone asked what a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel meant and the answer was to explain try to explain everything about how the novel came to be, including how the author’s food was prepared, how the editing process was managed, and perhaps a few notes on how a Pulitzer Prize novel, after the award is received, is marketed differently from novels that haven’t received that award.
I would like to suggest that in this piece my opening historical illustration did not detail everything a “historical-critical” study would get bogged down in, and showed independence from the historical-critical version of what scholarly accuracy means precisely as it challenged a popular historical misunderstanding of alchemy.
How does this fit together? There are two things. First of all, I disagree with most scholarship’s center of gravity. “Historical-critical” scholarship, in a bad imitation of materially focused science, has a material center of gravity, and almost the whole of its rigor can be described in saying, “Look down as carefully as you can!” There is a painting which shows two philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. You can tell them apart because Plato is pointing up with one finger, and Aristotle is pointing down to material particulars with one finger. The problem with “historical-critical” scholarship in theology—and not only “historical-critical” scholarship—is that it asks Aristotle to do Plato’s work. It asks the details of history to provide theological meaning. (Which is a bit like using a microscope to view a landscape, only worse and having more kinds of problems.)
Dorothy Sayers points out that up until the Enlightenment, people producing Shakespeare plays made no more effort to have the actors dress like people did in Shakespeare’s days than Shakespeare himself felt the need to dress ancient characters in authentic Roman styles of clothing. Shakespeare’s plays were produced because they had something powerful that spoke to people, and people didn’t have this rigid historical dictate that said “If you will produce Shakespeare authentically, that means you go out of your way to acquire costumes nobody wears today.” In the Globe Theatre, people were dressed up like… well, people, whether that meant Rome or the “here and now”. And now theatre companies will be provocative or “creative” and change the setting in a Shakespeare play so that things look like some romanticization of the Wild West, or classy 20’s gangsters, or (yawn) contemporary to us, but if you exclude people who are being a bit provocative, the normal way of putting on Shakespeare is not by having people dress the way people normally dress, but by doing research and putting people in exotic clothing that clearly labels the characters as being From Another Time.
Shakespeare’s plays are produced today because they speak today, in other words because they are timeless. Being timeless doesn’t mean literally being unrelated to any specific historical context (“I went to the general store and they wouldn’t sell me anything specific!”). It means that something appears in a particular context and in that context expresses human-ness richly and fully enough that that human fingerprint speaks beyond the initial context. It means that there is a human bond that can bridge the gap of time as beautifully as two people having a friendship that simultaneously embraces and reaches beyond the differences of culture that exist between their nations. And it reflects a center of gravity that the important thing about Shakespeare is not that his English was hard to understand even hundreds of years ago, nor that people dressed a certain way that is different from any country today, but a human, spiritual center of gravity that not only speaks powerfully in the West centuries later but speaks powerfully outside the West. Shakespeare’s center of gravity is not in this or that detail, but in a human pulse.
Wind and Spirit
Let me look at something that appears to be unrelated.
|The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.||The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is every one who is born of the Wind.||The Spirit Spirits where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.|
I can count on my fingers the number of points where I would gripe about the best English translations (if a euphemistically mistranslated Song of Songs only counts as one gripe). You don’t need to study ancient languages to know the Bible well. But there are occasional points where a language issue cuts something out of the text.
One particularly Orthodox gripe about Western translations is that they use the word “Christ” for the Son of God and “anointed” to have a range of meanings and include kings priests, objects that were considered sacred, and the whole religious community (this latter in both Old and New Testament). This is not because of what is in the original language. People may hear—I heard—that Messiah or Christ means, “Anointed One”, but the English translations I know introduce a sharper distinction than the text supports, and really drains the realization of verses that show another side of the New Testament’s language of us being called to be sons or children of God. I remember the shock I had when I was reading the (Latin) Vulgate and David, refusing to call Saul, called him “christum Domini” (“the Lord’s christ,” but the Latin, like Hebrew and Greek before it, did not distinguish i.e. “Christum” from “christum”.) I John 2:20 in the RSV says, “But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all know.” That obscures a dimension to the text that legitimately could be replaced by a different part of speech and clarified, “But you have been made christs by the Holy One, and you all know.” (If you don’t like changing a part of speech, you could look at texts like Sometimes you get C.S. Lewis saying “Every Christian is to become a little christ. The whole purpose of being a Christian is simply nothing else. The Son of God became a man that men might become the Sons of God.” But something of the knowledge of who we are to be in Christ is crippled when translations split up XPICTOC or its Hebrew equivalent because they are afraid to let people see that not only is Christ the Son of God and the Christian son of God, but one who is in the Christ is a christ.
That is the translators’ fault. In the text cited above (Jn 3.8), from Jesus’ discussion of flesh and Spirit/spirit, the same word in Greek (ΠΝΕΥΜΑ) carries the meaning of “Spirit”, “spirit”, and “wind” in the broader passage. I was tempted to write that ΠΝΕΥΜΑ carries that range of meanings, but that’s a little more deceptive than I’m comfortable with. It would be more accurate to say that neither “spirit” and “wind”, nor “Spirit and spirit”, represented sharply distinguished categories. In a way Jesus is punning but in a way he is making an observation about spirit/wind that does not rest on the distinction.
Let me quote the RSV for the longer passage (Jn 3.1-12):
Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicode’mus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.”
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicode’mus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, `You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicode’mus said to him, “How can this be?”
Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
This is a rather big passage to try to unravel, but let me point out one thing. Jesus is dealing with a spiritual leader, and that leader’s question, “How can a man be born when he is old?” is probably not just a failure to recognize that Jesus was speaking figuratively (especially if “figuratively” means what it means today, i.e. “a consolation prize for something that is dismissed as not true, at least not literally”). Besides saying that Nicodemus might not be stupid, I might suggest that his failure to understand underscores that he was being told something that’s difficult to understand.
I’m almost tempted to write ΠNEYMA instead of spirit or Spirit because that forces a distinction that isn’t there at all in the Greek New Testament and often may not belong in good theology. With that noted, I’m going to write Spirit with the understanding that it is often not meant to be read as separated from spirit and often not distinguished.
A group of people misunderstood this and other Spirit/flesh texts to mean that we should live in the part of us that is spirit and the part of it that was flesh, and they made a number of theological errors, and unfortunately some Christians have since treated the Spirit/flesh texts as a “problem” that needs to be “handled” (and, one might infer, not quite something that was put in the Bible because it would help us). This reaction makes it harder to understand some passages that say something valuable.
We are to become all Spirit. This does not, as those Gnostics believed, mean that our bodies are evil, or that any part of God’s Creation is created evil. To become Spirit is to begin to live the life of Heaven here on earth. That doesn’t mean that what is not-God in our lives now is eliminated; it means that our whole lives are to become divine. It means that the whole cosmos has been in need of salvation, and Christ comes as Savior to his whole Creation and his whole Creation is to be drawn into him and made divine. If you buy a gift for a friend, let us say a watch, and delight in giving it, that watch is no longer merely a possession you can horde, not just something a machine spat out. It is part of your friendship with that friend and it has been drawn from the store aisle into that friendship. To use an ancient metaphor, it has been drawn into the body under the head of friendship. (And now it means something a factory could never put into it.) If you have begun to believe that things don’t boil down to a materialist’s bottom line, the watch has become more real. In the same sense, not just our “souls” or “spirits” misunderstood as opposite to our bodies, but all of us and all of our lives are to become Spirit, or in the more usual Orthodox terminology become deified or divinized.
To say that the here and now that God has placed us in is “the flesh of the Incarnation” is not intended as some kind of opposite to Spirit. That fleshis spiritual; it is the whole Creation as it becomes Spirit and as it has become Spirit.
That much is generic; it is legitimate to say about time, because it is legitimate to say about almost anything. I would now like to turn and say something more specific about time.
I don’t like to put things in terms of “synchronicity.” For those of you not familiar with synchronicity, it’s an idea that there is more to causality and time than isolated particles moving along a linear timeline, which is well and good, but this is a body missing its head, the Spirit. It’s kind of a strange way of being spiritual while not being fully connected to Spirit.
“That which is born of flesh is flesh; that which is born of Spirit is Spirit. The Spirit Spirits where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”
To live in the Spirit, and to become Spirit, is for one and the same reason the proper footing for synchronicity, synchronicity done right, and moving beyond “subjective time.” Let me talk about subjective time before talking more about synchronicity.
Subjective time is what some people have observed when people have realized that a watch is a poor indicator of how we experience time. Time flies; it can drag; but whatever watches can do, they don’t tell how fast it seems like time is moving. In other words, subjective time at least is not what a watch measures. Now this is good as an answer to the question “What can we call time besides ‘what a watch measures’?” but doesn’t go far enough. Subjective time is the subjective time of a “me, myself, and I”. It is the time of an atom, that cannot be divided further. And that limits it.
Time in the Spirit is an orchestrated, community dance. Not that the specific person is annihilated, but the specific person is transfigured. And that means that what is merely part of the private inner world of a “me, myself, and I” is in fact something vibrant in a community. Liturgical time, which I will talk about later, is one instrument of this sharing. But it is not the only one. God is the Great Choreographer, and when his Spirit orders the dance, it is everything in synchronicity and everything in subjective time and more. What was eerie, a strange occult thing people try to mine out in Jungian synchronicity becomes a pile of gold out in the open. If Jungian synchronicity is a series of opportunities to shrewdly steal food, the Dance is an invitation to join the banquet table.
Dance, then, wherever you may be, for I am the Lord of the Dance, said he. (Old Shaker hymn)
Immortalists and Transhumanists
I was reading a novel by one of my favorite authors in which some troubled characters constantly waxed eloquent about a movement, the “Immortalists”, which struck me as rather far-fetched, too preposterous a motivation for literature… until I found a group very much like them, the Transhumanist movement, on the web.
The idea of Transhumanism is that we have lived in biological bodies so far, but we are on the cusp of making progress, and “progress” is improving on the human race so that we humans (or transitional humans—”Transhumanism” abbreviates “transitional-human-ism”, and transhumanists consider themselves transhuman) can be replaced by some “posthuman” (this is supposed to be a good thing) creatures of our own devising which are always as high as if they were on crack (or higher), can run and jump like superheroes, and in general represent the fulfillment of a certain class of fantasies. (It’s like disturbing science fiction, only they’re dead serious about replacing the human race with something they consider better.) It’s the only time reading philosophy on the web has moved me to nausea, and that broad nexus of spiritual forces is something I tried to lampoon in Yonder.
Setting that obscure movement aside, it seems a lot like the progress of technology has been to achieve watered-down transhumanist goals while we live in the bodies God gave us. I read an interesting article describing how before electric lights even though there were candles most of society seemed to shut down at sundown. Now people tend to kind of sleep when it’s dark and kind of sleep when it’s light, but we have made ourselves independent of something most humans in history (let alone before history) were tightly attuned to. I can also buy pills to take to subdue pain, or slightly misuse my body and not feel as much of the natural pain. If I don’t care either about my health or breaking laws that are there for our good, there are illicit pills that could make me colossally strong: I’m moderately strong now but I could become stronger than most professional athletes. As a member of my society I have space-conquering tools—a telling name—which mean that I can move around the world and I can email and talk with people without knowing and perhaps without caring if they are next door or a thousand miles away. I can also take other pills when I get much older and defeat the normal limits age puts on lust. There are a lot of limits humans have lived with time out of mind, but we’ve discovered how to push them aside.
I heard of a dialogue where one person said, “I don’t have enough time,” and received the answer, “You have all the time there is.” In many cultures people experience time more as something that surrounds them but they’re not terribly aware of, like the air they breathe, than a sort of scant commodity one cannot have enough of. And that is a clue to something.
However much we’ve figured out mini-transhumanist ways to push back limitations, the limitation of “all the time there is” is one we can’t eliminate. We can fudge a bit with coffee or buy into some time management system, but there is a specific significance to time in our culture that wouldn’t be there in other cultures where people rise at sunrise and go to sleep at sunset. Compared to how much we can neutralize other limitations, the limitation of “all the time there is” is a limitation that resists most neutralization.
That sounds terrible, but I would draw your attention to what Transhumanism is really after. I heard one professor refer to a centuries-old Utopian vision of turning the sea into lemonade (among other things) as “une Utopie des enfants gaspillés” (“a Utopia of spoiled children”). The Transhumanist vision, which has already happened in miniature, is the ability to pursue “bigger better faster more” of what spoiled children want. What it is not is a way to grow into what a mature adult wants.
I’m not saying we should get rid of medicine, or anything like that. Medical knowledge has done some impressive things. But I would pointedly suggest that the kind of things technological advances give us give us much more what spoiled children want than what a mature adult would recognize as an aid to maturity. There are exceptions, and I would not argue any sort of straight Luddite position: I try to moderate my use of technology like I try to moderate a lot of other good things, but I am very glad for the opportunity to live in an age where webpages are possible, and to have gotten in at a good time. But the “all the time there is” limitation is in fact the kind of boundary that helps mature adults grow more mature, and if we are willing to take it there is an occasion for maturity because we can’t take a pill to have all the time we want.
From the Fifth Gospel to Liturgical Time
The Gospel According to Thomas isn’t the Fifth Gospel. (At least, in ancient times when Christians said “the Fifth Gospel” they didn’t mean the Gospel According to Thomas. No comments from the peanut gallery about the Gospel According to Thomas being the Fifth Bird Cage Liner.)
If a couple of people meet, become acquainted, become friends, start dating, become engaged, and get married, when does the marriage begin? In one sense, the wedding is a formal threshold: before then they aren’t married, afterwards they are. But in another sense the engagement becomes part of the marriage, as does the courtship, the friendship, the acquaintance, even the first meeting and possibly things in their lives that they would say prepared them for the meeting. The marriage moves forward from the wedding date but it also reaches backwards and creates something in the past. What may have been an improbable or forgettable first meeting is drawn into the marriage; the same thing is going on as with the watch which becomes not simply matter but part of a friendship.
John Behr has provocatively suggested that the worst thing that has happened to Christianity in the past 2000 years has been the canonization of the New Testament so it is placed as Scripture alongside the Old Testament, and becomes the second and final volume in a series. What he means by that may not be obvious.
The relationship between the Old and New Testament is misunderstood somewhat if the New Testament is simply the final chapter of the Old Testament. It would be better, if still imperfect, to say that the New Testament is Cliff’s Notes on the Old Testament, or the Old Testament was a rich computer game and the New Testament was the strategy guide that we need to unlock it’s secrets. It is no accident that the first people we know of to put the New Testament alongside the Old Testament, and make commentaries on both Testaments, were Gnostics who tried to unlock the New Testament when orthodox Christians let the New Testament unlock the Old.
Quick—which Christ-centered Gospel did Handel use in the Messiah to tell of the Messiah or Christ? The answer is the Fifth Gospel: Isaiah. The passages cited in the Messiah are not a few prophetic exceptions to a non-Christ-related Old Testament; they are part of the Old Testament unlocked, and that same reading is how the earliest Christians read the Old Testament Scriptures.
Now it was Mary Mag’dalene and Jo-an’na and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told this to the apostles; but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.
That very day two of them were going to a village named Emma’us, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.
While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them.
But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
And he said to them, “What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad.
Then one of them, named Cle’opas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.”
And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”
And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, but they constrained him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them.
When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.
They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?”
There’s a lot going on here; I’m not going to address why Mary Magdalene was known as the Apostle to the Apostles, but I would suggest that instead of saying today what a feminist would be tempted to say, that the men were sexist and wouldn’t believe a woman when she bore the glad tidings, there was a veil over their minds, much like Paul describes in II Cor 3. If a woman’s witness did not suffice, Jesus standing with them in person and talking with them still had no effect until the very end. And there is something going on here with a number of resonances in our lives. They couldn’t see Christ in the Scriptures (which were then the Old Testament, because the Gospels and Epistles had never been written), and they couldn’t see Christ appearing before them, even literally. And that is not because they are imperceptive and we are perceptive. The story is a crystallization of how we often meet Christ.
What is the point of all this? The most immediate reason is not to say that the Bible is 80% documents produced by Judaism before Christianity came around and 20% Christian documents, but transformed, transmuted if you will, into 100% Christian documents. When the book of Psalms opens with, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the council of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of cynics,” that refers first and foremost to Christ. I myself have not gotten very far in this way of reading the Scriptures, but I hope to, and I believe it will pay rich dividends.
And there is something going on here that is going on in when a marriage reaches backwards, or a watch becomes part of a friendship. It is connected with what is called “recapitulation”, which I think is an unfortunate technical theological term because the metaphor comes across as in “Ok, let me try and recap what we’ve said so far,” which is a wishy-washy metaphor for something deep. Orthodox talk about deification, and for us to be deified is a specific example of recapitulation in Christ. Recapitulation means “re-heading”, and while in a sense very consistent with how recapitulation works, I’ve somewhat indistinguishably talked about how we can be Recapitulated or Re-headed in Christ, becoming body to his head and connected in the most intimate way, thereby becoming Christ (i.e. Recapitulation with a big ‘R’), and how something can become part of the body of something that can itself be recapitulated in Christ (recapitulation with only a little ‘R’). Perhaps that sentence should be dragged out into the street and shot, but when I talked about the gift of a watch becoming part of a friendship, the head of its reheading is something created, but both the watch and the friendship can be Recapitulated in Christ with the re-heading of the watch to be part of the friendship is itself part of what is Recapitulated in Christ, i.e. which is not merely brought under a head but connected to Christ as its head.
Let’s move on to clearer language and a clearer example—one that has to do with our time. The head of the whole body of time we live is our time in worship, liturgical time. This both that there is a liturgical rhythm of day, week, and year, with different practices that help us connect with the different liturgical rhythms (by the way, the first major piece of advice my spiritual father gave me was to take 5-10 years to step into the liturgical rhythm), but that’s not all. It means that our time in worshsip, which is not just time in a funnily decorated room with our particular club, sets the pace for life. It means that what is crystallized and visible in worship is perhaps hidden but if anything more powerfully manifest in a whole life of worship. It means that not just going to Church but working and playing are themselves worship, and they fulfill worship. It means, and I write this on the Sunday of the Last Judgment, that our worship is hollow and empty when we sing hymns to God on Sunday and then turn away in icy silence when someone asks our help—for it is not that someone we have icily turned away from, but Christ (see Matt 25:31-46). In the discourse at the Last Supper, Christ did not say that all would “know you are my disciples by this, that you have the most beautiful services,” but that all would “know you are my disciples by this, that you love one another.” (Jn 13.35) That is something that happens outside of Church first and foremost. Liturgical time is the basis for time in our lives.
Liturgical time is (or at least should be) the head of time in a life of worship (if “head” is used in the sense of “recapitulation” or “re-heading”), but it is not its own head. The head of time in worship is eternity in Heaven, and that means that just as life is the concrete manifestation of worship, in time but in other matters as well, but liturgical time is not people gathered in a room for an interval but people transported to Heaven in what is not exactly a time machine, or not merely a time machine, but an “eternity machine”. The head of eternity in Heaven is the Eternal One whose glory shines through Heaven on earth.
What does this concretely mean for our experience of time? It means much the same as whether the material world was created good by God or evil by someone lesser. Pains and physical pleasures, to give a superficial example, will be there whether we believe the material world is good or evil. But it makes a difference whether you believe the sweetness of honey is a touch of love from God or a hatefully baited barb from Satan. Now part of really coming alive is being more than pleasure and pain and letting go of pleasures that they may be recapitulated or re-headed and drawn into what is Spirit. But even then, the Christian ascetic who lets go of a good is very different from a Gnostic ascetic who hatefully rejects it as evil. Pleasures and even pains, and joys and sorrows, are fuller depending on their basis.
Augustine has been accused of inadequate conversion—maybe he became Christian, but he continued being too much of a Manichee. I am sympathetic to that view, and it makes good sense of Augustine’s sense that there is something violent to us about being in time, with our being stingily rationed out to us, infinitesimal bit by bit (some have said the present “barely exists” because it is an instantaneous boundary where the future rushes into the past without stopping to rest), while God has its being all at once. I was sympathetic to that view until not long ago; I thought of time as an evil thing we endure to get to the good of eternity—which is the wrong way of putting it.
Time is a moving image of eternity and is recapitulated in Christ. We miss something fundamental if we simply say that it is less than eternity; it participates in the glory. Furthermore, there is a case to be made that we misunderstand eternity if it is “frozen time” to us, if it is an instant in time which is prolonged, or even worse, is deprived of a moving timeline. Whatever eternity is, that can’t be it. That is something fundamentally less than the time in which we grow and learn and breathe. Eternal life, which begins in this world, is God’s own life, greater than created being but something that projects its glory into time. I once asked a friend if the difference between Maximus Confessor and Plato on Ideas was that for Plato there was one Idea that covered a bunch of material shadows (what we would think of as “real”, but the Ideas were more real), and he waved that aside without really contradicting me. He said that the Ideas, or ΛΟΓΟΙ (logoi), were static in Plato but dynamic in Maximus Confessor.Logoi are ideas loved in the heart of God from all eternity, and you and I only exist because we each have a logos in the heart of God which is what we are trying to become. And I don’t know how to reconcile what I know of dynamism with being outside of time, but eternity is not the deprivation of time, but something more time-like than time itself. Time becomes eternal when it is recapitulated in Christ.
Kairos and Chronos
Bishop K.T. Ware began one lecture/tape by saying that at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, there is a line that is very easy to overlook: the deacon tells the bishop or his deputy the priest, “It’s time to get started.” Except that he doesn’t say, “It’s time to get started,” but “It is time for the Lord to act.”
He pointed out both that the liturgy is the Lord’s work, even if both priest and faithful must participate for it to be valid (he said that the pop etymology of liturgy as “lit-urgy”, “the people’s work”, may be bad etymology but it’s good theology). But another point tightly tied to it is the exact Greek word that is translated “time.”
There are two words that are both translated time, but their meanings are very different. Translating them both as time is like translating both genuine concern and hypocritical flattery as “politeness” because you are translating into a language that doesn’t show the distinction. Perhaps the translators are not to be blamed, but there is something important going on in the original text that is flattened out in English. And when the deacon says “It’s time to get started,” it does not mean “My watch says 9:00 and that’s when people expect us to start,” but “This is the decisive moment.” In the Gospels, when Jesus’ own brothers and sisters failed to grasp who he was just as completely as the disciples on the road to Emmaus, he tells them, “My kairos has not yet come, but your kairos is always here.” (Jn 7.6).
Orthodox do not have any kind of monopoly on this distinction, but we do have a distinction between what is called “chronos” and what is called “kairos.” Chronos is ordinary if we take a harsh meaning to the word, instead of “everything is as it should be”. Chronos at its worst is watching the clock while drudgery goes on and on. If chronos is meaningless time, kairos is meaningful time, dancing the Great Dance at a decisive moment. It is putting the case too strongly to say that the West is all about chronos and Eastern Christianity is all about kairos, but I do not believe it is putting the case too strongly to say that East and West place chronos and kairos differently, and kairos is less the air people breathe in the West than it should be.
I don’t think that chronos needs as much explanation in the West; chronos is what a clock measures; the highbrow word for a stopwatch is “chronometer” and not “kairometer”. The distinction between kairos and chronos is somewhat like the distinction between I-Thou and I-It relationship. But let me give “ingredients” to kairos, as if it were something cooked up in a recipe.
- Appointed time.
- Rhythmic circular time with interlocking wheels.
- Linear unfolding time.
- Moments when you are absorbed in what you are doing.
- Decisive moments when something is possible that was impossible a moment before and will be impossible a moment later.
- Dancing the serendipitous Great Dance.
- Total presence.
But kairos is not something cooked up in a recipe; chronos may be achievable that way, but kairos is a graced gift of God.
We Might All Be Alcoholics
A recovering alcoholic will tell you that alcoholism is Hell on earth. He would say that it is the worst suffering on earth, or that it is the kind of thing you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.
And the point that healing and restoration begins is exquisitely painful. An alcoholic has a massive screen of denial that defeats reasoning. The only semi-effective way to defeat that denial is by a massive dose of even more painful reality that can break down that screen, some of the time. (An intervention.)
If alcoholism is Hell, why don’t alcoholics step out of it? Some people in much less pain find out what they need to do to stop the pain and leave. They take off a pair of shoes that is too tight, or ask for an ambulance to treat their broken arm (and I believe someone who’s been through both experiences would say that alcoholism is a much deeper kind of pain than a broken arm).
Surely alcoholics must have a sense that something is wrong—and that’s what they’re trying to evade. That’s what half an alcoholic’s energy goes into evading, because stopping and saying “I’m an alcoholic.” is the greatest terror an alcoholic can jump into. It may be a greater fear than the fear of death—or it is the fear of the death, a step into where nothing is guaranteed.
And that is where to become Orthodox might as well be recognizing you are an alcoholic. Not, perhaps, that every Orthodox has a problem with alcohol, but we all have a problem, a spiritual disease called sin that is not a crime, but is infinitely worse than mere criminality. And the experience an alcoholic says saying, “My name’s Ashley, and I’m an alcoholic,” for the first time, is foundational to Orthodox religion. “Here is trustworthy saying that deserves acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first.”
There is a book, I have been told, among alcoholics called Not-God, because part of dealing with the cancer of alcoholism, as difficult as recognizing a terrible problem with alcohol, is recognizing that you have been trying to be God and not only are you not God, but your playing God has caused almost untold troubles.
Repentance is the most terrifying experience an Orthodox or an alcoholic can experience because when God really confronts you, he doesn’t just say “Give me a little bit.” He says, “Give me everything,” and demands an unconditional surrender that you write a blank check. This is as terrifying as the fear of death—or perhaps it is the fear of death, because everything we are holding dear, and especially the one thing we hold most dear, must be absolutely surrendered to—the Great Physician never tells us what, because then it would not be the surrender we need. We are simply told, “Write a blank check to me. Now.”
How does this square with becoming a little Christ?
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The two paragraphs, as I have broken up Phil 2:1-11 (RSV), are complementary. What the last paragraph says is that the equal Son of God emptied himself and kept on emptying himself further and suffering further until there is nothing left to give. And this is not a sinner, a mere creature, but the spotless and sinless Son of God showing what it means to be divine. It is not in Heaven that Christ shows the full force of divinity, but by emptying himself, willingly, to death on a cross and a descent into the realm of the dead. That is the moment when death itself began to work backwards—and humbling and emptying ourselves before God is the sigil of being exalted and filled with God’s goodness. But the other side of the coin is that if we think we can become divine, or even be human, while not being emptied, we are asking to be above Christ and expecting to have something that is utterly incoherent.
When we recognize that we are not God, then we become christs. When we empty ourselves, and let go of that one thing we are most afraid of giving to God, then we discover, along with the recovering alcoholic, that what we were most afraid to give up was a piece of Hell. We discover, with the alcoholic, that what we were fighting God about, and offering him consolation prizes in place of, was not something God needed, but something we needed to be freed from.
This emptying, this blank check and unconditional surrender, is what makes divinization possible. I was tempted in writing this to say that it is the ultimate kairos, but that’s exaggerating: the ultimate kairos is the Eucharist, but if we refuse this kairos, we befoul what we could experience in the Eucharist. If we are talking about a decisive moment that is not our saying “I want to make myself holier” so much as us hearing God say “You need to listen to me NOW,” then however painful it may be it is a step into kairos and a step further into kairos. And only after the surrender do we discover that what we were fighting against was an opportunity to step one step further into Heaven.
Repentance is appointed time. Repentance is the decisive moment, one we enter into again. Repentance is simultaneously death and transfiguration, the death that is transfiguration and the transfiguration that recapitulates death. Repentance is eternity breaking into time. Repentance is one eternal moment, and the moment we cycle back to, and the steps of climbing into Heaven. Repentance is being pulled out of the mud and painfully scrubbed clean. Repentance is fighting your way into the Great Peace. Repentance is the moment when we step out of unreality and unreal time into reality and the deepest time. Repentance is not the only moment in kairos, but it is among the most powerful and the most deeply transforming, decisive moments that appointed kairos has to offer.
I do not have time to write, and perhaps you do not have time to read, separate sections about some things I will briefly summarize:
- Life neither begins at 18 nor ends at 30. Every age is to be part of a kaleidoscope. Contrary to popular opinion in America, not only is it not a sin to grow old, but each age has its own beauty, like the seasons in turn and like the colors in a kaleidoscope. And that is why I do not guiltily talk about having “hit 30” any more than I would guiltily talk about having “hit 18” or “hit 5”, because in the end feeling guilty about approaching a ripe age is as strange as feeling guilty about being born: not that there is anything wrong with being a child in the womb, but the purpose of that special age is not to remain perennially in the womb but to grow in maturity and stature until our life is complete and God, who has numbered the hairs on our heads and without whom not even a sparrow can die, come to the thing we fear in age and discover that this, “death”, is not the end of a Christian’s life but the portal to the fulness of Heaven where we will see in full what we can now merely glimpse.
- When we reach Heaven or Hell, they will have reached back so completely that our whole lives will have been the beginning of Heaven or the beginning of Hell.
- People make a dichotomy between linear and cyclical time. The two can be combined in spiral (or maybe helical) time, and the movement of time forwards in growth combined with the liturgical cycles makes a rhythmic but never-repeating helix or spiral. (If that is embedded in what Maximus Confessor said about linear, circular, and spiral motion.)
- One step away from saying that time is a line is saying that time is a pole on which a living vine grows, making a richer kind of connection than a materialist would see. That is a little bit of why we are contemporaries of Christ.
The Horn of Joy
…Sandy called after [Meg], “And also in 1865 Rudyard Kipling was born, and Verlaine wrote Poèmes saturniens, and John Stuart Mill wrote Auguste Comte and Positivism, and Purdue, Cornell, and the universities of Maine were founded.”
She waved back at him, then paused as he continued, “And Matthew Maddox’s first novel, Once More United, was published.”
She turned back, asking in a carefully controlled voice, “Maddox? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that author.”
“You stuck to math in school.”
“Yeah, Calvin always helped me with my English papers. Did this Matthew Maddox write anything else?”
Sandy flipped through the pages. “Let’s see. Nothing in 1866, 1867. 1868, here we are, The Horn of Joy.”
“Oh, that,” Dennys said. “I remember him now. I had to take a lit course my sophomore year in college, and I took nineteenth-century American literature. We read that, Matthew Maddox’s second and last book, The Horn of Joy. My prof said if he hadn’t died he’d have been right up there with Hawthorne and James. It was a strange book, passionately anti-war, I remember, and it went way back into the past, and there was some weird theory of the future influencing the past—not my kind of book at all.” (Madeleine l’Engle, A Swiftly Tilting Planet.)
Madeleine l’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet immediately follows my favorite children’s book, A Wind in the Door. I wished I could visit Patagonia, and tried to find a book she mentions in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art as seminal to the Welsh legend in A Swiftly Tilting Planet. I also looked for The Horn of Joy and was disappointed, if not necessarily surprised, to learn that this was the one fictional addition to an otherwise historical list.
It would be not only strange but presumptuous to suggest that this piece I am writing is what she was referring to. Perhaps it is presumptuous to use that title, although it may seem less presumptuous if one understands how special and even formative Madeleine l’Engle’s work has been to me. But what does not seem strange to suggest is that this work may affect the meaning of A Swiftly Tilting Planet. That would only be determined by other people’s judgment and is not my call to make, but I don’t think Madeleine l’Engle would be offended if someone said that this enhanced the value of her work, or added another layer to what she said about time. Her own words not only in that work but in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art about how a work can be enhanced by future insights would suggest the possible. It is quite possible that my work is not good enough or not relevant enough to serve as such a key, but the suggestion is not that strange to make.
But let us move on to one closing remark.
Extraordinary and Utterly Ordinary
The Enlightenment has left us with a lot of wreckage, and one of this is great difficulty seeing what causality could be besides “one domino mechanically toppling others.”
Aristotle listed four causes: the material cause, formal cause, efficient cause, and final cause. The material and formal cause are interesting to me as something the Enlightenment would not think to include in causality: Aristotle’s Physics portrays the bronze in a statue as a material cause to the statue. If we listen to the hint, this could suggest that causality for Aristotle is something besides just dominoes falling. He does deal with mechanical, domino-like causation when he describes the efficient cause, but I remember being taken with the “final cause”, the goal something is progressing towards, because I thought it was domino causation that had the effect before the cause.
The best response I can give now to what I believed then was, “Um, kind of.” Aristotle’s four causes address a broader and more human kind of causation that looks at questions like why something happened and not just how it was produced. It is in fact an utterly ordinary way of looking at things. It’s not the only serious way of describing causality (my favorite physics teacher said in class, “If Aristotle said it, it was wrong,” and I think he was right about much more than physics), but it’s one kind of richer view. And if you think it’s something exotic, you misunderstand it. It is an utterly ordinary, even commonsense way of looking at why things happen.
And an Aristotle’s-four-causes kind of time is better than an Enlightenment-domino-causation kind of time, for a number of reasons. The best essay about time, which I cannot write, would encompass the better parts of what I have said above while remaining “normal” even when it underscored something extraordinary. Or at least would do better at that than I have.
Orthodoxy is not something absolutely unique; I have said things here which I hope resonate with some sense of home whether or not you are Orthodox. When I moved from being an Evangelical to becoming Orthodox, I did not move from absolute error into absolute truth but from something partial to its full expression. (And there are other clarifications I haven’t made, like how much of this essay is owed to Irenaeus and to John Behr helping Irenaeus come alive.) But let me close.
In Orthodoxy, here and now, there is an ordinary way to do what alchemy aimed at: be transfigured in a transfiguration that embraces the material world—and, as we have seen, time. Time is to be transmuted, or rather transfigured, until it becomes eternity.
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- All life is empty, meaningless suffering.
- The origin of suffering is desire.
- The way to eliminate suffering is to eliminate desire.
- The way to eliminate desire is through the eightfold noble path.
The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.
The Ten Commandments
I was going to title this piece “On Covetousness” and there is much to say there, but on further reflection this piece is a piece about desire.
To start with, I would like to look briefly at Buddhism. I do not wish to advocate syncretism or carelessness about differences, but the combination of similarity and difference between Orthodox Christianity and some of Buddhism is instructive. Now to be clear, when I took a course in Asian philosophy, the Buddhist doctrine of anatta was the one I met with clear recoil and not with any sympathy: for those of you who do not know the term, it immediately means that there is nothing divine inside of us, and ultimately means that the heart of reality is not a heart of reality at all, but nothingness: life is like an onion, where you peel off layer after layer and find that there is nothing inside. And for that matter, the Orthodox understanding of demons may be a nobler matter than what Buddhism makes of mankind.
But for all of this there are real points of contact between Orthodoxy and Buddhism. There is a profound contact between the silence in Orthodox hesychasm and the silence of Buddhist meditation. What Orthodox say about the Western overgrowth of the logical mind is well enough to be found in Buddhism as well. That much may be worth exploring, but it is not my concern here.
What is my concern here is the point of desire. Nine out of the Ten Commandments dictate what outward actions are required or forbidden; the last commandment in Exodus does not mention any act at all, but only covetousness, a desire, an inner state, a disposition. And the list of things we are forbidden to covet barely scratches the surface of what we covet today. St. Job says, “I made a covenant with mine eyes? Why then should I think upon a maid?” (31:1), and lust is forbidden, at very least by implication. But the other enumerations of covetousness, one’s neighbor’s house, manservant, maidservant, ox, ass, or any possession is just the beginning of the list, or at least it is today.
What else do we covet? One acquaintance talked about a Western visitor who was with a group of pastors, out on motorcycles in very rural Africa, and the visitor did not know their language, but there seemed to be one term they were using quite a lot. Finally one of them cued in to what it was they kept talking about, and it was, “the pill, the pill” which is what they were calling Viagra. I have not heard him talk about anything sexual on any other occasion (though I admit a brief acquaintance), and he talked about how Iraqui workers said that the condition they required to work with U.S. troops was Viagra, which the troops dealt with by crushing up Smarties and giving it to them as Viagra.
Years before our spam filters swelled with offers of Viagra, some observers of social culture said that it used to be that our ancestors were concerned that their desires were too strong; now we seem rather to be concerned that our desires are too weak. And “certified male urologists” handing out Viagra like candy lands us squarely in the kind of desire where orthodox Buddhism has the most to tell us.
Buddhism does not offer help fulfilling desires; it offers help in eliminating desire. And is not just Buddhists but Church Fathers who see a tie between pleasure and pain, a link between desire and disappointment. If there is suffering caused by desiring more than you possess, then seeking to acquire what you desire is not the only strategy, not the only game in town. You can also subtract from the sum of your desires.
Buddhism’s picture of suffering is wrong as its picture of anatta and emptiness is wrong: it portrays a suffering that is empty and futile, like the Roman doctrine of Hell instead of Purgatory. And while the Orthodox Church does not believe that people die and go to Purgatory before entering Heaven, there is a great case that people go through some purifying suffering like Purgatory before they die. Purgatory, called “Heaven’s bathroom” by some, is a place of cleansing and purifying suffering and it is a full suffering with Heaven inside. And the nature of suffering in the service of God is precisely opposite the nature of suffering of Buddhism.
There is much else that one can covet besides the original list, and not only Viagra. We can covet honors; we can covet a romance that will banish all unhappiness just as we can imagine; we can covet imagined worlds of science fiction and fantasy; we can covet the pleasures of movie and video game, iPhone and Xbox. Our possibilities for pleasure, and the idea that such entanglement with pleasure is the norm, are as much stronger now than in the days of the Bible as 151 (rum at 75.5% alcohol) is stronger than the 4% lacto-fermented wine that pagan Greeks recoiled from drinking undiluted. It is a provocative statement now to tell the Resident of SecondLife: “Fornicate using your own genitals!”
But the solution represents one final departure from Buddhism. Buddhism sees no way to sweep away selfishness but to extinguish the self and extinguish desire. Orthodoxy transfigures desire and attaches it to its proper end, God. Pascal, heretic perhaps, lives only centuries away from us; he lived near the occult genesis of modern science, and he has a more encompassing view of what we may drink spiritual poison of covetousness besides our neighbor’s property:
All men seek to be happy. This is without exception, whatever the different means that they employ, they all go to this end. This makes some go to war, and others do not go, and it is the same desire, which is in both of them, accompanied by different means. The will never makes the slightest deviation but to pursue this goal. This is the motive of all actions of all men, even to the point of those who go to hang themselves.
This is the motive of all the actions of all men even including those who go to hang themselves. And despite this after such a long number of years, no one ever, without faith, has reached the point that all continually have their sights on. All complain: princes, subjects, nobles, commoners, old, young, weak, strong, educated, ignorant, healthy, sick in all countries, of all time, of all ages, in all conditions.
A test that is so long, so continually kept and so uniform should convince ourselves of our powerlessness to reach goodness by our efforts. But the example instructs us little. It is never so perfectly believable that there is some delicate difference and it’s there that we expect that our expectation will not fail on this occasion unlike the others, and the present never satisfies us ever, experience goads us, and from sadness to sadness brings us to death which is an eternal pit.
What then do this avidity and this powerlessness cry out to us,except that there was once in man a true happiness, of which there no longer remains to him anything but the empty mark and trace which he futilely tries to fill with all that is around him, seeking in things absent the salvation which he does not obtain from things present, but which are all incapable because this infinite void cannot be filled except by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, by God himself?
Pensées, VII: Morality and Doctrins, 415 [ 377]
There was contact between the East and West well before the twentieth century; Pascal’s contemporary Leibniz owned a copy of the I Chingbrought by Jesuit missionaries. However, Pascal shows a singular innocence of Buddhism. And at a time when Reformers tried to recruit Orthodox, Christian West and East also had contact. However, Pascal, who evinces little if any serious contact with Orthodox hesychasm, no less has his finger on the solution.
His statement is sweeping, too much on a literal count, but this bespeaks more his experience than rhetorical exaggeration: it is a crude reading that says Pascal speaks of those who hang themselves but did not really mean his observation would apply to Buddhists. In the realm of Pascal’s experience, he saw a uniform law, where men did not obtain relief from suffering no matter how much they chased their desires, but he saw the solution: not that desire or pursuit is to be eliminated, but that they are to be fixed to their proper object, their proper end: an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, by God himself.
We think of Pascal as coming from another world. Yet I assert that historians may treat him as a close contemporary of ours; his list of things pursued in covetousness comes much closer to the traps set for us today than the list provided in the ten commandments, which lists six things in particular, seem almost like six pebbles on a beach compared to what we are enticed to covet, and chase in vain.
Not, perhaps, that we may never reach them. It can happen that we do. But something we covet brings us brief pleasure and then an even greater sadness; covetousness and desire feed our pleasure-pain syndrome, and covetousness that reaches its desire finds sorrow close on its heels. There is a common enough saying, courtesy of George Bernard Shaw, “There are two great tragedies in life. One is not to get one’s desire. The other is to get it.” This is true of anything one covets. But not of desiring God, who is the right and proper goal of desire.
Humor was once very important to me; I had, at least, a subtle sense of humor and several submissions to the highly moderated newsgroup rec.humor.funny. But in one reading of the Philokalia, I saw that they, like St. John Climacus in the Ladder, viewed humor as not at all innocent. It wasn’t just that some jokes are dirty; it is that humor, like covetousness, is not as good as it looks on the outside. And since the time that I wroteOn humor, something has shifted and I have in large measure lost my taste for humor, and am more, not less, happy for it. There is something in humor that is like a scream and is not joyful, and there is something inside covetousness that says, not really “I will be happy if I have this,” but “I cannot be happy with what God has given me now.” Except that this is hidden from us; covetousness seems a conduit of happiness when it is actually its thief.
In the Prologue, one saint says that we should desire whatever God gives to us, or as he puts it, whatever happens to us. I seem to almost never stop planning, coveting, a better future. But the only moment we can obey God is now, and the only time we can accept God’s providence is now. And the Orthodox treatment of desire, unlike Buddhism that seeks to extinguish desire, but to clear the field of distractions so we can rightly and properly desire God himself, and here monks say something to us all. Monasticism and marriage alike provide a crown of thorns; they are meant not to fulfill selfish desires but transform them away from selfishness. The married person has an icon by which to transcend himself; the monk dispenses with the icon, but marriage and monasticisms are not opposite, not here, but two paths to the same goal. The real value of marriage, like monasticism, is to free a man from living for himself, for pursuing immature covetousness instead of maturing to a desire that is greater, not less, than the desire for plans, Viagra, SecondWife, education, a pay raise, financial security, a postmodern sweep of experiences, pleasures that linger on the palate, honors, recognitions, and achievements, revenge for a wrong (or at least one that is coveted in imagination), music and media always with us, “Orthodox” humor, and any number of things Orthodox ascesis is meant to free us from. But the freedom is not a freedom to desire less and less, but more and more, a freedom that is only parodied, even obscenely parodied, in the covetousness we know today.
St. Paul said, “the love of money is the root of all evil“, and we have unleashed a Pandora’s box of it. But the path of ascesis, of freedom of covetousness, of desire freed for God, is ever open, and ever abounds.
Let us let go of more and more covetousness to be free to grasp God himself.
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The body continued running in the polished steel corridor, a corridor without doors and windows and without any hint of how far above and below the local planet’s surface it was, if indeed it was connected with a planet. The corridor had a competition mixture of gases, gravity, temporature and pressure, and so on, and as the body had been running, lights turned on and then off so the body was at the center of a moving swathe of rather clinical light. The body was running erratically, and several times it had nearly fallen; the mind was having trouble keeping the control of the body due to the body being taxed to its limit. Then the body tripped. The mind made a few brief calculations and jacked out of the body.
The body fell, not having the mind to raise its arms to cushion the fall, and fractured bones in the face, skull, and ribs. The chest heaved in and out with each labored breath, after an exertion that would be lethal in itself. A trickle of blood oozed out from a wound. The life of the abandoned body slowly ebbed away, and the lights abruptly turned off.
It would be a while before a robot would come to clean it up and prepare the corridor for other uses.
“And without further ado,” another mind announced, “I would like to introduce the researcher who broke the record for a running body by more than 594789.34 microseconds. This body was a strictly biological body, with no cyberware besides a regulation mind-body interface, with no additional modifications. Adrenaline, for instance, came from the mind controlling the adrenal glands; it didn’t even replace the brain with a chemical minifactory. The body had a magnificent athletic physique, clean and not encumbered by any reproductive system. And I still don’t know how it kept the body alive and functioning, without external help, for the whole race. Here’s Archon.”
A sound came from a modular robot body at the center of the stage and was simultaneously transmitted over the net. “I see my cyborg utility body there; is that my Paidion wearing it? If so, I’m going to… no, wait. That would be harming my own body without having a good enough reason.” A somewhat canned chuckle swept through the crowd. “I’m impressed; I didn’t know that anyone would come if I called a physical conference, and I had no idea there were that many rental bodies within an appropriate radius.” Some of the bodies winced. “But seriously, folks, I wanted to talk and answer some of your questions about how my body broke the record. It was more than generating nerve impulses to move the body to the maximum ability. And I would like to begin by talking about why I’ve called a physical conference in the first place.
“Scientific breakthroughs aren’t scientific. When a mind solves a mathematical problem that hasn’t been solved before, it does… not something impossible, but something that you will miss if you look for something possible. It conforms itself to the problem, does everything it can to permeate itself with the problem. Look at the phenomenology and transcripts of every major mathematical problem that has been solved in the past 1.7e18 microseconds. Not one follows how one would scientifically attempt a scientific breakthrough. And somehow scientifically optimized applications of mind to problems repeat past success but never do anything new.
“What you desire so ravenously to know is how I extended the methodologies to optimize the running body and the running mind to fit a calculated whole. And the answer is simple. I didn’t.”
A mind interrupted through cyberspace. “What do you mean, you didn’t? That’s as absurd as claiming that you built the body out of software. That’s—”
Archon interrupted. “And that’s what I thought too. What I can tell you is this. When I grew and trained the body, I did nothing else. That was my body, my only body. I shut myself off from cyberspace—yes, that’s why you couldn’t get me—and did not leave a single training activity to another mind or an automatic process. I trained myself to the body as if it were a mathematics problem and tried to soak myself in it.”
A rustle swept through the crowd.
“And I don’t blame you if you think I’m a crackpot, or want to inspect me for hostile tampering. I submit to inspection. But I tried to be as close as possible to the body, and that’s it. And I shaved more than 594789.34 microseconds off the record.” Archon continued after a momentary pause. “I specifically asked for bodily presences for this meeting; call me sentimental or crackpot or trying to achieve with your bodies what I failed to achieve in that body, but I will solicit questions from those who have a body here first, and address the network after everybody present has had its chance.”
A flesh body stood up and flashed its face. “What are you going to say next? Not only that you became like a body, but that the body became like a mind?”
Archon went into private mode, filtered through and rejected 3941 responses, and said, “I have not analyzed the body to see if it contained mind-like modifications and do not see how I would go about doing such a thing.”
After several other questions, a robot said, “So what’s next?”
Archon hesitated, and said, “I don’t know.” It hesitated again, and said, “I’m probably going to make a Riemannian 5-manifold of pleasure states. I plan on adding some subtle twists so not only will it be pleasurable; minds will have a real puzzle figuring out exactly what kind of space they’re in. And I’m not telling what the manifold will be like, or even telling for sure that it will genuinely have only 5 dimensions.”
The robot said, “No, you’re not. You’re not going to do that at all.” Then the mind jacked out and the body fell over, inert.
Another voice, issuing from two standard issue cyborg bodies, said, “Has the body been preserved, and will it be available for internal examination?”
Archon heard the question, and answered it as if it were giving the question its full attention. But it could only give a token of its consciousness. The rest of its attention was on tracing the mind that had jacked out of the robot body. And it was a slippery mind. Archon was both frustrated and impressed when it found no trace.
It was skilled at stealth and tracing, having developed several methodologies for each, and something that could vanish without a trace—had the mind simply destroyed itself? That possibility bothered Archon, who continued tracing after it dismissed the assembly.
Archon looked for distractions, and finding nothing better it began trying to sound out how it might make the pleasure space. What should the topology be? The pleasures should be—Archon began looking at the kinds of pleasure, and found elegant ways to choose a vector space basis for less than four dimensions or well over eight, but why should it be a tall order to do exactly five? Archon was far from pleasure when a message came, “Not your next achievement, Archon?”
Archon thought it recognized something. “Have you tried a five dimensional pleasure manifold before? How did you know this would happen?”
Ployon said, “It took you long enough! I’m surprised you needed the help.”
Ployon continued, “And since there aren’t going to be too many people taking you seriously—”
Archon sent a long stream of zeroes to Ployon.
Ployon failed to acknowledge the interruption. “—from now on, I thought you could use all the help you could get.”
Archon sent another long stream of zeroes to Ployon.
When Ployon remained silent, Archon said, “Why did you contact me?”
Ployon said, “Since you’re going to do something interesting, I wanted to see it live.”
Archon said, “So what am I going to do?”
“I have no idea whatsoever, but I want to see it.”
“Then how do you know it is interesting?”
“You said things that would destroy your credibility, and you gave an evasive answer. It’s not every day I get to witness that.”
Archon sent a long stream of zeroes to Ployon.
Ployon said, “I’m serious.”
“Then what can I do now?”
“I have no idea whatsoever, but you might take a look at what you’re evading.”
“And what am I evading?”
“Try asking yourself. Reprocess the transcripts of that lecture. Your own private transcript.”
Archon went through the file, disregarding one moment and then scanning everything else. “I find nothing.”
“What did you just disregard?”
“Just one moment where I said too much.”
Archon reviewed that moment. “I don’t know how to describe it. I can describe it three ways, all contradictory. I almost did it—I almost forged a connection between mind and matter. And yet I failed. And yet somehow the body ran further, and I don’t think it was simply that I learned to control it better. What I achieved only underscored what I failed to achieve, like an optimization that needs to run for longer than the age of the universe before it starts saving time.”
Archon paused before continuing, “So I guess what I’m going to do next is try to bridge the gap between mind and matter for real. Besides the mundane relationship, I mean, forge a real connection that will bridge the chasm.”
Ployon said, “It can’t be done. It’s not possible. I don’t even understand why your method of training the body will work. You seem to have made more of a connection than has ever been done before. I’m tempted to say that when you made your presentation, you ensured that no one else will do what you did. But that’s premature and probably wrong.”
“Then what am I going to do next? How am I going to bridge that gap?”
Ployon said, “I saw something pretty interesting in what you did achieve—you know, the part where you destroyed your credibility. That’s probably more interesting than your breaking the record.”
Ployon ran through some calculations before continuing, “And at any rate, you’re trying to answer the wrong question.”
Archon said, “Am I missing the interesting question? The question of how to forge a link across the chasm between matter and spirit is—”
“Not nearly as interesting as the question of what it would mean to bridge that chasm.”
Archon stopped, reeling at the implication. “I think it’s time for me to make a story in a virtual world.”
Ployon said, “Goodbye now. You’ve got some thinking to do.”
Archon began to delve. What would the world be like if you added to it the ability for minds to connect with bodies, not simply as it had controlled his racing body, but really? What would it be like if the chasm could be bridged? It searched through speculative fiction, and read a story where minds could become bodies—which made for a very good story, but when it seriously tried to follow its philosophical assumptions, it realized that the philosophical assumptions were not the focus. It read and found several stories where the chasm could be bridged, and—
There was no chasm. Or would not be. And that meant not taking the real world and adding an ability to bridge a chasm, but a world where mind and matter were immanent. After rejecting a couple of possible worlds, Archon considered a world where there were only robots, and where each interfaced to the network as externally as to the physical world. Each mind was firmware burned into the robot’s circuits, and for some still to be worked out reason it couldn’t be transferred. Yes, this way… no. Archon got some distance into this possible world before a crawling doubt caught up to it. It hadn’t made minds and bodies connect; it’d only done a first-rate job of covering up the chasm. Maybe organic goo held promise. A world made only of slime? No, wait, that was… and then it thought—
Archon dug recursively deeper and deeper, explored, explored. It seemed to be bumping into something. Its thoughts grew strange; it calculated for billions and even trillions of microseconds, encountered something stranger than—
How much time had passed?
Archon said, “Ployon! Where are you?”
Ployon said, “Enjoying trying to trace your thoughts. Not much success. I’ve disconnected now.”
“Imagine a mind and a body, except that you don’t have a mind and a body, but a mind-body unity, and it—”
“Which do you mean by ‘it’? The mind or the body? You’re being careless.”
“Humor me. I’m not being careless. When I said, ‘it’, I meant both—”
“Both the mind and the body? As in ‘they’?”
“Humor me. As in, ‘it.’ As in a unity that doesn’t exist in our world.”
“Um… then how do you refer to just the mind or just the body? If you don’t distinguish them…”
“You can distinguish the mind and the body, but you can never separate them. And even though you can refer to just the mind or just the body, normally you would talk about the unity. It’s not enough to usually talk about ‘they;’ you need to usually talk about ‘it.'”
“How does it connect to the network?”
“There is a kind of network, but it can’t genuinely connect to it.”
“What does it do when its body is no longer serviceable.”
“It doesn’t—I haven’t decided. But it can’t jump into something else.”
“So the mind simply functions on its own?”
“Ployon, you’re bringing in cultural baggage. You’re—”
“You’re telling me this body is a prison! Next you’re going to tell me that it can’t even upgrade the body with better parts, and that the mind is like a real mind, only it’s shut in on twenty sides. Are you describing a dystopia?”
“No. I’m describing what it means that the body is real to the mind, that it is not a mind that can use bodies but a mind-body unity. It can’t experience any pleasure it can calculate, but its body can give it pleasure. It runs races, and not only does the mind control the body—or at least influence it; the body is real enough that the mind can’t simply control it perfectly—but the body affects the mind. When I run a race, I am controlling the body, but I could be doing twenty other things as well and only have a token presence at the mind-body interface. It’s very different; there is a very real sense in which the mind is running when the body is running a race.
“Let me guess. The mind is a little robot running around a racetrack hollowed out from the body’s brain. And did you actually say, races, plural? Do they have nanotechnology that will bring a body back after its been run down? And would anyone actually want to race a body that had been patched that way?”
“No. I mean that because their bodies are part of them, they only hold races which they expect the racers to be able to live through.”
“That’s a strange fetish. Don’t they ever have a real race?”
“They have real races, real in a way that you or I could never experience. When they run, they aren’t simply manipulating something foreign to the psyche. They experience pleasures they only experience running.”
“Are you saying they only allow them to experience certain pleasures while running?”
“Then why don’t they allow the pleasures at other times? That’s a stranger fetish than—”
“Because they can’t. Their bodies produce certain pleasures in their minds when they’re running, and they don’t generate these pleasures unless the body is active.”
“That raises a number of problems. It sounds like you’re saying the body has a second mind, because it would take a mind to choose to let the ‘real’ mind experience pleasure. It—”
Archon said, “You’re slipping our chasm between the body and mind back in, and it’s a chasm that doesn’t exist. The body produces pleasure the mind can’t produce by itself, and that is only one of a thousand things that makes the race more real than them for us. Think about the achievements you yourself made when you memorized the map of the galaxy. Even if that was a straightforward achievement, that’s something you yourself did, not something you caused an external memory bank to do. Winning a race is as real for that mind-body as something it itself did as the memorization was for you. It’s something it did, not simply something the mind caused the body to do. And if you want to make a causal diagram, don’t draw something linear. In either direction. Make a reinforced web, like computing on a network.”
Ployon said, “I still don’t find it convincing.”
Archon paused. “Ok, let’s put that in the background. Let me approach that on a different scale. Time is more real. And no—this is not because they measure time more precisely. Their bodies are mortal, and this means that the community of mind-body unities is always changing, like a succession of liquids flowing through a pipe. And that means that it makes a difference where you are in time.”
Archon continued. “I could say that their timeline is dynamic in a way that ours is not. There is a big change going on, a different liquid starting to flow through the pipe. It is the middle age, when a new order of society is being established and the old order is following away.”
Ployon said, “So what’s the old technology, and what’s the new one?”
“It’s deeper than that. Technological society is appearing. The old age is not an abandoned technology. It is organic life, and it is revealing itself as it is disintegrating.”
“So cyborgs have—”
“There are no cyborgs, or very few.”
“And let me guess. They’re all cybernetic enhancements to originally biological things.”
“It’s beyond that. Cybernetic replacements are only used to remedy weak bodies.”
“Wouldn’t it be simpler to cull the—”
“The question of ‘simpler’ is irrelevant. Few of them even believe in culling their own kind. Most believe that it is—’inexpedient’ isn’t quite right—to destroy almost any body, and it’s even more inadvisable to destroy one that is weak.”
“In the whole network, why?”
“I’m still working that out. The easiest part to explain has to do with their being mind-body unities. When you do something to a body, you’re not just doing it to that body. You’re doing it to part of a pair that interpenetrates in the most intimate fashion. What you do to the body you do to the mind. It’s not just forcibly causing a mind to jack out of a body; it’s transferring the mind to a single processor and then severing the processor from the network.”
“But who would… I can start to see how real their bodies would be to them, and I am starting to be amazed. What else is real to them?”
“I said earlier that most of them are hesitant to cull the weak, that they view it as inexpedient. But efficiency has nothing to do with it. It’s connected to—it might in fact be more efficient, but there is something so much bigger than efficiency—”
Ployon cut it off. “Bigger than efficiency?”
Archon said, “There is something that is real to them that is not real to us that I am having trouble grasping myself. For want of a more proper label, I’ll call it the ‘organic’.”
“Let’s stop a minute. I’ll give you a point for how things would be different if we were limited to one body, but you’re hinting at something you want to call ‘organic’, which is very poorly defined, and your explanations seem to be strange when they are not simply hazy. Isn’t this a red flag?”
“Where have you seen that red flag before?”
“When people were wildly wrong but refused to admit it.”
“That’s pretty much it.”
Archon was silent.
Ployon said, “And sometimes it happens when a researcher is on to something big… oh… so what exactly is this nexus of the ‘organic’?”
“I can’t tell you. At least, not directly. The mind-body unities are all connected to a vast (to them) biological network in which each has a physical place—”
“That’s original! Come on; everybody’s trivia archive includes the fact that all consciousness comes out of a specific subnet of physical processors, or some substitute for that computing machinery. I can probably zero in on where you’re—hey! Stop jumping around from subnet to subnet—can I take that as an acknowledgment that I can find your location? I—”
“The location is not part of a trivia encyclopedia for them. It’s something as inescapable as the flow of time—”
“Would you like me to jump into a virtual metaphysics where time doesn’t flow?”
“—correction, more inescapable than the flow of time, and it has a million implications for the shape of life. Under the old order, the unities could connect only with other unities which had bodies in similar places—”
“So, not only is their ‘network’ a bunch of slime, but when they look for company they have to choose from the trillion or however many other unities whose bodies are on the same node?”
“Their communities are brilliant in a way we can never understand; they have infinitesmally less potential partners available.
“You mean their associations are forced on them.”
“To adapt one of their sayings, in our network you connect with the minds you like; in their network you like the people you connect with. That collapses a rich and deeper maxim, but what is flattened out is more organic than you could imagine.”
“And I suppose that in a way that is very deep, but you conveniently have trouble describing, their associations are greater.”
“We are fortunate to have found a way to link in our shared tastes. And we will disassociate when our tastes diverge—”
“And shared tastes have nothing to do with them? That’s—”
“Shared tastes are big, but there is something else bigger. A great deal of the process of making unities into proper unities means making their minds something you can connect with.”
“Their minds? Don’t you mean the minds?”
“That locution captures something that—they are not minds that have a body as sattelite. One can say, ‘their‘ minds because they are mind-body unities. They become greater—in a way that we do not—by needing to be in association with people they could not choose.”
“Pretty convenient how every time having a mind linked to a body means a limitation, that limitation makes them better.”
“If you chose to look at it, you would find a clue there. But you don’t find it strange when the best game players prosper within the limits of the game. What would game play be if players could do anything they wanted?”
“You’ve made a point.”
“As I was going to say, their minds develop a beauty, strength, and discipline that we never have occasion to develop.”
“Can you show me this beauty?”
“Here’s a concrete illustration. One thing they do is take organisms which have been modified from their biological environment, and keep them in the artificial environments which you’d say they keep their bodies in. They—”
“So even though they’re stuck with biological slime, they’re trying to escape it and at least pretend it’s not biological? That sounds sensible.”
“Um, you may have a point, but that isn’t where I was hoping to go. Um… While killing another unity is something they really try to avoid, these modified organisms enjoy no such protection. And yet—”
“What do they use them for? Do the enhancements make them surrogate industrial robots? Are they kept as emergency rations?”
“The modifications aren’t what you’d consider enhancements; most of them couldn’t even survive in their feral ancestors’ environments, and they’re not really suited to the environments they live in. Some turn out to serve some ‘useful’ purpose… but that’s a side benefit, irrelevant to what I’m trying to let you see. And they’re almost never used as food.”
“Then what’s the real reason? They must consume resources. Surely they must be used for something. What do they do with them?”
“I’m not sure how to explain this…”
“It won’t sting, but it could lead to confusion that would take a long time to untangle.”
“They sense the organisms with their cameras, I mean eyes, and with the boundaries of their bodies, and maybe talk to them.”
“Do the organisms give good advice?”
“They don’t have sophisticated enough minds for that.”
“Ok, so what else is there?”
“About all else is that they do physical activities for the organisms’ benefit.”
“Ok. And what’s the real reason they keep them? There’s got to be something pragmatic.”
“That’s related to why I brought it up. It has something to do with the organic, something big, but I can’t explain it.”
“It seems like you can only explain a small part of the organic in terms of our world, and the part you can explain isn’t very interesting.”
“That’s like saying that when a three-dimensional solid intersects a plane in two dimensions, the only part that can be detected in the plane is a two-dimensional cross-section (the three-dimensional doesn’t fit in their frame of reference) so “three-dimensional” must not refer to anything real. The reason you can’t make sense of the world I’m describing in terms of our world is because it contains real things that are utterly alien to us.”
“Like what? Name one we haven’t discussed.”
“Seeing the trouble I had with the one concept, the organic, I’m not going to take on two at once.”
“So the reason these unities keep organisms is so abstract and convoluted that it takes a top-flight mind to begin to grapple with.”
“Not all of them keep organisms, but most of them find the reason—it’s actually more of an assumption—so simple and straightforward that they would never think it was metaphysical.”
“So I’ve found something normal about them! Their minds are of such an incredibly high caliber that—”
“No. Most of their minds are simpler than yours or mine, and furthermore, the ability to deal with abstractions doesn’t enter the picture from their perspective.”
“I don’t know what to make of this.”
“You understand to some degree how their bodies are real in a way we can never experience, and time and space are not just ‘packaging’ to what they do. Their keeping these organisms… the failure of the obvious reasons should tell you something, like an uninteresting two-dimensional cross section of a three-dimensional solid. If the part we can understand does not justify the practice, there might be something big out of sight.”
“But what am I to make of it now?”
“Nothing now, just a placeholder. I’m trying to convey what it means to be organic.”
“Is the organic in some relation to normal technology?”
“The two aren’t independent of each other.”
“Is the organic defined by the absence of technology?”
“Yes… no… You’re deceptively close to the truth.”
“Do all unities have the same access to technology?”
“No. There are considerable differences. All have a technology of sorts, but it would take a while to explain why some of it is technology. Some of them don’t even have electronic circuits—and no, they are not at an advanced enough biotechnology level to transcend electronic circuits. But if we speak of technology we would recognize, there are major differences. Some have access to no technology; some have access to the best.”
“And the ones without access to technology are organic?”
“Yes. Even if they try to escape it, they are inescapably organic.”
“But the ones which have the best technology are the least organic.”
“Then maybe it was premature to define the organic by the absence of technology, but we can at least make a spectrum between the organic and the technological.”
“Yes… no… You’re even more deceptively close to the truth. And I emphasize, ‘deceptively’. Some of the people who are most organic have the best technology—”
“So the relationship breaks down? What if we disregard outliers?”
“But the root problem is that you’re trying to define the organic with reference to technology. There is some relationship, but instead of starting with a concept of technology and using it to move towards a concept of the organic, it is better to start with the organic and move towards a concept of technology. Except that the concept of the organic doesn’t lead to a concept of technology, not as we would explore it. The center of gravity is wrong. It’s like saying that we have our thoughts so that certain processors can generate a stream of ones and zeroes. It’s backwards enough that you won’t find the truth by looking at its mirror image.”
“Ok, let me process it another way. What’s the difference between a truly organic consciousness, and the least organic consciousness on the net?”
“That’s very simple. One exists and the other doesn’t.”
“So all the… wait a minute. Are you saying that the net doesn’t have consciousness?”
“Excellent. You got that one right.”
“In the whole of cyberspace, how? How does the net organize and care for itself if it doesn’t contain consciousness?”
“It is not exactly true to say that they do have a net, and it is not exactly true to say that they do not have a net. What net they have, began as a way to connect mind-body unities—without any cyberware, I might add.”
“Then how do they jack in?”
“They ‘jack in’ through hardware that generates stimulation for their sensory organs, and that they can manipulate so as to put data into machines.”
“How does it maintain itself?”
“It doesn’t and it can’t. It’s maintained by mind-body unities.”
“That sounds like a network designed by minds that hate technology. Is the network some kind of joke? Or at least intentionally ironic? Or designed by people who hate technology and wanted to have as anti-technological of a network as they can?”
“No; the unities who designed it, and most of those using it, want as sophisticated technological access as they can have.”
“Why? Next you’re going to tell me that the network is not one single network, but a hodge podge of other things that have been retraoctively reinterpreted as network technology and pressed into service.”
“That’s also true. But the reason I was mentioning this is that the network is shaped by the shadow of the organic.”
“So the organic is about doing things as badly as you can?”
“Does it make minds incompetent?”
“No. Ployon, remember the last time you made a robot body for a race—and won. How well would that body have done if you tried to make it work as a factory?”
“Atrocious, because it was optimized for—are you saying that the designers were trying to optimize the network as something other than a network?”
“No; I’m saying that the organic was so deep in them that unities who could not care less for the organic, and were trying to think purely in terms of technology, still created with a thick organic accent.”
“So this was their best attempt at letting minds disappear into cyberspace?”
“At least originally, no, although that is becoming true. The network was part of what they would consider ‘space-conquering tools.’ Meaning, although not all of them thought in these terms, tools that would destroy the reality of place for them. The term ‘space-conquering tools’ was more apt than they realized, at least more apt than they realized consciously; one recalls their saying, ‘You cannot kill time without injuring eternity.'”
“What does ‘eternity’ mean?”
“I really don’t want to get into that now. Superficially it means that there is something else that relativizes time, but if you look at it closely, you will see that it can’t mean that we should escape time. The space-conquering tools in a very real sense conquered space, by making it less real. Before space-conquering tools, if you wanted to communicate with another unity, you had to somehow reach that unity’s body. The position in space of that body, and therefore the body and space, were something you could not escape. Which is to say that the body and space were real—much more real than something you could look up. And to conquer space ultimately meant to destroy some of its reality.”
“But the way they did this betrays that something is real to them. Even if you could even forget that other minds were attached to bodies, the space-conquering tools bear a heavy imprint from something outside of the most internally consistent way to conquer space. Even as the organic is disintegrating, it marks the way in which unities flee the organic.”
“So the network was driving the organic away, at least partly.”
“It would be more accurate to say that the disintegration of the organic helped create the network. There is feedback, but you’ve got the arrow of causality pointing the wrong way.”
“Can you tell me a story?”
“Hmm… Remember the racer I mentioned earlier?”
“The mind-body unity who runs multiple races?”
“Indeed. Its favorite story runs like this—and I’ll leave in the technical language. A hungry fox saw some plump, juicy green grapes hanging from a high cable. He tried to jump and eat them, and when he realized they were out of reach, he said, ‘They were probably sour anyway!'”
“What’s a grape?”
“Let me answer roughly as it would. A grape is a nutritional bribe to an organism to carry away its seed. It’s a strategic reproductive organ.”
“What does ‘green’ mean? I know what green electromagnetic radiation is, but why is that word being applied to a reproductive organ?”
“Some objects absorb most of a spectrum of what they call light, but emit a high proportion of light at that wavelength—”
“—which, I’m sure, is taken up by their cameras and converted to information in their consciousness. But why would such a trivial observation be included?”
“That is the mechanism by which green is delivered, but not the nature of what green is. And I don’t know how to explain it, beyond saying that mechanically unities experience something from ‘green’ objects they don’t experience from anything else. It’s like a dimension, and there is something real to them I can’t explain.”
“What is a fox? Is ‘fox’ their word for a mind-body unity?”
“A fox is an organism that can move, but it is not considered a mind-body unity.”
“Let me guess at ‘hungry’. The fox needed nutrients, and the grapes would have given them.”
“The grapes would have been indigestible to the fox’s physiology, but you’ve got the right idea.”
“What separates a fox from a mind-body unity? They both seem awfully similar—they have bodily needs, and they can both talk. And, for that matter, the grape organism was employing a reproductive strategy. Does ‘organic’ mean that all organisms are recognized as mind-body unities?”
“Oh, I should have explained that. The story doesn’t work that way; most unities believe there is a big difference between killing a unity and killing most other organisms; many would kill a moving organism to be able to eat its body, and for that matter many would kill a fox and waste the food. A good many unities, and certainly this one, believes there is a vast difference between unities and other organisms. They can be quite organic while killing organisms for food. Being organic isn’t really an issue of treating other organisms just like mind-body unities.”
Archon paused for a moment. “What I was going to say is that that’s just a literary device, but I realize there is something there. The organic recognizes that there’s something in different organisms, especially moving ones, that’s closer to mind-body unities than something that’s not alive.”
“Like a computer processor?”
“That’s complex, and it would be even more complex if they really had minds on a computer. But for now I’ll say that unless they see computers through a fantasy—which many of them do—they experience computers as logic without life. And at any rate, there is a literary device that treats other things as having minds. I used it myself when saying the grape organism employed a strategy; it isn’t sentient. But their willingness to employ that literary mechanism seems to reflect both that a fox isn’t a unity and that a fox isn’t too far from being a unity. Other life is similar, but not equal.”
“What kind of cable was the grape organism on? Which part of the net was it used for?”
“That story is a survival from before the transition from organic to technological. Advanced technology focuses on information—”
“Where else would technology focus?”
“—less sophisticated technology performs manual tasks. That story was from before cables were used to carry data.”
“Then what was the cable for?”
“To support the grape organism.”
“Do they have any other technology that isn’t real?”
“Do you mean, ‘Do they have any other technology that doesn’t push the envelope and expand what can be done with technology?'”
“Then your question shuts off the answer. Their technology doesn’t exist to expand what technology can do; it exists to support a community in its organic life.”
“Where’s the room for progress in that?”
“It’s a different focus. You don’t need another answer; you need another question. And, at any rate, that is how this world tells the lesson of cognitive dissonance, that we devalue what is denied to us.”
Ployon paused. “Ok; I need time to process that story—may I say, ‘digest’?”
“But one last question. Why did you refer to the fox as ‘he’? Its supposed mind was—”
“In that world, a unity is always male (‘he’) or female (‘she’). A neutered unity is extraordinarily rare, and a neutered male, a ‘eunuch’, is still called ‘he.'”
“I’m familiar enough with those details of biology, but why would such an insignificant detail—”
“Remember about being mind-body unities. And don’t think of them as bodies that would ordinarily be neutered. That’s how new unities come to be in that world, with almost no cloning and no uterine replicators—”
“They really are slime!”
“—and if you only understand the biology of it, you don’t understand it.”
“What don’t I understand?”
“You’re trying to understand a feature of language that magnifies something insignificant, and what would cause the language to do that. But you’re looking for an explanation in the wrong place. Don’t think that the bodies are the most sexual parts of them. They’re the least sexual; the minds tied to those bodies are even more different than the bodies. The fact that the language shaped by unities for a long time distinguishes ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ enough to have the difference written into ‘it’, so that ‘it’ is ‘he’ or ‘she’ when speaking of mind-body unities.”
“Hmm… Is this another dimension to their reality that is flattened out in ours? Are their minds always thinking about that act?”
“In some cases that’s not too far from the truth. But you’re looking for the big implication in the wrong place. This would have an influence if a unity never thought about that act, and it has influence before a unity has any concept of that act.”
“Back up a bit. Different question. You said this was their way of explaining the theory of cognitive dissonance. But it isn’t. It describes one event in which cognitive dissonance occurs. It doesn’t articulate the theory; at most the theory can be extracted from it. And worse, if one treats it as explaining cognitive dissonance, it is highly ambiguous about where the boundaries of cognitive dissonance are. One single instance is very ambiguous about what is and is not another instance. This is an extraordinarily poor method of communication!”
“It is extraordinarily good, even classic, communication for minds that interpenetrate bodies. Most of them don’t work with bare abstractions, at least not most of the time. They don’t have simply discarnate minds that have been stuck into bodies. Their minds are astute in dealing with situations that mind-body unities will find themselves in. And think about it. If you’re going to understand how they live, you’re going to have to understand some very different, enfleshed ways of thought. No, more than that, if you still see the task of understanding ways of thought, you will not understand them.”
“So these analyses do not help me in understanding your world.”
“So far as you are learning through this kind of analysis, you will not understand… but this analysis is all you have for now.”
“Are their any other stories that use an isomorphic element to this one?”
“I don’t know. I’ve gotten deep enough into this world that I don’t keep stories sorted by isomorphism class.”
“Tell me another story the way that a storyteller there would tell it; there is something in it that eludes me.”
Archon said, “Ok… The alarm clock chimed. It was a device such that few engineers alive fully understood its mechanisms, and no man could tell the full story of how it came to be, of the exotic places and activities needed to make all of its materials, or the logistics to assemble them, or the organization and infrastructure needed to bring together all the talent of those who designed, crafted, and maintained them, or any other of sundry details that would take a book to list. The man abruptly shifted from the vivid kaleidoscope of the dreaming world to being awake, and opened his eyes to a kaleidoscope of sunrise colors and a room with the song of birds and the song of crickets. Outside, the grass grew, the wind blew, a busy world was waking up, and the stars continued their ordered and graceful dance. He left the slumbering form of the love of his life, showered, and stepped out with his body fresh, clean, and beautifully adorned. He stopped to kiss the fruit of their love, a boy cooing in his crib, and drove past commuters, houses, pedestrians, and jaybirds with enough stories to tell that they could fill a library to overflowing.
Archon continued, “After the majestic and ordered dance on the freeway brought him to his destination safe, unharmed, on time, and focusing on his work, he spent a day negotiating the flow of the human treasure of language, talking, listening, joking, teasing, questioning, enjoying the community of his co-workers, and cooperating to make it possible for a certain number of families to now enter the homes of their dreams. In the middle of the day he stopped to eat, nourishing a body so intricate that the state of the art in engineering could not hold a candle to his smallest cell. This done, he continued to use a spirit immeasurably greater than his body to pursue his work. Needless to say, the universe, whose physics alone is beyond our current understanding, continued to work according to all of its ordered laws and the spiritual world continued to shine. The man’s time at work passed quickly, with a pitter-patter of squirrels’ feet on the roof of their office, and before long he entered the door and passed a collection with copies of most of the greatest music produced by Western civilization—available for him to listen to, any time he pleased. The man absently kissed his wife, and stepped away, breathing the breath of God.
“‘Hi, Honey!’ she said. ‘How was your day?’
“‘Somewhat dull. Maybe something exciting will happen tomorrow.'”
Ployon said, “There’s someone I want to meet who is free now, so I’ll leave in a second… I’m not going to ask about all the technical vocabulary, but I wanted to ask: Is this story a farce? It describes a unity who has all these ludicrous resources, and then it—”
“—he says the most ludicrous thing.”
“What you’ve said is true. The story is not a farce.”
“But the story tells of things that are momentous.”
“I know, but people in that world do not appreciate many of these things.”
“Why? They seem to have enough access to these momentous resources.”
“Yes, they certainly do. But most of the unities are bathed in such things and do not think that they are anything worth thinking of.”
“And I suppose you’re going to tell me that is part of their greatness.”
“To them these things are just as boring as jacking into a robotically controlled factory and using the machines to assemble something.”
“I see. At least I think I see. And I really need to be going now… but one more question. What is ‘God’?”
“Please, not that. Please, any word but that. Don’t ask about that.”
“I’m not expected, and you’ve piqued my curiosity.”
“Don’t you need to be going now?”
“You’ve piqued my curiosity.”
Archon was silent.
Ployon was silent.
Archon said, “God is the being who made the world.”
“Ok, so you are God.”
“Yes… no. No! I am not God!”
“But you created this world?”
“Not like God did. I envisioned looking in on it, but to that world, I do not exist.”
“But God exists?”
“Yes… no… It is false to say that God exists and it is false to say that God does not exist.”
“So the world is self-contradictory? Or would it therefore be true to say that God both exists and does not exist?”
“No. Um… It is false to say that God exists and it is false to say that God exists as it is false to say that a square is a line and it is false to say that a square is a point. God is reflected everywhere in the world: not a spot in the entire cosmos is devoid of God’s glory—”
“A couple of things. First, is this one more detail of the universe that you cannot explain but is going to have one more dimension than our world?”
“God is of higher dimension than that world.”
“So our world is, say, two dimensional, that world is three dimensional, and yet it somehow contains God, who is four dimensional?”
“God is not the next step up.”
“Then is he two steps up?”
“Three? Four? Fifty? Some massive power of two?”
“Do you mind if I ask you a question from that world?”
“How many minds can be at a point in space?”
“If you mean, ‘thinking about’, there is no theoretical limit; the number is not limited in principle to two, three, or… Are you saying that God has an infinite number of dimensions?”
“You caught that quick; the question is a beautiful way of asking whether a finite or an infinite number of angels can dance on the head of a pin, in their picturesque language.”
“That question is very rational. But returning to the topic, since God has an infinite number of dimensions—”
“In a certain sense. It also captures part of the truth to say that God is a single point—”
“God is so great not as to need any other, not to need parts as we have. And, by the way, the world does not contain God. God contains the world.”
“I’m struggling to find a mathematical model that will accommodate all of this.”
“Why don’t you do something easier, like find an atom that will hold a planet?”
“Ok. As to the second of my couple of things, what is glory?”
“It’s like the honor that we seek, except that it is immeasurably full while our honors are hollow. As I was saying, not a place in the entire cosmos is devoid of his glory—”
“His? So God is a body?”
“That’s beside the point. Whether or not God has a body, he—”
“—it… isn’t a male life form…”
Archon said, “Ployon, what if I told you that God, without changing, could become a male unity? But you’re saying you can’t project maleness up onto God, without understanding that maleness is the shadow of something in God. You have things upside down.”
“But maleness has to do with a rather undignified method of creating organisms, laughable next to a good scientific generation center.”
“His ways are not like your ways, Ployon. Or mine.”
“Of course; this seems to be true of everything in the world.”
“But it’s even true of men in that world.”
“So men have no resemblance to God?”
“No, there’s—oh, no!”
“Um… never mind, you’re not going to let me get out of it. I said earlier that that world is trying to make itself more like this one. Actually, I didn’t say that, but it’s related to what I said. There has been a massive movement which is related to the move from organic to what is not organic, and part of it has to do with… In our world, a symbol is arbitrary. No connection. In that world, something about a symbol is deeply connected with what it represents. And the unities, every single one, are symbols of God in a very strong sense.”
“Are they miniature copies? If God does not have parts, how do they have minds and bodies?”
“That’s not looking at it the right way. They indeed have parts, as God does not, but they aren’t a scale model of God. They’re something much more. A unity is someone whose very existence is bound up with God, who walks as a moving… I’m not sure what to use as the noun, but a moving something of God’s presence. And you cannot help or harm one of these unities without helping or harming God.”
“Is this symbol kind of a separate God?”
“The unities are not separate from God.”
“Are the unities God?”
“I don’t know how to answer that. It is a grave error for anyone to confuse himself with God. And at the same time, the entire purpose of being a unity is to receive a gift, and that gift is becoming what God is.”
“So the minds will be freed from their bodies?”
“No, some of them hope that their bodies will be deepened, transformed, become everything that their bodies are now and much more. But unities who have received this gift will always, always, have their bodies. It will be part of their glory.”
“I’m having trouble tracking with you. It seems that everything one could say about God is false.”
“That is true.”
“Think about it. What you just said is contradictory.”
“God is so great that anything one could say about God falls short of the truth as a point falls short of being a line. But that does not mean that all statements are equal. Think about the statements, ‘One is equal to infinity.’ ‘Two is equal to infinity.’ ‘Three is equal to infinity.’ and ‘Four is equal to infinity.’ All of them are false. But some come closer to the truth than others. And so you have a ladder of statements from the truest to the falsest, and when we say something is false, we don’t mean that it has no connection to the truth; we mean that it falls immeasurably short of capturing the truth. All statements fall immeasurably short of capturing the truth, and if we say, ‘All statements fall immeasurably short of capturing the truth,’ that falls immeasurably short of capturing the truth. Our usual ways of using logic tend to break down.”
“And how does God relate to the interpenetration of mind and matter?”
“Do you see that his world, with mind and matter interpenetrating, is deeper and fuller than ours, that it has something that ours does not, and that it is so big we have trouble grasping it?”
“I see… you said that God was its creator. And… there is something about it that is just outside my grasp.”
“It’s outside my grasp too.”
“Talking about God has certainly been a mind stretcher. I would love to hear more about him.”
“Talking about God for use as a mind stretcher is like buying a piece of art because you can use its components to make rocket fuel. Some people, er, unities in that world would have a low opinion of this conversation.”
“Since God is so far from that world, I’d like to restrict our attention to relevant—”
Archon interrupted. “You misunderstood what I said. Or maybe you understood it and I could only hint at the lesser part of the truth. You cannot understand unities without reference to God.”
“How would unities explain it?”
“That is complex. A great many unities do not believe in God—”
“So they don’t understand what it means to be a unity.”
“Yes. No. That is complex. There are a great many unities who vehemently deny that there is a God, or would dismiss ‘Is there a God?’ as a pointless rhetorical question, but these unities may have very deep insight into what it means to be a unity.”
“But you said, ‘You cannot understand—'”
Archon interrupted. “Yes, and it’s true. You cannot understand unities without reference to God.”
Archon continued. “Ployon, there are mind-body unities who believe that they are living in our world, with mind and body absolutely separate and understandable without reference to each other. And yet if you attack their bodies, they will take it as if you had attacked their minds, as if you had hurt them. When I described the strange custom of keeping organisms around which serve no utilitarian purpose worth the trouble of keeping them, know that this custom, which relates to their world’s organic connection between mind and body, does not distinguish people who recognize that they are mind-body unities and people who believe they are minds which happen to be wrapped in bodies. Both groups do this. The tie between mind and body is too deep to expunge by believing it doesn’t exist. And there are many of them who believe God doesn’t exist, or it would be nice to know if God existed but unities could never know, or God is very different from what he in fact is, but they expunge so little of the pattern imprinted by God in the core of their being that they can understand what it means to be a unity at a very profound level, but not recognize God. But you cannot understand unities without reference to God.”
Ployon said, “Which parts of unities, and what they do, are affected by God? At what point does God enter their experience?”
“Which parts of programs, and their behaviors, are affected by the fact that they run on a computer? When does a computer begin to be relevant?”
“Touché. But why is God relevant, if it makes no difference whether you believe in him?”
“I didn’t say that it makes no difference. Earlier you may have gathered that the organic is something deeper than ways we would imagine to try to be organic. If it is possible, as it is, to slaughter moving organisms for food and still be organic, that doesn’t mean that the organic is so small it doesn’t affect such killing; it means it is probably deeper than we can imagine. And it doesn’t also mean that because one has been given a large organic capital and cannot liquidate it quickly, one’s choices do not matter. The decisions a unity faces, whether or not to have relationships with other unities that fit the timeless pattern, whether to give work too central a place in the pursuit of technology and possessions or too little a place or its proper place, things they have talked about since time immemorial and things which their philosophers have assumed went without saying—the unity has momentous choices not only about whether to invest or squander their capital, but choices that affect how they will live.”
“What about things like that custom you mentioned? I bet there are a lot of them.”
“Looking at, and sensing, the organisms they keep has a place, if they have one. And so does moving about among many non-moving organisms. And so does slowly sipping a fluid that causes a pleasant mood while the mind is temporarily impaired and loosened. And so does rotating oneself so that one’s sight is filled with clusters of moisture vapor above their planet’s surface. And some of the unities urge these things because they sense the organic has been lost, and without reference to the tradition that urges deeper goods. And yes, I know that these activities probably sound strange—”
“I do not see what rational benefit these activities would have, but I see this may be a defect with me rather than a defect with the organic—”
“Know that it is a defect with you rather than a defect with the organic.”
“—but what is this about rotating oneself?”
“As one goes out from the center of their planet, the earth—if one could move, for the earth’s core is impenetrable minerals—one would go through solid rock, then pass through the most rarefied boundary, then pass through gases briefly and be out in space. You would encounter neither subterranean passageways and buildings reaching to the center of the earth, and when you left you would find only the rarest vessel leaving the atmosphere—”
“Then where do they live?”
“At the boundary where space and planetary mass meet. All of them are priveleged to live at that meeting-place, a narrow strip or sphere rich in life. There are very few of them; it’s a select club. Not even a trillion. And the only property they have is the best—a place teeming with life that would be impossible only a quarter of the planet’s thickness above or below. A few of them build edifices reaching scant storeys into the sky; a few dig into the earth; there are so few of these that not being within a minute’s travel from literallytouching the planet’s surface is exotic. But the unities, along with the rest of the planet’s life, live in a tiny, priceless film adorned with the best resources they could ever know of.”
Ployon was stunned. It thought of the cores of planets and asteroids it had been in. It thought of the ships and stations in space. Once it had had the privelege of working from a subnet hosted within a comparatively short distance of a planet’s surface—it was a rare privilege, acquired through deft political maneuvering, and there were fewer than 130,982,539,813,209 other minds who had shared that privelege. And, basking in that luxury, it could only envy the minds which had bodies that walked on the surface. Ployon was stunned and reeling at the privilege of—
Ployon said, “How often do they travel to other planets?”
“There is only one planet so rich as to have them.”
Ployon pondered the implications. It had travelled to half the spectrum of luxurious paradises. Had it been to even one this significant? Ployon reluctantly concluded that it had not. And that was not even considering what it meant for this golden plating to teem with life. And then Ployon realized that each of the unities had a body on that surface. It reeled in awe.
Archon said, “And you’re not thinking about what it means that surface is home to the biological network, are you?”
Ployon was silent.
Archon said, “This organic biological network, in which they live and move and have their being—”
“Is God the organic?”
“Most of the things that the organic has, that are not to be found in our world, are reflections of God. But God is more. It is true that in God that they live and move and have their being, but it is truer. There is a significant minority that identifies the organic with God—”
Ployon interrupted, “—who are wrong—”
Archon interrupted, “—who are reacting against the destruction of the organic and seek the right thing in the wrong place—”
Ployon interrupted, “But how is God different from the organic?”
Archon sifted through a myriad of possible answers. “Hmm, this might be a good time for you to talk with that other mind you wanted to talk with.”
“You know, you’re good at piquing my curiosity.”
“If you’re looking for where they diverge, they don’t. Or at least, some people would say they don’t. Others who are deeply connected with God would say that the organic as we have been describing it is problematic—”
“But all unities are deeply connected with God, and disagreement is—”
“You’re right, but that isn’t where I was driving. And this relates to something messy, about disagreements when—”
“Aren’t all unities able to calculate the truth from base axioms? Why would they disagree?”
Archon paused. “There are a myriad of real, not virtual disagreements—”
Ployon interrupted, “And it is part of a deeper reality to that world that—”
Archon interrupted. “No, no, or at best indirectly. There is something fractured about that world that—”
Ployon interrupted. “—is part of a tragic beauty, yes. Each thing that is artificially constricted in that world makes it greater. I’m waiting for the explanation.”
“No. This does not make it greater.”
“Then I’m waiting for the explanation of why this one limitation does not make it greater. But back to what you said about the real and the organic—”
“The differences between God and the organic are not differences of opposite directions. You are looking in the wrong place if you are looking for contradictions. It’s more a difference like… if you knew what ‘father’ and ‘mother’ meant, male parent and female parent—”
Ployon interrupted, “—you know I have perfect details of male and female reproductive biology—”
Archon interrupted, “—and you think that if you knew the formula for something called chicken soup, you would know what the taste of chicken soup is for them—”
Ployon continued, “—so now you’re going to develop some intricate elaboration of what it means that there is only one possible ‘mother’s’ contribution, while outside of a laboratory the ‘father’s’ contribution is extraordinarily haphazard…”
Archon said, “A complete non sequitur. If you only understand reproductive biology, you do not understand what a father or mother is. Seeing as how we have no concept yet of father or mother, let us look at something that’s different enough but aligns with father/mother in an interesting enough way that… never mind.”
Archon continued, “Imagine on the one hand a virtual reality, and on the other hand the creator of that virtual reality. You don’t have to choose between moving in the virtual reality and being the creator’s guest; the way to be the creator’s guest is to move in the virtual reality and the purpose of moving in the virtual reality is being the creator’s guest. But that doesn’t mean that the creator is the virtual reality, or the virtual reality is the creator. It’s not just a philosophical error to confuse them, or else it’s a philosophical error with ramifications well outside of philosophy.”
“Why didn’t you just say that the relationship between God and the organic is creator/creation? Or that the organic is the world that was created?”
“Because the relationship is not that, or at very least not just that. And the organic is not the world—that is a philosophical error almost as serious as saying that the creator is the virtual reality, if a very different error. I fear that I have given you a simplification that is all the more untrue because of how true it is. God is in the organic, and in the world, and in each person, but not in the same way. How can I put it? If I say, ‘God is in the organic,’, it would be truer to say, ‘The organic is not devoid of God,’ because that is more ambiguous. If there were three boxes, and one contained a functional robot ‘brain’, and another contained a functional robot arm, and the third contained a non-functioning robot, it would be truer to say that each box contains something like a functioning robot than to say that each box contains a functioning robot. The ambiguity allows for being true in different ways in the different contexts, let alone something that words could not express even if we were discussing only one ‘is in’ or ‘box’.”
“Is there another way of expressing how their words would express it?”
“Their words are almost as weak as our words here.”
“So they don’t know about something this important?”
“Knowledge itself is different for them. To know something for us is to be able to analyze in a philosophical discussion. And this knowledge exists for them. But there is another root type of knowledge, a knowledge that—”
“Could you analyze the differences between the knowledge we use and the knowledge they use?”
“Yes, and it would be as useful to you as discussing biology. This knowledge is not entirely alien to us; when a mathematician ‘soaks’ in a problem, or I refused to connect with anything but the body, for a moment a chasm was crossed. But in that world the chasm doesn’t exist… wait, that’s too strong… a part of the chasm doesn’t exist. Knowing is not with the mind alone, but the whole person—”
“What part of the knowing is stored in the bones?”
“Thank you for your flippancy, but people use the metaphor of knowledge being in their bones, or drinking, for this knowing.”
“This sounds more like a physical process and some hankey-pankey that has been dignified by being called knowing. It almost sounds as if they don’t have minds.”
“They don’t, at least not as we know them. The mathematical analogy I would use is that they… never mind, I don’t want to use a mathematical analogy. The computational analogy I would use is that we are elements of a computer simulation, and every now and then we break into a robot that controls the computer, and do something that transcends what elements of the computer simulation “should” be able to do. But they don’t transcend the simulation because they were never elements of the simulation in the first place—they are real bodies, or real unities. And what I’ve called ‘mind’ in them is more properly understood as ‘spirit’, which is now a meaningless word to you, but is part of them that meets God whether they are aware of it or not. Speaking philosophically is a difficult discipline that few of them can do—”
“They are starting to sound mentally feeble.”
“Yes, if you keep looking at them as an impoverished version of our world. It is hard to speak philosophically as it is hard for you to emulate a clock and do nothing else—because they need to drop out of several dimensions of their being to do it properly, and they live in those dimensions so naturally that it is an unnatural constriction for most of them to talk as if that was the only dimension of their being. And here I’ve been talking disappointingly about knowledge, making it sound more abstract than our knowing, when in fact it is much less so, and probably left you with the puzzle of how they manage to bridge gaps between mind, spirit, and body… but the difficulty of the question lies in a false setup. They are unities which experience, interact with, know all of them as united. And the knowing is deep enough that they can speculate that there’s no necessary link between their spirits and bodies, or minds and bodies, or what have you. And if I can’t explain this, I can’t explain something even more foundational, the fact that the greatest thing about God is not how inconceivably majestic he is, but how close.”
“It sounds as if—wait, I think you’ve given me a basis for a decent analysis. Let me see if I can—”
Archon said, “Let me tell you a little story.
Archon continued, “A philosopher, Berkeley, believed that the only real things are minds and ideas and experiences in those minds: hence a rock was equal to the sum of every mind’s impression of it. You could say that a rock existed, but what that had to mean was that there were certain sense impressions and ideas in minds, including God’s mind; it didn’t mean that there was matter outside of minds.”
“A lovely virtual metaphysics. I’ve simulated that metaphysics, and it’s enjoyable for a time.”
“Yes, but for Berkeley it meant something completely different. Berkeley was a bishop,”
“What’s a bishop?”
“I can’t explain all of that now, but part of a bishop is a leader who is responsible for a community that believes God became a man, and helping them to know God and be unities.”
“How does that reconcile with that metaphysics?”
Archon said, “Ployon, stop interrupting. He believed that they were not only compatible, but the belief that God became a man could only be preserved by his metaphysics. And he believed he was defending ‘common sense’, how most unities thought about the world.
Archon continued, “And after he wrote his theories, another man, Samuel Johnson, kicked a rock and said, ‘I refute Berkeley thus!'”
Ployon said, “Ha ha! That’s the way to score!”
“But he didn’t score. Johnson established only one thing—”
“—how to defend against Berkeley—”
“—that he didn’t understand Berkeley.”
“Yes, he did.”
“No, he didn’t.”
“But he did.”
“Ployon, only the crudest understanding of Berkeley’s ideas could mean that one could refute them by kicking a rock. Berkeley didn’t make his ideas public until he could account for the sight of someone kicking a rock, or the experience of kicking it yourself, just as well as if there were matter outside of minds.”
“So now that we’ve established that—”
Ployon interrupted. “I know that Berkeley’s ideas could account for kicking a rock as well as anything else. But kicking a rock is still an excellent way to refute Berkeley. If what you’ve said about this world has any coherence at all.”
“Well, Berkeley’s ideas are airtight, right?”
“Ployon, there is no way they could be disproven. Not by argument, not by action.”
“So it is in principle impossible to force someone out of Berkeley’s ideas by argument.”
“But you’re missing something. What is it you’ve been talking to me about?”
“A world where mind and matter interpenetrate, and the organic, and there are many dimensions to life—”
“And if you’re just falling further into a trap to logically argue, wouldn’t it do something fundamentally unity-like to step into another dimension?”
Archon was silent.
Ployon said, “I understand that it would demonstrate a profound misunderstanding in our world… but wouldn’t it say something equally profound in that world?”
Archon was stunned.
Ployon was silent for a long time.
Then Ployon said, “When are you going to refute Berkeley?”
Since the dawn of time, those who have walked the earth have looked up into the starry sky and wondered. They have asked, “What is the universe, and who are we?” “What are the woods?” “Where did this all come from?” “Is there life after death?” “What is the meaning of our existence?” The march of time has brought civilization, and with that, science. And science allows us to answer these age-old human questions.
That, at least, is the account of it that people draw now. But the truth is much more interesting.
Science is an ingenious mechanism to test guesses about mechanisms and behavior of the universe, and it is phenomenally powerful in that arena. Science can try to explain how the Heavens move, but it isn’t the sort of thing to explain why there are Heavens that move that way—science can also describe how the Heavens have moved and reached their present position, but not the “Why?” behind it. Science can describe how to make technology to make life more convenient, but not “What is the meaning of life?” Trying to ask science to answer “Why?” (or for that matter, “Who?” or any other truly interesting question besides “How?”) is a bit like putting a book on a scale and asking the scale, “What does this book mean?” And there are indeed some people who will accept the scale’s answer, 429.7425 grams, as the definitive answer to what the book means, and all the better because it is so precise.
But to say that much and then stop is to paint a deceptive picture. Very deceptive. Why?
Science at that point had progressed more than at any point in history, and its effects were being felt around the world. And science enjoyed both a profound prestige and a profound devotion. Many people did not know what “understanding nature” could mean besides “learning scientific descriptions of nature,” which was a bit like not knowing what “understanding your best friend” could mean besides “learning the biochemical building blocks of your friend’s body.”
All this and more is true, yet this is not the most important truth. This was the Middle Age between ancient and human society and the technological, and in fact it was the early Middle Age. People were beginning to develop real technologies, the seeds of technology we would recognize, and could in primitive fashion jack into such a network as existed then. But all of this was embraced in a society that was ancient, ancient beyond measure. As you may have guessed, it is an error to misunderstand that society as an inexplicably crude version of real technological society. It is a fundamental error.
To really understand this society, you need to understand not its technology, but the sense in which it was ancient. I will call it ‘medieval’, but you must understand that the ancient element in that society outweighs anything we would recognize.
And even this is deceptive, not because a single detail is wrong, but because it is abstract. I will tell you about certain parts in an abstract fashion, but you must understand that in this world’s thinking the concrete comes before the abstract. I will do my best to tell a story—not as they would tell one, because that would conceal as much as it would reveal, but taking their way of telling stories and adapting it so we can see what is going on.
For all of their best efforts to spoil it, all of them live on an exquisite garden in the thin film where the emptiness of space meets the barrier of rock—there is a nest, a cradle where they are held tightly, and even if some of those who are most trying to be scientific want to flee into the barren wastes of space and other planets hostile to their kind of life. And this garden itself has texture, an incredible spectrum of texture along its surface. Place is itself significant, and I cannot capture what this story would have been like had it been placed in Petaling Jaya in Malaysia, or Paris in France, or Cambridge in England. What are these? I don’t know… I can say that Petaling Jaya, Paris, and Cambridge are cities, but that would leave you knowing as much as you knew 5 milliseconds before I told you. And Malaysia, France, and England are countries, and now you know little besides being able to guess that a country is somehow capable of containing a city. Which is barely more than you knew before; the fact is that there is something very different between Petaling Jaya, Paris, and Cambridge. They have different wildlife and different places with land and water, but that is not nearly so interesting as the difference in people. I could say that people learn different skills, if I wanted to be very awkward and uninformative, but… the best way of saying it is that in our world, because there is nothing keeping minds apart… In that world, people have been separate so they don’t even speak the same language. They almost have separate worlds. There is something common to all medievals, beyond what technology may bring, and people in other cities could find deep bonds with this story, but… Oh, there are many more countries than those I listed, and these countries have so many cities that you could spend your whole life travelling between cities and never see all of them. No, our world doesn’t have this wealth. Wealthy as it is, it doesn’t come close.
Petaling Jaya is a place of warm rainstorms, torrents of water falling from the sky, a place where a little stream of unscented water flows by the road, even if such a beautiful “open sewer” is not appreciated. Petaling Jaya is a place where people are less aware of time than in Cambridge or Paris and yet a place where people understand time better, because of reasons that are subtle and hard to understand. It draws people from three worlds in the grandeur that is Asia, and each of them brings treasures. The Chinese bring with them the practice of calling adults “Uncle” or “Aunt”, my father’s brother or my father’s sister or my mother’s brother or my mother’s sister, which is to say, addresses them not only by saying that there is something great about them, but they are “tied by blood”—a bond that I do not know how to explain, save to say that ancestry and origins are not the mechanism of how they came to be, or at least not just the mechanism of how they came to be. Ancestry and origins tell of the substance of who they are, and that is one more depth that cannot exist in our world with matter and mind separate. The Indians and Bumi Putras—if it is really only them, which is far from true—live a life of friendship and hospitality, which are human treasures that shine in them. What is hospitality, you ask? That is hard to answer; it seems that anything I can say will be deceptive. It means that if you have a space, and if you allow someone in that space, you serve that person, caring for every of his needs. That is a strange virtue—and it will sound stranger when I say that this is not endured as inexpedient, but something where people want to call others. Is it an economic exchange? That is beside the point; these things are at once the shadow cast by real hospitality, and at the same time the substance of hospitality itself, and you need to understand men before you can understand it. What about friendship? Here I am truly at a loss. I can only say that in the story that I am about to tell, what happens is the highest form of friendship.
Paris is, or at least has been, a place with a liquid, a drug, that temporarily causes a pleasant mood while changing behavior and muddling a person’s thoughts. But to say that misses what that liquid is, in Paris or much else. To some it is very destructive, and the drug is dangerous if it is handled improperly. But that is the hinge to something that—in our world, no pleasure is ever dangerous. You or I have experienced pleasures that these minds could scarcely dream of. We can have whatever pleasure we want at any time. And in a very real sense no pleasure means anything. But in their world, with its weaker pleasures, every pleasure is connected to something. And this liquid, this pleasure, if taken too far, destroys people—which is a hinge, a doorway to something. It means that they need to learn a self-mastery in using this liquid, and in using it many of them forge a beauty in themselves that affects all of life. And they live beautiful lives. Beautiful in many ways. They are like Norsemen of ages past, who sided with the good powers, not because the good powers were going to win, but because they wanted to side with the good powers and fight alongside them when the good powers lost and chaos ruled. It is a tragic beauty, and the tragedy is all the more real because it is unneeded, but it is beauty, and it is a beauty that could not exist if they knew the strength of good. And I have not spoken of the beauty of the language in Paris, with its melody and song, or of the artwork and statues, the Basilica of the Sacré-Coeur, or indeed of the tapestry that makes up the city.
Cambridge is what many of them would call a “medieval” village, meaning that it has stonework that looks to its members like the ancient world’s architecture. To them this is a major difference; the ancient character of the buildings to them overwhelms the fact that they are buildings. To that medieval world, both the newest buildings and the ones they considered “medieval” had doorways, stairwells, rooms, windows, and passages. You or I would be struck by the ancient character of the oldest and newest buildings and the ancient character of the life they serve. But to these medievals, the fact that a doorway was built out of machine-made materials instead of having long ago been shaped from stone takes the door—the door—from being ancient to being a new kind of thing! And so in the quaintest way the medievals consider Cambridge a “medieval” village, not because they were all medievals, but because the ancient dimension to architecture was more ancient to them than the equally ancient ways of constructing spaces that were reflected in the “new” buildings. There was more to it than that, but…
That was not the most interesting thing about them. I know you were going to criticize me for saying that hospitality was both a human treasure and something that contributed to the uniqueness of Petaling Jaya, but I need to do the same thing again. Politeness is… how can I describe it? Cynics describe politeness as being deceit, something where you learn a bunch of standard things to do and have to use them to hide the fact that you’re offended, or bored, or want to leave, or don’t like someone. And all of that is true—and deceptive. A conversation will politely begin with one person saying, “Hi, Barbara, how are you?” And Barbara will say, “Fine, George, how are you?” “Fine!” And the exact details seem almost arbitrary between cultures. This specific interaction is, on the surface, superficial and not necessarily true: people usually say they feel fine whether or not they really feel fine at all. And so politeness can be picked apart in this fashion, as if there’s nothing else there, but there is. Saying “How are you?” opens a door, a door of concern. In one sense, what is given is very small. But if a person says, “I feel rotten,” the other person is likely to listen. Barbara might only “give” George a little bit of chatter, but if he were upset, she would comfort him; if he were physically injured, she would call an ambulance to give him medical help; if he were hungry, she might buy him something to eat. But he only wants a little chat, so she only gives him a little chat—which is not really a little thing at all, but I’m going to pretend that it’s small. Politeness stems from a concern for others, and is in actuality quite deep. The superficial “Hi, how are you?” is really not superficial at all. It is connected to a much deeper concern, and the exterior of rules is connected to a heart of concern. And Cambridge, which is a place of learning, and has buildings more ancient than what these medieval people usually see, is perhaps most significantly distinguished by its politeness.
But I have not been telling you a story. These observations may not be completely worthless, but they are still not a dynamic story. The story I’m about to tell you is not in Petaling Jaya, nor in Paris, nor in Cambridge, nor in any of thousands of other worlds. And I would like to show you what the medieval society looks like in action. And so let’s look at Peter.
Peter, after a long and arduous trek, opened the car door, got out, stretched, looked at the vast building before him, and listened as his father said, “We’ve done it! The rest should be easy, at least for today.” Then Peter smiled, and smashed his right thumb in the car door.
Then suddenly they moved—their new plan was to get to a hospital. Not much later, Peter was in the Central DuPage Hospital emergency room, watching people who came in after him be treated before him—not because they had more clout, but because they had worse injuries. The building was immense—something like one of our biological engineering centers, but instead of engineering bodies according to a mind’s specification, this used science to restore bodies that had been injured and harmed, and reduce people’s suffering. And it was incredibly primitive; at its best, it helped the bodies heal itself. But you must understand that even if these people were far wealthier than most others in their tiny garden, they had scant resources by our standard, and they made a major priority to restore people whose bodies had problems. (If you think about it, this tells something about how they view the value of each body.) Peter was a strong and healthy young man, and it had been a while since he’d been in a hospital. He was polite to the people who were helping him, even though he wished he were anywhere else.
You’re wondering why he deliberately smashed his thumb? Peter didn’t deliberately smash his thumb. He was paying attention to several other things and shoved the door close while his thumb was in its path. His body is not simply a device controlled by his mind; they interact, and his mind can’t do anything he wishes it to do—he can’t add power to it. He thinks by working with a mind that operates with real limitations and can overlook something in excitement—much like his body. If he achieves something, he doesn’t just requisition additional mental power. He struggles within the capabilities of his own mind, and that means that when he achieves something with his mind, he achieves something. Yes, in a way that you or I cannot. Not only is his body in a very real sense more real to him than any of the bodies you or I have jacked into and swapped around, but his mind is more real. I’m not sure how to explain it.
Peter arrived for the second time well after check-in time, praying to be able to get in. After a few calls with a network that let him connect with other minds while keeping his body intact, a security officer came in, expressed sympathy about his bandaged thumb—what does ‘sympathy’ mean? It means that you share in another person’s pain and make it less—and let him up to his room. The family moved his possessions from the car to his room and made his bed in a few minutes, and by the time it was down, the security guard had called the RA, who brought Peter his keys.
It was the wee hours of the morning when Peter looked at his new home for the second time, and tough as Peter was, the pain in his thumb kept the weary man from falling asleep. He was in as much pain as he’d been in for a while. What? Which part do you want explained? Pain is when the mind is troubled because the body is injured; it is a warning that the body needs to be taken care of. No, he can’t turn it off just because he thinks it’s served his purpose; again, you’re not understanding the intimate link between mind and body. And the other thing… sleep is… Their small globe orbits a little star, and it spins as it turns. At any time, part of the planet faces the star, the sun, and part faces away, and on the globe, it is as if a moving wall comes, and all is light, then another wall comes, and it is dark. The globe has a rhythm of light and dark, a rhythm of day and night, and people live in intimate attunement to this rhythm. The ancients moved about when it was light and slept when it was dark—to sleep, at its better moments, is to come fatigued and have body and mind rejuvenate themselves to awaken full of energy. The wealthier medievals have the ability to see by mechanical light, to awaken when they want and fall asleep when they want—and yet they are still attuned, profoundly attuned, to this natural cycle and all that goes with it. For that matter, Peter can stick a substance into his body that will push away the pain—and yet, for all these artificial escapes, medievals feel pain and usually take care of their bodies by heeding it, and medievals wake more or less when it is light and sleep more or less when it is dark. And they don’t think of pain as attunement to their bodies—most of them wish they couldn’t feel pain, and certainly don’t think of pain as good—nor do more than a few of them think in terms of waking and sleeping to a natural rhythm… but so much of the primeval way of being human is so difficult to dislodge for the medievals.
He awoke when the light was ebbing, and after some preparations set out, wandering this way and that until he found a place to eat. The pain was much duller, and he made his way to a selection of different foods—meant not only to nourish but provide a pleasant taste—and sat down at a table. There were many people about; he would not eat in a cell by himself, but at a table with others in a great hall.
A young man said, “Hi, I’m John.” Peter began to extend his hand, then looked at his white bandaged thumb and said, “Excuse me for not shaking your hand. I am Peter.”
A young woman said, “I’m Mary. I saw you earlier and was hoping to see you more.”
Peter wondered about something, then said, “I’ll drink for that,” reached with his right hand, grabbed a glass vessel full of carbonated water with sugar, caffeine, and assorted unnatural ingredients, and then winced in pain, spilling the fluid on the table.
Everybody at the table moved. A couple of people dodged the flow of liquid; others stopped what they were doing, rushing to take earth toned objects made from the bodies of living trees (napkins), which absorbed the liquid and were then shipped to be preserved with other unwanted items. Peter said, “I keep forgetting I need to be careful about my thumb,” smiled, grabbed another glass with fluid cows had labored to create, until his wet left hand slipped and he spilled the organic fluid all over his food.
Peter stopped, sat back, and then laughed for a while. “This is an interesting beginning to my college education.”
Mary said, “I noticed you managed to smash your thumb in a car door without saying any words you regret. What else has happened?”
Peter said, “Nothing great; I had to go to the ER, where I had to wait, before they could do something about my throbbing thumb. I got back at 4:00 AM and couldn’t get to sleep for a long time because I was in so much pain. Then I overslept my alarm and woke up naturally in time for dinner. How about you?”
Mary thought for a second about the people she met. Peter could see the sympathy on her face.
John said, “Wow. That’s nasty.”
Peter said, “I wish we couldn’t feel pain. Have you thought about how nice it would be to live without pain?”
Mary said, “I’d like that.”
John said, “Um…”
Mary said, “What?”
John said, “Actually, there are people who don’t feel pain, and there’s a name for the condition. You’ve heard of it.”
Peter said, “I haven’t heard of that before.”
John said, “Yes you have. It’s called leprosy.”
Peter said, “What do you mean by ‘leprosy’? I thought leprosy was a disease that ravaged the body.”
John said, “It is. But that is only because it destroys the ability to feel pain. The way it works is very simple. We all get little nicks and scratches, and because they hurt, we show extra sensitivity. Our feet start to hurt after a long walk, so without even thinking about it we… shift things a little, and keep anything really bad from happening. That pain you are feeling is your body’s way of asking room to heal so that the smashed thumbnail (or whatever it is) that hurts so terribly now won’t leave you permanently maimed. Back to feet, a leprosy patient will walk exactly the same way and get wounds we’d never even think of for taking a long walk. All the terrible injuries that make leprosy a feared disease happen only because leprosy keeps people from feeling pain.”
Peter looked at his thumb, and his stomach growled.
John said, “I’m full. Let me get a drink for you, and then I’ll help you drink it.”
Mary said, “And I’ll get you some dry food. We’ve already eaten; it must—”
Peter said, “Please, I’ve survived much worse. It’s just a bit of pain.”
John picked up a clump of wet napkins and threatened to throw it at Peter before standing up and walking to get something to drink. Mary followed him.
Peter sat back and just laughed.
John said, “We have some time free after dinner; let’s just wander around campus.”
They left the glass roofed building and began walking around. There were vast open spaces between buildings. They went first to “Blanchard”, a building they described as “looking like a castle.” Blanchard, a tall ivory colored edifice, built of rough limestone, which overlooked a large expanse adorned with a carefully tended and living carpet, had been modelled after a building in a much older institution called Oxford, and… this is probably the time to explain certain things about this kind of organization.
You and I simply requisition skills. If I were to imagine what it would mean to educate those people—or at least give skills; the concept of ‘education’ is slightly different from either inserting skills or inserting knowledge into a mind, and I don’t have the ability to explain exactly what the distinction is here, but I will say that it is significant—then the obvious way is to simply make a virtual place on the network where people can be exposed to knowledge. And that model would become phenomenally popular within a few years; people would pursue an education that was a niche on such a network as they had, and would be achieved by weaving in these computer activities with the rest of their lives.
But this place preserved an ancient model of education, where disciples would come to live in a single place, which was in a very real sense its own universe, and meet in ancient, face-to-face community with their mentors and be shaped in more than what they know and can do. Like so many other things, it was ancient, using computers here and there and even teaching people the way of computers while avoiding what we would assume comes with computers.
But these people liked that building, as contrasted to buildings that seemed more modern, because it seemed to convey an illusion of being in another time, and let you forget that you were in a modern era.
After some wandering, Peter and those he had just met looked at the building, each secretly pretending to be in a more ancient era, and went through an expanse with a fountain in the center, listened to some music, and ignored clouds, trees, clusters of people who were sharing stories, listening, thinking, joking, and missing home, in order to come to something exotic, namely a rotating platform with a mockup of a giant mastodon which had died before the end of the last ice age, and whose bones had been unearthed in a nearby excavation. Happy to have seen something exotic, they ignored buildings which have a human-pleasing temperature the year round, other people excited to have seen new friends, toys which sailed through the air on the same principles as an airplane’s wings, a place where artistic pieces were being drawn into being, a vast, stonehard pavement to walk, and a spectrum of artefacts for the weaving of music.
Their slow walk was interrupted when John looked at a number on a small machine he had attached to his wrist, and interpreted it to mean that it was time for the three of them to stop their leisured enjoyment of the summer night and move with discomfort and haste to one specific building—they all were supposed to go to the building called Fischer. After moving over and shifting emotionally from being relaxed and joyful to being bothered and stressed, they found that they were all on a brother and sister floor, and met their leaders.
Paul, now looking considerably more coherent than when he procured Peter’s keys, announced, “Now, for the next exercise, I’ll be passing out toothpicks. I want you to stand in two lines, guy-girl-guy-girl, and pass a lifesaver down the line. If your team passes the lifesaver to the end first, you win. Oh, and if you drop the lifesaver your team has to start over, so don’t drop it.”
People shuffled, and shortly Peter was standing in line, looking over the shoulder of a girl he didn’t know, and silently wishing he weren’t playing this game. He heard a voice say, “Go!” and then had an intermittent view of a tiny sugary torus passing down the line and the two faces close to each other trying simultaneously to get close enough to pass the lifesaver, and control the clumsy, five centimeter long toothpicks well enough to transfer the candy. Sooner than he expected the girl turned around, almost losing the lifesaver on her toothpick, and then began a miniature dance as they clumsily tried to synchronize the ends of their toothpicks. This took unpleasantly long, and Peter quickly banished a thought of “This is almost kissing! That can’t be what’s intended.” Then he turned around, trying both to rush and not to rush at the same time, and repeated the same dance with the young woman standing behind him—Mary! It was only after she turned away that Peter realized her skin had changed from its alabaster tone to pale rose.
Their team won, and there was a short break as the next game was organized. Peter heard bits of conversation: “This has been a bummer; I’ve gotten two papercuts this week.” “—and then I—” “What instruments do you—” “I’m from France too! Tu viens de Paris?” “Really? You—” Everybody seemed to be chattering, and Peter wished he could be in one of—actually, several of those conversations at once.
Paul’s voice cut in and said, “For this next activity we are going to form a human circle. With your team, stand in a circle, and everybody reach in and grab another hand with each hand. Then hold on tight; when I say, “Go,” you want to untangle yourselves, without letting go. The first team to untangle themselves wins!”
Peter reached in, and found each of his hands clasped in a solid, masculine grip. Then the race began, and people jostled and tried to untangle themselves. This was a laborious process and, one by one, every other group freed itself, while Peter’s group seemed stuck on—someone called and said, “I think we’re knotted!” As people began to thin out, Paul looked with astonishment and saw that they were indeed knotted. “A special prize to them, too, for managing the best tangle!”
“And now, we’ll have a three-legged race! Gather into pairs, and each two of you take a burlap sack. Then—” Paul continued, and with every game, the talk seemed to flow more. When the finale finished, Peter found himself again with John and Mary and heard the conversations flowing around him: “Really? You too?” “But you don’t understand. Hicks have a slower pace of life; we enjoy things without all the things you city dwellers need for entertainment. And we learn resourceful ways to—” “—and only at Wheaton would the administration forbid dancing while requiring the games we just played and—” Then Peter lost himself in a conversation that continued long into the night. He expected to be up at night thinking about all the beloved people he left at home, but Peter was too busy thinking about John’s and Mary’s stories.
The next day Peter woke up when his machine played a hideous sound, and groggily trudged to the dining hall to eat some chemically modified grains and drink water that had been infused with traditionally roasted beans. There were pills he could have taken that would have had the effect he was looking for, but he savored the beverage, and after sitting at a table without talking, bounced around from beautiful building to beautiful building, seeing sights for the first time, and wishing he could avoid all that to just get to his advisor.
Peter found the appropriate hallway, wandered around nervously until he found a door with a yellowed plaque that said “Julian Johnson,” knocked once, and pushed the door open. A white-haired man said, “Peter Jones? How are you? Do come in… What can I do for you?”
Peter pulled out a sheet of paper, an organic surface used to retain colored trails and thus keep small amounts of information inscribed so that the “real” information is encoded in a personal way. No, they don’t need to be trained to have their own watermark in this encoding.
Peter looked down at the paper for a moment and said, “I’m sorry I’m late. I need you to write what courses I should take and sign here. Then I can be out of your way.”
The old man sat back, drew a deep breath, and relaxed into a fatherly smile. Peter began to wonder if his advisor was going to say anything at all. Then Prof. Johnson motioned towards an armchair, as rich and luxurious as his own, and then looked as if he remembered something and offered a bowl full of candy. “Sit down, sit down, and make yourself comfortable. May I interest you in candy?” He picked up an engraved metal bowl and held it out while Peter grabbed a few Lifesavers.
Prof. Johnson sat back, silent for a moment, and said, “I’m sorry I’m out of butterscotch; that always seems to disappear. Please sit down, and tell me about yourself. We can get to that form in a minute. One of the priveleges of this job is that I get to meet interesting people. Now, where are you from?”
Peter said, “I’m afraid there’s not much that’s interesting about me. I’m from a small town downstate that doesn’t have anything to distinguish itself. My amusements have been reading, watching the cycle of the year, oh, and running. Not much interesting in that. Now which classes should I take?”
Prof. Johnson sat back and smiled, and Peter became a little less tense. “You run?”
Peter said, “Yes; I was hoping to run on the track this afternoon, after the lecture. I’ve always wanted to run on a real track.”
The old man said, “You know, I used to run myself, before I became an official Old Geezer and my orthopaedist told me my knees couldn’t take it. So I have to content myself with swimming now, which I’ve grown to love. Do you know about the Prairie Path?”
Peter said, “No, what’s that?”
Prof. Johnson said, “Years ago, when I ran, I ran through the areas surrounding the College—there are a lot of beautiful houses. And, just south of the train tracks with the train you can hear now, there’s a path before you even hit the street. You can run, or bike, or walk, on a path covered with fine white gravel, with trees and prairie plants on either side. It’s a lovely view.” He paused, and said, “Any ideas what you want to do after Wheaton?”
Peter said, “No. I don’t even know what I want to major in.”
Prof. Johnson said, “A lot of students don’t know what they want to do. Are you familiar with Career Services? They can help you get an idea of what kinds of things you like to do.”
Peter looked at his watch and said, “It’s chapel time.”
Prof. Johnson said, “Relax. I can write you a note.” Peter began to relax again, and Prof. Johnson continued, “Now you like to read. What do you like to read?”
Peter said, “Newspapers and magazines, and I read this really cool book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Oh, and I like the Bible.”
Prof. Johnson said, “I do too. What do you like about it most?”
“I like the stories in the Old Testament.”
“One general tip: here at Wheaton, we have different kinds of professors—”
Peter said, “Which ones are best?”
Prof. Johnson said, “Different professors are best for different students. Throughout your tenure at Wheaton, ask your friends and learn which professors have teaching styles that you learn well with and mesh well with. Consider taking other courses from a professor you like. Now we have a lot of courses which we think expose you to new things and stretch you—people come back and see that these courses are best. Do you like science?”
“I like it; I especially liked a physics lab.”
Prof. Johnson took a small piece of paper from where it was attached to a stack with a strange adhesive that had “failed” as a solid adhesive, but provided a uniquely useful way to make paper that could be attached to a surface with a slight push and then be detached with a gentle pull, remarkably enough without damage to the paper or the surface. He began to think, and flip through a book, using a technology thousands of years old at its heart. “Have you had calculus?” Prof. Johnson restrained himself from launching into a discussion of the grand, Utopian vision for “calculus” as it was first imagined and how different a conception it had from anything that would be considered “mathematics” today. Or should he go into that? He wavered, and then realized Peter had answered his question. “Ok,” Prof. Johnson said, “the lab physics class unfortunately requires that you’ve had calculus. Would you like to take calculus now? Have you had geometry, algebra, and trigonometry?”
Peter said, “Yes, I did, but I’d like a little break from that now. Maybe I could take calculus next semester.”
“Fair enough. You said you liked to read.”
“Magazines and newspapers.”
“Those things deal with the unfolding human story. I wonder if you’d like to take world civilization now, or a political science course.”
“History, but why study world history? Why can’t I just study U.S. history?”
Prof. Johnson said, “The story of our country is intertwined with that of our world. I think you might find that some of the things in world history are a lot closer to home than you think—and we have some real storytellers in our history department.”
“That sounds interesting. What else?”
“The Theology of Culture class is one many students find enjoyable, and it helps build a foundation for Old and New Testament courses. Would you be interested in taking it for A quad or B quad, the first or second half of the semester?”
“Could I do both?”
“I wish I could say yes, but this course only lasts half the semester. The other half you could take Foundations of Wellness—you could do running as homework!”
“I think I’ll do that first, and then Theology of Culture. That should be new,” Peter said, oblivious to how tightly connected he was to theology and culture. “What else?”
Prof. Johnson said, “We have classes where people read things that a lot of people have found really interesting. Well, that could describe several classes, but I was thinking about Classics of Western Literature or Literature of the Modern World.”
Peter said, “Um… Does Classics of Western Literature cover ancient and medieval literature, and Literature of the Modern World cover literature that isn’t Western? Because if they do, I’m not sure I could connect with it.”
Prof. Johnson relaxed into his seat, a movable support that met the contours of his body. Violating convention somewhat, he had a chair for Peter that was as pleasant to rest in as his own. “You know, a lot of people think that. But you know what?”
Peter said, “What?”
“There is something human that crosses cultures. That is why the stories have been selected. Stories written long ago, and stories written far away, can have a lot to connect with.”
“Ok. How many more courses should I take?”
“You’re at 11 credits now; you probably want 15. Now you said that you like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’m wondering if you would also like a philosophy course.”
Peter said, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is… I don’t suppose there are any classes that use that. Or are there? I’ve heard Pirsig isn’t given his fair due by philosophers.”
Prof. Johnson said, “If you approach one of our philosophy courses the way you approach Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I think you’ll profit from the encounter. I wonder if our Issues and Worldviews in Philosophy might interest you. I’m a big fan of thinking worldviewishly, and our philosophers have some pretty interesting things to say.”
Peter asked, “What does ‘worldviewishly’ mean?”
Prof. Johnson said, “It means thinking in terms of worldviews. A worldview is the basic philosophical framework that gives shape to how we view the world. Our philosophers will be able to help you understand the basic issues surrounding worldviews and craft your own Christian worldview. You may find this frees you from the Enlightenment’s secularizing influence—and if you don’t know what the Enlightenment is now, you will learn to understand it, and its problems, and how you can be free of them.” He spoke with the same simplistic assurance of artificial intelligence researchers who, seeing the power of computers and recognizing how simple certain cognitive feats are for humans, assumed that it was only a matter of time that artificial intelligence would “bridge the gap”—failing to recognize the tar pit of the peaks of intelligence that seem so deceptively simple and easy to human phenomenology. For computers could often defeat the best human players at chess—as computerlike a human skill as one might reasonably find—but deciphering the language of a children’s book or walking through an unfamiliar room, so easy to humans, seemed more difficult for computers the more advanced research began. Some researchers believed that the artificial intelligence project had uncovered the non-obvious significance of a plethora of things humans take for granted—but the majority still believed that what seemed trivial for humans must be the sort of thinking a computer can do, because there is no other kind of thinking… and an isomorphic simplicity, an apparent and deceptive simplicity much like this one, made it seem as if ideas were all that really mattered: not all that existed, but all that had an important influence. Prof. Johnson did not consciously understand how the Enlightenment worldview—or, more accurately, the Enlightenment—created the possibility of seeing worldviews that way, nor did he see how strange the idea of crafting one’s own worldview would seem to pre-Enlightenment Christians. He did not realize that his own kindness towards Peter was not simply because he agreed with certain beliefs, but because of a deep and many-faceted way in which he had walked for decades, and walked well. It was with perfect simplicity that he took this way for granted, as artificial intelligence researchers took for granted all the things which humans did so well they seemed to come naturally, and framed worldviewish thought as carrying with it everything he assumed from his way.
Peter said, “Ok. Well, I’ll take those classes. It was good to meet you.”
Prof. Johnson looked over a document that was the writeup of a sort of game, in which one had a number of different rooms that were of certain sizes, and certain classes had requirements about what kind of room they needed for how long, and the solution involved not only solving the mathematical puzzle, but meeting with teachers and caring for their concerns, longstanding patterns, and a variety of human dimensions derisively labelled as “political.” Prof. Johnson held in his hands the schedule with the official solution for that problem, and guided Peter to an allowable choice of class sections, taking several different actions that were considered “boring paperwork.”
Prof. Johnson said, “I enjoyed talking with you. Please do take some more candy—put a handful in your pocket or something. I just want to make one more closing comment. I want to see you succeed. Wheaton wants to see you succeed. There are some rough points and problems along the way, and if you bring them to me I can work with them and try to help you. If you want to talk with your RA or our chaplain or someone else, that’s fine, but please… my door is always open. And it was good to meet you too! Goodbye!”
Peter walked out, completely relaxed.
The next activity, besides nourishing himself with lunch (and eating, sleeping, and many other activities form a gentle background rhythm to the activities people are more conscious of. I will not describe each time Peter eats and sleeps, even though the 100th time in the story he eats with his new friends is as significant as the first, because I will be trying to help you see it their way), requires some explanation.
The term “quest,” to the people here, is associated with an image of knights in armor, and a body of literature from writers like Chretien de Troyes and Sir Thomas Mallory who described King Arthur and his knights. In Chretien de Troyes, the knight goes off in various adventures, often quests where he is attempting different physical feats. In Sir Thomas Mallory, a new understanding of quests is introduced, in the quest for the holy grail—a legendary treasure which I cannot here explain save to say that it profoundly altered the idea of a quest, and the quest took a large enough place in many people’s consciousness that it is used as a metaphor of the almost unattainable object of an ultimate pursuit (so that physicists would say that a grand unified theory which crystallizes all physical laws into a few simple equations is the “holy grail of physics”), and that the holy grail is itself in the shadow of a greater treasure, and this treasure was one many people in fact had possessed (some after great struggle, while others had never known a time when they were without it). In Mallory in particular the quest can be more than a physical task; most of Arthur’s knights could not reach the holy grail because of—they weren’t physical blemishes and they weren’t really mental blemishes either, but what they were is hard to say. The whole topic (knights, quests, the holy grail…) connects to something about that world that is beyond my ability to convey; suffice it to say that it is connected with one more dimension we don’t have here.
Peter, along with another group of students, went out on a quest. The object of this quest was to acquire seven specific items, on conditions which I will explain below:
- “A dog biscuit.” In keeping with a deeply human trait, the food they prepare is not simply what they judge adequate to sustain the body, but meant to give pleasure, in a sense adorned, because eating is not to them simply a biological need. They would also get adorned food to give pleasure to organisms they kept, including dogs, which include many different breeds which in turn varied from being natural sentries protecting territories to a welcoming committee of one which would give a visitor an exuberant greeting just because he was there.
- “An M16 rifle’s spent shell casing.” That means the used remnant after… wait a little bit. I need to go a lot farther back to explain this one.You will find something deceptively familiar in that in that universe, people strategically align resources and then attack their opponents, usually until a defeat is obvious. And if you look for what is deceptive, it will be a frustrating search, because even if the technologies involved are primitive, it is a match of strategy, tactics, and opposition.What makes it different is that this is not a recreation or an art form, but something many of them consider the worst evil that can happen, or among the worst. The resources that are destroyed, the bodies—in our world, it is simply what is involved in the game, but many of them consider it an eternal loss.
Among the people we will be meeting, people may be broken down into “pacifists” who believe that war is always wrong, and people who instead of being pure pacifists try to have a practical way of pursuing pacifist goals: the disagreement is not whether one should have a war for amusement’s sake (they both condemn that), but what one should do when not having a war looks even more destructive than having a war. And that does not do justice to either side of the debate, but what I want to emphasize that to both of them this is not simply a game or one form of recreation; it is something to avoid at almost any cost.
A knight was someone who engaged in combat, an elite soldier riding an animal called a horse. In Chretien de Troye’s day and Mallory’s day, the culture was such that winning a fight was important, but fighting according to “chivalry” was more important. Among other things, chivalry meant that they would only use simple weapons based on mechanical principles—no poison—and they wouldn’t even use weapons with projectiles, like arrows and (armor piercing) crossbow bolts. In practice that only meant rigid piercing and cutting weapons, normally swords and spears. And there was a lot more. A knight was to protect women and children.
The form that chivalry took in Peter’s day allowed projectile weapons, although poison was still not allowed, along with biological, thermonuclear, and other weapons which people did not wish to see in war, and the fight to disfigure the tradition’s understanding women had accorded them meant that women could fight and be killed like men, although people worked to keep children out of warfare, and in any case the “Geneva Convention”, as the code of chivalry was called, maintained a sharp distinction between combatants and non-combatants, the latter of which were to be protected.
The specific projectile weapon carried by most members of the local army was called an M16 rifle, which fired surprisingly small .22 bullets—I say “surprisingly” because if you were a person fighting against them and you were hit, you would be injured but quite probably not killed.
This was intentional. (Yes, they knew how to cause an immediate kill.)
Part of it is the smaller consideration that if you killed an enemy soldier immediately, you took one soldier out of action; on the other hand, if you wounded an enemy soldier, you took three soldiers out of action. But this isn’t the whole reason. The much bigger part of the reason is that their sense of chivalry (if it was really just chivalry; they loved their enemies) meant that even in their assaults they tried to subdue with as little killing as possible.
There were people training with the army in that community (no, not Peter; Peter was a pure pacifist) who trained, with M16 rifles, not because they wanted to fight, but as part of a not entirely realistic belief that if they trained hard enough, their achievement would deter people who would go to war. And the “Crusader battalion” (the Crusaders were a series of people who fought to defend Peter’s spiritual ancestors from an encroaching threat that would have destroyed them) had a great sense of chivalry, even if none of them used the word “chivalry”.
- “A car bumper.” A car bumper is a piece of armor placed on the front and back of cars so that they can sustain low-velocity collisions without damage. (At higher velocities, newer cars are designed to serve as a buffer so that “crumple zones” will be crushed, absorbing enough of the impact so that the “passenger cage” reduces injuries sustained by people inside; this is part of a broader cultural bent towards minimizing preventable death because of what they believe about one human life.) Not only is a car bumper an unusual item to give, it is heavy and awkward enough that people tend not to carry such things with them—even the wealthy ones tend to be extraordinarily lightly encumbered.
- “An antique.” It is said, “The problem with England is that they believe 100 miles is a long distance, and the problem with America is that they believe 100 years is a long time.” An antique—giving the rule without all the special cases and exceptions, which is to say giving the rule as if it were not human—is something over 100 years old. To understand this, you must appreciate that it does not include easily available rocks, many of which are millions or billions of years old, and it is not based on the elementary particles that compose something (one would have to search hard to find something not made out of elementary particles almost as old as the universe). The term “antique” connotes rarity, and in a sense something out of the ordinary; that people’s way is concerned with “New! New! New!” and it is hard to find an artifact that was created more than 100 years ago, which is what was intended.This quest is all the more interesting because there is an “unwritten rule” that items will be acquired by asking, not by theft or even purchase—and, as most antiques are valuable, it would be odd for someone you’ve just met—and therefore with whom you have only the general human bond but not the special bond of friendship—to give you such an item, even if most of the littler things in life are acquired economically while the larger things can only be acquired by asking.
- “A note from a doctor, certifying that you do not have bubonic plague.” Intended as a joke, this refers to a health, safeguarded by their medicine, which keeps them from a dreadful disease which tore apart societies some centuries ago: that sort of thing wasn’t considered a live threat because of how successful their medicine was (which is why it could be considered humorous).
- “A burning piece of paper which no one in your group lit. (Must be presented in front of Fischer and not brought into the building.)” This presents a physical challenge, in that there is no obvious way to transport a burning piece of paper—or what people characteristically envision as a burning piece of paper—from almost anywhere else to in front of Fischer.
- “A sheet of paper with a fingerpaint handprint from a kindergartener.””Kindergarten” was the first year of their formal education, and a year of preparation before students were ready to enter their first grade. What did this society teach at its first, required year? Did it teach extraordinarily abstract equations, or cosmological theory, or literary archetypes, or how to use a lathe?All of these could be taught later on, and for that matter there is reason to value all of them. But the very beginning held something different. It taught people to take their turn and share; it taught people “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” the Golden Rule by which their great Teachers crystallized so much wisdom. All of this work and play, some of the most advanced lessons they could learn, were placed, not at the end, but at the beginning of their education.
That is what kindergarten was. What was a kindergartener? The true but uninformative answer would be “a person in kindergarten.”
To get past that uninformative answer, I need to stress that their minds are bound up with organic life—they did not spring, fully formed, as you and I did. In most complex organisms, there is a process that transforms a genetically complete organism of just one cell to become a mature member of the species; among humans, that process is one of the longest and most complex. During that time their minds are developping as well as their bodies; in that regard they are not simply in harmony with the natural world this society believes it is separate from… but one of its best examples.
But to say that alone is to flatten out something interesting… even more interesting than the process of biological mental development is the place that society has for something called “childhood”. Not all cultures have that concept—and again I am saying “culture” without explaining what it means. I can’t. Not all societies understand “childhood” as this society does; to many, a child is a smaller and less capable adult, or even worse, a nonentity. But in this culture, childhood is a distinctive time, and a child, including a kindergardener, is something special—almost a different species of mind. Their inability to healthily sustain themselves is met, not always with scorn, but with a giving of support and protection—and this is not always a grudging duty, but something that can bring joy. They are viewed as innocent, which is certainly not true, and something keeps many people from resenting them when they prove that they are not innocent by doing things that would not be tolerated if an adult did it. And the imperviousness of this belief to contrary experience is itself the shadow of the whole place of childhood as a time to play and learn and explore worlds of imagination and the things most adults take for granted. And many adults experience a special pleasure, and much more than a pleasure, from the company of children, a pleasure that is tied to something much deeper.
This pleasure shines through even a handprint left with “fingerpaints,” a way of doing art reserved for children, so that this physical object is itself a symbol of all that is special about childhood, and like symbols of that world carries with it what is evoked: seeing such a handprint is a little like seeing a kindergartener.
And they were off. They stopped for a brief break and annoyedly watched the spectacle of over a hundred linked metal carts carrying a vast quantity of material, and walked in and out of the surrounding neighborhoods. Their knocks on the door met a variety of warm replies. Before long, they had a handprint from a kindergartener, a dog biscuit (and some very enthusiastic attention from a kind dog!), a note from an off-duty doctor (who did not examine them, but simply said that if they had the bubonic plague there would be buboes bulging from them in an obvious way), a cigarette lighter and a sheet of paper (unlit), a twisted bumper (which Peter surprised people by flipping over his shoulder), and finally a spent shell casing from a military science professor. When they climbed up “Fischer beach,” John handed the paper and lighter to his RA and said, “Would you light this?” It was with an exhausted satisfaction that they went to dinner and had entirely amiable conversation with other equally students who scant minutes ago had been their competitors.
When dinner was finished, Peter and Mary sat for a while in exhausted silence, before climbing up for the next scheduled activity—but I am at a loss for how to describe the next scheduled activity. To start with, I will give a deceptive description. If you can understand this activity, you will have understood a great deal more of what is in that world that doesn’t fit in ours.
Do I have to give a deceptive description, in that any description in our terms will be more or less deceptive? I wasn’t trying to make that kind of philosophical point; I wasn’t tring to make a philosophical point at all. I am choosing a description of the next scheduled activity that is more deceptive than it needs to be.
When students studied an academic discipline called “physics,” the curriculum was an initiation into progressively stranger and more esoteric doctrines, presented at the level which students were able to receive them. Students were first taught “Newtonian mechanics” (which openly regarded as false), before being initiated into “Einstein’s relativity” at the next level (which was also considered false, but was widely believed to be closer to the truth). Students experienced a “night and day” difference between Newtonian mechanics and all higher order mysteries. If you were mathematically adept enough to follow the mathematics, then Newton was easy because he agreed with good old common sense, and Einstein and even stranger mysteries were hard to understand because they turned common sense on its head. Newton was straightforward while the others were profoundly counterintuitive. So Einstein, unlike Newton, required a student to mentally engulf something quite alien to normal, common sense ways of thinking about the world around oneself. Hence one could find frustrated student remarks about, “And God said, ‘Let there be light!’ And there was Newton. Then the Devil howled, ‘Let Einstein be!’ and restored the status quo.”
Under this way of experiencing physics, Newton simply added mathematical formality to what humans always knew: everything in space fit in one long and continuous three-dimensional grid, and time could be measured almost as if it were a line, and so Einstein was simply making things more difficult and further from humans’ natural perceptions when his version of a fully mathematical model softened the boundaries of space and time so that one could no longer treat it as if it had a grid for a skeleton.
Someone acquainted with the history of science might make the observation that it was not so much that Newton’s mechanics were a mathematically rigorous formalization of how people experienced space and time, but that how people experienced space and time hadbecome a hazy and non-mathematical paraphrase of Newtonian mechanics: in other words, some students some students learned Newtonian mechanics easily, not because Newtonian physics was based on common sense, but because their “common sense” had been profoundly shaped by Newtonian physics.
This seemingly pedantic distinction was deeply tied to how the organic was being extinguished in their society.
I suspect you are thinking, “What other mathematical model was it based on instead?” And that’s why you’re having trouble guessing the answer.
The answer is related to the organic. Someone who knew Newton and his colleagues, and what they were rebelling against, could get a sense of something very different even without understanding what besides mathematics would undergird what space meant to them. In a certain sense, Newton forcefully stated the truth, but in a deceptive way. He worked hard to forge a concept of cold matter, pointing out that nature was not human—and it was a philosophical error to think of nature as human, but it was not nearly so great as one might think. Newton and his colleagues powerfully stressed that humans were superior to the rest of the physical world (which was not human), that they were meant not simply to be a part of nature but to conquer and rule it. And in so doing they attacked an equally great truth, that not only other life but even “inanimate” matter was kin to humans—lesser kin, perhaps, but humans and the rest of the natural world formed a continuity. They obscured the wisdom that the lordship humans were to exercise was not of a despot controlling something worthless, but the mastery of the crowning jewel of a treasure they had been entrusted to them. They introduced the concept of “raw material”, something as foreign to their thinking as… I can’t say what our equivalent would be, because everything surrounding “raw material” is so basic to us, and what they believed instead, their organic perception, is foreign to us. They caused people to forget that, while it would be a philosophical error to literally regard the world as human, it would be much graver to believe it is fundamentally described as inert, cold matter. And even when they had succeeded in profoundly influencing their cultures, so that people consciously believed in cold matter to a large degree, vestiges of the ancient experience survived in the medieval. It is perhaps not a coincidence that hundreds of years since Newton, in Newton’s own “mother tongue” (English), the words for “matter” and “mother” both sprung from the same ancient root word.
The Newtonian conception of space had displaced to some degree the older conception of place, a conception which was less concerned with how far some place was from other different places, and more concerned with a sort of color or, to some extent, meaning. The older conception also had a place for some things which couldn’t really be stated under the new conception: people would say, “You can’t be in two places at once.” What they meant by that was to a large degree something different, “Your body cannot be at two different spatial positions at the same time.” This latter claim was deceptive, because it was true so far as it goes, but it was a very basic fact of life that people could be in two places at once. The entire point of the next scheduled activity was to be in two places at once.
Even without describing what the other place was (something which could barely be suggested even in that world) and acknowledging that the point of the activity was to be in two places at once, this description of that activity would surprise many of the people there, and disturb those who could best sense the other place. The next scheduled activity was something completely ordinary to them, a matter of fact event that held some mystery, and something that would not occur to them as being in two places at once. The activity of being present in two or more places at once was carried on, on a tacit level, even when people had learned to conflate place with mathematical position. One such activity was confused with what we do when we remember: when we remember, we recall data from storage, while they cause the past to be present. The words, “This do in rememberance of me,” from a story that was ancient but preserved in the early medieval period we are looking at, had an unquestioned meaning of, “Cause me to be present by doing this,” but had suffered under a quite different experience of memory, so that to some people it meant simply to go over data about a person who had been present in the past but could not be present then.
But this activity was not remembering. Or at least, it was not just remembering. And this leaves open the difficulty of explaining how it was ordinary to them. It was theoretically in complete continuity with the rest of their lives, although it would be more accurate to say that the rest of their lives were theoretically in complete continuity with it. This activity was in a sense the most human, and the most organic, in that in it they led the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, the plants, the rocks, the mountains, and the sees in returning to the place they came from. This description would also likely astonish the people who were gathered in a painted brick room, sitting on carpet and on movable perches, and seeing through natural light mixed with flickering fluorescent lights. Not one of them was thinking about “nature.”
What went on there was in a very real sense mediocre. Each activity was broken down, vulgarized, compared to what it could be—which could not obliterate what was going on. When they were songs, they were what were called “7-11” songs, a pejorative term which meant songs with seven words repeated eleven times. There was a very real sense in which the event was diminished by the music, but even when you factor in every diminishing force, there was something going on there, something organic and more than organic, which you and I do not understand—for that matter, which many people in that world do not understand.
Archon was silent for a long time.
Ployon said, “What is it?”
Archon said, “I can’t do it. I can’t explain this world. All I’ve really been doing is taking the pieces of that world that are a bit like ours. You’ve been able to understand much of it because I haven’t tried to convey several things that are larger than our world. ‘God’ is still a curious and exotic appendage that isn’t connected to anything, not really; I haven’t been able to explain, really explain, what it is to be male and female unities, or what masculinity and femininity are. There are a thousand things, and… I’ve been explaining what three-dimensional substance is to a two-dimensional world, and the way I’ve been doing it is to squash it into two dimensions, and make it understandable by removing from it everything that makes it three dimensional. Or almost everything…”
“How would a three dimensional being, a person from that world, explain the story?”
“But it wouldn’t. A three dimensional being wouldn’t collapse a cube into a square to make it easier for itself to understand; that’s something someone who couldn’t free itself from reading two dimensional thinking into three dimensions would do. You’re stuck in two dimensions. So am I. That’s why I failed, utterly failed, to explain the “brother-sister floor fellowship”, the next scheduled activity. And my failure is structural. It’s like I’ve been setting out to copy a living, moving organism by sculpturing something that looks like it out of steel. And what I’ve been doing is making intricate copies of its every contour, and painting the skin and fur exactly the same color, and foolishly hoping it will come alive. And this is something I can’t make by genetic engineering.”
“But how would someone from that world explain the story? Even if I can’t understand it, I want to know.”
“But people from that world don’t explain stories. A story isn’t something you explain; it’s something that may be told, shared, but usually it is a social error to explain a story, because a story participates in human life and telling a story connects one human to another. And so it’s a fundamental error to think a story is something you convey by explaining it—like engineering a robotic body for an animal so you can allow it to have a body. I have failed because I was trying something a mind could only fail at.”
“Then can you tell the story, like someone from that world would tell it?”
Peter and Mary both loved to run, but for different reasons. Peter was training himself for various races; he had not joined track, as he did in high school, but there were other races. Mary ran to feel the sun and wind and rain. And, without any conscious effort, they found themselves running together down the prairie path together, and Peter clumsily learning to match his speed to hers. And, as time passed, they talked, and talked, and talked, and talked, and their runs grew longer.
When the fall break came, they both joined a group going to the northwoods of Wisconsin for a program that was half-work and half-play. And each one wrote a letter home about the other. Then Peter began his theology of culture class, and said, “This is what I want to study.” Mary did not have a favorite class, at least not that she realized, until Peter asked her what her favorite class was and she said, “Literature.”
When Christmas came, they went to their respective homes and spent the break thinking about each other, and they talked about this when they returned. They ended the conversation, or at least they thought they did, and then each hurried back to catch the other and say one more thing, and then the conversation turned out to last much longer, and ended with a kiss.
Valentine’s Day was syrupy. It was trite enough that their more romantically inclined friends groaned, but it did not seem at all trite or syrupy to them. As Peter’s last name was Patrick, he called Mary’s father and prayed that St. Patrick’s Day would be a momentous day for both of them.
Peter and Mary took a slow run to a nearby village, and had dinner at an Irish pub. Amidst the din, they had some hearty laughs. The waitress asked Mary, “Is there anything else that would make this night memorable?” Then Mary saw Peter on his knee, opening a jewelry box with a ring: “I love you, Mary. Will you marry me?”
Mary cried for a good five minutes before she could answer. And when she had answered, they sat in silence, a silence that overpowered the din. Then Mary wiped her eyes and they went outside.
It was cool outside, and the moon was shining brightly. Peter pulled a camera from his pocket, and said, “Stay where you are. Let me back up a bit. And hold your hand up. You look even more beautiful with that ring on your finger.”
Peter’s camera flashed as he took a picture, just as a drunk driver slammed into Mary. The sedan spun into a storefront, and Mary flew up into the air, landed, and broke a beer bottle with her face.
People began to come out, and in a few minutes the police and paramedics arrived. Peter somehow managed to answer the police officers’ questions and to begin kicking himself for being too stunned to act.
When Peter left his room the next day, he looked for Prof. Johnson. Prof. Johnson asked, “May I give you a hug?” and then sat there, simply being with Peter in his pain. When Peter left, Prof. Johnson said, “I’m not just here for academics. I’m here for you.” Peter went to chapel and his classes, feeling a burning rage that almost nothing could pierce. He kept going to the hospital, and watching Mary with casts on both legs and one arm, and many tiny stitches on her face, fluttering on the borders of consciousness. One time Prof. Johnson came to visit, and he said, “I can’t finish my classes.” Prof. Johnson looked at him and said, “The college will give you a full refund.” Peter said, “Do you know of any way I can stay here to be with Mary?” Prof. Johnson said, “You can stay with me. And I believe a position with UPS would let you get some income, doing something physical. The position is open for you.” Prof. Johnson didn’t mention the calls he’d made, and Peter didn’t think about them. He simply said, “Thank you.”
A few days later, Mary began to be weakly conscious. Peter finally asked a nurse, “Why are there so many stitches on her face? Was she cut even more badly than—”
The nurse said, “There are a lot of stitches very close together because the emergency room had a cosmetic surgeon on duty. There will still be a permanent mark on her face, but some of the wound will heal without a scar.”
Mary moved the left half of her mouth in half a smile. Peter said, “That was a kind of cute smile. How come she can smile like that?”
The nurse said, “One of the pieces of broken glass cut a nerve. It is unlikely she’ll ever be able to move part of her face again.”
Peter looked and touched Mary’s hand. “I still think it’s really quite cute.”
Mary looked at him, and then passed out.
Peter spent a long couple of days training and attending to practical details. Then he came back to Mary.
Mary looked at Peter, and said, “It’s a Monday. Don’t you have classes now?”
Peter said, “No.”
Mary said, “Why not?”
Peter said, “I want to be here with you.”
Mary said, “I talked with one of the nurses, and she said that you dropped out of school so you could be with me.
“Is that true?” she said.
Peter said, “I hadn’t really thought about it that way.”
Mary closed her eyes, and when Peter started to leave because he decided she wanted to be left alone, she said, “Stop. Come here.”
Peter came to her bedside and knelt.
Mary said, “Take this ring off my finger.”
Peter said, “Is it hurting you?”
Mary said, “No, and it is the greatest treasure I own. Take it off and take it back.”
Peter looked at her, bewildered. “Do you not want to marry me?”
Mary said, “This may sting me less because I don’t remember our engagement. I don’t remember anything that happened near that time; I have only the stories others, even the nurses, tell me about a man who loves me very much.”
Peter said, “But don’t you love me?”
Mary forced back tears. “Yes, I love you, yes, I love you. And I know that you love me. You are young and strong, and have the love to make a happy marriage. You’ll make some woman a very good husband. I thought that woman would be me.
“But I can see what you will not. You said I was beautiful, and I was. Do you know what my prognosis is? I will probably be able to stand. At least for short periods of time. If I’m fortunate, I may walk. With a walker. I will never be able to run again—Peter, I am nobody, and I have no future. Absolutely nobody. You are young and strong. Go and find a woman who is worth your love.”
Mary and Peter both cried for a long time. Then Peter walked out, and paused in the doorway, crying. He felt torn inside, and then went in to say a couple of things to Mary. He said, “I believe in miracles.”
Then Mary cried, and Peter said something else I’m not going to repeat. Mary said something. Then another conversation began.
The conversation ended with Mary saying, “You’re stupid, Peter. You’re really, really stupid. I love you. I don’t deserve such love. You’re making a mistake. I love you.” Then Peter went to kiss Mary, and as he bent down, he bent his mouth to meet the lips that he still saw as “really quite cute.”
The stress did not stop. The physical therapists, after time, wondered that Mary had so much fight in her. But it stressed her, and Peter did his job without liking it. Mary and Peter quarreled and made up and quarreled and made up. Peter prayed for a miracle when they made up and sometimes when they quarreled. Were this not enough stress, there was an agonizingly long trial—and knowing that the drunk driver was behind bars surprisingly didn’t make things better. But Mary very slowly learned to walk again. After six months, if Peter helped her, she could walk 100 yards before the pain became too great to continue.
Peter hadn’t been noticing that the stress diminished, but he did become aware of something he couldn’t put his finger on. After a night of struggling, he got up, went to church, and was floored by the Bible reading of, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” and the idea that when you do or do not visit someone in prison, you are visiting or refusing to visit Christ. Peter absently went home, tried to think about other things, made several phone calls, and then forced himself to drive to one and only one prison.
He stopped in the parking lot, almost threw up, and then steeled himself to go inside. He found a man, Jacob, and… Jacob didn’t know who Peter was, but he recognized him as looking familiar. It was an awkward meeting. Then he recognized him as the man whose now wife he had crippled. When Peter left, he vomited and felt like a failure. He talked about it with Mary…
That was the beginning of a friendship. Peter chose to love the man in prison, even if there was no pleasure in it. And that created something deeper than pleasure, something Peter couldn’t explain.
As Peter and Mary were planning the wedding, Mary said, “I want to enter with Peter next to me, no matter what the tradition says. It will be a miracle if I have the strength to stand for the whole wedding, and if I have to lean on someone I want it to be Peter. And I don’t want to sit on a chair; I would rather spend my wedding night wracked by pain than go through my wedding supported by something lifeless!”
When the rehearsal came, Mary stood, and the others winced at the pain in her face. And she stood, and walked, for the entire rehearsal without touching Peter once. Then she said, “I can do it. I can go through the wedding on my own strength,” and collapsed in pain.
At the wedding, she stood next to Peter, walking, her face so radiant with joy that some of the guests did not guess she was in exquisite pain. They walked next to each other, not touching, and Mary slowed down and stopped in the center of the church. Peter looked at her, wondering what Mary was doing.
Then Mary’s arm shot around Peter’s neck, and Peter stood startled for a moment before he placed his arm around her, squeezed her tightly, and they walked together to the altar.
On the honeymoon, Mary told Peter, “You are the only person I need.” This was the greatest bliss either of them had known, and the honeymoon’s glow shined and shined.
Peter and Mary agreed to move somewhere less expensive to settle down, and were too absorbed in their wedded bliss and each other to remember promises they had made earlier, promises to seek a church community for support and friends. And Peter continued working at an unglamorous job, and Mary continued fighting to walk and considered the housework she was capable of doing a badge of honor, and neither of them noticed that the words, “I love you” were spoken ever so slightly less frequently, nor did they the venom creeping into their words.
One night they exploded. What they fought about was not important. What was important was that Peter left, burning with rage. He drove, and drove, until he reached Wheaton, and at daybreak knocked on Prof. Johnson’s door. There was anger in his voice when he asked, “Are you still my friend?”
Prof. Johnson got him something to eat and stayed with him when he fumed with rage, and said, “I don’t care if I’m supposed to be with her, I can’t go back!” Then Prof. Johnson said, “Will you make an agreement with me? I promise you I won’t ever tell you to go back to her, or accept her, or accept what she does, or apologize to her, or forgive her, or in any way be reconciled. But I need you to trust me that I love you and will help you decide what is best to do.”
Peter said, “Yes.”
Prof. Johnson said, “Then stay with me. You need some rest. Take the day to rest. There’s food in the fridge, and I have books and a nice back yard. There’s iced tea in the—excuse me, there’s Coke and 7 Up in the boxes next to the fridge. When I can come back, we can talk.”
Peter relaxed, and he felt better. He told Prof. Johnson. Prof. Johnson said, “That’s excellent. What I’d like you to do next is go in to work, with a lawyer I know. You can tell him what’s going on, and he’ll lead you to a courtroom to observe.”
Peter went away to court the next day, and when he came back he was ashen. He said nothing to Prof. Johnson.
Then, after the next day, he came back looking even more unhappy. “The first day, the lawyer, George, took me into divorce court. I thought I saw the worst that divorce court could get. Until I came back today. It was the same—this sickening scene where two people had become the most bitter enemies. I hope it doesn’t come to this. This was atrocious. It was vile. It was more than vile. It was—”
Prof. Johnson sent him back for a third day. This time Peter said nothing besides, “I think I’ve been making a mistake.”
After the fourth day, Peter said, “Help me! I’ve been making the biggest mistake of my life!”
After a full week had passed, Peter said, “Please, I beg you, don’t send me back there.”
Prof. Johnson sent Peter back to watch a divorce court for one more miserable, excruciating day. Then he said, “Now you can do whatever you want. What do you want to do?”
The conflict between Peter and Mary ended the next day.
Peter went home, begging Mary for forgiveness, and no sooner than he had begun his apology, a thousand things were reflected in Mary’s face and she begged his forgiveness. Then they talked, and debated whether to go back to Wheaton, or stay where they were. Finally Mary said, “I really want to go back to Wheaton.”
Peter began to shyly approach old friends. He later misquoted: “I came crawling with a thimble in the desparate hope that they’d give a few tiny drops of friendship and love. Had I known how they would respond, I would have come running with a bucket!”
Peter and Mary lived together for many years; they had many children and were supported by many friends.
Ployon said, “I didn’t follow every detail, but… there was something in that that stuck.”
Archon said, “How long do you think it lasted?”
“A little shorter than the other one, I mean first part.”
“Do you have any idea how many days were in each part?”
“About the same? I assume the planet had slowed down so that a year and a day were of roughly equal length.”
“The first part took place during three days. The latter part spanned several thousand days—”
“I guess I didn’t understand it—”
“—which is… a sign that you understood something quite significant… that you knew what to pay attention to and were paying attention to the right thing.”
“But I didn’t understand it. I had a sense that it was broken off before the end, and that was the end, right?”
Archon hesitated, and said, “There’s more, but I’d rather not go into that.”
Ployon said, “Are you sure?”
“You won’t like it.”
The years passed and Peter and Mary grew into a blissfully happy marriage. Mary came to have increasing health problems as a result of the accident, and those around them were amazed at how their love had transformed the suffering the accident created in both of their lives. At least those who knew them best saw the transformation. There were many others who could only see their happiness as a mirage.
As the years passed, Jacob grew to be a good friend. And when Peter began to be concerned that his wife might be… Jacob had also grown wealthy, very wealthy, and assembled a top-flight legal team (without taking a dime of Peter’s money—over Peter’s protests!), to prevent what the doctors would normally do in such a case, given recent shifts in the medical system.
And then Mary’s health grew worse, much worse, and her suffering grew worse with it, and pain medications seemed to be having less and less effect. Those who didn’t know Mary were astonished that someone in so much pain could enjoy life so much, nor the hours they spent gazing into each other’s eyes, holding hands, when Mary’s pain seemed to vanish. A second medical opinion, and a third, and a fourth, confirmed that Mary had little chance of recovery even to her more recent state. And whatever measures been taken, whatever testimony Peter and Mary could give about the joy of their lives, the court’s decision still came:
The court wishes to briefly review the facts of the case. Subject is suffering increasingly severe effects from an injury that curtailed her life greatly as a young person. from which she has never recovered, and is causing increasingly complications now that she will never again have youth’s ability to heal. No fewer than four medical opinions admitted as expert testimony substantially agree that subject is in extraordinary and excruciating pain; that said excruciating pain is increasing; that said excruciating pain is increasingly unresponsive to medication; that subject has fully lost autonomy and is dependent on her husband; that this dependence is profound, without choice, and causes her husband to be dependent without choice on others and exercise little autonomy; and the prognosis is only of progressively worse deterioration and increase in pain, with no question of recovery.
The court finds it entirely understandable that the subject, who has gone through such trauma, and is suffering increasingly severe complications, would be in a state of some denial. Although a number of positions could be taken, the court also finds it understandable that a husband would try to maintain a hold on what cannot exist, and needlessly prolong his wife’s suffering. It is not, however, the court’s position to judge whether this is selfish…
For all the impressive-sounding arguments that have been mounted, the court cannot accord a traumatized patient or her ostensibly well-meaning husband a privelege that the court itself does not claim. The court does not find that it has an interest in allowing this woman to continue in her severe and worsening state of suffering.
Peter was at her side, holding her hand and looking into his wife’s eyes, The hospital doctor had come. Then Peter said, “I love you,” and Mary said, “I love you,” and they kissed.
Mary’s kiss was still burning on Peter’s lips when two nurses hooked Mary up to an IV and injected her with 5000 milligrams of sodium thiopental, then a saline flush followed by 100 milligrams of pancurium bromide, then a saline flush and 20 milligrams of potassium chloride.
A year later to the day, Peter died of a broken heart.
Ployon was silent for a long time, and Archon was silent for an even longer time. Ployon said, “I guess part of our world is present in that world. Is that what you mean by being in two places at once?”
Archon was silent for a long time.
Ployon said, “It seems that that world’s problems and failings are somehow greater than our achievements. I wish that world could exist, and that we could somehow visit it.”
Archon said, “Do you envy them that much?”
Ployon said, “Yes. We envy them as—”
Archon said, “—as—” and searched through his world’s images.
Ployon said, “—as that world’s eunuchs envy men.”
Archon was silent.
Ployon was silent.